February 29, 2004

» JG Ballard was right (via rodcorp)

February 27, 2004

» Dear God no

After drawing massive crowds with her high-voltage rock performances, Turner will now swing to a new tune: she will play a Hindu goddess in a spiritual Merchant-Ivory musical for which she will also sing classical numbers in Latin and Sanskrit.

» Why gamers don't find games offensive

This leads to a surprising facet of game psychology: Really hard-core gamers often look past the cultural "content" of a game. They're mostly worried about a more prosaic concern, which is whether the game is fun. The geopolitics of a game melt away as players, like philosophers musing on their favorite platonic solid, ponder gameplay in the abstract.

We're accustomed to thinking that a piece of entertainment is nothing but its cultural content. A movie or TV show is just what you see on the screen. But a game is also about play, and play is invisible. That's why outsiders are often puzzled by the success of games that would appear to be nothing but screamingly offensive content. They can't see the play. Sure, you've got raw guts flying around?but for the player, part of the joy is in messing with physics (even if that happens to be bullets and shoulder-launched grenades) or with strategy (even if that's figuring out how to starve a village).

» The ultimate split of the second

Researchers used short pulses of laser light to produce images of electrons leaving atoms and recorded what happened to within 100 attoseconds.

To imagine how long this is, if 100 attoseconds is stretched so that it lasts one second, one second would last 300 million years on the same scale.

» Insanely detailed Lego Death Star interiors
» The Smurf made me do it

Jose Sandoval, making his first sworn statement since he was convicted of the Sept. 26, 2002, Norfolk bank shootings, is asked why he jumped the counter.

"Because somebody was talking s--," Sandoval replies.

Madison County Attorney Joe Smith asks who.

"A Smurf."

"A smirk?"

"A Smurf," Sandoval repeats, as in the blue TV cartoon character.

"I take it from your answer you don't want to answer that question," Smith says. "Or is it really your testimony that a blue Smurf was in the bank?"

"That's what I said."

The prosecutor tries once more: "Did you jump the counter because you wanted to make sure everybody was dead?"

"No, I jumped the counter because the Smurf was talking s--," Sandoval says.

February 26, 2004

» The Darmok Dictionary

February 25, 2004

» IPTAblog: White, Black and Grey

February 24, 2004

» Panspermia revisited: is the solar system surrounded by a vast disk of frozen microbes?

But microbes might survive if they can escape the Sun's gravity more quickly. And that might happen, says Napier, if the rocks they sit on are first ground to dust1.

The Earth and her sister planets travel through a cloud of grains called zodiacal dust. This is the debris from collisions in the asteroid belt and from the passage of comets.

This dust should sand-blast anything passing through it, says Napier. This process could grind a one-metre boulder down in 20,000-200,000 years, he estimates. If a comet breaks up, thickening the dust, as happens several times each million years, the process could take as little as five centuries.


Such a grain could travel about six light years from Earth in 70,000 years - far enough to reach other stars. We could be surrounded by a huge 'biodisk' of frozen organisms floating on grains of rock, says Napier, all of which can wander in and out of our solar system quite easily. "The solar system is as leaky as a sieve," he says.

» Astronomers came close to sounding 36-hour alert of asteroid impact. And they're planning for next time

At the time, the president's team would have been putting the final touches to a speech he was due to make the following day at the headquarters of Nasa, the US space agency.

In it he planned to reset the course of manned spaceflight, sending it back to the Moon and on to Mars, but he could have had something very different to say.

He could have begun by warning the world it was about to be hit by a space rock.

» New masthead courtesy of SignMaker
» Why is this site grey today?

February 23, 2004

» The U.S. Army is building Earth Two

The detailed simulation will be drawn from a real-world terrain database and will be drawn to the same scale as the original.

The software Earth is being created for the US Army by gaming company There which is currently working on a virtual world for gamers.

The first version of the virtual planet should be finished by September.

» Think-tank says Brits suffer from "mourning sickness"

Describing extravagant public displays of grief for strangers as 'grief-lite' Mr West said these activities were, "undertaken as an enjoyable event, much like going to a football match or the last night of the proms".

"Mourning sickness is a religion for the lonely crowd that no longer subscribes to orthodox churches. Its flowers and teddies are its rites, its collective minutes' silences its liturgy and mass.

» Instant supercomputing

While brainstorming about how to build a home-brew computer powerful enough to be added to a list of the world's 500 fastest computers, Mr. Miller and his students, along with Gregory D. Benson, an associate professor of computer science, came up with the idea of an electronic barn-raising. They decided to build on the concept of flash mobs, the sudden Internet-organized gatherings with no particular purpose that became an unlikely fad last summer.

Last week, the class put out a call for about 1,200 volunteers to bring their computers to the Koret Gym here for a day and plug them into a shared high-speed network.

» Follow-up to my earlier post: obesity researcher says diet fads are rooted in "vitalism", the belief that living things aren't governed by physical laws

The arguments over diet go way back, said Dr. Rudolph L. Leibel, an obesity researcher at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons. "They are in fact an echo of the discredited scientific notion of vitalism," he said of the idea that living things are not governed by the laws of chemistry and physics.

Although vitalism was disproved 200 years ago, he said, it is behind the fevered search for a magic way of eating that can override the rigid scientific formula: calories in minus calories out govern weight gain and weight loss. Discovering a diet, Dr. Leibel says, "is almost like a revelation."

The 19th century saw, for example, the emergence of the Rev. Sylvester Graham, a promoter of vegetarianism for whom the Graham cracker was named. Graham insisted that people could rise above hunger and cravings if they would just stop being slaves to their stomachs. His followers favored fresh fruits and vegetables, grown without fertilizers, and made bran bread. They established "physiological boardinghouses" where people could live the Graham way. Skeptics were scathing. Dinner at a Graham house, they said, featured delicacies like "straggling radishes," "a soggy bunch of asparagus" and "corpses of potatoes," washed down with "a tumbler of cold water."

» Macroscopic quantum effects found

In the Zeilinger experiments, a carbon-70 molecule is "instantaneously located" at innumerable spots across an area 1,000 times wider than the molecule itself. (The molecule is one nanometer wide -- that is, one-millionth of a millimeter.) To grasp how weird this is, imagine a person trying to "walk at the same time through two doors that are separated by 1,000 meters," says a statement by the University of Vienna's Institute for Theoretical Physics, the Zeilinger team's home.

February 22, 2004

» b3ta has a solution to the baffling EyeGrow game.

SOLUTION TO EYEGROW GAME - we've had about fifty emails from people saying, "for Christ's sake. Don't ever post a link like that again. You're making me fail my PhD." Anyway. Here's one solution: box, tube, orange ball, ladder, egg, mountain, fan, cog, cyclone, dish, black ring then TV screen. Give it a go.

February 21, 2004

» Man versus Rat in NYC

As we prepared to look closely at the rats, Markowski cautioned me not to make too much of them; he seemed to be saying that I shouldn't get caught up in rat lore and rat mystique ? the images of rats as big as cats, rats that control the city's underworld. They were only rats, he explained to me, easily sedated, easily controlled, good scientific subjects, even in the wild. As he spoke, he opened the garbage bag covering one of the cages. Li treated two cotton balls with halothane. She dropped the cotton balls into the garbage bag and twisted it shut tight. This was an attempt to put the rat to sleep.

In a few minutes Markowski looked into the garbage bag at the rat. He shook his head as he closed the bag. Markowski looked a little incredulous. "He's livelier than he was before," Markowski said.

They increased the dosage of tranquilizer, putting in three treated cotton swabs this time. The wind was picking up. They waited and looked in the bag again. The rat was still alert. "That rat's one tough bastard," Markowski said.

Markowski increased the dosage again.

Finally, the rat looked unconscious, its tail limp, though when Markowski took it out of the cage he quickly discovered that it was still awake. He held the rat down on the ground with his hands and placed a halothane-treated swab directly over the rat's nose, holding the cotton with tweezers. The rat was going from groggy to woozy to sleepy to asleep, and as this happened, I was able to see that the rat was a large female, measuring, as we later determined, about 11 inches long, not including the tail, which was close to another 10 inches and looked to me like something belonging to an armadillo. At last the rat seemed at peace. Markowski held the rat down on the ground and plunged the needle into its chest, aiming for the rat's heart. He drew out the rat blood and bottled it; the blood was a deep, rich mammalian red. I looked away, over at Ruiz, who was still standing next to the van. Markowski put the rat in a freezer bag, with another dose of halothane. The halothane would kill the rat: it slipped from rat sleep to rat death.

» Andy Serwer explains my career choices, for those of you who're still asking.

Denby, like the rest of us, made a choice in life - or choices, really. He decided that he was going to be a Writer, and that generally means - leaving aside the Susan Collinses of the world - that you aren't going to get rich. But if you work hard and keep a steady moral compass, you may be able to live a very fulfilling, never mind cool, life. It's kind of vicariously cool, but it ain't bad.

Denby did not decide to go work on Wall Street, which he could have done. Obviously he has the requisite brain cell capacity, etc. Wall Street is a funny place. It is the only business, or occupation, where the line function (sorry for the Harvard Business School lingo) is to make money. In other words, at Monsanto you make chemicals, and by the way you get paid. At Ball State, you teach and by the way you get paid. At The New Yorker, you write, and well, you get the point. ... But on Wall Street, you take money and use it to get more. The whole point is to make a lot of money. (There is nothing more sickening that someone from Goldman Sachs saying [and they do this more than anyone] that what they are really doing is creating value for their customers. Twaddle!)

But let me dribble out some credit here. Working on Wall Street is tough. Very tough. Yes, there are a few Ringo Starrs out there, who just happen to be at the right place at the right time, but mostly it is grueling. Long hours. Boring like you would not believe. Lots of assholes. Constant temptation to cross the line. And if you navigate through this and you have a brain, yes, you too could make, let's say, $750,000 a year. Denby could have chosen this life.

» An explosion in a firework factory

February 20, 2004

» Deeply unconvincing BBC report that txtpr0n passes the Turing Test

But the best candidate for passing the Turing test is the Natachata program that conducts smutty conversations via text messages.

Regular users of pornographic SMS chat may be shocked to find out that they are swapping dirty talk with machines rather than young women and men

» Massive planetoid found past Pluto

The largest object to be discovered in the Solar System since Pluto was found in 1930 was spotted by a sky survey on Tuesday.

News of the hulking object leaked out on Thursday before the researchers at Caltech could pin down the giant's size and orbit.

Tentatively called 2004 DW, the object lies beyond Neptune in the mysterious Kuiper Belt. This shadowy belt is a collection of primordial icy bodies which circle our Sun and are thought to be the remnants of planetary formation.

» Spectacular supernova remnant

The snap shot indicates that the supernova blast wave continues to impact a pre-existing, one light-year wide ring of material, and the nascent central supernova remnant continues to expand. Like pearls on a cosmic necklace, bright hot spots produced as the blast wave heats material up to millions of degrees began to appear on the ring in the mid 1990s and have been followed across the spectrum by astronomers ever since.

» 5,201 ways to say goodbye. The NYT has a good piece

Still not satisfied with pool-filled voids on the site of the twin towers? Count your blessings. It could have been a monumental red question mark, a geodesic steel egg, a glowing apple spiked on a tapering spire, two ghostly white airliners with the victims' names inscribed on the seats or a steel column tilted open like a Pez dispenser to reveal a jumble of mangled artifacts.

» Fifty years ago today, Ike Eisenhower either met aliens or, uh, went to the dentist. Or died. You be the judge.

Includes a reference to James Mixson's must-read "A History of Dwight D. Eisenhower's Oral Health".

The Ike-met-with-ETs theory is advanced by Michael Salla, a former American University professor who now runs the Peace Ambassador Program at AU's Center for Global Peace.

The Ike-went-to-the-dentist theory is advanced by the folks at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kan. And by James M. Mixson, a dentist, professor of dentistry and historian of presidential dental work.

Just to make things more intriguing: On the night in question, the Associated Press reported this: "Pres. Eisenhower died tonight of a heart attack in Palm Springs."

Two minutes later, the AP retracted that bulletin and reported that Ike was still alive.

Indeed, Ike was alive. And he continued living until 1969. But in the decades since his death, his activities on the night of Feb. 20, 1954, have become fodder for strange theories about alien beings.

» Degrading the Muppets: Exhibit 1; Exhibit 2

February 19, 2004

» Freud got everything wrong. Apparently

Freud is truly in a class of his own. Arguably no other notable figure in history was so fantastically wrong about nearly every important thing he had to say. But, luckily for him, academics have been - and still are - infinitely creative in their efforts to whitewash his errors, even as lay readers grow increasingly dumbfounded by the entire mess.

» "Near-beers" launched in Bangladesh and Japan

Bangladesh: It looks like beer, it tastes like beer, but in law at least it is a malt beverage.

A company in Bangladesh believes it has found a legal loophole to get around the Islamic country's ban on alcoholic drinks.

Japan: Coca-Cola's Japanese unit will introduce a beer-tasting drink next month, but one with almost no alcohol.

The carbonated beverage will be called Sky Malt and will be the first of two alcohol-flavored offerings on the way. In May, Coke Japan plans to sell a brand called Sokkahappo that will taste like a cocktail.

» Feral family discovered in South Africa

The four children - aged 26, 22, 18 and 14 - have never had contact with the outside world and their behaviour is so animalistic they can't even communicate in an understandable language. One of them walks on all fours, almost like a monkey.

» Shock horror: White House distorts science

The two documents accuse the administration of repeatedly censoring and suppressing reports by its own scientists, stacking advisory committees with unqualified political appointees, disbanding government panels that provide unwanted advice and refusing to seek any independent scientific expertise in some cases.

February 18, 2004

» Proving God through logic

Hatcher said that though many subsequent philosophers like Thomas Aquinas and Moses Maimonedes built on Avicenna's proof, they continued to fall back on the infinite regression principle. Hatcher argued that this principle is not sufficient to prove the necessity of God's existence. Modern mathematics demonstrates the logical possibility of infinite regression; negative integers, for instance, do not have a minimal element or something that can be labeled a "first cause."

Thus, Hatcher has attempted to wed modern mathematics and ancient philosophy in a proof of God's existence, drawing on Avicenna's concept of relational logic. "In relational logic, we want to know how the object relates to other objects. It turns out that the relational approach often yields more useful information [than Aristotlean attributional logic]."

» Dreaming of Scotland

Tales of his Hebridean childhood in a remote island near Skye and caps for representing his country at shinty and cricket merely cemented his position at the heart of Scotland's cultural establishment.

As a result, his exposure three years ago as a fantasist who fabricated a tissue of lies to disguise his upbringing in a south London council estate came as something of a shock.

» "Brain fingerprinting" goes to court

The technique, called "brain fingerprinting", has already been tested by the FBI and has now become part of the key evidence to overturn the murder conviction of Jimmy Ray Slaughter who is facing execution in Oklahoma.

» NYT "reviews" Martian rovers

NASA has heaped on the folksiness. It treats the vehicles like plucky characters, and when the Spirit eventually reached one of its targets - a triangular football-size rock - NASA gave the rock a name, Adirondack, and photographed it from every point of view: at a distance, up close, from the side, from above. But from my point of view, the most intriguing picture, taken in black and white by the microscopic imager, was the strangest, a close-up that showed only one facet of the rock, half in brilliant sun, half in the shadow of the rover. Why? Because it didn't look like an Earth rock.

February 17, 2004

» Turning Segways into football players and Aibos into comedians

Segway: The Coral research group at Carnegie Mellon University is preparing to hold the first ever football match in which mixed teams of humans and robots play against each other, all on Segways.

Aibo: You can download AIBO hacks that will transform your robot dog into Scooby-Doo or a canine version of the Terminator. You can push the boundaries of family friendliness with the Exorcist AIBO, which does just about everything Linda Blair did short of projectile vomiting. Or you can engage in an elaborate Q&A with the HomieGate AIBO: Ask "Who invented the Internet?" and AIBO will respond, "Al Gore". You can also turn your AIBO into the ultimate party animal.

» Computers play computer games: Sims play SimCity; a chatbot plays Star Wars Galaxies

Sims: It was bound to happen. First there was SimCity. Then there was The Sims. And then came a series of highly successful expansion packs like Hot Date, Livin' Large, House Party and others.

Now comes a fan-made plug-in that allows Sims characters to effectively play SimCity inside The Sims. The Sims franchise has gone meta.


Star Wars: The Autocamp 2000 talks to other players with following rules:

  • If someone says something ending in a question mark, respond by saying "Dude?"

  • If someone says something ending in an exclamation point, respond by saying "Dude!"

  • If someone says something ending with a period, respond by randomly saying one of three things: "Okie," "Sure," or "Right on."

  • EXCEPTION: If someone says something directly to you by mentioning your name, respond by saying "Lag."

  • (And remember to accept all trade requests from other players by giving them a melon.)

» Strikingly varied maps of different kinds of network
» M&Ms pack better than spheres

Using bench experiments and computer simulations, the team has found that squashed or stretched versions of spheres snuggle together more tightly than randomly packed spheres do.

» A new end to the universe

Once upon a time, if you wanted to talk about the end of the universe you had a choice, as Robert Frost put it, between fire and ice.

Either the universe would collapse under its own weight one day, in a fiery "big crunch," or the galaxies, now flying outward from each other, would go on coasting outward forever, forever slowing, but never stopping while the cosmos grew darker and darker, colder and colder, as the stars gradually burned out like tired bulbs.

Now there is the Big Rip.

» Baffling subliminals on Japanese TV

The program, "Manee no Tora" (Money Tiger), featured a split-second image of Yukichi Fukuzawa from Japan's 10,000-yen note as the program switched from its opening theme to the beginning of the program.


In an NTV-affiliated broadcast in December 1989, a subliminal image of AUM Shinrikyo cult guru Shoko Asahara was inserted into a cartoon that had nothing to do with him. Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) also inserted a face shot of Asahara into a broadcast special in May 1995, inciting criticism from society.

February 16, 2004

» Scientists find remains of Beagle. No, the first one.

A group of marine archaeologists may have solved one of the world's most enduring maritime mysteries -- the final resting place of HMS Beagle in which Charles Darwin developed his landmark theory of evolution.

» Apparently, we're more cynical than ever. Yeah, right

But it goes further than that. The so-called "spin committee" - an independent review set up by Downing Street last year - identified a three-way breakdown of trust between politicians, the media and the public.

And maybe further still...

Scholars such as sociology professor Richard Sennett and Robert Putnam, author of the iconic Bowling Alone, believe the culture of individualism fostered in the 1980s has led people away from the informal social networks - such as neighbours talking to each other - that helped build trust between individuals.

» The Diamond in the Sky was the original title of The Diamond as Big as the Ritz. Now they've found a real diamond in the sky, and it's much bigger than the Ritz

The newly discovered cosmic diamond is a chunk of crystallized carbon 50 light-years from the Earth in the constellation Centaurus. (A light-year is the distance light travels in a year, or about 6 trillion miles.) It is 2,500 miles across and weighs 5 million trillion trillion pounds, which translates to approximately 10 billion trillion trillion carats, or a one followed by 34 zeros.

» Titan might look "a bit like Sweden"

Dr Ralph Lorenz, a mission scientist based at the University of Arizona in Tucson, USA, yesterday described what he expected Huygens to encounter.


"I think what we'll see is a rugged, but muted landscape.

You don't have the sort of freeze and thaw shattering process that gives you lots of sharp mountains.

"I think we'll see a lot of impact craters. Impact cratering occurs everywhere in the Solar System and on Titan, being a fairly sluggish environment, erosion is fairly slow.

"A lot of these will be filled with liquid to form circular lakes, rim-shaped lakes, bullseye lakes; horseshoe lakes. So I think we'll see something maybe a bit like Sweden or Northern Canada."

» The real Magic Roundabout. More pics and a panorama

The new roundabout (see picture) was the work of the Road Research Laboratory (RRL) and their solution was brilliantly simple. All they did was combine two roundabouts in one - the first the conventional, clockwise variety and the second, which revolved inside the first, sending traffic anti-clockwise.

» "Trailer" for Douglas Coupland's new novel, reminiscent of the Donnie Darko site. More book promos here.

February 15, 2004

» Amphibious vehicles of the world

February 13, 2004

» Teleporting electricity - not quite wireless power transmission, but ...

The method could eventually be used to instantly transport information between the quantum bits, or qubits, of a quantum computer if electrons could be transported over distances of around 100 microns. Quantum computers use the properties of particles like photons, electrons and atoms to compute and are theoretically very fast at certain large problems, including those that would render today's encryption-based security systems obsolete.

» William the Conqueror's exploding corpse

Then something even more macabre happened. The monk of Caen writes that William was "great in body and strong, tall in stature but not ungainly." When it came time to bury the heavy body, it was discovered that the stone sarcophagus had been made too short. There was an attempt to force the corpse and, says Orderic, "the swollen bowels burst, and an intolerable stench assailed the nostrils of the by-standers and the whole crowd." Even the frankincense and spices of the censers was not enough to mask the smell, and the rites were hurriedly concluded.

» Water balloons in zero-g

February 11, 2004

» Gender confusion

Someone who is "genderqueer," for example, views the gender options as more than just male and female or doesn't fit into the binary male-female system. A "trannydyke" is a transgender person (whose gender is different than the one assigned at birth) attracted to people with a more feminine gender, while a "pansexual" is attracted to people of multiple genders. A "boi" describes a boyish gay guy or a biological female with a male presentation; and "heteroflexible" refers to a straight person with a queer mind-set.

The list of terms ? which have hotly contested definitions ? goes on: "FTM" for female to male, "MTF" for male to female, "boydyke," "trannyboy," "trannyfag," "multigendered," "polygendered," "queerboi," "transboi," "transguy," "transman," "half-dyke," "bi-dyke," "stud," "stem," "trisexual," "omnisexual," and "multisexual."

» Doctorow relicenses Down and Out ...; see also Jeff Noon

Doctorow: I am re-licensing Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, effective today, under the terms of one of the least restrictive Creative Commons licenses, the Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license, which explicitly allows anyone in the world to make any non-commercial adaptation of my book s/he can think of: translations, radio plays, movies, sequels, fanfic, slashfic ... you get the picture. (Also Doctorow's essay on eBooks)

Noon: The idea behind the Cobralingus project is quite simple: could a piece of text be pushed along a similar pathway?

The first task was to create a set of filter gates. These came out of a period of experimentation, playing games on screen, and on paper, thinking up different ways in which language could be transformed. Some of the filters, such as Randomise, Decay, or Explode, break text down, whereas others, such as Enhance, Control, and Find Story, have a more constructive property.

I could also drug the language, using such concepts as Anagramethane, Metaphorazine and Fecundamol. These are not computerised effects; they are imaginary technologies, designed to fire the writer's imagination.

» Serial killer stalks Sao Paulo zoo

Three chimpanzees, three tapirs, three camels and an elephant have been lost since 24 January.

Tests so far have shown most of the animals were killed with sodium fluoroacetate, a banned rat poison.

» Scargill was right, apparently

On the 20th anniversary of the start of the miners' strike three key points need to be understood. First, on energy policy: instead of being the only European Union country that is self-sufficient in energy and a net oil exporter, in a few years we will join the others in their energy dependency. This time the UK will be at the end of the gas and oil pipelines from Russia, central Asia, Algeria and the Gulf. Windfarms, however welcome, will not save us.


Second, the economic and social costs of destroying the British coal industry have been huge - at least £28bn. This is nearly half of the North Sea tax revenues of £60bn collected since 1985. Unless further support is forthcoming, the horrendous damage to mining communities will take at least two generations to heal, notwithstanding the work of the Coalfields Regeneration Trust and the Coalfield Communities Campaign.

» No warm welcome for E.T.

As far as the U.S. government is concerned, that discussion started and ended more than 40 years ago. Regardless of how the world's astronomy community might want to handle first contact, Uncle Sam has ideas of his own. And they rest on the assumption that ET is first and foremost an illegal alien.

» First they came for Avril, then they came for Norah ...

But as soon as Blue Note's PR campaign started to pay off, an interesting thing occurred: There was a paradoxical effort to promote Jones as an artist whose success wasn't the result of promotion. She was, we were told, a word-of-mouth phenomenon, someone you could feel good about listening to while you wrote in your journal.

This type of promotion worked well among a crucial part of her fan base: college students, aging baby boomers, and sensitive writer types - people who think of themselves as independent and open-minded. Jones' continuing success will depend at least in part on getting these fans to be as evangelical about Feels Like Home as they were about Come Away With Me.

» The three levels of pop - probably the only classification that puts Britney and Autechre in the same category

Level Three Pop or POP-III: What musicologists and classical music folk mean when they say "pop music." Any music that is not art music. Music that is, or that can be, made by amateurs. Depending on your views on jazz, any music that is improvised in whole or in part, or (if you want to include most jazz) which does not proceed from some master plan.

February 10, 2004

» Secrets of photosynthesis revealed. Splitting water might help produce hydrogen.

Professor Jim Barber of Imperial's Department of Biological Sciences explains:


"... the problem is hydrogen doesn't exist on Earth by itself. Instead it combines with other elements such as oxygen to form water, or with carbon to form methane, coal and petroleum. However, water is very stable and for this reason cannot be used directly as a fuel. Researchers have investigated using electrolysis to split water into oxygen and hydrogen but today it costs ten times as much as natural gas, and is three times as expensive as gasoline.

"Yet nature figured out how to split water using sunlight in an energy efficient way 2.5 billion years ago. By revealing the structure of the water splitting centre we can begin to unravel how to perform this task in an energy efficient way too."

» Cosmetics companies talk rubbish. Well I never.

Sue Freeman, acting editor of the magazine, said: "The research shows that a 'dermatologically tested' claim on one product may mean something completely different to the same claim on another product.

"This is confusing and potentially misleading. Without standard definitions, and with companies refusing to supply details of their tests and results, these claims are meaningless, and consumers are left guessing about the benefits implied by such claims."

February 09, 2004

» A guide to Hergé's Syldavian

The adventures of Tintin, by the great Belgian artist Hergé, are enjoyed the world over; for the linguist, they offer the added attraction of providing tantalizing glimpses of a previously undocumented language, Syldavian.

Hergé never, to my knowledge, provided any grammatical sketch of this language, and other sources on Syldavian are precious few. I have taken the liberty of laying out the known facts on this fascinating language.

» Italy returns the Axum obelisk to Ethiopia: now it's our turn to do the right thing

One of the country's most prized monuments was taken in 1937 when Italian soldiers marched into Axum in northern Ethiopia on the orders of Italy's fascist leader Benito Mussolini.

The 100-tonne obelisk, which marked the beginning of Ethiopian civilisation nearly 2,000 years ago, was hauled off in several huge pieces and shipped to Rome.

» Cathedrals are "airports for God"

And I knew all at once what cathedrals were and were supposed to be, in the minds of their original architects: nothing less than airports for God to land at.

Cathedrals are airports. Like airports, there was at least one in every major city or population center. They were great civic works, huge undertakings of fundraising, resource-management, engineering. Their aisles, landing strips picked out not in high-intensity blue but in flickering candlelight. I don't want to take the metaphor too far, make it too crushingly literal, but I think now of cathedrals (and mosques, temples, shrines, iglesias and storefront full-gospel churches in the high press of their services) as nodes of a numinous travel network perpendicular to ordinary space and time. In the proper frame of reference, to enter them is to cross a threshold and be taken somewhere else, just as surely as I do when I board a jetliner. That's what I mean by "sacred."

February 07, 2004

» How the government outsmarted itself with the Hutton report - and why it matters

The 6.07 broadcast is the core of Hutton's case against the BBC; from that live, unscripted, subsequently modified set of remarks all else flows, including the loss of the corporation's chief executive and chairman. But the strength of the criticism of this broadcast, the engine that makes these few seconds of airtime into the greatest catastrophe in the BBC's history, is a ruling so fundamental in its effect that, if applied rigorously, it could destroy BBC journalism for ever. Imagine a BBC that checks all its output all the time for potentially 'false accusations of fact impugning the integrity of others, including politicians', and refuses to broadcast anything that might conceivably pose such a risk. And there is no reason to stop at the BBC: Lord Hutton's supposed rule must apply generally. So we must also imagine the kind of 'democratic society' we would have if all television, radio and print news organisations followed with Huttonesque rigour what Lord Hutton says is the law. There would be calm, certainly, and quiet reportage of ministerial achievement, but there would not be democracy as we know it.

» The singing monks of Bengal

Today, the Bauls play an important role as the bridge between Islam and Hinduism, and they perform as much in Sufi shrines as Hindu temples. Usually poor and from rural villages, these illiterate dancing monks are nevertheless important guardians of moderate, pluralistic Hinduism against the narrow Muslim-hatred propagated by the resurgent Hindu right wing.

Travelling from village to village, owning nothing but a patchwork quilt, they sit in teashops and under roadside banyan trees, in the compartments of trains and at village bus stops, singing their ballads about love, mysticism and universal brotherhood to gatherings of ordinary Bengali farmers and villagers.

» Armando Ianucci on Yes Minister

"Minister, what shall we say about our reasons for going to war?"
"We'll say that was all covered by Hutton."
"But, Minister, Hutton says the reasons for going to war weren't part of his remit."
"Well, exactly, and he's a very honourable man, so if he says he shouldn't discuss the reasons, neither should we."
"But, Minister, I think the party will want an inquiry."
"Fine, but make sure it's chaired by an honourable man."
"What should be its remit?"
"That it doesn't dwell on the past."
"Minister, why not?"
"The past was covered by Hutton."
"But, Minister, you've just accepted that Hutton decided not to cover all of the past."
"Precisely! He covered all of it and came up with the conclusion that not all of it should be covered. And, if I may say, he did a pretty thorough job of not covering all of it. So thorough, in fact, there's no need to do it again. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, Minister."

» It's in the eyes

Although fake smiles often look very similar to genuine smiles, they are actually slightly different, because they are brought about by different muscles, which are controlled by different parts of the brain.

Fake smiles can be performed at will, because the brain signals that create them come from the conscious part of the brain and prompt the zygomaticus major muscles in the cheeks to contract. These are the muscles that pull the corners of the mouth outwards.

Genuine smiles, on the other hand, are generated by the unconscious brain, so are automatic.

February 06, 2004

» How fanfiction helps kids to write

Literary purists, of course, might question the wisdom of having kids develop as creative writers in this nontraditional way. But while there is certainly value in writing about one's own experiences, adolescents often have difficulty stepping outside themselves and seeing the world through other people?s eyes. Their closeness to Harry and his friends makes it possible to get some critical distance from their own lives and think through their concerns from a new perspective. And writing about Harry offers them something else, too: an audience with a built-in interest in the stories?an interest that would be difficult to match with stories involving original fictional characters. The power of popular culture to command attention is being harnessed at a grassroots level to find a readership for these emerging storytellers.

» Arctic corpses provide flu clue

Using genetic information from samples of the 1918 virus recovered from frozen corpses buried in the Arctic tundra and preserved tissue samples kept in a hospital, the scientists reconstructed the viral protein that caused a strain of bird flu to infect human cells.

» Architectural Eyesore of the Month (via This is Broken)

September 2003: Don't you wonder why practically every house built in America after World War Two is a design abortion? The answer is actually simple but a little abstruse: ugliness is entropy made visible.

When you live in a high entropy society, as we do, the entropy manifests in many ways: toxic waste, poor air quality, social alienation, epidemic obesity, odious popular culture, AND immersive ugliness.

February 05, 2004

» Lewis Wolpert says claims of telepathy amount to "pathological science". Elsewhere, a psychologist announces the discovery of "mindsight".

Wolpert: Pathological science is characterised by having very small effects near the limits of detectability; the magnitude of the effect seems independent of the cause; there is usually a fantastic theory; and criticisms are met with ad hoc excuses. Telepathy fits some of these criteria. For example, attempts to reproduce the card-reading test failed.

Rensink: Mindsight is not simply a precursor to normal visual perception, he argues, because there seems to be no correlation between how long it takes someone to feel the change, and the time taken to identify what it is. The two sometimes happened almost simultaneously, while at other times the subjects did not report seeing any difference until seconds after they were aware of it.

» Anyone willing and capable of doing this deserves a visa

The bright green converted Buick- carrying 11 people - was stopped on Tuesday during its 90 mile (140 kilometre) journey to Florida.

This is the second attempt by at least two of the crew to make a break for the US in a vintage-car-turned-boat.

Last July, they were caught sailing the stretch of water in a 1951 Chevrolet pick-up truck equipped with floats.

» How do pigeons find their way home? By following roads, apparently.

Some pigeons stick so rigidly to the roads that they even fly round roundabouts before choosing the exit to lead them back to their lofts.

» Saxon king found in Southend Pictures here

The chamber, dating from the early 7th century, is remarkably intact. All that is missing is the body of the king, whose remains have dissolved over the centuries.

Among the treasures recovered are the copper buckles from his shoes. They were found alongside 60 beautifully preserved pieces, including gold buckles and brooches, glass vessels and copper bowls: all that a king needed to take him into the next world. Two gold foil crosses indicate that he was an early convert to Christianity.

» Are the Zelda games historical or mythical? (via Blackbeltjones)

The Metroid games, for example, pass both of the above criteria, because they all take place in one consistent universe (outer space in this case), and it's possible to put the games into an order, because events in one game are referred to in others. The Final Fantasy games fail both criteria, since they all take place in different worlds, and don't interact historically at all.

The Mario games pass the first criterion, because they all take place in some derivation of the Mushroom Kingdom. The Mushroom Kingdom is never entirely consistent, however, so it only barely passes this test. The Mario games completely fail the second criterion. There is no way to order the Mario games at all, because the facts are so ambiguous that the games could have happened in any order. No events in any one Mario game are referred to in any of the other Mario games.

» A geisha's obituary

What about sex? Miss Nakamura considered the word carefully. Perhaps, she said, the questioner was thinking of the oiran? Like a geisha, an oiran was a cultured woman but would be available to spend the night with a man for a high fee. The two professions were often confused by westerners. That said, it would be misleading to suggest that a geisha never had sex.

» Wind turbines hit a snag: bats

Some scientists believe that the migrating bats may not be using their echolocation when the collisions occur. Others speculate that the wind turbines may be emitting high-pitched sounds that draw the bats to the site. Still others suggest that the animals may be getting caught in wind shear associated with the turning turbines.

» A buffet for whales

Researchers are now investigating what commercial fisherman have long noticed, that the whales have learned to pluck sablefish off hooks attached to their long fishing lines.

» Reverse ventriloquism

When the circles were small and defined, participants relied on their sight rather than their hearing to gauge the direction of movement. But, intriguingly, when the circles were large and fuzzy, observers were more likely to believe their ears over their eyes, and used the sound to judge the direction of movement. The authors call this effect "reverse ventriloquism", and it occurs because large, blurred blobs are perceived as being less trustworthy than small, sharply defined ones.

» Spirited debate over Cory Doctorow's second downloadable book

I don't know what the future of book looks like. To figure it out, I'm doing some pretty basic science. I'm peering into this opaque, inscrutable system of publishing as it sits in the year 2004, and I'm making a perturbation. I'm stirring the pot to see what surfaces, so that I can see if the system reveals itself to me any more thoroughly as it roils. Once that happens, maybe I'll be able to formulate an hypothesis and try an experiment or two and maybe -- just maybe -- I'll get to the bottom of book-in-2004 and beat the competition to making it work, and maybe I'll go home with all (or most) of the marbles.

» Using the vacuum energy for propulsion

Feigel then showed that the momentum of the virtual photons that pop up inside a vacuum can depend upon the direction in which they are travelling. He concludes that if the electric field points up and the magnetic field points north, for example, then east-heading photons will have a different momentum from west-heading photons.

February 04, 2004

» The Conquest of Pestilence in New York City

February 02, 2004

» Is Groundhog Day the most spiritual movie ever?

Ramis is quick to point out that it is not just Buddhists who are able to draw parallels with the film. Scholars of Judaism have also leapt on it, and Ramis claims that many Buddhists in the US started out as Jews. "There is a remarkable correspondence of philosophies and even style between the two," said Zito, who was raised in the Jewish tradition but practises no religion. "I am wearing meditation beads on my wrist, but that's because I'm on a Buddhist diet. They're supposed to remind me not to eat, but they actually just get in the way when I'm cutting my steak."

» Antarctic under threat from bioprospectors

The United Nations warns today of the dangers posed by biotechnology companies scrambling to turn Antarctica's microscopic life forms into the raw material for a billion-dollar industry making everything from detergents to cancer treatments.

» Elements 113 and 115 make their debut

Still, for roughly half a century, nuclear scientists have been searching for an elusive "island of stability," somewhere among the superheavies, in which long-lived elements with new chemical properties might exist. Dr. Loveland said that the new results indicated that scientists might be closing in on that island.

"We're sort of in the shoals of the island of stability," said Dr. Kenton J. Moody, a Livermore nuclear physicist who was one of the experimenters in the work.

February 01, 2004

» The questions Hutton should have asked

And what's especially galling is having seen all the transcripts, and noticed James Dingemans and Peter Knox asking questions which suggested they were interested not merely in whether Gilligan is a duff journalist (which we knew), but also in how our country's managed, and whether this can go badly wrong. The Hutton Inquiry had the potential to produce a fascinating analysis of modern British life - and now we'll never know what it would have said.

» Conspiracy theory's roots in the Age of Reason

Dwight and Hamilton were in good company. From Voltaire and Rousseau to David Hume and Edmund Burke, some of the century's finest minds were ready to countenance conspiracies of one form or another. That fact makes it difficult to dismiss the Enlightenment's fascination with these dark developments as simply irrational aberrations. On the contrary, as the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon S. Wood has argued, Enlightenment conspiracy theories may have represented a transitional step on the way to a more nuanced and "scientific" understanding of the world.