April 30, 2004

» Russia's first museum of erotica is displaying Rasputin's enormous pickled penis

There is one exhibit in the museum which makes Knyazkin be especially proud of. This is the 30-centimeter preserved penis of Grigory Rasputin. "Having this exhibit, we can stop envying America, where Napoleon Bonaparte's penis is now kept. Napoleon's penis is but a small 'pod', it cannot stand comparison to our organ of 30 centimeters", the head of the museum said.

Rasputin's pickled willy

» Bionicles may save Lego — which has a twenty-year plan for their future development

It is not that Lego hasn't tried to move with the times. Toy store shelves feature dozens of new Lego products that bear little resemblance to the sets of bricks that were a childhood staple for 50 years. Today, there are familiar licences in kit form: Harry Potter, Bob the Builder and Winnie the Pooh. There have been successful home-grown innovations, too - Clikits for girls and programmable bricks called Mindstorms (as popular with adults as kids).

The biggest of the recent hits, and number one Lego product in 2003, is an action figure range called Bionicles, which first appeared in virtual form on the web in December 2000. Today, the epic struggle between Toa heroes and Makuta villains for control of Mata Nui, their tropical island world, features in comics and books, on the web, in CD-Roms and even movies, as well as in millions of snap-together kits sold in the shops. Bionicle may not have sold as fast as Beyblades or Yu-Gi-Oh, but they seem certain to outlast them. Three years old and still growing, Bionicle accounted for roughly a quarter of Lego's turnover last year. But the product's real value may prove to be in showing a company steeped in its own traditions the way out of troubled waters.

» Stanford's graphics department is helping to put together the remaining pieces of the Forma Urbis Romae, a giant stone map of ancient Rome

The Forma Urbis showed almost every feature of the city from the Coliseum and the Circus Maximus, where the chariot races took place, down to individual shops and even staircases.

But shortly after the fall of Rome, it is thought that the lower part of the map was torn from the wall, probably to be burned in kilns to make lime for cement.

It may have lain for centuries as just a heap of jumbled fragments, occasionally plundered for other building works.

During the Renaissance, some recognised its importance, but still the pieces continued to be dispersed.

"The map will never be fully recovered; no more than 15% of it survives and that is in 1,186 pieces," Professor Levoy told BBC News Online.

Fragment of Forma Urbis map

» Praying on your phone

"One of the most popular services on China Mobile, which is one of the large mobile phone providers in China, has been the lunar almanac," Dr Bell told the BBC programme, Go Digital.

"Each night you get sent a list of things that are auspicious to do on the next day. This is a traditional activity in Chinese homes.

"You would have had a calendar on the wall. Now the phone has become the platform for it," she said.

In her travels, she has come across people using mobile phones to show them the direction of Mecca or remind them of when it is time to pray.

"There have always been ways in which religious institutions have appropriated new technologies to use them to do interesting things," said Dr Bell, who is doing the research for chip maker Intel.

"What is fascinating to me is why that is something we don't feel we can talk about this. What is the social taboo about saying 'I go online and pray' or I am using faith-based dating services."

» The man who doesn't exist

Lee has no documentation to prove who he is. He doesn't have a birth certificate. He doesn't have a national insurance number. He has never had a passport, or a bank account. He has never been registered with a doctor, and he has never been on the electoral roll. There is nothing to prove he is who he says he is - 68-year-old Jim Lee from London.

For years, it didn't matter. It never crossed his mind that he could be a non-person. He had managed to get through much of his childhood and all of his adult years working outside the system, earning just enough to see himself right. But then he reached his late 60s and discovered people weren't giving him work any more, telling him that he was too old. He ran out of money, ran into trouble, and decided to visit a benefits office for the first time in his life. And that's when everything went wrong.

» Gin & tonic is under threat

One of just three native conifers, the hardy Juniperus communis is not choosy about what soil or location it grows in, and the trees can last hundreds of years. But, in a phenomenon which has left forestry experts baffled, the population is becoming increasingly geriatric and, in some spots, declining to near-extinction.

April 29, 2004

» The mind of a fundamentalist

Like the rest of us, most violent fundamentalists have families, and so they also have to reconcile the love and compassion that's engendered in them by the family structure, with the cruelty and pain that they inflict upon others. And the principal way in which they do this, is to convince themselves that whatever they do it, they do it in the name of love.

Perhaps the greatest exposition of this dilemma is to be found in the Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata. In particular in the 18 chapters of the Bhagavad Gita, written about 400 BC in which Krishna, the god of love, advises the reluctant warrior, Arjuna, on the eve of battle. Krishna's advice boils down to this: Arjuna, get a hold of yourself; no-one likes the prospect of imminent violent death, but a man's got to do what a man's got to do, especially when his kith and kin are threatened. And if he does it with a pure heart and a clear mind, everything will be just fine.

There's so much truth, so much joy and love in the Gita, that it seems criminal to pass over it so lightly here. It portrays the struggle between conviction and doubt, and between deliberation and action. At the moment of truth, you find that what you want to do and what you must do are not always one and the same thing, and in these moments are born heroes.

Stirring stuff, but as the English novelist, Susan Ertz put it, millions long for immortality who do not know what to do on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

» The robot cones are coming

Farritor's team hopes to get the unit price down to $200 (£110).

"At that price I believe the savings will mean it will still be affordable if one dies in the line of duty," said the engineer.

It is envisaged the road markers would be delivered to a location by a specially equipped truck.

A camera on the vehicle would image the road and send a picture to a worker's laptop. The worker would then indicate on the screen where they wanted the bollards to be deployed.

Software developed by the Nebraska team would then obtain the precise coordinates and feed these to the "shepherd" unit so it could lead its herd of red robots into position.

Robot traffic cones lining up

» Peanuts. Always a bundle of laughs.

Grim Peanuts strip

April 28, 2004

» Why do women have orgasms? To find a sensitive man, rebel against the patriarchy or by biological accident?

The first, classical theory, advanced by Desmond Morris, is that the female orgasm has evolved to enhance the monogamous pair bond and make family life more rewarding. This is because only a long-term, stable male partner will know how to make a particular woman climax properly.


The second theory, advanced by many feminists, also holds that the female orgasm is an evolutionary adaptation, but that it is triggered by nothing more elaborate than straight intercourse; if it is not, there is either something abnormal about the woman - or inadequate about the man. The female's ability to multi-orgasm without the subdued "refractory" period the male goes through after ejaculation is additionally, to this school of thought, evidence of an almost insatiable sexual desire in women. For these theorists, monogamy is an unnatural instrument of political repression.

The third view of the female orgasm, proposed by the postmodern voice of Symons and heartily backed by Gould, is that a whole nexus of anatomical, social, cultural and emotional factors make female orgasm the subtle phenomenon it is. They propose that female orgasm is the happy coincidence of an existing, but minor, bodily quirk resulting from the physiological similarity of the sexes in the womb - an echo, in other words, of the male orgasm - and a cultural artifice no more adaptive than a learned ability such as writing.

» A heads-up display for your retina

The monocle is worn in front of the eye and reflects scanned laser light to the eye allowing mechanics to view car diagnostics and instructions superimposed on their field of vision.

"Service technicians use it so that they can work on an engine and their view is superimposed on what they are seeing," Mr Goldstein told the BBC programme, Go Digital.

"They don't have to get up from what they are doing and go to a separate computer terminal or flick through a manual. They have it right where they need it."

A schematic overlying the real world

» Molecular gastronomy in the comfort of your own home

And then the fun began. The dehydrator arrived, and we made thin, crispy wafers of whatever we found in the larder: dill pickles, turnips, beets, kimchi. We created a palette of seasonings — not only Mr. Dufresne's red pepper powder, but green pepper powder and red onion powder (a pretty lavender color) that we found turned scrambled eggs into a respectable lunch or dinner. We made a lemon and a lime powder from pulverized, dehydrated zest that gave a refined citrus perfume to everything it touched: tomato soup, vanilla ice cream, iced tea. And we concocted a new-wave snack of seasoned puffed rice by dehydrating and then frying in olive oil overcooked arborio rice (a technique Mr. Andrés had described), and sprinkling the crispy rice with red pepper and onion powders.

We called up Mr. Achatz, who offered a couple of more dehydrator ideas: chips made from thinly sliced cured meats and a mango and mandarin orange fruit leather he makes in the dehydrator's liquid tray. Fruit leather got us thinking: why not vegetable leather? We puréed roasted peppers and poured them directly into the liquid tray, and in a couple of hours, we had turned out grown-up roll-ups to add to our crudités plate. The chorizo chips we made gave shape to the paella course. First, we imagined a paella napoleon, using the chips as "pastry," but that seemed a little pedestrian and too meaty, so we imagined the shrimp and saffron being a savory ice cream, the rice as puffed rice sprinkles adhering to the ice cream. Paella ice-cream sandwich!

» When a bean-bag gun just won't do: CHiPs wants a Spiderman net gun to stop suicidal bridge-jumpers

The state highway patrol, hoping to avoid another epic traffic jam caused by a suicide jumper on a major bridge, wants inventors to design and build a gun that can capture would-be jumpers in a spider-like web.

"At this point we're about ready to put out a request for a proposal," said California Highway Patrol spokesman Tom Marshall. "And we'll just see if there's some technology that might be usable."

» Aircraft contrails may have warmed the US by up to half a degree per decade since the 1950s. Looking at this image, you can well believe it

According to Patrick Minnis, a senior research scientist at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., there has been a one percent per decade increase in cirrus cloud cover over the United States, likely due to air traffic. Cirrus clouds exert a warming influence on the surface by allowing most of the Sun's rays to pass through but then trapping some of the resulting heat emitted by the surface and lower atmosphere. Using a general circulation model, Minnis estimates that cirrus clouds from contrails increased the temperatures of the lower atmosphere by anywhere from 0.36 to 0.54°F per decade.

thick aircraft contrails over the southeastern US

April 26, 2004

» Liquid armour

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- Liquid armor for Kevlar vests is one of the newest technologies being developed at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory to save Soldiers' lives.

This type of body armor is light and flexible, which allows soldiers to be more mobile and won't hinder an individual from running or aiming his or her weapon.

The key component of liquid armor is a shear thickening fluid. STF is composed of hard particles suspended in a liquid. The liquid, polyethylene glycol, is non-toxic, and can withstand a wide range of temperatures. Hard, nano-particles of silica are the other components of STF. This combination of flowable and hard components results in a material with unusual properties.

"During normal handling, the STF is very deformable and flows like a liquid. However, once a bullet or frag hits the vest, it transitions to a rigid material, which prevents the projectile from penetrating the Soldier's body," said Dr. Eric Wetzel, a mechanical engineer from the Weapons and Materials Research Directorate who heads the project team.

April 25, 2004

» "If everyone made a pistol from their own skin, I think they would think twice about using a gun. I think there would be less violence in the world."

Ms Meester says she made the tiny replica pistol with a piece of skin - 20 centimetres long and four centimetres high - surgically removed from her abdomen. The puckered skin was stretched and sewn over a plastic and fibre pistol mould.


But the pistol is the first time she has used human skin in her work.

"It felt like something between chicken skin and pig skin," she said.

"If everyone made a pistol from their own skin, I think they would think twice about using a gun. I think there would be less violence in the world."

Gun made of human skin

April 24, 2004

» NASA says the flag-draped coffines in these controversial pictures are actually those of the Columbia astronauts, not US soldiers in Iraq. Conspiracy theorists: ever noticed how often The Memory Hole is offline?

The story began Thursday when the free speech website thememoryhole.org published what it said were images of the coffins of U.S. military personnel who had died while on duty in Iraq. The images had been released to the site because of a Freedom of Information Act request.

However, eagle-eyed NASA-watchers as well as NASA employees recognized the images to be from February 2003, when the remains of the space shuttle's crew were brought to the Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Delaware.

April 23, 2004

» He started out as "Oswald the Rabbit", then turned from an edgy adult character into a kids' favourite and thence a corporate symbol - but has Mickey lost his way? And is his decline a result of Disney's copyright crusade?. Would Mickey fare better if Disney permitted remixes like these?

"HE was the only time I was happy," said Maurice Sendak.

Mr. Sendak, who based the character of Max in his children's book "Where the Wild Things Are" on Mickey Mouse, is an exact contemporary of the cartoon rodent: both were born in 1928. "I was around 6 when I first saw him," he said. "It filled me with joy. I think it was those primary colors so vivid and pure, taken up with the most incredibly beautiful animation, reminding you of Fred Astaire. Oh! And his character was the kind I wished I'd had as a child: brave and sassy and nasty and crooked and thinking of ways to outdo people." The joy leached from Mr. Sendak's voice. "Not like the lifeless fat pig he is now."

Mr. Sendak is hardly alone in mourning the mouse's decline. "Boring," "embalmed," "neglected," "irrelevant," "deracinated" and, perhaps most damning, "over" are some of the adjectives that cropped up in recent interviews with people in the cartoon, movie and marketing businesses. And strangely for such a well-known figure, Mickey doesn't even have a back story: no clearly defined relations, no hometown, no goals, no weaknesses. According to David Smith, director of the Disney archives, the company maintains no "biography" of the character; he is who he is.

Marvel superhero remix of Mickey

April 22, 2004

» Big wave

ANAHEIM, CA -- (April 16, 2004) -- The world record for biggest wave ever ridden was officially shattered this evening at the Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards presented by Monster Energy when Pete Cabrinha of Hawaii picked up a check for $70,000 to match his amazing ride on a 70-footer.

Cabrinha, 43, rode the wave on January 10 of this year at the break known as Jaws on the North Shore of Maui, near his home in Haiku.

Surfing a 70-foot wave

» The limits of explanation

For McGinn, our favoured modes of explanation, typically involving units, and elaborated by combinations and mappings, don't address the question of how the sensation of redness will always be novel to someone who has never had it before.

The same kind of limitation may apply in physics. Look at how hard it is to get your head round quantum theory, or more recent exotica like superstrings. Other developments in physics also weaken the case for reducing everything to one explanation.

And there are disunities of explanation within physics. Although since Newton most explanations have involved particles and forces, there is now a whole new class of explanations for all those phenomena like, say, how many grains will tumble down the sides of a sand pile if you trickle a few more on top. These involve laws that still show, as cosmologist John Barrow puts it, that the world is highly compressible, in the mathematical sense. But they don't really resemble laws like gravitation or electromagnetism.

» Peregrine Worsthorne defends the spirit of aristocracy

We now have a modernising, classless political consensus consisting of a non-socialist New Labour party and a pro-capitalist New Conservative party, neither of which is much concerned to conserve the historic institutions. While in the old days socialists argued, very reasonably, that it was the duty of the state to improve the conditions of the lower classes, and Old Tories argued, also very reasonably, that it was their party's duty to maintain the privileges of the upper classes, today all the parties agree, or pretend to agree, that it is the job of the state to do away with class altogether, regardless of the fact that our political institutions grew out of that class system and have depended on it ever since for their health and strength.

So what would the ushering in of a classless society really signify? Essentially, the end of the tradition of linking power and wealth to the ideal of selflessness. What began as a reforming movement to abolish class consciousness is, therefore, in danger of ending up as a movement to abolish class conscience.

» Russian gangster tattoos

When Danzig Baldaev was a boy his father, an eminent Buryat ethnographer, was denounced as an "enemy of the people" by the Soviet authorities. Danzig was later sent to work as a prison guard. His life's work, the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia, has just been published by Steidl/Fuel. Photos by Sergei Vasiliev.

» Tactile text

The researchers came up with a way to direct the movement of the pins to create specific patterns under the fingers.

While the system can to recognise circles, lines, squares, or letters such as V, the perception of more complex symbols is highly individual.

For instance, the '@' sign might feel like a spiral, the word 'I' as a wave that flows towards the person and 'you' as a wave that flows away.

» Beat this, hi-fi bores

During construction of the lab's five-storey tall ATLAS instrument, which is soon to be used to search for an elusive particle called the Higgs boson, a precise optical system was used to align the silicon detectors used to monitor the trajectory of subatomic particles.

By modifying the instrument and passing it above the grooves used to store audio on vinyl, the researchers were able to visually record their position to an accuracy of a one thousandth of a millimetre.

April 21, 2004

» Deliberately obscure link referenced in hope of impressing handful of readers that blogger is more obsessive net-savvy than they are
» The comics take casualties: Doonesbury and Get Fuzzy take casualties. Weird you can see this in the funnies, but not in real life
» "Your position is in the region which collapses into the final crater." Disappointing news from the University of Arizona's impact calculator
» The British Library opens its books

Discover the British Library's award-winning system Turning the Pages. Just click on the links, wait a few moments, then turn the pages of our great books.

April 20, 2004

» The study of other solar systems is coming on in leaps and bounds

Planet: The most distant known planet has been detected orbiting a star 17,000 light-years away, say astronomers.

The find was made through measurements of the effect the combined mass of the planet and its parent star had on the light of another, more distant star.

Comet: The star has a mass of about six times the mass of our Sun and an estimated very young age of about 100,000 years.

"This detection indicates that solid bodies of 100km in size can form this early around a star," Ge says.

Five sets of observations taken during October and November 2003 indicated that the star's light was absorbed by clouds of hydrogen and helium surrounding it.

Scientists believe that the gas clouds were the wreckage of a comet that got too close.

» The answer is in the question

But in opinion polls the wording is vital, says Mr Worcester. "When an interviewer on behalf of a polling organisation asks you for your opinions, you do not feel an obligation to think carefully and thoroughly about what it is that is being asked."

He cites an experiment in which he asked Britons about their attitudes to the death penalty. By using graphic references to "convicted child murderers" and "rapists", he encouraged 90% of respondents to back capital punishment. The figure dropped to 52% when a blander question was posed.

» The Writing Cure

Charon, a 54-year-old internist with a Ph.D. in literature, is the director of the pioneering Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University, which teaches literature, literary theory and creative writing to medical students and whose practices are rapidly being incorporated and adapted by schools across the country.

Narrative medicine imports terms from literature to describe the doctor-patient relationship. In describing his backache, Charon said, the Dominican man was actually telling an ''illness narrative,'' which can be interpreted just like a literary text: by examining the presentation of character, the structure of the tale and the plot of the disease. Regardless of the outcome -- the diagnosis or treatment (which Charon did not relate) -- what is central is the telling and receiving of the tale. Narrative medicine appears to answer a central paradox. Unlike other fields -- like literature -- medicine really is always getting better. Yet despite its ever-increasing efficacy, nearly half of patients seek out alternative care, and both patients and physicians voice increasing dissatisfaction with the practice of mainstream medicine.

» Inventor of bling discovered

Until then it had been only subliminal, but as I leafed through the photos in Jimmy Saville's book I suddenly realised what it was I was being reminded of. It was Jimmy Saville himself - or rather, his style.

In nearly all the pictures he wore tracksuits coupled with chunky gold jewellery. As I fanned through his career, the tracksuits became more flamboyant (handmade, in fact), the jewellery bigger, the look darker, meaner, with wraparound shades.

» Khaaan!

April 19, 2004

» Girls learn faster than boys — even if they're chimps

Young female chimpanzees are better students than males, at least when it comes to catching termites, according to a study of wild chimps in Tanzania's Gombe National Park. While daughters watch their mothers closely, the boys spend more time monkeying around.

» 'If I were prime minister of India ...'

April 16, 2004

» Astronomer asks kids to send in rocks for analysis, is deluged with responses. He'd better hope it doesn't go the way of Craig Shergold

The Request: Mars scientists are asking students from around the world to help them understand the red planet. Send in a rock collected by you or your classroom from your region of the world, and we will use a special tool like the one on the rover to tell you what it's made of. Then everyone can compare their rocks to the ones found on Mars.

The Response, from Space.com: An overwhelming response to a global request for rocks has a Mars geologist buried in terrestrial hunks and chunks.

"We're processing them and getting them moved out as quickly as we can, but we're still behind," said Arizona State University geologist Phil Christensen. "It doesn't seem to be letting up. I want to say that the mail carriers have been really tolerant."

» Sedna's moon is missing

Caltech astronomer Mike Brown, who led the discovery, said Sedna's slow rotation rate had him convinced there was an unseen satellite exerting a gravitational tug.

Here's why: Most objects in the solar system that don't have companions complete a rotation, or day, in a matter of hours. There are many examples of fast-spinning asteroids and similarly whirling large, round Kuiper Belt objects. Pluto, on the other hand, has had its rotational period slowed to six Earth-days by its companion, Charon.

Sedna spins on its axis once every 20 Earth-days, or perhaps even more slowly, making the presence of a moon practically inevitable, Brown had thought. So shortly after the discovery, Hubble was pointed at Sedna.

"Much to our surprise, there's no satellite," he told reporters today.

» The Shroud has two faces

Italian scientists have discovered that the back of the Turin Shroud has the image of a man's face - and possibly his hands - impressed upon it. These findings were published Tuesday 13th April in the Institute of Physics journal, Journal of Optics A. Giulio Fanti and Roberto Maggiolio of Padova University used various image-processing techniques to enhance the faint features that can be seen in photographs of the Shroud (J. Opt. A6 491). This is the first time the reverse side of the controversial relic has ever been studied.

The Turin Shroud is a piece of linen, some 4.4 metres long and 1.1 metres wide, that contains images of the body and face of a man. The Shroud is believed by many to be the cloth Jesus was wrapped in before being buried. Although the front of the Shroud has been extensively studied, its back has remained hidden beneath another piece of linen, which was sewn on by nuns to cover up damage caused by a fire in 1532. However, this protective layer was removed in 2002, allowing the back of the cloth to be photographed.

April 15, 2004

» What's your chronotype? I'm a Mild Owl (via The Word Spy)

This Scale is designed to help you identify your chronotype, that is, your tendency toward a morning ("lark"), mid-range or evening ("owl") circadian rhythm pattern. To complete this Scale, read each question and consider all of the responses carefully. Then, check your answer for each of the six items on this Scale as accurately as you can. When completed, click on the "Results" button and your score will calculated.

» Maglev trains aren't silent after all

Prototype maglev trains have been tested in Japan, Germany and China. The first commercial line, built by German company Transrapid, opened between Shanghai, China, and the city's Pudong Airport in 2003, and has clocked a record speed of 500 kilometres per hour. In the United States, projects are planned for Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

But the future of such trains may depend in part on their environmental impact. Previous studies have shown that maglev and intercity trains can be equally loud. But noise-pollution depends on the quality of the noise as well as its volume.

At high speeds, says Vos, "the maglev sound is similar to that of some aircraft".

» The controversial comic American Power has been pulled — a move that touches on the idea of superhero fiction as the literature of ethics

A morally black-and-white superhero book about the war on terror is a painfully oversimplified version of a complex issue that continues to kill people daily. This should be apparent to anyone of reasonable intelligence, no matter where they stand on the war itself. The war on terror is no place for flag-waving jubilation. Even from the most favourable perspective, it is a necessary evil. This is not 1942, and jingoism is hollow for modern audiences. They are too sophisticated for that

April 09, 2004

» Visit the City of the Future of the Past
» If you're going to let someone write on your body in a foreign language, make sure you know what it really says

What he thinks his tattoo says: his first name, translated into Japanese.
What it really means: The three symbols together would be pronounced "tak-ee-may," so it doesn't correspond precisely to Timothy. What the symbols mean in Japanese is sort of a mishmash, something along the lines of "unreliable delivery service" or "lost moving delivery."

» Happy Easter!

Melissa Salzmann, who brought her 4-year-old son J.T., said the program was inappropriate for young children. "He was crying and asking me why the bunny was being whipped," Salzmann said.

April 08, 2004

» Dismayed to learn that your sushi's made from frozen fish? Well, you could always try some of this or this (Advisory: revolting)

Sushi: Because of health concerns and growing demand, 50 to 60 percent of sushi in the United States is frozen at some point in its journey from the ocean, according to wholesalers. And rare is the sushi restaurant that tells customers upfront that they may be eating fish that has been in deep freeze for up to two years. Most would be even more surprised to learn that if the sushi has not been frozen, it is illegal to serve it in the United States.

Lobster: SUSHI SAMBA on Park Ave. South in midtown is the latest New York restaurant to import the practice of eating live lobster. Called "Whole Live Lobster Sashimi," the dish involves bringing the lobster to the table, splitting it down the middle and eating it as it dies, a process that lasts about 20 minutes.

Squid: It was still moving. Its tentacles would stick to your fingers and the pigment on its skin was pulsating. Its eyes moved too. On the other hand, it was chopped into pieces. So I'm not sure whether it was "alive" or just really fresh. It may seem a bit gross, but squid in particular tastes much better and very different when it is VERY fresh. The taste diminishes without minutes.

» The search for a captive audience reaches new depths

The problem with the TVs was identified by the Health Service Journal. It reports today that the sets come on automatically at 6am or 7am and close down at 10pm. Patients pay £3.20 a day for the full range of programmes, with reduced rates for the over-60s and a free service for children.

But those not wanting to subscribe do not escape: they get trailers for the service and messages from the hospital authorities instead.

A company spokesman said the failure to provide an off button was "an accident" that was rectified in more recent installations at the bedsides of 38,500 patients in another 83 hospitals.

» Mapping science

Science is the most interconnected of all human activities, they say, and requires a new series of maps to chart the changing scientific landscape.

Knowledge has left books and libraries and is now changing more rapidly than ever before, say researchers.

New ways of mapping science offer the prospect of new discoveries, they add.


"Ultimately, I'd like to see a map of science in schools, as common as the political world map," Börner says.

"'Continents' would represent the diverse areas of science, and closely related areas would reside on the same continent. Teachers might say, 'Let's look at the new research frontier in sector F5.' Students could say, 'My mom works over there.'"

April 07, 2004

» An unkind page about my favourite soft drink. How could any self-respecting geek not love this most techy of drinks?
» Interesting discussion of superhero comics as the literature of ethics

If we narrow the question still further, to volunteer firemen, we eliminate one obvious answer: It's a living. Then the darkness yawns before us. Because the core question, "what could possibly make them think that it was worthwhile to risk their own lives to save others," can be spun and flipped in a number of important ways. From Why do firemen do what they do? to Why don't the rest of us do what they do? to Why shouldn't the rest of us do what they do? and even How dare we not do what they do? Superheroes become a way of addressing these questions. If science fiction is the literature of ideas, the superhero story is the literature of ethics. Or say, rather, it should be. As "literature" need not mean "sober-sided drudgery," I would even say the formulation holds for kids' superhero tales.

Fantasy provides external analogs of internal conflicts, and the subtype of fantasy about superheroes is a way of externalizing questions of duty, community, and self. How should the powerful behave? (Most Americans are, in global-historical terms, "the powerful" in one aspect or another.) These questions are salient whether you wear tights or not. They apply to you. Because most of us, certainly most of us in the developed world, have more power, wealth, or wherewithal than somebody. Certainly almost everybody reading this essay could, in principle, quit his or her present job and work pro bono for an African AIDS clinic while subsisting on donated food, or maintain a couple of homeless people instead of taking vacation, or -- join the volunteer fire department. Depending on your politics, you may believe that people like yourself or people like Bill Gates really do owe some non-trivial portion of time, wealth, influence, or attention to something or someone. The poor, the ill, the frightened, alienated, the "doomed, damned, and despised" as Jesse Jackson once put it.

» The wreck of Antoine Saint-Exupery's plane has been found near Marseille. I wonder what the latest is on Amelia Earhart?

A diving team has found the wreckage of author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's military plane, almost 60 years after it plunged into the Mediterranean near Marseille, French government researchers announced Wednesday.

Saint-Exupéry disappeared on a solo flight in July 1944 while photographing southern France in preparation for an Allied landing there.

» Really cool special effects portfolio from The Embassy Visual Effects Inc.. Check the robocop and the Popular Science visuals in particular (via plasticbag)
» What the world needs right now: Gourmet salt

While the diversity of its distribution makes it a marketing man's dream, does one salt really taste very different from another? Steingarten maintains that it does, and in 2000 set up an experiment at the bi-annual meeting of scientists and super-foodies at Erice in Sicily to prove his point. This he did, at least to his own satisfaction: he was the only one in a group that included Blumenthal and American food science writer, Harold McGee, who correctly identified the salts in question. The experiment was repeated back in Britain at the research centre in Leatherhead with inconclusive results. Or rather, the most exclusive salts did not live up to their billing.

» Department of Robot Overlords: QRIO conducts an orchestra. Plus: a spectacular movie of a quartet of QRIOs dancing in formation

QRIO conducts an orchestra

» Astronomers take best pics so far of Titan, as well its X-ray shadow

Astronomers at the Paranal Observatory in Chile have obtained the best images yet of Titan - Saturn's major moon.

They show what may be clouds in its thick and hazy atmosphere of nitrogen, methane and oily hydrocarbons.

The Chandra X-ray telescope in orbit also studied Titan's atmosphere as the moon passed in front of the glowing wreckage of an exploded star.

» What's happened to Petrarch's head?

Researchers have been studying the body found in Petrarch's tomb at the small town where he died outside Padua in northern Italy in 1374.

The body seems to match Petrarch's own description.

But the head doesn't.

In fact, it looks more like a woman's, according to anatomists from Padua University. Worse: the DNA of the head does not match that of the body.

April 06, 2004

» An art show inspired by and created via obsessive-compulsive behaviour

It could be argued that all forms of artmaking contain an element of obsession; it drives the will to create and underlies most great works. Though most artists accept their obsession as a means to an end, there are some who explore the nature of obsession, itself, and the statements that an obsessive act can make.

In response to the variety of options that have become available, many artists have narrowed their focus to very limited parameters to explore a singular goal. To the observer, this can be viewed as "obsessive", especially in a culture that glorifies the opposite of obsession — distraction.

Untitled by Morgan Phalen

» Can a computer prove a mathematical conjecture?

Dr. Hales's proof of the problem, known as the Kepler Conjecture, hinges on a complex series of computer calculations, too many and too tedious for mathematicians reviewing his paper to check by hand.

Believing it thus, at some level, requires faith that the computer performed the calculations flawlessly, without any programming bugs. For a field that trades in dispassionate logic and supposedly unambiguous truths and falsehoods, that is an uncomfortably gray in-between.

Because of the ambiguities, the journal, the prestigious Annals of Mathematics, has decided to publish only the theoretical parts of the proof, which have been checked in the traditional manner. A more specialized journal, Discrete and Computational Geometry, will publish the computer sections.

» The terrible twos really are terrible

The "terrible 2s" are worse than we knew. Research is showing that for almost every little boy (or girl) such as Maxim, not even a rocky adolescence will come as close to the rapid-fire tantrums of the toddler years.

Researchers argue that society must stop excusing aggression in early childhood. Ignoring the problem could mean a child's path is set irrevocably toward delinquency, dropping out of school, and crime. Intervention, it seems, needs to come sooner than ever. If aggressive children don't learn to control their anger early, they might never learn at all.

The idea requires adults to face the worst of human nature in their own children -- that bad things can come in small packages. It goes straight to the age-old debate about the origins of evil: Are human beings born pure, as Rousseau argued, and tainted by the world around them? Or do babies arrive bad, as St. Augustine wrote, and learn, for their own good, how to behave in society?

Richard Tremblay, an affable researcher at the University of Montreal who is considered one of the world leaders in aggression studies, sides with St. Augustine ...

April 04, 2004

» Surprisingly moving story from Salon about how easy-reader editions are robbing classic childrens' books of their power

But if my child is going to dive into a world of someone's creation, let it be an artist's, not a corporation's. Great children's literature is written by an artist answering an urgent personal call, and the artist's magic can touch the reader in places that a cheap imitation can never reach with its sugar-sticky fingers.

While idly surfing the Internet with Kenneth Grahame in mind I discovered that "The Wind in the Willows" came from stories Grahame had told his only child, a boy named Alistair, and whom he called Mouse. When at 7 years of age Mouse refused to go on vacation for fear of missing the stories, Grahame promised to write installments to him by post; published much later, in 1989, as "My Dearest Mouse: The Wind in the Willows Letters," these missives to his son became the basis for his classic novel. These were no idle bedtime stories, though. One Web site hints that Alistair had passions not unlike Mr. Toad, and his worried father sought to temper his son's excesses. While an undergraduate at Oxford, Alistair killed himself, somehow using a train, two days before his 20th birthday.

Suddenly it clicked. I called my mother.

"Toad was bipolar," I told my mother. We knew bipolar. My brother had been bipolar and suffered from manias not unlike Toad's, although after his manias for such toys as motorcycles he eventually gave in to a passion for prescription drugs. Like Toad, his grandiose self-image goaded him into terrible mischief, and he could contrive magnificent deceptions without the slightest hint of conscience. Like Toad, he could be heartbreakingly contrite when confronted, only to get that grandiose glint back in his eye and go on to outdo himself.


"Grahame wrote 'Wind in the Willows' to appeal to his son," I told my mother. "I think he was hoping to save him from himself." Ratty and Mole's friendship is so carefully and urgently rendered, and stands in such stark contrast to Toad's rather frail grasp of relationship. Indeed, as my daughter would ask after Toad had betrayed his friends yet again, "Why do Ratty and Mole keep wanting to be friends with Toad?" Then I remembered that Badger was originally friends with Toad's late father. Toad was a surrogate son to Badger, and Badger needed to save him, just like Grahame needed to save Alistair, and my mother lived to save my brother.

April 03, 2004

» Molvania: A land untouched by modern dentistry
» Eurabia? and Exurbia

Eurabia: What the consequences of these changes will be is very difficult to say. A creeping Islamicization of a decadent Christendom is one conceivable result: while the old Europeans get even older and their religious faith weaker, the Muslim colonies within their cities get larger and more overt in their religious observance. A backlash against immigration by the economically Neanderthal right is another: aging electorates turn to demagogues who offer sealed borders without explaining who exactly is going to pay for the pensions and health care. Nor can we rule out the possibility of a happy fusion between rapidly secularized second-generation Muslims and their post-Christian neighbors. Indeed, we may conceivably end up with all three: Situation 1 in France, Situation 2 in Austria and Situation 3 in Britain.

Exurbia: Americans -- seemingly bland, ordinary Americans -- often have a remarkably tenuous grip on reality. Under the seeming superficiality of suburban American life, there is an imaginative fire that animates Americans and propels us to work so hard, move so much and leap so wantonly.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that those who ''complain of the flatness of American life have no perception of its destiny. They are not Americans.'' They don't see that ''here is man in the garden of Eden; here, the Genesis and the Exodus.'' And here, he concluded fervently, will come the final Revelation. Emerson was expressing the eschatological longing that is the essence of the American identity: the assumption that some culminating happiness is possible here, that history can be brought to a close here.

The historian Sacvan Bercovitch has observed that the United States is the example par excellence of a nation formed by collective fantasy. Despite all the claims that American culture is materialist and pragmatic, what is striking about this country is how material things are shot through with enchantment.

April 02, 2004

» Blair says there is no longer opposition to identity cards on the grounds of civil liberties and terrorism makes them more important than ever. Okay, so how exactly would they have helped in the case of the nine British citizens currently being held on terrorism charges? Or to improve the 100:1 arrest-to-conviction ratio for those held under the Terrorism Act?
» Extraterrestrial contact on the cheap

Of course, this requires that the aliens have precise knowledge of the distance to our solar system, and the Sun's motion through space. For an advanced society, that might not be too much to ask. But the kicker is this: they will know that, during the transit, our world is somewhere in front of the Sun's disk. So they could use a mirror array to focus their signal on that disk, thus reducing the power requirements for signaling to less than 10 watts, comparable to a bicycle headlamp! Yes, the mirror would now be a mile across, but it could be made up of a few small, cheap, and simple individual reflectors.

In other words, with a collection of mirrors, a small laser, and a computer to run it all, a knowledgeable and entrepreneurial extraterrestrial could produce detectable signals with only as much power as a handful of batteries could supply. No mammoth antennas, and no beefy transmitters are required. The broadcast could be an alien science fair experiment.

It's interesting to imagine that attempts by extraterrestrials to locate other intelligence in the Galaxy might be made not by officialdom in massive societal programs, but by the personal efforts of the young and the daring.

» American archetypes old and new

What she found there were three archetypal figures, emerging from popular comedy: the Yankee, the backwoodsman, and the minstrel. Each member of "the trio," as Rourke often called them, took recognizable form in the 1820s and flourished until the Civil War. More important, she wrote, they remained at the heart of "a consistent native tradition," which she traced through the classic American writers — Whitman, Hawthorne, Henry James — and up to the modernists of her own day, including T.S. Eliot. "Humor has been a fashioning instrument in America," Rourke concluded. "Its objective — has seemed to be that of creating fresh bonds, a new unity ... and the rounded completion of an American type."

April 01, 2004

» Interview With A Fungus (17kB PDF)
» The Jean-Paul Sartre Cookbook: "Today I made a Black Forest cake out of five pounds of cherries and a live beaver, challenging the very definition of the word cake." (via Hammersley)
» Top 100 April Fool's Day Hoaxes from the Museum of Hoaxes