Category Archives: Weird science

Spook Country by William Gibson coming very soon!

Buy it in the US
Buy it in the UK

Video interview with Gibson about Spook Country.

As a person who spent seven years of their life studying the novels of William Gibson, I think it’s fair to say that I’m very excited about experiencing a new novel by him. Will I be able to switch off my academic brain for long enough to enjoy it as a ‘normal’ reader? I guess that asks whether normal readers like William Gibson novels. I hope I can.

I’m expecting that there will be some mysterious object, place, or moment around which the novel revolves. This thing will symbolise a new modality for humanity, something that speaks of loss, time, and desire. It will be representative of the excitement of the future, and the fear of losing everything that we are now to become something else. Dreams will replace cyberspace as an area in which mystical experiences occur and technology blends with personality. The bodies of the characters will always be central to their experience of the events – the way that textures look and feel will define their daily lives. Information will somehow be God, but not a god that you can talk to, or one that listens, just a god that is so utterly beyond you that you can only hope that you can predict what it might make happen next.

Will I be right? We’ll find out next month!

I miss writing my thesis.

Interesting things round-up – today’s theme is ‘weird’

Let’s start with something smart…

What is ‘freedom’ in a society? How should we judge what this is, and whether a society is achieving it? What are the contradictions that freedom produces? Well, Daren Epstein, writing for The Foreigner – Japan does a very good job of answering those questions in a short essay about Harajuku called An Idea of Freedom. The whole site is very interesting and well-worth a browse, but that article did a better job of saying what’s worth fighting to preserve than anything I’ve seen so far. Amusingly, it’s the parts of society that are considered weird by the majority that Epstein thinks truly represent the idea of freedom.

Continuing on the thoughtful theme, here’s a great article looking back at the works of Philip K. Dick. You’ll have to sign up for a free NYTimes account to read it, but they have some interesting pieces in there so it’s definitely worth the small effort. Their daily news email is very good too. Anyway, Philip K. Dick was definitely a bit weird.

Onto something silly…

Microsoft are now saying that they might support the Blu-Ray drive in the Xbox 360. I joked about this at work a few months ago and was told by someone to not be so silly – for those who don’t know, Blu-Ray is Sony’s idea for getting high definition DVD-style media into the home. Microsoft and Sony are arch enemies because of the Playstation and Xbox brands, so this news was highly amusing to me. Maybe not weird, but pretty odd.

You have twenty seconds to comply! Samsung (of all companies) along with a Korean university have fitted up a pattern recognition rig with a 5.5 millimeter machine gun and a set of speakers… The result is just as disturbing as those images in your head right now. As if this wasn’t weird enough, halfway through the promotional video they use the music from the Pirates of the Carribean! What was going on in their heads? Surely they should have used the theme from Robocop? (UK link US link)

Probably quite a lot of you have heard of smart drugs – chemicals that make you smarter. This idea has been around for many years, but it seems that we’ve actually cracked it (crack… drugs… suit yourself…). The implications of this are really quite odd, so this could be the start of a very interesting time for humanity.

And finally… It’s not weird, but American SWAT teams really need to learn how much explosives they need to blow a door without taking out most of the hallway too.

God wants you to own guns.

He does. It says so on an odd Christian answer to Wikipedia:

Gun control refers to all laws enacted at the federal, state, and local level with the intent of placing restrictions on the right of individual private citizens to keep and bear firearms. This right is a natural right which we are endowed by our Creator with.

I wanted to link to this for two reasons. Firstly there is the absolute absurdity of the claim that God gave man the right to carry guns, which I find so dumbfoundingly bizarre that I’m not sure I can fully comprehend it. The second reason is just to share that abysmal example of sentence structure. Yes, that’s English geekery at its finest, but look at how awful it is! That second bit should read ‘This is a natural right with which we are endowed by our Creator’. If God gave us the gift of communication (which I think is a far safer claim than the right to carry guns) then that writer is going to hell… Well, that might be a bit harsh. Maybe they’ll stub toe in heaven every second Tuesday, or something like that.

Check it out for yourself here.

If you feel like getting up a good head of rage, then flick through random pages. I’ve noticed an average of 1:1 reasonable information to bigotry. See what you think!

The monkey army arises! And other Friday things.

Beware! They’re coming for us all!

Apparently playing The Sims keeps you sane (if you’re at war). Personally, making Sim replicas of your brothers in arms sounds like a short walk to insubordination, but who am I to argue? (They have guns, after all, so I won’t disagree.)

Playing computer games is good for your visual accuity! Specifically, playing action-based games (such as first-person-shooters like Halo) trains the brain to be significantly better at discerning visual patterns than non-action-gamers and non-gamers. The study doesn’t take into account the potential for eye-strain from too long staring at the screen, but it’s interesting stuff anyway!

And finally… New York is trying to ban people from using portable gaming devices, phoens, and even mp3 players while walking:

The legislation will be introduced today to ban the use of electronic gadgets, including portable game machines, BlackBerrys, mobile phones, and iPods, while crossing the road. Those who ignore the ban could face a fine of $100.

Apparently too many people are walking into the road while engaged with other things. While it’s nasty that anyone should die that way (and horrible for the drivers) I’m sure I’m not the only one that wonders if they aren’t doing the species a favour…

Don’t forget to drop by my webcomic! It’s updated every Monday and Friday.

Glowing fuel rods… Do they actually glow?

Yes, apparently they do: clicky! I’d never seen that before, and had wondered if it was a cultural myth. Apparently not! It’s rather pretty, isn’t it?

The blue glow is created by the Cherenkov effect, which describes the electromagnetic radiation emitted when a charged particle, giving off energy, moves faster than light through a transparent medium.

Huh? Faster than light? How does that work? There goes Einstein…

Anyway, the image is from a series of photos by Taryn Simon published in the New York Times this weekend. You can see a short article about them here.

Girls think differently from boys (maybe)

A feminist scientist has been a bit annoyed by her studies –

I know it is not politically correct to say this but I’ve been torn for years between my politics and what science is telling us. I believe women actually perceive the world differently from men.

Girls arrive already wired as girls, and boys arrive already wired as boys. Their brains are different by the time they’re born, and their brains are what drive their impulses, values, and their very reality.

While women are wired to get pleasure from talking, men’s brains are apparently wired to get pleasure from thinking about sex. The ‘fact’ is stated that men think about sex every 52 seconds (when I first heard this idea, it was said to be every 8 seconds – we’re obviously slowing down) while women may only think about sex once a day. Clearly these people do not know most of the women that I’ve met as an adult, several of whom could probably make a marine blush. If I was given a clicker and told to carry it around all day and use it whenever I thought about sex I would probably be constantly asking myself ‘Am I thinking about sex?’ and the correct answer would be ‘well I wasn’t, but I am now’, which would make the whole study rather pointless.

Back on topic – an Oxford professor argues against the findings: ‘If you aggregate a large number of studies you will find there is little difference between the amount men and women talk.’ Which is fair enough, except that wasn’t specifically what the original study was saying: it only argued that women get greater pleasure from talking than men do – not precisely that they do actually talk more, only that they enjoy it more when they do.

More here.

Cannibal Pelican 2: This time it’s avian

Do you remember this? A heron decided to eat a rabbit for no discernable reason. This time it really is a pelican, and it’s eating a pigeon.

See the full horror here. That has to rate as one of the most surreal images that I’ve ever seen. The BBC report describes the moment a pelican casually strolled across to a pigeon, picked it up in its beak and tried to swallow it. A 20 minute struggle ensued, before the pigeon was swallowed, head first, still flapping as it went. Ew!

I don’t know about you, but I think that ‘pelicans eating pigeons’ probably features on a big list of signs of the end-times. No doubt Channel 4 are probably preparing a ‘Top 100 signs of the Apocalypse’ TV show at the moment, in which this event will feature quite highly, just after ‘Too many “Top 100…” TV shows on television’. It’ll be hosted by Jimmy Carr or Russell Brand.

Thanks to Daria on my forums for finding the link.

What did we do before Google?

I’m working through my footnotes for my Phd at the moment, and I’ve suddenly discovered that I have references to a work by Edmund Burke from the wrong edition: my footnotes refer to the 1967 print, but by bibliography lists the 1889 edition that I’ve got sitting on my shelf (it’s great what you can find in Oxfam bookshops).

So there we have a problem: I’ve got a few page references from one edition but no idea where they appear in the edition that I have in my bibliography. The solution? Google, of course.

So, I wanted to find a couple of quotes:

I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure.

When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are, delightful, as we every day experience.

Copy and paste part of the phrase into Google, then use the ‘cached’ link to highlight where the phase appears on the page, like this, and there’s my answer: the phrase appears in section VII, so I just need to find that in my bibliographic copy of the book and I’ve got my new page number.

This still leaves the question ‘What did we do before Google?’. Today, ladies and gentlemen, I present the answer: we worked a lot harder for the same or less results.

The next question would have to be whether we’re now capable of creating better ideas and writing in more knowledgable ways because of Google, and that one is far harder to answer. I suspect the answer might be they we are not; there is only so much knowledge that we can convey and appreciate, and the ‘soundbite’ culture of academia, once an indicator of broad reading, is too easily entered into now without proper understanding of subjects. Google is the cure and the curse for academics, but at times like today I can’t help but marvel at how useful it is.

Offset your carbon with Coolingman!

The people over at Coolingman have calculated that the Burning Man festival generates around 100 tons of carbon waste, so in the spirit of ‘leave no trace’ they have set up a trust to counteract this impact. They are people after my own hearts, because their target is not only to ‘leave not trace’ but to ‘leave things better’: they are aiming to offset 110 tons of carbon.

There are three ways to do this: planting a tree (cool), donating your business’ offsets (good, but not practical for individuals), and donating to fund the offsets of environmentally friendly carbon projects (the easiest). I’ve gone for the latter, and since I’ve been to the burn twice, flying from the UK each time, I decided to donate $20, which should counter my environmental impact not only for the burn but also for a fair bit of my entire year! If you want to donate through PayPal or via credit card then there are instructions here.

Carbon neutral living is tough in the Western world, so funding groups who are counteracting it is a great way forward. We all have to take responsibility for this.

Robot dog mules are coming to destroy us all

Yep, the end is nigh. A truly uncanny robot has been created that nimbly walks on four legs. As if making the robots walk wasn’t bad enough, the creators then decide to demonstrate how stable it is by kicking it. This will surely enrage the beast, which will now proceed to destroy us in our sleep, and the only warning will be the sinister hum of the two-stroke engine.

So, you create a beast that can move over almost any terrain, patiently coming to destroy us, then what do you do? You give it guns! Admittedly, the military are only talking about using BigDog (as it’s called) to carry things, but it’s only a matter of time before some bright spark straps live weapons to BigDog’s side.

Truly, the quadropeds shall reclaim the earth. Repent now.

Cannibal pelican!

Actually it’s not a cannibal and it’s a heron, but ‘cannibal pelican’ had such a nice ring that I wanted to type it, though the truth of the matter is equally disturbing to those of a sensitive nature.

In the Netherlands a heron has been seen catching a rabbit, holding it under water to drown it, then swallowing it whole.

This type of heron has been known to eat frogs and rats, it is true, but the photographer Sprang Vianen couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw the bird creeping up on a young rabbit. The rabbit captured, it shrieked and struggled while being hung from its ear in the pelican’s mouth.

The bird the flew 50 metres to a ditch where he drowned the rabbit and, against all feeling of proportion, easily swallowed it whole.

This is just a warm up. They’re coming for us next. You have been warned.

You can see a couple of rather distressing photos of this odd moment in nature here.

Link initially found here, my translation of the article was aided by this and this.

Two views of goths

The BBC has covered a recent study with an article titled ‘Goths ‘more likely to self-harm’‘. The New Scientist has also covered a recent study of youth culture and titled their article ‘Goth subculture may protect vulnerable children‘. The titles suggest that the studies have produced opposing results, but they are both covering the same story.

The BBC’s article does counter its shock-scandal style headline with a quite reasonable article yet I can’t help but feel that the damage will have already been done.

As for the study itself, it suggests that people who have self-harmed (cutting and burning usually) are more likely to associate with the gothic ‘subculture’. The New Scientist points out, very reasonably, that it appears that people have self-harmed less after becoming involved with the non-violent and accepting goth social group and so being ‘goth’ has been of benefit to these people.

I find it amusing that the old adage of goths comes into play here, that anyone who says that they are a goth isn’t really a goth, but that’s a bit beside the point. In the study only 25 people said that they were goths, which means that the figures, while being interesting, are worth about as much as George W. Bush’s contribution to the rap music scene. I wonder if one of the people had been missing a leg if the articles would say ‘Goths more likely to lack 25% of their digits’.

Thanks to Wookiee and Novander on my forum for the links.

Aww, bless their stubborn little cotton socks

There has been a major discovery in the fossil record of evolution announced today. Several examples of a new species of fish have been found with a functioning neck and bones in its fins. This means that there is now physical evidence of the shift between sea-dwelling species and tetrapods, the main type of large animals that exist today.

Animals such as the newly discovered ‘Tiktaalik roseae’ (the name for this fish-with-nearly-legs) constitute some pretty weighty evidence on the side of evolution being factually correct. Previous to this, one of the main arguments from Creationists has been that no animals have been found that are at an intermediate stage between the major groups that we currently have (despite several examples already existing… But never mind, this is an even better one). You would think that this would be taken as a bit of a blow to the Creationists, demonstrating as it does that animals did live that were halfway between one type of being and another, but apparently not. You’ve got to love ’em really:

Duane T. Gish, a retired official of the Institute for Creation Research in San Diego, said, “This alleged transitional fish will have to be evaluated carefully.” But he added that he still found evolution “questionable because palaeontologists have yet to discover any transitional fossils between complex invertebrates and fish, and this destroys the whole evolutionary story.”

Yep, previously it was:

‘there are no transitional animals, so evolution must be wrong’

and now it’s

‘there are no transitional animals for this other bit of time, over there, you know, that bit where things were squiggly, no, no, left a bit, yeah, you haven’t got anything to cover that bit over there have you? Ha! You’re so lame! And you smell! Phew-y! You love digging up bones ‘n’ stuff, I bet you’re weird.’

Err… Well, it’s something like that anyway.