Friday, 29 August 2008

Technology is Awesome!

Worlds Fastest Masterpiece.

Isn't technology just great? I mean, seriously, its awesome. Right now I'm writing pointless babble on a software generated screen on a household device capable of performing millions of calculations a second and rendering them into visually understandable metaphors for the average human, which is in turn in constant communication with millions of similar devices all over this planet, exchanging data at near lightspeed, and all so people can download porn or illegal movies, chat on MSN, check facebook or read my irrelevant blog.
Which they do, it seems. According to my reports, this blog has been read in the UK, USA, Canada, France, Poland, Australia, Romania and Korea to date. So Hello, Howdy, Hello again, Bonjour, Powitanie, G'Day, Hallo and 여보세요, respectively.
Moors Law dictates that technology is getting more impressive at a greater rate. It used to be War that caused this, as better technology gives you a tactical advantage, and that's still the case, but now it's capitalism that seems to be the greater driver. Anyone who reads Dilbert will know how desperate people who aren't responsible for making it are for the next big technological breakthrough. Its kind of sad in a way, that so much time, energy, expense and effort goes into making something as impressive and compact as your standard mobile phone, and it's largely used by teenage girls to send messages like "Hi babe, C U L8r lolz x ;)".
But when they put their minds to it, Engineers can make things that are technologically breathtaking whilst simultaneously being fantastically pointless. As in the example at the start of the article. So much time and effort put into making something which is at best a laboured metaphor which has very short term use, because once you've seen it... But what about art? What are most works of art if not impressive things that have no use other than to exist? The fact that they were done justifies them, nothing else can be asked of it. Why should technology or science be any different? Well, Art probably won't end up accidentally producing a doomsday device, so there is that argument, but even so.
But still. The only way is up, assuming society doesn't collapse. Technology gets bigger and better, or actually smaller and faster, definitely not bigger and arguably better, depends on what you consider as 'better' I suppose. If you think something that can do more things in half the time is better, then yes. If you think something that can do the job for which it is intended with minimum fuss without breaking down for unknown reasons every ten minutes is better, then maybe not.
But all new technological gizmos must survive past birth. Tomorrow new invention could be the next iPod or the next Betamax. Although do you think the iPod was always going to be called that? My guess it was just going to be the Pod, but on the patent application it was meant to be in italics, Pod, but was written in a hurry by someone who wasn't used to keyboard shortcuts.

That's a real slow burner that one, you might chuckle to yourself later on tonight. Although you probably won't.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Super Spiders!

Really Big Spider Terrifies Family!

The cliched comical hysterical reaction of women running around screaming when presented with a small creature like a mouse or moderate sized insect is hard to escape here. "Family forced out of home by spider", as the headline reads, clearly suggests a hysterical overreaction.
Then they show you the thing. It's not pretty. The BBC article also shows pictures of one of them attacking a scorpion, just to give you a sense of perspective. They seem fairly vicious too, then. A lot of people might connect this story with the word 'Arachnophobia', which a lot of people suffer from. This is not arachnophobia, because a phobia is an irrational fear of something. Running screaming naked from the bathroom because you glimpsed what you thought was an inch long spider but turned out to be some fluff from your black socks, that's arachnophobia. Leaving your house because some hideous, potentially deadly insect from foreign climes has invaded it, that's quite rational.
The experts do their best to placate the family.

"If it is the spider they believe it is, then normally they don't attack humans, but they could give a painful bite," the spokeswoman said.

Not that reassuring actually. And the use of the word 'normally' gets me. Normally, you don't get these things in Essex. The woman's husband is a soldier stationed in Afghanistan, so they suspect it stowed away in his backpack. A logical conclusion, although I thought soldiers were meant to be quite meticulous with their backpacks and all that, surely he should have noticed this monstrosity in there? Then again, Afghanistan is an opium producing country, maybe he partook of the local produce before packing. Who knows?
But that means that, although they don't 'normally' attack humans, these spiders are 'normally' found in middle-eastern deserts, so probably won't be too at home in a semi-detached two-storey house in the cooler climate of Southern England. Cut off from it's habitat, food source and stuck in an environment where every smell, colour, shape and even geometry is alien and disturbing, I sincerely doubt this thing will be behaving 'Normally'. 'Normally' it probably doesn't even encounter humans. Leaving the house in a screaming panic is probably the wisest course of action.
And in case you needed further convincing, consider the last quote of the article.

"They identified the spider using the Internet," she said.

This spider is clearly a lot smarter than the average spider, like some arachnid Yogi bear. What the hell was it doing? Is there Spider Porn available? Wouldn't surprise me. They've been unable to locate it since, maybe it was booking tickets home? Although, where did it get the money? Part of me hopes it got paid for a guest spot on the Christmas special of Gavin and Stacey, that should liven things up a bit.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008


I seem to have caused a strange paradox with my last entry. To my shame, I didn't actually type 'Neuroscience PhD Jobs + Comedian' into Google, I just assumed it would provide no useful hits. Which it didn't really, but I admit I should have tested before assuming, like an actual scientist would. Which I am, so have no excuse.

However, if you do type that into Google, now my blog is the first thing that pops up.

But also, looking further down the page, I find that I was profiled in the prestigious Time Higher Education Supplement a few months back. I was not told or consulted about this. I don't mind at all, but you'd think someone would say something?

I suppose it's kind of reassuring that I am clearly not a fame-hungry wannabe star, seeing as I've been discussed in a national paper but am blissfully unaware. Now I'm a bit worried though, as this is like overhearing someone talking about you behind your back, but on a national scale.

Oh dear...

A Day in the life of... me.

Thought I'd go a bit personal for once, and tell you a bit about myself and what I'm doing at the moment. What's it like being the UK's only Stand-Up comedy Neuroscientist trying to write a thesis that summarises 3 years of his life? Well, it's hard to describe. But here's a run down of a typical day in my life at present. It's happening now, so it's technically news, and its got science in it, so the integrity of the Blog is maintained.

  • 7.30 am - Alarm goes off.
  • 7.50 am - Alarm goes off for 3rd time. I take the hint and get out of bed.
  • 8.13 am- Wander round flat in mild daze. Turn on PC with important thesis documents. Remember that I've already turned on laptop for similar reason. Turn off laptop, as that allows me to write on bed or comfy chair, which doesn't count as work.
  • 8.15 am - Boil Kettle. Eat fancy fruit and oat based breakfast my wife made the previous night and left in the fridge.
  • 8.27 am - Try to decide whether or not to go into work or stay home, as I'll be doing the same thing either way, the only difference is staying home means I can work in my pants.
  • 8.28 am - Check weather. Rain. Decide to stay home, taking advantage of the situation where this is an option, which may never occur again.
  • 8.57 am - Realise that writing a thesis in my pants just feels wrong. Decide to go for shower.
  • 9.04 am - Shower suddenly turns freezing cold due to problem with temperature gauge. Stand shivering for several minutes.
  • 9.15 am - get dressed and boil kettle, realising I had done so an hour ago then forgot. Curse myself for wasting energy.
  • 9.17 am - Sit down to start a proper session of thesis writing.
  • 9.34 am - Finish solitaire game, really decide to start work.
  • 9.50 am - Nothing in email inbox or any messages on Social network sites. work can begin.
  • 10.04 am - Three paragraphs done. Time for a break.
  • 10.15am - Re-read previous paragraphs, delete two as they are meaningless.
  • 11.45am - Three paragraphs done again, pretty much the same as before but with words rearranged a bit.
  • 12.05pm - Insert Bar graph
  • 12.12pm - Realise Bar Graph is wrong, remove and start again.
  • 1.23pm - Finally find relevant Excel document, re-do bar graph.
  • 1.35 pm - Realise that the changes to the graph mean the results come out differently, the result is now significant rather than non-significant. This necessitates a complete reworking of the previous two sections. Cry for a bit.
  • 2.00 pm - Funny gurgling sound. Stomach. Lunch.
  • 2.30 pm - Realise my Blog hasn't been updated for over 24 hours. Feel guilty about not doing thesis, but convince myself writing about Science is still work. Check BBC website for interesting Science news. Main story is something about snails. Decide this is too boring, decide to write about myself instead.
  • 2.36 pm - Realise that writing about myself is more boring than snails. Console myself with the fact that nobody will see it, probably.
  • 2.45 pm - Back to thesis.
  • 2.55 pm - Realise that the altered results demonstrate an exploratory strategy that could be based on awareness of simultaneous changes of spatial and temporal contexts rather than one integrated spatiotemporal context, which still suggests a system dependant on configural learning strategies. Do a little dance in awe of my brilliance.
  • 3.05 pm - Realise that this result means my original hypothesis is actually wrong. Confidence ebbs again,
  • 3.55 pm - Type " 'Jobs for PhD Neuroscientists' + Comedian " into Google: No hits. Fear creeps in.
  • 4.23 pm - Check overall progress. 2 more pages in 6 hours. Oddly pleased by this.
  • 4.56 pm - Change the font of the entire thesis. It is now 4 pages longer. This counts as progress.
  • 5.03 pm - Guilt proves too much, change font back. Think about making dinner.
  • 6.02 pm - Staring blankly at screen proves too much, headache builds. Go to kitchen. Make dinner based on usual strategy of combining ingredients found in fridge/freezer/cupboard.
  • 6.40 pm - Wife returns home after 8 hours working and 2 hour commute on train. Guilt increases.
  • 7.30 pm - Finish dinner. Return to thesis, newly motivated, and churn out 5 pages in less than an hour.
  • 8.30 pm - Re-read previous text. All gibberish. Spend another hour re-wording it.
  • 9.45 pm - Finally feel like I'm making genuine progress. Someone sends me email asking about gigs. Spend another hour in online conversation concerning this.
  • 10.50 pm - Feeling productive and tired. Churn out another 5 pages of meaninglessness which will have to be fixed when I start again tomorrow.
  • 11.10 pm - Bed.
  • 12.40 am - Fall asleep after spending the last 90 minutes thinking about the significant effect of spatiotemporal manipulations on hippocampal damaged subjects and worrying about what the hell I'm doing with my life.
And that's how we write a thesis.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Another Round up of Science Stuff

General perspective on Science Stories and whatnot:

Screw you, Icarus!

Solar powered planes, seem like a good idea to me. The Icarus thing is clearly flipped over here, as the closer the plane gets to the sun the more power it gets, and the longer it can fly. Nice. It's a military thing, which explains why they could afford the best technology and support. The company 'QinetiQ' were involved, and I was at a seminar by a representative of them once. They spent around £500,000 on their logo. Money to burn, clearly. But as with most military applications, I'm sure this will be available to the general public before long. Not sure what we'd do with lightweight planes that can stay in the air for the best part of a week. Any suggestions?

Face on, Face off!

Face transplant surgery is improving, with more successful results. We're still a long way from the John Travolta/Nicholas Cage style direct swap seen in Face Off (although a bit of that film they just skimmed over was where Travolta's character had to be slimmed down to replace Cages, but then Cage took Over Travolta's role, so he had to be fattened up, so was there some form of reverse liposuction going on?), but face transplants seem to be more of a reality all the time. It's good news for those people who suffer serious injuries obviously, but I anticipate some problems in future.
  • Who's going to donate these faces? People are reluctant enough to donate organs, but whole faces? Would they be more or less pleased about a complete stranger walking around with their visage?
  • I.D. theft is a common problem, what if this technique become freely available on the private market, and they find a way to make new faces from scratch, what's to stop people stealing your identity quite literally? From 'don't throw out old bank details' to 'just don't ever show your face to anyone'. Add to this the possibility of the propagation of human cloning and we'll be advised not to leave any DNA lying around anywhere. Maybe we'll get a future where people wander around wearing full length impermeable body suits and black bike helmets. might be funny.

Stem Cells from Teeth

You can obtain stem-cells from teeth now, apparently. That's nice, might get away from the controversy of using embryos. But now the tooth fairy seems like a legitimate career move. Can we expect genuine hard cash for kids teeth now? I've actually heard the phrase 'I'd give my eye teeth for that', will that now be a legitimate option rather than just an obscure phrase. Although a lot of the support for stem-cell research is based on the argument that they could be used to replace lost or damaged tissue from their own stem cells which won't be rejected by your body. Statistically, the one body part people are most prone to losing is teeth. But it's OK because they can make new ones from . . . wait . . .

Bloody birds, coming over here...

Because of global warming, birds are moving northwards sooner than usual, but still not fast enough. This is obviously bad for birds, but probably good for global warming proponents. Birds have specific migration patterns and behaviours, so this is bad for them overall. This suggests that birds from France may even end up in Britain t some point as the global temperature bands fluctuate. But I wonder how the BNP will react to this, because you know if this happens the tabloids will completely undermine the seriousness of it with headlines like "THOUSANDS OF FRENCH BIRDS HEAD FOR BLIGHTY". A massive mix of confusing emotions, hatred of dirty foreigners coming into our country, lust and pride combined at the thought of all the naive French ladies leaving those useless Frog men and looking for some proper British blokes, confusion at all the stereotypes coming to mind, with hairy armpits but Mediterranean passions, all to lead to confused disappointment as it's actually regarding small feathered creatures looking for food sources. Silly old Bigots.

And finally...

I don't really follow the regular news, so was surprised to such outrage as Gary Glitter re-enters the country. Do people really hate Glam Rock that much these days?
Of course, I'm aware that he's a filthy child molester. But I do question his sanity. I think he should be back in the UK, why should other countries have to deal with our perverts? Is it fine of foreign kids get horrifically abused, as long as their not good old British children? But Glitter seems to be worse than a regular paedophile, he's a smug paedophile. The article says he plans to start his singing career again. Good for him. Bare in mind this is the country where all kids have knives (apparently) and paediatricians get their offices torched because it sounds vaguely similar, I would love to see the audience at his next tour.

Also, I put the word paedophile twice (well, three times now) in this entry and mentioned child molesting a few times, so I may be getting some very questionable hits in a bit.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

How much speed do we need?

The fastest blowhard ever?

Before I discuss the above story, it put me in mind of a trailer for a film I saw at the cinema yesterday (I saw Hellboy II, which was great, I'll never look at Barry Manilow in the same way again).
The trailer was for a film called Death Race. From what I could gather, it's about a near future where the worlds major sporting event is a race to the death by prisoners in custom made heavily armed cars. It stars Jason Statham (who used to do those Kit Kat adverts) and Ian McShane (Lovejoy). There are other plot points, such as the each driver having a navigator (who is always , apparently, a laughably attractive and well figured female ex-con from a nearby women's prison with a penchant for tight revealing clothes). Cue lots of high octane thrills and explosions as armoured cars chase each other at breakneck speeds around battered highways, all guns blazing. Seriously, I could almost smell the testosterone emanating off it. i felt my IQ drop just watching the trailer.
But this film is just a logical progression of the current trend in films kicked off by 'The Fast and the Furious'. High speed, semi-naked women and only the flimsiest of justifications for any of this macho posturing.
But how far is this from real life. The above article discusses another land speed record attempt, this time in a wind powered vehicle (I'm not going to write any fart jokes, use your imagination if you need to). I applaud this attempt, especially to show the viability of renewable energy sources. Although I worry that the article doesn't state what the current wind-powered vehicle speed is. If it's something like 53mph, the macho speed freaks will be put off for life.
I hope it goes well for the guys making the attempt, it would be great if they managed it. But I've often wondered when reading things like this; Why do humans have this obsession with going fast? The Olympics at the moment are a good example, in that the majority of events boil down to 'who can do this the fastest?'. Swimming, running, cycling, sailing. There are other events which ask 'who can do this the best?' such as table tennis, boxing or gymnastics, but these generally seem to get less coverage (unless team GB might get a medal, of course, then it could be anything, even tiddlywinks).
It's obvious that people like going fast. Roller Coasters, F1, breaking the speed limit, Joyriding, all popular pastimes, but why? Surely, going fast enough to cause severe injury and/or death is a crap survival trait, so it shouldn't be seen as a plus. But then, when you think in evolutionary terms, it actually does make more sense. When being chased by a predator, those who can move the fastest survive, so they reproduce. Those who actively enjoy going fast do it more often, thus getting fitter and faster, thus being the ones who survive. People were hunters as well, same logic applies. The fastest hunters get the prey, so eat, and survive. Prey gets faster, hunters have to go faster too. Positive feedback, all of which conspires to give us a subconscious love of high velocity.
It's evolutionary logical, but is it as essential as people seem to think these days. We're always so impatient. Some people can't even be bothered to read Blogs longer than a paragraph, I bet half the people who see this have given up by now, and if you did, screw you all! If we travelled slower, it would help solve our fuel problems. Travelling 50mph rather than 70mph drastically reduces fuel consumption, but we'd get places slower. And? Everything has such a massive sense of urgency these days. Deadlines, low attention spans, instant gratification, all smacks of impatience. People seem physically offended if their Internet download time is anything less than 1mbps these days, but so what? It's probably porn anyway, how desperate can someone be to view smut?
Physics doesn't like speed. Lightspeed seems to be the universal speed limit. Granted, we're a long way from travelling that fast, but when we do reach it, maybe reality will put its metaphysical foot down and say 'enough'. But of course, then we'll discover warp drive or hyperspace, and have kids knicking starships and joyriding around that deserted nebula. Bloody kids.
But the love of speed drives so much of our society. We want it now, so whoever can give it to us faster gets our business. Maybe we need to shake this habit once and for all. Many pessimists say our society is 'hurtling towards oblivion'. Can't we stroll towards oblivion instead? Maybe well enjoy the walk so much we'll decide to not finish the journey at all.

(I was going for poignant there, not sure if it worked, but I'm in that sort of mood)

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Dolphins, Robots and all manner of other stuff.

Seems to be a lot going on right now, so I'll attempt some sort of 'news round up' science style, with 'witty' headlines like the papers do. See if you can spot the theme of the subjects (answers at the ends)

"Walking on the wild (dolphin) side!"

It turns out that Dolphins have been spotted 'Tail Walking', that thing they do in water parks after extensive training. Wild dolphins aren't meant to do this, it doesn't really serve a purpose. What's more interesting is how they're all learning it. Experts site this as an example of cultural development and behaviour, which is nice. On the other hand, could this be another example of global warming? Tail walking looks like someone trying to lower themselves into a hot bath, maybe the water's just too warm. Or maybe the dolphins are just getting ready to leave the planet. Maybe they're aware of some impending apocalypse? But that would be silly....

"Martian Robot keeps on rolling"

The British scientists have unveiled the next generation of Martian robots. That is, robots that are going to Mars, not robots that have come from there, although that would be more impressive. These robots are incredibly versatile, robust, and can cover any terrain and incline. As someone who grew up in the 80's, when radio controlled vehicles struggled to work on carpet, lasted about 3 minutes before needing recharging and lost signal if they went more than 10 metres away, I find this all very impressive. I have just a few questions. Namely-
  • considering the amount of time and money spent on these robots, are they going to make sure the spacecraft works this time? Or are they just going to strap it to an over sized firework again and hope for the best?
  • Is this robot going to be controlled by standard computational means, or by a few blobs of rat neurones? (See previous blogs) I just wonder which works out cheaper.
  • Looking at the video of the robot in the article, it appears to be plugged into something via a cable. Seeing as it'll be sent to Mars eventually, isn't this going to be an issue? Imagine how much they'll have to spend on extension wires.

"Sick as a Pedigree Dog"

Apparently, the intense in-breeding of pedigree dogs has given them a wide variety of health problems. Duh? This is basically eugenics on a domestic scale. Inbreeding = Genetic defects, its a very well known fact and it's weird for people to think it doesn't affect any other species. Of course it does, why wouldn't it? Mongrels are what you want, all messy and brilliant and robust. It seems to be a persistent effect that some of the most attractive people in the media are mixed race, people subconsciously notice a more varied gene mix perhaps? But the dog thing is stupid. I blame Paris Hilton and her lot, designer dogs sort of enrage me. Apparently, some of these handbag bound animals can't be left outside on their own as large birds might take them. That's not a dog! Even rats won't allow themselves to just be snatched by birds.

"Jade Goody has Cancer (which isn't funny, of course)"

Jade Goody has cervical cancer, which is terrible. I'd be a horrible person if I joked about that. . . . . no, I won't. Although.... no, no, too soon. It's a terrible thing for anyone to have, and I would never say she deserves it. I would probably say there are many people who deserve it less, if I thought I'd get away with it, but that's by the by. She has had such bad luck in life already, I mean she's only made millions by being a professional idiot, after she worked so hard to improve herself and all that. I'm sure she must have done at some point, who would be content with just being an ignorant laughing stock who's very position as a 'role model' lowered the national IQ severely (I assume)? But then she does have two kids, she lives for them apparently, and shows this by leaving them with carers while she travels the globe trying to salvage her reputation.
Hopefully, she'll beat this illness and end up justifying her success. If anything gives hope to other sufferers then that's good in my book. And after that blatant cop-out, I wonder if it's possible to establish a link between reality TV shows and cancer? They did with cigarettes, maybe we can do it with this? Then they'll have to ban them and make some decent sodding telly for a change.

AND THE THEME IS... Dolphins, Robots, Dogs, Jade Goody = All are often wrongly attributed with possessing human-like intelligence.

Let the backlash begin (assuming anyone reads this, which I doubt)

Monday, 18 August 2008

Prince Charles, the Green Man and why is opinion so important?

Prince Charles has to back up wild claims

Apparently, Prince Charles recently decided to voice off about GM crops, deciding that they are very bad. He would know, obviously. I don't actually dislike Prince Charles, he seems reasonably decent for someone who's had the upbringing he's had, as well as being vilified by the media because he wasn't a younger blonde woman. Controversial? Not any more, surely. You'll hear worse than that on the comedy scene, believe me.

But in what way is Bonnie Prince Charlie an authority on this? I'm sure he's well read, but not to the point where he has the authority to condemn a whole field of potentially world-problem-solving science. Does he have doctorates in genetic engineering and ecology? And I know he's a royal, so honorary ones don't count. But because he's a high profile public figure, his opinion is seen as a genuine argument in the debate against GM foods. I won't even attempt to provide a solution, there's arguments on both sides. GM crops could well save countless lives by producing sturdier crops and minimise environmental damage by reducing the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides. On the other hand, we know what happens when a particularly sturdy organism gets involved with native, less robust ones. The latter tend to be wiped out. Think about Grey squirrels, and their not even GM (or are they...? No, what would be the point? GM squirrels would be bright blue or something, that would be interesting at least).

But it's the way that peoples opinions and beliefs get given such credibility when based on little or no evidence. Freedom of speech is fine. But if I went round telling people that pot-pourri caused depression, I imagine I'd be treated with some scorn. Even if I had the evidence, in that my mother has pot-pourri on her coffee table and when I went to visit her she was in a bad mood. It's my opinion, based on 'logic', but it's clearly wrong. And yet if enough people agreed with me, we'd probably be able to get an investigation done. And that's what worries me, that people who make enough noise can easily harm progress. The religious right tend to do it often, as do organic food brigade. I've said before I want Gm only sections in supermarkets. Imagine it, tomatoes the size of beach-balls, self peeling potatoes, blue bananas, it'll be great.

This is how I think. Which is probably why I was never going to completely enjoy the Green Man Festival.
It's a prestigious festival with a huge fan base, so I was lucky to be allowed to perform there, but with hindsight I was never going to be that popular. Here are several 'highlights' of my visit.
  • I assumed waist-deep mud was an Glastonbury only phenomenon. Apparently, this year was Green Mans turn. When I got home I was in two minds as to whether I should wash my trainers or bake them for a few hours and get some novelty matching plant pots. Somewhere for the daffodils, at least.
  • When portaloos are filled with mud, your mind instantly jumps to the worst possible conclusion.
  • At one point we wandered into an oddly quiet area with tents offering massages and other weird things, then discovered we were in the 'Healing Zone'. My friend Dan then started coughing. Enough said.
  • It speaks volumes about the audience for such an event where, in the middle of a field in Wales, amongst the several food tents, you could get Thali (an assortment of Indian dishes in small amounts favoured by the South Indian community), several kinds of Paella, but you couldn't buy chips for love nor money.
  • The definition of optimism is a solar-powered stage set-up in a muddy field in probably the most overcast country on Earth in the middle of a downpour.
  • Apparently, if a band doing a Ceilidh at 7pm decide they want to do one at 3.30pm as well, they get priority over the comedy acts who've travelled all that way for no money who were already booked in that slot. A prolonged, 40 min Ceilidh with instructions barked by an alarming androgynous lead 'singer' also leaves the audience area (a bit of field) incredibly muddy and the potential audience knackered. So cheers for that you arrogant pseudo-Celtic bastards.
  • Someone doing an analytical science-based comedy set isn't going to go down well when you consider the stage was not twenty feet away from a stall selling 'healing' crystals and a vegan cafe teepee.
  • Apparently, a performers arm band confuses people on security to the point where you can pretty much go where you like. This is useful.
But despite all this, I actually had a good time. Not my thing though, festivals, and I can't really see the appeal. But then I've never been into music and mind-bending drugs. nor am I a fan of holding in my bodily waste all weekend, although this may still be preferable to using portaloos. And at least now, somewhere in London, a lovely young actress named Jessica has a very interesting story about the generosity of Welsh people who used to work with dead bodies, which I'm part of.

If you can, go see Moll Flanders at the Southwark Playhouse in London Bridge. It's a cool venue, sort of like a big Air-raid shelter. And tell Jessica (don't know her surname) that dean and Dan the Welsh comics sent you. She should look suitably freaked out, which should be quite amusing for a minute or two.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

The Cyborgs are coming

Rat brain controls robots

There are just too many issues brought up by this experiment. Basically, researchers have taken neural cells from a rat foetus and connected them to a robot that navigates via sonar so they can be used to control its movements with the ultimate aim of simulating loss of memory in the neurones in an attempt to study the mechanisms of Alzheimer's disease.

Got all that?

Several questions are raised in this report, for me at least. Since when is it so straightforward to connect brain cells to machines? How do rat neurones know how to interpret sonar signals? Isn't it impressive enough to have made a bio-mechanical hybrid without justifying it by using it for Alzheimer's research?

All that. Actually, several aspects are explained in the article/video. But they do say they intend to disrupt the neuronal links that form (yes, the neurones are actually learning stuff via this experiment, that's the point). They "plan to disrupt the memories in a bid to recreate the gradual loss of mental faculties seen in diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's". Maybe I'm being dense, but I'm not sure how useful this recreation will be, as the actual cause of memory and functioning breakdown in these diseases is caused by neurones dying off, and the cause of this is yet to be 100% confirmed for either disease. Also, the neurones underlying these diseases rarely, if ever, go through a phase where they're removed from the body, kept alive via artificial means and used to control a sonar equipped robot. Any results obtained from these experiments will be tricky to generalise.

But it's impressive Science nonetheless, albeit the sort that gets the general public all twitchy. Taking the brains out of foetal rats, building what it effectively a cyborg, this sort of thing tends to unnerve people.

I was quite unnerved myself when they demonstrated monkeys using robotic arms. The science was very impressive, that didn't bother me, it was the fact that monkeys tend to be aggressive, vicious little sods, so giving them control over super-strong robot arms is just asking for trouble. Seeing as they're lab animals, I imagine the first thing they'd do is escape. And who's going to be the first person who suffers a fractured skull after being hit by a monkey turd flung at supersonic speeds?

I guess it's only a matter of time before we can get working mechanical implants in humans. Then who knows what'll happen? The 2012 Olympics might be a lot more interesting than we expect.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

All hail the Whale!

Whales no longer endangered, although some are.

Yet another demonstration of the fact that, if you want any good news at all these days, you've got to go to the Science stories. Apparently it's not just global temperatures and incidences of knife crime that are on the increase these days, Humpback Whales are on the up as well.

This is particularly significant for me, as when I was in primary school, our headmaster told us Humpback Whales and Blue Whales were extinct. And I believed him. I was 7, why wouldn't I? But, as it turns out, he was wrong. I'm not sure if he was a pessimistic environmentalist (rare in the 80's) who was just preparing us for what he thought was inevitable, or that he just enjoyed upsetting children. After discussions with my oldest friends, it does seem that some of his school assemblies involved stories and parables that were hideously racist, so it's probably the latter.

This is why when my wife (then my new girlfriend) told me she'd seen Humpbacks during her travels around Australia, I got incredibly excited and demanded to know if she'd told the papers. She hadn't because seeing Humpbacks wasn't that unusual. I was 19 at the time, this was a revelation for me. Similar thing happened when I saw a Blue Whale on Attenborough's 'Blue Planet' documentary.

So Humpbacks are no longer endangered. This is nice. Bad news for krill, obviously, but who cares about them? They aren't mammals, it's only bad when mammals start dying out, everyone knows that. Racism is becoming less common in human society, but speciism is rife. Although, it's our own particular genus of species that we favour, so, genusism?

But considering the sheer breathtaking magnitude, the mad evolutionary history and awe inspiring characteristics of whales, how come they generally have such dull names. It's the biggest creature on Earth that has EVER existed, can communicate in ways we can't fathom, dozens of metres long, warm blooded in the freezing ocean, and we name it the Blue Whale. Except it isn't that blue, not really. And even if it was, wouldn't that be the last thing you notice? Were they first spotted by a rather nonplussed fisherman?

"Captain, there's a slightly blue whale off the port bough"

"Let's take a look at- JESUS CHRIST!"

Or something like that. But it's persistent. The Killer Whale, sounds 'cool' but marine biologists aren't really known for preferring 'cool' labels. The Humpback whale, again essentially accurate, but kind of misses the point. The Melonhead whale, self explanatory. The Southern Right whale, named after a map reference? The Sperm whale, I really don't want to know.

Whales are sometimes villains, don't forget. Moby Dick, the White Whale. I've seen white whales, Belugas I think they're called, not much bigger than dolphins. Captain Ahab was a wimp, clearly.

But the scarcity of data concerning the population of most whale species shows us some very important things. Mainly, that we are not as all knowing as we like to think, there's plenty left to be discovered. That creatures so large can still elude us today, it seems unthinkable but it happens. There's plenty left to be found out.

And what does this do to the hunting rights? Can they be hunted again, or should the ban stay in place indefinitely? I'm all for the latter, but if humpbacks keep reproducing, how long before they're filling up the place? They're already a shipping hazard in some Australian ports, which is an excellent image despite the chaos it causes. Australians do really good swearing.

And finally, if Whales do keep increasing in number, what does this do to the global obesity pandemic? Given the amount of their body weight that is just blubber, they've got to make a significant contribution to the statistics, right? Maybe that's what killed them off in the first place, wasn't hunting or global warming, but too much cholesterol?

That's another thing, if swimming is meant to be the best form of exercise, why are whales so fat?

(Further to this, here's a 'similar' argument from Derek and Clive. This isn't safe for kids, but it's very funny)

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Dean's Problem Page

As I discussed with Horoscopes, Agony Aunts and Problem Pages are another subcategory of modern media where people solicit and accept advice from individuals who don't seem logically qualified to do so. Most agony aunts use life experience as their credentials for what they do. But I'm actually in favour of this, because, with the obvious exception of psychiatrists and their colleagues, most scientists aren't really the sort of people you'd want to go to with personal problems. Agony aunts, by and large, tell people what they feel they want or need to hear, scientists deal with hard data and facts. People with personal problems generally don't like facts, they want empathy. Science doesn't really do empathy, unless it needs to be accounted for as a control variable or something along those lines.
Scientists would make awful agony aunts, as they'd base their advice on the information provided, rather than make intuitive leaps or guesses. I'm a scientist specialising in neuroscience, so I've decided to write a horrible advice column. Please feel free to send me problems or issues to 'solve' (fictional if possible, I don't want to indirectly hurt anyone) and I'll post an answer in later blogs. This might even be published too.

Dr Dean’s Problem Page

100% Honesty, Because He Couldn't Care Less

(All questions shamelessly stolen from

Dear Dean

This is really embarrassing but when I'm around strangers or boys I get shaky hands. I've recently moved and need to find a job but I'm scared to in case I get shaky. I also haven't made any friends because of it! Is there anything you can suggest? I hate it! I've lost all my confidence. Please help? E

Dean says

Sounds like early onset Parkinson’s disease. At least I assume its early onset, you haven’t said how old you are, so I assume you’re under 60. You might need to see a doctor straight away and the get relevant medication. But even if it is just nerves, maybe you should say its Parkinson’s anyway? People will feel guilty about not talking to you then, so you’ll have plenty of friends. It did wonders for Michael J. Fox’s career.

Dear Dean

I was bullied out of my post that I really loved and put on the redeployment list. But at the moment I'm working in a job that I hate. My wages have dropped and I have to pay out money to travel 30 miles a day. Please help me. It's really depressing me as I have no help ... F

Dean says

I’d really need to hear both sides of the story before making judgments. Maybe you’re one of those office suck-ups who complain about everything but don’t do any work? If so, you probably had it coming. You’re clearly a whiner, just by the fact that you’ve written to me. 30 miles a day? Bless! My wife has to travel nearly 100 miles and she just gets on with it. But if you really must do something about it, try cocaine. All the high-flying business men do it (hence the name high-flying, I think), and it’ll give you the aggression and false confidence to overcome bullying. I know it’s illegal and immoral and can ruin your life, but your life’s clearly not going that well as it is.

Dear Dean

I have liked this boy for a long time. And last week my best friend went on a school holiday with him. Now they are back. She told me she fancies him and they've become boyfriend and girlfriend. She did ask me if I was all right about them going out. I said, "Yes, I'm fine" - but I'm not. I'm really upset because she knows how much I fancy him, I have to pretend I'm fine but inside it's really killing me seeing them hold hands and hug. I don't know whether to tell her the truth, but I'm scared of upsetting her and her dumping him because of me. Please advise on what to do? Thank you. M

Dean says

Who is this guy? Why does he have women falling about to get with him? You’re in school, so I assume it’s for some incredibly superfluous reason. Is he on the football team, or has he got a car or something? Either way, he is most likely a complete tool and not worthy of your time. You’re too young to appreciate what makes a real man, which is mainly intelligence, wit and a receding hairline (a sign of great virility). Glasses help too, only the coolest guys can get away with them. But if you must tell your friend how you feel, have a sleepover then settle it with a pillow fight, preferably while wearing skimpy pyjamas. Invite the guy and let him watch and he’ll probably end up preferring you as well. Just don’t ask why.

Dear Dean

I'm in a relationship. My boyfriend told me I try too hard. Is he going to finish with me? K

Dean says

Seriously, what am I meant to do with this? You’re clearly not trying too hard with this letter, are you! In what context did he tell you this? Were you trying to open a jar of pickles? Or were you engaged in physical activities, in which case trying hard is usually a good thing. Maybe he was teaching you to play Mario Kart and you were having difficulty in mastering the corners using the break and accelerate trick. I have no way of knowing, so any advice I give will be completely random. So, is he going to finish with you? Yes, because you’re an idiot.

Friday, 8 August 2008


A lot of people believe in horoscopes. They shouldn't, but they do. As has been demosntrated several times in the past, Horoscopes are just a lot of vague generalisations that, by sheer law of averages, will prove accurate for some people. But there you go, they're generally harmless enough, I don't agree with astologers raking in money from gullible people, but then they don't offer to cure illnesses like so many other charlatans, so leave them be.

But a lot of cynical people do rant about how stupid they are. But would you want some complete stranger knowing the details of your life? Would you be happy, knowing that via some paranormal system your entire existence is one long 'Big Brother' series? Imagine if horoscopes were real, wouldn't that be worse.

As part of a potential spoof newsletter a friend of mine is putting together, I wrote my own horoscope, without the generalisation. Statistically, it'll still apply to some people.


“Worryingly Precise” (South Wales Gazette)

  • ARIES: When you go to Tescos on Tuesday for a few essential groceries, they will cost £12.46. But after you leave you will remember that you didn’t buy milk, and will have to decide whether to catch the next bus or go back for it. Go get it. Black coffee isn’t so bad, but dry porridge is just oats, and you are not a horse.

  • TAURUS: Friday is your mother’s birthday, but you will still forget even though I’ve just reminded you. Take her a bigger than usual bouquet of flowers for your usual Sunday visit. Say you didn’t want to risk them getting damaged by delivery. She’ll still be a bit suspicious, so buy her a bottle of her favourite Brandy as well. It’s the one with the green label in the fat round bottle and smells of lighter fluid. Don’t bother with the expensive stuff, she’ll just knock it back after you leave either way.

  • GEMINI: On Saturday, you will go to a pub quiz. The answers you won’t know are as follows. 3 - Al Pacino in Scarface. 8 - The Warsaw Pact. 17 - Buzz Aldrin. 22 – Streets of Philadelphia (not just Philadelphia, Streets of Philadelphia, people always forget that). 30 – Paul Ince. 39 – Monte Video. You’ll come second, beaten by that team of teenage kids, all of whom are friends of that one who looks a lot like the landlord.

  • CANCER: That phone number you were looking for, for the guy who said he could fix your shower for cheap? It’s in the inside pocket of your suit jacket. You hung it up in the spare room cupboard.

  • LEO: That itch you keep getting? It is what you think it is, go get yourself checked. And if you stopped picking up women in that pit of a club at 3am this wouldn’t happen, would it!

  • VIRGO: LOOK OUT! Gah! Why don’t you listen? Take more care when you’re out and about. What idiot adjusts their iPod settings when taking a short cut through a building site?

  • LIBRA: That promotion you’re hoping for will go to Brian, the suck up. But don’t worry, in 3 months they’ll find ‘dodgy’ files on his office PC and sack him, and you’ll take over. Don’t get smug though, it’s a hard job and don’t forget you’re a lazy git.

  • SCORPIO: When choosing your holiday on Thursday, avoid the Dominican Republic. It’s a nice place, but the hotel you’ll end up in has been lying about its hygiene certificates, and you’ll get food poisoning. £600 to spend 5 days on the bog? No thanks.

  • SAGGITARIUS: When driving to work tomorrow, let that guy in the black Mercedes pull out. I know he seems like a smug yuppy who’s had enough good luck in life already, but he works at the bank you’ll be trying to get a loan from later in the day, and he’ll recognise you and help you get approved. You’ll still blow it all on that business venture though; nobody wants ‘Police Academy’ memorabilia.

  • CAPRICORN: In the pub on Friday, don’t eat any of the peanuts or you’ll die. Yes, you are allergic. No, I know you haven’t been before, but sometimes it develops later in life. No, I don’t know why, I’m not a doctor. Fine, don’t believe me, eat some and find out for yourself. Hah! Don’t want to risk it? Thought not.

  • AQUARIES: Despite all your efforts, everyone knows that you’ve been secretly sleeping with the woman who works in the café across the road. Although everyone, including myself, would like to know why. She must be 20 years older than you. Is that what you’re into?

  • PISCES: Your husband is cheating on you with his boss’ secretary. Because you haven’t slept together in 4 years, and all you do is moan about housework and people you don’t like. Just cut the whingeing, show him some affection and it’ll be fine. Yes, my wife is a Pisces, what are you implying? How can you say I look guilty? You can’t even see me. Can you?...

Please let me know if these come true for any of you.

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