Thursday, 27 August 2009

I am the egg man

When it's tea time and your toddler refuses any form of nourishment on offer, only a new breed of superhero can save the day. Holy albumen, it's Eggy Man! Thank you Eggy Man, with your super powers of novelty and distraction, you've saved tea time!

Sadly, Eggy Man is useless when it comes to defeating super villains armed with kryptonite, penguin costumes and the like, but fortunately we don't get much of that sort of thing here in Newport Pagnell.

Monday, 17 August 2009


Here are three passages from Alan Sokal which say some important things about politics, evidence, decision-making and clear thinking. I'm indebted to the Salty Current blog for reproducing them and to Butterflies and Wheels for drawing them to my attention.

Here Sokal defines his terms:

I stress that my use of the term “science" is not limited to the natural sciences, but includes investigations aimed at acquiring accurate knowledge of factual matters relating to any aspect of the world by using rational empirical methods analogous to those employed in the natural sciences. (Please note the limitation to questions of fact. I intentionally exclude from my purview questions of ethics, aesthetics, ultimate purpose, and so forth.) Thus, “science" (as I use the term) is routinely practiced not only by physicists, chemists and biologists, but also by historians, detectives, plumbers and indeed all human beings in (some aspects of) our daily lives. (Of course, the fact that we all practice science from time to time does not mean that we all practice it equally well, or that we practice it equally well in all areas of our lives.)

Here he is on the conflict between a broadly scientific approach to truth and some other approaches which have been tried from time to time - with apologies to the late Stephen Jay Gould, I agree with Sokal that the magisteria of science and religion do overlap to a significant extent:

The affirmative side of science, consisting of its well-verified claims about the physical and biological world, may be what first springs to mind when people think about “science"; but it is the critical and skeptical side of science that is the most profound, and the most intellectually subversive. The scientific worldview inevitably comes into conflict with all non-scientific modes of thought that make purportedly factual claims about the world. And how could it be otherwise?

And here he is on the political implications of the scientific worldview:

The critical thrust of science even extends beyond the factual realm, to ethics and politics. Of course, as a logical matter one cannot derive an “ought" from an “is". But historically - starting in the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe and then spreading gradually to more or less the entire world - scientific skepticism has played the role of an intellectual acid, slowly dissolving the irrational beliefs that legitimated the established social order and its supposed authorities, be they the priesthood, the monarchy, the aristocracy, or allegedly superior races and social classes.

Now that's a credo I could happily subscribe to - or, to borrow some more inappropriately religious language:

And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

John 8:32

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Celebrity news

Wow, I'm starstruck! I've just discovered that the guy who wrote the title track of Michael Jackson's Thriller album went to my dad's old school. His name's Rod Temperton. I'm just waiting for Heat and OK magazines to beat a path to my door and start a bidding war for my celebrity memoirs. His other songwriting credits include Boogie Nights and Yah Mo Be There - I don't think they'll sound quite the same now I know they were written by a bloke from Cleethorpes. Funny old world, isn't it?

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Consider the lilies, not the anti-speedboat bazooka

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.

Matthew 6:28

Continuing busyness = light blogging. An odd couple of reports in the news did catch my attention in the past week, though. The first was about researchers at Imperial College, London, who have been given £1 million to study photosynthesis in plants, and work out how humans might mimic the process in order to generate renewable, carbon neutral fuels. The Guardian says:

According to James Barber, a biologist at Imperial College London and leader of the artificial leaf project, if artificial photosynthesis systems could use around 10% of the sunlight falling on them, they would only need to cover 0.16% of the Earth's surface to satisfy a global energy consumption rate of 20 terawatts, the amount it is predicted that the world will need in 2030. And unlike a biological leaf, the artificial equivalent could be placed in the arid desert areas of the world, where it would not compete for space agricultural land...

For domestic purposes, Dan Nocera, a chemist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has calculated that using artificial leaf to split a few litres of water a day into hydrogen and oxygen would be enough to supply all a home's energy needs.

It's real blue skies research, with any benefits decades away and no guarantee of success. I originally saw the article on Slashdot Science and some of the comments at Geek Central hint at the sort of complexities and difficulties which don't get into science reporting in the mainstream press:

This is not an announcement of an advance, it is an announcement of intention to BEGIN research. Not new.

Photosynthesis has traditionally been one of the "hard" problems to solve. These guys are going to figure it out for 1 million pounds and then use it to produce fuel? I'll put my money on cold fusion first.

Certain steps in the photosynthetic process are very efficient, but the fact that only part of sunlight is photosynthetically active, the fact that plants don't process all light that hits them, and that not all energy they produce goes into biomass, generally limits the total biomass yield to 3-6%. Food crops generally yield between a fraction of a percent and a couple percent of the solar energy that hits them as food, but practical growth limitations make that even lower (by a good margin). To give an example of how that comes into play, sugarcane is a rare photosynthesis exception, at about 8% efficiency turning sunlight to biomass, but only 0.13% solar efficiency [] to ethanol. That's 4000 liters per hectare of 225W/m^2 insolation land. That's 7.1e13 joules of solar energy to prduce 9.36e10 joules of ethanol. Awful efficiency, no?

Still, they are making a stab at answering a big, hard question about how the humble lilies, (not to mention blades of grass, dandelions, oak trees, aspidistras and any other green plant you care to mention) produce energy at ambient temperatures from sunlight, water and dirt. If and when humans are able to produce useful amounts of energy in an analogous way, I'd be highly impressed. One comment I wholeheartedly agree with is:

Photosynthesis has traditionally been one of the "hard" problems to solve. These guys are going to figure it out for 1 million pounds and then use it to produce fuel?

A big, fundamental problem and the resources thrown at it are chickenfeed. Never mind fundamental research and thinking big, though - it seems that if you want the people who hold the purse strings to start writing you blank cheques in these recessionary times, you need to be in the scaremongering industry. Oh yes, the War On Terror - surely nobody could be so unpatriotic as to question the wisdom of any money spent on protecting Her Majesty's subjects against this horrific (if remote) threat:

Security Minister Lord West said: "The UK currently faces a real and serious threat from terrorism and we need to utilise our position as a world leader in science and technology to counter this.

Be afraid - be very afraid. Cheque books at the ready, chaps:

A real-life "Dragon's Den" for inventors with ideas for anti-terror gadgets has been launched by the Government.

Ministers want scientists who think their latest invention could be turned against alQaida to come forward.

The experts could act like fictional boffin "Q" from the James Bond films and millions of pounds could be available to fund the right product [my italics].

Ideas already made real include a maritime "stinger" able to stop a terrorist speedboat.

Police in pursuit will fire the rocket-propelled net to disable the terrorists' boat's propeller.

I love the James Bond reference - I strongly suspect that these devices, if they actually come into service after the inevitable time and cost over-runs will be all too James Bond-like. And that's a problem because James Bond isn't real. The films are entertainment and not even remotely similar to real life. In a film, there's nothing wrong with a little willing suspension of disbelief. Take the ejector-seat-equipped Aston Martin in Goldfinger (probably the best ever Bond film). It provides an entertaining bit of action in a film which you're not meant to take seriously or think about too deeply. In real life, the cost, impractiality and limited usefulness of such a piece of kit would become apparent before it even reached the back of the envelope stage of development.

The rocket-launched anti-speedboat net isn't quite as daft, but it's getting there. It's bad enough governments using the threat of terror to scare everyone silly and keep them in line, but when they're ready to start flinging scarce money at elaborate fantasy gimmicks like this, it really seems as if they take the rest of us for idiots. I hope it's just another silly season story. Silly season or not Admiral Lord West, appointed to scare us all witless about the terror menace, appears to have taken his James Bond fantasy to a new level, adding the girls to his guns and gadgets wet-dream:

Listeners to the BBC's Today programme this morning had the pleasure of a report from Horsea Island in Portsmouth harbour, where the admiral was overseeing tests of a "futuristic bazooka" intended to stop speedboats without harming their occupants. The idea is that such technology might be used to tackle kamikaze boat-bomb attackers like those who struck the USS Cole nearly nine years ago in Yemen.

Asked whether it might not, in such a situation, be appropriate to open fire with lethal weapons on a boat refusing orders to stop, Lord West said this wasn't always appropriate.

"Lets say now we're off Weymouth in 2012 and we're doing the Olympic games, and we suddenly find a boat," he told the Beeb, adding that there were "stupid individuals" about at such times - offering as an example "a bunch of topless lovelies heading around having had too much to drink".

In your dreams, you silly man.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Ghost train

As I've mentioned before I don't like the underlying message of the Thomas The Tank Engine stories. Parental disapproval counts for nothing, though, and my son loves them. His collection of die cast trains from the series has become his favourite thing ever - toy cars are so last month. Anyway, here's a sinister mashup of Thomas The Tank Engine and the late Michael Jackson, posted by some creative genius on YouTube.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Jazzed up Bach and Bached up Jazz

Here's something rather splendid - proof that the greatest music defies genres and laughs in the face of pigeonholes.

And speaking of cross-genre brilliance, I think I previously posted a link to late, incomparable Nina Simone on YouTube, performing Love Me or Leave Me. That was a performance of such sparkling brilliance, it deserves another hearing. In particular, listen for the way the piano playing morphs from jazz into a baroque Bach-like display of musical fireworks. Breathtaking. A potted biography calls her:

A protest singer; a jazz singer; a pianist; an arranger and a composer, Nina Simone is a great artist who defies easy classification. She is all of these: a jazz-rock-pop-folk-black musician.

All of these as well as a civil rights activist and classical musician, trained at New York's Julliard School of Music. A huge talent and an inspiration.