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Laurie Pycroft
10 March 2010 @ 06:14 pm
First, neuroscientists have managed to induce a second critical period of visual development in mice through the transplantation of foetal neurons. Very interesting stuff.

If you haven't seen it, watch Ok Go's new video- "This Too Shall Pass". Seriously, it's fucking awesome. One of the best Rube-Goldberg Machines I've ever seen.

Also worth a watch is the "official" one.
Once you've seen those, give this Gizmodo article a read. Has a good interview about the band's videos as well as an impressive making-of video about their excellent "WTF?".

Also, I got a new netbook recently- an Asus Eee 1008HA- and have reviewed it) on Amazon, if you're interested. This would be my third Eee PC, with the first having its screen smashed by a little metal thing thrown through the air, and the second one recently died after slowly breaking down following my spilling amaretto on it. With any luck, this one will last longer, or at least until I get a good quality laptop in preparation of my attending university.

Finally, interesting and amusing blog post from the ex-CEO of Sun Microsystems on the topic of frivolous patent suits.
Laurie Pycroft
01 March 2010 @ 11:58 am
Already, nobody in their right mind (who doesn't have a direct financial incentive as the recording industry does) could possibly be in favour of the "Digital Economy Bill"- some crackpot piece of legislation which has been hanging around for a while now, dripping foul mucus over everything it touches. Among other things, it "extends the role of Ofcom" and "imposes obligations on internet service providers to reduce online copyright infringement", both of which are invariably fucking awful ideas. What's gotten me pissed off today, however, is the revelation that the bill would essentially ban open WiFi connections operated by small businesses, universities, libraries, etc, forcing them to either cut the connection, manage massive amounts of paperwork themselves, or switch to one of those shitty restrictive services like "The Cloud". I adore being able to use public WiFi, and businesses that offer it are far more likely to receive my custom. Tying them down with red tape if they want to use free WiFi to attract custom helps nobody except possibly a very small group of copyright holders, and if anything is liable to harm the economy by discouraging people to go out and spend.
Laurie Pycroft
17 February 2010 @ 01:08 am
(Insert vaguely sincere apology for infrequency of updates)

It seems that I do most of my writing on here when procrastinating from other things I should be doing, primarily school-work. If this is the case, one should expect my blogging frequency to skyrocket come Autumn when I start at university and have much greater amounts of work to be avoiding.

In other news, has anyone else been to the Steampunk exhibition at the Oxford Museum of the History of Science? I visited last week, and thoroughly enjoyed it. There isn't a huge number of pieces on display, but the ones that are there are truly wonderful, and they've set up a room of real historical scientific devices with a Steampunk aesthetic, which is pretty awesome. The exhibition is only on until this Sunday, so if you're interested it's probably worth visiting now.

Also worth noting is this site, from which UK students can purchase significantly discounted legit copies of various software, including Windows 7 Professional upgrade edition for £37. At that price, it's hard to pass up the prospect of a fresh Windows install, of which my desktop is in serious need.
Laurie Pycroft
25 January 2010 @ 09:21 pm
So, I woke up about 20 minutes ago (yes, I know- my sleep schedule's a bit buggered), picked up my laptop and decided to start the day by checking the news. This is rarely a good plan, as the news has a tendency to either depress or anger me.

Some thinktank called the "New economics foundation" is insisting that economic growth cannot occur unless we want the earth to die in a massive fireball. I find this unconvincing. It seems to me that more wealth is needed to ensure that people in poorer countries such as China (i.e those who are likely to be producing the bulk of the emissions in coming decades) have access to environmentally friendly products rather than the cheap diesel cars they're currently likely to want to buy. Also, why the hell is nuclear power a "potentially dangerous distraction"?

Apparently the braindead fucksticks at Revenue & Customs are unable to get the tax codes right. I don't understand their shit. Apparently, I'm in tax code "BR", whatever the hell that means, assuming that the letter they sent me wasn't a pack of wild lies. Invariably, they'll end up taking more than they "meant to" (totally by accident, you understand- it's not like they deliberately take an extra £50 here and there in the hope that some people won't bother paying it back) and I'll have to go grovelling to the almighty taxman so that he might deign to repay a small part of the cash he stole. Either that, or I won't file some form I was never made aware of, and suddenly find myself owing thousands and facing threat of prosecution if I don't immediately hand over my worldly goods. Pricks.

Possibly the single most evil individual ever to stalk the earth, Jeremy Kyle, is trying to break into the US which, I suspect, is one of the signs of a coming apocalypse. Jeremy is quoted as saying "This show isn't about me", which is clearly a deluded lie as the show is called "The Jeremy Kyle" show, and throughout it Mr Kyle relishes reminding the participants that it's his show and is, in fact, his name hanging from the ceiling in lights. In fairness, the programme is somewhat watchable for the first 15 minutes or so, while it's still amusing to laugh at the degenerates moping around the stage, and at Jeremy's bi-polar theatrical performance. Slowly, however, the realisation dawns that these are real (albeit probably very broken) people screaming at each other on the stage, and the ringmaster is just as mental as they are. It's advisable to turn off the TV before the 30-minute mark, otherwise there's a risk of being sucked into the vortex of despair that is The Jeremy Kyle Show and find yourself weeping softly in the foetal position before the demented bingo fox appears for a final time to indicate the last ad-break.

On the bright side, David Nutt has started his new Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs (ISCD), an alternative to the thoroughly useless ACMD. I guess that's something to be pleased about.
Laurie Pycroft
19 January 2010 @ 11:31 am
Cool things:

"Fleshmob" of naked people descends on Berlin-Tegel airport in protest of the new airport scanners being hastily installed worldwide without care for civil liberties.

Scientists have developed a minute nanorobotic arm constructed of DNA capable of moving molecules around. One step closer to desktop nanofabrication!

Also, I'm intending to take part in the 10:23 campaign on January the 30th in which skeptics all over the country "overdose" on homeopathic treatments to demonstrate its inefficacy in a bid to persuade Boots to stop stocking these quack products and thereby lending an air of legitimacy to them.
Laurie Pycroft
05 January 2010 @ 12:04 am
If you've been paying any attention to the news (at least, if you're British) over the last year or so, you'll probably have heard of a small town called Wootton Bassett, a couple of miles outside Swindon, which regularly has a silent vigil when soldiers' corpses are transported from an RAF base and along their High Street on the way to the morgue. It's been going on for a while now, and the event makes for some great camera shots as well as an excellent hook on which to hang debates about the justification of the war in Afghanistan. Pretty much perfect tabloid fodder. The council really isn't equipped to be dealing with national press, and understandably would rather see the whole thing quieten down. Sadly for them, that isn't going to happen.

It was only a matter of time until someone decided to use the event to make a political point. Nick Griffin already took an ill-advised shot at it which blew over pretty quickly. Recently, however, a deluded Islamic group called Islam4UK ("4" instead of "for"? Really? You're naming an organisation, not sending a bloody text) has announced that they will be marching (link currently down, probably due to unexpected bandwidth demands) through the centre of Bassett in order to make a point about the number of Muslim people who have been killed by the very same soldiers that the town is venerating.

In fairness, they kinda have a point. Bassett, and the country as a whole, has been making lots of noise about supporting our troops, but I'm not so sure that the armed forces deserve unconditional support. These are people who knew exactly what they were signing up for (i.e. being shot at and killing brown people when ordered to) and get paid a wage which exceeds the market level for people with equivalent skills. It's not even like it's the most dangerous job. I should expect that the rough, tough men and women of the British armed forces can take a little criticism here and there. Either way, surely even the most insane religious nutjobs deserve the right to free speech, just as I deserve the right to call them "insane religious nutjobs"?

It seems that, no, they don't deserve free speech, at least not according to this Facebook group which advocates the prevention of the march. This is a sentiment now being echoed by our cockbag of a Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, who has said that he will support the banning of Islam4UK's planned demonstration. This, I find sickening. By all means, create a counter-demonstration and criticise their choice of venue, but don't start trying to prevent them from exercising their right to speak freely. From an ethical point of view, I find it abhorrent that anyone should be silenced, especially by government, but there's a practical issue here too. If these people, many of whom are no doubt on the edge of extremism anyway, are prevented from speaking their minds, there's no telling what violent acts they might commit on the basis that they feel unable to get their views out into the public arena. That would lend an air of legitimacy to the EDL, BNP, et al, who would inevitably start throwing bricks through Muslims' windows, thereby igniting a powder keg of cultural tension.

I hope that the march does end up occurring, not least so I can stand there on the day, right between the "we're not racist, honest; Britain for the British" borderline-fascist thugs and the "behead those who insult Islam; Allah is great" religious fanatics, holding a placard with "you're all fucking morons" written on it.
Laurie Pycroft
04 January 2010 @ 10:40 pm
As you're probably aware, Simon Singh has been getting a lot of trouble over the efforts being made by some ludicrous band of Chiropractors to sue him for writing in a book that they're a bunch of quacks (which they are). This, combined with various other stupid suits aimed at quashing criticism of insane pseudoscience-mongers, have lead to an admirable backlash aimed at reforming libel laws (as detailed by Ben Goldacre).

It seems that the trend for absurd libel suits has spread across the pond, with Stephen Novella reporting on one targeted at Wired magazine and Paul Offit, among others, who criticised the National Vaccine Information Center, a hotbed of pseudoscientific nonsense about imagined risks posed by vaccination. It seems that Paul Offit has been under a lot of pressure from these irrational fucksticks, which is especially unfair considering the fact that he helped invent RotaTeq- a Rotavirus vaccine which already saves hundreds of lives every day. I always find it mildly annoying reading about people who blind themselves to evidence and insist upon spreading dangerous memes based on their own ignorance (in this case the meme that vaccination causes autism- a concept which has been thoroughly debunked time and again) but it really makes my blood boil when these people use the legal system to intimidate and silence skeptics who work tirelessly to redress the problems that the pseudoscience is causing. It not only undermines the foundations of academic debate, but the very institution of free speech itself.

As Goldacre says, go here and sign the petition.
Laurie Pycroft
03 January 2010 @ 07:55 pm
No doubt all of you are aware of the attempted bombing by a Nigerian man of a flight on its way to the US. No doubt you're also aware of the ensuing scramble by the authorities to make sure that everyone knows that it definitely wasn't their fault. The problem is, of course, that all these hastily implemented attempts to improve security are only going to make flying even more hassle and provide a vague air of safety until terrorists come up with a new method of smuggling bombs on board.

We've seen a pretty predictable pattern over the last decade or so- the 9/11 terrorists used box cutters, so all remotely sharp things were banned. Then came the shoebomber, so we had to remove our shoes. Next was the attempted liquid explosive bombing, so suddenly it became a crime to carry more than 100ml or so. Finally, there was the underwear bomber, so now we all have to have our genitals stared at by poorly paid (and probably poorly educated) government stooges. I guess we can just be glad that the terrorists haven't yet tried a rectum-concealed bomb on a flight yet. If they ever do, it's pretty much guaranteed that we'll have to bend over and touch our toes before takeoff.

On a very relevant note, remember that time I had my bag searched over a deactivated rifle bullet? I was digging through the same bag a few weeks later and found, right at the bottom, a plastic craft knife with a rather sharp blade which I certainly hadn't moved since well before my Ireland trip. Turns out, I had taken it to Cork and back without anyone, including myself and (more worryingly) the security dick who inspected my bag, noticing.

The point of all of this rambling is simply that airport security doesn't fucking work. The amount of expense and effort needed to prevent even one attack is staggering (especially considering the rarity of each attack) and each time governments step up the security in the wake of a new plot being uncovered, the terrorists are simply going to switch up their methods. Hell, even assuming they try exactly the same plan every time, some of attempts are going to get through, as my experience with the craft knife demonstrates.

In unrelated news: time for another look at Thorium powered nuclear power?
Plus, one dose of funny: let's enhance!
And one dose of awesome: Star Wars weather
Laurie Pycroft
29 November 2009 @ 11:31 pm
You may remember that, a month and a bit ago, I visited Ireland to debate Dr Steven Best on the issue of animal testing. He has since returned to the US and it seems that our encounter has stuck with him, as he has since founded a new anti-vivisection (or, perhaps, anti-anti-anti-vivisection) campaign group with the specific aim of countering the Pro-Test movement, as reported by the Animal Liberation Front press office. They will be going by a thoroughly misleading name- the "Alliance for Progressive Science".

While I'm pretty flattered that they find it necessary to found an organisation to counter the one I set up, I feel I should point out a few of the mistakes they've made in the press release:

First, I think "aggressive vivisector-activists" is rather unfair- after all, we're not the ones bombing buildings and intimidating opponents here.

Second, million dollar bankroll? Hah, I wish! Pro-Test's account generally hovers around the £1,000-£2,000 mark, all of which comes from private donors, and which gets spent on travel costs, printing leaflets, banner-making equipment, etc. We've taken great care to ensure that we remain an independent, grass-roots organisation, and have always operated on a shoestring-budget. Then again, the anti-vivs do love their little "it's all the fault of the evil corporations, and anyone who disagrees must be in league with them" shtick. Perhaps a little hypocritical considering the fact that the combined revenue of groups campaigning for an end to biomedical testing on animals comes in at about $400million.

Third, we're promoting "disinformation"? Fuck off. If anti-vivs want to accuse us of spreading misinformation, they're wrong (to the best of my knowledge), but at least it makes sense from their point of view. Saying that we spread disinformation implies that we know that our information is false, but choose to publish it anyway with a view to polluting the debate. I'm willing to do most anti-vivs the courtesy of admitting that they probably honestly believe most of the shit they're spouting. I just wish they'd do me the same.

In other news, is there gold at the end of a rainbow? Yes- a 30nm film of it.

And even cooler, IBM researchers have simulated the cerebral cortex of a cat using a supercomputer. Awesome stuff.
Laurie Pycroft
17 November 2009 @ 03:20 pm
First, Wired has an excellent list of cyborg-related videos. My favourite is the final one featuring the latest in awesome prosthetic arm technology.

Second, there have been significant advances in biodegradable implant technology, including the possibility of LED tattoos. I'm looking forward to the consumer applications.

And finally, Swindon is apparently going to be the first UK town with complete, free WiFi coverage. Seems like it might actually pan out, as it's going to be funded by the option of paying to get a faster connection. Depending on how much it costs, I'd be seriously tempted to upgrade so I could watch YouTube videos anywhere in the town.