Sunday, 31 January 2010

Rumours of my Bacon-Related Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

And, in fact, the bacon turned out deliciously. Observe:

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Brave New World

A popular trope in science fiction is the colonising spaceship sent out to explore some promising star. The distances involved are such that the journey could take centuries, and, once there, the settlers will essentially be out of contact with Earth. There are two main ideas for getting live and viable humans across interstellar distances and timespans. The first is to have on board a fully functioning ecosystem, in which a breeding populations of humans would live. The eventual colonisers, then, would be the great grandchildren of the initial crew. The other is to cryogenically freeze the crew, then autothaw them on arrival.

Think of it, in 30 years time, you see an ad in the paper (or in whatever ads are in in 30 years time). Head to the Stars! it will say, sleep for 200 years and wake up surrounded by beautiful green alien women, wanting you to demonstrate this human concept of 'love'. Sounds great, right? Where do I sign, you're thinking. I would urge caution before committing your mark to the contract.

Imagine if the technology had existed in 1910 to send people to the stars in 200 years; they would be halfway through their journey by now. I think it is fairly safe to say that if that technology had existed, we would have ships today that would be, on a very conservative estimate, twice as fast. A crew setting forth today, then, would arrive at the same time. So, bold 1910 explorer, how do you feel with your revolver and telegram, when your brass spaceship door rolls open to reveal the other ship parked just across the way disgorging its crew with their iPods, tastefully aged jeans, relaxed attitudes towards sexuality and, most strikingly, hand-held automatic weaponry. Indeed, oh voyager, how do you feel now?

Andrew Bird and Braid

Last night I went to see a concert here in Hong Kong by Andrew Bird. It's not often that indie bands/artists come through here, but that's not what I want to talk about. The economics of bringing an act to Asia must favour a certain leanness, as Andrew Bird turned up with just himself and a sound guy. Turns out that was a good thing. The last time I saw him it was at a festival, it was with a full band and it was awesome. This time it was also awesome, but in a very different way. Using the magic of loops, Bird would record himself playing several different parts for the song, then he would trigger them while he played live, giving the illusion that he was playing with others.

People always talk about how technology is ruining music, setting the barrier to entry too low and other such nonsense. Andrew Bird give the lie to this by using technology in an organic way which adds immeasurable value to his performances. This concert could not have existed at any point prior to about 10 years ago. You really have to see it to appreciate it, so enjoy this video:

It reminded me a lot of an indie game I've been playing a bit recently, Braid. It seems like a typical platformer, save the princess etc. But the game plays with time in very interesting ways. You can reverse it, certain objects cause the time around them to warp, and, best of all, you can create copies of yourself spread through time, and, by interacting with them, solve convoluted puzzles. In many ways it's analogous to what Bird is creating by performing with time-shifted versions of himself. Isn't technology brilliant?

Braid trailer from David Hellman on Vimeo.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Dandelions and Orchids

Here's an interesting story with relevance to the eternal nature/nurture debate. It seems that certain combinations of a dozen or so genes are very strong indicators for antisocial behaviour. So far, so much that we already know. However, it turns out that the population can be, very roughly, split into two sections. Dandelions are children who can thrive under any circumstances and are not predisposed to antisocial behaviours, no matter what their upbringing. The other group are likely to exhibit these behaviours if they are raised in an adverse environment. These children could be, and have been, classed as vulnerable. New research, however, indicates that these 'vulnerable' children (children with the genes which make them prone to antisocial behaviour), when moved to a stable, loving home, not only do as well as their 'dandelion' peers, but outstrip them in achievement. Hence the use of the term 'orchid': they can die in harsh conditions, but become something beautiful with appropriate nurturing.
The article goes into a lot more detail about how this pertains to humanity's evolutionary success, but I think it's more interesting as a possible explanation for the so-called class barrier, which has previously been explained by some people through reference to lineages of 'superior' genes. Maybe the hothouses that money can buy are the thin line between exceptional, and exceptionally badly adjusted.

Friday, 8 January 2010

The Best Day of the Year

Today is the day when the Edge World Question Centre comes out! Basically, every year, very intelligent people are asked a question and the results are available on the website. This year the question is: How is the internet changing the way you think? I've not read the answers yet, but the question seems slightly less interesting than in previous years, where the questions (and the answers are still available for viewing) have included: What's your dangerous idea? and What do you believe but cannot prove?

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Wonderful Denmark

I have a soft spot for Denmark and Danish things, but this advert, apparently commissioned by the Danish tourist board is confusing to me. I think they are trying to sell Denmark as a wonderful land of attractive blonde girls, who will conceive your baby in a drunken one night fumble (characterised here as hygge = cosiness, another weird Danish thing which I'll write about one day), and then, you know, be all Scandinavian and cool about it. That's a pretty specific holiday plan to advertise.

PS: The bacon is looking awesome.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Bringing Home the Bacon

I think I'm in the majority when I say that I had never really imagined that I could cure my own bacon; it seems like one of those things that are best left to the professionals. Well today boredom and curiousity got the better of me and I decided to have a go. I bought a large, fatty piece of pork belly (Hong Kong is well supplied with pork butchers), which, disturbingly, still had nipples attached - I cut them of for the sake of aesthetics and my sanity. I used a recipe I found on the Guardian's website. Of the optional spices, I only added the coriander. As I write, the pork is oozing its delicious juices into a container in my fridge.

I'll update in 5 days, when the curing process is finished. In the meantime, enjoy these pictures of the delicious proto-bacon, sans nipples:

Monday, 4 January 2010

The Royal Society

This year, the Royal Society celebrates the 350th anniversary of its founding. To celebrate this, the BBC's consistantly intriguing In Our Time radio show has produced two programs on the Society's history and influence. The first is here, and deals with many of the events fictionalised by Neal Stephenson in his System of the World series. Did you know that there is, brilliantly, a telescope running the entire height of London's monument to the great fire? Nor me. Good stuff.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Cheery New Year's Stuff

There was a lot of talk last year about the use of geoengineering to help stem seemingly rampant climate change. People proposed solutions from giant sunlight-reflecting mirrors, to pumping various gases into the upper atmosphere. These ideas are tempting because they seem to say that we can just carry on acting in the same way, and science will find a way to save us. Bruce Sterling, cyberpunk pioneer and all round genius, begs to differ:
On the subject of geo-engineering, I think it's a crock. We'll never get there. They're all techie fantasies, far-out sci-fi notions, Star Wars physics-style. The cheapest and most effective method of geo-engineering is to cut the world's population in half.

Just a tremendous massacre. That's the genuinely effective geo-engineering: it's fast, it commonly works, it's been proven effective for centuries by lebensraum exponents everywhere, and if you chose the right tactics and weaponry it might even look like a big accident.

You don't have to put on a fascist armband and start ranting for the public's blood; an effort like that could be quite subtle and covert, the very opposite of showboat geo-engineering. "Mysterious deadly flu in the Congo? We'd better keep all our health workers right here, they're badly needed in New York!"

Maybe it's just me, but that seems horribly plausible. More, along with some other fascinating ideas on where we are and where we're headed, here.

On a more positive note: apparently when you take into account the easily overlooked fact that we in the West do not constitute "the world", this decade wasn't as terrible as some people have said.