Friday, December 18, 2009

Masterworks in Petri dishes gallery

Ten photos of "Art" made out of growing bacteria at Gallery - Masterworks in Petri dishes - New Scientist Described as "Einstein in E. coli, an apple tree grown from fungi and a fluorescent Mario are just some of the masterworks cast in agar jelly by creative microbiologists, on display at". In my opinion, 7 of them are great images, even if manipulated (false colour etc), I won't say which ones left me cold as I'm sure everyone will have their own list.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Why did our species survive, not the Neanderthals?

Interesting article in New Scientist on Neanderthal extinction. It directly contradicts something I thought about Neanderthals and technology / tool creation so I must have a look into it to see if this is something under debate or if I should be changing my mental model.

"The history of the Neanderthals isn't a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, but much of what has been written about the ancient human species may as well be, says evolutionary ecologist Clive Finlayson in his informative monograph...

"None of these just-so stories quite add up, Finlayson says. There is no clear indication that Neanderthals were any less intelligent than H. sapiens, and genetic evidence has shown that they share with humans key changes in Foxp2, a gene involved in speech and language. The distinction between Neanderthal and human technology isn't as clear-cut as palaeoanthropologists sometimes suggest, and Neanderthals hunted smaller game and seafood where it was available. Meanwhile, a first-draft sequence of the Neanderthal genome offers no sign that they contributed to our gene pool."

Article - 08 November 2009 - New Scientist.

Creationism and Islam

In a very similar way to how some extreme fundamentalist Christian sects reject evolution, so do some Islamic people. I haven't watched it recently, but Auckland's Triangle Television community station used to run anti-evolution programs made by these Muslims and I found them fascinating ... not because I agree with them, but for the way they were nearly identical to Christian anti-evolution films.

The biggest single difference was the the Islamic ones would have sound-bites from Jewish and Christian scholars -- presumably to show that their word-view was shared.

In 2008 New Scientist interviewed Salman Hameed an American academic who makes a number of pro-evolution points from an Islamic viewpoint including

  • "The Koran itself does not provide a single clear-cut verse that contradicts evolution."
  • "One of the big evolution problems from the US creationist perspective is the age of the Earth. Logically speaking, if you believe in a 6000 or 10,000 year-old Earth, then you have to reject evolution"
  • "The Catholic church and Anglican church are not, as far as I know, atheistic organisations. These are religious organisations, but they accept evolution as a working principle behind the diversity of species. I think the same argument can and should be made in the Islamic world."

The interview is well worth a read.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Jon Haworth - Mission statement generator

Want to make your small business spout nonsense to compete with government agencies and big business? Mission statement generator is a tool that effortlessly produces prose like "Our goal is to professionally and synergistically fashion economically sound and cost-effective information that provide key differentiators between us and our competitors." and "Our company exists to collaboratively create economically sound, emerging and competitive products to meet the needs of an ever-changing marketplace."

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Google's Halloween Joke

When the Web was new, the first search engines were created and listed every page they could find. Often site owners were unhappy with this for a number of reasons:
  • Confidential information could be displayed (Actually an indication of a misconfigured website, but blame the messenger)
  • Inner pages could be displayed bypassing "guard" pages
  • The spiders could consume a lot of (then) expensive bandwidth

AltaVista which was the first popular search engine, designed a special file "robots.txt" for webmasters to include. This file could be used to instruct robots not to index part of a site. Most people never see this file as it is usually uninteresting, but it's often there and creating it is one of the less interesting parts of creating a website

Tonight is Halloween and Google has added these lines to the bottom of their robots.txt file

User-agent: Kids
Disallow: /tricks
Allow: /treats

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Another stupid crook leaves name, number

Dumb robber leaves name, number: "A regular customer of Penny Lane Records in Sydenham, Christchurch took his opportunity just before closing on Friday to reach over the counter and grab a wad of cash and flee.

According to the owner, just a few minutes earlier, the man had put a CD on lay-by and had left his name, address and phone number with staff. In addition, he is a regular customer and well-known to staff." Doh!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Orwell and Shakespeare. Hamlet and 1984.

This is of necessity a draft. I want to talk about the artistic process and the way we misinterpret the art of past ages by imposing on the work of former eras the values and standards of our times. I haven't yet figured out all I want to say on the matter, so I will revisit this theme at some future time.
In his Ab Urbe condita (Literally “From the founding of the city”, but usually rendered as Early History of Rome) Titus Livius had historical or semi mythical people from the early days of Rome speaking and acting like Romans of the late republic, his era.

Most English speaking people today, and for at least the last century, regard William Shakespeare as a genius in writing plays. To the modern ear his language has dated and his political world view and concerned are that of a bygone age. If you ask a modern person what was so great about Shakespeare they will usually say that it is the originality of his plots.

In this they couldn't be more wrong. Shakespeare's plays usually retold well known stories and the Elizabethan audience expected to be presented with familiar plots and scenes. Romeo and Juliet was from earlier Italian tales ultimately named Giulietta e Romeo and presenting much the same plot, according to the Wikipedia article on Romeo and Juliet “The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and Romeo and Juliet are all from Italian novelle.” Shakespeare's greatest play Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is based on earlier stories, including the Roman legend of Brutus, Scandinavian legends and an earlier “Ur-Hamlet” possibly by Thomas Kyd (See Sources of Hamlet on Wikipedia ) . To the Elizabethan mind, Shakespeare's greatness wasn't the originality of his tales, but how well he told them; by the standards of the day he was a great playwright. Normally we never get to hear this, today we demand novelty, especially originality in plots, and Shakespeare was great, so we must think of him as conforming to today's standards of greatness which requires original plots so Shakespeare must have had original plots. so the antecedents of Shakespeare's plays are conveniently forgotten.

A similar thing has happened with George Orwell, one of my favourite authors. Today Orwell is primarily remembered for his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty Four and occasionally for Animal Farm, his Satire of the Russian revolution and the early USSR, most of the rest of his writings are conveniently forgotten.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Felix, the knitted toy

The earliest toy I can remember was a simple knitted "rag doll" style soft toy I called "Felix" that one of my parents' friends in England had made me.

My earliest memories are from when we first lived in Auckland, New Zealand when I was three and Felix was my constant companion. I don't know if we brought him overland with us when my parents drove their car halfway around the world from the UK to Aotearoa, or if it had been mailed out, but the one thing I do recall is that he was there and I have no memory of being given him.

In those days we lived in Takapuna and when I was four we moved to the East Coast Bays, Mairangi Bay was home, but my grandparents lived in Murray's Bay and the other bays were visited often enough for shopping or picnics. Back then this was an idyllic corner of NZ for kids. Like all children I had a vivid imagination and as everyone we knew seemed to live in a bay, I invented "Stingins Bay" (with a soft G sound) where Felix's father lived, and I was forever trying to find it. Looking back I have no idea why he didn't have a mother -- just one of those kid things, I guess. Being only a few km away we kept in touch with the next door family from Takapuna which was good as I had made good friends with their son who my own age.

We moved again when I was five, this time about 400km south to New Plymouth and in the summer holidays visited Auckland, including our old friends in Takapuna as well as the friends in Mairangi Bay.

Disaster Felix went missing! There was a search, but he could not be found and I could not be consoled. For weeks I was heartbroken.

Here's were it gets weirder. Several months later, Felix turned up, he'd been pushed down behind the sofa at the Takapuna friends house. He was returned to me, but the magic had been broken and I don't think I ever played with him again.

This would have been 1964 or 1965 and as Peter, Paul and as Mary sang a couple of years earlier in Puff, the magic dragon "Dragons live forever, but not so little boys. Painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys." I'd moved on and now had little room in my life for soft toys.

Looking back from forty-four years later it makes little sense that Felix should have been so important, perhaps we had him on the trip and it was that he had been my travel companion as we drove half way around the world, perhaps he just represented stability as as we moved three times before finding a permanent home in NZ. As I write this I find myself wondering what did eventually happen to Felix? I still have a wind-up toy from that same era, now no-longer working, but occupying pride of place above my desk at home.

 Originally published on Qondio

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Big ribbons a better luggage tag

When you fly with checked luggage, at the end of your journey the bags and suitcases of hundreds of people all end up on the same carousel. If your luggage is a standard type it can have a dozen or more close twins as travel "companions".

When you get close to the bag it's usually possible to tell your bag, but even if you haven't done it yourself I'm sure you've seen people pick up a bag, then see it isn't theirs and put it back.

As people pick up their bags and leave the luggage collection area the crush around the carousel dies down, but if your bag is one of the first ones out it can be quite a mission to get to the front just as your bag comes past.

Distinctive luggage tags can help, but if they are small they don't help when the bag is in the distance and bags can be treated pretty roughly in transit and if the tags are large they can get caught and detach from your case.

A few years ago a travel companion put me onto a great idea. Get a large (minimum 2" - 5cm), distinctive ribbon, and wrap it tightly around the outside of the case, through the handle, and securely tie it. Now when my bags come onto the carousel I can see them from a distance and get to them as they come past.

I've used this technique flying from New Zealand to Australia, Singapore, India, back to NZ and internally in good old Aotearoa without problem. Wide stripes and bright ribbons work best, but anything that contrasts with your suitcase will do. If you can't find a unique ribbon, just get two or more thinner ones and tie them beside each other.

If you're traveling on holiday or for a tourist vacation you can pretty much use any pattern, but on business trips you might want to be a little more sedate. You should also consider any cultural issues when choosing your ribbons. Many countries use a tricolor (three stripes) as a flag and national symbol. Flying into Pakistan with something looking like the national flag of India might not be the wisest thing you can do.

Finally, don't forget that this is an aid to help you identify your luggage at a distance, it isn't a substitute for clearly marking your bags with your name and contact details. You need that in case your bags are mislaid by the airline and they need to get them to you later.

I've often considered painting a large identifying mark on my bags, but have so far refrained. The ribbon can be cut off and discarded at journey's end but the paint is there forever.

Originally published on Qondio

Monday, May 18, 2009

Help improve Wikipedia

Do you use Wikipedia as a reference site? Do you find that there are times when you look something up and find a short "stub" article? Would you like Wikipedia to be better?

Wikipedia is a volunteer effort. There are people who spend a lot of time on Wikipedia trying to improve it. Unfortunately they can spend a lot of their time doing very trivial changes such as correcting typographical errors, spelling mistakes, and rewording clumsy grammar because these are important things to fix and while, each one only takes a small amount of time, collectively they take a long time because there are so many of them.

As an ordinary user of Wikipedia you can easily take over some of this load. When you are browsing Wikipedia and you notice a small error, hit the edit button and fiix it. For example, in the last sentence I wrote "fiix" rather than "fix". If this was Wikipedia you could simply fix it. It's only a tiny change, but there are so many people visiting Wikipedia on a regular basis that if everyone who visited fixed them they'd soon be gone.

The only thing to watch out for is, despite what you were taught at school, English doesn't have a standard spelling, it has several. British spelling is different to American spelling and Canadian spelling is different to both in significant ways. New Zealand, Australia, India and Singapore are all close to British spelling but all have slight regional differences of their own. Wikipedia can't make up its mind which form of English should be used; the rule is whichever form of English is first used in an article should be retained. So resist the temptation to change labour to labor or aluminum to aluminium.

After typos, the other thing that really needs doing is fixing the dreaded disambiguation page. When a word has two (or more) meanings or several people share the same name and you go to the page for them you come to a "disambiguation page", a page that (hopefully) points you to the right article. This is great when entering Wikipedia, but if you are reading a page on computers and click on a link for Apple, you expect to reach a page on Apple computers, not a page giving you a choice of the fruit, computers, etc. When you find you've followed an internal link to one of these pages, click the back button, fix the link so it bypasses the disambiguation page and you've just improved Wikipedia.

As the old Scots saying goes, "A wheen o' mickles mak's a muckle" (Many small items add up to a large thing).

Remember, it wasn't a single raindrop that carved the USA's Grand Canyon, it was the collective action of uncountable billions of raindrops that carved it, but each one helped.

Originally published on Qondio

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Wikipedia The untrustworthy reference book

Want to find out about something on the web? The chances are you'll end up at Wikipedia, either directly or because Google sees Wikipedia as important and ranks its results highly. Wikipedia is available in many languages and I really only know the English language version that is edited by talented people from all over the world, but largely by editors in English speaking countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom as well as it's home country the United States.

A lot of people trust the information they get from Wikipedia and generally the information there is pretty good, but unfortunately Wikipedia can't be relied on to provide accurate answers and the reason for this is also the same reason that it has been such a success. Wikipedia is a contraction of Wiki Encyclopedia and anyone can edit practically any page at Wikipedia. You can edit, I can edit, bored school children can edit. This means that at any moment the page you retrieve is probably good, but may contain anything from biased information or commercial spam to a puerile string of rude words.

The puerile strings of rude words are usually removed very quickly, sometimes automatically and sometimes by a small army of volunteer editors from all over the world. I know, I'm one of these volunteer editors. Every so often I look at the recent changes by anonymous users page and try to remove bad edits that the robots missed. Because spammers are pretty dumb, spam links are usually very easy to spot, but more subtle vandalism is something that only an expert in a field is likely to spot, and because very few people are experts in many fields, random Wikipedia editors looking at random pages are unlikely to spot the vandalism and it can stay there for a very long time.

The other problem with the vandalism is that talented and dedicated editors from all over the world who should be working on improving Wikipedia are spending a lot of time reverting this vandalism. Specialists should be editing articles on their area of expertise, other editors could be editing and improving articles on things they know, such as their country or home town. British editors could be improving articles on England, Scotland, Wales, etc. I could be improving articles on NZ.

How do you as a user of Wikipedia protect yourself? The official answer is that just like a paper encyclopedia, all information in Wikipedia is supposed to be referenced to source documents. Unfortunately a very large number of pages are not properly sourced and those that are sourced can have sources that general readers would have trouble understanding.

The next best way to protect yourself is to use common sense, if you see something that looks like arrant nonsense, wait a minute and refresh the page, if the nonsense goes away, you're probably safe. For extra safety every page has history and discussion pages and a quick look there will show if the page is frequently edited or has known problems.

If you spot something you know to be wrong, you can always fix it. Be careful, that's the start of the process that got me started as a regular Wikipedia editor.

The late Douglas Adams described the fictional Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe as being definitive as
"though it cannot hope to be useful or informative on all matters, it does make the reassuring claim that where it is inaccurate, it is at least definitively inaccurate. In cases of major discrepancy it was always reality that's got it wrong."
Sometimes I feel like this about Wikipedia. I'd hate to live without the wealth of information it provides, but I always treat it with caution.

Originally published on Qondio

Monday, May 11, 2009

My Wellington GP

I lived for 19 years in Wellington, New Zealand and naturally I had a doctor when I was down there. By the time I started seeing Dr Lowe I had already had three different doctors during my time there, one retired, one I wasn't happy with, and one was just too far from where I shifted to for easy access.

Following a minor motorbike accident where I was picked up by some helpful road workers and deposited a the nearest doctors practice, I had become a patient at a multiple doctor general practice in Karori. I switched to them largely for my convenience and ease of getting an appointment. For some reason I've never really understood, these practices like to assign patients they might only see once a year to individual doctors and I needed to see a doctor, but my "normal" doctor was unavailable.

The receptionist explained that they had a young doctor available who was a fully qualified doctor doing the practical section of his general practice training under supervision and would I mind seeing him. I had some fairly trivial ailment and had no problems seeing him. As it happened I ended up seeing him two or three times and he was pretty good; young and clued up.

Several months later I needed to see a doctor again and the receptionist explained that my "normal" doctor was away on maternity leave, but did I remember Dr Lowe? Apparently the student doctor was now a fully qualified general practitioner and had joined the practice. I was very happy to see him and he fixed me up.

As well as being a very competent medical practitioner, he had a great sense of humour and we established a rapport. Finally I understood why having a regular doctor at a multi-doctor practice was a good idea. I can't remember if it was after the first or second visit, but I quickly informed the receptionist that I would like to make him my "normal" doctor.

I kept seeing him for 5 or 6 years until I moved back to Auckland, NZ, ten years ago. I haven't found a doctor up here that I relate to as well as I related to him, and it's something I miss.

Originally published on Qassia

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Why I Won't Have A Car

I travel around by bicycle. I don't do it for pleasure, I don't do it to save money, I simply do it for exercise.

The truth of the matter is I'm lazy. I don't play sport, I never go for power walks and I'm quite capable of joining a gym, and stop going after a week or two. It's the bike or obesity and if I had a car, I'd find some reason to go to work in it every morning.

By simply choosing not to have a car, I deprive myself of that choice. Sure I can take public transport, but if I'm at home in Epsom, Auckland, and I need to get to work in under 1/2 an hour, I have no choice but to get on my bike, and once my bike's at work, I have little choice but to ride it home. Fortunately the weather here in Aotearoa (NZ) is pretty mild, so I can pretty much ride the bike all year round.

On the other hand, I'm no luddite. We have a car, Tessa uses for going to work and we can use it for shopping (Although it's amazing how much you can carry on a bike). When the weather is really nasty, we can always pop the wheels off and throw it in the car.

Originally published on Qondio

Thursday, April 23, 2009

My Ancient GPS

I've been to India as a tourist three times. The first time was in 1996 and I toured the southern part of the country, Kerela, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

Before I left my then home in Wellington, New Zealand, I did my homework, got vaccinated, devoured guidebooks, checked the nascent web for travel warnings, redirected my email. I thought I was prepared, until I was in a smaller city and discovered that the street signs were only in Malayalam, a Dravidian language with its own script that is totally unreadable to someone who only knows the Roman script we use in English.

I was in trouble. I'd been covering a fair amount of ground that day, and was miles from my hotel. I wanted to get a bus back to the city I was staying in, and there were plenty of buses, but they were only marked in Malayalam and I couldn't read the destination signs. I got lucky, there was a family standing at the bus stop and the son spoke English; he was able to tell me which bus to catch and it only cost me a few minutes telling him about my country. I had a couple of other experiences like this and once hired a Taxi to go around the corner.

When I got home to Aotearoa I knew I would go back to see Mumbai in Maharashtra and continue up through Rajastan, Gujarat and the Punjab and I didn't want to get lost again. It took me 18 months to go again and in that time primitive hand held Global Positioning System (GPS) units became affordable and available. These early models didn't have maps or tell you to "Take the second exit at the roundabout", but I knew I could use it so I bought a Garmin one.

Once my destination was programmed in, it could point an arrow there, give me straight-line distance to it, and it could remember about 100 or so destinations. This was really all I needed, when I arrived at a town I recorded the location of the bus or train station and my hotel. If the tourist map told me a destination was close I'd program a guessed location for it and could follow the arrow. This method of navigation took me to some interesting places where tourists normally don't go: sedate farmers' vegetable markets, a street of jobbing arc welding businesses, busy chicken markets; real India and not just the tourist destinations.

I had to use my commonsense too. If the little arrow was telling me to walk through a brick wall it was obvious I needed to detour, but sometimes it wasn't quite so obvious. I ended up in a couple of "interesting" locations where I got cheerful hellos from the locals, but strongly felt it was safest to smile, wave, say hello back, but keep walking. I also once got steered straight through a squatter camp, I knew where I was going, but by the time I knew it I had a choice of walking through or detouring over a mile.

Thanks to my little Garmin GPS I never got lost again and enjoyed my second and third trips with far more confidence than my first. Twelve years later I still have it, and it still works. We now have one with a map and spoken instructions for the car, but the arrow and distance still serves me well for navigation on foot or for long distance cycling. When it does finally wear out I'll replace it and I'd never consider doing another overseas trip without a hand held GPS.

Originally published on Qondio

Thursday, April 02, 2009

World's Worst Tasting Cough Medicine, But It Worked!

n January 2007 my partner Tessa & I were touring in India and after nearly a month on the road we were in the beautiful city of Bhubaneswar in India's Orissa state.

Tessa came down with a cold and it sparked her asthma off. She hadn't been to a doctor since we left our home in Auckland, New Zealand and even though I knew she needed help she was determined not to make a fuss. I can't really blame her, a week or two earlier I had resisted getting help for one of my travel ailments. Admittedly neither of us would have run for the doctor back in Aotearoa NZ either.

During the day we had passed a closed shop front not far from our hotel claiming to be a doctor's evening surgery and that evening I "accidentally" steered Tessa past it. Inside the now open store was a professionally dressed man sitting at a desk with a minimal amount of medical equipment, an assistant and a curtained off examination area. At first I was a little dubious that he was the real thing, but when he started examining Tessa he did exactly what a real doctor would do anywhere and asked familiar questions. After a couple of minutes he wrote a prescription and when I asked for the bill only asked for 50 Rupees ... at that stage a little less than two dollars!

I was a little surprised at the minimal fee, but paid up and we went to get the script filled. The pharmacy dispensed some antibiotics and an allegedly cherry tasting cough mixture. These medicines were all fairly cheap, but still cost more than the doctor's fee.

Tessa told me it was the worst tasting cough mixture she had ever had ... but it worked better than anything she could remember. Within a day she was back playing the tourist with gusto.

Since leaving India and coming home to Auckland I've often wondered what was in that cough mixture, as I'm sure it must come with other syrups.

I've also wondered about that doctor. I sometimes think we might have wandered in on a charity clinic and if so he was probably as surprised at me asking for a bill as I was at the low fee, but again it's something I'll probably never know.

Originally published on Qondio

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Garlic For Coughs And Colds

Whenever I have a cough, a cold or a generic viral fever I take fresh raw garlic as a herbal remedy to help myself recover faster. I take it twice a day, first thing in the morning and about 12 hours later at night.

My method is to take a large clove of garlic, place it on a chopping board and lightly crush it with the blade of a large kitchen knife, when I say lightly I mean so it is bruised and maybe a little split, but not turned to pulp. After that I peel it and cut it into pieces about 1 cm (the size of a broad bean). Once prepared I swallow the pieces whole with water.

I make sure I get fresh New Zealand garlic rather than the cheaper imported Chinese garlic. I'm sure that China's garlic is just as good, but buying locally grown produce means I'm getting it fresher. If you're planning to try this, I suggest you buy local produce from your home area for the freshness factor.

Does it help? I like to think so, but as every cold is different it's hard to say. I do know that within an hour of taking it I can feel the garlic working in my lungs (yes, this could be psychological) and scientific studies have shown that garlic contains compounds with antibiotic properties.

Even if it doesn't work, the aroma of garlic means other people are warned and will stand further back so you're less likely to pass the cold onto them.

I've used this method or a close variation for over 10 years. It is based on my personal experience and the results may not be typical.

Originally posted on Qondio