Calling all Junior Scientists

Google is having a science fair! No, really - if your teenager has a plan to convert live bees into toothpaste they can present their wondrous idea in front of the internet and our Googly overlords.

Chidingly, they don't want to know about my research into trolling with Justin Bieber - but not because it's not a good idea, and not just because I'm too old. It's because I'm Bad People. The competition is open the all the world's schoolchildren - except for the brown schoolchildren of Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Myanmar/Burma, Syria and Zimbabwe. Presumably other untrustworthy races such as the Daleks are also excluded, the rules aren't clear. To my fellow Zimbabwean readers and friends, and others in the axis of not-liked-by-Google, let's keep the secret of moon babies to ourselves. The Americans can't have any.

Image courtesy of 4chan

Their loss. Perhaps they know that Zimbabweans don't much do science fairs - instead we have exciting engineering competitions where children get all sticky building bridges out of ice cream sticks and glue. The secret to winning is lots of glue. And re-enforcing triangles. And using compressive, rather than tensional structures. But mostly: lots of glue. But what am I talking about, they're Google, they definitely know that.

The competition opens April 5th, so start your hamsters on their regimen of sodium pentathol now and the rules prohibit feeding sodium pentathol to hamsters. They also prohibit the use of meat obtained from pet stores and human teeth (unless autoclaved at 121 degrees Celsius for 20 minutes). Quite specific, that rule about teeth. Entrants must be schoolkids between 13 and 18 in teams of up to three people. They'll need a Google Account and can sign up here.

Final judging will be on July 11th. Winners stand to receive a US$50,000 scholarship and their choice of experience from CERN, Google, LEGO or Scientific American, a trip to the Galapagos Islands with National Geographic Expeditions and a chance to work for LEGO MINDSTORMS R&D. Which is all pretty awesome. Beats the crap out of the certificate I got for my bridge. Fifteen finalists will get token items and a trip to the Googleplex.

You're still wondering why they felt it necessary to have detailed rules about autoclaving teeth, aren't you? Me too. Keep that in mind as you watch this interview with competition judge Dr Marion Nestle.

Notice: This post is sponsored by the promoters of Google Science Fair

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Obama Cuts Funding For Abstinence Only Sex Ed

Oh Happy Day! With Bush out the White House, funding for abstinence only sex-ed in American public schools has finally been cut, due to being demonstrably counterproductive. After two presidential terms of this teen pregnancies in the US are at a 15-year high [source]. I never imagined academic studies, reason or sense could affect a political issue that involves people's two greatest emotional buttons: children and sex. Obviously teens aren't children, but the law doesn't see it that way.

As digger bsmang writes:

Very awesome. Abstinence-only education is simply ineffective. Maybe children will finally receive useful and appropriate information about the consequences of being sexually active and how to keep themselves safe and non-pregnant in the event that they should happen to entertain their natural urges...

And it's wonderful to see the side of intelligence be triumphant over that of stupidity. Needs to happen more often.

For their part, the religious lunatic fringe behind all this are repairing to their convention in Puerto Rico, no doubt to ponder which socially conservative congressmen might try to sneak funding for them in exchange for some shiny new dentures and a cake.

And now to 4chan for dispatches from the front:

I've no idea who to attribute. Whoever made this, you rock.

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New York Became My Canvas

Feeding the beast. This is - I think - a viral marketing campaign, I received an email out of the blue, offering me money to post this here. Apparently to do with Apple computer and GPS, and a suggestion of geocaching.

I'm intrigued. Not so much by whatever they're selling - more of a Linux person - but in deconstructing the ad and its blog. Much as I'd love to think that OpenStreetMap have an advertising budget for this sort of thing I'm presuming this must be to do with a phone or PDA release.

The blog the ad points to does not offer any information on anything, it spins a disjointed narrative implying some sort of interesting context but that's all it's for - to create unanswered questions so people wonder what's going on.

A puzzle. I like puzzles. This puzzle is made of people :-) The blog hosts some pictures, a pretty original Google Maps mashup and a link to something on Vimeo. All of these plus the DNS will be linked to accounts around the internet. A place to start. In the morning.

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How I Wonder Is A Cat

Don't know why but this cracks me up.

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Interactive Map Of Stupid

Well, OK, there's many different kinds of stupid, but this is one of my favorites. in amassing a database of Rickrolls, web pages which trick the user into viewing 80's pop icon Rick Astley singing Never Gonna Give You Up. Ostensibly this is so that web users pissed at being taken for a dance can add the database to their browser's ad blocker. Since YouTube Rickrolled it's entire user base on April 1st 2008 it has gone irrepairably mainstream and is officially an old meme - unfunny outside its legitimate use in harassing Scientology.

But this database intrgues me. It's a realtime dataset showing the growth and manifestation of a meme, empirical data against which theories of meme behavior can be falsified or corroborated. There are other such datasets which can be created, one can track the reproduction of files on p2p networks (actually, I did study this, a story for another day) or the spread of threatening chain messages in YouTube comments. This is different though, the YouTube data is messed up by anti-spam systems that arbitrarily check and confine the meme's spread, and file sharing is a little simplistic. rickrolldb on the other hand is a real-time map showing the spread and use of a learned behavior in a human population. A limited demonstration that stupidity is contagious :-)

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Ransom Notes Back Online

In 2005 or so I made an image macro that arranged letters cut from newspapers and magazines into text - like ransom notes on an old TV series. It's been offline for awhile , but no more. The ransom note generator is back, rewritten from scratch. It now has an RSS feed, an improved gallery and a bunch of new effects. Enjoy :-)

Desert flower from Yummifruitbat at WikiMedia Commons

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The Hotlink Lottery

Great power stems from being in the path of information. I was reminded of that this weekend while watching (across the Limpopo) the media blockade surrounding the recent Zimbabwean election. With this lesson in mind I got to thinking about all the image hotlinking carries. It's a lot, more than half of my bandwidth, and it costs money.

For the non-technical, hotlinking (or inline linking) is the practice of using files hosted on someone else's server in the HTML of web pages coming from your own server. It seems a perfect externality, shifting hosting costs from one site directly onto another. Site owners - jealous of their content and sensitive to the bottom line - can get very worked up about it. When being derogatory, the practice is referred to as 'leeching', 'bandwidth theft' or 'theft of service'.

I'm not as eager to assume it's a bad thing. If someone likes something on enough to want to share it with their readers, that's pretty cool. One depressing evening in 2006 I drew a picture and posted it to the blog, a hotlink turned up with it in a greek blog post. What could be a better compliment for someone learning to draw? Sure, it'd be better if the blogger had copied it to their own server and provided an attribution link, but color me pleased. I'm happy for my stuff to get more exposure, hence the copyleft (cc) license.

In the more contemporary Web 2.0 view, hotlinking isn't a big deal. The nature of syndication and data mashing usually requires sources of information that are separate from the applications people use to combine and filter it. Most of the web applications I write hotlink images from other sites, sanctioned by the likes of flickr and youtube, and any number of services - from Google Reader to Babelfish - hotlink It's a good thing.

But.. there are some circumstances where the benefits are not as obvious. Those circumstances look like this:

Behold! a LolDuck. I've no idea where it came from, it was found on a forum and to the forums it returned. Such is the way of the LolDuck. The hotlink was copied from post to post and site to site, reproducing virally and exponentially. This site serves one every few seconds, and it's a lot of bandwidth to bear for nothing in return. The benefit? I am now in the path of information.

Since the image comes from the file referenced by the link can be changed at this end. Thanks to the magic 'Referrer' field it can be done with some discretion, serving any image at all on any site with the hotlink. The LolDuck may not provide a direct benefit but it has created a microphone, an organic, unintentional broadcast system to say anything at all to surfers on hundreds of other sites.

The only question now is... what to say. One can tell where individual people are on the net (Referrer), where they are in the real world (IP address), that they're bored enough to be surfing Lol and can put an image on their monitors. Advertisers would love to be in this position. Most webmasters at this point do something distinctly uncreative; they replace the image with a tiny 'No Hotlinking' graphic and dismiss the opportunity.

Not I, but what to say? 'Vote Obama!', 'Womens Rights Are Human Rights', 'Help A Nun Kick The Habit'. Maybe. PSAs are Plan B. Best idea so far is to interact, to play a game with web surfers and engage them. An image lottery. I gathered together some random funny pictures, some disgusting shock pics, and some hentai (brown paper packages tied up with string, these are a few of my favorite things). The concept is a drinking game to be played with friends, every time the hotlink is loaded an image is chosen at random, if it's hentai, drink! If not, everyone can still laugh and groan at the funny/gross images. Though it needs some refining, the hotlink now looks something like this on forums/myspace:

And like this as a youtube background:

The hotlink directs people back here to play an expanded version of the game, an AdSense banner kicks a few cents toward the hosting costs, and someone gets drunk and giggles at Japanese sex comics. Everybody wins. So, if you came here wondering why there's strange and random crap appearing on your website, now you know. Feel free to copy stuff from if you'd like to use it. Please link back :-) Thanks.

If anyone has an idea for a better use of this ability (other than Goatse on MySpace), I'd love to hear about it in the comments. Over the course of a day your idea could be broadcast to tens of thousands of people all over the web.

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Dancing with Marionettes

Imogen Heap - Just For Now: I love this performance, she samples and mixes her own voice as she sings, layering it and harmonising with herself. This should be a genre. [$0.02]And the genre should be called: Dancing With Marionettes[/$0.02].

[download this video] [view large]

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I passed this sign today outside Grahamstown Checkers. My Afrikaans is non-existent but suddenly I know what the membership tattoo will be when I get that Apocalyptic Easter Suicide Cult off the ground. Now Recruiting! Join Today! Our Passover Balls Have The Most Fruit!

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Challenge You Forever

This peculiar and somehow comforting sentiment is from starrgirl at Associated Content:

Sock yarn has gone delicious. Besides all the available fibers, like cashmere, silk, merino wool, alpaca and more, there's a riotous choice of ... every shade of the rainbow and in patterns that "self-stripe" as you knit. Artisans hand-dye yarns into beautiful combinations ... try Superwash yarn ... There are lots of methods for knitting socks ... double pointed needles, circular needles, toe-up, cuff-down, magic loop, two at a time. Knitting socks can challenge you forever. The world is so full of sock yarns now that you'll want to try them all.

Link: 8 Reasons to Knit Socks

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Indiscriminate and Shameless Creatures

Researchers from the British Sea Life Centre group of aquariums have published a study detailing the sex lives of these charming, shag-happy little weirdos. The results, in brief:

According to the Wikipedia:

Scientists at 15 aquariums studied 90 seahorses of 3 species. Of 3168 sexual encounters, 37% were same sex acts. Flirting was common (up to 25 potential partners a day of both genders); only one species (the British Spiny Seahorse) included faithful representatives, and for these 5 of 17 were faithful, 12 were not. Bisexuality was widespread and considered "both a great surprise and a shock", with big bellied seahorses of both genders not showing partner preference. 1986 contacts were male-female, 836 were female-female and 346 were male-male.

More: The secret sex life of 'faithful' seahorses
Wikipedia: Animal Sexual Behavior

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Guardian Elves

I met a woman once who told me about her guardian angel. Her life wasn't all that great, but she believed in this invisible person that followed her around the whole time looking after her. It seemed a bit of a stretch, but she was certain of it. Me, I have an easier time believing in elves. Elves do stuff, they turn on the street lights every night and get the hedgehogs pregnant. Stuff you can see happening; empirical evidence.

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Apocalypse Elvis Wants To Dance

I'm sure there's an explanation.

link: Jailhouse Rock

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Blank Makes Us Uniquely Human

To answer the question humans as a species would first need to agree on what it is to be human, and that'll never happen. Identities and views of life are too diverse (and often deeply irrational). For all that, googling the phrase "makes us uniquely human" turns up a bunch of answers:

"logical thinking" - Terrence Real

"laughter" - Greg Thomas

"an insatiable thirst to know and explore the unknown" - Yasha Husain

"the ability to reproduce tempo and turn it into music" - Dolora Zajick

"thinking" - Donald C. Storm

"[how] the mind is set up in all kinds of organic and experiential ways to sort and select, edit and remember or discard" - Prokofy Neva

"our dualism: our understanding that there are material objects, or bodies, and people, or souls" - paraphrasing Paul Bloom

"language" - Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen

"the right prefrontal cortex" - Donald Stuss

"our ability to imagine the future" - D T Brookes

"our individuality - the ability to go consciously against the 'herd'" - Geoffrey Falk

"the capacity for thought and collective debate and action." - Eva Cox

"our capacity for self-awareness" - Jim Dryden

"transcendent longing to escape from nature" - Peter Lawler

"capacity for a loving relationship with our Heavenly Father" - Center Point Society

"ability for complex imitation" - Beth Azar

"[revealed by] the small differences between our genome and those of other animals" - Svante Pääbo

"early human prehistory" - Bob Gleichauf

"our ability to communicate" - Jan-Michelle Sawyer

"passion and spirit" - Pb Fisher

"the tension between mind and body" - Laurie Hassold

"our ability to add personal perspective to all things" - Gina Lawton

"poker" - Ask Kate

"[a] complex emotional repertoire" - Professor Solomon

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A Tax on Hair Powder

One fabulously arb pair of sentences, from the Wikipedia article on Dandys:

By the time Pitt taxed hair powder in 1795 to help pay for the war against France, Brummell had already abandoned wearing a wig, and had his hair cut in the Roman fashion, "à la Brutus". Moreover, he led the transition from breeches to snugly tailored dark "pantaloons," which directly lead to contemporary trousers, the sartorial mainstay of men's clothes in the Western world for the past two centuries.

From now on this will be my recourse when asked to explain anything I don't understand.

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Two Vicars for the Casserole

Following are the first six chapters of Anrew Montgomery's autobiographical novel Two Vicars for the Casserole. The paperback, which can be purchased at Lulu, comes highly recommended. Illustrations by Ash Latham.


The Channel Islands, those three words conjuring up sunshine, palm trees, white sandy beaches, tax-free drinks and cigarettes. Gatwick Airport was quiet, and our flight was called, on time. A smart and efficient-looking air hostess, with clipboard, forage cap and smile fixed firmly in place, led us out to the ’plane. My spirits sank when I saw it - a tiny, four-engined Heron which could take sixteen. “At least,? I cheered myself up by thinking, “we’ll get free gin but there’s not much room to get a trolley down the aisle?, as I climbed the three short steps and poked my head around the door.

“I wonder how she is going to get the trolley over that?? – ‘that’ being an enormous hump which crossed the narrow aisle - the main spar holding the wings on.

“Enjoy your flight?, the hostess smiled, then slammed the door shut from the outside. “Ah well, fasten safety belts.? Soon we were aloft in clear, sunny skies, and after about half an hour I looked down and saw a tiny island which looked most inviting and friendly, with small coves and sandy beaches, with the centre rising steeply, seemingly mostly grass-covered. “Must be Herm?, I thought, knowing my Channel Island names, but being sadly lacking in geographical knowledge. “We’ll soon be in Alderney.? We came in closer and closer, a long breakwater became visible, then a harbour, a church, houses and boats looking as though they were floating on air, the turquoise water was so still and clear.

“We’re not going to try and land this on that, there isn’t room!? But on we flew, inexorably, and lower and lower, until we were level with the top of a vertical cliff, flew up a steep valley, and plopped neatly down on a well-cropped grass airstrip, and rumbled to a clattering halt. Once the engines were cut, the quietness was almost oppressive.

Mum and Dad were there to meet me, with an ancient but dignified, faded pale blue half-timbered Morris Minor Traveller. Down from the airfield, through the cobbled streets of the small town, down towards the harbour and Braye Bay.

The house was in a cheerful, narrowing bit of street between the school and the Harbour Lights Hotel. A black dog, sound asleep in the middle of the road, woke, and ambled out of our way. Two tow-headed children, serious, hand in hand, in bathers, one of them holding a bucket, the other a shrimping net, picked their way between cottages, heading for the golden sweep of Braye. (continues after the jump...)

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Say It With Firecrackers

Bang! Bang! Bang! Fred Astaire.

[download this video] [view large]


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Sex and miRNA Research

Science Magazine recently ran a feature: Social Descision-making: Insights from Game Theory and Neuroscience - fascinating enough, though what really stuck out about it was an ad alongside the article. It's for a research service using PCR to somehow identify micro-RNA, messenger molecules that regulate gene expression.

(note: I do not endorse this company, its product or their advertising. I don't know enough about the subject.)

It shows an asian guy and a hot young woman - 20 or so by my optimistic guess but she might be 16 - pointing at a display (hologram?) showing what could be a section of folded miRNA. A visit to the advertiser's website shows many more pretty, smiling girls in spotless white lab coats; on almost every page (seriously, why wear a lab coat if you're not going to get dirty, or at least do some work and muss it up). However this service works it is highly technical, possibly proprietary, and serves a small and highly technical market. Whoever makes purchasing decisions for this service probably knows a *lot* about their field, is price sensitive (to be outsourcing) and knows exactly what their needs are, yet the provider (Qiagen, no link) is using sex to sell it.

There's a maxim in advertising: "No matter what you're selling, you're selling.", ie, the skills and methods of manipulating people are always the same, regardless of the end to which you are trying to affect peoples judgment and usurp their free will. I consider the pharmaceutical industry one of the hardest-nosed, second only to the banking industry, they would sell soylent green laced with thalidomide if they could make money doing it and I'd think the illness industry would be large among the customers of this PCR service. Yet the ad agency, who doubtless know what they're doing, have decided the best way to influence these people is with a pretty girl - such an obvious and transparent ploy. The maxim seems to hold true, and that's astonishing.

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All Squirrels, All The Time

Google News has a feed (2317 current stories) documenting the ongoing relationship between mankind and the sciuridae, and the profound effect squirrels have on all aspects of being. Ecologists warn that if squirrels were to die off then all life as we know it would be gone in 10 years. Even bacteria could not survive.

I was surprised to learn:

Squirrels are reluctant users of oral contraceptives, which are administered to reduce the number of greys. Greys are thought to have been introduced to Ireland in 1911 when a bunch were brought over as a wedding present. Personally, I don't know which is weirder, giving someone a bunch of live squirrels as a wedding present (cattle, yes, goats, fine, 200 head of squirrel, very irregular dowry) or spending your weekend in a cornfield for the purpose of shooting the little fluffies.

"How was your weekend Bob?"

"Great, here I brought you something. Don't eat them all at once, you'll get worms."

[Opens Box] "Uh... thanks."

Squirrel hunting is reputedly a popular and emotionally satisfying sport that can lead rednecks to shoot one another, though the North-West Arkansas News laments that many young'uns nowadays would rather play with them thar newfangled computer machines. They go on to reminisce about a childhood which "revolved around filling a game sack with a limit of squirrels" and how at bedtime "sleep was hard to find as visions of blazing guns and running squirrels clouded our restless thoughts". [no, really]

Louisiana has 300,000 squirrel hunters, and the season starts October 5th. Why hunt squirrels? Because they taste better fresh than the canned squirrels you can get at the supermarket. I'm a vegetarian, but if I ever see a can of squirrel meat I'll buy it just to keep around.

So yes, everyone should subscribe to this feed (it's important), though there is overall a disappointing lack of squirrely wrath.

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Thinking About Proas

A Proa is a style of boat which is very fast and very efficient. Proas are symmetrical lengthways and always sail with the same side to the wind, reversing direction and moving the sail when changing tack. On the windward side is a small outrigger (ama) which is weighted by the crew. has a gallery of traditional proa designs from various parts of the pacific.

I wonder if a more modern design could take the form of a trimaran with sliding aka (crossbeams), so the ama on the leeward side is pulled next to the main hull and the ama on the windward side extends away, pulling on the mast via sprung cables. Fresh water is then pumped as ballast into a tank on the windward ama. As a conventional trimaran heels away from the wind one of the amas is pushed deeper into the water, increasing drag and causing the boat to want to turn. Sliding akas could reduce this (I think).

If the wind were on the same side long enough to warrant the effort - thinking of a large boat - stores and equipment could be moved into lockers on the ama to further increase speed. This gives some of the efficiency of a proa but uses more conventional sails and has a stern, rather than two bows. Being able to move the amas may also make the boat easier to right if it capsizes, though I recall reading somewhere that trimarans should be righted bow-over-stern instead of sideways.

Picture is of Queequeg 18, a rather attractive design by Michael Schacht of ProaFile, modified to illustrate the idea. (Queequeg was the noble savage type in Herman Melville's Moby Dick)

Update: This has been done before, Timothy Colman's Crossbow had a sliding aka design and set the world speed record in 1972.

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Calling all Junior Scientists
Obama Cuts Funding For Abstinence Only Sex Ed
New York Became My Canvas
How I Wonder Is A Cat
Interactive Map Of Stupid
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Challenge You Forever

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