Anna: The Green Room is a BBC project, a series of fascinating opinion pieces from a range of leading academics, advisers and specialists. The common theme is the environment, as you might have guessed from the name. The latest offering is an interesting comment on the challenges we face to innovate and adapt in the face of continuing climatic change and environmental disruption. It's written by the Government's chief scientific adviser, Sir David King. I won't attempt to summarise the article itself here, you'll have to read it yourself!! But it's interesting to note that King ends with a rallying cry to young people, urging them to "consider a future in scientific discovery; or in engineering to bring innovative technologies to real world application." He adds that "there has never been a greater need for inquisitive and determined young minds to develop the solutions needed for the 21st Century." I don't know about you, but when I think about the chav-tastic state of the nation, I'm not filled with hope for the future...
Archive for April, 2007
Anna: The rise and rise of the "gap year", not to mention all those early-retirement SKI-ers (Spending the Kids' Inheritance), has ensured that an increasing number of Brits are seeking adventure abroad. Trekking to Everest base Camp, rafting the Zambezi, mountain biking in the Andes...the chioce just keeps getting wider. Sadly, there has also been an upturn in the number of accidents and deaths affecting people on adventurous trips. So it's good news that a new British standard has been launched, namely BS 8848: A Specification for adventurous activities, expeditions, visits and fieldwork outside the UK. The standard aims to reduce the participant's risk of injury or illness, and stipulates good practice guidelines for the trip organiser. One area where difficulties have arisen in the past is the use of local suppliers on location. While the tour operator may have high standards in the UK, once at the destination travellers have often found aspects of safety provision to be lacking. The standard addresses this issue by requiring that one person or organisation be identified as the "venture provider" or "expedition organiser". As such, they would have responsibility for all aspects of the trip including safety. The standard is the culmination of a long process which began in 1999 when Peter Eisenegger proposed the idea to the British Standards Institute. His daughter Claire had tragically died of heat stroke on a gap year expedition that year. Hopefully this standard will reassure parents that there is a much lower risk of their own child suffering a similar fate as a result of poor practice by the tour operator. So make sure you ask about BS 8848, and travel in the knowledge that yours is a responsible provider. For further information, see the BSI website
Alex: The Sopranos is sadly drawing to an end. What is without doubt one of the best TV series of all time will screen its final episode on American network HBO on June 10, 2007. Like many Mafioso dramas before it, including naturally The Godfather trilogy and Goodfellas, the vast majority of the Di Meo's family disputes take place in the presence of food - at restaurants, cafes and family gatherings. The characters are obsessed with food, even to the frustration of some of them. To quote Christopher Montisati - "Enough! I'm so sick and tired of hearing you people talk about food, food, food! That's all anybody ever talks about is proscuitto, cheese, and f***ing fava beans. I'm drowning here". Carmela Soprano's acerbic response to this outburst is classic - "When you're married you'll understand the importance of fresh produce". To my vast surprise and absolute delight I discovered a Sopranos Family Cook Book, compiled by the character, restauranteur and Soprano associate Artie Bucco (ghost written by Michele Scicolone). It features conversations with all the major characters and their recipes to cook at home. So grab a look at Carmela's tips on keeping a family party together (despite having a war in said family), read Dr. Melfi's paper "Rage, Guilt, Loneliness, and Food", take advice from Adriana La Cerva and learn how to barbecue from Tony himself, but watch out for ducks in the pool. I also dug up a recipe from the book, Sopranos Sunday Gravy, which sounds delicious. See also the unforgettable recipe given in The Godfather I - "Come over here kid, learn something, you never know you might have to cook for twenty guys some day" - a recipe I actually tried to repeat once myself. I could of course now wax theological about how every Catholic community, Italians particularly, even in the perverse case of the Cosa Nostra, has traditionally a family feast at its centre - the feast of the Eucharist, itself a reflection of a meal between friends - and that, indeed, Christ is lord of the feast that welcomes the poor, the lame and the outcasts without need for repayment and leaves the rich and proud in the outer darkness. In a sociological mode, there is certainly an interplay between love of food for foods sake and a Catholic culture, at least in my own ancedotal experience. But I won't go on - much.
Caroline: Of course it depends on what sort of friends you have, but if any of them ever offer you what you consider to be a load of old rubbish, you might be well off to accept. The artist Francis Bacon was about to throw out the "rubbish" from his infamously untidy studio but allowed his friend Mac Robertson to salvage what he could carry. Almost thirty years later the "spoils" which included letters and diaries were auctioned off for £1.1m with cheques signed by Bacon selling for £650 and a postcard fetching £10,000.
Caroline: I was surprised to learn recently that businesses are being encourages by NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) to allow employees time off to quit their habit. I quite accept that smokers are generally less healthy than non-smokers and that apart from being prone to coughs and colds they are also more likely to have serious conditions such as cancer and heart-disease. There is also the question of their smoking breaks which mean that smokers work on average 30 mins less per day. It would obviously make sense for all involved if they were able to kick the nicotine habit but I can't see it going down too well when non-smokers are expected to cover for their colleagues when they attend stop-smoking clinics or the like. It is interesting that even the director of Forest, the pro-smoking group, was against the idea.
Rushda: Being on an intense course at Cambridge and having exams in just under a month's time for which I haven't yet done much work (oops), naturally I spend most of my time playing games on the computer and doing mindless browsing. One cool procrastination site I've found is Wikihow, recommended to me by a friend. It's a "how-to" manual that anyone can edit, and each manual consists of a list of steps. So if you want to find out how to make a 3D paper snowflake, get an upgrade to first class in a plane, or even just have a great conversation, that's where you go to. Now, I wonder if they have a list on how to stop procrastination... hmmm... Bingo. Fun fun.
Virgil: Researchers from the US have managed to simulate half of the brain of a mouse (the squeaky cheesy kind) on their supercomputers. This is incredibly interesting in the context of the philosophy of mind and neuroscience (the latter being much more the purpose of the research). All brains, including those of humans, are made up of a vast network of interconnected neurons. Neurons act like messengers - they receive signals and pass new signals on. As it is very commonly believed that brains are responsible for thought, decisions, memory, rationality and consciousness, it seems logical to suppose that in some way these mental properties are the result of the spaghetti of signals in your neurons. The wonderful thing about neurons is that they can be simulated. This is because they work exactly like a computer function, a piece of code that can receive and send on signals. This idea has been used for many years to create special programs called "neural networks" which are capable of some very limited brain-like learning for specific tasks. In a similar way, this new research has mapped half of the neurons from a mouse's brain onto computer functions in a neural network called a "cortical simulator" - a simulated half-mouse. When the program was run, the artifical cortex had "biologically consistent dynamical properties" - the "nerves" fired in the characteristic staggered, co-ordinated patterns seen in nature. Half a mouse was inside the computer. Although this research is still very much in its infancy, perhaps one day in the future we'll be able to attach a different kind of mouse to our computers.
Rushda: It'll probably sound too good to be true for all those people who have slaved away for years in an effort to lose weight, but a new pill has been designed by scientists in the US that actually does make you slimmer. Basically it persuades the body to burn fat, by switching on the body’s fat regulator even during periods of inactivity. The pill may soon be seen as an alternative to exercise, especially for those who are obese and cannot exercise properly. Weightloss has always almost by definition been physically and psychologically demanding, and we've all learnt to be wary of quick-fix methods. But this "metabolic trickery" really seems to change it all. Personally I'm very unconvinced and think it should only be used in extreme cases where exercise cannot be done. After all, even if it is shown to be completely safe and with no side effects (which is dubitable in itself), the pill will only cut down fat and only mimic health, as there will be no other benefits that usually accompany exercise.
Virgil: There's a little program you can download called Folding@Home, which runs only when your computer is idle and aids medical research. The research being done is into the process of 'protein folding'. This is a process that takes place just before vital proteins do their vital jobs in your body - and many nasty diseases are the effects of proteins having 'mis-folded'. Obviously, understanding protein folding will greatly aid our progress towards cures for these diseases, which include Alzheimer's and Cancer. However, analysing protein folding is a ridiculously computer-intensive process. In fact, so intensive that it needs thousands of supercomputers just to do a tiny bit, and this is why the labs need us to be folding at home. If you download the aforementioned program, then when your computer is idle it will work on folding a protein. When it's done (a week of idle-time later, I find), it sends the results back to the research laboratories. In this way our PCs becomes tributaries to the computing power of the project. It's a wonderfully good idea. What's this got to do with the PlayStation 3? Well, as you may know, the PS3 is the latest and most advanced seventh-generation computer games console, which incorporates no less than a revolutionary new processor, the Cell processor, capable of "supercomputer-like speeds". All this technology is used to render video games with photorealistic graphics and plenty of Z-buffered anti-aliased anisotropically-filtered pixel-shaded particle-system spurts of blood as you murder yet another on-screen zombie. But you can now download Folding@Home for your PS3, and put some of that power to a better cause while your game is paused.
Alex: Grindhouse, the new Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriquez film extravaganza, that takes in two separate films Death Proof (featuring a murderous indestructible stunt driver) and Planet Terror (that features a woman whose leg is replaced with a machine gun), may be split in two for UK release. The trailers that would sit between this double feature, might also get the chop; fake trailers advertise other fake exploitation films by Rodriquez himself (Machete), Eli Roth (Thanksgiving), Edgar Wright (of Hot Fuzz fame, Don't)and Rob Zombie (Werewolf Women of the S.S. no less!). This is due to the lack of box-office success in the States. The critical reaction has been good, but they seem incapable of getting people through the door. From those bracketed descriptions, one can get an impression of what is at stake: two high octane, high fun films that ape the best of the B-movie tradition in their combination of ultra violence, weird sex and plain demented geek silliness. This strikes me as a real shame since the whole point was to re-create the titular Grindhouse experience. As Bob Bloom states: "It is not the movies themselves that are great...Rather, it is the way they are presented" - as a double feature with all the trimmings. Surely, this represents another commercial destruction of directors vision by the studio system. When directors of the calibre of Tarrantino are no longer able to have creative control, what does this say about the state of art in Hollywood? Least we forget, not even someone widely-regarded as the best 20th Century American director, Martin Scorcese, had the final cut rights on Gangs of New York, a film that he had attempted to make for almost thirty years. Watch the trailer and lament that you will never see it as the directors intended. Worse, you will have to line the pockets of the studio machine twice to see both. Criminal.