We Can

iCan is a new website set up by the BBC to let people discuss local issues and team up with other citizens to effect change, by using a clever combination of forums, locational information and databases. Some issues they’re tackling are schools, anti-social behaviour, litter, traffic and so on.

So, why are people whining about iCan? These people say that iCan is merely covering ‘minutiae’ that no-one cares about and should instead be about the war in Iraq or global relations. Whoa there – sure, people care about the war and George Bush. But they also care about litter, graffiti, local crime and traffic – to dismiss them as being minutiae is deeply patronising (a charge they make against the BBC, amusingly enough).

It’s ridiculous to expect iCan to solve all of the country’s problems, and downright foolish to think that it would cover such topics as the war, given that it’s being run by the BBC. However, iCan has the potential to change many other issues that people truly do care about, and that should be enough for anybody.


Seal on Music – the Guardian Online interviewed Seal today, and he’s remarkably well-informed on the latest technological and IP matters. Nice to see that at least one musician has a brain.

In Print

‘One of the best veteran bloggers’ (scroll to the bottom of the page) – that’s what I am kids, according to the NetGuide NZ magazine. A while back I got an email from some reporter asking for weblogging tips for a magazine. I was in half a mind to delete the email because it looked suspiciously like spam, but I later relented and bashed out a couple of paragraphs, which have apparently made it into the magazine. Neat stuff.


In what must be a record for me, I finished Robert Sawyer’s Hominids in around three hours this weekend; that’s about 30 seconds per page. I don’t normally read that quickly, but Hominids was a particularly easy read and had several sections on the science of DNA and quantum physics, both of which I am reasonably familiar with. Familiar enough to speed-read those sections, at least.

Anyway, it was a good book and I imagine the other books in the trilogy will be equally enjoyable.

Until I read Quicksilver, I never really had that much interest in the history of science. It’s a testament to Stephenson’s skill as an author that I’m quite eager to find out more. John Gribbin’s Science: A History can’t touch Quicksilver (perhaps because it’s not fiction, but that’s not just it) but it’s still an interesting read. I’m about a third of the way through the book, which is arranged chronologically (Newton, as usual, is currently centre stage), and it’s steadily improving.

I was a little irritated at Gribbin continually stressing that basically all scientists are replaceable; that if, say, Newton or Galileo never lived, someone else would have made their discoveries a few years or at most decades later anyway. It’s a perfectly valid and thought-provoking point, but I didn’t need to be told it a dozen times in the first two chapters. Plus, Gribbin’s fondness for parentheses even exceeds my own, which is quite amazing, and somewhat annoying.

Aside from that, it’s a good book and it certainly qualifies him to be the author of the upcoming The Science of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials”, which promises to be a much better effort that the equivalent Harry Potter book, partly because there is some seriously interesting science in HDM, such as entangled particles.

Planet Jemma

It’s a great idea – create a fictional online journal of a 19 year old English girl who’s interested in science (and boys, etc etc) to get other girls into science. And that’s what the British Council has done with Planet Jemma.

Now, I don’t dare to presume that I have any special insight into the minds of young teenage girls, but I don’t see how the website (not the idea) can work at all, on anyone. It’s a real pain to navigate and read, and there’s no real indication on what you’re supposed to do. You have to register to be able to participate (which probably cuts down on their visitors by an enormous percentage) and the whole thing smells of a somewhat desperate attempt of ‘cool and with it’ adults to pretend to be teenagers.

Hey guys – it won’t work! You won’t find anyone better than teenagers at detecting imposters, especially in a dubious subject like science. A more sensible solution would be just to get a real science undergraduate to write a diary (preferably someone who can actually write, but there are plenty of those around).

The science on the website leaves a lot to be desired. There was some guff about ‘quantum teleportation’ on today which didn’t explain what it meant and ended up as a horrible, horrible jumble of confusing concepts that wouldn’t convince anyone.

God knows how much the British Council paid to create this website – I suspect well into five figures, very possibly six, given the copious amounts of Flash used – but they have far better things to spend their money on than this ‘pseudo-teenage’ rubbish.

Middle England SF

Radio 4 on SF – the Open Book series on BBC Radio 4 recently aired (12th October) a very good programme introducing people to science fiction. You can listen to the programme at the link above, which features authors such as Pat Cadigan, Stephen Baxter and Iain Banks. I was pleasantly surprised to hear a reading taken from Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson.


Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, Quicksilver, arrived on my doorstep (metaphorically speaking) some time last week. Initially I thought to myself, ‘I’m a busy guy, I don’t have time to read this 900 page book in one go, as I usually do. Instead, I think I shall read it in little chunks, perhaps a reasonable hundred pages a day.’

And thus did this pass, for about two days. After this, my reading time increased exponentially to the point that I spent perhaps five hours a day reading it in the past two days. In other words, it’s a compelling novel.

Quicksilver is set in the 17th and 18th centuries, at the time of Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, the founding of the Royal Society and the Glorious Revolution, among other notable events. In typical Stephenson style, it is not actually possible to describe the plot of the book, which doesn’t even seem to exist for the greater part of the time. Instead, the main characters – Daniel Waterhouse, a Puritan member of the Royal Society; Jack Shaftoe, King of the Vagabonds; and Eliza (who defies description) – are caught up in the whirlwind of that age and occasionally make their mark upon it.

Of course, there is a plot of sorts, but that is not important. What is important is that Quicksilver demonstrates that Stephenson can write a highly intelligent, complex and amusing novel no matter what age it is set in. However, it would be a mistake to assume that Quicksilver is essential Cryptonomicon set three hundred years ago. Firstly, the vast majority of people (myself included) really have no idea what happened back then; we don’t know the events, the people, the words and the places.

This places a rather heavy burden on Stephenson to explain all of this. To his credit, he manages to do this in a way that doesn’t smell of excessive data dumping and if you have read any of his previous books you’ll know that he has this magical way of imparting complicated and otherwise boring information in a very entertaining way.

Unfortunately his skill only goes so far and after a while it becomes a bit of slog to plough through explanations of the political machinations and family trees in Christendom in that time. Such are the dangers of the task Stephenson has set himself.

Secondly, despite the fact that Quicksilver features a Waterhouse, a Shaftoe and a Root, they are not carbon copies of the characters in Cryptonomicon; they do share some temperaments but they are essentially new characters – which is good.

Thirdly, Quicksilver is written in a very different style, which might be described as ‘baroque’ (ha!*). While Stephenson doesn’t go off on quite as many peculiar (and some might say superfluous) tangents as he did in Cryptonomicon, he employs such a range of writing styles that you begin to wonder whether there is a novel buried in all the plays and letters he has liberally scattered around. Again, I felt this was a good thing, although sometimes distracting.

Finally, Quicksilver being a ‘historical fiction’, it inhabits the world of the 17th and 18th centuries while taking some liberties with the events that actually happened. This is to be expected. However, it is frequently difficult to work out whether some fantastical event or scene shown in the book is true, or sprung from Stephenson’s mind. This is where his MetaWeb wiki comes in, which is basically a set of online annotations that, among other things, tells the readers what is true and what is not.

I enjoyed reading Quicksilver. It wasn’t quite what I expected (e.g., it had a really good ending) and it was significantly more difficult to read than any of his other books, but it was very entertaining and I felt like I learned a lot about the age it was set in. My complaints would be that none of the major characters were particularly well fleshed out with the possible exception of Daniel Waterhouse – and this is in a 900 page novel. In fact, I felt that he depicted some of the ‘real’ characters with more depth than his own – Newton and Hooke, for example (but perhaps this is not surprising).

Quicksilver is only the first of the Baroque Cycle trilogy. Thankfully, we won’t have to wait as long for the sequels as we did for Quicksilver – both books will be released within a year. It remains to be seen whether Stephenson can hold on to his readers’ attention for a further 1800 pages but I have a feeling that the novels will only improve.

On a side note, Quicksilver has made me feel like an utter ingrate for blithely living in Trinity College, Cambridge for three years and not being sufficiently impressed about the events that occurred there. In fact, as I was walking to college here in Oxford today, I saw a plaque on the High Street commemorating Robert Hooke, who had a starring role in Quicksilver. I felt uncharacteristically proud to be a student in Oxford at that point. To hell with history lessons, just give kids a copy of Quicksilver!

On memory

My 4 year DPhil here at Oxford is funded by a studentship from the Wellcome Trust. This is a great thing because it means I have enough money to, for example, live, and it also means that any research groups I join will not have to pay for me. It’s even better than that, though, because I just found out that my studentship comes with a research grant that goes to any group(s) I join. So in effect, by taking me on, I would be giving them money!

As a result, I’ve already had group leaders sidling up to me and nonchalantly informing me of the highly interesting and vital research work that they are doing. It is pretty cool.

I’m not actually expected to join an existing research project though; I’ve been told that I can basically think of any project (within reason) that involves ion channels. This might seem a little restrictive, but you have to realise that every cell in every organism has ion channels and they’re essential for, well, every biological process. So recently I’ve been giving some thought to memory and cognition, and how it might be improved by drugs.

Recently a drug called modafinil (aka provigil) has been making headlines about how it can drastically boost concentration and wakefulness. All of this is true. Even better, modafinil doesn’t appear to have any real side-effects at all. Unsurprisingly, legions of Americans, very few of whom actually have sleep disorders (which is what the drug is supposed to be for), have been trying to get their hands on this wonder-drug.

Would they be worried, or at least surprised, if they knew that we have no idea how modafinil works? Probably not. But I’m quite interested. I’ve started reviewing the literature on modafinil and haven’t been able to find much addressing the molecular and cellular mechanisms of the drug’s action; sure, there have been plenty of clinical studies checking to see whether it works or not, and people have been looking quite hard to find any harmful side-effects – but this doesn’t tell us how it works.

Of course, there are some groups trying to figure out how it works, but mostly the progress they’ve made is finding out how it doesn’t work (it doesn’t seem to involve the dopamine system, for example). So I think this is an interesting area for research and could shed some light on how normal memory and cognition work. My worry, however, is that since modafinil appears to have such global effects on consciousness, it might be very difficult to work out how individual systems are being affected.

Luckily, I have about a year before I have to start the serious research component of my DPhil so I have plenty of time to make my mind up on a project.

On Oxford

Oxford is quite a bit larger than Cambridge, which isn’t a remarkable feat, and still leaves it small enough to across the city centre in 30 minutes – if you can get through the crowds, that is.

There are an incredible number of tourists in Oxford. I think that the majority of pedestrians in the city are in fact tourists on most days. Perhaps I’m exaggerating, but I would say that they are the single largest reason for slowing down pedestrian traffic in the city. I can understand the occasional bunch of tourists standing outside a college blocking everyone’s way. I can tolerate young tourists ‘mall-walking’ across the pavement; I certainly had to in Cambridge.

But I just can’t stand the sheer number of tourists choking the streets; they’re on the verge of overwhelming my not inconsiderable skills at crowd navigation. The classic strategies such as slipstreaming and the old ‘step and pivot’ are useless in the face of a solid wall of sightseers.

Anyway. I will have to live it with.