Nowadays if you’re on a railway station and hear an announcement, it’s usually a computer stitching together samples1. But back in the day, there used to be a human
with a Tannoy microphone sitting in the back office, telling you about the platform alternations and
I had a friend who did it as a summer job, once. For years afterwards, he had a party trick that I always quite enjoyed: you’d say the name of a terminus station on a direct line from
Preston, e.g. Edinburgh Waverley, and he’d respond in his announcer-voice: “calling at Lancaster, Oxenholme the Lake District, Penrith, Carlisle, Lockerbie, Haymarket, and Edinburgh
Waverley”, listing all of the stops on that route. It was a quirky, beautiful, and unusual talent. Amazingly, when he came to re-apply for his job the next summer he didn’t get it,
which I always thought was a shame because he clearly deserved it: he could do the job blindfold!
There was a strange transitional period during which we had machines to do these announcements, but they weren’t that bright. Years later I found myself on Haymarket station waiting for
the next train after mine had been cancelled, when a robot voice came on to announce a platform alteration: the train to Glasgow would now be departing from platform 2, rather than
platform 1. A crowd of people stood up and shuffled their way over the footbridge to the opposite side of the tracks. A minute or so later, a human announcer apologised for the
inconvenience but explained that the train would be leaving from platform 1, and to disregard the previous announcement. Between then and the train’s arrival the computer tried twice
more to send everybody to the wrong platform, leading to a back-and-forth argument between the machine and the human somewhat reminiscient of the white zone/red zone scene from Airplane! It was funny perhaps only
because I wasn’t among the people whose train was in superposition.
Clearly even by then we’d reached the point where the machine was well-established and it was easier to openly argue with it than to dig out the manual and work out how to turn it off.
Nowadays it’s probably even moreso, but hopefully they’re less error-prone.
When people talk about how technological unemployment, they focus on the big changes, like how a tipping point with self-driving vehicles might one day revolutionise the haulage
industry… along with the social upheaval that comes along with forcing a career change on millions of drivers.
But in the real world, automation and technological change comes in salami slices. Horses and carts were seen alongside the automobile for decades. And you still find stations with
human announcers. Even the most radically-disruptive developments don’t revolutionise the world overnight. Change is inevitable, but with preparation, we can be ready for it.
For the last six years I’ve kept a spreadsheet listing every parking spot I’ve used at the local supermarket in a bid to park in them all. This week I completed my Magnum Opus! A
I live in Bromley and almost always shop at the same Sainsbury’s in the centre of town, here’s a satellite view of their car park. It’s a great car park because you can always get a
space and it is laid out really well. Comfortably in my top 5 Bromley car parks.
After quite a few years of going each week I started thinking about how many of the different spots I’d parked in and how long it would take to park in them all. My life is one long
A glorious story from a man with the kind of dedication that would have gotten him far in CNPS back in the day (I wonder if Claire ever got past 13 points…).
This is the kind of thing that I occasionally consider adding to the list of mundane shit I track about my life. But then I start thinking about the tracking infrastructure and I end up
adding far more future-proofing than I intend: I start thinking about tracking how often my hayfever causes me problems so I can correlate it to the time and the location data I already
record to work out which tree species’ pollen affects me the most. Or tracking a variety of mood metrics so I can see if, as I’ve long suspected, the number of unread emails in my
inboxen negatively correlates to my general happiness.
In these challenging times, and especially because my work and social circles have me communicate regularly with people in
many different countries and with many different backgrounds, I’m especially grateful for the following:
My partner, her husband, and I
each have jobs that we can do remotely and so we’re not out-of-work during the crisis.
Our employers are understanding of our need to reduce and adjust our hours to fit around our new lifestyle now that schools and nurseries are (broadly) closed.
Our kids are healthy and not at significant risk of serious illness.
We’ve got the means, time, and experience to provide an adequate homeschooling environment for them in the immediate term.
(Even though we’d hoped to have moved house by now and haven’t, perhaps at least in part because of COVID-19,) we
have a place to live that mostly meets our needs.
We have easy access to a number of supermarkets with different demographics, and even where we’ve been impacted by them we’ve always been able to work-around the where
panic-buying-induced shortages have reasonably quickly.
We’re well-off enough that we were able to buy or order everything we’d need to prepare for lockdown without financial risk.
Having three adults gives us more hands on deck than most people get for childcare, self-care, etc.
(we’re “parenting on easy mode”).
We live in a country in which the government (eventually) imposed the requisite amount of lockdown necessary to limit the spread of the
We’ve “only” got the catastrophes of COVID-19 and Brexit to deal with, which is a bearable amount of
crisis, unlike my colleague in Zagreb for example.
Whenever you find the current crisis getting you down, stop and think about the things that aren’t-so-bad or are even good. Stopping and expressing your gratitude for them in
whatever form works for you is good for your happiness and mental health.
This afternoon, the kids and I helped with some citizen science as part of the Thames WaterBlitz, a collaborative effort
to sample water quality of the rivers, canals, and ponds of the Thames Valley to produce valuable data for the researchers of today and tomorrow.
My two little science assistants didn’t need any encouragement to get out of the house and into the sunshine and were eager to go. I didn’t even have to pull out my trump card of
pointing out that there were fruiting brambles along the length of the canal. As I observed in a vlog last year, it’s usually pretty easy to
motivate the tykes with a little foraging.
The EarthWatch Institute had provided all the chemicals and instructions we needed by post, as well as a mobile app with which to record our results (or paper forms, if we preferred).
Right after lunch, we watched their instructional video and set out to the sampling site. We’d scouted out a handful of sites including some on the River Cherwell as it snakes through
Kidlington but for this our first water-watch expedition we figured we’d err on the safe side and aim to target only a single site: we chose this one both because it’s close to home and
because a previous year’s citizen scientist was here, too, improving the comparability of the results year-on-year.
On this day 50 years ago launched the first mission to take people to the moon. As part of #GlobalRocketLaunch day the
5-year-old and I fired off stomp rockets and learned about the science and engineering of Apollo 11.
Kurzgesagt tells it like it is. The thing I love the most about this video is the clickbaity title that’s clearly geared to try to get the attention of antivaxxers and the “truth
teaser” opening which plays a little like many antivaxxer videos and other media… and then the fact that it goes and drops a science bomb on all the fools who tout their superstitious
This is just…wooooah. Proper “dude, my hands are huge” grade moment, for me, when I watched the bubbles form in the droplet of water. I had an idea about what would happen, and I was
partially right, but by the time we were onto the third run-through of this experiment I realised that I’d been seeing more in it every single time.
In 2014, microbiologists began a study that they hope will continue long after they’re dead.
In the year 2514, some future scientist will arrive at the University of Edinburgh (assuming the university still exists), open a wooden box (assuming the box has not been lost), and
break apart a set of glass vials in order to grow the 500-year-old dried bacteria inside. This all assumes the entire experiment has not been forgotten, the instructions have not been
garbled, and science—or some version of it—still exists in 2514.
This is a biology experiment that’s planned to run for half a millenium. How does one even make such a thing possible?
Thinking about the difficulties in constructing a message that may be understood for generations into the future reminds me of the work done on a possible marking system for nuclear waste disposal (which would need to continue to carry the message that a place is dangerous for ten
This kind of philosophical thinking may require further work, though, if we’re ever to send spacecraft on interstellar journeys: another kind of “long” experiment. How might we preserve
the records of what we’ve done, so that our descendants have the opportunity to continue our work, in a way that promotes the iterative translation and preservation of the messages that
are required to support it? For example: if an experiment is to be understandable if rediscovered after a hypothetical future dark age, what precautions do we need to take today?
An increasing number of people are reportedly suffering from an allergy to the meat and other products of nonhuman mammals, reports Mosaic Science this week, and we’re increasingly confident that the cause is
a sensitivity to alpha-gal (Galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose), a carbohydrate produced in the bodies of virtually
all mammals except for us and our cousin apes, monkeys, and simians (and one of the reasons you can’t transplant tissue from pigs to humans, for example).
The interesting thing is that the most-common cause of alpha-gal sensitivity appears to be the bite of one of a small number of species of tick. The most-likely hypothesis seems to be
that being bitten by such a tick after it’s bitten e.g. deer or cattle may introduce that species’ alpha-gal directly to your bloodstream. This exposure triggers an immune response
through all future exposure, even if it’s is more minor, e.g. consuming milk products or even skin contact with an animal.
That’s nuts, isn’t it? The Mosaic Science article describes the reaction of Tami McGraw, whose symptoms began in 2010:
[She] asked her doctor to order a little-known blood test that would show if her immune system was reacting to a component of mammal meat. The test result was so strongly positive,
her doctor called her at home to tell her to step away from the stove.
That should have been the end of her problems. Instead it launched her on an odyssey of discovering just how much mammal material is present in everyday life. One time, she took
capsules of liquid painkiller and woke up in the middle of the night, itching and covered in hives provoked by the drug’s gelatine covering.
When she bought an unfamiliar lip balm, the lanolin in it made her mouth peel and blister. She planned to spend an afternoon gardening, spreading fertiliser and planting flowers, but
passed out on the grass and had to be revived with an EpiPen. She had reacted to manure and bone meal that were enrichments in bagged compost she had bought.
Of course, this isn’t the only nor even the most-unusual (or most-severe) animal-induced allergy-to-a-different-animal we’re aware of. The hilariously-named but terribly-dangerous
Pork-Cat syndrome is caused, though we’re not sure how, by exposure to cats and
results in a severe allergy to pork. But what makes alpha-gal sensitivity really interesting is that it’s increasing in frequency at quite a dramatic rate. The culprit? Climate change.
It’s impossible to talk to physicians encountering alpha-gal cases without hearing that something has changed to make the tick that transmits it more common – even though they don’t
know what that something might be.
“Climate change is likely playing a role in the northward expansion,” Ostfeld adds, but acknowledges that we don’t know what else could also be contributing.
A little dated, perhaps: I’m sure that nobody needs to be told nowadays that one of the biggest things a Westerner can do to reduce their personal carbon footprint (after from breeding less or not at all, which I maintain is the biggest, or avoiding air
travel, which Statto argues for) is to reduce or refrain from consumption of meat (especially pork and beef) and dairy products.
Indeed, environmental impact was the biggest factor in my vegetarianism (now weekday-vegetarianism) for
the last eight years, and it’s an outlook that I’ve seen continue to grow in others over the same period.
Seeing these two stories side-by-side in my RSS reader put the Gaia hypothesis in my mind.
If you’re not familiar with the Gaia hypothesis, the basic idea is this: by some mechanism, the Earth and all of the life on it act in synergy to maintain homeostasis. Organisms not
only co-evolve with one another but also with the planet itself, affecting their environment in a way that in turn affects their future evolution in a perpetual symbiotic relationship
of life and its habitat.
Its advocates point to negative feedback loops in nature such as plankton blooms affecting the weather in ways that inhibit
plankton blooms and to simplistic theoretical models like the Daisyworld Simulation
(cute video). A minority of its proponents go a step further and describe the Earth’s changes teleologically, implying a conscious Earth with an intention to
protect its ecosystems (yes, these hypotheses were born out of the late 1960s, why do you ask?). Regardless, the essence is the same: life’s effect on its environment affects the
environment’s hospitality to life, and vice-versa.
There’s an attractive symmetry to it, isn’t there, in light of the growth in alpha-gal allergies? Like:
Today – climate change causes ticks to spread more-widely and bite more humans.
Tomorrow – tick bites cause humans to consume less products farmed from mammals?
That’s not to say that I buy it, mind. The Gaia hypothesis has a number of problems, and – almost as bad – it encourages a complacent “it’ll all be okay, the Earth will fix itself”
mindset to climate change (which, even if it’s true, doesn’t bode well for the humans residing on it).
But it was a fun parallel to land in my news reader this morning, so I thought I’d share it with you. And, by proxy, make you just a little bit warier of ticks than you might have been
Quantum computing is all the rage. It seems like hardly a day goes by without some news outlet describing the extraordinary things this technology promises. Most commentators forget,
or just gloss over, the fact that people have been working on quantum computing for decades—and without any practical results to show for it.
We’ve been told that quantum computers could “provide breakthroughs in many disciplines, including
materials and drug discovery, the optimization of complex manmade systems, and artificial intelligence.” We’ve been assured that
quantum computers will “forever alter our economic, industrial, academic, and societal landscape.” We’ve even been told that “the encryption that protects the world’s most sensitive
data may soon be broken” by quantum computers. It has gotten to the point where many researchers in various fields of physics feel obliged to justify whatever work they are doing by
claiming that it has some relevance to quantum computing.
Meanwhile, government research agencies, academic departments (many of them funded by government agencies), and corporate laboratories are spending billions of dollars a year
developing quantum computers. On Wall Street, Morgan Stanley and other financial giants expect quantum computing to mature soon and are keen to figure out
how this technology can help them.
It’s become something of a self-perpetuating arms race, with many organizations seemingly staying in the race if only to avoid being left behind. Some of the world’s top technical
talent, at places like Google, IBM, and Microsoft, are working hard, and with lavish resources in state-of-the-art laboratories, to realize their vision of a quantum-computing future.
In light of all this, it’s natural to wonder: When will useful quantum computers be constructed? The most optimistic experts estimate it will take 5 to 10 years. More cautious
ones predict 20 to 30 years. (Similar predictions have been voiced, by the way, for the last 20 years.) I belong to a tiny minority that answers, “Not in the foreseeable future.”
Having spent decades conducting research in quantum and condensed-matter physics, I’ve developed my very pessimistic view. It’s based on an understanding of the gargantuan technical
challenges that would have to be overcome to ever make quantum computing work.
Great article undermining all the most-widespread popular arguments about how quantum computing will revolutionise aboslutely everything, any day now. Let’s stay realistic, here:
despite all the hype, it might well be the case that it’s impossible to build a quantum computer of sufficient complexity to have any meaningful impact on the world beyond the
most highly-experimental and theoretical applications. And even if it is possible, its applications might well be limited: the “great potential” they carry is highly
Don’t get me wrong, I’m super excited about the possibility of quantum computing, too. But as Mickhail points out, we must temper our excitement with a little realism and not give in to
Why are testicles kept in a vulnerable dangling sac? It’s not why you think.
Some of you may be thinking that there is a simple answer: temperature. This arrangement evolved to keep them cool. I thought so, too, and assumed that a quick glimpse at the
scientific literature would reveal the biological reasons and I’d move on. But what I found was that the small band of scientists who have dedicated their professional time to
pondering the scrotum’s existence are starkly divided over this so-called cooling hypothesis.
Fabulous explanation of the Strong Equivalence Principle coupled with a nice bit of recent research to prove that it holds true even in extreme gravitational fields (and therefore
disproving a few interesting fringe theories). It’s hard science made to enjoy like pop science: yay! Plus a Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reference, to boot. Under 10,000
views; go show them some love.