December 2004

“There are striking parallels between the renewable energy industry today and the personal computing industry circa 1980. Much of the basic technology required for personal computing was already in place and was on the verge of becoming economical for mass production. The personal computer hardware and software industry was characterized at that time by small, under-capitalized firms that catered to a hobbyist market (known today as “early adopters,” in industry parlance). The software and hardware of that time was more complicated to install and use (early computers were generally useless except to programmers). “ MORE


Dry Quicksand

by Limbic on December 17, 2004

“Sand supports weight. Force chains are known to play a prominent role therein. We considerably weaken the force chain structure by letting air flow through very fine sand. Even when the air is turned off and the bed has settled, the prepared sand does not support weight: Balls sink into the sand up to five diameters deep. We call this state of sand dry quick sand. The state is not to be confused with the normal quick sand which is a mixture of sand, clay, and water. The final depth the ball reaches scales linearly with its mass and above a threshold mass, a sand jet is formed which shoots sand straight and violently into the air. – Read all about it in the 9 December 2004 issue of Nature.”  MORE


The horror of Germany’s war

by Limbic on December 17, 2004

I have a fascination with the horrors inflicted on Germany towards the end of World War II. I find the whole subjected oddly upsetting and grimly compelling.

I have posted before (here and here) on the horrors of Dresden, W. G. Sebald’s book “On the Natural History of Destruction“, and “Crabwalk” by Gunter Grass, about the sinking of the German refugee ship, the “Willem Gustloff”, in 1945 with the loss of a staggering 10,000 lives.

I would like to add a new book to the genre:

The End: Hamburg 1943 by H.E. Nossack

The_end_by_nossackNossack was the only writer of the time to try recording what he actually saw as plainly as possible,” writes W. G. Sebald about this memoir of the firebombing of Hamburg in 1943. Nossack watched the destruction of his city—in the first firestorm achieved by Allied bombers—from across the Elbe River. Only three months after the event, he completed The End, one of the most remarkable literary responses to the phenomenon of total destruction. MORE

You can read an extract from the book here.


Blunkett should have joined Fathers for Justice

by Limbic on December 16, 2004

Now he knows what it is like to be a father denied access to his child by a scheming, ruthless and unprincipled woman who will happily destroy his career to deny a man his human right he has to share his child’s life.

Whilst carrying out her vicious and obviously malicious attack, she still managed to get get public sympathy.

Some pundits suggested that Blunkett was cruel and somehow unreasonable in asking to be acknowledged as the babies father. They complained that Mrs Quinn is seven months pregnant and that the stress of all the publicity had caused her to be hospitalised and that this was evidence of Blunkett’s callousness and unreasonableness.  

What they failed to note was that it was she who had generated the publicity to try stop Blunkett from demanding his fathers rights. Her plan was simple and obvious:

Feed the press damaging stories about Blunkett to hurt his career so he backs off.

It was she who broke the nanny story which aroused the press packs who have hounds her ever since yet Blunkett got the blame for her ails as though it was he that was generating the controversy and press interest.

The whole affair was deeply unfair.

Thousands of men are denied their rights to share their children’s lives. Public and legal sympathy lies undeservedly with women, many of whom use all manner of horrific tricks (the most common being false claims or abuse) to keep their children away from their fathers.

This is just another high profile sordid example of a common blight affecting father across the world.

Can someone please read Mr Blunkett the number for Father For Justice (01787 281 922), they will be happy to help him.

The BBC story on this is here: 


The Hidden (in Plain Sight) Persuaders [NYT Mag]

by Limbic on December 15, 2004

Let me introduce Gabriella, a BzzAgent, promting a near random food product:

“At one grocery store, Gabriella asked a manager why there was no Al Fresco sausage available. At a second store, she dropped a card touting the product into the suggestion box. At a third, she talked a stranger into buying a package. She suggested that the organizers of a neighborhood picnic serve Al Fresco. She took some to a friend’s house for dinner and (she reported back) ”explained to her how the sausage comes in six delicious flavors.” Talking to another friend whom she had already converted into an Al Fresco customer, she noted that the product is ”not just for barbecues” and would be good at breakfast too. She even wrote to a local priest known for his interest in Italian food, suggesting a recipe for Tuscan white-bean soup that included Al Fresco sausage. The priest wrote back to say he’d give it a try. Gabriella asked me not to use her last name. The Al Fresco campaign is over — having notably boosted sales, by 100 percent in some stores — but she is still spreading word of mouth about a variety of other products, and revealing her identity, she said, would undermine her effectiveness as an agent.”

Is she one of the familiar shills we all watch out for (especially online) touting products in which they have a vested interest?

Is she an actor paid by a Tipping Point savvy company spark a manufactured word-of-mouth campaign?

The answer may surprise you:

 It turns out that Gabriella and the rest of the sausage agents are not paid flunkies trying to manipulate Main Street Americans; they are Main Street Americans. Unlike the Sony Ericsson shills, Gabriella is not an actress. She is an accountant, with full-time work and a 12-year-old daughter, living in Bayonne, N.J. Aside from free samples, she gets no remuneration. She and her many fellow agents have essentially volunteered to create ”buzz” about Al Fresco sausage and dozens of other products, from books to shoes to beer to perfume. BzzAgent currently has more than 60,000 volunteer agents in its network. Tremor, a word-of-mouth operation that is a division of Procter & Gamble (maker of Crest, Tide and Pampers) has an astonishing 240,000 volunteer teenagers spreading the word about everything from toothbrushes to TV shows. A spinoff, Tremor Moms, is in the works. Other marketers, particularly youth-oriented firms, have put up Web sites recruiting teenagers to serve as ”secret agents.”

Given that we are a nation of busy, overworked people who in poll after poll claim to be sick of advertisers jumping out at us from all directions, the number of people willing to help market products they had previously never heard of, for no money at all, is puzzling to say the least. BzzAgent, which has a particularly intense relationship with its fast-growing legions of volunteers, offers a rare and revealing case study of what happens when word-of-mouth theory meets consumer psychology in the real world. In finding thousands of takers, perfectly willing to use their own creativity and contacts to spread the good news about, for instance, Al Fresco sausage, it has turned commercial influence into an open-source project. It could be thought of as not just a marketing experiment but also a social experiment. The existence of tens of thousands of volunteer marketing ”agents” raises a surprising possibility — that we have already met the new hidden persuaders, and they are us.”

Highly recommended reading.



The power of pressure groups

by Limbic on December 15, 2004

In the UK spoil-sports and busy-bodies use the forces of the compensation culture (the fear of being sued) and those stormtroopers of humourless jobsworthyness – Health and Safety Officer (those with a vested interest in finding and regulating “danger”) – to ruin everything from unprotected sex with teenage secretaries in the server room to lighting the bosses chest hair at Christmas parties.

In the USA there is an even more sinister phenomenon. The organised pressure group.

We have pressure groups here in the UK too (known as “campaigns” and the people who apply the pressure are known as “campaigners”), but thankfully most are utterly stupid (except Civil Liberties campaigners like me) and they are very badly organised.

Not so those US spoilsports. In the USA it is perfectly normal for the tiniest of minorities to ruin fun for the most enormous of majorities.

Here is a case in point, from Slashdot Politics:

Lone Activist Group Submits 99.8% of FCC Complaints

From the vocal-minority dept:

“Mediaweek is reporting that complaints to the FCC are rising. Powell spoke before congress, detailing that the complaints are up from 14,000 in 2002, to nearly 240,000 in 2003. There were only 350 complaints during 2000 and 2001. Powell failed to mention however that 99.8% of those complaints came from PTC (Parents Television Council). The article does mention he may have been unaware of this fact. Jonathan Rintels (president of the Center for Creative Voices in Media) commented, ‘It means that really a tiny minority with a very focused political agenda is trying to censor American television and radio.'”

Now that is a pressure group! We are doomed if our lot ever learn how to operate like those yanks. Look what happened when the local socialists (or pseudo-Tories) borrowed even a few ideas from the US political machine (Hint: 6 years and counting of Labour rule).


Modest Needs [Modest Needs]

by Limbic on December 15, 2004

 Via Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools newsletter:

“Has someone ever helped you get you out of a hard place with an act of kindness? If so, you should consider passing that gift onto someone else. You can dispense a few $10 bills from your ATM to the homeless in your area; or you can employ this amazing website which does something similar with greater effectiveness.
Modest Needs, a minuscule non-profit, grants modest (under $200) one-time cash gifts to those who require just a little help to get them through a tough time. A need, if honored, is granted within 72 hours, with no strings attached. Modest Needs does this with commendable efficiency via the web (it’s not hard to be broke and still get online), heart-warming sympathy (every request is read by a volunteer), and impressive reach (220 requests granted this year, or 7% of the million dollars sought for). Modest Needs’ entire finances are completely transparent on their website. Since their inception they have spent $0 on fundraising and $0 on advertising. They are astoundingly thrifty (total annual cost to run this charitable operation: $24,000). The rest of the small change they collect goes to those to whom small change can make a big difference. They accept contributions from folks like you. It runs fast all year, not just at Christmas.
The founder Keith Taylor began Modest Needs by giving 10% of his $350 a month earnings as a way to return a no-strings kindness paid to him when he most needed it. He told me, “Those who need help can always ask for it at Modest Needs, absolutely for free.  How much money we raise matters less – to me, anyway – than simply providing a vehicle for human kindness.”
It’s quite brilliant. Release a few bucks from your PayPal account. Return a random kindness. Maximize a small gift.


From an interview in American Scientist

Steven_pinkerWhat books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure? Why did you choose them, and what do you think of them?

The History of Force, by James Payne (Lytton, 2003), an obscure but fascinating book which documents how—contrary to popular opinion—violence has steadily declined in the West over the past few centuries. Torture, genocide, murders, deadly riots and slavery used to be the rule, not the exception. If we could identify and bottle the causes of this massive trend, we could live in an even less violent world. The Last Word, by Thomas Nagel (Oxford University Press, 1997), which defends the objective reality of reason and ethics by noting that any defense of relativism refutes itself by the very act of saying that relativism is correct or good. Brazzaville Beach, by William Boyd (W. Morrow, 1990), a clever novel about a primatologist who observes deadly violence in her chimpanzees and has to deal with the wrath of the project leader, who has just published a book called The Peaceful Primate. It’s an example of one of my favorite genres—novels in which one character is a cognitive scientist caught up in great themes of literature that are also themes of the sciences of mind, such as reason, emotion, free will, consciousness and memory. Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem (Random House, 1983) features a witty young philosopher who grapples with that problem both as a research topic and in her own attractions to the cerebral and the carnal. David Lodge’s Thinks … (Viking, 2001) explores the different ways that consciousness is understood in art and science through an affair between an English professor and a cognitive scientist. Other examples are Richard Dooling’s Brain Storm (Random House, 1998), Carole Cadwalladr’s forthcoming The Family Tree (Dutton, 2005), Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love (Thorndike Press, 1998), Michael Frayn’s The Tin Men (Little, Brown, 1965) and Ann Bernays’s Professor Romeo (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989).



How to find science debates in London

by Limbic on December 15, 2004

In May this year I posted on “How to Find A Lecture in the UK”. I discussed the wonderful, a website that tracks lectures across the UK.

Since posting that I have gone off lectures somewhat. The reason is that I find them as boring as polishing telescope mirrors.

Some of the hundreds of lectures given across the UK every night are fun, but in my experience, the majority are dull. Perhaps I should say that for the majority of the time the lecture being listened to is dull. 

The final 10% is normally great fun, that is the “Questions and Answers” session. The preceding 90% can be insufferable.  

I find that even the most fascinating subject can be ruined by the combination of a stuffy room, a monotonous speaker and an the inevitable boredom that comes with not being able to interact and converse.

So I have been casting around for intellectual stimulation without the boredom element. I still wanted to encounter smart people and hear their opinion s and the findings of their research, but I wanted it to be more like a long Questions and Answers session rather than a schoolroom.

I think I may have found something worth investigating: The Dana Centre and Cafe Scientifique.

Cafe Scientifique:

“Cafe Scientifique is a place where, for the price of a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, anyone can come to explore the latest ideas in science and technology. Meetings have taken place in cafes, bars, restaurants and even theatres, but always outside a traditional academic context.

Cafe Scientifique is a forum for debating science issues, not a shop window for science. We are committed to promoting public engagement with science and to making science accountable.”

The Dana Centre:

The Dana Centre is a stylish, purpose-built venue, complete with a cafèbar, appealing to adults. It is a place for them to take part in exciting, informative and innovative debates about contemporary science, technology and culture.

…It’s the place for experimental dialogue events, blending the best from science, art, performance and multimedia to provoke discussion and real engagement with the key issues of the day….you’ll see science delivered in a very different way, everything from Edinburgh-Fringe-style stand-up comics debunking science myths to updates on radical research, handling sessions of rarely seen objects from the Science Museum’s collection and challenging debates on modern science.

State-of-the-art digital facilities link the Centre and its events with venues all over the UK, those on the Internet and everyone with a mobile phone. If you can’t make it to the Dana Centre in person, you can join the debate on-line.

The events focus on themes that are important to you and present them in new and attractive ways – all in a lively, informal atmosphere.

…The Dana Centre is a collaboration between the BA (British Association for the Advancement of Science), the European Dana Alliance for the Brain and the Science Museum.”

Sounds like exactly what I am after. Will I see you there?