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Masters Thesis: ORIGINS

Thursday, 03 August 2017 03:35PM IRLCoursework

About halfway through last year I was giving a presentation at work.

It was a run-through of our draft, to get approval from some folks higher up the food chain. We were talking about plants on board the international space station, and all the weird and wonderful stuff they might be used for in the future. In particular, we were looking at some plants that had been genetically modified. Whenever the plant was having to cope with something unusual, to change its chemistry to adapt to less than ideal circumstances, certain genes would be activated - and the plants had been modified so that the genes for a green fluorescent protein stolen from jellyfish would activate with them.

Basically, whenever they were stressed, the plants would glow.

Right now, this is being used as part of a research project, to help figure out how plants adapt to life in space, but we used it as a bit of a launching point to talk about the idea of biosensors. Perhaps one day, we said, like a canary in a coal mine, plants that glow when they're unhappy could be astronauts' first warning that something in their environment is wrong.

At this point, a particular member of our test audience raised their hand.

"Could we not talk about plants feeling happy or sad, please?"

This struck me as an odd nit to pick, but I changed my language for the rest of the presentation, talking rather dryly about stress responses and gene activations instead.

And for some reason this stuck with me. It was obvious to me that this talk was much more lively, much more accessible, when we talked about plants as if they had feelings. As if they were characters in the story we were telling. If I was being asked to stop, surely there must be some good reason behind it?

Fast forward about six months. I'm sitting in my supervisor's office, and we're talking thesis topics. We're tossing up between 'something about fake news and science' and 'something something career pathways in science communication', when a thought that'd been turning over in my head somewhere deep below the surface floated to the top unbidden.

"...or, there is this one thing I've kind of been wondering about."

So that's my thesis topic: Anthropomorphism. Treating things that aren't human as if they are; as if they have hopes and dreams and feelings and agency. What does that do to us, as an audience, when it's used to talk and write about science? Does it lead us towards misconceptions, towards sticky misunderstanding about the way the world works? Does it help people engage with a science story, when its topic seems a little more human? Or does it, perhaps, do both - and if so, when, and for who, does it do each?

It's a big question, and I'm only addressing a tiny sliver of it - but hopefully, that tiny sliver is enough not just to get me a masters degree, but to actually make me a better communicator as well.

1 comments

Fractured Cortex

Sunday, 18 June 2017 02:44PM IRLRants

The problem, fundamentally, is one of trust.

Almost exactly two years ago, Microsoft Corporation acquired 6Wunderkinder GMBH, and to be quite honest with you, that should really have been the first big red flag. Microsoft kill things. Big companies kill things. They buy them because they want the IP, or the team, or the users, and once they've sucked them dry, they shut them down.

It's now 2017, and the app they bought is being shut down in favour of building something identical but slightly worse using the Microsoft technology stack. Which would be fine, if that app didn't comprise a literal component of my mind.

To call Wunderlist "an essential part of my workflow" is an exercise in understatement. Others have written about the idea of outboard brains, external thinking tools, the metacortex. They've existed ever since… well, ever since writing was a thing. Ever since we were able to store knowledge outside our own mind, we've been offloading it. But outboard brains that can think for themselves, not just remember? Those only really started happening in the last thirty years, and they only really became workable in the last ten with the advent of ubiquitous smartphones.

The fact is that these days we all have one of these - you just don't realise it until someone rips it away. Or, perhaps worse, tells you that they're going to take it away but won't say when.

As I said. The problem is one of trust.

I use this external mind because in some sense I don't trust my internal one. I needed that deep, unshakeable trust that Wunderlist was going to be there tomorrow in order to offload the contents of my mind there today. It doesn't matter that the service is still running and still better than almost anything else around - the fact is, I don't trust it any more. I can't put my faith in something that I know is going away. Believe me, I have tried. I have tried to cajole myself into keeping it around. "Appreciate it while it's here," or "Use this time to properly research an alternative." None of it works. At the worst possible time, halfway through a thesis, I find myself just completely at sea.

So there are two factors at play here. The first and most pressing one is to get my life back up and running again. I don't need a perfect system, but I do need one - because right now I'm just flailing madly and hoping that everything that needs to happen still happens. And that's 100% not a sustainable way to operate.

The second factor is that I don't just want to solve this problem for now. I want to solve it for all time. This has happened to me before, and my response is always the same:

I make it impossible for them to ever hurt me again.

Ender Wiggin, Ender's Game

This is why I host my own blog, and my own RSS reader, and my own file sync. It's why I pay money for email and web hosting in an era where saying "I pay money for email" makes you sound like a relic from the 90s. But there's no fixing this. There's no open source, self-hosted, paranoid-hippy versions of these apps. You either sit there playing your cello while the good ship Wunderlist steams headlong towards an iceberg, ruptures catastrophically and sinks into the icy depths of the Atlantic, or you suck it up and pay fifty bucks a year for Todoist. Who, admirably, have an excellent attitude to this kind of thing.*

That's it. You've really got no other choices, at least none with any level of trustworthiness behind them. And certainly none which actually give you control over your data.

Which is ridiculous. Because when you get right down to it, all these apps have to do is keep a goddamn list safe.

Is that really so much to ask?

*You know, aside from the fact that they'd then be holding my brain to ransom.

Audience participation time

I know I don't normally do this kind of thing, but I'm curious. What do you use? How do you run your life? How do you keep track of what's going on? What's your system? What, when you get right down to it, would you be lost without?

3 comments

Six Fun Things to do with your new Fidget Spinner

Wednesday, 14 June 2017 06:31PM Wut.

So you rescued a fidget spinner from the lost property box at work? Here's what to do with it.

Sanitise the heck out of it

Because seriously, it's from lost property. You have no idea where that thing's been.

it's like a tiny water wheel.

Spin it the wrong way

You know, it's not immediately obvious from the design of these things how you're supposed to spin them. If those outside bits had been just solid weights it might make a bit more sense. As it is they're bearings that you can't quite hold and that don't quite work when you try to spin using them.

questionable spinning technique there bud

Have an earnest conversation with a young person.

At this point, you should try to be approached by a kid. Any sufficiently hip youth will recognise you as one of their own, and make respectful eye contact. If they're bold enough, they may even strike up a conversation about how many spinners they have, and why they like them. Keep them talking for as long as you can. You may glean valuable insights into the current zeitgeist - or you may just be talked at for 10 minutes about their collection, and then challenged to see how fast you can spin. Both, perhaps, are equally valuable insights into the youth of today.

Film it in slow motion, just because you can.

I'm fairly certain that this has already been done, but what's the point of having a high-speed camera on your phone if you don't use it every once in a while.

120fps crushed into a 15fps gif. good job.

Investigate refresh(/frame/cycle) rates.

With those little holes in the bearings, you're basically holding a zoetrope. Or some kind of reverse zoetrope, perhaps, that takes seamless motion away from the things around you and shows you that the world you live in is a constant mass of flickering that you never sense. Bonus points if you noticed this on your own during #4.

yes, this was actually spinning

Recapture your misspent youth by re-enacting the hit TV series Beyblades

If you have a fidget spinner, and your friend has a fidget spinner… well, it becomes obvious pretty quickly that just about all you can do together is have a conversation about it, because there is no interesting way for two spinners to interact. There's certainly doesn't seem like there's any way for them to duel to the death, although if anyone has any suggestions on this front, please let me know.

two spinners enter. two spinners leave

3 comments

Sydney Sized

Sunday, 12 March 2017 08:22PM IRLSydney 2017

Sydney is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.

Or maybe you will, I don't know.

hello from sydney

The defining feature of Sydney for me, so far, has been its size. It's the biggest city in Australia, and it knows it, and it shows. It's easy to feel like nowhere else on this vast continent even matters, because Sydney is just so enormous.

Sydney is Australia writ large. It's the examplar. It's where most of us are, and where most of the rest stop. Melbourne will probably get cross at this, but Sydney is Australia: The City. Where Melbourne has its own culture, its own reputation for being a bit alternative, a bit cooler, Sydney is just... Australian.

Which also means that I've found it a bit tricky to latch onto an overall distinct, snappy, blogg-able descriptor. Beyond, y'know, just big. It's like a fish trying to see water. It's hard to put your fingers on differences in character when everything around you is just like you only more so.

Aside from the looming cultural mass of it all, Sydney is also just, like, physically big. Seriously. It just keeps on going forever. And the suburbs aren't just endless seas of homogenous residential. It has nodes and threads of proper city woven pretty much all the way out. It's got structure.

I haven't really had any way to get around other than walking, so maybe that's one reason why it feels so large. It's certainly the reason my feet are killing me. Well, that and the Converses.

Actually, it's probably mostly the Converses. Those things are pretty, but they are not made for distance walking.

crossing the bridge

I've also put a lot of trips on my Opal card, which I'm just now realising is probably an attempt to get in on the start-your-transit-card-brand-with-O theme that London's Oyster and Hong Kong's Octopus have got going on. Anyway.

My train trip to work and back every day takes me across the Harbour Bridge, and the novelty still hasn't worn off, and given that I'm only here for a month, I'm not sure it will.

It's been raining most of the time I've been here, but this weekend was much nicer. I took some time out to actually see some sights - I walked through the botanical gardens, did the iconic bridge/opera house photo, and took myself on a ferry trip up to Manly, where somehwat disconcertingly, the sun did not set over the water.

And that entire ferry ride, the city just kept on going past me, showing absolutely zero signs of thinning out.

the wrong sunset

As a literal function of that size and density, we come to the last really big thing about Sydney. It has a massive population, and you can feel it. It's not just most outsiders' only experience of Australia, it's many, many, Australians' only experience of Australia too.

You could spend a lifetime here and never see every part. There's a little bit of that Americans-never-leave-America vibe here. There's no compelling pull like there is in Perth, no sense that, well, if you really want to make it you've gotta leave. Sydney is a major world city. It's the biggest population center for thousands of miles in any direction. There's no need to leave.

With a population of that size, you get diversity. Not just of people, but of niches. Sydney is big enough that it can support a massive hipster strip in Newtown, and a rich yuppie district around where I'm working in Pyrmont, and a proper Chinatown with a pretty spectacular garden. Enough people live here that they can self-select into those areas and concentrate their character.

chinese garden panorama chinese garden panorama chinese garden panorama

Like New York or London, it's not human-scale. It'd be a great place to work, or visit regularly, but unless you found exactly the right niche I feel like it'd be pretty ovewhelming. As far as being a comprehensible place to live, I think I still prefer a Perth-sized city.

I've always known Perth was small, but I've never felt it like this before. All the other comparators have had something else that's different, some big cultural thing that makes the size not so noticable. Here, there is no culture shock, and so it becomes obvious: Perth is small.

And from here, it'd be so easy to think it might not even matter at all.

0 comments

Let's talk about ramen

Friday, 03 March 2017 07:34PM IRLSydney 2017

Hi guys! So a proper Sydney post is in the works. First, though: let's talk ramen.

four steaming bowls of delicious ramen

I've been in Sydney four days, and I've finished each of those days off with a bowl of ramen.

The first thing about ramen here is that there's more of it. It's much easier to find places that specialise in it, and if what I've experienced so far is anything to go by, most of it is pretty dang good.

I feel like this is a much more traditional approach to ramen than what I've had before. It's certainly less elaborate. It's often much thicker broth, almost more like gravy in consistency - and actually surprisingly like gravy in flavour. You can actually tell, really tell, that it's made from reduced bone. It's almost literally gelatinous. And in a couple of places, unless you specifically order the soy or miso flavouring, you just get plain tonkotsu broth.

This kind of makes me want to renounce ever cooking ramen on my own again. I figured my recipe was an approximation. It's not. It's a travesty. The richness of this broth isn't just a base for flavour, it's a soul. My ramen approximant has no soul. It is a ramen golem.

So anyway, yeah, the ramen is pretty good.

The real question is why.

Why four nights in a row? Because I've been asking myself that question a lot too, and I think it comes down to this.

The first night, it's a bit of a tradition. A tradition with a precedent of one, but a tradition nonetheless. Ramen is kind of comfort food. It's rich and warming, and the two times I've arrived in a city all on my own, I've needed a bit of that.

The second night was for a bit of adventure. I'd settled in a bit better, had my first day at work, and I was in the mood for a bit of adventure. And as I've written before, I think following a computer-generated track through cities to claim a prize of food is a great excuse to find your way around.

The third night I did just to see if I could. I did it for the bragging rights, for the quality social media post it would make (hi, readers!) - but also because, well, here I am. I'm alone. I've got nobody else but me to take into account. I've got no strong aversion to paying for dinner out, and no strong desire to cook in a mildly grotty hostel kitchen. Why not?

But it was the fourth night, tonight, that I figured out the last reason I've been eating in ramen places. It's nothing to do with the broth, and everything to do with the culture. In ramen places, it's okay to eat alone. Some of them, in fact, seem to encourage it, seating everyone along a bar, facing the kitchen and not each other even if they are a group.

And that's not something you can say for many places, especially ones that serve real food rather than fast food.

And lo, having understood his situation for what it was, our protagonist was freed to explore deeper the culinary delights of his temporary home.

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