17 July 2009

The quest for The Ultimate Button (not the sort you wear, the sort you click)

A friend of mine, who may be found under the guise of @LovelyButtons on Twitter, is desperately seeking The Ultimate Button - or set of. As I have known this friend for many years (more than 20, actually), I have decided to do my best to help her in her quest. These (click) rather sleek-looking Apple Mac keyboard buttons are some of @LovelyButtons' most wanted, but are they really The Ultimate Buttons? Hmmm.

It all started with cash registers. As a child, @LovelyButtons had grand aspirations of becoming a shop assistant one day, so she could take charge of one of these glorious button machines. As it happened, @LovelyButtons turned out to be something of a maths whizz and is currently en route to a career as an accountant. This is not surprising - I suspect it might not be unrelated to her love of calculator buttons, in fact.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, the best part of last night was spent drawing up plans for a fantastic button experiment, which would determine once and for all the nature of The Ultimate Button. Of course, what with me being of a scientific mind, it couldn't just be a simple "Do you like this button? No? What about this one?" type of experiment...

We have so far determined a number of possible variables that could be important in button pressability:
  • Surface feel/material e.g. plastic, rubbery
  • Surface shape e.g. concave, flat
  • Force required to completely depress button
  • Height of button
  • Button-pressing noise
  • Button use history/current status of presser e.g. have they always used/are they currently using a keyboard with outrageously clicky buttons?
We've explored the possibilities for measuring button-pressing noise (microphone and soundwave analysis) and force required to depress button. The latter, we think, requires something resembling a school newton or force meter. These come in a rather fetching array of colours (as below), although if you wanted a really top notch piece of equipment, it's surprising how much you could pay.


@LovelyButtons was content to be the chief button presser in all of this, but, sticking to my scientific guns, I pointed out that we would need a fairly large sample size if we were going to create some half-decent graphs. The only problem being, of course, that all of these button pressers could have different button use histories - we would have to segment the population into plastic button users, rubber button users, and so on...

Finally it dawned on us that all of this button pressing experimentation was going to take years of work and at the end of it what would we have gained? Even if you were presented with a button purporting to be The Ultimate Button, I asked @LovelyButtons, how would you truly know that it was? Mmm? Wouldn't you wonder if, somewhere out there, a better button existed?

And yet again, here I am posting useless rubbish when I probably should be doing something far more important. But if anyone does happen to have any button-depressing measurement-type equipment, or the patience to carry out several years worth of scientific experiments involving keyboards, do let me know. Or maybe you'd like to post pictures of your favourite buttons below. Probably just as useful.

10 July 2009

Torchwood co-blog: part V, in which there are no jokes or smutty remarks

FYI, this has been a collaborative blogging effort bought to you by @Captain_Doug and @gingerbreadlady (me).

Catch-up:
Part I (by me)
Part II (by Doug)
Part III (by me)
Part IV (by Doug)

Wow.

If there are witty remarks to be made about this episode, I'm sure I don't know what they are. Words that spring immediately to mind are: dark, harrowing, bleak, depressing...

To recap, at the end of Episode III, planet Earth was ordered to surrender 10% of its children to an alien race. (Or all would perish.) We didn't know what, exactly, they were intending to do to them, but we knew it wasn't going to be all candy bars and dominoes. Today, we learn that the kids are to be kept alive to produce chemicals that make the aliens "feel good" - drugs.

So, to cut a long story short, the Government caves in and agrees to do the aliens' bidding, covering up the whole miserable affair with a rubbish and unforgivable lie about the kids being taken to have inoculations that will stop them doing the evil, scary chanting thing.

There's about three seconds when we think (hope) everything's going to fine and dandy - ten minutes from the end, when Captain Jack rips off his coat and proclaims, "Let's get to work." Then everything gets much, much darker.

Whether Jack's twisted plan makes any scientific sense, I've no idea, but I've stopped paying any attention to the physics by this point. The Captain channels a "constructive wave" (a genuine scientific term, by the seem of it, but who cares?) through his grandson, cycling the aliens' death wavelength back at them and killing his own flesh and blood in the process.

It's an extremely hard-to-watch finale, particularly as we know Jack is fully aware of what will happen. Even Mr Hayley, who never flinches at this sort of thing, is fidgety throughout.

Well, it does the trick alright - the aliens beat a hasty retreat - but we're left with a bitter taste in our mouths. And worst of all, the hateful Prime Minister seems to think it's all been a bit of a lark. He feels "lucky", apparently.

I have to say, it did make me wonder (seriously) what the Government would actually do if we were invaded by child-chemical dependent aliens... blimey, must be good storytelling.

I suppose I should take back everything I said before about predictable endings, particularly with regard to Jack's redemption. In the final scene, with only one member of the Torchwood team left alive to see him on his way, he exits Earth for a "cold fusion carrier" somewhere out in space and we're left wondering: is this the end for Torchwood? Surely not...

8 July 2009

Torchwood co-blog: part III, in which it all kicks off... a bit more

FYI, this is a collaborative blogging effort bought to you by @Captain_Doug and @gingerbreadlady (me). Check out Doug's blog tomorrow for the penultimate installment...

Catch-up:
Part I (by me)
Part II (by Doug)

Well, there's one thing to be glad about after Episode III - no more scary chanting children. The aliens (the "456") have finally arrived and agreed to stop using them as communication tools. Goody.

Oh, but they want some kids giftwrapped to take home with them - 10%, in fact. How rude. We build them a nice, comfy little glass box full of poisonous gases to land in and how do they repay us? Make off with our children. Tuh.

Actually, this leads quite well into a discussion of overpopulation issues, which I won't go into in detail here, but as population control measures go, mass alien abduction ain't a bad solution. Depending on the motives of the particular aliens in question, it could be preferable to, say, a horrible flesh-eating infectious disease or some sort of Logan's Run type scenario. At least you get to see space before you die.

But forget the serious issues for a minute... GADGETS! Yay! The BBC, which has obviously spared no expense in creating its aliens (glass box full of smoke and the occasional squelchy sound/Jurassic Park-style screech or splatter of vomit-like liquid), is really spoiling us with its lip-reading software and high-tech contact lenses. Weeeeell, the lenses are kind of cool, I suppose - basically, they give the wearer cameras for eyes, allowing them to transmit pictures of aliens back to Torchwood HQ. Although they come in fairly disappointing white plastic cases, like normal contact lenses.

Where was I? Ah, yes. 10% of the children. Now, as we've known since Episode I, these aliens have a taste for kids. (Just a thought, but perhaps they're actually eating them? Or do we need a more sophisticated reason for monsters stealing children these days?) A few were harvested when the 456 showed up back in the sixties.

But. Shock! Horror! Guess who handed them over before? Why, none other than our hero Captain Jack Harkness! My, what a lot of gasping this caused on Twitter. Come on guys, he only gave them 12 - not so much of a sacrifice really. Especially compared to 10% of all the kids. Luckily, @Blue_Chameleon has a solution: "Easy. Send the dumbest, chavviest 10%." (And, adds @duckorange, "They can have my two if it helps.")

So, what next? Round up all the poor numpties no one wants and wave them off... or... two days of alien ass-kicking punctuated by smutty references to what Captain Jack and Ianto get up to in their tea breaks, a "surprise" late arrival by UNIT's Dr Martha Jones, some tears over Gwen's (probably alien) baby, Jack's absolution for his prior sins and the safe return of all the children to Earth. I dunno, it's a close call.

And it's back to you, Doug.

6 July 2009

Torchwood co-blog: on the first day...

FYI, this is a collaborative blogging effort bought to you by @Captain_Doug and @gingerbreadlady (me). Check out Doug's blog tomorrow for the next installment...

I'm, like, so unprepared for this.

The other day someone casually said, "Isn't Torchwood back on soon?"

As it happens it's on NOW. For five days. In a row.

How did I not know about this?

So this morning I watch the trailer (see below) and it turns out this new series is based around the one thing that freaks me out more than anything else: scary children. Honestly, I still have nightmares about Sixth Sense and, I swear, no one will ever get me to watch The Orphanage, much less The Exorcist. See - I can't even link to them.



Against my better judgement, then, I sit down to watch the first episode with pretentions of writing a science (fiction) communication blog in the same vein as past posts. In reality, it's just an excuse to hide from the scary children behind note-taking.

***SPOILER ALERT***
The premise is this: back in the sixties, a load of kids disappeared. Nobody noticed except for one guy - now a gibbering wreck with an uncanny knack for sniffing out aliens (and ex-police officer turned alien hunter Gwen's unborn child, apparently) - who got left behind. But we don't find out about him until later.

In the present day, every kid in Britain stops dead and starts chanting "We are coming" in the kind of creepy way that is going to have me sitting bolt upright in bed at 3 o'clock tomorrow morning, sweating buckets.

So what does Gwen do? Why, she goes to the amazing super-duper Torchwood computer and types in "children", of course. Thankfully, Torchwood's super-duper computer interprets her request correctly and churns out creepy-children stats for every country in the world. And whadd'ya know? They're all doing it. Dang.

Anyway, cut to the chase. It's aliens. Of course it is. The Government turns a blind eye and issues an (emailed) death warrant for Torchwood-boss Captain Jack, presumably to stop him meddling. (But as @JonathanEx points out: "Who sends death warrants by email? Nowadays I would have thought it'd be a DM [direct message] on Twitter.")

Gwen finds the Guy Who Got Left Behind and spends what seems like half an hour impressing him with flashy gizmos and getting him to tell her his real name. All very well and good, Gwen, but meanwhile Jack is getting killed. Twice. (Yes, we all know he can't die but more to the point, notes @MarkSTaylor, he "must have a hard time sourcing a new coat for every time he gets shot.").

It turns out they put a bomb in Captain Jack's stomach while he was sleeping/dead. KABOOM! Torchwood blows to smithereens whilst tea boy Ianto escapes dramatically but painfully slowly via the lift. Predictably cliffhanger-ish.

What have we learnt from all of this then? You can't trust the Government. Adult hormones interfere with alien transmission signals. So they can't get us - phew. And very little about science. More for us to tear apart tomorrow? Or should I have laid into the alien/pregancy sniffing storyline a bit more? Ah HA-AAA! Gwen's baby IS an alien, perhaps?

And what of the scary children? Well, that was just about as much as I can take. If it gets any worse, I'm going to have to refer to Twitter/Doug's blog posts instead of actually watching it. What is it that makes kids so damn scary?

3 July 2009

Death, Death, Elitism & Death

I've spent the last three days at the World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ), where much of the debate focused on Death - mostly of traditional media/science journalism, but also as a result of climate change. I'll be addressing some of this Death in the following post, as well as giving some thought to elitism and, maybe, how it relates to Death (not quite sure how that will go yet).

Perhaps, to avoid instigating a suicide pact among science journalists, I'll preface the Death stuff with science blogger @EdYong's opinion on yesterday's "Future of Science Journalism" talk. He said to me, and I hope he won't mind me quoting him, "It was good to hear that it was all quite optimistic." Maybe though, this optimism was just a thinly veiled attempt to conceal our impending fate at the hands of bloggers and the Metro, as outlined in a few of the earlier sessions...

To elaborate, at least of couple of talks featured speeches by editors - notably John Rennie, formerly of Scientific American, and Wired UK's Ben Hammersley - arguing that science journalists are soon to be subjected to some sort of mass extinction. In the coming media apocalypse, it seems, only the journalists with the biggest pencils and flippiest notepads will survive.

Mediocre science coverage on blogs and in non-specialist publications, it is predicted, will cause this future extinction event. In light of this, bloggers got the sharp end of a few tongues, but some, including Yong, argued convincingly that good bloggers often do a better job than "proper" science reporters.

Meanwhile, we were warned, climate change will be wreaking global havoc e.g. intensifying heat waves similar to the one we're currently experiencing and adding substantially to the global Death toll. One delegate pointed out that we should be highlighting these sorts of climate-related catastrophes in our articles to try to drum up interest in renewable energies. I'm not so sure... I agree with the guy who said we should be highlighting all the good stuff instead - increased energy and food security, improved air quality and so on.

Possibly just as unnerving as the stench of Death was the faint whiff of elitism lingering around a couple of talks. On one occasion, Hammersley expressed a surprising degree of disgust for readers of the Metro free newspaper, available, as most of my readers will know, on any London tube train. I can't recall the exact phrase but it was tantamount to saying that anyone who reads that particular publication was a lost cause and would probably be incapable of understanding a decent science article. Yet several distinguished science journalists I spoke to later admitted to some regular underground-related Metro action. Anyone else dare to confess? I'm not sticking up for the Metro exactly, but the people who read it are not a bunch of idiots. And even if they were, why should we stop trying to engage with them?

The following day, whilst outlining the failings of the British press, Professor John Martin insinuated something along the same lines. Having described how he likes to spend his mornings breakfasting over high brow German newspapers, he went on to suggest that all science coverage should fit into the same mould. I winced as he invoked something vaguely reminiscent of science communication's arch nemesis - one-way communication - in saying that the public "needed to be educated". (For anyone unfamiliar with sci comm theory, the en vogue phrase is "engagement", not "education", which, in the eyes of the sci comm community, is pretty much like saying the public is stupid). Shortly afterwards, he complained about how the high level of media attention paid to animal rights campaigners had left scientists in a bad light. He then confessed that this had, in part, been due to his own and his colleagues' refusal to talk to journalists during the debate. Sigh.

Perhaps I'm being presumptuous, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't help our case in avoiding the aforementioned journalistic cull if leading scientists and magazine editors continue to view the public as cretins. And that's, I suppose, how elitism relates to Death.

Depressing, eh? The free champagne was good though.