Seven of Nine and the Illuminati

This blog post started life this summer, after the Olympics.  It was a time of great celebration in Britain; after all, according to some people we’d dodged at least three bullets over the Olympic period – a nuclear terror attack, the invasion of Earth by inter-dimensional aliens through a portal opened by the Olympic Opening Ceremony or an uprising of the forces of the Illuminati.  My original comments can be read in ‘Whoops, No Apocalypse’.

And in December we’re still here….although the Mayans are around the corner…

A day or two ago I again watched the episode of the TV series ‘Star Trek: Voyager’ that triggered this piece in the first place – The Voyager Conspiracy.  In this episode, ex-Borg drone Seven Of Nine attempts to download the whole of Voyager’s computer database in to her head, and in the process of doing so gives herself paranoid delusions in which she attempts to put together a narrative from various events that have taken place on the starship, resulting in her almost causing a mutiny as the Captain and her second in command are told different paranoid delusions in which other crew members are conspirators.

The facts of what happened to the ship were correct; the interpretation placed on them by Seven was totally delusional, caused by her mind’s attempt to see connections and causality where non existed.  As her theories were questioned by other crew members, she would change them to add new facts, never lying but working things around to support her own point of view, ultimately ending up with the crew not knowing who to trust and going around carrying sidearms!

And I’m afraid that that’s what we’re seeing from a lot of people these days.  The Internet has bought a lot of information to a lot of people, and I’m afraid that many folks don’t seem equipped with the critical faculties needed to differentiate between a scientific fact and a stick of rhubarb.  And if you dare to suggest that there might be a more simple explanation than the conspiracy theorists are offering, you’re described as a sheep, already brainwashed in to believing what ‘they’ (whether they are lizards, zeta reticulans, organised crime, CIA mind controllers, etc.) wish us to believe.  Only the people pushing the right line of conspiracy are truly awake and aware; the rest of us are either unwitting dupes, fellow travelers or part of the enemy.

This isn’t to say that conspiracies don’t happen; they do.  But we all need to get a grip on facts as well.  Sometimes a gunman is just an evil or insane, rather than being someone who has been conditioned like Jason Bourne to be a killer.  And whilst the mind-manipulation techniques of programmes like MK-ULTRA no doubt exist, they’re not used on every bat-shit crazy lunatic.

Cock-up is usually more likely than conspiracy.  I have no doubt that on 23rd December when we’ve dodged the Mayan Apocalypse bullet  the conspiracy theorists will be coming up with any number of reasons why they’re still right.  We can expect calendar issues, successful interventions by aliens or enlightened ones, or even that it DID happen but we didn’t notice it.  Me? I have no idea what’s supposed to happen but my money is on nothing at all….

But these conspiracies, propagating around the world and in popular film and TV shows, cause some people a lot of fear and uncertainty. At a time when the world is full of real problems – crashing economies, poverty, hunger and war – perhaps these very capable minds might think how they can apply their intellects to solving a few real-world issues, rather than playing games in which they see themselves as something special – enlightened ones better than the rest of us because ‘they know’.

Whatever it is that they think they know, I’m convinced it’s simply the  production of an under-employed, over-fed and over-stimulated mind.



…and yes, I saw Jupiter!

Well, I mentioned in my last post that I was going to haul the venerable telescope out of the garage, set it up and then take a look at Jupiter.  And on the 29th September I managed to do that. (For anyone curious as to the 10 day gap between doing it and blogging it, I’m blaming workload and the fact that my computer decided to kill itself on the morning of the 30th!)

The first thing I have to say is that time hasn’t been kind to the three decade old optics of the telescope, and a suburban back garden surrounded by people who waste half their electric bills on porch lights is never going to be good for any form of astronomy.  But I focused in on Jupiter and after a little twiddling of the focusing wheel and magnification was rewarded by a slightly astigmatic pale disc in the eyepiece. Tracking the telescope manually, by keeping the planet in the middle of the field of view I was able to just make out the faint banding of the Jovian atmosphere, which became clearer as my eyes dark-adapted.

What was fascinating was how quickly the techniques and mindset came back after a good few years not playing with the telescope in this way.  I was also reminded that my gardening duties have been seriously ignored in recent months, based on the dog-roses that were trying to trip me up at every step.

And I was able to see three of the Gallilean moons – which immediately took me back to when I first saw the planet all those years ago.  This is one of the great things about Jupiter as a target for first time telescope users; seeing teh Gallilean moons (which appear as tiny sharp pin-pricks positioned next to the planet) provides a direct historical connection to Gallileo (for whom they’re named) and his original use of a simple telescope to view Jupiter all those centuries ago.

I’ve been reminded that Astronomy is a hobby with a lineage; when we use a telescope we can share the wonder of viewing the heavens through the telescope that was experienced over the last 500 years by countless astronomers, professional or amateur.  By looking at the stars with our naked eye we go back to the first time that some unknown worthy in Africa or the Middle East looked up to the skies one clear night and noticed that that patch of stars look awfully like a Sabre Tooth Tiger….

The skies are available for us all, but like everything else on our planet they’re geting polluted – perhaps time to support efforts against light pollution, starting with taking a catapult to that bloody floodlight that a near neighbour has as a porch light.

It’s weird what brings you back….

…to blogging.

I’ve had a few months that should eventually give me plenty of grist to the blogging mill, but to be blunt right now much of my time is being spent writing PHP and .NET code for those wonderful people called ‘paying customers’. Most people in small businesses will probably agree that this year has been pretty lousy; I’ve been freelancing for over a quarter of a century and this has definitely been the worst time for doing business I can remember, so when business turns up you don’t turn it away…

Anyway…the weird thing that brings me back to blogging.

When I was a kid, my mum and dad bought me a very simple telescope – it was made by a company called Tasco and was a refractor of maybe 1.5″ – 40mm in new money – on a table top tripod.  A length of scaffolding pole was brought in to use as a mounting, and my exploration of the heavens from my Nottinghamshire back garden began. One of the first objects that I looked at was the planet Jupiter, and despite the VERY modest nature of the telescope, and the fact that the town where I lived was stretched out between me and the part of the sky  containing the planet, I was stunned by the fact that I could see exactly what I expected to see – a little blob surrounded by 4 smaller blobs – the planet and it’s 4 largest moons.

Within a few months I’d managed to get a pair of binoculars for a birthday present – I still have them – and a 3″ refractor for Christmas and astronomy became a major part of my life as a teenager, until I left home and went to live in Manchester.  And then over the intervening decades I lived in cities and towns, occasionally wheeled the binoculars and telescope out to take a look at things like Hayley’s Comet, even managed the odd photograph, played around a bit, got in to radio astronomy…but never again looked at Jupiter.

Earlier this year I started looking at buying a new telescope – all singing, all dancing, one that would take my camera  and follow the stars around – maybe even find stuff automagically!  then financial constraints walloped my bottom again and so the plan was back burnered.  But…I read that Jupiter was visible again in the sky a few weeks ago, I have a telescope in the garage, it’s clear…so….what’s stopping me spending some time re-acquainting myself with old Jove?

And that’s what I intend doing tonight.  Watch this space – I can’t offer photographs but will let you know how a 35 year old 3″ refractor on a well dodgy tripod manages…..

I was right to blame it on sunspots!

Early on in my consulting career – late 1980s, early 1990s – I did a lot of work for a public sector organisation.  I worked on a number of projects – this was in the days when IT consultants could still be generalists, applying their skills to whatever was needed – and tended to specialise on development of a few database applications that were centrally based and accessed over a (pre-Internet) wide area network, held together by leased lines, private cabling, etc.

All in all, a fantastic environment in which to hone your skills.  Actually, in many respects I was rather spoilt by this client – and by my first job out of university – they both gave me a rather distorted view of working life!  For a while we experienced some rather ‘odd’ problems on some of the applications running over the wide area network.  Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t actually ground the problems – we checked software, hardware, cabling, the works.  Eventually, and half jokingly, a colleague and I (both of us radio amateurs) decided that the problems were being some how caused by sun spots….

Unsurprisingly, this caused gales of laughter in the office, but as far as we were concerned there was an element of logic in our proposal.  We knew that sun spots and solar activity in general had an effect on the earth’s ionosphere, and that in the past bad solar storms had knocked out telephone and communication systems.  Indeed, in the pre-Internet, pre-computer days of 1859 a major solar storm had caused incredible effects, even causing telegraph wires to carry electrical currents when all the batteries were disconnected!

This information did little to convince people around the office, so we simply did what any other self respecting techie would do; turn things off and on, replace a few network cards and bridges, tighten connections and tweak software.  And the odd errors stopped, and we stopped worrying about it.

But over teh years I’ve thought about those gremlins on numerous occasions, and it now appears that we may have been right after all.  According to this article, solar storms can cause mystery glitches in communication and computer systems. 

It may be that the next time we get a big solar storm or Coronal Mass Ejection – when a massive plume of plasma and charged particles is thrown from teh sun out in to space – the impact will be much more than a few gremlins in the works.  Some have suggested that a storm similar to that of 1859 might cause massive damage to the electrical and communications systems of the world; indeed, some real pessimists have suggested that a BIG solar event might put us back in to the pre-electronics age for decades.

Let’s hope we don’t get it…

Too few experiments in school science

I’m a science geek – always have been, always will be.  When I was a kid I had microscopes, telescopes, chemistry sets – anything that allowed me to do experiments.  By the time I went to secondary school I was already pretty practically inclined in the laboratory, having done quite a few of the experiments that I was expected to do at school in the garden shed at home.  Fortunately I managed to avoid explosions, poisoning, fire and accidentally opening portals to other universes a la Fringe.  I appreciate that i was lucky in having parents and an aunt and uncle who actively supported my interest in matters scientific.

Articles like this from the BBC, noting that there is inadequate experimental science done in schools, sadden me greatly.  In the early 1980s I was involved with writing computer software for schools.  It was suggested back then that ‘virtual labs’ could replace some of the practical work carried out, saving money, reducing the need for equipment and also offering health and safety advantages.  I was quite a supporter of this idea for a while – thankfully some of my colleagues talked me out of it.  They were wise enough to realise that so much of science education is the tactile, the experiential – the smells, sounds and sights of experimentation. 

It’s easy to think that there is little value in repeating ‘classic’ experiments – after all, the answer is already known!  However, the importance is in understanding what theories the experimental results supports and in learning how to actually do an experiment – the theory and practice of the scientific method.   And there’s enormous value to be obtained in experiments when, despite care and attention, the results aren’t what’s expected – that is when true scientific investigation can begin at any age.

Unless we do something to re-discover the rich practical experiences offered to science pupils 20 or 30 years ago, it’s inevitable that the standing of this country in terms of research and industry will falter.  We cannot built a modern scientific and technological economy based purely n the ‘soft science’ that seems to be offered in today’s classrooms.  Whilst it’s useful to be able to debate the pros and cons of social policies on scientific issues, it’s equally important to be able to identify fallacies in scientific arguments, and perhaps even put together simple experiments to demonstrate complex issues – after all, ‘hands on’ experiences tend to cement learning.

A breathtaking example of how simple, practical science brings home concepts was given by the late Richard Feynman during the enquiry in to the explosion that destroyed the Challenger space shuttle.  In a simple experiment involving ice water and a piece of rubber, he showed that at low temperatures the rubber (which was the material used as O ring seals on the booster rockets of the Challenger) became hard and distinctly un-rubbery, and was no longer fit for purpose.  He cut through months of bullshit in 5 minutes, in an experiment of elegant simplicity and with a little showmanship.  The perfect demonstration of scientific principles applied to solving a major engineering disaster.

My own contribution to trying to make science a more practical business for both school and home is a new web site I’m starting up called Hands On Science.  It’s hopefully going to be full of experiments and demonstrations that can be done with the minimum of equipment but that demonstrate in an interesting way many scientific principles.  It’s only just started up, but I’d welcome comments over the weeks to come – and ideas!

Bust the brainy kids – you know it makes sense!

Although this little gem of a story happened in the US, I have no doubt that given a few more months it’s likely to happen here.  Well…I don’t know…at least the Yanks encourage science and technology enough to actually organise things like science fairs…  However, back to the story.  Smart kid builds a motion detector from some electronic bits and puts it in a bottle.  Bottle is picked up, sensor triggers.  Cool.  Good future ahead of a bright kid like that – some technical education, quite possible a Gates or Jobs of the next generation…

That would be what I would be saying were I not living in Stupid World, where the kid’s teacher called in the FBI and the bomb squad, put the whole place on lockdown and suggested the kid and his parents needed counselling.  Hello?  WHO needs counselling?  If this is the standard of management that is present in US schools then God help them.  At a time when we need to encourage bright thinkers and hopefully generate a new generation of technologists, scientists and educators that can get us out of our current hole, this dimwit sets in motion a series of events that will probably encourage the kid to never show initiative again and stick to playing X-Box games and watching TV until he can graduate to drinking beer, playing X-Box games and watching TV.


I was like this as a kid – fortunately with one exception I had support from my teachers, and always had support (or at least quiet acceptance!) from parents, aunts and uncles and in latter years my wife!  I built radios, movement sensors and any number of electronic gadgets.  I accidentally jammed local TV sets whilst working on a radio control gadget, generated more smells than I could shake a stick at and learnt more about science and technology in my own time than I probably did at school.

Today, with what appears to be terror hysteria in the US and ‘Elf and Safety’ silliness in the UK it’s increasingly difficult for proper ‘hands on’ science education to be done.  We really should be working hard to encourage this sort of practical approach to science and technology, both in in schools, colleges and via technical hobbies such as the practical approach fostered by amateur radio, robotics, astronomy, etc.   Unfortunately the UK does not seem to be doing this through educational policy.   This item from a few years ago points out exactly what is wrong with modern science education in the UK – it’s too wishy-washy and based around social awareness and ‘scientific literacy’ whilst moving away from teaching separate science subjects and encouraging education in the ‘basics’ of science – the scientific method, practical lab work, etc.

Whilst the literacy and social awareness issues are important, it’s critical that they are secondary  to a scientific education that prepares our future scientists and technologists by educating them in basic, practical science and technology, so that they can approach the more advanced stuff from a position of having firm foundations.  I hear all the voices saying that it’s important to engage students with science; but there is absolutely no point at all in engaging students in a watered down, multi-media based representation of some of the most practical and critically important subjects around.