A non-zero level of awesome for my writing progress today: an article I wrote for the Daily Galaxy got picked up by Reuters aka "The great big official source".

This event is known in Luke-circles as "wooohooooo!", and leading commentator headstogether is on record as saying "Mad Props", and then some stuff about bling and steel that I didn't really follow.

Five tiny things you need to know about nanotechnology

I've been writing every day for the Daily Galaxy, but I had so much fun with this article I thought it deserved a special link: click here to remind yourself why science is awesome.

My original title was "Five things you need to na-know about", but I guess the editors pun tolerance is lower than mine.

Find new articles by every day at the Daily Galaxy and Galactic Emporium.

Sino-Gaelic relations, score one for Ireland

[See the first part of my adventures in Mandarin here]

I'm an Irishman, my lovely ladyfriend is Chinese, and to say this means some fun cultural differences would be to say that transporting ming vases coated covered in butter during an earthquake is an interesting technical challenge.

The established points so far:
  • Chinese cooking can be an orgasm for the sense of taste, while "Irish cuisine" is a phrase that has to be held in parenthesis lest the two words annihilate in an explosion of irony. In my defense Gaelic cuisine is based entirely on "rendering whatever you scraped together that day edible", giving rise to the stew - the only method of food preparation intended to remove flavour and texture from its parts.
  • The Chinese created a Great Wall visible from space, while the Irish made some small piles of rocks. I win this round by pointing out that everyone who worked on those piles went home in the evening, and people were only buried under them if it was their tomb to begin with. Building the Great Wall is estimated to have killed 2 to 3 million Chinese workers and slaves, and feel free to go back and read that sentence again if you need a minute to stop going "Jesus fuck". That's more people than the Emerald Isle had for most of its history. Call us crazy underacheivers, but when we have the choice between "lasting monument" and "the survival of our entire race", us lazy bog-boys will choose the latter.
  • Irish people can drink far more than the Chinese. Strangely, we both count this as a point in our favour.

Once those arguments were used up it became increasingly hard to defend against her allegations that Ireland is a tiny little rock in the water while her country has cities we've never even heard of with more people, industrial capacity and art than my entire nation. Arguments based in fact are tricky - UNTIL NOW! In my efforts to learn the ways of the enemy I've been studying Mandarin, and found evidence that will detonate her "stupid farmers" argument forever:
That's right: the Mandarin word for 'beautiful' (mei, fall and rise in tone) is made of the characters for 'big' (da, falling tone) and 'sheep' (yang, rising tone). And I don't mean in a "I find it looks like the characters in a childish manner" way, I mean in a "that's actually how it's made" way. The character is built from the radicals 'big' and 'sheep' - radicals being the building blocks of many characters, and also how you identify and locate a character in the kaleidoscope of heiroglyphs that is a Mandarin dictionary. It doesn't get more official than that.

Even during the coldest night of winter, the loneliest man from the most socially retarded village in Kerry would not say that a nice big sheep is synonymous with beauty. The Chinese have it as a basic assumption built directly into their language. Game, set and match to the Celts - for us and New Zealanders sheep-shagging is an insult, not a literary construction.

Some might accuse me of making Mandarin look more fucked-up than it is (which wouldn't be hard, I admit) - but it isn't so. Looking up a character by its radical doesn't always work, so even native speakers have to look up various radicals in the hopes of getting it right. FACT: Mandarin dictionaries include a section for "Words that are hard to find". That's right - even the people who write the things don't know how the hell to organise the alcoholic spider scribblings they call a language, and have defined a section as "we give up, it's in here somewhere".

A brilliant Galaxy that isn't Mario-based

I've started writing for another blog, whose mission for me was "Write about cool science and technology while referring to fiction and pop-culture." I would therefore like to thank whoever went out and created a company purely to give me the perfect writing job.

The first article, "5 Things you didn't know they were doing in orbit", can be found here.

Predicting what happens next

An article about predicting the future up at CRAM Science here, inspired by the movie Next. I originally wrote it for the cinema release, but who said the internet had to be fast?

Books that should not exist #2: How to Solve Sudoku: A Step-by-Step Guide (52 Brilliant Ideas)

Even the name of this book shows that it doesn't know when to quit. The Title: Subtitle (another bit of Title) shows that this is an author for whom editing is something that happens to other people, because you don't get up to fifty-two sudoku ideas if you're even remotely prepared to cut unnecessary or pointless things. Even so they'd need to devote ten secrets to "How to pick up the pen" to get over half a hundred tips for this numerical equivalent of "square peg goes in square hole".

The problem with Sudoku was that they weren't a genuine puzzle, they were a single boring mathematical task repeated ten thousand times. Some scientists found that they'd already written a program that solved all known Sudoku as part of a scanner control system, thereby destroying the pretense of all those coffeetime pen-chewers who think they're smart because they outwitted the backpage of a daily newspaper: because any genuinely smart people faced with the task wanted no part in its boring tedium and ordered the computer to do it for them. Once you work out how to play them you either stop playing or have a tragic lack of other occupations in life. Getting 'good' at Sudoku is like getting good at walking upstairs - there's only one possible path and once you've done it there isn't much point in going back and starting again.

The real tragedy is those who worked out the pattern and thought themselves intelligent because they could solve hundreds more so quickly, when repeating a simple task over and over again is the opposite of intelligent (especially when you aren't even getting the four dollars an hour for it). Real mathematicians enjoy Sudoku about as much as structural engineers enjoy setting up a deckchair. There's no shame in not being able to do one, but the sort of person unable to solve one but willing to spend money for help is somebody who should be relieved of that money as quickly as possible. Their thick-headed stubbornness and the need for instructions for even the simplest task could lead them to give it to scientology.

The fact that this book has 52 great sudoku-solving secrets is terrifying: the implication that somebody might need a week per tip to digest the secret mysteries of number writing over the course of a year, and that this person might be wandering around bookshops loose and unsupervised until they find a car that looks interesting enough to walk out in front of. Plus the fact that if even one of the ideas was brilliant, it would "Let's find something more interesting to do than Sudoku."

Previous book: Winning the Lotto

Books that should not exist #1: "Winning Lotto/Lottery for Everyday players, 3rd edition"

The printing press has been hailed as the most important invention in history, allowing smarter people to share their ideas with other less smart people. Unfortunately one of the ideas they shared was "printing presses" and since then the device has been abused to wreak such horrors as to make nuclear power look like an innocent and harmless kitten-based technology. In this series I'll be looking at books so hideously opposed to the idea of knowledge that every time one is sold, a scientist loses his lab coat.

"Winning Lotto/Lottery for Everyday players, 3rd edition" by Professor Jones

This book contains enough compressed illogic and falsehood to erase all scientific learning back as far as the middle ages. The only thing preventing this nightmare of stupidity from returning us to medieval times is the army of idiotic lotto players reading them, placing the barrier of their own knowledge-impermeable brains between the book and the world, preventing education and the "Anti-knowledge" in this monstrosity from wiping each other out.

I read some of the book, but to save you from the same dangerous level of exposure the title alone proves the retardedness of everyone who's even touched this book four times over:

  1. They had to write both Lotto and Lottery on the cover, for fear of missing half of their target market. "Dur, this book is for lott-e-ry, dat sounds more fancier than the lotto we simple folk play round these parts"
  2. The use of "everyday players" conjures the absurd vision that lives in the minds of the target market, that they are mere regular players while a secret cabal of professionals keep scooping all the jackpots. Why, if only they had access to some kind of inside knowledge they could make it too!
  3. The existence of the book. It's a point so astoundingly crystal clear that it's dismissed as a cliche, but if the writer wasn't lying then he wouldn't be writing the book. Many scams are revealed by fact checking, or odd requests for money, or even a lack of spelling - this is some kind of meta ur-scam, proved false purely by it's own existence. If I had access to secret lottery-winning strategies the only book I'd publish is a solid gold tablet entitled "Why it's awesome being me (with special contact information for triplet cheerleaders interested in discussing nudity on a yacht)"
  4. 3rd. Goddamn. Edition. I have no idea what possible refinements to lotto-winning technology the author could be adding each time, short of scribbling "hahaha, oh god this is working I can't believe it's working" all over the proof copy before sending it back to the printers. A third edition of anything hasn't damaged my faith in humanity so much since the Daily Mail ran their "Princess Diana - still dead" memorial in 2000.
If you can get past the title, the back-cover blurb is an even richer treasure trove of anti-logic weaponry designed purely to annoy anybody capable of thought. Though we may be able to use them to confuse the machines once they take over. Professor Smith proudly claims to have designed dozens of lotto-predicting programs, another sanity-shattering "the very fact I can make twenty proves they're all crap" claim, before promising to reveal the secrets of interpreting your dreams for winning lotto numbers. I hate to break it to you but if the best your conscious mind can come up with is "buy a book about how to win the lotto written by someone who has not done so", then your unconscious is unlikely to be some unharnessed money making probability superpredictor.

As a final spit in the face, chapters are devoted to cataloguing number frequency and hot numbers - yes, the two things that they very first page of the first chapter of any probability textbook will tell you are shite. The actual epitome of "stupid, stupid hopeless" gambler fallacies. The things that can be disproven with a coin and a minute.

This book is simply cruel. Buying a lotto ticket may be a tax on people who don't understand statistics, but it still provides that momentary hope, the few seconds of dreaming and a pleasant image. This book specifically harnesses and murders those hopes, telling the reader that playing the lotto is actually a valid financial strategy and something that can be worked at rather than the moments harmless escapism it is. When you're taking the money while killing the dreams of those left with nothing to hope for but winning the lottery, you have officially reached the rank of King Bastard.

Next book: Sudoku Solver

I can only hope that the author changed his name to "Professor Smith" to make the book seem more legitimate, because if I find that an institution actually accredited him a doctorate and tenure then I will be guilty of arson shortly thereafter.

Team Fortress Motivational Posters

In the real world talking about Team Fortress gets me glazed eyes, boredom, and complaints from my girlfriend that setting people on virtual fire is not a healthy activity. Online it gets me digg, reddit, stumpleupon and the love of my editors. Editors who pay money!

More motivational posters can be found at the Galactic Emporium.

World's oldest living thing found, killed by scientists

Scientists were excited to find the oldest living creature in the world, a 405 year old clam they have named Ming. Ming was about as opposite to excited as possible, having died. If anybody involved is upset that they just killed the worlds oldest and most utterly defenseless animal they sure aren't showing it.

The mollusc lived peacefully on a seabed north of Iceland, sucking plankton out of the water, for four hundred years before scientists dragged it up out of the water, where it lived, to the surface, where it didn't. If they don't grasp the irony of searching for the oldest living thing they can find by yanking it out of the environment it needs to survive, we can only hope they don't take an interest in the worlds healthiest baby lest they start storming maternity wards and holding the infants in fishtanks.

The researchers grabbed headlines (and funding) by claiming that such an animal must hold the secret to defeating aging, but look at the facts: it sat in a pool of liquid, never moved, couldn't hear anything and ate whatever it could suck through its fleshy gums. This thing doesn't have the secret to eternal youth, it has the secret to being really fucking old. The fact they gloss over is that we can't learn how to live forever from clams for the same reasons we can't learn how to lick our genitals from cats - we're different goddamn species.

It's a shellfish that lives at the bottom of the sea eating things too small to see, what's it going to teach us about living longer? Don't smoke? Eat less red meat? It sure as hell isn't going to tell us to exercise or get out in the sun. I'm happy to continue eating, drinking and hanging around with girls and if I don't have the longevity of a sedentary mollusc and I do it in the joy that I don't have any of its other qualities either. Besides, if never moving and sucking in liquid refreshment in near total darkness is the secret of immortality then they're going to have to invent some World of Warcraft levels a damn sight higher than seventy and industrial size cans of Mountain Dew.

Of course the headlines are misleading: they claim the "oldest animal ever", when they mean the "oldest animal ever found", because the true secret to long life is hiding from scientists who'll explode you, dissect your corpse and try to sell you to cosmetics companies.

Do you miss your Companion Cube?

Full article over at the Galactic Emporium