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Tuesday, 18 December 2007


Only just under a week to go before Christmas - and that means the usual kinds of jokes you get in crackers, all over again! Here's a substitute, my favourite elephant joke ever:

What's grey, and sings the blues?

Answer in ROT13 : Ryrcunagf Trenyq

If you don't get it, try saying it aloud. If that doesn't help, click here!

Tuesday, 11 December 2007


I found this beautiful, early Russian animation, "The Insects' Christmas" on YouTube. It's an absolute delight, and remains surprisingly undated.

Thursday, 6 December 2007


Okay, Christmas is getting pretty close now, and this is the time that I usually start assessing whether I have enough stocking fillers, so I thought I'd do a little post on some smaller and lower-priced things that physics and maths geeks in particular might like.

Moodicare Colour Changing Alarm Clock
I've had one of these for two years now, and I'll honestly never tire of it. It's utterly beautiful, and you can tell the time at night to any necessary accuracy without being able to see the face, simply from the colour. Anyone who wakes up in the night bleary-eyed will wonder how they ever managed without it. See also the Water Powered Alarm Clock

The Physics of Christmas
Two of the most wonderful things in life, Physics AND Christmas - what more could anybody want? See also the Glow in the Dark Solar System

Plasma Ball
How wonderful are these? They never stop being beautiful, no matter how many times you see them. Nobody could possibly have too many of them, and these days they're affordable.

The Penguin Book of Curious and Interesting Numbers
Every mathematician knows that there are no uninteresting numbers, and some can even give a proof. This is a fantastic compendium of the most interesting - a delight for mathematicians, and a source of inspiration to all those who simply wonder at the beauty of numbers. See also The Colossal Book of Short Puzzles and Problems and Irresistible Integrals

T-Shirt: No I will not fix your computer
The shirt that saves a thousand words. Let the whole world know when you are off-duty. See also I don't work here

Dynaflex Powerball Gyroscope
Fantastic gyroscope on acid, with built in bright blue LED and capable of rotation upto 15,000 rpm.

Squid LED Flexible Light
Gorgeous little flashlight with 3 white LEDs. See also the Glow Mini Lizard

The Best of the Annals of Improbable Research
This latest compendium includes a listing of the Ig Nobel prizes, annually awarded "for scientific achievements which cannot or should not be reproduced," and some of the prizewinning papers, such as "Failure of Electric Shock Treatment for Rattlesnake Envenomation" and "Of Mites and Man." There are also plenty of groundbreaking original studies from AIR: "How Dead Is a Doornail?" "Furniture Airbags," and "The Medical Effects of Kissing Boo-Boos."

The Best of MAKE
384 pages of the best projects from the first 10 years of MAKE magazine.

T-Shirt: Generic Humanoid Carbon Unit
This T-shirt accurately announces the life-form of its wearer, distinguishing it from the silicon-based variety it keeps closest company with. From the brilliant ThinkGeek - see also the WIFI Detector T-Shirt, and Bow before me, for I am root.

Thursday, 29 November 2007


I hope you like my little alarm clock. You can move the hands to have it go off when you want. I set it whenever I put my lunch in the oven. I downloaded it from Poodwaddle, a great little customisable home page. Perhaps "little" isn't right - it's actually quite a major achievement, especially given that it's been put together by one man. Shane describes it as his "hobby, brainchild and family run business" and says he is "just a solo lunatic dodging manual labor by punching keys for a living".

So there are other ways of customising your home page, but I happen to like this one. I like that Shane hopes to use his profits to found a Central American charity, and I especially like that when he says he answers all his emails, he actually does, and really quickly, too.

There are lots of clever free programs on the site, like the World Clock:

It takes its basic data from sources such as the CIA World Factbook, the World Health Organisation and the US Census Bureau, and makes real-time adjustments based on estimated rates of change. It may not be spot-on, but that isn't really the point. It's really thought provoking, and somewhat hypnotic to watch.

A lighter widget is the Christmas countdown - which fills me with excitement and wonder, although I suspect some would regard it with dread:

There are loads of clocks, games, a CSS widget, calculators and much more besides. They can all be used to customise any page you like, including the Poodwaddle custom home page. It's really worth a look, especially if, like me, you quite like to have everything laid out in front of you when you're surfing, but haven't quite warmed to iGoogle.

Monday, 26 November 2007


When I was researching my family history recently, I ended up trawling some Daily Mirror archives. I came across this wonderful story, from September, 1909, about how Britain would "descend into a nation of criminal faces", and analysing the typical physiognomy of the criminal type.

Strangely enough, BoingBoing has this story, about how caricatures are more effective than accurate police sketches in identifying criminals (full post here), with a wonderful illustration (Dad, a Creative Commons Attribution licensed picture from PhylB's Flickr photostream):

Do you think these chaps are related? Forget historic DNA, I reckon the "bird and cow-like faces" test is a dead cert.

These newspaper archives are loads of fun. No wonder our parents are bonkers. Watch this space for more exciting happenings in the early 20th century!!!

Tuesday, 20 November 2007


Here's a shameless plug - I made this shirt on Zazzle, and I'm really pleased with it. You can buy one, if you like - from here. It's a really good site, actually. You can make things and post them for sale, and there is actually a huge range of items, or you can just make unique items for yourself or as gifts for family and friends. It's a good blend of other similar sites, with affiliate and shopkeeper programmes, but without that obligation.

I've found some more great insect stuff on the wonderweb recently. I'm rounding it all up, and it'll be posted here soon. Keep watching, insect fans...

Monday, 12 November 2007


Oh, I wish it could be Christmas every day! There's just such a lot of beautiful stuff out there. Some things, in particular appeal to the physics or maths geek.

Here's a round-up of some that I like the best:

1. Acme Klein Bottles

The classic, one sided, zero volume container is one of several topological curiosities made by Cliff Stoll (whose Erdös Number is 3) at Acme Klein Bottles.

Technically a four-dimensional object, it is immersed in three dimensions for convenience of viewing and handling, in quality borosilicate glass. From the "baby" to absolutely huge, their range is impressive, and each comes with a mass of informative literature that you will want to frame.

It doesn't end with Klein bottles, though. There's also the Cup of Tantalus, great for geeks with a penchant for practical jokes, and you can also wrap up warm with a Klein hat and Möbius scarf set. Pure Genius.

2. Lichtenberg Figures

Don't you just love lightning? Bert Hickman at Stoneridge Engineering does exceedingly dangerous things with it, and captures the results in perspex.

The fractal patterns generated are just incredible, especially when viewed using one of the LED illuminating bases they supply. Most of the sculptures are generated using electron beams with energies of between 3 and 5 MeV. Much more information is available on the website.

He also shrinks coins:

3. Stirling Engine

An old favourite, but currently enjoying a bit of a comeback, Stirling engines are beautiful in their simplicity, and look as if they are working with no energy source.

In fact, they are driven by temperature difference between the top and bottom plates of the air reservoir that houses the piston. From precision machined works of art to basic models, it's also good to know that they're also relatively easy to make out of ordinary household bits and pieces.

4. Bathsheba Mathematical Sculptures

Bathsheba Grossman's sculptures are absolutely exquisite.

Like the Schwarz D Surface and gyroid shown here, many are made by a 3d modelling technique. She also uses laser etching to create amazing 3d sculptures in perspex, from astronomical models to mathematical figures and biolochemical molecules. Here's her Calabi-Yau manifold, and quaternion Julia set:

She also has two delightful LED keyrings available; Buckyball and DNA:

If you have the patience and skill, she also has a few patterns of her designs to download and make yourself.

5. Theremin

The ultimate musical instrument for physics geeks.

Invented by a physicist, inordinately difficult to play, and a completely other-worldy sound make it the music of silicon heaven.

Better still, many theremins come as kits, so you can go easy on your pocket and exercise your junior electronics club knowledge at the same time. If you've done it right, you'll have your own "Forbidden Planet" sound system!

6. Quzzle

Quirkle's catalogue is all about quality, rather than quantity. They make only a very few products, but they are all precision machined to be beautiful and tactile pieces.
Quzzle is a re-engineered, reworked old favourite, a variation on the sliding block puzzle. Although it has only nine pieces, it is the most difficult puzzle of its kind in the world, amongst tens of thousands of possibilities, there is only one solution.

Quzzle comes with instructions and a web address where you can find solving tips. You can reveal them gradually, or go straight to the solution if you are too impatient.

7. Unicycle

I once met someone who had studied Physics and Philosophy joint honours.

I asked what he was doing for a living now. He was a professional juggler and unicyclist, at the local community circus. I don't know why I asked, really - in hindsight it is the obvious career path for a person with such credentials.

Of course, the unicyle is difficult to master, but that's all part of the fun. The best bit is that your hands are free, so you can work on your Quzzle while you commute.

8. 507 Mechanical Movements

All geeks love books, and when your head really hurts a picture book can be just the tonic.

Perhaps the nearest thing to a coffee-table book for nerds, this wonderful volume will inspire all the budding engineers and tinkerers, mechanics and armchair inventors.

9. Cabaret Mechanical Theatre Automata

Within Cabaret Mechanical Theatre's extended family, many geek heroes are to be found.

Their associates include the living god of "wobbly moving stuff" Tim Hunkin, automata visionary Paul Spooner and creator of dragons Keith Newstead.

If your pockets aren't quite deep enough for a ready-made automaton, there's always the designer's kit, winner of a Editor's Choice award at this years Maker Faire in Austin, Texas. Full of ready-cut wooden components, simply assemble and design your own masterpieces - no need for any tools!

10. Binary Blanket

At the end of a hard day's thinking, and maybe tinkering, all geeks need some comfort. What better than to cuddle up in a snuggly, warm blanket that declares its identity in ones and zeroes?

You could also rest your head on the lovely binary pillow, and enjoy 10 kinds of comfort at once.



Just a quick post, but this is so wonderful. I'll blog a bit more about it soon, but as a taster, you've got to see this video. Some musical performances are just so great that they become the definitive version of that piece, like, for instance, the Leningrad Cowboys doing Tom Jones' "Delilah", or the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain's version of George Formby's "Leaning on a lamp-post". This just has to be such a rendition - a pair of Tesla coils "singing" the Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy, from Tchaikovsy's Nutcracker Suite. Enjoy!!!

Friday, 9 November 2007


There's something hideously creepy about dolls, and very beautiful about theremins. Put the two together and you have something like this - warning: don't watch it just before bed!!

There's something rather reminiscent of the ventriloquist's dummy that comes to life in the film, "Dead of Night" in the performance, especially when the human performer alters what she is doing to try and follow Clara. Ugh!

Monday, 5 November 2007


I was amazed to read this report in the 26th October edition of NewScientist. Not because it was news to me, but because I am constantly surprised that it should be news to anybody else. Matthew Walker of the University of California, Berkeley, concluded that, "It is thought that psychiatric conditions create sleep problems. We should entertain the possibility that it is a sleep disorder that is creating the condition."

As a sufferer of narcolepsy with cataplexy, I am only too well aware of the confusions that arise in diagnosis. My symptoms began when I was about 13 or 14, but I did not receive the correct diagnosis until I was 36. This is not unusual, and unfortunately my experience of referrals to psychiatrists for many years is not uncommon either.

In some ways I sympathise with general practitioners: narcolepsy is underdiagnosed and misunderstood. Although it is recognised as a neurological, degenerative condition, the diagnostic criteria to which physicians refer are still to be found in DSM IV, the primary diagnostic reference for psychiatric and psychological disorders. In one, large-scale study, the average delay between symptom onset and diagnosis was 17 years. Other papers available in the academic literature have documented case studies of confusion in diagnosis that have ended up with narcoleptics diagnosed wrongly with schizophrenia or adult ADHD.

My sympathy runs out, though, when the failure is not in the medics' available resources, but in their ability to listen without prejudice. I eventually found out my own diagnosis through the wonderful world wide web, but getting a GP to agree, accept and treat my condition was another matter. After several changes of GP, I finally found one who was prepared to give me the benefit of the doubt, read all my medical records and see that the evidence was there. Referral to a similarly open-minded local neurologist led to the test results that finally confirmed the diagnosis.

Since having the correct diagnosis and treatment, my life has changed immeasurably for the better. I have endless gratitude for the GP who finally listened. She calls it "simply doing her job". Not all do, and this is disadvantages the physicians as well as their patients, who can be a vast resource of anecdotal information that could inspire further lines of research.

Thursday, 25 October 2007


I was lucky enough to see, some years ago, this beautiful hoverfly, Callicera Aenea, at Clay Hill in the New Forest.

Why do I love flies? I really don't know, but I just never get tired of looking at them, and there are always new ones to discover. Like most amateur entomologists, I was first attracted to butterflies and moths - lepidoptera - but then decided to specialise in flies. As the class name suggests, Diptera are characterised by having just two wings, whereas most other insects have two pairs of wings.

To me, flies are incredibly beautiful, as are any artworks that take flies as their subject.

For example, the amazing pavement artist, Julian Beever, created this piece:

Beever specialises in anamorphic art, in which the image is distorted in 2d, and only appears as it should when viewed from a certain direction. It's exactly the effect used for advertising images in sports arenas and race circuits, where the company logo's ideal viewing point is designed to coincide with camera positions.

Beever doesn't particularly specialise in insect art, but there are others who do.

For instance, Mike Libby creates wonderful micro-quasi-mechanical sculptures out of dead insects and watch parts. Although his gallery doesn't have any flies at the moment, he does take commissions. Actually, his bees and beetles are my favourites:
The absolutely brilliant Stephanie Korschun at Sasquatch Designs produces highly detailed scientific illustrations, some of which she sells as t-shirts:

She also does sweatshirts and hoodies, as well as monochrome notelets in the same designs.