Comments Off Posted on Thursday 23 February 2012 at 11:10 am by Sam Wong
In Uncategorized

Sam Wong is a former contributor to Just A Theory who now blogs at his own site. Here’s his take on in vitro meat….

It doesn’t look very appetising, but this is the future of meat. Stem cells will be harvested from a few animals (donor kebabs?) and muscle tissue grown on an industrial scale, feeding our carniverous appetites with a greatly reduced impact on the environment. This week, Professor Mark Post from Maastricht University announced that he expects to serve a prototype lab-grown burger by the end of the year. Once the technology has been scaled up, it will mean improved efficiency, lower emissions, and reduced animal suffering.

The benefits of in vitro meat are so overwhelming that it would take an Olympic-standard reactionary thinker not to see it as a desirable goal. Not so much a stick-in-the-mud as a stick sealed in a nuclear bunker deep underground, with stockpiles of luncheon meat for sustenance and archived copies of the Daily Mail to feed their suspicion of change. Surely the generation that grew up with spam should have no trouble accepting meat that has little resemblance to anything that occurs in nature?

Step forward Rose Prince, a columnist with the Daily Telegraph. “Technologies such as this unnerve us because they interfere with the magnificently sedate process of evolution,” she writes. “We like to think what we eat is unaltered and as natural as possible.”

Even by her paper’s standards, this is a heroically regressive stance. Only the most elite conservatives can express distaste for tinkering with animal evolution, an endeavour which humans began over 10,000 years ago when they started to domesticate dogs and goats.

She continues: “While less land will be used for livestock, I can’t see that there is a great need for it for other uses.”

It must be awfully nice living in Rose’s bubble, where no one ever goes hungry and there’s plenty of room for the world to accommodate 9 billion people by 2050.

I’m sure in vitro meat will be unpalatable to a lot of people to begin with, but if we can make it taste like the real thing I’m sure we’ll have no problem wolfing it down eventually. The pace of technological development in recent decades shows us that humans are very capable of accepting and adapting to changes might initially have seemed severe. I don’t think it’s ridiculous to imagine that in 50 years’ time, eating flesh that came from a real animal might seem as disgusting as eating lab-grown meat seems to us now. “When I was your age, we ate chicken wings, cow arse, lamb legs and pig ribs,” I’ll tell my grandchildren, and they will think I’m a barbarian.

Animal rights campaigners have already thrown their support behind in vitro meat development, with Peta offering a $1 million prize for the first person to produce a commercially viable chicken substitute. Professor Post’s research is being funded by a wealthy backer who is currently anonymous, but apparently very well-known. My guess is it’s someone famously preoccupied with animal welfare. Maybe Paul McCartney – he has a history of trying to recreate phenomenally popular products with substandard fare labelled “Wings”.

Surprisingly, the most progressive viewpoint I’ve come across is in the Daily Mail‘s comment thread. Roscoe, from Long Beach, California, writes:

I love the idea that we can now consume ‘meat’ products previously considered anathema, such as panda and tiger. In fact, I imagine that any animal’s protein could be made this way. Dolphin, perhaps, or chimpanzee. Actually, this could lead to a kind of celebrity cannibalism, where our favorite stars of music, stage, TV, and film provide stem cells, which could then be grown into delicious meat products. “Yeah, I’ll have the Daniel Radcliffe burger, and the wife will have the low fat Kate Moss, and we’ll take two Emeli Sandés for the kids.”

Well done, Roscoe. You are the one person who has really got to grips with where this technology could take us. It might make you real the label more carefully before putting a jar of Lloyd Grossman pasta sauce in your shopping basket though.

If you find the idea of lab-grown meat scary, just remember it’s the burger itself that will be petri-fried.

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1 Comment » Posted on Saturday 8 October 2011 at 8:19 am by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?
Comments Off Posted on Saturday 8 October 2011 at 7:49 am by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Inventions & Technology

This is the first chance I’ve had to actually write about it, but on Thursday I was very happy to receive the BT Information Security Journalism award for best news story of the year for an article on the cyberweapon that could take down the internet.

I wrote the article very soon after joining New Scientist and was pleased to see it do very well – if I remember rightly it was one of the top read stories on the site for around a week. It also got picked up by a lot of other publications, which was nice, though some did better than others at covering the subtleties of the story.

Congratulations should also go to my colleague Sally Adee, who won best privacy feature of the year for an article on online reputation management and burying your digital dirt, along with all the other winners.

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6 Comments » Posted on Tuesday 13 September 2011 at 7:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Musings

I’ve been thinking about learning to program and thought I’d blog about it in the hope of soliciting some tips or advice.

First off, why do you want to learn programming?

Almost every day I write about people doing cool things with computers. I’d like to do some of those cool things. I also don’t get to do very much abstract problem-solving during my day job, of the type I did during my maths degree. Writing programs seems like a good way to come up with puzzles to solve.

There are also some practical reasons – I often get annoyed that software can’t do exactly what I want it to do. If I learn to program, I could maybe write software that meets my needs. And finally, I’ve got this vague idea that journalists of the future should know much more about making a computer do things than I currently do.

So what DO you know?

I’m not coming at this as a complete novice. I played with BASIC as a child, took courses in Python during university and dabbled with SQL in a former job, so I know about a bunch of the building blocks of programming such as variables and loops. I’m a bit more fuzzy on other concepts – I’ve heard of object-oriented programming, for example, but I don’t really know what it is.

How can I help you?

There are so many resources out there that I don’t really know where to begin. Ideally I’d like a single solid resource I can come back to, be it a website or a book. I had fun playing with Codecademy, an interactive Javascript tutorial, but as a start-up it’s fairly limited – are there more established alternatives out there?

I also don’t know if I should pick a particular programming language, and if so, which one? I’ve got a vague idea that I’d like to learn Java, with the aim of one day writing an Android app, but perhaps I should learn to crawl before I sprint.

Any and all advice would be appreciated. Also, if anyone else is in the same position and fancies learning to program together, perhaps we could berate/encourage each other – just let me know in the comments.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 12 June 2011 at 10:45 am by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Musings

Jonathan Coulton at the Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis (Image: abiodork)

Last night I went to see Jonathan Coulton, an American musician who writes songs about all things geek. During the gig, it struck me just how much the event was both reliant on and improved by technology.

I first heard of Coulton on the internet – I don’t remember where exactly, perhaps a YouTube video of one of his songs – but he really rose to prominence in 2007 with the release of Still Alive, the song which plays during the credits of the video game Portal.

Coulton also wrote a song for the game’s sequel, Portal 2. It was released this year and when he asked how many people had played the game to completion, I’d say over 90% of the audience put their hands up, me included.

If Coulton’s popularity is based on technology, so is his marketing.  I only heard about the gig because I saw a friend tweet that he was going to the Manchester leg of the tour. This isn’t a guy who runs massive advertising campaigns, but he was able to fill Union Chapel with a good few hundred people.

Twitter was also incredibly useful on the night of the gig itself. We got to the venue at 7pm to find a massive queue of Portal tshirt-wearing fans stretching down the street. Rather than join the long wait, we went for dinner at a nearby fish and chip place, and I used my phone to monitor the tweets of the people in the queue by searching for “Union Chapel” and “Jonathan Coulton”.

After about half an hour I saw people tweeting that they’d got inside, but some were still queuing, so I knew there was no rush for us to leave. We finished our meal at 8pm and joined the now much shorter queue, waiting for just a few minutes. Naturally, I used my phone to show our ticket confirmation, since I hadn’t thought to print it out.

While monitoring tweets I’d also seen that Jonathan Ross was attending the gig. Sure enough, I spotted him in the front row. Very few people approached him, but he did get a lot of hellos on Twitter. Technology also made its way in to the actual performance, with Coulton using an iPhone to control his laptop, triggering samples and adding vocal harmonies.

None of this technology is particularly novel, in the sense that it’s all been around for a number of years now, but it struck me how different the experience was from the first time I went to a gig, seeing System of a Down at the Brixton Academy in 2002.

It’s more than just my musical tastes that have changed. I probably also bought the tickets for that gig online but I would’ve found out about it from a listings magazine, not Twitter. While waiting in the queue, I would’ve had no knowledge of the thoughts and actions of the people around me, unless I actually spoke to them.

And with the camera phone barely taking hold back then, let alone the smartphone, there would’ve been no sea of screens recording and sharing the event online, though I imagine some people did risk their digital (or even film) camera  in the mosh pit. In comparison, I can search Twitter this morning and immediately find a picture of the gig from someone I’ve never met.

People often bash Twitter as pointless, full of inane people sharing what they had for breakfast, but by concentrating on the social networking element they miss the really useful part: Twitter turns the internet into a real-time stream of conciousness.

Smartphones take that concept a step further, focusing those thoughts locally at certain areas or events. What’s the next step, I wonder? Augmented reality is clunky, but I think there is some value in bringing the internet back into real space. For it to really work though, I think it has to be seamless – a heads up display in digital glasses, perhaps. As Coulton sings, it’s gonna be the future soon.

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1 Comment » Posted on Friday 10 June 2011 at 4:44 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology

I’ve spent the past two days on a data journalism course taught by Paul Bradshaw. Here’s the result – my Hans Rosling-style attempt at showing the rise of the internet:

It’s interesting to see that GDP generally seems to creep upwards, but the percentage of a country online is all over the place – many countries shoot up and then crash back down. The US is of course way off in the top right of the graph by 2006, and nations we generally consider to be high-tech naturally occupy the top line. Cool stuff. Feel free to tweaks any of the axes by the way, as the graph is interactive, and let me know in the comments if you spot any interesting trends.

2 Comments » Posted on Monday 14 February 2011 at 9:20 pm by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory

With nearly 4 months gone since my last blog post I feel that it’s time for an update, in case anyone is still reading. When I started Just A Theory, I aimed to post something ever day. Amazingly, I managed to do so for an entire year, but when I started working full time as a freelance science writer I found it much harder to blog.

Part of the problem was working at home – after a full day spent writing, I struggled to sit in the exact same chair, in the exact same room, and bash out another blog post. Now, I’ve started a new job at New Scientist as technology reporter, so perhaps that won’t be a problem – but I don’t think I’ll get back to regular blogging any time soon.

I’m really glad I started Just A Theory, and I’m very grateful to everyone who has read or written for the site over the years. I hope to post things here occasionally, but for the foreseeable future you’ll find my work over at New Scientist. If that’s not enough, you can also follow me on Twitter – I’m @jjaron. And now, back to your regularly scheduled silence…

Comments Off Posted on Friday 22 October 2010 at 1:55 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Mathematics

Everyone knows that I love tearing down terrible “formula for” stories, but hopefully this one of my own won’t receive the same treatment as it is actually based on some solid maths!

Marathon runners need never “hit the wall” again thanks to a mathematical model that will help them reach the finish line in their best time.

More than 40 per cent of marathon runners will hit the wall during a race, experiencing sudden pain and fatigue as their carbohydrate reserves run low and their body switches from burning carbohydrate to burning fat. So Benjamin Rapoport at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has given runners an online calculator that will tell them how much carbohydrate they need to consume to have enough for a whole race.

Read the rest at New Scientist.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 11 August 2010 at 7:19 pm by Jacob Aron
In Mathematics

My latest article for New Scientist is about a mathematical proof showing that it’s always possible to solve a Rubik’s cube in 20 moves or less. Don’t expect to do it by hand though – cracking this puzzle required a supercomputer or two:

It has taken 15 years to get to this point, but it is now clear that every possible scrambled arrangement of the Rubik’s cube can be solved in a maximum of 20 moves – and you don’t even have to take the stickers off.

That’s according to a team who combined the computing might of Google with some clever mathematical insights to check all 43 quintillion possible jumbled positions the cube can take. Their feat solves the biggest remaining puzzle presented by the Rubik’s cube.

“The primary breakthrough was figuring out a way to solve so many positions, all at once, at such a fast rate,” says Tomas Rokicki, a programmer from Palo Alto, California, who has spent 15 years searching for the minimum number of moves guaranteed to solve any configuration of the Rubik’s cube.

Read the rest at New Scientist.

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3 Comments » Posted on Friday 16 July 2010 at 4:37 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Mathematics

Ever suffered from a limp wrist, or been on the receiving end of a painfully iron grip? Car manufacturer Chevrolet know all about the importance of a good handshake, which is why they’ve developed a complex mathematical equation for their new staff training guide, as that well known science journal the Daily Mail reports.

It’s been a while since I covered this kind of dodgy maths, so let’s go over the basics. “Formula for” stories are seen by PR agencies as a great way to get free press coverage for whatever product they are shilling because the equations can be dressed up as real research. Attaching a “Dr” or “Prof” to your news story is a great way to gain legitimacy, and the media lap it up as another example of what those crazy boffins are up to.

While this is all great for the PR agencies and their clients, it’s terrible for science. These formulas tend to be based on extremely dodgy assumptions and contain variables which can’t be objectively measured. What’s worse, even a simple mathematical analysis usually reveals problems such as division by zero, which can lead to things like cold and lumpy but infinitely perfect pancakes.

With these problems in mind, let’s take a look at the formula for the perfect handshake. It was created by Geoff Beattie, head of Psychological Sciences at the University of Manchester, and is detailed in this the press release:

PH = √ (e² + ve²)(d²) + (cg + dr)² + π{(4<s>2)(4<p>2)}² +
(vi + t + te)² + {(4<c>2)(4<du>2)}²

I’ve broken it over two lines because the thing is so long, and I think that square root is meant to cover the entire equation, not just the first term, but the press release isn’t very clear. We’ve also got a definition for the many variables, along with what I assume is their optimal values:

(e) is eye contact (1=none; 5=direct) 5;
(ve) is verbal greeting (1=totally inappropriate; 5=totally appropriate) 5;
(d) is Duchenne smile – smiling in eyes and mouth, plus symmetry on both sides of face, and slower offset (1=totally non-Duchenne smile (false smile); 5=totally Duchenne) 5;
(cg) completeness of grip (1=very incomplete; 5=full) 5;
(dr) is dryness of hand (1=damp; 5=dry) 4;
(s) is strength (1= weak; 5=strong) 3;
(p) is position of hand (1=back towards own body; 5=other person’s bodily zone) 3;
(vi) is vigour (1=too low/too high; 5=mid) 3;
(t) is temperature of hands (1=too cold/too hot; 5=mid) 3;
(te) is texture of hands (5=mid; 1=too rough/too smooth) 3;
(c) is control (1=low; 5=high) 3;
(du) is duration (1= brief; 5=long) 3.

Both the formula and its variables are looking really dodgy. I’ve literally no idea what terms like {(4<c>2)(4<du>2)}² are meant to mean. I can only think that the angular brackets denote some kind of average, but then why do they only apply to some of the variables? Are those 2s actually meant to be ²? In which case you can rewrite the whole term as (2<c><du>)4, which is at least a little bit simpler.

I also take issue with using two letters to stand in for one variable, because they can be confused for two separate variables multiplied together. Measuring “verbal greeting” and “vigour” doesn’t mean that both of your variables have to start with a v – real mathematical equations make extensive use of Greek letters in an effort to solve this exact problem. But even if this equation was beautifully formatted, it would still be rubbish.

All the measurements are completely subjective, and the scales of 1 to 5 indicate the data behind the equation was probably collected from a survey. This even includes variables such as temperature, which can easily be measured scientifically. Remember, subjective measurements are one of the hallmarks of a “formula for”.

I emailed Beattie yesterday to ask how the formula was created, but as he is yet to reply I can only speculate. I think what he has done is ask people a bunch of questions about handshakes, and then tried to fit their answers to some kind of least-squares model, as indicated by the squares and square root in the formula. This method gives you a great equation for “explaining” the data you’ve gathered, but doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about the phenomena you’re examining.

If that is the case, I still don’t understand how the formula is meant to work. You’d expect that the perfect handshake would have a maximum value of PH, and since there is no division or subtraction involve, that just means slotting in the maximum values for all your variables. The optimal values in the press release include a few 3s and 4s though, so PH isn’t going to be maximum. Hmm.

As with all “formula for” stories the maths behind the perfect handshake formula just doesn’t add up, yet it’s being interpreted as a serious piece of research. Comments on the Mail story such as these two show just how much damage this can do to people’s impressions of science:

“So, most of the country is out of work desperately trying to survive and these idiots are getting paid, what – to study handshakes? Sack these people immediately!”

How much time did the nutty professor spend on this useless bit of information?

Mathematical models and equations are a fantastical tool for understanding the natural world around us, but they have to be based on sound assumptions and decent science – things that “formula for” stories such as this almost invariably lack.