Archive November 2012

Astonishing documentary: Secret Life – the Hidden Life of the Cell aimee whitcroft Nov 28


If there’s one thing you watch today (well, other than wall-to-wall coverage of The Hobbit* and perhaps some videos of sorting algorithms explained through folk dance), it needs to be this.

Secret Universe – The Hidden Life Of the Cell from pbbes on Vimeo.

In this astonishing hour-long BBC documentary released just a month ago, David Tennant narrates the story of what happens when our basic components – cells – come under attach from a virus (in this case, a common respiratory disease-causing virus, the adenovirus).

Not only is it brilliantly beautiful, but also educational – we don’t just see various spherical (or not) objects interacting, but the molecular details making them up. And it’s genuinely thrilling – I was more gripped watching this than I have been watching major Hollywood blockbusters. Yes, I’m a giant nerd in some ways (especially about this stuff), but it’s also really that good.

When I was doing my molecular biology degree earlier this century, we had nothing so detailed. We had to rely on diagrams and our imagination to provide an understanding of how everything interacted – I’m glad to say, I appear to have gotten it right. Happy thought :)


* For those of us in New Zealand. I managed to escape the insanity occurring in central Wellington by heading as far south for lunch as I could while remaining on the island, huzzah!

Sorting algorithms explained through folk dance aimee whitcroft Nov 28

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Yep, you read that correctly.

This morning, I was introduced to the video below – quick-sort as demonstrated through Hungarian folk dancing.

Click here to view the video on YouTube.

Hell, even the youtube _comments_ are saner and less nonsensical, so this has GOT to be geeky stuff.

It’s also, of course, a very good, and clear, explanation of what’s going on, for people who find pages like this a little trickier to understand.

For those interested in learning about other sorting algorithms, there are 35 in total, covering bubble-sort, merge-sort, shell-sort, and, well, a bunch of other ones. The channel is available here.

They were all made at Sapientia University, Tirgu Mures (Marosvásárhely), in Romania, as part of a project called Algo-rythmics, which blends art, culture, and technology to enhance computer programming education.  There’s even been a paper written by some of the researchers behind the project:

Zoltan Katai and Laszio Toth (2008)  Technologically and artistically enhanced multi-sensory computer-programming education Teaching and Teacher Education Volume 26, Issue 2, February 2010, Pages 244-251

Its abstract says the following (and the full paper is available free to read!):

Over the last decades more and more research has analysed relatively new or rediscovered teaching–learning concepts like blended, hybrid, multi-sensory or technologically enhanced learning. This increased interest in these educational forms can be explained by new exciting discoveries in brain research and cognitive psychology, as well as by the accelerated integration of technology (computers, intranets, internet, etc.) in education. We have investigated how the educationally valuable outcomes of these trends could be implemented in computer-programming education and in what ways this process could be catalysed by arts (dance, music, rhythm, theatrical role-playing). We present a theoretical basis for technologically and artistically enhanced multi-sensory teaching–learning strategies. This work focuses particularly on how dance can be involved in computer science classes.


Happy learning!


There’s also a Facebook page, but it’s pretty sparse.


Disagreeing with Monbiot aimee whitcroft Nov 20

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An hour or so ago, the Guardian’s George Monbiot published a new article, with the following headline and tagline:

If children lose contact with nature they won’t fight for it

With half of their time spent at screens, the next generation will be poorly equipped to defend the natural world from harm

I’ve given a brief comment on it elsewhere, and considered a longform comment on the Guardian’s site, but felt this platform would be the easiest.

Now, before you read further, of course, please do go and read the article. I’m not going to reprint it in its entirety, but want to pull out a few specific bits where, I have to say, I disagree.

He begins with talking about various environmental…problems (to say the least). Climate change, the loss of UK bird species, terrible plant diseases and so forth. He then asks where the marches and protest action are – where the political pressure is.

All fair points, and fair questions. It’s where he goes from there that I have a problem with:

…a second environmental crisis: the removal of children from the natural world. The young people we might have expected to lead the defence of nature have less and less to do with it.

OK, so, a couple of things here. Environmental crises generally relate to, well, a crisis in our natural environment. Not kids interacting with technology. Also, I am confused.  His tagline references ‘the next generation’, whatever that is.  I’m assuming he means people who’ve grown up with the internet and whatnot – people under 20, say. Or does he mean people like me (late twenties/thirties)? Or does he mean our pre-teen people?

Because the funny thing, in such groups, is just how many young people do acknowledge the importance of the environment. Who are spearheading movements on the subjects of climate change, sustainability, and so forth. And what about amazing projects like Minimonos, where screentime is helping kids to better understand the issues around sustainability and the environment, and how to be good guardians of our planet?

More to the point, though – really? You expect our young people to spearhead the defence of nature? What about the older people in our civilisation? You know, the ones who’re running it, and who keep making the policies which keep damaging it.

Anyway, he goes on…

We don’t have to disparage the indoor world, which has its own rich ecosystem, to lament children’s disconnection from the outdoor world. But the experiences the two spheres offer are entirely different. There is no substitute for what takes place outdoors; not least because the greatest joys of nature are unscripted. The thought that most of our children will never swim among phosphorescent plankton at night, will never be startled by a salmon leaping, a dolphin breaching, the stoop of a peregrine, or the rustle of a grass snake is almost as sad as the thought that their children might not have the opportunity.

Do you think he’s aware that that those things are something that children often didn’t get to experience even before screens? Or EVER? I’m thinking urbanised children, for example.And the rustle of a snake in the grass, George, is not often counted as a marvellous experience. It’s generally a terrifying one. Not all natural things are automatically fantastic or beautiful, either. Many are humdrum, or downright dangerous/terrifying/deadly. Sometimes that latter set of characteristics can, sure, make them amazing. It can also kill, main or permanently traumatise people. This sort of elevation to paradise of of the natural world is something I generally see from extremely urban people, not people who actually spend their time in nature, and understand it. If raw nature was so wonderful, after all, why has humanity spent so much time trying to interact with it as little as possible*?

As to experiencing the joys of nature – my most astonishing natural moments have been experienced through things like the BBC’s incredible documentaries, where luminaries like Richard Attenborough explained what was happening, and we got (and still get) to see the most extraordinary things. Things that, were I to put down all screens now, I would still not get to see. Certainly not without getting onto a plane which, as we know, George doesn’t approve of either.

But on to the next point.

The remarkable collapse of children’s engagement with nature – which is even faster than the collapse of the natural world – is recorded in Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods, and in a report published recently by the National Trust. Since the 1970s the area in which children may roam without supervision has decreased by almost 90%. In one generation the proportion of children regularly playing in wild places in the UK has fallen from more than half to fewer than one in 10. In the US, in just six years (1997-2003) children with particular outdoor hobbies fell by half. Eleven- to 15-year-olds in Britain now spend, on average, half their waking day in front of a screen.

There are several reasons for this collapse: parents’ irrational fear of strangers and rational fear of traffic, the destruction of the fortifying commons where previous generations played, the quality of indoor entertainment, the structuring of children’s time, the criminalisation of natural play. The great indoors, as a result, has become a far more dangerous place than the diminished world beyond.

I’m not sure what the ‘criminalisation of natural play is’. I’ve certainly never heard of anyone being held up on criminal charges for it. But yes, the outside world has become more dangerous due to increasing populations and the concommitant pressures (amongst other things).  Of course, I’d point to media hysteria about subjects (like tech and how our ways of doing things are changing, or strangers) for helping to scare people. And you’re right – kids are having their time restructured as they have to do things like study harder and longer. Because the world is getting tougher and tougher as we keep packing more people into it.

The rise of obesity, rickets and asthma and the decline in cardio-respiratory fitness are well documented. Louv also links the indoor life to an increase in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other mental ill health. Research conducted at the University of Illinois suggests that playing among trees and grass is associated with a marked reduction in indications of ADHD, while playing indoors or on tarmac appears to increase them. The disorder, Louv suggests, “may be a set of symptoms aggravated by lack of exposure to nature”. Perhaps it’s the environment, not the child, that has gone wrong.

Awesome, so he quotes this chap Louv ‘s work (I’ve not read the book, so have no idea what his citations are for this assertion), but uses terms like ‘links’ and ‘suggests’. Which sounds not at all like empirical evidence and proof, but rather correlations and possibilities which need to be looked into further.

Monbiot then goes on to talk about the potential importance of exposure to nature in creativity and so forth.  Again, I’m not able to disagree, as I haven’t read his sources.  Certainly, I can see how a concrete playground may be a more mentally constrained space than something with a bit of greenery (although again, I think he needs to be extremely careful here about conflating environment with socio-economic status).  And, in fact, modern urban  planning does place a very emphasis on green public spaces, and people of ALL ages enjoy them. They’re also good environmentally, of course.

Onto the finale, though, and this is my primary issue with the article:

And here we meet the other great loss. Most of those I know who fight for nature are people who spent their childhoods immersed in it. Without a feel for the texture and function of the natural world, without an intensity of engagement almost impossible in the absence of early experience, people will not devote their lives to its protection.

Fantastic.  There are a great many people, though, who believe in its importance and do what they can for it, who didn’t have this immersion. To take your experience and extrapolate it into a general principle which comes across as very strongly anti-technology, seems a bit unfair. Also, how do you count fighting?  I’d argue that recycling and trying to consume as little as possible count as fighting for the environment, for instance. Many of the people who do so are heavily urbanised, and I imagine a great many spend a lot of their time behind screens. If nothing else, potentially because they’re highly educated.

And there’s a flip side to that, too – just because someone spent a lot of their childhood in nature, doesn’t necessarily mean they fight for or respect it. I’m thinking here of countries like New Zealand, which has a green reputation not actually borne up by the behaviour of many of its inhabitants. And yes, childhoods spent in Nature are a major thing over here.

The fact that at least half the published articles on ash dieback have been illustrated with photos of beeches, sycamores or oaks seems to me to be highly suggestive.

OK, so, who wrote those articles? What were their ages? What were their sources? Can you tie their lack of knowledge to the fact that they spend time in front of screens, or that they simply don’t know enough about trees?  Of course, if you’re talking here about journalism, I’d suggest it’s because journalists tend to be time- and specific-knowledge poor. Journalists spend time writing and opining about all sorts of things about which they know very little.

Forest Schools, Outward Bound, Woodcraft Folk, the John Muir Award, the Campaign for Adventure, Natural Connections, family nature clubs and many others are trying to bring children and the natural world back together. But all of them are fighting forces which, if they cannot be turned, will strip the living planet of the wonder and delight, of the ecstasy – in the true sense of that word – that for millennia have drawn children into the wilds.

I wouldn’t blame it on screens*,though.

I think the point is to have a range of resources (including incredible docos like the BBC’s) which allow people of ALL ages to engage with nature and our environments. How they do so is immaterial.

If nothing else, and I think this is part of what prompted my riposte here – _I’m_ a screen kid.  I spent my childhood heavily urbanised (in a city so dangerous I couldn’t leave the house and simply go and explore nature) reading books. When screens became available, I started the move in that direction. Despite this appalling gap in my spiritual and creative development, I’m fine – I’m very environmentally aware, believe passionately in living responsibly, and do what I can. In fact, I’m extremely strongly into the left/Green side of the political spectrum, and very much looking forward to people of my generation coming into power. At no point has my lack of pootling around in woodlands meant I don’t have an understanding of nature’s importance.  The same goes for people I know.

The other part, I think, of what prompted me to write this piece is this – I am increasingly tired of people who moan about the fact that the world is changing, and people are doing things differently to how it was done in their childhoods, and seem to think it’s necessarily a bad thing.

It’s not, quite simply.

Perhaps George, next time you want to opine like this on a subject, you might actually talk to some of this next generation? Or research further our engagement with environmental issues, before you insult us?


* I don’t mean the typical wealthy Westerner thing of going to “experience nature”, where said experience has been planned, is voluntary, and often comes with all sorts of modern conveniences.

** There’s also a potentially giant difference between types of screens.  Watching bad TV constantly?  Not great, no (although I doubt it’s necessarily making people more indolent than they may already have been).  However, there is a lot of fantastic television out there.  And then we come to the other screens – computers and now tablets and smartphones. Which are often used as educational devices, allowing young people to know far more about the world than they might have otherwise, and be in contact with people all over the world. They can provide perspective.


If it wasn’t clear – I’m not saying people shouldn’t spend time outdoors, in our various beautiful environments. I’m simply saying that making enormous generalisations such as this one, may be a little, well, unfair.

Nov 14 partial eclipse in Wellington – odd light and weird shadows aimee whitcroft Nov 14

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As many people here in NZ know, today we’re getting to see a partial eclipse!

Here in Wellington it peaked at 10:34, with 76% coverage.


Copyright aimee whitcroft. Note the camera artifact which shows you the eclipse (between the plane and the sun, and to the right)*


For those who’re wondering why their shadow was sharp on one side and blurry on t’other. A Stuff article mentions that this might happen, but didn’t explain why…

I’ve done a bit of looking around as to why this is, and think it might be due to the following: when the sun is a point source (i.e. a direct source of light), shadows are sharp. However, during an eclipse the penumbra of the eclipse (where light is diffused) will also become a factor, making for a blurry shadow. Since this eclipse was partial, yielding both penumbra AND point source, you get both kinds of shadow.

Solar-type scientists? Am I right?

Also, the light quality was really odd.  A colleague described the light quality as being ‘all flat’, and went on to say ‘it’s like someone turned the f-stop down’.

Note the weirdness of the colour of the sea, too. This was taken at Evans Bay (well, greta Point), panning from South to North. That odd dark green colour in the middle? We’ve never seen the sea like that and the blue at both North and South is also an unusual colour. We think it’s because scattered light was a more important light source at that point than direct light (the video was taken at 10:26, just before peak).


Click here to view the video on YouTube.



** Ahem. This photo isn’t CC, but rather copyrighted. Please get in touch if you want to use it :)

Hanging out with Vint Cerf aimee whitcroft Nov 13

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Ever thought it would be great to have the chance to hang out with a computer scientist who’s recognised as one of the “fathers of the internet”.

Well, you can :) And the luminary in question is Vint Cerf himself.


Let’s all just take a moment to think about the awesomeness of that…


How can you join in?  Well, at 1pm (NZT) today an open Google Hangout is taking place as part of the Google Science Fair, and Cerf is the guest.

The event details are here, and if you have a question for him, post it in the comments for the event.  It might get asked on air!


See you there!


Sky farms are HERE! aimee whitcroft Nov 06


I’ve blogged before about sky farms, and how I think they’re a truly excellent idea. When last I wrote about it in 2009, it was a mad (yet extremely rational), science fictional solution to agriculture.

Now, as with so much of its ilk, it’s HERE.


Vertical farm, Singapore

I literally just threw my hands up in the air and shouted ‘F**k yeah!’ :)

Singapore has built the world’s first sky farm: it opened this year. And now, it’s begun selling its produce.

How does it work?  To quote from the article in which I saw this news:

The farm system, created by the company Sky Green and called A-Go-Gro, is a series of aluminum towers, up to nine meters high, with 38 tiers with troughs in which vegetables are grown. To ensure uniform sunlight the troughs are rotated via a hydraulic water-driven system that needs just 0.5 liters to rotate one of the 1.7 ton structures. With an emphasis on efficiency Sky Green made sure that the water was recycled, eventually being used to water the vegetables themselves. Just 60W of power – just enough for a lightbulb – is needed to operate one tower per day. The company that builds the system, Singapore-based Sky Green, claims that the artificial system is 5 to 10 times more productive than traditional farms.

Admittedly, the produce is still more expensive than the normal, common-or-garden* stuff. But, as its makers scale it up, the hope is that prices will come down.

If nothing else, this is a powerful proof of concept.  I’m not expecting them to get it right straight off the bar, but given the enormous efficiencies which could be gained from not having to trek produce over hundreds/thousands of kilometres, refrigerated trucks, increased efficiencies in actual produce growth,  as well as not having to use tonnes of land which could be put to other purposes, I believe this technology is a brilliant example of how the future beckons us with arms green both in money AND sustainability :)

Well done, Singapore.  Well done :)

H/T to Dane Foster for this one


Related posts:

New ways of farming?

Factory farming of the vegetable kind


* Sorry, sorry…


GRRRR. I remember writing about an awesome idea in which vertical farms would grow tilapia as a protein source, and algae, and produce as well.  And now I can’t find it.


QB50 – A New Zealand Nanosat Opportunity aimee whitcroft Nov 05

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I have absolutely no doubt that there are a number of people here, in fair GodZone, who are interested in Putting Things Into the Sky. I know we have an active rocketry scene, for example, and I count myself lucky to have a few friends who’re members of the KiwiSpace Foundation (as am I).

Anyhoo, the people over at KiwiSpace want to start a competition around designing and building a CubeSat. It’s a lovely idea for a number of reasons, including the fact that it could be New Zealand’s first satellite, but rather than wittering on I thought I’d let them explain, directly in the form of a guest post, what the idea is.


By Mark Mackay, Executive Director of the KiwiSpace Foundation

Seeking all Kiwi spacecraft designers! Ok, so perhaps those interested in learning to design a spacecraft….

A few of us at KiwiSpace Foundation have been interested in starting a CubeSat design competition within New Zealand. CubeSats are very small satellites – with the basic unit being 10cm x 10cm x 10cm. This may seem tiny, but with modern day electronics you can fit a lot of smarts in such a small space. They’re typically put up into LEO (Low Earth Orbit) and only last a few months or years before they burn up in the atmosphere. That’s still long enough for some science experiments, or to test some new space hardware.

The QB50 opportunity
QB50 is a project by the European Union, to launch a constellation of 50 CubeSats into low earth orbit. All satellites will contain a set of common science instruments to take measurements as their orbit decays through the lower thermosphere.

The project is fairly well advanced (most satellites have been selected by now), but KiwiSpace recently approached the QB50 team, and negotiated a window for New Zealand to apply to participate in this project.

And this is where you come in – we need to find interested people to get involved with the project, and in particular a ‘sponsoring’ university to formally submit the proposal.

A 2U Atmospheric Satellite
Briefly, the QB50 satellites will be in orbit for up to 90 days, and degrade slowly through the atmosphere. They all host a one of a common set of science instruments:

  • Set 1: Neutral Mass Spectrometer, FIPEX, Laser Reflectors, Thermal
  • Set 2: Ion Mass Spectrometer, Langmuir Probe, Laser Reflectors, Thermal

In exchange for doing this, you get an extremely discounted launch price of €20,000 (approx. $32,000 NZD) – and you can use whatever space you have left in the satellite for your own purposes.

2-U/Double cubesat. Those black things are solar panels.

QB50 Timeline

Here’s a summarised version of the QB50 timeline:

May 2012 – Selection of CubeSat teams
Oct 2012 – Contractual agreement with organisers

Mar 2013 – Preliminary Design Reviews (at each university)
Jul 2013 – Flight sensors dispatched
Nov 2013 – Critical Design Review (at each university)

Nov 2014 – CubeSat flight model environmental testing
Jan 2015 – CubeSat flight model delivery to ISIS

Apr 2015 – Launch
Apr-Jul 2015 -QB50 flight operations

The timeframe is relatively tight, but achievable – essentially one year to design (2013), and one year to build (2014).

KiwiSpace’ Goals
KiwiSpace is a non-profit organisation seeking to boost New Zealand’s participation in the space sector, building capacity within NZ and helping graduates into space careers (abroad to start with). To-date, most of our efforts have been focused more at intermediate/secondary school – but in parallel we have been fairly active at international forums, to identify and nurture opportunities such as this.

Our objectives for encouraging CubeSat projects such as QB50 include:

  • Capacity building
    • Build on the KiwiSAT effort – and maintain technical expertise, institutional awareness, etc.
    • We ideally would like to see ongoing CubeSat development, and ideally launches every 2-3 years – by universities throughout NZ
  • Education and outreach use of the satellite
    • We had similar discussions with KiwiSAT and would like to develop educational uses of any satellites developed by NZ (and potentially other members of the constellation). Simple examples would be getting students to downlink data (learning orbital mechanics, signal processing, etc.), target a camera on the satellite, etc.
  • National prestige and awareness
    • There’s no denying that having our own home-grown satellite in space (either through QB50 or KiwiSAT) would be a great catalyst for furthering investment in this sector, and captivating the imagination of students.

Prior to QB50, we had been considering and in casual discussions about holding a form of CubeSat design competition in NZ. Our preliminary concept was to do an on-paper set of design challenges over a year, followed by some non-flight and flight prototypes the next year. At the Asia Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum (APRSAF) this year in December, we will be discussing with JAXA what is involved with launching satellites from their new CubeSat launcher on the KIBO module on the International Space Station.

The QB50 opportunity we see as a logical alternate for this, either adopting the competition format – or more sensibly (given committed timeframes) a national consortium; potentially leading to ongoing competitions in subsequent years.

Opportunities for New Zealand

  • Build and fly a NanoSat in Space: Depending on KiwiSAT’s launch timeframe, a QB50 satellite could potentially be the first in orbit. We would gain experience actually operating a satellite, collecting real science data, etc.
  • Fly an experiment for NZ science community: Whatever free space is left in the CubeSat you can use for your own purposes – so there may be a way to align the satellite’s design with scientific work being done in NZ. The relatively short lead-time to launch suggests this could fit well with current project/thesis work.
  • Fly and test hardware in space: There is the opportunity to space-rate hardware very cost-effectively through this flight. Companies such as Rakon (which purchased a space component manufacturer recently) may desire space-rating of their components; organisations such as the Defence Technology Agency may have an concept they with to validate, before investing into a more expensive test program; etc.
  • Develop a ground station system: We could potentially develop a series of small ground stations to support data retrieval from this satellite constellation (and others). Venture Southland has been looking to develop the station at Awarua, etc. We could partner with GENSO (Global Educational Network for Satellite Operations), adding another distinct geographical footprint to their network.

There are significant secondary benefits to being involved with an international effort such as QB50 – which has a lot of support built-in to help countries develop their capability.

An Education Mission
KiwiSpace strongly advocates an education/outreach mission for this first satellite. We can engage students with interactive activities using the satellite, and channel them towards science, technology and engineering study and careers.

For the basic 2U satellite carrying the sensor set, we need to find €20,000 (~$32k NZD). This covers launch and the common sensors (e.g. build it, and it’s launched for that cost. That’s a bargain!

On top of this we would need to build and test the satellite. How much that costs depends on the number of people prepared to get involved. The low-risk approach will cost more, but you can effectively buy ‘QB50 satellite kitsets’ from around $100k NZD. There’s still a lot to learn from this approach, regarding satellite operations, instruments, integration, etc.

And there are certainly cheaper options if we build more of the satellite locally – but this would require a larger team with the right capabilities to achieve this in the timeline.

So overall, I estimate we’re looking at direct costs of around $60,000-150,000 NZD.

I personally believe that this project would be very sponsorable. Who wouldn’t want to have their company name and logo associated with NZ’s first or second satellite!

With the right mission of education/outreach, you’d get a lot of media coverage and engagement at schools.

Someone suggested a cool feature of the satellite would be to have a camera with a fisheye lens mounted on the outside of the frame – so that you could see the satellite body and the Earth below in a glorious scene. Then, place an LED display on the outside too, within the field of view – and let people send up personalised messages. Imagine a photo of your “Hi Mum” message, or “Will you marry me ___” with that gorgeous background … and a sponsor’s logo of course :)

We believe this is a superb opportunity for New Zealand. The launch cost is extremely cheap – and while there’s less flexibility with the satellite design, it’s pre-definition is probably beneficial given the relative immaturity of New Zealand when it comes to satellite construction. There is also a committed launch date in the near future – meaning students engaged with the project are likely to see their handiwork fly, and can use the in-orbit results in their future studies, etc.

There will also be a huge data set available (from all satellites) to all participating teams, so also a wealth of opportunity for post-launch science and analysis.

Are you interested in getting involved with this project? We need to find a tertiary student team (and potentially commercial partners) willing to get behind it – and some people who are prepared to talk to their supervisor or department head and convince them to formally back the project.

And of course we’re looking for interested sponsors! Would you like to have your brand associated with one of NZ’s first satellites?


Please email me at if you’d like to get involved, or have any questions.

Mark Mackay
Executive Director,
KiwiSpace Foundation

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