Category Archives: Science

The Appliance of Science

In which The Author asks for your help again

My regular readers will already be very familiar with my involvement with Anthony Nolan, a terrific UK charity which helps people in need of treatment for various forms of blood cancer. If you’re new to the story, I’ll give you a brief recap.
Two years ago, a young man from Bristol named Mike Brandon was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. The poor bugger had only just got engaged to his girlfriend Kate, and then received this devastating blow a week or so later. Kate and Mike’s many friends, in association with Anthony Nolan, launched a social media blitz to encourage people to sign up for the tissue donor register. Using the hashtag #Shake4Mike, they spread the word via Facebook and Twitter, and highlighted the charity’s great work in supporting Mike and other people in similar circumstances.
To cut a long story short, Kate’s aunt lives next door to my mother. I got a phone call asking me if I’d spread the word – which I was only too pleased to do. Thanks to everyone else who got behind it as well, the campaign went viral, with mainstream media at home and abroad featuring Mike’s story. The number of people signing up for the tissue register went sky-high. Almost against the odds, we found a suitable match for Mike so that he could receive pioneering stem cell treatment. He was responding well, and he and Kate tied the knot last summer, as I reported soon afterwards.
I also contacted the charity directly and asked them to send me some collection boxes, which my friends in business across South Wales have been kind enough to host. Saturday’s trip to the Bridge in Ebbw Vale yielded a not unhealthy £12.00 (plus some shrapnel, which I added to one of the boxes nearer home on Monday), bringing my individual total to over £370.
Now for the bad news …
Mike has relapsed. He found out just before Easter that his cancer has returned, despite the best efforts of his doctors here in the UK.
The good news is that he seems to be a suitable patient for even more cutting-edge medicine in the USA, and this is where we need to ask for your help. As you can probably imagine, it’s not cheap. We need to raise a jaw-dropping £400,000 to fund his stay in the States while he’s undergoing treatment. Kate has launched a crowdfunding page to appeal for donations. It’s been running less than a week, and at the time of writing the total raised stands at over £88,000.
That’s why I’m writing this now. I know many of you got involved with #Shake4Mike as a direct result of reading my earlier entries about Mike and Kate. Now, though, we don’t want your saliva – we need your money instead. If you’d like to make a donation to the appeal, you can follow the link to the Donate4Mike page and chip in a few shillings. You can also follow the campaign’s progress on Facebook and Twitter by searching for Donate4Mike.
I’ve yet to meet Mike and Kate in the flesh, but I’ll address this last paragraph to them directly.
I take my hat off to you, Mike, for your endless courage and steadfast determination to conquer your illness. I salute you, Kate, for your unswaying love in the face of almost unimaginable circumstances. I hope one day to sit and raise an elbow with you, and thank you for your inspirational and awe-inspiring presence in our lives. I’ve got everything crossed for you both.

The War Against the Machines

In which The Author is on the winning side

You probably don’t need me to tell you that I’m a huge fan of The Matrix and The Terminator films (except the most recent two in the series – but that goes without saying). What self-respecting Science Fiction fan wouldn’t be turned on (intellectually) by the idea of self-aware artificial intelligence deciding that it represents the next stage of evolution?
Just this week, an open letter from a thousand respected researchers in science and technology – including Professor Stephen Hawking, no less – warned of the potential dangers of letting autonomous weapon systems loose in combat situations. If you’ve seen the third film in the Terminator trilogy, you’ll remember that that’s exactly what happened: the Pentagon decided to hand the entire US military-industrial complex to a cybernetic system called Skynet, which quickly assumed control and declared war on the human race. While the film may be fiction (now), the possibility of self-aware battlefield weapons is a very real one, and the note of caution sounded by experts in the field probably shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.
About this time last year, I wrote a post briefly summarising the development of robots in SF, from Karel Capek’s original play R.U.R., through the Daleks and the Cybermen, to The Terminator and beyond. (I can’t insert a link to it here, because I’m using a public access PC in Aberdare Library, instead of my Netbook, and Internet Explorer won’t let me open the archive.) Now, it seems, the real world may be about to catch up with the fiction.
I should explain that I’m only using Internet Explorer because Firefox crashed when I tried to access the Guardian crossword in its PDF version about half an hour ago. Normally, I wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole.
In turn, I’m using a public access PC because the wifi in the library isn’t working. I wasn’t at all surprised when I failed to connect this morning. I was here yesterday too, and it took a call to the No Help Desk and about a forty minute wait before another regular and I were able to log in. When the entire public access network started to collapse, at about 3.30 p.m., I knew we’d be in for a blackout today. I know some of the local authority staff have taken reduced hours as part of staff cutbacks, but I’ve never before encountered a piece of fucking computer hardware that only worked a four-day week.
Even when I have been using my Netbook, I’ve been forced to use an external USB keyboard. The built-in keyboard died a fortnight ago. Fortunately I had an external keyboard at home, so I’ve had to cart that around with me ever since. Once I got used to having a numeric keypad where there isn’t usually one, and got over the habit of taking screenshots by mis-hitting the keys, it’s a decent compromise until I can fit a new keyboard.
Even before my Netbook started playing silly buggers, the flat screen monitor attached to my desktop PC had gone on the fritz. There must be a loose connection in there somewhere, as there was an unpleasant crackling sound from within whenever I switched it on, and I had to fiddle with the mains cable to make it stay on. After a while, I couldn’t even switch it off – it just went into self-test mode and cycled through a series of pleasant colours until I switched it off at the plug. Now it seems to have died entirely. There’s a similar model in the library displaying exactly the same symptoms. Still, I shouldn’t grumble, as my friend Jennifer gave it to me a few years ago when my old CRT monitor bit the dust. I’ve seen one in a second-hand shop, so I’ll probably be able to pick up a replacement fairly cheaply.
The final insult came during the early hours of Sunday morning. At precisely 2.11 a.m., in fact. My Nokia semi-smartphone (ringtones, camera, Internet capability) was sitting on the shelf above my bed as usual. It beeped once. I wasn’t asleep anyway. Graham, the hero of H. G. Wells’s novel When the Sleeper Wakes (see Another Security Leak From the Future) stayed awake for six days and nights before falling into his 200-year coma. Only six days and nights? When it comes to insomnia, that’s strictly fucking amateur league.
It wasn’t the sound it makes when I receive a text – as happened a fortnight earlier, when Anna decided to text me in a drunken rage at about 5 a.m. It was the electronic equivalent of a hungry baby’s cry – it wanted me to charge it up.
I wouldn’t have minded normally. I knew the battery was fairly low, as it had been bleating plaintively all through Saturday morning. I gave it a quick burst before heading to Cwmbach in the afternoon, and then forgot to plug it in when I got home. I switched it off (the equivalent of an old school mother giving her baby a drop of gin?) and gave it a full charge in the afternoon.
On Tuesday it went flat again.
It did the same on Thursday afternoon.
After getting a full charge from zero yesterday morning, it’s now firing on about half a tank. I’m going to London on Tuesday, so I’ll have to make sure it’s fully charged on Monday evening, otherwise I could be stuck without a timecheck when I’m wandering around the city.
Skynet is still displaying evidence of its presence in the library IT network, by the way. The crosswords from the Guardian and FT were sitting in the print queue, waiting for me to ask Judith to release them, when the printer suddenly came to life just now. I thought it must have been something which Judith herself had requested – but no, my crosswords appeared as if my magic. (Or, maybe, as if by potentially hostile AI software.)
Considering what a terrific job I’ve done in the past few months of rendering various pieces of electronic technology all but useless, I’m thinking of changing my name. I can’t decide between Thomas Anderson or John Connor. Personally, I think you can just call me Neo and have done with it.