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Policing by quota

This isn’t going to be a particularly long post, it’s just going to outline an issue that has affected me recently and I’d be interested to know if it has affected anyone else or if it hasn’t what you think about it.

I live in London and I own a bike. The reason I own a bike is because it is cheaper and faster than other forms of transport over short (>5 mile) distances. This is relevant because in the past month I’ve been stopped twice by police because of how I was riding my bike, the first time I was cycling through Camden and I noticed that four cyclists on the side of the road were being given tickets by four police officers (there were two police cars parked around them). Naturally I wondered what was going on, ten minutes and half a mile later I found out. As I was cycling a police car turned on its sirens and sped in front of the cyclist who was ten or twenty metres ahead of me, as I tried to cycle round they shouted for me to stop to. It transpired that we had apparently both gone through a red light on a crossing. Now I’m not going to dispute that I did this because to be honest I don’t know if I did or didn’t. It was a crossing not on a junction, no one was on it, when I rode up to it I looked right and saw that the crossing man was red and two seconds after I went through all the cars did as well. The police officer agreed that all of this was true and that she did indeed see me go through under these conditions. However she then said that I was unlucky because that particular week was “Camden Safer Cycling” week and they were cracking down on cyclists, she then produced a fist full of fines and gave me one. I’m not complaining about her, she was polite and fair and I probably did go through when the light was red. What was unsettling about it was that instead of exercising due discretion as she normally would for such a minor event she had to give me a ticket to get rid of the pile that by policy had to be gone by the end of the week.

"Sorry mate but I have to give out twenty before I clock off, tell your friends yeah?"

Last night this worrying type of policing was shown on the BBC’s traffic cops program. This show follows traffic police throughout Bedfordshire (my home county) as they fine people for tinted windows, number plate font etc before showing gory pictures of traffic accidents so that we can all learn what should be obvious. Again I don’t think the police did a bad job on this program, I’ve got nothing against the officers. However at one point they revealed that Bedfordshire police have implemented a “credit” system. Under this system police officers have a quota of credits that they must reach each month, activities like handing out fines are worth a small number of credits and arresting someone awards an officer a higher amount. This to me seems nuts and here’s why, it’s not because I think there shouldn’t be a system of monitoring policing and encouraging crime fighting, it’s that a credit system doesn’t address specific crimes. What it does do is, as one officer complained on the show, take away an officers discretion. An offence that usually would get a warning (perhaps because the person is unaware of their crime e.g. tinted windows) now get’s a fine because the officer needs to rack up their credits. This one credit system is bad in my opinion. Rather than taking types of crime such as knife crime and setting a goal such as “10% reduction in a month” officers can simply supplement their credit score by tacking strings of minor and even trivial offences.

This may all seem like a personal rant, its not but it is inspired by something that happened to me. Author Charles Stross has an interesting take on this over on his blog, we all commit minor crimes now and then (often without knowing it) but as surveillance increases the opportunity for us to be caught increases.

But what do you think? Is a quota the right way to police? Have you experienced something you feel is pedantic? Leave a comment!

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This week a report regarding advertising  aimed at children called “Letting Children be Children; Report of an Independent Review of the Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood” was published. This report looked into whether or not businesses were acting appropriately in their marketing strategies for minors. It sounded reasonable to me at first but then I started getting a bit suspicious when I heard how they researched the topic. Before I tell you how they did it why don’t you have a think; if you were tasked with investigating the effect that sexual advertising has on children (never mind the nightmare of defining what is and is not sexual or appropriate) how would you go about it. Take a moment…

The Emperors New Clothes; blatant sexualisation of children's books

If anywhere in your plans there was the idea that to investigate the effect that sexual advertising has on children you should research any effects that sexual advertising have had on children then give yourself a pat on the back, you are a person in possession of a brain. Those of you who thought deeper than this initial point may have surmised that published research by child psychologists, evidence from academic sources and interviews with experts in the field might be good ideas. Unfortunately the group does none of this. Instead it sent out questionnaires, held focus groups with concerned parents and copied and pasted opinion polls from previous government reports, it also is filled with the persona beliefs of the authors such as “The world is a nasty place and children should be unsullied by it until they are mature enough to deal with it” and my personal favourite “we believe that a truly family-friendly society would … reinforce healthy norms for adults and children alike “. I won’t even go into the report’s shocking misuse of the term “evidence” or how it can advise moving “lads mags” to the top shelf on the basis that 15% of those polled had a problem with them. Suffice to say anyone who has ever done a statistics 101 module would laugh if they didn’t die on the spot. This report whose head author is Reg Bailey (Chief Exec of the Mothers Union) is so full of traditional-values backed up by “we believes” rather than “studies show” that it must have made David Cameron weep with orgasmic, big-society joy when he read it.

I don’t have time to do a long and detailed debunk (for one thing some of us have to do real research, I can’t get away with claiming “I believe” at a Viva) but luckily I don’t have to. The lovely Dr Brooke Magnanti (author of Belle de Jour) has already done it and I would implore you to read it.

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Meet the Methuselah of the Deep Sea

First off let’s pretend that I went through a lengthly apology for not posting here in quite a while. Secondly let’s pretend that you have accepted this apology graciously and are just happy to have another ramble by Ryan to read. That out of the way let’s meet todays star attraction…

The only thing in the sea that I think is cool

This is Turritopsis nutricula. A few days ago I attended a conference on stem cell biology and this little gem of a beast cropped up. Before I go into why it is such a remarkable creature I’ll have to share a few facts about jellyfish. Jellyfish belong to the Cnidarian phylum and Cnidarians are the most distantly related group on Earth compared to all other animals. This is because Cnidarians diverged from the rest of us animals over half a billion years ago. Consequently they are quite different; they possess radial symmetry unlike us bilateria, they lack the highly conserved (not to mention ancient) hox genes and rather disturbingly their mouth and anus is the same hole. So what did I find particularly fascinating about this specimen? After all it isn’t very remarkable to look at. In spite of the picture T. nutricula don’t grow beyond half a centimeter and whilst the adults have nearly one hundred tentacles there are far more dangerous jellyfish out there. No the remarkable thing about T. nutricula is that it is biologically immortal.

Yup that’s right, immortal. T. nutricula start off life as larvae that attach to the sea floor and form a polyp, this polyp will begin to asexually produce small sexually mature jellyfish that will bud off of the polyp. Different species of jellyfish have different lifespans (hours-months) but after reproducing most jellyfish die. This is where T. nutricula differs; instead of meekly passing away a T. nutricula will begin to turn from a mature jellyfish back into a polyp! This polyp can then recreate the mature form and the cycle can continue indefinitely, literally rejuvenating itself over and over again.

The reason that this was bought up at the stem cell conference is because of the mechanism by which T. nutricula does this remarkable Benjamin Buttonesque trick. It occurs through a process called transdifferentiation. Cells start life as a stem cell that then undergoes a division forming two cells; one cell identical to the original and one more specialized cell. Transdifferation is the rare process by which specialized cells transform into a different type of specialized cell. This is as strange as brain tissue turning into muscle but this is how  T. nutricula cheats death. It starts changing into an odd blob that sinks to the sea floor. This blob then anchors on and forms a polyp again. In reality  T. nutricula does die thanks to the hazards of the sea (predation, disease etc) but efforts are now underway to keep them safe in the lab and observe their bizarre life cycle for as long as possible. So who knows? Perhaps future generations of stem cell biologists will be studying the same creatures that are even now being investigated for new insights into stem cell medicines. All I know is that I want one. I mean, who wouldn’t want the one pet that wouldn’t get flushed down the toilet after a few months?

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Watch out it’s the fashion police!

I didn’t intend to write about politics when I started this blog, I fully intended to stick to topics revolving around science. However this weeks activity in France where the burqa has now been banned have incensed me. For those of you who haven’t heard the French ban on wearing the burqa came into force today, now any woman found wearing the burqa will be subjected to a 150 Euro fine and mandatory attendance at a “re-education” meeting. I despise this law; it’s invasive, immoral and totally misguided at best. But what I despise more than this is the reaction some people have had. Here is some of the worst…

“If people want to live in our country they should abide by our culture!”

This statement strongly implies that all burqa wearing muslim women are immigrants who want nothing more than to segregate themselves from the rest of the country. Aside from this being spurious at best whose culture are we talking about? And is this about culture or fashion? I lived in Brighton for many years and have seen people wearing everything and often, nothing. In fact during my first week in Brighton I witnessed a very old man wearing an old man cap, shirt and tie, waistcoat, hot pants, red tights and knee length leather boots. This is not an anomaly! It is common in Brighton to witness odd clashes of fashion and style completely at odds with other norms in Britain such as hoodies and jeans, is this an example of Brighton not abiding by “our” culture? Why is it that if something is different or not native in origin that it should be shunned until it integrates (an Orwellian word that actually means conforms)? One news article went so far as to suggest that all muslim women who do not wear burqas are ‘moderates’ implying that those who do wear the burqa are extremist. At what point did it become acceptable in Europe to consider anyone who dresses or acts differently as extremest? If a selection of Europeans started painting their faces because of cultural reasons why should that not also be banned?

“You shouldn’t be allowed to cover your face in public”

Once a year this child is oppressed into covering it's face. Ban Ghosts

So we are going to ban hoodies, masks and helmets now are we? I accept that in some cases you should have to show your face (i.e. when engaging in an activity which requires ID) but why the hell is it the governments business if I show my face or not? As a matter of fact why is it anyone’s business what I wear?  When celebs are hounded by paparazzi and cover their face should we arrest them? Should faces no longer be blurred out on TV?

“Muslim women are oppressed”

The issue of women being oppressed is a strong one however ordering women not to wear a burqa is hardly a step forward especially as I have yet to see any evidence that the majority of burqa wearers do so under male instruction. I have a friend whose girlfriend tells him what and what not to wear. It’s ridiculous that a man of 22 can be ordered around and told which shirt he is allowed and not allowed to buy, should we ban shirts then? Tackling one small symptom is never going to get rid of the disease.

In addition I find it hard to see why there is a belief that here in Europe our culture doesn’t oppress women by demanding what they can and cannot wear. Our TV bombards us with programs featuring normal women who are then taken by some Guri, told they are doing it wrong and reborn with make-up, surgery and new clothes. Are you any more liberated if going out in jeans and a jumper results in sneers and odd looks from those dressed in less fabric than a small hanky? Anyone who believes that women in Europe can walk down the street wearing whatever they like without fear of judgement needs to get their head checked.

There’s a lot more to be said on this issue that I’m not going into now. All the arguments for banning the burqa are veiled attempts at forcing out Islam under the guise of liberation and integration. I can’t help feel that this is a bad time for our free world when the liberties that we fought to obtain are the ones we are now invoking to justify interference and oppression of our citizens. I, as a free European citizen should be allowed to wear whatever the hell I please and that freedom should be universal. What kind of world are we creating when we say it’s ok for government to pass laws over specific people like this? Is this not another example of what Niemöller warned against?

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Some rather peculiar designs

If mankind perished today and our remains were dug up by future archaeologists from another species there is one thing that would become apparent quite quickly; we love to build things. From houses to bridges, sky scrapers to motorways we tear up resources lying around us and hammer them into useful and beautiful feats of engineering all the time. Sometimes those things really are inspiring examples of what we can achieve (the Millau Viaduct is taller than most sky scrapers) others are slightly more wacky (see the Hitler house). I’ve encountered quite a lot of ideas of the years that have left me enthused, impressed, awed, disturbed, incredulous and overall gobsmacked! Here are a few that instill all of those things…

  • Alantropa

There’s not enough land so let’s build more!

In 1929 a German man by the name of Herman Sogel had a rather…interesting idea. He believed that the 20th century would see the rise of both the U.S and a Pan-Asian nation that would displace Europe to the third power block of the world (personally I think he was a little over half right, the U.S did rise and many Asian nations are becoming more and more prosperous). To combat this he wanted to turn Europe and Africa into one continent. Yup, you read that right. The continent would be named “Alantropa” and would be created by damming the Strait of Gibraltar, over the years the Mediterranean sea would evaporate lowering its level by 200 metres. The plan had many aims, according to Sogel it would take nearly a century for the project to be completed. Hundreds of thousands of workers would be needed to build the damn in under ten years with potentially millions more required to turn the growing land of the Mediterranean into fertile farmland and colonise it. Alantropa would be powered by the dam which would produce Gigawatts of energy from hydroelectricity. Sogel saw this plan as a way of ensuring co-operation and peace in Europe as well as providing economic and industrial growth (later versions of the plan involved draining some of the mediterranean into Africa to produce three great lakes to turn the desert into more fertile land).

Alas his plan isn’t without its flaws. Aside from the building logistics the dam would cause massive ecological damage to the mediteranian and whilst Sogel had peaceful intentions towards Europe he had less savory attitudes towards Africans who he saw as in the way of an Expanding Europe. Still the audacity of this plan brings a smile to my face.

Artists impression of Atlantropa (Source: Wikipedia user Ittiz)

  • Dubai City Tower

Those with a fear of heights need not apply

City or building?

Of a slightly less extreme nature but by no means less imaginary is the Dubai City Tower proposal. Over recent years Dubai has become a hotspot for extravagant buildings like this, this and this. However of all the future proposals DCT really stands out. The tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, stands at 800 metres (half a mile!). It is an extraordinary feat of engineering but the DCT would stand three times higher. The ‘tower’ would consist of multiple towers spiralling around each other before meeting hundreds of metres from the ground. With its extreme height the tower would not only have lifts but would have vertical trains that stopped every 100 floors. Each section of 100 floors would be a different “neighbourhood”. The plan isn’t just to build a tower but a vertical city. The DCT would be as self-sufficient as possible generating much of its own power from solar panels and wind farms attached to the outside of the towers, each neighbourhood would feature a sky atrium (domed garden) stretching between the spiralling towers to act as parks and focal areas for local businesses and communities. It’s still doubtful if this structure will ever be constructed and if it is it won’t be for decades. But this idea of arcologies (one building cities) has always intrigued me. The DCT will have everything in it; shops, homes, hospitals, schools, cinemas, hotels, offices….you name it and it will have it. Which intrigues me because of the simple odd fact that a person can be born, raised, work, marry, have kids and die all in the same building! Not that this is a desirable thing (it isn’t to me) it is merely extraordinary.

  • Space Elevator

Going up?

If you thought a mile and a half building was impressive how would you like to take a ride on a cable car….to space? The Space elevator is an old favourite of both science fiction and speculative engineering. The idea is pretty simple; at an altitude of 30,000 kilometres an object can be placed in orbit so that its orbital speed matches the rotation of the Earth. In other words an object in this ‘geostationary orbit’ would always hover over the same place on Earth. From a platform in this orbit a cable could be slowly lowered

One small step for man one giant cable for mankind

down and attached to the corresponding place on the ground, then ‘climbers’ can run up and down this cable literally taking an elevator ride to orbit. Of course in reality the project is not that simple! There is no cable material that we can use at the moment that has the strength needed however we have started to produce materials that may be future candidates. Carbon nanotubes are small tubes of carbon nanometres wide made from just one atom thick sheets of carbon. They are the strongest materials known to man and we’ve been researching better methods of making them for years, the only problem at the moment is we can make small fragments but not thousands of kilometres! How the climbers would attach and actually climb is another problem however there are competitions between universities over this kind of thing already. A space elevator is daunting but its biggest advantage is the cost cutting that it would give to the space industry, that is costs of putting something into geostationary orbit would shrink to 1% of today’s price. On a purely weight cost that would change the cost of putting an average man to geostationary orbit from £1,200,000 to £5,000! That’s a pretty good amount allowing the average person to save up to go to space, not to mention the boom that the company/country who owns the elevator would get from trade in the space industry.

I hope you have enjoyed reading about these ideas, it’s things like this that still give me a passion for science (though my field focusses on the very small which is slightly less gobsmacking to see). If you’ve come across any crazy plans yourself feel free to let me know, I’m always keen to find the next thing that with that level of wow factor!

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Where do we live? Part 2

In Part 1 we tried to imagine just how huge our galaxy is, to show where we live in this universe of ours. To accurately describe the universe beyond our galaxy we’re going to have to shrink the scale we used last time a hell of a lot more. Let’s take our already shrunk 6 million kilometre wide Milky way and pull it all the way down to 1 metre across. At this scale the Sun is 1.5 billionths of a metre across (half the width of DNA) and the Earth is 13.5 trillionths of a metre across (half the size of the smallest atom!). The entire galaxy now comfortably fits between your outstretched hands; hundreds of billions of stars, perhaps trillions of planets all between your fingertips.

The Large Magellanic Cloud

But our galaxy doesn’t sail through the universe alone, dotted around us are a number of satellite galaxies, there are around 25 smaller galaxies clustered around our own! The largest is called the Large Magellanic Cloud, on our scale it is a metre and a half from our galaxy (off to the side and slightly below). Home to billions of stars this 14 thousand lightyear wide galaxy would be the size of a pineapple on our little scale. The other galaxies surround ours in all directions with the closest 1 foot from our model and the furthest over 13 metres away, a real-world distance of over 1 million light years!

Even the Milky Way and her satellites are not alone, they are part of what we call the Local Group. Comprised of three major galaxies and dozens of satellites on our scale the local group is the size of a football pitch. Within these 10 millions lightyears lie trillions of stars, the largest galaxy is our nearest neighbour called Andromeda which itself contains well over 1 trillion stars. I always think fondly of Andromeda, as a child I had a book about the universe and I remember becoming upset because it told me that in 4 to 5 billion years the Milky Way and Andromeda are going to crash. Count to five……I’ll give you time to do it……we are now 600 kilometres closer! We are on a collision course with each other, on our scale Andromeda is 25 metres from us (2 and a bit buses) and its racing towards us at a rate of 5 billionths of a metre every year. Granted that doesnt scare me any more, but it’s going to be a titanic display!

In billions of years to come somebody will be voiding their no claims bonus...

Our Local Group may seem huge but it is tiny compared to some of the other groups nearby. 65 million light years away the Virgo Cluster is home to over 1 thousand galaxies! When we look at the Virgo Cluster now we’re seeing it as it was when the dinosaurs were walking the Earth, from the entirety of that point until now those photons have been serenely flying through space until one day after aeons of travel they land in our telescopes to tell us a tale from the deep past. The Virgo Cluster is so huge that we use it to name our local supercluster. Yes our Local Group is just a small part of a bigger group. The Virgo Supercluster contains at least 100 galaxy clusters and on our scale where the Milky way is a metre across and the Earth just half an atom wide it is over a kilometre wide. That’s about the same scale as an ant standing next to a car

Now I know this is beginning to sound repetitive but even our supercluster is just a tiny dot. When we look out beyond our supercluster we see that there are many, many more. Superclusters litter our universe forming truly colossal structures. They bunch together forming filaments (chains billions of lightyears long) and Great Walls formed from giant webs. This is our home. This is our universe. At this size our scale collapses again, with the Milky Way 1 metre wide some of these filaments would be tens of kilometres long!

One of the universe's 'Great Walls' made from filaments of superclusters

This is the observable universe, countless stars in hundreds of billions of galaxies. We are but a tiny part of this but it’s all out there! The numbers are horrible and the distances incomprehensible but I hope my analogy has helped. I was planning on taking this further and explaining just how small things in our universe can be but I found this brilliant animation that paints a picture worth a thousand blog posts. Its awesome, its unimaginably big, and its where we live.

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How best to revise I wonder?

At the moment I find myself caught in that horrible time where all my days are spent locked in a room (windows optional) pouring over old notes trying to revise for an exam. This isn’t a new feeling for me, like most people in my generation who continued with higher education our whole experience of learning has involved study for a set period of months followed by a test that your life itself depends on. Traditionally when faced with such tests we revise, a process that is meant to refresh us of all those things we have learnt throughout our time….yeah….about that.

Typical day in the life of revision

In my experience revision is never a comfortable stroll down memory lane. Its a backbreaking experience whereby 1/3rd of it is refreshing my memory, 1/3rd learning things I have forgot and 1/3rd learning the things I never understood in the first place. I don’t remember much of how I revised for my early life exams but I do distinctly remember Sixth Form being the place where I learnt to loathe revision. It’s not that I don’t like learning, I wouldn’t have chosen to be a scientist if that was the case, I just get sick of spending hour after hour, day after day reading endless notes! Especially when this reading is accompanied by the dread thought that at the end of it I am going to have to sit in a dark room and suffer a Gestapo-like interrogation with a light in my face and bamboo under my finger nails! Not really, but that’s how it feels sometimes.

In actuality what I find annoying is how hard it is to convince the brain to remember something. In Sixth Form I had a tutor who would run revision sessions wherein the whole class would contribute to make a colour coded mindmap using the class’s digital white board (space age or what?). The tutor in question told us that specific colours help remember things when placed in order, I tried this out in other subjects but to be honest it never really worked. Perhaps I wasn’t associating Kant strongly enough with red, or was using the wrong shade of blue to recall how many people died in the Kobe earthquake. Another tutor once told me (with slightly more science behind her assertion) that the area of the brain associated with the sense of smell is next door to the area responsible for laying down long term memories. You may notice that walking into a room with a particular scent sends you flying into the deepest recesses of your mind to re-enact a summer picnic when you were nine. The idea being that if you were to revise with a scented candle for each subject and then take a hanky with a drop of that scent into the exam you could shove it up your nose when you forgot something. Needless to say, this didn’t work.

So I find myself once again wondering what exactly is the best way to revise? I’ve used many different methods in my life and have yet to find a winning combination. I’ve tried remembering things by rote, just repeating them either out loud or in my head, sometimes by writing them down over and over (like some semi-sadistic detention from middle school). This is OK to an extent but it’s hard to remember a thousand pages of work this way. Often I imagine all the elements of what I’m revising dancing around my room, trying to force my brain into remembering it visually. Sometimes I’ll even use my hands to move around these imaginary objects in an attempt to learn kinesthetically. A good trick I’ve picked up recently is creating a story to use as an aide mémoire for instance; “Dr Jell was telling me the other day how he used to be into horse racing. That was until in the 2003 derby he fell from his horse and had to have a hip replacement. He said it’s good but a bit flaky”. This is to jog my memory that Jell et al 2003 is a paper discussing the effects of wear debris from orthopaedic hip replacements.

Cyborg stickman with his load bearing leg

When faced with many things to learn at once (like the dozen or so ideal properties of a tissue scaffold) I find doodling pictures around my notes helps. Especially if I can give these doodles a little story in my head; “cyborg stickman is a body builder, recently he broke his leg lifting weights and had to get a new bone implant”. This is to remind me that load bearing implants should provide mechanical support. It is very silly (and quite geeky) but because of that I’m definitely going to remember it. In my last exam I was struggling to remember who wrote all the papers I had to learn, when they wrote them and what they said. I ended up making a story about a Chinese takeaway with a trance night club in the basement and an Indian restaurant on top. There’s more to the story than that but I still remember Wu 2001 (cantilever biosensors), Chang 2005 (Quantum dot fluorescent imaging) and Rajnicek 1997 (neurite growth on nanopattern surfaces).

In no way have I found a suite of methods that turn revision from a slow slog through treacle into a laid-back holiday. All the tricks I’ve assembled over the years have helped but it’s still a bit of a chore. I always thought that Neo didn’t realise how good he had it; if I had a chair that could teach me kung-fu in minutes I wouldn’t have to write this blog post complaining about revising. Indeed you would have to drag me kicking and screaming from the chair (which would be hard as I now know kung-fu) to go to the exam because I would be too busy downloading the British library, facebook, Pubmed, facebook, wikipedia and facebook straight into my skull. In the spirit of attempting to assemble a toolkit of revision tricks (whilst we wait for the chair) I’d be interested to know how you revise? What’s your best tricks, do you like working in groups or solo, is there anything that you avoid like the plague? Feel free to leave a message in the comments.

Right, I’ve now spent half an hour bashing this out and it’s got my brain nice and warmed up for what you all know I should be doing. Back to the books!

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