Bonobos, skepticism & chemical scum @ TED

The TED Talks from the annual TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference is among my favourite online edutainment destinations and this month has seen them update the site with yet another collection of thought-provoking and informative talks from various top scientists and thinkers of today. I thought I'd give it a little exposure and drop in a mention of 3 random talks that I took a liking to...

I just watched a recently added talk titled "Apes that write, start fires and play Pac-Man" by Susan Savage-Rumbaugh. The talk is on Dr Susan's work on Bonobo apes - one of the closest hominid primates to humans. I've kept up an interest in Bonobos ever since I learnt of them (not too long ago!) and they've continued to fascinate me. They are quite similar to us in that they share more than 98% of DNA, they are tail-less and walk upright/bipedally. They've demonstrated the ability to understand when talked to, communicate via writing and fashion tools. They display altruistic behaviour, are compassionate and kind, care for their offspring pretty much the same as humans and live peacefully. Infact, their motto literally seems to be "Make Love, Not War". They are also understood to possess some of the fundamental ingredients to an intelligent society - culture and concepts of equality of individuals. Interestingly enough, unlike how human cultures have mostly been thus far, the bonobo culture is matriarchal!
- Check out the talk by Dr. Susan

I adore the Skeptics magazine published by the Skeptics Society. Its founder, Dr. Michael Shermer, gave a very engaging talk titled "Why people believe strange things". There's an abundance of supernatural claims and pseudo-science that litters our societies and his talk goes through some of the common claims - dowsing, creationism, UFOs, crop circles, so-called miracles and the rest of pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo. He encourages critical, rational thought and scientific scrutiny.
- Check out the talk by Dr. Shermer

Chemical Scum
Prof. David Deutsch, whom I had mentioned about in a previous post, delivers a rough painting of the cosmos and where we stand respective to it in a light talk titled "What is our place in the cosmos?". He draws on the contents of the universe and bodies within it, the distances between objects and the ability of the scientific method to explain and model the vast and complex universe. The brain, he says, has the tools needed for solving almost any problem: knowledge, creativity and reason. A very inspiring speech!
- Check out the talk by Prof. Deutsch

Enjoy ;-)

Developing apps for mobiles with Adobe Flash Lite

Writing (simple) programs and games for mobile phones has gotten a whole lot easier thanks to Adobe/Macromedia's Flash Lite technology. It basically extends their flagship Flash presentation engine to the realm of mobile handsets by providing a player, similar to that which is installed on desktop PCs, to many of the mobile phones. The product effectively paves the way for the many animators, web developers and even beginners to easily develop rich programs for mobiles without having to delve into C or Java and presents a more lucrative solution than MIDP or BREW for creating device-independent light applications.

Anyone familiar with the standard Flash development techniques can quickly develop/port to Flash Lite and get it working. Transparent internet access, XML/HTML support and ActionScript are all supported - allowing for quite sophisticated applications to be built with ease. Flash Lite is included in the recent Adobe Flash CS3 release or can be added to Flash Professional 8 by downloading the free Flash Lite authoring update from the Adobe website. Many of the popular phones are supported and developers can download/update development profiles for different phones.

The possibilities for applications are numerous - games, data access front-ends etc and might be a great way for businesses to provide interactive information or services to customers with probably a lower development cost!

- Adobe Flash Lite product page
- Adobe Mobile & Devices Developer Center

Quick n dirty implementation of a Reverse Number lookup application in Flash Lite for Nokia phones running S60

Thermite: Towards the rapid destruction of hard disk(s)

A friend of mine, a very paranoid and drama-loving fellow, asked me recently for some suggestions on how to rapidly destroy a computer hard disk. He wanted to destroy his hard drive banks "if police came to get him". I don't know what possible reason the police may have for wanting him and his hard drives but being the dramatic fellow he is, I know he'd want to do it purely for the drama alone. Anyway, my solution to him was simple and most importantly, very dramatic: thermite!

A thermite reaction is an exothermic chemical reaction that generates temperatures reaching upto 2500 °C - more than enough to melt the entire hard drive and entirely destroy the magnetic lining of the platters. Thermite consists of aluminium and iron(III) oxide (better known as rust!). The two is to be mixed in a ratio of approximately 8 or 9 parts iron oxide to 3 parts aluminium. The aluminium needs to be powdered and can be obtained by filing/sanding soft drink cans or aluminium tubing. The iron oxide (rust) can be shaved off from a rusting iron rod and should be in powder form as well. I've successfully tried with aluminium filed off aluminium tubing that I had purchased for building an antenna and rust collected from a bunch of iron nails that had been rotting away.

Ignition is the most important part for getting the thermite reaction going and isn't an easy step for the method described above. The easiest way, which I recommended to my friend, was to use a magnesium strip. They aren't available in Male' but can be ordered online or purchased from abroad easily. Alternatively, I suggested, convince a chemistry student at CHSE to get some - they often use it as part of their weekly practicals and throw out a load of half-used strips to the bin anyway!

Finally, the thermite mixture can be placed in a little container and a piece of magnesium strip neatly stuck into it. The container can be placed on top of the hard drive with the magnesium strip accessible and ready for lighting when required! Once ignited, nothing will stop the reaction and extinguishers - be it water, foam or CO2 - will miserably fail too.

Needless to say, the prospects of having his hard disks melted in a fiery fire as cops watch helplessly really excited my friend...

Further info:
- Watch some thermite reactions

Note: Thermite is not fun play - stand well away and avoid using large amounts. Do be careful if you are curious enough to experiment ;-)

Maldives Post Code data for download

The Maldives Post Ltd introduced 5 digit Post Codes back in 2002. The houses in Male' and Villingili have their own post code available unlike the rest of Maldives which, for now, have generic codes handed out for each island/atoll including resorts and Hulhule'/Hulhumale'.

I thought I'd publish the data for Male' and Villingili, in tab-separated-values format, in case anyone has a need for them. The data files can be opened with any software that supports delimited text files (eg. MS Excel). The data is extracted from the Post Code Finder service on the Maldives Post website.

- Download the zipped files (55 KB)

Bogu jahaafa...

I was about to brush my teeth yesterday while spending the day at the home of a Maldivian family here in the UK when I saw this gentle "notice" on the wall. I was so amused by it that I just stared at it till the message bore into my retina - toothpaste on the brush and raised to my teeth...

Have a laugh!

"Bogu jahaafa komme faharaku faahaanaa thashi saafu kuran hadhaan kuraathi"

Visit to the Manchester Museum

Museums are among my favourite places. Never do they fail to instil a sense of wonder and belittlement in me... especially the sections on pre-historic life and cosmology. I spent the day at the Manchester Museum yesterday, ogling and gawking at all those things on display.

I adored the dinosaur on display - a Tyrannosaurus rex named Stan. It is a cast replica from the original and consists of 199 bones that have been discovered. Standing at about 20ft tall and 35ft long, the thing is just gigantic. I only come up to its knees! I was introduced to dinosaurs when I was very young via a book on dinosaurs. It came with special glasses for viewing the special 3D renditions of dinosaurs, including a T Rex. Yet, none of the books, pictures or even movies prepare one for the massively awe-inspiring sight of a real-life fossil reconstruction of the beast!

Anyway, here are some snaps from the museum visit.

Gautama Buddha

Egyptian mummies

Mummified remains of Asru, a chantress at the Temple of Amun in Karnak.

A fossilized ammonite - Ammonites are an extinct group of marine animals that lived 400 - 65 million years ago.

Fossil evidence of fern-like plant (from around 600 million years ago)

Australopithecus Afarensis (3.9 - 2.9 million years ago) - The hominid ancestor that gave rise to modern Homo species including humans!

Early homo sapiens (400,000 - 10,000 years ago)

Guess what this is? It has hands, no legs, a huge tail and a great big head.

Fossil remains of a dinosaur-like sea creature (205 - 146 million years ago)

Sea scorpians and jawless fish from the Silurian age (439 - 409 million years ago)

A reptile from the Triassic period (250 million years ago)

Stan, the Tyrannosaurus Rex (dated to 65 million years ago)

More of Stan...

A few of the beetles on display - With about 350,000 different species of beetles around, they are dubbed nature's favourite!


MSA(UK) Extraordinary General Meeting 2007

I have been tied up with the Extraordinary General Meeting 2007 gathering by the Maldivian Students' Association (UK) for the better part of the week. This annual meeting was a big success this year with about 80 members from all over UK coming together at the camp in Manchester from 30th March to 1st April. A lot of new members turned up and as always, was fun-filled and friendly. There were games of football, lava-baazee, ishaaraaiy, dhalhuvattaa, karaoke, dancing etc in addition to serious discussions on various MSA(UK) issues and projects at hand.

One of the more interesting events this year was that Sappe', of the Dhivehi Observer fame, turned up to the meeting in his capacity as an Associate Member of the association. Though news of his attendance had resulted several eye-brows from several members, Sappe' kept to expressed wishes of mingling with the students and to join in the activities. It was quite amusing to see the students (including me :-P) all gather around this Maldivian celebrity and engage in the normal sort of chat.

- Check out the EGM event news and the event photos

Project GoTeach
MSA(UK) is in the process of planning an activity this year called GoTeach. Project GoTeach, as it is lovingly called, is aimed at students utilizing their summer holidays (June-Oct) to head off to the islands and spend a week or two to take on a bunch of students and tutor them. The original plan was to help towards O'level revisions but has now been (sort of) expanded to include exam preparations, study methods etc. The project is open to all students in the UK and elsewhere and everyone is encouraged to join in on this effort. Details of the project is available at the MSA(UK) GoTeach section.

MSA(UK) is evolving this year with a lot of activities planned ahead. If you are in UK, give us a shout and join us on our next activity. If you are in the Maldives, then look out for a few interesting MSA activities later this year!