Spiders on drugs

Back in the day, when I was freelancing regularly for New Scientist, the magazine covered the story of the errant webs created by spiders that had been exposed to (THC) from marijuana, LSD, speed and various other drugs including caffeine and alcohol . This was an issue in 1995, if I remember rightly. There was a follow up a “humourous” video many years later, which you can watch here:

As you can see the spiders don’t do their best work when they’re stoned on various psychoactive drugs and the social outcomes are not optimal it has to be said. The original New Scientist story from 1995 is here (paywall); perhaps surprisingly the research was done by NASA.

Liquid energy

My latest news story for Chemistry World is on the topic of stationary energy storage and a rather unique concept – liquid metal batteries.

Researchers at MIT have developed such a device, which could allow electricity generated by intermittent, but renewable sources, such as wind, solar and wave power. Such a battery could lower the overall costs of energy storage while also having the advantages of small physical footprint and mechanical simplicity.


Stanford University materials scientist Robert Huggins was very positive of the development:

“There is currently a large amount of research and development underway on energy storage in various types of batteries,” Huggins told me. “Much of this relates to various versions of lithium-based batteries. However, the invention of the three-level liquid metal battery by Sadoway and his co-workers at MIT is unique.”

Huggins points out that the work which uses three layers of liquid lithium, antimony and lead, which are maintained in the liquid state by electrical energy itself keeping it at 450 Celsius, “is leading to the development of an entirely different type of energy storage device, applicable to a different set of applications and technical requirements, in which size, weight and portability are not critical parameters. Instead, cost, high rate performance, safety and lifetime are most important,” he adds.

The approach has many advantages in terms of being safer than conventional batteries with solution electrolytes that can leak into the environment. If this battery fails the components freeze instantly and so cannot leach into the environment. “Characteristics of this new approach to energy-storage technology are especially applicable to large-scale energy storage, such as that which could be employed in connection with solar or wind energy systems. Intermittent cloud cover or sudden shifts in the velocity or direction of the wind can cause major rapid changes in the output of such important systems,” Huggins told me. “The development of new methods and technologies that can alleviate this transient problem is of great importance. The work of the Sadoway group is clearly one of the most interesting approaches to this problem. I think that it is important to give visibility to this important work, which is very different from what is being done in other laboratories throughout the world.”

I was slightly concerned with the fact that this system uses lead, but Sadoway pointed out an obvious benefit of using liquid metals over solutions. “Lead is not a problem as it is inside a sealed container,” he told me. “It’s not going to be venting or leaking into the environment. Safety is not an issue in the course of normal use. In fact, if the battery case were breached and the contents leaked, they would freeze. In this sense, a battery that is operative only at elevated temperature is safer than a battery that is operative at ambient temperature. If the case of a lithium-ion battery is breached, the contents can leak into the environment with attendant harm. Plus, we know that it is forbidden to ship lithium-ion batteries by air transport. The liquid metal battery, in contrast, can be safely shipped by any means since at room temperature the contents are solid metal and salt, i.e., totally disabled.”

My full news story: Molten metal batteries set to store grid power.

The image above by Felice Frankel shows a model of just such a liquid metal battery at room temperature, in a glass container. The bottom layer is the positive electrode. In the real battery this is an alloy of antimony and lead, represented here by mercury. The middle layer is the electrolyte – in reality, a mixed molten salt; here, a solution of salt in water. The top layer is the current collector of the negative electrode, a metal mesh of iron-nickel alloy.

A simple flowchart for trolls

The end of all name-calling arguments during childhood is often the intervention of an adult with a phrase such as: “If you’ve got nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all”. If only we could apply parental rule #4.6/d to the childish online, the twitter trolls, the youtube haters, the blog spammers and others. Here’s a handy flowchart you may cut out and keep and pin to your computer screen so that next time you are making a decision regarding a Twitter reply, a Facebook update or are commenting on a blog, a video or some other creative output, you will know how to behave graciously.


Did you fake your password?

It’s an evergreen news story in the tech world: the top 25 idiotic passwords we use. Every tech magazine reports it and trumpets our global stupidity in the face of hackers. The articles usually beseech us to think about security, to batten down our virtual hatches, to make sure we use a good strong password like 6z!!jciBAOdGEy5EHE&6 or something equally unmemorable.

The surveys and roundups of passwords usually show that simple alphanumeric strings are in widespread use purportedly protecting our Hotmail, GMail, Facebook, Twitter, Xbox, Sony and every other online account, even our bank and credit card accounts. Among the apparently silliest and simplest are things like “password” and “passw0rd”, “123456”, “ILoveYou”, “qwerty”, “abc123”, “111111” and many others besides. All equally crackable and/or guessable. Indeed, any short alphanumeric string, no matter how seemingly random can be cracked by so-called bruteforce means within seconds by a powerful enough computer, or an array of hijacked machines running malware.

Recent revelations about an alleged 5 million GMail passwords being published online revealed once again that the users of those accounts were particularly foolish with their password use. Security blogs suggested that 9 out of 10 of the passwords leaked could have been bruteforce attacked easily because they were so simple.

But, a twitter discussion with Michael Horak @fatmike182 and Benedikt Malleolus @BMalleolus has got me thinking about those silly statistics. Horak pointed out that of any bunch of leaked GMails there is a likelihood that a fair proportion will be either fake (accounts set up for spam and other malicious purposes) or else created for one-time use as a disposable account with which to register on a particular site. We have no easy way to determine what percentage of any list of username/password logins, from whatever hacked source, are genuine users and what proportion are fake, spam, disposable logins.

In other words, the shouty tech blogs that discuss password complexity and how inept most of use supposedly are at using decent passwords may be basing their proclamations on skewed data. Maybe many of us use really strong passwords and two-factor authentication, maybe more than they care to admit aren’t really so dumb as to use “password” as a password for our mission critical logins.

But, here’s a little puzzle, which of these two imaginary passwords would take the longest to crack?

“iSK6%3U6Gt” or “Password……..”

The answer, given the leading question may not surprise you, but is surprising nevertheless. It’s all about making the haystack in which your password needle might be found much bigger than everyone else’s. The mixed character password would be crackable in about a week assuming some kind of Massive Cracking Array Scenario carrying out one hundred trillion guesses per second. The latter password would take the same Array slightly longer, about 2 billion years. Of course, if everyone starts simply adding full stops to the ends of their passwords, the hackers will soon learn and add that pattern to their search algorithms. Maybe we need to be even a little cleverer than they give us credit for.

A brief word about tomatoes and prostate cancer

UPDATE: To avoid confusion: eating lots of tomatoes will not stop you getting prostate cancer if other risk factors are in place!

At least 20 years ago I wrote a news story in my rookie days about how the natural red pigment in tomatoes, the antioxidant lycopene, could somehow protect men against prostate cancer. Nothing was ever proven and the latest news which hit the tabloids in the last couple of weeks doesn’t add much, at least if you read between the lines.

NHS Choices, as ever, has a good summary:

“This large study has shown an association between the consumption of more than 10 portions of tomatoes per week and an 18% reduction in risk of prostate cancer. However, as this was a case controlled study, and not a randomised controlled trial, it cannot prove that eating more tomatoes prevents prostate cancer.”

Tomatoes grown and photographed by 雷竞技官网

The study does have some strengths: large size and accounting for confounding factors. However, limitations include: reliance on dietary questionnaires and the broad categories for self-estimate of body size. After all, do you recall how many portions of tomatoes you’ve had and can honestly tell us how fat or thin you are?

The bottom line NHS Choices says:

“This study does not provide enough evidence to change the recommendations for reducing the risk of prostate cancer. A healthy, balanced diet, regular exercise and stopping smoking are still the way to go, rather than relying on eating one exclusive food type such as tomatoes.”

Tomato-rich diet 'reduces prostate cancer risk'.

Incidentally, from this paper: “Prostate cancer (PCa) represents a major public health burden in the western world. It is a peculiar disease as more men die with it than from it. Also interestingly, PCa was virtually unknown until the 20th century.”

Lodestar Festival 2014 Extras

I got rather too many photos from the 2014 Lodestar Festival, the top bunch are in my Flickr gallery and Facebook gallery. This little lot are ones I’ve plucked out from the folders that didn’t jump out at me first time through but are more representative of the festivalgoers than the bands themselves!