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miércoles, 27 de septiembre de 2017

Enigma: the Spanish connection

Nearly everyone now-a-days has heard of the Enigma machine that encrypted the German intelligence messages during World War II. This is partly due to the success of films like Michaels Apted’s Enigma released in 2001. It told the story of how the British captured a German U-boat together with an Enigma machine and the current code book. It was followed by the film The Imitation Game in 2014 which focused on the part that Alan Turing, interpreted by Benedict Cumberbatch, played in breaking the Enigma code at Bletchley Park.

Actually, many people were involved in the deciphering of Enigma. The Polish had succeeded in cracking a simplified Enigma code but then Poland was invaded and the Polish agents passed their information onto the French Resistance, who in turn passed it onto the British Intelligence. At Bletchley Park there were more than 8000 people involved in deciphering German messages.

What is amazing to me is that the secret that the code had been cracked by the British was kept for so long. It was 1975 when the information was finally released to the public. The question is –Why did the British government hide this information for over 30 years?

This enigma was partly answered when 26 Enigma machines were discovered in a secret room in Madrid. Felix Sanz, director of Spain’s Intelligence Service revealed that these machines had been used by Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War. They were bought from Germany and both Hitler and Franco were concerned that the machines should not fall into the wrong hands. The Republicans, the communists or even worse the British spies who were in Spain were eager to obtain one. The machines were in use right up until the 1950s in various Spanish embassies throughout the world. This might well be one of the reasons why the British government were keen to keep the cracking of Enigma a secret.

In 2011, Spain gifted two Enigma machines to Britain, which can be seen at the museum at Bletchley Park. Spain received some historic military items in exchange; 2 of the 26 Enigma machines together with the gifts from Britain can be seen on display at the Spanish Army Museum at the Alcazar in Toledo. 

Mr Sanz gratefully accepted the present from Britain and in his speech said, "In today's world it is impossible to work alone. You need friends and allies. I knock at the door of the British intelligence and I always get a response. And I hope on the occasion where the British services knock at my door, when they leave my house they leave with a sense they have been helped also."

It’s good to see the two nations working together, however, it’s not hard to deduce that the British Intelligence were listening in on messages sent from Madrid to its embassies using the Enigma machines, during the Franco regime. Maybe this is one of the reasons why the British government kept the cracking of the code secret for so long!

martes, 1 de agosto de 2017


Society owes a great debt to scientists some of whom have given us great insight into genetics. They have used their brilliant minds for our benefit, often dedicating long boring hours to research and committing their lives to investigation. What is it that motivates them to do this?

They might appear to be super human, but scientists are very like the rest of us. They have their own foibles and quirks like any other human beings.

In the first half of the 20th century the brightest scientists were attracted to working in the fields of physics and chemistry. During the two World Wars nearly all of them were recruited into the war effort and great advances in scientific research were made. However, after the Second World War many scientists felt disillusioned because their intellect, creativity and work had been used for destructive purposes. With the cessation of hostilities they found themselves without any job and having to rethink their future. Many of the brightest ones decided to leave physics and chemistry and concentrate their efforts in the fields of the life sciences.

Francis Crick was one such man who moved from the physical sciences into biology research.  He described this transition as, "almost as if one had to be born again.’’ Crick’s desire to produce something positive after the war years leads him eventually to the discovery of the structure of DNA.
The double helix structure of the DNA and the sequencing the human genome might have been achieved earlier if it had not been for personality clashes, disagreements and rivalries which obstructed collaboration.Crick and James Watson agreed that having the opportunity to exchange ideas and receive feedback was essential in the path to the discovery of the DNA. 

However, not all scientists who were working on this project were eager to share. When Watson visited Kings College London, Watkins showed him one of the photographs that Rosalind Franklin had taken which clearly showed a form of an X. This was a breakthrough for Watson and resulted in Watson and Crick discovering the double helix structure of the DNA. Rosalind Franklin, however, was angry about Watkins sharing her work. It was fortunate for humanity that Watkins was keen to share his team’s work.

The way scientists function has a deep effect on the rate at which discoveries are made. Some scientists choose to work together in teams and share their effort; others work in competition while others are unwilling to even share their discoveries, motivated by achieving their own personal glory.

The great scientific achievement of discovering the structure of DNA was due to a large extent to the collaboration between Crick and Watson. They spent a lot of time talking about their ideas to each other. While they were chatting at Cambridge University, at Kings College London Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin were not cooperating.

Once the structure and the basic coding of the DNA were discovered, the work of decoding would start. John Sulston became the head of the British Human Genome Project investigation at Sanger Centre Cambridge. From the beginning the Institute established a policy of data sharing and encouraged collaboration. Sulston gathered many of the biologists working on the sequencing of the human genome in 1995  in Bermuda and managed to draw up what become known as the Bermuda Principles in which all the scientists agreed to collaborate with each other and that any discovery should be made freely available and in the public domain within 24 hours. Sulston passionately believed that any scientific advances should be for the good of humanity and was strongly opposed to the protection and exploitation of scientific research for commercial interests. Sulston’s motivation was purely altruistic.

Some scientists, however, displayed differing ideas that threatened the progress of the project. Many were keen to achieve the scientific recognition of making an important discovery whilst also wanting to accommodate the needs of their corporate partners and make money! Craig Venter, who worked independently in the USA, was one such person. He tried to patent sections of the DNA sequence for his own financial gain.
In 2000, President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed on a statement of principle to ensure that discoveries from the human genome were used for the benefit of human kind. This really put Craig Venter’s nose out of joint.

Scientists are human beings too, and have a wide range of reasons for their motivations. Fortunately, some of the greatest scientists were not interested in making money. We should be grateful that we have scientists such as John Sulston and Tim Burners Lee who gave us the World Wide Web. Humanity owes a lot to these scientists.

jueves, 9 de marzo de 2017

The Mindless Madness of an Empty Mind

Boredom is universal to all humans; every one of us has experienced, at some time in our lives, a monotony that produces an empty mind.  Yet, if we confess to being bored, fingers are pointed at us in accusation. It indicates an “empty mind”, a “lack of moral fibre” and an “ego-centricity”.  “There’s no excuse to being bored” Viggo Mortensen wrote, and the proverb ‘The best cure for boredom is hard work’ is universally known.

The psychologist John EastWood defined boredom as ‘’unfulfilled desire for satisfying activity’’. It is a relatively new phenomenon. In prehistoric time boredom was non-existent; people were too busy hunting and gathering to survive. The Industrial Revolution changed all this, as machines took over man’s work, and people had more leisure time.

The state of boredom has never been given a high profile and it is only recently that scientists have begun to investigate it. It might seem to you that it is not a very interesting subject; however it can have a very negative impact on our lives. Boredom can affect our performance unfavorably. Educationalists are always trying to find a way to combat ennui in the classroom and lower the number of failing students. ‘’ Anyone bored these days is not paying attention."  teachers might say, but, the number of underperforming students seems to be increasing.
Job performance can deteriorate because of dullness, which can put life at risk; imagine you are an air traffic controller or in control of a nuclear power plant. Monotony could end in misadventure!

People are constantly in search for external stimuli. When people are unengaged, they seek meaning wherever they can. Those that take up high risk sports often feel that the world is moving too slowly for them and not offering enough momentum. However stimuli become less effective the more it is experienced. Bungee jumpers feel the need to satiate their adrenaline rushes by more risky falls. There is scientific evidence that adrenaline has less effect the more frequently it is triggered. This leads to a constant search for greater thrills, which could be deadly. As you can see on the Vsauce video, the volunteer, placed in an isolated room with no stimuli present except for the electric shock machine, which he has previously experienced, chose to activate it twice and caused himself pain rather than suffering boredom. He chose torture rather than tedium.        

A destructive behaviour has been associated with a general boredom of life. People dissatisfied with their lives often turn to drugs, alcohol, vandalism and gambling, as they search for meaningful input into their existence. Tedium can lead people to become more introvert and focus on internal dilemmas in a never-ending, negative thought cycle; depression.

These examples show how boredom can impact our lives in a very markedly adverse way. However, it is not always like this, in fact, boredom can make a positive impact on us.  Artists, writers, poets, all give testimony that boredom at times has increased their creativity; to quote Robert M. Pirsig. ‘’Boredom always precedes a period of great creativity.’’. 

When external influences are reduced the human being automatically looks to their interior for inspiration. People who have been put into isolation have been known to start quoting poetry, Shakespeare’s plays or even the Bible.

Michael, in the Vsauce video, who spent 3 days in isolation, resorted to counting objects, the number of paces he did and undertook physical exercise to abate his lethargy. After 3 days his ability to count, his perception of time and his willingness to communicate with the camera started to diminish.  When he exited from his confinement he stated that contact with his family was what he most desired and that he valued his relationship with them more. Even though he is known to be a great communicator all he wished to do, on exiting from the enforced isolation, was to listen to others talk; that is receive external stimuli.

His period in isolation showed Michael’s interior resources which were called on to get him through the trial and rather than create ego-centricity it had made him more altruistic. However, if he had stayed longer in isolation it could have led to such a mental deterioration that he would have gone mad.

Boredom can lead to many things. Don’t let it take over your mind, for it will empty it of all else – and that way madness lies.

lunes, 23 de enero de 2017

Recognition before Death

Bob Dylan, 75, is the first musician to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. This could be the most radical choice in a history stretching back to 1901 when the award was first set up by Alfred Nobel. In choosing a popular musician for the literary world’s highest honour, the Swedish Academy, has set off a debate about whether song lyrics have the same artistic value as poetry or novels. 

 The author Salman Rushdie said he was delighted with Dylan’s win and confessed that his lyrics had been “an inspiration to me all my life ever since I first heard a Dylan album at school. The frontiers of literature keep widening, and it’s exciting that the Nobel Prize recognises that.”

 But others called the academy’s decision misguided and questioned whether song writing, however brilliant, rises to the level of literature. Irvine Welsh said that, “His haunting music and lyrics have always seemed, in the deepest sense to touch human hearts. “ However, she added that despite being a Dylan fan she believed that “this is an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.” 

 I think Bob Dylan’s ideas are deeply poetic and there is no doubt that he is regarded as one of the most influential figures in contemporary popular culture, though his music has always proved divisive. Dylan can never be accused of choosing trivial themes; his lyrics cover such profound topics as war, heartbreak, betrayal, death and moral faithlessness in songs that bring beauty to life’s greatest tragedies.

 Shakespeare’s themes were humanity’s deep misfortunes too, but he composed plays and poetry for commercial profit. He wrote what was popular and crowd-pleasing. Nowadays he is considered one of the greatest poets of the English language but his poetic talents were only recognised after his death. To me it seems that Dylan is a poet at heart, but poets find it hard to earn a living in today’s world. I wonder if our nascent poets are forced to turn to writing song lyrics in order to survive. Bob Dylan’s work has not always been appreciated by the literary highbrow, but it has always been loved by ordinary people. This doesn’t make him any less a poet. 

 Thankfully, Bob Dylan’s poetic creativity has been recognised while he is still alive, unlike Shakespeare.

domingo, 11 de diciembre de 2016


Chances are you or someone you know is a vegetarian. But what would happen if everyone in the world were suddenly a vegetarian? What effects would it have on our lives and our planet?

The worldwide rate of vegetarianism is fairly low about 4-5% in the US, to a little 30% in India and 17% in Europe. As a result, there are currently about 20 billion chickens, 1'5 million cows, over a billion sheep and nearly a billion pigs in the world. Without any meat-eating humans to provide a market, whole herds of domestic animals would disappear and this would free up vast quantities of land. About 33 million squared kilometers of land are used for pasture- an area about the size of Africa!  And that's not even counting the land used to grow crops exclusively for animal feed. Some of it would be needed for the increased amount of vegetables crops, but most of the land currently used as pasture is too dry to grow crops. Without humans adding artificial nutrients, this land could turn to dessert. But if properly managed it is possible that farmland could return to its natural state of grassland which could help with global climate.

Cows and other grazers affect our climate through large amounts of methane production which has 25 times more potential planet-warming power than CO2. Livestock production is responsible for about 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than all the world's planes, trains and cars put together. In fact, many scientists believe that reducing meat consumption may be one of the best strategies for managing climate change.

A vegetarian diet would also greatly reduce water consumption; around 70% of global fresh water is used in agriculture. It takes 15 000L of water to make a kg of beef, 6000L for pork and 4000L for chicken. In comparison to vegetable crops it only takes 1600L for cereal, 900L for fruit and 300L for vegetables.

So are there any downsides to a vegetarian diet? Well, we would be left with without a cheap source for many byproducts of livestocks like leather from animals or animal fats which are used in cosmetics, candles and detergents. But luckily vegetable, cruelty-free products do exist and work just as good.
A more complicated fact is that raising and processing animals is a full time job for more than 1 billion people and if meat consumption were to be cut off they would be left without their employment. This would be very risky but most of them would be able to move to the production of milk, eggs or even growing vegetable crops.

Of course, any increase in vegetarianism is likely to be a gradual process rather than a sudden cut-off but you can see for yourself that it is indeed, a very sensible decision to think about.