Useful Christmas Gifts

In some parts of the world Christmas is well on the way, and shoppers are happily spending the bank’s money in shopping centres to buy presents for their loved ones.

In my family we have a different approach, and I would like readers to consider the model. It might possibly go some way to improving the welfare of many and the health of the global community at large.

The charity OXFAM offer a wonderful service called Oxfam Unwrapped. Why not buy a present for someone but have it delivered to someone who really needs it? I like this system, although I have some suggestions that I will make later.

So each year I buy my brother a set of school books for English language teaching through Oxfam. My brother speaks good English however, and so Oxfam send the books to a school in Malawi, where they serve a full class of bright and eager Malawian kids. My brother receives a card directly from Oxfam letting him know that his gift from me of 26 school books has been delivered by Santa to the school.

Everyone is happy.

The Unwrapped service offers all kinds of gifts, but I would stick to inanimate objects, project funding or education rather than live animals, although this is just a personal choice. The introduction of a live animal might cause problems to a family though (only my personal idea), as circumstances might not be ideal for their arrival.

I must admit that even living in affluent Cambridge Massachusetts, the arrival of a cow or even a couple of chickens or goats would not be too easy to manage, and I am sure that other situations exist that might not be improved, albeit through good will, by addition to the family. I am sure Oxfam know what they are doing though, they have been working in this field for many years.

Another possibility is to donate to research, projects or product development.

I like the idea of sending something to benefit others, and there are many ways of doing this. Just for a single example take a look at these coffee mugs. Each mug has the logo of the beneficiary printed on it, and 50% of the price is donated directly to the organizations.

Or donate to a project that is working to improve lives. The Liter of light project I wrote about earlier in the year is in need of funds, and there is another local project that is close to my heart that involves playing football (soccer).

A group of Harvard University students (women) had an idea a few years ago that has finally come to fruition. They have designed a football that can convert the energy created as it is being used into electric power. So the ball has a small socket within its cover, an inductive coil mechanism turns the kinetic energy into enough power to run a light for 3 hours after just 15 minutes of play.

Socckett powering a light

Soccket powering a phone

After a full match the ref can charge his or her mobile phone.

Soccket, as the ball is called, is currently under trial in South Africa, and they could do with some advance orders to help its development. They are giving the balls away for free. You can buy one at the company website, and they will give it to someone on your behalf. They also have a skipping rope (jump rope) that works in the same way as the ball, so if football is not your sport of choice you can still join in the fun.

If we all diverted a portion of the money we spend this Christmas to projects whose goals are to improve lives, we could make a lot of difference. We could avoid battling other shoppers, buying needless things, creating thousands of tons of waste and modify an extremely wasteful and destructive economic system.

We could all do a little bit of good, and as William Shakespeare once said “How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world”.

Track Santa this Christmas Eve with NORAD

Today is Christmas Eve, which means that billions of people around the world will be celebrating Christmas tomorrow. Different people of different cultures celebrate Christmas in different ways; some celebrate today, many tomorrow, and others over a twelve day period.

About Santa

If you live in the Britain, France, the USA, Russia, Germany, Canada, Australia, or a (big) handful of other countries around the world, then you are probably familiar with the character of Santa Clause, or Father Christmas.

Christindl, Pere Noel, Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas or whatever you call him, is a man who lives at the North Pole and sets out to deliver presents to good children across the world on Christmas Eve.

Good children will go to sleep on Christmas Eve and in the morning awake to find their stocking full and presents underneath the Christmas tree, courtesy of Santa. In return Santa asks only that children are good, and he uses information that robins relay to him to decide whether a child should go on the naughty list, or the nice list – he checks each list twice, just to be sure!

Track Santa With NORAD

This year, why not track Santa on his journey around the world with NORAD? Every year, the US military undergo a massive operation involving countless jets, radars and satellites to follow Santa on his journey, for the benefit of children everywhere, and to make sure that he doesn’t run into any difficulties.

NORAD Track Santa logoFrom December the 24th every year, you can track Santa thanks to NORAD. You can follow his route, watch videos as he completes parts of his journey, and learn about the different places he visits. As I write this Santa is over New Zealand, and has just visited Christchurch.

What are you waiting for? Track Santa now!

Remember this Christmas Eve to put the fire out before you go to bed, and to leave some milk/bear and a mince pie out for Santa, and maybe some sprouts or a carrot for the reindeer.

Merry Christmas all :-)

Year End Update

As the year ends I would like to look at some of my post over the last year or so to give an update about what has unfolded since I wrote them.

2012 Ending

The End is Near

I will start with Citizen Science. In 2011 I wrote an article about online gamers as scientists, and this year a couple of posts touched upon the issue of citizen science.

Recently the UK press has carried a story about a WW2 carrier pigeon whose remains were found in a chimney. The bird had a capsule on its leg that contained a message in code. Experts were unable to understand the message so they released the data into the public domain in the hope that somebody would be able to decode it. A perfect example of citizen science, the use of the Internet to access millions of brains.

A gentleman in Ontario responded with what he believes is the meaning of the note, although debate is rife around the issue of verification. He claims that the code is from WW1 and nothing more than a series of acronyms. Read this BBC article for more.

Still way back in 2011 I wrote a post about prosthetic limb technology and the fact that someone had opted to amputate a hand in order to have a robotic replacement fitted. Recently doctors have reported great improvements in prosthetic control, including controlling the artificial limbs through thought.

This experimental science has been going on for some time now, with implants in the brain interpreting neuron activity in order to make the limb move. As sensors get better movement improves and so control is greater. This week researchers in the US have released video of a woman operating a robot hand through thought. Watch it here on the Independent newspaper site.

One thing that isn’t addressed in the press coverage that I feel is important is that the person does not have to be attached to the arm, they can operate it remotely. This must have implications for how research and the handling of dangerous materials may be treated in the future.

If you want to see where this technology might take us just have a look at this video reportedly of someone controlling a remote control quadcopter using only thought waves. Incredible stuff!

More recently I wrote a piece about the compulsory tagging of students in a Texas school district. The project has run into problems as one of the students was withdrawn and moved to another school for refusing to wear the tag on religious grounds. Read the report here.

Andrea Hernandez refused to wear the tag saying that the bar code it contained could be the mark of the beast, an interpretation she takes from the book of Revelation. When they removed the mark from the tag she continued to refuse to wear it however so was effectively expelled. She is taking the school to court over the matter presenting problems to all those involved in the project.

I also wrote about the MOSE project to protect Venice from the rising seawater that floods the city ever more frequently. Recent news (in Italian) states that the project will no longer be ready in 2014 (2012 was the original date set for completion) but will possibly be finished in 2016.

The major problem seems to be lack of money. The project budget has increased massively, and the economic crisis has meant that money is found piecemeal so that the work can continue.

I do not want to be too critical of the land that bore my wife and children, but unfinished engineering projects are not uncommon in Italy, let’s hope this one does not end like many others.

Next week I will be taking a self enforced holiday, so no post on Thursday. Happy winter solstice to all, enjoy the festivities, thanks to everyone who has read and/or commented over the last year and I will be back in the new year (presuming that the Mayans were mistaken).