Zombie Boot Camp Featured on the Discovery Channel

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Not everyone has to grind through the 9-5. New DMAX series Forbidden explores the strange and wonderful jobs people do – and the first episode features some of the folks that help our Zombie Boot Camp come to life.

The segment on Zombie Boot Camp  features one of our zombie actors Rob Hall and make-up artist Zoe McCutcheon talking about their unusual work. With behind the scenes access and interviews with our zombie horde, you’ll see how we put together our awesome, immersive experiences.

Zombie Bootcamp - prepare for the forthcoming zombie apocalypse.

Zombie Boot Camp – prepare for the forthcoming zombie apocalypse.

The show also looks at how Zombie Boot Camp has become popular people all over the world, with people travelling from every corner of the Earth to the UK, just to be part of the zombie apocalypse. 

Forbidden’s first showing is at 10pm on DMAX, Tuesday 4th of November.

There’s More Than One Way To Say I Do

Posted by & filed under Factoid, Infographics.

As my fiancee shouts at me every morning, ‘Wedding is just one letter away from weeding.”

I have no idea what she means by this and I think that’s why the relationship works. A baffling coupling based on confusion and wrong-footedness. And when that special day comes and we finally confirm our nuptials, I’m sure we’ll perform it in a particularly exasperating way. Perhaps with one us dressed as a Victorian urchin and the other as Mr. T as oompah music blares. We’re just those kinds of people.

But we are not alone in wanting to start our married life in a unique and  exceptional way. All across the planet, couples are pledging their troth in a staggering amount of peculiar ways, with some of the most bizarre displayed in the lovely illustration which lives below these words.

And if you want this delightful artefact for your own devices then simply help yourself to code at the bottom of the page and have at it.

Way To Say I Do

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What Are Countries Obsessed With?

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Ah, abroad. That magical place where crisps have comically lavatorial names, where umlauts run free and where all Eurovision winners come from.

When it comes to foreign lands, we know where they are, what weird money they use and who the latest El Presidente is. But what makes them tick? What is going on in those hilariously hatted heads of theirs? What are their obsessions? Their drives? Their mating habits?

We visited every country on the planet, undertook months of painstaking interviews and spent hours and hours in many nation’s libraries and centres of excellence. But then we accidentally deleted the results while trying to download that video of the cat being sick on the other cat.

Instead we went on Google, typed in a few keywords and quickly knocked this Infographic together. Enjoy!

And if you want it to, you can! Just use the code beneath it to stick it wherever you like.


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Experience or Objects: Which Makes Us Happier?

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You would not believe how much money I am being paid to write these words. As a professional freelance writer, I am obviously in the upper echelons of commerce and employment. I enjoy a life of luxury, raking in all the sweet, sweet copy-writing cash then splurging my profits on loose cars, fast women and the art of Ronnie Wood.

But am I happy? Yes. Deliriously.

But I am unusual. It seems that money doesn’t necessarily make us happy. Once the underclasses (people like you) happen to encounter any kind of fiduciary rewards, they panic, begin to cry hysterically and instantly hand over all their money to the nearest identity thief or late night, bingo based quiz show. But why should this be so?

We’ve collected all the data, conducted a number of searches on Google AND Bing and asked the man at the bank. Using this information we’ve put together this illustrated document pinpointing what makes us happier when we throw cash at them: Things or doing things. Which one will win? Only reading on, using your eyes, can inflict the answer upon you.

And if you would like this delightful enterprise for your own webbed site, simply swipe the code that lies beneath it.


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18 Telltale Signs of a Fake Rolex

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If you’re anything like me, you buy all of your stuff from a bloke called Tony with a wolf tattooed on his neck who operates out of the back of a pub car park. Perishables, white goods, even valuable items of celebrity memorabilia; give him 24 hours and Tony can get his hands on it. When he’s not inside.

Obviously, what Tony does is completely above board and legitimate. But unfortunately, not everyone is like Tony. There are other types out there who trade in shoddy counterfeit items which fall apart or burst into flames as soon as you plug them in. Many of these fake objects are produced with exceptional quality, almost identical to the real thing.

One of the luxury products most often counterfeited (after fake ‘Noel Edmonds Style Deal Or No Deal Comedy Beards’) are Rolex watches. Whether your a Championship football player or a national weatherman, you will need a Rolex to indicate your worth. But if you’re approached with a large, gaudy wristwatch, how can you tell whether its the real thing? Unless it say ‘Bolex’ on the front, obviously.

Here are the main ways you can tell a made up Rolex from the real ones. And if you want to share your new-found knowledge with the world, you can completely legitimately steal the code from beneath the image and post it wherever you wish.

rolex (1)

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Hollywood’s 12 Lessons For The Ultimate Road Trip

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Once upon a time, oafs and yokels turned to the village wise man for knowledge. With a face full of white beard, a pointy hat and a wide-sleeved garment, this oracle would dispense vital information such as ‘fire is hot’, ‘bears can eat you’ and ‘please don’t do that, it’s disgusting’.

But wise men are no more. If some bloke in a beard and funny head gear suddenly started spouting facts at us unexpectedly, we’d run away and call social services. They have been replaced. By Hollywood.

Yes, movies, films and the talkies now provide all of our knowledge, wisdom and instinct. For instance, I joined the Police Academy seven times, immediately after seeing each film in the franchise. I spent eleven years searching for Curly’s Gold. And I still believe that I am in some kind of Matrix and have the raincoat to prove it.

One activity that Hollywood movies can definitely inform us about is the Road Trip. Whether its Thelma and Louise or My Left Foot, film characters are always leaping into their jalopies, screaming ‘ROAD TRIP’ and burning rubber to a kick-ass 80′s soundtrack. And if you want to conduct a road trip of your own, we’ve compiled this colourful and informative graphical presentation for your perusal offering driving advice from some of Tinsel Town’s finest.

And feel free to swipe the gubbins from beneath the picture and post it in your own residence or blog.


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The man who lived at Google HQ

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The man who lived at Google

When most people claim they live at work they mean it metaphorically. It’s the kind of thing you find yourself saying on a Friday afternoon, weeping, with your head in your hands.

But for Ben Discoe, it was the literal truth. He lived in a van in his employer’s car park, showered at the on-site gym and ate at the work canteens for over a year.

It helped that his employer was Google – and that Google HQ in Mountain View, California is one of the most progressive and all-round awesome places that you can work at in the world.

We know this because Ben wasn’t the only employee to live at the Googleplex.

13 Months on campus

Ben Discoe moved into Google HQ for pragmatic reasons. “I had a house payment (on my farm in Hawaii) and alimony to pay,” said Ben in a thread on Quora, “No money left for South Bay rental prices.”

Instead, Software Engineer Ben dug into his pockets and bought a van. “I got a 1990 GMC Vandura custom conversion van for $1800 (blue velour, wood paneling, previously tricked out by a burner) and that was my entire rent for 13 months.”

Ben kitted out his digs with an Ikea mattress, put up some curtains and, abracadabra, he had his own mobile bedsit. A very comfortable one at that.

“The van was actually really cozy,” Ben told us by email, “In fact, nicer than a lot of motel rooms I’ve stayed in.”

You’d think that parking a van up at Google HQ and leaving it there would attract some unwanted attention from local law enforcement, but security staff pretty much left the van-dwelling Googler to get on with his unusual life.

“Google Security came by very early on,” said Ben, ”but once they determined that the guy in the mysteriously parked white van was just an eccentric Googler and not the Unabomber, they never came by again.”

Home sweet home. Ben Discoe's camper van.  © Ben Discoe, used with permission.

Home sweet home. Ben Discoe’s camper van. © Ben Discoe, used with permission.

Parties in the Car Park

Ben’s 13 month stint in his converted camper van is the longest that any named Google employee has lived at work – but he’s far from the only employee to go down that route.

Matthew J Weaver almost beat Ben’s record, with 54 weeks of Google living. His reason for taking the challenge was a bit more frivolous.

“I did it for a dare,” the former Site Ecologist admitted on Quora, “It was excellent for my career.”

In contrast to Ben, Matthew lived at Google in lavish style, parking up a full-sized recreational vehicle.

“We would hold regular parties at the RV on Thursdays when the weather didn’t suck,” says Weaver, “I had an astroturf lawn and white picket fence for a while.”

Former visual designer Brandon Oxendine used the same method as Ben to camp on campus for three months. Station wagon? Check. Ikea mattress? Check. The only difference is that Brandon went for black curtains instead of Ben’s more chintzy choice

“I’ve always enjoyed having very little possessions and have always had dreams of living out of a car ever since my first car,” wrote Brandon, “I would do it again.”

And though it can’t be verified, there’s even an anonymous Googler who claims that he’s lived on site since December 2011 – and is still living there.

Feeling Lucky?

In common with other big money businesses, Google sees the advantage of keeping it’s employees on site as much as possible. That means perks aplenty.

“I was in a unique situation working at Google where I had showers and food that were very convenient to me,” says Brandon Oxendine. Some of the facilities are the kind of thing you might find at any large company HQ. Google Software Engineer Anshul Jain says there are about 25 different restaurants and cafes – all of them free.

“The cuisines are from all around the world,” says Anshul, “Indian, US, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, mediterranean, continental and so on.”

“Breakfast stopped at 9:30, and dinner started at 6:30,” says Jeff Nelson, a former Google Engineer who invented the Google Chromebook computer, “It was probably a good strategy to encourage employees to stay at work for more than 9 hours a day.”

Every building on the complex has its own mini-kitchen too, so that staff can cook for themselves. And, scattered around are tubs full of candy and nuts for employees to dip into on the go. It’s a bit like when someone brings a box of Quality Street into the office at Christmas, only every day and everywhere.

There’s also a gym (in building number 40), several laundry rooms and two swimming pools. While some of these facilities are the kind of thing you might find in any Silicon Valley start-up or Canary Wharf bank, others are more impressive.

There’s an open-air basketball court and a putting green for those who want to keep fit without pumping iron. Large areas of the site are made up of parkland and landscaped gardens, where staff are free to stroll with the freedom to think and create.  It’s not just the main Google HQ that has these special features either. Amsterdam’s Google office has indoor cycle lanes, Zurich’s HQ has a giant slide between floors and in Boulder, Colorado there’s a climbing wall. It’s like working for Willy Wonka.

The Energypod by Metronap - one of many sleep pods you'll find dotted around Google HQ.

The Energypod by Metronap – one of many sleep pods you’ll find dotted around Google HQ.

En-suite, on site

Short of supplying pyjamas, slippers and room service, the Googleplex offers its workers everything they need to survive and thrive without ever leaving the campus. There’s evidence that some employees occasionally crash at work overnight, even if they don’t go to the same lengths as Ben Discoe and Brandon Oxendine.

“The moon room is very comfortable,” says Google employee Sherwin Yu, “It’s entirely dark and there are huge bean couches. I’ve accidentally stumbled on people sleeping there at night, and I’ve spent several nights there myself.”

“There’s nothing in the culture or corporate position that openly condones it,” said Ben Discoe when we asked if Google encouraged its employees to camp there, “On the other hand, it’s all upside for a tech company to have its engineers close-by, so they’d have no reason to oppose it either.”

In fact, living on campus is such a natural part of the culture that tips were openly shared on the local network.

“There is a page on the (old, internal) Google wiki called “Living at Google” which unfortunately can’t be shared, but it’s really funny,” Ben revealed at Quora, “I added useful tips to it.”

“The Wiki talked mostly about sneaking naps in the buildings, showering in the gym etc,” Ben told us when we followed up, “It was lacking much information about sleeping in a vehicle, so that’s mostly what I recall adding, I gave details on my van and how it was customised.”

Now Ben has gone on to work elsewhere and a new generation of youthful Googlers will be taking up internships and entry level positions. Some of them may well be accessing that old Wiki, gathering tips and starting to scour the Craigs List ads for reasonably priced, used camper vans.

Envious? Us? You bet we are.

How to win the lottery

Posted by & filed under Factoid, How To....


As slogans go, “it could be you” is a pretty good one – because it’s absolutely true. Anyone can pick six numbers, hand over their money and buy a winning lottery ticket.


It’s now 20 years since the National Lottery launched. Lotto dosh can still be life changing money, with the highest ever jackpot an unbeaten £42,008,610. It’s no wonder 32 million people still plop down their two quid for a go on the Lotto every week. Winning that money though, that’s a rare thing indeed. How can you join the 3,400 players who’ve done it so far?

Odds and Probability

When you choose your lottery numbers, the odds are convincingly stacked against you.

The first number you choose in the UK lottery has six chances out of forty nine of being the right one. That doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Problem is, as you pick more numbers, the odds get worse. The second number you pick has a five in forty eight chance of being in right. The third ball has a four in forty seven chance of being right, and so on.

Ball Number Odds of Being Right Odds of Being Wrong
1 6/49 43/49
2 5/48 42/48
3 4/47 41/47
4 3/46 40/46
5 2/45 39/45
6 1/44 38/44


That’s translates to a 43.6% chance that you won’t be able to pick a single winning number. Overall your odds of picking the right numbers for the lottery are 1 in 13,983,816.

Let’s repeat that in words so that it sinks in. The odds are one in thirteen million, nine hundred and eight three thousand, eight hundred and sixteen.

The aptly named James Clewett, a physicist who has worked with the Mathematical Research Sciences Institute at the University of California, Berkeley demonstrates the maths behind these stats in this video from the Numberphile series, just prove that we’re not making all this up:

Systematic Thinking

Some people put their faith in statistical systems, studying how many times a category of numbers appear. It’s natural to assume this will work, because there are plenty of things we bet on where it actually does. In sports betting, you can statistically chart the performance of a player over a season. You can track the conditions that are most favourable to a specific horse. You can tell if a team is on form or not.

Mathematician Renato Gianella reckons he’s studied enough lottery systems around the world to predict similar patterns; numbers that turn up more frequently than others and in specific sequences. He’s turned his scholarly research into an online number picking system called LotoRainbow.

His system colour codes batches of numbers and gives you similarly colour coded templates that enable you to pick your own systematic sequence.

We remain sceptical. Statistics may show results that look like patterns, but those patterns are as randomly generated as the lottery numbers themselves.

By the same token, there’s no actual harm in using LotoRainbow’s template to choose your numbers. It’s just as good as any other method. The odds remain the same.

Another “system” people use is to repeat the same set of numbers every week in an attempt to beat the odds. The intuition is that a sequence of numbers that is similar must appear eventually. Unfortunately, those people are wrong.

The thing about odds is that they are constant. For example, if you flip a coin you will get heads or tails. If you flip it again, you will get heads or tails. The chances are always 50/50.

“If you get five heads in a row, it does not mean the next time it is more likely to be tails,” says Dr. John Haigh emeritus professor of mathematics at the University of Sussex, “The odds are still 50/50”.

In the same way, the odds of choosing a sequence of six correct numbers out of forty nine will always be 1 in 13,983,816.


Win the lottery - So many lottery combinations to choose from... One of 'em must be ready to cough up! Image in Public Domain via WikiMedia.

So many lottery combinations to choose from… One of ‘em must be ready to cough up! Image in Public Domain via WikiMedia.

Hack the Odds

Now that we’ve crushed your dreams with the knowledge that the odds of picking six numbers to win the lottery are ludicrously high, there is a way to improve your chances. You hack the odds.

All the genuine tips we’ve been able to glean from experts do exactly that in one form or another. The first method is one that many lottery players already, instinctively indulge in. And we know because we’ve stood behind them in the queue while they’re doing it. The answer is to buy more tickets.

“The only way to increase your chances of winning a lottery is to increase your expected loss at the same time,” says David Joyce, Professor of Mathematics at Clarke University, Massachusetts.

“You can buy more tickets to increase the probability of winning at least once,” says Joyce, “But that also increases the probability that you’ll lose a lot, too.”

Every time you choose a new set of numbers, you increase your odds of winning. Choose one set of numbers and you have 1 in 13,983,816 chance of walking away with the jackpot. Select two sets of numbers and the odds reduce to 1 in 6,991,908.

Still, those odds are pretty high. You have more chance of being struck by lightning.

Buy More Tickets

In theory you could change your odds of winning the lottery by buying every ticket… While you LOL yourself silly at the stupidity of that idea, consider this; it’s already been done. At least twice.

In 1992 accountant Stefan Klincewicz formed a syndicate to win the Irish lottery, with the intention to strike when the pot grew sufficiently large enough to make the sting pay. Sure enough, the jackpot hit 2.2 million Irish pounds and Klincewicz’s investors began systematically buying up every numeric combination they could. A few days before the draw Irish lottery chiefs noticed the dramatic upturn in ticket sales and shut down machines across the country.

It was too late though – the 28 strong syndicate had spent 900,000 Irish pounds on 80% of the draw’s possible combinations. They won the pot.

The Irish lottery had a couple of special characteristics that made it more vulnerable to this kind of attack than other lotteries. A 100 pound prize for matching four numbers meant that the syndicate was able to rake in an additional 400,000 Irish pounds in secondary prizes on top of the jackpot.

While such an escapade may be difficult to repeat, there’s something we can learn and earn from this; syndicates win the lottery a lot. When you club together with friends you have more buying power. The return may be smaller, but it can still be enough to jack in your job.

Win the lottery - A syndicate can help you win more often. More tickets bought - more chances. Image by Matthew Anderson used under a CC 2.0 license.

A syndicate can help you win more often. More tickets bought – more chances. Image by Matthew Anderson used under a CC 2.0 license.

Win More Money

Are there any genuine ways to win the lottery without spending more money? Oh yes. Because people are a weird bunch who believe whatever you tell them – you can take advantage. Science boffins say that the best way to choose your numbers is – wait for it – entirely at random.

When you use a system, you’re more likely to pick the same numbers as other people. That means, if you do win with your numbers, you might not be the only one.

“If you pick the least popular numbers and win, then you will probably share your jackpot with fewer people,” Dr John Haigh recently told the Telegraph.

You can even take this a step further, turning the superstitions of others to more advantage. Because people tend to use dates when picking their numbers, there are certain clusters that crop up in other people’s systems all the time. The numbers one to twelve are popular because they correspond to the months of the year. The number nineteen is a frequent choice for a similar reason – because people often put the year they were born into their system. For everyone old enough to do the lottery, that’s 19-something…

And here’s one more thing. Numbers over 31 are neglected by lottery players who rely on dates, because there are a maximum of 31 days in the month.

Knowing this may not help you choose a winning set of numbers, but it may help you win big if you do.

Using dates alone to pick your numbers restricts you to a smaller set - and makes it more likely you'll have to split your winnings.

Using dates alone to pick your numbers restricts you to a smaller set – and makes it more likely you’ll have to split your winnings.

The Utility of Money

Our final words on winning big are more philosophical. Peter Flom, an independent statistical consultant, points out that taking part in the lottery in a modest way is a return in itself

“The utility of money is not linear,” says Flom, “For many people, the loss of (say) $10 per week is inconsequential – while the gain of many millions is consequential.”

In other words, if you get pleasure from a regular, inconsequential investment, it’s good for you in the long run. You help the arts and funding of culture in this country. If you’re lucky, you might win a few extra quid every now and then. If you’re amazingly fortunate, you could win millions.

“If someone spends a pound a week playing the lottery and for that pound a week they’re getting hope, excitement and a Saturday night buzz, I think that’s great value,” says James Clewett, “If I hear of somebody spending 10, 20 quid a week on lottery tickets – stop! Please stop!”

How to Build a Bionic Man

Posted by & filed under Factoid, How To..., Interviews.


We can rebuild you! Well almost. There’s barely a bit of the human body we can’t 3D print, grow in a tube or cobble together with plastic these days. And by “we” – we actually mean extremely brainy scientific boffins.

Those boffins are still some way from creating a fully artificial human, but medical science is at a tipping point where many human “components” can now be replaced or at least repaired by artificial means. And though many of these parts are still in prototype, it won’t be long before they’re in general medical use.

Don’t believe us? Here are some choice body parts you’ll soon be able to replace.

Have a Heart

Things weren’t looking too good for Chad Washington at the end of 2012. The 35 year old’s body was rejecting the heart he’d had transplanted six months earlier. A new transplant wasn’t an option. His immune system was attacking the donor organ and would do the same to another heart.

Chad Washington and the rucksack that powers his heart.

Chad Washington and the rucksack that powers his heart.

Doctors at the University of California in Los Angeles had an answer though. On October 29th, Chad had the failing organ removed in a seven-hour operation and replaced with a bionic implant.

“By removing the patient’s diseased donor heart, we removed the source of his end-stage heart failure,” said Dr. Ali Nsair, an assistant professor of cardiology at UCLA. “The artificial heart allows his body to recover and get ready for a heart transplant in a few months.”

Weighing in at 13.5 lbs (6 kg), Chad’s new heart has a battery that fits into a rucksack. Previous mechanical heart patients were house-bound or had to live out their lives on hospital wards – but Chad can pick-up groceries at the corner shop or watch a football game. He can even go for a modest ramble in the countryside.

Offally Good

Even though we can now safely transplant most living organs, the development of artificial alternatives remains crucial.

“Less than 10% of people who need a kidney transplant can get one,” says Professor Shuvo Roy, who heads up the Biomedical Microdevices Laboratory at UC San Francisco, “There are just not enough organs available.”

Professor Roy’s lab is working on a bio-mechanical kidney, a fully implantable device designed to replace dialysis and kidney transplants. Already fast tracked for trials, the organ should be cleared for clinical use by 2020.

“The underlying concept has been demonstrated to work in patients,”explains Professor Roy. “We are building on known scientific principles, instead of looking for new discoveries.”

The artificial kidney is no stop gap either. It’s not intended for use as a last resort when “real” organs aren’t available. The Professor and his collaborators want this to be a frontline therapy to replace organic transplants entirely…

The latest prototype of UCSF's artificial kidney is on the right. Doesn't look like a kidney, but does the job...

The latest prototype of UCSF’s artificial kidney is on the right. Doesn’t look like a kidney, but does the job…

Deep Breath

Full lung replacements aren’t quite ready for primetime, but we’re getting close. The “total artificial lung” won’t look much like the pink breathing sacks you have hidden inside your chest – but it will do the same job. There are already portable prototypes that sit outside the body, about the size of a tin can.

A team has been working on the implantable breathing machine now for 23 years, based on research work conducted by Professor Robert Bartlett at the University of Michigan.

At this stage in the biolung’s development, it’s designed as temporary solution “ It will be
just a bridge to transplantation,” Professor Bartlett told Thoracic Surgery News, It will come along in the usual fashion of artificial organs: relatively slowly.”

In the future, patients may not need to wait as long for a transplant though. They may go from one type of artificial lung to another; a lung that has been organically grown in a lab.

Researchers at the University of Texas have already done just that, growing laboratory lungs from human stem cells. Though it may be more accurate to say the UT lungs were “regenerated”. The team used damaged lungs from donor patients as a “scaffold” and then repaired them with stem cell tissue, growing the regenerated lungs in a fish tank…

“I’m not kidding,” team leader Dr. Joan Nichols told Medical News Today, “He went and bought it from a pet store…”

The technique means that, in about a decade’s time, there will be many more donor organs available to those who need them.

Second Sight

The cross-pollination of biological science with engineering – bioengineering – allows researchers to create solutions that seem like science fiction. When Professor of engineering Wentai Liu was asked to help create an artificial retina at UCLA in 1988, he felt pretty much the same way.

“I thought it was a great idea,” says Professor Liu. “But I asked, ‘What can I do?’ because I didn’t know much about biology.”

Project lead Dr. Mark Humayun handed him a medical manual the size of War and Peace. “It was a very steep learning curve,” recalls Liu.

Liu’s background in integrated chip design led to some novel innovations and, twenty-five years later, the bionic eye is now an incredible reality.

The Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System brings sight to sufferers of macular degeneration and other diseases affecting vision, using a technology that effectively wires a digital camera into an artificial retina that’s implanted in the wearer’s eye.

Beneficiaries of the technology are able to see outlines, light and shapes— some for the first time in decades.

The "bionic eye" is reality - its technology already in place.

The “bionic eye” is reality – its technology already in place.

Ear Hear

Sight’s not the only sense that can be replaced by bionic implants. Hearing aids are evolving beyond simple amplification systems into replacement ears. Researchers at Australia’s University of New South Wales have created cochlear implants that not only enable some deaf people to hear speech for the first time – but hear differences in pitch.

In a true synergy of biology and engineering, the UNSW’s research team have discovered a way to encourage nerves in the ear canal to regrow, stimulated by “neurotrophins”; a type of naturally occurring protein. The implant delivers the neurotrophins directly to where they are needed; the inner ear.

“People with cochlear implants do well with understanding speech, but their perception of pitch can be poor, so they often miss out on the joy of music,” says Prof. Gary Housley, of the Translational Neuroscience Facility at UNSW, “Ultimately, we hope that after further research, people who depend on cochlear implant devices will be able to enjoy a broader dynamic and tonal range of sound.”

More than a Feeling

When it comes to replacing limbs, bioengineers are already batting it out of the park. The 2013 Paralympics showcased a range of artificial limb technologies, from running blades to ski attachments that not only replace missing legs, but augment them.

Limb replacement technologies are so advanced that we’re moving on from bio-mimicry and precision engineering to mind control. The next wave of prosthetic legs and arms will be controlled by electrical impulses from the human mind…

These technologies partly harness the hard-wired neurological and psychological attachment we already have to our limbs. 48 year old Igor Spetic is among the first to try out a new artificial hand that’s controlled by his mind. The prosthetic not only reacts to his mental commands, it even has a sense of touch.

In blind tests, Spetic was able to distinguish between different materials brushed along the artificial limb – including sandpaper and cotton – in 20 different places along the arm. The artificial hand was developed at Case Western Reserve University.

Limb enhancement is so far along that it’s the one bioengineering technology that can clearly improve on the squishy organic bodies we were born with.

Professor Homayoon Kazerooni’s group at the University of California, Berkeley branch, is making exoskeletons that make people stronger and give them more stamina. The commercial applications of the work, partly funded by the military, are already available.

The HULC exoskeleton, making soldiers better, stronger and faster.

The HULC exoskeleton, making soldiers better, stronger and faster.

These exoskeletons use robot technologies to improve human lifting power and endurance. For example, the HULC exoskeleton, developed jointly by Berkeley Bionics and Lockheed Martin, enables a person to carry up to 200 lbs in weight. Wearers can walk, run and jump pretty much as normal—and will use less oxygen in the process because the exoskeleton does most of the work.

So far, artificial organs, limbs and cybernetic systems have mostly been used when our too-frail biological systems fail to do their job or our existing strength needs augmentation. But it’s only a matter of time before these replacements become better than life.

In fact, when you look closely at it, there’s only one major body part left that we can’t yet replace… And that’s the brain.

And that’s a comforting thing to know. We may be invaded by robo-zombies in the future, with mechanical hearts and lungs grown in a jar, but we’ll still be able to kill them with a swift blow to the head…

How to make the perfect cup of tea

Posted by & filed under Factoid, How To....

Image by Timo Arnall used under a CC 2.0 license.

Image by Timo Arnall used under a CC 2.0 license.

Tea is magic. Its curative powers know no bounds. Bad news about your driving test? Have a nice cup of tea. Missed that promotion at work? Two sugars in mine please. Zombie apocalypse? Tea.

The British consume 165 million cups of tea every day. That’s 60.2 billion cuppas a year. To put into perspective how awash with tea we are, the UK population is 63.6 million people – so that’s three cups every day for every man, woman and child. At least.

But not all of it’s good tea. For every mug that makes you gasp in satisfaction and delight, there’s always one you leave half drunk, unloved, on the kitchen worktop.

If we drink so much tea, shouldn’t we pledge to accept no less that the best every time? Less dishwater and powdered milk, more Assam served in your favourite mug. Of course we should. This post is full of tips from tea experts, on making your favourite brew better. But first, a bit of background.

We weren’t always such tea freaks

Tea was first imported into the British Isles at the beginning of the 17th Century, according to the UK Tea and Infusions Association. It took a while to catch on. In 1660 the famed diarist Samuel Pepys wrote that he ‘did send for a Cupp of Tee (a China drink) of which I never drank before’. He didn’t say what he thought about it though.

Like many of our predilections, it didn’t become really popular until it was endorsed by a celebrity.

Catherine of Braganza - the Princess Kate of her day.

Catherine of Braganza – the Princess Kate of her day.

Charles the Second married Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza in 1661. Reaching British shores after a long sea journey from the Mediterranean, she was gasping for a cuppa. It was such a rare and exotic beverage at the time that she was given a tall glass of England’s other national drink instead; beer. It didn’t go down too well.

Soon Catherine’s addiction to tea spread through the court of the King, into the upper classes and, eventually, their minions. The first bulk orders of China tea to the UK were recorded in 1664.

As for adding milk – we can blame the French for that. The practice began in the mid 17th century, a decade before Catherine of Brazanga married Charles II. Depending on which source you believe, milk was used among the French aristocracy to temper the bitter taste of dark tea – though there’s some evidence that cold milk prevented delicate porcelain cups from cracking when hot tea was poured into them.

We may have begun drinking Chinese teas in good old Blighty, but demand soon outstripped supply. Established trade routes and our colonial past meant that, over time, Indian tea became more popular. The standard tea we drink now, that the rest of the world knows as “English Breakfast Tea” is mainly Assam, with a blend of Ceylon and Kenyan black teas.

Some tea is more equal than others

By the 20th century tea was so well established that the debate about how you make the perfect cup of tea could begin. One of the first to pitch in, curiously, was journalist, intellectual and novelist George Orwell – who had some very particular ideas about his cuppa. His 1942 essay “A Nice Cup of Tea” set out eleven essential tips for a lovely brew. Some of them now sound strange and anachronistic.

For example, Orwell tells us to choose loose Indian or Ceylon tea, but not bother using a strainer. “In some countries teapots are fitted with little dangling baskets under the spout to catch the stray leaves, which are supposed to be harmful,” Orwell wrote, “Actually one can swallow tea-leaves in considerable quantities without ill effect, and if the tea is not loose in the pot it never infuses properly.”

But the chap who wrote 1984 and Animal Farm has some advice that has lasted the test of time too. He used a teapot – as was much more common – and gave it a good jiggle to mix up the leaves after adding hot water. It should go without saying that the pot is warmed before hand.

Orwell also tells us to “pour the cream off the milk” before pouring it into the cup. These days we can buy ready skimmed milk – and it helps the natural taste of the tea come through.

20th century thinker George Orwell enjoying a cup of tea with leaves floating around in it. Probably.

20th century thinker George Orwell enjoying a cup of tea with leaves floating around in it. Probably.

Advice from China

Though tastes have changed, modern experts are still convinced that loose tea is best. Don Mei at tea specialists Chinalife has some splendid tips for brewing up. Though they specialise in very high end and healthy teas we can still use some of the advice in our search for the perfect cuppa.

He suggests that you should always use loose leaf tea – and that it’s not as inconvenient as you might think.

“Tea bags contain very poor quality tea,” says Mei, “You can be drinking twigs, secondary leaves, things you really shouldn’t be drinking.”

This tea-and-other-stuff mixture, says Mei, is mulched into a dust that releases the bitter tannins in the infusion too quickly – which may be one reason why we Brits like our tea with milk.

Mei gets around the problem of bits in your tea by suggesting that you use an infuser basket in your teapot – a good sized mesh container that lets the hot water get to the tea leaves. You can buy teapots with infusers built in.

Another good tip from Don Mei is to use more tea and brew it for a shorter time. The usual western way of making tea is to pop a couple of teaspoons in the pot and brew it for ages. This produces a drink with lots of sticky tannins and less of the fresh, light flavour of the leaves.

An advantage of this approach is that you can reuse the tea for a few more brews.

Heston’s Tea Maker

If there’s one person in the world who can tell us how to precisely and exactly brew any beverage of your choice, then it has to be scientific chef Heston Blumenthal. Our people spoke to his people at kitchen appliance maker Sage by Heston Blumenthal who pointed us in the direction of some of the clever cook’s tea making tips. They include:

  • Let hot water cool before you pour it on the tea leaves. Boiling water makes the tea bitter.
  • Milk should go in second – so you can gauge the strength of the tea. That’s one tip both Heston and George Orwell can agree upon.
  • Temperature and time are the most important factors. Water should be off the boil but above 70 degrees and you should give your tea enough time to brew naturally.

If you’re making tea the old fashioned way, these tips will definitely help – but Blumenthal has gone further. He’s taken all the guesswork out of making the perfect cup of tea by helping to develop his own tea making device. The Tea Maker – made by Sage – turns any kind of loose tea into the perfect cuppa. You add water, load the filter with loose tea and then set the Tea Maker to brew your beverage to taste. The result? Tea that’s exactly right, every time.

Tea, the everyday way

So, now we know  the very best way to make tea.

  • You use loose leaves, in a warm tea pot using water that’s just off the boil.
  • You give the pot a swirl and leave it to stand for a good few minutes.
  • Stirring or pressing the leaves with a spoon bruises them and impairs the flavour, so don’t do that – but do use an infuser or strainer to stop the leaves from escaping the pot when you pour. George Orwell didn’t mind getting bits in his teeth, but we do.
  • Finally, milk goes into the cup after the tea, preferably skimmed or semi.

But what if you don’t have time for all this faff? Sometimes you’ve only a few minutes to chuck a tea bag into a mug. Gill Mann, director of Delimann of Devon, thinks you can still make a great cup of tea that way with a technique she thinks is foolproof.


She told us you should:

  1. Add 200 ml of freshly boiled water to your tea bag (the best quality you can get)
  2. Allow the tea bag to brew for 2 minutes
  3. Remove the tea bag
  4. Add 10 ml of milk
  5. Wait 6 minutes for the cup of tea to reach its optimum temperature of 60c
  6. Sit back and enjoy!

Gill’s company Delimann delivers lovely cream teas all around the UK, so her very precise instructions should be taken very seriously. Perhaps they’re the modern equivalent of George Orwell’s famous eleven steps.