We’re not “treating female hysteria” anymore

Words by Inès Mette

Since the advent of the female vibrator in the 1850’s, in an effort from doctors to “treat female hysteria”, a lot and not a lot of things have changed all at the same time: there are a lot more sex toys available today, although vibrators remain the most popular one. Today, with the advances of technology there a multitude of ways and possibilities to have sex. In this article, I will explore what might happen in the next few years.

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Great Pacific Garbage Patch: hit and sunk

Words by Alessia Melchiorre and Antonella Serrecchia

According to the Plastic Oceans Foundation, we are now producing nearly 300 million tons of plastic every year, half of which is for single use. More than 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into our oceans every year. This would mean that if nothing will be done, we will be overwhelmed by plastic in the very next future.

It would take billions of dollars and thousands of years to collect all the waste using current methods, such vessels and nets.

 

 

 

 

 

“Human history is basically a list of things that couldn’t be done and then were done.”

With these words, 20-year-old Dutch student Boyan Slat started his long-awaited speech, almost one year after he had first presented his project at the TEDx conference in 2013.

In the occasion, he proudly introduced the 530-page feasibility study he had been making, together with his team, to prove his idea actually worked. What was it all about? Nothing special, really. He had simply found a possible solution to one of the major environmental issues of our times. And that, at the age of 18.

Some nerdy facts

Ocean waters are in constant movement, flowing for great distances across the planet. Due to the rotating movement of the Earth, currents converge in five areas where the waters start to flow in a circular pattern, generating gyres. Far off the coast, in places where perhaps no human has ever even been, thousands of tonnes of debris accumulate every year, spreading over millions of square kilometres.

Risultati immagini per garbage island

Then, the epiphany. Why do not let the oceans clean themselves taking advantage of currents?

A 200 kilometres long array of floating barriers would gather the debris into a trash-extracting platform, which would separate the large parts from the smaller ones and store them for recycling. Being only 3 metres deep, ocean currents and natural sea life would pass underneath the barriers, without getting trapped. The whole system would be powered by solar panels.

When he first presented this idea, he received nothing but sceptic reactions. He was barraged with questions about every single aspect of it, from finance to engineering. He didn’t have the means though, to answer those questions alone, so he started a foundation called The Ocean Clean-up and spread the idea through the social media.

With a crowdfunding campaign, he raised the money he needed to set up a team of volunteers and professionals, who helped him find a viable solution to every single problem.

In 2016, The Ocean Cleanup has deployed a 100 meter-long barrier segment in the North Sea, 23 km off the coast of The Netherlands. The prototype will show how the floating barrier will deal in real-life conditions.

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North sea prototype – source: theoceancleanup.com

By the second half of this year, the first pilot project will be launched in order to achieve the 2020 clean up: it will be a testing platform in the Pacific Waters, where many different tests will be performed on a scale of several kilometres. It will be the first occasion to see the whole project running.

We are all looking forward to see this young Dutch man disproving all dissenters, especially all the species whose house is the ocean.

 

Eventually, he will prove to all Earth species that, even if humankind is a sort of cancer to this planet, our brain is the most valuable renewable source we have.

Written by Alessia Melchiorre and Antonella Serrecchia

 

 

A School for International Foxes

By Frans Snackers

There are people that have known they want to become a doctor since they were in diapers. Others dream of  becoming architects, bankers, or accountants. Well, maybe not that last one. For those people choosing a study is easy. They know what they want. However, a lot of prospective students find the choice a lot more challenging. These students might have a more varied field of interest, instead of having one thing they really like. For those students, a new type of university opened its doors in Groningen not long ago: University College Groningen.

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Robert Heinlein once said that specialization is for insects, and I am inclined to agree. – Dr Ryan Wittingslow

The decision to open the college was made about 5 years ago, and the first students were welcomed two years after that. Based on the model of a liberal arts college, students are offered a selection of courses from a variety of disciplines. With the help of the staff, students create a program that is tailored to their liking.

“I’m a person with a lot of different interests,” says Lisa (20), a student from Greece. She says that the ability to pick courses from a mixture of disciplines is one of the reasons she came to UCG, “I think you need a lot of different aspects and I think this place is perfect for that.”

This feeling is shared by Dutch student Emma (18), who says it also helps to get to know yourself better. She took a course in a field that she thought was interesting, but it turned out that it was not her cup of tea. At a traditional university that would have likely meant dropping out, but at UCG it means adjusting your courses.

An International Character

The student body has a deliberate international character. At the moment, about 60% of all students come from outside of the Netherlands. “The aim is about 50/50, but we don’t take it into account during the admission process. We don’t maintain strict quotas,” says Rob van Ouwerkerk, managing director at UCG, “it is more a coincidence how it exactly ends up.”

Perhaps due to strict admission requirements like the need to have a good command of English, even Dutch-passport holding students tend to be more internationally inclined. “We notice that our Dutch students often come from international Baccalaureate programs and are used to taking courses in English,” van Ouwerkerk explains, “In that respect I think our Dutch students are also quite international.”

This international character is also reflected in the staff at the UCG. Apart from the expected Dutch employees, the nationalities range from Cypriot, to American, to South African. One of these expats, Dr Ryan Wittingslow, from Australia, ended up at UCG by accident. He landed a position as Assistant Professor of Humanities at the college while on his honeymoon, from which he technically still hasn’t returned.

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The staff at UCG comes from a wide range of countries

Small-Scale Set-Up

Wittingslow thinks that UCG sets itself apart from other universities by the way students are taught. “We try to make it as novel and interactive as possible, taking advantage of the small format.” Classes at the college are a lot smaller than at other universities and students get more guidance from their teachers.  At the moment, the student to staff ratio is only 12 to 1, but this is expected to increase to about 15 to 1 in the coming years.

The small scale of the classes is one of the main perks of the college mentioned by students. Lisa (20) from Greece says that because the classes are small, there is a lot of room for interaction. “We have a lot of open discussions,” she says, “so I think it is really different from other universities.”

Another thing that Wittingslow mentions is that the material he throws at students is often a lot more sophisticated than is usual.  “Part of it is just to see what they come up with.” Students are encouraged to work together to solve difficult problems, either in class or in student-led investigations.

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College Community

To help improve the inter-student collaboration, one of the pillars of the UCG is a sense of community. The school makes a big effort to ensure students feel at home, even making it obligatory for students to live on campus during their first year.

“We know internationals appreciate it a lot,” Ouwerkerk says, but he does reckognize that for Dutch students it is sometimes less convenient. Especially for those living in the area already.

“In the beginning I was sceptical about the campus because you spend every second with each other, not just in class but in house as well,” Emma says. Though in hindsight she does realise it has its perks: “you get to know each other a lot quicker and I would say we’ve become a close knit community now.”

For James (20), who came all the way from the US to study at UCG, the arranged housing was actually one of the reasons to come. He was doubting between UCG and the University of Freiburg, but at Freiburg he would have had to find his own housing on the fly. That was too intimidating, tipping the scale in favour of coming to Groningen.

Lisa has mixed feelings about the housing that the college provides. “For the first year it is okay. Living there, the conditions are not the best, but overall it gives a more familiar feeling to the place,” indicating that reality is not the same as the pictures. “I think it is easier to integrate in the beginning like that,” she admits, “but it is good that we can move out in the second year.”

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In reality, the kitchens aren’t as clean. Source: RUG.nl

Everything At A Price

So far, the University College Groningen sounds pretty amazing. Unfortunately, there are always two sides of a coin. Of which you will need a lot. Tuition for EU students is more than double than studying at regular universities, like the University of Groningen; students have to pay €4000 per year. For students outside of the EU, that figure rises to €12.000 per year.

Van Ouwerkerk notes that these costs are the unavoidable consequence of the small scale set-up of the school. Apart from that, students receive a lot of guidance in the form of mentors and tutors, as well as having a relatively high number of contact-hours – in class and on extracurricular activities.

“I get the price can be an obstacle for some,” Emma says, “it did play a role into my considerations, especially because you also have to live on campus in the first year.”

Living on campus adds barbed wire to the pay-wall students need to get over in order to study at the UCG. For a room in the student accommodation of the college, students pay an average of €480 per month, apart from having to pay a €195 registration fee.

“In retrospect that was a horrible decision,” James says, referring to his choice of coming to UCG based on the provided housing. “The student accommodation is not objectively bad,” he says, “but, there are much better deals available, so I can’t help but feel a little bit upset about it.”

The average price of housing in the student city of Groningen is a lot lower. And by a lot, I mean hundreds of Euros lower. When asked about why the price of this obligatory housing is so high, van Ouwerkerk says the UCG does not have a lot of influence on it; SSH, an externally contracted organization, arranges the housing. “We aren’t too happy about it,” he says, “I talk to the SSH on a regular basis and the problem has come up.”

While he does say that they are working towards lowering the prices, he also contends that there are other reasons for the higher price. “It seems on the high end, but the grass seems greener on the other side than it is,” van Ouwerkerk says, “the rooms at SSH do come with furniture.” While having a furnished room on arrival is handy, it is doubtful that it justifies paying around €1200 extra for it on a yearly basis.

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Studying differently is a costly affair

Onto The Future

The high costs of education at UCG has not affected its growth. After a slow second year of operation, a publicity campaign made sure that number of first-years rose to the projected figures in the third. The aim is to have about 200 first-years in the year 2020, when the college will also move to a new, bigger building. Van Ouwerkerk says that after reaching that number, the college would be at maximum capacity. “It is very important that the students form a sort of community group with each other,” he argues, “the bigger you become, the harder that is to maintain.”

So what kind of students should those be? Giving a taste of the sophisticated material he usually throws at his students, Dr Wittingslow answers the question:

“Isaiah Berlin draws the distinction between a hedgehog and a fox, right. So a hedgehog is a person who knows one thing really well and they view all problems through that lens. Whereas a fox may not have the same methodological level of rigour, but with that comes a plurality of methods that offer a certain kind of freedom. UCG-like colleges, they’re for foxes, not hedgehogs.”

In other words, if you’re the weirdo dreaming of one day becoming an accountant, UCG is not for you. You hedgehog.

 

Podcast: Universal Basic Income…. and beer

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In the next couple of decades, machines are going to take millions of our jobs. So how do we support ourselves when there is just not enough work out there?

Matt Richards, Tommaso Lecca and James Field met up to drink a few beers and chat about a new concept that’s gaining interest around the world – Universal Basic Income. Take a listen to our informative (and highly entertaining) conversation below.

Developing Robot Ronaldo at ‘Tech United’

Words by Marijn Thijs, in Groningen

The Dutch are still top of the bill when it comes to football. ‘Oranje’ has dropped to its lowest World Rank ever this week, but the Dutch robot football team is faring better. Much better. ‘Tech United’ at the Eindhoven University of Technology have been crowned World Champions in robot football three times over the past five years.

The ‘Tech United’ robot football team competes in the Middle Size League at the so-called RoboCup. Teams consisting of 5 autonomous robots go head to head, playing together to score goals and keep clean sheets. Last summer, Tech United made it to the World Cup final with ease when they faced ‘Water’, a strong Chinese team, who were then defeated after penalties.

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Tech United was crowned World Champions in 2016. Photo: Tech United

At the same time, Tech United is also represented in the @Home League, a competition for service robots programmed to pour you a drink, or clean your room for you.

Zeitwurst got on the line with Lotte de Koning, Tech United’s team captain, and talked about the technologies behind robot football, using entertainment to introduce people to technology, and the rule that speeds up the innovation process each year.

Hi Lotte, great to talk to you! How long ago was Tech United founded?

Tech United was founded in 2005, and we have started competing since 2006. We have been the World Champions in 2012, 2014 and 2016, but before that, we have made the final every single year.

You programmed an autonomous team of robot footballers. Can you explain, in simple terms, how they work?

A team consists of 5 robots: 1 keeper, 2 attackers and 2 defenders, each with their own task. While they play, the robots switch positions themselves. If a defender has the ball, for example, he switches roles and asks the attacker: “Hey, can I attack now?” The team does make sure there’s always 2 attackers and 2 defenders.

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The Tech United ‘squad’. Photo: Tech United

They continuously communicate about each other’s position on the field through cameras, and they can distinguish their teammates from opponents through this communication process. They are not able to see the whole pitch while they play – the camera range is too small for that – but because the robots are spread out they can see the whole pitch together. If robot A is in a corner and can’t see the ball because it’s at the other end of the field, he still knows where it is because a teammate tells him.

And how many people are behind the team?

We have about 13 permanent members, and around that we usually have 5 students doing a project for their studies joining the team, so about 18 to 20 members, I think.

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Programmers watching the proceedings. Photo: Tech United

That’s quite a big group. At the end of a major tournament, I read that you are obliged to share your knowledge with your opponents.

That is correct.

What do you do to ensure you remain the best team each year?

That is the challenge! After a tournament there’s always lots to evaluate about: how did it go at the tournaments this year? And then follows a brainstorm session, because you have think of new things… and to do that you sometimes need crazy ideas. We try to look at how people play – people can anticipate quickly on a situation – but we need to look at that step-by-step. If your opponent’s robot is broken, or has received a red card for example, you have more players on the pitch. Human football teams anticipate immediately: they press more, or something like that. We don’t do that yet, but it’s something we’re trying to develop this year.

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A Tech United programmer working on the robot’s mechanics. Photo: Tech United

Wait, how does a robot get a red card?

A robot can get red carded by bumping into an opponent in order to make them lose the ball. That would be too easy, and that is not the intention. Then, a human referee can give out cards.

We play according to the official FIFA rules, with a few adjustments. To ensure we keep on working towards our main goal of having robots work together towards one goal, we change the rules slightly each year. You have to pass at least once before you score, for example. This is done to stimulate the innovation process.

What is it you want to achieve with this discipline?

We want to develop robotics, who will help us further in our daily lives. The technologies that we develop are comparable with self-driving cars, for example, or the robots that are used in factories…

You are using football as a sort of way to transfer knowledge about technology to people, through entertainment then?

Yes, that is the most important goal – developing new technologies alongside robot football. Football appeals to a wide range of people – people who are completely distanced from technology or robots, but who still like to be involved in football. And that is how you reach out to children, and people in general, to introduce them to those technologies we will see more often in our daily lives anyway. I think that is a great goal.

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Tech United playing one of their World Championship games. Photo: Tech United

One last question. In time, people want a robot football team to beat a human football team. How realistic is that idea, and when do you see that happen?

In 2000, the RoboCup federation strived towards having a robot football beat the World Cup winners in 2050. It’s an ambitious goal. A little bit like NASA, who once wanted to bring a man to the moon and back. (…) Whether that is possible in 2050, however, is still to be seen. Personally, I think we’re on our way already, and it’s great to see how fast the developments are going, but if you start to think how we humans are made up, how we think, and how we play the game… that’s complicated. But my intention is not to rebuild a person, but to develop systems that could help us in our daily life.

 

This interview was held in Dutch, and loosely translated to English.

An Invisible Clock: time behind the numbers

Words by Špela Krajnc

Tick-tock goes the clock….and we follow.  It’s not the money that runs the world – it’s time. It dictates our lives whether we know the numbers or not. The sun rises, the seasons change, the moon gets full, the bus leaves early and you get old. Tomorrow can be past and yesterday can be future. Tick-tock, wake up, it’s an illusion.

“What is more north than the north pole? It doesn’t have an answer. It’s the same for time. We simply don’t know”, says Rien van de Weijgaert, professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics from the Kapteyn Astronomical Institute in Groningen.

Although there is no clear answer on the nature of time in physics, there are many theories. Quantum physics and the Many-Worlds Interpretation of time would say that you can be in several places at the same time, it’s just a matter of many possible outcomes amongst which only one outcome will be taken into consideration. All the conditions exist at the same time, and what we perceive as progress of time is in fact just going from one condition to the other. It’s the one we are conscious of that counts, but all the others still exist next to ours. Or as dr. Weijgaert says: “The only world you are aware of is the one that you follow”.

Your world means your time. It becomes a question of experience and language, and what came first. It’s the “chicken or the egg” question of time. Is language the one that defines and captures the experience or the other way around? The dilemma is whether future is fixed by the present or is contingent.

The thing is, we were not born with the concept of “tomorrow”. As babies, it didn’t matter if we were told we are going to see grandma tomorrow. What mattered was if grandma gave us a bottle in that particular moment. Tomorrow didn’t matter until it arrived. Something begins to matter once we have the concept of it, regardless of the culture.

This is why time is a category that differs in different cultural contexts. Westerners perceive past, present and future as something linear, Native American tribes as occurring in the same moment, and on Madagascar people understand future as something that happens before the past – it’s behind their ears, so they can’t see it until it flows ahead. Sounds stress-free, right?

Kim Knibbe, University lecturer of Anthropology and Sociology of Religion at University of Groningen, agrees that the perceptions of time and future are learnt: “To talk about the future is a way of talking about how we should live. Future is always the next thing that is going to happen, but what causes this next thing, that may be tied to particular perceptions of time as well.”

Living in different cultures makes different futures possible, but globalisation and capitalism are causing synchronization of time perception. “It always ends up with this power structures that locate the ultimate knowledge in the western world”, says dr. Knibbe. Once nature and culture started being separated and the term “modern” has been introduced, the comparison to the time scale of the West has meant other cultures being perceived as more primitive and behind time.

This idea of modernity therefore aligns with future: “The future is always going to be better. If the past returns, that’s the problem – we are regressing”, dr. Knibbe describes the modernity scheme. Nature aligns with the past, modernity with future.

But what about the experience itself? Can we really be present? After all, “seize the day” is a new price tag on Western mentality. According to German philosopher Heidegger, the structure of our experiences itself are present, but what makes us human is being concerned about what is going to happen next. The fact that we are not going to be here forever, that there is no eternity in life, makes us aware of limitations and puts pressure on our choices and actions. “Future shapes our social and mental lives”, comments Martin Lenz, Philosophy professor at the University of Groningen. “We always experience ourselves as past, as present and as future beings; just present wouldn’t make sense”, he adds.

Imagine entering a dark room. You can’t see anything, you stumble upon something you don’t recognise and nothing you touch makes sense. Then somebody turns on the light. Everything makes sense all of the sudden. You grab the guitar from the corner, having no idea that what you thought was going to be a jazzy improvisation has been predetermined by what you have played in the past. This may help you understand the following comment by dr. Lenz: “The future experiences will determine what actually happens to us now, how we will see us in the past”.

Despite ambiguity around time and its nature in physics, future does have one condition: it always has to move in the direction of a higher entropy, which means the number of possible different configurations of one particular state. Or as dr. Weijgaert makes it simple for us mortals of humanities: “Your house always becomes more chaotic in time, that’s why you have to clean up; it goes automatically. Every process leads to a higher number of states possible – dust particles will distribute themselves in time; entropy grows in time”.

So the universe strives forward. We strive forward. Is it even possible to just “be”? Is there such thing as the “now” we so desperately try to enjoy? It seems there is always “it’s time” for something, always waiting. Waiting for our anxieties to pass, waiting for our life to start. Some day.

The question is if the passing of time engages or blocks. If YOUR future is different than THE future. If our experiences of “moments” perhaps don’t have much meaning outside of our own time conceptions.

“Time is a social experience. Time keeping and our own time experience is very much dependant on the social world in the sense that others conform, consolidate or point out miss matches in our experiences”, reflects dr. Lenz.

But who is right, and who is wrong? Who delegitimizes the mismatches of our realities? If only we could try them all, come back and compare.

There is no one future, one past or one present. Just time and what we call it. Tick-tock, wake up, clock has no numbers.

timeless lines by Spela Krajnc

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Immortal Minds

Words by Miglé Vaisnoraite

And they lived forever ever after… The prince packed his newly bought computer and set off on a quest to save his beloved princess. The princess was trapped in an average human body by evil Mother Nature. The princess gave the prince access to her brain and let him upload her onto a computer.

More and more fairy-tale tellers like Russian businessman Dmitry Itskov and futurist and director of engineering at Google Ray Kurzweil are claiming that by the end of the 21st century people will be able to live forever in a virtual reality.

If you are still reading and not enjoying celebratory champagne, save it for later, one doesn’t need eternity to drink it anyways. You see, evil Mother Nature might not give up that easily… A professor in theoretical physics at the University of Groningen, Netherlands, Eric Bergshoeff, is more skeptical about the idea of virtual immortality and mind uploading. “I am not going to say it will never happen, but it’s a long shot”, says professor Bergshoeff, adding that the way the human mind works, what it is and where our emotions are stored is still a secret.

And one step towards the dream turned into nine valleys, nine seas, nine forests and mountains that we will have to climb for the sake of eternity. But there was never only one step left…. “There is too much speculation really. [The] future is very difficult to predict, we only extrapolate what we know but the future goes completely different in different directions”, says professor Bergshoeff.

But the situation is not that miserable. We have three consolation options to make it less painful to be just mortal.

Consolation option number 1

Even though professor Bergshoeff said that there is too much speculation, I asked him to speculate a bit… “All this idea about being immortal I’m not sure how much fun it is. If you can upload your mind, you will never disappear. You will get bored with life psychologicaly. Can you imagine, that your mind stays for 3000 years, you have seen everything for 100 times and you get sick of it.”

Consolation Option number 2

If you want to be the one and only love for someone, mind uploading is not for you. You might be confused by your love with others by accident. Let the philosopher Fred Keijzer explain: “What makes us is that we have this physical body and its limitations”. If we were virtually immortal: “Everything that makes you would become irrelevant. What would be the difference between you, who can acquire anything, be at any time, any place, anywhere and someone else, who is not you but has the same capacities and options, so it is unclear if there were any differences between persons anymore?”, says F. Keijzer.

Consolation Option number 3

For those insisting. We keep asking if eternity is going to be possible in the future, but maybe it already is… yes, your new selfie on Facebook might just have gotten a completely new meaning. The company Eternime offers to create an avatar that is based on information about yourself available from social media. The avatar will live forever and will make it possible for people to access you memories.

So which way out of mortal sadness will you choose? Option number 1? Option number 2? Option number 3? It depends on whether or not you want your grandchildren to know what you ate for breakfast on 1 April 2017, whether you felt sad or inspired, that you checked into a nice hotel, that you uploaded a new photo and got a like…

Or… instead of quoting your posts and tweets, you want your grandchildren to quote a book they read. A real book written by a great mind that still lives and hopefully will live forever not in a computer but in other people’s minds. There are many of those great minds and one doesn’t need any software to become one. Immortality is possible, was always possible, unnoticed.

All concepted by master mind Miglé Vaisnoraite

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