Links: Late September 2014

A short assortment of links.

Links: Late August 2014

Here is a collection of links, several of which I bookmarked before my holiday in Sydney.

Interesting:

  • I include this article on quantum computers only because I once wrote an article of the sort it condemns as hyped and misinformed. Sorry. (I wrote the article as an undergraduate, and you can find it via this old blog post.)
  • Good and simple video showing how gravity works in general relativity. It represents my own level of understanding.
  • You have fingers for essentially the same reason that cheetahs have spots.
  • I found this nice tool for calculating apparent angular diameters. From a satellite orbiting 225 km above the earth (not quite high enough to be stable), the planet would have an apparent angular diameter of 150 degrees — the same as analogue clock hands at 7:00 or 5:00. From 2,640 km (comparable with the 2000 km outer bound of low earth orbit), it would be 90 degrees across. From 18,260 km (roughly halfway to geosynchronous orbit), it would take up 30 degrees. What else can you discover?

Delightful:

  • This mathematical question involving squares in conjunction with curves is largely solved but interesting to contemplate (and a good excuse to doodle).
  • Not delightful at all, but marking the end of something that is: I recently learned that the collaborative short story writing site ficly.com is closing its doors (but there’ll be an archive).

Awareness:

Winning Cosmos

This is the story of a competition I recently won.

In an episode of the Skeptic Zone podcast published while I was in Sydney, Richard Saunders announced a competition: to take a photograph on the theme Billions and Billions for a chance of winning a DVD set of the recent Cosmos remake.

Being on holiday I wasn’t planning to enter, but I did spend some time thinking about what sort of photograph one might take (it also made a good conversation topic). I decided that hundreds and thousands should feature somehow, and my best idea — given the time, resources and skills to pull it off — was as follows. (1) Bake a cake in a small, hemisphere-shaped bowl, and ice it to look like (half of) a giant hundred-and-thousand. (2) Choose a background for the photograph that represents the void of space  — perhaps a dark cloth laid over some surface — and sprinkle hundreds and thousands all over it. (3) Place the cake amidst the hundreds and thousands; and on top of the cake, place a lego figure with a telescope.

I don’t have the resources to create this, but obviously there are people out there who could pull it off, and probably do something even better that I hadn’t thought of. So I didn’t think I had any hope of winning the competition, and was just hypothetically contemplating what I would do.

Then I went along to the August 7th Skeptics in the Pub (as described in my Sydney report), and chatted to some people from the Skeptic Zone podcast. The photograph competition came up in conversation with Jo Alabaster, who strongly encouraged me to enter, saying that there had been very few entries, and that even a diagram of my idea would be worth sending in.

My original idea might have been at the edge of possibility given enough time and borrowing of resources, but with a deadline just two weeks after the original announcement (more like one week by the time I got home from Sydney), it was completely impossible. Still, by now I knew that a simpler photograph was in with a chance, and the Cosmos DVD set was a pretty alluring prize. Then — as I was contemplating what resources I might find on an upcoming grocery shop — I hit on an idea that was easily within my grasp, and a multi-layered interpretation of the challenge. All I needed to buy was one bag of icing sugar.

At some point I looked up the other entries on the Skeptic Zone facebook page, and indeed there weren’t many. This surprises me: the much-talked-about Cosmos series is surely an attractive prize, and not something many Australians would have seen already (people who subscribe to non-free-to-air TV are a small minority); I saw one episode on Youtube before it was taken down.

You can find my entry here, and I’ve also replicated it below. Here is the photograph:

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And here is the explanation I sent with it. (A note on the calculation: if you google the size of an icing sugar particle, you’ll find figures between 10 and 100 micrometres. I used 100 cubic micrometres for my estimate … wait, that’s wrong, isn’t it? A cube 10 to 100 micrometres across is actually 1,000 to 1,000,000 cubic micrometres … call it 100,000 cubic micrometres … and a billion particles that size would take up a tenth of a litre … whoops, now I’m embarrassed.)

It’s a pair of equations, one horizontal, the other vertical, like a crossword. Physical objects stand in for quantities

The first equation reads: “100s & 1000s cubed is less than icing sugar”.

If hundreds and thousands (the famous confectionary) are called hundreds and thousands, then icing sugar could very reasonably be called billions and billions. In fact, I calculate that just one millilitre of icing sugar contains more than ten billion grains!

The second equation reads: “earth multiplied by icing sugar is less than universe”.

This ties the photograph to a cosmological theme, asserting that the universe contains the equivalent of billions and billions of earths.

By the time the deadline arrived I was expecting to win (although I liked the elegance of Jon Frary’s entry), and throughout the next day, tension was high. I checked the relevant links over and over, and as time passed I thought maybe I hadn’t won after all.

Then — about 31 minutes into episode 304 of the Skeptic Zone — the official announcement … I won!

I look forward to the DVDs. I’ve read enough reviews to know that the series is flawed — just like everything else in the real world — so I am not expecting perfection. I do, however, expect it to be very good, and that its strengths will outweigh its flaws by a considerable margin. Perhaps I will tell you what I thought.

Incidentally, long time readers will know this isn’t the first time I’ve won a science-related online competition. Last time I wrote a limerick.

What we did in Sydney

Together with my parents, I spent the first week of August in Sydney. It was the first holiday in which I used my smartphone to navigate. Here is a summary of what we did.

Some background: I was born in Sydney, and not coincidentally my parents have a number of friends over there. I’ve been back a couple of times, most recently in 1989 when I attended a Doctor Who convention and we also had a family holiday.

As for this trip, we arrived early in the afternoon of Saturday August 2nd. The main event for our first evening was a classical music program at the Opera House — the first time I’ve ever been inside.

On Sunday we visited the Justice and Police Museum (notable exhibits: maces & other home-made weapons; phrenology model; whips for adult vs juvenile offenders), and then met our friend Ian and his current guide dog at the Botanic Gardens. After lunch, Dad and I visited the Jewish Museum (notable exhibits: talmud; ceremonial objects; art installations; immigration history; maps of ghettos, concentration camps, etc) and one other destination which turned out not to be worth our while, before returning by bus to meet Mum and Ian at the hotel.

On Monday we took the train north to visit friends of my parents, and went for a coastal walk in Bouddi National Park.

View from train Bouddi

Bouddi Bouddi

On Tuesday, a place where we’d planned to have breakfast turned out not to exist anymore, so instead we had breakfast at the place now occupying the same location. Breakfast was followed by a visit to the small but welcoming Kerrie Lowe Ceramics Gallery on our way to the Sydney University museums. (These were smaller than I expected, but the Macleay Museum includes a display on the history of photography, an orang-utan skeleton, and a deformed horse skull connected to a bunyip anecdote; while the Nicholson Museum includes quite a sizeable section on the Etruscans.) After that we visited the Glass Artists’ Gallery (which has some very nice stuff but would benefit from a more spatious venue) and browsed a second-hand bookshop. We spent the evening with more friends of my parents.

On Wednesday we visited the outstanding Australian National Maritime Museum (notable exhibits: whale photographs and artifacts; information on little-known historical alliances; a beer-can boat; a panel on scurvy; some excellent paintings; and a dinosaur on a submarine … that last being a model that belonged to one of the crew), the Chinese Garden of Friendship, and the Sydney Aquarium. In the evening we went to the Capitol Theatre (a lovely venue, btw) to see the Lion King musical (parts of which are amazing).

View from Maritime Museum

Chinese Garden Chinese Garden

On Thursday, we each visited central Sydney museums independently, which in my case meant the Australian Museum (where my favourite exhibits were the crocodiles and the ankylosaur model), the Hyde Park Barracks (which, between the dead rats and the detailed reports on flogging, is a truly delightful place), and the Art Gallery of NSW (from which, here are links to selected works: [****]). In the early afternoon, my parents and I met one of the people I follow on Twitter for coffee.

In the evening I went by myself to the monthly Skeptics in the Pub (going to the wrong address at first, but finding the right one with the help of my Internet and GPS enabled phone) where I enjoyed conversing with Richard Saunders and Jo Alabaster from the Skeptic Zone podcast, as well as other people connected with the Australian Skeptics (including Ian Bryce and Tim Mendham). I gave Richard one of my customised coffee mugs.

On Friday we took the ferry to Nutcote (home of famous author May Gibbs, which I loved) and then took the bus to Taronga Zoo. Animals at Taronga which I don’t think I’ve seen at a zoo before include Komodo dragon and condor. After finishing there, we returned by ferry and got ready for our evening flight home.

Nutcote  Nutcote

Nutcote  Nutcote

Taronga - Komodo Dragon  Taronga - Condors

Taronga - lizard Taronga - lizard 3D

The last two photos above show a lizard of the genus hydrosaurus, the second time in 3D along with a bonus tortoise that I hadn’t noticed at the time. I had previously misidentified this as a tuatara, because it was adjacent to a seemingly unoccupied tuatara enclosure and I really wanted it to be one. (The enclosure shown actually belongs to the tortoise, so I’m not sure what the lizard was doing there.)

I bought several souvineers and gifts while I was in Sydney, mostly from the Maritime Museum and Nutcote. Overall I had an excellent time, which I hope comes across despite the brevity of my report.

Links: Late July 2014

This is my final collection of links before I take a holiday in Sydney for the first week of August. When I get back, I plan to resume the clean-up of this blog’s archives, which has been on hold since late May.

Interesting:

  • I failed this American accents test, scoring 2 out of 12. Can you do better? (Here are my results along with the answers, but try it yourself before peeking.)
  • Thought-provoking video on the mathematics of bicycle tracks. (I had a go at deriving the tractrix formula by hand — and I although did make some progress, my several pages of scribbles ended in nonsense.)
  • Interview with David J Peterson. I found this interesting because I interacted with David via the Conlang mailing list before he started doing it professionally.
  • Queensland dinosaur mythbusting: there was no stampede. Long version, short version.
  • A biology blog that looks worth browsing properly when time permits.
  • In my opinion, genetics is one of the least interesting sciences, but I did enjoy this video. (The final minute is a somewhat clumsy postscript, though.)

Awareness:

Links: Early July 2014

Interesting:

  • Tibetans get their altitude tolerance from Denisovans.
  • Take an hour to watch Paul Willis talk about Antarctica.

Delightful:

Personal:

  • Dad was on TV for 45 seconds in June with dinosaurs! Starts at 3:35.

Links: Late June 2014

Here are three links that I found particularly interesting recently:

Many links that I share on this blog come from Ed Yong’s “I’ve Got Your Missing Links Right Here” and Jennifer Ouellette’s “Physics Week in Review“. But since it was my birthday on June 12, I decided to take the week off and not read last week’s installments.  Instead, I’ll let you peruse them directly if you wish to. (Also, you’re welcome to link to your favourite items in the comments.)

Links: Early June 2014

Interesting:

  • A very nice article about Go and the software that plays it. (I’ve never played Go, but the fact the board must tend toward a fractal distribution of pieces is the one thing that’s obvious from a crude description of the rules.)
  • A panel discussion about quantum mechanics in which three guests articulate their ideas very clearly and the fourth spouts complete gibberish.
  • H.G. Wells also wrote non-fiction about Martians.
  • Article on how the moon and its distinctive hemispheres came to be. [Update: here's another idea.]
  • Catfish detects breath of prey via acidity of water.

Delightful:

  • Dust on Mars rovers.
  • Proof that Ancient Greeks had computers.
  • Distribution of letters in different parts of words. What ways can you come up with to play with the data? For example, pairing letters with similar profiles, I get a=o, b=w, c=p, d=y, e=l, f=k, g=s, h=i, j=q, m=t, n=r, u=v, x=z. (Some pairs — especially x=z — are only similar in the sense that they are both miscellaneous.)
  • Delightful puppet video. Don’t over-analyse the plot; it’s all about the aesthetic experience.

Awareness:

  • The Atlantic published an list of 100+ “fantastic pieces of journalism” from 2013. If you don’t have time to read a hundred articles, here are five of the best that I haven’t linked to from this blog before: [*****].

Links: Late May 2014

Interesting:

  • Simple home-made projectile weapon powered by magnets.
  • A star that could have formed in the same gas cloud as the sun.
  • Link between collectivism and rice. (Had this been written 25 years ago I could have referenced it in history class.)
  • I highly recommend exploring the Romantics and Victorians section of the British Library website. There are more articles than you can read in a day; here are some examples to get you started: [*****].

Delightful:

Here are some photos from a trip to the museum with my niece Elke:

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A status report on my ongoing archives clean-up: I’ve reached the end of 2010, and have added posts from that year to my official archives page. I’m now taking a break before starting on 2011, during which I intend to catch up on some housework and do research for my upcoming August holiday.

Miscellaneity from my desk drawer

Over the years I’ve been blogging, I’ve found that leafing through the contents of my desk can be a rich source of inspiration. My desk drawers contain records of my own creativity from the past, as well as other sorts of memories, and I’ve written many blog posts based on that material.

But there is a tendency for miscellaneity to fall through the cracks. If something is particularly significant there’s a good chance I’ve already blogged about it, whereas other items have always seemed too trivial to share even though they’ve been in storage for years.

Today I’m going to share three of them. They may be trivial, but there’s no telling what will resonate with the interests of readers and inspire an interesting conversation in the comments. That would make them well worth including on the blog.

1. A querying language invented while at university.

At university I majored in computing, which naturally included a subject or two about databases — SQL, relational algebra, and all that stuff. Elsewhere in the course I learned to read and write in EBNF notation.

For my own amusement I sometimes toyed with inventing my own programming languages — not implementing them (inventing and implementing are two very different things), but figuring out how the syntax would work and writing documentation for them as though they actually existed. In a sense it was my way of consolidating what I was learning, especially about trade-offs between different programming languages and things like that.

One of my inventions was a querying language with the same functionality as SQL, but a syntax based more consistently on relational algebra. I’ve uploaded a copy of my documentation. It may be complete rubbish, but over a decade later it hardly matters.

2. An email exchange about sensory integration.

This is another item from my university days, but not connected to my studies.

At an autism conference many years ago, I bought a textbook on sensory integration, which interested me enough to write an email to one of the authors. I described some of the games I played as a child, and speculated that (to paraphrase for the blog) there may be a correlation between people who are prone to motion sickness and people who find it hard to keep a tidy room.

My hypothesis was that since picking items off the floor involves continual head altitude changes, people who struggle with it might often be those who find it hard to modulate vestibular sensations while simultaneously concentrating on a goal-directed task.

The textbook author replied, saying: “I was also interested in your comments about tidying up and vestibular/modulation difficulties. I have certainly noticed that tendency in children but none has ever explained it quite so graphically. I certainly will think about that.

Or, as I once paraphrased it in a comment thread, she said that the idea was plausible and consistent with anecdotal observations.

3. A shortlist of aesthetically selected Arabic male names.

I’ve browsed the baby names website behindthename.com on numerous occasions. One time, on a whim, I decided to browse the section on male Arabic names, just to see what I liked the sound of. I was particularly looking for pairs of names that sound good together, consciously ignoring the fact that Western naming practices (first name plus middle name) are not usual in Arabic culture.

The three double names I liked best were:

I suppose these could be of use if you ever need an Arabic character for a work of fiction.