Links: 2015 — 7

Some links, and then some personal news, including photos from my niece’s 2nd birthday.

  • This short video on cumulus cloud formation might well include details that are new to you.
  • Interesting article on training the brain to overcome a learned disease. (I pointed out an error in the comments, but it seems the author had stopped monitoring comments a few days before.)
  • Another interesting article on the use of vagus nerve stimulation to moderate the immune system, among other things.
  • One of the best articles I’ve seen about Emmy Noether. It doesn’t try to answer every question, but gives a sense of why the questions are significant.
  • This fifteen minute online David Attenborough documentary on plankton is not only educational, but relaxing as well.
  • Stars collided in 1670.
  • Which direction water swirls doesn’t normally depend on which hemisphere you’re in … but what if you eliminate all other variables?
  • From now on, if your balloon animals don’t look like these, you’re doing it wrong.
  • I found a tool that takes a Google Maps route and generates an elevation chart. (If you just want to know the elevation for a single location, try this.)
  • I’ve never used Python, but I’m making a note of this in case I want to some day.

On 28 May, my parents and I took my niece to Cleland Wildlife Park for her second birthday (she was born on 26 May 2013). I’ll share more anecdotes about that day if you ask, but for now, here are some photos of Elke with koalas and wallabies. More family interaction followed the next day, including some errand-running. Of particular importance to me was that I finally got my mobile phone fixed, after errant software had been draining the batteries since late last year. When the phone was new, the battery lost on average less than 5% capacity for every 8 hours of normal (i.e. mostly idle) use, and now that it is fixed I can confirm that it loses only marginally more than that. Given that it’s more than a year old and the battery has never been replaced, this must count as excellent. While it was broken, I was lucky to get two days out of it.

Links: 2015 — 6

Some links; I hope you enjoy them.

I recently bought a couple of drinks from a local bottle shop, because I enjoy experimenting with cocktails from time to time, subject to the constraints of fridge space and affordability. The drinks I chose were Frangelico and a small bottle of Baileys. Meanwhile I’ve used up the last of my Opal Nera.

From the Internet I see that the cocktail consisting of Opal Nera and Baileys (layered 50/50) is traditionally known as “Black Nipple”, but the name that came to my mind was “Elephant Hide”. The Opal Nera spontaneously spouts up into the layer of Baileys above it, creating a dynamic swirling pattern with the Baileys resembling grey elephant skin and the Opal Nera its dark wrinkles. I think the ideal ratio is 3 parts Opal Nera to 4 parts Baileys. It tastes fine (Baileys with an extra oomph) but the appeal is primarily visual.

Easter photos

Over the Easter break I caught up with family and met my nephew Elliot for the first time.

Here he is on Friday with his mother:

P4030015 P4030021


With me (not looking very happy on the right, but that’s transient):


And with Mum and Dad respectively:


Big sister Elke (last photographed here and here) going for a ride in the wheelbarrow, and later on her car:


Playing on the swing:

P4030036 P4030038


And on the dolomite pile — there’s more to this than the photographs capture; on Mum’s suggestion I carved steps using gardening utensils, then helped Elke to climb up and slide down:


I took some photos of the lunar eclipse on Saturday night, but they’re not worth sharing.

On Sunday we all got together for a barbeque by the sea. The weather was unfortunate but the company made up for it, with over a dozen of my relatives present. Here’s Elke eating a chocolate Easter egg:


And more pictures of Elliot being hugged by my Auntie Helen:



While we were there we tried an activity in which blown and hard-boiled eggs were rolled in paint, after which we added more decorations to the three blown eggs to create a mobile for Elliot.

Our final get-together was on Tuesday, when several of us met for morning tea at a coffee shop in Ardrossan, and I made Elke a plasticine dog that lasted long enough for her to play with it and point out the ears and nose — an excellent memory on which to end a holiday. From there, Darryl and Helen drove me back to Adelaide.

Links: 2015 — 4

There are several notable things to report on this month, though unusually, that doesn’t translate to a lot of links to share.

You’ve probably heard the news that Terry Pratchett died recently. I’ve been a fan my whole adult life, and this feels like the end of an era. There’s an official announcement here, plus various news reports, opinion pieces and tributes all over the Internet. Many are well worth your time, but I’m more inclined to encourage readers to look around than link to anything specific. There’s one last book to be published posthumously (confession: I’ve never read any of the Tiffany Aching books).

My sister’s second child, Elliot Roger Smith, was born around 11:15 on Wednesday March 11. I have yet to meet my new nephew, but I hear all is well, even if his big sister has some adjusting to do.

I now have over a thousand WordPress users subscribing to this blog. This means little, because the overwhelming majority are follow spam — people who follow other blogs indiscriminantly either in the hope that it will get them some attention or because they’re the blogging equivalent of hoarders — but there must be some who subscribed because they genuinely looked at my blog and liked what they saw. If that’s you, I encourage you to make yourself known in the comments. Tell me who you are and what you found here that you liked.

The Gede Ruins in Kenya are famous not only as a historical site but also for its wildlife (especially the monkeys), and a community organisation that helps to protect the site is now using a logo that I designed (though someone else drew the animal outlines). For a few months they were rather cheekily using a draft version that I only sent — along with some other designs — to show how things were progressing, but I don’t know the whole story behind that decision, and the completed version is in use now.

Now here are some links. Not many this month (for whatever reason I’ve not seen a lot recently that compels me to archive it) but I hope you enjoy them.

Fractal poetry, and other links

This post contains what purports to be a fractal poem. It’s not a bad poem in its own right, but the link to fractal geometry was too subjective for my taste. However, it got me thinking about what else a “fractal poem” might mean, and I was up till two that morning bringing my idea into fruition. I shared the poem I came up with in the comments, but a fuller explanation appears below.

I based my poem on a simple L-system. An L-system contains a set of rules, applied iteratively, for replacing one symbol with a sequence of symbols. For example, suppose we agree to replace “A” with “ABBA” and “B”, with “BA”. Then, starting with “A”, the first iteration gives “ABBA”, the second iteration gives “ABBABABAABBA”, the third “ABBABABAABBABAABBABAABBAABBABABAABBA” and so on. The connection to fractal geometry is that if we interpret the symbols graphically (e.g. “A” for “go forward” and “B” for “turn left”), we get a squiggly line whose squiggliness depends upon the number of iterations.

I used an L-system where “A” becomes “ABBA”, “B” becomes “BCCB”, and so on. (Using numbers rather than letters, this is: “n → n, n+1, n+1, n”.) After two iterations, we have “ABBABCCBBCCBABBA”, which is the structure I used for my poem, interpreting each letter as representing a line and requiring all lines assigned the same letter to rhyme. In other words, it had to be a 16-line poem in which lines 1, 4, 13 & 16 rhyme, lines 2, 3, 5, 8, 9, 12, 14 & 15 rhyme, and lines 6, 7, 10 & 11 rhyme.

Here is the result. It has, I think, an interesting aesthetic quality when read aloud.

This doggerel does not intend
To satisfy the reader’s would
For art that is remotely good;
It will not serve to meet that end,
So don’t imagine that it could.
But in its rhyming structure you
Might find, if you are able to,
A pattern to be understood
That’s relevant to trees of wood
And clouds of water vapour, too –
The applications are not few –
For it possesses fractalhood.
Look closely, and you’ll comprehend
The secret pattern, bad or good,
Which, if this text were longer, could
By iterative means extend.

After a third iteration, the structure would be a challenging ABBA BCCB BCCB ABBA BCCB CDDC CDDC BCCB BCCB CDDC CDDC BCCB ABBA BCCB BCCB ABBA. Four iterations would give you an epic poem of 256 lines. You’re welcome to give that a go, or maybe you’d prefer to write your own variation on a shorter poem like mine.

Here are some more links that I found over the Christmas holidays:

  • The development of a foetus, animated.
  • Strong Language is a new linguistics blog about swearing. Mostly. Along the way it covers a variety of topics and is worth a look.
  • A well-presented and informative video on placenames ending in -stan.
  • A curious difference between the Andromeda Galaxy and our own.
  • All of the best arguments against vaccination together on one page. (No, it’s not blank, but you’ve got the right idea.)

As for the holidays themselves, I don’t feel like writing a report, but rest assured I had an excellent time. Here are two photographs that capture some special moments.


The photo on the left shows my niece and her parents (my sister on the left, pregnant with her second child) at the Christmas table as it is being prepared. Of note are the origami mangers, complete with jelly baby and paper straw, alternating with paper trees. The brown paper bags are what we used instead of crackers.

On the right is a framed photo set showing miscellaneous moments in Elke’s life so far. This was Rebecca’s Christmas present to me, and it is now hanging above the light switch in my bedroom.

Links: November 2014

I decided to skip the Late October installment, and this Early November installment is late, but here it is now.

  • A curious coincidence concerning the planets.
  • Everything you wanted to know about goldfish.
  • Chimpanzees plan ahead when it comes to breakfast. (This gave me an idea for a card game, but it needs a lot of work.)
  • How humans, birds and grasshoppers breathe.
  • Einstein and the nature of reality: a brief history.
  • A very nice 3D video from Mars.

In personal news, I recently bought my calendar for 2015. The theme I’ve chosen is a collection of Rob Gonsalves paintings — illusionist paintings in the tradition of M. C. Escher. [Update: larger collection here].

I’ll be going to see James Randi on December 1st. (I decided against the “Meet and Greet” ticket, though; it’s about a hundred dollars extra which is more than I can justify.) In preparation, I’ve rewatched this video from 2010.

Photos from family weekend

I spent Friday, Saturday and Sunday with my extended family, for reasons involving two birthday parties and a musical. I won’t go into details here, but we can talk about it in the comments if you like.

Here is a photo of my mother and my niece, Elke, who is now a confident walker, developing her vocabulary, and will be 18 months old later this month.


From later in the weekend: three generations of women on the marimba.


Left: My young relatives at play. Right: A community room in the town to which Dad has contributed dinosaurs.


I got some lovely photos of Elke with Leah, the middle child in my cousin Robert’s family. Here they are on the swing.



And here they are on the golf course.




And that’s all. It really was lovely to catch up with everyone.

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:


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.

Buying my second mobile phone

I typically publish links at this time of month, and the following personal update was drafted as a footnote below just such a collection. But on reflection I’ve decided to let the links accumulate for another two weeks before publishing them, so the wouldbe footnote is now the entire post.

So … recently I bought myself a new mobile phone, replacing the one I bought in 2008 and reported on this blog at the time. After almost six years, the ringtones in the old one stopped working in January (broken speaker I guess), and I’ve been procrastinating getting a replacement ever since.

The new phone is an android (Samsung GT-S7500T) and cost me about $150. I’ve installed the following apps: LocSMS, Battery Widget, Brightness ControlRocket Music Player, Date in Status Bar, File Shortcut, MuPDF [list updated July 2014].

For SMS notifications I’ve chosen the Pizzicato tone that came with the phone, and for incoming calls I’ve imported the ringtone I made for the old phone. To create wallpaper for the new phone, I rotated and trimmed one of my fractal images, and you can see the result below. (Incidentally, the same source image is also used in the background of my profile on Twitter, Gravatar and other places.)


Of course there have been disappointments — ranging from conspicuously absent features to Google doing funny business without my consent — but I don’t like to use the blog as a place to rant. Besides, my feelings about a new phone are not interesting; what’s important is how I’ll feel after I’ve had a chance to get used to it. If it lasts another five or six years I will, on balance, be happy.