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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Category archive: Science

Friday September 19 2014

I’ve been reading Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life, and very entertaining and informative it is too.  Strangely, one of the best things about it for me was that he explained, briefly and persuasively, both the rise to global stardom and the fall from global stardom of British agriculture.  The rise was a lot to do with the idea of crop rotation.  I remember vaguely being told about this in a prep school history class, but although I did remember the phrase “crop rotation”, I didn’t care about it or about what it made possible.

Here is Bryson’s description of this key discovery:

The discovery was merely this: land didn’t have to be rested regularly to retain its fertility.  It was not the most scinitillatingof insights, but it changed the world.

Traditionally, most English farmland was divided into long strips called furlongs and each furlong was left fallow for one season in every three - sometimes one season in two - to recover its ability to produce healthy crops.  This meant that in any year at least one-third of farmland stood idle. In consequence, there wasn’t sufficient feed to keep large numbers of animals alive through the winter, so landowners had no choice but to slaughter most of their stock each autumn and face a long, lean period till spring.

Then English farmers discovered something that Dutch farmers had known for a long time: if turnips, clover or one or two other suitable crops were sown on the idle fields, they miraculously refreshed the soil and produced a bounty of winter fodder into the bargain. It was the infusion of nitrogen that did it, though no one would understand that for nearly two hundred years.  What was understood, and very much appreciated, was that it transformed agricultural fortunes dramatically.  Moreover, because more animals lived through the winter, they produced heaps of additional manure, and these glorious, gratis ploppings enriched the soil even further.

It is hard to exaggerate what a miracle all this seemed.  Before the eighteenth century, agriculture in Britain lurched from crisis to crisis. An academic named W. G. Hoskins calculated (in 1964) that between 1480 and 1700, one harvest in four was bad, and almost one in five was catastrophically bad. Now, thanks to the simple expedient of crop rotation, agriculture was able to settle into a continuous, more or less reliable prosperity. It was this long golden age that gave so much of the countryside the air of prosperous comeliness it enjoys still today, ...

The fall of British agriculture was all mixed up with refrigeration, which enabled the wide open spaces of the late nineteenth century world to make masses of food and to transport it to hungry urban mouths everywhere before it went bad.  Prices fell below what the farmers of Britain (where there were no wide open spaces by global standards) could match.

Thursday August 28 2014

This afternoon, The Guru is coming by to reconstruct God, so God (the other one) willing, I will be back in serious computing business by this evening.

When I was recently in Brittany, my hosts supplied me with a state-of-the-art laptop and a state-of-the-art internet connection.  These last few days, without God (my one) and having to make do with Dawkins (my obsolete and clunky little laptop, the thing I am typing into now), I have felt less connected to the world than I did in Brittany.  I am connected, after a fashion.  But Dawkins is so slow and clunky that I have been doing only essentials (like finding out about England being hammered in the ODI yesterday), and checking incoming emails, and shoving anything however bad up here once every day.  It’s like I’ve regressed to about 2000.

I have managed to put up a few pictures here, in God’s absence.  But Dawkins’ screen makes these pictures look terrible.  I am looking forward to seeing God’s version of these pictures and hope they will be greatly improved compared to what I am seeing now.

Thank God (the other one) I haven’t been depending on God (my one) for music.  As I have surely explained here many times, one big reason I prefer CDs (and separate CD players scattered around my home) to all this twenty first century computerised music on a computer is that if God goes wrong, as he just has, I don’t lose music.  I also have music concerts recorded off of the telly, onto DVDs, which I can play on my telly, which is likewise a completely separate set-up to God.

In general, the argument against having everything done by one great big master computer is that when something goes wrong with that master computer, everything else in your life also goes wrong, just when you may need those things not to.  One of the things that willgo wrong, rather regularly, with your all-in-one master computer is when this or that particular one of its excessively numerous functions becomes seriously out of date.  I mean, if it has a vacuum cleaner included, what happens if vacuum cleaners suddenly get hugely better?  In Brian world, all I have to do is get another new and improved vacuum cleaner, and chuck out the old one.  In all-in-one master computer world, you are stuck with your obsolete vacuum cleaner.  Or, if you can, you have to break open your all-in-one master computer and fit a new vacuum cleaner, and probably also lots of other new stuff to make sure the new vacuum cleaner works, which buggers up a couple of your other functions that used to work fine but which no longer work fine.  Or at all.  I prefer to keep things simple, and separate.

Something rather similar applies with how to handle (the other) God.  That is another arrangement you don’t want to have running the whole of your life for you either.  It’s okay if you do God for some of the time and keep Him in his place, but you want scientists telling you about science, doctors about medicine, and your work colleagues about your work, and so on.  If, on the other hand, absolutely everything in your life, and worse, everything in the entire world you live in, is controlled by ((your version of) the other) God, everything is very liable to go to Hell.  (Aka: Separation of Church and State.  Aks: don’t be a religious nutter.)

I have my own particular take on (the other) God, which is that He is made-up nonsense.  But just as wise believers in (the other) God don’t let that dominate their thinking on non-God things, nor do I think that my opinions about (the other) God can explain everything else as well.  These opinions merely explain the particular matter of (the other) God being made-up nonsense.

Do not, as they say, put all your eggs in one basket.

Saturday August 02 2014

Overheard in a TV advert for sweeties:

You can’t trust atoms.  They make up everything.

Talking of which, I am now reading Lee Smolin’s book about String Theory.  Basic message: It’s a cult.  I haven’t yet read him using that actual word, but that’s what he is saying.

I am, of course, not qualified to judge if Smolin is right, but you don’t have to be qualified to express a judgement, and I judge that Smolin is right.  And the way I like to learn about new stuff is by reading arguments about it, starting with the argument that says I am right about it.  Smolin is basically telling me that my ignorant prejudice that String Theory is one of the current world’s epicentres of the Higher Bollocks is right, although he is careful not to express himself as crudely as I just did, for fear of upsetting his physicist friends, and because, unlike me, he sees some merit in String Theory.

I have known that String Theory was in trouble for some time, because Big Bang Theory’s resident String Theorist, Dr Sheldon Cooper, has been having doubts about it.  He wanted to switch to something else, but they said: We hired you as a String Theorist and a String Theorist you will remain.

The above link is to a blog I had not heard of before, entitled Not Even Wrong.  Not Even Wrong is the title of another book I have recently obtained with has a go at String Theory.  I have not yet started reading this.

It’s true.  You can’t trust atoms.  And grabbing both ends of one and stretching it out into a string doesn’t change that.  It makes it worse.

Wednesday July 16 2014

From Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik (pp. 80-81):

Given that literally half of the world’s structures are made from concrete, the upkeep of concrete structures represents a huge and growing effort.  To make matters more difficult, many of these structures are in environments that we don’t want to have to revisit on a regular basis, such as the Oresund bridge connecting Sweden and Denmark, or the inner core of a nuclear power station. In these situations it would be ideal to find a way to allow concrete to look after itself, to engineer concrete to be self-healing.  Such a concrete does now exist, and although it is in its infancy it has already been shown to work.

The story of these self-healing concretes started when scientists began to investigate the types of life forms that can survive extreme conditions.  They found a type of bacterium that lives in the bottom of highly alkaline lakes formed by volcanic activity.  These lakes have pH values of 9-11, which will cause burns to human skin.  Previously it had been thought, not unreasonably, that no life could exist in these sulphurous ponds. But careful study revealed life to be much more tenacious than we thought.  Alkaliphilic bacteria were found to be able to survive in these conditions.  And it was discovered that one particular type called B. Pasteurii could excrete the mineral calcite, a constituent of concrete.  These bacteria were also found to be extremely tough and able to survive dormant, encased in rock, for decades.

Self-healing concrete has these bacteria embedded inside it along with a form of starch, which acts as food for the bacteria.  Under normal circumstances these bacteria remain dormant, encased by the calcium silicate hydrate fibrils. But if a crack forms, the bacteria are released from their bonds, and in the presence of water they wake up and start to look around for food. They find the starch that has been added to the concrete, and this allows them to grow and replicate.  In the process they excrete the mineral calcite, a form of calcium carbonate.  This calcite bonds to the concrete and starts to build up a mineral structure that spans the crack, stopping further growth of the crack and sealing it up.

It’s the sort of idea that might sound good in theory but never work in practice.  But it does work. Research now shows that cracked concrete that has been prepared in this way can recover 90 per cent of its strength thanks to these bacteria.  This self-healing concrete is now being developed for use in real engineering structures.

Maybe Miodownik is very good at explaining things, or maybe I am just ready to be learning this stuff.  Probably both.  I chose that excerpt because my average reader may not know about such things as bacteria which automatically repair concrete.  But the truth is that I am almost embarrassed by how much I am reading that is new to me, or only vaguely known, as a sort of historical rumour.

I had no idea, to take just one example, who invented/discovered stainless steel, or where, or how.  Now, I have a much better idea.  The story is told on page 29 of this book, which I heartily recommend to all technological illiterates who would like not to be technological illiterates.

Sunday June 29 2014

Every once in a while I hear or read about someone who sees sound, as colour, different sorts of sounds as different colours.  (As you can tell from the links at the bottom of this, I just did this again, on purpose.) What the hell are these people talking about?  You don’t see sound, you hear it.

But, I have learned enough of the contrasting natures and nervous systems of different people to know that claims of this sort are probably true, in the sense that this is indeed what it feels like to those making such claims, even if the claims made no sense whatever to me.  (Here is another piece by me, about how different people differ, this time with respect to the notion that you (i.e. they) can decide what you (they) believe.  To me, what you believe is what you actually do believe, and you can no more change it with a mere decision than you can decide to grow another foot.  But other people clearly can change what they believe, in just this cavalier fashion.  What they actually, deep down, think is true doesn’t seem to matter to them.  To me: bewildering and bizarre.  To them: obvious and commonplace.)

So anyway, back to those bizarre and bewildering people who see sounds, different sounds as different colours.

I now understand these people much better.

Because, yesterday morning, for a fleeting instant, it happened to me.

Immediately after it happened, I hastily bashed some notes into a computer file describing what I had just experienced, and that is the file that I am now typing further and more considered thoughts into now.

What happened was that I awoke, to the sound of my alarm clock.  This alarm clock makes a high pitched beeping noise: beep, pause, beep, pause, beep, pause ...

And, I experienced this sound as ... white.

That is correct.  I saw the sound.  And the sound was just as white as the background colour of the file into which I am now typing, or the background colour of this blog posting as you are now looking at it. 

I never experience sounds a colours when fully conscious.  But it makes perfect sense to me that experiences I may only have during the weird moment when I am neither entirely awake nor entirely asleep, but am moving from the latter state to the former state, might be experiences that others may have much more frequently, even when fully awake.  Or, fully awake by their standards.

Yesterday morning, for that fleeting, bleeping instant, some sort of weird connection was being made between my ears and the bit of brain where colours get processed and reflected upon, a place where all incoming messages are interpreted as colours no matter what they were originally, a connection that doesn’t normally occur, or perhaps which continues to occur when I am fully awake, but so weakly compared to the connections made between my ears and and the sound processing part of my brain as to be undetectable.

All I have to believe, about those strange people who see sounds as colours all the time, is that they experience what I very briefly experienced yesterday morning, but much more strongly than I did and do.  This is not now hard for me to imagine, not hard at all.

A very quick skim-read of this wikipedia article about chromesthesia (which is the particular sort of synesthesia that turns sound into colour, as opposed to just something into something else) did to tell me that chromosthesia can happen particularly when you are waking up, but that could be wrong.

However, I did spot (at the other end of the chromesthesia link above) this:

However, all studies to date have reported that synesthetes and non-synesthetes alike match high pitched sounds to lighter or brighter colors and low pitched sounds to darker tones, indicating that there may be some common mechanism that underlies the associations present in normal adult brains.

So, I am not alone in associating a high pitched bleep with a very light colour, in my case the lightest colour of the lot. 

Friday April 04 2014

A commenter on one of the climate skeptic blogs, I think at Bishop Hill, provided a link to this fascinating posting, at Coyote Blog.

The Coyote man combines three tendencies that he sees in global temperatures.  First, there is a warming process that has been going on since the Little Ice Age.  Second, there is a slight kink upwards in this graph, very slight, associated with recent CO2 increase.  Third, there is an oscillating wave, for some reason involving a couple of acronyms.  And the result is a graph that seems to fit the recent facts better than any other graph I’ve seen.  Certainly better than that idiot hockey stick.

If Coyote is right about all this, and he is in fact only semi-serious about it, then the global temperature will soon be seen to be inching downwards, until about 2030, at which point it will then turn back towards relatively rapid heating, again, along the lines of what happened from circa 1970 to circa 2000.  So, a few We Will Freeze years, followed by some more We Will Fry decades.

However, we’re talking tiny numbers here.  None of this is remotely describable as a catastrophe, even in the long run.

Coyote says he developed this stuff six years ago.  But I could find no link back to him actually saying this six years ago.  Pity.

Not for the first time, I find myself wishing that I could live another two hundred years rather than for about another twenty or probably less.  What will happen to global temperatures for the next century or so?  How will the politics of it all play out?  I’d love to live long enough to find out.  But, I won’t.

This started out as a jokey posting about climate science.  It ended up as yet another rumination on the process of getting old.  When you are young you are going to live indefinitely.  You will die, eventually.  But too long into the future for this event to be distinguishable for practical purposes from never.  Then, rather suddenly, that all changes.

I recently did another climate science posting at Samizdata.

Tuesday March 18 2014

I still can’t get used to the internet.  I never really will.  You can find all kinds of stuff out in a few seconds.  You know that, and so do I know it.  But, unlike (probably) you, I will never get truly used to this.

Last night, for instance, there was a TV show on about Fossils, fronted by this old Fossil Professor, and mention was made of – and a little sliver of film was shown of – a building (with lots of fossils in it) called the Royal Ontario Museum.  I said, that looks like that Daniel Libeskind museum in Berlin, in the saw cuts in big blocks style.  So let’s see about that Royal Ontario Museum shall we?  Sure enough, that is Libeskind also.

I had imagined that the saw cut style was specifically used only for that Berlin museum, to make you wince when you look at the building, same as you do when you find out the grizzly details of what happened to all those Berlin Jews.

However, it now seems (to me) that Libeskind just likes doing saw cuts.  Am I getting this wrong?

Maybe I could google that question also, and find out if anyone else agrees with the above.  But that’s enough answers for one posting.

Wednesday November 13 2013

… in among all the stuff that does not.

Foster’s flaccid Gherkin used to advertise erectile dysfunction treatment.  Personally, I don’t think the Gherkin looks like a penis, more like a vibrator.  Certainly not a gherkin.

And: Synthetic creature could “save nature” says Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg.  Has this woman never seen any horror movies?

Related: Will Jellyfish Take Over the World?

Monday September 16 2013

Does this photo tell us the direction the Great Climate Debate is going?  I took it in Foyles, underneath the Royal Festival Hall, London, on September 2nd:

image

I put this up to entertain you, and also so that I can send a short email to Bishop Hill about it, rather than a long and annoying one. Because I’m guessing it might interest him.

The Bishop’s (as of now) latest posting concerns an article written by some academic CAGWers (CAGW = Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming), about how they can defeat their ever more annoying and persuasive “denier” enemies?

Bishop Hill:

The answer to this conundrum is - you will never believe it - to be found in the realms of communication. Although Garud and his colleagues note that some observers think that communication is not enough, and point to such initiatives as the Climate Science Rapid Response Team (seriously!) that are already in place, they suggest that something called a ‘narrative approach’ might also be a part of the solution.

But that, as the Bishop well knows but Garud et al do not, is no solution to the problem the CAGWers have.  The “narrative approach” is their problem.  What the CAGWers have been doing is spinning a narrative and calling it science for the last quarter of a century and more, and now this narrative is unravelling, thanks to the efforts of people like Bishop Hill.  This latest plan is for them to stop pretending that they aren’t doing this.  That can’t work.

If the anti-CAGWers had relied on books like Michael Crichton’s State of Fear, which is one of the books in the above photo, to carry the main weight of their arguments, they’d have been utterly crushed.

LATER: Bishop Hill has linked to this, and there are comments there too.

Friday September 13 2013

Here.

So, could this also work for cats?

Scroll scroll:

And for all the cat lovers out there, don’t accuse Polimeno of being biased toward pooches. Finding Kitty is in the works.

A lot of the cat stuff I stick up here on Fridays is things I find by googling for “cat” news.  But this I learned about by getting regular google emails that come to me about face recognition.

Face recognition software is, I predict (as do many others I’m sure), going to have all kinds of weird unintended consequences.  This is only the start of it.

For instance, scientists: Which animals have faces that face recognition software can distinguish between, and which not?  What does those answers mean?

What about face recognition errors, joining you up with relatives or long lost twins you never knew you had?

What will face recognition do to the lookalike trade?  “How much like Brad Pitt do I look?  Face recognition couldn’t tell the difference, that’s how much!”

Will face recognition answer the question: Which celebrity do I most look like?

Any more stuff like that that anyone can think of?

Sunday September 08 2013

Regulars here know that I am an admirer of Britain’s short term weather forecasts.  Britain’s Meteorological Office also has a disgustingly politicised long term weather forecasting department, whose prophecies I despise.  But the short term forecasts are the real deal, based on real knowledge.  Pretty much always, these short term forecasts are correct.

Me being a libertarian, I regret that the Met Office is funded out of taxation rather than with voluntary payments from customers.  That it is now corrupted by the addition of that long term forecasting bit is a typical consequence of such compulsory funding, because compulsory funding has an inbuilt tendency to be grabbed hold of by people with dodgy agendas that wouldn’t pay for themselves by voluntary methods.  It is upon the prestige generated by the short term weather forecasts that the politicised long term forecasts sail forth and do all their damage.

None of which alters the fact that the Met Office’s short term forecasts are, as of now, very good, and a big part of the way I now live.

But as a fan of cricket, as well as of short term weather forecasts, I can’t help noticing that cricket people don’t admire short term weather forecasts nearly as much as I do.  I think this is because the only time when weather forecasts loom large for cricket players and cricket watchers is on rainy days, and most rainy days in England are not days of solid rain, but days with rain sometimes but not at other times, and in some places but not in other nearby places.  Now that the top cricket grounds in England mostly have clever drainage systems, cricket can be played at them pretty much whenever it is not actually raining.  But, when exactly will that be?  “Sunny intervals, scattered showers.” That’s a typical weather forecast in these islands.  But for how long, exactly, and where, exactly, will the sunny intervals be radiating their sunshine and the scattered showers be scattering their showers?

In England, the weather on a rainy day can be very local.  I live a walk away from the Oval cricket ground, which is on the other side of the Thames from me.  I have known many a nice day for me when the cricket was washed completely out at the Oval, and other days when they played, but would not have played at all had the weather been as I got it.

A day can be generally rainy, but whether any of the rain will fall, and for how long, on the particular cricket ground that the cricket world happens to be obsessing about that day is in the lap of the weather gods, and beyond the powers of the Met Office to be exact about. 

So, cricket people tend not to admire weather forecasts, or to set much store by them.

The ODI on Thursday in Leeds was a total washout.  I pretty much knew that it would be, because they were forecasting solid rain, which is actually quite rare in England.  But even then, a little local break in the clouds might have meant a shortened game.  They just had to wait and see, although by about lunchtime the game was up.  That was a day when their deep distrust of forecasts got their hopes up needlessly.  The spectators, I believe, stayed away in their thousands.

Today there is the second ODI between England and Australia in Manchester.  Here is the BBC version of the weather forecast for that right now:

A chilly but bright start to the day in many areas, but with showers affecting some western areas. Showers becoming more widespread during the morning with some of these heavy. A cool day with generally light winds.

That tells me, and has actually been telling me for several days, that today in Manchester would probably not be that good day for one of my photo-wanders.  I typically just want to know what kind of day it’s going to be, and that tells me.  If I did venture out, I’d take a brolly and a good book, make an early start, and stay close to transport so I could get home quick if it later turned really bad.  But the cricketers can’t tell from that whether they’ll get a game or not, because everything depends on exactly where the rain lands, and in what exact amounts.  That forecast could mean anything from an almost total wash-out to a great day of cricket.  I will be tuning in to see, but I don’t know what kind of game it will be, and neither does anyone else.

Saturday August 03 2013

For reasons that I may or may not explain some other time (it involved this), I found myself, exactly one week ago today, at the toppish layer of Kings College, London.

There was some hanging about waiting for events to start and for lifts to arrive, and at such times I took (grabbed) photos, mostly through windows, out at London in its various manifestations, near and far:

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Just as there is much aesthetically anarchic clutter at the tops of buildings, so too is there similar clutter around the backs of buildings, the bits where you are looking at the stage scenery, so to speak, from the other side.

As for the more orthodox view, of various Big London Things (bottom right), you may think, not much of a photo, technically speaking, and you would be right, but I like it nevertheless, in the sense that it is a technically rather average realisation of a very good shot, like so many of my photos.  Also, I had only a few seconds to take/grab it, and only one go at it, because a lift was even then opening up and demanding my presence.  I was with someone else, which always complicates the taking of photos, I find.

Note in particular the exact alignment of The Wheel with the New Tower (most recently featured here in one of these snaps (3.2)) that they are now finishing off, at Vauxhall, the one where there was all that crane drama.  See also Big Ben and that other Parliament Tower (St Stephen’s), Battersea Power Station, Westminster Abbey, and even the tower with the crazy hairdo in the previous posting.  What the green dome with the Union Jack flying on it is, I do not know.

Plus, who knew that there was a Menzies Centre for Australian Studies at Kings U?  Well, probably Menzies, and the people who study Australia in it.  But who else?

Shame it’s not Austrian, and economics.

Saturday June 01 2013

Commenter Jimmy Haigh (May 30, 3:05 PM), on this at Bishop Hill:

He’s trying to sit on the fence and eat it too.

He is talking about the revolting Tim Yeo, who either has, or has not, changed his mind about Global Warming, depending on who you read.  But either way, he continues to make lots of money out of it.

Monday May 13 2013

I greatly enjoyed the documentary about Richard Feynman shown on BBC2 TV last night, having already greatly enjoyed the docu-drama about the Feynman Challenger investigation.

Last night’s documentary contained the following particularly choice piece of dialogue:

“Why is your van covered in Feynman Diagrams?”

image“Because we’re the Feynmans.”

Good answer.

There is a picture of the Feynmans, next to their van, which I found here, where the picture is slightly bigger.

Does this van still exist, with all the Feynman Diagrams on it?  I hope so.

Saturday May 04 2013

A fortnight ago today, I went to a wedding.  The weather, just as the weather boffins had been prophesying throughout the previous week, was superb:

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Click to get a bit of context.

1.1: The weather outside my front door.

1.2: The weather at Aldermaston Station, near where the wedding was to be, when I stepped out of the train.

1.3: The weather at the venue, when I first got there.

2.1: Ditto, this time with a view from the venue.  Different view.  Same superb weather.

2.2, 2.3: More water-based picturesqueness.  2.2: A cloud!  Scary!  The little square from 2.3 is a bit lighter than the others, because the photo (click) was mostly landscape, with only a tiny bit of sky, which caused the Automatic setting on my camera to make the sky lighter.  The original version of the little square picture featured those sharp shadows, but I decided to stay abstract.

The Bride and Groom, the Groom especially (what with him being the fretter of that team) had been fretting for the last two months about what the weather would be like.  Would it be horribly cold?  No bother.  As another guest said, they chose the first day of Summer.

I have many more wedding snaps to show you, but am doing them in separate postings which each make a few particular points, rather than as a huge and totally unwieldy posting that nobody, apart from the Groom, would have read.  That way, I also get some of these postings done, as opposed to (maybe) none of them.  That itself being a point.