Wednesday, December 30, 2009

WISE opens its eyes!

Seems I somehow missed this earlier......but great news indeed!

Posted via web from John's posterous

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Currently Reading:

Pseudoscience & Extraordinary Claims of the Paranormal: A Critical Thinker's Toolkit  by Jonathan Smith

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Evil? No such thing.

Well, I've had with people talking about evil in the world. The metaphysical concept of evil is no longer relevant in the 21st century. There is no force of evil generating horrible events, there are only the laws of nature and human behaviour. We seem to have developed this concept of evil to explain the random, uncontrollable events around us. The death of loved ones in a natural disaster is at least comprehensible if you think some great malevolent force caused it due to your not being nice enough to your god of choice, in turn weakening his ability to protect you (or something). Nowadays, when an earthquake happens, we know it's due to plate tectonics, not a pissed-off deity smiting left, right and centre. In nature, what we call evil is simply the universe obeying the laws of physics (and yes, it's ALL physics). The universe at large doesn't care that it might inconvenience us with the odd supernova, earthquake or hurricane. It just is.

What we call evil in humans is essentially the degree of socially unacceptable immorality being displayed in a particular behaviour, whether in an individual or a group. And morality is not a universal absolute. It is a sliding scale, a function of the society observing it, and is in fact defined by the society observing it. The ancient Aztecs, a relatively sophisticated civilization, butchered thousands of people at a time to appease a bloodthirsty god. They didn't see it as evil, it was simply a necessity (as they saw it) for their society to keep functioning properly. From their point of view it would have been evil not to kill them. Today, such behavior is so far from acceptable that it is beyond unthinkable. So what's the difference? The moral values of the societies in question. Our global society today generally tends to value human life, and unnecessary death is not very well looked upon (what people do about it, of course, is another matter). Individual acts of what we term evil can run the gamut from shoplifting to sadistic, violent murder; again, the "evilness" is relative to the society passing judgment.


  • Stealing in Saudi Arabia can cost you a hand. Which is worse: theft, or mutilating someone for life? Which is evil, the former or the latter? Both? Neither? Is one more evil than the other?
  • Necessity, coercion or social pressure might make a "normal", well-adjusted person perform horrific deeds in time of crisis, for example during wartime or famine. Is this evil?
  • Someone who steals food from another to feed his starving family, knowing that he's putting another family in the same situation as the one his family is in now? Is this evil?

As human beings, we are flawed. We sometimes do terrible things to one another, but in the end we and we alone are responsible for our actions. We can explain all of history's atrocities in terms of human flaws: a combination of greed, politico-religious extremism, and charismatic sociopaths manipulating their way into positions of absolute power. We don't need to resort to some supernatural, meta-physical force of evil. That's simply a cop-out.  We are in control of our destiny. "The devil made me do it" is no longer acceptable. We can do better. We must do better.

The question is will we?

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"Holy" Catholic Church, my arse

Read this and tell me about how great the church is.....

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Blue saw me standing alone.....

So there's a Blue Moon coming up.....not literally though. It won't change colour or anything, but it's an informal term for the second full moon in the same month. The other big news is that there will also be a partial lunar eclipse, see the BA's blogentry below for more info.

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Monday, December 28, 2009

Attempted airline bombing: Security Theatre, front and centre

Dear oh dear.  So now, in addition to no liquids (unless you bought them in duty free, of course, which is another whole mess), taking your shoes off, no nail clippers, no wrapped packages, no cutlery, no glass (that soda can makes a nice little knife, though), you have to stay seated with no ipod, laptop, camera, or book for the last hour of the flight. Cue hundreds of bored, irate passengers. It seems that the bad guys will only do their bad guy thing at the end of the flight. Silly terrorists, how predictable - they must be really stumped now !

And eventually, someone's going to get stabbed with a pencil (come on, it's gotta happen sometime) and that's it, no more inflight writing materials. Someone gets angry and throws his iphone at a crewmember? No more cellphones on board. Seriously, the way this is going, within five years there'll be no more carry-on luggage, and we'll all be forced to change into jumpsuits before boarding, handcuffed to our seats from gate to gate.These reactive "security" measures are bordering on absurd.

So what to do?

Here's a radical idea: what about observing passenger behaviour before they get on the plane? Look at El-al: probably the biggest target there is for terrorists , and only one successful hijacking since 1968. Is it magic? Hi-tech wizardry? Nope: it's plain ol' police work and human observation, supported by good training. They have a layered approach to security that starts even before check-in. See here for some of their practices:

So enough with the theatrics already. Put trained observers on the ground both inside and outside the secure area. If this guy Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had undergone any kind of screening at all by competent persons, he'd have been pulled aside for further questions, and unless he's a highly skilled liar, he'd have been detected, or at least prevented from boarding.

Bruce Schneier's been saying this for years:

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Voyager still producing results.....30 years later!

Great article on the latest discovery of the venerable Voyager
mission. It blows my mind to think how far away the 2 Voyagers are
now, and that they're still productive.

Sent from my iPhone

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Force is with Wall Street today....Vader opens!

This is dead cool!!

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Censorship: coming soon to an ISP near you?

Australia and soon the EU will be enacting laws ostensibly to block access to child pornography sites, but who watches the watchers? While these are laudable goals, is this the way to do it? Implementing infrastructure that puts control of this powerful technology in the hands of the political class is foolish. And if it's available, you can be sure they'll use it, whatever their political leanings. It appears that it works by blacklisting sites. Who decides what sites are to be blacklisted and what is the process for doing it? Do we get to know what they're doing? To whom are they accountable? If Internet and surveillance infrastructure are set up in this way, then its use is at the whim of those in power. It could be an off off switch for dissenting opinion on the internet: "Oops, we don't know what happened but we'll bring it back as soon as possible". Think the great Firewall of China. Think Twitter reporting on the Iranian election protests last year, and then being brought down last week, allegedly in revenge. Those in power today might have the best of intentions, but what about those that follow in five, ten, twenty years? We need to keep an eye on this. The Internet is an enormous resource for freedom, and freedom of speech. As it stands it is difficult to censor online, at least in Western countries, but if we're not careful, bills passed quietly in the night by ignorant or malicious politicians could allow this kid of trip switch to creep up on us before we know it.



EU legislation:

Electronic Frontier Foundation:

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So just how does that 250 tonne 747 get off the ground?

And more importantly, how does it stay off the ground?

Great article on the basic principle behind fixed wing aircraft flight.

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Sign of the times - maybe this is why traditional media is in trouble?

So a guy writes a satirical article for the BMJ, a medical journal, on Santa being a fat, drunken, reckless driver and is immediately pilloried as a scroogy killjoy. Now don't get me wrong, but aren't you supposed to actually read the article in question before commenting on it? Putting aside the traditional business model for the press, I think maybe we could ascribe a part of the lingering death of the historical newspaper to reporters not actually researching before writing an article based only on a press release ( from the BMJ. Indeed, even the press release is only missing a winking smiley face to be read as tongue in cheek. Oh dear........


Story here:


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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sailing on Titan's Hydrocarbon Seas

A proposal for an unmanned mission to Saturn's moon Titan will apparently be submitted to NASA soon for funding. In summary, it will be a type of "boat" that will explore the hydrocarbon sea in Titan's northern hemisphere.

More here:

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A classic Onion story - God Angrily Clarifies 'Don't Kill' Rule

If god existed, why doesn't (s)he or it just do this already and shut up the hypocrites of all stripes ?!

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Video: The Asteroid That Will Almost Hit Earth | Wired Science

Cool simulation of Apophis, the one that probably won't hit us in 2029, although we're not sure about the keyhole.....I'll let you google that if you're interested ;-P

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Guess what - Copenhagen doesn't achieve much of anything, really.....

Basically it comes down to this:

"Well, here are some guidelines, if you feel like following pressure, really...."


What to do? Should we spend our resources on preparing for and adapting to the inevitable changes to come? Or should we spend that money on trying to prevent the inevitable or at least limit the damage? Can we do both? Is it even inevitable, can we stop it before it's too late? My tuppence worth:

  1. Develop alternative, sustainable techologies to generate energy.  Using energy efficient appliances and turning off your lights  won't help if the electric company still produces the same amount of electricity anyway. It's a business like any other, and they'll always find users for the excess power generated. We need to find smarter ways of producing electricity. We really ought to invest more heavily in nuclear fusion research to solve our energy problems. No radioactive waste, and an almost infinite fuel supply. Windfarms, solar energy, using waves in the sea are just some of the other ways we can move forward but storage is still a problem. Is anyone working on safe, reliable, efficient batteries that can store huge amounts of energy long term? If not, why not?
  2. We need to beware of the false dichotomy of "it's either the green extremist way or big business way" with nothing in between. There is a middle ground between heavy industry and its supporters on the one hand saying that humanity have nothing to do with any warming that might be happening, and the shrill eco-catastrophists predicting the extinction of every living thing on the planet if we don't all go back to the middle ages. Wherever there are extremists, the truth is usually found somewhere in the middle. 
  3. Prepare for the worst case scenario. While a system as complex as the global climate is not easily modelled, and projecting into the future is even more difficult, there are some things that we can say with reasonable certainty. We should be thinking about how to handle things like rising sea levels and potential changes in the way heat is distributed around the world via sea-borne and airborne currents.



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Wii Fit may not help families get fit

Wii Fit May Not Help Families Get Fit

That's a big surprise. Anytime it looks like any easy fix concerning weightloss, it probably is!

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Friday, December 18, 2009

Science-Art overlap

As Leonardo said, "see the art of science, and the science of art"
Both are essential in any endeavour. Great visual, I wouldn't be fully on-board with everything said in the article, but in essence I'm there!

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The known universe

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Dark Matter: Encouraging results, but no smoking gun

Some possible events that might be dark matter interactions, but not statistically significant enough to warrant a definite yes. See the link below for a pdf summary from CDMS.

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Twitter Offline, Apparently Due to Compromised DNS records

A group calling itself the Iranian Cyber Army has apparently taken Twitter offline. At the moment it's not clear what happened, but Twitter says it's a DNS attack. From what's been reported so far, Twitter's DNS provider ( may have been compromised, but seems only to affect twitter for now. It sounds like the perpetrators pointed the name to a non-existent IP address. As of now, twitter is still inaccessible (I'm in France).

DNS is the service that associates the name of a computer on the Internet to an IP address so that we humans don't have to remember a long string of numbers to access a website, just its name.

For more information:

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Dark Matter: Encouraging results, but no smoking gun ((tags: dark matter, cosmology, physics, science, astrophysics)

Some possible events that might be dark matter interactions, but not statistically significant enough to warrant a definite yes. See the link below for a pdf summary from CDMS.

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

The mind boggles - this one you have to see

Homeopathic idiocy at its finest. There are links to the video in the comments, but the attempt at scientific justification is more than pathetic.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009



From 20 degrees above the ring plane, Cassini's wide angle camera shot 75 exposures in succession for this mosaic showing Saturn, its rings, and a few of its moons a day and a half after exact Saturn equinox, when the sun's disk was exactly overhead at the planet's equator. The images were taken on Aug. 12, 2009, at a distance of approximately 847,000 km (526,000 mi) from Saturn. (NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute) 


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Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter sheds new light on the Moon


From Science Daily:

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

When all else fails.....

Excellent low tech solution:

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Dark matter news, maybe......


Something is happening, it seems, but no-one can tell for techniques, or a major announcement? as Ted Bunn says, all eyes will be on ArXiv when the article is supposed to appear!


Ted Bunn's blog entry on the subject:

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Our sun in about 5 billion years

Our sun will go through this in about 5 billion years, we get a preview from Chi Cygni, a sun-like star about 550 light-years from Earth on its deathbed. Check out the link below for some really cool info on this.

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Gatecrash a survey for a proposed creationist "museum"!

RT@NewHumanist @pzmyers # Peoria #creationist museum. Here's my tuppence worth in the comment field at the end:

You're saying that god created the world in 7 days? So how long did it take him to create the rest of the universe? Assuming the solar system was created with earth: 400 billion stars in our galaxy give or take a few; that's 2800 billion days for the solar system, over 7.6 billion years for our galaxy alone; in the Hubble deep field picture (google it) there are thousands of galaxies, in a tiny patch of sky; there's not enough time for the observed universe to have been created in this fashion.

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Apollo 12 landing site pictures from LRO

More pictures from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, this time of the Apollo 12 landing site!

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Hubble does it again

Orion nebula protoplanetary disks, future solar systems forming around new stars! As usual, Hubble delivers amazingly beautiful images.

More info here:

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WISE mission launches from Vandenberg AFB on time via Delta II rocket

The WISE (Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer) mission lifted off today from Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg AFB, California. It will study dark Near Earth Objects, nearby stars too cool to be seen in visible light and far-off galaxies. It will take images every 8-seconds and create a database of the entire sky as seen in infrared.

For more information:

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Attention grabbing hysterical headline "What if the Internet breaks?"

Hmmm.....looks like desperate attention grabbing to me.
There's so much redundancy that any disruption would likely last no more than a couple of days. Onsite spares, backups, offsite replication to disaster recovery would take a huge, concerted, international effort to bring the internet down. If the entire internet were unavailable for any reason, then we'd have more important things to worry about, like immediate survival, because IMHO an event of that magnitude would be a global disaster like we've never seen. Think nuclear war, pandemic, enormous asteroid strike, supervolcano eruption, zombie apocalypse or your end-of-world scenario of choice. Here's the article for info:

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APOD: Neptune, and its moon Triton, in crescent

This is so freakin' amazing.......over 30 times as far from the sun as Earth is, and we have pictures of this quality.....and this was 20 years ago!!

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IT techies: a rant, and possible solution an idea from the latest Dilbert cartoon

For the non-techies:
<rant> People sometimes come to the IT department and ask if you can fix this or help with that, y'know, personal stuff on work time?
In fact, because we've managed to work out how to exist outside of normal space-time, we can do an infinite number of things per day, and no-one will be the wiser. And we also know everything about every piece of downloadable crapware on that intertubewebby-thing because (since we're able to stop time, an' all) we're able to scan the entire interweb, twice, on a weekly basis. People seem to think our time isn't as valuable as anyone else's. </rant>

Well, check out the solution that Wally comes up with:

An economist would certainly see this as an example of an efficient solution. Trading time for knowledge at a cost.

Or is it holding knowledge hostage for a ransom?

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Tom Lehrer - Doin' the Vatican Rag

Tom Lehrer:
They don't make 'em like this anymore.

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VISTA telescope releases first images

VISTA telescope releases first images

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Friday, December 11, 2009

Funky spirals in the sky in Norway - update

Turns out it was a failed Russian SLBM test. Looked cool, though, as failures go.

Science reporting: what to believe, what to take with a grain of salt.

Excellent informational leaflet on the peer-review process and its function in science.

"I don't know what to believe...."

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Twinkle, twinkle little star........

....... how I wonder what you are.

That little line of verse summarises most of humanity's history in looking at the night sky. Just what are those little lights up there, anyway? Many theories were put forward, from holes in a cosmic animal skin covering the night sky allowing pinholes of daylight to peek through, to campfires of other peoples far, far away. Little wandering "stars" that appeared to change position regularly (planets, from the ancient Greek word for "moving") added to the confusion, as did stars that suddenly flared up and blazed brightly for a few days or weeks, and then fade out again. With mysteries of this kind, is it any wonder our ancestors tried to associate such appearances and behaviours with events on earth? Careful observation shows that the same patterns occur again and again every year at around about the same time. Why not see what happens each time, for example, the planet Mars is passing through the constellation Gemini? And thus was born the pseudoscience of astrology. It was comforting to know that we were linked with the sky, that we could have a semblance of control in an otherwise chaotic world.

But today, we know what the stars are. We know that constellations are temporary and that the planets and stars have no bearing on our lives, aside from inspiring us with awe at their beauty every time we look up.

So, what are the stars? Let me answer with another question. What is the closest star to Earth? (Hint: If you don't know, it's closer than you might think.) That's right. The sun. Our sun is a star. That implies that all stars are suns, however, not necessarily like ours.

All stars are suns.

Think about that for a moment. Every little star twinkling up there on a clear moonless night is a sun. Some are bigger, smaller, brighter and dimmer, than our sun, but are essentially similar. And now imagine that what we see is only the tiniest fraction of what's out there. It's estimated that there are up to 400 billion stars in our galaxy alone, and there are billions of galaxies. Isn't that amazing? How enormous is even just our galaxy?

Ok, so all stars are suns, but what are they exactly?

Essentially, they're big balls of plasma, no more, no less. And they have a life cycle, just like people do, but over a much vaster timescale. A star is born when enough hydrogen gas accumulates to ignite, a process called nuclear fusion. This is caused when the mass of hydrogen accumulation reaches a point where its gravity causes the internal pressure to fuse hydrogen atoms together to form helium nuclei, releasing huge amounts of energy in the process. This is what causes our sun, and all other stars, to shine. So the balancing act that is a star's life is between gravity, which makes it want to contract, and heat and outward pressure which make it want to expand. A successful star is one where these two forces are more or less equalised. And so it goes for millions of years in what we call the star's main sequence.

Eventually, though, the supply of hydrogen begins to run out and what happens then depends on the star's mass. It may begin to convert helium to carbon, or if it isn't massive enough, fusion reactions stop and the expansion pressure is enough to overcome the gravitational force and the star expands into a bloated red giant. Eventually it sheds it's outer region to leave a planetary nebula and a white dwarf star if it's between 0.08 and 5 times the suns mass, but over 5 it will explode in to one of the most violent events in the universe: a supernova.

When the helium is used up, the carbon gets fused into oxygen, magnesium, silicon and on until we hit iron. But wait, what's happening here? We know these substances from the periodic table of the elements. The star is building them, it's an element factory! That's right. Everything around you is built of star debris. But how did the iron on earth get here from the star's insides? Due to one of the most violent events in the universe, one that happens when the star starts to try "burning" iron. Iron removes most of the energy from the star, and gravity finally gets the upper hand. The iron core collapses in on itself, and the effect of this is like pulling the rug out from under the upper layers: they fall on the iron core and bounce back out, causing the star to explode in a supernova. Some are so bright, they can be seen in broad daylight for days, weeks or months before fading away again. All that remains is a neutron star formed by the supernova blast.

But, if the star is even bigger, more than 20 times the mass of our sun, it may end up as one of the most mysterious objects in the universe: a black hole.

But that's another story.

Twinkle twinkle little star, now I know just what you are..........

3D Fractal art

This is really cool.

3D Fractal Art

Hexagon on Saturn, thirty years on

I love that we can do this stuff!

30 years ago, the Voyager spacecraft spotted this for the first time. Now as spring begins again on Saturn (one saturnian year being approximately thirty earth years), the Cassini spacecraft has a chance to look again, and the hexagon is still there. No-one's quite sure what causes it, but I'll be very interested to hear the theories. More info below:

Saturn's Hexagon

Closing in on the Higgs Boson.

The Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory has made new discoveries that may help in discovering the Higgs Boson. See below for more details:

Hunt for Higgs

Norwegian light show

Wow. Very strange goings-on in Norway. It's begining to sound like a missile test that went awry, although the likely testers are keeping shtum for now. Very cool picture, though. BA's take on it below.

The Bad Astronomer on the Norwegian light show

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Forget the last post

Looks like it's going nowhere, for now. The blogosphere's rumourmill gota lot of people jumping the gun.....apparently no dark matter just yet.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Rumours that first dark matter particle found

Whoah. Let's see where this goes.

Rumours that first dark matter particle found - Short Sharp Science - New Scientist

Hubble's deepest view of Universe unveils never-before-seen galaxies

Looking farther out in the universe to galaxies that were formed a mere 600-900 million years after the Big Bang, the oldest we've yet seen. These images were taken in the near-infrared wavelength by the new WFC3/infrared camera installed on Hubble by STS-125 astronauts Feustel and Grunsfeld on May 1th last. More information:

Hubble's deepest view of Universe unveils never-before-seen galaxies

Concerning LHC's bird-bread power cut

It seems that it's not so sure that the bread-bird hypothesis is valid any more....another urban legend observed in the wild? Decide for yourself:

The truth about Birds and Baguettes

Monday, December 7, 2009

Long term large scale study shows no evidence linking cell phone usage to brain tumours

A thirty year study of over 16 million people shows no significant increase in brain tumours since cell phone usage exploded in the mid-nineties.

No tumour link to mobile phones, says study

Hubble Deep Field - not new, but still awesome

Imagine how much of the sky a tennis ball would blot out if it were positioned one hundred metres above your head. That's roughly the area photographed in the image below. It was taken over ten days in December 1995 by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Each of those blurs, dots and smears are galaxies. Not stars. Galaxies. In that tiny patch of sky, which could be hidden behind a grain of salt held at arms length, you'd be hard put to count them all easily. The number of galaxies in the universe must be unfathomable.

And that's a humbling thought.

The World Wide Web project

The first Web page ever published!

The World Wide Web project

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Galileoscope has arrived!

#galileoscope arrived today! Relatively easy setup, looking forward to
trying it out....

Sent from my iPhone

LHC researchers publish first results....but no paradigm changing news just yet

First published results from LHC, but don't get too excited: The Higg's boson is a ways off yet.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Oh, she's a Taurus then......aargh!!!

This happens too often in a 21st century western country. Someone asks when my daughter was born, and the response is "oh, a little Taurus!".

Fer. Cryin. Out. Loud.

We've mapped the heavens, we know the planets and stars are not gods and that constellations are ephemeral, yet most people not only know their own sign, but everyone else's too! When I answer I don't know (I know it now, but saying no is my polite way of saying it's all bunk) I sometimes get an incredulous "you don't know her sign?!" as if it were akin to not knowing her name. I now tell people who ask that I'm an Ophiuchus, just to prove a point. Most people with opinions on astrology seem to have never heard of it. In truth, depending on who you talk to, I'm either a sagittarius or a capricorn. Go figure.

Friday, December 4, 2009

How the H1N1 vaccine is made

How are flu vaccines manufactured? Here's how:

NY state senate votes against equality | Bad Astronomy | Discover Magazine

NY state senate shoots down equal rights for gay couples....WTF, NY?

Great comment by Phil Plait. In particular, listen to NY State Senator Diane Savino's speech embedded in Phil's post.

NY state senate votes against equality

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Male and female shopping strategies show evolution at work in the mall

Very interesting, though I suspect some men just might try to use this to get out of that shopping trip. "Honey, I'm just not genetically programmed for this..."

Male and female shopping strategies show evolution at work in the mall

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Computer Laboratory – Technical reports: UCAM-CL-TR-754

A great study on the psychology of being conned, blagged, swindled and scammed and how to avoid it. It was done as a part of a study to investigate the weak link of any security system, the human element. Fascinating reading, and also quite entertaining!

Computer Laboratory – Technical reports: UCAM-CL-TR-754

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Life on Mars! (maybe)

Very cautious analysis of those meteorites that started the hoopla a few years back. Let's see how it progresses.

Life on Mars?! � The Martian Chronicles

LHC update: it’s now all-powerful | Bad Astronomy | Discover Magazine

Ooh! Ooh! More LHC! Grace à the Bad Astronomer!

LHC update: it’s now all-powerful | Bad Astronomy | Discover Magazine

APOD: 2009 November 30 - Bright Sun and Crescent Earth from the Space Station

APOD: 2009 November 30 - Bright Sun and Crescent Earth from the Space Station

Straight out of science, wait, this is science fact! It's so cool that we can actually do this!

H1H1 Vaccine: Inform yourself

I really don't get the fear-mongering surrounding the H1N1 vaccine. It's the same technology and manufacturing process (for both the adjuvant and non-adjuvant versions) as the regular flu except that the viral "definition" (to use an IT term) has changed. No-one seems to object to the regular flu vaccine, so what's the problem? Even some doctors here in France are expressing concern that it hasn't been sufficiently tested. What, 60 years of vaccinations isn't sufficient testing? Sheesh....

Some further information:
WHO, FDA, European Medicines Agency have approved the Novartis and Glaxo Kline Smith vaccines, with 65+ million vaccinations in 16 countries, no issues reported.

Monday, November 30, 2009

LHC breaks records

The LHC has become the most energetic collider yet.