Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 in retrospect

2010 is gone. Another year over, a new one just begun (who said that again? :-P )Well, tomorrow :)

What happened this past year? Here are just a few things that stood out to me:


The iPad underwhelmed us.....but still went on to sell like hotcakes.

Google Buzz became a fizzle, leaving the way open for Facebook and Twitter. Twitter took off and is soaring. Facebook's Like button is everywhere now. Oauth is everywhere, and you can now sign on to a multitude of services with it, linking them to Facebook and Twitter with just a couple of clicks.


Wikileaks blew the whistle on a helicopter gunship crew taking out what appear to be unarmed civilians in Iraq. Assange is accused of rape. That quietens down until wikileaks unveil a huge amount of diplomatic cables between Washington and its embassies around the world. The rape accusations come screaming back. Not saying there's any connection, but it sure is strange timing. I don't know what to make of it all.....


Ireland's economy implodes, bank debt is transferred to the taxpayer, and Ireland is now owned, more or less, by the EU and the IMF. Unemployment is through the roof. But Brian Cowen doesn't accept that it's his fault.

Korea heats up: First a South Korean naval ship explodes mysteriously last March. Artillery exchanges in December with more and more belligerent language from both sides. Scary times.

Times Square attempted bombing: luckily the would-be bomber didn't know what he was doing.

Eyjafjallajökull gently reminded us that we're just tenants here on earth, and that nature can shake us off like fleas at any time.

Roman Polanski was arrested in Switzerland and threatened with extradition: the "intellectual" artsy crowd throw a collective hissy fit. Sorry, if you admit to committing this kind of crime, you do the time. It doesn't matter if you cure cancer, bring world peace, end poverty, make great movies, and save the earth from a giant comet all at once: justice is blind, and Roman the movie maker should be treated in exactly the same way as, for example, Mick the bricklayer. And if Mick were on the lam, he wouldn't even have had time to get off the plane before being sent back.

Catholic Church child abuse scandal explodes, Pope is sorry :/ He visits Britain in September, and Godwins himself within minutes of opening his mouth.

Simon Singh off the hook in Chiropractor Libel case and the BCA are on the back foot but English Libel reform has not yet been implemented.

Space exploration:

A new spaceflight strategy was announced by the Obama administration to mixed reviews. Return to the moon is out, asteroid mission & Mars orbit in 20 years, with humans on the ground in about 30. Constellation is cancelled, no US heavy lift capability before 2015, meaning NASA will rely on Russian goodwill to get its astronauts into space in the interim.

The WISE mission released its first images back in February:

There was a lunar eclipse during the Winter Solstice, a rare event that won't happen again until 2094. The last such occurence was almost 400 years ago.

The Martian lander Phoenix was finally declared dead in May. The Odyssey orbiter had been listening for communication from the lander for months to no avail, so the decision was taken to officially end the mission.

SDO First light images released in April.

Messenger images of Mercury released. Messenger timeline:

Cassini continues to enthrall us, in a mission that launched in 1997. Details here: and here:

LHC goes online and Twitter is briefly taken over by Science. Science was cool for a while there...a joy to behold!

STS-131 & 132 missions added further ISS components.

STS-133 Discovery kept us waiting for a week, and then decided that she didn't want to make her last flight just yet....launch on hold, tentatively scheduled for February 3 at the time of writing, but who knows! Having said that, the tweetup was incredible! I wasn't there, but followed it via twitter and justinTV\hatcam....what a blast!


Spain won the FIFA World Cup tournament, beating The Netherlands 1-0 in the final. In the meantime, the French team collapsed into a fiasco of infighting, backstabbing, and general unpleasantness that appears to be unprecedented. It was like watching a bunch of spoiled children throwing a tantrum, and management wasn't any better.

The French rugby team however, fared better. They won the 6 Nations Rugby Tournament, Ireland second. Still showing good form, they'll be a formidable presence in next year's rugby world cup in New Zealand.

The feelgood story of the year: 33 Chilean miners were rescued safe and sound after being trapped underground for 69 days following an explosion. An estimated 1 billion people watched the rescue operation live.

Notable deaths this year:

Alexander Haig, US Secretary of State under Reagan; Viktor Chernomyrdin, Russian prime minister under Boris Yeltsin; US diplomat Richard Holbrooke; Former Hussein regime official Ali "Chemical Ali" Hassan al-Majid; mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot; neutron bomb inventor Samuel Cohen; Legendary Apollo Program launchpad boss Guenter Wendt; author J. D. Salinger; singer and civil rights activist Lena Horne; Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren; Popular British comedian Norman Wisdom; Double Tour de France winner Laurent Fignon; Irvin Kershner movie director (The Empire Strikes Back); director Blake Edwards, (Pink Panther, Breakfast at Tiffany's); actors Corey Haim (The Lost Boys), Tony Curtis (Some Like It Hot), Dennis Hopper (too many to list), Gary Coleman (Different Strokes), Peter Graves (mission impossible), Simon McCorkindale (Manimal);


And on that note.....

Happy New Year!!!


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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Bit of Fun Speculation: Why A Zombie Uprising Wouldn't Be An Apocalypse

Yep. I’ve been watching AMC’s The Walking Dead. Creeps you out at all the right places, and makes you think when you’re not jumping.  I like it. 

But honestly: a zombie apocalypse?  

Biological improbabilities aside*, it's simply not plausible to me. But  it is interesting to think that we’re so screwed up as humans that we couldn’t handle a zombie uprising. Sure there are lots of them, but they are dumb (in most incarnations - for now we'll stick with the Romero-type zombie). They don't plan, hide, adapt, co-operate or even use tools. The only weapon they have is numbers. And they’re mortal. On the other hand, you can't get them to surrender or break their morale. But still, any sizeable number of humans with weapons, armoured vehicles, construction equipment and basic engineering skills should have no problem. People would die, certainly, but I don’t think civilisation would crumble if action were taken quickly**

So the dead have risen and are becoming a bit of a problem. Now what? Well, as previously mentioned, they’re pretty stupid. They don’t have a capacity to plan or reason. They can’t climb over significant barricades, and their idea of siege warfare is to stand around moaning at the obstruction. So here's what I think, and it's something we rarely see in the movies - although Max Brook did something vaguely similar in his novel "World War Z".

First secure safe areas behind high walls. Then draw the undead en masse into an ambush zone, for example, chopper in a few guys in APCs, have them step out like cheese in a mouse trap, and when the Zs come to chow down, batten down the hatches and wait for the next phase: a modern version of the chariot charge. Line up a few tank platoons, and then just run the fuckers over. Squish ‘em to mulch, then follow up with armoured infantry to take out what’s left. Lather, rinse, repeat. Same story in cities: APCs up and down the streets to take out the large numbers, then infantry sweep and clear. It’d be much simpler than clearing out, say, Hue or Fallujah. The bad guys aren’t sneaking around taking potshots at you from concealed positions. They’ll come right up to you and let you pop 'em. Piece of piss. 

Military forces the world over ambush and defeat other smart, well-armed humans on a regular basis. Hannibal killed 70,000 Romans at Cannae in a few hours with nothing more than horses, swords and bows***. Beats me why a modern, fictional military can never do anything effective against the mindless hordes of the undead. 

In Brook's story, the military eventually mothballed their hi-tech weapons & went back to basics: phalanx-type infantry units with bite proof body armor. In large engagements, soldiers fired volleys of single headshots from long range in what seems almost Napoleonic-era warfare but with accurate weapons. Once they figured that out, they took back the world. But again, it got out of hand in the first place because of human stupidity. 

So much for the apocalypse. 

And what's with the popularity of zombies? They’re biologically implausible and easily defeated (unless everyone -government, military, all the way down to Joe Soap- consistently makes the wrong decision in no brainer situations, like they do in the movies). I think it’s several things:
  • The thought that our civilization is so fragile that an enemy the Romans could have defeated could bring it down;
  • That human egos and emotions could overcome our intellect and allow sheer brute force destroy us;
  • The sheer terror of relentless, mindless ghouls coming to devour us and our families alive;
Yet zombies are fun. There's no need to feel guilty about killing them, and the movies are generally a commentary on how screwed up we humans are in letting our emotions and egos run the show instead of being rational and doing the obvious.

Personally, I’m more worried about a pandemic taking out 20-30% of us, a bad winter wiping out even more, leaving the survivors in a more or less preindustrial society. 

But having said that, I really enjoyed season 1 of The Walking Dead.

* Dead is dead. Once the heart stops, none of the body's cells get oxygen and begin to die. That includes motor neurons and muscles. So no more movement of any description. And how do their teeth stay intact? Zombies of this kind are clearly impossible. Now, the "28 days later" "I am Legend" type? Not so clear cut. They're not undead, but infected with some kind of "rage" virus. Could this happen? Who knows? :)

**A study on the mathematics of a zombie uprising: by Philip Munz, Ioan Hudea, Joe Imad and Robert J, Smith?. In Infectious Disease Modelling Research Progress, eds. J.M. Tchuenche and C. Chiyaka, Nova Science Publishers, Inc. pp. 133-150, 2009. ISBN 978-1-60741-347-9.

***The Romans seem to have panicked when they realized they were surrounded and trapped, making it easier for Hannibal's forces to wipe them out. Zombies, of course, wouldn't panic, but this would make them even more predictable. And as Sun Tsu said, if you know yourself and your enemy, you won't lose in a hundred battles. 

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Monday, December 20, 2010

The Winter Solstice - 21/12/2010 23:38 UTC

So Winter Solstice is upon us again and the usual argument is brewing. Begining, middle or end of winter? As a kid, I was taught that the winter months were November, December and January. As an astronomy buff that makes sense to me. The sun reaches its lowest annual noontime point in the sky, sometime around December 21st, before begining its climb back up again towards the summer solstice. This year's exact solstice will be on December 21, at 23:38 UTC. The noticeable effect of this is that the days begin to gradually get longer again, although this isn't obvious immediately afterwards. Traditionally, December 21st was described as midwinter, June 21st being midsummer.

Some good info here:

.....and as it happens, on this auspicious occasion, I turn 36.

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sundown out my Office window

This is not Science Fiction

Take a look at this:

Did you ever think you'd see something like this outside of a sci-fi movie? This is simply breathtaking.

No words.

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Saturday, November 6, 2010

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Thoughts on UPS Suspect Packages Yesterday

Those in the know are saying it’s the work of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Suspect packages are still being investigated in Newark, N.J., Philadelphia, Pa., and New York, N.Y., as well as East Midlands, England, and Dubai.

What’s worrisome is that (so far) only one of the suspect packages seems to have had real explosives, and it’s not yet clear that it’s even a viable device. Why is this of concern? Because coming from Yemen, a hotbed of Islamist terrorism and the origin of many recent AQ attacks (successful or otherwise),  they are obviously going to be under much more scrutiny. Any packages coming from Yemen with obviously visible wires, printer toner and white powder will noticed. In that it’s multiple targets simultaneously, that smacks of AQ. Yet there appear to have been no significant resources (personnel, explosives, detonators etc) involved. It’s almost like they wanted these packages to be found. This sounds to me like one of the following scenarios in play:

  • a “we’re still here” psychological operation;
  • a distraction to cover another operation elsewhere;
  • a probe to test reaction times and procedures.

If it’s the first then there’s nothing to be worried about, business as usual. The other two are much more sinister. They indicate a deeper, longer term plan coming to fruition.

So what can we do? Refuse to be terrorised. If we go about business as usual, then we win.

If we allow them to scare us into changing how we live then they win, even if nobody gets hurt.

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Saturday, October 2, 2010

Where Are The Real Leaders?

We’re in tough times.

In Ireland the government is about to sink several more dozen billion euros to bail out AIB, with more cuts to follow in the next budget. In France, the “coffers are empty” says the president, just before giving himself a 140% pay increase (this was just before the financial crisis, granted, but France was already in an economic funk). In both Ireland and France elected representatives have a complex system of expenses and are, in effect, fed, housed and transported by the state when on government business (& I won’t even get into abuses of these privileges).

In these tough and difficult times, leadership by example becomes de rigeur. So where are the brave souls in government taking paycuts, or giving up accomodation, food and transport allowances, even on a temporary basis?

Where are they? Where are the real leaders?

Sure, certain persons (notably heads of state & senior cabinet members) have legitimate security concerns in terms of exposure to the public, but steps can be taken. If in both France and  Ireland this were to happen, it could help to reduce the immense anger brewing in the streets. It wouldn’t solve the economic and financial crises, but it would certainly make any more cuts (if indeed there’s anything left to cut) less inflammatory. At the very least, it would show that they’re willing to “suffer” along with the rest of us.

There’s real anger simmering in both countries. Real leadership is needed to bring it off the boil or things will get REALLY bad before they can get better.

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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Sunset on Mars

Isn't that spectacular?

I first saw this on @ProfBrianCox 's "Wonders of the Solar System" and it blew me away. We see sunsets all the time on Earth, but to see one from the surface of another world is simply stunning.

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Within a few minutes of opening his mouth, the pope Godwins himself

It would appear that the horrors of the twentieth century were caused by atheism.Yes, atheism.

Not psychotic megalomaniac dictators with messianic complexes.

I won't even bother to debunk this as it's done so well elsewhere. I'm just angry, furious in fact, that this guy who's covered up paedophiles in his organisation, who is responsible for untold misery and suffering throughout the world due to his uncompromising stances on various social issues such as homosexuality, contraception and divorce, DARES to lecture nonbelievers on morality.

For shame.

(To clarify, I was raised a Catholic. Nowadays, I'm not sure how I'd classify myself given that I despise pigeonholing of any sort, but I'm probably, if we must slap on a label, a secular humanist agnostic, tending toward atheist. I have no problem with people believing in whatever they want to believe, as long as it stays out of public life.)

"let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of  society and thus to a “reductive vision of the person and his destiny”

This is horrifying. Removing gods, indeed all religious dogma from public life is one of the greatest freedoms we have in democratic societies. We've seen, and continue to see, the horrific consequences of religious extremism, but couple that with the resources of a government and we go down the path to ruin. Religion has no place in public life. None.

The Pope's equating atheism with nazism, stalinism or a decline in morality in general is just selfserving claptrap that needs to be called out for what it is: a straw man. The Church sees that some people are no longer afraid of it, people that would once have been under its thrall so it takes action by associating atheism with the worst in humanity. This pope would have us return to the medieval mindset that resulted in airliners crashing into buildings in New York. Don't think, just obey.

Enough now.

(Oh, and British taxpayers, you should ask for your money back. Twelve million quid could be put to more productive use, methinks.)

Here's the speech made in Edinburgh. Make up your own mind.

Your Majesty,

Thank you for your gracious invitation to make an official visit to the United Kingdom and for your warm words of greeting on behalf of the British people. In thanking Your Majesty, allow me to extend my own greetings to all the people of the United Kingdom and to hold out a hand of friendship to each one.

It is a great pleasure for me to start my journey by saluting the members of the Royal Family, thanking in particular His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh for his kind welcome to me at Edinburgh Airport. I express my gratitude to Your Majesty’s present and previous Governments and to all those who worked with them to make this occasion possible, including Lord Patten and former Secretary of State Murphy. I would also like to acknowledge with deep appreciation the work of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Holy See, which has contributed greatly to strengthening the friendly relations existing between the Holy See and the United Kingdom.

As I begin my visit to the United Kingdom in Scotland’s historic capital city, I greet in a special way First Minister Salmond and the representatives of the Scottish Parliament. Just like the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies, may the Scottish Parliament grow to be an expression of the fine traditions and distinct culture of the Scots and strive to serve their best interests in a spirit of solidarity and concern for the common good.

The name of Holyroodhouse, Your Majesty’s official residence in Scotland, recalls the “Holy Cross” and points to the deep Christian roots that are still present in every layer of British life. The monarchs of England and Scotland have been Christians from very early times and include outstanding saints like Edward the Confessor and Margaret of Scotland. As you know, many of them consciously exercised their sovereign duty in the light of the Gospel, and in this way shaped the nation for good at the deepest level. As a result, the Christian message has been an integral part of the language, thought and culture of the peoples of these islands for more than a thousand years. Your forefathers’ respect for truth and justice, for mercy and charity come to you from a faith that remains a mighty force for good in your kingdom, to the great benefit of Christians and non-Christians alike.

We find many examples of this force for good throughout Britain’s long history. Even in comparatively recent times, due to figures like William Wilberforce and David Livingstone, Britain intervened directly to stop the international slave trade. Inspired by faith, women like Florence Nightingale served the poor and the sick and set new standards in healthcare that were subsequently copied everywhere. John Henry Newman, whose beatification I will celebrate shortly, was one of many British Christians of his age whose goodness, eloquence and action were a credit to their countrymen and women. These, and many people like them, were inspired by a deep faith born and nurtured in these islands.

Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live. I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives. As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a “reductive vision of the person and his destiny” (Caritas in Veritate, 29).

Sixty-five years ago, Britain played an essential role in forging the post-war international consensus which favoured the establishment of the United Nations and ushered in a hitherto unknown period of peace and prosperity in Europe. In more recent years, the international community has followed closely events in Northern Ireland which have led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and the devolution of powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Your Majesty’s Government and the Government of Ireland, together with the political, religious and civil leaders of Northern Ireland, have helped give birth to a peaceful resolution of the conflict there. I encourage everyone involved to continue to walk courageously together on the path marked out for them towards a just and lasting peace.

Looking abroad, the United Kingdom remains a key figure politically and economically on the international stage. Your Government and people are the shapers of ideas that still have an impact far beyond the British Isles. This places upon them a particular duty to act wisely for the common good. Similarly, because their opinions reach such a wide audience, the British media have a graver responsibility than most and a greater opportunity to promote the peace of nations, the integral development of peoples and the spread of authentic human rights. May all Britons continue to live by the values of honesty, respect and fair-mindedness that have won them the esteem and admiration of many.

Today, the United Kingdom strives to be a modern and multicultural society. In this challenging enterprise, may it always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate. Let it not obscure the Christian foundation that underpins its freedoms; and may that patrimony, which has always served the nation well, constantly inform the example your Government and people set before the two billion members of the Commonwealth and the great family of English-speaking nations throughout the world.

May God bless Your Majesty and all the people of your realm. Thank you.

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Friday, August 27, 2010

H1N1 Vaccine issues: back in the news again in France - narcolepsy edition

Saw this in the news last night. It appears that narcolepsy is being linked to H1N1 vaccination. This set off my FUD alarm, so let's quickly look at the numbers:

  • 6 million French people were vaccinated against the swine flu virus. France's population is approximately 65 million; for convenience let's call it a 10%  vaccination rate;
  • There are approximately 500 new cases of narcolepsy reported annually in France;
  • 6 of these are being linked to the vaccination;
  • 30 million were vaccinated in Europe with 22 reported cases; 

So in summary:

~10% of the French population were vaccinnated: 

Reported new cases every year comprise 0.0008%  of the total French population;

Reported new casessuspected of links to the vaccine comprise 0.0001% of the vaccinated French population;  

reported new cases in the Europe comprise  0.00007% European vaccinated population

So what does this mean? Are the numbers of cases statistically significant? I'm no statistician, but I think given the huge populations involved and the tiny number of suspected cases, I have my doubts. At this point, as the Lepoint article below points out, a link hasn't been established. If there is one we should know about it, but given the numbers, I think it's premature to start shouting from the rooftops about this. People are already a little wary thanks to the antivax movement and the hysterical bleating last year surrounding the H1N1 vaccine.There's no need to add speculation to it.




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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Astrology - is there anything to it?

Anyone who has studied astronomy at even the most elementary level understands can see that the claims of astrology are untenable. Why? Because we know that we are only a small speck in a universe that's incomprehensibly large and old. The possibility that the stars and planets can have some special effect on our lives outside of the known laws of physics is improbable, to say the least. And even though the daily horoscope on one's favourite website or newspaper might be an amusing daily distraction, plenty of people take astrology seriously enough to spend sigificant amounts of time and money on it.

So just what is astrology? Astrology claims that the position of the sun and planets in relation to the zodiacal constellations (see below) at the time of our birth has a profound influence on our personality and destiny (for the purpose of this discussion I'm referring to "western" astrology, but the same principles apply to Chinese, Indian, Aztec and other variants). We'll take a look at the main, obvious evidence against this, and also why it's still around.

But first: a little astronomy :)

What are constellations? These are groups of stars that resemble terrestrial artifacts, mythological characters or animals. There are 88 recognized by the International Astronomical Union, details here. Some of these shapes take a little imagination to see, others are a bit more obvious. To the ancients, one group of stars looked vaguely like a lion, another a goat, and yet another a scorpion. We humans projected our bronze age world onto the stars, as did the 17th century explorers when they saw the southern hemisphere constellations for the first time. They saw ships prows, telescopes and crosses in the sky. The constellations in the sky are in fact paredolian artifacts.

But they're not fixed. Nothing in the sky is. It's just that our lives are too short to notice movements that take place over hundreds of thousands of years. In all of recorded history the skies haven't changed significantly. We don't notice that the pole star is gradually drifting away from celestial north and that in the future, various other candidates will take its place. In a few hundred thousand years, the constellations we look at will have changed beyond all recognition due to stellar migration. Those that concern us for the present discussion are the zodiacal constellations, those that are grouped on the ecliptic - the imaginary line traced by the sun's annual apparent path in the sky.

So how do the planets come in to all this? The planets move around the sun in fixed orbits. As they do, we see them move "in" and "out" of constellations in the background. This is what astrologers mean when they say, for example, that Jupiter is in Leo: the planet Jupiter, in it's journey around the sun as seen from our perspective, passes in front of the constellation Leo. Of course, Jupiter is a lot closer than any of the stars in Leo, and Leo itself is just an arbitrary collection of stars at various distances from us and each other. We know, thanks to Kepler and Newton, exactly where all the planets are are now, where they were in the past, and where they will be in the future. We also know that when a planet appears to move backwards in its orbit (in retrograde) that it's simply because the Earth's orbit is overtaking that of the planet in question. Here's a good visual explanation for how this works in the case of Mars.

By what mechanism could the planets and stars affect us at our birth? Physics tells us there are only four fundamental forces in the universe. The strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, gravity and electromagnetism. The first two can be eliminated as they concern only atomic nuclei. EM is plausible only if the baby is born outdoors, and even then the light from the planets takes a certain amount of time to get to the earth. So should that be part of the calculation? And what about gravity? Its effect is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between the two bodies (F=G (mm')/r² if you remember your high school physics classes) so the gravitational force of the baby's mother would be millions of times stronger than our closest celestial neighbour, the moon, never mind any other celestial bodies. To paraphrase Carl Sagan, the moon is more massive, but mommy is closer.

Another problem:
Due to precession of the equinoxes the sun doesn't "pass" through these constellations on the dates proposed by astrology proponents. Here are the dates that are commonly accepted as being the "sign" of a person born in that interval (when the sun's apparent movement takes it through the the zodiacal constellations), as compared to when the sun actually crosses these constellations:

Sun's actual passage through constellation
Commonly accepted Astrological solar passage through constellation
Jan 20 to Feb 16
December 23 - January 20
Feb 16 to Mar 11
January 21 - February 19
Mar 11 to Apr 18
February 20- March 20
Apr 18 to May 13
March 21 - April 20
May 13 to Jun 21
April 21 - May 21
Jun 21 to Jul 20
May 22 - June 21
Jul 20 to Aug 10
June 22 - July 22
Aug 10 to Sep 16
July 23 -August 21
Sep 16 to Oct 30
August 22 - September 23
Oct 30 to Nov 23
September 24 - October 23
Nov 23 to Nov 29
October 24 - November 22
Nov 29 to Dec 17
Dec 17 to Jan 20
November 23 - December 22

A related problem, as evidenced by the table above: The zodiacal constellations aren't spread neatly and evenly across the sky. For convenience, most astrologers use twelve virtual constellations that divide the zodiac into neat, thirty degree regions and work from this instead of using the visible night sky. For example, the sun takes more than twice as long to pass through Virgo (44 days) as it does Cancer (21 days), yet astrology counts them equally, as per column 2 above.

Looking at the table again, you'll see a thirteenth constellation that's rarely mentioned: Ophiuchus. Now why don't we see this in the daily horoscopes? How many people have you met that say "Hi I'm an Ophiuchus, what's your sign?" ? Logically there should be as many Ophiuchuses (Ophiuchi?) as Leos or Capricorns. But there aren't. There are some astrological systems that use the constellations as they appear in the sky, but are in the minority. This detail aside, however, the fundamental theory of all astrology is the same: celestial bodies influence our destiny.

One obvious test of astrology is fraternal twins (to eliminate any possible genetic factors): If astrology were valid, they should have similar lives as they were born under similar circumstances. Time and again we see that this is not the case.

So given that we have this evidence against astrology (and there's plenty more where that came from), why does it persist into the 21st century?

We can boil it down to two principle reasons:

  • A fundamental lack of critical thinking skills;
  • General scientific illiteracy\apathy and a lack of curiosity in how the world works.

Both of these are essential to understanding why astrology, like other pseudosciences, persist into our technological age. These problems can ultimately be addressed by teaching critical thinking skills at both high school and university level (using, for example The Baloney Detection Kit *), and by using creative outreach programs that engage the public at large. As regards the latter, CatherineQ recently wrote a wonderful piece on why engaging people's emotions in popularising science is essential.

In the end, we may think of astrology as a quaint, quirky holdover from the past, and so adopt a "what's the harm" attitude.

At first glance there is no real danger in letting people pursue beliefs that may cost them a little money but are otherwise harmless.Yet there is real harm here. Astrology, like homeopathy and other pseudosciences, promotes magical thinking. No evidence or thought is required. It leads us to take the word of anyone who comes along with a magic solution to any and all problems. And when magical thinking gets together with health care or politics, the results can be disastrous, much more than merely financial. Would you like your leaders making policy based in part on astrological advice?

*Taken from THE reference on critical thinking and skepticism, Carl Sagan's The Demon Haunted World . If you haven't yet read it, it's a lifechanger.

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Sunday, August 8, 2010

Mercury, glorious Mercury, by MESSENGER

Take a look at this.

This is Mercury. That little bright light you sometimes see in the sky, low on the horizon in early morning or late evening. It's a real place. And we humans sent a spacecraft, MESSENGER, out there and it sent back this picture among others.

It never ceases to amaze me that we can do this. Simply spectacular.

More info and pictures:

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Friday, July 23, 2010

Scaremongering And General Incoherent Nonsense in Video Piracy\Anti-Terrorism Billboard

Take a look at this:

Have you ever seen such tripe? It's idiotic and Orwellian all at the same time. So much is so wrong here, I don't even know where to start. But I'll try.

"A bomb won't go off here because weeks before the criminal pirating films was caught by monitoring his internet history"(sic)

Leaving aside the terrible punctuation (or lack thereof)*, this is a mishmash of flawed logic, non-sequitors, scaremongering and outright technological ignorance. The only thing missing is a kiddie porn reference and the scaremongering would be complete.

A bomb (not going off, mind you). Illegally copying films. Same person  involved in both. Ergo, illegal copying of films = terrorism, or aiding terrorism. ' basically what's being implied here is that anyone ripping or downloading films for personal use is a terrorist. And if they're not, we should monitor their internet usage anyway, just to be sure. And while we're at it, why not everyone else's, too?

Just in case, you know.

I'm willing to grant that there are people in the world who make and distribute illegal copies of films for profit, and that some of them may be involved in unsavoury activities. But really, how many of the people you know actually pay for illegal copies of films? Most people simply download, watch and delete.

And those who are in the illegal distribution-for-profit business will almost certainly know how to cover their tracks. They'll either use a copy bought legitimately and copy it offline (no internet history), or they'll download it using an anonymous proxy server or Tor-type network. It's VERY difficult to track what happens behind the anonymiser. Either way, internet monitoring is not very useful.

So what's going on here? Does increasing internet surveillance on the general public, aided and abetted by a TIPS -type operation REALLY help prevent terrorism? Or does this merely contribute to a paranoid, TERRORISED citizenry, where those encouraging this kind of a society are complicit in aiding the real terrorists by scaring the bejaysus out of the very people they're supposed to protect? 

At best this is a huge waste of time and resources. Bruce Schneier wrote about this a few years back. At worst, it's reminiscent of Stalinist Russia at its worst, with everyone watching everyone else, scared shitless they're going to be the next ones to hear a knock on the door at 4am. Over the top? Maybe. Then again, maybe not.

My guess is that the copyright protection crowd have taken advantage of the 9/11 7/7 paranoia to associate piracy to terrorism, and the security services have gleefully indulged. These days, if you can plant that association you're on to a sure thing. The security services are always happy to have more visibility over what happens on the internet, thank you very much, so everyone's a winner.

Except the public.

Thanks to @crntaylor for the picture on Twitter.


*And who wrote that awful phrase? Have they never heard of commas?


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Sunday, June 27, 2010

Solar Cycle Maximum 2013

So, the solar cycle will reach its maximum in 2013.

I'm betting that when 2012 comes and goes without the end of the world, there'll be solar maximum hysteria right on its coattails. It may even start before then, but it's coming. You saw it here first :)

That's not to say there aren't potential problems. Heightened solar activity such as increased flares and CMEs can wreak havoc on satellites and unprotected electrical grids on Earth. Steps can and should be taken to mitigate these risks. Spacecraft such as SOHO, SDO, GOES, STEREO as well as the the venerable ACE are studing the sun and the space weather environment and can give us advanced warning of increased activity. Check out the links below for more information on solar science and space weather.

New Solar Cycle Prediction (NASA)  (gotta love the "Go ahead and mark your calendar for May 2013, but use a pencil" quote!)

Nasa Heliophysics

Current space weather

Severe Space weather social and economic impacts


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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Atlantis launch as seen by the US Air Force

Fabulous image. Atlantis darts off into space seconds after her final launch as a US Air Force F-15E stands watchful over the local airspace.


The BA has more details here.  


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Life found on Titan? Well, no.

Excellent post from Chris McKay, an exobiologist studying Titan. There are intriguing things happening on Titan from an organic chemistry perspective, but we are a VERY long ways from stating that a new form of life is behind it.

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One to watch

Hypatia, as those of you who have may seen or read Carl Sagan's Cosmos, was a scientist at the Great Library of Alexandria in its last days.

The film is called Agora.



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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Cognitive Biases in song!

A list of cognitive biases in song, pretty cool:


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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Miscellaneous Tuesday: Times Square, Polanski, E15, and more....

New York failed bombing

First of all, let's be clear: no-one prevented anything. Had this been a well engineered bomb, it would have gone off, with all the carnage that implies.But luckily, the idiot perpetrator(s) screwed up the bomb: The device seems to have consisted of fireworks, propane and some fertilizer that, as configured, would have most likely burned up with maybe a couple of bangs as the propane tanks went off, but with no real damage outside the immediate vicinity of the vehicle. As it was, it fizzled. The bystanders that noticed something amiss, the police and fire department did a good job in containing the situation, and there appears to have been very little panic while it was further investigated. But, again, the media got in on the act. "How do we prevent this?" "How can this happen in a city like New York?" Preventing this kind of atrocity doesn't happen on d-day, but beforehand. A well engineered bomb would usually mean an organised cell -a bomb maker and support people -and they tend to leave traces. Telephone\internet chatter, unusual purchases of raw materials, these kinds of things may get noticed and put together can lead to a plot long before its execution. This seems to be how the London liquid explosives plot was caught before the conspirators ever got near an airport. Old fashioned police work: more here on that:

Here are the thoughts of several specialists on the Times Square incident:

Ekman, Clarke and Schneier's comments sound best to me; the others, in varying degrees, smack of catching up with the last attack and an over-reliance on technology.

Polanski extradition

Roman Polanski can, apparently, remain silent no longer - his own words:

I don't get this: the guy was being tried for a serious alleged crime, had confessed to it and he jumps bail, but because he makes movies it suddenly becomes a big deal that he's being extradited? What if he were a butcher? He'd be back in the US quicker than you could say pot roast. This makes me sick. Either the law applies to everyone equally or to no-one: there can be no half measures.

Volcano kicking up again

Irish airspace closed for 12 hours because E15 is fuming again. Operations have restarted, but they warn of a summer of uncertainty:

Guenter Wendt

Another part of space history is gone. Guenter Wendt finally, well, went.

.....and:Happy Star Wars Day: May the fourth be with you :)


More miscellania next week!

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Monday, April 26, 2010

Miscellaneous Monday! SDO, Gallipoli, boobquake and Korean War 1.5....

SDO kicks ass and takes names

The Solar Dynamics Observatory released its first images last week, aptly dubbing the event "First Light". Simply amazing. The discoveries that will be made by SDO will not only help us prevent damage by extreme solar events, but will allow us to learn more about the sun's potential impact on plans to have an indefinite human presence in space. We need to learn a lot about this before we can send humans beyond LEO for extended periods. SDO will help us do just that.....exciting times ahead!

More on SDO:

SDO image on APOD:


Anzac day
I saw a few tweets go by yesterday saying it was ANZAC day, which always brings the Gallipoli campaign to mind, for me at least. While World War I was one of the stupidest wars ever fought (some achievement, history being chock full of stupid wars) it was also the bloodiest up to that point in time. Armies with 20th century technology fought each other using 19th century tactics: massed infantry, bayonets fixed, marching headlong into machine guns was more or less the norm, resulting in carnage on an unprecedented scale. While we think of the Somme, Ypres, Verdun and Passchendale as the principal battles of WWI, the Gallipoli campaign was a continuation of the same incompetent leadership in another theatre, mainly involving the ANZACS (Australia\New Zealand Army Corps). There's a movie called Gallipoli directed by Peter Weir starring a young, pre-nutcase Mel Gibson that's not bad. One of the first songs I learned to play on the guitar is Eric Bogle's "And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda", the story of a young aussie who goes off to war and finds himself in Gallipoli....a beautiful song, even if some cynical types believe it to be the Danny Boy of Australia. If you don't know anything about the Gallipoli campaign, make it your "learn something new today" thing for today. You could do worse than start here:


Crazy Islamic cleric declares that immodestly dressed women cause the boobquake was born to test this theory.

The world is still here as of 6pm CET.

For more info:

Korean war II

Looks like it may have been a torpedo after all......tensions are rising again between the Koreas:

More MM next week!

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Monday, April 19, 2010

Miscellaneous Monday - volcanos, space exploration and more

That volcano, of course:

Nature's little reminder that we're not really in charge.....we just happen to be around during a pretty quiet period, geologically and cosmologically speaking. And yes, I mean little: look up the Yellowstone volcano if you want to see big (warning - not for the fainthearted). Far from being stewards of the planet, we're just tenants, and short term ones at that: the dinosaurs were around for 160 million years - we, in our current form, have been here less than a paltry fifty thousandish. But -sometimes- we're smart. When we put our minds to it, we can overcome almost anything (except the really big things - there's not much we can do about Yellowstone and its ilk except try to get out of the way when they come along). The big problems are overcoming political and other ideologies to work together for the betterment of everyone, not just "our" people.

Incredibly, it seems that there may be a link between some volcanic activity and global warming:

More spectacular images from Iceland:

Here's what volcanic ash does to jet engines:


On the subject of "our" people and clannishness, here's an interesting interview with Stephen Pinker discussing the evolution of morality, sociobiology and the future of humanity:


And the big story last week for every space geek:

President Obama's speech on the future of space exploration

In a nutshell:

With the end of the space shuttle era, LEO will be handed off to private enterprise while Nasa pushes out further; no manned flights to the Moon; an asteroid landing and manned Martian orbit by 2035; a new heavy lift capability will be developed, but for the next few years the US will be dependant on Russia to get astronauts to space; Orion will be revived as an ISS lifeboat is.

Gemini on steroids is a good description of this. We have to develop the technology, skills and procedures incrementally that we'll need to get to Mars. The Moon has been done, and while we still have incredible amounts to learn there, it's not an efficient staging post and not useful to pushing out further.

And as for all those asking why we're spending so much money going into space while we have all these problems here on Earth (yes, you John Cusack!) - check out how much Nasa really costs:

Yes, you read that correctly. This year it's about 0.5 % of the federal budget. That includes EVERYTHING Nasa does. Compare that to the Defense Department and Social Security. It's peanuts. The DoD spends the equivalent of Nasa's annual budget in 6 weeks in Iraq alone. If every US government department could get as much bang for their buck as Nasa, it would be a very fine state of affairs indeed.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson says it best:


STS-131 Discovery landing: Two opportunities waved off due to bad weather today, next one tomorrow morning, 7:34am ET


The Big Picture: Journeys to the ISS, some mindblowing pictures:


Simon Singh off the hook, but the battle for British Libel Reform continues

The British Chiropracter Association has withdrawn its libel suit against Simon Singh. Great news for him, and an important milestone in the battle for reforming Britain's draconian libel laws.Full coverage:


And finally David Attenborough narrates an incredible sequence: a persistence hunt in the Kalahari desert:


More MM next week!

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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Phoenix Lander is silent

Phoenix Lander is silent. Very slight shades of morosity, along the lines of Spirit being stuck, but at least no-one's referring to Phoenix as "she"!

I recently posted on our tendency to anthropomorphise machines:

More on Phoenix lander:

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