Archive for December, 2008

Big Numbers

December 31, 2008 Leave a comment

Over the last few days I have been discussing big numbers with a friend who is also a blogger. His original subject was how numbers involved with amounts of money are represented by the news media. Especially when it comes to contentious issues like the recent financial bail out of the banks and other institutions, millions, billions and trillions seem to just all disappear into the category of “a lot” to many people.

He has a good point. I think that many people would have trouble writing down those numbers because they might not know how many zeros are involved with each. If you are wondering, a million is 1,000,000; a billion is (usually) 1,000,000,000 and a trillion is 1,000,000,000,000. In science big numbers are usually written in an exponential form where the number of zeros is included, for example a trillion would be 1012 which is a lot more manageable for really big numbers.

For example, there are about 1088 particles in the observable universe. That’s 10 thousand trillion quadrillion quadrillion quadrillion. That’s a lot, isn’t it? But would it surprise you to know there are 1025 (10 quadrillion) particles (molecules in this case) in a glass of water? So there are 1063 cups of particles in the universe!

Small numbers can be fun too. Here’s one of my favourite examples of a small number: The first radio astronomy was done by Karl Jansky in the 1930s. Since then the total power collected by every radio telescope in the world is less than the energy of one rain drop hitting the ground. Notice that I didn’t mention any numbers, but consider that there would be millions of hours of observations from the hundreds of radio telescopes in the world in that time.

Another amazing fact which shows the size of the universe without using big numbers is this: A single photo form the Hubble Space Telescope’s Deep Field camera covers an area of the sky the size of a single dot on your screen at normal viewing distance. In that area there are 3000 galaxies! Imagine how many dots it would take to cover the sky, and how many galaxies there are in total if each dot contains 3000! And remember that galaxies typically contain 10 billion to 10 trillion stars each (OK, so I couldn’t help throwing in some big numbers there).

Another way to explain how big the universe is is to compare it to something most people are familiar with. I ask them to think about going to a beach and picking up a handful of sand and thinking about how many grains of sand there are in that handful, then how many are on the whole beach, and then on every beach on the planet. That’s a lot of sand, right? (most estimates put it at around 1022 or 10 billion trillion grains. But there are more stars in the known universe than that! (at least according to some, estimates because the two numbers are very similar).

So maybe it would be better to present money wasted on the Iraq war or on saving the financial institutions using these sorts of techniques. There are 300 million people in the USA so a trillion dollars equates to $3,300 each. Whether that’s more or less that what most people expect, I don’t know, but at least it gives an understandable figure to base their response on.

Categories: science Tags: , , , ,

What a Wonderful World

December 29, 2008 Leave a comment

If you read through my blog you will often find a thread of negativity where I often talk about how corrupt and imperfect the world is compared with the lofty ideals I might hold for it myself. As an example, see my previous blog entry “The World is so Wrong” from 2008-12-25. Sheesh, that was from Christmas Day! What sort of cynical loser would post an entry with a title like that at Christmas! For that matter, who would be blogging at Christmas anyway!

Well those comments aside I want to be positive in this entry. The world isn’t entirely a bad place. It isn’t even necessarily primarily bad, because there are a lot of good things as well, which I want to talk about here.

I think most people are basically good, although they can be a bit weak and they can be too easily influenced by charismatic leaders (both religious and political). Of course there is a lot of bad in the world: war, murder, and other random acts of violence, but its important not to let that overshadow the good.

I think there is a lot of beauty in the world. I see it in everything from the more traditional sources, such as art and music, to the more esoteric areas, such as the magnificent universe, great engineering, and maths. Yes, some maths is beautiful: for example I love Euclid’s proof that there are an infinite number of primes.

Euclid’s proof that there are an infinite number of primes (by reductio ad absurdum)…

1. Assume there are a finite number, n, of primes, the largest being p(n).
2. Consider the number that is the product of these, plus one: N = p(1)…p(n)+1.
3. By construction, N is not divisible by any of the p(i).
4. Hence it is either prime itself, or divisible by another prime greater than p(n), contradicting the assumption.
5. QED

2 x 3 x 5 x 7 x 11 + 1 = 2311, is prime
2 x 3 x 5 x 7 x 11 x 13 + 1 = 30031 = 59 x 509

Isn’t it beautiful that we can know something so fundamental about the Universe, with absolute certainty, by using such elegant logic?

So in my last blog entry I included the lyrics of a song which supported the negative ideas I was discussing there. This time I want to include the lyrics for a more positive song. Its Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”…

I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world.

I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world.

The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
They’re really saying I love you.

I hear babies crying, I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more than I’ll never know
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
Yes I think to myself what a wonderful world.

So listen to this song and still try to feel negative about things! The world is wonderful, and its important not to lose sight of that, no matter how much bad stuff we see on the news.

If you disagree try a few of these positive experiences: listen to some inspiring music (preferably classical if you know any); or study some great art; or look at some Hubble Space Telescope pictures of the Universe; or get yourself some great technology (like an iPhone); or, if all else fails, sit under a tree in a summer day (its mid summer and quite hot in the southern hemisphere now) and enjoy a good beer or a fine wine, like a New Zealand sauvignon blanc – yes, I find that alcohol often helps me concentrate on these things!

Its both a wonderful world and a terrible one. We should always remember that but don’t concentrate too much on one or the other extreme.

Note: OK, that was quite a strange blog entry and think that’s enough of that! Maybe next blog entry I’ll get back into something more negative, like ridiculing creationists!

Categories: comments Tags: , ,

The World is so Wrong

December 25, 2008 Leave a comment

Today, while watching a New Zealand music channel, I saw a couple of interesting music videos. The first was a sort of reggae versions of the old Christmas song “Little Drummer Boy” (that’s the one with all the pa-romp-pa-pom-poms in it). This was quite weird and I wondered how many joints were involved in creating the performance. I really enjoyed it though.

The second was rather more poignant. It was John Lennon’s Happy Christmas. The song was played while pictures were displayed of some of the less pleasant world events this year: scenes of war, children maimed by air attacks, land mines, and other less pleasant realities of the world for many people. Here’s the lyrics for the song (with repetitions removed)…

So this is Christmas
And what have you done
Another year over
A new one’s just begun
And so this is Christmas
I hope you have fun
The near and the dear one
The old and the young

A very Merry Christmas
And a Happy New Year
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear
And so this is Christmas
For weak and for strong
For rich and the poor ones
The world is so wrong
And so Happy Christmas
For black and for white
For yellow and red ones
Let’s stop all the fight

And so this is Christmas
And what have we done
Another year over
And a new one just begun
And so Happy Christmas
We hope you have fun
The near and the dear one
The old and the young

It was a reminder that, while in the western world we enjoy Christmas and might suffer a few problems repaying our credit cards, there are areas of the world where the inhabitants suffer genuine pain, some of which is caused or exacerbated by the extravagances of the western world.

So Christmas is a time when many people think about how the world could be made a better place, but I think everyone should watch this video and reflect on the fact that things aren’t really getting a lot better despite all of the positive thoughts.

I think the line “the world is so wrong” is a bit of an exaggeration because there is a lot of good in the world too, but it certainly could be a lot better. Maybe it should be something like: “the world is so not as good as it should be!”

Categories: society Tags: , ,

Old Computers

December 20, 2008 Leave a comment

Today I decided to clean out a bit of the extra stuff sitting around in my basement so I started looking around for anything I hadn’t used for a few years. Of course, I had a lot of old computers and monitors to get rid of and, after a while, there was about half a trailer load to dispose of.

So I threw the trailer load of junk, including the old hardware, into the “pit” (I had stripped out all the useful bits and they weren’t worth recycling) and a large loader just pushed them into the land fill. Well it didn’t push all of them because some it ran over the top of and crushed instantly! I felt really bad at the time that once excellent hardware had met such an ignoble end.

I do find new owners for as many old machines as I can but I find anything less than an iMac G3 is now almost useless. Yesterday I set up an old iMac with Mac OS 9 so that a friend’s grandchildren could play some old games while they were visiting, and I am currently working on a G4 PowerMac for another friend, plus I’m in the middle of upgrading my web server form a single processor G4 to a dual processor model. All of these machines are effectively worth nothing but they can still be used for certain purposes.

I even have an older PC laptop which I want to use for something. I was thinking of installing Linux on it because I really just can’t see myself using Windows, even on an older machine or just for experimental purposes.

One of the machines I threw out probably cost around NZ$6000 when it was new but now it has been crushed by a ten ton loader! I do keep as many old machines as I can but there are only a certain number I can find homes for and I only have a certain amount of space to store them.

You can probably tell from what I said above that I feel a bit guilty about having these fine machines euthanised but hopefully by talking about it here I’ll get over it without too many permanent psychological issues!

Categories: computers Tags: , ,

Anti-Obama Propaganda

December 19, 2008 Leave a comment

The conservatives of America must really hate Barack Obama judging by the anti-Obama propaganda that was emailed to me today. He has been named Time magazine’s Person of the Year, but you would think he was the biggest liar and greatest villain of all time by reading the far right wing material I have just received (which was sent out before he was elected, presumably in an effort to sabotage his chances in the election).

Actually, after reading the Time article more closely, I’m not sure whether this is such a great achievement. George Bush was also named Person of the Year by Time in 2004 – but that was when his approval rating was considerably better than it is now!

And who were the runners up for this (now rather doubtful) honour? Apparently Treasury Secretary Henry M Paulson, French president Nicolas Sarkozy, failed vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, and Chinese director Zhang Yimou. Wow! I’m so underwhelmed! Was there really no one in the world more deserving than that? So Obama was more deserving as person of the year than Sarah Palin? Gee, that’s tough competition, isn’t it?

So what about these rather vicious criticisms of Obama? Here’s an example: ‘My name is African Swahili’ – NOT EXACTLY, your name is Arabic and ‘Baraka’ (from which Barack came) means ‘blessed’ in that language. Hussein is also Arabic and so is Obama. Barack Hussein Obama is not half black. If elected, he would be the first Arab-American President, not the first black President. Barack Hussein Obama is 50% Caucasian from his mother’s side and 43.75% Arabic and 6.25% African Negro from his father’s side. While Barack Hussein Obama’s father was from Kenya, his father’s family was mainly Arabs. Barack Hussein Obama’s father was only 12.5% African Negro and 87.5% Arab (his father’s birth certificate even states he’s Arab, not African Negro).

I haven’t been able to absolutely confirm or refute these statements. Every reference I have found (BBC, Wikipedia, CNN) has mentioned his black ancestry and not one said anything about any Arab ancestry, but should it really matter anyway? Well, it shouldn’t but, of course, in reality it would!

Actually, I’m really surprised that someone who even potentially has an Arab connection and has a name including “Hussein” was elected president. Either this propaganda campaign didn’t achieve wide enough distribution to influence many people or most people saw through the negative propaganda. In fact, there is one further possibility: that people were worried about Obama but even more scared of a party which included Sarah Palin!

Categories: politics Tags: , , ,

Insulting a Leader

December 19, 2008 Leave a comment

Apparently, Muntadhar al-Zeidi, the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at US President George Bush, has now been injured and has been taken to hospital. He was charged with insulting a foreign leader for the “shoe attack” and that carries a maximum sentence of two years in jail. Should insulting a leader be a crime when insulting anyone else isn’t? And should throwing shoes (which missed their target) be worthy of 2 years in prison?

If a world leader, such as George Bush, wants to invade a country and kill a hundred thousand innocent civilians he should expect to be “insulted” I would have thought. If its illegal to insult someone who could possibly be accused of mass murder then what does that really tell us about the law? That its there to protect the rich and powerful perhaps?

The implication, of course, is that these injuries were inflicted on the accused by the Iraqi police while he was in custody. Maybe the Iraqis have been taking lessons on interrogation form their American friends!

To be fair, this is probably a better outcome for a person accused of this sort of crime than it would have been when Saddam Hussein was still there. I’m sure anyone who threw their shoes at him would have suffered more than a broken leg and some cracked ribs!

But that’s not really the point. One side in a conflict can’t claim the moral high ground then go and act in a similar way to the side they say they are there to eliminate. When the good guys start acting in a similar way to the bad guys it suddenly becomes difficult to say which side is which.

Categories: news Tags: , , ,

Do What’s Right

December 19, 2008 Leave a comment

Yesterday I blogged about how a special unit of the New Zealand police are spying on individuals and groups who might be seen as subversive to certain elements of society. Ironically it was during the reign of the previous, more left oriented, government that these activities began but the new government doesn’t seem to want to investigate either.

I have been asked whether I should blame the police for carrying out these activities when they have clearly come from high in the hierarchy. Is it not the police’s duty to do what they are told? Do we really want a police force which only does what it wants to instead of carrying out all the actions required by the law?

This is actually a difficult issue. If you look at either extreme you get a situation which few people would be happy with. If the police just carry out their orders without questioning them we can get into a situation where political activities can be carried out through the police. If we only expect the police to carry out operations they think they should then we get an equally bad outcome where individuals decide what they should and shouldn’t do.

So I think every individual should have some freedom in their actions no matter what the law says. Yes, if a police officer is ordered to do something but he strongly thinks its wrong then I think he should do something about it. There may not be an official mechanism where he can refuse an order but there are always unofficial paths that can be taken. He could leak the information to the news media, or to an opposition politician, for example.

So in the case of the spying on relatively peaceful organisations the police personnel involved should have seen that what they were being asked to do was not right and they should have secretly leaked it to someone to create enough embarrassment for the police leadership and any politicians involved. The activity would most probably stop after that sort of revelation!

This might sound like a recipe for anarchy, and it could easily be that if it got too out of control, but I think the option should still be taken where the individual thinks its important enough. The fact is that police management cannot be completely trusted, and I don’t mean that as an insult to them specifically because no one should be trusted 100%.

People who bypass the law and their prescribed duties to expose these situations should be admired, not punished. Following the law is not always the right answer, even for the police. I would far rather they did what was right instead of what is legal!