Watch Kate Upton Posing In Zero Gravity In A Bikini Because Science

19 February 2014

Thank you, Gizmodo.

Sports Illustrated had a wonderful idea: demonstrate how zero gravity works on muscular and fat body masses by putting Kate Upton in a bikini and taking her in a parabolic flight.

Kate Upton

Moving pictures, too. For the science, you understand.


Why Do People Fear GMOs?

15 February 2014

There’s a lot of public angst in several parts of the world about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). In one way this is surprising, because there is plenty of evidence that they’re entirely safe.

But in another way it’s not so surprising: most people don’t have the biomedical knowledge to know that other species’ DNA is making its way into plants all the time.

And, as this article from Cosmos points out, we have a psychological tendency to fear man-made risks more than natural ones. We also fear risks imposed on us more than ones we decide to subject ourselves to, which is why I think it would be fine to label GMO ingredients in a non-panicky way.

Research into human cognition and risk perception psychology has found that…the brain is only the organ with which we think we think. To be blunt: we are not as smart as we think we are…The brain is first and foremost in charge of keeping us alive and it uses everything it can to figure out whether something might pose a risk, including not only conscious reasoning but all the subconscious animal instincts we have evolved to make quick protective judgments about whether something feels scary. Many of those instincts have been identified, and several of them help explain why that angry young man in the coffee shop is so afraid of GMOs.



Games I made in a Python class: play them

16 January 2014

A few weeks ago I finished my third free online Coursera course: An Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python.

I enjoyed it a great deal. I used to do a lot of programming, but it’s been a long time. I’d never done Python before but didn’t find it a difficult language to get my head around.

It was challenging, though. They covered a lot in the video lectures in each of the 8 weeks, moving very quickly through topics. There were quizzes and programming assignments every week. The amount and depth of work for a free course was considerable.

It focused on interactive programs – that is, games you can play – which was sort of new for me. It was also my first foray into object-oriented programming, which is well-suited for games. This was a challenging change of mindset at first but by the end I really got into it.

We created all our games in an online tool so that we could submit them for peer gaming. You can play the games I created, if you like. Here are a couple of the later ones. After clicking each link you’ll get a screen with the code on it; click the Run button (the one in the upper left with the little arrow) to play the game. Note that these probably won’t work in Internet Explorer, but they should work in Chrome, Firefox, or probably Safari.

Pong. Yep, the game with the two paddles and the bouncy ball. This is made for two players. The player on the left uses the W and S keys to move their paddle up and down; the player on the right uses the Up and Down arrow keys to move theirs. Note that we didn’t implement complicated bounces off the corners of the paddles; the ball either bounces back if it hits the front of the paddle or counts as a miss. There’s a  button to let you restart the game and score.

Memory. This is a single-player game where you turn over two cards at a time by clicking on them with the mouse. If the two you pick match they stay turned over; if they don’t they flip back when you click the next card. The object is to try to match them all in as few clicks as you can. Again, there’s a restart button.

Blackjack. A simple version of the classic card game. A single player plays against a dealer. You can hit (get an additional card) or stand (let the dealer take some); the winner is the closest to 21 without busting (going over). Dealer wins ties, and hits as long as he’s showing less than 16. After a game finishes, hit the Deal button for a new game.

RiceRocks. A simple version of the classic arcade game Asteroids. This one took us two weeks. Single player, but with fancy images and sound (which the course supplied). Use the Left and Right arrow keys to rotate your ship, use the Up arrow key to thrust forward, and the Space bar to shoot. You have three lives. Sorry, no hyperspace or flying saucers. After playing you’ll need to hit the Reset button on the code screen (the back arrow, the last button) or close the browser tab to make the sound stop. Sorry.

There’s a lot of geeky enjoyment built into these games. Enjoy.




Because of black holes, we have wifi

26 November 2013

Mathematicians and physicists predicted the existence of black holes before we ever found them; perhaps unsurprising since they don’t give off any light. But eventually we figured out that they really could exist, and then we predicted that they should in fact emit radiation, and then we found that radiation and all sorts of other hints that tell us they’re actually there.

Black hole (don't be scared, it's just an artist's rendering)

Black hole (don’t be scared, it’s just an artist’s rendering)

That makes it sound easy, but it was extremely hard. Filtering out all the radiation we get from space to identify just some bits of it as coming from matter as it falls into a black hole is very tricky. Scientists used a mathematical technique called Fourier analysis which can identify different frequencies of signal from one incoming mashed-up signal. And their analysis worked in identifying stuff that was radiating as a result of black holes.

Fourier analysis can tell you that one signal contains three discrete ones

Fourier analysis can tell you that one signal contains three discrete ones

Later on some clever scientists at CSIRO in Australia were trying to solve the problem of how lots of people in the same space, or that were moving around, could have their computers all networked. Running a wire to everyone is impractical. Using a radio signal would be possible but at the relatively low powers, short ranges, and confined spaces needed they got lots of signal reflections that made the incoming signal a bit mashed-up.

But these clever folks remembered what the black hole scientists had done and used Fourier techniques to disentangle the signals they needed from that mashed-up mess. And wifi communication was born.


Engineering toys for girls

24 November 2013

Your little girl doesn’t have to grow up to be a princess. Maybe she wants to be an engineer.


Quantum physics made relatively* simple

21 November 2013


Hans Bethe was a nuclear pioneer, a contributor to the Manhattan Project, a founder of Cornell’s physics program, and a Nobel prize winner. And in 1999 – at the age of 93 and from his retirement community – he recorded three videos as an introduction to quantum physics.

Cornell now has those videos free to watch online.

*Pun intended.


Dave Hole at the Bridge Hotel

2 November 2013

I spent Halloween evening at the Bridge Hotel in Rozelle, Sydney, listening to the blues. This should come as a surprise to no one.

The Bridge is a no-frills place. It’s not sawdust-on-the-floors, but it’s not too far beyond that either. It’s a simple pub on one side and a small room with tables and a stage for music events on the other. The crowd the other night was, in the words of one of the performer, “small but select”. I and the two friends I went with would agree.

The first act was Canadian Charlie A’Court. I didn’t know until I looked him up, just before going into the room, that he’s actually a Nova Scotian like me. From Truro, in fact, so not far at all from where I grew up. Charlie’s got a powerful voice and plays a good acoustic guitar. He sounded great, and performed a good mix of blues, soft folk, and soul tunes.


The main event was Dave Hole, an Australian slide guitarist I’ve been keen to see since I heard him on an Alligator blues collection I picked up in the early ’90s. He hasn’t toured much in recent years, and this mini-tour around Oz is an acoustic one. He came on stage with a Dobro steel guitar; he was later joined by a drummer on snare and high hat, and a bass player, so not the stack of Marshalls he admitted he usually uses.

But no matter what sort of guitar he has in his hands, Dave Hole can play a slide guitar. He coaxes all those emotive slide sounds from his instrument, the wails and shouts, the glissandos of mourning.

And Dave plays from his guts. There’s no artifice about his performance. His singing isn’t polished. He makes an effort, and grimaces and gestures and shouts, but not in a put-on way. He just has the air of someone who’s self-taught, who loves the old roadhouse blues tunes, and who loves playing them.

By the end of the night it was perhaps getting to be a bit too much of the same sliding trills, over and over, for me. But then he ended with his version of “Purple Haze” and left me with a smile. Thanks Dave.


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