Thursday, 16 December 2010

Greece in turmoil

A bill introducing reforms in the public and private sectors was due to be passed through Parliament late last night, just hours after Prime Minister George Papandreou’s meetings with opposition party leaders highlighted the lack of consensus on the changes being undertaken by the government.

Papandreou’s efforts to build consensus between party leaders proved largely unsuccessful. All three of the leaders he met – Aleka Papariga of the Communist Party, Giorgos Karatzeferis of Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) and Antonis Samaras of New Democracy – said they found little or no common ground with the government. “There was no consensus on anything,” said Papariga. “We think that the real battle will start now because the workers will realize that there is no point in negotiating over how much they are going to lose.”

Samaras said ND would continue to support any “common sense” measures, underlining that the conservatives had voted for 33 of the government’s bills. But he added that “consensus is complicity.” Samaras said he was opposed to the bypassing of collective contracts as that would lead to “medieval working conditions.”

The announcement of the new measures affecting working conditions sparked violent riots in Athens.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Grow and prosper with Arsenic?

New Rochelle, NY, December 7, 2010—NASA-funded research has uncovered a new life form on Earth, a microorganism that can not only survive but can thrive and reproduce by metabolizing arsenic, a chemical that is highly toxic for most other earthly organisms. This finding will revolutionize the field of astrobiology—the study of the origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe.

The new form of life, discovered in Mono Lake in California, a harsh environment with high salt, pH, and arsenic levels, represents a new strain of a common family of bacteria. It is able to substitute arsenic for phosphorus, one of the six basic building blocks of all forms of life on Earth. The microbe utilizes arsenic in place of phosphorus to build critical cell components, including its DNA, proteins, cell membranes, and energy-producing machinery.

“The discovery of a bacterium capable of substituting arsenate for phosphate in essential biomolecules impacts astrobiology in a number of ways,” says Sherry L. Cady, Professor in the Department of Geology at Portland State University. “It is quite astonishing to learn that this life form has the capacity to function in a way no other known life form can. The directed search for this biochemistry, revealed by routine methods, was essential to this find and an important lesson. Astrobiology search strategies for environments that harbor microbes with such biochemistries now increase in a way few have predicted.

However, one external researcher expressed “lingering concerns that the arsenic is simply concentrated in the bacterial cell’s extensive vacuoles and not incorporated into its biochemistry, and another said that the claim of bacteria subbing arsenic for phosphorous “is, in my opinion, not established by this work.”

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Feynman on Honours

Friday, 3 December 2010

R. Dawkins answers e-mail questions

Here Dawkins answers a number of questions from users. The bit towards the end of the clip, when he reads his hate-mail, is refreshingly amusing. And we learn he's a MAC user..

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Pale Blue Dot

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Cyclopean (part 3 - the myth of the Cyclops revisited)

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Cyclopean (part 2)

Friday, 23 July 2010

Cyclopean (part 1 - prelude)

Cyclopean (Introduction)

For some time now I have been entertaining the though that it would be an interesting challenge to attempt to translate into English certain passages from the books of the late Prof. Dimitris Liantinis. His writing style, marrying lyrical didactical prose with untranslated passages from English, German, Italian, Spanish, Ancient Greek and Latin works as well as frequent references to traditional Greek demotic poetry guarantee the daunting nature of this task.

Liantinis' was a passionate speaker and in his writings he cares nothing for political correctness. His works are highly critical, primarily focused on the Hellenic society, and have extremely high expectations from the reader. They were not written for a mass market but for a tiny minority. These are often satirical, spirited, blatantly honest works and they traverse the existential spectrum from the Apollonian to the Dionysian end, creating a  treasure chest in which he collects, pebble by pebble, his world view. His ecstasy in the face of (natural) beauty is ostensibly contagious while in his darker moments he reaches for the solace of lyrical melodic writing, not so much in order to eschew the mists, but in order to sail smoothly along these dark waters and befriend the soul with the inevitable in life. In that, his clarity of mind is of a Socratic nature.

The passage that I will start working on is "Η ΚΥΚΛΩΠΕΙΑ" (Cyclopean) from the book ΓΚΕΜΜΑ (Gemma) and it will be posted here in parts over the next few days, weeks, months, however long it takes. I intend to take a lot of liberty with the translation in my attempt to convey the essence and style of the passage to a non-greek reader instead of attempting a - virtually impossible - literal translation. It deals with the meaning of the encounter between Odysseus/Ulysses and the Cyclops Polyphemus.

The translation has been removed after the request of the copyright owner.

On the Low

Hope Sandoval singing On the Low from Bavarian Fruit Bread

Monday, 19 July 2010

Death Melon

In a galaxy far far away ...

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

The microwave sky

This image show below is a map of the whole sky as seen by the space mission Planck. This mission was launched in 2009 and is part of ESA's Cosmic Vision Programme. It is designed to image the anisotropies of the Cosmic Background Radiation (the "afterglow" of the Big Bang) over the whole sky with unprecedented accuracy.

The bright line bisecting the picture is the contribution from our own galaxy, viewed edge-on. The intense light comes from the radiation released by the interstellar dust and gas clouds.
Planck will test theories of the evolution of the universe and the origin of cosmic structure as well as provide insights into the nature of dark matter.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Kids and Digital Media

The prophets of doom are at it again with renewed fervour.

"PHANTOMS" who trawl the internet are the greatest threat to our children, says best-selling author Jilliane Hoffman.

Every so often we encounter horror stories about the corrupting influence these uncontrollable new Digital Media have on today's innocent youth. Fear mongering at it's most exquisite.
Everything Bad is Good for You approaches the taboos associated with the transition to the digital age from a humorous, refreshingly honest, if slightly biased (the author is a devout gamer), perspective but it is  also instructive to have a look at the summary of findings from the Digital Youth project.

"Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media: An Ethnographic Investigation of Innovative Knowledge Cultures" is a three-year collaborative project funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Carried out by researchers at the University of Southern California and University of California, Berkeley, the digital youth project explores how kids use digital media in their everyday lives
 In their summary they state:

The digital world is creating new opportunities for
youth to grapple with social norms, explore interests,
develop technical skills, and experiment with new forms
of self-expression. These activities have captured teens’
attention because they provide avenues for extending
social worlds, self-directed learning, and independence.
Specifically, they stress:

Most youth use online networks to extend the friendships that they navigate in the familiar contexts of school ...  youth also use the online world to explore interests and find information that goes beyond what they have access to at school or in their local community ... youth may find new peers outside the boundaries of their local community. They can also
find opportunities to publicize and distribute their work to online audiences, and to gain new forms of visibility and reputation. By exploring new interests, tinkering, and “messing around” with new forms of media, they acquire various forms of technical and media literacy.

New media allow for a degree of freedom and autonomy for youth that is less apparent in a classroom setting. Youth respect one another’s authority online, and they are often more motivated to learn from peers than from adults. Their efforts are also largely self-directed,exploration, in contrast to classroom learning that is oriented by set, predefined goals.

Youths’ participation in this networked world suggests new ways of thinking about the role of education.
Why all the doom and gloom?

Thursday, 24 June 2010

The three virtues

Introduction to Citizen Ethics in a Time of Crisis by Philip Pullman.

At first sight, of course, vice is more attractive. She is sexier, she promises to be better company than her plain sister virtue. Every novelist, and every reader too, has more fun with the villains than with the good guys. Goodness is staunch and patient, but wickedness is vivid and dynamic; we admire the first, but we thrill to the second.
Nevertheless, I want to say a word in praise of virtue: the quality or qualities that enable a nation and its citizens to live well, by which I mean morally well.
And to see what virtue looks like, we need to look not to lists of laws and commandments, but to literature. Was a lesson on the importance of kindness ever delivered more devastatingly, or learned more securely, than Mr Knightley's reproof of Emma in the novel that bears her name? Was the value of play in childhood (a profoundly ethical matter) ever more memorably conveyed than by Dickens's description of the Smallweed children in Bleak House?
The house of Smallweed … has strengthened itself in its practical character, has discarded all amusements, discountenanced all story-books, fairy tales, fictions and fables, and banished all levities altogether. Hence the gratifying fact, that it has had no child born to it, and that the complete little men and women whom it has produced, have been observed to bear a likeness to old monkeys with something depressing on their minds.
The lesson of every story in which the good is illustrated is, as Jesus said after telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, "Go, and do thou likewise." The genius of Jesus – and Jane Austen, and Dickens, and every other storyteller whose tales are as memorable – gives us no excuse to say we don't know what the good looks like.
When it comes to public virtue, William Blake's great poem Auguries of Innocence reminds us in forthright and indeed prophetic terms that the personal and the political are one:
A dog starv'd at his Master's Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State.
A Horse misus'd upon the Road
Calls to Heaven for Human blood ...
The wanton Boy that kills the Fly
Shall feel the Spider's enmity
And, in a couplet the Blair government should have remembered before licensing the creation of super-casinos:
The Whore & Gambler, by the State
Licens'd, build that Nation's Fate
In fact, ethical guidance is something we have never actually been short of. Those who insist that all ethical teaching must be religious in origin are talking nonsense. Some of it is: much of it isn't.

But when it comes to public or political virtues, are there any in particular that ought to characterise a virtuous state? I can think of three that would make a good start.
The first is courage. Courage is foundational: it's what we need so as to be able to act kindly even when we're afraid, in order to exercise good and steady judgment even in the midst of confusion and panic, in order to deal with long-term necessity even when short-term expediency would be easier. A courageous nation would not be afraid of its own newspapers, or toady to their proprietors; it would continue to do what was right even when loud voices were urging it to do wrong. It would stand up to economic interests when others were more important, and yes, there are interests that are more important than short-term economic benefits. And when it came to the threat of external danger, a courageous nation would take a clear look at the danger and take realistic steps to avert it. It would not take up a machine-gun to defend itself against a wasp.

The second virtue I want to praise is modesty. Modesty in a nation consists among other things of fitting the form to the meaning, and not mistaking style for substance. A modest kingdom, for instance, would have to think for a moment to remember whether or not it was a republic, because the members of the royal family would be allowed to spend most of their time in useful and interesting careers as well as being royal, and their love affairs would remain their own business; and people would always be glad to see them cycling past. Acquiring modesty in our public life would be a big step towards developing a realistic sense of our size and position in the world.

The third virtue I'd like to see in a nation (all right: in our nation, now) is intellectual curiosity. Wakefulness of mind might be another term for it. A nation with that quality would be conscious of itself and of its history, and of every thread that made up the tapestry of its culture. It would believe that the highest knowledge of itself had been expressed by its artists, its writers and poets, and it would teach its children how to know and how to love their work, believing that this activity would give them, the children, an important part to play in the self-knowledge and memory of the nation. A nation where this virtue was strong would be active and enquiring of mind, quick to perceive and compare and consider. Such a nation would know at once when a government tried to interfere with its freedoms. It would remember how all those freedoms had been gained, because each one would have a story attached to it, and an attack on any of them would feel like a personal affront. That's the value of wakefulness.

To finish I want to say something briefly about how virtue manifests itself in daily life, local life. I saw two little things recently that give me hope that the spirit of common, public, civic virtue is still alive in this nation of ours when people are free to act without interference.
The first is an example of "folk traffic-calming". People living in a residential road in Oxford, home to a lot of families and children, a road which normally functions as a rat-run for cars, recently decided to take matters into their own hands and demonstrate that the street is a place for everyone, not just for people in large heavy mobile steel objects. They set up a living room right in the road, with a sofa, a carpet, a coffee table, and held a tea-party. They parked their own cars in a chevron formation all the way along the road and put planters containing bushes and small trees there too to calm the traffic down. They set up a walk-in petrol addiction clinic. The result was that cars could easily get through, but drivers couldn't see clear from one end of the road to the other and didn't feel it was just for driving along at 30 miles an hour. Everyone shared the whole space. It was a triumph: wit in the service of a decent human standard of life.

The second thing I saw was a television programme. It was about the work done by Michael Rosen when he was children's laureate, a project he undertook with a school in South Wales where books had been undervalued. He showed the children, and the teachers, and the parents the profound value of reading and all it could do to deepen and enrich their lives, and he did so not by following curriculum guidelines and aiming at targets and putting the children through tests, but by beginning with delight. Enchantment. Joy. The librarians there were practically weeping with relief and pleasure at seeing so many children now coming in to search the shelves and sit and read and talk about the books they're enjoying.
But I seem to be describing delight. Is that a virtue too? Well, it's like the canary in a coal mine: while it continues to sing, we know the great public virtue of liberty is still alive. A nation whose laws express fear and suspicion and hostility cannot sustain delight for very long. If joy goes, freedom is in danger.

So I would say that to sustain the virtue of a nation, we need to remember how the private connects with the public, the poetic with the political. We need to praise and cherish every example we can find of imaginative play, of the energy of creation, of the enchantment of art and the wonder of science. A nation that was brave, and modest, and curious sounds to me like one that understood that if it told its children stories, they might grow up to feel that virtue was in fact as interesting as vice.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

The next economic crash

This is a summary of the main points raised by Will Hutton in his critique of the handling of the financial crisis by British authorities. The full article is available on the Guardian website.

After the crisis there were cries of 'never again'. But the glacial pace of reform leaves us all in imminent danger

It was the biggest bank bail out in British history, and it came with scarcely believable costs. A trillion pounds of tax-payer support; a trillion pounds of lost output. After a disaster of this magnitude you might have expected some collective soul-searching by both banks and government. There has been far too little. Instead we risk a repeat – our banking system is as disconnected from real wealth generation as ever.

The return to business as usual – bonuses, trading in derivatives, the organising of banking as an exercise in which money is made from money – is breathtaking and depressing. And so, given the recent buoyant profit figures reported by our banks, is the easy money.

Labour delivered the minimum reform it could get away with, subcontracting responsibility to the Financial Services Authority. As the crisis broke in May 2008 it commissioned an inquiry populated entirely by industry insiders, chaired by the now chair of Lloyds, Sir Win Bischoff, to examine how the City could become more internationally competitive. When it reported a year later, it recommended little or no change. The conclusions were tamely accepted by politicians.

The poverty of action is inexcusable. The value of outstanding lending by British banks in all currencies is five times our national output – proportionally greater than any comparable country – and is underpinned by a puny amount of pure equity capital; £1 for every £50 lent. As an internal Bank of England working paper hypothesises, this collective balance sheet structure is so precarious that without substantial and far-reaching reform a second crisis is almost inevitable within 10-25 years. And next time we would be overwhelmed as a country.

Most industries that had undergone such a near-death experience – along with such a high probability of a recurrence – would be taking precautions. Not banking. Instead of building up its reserves aggressively, it is carrying on paying salaries at pre-crash levels.  As it is, £6bn of bonuses were paid out last year. As Springer says, the status quo won. The regulators certainly want more prudence over pay, but the banks play cat and mouse with them, as they always have.

Barclays, RBS and HSBC each boasts more than 1,000 subsidiaries – most of which are secret vehicles created to warehouse lending or direct financial flows in artificial ways, whose purpose, as one official told me off the record, is  to avoid tax or regulation or whose complexity is designed so that in an emergency all a government can do is write a blank bail-out cheque.

The opacity is dramatised by the ongoing multitrillion dollar trading in derivatives – essentially bets on the future prices of financial assets. The justification is that derivatives help buyers and sellers – companies or banks – better to manage risk. Some do. But derivatives are an invitation to speculate. British banks have £1 trillion wrapped up in derivatives – a business that Nouriel Roubini, the economist who predicted the crash, thinks should be as closely regulated as guns because they are no less dangerous.

But progress on financial reform – nationally and internationally – is glacial. Part of the reason is the fiendish complexity that western governments allowed their banks to create, and part is the jealous defence of alleged national banking interests by governments.

The status quo is bad news not just because of the risk of another crash. British banks shamefully neglect enterprise, entrepreneurship, investment and innovation. Only 3% of cumulative net lending in the decade up to the crash went to manufacturing; three quarters went to commercial real estate and residential mortgages. The result – devastated industries and sky-high property prices.

Almost everybody accepts that banks need to carry more capital, except getting international agreement on how much is close to impossible. And banks should indicate how in a crisis they would wind themselves up without costing the taxpayer billions – so-called living wills. The question is how much more should be done.

There should be much more transparency; living wills, for example, should be public documents rather than secret arrangements. So should derivative trading. There should be a great deal more competition. The government, according to the new business secretary Vince Cable, needs to get tough and insist that banks lend to enterprise. Britain needs more banks, transparent banks and safer banks that really contribute to the British economy.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

TED talks: Brian Cox: Why we need the explorers

Cosmos: Carl Sagan (7 DVD Set)

Sunday, 30 May 2010

What motivates people?

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Είμαστε πιά πρωταθλητές

Απόσπασμα απο σημερινό άρθρο της Kαθημερινής

"Οι αντιδράσεις...
Εκείνη την ώρα, στην πλατεία Συντάγματος εκρήγνυνταν χειροβομβίδες κρότου -λάμψης, ενώ διαδηλωτές με πανό συνέχιζαν να ανεβαίνουν τη Σταδίου. Ενα λεπτό αργότερα, το τοπίο άλλαξε. Η φωτιά στο ισόγειο του κτιρίου φούντωσε και από τα ανοιχτά παράθυρα του β΄ ορόφου άρχισε να βγαίνει πυκνός καπνός. Στο μικρό μπαλκόνι στην πρόσοψη του νεοκλασικού στριμώχθηκαν τέσσερις ή πέντε εργαζόμενοι προσπαθώντας να αναπνεύσουν, ενώ άλλοι που δεν χώρεσαν εκεί άνοιξαν διάπλατα τις μπαλκονόπορτες. Οι αντιδράσεις των διαδηλωτών κλιμακώθηκαν. Εκείνοι που νωρίτερα έκαναν χειρονομίες, τώρα χλεύαζαν τους υπαλλήλους φωνάζοντας «να καείτε ζωντανοί, ρε!», ενώ άλλοι τους καλούσαν ειρωνικά να πηδήσουν στο κενό. Ορισμένοι πιο νηφάλιοι τους έκαναν νόημα να κατέβουν από το κτίριο. Οσοι διαδηλωτές από τα οργανωμένα μπλοκ σάστισαν και κοντοστέκονταν στη θέα των εγκλωβισμένων υπαλλήλων επανέρχονταν στην... τάξη από τους επικεφαλής, οι οποίοι τους φώναζαν «προχωράμε σύντροφοι, προχωράμε». Καθώς τα δευτερόλεπτα κυλούσαν, το μαύρο σύννεφο καπνού από τα παράθυρα του α΄ και β΄ ορόφου έγινε τόσο πυκνό που έκρυψε την πρόσοψη του κτιρίου και τους πανικόβλητους υπαλλήλους που από ένστικτο έσκυβαν για να αναπνεύσουν. Ο ένας από αυτούς έβγαλε το σακάκι του, πέρασε πάνω από το κάγκελο της μπαλκονόπορτας του β΄ ορόφου, πάτησε στη μαρκίζα και πήδησε σε μια πρόχειρη κατασκευή από ελενίτ στην ταράτσα του διπλανού κτιρίου. Αυτή δεν άντεξε το βάρος, και ο νεαρός βρέθηκε στο κενό. Προσγειώθηκε μερικά μέτρα πιο χαμηλά στο πρεβάζι του κινηματογράφου «Απόλλων». Στην άλλη άκρη του κτιρίου της Marfin, άλλος εργαζόμενος, ισορροπώντας πάνω στο κάγκελο και στη μαρκίζα του β΄ ορόφου, κατάφερε να φθάσει στο μπαλκόνι του διπλανού κτίσματος. Στη συνέχεια φάνηκε να προσπαθεί να τραβήξει συναδέλφους του που είχαν μείνει πίσω. Στο μπαλκόνι παρέμεναν δύο γυναίκες κουνώντας ένα χαρτόνι με το οποίο μάταια προσπαθούσαν να απομακρύνουν τον καπνό. Η Πυροσβεστική έφτασε πέντε λεπτά αργότερα. Παρευρισκόμενοι φώναζαν συνθήματα και πετούσαν αντικείμενα εναντίον τους."

Πέραν την κοινωνικοπολιτικής ωριμότητας που τα άνωθεν εκφράζουν και ενώ το Ευρώ βρίσκεται στην κατιούσα (έφτασε χτές στη χαμηλότερη τιμή έναντι του Δολλαρίου εδώ και 14 μήνες)

η δική μας αριστερά οραματίζεται την επικείμενη επανάσταση για την, πλέον καθυστερημένη, εδραίωση του σοσιαλιστικού-κομμουνιστικού ιδεώδους εν Ελλάδι η οποία, ελπίζουν (Αη Φανούρη βάλ' το χέρι σου), οτι θα οδηγήσει στην αναζωπύρωση του παγκόσμιου κομμουνιστικού αγώνα και φάτε μάτια ψάρια, κολιούς, μαργαριτάρια.

Ενώ λοιπόν η αριστερά κάνει βόλτες στα ανθισμένα λιβάδια της ονειροφαντασίας, η αντιπολίτευση αποπειράται να αποσπάσει κομματικά οφέλη απ' την καταστροφή (σιγά, τώρα θα αλλάξουμε πατροπαράδοτες συνήθειες?) και η κυβέρνηση (όπως άλλωστε και η προηγούμενη) δέ ξέρει απο πού να το φυσήξει για να κρυώσει. Η εικόνα του πρωθυπουργού να κλαίει μόνος τα βράδυα στην μαξιλάρα του θά ήταν τουλάχιστον αστεία αν δέν ήταν τόσο κοντά στην αλήθεια.

Σε άλλα νέα, έχει ηλιοφάνεια σήμερα στο Λονδίνο...

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

"Love's easy tears" - Cocteau twins

The halcyon days of the Cocteau Twins (late 80s/early 90s) were often perfumed with the carefree extravagance of Liz's melismatic vocalization, Robert's somnific reverb overlays and indecipherable (and hence polysemous) lyrics. "Love's easy tears" is a typical example from that period. I have absolutely no clue what she is singing about but I just love the tonality.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Academic articles explained

One of the ways that academic articles differ from articles that appear in popular magazines is the peer review process. This 5 minute video below explains the concept.

Monday, 5 April 2010

The last lecture of Randy Pausch

The late professor Pausch giving the Lecture that evolved into the book which topped the charts. Not that topping the popular book sales charts is a necessary qualifier, but regardless, Randy's talk is inspiring and fun stuff, delivered expertly, while it elegantly avoids resorting to sentimentalism.

Randy died on July 25th, 2008 from pancreatic cancer; a year after the lecture.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Slavery in the modern world.

An exposing talk by Kevin Bales.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

The ultimate love song - bill bailey

Sunday, 28 February 2010

The old man and the Sea

The Old Man and the Sea is a short animated movie by Alexander Petrov based on the Hemingway novel. It is the story of a friendship between a young boy and an aging fisherman tormented by hunger and weeks of ill luck. Santiago, a once strong, proud man is coming to terms with his failing abilities and age.

After many weeks of returning home to his small village, day after day with nothing in his boat, Santiago is forced to accept the other villager's small charities. He resolves to sail far out to sea in search of a catch that will redeem his self-confidence. Early the next morning, he descends to his fishing skiff, and rows out, into the dark sea, saying good-bye to his friend, the small boy, and the safety of the beach, perhaps for the last time.

"The Old Man and the Sea" is one of Hemingway's most enduring works and this film, animated and directed by Alexander Petrov, recasts in the authors striking style, the classic theme of courage in the face of defeat, of personal triumph won from loss. Magnificently transposed through this award winning artist's more than 29,000 oil paintings, this film carries all the emotional power and meaning of the original story. 

Animation Director, Alexander Petrov, worked tirelessly for over two and a half years under his animation camera, painting the more that 29,000 magnificent images that make up this film.

Petrov's animation style of painting oils on sheets of glass, using his fingertips as brushes, gives all his work a dream-like quality reminiscent of a Rembrandt painting in motion.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

How do we know how far away the stars are?

This is a very common question. How would you answer it? If you are a school teacher, it is a useful excersise to ask the class to come up with ways to determine distances to nearby objects. If, on the other hand, you're too lazy to think about it, here are a couple of ways to do it.

1. For solar-system objects and relatively nearby stars, you can use the trigonometric parallax. What is parallax? For a quick demonstration, stretch out your arm, hold out your thumb upwards and close one eye. Then switch to the other eye and look at the thumb again. Even though your thumb is still, it looks like it's moving. This is because your eyes are a certain distance apart. Schematically, it looks like this:To measure the position of the star, we do the following: First, we take a photo of the area of the night sky we're interested in and measure the position of the star. Then we wait for half a year while the Earth rotates around the Sun. When the Earth is at the diametrically opposite position, we take another photo and measure the position of the star again. Because of this motion of the Earth around the Sun, stars that are too far away from us will have moved very little or not at all. But stars that are relatively close to us (up to around 40 light years) will appear to have moved more. Then, using the simple geometry shown in the diagram above, we can derive an estimate of the distance:
Distance to star = (Earth-Sun distance) / (parallax)

2. Parallax works for close-by stars, but what about really far away ones that don't seem to be moving at all? How can we get the distances to them? There are many other methods we can use and here's one of them: Main-Sequence fitting.

To explain how this method works, I'll need to introduce you to an old friend, the Hetrtzsprung-Russel diagram, shown below:

What this diagram shows is the evolution of the lives of stars. Based on many, many measurements, this is plot of the absolute brightness (also called luminosity or magnitude) of stars relative to their surface temperatures. I also need to explain the difference between absolute and apparent brightness, so let's do that first.

The light coming from a car's headlights when the car is far away will of course appear to be dimmer than if the car was closer. In other words, if you take two car headlights that are equally bright, but one is only half the distance away of the other, it will appear to be brighter. This is called
apparent brightness and it is used to describe how bright a star appears to us on Earth. On the other hand, absolute birghtness is used to describe how bright the star really is.

The temperature of the star is directly related to it's colour, so Red stars are cooler than Blue stars, which have surface temperatures of tens of thousands of degrees. Astronomers measure the colour of stars by taking observations at different wavelengths
(using different filters) and taking the ratio of the brightnesses. It turns out that this can be measured with great accuracy, so from that we can derive the temperature of the star, and using the information in the diagram above, we can find out the absolute brightness. Comparing this absolute brightness with the apparent brightness gives us a measure of the distance to the star. This method actually works for stars thousands of light years away!

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the methods used to determine distances to stars. To find out about some other
methods, check here.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Nobelist J.Stiglitz discusses U.S. Stimulus & Greece's Debt Crisis

Thursday, 25 February 2010

The risk of Greece sinking

The Guardian - 14 Feb 2010. Article by Will Hutton

British schadenfreude has reached new heights of delicious self-indulgence. There is feverish market speculation that Greece will default on its debt, leave the euro and create a eurozone crisis as other members are pushed by the markets into following. It just proves that the euro is and was a disaster, the thinking goes. Thank God Britain did not join, runs the chorus from right to left, proving once again how wise the sceptics were and how foolish were those (like Will Hutton) who urged entry. Gordon Brown was careful as he answered questions before the European Summit last week to say Greece was an issue only for members of the euro. Britain would stay on the sidelines – gloriously uninvolved and independent from any possible expensive bail out. He was a financial Neville Chamberlain. I half expected him to come back in a twin-engine de Havilland proudly waving a paper – no bailouts and no euro membership in our time.

However, Greece and Germany are not far-away countries of which we know little. Our interdependence is a growing economic and political reality. Britain owns a fifth of Greek bonds; if Greece defaults, the write-offs will impact on our banking system as severely as any other in Europe. We also have no interest in Greece triggering a wave of exits from the euro and the 1930s-style competitive devaluations that will follow. Those dreaming of the free-market utopia of floating exchange rates should be careful for what they wish. By now you might hope there might be just a grain of suspicion about the manias and panics of free financial markets. Hope in vain.

It is worth engaging in a thought experiment. Any monetary regime in Europe has to deal with the reality of living alongside the world's most successful and, until China pipped it in 2009, largest exporter – ­Germany. Either there is the hard deutschmark, a world reserve currency second only to the dollar, against which the rest of Europe consistently devalues, or the euro. Up against the deutschmark, Greece would certainly be devaluing now – but so would Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Austria, Holland and probably France. When the financial crisis struck most of them would have been in a similar, if less acute position to Iceland. There would have been a flight from their money markets to Frankfurt and New York. Who thinks Greece, Belgium, Ireland and Austria would not have had an unstoppable bank run? Or could have survived it? There would have been no co-ordination within a world reserve currency zone to bail out stricken banking systems. There would have been no enjoying 1% euro interest rates. No capacity to increase government borrowing to weather the crisis. Europe would have had a bank-run induced slump – and the contagion would have hit Britain hard. It would, simply, have been a variant of 1931.

Or there is what we have. The euro has been a brilliant shock absorber. Icelandic politicians were as eurosceptic as our know-nothing political class – until disaster struck. Faced with the Hobson's choice of permanent economic stagnation, or adjustment within the euro zone and some light at the end of the tunnel, they have plumped for the latter. It is one of the reasons Greece will fight so hard to stay inside the euro; life is even more intolerable outside. If Greece leaves, its new independent currency will collapse; its interest rates will soar; its public debts will become unfinanceable; it really will default on its debt as it has so frequently in the past. It will slide back into being a failed state – with a military coup one all too possible response to the crisis.

It faces no choice but to reform. Greece has been so plundered by its super-rich elite of bankers and ship owners, so fully bought into the conservative doctrine that taxation is a form of coercion akin to slavery, that in key respects it is not a functioning state. The shadow, non tax-paying part of its economy is 30% of the total. Most middle-class professionals – lawyers, accountants and surgeons – insist on being paid in cash to avoid tax. Uncollected tax runs at 13.6% of national output per year – more than the deficit. The civil service is over-manned and corrupt. Everyone mercilessly tries to profit at someone else's expense. Of course Greece falsified its finances for qualification for entry to the euro zone. In this culture you tell the truth only to family. Revealingly, Mr Papandreou is the third member of his family to become prime minister.

There is no national consensus over what constitutes a just distribution of reward and obligation. As a result, its institutions don't function – as the European Commission team assembled at the behest of EU heads of states, backed by officials from the IMF, will soon discover. They will forensically examine how tax is not collected, how pensions are used as patronage and how statistics are rigged – and find a mess. Yet they and the Greek government will have to be careful. There is a mood in Greece ready to reform; witness the proposals to lift the pension age to 63. But if the elite is allowed to go free while the rest of society suffers, there will be revolt from below. Offend norms of fairness and societies risk disintegration and violence – something British politicians might ponder as they compete with visions of public sector wage freezes while ­allowing private sector salaries at the top to grow explosively.

This adjustment is an imperative – but so are two more. Germany's reluctance to offer an unconditional bailout to Greece is more than understandable, and the European deal – some support but only after reform has been shown to be implemented – is within its terms fair enough. Greece's problem is as much political as economic. But if Greece cannot devalue, and if there are social limits to how much it can lower wages, it needs some leeway somewhere . It needs more buoyant markets for Greek goods in the rest of the EU, and in Germany in particular. Chancellor Merkel wants it every which way. She wants no bailouts, a strong euro and Germany to carry on being an export machine. All three are not possible. ­Germany must boost its demand at home and loosen its purse strings if Greece– and the other weak states – are ever going to get out of trouble.

And there is a last reform. The financial markets invented toxic credit default swaps (CDS) – allegedly insurance against bond default which the markets could buy and sell – in the deregulatory mania of the last decade. But England banned trading insurance policies in which nobody took responsibility for paying insurance as the worst form of financial depravity in the 18th century. Now the practice is back as "innovation", except we know after Lehmans that the contracts are as worthless as they were under George I. However, hedge funds love them because they are such a juicy tool with which to speculate. It has been the CDS market that has prompted such a rapid confidence collapse in Greece. As they currently work, they should be banned.

The struggle to reform Greece and find a system of economic governance to make the euro work is all of Europe's battle, notwithstanding Gordon Brown at his evasive worst. If it is lost, we all go down. Western societies were served an awesome warning of the risks contemporary civilisation is running by allowing the rich to make the rules and ignore their obligations. If fairness is put at the heart of the reform programme – both within Greece and between Germany and the rest of Europe – there is a sporting chance of success. If not, the next decade could be very unpleasant indeed.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

The Hunt for Gollum

With a tight budget of less than $5,000 and the help of numerous volunteers, a team of LotR fans under the banner of Independent Online Cinema brought to life the first of what looks like to be a series of prequels based on the Lord of the Rings franchise.
The Hunt for Gollum dramatises Aragorn and Gandalf's search for Gollum, which takes place before the events in Peter Jackson's trilogy. It is surprisingly well done! Kudos to the team of fans that brought it to life. You can watch the full film on youtube.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Iblard Jikan

Iblard Jikan is a 30 minute anime produced by Studio Ghibli. It is but a brief visit to the fantastic world of Iblard, experienced by the viewer while traversing the tranquil landscapes of non-static oil paintings created by Naohisa Inoue. Watch for the subtle wind motion in the grass and the playful display of the light patterns on the waters.
Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

'How do we get industry to invest more in research and development?'

Panel discussion from the 2009 SciTech European conference on Innovation in Science and Technology that took place in Brussels this November.

Monday, 11 January 2010

London Mayor Says 9,000 Bankers May Quit City Over Bonus Tax

Jan. 11 (Bloomberg) -- London Mayor Boris Johnson said that as many as 9,000 bankers may leave the U.K. capital’s financial district as a result of a 50 percent tax on bonuses announced last month.
Amen and good riddance.
Admittedly it would be much better if there was general consensus for the formation of an international regulatory agency and a thorough crackdown on tax-havens but since there is little chance of that happening anytime in the forseeable future (which is a practical way of addressing the problem), I'll settle for the bankers exodus while extending my heartfelt apologies to my friends that work in the City. Yes, let them leave and try their luck elsewhere. Meanwhile the world will softly slumber until the next crisis looms ominously in the horizon.

Millions of people worldwide lost their jobs and had their livelihoods compromised owing to the extravagances, short-sightedness, irresponsible behaviour (and, yes, incompetence) of a large part of Wall Street and the City. Governments worldwide rushed to prop the decaying structure -using public money- by buying off toxic debt and keeping the patient on life-support.

One would expect that the opportunity would be seized by the world governments to bring some order in the house but it seems pretty certain now that this unprecedented chance has been squandered.

Anyone who wandered the streets of the City of London in 2007 and 2008, the (g)olden days of yonder, will know of the references herein. You say you want to use my tax money to keep the bonus culture (and the associated decadent structures that go with it) thriving? Disgraceful.