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: