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Citation icon. Astronomers discover a star travelling at 3.7 million MPH

Posted by on in category: Citation, with tags: Science.
305 words, less than 2 minutes read time. Comments by me and a link to an external article.

Sorry to dash your hopes but when I say ‘star’, I mean the astronomical kind. Sadly, nobody has ejected Kanye West from Earth at that speed.

Astronomers have discovered a star travelling at 3,700,000 MPH (1,027 miles per second), which is about ten times faster than most stars move. They plotted its prior path and it appears to have come from the centre of the Milky Way, wherein lurks a supermassive black hole.

So how does a supermassive black hole eject a star when they’re best known for their insurmountable gravitational attraction?

Apparently it’s due to something called the Hills Mechanism, which sometimes kicks into action when a binary star system — consisting of two stars orbiting one another — gets close to a supermassive black hole.

If one of the stars in the binary system gets too close to the black hole, the ferocious gravity of the black hole will pull the star in. This takes energy away from the (three-body) system as a whole. However, thanks to the conservation of energy, the star that avoids the black hole will be given an energy equivalent to the infall velocity of the one that’s captured. The energy the surviving star receives is what results in its phenomenal speed.

The black hole ejected the star some 5 million years ago and it's travelling so fast it’ll escape our galaxy entirely within 100 million years. I look forward to seeing that happen. Astronomers have a had a pretty good look at this star as it’s fairly close to us now, only 29,000 light years (174,000,000,000,000 miles) away.

With absolutely no sense of drama, astronomers have called the star S5-HVS1. It should have been called something like Ergomighty the Ejector or whatever.

Things like this make me realise how fragile our little planet is in the galactic scheme of things.

Motorola to bring out new Razr flip phone

Posted by on in category: News, with tags: Tech.
345 words, less than 2 minutes read time.

Long live the clam-shell phone.

Wordpress 5.3 critical error

Posted by on in category: How-To, with tags: Tech, Wordpress.
310 words, less than 2 minutes read time.

After upgrading one of the sites I manage to Wordpress 5.3, I encountered our old friend the Critical Error. It has been a while since I've seen that one and I thought I'd jot down some notes about how to debug that error and get your site working again.

Why doesn't our galaxy fall into the black hole at its centre?

Posted by on in category: Disquisition, with tags: Science.
685 words, 3 minutes read time.

Yes, writing about cosmology is far more entertaining that Strictly on a Saturday evening but, then again, so is sticking your head in a bag of wasps. It's our old friend the black hole again.

Citation icon. The shape of the universe

Posted by on in category: Citation, with tags: Science.
620 words, 3 minutes read time. Comments by me and a link to an external article.

It’s important to know the shape of the universe. Maybe one day we’ll set off on a very long journey into space and we’d need to know whether we’re just going to end up right back where we started, which would be irritating.

This depends in part on the curvature of the universe and it’s easiest to think of this in two dimensions. Imagine a flat earth, like a sheet of A4. If you and I set off parallel to one another, we’d remain the same distance apart and our paths would never cross. If we drew a triangle on this flat surface, the angles would add up to 180 degrees. We’d say this had zero curvature.

Three possible shapes of the universe.
Credit: NASA

Now imagine a globe. We set off parallel to one another again, but our paths would eventually cross. If we followed the latitude lines on the Earth, for example, we’d meet at the North Pole, and the angles of a triangle on this surface would add up to more than 180 degrees. We’d say this had positive curvature.

Finally, imagine a saddle (or hyperbola if you want to be scientific). If we walked in parallel on this surface we’d keep getting further apart. I have a policy of never lending money to anyone on a hyperbola because you’ll never see them again. Here, the angles of a triangle would add up to less than 180 degrees and we call this negative curvature.

It gets harder to visualise in three dimensions, which is how many space dimensions our universe has, and even harder again if we include time as the fourth dimension, but hopefully you get the idea.

There are a number of things that can influence the curvature of our universe and one of the biggest is gravity. We all think of gravity as helpfully sticking us to the planet or unhelpfully making cups of tea drop off our desks, but that pulling force also bends the fabric of space.

One of the common visualisations is to use a rubber sheet stretched over a box to represent space. Now drop a bowling ball onto the rubber sheet and you’ll see it sink into the rubber, bending it. That’s what a star or planet does to space.

For a while now, experiments have pointed to our universe being flat and having zero curvature, or as near as damn it. We get a lot of information about the shape of the universe from the Planck Space Telescope, which was launched in 2009. An instrument on that measured the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), which is the ancient glow of light left over from the Big Bang. Looking at that tells people with slide-rules a lot about the shape of the universe now and in the distant past.

However, three smart-arses have reanalysed a lot of the CMB data and claim the universe is 99% likely to have positive curvature, like a globe. They went as far as to call the whole thing a cosmological crisis.

Their work has however displeased many other scientists — presumably those with shares in a flat universe — and effigies of the three smart-arses may be burnt in laboratories across the world. The smart-arses’ analysis of the data is not in dispute but some scientists suggest this is an aberration, a statistical fluctuation and no doubt an abomination.

Other experiments still point to the universe being flat, which remains the prevailing opinion.

Anyway, you can read all about it in the article I link to. I’m concerned about how a curved universe might affect house prices, although I’m sure estate agents have more trickery at their disposal beyond the trusty wide-angle lens.

Why not do away with world timezones altogether?

Posted by on in category: Opinion, with tags: Society.
511 words, 3 minutes read time.

Timezones are awkward things, so why not make it so 8AM here is also 8AM in China? This is perhaps not as silly as it sounds and some people are pushing for it to happen.

Citation icon. Zuckerberg gets roasted in Congress

Posted by on in category: Citation, with tags: Tech, Facebook.
401 words, less than 2 minutes read time. Comments by me and a link to an external article.

I almost feel sorry for Mark Zuckerberg. That’s a phrase I never thought I’d write, although I did carefully qualify it with an almost.

Mark Zuckerberg faces congress.
Credit: Anthony Quintano from Honolulu, HI, United States. CC by 2.0.

Zuckerberg had the look of a startled gazelle amongst a pack of hyenas as the House Financial Services Committee tore into him. Officially the hearing was titled "An Examination of Facebook and its Impact on the Financial Services and Housing Sectors" and his plan for a worldwide cryptocurrency, Libra, was ostensibly the subject of debate, but Congress used the opportunity to hold him to account for his many other sins too.

Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters pulled no punches:

You have opened up a serious discussion about whether Facebook should be broken up.

Each month, 2.7 billion people use your products. That's over a third of the world's population. That's huge.

That's so big that it's clear to me, and to anyone who hears this list, that perhaps you believe you're above the law.

Zuckerberg seemed ill-prepared for the hearing, having not read a lot of the documentation sent to him in advance.

Committee member Joyce Beatty asked him:

Did you review the packet that was sent to you by this committee?

And when he refused to answer, she added:

Obviously, that's a no.

Zuckerberg was accused of having no genuine interest in civil rights, only addressing the subject as a result of the lawsuits he’s received. He didn’t even know which company Facebook employs to take care of its civil rights strategies even though it’s one of the largest civil rights firms in existence.

It was brutal and I did have a certain sympathy for Zuck. What I see when I look at him is a techie, an ideas man who’s interested in the technical evolution of those ideas but not really interested in — or capable of — the troublesome business of running a massive company. He’d probably be better off dropping into a CTO role and then employing someone who can handle things like Congress committees as a CEO. A wise visionary knows what their weaknesses are.

I don’t think he’s the devil but he has made some almighty mistakes, not least the way he has ridden roughshod over people’s privacy. But I think that’s simply because such concerns just don’t create a big enough blip on his radar. It’s careless rather than evil.

Thu 24th Oct 2019, Briefly

Cookie monsters

I am massively fed up with having to confirm I'll accept cookies all the time. I visit a lot of tech sites and they seem to want confirmation at least weekly. I know by clicking the default Yes, Agree or Confirm I'm giving them permission to invade my privacy at will. For all I know they can now legally come to my house and stick their finger up my bottom. They're doing it wrong of course — the cookie stuff, not the finger-up-bottom stuff — they should implement the most restrictive data-sharing settings by default, but that's another matter. I've already given them access to my colorectal system so why do they need to ask again and again and again? And again.

Staying with bottoms

I read that someone called Sophie Elise is desperate to get rid of her bum implants. I know how she feels and I asked my GP the same thing.

“You don’t have implants,” she said, “you’ve just got a fat arse.”

I shan’t be going there again.

Speed, velocity and acceleration

Posted by on in category: Disquisition, with tags: Science.
521 words, 3 minutes read time.

What's the difference between speed and velocity? Why is acceleration often misinterpreted?

Stranger Things — you either love it or hate it, it seems

Posted by on in category: Review, with tags: Entertainment, TV.
703 words, 3 minutes read time.
4.5 stars.4.5 stars.4.5 stars.4.5 stars.4.5 stars.

I have just finished binge-watching seasons 1-3 of Stranger Things on Netflix and here I present my review. I've avoided spoilers, so there's no worry that I'm revealing anything here.

Chepstow Real Ale and Cider Festival, October 2019

Posted by on in category: Review, with tags: Local, Event.
563 words, 3 minutes read time.
4 stars.4 stars.4 stars.4 stars.4 stars.
Event icon.

I went back to my old stomping ground in the weekend and attended the Chepstow Real Ale and Cider Festival. This is my brief review of the occasion.

Today is World Egg Day

Posted by on in category: News, Opinion, with tags: Nonsense.
179 words, less than 1 minute read time.

Today, 11th October, is World Egg Day, when we celebrate that most fantastic of nature's creations. I believe it's compulsory to eat eggs today.

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle

Posted by on in category: Disquisition, with tags: Philosophy.
1582 words, 7 minutes read time.

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are the three giants of Greek philosophy and they influenced virtually all of Western philosophy. This article looks at the lives and philosophies of these men.

Tenda Nova MW-6 — add new Nova unit to network

Posted by on in category: How-To, with tags: Tech, Products.
645 words, 3 minutes read time.

Adding a new Tenda Nova MW-6 unit should be far easier than it is. It takes perseverance and I've noted down a few tips to help you out.

Apple Reminders on iOS 13, iPadOS 13 and macOS Catalina — much improved

Posted by on in category: Review, How-To, with tags: Tech, Apple, iOS, iPadOS, macOS, GTD.
1118 words, 5 minutes read time.
4 stars.4 stars.4 stars.4 stars.4 stars.

Apple's Reminders app is much improved under macOS Catalina, iPadOS 13 and iOS 13. It’s now a ‘proper’ GTD app with much added functionality as compared to previous versions. It’s still not perfect, though.

In The Tall Grass (2019) movie review — it fails to deliver

Posted by on in category: Review, with tags: Entertainment, Films.
577 words, 3 minutes read time.
2 stars.2 stars.2 stars.2 stars.2 stars.
In The Tall Grass film poster.

I watched In The Tall Grass on the weekend and this is my review of that film. I thought I’d better write one quickly because it’s the sort of movie I could easily forget, and therein lies a big clue about what I thought of the film.

Mon 7th Oct 2019, Briefly

Laundry

My laundry hardware is conspiring against me. A couple of weeks ago I moaned about my washing machine’s inability to count and today my condensing drier ate one of my fleeces. It chewed up the main zip and one of the pocket zips, thus ruining it. It simply detached these zips and spat them out. This is despite already having received a verbal warning for turning every last one of my t-shirts inside out every time I use it. There will be repercussions. I will at the very least throw my toys out of the pram.

Apple’s asynchronous iOS/iPadOS 13 and macOS Catalina release schedule

Posted by on in category: Opinion, with tags: Apple, macOS, iOS, iPadOS.
353 words, less than 2 minutes read time.

Apple's puzzling and disruptive release schedule for iOS/iPadOS 13 and macOS Catalina. Why weren't Apple's new operating systems released at the same time?

Citation icon. US whistle-blower gets an A for English

Posted by on in category: Citation, with tags: Writing.
125 words, less than 1 minute read time. Comments by me and a link to an external article.

The US whistle-blower who’s currently exposing some of Donald Trump’s alleged shenanigans also scores well with his writing.

A writing instructor has an article in The New York Times that praises the whistle-blower’s use of directness, headings, topic sentences and active verbs.

I can’t tell you what’s going to happen to his blockbuster complaint about the president’s behavior, but I can tell you that the whistle-blower’s college writing instructor would be very proud of him.

Hopefully that’ll be a consolation to him if Trump manages to carry out his Twitter threats and prosecute him for treason.

Still, good lessons for us all there, particularly me. My blogs are often passive rambles that veer off on inexplicable tangents.

Tue 1st Oct 2019, Briefly

Marvel vs DC

James Gunn Implores Marvel and DC Fans to Let Go of Their Petty Rivalry. He’s right, it’s a childish and immature rivalry. Fellow superhero fans should unite. And they will do, just as soon as the DC fans admit Marvel is better.

Five sigma — a simple explanation

Posted by on in category: How-To, with tags: Science.
560 words, 3 minutes read time.
5 sigma icon.

Physics often uses 5 sigma as the level of certainty required to class something as a discovery, but what is 5 sigma and what does it mean?

iPhone 11 review by someone who hates phones

Posted by on in category: Review, with tags: Tech, Apple, iPhone.
2564 words, 11 minutes read time.
4.5 stars.4.5 stars.4.5 stars.4.5 stars.4.5 stars.

My completely subjective review of Apple's iPhone 11. I hate phones so it takes a lot to win me over to them. I explain how the iPhone 11 did so and then I tell you what I think about it.

Citation icon. Google proves quantum supremacy — world still safe

Posted by on in category: Citation, News, with tags: Tech, Companies, Google.
235 words, less than 1 minute read time. Comments by me and a link to an external article.

Lock all your doors. If a Skynet T-800 turns up and says “Come with me if you want a sieve”, don’t believe him, he has no genuine interest in cooking utensils and is simply using that to lure you 1000 years into the future where, I believe, the Brexit debate is still ongoing.

Quantum supremacy sounds very grand and Terminatoresque but it just means a quantum computer has done something a non-quantum computer couldn’t do in any reasonable time.

In Google’s case, they ran a bunch of computer instructions on a quantum computer and then analysed the result. Then they tried to do the same thing on a (non-quantum) supercomputer. It took the quantum computer 3 minutes and 20 seconds to carry out its task and, if they lived long enough to wait for the result, it would have taken the supercomputer 10,000 years.

The news leaked out via a paper published on NASA’s website but Google hasn’t announced anything itself yet. Google has a policy of not commenting on things that take 3 minutes and 20 seconds.

Quantum supremacy is merely a milestone and a proof of concept rather than some sort of grandiose ‘supremacy’, but it’s nevertheless an important achievement for computer scientists.

With all this progress in the field of computing, how is it my robot vacuum cleaner spends most of its time stuck in a corner, repeatedly bashing against a wall?

Moving to an iPhone 11 from an older iPhone (an iPhone 6 in my case)

Posted by on in category: How-To, with tags: Tech, Apple, iPhone, iOS.
918 words, 4 minutes read time.
iPhone 11 home page.

I recently took delivery of an iPhone 11 and here's how I went about transferring over from my iPhone6. I also include some tips to get you started, such as what you do now there's no Home button.

The Thomas Cook Affair

Posted by on in category: News, with tags: Companies.
397 words, less than 2 minutes read time.

Thomas Cook's collapse is going to cost me £100m, apparently. I don't understand why this is the case.

The truth is out there, maybe

Posted by on in category: Opinion, with tags: Science.
1333 words, 6 minutes read time.

If there is other intelligent life, why hasn't it visited us? This is a question scientists sometimes ask. The thing is, I think we make far too many assumptions when trying to answer it.

Sun 22nd Sep 2019, Briefly

Washing machine

Why does my washing machine insist on winding me up? It says there’s 3 minutes left so I think I may as well potter about the kitchen and wait. I watch it go 3, 2 and 1 and then it goes back up to 4. Yes, 4.

Does it exist in some bizarre space-time continuum? Is my washing machine simply too stupid to count? Or is it just (as I suspect) taking the pee?

iPhone 11 decisions — upgrading my old iPhone 6

Posted by on in category: Opinion, with tags: Tech, Apple, iPhone.
651 words, 3 minutes read time.
iPhone 11 icon.

I have an old iPhone 6 that is 3.75 years old and, whilst I'm certainly not a phone person, I think it's time to upgrade (for reasons I talk about in the article) and therefore an iPhone 11 is on the cards.

Thu 19th Sep 2019, Briefly

Not your day

You know it’s not your day when you not only crash your F-16 fighter jet but then you eject onto a 250,000 volt power line.

Citation icon. What does quantum probability really mean?

Posted by on in category: Citation, with tags: Science.
509 words, 3 minutes read time. Comments by me and a link to an external article.

Most people are at least vaguely aware that quantum mechanics has elements of probability associated with it. The implication is that the classical, pre-quantum, deterministic universe we once knew is dead in the water.

But there are a number of ways you could look at quantum probability:

  1. The universe is genuinely probabilistic, by which I mean it’s the very nature of the universe at root.
  2. Quantum mechanics isn’t the final say on things. It’s phenomenally accurate over its domain of applicability, but it’s actually just an approximate theory of some underlying, possibly deterministic theory that’s yet to be discovered.
  3. The universe may or may not be deterministic but, either way, we can only ever know things about it as probabilities. The lack of determinism — if it is in fact deterministic — we see is actually a measurement problem or, perhaps, a limit quantum mechanics leaves us with.

Whichever one of those (or combination thereof, or whatever else) is true, what we have for now is a probabilistic theory.

One of the strange things about quantum mechanics is that the act of measurement is intricately woven in to things. ‘Measurement’ may or may not mean a human performing some experiment, depending on what philosophy you subscribe to. A small, self-contained system may in a sense be ‘measured’ when it comes into contact with the rest of the universe.

Either way, the very act of measurement changes the underlying system we’re measuring. In some quantum philosophies the underlying system is simply undefined until it’s measured, maybe existing in all possible configurations at once, and then the act of measurement forces it to do something definitive.

It’s hard to explain but consider this analogy. If you shuffle a pack of cards thoroughly, you have no idea what the top card will be. You know some probabilities: there’s a 1 in 4 chance it’s a heart, there’s a 1 in 13 chance it’s a jack and there’s a 1 in 52 chance it’s the jack of hearts. But it’s only when you turn over the top card — make a measurement, in a sense — that you find out what it actually is. The probabilities you initially had become realities after measurement.

As with most things quantum, analogies leave a lot to be desired. With my analogy we’d be inclined to think the top card actually has a real value before we measure it and that measuring it doesn’t change anything but simply reveals it.

The distinction is that in quantum mechanics that may or may not be true depending on what interpretation you subscribe to. It may be that it doesn’t genuinely have a value (or perhaps has all possible values) before it’s measured.

But perhaps you get the idea.

Anyway, we’re stuck with probabilities and the thing is there are different sorts of probabilities and different ways to interpret them. Scientists are keen to find out which interpretations are best and the article I link to expands on that subject.