Today is World Egg Day

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

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.

Monday 7th October 2019 Briefly ...


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.

US whistle-blower gets an A for English

Comments by me and a link to the article cited.

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.

Five sigma — a simple explanation

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

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.

Google proves quantum supremacy — world still safe

Comments by me and a link to the article cited.

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?

The Thomas Cook Affair

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

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.

Sunday 22nd September 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?

Thursday 19th September 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.

What does quantum probability really mean?

Comments by me and a link to the article cited.

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.

Donkey Kong court case

Comments by me and a link to the article cited.

Who would have thought somebody would go to court over Donkey Kong?

It is however true. A video gamer called Billy Mitchell is taking Guinness World Records and something called the Twin Galaxies Scoreboard to court on the basis of defamation after they removed his top score from the records.

The dispute is about whether he used an “unmodified original DK arcade PCB as per the competitive rules”. Guinness and Twin Galaxies appear to have some doubts.

Apparently, Mitchell also has a ‘perfect’ Pac-Man score:

To achieve the game's maximum score of 3,333,360 points, Mitchell navigated 256 boards (or screens), eating every single dot, blinking energizer blob, flashing blue ghost, and point-loaded fruit, without losing a single life.

I remember Pac-Man well. One of the first pubs I visited at the tender age of 16 18 had a Pac-Man machine, back in the days when you’d get a pint, a chip butty and a number of goes on the Pac-Man for a couple of quid. I played the game regularly and, whilst I can’t remember what the scores were, I can’t recall ever going beyond 20 screens or so, if that. The 256 Mitchell negotiated is quite remarkable.

I played Donkey Kong too, although I have fewer memories about that.

Proton size measured with a better ruler

Comments by me and a link to the article cited.

In atoms, electrons normally orbit the nucleus of an atom. The nucleus can contain a mixture of protons and neutrons in most atoms although hydrogen just has a single proton, which makes it the simplest atom to study: there’s just one electron orbiting one proton.

One day a bunch of scientists wondered what would happen if they evicted the electron from a hydrogen atom and instead replaced it with a muon. A muon is part of the same family of particles as the electron — a family collectively called leptons — and it has the same charge and spin, but it’s 207 times heavier and doesn't exist for very long.

Elementary particles diagram, including leptons.
Wikipedia Commons/MissMJ/PBS NOVA/Fermilab/Particle Data Group

What they noticed was that, against all known physics, the proton seemed to shrink by 4% in the presence of the muon. This elicited much scratching of heads and considerable stroking of beards. In fact, hundreds of papers were written about it suggesting the new laws of physics that might have been discovered.

Alas, it all came down to a faulty ruler.

They thought the standard proton (with an electron orbiting it) was 0.876 femtometers and measured the muonic proton to be 0.84 femtometers.

But some clever-dick has come along and measured the standard proton with a better ruler and pegs it at 0.833 femtometers +/- 0.01, which removes the discrepancy found with the muonic proton.

I feel sorry for all those scientists who expended much brain-power coming up with new theories, although I did giggle a bit.

A default set of rules for online advertising and privacy

Further to my previous article on the subject, I present the sort of rules I'd like to see governing online advertising and privacy. I was originally motivated to post about this by Google's article about the subject, but they don't go anywhere near far enough in my opinion.

The longer we stay awake, the more we need to sleep, scientists say

Comments by me and a link to the article cited.

The titular statement is hardly groundbreaking. If that’s all there was to it, I’d have discovered it myself and I’d have a Nobel Prize on the mantlepiece (rhetorically, that is, because I don’t actually have a mantlepiece).

Two years ago, scientists in Japan reported the discovery of a mouse that just could not stay awake. This creature, which had a mutation in a gene called Sik3, slept upwards of 30 percent more than usual: Although it awoke apparently refreshed, it would need to snooze again long before its normal lab mates’ bedtime. It was as if the mouse had a greater need for sleep.

I know how the mouse feels.

Scientists are doing more than stating the obvious of course: they’re looking at why we need sleep at all.

One theory is that while we’re awake we form strong synaptic connections in the brain, which make memories, and during sleep we ‘file’ these memories. We weaken the synaptic connections related to unimportant memories and strengthen those related to important memories.

But what’s going on at the cellular level?

It’s all to do with proteins and a process called phosphorylation, which is the binding of phosphor and oxygen to organic molecules.

I think my own brain is faulty in this respect, or at least it can’t distinguish important memories from unimportant ones. I'm likely to forget something important, like maybe a hospital appointment, yet remember useless details about an obscure, late 70s punk band.

I have to use an extensive system of electronic reminders to remember anything these days. I find placing a single reminder is insufficient and I have to add an additional reminder reminding me I’ve got a reminder to attend to.

Problem with black holes possibly existing when they shouldn’t

Comments by me and a link to the article cited.

Stars burn through a process of nuclear fusion, which, in the main, fuses hydrogen atoms together to form helium. As the hydrogen ‘fuel’ gets used up, the star condenses and heats up even more and the star starts to produce heavier elements such as lithium and beryllium (numbers 3 and 4 on the periodic table), all the way to carbon (number 6) and oxygen (number 8), fusing each element in turn to keep on burning.

Small stars may stop there but big stars can go on fusing subsequent elements all the way up to iron (number 26).

Stars don’t like fusing much beyond iron and when they’ve finished burning all their fuel, which creates an outward pressure, they’re at the mercy of gravity.

The outer layers of the star might explode in a supernova and the core will collapse in a way that depends on the original mass of the star.

Lighter stars, up to about 10 solar masses, become white dwarfs. Such stars are hot when they form but no fusion is taking place and they eventually burn out to become a black dwarf. This accounts for about 97% of stars in our galaxy.

If the original star is between 10 and 30 times the mass of the Sun it can become a neutron star. These are incredibly dense stars. A thimble full of their material can weigh nearly a billion tons and they rotate many hundreds of times a second.

If the original star is more massive still, it can collapse into a black hole.

Diagram of stellar evolution.
cmglee, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

During the process of forming the black hole, there is supposed to be a gap. If the core is up to 50 times the mass of the Sun or over 130 times the mass of the Sun, the black hole will form. But the physics of a core between 50 and 130 times the mass of the Sun should go into a runaway process that instead creates an explosion called a pair-instability supernova.

There should be no black holes in the 50 to 130 solar mass range. That’s what the theory says and we’ve never observed a black hole in that range. Or at least that’s been the case up until now.

Astrophysicists monitoring the LIGO and Virgo gravitational-wave detectors may now have found a black hole in the range where they’re not supposed to exist and I link to the article describing this potential observation.

There are a couple of $100 bottles of wine at stake here. Physicists like a wager, particularly about black holes it seems, and some thought there was a way black holes could indeed form in the forbidden range. Bets were made and wallets are at the ready to pay out.

Note that none of this has anything to do with the supermassive black holes at the centres of galaxies. These can be millions or billions of times the mass of the Sun and are (probably) formed in a different way, maybe shortly after the universe was sneezed out of the Great Green Arkleseizure's nose.