An image of a green fedora hat, which serves as the logo for this site.Gordy's Discourse

Schrödinger's cat and also kettles

It's a tricky one to explain is Schrödinger's cat. Just consider this a very rough idea about what's going on with said cat in a box. As much as anything it's an example of how the underlying quantum reality that everything is made of differs from the world as we see it.

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Astronomers discover a star travelling at 3.7 million MPH External link icon.

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 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.

Wordpress 5.3 critical error

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.

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The shape of the universe External link icon.

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.

Zuckerberg gets roasted in Congress External link icon.

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.

Cookies and bum implants

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.

Laundry nonsense

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 External link icon.

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.

Google proves quantum supremacy — world still safe External link icon.

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?