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

Washing machine timers

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?

What does quantum probability really mean? External link icon.

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 External link icon.

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 External link icon.

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.
Credit: 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.

The longer we stay awake, the more we need to sleep, scientists say External link icon.

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 External link icon.

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.
Credit: 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.

Google's private web proposals

Google is proposing a way to build a more private web which suggests a reclassification of cookies amongst other things. From a user's perspective I think Google are coming at this from the wrong angle.

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Brexit and Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson

The Brexit backstop

Whether you’re a Leaver or a Remainer, the issue of the Brexit backstop is surely puzzling. Neither the UK nor the EU want a hard border in Ireland. Yet for two parties who both want the same thing they’re doing an awful lot of arguing about it.

If neither the UK nor the EU is going to put a hard border up, who is? Is perhaps the Dominican Republic a bit bored with life and threatening to put a hard border in Ireland for a laugh?

Dwayne Johnson

Dwayne Johnson tops Forbes highest paid actors list again: ludicrous. The world’s gone mad. Again.

The Tumblr acquisition External link icon.

If you’ve been blogging for a while — or even just following blogs — you’ll most likely have come across Tumblr. For those of you who’ve never experienced Tumblr, it’s a microblogging, pseudo-social networking site that’s known for its outré content.

It was launched in February 2007 and had 75,000 users within a fortnight. In 2013, it was bought by Yahoo! Inc. for $1.1 billion and in 2017 Yahoo! Inc. was itself bought by Verizon Communications.

Tumblr has recently been sold to a company called Automattic who are best-known for their Wordpress, open-source blogging software and their upmarket Wordpress services via

Automattic reportedly paid $3 million for Tumblr, which is a bit of a drop from the $1.1 billion it was once worth, but I believe it’s found a good home with Automattic as blogging is where their expertise lies.

Tumblr currently hosts some 475 million blogs and attracts 400 million visitors every month, so it’s a significant chunk of internet real estate.

I link to a recent article on The Verge that carries an interview about the Tumblr acquisition with Automattic’s CEO Matt Mullenweg. I found it interesting, anyway.

How should the internet be moderated? External link icon.

Cloudflare recently made a decision to stop protecting the reprehensible 8chan forum after 8chan was seen to be actively supporting many of the ultra-right wing, white-supremacist shootings we’ve seen recently in the US.

Cloudflare doesn’t publish any content itself, it just provides protection for content published elsewhere by ensuring said content can’t be taken offline by DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks.

As soon as Cloudflare’s protection was withdrawn, hackers launched a DDoS attack against 8chan that took it offline and it’s still offline as I write.

As far as I can tell, no particular law compelled Cloudflare to make the decision to take 8chan offline. It would not be considered a publisher of content, to which some related laws would apply, but rather a distributer of content, to which fewer (if any) laws apply.

I can see the distinction between a publisher and a distributer. You wouldn’t expect a newsagent to be responsible for the content of the newspapers they distribute.

Cloudflare used its discretionary powers as a private company — able to choose to whom it provides services — to end its arrangement with 8chan. Cloudflare did not make this decision lightly but I think it was the correct decision in the circumstances.

But 8chan only remains offline due to the consistent DDoS attacks it’s suffering from hackers and this is an illegal activity itself. It’s hardly an ideal form of censorship and I suspect 8chan will eventually find another, suitably protected home anyway.

This all raises the issue of how we effectively go about dealing with censorship on the internet. I can’t imagine anything would work in the global sense because we can’t force laws on Russia or China, for example, but maybe Western democracies can come up with some some sort of consensus.

It has to be done carefully of course because there’s often a fine line between free speech and hate speech.

Ben Thompson has an interesting and well-thought out take on this.

Drug crime

I full expected the map of the south west to have a deep purple, “strong increase” indicator over where I live. I’m surprised it doesn’t because I’m sure many of the local yobs breathe more weed than oxygen.

Measuring cosmic distances

I was recently reading an article about the expansion of the universe and how recent data suggests the figures we've been using might not be quite correct. This led me to look at how we measure this expansion - and, more generically, how we measure any cosmic distance - and I thought I'd write an article about it.

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Protect your spuds from gulls External link icon.

Of the things you need to know in life, this is a biggie. Anything that helps protect my consumption of the venerable potato is worthy of study.

Boffins at Exeter University have determined that herring gulls are more cautious about stealing your chips if they’re being watched. Alas they are career criminals and will most likely still steal them, but they’ll take 21 seconds longer on average to do so than those gulls that aren’t being watched.

As is typical of the criminal fraternity, a lot of them were uncooperative:

The scientists tried to test 74 gulls, but most would not participate.

Only 19 of them of them actively participated in the “looking at” and “looking away” test. I’d suggest they were just the lackeys and those higher up in the criminal network — the Godfeathers perhaps — avoided being linked to any crime.

The University of Exeter researchers said the study, conducted in coastal towns in Cornwall and published in the journal Biology Letters, shows how people might be able to reduce food-snatching by modifying their own behaviour.

Indeed, if I find myself in locomotion with a potato I now constantly crane my neck so I can lock eyes with these bewinged reprobates. This buys me 21 seconds to employ the “arm-over defence” as taught to me by Master Po during my stay at the Shaolin temple.

Why do films get mental health so wrong? External link icon.

The article I link to is specifically related to bipolar but the sentiment is true of film and TV representations of all mental health disorders.

The why, though, is easy.

People who don’t suffer from mental illness just don’t understand it. That’s true of most illnesses of course, mental or otherwise, but mental illness isn’t afforded the same respect as other illnesses. It just isn’t.

Despite all the science pointing to mental illness being a combination of biological, genetic and environmental causes, just like many other illnesses, you’re more likely to be blamed for your mental illness. Many people don’t see you as “ill” and assume you should just be able to think yourself better.

The short supply of empathy for these conditions is why so many sufferers find themselves living on the edges of society, either physically or emotionally.

Sadly such opinions are often prevalent even in medical circles, so it’s not surprising TV and film gets it wrong too.

Priti Patel pushes for weakened encryption

Priti Patel is pushing for weakened encryption in the UK as part of the so-called Snooper's Charter. She wants tech firms to provide backdoors in end-to-end encryption so intelligence services can access it at will. There are many problems with this idea.

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Einstein's 'Equivalence Principle' passes the test External link icon.

Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity is what we use to describe gravity and it has passed many experimental tests since Einstein devised it in 1915.

One of the things Einstein postulated is the pseudo-force we feel when we’re accelerated, such as being pressed back into our seats, is equivalent to the gravitational force.

He said that:

Inertial Mass x Acceleration = Gravitational Mass x Intensity of Gravitational Field

This explains why astronaut David Scott’s hammer and feather fell at the same speed on the moon during Apollo 15. The inertia of a hammer (i.e. its resistance to movement) is greater than the inertia of a feather to a degree that cancels out the differing gravitational attraction of the masses due to gravity, hence they fall at the same speed (in a vacuum — we see differences on Earth due to air resistance).

To be fair, Galileo, Kepler, Newton and many others all had ideas about the Equivalence Principle long before Einstein, but Einstein brought it all together, reframed it and expanded it in his General Theory of Relativity.

One bit that Einstein expanded — and is hence called the Einstein Equivalence Principle — is:

The outcome of any local non-gravitational experiment in a freely falling laboratory is independent of the velocity of the laboratory and its location in spacetime.

This basically states that all the laws of physics are the same everywhere. It’s easy to say “of course they are” because that’s our everyday experience, but these things need to be tested under extreme conditions to be certain a theory holds true.

The details of Einstein’s theory also highlight differences to Newton’s theory of gravitation and many of the proofs for General Relativity set out to find these predicted differences, which are often only apparent in extreme circumstances.

So the article I link to describes an experiment to test things by looking at the light from a star orbiting a black hole, which is a fairly extreme set of conditions.

The experiment found the redshifts of the light it observed are 43,000 times more likely under Einstein’s theories than they would be under Newton’s.

Einstein wins again but scientists still expect his theories to break at some point when they come up against Quantum Mechanics in even more extreme conditions.

One sexy aside to this experiment — for anyone who hasn’t nodded off by now — is the situation with gravitational redshift. An object attempting to climb away from close to a black hole (or any mass for that matter) should lose energy and slow down because the gravitational forces of the black hole will be pulling it backwards.

This applies to light photons too. But the speed of light is constant, so how do we slow it down? Well, we don’t and Quantum Mechanics comes to the rescue. Light can be either a wave or a particle (but not both in any given experiment) and we need to see it as a wave here. The energy of light is related to its frequency, so by stretching out its waves, the frequency drops and so does its energy. This energy is what’s lost to the black hole, and stretched out light waves move from the blue end of the spectrum to the red end, hence ‘redshift’.

So Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity combine to provide the solution, which is ironic given that the theories spend much of their time at loggerheads these days.

I am not a robot

I'm a bit fed up with 'robot tests' that websites ask me to pass before permitting me access. Half the time I simply don't bother and visit another website instead. Is there no better way to do this?

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