Friday, 28 May 2010

Small telescope, small camera, big star...

You have to admit, this picture is cool....

Well, OK, I might have to explain a little....

That's a picture of the Sun.  The nearly unimaginably huge ball of hydrogen that's so big it dominates the Universe for several light years.  It's so big that the entire planet Earth barely registers as "assorted debris" if you do a quick audit of the Solar system.

Me and my mate Ben B^2 took that photo during a few minutes of downtime at work recently, we both had a few minutes off so we set up a telescope (we sell them, it's a bookshop that does geek stuff too), we added a solar filter (you must use one if you don't want to go blind) and we took a quick snapshot of the Sun.

It's all dirt cheap if you're lucky enough to live in the western world (but that's another post), just £130 for the telescope, £30 for the filter and a free phone in return for a contract.  £30 would get you a comparable camera.  So, for a total cost of £200-ish we've take a really bad quality astronomical photo.

But Wait!  There's More!

If you look closely, near the centre of the Sun, just to the right of centre and up a bit, there's a dark splotch.  (Click on the image to get a zoomed version)  That's not a glitch in the picture, that's a real, honest-to-goodness sunspot.  That's an active region of a star.

It's huge, at least the size of the Earth, probably several times bigger.  In fact, there were two to the naked eye, but the pic doesn't have that resolution.  Sunspots are important indicators of the "weather" on the Sun, they can be used to predict, for example, the Sun's effect on the Earth's average temperature, quite an interesting bit of data at the moment,  Take three or four pictures like that a day and you're well on your way to having data the scientific community will find useful.

And with just £200, that's really quite cool....

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Scientist Infected With Computer Virus (Except He's Not)

Oh good grief, somebody's at it again.  The t'interweb seems to be abuzz at the moment with news of Dr Mark Gasson of the University of Reading's Systems Engineering department, who from a first glance at the headlines has infected himself with a computer virus.

Which is, of course, hyperbole, misconstrued and misleading twiffle of the worst kind.  Let's be clear about this, he's not got a computer virus.

What he's done is infect an Radio Frequency ID (RFID) chip with a computer virus.  These tiny little chips are used all over the place, from tagging pets to tracking goods in shops, and they're very useful.  You could, for example, keep one in your wallet and program the lights in your house to turn on when you enter a room.  Doesn't have to be your wallet, of course, it could be your pocket, in the brim of your hat, hell, you could be really experimental and inject it under your skin if you wanted.  It makes no difference.

And that's what this guy has done, and he's not the first:  Professor Kevin Warwick (also of the University of Reading) did exactly that back in 1998.  The difference here is that instead of a simple tracking program Dr Gasson has installed a virus on the chip, which like any virus can potentially spread to any computer that talks to it.

That's not new either, remote exploits like this have been known about for years.  So what's the news?  Well, I suppose it's a way to show your average computer user just how insecure many systems are, that it's possible to spread computer viruses by simply walking around with an RFID chip in your pocket (or arm), but the people who would benefit from this information are also the ones who will take one look at a screaming headline about a scientist getting a computer virus and add it to their "science is bad" list, probably somewhere in between cloning (clones are by definition evil versions of us) and the LHC (going to destroy the world).

Monday, 24 May 2010

Science vs Religion - Move Along, Nothing To See

I've been spending a bit of time reading Jason Boyett's Oh Me Of Little Faith blog today.  There's some interesting stuff there, particularly as it's Christian in tone.  Now I'm a borderline atheist (quantum theory doesn't disallow god-like entities existing), but I still find religion in general fascinating.

Not in a Dan Brown way, you understand.  More as a logical system.  Science is just a logical system, one based on maths and observation, and religion is equally a logical system, based on belief.  In science you begin with the axioms of maths, and start saying "if x, and y, then z".  Monotheistic religions start with the simple statement "we believe there is a god".  (I use a lowercase g for the concept, and uppercase for the Christian God)

Both are highly intricate systems, and parts of both are constantly debated by their respective scholars.  I'm lucky enough to share a flat with two blokes from a Catholic background and who are both quite happy to argue about things in an intelligent way.  There are some remarkably complex bits of thinking in the faith - the infallibility of the Pope for example:  

"Surely", Science argues, "the Pope can sit in his magic chair and say something untrue?".
"Like what?", says Catholicism.
"Well for instance, that Pi is equal to three" says science, banging on about a pet subject again.
"Well that couldn't happen", counters Catholicism, "the conditions for ex cathedra teaching require a judgement on doctrine concerning faith or morals, abstract geometrical thought isn't included so it wouldn't be a legitimate argument involving infallibility.  Here's a very long Wikipedia article discussing the philosophy of papal infallibility, with forty odd footnotes and thirteen references, read them all and get back to me when you've finished."

Science then traditionally mutters something about Galileo and everything kicks off.

[EDIT: I just realised I wrote Catholicism with the voice of British comedian Bill Bailey...take that as you will...)

Religion is consistent, when interpreted carefully.  We science types often get too hung up on the vocal minority who insist on taking everything in Book X literally, when there's fascinating people out there like a Jesuit neurosurgeon I had the pleasure of knowing, or the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. 

Both sides need to learn that disagreement with the initial axiom, "we believe there is a god", is OK.  

Honestly, it's fine, once we've done that we can discuss the hypothesis of me going to Hell, which, at metaphorically the end of the day, is really interesting in implication.  I'm not going to take it personally, because I don't believe it will happen, and it brings us neatly around to Pascal's Wager.  There are interesting people on both sides, we need to agree to differ on the god thing, sit down with a mutually acceptable beverage, and have a chat.

And interesting chats are what Jason Boyett does well on his blog.  There you go, a full circle argument involving Pi and a Pope.  Worked quite well I thought.

As a last aside, Jason posts a funny piece concerning Michaelangelo's interpretation of God's choice of nightwear.  Seriously, God's wearing a pink nightie, I'd never really noticed it before.  So here's a science based reply, Michaelangelo might have been doing an anatomical sketch on the side...

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Dynamic sig, limericks, and a moon of Saturn....

I wanted an image for a sig that could show random text. It has to be an image so that it can be embedded in sites that won’t let you post HTML etc.  You can copy the URL in to any web page and it will show a different limerick each time.

This version uses a collection of limericks in plain text (from LimerickDB), called 1.txt , 2.txt , 3.txt and so on. The PHP script should be easy enough to edit.

Dynamic PHP Sig

Download a zip of the source code here

Incidentally, the “Probably Perl” line is a quote from somebody who accused me of being a script, no reference to the language it’s actually written in.

The background image is a copyright-free one from NASA - it's a pic from the Cassini probe showing geysers of water erupting from Saturn's moon Enceladus, one of the best bets for life in the Solar system.

Musings from my Slashdot Journal...the (non) evil of software patents.

DRM evil!
Software patents evil!
Anything that isn't open source and written in Perl v1 evil!

Come on people, get a grip. There are many wonderful open source projects out there, hell, the machine I'm typing this on is running entirely on open source software and I like it that way, but why on earth does that mean that everyone should follow suit?

Why is DRM evil? Musicians, for example, have every right to apply DRM to their own work if they so wish - of course it's very often applied by the company who have bought the rights to the work, bu that's how some musicians get know, money for instruments and food and rent and the like. And some musicians don't apply DRM so their work gets a larger base of fans. It's up to them and that's the point...since when was taking a persons rights away from them considered to be 'free-er'?

Software patents are slightly trickier area. Take this example: I work in a bookshop and we spend a fair amount of our time sat in front of a spreadsheet typing in an ISBN, then title, author, publisher and price....repeat ad nauseum. It's time consuming, so I hacked together a little program in php that takes a barcode-scanned list of ISBNs and extracts the rest of the information from our company website and puts it all into a spreadsheet format - very handy indeed.
So what is patentable there? Well none of the code per-se, it's just the standard use of php. But what about the concept of extracting ISBN information? Nope, been done, both the concept (see: Amazon et al) and the method (screen scraping). I can't even patent the concept of using a program to extract information from a website. That's called the Internet, it exists. Remember, you can't patent stuff that is already in the public domain or the "blindingly obvious".

The fuzzy object that is the "open source community" is in fact terrified by restrictions like this for no good reason - we've developed our own, very effective, FUD campaign.

Getting a software patent is in fact tremendously difficult. You have to come up with something entirely novel in some way, and that's difficult when it comes to code....effectively pure logic. It's comparable with developing a new piece of mathematics, it's the result of saying "If X and Y then Z" where X and Y have never been compared before and Z is an entirely new result in the field; patentable software is effectively a new scientific discovery and should be treated as such. That's why companies employ people to come up with the ideas. You know, jobs and money and the like. See "musicians" and "food", above. It's also why there are huge groups of people doing the same for free, it's a satisfying intellectual hobby for many. But again, since when was removing somebody's right to take the money someone else is offering "free-er"? Just because people are willing to do something for free doesn't give them the moral high ground and the ability to *dictate* what others can and can't do with their skills. If you want something to be available for free, invent it yourself and give it away. It's not difficult....except the inventing bit.

So is that the way forward? Treating software like any other scientific discovery? When Einstein came up with SR it was very much a case of taking X (speed of light being invariable) and Y (speed = distance/time) and coming up with a new Z (SR), so it was without a doubt new and novel. So what did he do? He released it to the wider community for verification and (importantly), credit. You can't patent scientific concepts as Einstein well knew, what with working in a patent office and all.

So, in fact, software patents are very difficult to get and are unlikely to affect anyone's freedom do do anything other than ask "why didn't I think of that?". If you want to beat the patent process then get inventing, invent as much as you can, and make sure it's out there in the public domain. Comms satellites can't be patented because they were accurately described by Clarke many years before we launched one. We just need lots of Clarkes. What if we don't patent a good idea and somebody get their first? Then we should have spent more time inventing and a little less time whining about the unfairness of the world. The world's unfair, get over it. There's better things to be doing than whining.