Saturday, 21 December 2013

Why Internet Filters Are (Mostly) A Dumb Idea

Here in the UK the Conservative-led government has just introduced, to much fanfare, internet filters.  The idea is, of course, to "protect the children", that classic "vote winner" in the lead up to a general election.

Of course, well implemented filters do have their place.  Workplace networks are a good example, they're used to protect sensitive data and to protect against malware.  In the home, however, it's a slightly different story.

The filters that have been introduced are at the "ISP level", meaning they are run and implemented by O2, BT and the rest of the main household providers, and the settings are (by default) the same for every household in the country.  It's not some sort of government mandated censorship scheme, whoever is paying the bills is able to turn them off and browse the entire internet to their heart's content, so there's no real "but we're adults" argument.  The problem is that it doesn't only fail at its main purpose of "protecting the children", it may actually make things worse.

The internet is, like the rest of life, a big bad world containing plenty of things that children shouldn't be exposed to.  Young children using the internet should be supervised, and older children should at least have had a little bit of education in the potential dangers and how to handle them.

Even if these filters worked well (which they don't, it's still a trivial exercise for a 10 year old to find porn if they're determined to), you can't replace being a parent with a list of bad websites.  The filters are incomplete and always will be, and telling parents that they will protect children is akin to telling them their kids can drive a car as long as they're wearing a seatbelt. 

What the government should be doing is teaching parents about hacking.  Firstly, just how easy it is to work around these filters, and secondly (and most importantly) that the most effective form of hacking ever devised is called "social engineering" and has almost nothing to do with computers.  If you wanted to break into Company X's network then you could either spend days running various attack scripts, all of which will probably fail, or you could simply start phoning around the employees, claim to be from an IT contractor, and sooner or later one of them will hand over their login details.  It happens every day.

Children won't be protected by filters, and suggesting that it's even possible is dangerous and misleading to parents.  To protect their kids parents simply have to use a little social engineering - in this context it's more often called "talking to your children".  You're never going to stop a teenage boy finding porn on the internet, but what you can do is make sure that when they do find it they know what they're looking at - a commercialised parody of what the average sex life is actually like.  You can't prevent your daughter receiving a phishing email, but you can make sure that she recognises what it is and doesn't respond to it.

Imagine you'd never been allowed to cross a road until you were 18, what would your life expectancy be?   You don't stop children crossing roads, you teach them to do it safely, and that's exactly how we should be treating the internet, not with crude, politically motivated "solutions" that are worse than nothing.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Robotic Cat Syndrome - An Owner's Experience

Our much loved cat, Henry, died a couple of weeks ago.  We had him euthanised because he had Robotic Cat Syndrome (RCS) and had reached the stage where he had trouble doing everyday cat things.  We're pretty gutted to be honest, but hopefully our experience can be of some use to others.

RCS is a fairly rare condition which only affects cats in the North East of Scotland, roughly the triangle formed by Aberdeen, Aviemore and Inverness.  The only real study of the condition and anecdotal evidence from our vet suggests a hundred or so cases have been found.  It's most likely a viral infection picked up from the bird or rodent population, and causes a slow loss of motor skills, typically over the course of a couple of years.

A disclaimer at this point - I'm not a vet, the only biological science education I have is a first-year biology course I did at university (Feynman's "map of a cat"), and I've not even been able to read the only peer reviewed paper on the subject because it's behind a paywall (insert rant here). This isn't veterinary advice, it's the experience of one owner. If you have any kind of concerns about your cat then please ask a real vet, not me.  DON'T PANIC. RCS is rare and restricted to a fairly small area. And it's not the end of the world, see below.

We first found out Henry had RCS because we took him to get his back claws trimmed.  We thought he was having trouble scratching because they were too long, but the vet immediately spotted that he was moving strangely.  I grew up with dogs, so I'm not used to cats, but a cat-fluent friend had also suggested something wasn't quite right.  He was holding his tail out a little stiffly and his back legs weren't quite as fluid as they should be.

Over the next six months or so he lost much of the strength in his back end, with the thigh muscles visibly wasting.  He stopped jumping up on objects pretty much in order of height - he'd previously been able to jump a good 4ft+ from a crouch, but six months after the first suspicion he was limited to the couch and (usually) my favourite chair.

He then gradually deteriorated over the next year, with movement becoming more and more awkward and moving forwards towards the head.  He was still capable of quick movements, as evidenced when he was startled by a friendly German Shepherd which snuck into the house, but that was clearly quite adrenalin charged, most of the time he adopted a careful plod which gradually got slower.

At no point did he seem to suffer from any mental problems - he was clearly a little frustrated, but he didn't exhibit any of the confusion that have been reported in some RCS cases.  Nor do we think he was in any great pain at any point.  When we last took him to the vet, about two weeks before he died, the vet didn't believe Henry was in any pain, but agreed with us that he was starting to lose his basic "being a cat" functions.

What You Can Do To Help The Cat

Ask A Vet. Ask A Vet. Ask A Vet.

Other Things You Can Do

Our vet prescribed Metacam, a drug similar to Ibuprofen, but for cats. Please, go with the proven veterinary pharmaceuticals, "alternative veterinary medicine" is designed to make you feel better, not the animal.  Metacam seemed to make Henry far more able to relax and he enjoyed it as a "treat" straight from the oral syringe.

Help them scratch/wash.  They can't reach up with their legs easily, so Henry seemed to enjoy a good firm rub with my palm.  I'd also moisten my hands with a little water and stroke him firmly to clear any matted fur.

Keep them active.  It can't hurt.  The cat finds moving difficult, so it will move less and lose muscle tone, which means moving is more difficult...if the cat enjoys chasing string or whatever then encourage this.

Don't Confuse It With:

Lyme disease & others - RCS does not make the cat sick (eg feverish, vomiting, loss of appetite).

Arthritis - The symptoms are similar, consult a vet.

Henry is buried in his favourite spot by the shed.

He is now more powerful than the mice can possibly imagine.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

What "What Doctors Don't Tell You" Don't Tell You

As anyone who follows me, especially on Twitter, will be aware, there's been a bit of a fuss recently regarding the magazine "What Doctors Don't Tell You"  (WDDTY).

I've got enormous concerns about this magazine.  It's not simply an "alt-med" (alternative medicine) magazine devoted to home-grown treatments and alternatives to drugs.  It's actively telling people that homeopathy and various supplements are realistic treatment alternatives for conditions such as HIV and cancer, and that vaccines are dangerous and should be avoided.  Frankly I look forward to the days (around a decade from now) when children who have suffered life-changing measles infections bring their first legal challenges against the parents who decided they shouldn't be vaccinated.

However, there's always two sides to a story.  There is indeed a place on the magazine racks for an alternative health magazine.  I've been accused of both "moaning" and "bullying" for my anti-WDDTY attitude.  To counter this I've laid down a little challenge on Twitter: write an article that WDDTY should be about.  Not scaremongering, real criticism of the "medical establishment", just to prove that WDDTY could, if they wished, produce a responsible and useful magazine.

What Doctors Don't Tell You
One of the greatest challenges facing the medical establishment is the gradual failing of antibiotic treatments.  These were, when first discovered, one of the greatest human discoveries of all time.  Simple infections killed many people, from a simple boil to meningitis.  Any bacterial infection that the body couldn't handle had a high chance of killing you.  The discovery of antibiotics, penicillin and the like, was to change all of this in a manner which was frankly miraculous to anybody living at the time.  The equivalent today would be a cure for cancer, HIV, malaria, 'flu and car crashes all in one.

Penicillin was so useful, and so difficult to produce, that the urine of patients given the new wonder-drug was even filtered so the excess penicillin they excreted could be recovered and given to another patient.  It was, I repeat, miraculous.  I don't use that word lightly, what with not believing in god and miracles and all.

But we're facing a big problem.  It's not working any more.

Penicillin, the original drug, is of very limited use these days.  It has very little impact on most of the bacterial infections it used to cure.  There are very similar variants that have been developed - Amoxicillin, Dicloxacillin and lots of other things ending in "cillin", but they're still all just a symptom.

The problem is something else that appears to be contentious in the world of science: evolution.

The problem is, if you use a drug that kills 99% of germs then you're left with the 1% of germs the drug won't kill.  And then that 1% keeps breeding until there's as many as you started with.

This is the reasoning for all of the stern warnings on the antibiotic packets about finishing the course.  Yes, you feel better half way in, that's because half of the bacteria are gone and your body has a chance to catch up on the whole "immune system" thing.  If you stop taking the drugs, however, all you're doing is letting the drug-resistant versions (which have survived so far) take over.  It's like the 1940s USA dropping a nuclear bomb along with millions of leaflets on how to stop nuclear bombs exploding.  Sure, most of the leaflets will burn up, but one will survive, making all of your research null and void.

So if there's any criticism of the medical "establishment" to be made, it's that they've squandered an incredibly valuable resource.

Why did they do this?  It's partly simple human nature: we feel better, so we stop taking the drugs.  There's also strong anecdotal evidence to suggest that antibiotics have been over-prescribed, simply dished out to patients who have a bit of a cold and go to their doctor demanding the "miracle cure".  The fact that they have precisely zero effect on viral infections like the common cold seems to be lost amongst the sheer need to get rid of a demanding but would-get-better-anyway patient.

Antibiotics have been used as placebos over the years, because of budgetary pressures on GPs.  That's something which doctors won't tell you, because they don't have the time and money to discuss it.  They have to save the money for patients with advanced cancer who insist their "vitamin C tablets will deal with it, and by the way, can I have some more morphine?"

Friday, 11 October 2013

The Rocket Engineer's Song

 With apologies to The Corries and "The Bricklayer Song"
(Their far funnier version is at the bottom)

Dear Sir, I write this note to you
to tell you of my plight,
for at the time of writing it,
I'm not a pretty sight.
My body is all black and blue,
my skin a yellow/grey,
and I write this note to say
why I am not at work today.

While working on the stage two link
my safety rope was sheared,
and letting go at such a height
was not a good idea.
The Team 6 Chief, he wasn't pleased
(he is an awkward sod)
he said he'd have to cancel launching,
"due to FOD".

But in his haste to cancel launch,
he got the wrong codeword,
or as he claimed in court last week,
CAPCOM just misheard.
Either way, result the same,
it left me out of luck,
the countdown clock hit zero,
I knew then, I was fucked.

The engines fired, the bolts went bang,
umbilicals fell like lead,
and clinging to a Saturn V
I started up instead.
I rose up with the rocket,
assuming I was dead,
and ten feet up I hit the bloody gantry with my head.

The force of this collision,
half way up the rocket stack,
caused multiple abrasions,
and a minor heart attack.
I clung on tightly to the ship,
my body wracked with pain,
then "oh here comes the crew ramp"...
...bloody gantry one again.

I had no choice at this point,
(let alone much hope)
I put my faith in Newton
and let go the safety rope.
My body it just tumbled,
as helpless as the rain,
by some dumb luck I met the bloody gantry once again.

Crumpled on the crew ramp,
I thought I'd passed the worst,
but rocket exhaust rained down on me,
I really must be cursed.
The surgeon thinks I should be dead,
and I can only say:
I hope you'll understand why I am not at work today.

(The real version)

Monday, 7 October 2013

LSE "Jesus & Mo" Row

As always at this time of year, student unions up and down the country are trying to convince both students and their parents that "they're doing something about something", and this year the London School of Economics (LSE) is at the centre of it.

Students from the Atheist Secularist And Humanist Society (run under the auspices of the LSE's Student Union), as usual, held a stand at the Fresher's Fair.  Two members wore T-shirts displaying a cartoon from Jesus & Mo, a popular webcomic.  Complaints were made, and the Atheist Society were asked to cover the shirts.

And now there's a massive row about it.

So lets get a few things out of the way:

Islam prohibits images of The Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him / may The Force be with him).  The intention of this rule is to prevent idolatry - for example, what if there's a picture of Mohammed where he has big ears and another where he has small ears, which is true?  It's the kind of thing that leads to schisms, and the world has quite enough of those already.  Note that this prohibition applies to Muslims, not worldwide.

Jesus and Mo isn't some crass piece of offensive nonsense.  It's a legitimate and fairly gentle piece of religious satire.  They address the question of representing the Prophet, claiming they use a body double, which is fair enough.  There's not even a question of copyright here, the cartoons are licensed under a Creative Commons licence.

A student union is, usually, a private club in the eyes of the law.  They have the right to ban within certain rules - students can't be excluded on grounds of race, religion or sexuality for example, but this doesn't amount to entirely free speech on these grounds.  Neither the LBGT Society or the Heterosexual Society (if there is one) are likely to be able to show their own particular brand of porn for example, even if it's an 18+ venue and the porn is perfectly legal.

So...the students had a right to wear the T-Shirts, the Student's Union had the right to insist on them covering it up as a condition of entry, end of story.  In the absence of any legal challenge to the matter, that's the end of the argument - there is no censorship issue, as they're only preventing something being said on Union property.  Just because the Guardian won't print this post it doesn't mean they're censoring me.  The students are free to wear the T-shirts anywhere else they want.

But, of course, these arguments tend to have a life of their own,  and everyone wants to weigh in.  I've already had two vigorous discussions with people on Twitter who disagree with me almost entirely, despite us all holding the same atheistic views otherwise.  So here's my view on a few aspects:

Question 1: Were the students right to wear the T-shirts?
I have to acknowledge that Jesus And Mo themselves say it isn't Mohammed, but I've not heard this defence presented in any way.  As an independent observer it looks very much like they're simply trying to cause offence, and in a very targeted way aimed at one particular religion.
  It's possible that they weren't even aware of the potential for offence and the reasoning behind it, but frankly if they weren't aware of the "no pics" rule in Islam then they probably need to study the subject they're rejecting a little more. 
 If they wanted to challenge the "no pictures" rule then they can do it without displaying a picture.  A shirt reading "There are no gods, and Mohammed is not a prophet" does much the same job without being so directly offensive, but even then it's singling out a particular religion - does that mean that Christianity is less liable to criticism from Atheism?  Would singling out Hindus instead be a better idea, because they have more gods and are therefore a more "legitimate atheist target"?
  The job of atheism is to challenge the initial precept that there is a god, religions themselves voluntarily lump themselves together by founding their beliefs on there being a god or gods.  Atheism doesn't need to attack Islam, Sikhism or any other religion to do its job, the argument is that "there is no god" and if it's made well enough then all religions will be equally hoisted by their own logical petards.

Question 2: Were the Students Union right to ban the T-shirts?
As with question 1, they're certainly within their rights.  Was it a sensible idea however?  Well, that depends on why they did it.  If they were expecting to get into the papers and throw their name around a little then yes, mission accomplished.  If they were trying to "protect their students" however, then it's a very different matter.
  This is a university.  The very point of which is to take some rather nerdy people and prepare them for life.  The may be "little darlings" in the eyes of some, but they have to learn to live in the real world with people who disagree with them and learn to stand their ground.  This applies just as much to your Pakistani girl from a cloistered religious upbringing as your public schoolboy who's living in a hall named after Pater.
  Student Unions do have a duty of care to their members, but part of that is allowing them to fight their own battles.

Wearing the T-shirts was a mistake.  The Atheist contingent were either very naive, or they set out to shock, quite possible hoping for publicity as a result.  But they're simply telling their "target audience" to fuck off.  If atheism is all about telling religious people to fuck off, then fair enough, it does the job, but that not any part of atheism I want to be part of.

Banning the T-shirts was also a mistake.  It was nothing illegal.  It wasn't inciting racial hatred, it wasn't threatening anybody.  It was just a particularly crass and badly thought out piece of "shock-jock" atheism.  The Union should have just told Whoever Complained to use the standard student arguments of pickets, protests and the like, let the student body decide before handing the matter over to a very few elected officials in the Union.  A vigorus public argument, no kicking or spitting, is a good thing, especially when you're meant to be learning about life.

In fact, banning the T-shirts has turned this from an argument between the Atheist Society and the Whoever Complained Society of LSE, into a big argument with people claiming the free speech of the UK is at stake, when it should be about young people with forming belief systems meeting other people, understanding their point of view, and taking it apart where necessary.

A simple ban seems to remove a huge learning opportunity for everyone involved. 

It's a student spat, and they should be arguing their respective ground in the University Court, as is tradition and juristiction, not throwing soundbites to social media and the press.

As any fule student kno:

Wheaton's Law: "Don't be a dick."

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

What Theoretical Physicists Don't Tell You

    "If you see the chemistry department running away from something then you should try to keep up.  If you see the theoretical physics department running away from something, there's probably not much point."

 Clearly, physicists are evil. Their closely guarded knowledge is kept away from the general public and shrouded in secrecy, lest we mere mortals realise how little they actually know, or find out what they're up to.  So, for the first time, I expose their web of hidden knowledge.

They Use A Secret Language

Physics is full of properties with cosy, familiar sounding names. Particles have properties like colour, flavour and spin, even "energy", despite nobody observing so much as an aura around a particle.  None of these things are related to what these words actually mean in everyday life. They can't have a colour, because we can't even see them (and they're far smaller than the visible wavelength of light anyway). They don't have a flavour, because you don't see quark flavoured ice-cream.  OK, there is a cheese called quark, but that's just pedantry.  There's nothing grave about gravity, relativity has nothing to do with your family tree and the word "quantum" can be applied to anything you want to sound impressive.  It's all one big cover up for something or other.

"Maths, Or It Didn't Happen"

To make their tinkering with language even more obscure, and in an attempt to exclude the social science department and those pesky "ethics committees", physicists shroud their most simple theories in complicated mathematics, meaning anyone who wants to understand it has to do the equivalent of a university maths degree!  That's a whole degree in an entirely different subject!  Do vets have to do a law degree? Do geologists need to learn marketing? Again, it's an ugly big conspiracy designed to confuse.

Take, for example, the equation that helped kick-start quantum theory:

E = hf

E is energy, and f is frequency.  When Max Planck was investigating the relationship between them he found they weren't equal, so he just made up a number, called it h, and stuck it in there to fudge the equation.  And for that he gets a so called "constant" named after him.

They're Usually Wrong

Most physics is wrong! It's a dirty little secret they don't let on to.  Take, for example, the first physicist, Sir Isaac Newton. His "triumphant" theory of gravity is wrong!  Entirely wrong! It turns out it only works when you're not moving.  Physicists will bleat on about it being the limit of relativity as the field and velocities tend to zero, but what they mean is it only works perfectly in situations where there's no gravity and nothing moves, which is pretty useless for a theory of gravity.

Basically, all physics prior to relativity and quantum theory, which is everything prior to about 1920, is wrong (they'll claim it's an "accurate estimate" or "limit condition", but it's still wrong).  That's 1,920 wasted years!

Physicists also react joyfully when a long established theory is shown to be wrong, and happily replace it with yet another fudged equation and made-up words.  Admitting you're wrong is no way to gain credibility, even if the evidence says you are wrong.  Imagine if politics worked like this - it would be chaos.

They Invented Nuclear Bombs

Yes, possibly the most damning evidence of all.  Physicists from all over the world bear direct responsibility for whatever politicians do with nuclear weapons.  The politicians, clearly, are blameless - they don't know enough of the complicated maths stuff to understand exactly what a nuclear bomb will do.

Many of the greatest names in physics, Oppenheimer, Feynman and many others, conspired during the Second World War to create a weapon that could destroy the world.  The fact that the German military were trying to make one of their own is no excuse, everybody knows two wrongs don't make a right, and the autobiographies and interviews with all of the participants shows they all knew what they were building and all understood just how horrific the weapon would be.  Oppenheimer himself quoted the Bhagavad Gita after seeing the first test - "Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds."  If that's not gloating I don't know what is.  I'm pretty sure he added "Mwahahaha!" after he said it.

Ignoring the weapons aspect, this research was also instrumental in developing nuclear power (evil), furthering theoretical physics (evil) and radiotherapy treatments for cancer (evil).

They shouldn't have done it, that's blatantly clear. After all, there's a reasonable chance that we'd have beaten the Nazis before they developed their own.

Further Reading:

[1] xkcd 669, "Physics professors don't like working in frictionless vacuums after all, they're such liars."

[2] Abstruse Goose 406, "Bastard theoretical physicists, how do you sleep at night?"


Monday, 19 August 2013

Non-Quantum, Feline Based Encryption Protocol


Whilst the common house cat, Felis silvestris catus, has a long standing association with quantum superpositions and the associated applications in cryptography, it has so far failed to substantially add to the development of the field, a situation known as the Wigner's Cat Paradox.[citation-needed]
  The author demonstrates a purely classical encryption method which allows a message to be encoded in such a way as to be not only encrypted, but unreadable by any party for a period of days.


Alice and Bob wish to share a message without a third party, Eve, being able to read it should she intercept it.  These names are traditional in cryptography (A, B and Evesdropper), and this technique requires a further person, Henry.  Henry is, in this case, a rather smart stripey black and gold cat.

Alice is a very clever biologist, and has carefully encoded the data she wishes to send into the DNA that codes for the pattern of stripes in Henry's back.  This data may, clearly, be encrypted itself, the stripes simply code the ones and zeroes.  Increased per-packet data density may be gained if technology permits defining hair colour at a follicular level, with a theoretical maximum in the tens of Megabits per Henry.

I'm sure the geneticists are all over this already, they know what they're doing.

When Alice has encoded her message into Henry she encrypts it by removing Henry's fur in a humane and loving manner.  Not shaving, cats really don't like that. Alice is kind and uses a special catnip scented depilatory cream that he loves.  Oh stop complaining, Schroedinger may or may not have killed his cat.

Now Alice sends Henry to Bob.  Henry can travel how he wants, either by having a mad-cap solo cross country adventure, a dark and moody road-trip with a friend or by luxury yacht.  Up to him.  See?  Schroedinger put his in a box, but Henry gets to have adventures.

Henry's fur will take around a week before any pattern becomes visible, even on close inspection.  For this period the message will not be readable by sight, although it could be recovered from a sample of Henry's DNA.  Current DNA sequencing and searching is not currently able to decode binary information from the stripes on a cat.[please-tell-me-I'm-wrong]

Upon his fur regrowing Henry gets a huge bag of catnip, a medal, and the run of Balmoral.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Questions From Friends (Part 2) - Radiation & Radioactivity

Another slightly-cheaty post from me, unashamedly based on an email conversation with a friend who writes Fan-Fiction.  If you're unfamiliar with the genre, it's generally an extension of an established fictional world, for example Harry Potter or Clarke's Space Odyssey series - anything you want in fact, it's a fan-driven and fan-written culture that has sprung up because people love the characters and setting, and want to explore it further.  Sadly, lawyers love getting involved, even when (as is normal) it's all done on an amateur basis and for free, which is why you're not getting a link to the final fictional result of this discussion.

I received an email containing the following request:

[Let's imagine] a new processing chip has flooded the's actually
radioactive, but a thin coating of plastic has disguised this fact.
(Yeah yeah, point is, it will leak eventually.)

However, by a series of improbable coincidences, the radioactivity is
discovered a week after launch by a scientific gentleman, actually
scanning for evidence of radioactivity from a difference source.

What, exactly, does the scan pick up? I mean, I know it picks up
radioactivity - like a Geiger counter - but if I want to refer to that
radioactivity in scientific muttering, what do I say? Unstable
isotopes? Fission activity? Help!! Is there useful vocabulary I can
drop in?

Cool.  I wish all fiction authors would put so much thought into their technowaffle, as it's officially called.  I'll point out that, much as I love it, Star Trek in all its forms is one of the worst perpetrators of Bad Technowaffle.  (Red Dwarf, on the other hand, is one of the best.)

So, my reply, which was written as an informal email if you spot any glaring errors in style or content:


[General personal salutations deleted]
 There are three basic types of radiation, alpha, beta and gamma.  All are produced by the decay of atomic nuclei, according to some very beautiful quantum mechanical magic which I'd love to go into but will omit for brevity (give me a shout if it's useful).  Particular nuclei (eg Carbon 14 or Uranium 235) omit a particular type or types of radiation when they break up (decay) and produce "daughter products" which are themselves radioactive, so they decay producing their own particular type or types and so on, until you have stable isotopes left (or just ones with a very long half-life).

An isotope is simply an atomic nucleus with a particular number of neutrons.  Carbon, for example, is defined as any nucleus with six protons, and the normal stable form has another six neutrons, hence Carbon 12. Carbon 14 has eight neutrons, and according to quantum wibbly stuff is more unstable and likely to decay.

Alpha radiation is simply a Helium 4 nucleus, the most common low-mass "chip off an atom" that is produced.  It's by far the biggest and heaviest lump that's ejected when a nucleus decays, and it is generally fired off at very, very high speed.  It can do a hell of a lot of damage to entire cells when it smashed into them, so it's very dangerous in the body.  However, because it's so big it's fairly easy to stop.  A sheet of paper, or indeed a thin film of plastic/resin, will stop it in its tracks.  This is what all the decontamination showers are about, washing off the contamination which produces the alpha before you can accidentally ingest or inhale it, it's relatively harmless on the dead outer skin layers (you can safely hold a piece of refined uranium in your hand), but when the source gets into the living cells inside the body it really kicks off.

Beta radiation is a high speed electron. It's not an electron that existed in the atoms in the first place though, it's made out of the leftover energy from an atom breaking up, and some of that leftover energy also gives it a hefty kick of kinetic energy.  Beta is the more benign of the three in some ways - it can be stopped by a thin piece of metal, an inch or so of wood, that kind of thing.  Beta will mess with atoms when it hits them, so it can cause mutations and hence cancers, and as it can penetrate a few millimetres of flesh you don't want to have any long term exposure - however, that's never stopped us worrying about cathode TV screens - cathode literally means "spits out electrons at high speed" - they're just electrically created beta radiation, and if you leave a Sellafield radiation badge sellotaped to a TV screen overnight and leave it playing it will detect enough radiation to get you removed from your job while they investigate! (My dad did it with his old badge when he left - you'd probably face a real risk of cancer if you did it for a month solid. As long as you're an inch or so from the screen you're fine for centuries.)

Gamma is the odd one out - it's not even matter, it's just a photon of light.  Just like radio, infra red, light, UV and so on, but with particularly high energy (in other words, a very short wavelength).  Different isotopes produce gamma with different energies, it's a very direct E=mc^2 demonstration: The energy (and therefore wavelength) depends directly on the amount of mass the nucleus loses when it splits, and that depends on which isotope it is - I'm getting quantum again...
Gamma can penetrate anything up to a few inches of lead, it's insidious, nasty stuff that's very difficult to escape.  It carries so much energy that it can kick electrons out of atoms, which changes their chemistry and really screws with the body's functions.  If you want to kill a lot of people in a nasty way with very little defence against it then gamma rays are what you want.  (Although SF would suggest at this point you would face an army of very big, very muscular and exceedingly pissed off green people...)

(There is a fourth kind, high energy neutrons as released in neutron bombs, but I've only just realised this and won't comment until I've read up on it and found it was first published in the 1920s!)

So...relevance to Silicon chips with a coating of plastic.  If your geiger counter picks up anything significant it won't be alpha.  You also need something which has a long enough half life to be of danger to the consumer, and most of the unstable Silicon isotopes decay in milliseconds, so they're out.  What is a good candidate, however, is Silicon 32.  It has a half life of 153 years, so it's going to be "live" for several human lifetimes.  It decays by beta, so you've got something which would be hindered by a plastic layer, but could be a danger with a little poetic license (eg silicon carrying current, ie a chip, boosts the beta).  Alternatively, people could be exposed in another way, like exploding chips (would only need to be a puff of Magic Blue Smoke) or, as Gerry suggests, "people licking them - there's nothing geeks like more than fission chips" - he says you're free to pinch that if you aren't already using it as the title)

First article on Si32 that popped out was one on geochronology - it's produced by cosmic ray impacts in the atmosphere.


So there you go.  That's how much thought and research goes into what ended up being about 1% of the storyline of an amateur piece of fiction done purely for fun.  There are certain science fiction books that you can pay actual money for which don't do the job half so well.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

The Naming Of Timelords

With apologies to T.S. Eliot.

The Naming of Timelords is a difficult matter,
It isn't just one of Moffat's odd games;
You may think at first I'm as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a Timelord must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First there's the name Gallifreyans use daily,
Such as Luton, Graffito, Salpash or James,
Such as Chovor or Jobiska, Rynde or Bill Bailey--
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Doctor, The Master, The Rani, Romana--
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a Timelord needs a name that's particular,
A name that's peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his time reputation,
Or control his TARDIS, or cherish bow ties?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Rassilon, Ao, or Pandak The First,
Such as Yassinbur, or else Apeiron-
Names that never belong to more than one Timelord.
But above and beyond there's still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover--
But THE TIMELORD HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a Timelord in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

With thanks to the Gallifreyan Conlang Project for the names.  All real, apart from James. And Bill Bailey's so obviously a Timelord I'm leaving him in.  Seriously, check T.S. Eliot's original, he's snuck himself in there. 

The Discrepancy

Ladies, gents, bots, potentially sentient networks, a guest post.

This is brought to you by Richard Tee (@RichardTheGeek) after a Twitter discussion on the subject of Dark Matter and Dark Energy and whether or not they're a whole big ugly cheating fudge.  The post below is Richard's take on the matter, the long rambling bit of fiction in the menu on the right entitled "The Discrepancy" is my attempt, I thought I'd give "making it all up" a go seeing as a clear and coherent argument was in such good (single malt loving) hands.


The internet. For a computer scientist with a hankering for physics, the internet can be a fun (and scary place).
The other day, I was involved in a very good Twitter Chat with two online friends, the subject of which was the concept of dark matter and dark energy.
As one of my personal heroes Dr. Richard Feynman once said “It doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn't matter how smart you are. If it doesn't agree with experiment, it's wrong.” – well Dr. Feynman I couldn’t agree more – sadly many people in modern cosmology think otherwise.

Why do you ask? Simple – we are wrong.

Before you hang me out to dry, kindly let me explain.

In the study of the universe, we have come across a slight problem – it seems that given our current equations and theories, we cannot account for roughly 96% of the matter that we think SHOULD be in the universe. In other words, the more we find out, the more it seems we don’t know … all the visible matter in the universe only adds up to 4% or so of the total amount of matter that should be out there!

If you haven’t guessed this is a problem.

So, what was the solution to this problem? Simple: Say that the remaining 96% of the “stuff” out there is simply, “dark” and thus not visible nor detectable by conventional means.

Simple right? … not quite.

A recent study from the AMS (Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer) was searching for positrons – which it found … that wasn’t the problem, the problem was that an expected results showing a “drop off” for dark matter was not present. Furthermore, given the nature of how we think dark matter behaves, we would expect it to be non-isotropic, meaning concentrated towards the direction of the galactic center. This was not the case: In fact it was nice and uniform.
So what does this mean? Nothing really. That in itself is a bad thing for the dark matter/energy group.
Of course, I am not saying that dark matter and dark energy doesn’t exist, but having it represent 90+% of the universe is a bit … far fetched.
Why am I so against dark matter/dark energy as the solution to our cosmological problems? It seems that it is just bad science.
Basically, as Feynman said, if the theory APPEARS correct, it can be assumed as long as the data supports it – at which point we need to re-write our theory to support the new data. This doesn’t seem to be the case of dark matter/energy. The observations seem to contradict our theory, and thus to “fix” the theory we happen to mention that it only accounts for 4% of what we can see.

The analogy I can make is spending. It is like a teenager saying they manage all their money very well … out of every $100 they keenly save $4, and the other $96 is unaccounted for… Would you let them manage your finances?

We may find out that one day, dark matter and dark energy are in fact present in very high quantities in our universe. However my gripe is that the fact that few people seem to be demanding a simpler and less exotic solution to the problem.
Ladies and Gentlemen, it is time to erase the blackboard and start from scratch on this one.


Saturday, 27 April 2013

Questions From Friends (Part 1): Is Our Universe A Simulation?

I've had a couple of interesting geek-type questions from friends recently, and as Twitter is a bit too limited for long explanations this is probably the place to explore them.

The first question is from Twitter's @LoisAnnounces, an expert on both cultural geography and asking awkward philosophical cosmology questions:

(For those not familiar with the link, arXiv is a "pre-print server" where draft versions of physics papers are published, allowing free access to anybody who wants it - a very good system which other subjects are starting to follow.)

The paper in question, "Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation" by Silas R. Beane, Zohreh Davoudi and Martin J. Savage (BDS) (direct link to the PDF) builds on the ideas presented in a famous paper published by Nick Bostrom of Oxford University, entitled "Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?".

The central crux of Bostrom's argument is that if Moore's Law continues then at some point in the future we'll have enough power to simulate, to the last particle, entire chunks of the universe, from whole molecules (now/near future) to biological cells, multicellular organisms and even, in the distant future, whole cities, planets, galaxies or, at the limit, a whole universe.  He then goes on to ask what the odds are that we're living in the "one original universe" or one of the countless simulations that an advanced civilization could create - the implication being that the odds are in favour of some variant on a "Matrix" scenario - we're all probably living in a computer simulation of some description.

While this makes for a very nice bit of philosophical theorising, it's not actually definitive in any way - what's needed is some sort of test before we all start learning Kung Fu, wearing lots of black leather and attempting to escape from our digital world.  This possibility of performing such a test is the main theme of the BDS paper (which, I should point out, is well beyond my limits in many ways!)

A great many "simulations" exist in physics - in fact, it could be argued that a good definition of physics is "the search for the simplest possible way to make a universe that matches ours".  From Newtonian mechanics to relativity, string theory and dark matter, all physics really is is a series of computer programs which seem to accurately mirror the universe around us (precisely why we can develop programs like this is a different, and equally fascinating question), and the specific "program" in the BDS paper is something called lattice quantum chromodynamics (lQCD), which thankfully is easier to explain than it is to actually do!

There is no Theory Of Everything at the moment (well, string theory might be, but nobody knows yet), so physicists tend to work on their own little subsets of reality in the hope that everything can be joined up later.  lQCD is a technique that deals solely with quarks, the particles which make up most matter, but doesn't include electrons (in other words there's no chemistry in this program) and also doesn't handle time, gravity or light in any meaningful way, so it's not a complete simulation.  The basic technique is to create a lattice, a grid of points in space, and give it a starting position with all the quarks in various positions, then run the simulation to find out what happens.

It's a remarkable powerful technique, and seems to match reality extraordinarily well.  It also has another interesting feature, which is that it's very efficient - in fact, it may be the most efficient way to simulate this small chunk of reality, and this is where it gets interesting.

The universe tends to do things as efficiently as possible - for example, there aren't, as far as anyone can tell, two different systems to make gravity work and to handle the conservation of angular momentum, one necessarily implies the other, it's all tied up in the one theory.  Space and time are another example - once thought to be two entirely separate entities, Einstein's work a hundred years ago led to the realisation that they were two sides of the same coin.  So, the BDS paper asks, could the universe actually be running on lQCD?

They've taken a simple, effective form of lQCD and assumed the universe plays by exactly these rules - and then they've done the classical science thing of asking what that universe would look like if this was the case.  Obviously, yes, it will be very similar to ours, that was the whole point of developing lQCD in the first place, but this is never a guarantee - Newton's law of gravity stood for several hundred years before we found a mismatch between it and reality.

The main prediction they find is related to the "GZK cutoff", a complicated way of saying there should be a maximum energy for any cosmic ray particle hitting the Earth.  This is something that is predicted by many theories, and the big test for many of them is exactly where this cutoff applies - something which is still unclear.

The nice thing about the BDS paper is that they're able to relate the GZK cutoff to the actual spacing of the lattice in lQCD - if our universe does run on lQCD then we can potentially discover this, and even find out some of the settings under universe -> file -> preferences.

So, returning to the original question, are we living in a simulation?

We're back to philosophy here - specifically the identity of indiscernibles. Let's assume that the universe does actually use lQCD - this doesn't actually imply a simulation scenario.  Yes, it could be a simulation, but it could equally well just be "the way things are".  Mathematical models crop up all over the place; plants grow in fractal structures, cicadas mate on a prime-number based pattern of years and the Golden Ratio seems to be behind many features in the natural world, but this doesn't mean there's some sort of Grand Simulator furiously tapping away on a keyboard.

If the universe obeys a "program" such as lQCD it doesn't have to mean there was a programmer, just as the existence of Pi doesn't imply the physical existence of a mathematically perfect circle (which, ironically, is impossible under lQCD).

Long story short? I can't put it any better than the great Randall Munroe, of (yet again).