Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Your Horoscope with our resident Astrologer, Madame Teakay: Aries (March 21 - April 20)

Aries - March 21 - April 20

You are one in a million, but given your ovine influence, this just means that there are 6.6 million people around the world exactly like you: please unsaddle your high horse and start to realise that you really are just a person. That said, the only thing that people really dislike about you is your tendency to tell everyone that everyone really dislikes you. An occurrence on the 9th involving a banana skin, four Yorkshire Terriers and a packet of crayons (with the Laser Lemon colour missing) will be a make-or-break situation for you: How you handle yourself in the aftermath could be the difference between long-lived embarrassment  and an exciting new job opportunity. When things get interesting as the New Moon recedes, just remember this: You're not in Kansas any more.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Quantum Superposition and Brain Mush

My mate Peter sent me this question via my 'Inspire Me' form:
Let the cat out of the bag 
"Here you go Tom, tell me about this breakthrough in terms I can get my head around because this whole two states, one state, no states *at the same time* turned my brain to mush :-/
Why is it important and how will it affect our day to day lives that a particle can be in several states / locations at once?"

First things first: I ain't no quantum physicist, but the subject does fall into that enormous hinge-lidded tub underneath the bed in my head, labelled with "Things I Am Interested In To Varying Degrees."

Secondly, Richard Feynman, physicist and godfather (or at least uncle) of quantum physics himself said that
"I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics."
Somebody else who I can't find a source for at the moment, said something like:
"If you are not completely confused by quantum mechanics, you do not understand it."
And so on. It's seriously messed up stuff and is completely counter-intuitive. But it does work: it predicts and explains certain things that can be tested. You may well remember the two-slits experiment from A-level physics (if you did it): The result (an interference pattern) shows real world evidence of the wave nature of light, yet other experiments show light to have a particle nature. It cannot, however, be seen to have both at once. This wave-particle duality is a central part of quantum mechanics.

In my limited understanding, the idea that something can be in two states at once is known as quantum superposition. If you flick back in your mind's eye to GCSE chemistry lessons in which atoms were depicted as a solid ball (a nucleus) with some smaller solid balls (electrons) whizzing around it in circles, you can rip this page out of your mental textbook. A more accurate image is of the electrons as clouds of possibility- they are at once everywhere and nowhere in particular in a fuzzy shell around the nucleus. The act of 'observing' the cloud makes it collapse and the electrons appear in a particular place.

Perhaps the most famous thought experiment designed to help you get your head around quantum superposition is that of Schroedinger's Cat. The basic principle is that a cat is sealed in a box. Within this box is a phial of poison, which is in turn connected to a system that will release the poison if a Geiger counter detects the decay of a single atom, which has been chosen for having a 50% probability of doing so within a certain time frame, say, one hour.
If the atom decays, the cat dies. If the atom doesn't decay, the cat doesn't die. Without directly observing the cat in the box, is it dead or alive at any particular time? Quantum theory suggests that the cat is both alive and dead (or perhaps neither alive nor dead) until someone (or something) 'observes' the cat. When an observation occurs, the probabilities collapse and the cat is seen to be in one or other state.
Yes, the intuitive response is "surely the cat is either dead or alive, we just don't know which one until we observe it?" But quantum mechanics is, as already stated, counter-intuitive, but has been shown to work.

A final quote, from Erwin Schroedinger himself on quantum physics:

"I don't like it, and I'm sorry I ever had anything to do with it."

What's the point?
For one thing, understanding quantum mechanics improves our understanding of the universe as a whole. Quantum physics has allowed us to get to grips with things such as radioactivity and the idea of antimatter, and its predictions of how light behaves have provided the key to properly understanding things like how the Sun works.

As for the experiment in the link in the question at the top of this post, it is further confirmation that scientists are understanding things correctly, and that the theories fit with what's happening in real life. In day-to-day terms, technologies growing up around these concepts may well change how we do things that we take for granted. Computing is one area which is taking quantum physics very seriously at the moment, as quantum entanglement is providing the possibility of super-secure data networks whilst quantum computers could use the fact that quantum particles exist in many states at once to perform many calculations at the same time, increasing the processing speed by many orders of magnitude.

Further reading

Saturday, March 20, 2010

I Bin Mostly 2

This week, I bin mostly...

  • Appreciating:
This is one of those ideas that falls very solidly into the category 'why didn't I think of that?' Even if I did, I wouldn't have been able to realise it, but maybe, just maybe, I could have convinced some artists to do it for me and then made lots of money out of it. Anyway... some very clever crazy person has taken the scribbled imaginings of children and turned them into works of art. The best thing about them is that you* get the feeling that the results are exactly what the kids would have drawn in the first place had they been endowed with unnatural artistic talents from an early age.

  • Stalking:
Latitude is one of Google's mobile offerings, and it deals largely in location- based applications. The most basic end of what Latitude does is telling you where you are when you open up Google maps on your mobile (or on your igoogle page). It goes beyond this, though, with other features including an ability to post Buzz based on your current location (I use it to post mini 'reviews' a fair bit when I'm visiting pubs and restaurants), but the feature I've been trying to play with this week is Location Alerts: When you have a few friends in your Latitude list and Google's got a handle on the places you end up in as part of your routine, it'll start to let you know (by email and/or SMS) if and when you and a friend end up geographically close at an unusual time or in an unusual place.
Now, I know a lot of people will have privacy issues with this (as do I), but the geek in me was interested enough to find out more. As with most Google products, you have a high level of control over all of your information, including who you share that information with and to what level. For example, I can share my accurate street-level location info with my good mate Sam, whilst allowing my boss, Gene, to see only my city-level location. If a dodgy looking bloke called Darth happens to request my location data, I can deny him anything at all. As a further example, in the widget above, you should be able to see where I am in the world at the moment (or at least very recently), but only to a 'city' level.
If you have any kind of geek-streak in you and you own some breed of smartphone, this is worth having a play with.

  • Failing:
This is a regularly updated sharer of fail (and some win) from around the world (though, as may be expected, largely America). If you don't know what 'fail' and 'win' are in webternet lingo the best thing you can do is click on that link and take a look. If you don't get it, you never will.
Some of it isn't safe for work or children, but then again I doubt any of it will get you in to too much trouble with your spouse, mother or IT technician once you've demonstrated the concept of the site.

  • Losing:
No, not really. The only reliable way to lose 10lb in one week is to cut a limb off, and I don't think that counts. I've seen this ad (or ones like it) popping up all over the place, but particularly on Facebook. Surely hosting ads like these is irresponsible? Not only will some people suffer the loss of unnecessary money by falling for these, but depending on the methods suggested once they've got your cash (assuming they do anything other than take the money and run), people may actually cause themselves damage.
Or maybe people should just put more effort into not being so gullible. That way, ads for things like this just wouldn't make any money.

  • Asking:
This is one of those sites that is as good as the people who are using it. The premise is simple: some people ask questions, others answer them. In order to do this you sign up and choose a few specialist subjects. Then, when someone asks a question that the Aardvark technology thinks you might be able to answer, it forwards it to you. You answer if you can, if not you pass and it moves on to someone else. If you ask a question it's sent to someone who might know the answer, and hopefully they'll send you a decent response. You can decide how the questions reach you: you can go to the site and answer questions there; you can be emailed with relevant questions; or you can even give them the details of various IM platforms and they'll send questions that you can answer through these.
The site's very much in its infancy, I feel, but I love the concept. I'm particularly impressed by the ingenuity of utilising IM (including MSN messenger and Google Talk). It will need high quality users if it is to receive high quality questions and provide high quality answers, so sign up and add your expertise!

* Well, I do at least.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

This is how grown up I am

Just look at that growd-up homeowner ornamentation. Spot the perfectly integrated awesome time travel device.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Calling all political activists

Despite being the kind of person who takes a general interest in the world around him, likes to learn new stuff for the sake of it and has a real burning desire to just know how things work, I have absolutely no interest in politics.

I have a vague idea that this is a bad thing, but I can't seem to do anything about rectifying it. It just does not grip me. My knowledge of politics extends to a misty awareness that there's a general election coming up sometime soonish, and that there are three main parties to choose from, two of which are ones that people actually vote for. Many people seem to want to vote for the third but don't on the basis that no-one else wants to vote for them. This seems absurd.

I try to take something of an interest, I really do. But I get put off by one quite major thing. I'll try to describe what that is...

The two main parties' election campaigns appear to consist almost entirely of slagging off the other main party. Party Political Broadcasts interrupt my already sketchy televisual experience to tell me that I shouldn't vote Conservative because someone's got funny hair, or something. And then another tells me that I shouldn't vote Labour because one of them said something a bit iffy about my grandmother.
And then the Lib Dems come on and tell me that I shouldn't vote Labour or conservative because they both have bad breath and don't wash the soles of their feet in the shower*.

In short, the political campaigns that rage in the popular media; the ones that are more likely to come my way, seem to be geared towards ensnaring the average British TV soap enthusiast and/or Sun reader. Some of the skirmishes even appear to be targeted at readers** of the Daily Fail.

I guess this is a rather long-winded way of coming to my main point, which is a challenge. A challenge to anyone of a vaguely political nature who happens by this post. That challenge can be summed up in just two words:

Sway me.

I am a blank canvas. Convince me that your party is the one for me; the one next to which I should place my pencilled 'X' come voting day. You can do this in the comments or by way of a response post on your own blog (please comment with a link so that I and others may find it). Bear in mind that I am not the only person in this situation or with these priorities: You are potentially calling to thousands of others like me Some hints to help you along the way:
  1. My personal priorities are:
    1. Education (particularly mathematics, and from the point of view of classroom teachers)
    2. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics in general
    3. Not having to pay for things I don't use (i.e. paying extra taxes to fix roads I don't drive on)
    4. Religion (particularly crowbarring it away from decision making for important, real-world, non-imaginary things)
  2. If you include slurs against candidates from opposing parties (or against other parties in general) this will count against you. If your party is worthy of my vote you won't need to call someone else's mother names in order to win it.


@miss_s_b has responded on behalf of the Liberal Democrat party here:

Is there anyone out there willing to pick up the gauntlet in the name of any other British political party?

* Yes, I know this isn't precisely the case, but I think you get the point: Each party (it seems to me) moans about the policies of the others far more than saying why theirs are quite good, actually.
** I use this word loosely.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

I Bin Mostly

This week, I bin mostly...

  • Exorcising:
Probably The Best Housemates In The World
An ex-pat mate of mine has been having issues of a landlordly and otherworldly nature...

  • Laughing:
Sleep Talkin' Man
A bloke called Adam has his subconscious laid bare for all to see by his missus.

  • Anticipating:
The movie of the decade trailered exclusively:

  • Recursively posting:
The Blood is the Life: Bumper Conference Avoidance Issue
This is a response to the above, which is a response to Who's there? which is, in itself, something of a Geekwar skirmish.

  • Supporting:
The Foxes of Nevis
My mate's hiking up Ben Nevis with the aim of raising money for LOROS. Give 'im your fooking money* here: Leicester City fans climbing Ben Nevis

* Bob never actually said this (or anything similar). THIS is what he actually said.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Mmm, beer

This is just a small part of the ceiling of one of the pubs that I appear to be becoming a regular at. Possibly Northamptonshire's foremost beermat collection.

Follow me on google buzz for random comments on places I happen to be!

Who's there?

This is my Who shelf. Bask in the sadness; revel in the knowledge that there's someone out there sadder than you.

If you have an entire shelf somewhere dedicated to all things Who, please photograph it and show me or else I won't believe you. I'll think you're just trying to be cool.

Or (and I've just thought of this), if you think you have a shelf devoted to something even sadderer, please let me know about that too. Feel free to do it anonymously.

Monday, March 8, 2010

While my guitar gently weeps...

This is just a quickie to say:


I love this song, and I particularly like this version of it, by Jeff Healy. I knew nothing about him whatsoever (other than that he performed this rather nifty cover version of a George Harrison song), and looked up this video on a whim:

I had no idea he was blind, but that's by the way. I don't even want to mention the mullet because that's just very nineties and not particularly worthy of comment. But that playing style? I have never seen anyone play a guitar like that before. It's mesmerising. I can't even begin to imagine how I'd go about starting to emulate that, or what kind of a cacophony it'd produce if I did.

This is part of the reason why I like looking up the history behind songs that get me going. Every now and then you find something that just makes you think wow.

Asking for trouble...

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Royal Mail's idea of a 'safe place'

I wonder when our official national postal service will run out of new and interesting 'hiding' places for my packages. Surely there are only so many places that are in full view of anyone who happens to be passing.
Posted via email from teakayb's posterous

I've ranted about the Post Office before: |   Part 1   |   Part 2   |

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

And Another Thing... The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy part 6 of 3 - a review

Click HERE to buy from Amazon
I'm an enormous fan of Douglas Adams's Hitchhikers' trilogy*, and as any real fan will be aware, Mostly Harmless was a slightly depressing affair to end the series on - Adams himself expressed a desire to put this right with a sixth book. When he died in May 2001 it looked like this would never happen. And then, in October 2009, H2G2 part six of three was published by Penguin Books, written by Eoin Colfer.

The book was met with a predictable diversity of reaction: many fans stating before they'd even so much as seen the cover that it was an abomination and they wouldn't be going near it with somebody else's barge-pole; others prepared to feed a succession of grandparents to the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal in order to get so much as a featherlight touch of the dustjacket.

Me? I was somewhere between the two. DNA is a somewhat godlike figure in my eyes**, and it would be difficult for anyone but him to do justice to a continuation of the series. At the same time, however, Hitchhikers' is such a big thing in certain circles that if someone was going to dare to even consider thinking about attempting to do it justice, they'd be going all-out to give it a damned good stab.

Here's Colfer himself talking about Six of Three. There's not too much in the way of spoilers:

But enough backstory- what about the book?

Colfer's story telling ranges from inspired originality through enthusiastic fan-fiction to trying just a little bit too hard to make it sound like Douglas Adams has actually written it, and flicks between these three states with wild abandon. As a Hitchhikers' book it doesn't quite work on some level. Flicking through Adams's original books, you can stab your finger in at any point and be sure of hitting something funny or clever or both. Six of three has its moments, and the odd passage will find its way into H2G2 quotelore, but it doesn't achieve anywhere near the constant laugh-a-paragraph barrage of quotables that Douglas made seem so effortless.

Having said that, it's not bad. As a story it has pretty much everything you'd want, but it's just not Hitchhikers'. Some of the characters aren't quite right and the story itself just doesn't gel in the universe that DNA created: Arthur's himself, if a bit more laid back and accepting of what the universe has to throw at him; Trillian's o.k, considering that she's trying to take on a bit more of a mother-role with Random in the picture. Ford and Zaphod, however, just aren't themselves, and I can't quite put my finger on why. Without spoiling anything, Colfer has resurrected characters that worked wonderfully as throwaway anecdotes and side-jokes in the original books, but don't quite deserve a bigger role***. But it's still readable; I don't regret having asked for (and, evidently, received) it for Christmas; I don't regret starting to read it; I don't regret following it through to the end.

It's a light read that will either entertain or horrify depending on what you want to get out of it: Many hardcore fans may well hate it, but I can conceive of less insistent visitors to the franchise who may actually (brace yourself) prefer this outing to some of the others. It veers more towards the fantasy side of things and consequently doesn't have, for example, the fondly sardonic nods to technology that the first five books did, and the more fantastical asides from those books (such as gods and immortal beings) step forwards to fill in the gap. The writing is a lot simpler, and the missing layers of cynicism, irony, sarcasm and social commentary may displease many fans of Douglas Adams's storytelling. And Another Thing..., though, is easy to read, entertaining in its own right and, in my opinion, leaves our heroes**** in a much better place***** than Mostly Harmless did. And don't they deserve that?

I think the general gist of this review is that you'll have to read it and decide for yourself. Why couldn't I have come up with that seven paragraphs ago?

[Hardback]          [Paperback]          [Audiobook]

As a special treat, a band called The Blizzards have released a single inspired by the book entitled And Another Thing... . They've disabled embedment, but you can watch it here.

* Yes: trilogy. According to Adams it was always meant to have three parts; he just forgot to stop writing.
** And that means a lot coming from a committed atheist.
*** O.k, so maybe Dirk Gently would have something to say about that...
**** And anti-heroes. And professional cowards.
***** Mostly...

New Tuesday drinking buddy...