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Comment: Re:In other news... (Score 4, Insightful) 154

by Richard Kirk (#48809741) Attached to: Human Language May Have Evolved To Help Our Ancestors Make Tools

Yes, this is how science works. It is obvious that talking will help people make flint tools. We all know that. But how do we know that? Saying 'it's obvious' is not helpful. It is also obvious that you can get better at making tools when you can watch someone who is good at it. But you can get plenty of people how have never chipped flint tools, and see how much better they are when they watch someone, when they mutely interact with someone, and when they talk. Some gifted people can pick up musical instruments just by watching, but making flint tools seems to be helped a lot by language.

The article also says that this is suggestive, but could not be considered a proof. They know they have not got ancient people to experiment on. It is not practical to try the same tests with a mammoth hunt. It's not a time machine, but we use what we have.

Then you get a +5 'insightful' mark-up for jeering at it.

Comment: Structure in plasmas (Score 1) 300

by Richard Kirk (#48752957) Attached to: The Search For Starivores, Intelligent Life That Could Eat the Sun

It's a high energy plasma out there, how will you get any structure in that?

Actually, the sun has a lot of structure in its magnetic field. This is not just complex in the way Earth's weather is, meaning is is unpredictable. It has long term structures, such as the 11-year sunspot cycle.

I really doubt if these magnetic fields are sentient at all, and certainly not sentient as we understand it. The world's phone system has a similar complexity to the human brain, but if that was sentient, it would be hard to imagine what it thought about, as it has no obvious eyes and ears.

However, suppose we wanted to delay the supernova of our sun. We could do this if we had the technology by injecting fusible hydrogen from the sun's surface into the core at the same rates that it was consumed. This would require completely bonkers apparatus, but the physics is good. Supposing the best and most efficient way of doing this was to influence the magnetic field of the sun so that it did this itself. Suppose the best way of doing that was to artificially induce intelligence in these plasma fields, so it could do this without regulation...

That is a lot of supposes. But in my mind, I think if civilization lasts for astronomical time-scales, this is less ridiculous then expecting to detect them by their leaked unfocussed long-period radio waves, which is what SETI is looking for. I wouldn't spend any money on it, but the thinking doesn't hurt.

Comment: Thin lens formula (Score 2) 464

by Richard Kirk (#48725011) Attached to: Ask Slashdot: Are Progressive Glasses a Mistake For Computer Users?

Remember 1/object_distance + 1/image_distance = 1/focal_length ?

If you have your screen at R meters away, add (1/R) to your lens strength in diopters. Diopters are 1.0/focal_length in meters. That will give you the same comfortable image_distance at your eye when looking at your screen.

Suppose you have your monitor 0.5 of a meter away, and you use -5.0 diopter glasses because you are short-sighted. You add (1/0.5) = 2.0 to -5.0 diopters and get -3.0 diopters. The person who had -5.0 diopters and used -3.5 diopter lenses for computing work probably uses a screen 2/3 meters away. If you are short-sighted, the diopter values should get smaller in magnitude; if you are long-sighted, the diopter value will get bigger.

Add 2 diopters if your screen is 50 cm away.

Add 1.5 if your screen is 67 cm away.

Add 1 if your screen is 1m away (a bit far, but maybe you have a big monitor)

Hot damn, that school physics is actually good for something! Too bad they had to black out the lab to show us, and we all fell asleep. Now, all I need is some frictionless pulleys and massless string...

Comment: Re:No bigger than ... (Score 3, Insightful) 325

by Richard Kirk (#48546077) Attached to: Heathrow Plane In Near Miss With Drone

Bird strikes can be dangerous if one goes into the engine. This rarely downs an aircraft unless you have a two-engined aircraft and both engines get hit at the same time. Remember the plane that landed in the Hudson after a double bird strike? That was an Airbus A320.

Whether this is a significant risk depends on what the drone flyer is trying to do. If they are trying to get close-up pictures of aircraft then they are probably no bigger risk than birds. If they are aiming for the engines because they want to take down an aircraft, then there is a significant risk, particularly of the drone is carrying some load designed to do damage. Why would someone do this? I dunno. Why do people use laser pointers to try and blind pilots? Maybe not terrorism: some people are just dicks.

What do we do? Well, if they are radio-controlled then we can pinpoint the controller by radio. It would be a nice problem to design a set of drones that can triangulate the source of a radio signal, home in on it, and track what they find.

Comment: Yes: not all infra-red is the same (Score 1) 145

by Richard Kirk (#48478411) Attached to: Scientists Develop "Paint" To Help Cool the Planet

The actual article is a bit shallow on detail, but here's my interpolation...

Infra-red is quite a broad bit of the spectrum. It starts at about 800nm as light we can't quite see, and security cameras use this band with an infra-red illuminant. If we go down to about 2000nm, we are into the mid-band where some IR cameras operate. These can see hot objects but cannot people by their radiated body heat. There is a gap at about 3500nm where water vapour absorbs and emits, and cameras do not work well. Then there is another band at about 7000nm where the thermal cameras that can pick up body heat work. The cooler you are, the greater fraction of long wavelength you emit. (NB: if the exact wavelengths are important, please check as I am typing this off the top of my head).

Most black paints absorb all infra-red wavelengths equally. Some white paints will absorb the far-infra-red. What you want, and what I think they have done is to make somethng that reflects down to 2000nm, and then absorbs beyond about 400nm. This will reflect a lot of the heat from the sun, but will still radiate the heat from the building.

Does it work? Will it still work when it is dirty? I don't know, but at least it does not violate any thermodynamic principles.

Comment: No easy fix? (Score 1) 516

by Richard Kirk (#48466017) Attached to: Ask Slashdot: Why Is the Power Grid So Crummy In So Many Places?

I live in a large village or small town. I get a lot of power outages. Some of these last for hours. Most of the rest of the village does not get these - just a small clump of houses around the church. Our cable comes underground from Hemel Hempstead. The rest of the village gets power from the pylons that run alongside the M1. We can claim back money for the power outages.

I would imagine our group of houses has problems because (a) we are at the end of a spur (b) we got electricity before anyone else, and before the M1 was built, so our lines are particularly old, and (c) the power distribution network has probably shifted, and our little bit has not been altered to reflect the changes. If you live out in the sticks, you become more vulnerable: I remember a house where the power used to trip out when the transport cafe about a mile away turned off their grills last thing at night. One of the downsides of generating your own power may be that the network only has to fill in when we have a number of dull, still days. The US equivalent is probably hot days where everyone turns up the airconditioning.

It is not because (a) our lines are overhead, or (b) our corner of the village is particularly greedy, or (c) that the power company does not have to pay when services are disconnected. Beware of people suggesting 'obvious solutions' without evidence.

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Comment: Are we measuring the brain or the blood supply? (Score 1) 91

by Richard Kirk (#48344475) Attached to: fMRI Data Reveals How Many Parallel Processes Run In the Brain

The scanner measures the hemodynamic response function. The brain only sends oxygen-rich blood to the regions of the brain that need it. I guess this restricts power consumption, heat sinking requirements, and so on, a bit like the power limiting circuits on a processor. It is likely that the power regulation is a lot less fine grained in the brain than the thinking process itself. So if you had two separate regions that were fed by a single blood supply, you would not be able to distinguish them. In practice, I expect the processing regions and the blood supply regions have fuzzy borders, and there is a limiting return in micro-managing the blood supply.

I do not understand the gas station analogy. To me, this is more like trying to tell how many people are in a building by how many lights are on. You can subtract the permanently on lights from stairwells and corridors. You can then assume a light that goes on, and goes off may be a single person, or a meeting, or a group of people who all come and go at different times. Subtract the lights that are permanently on, and you would expect the person could to be at least the remaining light count, because several people may use the same light.

Hey, it's a start.

Comment: Old Mac (Score 2) 334

I gave my mum (95) an old PowerPC laptop I got for the price of buying a replacement power supply. It is running a version of OS that probably is no longer updated, but turning off automatic updates doesn't hurt.. I have also stuck on an Applesript that e-mails me when the machine powers up, which she does every morning to let me know she is OK. She is probably a bit less click-happy then your users.

Comment: 70% successful prediction (Score 1) 177

by Richard Kirk (#47621327) Attached to: Algorithm Predicts US Supreme Court Decisions 70% of Time
A 70% prediction rate is not impressive. In the UK, where the weather seems pretty unpredictable, "it will be pretty much the same as yesterday" is right about 70% of the time. Weather forecasting and track individual storms, but It took a long time and a lot of research for the weather forecast success flat rate to get any better than this. The model may be important: the success rate probably isn't.

Comment: Re:Old news (Score 1) 66

by Richard Kirk (#47605829) Attached to: Animal Behaviour Specialists Map Out the Social Networks of Cows

The article is fine except for this mad bit of hype...

"Now a team of animal behavior specialists have discovered that the social lives of cattle are more complex than biologists had ever imagined..."

This last bit is clearly quite silly: they could imagine that cattle had complex social lives, because they designed an experiment to try and measure the social groupings. They seem to have done a number of sensible things, such as attempting to remove events where cow #1 was close to cow #2 because they were both going for food, or one had to get past the other anyway, or things like that.

Researches reveal amazing facts about cows! The paper that Farmers don't want you to read! Identify cattle with this one weird old tip! You will not believe what cows do when you are not looking!

It could be worse, I guess...

Comment: My weird-o-meter needs recalibrating... (Score 1) 347

by Richard Kirk (#47313901) Attached to: Evidence of a Correction To the Speed of Light

This is a story about the speed of light being not what we thought it was, and involving general relativity, neutrinos, and its one data point from a unique astronomical event. Oh, yeaah, riiight. And yet, it is clearly explained, and stands a good chance of being right. I am definitely going to have my weird-o-meter recalibrated.

The speed of light is the same as it always was. Any given photon may, extremely rarely, split into an electron-positron pair, and then recombine. The electron and the positron are not travelling at the speed of light, so this event will stick in a small delay. If you measure the speed of light over most human experimental lengths, this event will be very rare - so the very occasional photon will show a tiny delay. If your light travels over such vast distances that the photon may have experienced so many of these delays that it spent whole hours as electrons and positrons.

Each photon will have a random number of these delay events, so you might expect the light pulse to get blurred out a bit by this randomness. There will be a slight blurring, but because the number of events is so huge, the fractional deviation from the mean is pretty tiny.

Cute, and neat. Some posters still try and argue for gravitational viscosity, or for faster-than-light neutrinos, or that this is a failure of science and only philosophers can help us now. Ho-hum. Too little fog, too late, chaps. Better luck with the next one, eh?

Comment: Re:Next in pipeline: Honking Humugous Telescope (Score 1) 76

The 'OWL' was the first telescope in this series of names as far as I know. I think all the others since have been given 'OWL' like names.

It's a bit unfair to say the 'OWL' project was cancelled because it was really only a feasibility study, and back in the 1980's rather a bonkers one at that. When people started working with computer-controlled segmented mirrors, it because clear that you could make a huge mirror from almost flat segments of glass. So the next step was to see whether you could make a moving and pointing telescope the size of the Great Pyramid. Over they years that 'OWL' wasn't built, the design was improved and it became clear that it was practical to make telescopes between 20m and 100m. Much bigger than 100m, and you probably have to go into space, to avoid the problems of weight, and atmosphere.

One day they may build the 'OWL' on the Antarctica dome, and you will have the finest seeing of all earth-bound telescopes, ever, and there is no point building any others unless you want to look North. The 'ELT' is a nice compromise: it's in Chile and not down by the South Pole which can be as hard to get to as space, and it's bloody big but it leaves something for our kids to do. Yay.

Comment: Re:What am I missing here? (Score 2) 223

Empty space isn't that empty. You can get virtual pairs of electrons and positrons appearing and disappearing. They pop into existence because they can, even in empty space, but the have negative energy and a virtual wavelength, so they are almost bound to re-coalesce, and the energy of their recombination will exactly equal the energy of their creation, so they pay back all the energy they 'borrowed' and disappear without trace. However, if a photon turns up at this critical moment and pumps in the energy, then they can get permanently separated. Needless to say, this is pretty rare for single photons or we would not be able to see distant galaxies. We need monster photon energy densities, hence the hohlraum (I used to work on these ages ago).

You can also measure a tiny force between two plates in a vacuum due to these virtual particles. This is called the Casmir effect or the Casmir-Polder force. See... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C... for example. So they are real. Well, real-ish.

This is not the same as Compton scattering. That also makes electron-positron pairs from photons but it also requires some mass to be around. This is the dominant absorbtion mode above about 1.5 MeV. So, I can see how they might get a tiny bit of straight pair production in their hohlraum, but they will also have some high-Z gold plasma giving you lots of conventional Compton scattering, which will look pretty similar. I guess they have a plan for that.

Here's a fun site... http://profmattstrassler.com/a...

The difference between reality and unreality is that reality has so little to recommend it. -- Allan Sherman

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