Monday, June 28, 2010

I don't know

If you are sitting at a business meeting, all in your suit and tie, and your three-up manager fires a question (to which you have no idea) at you - this is something you do not want to say: "I don't know". You are compelled to think up some mumbo-jumbo on the spot. And the better you are at doing that, the higher you will probably go up the ladder in your organisation.

If you are presenting a paper at a scientific conference, all in your jeans and t-shirt, and the most experienced person in that field (in the entire world) fires a question (to which you have no idea) at you - this is something you do want to say: "I don't know". If you feel compelled to make up some mumbo-jumbo on the spot, be prepared to slide down the long orange snake back to square 4.

Making shit up when you have no idea seems to be very popular with people outside of science. How do I know this? From personal experience. I have done both of the above.

In a scientific forum, answering "I don't know" is liberating. People sit back, think a bit, maybe ask a helpful question or suggest a fruitful direction to follow, but they don't attack you.

In business, you tend to get attacked.

The important thing here is to know your context. If you are talking science (at any level) it is ok to say "I don't know". Never, ever, ever make shit up. Unfortunately people have been doing that for centuries. When studying lightning, for example, they couldn't work it out and so they concluded it was an angry Zeus. How useful was that? Not at all. It took a non-Zeus-believing scientist to tackle it.

A modern day example is the Pioneer Anomaly. The Pioneer spacecraft is the furthest spacecraft from us and is gradually slowing down due to gravitational attraction of the sun. However it is slowing down more than it should. (Only a tiny tiny bit, but enough to notice).

No one knows why.

All gravitational theories (newtonian and relativistic) fail to cover it.

Does this mean we throw out the entire theory of gravity? No.

Does it mean god did it? No. (And I'm talking to you theists!)

It just means we don't know.


So, if you are in a business meeting and you feel compelled to answer your three-up manager with a bullshit answer - fine.

But don't ever do it, anywhere, if it's a science question.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Family Trees

I've had the privilege of compiling family trees on both sides of my family.

Just so you know - it's a massive task. But it is also very very rewarding. If you are toying with the idea - go for it.

As far as software goes, PAF is the one. It is free, easy to use and does what you need. Even as an atheist I have to tip my hat to the mormons on this one. They're big on family history and the next time they knock on my door I will personally thank them before ripping into them about the bible condoning slavery, condemning homosexuality or Lot having sex with his daughters.

So how do you start a family tree?

First, and I can't stress how important this is, find the oldest living relatives you have and ring them straight away. Chat to them. I did this and got some names and this then, combined with the internet, managed to get my family tree 15 generations back. And my Auntie Dawn died six months later. I cannot stress how important this step is. And don't wait.

After you've done this, get PAF, learn how to use it, and put in the details your great aunt has just told you.

Contact all known members of your family and get all details you can. Most importantly, record congenital diseases and how people died. This will be very useful for future generations.

Then have a family reunion, have everyone correct your family tree and also insist that any copies you give out is conditional on them providing updates of any births or death.

Their may be issues with secret adoptions or children out of wedlock. Push through that and get the facts recorded. Think of the future generations and how cool it would be if you found out your great great grandfather had an affair and there was a whole branch of the family you didn't know about. Your dad may not want to share such a story now, but you owe it to the future generations to get it recorded.

It is hard and a lot of work. But very very rewarding.

Just do it. And share it. You won't regret it.

Monday, June 21, 2010


If you asked my family and friends what I'm most well known for, they'd probably answer reciting pi.

Back in high school I was fascinated by the Guinness Book of World Records having an entry for some guy reciting pi to a large number.

I liked the idea of learning pi and so my first step was actually finding pi listed to a large number of decimal places. This is pre-internet days so it's not as easy as it sounds. Anyway I finally tracked down a page with pi to 10000 places on it and set about learning it.

My method was to add a few digits every day. The "few" tended to be in groups of 3, 5 or 7 digits. It depended on how they sounded.

I memorise pi by the way the digits sound. The flow of the words. For example:

3.14 15 926 535 89793 238 4626 433 832 795 0288

with the spaces showing my natural groupings. Interestingly I find other pi reciters always have different groupings.

At my peak I got to 250 decimal places. Without checking I could probably knock off 150 now without error - but if I had ten minutes learning time I reckon I could briefly get back to 250. Interesting how the mind recalls such things and how it fails with time.

There's a book called pi to 1000000 decimal places and when I started University I looked it up and the library had it. But it was on permanent loan to a staff member. So I tracked him down and asked if I could see it. He wouldn't even show it to me. Bastard.

Strange how these things stick in your mind - I have never forgiven him.

So a few years later I decided to write my own book. Computers had got powerful enough that I could write some code that would generate pi to 1000000 places in about three days.

After that I printed it out and went and had it professionally bound. Cost me $30.

So finally I had my own copy of Pi to 1000000 places and it sits on my shelf with pride.

Oh who was that bastard of a maths lecturer who wouldn't let me look at the book?

Princess Mary's father.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Which weighs more a ton of feathers or a ton of gold?

If you answered gold you need to go think again.

If you answered they weigh the same you also need to think again.

The answer is that the feathers weigh more than the gold. And the fault that this is the answer lies with the United States of America.

Huh???? you cry out!

As you would know the entire world officially uses the metric system except for Myanmar, Liberia and the United States. England is mostly there - but not quite.

If the imperial system was banished into the past by all countries then the "ton" referred to above would be a metric ton (or tonne) and be 1000kg. i.e. feathers and gold would weigh the same.

However because the USA refuses to go, it turns out the world still measures precious metals using the ounce. The Troy ounce in particular.

And yes folks this is why the imperial system needs to be removed from this world, because in the imperial system there are many different types of ounce. A Troy ounce (480 grains) and an avoirdupois ounce (437.5 grains) are the ones in use today in the US. And to make things even more fun, there are 12 oz to the Troy pound and 16 for the avoirdupois pound. Go figure.

So the US insists on sticking to this bizarre system and because of this the rest of the world has to suffer the fact that precious metals are all measured in Troy ounces - throughout the world.

So back to our puzzle. By "ton" what did I mean? Well with gold it has to be the Troy ton. But hang on, more imperial confusion now follows...

We have the short ton and long ton. Which is it?

If we are answering this problem in the US, then we'd use the short ton which is 2000 pounds for both feathers and gold. If we are in Liberia then we'd be using the long ton 2240 pounds. If we are in Australia then the ton of feathers is metric and the gold is a long ton. In all cases the gold is measured in the Troy system.

To actually answer this probem we're going to need to do some conversions. The easiest method is to convert all weights to metric and then compare.

Now a troy ounce is defined as 31.1034768 grams. (Yes that's right it is defined using the metric system. In fact all imperial measurements are defined in metric and have been for nearly a century in many cases.) So with 12 ounces to the Troy pound we have a short ton being 746.483 kg and the long ton being 836.061 kg.

Our avoirdupois ounce is defined as 28.3495231 grams. So therefore with 16 ounces to the pound and either 2000 or 2240 pounds to the ton we have a short ton being 907.184 kg and our long ton being 1016.047 kg.

And finally we have our lovely metric ton (or tonne) being 1000kg.

Looking at the figures you will see that in all combinations of short, long or metric that the Troy ton is smaller than all others.

So no matter which country you are in the ton of gold weighs less than a ton of feathers.

Now when the US finally goes metric, which it eventually will (if not to save the economy billions of dollars but to also save the lives of the thousands of people dying each year because of incorrect dosages caused by incorrect conversions) then the original question as posed would be answered correctly as "they weigh the same". Until then the world is stuck with this abortion of a measuring system. Stuck back in the dark ages.

P.S. If you're still not convinced, watch this: for a laugh. If the guy had a metric ruler he would have read 140mm and 180mm and worked out the difference in no time.

Monday, June 7, 2010


Now this gives me the shits.

My darling younger sister who, as I write, is sitting with a huge tummy and is at term. I had lunch with her today and she took a tablet she was told that would help bring on labour.

I looked at the bottle and it had "(some stuff that doesn't matter) 30C" on the bottle.

For those not in the know, 30C means dilute the
(some stuff that doesn't matter) 100 times and then do that over and over 30 times. This means a dilution of 1 in 10^60.

So if you wanted to consume 1mg of
(some stuff that doesn't matter) you'd need to consume 10^60 mg of this product. That's 10^57 grams which which is 10^54 kg of pills.

This is a bit over 10^29 earths. To turn this into a number you might recognise that's ten thousand trillion trillion earths.

So to recap, get 1 mg of
(some stuff that doesn't matter) and mix with ten thousand trillion trillion earths worth of sugar.

Shake well.

Take 5g of this and make into pills.

Sell for $8 to a young mother (who is not exactly flush with money) trying to bring on labour.

And who offered this advice to my sister?

The midwife from the Hospital.

And for those who don't know - I live in Australia.

I am seething.


Yes I have a camera.

In fact my dad had a Pentax film SLR which I found and asked to borrow when I was 9. Next he showed me how to develop and print black and white films and I fell in love.

When I left home to move in with my pregnant girlfriend I decided I needed an SLR again. Especially with a newborn on the way. (That was in 1985 and that newborn is about to turn 24!) I bought a middle of the range Minolta and took the obligatory family shots. But film was expensive so I kept them to a minimum.

A divorce and a marriage and 17 years later and the 2MP point and shoot turned up in the family. The convenience and price of digital was sensational but the picture quality and most importantly the latency between pushing the button and taking the photo drove me mad. I enquired about digital SLRs but the price was ridiculous.

Then one day a few years on I took a helicopter ride with my now second ex. She took the digital so I dragged out my old film SLR, loader her up with a new film and took that. The quality, the responsiveness all came flooding back and I was re-hooked. Now I was seriously looking for a digital SLR.

Prices had come down and Pentax had on sale an *ist DS for a modest price. I loved my dad's old Pentax and was stunned to find that all the old quality lenses still worked on the new beast. So I took the plunge.

Well three Digital SLR cameras later, numerous lenses and 40000 photos later, I can call myself a photographer. showcases my work.

My philosophy is that I like to have the shot straight out of the camera. That is, I don't like post processing. Besides it takes time. Sure if the shot is good, but the exposure is not I'll work my guts out trying to get it looking good. But I get most satisfaction coming back from a shoot, downloading the shots and just looking through photos and applying no adjustments. That's a great feeling. Maybe the film background did that to me...

So what's the trick to becoming a good photographer?

Well there's an old adage that is a bit worn out but very true:

Amateurs worry about equipment
Professionals worry about money
Masters worry about the light

The light is the most important thing, no question. But before you can be worrying about light, you first have to be at one with your equipment. And to be at one with your equipment you to need to go through the equipment junky stage.

What camera should you buy?

This is a big question and one I get asked a lot. First, if you're always going to want the camera to do the work automatically for you then get a point and shoot.

However, if you want to learn to become a photographer then take the plunge and get an SLR. If you don't now, you will later.

So what's the difference between a P&S and an SLR? The main difference is you can remove the lens. But to the beginner that means nothing. So from a beginner's perspective a P&S can produce a mighty fine photograph. But when the light gets tricky or conditions are less than perfect or you need to take control of the exposure - that's when an SLR is essential.

There are heaps of other reasons too (faster focusing, better quality, water resistance, ...) but here's my suggestion. If you don't know which to buy, don't go and buy a high end point and shoot. Get a cheaper one. See if you like taking photos. See if you get to the point where you outlast the features in the camera. If you're not happy with it's exposure then learn about manual and use that. Once you've exhausted it's abilities then go and buy an SLR.

If you buy an expensive P&S you'll hold back on making the jump having wasted $800.

So you've decided on an SLR.

Which brand?

Personally I would only look at three brands. In alphabetical order they are Canon, Nikon and Pentax.

Pick one of those you will have to become a darn good photographer to outdo the camera's abilities.

No one will argue with me about the first two, but why Pentax? Well I do know the brand very well and so I'm qualified to discuss it. It's biggest advantage over the other two is bang for your buck. For what you pay for a lower end Nikon or Canon you can get a high end Pentax. And they are built very well indeed.

I currently use a K7, and have a K10D as backup and my *ist DS as my keep-in-the-car camera.

OK, so you've got your camera. Now you need to learn how to use it. Take thousands of photos. Get out of automatic (Try aperture priority or "A" mode) and learn how exposure works. Learn about f stops, shutter speed, ISO and depth of field.

Understand your camera so you can operate it in the dark. Change a card or battery with your eyes closed. You need to be at one with that camera.

Do that and you'll get to a point where you can take some pretty great shots. But if you're like me you'll be waiting for the light to be just right, you'll see the shot and, because you know your camera, you'll be able to capture it.

But then the next level is reached. Instead of waiting for the light to be right, you need to create it. And this is where you have to re-learn a whole lot of stuff.

But that's next time...

Sunday, June 6, 2010

About time

Well it's about time. Time to start a blog.

You will see a lot of different stuff here from all the parts of my brain. Days or weeks may pass between entries. The most important part is that it is captured so that hopefully my descendants can know what I'm like. Having completed family trees on both sides of my family I wish I'd access to some of the thoughts of my ancestors.

There we go it's now done.

Now I need to think of something to write...