how far can the eye see


How far can the human eye see?

Think about it.

What’s the answer?

I saw this on an r/askreddit thread that asked: “What’s the smartest thing you’ve ever done?”



Probably further, because some stars are way, way past the moon. The andromeda galaxy, located 2.6 million light years away, is the furthest object visible with the naked eye under the right conditions.

Those military higher-ups were probably asking how far can the human eye see on earth and with the ability to see details. Or the more common question, how far can a human eye detect a candle flame? The quickest answer from googling is 48km. Researchers at Texas A&M university say it’s less than that, at around 2.5-2.8 km.

It’s surprisingly hard to test, because there are assumptions and external variables. Do we take into account the earth’s curvature? At around 3km it’s less significant than 48km. How about light pollution? Even in completely rural areas, are we seeing the candle flame absent light from the stars and the moon? How about under conditions of absolute darkness?

I can see why there was a discussion.

single atom photograph


via giz, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (“EPSRC”) just announced the winner of its annual photography prize, which goes to David Nadlinger of Oxford University for a photography of a single strontium atom. The atom was excited by a laser, absorbs the energy, re-emits the light, and was held stationary by electric fields. The process occured sufficiently quickly for an ordinary camera to capture.


Zoom in and the atom may be seen clearly. Images © David Nadlinger.

There were over 100 entries to the competition, in 5 cutely named categories: Eureka & Discovery, Equipment & Facilities, People & Skills, Innovation, and Weird & Wonderful.

The ESPRC was formed in 1994 after the SERC was split into reserach councils responsible for engineering & physical sciences, particle physics & astronomy, and biotechnology & biological sciences. Every scientist in my university cohort who went beyond first degree knows the SERC very well.

there’s a car in orbit around the earth

I’d read about SpaceX but hadn’t paid a lot of attention to what is happening, so I was pretty excited to read that they just lauched their latest rocket, Falcon Heavy. The rocket launched from Cape Canaveral and is hugely significant: the rocket is intended to be reusable and it’s the heaviest rocket ever launched. The two outer boosters landed safely back on earth but the centre core didn’t land safely althought it was supposed to. The 27 engines produced 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, meaning it’s able to take a payload of 140,000 pounds and put it into the earth’s lower orbit. The launch video is 35mins, but all of it worthwhile viewing.


To test the rocket’s capacity meant trying to put a heavy object into orbit. While SpaceX could have just put a pile of scrap metal, a useless satellite, or something unimaginative, they put the silliest thing Elon Musk could imagine: his red Tesla Roadster. Definitely a great sense of humour, in the passenger seat is a spacesuit wearing a seatbelt just like it’s driving the car that is called Starman.

Other cool trivia associated with this launch, aside from the obvious supercool thing that THERE’S A CAR IN ORBIT AROUND EARTH:

  • the launchpad was the same one used for Apollo 11
  • the rocket launched to David Bowie’s Life on Mars
  • there’s a sign that says ‘Don’t Panic’ on the dashboard of the Tesla
  • apparently inside the glovebox: Asimov’s Foundation series, a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and a a towel


Originally the Tesla was headed to Mars, but then it overshot and they said it would go into the asteroid belt. NASA calculated the Tesla’s orbital trajectory and they predict that it will stay closer to the sun and end up in an orbit somewhere between earth’s and mars’. It’s still visible from telescopes but will soon travel too far away. Astronomers say it won’t be visible again until late 21st century. TIL NASA has a articifial object database of things in space.

Trivla and coolness aside, the reusability and power of the rockets have the most value. They are still testing, but already on the schedule is a communications satellite from Saudi Arabia and a test payload for the US military.

dark coin puzzle

Very cool quick puzzle that has a “surprisingly easy solution.” I had to think about the solution to fully realise, yes it is surprisingly easy.


You’re in a completely dark dungeon room with hundreds of coins; each coin has a silver side and a gold side. There are 20 coins with silver side facing up, the rest has its gold side facing up. You are to separate the coins into two piles, and each pile must contain the same number of silver-side up coins. The size of the piles may be different. The coins feel the same and flipping is allowed.

Hint: algebra is involved in the solution.

eat more chocolate, win a Nobel prize


This came from a reddit thread about a paper presented in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2012 entitled Chocolate Consumption, Cognitive Function, and Nobel Laureates. The paper needs to be accessed from authorised (aka paid) sources but it was extensively discussed by Stanford professor Sanjay Basu in his public health blog. The NEJM paper claimed that:

chocolate consumption enhances cognitive function

based on the correlation between chocolate consumption and the number of Nobel Laureates in a selected sample of countries (r = 0.791 P < 0.0001). According to the authors, this is due to the beneficial effect of the flavanols contained in cocoa.

Prof Basu rightly called the paper:

the worst example of medical statistical misadventure we’ve seen in years.

Researchers from Belgium wrote in the Journal of Nutrition and sided with Prof Basu in dismissing the paper. They pointed out that this is a classic case of ecological inference fallacy, where conclusions about group data is drawn from individual data with no relationship between group and individuals presented. In other words:

the observed correlation is in fact based on country-averaged chocolate consumption and not on the actual consumption of Nobel Laureates themselves.

The two sets of data points have no commonality whatsoever. Chocolate consumption was over a 2 year period for the entire country, whereas the count of Nobel Laureates was over time. Some of the said laureates weren’t even alive during the 2 year chocolate consumption period. The Belgian researchers found an even higher correlation (r = 0.82 P < 0.0001) between the number of Ikea stores and Nobel Laureates in a country, a correlation they used to illustration the fact that it’s so meaningless that it’s laughable. All correlations do is to give a numerical relationship between data points, it’s up to the researcher to give meaning to the correlation. In some cases, there is no meaning.

The interesting observation is how the original paper even got through peer review into a journal. Was it meant to be ironic or humorous? Who knows. The research design comes into question. I’ve always thought of research as following the process of: do experiments -> make observations -> arrive at conclusion -> propose theory. This is the most traditional research method, especially in the natural sciences. In talking with mm, her professor seems to take the opposite approach: predict desired outcomes for theory -> design experiment/study -> get results that confirm theory. Seems to be a common method in social sciences.


There are different names for these research designs. Bottom up research is called exploratory or inductive research. The opposite, the top down approach, is called confirmatory or deductive research. Which is better, which more effective, that’s a difficult question to answer. It depends on the overall goals and the specific topic, I guess. Doing a lot of experiments lead to more new knowledge. Knowing what results you want may lead to more effective experiments but may not advance the overall knowledgebase. I don’t know the answer. All I know is, eating more chocolate does not, unfortunately, lead to winning Nobel Prizes.

what did i miss part 2

A few of the stuff that’s happened over the past 2 weeks during nano, part 2. All London related.

1. how to pronounce some place names


This is from a few years ago, Londonist’s guide to how to pronounce names of London place names, which cropped up on r/london recently.

No, it’s not Lie-sester Square it’s Lester Square; and Marylebone always stumps non-Londoners. Apparently Rotherhithe too.

Personally, I don’t agree with Ommer-tun for Homerton, I’d pronounce the h. And I always say Aldwych as All-witch.

We shouldn’t make fun of non-locals. I don’t expect to know place names in countries where I don’t know the language, but there are some names in the US and Australia that I can see the word and it’s made up of letters but I cannot put the letters together to form coherent sounds.

2. map of walking times between tube stations


TFL published a map that shows the walking distance between tube stations. There’s also a map that shows the number of steps between stations, so they can put a spin on the “steps = exercise” trend.

Practially, this is a useful map for visitors and newcomers. Every Londoner knows it’s pointless to take the Piccadilly Line between Leicester Square and Covent Garden. Between waiting for the train, the actual journey, and the horrendous wait for the lift at Covent Garden, it may take 10-15mins. Walking is 4mins.


There’s another leaflet, journeys that could be quicker to walk [pdf] that is also very useful. For instance, the map would suggest it takes 18mins to walk between Queensway and Bayswater (via Notting Hill Gate) but the journey leaflet tells us it’s only 5mins. Google maps actually say 2mins, but that probably needs running at nighttime with no other pedestrians.

3. john snow’s cholera map

I saw this on a tv program about sewage and how the world’s cities made the jump from being disease infested to, well, less so. It’s all about clean water.


The story of how John Snow discovered that cholera spreads through water rather than through the air by plotting a map of outbreaks that showed occurrences near to a water pump in Soho is well known. His use of data mapping is as revolutionary as the discovery itself. The blob of black dots around the pump at Broad (now Broadwick) Street as pretty horrible. But the interesting thing is workers at the nearby brewery were not affected because: a) they drank mainly beer and b) the brewery had its own water supply. That would not have been the case if the disease spread in th air.

So many diseases from 100, 200 years ago are under control. Cholera, TB, measles. Have we reached peak discovery? There doesn’t seem to be huge discoveries like this anymore, more like small incremental ones. Then again, it could be that they were low key. HIV has been contained, and many cancers are less life-threatening now. We have so much to learn.

4. property prices


According to bloomberg, london house prices are coming down, with more sellers reducing their prices from originally marketed. A report published by Rightmove says on average the reduction is 6.7% due to:

initial over-optimism and a tougher market

That said, the average in november is still an eye-popping £628,219. I mean, that’s staggering compared with a national average of £311,043.

The article immediate below the one about housing talks about more bad news for the pound, with further drops possible. An uncertain brexit, Theresa May’s uncertain future, all lead to the market being bearish on the pound. This actually is good news for us, since it means we can buy more.

Around the table on tuesday’s lunch we were all talking about property, as a group of middle-aged professionals are wont to do. If only we’d all bought a place in London when we graduated, we’d be all sitting pretty now. Ah well, can’t turn back time. The consensus is, £ and house prices haven’t seen bottom, so it’s worth waiting a little while longer.

5. decadent hot chocolate

Have to end on a more cheerful note. How about the most decadent hot chocolate in the capital. Fortnum’s chocolate bar, Flotsam And Jetsam’s rainbow-coloured white unicorn chocolate, Fattie’s Bakery’s with a toasted marshmallow rim, and the best chocolate café name of all, Choccywoccydoodah. Some of them look like they have far too much whipped cream. My 2 favourites on this list:


The one from Dark Sugars that has a mountain of chocolate shards shaved on top. The way the shards melt into the chocolate…


And finally, the classic from Hotel Chocolat. Who needs fancy when you have classical elegance and top quality ingredients.

the most important part of learning is forgetting


Mum has expressed her frustration at me numerous times when my answer to her questions is constantly “I don’t know.” Some questions are IMO unreasonable expectation that I am a cross between Superman and How did the tradesman get in through the main gate? How much should she pay the part time helper? Does abc shop sell xyz brand of whatever? Sometimes I’m expected to have a 10TB hard disk in my brain. What was that $50 transaction on her bank account 6 months ago; how much did the tv originally cost; when did so-and-so visit us.

What she has difficulty understanding or unwilling to make the effort–because it’s sooooo easy to ask a question and push the responsibility to someone else–is I archive a lot of information I process. Once the receipt is filed away, I no longer need to remember how much the tv cost. I may remember where it was purchased, simply because there are only a limited number of electronics shops. What I do retain, is where the receipt is so I know where to find it if necessary.

Although I’m not an AI entity (or are we all living in a computer simulation?) this approach to storing information is behind a new idea of how deep neural networks learn. Like how alphago learned how to play go and won against the European champion but slightly different.

There is a long article at quanta magazine that I’ve been trying to read for a few days that is sort of related to this. I still only have a tenuous grasp of the theories, it’s quite technical.

Naftali Tishby, a computer scientist and neuroscientist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, proposed that deep neural networks learn via something he called information bottleneck where the AI iteratively discards irrelevant information and retains the important ones. This theory is not only relevant to machine learning, it may also shed light on how human brains learn and retain information. It’s all about filtering and archiving. Or as Professor Tishby said:

the most important part of learning is actually forgetting.

museum wars

Thanks to my friend N (who works at the Smithsonian, how cool!) for linking to this.

The Natural HIstory Museum and the Science Museum had a twitter museum-off the other day. It started when someone asked who would win in a battle between the two. The social media managers at both places had a field day.


First shot fired by NHM, and a quick return by SM. It got worse from there, when random ammo like vampire fish, polaris missile, cockroaches, wellies, dragons, submarines, fleas, balloons were brought out. When NHM fired a tweet with locust, SM fired back with pesticide. All were museum exhibits.


Meanwhile, the V&A were sitting pretty.

Of course, civility returned. We’re British after all. Compliments all around and each took the opportunity to mention more of their interesting exhibits. The entire silliness episode here.

yay, science

The spring issue of the Imperial magazine arrived in my postbox. So rare to receive an actual paper magazine nowadays. Lots of interesting reading.

you are your brain — the feature of this issue talks about how it is our brain that makes us who we are, it is


the storehouse of personhood – of emotion, thought, memory – of all the things that make us the individuals we are

Several departments at IC look at how the brain works. Neuropathology looks at the structure of the brain; the Intelligent Systems and Networks group in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering studies how electric current from neuron to neuron which is how our brains process information; and the Centre for Neuropsychopharmacology considers the changes in our brains when under the influence of psychedelic drugs. The research carried out by all these scientists go towards improving our knowledge of how the brain works, and more importantly, how we can better diagnose and treat brain disorders. For instance, a team at St Mary’s has developed an infra-red scanner that checks for blood clots and has a 90% accuracy in a hospital setting.

standard matter 3.0 — this article about theoretical physics and the large hadron collider at CERN is a little above my head. I’m fascinated by it, yet I always find theoretical physics (and chemistry) difficult to fully grasp.


My takeaway is that there are 12 fundamental particles (including quarks and leptons) that are subject to 4 fundamental forces of the universe (eg electromagnetic). This is the Standard Model which has been accepted since the 1960s and confirmed by what the large hadron collider has found: nothing new. The concept of particle physics is so vast and so much of it is still unknown. Professor Henrique Araujo:

We know a lot about five per cent of our universe, and almost nothing about the other 95 per cent

blockchain — the price of bitcoins reached US$3500, so $100 invested in bitcoins in 2010 will be worth millions. Who was to know? Bitcoin has been lauded as the future, but the image is poor as it is the currency of choice for hackers and blackmailers. The technology behind bitcoin, blockchain, is sound and researchers point out, secure since all transactions are distributed amongst the entire network without a central server. Every computer in the network stores and authenticates the transaction in real time,

but once it is added, a transaction record is permanent and cannot be changed – it’s ‘immutable’ in blockchain-speak – because altering it would require access to millions of separate computers

Outside of the financial services industry, uses include any item or commodity that is distributed globally. There was an article in the NYT about how bananas are shipped to new york and this will be a good use of blockchain technology. At every step of the way, from the farmer who grew the banana to the ship that carried the banana to the supermarket that has the banana on its shelves, every party registers information about the banana and it makes it easy to collect and retrieve records of the banana’s production. Important if something goes wrong along the way, or someone is trying to commit fraud.

The magazine isn’t all about academics. Articles about student activities and alumni news too. Apparently alumni can purchase a lifetime membership for £40 and use all the union activities including the bar and join clubs and societies. If I’m back living in London and near South Ken I may do that. I should check out King’s alumni membership too.

hyde park relays — the biggest student race, a 5k team relay with representation from IC as well as other universities. Costumes optional. Past racers include Dave Moorcroft and Seb Coe, who helped Loughborough to victory.

the gliding club — formed in 1930, it’s the oldest gliding club in UK universities. Club secretary Amy describes the sensation when launching:

you go from 0 to 60 mph in a few seconds. And from the canopy it looks like you are going straight up into the air

I don’t even want to go parachuting but there’s something peaceful about gliding that is appealing.

make fire with water


Sis is a bit obsessed with survival gear, and it’s spread to me. I have an emergency go-bag in my wardrobe, small survival stuff in an altoid tin and a couple of knives in my drawer. My amazon order history includes MRE packs and firestarters.

Life Below Zero has been showing at lunchtime and there’s Glenn showing us how he makes fire without matches.

So I was interested in this video showing how to make fire using a ziploc bag and water. Although the video seems a bit too good to be true, the process looks possible with strong sunshine. The same idea as starting a fire with glasses may be. The most useful tip I learned is to wave the bundle around after the ember is formed.

numbers are fun


I found an absolutely fantastic youtube channel numberphile, which posts videos about science and maths in an interesting and fun way.

This one with Professor Tadashi Tokieda, Director of Studies in Mathematics at Trinity Hall, Cambridge where he explains why train wheels are shaped the way they are so they can go around bends safely. It’s all to do with large circles travelling longer distance per rotation than small circles. He illustrates it using disposable plastic cups taped together. What an engaging professor, he made it so easy to understand.

hidden not hidden

Car was telling me about hidden figures, an inspirational film about african-american women who worked on the space program in the 1960s. It’s so important, especially now, to show the achievements of women and minorities. As jason kottke said

You watch this movie and think, how much higher could the human race have flown if women and people of color had always had the same opportunities as white men?

Not only in the past, it’s a current problem too.


And right on time, lego announced that they will release a set of 5 female NASA scientists including: scientist Katherine Jenkins; computer scientist Margaret Hamilton; astronaut, physicist and educator Sally Ride; astronomer Nancy Grace Roman; and astronaut and physician Mae Jemison. Lego solicits ideas all the time and some of the ideas are put into production. About the women of NASA idea:

As a science editor and writer, with a strong personal interest for space exploration as well as the history of women in science and engineering, Maia Weinstock’s Women of NASA project was a way for her to celebrate accomplished women in the STEM professions.

paper centrifuge


This is so cool. Scientists at Stanford developed a human-powered centrifuge from bits of paper and string.

The idea of spinning something quickly via a piece of string is an old idea. Very similar to how survivalists teach us how to start a fire. The Stanford centrifuge can achieve

spinning speeds of 125,000 revolutions per minute (RPM), and exert centrifugal forces equivalent to 30,000g

The reason for developing this centrifuge is for separating blood samples in the field for testing, especially in third world countries. Conventional centrifuges are bulky and require electricity. This one can be constructed from paper, wood, plastic, fishing wire.

I love stories like this. Low tech solutions that make the world better.

welcome home Major Peake

After a 6-month stay at the ISS, Tim Peake came back to earth.

The first UK astronaut to spacewalk; the second astronaut to run a marathon (London, which he completed in 3.35). I’ve been following him on the news, on twitter and flickr. He’s safely back on earth now, but not before a final tweet from space:

Beautiful pics on his flickr feed. Aside from the marvel that is seeing the Earth from space, there’s his keen eye too. It’s good to be reminded of how beautiful our planet is.

The Earth:
Planet Earth

Aurora over Canada:
Aurora masterclass

Sunlight reflecting on a Himalayan lake:
Stunning colours

p.s. all pics copyright Tim Peake ESA/NASA, from Tim’s flickr.

science & engineering news from IC

I get the Imperial magazine which they send out to alumni and people they manage to get onto their mailing lists. The most recent issue [pdf] is quite interesting reading. Technical focus of course, since it’s IC.

There’s an interview with the new President, Professor Alice P. Gast, the first woman and the first non-Briton to be the head of IC. There’s news about the new White City site (the old BBC Wood Lane buildings). A recap of the 2015 festival and other alumni news.

A few articles were worthy of detailed reading.

Campus Life: Potential Energy is about a PhD student doing research into converting waste products to biofuels, who also doubles as co-founder of a startup that provides regions in India with clean energy–from solar power to equipment that converts agricultural waste to electricity. She was the first winner of the £10,000 Althea-Imperial prize for women students.

A team of IC engineers have developed a small sensor that syncs with an app to enable users and their medical practitioners to monitor their health. The team won a $120,000 Distinguished Award at X-Challenge, an international competition for medical sensing technologies. The AcuPebble is the size of a pound coin and sticks to the user’s chest or back, listening to heart-rate & breathing, and sending the results to an app.

From this acoustic signal, a variety of physiological and disease related parameters can be obtained, such as lung volumes, breathing rate, heart rate that are useful for diagnosing several medical conditions.


A short article celetrated the 100th anniversary of Einsten’s general relativity, which theoretically makes time travel possible, by asking several alumni and professors what they would do with a time travel machine. The answers were pretty boring and predictable: they’d all go back in time to visit certain specific points in history. One said to visit Nikola Tesla; another said he’d take Leonardo Da Vinci to the 21st century; someone namechecked Maxwell and Newton. Hmm, not a very original bunch, IC people.

p.s. I think I get the King’s magazine too, although it’s now an app which means they prefer we fetch it ourselves.

on the #timhunt incident

My niece was complaining about her Chemistry teacher so I offered to give her some Chemistry help over the summer holiday. She didn’t really say yes or no; can’t blame her, who in their right minds will voluntarily do schoolwork during the summer holiday? Anyway, I’ll have to read up on the topic if I do need to help her, I’d all but lost my chemistry knowledge. Why did I leave my research job? It was boring and there didn’t seem to be a good career progression.

A dinosaur masquarading as a Nobel Laureate made stupid comments about “girls” falling in love and crying when criticised and was asked to resign from his post at UCL. I agree with the outcome, and even though I should feel sorry about the speed and ferocity of his treatment by social media and his employer, I don’t. He claims it was a self-deprecating joke and he’s been hung out to dry but again, no sympathies.

People are allowed to express their opinions in private; this is the basic tenet of a free world. But he wasn’t in private, and as a Nobel Laureate, he is a role model and speaking from a position of eminence. Did he think before he spoke? Obviously not. Did he think what he said was wrong? From his half-hearted apology afterwards, no. He only apologised more profusely after the backlash. It’s another case of being sorry that his remarks were heard by journalists.

Here was someone who took credit for work done by scores of undergrads, postgrads and postdocs under his supervision, and yet his attitude towards 50% of the population is so backwards that I wonder at atmosphere in his labs. Then again it’s likely that his labs had around the national average 12.8% women (oh sorry, Prof Hunt, “girls”) so it’s not like they count, right.

Lots of commentaries, tweets and opinions about this incident. Women scientists started posting pictures of themselves looking #distractinglysexy. Other prominent male scientists rushed to his defence. Even Boris Johnson chimed in. Astrophysicist Dr Katie Mack summed it up nicely:

scienceresearch01 scienceresearch02

In other news, scientific research is bizarre. In Ways of Knowing, photographer Danier Stier took photos of actual research going on at actual research institutes. He says,

we get the wrong idea of science when we look at something like National Geographic, we think of lab coats, high-tech equipment—the realities couldn’t be more different

Hmm, there aren’t that many women in the photos either. Credit to them that they’re not crying.

coke bio cooler

The Coca-Cola Bio cooler from Leo Burnett Colombia on Vimeo

It’s beginning to get oppressively hot, over 30°C. I’ve escaped to parents’ place because theirs is more open, with an occasional breeze and I don’t want to blast the air-con all day at my flat.

Some places in the world get very, very hot. And at some of these places, there is no electricity. No air-conditioning, no fans, no fridges.

So Coca-Cola just invented a cooling device that doesn’t need electricity. Developed by advertising agency Leo Burnett in collaboration with the International Physics Center, it uses natural technology: plants grow at the top of the container, when watered excessively the water trickles down the soil and because of the high temperature, evaporates and mixes with other materials into an unnamed gas. Mirrors inside the contained space condense the gas back to liquid, triggering a cooling effect (remember the first law of thermodynamics).

The device is placed the village of Aipir in Columbia, where temperatures reach 45°C, there is no electricity and villagers have to trek 12 hours to get ice. They press a button and hey presto! chilled coke cans.

Cynics would of course say the village probably need to have ways to cool their staples like meat, vegetables or milk, moreso than a gimmicky (albeit colourful) box that dispenses a high sugar unhealthy drink. The technology hopefully can be used on more practical purposes but as adweek observed,

this is about bringing people a modest luxury that’s normally out of reach

Very often we forget this, that things we take for granted in the first world have a different meaning to people who are less privileged. Lots of debate about how unhealthy coke and other soft drinks are, but for these Columbian villagers, it’s something that brings a smile to their faces.

TIL people think the sun goes around the earth


Hard to believe that so many people believe the sun revolves around the earth. While I had to stop for 10 seconds to remember the correct order of the planets (Jupiter comes before Saturn, I always get confused; I’m good with the rest), it’s a little shocking to learn that there is a gap in education or belief system in some pockets of the population. Wow.

I also learned a new word: orrery, which means a mechanical model of the solar system. The epitome of steam punk art, if you asked me. I spotted this post via flipboard, of a beautiful orrery designed and handcrafted by ken condal.

If only we can show this to the people who think the sun goes around the earth, hopefully we can reduce the ignorance.



Sis and I went to a talk about growing your own vegetables sponsored by the slow food movement. There were 4 speakers talking about their experiences, as well as what they are doing in schools to help kids learn and grow their own fruit and vegetables. There was one speaker who introduced us to the concept of aquaponics which combines raising fish (or shrimp or the like) and a soil-less vegetable planting system. The waste water from the fish tank is pumped into the vegetable growing tub, where the plants absorb nutrients and clean water pumped back to the fish tank. When running, it’s a self-sustaining system.

I remember when I used to keep tropical fish how my window plants really thrived when I watered them using the fish water. Makes sense. Aquaponics systems can be set up in a small area in the garden, on a balcony and even on a very small scale indoors. Here’s a video made by the University of Hawaii.

It doesn’t seem impossibly difficult, just need the space, the parts and some tools. I’d much rather set it up outdoors, need lighting and a system to reduce humidity indoors. The sort of fish can be edible, like catfish or tilapia, or just plain goldfish for those who are squeamish about killing fish. Plants are usually leafy lettuce, pak choy or herbs like basil and mint. Sounds awesome.



Everyone’s talking about the supermoon tonight. For some reason I keep reading superMOM instead of moon, sigh. Didn’t feel like setting up the tripod and getting the big camera out, so I just snapped this on the s90 from my balcony. It was taken just after 3pm EST, when the moon is a mere 221,565 miles (356,575 kilometers) from earth. Looks like a big streetlight on this picture.

chicago air and water show 2010


Full set here

This is my second year at the air and water show. Last year I went in the afternoon on the second day at the south end of oak street beach. This year, I went at 10.30am on the first day and decided to go right where the action was, at north avenue beach. I figured, it’d be crowded but it should be feasible to find space for one person. I was right. I got a spot at one of the concrete jetties facing south, it was perfect. It was also extremely hot and though I had sunscreen on, I could feel the UV. I brought a beach towel to sit on, I ended up huddling underneath it for most of the day, to block out the sun.

The show started with skydivers, and then there were military planes, helicopters and aerial gymnastics from at least 3 teams. It was fantastic. The buzz and roar of the planes, the skills of the pilots. I wish I knew more about planes to be able to recognise them.

The highlight was of course the finale, the blue angels flying F/A-18 Hornets. There was a lot of anticipation, about where they’d “sneak” up on us, people were watching the skies all over. Then we saw a huge plume of grey smoke from the lake and there they were! Great end and I didn’t feel like I’d been sitting on concrete under the baking sun for 5 hours.

It was only a 10-15min walk to the ginza festival. I was pretty hungry and thought I’d get dinner there. It turned out to be a very expensive dinner. The entrance of $4 (normally $5 but I had a coupon), plus food and drinks used a ticket system of $1 per ticket. Half a teriyaki chicken was 10 tickets, a beer 5. I had 5 left over so I had a red bean dessert and a serving of edamame. I suppose I could have watched the performance, but it wasn’t interesting. The stalls sold stuff that seemed to come from somewhere between a $10 shop and Sogo. I had to remind myself that I’m not in Asia, and some of these crafts and merchandise are pretty unusual here.

how to square large numbers

I know up to 152, above that I need a calculator. Until today. via lifehacker, john graham-cumming gave us a great method using mental arithmetic. So if I want to find out what is 482.

  • round up the number to be squared to the next 10 = 50
  • how many to do the round up? 50-48=2
  • take 2 from 48 = 46
  • multiply 46×50=2300 (it’s easy to do in the head)
  • add 22 2300+4=2304

Seems more trouble than it’s worth.

i track myself

OMG, why has it taken me so long to find it. I so have to start doing this!! via bb, over at quantified self, Alexandra Carmichael explains how she keeps a record of 40 different things in her life every day, and what she’s learned about herself from studying the data.

I track these things about my health and personal patterns every day:

– sleep (bed time, wake time, sleep quality, naps)
– morning weight
– daily caloric intake (each meal, total calculated at end of day)
– mealtimes

  • mood (average of 3 positive and 3 negative factors on 0-5 scale)
  • day of menstrual cycle
  • sex (quantity, quality)
  • exercise (duration, type)

  • supplements I take (time, dosage)

  • treatments for vulvodynia (a chronic pain condition)
  • pain of administering the vulvodynia treatment I take (0-5)
  • vulvodynia-related pain (0-5)
  • headache,nausea (0-5)

  • time spent working, time with kids

  • number of nursings and night wakings (I’m a mom)
  • weather
  • unusual events (text)

The mood factors I measure every day are:
1. Happiness
2. Irritability
3. Calmness
4. Sadness
5. Feeling beautiful / self-love
6. Feeling fat / ate too much

She used google spreadsheets initially, and this came out of a project of setting up cure together, a platform for open source health research.

I don’t think it’s difficult to set up a spreadsheet for this, and in a way I’m kinda sorta tracking some stuff in different places. I can see myself tracking things like:

  • time I wake up, leave for work, arrive at work, arrive back home
  • meal times and what i ate
  • calorie intake and expenditure (something that daily plate does well)
  • exercise — daily plate again, plus I now record my runs on both nike plus and twitter
  • weight
  • blog posts made
  • google reader posts read
  • books read
  • words written
  • IM convos
  • emails read and answered (home and work)
  • number of facebook requests received

Alexandra analysed her data by looking at correlation between moods and certain activities like exercise. I can’t quite see myself tracking moods, cos it’ll be “meh” almost all the time. My motivation for tracking will be for the sake of getting data and putting them into pretty graphs.

And no, I won’t be tracking
– sex (quantity, quality)

periodic videos

via kottke, a series of absolutely fantastic short videos on all 118 elements of the periodic table, presented by the Chemistry professors at the University of Nottingham. Never has the chemistry of elements been so interesting and so inspiring. That, and Professor Martyn Poliakoff’s big hair.

One of the commenters suggested that they put them all on a DVD. Oh yes, I’d so buy it. Watch all 118 videos here.

do i know my elements?

via the always interesting kottke, a periodic table quiz. Only in this one we have to enter the long name instead of the elemental symbol. Some of the spelling I simply couldn’t get. It’s like in those “name the European countries” quiz when I can never spell Liechtenstein correctly.

88/118 isn’t bad, considering they included 112-118, the Unh series. Okay, this was the second or third time around, I did a little studying in between.

I have to say, I’ve never needed to use the periodic table after my first degree, so there really isn’t much use knowing the elements.

chemical colours

via wired, an experiment that lava lamps will get jealous of.

Non-science readers should stop here and play the video again. Science geeks read on.


The experiment is an example of an oscillating reaction and is attributed to Thomas Briggs and Warren Rauscher who first demonstrated it in 1973. No wonder that it’s called the Briggs-Rauscher reaction. It’s a combination of 3 solutions:

  • 410ml 30% hydrogen peroxide diluted to 1l — it’s been far too long since I’ve done chemistry I’m not even going to try to calculate the molar equivalent
  • 43g potassium iodate KIO3 and 4.2ml conc. sulphuric acid diluted to 1l
  • 16g malonic acid and 3.4g of manganese sulphate mixed with 3g soluble starch solution, diluted to 1l

Solutions A and B are mixed in a beaker and then solution C added while stirring. The initially colourless solution will become amber almost immediately. Then it will suddenly turn blue-black. The blue-black will fade to colourless, and the cycle will repeat several times with a period which initially lasts about 15 seconds but gradually lengthens. After a few minutes the solution will remain blue-black.

The rationale is that several reactions happen at the same time. Or more specifically, two competing reactions happen at the same time that uses up material at different rates, so the concentration of iodine and iodide ions (I) produced during the reactions fluctuate. Iodine produces the amber colour, hydrogen peroxide bleaches everything and iodide ions reaction with the starch to form the blue-black solution.

Sigh. I tried to read through the chemistry but lost interest. Damn.


I was chatting with Car (literally just 5 minutes ago) and she was telling me about the books I should be reading. I said I have little time for reading right now, cos of the 80-20 rule — I’m now at the time-consuming 20% part of the Great Website Redesign project.

She said, and I’ll quote:

80-20 rule? is that something you’ve made up in your anal little mind? lol

Oh my friend, it’s real alright. It’s called the Pareto Principle and was used originally to describe the distribution of wealth. In project management terms, it means that 80% of the work uses up 20% of time / resources.

As anyone who’s spent splodges of time putting the final touch on any project — baking, planning a holiday, building an office block — it’s the last litty bitty details that take up most time, energy and frustration. In terms of the website stuff, it means I’m spending time on the css details before moving onto the static pages.

I tried to explain all this, and the response was still:

car: I think that’s something you’ve made up
me: HA! it’s on wikipedia
car: oh whatever…it simply justifies your need to spend hours changing the color and margins of your website. LOL

Who’s a skeptic now? (Or she’s pulling my very anal legs.)


I used to shut down my computers every night and reboot the next day. At work I’m in the habit of logging off every Friday. But some people prefer sleeping to shutting down. Personal preference I suppose.

In cnet today there was (yet another) mac vs PC debate and the talkback turned to uptime of weeks, months, years. So what to occupy the CPU during idle time? Enter distributed / grid computing, where people volunteer the use of their computers’ CPU when they’re not using them.

I looked at folding@home and seti@home. Both involve running work unit tasks either in the background or as screensavers. In a way the network of personal computers combined is as powerful as a supercomputer. Complex problems, such as the human genome project, finding a cure for AIDS and looking for extra-terrestrial lifeforms, that require massive amounts of calculations are split into smaller calculations and farmed out to millions of computers around the world. Wired magazine compared it to someone needing to label 10,000 envelopes. Do they do it themselves, or ask 100 friends to label 100 each? Which one is more efficient?

Sounds good. And an opportunity to contribute towards scientific research.

But I haven’t downloaded the client and joined the fun. I need to find out more about how much power it uses, and if I leave the mbp on for extended periods of time, even idle, how hot will it get?

honey drink my wine

From New Scientist via reuters.

If you’re in a long distance relationship, you’d want to be as close to the other party as possible, as often as possible, whatever it takes. Like you’d be on the phone co-ordinating activites so you’re doing them “together;” or you imagine they’re having say a bowl of cereal and you get yourself a bowl of cereal too. You know, try to connect.

Now researchers at MIT have the answer to those nights when you just want to open a bottle of wine but have no one to share the intimate moment with … wine glasses that glow when one partner picks up the glass and even brighter when they put it against their lips. The glasses are wired with coloured LEDs, liquid sensors and wireless (GPRS or wi-fi) links that work across the miles.

Jackie Lee and Hyemin Chung, experts in human-computer interaction, say the wireless glasses really do “help people feel as if they are sharing a drinking experience together.”

For more practical use, the technology could also be used to check that hospital patients or elderly people are drinking enough water.

The glasses, dubbed lover’s cups, will be unveiled next month at a conference in Montreal on computer-human interaction.

All I want to say is, let’s hope the glasses don’t go all cloudy or disgusting when one party pukes in it.

get rich quick

From reuters.

One in five Americans believe the best way to get rich is to win the lottery, while 11 percent say inheriting money is the way to go, a survey showed on Monday. Asked the most practical way to accumulate “several hundred thousand dollars,” 21 percent chose winning the lottery, compared to 55 percent who thought saving something each month for many years was best, according to a survey by the Consumer Federation of America and the Financial Planning Association.

Dude, the odds of winning the lottery are … kinda hopeless. Just randomly googling “lottery odds” gives me (from the lottery site):

lottery odds
US Powerball 80,089,128
Australian PowerBall 54,979,155
British Lotto 13,983,816
Hong Kong Lotto 10,737,573
Irish Lotto 5,245,786


Time to move to Ireland?

Phasers … grrr

From new scientist

What do boys (and girls) who play with guns do when they grow up? They go into the military and invent “non-lethal” laser guns.


The Personnel Halting and Stimulation Response (PHASR) rifle was developed at the Air Force Research Laboratory in New Mexico, US, and two prototypes have been delivered to military bases in Texas and Virginia for further testing.

They temporarily blind suspects at a distance, allowing the police and military personnel to quickly disarm them.

It seems that the military have been developing these laser weapons for a long time but they were too strong that they caused permanent blindness. Anyone who owns a laser pointer for presentations can tell you the risk. However these new weapons may use less powerful laser beams and reduce the risk of long term damage.

Me? I think they just want to play with phasers and lasers. I mean, they are the stock in trade for sci-fi programs and films for ages and ages.


Within my circle of friends, colleagues and family, I have the tech skills of a god. Like I don’t know anyone who has a website, runs a weblog, or knows their way round (albeit in a really beginner’s way) status symbols like photoshop.

But talking to more technically inclined people makes me realize how pathetically basic my so called skills are. It’s good to be humble.

Another expectation is I can solve all their problems. Man, don’t they know I’m know nothing about support, hardware, connections and most importantly, I don’t touch PCs with a 40 foot pole. This means start talking about Windows and I’m gonna blow a gasket. Unfortunately I know a bit about MS Office cos I have to use it at work, but no, I don’t use it at home.

So yeah, they think I know, but I’m just pretending.

So I studied chemistry and I get questions about the side effects of drugs, or how to make a bomb from fertilizer. Like, dude, if you trust a chemistry grad to tell you all about these things? mm took computer science and she’s the first to admit she’s totally lost the knowledge. Yeah, considering she switched as soon as she graduated.

I’m just glad I don’t get asked about repairing elevators and stuff like that.

what do robodogs dream of

I was surfing around researching Oxford for the Moments stories and I came across this group of Spatial Reasoning researchers working on a project called the Robot Sheepdog Project. The aim was to design a robot sheepdog that can herd sheep. Not as easy as it sounds. For a start, they used ducks cos ducks and sheep have similar “flocking patterns” and are easier to manage.

Then they had to design a mathematical model that predicted the ducks’ movements. The model was based on 3 flocking characteristics:

  • attraction to one another
  • repulsion from fixed obstacles such as walls
  • repulsion from the dog

To move the flock, the dog has to move till it is on the other side of the flock as the target, then gently move towards the target.

Ok, enough crazy scientific sidebars for today.

playing with numbers

For someone who studied the sciences my mathematics is terrible.

So I was reading a story the other day and I read about the Fibonacci Series. Once it’s explained, it’s so easy – it’s a series of numbers where the next number is the sum of the previous two, so it goes:


The origin for the series date back to 1202 when Fibonacci was thinking about the reproductive rate of rabbits. Really? Really.

It’s possible to find Fibonacci numbers without going through the addition, for instance to find f(500) involves a lot of adding so some guy called Binet worked out the formula for that. There’s also another formula to find the next term in the series.

Now, relating to the Fibonacci series is the golden number, which denotes the ratio between the long side and the short side of the most aesthetically pleasing rectangle. The definition of a golden rectangle is one that, when squared, gives another golden rectangle. For an illustration, go here.

The golden number has been denominated by the greek letter phi (φ) and has been calculated to be 1.61803398875…

So how do the Fibonacci series and the golden number relate. Watch. First take the first few Fibonacci numbers:

f(1) = 1
f(2) = 1
f(3) = 2
f(4) = 3
f(5) = 5
f(6) = 8
f(7) = 13
f(8) = 21
f(9) = 34
f(10)= 55

Then divide each number by the one before it:

r(1) = 1/1 = 1
r(2) = 2/1 = 2
r(3) = 3/2 = 1.5
r(4) = 5/3 = 1.6666..
r(5) = 8/5 = 1.6
r(6) = 13/8 = 1.625
r(7) = 21/13 = 1.6153846
r(8) = 34/21 = 1.6190476
r(9) = 55/34 = 1.6176471
r(10)= 89/55 = 1.6181818

Essentially the further we go in this calculation the closer we get to φ. Neat isn’t it.

What’s that got to do with real life? Not surprisingly there’s so much of mathematics in nature. Many flowers have a Fibonacci number of petals, like sunflowers have 34 petals and daisies 34, 55 or 89.

I wished I was better at all this. It’s quite fascinating.