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Friday, 31 August 2012

Computer systems: A fable on technology

I am by no means a Luddite however I am a little bit skeptical at an over reliance on technology. As you can see I have the capacity to learn hence my use of hyperlinks in the text but I do believe my spelling (and indeed my typing accuracy) has gotten much worse since auto correct has become more prevalent.

At least though I still continue to write words properly (even in tweets) unlike some students I teach! Though that is a topic for another time.

As the new academic year rushes towards us one thing is slowly/quickly coming into focus. In this year our use and expectation of our students use of IT will be greater than it has been before. The use of 'the flip' or 'blended learning' seems to be on the increase. As far as I can tell the two are not quite the same.

The flip involves students having access to lesson materials before the lesson. The idea being that the students learn the knowledge before a lesson and the time spent in the classroom is used to improve that knowledge, test it and for the teacher to correct and guide the students. 

Sounds ideal doesn't it!

The other technique - blended learning - involves the use of the internet and computers for the students to use in order to access the information in a way they may be more accustomed. 

Right.

Anyone who works with IT knows that it seems to spend a large amount of time broken or not fully functioning. Anyone who works with children knows they have a great - almost infinite - capacity for breaking things. 

At our school last year often our students laptops were broken, lost, not connecting to the internet or out of charge. So knowing that we are heading into the new year with the focus being heavily on the use of IT in all our science lessons fills me with a little bit of dread.

Add to this issues with the network, uploads, emails and photocopiers for staff and you sense the frustration you can have.

Plus I am a scientist! I want to see/feel the science before me. Whether that is the heat of a Bunsen or see the colour change in a chemical reaction or observe the activity of an animal in its habitat. 

Again though whether we are risking the sacrifice of one type of skill set for another one is a conversation for another blog. As is the thought that maybe pandering to the lazy expectations of lazy parents/students/politicians might not give us good learning (ooh controversial).

What I do have - half way through I know! - is a story from today that I feel serves to illustrate why I am concerned about a reliance on technology.

I live in a parking permit residential area. Our parking permits needed renewing so I took myself down to the council office to purchase two new ones.

I arrived and got very quickly to see an adviser - I believe his name was Keith (identity bracelet and initialed his name with a K) - who was very polite. 

However.

Before I arrived all of their computer systems had crashed. While I was there the computer system was still running slow. The printers were offline so my receipts were done by hand to much apologizing from the staff there. 

So far so good, slightly slower service and a bit of faff because they - like most people - are very used to using IT systems. 

Now for the fun stuff, in order to process my payment I had to go and use an automated payment machine. There were three machines in the offices. All were out of order!

Oh no! after a few quick phone calls it was decided I could pay by phone with the office responsible for the parking permits- hurrahs! 

But oh no, the printers were still down - another quick discussion (4 members of staff at one point) decided it would be ok for me to have my temporary permits hand written until the permanent permits arrive.

So I payed by card over the phone, even though I was in the building, for the permits as the machines were down. I had handwritten receipts as the printers were down, I did however get the permits printed as the printers came back online during the time I was there.

Fun times.

The moral - if there is one - if you are going to have a reliance on IT 1) make sure you have a back up in place and 2) make sure your staff know about the back up! 

Which reminds me, where are those text books....

(as a post-script it should be said that the staff in the office were amazing, very friendly and incredibly apologetic for a situation that was not of their making, they also got on with finding an alternative way for me to end up with what I was after - my permits - so hats off to them!)

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Binary stars

If you have never heard of a binary star system or Tatooine or seen this image  http://joehillfiction.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/05/tatooine.jpg then you probably have no reason to be here so, er, bye?

If you have and you know that a binary star system is where two stars are together in the same solar system and recognise the image from Star Wars chances are you already know about the binary star system that NASA's Kepler space telescope has found (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-19401891). 

Now what makes this discovery truly special is the two planets discovered orbiting the dual stars in the Cygnus system (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wlNrQGmj6oQ). This was thought to be something that would not be possible due to the gravity which the two stars produced. Or more interestingly the flux in the gravity that might be produced by the two stars. The thought being that the gravity would do strange things to any planets orbiting the stars. By strange things we mean either pinging them into space, pulling them into one of the stars or smashing planets into each other. 

Sounds very sci-fi doesn't it!

However the new discovery in system Kepler-47 is even more remarkable - yes even more than having two planets orbiting! - in that one of the planets exists in the 'habitable zone'. 

Oooooh!

Put simply the habitable zone is the region around a star that would allow water to exist as a liquid on the surface of the planet. 

Exciting stuff however the planet (Kepler-47c) is slightly larger than Uranus and so is thought to be a gas giant type planet (like Saturn, Jupiter and Uranus are). Which would make it unlikely to harbour life. Probably due to the turbulent nature of the atmospheres within those planets - the 'spot' on Jupiter is a giant permanent hurricane the size of the Earth. This though shouldn't take away from the excitement that it is possible for a binary star to have planets orbiting it and for those planets to be in the habitable zone.

In fact the Kepler space telescope is producing some incredible data in the discovery of exoplanets around distant stars. Which is even cooler when you can help out with the possible identification of potential planets via  http://www.planethunters.org/ . The same technique used on the website - looking for dips in light from the star, which would equate to a planet passing in front of it - is what was used to discover the two planets in Kepler-47 (what they call analysing transects). 

Through this method the Kepler telescope has discovered 207 Earth-sized planets. Of which 10 fall within the habitable zone. 

However.

It is probably my ignorance. Or maybe just skepticism, but I understand why we look for the same conditions that are present on our planet. So far that is the only place we have found life so it makes sense to start from a position where we have data. 

It just seems a very anthropomorphic view that water would be required for life because water is required for life here. 

Maybe it is at the moment a case of 'if we look for something similar to what we have we narrow the search down to a manageable size as we are searching in something infinite'. However it still seems to jar with me that life has to be the same as here. As it wouldn't be. 

After all the most abundant organisms on this planet are bacteria. If you are looking for an abundant form of life above them you are looking at plants and insects. Now maybe there is some reason - and there probably is - why they have to have water as the medium for chemical reactions to occur in - I think it might have something to do with water's unique properties - does that mean though that it is the only solvent life would form in?

Or are we limiting our imaginations and thus our searches? 

I honestly don't have a clue or an answer or an idea - often the case! Yet it just doesn't feel right that in a universe of infinite possibilities the forms of life that we know and that we can see are the only way life will have come about.  After all life finds a way (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SkWeMvrNiOM), apparently. 

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Astronomy Domine

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0PcY5Ym0TU

The title gives me a good excuse to play the above song as I write!

Ok so I have been asked to blog on how I took my Moon photo last night 28/08/12


First thing I used was a spotting scope that I purchased off eBay for 99p!

I set this up looking out of a window (in the example below I am going to take a picture of a tree).


Ok so the spotting scope is set up and focused on the tree.


The above non-scoped picture shows the tree through the window.


I raise the scope so that I can get a clear shot of the tree and then raise the camera so I can zoom the lens into the viewer. This allows the zoomed image of the tree to be seen on the view screen on the camera (you can do this without tripods but keeping things still becomes an issue).


Here is the magnified image on the view screen, to avoid shaking the camera I set it to a delay so that once I have pushed the button to take a photo I get a few seconds for everything to settle down - avoids blurring photos.


Unfortunately today is a windy day so even with care and the method above some pictures still don't come out great.


This one is much better however in taking it I moved the camera slightly to the side and so missed the bulk of the branch! This is an issue with cheap equipment as even tightened the tripods are prone to slipping. However like with everything patience and practice will improve results (sounds familiar).


Above is a photo from last night that came out ok but I wasn't zoomed fully in so a lot of the detail of the Moon is lost!


Here is one where the camera slipped down so the Moon is now in the bottom of the photo but there is also a second 'shadow' Moon. I kept getting shadow images when the lens wasn't flush onto the viewer of the scope. I like this picture though, it's haunting.


Here is one I quite like although I rushed to take the image just as cloud cover came over. It shows that sometimes effects - like the wind in the tree - can give a good image and so don't be afraid to take lots of photos (even if people mock you for it).


On this one I increased the zoom but didn't get the focus right. One of the hardest parts of this technique is focusing whilst looking at a camera view screen. The tendency is to move everything away from the subject and spoil the photo you are taking - which can get frustrating in the dark!


In this one I got the focus and the zoom slightly wrong and it meant the Moon was far too illuminated as I was not looking beyond the light. If I had zoomed a bit more I may have got more surface detail.


This one was far too zoomed in and so is a mess as the focus was completely wrong.


This one was attempted to be taken without the time delay, it resulted in shaking of the camera by pushing the button. The delay means you can move away from the camera so you don't jostle it too much.


This one is one of those frustrating pictures that is almost just right! the Moon is square in the photo and the zoom is right it just wasn't quite focused enough! Gutted!


And then a quick focus - and the camera moved slightly - and got one which is much better. I love how you can see the craters of the Moon and how it doesn't quite look right owing to it not being spherical, somehow makes it look more real like it has been worn a bit.

I hope this helps to illustrate what you can do with a bit of cheap equipment, some simple technique and a lot of patience. If you take any photos like this I'd like to see them - think you can post them in the comments box below.

Thanks for reading and best of luck.





Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Virginity cream and sexual partners

Ok going to write on this http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-19353039 because it is just odd!

It brings up so many questions...

The premise is simple you rub a cream on your vagina, the cream tightens the muscles giving the sensation of intercourse for the first time. Effectively making you a virgin again. Apparently.

Except it doesn't does it. You will still have had the experience of having sex with someone, you still will not be a virgin because you have had sex. Regardless of your physical condition. I will say it again, you are no longer a virgin if you have had sex.

Although the advert sounds hilarious. Actually, it is hilarious http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rgqiO4sd848 . I do love the tag line 'get it right, get it tight'.

I get the importance attributed to being a virgin, I do honestly. What I don't get is why it's always the woman that has to be the virgin in these situations. Why is there not a corrosive penis scrub for the man so that he doesn't have the epithelial tissue that has been inside a woman anymore. Or maybe they could make really thick condoms so you don't feel anything anymore which would mean its 'not really sex' so a man can retain his virginity.


I find it difficult to accept in the 21st Century that we are still holding to outdated notions of 'purity' to the point where a product like this needs to be marketed.

Unless I am missing the point and its actually just a sex aid!

Yeah that has to be it, right? It's just to improve the 'feel' of sex for people.

Unfortunately it doesn't seem to be that way. It seems more to be so that girls can hide their 'shame' at having had sex before marriage. Which is just sickening. That they have to hide their shame I mean. Not the sex before marriage thing, that to me at least and my way of thinking is normal. Cue jokes about not buying a car without a test drive etc and snare drum rolls and everyone chuckles. Seriously though humans are a sexual creature, you only have to look at adverts, films, listen to songs to see that.

In fact you can go further and pretty much claim that our society is built upon the desire to seem more attractive to a mate. Slightly off topic I know but try it. Think of something you do, work, sport what ever and I bet within about 3 degrees of separation you can get to impressing the opposite sex.

e.g. shopping- look good - attract people

or

play sport - be healthy - be attractive

or

work hard - afford nice things - be attractive

I know I know a bit over simplistic and probably wrong on many levels. I just find it strange coming from a biology background where sex is so prevalent that we are still as a species not accepting the finer points of sexuality between adults. Anyone who has studied anything to do with the natural world - and sexually reproducing animals - knows how important and prevalent sex can be. Here we are in a sexual world with wall to wall sex being transmitted to us and in a way that has never been before allowing our young people to be exposed to it at a younger age - internet, social media etc. And we are still having places that believe a woman is shamed if she has sex before marriage.

This is especially odd when there is somewhat a trend for marriages to be declining in the west  ( http://scholar.google.co.uk/scholar?q=decline+in+marriage&hl=en&as_sdt=0&as_vis=1&oi=scholart&sa=X&ei=XYg8ULCOEKSS0QW224D4Cw&ved=0CBsQgQMwAA ) and taking this article from Australia as an example (http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/0/26D94B4C9A4769E6CA25732C00207644?opendocument) the trend is also for divorces rates to increase.

So the question becomes is marriage becoming outdated? Or is it that society is just moving past this notion of people meeting someone and settling instantly down. Is it better to have a longer courtship to iron out issues that may effect a marriage before you get married. Of course that also means that you risk breaking up with a long term sexual partner if things get irreconcilable. Which shock horror means that your average number of sexual partners pre-marriage might be higher than it was 50-60 years ago.

Surely if society is changing - meeting more people, getting married later, working longer (hate that one!) then we should change with it?

After all it's not like we live in the 50's anymore is it. Next you will be telling me there are places where homosexuality is still illegal...

Oh.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Greenery

Ok so having read http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-19387961 about the government again saying they won't build on green belt land it made me wonder when did even thinking about building on green belts become normal? When I was at school it was accepted that green belt land was sacrosanct and couldn't be built upon. Well at least that was what I remember being taught.

Maybe we really do need the space for people to live in? Maybe a Judge Dredd style Mega-City (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mega-City_One) is on the cards?

Although thanks to the BBC there are other articles on the importance of green areas. After all we know that the storage of carbon dioxide is massively important to reduce the greenhouse effect - well to a level that would keep us in the 'Goldilocks zone' for our life.

However http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-19332960 reports that even in drought times some forests in Africa have actually increased their carbon storage - often related to the growth of the trees.

Anyone who has taken science at GCSE knows that trees are hugely important in storing atmospheric carbon dioxide, not only as part of photosynthesis but also in their structures.

Ok so we shouldn't build on green belts and some woods show carbon storage even during droughts. I can almost hear you cry 'so what?' (believe me I have started asking myself this same thing).

Well http://reallifecomics.com/ has been running a story arc about one of the characters 'Terraforming' (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terraforming) Mars. The stuff of Sci-Fi, I am thinking the original Total Recall film.

Right, so where is this still going?

Well http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-19371833 reports on the idea of geoengineering. This is the idea that out carbon footprint is not something we are victims of but something we can control or reverse. The basic principle follows that by creating artificial rain we could 'trap' carbon dioxide in the sea - the largest store of carbon dioxide - and remove it from the atmosphere.

If this idea works could it be used on other planets?

Probably not. But it is very interesting to see that ideas like this are now being tested more thoroughly and given more credence and that we are not just sitting back and trying to limit out impact but actively reverse it.

Will it work? Depends how well it is rolled out. After all alternative energies work but are not used on a large enough scale to be really effective.

Final thought/point we are currently in the middle of a mass extinction so if the habitats are no longer needed - not that we seem to preserve habitats unless the animals are pretty - and these experiments work to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide, well will it just be a matter of time before our green belt land is built upon more and more for our expanding populations.

Although then where will our food come from...

Procrastination

An interesting and timely article on BBC's website - http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19389707 - concerning procrastination.

Timely because I feel like I am failing to get through my to do list in any great speed but I have watched a lot of DVD's and read a lot of comics in the last few days.

Often though I find I procrastinate more if I am disinterested in a task. Or an essay. Or some marking.

The only way I find to get through the procrastination stage is to roll with it. To try and get into the tasks again and again but to appreciate that if my heart isn't in something it might be best to do very little than a lot which is rubbish.

I speak from experience having rewritten my undergraduate dissertation repeatedly!

One of the best pieces of advice I was given was from one of my friends when I was doing my undergraduate degree. He said 'if you mind isn't on it, don't bother, do something else'.

To that I would add the caveat 'but make sure it gets done well!'

And that is the whole problem isn't it, where some people take procrastination to a point where it costs them finishing a task. Surely that is where the problem comes.

Or in the case of most of my students doing a task in a poor manner.

Anyways I have just realised spending 20 mins thinking about how to write this - plus the 10 mins to read the BBC article is another 30 minutes where I could have been writing lesson plans!

But that's how procrastination goes I suppose...

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Lunacy

While there is no direct evidence that shows conclusively the Moon is able to affect our behaviour or sleep patterns I always seem to have the worst nights sleep on the approach to a full Moon.

Is this because the weather changes? Is it that I notice my sleep being disrupted more at these times? Or is it that the Moon has some effect on my sleep?

The answer is probably somewhere in the middle of all of those. To be honest looking at sleep involves lots of different variables. How much exercise have I had at that point, how much alcohol have I consumed, am I ill or coming down with an illness. However the idea that the Moon somehow affects my sleep is too interesting not to investigate further - and yes I am aware I have already proved I am a 'busy' sleeper http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rCsXWbh9cfI&feature=g-all-u .

So the question is simple on the evening of 24/08/12 how was your nights sleep? Ignoring all other potential variables and ignoring where in the country you were during the night on a scale of 1 (very poor) to 5 (very good) how well did you sleep?

From the 44 people who responded I have this data...


While the sample size is not very big and the results not conclusive it has piqued my interest into this topic.

If I manage to have a statistically significant sample number - I am thinking over 100 people, then I should be able to draw some half decent conclusions. If I have a larger sample number I think that individual factors should be minimised - e.g. baby crying, thunderstorms etc. I am also hoping that if I sample at different phases of the Moon I might be able to get some more robust data. 

So the plan is the following;

  1. Rather than talk about how well you slept I will change it to how well compared to normal 1 being much worse, 3 being like normal, 5 being much better.
  2. I will request sample's at 3 intervals during the Lunar cycle - new Moon, half Moon (as above) and full Moon.
  3. I will run the experiment over the course of several months, this way I should be able to build up a picture of the effect (if any) over time. It will also be interesting to see if there is any effect if the Moon is larger or smaller.
As ever this is all preliminary work. Hopefully I will be able to run this as a simple experiment. Though knowing me I will probably find someway to make it horribly complicated...

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Short spoiler free reviews of films I have seen this holiday

Ok as of today - 16/08/12 I have seen the following films at the cinema this holiday;

Batman - The Dark Knight Rises

Amazing Spider-man

TED

What follows is my thoughts on the films without giving any spoilers away.

Here goes!

Batman - TDKR

Didn't like the end, didn't like the twist, liked Bane, liked Selena Kyle, liked Joseph Gordon Levitt, didn't like Alfred and Gordon's characterisations.

Let me explain a bit. I loved the way Tom Hardy played Bane and I really liked Selena Kyle and how she was used in the film. I felt that they really added something to the franchise (hate that I used that word, honestly). However for me Joesph GL's young cop character was the best thing. That's right I thought he was better than Batman. There I said it! And the film works. It is a good way of rounding off the trilogy but it very much is Christopher Nolan ending his Batman.

And it shows.

Which brings me to the bits I didn't like. I felt the Bruce Wayne/Batman character was cheapened some how by the film. In the Dark Knight the film is about Harvey Dent and the Joker with Batman taking a back stance. In that film it works really well. In this one I dunno it just a feels a bit like a cardboard cutout of Batman could have been substituted in for most of the scenes. However the biggest scratch on the roof of my mouth is reserved for the way in which Commissioner Gordon and Alfred are handled.

I really don't like them, without going into details they don't feel true to the source material and they don't ring true with the characters we had in the first two films. It almost feels like their stories are tacked on to add emotional depth to a film that was running out of ideas. This shows in the plot twist which while surprising for most - I worked it out earlier tbh - feels borrowed from an earlier film and not original.

Which leads us to the end - when you eventually get there it is a long film! - which I felt was more a director ending HIS trilogy rather than an ending to the film.

I dunno, its hard to explain maybe Maria is right and I have just watched and loved the first two too much and so my expectations are far to high for this film. However I can't help feel that TDKR just doesn't live up to the standard set by the other Batman films in this trilogy. In short I think it is a good film but not good enough to stand with Begins and Dark Knight.

And that is a shame really.

Ok so Amazing Spider-man...

I loved it. I felt it was much truer to the comics I adore and the story and performances were top draw. In the Lizard we have an awesome Jekyll/Hyde style characterisation (Rhys Ifans is amazing) which really helps drive the story along. I like that they weren't scared to make this film dark without making it preposterous (you hear me Spider-man 3!!!) and the added emotional depth works very well. I also can't praise enough the fact they kept Peter Parker as a high school student and allowed his relationship with Flash to be more than just school bully and geek.

However one thing about the film that gets a big tick from me is Gwen Stacey.

Anyone who has read Spider-man or knows anything about the character will understand the importance of that character in his development as a super hero. In fact the Stacey family is very important and it is good that Captain Stacey gets a decent sized role in the film.

What is superbly done is the blossoming relationship between Peter and Gwen. Between Peter and Gwen,  not Spider-man but Peter. That is an important point to make. The character Gwen Stacey likes Peter Parker first and foremost and that is one of the major reasons why she is so important to his character development. To have missed her out the other films was to cut a major section of story out for no real reason.

Of course there is someone else important in Spider-man becoming Spider-man and that is Uncle Ben. There is a part of the film towards the end that brought a tear to my eye and it sums up the amazing job Martin Sheen did in the role.

Also the film keeps the home made nature of Spider-mans first forays into crime fighting which helps keep you in the film for longer - it doesn't loose you at any point i.e. there is no Arnie lifting a phone booth moment to make you think 'yeah this is a daft bit of film'. I think that helps keep you with the characters for longer.

So in short Amazing Spider-man is truer to the source, darker in tone, very well acted and written and very enjoyable as a film.

It must be noted that comic book films have really raised there game lately. To the point where having seen a few with Maria she now entertains the idea of watching them much more readily than she used to. Also the Marvel films seem to be much better than the DC based ones. Thor, Iron man, Captain America and the Avengers are amazing films and with them all tying together it really creates a nice version of the Marvel Universe.

However I am still very excited for Man of Steel...

Right TED

Funnier than I thought, basically Seth McFarlanes mates, will age badly.

Right here goes...

I didn't expect much of TED at all. I felt it would be Family Guy in real life and would be poorer for it. However I was very surprised. It is very funny, very crude but really watchable. Mark Wahlberg gives a very good comedy turn and Mila Kunis continues to get hotter every time I see here in anything or and she is very funny in this, the plot is harmless enough with plenty of McFarlanes patented break away scenes used to great comic effect. However there are a few things that I felt hold it back from being a truly great comedy.

Firstly unless you like McFarlanes humour you will hate this film. The film is a group of McFarlane regulars as well, which means I spent some of the film spotting Family Guy voices. Not a good situation. The film has cultural references - especially Flash Gordon - that some people might not get robbing them of plot and laughs - especially Flash Gordon bits. Also because of the pop culture references the film will age badly in my opinion. Which doesn't make it a bad film but not really one I want to own on DVD and re-watch like say South Park the Movie.

So in short TED is very funny if you like that humour and get the references but doesn't have a lot of replay-ability and will probably age badly.

And there we go my summer cinema goings reviewed for now.

I may write something about other films in the future but you know I may not.