Going into space? If you can’t wear a blue shirt then make sure you have a red…

Going into space? If you can’t wear a blue shirt then make sure you have a red one.

Significance magazine has ana­lysed the cas­u­al­ties in Star Trek:TOS. Everyone knows that wear­ing a red shirt on the USS Enterprise is like wear­ing a giant shoot me sign. But what every­one knows might be wrong.

Matthew Barsalou has ana­lysed the cas­u­al­it­ies and found blue is the safest col­our. He’s also found more red shirts died than any other col­our — but on the Enterprise there are more red shirts any­way. The situ­ation is made more com­plic­ated by secur­ity, engin­eer­ing and oper­a­tions all wear­ing red shirts even though they do very dif­fer­ent jobs.

If you’re a space cadet this is essen­tial reading.

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#startrek   #stat­ist­ics  

Keep your red­shirt on: a Bayesian explor­a­tion — Web Exclusive Article — Significance Magazine
Keep your red­shirt on: a Bayesian explor­a­tion. Author: Matthew Barsalou. The idea of red-shirted char­ac­ters being fre­quently killed in Star Trek: The Original Series has become a pop cul­ture cliché. B…

I’m glad I don’t have to do a poster for a conference any time soon


I’m glad I don’t have to do a poster for a con­fer­ence any time soon

Better Posters is a help­ful site for poster design, but every so often I’ll see some­thing that makes me glad I’m not com­pet­ing for atten­tion in a con­fer­ence poster ses­sion. In this case there’s a poster with aug­men­ted real­ity. At the moment I think it’s more gim­mick than must-have, but it’s cer­tainly some­thing that’s worth keep­ing an eye on.

One of the factors that does bother me slightly is the expense. In my case when I had a poster I wanted to tour I was look­ing at the prob­lem of anim­a­tion. Animated sec­tions for parts of the poster would have helped. For example it could explain how I was meas­ur­ing stuff over time by allow­ing an image to have 2D + time dimen­sions instead of just 2D and a lot of text. I looked ser­i­ously at len­ticular print­ing and decided that was insanely expens­ive and not good enough.

Now, with cheap-ish sub £70 tab­lets avail­able it becomes more of a prob­lem about whether you can incor­por­ate film in a poster. It is expens­ive, but print­ing is around £50 for an aca­demic poster. Adding moun­ted video dis­plays now doubles or trebles the cost of a poster, but it’s no longer in the region of a mag­nitude more expens­ive. When you add travel and accom­mod­a­tion costs for big con­fer­ences, video dis­play is now cheap enough that it’s a sane expense, but expens­ive enough that it’s a big hit for self-funded students.

The answer isn’t to ban aug­men­ted fea­tures to posters. That makes as much sense as ban­ning laptops above a cer­tain spe­cific­a­tion because not every­one can afford them, but maybe enlightened depart­ments could be put­ting together reusable com­pon­ents for poster dis­plays for their stu­dents. This may be boards and sup­ports in some cases and, if so, cheap tab­let dis­plays that can also be re-used at suc­cess­ive conferences.


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Better Posters: An aug­men­ted real­ity poster
I’ve talked about vari­ous ways to make posters more inter­act­ive, from using QR codes to show­ing video. This is another step in mak­ing posters more dynamic: using aug­men­ted real­ity. Jump to the 4 minut…

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Visiting Stonehenge and Purchasing Spirituality

Drunk man standing on a stone at Stonehenge acting like an arse.

I’ve remembered it’s com­ing up to that day again. I went to Stonehenge for the sol­stice once. I’m glad I went, but I doubt I’ll go again. There were a couple of big disappointments.

One was the lack of a vis­ible English Heritage pres­ence. There were an estim­ated 20,000 people there who wanted some con­nec­tion to the past. I would have thought that was a good tar­get audi­ence for EH. At the very least there’s money to be made with the Solstice 2012 t-shirts to be sold. The offi­cial sol­stice blankets for those who for­got to bring one, sol­stice kagouls and umbrel­las for when it rains and so on. It’s also an excel­lent time to attempt guilt-tripping people into join­ing EH to sup­port access to ancient sites. They might have trouble with this last one as they’re not known for sup­port­ing access to Stonehenge on the sol­stice, but it’d be worth a try. The impres­sion I got (rightly or wrongly) was that EH had aban­doned the site for the night.

Drunk man standing on a stone at Stonehenge acting like an arse.

A rev­el­ler wel­comes the arrival of lager and, pos­sibly, the Sun.

The other was the sheer mess around the site. Everyone got a bag as they went in for their rub­bish. It doesn’t have to look like this. After all the fight­ing over access in the 1980s and 90s, is this a place people come are they here to cel­eb­rate or to conquer?

On the plus side I got a les­son in the dif­fer­ence between mod­ern Pagans and New Agers. The Pagans ten­ded to look dig­ni­fied and patient. Quite a few had their cere­mo­nial robes on, but not all. The easi­est ones to spot were those who’d let their beards down for the night.

In con­trast the New Agers were laden with mys­tical kit, and were often very purple. They’d looked agit­ated and annoyed. Every time someone elbowed in the ribs, she’d be wear­ing a pointy hat as if to com­pensate for the clothes she was wear­ing would ideally be on someone taller. There’d also be a purple scarf and purple jumper hid­den beneath at least half a dozen medal­lions. I should have heard them com­ing with the vari­ous eso­teric bangles and brace­lets they were wear­ing.
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Cervix watching


Emily Baldwin @astroemz on Twitter is going in for a loop excision next week to remove pre-cancerous cells from her cer­vix. As she says it’s a routine oper­a­tion, but it’s only routine for the pro­fes­sion­als. It’s not routine for her so she is under­stand­ably nervous. She’s blog­ging on what hap­pens to help raise aware­ness of the import­ance of cer­vical smears under the twit­ter hashtag #cer­vix­watch.

I think this is one of those situ­ations where put­ting thoughts into writ­ing can help. I had a routine oper­a­tion to remove a kind of can­cer that Emily will never get, and some­times it’s wor­ry­ing. The raw stat­ist­ics are that almost every­one has no trouble, so you can feel silly for being anxious. Still, I woke up one night in a small puddle of my own blood I was a bit con­cerned. After think­ing about how to write this up I real­ised I’d be even more wor­ried if I’d woken up in a puddle of someone else’s blood. This kind of detach­ment made it easier to cope with waiting.

It’s easier to be detached when some­thing is over too. I think put­ting inform­a­tion online before the out­come is known is brave. It’s a per­sonal exper­i­ence and con­fess­ing fears can make you feel more vul­ner­able. I don’t ima­gine it’s a huge help that the cells might be pre-cancerous, mean­ing it’s not actu­ally can­cer. The c-word is still there but because it’s pre– you could feel fool­ish for wor­ry­ing about it. Oddly I’m told it’s a com­mon thing among can­cer patients to feel guilty because you know other people have had it worse. In Emily’s blog I see some­thing sim­ilar. She doesn’t want to over­play the situ­ation, but she’s still per­fectly entitled to be anxious and some of her post explains why.

In my case other people def­in­itely have had it worse than me. The sad­dest memory I have is from the wait­ing room when I had chemo­ther­apy. There weren’t enough seats, so the polite thing to do was to stand and let the people with can­cer sit down. There were a lot of people there in a much worse way than me and they didn’t all have can­cer. I felt tired in my muscles all the time, like I’d been swim­ming all day, but I wasn’t as run down as some of the carers, so I stood up to give one of them a seat. It was heart­break­ing to see how shattered they were look­ing after someone they loved. Many of them were clearly in dire need of a rest, and for some of them it was never going to get any better.

Compared to that a bit of embar­rass­ment and worry is a bar­gain. If you’re female and you’re squeam­ish at the thought of smear tests or think you really shouldn’t make a fuss about some­thing like that, then you should fol­low Emily’s blog over the next few weeks to see if it’s really worth risk­ing dying of embarrassment.

…and as a follow-up she now has her exper­i­ence online.

A post that ori­gin­ally appeared on Google+.

My God, it’s full of stars!

Orion in the night sky

I saw a shoot­ing star last night as it streaked across a sky full of stars. I kid you not! You could look up and see thou­sands of stars. Now, astro­nomy mavens might not be too impressed by that. Many people can see stars as dim as mag­nitude six in a dark sky, lucky people can see dim­mer stars. There accounts for around 6000 vis­ible naked-eye stars. But for many of us that’s simply not true.

I used to live in a sub­urb of Derby. When I moved to Powys I noticed there were more stars in the sky. A lot more. So many I was temp­ted to buy a tele­scope. The next 30 days were clouded out, so that killed that idea, but on the days when stars are vis­ible they’re stun­ningly impress­ive. There is a way to quantify how impress­ive the night sky is that you can help with next year.

Orion in the night sky

Orion, the Hunter by Eduardo Mariño.

When I was in Derby I took part in GLOBE at Night. It’s a sur­vey that asks you to describe what you can see. The ver­sion I took part in asked people to say which stars they could see in Orion, the image on the right. It’s a good choice because the belt makes it easy to identify. I could see those. I could also see Betelguese (top-left), Bellatrix (top-right) and Rigel (bottom-right). If I squin­ted and stared hard I could ima­gine I could see Saiph (bottom-left), but really I couldn’t. There was a sodium glow of dank yel­low reach­ing up into the sky like lurid phlegm-coloured fog. It was the first time I’d real­ised how bad the local light pol­lu­tion was. In con­trast, I can’t account for every star in the photo shown, partly because as your eye dark-adapts you see more stars. However, this image is a very good impres­sion of what I saw. I had no trouble at all see­ing Orion’s belt. It didn’t look like a fig­ure of gems on a vel­vet back­ground. Instead the major stars looked like gems over a back­ground where someone had sneezed dia­mond dust.

It’s pos­sible this long-term cold I’ve had since September is affect­ing me more than I think.

The dif­fer­ence isn’t just in quant­ity. A dark sky makes a big dif­fer­ence to the qual­ity of the sky. I thought I knew my way around the night sky pretty well. Last night I could see Orion out of my win­dow, but took a little while to find Taurus. Again, a good ama­teur astro­nomer might find this funny. Taurus should be unmiss­able. Even more so when you have a dark sky, mak­ing the stars even easier to see. In the Northern hemi­sphere you look a little way to the right and you’ll see the horns of Taurus the bull live a V shape. Aldebaran sits at the top of one of the horns. This V is made of bright stars, it’s the most vis­ible part of the con­stel­la­tion, it is strik­ing. But when you have a prop­erly dark sky it’s strik­ing among a whole load of other stars. In Derby Taurus was to the right of Orion. In Powys it still is, but this time there’s an awful lot of stars in between them. It’s easier to find your when around the night sky when you can only see the prom­in­ent stars. Here, it’s almost like the sky has developed a glit­ter­ing inter­fer­ence pattern.

I know that light pol­lu­tion has been a topic of pain for astro­nomers for dec­ades. In my head I can fully under­stand it as a quant­it­ive argu­ment. Dark skies = more stars. That might not be enough for a power­ful emotive argu­ment. Imagine you live some­where where the night sky is rub­bish. Reducing light pol­lu­tion isn’t such a big deal. It just means more rub­bish look­ing stars. I also won­der if heavy light pol­lu­tion, which is worst nearest the hori­zon, helps dis­tance people from the Cosmos. Banishing the vis­ible stars to the highest parts of the sky emphas­ise the sep­ar­a­tion between earthly life and the rest of the uni­verse. A dark sky shows that where you are is the place where the Earth meets the Sky. Below you soil, above only the unima­gin­able heights to the edge of the uni­verse, and you smack in the middle.

That feels dif­fer­ent and it’s some­thing you can’t repro­duce in a planetarium.

Photo: Orion by Eduardo Mariño. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence.

As a coda, I remem­ber read­ing about the after­math of Hurricane Andrew in Astronomy magazine. After the power had been cut the night sky was exposed. People phoned up local uni­ver­sit­ies, plan­et­aria and obser­vat­or­ies to ask what the lights in the sky were. At the time I lived in the coun­try, so I found the idea that people could be puzzled by stars hil­ari­ous. Having lived in a city now, and know­ing that many people have never lived any­where else I have a lot more empathy. Imagine liv­ing through a hur­ricane and then, for the first time in your life, the uni­verse arrives on your door­step. No won­der you’d want to phone someone to check it’s normal.

The Pericles Commission by Gary Corby

The Pericles Commission Cover

The Pericles Commission CoverI finally got around to get­ting The Pericles Commission by Gary Corby this week. is it any good? If the sus­pense is too much for you, Gary’s a nice bloke, so if it were rub­bish I wouldn’t men­tion I’ve read it. The reason I left off buy­ing it for so long was that I was wait­ing for the paper­back. In the end the Kindle price dropped to the paper­back, so I got that ver­sion. I’ll also be buy­ing the sequel The Ionia Sanction, pos­sibly not till the price drops with the paper­back for that too, but then again it might be a Christmas treat instead.

The book is based on a real event. Ephialtes estab­lished the Athenian demo­cracy (if you ignore Cleisthenes), and then was killed a few days after by xxxxxxxxxxxxxx (I just real­ised, this would be a big spoiler). This, as Gary Corby points out in his author’s note, is in a few lines of the Constitution of the Athenians — which we’ll say was writ­ten by Aristotle because a dis­cus­sion of the author­ship would be tedi­ous, incon­clus­ive and utterly irrel­ev­ant to the point.

The book opens quickly.

A dead man fell from the sky, land­ing at my feet with a thud. I stopped and stood there like a fool, aston­ished to see him lying where I was about to step. He lay face­down in the dirt, arms spread wide, with an arrow pro­trud­ing out his back. He’d been shot through the heart.

It was obvi­ous he was dead, but I knelt down and touched him any­way, per­haps because I needed to assure myself that he was real. The body was warm to my touch. The blood that stained my fin­ger­tips, from where I had touched his wound, was slip­pery and wet but already begin­ning to dry in the heat, and the small cloud of dust his fall had raised made my nose itch as it settled.

It doesn’t nor­mally rain corpses, so where had this one come from? I looked up. There was a ledge above me, and another to the left. The one dir­ectly above was the Rock of the Areopagus, home to the coun­cil cham­bers of our elder states­men. The other to the left, but much farther away, was the Acropolis. There was no doubt about it; this man had fallen from the polit­ical heights.

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