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Wednesday, April 27, 2005

More on the Sun...

Just a quickie today. Following last week's missive on the Solar Cycle, I was so overwhelmed by the response of my readers that I felt I ought to post another Sun-related article. ;-)

If you remember, last week, there was the chance of auroras caused by fast solar wind from a coronal hole. They didn't show at low latitudes. However, shortly after that something quite cool happened: all the sunspots disappeared! Just for a day though, now the rotation of the Sun has brought another spot around, close to the solar equator. This one is growing in magnetic complexity which means that it holds more energy for a solar flare which might generate interesting effects here on Earth. If a CME is also released we might have a nice geomagnetic storm...

I should note that according to a CME was released from the Sun on the 25th April. You can see a small .gif movie here. This one was not directed at the Earth but it might give us a glancing blow causing aurora at high latitude. It is due to arrive some time today or tomorrow - measuements from a point source make it difficult to judge.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Lots of work this week... posting will be even more sparse.
I have to finish some marking, write a 50 minute lecture (in two days), get some more marking to do after a couple of exams are finished and have numerous meetings with all sorts of people. Oh yes, and invigilate an exam. Busy, busy busy.
So if you are looking for interesting things to read then I recommend checking out my blogroll. Hubris is always good for a laugh and there is a new post up at Cabal. Shinobi has been active with lots of good stuff and ASV is always worth a visit. I heartily recommend the Comics Curmudgeon. As to the rest, well they are all great as well. One blog that I have ignored and is sadly missing from my blogroll (must fix it) is Sharp as a Marble, go have a look.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Ending the propagation of myths in the media

A couple of days ago I was browsing the BBC news site when I came across this article about Dan Brown winning an award.
Now I liked the Da Vinci code. I liked Angels and Demons better. I do have some issues with the fact that things that are not fact are presented as such with the statement at the start of the novel. Overall though, it was an entertaining pulp-fiction read; a real page turner, if you will.
However, I was a bit annoyed when I read the BBC news report.
I hear you cry. I shall tell you.

Originally the first sentence said something like:

Bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code, derided by critics and condemned by the Catholic Church, has won best book at the British Book Awards.

I point out that I am working from memory here but it certainly made a statement to the effect that the Church had made some sort of official attack on the book. This annoyed me a lot since it is a myth, and one I have heard propagated a lot. In actual fact the Church has declined to comment and has made no official position known on the book (that I am aware off and at time of writing the article) . A leading cardinal expressed a personal opinion, and made it clear that it was such; this is not the same thing as the Church holding an opinion.

Consequently I emailed the BBC through their comment site and lo and behold, just a day or so later the article was changed. Now I don't know how many more people complained but whatever, I claim the victory ;-)

Bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code, derided by critics and the subject of furious religious debate, has won best book at the British Book Awards.

Seriously, if the media make a mistake, email them and ask them to change it, they might just do it. Though of course for some bloggers it would be more satisfying to try to get the journalist fired (ooh, snarky!)

On a similar topic, Shinobi at Lies and Statistics has a really cool post looking at how it is dangerous to criticism science based upon the interpretation of that science made by the media. Their propensity for turning estimations into Facts! Check it out.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

How I abused my power as temporary boss

Well, my stint as boss of the group ended last week and I know that you are dying to know how I abused my position.

Well I didn't. However, I did manage to get an office cleared for an incoming lecturer (lecherer?) and also hosted an American colleague, incident free. Overall a victory for my management skills. Hurrah!

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

New Pope!

The Pope is dead, long live the Pope.

Today should be a celebration for Catholics everywhere as we now have a new Pope.

So much for thin and fat Popes. It would seem that the cardinals have elected a man with similar ideals to the last pope. Though truth be told the last pope was pretty much a liberal coming in and was a conservative going out. In fact I have heard that Benedict XVI is even more conservative than John Paul II. One hysteric on the BBC website is already predicting schisms in the Church. Personally I think it is far too early to make predictions like that. No one knows the path that this Pope will tread, not even himself yet I imagine.

For those who worry that we must expect more of the same I offer the following thought: this man was close to the previous pontiff for 20 years and saw the dangers of ignoring and hiding problems (such as the paedophillia); he is reputed to be an intelligent man and so we might expect more openness. He is also reputed to be a very holy man and as such maybe he will listen to hear whether the Holy Spirit is really guiding him in his decisions.

On a personal note, and noting that I am biased through familiarity, I did not get the same sense of charisma that I always felt from the previous Pope. That aside, I am willing to give him a chance.

A Democrat landslide...

I just saw this over at
Kevin Drum's site

I expect the 2008 race to be very crowded. For a variety of reasons, 2008 is likely to be a landslide win for whoever the Democratic candidate turns out to be, and I think lots of Dems know it. That's why John Kerry is still sounding like a candidate: he doesn't want to be the unlucky Al Smith watching from the wings while someone else cruises to the presidency because they had the good luck to pick the right year to run.

So my question is why is 2008 likely to be a landslide for the Democrats? What are the reasons? This really baffles me, since I have no sense of this; perhaps it is because I left the US and am out of touch. Okay, so I know the 'line of succession' is unclear at the moment (Cheney isn't going to run... that we know of!) and that some Republicans feel that a bit of a civil war is coming (according to Joe 'needs a slap' Scarborough) in the party, yet that still doesn't translate to me as a landslide. So fill me in, what are the reasons and why are they different to the reasons before the last election?

Cross Posted at Cabal.

Kevin has explained why he thinks the landslide is coming. Hmmm, not convinced. Too many variables to call something like that at this moment. One of the largest being that no one knows who will be on the tickets and what their views will be. It could be that the Republican ticket is far removed from the George W Bush model and will still appeal to the American people. I think it is way too early to call, though speculation is fine.

My beef with the da Vinci code...

... will have to wait for a little while. But if you are interested in finding out the reaction of certain senior figures in the Catholic Church to Dan Brown's pulp fiction then check out Hubris.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Aurora Watch!!!! (not)

...or 'The Solar Cycle'

Well folks, according to the lovely people over at we are about to enter what is known as a weak solar wind stream. They suggest that there is a chance of seeing aurora... if you live in Canada or Alaska (and of course anywhere else in the arctic circle but they are pretty North America-centrist). I'm afraid for everyone else there is little chance at the moment.

We are currently heading from what is known as solar maximum (lots of flares and sunspots, etc) to solar minimum (low numbers of flares and few sunspots, etc). The phrase 'solar minimum' suggests that there isn't much activity going on; however, for those at high latitude this might be the best few years for seeing consistent auroral displays.

This might take some explaining:
The sun follows a number of patterns and one of these is an 11 year periodicity called the solar cycle (sometimes the sunspot cycle). The link gives a good overview but I'll present the candid version. Basically this cycle is driven by the Sun's magnetic field; at minimum this appears something like a dipole (think bar magnet and iron filings), but then it starts to get more complicated and disordered sometimes looking like a quadrupole field. This means that there are complicated twists in the field and lots of regions where the inner field pokes out and then back in again (sunspots). At this time it is very hard to predict what sort of activity we can expect on the sun; large flares might erupt or else even bigger clouds of plasma will be thrown off from the sun as CMEs. This is the time when we might get lots of large geomagnetic storms and be able to see the aurora from mid latitude.

After this period of solar maximum (last one was in 2000-2001) the magnetic field of the sun starts to reorder itself, though this time with the magnetic field pointing in the opposite direction (the north pole becomes a south pole and vice versa) such that the 11 year cycle is really a 22 year cycle. When a dipole like shape reappears we are left with regions of magnetic field that open on one hemisphere of the sun and that close on the other. We also are left with regions of magnetic field that stretch out into space (the IMF), which allow particles from the sun to flow quickly away in the form of the solar wind. These coronal holes rotate with the same period as the sun (~27 days) and are therefore much more predictable. Plus when we enter these streams of plasma that originate from the coronal holes we are much more likely to see aurora at high latitudes. So you see, even though solar activity is low, it is still a good time to hunt for aurora if you live in the far north (or south), but not so good if you live in more temperate climes.

I should point out that big solar flares and CMEs do happen during solar minimum but much more infrequently. Besides, this is the current face of the sun. The few sunspots do not inspire me to think that a big storm is on the way...

Friday, April 15, 2005

Blog round up...

Well here is a round up of what my favourite blogs have had to say recently:
Bloggerman: Keith has been paying tribute to great men in his past couple of blogs, though things have been a little slow recently. Hey Hubris, was it my imagination or do you have something for Cabal on the Olbermann?

Speaking of Cabal, mine is the most recent post up and I'm griping about Estate taxes. For more worthy topics just slide down the list and see what we have had to say on the Culture of Life and Hate Speech. If anyone hasn't seen Cabal, please check it out as it is a fantastic place to discuss any number of topics with a group of generally reasonable people. Those who have been invited to contribute pieces but haven't yet - shame on you! Pyrrho cannot carry it all by himself.

Which leads nicely into Rain in a Rusty Bucket, which is pyrrho's secret blog, shhh! He has a nice shot up at the top at the moment, though if you want to get the blood boiling look at the post below. Guaranteed to give you the urge to go and club poor defenceless seal hunters to a pulp (for the humour impaired, this is not serious).

Over at
Ideonexus, Ryan has left his (fascinating) mammoth sexual reproduction effort behind and has started musing on Intelligent design and more recently on the workings of Leni Riefenstahl.

Jumping to the complete other end of the spectrum and
Hubris (the blogfather) has released the latest part of Road House Revisited. It's nail biting stuff and I can't wait to see whether Patrick Swayze swaps to a stronger hold hair gel in the next installment. In other news he has gotten access to some of the preparatory notes for Senator Biden's questioning of John Bolton...

In the land of fudd, David has been experimenting with his photography. As much as it pains me to say this, he is getting very good and I recommend checking out his Flickr Photostream (by the way David, I'll be down tomorrow, probablyaround lunchtime, any chance a cup of tea will be waiting? No? OK, just thought I'd ask).

NTodd is going Mac and iPod crazy, but has taken some time to ask that we colour him cynical. What colour is that, I always envisage a sort of puce... By the way please note the correct spelling of colour :-)

Besides his usual comedy commentary, the Comics Curmudgeon is pleading for photos from his avid readers. Of course you have to buy some of his gear first...

Ilyka Damen is talking about recursion for dummies (I prefer the word moron) but more than that she seems to have developed what some might call an unhealthy Sesame Street fixation. Personally I think it is time she grew up and realised that it is a kid's programme and she has to move onto more adult themes. Bring on the Muppet Show!!!

Michele at
ASV has moved on from naming her boobies and is now swapping her Unitarian Jihad Name for the title of a van Halen song whilst offering her opinion that ASV has been 'home to major suckage' lately. Well, I recommend that you fall back on the tried and tested, you just can't go wrong with boobies.

And last but not least... Shinobi is still haranguing bad stats but has taken time out to speculate on one of the greatest questions that haunts us in this current age. What will Britney call her baby??! Quite frankly I am always impressed that a Ninja cat can write such a good blog.

Apologies if I missed anyone but I was just doing this whilst fiddling with a web connection and doing some work for a colleague. Now it's after 1 AM BST and so I am off to bed...
'Night all.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Estate/Inheritance/Death taxes

Cross posted at Cabal.

I saw this article today at Political Animal. Now I can see where Amy is coming from but I do have a problem with the idea of any sort of inheritance tax. Quite frankly I don't see the reason why the government feels an entitlement to tax the accumulated wealth of a person just because they die and pass it on to someone else. Death comes to us all (unless you believe this), and I think I am correct in saying that it is never an easy thing, so why should a government make it harder by insisting that we deal with monetary issues in a time of grieving?
Amy's point in her article is a swipe at the priorities of the US government, which I can understand:

House Republicans voted overwhelmingly to permanently repeal the estate tax--at a cost, let's remember, of nearly $300 billion over the next decade.

So, to sum up: Actual prescription drug relief? There's no money. Armor to protect our troops? There's no money. The funds to back up the mandated reforms of No Child Left Behind? There's no money. Doing away with a tax on super rich kids? Plenty o' cash to spare.

However, what right does the government have to this money? The government takes taxes to pay for projects and programmes that are deemed neccesary (which is a different argument), they do not have a divine right to grab cash form whatever source they can find to pay for their spending. Yes, I think this perhaps could have waited and I think that the way governments waste money is shameful and deprives important programmes from getting the money they need. However at some point you do have to step up and point out that taking money in inheritance tax is not right and that the government needs to find better ways of finding the cash it needs.
I propose starting with cutting the salaries of our elected individuals and their expense accounts...

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Where does the Church go now?

It is almost time to elect a new successor to St. Peter. In case you have not noticed the previous pope has died and the cardinals are gathering to decide on his replacement. By mutual agreement and complete accord they have imposed a media blackout. None of their ranks will talk to the press until the pontiff is elected; of course this will not prevent much speculation on the part of the media on who will be elevated to the most of holy of Earthly positions. Since Pope John Paul II appointed many of the current crop of cardinals, the current wisdom seems to be that they will elect someone of the same mind to carry on his unfinished work. However, I heard one commentator say that history does not suggest this (I have not researched this and am taking it on faith), rather, 'a fat pope usually follows a thin pope'. By this it is suggested that the choice of pope follows the identification of what was left unfinished in the previous pontiff's rule and then power is handed to one who may have a different approach. This seems to be a remarkably progressive attitude for a body that is renowned for its conservativism and so we shall see whether it is true. I'm not going to speculate on who the next pope will be, but I do wonder what will guide the cardinals in their decision.
What are the issues affecting Catholicism or Christians today that need addressing? Here are some ideas that are in no way definitely representative of what
should affect the decision:
  • paedophile priests
  • the role of women
  • contraception
  • abortion, euthanasia and the death penalty
  • human rights
  • relevance of the church to the man on the street
  • homosexuality
Any more? Please offer your own viewpoints in the comments....

Monday, April 11, 2005

Monday Morning Java Sparrow Blogging

Anyone guess where this photo might have been taken?
Whereever it was, I saw quite a lot of these guys and they always seemed to hang around in pairs (or more). I don't think I ever saw a solitary one.Posted by Hello

No sheep blogging today...

I know that it is Sunday but I am afraid that there is no sheep blogging today (actually, I guess it is now Monday here in the UK). I don't want to spoil you too much, but I promise that sheep blogging will return.

Aurora Blogging II

Here is another shot. This one was taken some miles east of Tromso in a very isolated spot. This time there is cloud about, which the aurora is lighting up nicely.
I've been to Norway a number of times with work and have been privileged to see the aurora a few times. The last trip enabled me to see a lot of aurora. It was also very active and so I saw some very dynamic light shows. Posted by Hello

Aurora Blogging I

This is a nice shot of some very dynamic auroral arcs. I used a 10 second exposure to get these and so it kind of blurs the fine detail. The picture was taken near Tromso, about 100 miles within the arctic circle in Norway.
More to come.... Posted by Hello

Friday, April 08, 2005

Tax Returns

Look, tax is a necessary evil. I have no problem in paying tax but let's face it, I'm not going to complain if I don't have to pay. However, why does the tax return have to be so complicated and written in a foreign language? I am convinced that there is just no need.
Now, all other problems with filing aside, there is one thing that really gets my goat (and sheep, come to that):

Delayed Filing.

If I want, I can request to extend my filing deadline. Now since the UK tax year runs from April to April, not in a calendar year, there are circumstances where this might have been useful. However it turns out that I can not extend the deadline by which I have to pay tax that I might owe, even though I might need to have my UK tax sorted to calculate how much I owe to the US. No, that's not possible, sensible, but not possible. Instead I would have to pay whatever I thought I owed and then file an amended return to claim back what I didn't actually owe. Thus creating more paperwork and causing more mantime in processing.

Your tax dollar at work!

UPDATE: I have been informed that my moaning about tax is putting people off and is, quite frankly, boring. Therefore I shall endeavour not to mention US tax forms again. Of course, I have been asked to file for this year in the UK and so I may always bitch about that in the near future... ;-)

I'm Back....

Well, I'm back. It was a very pleasant three days spent in the beautiful surroundings of Cambridge University. We were staying in a very impressive college (which I won't name) that on first view made you yearn to study there. However, having spent two nights in a really crappy, cramped student room with shared toilet/shower facilities, I am rather glad I didn't study there. In fact the strange brown ring around the base of the toilet bowl has started giving me nightmares.

The meeting itself was very good, lots of interesting talks of a spacey nature, mixing things up from Saturn (Cassini) and Jupiter back to the Earth.

I'll be blogging on some spacey things in the near future. Watch this space...

UPDATE: I should point out that the room and bathroom thing was a minor inconvenience really. On the whole I had a thoroughly good time. The staff were all incredibly friendly and helpful and the meeting was excellently arranged. The tone of this post made it seem that I didn't enjoy myself when in actual fact I had a great time.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Taking a break....

Well I have decided to take a break from blogging. I have enjoyed the experience so far, but you can have too much of a good thing and it is clearly starting to take over my life and so it's time to call it a day.

Actually, I'm off to a conference for 3 days and I don't know how much web access I will have so posting might be few and far between for this week.
Before I go though I shall tantalise you with upcoming treats....

  1. Aurora blogging
  2. Everything you ever wanted to know about the solar cycle
  3. Why students are morons
  4. The tedium of my life
  5. How I abused my position as temporary head of group
  6. More random photos of places I have been and where I live
  7. Fascinating insight into the way I view life, politics, religion and the press
So stay tuned for the excitement that is to come....

Sunday, April 03, 2005

A Hobbit Hole for the 21st Century

This unusual abode is located on the South Wales coastline. Bilbo Baggins never had it so good... Posted by Hello

Sunday Afternoon Sheep Blogging!!!

I notice that a lot of bloggers seem to insist on putting photos of their cats all over the web. Well, I don't have a cat and so here are some sheep and their lambs that my wife snapped this afternoon.
Posted by Hello

Pictures, pictures, everywhere...

I have discovered how to add pictures to my blog and so be prepared for a deluge...
Well, I'll post a few anyway.

Do you know what I Hate?

US Tax forms. I hate them, I really do despise them.
Thankfully after this one I shall never have to fill any in again (hurrah)!

Oh, you know what else I hate?
I hate patronizing, hostile, US IRS officials who man the helpline for foreigners. Take 'em all outside and shoot them!

The Power is all mine; Mine I tell you!!!!!

My boss is away in Canada for a couple of weeks as of Monday. Yesterday I was cc'd on an email to an incoming lecturer who is sorting out his computing needs. In it my boss stated that if he has any problems he should contact me since I will be in charge of the group whilst she is away.
I am usually pretty low down the food chain, but since I am filling in for a senior lecturer friend on sabbatical I have been temporarily elevated into a position where this lofty honour can be thrust upon me.

So as of Monday for two weeks (minus 3 days at a conference) I am the proud leader of a ragtag group of 4 engineers, 1 mathematician, 6 postgrad Ph.D students, 2 physicists (including me), and three honorary (retired) professors. As far as I can tell my temporary duties involve doing pretty much what I am doing already (with continued optional bitching about having to do teaching) along with sorting the new guy's needs out for his May arrival.

Clearly I need to come up with a way to abuse my new powers. Please pass along any suggestions you might have...

testing: something seems to be broken with this post's permalink...

RIP John Paul II

I feel a little sadness today. I was raised a catholic and still have some affection for the church (why is hard to explain) and so the passing of John Paul II has made me a little sad. I was in Liverpool at the age of 3 when he visited the city and it is one of my earliest memories.

    An aside: that summer, whilst on holiday, I saw three little orthodox jewish children on the beach. Not knowing what their skullcaps meant, I pointed to them and proclaimed: "Look mummy, little Popes!" My mother told this story upto the year she died.
Many have different opinions on the man and the way he ran his church. He has garnered a lot of criticism, but for a while I hope that we can remember that he did do good for people in this world.
Lets face it, if you can say that about your life, then you are halfway there.

Friday, April 01, 2005

The Second Post

Well, here is my second post on my very own blog and quite frankly it is as poor as the first. No real substance here, rather it is more of a little update on what I have done since inception and a sort of plan of how I intend to use this site.

Well, I have now added a blog roll and some links to interesting and useful websites. I am sure that these will grow and change as time goes on. I am not yet fully happy with the blog template but at the moment I do not have the time, knowledge or even the inclination to do anything about it. Eventually I intend to develop a much more personalised feel to the blog, though I imagine that what will happen is that I will bitch about it for several months and then stop blogging anyway.

Speaking of which, this is all for my own use and enjoyment. The minute I feel that I am pandering to my readers (hah!) and not getting anything out of it then I will stop. Simple as that. I don't care about traffic and adoration (well only as much as the next man), my ego is big enough to not need stroking.

My intention with this blog is twofold:

  1. I hope to post interesting ramblings on a variety of subjects. I certainly do not plan on limiting what I discuss, though I think that topics of a discursive political nature shall be posted primarily over at Cabal. I shall rant occasionally, probably involving celebrities and politicians (UK mostly, I imagine) and perceived injustices in the world. I shall post about science -mostly space physics related. Generally you will get a mixed bag of commentary
  2. I intend to use this spot as a sort of diary for meanderings on my day to day life. This doesn't mean that I will be posting hugely personal information but I will be moaning and griping about things and possibly even celebrating good news and happy events. There could also be an awful lot of tedium in the mix.
So that is my intention. What actually happens we shall see.