Movember sign-off

Well can you believe it – November, or Movember as we prefer to call it, is over and done with. So many ideas, so many plans, and before you know it December is knocking on the door.

The Sciencelens mo - grey and proud!
The Sciencelens mo – grey and proud!

I planned much more regular updates, and at one stage even contemplated creating a time-lapse video condensing my month’s mo-growing into a few amusing seconds. Well, suffice to say none of that happened, but at least I did manage keep the mo up and running despite some corporate gigs and the like. Guess it helps that high-profile celebs like the All Blacks also supported the cause – it really does help to raise the profile of this very worthy cause.

Thanks for the support.  Hopefully next year we’ll pull out all the stops (or is that stubbles?)!

Keeping your digital belongings secure on Computer Security Day

Today, 30 November, is Computer Security Day. The day, started in 1988, was initiated to raise awareness about computer security issues and to remind people to protect their computers and digital information.

I have to admit that I am no expert on this, but I do know that the subject is more or less as big as you care to make it – from ensuring that you have basic virus or mallware protection in place, all the way to going to great lengths to ensure that your ‘digital footprint’ is as small as possible, out of fear of online personality theft or some similarly sinister conspiracy theory. I definitely lean somewhat towards the relaxed side of the scale – I guess simply maintaining a blog and having a Facebook presence is already enough to have the extreme paranoids running screaming to the hills.

Do what you can to keep your precious data safe and secure.
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Whatever your level of computer security awareness, there are some basic things we should all do – doing fairly regular backups, keeping your computer environment physically safe (locked up when you’re not around), clean and free of excess dust, pet hair etc, using unique, and non-obvious, passwords for your different online accounts, and not opening suspect emails or visiting dubious websites. (Sorry, but you didn’t win that million dollar lottery that you cannot remember entering, and that pastor trying to share his fortunes with you is not real either.)

Of course these days computer security no longer only applies to your home computer and/or laptop, but digital tablets and smart phones as well. In this age of being always connected and always online, I guess we should spend more time thinking about the topic than we typically do.

And perhaps Computer Security Day is just the day to get get us off our behinds and kick us into action.

Christian Doppler and the sound of speeding vehicles

Today we celebrate the birthday of Christian Doppler (29 Nov 1803 – 17 Mar 1853), the Austrian physicist who first described how the observed frequency of sound and light waves are affected by the movement of the source of the waves relative to the observer. The phenomena became known as the Doppler effect.

Simply put, sound and light waves would have a higher perceived frequency if the source was moving toward the observer and a lower perceived freqency if the source was moving away from the observer.

No matter how cool the rider, your Harley will still have a slightly more girly pitch as it races towards the observer.
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It is said that Doppler first tested his hypothesis by using two groups of trumpeters – one group stationary on a train station, and the other group on an open train car. Instructing them to all play the same single note, he found that, as the open car passed the station, the pitch of the two groups did not match. Approaching the station the trumpeters on the train appeared to play a higher note, and leaving the station they appeared to play a lower note.

One of the places where the Doppler effect is very obvious is at a motor racing event – I am sure everyone has heard (either live or on TV) the effect of the sound of a racing car, or motorbike, changing quite dramatically as it comes screaming past. As the car races forward, the sound waves emanating from the engine effectively gets compressed in front of the car, resulting in a higher pitched sound, while they get spread out behind the car, producing a lower pitch.

Because the extent to which the frequency changes is dependent on the relative velocity of the source, observed changes in frequency can be used to calculate the speed at which the source is traveling.

The Doppler effect finds application in a wide range of fields, from astronomy to radar to medical imaging to flow measurement to satellite communication and more.

As mentioned before the effect does not apply to sound only – it applies to all waveforms, including light. A light source moving towards the observer will appear to have a higher frequency than one moving away from the observer. However, because very high speeds are required to achieve an effect visible to the human eye, this is less easy to observe than the sound example.

There’s a classic physics joke that says the most effective way to observe the optical Doppler effect is to look at cars at night – coming towards you, their lights are all white, while moving away from you, their lights are red!  (Think about it, it makes perfect sense…) 🙂

Look inwards and get creative on Make Your Own Head Day

So today, according to the holiday websites, is Make Your Own Head Day. Bit of a clumsily named day, if you ask me, but apparently the day is all about getting creative, with a bit of self-reflection thrown in. Grab a pencil, or a heap of clay, or whatever material strikes your fancy, and start creating an image in your likeness.

If your drawing looks more like a particularly abstract Rorschach test than a self-portrait, don’t worry – it’s all about self-expression, and there’s no prizes for the best artwork. After all, if you subscribe to the American developmental psychologist Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, spatial intelligence (‘picture smart’) is just one dimension of intelligence. This type of intelligence – the ability to think and express yourself in three dimensions – is shared between the creative types who express themselves spatially, like artists, architects and designers, and people who are skilled at orienting themselves spatially like pilots, sailors etc.

OK, a bit of a cheat from my side – this is not my artwork, but at least it is my head (as drawn by my spatially intelligent better half).
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If spatial intelligence is not your thing, perhaps you have naturalistic intelligence, musical intelligence, logical-mathematical intelligence, interpersonal intelligence, bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, linguistic intelligence, intra-personal intelligence, or even existential intelligence.  There are many sites containing in-depth discussion of these, but for a simple, succinct summary of Gardner’s different intelligences, have a look at The Nine Types of Intelligence.

Given the above, perhaps we should expand Make Your Own Head Day to incorporate the other intelligences. If you’re a mathematical whizz you can calculate the volume of your head, or model it’s shape (and don’t go for the ‘Let’s assume a perfectly spherical head’ cop-out!). If you have body-smarts, perhaps you can express your personality through dance.  The musical types can write a self-referential song, the linguists can create their self-portrait through poetry or prose, and so forth.

And those with existential intelligence can just sit back and think about it all.

Whatever you do, enjoy this day of self-reflective creative expression!

Celebrating Anders Celsius and his temperature scale

Today we celebrate the birthday of Anders Celsius (27 Nov 1701 – 25 Apr 1744), the Swedish astronomer who gained fame for developing the Celsius temperature scale.

Celcius’ original scale defined 0 °C as the temperature where water freezes, and 100 °C as the temperature where water boils (at one standard atmosphere). This was the definition of the scale until 1954, and remains a useful, pretty accurate approximation, and is still taught in most schools today. However, to be exact, the Celsius scale is currently no longer defined by the freezing and boiling point of water, but rather by the absolute zero temperature and the triple point of purified water. The absolute zero point is defined as -273.15 °C, and the triple point as 0.01 °C.

It’s boiling water, but it sure ain’t 100 °C.
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Based on this slightly redefined scale, the real freezing point of purified water is -0.0001 °C, and its boiling point is 99.9839 °C. Of course these values only apply at exactly one standard atmosphere pressure (approximately sea level) and with specially purified water, so actual ‘real life’ freezing and boiling points only approximate 0 °C and 100 °C anyway. An altitude change of as little as 28 cm causes the boiling point of purified water to change by a thousandth of a degree.

Interestingly, the rule set forth by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures for writing Celsius values (most units of measure, in fact), is to write the numerical value, followed by a space, followed by the °C sign. So the correct way to write a temperature is 37 °C, not 37°C or 37° C.

Currently the Celsius scale is the temperature scale most widely used for all kinds of purposes. Only the United States (bless them) and a handful of other countries still give preference to the Fahrenheit scale. The UK also used to prefer the Fahrenheit scale, but over the last half century the Celsius scale has gained dominance (although they prefer calling it centigrade).

So, whether you prefer an icy, a close to 0°C Scotch on the rocks, or an almost boiling, close to 100 °C cup of coffee or tea, join me in a toast for Anders Celsius, the man who defined it all in the first place.

One-click shopping on Cyber Monday

A few days ago I chatted about the virtues of cutting back on buying and spending – an approach that was promoted on Buy Nothing Day, last Friday. The reason for Buy Nothing Day being celebrated this time of year is that we are in the middle of one of the craziest shopping periods of the year – in the US and Canada in particular, Thanksgiving weekend is a time that puts big smiles on retailers’ faces.

Today is no exception, as we celebrate a day of shopping frenzy that has come to be known as Cyber Monday – one of the top online shopping days in the US, and many other parts of the world.

Online shopping – makes parting with your money easier than ever before.
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As reported in the New York Times in 2005, “The name Cyber Monday grew out of the observation that millions of otherwise productive working Americans, fresh off a Thanksgiving weekend of window shopping, were returning to high-speed Internet connections at work Monday and buying what they liked.” Besides the explanation given by the NYT, the fact is also that this is the time of year – one month before Christmas – when retailers seriously step up their relentless barrage of sales and promotions, reaching fever pitch towards the second half of December.

The term Cyber Monday was first coined in 2005 by online shopping community Shop.org, based on research from the previous year, during which they noticed that the period after Thanksgiving showed a clear spike in online shopping. Since 2010 the day has consistently counted as one of the $1+ billion online shopping days in the US. The day has become so popular with online shoppers the world over that many employers are actively curbing their employees’ non-work related online activities on this day.

What struck me when I read up about Cyber Monday, is how new online shopping really still is (less than 20 years ago, the concept was still largely non-existent) yet how entrenched it has become as part of our daily lives. It’s hard to imagine a world without amazon.com, without ebay, without itunes. It is estimated that by 2015 the online shopping industry will be worth a whopping $279 billion in the US and €134 billion in Europe.

If you’re into shopping, and looking for a bargain, today may be just the day for you to go trawling the online shopping sites. Just don’t complain when you end up buying a whole bunch of extra stuff you never planned on, pushing your budget into a state of emergency. Retailers are ruthless in their quest to make the poor consumer part with his money, and the online sector is, if possible, even more so. The most dangerous part of online shopping is that you never physically part with your money – its just a click here and a click there, and suddenly your bank balance looks a lot less healthy.

I still maintain that the best thing to do during the two months between mid-November and mid-January is to stay as far away from the shops as you can, and to rather spend time being creative – homemade gifts and goods are so much more special than yet another shop-bought special offer.

You may indeed get some real specials this time of year, but I can guarantee that you will also spend a lot more than you planned…

Commemorating the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women

Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Designated an international United Nations observance in 1999, the day commemorates the deaths of three sisters, Patria Mercedes Mirabal, María Argentina Minerva Mirabal and Antonia María Teresa Mirabal, who were assassinated on this day in 1960 in the Dominican Republic, on the orders of the Dominican ruler Rafael Trujillo. They were activists fighting the dictatorship of Trujillo.

Beyond commemorating the deaths of the Mirabal sisters, the day has become an occasion for governments, international organizations and non-governmental organizations to raise awareness of violence against women in general. Events on the day include public rallies, fundraising activities and more.

According to World Bank data, women aged 15-44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, war and malaria.
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In an attempt to raise awareness of the plight of women who have been victimised and abused, the United Nations have released a fact sheet sharing information information on the situation worldwide, and it’s quite a sobering read. According to the fact sheet, an astonishing 70% of all women is subjected to violence sometime in their lives, with the most common form being physical violence inflicted by an intimate partner. Percentages of women subjected to sexual violence by their partners range from 6% in Japan to almost 60% in Ethiopia.

Globally about half of all women who are murdered die at the hands of their current or former husbands or partners.

It is estimated, furthermore, that one in five women become victims of rape or attempted rape in their lives, leaving them with devastating physical and psychological scars. These numbers rise shockingly in conflict situations, where women of all ages suffer sexual abuse from soldiers and rebel forces. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, an average of 36 women and girls are raped every day, with more than 200 000 women having been sexually violated since the country fell into a state of armed conflict.

This is just the the tip of the iceberg, and the fact sheet includes many more horrifying facts.

And amazingly, many of the perpetrators go unpunished. In the words of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “Women and girls are afraid to speak out because of a culture of impunity. We must fight the sense of fear and shame that punishes victims who have already endured crime and now face stigma. It is the perpetrators who should feel disgraced, not their victims.”

On this day, join the millions of men and women worldwide who say enough is enough – join the Say NO to Violence Against Women campaign’s global call to action. Every voice of support matters.

About energy fields and coloured glows

Today is International Aura Awareness Day, celebrated each year on the fourth Saturday of November.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, an aura can be defined as:

  • a subtle sensory stimulus (as an aroma)
  • a distinctive atmosphere surrounding a given source (for example, “the place had an aura of mystery”)
  • a luminous radiation : nimbus
  • a subjective sensation (as of lights) experienced before an attack of some disorders (as epilepsy or a migraine)
  • an energy field that is held to emanate from a living being

International Aura Awareness Day relates mainly to the last definition above – that coloured radiant glow or energy field said to surround people or objects.

If you had an aura, what colour do you think it would be?
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Some people claim they can see auras; some claim they can teach others to see auras; some say you can interact with your own aura; some even claim they can photograph auras. The rest of us, unfortunately, have to take it all with a grain of salt. No scientific evidence exists to support the supposed abilities of the aura-seeing clairvoyants, and the claims of aura-capturing photographic technologies are questionable to say the least.

However, if auras do exist (and who am I to claim otherwise), I wish everyone a day of peaceful soft-blue aural energy.

Peace out, brothers and sisters! 😉

Start you journey to financial freedom on Buy Nothing Day

Today, the Friday after Thanksgiving, is widely known as Black Friday, one of the busiest shopping days in the United States. In a bid to counter this as yet another day of mindless consumerism, Buy Nothing Day came into being. The day was founded in Vancouver, Canada by artist Ted Dave as a day of protest against the ‘buy or die’ attitude that gets promoted relentlessly by shops and other commercial entities. While it started off having a US/Canada focus, it has since become an international movement. It is estimated that Buy Nothing Day has grown to an event celebrated in more than 65 countries. The day is celebrated on the Friday after Thanksgiving in the US and Canada (this year, 23 November), and on the last Saturday of November in the rest of the world (or 24 November this year).

Shops go out of their way to promote spending money as the best fun ever, while in truth saving money can be just as exciting.
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Over the years participants in Buy Nothing Day have come up with a range of amusing strategies to focus attention on the problem of indiscriminate over-consumption. These have included credit card cut-ups, where people advertise a credit card cutting up service in shopping malls to help people cut themselves free from a life of debt, and zombie walks, where groups dressed as zombies wander around shopping malls with blank stares as a commentary on the mindlessness of consumerism.

Promotion of a culture of considered buying is not only good for a society caught up in an ever deepening spiral of debt, it benefits the economy of countries as a whole. And while the focus of the day is mainly on economics, I believe there’s also an important second level message – to promote the move from a dependent, buyers culture to a state of independent self-sufficiency. Growing your own vegetables, recycling and making your own compost, community based swapping and exchange (vegetables for meat, goods for services etc); all these things have the potential to result in a healthier and potentially much less costly lifestyle.

Sounds like fun? Here’s to Buy Nothing Day, and the journey to self-sufficiency – good luck!

Celebrating Go for a Ride Day

Guess it isn’t really news to anyone that today is the day our American and Canadian friends celebrate Thanksgiving. For the rest of you, how about joining me in celebrating a different 22 November holiday – Go for a Ride Day? This is the day to take a bit of a break from your daily schedule and go for a ride. Do it zen style – ride for the sake of the trip, rather than with a specific destination in mind.

When it comes to travelling for the sake of the trip, nothing beats the romance of a train journey.
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The choice of transport is yours – perhaps you’d prefer to take your own car, motorcycle or bicycle, or for an even more relaxing option, how about public transport – a train, a plane, perhaps a bus, or how about a taxi? For a completely different experience, go for a unique alternative – swop your bicycle for a unicycle; opt for public transport via pulled rickshaw; or go vintage with a trip on an ox-wagon or donkey-cart. Anything will do, as long as it can take you on a relaxing meander.

There may not be many of these old classics around anymore, but a ride on an ox-wagon would definitely make Go for a Ride Day extra special.
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And while you’re out enjoying the scenery in your chosen mode of transport, spare a thought for the inventors and innovators who played a part in dreaming up, designing and refining the vast array of vehicles that we can pick and choose from. The list is endless. I thought of naming a few, but it really is an impossible task – for every innovator you mention, there’s another ten not mentioned, who played an equally integral part in the invention. And then there are all the vehicles that we don’t even have a clue who the inventor(s) were – anybody know who made the first rickshaw?

Whichever inventor you decide to celebrate, and wherever your ride takes you, I hope you have a great Go for a Ride Day!