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Flip a Coin day

Today we celebrate the randomness of coin flipping.  Do you have some tough decisions to make? Why not use this day as an excuse to leave it to chance, by simply flipping a coin?

The practice of coin flipping is said to date back to Julius Caesar, who used the technique for decisions where the right choice was unclear.  Roman coins had the head of Caesar on one side, so a “heads” result was considered a positive, or “yes” outcome.

Leave it to fate – today is the one day when making all those tough decisions can be as easy as flipping a coin.
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The statistics of coin flipping is described through the Bernoulli process, and a single flip of a coin is called a Bernoulli trial.  The use of coin flipping examples is also a popular way of introducing some of the complexities of statistics.

Conditional probability is a specific field of statistics that is often quite difficult to understand intuitively, and is illustrated very well through a coin flipping game called “Penney’s Game”.

In this game, two opposing players each choose a sequence of (usually 3) coin flipping outcomes of heads (H) or tails (T), e.g. H-H-T, T-H-T, etc.  A coin is then flipped, and the player whose sequence appears first is the winner. If the second player knows the “trick” he is always more likely to be the victor.  The correct choice for player 2 will be to take the first two outcomes of player 1, and to precede this with the opposite of the second outcome, for example:

Player 1: H-H-T   Player 2: T-H-H
Player 1: T-H-H   Player 2: T-T-H
Player 1: H-T-H   Player 2: H-H-T
Player 1: T-H-T   Player 2: T-T-H

In all the above cases, player 2 is always at least twice as likely to win as player 1 – definitely not something that makes immediate intuitive sense!
(See the mathematical explanation here.)

Getting back to that difficult decision we mentioned earlier – if you secretly want to do one thing, but think you should do the other, use Penney’s Game and your new-found knowledge of conditional probability to stack the odds in your favour.

Come on, go flip a coin!

World No Tobacco Day

The aim of World No Tobacco Day is to encourage 24 hours of abstinence from tobacco use internationally. This day also draws attention to the detrimental health effects and widespread damage caused by the consumption of tobacco, which currently plays a role in more than 5 million deaths worldwide each year.

World No Tobacco Day, and what it aims to achieve, resonates with me at a particularly personal level, having lost a father on this day 12 years ago to cancer most likely related to a lifetime of smoking.

The theme of this year’s World No Tobacco Day is “Tobacco industry interference”. The campaign is focused on the need to highlight and fight the tobacco industry’s continued attempts to undermine global efforts to control the use of tobacco.
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World Multiple Sclerosis Day

Today, more than two million people living with multiple sclerosis (MS) globally commemorate World Multiple Sclerosis Day and share the challenges of living with MS. World MS Day is a global awareness creation campaign. In support of this important initiative, some quick facts about the disease:

  • MS is a disorder of the central nervous system which includes the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves.
  • With MS, the nerves of the brain and spinal cord are damaged by one’s own immune system, making this an autoimmune disease.
  • MS affects about 2 million people worldwide.
  • Women are twice as likely to get MS than men.
  • MS is not yet curable or preventable.
  • MS is not contagious.
  • The cause of MS is still unknown. It may be caused by a virus, although it is unlikely that there is just one MS virus.
  • MS more prevalent in temperate zones such as NZ and Northern Europe.
  • The most common early symptoms include muscle weakness, decreased coordination, blurred or hazy vision, eye pain and double vision.
  • As the disease progresses, symptoms may include muscle stiffness (spasticity), pain, difficulty controlling urination, or problems with cognition.
Although the cause remains officially unknown, various medical studies have shown links between MS and magnesium deficiency. Symptoms of MS that are also related to magnesium deficiency include muscle spasms, muscle atrophy, weakness, twitching, problems with bladder control, osteoporosis and rapid eye movements.
Green vegetables such as spinach are good sources of magnesium because the center of the chlorophyll molecule (which gives green vegetables their color) contains magnesium.
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Learn about Composting Day

We live in a “disposable” society. Without giving it a second thought, any items considered useless or unnecessary are quickly disposed of in the garbage bin.  Food scraps, from coffee grinds to fruit and vege peels to eggshells, represent the bulk of the waste the modern household generates each day.  And in reality the majority of this waste is not useless at all.

Composting is one of the easiest ways to do our bit for the planet by recycling and putting our waste to good use. By putting aside a small area in your garden for a compost pile, and regularly turning and watering the pile, you will soon be the proud owner of a valuable supply of healthy organic compost.

Of course, what you are really doing by turning and watering the waste pile, is facilitating a wonderfully complex science experiment.  While micro-organisms such as bacteria and fungi break down and change the chemistry of the organic waste, macro-organisms like earthworms, mites, slugs, ants and spiders go to work biting, tearing, chewing and grinding the waste into finer material.

Give it a go – its good for the garden and its even better for the planet!

Compost created from food scraps and garden waste is a great mulch and soil additive, providing the same benefits as chemical fertilizers with none of the harmful side-effects.
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World Hunger Day

Today is World Hunger Day, a day that calls special attention to the millions of people worldwide threatened by starvation and malnutrition.

According the the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), enough food is produced in the world to feed the entire world population.  The world agriculture sector produces 17% more calories per person today than 30 years ago, despite the fact that the world population has increased by 20% during this time.  The problem, though, is that this food is not evenly distributed, with many people not having sufficient land to grow, or money to purchase, adequate food supplies.  This lack of access to food is indicative of a broader lack of access to basic resources, education and healthcare.

At the 1996 World Food Summit, an international target was set to halve the level of undernourishment in the world by 2015.  However, between 1990 and 2010 the number of undernourished people in developing countries have risen from 824 million to 925 million (almost 1/7 of the world population). So, overall,  there is a shocking lack of progress toward the world food summit goal, although there has been progress in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

World Hunger Day seeks to inspire people in both the developed and developing worlds to show their solidarity and support to enable people to end their own hunger and poverty and make the journey to self-reliance,  to help bring about a sustainable end to their hunger and poverty.

World Hunger Day is about raising awareness. It is also about celebrating the achievements of millions of people who are taking actions every day to end their own hunger and poverty and make the journey to self-reliance.
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Celebrating the inventor of the electron microscope

Today we celebrate the life and work of Ernst Ruska, who died on 27 May 1988 at age 81.

Ruska, a German electrical engineer, was the inventor of the electron microscope.  His fundamental research in the field of electron optics, and particularly his groundbreaking design of the electron microscope, earned him the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1986.

In 1928, Ruska discovered that a magnetic coil could be used as a lens to focus an electron beam. By adding a second lens he produced the first rudimentary electron microscope, which had a magnification power of x17. Within the next 5 years, he refined the concept to such an extent that the magnification power of his microscope increased to x7000. This exceeded what was possible with visible light. The first commercial electron microscope was marketed in 1939. Since then, the technology has found applications in biology, medicine and many other areas of science.

The electron microscope – an important tool in scientific research.
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International Jazz Day

Jazz – a creative brain activity

Today is International Jazz Day – a day to celebrate the beauty of this improvisational art form.  But besides being and auditory delight, it turns out that jazz also has scientific significance.

Dr. Charles Limb, a hearing and ear surgeon at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and an accomplished saxophonist, has invested more than a decade in the study of the brain activity of improvising musicians.  As part of his research, the brains of jazz players were studied in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine to see how their brain activity changes during a jam session.

Dr Limb’s research showed that, when jazz musicians were improvising, activity in their brains’ inhibition centers slowed down.  There was also  increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, in the center of the brain’s frontal lobe – an area linked with self-expression and individuality.

“Jazz is often described as being an extremely individualistic art form. You can figure out which jazz musician is playing because one person’s improvisation sounds only like him or her,” says Limb. “What we think is happening is when you’re telling your own musical story, you’re shutting down impulses that might impede the flow of novel ideas.”

Dr Limb’s research paper on the fMRI study of jazz improvisation can be found here.

(Source: TIME Healthland)

A jazz musician giving his medial prefrontal cortex a workout.
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World Meteorological Day

The theme of this year’s World Meteorological Day is “Powering our future with weather, climate and water”.  This highlights the critical roles of weather, climate and water services in powering a sustainable future for us and for generations to come.

The themes of sustainable power and energy seem quite pertinent this year, with the UN General Assembly also declaring 2012 the “International Year of Sustainable Energy for All”.  The use of renewable energies has been growing in leaps and bounds, accounting for about half of the almost 200 gigawatts of new electricity capacity added globally during 2010. According to the International Energy Agency, the renewable energy electricity sector grew by 17.8 per cent between 2005 and 2009. It currently provides nearly 20 percent of total power generation in the world.

Of the renewable electricity sources, hydro power still represents the largest sector. However, wind power has grown the most in absolute terms. The Global Wind Energy Council says the world’s wind power capacity grew by 31 per cent in 2009.

(Source: The World Meteorological Organization,

New Zealand has 16 wind farms either operating or under construction. These currently have a combined installed capacity of 615 megawatts, supplying about 4% of New Zealand’s annual electricity generation. This is about the same amount of electricity as 180,000 New Zealand homes use in a year. Developers are exploring sites throughout New Zealand for new wind farms. (Source: New Zealand Wind Energy Association)
This image was captured at the Manawatu wind farm during the snowy 2011 winter.
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World Schizophrenia Day

Schizophrenia is the most persistent and disabling of the major mental illnesses, often attacking people aged between 16 and 30.

Common symptoms of schizophrenia include delusions, hallucinations, illusions and thought disturbances. Movement disorders may appear as agitated body movements including repetitive movement or, in the other extreme, catatonia.

While the causes of schizophrenia are not yet well understood, experts agree that it is most likely caused by a combination of several factors including genetic predisposition, environmental conditions and differences in brain chemistry and structure.

Because the causes of schizophrenia are still unknown, treatments focus on eliminating the symptoms of the disease. Treatments include antipsychotic medications and various psychosocial treatments.

With early treatment and good medical care, the symptoms of schizophrenia can be reduced or even eliminated. Many people suffering from schizophrenia still lead regular lives, have jobs and maintain healthy relationships.

Support from family and friends is critical in the management of schizophrenia. Patients benefit enormously when their families, friends and colleagues understand the illness and are suitably educated about ways to provide help and support when needed.

(Source: National Institute of Mental Health,

Voices are the most common type of hallucination in schizophrenia. Many people with the disorder hear voices, either talking to the person or to each other. Other types of hallucinations include seeing people or objects that are not there, smelling imaginary odors, and experiencing sensations like invisible fingers touching their bodies when no one is near.
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Weaving magic

Today we celebrate the birth of Paul Moody, American inventor and mechanic of textile machinery, born in Massachusetts in 1779. At age sixteen Moody learned the weaver’s craft, and soon became a weaving expert.

After years perfecting his skills in the textile industry, he arrived at the Boston Manufacturing Company textile mill at Waltham, Massachusetts in 1814, where he oversaw the factory operations. Moody is often credited with developing and perfecting the first power loom in America. He was also responsible for other innovations in the weaving industry such as the “dead spindle” spinning apparatus. By contributing a substantial number of patented improvements in textile machinery, Moody played an important role in the advancement of the industry.

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At the CSIR in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, natural fibres like wild silk, spun from the cocoons from the African wild silk moth, are being used to create sustainable and technologically advanced new fabrics.
Processing of the cocoons into fabric involves a chain of modern processing equipment. The silk fibre, obtained from the cocoons through a long silk fibre staple spinning process, has to pass through a number of processes to be converted into finished fabric. The resulting fabric has a rich natural honey colour and is woven to produce a durable and luxuriously soft fabric.
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