Friday, April 27, 2007

Fluffy post

The previous mail was a bit gloomy, and the topic definitely a very depressing one. Now, depression is no way to start a weekend, and so here's a funny and fluffy post to cheer everyone up!

This is sooo funny. Japan is such a great country, it NEVER seizes to amaze me.

(Thanks qed for posting this link to the PhDForum)

Edit: the story is most likely some sort of a hoax or at least a product of imagination of The Sun or somesuch, but it's funny nevertheless.)

Kids and alcohol

Alcohol Concern, a British NGO that aims at reducing alcohol misuse and the problems that it creates, has released new data on British children's alcohol use.

Britain is one of the worst binge drinking countries in Europe, I think only Ireland, Russia and Finland consume more potable ethanol per capita. Going through any town center on a Friday evening is a sad experience. Regardless of the weather most girls are wearing next to nothing, there are loads of very young (at least they look young...) people totally inebriated, loud, falling over, vomiting etc.

AC now suggests that in addition to the usual measures of rising taxes for alcohol, restricting advertising etc., giving alcohol to under 15 year olds should be made illegal. General drinking age is 18, so if you're under that, you can't buy alcohol from shops or bars. This is regularly tested using underage test buyers and shops and pubs might lose licenses if they fail the test i.e. sell to the under 18's. Shockingly enough, about a fifth of the outlets will fail in these tests. But, so far it has been OK for parents or other adults to give alcohol to kids, which IMO is OK, if the kids are, say 16 and there's a birthday or a dinner, and they want to join in the toast of sparkly or have wine with food. But surely there is a lower age limit to that as well? Sure there is, and in Britain it is five (5) years. 5 years? "Here's your pint, son, happy 6th birthday!?!"

I so wish this was a joke. But alas, no. There have been reports of 8 year old addicts, and there were news today about a 10 year old who has been caught by the police about 60 times, brought in for making trouble, mostly when he's been drunk. A 10 year old! In court he would then cry and say he's sorry and they'd let him out and he'd do the same thing again. They said in the story (that I heard being discussed on TV, it was run in a tabloid, I haven't seen the original story, so might be giving false info here) that he had been behaving badly since he was three. My god, what are his parents (or a parent) doing? Now they have a court order to keep him in between 9pm and 7am. Well, for most families out there (I hope) that's the normal way to keep track of a ten year old anyway, even without the ASBO.

AC reveal in their study that the amounts that 11-13 year olds drink are in a sharp rise. They say in their press release that "The amount of alcohol consumed by girls aged between 11-13 has increased by 82.6% between 2000-2006, while for boys the number has gone up by 43.4% during the same period." Take a guess how many pints would an 11 - 13 -year old have, on the weeks when they are drinking? Boys would have the equivalent of an average of 12!! pints of beer in a week, girls would do 8. That is about three to four times as much as I would have in an average week.

Of course, that average is only for those who have been drinking and only for those weeks they've been drinking, not the national average consumption for that age bracket (although that's what the BBC story said before they fixed it...). But it's shocking enough.

Some people oppose the law as they say it is unenforceable. And some say that it would prevent a "normal" introduction to alcohol, little by little, among the family, at dinners etc. I'd say go for it. Nobody's going to raid the homes where the 15 year old has a half a glass of wine with sunday roast or a glass of champagne to toast on grandpa's 80th birthday. But it would give the police a tool to do something about those parents who are unable or unwilling to perform the role of a responsible parent.

All this just shows again how the relationship to booze in general is totally twisted here. The same goes for Finland. It seems that every effort to make alcohol less available leads to a rise in consumption (forbidden fruit etc.), just like every effort to "Europeanise" the drinking culture (i.e. increase the availability of alcohol) results in new records in the amounts consumed. If nothing is done, consumption rises as well. It seems that whatever you do in terms of alcohol policy it is very likely to go wrong. That's probably because drinking too much is often a symptom of something else being wrong, in addition to being caused by the varying levels of mental and physical addiction to alcohol itself. People might medicate their social problems with booze, but the society shouldn't expect to be able to solve the said social problems with booze policy.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Pulling through?

What are supervisors for?

We rely on them to tell us, when our research proposal is narrow enough to fit into a PhD and not a "plan for a project to end all projects" anymore. We need them to tell us when to stop reading and start writing / running experiments. As they are experts in the academic process, we still take their word for it when they say there's now enough for a PhD, you're done.

In the course of our work, we usually dive in deeper to our own fields than our supervisors, and especially towards the end know more about our work than they do. Yet, when we run into trouble, the supervisors are the ones to help us out.

I met mine yesterday, explained the data crisis I had, and now I hope we have a plan that hopefully leads to a solution. It's all the brilliant meta-skills that he has that made this happen, rather than knowing an answer off the shelf. For me, I know best what's going on in that data, as I've spent the sleepless hours with it, but having someone to explain it to helps organise it in my mind. And as with my colleagues, answering questions about the "problem" is very useful. And so, after about an hour of discussion, I was able to come up with a sort of a plan, drawing from what he and my colleagues had suggested. And for me it is very important that he "accepted" the plan. It gives me a better feeling to do the work now that I know that he also thinks it's the right way forward.

And it is the relief this brings that has helped me to get on with it rather than go over the various options and worry about the project.

I think the worst thing about this data-issue (see, not a 'crisis' anymore, just 'issue'...) is that I really wasn't mentally prepared to have to do this kind of stuff at this stage. During my course, I've spent countless boring hours going through data, preparing it for analysis, writing snippets of code to automatise the most tedious bits etc. This in many ways has felt like a total waste of life, although of course it's part of this line of work. And now I was (naively, perhaps) expecting to just tweak the data, go to the analysis and keep writing. After a struggle to get started, I had managed to get into a flow with it, and so this total standstill was especially frustrating.

Well, now armed with the ideas and support from my supervisor and my colleagues, and a newly 'iTuned' album of Gideon Kremer playing Bach I'll get to the plan.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Data crisis

Auugh, perhaps it's time to write about "progress" in the work front, as well.

I'm currently pulling through from a major data crisis that has set me back a few weeks in my schedule. It really was an '8' in the open Richter scale for thesis crises, as I for a while genuinely thought that there is no hope with this experiment, I'll need to run it again and will probably never get my PhD. And then there was this nauseating feeling that I will lose the cool results that I had based on a preliminary analysis. I've already published some of those results in a conference, and talked about them to people, and I was seeing myself having to explain that it was just a "fluke" and not real...

The crisis emerged when I was going through the data from the latest experiment again, so that I'd get the ultimate version of the analysis for an article and for my thesis. I was also planning to add some new analyses I've been working on. So, I started re-doing the analysis of before, but this time from a slightly different point of view, and looking at different metrics. I had done a "hasty" preliminary analysis for a conference, basically using the non-problematic part of the data and simple measures. Now I wanted to include all the data and go a bit further in the analysis, so that it would be publishable.

That's when I realised that there were lots more problems in the data than I had realised earlier. Only two out of seven pairs had performed "perfectly", and another 2 were having problems in about half the trials. If I would discard the problem pairs, I'd have no data to talk about. If I'd try to fix the problems, I'd spend the next eternity doing it. And what if, just what if, the effect I saw in the preliminary data was due to the noise, and it isn't actually there in the clean data? *shiver*

Well, thanks to the calming company and help of two of my colleagues, lots of breathing deeply and long, slow walks on lunch breaks I now have some solutions to the problems. Some of them would be sorted with cleverer data processing. This, I think I now have worked out. Also, I need solid, objective criteria for excluding "bad" data. This I still don't have. Tonight I'm planning to try to implement the fixes and see how many dubious trials I have left, and then try to figure out whether to deem them outliers (exclude) or parts of the data (include), and also try to come up with good criteria for doing one or the other. Probably the last one needs to be done first, though. Tomorrow I can then run the analyses and then I'll know whether I will ever graduate or whether it is back to the studio with more experiments.

Of course, conveniently, my supervisor has been out of the country for the whole duration of this crisis... I'm positive about sorting it out by Monday when he returns.

I think this is why I don't write about my work more in this blog these days... Just too scary! :-)

Eurostar "Treads lightly"

Just got this message from Eurostar:

"As a Eurostar traveller, we wanted you to be the first to know about some significant changes we’re making across our business.

You may already be aware that a Eurostar journey is 10 times less polluting than flying. But we believe that everyone can do more. So, from 14 November 2007, the day we open at St Pancras International, we are changing the way we operate as a business.

We have now launched Tread Lightly, an initiative designed to further reduce our impact on the environment (what scientists call our footprint) and to help all our travellers do the same.

As part of this initiative, we have made a commitment to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by a further 25% per traveller journey by 2012. Consequently we will be making changes across all areas of our business in order to reduce our impact on the environment, from the big things like energy efficiency, paperless ticketing and waste management to smaller cultural changes like recycling in our offices.

Any remaining emissions will be offset, at no cost to our travellers, meaning that from November 14th 2007, Eurostar is proud to offer carbon neutral journeys.

We’ll keep you informed of our progress. Or, should you wish to, you can always visit to find out more.

We’re on a journey. A very important one. And, as ever, we’re delighted to have you with us.

Kind regards,

Richard Brown
Chief Executive Officer

Sounds great! For anyone in Cambridge the news about Eurostar moving to St Pancras are good, as Cambridge trains terminate in King's Cross next door. The most inconvenient part of my Eurostar experience going to Amsterdam was the bit with the Tube from King's Cross to Waterloo. This will now be eliminated (as of November), and Cambridge - Paris will be a train trip with just one change, and take only about 4 hours. And it is carbon neutral.


Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Great experiment - don't try at home?

Undoubtedly you've always wondered what would happen if you'd put an Alka Selzer or a Berocca tab to a ball of water.

Yes, the kind of ball of water you'd get in zero gravity. Well, now you can stop losing sleep over this one, as they tried this in the International Space Station.

Being an astronaut is the coolest thing there is anyway, and they often try to play it down by saying that they just do scientific experiments up there and it's all serious work. Well, doing scientific experiments is the second coolest thing there is, and with these kinds of experiments, the combination sounds really good.

Only one thing remains. They should try putting some Mentos into a ball of coke...

Tuesday, April 03, 2007


Britain is a land of great engineers. When Britain pioneered industrialisation in the late 18th and early 19th century, it also developed railroads to meet the growing transportation needs. Harnessing steam to power machinery in the factories and pumps in mines was soon followed by putting steam engines on wheels. The engineer to do that first was Richard Trevithick. In 1804, his high pressure steam engine won a bet as it managed to draw 10 tons of iron, 5 carriages and 70 men on the Cambourne tramlines. This combined two inventions, the iron road used for horse-drawn trams, and the steam engine, that had by the efforts of Watt, Trevithick and others now became powerful and portable enough to be mounted on wheels. And the bet proved crucial, at least in hindsight. It showed that a mounted engine could be used to draw loads, using only the traction that results of the weight on the carriage.

25 years later, a much better known locomotive was born. Robert Stevenson's Rocket wasn't the first locomotive, but it was the one that shaped the design of all subsequent steam engines, by introducing a number of new solutions. With its multitubular construction, the engine was much more efficient in drawing heat from the fire to the water in the boiler. Stevenson also pioneered (if didn't invent it) the blastpipe, or releasing the exhaust steam from the engine's cylinders into the smokebox below the chimney, thus creating a draft in the furnace, and making the fire burn better and hotter.

When Britons are good at something, they keep doing it. They still hold the world land speed record for steam-powered, railed vehicles. From Trevithick's 5 miles per hour, the record was pushed to 125 miles per hour by the "Mallard" in 1938.

As steam engines were substituted by more efficient and faster combustion engines, and later with electric motors, British engineers no longer ruled the game. While every steam locomotive, even those by the Americans that occasionally held world records was just an improvement of Stevenson's technology, the other power sources were developed elsewhere. Diesel engines were of course developed by the German Rudolf Diesel (although Brits claim an earlier invention, but Diesel was first to file for patent), and the early speed records with this source of power were held by Germans. Exceeding 127 miles per hour already in 1936, the record of railed vehicles was irrevocably taken away from steam power.

Britons of course didn't leave things to rest, and reclaimed the diesel-title and still hold the official world record of 147.88 mph (or 238 km/h), made in 1987, although both Russians and Spanish claim to have exceeded those speeds in their trials.

But, nobody really cares as The Game has moved on again. While diesel is still widely used for powering trains, it is feed for the workhorses, not the thoroughbreds. Electricity-powered locomotives had been pioneered as early as in the first years of the 20th century, and the Germans had broken the world railed vehicles speed record by a test unit in 1903, exceeding 206 km/h, a speed that has never been reached by a steam engine. Electric trains remained a curiosity, until trams started to get their horses replaced by electric engines, railroads started to get electricity to them, and by 1950's, the race for the fastest electric train was on again.

This time Germans faced the opposition of the French, and the latter have now taken over the title of speed kings. The latest in the long list of achievements was today's world speed record by a conventional train, whopping 574.7 km/h (357.18 mph) with a train that had two engines and 3 passenger carriages.

This experimentation definitely helps the engineers to push the envelope, and advances in this field will soon be reflected in the actual timetables as faster train connections. After today's speedtest, the top speed of the TGV service between Paris and Strasbourg will be lifted from 300 to 320 kilometres per hour.

So, where's Japan in all this? Well, they are one step ahead, as usual with technology. Their bullet train services use trains that are slightly slower than the TGV, but have in the course of the last few years managed to clock some world records in the series for trains in commercial use. It's one thing to build a train that goes zoom, but another set of problems need to be solved to use the zoom to haul passengers from one place to another, according to schedules, among other traffic. And while TGV-speed testing is directly relevant to their service, what the Japanese are up with at the moment, has lately been put to proper use in China. That's MAGLEV.

Trevithick showed that as long as your engine is heavy enough, you can get enough traction between the iron wheels of your train and the iron rails on the ground to pull the weight of the payload. As speeds get higher, though, this friction becomes a nuisance. it holds you back. Luckily you can get rid of friction nowadays. Just use some supercooled magnets and levitate the damn thing. The patent for MAGLEV trains was granted in Germany, as early as 1941. There was a maglev train in Birmingham airport for 11 years, operating between the airport and railway station in 1984-1995. Most first instances of this technology have been for demonstrations, show purposes and running at very low speeds. Some other instances have been made just for testing or are short-lived due to the high expenses and limited benefits compared to conventional technology.

So, while the French have the railed vehicle speed record, Japanese hold the maglev-record. Their JR-Maglev goes 581 km/h, or 361 mph, a speed that the TGV almost reached today. The fastest commercial raillink is in Shanghai China. Using maglev technology, the airport express reaches 431 km/h or 245.5 mph. The probalem with maglev is of course the cost and the fact that you can't run other trains on the maglev tracks. The beauty of TGV and other high speed conventional trains is that you can use the expensive track for slower transport when the speed-freaks are not out. But as you need special track for special speeds anyway, and as the maglev technology has become more available, there are now many plans to open services in Europe. Plans of London - Glasgow maglev line have been made, and also a link between Glasgow and Edinburgh has been proposed. In Germany there are plans, and in Japan the JR hasn't spent billions just to play with the things, either.

Oh, where are the Americans in all this? Well, they made a different sport of the rail speed records altogether. Rather than faffing about with diesel engines or electricity, they bolted a rocket engine into a sled, laid some tracks across a desert in New Mexico, fired away and gained a record of land vehicles with the speed of 10 430 km/h or about Mach 9. Sorted.

(Pic: AFP / BBC)