Friday, September 29, 2006

Israel's UN attack.

Reuters reports about the Israeli bombing of a UN post that led to the death of four UN peace keepers on July 25, during the brief war with Hezbollah. Here are the most interesting parts of a UN-led board of inquiry...
Israel used a precision-guided bomb to launch a direct hit on four U.N. peacekeepers
the board was "unable to determine why the attacks on the U.N. position were not halted, despite repeated demarches (communications) to the Israeli authorities from U.N. personnel, both in the field and in U.N. headquarters," Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a statement.
Interestingly, Israel has called in an "operational mistake"! How can they continue to make operational mistakes when the UN personnel kept sending them communications asking them to stop ?

Could this be then the real reason ? Excerpts...

The words of a Canadian United Nations observer written just days before he was killed in an Israeli bombing of a UN post in Lebanon are evidence Hezbollah was using the post as a "shield" to fire rockets into Israel, says a former UN commander in Bosnia.

Those words, written in an e-mail dated just nine days ago, offer a possible explanation as to why the post -- which according to UN officials was clearly marked and known to Israeli forces -- was hit by Israel on Tuesday night
Israel has taken full responsibility for the incident, but in the following manner...
Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said maps of the area had been incorrect. "There was a mishap on the Israeli side where in duplication of maps, the U.N. position on the maps was not marked as it should have been and that created the tragedy,"

Regev said the investigation found that about 100 metres (yards) from the U.N. position there was a Hizbollah position where there was "hostile activity".

U.N. officials agreed Hizbollah guerrillas were at a base in the area as well as in a nearby prison. But they said there was no activity from the militia on July 25 and the U.N. bunker was clearly marked.

This whole incident brings to focus the problems with "peace-keeping" in volatile areas. Is it really possible for a small force of international peace keepers to be able to maintain the peace in an area where they are complete outsiders, and at times have no other option but to have tacit "understandings" with the local armed militias ? And then they get killed and reported as "collateral damage" with vague excuses as to the reasons behind their deaths.

Cross posted on : Writers Against Terrorism.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

George Allen insult generator.

Slate has really done it this time, with their George Allen insult generator ! From presidential hopeful a few months ago to internet, how the tides turn!

I found the French insult to be the funniest...
How's it going, Monsieur Caca ?

String theory unraveling...

I wrote an article in the Technician about string theory, its history and the latest set of problems plaguing the field.

I also came across an article in the New Yorker along similar lines, thanks to Dr. Thomas Schaefer, who pointed me towards that link.

Interesting that similar articles, about what many might think is an arcane particle physics topic, would be published in such different publications on consecutive days(25th and 26th)..and before anyone asks, no, there was no "inspiration"...I have been working on this idea for over 2 weeks before I turned it in on the 23rd !

Previous posts about string theory : 1.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Nature breaks Chandrasekhar limit !

For decades, astronomers have rested on the theory known as "Chandrasekhar's limit", stated as follows...
in theory, the greatest possible mass of a stable cold star, above which it must collapse and become a black hole. It was named for the Indian astronomer Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who calculated that a cold star of more than about 1 1/2 times the mass of the sun would collapse under the force of its own gravity.
Apparently a recently discovered supernova in a galaxy 4 billion light years away, reached a mass about twice the size of our sun before exploding ! Here are some theories of how this could have happened...
The star could have been spinning so fast that centrifugal force pushed it beyond the usual limit
The explosion also could have come from two white-dwarf stars merging.
Another interesting excerpt...
The new supernova doesn't necessarily undermine that discovery or other previous research, the astronomers said. But scientists should be more cautious about incorporating the Chandrasekhar Limit into their future work

Monday, September 25, 2006

Space pics...real cheap!

Engineering students from Cambridge University in the fact three of them...sent a balloon into the upper atmosphere! Their idea was to test the idea of an unmanned space craft being sent into space. They used off the shelf components and ideas such as GSM text messaging, radio communications and a regular 5 megapixel camera!

Some of the snaps that they have captured are shows the blackness of space, indicating as to how high the craft went...32 kms! Here are a few (click on each one to enlarge)...

They also have a short video showing the launch.

Their next idea is to attach a rocket beneath the balloon to carry it into outer space, all for the price tag of under £ 1000, which according to the new scientist, report,
£1000 is about price of one door handle on the space shuttle. And that Anousheh Ansari just paid 13,245 times that for a tourist trip to the International Space Station!
This should cause some consternation among the space agencies...

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Stellar timepieces and Einstein...

A couple of dead neutron stars that revolve around each other were used by scientists to test Einstein's theory of gravity.

The two stars are "dead" and only the dense neutron cores remain of the original stars - but they are heavier and denser than our Sun, with their masses compacted into an area the size of a city! They revolve around each other at a rate of 2.4 million kph, and emit beams of radio waves which make for very precise time-keeping.

Researchers used these stars to see how the radio beams from each star was being delayed (called Shapiro delay) by the other as they passed through each other's space-time.

Some excerpts...
The team found this delay to be close to 90 millionths of a second and the ratio of the observed and predicted values to be 1.0001, plus or minus 0.0005 - a precision of 0.05%.

Other effects were noted as well. For example, whenever one pulsar sits deeper in the gravitational field of the other, its clock appears to run slower. This phenomenon has been observed with atomic clocks flown in aeroplanes above Earth, but in the extreme environment of the pulsars the effect is far more pronounced.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Philosophy of Star Trek...

...according to Ronald D Moore, a write on the series, Star Trek : The Next Generation, as well as one of my all-time favourite sci-fi series, Battlestar Galactica, a.k.a. as BSG.

His piece appears in a New York Times op-ed. Some interesting excerpts...

“Star Trek” is often reduced to kitsch: Kirk’s paunch, Spock’s pointy ears, green-skinned alien girls. But it was more than escapism and rubber-suited aliens. It was a morality play, with Capt. James T. Kirk as a futuristic John F. Kennedy piloting a warp-driven PT-109 through the far reaches of the galaxy.

Kirk, for me, embodied an American idea: His mission was to explore the final frontier, not to conquer it. He was moral without moralizing. Week after week, he confronted the specters of intolerance and injustice, and week after week found a way to defeat them without ever becoming them. Jim Kirk may have beat up his share of bad guys, but you could never imagine him torturing them.

A favorite quote: “We’re human beings, with the blood of a million savage years on our hands. But we can stop it. We can admit that we’re killers, but we won’t kill today.” Kirk clearly understood humanity’s many flaws, yet never lost faith in our ability to rise above the muck and reach for the stars.


Nowadays, it may appear that I’ve turned a blind eye to my lodestar as the crew of the battlestar Galactica behave in ways that would’ve been unthinkable in the “Star Trek” universe that Gene Roddenberry created. But “Battlestar Galactica” remains very much informed by the lessons I learned from that slightly paunchy man in the gold pajama top on the good ship Enterprise.

My characters may not have all the answers (sometimes they’re not even aware of the questions) but they contain kernels of both good and evil in their hearts and continue to struggle for salvation and redemption against the darker angels of their natures. Their defeats are many, their victories few, but somehow, some way, they never give up the dream of finding a better tomorrow.

...thus offering some insights into the characters that he writes for BSG. Well, I did not expect that two scifi television series that I greatly admire, would be connected at such a basic level, although by the two series, I mean the original Star Trek and BSG.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Vande Mataram and the media...

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Vande Mataram being adopted as the country national song. While it is a song that is in favour of India, various non-hindu citizens refuse to sing it as they think it is a song dedicated to the goddess Durga...and this was the reason why it was made voluntary, and not mandatory.

What irked me was the BBC's reporting of this issue...the report starts with a photograph of school girls singing the song with the following caption...
Muslim girls singing Vande Mataram
I found this particular caption to be a cheap attempt at pandering to the masses...I mean, the image would have been sufficient to show girls singing the song, while anyone who pays more attention might notice their hijab and come to the conclusion that they are muslims. Why should they put up such a caption, if not to show off the fact that they have found a "minority" who also participates in the song ? And they promptly go ahead and point it out...of course, this is just to bring to attention all the controversy that surrounds the song anyways.

The title of the article is, "Indians celebrate national song". In spite of this title, the first image is the one that launches us into the controversy, and the first few paragraphs also indicate this,

The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party started its national conclave with the song.

But several Muslim educational institutions boycotted the song, which has been at the centre of a row.

The controversy began last month after the central government said the song must be sung at all schools on its centenary.

In fact, most of the article is about the problems faced by Vande Mataram, and less about the song and its history! I have always admired the BBC for its non-partisan reporting of news and facts, but I have had to revise my assessment in the recent past, due to such ridiculous attempts at tabloid journalism!

Nicotine levels, body worlds and magic !

Apparently Philip Morris has a new nemesis - the world of magic ! The Massachusetts Department of Public Health recently found that nicotine levels in cigarettes rose about 10 percent from 1998 to 2004 ! The response from the company was that while there were fluctuations in nicotine levels, there was no steady increase. magically, nicotine levels will fluctuate every few years and perhaps settle at a higher value, but that is fine, as long as it is not a steady increase!

Excerpts from the Washington Post article...
The health department study, released last month, examined nicotine levels in more than 100 brands over a six-year period. The study showed a steady climb in the amount of nicotine delivered to the lungs of smokers regardless of brand, with overall nicotine yields increasing by about 10 percent, according to state health officials.

The study also found that the three most popular cigarette brands with young smokers -- Marlboro, Newport and Camel -- delivered significantly more nicotine than they did years ago. Marlboro is a Philip Morris brand.

And the "response",

Philip Morris said the year-to-year variations "occur as part of the normal processes of growing tobacco and manufacturing cigarettes."
In an interesting, kind-of-related offshoot, I happened to attend the Body Worlds 2 exhibit (the brainchild of the German anatomist, Gunther von Hagen) while in Boston last week, and was amazed (and a bit repulsed, but that is a story for another post) at the exhibits on display of the fascinating displays was the difference between a smoker's lungs and a non-smoker's lungs...I found the following images online, and you can just see the stark differences to start thinking about the effects of smoking...
They had also placed a coal-miner's lung next to these two exhibits, and to my naked (and to be fair, untrained) eye, there seemed to be no fact, the smoker's lungs seemed to be worse !

Technician features continued...

I wrote the recent feature about our Analytics department (at NC State) for the Technician.

Of course, my Nanobytes columns : 1, 2, 3.

A complete list of all my articles, so far.