Monday, December 17, 2007

Massive winter storm in north america and radar imagery

Ottawa - Canada's capital city - has been hit today with a snow storm. 42 cms of snow have fallen in the last 24 hours!
Snow storms can be visualized and measured with radar imagery. This photo shows the Ontario southern area - Ottawa is in the middle. It is provided in real time by the weather office's website using data coming from its radar weather stations. It indicates that snow is falling over Ottawa at a rate of 2 cms per hour. After almost a full day of snow we indeed got over 40 cms of snow.

How does the radar work? Station on the ground emits radio waves in different directions. The larger the size of snow or ice pallets, the better they reflect the radio signal back to its source. After a series of measurements a map is generated like the one above.

I very much enjoyed watching the movie The Day After Tomorrow on the TV channel space this afternoon. It was ideally fitted to our own local climate situation!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Fun Science 'Smart Monkey' part 2

In part 1 we have played a simplified version of Professor Matsuzawa's experiment. Remembering the position of 5 numbers is easy. Let's try with 9 numbers.

1. Search line 30 shown below in the program

30 | int NBR_BOXES = 5;

Replace the value 5 with the value 9.

3. Run the program again. You will now have to remember the position of 9 numbers. It is a lot more challenging and fun that way. Are you still a smart monkey?

Note the monkeys show their superiority when the numbers are shown for less than a second.

4. Search line 18 shown below.

18 | Thread.sleep(5000);

Replace the value 5000 with the value 1000. You are asking the computer to show the numbers for 1000 milliseconds - that's one second - instead of 5000 milliseconds. It's practically impossible for us now to remember the positions right... To enjoy this little game, we suggest you bring back the value 5000.

Have fun!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Fun Science 'Smart Monkey' part 1

1. Run the program If it is your first time, learn how to run Java programs.

Numbers 1 to 5 appear at random positions on the screen. After a few seconds the numbers disappear. Point your mouse and click to the square you remember to be '0'. If you are correct it will go away. Now try to click on square '1' - etc.

When you are done, the computer will tell you if you are a human or a smart monkey. Err, what is that supposed to mean?

If you really do well the program assumes you must be a monkey. Professor Matsuzawa of Kyoto University has compared the performance of young monkeys to human students with a computer program similar to the one you ran. The monkeys do much better than us particularly when the numbers are shown less than a fraction of a second. Their memory seems to work differently than ours.

Does the game sound too easy? Then you are ready for part 2 of this activity. We will edit the program so it now shows 9 numbers instead of 5. And you will learn how to control the time interval used to show the numbers before the game starts.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

One laptop per child 'Develop' feature - the best thing that ever happened since the Apple ][ and Linux

You have probably heard of the OLPC - one laptop per child - initiative by now. Their XO laptop is so well thought it could reconcile children and teenagers with technology. First let's review a few popular devices and what people know about their construction.
  1. Radio, 1960s. I remember the one my dad used in the 1960's. He opened it up a few times and showed me the self and magnet used to look up different frequencies - different radio stations. My dad replaced buttons and condensers when they broke down / smoked up. There was a local electrician store down the street where you could find everything you needed.
  2. TV Set, 1970s. I opened up my black and white TV set when toward the end of its life time the electron beam would randomly flicker as the TV heated up. The beam required precise adjustment to return to the correct path on the screen. Don't do that yourself, it's stupid and very dangerous.
  3. VCR, 1980s. The VCRs frequently ate your VHS tape and refused to eject it back. Everyone I know once opened up their VCR to physically extract the tape - half of the time ruining the VCR altogether.
  4. PC's, 1990s. Installing a second hard drive, more memory and extra cards was everyone favourite past-time back then.
  5. iPods, 2000s. You throw them when the battery or anything else stops working. Why bother? By then a newer and cooler model has arrived anyway. All right, I am pushing it. There is now a black market of specialized shops that will do wonders to repair your latest gadget - but don't even try by yourself.
The XO laptop amazes me with its Develop feature. Press the View Source key and you can jump into the program code that you are currently running. You can edit and then run your modified version as simply as possible. Compare this with the steps you need to follow to install and edit Java programs on your PC. The XO sounds so great, may it inspire Microsoft to return to the simplicity of the Apple ][ and its Basic from the 80s - Microsoft should hire Steve Wosniak. I'm tempted to give up Java I used for the book Fun Science With Your Computer - and switch to the scripted language Python chosen by XO instead. But Java is so popular and so well tested on many types of computers I just wished it were easier to install by complete beginners.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Why are eBooks overpriced?

I was intrigued by a review of the book Programming the universe in the New York Times. I decided I would like to read it over the christmas vacations on my notebook. The paperback version is going for about $17 at Amazon. The eBook version (pdf)? $17. Just at the same price.
I'm taking more time to think about it. I'd buy the eBook if it were going for the same price as a movie ticket - $9.95 or half the price of the paperback version, I'd say. After all I'd read it on my computer - eBooks do not come printed on paper! Now I understand why eBooks haven't caught up. There are plenty of nice eBooks devices around now - Amazon's Kindle to name a very recent one. But publishers are not comfortable with this new field. We the readers have yet to wait for someone like Apple who started to sell legal music for 99 cents.
Well I've made up my mind. I'll borrow the book at the public library and will go see the movie Enchanted with the money I didn't spent on it. Sigh. I really like being able to read books on my computer and browse them at will - today or years later. When will eBooks be half the price of a paperback version? Or the price of a movie ticket?

Wait a moment. Should I ask Santa for a $399 Kindle this christmas? Mike just pointed to me that Amazon sells a Kindle version of "Programming the Universe" for about $8. That sounds great. Can I get a PDF version for my laptop for that price someday too?

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Programme for International Student Assessment

Scientists love to measure, compare, rank. E.g. order the planets by size, how bright stars are in reference to our sun, etc. They also created ways to measure, compare, rank themselves. At the top you get nobel laureates. Before getting there a researcher publishes prestigious articles into Nature or Science. These articles must have a lot of influence over other scientists i.e. many other articles reference them. The same idea is used by Google to rank popular websites. If this blog is referenced by CNN's home page it will suddenly become much more important - at least until CNN switches to another major topic a few hours later. Note that my post referring to CNN does not do much to increase CNN's site ranking because this blog isn't considered an important referrer at this point...
Let's return to our topic of the day. Are you in college? If so you are familiar with evaluations. Is your teacher just as nervous about them as you are? International evaluations compare you to your peers from other countries. And important people will decide how much money to add or cut from the education budget of your schoolboard after they read the PISA executive summary. PISA stands for Programme for International Student Assessment.
There is more to education and science than evaluation tests. Don't discard them alltogether though. Take it as a challenge. Scientists also like - err, should like - to be challenged. One measurement isn't the whole truth but with no measurement there is no science.

All thirty countries are now celebrating or crying over the results of this study. Canada is quite happy. How about yours?