Contents may differ from package

Today’s post has two shameless, self-serving objectives. The first is to raise awareness of Melbourne Cupcake Day, an alternative first-Tuesday-in-November event for those who prefer sweet treats over losing money and throwing up. It deserves to be a phenomenon – the bake-off that stops a nation (better slogans are welcome).

Secondly, I want to put my own cupcake day entry on the internet:

Space invader cupcakes

I admit they’re not the most beautiful things in the world, but those are red velvet cupcakes topped with space invaders made of pop rocks.

It’s my belief that that is exactly the sort of thing the internet loves, so I’m going to put it there and see how long it takes for the first search engine hit to land. Take it away, Alta Vista!

And while we’re on a slightly retro topic, there’s something I’ve always wanted to say about Space Invaders, the game. It was hugely popular in its time, so much so that for me and my peers it became the generic name for all video games (“let’s go play the spacies!”).

And yet, I was always a bit disappointed that the aliens in the game didn’t look like the creepy monsters on the side of the machine:

Space invader machine

Someone please make a version with them in it. That would be so cool.


Ain’t no drought in this here ocean

Ah, Herald Sun. How we rely on your scientific reporting, particularly when it comes to creative interpretation of climate change.

A couple of months ago we had an article about how the first 6 months of 2010 were, globally, the warmest ever recorded. This was ably refuted by the accompanying photo of a lifeguard shivering next to a Melbourne pool in winter. Unfortunately I can’t find a link to the article, but it’s a classic theme that winter disproves global warming.

Last Friday, that was matched by a story about water restrictions remaining while storage levels rise. All quite reasonable, including a climate expert who describes the ongoing trend towards drier conditions. But most important was the picture they chose to illustrate the article:

People on a jet ski at St Kilda beach

Summer Disbray and Lara Tori enjoy the nice weather at St Kilda beach.
Picture: Stephen Harman Source: Herald Sun

Yes, there’s plenty of water there. At the beach.

Next week: kids eating Frosty Fruits show that the ice caps aren’t really melting.

5 reasons why Stieg Larsson movies are better than the books

Last night I saw The Girl Who Played with Fire (or Flickan som lekte med elden, if you prefer) and was pleasantly surprised to discover that the film was better than the book.

Accepted wisdom says that it’s usually the other way around; the chief exception being movie tie-ins (for a sterling example, see the paperback adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula: A Francis Ford Coppola film, a book-of-the-movie-of-the-book, or a thing that shouldn’t exist). But that just proves the rule of whichever came first is better.

Not in this case. Apart from it taking up much less of my life than the 600-odd page novel, I enjoyed the movie much more. Here are five legitimate reasons why you should too:

  1. In a movie, you’re generally not inside the characters’ heads, subjected to every little thought they have. In this case, that means you don’t have to hear about all their mental peccadilloes, like Blomkvist’s frustration that no one understands his multiple simultaneous love affairs, or Ronald Niedermann’s unfortunate fear of the dark, or Lisbeth Salander solving Fermat’s Last Theorem the proper way (oh yeah, spoiler alert).
  2. You also don’t have to worry about all the dead-end sub-plots that don’t fit into a 2 hour movie – like the inept police investigation, which follows every red herring in an effort to prove Stieg Larsson’s point that men who hate women are bad.
  3. By leaving out those sub-plots, you also don’t have to remember all kinds of near-identical Swedish names (don’t get me wrong, they’re lovely names – sorry, löveljë nämenens).
  4. Similarly, all the locations actually look like interesting places rather than just names from an Ikea catalogue, and all the people have real, distinct identities, instead of the generic Scandinavian faces of my imagination (okay, maybe that’s my lack of effort).
  5. You learn that Paolo Roberto is a real person.

Schrödinger’s parliament – update

Previously, we discussed the indeterminate result of Australia’s federal election and how that left us in a very rare state of macroscopic quantum superposition. Well, I discussed it, and if you did too then you’re probably wondering how far the analogy can be pushed in light of this week’s Oakeshott-Windsor led resolution.

The answer is: just a bit further. Instead of a normal election result, where the quantum system collapses into a classical state either one way or the other, we have a more fragile equilibrium that still has a chance of fluctuating, even if only on individual pieces of legislation. This close-as-you-can-get-to-classical-while-still-being-a-bit-fuzzy-around-the-edges situation is, I declare, a coherent state.

To save me having to go into the details, please read the linked Wikipedia article if you want to find out more. I usually find Wikipedia to be quite good on matters of quantum physics, and this article is no exception. One of its gems is to point out that a coherent state is not the same thing as a Fock state, which is a state with a definite quantum number of particles.

But then again, some would say we really are in a totally focked state.

(Thank you, thank you. It took two blog posts and two weeks of hung parliament to build up the gag, but I think you’ll agree the punchline was worth it.)

Bad scientist

Lex Luthor is clearly a bad scientist. If for no other reason, then the simple mathematical formula of ‘bad guy + mad scientist’. (What? That’s how maths works.)

But he does go to some good sources for his science news. In Action Comics #890, where Action Comics is famously the title that Superman first appeared in, but which Lex Luthor has recently taken over in what could be considered a metatextual response to his failure to conquer either Superman or the Earth, we have the following scene:

Splash page from Action Comics 890

Here, Luthor has plugged himself into his Lexcorp Intelligent Listening Engine, a phenomenally over-engineered virtual reality system that allows him to search for the mention of certain key words on the internet (most of us would just use Google, but then we’re not mad geniuses). He’s seeking news on certain black lantern rings, which appeared in DC Comics’ Blackest Night storyline (don’t bother asking, just read Wikipedia). And yes, he’s wearing bike shorts.

But the important bit is in the lower left of the page, where we see the following caption:

- some new influence on the subatomic world - @benjamingoldacre

That would Dr Benjamin Goldacre, writer of the Guardian column, blog and book, all called Bad Science and all well worth reading. And although his actual Twitter username is @bengoldacre, and his interests are typically more around medical research than subatomic physics, it’s a nice tribute. Where better to go for your sciencey internet needs?

And after all, comic book science is some of the best bad science you’ll find.

Bonus feature: If you want to know what happens in the rest of the comic, check out the live reading from CONvergence 2010. I had no idea they did that sort of thing, but I found it in an internet search. Without, I might add, the aid of any fully-immersive 3D display, and without having to strip down to my underwear. Take that, Lex Luthor.

Elders of the Internet

How do I miss these things? It seems that seven people hold the keys to the internet – chosen to restart it if something breaks the domain name system and, I don’t know, stops phishing phraudsters pretending to be your bank account.

Apparently a restart requires five of the seven key holders to bring their smartcards to a secret location in the US, from their home countries of Britain, the US, Trinidad and Tobago, Canada, China, the Czech Republic and… Burkina Faso. (For those who don’t know, Burkina Faso is a landlocked African country; it used to be called Upper Volta, its capital city is Ougadougou and its main industry is lint.)

This is a fantastic opportunity for any lonely nerds out there. Despite the fact that some key holders have come forward, no one really knows who they all are. So all you need to do is mock up your own fake smartcard, and you finally have the key to attention and respect.

“Yeah baby, it’s true, I’m one of the seven secret lords of the internet. Me and Al Gore. But don’t tell anybody: it’s a secret.” (To be read in a Burkina Faso accent.)

But of course, this is old news. The truth about the hidden elders was revealed two years ago, in that excellent documentary series, The IT Crowd:

Schrödinger’s parliament

In a massive victory for science, Australia is in the midst of its first quantum election in over 70 years. Just as Schrödinger’s cat was famously caught in a state of being neither alive nor dead but somehow both, the Australian government is now in a superposition of Labor and Liberal, with somehow no one in charge.

Some might say this is Tony Abbott’s fault. When he was repeatedly asked about his views on climate change ABC TV’s Q & A, he exasperatedly said “let the scientists argue about that”. Well Tony, the scientists have had a talk, and they’ve voted for quantum mechanics. But the real question is, what do we do now?

Well, if you believe in The Secret, or What the #$*! Do We (K)now!?, or any other twisted, moronic, New Agey misinterpretation of quantum physics, then all we have to do is wish really, really hard and we can make our preferred party win. But of course, you don’t actually believe that utter bull#$*! (their term, not mine).

Instead, maybe you prefer the many-worlds interpretation, which would mean that we now have two parallel Australias. Just like in the US, there are the irreconcilable worlds of the “red states”, run by a feisty ranga, and the “blue states”, run by a man in budgie smugglers going for an ocean swim in the middle of winter.

Or perhaps we just sit back and wait for the postal votes to sort things out. This is what Einstein would have called “spooky action at a distance”. Or more precisely, “spukhafte Fernwirkung”.

But no, I say we enjoy this historic moment. Physicists have been trying for decades to create macroscopic quantum entanglements this size, so let’s not ruin it now.

Just like the cat, if we keep all the politicians locked in a little box, then they can stay in their magic superposition forever. All we have to do is to agree to never look in on them again…