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I love the way the BBC tries to make everything so relateable to everyday human experience. Case in point: this article about a new technique for measuring the mass of supermassive black holes. In order to convey just how heavy these things are, the caption on their first picture relates it to something we all understand – the mass of a family car.
Unfortunately, in making the unit relateable, they make the actual number involved un-relateable to a ridiculous extent. Can anyone reading the article visualise what “six billion trillion trillion family cars” would look like?
No? Me neither. But by the power of mathematics, we will in a couple of minutes.
Q1. What if we covered the entire surface of the Earth with cars?
The surface area of the Earth, according to Wolfram Alpha, is:Aearth = 5.1×1014 m2
Assume that a family car is approximately five metres long and two metres wide. So the area taken up by one car is:Acar = 5 × 2 = 10 m2
Our six billion trillion trillion cars would take up:Aallcars = 6×1035 × Acar
= 6×1036 m2
Clearly this is much larger than the available surface area of the Earth. So in order to fit the cars onto the Earth’s surface, how many do we need to stack on top of each other?nstack = Aallcars / Aearth
= (6×1036 m2) / (5.1×1014 m2)
That’s still not a number we can really relate to. In fact we’ve created a very odd structure here, because we are imagining cars stacked up squarely one on top of another – so as they get further from the surface, the stacks get further and further apart until there ends up being a lot of empty space between them. Earth ends up as a tiny dot at the centre of a bizarre spiny sea-urchin effect of family cars.
A better question might be:
Q2. What if we crammed as many cars onto the planet as possible?
Now we’re no longer talking about neat stacks of cars, just about cramming them in wherever possible. Rather than area, then, we must consider the volume of the family car:Vcar = 5 × 2 × 1.5 = 15 m3
Now if we were to have six billion trillion trillion of those, they would take up:Vallcars = 6×1035 × Vcar
= 9×1036 m3
If we were to pack those around the Earth, how far out would they reach? We need to add Vallcars to the volume of the Earth, then find the radius of that spherical volume:rsphere = 3/(4π) × 3√(Vallcars + Vearth)
= 3/(4π) × 3√(9×1036 + 1.083×1021) m
= 4.966×1011 m
Still a pretty big number, but we can relate that to a few other measurements that people may be a little more aware of:rsphere = 4.966×1011 m
= 77857 times the radius of the Earth
= 714 times the radius of the Sun
= 3.3 times the distance from Earth to the Sun
So with this many cars piled onto the Earth, the resulting car-planet would fill the entire solar system from the Sun out to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
Unfortunately for the people of Earth, this is somewhat of a moot point. The mass of these cars is significantly greater than any approximation of the Jeans mass, an important quantity in the physics of star formation. This means that placing all these family cars together in space would cause them to collapse in on themselves, growing hotter and denser until fusion reactions ignite – we would have created our own star.
But the average family car is composed of heavy elements such as iron, not the hydrogen and helium that a star needs to shine. It would rapidly reach the end of its life, exploding in a gigantic supernova and collapsing back in again to form – rather obviously when you think about it – a black hole.
Another black hole of this mass in the Milky Way galaxy would tear it apart, throwing billions and billions of stars out into the endless night of the cosmos.
It’s a lot of cars.
Q3. Roughly how many cars are available to be rolled up in a Katamari level?
Significantly fewer than 6×1035. This is a safety limit imposed by the developers to ensure the safety of mankind.
Q4. Could Brian Cox save us from this terrible fate?
Yes. He would gaze wistfully into the black hole, resulting in it feeling vaguely embarrassed and going off to bother another part of the universe instead.
It’s angling towards being a bullet hell music game, and it almost – but not quite – succeeds at those two goals.
It can’t quite be a bullet hell shooter, because bullet hell in all its pixel-perfect weaving glory isn’t completely practical on a tiny device where half the screen is taken up by your own thumbs. Nevertheless, plenty of weaving around patterns of enemies and enemy attacks is involved, your ship’s hitbox is pretty tiny and there are a good set of oversize bullet-spraying bosses.
It can’t quite be beat-synched either, as the game seems to prioritise interesting enemy patterns rather than attempting to spawn enemies on every beat. There are little effects here and there, however, that do give a feeling that something is synched to the music.
The game also features a setting labelled “visual intensity”. By setting it to 150%, you can take those little, subtle beat-synched effects and make them more impressive.
And by setting it to 200%, you can turn it up to OH MY GO MY BRAIN IS MELTING I CAN’T SEE MY SHIP BUT I DON’T CARE BECAUSE BRAIN FIRE
When the main difficulty factor in a game comes around because there are too many lasers, that makes it a good game in my book.
First of all, a big shout out to les hommes et femmes at http://korben.info/, who today have taught me an important lesson.
Somewhere around five Apache instances per second were being spawned, all of which seemed to be waiting for each others’ I/O operations, and combined together managed to slow everything else to a crawl. It took twenty minutes to successfully
sshinto the server and stop Apache. In that whole time, I think about five visitors might have actually have seen a properly-formed web page.
From that point, it was a dainty command-line dance to get enough of WordPress up and running that I could set up a page caching plugin, but not so much of it that visitors could actually request pages themselves.
At around 1pm, I finally managed to get back up and running again – and the floodgates opened.
So, today I learned two important lessons about running your own web server:
If you are going to do something cool with a Raspberry Pi and post about it on your blog, CACHE THE PAGES.
It’s a great idea for your web server to send out e-mail alerts when it is dying. It’s a less great idea to host your e-mail system on the same machine.
Thanks, crazy French blog.
Long ago, in the early years of Facebook’s rise to power, it became apparent that it had another key feature alongside feeds and wall posts – the friends list. Not only was it a good way to keep in touch with friends after University, it also became a good way of declaring who those friends were. This aspect was emphasized more and more as the site’s user base increased; you could now keep a quite exhaustive catalogue of who you knew. There were even apps on Facebook’s fledgling platform that allowed to to map those friends, and see interesting groups and connections form.
My Facebook Friends Graph
For a shameless nerd such as myself, this is great stuff – I love having a neatly curated index of almost everyone I know, particularly one with which I generate pretty visualisations. This one here shows a nice distinction between people I went to school with (orange), university (blue), people I work with (green), DDRFUKers (purple), and a great interconnected yellow mass of Soton Kiddies, LARPers, neighbours and post-University friends.
But however nice it might be to see this in pictorial form, I know this information. All of it is in my head; each different group and the few people that make the links between them. There’s no need to record this data to help me.
Of course, I need to record this data in order to talk to these people and share status updates on Facebook. But I barely interact with anyone I went to school with. At work, a mention of something I posted on Facebook tends to be embarrassing. Most of the dots marked yellow or purple are people who are on Twitter, and who I would prefer to talk to there.
So for whom am I updating, and publishing, what has become known as my “Social Graph”? I have already established that although I curated my Social Graph out of an egotistic and nerdy desire to catalogue everything, it serves no purpose for me. Presumably, then, I am doing it for the benefit of Facebook and its advertisers who can use it to add cruel hooks into friends’ feeds. “Hey, 24 of your friends play this!” “Ian R likes some guy’s band!”
At best, “unfriending” on Facebook seems like something that is done by spurned teenage girls complaining about how much of a bitch their ex-“BFF” turned out to be. At worst, it seems like an outright denial that you have ever known a person. But what benefit does a user get from declaring themselves “friends” with someone they’ve said not a single word to in ten years?
If, as I have previously bemoaned, I still don’t want to quit Facebook entirely, then I fear a Great Unfriending may be nigh.
With every passing day, my Facebook feed is spending more and more time informing me that old school friends “like Amazon”. (No shit, really?) In the background, it’s fiddling our feeds, showing and hiding entries according to what it thinks is relevancy, and also what it thinks is profit for itself. Game spam is constant. On the other side of the fence, Twitter is trying to force out the third-party clients that made it great, so that it can monetise its users more easily.
Should we be surprised? Feel betrayed? Not at all. Facebook and Twitter are in it to make money, yet we use them for free. It’s pretty clear that if you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product. We should only expect free-to-use websites to change in favour of their profits, never in favour of us as users.
But I’m growing tired of it. My use of these sites is intensely personal – they are my default, or only, way of contacting many of my friends – but yet this personal process is controlled by a company that is willing and able to affect the process to make money. If it’s more profitable to show me “Bob likes Product X” than to show me Bob’s deep and meaningful status update, you can bet I’ll be shown the “like”.
I miss everyone being equal. I miss services that were honestly free. I miss being close to the infrastructure I use to communicate, rather than having it abstracted. I miss Web 1.0.
Hell, I miss Web 0.1.
There was a time, not so very long ago, when IRC was our Twitter. It was just as full of funny links and pithy comments, but it was communication between friends, not 140 character witticisms broadcast into the ether in the constant, vain hope of affirmation delivered by the retweets of strangers.
There was a time when blogs were our Facebook, our innermost thoughts put out there for our friends and no-one else; when our friends would think of something to say and say it, rather than simply dishing out an iota of affirmation with the “like” button.
There was a time when mailing lists were our forums, just simple e-mails back and forth without the need for moderators, or advertising, or CAPTCHAs.
There was a time when USENET was our Reddit, a place to while away hours without karma whores and downvotes.
Those times are never coming back. No friends of mine are willing to leave Facebook and talk to each other on a mailing list. The monetising services of Web 2.0 are simply much better, easier to use, nicer to look at, more functional. But they’re lagging behind the tools and services of the old internet in other ways. Honesty – what you put into IRC is what you got out, no server inserted “promoted tweets” into your channel. Thoughtfulness – we had to say things to each other, no likes, no retweets, no upvotes.
At this point it would be appropriate for me to announce some kind of online “back to the land” movement, ending with a rhetorical “who’s with me?”. But rhetorical it would be, because nobody’s with me. I am, at the age of 27, simply old and curmudgeonly before my time; sitting typing in monospaced text to an audience that already sold themselves to play FarmVille.
Once upon a time, I firmly held the belief that established rules were there for a very good reason – that even if I didn’t understand that reason, there surely was one, and thus I should follow those rules.
Then I discovered corporate bureaucracy. What that taught me was that there is nothing more true than this simple phrase:
It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.
RAdm. Grace Hopper
Time after time, I have seen good ideas – my own and those of others – shot down with a cry of “you can’t possibly do that”, or “that’s not how we do things”, or “you have to follow the proper process”. And for every outright refusal, I have seen another idea dia a slow death at the hands of unanswered calls and archived emails.
Nope. Bollocks to it. Progress isn’t made by asking permission. Progress is made by doing things, and later, if an apology is required, begrudgingly giving it.
Case in point: years ago, when our company moved to a new intranet, someone pointed out that it would would be nice to have a page that matched names to photos to help new recruits figure out who everybody was. Everyone I spoke to agreed it was a good idea, so I asked if I could make this page.
Months later, after weeks of chasing the appropriate people to agree to it, other people who could sort out the photos, chasing HR, I had achieved absolutely nothing. I gave up waiting and cajoling these people, coded it in my lunch hour and asked everyone to upload their own photos.
It was a modest success. And today, three years later, we received an email from HR saying:
In response to requests from employees and managers, most recently at [HR Director]’s [meeting] session on the 3rd October, an “album” of employee’s head shots and names will be set up on Sharepoint to help put names to faces.
I laughed, and laughed, the chuckle of a man who can see a heady irony where others cannot.
That intranet page is a pretty insignificant footnote in the grand scheme of things, but it is vindication nonetheless.
Progress is not made by asking what can be done, but by doing things, and only afterwards finding out that they were impossible.
There is serious ongoing consideration of whether young people aged 16 and 17 should be allowed to vote in the upcoming Scottish independence referendum, and politicians and news outlets alike are wondering if the same could happen for our General Elections too. I find it a little confusing and very inconsistent, for one simple reason: it seems logical to me that before we can trust someone to make good decisions for an entire country, we must first be able to trust them to make good decisions for themselves.
If we trust young people enough from age 16 that we are happy to let them vote, we should surely trust them to make many other decisions that this country does not currently allow them.
This is why, should 16 and 17 year olds be given the vote in a UK General Election, I intend to stand* as an independent candidate with the following policies:
- Reduce the minimum age to buy alcohol to 16.
- Reduce the minimum age to buy cigarettes to 16.
- Reduce the minimum age to drive a car to 16.
- Reduce the minimum age to view pornography to 16.
- Reduce the minimum age to gamble to 16.
- Reduce the minimum school leaving age to 16.
- Legalise marijuana (just to lock in the rest of the under-18 vote).
As I said before, it seems hypocritical to me to say to a young person “we trust you to be responsible and well-informed enough to shape the future of your nation, but you’re too young and naïve to be able to drink responsibly”.
Now, let’s see if I can get to Westminster on a platform entirely based around trolling politicians on their inconsistencies.
* May be a lie
Bonus story round! I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone this, but since it’s about 10 years too late for my old school to give me a detention, here goes.
Back in 2001 my secondary school and sixth form held mock General Elections to coincide with the real ones being held in the UK. My friends and I printed off a bunch of posters and mounted a ‘guerilla advertising’ campaign of sorts on behalf of the ‘Voter Apathy Party’. Turnout in the election amounted to around 25% of the school, so the Voter Apathy Party celebrated our landslide 75% victory (and the fact that we were never caught pasting our posters over those of the other parties).
I was also in charge of one if the ‘polling stations’, at which some third-year oik gleefully showed me his ballot with a giant swastika drawn over it. I told him to fuck off. Conclusion: maybe 16-year-olds should vote, but dear gods, the day 14-year-olds get the vote, we’re screwed.
Caveat for the hard of thinking: I’m aware that restrictions on young people drinking and smoking are as much to do with health as with responsibility, and I don’t really believe that gambling at 16 is a good idea either. The others are fair game though.
This morning I half-heartedly posted on Facebook:
Today’s Game Theory problem: pick an ideal date for picking sloes, bearing in mind current warm/wet weather predictions for October and a population density of 10000/sq.mi. of other potential sloe pickers. (10 marks)
Well, I’m bored, so let’s get our geek on. Again.
I live in one of the warmest parts of Britain, on the south coast with temperatures continuously moderated by sea breezes from the south-west. Frosts here are rare outside of December and January, and although the long-range forecast suggests “some chilly nights (are) possible” for the end of October and beginning of November, that’s unlikely to bring actual frost to us.
(Case in point, 2010’s impressive snowfall. See that tiny bit of snow-less grey right on the south coast? That’s us.)
So, although traditionally sloes are supposed to be picked after the first frost of Autumn, we cannot expect that to happen for a couple of months yet. But will the sloes last that long?
The good news is, mild wet weather is good for letting the sloes ripen. The longer they are left on the plant, the juicier they are. We don’t want to pick them too early as they will be bitter, but leaving them as long as possible has its own risks. Namely:
The longer the sloes stay on the bush, the greater the change that nasty thieving hobbitses other people will make off with them. We can follow the example of the Drake Equation to estimate the likelihood of this.
“My” sloe bush is in a relatively busy part of town. Naturally, I shan’t say where! But I would estimate that something like a thousand people a day walk past this bush. Let’s call that the passer-by rate, R. Our other important factors are fn, the fraction of passers-by that will notice and identify the sloe bush, fh, the fraction of passers-by that will want to harvest sloes, fr, the fraction of passers-by who will identify sloes as ripe, and N, the number of helpings of sloes on the bush.
A reasonable set of estimates may be fn = 0.01 (the bush is quite well hidden), fh = 0.1 (a reasonable proportion of people will make sloe gin given the chance), and N = 1 (for there are only 200-300 accessible sloes). fr is trickier as it depends on the ripeness of the sloes themselves and thus will increase with time, but we can go for a reasonable guess that 50% of people think they’re ripe, so fr = 0.5.
This gives a total probability that the sloes will be harvested, per day, as:Ph = R × fn × fh × fr × N
= 1000 × 0.01 × 0.1 × 0.5 × 1
A worrying 50% probability that the sloes will be taken on any given day!
I think it’s pretty clear that I need to get out there and grab myself some sloes before anyone else does!
It’s nearly November again, and that means two things. Firstly, my glum acceptance for the tenth year in a row that I cannot write a novel given a whole lifetime to do it in, let alone a single month. It also means I have the wonderful opportunity to look silly for charity. (More silly than normal, anyway.) Yes indeed, I have been coerced into growing a ridiculous moustache for the duration of November, in order to raise money for the charities Prostate Cancer UK and the Institute of Cancer Research. Yep, it’s ‘Mo’vember.
I will be starting clean-shaven on November 1st, and keeping my moustache intact until the 30th, whereupon I will probably take a photo for posterity before shaving it off and feeling the most relieved I have ever felt. But until then? Let the horror commence.
You can donate to the cause of making me embarass myself in public here, and view my Movember profile here. Any tiny amount you can spare would be much appreciated, and if you’re a UK resident you can Gift Aid it too to donate tax free!
Today, I received a rather unusual e-mail. Or more precisely, nine rather unusual e-mails within about a second of each other. They were of the following form, altering only the
onlydreaming.netlink in the middle to use another WordPress tag (always ending with
I work for the digital marketing agency iProspect on behalf of British Gas. As part of our ongoing SEO campaign – we looking to edit or remove some of the backlinks pointing to the http://www.britishgas.co.uk domain name. : We have identified the following link to British Gas on your site (onlydreaming.net):
We would like to work with you and request that one of the below actions are taken regarding this link. This is to ensure that our client avoids violating the Google Webmaster Guidelines in any form due to a historic decision they or a previous agency has made.
- Please remove the link from your website
Please note that we are not trying to imply that your website is of fault for violating any guidelines, but that we have advised British Gas should remove any historic links that they acquired which could be interpreted as paid or intended to manipulate PageRank.
Please let me know if you are able to action this request or if you require any further information. Apologies if you have received multiple emails, this is due to their being multiple links on your website (please review each one).
Has anyone seen the like of this before? To me it just seems utterly bizarre that in order to help British Gas meet Google’s guidelines for search listing, a third party is asking bloggers to take down links to their site.
(For reference, the blog post that features in each of the feed URLs I received e-mails for is this one. It is not defamatory towards British Gas, does not deep-link into their site or do anything to influence British Gas’s search results – it is simply a link to
http://www.britishgas.co.uk, with the text “British Gas”.)
I’m considering the following as a response, and would be interested to know if you thought it was appropriate, if you would add/remove anything, or whether you think I should ignore these e-mails completely, etc.
I have read your many automated e-mails of August 7, 2012 and would like to let you know that I will not be removing a link to British Gas’ website from my blog. Although the link to British Gas adds little to the content of the blog post concerned, aside from as an aid to visitors not from the UK who may not be aware of the company, I would prefer not to bow to what seems like a very odd request. I perceive your request as odd for the following reasons:
- It is no business of mine whether or not British Gas’ website meets Google’s requirements. I have no particular animosity towards British Gas or iProspect, but simply feel that the contents of my blog are no concern of theirs, and neither will they be a concern for any staff at Google who review adherence to the Webmaster Guidelines.
- If your concern is “links that they acquired which could be interpreted as paid or intended to manipulate PageRank”, a few moments of investigation will assure you that neither is the case here. My web presence is fairly transparent and it should be plainly obvious that I am not in the pay of British Gas. Furthermore, the blog post of mine that your links point to (
http://blog.ianrenton.com/the-perils-of-gas-supply/) simply contains a link to
http://www.britishgas.co.uk, with the text “British Gas”, which is obviously not an attempt to affect British Gas’s PageRank or associate certain keywords with the site.
- The post you have picked on is over two years old and posted on a blog that averages only 150 visitors per day. Like everyone else, I have no access to the calculations that set my own blog’s PageRank – however, it is surely low enough as to have no impact whatsoever on that of the British Gas website.
- I feel some desire to refuse your request simply because your process is automated and clearly wide-ranging. For it to have picked up the problematic post nine times in quick succession – all nine being RSS feed URLs rather than the URL of the blog post itself – implies an automated crawler is at work. A vast number of people may have been hit with similar requests to this.
- The final proof, if any was required, that my blog post is not an attempt to affect your client’s PageRank is that all nine of the URLs your crawler has flagged are explicitly disallowed in the
onlydreaming.net. Although your crawler clearly disregards the requests made of it in this file, Google’s crawlers do not, and thus do not index any of the URLs you have identified.
I hope these reasons satisfy you as to why I do not wish to remove the link you have identified. If you and your client concerned with removing “astroturf” links and links intended to manipulate their PageRank, perhaps the pages containing these links should be identified first by investigating any “historic decision(s) they or a previous agency has made”, rather than deploying a web crawler to notify everyone on the internet who has ever linked to British Gas’ homepage.