Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Quote of the Day

Stability is merely an excuse to be content with the status quo.  This is why I love change!


Sunday, November 6, 2011

9 Equations a True Geek Should Know

Came across this article which is entertaining to read while keeping score!  I scored 2 of 9 - Uncertainty Principle and Maxwell's Equations. The good news is I do not qualify as a geek, but that also means there is so much more to learn when I retire.


Monday, September 26, 2011

Book Review: Outliers: The Story of Success

A recent good read, which changed my perspective on what it takes to become a wild success in life. The Outliers is about how success is affected by external factors beyond individual characteristics. These factors include culture, social systems, even friends and families. Here are some highlights:
  • The Matthew Effect – Canadian professional hockey players are mostly born in the early months of a year because the age cutoff for tryouts is January 1st. These players when trying out during childhood, have months of physical development over their later-born counterparts. This is a huge advantage which gives successful candidates access to premium coaches and programmes for years, hence an ever increasing head-start eventually leading to professional careers. Similar patterns are found in Major League Baseball, English Premier League, among other sports leagues.  Even when it comes to school, kids born later in the year are at a slight disadvantage.  Hard to believe, but this arbitrary external factor (cutoff dates) affects people in a very deep way.
  • 10 000-Hour Rule – it generally takes someone at least 10 000 hours of practice to be an expert at something. Mozart did not produce his first masterpiece until 10 years into his career. The Beatles enjoyed years of practice doing small performances in Germany before reaching super stardom. Bill Joy, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs all had early-year access to computers before they became visionaries in the technology realm.
  • Being Sufficiently Smart – you do not need to be a genius to be successful. In fact, many geniuses have failed to succeed as they did not receive the necessary "cultivation" during their minor years. As long as you are smart enough (IQ of around 120), you can be successful if your are raised properly. Good to know that an IQ higher than 120 does not buy you any more success. 
  • Cultural Influence – your roots have much more to do with certain kinds of success or failure. Korean Air had a bad rap on high accident rates years ago. It turned out Koreans' indirect way of interacting with figures of authority, i.e., pilots, operators at control towers, have everything to do with this. Asians tend to excel at math because our language system makes it easier to cognitively manipulate numbers. Asian cultures usually treasure the value of working hard in life, which knowingly or not, helps them succeed in a subject that requires ample practice!
This book provides some encouraging takeaways for the not-so-genius people like me.  For one, given the right cultivation, we have an equally good chance to succeed as the Einsteins of the world. Take a relatively intelligent person, give him the right exposure and fostering during youth and adolescence, coupled with hard work and persistence, remove the negative external factors that are rooted in your culture or circumstances, and voila, you have a formula to manufacture success!


Sunday, August 21, 2011

eBay for Science?

Almost a month into baby raising and I have caught my wind to blog again. Just the other day, I stumbled upon (no pun intended) this website called Science Exchange. The concept is quite simple as it is a platform for outsourcing scientific experimental projects to the lowest bidder. Think of it as eBay for services, the twist being the lowest bid wins. I believe this is a great idea for academic institutions to better collaborate and take advantage of each others' resources in economic ways. I do not have any pending experiments but set up an account anyway for exploration.

Hope this concept catches on!


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Welcome to the World, My Precious!

For many years, I have heard that babies are a handful! Well, I will get to find out very soon as my newborn was born today. Looking forward to more an even busier, but rewarding life with the new addition to my family.


Monday, June 20, 2011

Top 50+ American Cities in 2010

Thinking of raising a family in the US?  Check out this survey. A wide range of criteria was considered to reach these conclusions. They include in order of priority:  
  • quality of schools; 
  • affordability and availability of quality housing; 
  • low crime rates; 
  • job availability and growth; 
  • number of registered sex offenders; 
  • recreational opportunities; 
  • quality/quantity of pediatricians/family physicians; 
  • commute time and distance; 
  • proximity to a good children's hospital; 
  • quality/quantity of childcare facilities and preschools; 
  • and air quality.

This list looks very comprehensive to me, giving the survey quite a bit of credibility.


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Thor and the Einstein-Rosen Bridge

Relocation always takes a toll on one's life.  I am speaking from experience as this is my second move in 2 years.   Worst of all, the 9 to 5 in Hong Kong is sometimes like the 9 to 10, especially when you work in a foreign company and expected to do early morning or evening meetings with North America. As a result, I have lost a lot of blogging time. Luckily, I recently managed to squeeze in time to watch the movie Thor, in 3D!

I went to the movies not expecting any physics lessons, but Natalie Portman mentioned a number of astrophysics concepts, including the Einstein-Rosen Bridge that connected Asgard to Earth. In a layman's world, this bridge is more commonly known as a wormhole. A wormhole is essentially a warp in space-time, thus creating a shortcut for traversing between two physical points in space and time. Think of the analogy of drawing two points on a piece of paper placed on a table. When the paper is lying flat, the distance between the two points is X cm. If you start pushing the piece of paper and hence the points towards each other, you are essentially warping the piece of paper, and hence bringing the two points physically closer to each other (less than X cm). The newly created direct path between the two points is the bridge (or tunnel)

The applications of a wormhole will feast anyone's imagination. After all, who would not like travelling to the other end of the galaxy, see what is there, and be able to come back to Earth in a matter of days? While the theory is sound however, the power required to generate a wormhole presents a daunting road block. To create one of these astronomical marvels, one will need the energy of star, which is much more than anything humans have ever been able to harness in our entire history. Never say never however, because where there is a will, there is a way!


Monday, March 21, 2011

Supporting a Kickstarter Project

In the midst of packing and cancelling bills, I finally managed to squeeze in time to blog.  A project at Kickstarter that I have been supporting has kicked off at last. The project is called "A History of the Future in 100 Objects." The author will try to create podcasts and author a book on 100 objects representative of the 21st century. As we have only lived 10% of the century, most of these objects will only be predictions.  In fact, people who contribute enough can put their own predictions to work with the author.  I love this collaborative approach and look forward to seeing the end product!


Sunday, March 6, 2011

Relocating to Hong Kong

Just over two years ago, I wrote a post about relocating to Sydney.  Little did I know then that I will be writing a similar post today with Hong Kong as my next destination.  Life is certainly an adventure and I really enjoy not knowing the surprises that are in store! Anyway, I will spend my last three weeks here wrapping up the 9-5 and enjoying the little things Sydney has to offer. 

Hope this will not affect my blogging too much.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Another Earthquake in New Zealand

A magnitude-6.3 earthquake today hit Christchurch, New Zealand. Although less powerful than the one that struck in September last year, it is much more devastating. Many buildings in the city were demolished, including its iconic cathedral. The casualty toll currently stands at 63, but is expected to climb above 100 in the next few days. Today's earthquake struck 45km west of the city and is only 5km below the surface. This aftershock is much closer than the quake that registered five months earlier. My condolences to those affected and I hope the city can rebuild from this unfortunate episode!


Friday, February 18, 2011

Watson Beats Human Champs on Jeopardy!

It is official: IBM's Watson, a supercomputer equipped with terabytes of RAM, was crowned champion of champions on Jeopardy this week. It smashed the show's two most accomplished human Jeopardy contestants ever by a mile. Prior to this challenge, Ken Jen and Brad Rutter both won over $3M USD on Jeopardy!

It is amazing how far artificial intelligence has come over the years.  I was especially impressed with Watson's ability to interpret the play of words often found in Jeopardy-styled clues (or answers). Apart from the occasional mishaps when it completely missed the mark, Watson did extremely well even in categories like "Familiar Sayings" that require a certain level of intuition.  Enjoy this clip on the final 10 minutes of the competition:

In 1997, IBM's Deep Blue defeated fellow human grand masters like Garry Kasporav. Fourteen years later, we have a Jeopardy champ that does not require food or sleep.  One cannot help but wonder what next to expect in the world of A.I.  Whatever it is, let it not be the terminators from SkyNET who will turn on us and cause a nuclear holocaust!


Sunday, February 6, 2011

Tropical Cyclones

Tropical Cyclone Yasi hit Queensland, Australia a few days ago, causing millions of dollars in damages.  The silver lining in this unfortunate episode, is that it missed areas of concentrated populations. It is worth noting that the sheer size of the weather system would have wreaked much more havoc had it hit elsewhere.  

What is a Tropical Cyclone
A tropical cyclone is essentially a spiraling mass of wet air centred around an area of low atmospheric pressure most commonly known as the "eye". On the ocean, a cyclone is continually fed as evaporated water from the ocean surface condenses, releasing more heat as the air current rises. Owing to the Coriolis effect, a cyclone spins counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and clockwise in the Souther Hemisphere.

Strength Categories
According to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, Yasi was a category 5 cyclone, the strongest of its kind. It reached wind speeds of 250km/h, and storm surges of greater than 18ft.

Wind Speed mph
Storm Surge ft
≥ 156
(≥ 250)
> 18
(> 5.5)

Hurricanes and Typhoons
Cyclones are more commonly known as hurricanes in the North Atlantic and the Northeast Pacific. The word hurricane maybe derived from the Mayan storm god, Huracan. In the Northwest Pacific and east Asia, cyclones are called typhoons. This word may have originated from the Greek mythological monster, Typhon, often associated with storms. The phonetics behind the word typhoon translates well into "strong winds" in Chinese and Japanese. Hence, it is also used in these regions.

Naming Conventions
Meteorology centres throughout the world have their own naming conventions for cyclones, hurricanes and typhoons.  In most areas, a set of female names in alphabetical order is often pre-assigned before the season to name these natural phenomena. In Australia, cyclone names have alternated between male and female names since 1976. Cyclones are sometimes renamed when it moves from one region to another. Names are also recycled every few years, but devastating storm names like Hurricane Katrina of 2005 are usually retired to note historic significance.


Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Physics of Whip Cracking

I tried my hands on whip cracking in an Aussie sheep farm tour late last year.  Interestingly, whip cracking in Australia has gained enough prominence to be a competitive sport! I must admit that the whip is not my forte, as I could only get it cracking 10% of the time (when I am not hitting myself with it).  Staring at defeat, I decided to learn the science behind this in hope of conquering it some day.

It turns out a whip cracks because a sonic boom is created at its tip or topper. A sonic boom is created when an object travels at supersonic speeds such that its surrounding waves of air pressure are compressed into a single shock wave at the speed of sound. The logical question then: what is travelling so fast in the whip? Well, it's the tip.

Why? Conservation of momentum! Let's picture this: when you apply a force to a whip, the initial loop motion and wave are applied to the thong, which has a much larger mass than the whip's tip. It is worth noting that momentum is the product of the mass and speed of the moving object. The smaller the mass, the higher the speed, thus the lighter tip ends up moving extremely fast. In fact, a tip can reach Mach 2 and 30 times its initial speed when whipped properly. 

Now that I know the science behind whips, hopefully I will see improvement next time I get my hands on one.


Sunday, January 16, 2011

Prime Numbers and Encryption

Want to make $250 000?  Find a big prime number, a really big one. It turns out there are organizations  ready to dough out good cash for a really large prime number.  This is because primes are used in  RSA cryptography.

RSA Algorithm
Let's look at the algorithm:

1.      Multiply two large prime numbers p and q to get the product N

2.      Find two numbers e and d, such that ed = 1mod((p-1)(q-1)), where e and N are relatively prime meaning they do not share any prime factors.
3.      Let's call M the original message and C the ciphered message: 

a.      To encrypt: C = Memod(N)

b.      To decipher: M = Cdmod(N) 

In essence, using the public key (N,e) will transform the original message M to the ciphered message C. On the contrary, applying the private key d on the ciphered message will result in the original message M

Security of Encryption
The beauty of RSA is your public key can be published for anyone to encrypt a message that only you can decipher. This is because only you possess the private key, and it is extremely difficult for others to deduce this from the public key unless they can easily factor into and q. Prime factorization of a large number is a tedious process which cannot be automated. One must therefore resort to brute force when attempting to crack the code.

You may have guessed that the size of prime numbers used dictate the strength of the encryption. A message encrypted with 5-digit prime numbers (40-bit encryption) yields about 1.1 trillion possible results.  However using 16-digit numbers (128-bit encryption) generates 340,282,366,920,938,463,463,374,607,431,768,211,456 possible combinations.  Based on today’s computing power, a 40-bit, 56-bit, 64-bit, and 128-bit encryption can be respectively broken in 1 second, 19 hours, 7 months and 11,000 quadrillion years. This is why 128-bit encryption is the standard used world wide to protect financial transactions and sensitive data. Don't get too complacent however, as it has been predicted that 128-bit encryption will be breakable in about 100 years.

How Many Prime Numbers Are Out There?
It is no secret that there are an infinite number of primes. Here is a proof from the famous Euclid:

1.      Assume there is a largest prime number, p

2.      Create a new number q, equal to the product of all primes between 2 and p, plus 1.

3.      Our new number q has no factors in the original set of primes (between 2 and p), because dividing by any of them would produce a remainder of 1.

4.      From point (3) we conclude that q is either itself prime, or is composed of prime factors, all of which are larger than p

5.      Point (4) falsifies point (1).

We can take comfort that the next prime number is out there. Unfortunately, it will probably take you a long time to find it.  The current largest prime243112609-1, was discovered in 2008. So just how big is this Mersenne Prime? It has 13 million digits, and will take me 8 weeks to write out the number.


Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Colours of Water - From The Caribbean to the South Pacific

Last year, I took a number of vacations which involved cruising, diving, snorkelling and walking on glaciers. Thinking back on those trips, I could not help but notice that water and ice exhibited different colours in different settings.  I decided to dive deeper into the colours of water. Finally, here are my findings.

Water’s True Colour
The colour of an object mainly depends on the colour of light emitted from it. In the case of water its colour is also affected by factors like light source, absorption, scattering, and suspended materials. Absorption by water is stronger for red light, but weaker for blue light. Water is therefore, intrinsically blue. However, this effect is only apparent when the water is reasonably deep. This is why a glass of water appears colourless whereas a big aquarium looks bluish through the thickness of water.

Why is the Sea Blue?
I did two cruises last year, one in the Caribbean and the other in the South Pacific. Owing to the depth of the water, these seas and oceans looked navy blue from the cruise ships! Some would also argue that the sea appears blue under a clear sky because the blue light from the sky is reflected by the water surface.

Underwater Colour
In my diving and snorkeling excursions off the cruise ships, the underwater world was often revealed behind a tint of blue. As it turns out, absorption is the most important factor affecting the colour seen under the water. Red light becomes weaker with depth because it is most easily absorbed. Beneath the surface, water also scatters blue light. Thus we see the greenish-blue effect depending on the depth. As we go deeper, we will see more blue as the greenish colours from the penetrating light rays are absorbed. The overall light intensity also decreases and there comes a depth when it is pitch black. When taking pictures under water, be sure to use a flash so that the subject’s true colours can be captured.

Waters with Special Colours
The colour of water is also affected by what it contains. Suspended materials affect the colour of water. Sea water will appear green when it contains large amounts of green algae. Muddy water has a brownish yellow tinge.

When I was in New Zealand’s South Island, I found that most of the lakes are aquamarine rather than blue. These lakes were largely formed due to glacial actions millions of years ago. The fine powders produced when glaciers grind over rocks during descent were so fine that they were suspended in these waters. These powders are great at scattering light and sending it back to the surface, making the water as a whole brighter. Furthermore, as these particles are everywhere in the water, it takes a shorter distance for the light to be scattered and leave the water. Absorption of red light is thus less, shifting the original blue colour towards green.

Glacial Colours
Thin layers of ice and snow reflect light quite thoroughly, hence often appearing white. When walking on Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand, I noticed that the ice was blue. Like water, light is scattered and absorbed in thick ice. The longer the path light follows to reach the surface, the bluer the tint.

The purity and age of the ice also play an important factor in the colour of glacial ice. As the ice ages it is compressed, melted and frozen again eliminating air bubbles that scatter the light rays and bounce them back out in the same white colour they entered. Once the ice becomes pure the light waves are much more likely to be absorbed, hence, promoting the deep blue shade.


Sunday, January 2, 2011

2011 New Year Resolutions

Happy New Year!  I fell prey once again to the 9 - 5 in December. Combined with the year end holiday season,  this blog saw very little action last month. However, my resolution this year is to post one article each week to make this blog an interesting read for all of you out there! I know they say that resolutions are made to be broken, but I have a great feeling about this one. See you all next week!