September 28 2011

Interesting Neutrinos from CERN

The recent CERN paper on neutrinos traveling (60.7 ± 6.9 (stat.) ± 7.4 (sys.)) ns faster than the speed of light in a vacuum is interesting from a number of perspectives. First, the original purpose and layout of the experiment is pretty interesting all by itself. The idea is basically to create muon neutrinos (νμ) using a proton beam fired at a graphite target. This produces a number of particles that are focused via magnetic lenses towards a detector at the Gran Sasso laboratory OPERA detector, 730 km away. Various shields and 730 km of rock prevent any particle other than the neutrinos from reaching the detector. Here’s a nice picture of this:

As the νμ are merrily ghosting through the rock, some of them oscillate to become tau neutrinos (ντ). The first point of the experiment is to detect the oscillation: νμ→ντ. While they were doing this, they also realized they could try to measure the neutrino velocity from CERN to OPERA. The paper is largely concerned with the velocity measurement.
In order to measure the speed of the neutrinos they need a couple of pieces of information. They need the time of flight (TOF) of the neutrinos between emission and the detection and the distance traveled. They measured the TOF in a fairly clever fashion. Here is a picture from the paper of the TOF measurement:

There are a couple of clever things here. They are using a common GPS as the clock for the experiment rather than trying to messily synchronize diverse clocks on the ground (this would lead to all sorts of problems). Then, rather than using the GPS clock as a stopwatch, they are using it to timestamp the profile of the time of neutrino emission and the time of neutrino detection. These profiles then can be compared and the difference compared to the travel time of light. Chad Orzel has a nice post here on how this is done.
So, they do an experiment, try to nail down all the uncertainty and find out that the neutrinos are getting there before a photon would travel that distance. This is where a couple of more interesting things happen. Being scientists, they write a paper but then, rather than sending it off for peer review (although there are a bunch of them listed as authors) they send it off to the internet for comment. This is actually kind of cool if we now think of the whole internet as the peer review process. This is actually kind of similar to the process that got followed for Deolalikar’s P vs NP paper. As a review process it actually works quite well and gets a lot of eyes looking at interesting results.
If it turns out that there is a mistake somewhere in the set-up or calculations, this will be interesting and help future experimental set-ups. If there isn’t a mistake and the neutrino’s are really arriving faster than a photon then all sorts of interesting possibilities arise (and no, it doesn’t necessarily mean that relativity is wrong). We’ll have to stay tuned to see just what all is learned from this. Science at work–cool stuff.

September 22 2011

Department 19

Department 19 by Will Hill is my second YA book of the month and is Hill’s debut novel. This one has the interesting premise of what if Dracula and Frankenstein (the books) were basically factual accounts. Through a nice inter-cutting of past scenes (with Van Helsing and others), near present background scenes and the present Hill presents a fast paced thriller with a goodly amount of blood–no sparkly vampires here.
The main protagonist is Jamie Carpenter. We first meet Jamie is a near present scene as his dad is killed by what appears to be a SWAT team of some sort. Jamie and his mother are forced to move around as neighbors react to what they perceive as Jamie’s fathers possible treasonous death.
This ends when Jamie’s mother is kidnapped and Jamie is saved from a menacing personage (a vampire) by a very large man in SWAT gear. The large man turns out to be Frankenstein’s monster (going by the name of Victor Frankenstein now) and Victor takes Jamie to a Department 19 base.
Department 19 was set up by Van Helsing and the British government after the events in Dracula when it became clear that the vampire effect was not contained to Transylvania. Department 19 has been battling the vampires ever since. It turns out that Jamie’s great-grandfather was the valet of Van Helsing and that his family has a special connection with Department 19. Unfortunately, this connection has gotten his mother kidnapped by the vampires and it seems that his father betrayed the department to these same vampires. The only course is for Jamie to save his mother.
Jamie seemed a bit headstrong and immature at times, but he is only 16 in the book and he is encountering a whole new world that he had thought was fantasy until a few days ago. In general the book was quite well written and was fun to read. It does have a YA voice to it and this probably stood out a bit more to me since I’ve been reading through Chandler recently, so the style is quite different (this isn’t a drawback of this book–just something I noticed more than I might have otherwise.)
So, if YA horror/thriller is of interest to you, then this book should please. I plan on getting the sequel when it comes out.

September 19 2011

Farewell My Lovely

Farewell My Lovely by Raymond Chandler is the second Philip Marlowe novel. Chandler continues to amaze with beautiful writing. Marlowe opens the story on a missing persons case, but is rapidly sidetracked as he spots a large man entering a “colored” bar. Here is the description:

He was worth looking at. He wore a shaggy borsalino hat, a rough gray sports coat with white golf balls on it for buttons, a brown shirt, a yellow tie, pleated gray flannel slacks and alligator shoes with white explosions on the toes. From his outer breast pocket cascaded a show handkerchief of the same brilliant yellow as his tie. There were a couple of colored feathers tucked into the band of his hat, but he didn’t really need them. Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.

The described person is one Moose Malloy and this chance encounter leads to the first plot of the story as Moose kills the owner of the bar while looking for his old girlfriend Velma. The police aren’t too keen on investigating this murder as the murdered man is black and investigating such crimes is not high on their priority list (recall this is in the 30’s). To his credit, Marlowe is not quite willing to be so casual and continues looking into Moose and Velma. He contacts the widow of the bars prior owner (the one before the murderee.) and finds a photo of Velma.
By the way, a borsalino hat is a particular type of fedora. I had to look that one up.
The second plot line appears when Marlowe gets a phone call from Lindsay Marriott. Marriott asks Marlowe to come by his house and help him out on a matter.
From here, the two plot lines twine and dance in a spiral tango. Chandler paints the story and we learn a bit more about Marlowe in the process. He meets a woman–Anne Riordan who at first seems like maybe an appropriate match for Marlowe, but as Marlowe says:

…She likes you.” [Randall]
“She’s a nice girl. Not my type.” [Marlowe]
“You don’t like them nice?” He had another cigarette going. The smoke was being fanned away from his face by his hand.
“I like smooth shiny girls, hardboiled and loaded with sin.”
“They take you to the cleaners,” Randall said indifferently.
“Sure. Where else have I ever been?”

And we learn that Marlowe is fairly well read. He quotes Shakespeare several times in the course of the investigations. We also get to see the LA and small town southern California of the 30’s in all its blowsy detail. When someone tries to tell you that morals have fallen on hard times in these modern days, just smile and tell them that morals didn’t have a dime to rub together in the good old days either.
But, with Marlowe we get a knight in much tarnished armor helping us through weather that is cold as the ashes of love. Another great read.

September 15 2011

Glowing Kittens

Here in Rochester, researchers used a lentivirus to carry genes into the eggs of a cat. In particular, one of the genes encodes for a fluorescent protein. This isn’t just for fun, the ‘fluorescent gene’ provides for an easy way to tell if the gene implantation was successful.
In any case, the next time I’m at the clinic and the doctor asks if I have any questions, I now have–“Yes, do you happen to have any extra glowing cats around?”

September 15 2011

‘Dinosaur’ Feathers

On the Science Now website of the journal Science is a neat little article about what appear to be feathers found in Canadian amber. Some seem similar to modern feathers while others appear to be more of a proto-feather like structure. Since there are no bones or other artifacts associated with the feather structures, the researchers point out that that cannot associate the feathers with a particular creature. Very neat.

September 14 2011

Ready Player One

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is a wonderful, explosion of fun. I loved it.
The year is 2044 and the world is quickly becoming a very unpleasant place. Resource depletion has caused the contraction of suburbia. Many people now live in stacks–essentially stacked up trailer courts. As the real world becomes more unpleasant, many people have retreated to the virtual world of OASIS–a vast multi-world simulation environment. This is an interesting concept by itself–the voluntary retreat of humanity into the virtual to escape the real, but Cline adds a really cool idea on top of that and then runs with it. In Cline’s words from his Big Idea piece:

What if an eccentric video game designer, sort of a cross between Howard Hughes and Richard Garriott, created that ubiquitous virtual reality platform? And what if he decided to find a worthy successor for his company by turning his last will and testament into the greatest video game Easter Egg hunt of all time? It would be an epic treasure hunt, in a simulated universe that contained thousands of virtual planets. And those planets could be modeled after fictional worlds from other novels, films, comic books, and TV shows. It would be the ultimate storyteller’s sandbox.

So, in addition to an interesting virtual world, we have a cool treasure hunt. And, if you have a cool treasure hunt you need cool treasure hunters. Enter, one Wade Watts–a seventeen year old treasure hunter (Gunter in their terms). Wade spends his days going to a virtual school in Oasis and most of the rest of his time pursuing clues to the hunt for the three keys that will lead to fulfilling James Halliday’s puzzle will (James is the above mentioned eccentric) and the two hundred and forty billion dollars and control of OASIS that will represents.
Making this whole thing even cooler is that the clues and knowledge needed for solving the will-puzzle are contained in ’80’s nerd culture. The games, movies and music of the 80’s were Halliday’s obsession and so become the necessary background for his quest. This was pretty cool for me in that I pretty much lived a lot of what the book has as background info. I graduated high school in 1982 and went to college for 82 – 88. During that time I saw all of the movies the book mentions, played a lot of AD&D and variants of the video games (more time on Wizardry and Rogue than the Atari games that got mentioned).
So, massive virtual world, quest, fun treasure hunters, let’s see what else? Oh yes, some evil enemies. Evil, in this case, takes the form of the Sixers. The Sixers are essentially the army of IOI (a massive conglomerate) that is trying to solve the will first and gain control of OASIS–not in a good way. IOI will stop at nothing to get the prize. Nothing in this case includes murder and enslavement in the “real” world.
I recommend that you also stop at nothing and go read the book. Great fun.

September 9 2011


Countdown by Mira Grant is a novella covering the events that combine together to bring on the zombie apocalypse int Grant’s Newsflesh universe. The story is told in a fast paced third person style covering the stories of the originator of the Kellis virus (meant to cure the common cold), the Marburg Amberlee virus (meant to cure cancer), the group (radical stoners) who release the Kellis virus into the wild and George and Shaun’s parents the Masons before when they were fairly ordinary.
We get to see how a number of mistakes and stupid actions add up to the events that end up killing around a third of the human race. It all feels quite (and unfortunately) believable. I liked the detail of the governments initial (misguided) attempt at suppressing the news of the new virus and its implications. The misguided belief in “mass” panic is something I’ve mentioned before. It is a “zombie” meme in and of itself. This story provides either a nice entry into the Newsflesh world if you haven’t been there or a good bit of background info if you have. In either case it is a good read.
As a side note, this story comes to us from Orbit’s Short Fiction wing. They are making various shorter pieces available as eBooks. I’m seeing more of this and I really like this trend. This is a really nice effect of eBooks that I hadn’t seen coming. Coolness.

September 9 2011

Anna Dressed in Blood

Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake is a fun fast paced read from Tor Teen that I enjoyed quite a lot. It is the story of Cassius Theseus Lowood. Cas is seventeen and kills ghosts. He’s been killing them since he was fourteen. He uses his father’s athame to perform the ghost destruction. His father was also a ghost slayer and was killed by a ghost when Cas was seven.
Cas’ mother is a white witch and sells candles and herbs on the internet. She and Cas tend to move around a lot–wherever the next dangerous ghost may be. That’s an important point–Cas doesn’t slay any old ghosts, the ones he picks are murderous.
A contact sends Cas the name of a ghost in Thunder Bay, Ontario–Anna Dressed in Blood.
Anna is the ghost of a sixteen year old girl. She was found murdered in 1958 in a white dance dress covered in her blood. She now kills anyone foolish enough to venture into her house.
Cas, his mother and their cat move to Thunder Bay. Cas enrolls in a high school there and begins the task of finding out where Anna is.
From this point, the story unfolds nicely as Cas and some friends he finds unravel the mystery of Anna and find out a few of the secrets of Cas’ past.
It appears that this is the first of a series. That’s good as there are definitely questions remaining at the end–questions that I am interested in seeing answered. A good romp in a bloody twisted direction.

September 8 2011

Labor Day Trip

Over Labor Day weekend we went on a train ride to Chicago. Actually, the first half (MN to Chicago) was on a bus as Amtrak called us the night before and told us the train was about 4 hours late due to the flooding in North Dakota. They said we could either wait for the train the next day or they would be providing a bus that left on time. We picked the bus. That was actually pretty nice of them as opposed to the airlines that usually don’t give any warnings of delays and then tell you to sit and like it.
We stayed at the Palmer House. We’ve stayed there a number of times and like the hotel and its location. The lobby:
is really quite awesome. The entrance with the Peacock doors:
We went to a game at Wrigley (the Cubs won 6-3):

So that made for a nice weekend getaway. On the way back we got to ride the train. It takes about the same amount of time to take the train as it does to drive to Chicago from where we are. I find it a much more relaxing trip than being cooped up in a car.

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