science, Technology, Uncategorized

PPFF #167: Minoa


I was travelling last week. I was sitting outside this bar, having just eaten and had a couple of beers when this quite awkward looking middle-aged man approached my table sheepishly and asked if he could sit there. I looked up and as he looked harmless enough I consented with a nod. He sat down and I guessed he was travelling alone and probably looking for someone to talk to. So I struck up a conversation and went through the usual; ‘what brings you here’, ‘what do you do’ etc. He was a little reluctant to tell me at first what he was there for. Perhaps he assumed that I was being polite but would find it rather boring but I pressed on and this is what he actually told me:

The story begins in 1929 when Andrew Douglass pioneered a scientific method called dendrochronology or ‘tree ring dating’. He was the first scientist (in modern times; some say da Vinci discovered it) to discover that tree rings record time. Its concept is simple. You cut down a living tree then count the number of rings which would give you the number of years it has lived as well as from which to which years it lived. But it gets a little tricky if you don’t know when the tree was cut down. It would tell you how long it lived but not necessarily when it lived and died. But by comparing trees across the same region and climate, Douglass noticed that trees develop rings in the same patterns; hence by creating a database of trees with known living date(s), and comparing their rings to the pattern of unidentified tree samples, you could nail down the dates (in years) those trees lived in.

Now moving onto radiocarbon dating – when tree ring dating isn’t possible due to lack of comparable dated tree samples, carbon dating comes very handy. A radioactive isotope of carbon called Carbon-14 or C14 is in every living organism. And since some clever chaps discovered its half-life, it’s possible to date pretty much anything within the accuracy of 50 or 100 years.

Then there is this thing called solar storm. It’s a powerful explosion on the sun, whose energy can be likened to thousands of nuclear bombs exploding at the same time. In 1989 this actually happened when the magnetic forces and a cloud of gas rushed to the Earth at a million miles an hour, and the solar flare from this solar storm shut down the entire power grid in the province of Quebec.

Now researchers found that trees that live(d) through short term events, like solar flares or volcanic eruptions record unusually high levels of radiocarbon content up to 20 times the normal level. Long story short, through calibration by using carbon-dating in conjunction with tree-ring dating, solar flares or volcanic eruptions can act as chronological anchors to more accurately date things.

So why had this guy I randomly met told me all this?

Well, some of you might be familiar with the eruption of volcano in Thera (now called Santorini) in the Aegean Sea, which supposedly happened anytime between 1645 BC to 1500 BC, which historians suspect created large tsunamis that significantly damaged the nearby island of Crete, the then centre of the Minoan civilisation. This makes the date of this volcanic eruption a turning point in the history of Western civilisation. Depending on which year these researchers settle on, they might have to re-write a significant chunk of the history as we know it, rendering a lot of what we know rubbish.

So, this guy was an archaeologist on his way to collect a wood sample they think they found which could potentially determine this date once and for all.

Have a good Friday.

engineering, science, STEM, Technology


Good morning,
I had a somewhat less than pleasant encounter with a teacher who taught one of those STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects at a local school in London. Upon learning that I worked in engineering, perhaps to sound agreeable, she interjected with an air of pride, not dissimilar to the kind of pride displayed by those people who are (worryingly) proud of paying taxes or not littering, “I always encourage my students to go into STEM related professions. At this, I snapped if a little bit. My immediate reaction was “Um. Why would you do that? These kids can and deserve to have a bright future. Why would you actively subject young fledgling hopeful things to a life of dispiritingly, perpetually oversupplied, anxiety-infested market?” Startled and stunned like a deer caught in the headlights, and unable to formulate a quick enough response to these verbal convulsions of temporary insanity, she had no choice but to listen to my ensuing rant. Repeatedly.

In conjunction with a few other minor indiscretions, it turned out a few minutes later that she had had enough of this ‘nonsense’ (or overwhelming enlightenment, depending on point of view); she stood up and left the table.

We often hear about shortages in the science and engineering workforce both in the UK and the US (e.g. here, and here), but I  I wonder if this is generally true at all and maybe the initiative is more about wage suppression; certainly I’ve not personally seen any evidence of skills shortage or hiring difficulties in my line of work. I won’t go into the details as there are articles available online that express this concern in a far more articulate manner (this and this), but from what I’ve read so far, at least this much is true – engineering graduates are more likely to be unemployed after graduation than average. Let that one sink in and if you’re thinking about having kids – first, don’t. If it’s too late for you and you’re already having one or have had one, make sure you keep them out of harm’s way – the STEM way.

Have a good Friday.


PPFF #139: Batteries

Good morning,

The future (read: iPhone 7) was announced last week; Wednesday 6pm (BST) to be more precise. I remember the world being one way on Tuesday but Wednesday evening, everything changed. Again. To the extent that we would no longer recognise either the piece of junk we used to call iPhone 6s or clammy hands that used to hold such an abominable bundle of outdated technology (headphone jack socket and what have you). With its impact on par with Brexit.

You might be wondering ‘where is this going?’ or thinking ‘what a weird introduction’. Indeed, this is no way to start a fact. But there is a fact at the end. It’s almost boring; the reason for much ado, to embellish the boring fact.

Some weeks ago, I noticed a tiny little crack in my mobile phone (an iPhone in fact), on the edge where the screen meets the metal enclosure, maybe half a millimetre wide (barely noticeable but, needless to say, noticeable, which is how I noticed it). I could see the screen backlight shining through it. At first, I didn’t think much of it; I’ve had the phone for a while and maybe it happened when I dropped it somewhere. A few days later, however, the crack seemed to have grown in size. A little alarmed but I thought I’d accidentally pried it while handling it in and out of my pocket. Then one night while I was using it, the bottom corners of the phone screen popped open. It was only then it dawned on me (yes I could be slow) – the fabled swollen battery problem.

So I called Apple Customer Services, as one would in such a circumstance. The customer services rep who answered my call, though polite, went through the usual customer services nonsense and said, ‘ok, I have good news and bad news’. She told me what the bad news was but I couldn’t hear her very well. She continued, essentially saying ‘…the good news is, you can buy the same phone (iPhone 5) for only £199’. At this point I was really curious about the bad news that I had failed to register just moments ago, and started questioning in my mind her understanding of the rather basic words ‘good’ and ‘bad’; was she an existentialist who had simply transcended the arbitrary nature of common distinction between good and bad? Is she practising the concepts she adopted from Nietzsche’s ‘Beyond Good and Evil’? This and many other questions went unanswered.

Not that it was her fault (probably just following their procedure), I raised hell, as a disappointed loyal customer would, claiming it was no longer a consumer query but a public health and safety concern. After a few minutes of exchange of our clashing views, I was passed on to the supervisor who told me that battery is ultimately a consumable item and it is how batteries work. So I wondered, ‘how DO batteries work?

First conceived by Gilbert Lewis in 1912, batteries are basically chemical reactions waiting to happen in tiny containers. Once the positive and negative ends are connected through a circuit (e.g. a phone), the reactions start; positively charged ions and negatively charged electrons; the ions move through the battery while the electrons go through the circuit to which the battery’s connected, providing electrical energy.

The batteries have come a long way since then. The type of battery currently most widely used in consumer products was invented at the University of Oxford in the 1970s, the research of which was published in 1980. Soon after, Sony (you know the company that revolutionised the world with Walkman for those of you old enough to know what that is. Not unlike Apple), developed it into a commercial technology and manufactured the first lithium ion batteries in the early 1990s

Back to iPhone 7. Why did I even mention it? I guess, before you rush to get your hands on ‘the future’ that would cost £599-£999, I just wanted to highlight that electronic goods especially the ones with non-removable batteries are consumables designed to last only a few years.

Have a sensible Friday


Mobile apps, Technology

PPFF #136: FindFace

Good morning,

Remember this scene?


That’s from Terminator 2. I remember watching it many years ago, which just blew my mind at the time. As random as this might seem, I have a good reason for recalling it this morning, and the reason is FindFace, a mobile app that allows users to take pictures of anyone with a profile (and pictures) and figure out their identities, with 70% accuracy. For now, it only applies to 200 million people in Russia but the current face recognition technology has come a long way since Terminator 2 was released, to almost rival the Series 800 Model 101’s ability to identify individuals/threats.

Honestly, combine FindFace with the now defunct Google Glass, then privacy/anonymity in public as we know it, is well and truly over, unless you wear a mask that is. Like this lot.


And we thought they looked stupid! Try FindFacing any one of them, I dare you. 

Read more here have a good Friday.













PPFF #130: null island

Good morning,
I’m vacationing somewhere hot and sunny – clear blue sea, sandy beaches, palm trees, cocktails and all that blissfully boring stuff.

Blissful or not, boredom did actually get to me. So I started browsing a little on my phone and came across a place called ‘Null Island’, situated where the Prime Meridian crosses the Equator, 1600 kilometres off the western coast of Africa, according to this website,  somewhat like the place where I’m chilling right now.

Those of you who really paid attention at school in your geography classes might have noticed that the location ‘where the Prime Meridian crosses the Equator’ has the longitude of zero and the latitude of zero in geographic coordinate system, i.e. the origin (and those of you who didn’t pay attention, shame on you!).

No, despite the national flag and the Nullish language they claim to speak, Null Island is not quite real but an imaginary place located at 0°N 0°E in the South Atlantic Ocean. First introduced by digital cartographers and programmed as a 1 square metre patch by Nathaniel Vaughn Kelso, Null Island or °N 0°E is the default location to which Google maps and other digital Global Positioning System applications supposedly send the millions of users who make erroneous searches.

What was intended to help highlight errors in geocoding, then took a life of its own as other cartographers created its natural geography (which they actually ripped off from the island in an esoteric video game called ‘Myst’) along with its national flag as you can see here.

This is what the map-geek squad drew up – a tad grandiose for what’s actually there. 
Below is what’s actually there; a weather observation buoy moored at the supposed location of the island.
p.s. in case you’re wondering ‘what happens when you search “Null Island” in Google maps’, I’ve done that for you. For some bizarre reason, it takes you to the US Library of Congress at 101 Independence Ave SE, Washington, DC 20540.

Have a good Friday.