Archive January 2011

A day of maps and visualisations aimee whitcroft Jan 28


I’m a pretty visual being, and today has been a feast for my soul.

Whilst writing our weekly newsletter, I came across a bunch of awesome stuff around mapping and visualisations.  Which I’m going to share (warning: short blog post due to encroachment of Friday arvo beer o’clock).

In order of discovery, then:


Did you know that Barack Obama’s SOTU 2011 address was released in an enhanced (i.e. containing infographics) version?  I certainly didn’t, but it’s a fascinating way to watch the talk, and gives some great context

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There’s also some quite interesting conversation around the infographics used.  Those who care about such things might, for example, be a little unimpressed about the bubble chart… Still, well worth a squizz*!

And, still looking at SOTU addresses over the years, but somewhat differently: a parsing tool!  Basically, you can look at how often certain words (picked by yourself or the programme) crop up in said addresses over the years. Good fun, this.  And yes, it focuses on George W Bush’s years in office: interesting to note, for example, how often ‘terror’ comes up, and how little ‘hope’.


SEED has published a rather enthralling article on mapmaking.  Much as I love maps, I’d hardly say I know much about the subject (now doubt there’s a pun in there somewhere), so I found it both educational and thoughtprovoking.

For example, I’d never seen the map below: made in 1869 by Charles Joseph Minard, it maps both in time and space the advance and subsequent retreat of Napoleon’s disastrous 1812 march through Russia.

A flowmap of Napoleon’s 1812 March to Russia by Charles Joseph Minard (1869

A flowmap of Napoleon’s 1812 March to Russia by Charles Joseph Minard (1869

It’s a pretty clever map, making use of at least six, distinct types of information.

Of course, it’s not just about mapping events and phenomena.  There’s increasing interest, and work being done in, mapping interactions and even knowledge itself.  Which is where the article starts to talk about a new book, Atlas of Science: Visualizing What We Know**, by Katy Borner.

atlas of scienceIn essence, it talks about how science itself is beginning to be mapped by people in a beautiful example of real interdisciplinarianism: designers, cartographers, cognition specialists, historians and the rest.  I won’t bother regurgitating the article here, but it’s well worth a read, if nothing else for its explanations of some of the limitations faced by the endeavour.

I love this kind of stuff.  It helps us far better understand our surroundings, both real and virtual, and in better understanding them, we can better navigate and draw use and value them.  Something very much to be desired.

Also, they’re pretty :)

P.s. Check out other awesome data vis work on fellow sciblogger Chris McDowall’s blog, seeing data.


* Squizz: look/view

** I lust after this book, and shall try and get a review copy of it…  Feel like helping out, MIT Press?

Sci-fi interlude: The Twelve Colonies of Kobol (plus a little Goldacre) aimee whitcroft Jan 27


Inspired by fellow Sciblogger Michael Edmond’s recent post on science fiction, I present something very much in that rein.  Universe.  Star system.  Something…

BSG: seriously scintillating sci-fi
BSG: seriously scintillating sci-fi

I’ve been a lifelong lover of all things science fiction.  My early reading included much Asimov and C. Clarke, and the offerings of recent science fiction writers are a veritable cornupia of joy (Ian M Banks’ Culture novels being a good example).

Of course, there’s also been some very fine science fiction visualised through television, cinema (and more recently, teh interwebs) over the years.  Of these, a particular favourite was the modern remake of Battlestar Galactica.  Truly, truly glorious stuff.  For those who’ve not watched it: do so.  You don’t even have to like sci-fi, promise (it’s that good).

And so to my gift.  Well, a gift given the world by BSG’s science advisor Kevin Grazier and writer Jane Espenson, with dissemination aid by yours truly: a beautiful, and ‘totally official’ map of The Twelve Colonies of Kobol: central dogma to the mythos of BSG.

Click to enlarge

[click to enlarge]

Go here to see a higher-res version of the map, or to order a real version* of it.  The site also has a rather fascinating interview with the map’s creators, which was intended as a backgrounded of its development, but ended up being a lovely little backgrounder on the science and backstory of BSG.

And, since I promised, some Goldacre too (my, what a day of gifties).

I was sent this recently, and, quite amazed that I hadn’t actually seen it, figured I’d share it for those who had also somehow missed it.

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[Could he talk _any faster_?]


* Likely to consign you to permanent, and godlike**, nerd/geekdom

** Pun intentional

On being a test bunny: Part I aimee whitcroft Jan 20

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I’ve never been part of a clinical trial, until now.

Medical test bunny aimee

Medical test bunny aimee

I smoke.  I’ve been a moderate to heavy, (and very happy), smoker for about 8 years.  Which habit has resulted, variously, in: a couple of fillings; blood pressure that’s gone from being so low I used to be blind for the first 30 seconds after getting up every morning, to being normal; the loss of my once substantial lung capacity; and rather a lot of money literally set on fire.

And I’ve tried to quit a few times, but my heart’s never really been in it, to be honest.

So what’s changed?

Well, the principal reason is that I’m on a serious health kick at the moment, and a) cigarettes are tasting increasingly yucky* and b) all that exercise will help with the withdrawal symptoms (which, last time I attempted this, were baaaaad**).

Oh yes, and: I’ve never been part of a clinical trial, so there’s some level of scientific curiosity about the process, and I figured it would be cool to help out on an NZ-based one, which has already had pretty good results.

What’s the trial for?  Something called Zonnic.  It’s a mixture of spray and patch: the patch is designed to keep the body happy with a low level of continuous nicotine, and the spray’s for those craving moments, as it gets absorbed relatively quickly (a few minutes****).  The trial’s being run by the University of Otago, and they’re using people from Wellington, Christchurch and the Kokiri Marae (Porirua area).

Today, I trundled through to the UoF Wellington campus by Wellington hospital for the initial visit.  I got asked a LOT of questions about my smoking behaviour and how I felt about the habit, and they took a bunch of vital statistics.  My blood pressure was a little high, but I’m putting that down to the pot of strong coffee I’d mainlined shortly before, and the two cigarettes on the way there.

And I got given my schedule and products, as follows:

- I’ve got three weeks to completely stop.  I was provided with a suggested schedule for the next three weeks on this reduction of the smokings, and also given the advice that if I have to smoke, I should try not to do so in my accustomed environments/times etc.

- I also received 8 weeks’ worth of the spray and the nicotine patches (of which I’m on medium strength – I reckoned the strongest ones would actually increase my nicotine addiction).  One patch a day, and the spray whenever I have a craving.  It helps that the spray’s _seriously_ nommy (pepper and mint, quite burny).  In total, I’ll get 5 months’ worth of patches, and 6 months’ worth of spray, and the trial lasts a year.

And then, in 7 weeks’ time, I go back.  After that, I see ‘em every 3 months or so.  Of course, since this is a clinical trial, it’s entirely likely I’ve received a placebo…

Oh yes, and I have to fill out a little card which shows my cigarette/spray usage every day.  Fun!

I’ll be trying to document, at least to some extent, how it does and what happens.  With a bit of luck, it might even work!

Medical test bunny aimee when the serious cravings hit.  Note: will _not_ be feeling in the pink.

Medical test bunny aimee when the serious cravings hit. Note: will _not_ be feeling in the pink.

Join me!

They’re still looking for people in all three centres, so give it a bash. /exhorts


* Also, I’ve been jokingly claiming that continuing to smoke is like high altitude training.  While,  since I’ve given up all my other vices, loudly proclaiming that I wanted to keep just one.

** For the first week, I got one night’s sleep out of five, resulting in ‘loopy*** aimee’.  AND I put on a metric buttload (harhar) of weight. Note for Americans and other alien lifeforms: we don’t use the Imperial system down here, as it makes absolutely no sense (yes, I shamelessly co-opted Neil Gaiman/Terry Pratchett there).

**** Cigarette goodness takes a few _seconds_.

*** Ok, fine.  Loopier than normal.

Wine: good for superconductors, too aimee whitcroft Jan 13

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A very quick pointer, for those who don’t see my tweets :)

red wine

Once again, rises to the fore*, with an interesting application for alcohol.

Not content with fighting cancer and improving lifespan, or being good for our bones (and I’m sure that research will at some point show that single malt whisky** is highly beneficial), it appears that alcohol is beneficial for superconductors!

Apparently, it’s a case (haha) of, um, lubricated*** scientists who decided to try soaking a particular material (FeTeO.8SO.2O) in various types of commercial booze, and then tested it for superconductivity.  Schochu increased superconductivity by over 20% but, and here’s the kicker, red wine did so by 62%****.


Research here.

And, to add a little lolcat: can haz moar drunk scientists?  Kthnxbai!


* Other times I’ve mentioned arXiv include articles on the teapot effect, shaking oneself dry, modelling cow behaviour, time, and science publishing.

** From Islay, preferably.  Donations welcome

*** Says this article

**** I shall refrain, with some difficulty, from making the obvious comparisons between the effect of red wine on these materials, and on people.

On homeopathics, and physics aimee whitcroft Jan 12


After a somewhat extended sojourn, I have returned, once more, unto the breach.  Dear friends.

Just a brief one today, as I find my stride again, comprised of two bits.


First up!  Homeopathy.  As y’all may have realised, I am most certainly not one of its proponents.  Anything but, in fact (which reminds me, I have some very interesting research regarding the placebo effect about which to blog sometime soon).

It’s a wonderful BBC Newsnight report on homeopathy in the UK, from early January of this year.

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It’s really good to see the BBC failing absolutely to kowtow to the homeopathists.  Personally, I think that the NHS spending money which is desperately needed elsewhere for things like emergency/trauma wards, on homeopathy, is abhorrent.

I was sent the clip as a response to some comment which the SMC put out on a recent paper showing that the use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) treatments had been associated with adverse (and some fatal) events in children.  Particularly in cases where conventional treatment was stopped in favour of CAM treatment, without the consultation of a medical person.  Hmmm.


Secondly, something rather more lighthearted.  I came across this marvellous page, dated 1998 (gosh!), entitled ‘The Crackpot Index‘, by John Baez, detailing ‘a simple method for rating potentially revolutionary contributions to physics’.

In essence, any such contribution starts off with a -5 point starting credit. There follows a list, in order of increasing number of points, for everything from:

‘for every statement that is widely agreed on to be false’

(1 point), to

‘for claiming that when your theory is finally appreciated, present-day science will be seen for the sham it truly is. (30 more points for fantasizing about show trials in which scientists who mocked your theories will be forced to recant.)’

(40 points).

The entire list is hilarious, and I’d thoroughly recommend reading it.  Also, anyone wanna start rating their favourite mad physics papers?  If so, do share :)

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