Saturday 24 May 2008

The science of Eurovision

It is one of my favourite times of year, and I'm not even European.

The Eurovision Song Contest to Australians is a strange mix of bad 80's music, songs about "joy", "love" and "unity" (it's a good drinking game to take a shot every time one of those words are said), amazingly good looking hosts with amusing English skills, scantily dressed Eastern Europeans and reality TV winners from Western Europe. For the first time in my life, living in the UK I get a chance to vote for the winner and watch it live instead of having to ignore radio reports (of course it's all over the news) till the Sydney Sunday evening replay.

The voting of Eurovision is a complex interaction of politics and voting blocks. Each country votes in a popular vote, in which they can not vote for themselves, and each country has equal voting power. The voting is often based on politics and the whole system is a complex interaction of objects (countries) who interact with each other by giving each other points. A statistical analysis of the system can then give some insight in the nature of the interactions. For example, it can show whether certain countries form cliques that always vote similarly, or whether a country's voting is "in tune" with that of the whole group.

A team of Oxford scientists recently performed statistical tests on data from between 1992 and 2003 to uncover what is behind the voting. The team simulated a "random song contest", in which each country assigns its points randomly to 10 other countries, and compared these results to the actual data.

One of their tests looked at voting relationships over time. If, for example, country A gives and/or receives points from another country B over a long period of time, then we can deduce that in some way the musical tastes of the two countries are related. Carrying out the same analysis between country A and all other countries in turn will show whether country A thinks the same as the rest of Europe.

Another test observes the number of countries to which a given country A has awarded points and from which it has also received points. If a country has many such "reciprocal links", then one might deduce that its musical taste harmonises well with that of Europe in general. They also tested whether the ways countries voted could be correlated with each other. They looked at whether two countries that have both received and/or awarded points to a third country are likely to give or receive points from each other.

And the results? The UK is in tune with the rest of Europe, while France is a slight outsider. The cliques that were uncovered were Greece and Cyprus, the UK and Ireland, and the Nordic countries. Also, more surprising pairings such as Croatia and Malta, which are not geographically close, were found.

Read more in the Plus article United Kingdom - twelve points, and don't forget to vote!

Listen to this show here (with small, less than 10%, Eurovision music clips - yes I own some Eurovision albums....)

Thursday 22 May 2008

Creating your own podcast

Here is something I put together for The Helix about creating podcasts - hopefully it will be of use here too!


Want the world to hear what you have to say? In this world of Web 2.0, one of the best ways for your voice to be heard is with your very own podcast.

If you're unfamiliar with podcasts, think of them as prerecorded radio shows that you can download and listen to at any time. You can also create video podcasts. You don't need to be a corporation, professional broadcaster or have a sound studio to release a podcast. Some of the most successful podcasts are those by people recording on their own computer from the privacy of their own home. All you need is a computer, an Internet connection and a microphone.

The first, most obvious, thing you need is a topic to talk about. The biggest challenge for any podcaster is to produce something others will want to listen to. That's why people often podcast about topics in which they have a particular expertise, interest or passion. Have a browse around the Internet and see what others have done and where you can contribute. Many people also use podcasting as a way of building up a catelogue of recordings for their resume – like writing a blog.

Technical Side of Podcasting

A podcast is a media file that is distributed by subscription (paid or unpaid) over the Internet using syndication feeds. You can play them back on mobile devices such as your ipod or mobile phone, or on your personal computer.

The first step in creating your very own podcast is to make an audio file. To do this, you need something with which you can record and edit sounds.

Creating an audio file

The best programs with which to start making your audio files are Audacity (on mac and PC) and Garage Band (on mac). Both these products are simple to use, and most importantly, free! Most podcasts that are available for download on the Internet are created using these products. Both allow you to record your own voice as well as having multiple tracks – so you can have music playing behind your voice and you can mix two tracks together to create professional sounding audio effects.

  • Garage Band comes pre-installed on modern macs, but if you have a slightly older computer, there are many products you can use;
  • Audacity can be downloaded for PC.

If you want to spend some money, you can buy professional sound editing suites such as Sony SoundForge (PC) and Pro Tools (mac). These suites have a lot of functions that most podcasters do not need. However, as you would expect from something you can pay hundreds of dollars for, they are very good!

Once you are finished recording and editing, you need to create an mp3 file. Mp3 is the ubiquitous file format for distributing audio on the Internet. It is a compressed audio format, and the amount that you compress your file is important. Choose a “bit rate” of 128 kbps – this is a good compromise between file size and audio quality. You may get away with 64 kbps if your podcast is just voice, and the file will be half the size. Choose mono sound as well.


Apart from an Internet connection and a computer, you will need speakers and a microphone. There can be some difference in quality between microphones. Some PCs and many macs come with them in-built, and whilst these are good for speaking to your friends over the Internet, the quality may not be quite good enough for a podcast. For our purposes, there are two choices.

  • The cheapest option is a dynamic microphone. These are rugged and good with loud sounds. You can pick one up for as little as $10.
  • A more expensive option is a condensor microphone. These need to be powered by batteries, but in general they sound a lot better for voice and are less noisey. Prices start around $80 but you can pay into the thousands for a very very good one.
The more you pay, the better sound you get. For podcasters starting out, a dynamic microphone will be OK, but condensor microphones are better when interviewing people and when there is a noisey background.

Creating a Video File

You may be interested in not only sharing your thoughts, but also your images. To create video podcasts, you need some video editing software. Macs come with iMovie, whilst many PCs come with Adobe Premiere – although, if it came with your computer, it is most likely the cut-down free version. Both these programs allow you to edit together videos taken on your camera or downloaded from the net. You can also create an audio commentary.

If you want to spend lots of money, Final Cut Pro is the industry standard.

You need to export to the mp4 format. Like mp3, this is a compressed file. If your video editing suite does not export to mp4, the Simplified Universal Player Encoder & Renderer is a fantastic free tool that converts almost any file format to any other.

Music – create your own or find some free stuff

Copyright is important; make sure you use copyright free music. If you want to include music in your recording but don't have original tunes lying around, then go to websites such as Royalty Free Music and Trackline where you'll find hundreds of songs you can buy and use. Or for free stuff try Podsafe Audio, Magnatune or Podshow.

You can also find thousands of up and coming bands on myspace that will be more than happy for you to sample their music. Garage Band comes with many inbuilt sound effects and tunes that are all royalty free, so you may notice that many podcasts contain the same sounds and theme music.

I've never got a straight answer on how much of a commercial song you can include in a podcast before breaching copyright - many people say less than 10% and in that case the music should be relevant to the topic. Our little podcast was a bit naughty in the beginning, but we're sticking to copyright free music or less than 10% of relevant commercial songs now!

How to turn an audio file into a podcast?

Now you have your recordings and videos, you need to get them up onto the Internet for other people to download – you will need your own homepage or blog. There are many places on the web that offer free homepages. One good place to start is Blogger.

You will also need to upload your podcast somewhere. If you don't have your own web hosting, you can try Ourmedia or Podbean which are free, or Libsyn which has minimal cost but allows you to upload more files than the free options. Podbean and Libsyn also let you blog, so are very options all round.

Once you have your own blog and have uploaded your podcast, write a post in your new blog and link to the audio / video file. In blogger, you add this link as an enclosure (directly underneath the subject heading when you are writing the blog). Podbean and Libsyn do this automatically.

You’re almost there….

The critical part of this process is creating something called an RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed. The feed is what is read and updated by whatever product you use to download podcasts. Most blogs automatically generate an RSS feed, or you can get one by setting up a FeedBurner account. Sign up, then tell FeedBurner your blog address, and you’re there! FeedBurner lets you modify your feed however you like – for example, you may add a picture so that people who view your feed always see this image (perhaps your album cover or a picture of yourself). It also gives you stats on subscribers - you can see how many people subscribe to this feed in the sidebar.

Submitting to Podcast Directories

At this stage, you should submit your podcast to the iTunes store. To do this, download iTunes if you haven’t already, install it and click on iTunes music store, then click podcasts and submit a podcast. Type in your RSS feed address, and they will (hopefully) list it for you within a few days.

It doesn't cost anything to be listed in the large, well-known directories. Some great ones include Podcast Alley and Podcast Directory.

Playing Podcasts

Most people will download your podcast with iTunes. Another product quickly becoming popular is the Juice Cross Platform Podcast Reciever. Or you can just download them in Firefox or Internet Explorer.

If you sign up with Feedburner, its free stats section will tell you how many times your files are downloaded, how many people are listening and lots of other cool bits of information like what type of product is downloading it (iTunes, Juice…) and what sort of computers (PC, mac…)

Good Luck!

For other podcasting tips, such as how to present your podcast, the best thing to do is download other podcasts and see how they do it. One interesting thing you can do is interview people over the internet using Skype. Or you could buy a portable recorder and interview people in the field.

Happy podcasting!

Wednesday 21 May 2008

More maths in the movies

Maths in the movies is obviously in vogue these days.

This video comes from Triple J and is a nice summation of how maths has been used as a tool for plot development over the years.

Thanks to Marc Fennell, the host of the show, for the permissions. He's a good bloke!

Tuesday 20 May 2008

Biofuels debate - The UK Report in The Helix

Here is another UK report I wrote for The Helix, Australia's premier science education magazine since 1986.

UK Biofuel Debate:

The UK has embarked on an audacious new scheme to lessen the country’s fossil-fuel dependency and to minimise climate change. But not everyone is in favour.

From April 15, all petrol and diesel sold in UK pumps must contain at least 2.5% biofuel. The target is set to rise to 5% by 2010, with the motive to make Britain's 33 million vehicles greener. But critics argue that the benefits from the scheme may be outweighed by the negative effects of biofuel production, which results in forest clearing, the loss of habitat, and may indeed speed up climate change.

Biofuels are made from renewable biological sources such as sugar cane or maize, and can have advantages over traditional fossil fuel sources as, when they are burnt, they only release the carbon dioxide they absorbed from the atmosphere during their lifetime. In contrast, fossil fuels release massive quantities of carbon locked out of the Earth’s carbon cycle for millions of years.

Whilst burning biofuels adds less carbon to the atmosphere than burning fossil fuels, biofuels require extensive land clearing. This could involve cutting down established forests that absorb much more carbon dioxide than the newly planted biofuel crops. Additional carbon dioxide may escape from the soil or peat, where it was trapped by the roots of trees.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota published a study in February arguing that converting Brazilian, Southeast Asian and US rainforests, peatlands, savannas, and grasslands to produce biofuels will release 17 to 420 times more carbon dioxide than the fossil fuels they replace.

Apart from the climate change implications, there may be catastrophic conservation consequences for not only virgin forests, but also animal species. In South America, sugar cane production for biofuels has wiped out the habitat of the large Alagoas curassow, making it extinct.

The other major problem with the move towards biofuels is food security. Poorer countries are now switching land previously used to grow food crops to more profitable biofuel crops. The UK, which sources much of its produce from overseas, has already seen food prices rise.

Motor Neuron Disease Breakthrough - The UK Report in The Helix

Since living in the UK, I have been reporting in a regular column in The Helix. The Helix is one of CSIRO's magazines and has been Australia's premier science education magazine since 1986.

The column deals with the science stories that have been featured in the UK media. I have written about some of them here on the blog - for example the UK Wi-Fi scandal.

Here is a story I wrote about breakthroughs in Motor Neuron Disease research:

British and Australian scientists have made an incredible breakthrough in the understanding of motor-neuron disease.

The international effort between King's College London and the ANZAC Research Institute at Sydney's Concord Hospital has identified an inherited genetic mutation believed to be associated with the underlying source of the crippling condition.

Motor-neuron disease is caused by the death of nerves cells – motor neurons – that connect the spinal cord and brain with muscles. 2 in every 100,000 people develop the condition each year, with life expectancy after onset between 2 and 5 years. One notable exception is Professor Stephen Hawking, who has remarkably lived with the disease for 45 years.

The research suggests that a genetic abnormality produces a toxic protein known as TDP-43. Sufferers of the condition were previously known to have high levels of the protein in dying nerve cells, but it was thought this was caused by the damaged cells trying to repair themselves. Now however, the researchers think that it is the protein itself doing the damage.

Lead researcher Professor Chris Shaw from Kings College says that this is the most significant breakthrough in motor-neuron disease research in 15 years, however considers a cure a long way off.

"It is a new biological tool to understand the disease and develop treatments… However, a cure for any neurological disease is a long way off. It's really hard to say how far off it is, but this is certainly a major leap forward in that direction."

Tuesday 13 May 2008

The Enigma Machine

The Enigma machine was once considered unbreakable, and the cracking of the "unbreakable code" by the allies changed the course of World War 2. This week on the podcast we talk to Nadia Baker from the Enigma Project about the history of codes and code-breaking, why the Enigma machine was considered unbreakable, the mathematics behind codes, and how it was finally cracked. The Enigma Project travels all over the United Kingdom and abroad, visiting over 100 schools and organisations, reaching over 12,000 people of all ages every year.

Listen to this show here.

You can read more on the Enigma Machine in this Plus article.
Coincidentally, I did the same course in Science Communication as Nadia, just a few years apart. Funny to meet up in Cambridge!

Thursday 1 May 2008

Maths in the Movies

Much of my recent work has been involved with understanding the maths used in movie production and in how mathematics and mathematicians are portrayed on film.

I recently attended the mathematics film festival Film3 — maths at the movies at the Edinburgh International Science Festival, and Plus Magazine (where I work) is running a series of stories on maths in the movies in conjunction with this.

I am also running a video conference on the topic with the Motivate program. Motivate runs real-time video-conferences for schools, providing maths, science and cross-curricular information and linked projects for students of all ages (5-19) both in the UK and internationally. In my session, we are investigating some of the maths we find in movies such as A Beautiful Mind and Pi, and also some of the maths used to create movies, such as in Lord of the Rings and Shrek. This involves such things as coordinate and vector geometry and complex numbers. If you are a student or teacher and are interested in getting involved with this, see the program’s website.

This week's podcast is a sneak peak at some of this maths / movies content. In this show, I interview the director of the Edinburgh maths film festival, Madeleine Shepherd, over a couple of drinks after the screening of the film Pi - listen to this podcast here.

The season of mathematical movies was created by the International Centre for Mathematical Sciences and Filmhouse Cinema to showcase three very different independent films. Each film is based around a mathematical concept, but also provides an element of social commentary.

The season opened with the UK premiere of the highly acclaimed animation, Flatland the Film. Based on the 1889 novel by Edwin A. Abbot, the film tackles issues revolving around race, gender, religion and globalisation. Mr A. Square is an average middle-class Flatlander until enlightenment allows him to see his world from a different dimension. He discovers that Flatland is threatened by forces it cannot possibly recognise. Will he be able to save his family and his world?

Pi explores the life and experiences of Max, a gifted mathematician who believes that everything in the Universe can be expressed mathematically. He becomes obsessed with finding the underlying pattern behind the stock market, but religious and commercial groups try to exploit his research. Can he pass through this philosophical maelstrom and survive unscathed?

The final film, Cube investigates the relationships between six apparently unconnected individuals who wake up inside a three-dimensional maze of interlocking cubes. Developing mutual trust is the key to survival as they are forced to collaborate on cracking the code behind the Cube's mechanism. How many will escape to discover the bigger mystery that lies outside their existentialist prison?

You can read more about maths in the movies in the Plus and Mr Science articles: And it seems Hollywood has finally figured out what we've all known for a while: that maths is sexy.

Actor John Hurt believes maths has become "sexy". Hurt stars as a maths professor in the new film The Oxford Murders. In the film, Hurt and a graduate student played by Elijah Wood discover a series of murders linked by mathematical symbols.

Hurt told the BBC World Service that: "I think there is something that has brought maths to the fore. I think probably because we live in a world with so many lies, and so much lack of truth, that it has become quite sexy to think of the one thing we have which is the only language that is truthful. There's no way of disproving that two plus two equals four, and therefore, take that to the ultimate, much more complicated areas, and you're dealing with something which is truthful."

NASA is looking after us

One of the weirdest news releases recently comes from NASA, who are thankfully maintaining that the world is still safe from asteroids for the time being, despite the calculations of a young German student.

The Near-Earth Object Program Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has not changed its current estimates for the very low probability (1 in 45,000) of an Earth impact by the asteroid Apophis in 2036.

Contrary to recent press reports, NASA offices involved in near-Earth object research were not contacted and have had no correspondence with a young German student, who claims the Apophis impact probability is far higher than the current estimate.

This student's conclusion reportedly is based on the possibility of a collision with an artificial satellite during the asteroid's close approach in April 2029. However, the asteroid will not pass near the main belt of geosynchronous satellites in 2029, and the chance of a collision with a satellite is exceedingly remote.

Therefore, consideration of this satellite collision scenario does not affect the current impact probability estimate for Apophis, which remains at 1 in 45,000.

This information is adapted from a NASA press release.