Friday 31 October 2008

We're now on Twitter

For those of you who use Twitter, we are now there and embracing it, so come along and become a follower.

We've blogged quite a bit about Web 2.0 applications (most recently on data-mining and Twitter is a micro-blogging service that allows its users to send and read other users' updates (otherwise known as tweets), which are posts up to 140 characters. When you 'follow' someone, you can see their updates, and it has become quite popular. Even politicians are getting on board, with Australian Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull opening an account (whether he has time to continually update his Twitter status, or it's one of his staffers, is another question).

Twitter has become a surprisingly powerful platform, breaking the news of the Sichuan earthquake in China with SMS messages well before the conventional media arrived. This was also the case in the Virginia Tech shootings.

So if you would like to follow me on Twitter, I am @westius. You can use this site's email address to find me. See you there.

Sunday 26 October 2008

So, you think you can dance...

We've explored the overlap between music and science before, but what's dance got to do with science?

The 2009 AAAS Science Dance Contest is just around the corner, so if you're a scientist with a deep longing to express your innermost scientific thoughts through dance, then this is for you. The contest is open to anyone who has (or is pursuing) a PhD in any scientific field.

What you need to do is:
  1. Make a video of your own PhD dance;
  2. Post the video on YouTube;
  3. Email your name, the title of your thesis, and the video link to by 16 November 2008.
On 17 November 2008, a total of four winners will be chosen from the following categories:
  1. Graduate Student
  2. Postdoc
  3. Professor
  4. Popular Choice
If you are lucky enough to win one of these categories, you will need to provide a single peer-reviewed research article on which you are a co-author. You will be paired with a professional choreographer and over the following weeks you will help your choreographer understand the article (via e-mail and telephone). Then the four choreographers will collaborate to create a single four-part dance based on the winning research articles.

You will then be an honoured guest at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago, Illinois, where on 13 February 2009, you will have front-row seats to the world debut of "THIS IS SCIENCE" - your dance creation. Accommodation in Chicago will be provided, and grants are available for travel expenses.

To read more about last year's competition, see sciencemag and gonzolabs.

Stay tuned to this website as we are going to follow this contest, and I have already roped in a couple of my PhD friends to enter - or at least, they're thinking about it...

Tuesday 14 October 2008

Japan and the Sumo Diet

Travelling Japan and Korea was a wonderful experience - magnificent sights, great food, interesting people and of course, of interest to this blog, science.

I have finally put together the Japan / Korea podcast, which you can listen to here. It was recorded whilst we travelled from Tokyo to Fukuoka on the shinkansen (bullet train), Fukuoka to Busan in Korea on the JR Beetle (ferry), and Busan to Seoul on the KTX (high-speed train) - all fantastic methods of transport that put Aussie transport links (and for that matter UK ones) to shame.

The first topic we tackled was the Sumo Diet - how do Sumo Wrestlers get so big? And why? We were lucky to catch the September Grand Sumo Tournament in Tokyo and I was astounded by how big and strong these guys are. What's their secret to rapid weight gain? Well, here's what you need to do:
  1. Skip breakfast. Often people who try to loose weight skip breakfast, but it's actually the worst thing you can. After 8 hours of sleep, your body craves food. By depriving your body of food, you keep your metabolic rate low;
  2. Exercise on an empty stomach. If you exercise with no food to burn off, your metabolic rate lowers even more in order to conserve the energy you have. This helps increase your muscle but not burn off too many calories. This point is rather open to debate as to whether it works;
  3. Sleep after eating. After a massive lunch or dinner, have a sleep. This means you wont burn off all those calories you just ate. This is a major factor;
  4. Eat big in the afternoon and evening. Going to bed with a full stomach makes your body release a rush of insulin, storing some of your previous intake as fat instead of in muscles and organs;
  5. Eat in a social atmosphere. An unreferenced report says that when you eat with others, you eat more than 44% more than when alone. I'd believe that.
You can find more info on this diet here.

At the heart of the diet is a hearty stew called chankonabe. It is a communal one-pot simmering stock-based casserole, into which you dip chicken, pork, mushrooms, carrots, potatoes, radish, lotus root and onions as if it were a massive meaty fondue (which I guess it is). You can drink the left over stock. Now this doesn't actually sound unhealthy - indeed it actually sounds pretty nutricious, but if you eat a lot of it, and then have a sleep, you can get very big. And they do eat a lot. A wrestler named Takamisugi was revered for eating 65 bowls in a single sitting.

We tackled a number of other topics in the podcast, so tune in. And feel free to leave any comments you like - I would love to hear from you, especially if you have tried the Sumo Diet...

Listen to his podcast here:

Thursday 9 October 2008, data mining and mashups

I've recently been putting together a Guide to Web 2.0 for The Helix Magazine and one of the most interesting aspects has been exploring the various mashups and applications of is a brilliant online music service and currently my favourite "web 2.0" application. By downloading a plugin for itunes (or whatever music player you have) that "scrobbles" each song you play (that is, tells what you are listening to), a picture of your music taste builds up, and people with similar listening tastes are found. Artists are recommended to you according to your tastes, charts of your songs built up and "radio stations" perfectly tailored to you can be streamed online. But it is better than radio as there are no ads and you like every song.

By the way, I am westius on

Millions of songs are scrobbled every day by users. This data helps develop a massive database of user music preferences, and because of it's API, it is possible to access information and develop interesting tools.

As users can tag their music with genres that they think aptly describe their songs and artists, it is possible to determine your own tag cloud of musical preferences. Using an excellent script at, I came up with my own tag cloud, as you can see here.

It is possible from such tag clouds to examine how listeners fall into different categories through a process known as Data Mining. Data mining is essentially the process of sorting through enormous amounts of data and picking out the relevant stuff. Using principal components analysis - a mathematical technique which reduces multidimensional data sets to lower dimensions for analysis - and k-means clustering - an algorithm to cluster n objects into k groups - Liekens came up with 5 broad groups of listeners:
  1. Electronic/pop
  2. Rock
  3. Indie
  4. Metal
  5. Hip-hop
Clearly this list does not reflect everyone on (where are the classical music listeners?), but it does reflect the majority. I was surprised that Indie is a group in itself and am intrigued by the bundling of electronic and pop together - there are some tweaks to the maths you can make that could come up with different groups, and better results might be possible with a bigger data set . Hip-Hop listeners were the most clearly defined group. You can read more about the maths and how these groups are separated in the original article.

Another interesting thing you can do is compare your music tastes to your friends. This pic is a difference cloud comparing my music tastes with that of my good friend intranation. We have a roughly 40% similarity in music genre tastes, with the green tags those that I have more of in my collection, and the red those genres that intranation listens to more than me. No real surprises there.

Mashups are all the rage at the moment. The term refers to web applications that combine data from more than one source into a single integrated tool. For instance, domain, an Australian real-estate site, adds data from Google Maps to provide location information. My current favourite mashup is idiomap. idiomap is a digital music magazine that personalises its content according to your interests in music, which it learns from your profile. It gives you stories and reviews of the artists and genres you like, helps you discover new music and mashes in video and audio from youtube and other sources. idiomag aggregates music articles from over 100 different sources. You can also tweak the articles you like so if you receive something you don't like, you won't get it again. I subscribe to the RSS feed of my personalised idiomap magazine and so far its been great and has included reviews of music DVDs of artists I like and schedules of when bands will be playing and appearing on TV. Good stuff.

I will probably put out a few more blogs like this as I explore this world of mashups. And for podcast listeners, yes hopefully I will get one of them out soon too!

Friday 3 October 2008

Why Hollywood stars should stick to acting

It's funny being on holiday, removing yourself from everything and deliberately avoiding the news, and then returning home to find things largely the same as they were. Sorry for the lack of posts and podcasts, I have been travelling back to Australia through Japan and Korea - stay tuned for a podcast from the trip.

One of the things that has not changed is our own Russell Crowe. He may have played a maths genius in A Beautiful Mind, but his maths skills don't say much for his Aussie education.

We all have our theories on what is causing the current financial meltdown - my theory is it's the Australian cricket team (see this story for why).

But Crowe has an interesting solution - give America's entire population of 300 million $US1 million each.

His thinking was that a $300 million outlay would only be a fraction of the $US700 billion bailout package that President Bush proposed (read that carefully and you will spot the mistake).

Crowe told Jay Leno, "So, here's the thing: They're looking for $700 billion, right? Which is a good chunk of change... But I was thinking if they wanna stimulate the economy, get people spending, let people look after their ... mortgage. I think you take the first 300 million Americans, if that's the population at this point in time, give everyone a million bucks.''

The problem is that the Crowe Plan actually only gives $1 to each American, not $1 million, and if the Crowe Plan to instantly make each American a millionaire went ahead, it would cost $300 trillion - more than the US annual gross domestic product. The Iraq War only cost $3 trillion.

Crowe clearly didn't do his method acting for A Beautiful Mind.

Funnily enough, he could be correct if he was using the Long scale where one billion is actually one million million (not one thousand million). Most of the English speaking world uses the short scale, but much of the world uses the long scale - so perhaps we can forgive him. Even NASA has mucked up unit conversions, loosing a Mars orbiter in 1999.