You could be Johnny

I've just posted the following to this article about the tendency in the UK to see being bad at Maths (and Science) as a mark of pride.

It really annoys me every time a presenter on the news 'jokes' that they can't do maths or science. Melvyn Bragg on the usually excellent "in our time" is another. If you can't do it, then research your topic - or at least stay quiet!

I grew up with Johnny Ball. I really miss him on TV - he was enthusiastic and willing to find out about things which he didn't know about. Today's "science" shows are more about blowing things up in the microwave, or the caravan (yes, Braniac, that means you).

An honourable exception is discovery's mythbusters (UK site) - they don't always get the scientific terms right (misusing terms like force, pressure etc, the narrator in the UK is especially guilty of this) - but they have the sense of the scientific method, and of exploration.

On UK TV, there is no modern equivalent. We need a modern day Johnny Ball! (Maybe next year it won't be 'You could be Nancy', but 'You could be Johnny' - I can only dream)

I really like the idea. Each week, wannabe Johnny's would present a piece about some aspect of science. It'd need to be fun, accessible, as well as being good science. The panel would consist of, a non-scientist, a scientist (not Adam Hart-Davies!) and the 'Lloyd-Webber figure' - Johnny Ball himself.

Each week, Graham Norton would tell the contenders 'You could be Johnny'.

The theme tune would end with Jack Nicholson bursting through a door saying "Here's Johnny!"

The public would vote (usually on style over substance) and there'd be a 'present-off' between the two who had the lowest public vote, they'd explain some particularly gnarly bit of science or maths. Johnny would save one of them.

I could be a getting a little flippant here, but I'm deadly serious about the issue at hand. Personally, I think some sort of contest might be a lot of fun, as well as helping to increase interest in science and maths. It could work, couldn't it?


Via xkcd I learned of a new idea called 'Geohashing' geohashing

Essentially the idea is that based on some seed data, some complicated sums are done to give a location.

People get to that location for a meetup.

A map tool is available which does the sums for you. You set the date, click your area and it gives you a location.

Due to problems with the seed data (US stock market) and time zones a new rule has been introduced today for people east of 30 degrees west. This is taken care of automatically by the map tool. There are several pieces of code for implementing this - though most have yet to be updated to reflect the 30W rule.

The idea is that the seed data is processed using an algorithm called md5. This algorithm produces a 'hash' of the data. it is difficult to find alternate data which produces the same hash. A small change in the data produces a big change in the hash.

The idea of a hash is a way of producing a 'fingerprint' of a file. I.e. I could send you a file, but how would you know it hadn't been tampered with? Well, I could phone you, you could recognise me and I could read you the hash of that file (which you can then generate and check).

A hash can also be used as a zero knowledge proof. I.e. I wanted to prove to you that I had discovered some fact. I might not want you to know the fact (yet). For example, I might know the first line of the 'Times' editorial for next saturday. I could generate a hash of that line and give it to you - when the paper is published that information can be checked.

In this case, the md5 algorithm is used to give a reasonable pseudo-randomisation of one number into another. It's just a bit of fun.

I've not gone to a geohash event myself - but I like the concept.

Flatland: The Movie

The classic 19th century novella, which discusses the mysteries of the mythic 'third dimension' to a two dimensional viewer, Flatland, has been made into a movie. This is something I'd like to see, but it requires transatlantic shipping. If only I'd have spotted it a couple of weeks ago!

A trailer showing A. Square discovering the Third Dimension is on the website, as is an assassination from Flatland's history.

Ian Stewart wrote a sequel to Flatland, called Flatterland. In which we learn that A. Square was called Albert. Albert's descendant, Victoria Line, meets up with another creature who shows her the wonders of more than just the third dimension....