Politically jaded

Yes, when it comes to politics, I don’t count myself among the most enthusiastic. This is perhaps surprising in view of the fact that I live in one of the most politically turbulent countries in the world. Well, that is also precisely to reason. Being inundated with politics over the media on a constant basis, one eventually becomes jaded.

So, why am I writing about this? It is in response to a recent blog post. Sorry Son, I missed it when you posted it and now it is a bit late to leave a comment. So, let my make an exception and say what I think about these things.

My advise? Turn off your radio when the news comes on. If one cannot do anything about all those terrible things, then what is the point of knowing about them? All that happens is that one becomes upset, depressed, anxious, and have all sorts of such negative emotions. It affects one’s health and still the situation remains the same.

The funny thing is that one tends to have a vague idea about what is going on anyway. One may not know the details, but I’ve learned over the years that the truth about the detail is often different from what one is being told.

How are we to treat our fellow human in this country? Here I’m going to be very Biblical about it: Love your neighbour as you love yourself. What if he is your enemy and hides hatred behind his smile? Love you enemies as well, do not repay hatred with hatred.

Yes, despited the fact that the government is screwing up severely, they still remain in power. Evidently, we don’t really have a democracy. After being in power for a quarter of a century, the majority of people still live in poverty. I have a theory about that. Since these poor destitute people form the power base for the current government, it is not in the government’s interest to uplift them. So, perhaps it is a secret policy of the government to maintain a large ignorant poor destitute population to ensure that these destitute people will again vote them into power at the next election in the false hope that it will improve there condition. It is also in my view why education is such a disaster in this country.

I cannot do anything about that, at least not in the short term. All I can do is to contribute my little part to make the world a better place in as far as I have an influence. I set a good example; educate those that I am in contact with; spread love and ignore the hated. OK, I also maintain a blog and have even written a book, but if that makes a big difference then I don’t see it.

In the very long term, perhaps several generations from now, things will get better. Whether my culture will still exist in this country, I don’t know. Probably not. On the other hand, perhaps civilization would have fallen all around world by that time.

Who knows?

Neutrino dust

It is the current understanding that the universe came into being in a hot big bang event. All matter initially existed as a very hot “soup” (or plasma) of charged particles – protons and electrons. The neutral atom (mostly hydrogen) only appeared after the soup cooled off a bit. At that point, the light that was produced by the thermal radiation of the hot matter had a chance to escape being directly re-absorbed.

Much of that light is still around today. We call it the microwave background radiation, because today that light has turned into microwave radiation as a result of being extremely Doppler-shifted toward low frequencies. The extreme Doppler-shift is caused by the expansion of the universe that happened since the origin of the microwave background radiation.

It is reasonable to assume that the very energetic conditions that existed during the big bang would have caused some of the hydrogen nuclei (protons) to combine in a fusion process to form helium nuclei. At the same time, some of the protons are converted to neutrons. The weak interaction mediates this process and it produces a neutrino, the lightest matter particle (fermion) that we know of.

So what happened to all these neutrinos? They were emitted at the same time or even before the light that caused the microwave background radiation. Since neutrinos are so light, their velocities are close to that of the speed of light. While expansion of the universe causes the light to be red-shifted, it also causes the neutrinos, which have a small mass to be slowed down. (Light never slows down, it always propagates at the speed of light.) Eventually these neutrinos are so slow that they are effectively stationary with respect to the local region in space. At this point they become dust, drifting along aimlessly in space.

While, since they do have mass, the neutrinos will be attracted by massive objects like the galaxies. So, the moment their velocities fall below the escape velocity of a nearby galaxy, they will become gravitationally bound to that galaxy. However, since they do not interact very strongly with matter, they will keep on orbiting these galaxies. So the neutrino dust will become clouds of dust in the vicinity of galaxies.

Hubble Space Telescope observes diffuse starlight in Galaxy Cluster Abell S1063NASAESA, and M. Montes (University of New South Wales)

Could the neutrino dust be the dark matter that we are looking for? Due to their small mass and the ratio of protons to neutrons in the universe, it is unlikely that there would be enough neutrinos to account for the missing mass attributed to dark matter. The ordinary neutrino dust would contribute to the effect of dark matter, but may not solve the whole problem.

There are some speculations that the three neutrinos may not be the only neutrinos that exist. Some theories also consider the possibility that an additional sterile neutrino exists. These sterile neutrinos could have large masses. For this reason, they have been considered as candidates for the dark matter. How these heavy neutrinos would have been produced is not clear, but, if they were produced during the big bang, they would also have undergone the same slow-down and eventually be converted into dust. So, it could be that there are a lot of them drifting around aimlessly through space.

Interesting, don’t you think?

Favourite painting

What is it about a particular picture that attracts you? I’m talking about pictures of people you know. Just think of that picture of a landscape or a still life. It could be a portrait of a person.

What would be the reason why why that picture carry such a special meaning? It could be the style of painting, the artistic nature, or the mood of the painting.

Often it is because one associates something beyond the picture with it. Perhaps there was an event that is captured by the scene depicted in it. Perhaps you met somebody on those very steps depicted in the cityscape. Maybe the pot in that still life looks just like the one your grandmother use to have.

Whatever the reason, usually it has some to do with an emotion. The picture captures that emotion and when you look at it you remember that emotion. It may be a sad emotion, but it is unlikely that this would be your favourite picture if the memory of that emotion causes pain. So, chances are that the emotion captured by the picture is a positive one. It make you feel good or happy to look at that picture.

I have such a favourite picture sitting just above my work desk, but I’m not going to show it too you. It may just reveal a bit too much about myself.


It is a sunny day. A group of boys are playing soccer outside. In a house next to the field where the boys are playing soccer, another boy is practicing piano. Through the window, this boy can see the other boys playing soccer. He can hear them shouting and having fun. It he wants to, he can go out and join the group of boys, but he doesn’t do that. Why not?

Perhaps he is shy and doesn’t get along with the other boys. However, there is another more obvious reason. As much fun as it may be to play soccer, this boy is having more fun playing the piano. He reaps greater enjoyment from this activity than he would with the other boys out on the field.

It is said that one can only achieve greatness in a particular field after one spent at least ten thousand hours practicing it. So the best ballet dancers, tennis players, pianists, etc. could only have achieved that level by spending exorbitant amounts of time improving their skills.

Why would anybody want to do that, like this boy playing piano instead of joining the other boys outside? There is a state of mind that one can enter that produces significant happiness. It is when one confronts a considerable challenge and at the same time have the skill to overcome it. This state of mind is called flow. The idea was introduced by a psychologist, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975.

Flow provides a heightened level of concentration. It allows one to exclude external disturbances. Although the boy practicing piano can hear the shouts of the boys playing soccer, it did not bother him. He was barely aware of it. One also tends to lose track of time. Long after the boys stopped playing soccer, this boy is still practicing piano and he’s happy doing so.

Anybody could experience flow. In fact, most people probably often do. Whenever you are doing something that you are good at and what you do is challenging enough that it occupies your full attention, then chances are that you are entering a state of flow. If you are good at your work and it does not bore you, then you probably experience flow on a daily basis. Then it is also quite possible that you enjoy your work. It is quite common with artists or people involved in activities associated with being creative.

Playing with pictures

Perhaps it is the journey I followed through life. Perhaps it is just an innate yearning to be creative. Don’t really know why, but I like to create pictures.

So, I just uploaded a new picture for the banner on my blog. For this one, I used POV-Ray. It is a ray-tracing program. One produces a text files (a *.pov file) that contains the descriptions of the objects in the scene that one wants to render. Then the program would produce the image from this file. It is a bit like writing a program.

There are other programs that provide front-ends or graphic user interfaces with which on can create the images for ray tracing. But I like the text-file based approach. It is somehow cleaner.

Although some things are rather challenging to create in this medium, one can in principle create anything this way. Some of the images that people produce are jaw-dropping amazing. I’m just playing.

The importance of falsifiability

Many years ago, while I was still a graduate student studying particle physics, my supervisor Bob was very worried about supersymmetry. He was particularly worried that it will become the accepted theory without the need to be properly tested.

In those days, it was almost taken for granted that supersymmetry is the correct theory. Since he came from the technicolour camp, Bob did not particularly like supersymmetry. Unfortunately, at that point, the predictions of the technicolour models did not agree with experimental observations. So it was not a seriously considered as a viable theory. Supersymmetry, on the other hand, had enough free parameters that it could sidestep any detrimental experimental results. This ability to dodge these results and constantly hiding itself made supersymmetry look like a theory that can never be ruled out. Hence my supervisor’s concern.

Today the situation is much different. As the Large Hadron Collider accumulated data, it could systematically rule out progressively larger energy ranges where the supersymmetric particles could hide. Eventually, there was simply no place to hide anymore. At least those versions of supersymmetry that rely on a stable superpartner that must exist at the electroweak scale have been ruled out. For most particle physicists this seems to indicate the supersymmetry as a whole has been ruled out. But of course, there are still those that cling to the idea.

So, in hindsight, supersymmetry was falsifiable after all. For me this whole process exemplify the importance of falsifiability. Imagine that supersymmetry could keep on hiding. How would we know if it is right? The reason why so many physicists believed it must be right is because it is “so beautiful.” Does beauty in this context imply that a theory must be correct? Evidently not. There is now alternative to experimental testing to know if a scientific theory is correct.

This bring me to another theory that is believed to be true simply because it is considered so beautiful that it must be correct. I’m talking of string theory. In this case there is a very serious issue about the falsifiability of the theory. String theory addresses physics at the hypothetical Planck scale. However, there does not exist any conceivable way to test physics at this scale.

Just to avoid any confusion about what I mean by falsifiable: There are those people that claim that string theory is falsifiable. It is just not practically possible to test it. Well, that is missing the point now, isn’t it? The reason for falsifiability is to know if the theory is right. It does not help if it is “in principle” falsifiable, because then we won’t be able to know if it is right. The only useful form of falsifiability is when one can physically test it. Otherwise it is not interesting from a scientific point of view.

Having said that, I do not think one should dictate to people what they are allowed to research. We may agree about whether it is science or not, but if somebody wants to investigate something that we do not currently consider as scientific, then so be it. Who knows, one day that research may somehow lead to research that is falsifiable.

There is of course the whole matter of whether such non-falsifiable research should be allowed to receive research funding. However, the matter of how research should be funded is a whole topic on its own. Perhaps for another day.

Self-publishing with Latex

No doubt, it is challenging to follow the self-publication route. One encounters so many hoops to jump through. At times I felt that I simply do not know how to overcome the obstacles. What made it difficult for me perhaps was the fact that I wanted to publish my book using Latex.

Often the obstacles that one encounters are simply a matter of not know what to do. It is for this reason that the resources available on the web are of great value. There are too many to list, addressing various aspects in the process. However, some steps in the process still presents obstacles for which there is little or no help available. Those I encountered are specifically related to my choice to use Latex.

Here, I’ll give some advice to those that want to follow the same path I did using Latex. I like Latex. Having used it in my career to write technical articles for peer reviewed journals, I am comfortable with it. The alternative tends to annoy and frustrate me, especially when those wysiwyg editors try to be clever. Latex is especially good with cross-referencing. It also allows one the flexibility to do the interior design. But perhaps it best feature is … it is free! (Yes, I’m an open source junky.)

Although I did not find much help with using Latex for self-publication, there are resources for using Latex for whatever purpose. One that I can single out is the tex stack exchange. There one can pose questions or search of answers to similar questions.

The first step is obvious to write the book. My favorite text editor for this purpose is UltraEdit. (I bought it many years ago when it was still shareware.)

After this step there two paths that one can follow depending on the format that you aim for. Either one can produce an ebook or a printed book. I did both, however for the ebook one would convert the book into an html-based file. In the process, one basically loses all the Latex formatting. So, here I focus on the printing process.

To publish the book as a print-on-demand book, one can use various online printing services. I chose Amazon and IngramSpark. Both require print-ready PDF files. What does that mean? Here I learned something new. All PDF files are not the same. There are ISO standards for PDF files. (Who knew?) For PDF files that are intended for printing, one gets different so-called PDF/X formats. At first this presented a severe challenge to me. Then I found out that there is a pdfx.sty package that allows one to compile a Latex file in the required PDF/X format using the pdflatex command. That solved the problem.

One also needs to provide cover files in the required PDF/X format. For this you would probably not use Latex. I produced the graphics for the cover file using POV-Ray. The challenge was then to get this graphic file, which is a png file into the PDF/X format. After almost loosing my mind, I finally figured out how to do this.

There are several steps to achieve the final result. A png file only support RGB colours (the way it is produced by a computer screen). For printing one needs convert the image into CMYK colours (cyan, magenta, yellow and “key”, which is black). The image is then stored in an jpeg or tiff file. There is a very handy free software package that runs on command-line called ImageMagick. It can convert the png to jpeg or tiff and do all sort of other things that may help you to get the format right.

These graphic images must now be incorporated into a cover file and saved as a PDF/X. So one needs a design package. At one point I thought I’d have no other choice but to fork out the money for one of these exorbitantly expensive design packages. Then I found that I can use a free software package called Scribus to do the job. It allows you to compile the cover file with the correct dimensions and save it in the required PDF/X format.

There are more hoops to jump through, such as getting the ISBN number and setting up the financial aspects. But for these there are various resources available. For those like myself publishing from South Africa, I can recommend the blog by Rachel Morgan. The information she provided helped me very much.