Sunrise still later after Winter Solstice

Several people asked me about the odd phenomenon that in these here parts sunrise gets later each day until early January even though the days themselves get longer after the winter solstice.


From EarthSky: The winter solstice always brings the shortest day to the Northern Hemisphere and the longest day to the Southern Hemisphere. But, the tardiest sunrise doesn’t coincide with the day on which the sun is above the horizon for the shortest time, fewest daylight hours; similarly, the latest sunsets don’t happen on the day of greatest daylight.

Why is this? The main reason is that the Earth’s rotational axis is tilted to the plane of our orbit around the sun. If it were perpendicular to the orbital plane we wouldn’t perceive this discrepancy.

A secondary reason is that the Earth’s orbit is eccentric (an ellipse, like a squashed circle, with the centre of the sun slightly off its centre), Earth travels fastest in January and slowest in July. Clock time gets a bit out of sync with sun time — by about 30 seconds each day for several weeks around the winter solstice. Adapted from Latest sunrises for mid-northern latitudes in early January.

Additionally, says Royal Museums Greenwich, the longest natural day is about 51 seconds longer than the shortest. But, for clocks to be useful, days need to be fixed in length. We fix them on the average, or mean, length of a natural day (hence Greenwich Mean Time). By averaging out the length of each day like this, the clock time at which the sun reaches its highest point slowly drifts back and forth as the months progress. There is a knock-on effect on the times of sunrise and sunset. The earliest sunrise occurs a number of days before the longest day and the latest a number of days after the shortest.

If you want to know more, the keyword is analemma.

Just looking this year. Sunset begins to get slightly later by the 12th December but sunrise continues to get later to until January. The shortest day in the northern hemisphere will nevertheless be 21st December in 2020

No news is good news

Depending on whether or not you’re a pessimist or an optimist, either the aphorism “no news is good news” holds true or the maxim “all publicity is good publicity” is more accurate. But, could whether news is good or bad be self-perpetuating, particularly in terms of business and financial news?

UK researchers have analysed the impact of the financial crisis that began in 2008 by looking at news output in terms of company chair financial statements for the period 2006 to 2010 for financial companies. The regression analysis by Khaled Hussainey of the Plymouth Business School, at the University of Plymouth and colleagues suggests that overall UK financial companies disclose more good news information than bad news information. However, they also found that the crisis affected the financial reporting of good news and bad news. “After controlling for other firm characteristics and corporate governance mechanisms, UK financial companies disclose more bad news information during and after the crisis period, while they disclose less good news during these periods.”

Economists have predicted that the financial crisis of 2008 may well have a more detrimental impact in the long term than the so-called Great Depression of the 1930s. The crisis began in the USA when bad debts sold and then used as collateral for yet more borrowing ultimately led to a massive collapse of value across the global economy. While the notion that one should “neither a borrower nor a lender be” is perhaps unrealistic in the modern world, and probably always was, the crisis led to the failure of countless companies from small enterprises to massive banking conglomerates and many others. Governments around the world are still clamouring to prove that they now have a grip on growth but in the wake of multi-billion bank bailouts they are still foisting enormous austerity measures on the public through swingeing cuts to public services and more. Indeed, some regions are essentially bankrupt and however you look at it deficits that reach into the trillions suggest that the concept of anything having a real economic value has been lost entirely in some sense.

The problem that the Plymouth team has uncovered is that the 2008 “crisis” can be used and is being used as an external scapegoat for internal problems in many companies. The issue probably extends to governments. It is interesting to watch those in power being flown by private jet and chauffeured in luxurious cars from meeting to meeting will a well-stocked mini bar and buffet in every hotel room. Meanwhile, poverty was never made history and millions, if not billions, of people continue to suffer disease, lack of food, poor living conditions. What was that about pessimists and optimists? Your glass is it half full or half empty?

Research Blogging IconSaid Ressas, M. and Hussainey, K. (2014) ‘Does financial crisis affect financial reporting of good news and bad news?’, Int. J. Accounting, Auditing and Performance Evaluation, Vol. 10, No. 4, pp.410—429.

Science is not just a theory

I say theory, he says theory but what do you think we mean when we talk about theories, like Big Bang theory, the theory of evolution by natural selection, the theory of relativity (both general and special) and quantum theory. Well, we don’t mean it’s “just” a theory, like some vague idea a bloke down the pub came up with to explain the woes of the world, it’s not some conspiracy theory. If only we could’ve been more positive and used another word without the negative connotations of the man on the Clapham omnibus’ conception of the word theory…well, that’s the theory anyway.

Put them on hold

It’s a quarter of a century since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but still lives are put on hold by those who will divide and subjugate us. Isn’t it time, once again, to reject their calls, put them on hold?

Put them on hold

I made the call that I’m a free man
I talked wild of spirit, throughout the land
I saw the wonders that were open to mankind
I held up hope and love and life as gifts that we might shine

Then days became much darker than the night
The hope we had soon vanished from our sight
The love we took for granted we’d never find
Life fading fast as fear our hearts would bind

We put you on hold
Despite your objections
Despite your deflections
You will do as your told

When you’re out in the cold
No time for reflection
No more defection
We bring you into the fold

I dreamed that I could be a free man
I wondered if my spirit just might find a plan
I saw with wonder how despair crushed all mankind
No hope to hold, no love nor life to help us shine

We put you on hold
Despite your objections
Despite your deflections
You will do as your told

When you’re out in the cold
No time for reflection
No more defection
We’ll drag you into the fold

But, surely we can this hate denounce
We can this fear renounce
If there’s one ounce, one single ounce of decency left inside

We put them on hold
Despite their objections
Despite their deflections
We come in from the cold

We tear down the walls
At last, On reflection
from your hate we’re defecting
We reject all your calls
We reject all your calls

From my mini-album Songs of Experience
Words & 雷竞技官网 by 雷竞技官网
Vocals, instrumentation and mixing by DB

Cover art adapted from a photo by Saxon Moseley. More information about the photo here


Now with added belltree, but no cowbell (yet)

Is breast best?

Is it oversharing to tell you I wasn’t breastfed as an infant? Tough. I don’t feel that being bottlefed formula milk did me any harm. Breastfeeding is natural but it’s not always possible for new mothers and the push from the healthcare workers for breast is best waxes and wanes as any social fashion.

There is a lot of guilt poured on mothers who (a) choose to breast feed their infant (b) choose not to breast feed their infant (c) cannot breast feed their infant. Take your pick, there’s guilt from every angle. If it’s physiologically possible it should be every mother’s personal choice, but none should be made to feel guilty for the choice they make, especially not on health grounds fo their child.

Research published earlier this year looked at various indicators of health over a 25 year period between siblings breast fed and not breast fed. The bottom line is that “much of the beneficial long-term effects typically attributed to breastfeeding, per se, may primarily be due to selection pressures into infant feeding practices along key demographic characteristics such as race and socioeconomic status.”

The researchers report that, “A mother’s decision to breastfeed her child as well as how long she is able to do so is based on a complex web of personal, familial, and social factors.” Women often have to cut their working hours to carry on breastfeeding for some time after the baby’s birth. “This trade off, however, may be especially untenable for poor or minority women who already face reduced access to steady, full-time employment, have few or no benefits, and lower than average salaries often in conjunction with the added pressures of single parenthood,” they say.

Breast or bottle is a small component in a bigger picture of the growing child’s short-term and long-term health. Like all environmental factors the impact is strongly affected by all the other factors and it is very unlikely that any single factor unless obviously detrimental (such as not being vaccinated and succumbing to measles, mumps, rubella or whatever or being run over by a bus) will add up to a significant effect on long-term health.

Is breast truly best? Estimating the effects of breastfeeding on long-term child health and wellbeing in the United States using sibling comparisons.

Don’t worry about anxiety

This week’s BBC “Point of View” was purportedly humanist but is perhaps an age-old perspective that humanity has sought and found many times throughout history for living with less worry and hopefully overcoming existentialist angst at least temporarily.

Adam Gopnik identifies four different types of anxiety that afflict modern people and suggests ways to cure them. Bottom line: make the thrill of the ameliorative, the joy of small reliefs, of the case solved and mystery dissipated and the worry ended, for now – to make those things as sufficient to live by as they are good to experience.

If it’s 10:1 it’s going to happen, then it probably will, this week. 100:1? This year! 1000:1? Maybe this decade. 10000:1 Just once in a lifetime. 100000:1 it ain’t gonna happen. In the words of Bobby McFerrin: Don’t worry, be happy!

You can listen to Gopnik’s monologue via the BBC. If you’re not in licence-fee territory (Britland) you may need to find a proxy or a VPN to tunnel into the UK…

#anxiety #depression #coping #strategies #psyche #psychology #angst #death #fear

Who was Gerry Mander?



UPDATE: Apparently, the G in gerrymandering is a hard G*

Moving the political goalposts – Gerrymandering is the deliberate design of voting districts to achieve a specific outcome other than fair representation in a governmental election. It is named for US Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, who signed the Massachusetts Senate Redistricting Bill of 1812 that included several “creatively” drawn districts designed to ensure his political party’s continued majority in the state senate. This less than ethical approach to democracy continues unabated in many parts of the world to this day.

In 1973, political scientist PJ Taylor defined various shapes in The American Political Science Review, 1973, Vol. 67, No. 3, pp.947—950) that revealed the creation of indentations, elongations, separations and other choice boundary movements that were indicative of gerrymandering. Unfortunately, politicians, while not renowned for the subtlety on many matters are rather too adept at masking their unethical behaviors. The term originated with an editorial cartoon entitled ‘Gerry-mander’ that portrayed one oddly shaped district in Gerry’s redistricting plan of 1812 showing a salamander with wings (Boston Gazette, 1812). Now, Brian Lunday Assistant Professor of Operations Research at the Graduate School of Engineering and Management at the US Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright Patterson Airforce Base, in Ohio, USA, has developed a mathematical metric to provide quantitative evidence building on the somewhat more subtle shapes proposed by Taylor .

Wikipedia cites examples of gerrymandering in modern times in Australia, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Ireland, Kuwait, Latvia, Lithuania, Malaysia, Malta, Nepal, Philippines, Singapore, Sudan and the UK…but of course, the vice is used elsewhere and in particular in the home of gerrymandering the USA. Gerrymandering is essentially precluded in Israel and The Netherlands because there is only a single voting district for elections there.

Lunday explains that in the US, at least, for House of Representatives as well as state legislatures, political districts exist to ensure elected representatives are responsible for and accountable to the residential constituents from local geographic regions rather than representing a state at large, lest a legislator be potentially more accountable to a political party. As populations grow and relocate, so boundaries must be shifted periodically to ensure fair representation. It is at these times that gerrymandering can be carried out to shift the political focus of particular regions, which has to be considered an unfair exploit within a democratic system.

Lunday has looked at the 16 main shapes and compared 80 different combinations to find the metrics associated with each that might be combined into a single figure to define whether gerrymandering has or has not been implemented. He has also calibrated the metric against recent “redistricting” plans. He has proposed a method for evaluating objectively the shape of political districts based on the presence of undesirable geometric characteristics such as puncturedness, indentation, elongation, and separation, the presence of which portend the absence of compactness and/or contiguity, he says, the metric was calibrated against court decisions by federal courts and the Supreme court on boundary changes. Tests of the metric against human judgment of whether or not gerrymandering took place are highly correlated (correlation coefficient of 0.804, which means a little over 8 times out of 10, the metric was right to say whether gerrymandering took place or not).

Research Blogging IconLunday, B.J. (2014) ‘A metric to identify gerrymandering’, Int. J. Society Systems Science, Vol. 6, No. 3, pp.285—304.

In case you hadn’t realised my headline and graphic is a joke, there was no Gerry Mander in this context, rather, the word is a portmanteau of Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry’s name, with “salamander” and was coined in a famous cartoon showing “The Gerry-Mander”, this political satire lampooned the way in which Gerry had adjusted borders to favour specific candidates in the 1812 elections.


*Elbridge Gerry New England politician whose political map inspired the cartoon, pronounced it with a hard G.

Spiders on drugs

Back in the day, when I was freelancing regularly for New Scientist, the magazine covered the story of the errant webs created by spiders that had been exposed to (THC) from marijuana, LSD, speed and various other drugs including caffeine and alcohol . This was an issue in 1995, if I remember rightly. There was a follow up a “humourous” video many years later, which you can watch here:

As you can see the spiders don’t do their best work when they’re stoned on various psychoactive drugs and the social outcomes are not optimal it has to be said. The original New Scientist story from 1995 is here (paywall); perhaps surprisingly the research was done by NASA.

Liquid energy

My latest news story for Chemistry World is on the topic of stationary energy storage and a rather unique concept – liquid metal batteries.

Researchers at MIT have developed such a device, which could allow electricity generated by intermittent, but renewable sources, such as wind, solar and wave power. Such a battery could lower the overall costs of energy storage while also having the advantages of small physical footprint and mechanical simplicity.


Stanford University materials scientist Robert Huggins was very positive of the development:

“There is currently a large amount of research and development underway on energy storage in various types of batteries,” Huggins told me. “Much of this relates to various versions of lithium-based batteries. However, the invention of the three-level liquid metal battery by Sadoway and his co-workers at MIT is unique.”

Huggins points out that the work which uses three layers of liquid lithium, antimony and lead, which are maintained in the liquid state by electrical energy itself keeping it at 450 Celsius, “is leading to the development of an entirely different type of energy storage device, applicable to a different set of applications and technical requirements, in which size, weight and portability are not critical parameters. Instead, cost, high rate performance, safety and lifetime are most important,” he adds.

The approach has many advantages in terms of being safer than conventional batteries with solution electrolytes that can leak into the environment. If this battery fails the components freeze instantly and so cannot leach into the environment. “Characteristics of this new approach to energy-storage technology are especially applicable to large-scale energy storage, such as that which could be employed in connection with solar or wind energy systems. Intermittent cloud cover or sudden shifts in the velocity or direction of the wind can cause major rapid changes in the output of such important systems,” Huggins told me. “The development of new methods and technologies that can alleviate this transient problem is of great importance. The work of the Sadoway group is clearly one of the most interesting approaches to this problem. I think that it is important to give visibility to this important work, which is very different from what is being done in other laboratories throughout the world.”

I was slightly concerned with the fact that this system uses lead, but Sadoway pointed out an obvious benefit of using liquid metals over solutions. “Lead is not a problem as it is inside a sealed container,” he told me. “It’s not going to be venting or leaking into the environment. Safety is not an issue in the course of normal use. In fact, if the battery case were breached and the contents leaked, they would freeze. In this sense, a battery that is operative only at elevated temperature is safer than a battery that is operative at ambient temperature. If the case of a lithium-ion battery is breached, the contents can leak into the environment with attendant harm. Plus, we know that it is forbidden to ship lithium-ion batteries by air transport. The liquid metal battery, in contrast, can be safely shipped by any means since at room temperature the contents are solid metal and salt, i.e., totally disabled.”

My full news story: Molten metal batteries set to store grid power.

The image above by Felice Frankel shows a model of just such a liquid metal battery at room temperature, in a glass container. The bottom layer is the positive electrode. In the real battery this is an alloy of antimony and lead, represented here by mercury. The middle layer is the electrolyte – in reality, a mixed molten salt; here, a solution of salt in water. The top layer is the current collector of the negative electrode, a metal mesh of iron-nickel alloy.

A simple flowchart for trolls

The end of all name-calling arguments during childhood is often the intervention of an adult with a phrase such as: “If you’ve got nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all”. If only we could apply parental rule #4.6/d to the childish online, the twitter trolls, the youtube haters, the blog spammers and others. Here’s a handy flowchart you may cut out and keep and pin to your computer screen so that next time you are making a decision regarding a Twitter reply, a Facebook update or are commenting on a blog, a video or some other creative output, you will know how to behave graciously.