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The House of Lords at its best March 31, 2010

Posted by Peter Hornby in Uncategorized.
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Jason Kottke, via @BenHammersley, points us to a recent discussion in the House of Lords, concerning the problem of mice in the chamber.  Read this, learn of hypoallergenic cats, and smile with me as you do so.

To ask the Chairman of Committees what measures are being considered to improve pest control in the Lords’ part of the Palace of Westminster.

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara): My Lords, the administration is fully aware of the problem with mice in the Palace of Westminster and is taking all appropriate measures to minimise their numbers. We retain the services of an independent pest control consultant and a full-time pest controller. The current focus is on poisoning and trapping, blocking of mouse access points, and more frequent cleaning of bars and restaurants to remove food debris. This programme was intensified over the February Recess and fewer sightings of mice have been reported since.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: I thank the noble Lord for his reply. How many calls have there been to the mouse helpline? Has the accuracy of that information been checked, given that the staff report seeing mice on a daily basis at the moment in the eating areas? Has consideration been given to having hypoallergenic cats on the estate, given the history? Miss Wilson, when she was a resident superintendent in this Palace, had a cat that apparently caught up to 60 mice a night. The corpses were then swept up in the morning. Finally, does the noble Lord recognise the fire hazard that mice pose, because they eat through insulating cables? It would be a tragedy for this beautiful Palace to burn down for lack of a cat.

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, there are a number of questions there. I cannot give an answer to the number of calls made to the mouse helpline-if that is its title. I suspect that it would not be a good use of resources to count them up. But I am well aware of the problem of mice, as I said in my Answer. It is something that we take seriously.

As for getting a cat, I answered a Question from the noble Lord, Lord Elton, last week on this matter. I was not aware that such a thing as a hypoallergenic cat existed-I do not know whether our cat at home is one of those. There are a number of reasons why it is not a good idea to have cats. First, they would ingest mouse poison when eating poisoned mice, which would not be very nice for them, and there would be nothing to keep them where they are needed or stop them walking around the House on desks in offices or on tables in restaurants and bars-and maybe even in the Chamber itself. Therefore, we have ruled out at this stage the possibility of acquiring a cat, or cats.

Lord Bradshaw: I have spoken continually to the staff in the eating places in the House and I acknowledge that there has been some diminution in the number of mice around. But could I press the noble Lord, because further action needs to be taken? I know that this is an old building, but mice are still here and we are talking about places where food is served. I have no magic solution, but perhaps the consultant who is being employed might have some answers.

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, I am well aware that there are still mice around. I saw one in the Bishops’ Bar only yesterday evening. I do not know whether it was the same one that I saw the day before or a different one; it is always difficult to tell the difference between the various mice that one sees. We believe that the problem is getting better. Cleaning is one of the measures we are taking, as I outlined in my original Answer. As I speak here this afternoon, the Bishops’ Bar and the Guest Room are being hoovered, so we can get rid of the food scraps from lunch. If you were a mouse, you would rather eat the crumbs of a smoked salmon sandwich than the bait. Therefore, we want to remove the crumbs as quickly as possible.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: Why should I and noble Lords trust the Executive to deal with mice when they cannot deal with the economy?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, I do not actually deal with the economy. I am glad to say that that would be above my pay grade, whereas trying to deal with the mice is probably just about right for me.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I was in total ignorance that there was anything of the nature of a mouse helpline until this Question Time. Can the Chairman of Committees tell us what helplines there are for Members of the House on other issues that we do not know about?

The Chairman of Committees: I rather hope that we do not have too many other ones. I was not going to advertise the existence of the mouse helpline, although it was advertised some time ago. Indeed, I invited Members of the House to telephone when they saw mice. The trouble is that when the person at the other end of the helpline goes to check this out, very often the mouse has gone elsewhere.

Your best chance to see Mercury March 30, 2010

Posted by Peter Hornby in astronomy.
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The planet Mercury, the closest planet in our solar system to the Sun, is not an easy object to see.  It’s always close to the Sun in the sky, so much so that you can pretty much never see it against a dark sky background, and it’s a small object, compared to the other major planets, so it never gets as bright as Jupiter or Venus.

The next couple of weeks offers as good a chance to catch Mercury as you’ll ever find, for northern hemisphere observers at least.  It’s fairly distant (relatively speaking) from the Sun in the evening sky, and, more importantly, Venus is in the same region of sky.  You can’t miss Venus, always the brightest object in the sky other than the Sun and the Moon, so it’s easy to use Venus as a guide to spot Mercury.

Check out this article from Sky & Telescope’s website.  Study the graphic, find the best western horizon you can and head out soon after sunset (around 7:15pm in southern California).  You’ll have a reasonable shot any night between now and early next week, after which Mercury will get too faint to be easily seen.  Your best best will probably be Saturday.

Good luck!

Amen, James Cameron! March 25, 2010

Posted by Peter Hornby in currentaffairs, movies, rationality.
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I don’t really know much about James Cameron, other than his ability to make modestly entertaining movies which earn astonishing amounts of money.  In particular, I’d never thought much about his views on the big issues of the day, such as global warming and the sanity of Glenn Beck.

However, following the wonderful outburst described in The Hollywood Reporter, (including a somewhat NSFW video), I have to count myself as one of his greatest admirers.  I shall go out and see Avatar immediately, if not sooner.

The centre of the galaxy – as never before March 24, 2010

Posted by Peter Hornby in astronomy.
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Here’s a remarkable movie loop, prepared by Professor Andrea Ghez and her research team at UCLA, and presented at a public lecture following her recent Aspen Center for Physics conference on “The Formation and Evolution of Black Holes”.

Let’s look at what’s going on here.  We’re looking at a tiny, tiny area, no more than a second of arc across, at the exact centre of the Milky Way galaxy, roughly 25,000 light years away.  We’re pretty certain that, like many, if not all, other galaxies, our Milky Way has a huge black hole at its centre.  One way astronomers can probe the location, size and habits of the central black hole is by watching the orbits of objects close to it.  Professor Ghez’s animation shows the movement of some of these objects over the fifteen year period from 1995 to 2010.  It’s made from real, actual images, taken using telescopes such as the Keck 10-meter monsters on Mauna Kea, and using the most sophisticated adaptive optics techniques imaginable.  It’s an astonishing feat of observational astronomy.

What we see is that these objects are orbiting something – you can see that two of them have completed, or almost completed, full orbits over the fifteen years spanned by the movie.  The object (S0-16) coming in from upper left, taking a fast turn around the black hole, and heading out again, approaches as close as 45 astrononomical units (1 AU is the distance of the earth from the Sun), which, to give you some scale, is around four billion miles, not much larger than the distance of Pluto from the Sun,  At its closest approach, it’s moving at 4% of the speed of light!  These orbits give a direct estimate of the mass of the central black hole – it comes out as roughly 3.7 million solar masses.  The current limiting factor on this estimate is that we don’t know exactly how far away the centre of the galaxy actually is!

Nowhere in the galaxy are conditions anything like as extreme as we’re seeing here.  The gravitational gradients are huge.  Professor Ghez has suggested, according to a commenter at the Cosmic Variance blog entry linked below, that it should actually be possible, within a decade or so, to directly observe the precession of the orbits of these objects which is predicted by General Relativity.

The idea that we can directly watch stars orbiting a black hole at the centre of our galaxy defies belief.

Link from Daniel Holz at Cosmic Variance.

Acknowledgement : This animation was created by Prof. Andrea Ghez and her research team at UCLA and are from data sets obtained with the W. M. Keck Telescopes.  Other images and animations can be seen at Prof. Ghez’s group website

HCR ructions in Washington state March 23, 2010

Posted by Peter Hornby in currentaffairs.
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Apparently the Washington State Attorney General, one Rob McKenna, possibly considering a run for Governor in 2012, has announced that he will be challenging the health care reform bill passed by the House of Representatives on Sunday evening, joining several other state AGs in this attempt.  It further seems that he didn’t bother to notify the Governor or other state leaders before announcing this move.  It would be an understatement of historic proportions to say that Governor Chris Gregoire is unhappy about McKenna’s action.  Check out her press conference:

Link from Kos via John Cole at Balloon Juice

Eric Whitacre’s virtual choir March 23, 2010

Posted by Peter Hornby in music.
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You really, really have to watch this.

What’s going on?  This is Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir, so let’s have Eric explain how it came to be.

In short, every singer is this video is doing nothing more than watching Eric’s conductor video and listening to his piano track, using the score of  Lux Aurumque.  No one is hearing anyone else.  No one heard anything else until Eric released the consolidated piece last week.

It’s a total triumph.

Watching the beautiful, engaged young faces as they worked hard to do the best job they could is a spine-tingling experience, and one which makes me feel optimistic about the future of choral music.

Design genius March 23, 2010

Posted by Peter Hornby in tech.
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From the Why Didn’t I Think Of That category, noted by John Naughton from a report in The Guardian.  The young man presenting this video, Min-Kyu Choi, graduated from the Royal College of Art last year, and was awarded Britain’s most prestigious design prize last week.  A company has already been set up to market the device.

Six healthcare myths March 23, 2010

Posted by Peter Hornby in currentaffairs.
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According to Brad DeLong, this, from Alter S. Reiss, was originally linked from Making Light.  It’s good to have some of these myths cleared up.

Oh, and do make sure you don’t miss the comments.