37 Days

I’ve just finished watching the BBC three part series ‘37 Days‘. It is about the 5 weeks leading up to the First World War, and is portrayed from the British, German, Russian, Austrian and French sides. The drama is primarily set in the Cabinet Room of the British government, and mainly following the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey.

The drama highlights the muddle of different treaties that various European countries had with each other, and I was left with a slight impression that these treaties did more harm than good in some circumstances, at least in guaranteeing a war not just in the Balkans but across the globe. It also made clear the importance of Belgium, both in the 1910s and in the century preceding it. As a character states in the last part of the series: “Waterloo was supposed to be the last battle fought on Belgian soil.” After the bloody Napoleonic wars the major powers in Europe had pledged to protect the country on the border of both Germany and France. Any attack on Belgium automatically brings everyone into the fray. Whereas parts of the Anglo-French ‘Entente cordiale’ were enforceable only through honour, the British guaranteed Belgium’s neutrality under law.

 

The Moltke bridge in Berlin, near the Hauptbahnhof (photo taken during a recent trip). This is named after Helmuth von Moltke, The Elder, who led the Prussian armies during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) and was considered a hero of the Unification Wars. His nephew, Helmuth Johann Ludwig von Moltke, was the Chief of Staff of the German Army at the outbreak of World War 1, and was considered to have played a major driving force behind the belligerance shown by the German leaders.

The Moltke bridge in Berlin, near the Hauptbahnhof (photo taken during a recent trip). This is named after Helmuth von Moltke, The Elder, who led the Prussian armies during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) and was considered a hero of the Unification Wars. His nephew, Helmuth Johann Ludwig von Moltke, was the Chief of Staff of the German Army at the outbreak of World War 1, and was considered to have played a major driving force behind the belligerance shown by the German leaders.

The programmes also show that the war in 1914 was not inevitable; that it could have been stopped had the warmongering Kaiser been curtailed. As it turned out, nationalist army generals such as the Chief of Staff von Moltke influenced and weak politicians failed to influence the Kaiser, and every effort was made to avoid a peaceful settlement of the crisis in the Balkans started by the assassination of Franz-Ferdinand. A recent set of interviews with historians on the BBC almost unanimously agreed that the Kaiser and his staff were to blame for the conflict that ensued. The drama makes this crystal clear.

The extent of the British and French empires at their peak in 1920, just after the end of the First World War. The Entente cordiale brought together two of the biggest world powers at the time.

The extent of the British and French empires at their peak in 1920, just after the end of the First World War. The Entente cordiale brought together two of the biggest world powers at the time.

It makes you realise that the course of events that caused the two World Wars were sewn in the century or more prior to the outbreak of the first one. The Kaiser envied the empires of the French and the British, empires built over two hundred years of brutal colonialism. The belligerent European powers in the 20th Century had a profound impact on the entire world.

I thoroughly recommend a viewing to anyone interested in history. This is a brilliant set of programmes.

Indirect Detection of Gravitational Waves

UPDATE: It turns out the researchers were a little over-exuberant about their claims. I’ve posted an update since this post was published.

My last post talked about the speculation over the weekend, and it turns out that when there’s speculation of a discovery from the physics and astronomy community, there’s usually some truth. There are too many graduate students wanting to sound cool to their friends by letting the cat out the bag!

The details of the discovery are laid out in a good BBC article, and, for the more scientific minded, a blog post by Sean Carroll.

Now, with extra material to add to the growing list of evidence, I hope the first direct detection from a gravitational wave comes in the next few years courtesy of Advanced LIGO, Advanced Virgo, KAGRA and GEO-HF.

Detection of Gravitational Waves?

Yesterday evening, I was on the way to the pub with a colleague when I looked at my phone. I had 5 work new emails, all of them discussing a rumour that an announcement due to be made this Monday by the team in charge of the BICEP Telescope in Antarctica. By the time I got home after the pub, I had had a further few emails, and there was also an article on The Guardian website confirming the rumour.

Gravitational waves are the last piece of Einstein’s jigsaw. In 1916 he published his Theory of General Relativity, which made sweeping predictions as to how the universe works. Over the past century, every aspect of his theory has been rigorously tested and proved to be, at least at our current level of understanding, true. That is, every aspect, except gravitational waves. These have alluded everyone so far, and there have been plenty of attempts. Joseph Weber thought he had discovered them in the 1960s with a type of detector consisting of a large bar of metal with sensors attached. It turned out to be a false alarm though, and efforts since then have focused more and more on using light itself as the metre stick. Two techniques currently used to try to detect the waves are pulsar timing arrays and laser interferometers.

The first technique is the one used by the BICEP Telescope who might announce something on Monday. This involves looking for changes to signals in large datasets, signals which might have been caused by passing gravitational waves. As such this would be referred to as an ‘indirect’ detection. The second technique is one of the few ways in which we could hope to make a direct detection, a detection that involves gravitational waves physically interacting with the test apparatus. The Advanced LIGO and Advanced Virgo telescopes are likely to be the first to make detections when they come online in the next few years.

I work as part of the collaboration of universities developing these new interferometers and thinking of ways to improve their sensitivity. I don’t know too much about the pulsar timing array research, but this is big news for my field if this turns out to be a detection. I am looking forward to the news conference on Monday!

Hattrick Player Tracker

One of my current projects is the building and running of a player tracker for Hattrick. Hattrick is an online football management game where players can start teams, enter leagues, buy and sell players and eventually try to win some trophies. There are a few things about it that I think are nice:

  • The games take place in real time, so league games are weekly. No need to be online all the time to be successful.
  • A decent community of fellow football fans, and special forums for fans of particular clubs or nations to come together.
  • A national team aspect, allowing you to take part in the ups and downs of your club’s country’s national team.

It’s this last aspect that in particular is exciting. Every 6 months, the players in a nation can vote for an individual to become the national team manager. This person then has to call up players from clubs around the world in order to try to win national team games. This process is often tricky, because the manager does not see the skills a particular player has until they are called up. The manager can’t call up more than a handful of players at a time, and every time they call someone up the squad’s morale takes a hit. This means that it is very much advantageous to have a network of scouts working for the national team, keeping track of player skills wherever they can get their hands on them.

The scouting aspect is where I come in to play. I thought it would be fun to get involved in my national team in Hattrick (Scotland), but I’m by no means the most tactically astute person in the country. My talents are better served in making an automatic tracking system, which is what I’ve done. Around this time last year, I started working on Hattrick Scotland, a website where users can register to have their players’ skills tracked. After registering, a special access token is retrieved from Hattrick to allow the website to access Hattrick on their behalf. Then the user may leave, and not necessarily have to come back ever again. With the token, I can use scripts to systematically and periodically access the required data that the national team scouts require.

With a database of player skills available, scouts can then access the site to view this data privately. Scouts are assigned by the national manager and so the site can identify them and let them access the database accordingly. It was a lot of work to put this together, but I found it fun learning the reasonably new aspects of PHP 5. The last time I used PHP on a large scale was when I was in high school, hacking together forum software for my friends and I. I learned it the way that most kids do, by online examples. It turns out that PHP is very much a victim of its own ease of use, and a sizeable chunk of its users are equally oblivious to basic programming paradigms. For a long time, the examples available regarding aspects of PHP were hacky and didn’t follow good programming practice. This can be important, because programs are increasingly being reused rather than rewritten as they become more complex, and powerful new features to modern languages often require programs to be organised in a certain fashion. The consequences of this meant that coming into the task of programming a player tracker, my experience with PHP was biased towards the ‘get it done quickly’ attitude.

The initial site I made was a reasonably badly written pile of code. After a little while I started to realise that I had made some fundamental mistakes in the design of the tracker, and went back to the drawing board. The design I eventually ended up using turns out to be quite similar to Django and other web frameworks. This was a happy accident, and it meant that I could add new features quickly towards the end of summer last year, after weekends and evenings spent here and there on the project. Now the tracker is more or less complete in its initial purpose, and additions I’ve made since then have been along the lines of ease of use and look and feel rather than functionality.

Running a large site like this has some interesting challenges. Although there are only around 80,000 Scottish players to track in Hattrick, which is a small number to relational databases that power most large websites, there are plenty of other things that also need tracked. Each player’s skills are of course the primary information to track, but it’s also useful to track this across time – is a player improving with time or are they being neglected? This is important information that the national team manager must be able to find out. Also, details of the matches the players have played in are important, so the manager and scouts can work out if the player has been getting the correct game time they require to improve. All of this leads to a database with many millions of rows of data, each needing to be organised and stored. It’s certainly been a good learning exercise.

Since some of the code I’ve written I am quite proud of, I think I will eventually release this project as an open source program, letting other Hattrick countries adopt their own trackers. I have not yet done this because I want Scotland to gain an advantage from having a shiny, new and featureful tracker, at least for a while. My work has appeared to have inspired other countries to start developing similar trackers, so when the advantage diminishes I will open up the code. I am sure there are plenty of improvements that could be made by other members of the community.