September 30, 2004

Done at school

Having made my journal club talk, my responsibilities here are complete.

Title slide of the talk I gave today.

And with that, some last-minute shopping awaits. After which, there shall be packing, interspersed with yelling at the tele during the debates. Tally-ho.

Posted by Milligan at 4:25 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 29, 2004

Surveying the Conflict

In visiting Israel, the elephant in the room, the reason everybody keeps telling me to stay off the busses, is the low-level civil war they've had going for the past few years. The State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs cheerfully declares that Americans should reconsider travel to Israel. But then again, and not to suggest that Powell thinks Americans are complete wussies or anything, they also warn that all travel to that big place called "abroad" might be considered risky.

I have generally been under the impression, and people who research this kind of thing more than I do seem to agree, that war is confusing and reliable facts hard to come by. Nevertheless, when it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, there seems to be no shortage of people both offering and arguing from what appear to be suprisingly complete, detailed statistics on the conflict. Clearly, we are talking about an amazingly well-documented war for one that the media largely ignores. In analyzing wars, as in cosmology, I tend not to trust those who claim to have a curious abundance of data.

What is clearly the case, almost any way one treats the numbers, is that as a non-Jew, non-Israeli, I am in somewhat to considerably greater danger from the Israeli Defence Force than I am from the Palestinian resistance, even if I stay out of Gaza (as I will).

On the topic of establishing who can be trusted, this database can come in handy. As the site says, the emphasis of the project is on cataloging articles as they come out, along with their provenance -- background information on the authors and publishers, so that they can be judged on their track records. My impression so far is that a depressingly large fraction of the extant literature is wholly unreliable. While this is true on all sides of the debate, I would particularly highlight out the pro-Zionist think tanks and some of the Arab state-run media outlets as the locus of two extremist poles of thought, each working out of its own fantasy world, totally incompatable with that of the other, not to mention the real world.

It's worth mentioning that our current president has an imaginary world of his own, too, and certain folks are starting to call him on it.

To close on a brighter note, it's good to see that some people are still advocating for a nonviolent approach to resolving the situation. A few thousand guerilla fighters will not stop and certainly cannot destroy an adversary like Israel. A million ordinary people resolved to flaunt the unjust restrictions placed upon them. however, has brought down much larger and better-entrenched systems of repression than this. If this basic fact is in the air, not all hope is lost.

Posted by Milligan at 6:32 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

I needed a book

Date: Wed, 29 Sep 2004 07:40:20 -0500 (CDT)
From: "P.E. Robinson" 
To: Michael Milligan 
Subject: Re: being cheap

You can borrow my copy if...

you can give me a quantitative answer to this:

are there more stars in the universe than grains of sand on the Earth?
One of my students asked me this, and I told him that I thought stars
would win...but I figured you have probably actually thought about this...


On Tue, 28 Sep 2004, Michael Milligan wrote:

> Hey folks!
> Being as it's expenseive and hard to find, and since you (hopefully)
> only take grad e+m once and always do the homework with other people
> anyway, I never bothered to acquire a copy of Jackson.
> Yet, as fate and my big mouth would have it, I've landed a line of
> research that would be made easier by having one handy for the next few
> months.  I.e., while I'm in Israel.
> Anyone feel like loaning me their copy for a while?  It'll be about as
> likely as I am to come back in good condition.
> Thanks,
> ...Milligan

Ah, a challenge. The best way to win a book. Or, as I've found, a good way to annoy students while teaching them about scientific notation. Naturally, if contrary to the usual wisdom, sand throws down.

Pity he had to add the "on the Earth" bit, because I was all ready to throw in the snarky point that there are vastly more grains of sand than stars. Figure an Earthlike, water-eroded planet contains around <N> grains. Well, it's got to be true that more than 1/<N> stars will harbor such a planet. Especially when we consider just how big that is.

The question Paul really asked, though, is how compares to what we'll call N*, the number of stars contained in our local Hubble volume. NASA thinks this number is around 1021, although 2dF survey data suggest it's closer to 1023; personally, I'm a little leery of the effect of cosmic variance on the 2dF sample, though -- that's rather a lot larger than previous estimates.

Giving the stars the benefit of the doubt, let's say a typical grain of sand occupies a cubic millimeter (they're generally a little smaller). That puts 1018 grains in a cubic kilometer.

Let's say a typical beach extends 100 m inland. I don't know how deep the sand generally is, but I'd imagine 10 m is a reasonable estimate. That gives a beach a cross-sectional area of about .001 km2. A book and documentary by PBS suggests there are 1.6 million km of coastline on Earth; we'll call it 1 million since not all of that is sandy beach, for a total of 1000 cubic kilometers of beach sand, or about 1021 grains.

Already we're up to the lower value of N*; to push <N> over the top, consider that continental shelves are also sandy, if submerged, and extend 1-10 km from the shore. So chalk up at least another two orders of magnitude for the ground-up rock.

Now, just to be mean, we'll throw in the deserts, where the real sand is hiding. There are at least four really big ones: the Sahara, the Gobi, the Austalian Outback, and our very own Chihuahan-Permian desert. Each is on the order of a thousand miles on a side (some more, some less), and in deep desert, I wouldn't be surprised if the sand goes down rather more than 10 m, perhaps to 100 m or so. A few times a million square kilometers times a reasonable fraction of 100 m comes out to 100,000 cubic kilometers of sand, as much or more as in all the planet's continental shelves, and at least as many as the most generous estimate of N*.

Posted by Milligan at 1:37 PM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

September 25, 2004

Points of Reference in Lower Manhattan

My final morning in New York was spent tromping around the financial district in lower Manhattan, ostensibly because I needed to buy traveler's checks before going abroad. What I stumbled upon constitutes a remarkable collection of abutting, intertwined sacred spaces smeared across what, during a typical workday, becomes one of the most densely populated few square blocks on Earth.

Section of a Manhattan map, courtesy Circled are the locations of Trinity Church, St. Paul Chapel, the site of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, the New York Stock Exchange; an arrow points to Liberty Island.

It may help those not intimately familiar with the geography of the place (such as myself; a good map would have saved me some walking in circles looking for the subway station) to refer to this map. For scale, the section depicted is just under a half-mile across, and as the crow flies, the Stock Exchange is about a quarter of a mile from St. Paul Chapel.

When I disembarked my bus in Battery Park City near the World Financial Center Plaza, not being entirely daft, I knew that I would be near the so-called "Ground Zero," the former site of the World Trade Center complex. Thus I had decided to take a look around the area, with the general goal of discovering what reaction the place might evoke for me. And, because I am a fan of the obscure and overlooked, I set out to find whatever might remain of the least-mentioned building destroyed, St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church.

The first church I found was less obscure.

Trinity Church, as seen from Rector Street, just outside its south courtyard. 2004:09:20 10:31:01

The parish dates back to the walled city of New Amsterdam, and their website indicates that the present building was completed in 1846. Its neogothic ediface looks less out of place among the skyscrapers than one might expect, but I freely confess that this could simply be due to acclimation at the U of Chicago, a bastion of urban neogothic architecture.

St. Paul's Chapel. 2004:09:20 10:49:36

Another historical church in the area is St. Paul Chapel. Their publicists make much of the fact that the place would have been destroyed when the towers fell, if not for a large sycamore tree in the graveyard that caught the debris. It proved difficult to take a decent picture of the chapel, though, due to the heavy traffic on Broadway. In fact, the whole area sports heavy traffic of both the motor and pedestrian variety. This has nothing to do with the lovely historic churches, or even the proximity to "Ground Zero," and everything to do with the fact that they are across the street from the Vatican City of finance.

Looking up Wall Street to the entrance of Trinity Church at Broadway, from the intersection of Wall and New Streets. Notice the bronze polyhedrons in the street that prohibit motor traffic here. 2004:09:20 10:41:38

The corner of Wall Street and New Street is notable for the well-dressed and harried-looking populace, for security fences and roadblocks, and for being the location of the Bank of New York, the Citibank world headquarters (at least, I think that's what it is) and yes, the New York Stock Exchange. What's more, the Federal Reserve Bank, and a few other institutions of some puissance, lie variously behind me. As illustrated, Trinity Church faces squarely down Wall Street, as though challenging the money-changers to do their worst, which they characteristically do without the least consideration of urban symbolism.

The south border of the World Trade Center site, looking across from Liberty Street to the Verizon building on the other side. The edge is visible of one of the many informational signs posted on the fence. This one appears to deal with the historical expansion of the city on Manhattan Island.

After buying my certified monetary-equivalent instruments (from a machine, with my ATM card, as the people apparently had better things to do), I proceeded back towards the World Trade Center site, where I found relatively little to react to. A tall steel fence surrounds a construction site several acres in extent, suprisingly well organized given that my understanding suggests nobody knows exactly what is going to be constructed therein. The forbidding nature of the thing is tempered slightly by the large informational signs posted at intervals, such as one might find at a historical monument or museum. The touristy ambiance is completed by the ubiquitous vendors who will run up to anyone that pauses for a second, trying to hawk garish pamphlets in red, white, and blue, sporting conspicuous headlines like "TRAGEDY" and "TERROR!"

Construction equipment and field offices now occupy the site where St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church stood. 2004:09:20 10:23:08

According to maps and pre-2001 satellite imagery, St. Nicholas stood at the base of the southern pedestrian bridge over West Street. Unlike the abundantly visible and curated "Ground Zero," I only found an area surrounded by boarded-over chain link and construction netting. With some effort, I was able to find a gap large enough to stick a camera into, and took the above picture, which seems to show a parking lot and staging area for construction supplies and workers. To be fair, there really wasn't anything left of the little church, as the south tower's debris fell more or less right onto it; the web page linked above indicates that they were basically able to recover a couple of icons and a book. Still, given that the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese is committed to rebuilding the church, I was struck that the main site, with no clear plan in place, is under busy construction, whereas here, where it is basically known what will be done, is a parking lot.

Posted by Milligan at 3:58 AM | Comments (5)

September 23, 2004

Aerial Photography

Traditionally, seeking out the high ground is considered a reliable means of establishing one's location. The phenomenon of aerial photography, however, proves the limits of this common intuition. From a sufficient altitude, such as from the cabin of a cruising passenger jet, the sorts of things we usually use as landmarks fade into obscurity, and only the broadest patterns and most megalithic features stand out.

View out an airplane window, not far west of New York City. 2004:09:17 13:49:23

Give it some time, though, and something recognizable tends to pop up. Okay, sure, in this case it kind of hit me over the head. Definitely an "Aha! Now I know where I am!" moment.

As seen from 15000 feet above NJ, color corrected to adjust for haze. 2004:09:17 13:53:03

Now it's only fair to point out, the camera has pretty decent resolution, and can make the image stand still, so this is arguably a better view than I actually had out my window. At night, the human eye has more of an advantage, although I might have done better by manually reducing the exposure time and artificially brightening the thing afterwards.

I've always loved flying at night, for two principal and related reasons: the lights, and the lights. When the cabin is dimmed and my eyes dark-adapt, the stars are quite a sight. There aren't a superbly large number visible, since reflections and whatnot in the airplane windows don't make for the best optical situation, but the clarity is unbeatable. Unless, of course, I find myself wintering on the Antarctic ice plateau.

The other lights are the ones on the ground. Small towns tend to be organic blobs, irregular galaxies of (mostly) streetlights. Bigger cities have more order to them, with a bright core, regular patterns of streetlighted thoroughfares and brilliant winding highways, dark lanes of industrial complexes, freightyards, and rivers. You can't really see this by day; the stuff that people do is all mixed in with the colors and shapes of natural topography. Others must find this notion alluring as well, given the popularity of the Earth at Night mosaic. I wonder if the Arcology people find this view disturbing.

Flying past downtown Minneapolis at night. 1 second exposure (I love that my camera will take note of these things for me). 2004:09:20 21:52:02
Posted by Milligan at 4:00 PM | Comments (0)

First Light

Seeing as I'll be out of the country for a while, I thought it'd be nice to visit my kid sister, who is getting her master's degree in English at NYU.

Sometime later, it occurred to me that a short weekend jaunt to New York would be a handy source of material for a pilot episode, as it were.

We'll begin this project in the air, the ultimate in media res.

The northern end of the Chicago shoreline, extending roughly from the Loop to Evanston, as seen on ascent out of O'Hare. 2004:09:17 12:27:59

Now, it was no secret that the remnants of a hurricane were on the way. In fact, I'm surprised it didn't disturb the flight more than it did. As things stood, we had a fairly smooth ride, and don't seem to have been diverted much at all. This compares favorably to a certain line of thunderstorms that resulted in my flight from Boston to Minneapolis last spring being rerouted through Denver by way of Ontario.

Flying through the outer fringes of Tropical Depression Ivan produced surprisingly few bumps. Somewhere over Ohio, I'd reckon. 2004:09:17 13:36:27

P.S. "First Light" is an astronomy reference. That's what we call the event when a new telescope has been assembled and is first opened, hopefully demonstrating that light passes clear through the thing as it should. If successful, the observatory will still be months away from being able to do real work, but bubbly is uncorked anyway, on the theory that the "hard part" is done.

Posted by Milligan at 2:46 AM | Comments (0)


So, the abbreviated version goes something like this: My advisor says, "You're coming with me to Israel for six months." And I say, "Er, um, okay. That sounds interesting."

And then umpteen dozen people (which is to say, at least five or six) announced that they wanted regular updates. It occurred to me that there might even be people who would find such dispatches interesting, who had not said anything to me. More likely, the resulting barrage of "look at me, I'm standing on a rock!" emails would make some of the outspoken regret their pluck.

Hence I turn to that lovely genre of the new millenium, the travel blog. Which you are reading. Good for you.

Posted by Milligan at 2:13 AM | Comments (2)