July 2005 Archives

LiveJournal Feed

For those of you who've been complaining that you have to leave LiveJournal to read this blog, I have prodded John into providing a solution. Using the amazing powers that a postdoc's salary affords him, he has created a LJ feed from the EGAD site syndication.

It is named, appropriately enough, milligansEGAD. Go forth and do whatever it is you LJ folks do with these things. A suggestion -- it looks like you can post comments directly on posts in the feed inside LJ. Don't do that; I'll probably never see them.

Week in Review

Distracting week for those of us in the space biz.

First, of course, we had the will-they?-won't-they? drama of getting the Shuttle off the ground, accompanied by NASA's equivalent of the elective full-body scan, with all the problems that entails. Neat graphic there, by the way, illustrating just how often the Shuttle is damaged by debris with no dangerous effects. But that's the kind of thing the engineers find out about after a successful landing. Play the same thing on a live hi-def video feed, and administrators panic, rightly or wrongly, and despite all appearances that Discovery is undamaged.

Word on the street, as it were, had it that a Hubble repair mission would be approved after two flawless Shuttle launches, so this outcome understandably leaves many optical astronomers a bit disappointed. Others are feeling like they've been had, on the basis that under this level of scrutiny even the most uneventful flight would fail to pass muster, and are thus rather ticked off.

Then as things were settling down again, yesterday happened. You've probably heard by now about the discovery of what's already being dubbed "the 10th planet." The NY Times article has a good summary of the state of play, but yesterday was confusing. Early Friday morning emails started circulating that a new large object had been found out in the Kuiper belt -- but nobody could seem to agree on its properties. It was a little past Pluto; no, it's twice as far away. It's half the size of pluto; it's twice as big; it's the size of Mars! It has a moon that proves its low mass. And so on.

Now that the dust has settled, it's clear what happened. Two large bodies were discovered this year: 2003 UB313 and 2003 EL61. These are tricky to find, and it takes a bit of work to confirm that one of these is a real Kuiper belt object and not a background star, a closer and less-interesting asteroid in an odd orbit, or some kind of glitch. There seem to have been two or three groups working on these without much knowledge of each other (I haven't disentangled this bit yet), and when word leaked this week, everyone rushed to publicize the data they had. Thus the rush of announcements, and since nobody assumes that two Pluto-class objects will be announced on the same day, not all of the emails floating around actually gave the object's number (especially those dispatched in the rumour phase that seems to have heated up in the hours preceeding the actual disclosures).

So here we are. 2003 UB313: a little larger than Pluto, highly eccentric orbit that takes twice as far out as Pluto's orbit. 2003 EL61: 70% of Pluto's size but only 30% of the mass, has a tiny moon of its own. And there seems to be another object, 2005 FY9, running around, but I don't have any details about that yet.

All in all, a fun week.

Tangled Bank #33

The Tangled Bank

Tangled Bank #33 is up at evolgen. An abundance of interesting science writing, as usual, which skews much further towards the life sciences than my usual daily reading. I feel so well-rounded.

In fact, with my post on the Deep Impact impact I have the Astronomy segment all to myself today. And this blog isn't even primarily about astronomy. Someone should make Bad-Astronomy Phil submit to the Tangled Bank to round things out.

Speaking of astronomers, check out Dean's first-hand account of the PEPCON perchlorate explosion that I mentioned the other day. The surface of the Earth has seen very few explosions of that size since the end of above-ground nuclear weapons testing.

A Sucker Born


Somewhere, I am absolutely certain, is a person who got tired of being made fun of for owning a monstrous 4x4 suburban assault vehicle that put in its most strenuous maneuvers in the mall parking lot. So tired, in fact, that they paid actual money for mud.

Which just goes to show that the trick to being a certain kind of entepreneur is being the one bloke who, when faced with an obviously silly idea, first thinks "That's stupid," but then goes on to wonder, "But surely someone would pay for that?" And apparently, somebody is.

I have since pointed out to Crystal that spray-on mud probably would make an effective bike-theft deterrent, but spray-on rust would really work better. And there's always duct tape.

In other news, STS-114 got off the ground right on time today, although there are still some concerns for those who enjoy nailbiting. Won't know anything definite for a couple of days, after the on-orbit checkout, but nobody's sounding particularly worried at this point.

Return to Flight

Fireworks over the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis. This one is of the July 4th display. 2005:07:04 21:59:29

Tentative as all such complex endeavours must be, the plan is to put the NASA Space Transportation System -- the Space Shuttle -- back in service tomorrow. Given the amount of engineering (both mechanical and procedural) that has gone into the return to flight, this may well be one of the safest manned space launches ever. True, I'd probably have been in less peril taking a walking tour of Gaza City than riding the Shuttle, but by the standards of spaceflight, that's good.

Pop quiz: to you, was that a revelation about spaceflight or about Gaza City?

The Space Shuttle came to mind this weekend during the Aquatennial fireworks display, as a barrage of blue sparks launched off the Central Avenue bridge. For many years I've tried to make a mental note whenever blue shows up in a fireworks show, because of a chemical connection to space travel. And possibly an economic one, although I've never been able to confirm that aspect.

The Space Shuttle uses two kinds of rocket engine for launch. The main engines (SSMEs) are your classic liquid hydrogen-liquid oxygen system, a horrendously complex set of beasts. Then there are the Solid Rocket Boosters, glorified and meticulously constructed bottle-rockets, each filled with around 500 metric tonnes of fuel. The stuff comes in gigantic cylindrical blocks supposedly having roughly the consistency of a pencil eraser. The texture would be quite different, though, as the SRB fuel is essentially a gravel of ammonium perchlorate (an explosive in its own right, used here as a source of oxygen) and aluminum embedded in a rubber matrix. Literally rubber -- that's technically what the SRB is burning, although there is considerably more perchlorate by mass.

Some ages back, I read (probably on Usenet, although Google Groups has thus far failed to unearth the post I'm thinking of) that the Space Shuttle program poses something of a difficulty for the fireworks industry. Supposedly, ammonium perchlorate happens to be one of a very few substances able to produce a good, bright blue flame, and when launching in quick succession the Space Shuttle SRBs consume most of the nation's ammonium perchlorate production capacity, driving up the price. Thus, the writer claimed, blue firework explosions had become quite rare in the late 80s.

I don't find this story especially plausible, as it happens. Ammonium perchlorate has various industrial applications, and is consumed in large quantities in the production and maintenance of solid rocket motors for the military, as well. Then again, the Henderson, Nevada explosion in 1988 suggests that the SRBs consumed at least some respectable portion of perchlorate production at that time. The past two years, with the Shuttle fleet grounded again, would be a good test. Has anyone noticed a significant increase in the amount of blue used in fireworks displays recently?

Regardless of the accuracy of some old Usenet post, the story has stuck with me. Whenever I see a shell burst with blue sparks or trails now, I think of the Space Shuttle. It's a risky business, strapping astronauts onto a pair of several-hundred-tonne fireworks, but thus far the engineers of NASA have done a remarkable job of pulling it off, again and again.

"Thought to be secure"

So there has been another spectacular bombing this month. This one hit Sharm el-Sheik, the resort town at the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula in Egypt.

NY Times coverage.
BBC coverage
Ha'aretz coverage

Responsibility has been claimed by a previously unknown group calling itself "Abdullah Azzam Brigades, al-Qaida, in Syria and Egypt" -- a name eerily similar to the name of the group that probably carried out the July 7 bombings in London. While the claim obviously cannot be confirmed yet, it is seen as generally credible, according to a reporter from the Cairo Daily Star who was on the radio just now.

The timing and targets are interesting. One would generally expect that an attack like this would be directed against Israel, since the Red Sea resorts are extremely popular with Israelis. Moreover, Sharm el-Sheik is the site at which Abbas and Sharon hammered out the terms of the "quiet" this spring, and has been used for many previous peace summits as well, because it had been "thought to be secure" (said aforementioned reporter). However, at this point Ha'aretz is reporting that only one Israeli was injured, and other indications suggest that killing Israelis was not the point.

This is a holiday weekend in Egypt, leading up to Egyptian National Day on July 26 (this commemorates the 1952 revolution against King Farouk), so the resorts were packed with more Egyptians than normal. Sharm el-Sheik is popular with Egyptians and Europeans; Israelis prefer the resorts farther north. The carbombs were detonated near a coffee shop full of Egyptian laborers and at a hotel popular with Europeans. As a result, it appears that the vast majority of the casualties were Egyptian.

The Abdulla Azzam statement celebrates a "smashing attack on the Crusaders, Zionists and the renegade Egyptian regime in Sharm el-Sheikh." The Ha'aretz translation continues:

We reaffirm that this operation was in response to the crimes committed by the forces of international evil, which are spilling the blood of Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan and Chechny.

We declare it loud and clear that we will not be frightened by the whips of the Egyptian torturers and we will not tolerate violation of our brothers' land of Sinai.

Al-Jazeera has now translated the whole statement; this article mentions that Azzam was a Palestinian mujahedeen who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan and is said to have been a source of inspiration for Osama bin Ladin. An interesting nexus, there.

It appears, then, that the rationale is analogous to that of many Iraqi guerillas, to attack Muslims seen as collaborating with America, Israel, and the West. So my thoughts and sympathy go out Egypt in general, and to the many wonderful Egyptians I met on the Red Sea coast in particular.

Shredded Moon

Ash and elm for olive trees, and praire grass for sabra. Behind more clouds than I'm used to, each full moon is still global.
2005:07:20 23:25:05

The above picture was taken from just outside the physics building here in Minnesota, nine or ten hours after the (nearly) full moon rose in Rehovot, or Kiev or Johannesburg for that matter. That it looks so different is a quirk of the funny shapes of the continents and oceans, of meandering currents, of the Earth being round. Climate and ecology, latitude and longitude.

Speaking of which, did San Antonio wind up with any weather out of Hurricane Emily?

Check out, incidentally, my last luggage post. Having finally gotten around to extracting them from my camera, it now has pictures. Entertainingly abused baggage awaits!

Partition of Jerusalem

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The Bethlehem crossing, seen from the West Bank side. This is the actual opening in the Separation Fence; a roadblock and checkpoint lie on the other side, a little ways down a barbed wire lined street. 2005:06:06 09:53:46

Today several thousand anti-disengagement protesters spent their third day penned up in the dusty little town of Kfar Maimon, surrounded by barbed wire and twice their number of police and IDF troops. Thankfully, they do not seem to be generating the kind of sympathetic coverage that such a scene was designed to evoke. Late reports suggest that they are beginning to disperse.

To backtrack, the Yesha Council (an umbrella organization of settlers in the occupied territories) planned for tens of thousands of settler sympathizers to march on the Gaza Strip, defy the military closure of the Gush Katif, and flood the area with zealots sure to relentlessly oppose the evacuation when the time comes. The IDF strongly suggested that they not do this. Still, they came, they marched, and they were cut off at the pass (Kfar Maimon, that is) by a human wall of perhaps as many as 20,000 police and soldiers. The Israeli government (and, well, pretty much everyone else) was convinced that things would turn ugly, but so far they have not. However, is sounds like the families, the working adults ... the responsible people, in general ... have had enough and are leaving, replaced in part by orange-shirted kids. When the mob has dwindled to a hard core of several hundred versus the army, worry.

Here is a story that broke just before I left town, but which I am only now getting to:

The usual problem with the Separation Fence is that it cuts deep into the West Bank in places, so as to keep Jewish settlements on the Israeli side. This tends to cut off Palestinian communities from each other and from their lands, especially considering that the Fence routinely winds up slicing right through (Arab) towns and neighborhoods. It is generally a double curse to be in a so-called "envelope zone" as one must navigate unpredictable Israeli checkpoints to travel either east into the West Bank or west across the Green Line.

In Jerusalem, as usual, the rules are different and more complex.


So, looks like we're going with option two, then. San Antonio was even busier than usual for me, what with Dad running an academic conference that weekend. That, and I was attacked by wonderful little book shop down the road, and came back with an armload of Roman history. However, I should actually be in Minneapolis for the entire remainder of the month. Shocking, I know.

On a related note (of limited interest to the Minnesotan readers), if anyone out there is making the trip to Zanesville in a couple of weeks and has tips for getting to or staying in said locale, do drop me a line. If you're interested in splitting a room/car/teleporter, even better.


My question about this article is, what does Ha'aretz (or the ADL, for that matter) have to gain my making Israelis think that American opinion of them is more positive than it is?

ADL polls: Americans back Israel, Europeans don't By Amiram Barkat

Americans continue to stand solidly behind Israel in the conflict with the Palestinians, and overwhelmingly support the disengagement from Gaza as "a bold step for peace," according to an Anti-Defamation League survey released yesterday.

According to the survey of American attitudes toward Israel and the Middle East, 71 percent of those polled expressed support for the disengagement plan, 52 percent believed Israel was working harder for peace than the Palestinians, and 43 percent said they sympathized with Israel.

"It is apparent from the survey that Israel's bold initiatives to bring security and peace to its people resonate with the American people," said Abraham H. Foxman, the ADL's national director, at a Jerusalem press conference.

"The consistency of the high level of support for Israel by Americans, and their improved views of the new Palestinian leadership, show them to be fair in their assessment and understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, despite ongoing propaganda campaigns and efforts to isolate and delegitimize the Jewish state," he added.

I ask you, would this lede be any less representative:

Americans Generally Ambivalent Towards Israel by Y.T.

While standing more solidly behind Israel than their European counterparts, an ADL poll of Americans reveals ambivalence towards the state and its policies. According to the survey, an overwhelming 71 percent of those surveyed view the disengagement from Gaza as "a bold step for peace." However, barely half feel that Israel is working harder for peace than the Palestinians, and 57 percent sympathized with either the Palestinians or neither side in the conflict.

Israelis know that they lost European public opinion some time ago, although I'd point out that, while 39 percent of Europeans viewed Sharon negatively, 42 percent reported no opinion either way. There may be considerable room for winning over undecided European opinion, if someone appropriately placed wants to do that. The article observes correctly, though, that further radical Islamist attacks in Europe won't help the matter.

However, you'd think that if Israel's support in America was wavering, it would be in the best interests of the Israelis to loudly advertise this fact. (I'd compare what, say, the Jerusalem Post had to say about this poll, but I can't get articles to load on their site tonight. Oh well.)

One possibility is that we're caught in a round of dueling polls. The number that does have the Israeli government on the edge of its seat, after all, is approval of the disengagement, both at home and in important backer countries like the U.S.

Heading Out

It has been alledged in some circles that I don't give enough warning before up and leaving town and/or country. Now I seem to recall telegraphing my return to the States by a week or more, which ought to be plenty for anyone. Here, I confess, I might be doing slightly less well.

Anyway, I've got a flight to San Antonio in about twelve hours. Be back in Minneapolis next week.

As far as blogging is concerned, I see two basic and divergent contingencies. One is that I productively use the time away from work to get my thoughts in order, write a bit, and generally regain my missing blogger-stride. The other is that my family will be so generally entertaining as to prove far superior company to ye olde monitor glow. But, I sleep much less than most of them do, so I could conceivably manage both.

Luggage: Epilogue

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This box appeared on my doorstep while I was out. According to my roommate, the deliveryman seemed anxious to assure him that the box looked like this when he got it, and that I should under no circumstances complain to him about it. Given my experiences so far, this seems pretty reasonable. 2005:07:09 20:01:19
The entire contents of this breadbox-sized amorphous lump of cardboard was a fist-sized amorphous lump of bubblewrap containing my exceedingly peregrinated power adapter. No wonder it got thoroughly smashed. 2005:07:09 20:01:48

The world, it turns out, continues to be its usual perverse self in little things as well as big. Recall, if you will, my adventures getting my stuff back from Israel. All but a laptop charger made it. Last week I concluded that "special screening" must have been code for "controlled explosion", decided that it would be nice to be able to use my laptop again, and eBay'ed a cheap replacement. Which arrived yesterday while nobody was home, and returned to the FedEx depot, from where I retrieved it by bike today.

Later, in the lab, I got a call from American telling me that a package was on its way to my house. I arrived to find a well-masticated box containing my bubble-wrapped charger. Absolutely no indication of where it's been, but it doesn't appear to have been dissected, either. Maybe the screeners just thought it would be a hoot to check it on through to Minneapolis via Baghdad International.

I wonder if the brush that vanished is going to mysteriously show up in three months tangled with yak hair.


I've been taking advantage of the fact that radio broadcasts in this country are in a language I can understand, by waking up to a clock-radio tuned to NPR. On days like today, this can be rather alarming. And the reported scale of the disaster has only grown since I woke up, before rescue workers had reached the hardest-hit cars deep in the London Tube network. I recall lying in bed this morning thinking that London had gotten suprisingly lucky, with only four dead for all the clear ambitions of the attackers, a sentiment that was apparently shared by some Britons this morning. While that may remain technically correct when compared to the highly analogous Madrid train bombings, the true human cost would seem to cross a line beyond which relief feels inappropriate.

Everyone from the experts on down believes that this was the work of an al-Qaeda-inspired group (whether you think al-Qaeda itself is responsible depends on what exactly you think al-Qaeda is, so there's less agreement there). As such, the attack was utterly predictable in all its horrific capriciousness, from generalized threats to the recent appearance of an inspirational video from a prominent Islamist jihadi. That's not to suggest that the Scotland Yard should have seen them coming, any more than one could expect soldiers in Iraq to know on which day the car bomb will go off next to their vehicle.

That's the key to terrorism as a strategic weapon; in the long run, a predictable state of random peril renders everything it touches suspect. Thus, for maximal impact, it strikes at the most crucial and mundane infrastructure of daily life. Telling that in America, this tends to mean busy workplaces, while European terrorists have typically attacked mass transit. Suspicion is a difficult taint to expunge. Streets in Paris still eschew metal trash cans after a campaign of bombings that culminated a decade ago. The atmosphere in Israel, during a largely quiet period, I would describe as a resigned panic -- long after the worst of the Intifada, many Israelis refuse to ride the bus, and every street-level business employs a guard with a metal-detecting wand at the door. There's little the Palestinians can do to avoid the reach of the Israeli Air Force, besides the obvious expedient of getting out of Gaza.

Protracted too long, fear turns just getting by into an exhausting way of life.


You don't realize how quickly fireworks move in midair until you try to photograph them against a stationary skyline. Especially when they're practically on top of you. A selection from the downtown Minneapolis July 4 fireworks show. 1/4 sec at 2005:07:04 22:08:34

There's a danger in pausing the blog to, say, cross the planet, do important work stuff, and generally get one's life back in order. Namely that it takes time to develop a good rhythm, time that may have to be put in all over again once interrupted. In short, bear with me as I regain my footing.

It's risky for a writer to radically change his environment and associations. Deprived of a familiar context, observational writing is complicated by not quite knowing how to look at things anymore, nor what is deserving of focus. Now I find that America is no longer entirely familiar. Risk being central to creative endeavor, let's see how well I do with the delightful grist provided.

In Israel, I commented at some length on what might be termed public affairs. I still read a couple of Israeli newspapers online, and have extensive notes and observations to wade through, so more of that will necessarily be forthcoming. But unless I wanted to make a full-time endeavor of it (I don't), it will not be possible to replicate the immediacy of living there. The retrospectives will have to use breadth of scope to supplement the lost temporal and topical focus.

Meanwhile, I'll continue to try and figure out what's interesting and essential about where I find myself now. Fireworks might be a start.

This image from NASA TV is a view from Deep Impact's flyby showing the impactor colliding with comet Tempel 1.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD

Nursing my climate-change-induced sniffles. Evidently the ol' constitution needs some time to adjust to this odd phenomenon of water issuing forth from the sky. No worries; as there have been no ScavHunts or final exams recently, escalation to a bout of Hacking Death Plague is unlikely. Now, where better to recouperate than in my lab? After all, it's climate-controlled, has a limitless supply of (effectively) free tissues, and a right speedy network link. This last feature is just what I needed to keep an eye on tonight's big feature, anyway.

Deep Impact should not be confused with the mediocre Summer-of-the-Killer-Comet movie which nevertheless managed to be head and shoulders better than its Asteroid Flick With Animal Crackers sibling. No, today I'm watching as the Deep Impact space probe blasts an artificial crater in comet Tempel 1 to dig up a bit of the stuff the Solar System was originally made from.

(Okay, so movie releases in 1998. Mission is approved in 1999. There may have been some inspiration in the naming.)

In addition to the JPL site, NASA has a site as well. They have mostly similar information, and they both use the same "Near Real Time" image feed, which is probably the best way for those of you using modems to watch the action. At this point the impactor -- a desk-sized lump of copper and gadgetry -- has been released towards the comet, and the host spacecraft has dodged (barely) out of the path of the nucleus. Live NASA TV coverage from JPL mission control just began, for those of you on broadband. Next, it's about an hour until the impactor's onboard nav computer will start making final course corrections to ensure it hits the nucleus square on, and the actual collision takes place at 12:52 AM CDT (+/- 17 seconds, they're saying now).

Clearly, an opportunity like this doesn't waltz along every day. Besides the sensors on the Deep Impact probe and the impactor, then, astronomers the world over are getting in on the act, pointing most anything with a camera at the event. At about 10th magnitude and at about the distance of Mars's orbit, you'd need pretty dark skies to see this comet under normal conditions. But since nobody knows how much material will be excavated by the impact, it's also an open question as to what will be visible from the Earth. Sadly, though, nothing of great interest will be seen from North America, as it'll have set by the time of impact. Hawaii will have the best views from the ground.

Running updates in the post body.

The Ride Survives

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Behold! It's my bike, right where I left it back in October. Apparently the local bike vandals consider it too ugly to dismantle. I refer to this as 'having character.' 2005:06:30 10:43:13

Now back December before last, my ride met an untimely end at the pointy end of a stopsign-running taxicab. Thanks to his catlike ninja powers, yours truly was largely unharmed. But that's not the point of this story.

Pictured here, my current wheels. Back in the day, Paul was kind enough to donate a disused relic from the dusty corner of his basement to my cause. After some attention from my good friends, Elbow Grease, Duct Tape, and "Spare" Bike Parts, I was back on the road. Spring came, and summer followed; the first year. And as it emerged that I was not destined to spend my second year of grad school on this continent, I bequeathed the ride back to said Paul, and admonished the fellow to take up riding as anyone so hirsute as himself surely must.

This he did not do. But evidently some proprietary sentiment did linger, for he was kind enough to remove the fliers left at wide intervals by the Parking & Transportation folks which would eventually have led to its forcible removal as abandoned property. Nevertheless, no ordinary bike would survive such rudimentary attention, as around here two deadly factors stalk: Snow Drift and Thievery. Left on the rack for a year, the ordinary bike would be reduced to one wheel and a rusty frame, unless by chance it were nicked whole by those ruffians with a knack for U-locks.

But The Ride survives, I was delighted to find. I attribute this to the facts that a) I'm just that good at rust-proofing my work, and b) the local thieves are pansies. Which is fine by me. A duct tape fender would not have dissuaded the Chicago prowlers, after all.


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Taking pictures out my window as a great rolling Midwestern storm cell trundles away to the East. I'll need to get higher up for really good lightning shots. 2005:06:29 22:48:34

Collaborators have gone home, luggage is mostly unpacked, and I finally bought groceries. While I didn't mean to leave off the blogging for so long, sometimes there need to be priorities. For the first time in almost two weeks, I ate food prepared by these here hands last night.

Cooking is a start, but it doesn't quite feel like home, just yet. Why should it? I was in Israel for nearly as long as I had lived in this house. I knew the present inhabitants for perhaps a month. There are two locations in Chicago that I called home for longer than I've been in this city. Every location in San Antonio feels a little bit like home, and I haven't lived there in almost seven years. Repeated peregrinations have given a home-y feel to a constellation of points on the map. And there's the truth of the matter: no place is simply home.

In return? I'm a kid from South Texas, who's walked through castles made of ice, who's roamed over the Jerusalem hills. My job is to investigate the beginning of time.

Fair trade.

* * *

Regular blogging to return (for real) this weekend -- if I can get the cable modem working again -- or next week.

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