September 2005 Archives

Update + Books

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Okay, so just as a rule of thumb, we're going to assume that weeks that involve sleeping in the lab will be light blogging weeks. See this week, e.g.: QED. Nevertheless, I will take just a moment to crow that one of Texas' more embarrassing politicians is starting to get a taste of what he's due.

While not usually one for web quizzes, memes, and such like, there's one circulating now that I just can't resist:

How many of the American Library Association's top 100 most frequently challenged books have you read? Let's see...

A Circuitous Year

As I mentioned, EGAD hit the 1-year mark this weekend, during which time it appears to have been read about 6,000 times. Slightly less than half of that by the eight or ten regular readers. That's around 300 visits apiece ... don't you people have anything better to be doing?

In the past year, I've really gotten around. A quick tally of my itineraries adds up to 67,800 kilometers crossed in the air (42,400 miles), plus almost another 5,000 km in buses, cars, and trains. That's over 1 1/2 times the circumference of the Earth.

I visited my kid sister in New York.

I got exported to Israel, by way of Madrid.

I spent an exciting couple of weeks dashing from Tel Aviv to Atlanta, New York, and San Antonio, and back again.

I spent the spring tromping about Israel: explored Jerusalem, got within sight of Gaza City, walked to Bethlehem, and ventured as far as the Sinai desert. There were many camels.

Then I returned to the Midwest to visit Minneapolis and do Scavhunt in Chicago.

Eventually the Israelis had had enough of me and sent me back. A couple of days later they did the same for my luggage.

I saw family in San Antonio, a wedding in Zanesville, Ohio, and went camping in Yellowstone.

And I'm back where I started: a house in Minneapolis, in the midst of a rainy gray autumn.

Invasion (Blunt)

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And, apropos of the previous post, no sooner had the creationist nutballs left than the Campus Crusade for Christ set up shop in our main lecture hall. They're downstairs as we speak, having some kind of highly amplified swaying soft rock sing-along so goopy it'll send baby Jesus into diabetic shock.

So now my building is full of creepily clean-cut soulless, smiling, nametag-wearing Jesus-Borgs. Pope Ratzinger may give the impression of a reanimated zombie with fascistic tendencies, but I gladly accept that over what's downstairs. I'm getting outta here.

Birthday

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Happy birthday to me. To the folks who sent various types of electronic card, you're all terribly sweet. My parents sent a box of pistachios and Texas pecans, which will be put to some tasty use over the weekend.

There are creationists to pester tonight. Since we're having movie night on the same floor at the same time, I might just post a sign in the hallway. "Right: mind-rotting movie. Left: mind-rotting sermon." I resolve to be entertained, not annoyed.

Recalling a long habit of embarking on new adventures near my birthday (this yields easy-to-remember anniversaries), EGAD is one year old tomorrow. It's been a very interesting year.

Today, Episodic

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One night in the Tetons, I pointed my camera at the Big Dipper and let it run for a while. Later I plotted up a sky chart for the same region of the sky that night and overlayed it, to figure out which stars are visible. It looks like stars down to 6th or 7th magnitude show up; anything below that is lost in the noise. You may not be able to do science with JPEGs, but this appears to have done about as well as the star tracker camera on the payload I'm building. Click through for a larger, blink-comparator version. 2005:08:23 23:28:41

Don't you hate it when you miss an 11am-noon class because of a 9:30 am meeting that just wouldn't die? Yeah, me too.

Fuul is a popular traditional breakfast dish in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world. It is to my palette indistinguishable from South Texas refried beans, like La Preferida with a dab of olive oil and garlic. Just thought I'd share that.

My Israeli hummous supply finally exhausted, I've switched to hummous from Holy Land deli in Northeast Mpls. Inferior, but passable.

I haven't done an astrophotography post in a little while. Here's a portion of the dipper handle in Ursa Major. My camera can resolve Mizar and Alcor just fine, it turns out.

Rita seems to have exploded from a tropical storm to a category 5 hurricane in the last 24 hours or so. If anyone you know is currently on or near the still-saturated ground of Katrina's path ... tell them to run. Now. Seriously. And incidentally, has any year's hurricane season ever exhausted the list of available names? There's only four left on this year's list, and six to eight weeks of season to go.

Just to annoy any wingnuts who might drop by, I'll try to come up with some more good crescent moon shots. Besides, that is, the many I've already posted.

But tonight I was taking pictures of the storm rolling in, from the roof of the physics building. Then the tornado sirens started wailing. Nice lightning, but since I don't fancy being struck I retreated before the leading edge arrived. Didn't see any tornados, just high wind.

[Update: 23 Sept '05]: Turns out I wasn't the only one to wonder what happens if you run out of hurricane names. The answer, apparently, is that the hurricanes after Wilma are Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and so on. When I saw the headline about names "going Greek", though, I was hoping we'd actually move to names in the Greek alphabet. Hurricane Αγαμέμνων, anybody?

Ah, Sharon

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First a note: I think I've unravelled the confusion in the previous post about when the creationists are coming. Upshot is, we're all right!


Ah, Sharon. Even when he seems to have the best of intentions, he can't seem to do anything perfectly honestly. Now that the disengagement is past for the time being, he's clearly not even trying.

From Ha'aretz:

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon raised illegal campaign funds during his just-completed trip to New York, Channel Ten reported Monday.

...Sharon was in New York to attend the annual General Assembly session.

Channel 10 showed footage of the entrance to a swanky Fifth Avenue apartment building in Manhattan, where Sharon met wealthy supporters for dinner on Sunday evening.

A Channel 10 reporter read from an invitation sent by Nina Rosenwald, identified as the heiress of the Sears empire, stating that people attending the dinner with Sharon in her apartment would be expected to contribute at least $10,000 to Sharon's campaign to retain Likud leadership against a challenge from former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The election law limits such contributions to a primary election campaign to $7,800.

In most well-regulated states, of course, the maximum allowed contribution from a foreigner to the campain of a candidate for high public office is $0. I recall Clinton getting into trouble over fundraisers that merely seemed to be hosted by foreigners, for instance. However, even Israelis will agree that Israel is anything but a well-regulated state; most would point out in all fairness that Sharon's political opponents were just as dishonest and corrupt when they were in power.

Then again, all Jews anywhere in the world are eligible to make al'lyiah under the Law of Return. Perhaps the contributions from the Jews in the room are then okay, since they could become Israeli citizens any time they feel like it. (If you plan ahead, this is by far the easiest way to immigrate to Israel. Those who arrive and then try to convert (a) are treated with considerable suspicion by the immigration authorities, and (b) usually can only do so in strict Orthodox communities, which can get their citizenship revoked if they can't take it.)

Aw, Nuts

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And here I was, looking forward to a nice, quiet birthday.

Passed a table in the student union today, run by one of the less reputable Christian organizations on campus. They're bringing in the creationist nutjobs for a talk on "intelligent design". In my very own physics building! On my birthday! Are they trying to make me crazy?

Now I have to brainstorm what sort of "hospitality" I'd like to prepare for them.

[Update: 18:45] Doc Martin thinks this is actually the MacLaurin lecture on Sept. 30 (on the campus calendar, too). Admittedly, I can't find anything along these lines on the calendar for the 22nd, but I'm sure of what I saw. I'll go back to the union tomorrow and try to find them again to double check my information.

I was initially thinking of truth-squadding the lecture by planting a few people armed with printouts of the CC Index. But FSM flyers would also be entertaining.

However, the 30th would be a Friday, not a Thursday. So an official looking sign announcing a change of location to the rooftop would do nicely. Just make sure there's some extra help available for public observing that night.

[Update: 20:15] I found them! Not only them, but these loons as well!

So coming back from dinner tonight I found a flyer in the building. Apparently there is also an event on the 22nd (7 pm, Tate 170), which is not on the calendars, hosted by the Maranatha Christian Fellowship. I quote from the flier:

Dave Nutting describes himself as a "former evolutionist" who carefully studied the scientific issues and by the power of the Holy Spirit became convinced of the truth of creation. Currently the director of the Alpha Omega Institute and publisher of the bimonthly newsletter Think and Believe, he and his wife Mary Jo travel and speak extensively at churches, schools, conventions, and seminars.

So not just Intelligent Design quacks like Behe, but hardcore creationists. It's raining wackos!

Designing D.C.

Just to settle a point of contention that arose at tonight's party:

Not only did a Frenchman design the American capital, but a free black man may have secured the construction of the city, which was to take place in the middle of the two largest slave-holding states in the union, Maryland and Virginia.

...
Although [Major Pierre Charles] L'Enfant's design became the basis for landsales, construction and planning, President Washington fired him a year after he was hired because, according to Encyclopedia Americana, L'Enfant "forged ahead regardless of his orders, the budget, or landowners with prior claims."

He took his plans for D.C. with him to France, but renowned mathematician, astronomer and publisher Benjamin Banneker, who was assisting commissioner Andrew Ellicott in the survey of the site, saved the project by reproducing the plans in their entirety from memory, according to The African American Almanac.

...Bob and Jane Freundel Levey, authors of The Washington Post's "Washington Album," called the claims "local legend."

...The self-taught Banneker farmed until rheumatism made it impossible, but retirement at middle age allowed him to take up mathematics and astronomy in earnest, said Jim Horton, professor of American civilization and history in The George Washington University's American Studies department.

In 1791 Andrew Ellicott, who took over L'Enfant's position in 1792 when he was fired, asked Banneker, then 60, to help him survey the area for the national capital - a fact historians, authors, encyclopedias and diversity council members agree on.

During the first three months of the survey, Banneker occupied the field observatory tent, maintaining and correcting the regular clock each day and each night making observations and recordings of the transit stars, which Ellicott used the following day in his survey of the land. Recently discovered records of the survey show Banneker was paid $60 - about $600 in 2000 - for his participation and the costs of his travel.

Arnebeck is careful to distinguish Banneker's surveying the land from his helping L'Enfant to design it.

From Washington DC City Pages history.

Parallels to Evacuation

The evacuation of New Orleans is principally significant due to its scale and scope, without recent precedent. Hundreds of thousands displaced, at least tens of thousands of whom are living as literal refugees. Most will not return home for many months, many will never return. Large sections of a sprawling, modern city devastated, just one community along a sprawling first-world coastline of towns, ports, and infrastructure wrecked.

An order of magnitude less devastation than the St. Steven's Day tsunami, but strangely more inescapable. Perhaps because NBC doesn't exactly have a Banda Aceh bureau. There, haphazard and mismanaged though the recovery has been, it seems that those rebuilding the province have managed to build a bit of long-awaited peace while they were at it. The rebuilding of the Mississippi Delta will be a fiscal calamity -- let's just take that as a given, considering the administration that will be running the show. But we should still hope for, and look for, the unexpected blessing.

Orders of magnitude, still, beyond August's other evacuation, struting on the world stage out of all proportion to the numbers involved. In the aftermath of the Israeli military's departure a few days ago, the one-time settlements looked exactly like the wreckage of a hurricane. In accordance with court rulings, bulldozers knocked down the houses, but nothing more. So on the day that the last soldier left, Palestinians completed the image: streaming across the no-mans-land from adjacent camps and packed cities they wandered blinking in the sun through the rubble. Some combed the debris for remaining valuables, such as wire or fixtures, while others simply walked on the beach for the first time in 38 years.

Although it's Palestinians who currently fill the refugee camps, Israeli settlers are the ones most recently evacuated. In New Orleans the departure came like a thunderclap -- get out in the next 18 hours or you will probably die, the announcements daintily minced around actually saying. I recently founds myself rereading a bittersweet column in Ha'aretz from just before the evacuation was set to begin. A journalist living for a while in one of the settlements gradually shifts from third to first person, but as an outsider is denied the brief comfort of denial. For weeks he lives there, knowing exactly what is to come.

Here I have once again been thrust between roles: reporter and resident, guest and host, observer from the sidelines and participant. Since last March, when Haaretz rented an apartment here, I have been playing all the roles at once, and I belong to two different communities. I am one of about 3,500 residents of Neveh Dekalim, the largest and most important of the 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. Like the other residents, I am no longer upset by the thunder of the rockets, I carry on a routine conversation with the neighbor hanging up the laundry, and if I have some free time on a hot hamsin day, I hop over to the beach.

The other community comprises about a dozen reporters and photographers who moved to Gush Katif a few months before the evacuation - most of them photographers with the international news agencies - in order to cover the implementation of the disengagement from up close. In spite of the competition, here too a consolidated community has been formed, socially speaking. There is no end to the contradictions between these different groups and their aims: One is suffused with faith and fighting for survival, the other is skeptical and has come to record the last months of Gush Katif.

If you read any of the links I've posted, read that last one.

Lighter

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Ripped from a Daily Show webcast, the alphabetical list of potential Bush Administration disasters.

And to lighten up a bit, it has to be said. When all is done, when you've helped where you can and hoped for the best where you can't ... laughing at the situation really can be a good approach. Plus, well-aimed humor can be said to offer comfort to the afflicted, by rather directly afflicting the comfortable. John Stewart is good at that.

I actually first ran across this list in a derivative context, which I found amusing, but which kids who were even geekier than yours truly in high school will truly appreciate. I for one am reassured by the fact that there're clearly jokes in there that I'm not getting.

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"Katrina: The Gathering" playing cards. The creators are convinced that they are now going to Hell. Which is probably true, depending upon your point of view, either for the "George Bush: Humanitarian" card or the inclusion of "The Race Card".

[Update: 18 Oct 2005] The Katrina cards, predictably enough, ate those poor fellows' blog bandwidth. Links changed to use one of the mirror sites.

One of Those Weeks

Ugh. Spent most of the week out with a cold; am now healthy to first order, caught up on schoolwork, and behind on lab work. Wasn't even awake for the telescope training night I'd agreed to help out with, but nobody seems to be holding that against me. Got Doc Martin to drive me to Nicollet Island to vote in the municipal primaries, since I wasn't up to biking there. And now it's Friday.

At least the Friday colloquium sounds interesting.

Toxic Water

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Not usually one for hit-and-run linkage posts, but here goes:

The floodwaters covering downtown New Orleans are apparently highly, highly contaminated. There have been rumours of rescue dogs dying after drinking the water, and I wouldn't be shocked if the same nasty fate befell some of the stranded survivors waiting to be rescued. Some of us saw a news report the other day in which a reporter held up a bottle of the stuff, and it was black. Like Coke. So someone asked me, why is the water so badly polluted?

"Floodwater in the city became contaminated as it cascaded through streets and into more than 160,000 homes and businesses. The torrent split open containers of household chemicals, overturned automobiles and cracked their gas tanks, and disturbed underground gas and oil tanks. ... Experts believe the majority of the contamination in New Orleans floodwater comes from ordinary household chemicals and oil-based products." according to preliminary tests that have been done. Nevertheless, you'd think 20 billion gallons or so would provide a lot of dilution, especially for odd things like lead.

Unless there's an equally large source somewhere, right? Hasn't gotten much mention (until about an hour ago, anyway), but there was an old toxic waste landfill practically underneath one of the levee breaks.

Gentrification. Grr.

Last night, as expected, my friendly local grocery folded up shop. The building is to be ripped out and replaced by condos with a Lunds at street level. Now I have two beefs with this.

Another raft of condos going up nicely illustrates the creeping gentrification of the neighborhood. Handily close to both the U campus and downtown, I'm not really sure why that didn't happen some time ago, but there you have it. Last year the house on one side of mine was torn down and replaced by a huge high-rent behemoth with all the aesthetics of a Soviet workers' bloc. The one on the other side just went for the equivalent of about 30 years rent on my place. This keeps up, families and grad students alike are going to be priced out of the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood altogether.

My other complaint is more personal. All my life I've lived within walking distance of the neighborhood grocery. This wasn't so terribly relavent in San Antonio, where one drives everywhere anyway and the local store was a notorious dumping ground for expired dairy products. Since moving to Chicago for college, though, I've always been within a half-mile, tops. In fact, since graduating from college I've never lived more than about four blocks from the grocer. Having more-or-less sworn off of car culture ages ago, I find this quite liberating. Now I'm facing a season or so without.

Before anyone suggests I'm just being selfish with my second point, I'd observe that I'm far from the only person in my neighborhood without a car. The folks in the retirement home down the block will certainly experience more disruption than myself going the winter without immediate-vicinity groceries. At least I can still readily hop on a bike for most of the winter. And these are both independent of the fact that it's a Lund's moving in -- it'll be a bit more upscale, but still a small, locally owned chain. That counts for something.

Aurorae!

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Geomagnetic storm in progress, as they say. And handily enough, I was off doing a public observing thing at Lake Maria S.P. this evening, so I got front row seats. The seeing was lousy, so at first we thought it was haze, or lights from the power plant nearby. But the big fuzzy luminous thing resolved itself into curtains and streamers, so we all kicked back to enjoy the show.

The public seemed to appreciate having actual astronomers around to tell them what they were looking at. I mean, to the extent that a cosmologist and an infrared astronomer know squat about aurorae.

I know, I know, this would have been a good time to break out the astrophotography. But I didn't have my camera handy. I'll remember to bring it along next time I'm under dark skies while a solar radiation storm is underway.

Now In Review

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Since nobody in Chicago replied to my Celtic Fest suggestion, I'm going to assume you're all busy next weekend. Maybe I'll just bus in for Sunday, so I don't have to pester anyone into letting me crash overnight.

My, but the start of classes does seem to have cut into my blogging time. That, and it's rained most every day this week, making extended excursions rather less appealing. Hot, cold, snow, wind I can enjoy. Biking in the rain is just dreary and messy, though, especially as it's not yet cold enough to do it in a trenchcoat.

Hopefully we'll get some clearer skies next week, though, just in case monster sunspot 798 decides to set the sky on fire. SpaceWeather.com, as always.

So how come I'm blogging and not getting work done just now? Mostly waiting for Crystal to be released from her prelim exam. She will do fine, but is unnecessarily stressed about the whole affair, and will require lunch presently.

Ramble

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Hope everyone had a lovely Labor Day. Now of course, the proper way to celebrate would be to help feed striking workers or otherwise remember and support the struggling labor movement. But since this is also the last long weekend before autumn really kicks in, it's been universally repurposed as the official End Of Summer.

Especially for those of us who actually begin classes tomorrow; I'm given to understand that in most parts of the country, that happened a while ago. But there's other signs: if you stand just right you can almost feel a chill on the breeze; the thunder outside sounds like an approaching autumn front rather than a summer's thunderhead. Just to underscore the point, the State Fair even ended today.

Feeling like I approached yesterday's excursion entirely too conventionally, I spent another afternoon at the Fair. Sought out the most unusual foods, of which the winner is shrimp and cream cheese jalapeno poppers served with, as far as I could tell, rasberry jam. Listened to the Tejano-influenced polka band that loudly featured almost-dancable drum solos. Tried to make conversation over lunch with an (I think) Polish-speaking family, and got as far as establishing that they didn't want my leftover fries. Since deep-fried Snickers is old hat now, sprung for a breaded Milky Way.

Chicago folks: if I pop into town for the Celtic Fest weekend after next, will anyone come along?

Minneapolis folks: Come by the lab mid-afternoonish to help me finish off the pail of cookies from the State Fair. Sorry, but I can't provide milk. The (noon) group meeting's definitely done by 2:30 or so.

Long Weekend

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Each year the Midwest Dairy Association crowns a new Princess Kay of the Milky Way, the Minnesota dairy industry's ambassador of goodwill for the year. Over the course of the State Fair she and the 11 finalists will be carved as butter busts in a giant rotating refrigerator. 2005:09:04 16:11:24

Apologies for getting behind on posting, but I just keep getting distracted. First, there's been a fair amount of work to do. Second, I've been out of the lab a good deal this week, which I know you all approve of. And finally, whenever I have had a spare moment to hit the net, I find that news seems to just keep right on happening! And it's all the sort of interesting, calamitous, well-covered news that doesn't really call for any help from me.

I did make it to the State Fair, showcase of Minnesotaness that it is. Everything from pizza to fried candybar was served on a stick. Sillyness abounded, the carnies were cheerful, and the crop art was not so much corny as tobacco mosaic. I resisted the urge to torment the young Republicans (because it's just too easy), who seemed suitably puzzled that despite screaming about giving away iPods, not much of anyone wanted to talk to them. I was not even tempted to dumpster dive the Fair.

And for some reason I can't explain, I am convinced that either this kid or his bunny will grow up to be a cereal killer.

State Fair?

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The Minnesota State Fair is probably the most visible of the various ways that this state employs to remind the world that it remains an agricultural state, and that that's okay. Part swap meet (they'll try to sell you a tractor in the back lots), part Carnival of Oddities (c.f. the Hall of Grain Art, or the infamous butter sculptures), part rides-and-fried-food-on-a-stick festival, I've found it to be a suprisingly representative microcosm of Minnesota.

So there's four days left to this year's fair. Anyone up for an expedition in the next few days?

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