June 2006 Archives

Daytime Moon


Last night I lured a bunch of my students out onto the roof (with the enticement of extra credit, natch) to look through telescopes. They always seem skeptical at first that you can see the Moon in broad daylight, but there it is. We're a few days past new moon, so it's riding steadily higher in the evening twilight.

This afternoon was spent cleaning up our old refractor; it's been about a year since we greased the gearing and oiled the joints. Much dust had accumulated in the eyepieces, as well, some of which is visible in this image. Now we're good to go for another year of starstruck visitors.

1/12 second exposure through a roughly 3-inch refracting finder scope on our century old 10-inch refractor. The darker halos are blurry motes of dust inside the optics, many of which were removed during today's cleaning. 2006:06:29 21:09:18 CDT

Back in the World

I've always enjoyed living in a building distinctive enough to have a name of its own: Mathews House; Beit Clore. Better yet are the ones with spontaneous names, named not for a benefactor but for character and history -- the House of Seven Gables, The Cloisters, Moomers -- because that is all the difference between a structure and a place. All of which I mention by way of excuse for showing another photo of my house, in summer for a change: The 420 House. Yes, it's just a play on the address, but I've discovered that it is apparently a widely-used name for the place as well. And the number 420 is sufficiently fraught as to be more than just an address, not to mention rather comical when the implications are contrasted against the actual occupants.

My EBEX collaborators have all been bustled off to their home states/countries, and I'm back in the world. Lots got done, and if I spent a day being pissed at having seemingly wasted a year's work, I'm already finding opportunities in the aftermath. But for right this minute, I'm catching my breath.

Teaching has been a rewarding experience these past few weeks as well, and now I'm almost done with that. Took a bunch of my students up to look through the telescopes tonight as an extra-credit activity, on which more later.

My garden is in bloom, I've got a long weekend and a stack of library books, and there are plans for fireworks. My camera is mysteriously working again, and I've already got neat shots to show off. It's gonna be a beautiful day.


Aaand ... we have summer. Today will be about 8 seconds shorter than yesterday, at least at this latitude. Yesterday lots of folks observed the solstice by watching Stonehenge observe the solstice. Connor has a habit of embarking on ambitiously long walks. I seem to have developed a tradition of taking the solstice as roughly the date from which to start frantic last-minute tasks for the midsummer EBEX collaborators' meeting.

Although I suppose homemade sourdough could be viewed as a celebration of nature. Applied biochemistry, at least. Post last weekend's monsoon I decided to see what sort of yeasts might be in bloom; I seem to have harvested a fairly lacadaisical strain, but perhaps it'll perk up with some additional cultivation. It's got good flavor, so the little beasties are worth keeping.

The Future of "Father"-hood?

At the end of Weekend Edition this past Sunday, Fathers' Day in the USA, the hosts signed off and read the credits following a pattern of "Our X is Y's daughter/son, Z..." as a way to mention all of their fathers. It's been mentioned elsewhere that in the world of television the day is a handy excuse for the patriarchy to show off its total dominance of the media. On NPR, though, this was almost the only nod at the existence of Fathers' Day, and as such struck me as wholly unremarkable.

Then a quixotic bit hit me. Someone had to go around and collect those names. Even in a diverse shop like NPR News, every single credited person was able to name a male whom they were comfortable identifying as their "father" (minimally: all the names sounded traditionally male). Even given that the headliners who've been there long enough to reach said status are also old enough to derive from a far more socially secretive generation, the list was long enough to expect some diversity in age and background. Where are the children of single mothers, of same-sex couples? Did the ones with a constellation of step-parents, foster-parents, god-parents, adoptive and biological parents, resent having to pick just one? It occurred to me that having a father might be more optional than it's ever been, and so too the choice of where to pin that label more problematic.

So do we need a Parents-of-all-other-descriptions Day? A "Pat yourself on the back -- you're raising a kid -- no matter who you are" Day? Village Day?

Email outage


Yeesh. Department email has been down since Friday. I assume nobody's come in to fix it because the emergency trouble tickets are triggered and distributed by ... yes ... the department email system. So we'll just have to wait until Monday when the usual tech guys come in.

If you require my attention, use my university email account, my cell phone, or smoke signals until, probably, Monday.

Uptime Ramble


I have the worst luck with computer uptime. Or the best. So yesterday a mammoth line of thunderstorms rolls through, drops 2-3 inches of rain in places. Now because I needed a new program on my workstation I had just finished doing some upgrades on the thing, and was debating whether to reboot it. This being a pretty well-put-together Debian system, it's about six weeks short of a year of uptime, but rebooting is the only way to load a new kernel. BAM! Power goes out. I sit in the tenebrous lab going "Um..." for a moment, and then the lights blink back on and stuff starts beeping as everything reboots. So, dilemma solved, but I still haven't managed to get a computer up to a continuous year of uptime. I need to invest in a UPS.

Anywho. Still no photoblogging for you, which is usually how I'd fill this space, because the camera is on the blink. Hasn't been working right since Scavhunt, and often won't even turn on (although right this instant it's chirpily claiming to work perfectly). Seems like a mechanical problem; maybe it got smacked or dropped or wet in Chicago. Except that it got all of those things in Israel and elsewhere, and was fine. Weird. It's months out of warranty, so I've been debating getting a new one anyway. It's been a good machine, but for my next camera I want one that can store raw images and do longer than 15-second exposures, so I can do better astrophotography. Smaller might be nice, but I really like being able to pop in rechargeable batteries, or pop into a convenience store for some AAs in an emergency. Any suggestions from you folks?

Oh, and I may have gloated too soon about the Net Neutrality thing. Looks like we're going to have to just keep refighting this one. The telcos are ready to go to the mat on this, it seems, although given that we have the likes of Microsoft and Google on our side, our chances aren't as bad as that would usually make them.

Poet Laureate

Oh, yay! The LoC finally picks someone I know for Poet Laureate. Just announced, Donald Hall gets the nod from the Librarian of Congress. This pleases me greatly, even if he does contribute to the mostly-white, mostly-male history of the position.

It's true, Scavhunt does have a tendency to (mis)appropriate internet phenomena, and frequently does so on their own turf. When Slashdot appeared, Scavhunt got Slashdotted; when Google took over the world, we tried to get Scavhunt onto the Google homepage. When Facebook.com was all the rage in social networking, we gave the world Assbook.net for a few months.

These days videoblogging is suddenly big, thanks to services like YouTube taking most of the hosting complications out of the picture. And Scavhunt is there, too. Check it out -- Scavhunt in motion!

I especially recommend my team's documentary on liquid nitrogen.

Many abortion opponents of the Christian Right variety (and here I'm riffing off of this guest post on Ezra Klein's blog) take the position that an embryo or fetus is a potential human life and therefore has the same moral valence as a fully formed human being. My problem with this approach to the argument is that, taken in a perfectly logical direction, it has approximately the opposite of the result they're aiming for. Supposing every spermatazoa and ovum is a potential human life -- in a world where cloning works, which will arrive in a few years, so is every other human cell, too -- we note that only the real wackos complain when men and women fail to have sex and impregnate those otherwise lost ova (and there's no saving all those millions of extra sperm). As has been pointed out elsewhere, a large fraction of fertilized blastocysts spontaneously fail to implant, and are also lost (this was the subject of a hillarious reducto ad absurdum a little while back, too). We don't hold funerals for these clumps of cells, nor are extraordinary medical procedures invented to save these ultimate preemies. Amanda has made essentially this point on a number of occasions as well.

Therefore if we are going to lump together everything that is a "potential human life" in a single moral class, it would seem that the presumption is that members of this category are essentially without value and can be created and destroyed at will. And now we draw that out. You don't go from potential human to human being at the instant of birth, after all. A newborn baby has the intellectual sophistication and mental life of a brain-damaged lizard, since most of the complex structure of the brain doesn't form for another three to six months, and something recognizable as a human mind doesn't emerge for a few years. Nor, if left to its own devices, will a three-month-old baby survive to grow into a mature human being, either. So to me this "potential human life" argument sounds like a recipe for justifying infanticide through neglect, which pretty much everyone regards as reprehensible.


Updates En Passant


The World Cup finals start this weekend, as a result of which my Argentinian housemate is even more hyperactive than usual. So here's the betting odds, in sock puppet form. Scavvies in the audience will understand why that's delightful.

Just a pro forma update today. Teaching is time-consuming, in no small part because having to be coherent and up in front of a bunch of students at 9 am really cuts into my most productive working hours. So I'm looking forward to the second half of the summer when I can actually get some work done. This weekend we need to tidy up the house to start showing one of our rooms, since the Frenchman is getting his Ph.D. and moving on at the end of June. If anyone's in need of a decent yet cheap room near campus, now's the time.

I'm unclear as to the intended purpose of a laser pointer powerful enough to light matches and burn paper. At 300 mW you could probably use it to sky-point in broad daylight. I'm certain I could find a worthy use for one, though.

Every so often a sandwith with an image of Mary surfaces and someone makes a pretty penny peddling the miracle. Imagine if you could mass-produce them.

I fear my Scavhunt team's effort at the OverheardAtTheUofC.com item shows little sign of becoming self-sustaining (although Chicago readers are encouraged to revive it). Still, the quotes it did get make an entertaining read.

Politics: in the last few weeks Dems have knocked down the Anti-Marriage Amendment, estate tax welfare for billionaires, and the attack on network neutrality. I'm tempted to declare the good guys on a roll, but most of the credit goes to the Republican leadership for filling up the legislative schedule with silly election year stunts. Every time I glance at the news it's more about Zarqawi, but as Matt Yglesias observes,

We kill people associated with the insurgency in Iraq all the time, and have been doing so for years. The problem hasn't been an inability to accomplish this, it's been that killing insurgents doesn't accomplish anything. Killing a famous insurgent won't accomplish anything either.

Devilish Updates

No time to really post, I'm afraid, but it's a sign you've gone MIA too long when word comes through the grapevine that your family is concerned that something's happened to you.

Happy Mark of the Beast day. If you haven't already, do something devilish.

On a more sober note, CDC epidemiologists identified the disease that would come to be known as HIV/AIDS 25 years ago yesterday. Boston, New York, and San Francisco newspapers look back and take stock, as does the CDC itself. 22 million dead, 14 million orphans, if you want it by the numbers. Unfortunately, the worst is probably yet to come; while AIDS has become a manageable condition in the first world, it's shaping up to be the 21st century's Black Death in Africa and Asia, and one of the great factors that will separate global haves from have-nots.

So like I said, happy Mark of the Beast Day.

Technical Difficulty [Resolved]

For a couple of weeks, the error below would appear whenever one tried to update a post or comment on my blog. Shane, the dude who operates UThink, has fixed the trouble, but I'm preserving the post for the benefit of the Googlebrain.

Can't use string ("MT::App") as a HASH ref while "strict refs" in use at /htdocs/cgi-bin/blog-ssl/lib/MT/App.pm line 1294.

The root cause remains mysterious, but the error apparently occurred whenever MT tried to rebuild the page containing a post that used an image located on an external server. Making this image available locally negated this behavior. So if by some chance you got here by Googling for this error text, give that a try. My original post is below the fold.

Over the weekend there was an article at Firedoglake that begins with, There is no "War on Terror.". And I thought it did a rather nice job of making the fairly obvious point that said war without end is actually a fraud designed to transform the republic into an elected rotating monarchy.

But after what has apparently been a week of wingnut teeth-knashing and Rethugs coming unglued out in the blogosphere, the big lefty bloggers are now putting up self-congratulatory posts along the lines of:

Digby: [I]t is long past time for people to start the public counter argument, which has the benefit of appealing to common sense. Many Americans are emerging from the relentless hail of propaganda that overtook the nation after the traumatic events of 9/11. Iraq confused people for a while, but that confusion is leaving in its wake a rather startling clarity: the "war" as the government defines it is bullshit.


Jane at FireDogLake: Yes they will scream, yes they will yell, and it will be a straw man bonanza, you can count on it. But it’s time the extreme wingnutty hijacking of this dialog ends, and it’s not going to end until someone is brave enough to introduce the notion that this whole phantasmagorical "war" is largely a crock.

Not to pick nits, but they're congratulating someone for pointing this in mid-2006!? I, like many of my friends and family, were hardly alone in noticing that this is exactly what was likely to happen, a revelation that for us came around 8 PM on September 11, 2001. That, for those who've blocked the day out, would be about when we finished shouting over dinner about the Shrub's T-day we-will-hunt-them-down address to the nation. The left wasn't quiet while this monarchical cabal beat the war drums ever louder and lobotomized our country with Orange Alerts, but it was trivialized and ignored by a slavering media. Maybe they missed the few tens of millions who marched against Open Ended War On Whomever We Damn Well Please back in 2003, too, since by then the meme was well-established that it would be unpatriotic for journalists to actually report about us traitors to the crown.

Hell, remember all that Boy King George stuff way back when he was running that surreal Homer Simpson-vs-Stuffy Professor 2000 Presidential campaign? Yeah, that was us, too. It's not like his monarchical tendancies had ever been particularly well hidden, after all. So while I'm pleased as punch that the big names are coming out and saying it in bold letters, I'd prefer they not act like it's news, or like they got here first. The only thing that's surprised me in six years is just how thoroughly the seeming dimwit managed to succeeded.

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