Recently in 2007 Narrative Category

Cold Biking

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Several of you have probably heard me say at some point that I don't bike below -5 °F. This is purely empirical -- I've never successfully biked at lower temperature, because at -5 I could no longer prevent my breath from freezing onto my glasses.

Until today. New personal best: -9 °F. I used a snorkel.

(The new helmet, which has a coverslip to close the vents, also helped. But it was mostly the snorkel, which kept my exhaled air safely behind my head. I probably looked like a steamship trundling down the street.)

Avenue Q

Back in college when I lived in the dorm, my house made a point of mounting the occasional expedition to a concert or a show, as an exercise in both giving us some culture and getting us out of the books for an evening. As my house here seems to be increasingly emulating the best aspects of that old place (the communal cooking being another prime symptom), we've been making sporadic forays to take in live music of various sorts. In our most ambitious outing to date, last weekend we took the State Theater by storm and partook of Avenue Q.

This is the second time I've seen this particular piece of theater (my sister, awesome girl that she is, took me to see it on Broadway a couple of years back when I was visiting her in NYC), and I would say that it holds up well. The roommates all found it hilarious, each seemed to associate a little too well with at least one song1, and I must say that muppet sex is less awkward with roommates than the baby sister.

Last time I was having too much fun with the novelty to give it much deep thought. This time I left with the nagging concern that the message of the show is a bit too pro-status quo for my tastes. In one sense this is understandable: the core audience is post-collegiate but still young enough to remember, or still inhabit, their years of passionate idealism. For them the show is either a poignant reminder, or a helpful warning, of the painful letdowns and compromises involved in navigating from that place into a real, mundane life. A "BA in English" and strong desire to save the world will not, in general or by themselves, go very far towards paying the bills.

However, the uncomfortable feeling remains that, in laying on the theme as thickly as it does (and in resorting to such a blatant deus ex porn-magnate machina to contrive a happy ending), the show winds up over-fertilizing the very attitudes that lead from wry detachment to ironic disengagement to political apathy, social resignation, and voting Republican. That all our troubles (even George Bush) are "only for now" is cold comfort when you're seeding the logic that brings many of them about -- and implying that the best strategy is to just wait them out and make do for yourself. Idealism, in this show, is a fast track to poverty and dejection.

But the major theme of Avenue Q isn't idealism so much as happiness. Here, the old maxim certainly seems to apply that "most people are about as happy as they make up their mind to be." With the caveat that a sufficient run of misfortune will get most anybody down, of course. That said, it's significant that the two characters who are closest to sublime fulfillment at the final curtain are the Republican investment banker (who just adds a modicum of tolerance to his life) and the idealist who is gifted a million bucks to make her vision come true. Otherwise, the surest road to contentment is not to stress about other people too much -- use a little friendly stereotyping to help everyone get along, use other folks' suffering as a pick-me-up, even use your own generosity primarily as an antidepressant.

The loophole in this whole argument, of course, comes back to the audience. Targeted at the generation of irony, it's impossible these days to lay anything on that thick and be taken seriously. With any luck, the remaining idealists in the audience will leave the theater thinking, well fine, but surely I can do better than those losers!

1 Pretty much in the ways you'd expect, too. The Americorp volunteer with boy troubles: "I'm kinda pretty and pretty damn smart / I like romantic things like music and art / ... So why don't I have a boyfriend!? F#*@ it sucks to be me!"

The variably employed artist: "What do you do with a BA in English? / What is my life meant to be? / Four years of college, and plenty of knowledge / have earned me this useless degree!"

The one with the boyfriend who's afraid of commitment and currently in China: "The more you love someone / the more you want to kill him. / The more you love someone / the more you want him dead!"

Voices

For a number of years, the Voices in the News segment of NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday has played an outsized role in my thinking -- far beyond what you'd expect from a 2-3 minute audio montage. But it tends to coincide with when I wake up on a typical Sunday morning, and thus is one of the first things I hear when the clock radio snaps on. Lying in bed as that hauntingly simple background music runs, the week's news distilled and juxtaposed into just a few voices from in media res, is like starting out the week by letting the rest of the world just soak in. Just for a moment. (Here's a good example, from last fall. Close your eyes, imagine the sun rising on the first day of the week, and that you've just woken up.)

So it grieves me considerably that since the new year, the segment has gotten, well, lame. I'm guessing a new producer took it over. It's been cut down to only about a minute or so, and typically features a narrow category of clips, typically political soundbites. This week it was a sentence or so from each of the three nominal winners of Saturday's primary contests. Worse, last week it was predictable and bumbling snippets from Bush's speech in the United Arab Emirates. Perhaps fortunately, it's also been moved to the beginning of the second hour of Weekend Edition instead of the first, so it's no longer the first thing I hear. But I'm sad not to have that anymore, and I really hope it goes back to something closer to what it was.

Spamming Snow

So I'm walking home a couple of nights ago, and I note that somebody's been writing in the drifted snow. This is one of those blocks where the front yards slope down steeply to meet the sidewalk, so it's possible to reach a fair amount of snow from the sidewalk. The printing is fairly neat, the letters a couple of feet tall, making a line of text parallel to the sidewalk for the length of several front yards. Like a news ticker, except I'm the one that's moving.

Obviously the content had been objectionable to someone, because large chunks have been rubbed out. Just a letter here and there remain, until I reach what must be the end of a sentence. Evidently the message was meant to be exciting. What remains reads:

...(stuff mostly rubbed out)...e!!!1!11!!one!!!1!!eleven!!1! ...(more stuff rubbed out)... AWESOME (cartoon of male genitals) !!!

It's like somebody transcribed spam onto a snowbank.

Apparently the meme is catching, because walking home last night there were more rubouts, but also more text showing up in the snowdrifts. Plus a large number of Jesus-fish. And the epigram, "Kucinich is J'aai!" I'm not sure if J'aai is meant to indicate support or opposition.

Felis Domesticus*

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A good friend just lost a dear old pet. How like a cat, really -- they're cleverly engineered to exploit all our empathy and parenting circuits, they make us love them, and then they have the bad grace to have a lifespan one fifth our own.

(And notice, I'm doing it myself. Anthropomorphizing them, that is. It really is remarkable, how precisely evolved they are to make us identify with them, as fellow intelligent, self-centered predators, but react to them as fluffy and playful. They'd eat us in a heartbeat if we were just smaller, and yet we invite them to take up residence in our homes!)

So yes, I like cats, I've loved a few of them, and been sad when they eventually died. But I'd seriously consider a box turtle for my next pet. They've also managed the trick of looking fairly intelligent (when they're awake, anyway), and might not age at all. Probably outlive my grandchildren, at any rate.

*I know, that's not the real scientific classification. But Felis silvestris catus just doesn't have the same ring to it.

December and the Busy Blogger

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First of December, and right on cue it's snowing. A lot. Apparently there is some concern that, now that everything is all white, there will be a mad rush to set up camp on the lakes, and the authorities would like to publicize that the ice isn't all that thick yet. So don't do that.

These Minnesotans, sometimes they baffle me greatly.

I think I just need to acknowledge that, between now and when EBEX flies sometime next year, blogging hereabouts is going to be somewhat intermittent. There's just a great deal to do in the last half-year before an experiment (literally) takes flight. That said, there are a few forms of content that more-or-less produce themselves. For one thing, I still burn through an awful lot of political writing online, and I should really get back in the habit of flagging the better bits here. Astrophotography always seems popular.

For another, slightly longer-term, project that could generate a lot of posts, I've been thinking for a while that I need to get with the Web 2.0 and get my photo archive online. I'm less likely to lose them to a disk crash (and thousands of hi-res photos do start to use some disk space) that way, plus Flickr now has geo-tagging features that would let me, for instance, display maps tagged with the locations where photos were taken. Which I think would be really cool, even if the actual tagging would be a bit time-consuming. No great hurry, though. Maybe my next camera will have a built-in GPS.

It's a real pity that I'm not allowed to say all that much in public about my research, because there's a lot of interesting things going on here. Me, I think a blog about the months leading up to a major balloon-experiment flight would make for moderately interesting reading. I guess you'll have to watch the BLAST documentary whenever it finally comes out to get the flavor of the process.

In New York

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So I'm off to the big city (i.e. New York) tomorrow for about a week. I'll mostly be in meetings, but anyone out that way interested in getting together, drop me a line. Once that is over with, this blog will hopefully become more interesting again.

I didn't forget entirely about our friendly local comet-in-outburst, which last time we had clear skies was still visible in the northeast. The picture below, again taken afocally through our 10-inch refractor, shows what it looked like a couple of weeks ago. Now it's expanded so much that it's an obvious fuzzball in the sky, and is really too large to photograph well through a telescope. And anyway, the interesting structures are now too low surface brightness to capture well with my equipment. As it is, to get the outer parts of the coma below, the sensitivity is turned way up, which produces the grainy texture (i.e. noise). As Jess put it, the quantum efficiency of my detector is rather low.

(Sudden flashback! This is what it looked like through the refractor right after the outburst, and this is what our skies looked like soon after.)

People with professional -- pricy -- equipment are, of course, having a field day. For example, over the past couple of weeks deep exposures revealed the comet developing and then releasing an ion tail. On the other hand, if you go to high resolution instead of exposure time, observers are noting all kinds of interesting jet-like structures showing up near the comet nucleus. Interestingly, that later picture was taken by a remote-controllable automated scope that you can apparently rent time with online. Which sort of makes amateur astronomy work the same way as it does for researchers, who these days often get nowhere near the telescopes that produce their observations.

In my research, on the other hand, we actually have to build the telescope before we can fly it. Which might explain why I enjoy cranking up the old refractor and fiddling around until I can take acceptable photos with whatever cheap equipment I have handy. It's just fun.

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Comet 17P/Holmes on 1 November 2007, about a week after the outburst.

Counter

It's Guy Fawkes, er ... Counterterrorism Day.

I have little useful insight on Pakistan, but I can recommend the relatively new Informed Comment: Global Affairs group blog. There are also links to some good writing on the topic from this TAPPED article.

I saw five snowflakes today.

Notes on Saturday Night NPR

Leigh Kamman broadcast the final installment of The Jazz Image tonight. Needless to say MPR will simply be replacing it with another jazz program, but seeing as the fellow has been hosting jazz broadcasts since the early 1940s, this feels like a bit of a landmark nonetheless. It's been an enjoyable show, but I never would have dared listen to it while driving, as Leigh's voice could put strung-out meth heads to sleep. I'm certain he's to blame for at least a couple of the times I've woken up face-down on the keyboard come morning.

Apparently the BBC now pronounces the j in junta. First off, it's silly to call the Burmese military government a "junta" at all, since that's a Spanish word that was adopted to describe the oppressive military governments of Latin America. I'm sure the Burmese have some local slang for "military dictatorship," and it's probably something that a BBC announcer (if not an American news anchor) could pronounce.

Secondly, seeing as it is a Spanish word, the pronounciation is (roughly; I'm not HTML coding the IPA here) "hoonta" -- certainly not "june-ta."

It would also seem that one candidate in the upcoming Ecuadorian elections is a masked superhero named The Pushisher -- when asked, he claimed to need the mask because he's "allergic to corruption." Sadly, a quick scan of the nets fails to turn up any pictures.

I also learned some trivia about brown eggs.

Autumn

Summer is over! Officially, anyway; we've already had a couple of cool snaps and school's been back in session for some weeks now. And on the other hand, since it doesn't actually feel like night until well into twilight, it will be a while yet before it actually feels like the night and day are equal in length. (A quick loop in XEphem tells me that, if I use nautical dawn to nautical dusk for Minneapolis, light-dark equality occurs on November 10th and nautical darkness thereafter will exceed the daylight until February 1st1. Which sounds about right; early November is about when the days begin to feel noticeably short, and in early February it starts to feel like the winter darkness is lessening.) Nevertheless, today the sun will have traversed a path almost exactly midway between its northern and southern annual extremes, most notable for the fact that it will have risen at due east and set at due west -- much to the chagrin of rush-hour drivers in the many cities that have street grids aligned to the cardinal directions.

Incidentally: Jessica, was I not just saying that this thing must exist? Although, contrary to my proposal, I don't think you could actually play this in a cassette deck. There's no room for the drive spindles to pass through.

1However, if we're talking about cute dates gleaned from playing around with XEphem, my favorite is September 8th -- this is the first day that the sun sets less than 6° north of west; for the rest of the year the sun will not shine into my lab and make it stifling hot in the afternoon.

Avast! Space debris ahead!

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Let me just say, I think it's a bit premature of the Peruvian authorities to be declaring that this mystery impact is not a fallen satellite. The symptoms being reported by the locals sound to me very much like what you'd expect from a combination of shock and inhaling propellant fumes (especially hydrazine, which is often used for satellite maneuvering).

P.S. Yarrr!

A Tale of Two Distributions

I ran across this New Yorker article from a while back: when attacking an unknown data set, Gaussian versus power law is the sort of basic distinction that turns out to make all the difference in the world when applied to social policy, and turns the usual intuition of social services on its head. (Because apparently they only discuss the former distribution in social science class, I guess.)

How Close to the Land

Not all of the food from my CSA is certified organic, but that's primarily because the certification process is rather a lot of work for a small farm like Featherstone.

Eating food that comes from a specific place changes your relationship to the cycle of production. For the last two weeks I didn't gotten a box of produce from my CSA, but have instead been reading their newsletters about recovering from the destructive floods that hit southeast Minnesota last month. Compared to others in the area they made out okay, but the tales have been at times heartbreaking. I look at my table and know that no more heirloom tomatos are coming after I eat this last one, because a scant hundred miles from here a torrent flattened the field where they had been growing. I think that most food consumers do not have this experience.

Here's an interesting conversation with Michael Pollan on organic farming from MPR last year. Shorter Pollan: modern "organic farming", and Whole Foods with it, is kind of a crock, but not entirely useless. You should really just buy local produce from your farmers' market and ask how it's grown if you care. Which you should.

In the case of a CSA I'm getting food not just from the local farming community, but from a specific farm and farmers, who I know by name, who tell me in detail how the food is grown, and what hopes and dreams they have for this food and this farm. For two weeks it felt like I was living a stopgap diet, stretching the last of the sweet corn and cherry tomatoes until the fresh bounty of last weekend's box finally arrived.

Odd Bomb

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Unlike the surreally hyped scares that get rolled out hereabouts whenever the Bushies get bored, this business in Germany appears to be the real thing -- an actual, competent terrorist cell in an advanced stage of plotting an attack.

However, one aspect strikes me as rather strange. With a whole universe of easily obtained explosives, why on Earth were these guys stockpiling H2O2? In low concentrations hydrogen peroxide will disinfect wounds or bleach hair; at high concentration it's a potent oxidizing agent of many uses, but the closest it comes to exploding is occasional use as a rocket fuel component. (See for instance John Carmack's hobby.) Sure, you probably could build a peroxide bomb -- you could build a bomb based on lighter fluid, too -- but when there are much more potent substances more readily available, what's the point?

The Closet

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Not actually written about Craig, but apropos nonetheless: I agree with what TSF says:

The media needs to stop inning celebrities; outing is so twentieth-century. Our outrage needs to be directed at the inning. No more open closets! Closets, and the fictions that maintain them, kill.

It's almost impossible to argue that anything Senator Craig pled guilty on, can reasonably be considered criminal behavior. Applied in a consistent fashion to the heterosexual world, the effect would be to outlaw flirting in public. Craig's predicament is a reminder that not so long ago it was literally illegal to be gay.

That said, I'm disinclined to have much sympathy for him, because he's exactly the kind of politician who has furthered his career by exploiting bigotry against gays (among other groups). Moreover, that behavior has been enabled by a media that knew, but never felt the need to mention, that he was railing against himself. All in all, a bit more self-awareness would do wonders for this country.

On Tenants

I had sort of forgotten how time-consuming the end of August is around my house. The unspoken arrangement with my landlady is that she keeps the rent low, and I keep the place low maintenance, and thus it falls to me to arrange replacement tenants as people leave. The process of emails and phone calls and returning home at strange times to give tours does occupy some hours, but as I do have to live with these people for (nominally) the next year I appreciate having the chance to try and craft a workable household. Not, of course, that I can legally refuse to rent a room on the basis of personality, but it's basic human nature that enthusiasm feeds back, and thus the people I'd most like to add as tenants are often the first to call back.

Timing plays a role in making that dynamic play out, of course. For one thing, the year leases around here generally start on 1 September, so once you get too close to (or past) that date the supply of people not looking for a month-to-month dwindles sharply, and the ones you do get are getting desperate. At that point subtle cues and body language are wholly inadequate to steer the outcome, and in fact this is the mechanism by which I've acquired the least satisfactory housemates over the years. Should the scenario arise again, I think I might try taking on a month-to-month tenant to tide the room over to the next semester boundary rather than picking from the thin crop of lease latecomers.

On a totally unrelated note, there's been notable confusion in the blogosphere about Alberto Gonzales' resignation, considering that he's been a discredited laughing stock of a political (and legal) liability for weeks if not months now. It's almost like some kind of admission by the White House that Congress is relevant, or that lying is wrong, or that laws still apply. But don't get your hopes up, for the TV has provided a much simpler answer:

The resignation decision appears to have been made last Friday. John Stewart and the Daily Show went on vacation on Thursday.

Alluvium

It's markedly cooler this week than a couple of weeks ago, and the fronts responsible have also swept Minnesota with severe thunderstorms a couple of times. The flash floods coursing down the streets have left noticeable silt deposits in the bike lanes -- another good storm or two and the larger ones will become full-fledged sandbars. Aside from the minor inconvenience of biking through sand, the storms have been creating larger problems for the recovery workers still trying to extract the last victims from the wreakage of the I-35 bridge. While the Mississippi is mostly running quite low due to the drought conditions in northern Minnesota, a good downpour makes for a substantial surge in the river current.

Perhaps due to the proximity of my life to the bridge area, I've been asked my thoughts on the collapse on several occasions of late. Of course, I only know what everybody else has read and seen; there isn't a neighborhood-resident pass to get behind the fences and barriers. I do have my own photos from the collapse, but nothing as informative as the lovingly captured disaster porn of the cable news channels. All the signs point to an engineering failure flowing from the nasty combination of questionable design and overused, undermaintained (mostly by Republicans) infrastructure. Nevertheless, I and others have gotten questions about whether there might have been some kind of attack or conspiracy involved.

Actually, Bruce Schneier has a good post up on conspiracy theories and why they're so seductive. Quoting a recent New Scientist article (copy here):

So what kind of thought processes contribute to belief in conspiracy theories? A study I carried out in 2002 explored a way of thinking sometimes called major event - major cause reasoning. Essentially, people often assume that an event with substantial, significant or wide-ranging consequences is likely to have been caused by something substantial, significant or wide-ranging.

...To appreciate why this form of reasoning is seductive, consider the alternative: major events having minor or mundane causes -- for example, the assassination of a president by a single, possibly mentally unstable, gunman,
or the death of a princess because of a drunk driver. This presents us with a rather chaotic and unpredictable relationship between cause and effect. Instability makes most of us uncomfortable; we prefer to imagine we live in a
predictable, safe world, so in a strange way, some conspiracy theories offer us accounts of events that allow us to retain a sense of safety and predictability.

The article even gives directions for starting your own conspiracy theory, if you're so inclined. Sounds like a fun party game.

A conspiracy theory I've been reading about lately is the NAFTA superhighway nuttiness. There's a fascinating investigative piece by Chris Hayes in The Nation this month:

"Construction of the NAFTA highway from Laredo, Texas to Canada is now underway," read a letter in the February 13 San Gabriel Valley Tribune. "Spain will own most of the toll roads that connect to the superhighway. Mexico will own and operate the Kansas City Smart Port. And NAFTA tribunal, not the U.S. Supreme Court, will have the final word in trade disputes. Will the last person please take down the flag?" There are many more where that came from. "The superhighway has the potential to cripple the West Coast economy, as well as posing an enormous security breach at our border," read a letter from the January 7 San Francisco Chronicle...

Grassroots movement exposes elite conspiracy and forces politicians to respond: It would be a heartening story but for one small detail.

There's no such thing as a proposed NAFTA Superhighway.

Digby noticed this article and immediately thought of the right-wing nuts that make up the Republican base these days. Dave Neiwart has been tracking this sort of thing for a while, and sees the far right recycling the old "New World Order" crap now that it looks like Democrats are ascendant again. Hayes is more interested in description than prognosis, and points out Richard Hofstadter's famous 1964 essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," (summary from Wikipedia, and reproduced in full here) suggesting that conspiracy paranoia is something of an idiosyncracy endemic to American discourse. I can attest from experience that it's a tendency by no means confined to the right.

At TAPPED, Steven White zooms in on a passage identifying NAFTA Superhighway paranoia as a poorly expressed populist critique of 21st century America. This sounds about right to me. What initially looks like a peculiar coincidence -- a conspiracy theory that merges the xenophobic suspicions of the right with distrust of globalization on the left -- resolves into a broad-based reaction in the non-elite classes to economic insecurity and perceived political alienation. So it's no wonder the Republican noisemakers are all too happy to pump this sort of thing. If the problems were perceived clearly the solutions would obviously lie in progressive, not conservative, policies.

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Alternating layers of sandstone and shale near Sanderson, Texas, are the fossilized remains of undersea turbidity flows (i.e. sand-slides) down the edge of a continental shelf over 200 million years ago.

And Back Again

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So here I find myself back from a glorious week in the vastness of west Texas, chasing rocks and books and ghosts to the edge of nowhere. The changing winds of autumn feel like growing older, they make my favorite season a good time for introspection, and here you can already feel them at dusk after the sun sets on a 90-degree day. But out there it's still spring in the desert, and the sage is in bloom.

On the way I finally got around to reading that thing that's so captivated everyone of late, the final novel of Harry Potter. Finished it tonight as the streetlights were coming on. I'm a fan but hardly an obsessive one, yet it's been fascinating to discover in the space of a few days reading the answers to a great many questions that have in some cases lingered in the back of the brain for the better part of a decade. Not only how will it all end? but the assorted pivotal mysteries of allegances, motivations, and origins.

Even if I will not be noticeably less busy in the foreseeable future than I have been this summer, those wisps of autumn blowing in my window suggest that this is an acceptable time to return from the de facto summer vacation that this blog has been taking. It's just one of a number of things calling for some attention. Here's another: I have two open rooms in my house for the fall. If anyone you know needs a moderately small room for an extremely small price in a comfortably batty house at the heart of Minneapolis, by all means point them my way.

Bridge to Nowhere

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So first of all, I was nowhere near the bridge. For those not watching the news tonight, we're having some infrastructure problems a few blocks from my house. For those who've been trying to reach me, apparently the cell phone network is pretty jammed up.

I'll just be adding plummeting into a river to the (long) list of ways cars will kill you. Still well below accidents, asthma, and oil wars, but possibly above getting decapitated by your airbag.

Speaking of Criminal Robots...

Due to a particularly insistent spam-bot attack, for the time being I have set comments to moderated. This means that your posts won't show up until I swing by to mark them as not-spam. I find this a bit discouraging, as I value your feedback and worry that you folks will be less inclined to leave comments, but I'm happy to be proven wrong.

There may be a delay in comments showing up over the weekend, as I'll be out bringing astronomy to the teeming-ish masses of western Minnesota. Universe in the Park will be hitting Camden on Friday evening, and Lake Shetek on Saturday. Looks likely that the weather will hold through the weekend, so two nights of clear dark skies are a good possibility.

On the vegetable front, the kohlrabi fritters did in fact resemble a somewhat juicy, broccoli-flavored potato pancake. Also, pesto is basically the salad equivalent of a neutron star. My blender was making funny noises by the end of the process, but I converted an entire crisper (and then some) worth of assorted greens into three jars of pestos this week. I've resigned myself to the fact that my roommates do not eat nearly enough vegetables to finish off a CSA bushel box in a week, so my cooking of late has been all about the preservables.

Assorted Updates

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Life with the CSA has been an adventure so far -- you don't realize the degree to which laziness nudges variety out of your diet until you're confronted with eating from a box full of whatever happens to be ripe this week. I've rediscovered radishes, found that fresh beets are better than I'd remembered, realized that almost any sort of leaf you can think of can made edible by stir-frying. Supposedly you can make a fritter from a kohlrabi, which I imagine will be almost but not entirely unlike a potato pancake.

If you're in Minnesota and weren't at the July 4th party I was at, you missed out. On my enormous box of combustibles, that is. (The comestibles were also top-notch, thanks to our hosts Clay and Ruby.) Later on I joined friends at the Soap Factory's third July 4th ten second film festival. Two of our films made the cut; neither of them won anything, although the audience generally thought we were robbed of the comedy award. Eventually the production will probably be posted at the festival website.

Our videos are credited to schwa. You should keep an eye out for it.

I'm experimenting with the hugin panorama stitching suite, and I've gotten some pretty sweet results so far. Here's one below:

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A squall line blows in from over the river at sunset. Click to enlarge the panorama, but be warned that it is gigantic.

Shrubbery

This winter my Urban Winter photographs gave me a lovely way to fill in the slow weeks. I'm fixing to start a new series of photographs. This one is not part of that series, and is mostly me showing off my new (well, only a few months old) camera.

Incidentally, since the new version of MT makes it trivially easy, most photos of mine posted here are clickable and link to a larger version suitable for desktop images or printing.

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The shrub in my front yard is covered in tiny flowers this time of year.

Urban Savanna

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A stand of wildflowers in my front yard; I don't think I actually planted this one -- it came up on its own a couple of years back and I've never gotten around to identifying them. This is what it looked like last August, at any rate.

On a tack related to my last post, I'm in the process of trying to rehabilitate my back yard as a native savanna. "Yard" really is a bit generous; it's a 16-by-22-foot patch of weedy dirt that is bordered on three sides by parking (and is separated from parking on the fourth only by our shed). Pretty well shaded most of the year by trees and buildings, too. In short, your typical urban lot, of the sort that in general is either a neglected weed-choked mosquito breeding ground or else heavily trampled with a broken swingset and an occasional firepit. This one was a bit of both when I moved in.

The trash has been under control for several years now, and we've put up a wooden trellis that separates it from our parking space -- preexisting chain link and a retaining wall form the boundary with the neighboring parking lot and alley, so that's okay. Last year I finally cleared out the remaining dead brush and established our compost pile. Running the lawnmower over said brush made pretty decent mulch to start it with, too. But last year was mostly about the vegetable garden in front.

This year I'm starting to properly tackle the vegetation in back, because I want to show that even a little urban dirt lot can be made into a proper greenspace. The soil is decent, if a bit low in organic content, and there's not as much sunlight as one might want, but it has the makings of a reasonable urban savanna ecosystem. I'm putting in edible plants around the periphery: raspberry vines on the trellis to complement the wild grapes (not that I've ever seen an actual grape on them), and a cultivated patch parallel to one of the retaining walls with winter squash being trained to grow up onto the chain-link and some wild garlic or similar in the gaps. For the rest, these folks sell a number of native seed mixes tailored to small plantings, including a couple of savanna/woodland edge mixtures. Now that strategic mowing has knocked the weeds on their heels for a bit I hope to start seeding in the next couple of weeks. I'm still working out how to deal with the foot traffic back there, however. Once established it shouldn't care too much if you walk on it, of course, but I'll get complaints from the roommates if I declare it off limits for the first year and deprive them of the firepit. Prairie seedlings are relatively sturdy, though, so perhaps a few pavers to catch the bulk of the foot traffic is all that's needed.

For more immediate results, Prarie Moon also sells bare-root plants, and they're having an end of season sale -- I point this out because this would be a good way for any of you reading in the upper Midwest to add some native splash to your own landscaping. Just a thought.

Agriculture

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The Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD: a shrine to what people would like to think the corn-centric agribusiness industry is all about. Also, it might be suggested, the world's largest birdfeeder. Yes, those walls are mosaics of corn.

I just finished Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, which while occasionally frustrating makes a serious effort to delve into the processes and systematics of our food system. Or actually, a few parallel food systems: industrial, sustainable, and their hybrid offspring that he terms "big organic," which is generally what is meant by the organic label on the food in your grocery store. (He also spends the last third of the book on this odd hunter-gatherer ego trip of a philosophical aside, so if you're reading for relevance you can probably stop after part II.)

On which note: my first CSA box of the season arrives June 2! Don't know yet what'll be in it -- you never really do -- but judging by last year salads and rhubarb are likely to be the order of the day. I'm not sure what exactly one does with rhubarb other than make pies, of course.

But back to Pollan. There are a few major themes that recur throughout the book. It compares monocultures to ecosystems as methods of production, and investigates the closely related point of petroleum versus sunlight as the underlying energy sources. Tied up in those two contrasts are many of the issues that give rise to organic food, sustainable agriculture, and the "eat local" movement. One one extreme is Iowa, which grows corn almost to the exclusion of any other activity, producing vast quantities of commodity grain using state of the art chemistry and biotechnology, which is then fed into the modern agribusiness industry. On the other end you have sustainable farms that operate as carefully engineered ecosystems, many of which don't even bother getting organic certification because they sell not to grocery stores but directly to consumers through farmers' markets, CSAs, and other local delivery mechanisms.

While I do frequently buy organic food my concern is more with the sustainability of our food system than the particulars of what pesticides or fertilizers can or cannot be used. (However, antibiotics are another story altogether.) So this year my produce will be coming from a CSA farm in southeast Minnesota. I'll be sure to write about that.

Phew!

So, I'm back from Scavhunt '07. Busy and exhausted, so stories later. Much awesome was made, and my Vagrant Sun Gods took third place (four years running).

I didn't take any pictures, I think. But that's okay, because these things are extensively documented in the digital era. YouTube and Flickr and the like will be full of Scav by week's end.

Finally, a passage from the book I was reading on the bus to Minnesota last night:

Everybody was making desultory conversation as they went about their jobs, and the morning had something of the flavor that I imagine a barn raising or a November session of corn shucking once had: People who ordinarily work alone having a chance to visit with one another while getting something useful done. Much of the work was messy and unpleasant, but it did allow for conversation, and you weren't going to be at it long enough to get bored or sore. And by the end of the morning you had something to show for it -- and a great deal more than you would have had had you been working alone.

This is actually Michael Pollan, from The Omnivore's Dilemma, writing about slaughtering chickens, but could just as well be about my Scavhunt team. We first and foremost have fun, after all.

Power

Blogging from the lab on a Sunday afternoon because my house has no electricity. Today's freak windstorm has knocked out power lines all over the region. One assumes this is mostly because branches came down on them. That is a bit surprising if you think about it, since we're not far out of winter just now, which means that the trees haven't grown appreciably since last fall when the city crews went around trimming things back. However, the leaves have just come in, which dramatically increases the cross section of a branch to wind and the like.

However, I'm not sure that my house is impacted by a downed line. When the power failed I distinctly heard a transformer faulting out from down the block (sharp bang, followed a few seconds later by a couple of buzzes probably from something arcing as the system tries to recover), and a quick ride through the alleyways near my house didn't reveal any fallen lines. More likely, a branch snagged a couple of lines and shorted them out.

Here's further evidence of an interesting trend. A hospital CEO is writing a blog about running a hospital. Two years ago, would the corporate lawyers have done anything but laugh in his face at the idea?

Learning to Read

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I was probably six or eight when I picked up Azimov's Foundation trilogy. I spent a few days struggling through the first chapter or two, before putting it down and announcing that it was too hard for me. A year or three passed, and I came back around to it and devoured the whole trilogy in several days. What exactly did I learn in the intervening period that enabled me to read Foundation?

For some reason this is brought to mind by the fact that tomorrow morning is a milestone of sorts -- it's the last day of the (hopefully) last (graded) class of my education. Considering I'm in something like the 22nd grade, it's about time, too.

I've kinda had my fill of classroom desks. Although it's always struck me that if you properly padded one of those suckers with the flip-aside writing table, you'd have an extremely functional piece of TV-room furniture.

In other news:

THE O'BAMA THING. Barack Obama has joked for years that people in Chicago voted for him because they thought his name was "O'Bama." Now comes word in The New York Sun that he does, in fact, have Irish ancestry:
So it turns out, the Daily Telegraph reports from Dublin, that Barack Obama's great-great-great-great grandfather was " Joseph Kearney, a well-to-do shoemaker from Moneygall, County Offaly, Ireland, who lived from 1794 to 1861."

Let's finally get away from letting these elite impeccibly-bred patrician dynasties *cough*House of Bush*cough* run things. They're clearly as inbred as any European royal house by now, as any IQ test would show.

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Ice dam! A few days after a March blizzard, my sidewalk offers a short course on the hydrology of glacier collapse.

Kongo Gumi

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Are you ready for spring? It may have exceeded 300 Kelvin (80F) yesterday, but only a couple of weeks ago there was still snow on the the ground.

So on a lighter note, over the weekend my peeps in Chicago held a naming party for this year's instantiation of the F.I.S.T., and the result plays nicely to my delusions of godhood. While we are almost universally referenced in extreme shorthand (FIST being probably most common), our full name is a bit of a mouthful:

Lush Puppies mk. VII; F.I.S.T. pt. sex; Deleuzian Potato Homefries; Billmire's Scrod Double-Teams Stony; No Blank, All Umlaut; Rösëbüd, Still the Fucking Sled; Vagrant Sun Gods

Vagrant Sun Gods being the latest addition, that is. There is a common misconception that the leading portion of our name is but ancestry, baggage carried along out of a quaint appreciation for our own history. This is incorrect -- the prefixes evolve from year to year, and how could we be descended from the seventh iteration of the Lush Puppies? No, the correct attitude is to approach the prefixes as necessary and descriptive sovereign style, that component of our name that recognizes our conquest of vast and growing swaths of mythic terrain. In a formal setting it would be no more appropriate to refer to us as "the FIST" than to introduce "Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith" as Lizzie.

Fortunately for everyone involved, Scavhunt doesn't actually have any formal settings.

Speaking of institutions with ephemeral staying power, the oldest company in the world finally went belly-up this month. (Via the Long Now Blog) Not that Kongo Gumi is actually out of business, but after 1400 years of building Buddhist temples, accumulated debt from the 1980s bubble economy pushed the company into bankrupcy and acquisition.

This buddhist temple construction company Kongo Gumi had been in operation since 578 CE, give or take. How come so many of the oldest companies are Japanese? Probably the same reason they've had an unbroken imperial line for about that long as well. The list also includes a bunch of medieval European inns and breweries, which pretty much tells you all you need to know about Europe.

Rock

It's that time of year again; now that's its warm the plaza outside (onto which my lab's windows face) tends to host various musical acts during lunchtime. Today it's Generic Christian Rock, again. Now aside from the fact that it's usually just bad music (due to the inherent contradiction implied by attempting to rock as inoffensively as possible, I suppose), I have nothing against Christian Rock per se. However, I can't but note that we have one of these acts on probably a weekly basis, but I can't recall once having heard an analogous explicitly Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, or whatever group out there.

As an aside, I would also point out that Christian Rock is not really a sufficiently descriptive term, since these groups are pretty uniformly evangelical Protestants. For instance, the closest thing I can come up with to a Catholic Rock group is U2, which isn't the same thing at all.

Delightful things from the Chicago Critical Mass list this week:

"The first rule of Pillow Fight Club is..." This came up because the Massers have noticed that the next pillow fight will roughly coincide in time and space with the start of the April Critical Mass ride. I wonder how they would react if a few hundred cyclists with pillows showed up.

Slate's unconventional economic columnist on staff makes the argument that the environmental costs of parking your car are even worse than the costs of driving it. Different (global warming versus chewing up public space), but worse per average car. Back when he started writing for Slate he began with a provocative article that he's now expanded into a new book that might be worth a read. In More Sex is Safer Sex he implores all you non-promiscuous (and conscientiously promiscuous) folks to get out there and have more casual sex. Monogamy gave us AIDS, apparently.

Amnesia and Earthshine

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Closer ...
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Closer ...
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Not bad for digital camera work. The top two images are from my new Canon S2, and it's lovely how much better the color reproduction is with the longer shutter times that the image stabilizer allows. Bottom image from my A610, since the S2's barrel is too large to fit my binoculars.

Spent a delightful weekend in Chicago catching up with good friends both old and not. Left newly envious of Chicago's cyclists, as I am reminded of how wide, well-paved, and extremely flat the place's roads are. Here one must constantly climb in and out of the Mississippi river bottoms to get anywhere, and if that does not exactly make us another Bay Area it nevertheless makes long rides harder than they might otherwise be.

Which I would be just fine with if Minneapolis actually had enough topography not to look perfectly flat.

It's been a while since I did any astrophotography, and I figured it was time to test the low-light capabilities of my shiny new Canon S2, so here is a series of photos that I took about 36 hours after the last new moon. My students, on the other hand, complain that they can't find the Moon anywhere as much as four or five days to either side of new.

Since the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind seems to provoke extreme and highly polarized reactions in various of my readers, here's a fun finding that I ran across recently:
how to erase a single memory (from a rat's mind). Highly unsafe, I'm certain, but how long can it possibly be until some adventureous type tries this on themselves? Just don't say your name.

Bomb? Sigh.

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So half of campus is shut down because some fool issued a bomb threat. Handily, my building is not slated for evacuation, so I can sit here and blog about it, although the helicopters are noisy and our windows face out onto the distracting excitement. I would imagine this is correlated either to events in Virginia or to a Special Olympics tent that materialized on the Mall overnight. Or, possibly, because it's a nice day and someone wanted to get out of class.

(As an aside, may I say that the bomb threat hoax is so played out. You want to cause a delightful ruckus, call in a radioactive llama threat and see what happens. Go on, try it. I'll wait.)

Our Israeli grad student, meanwhile, is a bit horrified that we all immediately assume it's a hoax, but given that these things always are (in the United States, anyway), I think it's a fair assumption.

Farewell, Kurt Vonnegut

Judging by one of his last interviews, while he dearly despised Bush and would probably have enjoyed seeing his comeuppance, it sounds like he was pretty much ready to leave. To a professional prophet of doom, our present world became a very bleak place indeed.

Cadbury

I had entirely forgotten that Bread and Puppet is in town, and it was only by happenstance that while strolling down University Ave yesterday afternoon I spotted the big blue schoolbus that passes for the Bread and Puppet tourbus. When I first saw it approaching I must have thought something along the lines of, why is there a truck covered in bicycles?

So I will clearly have to check out the Everything is Fine Circus tomorrow, which I feel will be a most appropriate use of an Easter afternoon. Even if it will be a freakishly arctic cold April day. I blame global warming! (At least it won't be snowing -- what was up with that?)

Michael Bérubé has penned an only mildly parodic scenario that perfectly captures the nonsense that is Bill Donohue, Catholic League wingnut extraordinaire. Imagine for a moment: the Cadbury Creme Christ!

Still Busy

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I am, however, amused by the fact that the United States Postal Service webpage now has a "Star Wars Experience" on/off button.

Also amusing: the twitter curve. It's only sad because it's true, although I'm still about three notches back from the brink of asymptotic Armageddon.

On my Present Disposition

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For those who were wondering where I've vanished off to, a summary in maddeningly generic form:

On the research front, it's not only proposal season, but it's the supercharged end-of-multi-year-funding-cycle proposal season. The process of asking for money does rather consume a bit of otherwise useful time. I do, however, need to maintain various previously scheduled activities here.

On other fronts, I've been engrossed in more dead-tree reading than usual, which doesn't lend itself to blogging as efficiently as online articles: presently some recent Persian history that the library needs back soon, and rereading The Diamond Age, since it informs another tangent I've sprinted off on lately. Also this month, I've been making preparations to release the code for a software project I've been developing for half a decade now, which has mandated some upgrades to make years worth of revision history useable by outsiders. I also need to write an installer.

So my present constraints are such that my shiny new camera remains largely unused on a shelf for want of an appropriate camera bag, and my bicycle has been parked downstairs with a flat tire for a week for want of time to purchase and install a new tube. But that's just the inconveniences you sometimes live with, no? In an effort to keep you folks up-to-date, let's assume a couple-posts-per-week schedule for now while things percolate.

Comet-Free Sunset

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Urban Winter '06-'07: January Sunset
While scanning the evening skies for Comet McNaught, I snapped photos of the sunset over the chemistry building. That cloudbank made for a pretty sky, but pretty much obscured our viewing attempt.

Ignition! (+ free Gumby)

If I ever find myself teaching nuclear physics, I am so assigning this (pdf) as a problem set -- it's a declassified paper written by Edward Teller (with E. Konopinski and C. Marvin, all Manhattan Project scientists) in 1946 showing that you can't ignite the atmosphere with a nuclear weapon. I love the fact that this paper was written a year after three atomic weapons had been detonated. To be fair, though, the same trio had suppsedly presented the same calculation within the project as early as 1942.

What can I say? It's a Friday and I feel like taking a break from political posts.

YouTube and its ilk are busy forging alliances with various media companies, which on the whole will probably wind up working to the detriment of their users. However, for now, here's something fun: the original Gumby shorts are getting posted online.

And in other news, did anyone notice that six of the ten Intel Science Talent Search finalists this year are women? (Back in my day, it was the Westinghouse prize.) Does make you wonder exactly how we're screwing up badly enough to have so few women in science faculty coming out the other end of the process. The first place winner, incidentally, is getting some press for constructing some manner of homemade spectrometer. There was a period in there when biotech projects were taking a lot of the top prizes, but I think the ISTS judges have always had a weakness for making cool stuff on the cheap. My year, the winner built a tunneling electron microscope out of piezo crystals and Lego. Mary sounds like she's probably much less of a dweeb than he was, though.

Sunday Update

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Bought a new camera today, on which more later. Having spent all evening squinting at the microscopic type in the manual and fiddling with buttons on the thing, my eyes hurt. Thus the brief post.

Most interesting thing I read this weekend, the future belongs to the uninhibited. Which sounds about right, so far as it goes: New York Magazine digests the anthropology of a hyper-networked generation.

Me, I think Pipes has the potential to be the coolest thing you've ever seen, except that for the most part this is exactly the sort of technology the end user is never meant to see. Nevertheless I may, in fact, break down and create a Yahoo account. But bear in mind that this is coming from a fellow who, while pretty savvy about such things, only just figured out how to send email from his cell phone.

Time Change Weekend

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So it looks like this week I sort of fell off the daily-posting wagon. Five out of seven days ain't bad, but let's shoot for a 7-day-a-week operation here next week. Especially since it's Spring Break, and I thus can't claim distraction by students as an excuse.

Daylight savings time kicks in a few hours from now, three weeks ahead of schedule. The news reports have been crawling with this "mini-Y2K" stuff all week, because some computers (read: poorly maintained Windows machines) haven't been informed of the 2005 act of Congress mandating the change. I don't anticipate difficulty, but just for kicks, the University has a special site set up that will test your computer for temporal compatibility.

If you were curious, no, it probably won't save appreciable energy. Swing and a miss.

Long Way to Go

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Today is International Women's Day. As these things goes, the day has an interesting history. Tracing its origins to the international socialist movement at the turn of the 20th century, one claim is that the day originally commemorated the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. It remains a state holiday in many Asian Communist and ex-Communist countries. As such, the day is as much focused on the economic status of women as on women's rights or safety.

Via TAPPED, Jana Goodrich is promoting a series of articles she wrote on the gender wage gap a little while back. Very readable, if you're up for some slightly longer fare.

Via WorldMapper (a very cool site, I might add):



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A map of the world distorted such that the area of each territory is proportional to the total number of illiterate women living there less the number of illiterate men. China and India loom especially large.

The fact that nearly every territory has nonzero area attests that, throughout most of the world, women are more likely to be illiterate than men. Here in the affluent world we have the luxury of trying to tackle the wage disparity -- a very real phenomenon that Senator Clinton is taking aim at. For perhaps the majority of the world's women, the issue is a more basic disparity in access to education.

See also: Lindsay Beyerstein has a good roundup. With bonus bicycling content.

Eclipse Update

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The lunar eclipse of 3 March 2006 rises above a snowy urban landscape.

Last night's sky was crystal clear, so the lunar eclipse was readily visible. I didn't take the trouble to find a large open or elevated space, however, to totality had just ended when it rose high enough to be readily visible above the rooftops. It's a devilish challenge to photograph both a moonlit landscape and simultaneously capture any detail of the Moon itself. Here, I present my best effort from last night; to do any better I'd probably have to edit together multiple exposures. After all, the illuminated portion of the Moon there is probably thousands of times brighter than the dim light scattering off those houses.

All in all, our eyes are a pretty neat optical system, able as they are to deal with such huge contrast ratios.

Madness, I Say

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So it looks like the Duluth zoo's porcupine was right -- here we are in our fourth week of rather conspicuous winter since the conflicting predictions of Groundhog's Day. So much for the least-snowy-winter record run; rather, it looks like we'll have racked up about three feet of fluff in less than a week. It's been observed to me now by a couple of people that the climate of the upper Plains is changing not so much for the warmer, as much as winter is shifting later in the year. Which sounds about right, although my experience of the region is brief enough that I find present conditions, on average, at variance only with the area's reputation. I would not with any confidence propose to derive a trend from personal observation.

At any rate, the present week of blizzards, while impressive, is little more than Poisson noise, in this case the small but real probability of getting hit by two major snow-producing systems in a short period of time. Even after this week we'll be running a snow deficit. RealClimate ran an useful discussion on El Nino, global warming, and our oddly warm winters earlier this year. Answer: a bit of both, as per norm.

On which topic, (via digby) here's an interesting post on a recent energy consuption smear directed at Gore that was manufactured recently, likely to coincide with the recent attention he attracted at the Academy Awards this week. These Republican operatives don't miss a beat when it comes to shaping the anti-Democratic narrative.

Anyway, photos of today's excitement:

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Santana's is a bit hard to pigeonhole: sort of a Mideastern-American bistro, you can get your convenience store basics plus gyros, fried cheese and decent falafel from the counter. They own the after-midnight food scene in my neighborhood.
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Naturally, once the real blizzard action started up, I headed for the roof. If you click and enlarge the photo, it's apparent that turbulence is causing the snow to blow in sheets, like heavy rain.

Cows with Guns

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So I wound up skipping the "Big History" talk, because I'm a bit under the weather and didn't feel like traipsing about campus. Oh well; the physics talk here was interesting enough, although for an astronomer it was somewhat lacking in pretty pictures.

Via Pandagon, because cows with guns are catchy:



Digging Out

Well, the snow came, saw, and conquered. Not so much a blizzard, for the most part, as the sky freezing, falling, and gingerly layering itself all over everything. Which nevertheless is my excuse for not posting over the weekend -- although given that it was the kind of weekend where it's not just unpleasant, but downright impractical to attempt going anywhere, I suppose you'd expect more blogging instead of less. Funny how these things work out. Got in a lot of shovelling, though, which I find thoroughly cathartic. Probably because I can count on two or three hands the number of times I've actually had to shovel out a walk, it's never yet struck me as a chore.

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Urban Winter '06-'07: Snow Angels
Shortly after our last round of snowfall a couple of weeks back, these snow angels (or snow-figures-in-floppy-clothing, if you prefer) showed up across the walk from my lab.

Definite Snow

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Urban Winter '06-'07: Reflection
Despite our cold snap in late January, the river never did freeze over this winter. The (new) Guthrie and (old) Gold Medal mill are easy to pick out along the riverfront.

So it's not all that often the weather forecasters get to whip out their "Definite snow" icon, but there it is, with the probability of snow pegging at 100% in a few hours.

Looks like there's a nice cold system moving in from the west that's about to colllide with a river of humid Gulf air filling the Mississippi watershed, and the entire Central timezone is about to be deluged. Since that includes most of the people who read this blog, you all be careful out there this weekend. It's gonna get messy.

Weather Whiplash

Wednesday was right out of April -- in fact, mid-40s and wind whipping is what I expect of Easter, not Ash Wednesday. Today was a pleasant, upper-20s March day. This weekend will be textbook February, chilly with a foot or more of snow predicted.

Interesting article in MyDD on McCain's tanking hopes: Now McCain and Theocons Are Both Crashing. My take is that Giuliani probably can't win in the general, although it's worth worrying about. Should Clinton take the Democratic nominatin, it would be hillarious to watch the wingnuts freak out at a general election guaranteed to result in a New Yorker for President.

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Northrop's architectural condom didn't survive last night's wind storm. As always, I found myself riding into a still headwind on my way home. Why can't these fronts ever come with easterly winds?

In Your Name

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Urban Winter '06-'07: Reaching Upwards

In the Christian calendar today marks the beginning of Lent. It's not actually about giving up chocolate or cheating or what have you. Nor is it entirely about the things it isn't: Carnival before, Passion after. Lent is for atonement.

Jews, similarly, observe Yom Kippur; Ramadan is likewise an analogous time of reflection and purification. (Leave it to the Catholics, of the three Abrahamic strains, to have devised the longest season of fasting and prayer, though.) But obviously, reflection and self-improvement are hardly the exclusive domain of religion, and it often pays to pause and take stock now and then. So let's take a moment to consider a few of the things being done in your name, and mine.

For instance, no country imprisons a larger fraction of its people than America, often under conditions of unbelievable brutality:

I probably have AIDS now. I have great difficulty raising food to my mouth from shaking after nightmares or thinking to hard on all this . . . . I've laid down without physical fight to be sodomized. To prevent so much damage in struggles, ripping and tearing. Though in not fighting, it caused my heart and spirit to be raped as well. Something I don't know if I'll ever forgive myself for.

That's the legally-sanctioned prison system. I've written before about the illegally imprisoned, too. How they broke Padilla, for instance:

According to court papers filed by Padilla's lawyers, for the first two years of his confinement, Padilla was held in total isolation. He heard no voice except his interrogator's. His 9-by-7 foot cell had nothing in it: no window even to the corridor, no clock or watch to orient him in time. ...

Even at this late stage, after dozens of meetings with his lawyers, Padilla suspects that they are government agents, says Andrew Patel, who is on the legal team. Padilla may believe that the lawyers assigned to represent him are in fact "part of a continuing interrogation program." ...

After spending more than 25 hours with Padilla, both psychiatric experts have concluded that his isolation and interrogation have resulted in so much mental damage that he is incompetent to stand trial.

Through a still-murky combination of malice and criminal negligence we've caused the deaths of probably more than half a million Iraqis. But I wouldn't discount the possibility that our culpability goes deeper than failing to prevent civil war:

Now, NEWSWEEK has learned, the Pentagon is intensively debating an option that dates back to a still-secret strategy in the Reagan administration’s battle against the leftist guerrilla insurgency in El Salvador in the early 1980s. Then, faced with a losing war against Salvadoran rebels, the U.S. government funded or supported "nationalist" forces that allegedly included so-called death squads directed to hunt down and kill rebel leaders and sympathizers. Eventually the insurgency was quelled, and many U.S. conservatives consider the policy to have been a success—despite the deaths of innocent civilians and the subsequent Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal...

Following that model, one Pentagon proposal would send Special Forces teams to advise, support and possibly train Iraqi squads, most likely hand-picked Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shiite militiamen, to target Sunni insurgents and their sympathizers...

Superfluous to say, there is much to be put right in the world, and it is nobody's responsibility but our own. Mine, and yours. To begin: take a moment to be mortified.

Shrove Tuesday

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Urban Winter '06-'07: Fireworks in the Snow.

Last year Connor had an interesting post on Mardigras in New Orleans, so that's my recommended reading for the day.

Xylo passed along a delightful blog: Venn diagram (and other whiteboard-appropriate) humor.

Washington State is now the second state (after New Mexico) to formally take up a resolution calling for the impeachment of Bush and Cheney.

Weekend Couch Potato Notes

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Flipping around on the teevee last night I ran across a documentary on scientific ballooning: Space Balloons: 120,000 Feet Above Earth. Which was interesting because the mission they spent the most footage on was BLAST, which is in a sense EBEX's sister experiment. So if you happen to catch a rerun of this you can get a good idea of what EBEX is going to look like. (If I get a chance I'll post a clip or two on YouTube, too.)

Now I'm listening to Speaking of Faith on NPR. The major point I've taken from today's program (and I probably already knew this) is that J.R.R. Tolkien, in his later years, sounded exactly like you'd expect Bilbo Baggins to sound. At least when reading elvish poetry, anyway. (The program is on modern paganism.)

Clawing Back

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Urban Winter '06-'07: Lamppost Construction.
Ha, now I can get away with posting an entire series of my random urban photography and call it a collection, titled, curated, and everything! Photoblogging is always good filler. Click to enlarge.

Okay, you know that phenomenon where, upon returning from a vacation, it's terribly difficult to get back into the pattern of accomplishing things? Well, that's how I feel about EGAD. So starting today, I'm going to an enforced daily posting schedule. Fair warning: until I get back into the swing of things, there will be inane, half-baked, and occasionally factually erroneous posting, but I will try to keep this to a minimum.

On the other hand, if you were a fan of my photoblogging and wanted to see more of that ... I've got thousands of shots ready to turn into filler at a moment's notice.

Groundhog Day...

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...is as good a day as any to bring my blog-vacation to a close. Today Punxsutawney Phil failed to see his shadow -- predicting an early spring -- but Ruffles the Porcupine in Duluth's Lake Superior Zoo predicts six more weeks of winter. Which sounds about right to me, seeing as tomorrow's high is supposed to be around -5°F.

Needless to say, there was no public observing tonight. Heck, the grease we use on the refractor's clock drive gears is only rated down to about 10°F. And observing on the roof would be out of the question; we're under a wind chill advisory until Monday. 25 to 40 below clear through the weekend. Hope the Loppet racers dress warmly!

Anyhow, blog-vacation over.

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