February 2007 Archives

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:



Time for Time

This afternoon I'll be skipping the weekly physics colloquium in favor of a symposium at our own (admittedly not creatively named) Institute for Advanced Studies on "Big History". So if anyone cares to join me over in Nolte at 4 pm:

Mapping Timescales - presentation by David Christian and David Fox

Sponsored By: Institute for Advanced Study

David Christian (History, San Diego State University) and David Fox (Geology and Geophysics, University of Minnesota) will discuss the emerging field of "Big History," which combines the evolution of the planet with human history.

Astronomers, of course, have a congenital affinity for long timescales, but you folks may have noticed my deep interest in projects like the Long Now Foundation. On which topic, the New York Times this week has a profile of Stewart Brand, one of the principals behind the Clock of the Long Now. However, he's made a successful career of being uncannily right about the near future as well, and I recommend giving it a read. Incidentally, the big mechanical thing he's posing with is a prototype of the chimes for the Clock, which like the rest of the beast are a mechanical digital beast able to generate millions of unique chiming sequences over the Clock's 10,000 year lifespan.

Observation: 10,000 years is roughly the length of time that of Stonehenge has been a significant site. The oldest post-holes there have been dated to c. 8000 BCE, although perhaps five millenia more passed before the first stones were erected.

Also from this week's NYT, a decent overview of fringe fusion ideas. Fusion power has had this nasty habit over the past half-century of always being about 30 years from practical, which is as good an argument as any for exploring many alternate paths to getting it to work. Most will fail, but only one has to work out to dramatically ease humanity's long-term outlook.

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.

Where I Lived

I ran across this article a few weeks back -- apparently the neighborhood where my parents live is where tourists to San Antonio should really be spending their time. Southtown San Antonio has been discovered by a New York Times travel writer, and gets a pretty decent write-up.

I'll give them this -- Taco Haven really is where it's at for quality breakfast tacos.

Geographically speaking, I grew up in this neighborhood. Back then it was generally "King William and environs", this Southtown nomenclature being a more recent innovation. (I seem to recall a period while I was in high school when some enterprising soul tried to get people to call the place SoHo, since it is also near a Houston Street, and while this thankfully didn't stick the impulse behind Southtown is undoubtedly similar.) Actually, it was mostly "King William", plus the tracks and the projects and the unimproved section of the river -- i.e. stuff nobody from outside the area gave much thought to. Now the area's forged a coherent (external) identity, the coffee shops and art galleries are generally breaking even, and the city's pouring resources into the infrastructure. The changes since I left continue to startle.

Not that the trajectory wasn't clear long ago. My parents arrived with a wave of writers and other creative types who came for the old houses and depressed property values. In hindsight, it's one of the few parts of San Antonio that the New Urbanists would approve of, having largely retained its foot-and-streetcar-centric design from the turn of the century. Not that much of anyone can actually go without a car, because the present-day bus service is fairly useless as an actual mass-transit system. Nevertheless, it's been vaguely stodgy-bohemian for a while, in exactly the sort of way that gradually attracts the house restorers, coffee shop and restaurant entepreneurs, and eventually the Blue Star art complex (think the Minneapolis Warehouse District, but with more grain elevators). Around then the city built a massive stadium across the highway from the projects, and then decided that the projects had to go. Fifteen years or so later the place is hip, from what I gather, and now it just has to walk a tightrope between succeeding in spite of San Antonio's typically crappy economy and gentrifying out all the interesting people.

A final note: according to the correction appended to the bottom of that article the Pig Stand is closed. Has been for ages, in fact. However, the Pig is still there. (I didn't have a photo of this thing, but seek on Flickr and ye shall find.)

Naked Eye Nova

Passed along for your interest: there is a magnitude 3.7 nova in Scorpius. (Via Bad Astronomy)

Scorpius being a rather southerly constellation, it never gets more than 12 degrees above the horizon here in Minnesota (and that right about at sunrise), so I don't plan to attempt an observation. Still, fundamentally cool.

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.

Passed Along Without Comment

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Okay, so I should probably have gone off blog-vacation with something in the pipeline, 'cause it's taken a few days to get up to speed. Now I've got a bunch of posts in the draft pile, so we'll get this boat moving yet.

In the meanwhile, just because it made the whole lab laugh, I'd like to pass along a graphic that got emailed around yesterday. Proximate source is the mom of one of my labmates, but this kind of thing has a way of circulating, so no telling how long it's been going. Some quick Googling shows the quote is real, originating in an interview on New York Public Television. (This is important these days, because you never know when, in passing along a random tidbit, you're actually reinforcing some wholly false rightwing soundbite. Which sounds exactly as Orwellian as it is. Good recent case in point.)

Anyway...

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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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