September 2007 Archives

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.


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.

Fear and Loathing


"It's a time of terrorism; people are afraid" -- so remember kids, keep soiling your pants on cue, 'cause nothing wins elections for fascists like abject terror. This quote, incidentally, is from an MIT student (so much for their admission standards), defending the arrest of another electronics artist for wearing wires and LEDs at the wrong time.

Seriously, I should make some LED signs and pass them out in front of the airport. They would say in big block letters, IF THIS SCARES YOU, YOU ARE RETARDED.

But that would be mean to the learning disabled.

Still, actual Republicans are worse. My favorite thuggish story of the week: the father of a killed Marine uses his son's photograph in anti-war demonstrations; during the protest in D.C. this week a group of young Republicans stole the picture and beat him up because, I cannot make this up:

The captive Marine was not among his own. He was surrounded and outnumbered by those who shamelessly exploit his image and memory, disgrace his uniform, his brothers in arms, and his willing sacrifice. He would never choose such company. He needed a rescue...

The modern Republican party: combining the ethics of Nero with the empathy of autistic vultures since 1970 or so.

P.S. To everybody whose birthdays I've forgotten over the past year, happy belated birthday!

Avast! Space debris ahead!


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


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?


Friday night I was out at O'Brien running a Universe in the Park event, and throughout the evening I and the attendees kept noticing a highly unusual number of bright meteors in the sky. Apparently, it wasn't just us:

It was just before dawn and awfully cold in Independence Pass near Aspen, Colorado. Photographer Thomas O'Brien couldn't help falling asleep. Fortunately, his camera kept shooting, recording a beautiful Saturday morning outburst of Aurigid meteors:

"I never saw one myself," he says. Nevertheless, for about 30 minutes around 4:30 PDT (1130 UT) the sky was filled with colorful meteors and fireballs. Sightings have been reported in Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, California, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Texas and western Canada. Meteor radio echoes were heard as far away as the United Kingdom!

The Aurigids is one of several minor meteor showers that pepper the calendar and, for the most part, don't rate much attention from observers. However, this year the Earth was predicted to intersect a stream of dust produced by Comet Kiess around 83 BC, potentially leading to a meteor outburst. Unfortunately we only caught the very leading edge of the event, since the Moon rose around 10 pm and pretty soon was even washing out the stars. Still, pretty nifty that we saw any Aurigids at all, given that the outburst proper didn't happen until nearly dawn. And now I know what they were.

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