Recently in Mpls '05 - Part 2: Context Category

NYU Intimidation

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I am constitutionally incapable of being dour or grim when there's snow in the air. But for the sake of my audience, I'll do what I can.

It's just about a week now since the NYU graduate assistants went on strike, mostly as I understand it in an effort to force the University's administration to recognize their union and bargin with them. (Link via Majikthise) After all, it's not much use having a union if your boss won't negotiate with it. And I can report that, whether or not the NYU administrators intend to be so perceived, some of their tactics look an awful lot like intimidation.

Over the weekend the story broke in the Chronicle of Higher Ed and elsewhere that administration was effectively evesdropping on the grad students communication with their students, by tapping into NYU's course management website. Like many institutions these days, NYU uses some web-based software (Blackboard, in this case) to serve as a central online meeting-point for students and instructors, where assignments can be downloaded, questions and answers posted, and such like. Many graduate instructors unwilling to cross picket lines to teach their classes used the Blackboard system to tell their students where to meet off-campus.

The Chronicle article quotes a letter sent this weekend to soothe professors who were already starting to raise a stink about infringement of academic freedom. In it, two Deans claim that the monitoring only took place to check up on "continuity of instruction" during the strike. However, I can report that this is not the end of the story. One NYU graduate assistant, who asked not to be named, was recently summoned to meet with a Dean and given the "nice academic career, shame if something were to happen to it" treatment. (My source indicates that many similar meetings took place on Monday.) In the course of this meeting it became clear that the Deans had used the fruits of their Blackboard monitoring to build a list of students who were actively supporting the strike, or even passively respecting the picket line by holding off-campus class meetings. This is particularly intrusive given that many departments had explicitly taken the position that they would not reveal which graduate assistants chose to go on strike, to avoid the potential for retaliations.

All this takes place in the context of an increasingly charged atmosphere that is ripe for the spread of rumors. Late last week many grad students were sent messages to the effect that their access to the NYU email system had been blocked. Access was restored the same day, but the outage went completely unexplained, and the affected students naturally suspected foul play. Also, I am told that there is currently an email circulating from the Faculty Democracy group (I will try to get my hands on a copy of it) accusing the NYU administration of having offered to pay grad students from nearby universities to replace the strikers.

There's a town hall meeting with the faculty Wednesday afternoon. One imagines it will be exciting.



While I generally leave the politicking to the (many, many) commentators having more time and qualifications than myself, this is just too egregious to pass without comment.

The Senate has just voted to strip Bush's detainees of access to the courts, among other things bringing an effective end to the right of Habeas Corpus. And the kicker?

The five Democrats voting for the bill were Senators Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Ron Wyden of Oregon.

Now just down the road the citizens of St. Paul overwhelmingly voted to chuck their (Democratic) mayor out on his ear, basically because be betrayed the party and endorsed Bush in 2004. I'll grant you, Nebraska is no Democratic bastion like the Twin Cities (although Connecticut? Seriously?), but is it too much to ask that Democratic Senators not stand in active opposition to obvious and fundamental principles of justice?

Patently Weighty Nonsense

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Fig. 1 from Boris' patent -- looks like he ain't kidding about building a spaceship, either. Scroll to near the end of the patent text for the number key -- #14 is helpfully labelled as "Crew," but no indication of what these big scary (M) tanks are. Now what I'd like to know is, how come the one guy gets a nice workstation, but the other one has to take his laptop and go sit on the nuclear reactor core? Besides which, doesn't Boris know that women have been allowed to fly spacecraft for some years now?

Or not, actually. See, the US Patent and Trademark Office, in its infinite wisdom, decided to issue patent #6,960,975 last week for a Space vehicle propelled by the pressure of inflationary vacuum state.

That's right. Some Boris fellow in Indiana now has a patent on the antigravity drive. I expect he will be following this up shortly with a pixie-dust-powered BS detector. Does make you miss the days when patent examiners at least pretended to read the applications, though. (On the other hand, I suppose I'd rather they spent their time approving patents for blatantly impossible inventions that rely on crackpot made-up physics. It would be better than the usual arrangement of bulk rubber stamping patent applications for ancient and obvious bits of software, which is causing serious problems out here in the real world.)

Boris isn't even being terribly original, by the by. Google for "antigravity" and "superconductor" and you'll see that there's a whole cottage industry of cranks and conspiracy theorists based around the really strange notion that superconductors can somehow block gravity. Sometimes they have to be spinning, or charged, or some such. This idea dates back to experiments in the early 90s, when high-temperature superconductivity made the effect much easier to play with. This, in turn, harkens back to 1950s-era military research that, again, relied on wild speculation about magnetism and the like. (Let's recall that, during the Cold War, US researchers actively tried to develop everything from mind control to nuclear airplanes. Ah, irrational exuberence!)

All of this ultimately ties back to the fact that for most of recorded history, magnetism has been known only as a completely mysterious force associated with certain kinds of rare mineral. As such, magnets have always been ascribed with various mystical powers. The BBC radio program "In Our Time" recently hosted a fascinating discussion on the history of thought about magnetism, which is well worth a listen or a read of the transcript.

And in other news, an IAU bulletin is making the rounds. The Hubble has detected two small objects orbiting ... Pluto!

Technically both Pluto and Charon, actually, as they're in a relatively wide orbit. So does that mean Pluto has three moons, or that the Pluto-Charon system has two moons? Or maybe this is another example of why calling Pluto a planet doesn't actually make all that much sense.

The public media hasn't noticed yet that I can see, but I'm sure it will soon. So keep an eye out for news of S/2005 P1 and S/2005 P2 in the next few days.

Post-Conference Castabout


The Mass, Light, and Chemistry cosmology conference is over, and I have learned that I really cannot make myself care that much about chemical evolution. On the other hand, once we get this CMB B-mode measurement nailed down in a few years, the next big observational challenge is going to be radio detection of the epoch of reionization via (massively) redshifted 21-cm emission. That sounds like something I'll be able to sink my teeth into. Along those lines, does anyone else think it would be cool to build our own miniature 21CMA/PaST-style array? From Ue-Li's description of the project, it sounded downright ... scavvy.

But, the world continues to turn. As I was unpleasantly reminded this morning when I heard of the earthquake felt across India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Apparently centered somewhere in Kashmir, remote villages were wiped out and the relatively nearby slums of Islamabad crumbled. Tens of thousands are feared dead.

Closer to home, Hurricane Stan is the storm that didn't make news, although the U.S. media can almost be forgiven the oversight, considering. Almost. Unless you live in Central America, in which case it's a major disaster. The usual sorts of aid are en route from the U.S. government and private outfits, but it should be emphasized that this administration's relationship to Central America is conflicted at best and outright hostile at worst.

And speaking of all this flooding, this is the coolest and most obvious idea in the history of flood control since the invention of dikes. Once again, when it comes to living with water, leave it to the Dutch.

And in closing, though I am nominally much more of a Cubs fan, due props must go out to the White Sox. Or "Palehose", if you prefer, but I think that sounds unendingly weird.

More Bookishness


Okay, new book meme, complimentary to the previous one, because it's 1 am, I'm still in the lab, and I need a break.

Earlier this year, the conservative weekly Human Events assembled a panel of "conservative scholars and public policy leaders" to prove that they really don't have anything better to be doing. Which is to say, they assembled a list of the Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries, plus a selection of honorable mentions.

How many have you read? All told, I get six.

  1. The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels
  2. Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler
  3. Quotations from Chairman Mao, Mao Zedong
  4. The Kinsey Report, Alfred Kinsey
  5. Democracy and Education, John Dewey
  6. Das Kapital, Karl Marx
  7. The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan
  8. The Course of Positive Philosophy, Auguste Comte
  9. Beyond Good and Evil, Freidrich Nietzsche
  10. General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, John Maynard Keynes1

I only count those I've read in something like their entirety, of course. The odd chapter here and there from most all of these made cameo appearances in college. Most of these are plainly silly, but I will grant that Das Kapital has resulted in a number of cases of death by sheer boredom in liberal arts colleges the world over.

Below the fold, the Honorable Mentions, as it were. How many did you read?

Crescent Sighted

In addition, the crescent moon marking the start of Ramadan was sighted in most Arab nations last night, although in Iraq and Oman the month will start tonight instead. So Ramadan mubarak! At least, I think that's how you say it.

As I've mentioned before, in Islam the first crescent has to be visually sighted before the new month is declared to have begun, which frequently leads different parts of the world to be a day out of synch with eath other. There was no such question as to when Rosh Ha'Shana would fall -- the Jewish calendar is computed well in advance, and does not (to my knowledge, anyway) rely on visual confirmation.

Now, since I think I've gone home perhaps three times since last Tuesday, and since the sleeping-in-my-desk-chair neck crick is really starting to bother me, I'm declaring it an early day.

Matters of Faith


Rosh Ha'Shana began at sundown today, so to any and all the Jews in the audience a big hagg sa'meach and best wishes for the year 5766. Now go be reflective or something.

A discussion has broken out hereabouts, centering on the questions of living spiritually as a scientist. Below, I take my opening shot.

Update + Books


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

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

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

Designing D.C.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Washington DC City Pages history.


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

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

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

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

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

Toxic Water


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

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

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

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

One Billion Years


A New York Times editorial pointing out, once again, that Intelligent Design isn't science.

This editorial has been widely praised. But it neglects to do one important thing: try to give a sense of the enormity of a billion years of time passing.

Try to do this.

Wounded City

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Elsewhere, the damage is done; what's gone is gone, what survived has survived. But the reports from New Orleans increasingly sound as though they are speaking of a mortally wounded patient. The photos show a city gradually slipping back into the lake. (more such) Reports vary, but levees weakened by the storm seem to have burst in at least three places.

The city had no power, no drinking water, dwindling food supplies, widespread looting, water rising in the streets, smoke rising on the horizon and even the sounds of gunfire. At least one large building was ablaze Tuesday.

-- CNN

I was watching the video dispatches from CNN -- a tricky proposition, since their website doesn't believe that my Linux system can play them. And, because I'm just that sort of fellow with no respect for the rule of law, I took screenshots. That's how I know, for instance, that I-10 has been destroyed east of New Orleans.

The New York Times has also been useful; the front-page article has been continually updated all day. It was clear that New Orleans was doing badly when the announcement came that the emergency shelters are being evacuated (by air or boat, I'd have to assume at this point). But when the municipal government throws in the towel and leaves town, things are definitely grim. Here at DailyKos I even ran across a list of the increasingly grim pronouncements from the place's mayor. And a link to the Flickr photo category for Katrina, incidentally.

There's still hope for saving the city, of course. In particular the old structures in the French Quarter have been through pretty bad before, and their survival will guarantee that the city goes on in spirit, even if the modern metropolis is a total loss. Which possibility must be recognized; the components of modern cities, the metal buildings and machines that maintain them, the distribution systems for water and power and sewage, the sheetrock and plywood of the residential house -- these do not take well to extended immersion.

For the first time in a while, the United States has a major regional refugee problem on its hands.

Katrina Update

Well, New Orleans is still there. Sort of. At the last moment, Hurricane Katrina weakened and veered to the east. It appears that instead, Biloxi, Mississippi has been destroyed. From the extent of the flooding, it appears that evacuating the entire region was not an overreaction, though.

The New York Times summarizes.

Miscellaneous Bits

If celebrating Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street is one of those things you have to do once in your life, here's hoping you already got around to that one. And if you live on the Louisiana or Mississippi Gulf coast, here's hoping you're far, far away by now. Earlier today, the order was given to evacuate the city of New Orleans (and everything nearby). Read what the local officials are saying -- and I'm sure this comes through on TV as well -- they're terrified that New Orleans won't be there in the morning. The trouble being that the city is below sea level, so if the storm surge is high enough or the waves violent enough to breach the dikes, the French Quarter becomes seabed. Landfall occurs around daybreak, so by the time most of you read this, we'll probably know how bad this gets.

Not sure what to make of the cell phone just yet. The thing squats on my desk like some exotic beetle contentedly soaking up power, single antenna in the air linking it to a complex global telecommunications network completely unlike the one I generally live on. Had to get out of the house, so walked for a few hours tonight. I've owned the strange little bug long enough for it to have buzzed once and it already felt good to leave it at home.

Malaysia is going to the moon? Funny idea, although I'm not sure the BBC had to laugh quite so much about it.

On a more serious note, the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip proceeded more smoothly than anyone had any right to expect while I was away. Hopefully this attack is an isolated case and does not mark the renewal of suicide bombings. But since the most violent of the Palestinian militants have generally concentrated in the Strip, and on the settlements there, it's to be expected that they'll turn their energies outward now. After all, if they could just gain a foothold in the area, it would be so absurdly easy to shell West Jerusalem as frequently as and far more devastatingly than when they fired at Gush Katif.

Climate Climax

A couple of weeks ago I pointed out a troubling story about changing current and temperature patterns in the Pacific, which have the potential to seriously disrupt marine life there. And I've brought up the spectre of thermohaline collapse on a couple of occasions. But here's a new potential tipping-point phenomenon that has the potential to get really terrifying in a real hurry.

Reported here by the BBC and elsewhere, Siberia is melting. Sometime in the last five years, an expanse of frozen peat the size of western Europe has abruptly turned into a very much thawed bog. Now that biology can get back to what it was doing there before the last Ice Age put it on hold, said ex-tundra is fixing to exhale millions of cubic kilometers of methane into the atmosphere.

Methane is an even more effective greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So by itself, that's enough to force a bump up in the severity of climate change predictions. However, models now have to be adjusted; the global Arctic contains a whole lot of frozen tundra. If the Siberian thaw is caused by greenhouse warming (as is probable), then we could be looking at a positive feedback loop that's just been triggered. Now that we've raised the temperature to some critical level, the air will thaw more and more tundra, which will release huge amounts of trapped carbon and lead in turn to even more warming. And if that cycle has already started, there's absolutely nothing we Homo Sapiens can do about it.

So maybe moving to Minnesota wasn't such a bad move for me, after all.

Countering the Crazies

As I mentioned in the comments, there's been some rantage among the locals of late. The primary target is that particularly batty wing of the religious Right that has decided that science is an obstacle that will just have to go. The roll-back-the-Enlightenment crowd, in short. This is just the sort of rumble the blogosphere was made for.

Used to, you could keep track of all the counter-Creationist blogs, for one thing. Now you need group blogs like The Panda's Thumb to do that. When they heckle in person, the counter-Rationalists often score a few points by bringing up an absurd claim about something sufficiently obscure that the hecklee can't bat it down from memory. In Blogistan, the Index to Creationist Claims neatly solves that problem.

Still, it's enjoyable to see my peeps jumping into the mix. For instance, Paul has recently gotten fed up (Bush's endorsement of teaching pseudo-science seems to have been the last straw) and gone on a tear. Although I think he's being both overly optimistic and pessimistic in claiming that there are no credentialed scientists "designing experiments to test the 'God Hypothesis.'" Because I'm quite sure there are, sadly enough. But on the bright side, I'm willing to bet there's a couple out there who are actually doing it in good faith, and interested in the answer.

On a more irreverent front, Kennedy recently posted his take on the Flood according to Biblical literalists. Like most of his rants, well-written and, incidentally, hilarious. My problem with these literalists isn't the laughable science, though. It's that they take a neat and ancient myth about the Hercules of zookeepers and propose with a straight face archeological digs to track down a stadium-sized boat filled with metric tons of dung. It's like trying to find the Augean Stables by digging for an ancient barn with a river running through it, or combing the treasuries of Greece for a literal Golden Fleece. Searching for the Holy Grail is more credible, and that's a quest that has its own Monty Python movie.

Guy Fawkes

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Ran across an interesting link at the Prospect blog. I had not noticed this, but 2005 is the 400th anniversary the Gunpowder Plot famously associated with Guy Fawkes. The Guardian observes some interesting parallels between then and now. And I, for one, would have enjoyed watching Hammond narrate the explosive demolition of a replica House of Lords. Pity that got shelved.

The meat of the article goes thusly, though:

The Catholics were the Muslims of 1605. Most of them were relatively happily integrated with the larger society. Under the new king, James I, a more tolerant policy was being pursued towards them than had been the case under Elizabeth. ... He didn't like Catholics but he didn't want to persecute them. ...

But within that large majority there was a small cell of Roman Catholic bombers who wanted to wreak maximum destruction in the heart of London. ... Most of them were Englishmen to their bones but deeply disillusioned with the way in which the highly materialistic, highly commercial and highly nationalistic culture of their country was leading away from the embrace of the Roman Catholicism that represented for them the ideal of heaven on earth.

The result of the failed plot was a wave of anti-Catholic hysteria which was promptly exploited by the Protestant elites of Britain to harshly repress the Catholic population, as a result of which they did not regain full political rights until the mid-19th century. Nicholson, of course, intends this as an analogy to the recent London transit bombings by who appear to have been militant Muslim youth. He hopes to warn Britons away from scapegoating the Islamic community in general. Or maybe it's a reminder of the danger in resorting to torture, not that any Britons have been tortured so far that we know of. Or just a plea to give some thought to not being scared by cultural diversity. The parallel to current events is well-drawn, but the second half of the article rather fails to do anything in particular with it.

My advice: focus. Yes, the poor Guy was tortured, but the article doesn't prove that anything bad really happened as a result. On the other hand, a couple of centures of renewed religions oppression is worth digging into a bit more. Especially when you consider that this is right about when Calvinists and the like started leaving for the New World in droves. And what about Ireland? The Irish Rebellion broke out just 36 years later, which led directly to barring of Catholics from Irish government -- is there a connection? (The answer, I think, is a rousing "sort of.")

Note, then, that Fawkes and conspirators were actually trying to spark a rebellion that would topple the Protestant ruling dynasty. In that light, it appears that the reaction to the Gunpowder Plot came dangerously close to fulfilling those aims, even though the bomb never even went off. So here's my takeaway lesson for today, if moral there must be. The viscerally satisfying response to a terrorist attack is quite often exactly what the perpetrators were trying to bring about.

Today's Reading Material

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It's always a little disconcerting when the answer to a seemingly simple engineering question turns out to mean wading through fifty or so pages of computer-generated reports. So now I'm whipping up some software to summarize it for me. Let's just hope I don't end up having to summarize the summary.

The Senate today decided to roll over and play dead in exchange for lavish porky treats, and overwhelmingly pass the final iteration of the gigantic Energy Bill That Wouldn't Die (wire coverage lacking so far). Well, party favors for all except those of us who are actually concerned about climate change, but this suprises precisely nobody. Just like the fact that it took the AP until now to notice this potentially related and really creepy story that's been kicking around all summer.

In honor of which, here's the good if broadly fluffy cover story of this month's National Geographic summarizing what's right and what's very, very wrong with the world's energy policies. My only real complaint: failure to distinguish Brazilian biodiesel efforts from American ethanol. The former is generally sustainable and probably carbon-neutral, whereas the latter consumes so much fertilizer and energy that it's a net loss in the global carbon and energy balances.

And just for the space geeks out there, the New York Times summarizes the current state of play in NASA's thinking on a Shuttle replacement. I have to hand it to the present crop of planners -- this is a bit of deft institutional judo that takes full advantage of both Congressional and technological inertia.

Week in Review

Distracting week for those of us in the space biz.

First, of course, we had the will-they?-won't-they? drama of getting the Shuttle off the ground, accompanied by NASA's equivalent of the elective full-body scan, with all the problems that entails. Neat graphic there, by the way, illustrating just how often the Shuttle is damaged by debris with no dangerous effects. But that's the kind of thing the engineers find out about after a successful landing. Play the same thing on a live hi-def video feed, and administrators panic, rightly or wrongly, and despite all appearances that Discovery is undamaged.

Word on the street, as it were, had it that a Hubble repair mission would be approved after two flawless Shuttle launches, so this outcome understandably leaves many optical astronomers a bit disappointed. Others are feeling like they've been had, on the basis that under this level of scrutiny even the most uneventful flight would fail to pass muster, and are thus rather ticked off.

Then as things were settling down again, yesterday happened. You've probably heard by now about the discovery of what's already being dubbed "the 10th planet." The NY Times article has a good summary of the state of play, but yesterday was confusing. Early Friday morning emails started circulating that a new large object had been found out in the Kuiper belt -- but nobody could seem to agree on its properties. It was a little past Pluto; no, it's twice as far away. It's half the size of pluto; it's twice as big; it's the size of Mars! It has a moon that proves its low mass. And so on.

Now that the dust has settled, it's clear what happened. Two large bodies were discovered this year: 2003 UB313 and 2003 EL61. These are tricky to find, and it takes a bit of work to confirm that one of these is a real Kuiper belt object and not a background star, a closer and less-interesting asteroid in an odd orbit, or some kind of glitch. There seem to have been two or three groups working on these without much knowledge of each other (I haven't disentangled this bit yet), and when word leaked this week, everyone rushed to publicize the data they had. Thus the rush of announcements, and since nobody assumes that two Pluto-class objects will be announced on the same day, not all of the emails floating around actually gave the object's number (especially those dispatched in the rumour phase that seems to have heated up in the hours preceeding the actual disclosures).

So here we are. 2003 UB313: a little larger than Pluto, highly eccentric orbit that takes twice as far out as Pluto's orbit. 2003 EL61: 70% of Pluto's size but only 30% of the mass, has a tiny moon of its own. And there seems to be another object, 2005 FY9, running around, but I don't have any details about that yet.

All in all, a fun week.

A Sucker Born


Somewhere, I am absolutely certain, is a person who got tired of being made fun of for owning a monstrous 4x4 suburban assault vehicle that put in its most strenuous maneuvers in the mall parking lot. So tired, in fact, that they paid actual money for mud.

Which just goes to show that the trick to being a certain kind of entepreneur is being the one bloke who, when faced with an obviously silly idea, first thinks "That's stupid," but then goes on to wonder, "But surely someone would pay for that?" And apparently, somebody is.

I have since pointed out to Crystal that spray-on mud probably would make an effective bike-theft deterrent, but spray-on rust would really work better. And there's always duct tape.

In other news, STS-114 got off the ground right on time today, although there are still some concerns for those who enjoy nailbiting. Won't know anything definite for a couple of days, after the on-orbit checkout, but nobody's sounding particularly worried at this point.

Return to Flight

Fireworks over the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis. This one is of the July 4th display. 2005:07:04 21:59:29

Tentative as all such complex endeavours must be, the plan is to put the NASA Space Transportation System -- the Space Shuttle -- back in service tomorrow. Given the amount of engineering (both mechanical and procedural) that has gone into the return to flight, this may well be one of the safest manned space launches ever. True, I'd probably have been in less peril taking a walking tour of Gaza City than riding the Shuttle, but by the standards of spaceflight, that's good.

Pop quiz: to you, was that a revelation about spaceflight or about Gaza City?

The Space Shuttle came to mind this weekend during the Aquatennial fireworks display, as a barrage of blue sparks launched off the Central Avenue bridge. For many years I've tried to make a mental note whenever blue shows up in a fireworks show, because of a chemical connection to space travel. And possibly an economic one, although I've never been able to confirm that aspect.

The Space Shuttle uses two kinds of rocket engine for launch. The main engines (SSMEs) are your classic liquid hydrogen-liquid oxygen system, a horrendously complex set of beasts. Then there are the Solid Rocket Boosters, glorified and meticulously constructed bottle-rockets, each filled with around 500 metric tonnes of fuel. The stuff comes in gigantic cylindrical blocks supposedly having roughly the consistency of a pencil eraser. The texture would be quite different, though, as the SRB fuel is essentially a gravel of ammonium perchlorate (an explosive in its own right, used here as a source of oxygen) and aluminum embedded in a rubber matrix. Literally rubber -- that's technically what the SRB is burning, although there is considerably more perchlorate by mass.

Some ages back, I read (probably on Usenet, although Google Groups has thus far failed to unearth the post I'm thinking of) that the Space Shuttle program poses something of a difficulty for the fireworks industry. Supposedly, ammonium perchlorate happens to be one of a very few substances able to produce a good, bright blue flame, and when launching in quick succession the Space Shuttle SRBs consume most of the nation's ammonium perchlorate production capacity, driving up the price. Thus, the writer claimed, blue firework explosions had become quite rare in the late 80s.

I don't find this story especially plausible, as it happens. Ammonium perchlorate has various industrial applications, and is consumed in large quantities in the production and maintenance of solid rocket motors for the military, as well. Then again, the Henderson, Nevada explosion in 1988 suggests that the SRBs consumed at least some respectable portion of perchlorate production at that time. The past two years, with the Shuttle fleet grounded again, would be a good test. Has anyone noticed a significant increase in the amount of blue used in fireworks displays recently?

Regardless of the accuracy of some old Usenet post, the story has stuck with me. Whenever I see a shell burst with blue sparks or trails now, I think of the Space Shuttle. It's a risky business, strapping astronauts onto a pair of several-hundred-tonne fireworks, but thus far the engineers of NASA have done a remarkable job of pulling it off, again and again.

"Thought to be secure"

So there has been another spectacular bombing this month. This one hit Sharm el-Sheik, the resort town at the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula in Egypt.

NY Times coverage.
BBC coverage
Ha'aretz coverage

Responsibility has been claimed by a previously unknown group calling itself "Abdullah Azzam Brigades, al-Qaida, in Syria and Egypt" -- a name eerily similar to the name of the group that probably carried out the July 7 bombings in London. While the claim obviously cannot be confirmed yet, it is seen as generally credible, according to a reporter from the Cairo Daily Star who was on the radio just now.

The timing and targets are interesting. One would generally expect that an attack like this would be directed against Israel, since the Red Sea resorts are extremely popular with Israelis. Moreover, Sharm el-Sheik is the site at which Abbas and Sharon hammered out the terms of the "quiet" this spring, and has been used for many previous peace summits as well, because it had been "thought to be secure" (said aforementioned reporter). However, at this point Ha'aretz is reporting that only one Israeli was injured, and other indications suggest that killing Israelis was not the point.

This is a holiday weekend in Egypt, leading up to Egyptian National Day on July 26 (this commemorates the 1952 revolution against King Farouk), so the resorts were packed with more Egyptians than normal. Sharm el-Sheik is popular with Egyptians and Europeans; Israelis prefer the resorts farther north. The carbombs were detonated near a coffee shop full of Egyptian laborers and at a hotel popular with Europeans. As a result, it appears that the vast majority of the casualties were Egyptian.

The Abdulla Azzam statement celebrates a "smashing attack on the Crusaders, Zionists and the renegade Egyptian regime in Sharm el-Sheikh." The Ha'aretz translation continues:

We reaffirm that this operation was in response to the crimes committed by the forces of international evil, which are spilling the blood of Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan and Chechny.

We declare it loud and clear that we will not be frightened by the whips of the Egyptian torturers and we will not tolerate violation of our brothers' land of Sinai.

Al-Jazeera has now translated the whole statement; this article mentions that Azzam was a Palestinian mujahedeen who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan and is said to have been a source of inspiration for Osama bin Ladin. An interesting nexus, there.

It appears, then, that the rationale is analogous to that of many Iraqi guerillas, to attack Muslims seen as collaborating with America, Israel, and the West. So my thoughts and sympathy go out Egypt in general, and to the many wonderful Egyptians I met on the Red Sea coast in particular.


I've been taking advantage of the fact that radio broadcasts in this country are in a language I can understand, by waking up to a clock-radio tuned to NPR. On days like today, this can be rather alarming. And the reported scale of the disaster has only grown since I woke up, before rescue workers had reached the hardest-hit cars deep in the London Tube network. I recall lying in bed this morning thinking that London had gotten suprisingly lucky, with only four dead for all the clear ambitions of the attackers, a sentiment that was apparently shared by some Britons this morning. While that may remain technically correct when compared to the highly analogous Madrid train bombings, the true human cost would seem to cross a line beyond which relief feels inappropriate.

Everyone from the experts on down believes that this was the work of an al-Qaeda-inspired group (whether you think al-Qaeda itself is responsible depends on what exactly you think al-Qaeda is, so there's less agreement there). As such, the attack was utterly predictable in all its horrific capriciousness, from generalized threats to the recent appearance of an inspirational video from a prominent Islamist jihadi. That's not to suggest that the Scotland Yard should have seen them coming, any more than one could expect soldiers in Iraq to know on which day the car bomb will go off next to their vehicle.

That's the key to terrorism as a strategic weapon; in the long run, a predictable state of random peril renders everything it touches suspect. Thus, for maximal impact, it strikes at the most crucial and mundane infrastructure of daily life. Telling that in America, this tends to mean busy workplaces, while European terrorists have typically attacked mass transit. Suspicion is a difficult taint to expunge. Streets in Paris still eschew metal trash cans after a campaign of bombings that culminated a decade ago. The atmosphere in Israel, during a largely quiet period, I would describe as a resigned panic -- long after the worst of the Intifada, many Israelis refuse to ride the bus, and every street-level business employs a guard with a metal-detecting wand at the door. There's little the Palestinians can do to avoid the reach of the Israeli Air Force, besides the obvious expedient of getting out of Gaza.

Protracted too long, fear turns just getting by into an exhausting way of life.

This image from NASA TV is a view from Deep Impact's flyby showing the impactor colliding with comet Tempel 1.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD

Nursing my climate-change-induced sniffles. Evidently the ol' constitution needs some time to adjust to this odd phenomenon of water issuing forth from the sky. No worries; as there have been no ScavHunts or final exams recently, escalation to a bout of Hacking Death Plague is unlikely. Now, where better to recouperate than in my lab? After all, it's climate-controlled, has a limitless supply of (effectively) free tissues, and a right speedy network link. This last feature is just what I needed to keep an eye on tonight's big feature, anyway.

Deep Impact should not be confused with the mediocre Summer-of-the-Killer-Comet movie which nevertheless managed to be head and shoulders better than its Asteroid Flick With Animal Crackers sibling. No, today I'm watching as the Deep Impact space probe blasts an artificial crater in comet Tempel 1 to dig up a bit of the stuff the Solar System was originally made from.

(Okay, so movie releases in 1998. Mission is approved in 1999. There may have been some inspiration in the naming.)

In addition to the JPL site, NASA has a site as well. They have mostly similar information, and they both use the same "Near Real Time" image feed, which is probably the best way for those of you using modems to watch the action. At this point the impactor -- a desk-sized lump of copper and gadgetry -- has been released towards the comet, and the host spacecraft has dodged (barely) out of the path of the nucleus. Live NASA TV coverage from JPL mission control just began, for those of you on broadband. Next, it's about an hour until the impactor's onboard nav computer will start making final course corrections to ensure it hits the nucleus square on, and the actual collision takes place at 12:52 AM CDT (+/- 17 seconds, they're saying now).

Clearly, an opportunity like this doesn't waltz along every day. Besides the sensors on the Deep Impact probe and the impactor, then, astronomers the world over are getting in on the act, pointing most anything with a camera at the event. At about 10th magnitude and at about the distance of Mars's orbit, you'd need pretty dark skies to see this comet under normal conditions. But since nobody knows how much material will be excavated by the impact, it's also an open question as to what will be visible from the Earth. Sadly, though, nothing of great interest will be seen from North America, as it'll have set by the time of impact. Hawaii will have the best views from the ground.

Running updates in the post body.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the Mpls '05 - Part 2: Context category.

Mpls '05 - Part 1: Renormalization is the previous category.

Mpls '05 - Part 3: Holiday Shuffle is the next category.

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