Recently in Mpls '06: Narrative Category

New Years Eve

Very oddly for Minnesota, the brown grass is still showing. Historically the La Nina pattern suppresses snowfall over the northern tier states, and this year appears to be no exception. However, I can report that it is currently snowing.

Because large, round numbers resonate with people, the AP is reporting that as of now the ICCC counts 3000 US soldiers killed in Iraq since the invasion.

But that'll hit CNN shortly enough. Here's a list of the top 10 stories you probably didn't hear about in 2006. Who needs censorship when you've got a media that ignores the inconvenient stories all on its own?

In short, we are all going to have our work cut out for us in 2007. But for now, go enjoy the fireworks, kiss someone at midnight, and have a happy New Years.


So did I mention the part where it's going to be a crazy month and I won't be able to post very often? Yes? Good, 'cause it's true in spades.

I'll be in New York from the 14th to the 19th, but the vast majority of that time will be taken up by the collaboration meeting I'm in town for. I should have that Friday and some evenings here and there. I'll be in Texas after that, and back in Minneapolis just before the new year begins.

In the meanwhile, here's some interesting reading material to tide you over: The Astrobiology Primer, compiled by a host of actual astrobiologists.

Word Game

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Made up a word yesterday, but I'm not entirely pleased with it. Maybe you folks can help out.

Numerodictulibrophile: one who loves free software (literally, lover of freedom relating to commands given in numeric form).

I'm not sure I've formed the roots correctly for joining like that, but the bigger problem is that it's clunky, and doesn't adhere to the standard choice of roots for this sort of thing. (For example, if I refer to the phobia list I see that we prefer the Greek root eleuthero for freedom.) Any ideas?

So, what complex concepts can you express love (or fear) for in a single tacked-together word?


| 1 Comment | 1 TrackBack a tricky month. In general I'm quite fond of it. Seasonwise I love that late autumn/early winter transition, although in these northern parts that's really more of a November thing. Harvest is over; here we are on 1 December and it's not forecast to get above freezing this week. Feels like winter's already here. Nevertheless December has much the same feel to it, fluctuating as the month begins between autumn and winter, and diving at the end into the crazy icebox of January.

Then there's all that home, hearth, and holiday hoopla, which I'm kind of a sucker for as well. When else are you gonna get the chance to belt out wassailing songs at the top of your lungs (or get to wash it down with egg nog)? But of course there's that flip-side, that it's kind of a creepy zombie season that pretty insistently tells you what to be like. The good cheer I can be down with, although I understand from suicide statistics that it's pretty rough if you're already depressed, but the retail impulse is full stop loco.

But in terms of the day-to-day, December is mostly about the end of the year. The end of the semester for both myself and my students, which has been keeping me pretty occupied as they get ready to turn in their final projects. Preparing results for my collaboration's end-of-year meeting. Tying up loose ends before the world -- or at least a fair chunk of it -- throws a party.

Happy Thanksgiving

I'll mostly be cooking and eating today, so no time for a lengthy post. Anyway, I've practically been posting essays of late. Just wanted to wish you all a happy Thanksgiving! Not that, as a historical holiday, it isn't highly compromised; but everyone needs an excuse for a party now and then, so think of it as an old-fashioned harvest festival. Here's to good company and good wine.

As a reminder, tomorrow is Buy Nothing Day (known as Black Friday in the retail biz, which should speak for itself). So, you know, don't buy anything. It'll be good for the soul.

Free Energy?

When I first moved into my neighborhood I kept seeing this ghostly red pinacle over the treetops. Thanks to the surrounding buildings you can only clearly see what's going on from a few vantage points, but I eventually found one and discovered that it's a watertower basking in neon glow.

The source being the Pilsbury sign, facing off with the Gold Medal sign across the river, pictured last week. While not quite as efficient as something like a LED, the neon discharge tube is far and away the most energy-efficient technology able to produce light in this sort of industrial quantity.

Free as in Free Software, that is. Or to be a bit more slogantastic, not free as in beer (to quote the article I'm about to crtique, "free as in fusion"). How about free as in free to open a post in the least useful way possible, then?

Moving on. At my house we've been doing some winterizing, so energy is on my mind. One of the Debian bloggers pointed me to an article that proposes a free energy movement analogous to the Free Software or Free Culture phenomena. Obviously the parallel envisioned is in tactics, since software and joules behave fundamentally differently as commodities. See, e.g., conservation laws. And while I'm not sure the comparison drawn is sufficiently precise as to be useful, the underlying idea merits some thought.

At root, the question is how new technology and media -- specifically the many-to-many interactions that networked life delivers -- can be exploited to organically create more beneficial modes of relating to energy. Free Software created an alternative and self-amplifying marketplace for code that subverts copyright law to counteract the negative impacts of proprietary software. It worked as far back as the 1980s because, while networks only reached the technical elite, that audience was exactly the one with the skills and motivation to create software. Free Culture is a derivative effort to create an alternative marketplace for expression, designed to grow outside the bounds of media conglomeration, which is working because, again, the social classes with access to fast networks and multimedia hardware are also those priviledged with the leisure time and education to pursue creative endeavors without remuneration.

Come at from this direction, we see the outlines of why something analogous might work for energy. Most of the world's energy is consumed by technologically advanced Westerners (although the more useful term, I've stated before, is the Global North, not West), who are by now almost universally connected to global packet networks. We do run into a problem of motivation, since these affluent classes will also be best insulated from climate change -- but their lifestyles are the most sensitive to depleting nonrenewable energy reserves. Thus networks might be a plausible vector for change, but what is the mechanism?

The article gives product energy labeling as an example. In this scheme of things, networks can be used to collaboratively generate a shared symbolic vocabulary allowing consumers to directly compare, say, the carbon footprints of two products. The idea has merit. One notion that informs Free Software and Free Culture thinking is that everyday artifacts can be made disruptive in context. This can be done -- routinely is done -- by arranging for a mundane object to represent a question whose answer would otherwise have been taken for granted by the user. In the case of the above mentioned movements, the central question is, can I share this thing? For Free Energy the corresponding technique is to present the consumer with an unexpected choice, of how much energy to consume in using a thing.

There are a few problems here. Products are already awash in brands disguised as choices, for one thing, including those designed to mark some as more environmentally friendly than others. The trouble is that, with all those brands on the shelf, the choice is already framed as a three-way tug-of-war between altruism, quality, and price. So I don't think presenting an additional choice here is really all that revolutionary. There's a larger difficulty here, though.

Ultimately a scheme like product energy labelling is just tinkering at the margins, because we already know where our energy goes -- moving our heavy, ubiquitous vehicles and moderating the temperature swings of our temperate zone habitats. Energy efficiency in our engines and construction goes a long way, as does revamping our economy to move fewer people and things over shorter distances. Both of these goals require fairly substantial changes in the real world, but both are also driven by the economic choices of individuals. In short, most everyone already knows what to do to conserve energy: drive less, insulate buildings, buy goods that don't have to be shipped enormous distances. This should be common sense, except that right now energy costs less than skilled labor, efficient materials, or our own time. As long as energy remains artificially cheap these options will look like luxury lifestyle choices.

So insofar as our networks provide an infrastructure within which to collaboratively debug, upgrade, and disseminate improved lifestyles, we might be onto something. But we don't just need better symbolic vocabularies -- we need re-engineered marketplaces that correctly reflect the price of energy.

Week in Review

Flying into the city at night this is how I can spot my neighborhood. The bright neon signs of the Gold Medal and Pilsbury flourmills face each other across the river three blocks from my house. 2006:11:08 22:21:51

Whew, busy week, but I think things are about back to normal after the election push and the catching up therefrom. Didn't quite keep all my balls in the air and completely flaked on a couple of things (sorry Gemma), but all in all we're in good shape.

My atmospheric turbulence video was more popular on YouTube than I would have thought, and has been viewed several hundred times now. Who knows, maybe there's some huge pent-up demand for 80s-filmstrip-quality instructional videos. I've got plenty more image sets like that, but since I animated the thing frame by frame I doubt it'll be a regular feature unless I suddenly acquire a lot more free time.

Billmon does the best job I've seen yet of summarizing the past couple of weeks:

A Bush in the White House, the Democrats in control of the House and Senate, Jimmy Baker, Robert Gates and now Larry Eagleburger making U.S. foreign policy, the neocons in retreat and the Sandinistas back in power in Nicaragua. I feel like I stepped into a political time warp and came out in 1989.

If that doesn't freak you out enough, here's a horror story from Pam at Pandagon. Morale of the story: watch out for fundies. On a brighter note, Ezra thinks a Democratic Congress might well get us universal health care after all, kind of despite itself.

Finally, today's picture. Sure, you may have a picture in your head of driving white and snow-blindness, but Minnesota in the winter isn't like that. Between the end of daylight savings and the already early sunset, it can happen that one's primary experience of this city is in darkness, and it's designed to be well-lit in compensation. So as we drive further into winter, expect more photos of luminous landmarks.

(I have recently come into possession of an actual tripod, so I will only get more obnoxious with this long-exposure work. I cannot control that.)

My Congressman

This is my new Congressional Representative: yesterday, Keith Ellison blew off a new-representatives' reception with Junior to attend an AFL-CIO event.

I like his style.

[Updated 18:15] -- swapped link to a Minneapolis local news outlet, although it appears to be the same AP wire story. Also got some attention on one of the big national blogs.

Video Noodlings: Moon Edition


Continuation on a theme; this very theme in fact. The last time we were here I posted a GIF animation loop showing off the effect of atmospheric turbulence on my astrophotography.

To review: the moon, it did ripple and wave, thanks to the slight variations in the refractive index of air you get from density and temperature gradients. Since this sequence was shot from our refractor dome on a fairly warm night, most of what we saw represented turbulent mixing in the bottom few hundred meters of the atmosphere; the important factor there being the recently sun-warmed ground and buildings driving convection. (This never really stops, but in the winter when the ground's nice and chilly, it quiets down a lot. Not that this helps much with the dome seeing, since in winter it's generally already full of air that's much warmer than outside.)

Now in addition to assembling animated GIFs (in, say, GIMP), there are a number of command-line tools that will take a big collection of images and run them together into some kind of MPEG encoded movie. Which ordinarily wouldn't be so attractive to me, since it's always a pain to figure out what movie formats one's audience is able to view. But with the advent of YouTube I just have to work out how to encode for their system (320x240, MPEG-4) and away we go. So we have this movie now, which is a bit lower resolution than the original GIF loop, but since one can stick a great many more frames in an MPEG movie than in a GIF file, it's possible to make up the difference in the time domain. Check it out:


It's in the air, new and intoxicating. It's even in my comments: said Gemma, "Who knows, at this rate there may actually be fish in fifty years." There's a sense that we may finally be at the beginning of the end of a dark chapter in American history, or better. Connor: "This may end up being the Best Year Ever. Or even better, the beginning of the beginning..."

I've been wanting to share this article in which Chris Bowers attempts to define the progressive movement as fundamentally cultural, the political reflection of an emerging ethos of creativity and re-invention. It's a hopeful vision, even if he glosses over a number of important issues and caveats, and I'd be interested in hearing your take.

An anonymous commenter announces that Overheard at UChicago is open for business again, and looking for submissions. This started out as a Scavhunt item, but has the potential to be delightful in its own right.

Finally, my latest experiment in image-processing has turned cinematic. I took a bunch of rapid-fire pictures of that odd little snowstorm back in early October, and was looking for a good way to encode the motion of the flakes to help them stand out. And wound up making a movie of them. So I figured I'd just stick it on YouTube and share it with you folks. Enjoy:

More on Voting

Aaand, the election continues.

There are still 10 house races that haven't been called, a couple of which the Dems stand a good chance of flipping yet. However, the Florida-13th is turning out to be a special case. Whether by design or incompetance the voting there was flawed, and now Republicans are trying to steal the election there. Fittingly enough, it's Katherine Harris' old seat.

It's actually your pretty standard tale of electronic voting -- in one Democratic-leaning county a shocking 18,000 voters apparently cast no vote in the Congressional race, and without any paper trail there's no obvious way to check on that. Except that the local newspaper and Democratic campaign office received hundreds of complaints that voters couldn't find the race, or that their vote didn't seem to register on the machine. Unsurprisingly the Florida Secretary of State is refusing to investigate, so the local party is going to have to fight this one on their own. You can help them out here.

Which reminds me of something I saw a few days ago (via Lindsay) -- there's a company out there hawking a provably secure, open-source voting system for the modern age. They've got a cute little slideshow illustrating the basic idea, which is this: by borrowing some ideas from cryptography, it's possible to build a voting system that's nearly impossible to cheat. Once a ballot is voted it's impossible to know for whom it was cast, but the voters can prove to themselves that each vote was counted, the candidates can prove to themselves that the system is fair, and the head of elections can prove to everyone that the count is correct. If the new Congress pushes another round of voting reform (as it certainly should) systems like this should really be the gold standard against which proposals are weighed.

(Personally I think the technique is pretty neat, but since I don't really want to math out my audience I won't get into it unless you folks want me to.)

Short Updates

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It has been pointed out to me that when I post YouTube videos, they don't show up in the LiveJournal feed version of this blog. So LJ users: sometimes you just have to click through. In fact, it looks like none of the images or formatting really go through, so I'd bet this whole blog makes a lot less sense if you just read it on your friends-list page.

The past week I've been running nonstop like it's Scavhunt, so that's about it for today. But we've been having an interesting discussion on the implications of the election over at Connor's place if you're up for more.

Otherwise, I leave you with a photo.

Jack'o'lanterns are inherently ephemeral things. I ran across these in north Minneapolis while GOTV doorknocking, and so much care went into them that I just had to make a record. 2006:11:04 15:26:49

Sweep. Yes, Most Definitely.


We. Win. The AP is calling Montana, and it's not clear they'll even bother with recounts either there or in Virginia.

Newt's "Republican Revolution" took place in 1994, and even though the good guys have been slowly crawling back to parity ever since, this is really the first time since 1992 that it's felt like winning. First time in my active political life. And it is ... delicious.

There's a lot of work to do. The "Republican Revolution" is dead, but notice that they guy about to replace Rumsfield is an Iran/Contra old hand. Movement conservatives are basically political zombies, and it's time to finish them off. But also, stop for just a second and savor the moment.

It's a new day. A beautiful day.

Tentative: Sweep?


Okay, so it's been a long run of losses, many so close we could taste them. So tonight is a sweet, sweet thing.

Because Good God, Sweet Creeping Zombie Jesus, and By the Noodly Appendage -- I think we did it!

I'm looking at the numbers now, and it's pretty much a cinch that when the new Democratic majority is seated in the House come January, we're going to have a larger majority than the Republicans have now. Plus we're totally dominating the governors' races -- although I will personally strangle Peter Hutchinson if he puts Pawlenty back in the state house, as it looks like he might have.

More speculatively, even money says we take the Senate by one, although what with the Virginia recount it'll be weeks before we know for sure. But I'll come out and say it: I think we took the Senate.


This electon cycle's going to be all about turnout, which is why the Republican party would really rather you didn't bother voting. And in case you were fired up, they're ready and willing to fix you.

There are reports coming in from all over the country. Talking Points Memo, TAPPED, and Firedoglake have good running coverage as well. Just remember, they want you scared:

And seen by Shakespeare's Sister via Amanda:

They'll threaten us, even attack us, and it's time to stand up to the bullies. Vote.

PS. Cribbed directly from here:

1-888-DEM-VOTE for the DNC's voter hotline — this will get you directly to DNC lawyers and others to help with fraud issues.

Election Protection's 1-866-OUR-VOTE has live operators who can address some problems over the phone and dispatch lawyers on the ground, if necessary.

Common Cause's 1-866-MYVOTE-1 can help people find their polling place.

48 Hours

America chooses change.
Can't wait for Wednesday!

Okay, so now there are slightly less than 48 hours until the polls close.

This morning it was announced that we knocked on just over 20,000 doors yesterday, according to our tally sheets. And that's just the Minneapolis operation -- America Votes pulled off about as many in St. Paul and Duluth on Saturday as well. (One of my roommates, meanwhile, has been in South Dakota all weekend door-knocking to repeal the Coathanger Act ... er, unconstitutional abortion ban.) By the end of the first shift today we had crossed off the entirety of north and northeast Minneapolis.

For the second shift we were joined by Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak and America Votes president Maggie Fox. The former took a shift of pavement pounding with us, although I didn't catch which ward he chose. Between shifts I added the above to a haiku board hanging on one wall of the makeshift America Votes assembly area, then I hit a couple of neighborhoods in south Minneapolis. Monday I'll be in the lab, then it's out again on Tuesday to prod people off to the polls.

It's not to late to help out. (Minneapolis: Monday night and Tuesday. Everywhere else.)

[Update: Election Day] -- Well, we did all we could. By Sunday evening we knocked on over 105,000 doors in Minnesota. I don't know how many more on Monday and today. Now we wait and see.

You Know Too Much

We may not be hearing any more stories of illegal imprisonment and torture like this one. It's a pretty nifty trick -- once you've been subjected to the CIA's tender mercies, they want to stamp your brain "top secret". If they get away with this, they never again need to worry about having to release detainees or allow layers to see them, because of national security.

Observe. From the Washington Post:

The Bush administration has told a federal judge that terrorism suspects held in secret CIA prisons should not be allowed to reveal details of the "alternative interrogation methods" that their captors used to get them to talk.

The government says in new court filings that those interrogation methods are now among the nation's most sensitive national security secrets and that their release -- even to the detainees' own attorneys -- "could reasonably be expected to cause extremely grave damage." Terrorists could use the information to train in counter-interrogation techniques and foil government efforts to elicit information about their methods and plots, according to government documents submitted to U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton on Oct. 26.

The battle over legal rights for terrorism suspects detained for years in CIA prisons centers on Majid Khan, a 26-year-old former Catonsville resident who was one of 14 high-value detainees transferred in September from the "black" sites to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents many detainees at Guantanamo, is seeking emergency access to him.

The government, in trying to block lawyers' access to the 14 detainees, effectively asserts that the detainees' experiences are a secret that should never be shared with the public.

Because Khan "was detained by CIA in this program, he may have come into possession of information, including locations of detention, conditions of detention, and alternative interrogation techniques that is classified at the TOP SECRET//SCI level," an affidavit from CIA Information Review Officer Marilyn A. Dorn states, using the acronym for "sensitive compartmented information."

96 Hours

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As of Friday evening, there were 96 hours remaining until the polls close on Tuesday. This is endgame, folks, when the ground operations swing into high gear to get voters to the booth, and the legal teams suit up to make sure Republican tricks don't force them away. The final round of surveys is winding up, and the Senate's going to be an absolute squeaker -- but we have the chance to build a Democratic majority in the House that will set back the conservative machine by a generation. But now the time for advocacy is pretty much over, and there's no more infrastructure to build. So this morning I was at the America Votes field office for my first shift of pavement pounding in the 96-hour final push (a bit of local coverage here).

Two three-hour shifts in north Minneapolis, and by my count I knocked on something like 120 doors ... and there were probably a hundred volunteers there today. A well-run GOTV operation, according to conventional wisdom, can tilt a midterm election by 1-2 percentage points. There's lots of races out there that'll be decided by less than that. I've got two more shifts tomorrow. What are you doing in the next 72 hours?

P.S. Anyone remember how David Horowitz finally went over the edge into tin-foil-hattery and discovered The Network? I have to say that the entry on America Votes somehow manages to be both reasonably informative and pure comedy gold.


By my ephemeris, yesterday was the last day of 2006 that the sun will set after 5 pm in Minneapolis. The sun won't be visible after working hours again until January 17 of 20071.

Regarding the Hubble servicing mission I discussed earlier, I notice that DrSpiff is less enthused than most, judging it a "too little too late" effort. And while I would correct him on one point (the mission description I saw actually does devote a spacewalk to attempting to repair the STIS instrument), he makes a good argument that the new Cosmic Origins Spectrograph doesn't seem like the best use of Hubble's very limited capacity. I also mentioned the possibility that HST won't even make it to the 2008 servicing mission window; DrSpiff pegs this at an alarming even odds chance.

Anecdotal hopeful sign of the times: It's well known that the 18-29 year old demographic has been breaking heavily Democratic for several years now, but can't be bothered to vote. If they do start showing up at the polls, the Republican party is royally screwed for a decade ... and now I'm starting to think that they will. Teaching lab today, I absolutely did not bring up the subject, but the election was just about the only topic of conversation at the group tables. I am heartened. Apparently, so are the pros, as every new analysis that comes out predicts a bigger landslide for the good guys. There's every chance that come January the Democratic majority in the House will be even larger than the Republican majority is now.

So make sure everyone you know votes.

1 The astute will notice something odd here: November 2 is about six weeks before the winter solstice, but January 17 is only four weeks after it. What gives with the asymmetry? As it turns out (I hadn't thought of this until just now, either, so I actually plotted it up!) our earliest sunset will be at 4:32 pm on December 10, even though the shortest day of the year doesn't arrive until December 21. Between those two dates, the sun will set later each day, but the sunrise will be later too, by a slightly larger amount. I'm not entirely convinced that I understand why this occurs.

Shop Talk

In a bit of self-promotion by proxy, I'd point those as have an interest at this article, wherein one of my old cosmology profs lays out in reasonably straightforward terms the theory behind the experiment my group is trying to pull off.

Check out this APOD from a couple of days ago. And my students complain that the Moon's hard to find whenever it's partly cloudy or not visible at 9 pm. Now if only we could make them record the phase of Venus as well...

The Centauri crew was sad that the starshade proposal didn't make the cut for this round of Discovery missions. I suspect the idea's awesome but not necessarily as workable as its proponents think. Still, there's a great journal club article in there for someone.

Oh, and I mailed in my absentee ballot today. Which made for an ideal excuse to make sure that everyone in my lab is planning to vote on Tuesday. And you'd better, too. They're talking about a Democratic blowout, but the thing that's driving it is turnout among independents fed up with incompetent (and criminal) Republican rule. That falls apart if you stay home thinking it's in the bag, so I'll be tromping about knocking on doors all weekend to remind them. Never mind love, if you're even vaguely fond of America (or what it could be), vote.

Happy Halloween

Title says it all. Go terrorize something.

Via astrogeek, I give you the Dalek Pumpkin. Presumably it exists to exterminate all non-pumpkin pie forms.

Hubble Servicing

Just announced today, the Hubble servicing mission is back on. This isn't a huge surprise, since there's been huge political pressure on the new administrator to "save Hubble," but it is very good news for everyone involved. Bad Astronomy has more.

Depending on ISS assembly flights keeping to schedule, the servicing mission would happen sometime in 2008. The other big variable here is whether Hubble's gyros keep working that long. At present four of the original six are working. It used to be believed that HST would become uncontrollable with less than three operational gyroscopes, which meant that if one more failed NASA would have to start planning to deorbit it immediately, rather than risk a fourth failure that would greatly complicate a controlled reentry. However, NASA engineers last year demonstrated software modifications that allow Hubble to operate on only two gyros, forstalling this scenario. Even so, it's by no means guaranteed that Hubble can make it through 2008 with even two gyros still working.

Flaming Puppet Update

Apropos of my previously announced plans, I completely spaced on the fact that we're finishing up a proposal that wants to go in Tuesday afternoon. So I'll be hitting the Tuesday evening performance instead, which will be extra spooky because it's actually on Halloween.

This is turning out to be one of those autumns when the daylight savings hour kicks in, and I'm like, "Sweet, bonus hour!" and actually get stuff done. I forgot to reset my alarm clock, and was thus a bit confused at first when it piped up and Weekend Edition hadn't even begun yet. Guess now we're officially in the season of the preternaturally early sunset.

Spin, and What's Coming

Now this is interesting. According to the Times today, an investigation may be underway because a maker of electronic voting software may have ties to the Venezuelan government. From what I can gather the concern stems from a series of transactions probably calculated to help sell voting systems to Latin America. You can probably guess how the article is actually spun, of course. (Story originally broke in this Miami Herald piece.)

The reason this catches my eye is its striking resemblance to a standard Republican play. Right after Mark Foley resigned, the Republican talking point was that their candidates had been recovering in the polls, and that if they lost the House it would be all Foley's fault. Or better yet, the fault of those tricky Democrats for arranging for the story to break in late October. Which sets them up nicely to claim on November 8, if they do lose the House (or Senate), that the new Democratic majority doesn't have a "real" mandate. After all, good red-blooded American voters would never break blue unless they weren't thinking straight. Only the inconvenient fact that powerful Republicans tend to be hypocritical sexual perverts could possibly distract the consumers from the overriding narrative of libruls will turn your children into gay suicide bombers.

With that news cycle pretty much over, the media's been starting to turn to the election itself, and there's even been a flurry of stories about electronic voting. So planting1 this story now is clever. Just when people are starting to think (far too late, but whatever) again about the security of electronic voting machines, get people talking about how the anti-American Chavez government is out to hack the vote -- for the Democrats! Thus laying more groundwork to claim that a new Democratic Congress will have gotten elected by cheating, and for that matter to call for recounts and legal challenges before the results are even certified.

The other reason this feels so much like a Republican ploy is that it fits so well with their other major trick, accusing one's opponent of the very thing one is weakest on. Recall the Swiftboat thing, where we had the odd spectacle of John Kerry, decorated war hero, having his war record disparaged by surrogates for Bush, a cowardly brat who couldn't even be bothered to finish out the cushy Air National Guard assignment he specifically got to avoid having to go to 'Nam. And on a smaller scale, they've done the same thing a hundred times in Congressional races around the country this year.

On the bright side, the Republicans wouldn't be working so hard to spin a defeat unless they seriously expected to lose, given that half their schtick is absurd come-what-may kool-aid-drinking bravado. But caution is also advisable here, because it sounds like they're also preparing to supress some votes after they're cast by -- of all the gall, as usual -- claiming rigged voting machines.

[Update: 31 October] -- digby makes essentially the same point, but with less rambling and more quotes to back up the argument.

1 Planting? Well, nothing against Tim Golden, the story's author, but he's basically spent the last two years doing quite decent coverage of Guantanamo -- the detainees, the abuse, the legal wrangling. I expect he was put on this story because of the Latin American connection, but frankly I see little evidence that he has much experience with election law, voting machines, or national politics. So he's mostly just amplifying the Miami article to a national audience.

Giant Flaming Puppets!


On a lighter note, it's the Halloween weekend. The first year grad students are throwing a party Saturday, which I might peek in on if I can find the time (this weekend also features a daunting to-do list). However, Sunday evening promises to be awesome in a whole different way.

BareBones Productions presents the
13th Annual Halloween Harvest Outdoor Puppet Extravaganza. I expect puppets, acrobatics, fire, and silliness, in various combinations. Actually, the friend who first tipped me off to this happening sounds to be planning a performance likely to involve all four. Something about giant flaming claw hands.

It's right across the river from Fort Snelling in the Hidden Falls regional park. So it's easy for me to toss a bike on the light rail and just go, but if anyone here wants to make an expedition of it, by all means let's!

Doing More than Voting

The post title, of course, is a plug for Do More Than Vote, because it's increasingly looking like the midterm elections 11 days from now are for all the marbles.

I'll probably be in the field doing get-out-the-vote (GOTV) work the four days ending November 7. Probably some combination of door-knocking with the Wellstone Action Network and whatever the local Democratic party needs done (possibly more door-knocking -- man, am I gonna have sore feet on November 8). Here in Minnesota we've got one seat in the Senate and at least three in the House up for grabs, and the United States needs every one of them to be filled by a Democrat. Anyone tries to tell you otherwise, I've got half a million dead Iraqis they should meet.

It goes without saying, my dozen or so readers, that I shouldn't have to get out any of your votes. (And I'm pretty sure none of you were even thinking of voting for the wrong team, but feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.) So what I want to know is, how many votes are you bringing with you to the polls?

"Conservative Idiot" is Redundant

A few examples:

Quoth Bush:

"The first lesson is, is that oceans can no longer protect us. You know, when I was coming up in the '50s in Midland, Texas, it seemed like we were pretty safe. In the '60s it seemed like we were safe."

To which the internet responds, bwah? For instance:

I also enjoyed this Prospect article today illustrating the tendency of conservatives to take their foreign policy cues from science fiction. Seems they mistook Battlestar Galactica for a documentary.

A more recent Bush gem:

This stuff about "stay the course" -- stay the course means, we're going to win. Stay the course does not mean that we're not going to constantly change.

So we've been exporting torture for a while now, and increasingly outsourcing it, too. This should have been obvious: now we're inspiring cheap foreign knock-offs:

UNITED NATIONS, Oct. 23 -- Several governments around the world have tried to rebut criticism of how they handle detainees by claiming they are only following the U.S. example in fighting terrorism, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture said Monday.

Manfred Nowak said that when he criticizes governments for their questionable treatment of detainees, they respond by telling him that if the United States does something, it must be all right. He would not name any countries except Jordan.


For great justice! Really, though, this is a delightful idea, using the Googlebomb effect to link odious Republicans up for reelection to the most damning articles about them. Grab the HTML and join in!

--AZ-Sen: Jon Kyl

--AZ-01: Rick Renzi

--AZ-05: J.D. Hayworth

--CA-04: John Doolittle

--CA-11: Richard Pombo

--CA-50: Brian Bilbray

--CO-04: Marilyn Musgrave

--CO-05: Doug Lamborn

--CO-07: Rick O'Donnell

--CT-04: Christopher Shays

--FL-13: Vernon Buchanan

--FL-16: Joe Negron

--FL-22: Clay Shaw

--ID-01: Bill Sali

--IL-06: Peter Roskam

--IL-10: Mark Kirk

--IL-14: Dennis Hastert

--IN-02: Chris Chocola

--IN-08: John Hostettler

--IA-01: Mike Whalen

--KS-02: Jim Ryun

--KY-03: Anne Northup

--KY-04: Geoff Davis

--MD-Sen: Michael Steele

--MN-01: Gil Gutknecht

--MN-06: Michele Bachmann

--MO-Sen: Jim Talent

--MT-Sen: Conrad Burns

--NV-03: Jon Porter

--NH-02: Charlie Bass

--NJ-07: Mike Ferguson

--NM-01: Heather Wilson

--NY-03: Peter King

--NY-20: John Sweeney

--NY-26: Tom Reynolds

--NY-29: Randy Kuhl

--NC-08: Robin Hayes

--NC-11: Charles Taylor

--OH-01: Steve Chabot

--OH-02: Jean Schmidt

--OH-15: Deborah Pryce

--OH-18: Joy Padgett

--PA-04: Melissa Hart

--PA-07: Curt Weldon

--PA-08: Mike Fitzpatrick

--PA-10: Don Sherwood

--RI-Sen: Lincoln Chafee

--TN-Sen: Bob Corker

--VA-Sen: George Allen

--VA-10: Frank Wolf

--WA-Sen: Mike McGavick

--WA-08: Dave Reichert

Odd Failure Mode


So my bike's bottom bracket has been acting a bit odd for a few weeks now. Inspection suggested that one of the cranks was getting a bit loose in the ratchet mechanism, since it's the peculiar sort where the cranks on either side aren't actually a single unit. Then yesterday something gave, and it did this.

My bike, once I got it home and into our basement shop.

Let's take a closer look.

My suddenly misaligned pedals.

Turns out it's not so easy to ride a bicycle that way. Felt like I was kangaroo-hopping down the street. Modestly awkward, and quite difficult to get good acceleration from a stop.


Apropos of yesterday's post, I'd call attention to this post in which Lindsay highlights a couple of other notable detainees.

Pulitzer Prize winning photographer (he took #15 in the collection) Bilal Hussein has been held without charges in Iraq for about six months now.

Oh, and remember right after 9/11 when the FBI Hoovered up every Middle Easterner they could find? Not all of those detainees ever resurfaced. Turns out Ali Partovi has been held, illegally until yesterday, without charges and apparently with occasional torture. For five years and counting.

Since my workstation is back in one piece I once again have my photo processing tools all in one place. Here, the sunflowers in my front yard immediately before our first taste of fall froze their leaves off. These plants made it, though, and the flowers are doing alright. That front marked the definitive end for my squashes, though.

Lacking time to blog...

But since everybody else is doing it, let's give this whole video embedding thing a try.

The Inner Life of a Cell made a splash at SIGGRAPH this year. Apparently is does a pretty good job of illustrating the biomolecular structures and functional relationships at work in cytoskeletons, protein transcription, and the like. Now it is conveniently available as a YouTube embed:

From Cosmic Variance, I can't tell if my old cosmology prof is concerned or relieved at the prospect of computers taking over teaching intro physics.

In other news, Bush signed the Abolishing the Geneva Convention and Bill of Rights bill today (a.k.a. the Military Comissions Act of 2006). So as of this morning, everything I posted about the other day is perfectly legal. The legal types seem to be of the opinion that the Supremes won't save us this time.

No, Really, Read the Whole Thing

No posting today. Finish reading yesterday's post.

What Bush Has Done


It is the rare legal brief that can get away with opening on that famous Neitzsche line. Jose Padilla's lawyers describe, in detail, his treatment in a recent filing. Under the Military Comissions Act passed two weeks ago, everything described here is now legal.

Everyone should read the entire thing. (Via Hullabaloo, Glen Greenwald, originally reported by David Markus.) So I quote the entire relevant passage (emphases mine), despite its considerable length. The least you owe this man is to make yourself read what was done to him in your name; the least you owe yourself is to read what can be done to you on one man's whim:

In an effort to gain Mr. Padilla’s "dependency and trust," he was tortured for nearly the entire three years and eight months of his unlawful detention. The torture took myriad forms, each designed to cause pain, anguish, depression and, ultimately, the loss of will to live. The base ingredient in Mr. Padilla’s torture was stark isolation for a substantial portion of his captivity. For nearly two years – from June 9, 2002 until March 2, 2004, when the Department of Defense permitted Mr. Padilla to have contact with his lawyers – Mr. Padilla was in complete isolation. Even after he was permitted contact with counsel, his conditions of confinement remained essentially the same. He was kept in a unit comprising sixteen individual cells, eight on the upper level and eight on the lower level, where Mr. Padilla’s cell was located. No other cells in the unit were occupied. His cell was electronically monitored twenty-four hours a day, eliminating the need for a guard to patrol his unit. His only contact with another person was when a guard would deliver and retrieve trays of food and when the government desired to interrogate him.

His isolation, furthermore, was aggravated by the efforts of his captors to maintain complete sensory deprivation. His tiny cell – nine feet by seven feet – had no view to the outside world. The door to his cell had a window, however, it was covered by a magnetic sticker, depriving Mr. Padilla of even a view into the hallway and adjacent common areas of his unit. He was not given a clock or a watch and for most of the time of his captivity, he was unaware whether it was day or night, or what time of year or day it was.

In addition to his extreme isolation, Mr. Padilla was also viciously deprived of sleep. This sleep deprivation was achieved in a variety of ways. For a substantial period of his captivity, Mr. Padilla’s cell contained only a steel bunk with no mattress. The pain and discomfort of sleeping on a cold, steel bunk made it impossible for him to sleep. Mr. Padilla was not given a mattress until the tail end of his captivity. Mr. Padilla’s captors did not solely rely on the inhumane conditions of his living arrangements to deprive him of regular sleep. A number of ruses were employed to keep Mr. Padilla from getting necessary sleep and rest. One of the tactics his captors employed was the creation of loud noises near and around his cell to interrupt any rest Mr. Padilla could manage on his steel bunk. As Mr. Padilla was attempting to sleep, the cell doors adjacent to his cell would be electronically opened, resulting in a loud clank, only to be immediately slammed shut. Other times, his captors would bang the walls and cell bars creating loud startling noises. These disruptions would occur throughout the night and cease only in the morning, when Mr. Padilla’s interrogations would begin.

Efforts to manipulate Mr. Padilla and break his will also took the form of the denial of the few benefits he possessed in his cell. For a long time Mr. Padilla had no reading materials, access to any media, radio or television, and the only thing he possessed in his room was a mirror. The mirror was abruptly taken away, leaving Mr. Padilla with even less sensory stimulus. Also, at different points in his confinement Mr. Padilla would be given some comforts, like a pillow or a sheet, only to have them taken away arbitrarily. He was never given any regular recreation time. Often, when he was brought outside for some exercise, it was done at night, depriving Mr. Padilla of sunlight for many months at a time. The disorientation Mr. Padilla experienced due to not seeing the sun and having no view on the outside world was exacerbated by his captors’ practice of turning on extremely bright lights in his cell or imposing complete darkness for durations of twenty-four hours, or more.

Mr. Padilla’s dehumanization at the hands of his captors also took more sinister forms. Mr. Padilla was often put in stress positions for hours at a time. He would be shackled and manacled, with a belly chain, for hours in his cell. Noxious fumes would be introduced to his room causing his eyes and nose to run. The temperature of his cell would be manipulated, making his cell extremely cold for long stretches of time. Mr. Padilla was denied even the smallest, and most personal shreds of human dignity by being deprived of showering for weeks at a time, yet having to endure forced grooming at the whim of his captors.

A substantial quantum of torture endured by Mr. Padilla came at the hands of his interrogators. In an effort to disorient Mr. Padilla, his captors would deceive him about his location and who his interrogators actually were. Mr. Padilla was threatened with being forcibly removed from the United States to another country, including U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he was threatened his fate would be even worse than in the Naval Brig. He was threatened with being cut with a knife and having alcohol poured on the wounds. He was also threatened with imminent execution. He was hooded and forced to stand in stress positions for long durations of time. He was forced to endure exceedingly long interrogation sessions, without adequate sleep, wherein he would be confronted with false information, scenarios, and documents to further disorient him. Often he had to endure multiple interrogators who would scream, shake, and otherwise assault Mr. Padilla. Additionally, Mr. Padilla was given drugs against his will, believed to be some form of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) or phencyclidine (PCP), to act as a sort of truth serum during his interrogations.

Throughout most of the time Mr. Padilla was held captive in the Naval Brig he had no contact with the outside world. In March 2004, one year and eight months after arriving in the Naval Brig, Mr. Padilla was permitted his first contact with his attorneys. Even thereafter, although Mr. Padilla had access to counsel, and thereby some contact with the outside world, those visits were extremely limited and restricted. Significantly though, it was not until Mr. Padilla was permitted to visit with counsel that one of his attorneys, Andrew Patel, was able to provide Mr. Padilla with a copy of the Qur’an. Up until that time, for a period of almost two years, Mr. Padilla was the right to exercise his religious beliefs.

The deprivations, physical abuse, and other forms of inhumane treatment visited upon Mr. Padilla caused serious medical problems that were not adequately addressed. Apart from the psychological damage done to Mr. Padilla, there were numerous health problems brought on by the conditions of his captivity. Mr. Padilla frequently experienced cardiothoracic difficulties while sleeping, or attempting to fall asleep, including a heavy pressure on his chest and an inability to breath or move his body.

In one incident Mr. Padilla felt a burning sensation pulsing through his chest. He requested medical care but was given no relief. Toward the end of his captivity, Mr. Padilla experienced swelling and pressure in his chest and arms. He was administered an electrocardiogram, and given medication. However, Mr. Padilla ceased taking the medicine when it caused him respiratory congestion. Although Mr. Padilla was given medication in this instance, he was often denied medication for pain relief. The strain brought on by being placed in stress positions caused Mr. Padilla great discomfort and agony. Many times he requested some form of pain relief but was denied by the guards.

The cause of some of the medical problems experienced by Mr. Padilla is obvious. Being cramped in a tiny cell with little or no opportunity for recreation and enduring stress positions and shackling for hours caused great pain and discomfort. It is unclear, though, whether Mr. Padilla’s cardiothoracic problems were a symptom of the stress he endured in captivity, or a side effect from one of the drugs involuntarily induced into Mr. Padilla’s system in the Naval Brig. In either event, the strategically applied measures suffered by Mr. Padilla at the hands of the government caused him both physical and psychological pain and agony.

It is worth noting that throughout his captivity, none of the restrictive and inhumane conditions visited upon Mr. Padilla were brought on by his behavior or by any actions on his part. There were no incidents of Mr. Padilla violating any regulation of the Naval Brig or taking any aggressive action towards any of his captors. Mr. Padilla has always been peaceful and compliant with his captors. He was, and remains to the time of this filing, docile and resigned – a model detainee.

Mr. Padilla also wants to make clear that the deprivation described above did abate somewhat once counsel began negotiating with the officials of the Naval Brig for the improvements of his conditions. Toward the end of Mr. Padilla’s captivity in the Naval Brig he was provided reading materials and some other more humane treatment. However, despite some improvement in Mr. Padilla’s living conditions, the interrogations and torture continued even after the visits with counsel commenced.

In sum, many of the conditions Mr. Padilla experienced were inhumane and caused him great physical and psychological pain and anguish. Other deprivations experienced by Mr. Padilla, taken in isolation, are merely cruel and some, merely petty. However, it is important to recognize that all of the deprivations and assaults recounted above were employed in concert in a calculated manner to cause him maximum anguish. It is also extremely important to note that the torturous acts visited upon Mr. Padilla were done over the course almost the entire three years and seven months of his captivity in the Naval Brig. For most of one thousand three hundred and seven days, Mr. Padilla was tortured by the United States government without cause or justification. Mr. Padilla’s treatment at the hands of the United States government is shocking to even the most hardened conscience, and such outrageous conduct on the part of the government divests it of jurisdiction, under the Due Process clause of the Fifth Amendment, to prosecute Mr. Padilla in the instant matter.

It's worth observing that President Bush is the most powerful human being who has ever lived, not unlike a Roman Emperor1 with cruise missiles and nukes. To disappear citizens with impunity is to escape for all practical purposes from the constraints of democracy. I would be interested for anyone to point out to me the functional difference between America in its present state and an imperial dictatorship.

It may be possible to end this novel form of American government via the upcoming midterms or the 2008 presidental election, and that is certainly a goal worth fighting for. Indeed, one many of us are fighting for, tooth and nail. But I can't shake the suspicion that this doesn't outrage Americans anymore, and that even if we win the distal cause will be the incompetance of this administration2 rather than its lust for absolute power. I fear that means that much of the American citizenry has already given up on the great experiment with democracy that is (was?) our nation.

1Many Roman Emperors were puppets of a hidden or not-so-hidden power behind the throne, so we'll elide the debate over whether Bush is one as well.

2Iraq, mostly, levened with economic pain across the lower and middle classes. But even this description illustrates the point nicely. They had over three years to break the poor fellow, extract confessions, whatever -- and you have to give Padilla credit for surviving that -- but you let them shake off all constraints of law and decency and this is what we end up with? The behavior described here is the stuff of overwrought Kafka-inspired science fiction and bad noir about the KGB. Hell, I bet they even did the "how many lights do you see" routine.

Winter Update


We've been upgraded to snow snowers being likely tonight, although it isn't expected to stick. Which would be a shock, if you think about it, since the ground is probably about 50°F right now. Probably plenty cold enough to finish off my squash vines for the season, although the sunflowers might survive for a couple more weeks.

It goes without saying that if it's snowing tomorrow, we must go out for ice cream or smoothies or similar. (That goes for you folks down in Chicago, too, if it snows on Thursday.)

I plan to finally start rebuilding my hard drive today, so I might finally start posting pictures again sometime soon.

Late Update: Nukes

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Speaking of which, I heard late last night that North Korea carried through on its threat to conduct a nuclear test.

Since I was down in the basement vacuum testing some hardware, I had a bunch of 3 - 5 minute breaks to browse the web. My first order of business was to scour the international press to find reporting on seismic data as they came out. South Korean officials immediately pinpointed the time of the test based on a tremor in the mid-3s on the Richter scale; the USGS waited to gather more data points before announcing the detection of a magnitude 4.2 tremor. Somewhat later the Russians confirmed that they had similar results, although I haven't seen anything quantitative from that direction. These all seem a bit on the low side for the kind of plutonium bomb the DPRK was reputed to be working on, so I'm inclined to suggest that this may have been an (unintentionally) subcritical test -- i.e. a dud.

Okay, now I see that Jane's Defense is raising the same possibility. Somehow I doubt anyone here is a subscriber, but I'd be mighty interested to see the full text of this article.

The BBC has an article up now on why this is a problem. It's tempting to say that, since everybody already knew the DPRK has nuclear bombs, the test today is showy but doesn't really change anything. And on a certain level, that's true, but misses the bigger picture. A nuclear test doesn't threaten us any more than, say, North Korea's wildly overrated long-range missiles. What it does is put enormous pressure on its neighbors to take tit-for-tat steps that all too easily lead to a nuclear arms race in southeast Asia. And just in case the image of nuclear-armed India and Pakistan glaring across Kashmir hasn't been giving enough of the phantods this decade, the BBC quotes an analysist who obligingly raises the spectre of where this all leads: China and Taiwan build themselves nice, modern nuclear arsenals to up the ante in the Straits.

Handily, Bush and company have fouled up the USA's diplomatic and military posture so well, there's basically nothing whatsoever that we can do about any of this. Knowing Republican chuzpah, they'll probably try to use 9/11 to claim that it isn't their fault if we find ourselves in a five-way nuclear war a decade from now. Funny how stuff keeps breaking but nothing's ever their fault.

Update: The World Is Still Broken

Who were classy last week? The Amish.

(By way of commentary, the redeeming public Christianity perspective, a rational humanist despairs that we find forgiveness surprising, and frothing Rethug wingnuts once again prove that they'd waterboard Jesus just on principle.)

Regoster to vote! Announced at MyDD:

If you haven't registered to vote and you live Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, or Washington, do it today. The deadlines for those states fall between October 7 - October 11, which is early next week. Voter registration is no longer hard. I did it a few days ago (change of address) through this site, which produced a nice slick PDF which I mailed in. The whole process took me fifteen minutes. t/voter_reg.html

As a bonus, since I did it through that site I'm now counted as an 'Internet Freedom Voter', or a voter who cares about net neutrality.

If you need deadlines for other states, go to this post.

Note in particular, the deadline is October 10 in Illinois and Texas, and October 13 in New York. (Why? Because that's where my readers are.) Minnesota has election-day registration, because we're awesome like that, but it's still a good idea to register ahead of time. After all, the Republicans are still able to hack the vote, and more desperate than ever. Expect shenanigans.

Which is why you should all do more than vote -- even Diebold can't disappear a landslide.

Checking In

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Yes, I'm still here, but the semester still hasn't let up enough to allow a return to regular posting. Although to be fully candid, this also reflects as a symptom of an underlying condition: namely, for some time now I've been a bit unsure as to the proper nature and purpose of EGAD. Originally conceived as a travel blog with ananthropological tendencies, it has functioned as something of a weekly-ish "away message" during this relatively settled year. Certainly I pondered relaunching as a more locally-oriented medium, perhaps as a photoblog or light journalism, but I must confess that inertia got the better of these musings. There's a good chance that we'll go back to the travel blog format next year, anyway, as the lead-up to my experiment's engineering test flight will likely involve a greater degree of peregrination.

Updates: my workstation persists in its lifeless state, but only because I've been busy. I successfully extracted essentially everything of importance from the drive, so I just need to find a spare day to rebuild the filesystems.

About a week after I got over my cold imported from New York, some similar ailment is starting to make the rounds here. Hopefully it's the same thing, since then I should have immunity to it now.

Speaking of cold, it's on its way. Seems a mite early, but it's been a cool autumn so far: forcast 50% chance of snow showers on Wednesday and Thursday.



Grrr ... it sure has turned out to be one of those weeks!

Okay, first of all, New York was grand. There was much good conversation and good food and catching up with folks I see far too infrequently: especially my sister, and friends like Paul and Connor and Jess.

But now I'm back, and I seem to have brought back with me the latest respiratory virus being passed around in the Big City. I suppose I should just be thankful that I didn't bring back any bedbugs, 'cause the City has those as well of late. But I really, really didn't have time to be sick this week, since people are waiting on some hardware testing results that I'm working on, and it's exactly the sort of work that somehow takes forever when I'm fuzzy-headed.

Teaching while feeling like crud wasn't enormously fun, either; thankfully I had no interacting-with-others responsibilities yesterday, when I was feeling worst.

The real topper qualifies as completely freakish icing-on-the-cake coincidence -- the hard drive in my lab computer has died. Tentatively I think much of the data will be salvageable, and the important stuff is of course mostly backed up. It will be righteously annoying to pull all that stuff back together, though, so I'm left looking forward to a week or so of reinstallations and restoring things from backups and generally not having a workstation. And there's lots of little things that aren't backed up anywhere -- individually kind of trivial, but they would add up quickly to a lot of annoyance if I can't salvage the drive. E.g. recently added email addresses and bookmarks, some of my post-processing astrophotography, the spreadsheets my house uses to divvy up expenses.

So, wish me luck with that.

Weekend Away

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A heads-up: I'm in New York for the weekend, so starting tomorrow morning I'll be sort of sporadically reachable. Will be spending my birthday hanging out with assorted folks I haven't hung with in far too long. Good times.

Check it out: an entire online store devoted to slide rules! Handy next time you're stuck in the woods and have to take a cube root, or, you know, in case of apocalypse.

This conference would have been fascinating; wish I'd heard about it sooner so as to finagle my way in. The abstracts are online, though. And speaking of pale blue dots, an epic photograph gets an update.

And on the topic of entertaining science, some genius has gone and put a bunch of talks by our very own "comic book physics professor" on YouTube.

TLAPD and Like Mixed Fare

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Yarr. Talk Like a Pirate Day is actually kind of lame when it happens on one of those days that you only talk with maybe three other people, none of whom are much into piracy. (Not counting people on collaboration conference calls, who really just wouldn't get it.) I will have to instigate some extra bonus mayham later to make up for that.

I wound up posting a mini-essay as a comment on Virtually Cleistogamic that is sort of riffing off macroeconomic trends and WalMart and Mayor Delay's veto of the big box living wage ordinance, coming at it roughly from a Kunstler-esque direction. But the thread in question was already old by that point, so I'll highlight it here to see if anyone has any thoughts about my take.

Just noticed Coturnix's post about the new NC law requiring schools to make time for students to say the Pledge of Allegiance every day. The kids aren't required to actually say the thing, so while it's a fairly silly thing to legislate, it's difficult to get too outraged. As always, it's the implementation that can be trouble:

As a naturalized U.S. citizen, I follow the stereotype of foreign-born citizens knowing American history, geography, civics and law better than many locals (because I had to study it, instead of just organically grow in it), so I was quite aware what the constitutional/legal issues are regarding the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in schools.


On Monday, after I picked him up, he was really distressed. He chose not to say the Pledge. He told the teacher that he is an atheist and does not believe in that stuff and does not wish to say a pledge that includes "under God" in it.

She threatened to made him call his parents if he does not shape up and he immediately went to the classroom phone and started dialing, but she stopped him. At the time, I was still at home and she would have gotten an earful from me, as you can imagine.

Then he told her that his Dad told him that he has the right to remain silent. In the end, after much questioning and threatening, both in front of his friends and out in the hall, she FORCED him to say the Pledge, every word of it. She was giving him mean looks for the rest of the first two periods.

Attending school in Texas, it was never even insinuated that saying the Pledge was optional, and since the practice was universal I tend to assume that a law along these lines was already on the books (although maybe one wasn't needed because everyone else assumed that too). I doubt I gave it any thought until sometime in middle school. From that point on I was reasonably content to stand each morning and say:

"I pledge allegiance to ... (pause) ... (pause) ... (yawn) ... (pause) ... liberty and justice for all."

Primary Day Link Post

Today's the Minnesota Democratic primary election -- locals: go vote! Hit the Minnesota DFL to find your polling place or to see which candidates the DFL caucuses endorsed. Even if you don't have specific a dog in this race, your ballot has the useful effect of demonstrating the strength of Minnesota's blue grassroots. (Unless you're actually on the other side of that line, in which case ... we'll have words later.)

This one's largely in case Paul hasn't seen it, but others might find it interesting as well: Wally Wood's 22 Panels That Always Work. Finally online!

Centauri Dreams has a good article on one of the Long Now Foundation's spin-off projects: Long Bets.

And here’s my favorite, pitting Danny Hillis against Nathan Myhrvold: “The universe will eventually stop expanding.? I don’t know how to figure the time frame on that one, but Hillis says yes and Myhrvold says no, and $2000 rides on the outcome. The accrued interest should light up the eyes of any surviving philanthropist.

Still Alive


The busy bit continues; I should have things nearly under control again; I shall resume regular posting when I resume; I have not abandoned EGAD.

That out of the way, miscellaneous updates. It looks like I'll actually be in New York twice this season -- once in a couple of weeks to visit folks, and then again in mid-December when our collaboration meeting is hosted by Columbia.

We still have one room to fill in my house; my Craigslist posting got called "inspiring" and otherwise praised, but despite showing the place to a half-dozen or so prospectives the deal remains unclosed. Krys will probably declare that I need to attract a scarier crowd.

Tomorrow is 9/11 5.0, informally known as the start of the Republican Campaign Season Against Treasonous Non-Republicans. Your local ABC affiliate probably aired the fraudulent 9/11 docudrama tonight, and will air part 2 tomorrow. Call them to complain, and promise to call their advertisers. Then do so. ABC/Disney deserves to feel pain over this one.

Finally, between lightning strikes, tropical storms, and balky sensors, Atlantis has had a time of it getting off the ground. So, props to NASA engineers, even if the balance of the people reading this are of the opinion that if the shuttle program can't service Hubble then the whole thing's a waste of resources.

Its IT!

Catching up on last week's APODs, I see this image captioned as a "smoke angel". Bollocks. It's clearly a vision of the Flying Spaghetti Monster!

Speaking of which, what should we call this LEGO masterpiece? IT's church? Temple? Spaghetti Warehouse?

Seriously, though -- I got no response to this post. I'll be taking off tomorrow (Wednesday) to hang at the State Fair with one of my roomies. If anyone wants to play hookie and join in, let me know.

September Announcements


Next month, school will be back in session, and I'll be teaching again. Good times.

New York, beware: from Sept. 22 (my birthday!) to the 26th, I will be operating out of Brooklyn. We (well, those of you in the New York region) should have a weekend get-together in that time-frame. My sister wants to know what Broadway musical I'd like to see. Someone will need to teach my Friday lab that week.

On all points just mentioned, I am open to input. Discuss.


In the short term, I expect that posting here will remain a sporadic exercise, since I'm engaged in a number of competing activities at the moment. Besides the obvious research and stuff, that is. A couple of projects haven't quite even gone public, which means they aren't yet a source of interesting and engaging stories that I can tell.

This weekend I'm camping out in southwest Minnesota on one of our UITP weekend trips, which ought to be interesting. Might be unfortunately cloudy tonight, but tomorrow looks great. What with the dark skies and recent interest in outer planets, I'm going to try and spot Neptune. Uranus at least should be easy.

I've got a pile of reading to catch up on, too, almost none of which will relate to cosmology. Zombies, for one.

Finally: State Fair! The more the merrier, mostly because the more ways you split stuff, the more things you can try. Of the fried-on-a-stick variety, mostly. So locals, we should pick a date.

To Borg or Not to Borg?


Okay, I need some reader input. I'm watching this auction and I've gotta say, I'm seriously tempted. I always get a kick out of repurposing quirky obsolete technology, and the Borg aspect is just icing on the cake here. But seriously -- lacking an answer to this question helped get Xybernaut into financial trouble -- what do you use it for? Ideas?

This page has the only good photos I've been able to find of someone wearing the thing. Just so we're clear: this is Locutus of Dork gear, at best.

Field Notes

I know the entire Blogosphere has already linked to this, but that's because the monkey is so right:

Maybe it's just, I cast my eyes back on the last century ...

FDR: Oh, I'm sorry, was wiping out our entire Pacific fleet supposed to intimidate us? We have nothing to fear but fear itself, and right now we're coming to kick your ass with brand new destroyers riveted by waitresses. How's that going to feel?

CHURCHILL: Yeah, you keep bombing us. We'll be in the pub, flipping you off. I'm slapping Rolls-Royce engines into untested flying coffins to knock you out of the skies, and then I'm sending angry Welshmen to burn your country from the Rhine to the Polish border.

US. NOW: BE AFRAID!! Oh God, the Brown Bad people could strike any moment! They could strike ... NOW!! AHHHH. Okay, how about .. NOW!! AAGAGAHAHAHHAG! Quick, do whatever we tell you, and believe whatever we tell you, or YOU WILL BE KILLED BY BROWN PEOPLE!! PUT DOWN THAT SIPPY CUP!!

... and I'm just a little tired of being on the wrong side of that historical arc.

We're now almost 18 hours into the ceacefire between Israel and Lebannon and Hizbullah, although heck if I know how it's supposed to hold:

He said Israeli forces — apparently about 30,000 soldiers now — would stay in Lebanon until an international force arrived.

Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said his militia would abide by the cease-fire blueprint, but said the guerrillas would keep battling Israeli troops while they remained in Lebanon, calling that “our natural right.?

From where I'm sitting, it'll take at least a few weeks to get an international force in place. In the meanwhile Israeli forces will dig in throughout south Lebannon, Hizbullah will revert to its original mandate to drive out occupying Israeli troops, and the guerilla war will proceed apace. But at least the cross-border shelling ought to quiet down for the time being.

Finally, last week when the British calmly arrested a cell of would-be airplane bombers and the Bush administration launched seamlessly into another round of Chicken Little, I speculated as to whether the timing had been orchestrated around the Connecticut primary or the Levant debacle. My officemate mocked me for the assumption that Bushco can actually control these sorts of things.

Of course, it is now emerging that that is exactly what happened. Man, these screw-ups used to at least be good at keeping secrets. Except that it sounds like the British authorities are severely pissed at the interference. Probably because of the ones that got away as a result.

The narrative, as best I can speculate from the developing threads, is that Cheney et al pressured the British to go ahead with the arrests last week (the timing suggests a connection to the primary, but that's purely circumstantial at this point). Scotland Yard et al nixed the suggestion on the grounds that the plot was far from consumation, so as to gather more evidence, identify additional conspirators, and generally bolster their case -- wise, considering that in the UK, as opposed to, say, here, the accused would eventually have to be proven guilty. However, one of the ringleaders was in Pakistan, and since Musharraf knows where his bread is buttered the Pakistani authorities were happy to pick him up early at the US's suggestion. Then the British had no choice to act, lest news of the arrest lead the rest of the cell to either scatter or try to carry out the plot early.

Since it is not generally illegal to sit around shooting the breeze with friends about how easy it would be to take down an airplane, the very real possibility exists that several of the conspirators will walk free for want of hard evidence that they'd actually done anything wrong. For instance, some reports say that Scotland Yard was waiting for at least one of them to buy tickets for their practice run, or to acquire bomb-making materials. This is in addition to the plotters already known to have escaped the dragnet, quite probably tipped off by the arrest in Pakistan. So one can imagine why the British might be annoyed, and thus be leaking about Republican interference to the press.

Weekend Update

This weekend, if the sky happens to be clear where you are, would be a good time to spend the evenings watching for Perseid meteors. The Moon is near full and thus rises not long after sunset, but you might be able to take advantage of that dark window to watch for Earth-grazers. Otherwise hope for fireballs -- SpaceWeather is reporting that a few have been spotted bright enough to show up on automated cameras, Moonshine and all.

This weekend I'll start posting photos from the vacation. I've spent the week racing about to make up for taking a couple of weeks off, and blogging, much less processing photos, hasn't quite bubbled up to the top of my list. Also, I've acquired a software project that'll be taking up a good deal of my copious spare time in the short term. More on that later, I should think.

One photo, 'cause otherwise that's all I've got for now.

A pine martin sizes us up on the way down a mountain. Actually it spent a while showing off before getting bored and wandering off. Clearly life under the National Park Service has at least taught the fauna that humans are unlikely to eat them. 2006:08:01 10:45:57

Mr. Flacklestein, Where Are You?


First of all, who in tarnation is this Mike Flacklestein character? Search for the name, you find thousands of results, all apparently similar blog comments asking about random addresses, all on the (as far as I can tell) nonexistent Commonwealth Street in Seattle. I don't appear to be the first to have noticed this, but I can't uncover any sensible explanation.

However, a few ideas come to mind, if you're as devious a fellow as myself.

When I saw the first one I assumed it was a real comment, but since I've never been to Seattle and didn't recognize the name I gave it no mind. The second one got my attention though, which led me to do some searches. Looks automated, then, given that generally only the number changes. Normally that would indicate comment spammers, of course -- miscreants who post links to their webpages in bulk, buried on old blog posts where only robots will find them, in the hopes of pushing up their ranking in the search results. This generally doesn't work, because these days most everyone uses the nofollow tag, which marks untrustworthy links such as those in blog comments for search engine spiders to ignore. But it doesn't cost the spammers much to try.

Except in the case of Mr. F here, there are no links. He has a Gmail address, and lists Google as his homepage. Somehow I doubt that Google has to resort to comment spam to improve its positioning in the search engine world. Search for Mike Flacklestein; all you'll find is these meaningless comments -- and, if a few days, probably this post. So what's up, if it isn't spam?

Maybe it's just a prank. Someone thought it'd be fun to spread a meaningless name across the globe. The two comments I have come from separate DSL accounts in Irvine, CA, judging by the IP addresses. But two is an awfully small sample, so I wouldn't draw any conclusions from that. I'd like to know where others originate. But there are potentially ways to exploit something like this to more interesting effect.

Observe: each Mr. F comment is identical, except for an apparently random five-digit address. That's log(99999)/log(2) = 16.6 bits of information per comment. The messages have long common segments, so they're easy to search for. Google reveals at least hundreds of these things, so that adds up to perhaps a few kilobytes of information, easily and anonymously retrieved with a web query that leaves no trace as to who posted the information nor who collected it. However, using this as a bulk data transfer wouldn't be very efficient. You'd have to be able to reassemble the message; uniquely identifying each of several hundred would take 9 to 10 bits of your 16.6, but that sill leaves a couple of kilobytes of compressed, encrypted data to play with.

How about posting the comments, then? Surely that would lead back to the sender, if a few blog operators got together and compared IP address logs? Not necessarily. Most comment spam, like email spam and more malicious activity, originates not from the well-hidden Spam-Cave but from widely dispered networks of desktop computers running unpatched versions of Windows on DSL lines and corporate networks. Bored teenagers can download tools that automatically scan the internet for such vulnerable machines, hack in and infect them in seconds, and thus render them a horde of zombie computers able to wake up at a moment's notice to do the bidding of the, well, highest bidder. Often without incriminating fingerprints that might lead back to said bored kid, and almost always without a whiff of a trace of the purchaser. Posting a few thousand strange blog comments from random computers across the country -- this is trivial. The right "script kiddie" would do that for free as an introductory offer.

Which led me to another notion. Some zombie networks have been built not by kids with scanners, but organically by self-propogating worms. (Remember those worms that occasionally shut down the Internet a few years back when an infection got out of hand? Now they've mostly been tamed, and put to work.) Trouble is, if you want to control such a thing, each computer has got to phone home somehow. Make them all call some master computer, you might as well light up a Bat Signal from your roof, 'cause that's getting shut down. More common is for each computer to pass messages back along the chain of infection to the source, but if the chain breaks large portions of the network can be lost. But what if a worm, upon arriving in a new host, instead connected to the internet behind the scenes. It would be easy to find a blog at random and leave a comment. At 16.6 bits per message, only two such comments would be needed by each worm to broadcast its 32-bit IP address, and thus reveal its position to whomever's pulling the strings.

In either case this would represent a form of Steganography, the trick of hiding information in plain sight. Not especially good steganography, of course, since after just a few hundred or thousand postings it's already readily apparent to someone like me. That doesn't especially matter if the included secrets are encrypted in some sensible fashion, though. Without the ability to read the message, discover its origin or destination, or even hinder its delivery appreciably (by deleting the comments on my own blog I could only destroy a fraction of a percent of the message, and any scheme like this would have to have built-in redunancy) there's little sense in which my knowledge of the existence of this channel of communications can credibly threaten its users' designs.

On the other hand, maybe it's all just an ARG about a sentient AI loose on the internet that's trying to make contact. It's not like that's ever been done before.

Remaining in Motion II

Hey, look! I'm back online!

Nothing of substance to say today, simply because I am taking valuable moments out of packing and running off to the airport to type this. But I'll be back in Minneapolis within the day, much refreshed by my fortnight away.

I intend to resume using this blog in a productive way, so watch for that. Also, I have a bajillion vacation pictures, many of which I think are worth posting here. So with that, it's time to dive back in.

Remaining in Motion

Yeesh, it's been almost two weeks since I've posted here. Haven't done that since I don't know when.

Basically it's been my two week window between finishing teaching and leaving for a bit of vacation time. This does not add up to a great deal of time in which to get stuff done. Mostly I've been futzing with computers in preparation for getting interesting things done later. With occasional breaks for being horrified by the world burning outside.

Sadly, I have little of interest to say about any of this. (Not even about Kinky Friedman and the Weirdest Governor's Race Ever, although my whole family's been rooting for him for months -- I should try to come back with some bumper stickers or the like.) That is a sure sign that I need a change of scenery. I leave Saturday morning, and may or may not post here during the two weeks that follow. My attempts to photoblog my life in real time never pan out, mostly because I'm too picky about processing the photos I post, but I should have nice photos from the Tetons when I get back.

Turbulent Moon


Popped out to watch B.I.K.E. at the Bicycle Film Festival this evening, which was ridiculous and self-absorbed, but featured much tallbike-jousting, a working jetbike, and brief appearances by a handful of Chicago bike freaks I've met, so it gets a pass in my book. The preceeding short was more vicerally entertaining, though, consisting mainly of a death-defying bicycle messenger race across Manhattan from a helmetcam's perspective.

Now, a little more astronomy. Despite dramatically improving the signal-to-noise ratio of my Jupiter pictures, the composite photo I posted yesterday is still dramatically more blurry than one might expect from a high quality 10-inch instrument. This brings us to a concept called "seeing". As the animation below demonstrates, from one instant to the next an image will distort in numerous different ways. This is caused by turbulence in the atmosphere, and is similar to the phenomenon that causes stars to twinkle. However, most of this turbulence is much closer to us than that high-altitude effect; the ripples visible here are primarily the result of hot air rising off the building's roof and mixing with the air streaming through the observatory dome opening. In spring or autumn the seeing from the 10-inch improves considerably, as the days are cooler and the sun sets earlier, and thus the temperature gradients involved are less extreme. In any research-grade observatory, steps would be taken to ensure that the temperature inside the telescope enclosure is equalized with the outside before observations begin.

There's no getting rid of the higher-level turbulence, though, which is why the Hubble telescope produces such wonderfully crisp images using a comparatively puny aperture by current standards. That's changing, though. Since these are quick snapshots it's easy to see that each one is a reasonably crisp image and basically identical with some random pattern of squashing and stretching applied; it's only when they are combined together that you'd get a blurrier image (and for that matter, if I had a more light-sensitive camera I could get even sharper images by taking even shorter exposures). But you could imagine, say, choosing fixed landmarks on the Moon and designing an algorithm that would distort each image until the landmarks lined up every time, essentially un-doing the distortion. Most astronomy, however, is concerned with details much smaller than the distance between landmarks on the Moon. It turns out you can do something similar, though, by distorting an image until a star appears as close as possibe to a round point. This is called adaptive optics, because it isn't done with images after the fact, but in real time using a computer to distort a flexible mirror in just the right way to un-blur the image.

Now if only they could get it to work with visible light.

Sequence of six 1/15 second exposures of the northern Lunar highlands, combined as an animation to highlight varying atmospheric distortion. The images are roughly centered on the broad Clavius Crater; the famous young Tycho Crater is the smaller, deep crater with prominent central massif to the lower right. 2006:07:05 21:37:35

Image Combining: Jupiter

Single 1/15 second exposure of Jupiter through the 10-inch refracting telescope, scaled to 1/4 original size. 2006:07:05 21:49:28

Picking up where we left off yesterday, recall that I had a bunch of shots of Jupiter like the one shown here or a few days ago. The major problem with taking such photos is that, due to the magnification and quantity of light involved, you typically are faced with choosing between a long, blurry exposure or a short, grainy one. If I had a decent mount, better seeing, and an astronomical CCD this wouldn't be such a problem, but with these consumer camera-based solutions, that's the tradeoff.

For something like a planetary image, there's a way around that. Most cameras of this sort have a rapid-fire mode, which I used to take a series of 15 1/15 second exposures like the one at left. Now each one of those is dark and pretty grainy, but crucially, each one is a picture of the same planet, only with some different random-ish pixel noise and offset by random amounts due to jitter. Offsets are easy to take out by hand, although you could also write an image correlation algorithm to do the work if you want to do this a lot. Then it's just a matter of combining all those images in such a way that the noise averages out, leaving a clearer picture of the planet.

For now let's continue working in the Gimp. I can load up each image as a fresh layer in a single file. To line them up, what I find works best is to set one layer to divide the one below it; slewing the top layer around until the result is as close to 1 (white) as possible does the trick very sensitively. This would only work for a large, bright object like a planet, however.

The Gimp doesn't have a concept of averaging many layers, but you can fake it with transparency blending. The average of many layers is an image where each layer contributes equally. So from the bottom upwards, I set the opacity to the series, 1, 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, and so on, so at each level the resulting image is an equal combnation of those lower in the stack. The final result has enough color information that it's actually worthwhile to play with the transfer function to enhance Jupiter's banding, and the final result is below. Whee!

Stack of 15 1/15-second exposures of Jupiter through the 10-inch refractor, color enhanced to emphasize the cloud bands. There is a moon just coming out of eclipse at lower right, but it is totally invisible with this transfer function. I could alternately have added the layers to build up enough photons to clearly show Europa, at the expense of washing out the planet. There is a hint of a dark spot on Jupiter's lower left limb, which is right where Europa's shadow ought to be.

More Moon

Took the whole weekend off, more or less. Worked a bit on the garden, lit lots of fireworks -- apparently I'm already slated to be pyrotechnics man for next year's July 4th party -- got in a couple of longish bike rides. Graded lots of papers, which was a little bit like work. Fed my roommate's fish.

Tonight I took more of my students up to the roof to look through the telescopes. I'm finding that, while the optics in our little 8-inch scopes are decidedly superior to those in the 10-inch refractor, the massive refractor is a much more stable platform for astrophotography. This week I'm experimenting with image stacking. So you get more of that. Combining two images is easy, even with something like the Gimp, simply using layers and opacities. At low magnification and high light levels you don't gain a whole lot, though, so consider this a proof-of-concept.

Starting with an easy case, the average of two 1/24 sec exposures of the Moon. Taken tonight through the 3-ish-inch finder scope on the refractor. 2006:07:05 21:35:06

Banded Jupiter

Yesterday I took a field trip with one of my roommates to Wisconsin. Now my living room table is piled high with "party favors" for Clay's July 4th party. Below, another photo from my Thursday night observing with my students.

In other news: dude, the Blue Man Group is touring again! The set of musical acts I'd cross state lines to see is exceedingly small, but if they don't announce a Twin Cities date soon I'll start planning a fall field trip to Milwaukee. With a billing like The How To Be A Megastar Tour 2.0 I'm gathering they plan to continue the theme of deconstructing the arena rock concert form.

Lightly enhanced 1/19 second exposure taken through the 10-inch refractor. Jupiter is at center, obviously. If you squint you can just make out the Great Red Spot just high of center. At lower left is Ganymede (I initially mis-identified this as Io, but Io had just gone into eclipse at lower right and I forgot which way the image flips due to the corner prism), and in the top left corner is field star Tycho 5575-473-1. 2006:06:29 23:04:48

Daytime Moon


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

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

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

Back in the World

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Future of "Father"-hood?

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

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

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

Email outage


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

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

Uptime Ramble


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

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

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

Poet Laureate

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

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

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


Updates En Passant


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devilish Updates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

And it seems I've let another week go by without posting here. What poor blog etiquette (netiquette used to be the word you'd use there, but I don't see that one much anymore, so it may have fallen out of wide usage -- and I don't see an obvious way to weld blog and etiquette into a compound). This will largely fail to even be an especially interesting post, and is aimed solely at those with an interest in keeping updated on my comings and goings.

The theme of the preceeding two weeks has been, as one might expect, dominated by catching up with things put off during the week I was in Chicago for Scavhunt. Today I got the last of those items off my plate by (finally) sitting for a final exam I blew off that week (this used to be a signature tactic of mine, if one not generally applied to exams; nice to see it still works). And on that note, my Memorial Day weekend was spent in Chicago getting in a final dose of Scavhunt 2006, at the all-team post-Hunt party and then bunking down in an apartment full of Scavvies and Judges for the following couple of days. There was also grilling, pie, and getting my ass genuinely kicked at Scrabble for the first time in maybe a decade. Most satisfactory.

An aside regarding Megabus is in order here. So far they've been generally punctual, on top of being clean, fast, and cheap. Schedules can, however, suffer under certain conditions when running a tight operation with no budget for redundancy. For instance if the afternoon Minneapolis to Chicago bus is delayed a couple of hours in Memorial Day traffic, then there's nothing to be done but spend a couple of hours hanging out on the sidewalk outside Union Station waiting for the bus to arrive. Not that I'm complaining, because any other mode of inter-city transport would have involved fifteen other kinds of madness. Just something to keep in mind.

Anyhow I'm now back in Minneapolis and can't go anywhere for about a month, as tomorrow I start my summer teaching assignment. Two hours of Astronomy 1001 lab a day for five weeks, plus some grading and proctoring, ought to keep me nailed down for June. Although it will put a crimp in my research time, I'm rather looking forward to putting in some classroom hours again. Wouldn't want to get rusty.

"Arcturianids" Followup

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Meteors (73P-derived or otherwise) on a light-polluted Mpls night: 0

Satellites scooting along in polar orbits: bizarrely many.

Heavens-Above lists 7 visible satellite passes between 10:30 and 11:00 PM for that location, roughly the period when I was outside. But I'm pretty sure I saw more like a dozen or so. Literally, there were multiple occasions when I could track three at once without moving my head. And more weirdly, every single one was in a nearly polar orbit. I can readily accept that my eyes were dark-adapted to better than magnitude 4.5, so the number isn't surprising, although it's more than I can recall ever seeing in a comparable period. However, I really can't figure out what kind of selection effect would hide the satellites in equitorial orbits.

73P from Hubble
Comet 73P disintegrating as it nears the Sun, as seen by the Hubble. Click the image to visit the STScI website for larger versions.

It's taking a little while to get back up to blogging speed, and given my priorities this summer, I may decide not to maintain my previous daily posting schedule. Hopefully some of you would still check for updates if I only posted 2-3 times weekly; with any luck they'd be more interesting than otherwise.

But for today ... over the past month or so amateur astronomers (and some professionals, too) have been watching comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 as it swung tantalizingly close to the Earth last week. Sadly it never quite brightened enough to show up as much through binoculars from here in downtown Minneapolis, but it nevertheless put on quite a show as it disintegrated into dozens of fragments.

Sky&Telescope has had good running coverage of this pass. And right now, they say, keep an eye on the sky tonight. There's a possibility for a meteor shower as a dust trail from a previous orbit has a chance to collide with the Earth. The radiant would be about 12° from Arcturus (finally, a use for that "arc to Arcturus" mnemonic!).

The Long Organ?

Recalling Scavhunt '00: Rocket 00000. Widely considered one of Mathews House's better moments, ridiculous overkill seemed the only fitting way to approach Pynchon in that, the last year of the Mathews independent team. I don't know who originally took this photo.

Well, doesn't this just tickle two of my fonder obsessions: long range thinking and pipe organs. The locals of Halberstadt, Germany, have decided to take on the definitive rendition of Cage's As Slow As Possible for the organ. The organ is uniquely suited to such a performance, since it just keeps sounding for as long as a key is pressed (and the electricity holds out). In this case, it runs slowly enough that there's plenty of time to make and install new pipes as needed between note changes. All told, the performance should last 639 years.

Speaking of which, the LA Times this week has yet another article on an old problem: how to communicate danger to people tens of thousands of years in the future. Long after even the Long Clock's design lifetime expires, plutonium leftover from making nuclear weapons will remain dangerous. It seems only neighborly to put up a "Don't dig here" sign, but how? Weekend America is talking about that right now.

Let's see what else distracted me this week.

Comet Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 is now a fairly easy binoculars object under dark skies, although observers are still uncertain whether it will become bright enough to be an impressive naked-eye comet, despite the fact that it will pass the Earth at less than 25 times the Earth-Moon distance mid-month. As it swings closer to the sun, it is in the process of spectacularly crumbling apart.

And it really tickled me when the Vatican dissed Creationism.

But far be it from me to end on an entirely cheerful note. As Matt Yglesias points out this week, there are actually sound economic reasons why globalization seems to produce a large number of uncomfortable outcomes. It's capital efficiency at work.

May Day

Happy May Day. Go protest something. Immigrants' rights seems to be the cause of the day. Don't worry, the puppets are next Sunday around here, so you haven't missed that yet.

Gasoline Rebates

The latest Republican quick fix scheme is apparently to write everyone a $100 check as a "rebate" for the high gasoline pump prices they're paying. It should be immediately obvious that this idea would be daft on its face even if we weren't running enormous fiscal budget deficits. Unlike the tax surplus "rebates" handed out a few years back, this is money that will come directly out of the Treasury general fund and have to be offset by reduced spending on other priorities. Since Bush has flatly rejected punitive taxes on the energy industry, you can't even try to justify it by claiming that it's a redistribution of wealth from price gougers back to the public. It's just a stealth one-time tax cut. Moreover, it's far too small to cover the difference between what people are paying and what politicians glibly claim they should have to pay, while at the same time will only serve to reinforce demand and drive actual prices higher still. So, worse than useless on all fronts.

Should this laughable thing actually pass, I plan to endorse my check over to the DFL.

Bikes ARE a Blessing

I know I've mentioned this phenomenon before, and encountered some dubiousness that such a thing be possible. Moving by bicycle: it can be done, especially if you have folks like the Chicago Critical Mass crowd to call on. Last weekend Rachel Friend pulled off a six-mile, single-trip move with the help of a couple dozen bike trailers, which was ambitious enough that it made the evening news (alternate link for the video).

Related news, in New York Earth Day can be celebrated by having your bicycle blessed. And if you're bicycle commuting in Manhattan, I'm sure you'll take all the help you can get.


Now see, when I thought up yesterday's analogy with the frog, I so almost went with "saliva cures breast cancer," but that just didn't sound quite right. Shows what I know. Even as I was writing that, a webcomic was setting me straight.

Distribution of mutations in the BRCA1 gene. Image Credit: Larry Brody, NCHGR, NIH, Bethesda, MD, USA

Gemma (who is welcome to this neighborhood's bunnies, but will have to come get them herself) finally got around to watching The Corporation the other day, and an interesting notion emerges:

When a genetic laboratory identifies a genetic sequence, their scientists can patent it immediately. For example, the gene that creates a predisposition towards breast cancer has been patented.

"Why," asked Tyromaven as we watched, "can't someone sue them for having breast cancer?"

Why not, indeed.

I'm hard-pressed to identify any concrete good resulting from the utter mess that is the present American patent system, so I'm inclined to sympathize with this sort of notion. It's exceedingly tempting to render the thing broken in some way fundamentally unacceptable to the incumbent stakeholders, because then there'd at least be a chance of starting over and getting something sensible out the other side. Perhaps unfortunately then, patents don't work like this.

So far, I find 35 different patents on the BRCA1 gene alone, one of the first to be definitively linked to a modestly common cancer. You have to slog through the claims sections to figure out what they actually cover, though, an ordeal complicated by the fact that the patent lawyers who wrote them took some pains to ensure they cover as much as possible. But no company claims to actually own a gene, in a "this gene of yours made me sick" kind of way. Patents theoretically give an inventor the exclusive right to make or sell some novel thing. However, this concept has been stretched beyond all recognition of late, to the point where one can patent a mathematical expression (in the form of software) or an ad campaign (as a business method). Compared to this, patenting life is a quite straightforward concept.

Consider a frog. Suppose you discover that its slime cures the common cold. You can't patent the frog or its slime, but you can certainly patent the (newly invented) process of using it to cure a cold. Now you take the slime-gene and insert it into a cow so the milk does a body a whole new kind of good. New cow and new milk, so there's a patent so only you can make (by breeding or otherwise) the cattle or sell the drink. You'll probably also patent the gene itself, and what that'll mean is that only you can use the gene to create useful new organisms or otherwise cure the common cold.

Finally, imagine that through some odd mutation you wind up with a copy of slime-gene in your own cells, and it's gonna make you croak. You're not using it to cure anybody's anything, and you're sure not making any money off of it, so the necessary conditions to activate the patent don't exist. Moreover, you'll notice that if either was true, this would put you in legal jeopardy, not the patent holder. In court all you have to work with are plain old tort laws, which say that the patent holder didn't do squat to you. Thus you lack standing, and case dismissed.

Likewise, the patents on BRCA1 and friends are generally of a piece; they list off sequences, protein codings, or identified mutations, and claim the right to use those to screen for, identify, or treat cancer, which in practice means licensing someone to make drugs or test kits to do the same. In particular, it's a good bet that nobody's patented using a BRCA1 mutation to cause cancer. In general, patents by their nature only create rights for the patent holder. Quite by design, the existence of a patent only benefits you, the average non-patent-holder, by theoretically making the fruits of research more available to you than if they were locked away as a trade secret.

And after all, if patents created some kind of opportunity-cost liability for the patent holder, don't you think somebody would be suing the pharmaceutical companies over the millions of Africans who will die this year because they can't afford the patented drugs for treatable diseases?

Tormenting 'wingers


Okay, things are just sane enough around here that I might try posting three times this week. Such daring! We'll see how that goes. Since folks have been asking, plans are definitely afoot to Hunt me some Scav (not Snorlax) next month. I don't know exactly what days I'll be in Chicago, as that is somewhat dependent upon my ability to bend time and space to my will or, to be more precise, reschedule finals week. Offers of crash space are gladly accepted. If I owe you a lunch date, let's talk.

If you were to, say, contract Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and be medically forbidden to type with your dominant hand, but still had papers to write and the like, you'd probably want one of these, wouldn't you? Except, we usually mouse with our dominant hands, so I don't know if the party this is intended for is reading.

Now here's a handy reference! The good folks at Firedoglake have been running a series of articles conclusively demonstrating once and for all that the Republican base is a, and I love this phrase, "racist freak show." This post summarizes the series and links to the previous installments. So the next time a Republican accuses you of being unserious unless you first denouce Howard Dean or Jessie Jackson, point 'em here and ask 'em what they think of their own base.

And speaking of making Right-winger heads explode, try this line next time you run into an abortion protestor: "If a fire breaks out in a fertility clinic, who do you save -- a Petri dish with five blastula or the two year-old child?" Not, you know, to make any sort of point, but just for good old-fashioned head-spinning fun.

Thank you, and good night.

Pan-American Maglev

Baby rabbits are oddly proportioned little things on their best days. Also, none too bright. This one required some coaxing to transport itself out of the busy bike lane. It takes a special kind of animal obliviousness to almost get flattened by a bicycle. 2006:04:17 20:00:11

What with Scavhunt, semester's end, and optics fabrication looming large, my inclination would be to take a cue from Connor and declare EGAD to be in Fluff Mode for the time being. But then I realized that EGAD pretty much is fluff anyway, even if it is interspersed with bouts of scientific or social analytic pseudo-rigour. All I can do is warn you to expect an even lower density of actual thoughtful posting for the next few weeks.

Today, for instance, is pretty much linkage and random thoughts. And baby bunnies, 'cause it's that time of year.

My house acquired a new roommate recently. Leo replaces Ian, the fresh-out-of-high-school slacker with an absentee band who proved unable to hold down a job long enough to pay his bills. And if you know how little it costs to live at my place, you'll realize just what a committed bit of slacking that had to have been. Leo is Argentinian and kind of hyperactive, but altogether employed, so that's cool. When he found out that I'm an astronomer he was extremely curious to know just why there aren't rocket trains yet that would let him visit home in an hour. We had a conversation about acceleration and energy efficiency, leaving aside for the time being why he would expect an astronomer to know anything about rocket trains. But now I've got the beginnings of a seemingly inevitable idea in my head: the Pan-American maglev.

Speaking of Scavhunt, and in keeping with the apparent trend of ex-UofC-ites wandering off to Minnesota, I ran into a certain notorious ex-Judge with Jedi tendencies the other day. Yes, Sebastian is now in law school just across the river, meaning that the two people who covered the most miles to attend last year's Hunt will be covering exactly the same number of miles this year.

Courtesy Lydia, there's a fellow attempting, with considerable success, to build a flippin' Difference Engine out of Legos. Which is just tremendously cool, and might just be what it takes to renew my desire to build the prototype Clock of the Long Now, preferably out of something awesome like Legos.

So I'm biking home the other night and I notice that a clutch of rabbits has recently hatched, but that Mom, being a rabbit after all, has been scared by the passing traffic and retreated to a neighboring yard. So these little bits are crawling around generally munching grass and being obtrusively tiny, and at least one has fallen off the curb and into the street. That one gets a poke in the backside from my sandal to prod it out of the road. I assume they'll figure out the whole flighty nervous rabbit thing at some later date. 2006:04:17 20:01:12


Tonight Jews worldwide celebrate the Pesach Seder of the Jewish year 5766. Half meal, half religious ceremony, there will be prayers and songs, questions and games, unpallatable ritual herbs and bounteous feasting. Good times for all, on the whole.

Christians likewise celebrate Passover tonight, although they generally think of it as Maundy, or Holy, Thursday. In Christian tradition, the Last Supper is believed to have been a Pesach Seder meal, and most years the Thursday of Holy Week is the same day as the first day of Pesach. (Some years it's a week or so off, due to slight differences in how the two religions compute it.) A somber Mass is celebrated. Same idea, less food, but you can get your feet washed if you like.

When I got back to the physics building from the evening service, Campus Crusade's weekly Thursday Jesus Rock Sing-a-long was in full swing. This was quite the contrast. They weren't doing anything obviously different from their usual routine, though.



Also, should anybody happen to be on campus in Chicago today and run across curiously-positioned potatos (in a turtle-on-a-fencepost kind of way), take note. Maybe even take a picture and post it somewhere. I'm curious to see how a planned operation went off last night.

Nerd Distractor

This may turn out to be too distracting to be allowed to live, but for now I'm tickled.

The sciences pre-print archive has had RSS feeds for a couple of years now, which let you do fun things like slurp the latest physics abstracts into a feed reader or blog aggregator. Or anything else that can read the RSS format.

A screensaver, for instance. Now, whenever nobody's using it, one of our lab computers will scroll the latest abstracts for astrophysics papers. In large enough font to be read from anywhere on that side of the lab. Nonstop.

I have a sneaking suspicion that I've hit upon a Venus Flytrap for astronomers.

Sources of Energy

An ethanol-blend gas pump. Couldn't say where, exactly, but it's off this DoE page on biomass technology.

Good news; I got one of the research grants I was applying for last month. It's a small one, just a few grand to buy materials for a specific project, but every little bit helps. That brightened my day. Over and beyond the glorious mid-70s sunny weather and finally managing to break out a road bike, that is.

I've been digging into this After Oil special report that I mentioned yesterday. The first two articles are about the economics and politics of a biomass economy -- principally, replacing petroleum with plant oils. This is an attractive concept for a couple of reasons. Unlike solar or wind-generated electricity, oils behave like the oil we're used to: you can easily transport them, or make things out of them. Gram for gram, liquids like ethanol have vastly higher energy content than any battery, precisely the reason why gasoline and diesel are by far the dominant energy sources for transportation needs. Moreover, you can't weave clothes or mold containers out of pure energy, but the long carbon chains found in both organic and mineral oils are perfect for transforming into plastic.

The other big advantage to biomass energy is that, in a very real sense, it doesn't pollute. Yes, your biodiesel car will still have an exhaust pipe and the grass-fired powerplant will retain the smokestacks. But with plant inputs, most of the gases belched out into the atmosphere -- carbon dioxide, most significantly -- are just returning from whence they came the previous season. Assuming best practices for sustainable cultivation and clean combustion, energy from biomass is every bit as free as sunlight, and a good deal cheaper to collect than with photovoltaic cells. Ditto biopolymer plastics, which more often than not biodegrade right back into dirt and air.

Brian Schweitzer is seemingly a political anomaly, the popular Democratic governor of theoretically stolidly Republican Montana. His campaign revolved around what used to be thought of as tree-hugging environmental issues, wilderness conservation and sustainable energy. However, in a state that straddles the American farm belt and the mountain West, that's a powerful mix if you apply some common sense to the problem. One can't hunt, fish, hike, camp, if there's nowhere unspoiled to do it. On the question of energy, the article lets Schweitzer summarize with a story (that reminds me for some reason of the scene in Good Will Hunting wherein the title character improvs to the spooks why he doesn't care to work for the NSA, so I'd imagine delivery is everything):

After a recent speech to a Montana audience, the visiting U.S. undersecretary of agriculture took questions from the audience. Governor Schweitzer was allowed to pose the first question. The United States currently spends $6 billion a year to subsidize the grains we export, Schweitzer began. Farmers then give 40 percent of the price of their crops to the railroads to ship the grain to port; multinational corporations then use more energy to ship the grain to the Third World to sell it below the production costs of subsistence farmers driving them out of business, Schweitzer continued. We then send boats full of oil back across the ocean, with oil and grain tankers passing each other somewhere on the high seas. The unloaded oil is then refined and shipped back to rural America, where farmers again pick up the cost of freight. With farmers losing their land at home and abroad, energy prices out of control, and new threats to our security, Schweitzer concluded, shouldn’t we just invest that $6 billion a year in the production of oil seed, help farmers own a piece of refineries, and break our addiction to oil?

To which the U.S. undersecretary of agriculture replied: “Next!?

Sounds like simple common sense, but there's a potent economic argument to be made here. As the Morris article observes at length, farmers do rather poorly if all they do is grow food (except the organic farmers, whose niche is going gangbusters). The real value of a bushel of corn has been falling steadily for decades, just like most every other staple crop. However, in Minnesota and elsewhere they can make up much of that lost ground by starting coop ethanol plants (biorefineries, they call 'em), and at least here something like a third of corn farmers have bought shares in one. Unlike oil, biofuels can be produced anywhere, and since it's considerably cheaper to transport liquid fuel than trainloads of grain, the economies work out nicely to favor refinining in local or regional facilities that keep most of the profits in the region. Minnesota's been busy subsidizing this sort of thing, because someone worked out that three quarters of every dollar spent on gasoline leaves the state, but three quarters of every dollar spent on ethanol stays here.

But plants can't replace petroleum.

Harvesting every crop plant on Earth would handily replace the fossil carbon used in petrochemicals, and would maybe just barely cover the liquid fuels used for transportation in the United States. But all told, you're talking about ten to twenty percent of the coming century's energy needs, and we certainly still want to use plants for things like food and fibers and construction, too. In the end, plants are collectors of solar power, and their efficiency stinks. At best, photosynthesis captures a few percent of the solar energy falling on a plant. So while the solar energy irradiating the Earth's surface exceeds human needs by a factor of many thousands, the photosynthetic processes of all plant life on Earth captures perhaps ten times as much energy as we use. Presumably, it would not be sustainable to annually harvest a tenth of the world's total plant growth for energy alone. Ultimately we need either fusion or good (i.e. both efficient and cheap) solar conversion technology, but there's decent reason to believe that at least the latter will arrive in the next few decades. In the meanwhile, biostuffs will be an invaluable stopgap, and even in a solar world will play an important role in a fully sustainable economy.

Doctor Who

Just a programme note of sorts, the BBC has officially released the episode guide for the 2006 season of Doctor Who. It starts airing in the UK this week, as it happens. Which, locally, means we should think about having another marathon so we can finish up with the 2005 season.

Miscellaneous Updates

It's sunny and the robins are posing for pictures again. And getting fat, as is their wont. 2006:04:07 09:44:35 et seq

While I continue to be busy with (funding) proposals and the like, I did endeavour to take advantage of the absurdly lovely weather this weekend. This involved more not blogging than usual, and more in the way of prepping for summer gardening and otherwise puttering about. With the exception of the sage, my first batch of herb seedings failed, probably because I didn't have anywhere sunny to set them where it wasn't also noticeably chilly. I've gotten ambitious and planned a vegetable garden for this year, so there was some plotting and poking things with a shovel as well. The first pepper seedlings are already coming in, so I'd better hurry up and prepare a spot to transplant them.

After too many months of dormancy, it looks like my old Scavhunt team is kicking into gear. Good thing, too, 'cause List Release is one month from today. Although the days are long past when I took an especially active hand in pre-Hunt groundwork, it still always finds a way to keep me occupied.

My web reading at the moment: the American Prospect special report on the Post-Oil Economy. Lots there, so it'll be a while before I've fully digested it.

Good-ish Legislative Outcomes

I know, it's a shock, but these things can happen. Of course it wouldn't be so unusual if regular folks were to wake up, try voting themselves out of the present mess, and stop electing Republicans. Just had to get that in as preface.

The big national story is that Massachusetts has enacted reforms that will, in principle, ensure that everyone in the state has health insurance by next year. It is, as Ezra Klein points out, far from the ideal system. But the people want it and the next governor will likely be a Democrat, so there's cause for cautious optimism.

Closer to home, the state Senate's Judiciary committee has rejected Constitutionally-mandated bigotry by declining to pass on to the full Senate a bill that would put on November's ballot an amendment denying "marriage or its legal equivalent" to same-sex couples. That's probably just as well for the Republicans, since when you tell them that civil unions would also be outlawed, something like three-quarters of Minnesotans disapprove. Still, it's the sort of issue that tends to break down into a divide between the conservative rural communities and the Twin Cities metropolitans, and that sort of polarization we can do without.

Archival Paper

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From the NPR article, the codex ends with the words, "Gospel of Judas." National Geographic Society © 2006

The story today that a 1700-year-old codex has been found and translated brings up an interesting point. The text contains, among other things, part of a Coptic translation of an older Greek Gnostic text dubbed the 'Gospel of Judas,' whose existence had long been inferred from other sources but never before found. Gnosticism, a concept derived from Platonic philosophy, flourished throughout the Hellenistic world in several sects associated with the early Christian movement. When the monolithic Church emerged, it declared Gnosticism a heresy and waged a long campaign to wipe it out.

So given that you believe yourself in possession of knowledge vital to the salvation of mankind, and given that sooner or later you will be found, forced to recant, and have all your books burned, what do you do? If you've had the forethought to copy the works into well-bound books (vellum would be best, but papyrus works if you're careful), the easiest thing is to seal them up in a jar and bury them in a desert cave somewhere, in the hopes that it'll stay hidden until enough centuries have passed that the ideas are safe again. Hence the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi library, and the current find. Among others.

And that, kids, is why, if you have anything really important to say, write it out on archival, acid-free paper. Fired clay tablets work well, too. Just be sure to do it in a widespread language that's not likely to be forgotten. Those Linear A inscriptions are interesting and all, but not nearly as useful as if we could actually read them.

Believe me, the modern world's not doing very well in this respect. Even the mass media is starting to notice (at least read the list; it's depressing but exceedingly funny).



On NPR the other morning was some coverage of the latest Moussaoui case decision. Now that the jury's found him eligible for execution he moves on to final sentencing. And then appeals, most likely. But I digress.

A brief interview with some random family member of a 9-11 victim. On the way out of court, Moussaoui exclaimed, "you will never get my blood! God curse you all!" Apparently he does that a lot; he may have noticed that it freaks out the audience. Some were understandably upset, but not really for the reasons you'd assume.

"I'd describe him like a dog with rabies, one that cannot be cured, and the only cure is to, to put him or her to the death, " said one. Another, who lost her cousin Eddie on the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania, complained:

For him to leave the courtroom and say, 'you can't have my soul,' I mean, this man has no soul. He has no conscience. So what else could we ask for then this? For this part to end in this manner.

I'd really like to thank these two for nicely illustrating my biggest objection to capital punishment. I don't much care what happens to Moussaoui personally; it's nothing new to observe that every day many thousands die for no particular reason, and a great many live comfortably who've committed worse crimes than anything he's accused of. However, while closure is all well and good, slaking the public's thirst for vengeance is a terribly dangerous thing. The wars that turn vicious and stubborn get that way because the people on one side stop seeing the other as human, as worthy of being allowed to live as a default position. And while I doubt those interviewed would appreciate the irony, the rhetoric of dismissing one's enemy as a soulless and diseased animal is a favorite talking point of extreme Islamic fundamentalists as well.

Intelligent Design-ists: Still Kooks

Apparently I missed this particlar "national media firestorm," but hey, I'll link to anything that reinforces once again just how viciously crazy this crypto-creationist bunch can be. Now they're accusing a respectable ecologist of advocating planetary genocide by airborne Ebola. (These people seriously need to get out more, and try reading fewer pulp thrillers. Yes, this is me advocating that certain people read less. They clearly can't handle it.)

Anyhow, Nick Matzke summarizes and debunks nicely at Panda's Thumb. All kidding aside, get used to this extended McCarthyite moment. As PZ rightly notes, so long as the extreme right is in power, it's going to be increasingly the case that academic is the new commie.

Suppose you found a few LEDs behind glass.

Ugh; working on submitting a proposal this week, but I'm trying to be good and at least post some kind of update every day. Today, a random thought inspired by an installation in Millenium Park from my trip to Chicago a few weeks back.

It turns out that, if you're Richard Daley, this is what you do with a bajillion LEDs.

Okay, I lied. There are actually a goodly number of the things here, behind glass bricks.

LEDs are all kinds of neat devices. Using semiconductor engineering to harness the magic of quantum mechanics, Light Emitting Diodes turn electricity directly into light, commonly with better than 90% efficiency. In an incandescent light bulb the light is got out by brute force, by heating a strand of wire until it glows white hot. Like, hotter than the surface of the Sun hot. A light bulb makes a grand radiant space heater, in fact, but less than 10% of the energy you put in comes out as visible photons.

Actually, you appear to be standing in front of a wall of LEDs behind a wall of glass bricks.

Ultimately the hope is that by using LEDs places like North America, Europe, and Southeast Asia that light up the globe like an ornament in space, drastically less power will be consumed by electric lighting. Before that can happen the white LED has to be perfected and the price needs to come down. Thanks to their quantum nature LEDs are much better at generating single spectral wavelengths of light, rather than the mix needed to appear white. They're already revolutionizing light in certain niches, however. The bulky D-cell powered flashlight will soon be extinct, for one thing, as hopefully will be the nuisance of finding that your flashlight's batteries are dead only after the breakers trip. Also, LEDs make it economical to build things that are always lit.

Holy mayoral vanity project, Batman, that's a lot of LEDs!
Oh! That's what you'd do? Really?

The other big advantage to LEDs it that, even when constantly lit, they can last literally decades before wearing out. This comes in handy in remote areas. Turns out, one surprising obstacle to human advancement in the developing world is the lack of artificial light after sunset in regions without electricity. An extra hour or two of light after outdoor activities come to an end means time to read books or newspapers or teach children. Not having to do this with crude kerosene lamps is a major boon to public health and safety. The Light Up the World Foundation is devoted to installing virtually indestructible solid state lighting systems based on LEDs combined with solar panels, pedal generators, or miniature wind or water turbines.

Which brings us back to the installation at hand. A low-power, highly rugged light source has plenty of applications right here in urban North America, too. In fact, LEDs work well nearly anywhere one might want to run a constant source of light, especially if you need a large number of them, or if they're hard to get access to, because in those cases changing bulbs that burned out becomes a major project in itself. Hence the gradual changeover of most traffic signals to LEDs, and the proliferation of LED display roadside billboards. And in Chicago, for reasons nobody quite comprehends, two enormous walls that display a constantly rotating selection of peoples' faces, every minute of every day.

Daylight Savings

See now, this whole daylight savings thing is just confusing. I didn't even notice that the afternoon was gone, because here it is after 5 pm already and it's still blazing sunlight outside. Maybe that's just by comparison though, since we did spend the last several days beneath the vortex of gray.

But what'll be really strange is next year, when US daylight saving time is extended clear back to mid-March and out to mid-November. This far north, if we're still on GMT+6 clear past Halloween, it's going to feel like the sun doesn't properly rise until lunchtime. As it is, all winter I'd glance at the sun when I went out for some mid-day chow, and think it must be 4 or 5 pm already because the sun's so low.

What I need to do, is spend some time tromping about near the poles. Then I won't notice these little quibbling differences between latitudes 29° and 45° so much. See, Antarctica will be good for me!

Onion Linkage and Like Dithering


I'd say this article in the current Onion treats both the WWE and the Republicans' latest xenophobic immigration reform push with about the respect that they deserve.

The implied dig at Lucha Libre, on the other hand, rubs me the wrong way.

Recall that Where's George thing I mentioned a while back. I got three more Georgified bills the other day, although these were less prominently stamped than the first one; here's what the current stamp lookes like. That's four bills in about six weeks, which struck me as odd. Estimating the $1 bills I go through in an average week, that's probably 3-5% of the bills I touched in that time period. I must have similar habits to whomever is injecting them into the currency stream hereabouts, because otherwise that would come to a staggering number of the things in circulation.

Finally, I leave you with a thought. I don't know the originator, because it seems to have cropped up in similar form in several places on the internet simultaneously. Each instance begins with the observation, spurred by various articles in the mainstream media, breathlessly reporting facts that have been common knowledge to most anyone actually paying attention for some years now.

Namely, that the Iraq war will cost in excess of a trillion dollars, maybe more. The observation is that, given the CIA's figures for the demographics and economy of (either pre- or post-war) Iraq, the United States could have simply hired every working-age Iraqi for multiple decades. This, presumably, would have been less messy than fighting a large chunk of them for years on end. So think ... if only someone had thought to suggest that Cheney just give Halliburton a trillion bucks to hire the population of Iraq, we could have avoided this whole occupation.

Airmass Wholly Seasonal

Dean gave me a cool idea for visualizing the big cyclonic vortex spinning across the Great Lakes that's providing so much interesting weather and announcing rather boldly that the vernal season is upon us. Grab some of the archived hi-res visible imagery from the appropriate geostationary operational environmental satellite, which happens to be GOES-12 for North America. Shoot for near sunset to enhance the contrast of the cloudtop structures. A bit of cutting and stitching and overlaying the supplied map outlines, and voilà! One enormous low pressure system in sharp relief.

Fun fact: these systems are sometimes referred to as inland hurricanes due to their prominent vorticity and occasionally associated high winds. But the mechanism is completely different from a tropical system. These are driven by colliding airmasses of very different temperatures. That happens a lot in the spring.

Image 0603312045G12I01, a mosaic of the Iowa and Great Lakes sectors. Click to enlarge.


My mystery snow chimera is no more. The last of our snowpack melted away this week, and I think that this time, it's yielded for good to the oncoming forces of April. We've even had some good thunderstorms. The evenings have been glorious, almost early summer, which I can get behind since I've never been big on spring anyway.

There's still a few big piles of ice left over where the ploughs built up massive drifts, but that's about it. My creature was nearly the last unploughed ice to remain, though. It underwent a most curious process of de-evolution, too. Here, I caught it at a stage resembling either some primitive lungfish, or perhaps a scorpion, depending on your perspective. Although at the last, it was doing a good impression of the fuzzy protrusions and wakes often claimed to be photographs of the Loch Ness monster, just the crest of some large dream barely breaking the surface of the lawn.

My snow creature, now composed of melting ice, impersonating some different and more primative creature Monday last. 2006:03:27 11:43:41

Labyrinthine Dream

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Speaking of mind games.

I very rarely remember my dreams, but when I do they uniformly screw with my head in all sorts of ways. This morning I woke up from an entirely surreal dream that nevertheless evoked highly vivid memories. Or so I thought -- so much so that I immediately fired up my computer and used Google to check my sneaking suspicion that the places my dream-self had remembered did not in fact exist. (While still dreaming, said I to myself: That doesn't seem right. When I wake up I'll have to Google that.) Not until I went to write the thing down did I get around to noticing that they, in fact, could not physically exist.

Here's where things get fuzzy. The dream was a Gaiman-worthy visit to old haunts on the U. of Chicago campus, in which I noticed that certain aspects (completely uncorrelated to what's really there) were different than I had recalled. I think, in fact, that they were different from the vaguely similar setting of one or more dreams that I had many years ago, and had quite forgotten. The common element being the existence of a Labyrinth, half Jim Henson, half London Below, half Atuan, running through the hidden spaces of campus -- tunnels and battlements and foundations, accessed through forgotten stairwells and disused doors. The changes I noted were associated with settings connected to the Labyrinth, although they are settings I am not convinced actually occurred in the previous dream(s), so it is possible that last night's dream fabricated clearer memories than I actually had regarding an earlier dream.

So clear, in fact, that the first thing I did upon waking up was to search the web and make sure that the UofC Labyrinth does not, in fact, exist. Which it doesn't.

Although the stacks in the Seminary Co-op come close. And the odd connections between buildings on the main quad are infintely more intricate than anything the Gopher tunnels here can dream up, and the dusty passageways under the physics laboratories past ancient hulking equipment exude vastly more atmosphere. So perhaps my old dream is not so disconnected from reality after all.

lightroom - (c)Froghat Studios
"Sunlight Room", a print from Chris Appelhans' Alice in Underworld series, available at Froghat Studios. I thought it nicely captured the atmosphere I've in mind.

Mind Games


The always-intriguing This American Life managed to be particularly awesome this weekend in an episode that dwelled heavily upon the antics and consequences of New York-based Improv Everywhere. This is a group that considers life their stage, and with that motto takes the art of the mind game to a high point of absurdist refinement.

I am massively tickled by the idea of putting a Starbucks into a time loop. Even more so because it took most people three or four repetitions to notice.



Yesterday I jokingly asked my lab if anyone cared to hop an overnight flight to Turkey. No takers, I'm afraid, but there's a goodly number of tourists and astronomers alike camped on that country's southern coast just now. It's solar eclipse season again, and this year we get a good one. If you're in west or north Africa, Turkey, the Caucasus, or Mongolia, that is. For some reason the tourists are flocking to the Mediterranean instead of to Chechnyia, I notice.

As an aside, I also noticed a larger than normal number of visitors to my site yesterday. Glancing through the logs, it seems to be driven by people Googling for various permutations of "solar eclipse" and the Mideast. After I would assume scrolling through a great many pages of results, some of them appear to have landed here, where I last talked about eclipses.

Few Surprises in Israel

The voting's over and the ballots nearly counted. The results are mostly unsurprising, but Political Arithmetik has a neat visualization of exactly where the surprises came. The diagonal line indicates equality between pre-election polling and post-election exit polls and official tallys. So when a party (notably Kadima and Likud) falls below the line, it did worse than expected; when above the line (the Pensioners party, by a startling margin) it has exceeded expectations.

At TPMCafe, Israel observer Jo-Ann Mort writes about the implications for Israeli politics, while the local newspapers are also hard at work on the question. Besides commanding performances by Kadima and Labor, there were unexpectedly strong performances for peace activists Meretz and the Arab parties, and the ultra-Orthodox foreign policy moderates Shas seem to have soaked up much of the religious vote. It will be trivially easy for Olmert to assemble a large centrist governing coalition; it's a pity that continuing unilateral actions are the best he can do in terms of a plan for dealing with the Palestinians.

The obituaries for Likud are practically writing themselves. Even Netanyahu was quoted as calling it "a broken, shattered movement." Unfortunately, this means that the new voice of fanatical Zionism will be Yisrael Beiteinu's leader Avigdor Lieberman, who is himself a crazy eliminationist settler type even as he heads a party mainly representing practical but poorly-integrated Russian immigrants with little interest in Zionism or even Judaism. Thus it's still premature to count the settler movement out just yet.

Election Day

Today the news will bear watching, because it's Election Day in Israel. It is universally assumed that the newly-minted center-right Kadima party will win a large plurality in the Knesset, followed by center-left Labor (with whom a ruling coalition will likely be formed) and the religious-nationalist Likud in third. There is a wonderful visualization of the Israeli political field here at Political Arithmetik. However, politicians are afraid that an expected record low voter turnout of 65% or so (!) could mess with the predicted spread. Despite having 31 parties to choose from, the electorate reports frustration that there is nobody representative of their views for whom to vote.

Fig. 1: large-scale polarization structure of the CMB superimposed on the temperature anisotropy map. Click here to enlarge. NASA/WMAP Science Team.

Our story so far:
WMAP first impressions
WMAP and the Axis of Evil
WMAP looks through a galaxy

And now a topic near and dear to my heart, the polarization of the CMB. The WMAP team claims to have detected polarization, although it's a pretty weak and ratty signal and there's massive foreground contamination to deal with. Which is good for me, since there's no shortage of ground left for my mission to cover, although it also emphasizes just how difficult this field is going to be.

First off, let's tackle what I've labeled as Figure 1, a press image that's been widely disseminated. When the 3-year data release appeared, I heard from a number of quarters a sort of "my word, is that their data?" exclamation upon seeing it. Now the underlying temperature map is essentially a linear combination of the temperature data in the five bands that minimizes the foreground contribution (principally from the galaxy), and except perhaps in the plane of the galaxy is highly robust. The big white lines do represent polarization angles, but are far removed from raw data.

Compare to the image I've labeled Figure 2.

According to the Page et al Polarization Analysis paper (available here), the 61 GHz band was the least contaminated with polarized foreground signal, with synchrotron emission rising at lower frequencies and thermal radiation from warm dust kicking in at the highest band. Even so, the polarized part of the CMB amounted to around 0.3 μK of the entire signal, while even in the cleanest band the foreground polarization averaged twice that much. In Figure 2 the color indicates the total polarized intensity. The white lines again indicate the polarization angle measured on the sky, but this time at something like the resolution of the instrument1. A line is only drawn where the polarization signal-to-noise (S/N) ratio is greater than one, and even after some binning there's not a whole lot of lines that aren't part of the galactic plane.

Increasing the number of samples that go into a single measurement boosts your signal faster than the noise (as the square root of the number of samples, generically). Thus three years of WMAP data are able to reveal details that couldn't be detected in a single year. Or, given a single set of data, it's possible to improve S/N by sacrificing resolution and averaging pixels together, just as is done in Figure 1. As it happens, it's possible to get a handle on reionization using just polarization data at the largest angular scales, so the WMAP team averaged over large enough patches of the sky to leave just the l=2 through l=6 multipole modes (I touched on multipoles earlier in this series). That's what was chosen for display in the nice press release image.

Fig. 2: V-band (61 GHz) polarization intensity and averaged S/N>1 vectors. Click here to enlarge. WMAP Science Team

An l=6 multipole has a characteristic scale of 30° or so, which at the distance of the CMB corresponds to lengths far greater than the horizon size at that epoch. These sorts of large-scale patterns cannot be intrinsic to the CMB; they must arise from physics going on closer to us. To get a feel for what this means, imagine this: shortly after the Big Bang, a magical indestructible transmitter sends out a signal. About 300,000 years later it is received by a moderately less magical station during the epoch of recombination. If you did this experiment today the two receivers would be very nearly 300,000 light-years apart, but thanks to the expansion of the universe that isn't true in any useful sense. However, it turns out that if you observed both of these stations while taking measurements of the CMB, they would appear to be roughly 1° (two full moon's widths) apart on the sky. Anything more widely separated than that hadn't yet had a chance to exchange information, so there can't be any coherent structure in the CMB on larger scales2.

In fact, according to the current models, we do expect to see some power in the l=6 and larger polarization multipoles due to scattering during reionization. Post-recombination, the universe evolved in relative darkness for nearly a half-billion years, until it was fully a tenth of its present size. Then the light from the first stars and quasars began to permeate space, creating a patchwork of ionized plasma interspersed with the neutral soon-to-be intergalactic medium. Although few and far between compared to CMB photons, liberated electrons managed to scatter a small portion of the microwave energy, and this led to polarization writ large, if faintly. The amount of scattering is encapsulated in the τ term that I mentioned; now that we know it's value moderately well, it is possible to say that the first generation of stars was born when the universe was approximately 400 million years old.

This is just the beginning, though. There's an abundance of new science to be done with the polarization of the CMB, but it'll take experiments more sensitive than WMAP. The next steps will require raw sensitivity at least ten times better than WMAP, accompanied by clever techniques for removing the foreground noise, and at higher resolution to boot. This generation of experiments is already in design and under construction, so expect results on this front in the next handful of years.

1 The beam size at V-band is about 30 arcminute. In the sort of high-S/N regime that, say, optical astronomers work in you could do image deconvolution and get down to 10' or better pixel resolution. Here, you instead resort to averaging many beams into a single pixel to push the S/N ratio up. So in Figure 2, the polarization has been smoothed to 2 degree pixels.

2 That's probably not true. Blame inflation, which can and does create structures this large and more, right up to waves longer than the observable universe today. However, I'm talking about the polarization of the CMB as seen by WMAP, in which case inflation doesn't play a detectable role. So I'm doing like your high school physics teacher did, and sticking to the simple story.

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No posting this past weekend primarily because of our youngest roommate's 22nd birthday. Which involved a minor bash, which involved much translocation of household items before, and application of mop and vacuum after. I didn't even make it in to the lab once, although I did get in a few hours of working remotely. Hooray for fast networks. Now if only we were like South Korea and all had optical fiber to our apartments, instead of being like ourselves and having the worst broadband service of the developed world.

At any rate, all is back to normal.

WMAP: Foregrounds

From the WMAP Science Team, images (from here) of the microwave foreground in three bands, plus an explanatory map. Click to enlarge.

Just a tip: I don't have a separate category for these WMAP posts, but thanks to the Technorati tags I've been including at the bottom of these posts they're trivial to find here.

Last time I mentioned some of the uncertainty that can arise on large scales due to the inconvenient fact that there's a big honking galaxy in the way when looking at the background radiation. Unless you're a galactic astronomer, in which case the CMB is just a happy side-effect of WMAP's creation of a map of the Milky Way Galaxy in microwave light. WMAP observes at a total of five frequencies; here I've pulled out maps of the foreground signal for three. At the bottom of the image is a cartoon that identifies the major objects.

The most noticeable feature, of course, is the bright horizontal slash across each map. This is the disk of our galaxy wrapping all the way around the sky. In this coordinate system the center of the image is the center of the galaxy, the top and bottom correspond to looking straight north or south out of the galactic plane, and the sides are 180° from the center, looking directly away from the galactic center. As it's pretty easy to identify, astronomers who survey the entire sky quite often work in these galactic coordinates.

Obviously these are false-color maps, since microwaves are far removed from the wavelengths of light the human eye can perceive. In this case, the colors don't even correspond to different wavelengths, precisely speaking. Here, the colors represent the mechanism by which the radiation was emitted. Red denotes synchrotron radiation, produced by electrons spiraling at relativistic speeds through the tangle of magnetic fields that fills the galaxy. Green is for free-free emission, the result of collisions between electrons and protons in the tenuous 100,000-degree plasma left over from supernovas and massive star winds. Blue signifies the thermal radiation emitted by warm dust, found throughout the galaxy's disk but typically associated with very young or very old stars.

At least that's the theory. The idea is that each source of radiation varies with frequency in a particular way; by combining the five maps it's possible to algebraically separate the signal seen at each pixel into four components (three foreground sources plus the CMB). There's enough data there to do this exactly, but only if the frequency dependance of each source is known exactly. In practice the models are good, but far from perfect. This is a problem, since as I've discussed doing science with the CMB requires being able to pick out tiny variations in the intensity of the background signal. That's why so much suspicion is aroused by the curious alignment between the low-order multipoles and the orientation of the galaxy. It only takes a small error in the foreground models to create a large error in the CMB anisotropy, and in general, you might very well expect such noise to align with the galactic plane.

Thus John's suggestion that a sensible thing to do would be to run a Monte-Carlo simulation of the foreground removal. In principle, this could at least estimate the likelihood of this alignment arising due to contamination by the galactic signal.

Click on the bottom cartoon to find out what other objects are identifiable in these maps. On the far right is the Orion-Eridanus Bubble, which contains the Orion star-forming regions, among other things. it shows up in green on all three maps, outlining the superheated plasma pumped out as stellar winds by the young stars forming in places like the Orion Nebula. This plasma has since expanded to very, very thinly fill a vast cavity, like a bubble blown in the interstellar medium. Another free-free dominated feature is the Large Magellanic Cloud, found in the lower right quadrant of the map.

In the K-band red features are more prominent, especially the diffuse red glow arcing upwards from near the center of the galaxy, known as the North Polar Spur. The Milky Way has several such large-scale features in the synchrotron sky, which also show up in X-ray observations, indicating that they are the site of energetic processes that boost particles to extreme energies. It has been suggested that the Spur is the shockwave from an old nearby supernova, the bubble blown by an ancient starburst in galactic core, or even a jet from the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy. The truth is that there is no widely accepted explanation.

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Photoblogging: In Flagrante Wintry


Speaking of snow sculpture, I passed this example in progress a day or so before my own project. Clearly art types posessing more actual skill than myself at these things, they seemed genuinely peeved that the snow wasn't amenable to adding more detail.

This is way more awesome than the gigantic snow phallus the dorms erect each year after the first big blanketing turns malleable.

Art student snow sculpture. Probably never had much of an audience though, since it went up in the middle of spring break, and fell over before the students got back. 2006:03:16 19:29:10

Photoblogging: That Old North Wind

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Returning to the Spring Break Blizzard for a moment, it's easy to tell that this storm just swept in from the north. See, taking this photo I was facing nearly south. If I'd been looking north, the trees would still have been black.

Near the 15th Ave entrance to campus, the north-facing sides of, well, everything, have been plastered solid with snow. 2006:03:13 14:52:52

WMAP: The Cosmic Axis of Evil

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From the Hinshaw et al WMAP paper, fits of the low-order multipoles of the CMB sky.

Here's a figure from the WMAP temperature results paper (available here) that drew some attention from the theorists in recent discussions. In part because of the provocative-sounding term attached to it: the Cosmic Axis ... of Evil!

First, what's going on in this figure? The top left figure is the familiar temperature map of the microwave background. Now the bread-and-butter of CMB work is breaking this map up into multipoles, or simple functions that each encode structure on a particular scale, and which when added together give you the original map. Reading the maps left to right, top to bottom, the first few multipoles are shown that add up to the large-scale structure of the CMB sky. In the real map, notice that there's a dark blue (cold) patch just right of the center. This sort of large-scale structure is reflected in the multipole plots; several of these low-order maps similarly have a cold peak at about this point.

When this was first done a few years back, ears pricked up because, if you squint, it looks like the l=2 and l=3 (and mayle l=5) multipoles have the same alignment. Almost like they're lined up along a cosmic axis, which you wouldn't expect if the multipoles are randomly aligned. But it's theoretically very naughty to give the Universe any kind of special direction; hence the axis of evil bit. In particular, it's hard to have a preferred cosmic axis, or vector anisotropy, without messing up the electromagnetic force in really obvious ways.

But back then it was pointed out that the supposed Cosmic Axis also lines up with the axis of the galactic coordinate system, and that would be quadruply unlikely. So it was dismissed as an artifact of not being able to perfectly subtract contamination from the galaxy -- for instance, maybe the cold patch I mentioned above isn't real. Except that now we have the 3-year WMAP data release, and it makes a strong case that this is real. So either we have a curious coincidence on our hands (just how curious is being hotly debated, but any sort of curious coincidence always makes theoretical physicists jumpy), or there's something genuinely odd about the very geometry of our universe. So far they think it's not quite curious enough that we need to seriously consider the second possibility, but be sure that they're thinking about it.

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Photoblogging: Snow-a-saur

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About once a year, I embark upon a moderately overambitious act of snow sculpture. This year conditions were nearly ideal, having a good depth of reasonably sculptable snow land during spring break. Could have been better, to be sure -- it was a tad warm, and the snow a mite too old by the time it got adequately sticky, so fine detail was a non-starter. So my attempt at a dragon came out looking like a dinosaur-tailed Sphinx with a sheep's head. I rather like the carved-from-granite blockiness of it, though.

My snow dragon-sheep-Sphinx thing guards the Knoll. The snow was so dense when I built it, the thing'll probably stand for weeks. 2006:03:19 14:37:59

Photoblogging: Blizzard Narnian

The Knoll, a nice tree-ish bit of park near the 15th Ave entrance to campus. 2006:03:13 14:53:24

Having previously declared winter dead, Old Man Winter opted to spend the past week upbraiding me with all the subtlety of a blizzard. Yea, with exactly that much subtlety. On NPR, they were cracking jokes about how Minnesota looks like ANWR now, suggesting maybe we should try drilling for oil. Punxsutawney Phil, I am not.

Not that I wanted to go to campus at all, since I had a cold and was all for calling it a sick/snow day. But work called, literally, and if I'm going to sit on the phone with my advisor, I might as well do it from my desk where I can easily refer to things.

But at least I got some quite decent pictures out of the deal. Wandering into campus, I was reminded of nothing so much as a scene right out of Narnia, pre-Christmas. If only we had more rustic lampposts, the image would be complete.

WMAP First Impressions

The WMAP three-year data is out! There was some kvetching that it didn't show up exactly at noon EST, but then the site lit up at a quarter past or so and around the world, cosmologists decided to call it a day and start reading.

The headline numbers don't change much, of course -- the Universe is still flat, still about 13.8 billion years old. But there are some significant surprises nonetheless, that are quite interesting.

One concerns τ, the optical depth to reionization. Now it's about 0.09, which is a factor of two smaller than everyone thought previously. Which makes reionization more sensible, since now the Universe ionizes at about z=10 or so, which is reasonably consistent with where people actually see the Gunn-Peterson trough in quasar spectra. Back when τ~.17, you had reionization happening around z=20, which is very early, and made it hard to explain the much later presence of at least regions of neutral gas.

That, incidentally, will suppress B-mode polarization at large angular scales. I think. Which would be bad for some of our competitor experiments. Not to gloat or anything.

The other surprise is n, the slope of the perturbation power law spectral index; it isn't equal to 1. More like 0.95, with pretty small error bars. That's just weird, and will give the theorists something to chew on for a bit.

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Business Opportunity


Enjoy keeping questionable company? Don't mind being disliked by the neighbors? Ever wanted to run an outskirts motel or rental complex in Iowa?

Iowa's new residency restrictions on sex offenders may have created a tasty business opportunity for you! Can't you see the flyer? "Freshly remodeled suburban brownstone appts for rent -- no longer have to lie about your address -- guaranteed 2,000+ ft from nearest school or daycare!"

You'd imagine folks would pay a small premium if the alternative is sleeping at the truck stop.

WMAP Imminent!


Big news afoot. First the backstory...

WMAP, for the non-experts in the room, is the satellite currently making precision measurements of fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background. The first year's worth of data made all kinds of waves, including proving that the Universe is geometrically flat, and giving a pretty good estimate of its age. About two years ago, one started to hear grumbling at cosmology conferences about the whereabouts of the WMAP second year results. At this point it's practically devolved into a running joke, although with a serious undercurrent. Rumors have been swirling for ages about how the data release was held up due to some difficulty with polarization measurements, which is exactly what the current CMB mission race (of which my group is a part) is all about.

Of late the rumors have really been churning, since lots of WMAP scientists have been giving talks recently, and some have hinted that the data could surface sometime soon. Now it's official. There's an email going around from the WMAP team at Goddard.

The WMAP second data release will occur at noon EST, Thursday March 16!

First impressions: One, they mention that there will be no televised media accompanying the release. This suggests that we can stop sweating the possibility that they were going to trump us all and get a strong polarization detection. Two, I wonder if the release date was ever the 15th, and got pushed back because someone at GSFC remembers Caesar. Three, it's no longer called the second-year release, just the second release; sounds like there will be more recent data thrown in as well.

Watch this space.

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Google Branches Out: Mars Edition

Or perhaps more to the point, the creeping Google conquest of the Solar System continues apace. Evidently they're celebrating Lowell today by assimilating Mars into the Google hivemind. So when people do finally land on the red planet, they can Google for the nearest gas station near Olympus Mons.

Photomicroscopy: Powers of e


I didn't get any responses to my call for suggestions for the photomicroscopy project. However, I did catch Paul's not so veiled reference to that cult classic among astronomers, Powers of 10. Rounding out photomicroscopy week, this, then, is my answer.

Distance: arm's length.

Our journey begins here. Continue through...


Despite my previous eulogizing of the winter season, it would appear that tonight we're getting hit with as much as a foot of the heavy white stuff. Just because Midwestern weather enjoys messing with me, I'm certain.

While I do have a goodly amount of stuff to do this week, I think I'll take a snow day tomorrow. Work from home, at the very least. It's gonna be slushy out there.

My God ... It's Full of Books!

Passing the new, long under construction Central Library today, I took in concrete, visible evidence that it might actually open sometime in the forseeable future.

Books! Thousands of them. Thanks to the glass exterior walls and the apparently now-functional interior lighting, after dark one can easily see that the bookshelves are now populated. Whee!


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A handy example of why you should not wander incautiously about unfamiliar steam tunnels. Walking to lunch today we observed a bit of a ... plume ... rising above the buildings. Then noticed a bit of a tea-kettle roaring suffusing the air. We investigated; a couple of blocks away the plume turned out to be a quite impressive geyser, and the tea-kettle more of a rocket launch. It would seem the campus heating system had to blow off some steam today.

Now I'm having visions of a sky-shattering pipe organ powered by the campus steam distribution system. Bach shall be my weapon of mass destruction!

There's some kind of steam distribution complex beneath the hillock between these two buildings. It does not generally distribute our steam into the atmosphere, but today was an exception. Click to enlarge. 2006:03:10 11:36:13

I also made a movie. Crank up the volume.

Photomicroscopy: Pointy Tools

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Alrighty then, getting back to photomicroscopy week.

I must confess, you'd think in a lab like this we'd have more interesting stuff to look at in unusually close close-up. But by and large we've got pretty mundane equipment hereabouts, excepting of course the stuff we actually use the microscope for. Which I naturally can't post any more than the observers would dump pre-publication data on their websites. But I do take requests, so by all means leave suggestions.

Unlike knife blades, which are legitimately pretty sharp structures, today we've got a couple of tools usually thought of as pretty sharp, but which aren't.

This blunt barbed thing is one half of a needle-nose tweezers normally used for picking up fine wires and similar while assembling electroncs. They definitely look like you could thread a needle with them, or make some serious puncture wounds, to the naked eye. I believe this is considered still in fairly good condition.
No, it's not an industrial vise or the Jaws of Life, although the concept is similar. Just an ordinary pair of nail clippers demonstrating that on the appropriate scale, sharp pressure is all it takes to snap keratin or steel framing.

Grinding Bike Death

The winter junk bike parked at my house during one of our rare significant snowfalls this year. 2005:11:25 12:30:57

As previously mentioned, the junker bike is just about down for the count. Its performance had worsened significantly in the past week, so I gave various things a spin while I listened. Sounds like the bearings in my bottom bracket (the bit that the pedal cranks turn in) have died. Fixing this involves a modestly intensive rebuild of the drivetrain hardware, so I may take the path of least resistance and switch to a road bike.

Frankly I can't act surprised, since I've completely neglected preventative maintenance on this thing. And I always park it outside, regardless of weather. Including almost an entire year sitting idle outside the physics building, which cannot have helped matters. I don't feel too badly about this, since it is after all a junker made principally from scrap parts. Paul has affectionately dubbed it the Frankenbike, but there are people who put a lot more care into building bikes from trash, so the name's probably already taken. Certainly if I'd lugged it to Chicago last weekend, it would have felt somewhat inferior when Count Chopula (second incarnation; scroll to the bottom) rolled in the door. Oh, if only I had an arc welder.

Oh, and while we're on the topic, just thought I'd pass this along: yes, it is possible to ride across North America on a unicycle.

Today is Blog Against Sexism Day. Which is not really a part of my usual repetroire, because there are a limited number of hours in the day. But I'll make an exception for good-cause groupthink, and talk about an issue that I do know a thing or two about. And because it's not just a bloggy thing; today actually is International Women's Day 2006

There's plenty of ongoing debate about the point at which women leave the hard sciences, but given that college classes start out about 50/50 and Ph.D. recipients are three quarters male, one can take a guess. Going by the stories told by women who've spent time at other institutions, we have a comparatively healthy environment. Nevertheless, it stands out that of the eight grad students who've worked in this lab while I've been here, all were male, while two of our four current undergrads are female.

Matters are not so stark if I expand the sweep to encompass the whole building, i.e. the entire School of Physics and Astronomy. Not that I have a tremendous amount of contact with the upper level science undergraduates, but my impression is that they are a fairly evenly distributed population. My fellow grad students, with whom I of course have routine contact, are not, by a ratio of perhaps 2/3. Even granted that only a small proportion of baccelaureate science graduates go on to grad school, this is significant attrition that can't be dismissed as noise on the margins. The question, which I think nobody has fully answered, is why women more often decide against a graduate degree (a decision, I hasten to point out, that I would not hold against anyone).

On a schematic level, one could place the blame on college advising, graduate recruiting, or extra-academic social factors, and I'll unabashedly neglect the Larry Summers Hypothesis. Although Larry Summers himself I would probably categorize as bad recruiting. Or more colloquially, "They won't want you," "We don't want you," and "You shouldn't want that."

"They won't want you" is what the prestigious college professor is implicitly saying to everyone else when he or she singles out the bright young go-getter to join the important research group. But whether our prof is hidebound and just expects the go-getter to be male, or is still in touch with his inner geek and is shy talking to girls, I strongly suspect you'd see a skew were one to ask college professors who they'd consider their top student, or who they'd recruit. Bias can similarly creep in when advisors are helping students pick an academic track, or deciding which ones to push to apply to selective schools or fellowships.

Anyone who gets the small envelope from a potential graduate department or the short email from a fellowship committee has heard "we don't want you" loud and clear. A great many women, though, pick up the message in more subtle ways before the applications are even mailed. It will be emphasized that she'll be working in a mostly male environment, that she'll constantly have to be standing up for herself to ensure that she's recognized and valued. That it will be an enormous ordeal and that hopefully she's up for it but maybe it's not worth the bother.

At some point her friends and family will all have wondered aloud why on Earth she wants to put herself through this, suggested that "you shouldn't want that." Men and women alike, for sure, take some flack for pursuing hellish hours for small stipends instead of getting a real job. But for women, it's still Western civilization out there. How will they ever have time to get married and have kids if they can't realistically count on being able to settle down until their mid-thirties? Don't for a minute think that our culture is entirely comfortable with permanently single, independent women. Large chunks of it can't stand the idea; note that South Dakota recently made sex a crime probabilistically punishable by forced pregnancy and single motherhood. But it's the little things, too. Even a woman in grad school is expected to keep a reasonably tidy house, to style her hair and put on makeup; a (bachelor) male grad student is, axiomatically, a slob. Ultimately a women facing grad school has to devise a personal revolution in establishing how to live, while a man in the same position is handed a ready-made, cool and acceptable bohemian lifestyle.

Maybe I've gotten a few things wrong, and I'd appreciate it if my readers would help me out on that point. Even so, pretty clearly we've got a patriarchal culture and an academic system chock full of hidden biases and weird chicken-and-egg imbalances, and as a result there are maybe two women for every three men attending grad school in my building. But here's the real puzzler for me: of those women I know several observers (in astronomy) and theorists, but for the life of me I can only think of two in the entire program who build experimental hardware.

Where are the female instrumentalists?

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Winter Fading


So last night I was biking home and there was this creepy liquid stuff falling from the sky and ...

Oh, who am I kidding? Winter's kaput. The temperature was already above freezing when I got up this morning. At least this year's heating bills weren't too dramatic.

Photomicroscopy: Fibers

Yesterday I alluded to the fact that natural and artificial fibers tend to respond quite differently to light. Witness the mousepad. This isn't really a surprising fact, given that they have totally divergent compositions. Natural fibers come either from plants or animals; the former are made of cellulose, and the latter of α-chain proteins. In both cases there is generally abundant microstructure. These have a tendency to be highly absorptive of light, often to the point of opacity. Synthetics are made from various hydrocarbon-derived polymers, typically with uniform composition and smooth surfaces. Dyes absorb specific visible wavelengths to give them color, but they are otherwise relatively transparent, and will scatter light freely.

For want of a more usual source, I took a couple of fibers from the most convenient and immediately handy place I could think of: my head. Observe.

This is a strand of my real hair. Contrary to popular opinion, it is dark brown, not black. True black hair is somewhat uncommon among the undyed crowd. It is faintly possible to discern the ruler marks through the strand, indicating that it is slightly translucent. However, although very brightly lit, it returns little light.
This is a strand of my fake hair, which is actually a spun modacrylic thread. It appears much more luminous in this photograph because acrylics are nearly transparent and have a glasslike refractive index. When held against the ruler underlying patterns are clearly visible. Small visible striations run the length of this fiber, probably a result of the machine spinning process.

Okay, I held out all day to see if anyone else cared to hazard a guess at my game of guess-what. No dice. For items one and two, I have combined the solution:

Low-magnification view of a nail file resting on a mousepad.

The first item was the surface of a mousepad at high magnification. Weird stuff; the thing looks like black fabric, but lights up like spun metal when you hit it with some illumination*. Natural fibers do not do this. The second item was a close-up of the nail file in the foreground. The regular pattern was the ridges of the file; microscopy is not good at preserving depth cues. The whitish particles, then, are most likely fingernail dust, but I didn't investigate their composition.

The third photograph is the edge of a floppy disk, with the metal slip cover pushed back. While seemingly in good condition when viewed with the naked eye, under a microscope many small scratches are evident on the surface. I don't, off the top of my head, know whether the mottled texture of the disk corresponds to the grain size of the magnetic substrate, but it seems a bit large for that.

*Photomicroscopy takes a lot of light, after all. Think about it: by magnifying a scene, I'm greatly spreading out the light that originally struck it. At 10X, an object will appear about 100 times less brightly lit than to the naked eye. To take a photograph with any kind of reasonable shutter speed then requires an enormous amount of light, and comments were made that glancing at my objective stage was not unlike looking at the sun. Despite our very cool-running fiberoptic lights, I wound up melting the floppy disk (the actual disk, not the outer shell).

For comparison, taking a photo in full noonday sunlight with the pupil wide open calls for about 1/500 to 1/1000 second exposure time. With an optical zoom factor of around 15X my light source is diluted by a factor of 225, so the optimal exposure rises to 1/2 to 1/4 second. I haven't rigged up any stabilization, so that won't work. Meaning I have to use brighter-than-full-sunlight illumination.

Impersonating Winter

Had a bit of an impromteau adventure this weekend, which I'll get into later. Suffice to say, when I got off the Greyhound this morning I was shocked to discover that Minneapolis had decided to do a moderately convincing impersonation of late winter in my absense. Now a downpour of ice pellets isn't quite the same as an actual snowfall, but things are chilly and slushy and white-ish now, which is how early March is supposed to be. There may yet be home for normalcy in weather patterns this year!

Okay, that last bit was blatantly false. It's shaping up to be unusual, even for a La Nina year. But perhaps things at least won't be uniformly bizzare?

Photomicroscopy: Sharps

I'll hold off revealing the answers to yesterday's game of guess-what until Monday, in case anyone else wants to take a stab. Today, a look at the ugly rough edges of sharpness.

One of my nicer fine-tipped ballpoint pens. The ruler is the same millimeter scale from previous photos.

For instance, I put my moderately pricey ultra-fine-point pen under the scope, because I'm kinda picky about what I write with (I mean when given the option, that is. I've been known to take notes with the pointy end of a charred stick in a pinch.). So here we can see exactly what I'm paying for. Well, sort of. Obviously the ball is a good deal larger than the line it will produce, the width of which will depend on the viscosity of the ink and the type of paper used. Note to self: draw some lines and compare them to the pen tip size. That the ball is exceedingly smooth even at this magnification is a good sign.

The knife I keep on my desk for cutting bagels and the like. What can I say? I like a good edge on my blades. In the inset, an X-acto razor edge knife at the same magnification.

It's always frightening to look at the edges of blades, since even supposedly sharp edges tend to come out looking like an old serrated hand saw. But in the name of science, here's a couple I had lying around. My knife I sharpen myself, so I think this means I do a reasonably good job of it. In the inset is a knife off the workbench that theoretically comes with a razor edge. Not a great quality edge, actually. But look at how sharply it tapers off; this thing is extremely sharp.

Photomicroscopy: Guess What

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Okay, this is an old game. What oh what am I looking at?

Something fuzzy, perhaps? Awfully sparkly, though.
Pebbles, maybe? But resting on what?
This should really be an easy one. It'd be perfectly obvious if not for the depth of field running out.


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Ooh, a milestone. According to my camera, I took my 3000th picture today. I'm not sure that's technically true, but it should be close. The free film of the digital era is so awesome.

For a bit of surface characterization here, we wanted to take photomicrographs of some surface structures. So I sent an undergrad over to the nanofabrication center, and got back some useless blurs. Turns out, the depth of field of their system is smaller than our structures. In desperation, I broke out my camera and, using much the same techniques I practiced for binocular-aided astrophotography, got quite decent results with our low power lab scope. The pictures are quite interesting, so it's a pity I can't post them here. But I subsequently went on a bit of a spree snapping other random stuff, and that I can post. Thus this week's theme: amateur phtomicroscopy.

At a relatively low magnification level, a few millimeters on my engineer's scale. We'll head in from here. 2006:03:03 17:36:10

Photoblogging: Cheshire Moon

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Moonset over downtown from across the Mississippi. A relatively short exposure that leaves unlit space to barely suggest itself in dim shades of grey. 2006:03:02 20:52:23

Had dinner at a friend's apartment in St. Paul last night, which involved a quite lovely nightime bike ride along the Mississippi River trail. Setting out from campus, I took this picture from near the Washington Ave bridge. Sadly, the ride to my house from campus is not nearly so photogenic. But now that's it's warm enough to hang about out of doors after sunset, it might be time to get back to the nocturnal photography.

My junk bike has had just about enough of winter, though, as it's starting to cause some difficulty getting up long hills, common along the river trails. It's reasonably well lubed, so I suspect the bearings are fixing to go. Another handful of weeks and I'll switch back to a road bike of some sort, but this means I may need to build a new ride before next winter kicks in.

Adventures in Bicycle Commuting

Well, that was exciting. Apparently this is the week the City begins pruning the boulevard trees, which makes sense, given that they're thawed out by now, but that it's harder to do once the leaves come in. They haven't quite gotten around to picking up after themselves yet, though. A good stretch of my ride in the University Ave bike lane was spent dodging hunks of tree in the road.

In other news, I have a hardware project! It's time to mock up some of these bits and pieces I've been designing for the past umpteen months.

Some Kinda Weird Catholic


And for today's surreal moment from the news, via Majikthise, the Washington Post brings you:

55 House Democrats issued a joint statement yesterday on the central role that the Catholic faith plays in their public lives.

The signers said they were fed up with being labeled "good Catholics" or "bad Catholics" based on one issue -- abortion. They said their religion infuses their positions on many issues: poverty, war, health care and education. ...

Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) said the Catholic Democrats "have decided to stop letting others define us." But Tom McClusky, a Catholic who is acting vice president for government affairs at the Family Research Council, predicted they would fail.

"What is at the core of being Catholic is the life issue, and that's something the pope has never strayed from," he said. "While other issues are important -- such as helping the poor, the death penalty, views on war -- these are things that aren't tenets of the Catholic Church."

I'm with Lindsay in calling BS. What the Hell kind of Catholic claims with a straight face that helping the poor isn't central to Catholicism? Isn't that pretty fundamental to the entire "salvation through good works" theme that distinguishes Catholics from Protestants, after all?

Spring Break

Apparently we've got some manner of "spring break" thing coming up in a couple of weeks. I suppose I should make some effort to get out of here for at least a few days. Chicago, maybe? Feels like I haven't been back there in forever.

Personal Mission Accomplished

You know how one of the symptoms of being busy is slacking off on opening your mail? Now normally, I open everything, recycle the junk, toss the window envelopes, and file the important stuff. Then you get busy, you leave the junk in a corner and just pull out the bills and correspondance. And that's how it starts. So back before I left for Israel I started getting busy. Then I left the country. Then I came back to a year's worth of piled-up mail and never had the time to tackle it. But I kept meaning to, so new mail just went on the pile. Until now.

Last night I sorted out every piece of mail I've received since returning from Israel, and made a good start on the while-I-was-gone pile. And have a couple of dozen paper cuts for my trouble. And an entire extra shelf in my room that is free and usable again. Sweet.

Today we're entertaining a prospective post-doc, so that'll at least be different.

Other News


Apropos to previous posts on the fallout from al-Askari, Juan Cole points out that while central Iraq is under a curfew, large demonstrations are gearing up in Pakistan and Lebanon. So we'll see how and how far this spreads.

On a completely unrelated item, I would point out that I know a thing or two about modern technology, but this is not a technology blog. There are lots of those. Still, this is just too rich to let pass. The background is that Research In Motion (RIM), the maker of those Blackberry text-email-pager thingies, is being sued for patent infringement by a patent holding company called NTP, Inc. Now NTP has no products; its business model is to collect technology patents, hang onto them, and launch lawsuits if someday someone manages to make money using techniques even remotely related to the claims of their patents. Now it's trying to get a judge to shut down the Blackberry service unless RIM gives them lots of cash. There are lots of firms like this, and they're just one visible example of the many ways in which the USA's patent laws are broken. That said, here's what an NTP spokesman had to say after a hearing today:

"We want to keep you in business," James Wallace, an attorney for NTP, said in reference to RIM. "It's just time to pay up. What we have got here is a squatter."

Squatter, says the guy using second-hand patents for corporate blackmail? Like I said. Too rich to let pass.

On a Lighter Note


Connor's quip the other day cracked me up. "Dude. I didn't know Minneapolis had aqueducts," quoth he. Now that he mentions it, the Stone Arch Bridge (creative name, eh?) does have a bit of a Roman look to its engineering. Actually, until relatively recently it was a rail bridge connecting the flour mills on the west bank of the St. Anthony Falls to the railyards east of the river. Then the Parks District converted it into a foot / bicycle crossing.

Around here I suspect we can mostly agree that it's fairly scummy behavior when Republicans start trying to brainwash preeschoolers. But frankly, with two Senators and a circus donkey under my bed, I'd be a tad unsettled too. The inevitable Democratic counterpunch emerged recently, but is so wishy-washily done that in Blogistan it is widely believed to be a Republican plant.

Beaverottypus! Platybeavotter! Yes, those names are misleading, since it has no known living descendants, but they're more fun to burst out with. Naturally, it took the creationists under 12 hours to discover an exciting new way to make fools of themselves.

We are used to seeing the Dome of the Rock soaring into a clear sky, and forget how close-packed the Old City of Jerusalem is, and how awfully vulnerable this makes it. From atop a wall in the Jewish Quarter the golden Dome peeks above the rooftops with the Mount of Olives in the background. 2005:03:05 13:25:36

In response to yesterday's post, John expressed some concern that bombing the Dome of the Rock would lead more-or-less directly to the end of the world. Set aside for a moment the fact that that's the whole point for those who would blow it up. Let's consider a little further in relation to the fallout from al-Askari.

The Times tells us today that over a hundred have died in the violence that followed yesterday's bombing, including several Sunni imams. The Iraqi government, which was already nearly stalemated over the composition of the new government, is in turmoil. Juan Cole indicates that the Shiite militias are likely to become involved, and there is every chance that the present Iraqi civil war could transform from guerilla to hot. That's the bad news. On the other hand, the initial wave of violence has abated, many influential religious leaders are actively working to calm the air, and there is little evidence so far of spillover to other countries. Iraq might yet get through this in one piece.

While the sentiments evoked would be analogous in the case of the Dome of the Rock, events would surely play out differently, in part because of the fraught political dimension, and in part because of how Israel is arranged. While Islamist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad would take the lead in focusing popular outrage, there would be less opportunity for an initial flash of sectarian violence; Israel already has robust mechanisms in place to prevent transmigration of Palestinians into Jewish-controlled areas, and curtails Palestinian mobility as a matter of course, anyway. The outposts and the colony in Hebron would be in grave danger. Does this aid or exacerbate? One can argue that a flash of violence helps quickly exhaust the passions raised, but it could also be the spark that leads to a more general conflagration. Iraq will be instructive in this respect.

At any rate, the reaction of the Palestinians would be somewhat inconsequential to the wider geopolitical ramifications which, I contend, are dominated by national actors, and while noisy would change little. The military disparity between Israel and its Arab neighbors has only grown since the last war they lost badly, so large scale conflict is not something they are eager to repeat. So long as the Israeli government could plausibly make the case that it had tried to prevent the disaster, the USA would continue to support it. There would be increased pressure for Israel to part with portions of Jerusalem in a final peace deal, but this would be countered by pointing to the inevitable and probably dramatic increase in terrorist attacks. In short, the extremists would probably get away with it, whether or not the example of Iraq turns out to predict war.

Shrines Falling

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Reuters and AP photos via this BBC News gallery.

A few hours ago the present wave of insurgent bombing in Iraq resulted in the destruction of one of the holier sites in Shia Islam, the al-Askari mosque in Samarra, Iraq. This happens to also be a particularly visible attack, as the century-old golden dome was one of the largest of its kind. Naturally, angry calls for revenge have begun.

The reason this catches my attention today is that there is another prominent domed mosque that is perenially at risk of destruction by bombing. The Israeli far right calls for the Dome of the Rock to be demolished to make way for the construction of the Third Temple, and the security services occasionally uncover plots in various stages of preparation to blow it up. The two are parallel insofar as both are highly visible targets, and are advertised as one of the holiest sites in Islam. In that sense, what follows in Iraq may serve as a preview of what would follow should the Israeli extremists succeed.

There are important differences, of course, the most significant of which is the fact that the Dome plays the parallel role of symbolic anchor for the Palestinian claim on Jerusalem, and on the West Bank by extension.

[Update: 14:30] The tremendously useful Juan Cole now has a couple of posts up tracking events, and adding additional context.

Diving In

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Sorry to go quiet right after promising a week of interesting content, but sometimes the lab will do that to you. I did manage to solve a long-standing mystery yesterday, which had been causing actual problems for a couple of weeks now, so I think it was justified.

At one point, there were also geese.

Geese making themselves comfortable on one of the few patches of open water remaining on the Mississippi, where the agitation of the St. Anthony falls prevents freezing over. Normally a fair flood, the ice capping this portion of the river has reduced this segment of the falls to a spillway. 2006:02:19 14:17:44

Since we finally broke the -10°F mark over the weekend, I decided make another photo-expedition to see if the river had frozen over yet. With the exception of the immediate vicinity of the falls, it turns out that it has. Although with the warmer weather this week, that probably won't last. It nearly broke above freezing today!

Looking over the highest of the St. Anthony falls towards the Stone Arch Bridge, the river completely ices over just past the exit of the locks. 2006:02:19 14:17:03

Review and Preview

Positive temperatures have returned to Minnesota, somewhere or other, but here's it's still 5 below or so. Yesterday demonstrated most adequately why I don't bike in temperatures that low. It's not the cold per se, but one does have to bundle up pretty well to avoid windburn, which I had to do anyway because of the wind. It seems there's some trick I still haven't worked out, because whenever I do that below about 5°F, my glasses promptly ice over. Makes it very hard to see. You'd think I'd work out a way around that, but both morning and evening yesterday, by the time I made it to the bus stop the optics were uselessly opaque.

Hereabouts it looks to be a fairly mundane week I'm heading into. However, the world does chug along, and I've had a not especially novel ideal. In light of the rolling disaster that is Israeli-Palestinian relations kicking into high gear in the past couple of weeks, and since I've still got a thousand or so unpublished photos from my time over there, I propose to spend the next week blogging the Levant. Because I can, and because Juan Cole doesn't write about it enough, and when he does he often comes off sounding a bit, well, unreasonable.

Glance at the Ha'aretz front page today for a preview.

Brrr! Still Winter!

Got up to a balmy -5°F this afternoon (our high temperature happened back at midnight, when it was still above zero), but now that the sun's set it's at -11°F and falling. So I'm heading home soon, but will be delaying until the bus is just about to arrive. Bad weather for hanging out at the bus stop. And I'm not being a wimp; look at the plot below -- the entire day it was well below seasonal norms.

Courtesy of Weather Underground, today's trend lines. It's pretty clear what happened; as the high pressure ridge moved through, cold air poured in on top of us, and cleared the skies up dramatically, so there's nothing to keep the heat in.

A couple of days ago we got into the composition of mist clouds when warm air hits cold, which can be anything from building exhaust to your breath on a cold morning. The verdict was that because the clouds were short-lived, they were made of water droplets. This morning I'm not so sure; these clouds hung around a lot longer, and there seemed to be a component that persisted after the rest had evaporated. And it was 25°F or so colder than the previous shot. So I'm speculating that this time there was some ice forming up there, although the majority of the water was still evaporating as droplets.

Somewhat different clouds on a much colder day. Does it look like there's snow forming up there? Possible. 2006:02:17 10:52:22


Good morning! We may not have gotten any snow from the front that passed through, but finally it feels like winter. Just too bad our visiting Israeli student left before experiencing any cold weather.

As the windchill is somewhere below -30°F at the moment, I have decided to forego biking in today. Time to put that bus card to good use. Not to fear, though; as soon as we get back out of instant frostbite territory I'll be back to the pedals. This is Minneapolis after all. Winter biking isn't even that unusual. Although if we could get a Bike Winter thing going here, that would rock.

Things Which Take Hold

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You've gotta love those weeks when you spend a solid two days trying to find a satisfactory way to integrate some expression. Which was way more work than the problem actually called for, but sometimes I get dogged that way, and usually over the wrong things. And I still feel like I'm missing some aspect of the stationary point method, at least as applied to complex functions.

John complained about Where's George, mostly that he disapproves of defacing currency and putting it back in circulation. Kind of like shaving coins, back in the days of gold currency, in extracting some private value for yourself before passing it along at full face value. That bill I mentioned yesterday was the first time I'd ever seen one, though, so I'm puzzled at how John's gotten enough of them to be annoyed at them. Have you ever seen these before? Let me know in the comments.

For whatever reason, though, the project really inspires some people. From poking around on the site, there are folks who report having stamped and entered into circulation literally thousands of notes. At least one of whom appears to be on the Uof MN campus, so there's probably a disproportionate number of them floating around hereabouts. Like a message in a bottle, except there's no message. Actually, it's more like putting dye in a river, and it's exactly like tagging migratory animals. So in fact, it's a big experiment on the ecology of greenbacks.

Poor Sara. Whoever she ticked off was willing to go to significant trouble to return the favor, it would seem. Pity I didn't manage to snap a clearer picture, but you get the idea, and I was in a hurry. 2006:02:11 17:30:19

Abstraction by Quantification


A bit of bookkeeping has a marvelous effect, sometimes, on perspective. Keep track of the motion of a single dollar bill as it circulates in the world, and it becomes not just currency, but an emissary. Although the project has been running since 1998, just the other day I intercepted my first dollar bill tracked by the Where's George system. Tragically, I spent it (Breakfast bagel! Not yet awake!) before remembering to take a photograph, so you'll just have to believe that it was prominently stamped to that effect. But from now on, you can track the bill if someone happens to report seeing it.

A friend in the department is getting little toys in the mail from a thus-far-anonymous party. Including pirate-themed rubber duckies, which is so awesome, I might have to steal one. But they're numbered, and seem to be counting down. So on the one hand, it would seem somehow more wrong to take one and break up the set. And on the other, I wonder what happens upon the arrival of Toy Zero (or, perhaps more likely, #1; I guess most people don't actually count from zero).

I made an effort a few days back to quantify my Jekyll'n'Hyde routine. Unfortunately the site was badly overloaded at the time, so I didn't get many responses. Maybe a few more will try now? To review, we had Milligan who wants to save the world via electing Democrats and Milligan who wants to save the world via global conquest.

Funny the effect a little change of perspective can have. How long did it take you to realize that you're looking at a skyscraper sideways, I wonder. Dain Rauscher Plaza, to be exact. 2006:02:11 16:12:33

Sunrise: Photoblogging


Eesh. After UThink upgraded the site's software the comment spam problem went away for a while, but it's clawing its way back. For now it's easy enough to use the new junking feature to dump a spam or two per day, but that's already up from one or two per week earlier this month. Hopefully this isn't indicative of the future growth rate.

First really chilly weekend in a while is coming up, and this morning it felt that way. Thought I'd share.

Downtown Minneapolis as seen from across the Mississippi on the East Bank campus. You can always tell when the temperature is comfortably below freezing because the exhaust from the heating systems of the city becomes strikingly visible. I think this is because it's now cold enough for ice grains to condense from the moist outflow before the water vapor can dissapate. 2006:02:15 09:10:42
Really strikingly visible. Especially at sunrise. This is the power plant on the river by my house. 2006:02:15 08:34:16

[Update from the comments]: Dean Armstrong points out that these clouds actually are liquid droplets, not ice crystals. Doh!

With that in mind, now I know why the condensation clouds are so visible on cold mornings, and it's exactly the same process that makes your breath visible. Remember from weather reports that low dewpoint and low humidity are the same thing, meaning that cold air can carry less dissolved water vapor. If you take warm humid air and cool it down to its dewpoint it becomes super-saturated, the water spontaneously condenses out as droplets, and a fog forms.

When warm, moist building exhaust (or your breath) hits the outside air, the two begin to mix. The mixture cools, but the water vapor is also being diluted, lowering the dewpoint. So it's a race. If the temperature difference is large, the hot air doesn't have to mix with very much cold air to cool down a lot, and the temperature can catch up to the dewpoint on the way down. But eventually ambient conditions dominate, since there's a lot of air outside after all, the dewpoint falls back below the temperature, and the tiny droplets evaporate.

So on a really cold morning, the temperature difference is huge (by tingly fingers standards, anyway, writes the guy sitting in the lab full of cryogens), the temperature gets down to the dewpoint quickly and stays there for a while. Meaning thick fluffy clouds that hang around for a bit and stand out in the sunrise.

The Surveilance Beat

Continuing with the Minneapolis skyline theme, a face atop the State Theater keeps watch in front of the US Bank building. This is more coincidental than it looks; there is a roughly ten square foot patch of sidewalk on Hennepin from which one can take this picture without obstructions. 2006:02:11 16:24:10

Corrente has been running a decent series on Bush's domestic surveilance. I linked to a CNet puff piece the other day describing in minimal detail what the NSA has to do to implement such a program. Little did I know that Corrente had already posted a fairly comprehensive analysis (and if you find that useful, they have an entire domestic surveilance category to click on).

One wonders whether this excellent WaPo article on national security letters -- each basically a low-oversight warrant and gag order rolled into one -- might have attracted more notice if run now, instead of a few months back.

Protests continued around the world this weekend over the Danish Muhammed cartoons, although they didn't quite make it into the current news cycle, having been displaced by Washington who-knew-when-ism over Katrina and the Veep's lousy gun handling. There's a sense in Gaza that they're winding down, or at least have turned peaceful, and Norway is reopening its offices there. On the other hand, there is fear that things are escalating in Pakistan. Condoleezza, naturally, is continuing to blame the whole mess on Iran and Syria. So it's a mixed bag.

It's instructive to recall that a similar cycle played out last year after Newsweek reported that the Quran had been desecrated during interrogations at Guantanamo Bay. In the end, there were a few deaths and dozens of injuries, plus a probable boost in recruitment by militant extremists, but the phenomenon was largely confined to Afghanistan with some spillover into southeast Asia, Indonesia in particular. It was widely recognized at the time that the violence was a reaction to pent up grudges over a variety of issues that melded easily into the persistent regional anti-Western narrative. At the time there was concern that a fire had been lit in the Arab conciousness that would long poison relations and create tension, although it's unclear why this would do so more than the West's other, more serious indelicacies. After a month or so things died down and the world largely forgot about the story, except insofar as Republicans in the USA used it as a club to help keep the mainstream media in line.

There are important differences, of course. The present flare-up is a more spatiotemporally diffuse phenomenon, as it happens, slowly building over the past four months, and presently spread across the Muslim world from Jakarta to London, with relatively sporadic violence. Unlike outrage over Quran desecration or Abu Ghraib, there was no horrifying story to break abruptly; just a creeping insult gradually spreading, occasionally stoked by political opportunists here and there. And for a change, the outrage is neither sparked by nor directed at the USA.

In a sense, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and the like all contribute, of course. But of more particular concern this time is the second-class treatment that immigrants and their descendants, often Muslim, receive in Europe. In this sense the close recent parallel is the immigrant riots in France last year. All of these factors play straight into the overriding narrative that the West has no respect for Islam or Arabs. The burning of the Danish embassy in Beirut is only tangentially related so the particularities of some ill-conceived sketches, but has everything to do with a large segment of the world's population that has for as long as anyone alive can recall been just on the edge of integrating with and reaping the benefits of the modern world, and seemingly always frustrated by the powers that got there first.

Still, the fact that these affairs have generally burned themselves out relatively quickly should not be taken as absolutely predictive of the state of the world at large. Sometimes small triggers do indeed spark a forest fire, in terrain you didn't even know was dry. The Palestinians didn't fight the Second Intifada for five years to keep Sharon away from the Temple Mount, except in the most figurative sense, but his visit helped spark a mass uprising over the slow expropriation of what the Palestinians had come to see as the small portion of their birthright that they would be allowed to keep. There is, frankly, not even a useful lesson here, though. If you happen to be in Sharon's position, you're an idiot if you don't make sure to know your terrain. Jyllands-Posten however can be faulted for gratuitously offending part of its community, but can't reasonably be expected to have forseen the wider ramifications.

Complementarity: Photoblogging

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Some days a skyscraper is just like so much abstract art. It's the sky that makes the difference. When it's the blue that extends undifferentiated right out to space, there's no reference points for the eye to latch onto, and the whole affair collapses down to colors and plane geometry, and you forget all about the recognizable IDS Center. 2006:02:11 16:19:00

So, there's this intriguing automated JoHari Window thing going around. It's really a distributed sieve for personality traits, but while the categorization is quite simple, you could debate forever what exactly of significance is being extracted. Anyway, I'm going to take this in a slightly new direction.

At various points it's been widely speculated that I've got an evil twin somewhere, or perhaps more likely, that I'm somebody's evil twin. More specifically, I do enjoy cultivating a certain Jekyll'n'Hyde ambiguity, which I'll play into here. So, I present two complementary profiles; attack one or both as strikes your fancy.

Milligan the Basically Decent

Milligan the Maniacally Evil

Compare to this shot, of an objectively much weirder looking skyscraper. But I've included abundant visual cues in the foreground and background, and it safely remains the AT&T Tower. 2006:02:11 16:22:33

Icy Patch: Photoblogging

Look closely -- can you read the sign atop the Gold Medal Flour mill? Shockingly enough, the Mississippi has still not yet frozen over; at this late stage of the winter, there's every chance that it won't. It's tempting to link our missing river ice to shrinking glaciers and ice caps, but it's nothing so simple. Rather, it's this zonal flow that's been gripping North America all season, keeping us awash in Pacific air. 2006:02:11 15:23:36

Our first extended, if not especially severe, cold snap since November is underway, meaning we've actually had a bit of snow on the ground all week. It comes in fits and starts, but since it's been below freezing for some days now, the next day's sun doesn't melt it all away. Friday night brought less than an inch, but was notable for the well-developed flakes; my first thought on heading out that evening was that the air was full of white dragon scales. Not as descriptive as I should have liked, though, since myth outlines any number of varieties, but few zoos have a specimen handy for comparison.

Wandered across the river and through downtown yesterday, and took a number of pictures, including the one here. Crossing the river on the stone footbridge was chilly, but overall it was a pleasant day for a walk. Really, but for the lack of snow, I can hardly complain about this season we're having -- it's been like a perpetual November, which in Chicago was always my favorite time of year.



A birthday shout-out goes to Gemma today.

Today's link, something G should enjoy, though it's quite likely she's already run across it. I direct you to the Propaganda Remix Project, source of the poster featured here.

Elsewise, curious day. On the one hand, we've got undergrads running about underfoot, since student projects for the Experimental Methods class are getting underway. On the other, NASA bureaucrats are poking about, investigating what juicy technologies we might be sitting on, plus general spot checking that we're doing something sensible with the grant NASA gave us.

White Out!


Snow's mostly tapered since this afternoon, but visibility got pretty low for a bit. Couldn't make out even the barest shapes across the Mississippi for much of the day. Now that the sun's set it's difficult to tell from inside how much snow is falling, but it's clearly less. Now there's a couple of inches on the ground, which would ordinarily be minor, but this winter constitutes a major snowstorm. Especially since for a change it's cold enough that it'll likely stick around for a few days.

Since it's been a while since my last post, here's what I've been reading online:

I've been tracking the various scandals in current circulation, of course. As I've previously mentioned, Bush's error in the espionage blowup was using the NSA's cababilities so blatantly as to get caught. Nevertheless, the NSA has always had the capacity to record most any electronic communication; CNet has a mildly technical overview describing how. Abramoff's error was also in getting caught, but his far greater sin (well, one of several) is probably perfectly legal -- aiding Congress in its age-old passtime of screwing the Native American, this time to the tune of billions of dollars in BIA revenues. Then there's the Arab world up in arms over tasteless Danish cartoons; Juan Cole outlines how things escalated to this point.


No, seriously. Though almost nobody noticed at the time, Western Union discontinued telegraph service on January 27. Now they only send money. The Independent ran a good piece; read part of it for free from South Africa, but the original is in the pay archives. Said the technology editor of The Economist, "Imagine a news headline from 2150 that says Microsoft has just shipped its last copy of Windows." If it's any consolation, apparently telegraphese is found to live on in text messaging abbreviations.

And rounding out with a bit of humor, How to Survive a Robot Uprising sounds like a must-have reference. Shelve it with your Max Brooks collection.

Finally, and I meant to post this sooner, The BEAST has posted its annual list of the 50 Most Loathsome People in America. Cathartic for liberals (Barbara Bush, God, and Sam Alito hold adjacent slots in the top 20), but hillarious for all as American culture is the real target here. I was going to post a representative entry here, but I really, really couldn't pick just one. So go read the whole list, unless you're easily offended or something.

"Treating people like Arabs"

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First, as always, a dab of history:

Until a couple of years ago, Amona was just one of dozens of hilltop settlements in the West Bank, generally built on misappropriated Palestinian lands, consisting of a few families living in motor homes and trailer houses. Such caravans can pop up overnight, and the routinely do.

This one had a good location, and grew rapidly. Last year they did something unusual -- the settlers built nine permanent houses on the hill. Fearing they would become entrenched and seed another settlement "bloc", Shalom Acshav (Peace Now) challenged this before the Supreme Court, which ordered the houses demolished. But even empty houses have symbolic value to the settlers, so they reached a deal whereby the houses could remain, so long as nobody occupied them. This deal held until recently, when the strains between the government and the settlers caused by the Gaza evacuation led to the breakdown of this deal as well.

This week, the IDF came in to demolish the houses. The settlers decided to make a last stand, and called in thousands of supporters. Chaos ensued. Given that context, the following is offered without comment:

From Ha'aretz reporting on the demolition,

At yesterday's confrontation, some 3,000 settlers - many of them teenagers - faced off against thousands of soldiers and policemen during the three-and-a-half hour operation, which both sides agreed had been far worse than the disengagement from Gaza. Some 75 people were arrested.


The ensuing six-hour wait, until the court finally cleared the demolitions to go forward at about 10 A.M., strained the nerves of both sides, and when the operation resumed it was open war: The settlers holed up in the houses hurled stones, iron bars and concrete blocks, and police responded by clubbing anyone within reach - even those who were merely trying to flee the scene. Mounted policemen rode down anyone in their path.

Among the wounded were right-wing MKs Effi Eitam and Aryeh Eldad - and the latter, furious and in pain with a broken hand, let his true feelings slip: "They're treating people like Arabs here," he spat.


Eesh. Every time I decide to go back to posting daily 'round here, I go and have a week like this and don't post at all. They're invariably the more interesting weeks, too.

Say, can you guess which side of the street faces north? A few days of 40°+ weather will have that effect. 2006:01:26 11:19:16

Rather than attempt to dig into the news of late, I'll direct you to consult the journalism supplier of your choice. Except that I will note that, contrary to what I posted last time, Hamas wound up not with a slight, but with an overwhelming victory in the Palestinian elections. Just so someday I don't go browsing through my archives and think, "Gee, I sure wasn't paying much attention, was I?"

The weather, on the other hand, has been odd. For days on end, the water lying around on the ground underwent this strange phase transition and became something physicists call a liquid. I'm told that for much of the nation, this was the warmest January on record. Before you ask, no, there's no evidence that it's related to global warming, at least not in any simple way. The jet stream has simply been hanging out far to the north, preventing arctic air from moving south out of Canada. I will hypothesize that this pattern is made more likely by recent changes to the global climate, however.

Thankfully we got some wintery weather again, although it was actually above freezing when I took this picture. Much of this had already turned into slush or ice by morning. Made good packing snow in the meanwhile, due to its extreme wetness. 2006:01:31 23:16:21

Mad props out to goodguyseatpie tonight, and a note to self to check my department mail more often. The thoughtful fellow went and sprang for a gift membership in the Union of Concerned Scientists. Going by the date on the envelope I assume this is intended as a Christmas present. Many thanks, friend.

I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that means he thinks I should talk about global warming more often. I think I've got a request on that front from Connor, too, from a while back. Other suggestions, leave 'em under the question of the week, below.

I forgot to mention, I will in the future be crossing Michigan off my states-I-haven't-visited list as a result of the Movie Marathon trip. While we didn't actually stop in any cities, I got in a most enjoyable pre-dawn drive through its snowy western bits on the way back. It's fair to assume I'll be back, and will actually interact with people the next time, so it's not cheating all that badly.

Passing on miscellaneous other stuff of interest...

Via 3quarksdaily, Donate to the NYU strike hardship fund! (Lots of background links there, too.) Now that the new term's begun, most of the grad students have returned to the picket line, and the administration has carried through on its threat to "terminate the fellowships" of strikers. Which may be the best euphemism I've ever heard for "fire their asses," once again oh-so-cleverly suggesting that teaching isn't work if you're a grad student.

Or more precisely, that grad students are just moochers who get paid to live out of the goodness of the trustees' hearts. Moochers who just happen to spend every waking hour teaching classes out of the goodness of their hearts. Completely unconnected to the money, as it happens. Anyhow, not being a Ph.D. student, my sister is kind of only peripherally affected by all this, except insofar as she's currently working as an adjunct, which is exactly the kind of slave labor the NYU administration is trying to turn the grad students into.

Big story of yesterday was that Canada lurched suddenly to the right, in a metaphysical vindication of all things Bush. Except that that's, you know, completely wrong. Via LGM, a decent overview of what actually happened, which turns out to be not much.

The big news for today, of course, is the Palestinian elections, which Hamas didn't win by a startlingly small margin. More on that as things unfold over the coming weeks, but it's safe to say that this will get interesting.

[Update: 26 Jan, 8 AM] The situation has evolved considerably over the past few hours; preliminary vote counts now indicate that Hamas has narrowly won an absolute majority in the Palestinian parliament, meaning that it will form the next government. This may or may not be a bad thing, ultimately, as it is widely believed that participation in governance has a moderating effect on extremist groups. I offer the following quote from the above-linked article (updated many times overnight), for instance:

As news of the results started to trickle in, Hamas senior officials began outlining the organization's policy as the ruling Palestinian faction. Senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar told Al-Arabiya television it was possible for Hamas to sign an accord with Israel without recognizing its right to exist.

According to al-Zahar, a diplomatic-security-economic accord can be reached between the parties based on a "hudna" (truce) as part of which the Palestinians would agree to establish a state on the territory they are given.

Back in Circulation


I am, for the record, back in circulation. With oral exams done with, I took off this weekend for a 30-hour science fiction movie marathon at Case Western. 30 hours of movies, plus about another 30 of driving to Cleveland and back ... it's good to know I can still do 60 hours of excitement on four or five hours of car-napping. DrSpiff, who's responsible for dragging me into this thing, has got a by-the-numbers summary of the adventure.

Having declared a new year for myself, I'm also turning a bit of new attention to this here blog. I don't plan on doing enough travelling in 2006 for it to really qualify as a "travel blog" anymore, although it will continue to draw heavily on the mechanics and implications of place.

So the question of the week is: What would you like to see discussed more on EGAD?

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the Mpls '06: Narrative category.

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

Navel-Gazing Exposition is the next category.

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