Thursday, December 30, 2010

Spies in black jeans

kw: book reviews, science fiction, near-future, fashion

William Gibson can be relied on for a good read, regardless of genre. While his books are typically shelved with Science Fiction, some are and some aren't. Zero History is a case in point. It's a style I call "plausibly now sci-fi". Nothing in the book seems beyond current technology; it may not exist yet, but it plausibly could.

The surveillance devices, for example, include helium balloons shaped like mantas or penguins with lightweight electronics and flap-control so they can "swim" through the air using nearly no energy (makes for lightweight batteries). There is also an eight-rotor mini-copter platform with shorter battery life but more maneuverability. A modest improvement in battery technology, and such a device could loft a webcam for a good chunk of an hour.

The setting is industrial espionage in the fashion industry. Chapters alternate the viewpoints of Milgrim and Hollis (male and female, respectively), working for a corporate trend-setter named Hubertus Bigend (explained as a French name pronounced something like "bay-zhond" at one time, but now the gentleman in question likes to say it "big end").

Mr. Bigend has noticed that youth fashions usually follow the styles of military gear, and hopes to anticipate the trend by contracting to make combat wear for the world's armies, then duplicate the patterns a year or two later in the fashion world. This puts his enterprise crossways with an arms dealer who is working towards the same conclusion from the other end. Kidnappings and other derring-do result, and Hollis's temporarily estranged boyfriend Garrett is employed to help double-cross the arms dealer during a hostage swap.

There are a number of other subtexts: London motorcycle courier culture, a budding romance or two, and some spy-vs-spy machinations. Par for the course in a Gibson novel. One really does need to pay attention. The title, by the way, comes from something a U.S. agent says to Milgrim, that he is an unknown, with "zero history". What is an American field agent doing in this mix? The fashion espionage has been mistaken for a more national-security sort, for a while, after which the agent weighs in to aid Bigend's people in the chicanery and help bring down the illegal arms dealer.

You know, I wish this kind of stuff really was fiction…

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Happy as a what?

kw: folklore, aphorisms

An advertisement that has been running lately ends with the words, "I'm as happy as a woodpecker in a lumberyard." The first time I heard it, I about had to sit down. Perhaps I know too much: A woodpecker would starve to death in a lumberyard. What is a woodpecker after, hammering away on yonder tree? Beetle grubs under the bark, that's what. Bigger woodpeckers such as the common flicker can also get a half inch or so into the wood for grubs that tunnel deeper. The wood in a lumberyard has all been cooked, so any grubs it may have contained are dead and dry as dust.

That got me thinking, what other common proverbs are actually nonsensical? Only one pops to mind: "Happy as a pig in sh*t." I have heard that one here and there in the past, though it is a little less common than "...pig in mud" or " slop." These latter two are accurate. A pig can't sweat, so it rolls in water or mud to cool off. But if a pig has room enough, it will never defecate near the mudhole it wallows in. They do have a sense of cleanliness, though it differs from ours, and sh*t is definitely not on their list of favorite ointments.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Stretching the definition of usness

kw: book reviews, science fiction, human variations, future fiction

Well, the book left me hanging. It is the first of a series that turns out to be a serial with novel-length episodes: The Tipping Point. Nonetheless, The Human Blend by Alan Dean Foster was a satisfying read. The cover art amused me. It shows a human eye with a fly's eye in place of the cornea. How that would be an improvement is beyond me, but it did convey a major element of the story.

In a future perhaps a century or two beyond today, humanity is composed of Naturals and Melds, the latter being those who have chosen to be surgically altered in some fashion, though Melding is portrayed as more than just a surgical intervention. Some people choose to have added capabilities, such as longer, faster fingers for musicians, plus an enhanced ear. Some take "cosmetic surgery" to new heights, adding a cockatoo-like crest of feathers, or even wings and a tail; one fellow nicknamed Gator has been croc-ified to the point that there is little visibly human left of him. Except he can stand upright and shake hands, and speak.

A Meld calling himself Whispr, for his whisper-thin physique and nearly silent step, is a murdering thief. With a friend nicknamed Jiminy for his cricket-like jumping legs, he has killed a courier to steal his clearly expensive Melded hand. In the process he discovers a shiny bit of thread that seems to be a storage device, so he steals that also. The rest of the book is taken up with his quest to find out just what this thread is, and perhaps what it holds. In his wake, an accumulating tally of dead—killed not by him but by others trying to retrieve the thread—attest to its value. He gains an unlikely ally, a doctor who treats him when he is shot full of police tracking devices called tractacs.

Under the surface of seeming amity between Meld and Natural, there is an undercurrent that resembles the latent racism which still infects America. I am sure it will figure more largely in later episodes (novels) in the series. In the meantime, Whispr and his doctor friend have discovered that the thread is made of an impossible material, MSMH or metastable metallic hydrogen, which supposedly cannot exist at pressures less than half a million atmospheres or so. That is about 10-20 times the pressure needed to produce diamond, a more familiar metastable high-pressure material. As this novel concludes, the two are on their way to confront the people who are most likely to have produced the thread. I guess that is one way to shorten a quest, if not your life.

I find it interesting that Melding is portrayed as something so many people do because they can. I suppose it stands in for face-lifts and liposuction as they are practiced today, even though much plastic surgery is undertaken for the sake of reconstruction or correction of inherent defects. Just so, Melds to adjust height or weight or to correct very unsightly appearance seem most common. Some Melds are functional, including very extensive modifications to allow certain persons to live on Mars or Titan, though I don't know where you can find source material to allow someone to breathe methane at a few dozen degrees below zero. It will be interesting over the next few decades to see just where a combination of plastic surgery and genomics can take us. Maybe this future trend is not as far-fetched as I think. In the meantime, Foster has hooked me good and solid. I wonder when book 2 of the series is due?

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Cheating death, version K

kw: book reviews, science fiction, far future fiction, corpsicles

The first mention of the word "corpsicle" I can find is in The Age of the Pussyfoot by Frederick Pohl in 1969. He wrote, "… no corpsicle has yet been thawed and returned to life, and there's no firm estimate of when one will be." Of course, in the novel, the "frozen zombie" does get thawed and must get used to life in the 23d Century. The idea had been around for years, an extension of the notion of some kind of cryo-hibernation to be used on long interstellar journeys. Rumors that Walt Disney was frozen upon his death are not true. But a number of people have been frozen in hopes that they can be revived some day and healed of whatever killed them. What is not clear to the casual observer is how their continued preservation at a few hundred degrees below zero is financed.

Let us flash forward a century or ten. If freezing and thawing of people becomes a commodity procedure, the issue of money becomes central. It is unlikely that cryopreservation will be cheap, but perhaps it will be affordable for, say, half of the population. Furthermore, the cost would have to include an escrow account held by a perpetual corporation to pay for thawing and restoration. What happens to wills, estates, and legacies for the heirs of the not quite deceased? Does this become a case (many cases) of, "Oh, yes I can take it with me!"?

Consider further on that somewhere the freezing of any person upon death, or just before, is considered a civil right. How long will it take for the land to be filled with the un-graves of the undead? It is into such a world that Miles Vorkosigan, Lois McMaster Bujold's height-challenged hero, Lord Auditor to the emperor Gregor, is thrust in the new novel Cryoburn.

This may be a book whose plot got away from the author and took a turn she wasn't expecting. There certainly seems to be a plot theme left hanging early on: The book opens with Miles kidnapped by an extremist group that wants the accumulated undead to become dead in reality, a group with the slogan, "Burn the dead!" But they prove to be minor players. The real villains of the piece are the corporations that hold the escrow accounts, and the preserved bodies, of the cryopreserved persons. Miles had been sent to investigate why so many were being frozen but too few were being revived. The kidnapping proves propitious, because Miles drops into an underworld that exposes what is really going on.

This is a semi-spoiler, but an important point: All the chicanery hinges on the fact that one popular preservation method isn't as perpetual as it ought to be, and the corporations are soon to be hit with huge claims for the truly dead customers' assets to be distributed to the heirs. Further, the best way to deal with the problem is to attempt revival of every person frozen by that unfelicitous method, a significant cost in itself, to re-freeze the ones who survive using a better method (at further cost), and to distribute the remaining assets of those that do not survive. Of course none of the corporations is even close to willing to do more than cover it all up. Exposing cover-ups is what a Lord Auditor does best.

This is the fifteenth novel in the Vorkosigan Saga. Although their setting includes multiple planets and low-cost star travel, the planets are really stand-ins for nation-states. Kibou-daini, where the action takes place, is a planetary Japan. Barrayar and allied planets are apparently a Russian federation, and another group seems a European community clone. I don't detect an American-style republic in this book or others in the Vorkosigan series that I have read. Anyway, the space travel part is dispensable. The ideas, plot and action are compelling. The series began with a seventeen-year-old Miles, and he is now 39. The author has plenty of latitude for continuing.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Counting down the last two days

kw: holidays, art, traditions

I love today's Google Doodle. The little images show traditions from Christmas and seasonal holidays from around the world. I recognized about half, maybe fewer. This will probably last for today only, unless Google runs it for all of Christmas week, so go to right now to see if this is there. Click on any image you don't recognize (slightly larger windows open on each one when your mouse cursor hovers over it). Enjoy.

Oh, yeah: Happy Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The aluminum wind circuit

kw: wind energy, economics

I just got done talking with my father about wind turbines and wind energy. He'd read about the recent statements by T. Boone Pickens that they were not an economically feasible energy source. Dad and I both think that long-term, solar energy will be the most economical, though if we can get the country over our national fear of nuclear, that is even better.

A point I made based on studies I did in recent years is that the energy balance doesn't make sense. Aluminum is the primary structural material, and it takes huge amounts of electricity to refine aluminum. Thus, aluminum smelting plants are located where there is a source of cheap electricity such as a large hydropower installation. The aluminum and other materials needed for a wind turbine are shipped to a fabricating plant, where more energy is used to produce the parts. These are transported to the location and erected. A few decades later, the turbine's maintenance costs begin to increase such that it must be decommissioned or have major elements replaced. At that point, it turns out that you've extracted an amount of energy with it, that usually doesn't match the energy needed to produce it in the first place!

My conclusion? Aluminum is being used as an intermediate energy transport medium, and incidentally as a profit vehicle. Electricity gets turned into aluminum which gets turned back into electricity somewhere else, but at a higher cost. Building more power transmission lines would be cheaper!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Physicians who cannot heal, themselves or anyone

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, alternative medicine, scientific method, humor

For about seven years physician Ben Goldacre has written the column "Bad Science" for The Guardian. While one might expect his new book to be composed of past columns, it is not so. Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks draws upon his journalism but is fresh from the top down. It requires a light touch to review this book. Dr. Goldacre is a good fellow, but some of the people about whom he writes are decidedly not, and at least one has sued him, an event that cost The Guardian some $350,000, even though Goldacre won! (The litigant was required to pay legal expenses for both parties, but paid only half.)

I could take the garden path through the book's dozen chapters but that would be a distraction from the real issue at hand. The root problem of the misunderstood, mismanaged, mis-labeled, mis-reported, inept and frankly fraudulent attempts at science by various medical and "alternative medical" or "complementary medical" practitioners is the business of medicine. Medicine ought not be a business in the first place.

I remember when very few doctors were members of "clinics" or "group practices," when many made house calls, and were well enough paid to become quite well-to-do, but none became filthy rich. Our doctor employed an office manager who also answered phones and did most of the filing, and things rocked along very well for decades. Having an appendix removed used to cost about a month's pay for a tradesman. Now, if you had to pay for it yourself, it'd be a year's pay. Same appendix, same skill, but three times as many people around the operating table, and all of them being paid more, proportionately, than the 1960s doctor.

A cute side note: My oncologist, about ten years older than I, knew a few diagnostic tricks that have been forgotten. Once, checking my abdomen, he put a stethoscope over the spot where my bowels had been stitched back together and scratched nearby with a fingernail, here and there. I held my giggle as long as I could. He explained, "Poor man's ultrasound. I can hear echoes from the scar tissue." A younger doctor would use a CT scan to observe the same scar. That kind of big medicine generates big money. Just the technician's fee for running the CT machine is more than the oncologist charged to scratch my belly.

To pick a target: the pharmaceutical business grosses nearly $230 billion in the United States and $800 billion worldwide. And when you hear how drug prices need to be set high to repay the costs of research, consider this: The total amount spent on drug research in the U.S. is about $32 billion, or 14% of the whole, while advertising and administration (management "overhead") is more than twice that at 31% or more than $70 billion. This makes me wonder where the other $128 billion goes; it is not all reported as profit, and manufacturing costs are certainly only a fraction of that. Yikes!

Then there is the "CAM" or Complementary and Alternative Medicine business. This is everything from both well- and poorly-founded nutrition "therapies" to homeopathy to kinesiology to "crystal therapy". It is worth some $50 billion yearly in the U.S. With that much at stake, science really doesn't matter. These folks can afford a phalanx of well-paid lawyers who make damn certain that science doesn't matter.

This is why, in the closing chapter of Bad Science, Dr. Goldacre writes to his opponents, "You win." Quacks know what your pet dog knows: any attention is better than no attention. Simply engaging them, even when you prove them wrong, is good for business. Throughout the book, knowing we can't do much about the rampant quackery in CAM and the surprising amount of poor practice in allopathic medicine, if he can't beat them, he can at least laugh at them. Maybe there is no force that can oppose them, but perhaps we can laugh them out of town. The book gives a reader many of the mental tools needed to see just how laughably poor the "science" is in CAM and in the underbelly of the medical business.

Now, I just have to pass on this one item from the book. It was something I hadn't known. Do you take big doses of antioxidant vitamins to counteract free radicals in your body? Have you been told that those free radicals cause cancer? It occurred to some researchers to study the matter, to see if the "free radical theory" worked in practice. Using a proper double-blind, placebo-controlled study protocol, they found, firstly, that antioxidants didn't affect cancer rates, but secondly, they sure affected death rates, and in the wrong direction! More of the people who were taking the antioxidants died during the study, significantly more than those who were not taking them. They just didn't die of cancer.

Now, vitamin A is known to be toxic in large amounts. It turns out that all the antioxidants, and all vitamins, are toxic in large amounts. That goes for vitamins C and E, and for all those various "phytochemicals" with antioxidant properties. So, take your vitamins in the recommended amounts, but don't overdo it. There is a "sweet spot" if dosage, which is around 80-100 mg/day for vitamin C, for example. Troubling side effects show up at five times that amount, after which the more you take the more likely you are to shorten your life.

We need doctors. We need doctors who are knowledgeable. Some are not, not enough. We also need patients who are knowledgeable. We do not need a clamoring horde of ignorant "alternatives." A few alternative medical methods are helpful. Most are not. Some are harmful or even deadly. Read this book for some solid nuggets of knowledge that just might save your life and health.

Mid totality

kw: world events, eclipses

One more: This was taken from the live feed right at 3:17 AM, at precisely mid-totality. The southern limb of the moon, to the left here, is very near the center of the umbra. I just looked outside, and to the eye the moon looks more yellowish brown than this.

A brighter eclipse

kw: world events, eclipses

Here is how the moon looked at 2:50 AM EST. The image is from, or perhaps this Slooh link. I got up at 2:00, just halfway between first contact and second contact, and watched until 2:45, then dashed down to the computer to download the first live feed I could find. Until I get a longer telephoto lens for my camera, it doesn't make much sense to photograph the moon myself.

I've seen all kinds of lunar eclipses. For most of them, the moon after second contact (just after it enters the umbra) looks a lot like this, but redder. This time it is brighter and more yellow-orange. The global skies must be quite clear and free of dust. One time about thirty years ago, a few weeks after a major volcanic eruption, there was a lunar eclipse in which the moon simply vanished into the umbra and could not be seen at all until third contact.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A part aging badly

kw: home maintenance

Two weeks ago I replaced a faucet washer that began to leak after about two years. The "new" one I put in, the last of a box of mixed washers I bought years ago, was hard to turn off hard enough to stop it leaking from the start.

Last night I replaced it again, with a fresh one. The two-week-used washer is on the left in this picture. Once it cracked (seen at the bottom), it couldn't be kept from leaking. It is actually crumbling apart. The hard rubber these are made of apparently ages and hardens if it is not used within about ten years of manufacture. Of course, when I bought replacements, I had to buy ten in a little packet. If these last two years each, half of them will go bad by the time I've used five or six.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Hunting planets

kw: science, astronomy, public service

In the recent post Usefully Consuming Time I wrote about classifying galaxies in the Galaxy Zoo Hubble project. This is one project found at Zooniverse, where anyone with the desire and a bit of time on their hands can participate in any of eight astronomical projects.

The latest of these to be started is Planet Hunters. The Kepler satellite has been gathering data on about 100,000 stars for a couple of years now, a brightness measurement for each of them each thirty minutes. While software is being used to scan the light curves of each star for evidence of transits by planets, the Planet Hunters projects is pitting people against computer software, considering that people are better at matching patterns. I had to give it a try, so I logged in and learned to classify starlight curves.

The usual pattern is a fuzz of dots running across the screen, representing the twice-hourly brightness measured over a thirty-day period. If it looks like white noise, it signals "Nothing of interest here, folks. Let's move along." Many of them are wavy fuzzes, signaling a variable star. The tutorial explains the basic kinds of starlight patterns.

One of the patterns I was presented is this one, in which seventeen transit events are visible in the starlight curve of a variable star. At the time I took this screen shot, I had marked fifteen of the seventeen. This image shows several things. Firstly, ignoring the transits, the wavy fuzz at the top shows that the star brightens and dims by a small amount about every four days. Secondly, the fuzziness of the wavy line represents the small variation in instrument response that is characteristic of any repeated measurement. There is a scale up the left side of the chart that shows this variation is a small fraction of a percent. Thirdly, there are the transit signals, the dips that occur about every two days, which I am marking with blue rectangles.

These are very deep, very obvious dips in the brightness of the star. They indicate something in a close orbit about this star that obscures about one percent of its light every two days, taking about three hours to cross the face of the star. This star is indicated, in the table at lower right, to be a dwarf star with a diameter 0.9x that of our Sun. That is about 1.25 million km, so the object is moving at 420,000 km/hr. That is about four times as fast as Earth moves about the Sun. The two-day period yields a circumference of its orbit as 20 million km, or a radius of 3.2 million km. These figures assume the transit is close to central. The 1% obscuration indicates the object is 1/10 the diameter of the star, or 125,000 km, which makes it comparable to Jupiter (143,000 km).

By comparison, an alien Kepler mission that happened to observe Earth would see the following: Obscuration by 0.01% that lasted thirteen hours, once each 365 days. Such a signal is quite subtle in the fuzz of a starlight pattern like that shown above. But it ought to be visible. It would only be seen, however, in one thirty-day run out of twelve. Also, only one star in more than 600 is placed so as to observe any transit of Sol by Earth in the first place. So, there will be a number of "easy hits" like the one above for every one that might indicate a planet similar to Earth. But the discovery will be worth the search.

This is quite a bit different from classifying galaxies. I've decided, when I am one one computer that I use, I'll classify galaxies, and when on the other, I'll hunt planets. Any taker out there for some of the six other Zooniverse projects?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Lazybones day

kw: observations, weather, astronomy

Yesterday I took a day off from everything except reading. Reading is how I relax. I am in the middle of a great book about misuse of science, which will get reviewed here in another couple of days.

Early the last two mornings, when I went out to get the paper at the end of the driveway, the sky was clear like it seldom is in this region. The snow we had a day ago blew through and cleared the skies in a spectacular way. Prominent in the western sky I saw the Gemini, mainly the stars Castor and Pollux, but the dimmer stars that outline the Twins were also visible. This time of year in the evening sky one finds Orion due south, but by morning it has set. Then, high in the eastern sky Venus was like a headlamp in its "morning star" apparition.

Although I like living in this area (a suburb south of Philadelphia), the skies are typically not worth looking at. That's one thing I miss about living in the Dakotas, where we had great skies most nights of the year, and I didn't have to drive that far out of town to get rid of the sky glow from the city. When I retire I expect to visit places with dark skies, if not actually move to one of them. There is nothing like sitting up all night with a telescope and a good sky map.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A quest against the longest odds

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space fiction, starships, video games

Consider a video game with just a few levels. You have no weapons, you don't know the rules of play, you begin with only one ally whom you have no reason to trust, and you soon realize everything else out there is trying to kill you. You've just awakened from an idyllic dream to a nightmare: you're naked, freezing, hungry and thirsty. You have to find your way somewhere, you aren't sure where; you will gain a few useful allies and avoid a host of enemies; you must find food and water that won't poison you; you realize you are on a damaged starship; and you hope to find out why and what and all the other questions any good reporter asks. You don't know your own name.

This is how Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear begins. It takes about a quarter of the book to set the stage to the point detailed above. The book really does read much like I'd expect a narrative of a questing video game. Before there were video games, we played a text version of "Adventure", on mainframe computers, using text terminals. The computer would write,
You are in a long hallway with closed doors along both sides. It recedes as far as the eye can see in either direction. The fifth door on the left appears open and lighted. Do you want to go forward or turn around and go the other way?
Depending on how smart the program was, you might answer "Go forward and enter the lighted doorway". Then it would tell you what you see now. And so forth… Adventure was hugely popular until it was replaced by Doom and similar games with a more visual interface.

The starship of Hull Zero Three is an intriguing design. Its fuel and water supply is a comet several kilometers in size, harvested from the Oort Cloud. Technologies we haven't yet discovered are behind the "diverter" (a shield against cosmic dust and debris), freezing and revivifying apparatus, cloning from an artificial DNA library, and the "bosonic drive". I must assume the drive has a specific impulse of about a million seconds for the craft to attain a speed of 0.2c while using only half its fuel.

Note: Specific Impulse is the number of seconds a rocket engine can produce one pound of force using one pound of fuel (or 9.8 Newtons using one kilogram of fuel). The best launch rockets currently in use have SI of around 500 seconds, and the best ion engines for off-earth use approach 8,000 seconds.

Back to the starship. It has three hulls, imaginatively named 01, 02, and 03. The protagonist, called the Teacher throughout, even after he is given a name, is awakened in 01, finds his way forward to some kind of control center, and gains a few allies along the way. They stretch the definition of human, but it seems they all are. They find a shuttle craft that takes them to 03, where additional allies await, but so does possible doom for Teacher. He has, at this point, found out that he has been cloned many times; he has seen rooms full of corpses identical to him. It was at this point that I began to think of the book's plot as a video game, because you get so many "lives" in video games.

In Adventure, there were no extra lives. When you died, the game was over. You could restart it, but you had to go from the beginning; no restarting from a "save point". In the book, I suppose it is somewhat like that, because this incarnation of Teacher starts from the birthing chamber just like all his earlier selves. He finds that he's been trying, and failing, for hundreds of years, after some kind of conflict, perhaps a civil war on shipboard.

The ship's hulls themselves are enigmatic. Apparently they reconfigure using some kind of shapeshifting technology similar to what we saw with the "liquid robot" in Terminator 2. I wonder, even if such a technology is possible, whether it'll ever be cost-effective outside certain very narrow applications. Many neat technologies were commercial failures. Nonetheless, the changing landscape adds to the challenges Teacher must face, the tests he must "pass", to make certain the ship is able to continue and complete its mission. In the end, his key asset is his conscience.

I like a book that keeps me thinking. Hull Zero Three is full of interesting ideas, has a compelling narrative, and was an entertaining read.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The preacher is at fault

kw: christian faith, faith healing, false prophets

I purposely avoid most matters of politics and faith in this blog. The Schaible case must be an exception.

The facts of the case are simple. Herbert and Catherine Schaible of Philadelphia had seven children. When the two-year-old caught a cold, they prayed. When the cold got worse, they had church leaders come pray with them. They had been taught, at the First Century Gospel Church, that obtaining medical help is a sin; that they must rely on God alone. I suppose they have since been told, "God answered, 'No.'," because the child died of pneumonia. They were found guilty of manslaughter and have been sentenced to about ten years in prison.

This unfortunate couple is innocent of the criminal charge. They are only guilty of following a false prophet. Most Christians regard medical treatments as gifts of God. I am sure glad a surgeon was available to cure me of my cancer ten years ago. Luke was a physician. Paul advised Timothy to settle an upset stomach with "a little wine", rather than with prayer alone. If you break a bone, it makes sense to set it with a splint. Then pray for faster healing, but prayer alone won't make you able to walk on an unsplinted broken leg.

I serve a small congregation as one of the elders. A family came several years ago, and as it happened, the man had been a surgeon, but gave it up when he came to have the opinion that medicine is sinful. We let him know that we would not allow such teaching in our church. Naturally, they went elsewhere.

The one who is most at fault is the false teacher who misinformed the Schaibles.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Tax season cometh

kw: taxes, software

Every season is getting earlier every year. Stores put up their Christmas displays on November 17. Now here it is December 14, and the tax software promotional from H&R Block arrived. We have been using their Tax Cut software a few years. This year it is called H&R Block At Home™.

This is no software review. You'll get a great review of the top ten tax preparation programs at This is a product endorsement. To see this sample screen shot, click on the image. The "big" image is still undersized, but gives you an idea of how the screens look.

We used several products over the past nine or ten years, and have settled on this one. The offer we got, at $14.95 including a free e-file, really puts pressure on tax preparation services.

We have a friend who runs a tax preparation company. Their bread-and-butter used to be the yearly January-to-April tax season. Now it is the quarterly Estimated Tax and Business tax filings. Personal taxes have dropped way off. At $125, more and more people are climbing the learning curve so they can prepare and file their taxes on their own computer, often for free. Some who can't afford a computer, but must still file tax forms, use free computers at the library and a free online service (HR Block has one of those also).

We won't get W-2 forms for another month or so, but the tax software folks already got their foot in the door.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Advice for the unadvisable

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, relationships, communication

In the past eighteen years a multitude of reviews of the book have been written, so I'll make no more than passing notes here. It is Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus: A Practical Guide to Improving Communication and Getting What You Want in Your Relationships by John Gray, Ph.D. I seldom read psychological self-help books. This one caused quite a flurry when it came out in 1992, but I didn't read it then. I happened across a copy in a thrift store, and decided for half a dollar I could give it a quick read.

It seems the only ones who don't already know that men and women use different "dictionaries" for the same words are the ardent feminists who are trying to make women into men with "other equipment". The usefulness of Dr. Gray's book is in providing a basic translation aid. As to differing behaviors and differing approaches to life's problems, the basic tool set is simple:
  • When faced with a problem, women talk it out and men think it through.
  • Taken by surprise or upset, a man retreats into silence, while a woman wants to talk through the feelings.
  • Women feel cared for if they are listened to, but not if they are lectured. Men feel loved if they can help without being corrected.
  • Both men and women go through cycles of being more or less affectionate. Get used to it.
In 35 years of marriage, I've learned to let my wife talk about her concerns without trying to "fix" them. If she wants advice, she asks for it. To at least some extent, my wife has learned that when I go silent, it doesn't mean I am ignoring her, but that I am thinking. I have learned to talk about feelings more than I did when I was young and insecure. This is the key to this book: a lot of people are insecure, and they get into all sorts of relationship problems for that reason alone. With maturity and growing security and sense of self, most of these problems take care of themselves.

My pet peeve is still this: being told to do something I've already begun to do. Women are experts at this. It is amazing that they can observe the least detail of someone's dress and accessories, but don't notice a man on the way to the door with the garbage bag, when they say, "Take out the trash." Young men, be prepared to get used to this, or it will result in an endless series of arguments about her being "controlling." She's not being controlling, she's just not thinking. It is a kind of reflex, and you are unlikely to change it.

The best advice is, go for a long courtship, and make sure your partner is perfect already (it helps to observe how a woman treats her father or brothers, and how a man treats his mother or sisters). Nearly nothing will change after marriage (or whatever you substitute for marriage). Any imperfections that show up later, resolve to grin and bear 'em. The best advice for couples is something I didn't find in the book. Learn to close your "eyes". Don't "see" the other too much. Overlook more and you'll fight less.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The instrument and the music

kw: observations, music, skills

There are two young women who play piano to lead the hymns in the church we attend. One is in college, so currently she plays only when she is home. The other, a high school senior, plays the rest of the time. In the past, they alternated week by week. Let us call the older one Allie and the younger Bethany.

Both have been playing piano since first grade, so they have a dozen years of instruction accumulated. Both have played in competitions and concerts and public recitals, and in such a setting, they seem equally gifted and skilled to me (but I reckon I'm a bit of a Philistine, so what can my poor ear discern, anyway). There is, however, quite a difference in the way each leads a hymn. I'll use the analogy of leading singing with a guitar, which is a skill I have.

The music scores in a hymnal are written for a singing quartet or a four part choir. They are the notes the Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Baritone (or Bass) would use when singing in harmony. These notes also form a chord sequence. A guitarist who can read music quickly enough can play those chords as an accompaniment to the singing congregation, which usually just sings the melody that is in the Soprano part, the top line. Of course, the men sing the Soprano part an octave lower.

There is a certain technique to song leading with a guitar. For a novice, a double-strum (down-up) is used for each beat of the measure. Someone with more skill may use more complex strumming, or even finger picked accompaniment. It is rare for a guitarist to play the melody and extremely rare to have one who can play both the Soprano and Alto or Soprano and Tenor lines. With rare exceptions, it is simply impossible to play all four parts on a single guitar, because the fingerings would require larger hands than any human has.

But this is not necessary. Most chords have three unique notes, and some have four. They can occur in any order and the chord can still be recognized. A chord may be scored as C-G-E-C, with the upper C being two octaves higher than the lower one. This is a C major chord. As long as the C, E and G are all heard, the singers will be able to tell what it is. On a guitar, if all six strings are played, the notes will be G-C-E-G-C-E, which doesn't quite cover two octaves. But all the notes are there. As long as the chords are right and the rhythm is steady, the singers can comfortably sing their melody with the guitar accompaniment.

Now, there is the issue that the notes of the melody are of different lengths. Many or most will be quarter notes. Some will be twice as long (half notes) and some twice as fast (eighth notes). Even longer or shorter notes can be used,such as whole and sixteenth notes. The guitarist does not usually play a chord for every sung note. Instead, he or she will strum down-up for each quarter note, so a chord is heard with each eighth note. That means for a half note four repetitions of the chord will be played. When I play, I usually use a slightly more complex strum, called "Boom-chick-a Boom chick-a", where the Boom is a strike to one or two bass strings at quarter note speed and the chick-a is a quicker down-up strum at eighth note speed. There are thus two patterns per four beat measure when the time signature is 4/4.

Back to the pianists. Allie plays the music pretty exactly. In cases where the Baritone and Tenor parts are more than an octave apart, she may just choose to play only the lower note with the left hand, but if you read along as she plays, what you see is very nearly what you hear. When I play hymn music on my piano, that is how I play them also, though more clumsily than Allie.

What does Bethany do that is different? She is quite capable of playing precisely what she sees, and being classically trained, for concerts and recitals that is what she does. The interpretation of classical music is not in playing different notes, but in making emotional shifts of timing and volume, beyond the sparse notations that the composer has made. But for song leading, she has learned something similar to what guitarists do from some experienced accompanists. She augments the music. Where it is quicker, being all eights or even sixteenths, she plays it as written, but wherever the notes are longer, you'll hear extra chords or portions of chords added to keep the rhythm going more smoothly. They add a lot to the experience of singing under her leadership.

A music teacher would say that both Allie and Bethany long ago gained sufficient skills to go from playing the piano to playing the music using the piano. But Bethany, in learning to augment the music, takes music playing and song leading to an exceptional level. And by the way, this is in a completely different direction from jazz improvisation, which frequently takes a melody in directions singers can't follow. I enjoy a "jazz service" for reasons quite different from the musical enjoyment I have when Bethany plays.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The other is a mirror to ourselves

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space fiction, far future fiction, space aliens

I thought long and hard about how much to reveal of Echo, Jack McDevitt's latest space opera. Humanity has been in space 8,000 years, traveling hundreds of light years takes less time than driving from Florida to California, and a moderately wealthy antiquities dealer named Alex Benedict can afford his own starship. In eight millennia of looking, only one sentient alien species has been discovered, and they are called the Mutes, for reasons never detailed in this novel. Beyond that, I'll come down on the side of dealing in ideas, not in story plots.

The central thought is expressed by a comment made by a minor character. Faced with a cosmos nearly empty of Others, humanity is faced with only the "echo of themselves". And Echo is the name chosen for a stellar system upon which a mystery rests. Suppose we achieve star travel, look everywhere, and find that we truly are alone. Then what? The question that informs this tale is, yes, one other alien civilization has been found, but no others: Now what? Does that make our existential angst worse or better?

To the quintessential businessman, everything is business. A travel agency CEO becomes the villain of the piece, but like my thoughts on, "Does the Devil know he is evil?", author McDevitt has a quote opening one chapter that begins, "Truly evil persons do not recognize their own malevolence." It is attributed to Tao Min-wa, whom I cannot verify, so it may be a "future quote", as several are in the chapter headings. But I like finding an author whose thoughts echo my own.

Throughout the book's quest, Alex and his assistant Chase are dogged by the attentions of a hired killer. Chase becomes the hero who eventually thwarts the assassin, just as she is nearly the first victim. I was reminded of old "Assassin's Guild" cornball routines. This requires a digression.

When I was in college, forming a non-lethal Assassin's Guild was a popular pastime. People would think up creative ways to do someone in, then act them out with harmless props, like a pillow instead of an anvil to be dropped on someone's head. One of the spy series that was popular on TV at the time took up the theme in one episode, which opened with someone actually getting killed in an AG sort of way: a cartridge had been secreted into a telephone handset, which went off when a tuning fork of a certain pitch was struck, killing the person who'd answered the phone. The creativity theme was carried along for a while, but when it came time to bump off the hero of the series, all these creative people grabbed pistols and began running around almost like a Keystone Kops version of guerrilla fighters. It was hilarious!

That is how I felt here. The killer's first attempt was overly elaborate, and requires readers who don't know any science: A lovely artifact arrives in the mail. It is stated as being the size of Chase's forearm, so it's no more than a cubit in length, about half a meter. When she sets it upright, lights come on inside, but then she begins to suffocate. Turns out it is sucking the oxygen out of the room. She gets rescued of course. But an explanation is offered that ruins it. The object is said to be filled with powdered magnesium and there is also a battery-operated cooling device. When the magnesium gets cold, it quickly absorbs oxygen.

There is a limit to the amount of disbelief I can suspend. I know enough chemistry to realize you can't get cold magnesium to absorb anything. It is a flammable metal, and the oxidation of the metal is ferociously hot (I've done it). A magnesium flare is the brightest one there is! Chase would have run for her life, not stayed around long enough for the oxygen level to drop. Further, there is more oxygen in a room than one might imagine, plus, Chase is told the device removed the oxygen from the whole floor of the house.

Let's do a little math. Under ordinary conditions, near the temperature and pressure a scientist calls STP (the S is for standard), air weighs about 1.28 grams per liter (g/l). Twenty percent is oxygen, or 0.256 g/l. An ordinary living room contains about 50 cubic meters, or 50,000 liters. The oxygen in that volume weighs 12.8 kg. A magnesium atom combines with one oxygen atom, but weighs 1.52 times as much, so absorbing 12.8 kg of oxygen requires 19.5 kg of the metal powder. That is upwards of forty pounds, something Chase is unlikely to be able to lift with one hand. And what about that bit that the whole floor of the building was deoxygenated? A modest house's first floor has a volume greater than 200 cubic meters, contains 50-60 kg of oxygen, which would require 75-90 kg of magnesium. So, that's two strikes against this idea. The chemistry won't work, and the mass of reactive metal would be much too great.

The other brainstorms attributed to the hired killer are at least remotely plausible. And in the end, a "proton cannon" is used. The range of energetic protons in air is about a meter, so you have to get the cannon rather close to its target. In this story, it seems to have a greater range... Oh, well, just like in the spy story, when you really gotta kill someone, may as well use a gun.

Businessman plus hired killer. That's one element. There is the true believer, an explorer who spent more than a century looking for aliens and didn't find any. There are two people who, added to Alex and Chase, make this a double love story. And Alex and Chase themselves, what drives them? They are two faces of an ultimate realist, one who wants to know the truth, regardless, one who wants to get it right.

Now I must back off and say I really enjoyed the book. The author is a compelling writer, and the basic ideas kept me thinking throughout. I tend to swing back and forth between Fermi's question, "Where is everybody?" and, "When we get out there, they'll be everywhere." Maybe civilizations are rare "out there", but I can't imagine they are so rare that we are the only one in our Galaxy (we have little hope of ever communicating with anybody in another galaxy). The question asked by this book is, "But what if we are?"

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Kill a cop, get famous

kw: national events, observances, crime

Twenty-nine years ago today, Wesley Cook killed Philadelphia policeman Daniel Faulkner. He bragged about it at the hospital. He was convicted of first-degree murder by a jury of ten whites and two blacks, and sentenced to die. He hasn't.

What has dies is the American justice system. Wesley Cook, who has taken the name Mumia Abu-Jamal, has become the symbol of getting ahead by doing evil. He is more famous than Al Capone, has had a street in France named for him, is staunchly defended by thousands of ignorant, misguided public figures, and has been invited to speak at college and high school commencement exercises, as he continues to thumb his nose at the right of a civilized society to make totally certain he will not commit murder again, by killing him. If ever someone "needed killing", it is him.

You can get more information from the official Daniel Faulkner web site. Be patient, the site is getting huge numbers of visitors, plus a huger number of "denial of service" accesses by immoral opponents.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

My Mr Sci-fi

kw: book reviews, science fiction, collections, stories

This figure, usually much smaller, seems to be a logo for recent work by Larry Niven. Somehow, as I read his latest volume STARS AND GODS (his capitalization, even in the colophon), and saw strings of these at every chapter head, I began to think about them.

Each half of the figure is seven of the eight cubes in an unfolded hypercube. If you add one more cube to the end of one of the "arms" you get a "supercross", just as an unfolded cube produces a cross. To me, this represents Larry Niven's ability to unpack unfamiliar concepts in his stories and make us believe in them.

STARS AND GODS gathers excerpts from seven recent novels, 17 short stories, both solo and in collaboration, and a few short nonfiction pieces, mostly writing about writing. While some might view a book like this as advertising, I simply reveled in the escapism of it all…and in the ideas. I particularly value the ideas. A few examples:
  • In "Fly-by-Night" a crippled Kzin must use his wits to prevail against unimpaired Kzinti. For those who don't know, Kzinti are sapient tigers, a little larger than Earth tigers, a space-faring species not known for patience or strategic planning. The one called Fly-by-Night has learned these from long association with humans. More to the point, his cultural differences make it harder for his fellows to predict what he'll do, always an asset in any conflict. Of course, he has no little help from a human friend, even more unpredictable, natch!
  • "After Mecca" is a newspaperman's interview with a political leader faced with the aftermath of an atomic attack on Mecca, but we aren't sure by the end of the story how much of the U.S. has also been razed.
  • "Free Floaters" (in collaboration with Brenda Cooper) explores the implications of a brown dwarf cooling to the point that life can arise and evolve for a few billion years as it drifts, sunless, through space. Not just life, but sapient life, in this case whale-size jellyfish-like floaters that thrive at 900°C. And they are running out of room…
  • The nonfiction piece "Rocket Men" shows that our failure to explore space, even our near-retreat from it since the 1970s, is because the U.S. government has declared space a "no profit zone". Columbus demanded the right to get rich from finding a new path to Asia. Until businessmen have the right to exploit things like metal-rich asteroids, they won't be willing to invest in space ventures.
I have sometimes shied away from Niven's books because of his tendency to write frank sex scenes, but I frequently find myself reading anyway, and just skimming where I feel I need to. His writing is too good to pass up. His "Known Space" realm of Puppeteers, Kzinti, Ringworld, and the Protectors is a solid place, as much a part of the science fiction landscape as the "I, Robot" and "Foundation" milieus of Asimov.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Usefully consuming time

kw: science, astronomy, public service

Want to do some real astronomy, something helpful? You have something no computer program can duplicate, a finely tuned recognition ability. Assuming you aren't blind (and thus using some kind of assistance program to "read" this text), your vision system can quickly discriminate objects from background clutter and distinguish their shapes.

One harvest of the various telescopic surveys, including the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) and the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) program, is a huge archive of deep space images of millions of objects. Learning how the Universe works requires classifying large numbers of these objects. While a computer program can scan a digital image and locate objects, and even discern a star from a galaxy with quite good accuracy, it usually cannot determine whether a particular galaxy is elliptical, spiral, irregular or something else. Guess what? With a minimum of preparation, you can!

Three years ago a team of astronomers launched a project called Galaxy Zoo, a web-based classification program for the galaxies identified in SDSS images. They hoped to have a million galaxies classified by several persons each over a span of a few years. They got a huge public response, and received tens of millions of classifications, an average of fifty "votes" each for a million galaxies, in about five months.

As the astronomers learned more about galaxies in the early universe, they learned better questions to ask. The project has been expanded to the deeper images found in the HST archives, and is currently the Galaxy Zoo Hubble, one of several Zooniverse projects. I encourage everyone who can, bookmark the link, register, and learn to classify galaxies. The one-web-page tutorial is a great introduction to the subject. What follows introduces some of the concepts, because I've been having great fun, having classified my first 400 galaxies.

Click on this image to see it full size. It shows the control panel for classifying HST galaxies. You answer the Zoo's questions by clicking on the buttons on the right. As this screen shot shows, the first question is to determine, is this a smooth (that is, elliptical) galaxy, or something else? In the "recent" Universe, that within about a billion light years, most galaxies are elliptical. However, the public perception of galaxies is shaped more by the beautiful spiral galaxies.

A word of caution. There are few "pretty pictures" in the GZH archive. The focus of cosmologists' interest is the early Universe, so the galaxies of interest are very far away, and therefore appear rather small in HST images.

This is one of the better images of a spiral galaxy. Two spiral arms are visible, and there is a small central bulge, the orange spot near the center. Questions asked by GZH lead you to describe each feature. For this one, I selected "Features or Disk", "Not clumpy", "Not an edge-on spiral" (Yes to this one leads one through different questions), "No Bar", "Spiral", "Medium tightness", "2 Arms", "Just noticeable bulge".

There is also a question, "Anything odd?", which is where you'd designate whether the galaxy is irregular, or a merger of two or more, or has a prominent dust lane (usually seen only in spirals that are nearly edge-on), and a few other features.

During classification, you can also see the image as a negative, with dark features on a white background. This is often useful for counting the spiral arms when a galaxy has a more ambiguous appearance.

Here is one of the better images of an elliptical galaxy. This one is part of a cluster (you can see one of equal size to the upper left), and this cluster is in front of an enormous cluster of more distant galaxies. However, you are asked to classify only the object at the center of the image.

Ellipticals are simple; for this image I answered "Smooth", "Medium oval", and "Nothing odd". A computer program would need to be very smart to figure out that the five colored dots "inside" the large elliptical galaxy's image are actually galaxies situated much farther away, seen through it.

With one exception, everything you see in this image is a galaxy. That exception is the overexposed image of a star at the lower left. If GZH presents such an image to you, you'd click "Star or Artifact". I've also seen various artifacts such as a "dotted line" caused by something in motion crossing the field of view during the exposure: HST discovered lots of asteroids that way.

This elliptical galaxy happens to have a distinct central condensation. Many do, but not all. One way to distinguish an elliptical galaxy with a central condensation from a face-on disk galaxy is that the disk and central bulge are different colors, while all of an elliptical galaxy will be the same color.

Many images of the farthest objects show galaxies that are still forming from smaller objects. They have a clumpy appearance like this. For this image I answered "Features...", "Clumpy", "More than 4 clumps", "Clustered", "No distinctly brightest clump", "Not symmetrical", "Not embedded in something larger", and "Nothing odd".

The proctors of the GZH web site are clever. One of the answers to how the clumps are arranged is "Spiral pattern". Early spiral galaxies have bright star-forming regions strung along the spiral arms, and if we cannot see the whole galaxy, all we see are those bright spots. But they outline the spiral shape, so such an image winds up being provisionally classified as a spiral galaxy.

It is remarkable how consistent the classification of most objects is. Each one is presented to a number of people, so the professional astronomers only have to take a second look at the ones that get a scattering of widely divergent classifications. This last image might be such a one.

If you are feeling helpful and have a little time on your hands, give the GZH project a try.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

A different recluse spider

kw: local events, spider bites, photographs

Two weeks ago my wife was talking to a friend and felt something on her ankle. She brushed it off and thought no more about it. Within a couple of hours she began to get redness, and then a blister, where she'd "felt something". We concluded that it was probably a spider bite. Later she saw an injured spider at the other end of the room and stomped it. I put it in a cup and took this picture. I didn't think to photograph the blister (but just wait...).

By morning the blister was more than 1cm long and almost a cm wide, and almost as high. It looked a lot like the larger blister caused by a Brown Recluse spider (the dreaded "fiddleback"), which I saw forty years ago when someone I knew then was bitten. That blister was half the size of a banana (10x3x1.5cm). Fortunately, the cytotoxic venom of this spider is not as strong. This appears to be a different species of Recluse spider, however, but I haven't yet found out which.

My wife saw her doctor later that day. The blister was drained and she got a shot of cortisone to reduce the reaction. It has been slow to heal, however. Cytotoxic spider venoms cause necropathy of the tissues, and there is no medicine for that.

This is how the now-dried blister looks at present. We used both Betadine and an antibiotic ointment on it, with protective band-aids over it, until just yesterday. I expect it will be several more days before the skin underneath heals and the dried blister sloughs off.

In the Wikipedia article Brown Recluse Spider, it is stated, "Despite rumors to the contrary, the brown recluse spider has not established itself in California..." This is nonsense. The fiddlebacks that I saw, the the bite that I witnessed, were in Alhambra, California in 1971. There were thousands of them living under the church I attended in Sierra Madre, and dozens living in the vines of a large stand of ivy on the fence next to my yard, where my friend was bitten. I am very familiar with Loxosceles reclusa.

The specimen pictured above is clearly not a fiddleback, and probably not even of genus Loxosceles, but I suspect it is of the same family, the Sicariidae. It has cytotoxic venom about 1/10 as toxic as the brown recluse, and with a very similar mode of tissue destruction.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

How about a real Galactic survey?

kw: ideas, surveys, astronomy

OK, yesterday I reviewed a book about the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, whose primary goal was to obtain the spectra of a million galaxies scattered through redshift space. An additional harvest was the spectra of about half a million stars located in our Galaxy, which has led to a flurry of additional discoveries.

This complemented earlier surveys, particularly ESA's Hipparcos mission, which from 1989-1993 obtained highly accurate positions and parallaxes (distances) for more than 118,000 stars and slightly less accurate positions and parallaxes for another 2.5 million stars. That represents about 0.02% of the stars in the Galaxy, primarily located within a few thousand light years of the Solar System. SDSS did not pursue parallaxes specifically. ESA (the European Space Agency) plans a mission called Gaia, to be launched in 2012, which is intended to map a billion (109) stars of magnitude 20 and brighter.

Let's consider a space mission that could map all of the roughly one trillion (1012) stars, obtaining geometric parallaxes throughout the Galaxy. Firstly, it needs a larger baseline.

In this NASA image, the Lagrange points are shown for Earth's orbit about the Sun. NASA's WMAP probe is intended to park in the L2 point. Although it is unstable in the long term, staying near this location is easy, needing correction at rare intervals. The Gaia probe is intended to use the same region.

For getting parallaxes, the L2 location, located 1.5 million km farther from the Sun, is only slightly better than a telescope in Earth orbit. In a half year, the baseline for parallax determination is 300 million km. Getting more precise distance measurements requires ever-more-finicky angular measurements. For stars that are moving too fast, the difficulty is compounded. Having two probes a suitable distance apart allows simultaneous measurement of each star's position from two angles.

One light year is a little less than one-third of a parsec, so named because a parallax of one arc-second places a star at 3.26 light years away. A measurement with an accuracy of 1"/1000, or one milli-arc-second (mas) can provide a distance with reasonable accuracy out to about 100 parsecs, and with poor accuracy at distances approaching 1000 parsecs, or 3,260 light years. It takes accuracy in the range of a micro-arc-second (µas) to reach across the Galaxy, about 30,000 parsecs. By the way, the parsec is defined for a baseline of 1 AU, but in a half year the earth crosses a baseline of 2AU.

Suppose, instead of utilizing Lagrange points related to Earth's orbit, we use both L4 and L5 along the orbit of Uranus? The baseline is thus much longer! Uranus is 19.19 AU from the Sun (2,871 million km). The distance from L4 to L5 is 33.2 AU, providing an advantage of 16.6 over Earth-orbit-based parallax measurements. At a distance of 30,000 parsecs, the parallax is about 0.55 mas, a comfortable number using today's technology. Thus the entire Galaxy, including the globular clusters, and even the Magellanic Clouds, can be mapped with high precision.

The problem remains that the Solar System is located in the plane of the galactic spiral, about 2/3 of the way out to the edge. The central bulge and the incredible amounts of dust there and in parts of the disk will forever block our view. Much of the dust can be pierced by using farther infrared light, in the 2-3µ range. But from this location, some portions of the Galaxy will forever remain out of view.

Balancing this, there will be much less interference from dust in the inner Solar System, which can be seen from Earth as the Zodiacal Light. Light scattered from this dust is nearly all confined to inward of Jupiter. From Uranus, the Sun is 360 times dimmer, as well, so any dust remaining in "Uranus space" will likely be at least 6-8 magnitudes fainter, allowing very faint stars to be detected and measured. A white dwarf with an absolute magnitude of about 16 dims to apparent magnitude 26 at a distance of only 1,000 parsecs. At 30,000 parsecs it is dimmed, by distance alone, by another 7 magnitudes, to 33. A 33d magnitude star is barely detectable from "Earth space", but should be nice and clear when seen from Uranus orbit.

I have read of proposals to have a mission called TAU, for Thousand AU's. The idea is to place a telescope at that great distance, for measuring parallaxes in a wide band surrounding the plane that bisects the baseline. This has several drawbacks. With current technology, getting the probe into place, and then stopping its forward momentum (should we wish to) would take a couple of centuries. Getting probes to Uranus L4 and L5 would still be substantial, roughly a decade, unless rocket technology improves considerably.

Also, the data transit time to or from TAU would be about 5.8 days. Data transmission to and from Uranus orbit takes about 2.6 hours, and signal strength is much greater for a given radio power. All in all, taking advantage of the L4 and L5 "platforms" near Uranus has great advantages for stellar mapping throughout the Galaxy.

Friday, December 03, 2010

The sky for all

kw: book reviews, astronomy, virtual astronomy, astronomers, telescopes

In the title of yesterday's post about the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, I called the result the Galactipedia. The original vision for the SDSS was to take the spectra of a million galaxies, determine their redshift and thus their distance, and use that data to outline the large-scale structure of the Universe. The key figure in this effort is Jim Gunn, who had that original vision and eventually saw the SDSS through to completion.

Jim Gunn is the central figure of A Grand and Bold Thing, by Ann Finkbeiner, a blow-by-blow history of the SDSS and its hardware and software systems. Called Jim throughout the book (no doubt because he usually says, "Call me Jim"), Dr. Gunn, given time, might have done the whole thing himself. A premier instrument maker, his major material contribution to the survey telescope was the camera.

But this is not just about Jim Gunn. It is about the trend in astronomy, as in all the sciences, toward larger collaborations. While Jim abhorred the NASA "project over-management" method used to produce the Hubble Space Telescope and STScI (that's where the data goes), in the end, the effort now called SDSS duplicated the NASA model, because it had to. Long gone are the days of Lord Rosse building his giant six-foot-diameter telescope and surveying the heavens in splendid solitude. Big efforts become big projects, require big money, and need the complex interaction of big teams of people. A "lone ranger" is either brought to heel or becomes exiled, a "lone stranger".

Taking the spectra of a million galaxies in a finite time period, and storing them in a usable database, required imagining a telescope like none other before it; unique robotic controls; software to run the telescope, select targets (in groups of several hundred), store and manage and supply the data; and a human infrastructure to first produce and then tend all these systems. It is a good thing I already knew the outcome of the story, or I'd have been chewing my fingernails to the wrist at the unlikely series of troubles that plagued the project. Parts of the book read almost like cliff-hanger Perils of Pauline tales.

People don't behave. Astronomers in particular are all about the sky, tend to be loners, at least when at work, and are hard to manage. The software effort was huge, which means it required the services of a number of "superprogrammers". We used to call ourselves hackers when that was an honorable term. Superprogrammers are genuine lone ranger types, happier with machines than with people. The bane of any business manager, the most direction they will accept is "See that target? Hit it!". A manager'd better be quick, because they "Hit it" inordinately soon and immediately look for another target. There were targets aplenty as the SDSS project unfolded, and quite a bit of duplication of effort. Sometimes, there'd be two or three complete pieces of software, and they'd hold a benchmark (AKA face-off) test. The project burned through three Project Managers. But it did get completed.

Hardware doesn't behave. Both the mirrors for the telescope suffered near-catastrophic problems, which required much ingenuity (and extra money) to solve. The environment doesn't behave. Miller moths at the Apache Point site like to hide in tight, dark spaces, so they tend to grease the controls, then jam them.

One complication was money. Jim Gunn's initial guess was about $50,000 for a telescope and CCD camera, and the hope that he could afford lots of disks to hold the data. He was only off by a factor of about 1,000. Just the CCD's for the wide-field camera wound up costing $2 million. So he and the other astronomers learned to get along with the fund-raising establishment as the circle of donors and supporters was widened and widened again to raise $10 million, $20 million…I think the total cost to date approaches $100 million.

The telescope itself came to half a million. This is a story in itself. It isn't a huge telescope by modern standards, with a main mirror diameter of 2.5 m (98"). But a wide-field design requires optics a bit more costly than your typical Meade or Celestron star gazer. The field of view is about three degrees, and the CCD pack that covers this area takes a "picture" of about 200 Mpx. But getting light to focus well across the entire camera is daunting. Like all large-scale professional telescopes, including the Hubble and the two Keck 10m (34-foot) instruments, the design is Ritchey-Chrétien, or R-C. Older instruments with parabolic main mirrors and ordinary Cassegrain optics, such as the Mt. Wilson and Mt. Palomar telescopes, are considered passé.

Let's explore this just a bit. Here I step outside the book because R-C optics were not even mentioned. This diagram shows the classic Cassegrain optics as used at Palomar and in many amateur telescopes:

A parabolic mirror focuses on-axis light to a very sharp point. However, light coming at a slight angle, such as from any other part of an image, is not all focused to a point, but to a teardrop-shaped area. This kind of aberration is called coma. The secondary mirror increases the effective magnification of the system, but does not correct coma. A single-mirror system with an f/12 figure, and a Cassegrain system with an f/4 primary and a 3x secondary, will have exactly the same level of coma distortion in an image.

A Ritchey–Chrétien system looks exactly like a Cassegrain system to the eye, but there is a subtle difference. The primary is not parabolic, but hyperbolic, and the curvature of the secondary, while still hyperbolic, is matched to the primary in a way that eliminates coma. However, the smallest focal point is not quite as sharp as it is with the Cassegrain, but it is still very small, and is the same over a large area, three degrees in the case of the Sloan telescope. As we'll see, the images it produces are quite spectacular, and plenty "sharp enough". And the bottom line? Making that hyperbolic optical system cost much, much more than a parabolic one. But it is just so darn much better for modern astronomical needs that it is used for all professional telescopes since the 1950s.

The power of the SDSS is that all the data are public, and include an almost game-like interface for looking at images and retrieving data. As I noted yesterday, the SDSS maintains a SkyServer web site for viewing images and getting data.

This shows the galaxy known as M109, the 109th object in the Messier Catalog of objects that Charles Messier wanted to remember so he would not confuse them with comets. He was primarily a comet hunter. For this screen shot I opted to show objects that have had their spectra recorded. Note that M109 is not among them. It is much too close. The Sloan survey is intended to look at large-scale structure as outlined by distant galaxies. The Xes mark fourteen galaxies that you can hardly see at this scale. Their spectra tell their distance and other interesting facts. All this can be downloaded, either one-by-one or in whole reams of data.

If you want to "spelunk the sky" and see neat stuff, it isn't hard to do. If you want to do more and be a "Sloan Astronomer" (my term), make sure you have plenty of disk available. The entire SDSS archive currently comes to 40TBy (that's 40,000 GBy). It covers a quarter of the total sky, centered on the North Galactic Pole. Not just (more than!) a million galaxies, but spectral data on hundreds of thousands of stars is also included.

It is the second-largest data repository I know of; Google Earth at about 3 PBy (3,000 TBy) is the largest. But Google Earth provides an even easier way to view the sky. There is a Google Sky option in Google Earth, which uses the Sloan and other sources to map the sky and make it viewable and searchable. It was even quicker for me to find M109 in Google Sky than it was in SkyServer. If you are interested in some particular kind of star or galaxy, SkyServer has suggested projects and tutorials on how to do the work.

The book is a great example of a contemporary history. The author's Reference section begins with a five page list of interviews she conducted. The list of published works is correspondingly shorter. There hasn't been time for many of the principals to decide their experiences warrant a memoir. But it is all the more immediate for it. I imagine our view of the American Revolution would be significantly different if a historian could interview Washington and Adams and others. To me, the establishment of this virtual sky and the tools to easily use it is almost as revolutionary as the founding of a nation. One need not apply a year in advance for two or three observing nights on an overbooked large telescope and hope you don't get rained out.

Thousands of professional journal articles have been authored as a result of the SDSS and its current data release, called DR7. And what do I hope for next? A clone of the Sloan telescope and camera situated in southern Chile, which could double the total sky coverage.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Galactipedia

kw: virtual astronomy, science, photographs

A telescope and a clear sky can just eat up the time. Now, even though I live where the sky is seldom worth looking at, and don't have much of a telescope, I can waste all the time I want on the virtual sky. Here I'll just touch on one resource, the SDSS SkyServer. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey has mapped about a quarter of the sky, primarily around the North Galactic Pole, so the deeper sky away from most of the Milky Way galaxy can be studied, and also simply viewed with the virtual telescope I'm about to describe.

To get the view shown just below, click on the link above, then near the lower left under SkyServer Tools, click the "Famous Places" link. Select almost any item from the page that shows up, which will present a selection, and select one of the items there. That will get you into the Navigator, as shown below. What I did next was enter the coordinates of the Coma Cluster of galaxies (ra 195 and dec 28) in the Parameters fields at the upper left. As the third parameter shows ("L"), and the check mark below, I've also turned on the Label option, which produced the four lines of white text on the image (Click on this screen shot to see it at full resolution).

A word on the coordinate system. If you look up an object in a sky catalog, its coordinates are traditionally shown as RA or Right Ascension and Dec or Declination. These are spherical coordinates on the sky. RA is given in time units from 00:00:00 to 23:59:59.9..., with the zero point being the First Point of Aries, where the Sun crosses the celestial equator at the vernal equinox. In the SDSS survey, rather than time units from 0-24, they use decimal degrees from 0-360 (or 0-359.9999...). Thus the traditional RA of the center of the Coma cluster is almost exactly 13h, so 13*360/24 yields 195 degrees.

Declination is in degrees from the celestial equator (Earth's orbit) as zero to +90 at the North celestial pole and -90 at the South one. The point on the celestial equator nearest the First Point of Aries has coordinates (0,0). By the way, because of the precession of the equinoxes, the zero point slowly moves along the celestial equator, about a degree every 64 years. Thus to specify very exact sky coordinates one must specify the Epoch, or the reference date. So far as I've been able to find out, the SDSS system coordinates are epoch 2000.

Once you are looking at something, you can shift the view by clicking on the N, S, E, W letters on the frame. To move in bigger steps, zoom out a couple of levels; each level is a factor of 4. For the second screen shot, I shifted the view left and a little down and zoomed in one level. Almost every object in this image is a galaxy. I clicked on the bluest one I could see, and its parameters are shown in the "Selected Object" window at upper right. The letters u, g, r, i, and z refer to light filters: ultraviolet, green, red, infrared, and z=farther infrared (but not very far). The "g" magnitude is closest to the visual magnitude often given as V in star catalogs. This galaxy is of 19th magnitude.

The little window to the right shows a closeup of the selected object. All the objects in this image are out of reach of nearly any amateur telescope. In fact, it is rather hard to show things you might look at visually, because any object brighter than 12th magnitude overloads the SDSS telescope's sensors! For reference, the faintest galaxies in the Messier Catalog, a popular list of visually appealing objects, are about magnitude 10, six times brighter than that.

There is so much more to this that I'll have to defer further discussion. I'll soon be reviewing a book about the making of the Sloan survey.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Diplomats behaving badly

kw: politics, diplomacy, leaks

It is no surprise to me that the recent Wikileaks release of diplomatic documents has put (or revealed) eggs on many faces. Of course some folks don't like one another, and of course people have unguarded moments, particularly when they think nobody is looking, and say and write nasty things about one another. This has been going on since Og and Ug began to speak, half a million years ago last Friday.

One of my first reviews was about the book Philosophers Behaving Badly. In fact, the eight philosophers limned therein behaved totally at odds with the ideals they espoused in public. So why is anyone surprised that so many diplomats, including our Secretary of State, so well known for her sharp tongue, should express very undiplomatic opinions.

While much is being made of the more salacious cables, let's step back to realize that the vast bulk of them are the more routine, banal, boring stuff that keeps any bureaucracy going. Considering the number of truly unpleasant characters out there who are titled "head of state", the proportion of "frank" statements is really rather small.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Not so different from today

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, ancient history, essays

A mere 2,210 years ago the geographer Eratosthenes first measured the circumference of the Earth, using a method illustrated here. He lived near the middle of a remarkable millennium during which a number of remarkable scientific and technological achievements were made. Concrete that outlasts the usual "modern" product by a factor of 100, flammable weapons that exploded or ignited upon contact with water (including the water in an enemy's body), and the method of extracting iron from ore without actually melting it are among the achievements described by Vicki León in How to Mellify a Corpse: And Other Human Stories of Ancient Science & Superstition.

The title subject is not a chapter heading in the book, but is one subject covered in one essay. Do you know the word "mellify"? Here is a useful clue: melissa means "bee". The body of Alexander was mellified, or mummified by the drying action of honey, and continued looking remarkably lifelike for centuries. It was visited by Julius and at least one other Caesar before being destroyed in a tsunami in 365 AD, 687 years after he died.

Amidst all this scientific achievement, how were the populace affected? Only indirectly, by the improvement of infrastructure, such as the great water supply that Rome enjoyed due to its system of aqueducts. But public knowledge? Not at all.

Half the essays in the book relate superstitions and myths. Many, if not most, Athenians were buried with the little coin they'd need to pay Charon to ferry them across the River Styx, and to hold back Cerberus the 3-headed dog. Many Romans, from Caesar to peasant, believed that sealskin protected one from Zeus's thunderbolts. And the ancient provisions for avoiding the Evil Eye were as numerous as methods for producing aphrodisiacs.

Lest we laugh too quickly at their superstitions, however, we ought to consider the mental habits of moderns, even in "advanced" countries. Millions still use the thumb-in-fist gesture to avert the Evil Eye if a stranger looks at them too boldly. How many find their heart beating a bit faster to pass a graveyard after dark, or if a cat crosses their path? Who still throws a pinch of spilled salt over a shoulder? The most-read column in the newspaper is the daily horoscope. Thankfully, the number who treat a seance as more serious than an evening's entertainment are few.

But if you are ever in southern Greece and see the parallel ruts in the ground, don't take the story that wagon wheels made them. They were carved there to make it easier for wagons to take the paths! Which would take a larger investment in slave labor: a pyramid in Egypt or the four-mile train track (for wagons, though, as locomotives were yet to be invented), the diolkos, across the Isthmus of Corinth?

The book is a harvest of enjoyable insights into the lives of people in six European and Near-Eastern cultures. It is made the more enjoyable by the slightly tongue-in-cheek writing style, a method that makes one confront the similarity of the ancients and ourselves. As I read, I'd find myself thinking, "I could relate to this guy," or, "Glad I never crossed paths with him!" The amount of research behind the book is only hinted at by two pages of bibliography. All in all, about 300 pages of fun reading.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Good for another century

kw: home maintenance, photographs

We have a dining set of cherry wood that my great uncle gave us as a wedding present. It was nearly 100 years old in 1975. Under the table is a stencil saying that it was made by the Angelus Furniture Company. I assume the company by that name in Corona, CA is the same one. The table was used in Vermont until it was sent to us.

In recent years, the table top has been getting wobbly, so I decided to tighten it as a Thanksgiving weekend project. This picture shows the gluing operation on one of the leg assemblies. I don't have a large clamp, so I put a piece of petrified wood on top, which weighs more than 100 pounds (45+ kg).

Each of the two leg assemblies is attached to an 8"x8"x1.25" (20x20x3.2 cm) oak block, which was glued and screwed to a larger oak block which is screwed to the table top. Removing a leg assembly for shipping entails unscrewing the larger oak block. But getting the two blocks separated required breaking the glue bond. We did that, and pulled off the smaller oak blocks from the leg post, because the glue was already broken there.

I put carpenter's wood glue on the top of the post and on the scar on the block, and used the method you see here to clamp them while the glue dried. Then I re-glued the whole assembly back to the larger block, and it is clamped by the screws. I suppose if I'd used hot bone glue it might have been better, because if the top works loose again it could be repaired again. I'm betting it lasts the rest of our lives. We just now set the table back upright and it feels much more stable than before.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The first cold evening

kw: photographs, flowers, weather

It snowed in the Philadelphia area on Thanksgiving day, but the cloudy night stayed above freezing. We've just had one dip to 30 degrees (-1C) so far this Fall.

Tonight it is clear, with a forecast in the mid 20s (~-5C) in the suburbs, so we decided to bring the African violets from the sunroom into the kitchen for the night. This is an exercise we perform through the winter, as the sunroom warms up pretty well during even the coldest days. We take them out mornings, and bring them inside at nightfall.

This is our current violet collection. There are four varieties here; one is pink and the rest are variations on the traditional indigo color. It is nice that they usually bloom this time of year.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The usual spread for an unusual crowd

kw: local events, holidays, thanksgiving day

Some years we have a big event on Thanksgiving Day and get together with a lot of people, and other years it is a more modest effort. This time, some friends asked us to help feed a bunch of students who were having a special conference over the weekend. They were all from China, and the event was sponsored at the church.

Here is the spread, rather modest as it is intended to feed about twenty people. Three families joined together. There was another table full of desserts. In addition to turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing, with gravy on the side of course, there were some interesting Asian dishes, including some crab wafers at upper left, two kinds of yam preparations at upper right, and a soybean concoction at lower right.

The local university has the odd policy of totally closing the dorms over the break, expecting that everyone will go home for the holidays. It doesn't take into account that some foreign students aren't going to return to China or India or elsewhere and have to make other arrangements locally. We kept a couple of the students for a night, trading them to other families after that.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Not just picnic pests

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, animals, social insects, photography

Ants! They outweigh us. There is at least one of their colonies, or societies, that outnumbers the human race by a huge factor. The renowned scientist Edward O. Wilson is but one of many scientists whose career has been devoted to them. Another is his student Mark W. Moffett, who has the added distinction of producing the best-ever photographs of insects. While Adventures Among Ants: A Global Safari With a Cast of Trillions is not quite a coffee-table book, it sports numerous photographs that I would class among the best wildlife photographs ever taken.

Look at this image of the African army ant Dorylus [the species is not stated]. Sharply focused, superbly composed, with stunning lighting, it exemplifies the genre. As the author explains in his first chapter, when he set out to study ants, one of the first books he obtained was a guide to photographing models, and he particularly studied the lighting techniques. This attention to detail earned him the attention of National Geographic editors, and he has worked with them from time to time for decades.

In this book, Dr. Moffett focuses our attention on six genera of ants: The Marauder Ant Pheidologeton diversus and related species of Asia, The African Army Ant Dorylus, the Weaver Ant Oecophylla of Africa and Australiasia, and in the New World, the Amazon Ant Polyergus, the Leafcutter Ant Atta, and the Argentine Ant Linepithema humile.

Marauder ants, a moniker the author gave them, are similar to army ants, a case of convergent evolution. A marauder colony is omnivorous, taking about equal amounts of animal prey and high-quality plant matter by raiding along a broad front supported by a network of pathways and long-established trunk lines. This species has the greatest polymorphism known, with four sizes of workers, and the largest "giant majors" are up to 800 times the weight of the smallest minor workers. Imagine a small man, say 125 pounds, working with a large brontosaur weighing 50 tons (eight times the weight of the largest elephant). Can you say Fred Flintstone?

Both Marauder ants and Army ants exhibit great polymorphism and extensive division of labor. The large workers aren't just soldiers, but do all kinds of heavier tasks. A swarm of the smallest workers typically suffices to immobilize a prey insect or small vertebrate, but it often takes a visit by media or major workers to complete the killing and dismemberment of prey into carryable pieces.

What these two kinds of raiding ants are to ground-level biomes, the Weaver ants are to the treetops. They are less polymorphic, but do have a division of labor based more on the age of the ant. Though they raid like army ants, they are also ranchers, caring for scale insects and other honeydew-producing "cattle" in some of the leafy "houses" they construct using silk from their larvae.

Almost total opposites in habit are the Amazon ants, one genus of which are the familiar "red ants" of American back yards. I call them the Lazybones ants, because they don't work. Solomon certainly did not have Amazon ants in mind when he exhorted, "Look to the ant, sluggard." The only work an Amazon ant does is to raid a nearby Formica (black ant) nest to steal the pupae. A few thousand red ants at a time will go out in late afternoon and raid a Formica nest. The black ants put up little resistance besides blocking the anthill entrances. Once the red ants break in, the black ants let the raid proceed. The stolen pupae are hatched in the red ant colony and raised to be slaves, by slaves already there. The red ants don't even feed themselves, and would starve if not fed by slaves.

We're back to ants that work for themselves. Probably the hardest workers are the gardening ants, the Leafcutters, such as these Atta cephalotes workers, also called Parasol ants, carrying leaf cuttings to the nest.

In the nest, leaf pieces are chewed into mulch and added to a fungus garden, which small workers tend assiduously, cleaning out competing fungi and killing encroaching pests, except for a few species that employ chemical camouflage, which is a problem that most ant colonies encounter. These little agriculturalists have been perfecting their farming techniques for fifty million years. The relative efficiency of genetic versus cultural evolution is thus starkly shown: most of the progress they made over those millions of years was raced through by humans in about eight thousand years.

Hey! Any conspiracy theorists reading this? How's this for a global conspiracy? There is a supercolony of Argentine ants called the Very Large Colony that covers much of the state of California, and bids fair to spread nationwide. These little gray "sugar ants" (a frequent visitor to the American kitchen) number in the trillions and are the largest superorganisms known. Where the Argentine ant has invaded America, most other ant species are in decline or have been wiped out. The only ant that typically holds its own against them is the Fire ant. Get this: Fire ants also hail from Argentina.

Argentina is a breeding ground for super-ants. When a colony of any ant species from Argentina gets started in a North American (or European—watch out, you guys!) yard, it is like dropping the Phillies among the Little Leagues. Nobody else is gonna win any games. Argentine ants, in particular, are accustomed to constant warfare, are super-aggressive, and even though the workers are all quite small, they are fearless and stupendously numerous and simply swamp an enemy out of existence.

Both Argentine and Fire ants have multiple hills and multiple queens over the area dominated by one swarm. Dr. Moffett makes a good case that each swarm is a single species, so that there are four species/supercolonies known in California, and a handful around the rest of North America. They are reproductively isolated because they kill any ant that "smells wrong", including flying-in drones that might provide genetic mixing. The borders between colonies are no-mans(ants)-lands that host constant wars. If you happen to live in Escondido, for example, and live in just the wrong place, your yard is a battleground, always littered with dead ants.

In a closing chapter, the author muses on three ways of thinking about an ant society: as a society, as an organism, and as a mind. As to the latter point, though it seems a stretch, the way a group of ants milling about reach "decisions" related to food, or nesting places, or where to go, bears quite a resemblance to the way neurons in an animal brain are thought to reach decisions. Whereas the neurons in a human brain communicate over small distances at speeds of about 66 m/s (150 mph), ants communicate at their walking/running rates of about a meter per minute. Yet the number of neurons available for ant thought in a large colony easily exceed the neurons in a human brain. Like the mills of the gods, ant thinking must be very slow, but exceedingly detailed.

Just six species, of the 12,000 or more that are known! There is so much yet to learn, and one lifetime is so, so short. A book like this is the best reason for the existence of books.