Saturday, April 30, 2011

Road trip travel day

kw: travel notes

This may be the only post I get off today. My wife and I have been on a road trip. For reasons of security policy, I don't blog about travel while on the road.

Most of the trip has been on Interstate 70. At least through western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri it is also the Blue Star Memorial Highway. We saw these markers at every rest stop we used, and we used a lot of them, because we stop frequently to change drivers or to stretch our legs.

This was a genealogical trip, and quite successful. More to come...

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Sight with other eyes

kw: photography, astronomy, color vision

Image: NGC6744, a galaxy much like the Milky Way, 30 million light-years away, in an RGB image color balanced to look like it does visually.

Many years ago I used to wonder what it would be like to see with eyes that perceived color differently. Of course, sight is more than a mechanical phenomenon. The human (primate) retina is a carpet of well-mixed "red" and "green" receptors that overlap greatly in their wavelength sensitivity, and a scattering of less than ten percent "blue" receptors that have very little overlap with either of the others (though "red" has a secondary peak at blue wavelengths). The visual center in the brain boosts the blue signal to be on a par with the other two, while constantly adjusting so in most lighting situations the incident light seems "white".

We see with other eyes when we make a color photograph, because the filters in the film or digital sensor strictly separate red from green from blue, and print or display narrow-band signals that stimulate the color receptors in our eyes separately. Once I understood this principle, I daydreamed about using different films and filters to make separate "R" and "G" and "B" negatives, from which I could build a color print the way very early color photography was done. When I had access to a darkroom, I did a few experiments, but with poor results; I have poor laboratory skills. Special Infrared sensitive film would produce a false color image that was shifted a little bit to longer wavelengths. That was at least usable by klutzy old me, but that was about it.

It is easier now. False color rendition of all sorts of images is common, given digital tools for producing and compositing images. This is particularly true of astronomical imaging. This view of NGC6744 is a far-infrared image with false color, wherein the wavelengths captured range from 3 to 22 microns, and are printed as if they were in the visible range of 0.4 to 0.7 microns. It was made with the WISE spacecraft, which operated from December 2009 until February this year.

At first glimpse, the galaxy looks very similar, just more "technicolor". The shape is the same, and the bright areas are similar. The most noticeable feature is the bluish-appearing central bulge; the bar seen in the RGB image does not show. Then there are five major reddish areas, and a number of smaller ones, that mark sites of active star formation. The flanking areas that are green in the IR image are blue in the RGB image, and would be bright in an ultraviolet view. They mark young stars that have blown away the dust and gas that shrouded their infancy.

My first daydreams about false color imaging were just centered on the coolness of it, an interest without a focus. Others with more practical needs made it a reality. The fields in which it is used are many, from LANDSAT earth images to the thermal imaging an "energy consultant" will use to show you how your house is wasting energy. A pair of images like those above is still thrilling to me for the sheer coolness of it.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Spider rating

kw: games, achievements

A few days ago, in this post, I noted that my win/loss ratio for the XP version of Spider Cell was 25.2%. The Windows 7 version may be just a tad easier, or I'm learning more tricks. This clip from the Games menu shows that I've played 939 games and won 30% of them. In precise terms, 282/939 = 0.30032, so it is just barely 30%. Ha! I'll take it!

By the way, this is for the Intermediate version, as the image shows. It is the only version I've played. I know one person who only plays the Advanced version, the one with all four suits. He says he wins a game from time to time, but well below 10%. On the other hand, I don't know anyone who plays the Beginner version the most. There is a certain level of frustration that each of us can bear, and we gravitate accordingly.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

How average a star

kw: citizen science, astronomy

It is only after classifying a star that you get to know its designation. This one is APH23088897, a small star, probably spectral type K5, based on the temperature of 4800K. You'll need to click on the image to read the particulars.

I decided to capture this as about the most average star I've seen, though that depends a lot on what you mean by "average". The Sun is often called an average star, though more than 90% of all stars are smaller and dimmer. But those that are larger range up to 100 times as massive and millions of times as luminous, while the smallest true stars of type M8 or M9 (some folks call M9 the beginning of brown dwarfs) are about one-twelfth the mass of the Sun and very faint. The arithmetic mean of such a distribution is meaningless, but the logmean—the average of the logarithms—is useful. My rough calculation would make a K5 star very close to "average".

Another thing that is hard to average out is the steadiness of the luminosity. This star is slightly variable, with a luminosity range of about a fifth of a percent. This is actually similar to the Sun's range of brightness due to varying sunspot numbers over a period of a few days. Many of the stars I see in Planet Hunters are very steady, with variations less than one in ten thousand, though the precision of recording the brightness is not at that level due to statistical photon noise. The various ways a star can be variable make an average variability quite moot. It is like the rainbow: What is the average color?

So far I have classified nearly 3,800 stars. My current rate is rather low; I spend less time on this computer over all than I did a few months ago. According to some scuttlebutt in the blogs, a few people have classified tens of thousands. The thousands of citizen scientists who are doing this have produced more than 2.6 million classifications to date, and the Kepler team has identified 69 potential planets so far among these data; this is in addition to many found by software methods alone. Humans see things computers don't so both methods are yielding unique findings.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The last month?

kw: eschatology, biblical interpretation, false prophets

Has Family Radio gone off the deep end? Is the exhortation and interpretation presented by eBibleFellowship in any way accurate? While I believe it is not accurate, I is possible for God to bring about a change of the age at any time. Why not in 26 more days? The prediction is not that the whole world will end this May 21. Rather, that date they expect the rapture, followed by a five-month period of great torment for any left behind. The real end is to be in October.

I have maintained for decades that whenever someone makes a prediction of "the date" for the end of the age, it is guaranteed to be wrong. I still think so. But the conclusion of the exhortation is worth heeding: Pray together with your family members. Read the Bible. Forgive others. Be reconciled to the estranged ones. Whether this age ends this month or not, these are good ideas any time.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

News flash in planetland

kw: citizen science, astronomy, extrasolar planets

OK, here is what planetary transits look like for a very quiet star, a small (~K6) star that does not pulsate or flare as so many of these do. The orbital period is just over ten days, so the planet is close in. It just appeared in my list of "Candidates".

By my calculations, from the amount of light it eclipses, the planet's diameter is 45,000 km, or just over 3.5 times the diameter of Earth. This makes it just a bit smaller than Neptune.

I didn't observe it on the day of discovery, but a few days later. There is one other star for which I am named (along with a dozen others) as having observed it the first day. This is the luck of the draw; the Planet Hunter team's software parcels out light curves randomly to whoever is logged in.

Is Easter for all?

kw: articles, faith, resurrection, eschatology

In the April 24, 2011 issue of Time, an article by Jon Meacham is titled "Is Hell Dead?" The issue's cover asks, "What if there's no Hell?" The article reports on the issues raised by Evangelical pastor Rob Bell's new book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. I have not read the book … yet. Meacham makes it clear that Bell is not denying the existence of Hell outright, but questioning its meaning and, particularly, who it is for and if it is permanent. (Note: The image is © Copyright 2011 Cipone, from Flickr, titled "Souls Rising to Heaven")

This is Easter Sunday, according to the Roman Catholic ecclesiastical calendar, followed by nearly all Protestants also. On a day commemorating such a joyous event, it is pertinent to ask, "Who is salvation for?" and "If heaven is for all, what is gained by receiving Jesus?" As I am musing here, this is not a theological treatise, and I'll quote Bible verses with little or no attribution; those who are interested can find the references at Bible Gateway. I quote the NIV.

Firstly, if Jesus is quoted accurately, and if he meant what He said, He plans to send some to eternal fire: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’” I have read and heard a number of times that this verse in Matthew 25 shows that Hell is not primarily for humans but for angels (Satan is an angel), and that any humans that wind up there have chosen to follow the devil. But let us back up a little. This is the close of Jesus's discussion of sheep and goats. Here opinions differ. Some think that the sheep accepted Jesus and the goats didn't. However, Jesus makes it clear that the sheep took care of His persecuted followers and the goats did not. Neither the sheep nor the goats are followers of Jesus, but people who act out of common humanity to reduce the suffering of others, or do not. The sheep become citizens of the kingdom of God.

Think a moment. All the followers of Jesus are promised royalty, to be kings with Him. All the Old Testament saved ones, the descendants of Abraham by Isaac, are promised an eternal priesthood. If only these are in the heavenly kingdom, whom do the kings govern, and whom do the priests lead in worship to God? There need to be citizens who are not kings or priests. The sheep are at least one source of citizens, and it is a given that the citizens outnumber their rulers and leaders. Jesus also said, “…if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

Secondly, what and where is the eternal kingdom? In at least two places in The Revelation, it is stated that the New Jerusalem, that golden city with gem-adorned walls and pearls for gates, comes down from heaven to the Earth. Passages in the prophetic books speak of a city of God and of the “kings of the Earth” who bring tribute to it. Heaven is temporary. The City of God in Heaven is being prepared to become an earthly dwelling place of God and His people, the center of His government over all the Earth and its citizens.

Thirdly, consider the phrase “child of God.” You were once a child (maybe you still are). When a boy child grows up, he becomes a man; a girl child becomes a woman. Who or what does a God child grow up to be? Jesus is well known as the “only begotten Son,” but he is also called “firstborn of many brothers” in Romans. Many theologies do speak of the deification of believers.

These threads come together to show the following:
  • Hell is probably permanent, but its human residents are expected to be few (I don't expect Stalin or Mao will ever get out).
  • Citizenship in the kingdom of God (or Kingdom of Heaven) is earned by good works, particularly by caring for persecuted believers. This message is called the Eternal Gospel in The Revelation.
  • This kingdom will be on the Earth, not in some off-Earth heaven.
  • Those who receive Jesus do gain something special: Deification and Royalty. These can only be received by faith, but training for the faithful exercise of godhood and kingship takes a lifetime.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Imperfect Spider wins and losses

kw: games, statistical distributions

During the last year that I had a computer running Windows XP I kept statistics for 670 Spider Cell games. I won 169 of the games, or 25.2%. I have not yet kept any statistics for the Windows 7 version, but the program reports that I have won 29%. Perhaps this version is easier, or perhaps I am just temporarily ahead of the curve. Also, it may be that keeping the statistics interrupted the flow of play enough that I didn't play as well.

I gathered these statistics to see what the probabilities are for games of various length. The shortest possible winning game is 96 moves. Though there is no longest possible game, because you can use useless moves to inflate the numbers, I used rational rules of play to avoid making extra moves.

Of the games I won, the final tally ranged from 112 to 165, with a mean value of 140. This chart shows that the tallies are normally distributed, with a standard deviation of 11. That means that the intercept at a tally of 96 is at a standard deviation of -4.0. Thus I would expect a game in the 96 range about once per 31,600 winning games. At the rate I win, I might see such a score if I played about 120,000 games. The lowest tally I've seen is 108. That is at 2.9 sigmas, or once per 536 wins.

The statistics on losing are equally interesting. The most likely circumstance is just moving cards about and getting no suits to "complete". Generally, if you can get four suits completed, you will win, and I consider getting five completed means winning is assured, but I've had two games that had five completed suits, yet no win was possible. A statistical chart of losing games, charted by completed suits, is no surprise:

The more suits you complete, the more likely you are to be able to play longer, because typically more cards get uncovered. Note that my shortest game tallies 25 moves. There were two deals of six for which no move was possible. The shortest possible game is 0 moves, but that would require all the deals to be stonewalls, with no possible moves.

Though there is a little curvature to these distributions in line-normal space, we can estimate how likely such a situation is. Zero-deck games are nearly normally distributed with an average of 54 and a standard deviation of 13. This intersects zero at -4.15, meaning once each 60,000 zero-deck games. Such games make up about 45% of all games, so again, it would take playing about 120,000 games to have much chance of seeing a total tally near zero. The negative curvature of the line hints that this estimate may be very optimistic!

Well, I've certainly spent a lot of time gathering these data. Analyzing them has been fun. At the moment I don't expect to gather more statistics. I got different kinds of irons in the fire at present.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Two good organizations to know

kw: medicine, medical studies, watchdog groups

Just a quick note of support for two groups that are addressing problems in the field of medicine that should have been the province of AMA or a similar organization, but are ignored by them.

Firstly, a general-purpose organization is the Cochrane Collaboration, whose "About Us" page states
The Cochrane Collaboration, established in 1993, is an international network of people helping health care providers, policy makers, patients, their advocates and carers, make well-informed decisions about human health care by preparing, updating and promoting the accessibility of Cochrane Reviews – over 4,500 so far, published online in The Cochrane Library.
Considering that only about half of common treatments are known to be effective, they are doing the heavy lifting we all depend on.

Secondly, a narrowly-focused organization, Truth in Medicine, deals primarily with the use of "surgical mesh", which is a lot like the stuff that makes up a bag you buy onions in. Its use in the human body is found to cause harm and do little good, yet many surgeons still promote it. The mission statement of TiM reads
Truth in Medicine Incorporated is a patient advocacy organization which educates the public about the potential risks and complications from the implantation of synthetic surgical mesh into the human body.

The organization also educates and supports patients who have already been harmed by surgical implantation of synthetic mesh.
I have not gone so far as to donate to either organization yet, but I will continue to study them, and I do not rule it out.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

One upon another

kw: science, geology, interpretation

I tend to have a messy desk. Things I don't deal with immediately get other stuff piled on top, until there are several layers. Then when I remember something I have to do something about, I need to think, "When was that?" Once I know that, I know how deep I have to dig to find it. I usually know approximately where to look. I also know that the older stuff is on the bottom.

Geology, the profession I was educated for, works in a reverse fashion. Most places, things are also in order, with the younger stuff on top or shallower than older stuff. Because most dirt, soil, and rock materials are laid down in order, and in layers, one of the first pieces of geological jargon a new geology student has to learn is "stratigraphy." The prefix "strat-" means "layer".

A short definition of stratigraphy is "The study and interpretation of layering in geological and archaeological deposits." Archaeology is just geology applied to layers that may contain fossils or artifacts or other human or hominid remains. More recent stuff, in other words. When archaeologists dig into cave deposits to recover bones and artifacts, they are very careful to record which layer in which each item was found; they keep good stratigraphic records. Similarly, when palaeontologists retrieve fossils or other traces of ancient living things, or other materials of interest such as mineral deposits, they must keep good stratigraphic records.

What is of interest to me today is the variety of sub-disciplines that make up the large field of stratigraphic interpretation. Four words are used to describe four different means of interpreting the layering found in Earth's crust, to derive the relative older-younger relationships:
  1. Lithostratigraphy is the study of the sequence of rock types. It is well known that many geological processes take place over large areas. The filling in of an ocean basin may be a generally uniform process that covers hundreds of miles. Sand dune fields that accompany desert formation may also cover many miles. So if in one large outcrop you find the sequence (from bottom to top) rocky sand, shaly mud, fine sand, dune sand; then several miles away there is an outcrop with the same sequence and similar thicknesses of each layer, it is likely that the two outcrops are related. Both cover a similar time span, and a few events within that time span can be correlated between the two outcrops.
  2. Biostratigraphy is the study of sequences of fossils, often within layers that are lithologically uniform, and of course from layer to layer. Many kinds of animals and some plants were widespread, even having worldwide distribution during the period in which they flourished. Whenever you find one of these "index fossils" as they are called, you can state that the layer in which it was found has a certain geological relationship, wherever on Earth it may be.
  3. Stable Isotope Stratigraphy is not usually worldwide in scope, but serves to correlate things like a certain concentration of an isotope such as O18 throughout a region that experienced a similar climatic history, such as a large lake or a semi-enclosed ocean basin. Most frequently, it is the pattern in the rise and fall of the isotope's concentration that is mapped and used to correlate from place to place.
  4. Magnetostratigraphy is the most recent stratigraphic tool, being only about fifty years old. It is based on the learning in the early 1960s that Earth's magnetic field has reversed itself periodically. By taking a series of magnetic measurements across a layered outcrop, the positions of reversals can be mapped and correlated from place to place. This was a worldwide phenomenon.
These four provide relative timing but not absolute timing. A rough measure of absolute timing can be determined by observing the rate at which certain kinds of sediments are laid down, particularly those that form yearly layers that can be distinguished in the rock. Varved shales are an example, and have been used to determine absolute times, in certain specific locations, for deposits as old as 400,000 years (but imagine counting all those thin layers!).

The absolute time scale needed to tie all of the stratigraphic data together was provided during the Twentieth Century by radiostratigraphy, which uses long-lived radioactive isotopes to age-date a number of common rock types. There are a number of different time ranges that are related to various radioisotopes. For example, the most common isotope of Uranium, U-238, is one of the longest, with a half life just over 4.5 billion (4500 million) years. Because of its feeble activity, it is not useful for "short" spans of time of less than a few million years. At the other end of the scale, the isotope C-14 has a half life of 5,730 years. While it is hard to determine very short time spans of a decade or less, it is well suited to time ranges between 100 and 75,000 years. Other isotopes can be used to cover intermediate spans of time.

One very useful synergy between methods is to gather well-dated specimens of index fossils. That way, for most uses, if you know that a certain fossil animal only lived between 105 and 108 million years ago, finding this fossil immediately places the rock you found it in within this time range. Finding multiple index fossils and gathering a suite of them across an outcrop gives you a series of good measures of the chronostratigraphy of the deposit, from which you can interpolate the points in between as needed.

The aim of stratigraphic study is to pin down the chronostratigraphy, by whatever method(s). Once a geologist knows that, a lot of other pieces of information can be correlated to develop a proper interpretation of the events that occurred to put those rocks in that place. The events are the goal; the rocks are the evidence.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Space travel - behind the curtain

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, space travel, astronauts

I want to comment first on the closing words of Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach.
"Yes, the money could be better spent on Earth. But would it? Since when has money saved by government redlining been spent on education or cancer research? It is always squandered. Let's squander some on Mars. Let's go out and play."
Squandered? True, but whether the machines and men go to Mars or other machines and men go to Afghanistan or Libya, the dollars are spent right here! People complained in 1969 about the "millions of dollars left on the Moon" by the astronauts when they returned to Earth. A $1,200 Hasselblad camera was one item left behind: "What a waste!" It would have cost much more than $1,200 to lift from the Moon back to Earth, but more than that, every single dollar spent for that camera, its marketing and procurement, and for everything else including the fuel and equipment that took the astronauts to the moon and back, was spent on Earth, primarily in the good old U S of A. We spent a trillion dollars on wars in the past ten years. Where is the money? Right here! It was spent right here and circulated in the US national economy. OK, EoR (End of Rant).

Packing for Mars is a great read that delves into all kinds of aspects of getting people into space and keeping them from dying there, and getting them back. Astronauts need to be rather different from most of us, for example. They have to be preternaturally smart, yet capable of enduring huge doses of boredom. Great self-starters, but tolerant of micromanagement because every tiny sub-task of every bit of work is scripted beforehand. They get autonomy only when things go wrong. Yet this doesn't give them much motivation to "help" things go wrong, because there are so many ways to go wrong in a fatal way, and so few ways to survive errors.

Life without gravity seems idyllic; we all dream of flying about, weightless. In a microgravity environment, though, just trying to take a drink can kill you. Those videos of astronauts that made a little ball of water, then ingested it? They had to practice a lot, with someone watching and ready to help them get the water out of their nose before they suffocated. Astronauts-in-training get nausea-control training, and still a third to half of them vomit the moment they first see someone floating upside down, or find themselves visually upside down or sideways and an odd food smell wafts by. And floating vomitus is even more dangerous than floating water. It burns while you're wiping it off. Not for nothing is the C-9 plane used for zero-g training called the Vomit Comet.

Ms Roach got a ride in the VC/C-9, and fortunately, loved it, except for the 2-G intervals between 20-second 0-G sections of the ride. When your gravity meter is going 0-2-0-2-0-2-0-2, you start to wonder just why you signed up for this ride. You have to start out absolutely adoring roller coaster rides; there is no guarantee that you'll still like them afterward. But the VC gets a lot of use because every piece of equipment has to be tested to be sure something weird doesn't happen when the G-meter reads zero.

So if water can kill you, how ya gonna bathe? Usually, they don't. An aspect of retrieving a space capsule and helping the astronauts out of it that didn't make it into the press was the incredible smell. There is a way to sponge bathe in the ISS, as there was in MIR, but nobody likes it much. But a hot shower, with water squirting everywhere? A formula for a capsule full of drowned crew.

And so it goes. Zero G erodes your bones, and nothing they have tried has been able to alleviate it much. And if sex is even possible without gravity to help a couple stay in contact, NASA isn't telling, and neither are the other space-faring nations and agencies. "Everybody" is certain it's been tried. No tales have been told.

So, we're faced with getting several humans of some average size to Mars and back, in a mission that'll take about 2.5 years. Call it a bit less than a thousand days. Food: 1.5-2 pounds daily (0.7-0.9 kg), or up to nearly a ton per person. Water: twice that amount, unless it can be efficiently recycled. Oxygen: midway between, say another ton or ton-and-a-half per person, again depending on whether it can be recycled by less massive machinery and chemicals. Then you have to absorb carbon dioxide, and the chemicals and machinery to do so come to more tons.

An aspect not covered, nay, barely mentioned, is radiation exposure. I found this article in New Scientist, which points out that a Mars mission will expose a person to more than two sieverts, assuming no extra solar flares pop off during the mission. A sievert is about a thousand CT scans. Worry #1: retired astronauts getting cancer, lots of it. It is probably best to use the oldest astronauts who are fit enough. Worry #2: non-proton cosmic rays do lots more damage than the proton and electron kind, and are prevalent enough that an astronaut's brain could lose an IQ point per month. Send up a genius, get back someone quite ordinary. Don't bother sending up an ordinary bloke; you'll get back someone who has forgotten how to read.

If this last item can be overcome, such as by having the crew encased in fifty tons of food and water on the way up, and in fifty tons of excrement and "used water" by the time they are back, then the trip is worth it. Forget the dollars. The human instrument is still the one that causes all the trouble. I vote for designing a rocket motor that goes ten times as fast! Get 'em there in thirty days, not 300, and get 'em back equally quickly. While they are there, have 'em dig in so they can at least sleep underground. Better yet, send a robotic digging facility first, so they arrive to a ready-made "subway tunnel" to live in. Now that's a mission worth fighting for!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Staying above water

kw: national debt, predictions

I had some thought of gathering data to make a chart of the monetary trouble the nation is in, but found that others have done so already.

This chart, from this Wikipedia article, is packed with information. Firstly, the shape of the area plot shows how the total National Debt compares with Gross Domestic Product, from 1940 to today. In the Wikipedia article, the author writes that the dates shown are for the end of a Federal fiscal year, so that the 2009 marker at the lower right indicates October 1, 2009, the end of the 2009 fiscal year.

Secondly, the red and blue hues with the name labels show the administration during the years in question. Finally, we see that we are approaching a level of debt not seen since the run-up to World War II. Considering that WW III began nineteen years ago, this is no surprise. The surprise is the level of denial at all levels of government.

On one hand, this is alarming, because we are mortgaging our children's futures. On the other hand, we need to consider an appropriate analogy. What does it mean for national debt to approach 100% of GDP? In family terms, the total federal debt is similar to a family's debt, and the GDP is analogous to the family income.

According to the formula in use prior to about 2002, a bank would evaluate your creditworthiness for a new loan in part by the 25/38 rule: Home mortgage payments must consume no more than 25% of your gross income, and total debt service payments, adding in car loans and credit card payments, must be 38% or less. However, even when home mortgage rates were in the 8% range, just fifteen to twenty years ago (and they have been higher at a few earlier times), the value of the loan was about 11-12 times the yearly payments. Now with 5% money available, the value of a loan is about fifteen times the yearly payments. If a home mortgage is consuming a quarter of your income, then the mortgaged amount is between three and four times your gross income. That is considered a sustainable amount of debt by a conservative banker, and does not count the extra debt that may push the amount of your payments toward 38%. Because car loans have higher interest rates (even if hidden in extra fees so they can claim 0%), and credit card rates are much, much higher, the total debt added is small compared to a mortgage.

In practical terms, the point in my life that my wife and I had the worst debt-to-income ratio, we owned two houses with mortgages totaling $62,000, and had a total income for both of us of just under $30,000. Our debt was more than 200% of our gross income. By contrast, our current debt totals 71% of our gross income. And, as a matter of fact, if we do not pay off our mortgage prior to passing away, the mortgage will be passed on to our son along with the equity in our home; we have in a way mortgaged his future.

Here the analogy breaks down. He can sell the house, which is only about 30% mortgaged at present. He'll have money left over. The Federal government can hardly sell the country to pay off its debts, although in actuality, about $1.1 trillion is held by China of a total of $4.4 trillion or 30% of the federal debt, held in foreign hands. In a sense, we've already sold off 30% of the country! That concerns me more than the total size of the national debt.

So, I am concerned, but the concern is balanced. People whose loans were foreclosed in and after 2007 had been put into situations where they'd borrowed up to six or eight times their total income, with payments that frequently exceeded 50% of their income. That was unsustainable, and if debt service payments reach 50% of federal income, our country will have entered a near-bankrupt condition. We are getting close, and that is the reason behind the S&P action, downgrading the country's credit rating.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

On the go safely

kw: product testing

I may be the last guy on the block to get a GPS unit for the car. I have been taking huge advantage of mapping software for years, and I am very good at reading maps, and at making them. I was an earlier purchaser of Delorme products such as Street Atlas, and as soon as AAA began offering online TripTiks, I began using them also.

We have a trip coming up, however, and I decided the extra convenience of the point-of-interest-finding functions made the purchase worth it. All the product reviews indicated that the TomTom products have the largest POI databases, so I was quite biased in their favor. As it happened, at the Best Buy I went to I did get a TomTom, one of the VIA series, which is their mid-level line. It isn't entry-level, but neither does it have some of the extras I'd be unlikely to use (nor the extra cost). The only major feature I know I won't use is the BlueTooth feature, because I don't have a BlueTooth headset.

I paid about $200. The two compelling features that pushed me this high, when I'd initially budgeted $150, were the lifetime maps/traffic that were included, and the voice recognition feature. With map updates costing $50 yearly on most units, I figured I couldn't pass it up. I noticed in the fine print that "lifetime" means "useful lifetime of the unit", which means until its memory is full. I expect this to be a few years, and if it is at least four years, I'm money ahead.

First tip to anyone getting a new unit: Don't put your real home address into it. This is the first thing the setup operation wants you to create. You don't want someone to steal the unit and use it to find your house. I entered the address of a business half a mile from my house. I know how to get home from there! Thus at the start of a return trip, I can say "Take me home" and it will get me through the stuff I don't know and into the neighborhood.

So, once I had it set up, I took it for a spin. To activate voice, you poke a microphone icon and wait for a tone. I said, "Drive to nearest Arby's." It confirmed that and set the route without trouble. But when I wanted hardware next and said, "Drive to nearest Lowe's" it kept trying to confirm if I wanted to go to Wendy's. Of course I was still sitting in the Arby's parking lot (you don't try to set your GPS while driving, do you? Hmmm?), so I said, "Cancel" and entered the POI finding menu manually, and soon had a route to the Lowe's. Later I tried saying things like "Find hardware store", only to have it enter "Locate a city center" mode. Oh, well. I guess the TomTom people figured restaurants and hotels (I haven't tried any, but will soon) are more likely targets of an on-the-road search.

So OK, it is working. Now I need to work out a reliable routine for getting it hidden before I park someplace. These are the most frequently stolen accessory now.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Superkitties, round two

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space fiction, cats, cat lovers

I reviewed Catalyst last September, the first novel of backstory by Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough about the telepathic Barque Cats, which kill vermin, provide companionship and in general guard spaceships everywhere. The second book in the current series is Catacombs.

At the end of Catalyst a space-faring Egyptian cat named Pshaw-Ra has enabled dozens of ship cats to escape a galactic destroy order that is based on a mistaken understanding of the remnants of scarab beetles in their feces. The scarabs came from the super-Egypt located on planet Mau, to which the cats are taken as Catacombs begins.

The focus of this yarn is the culture clash between the ship cats, some of which are becoming telepathic with their chosen "cat persons" due to ingesting the special scarabs, and the cats on Mau, which are regarded as deities. Much of the plot is driven by the machinations of Pshaw-Ra, who is the Grand Vizier to the Queen of Mau. The former queen, Pshaw-Ra's mate, has died while he was gone, and their daughter (of course the vain, evil one) has taken her place. In the middle third of the book, the action takes place in the catacombs attached to an underground city (Mau is quite hot, topside).

A huge, magical serpent that inhabits the underground tunnels has to be driven back a couple of times, and is finally, it seems, killed, but Phoenix-like, seeming death is part of its cyclical life. It becomes space-faring as a cloud of energy-hungry mini-serpents that threatens to extinguish some of the stars in the settled Galaxy.

Wouldn't you know it, the next generation of cats, crosses between the ship cats and the Mau cats, are just the right warriors to eliminate this horde of mini-serpents and save the threatened stars. The book ends with the end of the first battle, successful for the cats, but boding more to come.

With quite a bit of willing suspension of disbelief, the book makes a fun yarn. In the interest of continuing the series, I offer these possible title words:
  • Cataract: More goings-on beneath Mau with its underground river.
  • Cataclysm: Terrible danger for the nascent race of Barque Cats, ending with a hairbreadth escape.
  • Catamarans: An interlude on a more watery world, perhaps with a swimming version of the big serpent.
  • Catatonia: The Cats are threatened by a paralytic syndrome.
  • Catapult: I can't think of a plot line, but I had to include the word.
  • Catenary: Super Cats design suspension bridges (A catenary is also a type of geodesic in a uniform field, which might make more sense with space-faring felines).
  • Categories: The librarian duties of the more literate Cats.
  • Catalogue: A companion volume listing the names and special abilities of the varieties of Barque Cat; sort of like Pokemon catalogue lists.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Blue Crew falls down on the job

kw: complaints, service industry

Given four days of practice, I've become rather adept at sponge bathing with two quarts of water warmed in a microwave oven. There was a time when Sears employed their own service staff, and they did good work quickly, but now…

It started Saturday, when the hot water at our house got extra hot. Then Sunday, it just began to cool off, and we realized the water heater had quit working. What I surmise happened is a breakdown of the upper thermostat, which resulted in the upper heating coil (this is an electric unit) burning out. Sunday I called Sears Repair and was told someone would come Monday afternoon. Since that time:
  • Repairman 1 came Monday afternoon, fiddled around with an electrical tester, replaced the two thermostats, took my check and left.
  • By nightfall, there was still no hot water, so I made another service call. I was told someone would come Tuesday morning. I got half a day's work in between 4AM and 8AM, then returned home to await the repairman.
  • Repairman 2 called at 11AM to say he'd be arriving before Noon.
  • At 12:30 nobody had come, and no calls, so I called service again. They said, "Oh, it is scheduled for 2:45." I asked them to find out why he was late. It seems the service truck had broken down. I was to await another call.
  • Repairman 2 called again and arrived just before 3PM, in a borrowed van.
  • He determined that the upper thermostat was dead on arrival, but said he had no parts in the borrowed van and I'd have to call again, but that I had to call in the morning.
  • I called Wednesday morning, and was told nobody could come until Thursday (today). I made the appointment.
  • Repairman 3 came about 11AM this morning, and was clearly incompetent—as was the dispatcher. He'd been sent to repair a gas water heater and had no parts to replace the bad thermostat, nor did he have an electrical tester with him. I kicked him out.
  • I called Sears customer service and demanded a refund of the $200 I had already paid. The C.S. rep was at least pleasant, and promised I'd be called within the following 24 hours by someone who would work out how to make the refund.
  • I called a company I'd had recommended to me, Jos. Frederick & Sons, and asked if someone could visit today. Someone did, about an hour after my call.
  • This repairman took a look and said, "This is scary." It turned out the thermostat in the lower space was supposed to be an upper thermostat, the upper thermostat was indeed broken, and in addition the upper coil was burned out. The unit is sixteen years old, and he recommended replacement.
  • Although a replacement unit was more than $1,000, we decided to do that.
  • Another man came with a replacement unit from the warehouse, and by 2:30PM all was done. This time I paid with a credit card.
  • Before he left, I asked him to verify somehow that the coil was indeed getting current. He did so. The proof is if I get a hot shower tonight.
I'll give Sears this: their subcontractor did have one competent repairman of the three that were sent, and the customer service writer was pleasant and efficient. But they'd have better results if the service staff were Sears employees. Outsourcing is a simple way to produce more nightmares.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Professors vs Rodent

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, companies, polemics

My family first visited Disneyland in Anaheim shortly after it opened in July, 1955. I was almost eight. I was an avid watcher of the Mickey Mouse Club show. As I recall, however, I've never had any Disney merchandise other than a set of plastic mouse ears bought at the park when we visited and a rabbit-fur "coon skin hat". Not so my contemporaries. Some had Mickey or Donald PJ's or even bed sheets, and some had themed lunch boxes or notebooks (the schools permitted that in the 1950s).

Somehow my family instilled in my brothers and me an almost total resistance to "theme products." I think I've visited the Anaheim park six or seven times, most recently in 1968 with my cousins. Then late in 2003 we took our 15-year-old son to Disney World in Florida for a few days. We know people who spend a few thousand a year on Disney parks and Disney merchandise.

In last Friday's post I recounted my struggles to properly read a book that is written in a difficult style. The "Fog Index" for four paragraphs selected at random ranged from 16 to 20, meaning one would need four to eight years of education beyond high school to be able to read the text without re-reading frequently to extract meaning. I have fourteen years of university education, but I found myself re-reading from time to time.

I did finish the book. It is The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence, the second edition, by Henry A. Giroux and Grace Pollock, professors at McMaster University. Given my difficulty reading the text, I find it hard to imagine there were sufficient sales to warrant a new edition ("Updated and Expanded"). However, there is no denying the authors have something worth saying. While I think they overstate their case, there is some validity to the image of a rapacious corporate giant (around $50 billion in sales in 2009) hiding behind a facade of innocence and childhood fantasy. The reach of Disney Co. is unmistakable. As stated on page 25,
"Like many other megacorporations, it focuses on popular culture and continually expands its reach to include not only theme parks but television networks, motion picture studios, music companies, radio stations, online entertainment, cruise lines, Broadway theater productions, publishing houses, and video game development studios."
In other words, like other megacorporations, they'll take over as much of the world as they can. Is anybody surprised? There is a major retailer about which this story is told: a customer, a U.S. citizen, purchased several major appliances on credit and installed them in his hacienda in Mexico. The appliances were purchased in the U.S. but trucked to Mexico by the buyer. Not a payment was made on the debt, and when the retailer sought legal redress, there was none available because the buyer was out of the jurisdiction of the U.S. courts. So the retailer hired mercenaries to bring the fellow back to the U.S. to stand trial, and avoided charges of kidnapping because he was nabbed not on U.S. soil! In their own way, the major corporations have more power than the governments under which they purportedly operate. And let's not forget Ross Perot's rescue of his employees from Iran a generation back.

Companies exist to produce or obtain goods at the lowest cost or price possible, and sell them for the highest price the market will bear. This is how capitalism works. That Disney operates in a capitalistic manner doesn't surprise or distress me. However, there is one area in which I agree that the company bears watching: their forays into the educational field. To name just a couple of instances, the company assumed total control of Celebration, FL, including its educational system; secondly it has contracted with a few school systems to provide educational services.

Given the Disney take on American history—were they to perform a similar lobotomy of German history, it would include denying the Holocaust—there is little useful that children can gain from a Disney-supplied education besides how to most efficiently consume and how to "feel like a princess." They fit kids only for life on "Main Street, USA," but the kids will have to find out elsewhere that it never existed; that small-town "Waltons"-style living was never known by more than a few, and they all white, upper-middle-class conservatives.

Now, I happen to be white, almost-upper-middle-class, and conservative, but I wasn't born yesterday. I may have had a few years growing up in a quiet, white suburb, but it was no more than three blocks from the 8x8 shack, still standing at the time, where our next-door neighbor had been born and raised to age seventeen (sometime in the past forty years, the shack was removed; I went back and looked a few years ago). I've lived in a variety of places in eight states, but even more, I've learned history not just by reading textbooks but by reading journals and letters, and talking to aged relatives. Looking back at my own memories with a critical eye, I realize that the golden days we all remember are largely fabricated. We skip over a lot, and why shouldn't we? It is hard to remain optimistic if one harbors all the bad memories.

I support education that helps youngsters see the world as it is. I also support the option to enjoy fantasy on occasion, as a healthy escape. Disney is criticized for "inane mottoes" taught to the "cast members" at its theme parks, such as, "We work so others can play." Well, whether I am at Disneyland, or on a Holland America cruise, or at a ski resort, or even at the local burger place, I am playing while others work. That's what it is about! When I worked at Cedar Point (run by Doc Lemmon, previously with Disney), I worked my butt off; then at quitting time, I changed clothes and became one of those playing! The next shift was working now. I am glad that Disney and others have become so good at having their workers ("cast") do so in a cheerful manner. Helps me be cheerful also.

Having struggled through the whole book, what have I learned? Primarily, that I am right to complain about the Bowdlerization of history seen in popular entertainment, and not just from Disney; that I was right to undertake a major portion of the education of our son, to be certain he learned even better than the public school could offer; and that thinking is such hard work that few people ever think unless faced with a disaster, and sometimes not even then, so that corporations that provide "edutainment", of which Disney is the first, go largely unwatched. But they do need to be watched!

The basic rule of practical politics is, "Where you stand depends on where you sit." I work for a major corporation. This reduces my inclination to investigate them. But it doesn't reduce my responsibility to do so. The same goes for the Rodent who is taking over the world. Of course Disney bears watching. It is salutary to be reminded of that.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Fast gravity

kw: cosmology, articles

The January/February 2011 issue of Discover consists primarily of "Year in Science 2010", 100 short articles about "the 100 most amazing stories" of the year. Article 76 on page 71 is titled "What Lies Beyond the Edge of the Universe", written by Andrew Moseman. It concerns the work of Alexander Kashlinsky of NASA/Goddard, who has discovered a phenomenon he calls "dark flow". It seems to indicate that a large concentration of matter beyond the observable edge of the Universe is pulling everything we can see in the direction of Centaurus.

He thinks the mass doing the pulling may lie a thousand times farther away than the most distant objects we can see. This implies either that (1) gravitons are not bound by the speed of light, or (2) a gravitational field was set up, perhaps by cosmic inflation, that is coherent over distances that now exceed trillions of parsecs. Considering that in the most recent issue of Scientific American the theory of inflation is being seriously challenged, this makes for some interesting potential fallout.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A bit of the big city

kw: travel, sightseeing, photographs

(You'll need to click on all these pix to see them at a nice viewing size.)

My wife and I have wanted to have a day away for some time, so we joined a bus trip to Manhattan yesterday. I'd have posted these images last evening, but events conspired to get us home quite a bit later than we expected.

The bus dropped us all off near Times Square. Most people had come for a show or to shop (I don't understand paying $40 to go to NYC to shop). The two of us went first to the Empire State building. We walked there, which takes less than a half hour from Times Square. We were lucky, the crowds were light Saturday morning, so we were at the 86th floor observatory within an hour of arriving.

This is one of a number of nadir-to-horizon panoramas I took. Most were three-image groups that I stitched using the panorama stitcher in Windows Live Albums. This one is the best-aligned, and shows the Chrysler Building and its surroundings. You can be sure I had the camera strap firmly locked around my wrist as I held the camera out through the grid to take these!

We spent an hour at this level, then paid the extra $15 to go to the glassed-in observatory at the 102nd floor. The smudgy glass impairs the view, which is not that different from the view below. It is also a very small space; they only allow about thirty people in there at a time. I did get a better view of Central Park than I'd had before. This is one of those "OK, now I did that, there is no need to repeat the experience."

Before leaving the building, we had a bite in the Europa Cafe, which is very pleasant, and the sandwiches were excellent. It is on the South side of the building at street level.

We took the subway to the 81st Street station and spent the rest of our day at the American Museum of Natural History. I love NH museums. The entry lobby, on the second floor off Central Park West, features this stupendous dinosaur group. I didn't take quite enough photos to get a clean panorama to the height of the tall Camarasaurus's head. This is a stitch of nine images.

If you look closely, you can see a smaller Camarasaurus to the lower right, and an Allosaur (I don't know which species) to the left. The rearing sauropod is supposedly defending the youngster. This is quite a different view from the way sauropods were depicted when I was a child. They were once thought to be lumbering bags of meat without brains enough to do more than watch stupidly as carnosaurs ate them up, when they weren't keeping half-submerged in the swamps. Now they are known to have had the strength to rear up, and to trot along at respectable speeds.

We quickly made our way through the museum to the back rooms where the geological exhibits are kept. I am a mineral junkie. I'll probably post some mineral photos later. I took closeups of many large groups of crystal druses for wallpaper images.

But one treasure I simply have to show is this trilobite accompanied by a trace fossil. To a paleontologist, trace fossils, or fossils of the marks made by animals walking, are at least as valuable as skeletal or shell fossils, because they show something about animal behavior. In this case, the trilobite was walking along when it must have been overwhelmed by a mudslide, which smothered it in place at the end of its trackway.

In their day, trilobites filled the niche now filled by crabs and their relatives the lobsters and isopods. Did you know that the little pillbugs you find in your garden are isopods, related not to ants or millipedes but to lobsters? Oceanic isopods look a lot like big pillbugs, and just a little like their ancient relatives the trilobites.

We left the museum with just enough time to catch a subway back to Times Square; we actually didn't take the transferring train, but walked the last mile from Columbus Circle in plenty of time to catch the bus home. Upon our return, we found friends in the parking lot who were having trouble starting their car. Another friend had already tried, and failed, to jump start their car. They are not presently members of AAA, but I called AAA and was told I could still have someone come to start the car because we were with them. AAA insures us, whatever car we are in. However, that necessitated our staying with them, so we had a nice visit with them, which got us home an hour later than we expected. It turned out their battery was on its last legs, so they bought a battery on the spot, from the AAA guy, and were good to go.

We went straight to bed, and I also took a long nap this afternoon, so here I am, late Sunday evening writing about our Saturday. Glad to be home.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Will the fog win?

kw: observations, reading, clarity of expression

I know I am in trouble when the opening pages of a book contain one to two paragraphs each. When a quick scan shows about one period per four lines, my unease deepens.

I am reading a book that the author clearly wishes to influence a wide and general audience. It is not to be. I did a Gunning Fog analysis, with scary results. For those who haven't heard of it, the Gunning Fog index is a rough measure of the level of education required to read a text without undue difficulty. Popular novels and popularizations of nonfiction subjects typically have a Fog Index around nine, making them accessible to high school freshmen, and easily readable by any high school graduate. Among popular magazines and periodicals, only Scientific American, with a Fog Index near twelve, aims at a better-educated audience. Here is how it is measured:
  • Pick a paragraph or two that take up half a page, more or less. This will be 100-300 words.
  • Count the words in each sentence, or each clause if they are separated by semicolons.
  • Calculate the average words per sentence (WpS) and hold the total words (W) for the moment.
  • Tally up the number of "hard" words (HW), which means words with three or more syllables, except those whose third syllable is -ing or -ed or a similar suffix, and except proper names.
  • Calculate the percent "hard" words (%HW) as 100(HW/W).
  • Add these two (WpS and %HW) and multiply by 0.4.
In one line, the formula is 0.4(WpS + 100HW/W).

I did so for four paragraphs of various sizes, ranging from 163 to 373 words. They produced Fog Indices of 20.0, 19.4, 16.0, and 19.0, with an overall average of 18.2. That means the easier portions of the book require a college degree, while only readers with a PhD-level education can readily comprehend most of the text. I have fourteen years of college education, and 14+12 = 26, so one would think a book like this would be easy for me to follow, but it is not. It takes work. Just by the way, the sentences range in length from twelve to 69 words, with an average of 33. Newspaper writing usually has average sentence length near twenty.

I may finish reading the book, and I may not. Either way, I'll post a review in another couple of days. In the meantime, I'll do my best to extract meaning from the author's text. I owe that much at least.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

The limits of human enhancement

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space fiction, space aliens, space warfare, battle suits

In Cobra Guardian, the second book of the Cobra War trilogy, Timothy Zahn presents not one, but two ways to make a super-warrior. The drama revolves around Cobras, men and women implanted with servomechanisms for extra strength and speed, enhanced senses of hearing and vision, and a variety of laser, electrical and sonic weaponry. These make a single Cobra roughly the equivalent of an Abrams tank. It required the might of hundreds of Cobras to defeat a warlike branch of the Trofts, some of whom are more inclined to get ahead by trade and treaties, while others prefer conquest. The Tlossies are a Troft demesne of traders who are allies of humans, but reluctant to go to war against other Trofts on our behalf.

A sometime rival planet of humans, denied knowledge of Cobra technology, has developed warriors they call Djinni, who wear external robotic strength-enhancing and sense-enhancing technology and weaponry that makes them quite equal to Cobras, and in certain ways even more deadly.

In the middle of the mix is the planet Caelian, which has fascinating biology. In a ramped-up Darwinian system, the plants are bad enough, but even the mildest animals are downright nasty. "Flossies" look a little like sheep, though their curly pelt is more like steel wool. A large contingent of Cobras is required to guard the ordinary humans on the planet, a never-ending assignment.

On the other four planets that host Cobras, though, they are seen as anachronisms. It has been a few decades since the warlike Trofts were beaten back, and they are being seen as an unneeded expense. Politicians argue "austerity measures" that include cutbacks in Cobra funding. Then Troft warships attack all five Cobra-bearing planets.

As it happens, unknown to the Trofts, automated surgical machinery has been developed that can reduce the time needed to augment a human to Cobra in five days, and in another breakthrough, cognitive-enhancement drugs enable them to be trained in just a few more days. If the allied worlds can beat back the Troft invasion long enough to produce a few hundred new Cobras, they can win this phase of the Troft wars.

I was most fascinated by the extreme biology of Caelian. It is a wonder anything stays alive. Wind-blown plant spores turn any organic material into a green forest of rapidly-growing, and carnivorous, plants. That includes the clothes you are wearing, but fortunately not your own skin (while you are alive). Once a few plants take hold, insects follow, and they all seem to be hungry for blood. Bigger animals follow the insects, and if you don't keep the plants scraped off your clothing, you will soon be eaten by the bigger bugs and their predators. Then there are the larger predators; anything over ten pounds in size will gladly take on a human.

The humans on the planet have developed a silicon-based fabric called silliweave that denies the plants a foothold, as long as they keep plant spores wiped or scraped off it regularly (blown-in dirt can feed the plants—and it is always windy). That's a chemical technology I find interesting. What they really need is some way to keep the plant spores from gaining that first foothold, even if a little dirt has blown onto a garment. They are working on that…

I find Caelian more plausible than Cobra or Djinn, however. The energy source for their acrobatics is left unstated. An armor piercing laser hidden in a leg bone (or alongside it) needs to dissipate a few megawatts, if briefly. Even a "fingertip" laser that can zap mere mortals will cook the finger in which it operates. And jumping ten or twenty meters, straight up? I'll wait until I see it. Of course, these capabilities make for some truly rollicking fight scenes.

The book ends with an opening for Cobra Gamble, due out in another year or so. In that book the author will have to bring together all the threads laid out so nicely for us in this one.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

How likely is an F6 tornado?

kw: analysis, tornadoes

Tornado season is upon us, or at least upon the central US. Though the stronger storms occur in July and August, any spring thunderstorm spawned by colliding air masses can produce a tornado. The more common thermal thunderstorms don't do so.

I got to thinking about the strongest storm possible, and I wondered if a tornado will ever be classified F6, or even greater. When Dr. Ted Fujita first devised the F scale, ranging from F0 to F5, he considered that an F6, which he called "Inconceivable Tornado", was probably not possible energetically. Thus the final scale stops at F5, which has no defined top wind velocity. In effect, F numbers greater than five were defined out of existence! Secondarily, the scale is based on the level of damage. Since an F5 typically leaves nothing behind but plowed ground, there is no way to determine after the fact whether the top wind speed was at the low end or high end of the "F5 window", or above it.

However, that hasn't stopped others from having a second look. The CSG Tornado Table returns to the original formula for the lowest wind speed for each F number:

V (mph) = 14.1(F+2)1.5

The threshold for an F6 by this scale is 318 mph (511 kph). These folks extend the scale to F12 with a wind speed threshold of Mach 1, or 738 mph (1188 kph). You can make wind like that in a wind tunnel, but nothing even close has been observed in the natural atmosphere.

Let's review the complex way extreme wind velocity is produced.

This image, from Jon Merage's Gallery of weather photos shows a multi-vortex tornado, probably an F3, at a very early stage, before it picked up enough dirt to obscure its structure. Three of the sub-vortices Fujita called "suction vortices" can be seen.

The whirling air in a suction vortex can reach 100 mph (160 kph) relative to the center of the vortex. In the most powerful tornadoes, the main vortex's wind speed is 100-150 mph (160-240 kph), so the outer edge of a suction vortex—in an F5 that is standing still—can reach 250 mph. But they don't stand still. A typical tornado moves along at about 30 mph (less than 50 kph), but they can zoom across the landscape at 60-70 mph (95-110 kph), so it is possible for all these to add up to very local wind speeds as high as 320 mph (515 kph).

With this in mind, it is just possible that perhaps two storms in history reached F6 velocities. Thus, while such storms seem not just possible, but may be historical, they are very, very rare. What keeps the lid on?

There is a literal lid on the power of tornadic thunderstorms: the thickness of the troposphere. A feature of the largest thunderstorms that illustrates this visually is the anvil, shown here in a photo from Spacelab (see this WeatherQuestions item for more info). It shows the top of a thunderstorm that has bumped up into the stratosphere and been forced to spread out. In the troposphere, where all weather occurs, temperature nearly always decreases with altitude. Above this, the temperature in the stratosphere rises with altitude, which prevents rising air masses from rising further. The rising, moist air masses that spawn thunderstorms get their energy from the cooling with altitude, and are weakened when they hit the stratosphere. A very strong rising air mass may punch a kilometer or two into the stratosphere, but that's about the limit.

Will global warming increase the chances for more F5 storms, and possibly some F6-scale tornadoes? It is not likely. Ground-level heating will be the greatest at high latitudes, and there will be little effect nearer the equator. If anything, the troposphere might increase in thickness farther to the north, at the expense of the atmosphere near the equator, thus making the "tornado belt" wider but less intense overall. I am not sure the northern Canadians and Siberians (and possibly the gauchos in southern Argentina) will welcome a push of tornado-potential weather to greater latitudes. But it will take a lot of warming to make a significant difference in the extent of each continent that can support frequent tornadoes.

F6: possible? Yes. Plausible? Less so. Based on history, about one tornado per century just might qualify.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Half a thumb up

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space aliens, jupiter, political drama

A few years ago (before I began this blog) Ben Bova released Jupiter, a space science tale about finding big (mountain-size) creatures slubbing around in Jupiter's planet-spanning ocean. There was a hint that they may be intelligent (i.e. able to communicate), which left an open path to a sequel. The sequel has arrived: Leviathans of Jupiter.

The book is big, 477 pages, and large parts of it are full of overdrawn political intrigue that simply bores me, so I read the first and last hundred pages. The primary good idea here is that the big Jovians communicate by sight. They are like deep-sea squid, with light organs that function like a display screen so they can communicate with pictures. I recall a story set on Earth in which giant squid can make intelligible pictures in a similar manner. I don't know if Bova got the idea from that…or even perhaps he wrote that one, also!

The plot boils down to a group of scientists proving that these "Leviathans" are intelligent enough to communicate with humans sent among them in a giant submersible that has multiple hulls so it can survive to depths exceeding a thousand kilometers under a gravity of about 2.5 G's. The humans attempt communication with a kind of brain probe, but this fails. Instead, the light display method turns out to work best.

There is, of course, a villain, a ruthless woman who believes the lead scientist at the Jupiter research station is competing with her for presidency of the International Astronautical Authority. She is prepared to destroy him and his program, and kill a few people along the way, to meet this perceived threat.

I have experienced growing unease these past ten or twenty years with the poor quality of the political conflicts in Sci-Fi in general. It seems there has to be a villain who is totally and irredeemably bad. It took me many years to understand that most of civilization is an attempt to manage the conflict that naturally arises because everyone, meaning everyone, is partly right and partly wrong, always. Most political conflict is between people who mean well but have different priorities, well leavened with the law of unintended consequences. As Bobby Burns wrote, "The best-laid plans o' mice and men gang oft agley." (gang agley being Erse for "jump the tracks").

I suppose Sci-Fi writers like black-and-white stories better than shades-of-gray. Too few realize the rainbow of "mostly good" sociological attitudes that must be accommodated to make any workable compromise. But who can blame only the authors? It is what most readers also prefer. In my experience, most of those who enjoy Sci-Fi, myself included, are more comfortable with machines (predictable mechanisms) than with people (messy and unpredictable). So we want our heroes to be wholly, even painfully, good and our villains to be completely evil. But I write "our" as a partial distruth, for I am no longer satisfied with such polarization. I've always likes stories better when people were pitted, not against an evil adversary, but against an uncaring Universe, and needed better knowledge and better engineering to overcome its obstacles. And those few stories in which people of different viewpoints had to collaborate to "work it out" are most satisfying.

In Leviathans of Jupiter, the story of overcoming the extreme pressures of the deep Jovian ocean, and the alien mind-set of its denizens, held plenty of interest for me. Not only do I not need the villain, I found her distracting. She was too evil to be plausible, and too easily overcome to be worth the reading, which is why I skipped more than half the book.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

No mother lets go - why should she?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, essay collections, humor, autobiographies

They say you should write what you know, and this author knows (1) dogs and dog hair, and (2) her daughter who just moved out. Not a bad combination. Lisa Scottoline (I think it has four syllables) has five dogs. Her daughter and co-author Francesca Scottoline Serritella has one, but give her time. The book, a collection of 700-word humorous essays, is My Nest Isn't Empty, it Just has More Closet Space: The Amazing Adventures of an Ordinary Woman. Francesca wrote eleven of the seventy pieces/chapters.

While a core concept is that Francesca "recently" moved out to her own apartment, the pieces are as wide-ranging as you can imagine. Lisa has a squirrel mind, running hither and yon, burying one nugget only to dig up another, and write about it. I don't know what any of her novels are like, because this is the first time I've seen her in print (I read very few "mainline" mystery novels). But she writes about dogs (maybe a quarter of the pieces) and dog hair (three); her happy invention of Unresolutions, or resolving to do more of what makes you happy; her mother Mary (almost another quarter of the pieces), who admonished Francesca to always sing at the piano bar; and finds herself musing on a stretch of highway that boasts a sign it was "adopted" by a strip club. Finally, the title piece, which comes last, is about freedom. Being in the midst of it, we know, my wife and I; we don't have to think every little minute about the way our very next action will impact our son. He isn't here, and won't care, and gets bored if we try to tell him anyway.

So I totally get it, that life is about being who you are and learning, painful as that might be, to let everyone else be who he is or she is. Talking to your parent or your offspring isn't just about conversation, it is about connecting. Talking past one another is, by contrast, a tragedy. I reckon it helps that Lisa is Italian. They won't tolerate "talking past"; they'll talk until they get through, which is why, as she writes, keeping essays to 700 words was so hard: "I can barely say hello in 700 words." It is harder for those of us with that good old "British reserve," for whom creative silence has become an art form, but connecting is quite a bit more scarce. Thank God my son is talkative; if I just sit and look at him long enough, he'll spill his guts. It happens even faster if I can motivate myself to ask some leading questions, and this has enough reward that I keep doing it.

It is gratifying to see, in spite of the double divorce, the departure of Thing One and Thing Two, that the author and her mother and daughter remain close. A mother may always have "her little girl" ensconced in her heart, kept unchanging as the "little girl" grows to 24, 44, 64; but to give her the space to be a good companion even as the mismatches increase, is grace indeed.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Spring is struggling in

kw: travel notes

We spent most of the day to visit our son, a 1½-hour drive away, where he attends Rutgers. On the way back, I found myself observing the changes NJ Hwy 1 goes through between New Brunswick and Trenton. Though New Brunswick is not a really large city, where Hwy 1 passes through it there is the distinct big-city feel of heavy traffic in lots of lanes. There are shopping centers and malls down both sides of the road for several miles until you approach Finnegan's Lane opposite Franklin Park. Then the built-up area recedes and trees line both sides, and there is one lane less (two each way), though the median is still marked with paired concrete walls.

This lends the highway more of a "rural connector" feel, which it retains until one approaches Princeton Junction, a few miles north of the I-95/295 intersection where we pick up Hwy 295. We stay on this until the cutoff to the Barry bridge into PA, and after a couple miles on 95, it's local roads the rest of the way home. Ah, suburbia! Gets my blood pressure back to normal.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Stephanie Powell's super footwear

kw: super powers, observations

I am too much of a skeptic to get much enjoyment out of shows about super powers. I know too much physics. Before getting over-educated I enjoyed Superman comics and the TV episodes with George Reeves, and I even had a good time watching the more recent Fantastic Four film, even though it is wildly implausible. Anyway, I happened to watch part of an episode of No Ordinary Family, mostly a fight between Mr. Powell and a chemically-induced werewolf. Just at the end, Mrs. Powell (Stephanie) ran off into the future. I guess this is like Superman flying twice the speed of light to go into the past. I don't recall how he was supposed to return.

I remembered the show's trailer, where she zips around the track and her friend says she was going a mile every six seconds. That comes to 600 miles per hour, and it got me thinking. An ordinary racing track has two 100 meter straight segments and two curved segments at the ends, each a 100 meter arc. The diameter of the arcs is about 64 meters, or a radius of just under 32 m. How much centripetal force is required to keep Stephanie on the curve when she is going 600 mph? It works out like this:
  • F = Mv2/r, where
  • M = 50 kg (110 pounds, assumed)
  • v = 600 mph = 880 feet/sec = 268 m/s
  • r = 31.83 m
  • v2 = 71,900, so
  • F = 113,000 Nt / 9.8 = 11,500 kg force
Thus, if Stephanie weighs 50 kg, it requires 11.5 metric tons of force (almost 13 short tons) to hold her along the arcs at the ends of the track. Now, she is doing this by running, so she must have special shoes with super-friction or she'd simply slide right off even at speeds much less than 600 mph. Not only that, when a person runs, a foot is in contact with the ground half the time or less, so the actual force of each of Stephanie's footsteps may be of the order of 25-30 tons, perhaps more. Not only does she have super-strong bones, but her shoes have to be much stronger than steel. Plus, after a single circuit of the track, it would be torn up by meter-wide divots. She'd have to be careful where she stepped on the next circuit.

But this is possibly rather slow, held back by those nasty laws of physics of a body following a circular arc. No wonder she said, "I thought I was faster than that." It is noted elsewhere that when running in a straight line, she covers ten miles in five seconds. That is 3,000 mph, or mach 4, substantially faster than the old Supersonic Transport. She'd carry along a shock wave that broke out all the windows within a few miles on either side! It must be that her super power includes a super-slippery way of getting the air to separate and close in behind without creating a shock wave.

Magic reality doesn't have to make sense, I suppose. Neither do I, considering what day it is…