Thursday, February 01, 2007

2/1/2007 - Master librarians, by Jove

My boys love books. The eldest has recently fallen in love with the Magic Tree House series (as have I) by Mary Pope Osborne. In this series, a brother and sister discover a tree house that takes them to places, far and wide, real and occasionally, less so. In the course of their adventures, they learn something, but not enough to put off a 5-year old boy.

Clearly, these books are operating on the same systems as amphetamines. They have become the most powerful reward in the house. They are requested during bedtime, bath and beyond. When no other form of discipline will work, I can always offer to read an extra chapter (or God forbid, deprive him of his daily chapter).

But there is another bibliophile in the house. One that goes "booch, booch" as he waddles about. Every night, I read him "I love you just the way you are" by Virginia Miller. As I read each page, he cackles with glee. I'm not sure I get the joke, but that's okay.

Of course, what he really wants to read is the magic treehouse series. Peer pressure is a powerful thing.


To preface this bit, I have to start by mentioning that I am quite afraid of heights. Some would say that this is one of the few irrational fears from which I suffer. I would contend that being afraid of heights is extremely rational. So be it.

I have always had difficulty wrapping my head around the difference between our inner rocky planets and our outer gaseous planets. I mean, what is a gaseous planet? Does it have a core? If you tried to step on it, would you float all the way through and come out the other side? Just thinking about that gives me palpitations.

This week, I learned the answer to these (and other) questions. It turns out that I don't have to guess at what would happen when attempting to "land" on Jupiter. The spacecraft Galileo did the work for me, sending a probe to land on the planet. The probe operated for about an hour, sending pictures and information back to the mothership. After that, the combined heat and pressure associated with falling through the planet's crust wrent it assunder. Whew! And I was worried.

When you focus your telescope on Mars, you get to see the rocky contours on the planet. You may think that you are seeing contours when you then turn to Jupiter, but really, all you are seeing is weather. Powerful storms, including hurricanes bigger than the Earth, last seemingly forever with no land to slow them down. But what lies beneath the surface?

As the probe dropped into Jupiter, it encountered hydrogen. But not that run of the mill hydrogen we find Zeppelins, water and high-quality protein shakes. Liquid metal hydrogen. And I thought I had difficulty understanding a gaseous planet.

18,000 terra firma steps today. Praise the Lord.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

1/25/2006 - Of nameless streets and lousy presidents

Yesterday was a day on which it was easy to imagine myself the J. G. making his way across frigid plains of Montana. The day was such when it was convenient to walk 4+ miles on the way home from work. My car was in the garage (many thanks to the wonderful people at the Memorial Drive Sunoco for their excellent work on my car). And my office isn't terribly convenient to public transport.

I knew that there was a T-station somewhere in the area, so I mapquested it and set off after work. Now, in truth, I knew that the walk would end up being around 2 miles, so that was no surprise. What I did not realize was that my map contained many unlabeled streets between me and the T. I must admit that, being of the temperment that I am, I rather enjoyed the experience of waiting for the world to converge with my paper representation of it and, eventually, I got home.


An astute reader notes my tendency to recognize the good in our presidents. I'll take a stab at recognizing some lesser qualities today. But first, I have to admit that I like Ike. In 1956, Eisenhower was wrestling with the Soviet Union's occupation of Hungary when the Suez Canal was nationalized by Egypt. An alliance of the U.K., France and Israel occupied parts of Egypt. Embarassed that his allies would be occupying one country as he was trying to clean up another occupation, Eisenhower went to work on the trio, forcing them to disengage without any consessions.

Imagine that, a president who holds his allies to the same standards as his enemies. So, President 43, I hand you 10 demerits for coddling the autocracies of Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia even as you hand other autocracies their pink slips.

While I'm at it, I'll Bush another 15 debits for one of his lovely accounting decisions. While pushing through the Medicare Perscription plan, Bush had to balance a noble aim (helping folks pay for expensive perscriptions) with a significant cost. The solution? Decrease the accounting horizon from 10 years to 5 years. By ignoring the costs that were known to be coming as the program expanded, Bush was able to promote a "cheaper" plan.


Contrary to hopes, there is not ice in the southern pole of our moon. Remember to pack some when you next visit.

13,800 steps today. Cheers,

Sunday, January 21, 2007

1/21/2007 - Battling for knuckles and doomed moons

"Walk down that lonesome road all by yourself
Don't turn your head, back over your shoulder
And only stop to rest yourself when the silver moon
Is flying high above the trees.

If I had stopped to listen once or twice
If I had closed my mouth and opened my eyes
If I had cooled my head and warmed my heart
Id not be on this road tonight"

I think James Taylor speaks for all of us when he suggests that if you ever choose to hike from Boston to Alaska, you should probably bring a companion.

On the home front

I am suffering through a civil war of my own making. The first thing you have to know is that "knuckles" was one my eldest's first words. We were driving to the family on Friday afternoon and the wife was letting him hold her hand to keep him calm. The position became too uncomfortable and the she pulled her hand back to the front seat. It turned out he had been rubbing her knuckles, which were now sore. As the beloved hand return to the front seat my eldest whined:


Ever since, he has comforted himself by grabbing someone's knuckles and going to work. Well, it was inevitable, but the baby would see this process and learn through imitation. The baby doesn't really get into it the way the eldest does, but he does indulge. Well, lately, the eldest has decided that my left knuckles are preferable to my right knuckles. Why? Because they have more dry skin, apparently.

That's fine, the elder can have my left and the younger can have my right. Alas, the toddler continued to learn from his idol. During dinner this week, I offered one hand to each. The toddler immediately pointed at my left and burst into tears.

Just a typical evening in a typical household.


My sister and I used to use "Chester A. Arthur" in our e-mails in the place of :) I must confess that I new next to nothing about him at the time, I just liked the way it rolled off of my e-mail. I recently listened "Assassination Vacation" by Sarah Vowell (excellent book) from which I learned the following:

Garfield, as a president, felt like Civil Service reform was probably the top priority facing the nation. He may well have been right. But that wasn't much of a campaign slogan, so he ran on his Civil War heroism and "waving the bloody shirt," similar to referring to Democrats as "cheese-eating surrender-monkeys." Regardless of these guaranteed tactics, Garfield could not have won the presidency without the help of Roscoe Conklin, and the New York political machine, so a deal was struck: In return for New York's support, Garfield would take on Arthur as his VP. Let's just say that Arthur was a prime example of the kind of civil service that needed reforming.

Well, Arthur, like most VPs of the time, didn't play a very active roll in the shaping of policy until a deranged would-be ambassador took it upon himself to assassinate Garfield. Shortly after Arthur took office, he angered his ex-Patrons by pushing through the civil service reform that Garfield had championed, sort of as a tribute.

For reasons I can't explain, I find that action heroic and touching. 25 points to Garfield and 5 to Arthur.


Mars' moons are very unlike our own. Ours is an erstwhile piece of us, dislodged after a comet hit us. It is slowly spiraling away form us and will someday burst free from our gravitational grasp.

By contrast, Mars' moons are most likely asteroids that came too close and got trapped by Mars' natural charm. The one that interests me most is Phobos. Unlike our moon (which something like 400,000 kilometers away) Phobos is less than 10,000 kilometers away. Why? I'm not really sure, but it is trapped in an orbit that brings it closer to Mars with every pass. In a mere 50 to 100 million years, Phobos will crash into Mars, accompanied by an unbelievable display of fireworks.

Book your tickets today.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

1/19/2006 - Three emptinesses

A friend of mine was taking a course in college. I can't remember the subject. The syllabus contained Thoreau's Walden (side note - when I read Walden, I was moved with an urge to build my own house. M.O.M. suggested that I try building a flower box instead. This pretty much cured me of any urge to build anything since). During the discussion of the book, someone commented

"But that couldn't happen today. There just aren't unpopulated spaces like that anymore."

Clearly this was someone who hasn't been to Montana. Montana is a state with 900,000 individuals living in close to 150,000 square miles. Compare that to over 6,000,000 Massachusites living on just 10,500 square miles. That's right, MA is almost 100 times more densely populated than MT. And that's not the whole story. When we walk in the Blue Hills of Massachusetts, we like to climb up to the tower at the highest peak and survey the panorama. We can see Boston in the distance, a lonely isle of humanity among the roiling seas of trees. And we're a dense state.

In Montana, the sky isn't just the limit, it's the lay of the land. Take that, Malthus.

On the home front

The wife has noticed an emptiness on the couch, where my eldest has been for the past week. Over 8 days, he has gone from palely sitting on the couch doing little, to being frustrated at having to be still, to returning to school. He still has a noticable limp, but I can see that he has pretty much regained most of his mobility today. He may well have taken more steps than me. I am amazed with sanguinity with which he has accepted most of this episode.


The last emptiness is a favorite of mine. Continuing along the theme of dark matter (as it applies to our solar system) the same Astronomer (Urbain-Jean-Joseph Le Verrier) who discovered Neptune by its effect on Uranus' orbit noticed that Mercury's orbit exhibits some irregularities. Hoping to cement his legend as planeteer extraordaire, he did some fast calculations and arrived at his best estimate of the closest planet to the sun, which he dubbed Vulcan.

Vulcan's nonexistance did little stem the enthusiastic search for it from about 1860 to 1910. It was no lesser a personage than Albert Einstein who eventually showed that those irregularites stemmed not from dark matter, but from a Newtonian inability to describe how gravity should effect over relatively short distances. The theory of relativity (general, I think) better predicted Mercury's orbit.

Many thanks to Astronomy Cast for providing much of the detail which I have woven into my narrative. All mistakes are, of course, mine, except for those foist upon me by the C.I.A.

18,000 hollow steps today. Cheers,

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

1/16/2007 - Dark matter, as the crow flies

Not too long ago, I passed through a town called "Crow Agency." If you said "Native Americans," you were right. Crow agency is actually the capital of "Crow Nation," indigenously known as Apsáalooke. Crow is an attempt at translation, but it's more likely that the eponymous bird is extinct.

I must say, I have never fully digested the nation within a nation status of the reservations. Crow Nation has a 3-branch government, much as our states and Federal government does. Are there any crimes which must be extradited to state of federal government? Surely the nation gets to take advantage of social benefits. How does taxation work?

One can imagine that, as I passed through Crow Agency, I found the answers to these and many other questions. In reality, I had a little time to browse through an article on Wikipedia and that will have to do.

On the home-front

While I have been having some difficulty counting my steps since I switched pedometers, I have had little trouble counting my eldest's steps on many recent days. Zero. Like others with his condition, he is prone to bleeding in his joints and muscles. Bleeding and swelling in his right thigh took him off line.

For the first day or two, he logged no steps and was okay with that, preferring to sit quietly on a couch. More recently, he has gone stir crazy. At first, he would crawl across the room when nobody was looking. As he has healed, he has taken to hobbling around, looking for all the world like he is looking for his cane.

He will be back in school soon and will suffer no long-term effects of the past week. Not all of his friends are so lucky. I count my blessings.

The Universe

On to a lighter topic -- dark matter. Dark matter is a perennially fun topic for hacks such as myself. It's just fun to say. It sounds like the intersection between Star Wars and Harry Potter. I heard an excellent discussion of dark matter on Astrocast (but more about that in a minute). The two things you have to know to enjoy the upcoming observation are [1] that dark matter is something we can only detect indirectly, through its effect of non-dark matter and [2] that dark matter is just a euphamism for "stuff we don't know about."

To the first point, dark matter is called dark matter because we can't see it. It emits no particles that we can interact with in the way we interact with those particles emitted by, say, Barack Obama. You can imagine astoronomers as a little like a driver with 20/20 vision who just can't see stop signs (and you know who you are). As the astronomer drives down the road, he notices an oddity, that cars seem to pause at certain intersections, and infers the existance of stop signs. Similarly, the astronomer looks at the sky and notices stars rotating too slowly, or whatever, and infers the presence of matter that he cannot detect.

To the second point, you have to think of the universe as a grand tally. We more or less know how much mass the universe has, but we can only 4% of it. We call the rest dark matter. Or weirder yet, dark energy. As we discover things we didn't know about (e.g. that neutrinos have mass) we move some of the chits from the "dark matter" category into the "stuff we know about" category.

Now here's the observation, which really concretizes the whole notion of dark matter for me: Nepute was once dark matter. Oh, Neptune is pretty much the same Neptune it ever was, but there was a time when we couldn't find it, but we inferred its existance from the odd wobbles that Uranus took. Then our telescopes (and math) got better and we found Neptune. And then Pluto. And then the ice ball formerly planetized as Pluto. I'm still bitter. But at least I admit that I'm wrong.

Anyhoo. So dark matter: Lots of little Neptunes or a disturbance in the force? You be the judge.


So one of my favorite podcasts used to be Slacker Astronomy. I say used to be, because the team split up and formed the nucleii of two new podcasts: Slackerpedia Galactica and Astronomy Cast. Left with no choice, I started listening to both. And I enjoy both.

SG is, in many ways, an expanded version of SA. They still do some scripted skits, they walk through recent news and they now have an increased staff, including a tenured professor, to expand the range of anlaysis that they are able to provide. As an added bonus, Aaron has come out from behind the scenes, which I think improves the chemistry. Aaron, who lives too close to comfort, would probably hunt me down and shoot me if I didn't mention their awesome Slackerpedia which is based on the Wiki and provides excellent articles about all things Astonomical.

Astronomy Cast is a to Slackerpedia what the New York Times magazine is to the New York Times. It is a 30 minute discussion of something that SG might have discussed in 7 minutes. On their self-proclaimed "fact based journey through the cosmos" they hit such topics as planamos and dark matter (so far). Additionally, you might consider giving AstroCast a listen for the sole purpose of hearing one of the loveliest voices in the podosphere (Pamela's). It's a nice touch that Travis from SG supplied the music for AstroCast.

9,700 pitiful steps today. Cheers,

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

1/9/2007 - Of pinched nerves, Catholics and other sundries

I saw a susquatch today. Well, I thought I saw a susquatch. It turned out to be stump. But I definitely heard one yesterday. I'll keep you posted.

At rest

What I actually saw, today, was my PCP. He gave me the whole neurological exam and decided that I have a pinched nerve. I can believe it. I'm downing ibuprofen like pez, which seems to be having some effect, but would probably work better with more artificial cherry flavor. (That's flavour for my British readers).


In 1928, Alfred E. Smith (what, me run for office?) was the first Catholic to ever receive the nomination from a major party. It took absolutely no time for that campaign to slink into mud-slinging ugliness. Hoover's minions (possibly with no direction from Hoover himself) took it upon themselves to make it clear that Smith intended to:

* Abolish protestant marriages

* Install Catholocism as the State Religion

* Serve the pope first and America second

Crazy, huh? I wonder what kind of a reception today's Talk Radio would give the Democratic Nominee who happened to be an observant Muslim? -5 points to Hoover for allowing that to take place.

16,700 inchoate steps today. C-h-e

Monday, January 08, 2007

1/8/2007 - A wall in the heat

Something I passed and definitely meant to blog about is the famous "Wal-Drug" on route 90. Some 300+ miles before you reach it, you start seeing signs by the highway. Wal-drug has dinosaurs. Wal-drug has coffee. Wal-drug has museums.

Actually, I am a little disappointed in the glitziness that Wal-drug has become, complete with casinos, shows, etc. But its story is what is so cool, and that it can't help but keep.

My understanding is that Wal-drug was quiet little store somewhere on the route to Mount Rushmore. During the summer, the occasional tourist would stop by in desperate need of water. So the owners put out some signs saying "free ice water" and the tourists just flocked in. From there, they built this glorious empire I now see before me.

At rest

I recently got a new pedometer -- I think I may have blogged that already. I can't help but notice that my footage has been way down since I did. This may be coincidence as much has been going on in my life over the last week (what with birthdays, grandparents and happy kiwis). But it might also be because my old pedometer was counting extra steps.

I hope not.


I've mentioned before that the infamous IAU planetary definition does a better job casting out small planets than big ones. Here's a fun fact for today: Jupiter casts more light than can be explained by reflecting the sun's light. Current theory suspects that some of the light is caused by Jupiter's ball of gas gradually contracting (ye olde PV=nRT, or to make that more authentically old fashioned, be PV=nRTe). But even that can't explain all the light we're getting. It's possible that Jupiter is burning its deuterium (heavy hydrogen), much as the sun burns hydrogen. Apparantly that's not such a hard trick, but I can't help but be struck by the fact that Jupiter is behaving like a poor-man's star.

A whopping 7,400 steps today. Cheers,