Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Bit of Perspective

One of the things that was great about Death from the Skies! was that, even after building up the horrible, catastrophic tragedies the universe could have in store for us, he put it in perspective by going through the statistical probability of it actually occurring.

All too often, this perspective is lacking and people not familiar with big numbers are often intimidated by it. After all, one in a million chances happen 8 times a day in New York City alone (since there's over 8 million people for them to happen to). As someone who's dealt a lot with astronomical numbers and units (I've even dealt with units of universes, I'm not phased by them but many people freak out when they start seeing numbers much larger than anything in their bank account.

In fact, this is often relied upon. It's the basis for pretty much anything that comes out of Dembski's mouth.

So it's really nice when these numbers are put in perspective. Yesterday, I stumbled across this bit of perspective at Gizmodo that puts your chances of getting caught up in an act of terrorism while flying in perspective.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Step Forward in the Digital Era

This Christmas, after we'd finished opening gifts, my mom told my sister she'd considered getting my sister a Kindle as a present but decided against it. My sister immediately said this was for the best because she's the sort that likes books. My sister rearranged her room so when she woke up, she'd be get up and get to see her bookshelf every day.

(For reference, my sister is 19 and has both Harry Potter and Twilight on her shelf next to a good amount of classical literature and modern bestsellers. My bookshelf contains Terry Pratchett, books on Evolution/Creationism, and all my textbooks from school.)

My sister may not have wanted a Kindle, but I sure do. I'm a bit dyslexic and reading in a straight line is a challenge for me. I have to use a note card to keep track of which line I'm on so I prefer digital media in which I can use a cursor to keep my place. I tend to highlight as I read. After several years of this, books are nice, but I'd rather have an electronic copy.

I'm just waiting for the platforms to become more stable and user friendly. In past months, Amazon has had some issues with pulling media remotely from users Kindles when they were challenged with lawsuits over potential copyright infringement. I don't like the idea that something I'd paid for might disappear on a whim, even if I got a refund. But at the same time, I don't much like all my books getting old and turning yellow.

Fortunately, it seems that demand for digital books is increasing and so too must the technology and laws surrounding it. This past Christmas sold more Ebooks than physical ones. Perhaps within the next year or two, the medium will have developed enough that I'd consider getting into it.

The Religion Shield

One of my biggest criticisms of religion is that.... well, we're not "allowed" to criticize it. Religion is something that is for, no real reason, given amazing deference even when it is at its worst.

Consider this case: Churches are grabbing up prime real estate in areas not zoned for such activities. When they cause a ruckus, they hide behind the fact that they are a religions organization (or in one case in the story, a black religious organization) and time after time, they're being let off the hook.

It doesn't matter if a church is religious. What matters is that it's not what the area is supposed to be zoned for or it's not following proper noise ordinances.

Religious houses that follow proper procedure don't matter to me. What jerks my chain is those that get special exemptions because they get away with whatever they want because they throw out the religious persecution card. As long as people keep thinking this is a valid argument, abuses like these and these I mentioned in 2006 will continue.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

F*CK you Vista

I've had Vista for less than a year and in that time, it's crashed, as of last night, three times!

The first two times were back to back, it would simply freeze while loading.

Last night, I was running perfectly fine and suddenly, the whole thing froze. When I restarted, it told me it had lost one of the kernels required to boot.

Good job Vista. You suck.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Flare Research: Not done yet

It's been a year and a half since I mentioned anything new on the research on superflares on solar type stars I'd started my last semester at KU. I did mention I keep an eye out for things in the journals that might pertain to it, but I've been pretty much finished with any further work.

But last week, Dr. Melott dropped me an Email saying he had a new student interested in continuing the research. So I typed up a gigantic summary of what I'd done. Well, it wasn't really that much. 75% of it was recommendations on how to further investigate the problem.

One of the main ways I'd thought of going about things was to look through sky surveys like the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) and check to see if any of the stars had flared again and they'd happened to capture it, or if any stars with close in planets had flared like the hypothesis suggests, and no one had been paying attention when they had.

I finally poked around the SDSS archive today and the problem I'd suspected ended up being right: The SDSS goes down to pretty faint magnitudes of stars, so the stars we were interested in were horribly overexposed (see right for example). That obviously wasn't going to work.

I'd also prepared some notes on the 9 stars that had been known to flare, and many of them were known variables of the BY Draconis type which is a class of variable stars that varies due to chromospheric activity and sunspots. If the stars were variable, it was possible the American Amateur Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) had observations of them.

So I spent awhile tonight poking around their archives and found that for most of the stars, the only data was unusable observations that were taken with just naked eye estimates (or eye + telescope). The variations for the flares we were interested would be lost in the inherent scatter of such observations, so that was useless. However, I realized that the AAVSO allows astronomers to put in requests for observations and some of their members have the CCD technology necessary to make measurements detailed enough to statistically detect the reported flares if they were to occur again.

Thus, putting in a request for an observing campaign with them may be a possible route to take. We'll have to see what the rest of the team decides.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

How I explain stuff

Occasionally, my girlfriend asks me what I'm reading. She's not particularly science minded so I have to break it down a lot. The other day, she asked me what the article I was reading for a recent UT post.

Here's how I explained it:
So there's a little star and a big star. The big star starts throwing stuff everywhere and the little star goes nom nom nom. If it noms too much, it explodes. But sometimes it throws up what it nommed. They want to know if its ever going to nom enough to explode or if it keeps throwing up so much it never gets there.
Can you figure out what the topic was before you read the UT post?

Sunday, December 20, 2009


Judge Presses Onwards in Faith-Healing Death Case

Over in Oregon, a judge has refused to toss out a case charging parents with the negligent homicide of their son by denying him access to medical care for a urinary tract blockage in favor of "faith-healing".

There's only one way to respond to this: GOOD.

Not that yet another child has died to religious idiocy, but that the judge has the sense to toss the motion for dismissal out the window. The entire motion was based on the parents claiming the law does not "adequately acknowledge care provided through spiritual means."

Gee. I wonder why.

Oh yes. It doesn't work. People die.

However, I think the law should be cleaned up. It should be more explicit in defining such actions as criminally negligent so there can be no question as to just how dangerous these practices are.

And they are dangerous. But obviously, faith blinds such people to see such things. Even when it should be painfully obvious. And in this case, there's absolutely no excuse. This wasn't the first child this family had lost due to non-action and "faith-healing". The same parents had their daughter lose their 15-month-old daughter die earlier this same year.

There is no reason to let this family retain any custody of whatever children they may still have or ever allow them to have any more.

Friday, December 11, 2009

UT Posts: 11/30 - 12/11

Here's my most recent articles from Universe Today:

Slow Motion Supernova - Why did SN 2008iy take longer to reach peak brightness than any other supernova yet known?

How Galaxies Lose Their Gas - A look at ram stripping as a method of gas removal.

Dating A Cluster - A New Trick - Using the "knee" at the end of the main sequence to help calibrate photometric age determinations.

Forming Planets Around Binary Stars - How well can binary star systems support planetary systems? A look at young Orion binaries.

Spirals, Tides, and M51 - Simulations show M51's spiral arms are like tidally induced.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Star Wars In Concert

As an early Christmas present this year, I got a pair of tickets to the St. Louis showing of Star Wars In Concert. The show was last night and wow was it a fantastic experience.

I've seen the movies more times than I care to think about and listen to the soundtracks quite often, but actually hearing a live symphony orchestra play it is always a different experience. The mixing is different and instruments that may go almost completely unheard on recordings are brought out in concert.

In the hallways, there were many props from the films. Being a costumer, this was fun for me and I took several pictures of various details. In many cases, it's surprising just how undetailed things are. The edges of blasters and the like are not painted especially straight. This is fine on camera, but stands out in person. Meanwhile, the costumes were amazingly detailed. Especially the Amidala dresses. Wow.

Another treat is that the concert was hosted by none other than Anthony Daniels (C-3PO). Of all the original cast, Daniels maintains a reputation with fans of truly enjoying the films and engaging those who love them.

An odd thing that also made the concert enjoyable was the demographic. My girlfriend and I felt very out of place. The audience was primarily people old enough to have seen the movies when they were originally released in theaters and their children. Very few people in my generation were in attendance. It was really nice to see that Star Wars is reaching a whole new generation.

One of the cutest costumes I've ever seen was last night. A young child (probably 2-3) dressed up as Yoda, complete with a green hood and ears. His father remarked that he was "to scale".

Monday, December 07, 2009

BANG! The Universe Verse: Book 1

I don't get a lot of spam from people asking me to plug their stuff on my blog, but when I do, I usually ignore it. However, today I got something that was actually pretty cool: A rhyming comic book about the Big Bang.

It features one of my pet peeves (there was nothing which exploded), but even with a rocky start it's pretty fantastic. It doesn't shy away from discussing the splitting of the forces or the condensation of matter from sub atomic particles.

The art is good too, but perhaps best of all, you can preview the full book online. This would be a great Christmas present for the little (or not so little) astronomer in your life.

But perhaps what I love even more than the good science is the great sense of wonder the author conveys. But that's the point; And his "warning sticker" states it outright:

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

War on Christmas 2009

It looks like the 2009 War on Christmas has started and stores are doing their best to offend oversensitive Jesus freaks.

If you want to find out which stores are the ones that don't bend over backwards to kiss the asses of these whiny gits, check out Stand For Christmas. They're rating chains by Jesus content.
First thing I notice is that they are only playing non-Christian Christmas songs (Jingle Bells, etc.). Unacceptable. I ask a clerk, "What is the reason for the season?"
Uh... the solstice!