27 January 2006

In-utero heart surgery

After reading a Boston Globe article, I wondered about the reasoning behind performing heart surgery on the fetus of a then 7-months-pregnant Virginia woman. I doubted it was safer for the mother than allowing her to carry the deformed fetus to term. It might've possibly be more cost effective than performing the same surgery after birth. And the article said nothing about survival chances after this surgery. I concluded (at first) that it was yet another publicity stunt for right-to-lifers claiming that the fetus was alive.

And then I read the Children's Hospital article. As I should've expected, the media hadn't fully explained the case. It's not that they'd performed the surgery and that was it, the baby was born, no more surgery, and now it had a 20% chance of surviving. In fact, the heart condition the fetus had would've meant it would've been born already oxygen deprived. Going into the heart surgery just after birth already oxygen deprived is what made for the 20-50% survival rate. Instead, once the in-utero surgery was performed, the newborn still had to undergo the surgery, but had a significantly increased chance of survival, and in fact did survive.

The Children's Hospital article didn't address my questions of how much it cost, and survival rate including the in-utero surgery, but you can't have your cake and eat it too (except that it was my birthday this week and I did), and as a pro-choicer I'm still a little concerned about the whole anthropomorphizing of the fetus, but less so. Honestly, I don't know what I would do in that situation myself.

25 January 2006

A woman who dreamed for her students

It's a cliche. "Everyone remembers where they were when..."

Third grade, Ms. Gilbert's class. She believed in a multi-media approach, and I remember playing one of the early versions of Myst or something similar in her classroom - it was I think a text-based computer game, in which you'd enter a room and have to solve a puzzle. Reminds me a bit of the MIT Mystery Hunt, in retrospective.

On this particular day, she brought a TV into the classroom. The whole class huddled around the small screen the best we could, jostling for space and to see between heads. It didn't matter if I was next to the girl who bashed me over the head with a lunchbox the year before, or the boy who didn't know that "dilate" was a word and thought the eye doctor diluted my eyes. It just mattered that I could see the screen, for today we were going to watch a teacher fly!

Of course you know the end of the story. It was 1986 and the 20-odd pairs of eight-year-old eyes didn't know that we were to see the first death of a civilian astronaut, in fact I believe the first televised death of any astronauts, aboard the space shuttle Challenger. We didn't even understand at first what had just happened, we were only eight years old, and I think even adults didn't get it at first. I don't recall any of us crying, just a stunned silence that lasted forever. I'm sure at some point Ms. Gilbert found her voice and explained to us that the astronauts were dead.

As an aside, one of the things I always tell people when looking at statistics (such as taking averages) is to see what they're measuring. Wikipedia claims that 2% of attempted spaceflights have resulted in the deaths of their crew, or around 22 people total. [1] If we had the same statistics in car driving, that'd be you having a fatal accident after 5 weeks of daily commuting. Space flight is much less safe than driving a car, per trip.

If you instead counted the number of spaceflight fatalities per day, counting all countries down to 0.1% of the top country, we get 2.8167*10^4 days [2], or 6.76*10^5 hours of spaceflight, or one death for every (roughly) 30,000 hours of spaceflights. For cars, there were 37,142 people killed in cars in the US in the year 2004 [3] (not counting pedestrians, bicyclists, etc.). Assuming the average commute is 45 min or 0.75 hr, or 1.5 hr round-trip, and a population of around 300 million in the US, this amounts to 1.17*10^11 hours spent on the road a year, or one death in every 3,000,000 hours. Space flight is also much less safe than driving a car, per hour.

I couldn't find numbers on how many miles people have traveled in space, so I can't tell you that. I expect that if I could, I'd get that space flight is much MORE safe than driving a car, per mile.

Back to the story, Saturday is the twenty-year anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. While I remember the event as the ship "blowing up," what really happened was that the large pieces (such as the boosters and the crew compartment) separated from each other. There were large forces involved, but not enough to kill people, so the crew likely survived the ship breakup. [4] There was no ejection capability in the crew compartment. Pressure dropped enough after the explosion that some of the crew blacked out, but at least two remained conscious enough to activate a six-minute air reserve designed to help in a ground emergency. [5] All the crew were likely alive until the free-falling crew compartment impacted the water - the only uncertain factor was whether and how many of them were conscious at the time.

*shrug* I'm not sure what more I wanted to say here, or why I wanted to say it. Maybe just that she was an amazing woman, and there will always be people willing to risk their lives for education, and for encouraging children. She wasn't even a scientist - she was a history teacher. And she, along with six other crew members, died in the process of becoming history.

Jumping Jeho-mouse!

Not only is the Bush administration at it again, trying to redefine and endangered jumping mouse species as a common jumping mouse so that Western prairie can be developed, but they've even decided to hire the bad scientist whose work originally claimed that it was a non-endangered species. Thankfully new evidence is debunking that before the developers break ground.

However my main question in this all is - how can the mouse "abruptly switch directions in mid-flight"? That's totally against conservation of momentum! To change directions, it'd need a horizontal force, and the only thing it can push against is the air, so that's not all that likely. Divers can tumble in the air, but they can't suddenly "switch directions" entirely.

23 January 2006

"Leaky Pipeline" not so leaky?

The American Institute of Physics just released a study of gender ratios in faculty, undergrads, etc., in physics and astronomy. Amazingly, they apparently found no "leaky pipeline" at the faculty level - in other words, the same percentage of women become faculty as the percentage of men - after accounting for the ages of faculty and how many people of each gender received degrees "back then."

The researchers do point out however, that this does not mean that all is rosy: they may not have gotten there easily, and we know nothing about whether the climate they work in is good. For example, from 1999-2003, only 18 schools awarded at least 40% of their bachelor's degrees in astronomy to women (my Alma Mater included). And that 40% of women physicists who had children felt that their careers progressed more slowly than their male peers, as opposed to only 25% of women physicists without children.

Orson Scott Card defends ID

Go read his article first.

Done yet? Good.

Below, for ease of formatting, his words are in italics and mine are normal.

1. Intelligent Design is just Creation Science in a new suit (name-calling).

It's not name-calling, it's pointing out that we've already had this argument and won it. There's no reason to fight the same battle again. Even lobsters know that, why can't creationists figure it out?

But the problems that the Designists raise with the Darwinian model are, in fact, problems.

And there were a lot of problems with Newtonian physics, so we came up with quantum and GR, we didn't throw it out entirely.

The irony is that there are plenty of Darwinists who are perfectly good writers, capable of explaining the science to us well enough to show us the flaws in the Designists' arguments. The fact that they refuse even to try to explain is, again, a confession that they don't have an answer.

The irony is that you already had this material in grades 5-8. The fact that you refused to learn it is, again, a confession that rational discussion will not produce an answer.

4. They got some details of those complex systems wrong, so they must be wrong about everything (sniping).

This is how science works. If the underpinnings of your idea are faulty, the idea itself cannot be accepted. If it were minor details, then the idea should be revised instead. Meanwhile, IDers are doing the exact same thing by claiming that the flaws they find in evolution mean that the entire theory should be thrown out.

They freely admit that evolution obviously takes place, that simple organisms were followed by more complex ones.

Oh really? That's new to me.

7. Even if there are problems with the Darwinian model, there's no justification for postulating an "intelligent designer" (true). ... Science is simply unsuited to studying God. ... So when the answer to the question "why does this natural phenomenon occur?" is "because God wants it that way," then science simply has nothing to add to the conversation.

This is the only good stuff Card says in his argument, and it's a shame that he focused on the other stuff earlier in his article and name-called "Darwinism" a religion. My students can see that the "why" of it all is a philosophical question and not a scientific one. Scientists DO NOT address the "why," and that is all we are trying to uphold in the schools, that we not have anything addressing the "why" taught in classrooms as science. If there are other extremist scientists who say to accept it just because they say evolution's true, I have yet to see them. I never tell someone they're incapable of understanding it. What I do tell them is as much as I personally understand about evolution, and that in order to have more detail, they should take a course on evolution.

It's a shame Card had to go and write this article, I used to respect him for his Sci-Fi writing. He should've stuck to that. In the end, all the article is is a defense of all the bad stereotypes about evolutionary biologists, and a poorly formed defense of the bad stereotypes about IDers.


22 January 2006


"They were both located close together when we found them," (CNN) was said to describe the bodies of two miners found after yet another mining tragedy. This statement though, or at least the "both" was redundant. So "both" A and B were located close together. Well, it's not like you could instead find A close to B, but B isn't close to A. That just can't happen, it makes no sense.

Similarly Newton's Third Law, often stated "Every action has an equal and opposite reaction." In plainer English, this means that whenever one thing applies a force on another, it applies a force back. If you push on a wall, it pushes you back. And also, this one is usually a doozy to physics newbies, however much the Earth pulls on you (due to gravity), you pull on the Earth.

It never fails that students dispute that when I first say it, whether in a physics class, or a Gen Ed. I think this year I'm going to use the analogy of proximity (as in the above quote) to start off.

Teacher draws on the board a car, and an ant.

"How close are these to each other? Is that how close the ant is to the car, or how close the car is to the ant? Same thing? Which one could get to the other sooner? So the space is big to the ant, and small to the car, it's more significant to the ant because the ant is smaller than the car.

"Forces work the same way."

Teacher draws on the board a big circle (Earth) and a stick figure person sticking out from the side.

"Just like there was a space between the car and ant, think now that there's gravity between the Earth and the person. Just like it was silly to say that the ant or the car was closer to the other, neither the Earth nor the person exerts more gravitational force on the other. Sure it's more significant to the person than to the Earth, just like the distance was more significant to the ant than the car, but the force is the same. Saying the force is 'more significant' is actually looking at the acceleration, F=ma, Newton's Second Law. Same force, if you have a small mass (person) you have a big acceleration. If you have a big mass (Earth) you have a small acceleration.

"This all leads to Newton's Third Law: 'For every action...'"

"Men, Women, and Ghosts in Science"

This is an intriguing article. Author Peter A. Lawrence argues that by not acknowledging that on average men and women have different characteristics, we are doing science a disservice. The current system selects for aggressiveness, assertiveness, self-confidence, self-aggrandization, and so on. Men, on average, tend to have these qualities in higher quantity than women. Women on the other hand, tend to have nurturing, understanding, and social skills that will encourage their peers and mentees. Such characteristics are sorely lacking in the field of science currently, and their lack continues to add to the attrition of "feminine women and feminine men."

The argument of the paper is that where men and women have different characteristics we need the feminine, and where they are the same (originality, creativity, insight), the current trend makes us select against desirable women and for less desirable men. In addition, the social taboo against acknowledging these differences in averages perpetuates the sexism inherent in the system. It's a very interesting thesis, and one that treads a fine line between trying to abolish bias, and perpetuating bias.

19 January 2006

Commutative Calculation

I love it when I see that I'm not the only geek/wacko out there applying math to everyday life. Howard Tayler writes my favorite webcomic, Schlock Mercenary, a space opera, and gets all his physics right. Sometimes he has multiple paragraph notes explaining the calculations he did to draw a panel.

18 January 2006

ID as Philosophy

From a Science standpoint, the course was completely legitimate.

FRESNO, California (AP) -- Under legal pressure, a rural school district agreed Tuesday to stop offering high school students an elective philosophy course on "intelligent design," an advocacy group said.

A group of parents had sued the El Tejon school district in federal court last week, saying it violated the constitutional separation of church and state by offering "Philosophy of Design," a course taught by a minister's wife that advanced the notion that life is so complex it must have been created by some kind of higher intelligence.


Honestly, I have much less problem with ID being taught in a class on philosophy or religion. Where the problem comes in in my mind is when it is taught as absolute fact in those courses - much as if Jesus, Buddah, or Moroni were taught as facts. Then it becomes the trickier issue of the separation of church and state. However, having ID in science classes is very simple: you don't teach Math in an Art class, you shouldn't teach Religion in a Science class.

16 January 2006

Nuclear option

I am a blue-state, left-leaning liberal, and of the many parties out there I most identify with the Democrats. However, there is one thing I totally disagree with the leftists on: the nuclear option. And before you start thinking "what's politics have to do with it," let me end the suspense by saying that I refer not to filibusters, but to power source for space missions. Gotcha, didn't I? :)

Some leftist activists are strongly against using nuclear power sources on space missions, currently New Horizons, due to the chance of them blowing up and scattering the material in our atmosphere, hurting civilians, and the environment.

Twenty-four pounds of radioactive plutonium is located in New Horizon's [sic] radioisotope thermoelectric generator, an aluminum-encased, 123-pound cylinder, 31/2 feet long and 11/2-foot wide, that sticks out of the spacecraft like a gun on a tank.

Inside the cylinder are 18 graphite-enclosed compartments, each holding 1 1/3 pounds of the plutonium dioxide. Similar generators previously have been used to power six Apollo flights and 19 other U.S. space missions.

NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy have put the probability of an early-launch accident that would cause plutonium to be released at 1 in 350 chances.

NASA last year estimated the cost of decontamination, should there be a serious accident with plutonium released during the launch, at anywhere from $241 million to $1.3 billion per square mile, depending on the size of the area.

If there was an accident during an early phase of the launch, the maximum mean radiation dose received by an individual within 62 miles of the launch site would be about 80 percent of the amount each U.S. resident receives annually from natural background radiation, according to NASA's environmental impact statement.


On the one hand, that 1/350 is a scarily high chance of failure resulting in the scattering of radioactive material. On the other hand, if it happened it wouldn't be that big a deal because the launch location is remote, and the dosage is small.

Each year in the United States, the average dose to people from natural and man-made radiation sources is about 360 millirem. A millirem is an extremely tiny amount of energy absorbed by tissues in the body.

(DOE Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management)

The DOE says that US citizens absorb 360 mREM a year, of which 55 mREM are from natural background sources. According to Wikipedia, at less than 50 REM, there are no noticeable symptoms. That was 50 REM. Combining the data from the DOE and NASA's prediction of how much radiation would be produced, if the New Horizons mission exploded, you would receive roughly some 50 mREM or 0.05 REM. Even if we instead used the 360 mREM figure, that'd still amount to getting less than 0.36 REM if New Horizons blew up on your doorstep. Folks, the plutonium reactor "battery" just isn't a big deal.

As for why we *need* the nuclear power in the first place, Wikipedia (again) has an article on the Galileo mission that also faced the same issue with power. That far from the sun, that long a mission, there *are* no other options. Conventional batteries won't last long enough (either due to the amount of energy required, or due to the conditions of space), combustion isn't efficient enough (it'd take too much to launch that amount of fuel into space), and if we wanted to use solar energy we'd need more than 700 square feet of solar panels. That far out, it's kinda hard to tell the Sun from any other star, and I've never heard anyone trying to run the electrical needs of a car on starlight alone. Sorry fellow liberal folks, nuclear's our only choice.

But it's not a big deal, so stop flipping out! Jeez.

Long Term Trip

One of the interesting things I observed with children is that they have a hard time comprehending the time scales involved in space missions. Missions to the Moon take a week or two. "A roundtrip to Mars using current rocket power technology could take several years." (CNN) The (successful) Stardust mission took seven years to travel to a comet and return material. The Voyager missions were launched in 1977, arrived at Jupiter two years later, and took until 2005 to reach the edge of the solar system. And the New Horizons mission to Pluto, if launched this year would take between nine and fourteen years to arrive. (Today's 4th graders will be between 18 and 23 years old.)

However, the children were better able to understand the concept that we couldn't yet bring the astronauts back from most places that'd be fun to visit. It's a one-way trip, folks! All missions we currently do use a heck of a lot of fuel to get off the Earth, then little bits of more fuel to fine tune its path. Most of how a ship travels out to the solar system is using good timing at launch, and then help from the gravity of the planets (called gravitational assists or slingshots). A round-trip mission would have to carry at least three times as much fuel - a lot to launch, a lot to turn around, and a lot to land safely back on Earth again. Additionally, if we have to launch extra fuel for the turn-around and landing phases of the mission, the take-off phase will need even more fuel to successfully get the other fuel off the ground. Not to mention that by the time we got a spaceship to Pluto, 9+ years from now, the other planets would no longer be in the same spots to give us those handy-dandy gravitational bonuses on the return trip.

So, I'm sorry kids, no we can't yet send a person to stand on Pluto's outer moons. It might be possible by the time you're old enough to train for it, if you're willing to give up 25 years of your life in a round trip. If it's not possible yet by then, join NASA and make it possible!

Aside: First Impressions

I keep thinking about how I want to spiff up the look of this blog, things like a logo, home-made design, a layout that doesn't break in half the browsers, that sorta stuff. Basically, something to visually match the compliments I get on the content (to too my own horn). But I never really get around to it. But I keep reading more things that make me think it's important... Maybe this summer I'll get around to it...

12 January 2006

Houston to give bonuses to rich teachers

ETA: For clarity, I have edited a couple items. My original words are struck through, the new ones are italicized. In the quote below, superscript numbers are mine and refer down to my itemized list.

Houston is about to become the biggest school district in the nation to tie teachers' pay to their students' test scores.

School Superintendent Abe Saavedra wants to offer teachers as much as $3,000 more per school year if their students improve on state and national tests.
The plan is divided into three sections, with as much as $1,000 in bonus pay each.

The first would award bonuses to all teachers in schools rated acceptable or higher,1 based on scores on the state's main standardized test.2 The second ties pay to student improvement on a standardized test that compares performance to nationwide norms.

In the third section, reading and math3 teachers whose students fare well compared with others in the district would be eligible for bonuses.


  1. Schools rated accpetable or higher are more likely to be in rich white neighborhoods, while those with worse test scores below the "acceptable" cut-off are more likely to be poor, black and Hispanic.

  2. Standardized tests are typically given in English, History, and Math, sometimes in Science, and Languages, and never in Art, Music, or Physical Education.

  3. Reading and Math further restricts the second item.

I think NCLB should stand for No Children Learn via Bonuses.

11 January 2006


The right wing is again striking out against science and critical thinking. However, this time it's right wing Judaism.

We move now to New York City, where those cults are alive, well and very noisy. One mohel, Rabbi Yitzchok (Isaac) Fischer, came under the scrutiny of the New York City Department of Health when three children came down with herpes. One of them died. It seemed Rabbi Fischer had herpes and passed the viruses onto the children during metzitzah b’peh. The city’s health commissioner, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden (Jewish), threatened to take away Rabbi Fischer’s license. The small community the mohel served, went ballistic. They insisted the herpes came from the mothers (it didn't, tests showed) but they agreed to keep Fischer from performing more circumcisions. Meanwhile, three more babies were infected, one with brain damage.

(Joel Shurkin, ...Of Cabbages and Kings)

Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a bioethics expert and Talmud instructor at Yeshiva University, was criticized by ultra-Orthodox leaders and newspapers after he was quoted in the press as saying that the practice of metzitzah b'peh, or oral suction of the circumcision wound, should be conducted with a sterile tube. In many ultra-Orthodox circles, especially within certain Hasidic sects, the ritual is performed by having the mohel suck blood from the wound with his lips directly on the baby's penis.
Tendler painted the controversy as a wider theological conflict, extending beyond the issue of metzitzah b'peh. The real target, Tendler said, is what he represents as a rabbi and scientist working at Y.U., the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy.

To prove his point, Tendler said that vandals covered the floor of his synagogue with posters containing various anti-Tendler messages, including the term dokter-rabiner. Literally meaning "doctor-rabbi," the term was employed by right-wing Orthodox activists a century ago in Germany to attack rabbis with ordination from liberal Orthodox seminaries and with academic degrees from secular universities.

Tendler noted that in addition to his Orthodox rabbinic credentials, he has a "reputation as a trained scientist."

"That's a no-no in [the ultra-Orthodox] community," Tendler said.

(Steven I. Weiss, Forward)

My oh my. And no one's accused the Orthodox Jews of gay clergy pedophilia for this practice yet?

10 January 2006

Milky Way Warped

We all knew everything was warped, but now we've got some proof, according to a press release from a group at the yearly American Astronomical Society meeting. It always amuses me how early January there's a rash of astronomy articles after or during the conference.

One mode is like a bowl, with the galactic plane bending up all around; another is like a saddle, and the third is like the brim of a fedora hat, bent up in the back and down in the front, Blitz said at a briefing.

The various modes of warping correlate closely with the orbit of two satellite galaxies, known as the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, that make a looping orbit around the Milky Way. As they go, they plow through a halo of dark matter that encircles the Milky Way, scientists said at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society.
Scientists have known about the Milky Way's warped nature for half a century, but they never knew the cause. The Magellanic Clouds were previously dismissed as suspects because they lacked the mass to influence our galaxy in their 1.5 billion year trip around it.

While the Magellanic Clouds' mass is small, they pass through the dark matter like ships going through an ocean, creating a cosmic wake powerful enough to make our galaxy bend and flap, Blitz said.


So the LMC and SMC aren't directly disturbing the gas disk that is warped, but they're disturbing the dark matter, which in turn affects everything else. I find that to be really elegant, as it is yet another example of how direct evidence isn't required, only indirect evidence and a solid chain of logic, just as with evolution. :)

I gave a talk for 7th graders lately about galaxies. This would've been nice info for the talk, if there were any pictures. One kid asked me, after I mentioned the Big Bang, what existed before the Universe. I at first took it as a creationist argument, but then I realized he probably just really wanted to know. My personal theory is that logarithmic time is more important than linear time, so there wasn't ever a "before," or even a time 0. I'm slightly on the fringe though, and I know it, and I'm definitely not a cosmologist (hence my calling it a "belief" and not even a "hypothesis"). They'd tell you that either there was nothing, or a previous universe, or maybe multiple hyper-universes (branes) collided to create our universe. But, and here's the key thing, we've got no way of knowing currently, so it's still just theory hypothetical, just math, all of which I told the student, and he seemed quite interested.

09 January 2006

Box names

It is a habit among astronomers, computer scientists, and others who run multiple computers to name them according to a theme. The names are an easier identifier, both over the network and mentally, than a series of numbers such as an IP address. Choosing a theme is indicative of the fact that they are all part of the same network, and managed by the same sysadmin.

My home computers (past, present, and future) are named as follows.

Former PC: Amalthea
Current PC: Ginger
Current iBook: Gir (3.1)
Future computer: Dory

For Gir, the 3 indicates it is the third essentially fresh start for the laptop, as the computer I originally bought was replaced within a month due to power management issues, and early last summer the motherboard equivalent was replaced after the video card died. The 3.1 indicates that while it came with OSX.3 installed, I upgraded to 10.4.

Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to determine, not necessarily in order, (a) my scheme, and (b) the specific source of each name. It shouldn't be too hard to do, though I expect red herrings in one case.

08 January 2006

More Death Definitions

Man, I like Jews - being half one and grown up in New York City, it's a good thing. When faced with the question of whether post-coma Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is dead or undead, everyone is fully expecting the rabbis to whip out their Torahs and Mizrahs and debate the finer parts of the religious text. I like that, that they actually refer to pieces of text to guide their decisions, as opposed to with Terri Schiavo I just heard Puritans Protestants protesting that it was wrong without saying anything about why.

Under established Jewish legal codes, it's forbidden to do anything to hasten death. But other teachings say its permissible to remove an "impediment" standing in the way of the natural end of life, such as a feeding tube or respirator.

Rabbis remain deeply divided over what constitutes an unreasonable obstacle to death.
Many rabbis follow a 1986 decision by Israel's chief rabbinate -- the government's highest religious authority -- that defines death as irreversible inactivity of major parts of the brain stem, which controls breathing, swallowing and other basic bodily functions.

The opinion is based on various Jewish texts including the Mishnah, an early source of rabbinical tradition, which establishes decapitation as an irrefutable sign of death. In the modern sense, the rabbis interpret a nonfunctioning brain stem as the same thing.

But others see the core of life in the heartbeat, which can occur even with a severely damaged brain stem and can continue if artificial respiration is provided.

Some rabbis cite ancient texts that say death occurs only when there is both no respiration and no "movement" in the body. They consider a heartbeat a life-signifying movement even if maintained through life-support and may counsel followers not to remove life support.


Unfortunately, one weakness to using a text as a primary source is that it can be interpretted in various ways... *sigh* "Can't win them all, can't win some of them, can't even break even." (Wikipedia and other sources)

Here we go again

In Pittsburgh, doctors treating McCloy said his injured muscles were improving, along with his liver and heart function, and tests showed his brain swelling was reducing.

His brother-in-law Rick McGee, who also works in the Sago Mine, said he believed McCloy was communicating with the family, even though he remained sedated.

"I was talking to him about fishing, since we fish all the time. He nodded his head real easy," McGee said.


I'd been wondering how long it would take before we got to start debating whether West Virginia mine disaster survivor Randal McCloy was in a persistent vegetative state. Looks like my wait is beginning to end, though we won't know better until the doctors start bringing him out of the coma. McCloy and Sharon both.

Comically Yours,

Today two separate comics I follow had great strips.

Foxtrot - Snowball Physics

I'm afraid there's a couple terms here I'm not familar with, I'm wondering if Bill Amend made a mistaken assumption that the ball's motion is the arc of a circle, rather than a parabola, as the range formula has an extra term. :-P Usually Amend gets his physics right, and more so than I would've thought of off the top of my head, so I'm suspecting that the mistake is mine.

ETA: Jethereal and I haven't gone through the math, but we're pretty sure what he did was assume the ball was travelling in the arc of a circle while Jason was holding it, hence the d, l, and α, and then when he lets go it travels in a parabola with the normal range formula. You'd want to let go of the snowball at an angle α=45º=π/4 as it would then be launched at the same angle, which gives the best range. The extra term to the range formula is probably for that circle arc, though technically he should also account for his own height. :)

Non Sequitur - Science

Ah, the wonder of theories! A biologist/teacher I was talking with last week said she really wished scientists had picked a word other than "theory" for it.

07 January 2006

Free virtual astronomy observing book

Pointed out to me by Jethereal, Universe Today is offerring a book online for free download that lists 365 Days of Skywatching, so I figured I'd do my first book review!

Plotner, Tammy. What's Up 2006: 365 days of Skywatching. Universe Today, USA, 2006.

This 400+ page virtual book is designed to be kept on your hard drive and individual pages printed when needed.

Twelve pages of foreword discuss background information for the beginning observer, such as what equipment is recommended, night vision adjustment, and light pollution. It does not unfortunately discuss tips on how to stay warm, which any observer not in the tropics will tell you can be a daunting and critical task. I find this lack to be quite surprising in what is meant to be a beginner's observational book. Perhaps in Ohio, where Plotner is from, winter nights do not et quite as cold, but considering that tonight's forecast for Toledo (Jan 7, 2006) predicts it will go down to 29ºF, that is unlikely. While Plotner may have simply overlooked warmth, a further reading of the book indicates that she did not truly have a beginning audience in mind.

The meat of the book has each page dedicated to a day of the year 2006. Each night, a few paragraphs describe good sources for you to look for, appropriate to that date. Examples include many Messier objects, the brighter of the NGCs, and meteor showers. Directions for finding the objects take the typical form of star hopping: "locate Theta Ophiuchi and head south-southeast less than a finger-width. There you will find small, 9.5 magnitude globular NGC 6355." These directions are sufficient if the reader also owns a Norton's Atlas or equivalent set of star maps. What I was expecting from a book of this level was some simple star charts in addition to the written directions and photographs of the resulting object. While the book claims to contain them ("Thanks to the good folks at Sky and Telescope magazine, we’ve provided you with some “sky view” charts to help guide the way," pg I), they were not actually in evidence within the book, nor is there a clear link to where they can be found online.

Another challenge beginning observers face is that objects through the telescope are not as bright and crisp as objects in pictures. The book gives a head-nod to this fact with rare descriptions such as "skybright [light pollution] will make this huge, low surface brightness spiral difficult for even telescopes," (March 27, pg 89) but there is no acknowledgment that even the brightest objects such as the Andromeda Galaxy (M31, same page) will suffer from high expectations. The technique of averted vision helps when dim objects are hard to find, and although this is mentioned in passing in the text with certain faint objects ("NGC 2419 can be seen on dark sky occasions in instruments as small as a spotting scope - although you will need to avert your vision to see it," March 18, pg 80; also M13, July 29, pg 217, and others), no general instructions are given in the introduction.

At the end of the book there's an extensive list of observing resources from the internet, as well as brief biographies and descriptions of people and organizations contributing to the book (and of course their webpages).

This observational book appears at first glance to be a beginner's guide to observing with tips on how to buy a good telescope. However to the more experienced observer it is clear that there are large gaps and assumptions that the author made about her audience. I recommend this book for intermediate to advanced amateur astronomers, and professional astronomers who have limited experience with backyard observing. If you are a beginner, you would do well to start instead with a Norton's Atlas and 2006 Observer's Handbook, or a guide specifically designed for beginners, and slowly build up the skills and knowledge required as prerequisites to using Tammy Plotner's What's Up 2006: 365 days of Skywatching.

ETA: There is further discussion on the Universe Today / Bad Astronomy forums.

Another definition

Voted as 2005 Word of the Year by a panel of linguists, truthiness is

the quality of stating concepts one wishes or believes to be true, rather than the facts.
Michael Adams, a professor at North Carolina State University who specializes in lexicology, said "truthiness" means "truthy, not facty."

"The national argument right now is, one, who's got the truth and, two, who's got the facts," he said. "Until we can manage to get the two of them back together again, we're not going make much progress."


If anyone else is confused by this word usage (truth vs. facts), I would like to remind you there are reasons scientists have their own vocabulary.

More Pathological Science in Politics; Penguin March

MADISON, Wisconsin (AP) -- -- Gov. Jim Doyle on Friday vetoed a bill that would have forced doctors to tell women seeking abortions after their fifth month of pregnancy that their fetuses could suffer pain.

Doyle, a Democrat, said there is no evidence conclusively proving when a fetus can feel pain. The Republican-controlled Legislature should not be allowed to decide scientific fact, he said.


The problem in this issue is that the studies both ways aren't yet conclusive and confirmed, so we really have no hard scientific evidence either way. Science does not have a conclusion on this one (unlike global warming and evolution).

Meanwhile, just saw March of the Penguins yesterday. I really don't see why the Conservatives are using that movie as their rallying cry. It shows just how incompetent most parents are at keeping their babies/chicks alive, it supports evolution, and it encourages serial monogamy - picking a new mate after the baby's out of the foot-belly-nest. I guess they've got a minor trimumph in that gay penguins aren't mentioned, and that two parents are required for the chick to survive, but I haven't heard of conservatives trying to kill single mothers (or fathers) or anything.

It made me think though, at what point do scientists consider a bird to be alive? In the womb equivalent before the egg has been produced? In the egg? Or not till it's hatched? Their issue is even more confusing than ours. I guess I consider the bird egg before it is laid, as being equivalent to the human blastocyst before implantation. The laid egg is the embryo in a pregnant woman, and the hatched egg is the born baby. There are of course imperfections in the analogy - infertile eggs can be laid - but the only perfect analogy is the original item.

06 January 2006

Dates and Cycles

My birthday's coming up soon, Jan 26. A virtual cookie goes to the first person to correctly determine both my astrological signs (Western zodiac and Chinese animal). Virtual cheesecake (not the pin-up kind) goes to the person who can find me a good reference for an astronomical phenomenon that could be a source for the 12-year Chinese cycle.

How to mathematically catch a lion

Mathematicians hunt lions by going to Africa, throwing out everything that is not a lion, and catching one of whatever is left. Professors of mathematics prove the existence of at least one lion and leave the capture of an actual lion as an exercise for one of their graduate students.

(Bjørn's maths blog)

Pointed out to me by rosefox. The post actually is quite long with some quite esoteric maths in there. If you laugh AND make it all the way through the post, you're a dweeb. :)

04 January 2006

Recycling Computer Parts - Additional Resource

After replacing my ink cartridge today, I discovered that HP not only recycles their ink and toner cartridges for free, but they also do any computer hardware for $13-34. I'm impressed.


Futurology is something of a black sheep in the ranks of traditional "-ologies". While it can be studied, it can't be tested through normal scientific means. A futurologist can only be proved right in the future.

The inevitable, if unjustified, connotations with crystal balls, tea leaves and other supernatural means of predicting the future only encourage the sceptics further.


And while at the start of a new year thoughts inevitably turn to the events of the coming 12 months, futurologists see that as the domain of analysts and economists. Futurologists, or futurists as they sometimes like to be called, tend to deal in the medium to long-term.

Futurologist Dr James Bellini, for example, sets his sights 20 years or so ahead. And, like all futurologists, he doesn't make predictions.

"This game is not about predicting," says Dr Bellini, who began working in the field for the US Hudson Institute think tank. "I apologise because people think futurologists should have a pointy hat and a wand. We're not wizards. We don't predict."

Instead, futurologists deal in "possible futures".


Science, art, pseudoscience, or maybe even protoscience? Weigh in with your opinion! Mine to come...

03 January 2006

Computers are hazardous waste!

I bet at least one of you didn't know that old computers and monitors contain hazardous materials including lead. In the spirit of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, there's a few things you can do if you're getting rid of an old computer, courtesey of Consumer Reports / Greener Choices.

  1. Give it to someone you know. Chances are your computer is better than that of your friends or family, or they might not have one at all. I gave my last discard to an old friend, and he's since upgraded it to maintain its usefulness. It was a free computer for him, free disposal for me, and ecofriendly for all!

  2. Give it to a school or charity. If you know of a group that could use it, such as your family church, or the school your kids attend, do it up! If not, check these links. Be sure you don't donate a computer that's too out-dated, or it'll cost your charity of choice more to upgrade it than you or they want.

  3. Recycle via your local waste disposal company. Call them up for information on how to do so, don't just leave the computer or monitor on the curb. Massachusetts actually forbids landfilling of monitors due the lead and other chemical content.

And because I know cellphones have a much higher turnover rate than computers (can you say "New Every Two"?) and I keep harping on being good about them, you should also reuse/recycle other things, including cellphones and large appliances.

Go to! And post your own success stories here, I'd like to hear. :)

Getting all the facts, and getting them right

A Christian blog I came across contains yet another example of bizzare conservatism. He points to a Concerned Women for America page saying

On the Barbie Web site, www.Barbie.com, there is a poll that asks children their age and sex. The age choices are 4-8, but as Bob Knight, Director of CWA’s Culture & Family Institute, notes children are given three options for their choice of gender.

Now first off, you have to surf really deep within the pages to find the said "poll" - it's a registration form if you do something that would require a username, such as creating a wishlist. If there's another place you register (like for games as the screenshot they show indicates), I didn't see it. It's not like Barbie is putting this on their front page!

At the time they did the article, they said something to the effect of (correct me if I'm wrong and I'll fix it):

The page is aimed at children age 4-8, you can't choose any other ages. The gender choices are boy, girl, and "I don't know."

Well, either they were looking at a different page, or Barbie changed it, because what I see is gender choices of boy, girl, or "I don't want to say." If it were "I don't know" for the third choice, that would still make good sense to me - according to the CDC, children typically learn what sex they are by age three, but since there are always variations, leaving an "I don't know" option is nothing more than prudent for more slowly developing children. It's not a "promoting gender confusion" thing, it's not a gay agenda, it's acknowledging developmental stages of child psychology. Yeah they're confused about their gender, because they're not yet old or mature enough to have a clue what gender is!

(And btw, when I accessed the Barbie registration page, you just put in your birthdate, and the year you type at will.)

02 January 2006

Body Mass Index

Body Mass Index, or BMI is a quick and easy way to determine whether you are overweight, obese, or healthy. It is a simple indicator that compares your height and weight to what is healthy. One thing to note is that this is (in my estimation) a crude method of determining your ideal weight, as it does not take into account different body types, though it could also be argued that the myth of different body types is simply and excuse for maintaining an inappropriate weight. Hm, I'm going to have to look up info on body types now...

According to the US Dept of Health and Human Services's Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, BMI of less than 18.5 is underweight, 18.5 to 24.9 is healthy, 25 to 29.9 is overweight, and greater than 30 is considered obese. If you just want to determine what weight is healthy for your height, their handy-dandy table is a good resource for that. (It's worth noting that the table is more crude than the calculator, with one less decimal place.)

For example, a person with a typical woman's height of 5'4" should weigh no more than 140 lbs to be healthy, and would be considered obese at around 175 lbs. A person at a typical man's height of 5'11" should weigh no more than 180 lbs to be healthy, and would be considered obese at around 215 lbs. The AP (CNN) suggests that surgery, such as stomach stapling and other gross things, not be considered until a BMI of 40 (around 235 lbs in the average woman or 285 lbs in the average man). This can be reduced to a BMI of 35 (205/250 lbs) if there are other "weight-related medical problem(s) like diabetes or high blood pressure." (AP/CNN)

I am glad to say that I am on the underweight edge of healthy, at a BMI of 19. My mother has Type II diabetes, and I suspect is at least overweight, if not obese, but I don't actually know her weight. I do know that she doesn't appropriately monitor her diet or ever exercise, and she probably needs to increase her insulin dose, but she is still in denial about it all (some 4-ish years after first diagnosis). Sad.

Creationism vs. Climate Change

Somehow the linked article got me thinking that creationists probably inherrantly disbelieve the concept of climate change. The world, nay, the very universe, was created perfect, just the way that God wanted it to be. He created it for humans, and therefore entirely anticipated all the CO2 and CFCs that we'd ever produce. Therefore, there is nothing that we can do to change the Earth, unless that is specifically what God wanted.

It's a very fatalistic viewpoint, I think. Maybe the worst would be if they're half wrong - we aren't incapable of destroying the world, we're just incapable of adapting to save it.