Archive for March 2009

WANT   Leave a comment

Full size image here, courtesy of NASA.

Posted March 31, 2009 by padraic2112 in astronomy, science

You Can Thank Hitler (and the Cold War) for the Gadget You’re Using to Read This Post   Leave a comment

Because until people started passing really important messages around in code, we didn’t need code-breakers.  And until the Nazis came upon the ingenious (but ultimately flawed) Enigma machine, we didn’t need computational devices like this, which is more or less the grandfather of the modern computer, reborn through the work of some pretty dedicated volunteer uber-nerds:

This is the Turing Bombe, the first real codebreaking computational machine.

The original Bombes, invented by brilliant mathematician Alan Turing, were made using reinforced brown Tufnol plastic moulded from sheets a tenth of an inch thick, a cast-iron framework and 12 miles of intricate wire circuits.

All were destroyed for security reasons on Churchill’s orders after the war. This is a replica, built by 60 volunteers, which was fired up last Tuesday.

At 61⁄2ft tall and running on no more power than a kettle, the Bombe could unravel 158 trillion possible combinations to unlock a seemingly random series of letters sent by the Nazis to the front lines, which were, in fact, highly complex codes, changing daily. Typewriter-like Enigma machines scrambled the letters using three or four rotor wheels.

There’s tons of interesting books on cryptography, for those passerby that are interested drop me a line and I’ll throw you a list.

Posted March 30, 2009 by padraic2112 in security

Fire on the Mountain!   2 comments

Courtesy of the Alaska Volcano Observatory

Here’s a volcano, warming up a bit…

Here’s the volcano, freaking out big time.  Come THUNDER!  Come LIGHTNING!  KILL THE WABBIT!

Those ash clouds?  They can really mess up aircraft big time.

AVO scientists also examine satellite data and work closely with the National Weather Service to detect and track volcanic ash plumes in the North Pacific region. Other elements of the observatory’s monitoring program include periodic observational overflights of the 40 potentially active Alaskan volcanoes. Some of these flights measure sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide gas emissions from the volcanoes, as unusually high levels of these gases often precede volcanic eruptions. Because a volcano’s past behavior provides important clues about possible future eruptions, AVO scientists are also conducting on-site geologic studies at Alaska’s volcanoes, collecting data and samples for later analysis.

The monitoring techniques described above have enabled AVO to anticipate several Alaskan eruptions hours to weeks in advance, including events at Redoubt Volcano (1989) and Mount Spurr (1992). In September 1996, newly installed seismometers at Pavlof Volcano, on the Alaska Peninsula, quickly detected the onset of an eruption, enabling AVO to promptly alert the aviation community.

The successes of AVO are examples of the progress that can be achieved through cooperative efforts among various organizations. The observatory’s work is making air travel safer by closely monitoring volcanoes in the North Pacific region and by rapidly alerting the aviation community to potentially dangerous ash clouds. In addition to active participation in AVO, the ongoing work of the USGS Volcano Hazards Program in the volcanically active regions of the United States, including Alaska, Hawaii, Arizona, California, and the Pacific Northwest, is helping to better protect people’s lives and property from volcano hazards.

Which is why a volcano monitoring system is actually, a pretty good idea, Bobby.  You think the governor of Louisiana would be a little more in tune with disaster preparation…

Here’s a nice photo of the same phenomena in Chile during a recent eruption:

Posted March 30, 2009 by padraic2112 in geology, science

Theme Thursday: Mineral   7 comments

Let’s talk about rock.  There are lots of different kinds of rock.  You’ve got this kind (jump to 2:51 for the payoff):

But that’s not what I want to talk about today.  I’m going to blow your mind with a nerdout.  From “Ask An Astronomer“:

Nuclear fusion in stars converts hydrogen into helium in all stars. In stars less massive than the Sun, this is the only reaction that takes place. In stars more massive than the Sun (but less massive than about 8 solar masses), further reactions that convert helium to carbon and oxygen take place in succesive stages of stellar evolution. In the very massive stars, the reaction chain continues to produce elements like silicon upto iron.

Elements higher than iron cannot be formed through fusion as one has to supply energy for the reaction to take place. However, we do see elements higher than iron around us. So how did these elements form? The answer is supernovae. In a supernova explosion, neutron capture reactions take place (this is not fusion), leading to the formation of heavy elements.

Supernovae are (literally) the bomb in a cosmic sense.  Here’s what the general area looks like after one of these bad mothers fires off (view from 21,000 light years, courtesy of the Hubble):

Type II supernovae are the engines of mineral creation.  Without this gigantic explosions, you can’t make silver, or palladium, or gold, or tin… anything with an atomic number bigger than 26 (that’s Fe, our buddy Iron).  We get about 1 supernova every 50 years in the Milky Way Galaxy.  One of these things goes kablooie, the resulting expansion cloud of debris expands for a couple hundred years, and then it takes about 10,000 years to cool off and mix with the surroundings.  Here’s the Crab Nebula, which is the cooling off remnant of a supernova:

Those stringy filiments?  There somewhere between 11,000 and 18,000 degrees Kelvin, or somewhere between 19,000 and 32,000 degrees Fahrenheit, for the Yank visitors.  The Crab still has some cooling off to do before the iron and silicon in those filiments can actually clump together into a rock, and the gas forms a star somewhere for that rock to orbit.  Another 4 or 5 billion years after *that*, you might just wind up with a little blue ball (if you can call a 5,973,600,000,000,000,000,000,000 kg ball “little”) orbiting a star at just the right distance to have liquid water, with some goofy alien life form typing away at whatever device it uses to post to its blogosphere about minerals.

Of course, you might not.  We don’t know how likely that actually is… but the Milky Way is BIG… 200 to 400 billion stars, spread out through a disk that’s 1,000 light years thick and 100,000 light years in diameter.  That’s a lot of dice rolling, and we know that at the absolute worst once in 13.2 billion years they came up all sixes and boom, a livable planet.  Anything sufficiently probable to occur once in 13.2 billion years will occur again at some point before the heat death of the universe.

But they probably won’t have their own Twisted Sister.

Rock on, baby.

P.S. -> for further mind blowing, I’ll share this with you, regarding our mineral buddy Carbon, courtesy of Steven Dutch, professor of Natural and Applied Sciences at University of Wisconsin, Green Bay:

Merely mentioning Christ in anything but the most rigidly traditional way rattles some people, but what follows is absolutely orthodox Christian theology. If Jesus was fully human, he ate, exhaled carbon dioxide, and had all the metabolic functions of a normal human being.

We can assume Jesus was a fairly small person in keeping with the general nutritional standards of the time. If he needed 1500 calories a day, and carbohydrates typically contain 6 calories a gram, then he ate about 250 grams of food a day, or about 90 kilograms a year, or about 3000 kilograms over the course of his life. Most biological material is about 18 per cent carbon, so about 500 kilograms of carbon passed through Jesus’ body during his lifetime.

The total biosphere contains about 1016 kilograms of carbon. After 2000 years we can assume that any carbon that passed through Jesus’ body has thoroughly spread through the biosphere (a great deal would have been exhaled as carbon dioxide). So the fraction of biosphere carbon that was once in Jesus’ body is 500/1016. If you weigh 50 kilograms, you contain about 9 kilograms of carbon or 4.5 x 1026 atoms of carbon. That means the number of carbon atoms in your body that were also in the body of Jesus are about 4.5 x 1026 x 500/1016 or 2 x 1013. The actual calculation is more complex because some carbon has become incorporated into rocks, dissolved in the sea, or is still in the atmosphere.

If this calculation makes you feel exalted, bear in mind that we could do exactly the same calculation, and get just about identical results, for Judas, Pontius Pilate, or Herod. In fact, we could do the same calculation for King David, Julius Caesar, Confucius or Buddha.

If Jesus ate 50 grams of food at the Last Supper, about 10 grams of that would have been carbon, or about 1/50,000 of his lifetime total consumption. So of the carbon atoms everyone shares with Christ, one in 50,000 is from the Last Supper. At any given time you have about 400 million carbon atoms in your body from the Last Supper.

Posted March 26, 2009 by padraic2112 in astronomy, science, Theme Thursday

For Megan   1 comment

and the topper

Posted March 26, 2009 by padraic2112 in noise

Blogosphere Plug: Blogobuddy Shack Requests Backup   Leave a comment

From Megan, we see friend Bubs requesting aid. Now, I’m a big fan of the flashmob, and when it comes to silly popularity votes I’m all about gaming the system. Go vote!

Listen up, dear readers–our eldest Nora is a semifinalist in the Fangoria Spooksmodel contest and she needs your help!

The top 13 contestants get to go to the finals in Los Angeles. And, as a maniacal stage father, I’m dying to take a trip to L.A.

So start voting. Click on this link here, and scroll down until you see Nora in her evil nurse costume.

Posted March 26, 2009 by padraic2112 in noise, social

Follow Up To Vegetable   4 comments

Visitor Paul dropped by to leave a comment regarding my last post.  It deserves some attention, so although I replied there I’m un-burying the lede and re-posting it here.

Paul sez:

It’s PZ Myers, incidentally.  [ed note: I misspelled Professor Myer’s patronymic]

Great post, I agree with Megan. Interesting about PZ Meyers–although I’d never heard of him–Philip Pullman always bothered me for this very reason–although he is actually one of, I believe, the most brilliant authors around, and I love his books, his outspoken, snide, supercilious atheism drives me bonkers. Again, it’s not the atheism per se, but the assumption that anyone who cares about their religion is by default an ass… [for clarification, this is another comment to which Paul was responding]

As opposed to the default assumption by most religious folks that anyone that is an atheist is morally and ethically bankrupt, and/or really believes in God and is just rebelling? That never seems to bother most people. Your critique seems very one-sided, and is one reason many atheists are happy there are people like Pullman and Myers willing to be outspoken and blunt about these things. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but nothing is.

My reply was thus:

> It’s PZ Myers

Fixed, thank you Paul.

> As opposed to the default assumption by most religious folks that anyone that is an atheist
> is morally and ethically bankrupt, and/or really believes in God and is just rebelling?

This is an over-generalization, and it’s simply not generally true. That said, it may be true in your particular community… if so, in my opinion this sort of behavior ought to be condemned outright. I spent a good long time in Catholic school, and I knew quite a few atheists. None of them were regarded as morally or ethically bankrupt. In fact, during my comparative religion class, the Jesuit teaching the class started day one by saying that, “About half the people that take this class become really good Catholics. The other half become atheists. Both of those results are successes in my book.” I know three people who went to a seminary (three different denominations); they’re all atheists or agnostics now.

> That never seems to bother most people.

Again, you’re overgeneralizing, although it may be true in your particular community. Among people I know, this is actually regarded as a pretty big problem.

> Your critique seems very one sided, and is one reason many atheists are happy there are people like
> Pullman and Myers willing to be outspoken and blunt about these things.

I’ve visited PZ’s blog a few times, and I’ve heard this. I’ve also heard more than one person say that people like PZ and Pullman let them know that it was okay for them to be atheists and they weren’t monsters for not believing in God. While I’m glad that these people find out that they’re not monsters, I don’t know that because PZ was the first person to tell them so he deserves a pass for behavior I think is generally harmful.  [ed note: Phil Plait is another good example of someone who can fight the woo without deliberately being a jerk, so finding PZ before Phil should not give bonus credence to PZ’s methodology]

There are lots of people who are atheists who are critical of religions on the grounds that parts of the religion deserve criticism. That doesn’t make it okay to ridicule people’s beliefs universally [ed note: it breaks rule #3, unless you’re an atheist who used to attend a seminary].

To be clear, I have no problem with anyone, religious, atheist or otherwise, critiquing a church’s stance on public policy. Fire away at the Pope’s stance on contraception… he’s said things that simply are not supported by evidence and he should be called out on it.

I have no problem whatsoever with anyone, religious, atheist or otherwise, critiquing a moral stance adopted by someone who is religious as being an unacceptable reason for seeking public policy change. Catholics who oppose abortion must admit that their stance is based fully and entirely upon their theological position of what constitutes human life, ergo they have no business trying to make it illegal, as it violates the Establishment clause. Moreover, it’s a waste of time and resources. If you want to reduce abortions, find out what sorts of things reduce unwanted pregnancies (like contraception) and what sorts of things give pregnant mothers who don’t want a child a reason to carry the pregnancy to term (like, your financial support and compassion).

I don’t have a problem with anyone stating baldly that a religious dogma that contradicts science is wrong. People who claim that the earth is 10,000 years old are wrong, period… and their right to be wrong ends when they try and establish it as a reason for public policy decisions or even teach other people that their beliefs are correct without fear of contradiction.  But lots of smart people believe things that are wrong (check out Tesla’s Wikipedia page). *This does not make them stupid, it just makes them wrong*.

I have a real problem with anyone who believes that their intellectual correctness gives them carte blanche to condemn or ridicule a human social organization outright, without fully understanding or studying it, simply because it has a public position that is wrong. The Catholic church, for example, has been around for a very long time. The Catholic church, as an organization, has done some horrible things. It’s legitimate to point those things out as a reason why we ought to be glad we don’t live in a theocracy. But it’s bankrupt to claim that because these things have happened, that the church has done no good; that’s like claiming that because the U.S. broke some treaties and screwed over the native American population that the U.S. government has done no good.

As for my critique being very one-sided… I’m sorry, but I don’t see it that way at all [ed note – I don’t think Paul has read much of my blog].  For every person who enjoys PZ’s style of just calling anyone who claims a faith an outright idiot, there’s someone who enjoys doing exactly what you mentioned earlier; calling atheists morally bankrupt and disparaging their ethical character. This rightly angers you when it is applied in your direction, no? So why do you consider *intentionally angering someone with whom you disagree* to be a legitimate form of social discourse?

The fact is, once you accept the label “Culture Warrior”, you’re accepting a role of self-righteousness.  Even if your stance is correct, you do not generally win converts from the other side by being self-righteous.  If your claim is that you’re fighting a lack of knowledge, how can you possibly justify deliberately couching your message in an envelope of scorn and ridicule?  Certainly, people who think like you may flock to your cause, and raise your banner.  By your original premise… you’re not trying to reach those people.  You’re supposedly trying to reach the ones who believe things that are wrong, and by your very presentation they are not going to listen to you.  In fact, they are going to turn around and accuse you of being things you aren’t (such as immoral or unethical).

[edited to add] –  Paul has some follow up comments (read the comment thread for more details), but this ought to be sucked into the main post:

I cited another poster in the comments and meant my second paragraph as a response to what I cited.

This is one of the unfortunate drawbacks of the blogging medium and the comment thread mechanism, it is sometimes difficult to follow threads of thought without getting confused what people are actually talking about.  Mis-attribution on my part leads to a post that may seem overly critical, because Paul wasn’t talking about what I thought he was talking about.  Comment thread is an interesting read, though, so I’m not going to tag this post as “unnecessary” 🙂

Posted March 25, 2009 by padraic2112 in philosophy, rants, religion, science, social, Theme Thursday

Theme Thursday: Vegetable   14 comments

We eat a lot of vegetables in our house.  In fact, I’m fairly certain that my wife has extended my life expectancy by a couple of years by the uptick in vegetable consumption in my diet.  It’s nice not to be a bachelor anymore 🙂

I could write a post about steamed asparagus, or roasted sprouts, or my grilled vegetable pepper/onion/zucchini medley, but instead I’m going to write about another kind of vegetable.

From Vegetable


1. any plant whose fruit, seeds, roots, tubers, bulbs, stems, leaves, or flower parts are used as food, as the tomato, bean, beet, potato, onion, asparagus, spinach, or cauliflower.
2. the edible part of such a plant, as the tuber of the potato.
3. any member of the vegetable kingdom; plant.
4. Informal. a person who is so severely impaired mentally or physically as to be largely incapable of conscious responses or activity.
5. a dull, spiritless, and uninteresting person.

Specifically, definition 4, the pejorative use of vegetable.  Here’s some people that I currently find annoy the hell out of me, because they claim to be interested in education, or science, or truth… but they depend upon deceit, bad practices, or horrible, horrible fallacies to protect or promote an agenda, or they’re actively working at alienating everyone who doesn’t think the way they do.

#1 Rush Limbaugh

I used to listen to Rush routinely, under the principle that one should examine all sides of a discourse before attempting to claim an informed opinion.  After a couple of years (yes, years!  I really gave the guy a chance!), I discarded this practice.  Mr. Limbaugh, unlike a great number of conservative writers and commentators who do an excellent job of describing and defending their ideological positions, is simply a pompous self-righteous ass.  He engages routinely in the most horrid rhetorical devices to ridicule those with whom he disagrees, while rarely answering any of the critiques of his own position.  He also obfuscates issues by refusing to adopt a standard for his referral to outside experts; anyone who agrees with Rush is an expert (regardless of their credentials), and anyone who doesn’t is not an expert (even if they have the same or superior credentials).  It annoys me all the more because sometimes Rush claimed something that I actually find might be reasonable, but his inability to string together a cogent argument actually required me to spend MORE time trying to figure out if he was full of crap or not.

#2 Don McLeroy

I know what you’re thinking… who is Don McLeroy?  Mr. McLeroy is an elected member of the Texas Board of Education (the Chairman, no less), and he’s a stark raving loony.  My apologies to anyone visiting this blog who comes from Texas and might be of an evangelical bent; I am not attempting to disparage your religious beliefs, I’m simply asking you to acknowledge that they are, in fact, religious beliefs and thus have no part in the science classroom.  You are quite welcome to believe whatever you wish to believe.  You are not quite welcome to insert your belief into a domain outside its expertise.  This is a good thing; the separation of Church and State in this country protects you from imposition of religious beliefs that are not yours.  Please stop trying to impose yours on everyone else.  It is certainly possible that God has constructed a physical reality that presents empirical evidence that contradicts Revealed Truth, because the evidence is in fact masked on purpose to test faith.  It is, in my opinion, not very likely… but my opinion and yours are not relevant.  By definition, I cannot subject your theory to empirical testing, thus your theory is not a scientific theory, and doesn’t belong in the science classroom.

#3 PZ Myers

PZ Myers is an excellent biologist, respected in his field, and a routine candidate for best Science Blog on the web.  For good reason, he’s an excellent science teacher.  He’s also pugnaciously atheist… which is certainly his right, but every time he ridicules a religious belief, statement, or dogma he reveals three things.  One, that he knows very, very little theology.  Two, that he has not rigorously studied religious history.  Three, he makes it very, very easy for people like Don McLeroy to keep their converts.  He is contributing to the destruction of the intellectual commons where people can substantively debate in a way that can actually move the discussion towards a resolution.  Were his attention brought to my little corner of the blogosphere, he’d probably argue that he’s fighting the good fight to win.  I don’t disagree with his goals, I just think his tactics make it way harder than it needs to be.  It’s possible to be skeptical of religion and outspoken about its inapplicability to the science domain without being an ass about it.

#4 Almost Everyone Who Reports on a Science Story in the Popular Media

Hey, everybody that does this?  INCLUDE THE BIBLIOGRAPHIC CITATION IN YOUR REPORTING.  Seriously, people, what the hell?  Most peer-reviewed science journals are near the edge of scientific exploration.  For those not in the know, in some fields conference proceedings and papers are the most interesting current reads, for most others (particularly hard sciences) journals are where it’s at.  Getting published in Science is probably one of the more difficult things to do for a science researcher.  However, almost every scientific paper has a long list of weaknesses, caveats, and clarifications that disclaim or clarify the actual generalizability of the paper.  This stuff is 80% of the importance of the paper, and warrants usually two lines at the end of the science reporting article.  This is one reason why people get so confused about science… they hear one study concluded Something, and two months later some other study concluded Something Else, and the year after that another study showed They Were Both Wrong.  Of course, if you actually read all of the studies and the citations, what you actually find out is that one study said Maybe Something, the second one said It Could Be This Too, and the last one said I Can Explain Both Of Those, But The Real Deal Is More Complex Than That.  Regular people don’t have a subscription to The Journal Of Your Particular Field (for good reason, they’re horrendously expensive), and they can’t read the original sources.  But for those of us who can, and who can clarify these seeming contradictions, it would sure make it easier if we could FIND THE GODDAMN SOURCE.

#5 Computer Security Researchers

Stop making my job harder.

#6 Idealogues

Right-wing and left-wing idealogues make my teeth ache.  Ideas are good ideas or not based upon whether they are good or not, not where they come from.  Just because someone disagrees with you on whether or not taxation is robbery does not mean that their entire argument can be discarded on that merit.  Holding fast to ideological purisms without examining where they come from… and more importantly what the negative implications of your ideological position are (hint, YES THERE ARE SOME) marks you as close-minded.  You are not contributing.  When we have interstallar transportation and we can shlep you and your brethren off to an idealized colony where you can start your idealized philosophy off and running without outside influence, you can run your sociological experiment there and get back to us in a couple hundred years on how well it worked out.  Note: I doubt it will work out the way you think it will.  Yes, I realize that Rush fits into this category.  He deserves special note.

Posted March 19, 2009 by padraic2112 in Theme Thursday

I Think Your Focus Group Needs Adjusting   4 comments

You’ve probably already heard this story, if you’re the type to care about such things in the slightest, but in case you haven’t…

The SciFi Channel is changing its name to the SyFy Channel.  No, as horrifically lame as this is, it is apparently *not* an April Fool’s Joke sprung early.

Aside from the fact that rebranding is generally the last refuge of failing brands, someone please explain to me how a channel which is ostensibly connected in some way to a particular canon of artistic expression can survive when it has such obvious contempt for the core fans of that canon.  From the interview:

“The name Sci Fi has been associated with geeks and dysfunctional, antisocial boys in their basements with video games and stuff like that, as opposed to the general public and the female audience in particular,” said TV historian Tim Brooks, who helped launch Sci Fi Channel when he worked at USA Network.

Mr. Brooks said that when people who say they don’t like science fiction enjoy a film like “Star Wars,” they don’t think it’s science fiction; they think it’s a good movie.

“We spent a lot of time in the ’90s trying to distance the network from science fiction, which is largely why it’s called Sci Fi,” Mr. Brooks said. “It’s somewhat cooler and better than the name ‘Science Fiction.’ But even the name Sci Fi is limiting.”

Predictably, anybody who is an actual fan of science fiction, or sci fi, or speculative literature, or whatever label they’re currently hanging on the genre are righteously pissed.  I have to admit it’s not terribly surprising that a media corporation may decide that smart science fiction simply doesn’t pay (for a variety of reasons), but if that’s the case… why don’t you sell the channel?  If you’re going to rebrand it and get away from your core audience, that’s all well and good… but why choose a rebranding that is not only obviously still trying to keep that core audience?  And why in God’s name are you dumb enough to say something that so obviously offends that audience unless you’re going to cut them loose entirely?

Not that I care about the SciFi channel in the slightest; they haven’t done a good job of acquiring or distributing existing science fiction media (Star Trek?  Space:1999?  The Prisioner?  Any one of hundreds of decent movies?  Cult classics, even?) since the channel was launched, and their original programming has been 95% utter, utter dreck that more than undercompensates for their occasional decent production.  It’s a sign of how bad the channel is that I have never set my DVR to record anything on SciFi, and yet I’m clearly a fan of the genre.

If you’re under-performing, perhaps you ought to try actually serving up the content that your channel originally proposed to distribute before claiming that it doesn’t sell and watering down your brand.  If you’re not under-performing (and they’re actually having a good commercial year), what’s the point of re-branding unless you’ve discovered that your success is due to the fact that you don’t serve up the content that your originally proposed to distribute?

Posted March 17, 2009 by padraic2112 in teevee

Someone Else Has Movie Tourettes   2 comments

Posted March 16, 2009 by padraic2112 in movies, noise