Friday, December 30, 2005

Year in Review


Only got to "M" in my play-all-the-songs iTunes marathon. Must finish by AAS meeting...

Got my Inbox to less than 1000 undealt with messages, for now...

Public Resolutions:

update blogroll
finish papers
catch up on arXiv... and Physics Today, A&G and Grauniad

Make a dent in stack of 100+ non-work-related books on "must read" stack

Not in that order

rest of the resolutions are between my and my iPod...

Happy New Year Zeta

Tropical Storm Zeta! in december.

Wheee! Here we go

Jeff at wunderblog

Accuweather (dynamic link)

Accuweather, BTW, calls for major snow in NE USA by end of next week, just in time, eh.

Timing is everything...

iPod iChing - final challenge for 2005

Ok, Mighty iPod - lets take on a Big Question...
Is Dark Matter self-interacting? And if so, is the variant I'm thinking a realistic simplified model of what is going on? Or is it something entirely different. Phew.

Woosh goes the randomizer. Woosh.

  • The Covering: I Really Like You - Melissa Etheridge

  • The Crossing: Nowhere To Go - Melissa Etheridge

  • The Crown: I Want To Live - Talking Heads

  • The Root: Hyper-Ballad - Björk

  • The Past: It's My Life - No Doubt

  • The Future: Baby Can I Hold You - Tracy Chapman

  • The Questioner: A Lover Sings - Billy Bragg

  • The House: Allegro - Mozart

  • The Inside: Gefðu mér Gott í Skóinn - Strumparnir

  • The Outcome: Give Me Novacaine - Green Day

#11 is Traveling is a Dream - Twin Sisters; #12 Night Train To Lorca - Pogues.
#13 is Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key - Billy Bragg!

I agree with the House... The Inside is "Give me 'goodies'(candy) in the shoe" - a christmas song done by the Smurfs in Icelandic.
I like the Questioner, again... don't know about the Future though.

As always, the Key as explained by Sean

Give me Novocaine - Green Day

Take away the sensation inside
Bitter sweet migraine in my head
Its like a throbbing tooth ache of the mind
I can't take this feeling anymore

Drain the pressure from the swelling,
The sensations overwhelming,
Give me a long kiss goodnight
and everything will be alright
Tell me that I won't feel a thing
So give me Novacaine

Out of body and out of mind
Kiss the demons out of my dreams
I get the funny feeling, thats alright
Jimmy says it's better than air,
I'll tell you why

Drain the pressure from the swelling,
The sensations overwhelming,
Give me a long kiss goodnight
and everything will be alright
Tell me that I won't feel a thing,
So give me Novacaine

Oh Novacaine

Drain the pressure from the swelling,
The sensations overwhelming
Give me a long kiss goodnight
and everything will be alright
Tell me Jimmy I won't feel a thing,
So give me Novacaine

Hmm, not sure what to make of that....
Ouch, the bloody Smurfs came on again in the iTunes marathon, doing The Macarena, in Icelandic.
Hm, I wonder what Maldacena is up to nowadays.


Diddi fékk loksins skyr - fyrrverandi nemandi minn kom með poka af bláberja skyri og smjöri frá "Whole Foods" búðinni í Washington. Hann var tregur að prófa það enn sá svo Ástu hakka það í sig, fékk bragð hjá henni og varð alveg óður í að fá meira.
Verð af kaupa eins mikið og ég get, en ekki svo að skemmist, þegar ég fer til Washington í næsta mánuði. Keyri til að geta tekið kælikassa i bílnum. Reyni líka að fá lambalæri og vatn, og meira smjör!

Takk John!

Thursday, December 29, 2005


Hm, third day of catching up on paperwork.
Recommendations are hard work.

On-line electronic recommendations are clearly a time saver for admission committees, if they are using them correctly and not just printing the stuff out and distributing in folders.
But, the bloody forms are all slightly different, don't auto-fill efficiently (there is a limit to how often I feel like typing my name, phone number and address, auto-fill works best if layout is consistent), and they dump a larger fraction of the evaluation workload on the recommender.

This is a consistent pattern, increased automaton of paperwork in academia shifts the actual workload disproportionately to faculty away from staff and recipients of the extruded papers.


GRB - here we go again

GRB 051227 is looking very interesting

It is a hard GRB. Looks like it might be short as well, although there are weak delayed spikes and long low level emission tail.
Prompt followup has found a genuine faint red optical counterpart that seems associated with a rich cluster at redshift 0.7 and the OT is about 34 kpc in projection from a galaxy showing weak emission lines.

Combined with GRB051211 we're now seeing what seem to be moderate redshift short lived progenitors; it is tempting to say we are seeing two sub-classes of short GRBs, one set associated with NS-NS mergers and longish(???) lifetimes before merger, the other being shorter lived NS-BH mergers.

There are models now showing structure for tidal disruption of NS-BH mergers, I'd take those with a very large pinch of salt, the models are not fully relativistic, and this is a strong field regime. Resolution is also marginal to say anything sensible about return flow of marginally bound material and viscous evolution is purely artificial (and no B-fields!).

But looking very interesting indeed.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Íslenski Fáninn

A B+?!

Well, fair enough, it is heraldicly correct but somewhat boring, the Silver Falcon on Field of Blue was too nationalist, and the fillet of Cod flag was just too chintzy (but cute... I kid you not).

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

More Shaftoe

Tyneside variant

Bobby Shaftoe's getten a bairn,
For to dangle on his airm;
In his airm and on his knee,
Bonny Bobby Shaftoe.

Bobby Shaftoe's gaen tae sea,
Siller buckles on his knee,
He'll come back and marry me,
Bonny Bobby Shaftoe.

From Sharp's "Bishoprick Garland", 1834

TFandango has more

a snapshot from the working day...

"... I know! We'll do this crazy matrix, and by crazy matrix I mean a 107 by 33 matrix of all the particles as a function of redshift slice, and then we can just match up the black holes..."

"you know, when you first said that, my reaction was 'we can't do that', but then I realised it'd all fit on my iPod, so that's how we'll do it and then we can match up all the positions to all the structure at all times, later, if we want. Cool. Lets do it."

Judge not...

Damn those activist judges, eh?

Two recent rulings from US courts that all people concerned about public affairs in the US ought to read...

Luttig of 4th Circuit Court on US request to vacate decision on J. Padilla
Judge Luttig may be politically conservative, but he is intelligent, honest, and not amused.
I'm tempted to say that a Democratic President facing a Republican Senate would do well to nominate Luttig for any future Supreme Court vacancies.

Kitzmiller Jones ruling on Kitzmiller vs Dover PA School Board; Intelligent Design case
Kitzmiller Judge Jones is also an intelligent man, and he appears not do appreciate being fucked around with (Kitzmiller is clearly on the ball too, my bad).

Monday, December 26, 2005


Russia reports gas attack in Maksidom stores apparently a criminal blackmail plot. Story says mercaptan

So here's the funny thing - the first story I saw on this in Mogginn said unidentified (fair enough) sulphur gas that smelled of 'bad garlic'.

Quick, name a gas that makes a lot of people sick and smells like bad garlic? It is not mercaptan A thioether rather than a thiol. Well, can't be pure mustard gas or some of the people would have blistered and died. On the other hand, mercaptans are used as natural gas alert mixes precisely because they are not toxic. Specifically CH3SH (methyl mercaptan) which is the claimed gas in this instant. And it smells like cabbage, not garlic, a Russian should know the difference!

Did someone get a hold of old, partly degraded Mustard Gas? And was it commercial blackmail?
Not that I am paranoid or anything. Or not, not really consistent with thiodiglycol either. Weird.
But I don't believe it was just mercaptan.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Cryptic Baroque Ode for the Season

This is a classic, in case someone was missing context:

Bobby Shaftoe's gone to sea;
With silver buckles at his knee:
He'll come back and marry me,
Pretty Bobby Shaftoe!
Bobby Shaftoe's fat and fair,
Combing down his yellow hair;
He's my lover for evermore,
Pretty Bobby Shaftoe!

Friday, December 23, 2005

iPod iChing - Reality Bites

It is friday, and it is time.
Oh Mighty and Wise iPod at this time of year we bring to you the Greatest Questions of Highest Import.
So, iPod, can we sustain the growth of Reality Television, or will it all fail?

Woosh goes the randomizer. Woosh...

  • The Covering: Allegro - Bach

  • The Crossing: Finland - Monty Python

  • The Crown: Kings of the Wild Frontier - Adam and the Ants

  • The Root: Sweet Dreams - Lightning Seeds

  • The Past: A New England - Billy Bragg

  • The Future: Börnin við Tjörnina - Björk

  • The Questioner: Extraordinary Girl - Green Day

  • The House: La Primavera - Vivaldi

  • The Inside: How Beautiful You Are - Cure

  • The Outcome: Wages of Sin - Damine Jurado

#11 is Coming Up - Cornershop and #12 is Tamina wollen wir nicht speisen - Mozart.

Well, my, that speaks for itself.
The Future is "Children at the Pond", a very interesting song about children going to The Pond (a duck pond in the centre of Reykjavík) to feed the ducks. A very popular activity.

The Question was suggested by my better half, by the way. The Questioner is spot on. Spooky.

As always, the Key as explained by Sean

So, All Reality TV All the Way, Indefinitely.

Thursday, December 22, 2005


Ok, my head just exploded...

iTunes just got to Jól.. songs - which hits all the Icelanding christmas songs.

And on came "Jólasveinafylkingin" by Hurðaskellir og Stúfur - which is an admonition by the Jólasveinar (Yule Lads) to behave with extended commentary on their origin and nature. Cool.
Except the tune it is set to is "Stop the Cavalry" by Jona Lewie.


Remember, today was Gáttaþefur...

Complete iTunes

I am headed for defeat, I forgot about the podcasts (specifically the John Peel Day tribute podcasts).
Curses, my iTunes will not finish by christmas or even by new years... maybe by the AAS meeting.
Unless of course I add more over the next week. Argh.

BTW - if I am "typical", then Apple is about to do well - I'm now saturated on exploring my old CD library through iPod and iTunes and am contemplating both getting digital version of the Really Old Stuff (like "tapes" and "LPs" and "45s"), and, more importantly, time to get the random bits of music I always kinda really wanted but it just wasn't worth buying the LP/CD to get that one or two songs.
But for $1 per pop, and it fitting on my iPod and laptop, WTF I'll get thousands.

Er, well, dozens, to begin with.

Osama bin Laden is Hari Seldon?

Not really the season, but...

Some time ago, if you were geeky enough to notice, this little item caught peoples' attention...

Al Qaida is The Foundation

Now, the interesting thing abou aQ is that they seem to quite openly discuss their goals, intents and methods, and then, more or less they do what they say, to the extent they have the capability.

So, their stated intent is to bankrupt the US and destroy it as a society. Check.
As Hari Seldon would point out, the best way to do that is to leverage social instabilities within the target to make it self-destruct, find weak points and push, then step back and watch it crumble.

In fact, as we are finding out, the US government response to aQ has been almost textbook stupid in how it dismantles precisely the good features of US society that make it so much better than aQ's vision of the world.
To finish the job, they need to embroil the US military a little further, another medium sized war within 18 months would do the trick; push for continued deficit and off-budget spending, then squeeze oil and gas supplies.
Final trigger would be minor but spectacular internal US attacks to get some political panic and overreaction.
The steps are there, of course the US government would never be so stupid and short sighted as to fall for such an obvious ploy.

And most recently aQ said they would destroy oil supplies

Now we don't yet know how this happened>

Hm, now this

Of course we can't blame aQ for this, but the continued shut-in of significant fraction of the Gulf of Mexico capacity is not going to help.

Gonna be a cold winter.

NASA - loads o'money

So, Hutchinson budget for NASA passed

Total for 2007 and 2008 sounds promising, be interesting to see the final breakdown.
Griffin was making ominous noises about restructuring the Science Directorate or whatever the hell they call it this week, back to strict categorisation Earth/Sun/Planets/The Rest

Hm, remember when NASA mission relevance was reflected in the "...and beyond" ?

Well, change can be good. And remember when you divide Risk by Opportunity, there are 2 ways to go to Infinity and Beyond.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Game

The Angry Professor makes a move,
Sicilian gambit opening. Classic, dangerous, can lead to very boring, or very exciting games.

Bring it On Fuzzy!

Just make sure you attack on Feast of St Thorlacius...

I think Fuzzy would like kæst skata...

man, haven't had one of those for 3 years...

Christmas Special

So, one of our local radio stations ("lite" format) has gone to "all christmas songs, all the time" for the month.
For obscure reasons, this station is frequently on in my car - leads to surreal moments as the ponderous NPR announcer starts discussing in graphic detail the latest bombing, crashing or shooting, and with a flick "We're all having a Wonderful Christmas Time..." sproings onto the air.
A short pause, and a little voice says "Daddy, what country were those people blowed up in? What was their name?..."

Anyway, as one might imagine, 94.5 Lite's playlist gets stretched a bit, though I can't understand why they don't do more traditional advent hymns, one more pop version of Sleighride will surely drive the whole town insane.
Oh, and when did "A few of my favourite things..." become a christmas song? It is sung during a summer thunderstorm (incidentally symbolising the imminent annexation of Austria by the Nazis).

Which makes me digress: stations here play "christmas songs" higgledy-piggledy, there is no theme, no attempt to fit them to the season and no attempt to match mood (which is what makes a good DJ). So we transit straight from "joke" songs, to traditional christmas carols, to advent hymns, to Epiphany post-christmas songs, to on-christmas-eve/day-only songs (sorry to rant, I was at King's for several years, and they are a Church of England established college (they have a formal religious role, up to and including an obligation to hold certain masses), and the advent and christmas carol and hymn services adhere quite strictly to thematic choices - coincidentally the King's Choir just came on iTunes with a christmas carol... lovely. Better still live.)

Anyway, the British music scene is large enough to be valuable, and small enough to be innovative (as opposed to the US scene). One of the "great traditions" of the UK scene is the "one-off christmas hit" which can range from the saccharine to the absolute classics (or both, I have a soft spot for the Band Aid "Do they know its Christmas?").
So, 94.5 Lite put on one of my favourites, by accident I'm sure, and they won't be doing it again.

It is very seasonal though, this year of all years.

Stop the Cavalry by Jona Lewie (1980)

Hey, Mr. Churchill comes over here
to say we're doing splendidly
But it's very cold out here in the snow,
marching to win from the enemy
Oh I say it's tough,I have had enough
Can you stop the cavalry?
I have had to fight, almost every night
down throughout these centuries
That is when I say, oh yes yet again
Can you stop the cavalry?
Mary Bradley waits at home
in the nuclear fall-out zone
Wish I could be dancing now
in the arms of the girl I love

Dub a dub a dum dum
Dub a dub a dum
Dub a dum dum dub a dub
Dub a dub a dum
Dub a dub a dum dum
Dub a dub a dum
Dub a dum dum dub a dub
Dub a dub a dum

Wish I was at home for Christmas
Bang! That's another bomb on another town
While Luzar and Jim have tea
If I get home, live to tell the tale
I'll run for all presidencies
If I get elected I'll stop - I will stop the cavalry


Wish I could be dancing now
in the arms of the girl I love
Mary Bradley waits at home
She has been waiting 2 years long
Wish I was at home for Christmas

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Intelligent Decision

Judge rules teaching of Intelligent Design unconstitutional and spanks the old Dover PA School Board.
They deserved it.

"It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.

"We find that the secular purposes claimed by the board amount to a pretext for the board's real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom."

Teach ID in comparativel religious study classes or equivalent.
It is not science.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Titan - Time picture of the year

NASAwatch points to the Time image of the year 2005 poll,
Cassini image from Saturn is one of the choices,

vote early, vote often

and the winner is...

Sean reminds us the Koufax nominations are up

He forgets to mention Cosmic Variance as nominee for Best Group Blog and Best Expert Blog!

I'd agree with Béreubé for best writing, but am inclinded to firedoglake as best blog.

Time to update my blogroll over break, methinks.

Friday, December 16, 2005

iPod iChing - I'm Dreamin'

It is late, it is cold. An easy one tonight.

iPod - here, now, white christmas?


  • The Covering: Hello, I Love You - Doors

  • The Crossing: O Isis und Osiris - Mozart

  • The Crown: Body of Water - Billy Bragg

  • The Root: Place Your Hand - Melissa Etheridge

  • The Past: Cry On My Shoulder - Bonnie Raitt

  • The Future: Ég sá Mömmu kissa Jólasvein - Ruth Reginalds

  • The Questioner: O Paradis - Three Tenors

  • The House: Ræningjasögur - Ævar Kvaran

  • The Inside: Man Out of Time - Elvis Costello

  • The Outcome: Enjoy - Björk

#11 is Run - Snow Patrol and #12 is Atlantic City - Hank Williams

Oh, yes. So, totally.

The Future, FYI is "I saw Mummy kissing Santa Claus", in Icelandic. The House is "Robber's Stories"


As always, the Key as explained by Sean

Sam Bee vs Joe Lieberman - inDecision 2006

Faber straightens me out on the intricacies of US politics (residency requirements in a State As Well As Citizenship, WTF is with that, and, tell me, What About Hillary, eh? And Cheney? Residency, my ass. Anyway, the current Junior Senator from Pennsylvania lives in Virginia...).

But, that aside, the matchup is just too awesome to pass up.

Samantha Bee vs Joe Lieberman for US Senate!

Yes, draft Sam now!
She will sweep the Undecided Voters AND the Soccer Mums, and I'm sure John can deliver the jewish vote.
So that leaves Lieberman high and dry with all three of the Liberal Hawks that are still left north of the Mason-Dixon line, and possibly his immediate family.

I mean, who would you vote for? Samantha "Make a Fucking Choice" Bee, or Joementum Lierberman.

No contest.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

the weather outside is frightful...

Ok, so this time the school district was right to cancel school in anticipation of going-home problems...
I must admit the warm rain at ~ 11 am, in temperatures of about -5C was weird, and fortunately brief. Just enough for that 1mm layer of ice under the snow.

So, I can see a "rim" around the roof on the extension outside my office window.

I MUST finish grading the #$#)R)!!$~!&!~ final papers before the brick line disappears under the snow.
It will take one more cup of coffee, is my projection.

However my projection of iTunes finishing all my songs by end of finals week was off by a factor of 2.
Ah well, not bad for a theorist. New target date is Dec 31st, in time for me to finish Physics Today...

NASA - Ames rumor

NASAwatch passes along a rumor that Gen. Pete Worden will be taking over Ames

A Michigan grad, with a PhD in Astro from UoA

Did Clementine, Lunar imaging and spectroscopy mission, and DC-X, a zeroth-order concept for a single-stage to orbit vehicle that actually flew, unlike most SST concepts. Interesting.
I predict short term turmoil in the Bay Area. Long term, could work out.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Draft Samantha Bee

So, despite her absolute perfectness, Samantha can't be President

But, she can still do her civic duty.

Sam Bee for Senator.
Like, say junior Senator from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

She is clearly testing the waters here already

So, Samantha "make a fucking choice" Bee for Senator!

She appeals to the Undecided Voter.
Good demographics too, perfect for a GOTV drive. And Soccer Mum appeal too.

exam questions

So, the problem with setting numerical targets like "90% to get an A" is that then in order to fairly test the student population, that is to actually determine which students have know the material well and understand it in depth, you have to design an exam (or generally any gradable assignments) such that very good students actually can perform at that level.

Now, if you're using multiple choice exams, which are almost necessary for large introductory classes, then this is not so difficult, since it is straightforward to pitch the exam to whatever level the instructor wants. For other types, it is harder, you tend to either have short answer questions focused on factual and method testing, which tends to fail to probe in depth understanding, which is really what an "A" should reflect; or you grade leniently, which is always an option for non-multiple choice assignments.

Clifford over on Cosmic Variance has done a take on this. The "British style" of examining has some significant virtues that examining in the US system (at the ugrad) level makes almost impossible. (BTW, WTF do the Smurfs come on iTunes every time I blog this week, I don't have that many (Icelandic) Smurf songs... ah well, this time it is a version of "Walking in a Winter Wonderland". Surreal.)

So, the idea is that exams are long written questions, preferably you pick k out of n questions and have 30-60 minutes to do each question.
Each question is roughly in 3 parts. The first part asks for a definition, or a theorem, or some very basic point to set the students mind on the topic and test for elementary knowledge. Usually worth 30% of the total, if you don't get it you fail.

Second part is usually an extended calculation, preferably working with or from the first part. It is worth 40% of the total and takes work, skill and knowledge of the material. If you set the 1st/2.1 boundary at 70% then a student doing the first two parts correctly is borderline 1st but not quite (ie a B+/A- grade - English university grading is 1st; 2.1 or upper second, 2.2 or the lower second (AKA Tutu); 3rd and "ordinary" (non-honours pass) and Fail).
You provide heavy partial credit on the grading, so students who make progress but do not complete get a 2.2 or 2.1

So, the third part, worth ~ 30% of the total, is something related that was not in class or on the syllabus. It requires the student to use their knowledge to figure out something new on the spot under exam pressure. You do all the previous parts and that, you get a 1st.

Such questions are very hard to write. Good university departments have sets of them going back decades that are carefully mined and refined.

My all time favourite question was from an advanced ugrad "Waves and Fluids" class.
Started off asking for a definition/theorem on laminar flows.
Then we got a standard calculation for steady flow, using a geometry different from any class examples or homeworks.
Straightforward, somewhat technical, doable, took some time.

The third part of the question then asked us to solve the same problem for supersonic flow.
The class did not cover supersonic flows at all.
The solution, as it happens, fell out automatically once you realised what the differences were (a serious sign change for one term), and then the physical implications just fell out. As I recall, in particular, the lift changed sign!
Absolutely beautiful question.

academic issues - UC puts its foot down

Oh my. Spotted on Bérubé's comment section

UC sued for rejecting Christian Academy syllabi

Well, sometimes it bites.
Yes, private schools can teach whatever they want, and Universities, including public Universities, can conclude that in their professional assessment the syllabus or academic content is inadequate and that the grades the students earn are meaningless for admission purposes.

There are plenty of private Universities the private schools can affiliate with or petition.
Don't know what a student from certain "Christian Academies" would want with going to a den of sin like UC anyway... they might accidentally take a evolutionary biology or cosmology class and learn stuff.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

da curve, boss

So, what is it about US schools that imprints students with the idea that grade curves are numerical absolutes?
And what idiot set 90/80/70 as some sort of "standard" percentile for the A/B/C grade?

It took me a surprising long time to realise that a lot of students though I added an arbitary percentage to their numerical grades to "set the curve"... I suppose what is done can be considered functionally equivalent to doing so, except in so far as it is not.

The person setting gradable tasks and who does the grading controls the mean and range of grades, and to some extent the shape of the curve, although it is very hard to force a curve for a large class far from either a single or a double gaussian.

Personally I feel a mean percentage grade around 60% is good, with an A represented by maybe 70% or higher, though for psychological reasons it is near impossible to actually set curves that low in actual classes.
Bunching grades in a narrow percentile range makes individual grades vulnerable to random errors and single stupid mistakes and is a degraded indicator of true performance.

Monday, December 12, 2005

thought for the day

Grading is to teaching, as reasponding to referees is to research

You know you have to do it;
it is an important part of the process;
sometimes you even learn something surprising

But it still sucks

Ok, the Smurfs Christmas Special to the tune of "Merry Christmas Everybody" by Slade, in Icelandic is not helping.

The Original - Flashback courtesy of the Beeb...

So, here it is, Merry Christmas, Everybody's having fun...

A Coterie of Susans

A Coalition of Susans' is taking over the blogosphere!
I take a random sample to test this insane theory

Susan Mernit - Check, definitely a take over
SusanG - Ok, non-random, she started it. Definitely.
SCrawford Check
Susan D. Definitely
ThirdAge Two of them, totally.
Easy Bake Coven Totally cosmic
SusanSpace Self explanatory
Susan at Suffolk Law Library Commerce, Science, Law. The Susans are Everywhere.

Personally, I will welcome our new Susan Overlords.

Is this really what they teach in 8th grade...?

Did I mention I hate grading...

Anyway, blogthing to the rescue...!

You Passed 8th Grade Science

Congratulations, you got 8/8 correct!

First time too...

I should note, that as a handicap I did this while listening to the Smurfs in Space song, in Icelandic.
So there.

I note with appreciation the subtle use of the misspelled jargon word to flag an incorrect answer.
I am however slightly concerned that the electric charge on a neuron need not actually be zero, but as it must be so in some suitably averaged sense, I guess it is the best answer of the options.

Something useful for a change

Friday, December 09, 2005

Bérubé's To Do List

And I thought mine was ambitious

Bérubé delivers long awaited reply to Fuller

It is interesting, and thought provoking.

iPod iChing - Apophis smackdown in 2036

It is end of semester (yay!) and in a flash of bravura, I ask the mighty iPod on a cold snowy friday:
yo! mighty iPod dood, whose wisdom encompasses the ages, what is the deal with 99942 Apophis (MN2004) in 2036?

Woosh goes the randomiser. Whoosh...

  • The Covering: The Rhythm of the Saints - Paul Simon

  • The Crossing: Sunday - The Cranberries

  • The Crown: Sulk - Billy Bragg

  • The Root: Lil' Jack Slade - Dixie Chicks

  • The Past: Give Me Novocaine - Green Day

  • The Future: The Cinema Show - Genesis

  • The Questioner: Erie Canal - Twin Sisters

  • The House: Tondeleyo - Björk

  • The Inside: Við Jólatréð - Gunnar Þ.

  • The Outcome: Warning - Green Day

#11 is Jól alla daga - Eiríkur Hauksson and #12 is Blue Heaven - Pogues

FYI 13th of April 2036 is a sunday!

Well, The Past is spot on, as is The House. Complacency is certainly prevalent.
Not quite sure what to make of Questioner, sounds like I'll be working hard... pooey.

Read is that we will have a spectacular close pass, and we should heed The Outcome.
Apophis is an Earth crosser, it has a high probability of hitting on the next 100,000 or so years.
It is one of many such objects.
It is near certain to hit us eventually.

As always, the Key as explained by Sean

let it snow

Well, that was a shovelable amount. And more on the way.

Skafrenningur today (sorry, but English simply does not have an adequate vocabulary to describe the different amounts, kinds of snow or the way it moves through the air).

Thursday, December 08, 2005

by design

this doesn't really need a push from me, but in the interest of pure connectivity...

Incompetent Design

Of course, as the old joke goes, we know it we were really designed by a Civil Engineer, because who else would run the sewer straight through the playground?

reply to the referee

Martin White provides a form letter for replies to referees' reports

Just in case you hadn't seen it.

Don't know what made me think of that: the 4 referee's reports I just did (with constructive criticism and helpful comments only, of course), or the couple I just replied to, or, the couple I still need to reply to...

immodest ambitions

To actually be, and stay, current with arXiv again...

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Vote for We...

Quarks to Cosmos: EMRI who?

So, I had occasion to look up EMRIs today ("Extreme Mass Ratio Inspirals - whereby low mass black holes go splat into supermassive black holes emitting "shitloads" of gravitational radiation in the process - acronym sucks, but it beats my previous take on it which was: "high mass low mass black hole coalescence with low mass high mass black holes" HMLMBHCWLMHMBH just isn't as euphonyous...)

Anyway, Google is magic: Did I write that?

Yes, I did. The Quarks to Cosmos Meeting at Sonoma in 1999.
And the PDF files of the summarised versions of talks are still on the web. Damn. Didn't quite get it proofread by the deadline, eh?
Still, nowadays we'd just dump the Keynote exported files and skip the actual sentences.

But, I had forgot that an early "prediction" of Large Extra Dimensions was anomalous cosmological production of intermediate mass black holes. Now that would be handy if true. Looks like it got poo-poo'ed, but maybe one should reinvestigate. Been long enough to resuscitate as a whacky speculation, eh?

Must be possible to squeeze a few more papers out on that...

Recent Spectacular Meteoritic Event

GOES Imagery of the Dec 1997 impact on the Greenland Ice Cap. Weee

"It came from outer space...

Thanks Dan.

But, that's what you call an meteor impact

GOES Imagery of the Dec 1997 impact on the Greenland Ice Cap. Weee

Impending Catastrophic Asteroid Collision

Apophis. Seriously.
I do so heart the Grauniad...

I knew we'd still need those nukes...

Engineering Can Be Fun Applied Physics. Details are left as an exercise to the reader.

iPod iChing - midweek divinations

It is wednesday, but a Time for Decisions approaches, and the iPods Humble High Priest turns to the Wise One for consultation.

Oh, Wise and Wonderful iPod, in your Delphic Divination, you Know the Question: what ought to be done?

Woosh goes the randomiser. Woosh.

  • The Covering: I Want You - Melissa Etheridge

  • The Crossing: Nur stille, stille, stille - Mozart

  • The Crown: Ég er jólasveinn - Alli Rúts

  • The Root: O Come, O Come, Emmanual - King's College Choir

  • The Past: True Companion - Marc Cohn

  • The Future: Diamonds on the Soles Of Her Shoes - Paul Simon

  • The Questioner: Fandanguillo - Julian Bream

  • The House: Die Göttin der Nacht- Mozart

  • The Inside: Stripped - Jesus Jones

  • The Outcome: Tortured, Tangled Hearts - Dixie Chicks

#11 is She's Got Her Ticket - Tracy Chapman; #12 Precious Pain - Melissa Etheridge...

Hm, well, that's pretty clear.
No Clash though, I'm surprised. Subtle is the iPod.

As always, the Key as explained by Sean


can't feel my head, my heart
everything aches and i can't cure it
imagine being afraid to think
sink into to the ground, endure it
i'm mad enough to kill and thrilled
i'm moved enough to cry
too much, too much
let all in
don't let it all pass you by
everyone is hungry
everyone needs to know
at the end of it all you've got to get what you want
or you'll have nothing else to show
everyone is hungry
everyone needs to know
everyone is hungry STRIPPED, oh
everyone needs to know STRIPPED, oh
at the end of it all you've got to get what you want STRIPPED, oh
or you'll have nothing else to show STRIPPED

modest ambitions

must read all of the 2005 Physics Todays by midnight Dec 31st...

NO News

via Gilliard

New Orleans de facto abandoned to next season's storms - short version, White House budget cuts 98% of funding for marsh restoration plan for buffering SOLA coast.

Ah well maybe Houston will pick up the slack...

Read this NOdiary

NASA - 2007 budget optimism

NASAwatch picked up the 2007 budget request sent to OMB at the NAC meeting

NASA is asking for an extra 1.4 billion, while cutting aeronautics and cross-agency support by 15%.
Science does well, nominally, exploration and ops better still.

Congress will not given them that much extra; I doubt the White House will even let them ask for that much in the formal budget request.

So, what will give? You play the game of where to cut the next billion, assuming they get a token few hundred million increase to offset the increased pork lines.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

ID: mini-roundup

Oh dear.

Bérubé discovers even smart academics can be really stupid - postmodernism and "science of a radically different sort".

Key quotes: "ID deserves space less for what it’s done recently than as a representative of the main counter-tradition in the history of science to the one represented nowadays by Neo-Darwinism" and "In this respect, ‘our’ side pulled its punches in the Science Wars when it refused to come out and say that the scientific establishment may not be the final word on what science is, let alone what it ought to be. " - both by S. Fuller.
So, he got the rope. I look forward to Michael's response.

PZ discovers the NYT has a sense of humour - key quote: " Mr. Davis noted that the advocates of intelligent design claim they are not talking about God or religion. "But they are, and everybody knows they are," Mr. Davis said. "I just think we ought to quit playing games. It's a religious worldview that's being advanced." "

A Bérubé readers points to this fascinating piece in NRO - key quote: "Phillip E. Johnson once said that the ID debate is about the question whether the U.S. is a nation under God or a nation under Darwin. We Muslims see the latter as a plague; we have no problem with the former. " - M. Akyol

So, if I read this right, Mr Johnson is a cheese eating surrender monkey; and if the US, and Europe too if they wish, would just surrender their value systems and become literalist theocracies, then it'd be ok.
Well, until the doctrinaire disputes start, of course.

Strangely counter to this thesis is that much of Europe is establishmentarian; there are State Churches and official State Religions. Curious that.

Turkey, as I recall, is officially secular. Hmmm. Mr Akyol lives in Turkey.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Ho, Ho, Ho.

Scott Adams - redemption?

Scott Adams offers partial redemption.

However, I think he is wrong about the "best" job.
To whit: "...4,7855?! NO! I said 48,755! You idiot."

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Ode to Winter

First Winter Snow Falls
Warm Sun Melts the White Snow
Pool On Pavement

Late Night Milk Run Stop
Black Ice Glistens in Starlight
Foot Hits Ice. Pratt Falls

Shards of Clear Glass Gleam
Milk and Water Mix Frozen
Spikes by Tires

Fingers Frozen Pick
Wet Glass Reflection Contrast
Feel the Numb Cut Come

Friday, December 02, 2005

What to do...

Credit: Nature 438, 565-566 (1 December 2005)

So, the news is dire, one of the "worst case scenarios" (for some of us anyway) of climate change seems to be transpiring.
The Gulf Stream northern branch is weakening, catastrophic cooling of the North Atlantic and Western Europe could occur in a matter of decades, and the strengthened southern circulation would lead to warmer, more persistent mid Atlantic currents, and hence longer and stronger Hurricane seasons.

Nature article (subscribers only) News and Views


So, this is clearly an engineering problem...

Now, a long time ago, this came up over a Truly Momentous pot of coffee, at a table with just the right combination of people.
Assuming we were correct about mechanisms, causes etc, and we did use two or three napkins to sketch this out, so odds are decent; there is in fact a solution.

See, the Gulf Stream can be thought of sort of like a triode. The North-South flow is controlled by the West-East current out of the Gulf of Mexico, which is choked by the Florida Straits.

So, what do you do? Well, the solution is obvious. You short the bugger.

We need to remove Florida.

Now, this might sound drastic, but with the Hurricanes, they're toast anyway.
(What about Cuba you might say? One word: Mountains. Trust me, politics aside, Florida is easier.)

So, how do you remove Florida?
Well, digging is hard, so we fall back on the standard engineering solution. Brute Force.

We nuke them.

I figure O(10,000) thermonuclear devices carefully dug in and set off (not all at once, please) would do it.
More or less. We can see how the first few go, and then tweak it. That is one of the joys of engineering solutions.

Yes, we would evacuate first. What do you think that we're some sort of uncaring inhuman monsters?!

Now, where would we get ~ 10,000 spare nukes...? Think. Think.

Wait, better save some for the Impending Catastrophics Asteroid Collision, or something.

iPod iChing - the last parsec is the hardest

It is, amazingly, friday again. Aargh.

So, we turn to the mighty iPod, and we ponderously ask: oh, great and wise iPod, as you know, when two supermassive black holes of a mass interestingly large for the purposes of continued NASA funding seek to coalesce under the influence of gravitational radiation, they must first go from the marginally bound phase after galactic merger, to the relativistic tightly bound phase, if they are to coalesce within the lifetime of the universe, so we may observe. Are stellar dynamical processes adequate to complete the hardening to the point where gravitational radiation dominates, in the general case, on time scales of less than 10 billion years? Or do we have to rely on hydrodynamical, or other, processes?

Whooooooooooosh goes the randomizer. Whooooooooooosh.

  • The Covering: Kátt er í Hverjum Bæ - Gáttaþefur

  • The Crossing: Longing in Their Hearts - Bonnie Raitt

  • The Crown: The Space Between - Roxy Music

  • The Root: I Wish You Wouldn't Say That - Talking Heads

  • The Past: Tom the Peeper - Act.1

  • The Future: Non la lasciare - Pavarotii

  • The Questioner: Autumn - Vivaldi

  • The House: Lorelei - Pogues
  • The Inside: Cindy of 1000 Lives - Billy Bragg

  • The Outcome: Golden Touch - Razorlight

#11 is The Time Warp from the Rocky Horror Show (Instrumental version)! #12 is Rip Her to Shreds - Blondie.

Bloody hell, that is unambiguous.

There is no "last parsec" problem. The SMBHs coalesce, we will see them and it won't be subtle.
I infer this will happen later in my career then I'd appreciate, but Autumn beast Winter I guess.

The Covering, by the way, is "Cheer in every Farm/Town" by one of the Yule Lads.

As always, the Key as explained by Sean


gravitational radiation from SMBH coalescence

Thar she blows - listen for yourself...

The Last Parsec

The iPod is not kind to my colleagues:

By Philip Chevron (1989)
You told me tales of love and glory
Same old sad songs, same old story
The sirens sing no lullaby
And no-one knows but Lorelei

By castles out of fairytales
Timbers shivered where once there sailed
The lovesick men who caught her eye
And no-one knew but Lorelei

River, river have mercy
Take me down to the sea
For if I perish on these rocks
My love no more I'll see

I've thought of you in far-off places
I've puzzled over lipstick traces
So help me God, I will not cry
And then I think of Lorelei

I travel far and wander wide
No photograph of you beside me
Ol' man River's not so shy
And he remembers Lorelei

River, river have mercy
Take me down to the sea
For if I perish on these rocks
My love no more I'll see

If I should float upon this stream
And see you in my madman's dream
I'd sink into your troubled eyes
And none would know 'cept Lorelei

River, river have mercy
Take me down to the sea
For if I perish on these rocks
My love no more I'll see

But if my ship, which sails tomorrow
Should crash against these rocks,
My sorrows I will drown before I die
It's you I'll see, not Lorelei

River, river have mercy
Take me down to the sea
For if I perish on these rocks
My love no more I'll see

I was hoping for something slightly different

So when a website that shall not be named puts a for steinn link up, I have to admit I get intrigued.

Is it new data on the inclination of M4A?
A unique housing opportunity in the Bay Area? (ok, lets be real here)
Bonny Doon finally shipping to PA?

Well, this is almost as good.

Whole Foods is now carrying Icelandic butter, aka smjör.
My last stick is out of the freezer and half-eaten.
It has the vivid yellow hue still, and you can practically taste the meadow grass in each bite.
It is, really, a very good butter.

So, go buy some, and remember the challenge: if your department is within a days drive of central PA and you have Whole Foods you are morally obliged to have me come give a talk, soon... It is a humanitarian sort of thing.

Is Big Matt Yglesias worthy.... Hm, I suppose so.


Scientists rush in where fools fear to tread

Antarctic volcano erupts under ice cap: penguins panic - founds this trawling one of our friendly neighbourhood web sites. Excellent.

As they note, this happens in Iceland at Grímsvötn.
When I were a lad, I used to work for Vatnamælingar, the Department of Hydrology at the National Energy Authority. Summer job; but it was fun, we covered almost the whole country, spend 12 days up in the mountains, 2 days in town, while the Sun and weather lasted. 100 hour work weeks, with overtime and per diem. Outdoor work, occasional use of explosives, large drills (I still have the boots) etc and so forth.

And, sampling rivers from ice melts on volcanoes, to look for spikes in dissolved sulfates etc, as possible predictors for eruptions. And especially jökulhlaup. Including Skeiðará which drains Grímsvötn and the rivers which drain Katla volcano.
The thing was, you can smell the sulphur.
And once the sampling rig is deployed it takes 10-20 minutes to retract it (it was built into the truck). Now you could just cut it, except at Katla the bridge was a girder bridge, and you had to actually retract the whole gear, couldn't cut the arm, cutting the "fish" off the wire wouldn't help. And every time I was hanging on the outside of the bridge guiding the "fish" down into the river, the smell got noticably stronger... and stronger... and stronger.
Oh, and it takes ~ 30 minutes for the flood crest to reach the bridge once it starts.

So, one summer we spend several weeks on the north coast, and for weekend leaves we flew back, leaving the gear up north.
So one time I asked how we would get to Skeiðará if there was an eruption? Since clearly we'd want to be there ASAP to start measurements.
I was rather surprised when my boss said, quite seriously, that he'd fly up north and stay with the equipment and I could stay in town, you'd have to be an idiot to actually go there during a real eruption. Very disillusioning.

Then, in 1996, and again 1998, there was a medium eruption, and there, on the web, were me old mates, with the trucks. Measuring.

The time to run is when Bárð&arbunga erupts, explosively.
Now that's a volcano.

OoEr, When I Were a Lad... actually here is a good set of photos from a German who did a short loop around the southwest, that kinda stuff...
Now, wtf did they switch to Nissan trucks. Yuck.

NASA - Texas? This time it is serious

NASAwatch reports that JSC is looking to take cuts

Wot?! Johnson is shedding some contractors by the looks of it.
Either things are getting really serious, or I no longer understand anything about how DC and NASA work...

Or, a cynic may think, Texas is safe and Florida needs to be sheltered to the last.
Or not.

I'd give no more than even odds now that the Shuttle will ever fly again.
That must be some depressing jobs to be in right now.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Save the Festive Season

It has come to my attention that the upcoming season of Holy Days of Winter Solstice is under severe threat from cultural extremists and needs a concerted effort to save it.

As we all know, the Winter Solstice Festival, in its various incarnations, was not just a calendar alignment trick, it was essential in completing the year and moving the Sun on. This was serious business back when before we knew about angular momentum conservation.
Further, any excuse to party and eat the food about to spoil, so as to ride out the lean few weeks before Þorrablót offered an excuse to pig out on the pickled foods and other winter stores.

Let's Keep our Festive Yule and make sure we keep wishing all and sundry a wholehearted Gleðileg Jól

The threat comes from many corners, as extremists try to hijack the holy season.

It is perfectly acceptable that other cultures try to assimilate their mid-winter festival into the Yule, and it is in the nature of the Yule itself to be inclusive to all, but let us keep the traditions as they should be.

First of all, it is perfectly proper to wish people Happy HolyDays.

Secondly, Christians: back off.
It is nice that some Pope made the smart move to shift Christ's Mass on the calendar to co-opt Yule and Saturnalia both, but even cursory glances at the Bible shows that there is no friggin' way Jesu ab Joseph Yeshua ben Yosef was born in late december. By all means wish everyone Merry Christmas, but remember this is a secondary and borderline pagan holy day for you, and stick with the primary festival of Easter. Just remember that Passover came first; and that the spring festival of Eostre blends nicely in with Páska - eggs, bunnies and chicks are pagan celebreations of spring, think fertility rites. All Hail the Goddess.
Solemn fasting is what goes with the actual Good Friday and ensuing solemnities. Just give the chocolate to your less devout friends.

Ok, ground rules: Saint Nicklaus's day is December 6th. He rides a white horse and his red cape is ankle length. He has a side kick, gifts go in shoes, not socks, and naughty kids get coal. You need to leave out carrots as well as cookies and imbibing fluids (milk/cocoa/brandy, whatever works).

Father Christmas is mythical, and he doesn't drink Coca Cola. If you want to be literal, he'd be Yehovah in some incarnation, so keep the beard and lose the red suit.

If you want Winter Solstice Gift Givers to wear red & white short fur coats, have reindeer and come down chimneys, you're talking about Finnish shamen. Don't fuck with them either. Jólapúkinn (Joulupukki) lives in Lapland, which is only approximately the North Pole, if you're far enough away.

Elves are good; but there are (variously) 9 or 13 Jólasveinar (christmas elves or "Nisser" if you prefer) and they are not Good, they are at best Agents of Chaos. Remember, their mother eats bad children, and the christmas cat is evil.
But, hey, if they were good enough for St Birgitta, they're good enough for you.

Jól has 13 days, pivoting on 25th Dec (ok, so their astronomy sucked in the Dark Ages, but you wanna wait a few days after winter solstice anyway, just to make sure).
If you want elves, the first one comes 12 days before christmas and they leave in order starting on christmas.

The proper way to dispose of a christmas tree is to burn it, like a flag, reverently and with ceremony, on the 13th day of christmas (that'd be Jan 6th, another day co-opted by Christianity, please do join in).
How else are we to make sure the Sun will complete its circuit for the next year?
This is great neighbourhoodactivity, pile them all together, suitably far from houses etc, they'll be perfectly dry by then.

For obvious reasons, plastic christmas trees are an abomination.
I don't care if they are convenient.
Talk about missing the point!

Christmas trees are not a Christian symbol, though you're welcome to stick a star or angel on top if it makes you feel better.
An elegant spire will work just as well though.

If zoning, fire risk (californians note) or air quality (ditto) are an issue, then reverently dispose of you evergreen in an ecological manner. Chippers are good. Phoebe was an idiot.

Bah, humbug.

Oh, and Happy Holidays All!
Remember to eat your Putrid Skate on the Feast of St Thorlacius!

adopt-a-blog: random quickie

adopt-a-blog, because connectivity is good and I feel like it...

  • Jói Fel the fan club of the hottest chef in Iceland.
    Ah, well, something to look into next time I'm up North. Mmm, they have recipeds. Chicken and Brie rolled tortillas? Marinated lamb chops, that's better... 6th most popular blog on Still trying to figure out why Icelanders have suddenly swamped the *.tk domain.

  • Proven by Science Raiding Cosmic Variance blogroll. Not seeing much growth in physics blogs last few months. Or no one is updating their blogrolls, I know I am not. Whacky UK group blog by the looks of it. Numb3rs fans, they read books. Usual mix.

  • Anti Quark Found trawling the nether reaches of the TTLB ecosystem, looking for anything with vaguely interesting title. Apparently a student in Winnipeg. Low volume, some interesting links, sense of humour. At least it is real, increasing fraction of blogs are robo-ads or spam-blogs.

  • Áasta R. She is a member of Alþingi, the Icelandic parliament - and she blogs. It is political stuff, scandinavian progressive. Found this by jumping across two Icelandic blogrolls, basically a fishing expedition. Picked this one because I like the name ;-)

stupid things to do at semester's end

Play all the songs on my iTunes in alphabetical order...
Should be done by end of finals week. Unless I leave them on overnight...

Apparently there are whole albums on there I have not yet played since transferring; that is just not right.