Tuesday, January 31, 2006

a brief glimpse of academia

Fame, at last: pretty pictures and hyper stars in Virgo

Sky and Telescope has a very nice news article on some recent results, some of our recent results that is.

Short version: we have some very nice Hubble Space Telescope data using the Advanced Camera for Surveys, doing deep imaging of a "blank" field in the Virgo cluster.
We have "shitloads" of intra-cluster stars, some picturesque surprises, and S&T gives a speculative theory paper by Kelly Holley-Bockelmann et alon the role of supermassive black hole binaries in creating a sub-set of the intracluster stellar population (and, more importantly, how one might observationally distinguish that sub-population from the rest).

"More data is needed"

Avian 'flu pointers

Colin Purrington at Swarthmore

War Zones... anyone remember how the Spanish 'flu got its kick start in 1918?

If you were paranoid, the Iraq cluster is indicative of possible human-to-human transmission with 7-10 day incubation period and the index case being the 14 year old girl who died first.

I know it is hard to keep track given the circumstances but: "So far there have been no confirmed cases among poultry in Iraq..."
It is hard to miss lots of dead chickens. This is bad.

Effect Measure has more

A gratuitous rant against a small thing

Last year we were forcibly switched to VoIP phones.

Apparently the switch will save the university serious money in the long run, although it will cost the individual faculty and departments in the short run; there was also, of course, a transaction cost.
Well, they have people who are supposed to be able to figure out if-and-when to do such things, and I'm not going to second guess them, much.

Of course, as we soon found out, this puts a single point of failure on our two primary modes of communication; now if the Net goes down, so do our phones. C'est la vie.

BUT, and this really pisses me off... yesterday I was locked out of my voice mail box; it happened of course on the morning when I had two time critical messages waiting for me when I got in.
Reason I was locked out is that "my password expired"! WTF - I did not set a "password expiry" feature; well, it comes as standard to safeguard the "when will you be home for dinner/is your meeting over/you're late for your meeting/please call me back" which is what my voice mail box contains 99% of the time (yes, I understand that some people have confidential messages on their phones, they may set higher level of password protection as they need to, I don't).

Ok, I'll reset the %^*%$!@ password.
Now along with most people I have a large number of unique passwords and ID codes. The non-critical ones, not infrequently, are algorithmic rather than pseudo-random, ie they are picked using a pattern of some sort (I know this is bad practise, but at some deep level I don't care if someone figures out my reader ID password for the WaPo, or, as it happens, the access code to my VoIP voice mail).

Resetting it failed.
The #%R^$%( thing remembers previous password and forbids reuse!

This is so deeply annoying, useless and counterproductive as to be worth a rant.

Then I bowed to the inevitable and came up with a new, and might I add, totally unbreakable, voice mail password.

Yay me.

100 best


Shamelessly cribbed from thorsett

I like 49.

Actually I like a lot of them, though I've read fewer than I'd like

Monday, January 30, 2006

Lesser Proposals

So, the number of Hubble proposals seems to have been about 720 for this cycle, comparable to the 727 received last year, and down by about 30% from cycle 13 and earlier, when typically about 1000 proposals were received per cycle.
This is clearly from the lack of spectroscopic capability, and means the community is not adapting their observing strategies to try to squeeze out more time for observing.
Which is kind of reassuring, it implies that the proposals are really science driven, not money or resource driven - if the latter then the number of imaging proposals would artificially inflate as people get the perception that they are easier to get through.
And they are, last year oversubscription was only about 5:1 for orbits, and about 4:1 in terms of number of actual proposals accepted (ie the perception that small proposals are more likely to get time is correct).
It will be interesting to see if people asked for more orbits per proposal this time, since spectroscopy sucks up more time per target on average, there should be a perception that it is worth asking for more time per proposal.

Next big question is what the $/orbit figure of merit will be, that's been squeezed in recent years. First the rationale was that spectroscopy is harder so bulk of the money per orbit goes to spectra; then someone muttered that with improved software support it took less human time to reduce the data ('though how people get 0.317 postdocs I don't know - splitting graduate students I understand, splitting postdocs is much harder). Then there is the true fact that operations have improved, so there are more science orbits per cycle (I think, should probably verify that) so therefore less $/orbit given a fixed budget.
But, sadly, we are also not given a fixed budget, so there is less money per proposal per orbit each year.
Soon we'll be doing everything for nothing.

Digressive Speculations

off topic, but timely...

so, there's no way Bush is going to nominate anyone to the Supreme Court who has not privately assured the republicans that they will weaken and/or overturn Roe vs Wade
similarly, anyone nominated is going to be an "executive power" believer and at some level personally loyal to the current republican hierarchy (and, yes, that is bothersome, and "not right" in both senses of the word)

but... I think most of the debate is missing the main surprise in the SC appointments, which is that they are going to vote to sharply narrow the "commerce clause".
Much of modern federal power derives from a broad interpretation of the "commerce clause", interpreted to mean that that federal government can regulate broadly anything that could conceivably cross state borders or affect interstate commerce; as opposed to a narrow interpretation, that basically means the Congress can prevent Tennessee from setting up border crossings and setting tariffs on Kentucky moonshine. (case was whosits vs wotsits some time ago - I ANAL).

Knock out the broad commerce clause and you significantly weaken the regulatory power of the feds, in favour of stronger corporate activities, and you put pressures in individual states to lower their local regulations to the lowest common denominator - an internal "globalization". Might even provide long term broad benefits, but definitely provides short term narrow benefits to some corporate sectors.

Interesting times.
I think they need one more vote on the court though, to do it.

I remember now...

...why I'm a theorist!

Although there was that time when the five of us taking the mathematical physics option were hanging in the corridor waiting for a class, and this videographer came out of a lab and asked us to come in; they were making this promotional video for high school students, see, and they needed some advanced undergrads to run the lab while they filmed. And there we were, just hanging out.
It was a "torque and moments of inertia" lab for freshers, boooring, so we first took it apart and set it up to do some more interesting precession experiments (can you tell we were taking advanced classical mech using Goldstein); anyway, my "partner" and I decided it'd be fun to see what happened as you increased the angular velocity. Overcoming the regulated limit on the motor driving the experiment was surprisingly easy...

Anyway, it is all on video tape and was apparently circulated to tens of thousands of A-level students in the UK, right around the time physics undergrad enrollment started plummeting, strangely.

My next "real lab" encounter (not counting "helping" for Ditch Day and other extracurricular activities) was at Mt Hamilton. My one and only visit so far to a professional observatory. Turns out you CAN see Venus at noon, by naked eye, using a large refractor (yes, it still works). Observing close to the Sun is interesting.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

iPod iChing - li'l planets

Gosh, what an interesting evening.

I am inferring from the proposal number vs time series I have seen that there are significantly fewer than normal Hubble proposals (for the uninitiated, cycle 15 Hubble proposals were due at 8 pm EST today).
Normally there are 1000+ proposals. I'm guessing 30% fewer this year.

Partially there is no spectroscopic capability of any significance left, and partly the 2-gyro mode restrictions are somewhat hard on some proposals.
On the other hand, I predict quite a lot of imaging surveys have been proposed using Advanced Camera, including both mosaics and deep surveys. So orbit over-subscription may be as bad as ever.

Anyway, it is late, but it is still friday in California, so...

Oh, mighty iPod - in light of recent news not to mention recent rumours of possibly even more interesting discoveries to be announced Real Soon Now, maybe, may we ask: are there shitloads of terrestrial planets around M stars?

Woosh goes the randomizer. Whoosh...

  • The Covering: Wish you were her - Billy Bragg

  • The Crossing: Look at the Monkeys - Twin Sisters

  • The Crown: Hello - Smiths

  • The Root: Sleep on the Left Side - Cornershop

  • The Past: Down by the Station - Twin Sisters

  • The Future: Girlfriend is Better (live) - Talking Heads

  • The Questioner: Warning Sign - Talking Heads

  • The House: Resitating Beauty - Billy Bragg and Wilco

  • The Inside: Il Allegretto Grazioso - Mozart

  • The Outcome: Seventeen - Sex Pistols

#11 is Brestur og Brak - Björk and #12 is Heart of Glass - Blondie

Outcome: "I'm a lazy sod..."

I'm interpreting this as a "yes" but with some caveat that I am not picking up on.
The Future lyrics are clearly interesting here, I'm figuring that the M dwarf planets are there but not as interesting as we hope they might be now, something else and better will be coming along, and soon.

As always, the Key as explained by Sean

Warning sign, warning sign,
I see it but I pay it no mind.
Hear my voice, hear my voice,
It's saying something and I hope you're concentrating
I've got money now, I've got money now,
C'mon baby, c'mon baby.

Yup, iPod does truly love me... had a moment of anxiety there.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Freedom! An Academic Issue...

Bérubé speak - you listen

Le me add a footnote: faculty at universities do not have a primary duty to state funding institutions, other state instruments, or the students' parents - our primary duty is to our professional obligation to represent honestly and fairly the extent and boundaries of our academic knowledge, to advance that knowledge, to inform the students and to enable the students to critically examine the issue for themselves.
There is absolutely no obligation whatsoever to let the students be comfortable in their prejudices or to respect their parents or state representatives views, except in so far as the existence of those views is of some sociological interest or happens to coincide with our professional position on the relevant issues.

It is arguably a matter of personal courtesy to not be overtly confrontational or harsh in evaluating competing viewpoints, you can tell someone that their personal belief in astrology is wrong and misguided without telling them that they are total fucking morons.

As for matters of faith - well if you have faith, then you should be strong enough to embrace the test of faith that contradictory facts present. If the Red Queen can do it, so can you.

The end of the main stream media

Howie at the WaPo digresses at the end of today's Media Notes - he rips into a story by the NYT's Kuczynski about an Oprah show inspiring her to go get her bra properly fitted.
This is an important topic, highly relevant to almost 50% of the population. Not a bad NYT article.

Howie sayz: "...I'll spare you the part about "robustly jiggling" and how she upgrades to a 34D."

I wonder if he's one of those weenies who won't buy tampons for his wife when he goes shopping? Maybe he gets cooties.

Here is Bitch PhD's post last month on the Ultimate Bra Post

So... who would you rather read? Bitch? Kuczynski? Or Howie?

Thursday, January 26, 2006


Mars Rover Blog

Seen on Green Gabbro...

Why, yes of course, there is a Mars Rover Blog

Hubble Proposal Season

", you mean this friday?"

Hm, I think that's 4 now, or maybe 5. Unless you (and you know who you are) put my name on something and haven't talked about it with me this week.
Anything I agreed to before christmas doesn't count. At all.

So why do administrators schedule "must attend meetings" in excess during this particular 48 hour period anyway?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Deserving More Recognition: Volvo iPod adaptor

Ok, so my conversion to yuppiedum is complete.
Now, some might argue that getting the Volvo (hey, it is the 'sporty sedan' that was meticulously targeted at our demographic, we resisted the wagon - the sedan gets better mileage, and the fraction of the time we actually need the extra space is low enough to be worth rationalising. An we won't consider the SUV until they go hybrid, at the very least. Would buy a hybrid wagon though in a millisecond...) did this, but not truly, deeply, inside, where it counts.
Can't judge by superficial appearances (like those of you who thought the Saab did it - it was used dammit).

Anyway, it was a well rationalised purchase, as exemplified by taking the Big Kid to school this morning (winter is back) and feeling the electronic stabilisers take control of the all wheel drive (yes, I do know how to drive in snow, really I do; I also know when a computer has faster reflexes and better judgement than me); not to mention the extraordinarily interesting statistic of the number of fatalities among back seat passengers in Volvo cars, in the US in the 90s...

But, I digress. Our yuppieness was complete when we obtained the Volvo iPod adaptor retrofit (and, yes, it does cost more than the actual iPod - takk, kærlega!).
It is wonderful. iPod slots in, integrates with the music system (it shows up as a "CD changer", rationally enough, on our car), and you can access it through the steering wheel thumb controls, as well as the dashboard.
Made cruising through the morning rush-15-minutes rather pleasant while flicking through playlists in the snow.

yeah, yeah, so what is the big deal?

Two kids
Multi-hour roadtrips
Finite number of CDs
- and you always forget to bring the one that is suddenly the all time favourite-can't-live-without
so now we bring along ALL the CDs, and the ones grown ups like too.

Our lives have changes; for the better.

Love you iPod.

Deserving More Recognition: Todmobile

Before Björk's second solo career, and Sigur Rós, but after the great blooming of contemporary Icelandic music triggered by the Spilverk, Bubbi and Stuðmenn, there were a number of what were in retrospect amazingly good bands.

One of the less known, but deserving more recognition, was Todmobile

I was in the US when they took off, so even though my cousin (hæ Eyþór!) was a founding member I have only a passing acquaintance with their complete output and only own one of their albums. Never saw them in concert ;-(

But, they wrote some really good music, and one of my current iTunes favourites is Spiladósalagið (go to #30 on the list (their "best of album") for an online sampler. Win format, sorry).

Try it.

Deserving More Recognition

You decide:


2 Political Junkies

3 Quarks Daily

The Abstract Factory


Adventures of the Smart Patrol




All Spin Zone

Alternate Brain

American Leftist

The American Sector

Angry Bear

Angry Old Broad

Ang's Weird Ideas

Anne Zook

Anne's Anti-Quackery & Science Blog



Arms and Influence

Arms Control Wonk

Arse Poetica

Axis of Evel Knievel

Bag News Notes

Barely Legal

Bark Bark Woof Woof




Beautiful Horizons


Bill's Big Diamond Blog

Bionic Octopus

Birmingham Blues

Black Prof

Black Feminism


Blanton's and Ashton's

Blog Them Out of the Stone Age

Blue Girl in a Red State

Blue Meme

The Blue Republic


Bootstrap Analysis


Brilliant at Breakfast

Brother Kenya's Paradigm

By Neddie Jingo!

Byzantium's Shores

Capitalist Pig vs. Socialist Swine

The Cassandra Pages

Circle Jerk at the Square Dance

Coalition for Darfur


The Cognoscenti

Colorado Luis

Comments From Left Field

Common Sense

Conservative Truths

Contrary Brin

The Countess

Creek Running North

CT Blue

Curly Tales of War Pigs

Culture of Life News


Daily Dissent

The Daily Howler

The Dark Wraith Forums

David E's Fablog


The Defeatists


Democratic Veteran


Den of Iniquity

Dependable Renegade

Dictionopolis In Digitopolis

The Disgruntled Chemist

Doctor Biobrain


Dohiyi Mir

Donkey O.D.



Dynamics of Cats

Easter Lemming Liberal News Digest

Eccentric Star

Echidne of the Snakes

Effect Measure

Elaine Riggs

Electronic Darwinism


Enemy of the State

ePluribus Media

Ethel, the Early-Warning Frog

Everything Between


Facing South


Faithful Progressive

The Fat Lady Sings

Five Wells

Flogging the Simian

Frogs and Ravens

From the Rooftops

The Galloping Beaver

The Garlic: All The Cloves Fit To Peel

Geeky Mom

The Green Knight

Grumpy Old Man

Half Changed World

The Happy Feminist

Happy Furry Puppy Story Time


I Blame the Patriarchy

I Cite



Is That Legal

It's Morning Somewhere

Journalists Against Bush's B.S. (JABBS)

Jesse's Blog

Just A Bump on the Beltway

Keat's Telescope

The Kentucky Democrat

kid oakland

King of Zembla

Lance Mannion

Laughing Wild

Lawyers, Guns and Money

Lean Left

The Left Coaster

Left I on the News

Legal Fiction

Legally Blonde

Lenin's Tomb

Liberal Avenger

Liberal Street Fighter

Liberal Truths

Liberalism without Cynicism

Liberty Street USA


Limited, Inc.


Little Wild Bouquet

Living the Scientific Life

Loaded Mouth

Long Sunday

Looking for Someone to Lie to Me

Low on the Hog

The Low Rent Rat

Mad Kane's Notables


Making conservatives cringe since 1977


Mark LeVine

Martini Republic

Media Girl

Meat-Eating Leftist

Merlot Democrats


The Moderate Voice

The Moquol


Murky Thoughts


My Left Wing

My Very Brain

Naked Under My Lab Coat


Neil Shakespeare

News Corpse



The Next Hurrah

Night Bird's Fountain


No Blood for Hubris

No Capital

No More Apples

No More Mister Nice Blog

No More Mr. Nice Guy


Nothing New Under the Sun

Nur al-Cubicle

One Woman Wrecking Crew

One Good Move

The Opinion Mill

Opinions You Should Have

Pacific Views

Patridiot Watch

Patriot Daily Blog: thinkings

Pam's House Blend

The People's Republic of Seabrook

Pinko Feminist Hellcat

Political Animals

Political Cortex

Politics in the Zeros

Peace Tree Farm

Past Peak

A Perfectly Cromulent Blog



Prairie Weather

Preemptive Karma


Progressive Blog Digest

Progressive Gold

The Progressive Trail


The Psychotic Patriot

Pudentilla's Perspective


Random Thoughts

The Reaction

Red Grange Run

Redneck Mother

Red State Diaries

Red State Rabble

Republic of T



Riley Dog

Rising Hegemon

Road To Surfdom

Saint Nate's Blog

Science And Politics


Scrutiny Hooligans

Seeing the Forest

Shining Light In Dark Corners

The Sideshow

Simian Brain

Simply Left Behind

Sister Scorpion


Sisyphus Shrugged


Spontaneous Arising

Stayin' Alive

Steven Bates, the Yellow Doggerel Democrat


Street Prophets

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Suburban Ecstasies

Sufficient Scruples

Syria Comment

The Talent Show

Talk To Action

The Tattered Coat

Taylor Marsh

That Colored Fella


Thoughts from Kansas

Thoughts of an Average Woman

Tiny Cat Pants

Tom Watson

To The Audient Void

Total Information Awareness


Under the Same Sun

Upon Further Review

Veiled 4 Allah

The Viscount LaCarte

Xpatriated Texan



We Move to Canada

Whatever It Is, I'm Against It


Why Are We Back In Iraq?

Winding Road In Urban Area

Wis[s]e Words

World War 4 Report

World Wide Webers


Yep, another Goddamned blog

Why, yes, I shamelessly cut-n-pasted it from Wampum's list

Tuesday, January 24, 2006



and that, my friends, is why some languages will never run out of words

FYI: it is a noun, and it means "the key ring holding the front door key belonging to the maid who works for the lawyer who presents cases before the supreme court"

a purer instance is the classic: Vaðlaheiðavegamálaverkfærageymsluskúr

which is the "hut with the tools belonging to the department of transport on 'Vaðlaheiði'" which is a mountain east of Akureyri.
Hut really is there; or used to be when I was a kid.

Koufax - Deserving of Wider Recognition

Wampum has the nominations for blogs most deserving of wider recognition list up; voting not yet open.

Sean was kind enough to nominate me, what can I say - looking at the list I don't recognise most of them, of course, by definition; but the ones I do recognise convince me that even I wouldn't vote for myself, even if I were the sort of person to do such a thing.

Tempted to say I'll vote for Effect Measure but maybe I'll find someone even worthier in what little of that pile I'll get around to browsing through.

Bad Astronomy is a finalist at the Bloggies.

Cosmic Variance is going to be in the expert blog, and probably group blog for the Koufax

Like Totally Cosmicur

Having created "cosmicur", one should, properly, define it.

cosmicur: (neologism) pertaining to trans-planckian cosmology; beyond cosmic; short-hand for speculation about physical phenomena pre-inflation and exact solutions to quantum gravity at the Planck limit.

Fortunately, as it happens, I was at a Stephon Alexander seminar on exact solutions for Quantum Loop Gravity yesterday afternoon, so I am all inspired.
Talk was good fun and quite interesting, discussing a postulated exact solution of a scalar field using Ashtekar variables, an extension of the Kodama solution. I was not a 100% convinced, but it was an interesting and bold approach and may provide some insight into pre-inflationary physics, and in principle predictions for further CMB measurements.

Here is a lazy pointer to the actual research

Here is the abstract on that particular result:

High Energy Physics - Theory, abstract

From: Stephon Alexander H. [view email]
Date (v1): Wed, 3 Sep 2003 22:03:21 GMT (28kb)
Date (revised v2): Wed, 28 Jul 2004 22:14:15 GMT (28kb)
Quantum Gravity and Inflation

Authors: Stephon Alexander, Justin Malecki, Lee Smolin
Comments: 18 Pages, 2 Figures; major corrections to equations but prior results still hold, updated references
Journal-ref: Phys.Rev. D70 (2004) 044025
Using the Ashtekar-Sen variables of loop quantum gravity, a new class of exact solutions to the equations of quantum cosmology is found for gravity coupled to a scalar field, that corresponds to inflating universes. The scalar field, which has an arbitrary potential, is treated as a time variable, reducing the hamiltonian constraint to a time-dependent Schroedinger equation. When reduced to the homogeneous and isotropic case, this is solved exactly by a set of solutions that extend the Kodama state, taking into account the time dependence of the vacuum energy. Each quantum state corresponds to a classical solution of the Hamiltonian-Jacobi equation. The study of the latter shows evidence for an attractor, suggesting a universality in the phenomena of inflation. Finally, wavepackets can be constructed by superposing solutions with different ratios of kinetic to potential scalar field energy, resolving, at least in this case, the issue of normalizability of the Kodama state.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Cosmicur Problems

Sean has a problem finding neologisms

Problem solved: "cosmicur"

er, except now it will be on google, at least twice.

Whatever you do, do not type "cosmicur" anywhere on the web, or link to it, we need to save that word in case it is needed for something important...

Too late.

I have an even better one, but of course, I can't tell you about it...


Apparently, one Ms Howell is the Washington Post "ombudsman" (or umboðsmaður as we like to call it).

As many know, she was recently enveloped in a shit storm of complaints, after she dismissed readers complaints that she explicitly asserted J Abramoff had bribed democrat as well as republican congresscritters.
Abramoff, as anyone who can read and cares knows, is a republican and made all his donations to republicans.

Well, the good lady apparently misspoke, after much heat, and deletions of terribly mean comments on the associated Washington Post blog, it was conceded that her words were imprecise, and they merely meant that some of Abramoff's clients had also donated money to democrats, at some point. And, you know, because they are mindless automata, all donations any of Abramoff's clients ever made were both at his direction, and felonious. QED.

I wonder. Did Jack Abramoff ever buy the Washington Post? Did his clients ever make a habit out of buying the Washington Post, or even taking out advertisements in the Washington Post.
I have no evidence that they did not, and every reason to suppose that they did.
Clearly all this money diverted to the Washington Post was at the direction of Abramoff, and by association there must have been something criminal about it.

So, what Ms Howell meant to say was that Abramoff bribed, or directed his clients to give probably felonious donations to, Republicans, Democrats AND the Washington Post


PS in her column, Ms Howell writes:
"...To all of those who wanted me fired, I'm afraid you're out of luck. I have a contract. For the next two years, I will continue to speak my mind."

Now, I don't know what the Washington Post employment terms are for their Ombudsman, but I can reasonably infer that it is NOT a free association op-ed position, the job is to represent the readers' concerns.
Be nice if the Ombudsman were to actually do that little job.

AAAS fights the good fight

Flying Spaghetti Monsters - comparative theology

Is the FSM spicy?

Even just typing such heresy makes me queasy, but intellectual honesty demands a rigorous examination of the issues.

The purists know that The Sauce is just Tomatos, Basil and Onion (Vidalia Texas Sweet Onion, of course); BUT, some heretics want to violate this Trinity of Ingredients and add Oregano (pah! most of the can't even pronounce it!) or even viler heresies like Chilis, or Eggplant, or Grated Carrots (gag.).

We know how to deal with such splitters and heretics, but I find myself bothered by the question of Garlic.
Maybe it is just being in Pennsylvania amongst the Old Faith, if I were still in California, Garlic would probably seem a natural ingredient, and it is of the Onion Family.
But, what of the Trinity then? Do you leave out the Onion? And are we then then going to permit Shallots too?

As you can gather, these are Difficult Issues.

Now, I am tempted by the Unitarian Heresy, whereby the FSM is just one aspect of the many faced deity. So Trinity, Quadrity, it is all One. And it explains the Mystery of the Meatballs with elegant circular logic.
But, this way lies heresy, I mean would a true Unitarian accept an Oregano Lover. Who knows where such filth leads

So, let me advice you to stick with the Old Faith and keep the Trinity of Ingredients: Tomato, Basil, Onion. Long may they simmer.
For the children.

Maybe grown-ups could indulge in a little bit of lightly braised garlic in the privacy of their own homes, and maybe the Gilroy Fanatics can force it to be legal, if not acceptable to decent folks, in public in California.
Just don't expect to come to Pennsylvania and see it served in restaurants before dark.
We keep the faith. And our balls are pure beef.

Up next... The Spaghetti - pure Durum Wheat, whole or refined?
Burn the Spinach Splitters.
No Coloured Pasta in the FSM!

Koufax nominees

Imminence of the Eschaton: VIII - The Truth Will Set You Free

Told you so.

Google is God. Official

"...Paul Saffo at Silicon Valley's Institute for the Future says that “Google is a religion posing as a company.”


But some people think they detect an even more grandiose design. Google is already working on a massive and global computing grid. Eventually, says Mr Saffo, “they're trying to build the machine that will pass the Turing test”—in other words, an artificial intelligence that can pass as a human in written conversations. Wisely or not, Google wants to be a new sort of deus ex machina." "

Personally, I will welcome our new Bay Area Overlords.

"Don't be Evil"

Great Flying Spaghetti Monster Schism!

Word is that a schism developing within the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster...

The issue is - "spicy" or "not spicy". AKA the "Oregano Heresy".

As we all know, the FSM is kid friendly. We're talking yer basic organic tomato sauce here; deities don't need spice.

We won't even mention the splitters who mutter in dark corners about "garlic" or "chilis".

Keep the FSM pure! Tomatos and Basil, what more would the almighty want? (well, maybe onion; but definitely, No Chunky Bits)

Well, except of course for the mystery of the Origin of the Meatballs...

All hail Auðhumla - The Great Cosmic Cow!

Friday, January 20, 2006

If life imitated art...

First bin Laden tape, offering a token truce mixed with threats.

Then the immediate predictable scornful public refusal from Bush

Now a tape from Zawahiri?

If this were a novel, say an "airplane reading" one by Larry Bond, then we just saw a "go signal".
Let us hope not.

iPod iChing - Are r-modes Real?

Yay, it is friday. And, may I say, it is a 4-cups-of-coffee kinda friday.

So, time for lazy, lite iPod blogging.
Lets stay on topic.

Oh, mighty iPod: given last week's news at the AAS meeting about PSR Trz 5ad rotating at 716 Hz, is gravitational radiation damping of unstable r-modes the actual primary physical limit on observed pulsar rotation frequencies?

Whoosh goes the randomizer. Whoosh...

  • The Covering: In the Bleak Midwinter - King's College Choir

  • The Crossing: Come un bel di di maggio - Pavarotti

  • The Crown: Billy Boy - Twin Sisters

  • The Root: Norwegian Wood - Cornershop

  • The Past: Makarena - Strumparnir

  • The Future: Chrome Plated Heart - Melissa Etheridge

  • The Questioner: Interlude - Mannheim Steamroller

  • The House: Apollo - Stravinsky

  • The Inside: Body of Water - Billy Bragg

  • The Outcome: Silly Shapes - Twin Sisters

#11 is Strong Enough - Sheryl Crow and #12 is I Melt with You - Modern English.

Wow. The Past is the "Macarena" in Icelandic. done by the Smurfs.
That and Norwegian Wood.

The iPod can be cruel indeed.

The whole r-mode thing is clearly just completely on the wrong track.
I suspect our clue is in #12 (and I think a 12 item iChing is clearly appropriate, not the traditional 10 item list).

The Outcome is hard to argue with.

As always, the Key as explained by Sean

Calling the shot

Osama "who he?" bin Laden, whatever else one may think of him (like, murdering scumbag), is an intelligent man.

This latest tape is smart: it distracts US politicians, creating divisions and distractions from actual policy needs.

They score a political point by making a token "truce" offer, knowing it will be promptly rejected. Which both forces the US to react, again, and wins points with their home crowd.

It could be a bluff, a smart terrorist organization triggers several false alarms per real threat in order to force law enforcement agencies to stretch their resources. But, that is one tactic aQ does not seem to use well, the track record is that when they make a threat they are making a sincere effort to carry out the threat.

So, that makes it seem ~ 50+% probable there will be an active effort to carry out some terrorist strike in the US in the next week or two. Main question is whether the "heart" of America is meant literally (Kansas beware?) or metaphorically (if so, where?).

A win-win play for aQ, doubly so if they actually do a successful strike of any significant size, after having given open warning! It is a very arrogant thing to do, but a safe call, since it can always be claimed to be a "panic them with a bluff" scheme if they got nothing.

There were news reports some months ago about bin Laden being broke (huh? that's close to $billion gone, not counting any profits from pre-9/11 option trading - and what became of that investigation?) - now that may have been part of the "fake letter form Zawahiri to Zarqawi" ploy tried in Iraq, or maybe he really did spend it all... but on what?

If I were the FBI-of-infinite-agents, I'd be looking at small businesses purchased outright or taken over in the last 3-5 years: companies handling general stores, storage facilities and truck fleets; franchises, maybe even food supply services.
Hard task, even with data mining. Very easy to keep a legitimate front for good well resourced agents with patience, and let them establish rapport and confidence, particularly if the business is subsidised to run at a modest loss to make those who interact with it feel warm and fuzzy.

This is how you do it...

Bérubé saves me the trouble of formulating an appropriate reaction to the UCLAProf kerfuffle

Just in case anyone at Penn State is fishing, let me say right up front that while I will talk extensively about integrals and equilibria in this semester's class, the primary subject is all about the importance of conservative forces and maintaining criteria for stability. Ok, I will touch upon violent relaxation, and maybe gravothermal collapse, but only briefly.
Oh, and I like my integrals to be conserved. And I say so, in class.

You want talk about radicals, go see a chemist.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Stardust is Golden on the Daily Show

Daily Show last night did a special on Stardust

Excellent. Maximum streed cred.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Fastest pulsar, yet. End of the r-mode?

Hessels and collaborators have discovered the fastest millisecond pulsar, yet. (Preprint is here).

At 716 Hz rotation frequrncy. Discovered in globular cluster Terzan 5
Previous rotation rate record was 642Hz, and it is thought, based on the sampling efficiency of searches down to ~ 1 kHz that there is a physical limit on rotation rate - something starts damping pulsar spin as it goes too high.

One of the more interesting damping mechanisms was r-mode damping through gravitational radiation emission (see here for explanation of r-modes (Rossby modes)
These models, curiously, predicted maximum rotation rates of < 700 Hz, and are formally wrong, now.

I'm sure they can be tweaked to let the maximum rate be a bit higher than predicted, but it is still an interesting constraint, and a slightly disappointing one as it reduces the prospects for detection of monochromatic gravitational radiation from nearby rapidly rotating neutron stars in dynamic equilibrium between spin-up torque from accretion and saturated r-mode breaking.

Youngest Binary Pulsar

Dunc Lorimer et al have a new binary pulsar, J1906+0746 with a very low characteristic age

Found at Arecibo, interesting system, 144 ms, 4 hr orbital period, massive GR precession (so eccentric obviously, press release didn't say how eccentric). Total mass ~ 2.6 Msun, so could be double NS, which would be interesting, since characteristic age is only 105 years!

Could also be a massive WD, which would be kinda interesting. We'll know soon. I presume optical searches are underway, knowing the actual orbital eccentricity would also help.

Since it is young, and presumably has a short time scale to merger due to gravitational radiation, it is also a hint that we're still underestimating the merger rate of compact binaries; which is good news for LIGO.

Spotted on Astronomy Blog was an AAS press release apparently, lots of those still to digest.
PS: one error in astro blog article - number of pulsars passed 2000 some time ago, I distinctly remember the celebrations at the meeting where it was announced. Big 5000 next.

Effect Measure Mutants and Cat(?!) 'Flu

Home Sweet Home...

NYTimes reminds us of unrest in Iceland.
Hm, microquakes. Hm, jökulhlaup. Mm, H2S.

I have to say, when Iceland kicks up a fuss, it tends to do so with a real attitude.

On a more pleasant topics - I didn't quite manage to empty all the skyr from the P-street Whole Foods, but I did fill the cooler. The intriguing thing is that the guy on the counter did not blink when I came over with armfuls. I suspect a fair fraction of their sales is still expats loading up on shitloads of skyr at a time, not locals grabbing one tub at a time. Although the embassy is nearby, so they should be getting some small volume foot traffic.

Amazingly we're almost out again, the Big Kid and my wife love the blueberry skyr, I'm mostly stick to the vanilla, though I Really Wish Whole Foods had the sense to get the unflavoured, and unsweetened, pure skyr. If I sweeten it myself, I guesstimate I put on about 1/3 of the sugar in the preblended flavoured versions (trick is to use a very thin crust of sugar for texture but let it get some moisture, let it sit, and eat it with skim milk (or cream and fresh berries if you're in the mood).

We're probably set on smjör for several months. Bastards had discontinued the Icelandic lamb, only had New Zealand.
Ne kulturny.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006


The Bad Astronomer reported a verbatim quote from the AAS "We (NASA) are not the Department of Education" say NASA Admin Griffin.

Indeed. Lets check, yes, Slacker Astronomy confirms

Well, it is not.
Nor is NASA the National Aeronautics Administration, evidently.
And we know it is Not A Science Agency.

So, we have a National Space Administration, which I guess explains their fondness for paperwork and signal processing... (and, NASA, I love ya and all, but when it says "Penn State" it should be a clue to not send the letter to Utah! Oh, and thanks, Utah U. for forwarding it to me, unopened, it was kinda important, although to be fair Someone At NASA Had Realised and e-mailed the info in the meantime...).

Anyway, we are also learning that the NSF is not a Department of Education, which I guess leaves the Department of Education as the Department of Education (hah!).

So, what, is that not proper?

Well, I am assuming that NASA is referring to the "E" in their EPO - since for NASA of all agencies to cut Public Outreach would be the most staggering DC incident of something cutting their nose off as a matter of principle, this week.
Public Outreach is NASA's greatest success.

So, I presume we are really referring to "Education". This is problematic. There are 3 levels of education - K-12, undergrad and grad; for NASA purposes.
NASA, at a broad level, pays for research and technical expertise - they'd prefer, all things being equal, to pay for experienced postdocs and staff, not raw grad students. But, where you get experienced postdocs etc from, is grad students; and grad students need sweeteners to encourage them along - like, for example the NASA Graduate Student Research Fellowship Program, or just the privilege of being paid just above minimum wage to work full time on actual data acquired from actual satellites at an approximate marginal cost of $5000 per hour. Paying $9-12 per hour for analysis that data the doesn't sound so bad, as opposed to the princely wage of ~ $20-25 per hour a postdoc gets. To be fair, it might take several
hundred hours to analyse a single hour of data, but actually doing so is better then hoping someone will get to looking at it in their spare time between babying undergrads through intro labs.
NASA needs the graduate students to keep the pipeline of experiences researchers flowing.

Undergrad - well, physical science undergrads are still under the misapprehension that they need to actually pay for their education (I suspect that a fair market for competent physical science undregrads now is such that they could all get full scholarships and stipends, if they knew to ask, so nobody go tell them now). So, maybe NASA could cut back there; not that they do much, some summer support to suck them in, a few merit scholarships as teasers, and a quite valuable minority and women effort, which I presume will be kept going.

So, K-12? Well, that is the DoE bread'n'butter stuff, and it is expensive. Is that what NASA will cut?

So, why would that matter.
Well, DoE, from my idiosyncratic perspective, is a bit funny about science education:
they really do mostly do K-12 stuff, which is actually the biggest sub-sector by far (and education is a very large industrial sector in any post-industrial economy). But here is the thing: DoE worries about Educational processes, pedagogy, learning methodologies. Their primary interaction is with the Schools of Education, not Science. They worry about the people who transmit to the students, not so much the content.

And here is where I worry. Pedagogy is important. Understanding how people learn helps in education (although it would be reassuring if this were a progressive, not faddish endeavour).
However, you still have to have some actual stuff to teach. In fact, I'd argue that for most students the content is more important than the education process. To put it crudely - it doesn't matter if kids have an efficient way of learning arithmetic if no multiplication tables have been generated for the teachers to teach them.

There is a rule of thumb, that to teach effectively, you need to be at least one level in knowledge and understanding above the students. At Kindergarten, this would apply to most all teachers, and there having good process is actually the most important thing (as long as it is still delivering content). You need teachers who are patient, helpful and can encourage young kids in developing the ability to learn.
But, high school math requires a teacher with undergrad level understanding of mathematics; not high school, and certainly not middle school.

What NASA, and the NSF, do effectively, is bring content to the schools.
It is partly about the excitement of new results and flashy graphics, but even that is pedagogically important - science is not a "dead" subject, it is active with new results continually generated by real people who went to school once.
It is also a matter of bringing science as a process to the schools, and to show that the foundational subjects matter in real life. You need to understand "units", arithmetic and algebra, or your precious Mars spacecraft will go SPLAT.
Facts also matter:
Space is Big
Earth orbits the Sun
There are lots of Stars like the Sun
There are Planets around other Stars
There may be water on Mars
Life thrives where there is water
Universe is Old, Very Old; but in a real sense Not Infinitely Old

etc and so forth

The other thing NASA and NSF do effectively through their education program is thrust the carrot of education$ into researcher faces. It is important to communicate your results to the public and back into the education chain, not just because it is an intrinsic good, but because we pay you, and we say it is important and good, and here is some real $$$ to back it up.
Department of Education just does not have that direct link to active researchers. In large part because there is little link between the science departments and the schools of education (and there is fault on both sides there).

So, cutting education$ from the science agencies is likely to be harmful and not something that can be repaired by telling the DoE to cover the base.

But... in the short term people want to protect the ongoing research; there are real people working right now who would like to continue being paid; hardware partly or fully built that needs to be made use of, and data that needs to be collected and analysed.
Short term, you just hope that things will get better in the long term.

Open loops

There are a lot of complicated systems out there in the world.
In general, they consist of some input, some internal process, and output.

For a large class of systems, a desireable feature is that they be in some equilibrium, most generally some dynamical equilibrium (static equilibrium is often boring) and possibly exhibiting some quasi-oscillatory, or limit-cycle, wandering away from the equlibrium.
For a stable dynamical equilibrium we generally want the departure from the mean equilibrium to be bounded, possibly strictly bounded, and most certainly not to exhibit, say, secular exponential growth.

Now, it is possible to do this by imposing some external constraints on the system, but ideally you want systems that are internally stable, purely by virtue of their own internal dynamical processes.

As we all know, to do that, in general, you need feedback!

Running complex systems open loop is an invitation to disaster, the system will make secular excursions from equlibrium and eventually run away, either to chaos or some other, possibly less desireable, equlibrium.

But, not just any feedback. If all the feedback is positive, then the system is almost certain to run away, and rapidly.
If you're lucky, a well put together system will fail safe, some governating assembly will either bound the excursion or terminate the processes leading to bad behaviour.
If not, then either the system breaks, or more commonly some weak point in the system breaks. You can even design these into the system, just in case you overlooked some feedback loop.

But, what you really need is negative feedback.

Negative feedback is kinda boring, it even sounds kinda boring, but it is what keep complex systems stable. Without it they are destroyed.

So, we must embrace negative feedback, we should wallow in it, we should absorb it, digest it, learn our lesson, and go on to absorb some new input to be processed into our wonderful output.

But, that is hard work, and rather tiresome.

Ah, well, don't know what made me say that.
Back to referee reports for me.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Best Blonde Joke Ever

Hrmph. has found the best blonde joke ever... (just look in the "link list" on the right top side)

I must say, I wouldn't normally link to such things, but it is amusing, and given the source I think it is well ideologically sound.

What he said

Spotted on

Tips for life after grad school: Part IV

This time they mean it.

Friday, January 13, 2006

InDoctrinate This!

Ah, it is night in Philly Bérubé emerges from the Atrios deluge - worth a read indeed

Short version: so far, the "Academic Freedom" hearings in Harrisburg are an embarrassment to the people pushing them.

The "Fahrenheit 9/11 was shown in bio class" allegation has interesting story behind it; it was a single (anonymous?) allegation to a Horowitz group. The College of Science investigated it, quite seriously, it seems to never have happened, at least not in a College of Science biology class. (There are other classes in other colleges of PSU which have the word "biology" in the title, you'd have to be really stupid to not understand the distinction between a "biology class" and a "class which has the word biology somewhere in the title or description", but there could be people that stupid, at university).

iPod iChing - Universal Jerk?

It is friday, just, and time for the iPod iChing.

In celebration of the AAS Annual Meeting, we pick one of the numerous press announcements of this week, and consult the mighty iPod:
Oh, Mighty iPod - this accelerating acceleration business, ok it is less than 3σ, but seriously, does the Universe have a non-zero jerk?!

Whoosh, goes the randomizer. Whoosh.

#11 is Sorted for E's and Wizz - Pulp; #12 To have and to have not - Billy Bragg.

Hm, well not sure what to make of that, except that the iPod sure knows The Root and The House!

Anyone care to explain The Outcome?

As always, the Key as explained by Sean

More on Schaefer's claim at Cosmic Variance

Ode to Boy II - I think the iPod likes me...

When he moves I watch him from behind
He turns and laughter flickers in his eyes
Intent and direct when he speaks
I watch his lips
When he drives I love to watch his hands
White and smooth almost feminine
Almost American
I have to watch him

In his face age descends on youth
Exaggeration on the truth
He caught me looking then but soon his eyes forgot
And everything he seems to do
Reflects just another shade of blue
I saw her searching into you and ached a while

I watch his lips caress the glass
His fingers stroke its stem and pass
To lift a cigarette at last
He dries his eyes
From the shadows by the stair
I watch as he weeps unaware
That I'm in awe of his despair

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Mutant Turkish 'Flu: Don't Panic!

Science Blog Collective

Another bunch of interesting science blogs have gone collective... with a commercial sponsor this time if I understand correctly ("Seed Magazine"?).

Good bunch at, including Aetiology, Pharyngula and Uncertain Principles.

Worth bookmarking or blogrolling.

I don't know about this group assimilation thing, guess the days of wild and crazy free frontier blogging are coming to an end.

In the meantime it looks like Atrios has slashdotted Berube, can't get through to the latest, saw a link on Escathon.
Suspect server down...

No strings attached

Mark at Cosmic Variance tells us that Hubble images rule out a cosmic string at CSL-1

Not surprising, but a shame, could have done with some excitement and surprises.

See discussion here, here and here

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


Phew. The P-street Whole Foods DID have skyr!

It is is stocked in the "grab-n-go" breakfast bar at the front of the store, not the dairy section (smjör is there though).

I wonder if they'll be annoyed if I buy it all on my way out of DC...?


So that was the VICS field - a fairly deep image of an empty piece of the Virgo cluster of galaxies, taken with Hubble's ACS camera.

We had 3 posters at the current AAS meeting on preliminary VICS results. Including this dwarf galaxy

Short version: we have thousands of intracluster stars, giving a decent estimate of the total unbound numbers of stars in the cluster (modulo it being a single small field, but there is other data from AGB and PNe surveys), some other interesting objects I might discuss later, and that picture - a beautiful little blue dwarf spheroidal):
"A team of astronomers has discovered a new dwarf galaxy and up to four possible star clusters in a region of the Virgo clusters of galaxies previously thought to be empty..." etc and so forth

Or to quote the official press release (which was totally ignored in favour of other results involving HST, Spitzer etc, including an amusing Sloan discovery of a dwarf galaxy in the Virgo constellation interacting with the Milky Way

Amusingly enough, I did not get to see any of the 5 posters I co-authored that went up on tuesday...

I did get to, literally, see some of the posters I co-authored today, I think there were 3 official posters and one extra Kelly stuck on the wall. Made up for the one that was hidden behind the OUP booth by the appalingly bad layout of the poster sessions...

Flu Pre-Pack

NASA - ah so, that is what he meant

NASAwatch passes along NASA budget rumours

So, here is how it will work.

Feds need to be seen to shave "wasteful spending" in the discretionary budget.
So the executive requests a cut to something like STS/ISS - but without cutting the NASA committment to finish what they promised the russians and EU. And Exploration will go forward by directive.

So something has to give.

So funding will be reprogrammed.
Another round of RIFs in the spring at the centers, a couple of large missions cancelled, and basically everything else postponed at the rate of more than a year per year for the next few years. Which will cost more in the long run of course.

Expect a reduced ROSES-06 call for proposals, I hear some lines of proposals will be temporarily suspended; maybe bring back ADP and LTSA and cancels Origins or something. Spread the pain.
Also don't be surprised if there is a clawback of O(10%) from already awarded grants in progresss. Yes, they can do that, read the fine print. Yes it has been done before.

Start sheltering salary lines now, in prep for a (hopefully one time) shortfall in the next fiscal year.

New New Rumours

Ooh, the (New) Astro Rumour Mill has moved to a new web host.

As obnoxious as the old one was (peculiarly aggressive pop-ups and animated ads) the new web site layout, if I may say so, sucks.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

NASA - Griffin Speaks, Astronomers Listen

For obscure reasons I could not be at Griffin's talk to the AAS today..., I had a higher calling, and was in a small room with assorted colleagues and NASA HQ bods.

"...In short, we who run NASA today are doing our very best to preserve a robust science program in the face of, frankly, some daunting fiscal realities that affect all domestic discretionary spending. These realities dictate that we set priorities; NASA simply cannot accomplish everything that was on our plate when I took office last April. In space-based astronomy, and in other areas, we will have to make tough trade-offs between maintaining current missions, of which there are 14 ongoing, and developing new capabilities. The astronomy community has faced this same issue with respect to ground based telescopes as well."

Real Soon Now they're going to have to actually cut stuff, then let the screaming begin...

It will hurt.

Hos'd Javalabs: Useful Stuff for Grave Matters

So, there's a lot of useful stuff out on the web, much of it poorly linked, so, the thing to do is to link to it.

For various reasons, I am reminded of Chris Mihos's JavaLab, a useful collection of Applets that do Gravitational Simulations of various sorts

I am particularly fond of the Surface-of-Section applet, for obscure historical reasons, but the GalCrash Applet is clearly the all time classic, and much beloved of many generations of students.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Hubble sure does take pretty pictures

Pat Durrell and Robin Ciardullo and Ben Williams

I'll post the official explanation tomorrow when we de-embargo; it is close enough to midnight now for the pretty picture...

why religion is so annoying...

Friday, January 06, 2006

Welcome 2006A

We got to Supernova 2005nb best as I can tell, that's quite a lot.

Now we have 2006A - discovered by T. Boles in Coddenham, UK.
18th magnitude in NGC7753

35cm reflector with unfiltered CCD. Amateur discovery! Way cool.

Don't Know Jack, Do Know Joe

iPod iChange - This Is Really Dangerous

Sean at Cosmic Variance directs us to Edge's "Dangerous Question of 2006"

What fun!

Who but the Mighty iPod would dare answer a Dangerous Question!
So, let us begin...

Oh, mighty iPod, whose wisdom and accumen exceeds that of the Greatest Pundits, answer us this Dangerous Question: Steinhardt asks whether the "cosmological constant" could be "slowly evolving" so that the true age of the universe is much larger than inferred from standard FRW approximation cosmology, is it?

Whoosh, goes the randomizer. Whoosh...

  • The Covering: Train in Vain - Clash

  • The Crossing: When Love Comes to Town - U2

  • The Crown: All I Want - Lightning Seeds

  • The Root: Hann Tumi fer á fætur - Björgvin Halldórs.

  • The Past: Make New Friends - Twin Sisters

  • The Future: The Secret Marriage - Sting

  • The Questioner: Cover Me - Björk

  • The House: Ligga, Ligga Lá - Ómar Ragnarsson

  • The Inside: Nessun Dorma - Pavarotti

  • The Outcome: She's Got a New Spell - Billy Bragg

#11 is Eensy Weensy Spider- Twin Sister; #12 No Pride - Green Day...

So, er, NO, I don't think so.
The Outcome is about as definite as you can be; and coincidentally one of my favourites.

Clearly the Future tells us we need to get QFT and GR right together, and that will give us the tools we need to figure out what is going on.
Not gimmicking with the cosmological constant.

I'll have to thank Björk one day for The Questioner... ;-)

While I crawl into the unknown
Cover me

I'm going hunting for mysteries
Cover me

I'm going to prove the impossible really exists
This is really dangerous
Cover me

But worth all the effort
Cover me

I'm going to prove the impossible really exists

FYI - "Hann Tumi..." is a childrens song about the little shepherd boy who gets up early and sits over the sheep while daydreaming about being king, but there's a flaw in his dreams...

Ligga, Ligga - is another children's song, about all the fun thing the child plans to do while on vacation etc - ambitious but modest, if that makes sense.

As always, the Key as explained by Sean

She's Got a New Spell Billy Bragg

What is that sound
Where is it coming from
All around
What are you running from
Something you don't understand
Something you cannot command

That's how I know
She's got a new spell
Yes, that's how I know
That she's got a new spell

What's going down
Who's moved this room from round me
Where has it gone
I fear this night will drown me
So I lie awake all night
'Cos I can't sleep with something I can't fight

The laws of gravity are very, very strict
And you're just bending them for your own benefit

One minute she says
She's gone to get the cat in
The next thing I know
She's mumbling in Latin
She cut the stars out of the sky
And baked them in a pie

She stole the scene and scenery
The script and the machinery

Thursday, January 05, 2006

BoE Risk Assessment - bird 'flu

Effect Measure on human bird flu in Turkey

I blog a bit, somewhat excessively probably, on the bird 'flu; but such is life - have "Plagues and Peoples" by McNeill and "Plague's Progress" by Karlen neatly together on my "at hand, but not work related" shelf in the office.

It is interesting, because the influenza viral family is endemic in humans, has an active animal reservoir, is well characterised and is changing (probably driven by recombination more than mutation, though journalists will always talk about "mutation").

So with the H5N1 variant, we can see it change and become more probable to be human-to-human contagious.
It is currently highly lethal, though how so is poorly constrained - the clinical cases spotted have 30-60% mortality, but those are people who got acutely sick and rushed to high tech medical facilities where testing could be done. The incidence of weak or asymptomatic cases is essentially unknown. So true mortality could be much lower.

So, it is likely, but not certain, that H5N1 will go human-to-human in the next few years.
Most probable scenario is an "error" during replication in a victim infected with both H5N1 and a "regular" 'flu virus, increasing the new hybridised H5N1s ability to directly infect humans. Likely such a change would change its clinical effects, including mortality rate, since it is already highly lethal, it could well become (much) less lethal. Virii are not well served by being excessivel lethal; but evolution is not purposeful, H5N1 could well do a side-branch that is not optimal in the long run, for us or them.

So, how bad could it be?
Well, I'm a theorist, dammit, so we will estimate, using our best Ansatzes and Back-of-the-Envelope guesstimates, driven by crude historical analogy and order of magnitude arithmetic.
One of these exercises that is essentially wrong in every detail, but will still likely give a "right" answer!

Major epidemics happen about once per century, with mortality rates of order 1%.
In recent historical times, there have one-to-few epidemics per millennia with more like 10% mortality rates...
On the other hand medical competence is now high and care of patients and interruption of transmission much better.
On the third hand, with even 1% incidence most modern medical systems will break down through overload and attrition and a large fraction of patients will receive no care, or ignorant amateur care in the home.

So, say in the next decade we have 50% probability of a pandemic (this is Bayesian - it will either happen or not; sophists will object to the prior choice of time frame; I say phbt! it is my theory).
We have 10% probability of 1% mortality and 1% probability of 10% mortality! Handy that.

So expected casualties: 0.5*(0.1*0.01 + 0.01*0.1 + 0*0)*Pop = Population/1000
(I am assuming that (1 - 0.1 - 0.01) probability of "negligible" deaths, which is actually the highest time weighted risk since regular 'flu is a killer and is endemic.

So you can, incorrectly, interpret that in several ways:

Expected worldwide number of deaths from pandemic in next decade ~ 6 million
Expected deaths in US from pandemic ~ 300,000
Your personal probability of dying from a pandemic ~ 1/1000 in next decade or ~ 10^-4 per year.

The US mortality rate is 847.3/100,000 or about 1/120 for a random person, per year.
So epidemic mortality risk is ~ 1% of your integrated mortality risk over the next decade (yeah, you can age adjust that, but who cares about details).

Interestingly, looking at the CDC mortality tables this estimate is a bit higher current risk of death from AIDS in the US, which is an ongoing pandemic, albeit a slow one, and about 1/2 of the endemic risk of dying from influenza or pneumonia (although that is very age weighted).

So, estimate is probably reasonable and sane.

For comparison, accidental death rate is almost several times higher and death rate by firearms about the same. Death rate from car accidents is almost twice as large.

So, why worry?
As always, because of the low probability, high risk scenario.
Taken at face value, there is a ~ 1/00 risk of a pandemic killing ~ 1 billion people worldwide and tens of millions in the US; this no higher than the "mean risk" of a pandemic of ~ 1/1000 per year, even though I take the prior that we know of a probable impending pandemic with H5N1. So I'd call it a conservative estimate, with the true risk maybe twice as large!
Of course it is the virus we don't know that will probably get us...

What is the insurance strategy?
If you take actuarial risk, then the US has a ~ 1/100 risk of losing > 10 trillion dollars in economic actitivy over a decade; so a rational abatement strategy would be to spend < $50 billion over a decade to avert this scenario.
It would be rational for the US to devote O($ 1 billion) per year to head off a 'flu pandemic, or have means to sharply reduce its impact.

That's in the range of things it is rational to worry about.
'Flu Wiki or related sites offer very low cost for individual risk abatement, effective at the 30-90% level of lowering risk for an individual or family, maybe.
Worth a little bit of time and effort, but not too much. Rationally.

Final, horrid thought - it is 'flu season; what happens if H5N1 gets into an immunocompromised population?

Blast from the past

A reason that iTunes Marathons are a Good Thing...

Red Angel Dragnet by the Clash

Red Angel Dragnet

(The Clash)

I come from a long way away
And I know a fine thing when I see it.
See it
For the same reason no one ever
Pointed a telescope at the sun
Talking about the Red Angels of New York City

Who shot the shot?
Who got shot tonite?

Not even law enforcement agencies can save their own.
Never mind the people
Tonite it's raining on the Angels of the City
Did anyone prophesize these people?

Only Travis
Come in Travis
One of these days I'm gonna get myself organized.

All the animals come out at night.
Queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick venal.
Some day a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets.

Thank god for the rain to wash the trash off the sidewalk. Listen you screwheads:
Here is a man who would not take it anymore.
A man who stood up against the scum, the filth.
Now I see clearly.

Personally I know the alley
Where Jack feeds on the birds of night
Not even bubbies on bicycles 2x2
Can stop the blood and feathers flying

Waring overalls and for once and for all
What is the dream?
I'll tell it
To live like they do in the movies
San Juan you listening?

Yeah I bet you are
Hands up for Hollywood
I hear you
Snappy on the air
Hang in their
Wall to wall
You saved the worled
What else? You saved the girl
Chmpagne on ice
No stranger to Alcatraz
To boot
Or strip it down
Chop it a little
Being reasonable
Just freedom to move
To live
For women to take a walk in the park at midnite
Hey, but this is serious
She can't even get back home

I come from a long way off
And I know a lifegiver over a lifetaker
For the same reason no-one ever pointed
A gun at a policeman
Talking about the Red Angels of New York City

It makes up for the Macarena, sung by the Smurfs, in Icelandic.

Readers paying attention will have noticed that I will not be finishing by AAS time.
There goes another New Year's Resolution...

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

they wouldn't, would they...

half way there

Atrios picks up on a hint the NSA listened in on CNN journalist

now, if they listened in on Colin Powell or one of his senior staff we're done

With Folded Hands...

TNH on Making Light gets sideswiped by Law of UnIntended Consequences thanks to Nader's Public Citizen zealousness

Nader really fucks things up. Hard to think of a better example of how self-righteous people with Good Intentions can blindly do harm.
It'd be nice if they'd occasionally step back for a perspective and accept risk assessment, not zero-risk impossibilities.


Ok, I caught most of the second half.
That was quite a game...

In the end JoePa flat out outcoached BobbyB, the end of the game pivoted on FSU being slow to get their lineup in and getting set for defence.
PSU should have put it away in regular time with a field goal, but what goes around comes around.

Injuries looked to be brutal, PSU's bench, for once, was deeper than the opposition.

Very good game. Didn't see any of WVU vs Georgia, heard it was good too. Be interesting to see if USC vs UT is going to be in the same league.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Crisis management

It is interesting how often the most important thing to do in a crisis is "nothing".

It is disturbing how hard it is to let go and wait for people and things to sort themselves out, because you know they will...

Must resist the impulse to "take charge".

Would you recruit this man...

High School graduate, football player.
Freshman at Washington and Jefferson College (USNews ranking), volunteers for the USMC? During a shooting war.

If you then knew that he later got a BA from Pitt in Econ and was made a Drill Instructor and then selected for Officer Command School, joined the reserves, volunteered for active duty in Vietnam, and retired as Colonel with two purple hearts, and a Bronze Star with V. After 37 years active and reserve duty.

Yeah, they'd take him, again


What Must Happen

In order for certain issues to gain traction; like, say, actual effective opposition to widespread and illegal data mining of private communications of US citizens by US gov agenices, one or more of these things need to happen:

journalists discover, shock horror, that communications by journalists with colleagues and sources have been illegally collected, analysed and used to pre-empt or discredit the media

senior republicans considered not totally loyal to the administration, discover, shock horror, that their private communications have been illegally collected, analysed and used to counter internal political disagreements and to force agreement with the administrative agenda

there are a couple of other criteria involving the public actually voting at a rate higher than 50%, votes counting being monitored by non-partisan citizens, and wide spread use of >= 128 bit public key or commercial cryptography...

A New Start

Apparently 90% of the staff of State College restaurants are actually in Florida this week.
Turns out curried tofu over rice is not actually totally inedible.

There are many worse ways to spend New Year's Eve than rocking a young baby with gas back to sleep;
especially if he has the sense to actually be at sleep on midnight, if not just before or after.

Big Kid got up early Every Morning over break, except Christmas Day, strangely.
Then overslept by a wide margin the first day school was back in session, of course. There goes one New Year's Resolution.