Sunday, October 30, 2005

Halloween Fun

Warning: put your coffee down before reading this. Mr. Right at The Right Place has assembled a list of horror movies to avoid this Halloween. My personal favorite
Stars: Howard Dean
In Iowa, everyone can hear you scream!
[Hat tip: Michelle Malkin]

This is the first Halloween for me and the Mr. in our new house. (Previous Halloweens were spent in child-free apartment buildings.) We're gonna lobotomize some jack o' lanterns tomorrow and put them outside the door to let the neighborhood kiddies know that sugary treats reside therein. Can't wait to see their little costumes.

Happy Halloween, folks!

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Long live the glorious rebellion!

Fans of Rashômon will appreciate this.

First, an account from the Libertas folks of what happened when two protestors tried to shut down David Horowitz's speech at the screening of the award-winning film, Brainwashed 201, at the Liberty Film Festival last week
We also had an attempted disruption opening night, when two left-wing protesters rushed the stage and attempted to attack David Horowitz. Fortunately, our very own Jason Apuzzo, plus volunteer Daniel Crandall, Chris Cook, and several others got to them first and dragged them out of the auditorium kicking and screaming. Ironically enough, David Horowitz was speaking about the need for free speeech and academic freedom at the very moment the protesters ran up on the stage shouting “Fascists have no right to speak! You have no right to speak! We don’t want your right wing **** here!” etc. etc.
Now, an account of the same disruption from another point of view.

The latter reminded me of something. Anyone remember the revolutionary cockroaches from Bloom County?
Long live the glorious cockroach rebellion against the great suburban bourgeois oppressor swine-pig!!
I hate revolutionary jargon.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Thought Experiment

Here's a silly thought experiment. Its purpose is to demonstrate how all our knowledge, everything we comprehend, is achieved through relative comparison. It is to say, our entire existence is one of relative experiences. Enjoy!

Here's the setup. You are you, except now you are invisible or bodyless or whatever. You can see the universe though. The universe, for what it's worth, consists of a single thing: It is an infinite expanse of the color green. It is one shade, hue, etc of green. There is nothing anywhere any different. Ok?

Now, you have a son, it turns out. How about that? Your son is also invisible and he also somehow has complete command of the English language, and he can see. He can communicate his thoughts directly to you via telepathy or some such thing. Anyway, you want to tell him about the universe, since he has never experienced anything before at all, except he is intelligent, such as it is, and can communicate in English.

So, you say to your son "Hey Son! Let me tell you something." To which he replies, "OK Dad, what is it?" "Well, Son," you say, "see the universe here? Guess what? It's all green. That's all that it is." Your son stares at you, strange since you are invisible, yet you sense it somehow, but you don't know it for sure, he is invisible too, after all. Right. Now his answer is not surprising. "Dad? What is Green?" This is a simple question, right? You answer "Green is a color, Son. In fact, it's the color of the universe. Really, that's all the universe is. It's Green."

Your son is puzzled. "Really? Hmmm... I don't understand."

"I guess it is hard to understand... and, uh, gee, I don't even know how to explain it. How about this: Green is the word for a particular wavelength of light. Ah, there it is. And in this case, it's the wavelength of light that permeates the universe." Now that must have helped, no?

"OK Dad, I guess, but what is wavelength?"

"Son, just look at the universe, it's not hard to do, there's nothing else to look at and you don't have any eyes to close, so the universe, which is one thing and everything, is Green. I'm telling you, that's what Green is."

"Ok, Dad. That's kinda weird, but what do you do with it? What's it for?"

"That's a good question, I suppose it's here for us to look at."

"Really? That's strange, isn't it? What exactly is the purpose of looking at it?"

"You know Son, I'm not really sure about that one..."

And just then a miracle happens. Suddenly, right in front of what would be your eyes, if you had any, something wonderful appears. The universe slowly, but evenly, divides in half. A definite line forms down the middle of the universe, in which one side is Green, just as it has always been, and the other side is now pink.

"Wow, hey Dad! There's something different about the universe over there!" See, there's the regular universe on that side, and on this side, the universe is different!"

"Yeah, Son, that's what I was trying to tell you. The regular universe is Green."

"But then what's the other side over there?"

"Aha!" Now you've got the upper edge on the situation. "Over there, that's Pink!"

"Ohhhhhhhh. I get it. That over there is Green, and on the other side, is Pink. How interesting."


"Now why is the universe Pink and Green again?"

"Son, I'll tell you when you're older."

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Objectivist Life Scorecard

I used to be a card-carrying Objectivist. I started a campus club, read all of Ayn Rand's books , etc. Then I met a few people who said they used to be into Objectivism. Used to be? I thought. Well, that was years ago. Now, while I still hold many of Rand's ideas of individualism and rational thought to be correct and dear, her ideas of the ideal man, the heroic man, and the Objectivist version of the rational basis for morality have lost favor with me. The problem with her ideas in these areas is that it makes life a trivial, uninteresting, and fairly juvenile matter. At least that's how I see it, and I'd like to convince others of this fact as well. To this end, I have created the "Objectivists Life Scorecard," which, I developed from my extensive reading of Rand and my Carnaby-riffic nature. Here it is:

First, add five points to the OLS for any of the following, any time they occur:
  • Proud moments of achievement -> bonus points if this included
    1. lack of fear
    2. lack of guilt
    3. sex
  • Sex -> subtract points if this included
    1. fear*
    2. guilt
    3. lack of pleasure
  • Suffering for philosophical principle -> bonus points for resolution -> bonus points if suffering or resolution involved sex (see above) -> bonus points if your nemesis was aptly named
  • Exalted feelings when observing the following
    1. planes
    2. tall buildings
    3. tits, with bonus points for exalted tits
  • Subtract points for any imperfection in the above occasions, such as
    1. bad breath during sex
    2. tall buildings that didn't work out so well
    3. feelings of guilt after the doctor has partially removed the fetus and is about to remove its brains to collapse its skull
See, that last one is really where we parted ways, and the gap just keeps on growing. Sorry about that last one, this was supposed to be funny.

* Stickwick's note: You should get bonus points for fear, but only if you are ravished by a heroically dirty, sweaty quarry worker. Extra bonus points in this scenario if any part of your anatomy is exalted.

UPDATE! I almost forgot. Since this scorecard is for Objectivists, there must be an objective measure of just how good your score is, and this is the whole point of this exercise in the first place. Well... there isn't one. And since we have no objective standard for scorekeeping, the next best thing would be to score the characters in Rand's novels and use them as benchmarks. Now, Howard Roark was obviously Rand's answer to Jesus, so his score, whatever it might be, is plainly unobtainable. John Galt is only slightly lower than Roark, at least by my measure, and yet still achieves an unobtainable score. We can continue this process and find that nearly everyone attains a score better than Ellsworth Toohey, since most of us at least have sex a couple times and probably enjoy it to some degree.

But now, what if one of us were to equal Roark or Galt? What then? What's the grand prize waiting for us behind curtain number three? Hey, it's a pretty great prize, and I know what it is. It's exactly the same prize that all of us get, from the common street thug to Hitler, Stalin, John Kerry, Jimmy Carter, all of the Democrats in Congress, Sir Isaac Newton, George Washington, Julius Caesar, Osama bin Laden, Ted Kennedy, George W. Bush, and everyone else. If Ayn Rand is to be believed, we all get, in spite of the tally on our OLS, precisely: NOTHING. Nada. Goose egg. Zip. Squat. Zero. Isn't that swell?

Well, that's the Objectivist's answer, at least an Objectivist who lived by a moral system that was appropriate qua man. That's really dandy of them to say, but really, so what? What the heck for? What a colossal joke. And that is the end of my story.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Astronomical Event Tonight

There is going to be a nifty little event tonight that you can observe with your binoculars.

The moon moves across the sky at a rate of 0.5 degrees per hour. The angular diameter of the moon is 0.5 degrees, so that means that the moon moves its full diameter across the sky once per hour. Normally, it's difficult to detect the moon's motion just by looking at it. However, when the moon rises tonight (around 8:30 PM), the Pleiades star cluster will be just above it. Use your binoculars to view the top portion of the moon along with the cluster -- you should be able to clearly see the moon's motion relative to the Pleiades' stars.

The Pleiades, or the "Seven Sisters," is an asterism that is often mistaken for one of the Dippers. You can see why

However, it's much smaller on the sky than either of the Dippers. This is closer to what the cluster looks like to the unaided eye

I'm gonna try to observe this tonight with binoculars and telescope. If anyone else decides to try, please let me know what you saw!

Update, 10/20/05: I did some observing with binoculars around 8:30 PM, but didn't get a good view because of the haze as the moon was rising. Managed to sit in a big puddle of water and tarry gravel trying to get a steady view. Grrr. However, I used a telescope (8" Dobsonian with 25mm eyepiece) about a half-hour later and managed to observe some movement. Whoopee!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Intellectual Confusion and Narrow Brilliance

I went out for a night on the town with some very bright and prominent young scientists this evening. Some notes on the experience...

Dinner is incredible -- the ambience is just right, the food and wine fabulous. We're all sitting back enjoying our wine, discussing our work and exchanging ideas, and just when I'm settling in for a nice time the conversation turns to politics.


First, the usual Karl Rove conspiracy stuff (they use the word "conspiracy" several times), followed by the idiocy of Bush, the sheer evilness of neo-cons, the war's costing too much, it's all about oil, the Taliban, the CIA, civil rights, etc. etc. etc. All of their information comes from Fahrenheit 9/11. I'm not just inferring this -- they keep mentioning the film. Inevitably comes the anti-Christian stuff. I say nothing. The conversation descends into a horribly misinformed, stereotype-invoking, hate-filled frenzy where everyone is feeding off of each other, and they all sound about as sophisticated as angry 15 year-olds. No one notices that three of us are stone silent -- me and the two South Americans in the group. I am wondering if it occurs to any of the Bush-bashers that perhaps not everyone at the table shares their views. I decide it doesn't occur to them. I am curious to know why the South Americans are silent. Is discussing politics at the dinner table considered rude in their culture? Are they bored? Are they as uncomfortable as I am? One of them, who has been quietly smiling at me throughout all of this, gets up and leaves.

From what I can gather, the frenzy-folks seem to be an odd flavor of leftist-libertarian. Strange comments betray their confusion. One of them accuses Bush of being racist, because the only Arabs he deals with are wealthy. She corrects herself and says it's all about money, but adds that wealth correlates with race. I wanted to ask her if she knew why. They don't like Democrats, because Democrats are dumb and lack direction. But they also accuse Democrats of being too nice, and (so help me) too honest. They claim to be soft on gun control, but then seethe with hatred when someone mentions Charlton Heston. One of them says she doesn't understand the need for semi-automatic weapons (I suspect she means fully-automatic weapons). The real gem of the evening comes when someone, in all seriousness, remarks, "I don't understand the Republican Party's position on guns. How are gun rights a religious-conservative thing?"

It's one thing to read about this kind of stuff on blogs and in books, and quite another to experience it first-hand. Spending three hours with the world's best scientific minds -- people with Ph.D.s from the best universities -- and finding out that when it comes to understanding culture and politics the most they are capable of is regurgitating what they saw in a Michael Moore film. Outside of the confines of their work, these people are incapable of original thought. An example of what our Curmudgeon refers to as "narrowness."

What an evening. I'm tired, bummed out, and going to bed.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Stellar Nursery Near Milky Way's Black Hole

Remember that supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way we talked about briefly here? It's in the news!

This is a bit surprising. We're accustomed to thinking of black holes as voracious, destructive monsters, but astronomers have just discovered that a region very close to the black hole is apparently spawning new, massive stars. has the details. Check out the graphics -- very cool.

Artist's conception of what we think is happening very close to Sgr A* [Ed note: Sgr A* is the name of the Milky Way's central black hole -- it's named for the constellation in which it is found, Sagittarius]. The supermassive black hole is surrounded by a disk of relatively cool gas where massive stars form. Current star formation is represented by small, blue disks.

Then again, this is not so surprising when you think about it. Stars form wherever there are dense pockets of gas. Stars should be able to form as long as you've got two things: 1) enough distance from the event horizon (beyond which even light can't escape the gravitation of the black hole) to avoid gravitational disruptions; and 2) a mechanism for carrying away energy and allowing the gas to cool and condense into stars. Well, the Milky Way's central black hole has a mass of approximately a million solar masses, so its event horizon is a few million kilometers in radius. These massive stars are a bit less than a light-year (~10 trillion kilometers) away from the black hole, so we're okay there. And those big, high-powered, bi-polar jets we talked about before offer a mechanism to transport enough energy out of the gas clouds that the gas can cool and condense into stars.

This has implications for my own research, as it supports the idea that the central supermassive black hole is intimately tied to the formation and evolution of the host galaxy. Nifty!

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Carnaby Overreacting

Ungh :p

OK, so maybe I overreacted a bit. And I just watched Once Upon a Time in Mexico.

What a bizarre movie.


I cannot believe how crappy their customer service is. I made a reservation back in September to fly out on October 16th. Somehow a mistake was made and they booked me on the 15th. I didn't notice this on my itinerary until just this morning, and I got a stonewall on trying to change the reservation.

The way I figure it is this: Both United Airlines and myself are to blame, so the fair thing to do is meet in the middle and compromise. They were completely unwilling. Now I'm on a god-forsaken flight at 11pm tonight and I will be wiped out for my presentation on Monday morning, which, by the way, I'm scared to death of already on account of my audience is a bunch of super-smart people and very famous in this field. Arrgh!

Anyhow, the last straw was this: I got put back on the phone with the same grouchy manager whom I was dealing with before, and I asked him, "Don't you care that I'll never fly United again?" to which he responded, and I quote exactly, "No, I don't care!"

At which point I lost my composure and replied, "Well fuck you and fuck off!"

I hate doing that.

Now, contrast this with the unbelievably good customer service I've had from British Airlines, and countless other companies.


I am so angry I can barely move. I think I'm going to explode. Wow.

Now, back to our regular programming.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Blogroll Addition

Via our hit counter, I noticed that we were getting some traffic from A Voyage to Arcturus, penned by one Jay Manifold (great name). Jay's blog has plenty of nifty astronomy content to warm this astrophysicist's heart, but as if that weren't enough the man is also libertarian. Awesome combo. Welcome to the Fudge blogroll, Jay.

The Convenience of Self-Identifying Media Bigots

Via Michelle Malkin I see that Mike Wallace has made a public appearance in support of the Brady Bunch gun-grabbers. Not really surprising. But there is a lot of grumbling over media bias, and people rightfully question whether Wallace should be covering gun-control issues on his program, 60 Minutes, now that he has become visibly identified with one side of the issue. Jeff at Alphecca opines
Look, public people, even TV reporters, can certainly mail off a check if they want to their favorite causes (organizations) but should they really be showing up in person at such events and then try to claim they are still impartial in the stories they report concerning issues backed or attacked by such organizations?

Let's just use an analogy: If Katie Couric of NBC's Today Show appeared and supported a fundraiser by a pro-abortion group, shouldn't that disqualify her -- or at least require her to preface her reporting -- of stories about pro-abortion or pro-life issues?
I agree that it's preferable that Wallace not report on gun issues or that he be required to preface any such reporting, but there's another way to look at this. Advocacy groups expend a lot of time and effort trying to uncover such bias, so they should be grateful when an enemy makes himself known. Wallace has done all the hard work for us and has clearly identified himself as an enemy to gun-rights advocates. We now know without any doubt that Wallace is an anti-gun bigot whose reporting on such issues cannot be trusted. I don't know about the rest of you, but I find this highly preferable to having him quietly mail off his check to the Bradys, keep his bias low-key, and then report about gun issues on 60 Minutes pretending to be objective.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Inside the Bubble

A new documentary called Inside the Bubble explores what went wrong during the '04 Kerry campaign, and apparently threatens to dash any chance Kerry had for another run in '08. Frankly, I'm surprised anyone in the Democratic Party still considered this buffoon electable, but nevermind. The iFilm website has a trailer and film clip and this synopsis:
On Election Night - 2004, members of John Kerry's Traveling Staff were gleeful. Despite the fact that many of them had been Senior members of the team that had stood at the brink of the Presidency just four years earlier, this battle weary team of political operatives had done the math, reviewed the secret exit polls, and declared victory.

But history would write a different end to the story. And Democrats, despite a deeply wounded White House, record voter turnout, massive fund raising, and a generally willing press corps, would find themselves once again standing outside the gates of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue looking in. What could have possibly gone wrong?
Watch the trailer and film clip. I haven't heard such gratuitous use of the f-word since Resevoir Dogs.

[Hat tip: Libertas]

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Proposal In, Feeling Better

Whew! I managed to get that big telescope proposal in on time. Despite the time crunch and being sick, it was actually a lot of fun putting this thing together. This proposal encompasses a large portion of my dissertation work, and it occurred to me that maybe some of our readers would interested to know what I do for a living.

My project involves the biggest black holes and the biggest galaxies in the universe, and I proposed to look for what appear to be missing giant galaxies. Most galaxies host a central, supermassive black hole. There's one at the center of our own Milky Way, for instance, weighing in at about a million times the mass of the sun. In the nearby universe (a few million light-years away), observations have shown that the sizes of these galactic black holes and their host galaxies are proportional. The bigger the black hole, the bigger the galaxy. Now, the relationship between black holes and host galaxies is key to understanding how galaxies form and grow; it might surprise some of you to know that nobody in astronomy really understands how galaxy formation works. So we've been studying the relationship between supermassive black holes and host galaxies as a function of cosmic time to try to get clues.

An interior view: these are artists' conceptions of what we think quasars look like. A dusty torus surrounds the black hole and accretion disk, while bipolar jets created by the spinning black hole's twisted magnetic field spew particles at near-light speeds. The torus is a few light-years across.

My previous research used quasars -- very large, very ravenous, black holes thought to reside in the centers of galaxies -- to show that this proportionality between black hole and galaxy sizes was in place as far back as 7 billion years ago, possibly even further. We believe that all galaxies with central, supermassive black holes go through a "quasar phase." This occurs when the black hole feeds on surrounding material that is spiraling down onto the black hole in the form of an accretion disk. The accretion disk material becomes super-heated and shines extremely brightly. So bright, in fact, that the quasar, occupying a region no larger than our solar system, can outshine the entire Milky Way by a factor of 1000. This is handy, because it means that we can study quasars (and hence black holes) from enormous distances. But at some point, the material around the black hole is exhausted and the quasar goes dormant, leaving behind a normal, quiescent galaxy. So the Milky Way, Andromeda, and all the other local galaxies are thought to be quasar relics -- cosmic fossils, if you will.

Andromeda galaxy (M31). Possibly a quasar relic.

I have measured the masses of several distant black holes in quasars, some of which are billions of times the mass of the sun. If we believe the galaxies-as-quasar-fossils idea, then there ought to be some quiet galaxies in the local universe that are proportionally large. The problem is, we don't see any. Not a one so far. So, unless the physics we're using breaks down at some point in cosmic history, this implies a few things: 1) these galaxies exist, but they are rare and we just haven't looked hard enough; 2) these big black holes live in galaxies that are made mostly of dark matter, and are too dim to be observed with current technology; 3) there are gigantic black holes wandering around the universe homeless. Right now I'm proceeding on assumption #1, hence the proposal to look for them with a whopping big telescope. If #1 doesn't pan out, then I proceed with #2 and #3.

Thanks to an endowment from a wealthy industrialist named Alfred P. Sloan, we have a huge project called the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. The SDSS has a large telescope in New Mexico whose only job night after night, year after year, has been to map a huge portion of the sky. SDSS has archived spectroscopic and imaging data for millions of astronomical objects, including quasars, galaxies, and stars, and all of it is freely available to anyone in the world who wants it. This was a perfect place to start my search, so I downloaded spectra for six thousand galaxies hoping to find amongst them even just a few galaxies massive enough to host those gigantic far-away black holes. I found six candidates. But I can't claim victory yet. While the SDSS telescope is adequate for a large survey, I need to look at these galaxies with a really honkin' big telescope to get super-high quality measurements. That's what the proposal was for. If I am granted time at the facility I want to use, then I can confirm/deny my initial measurements. If I confirm my measurements, then I will use the Hubble Space Telescope to get high-resolution images to make sure I'm not inadvertently looking at double-galaxies masquerading as singles. Meanwhile, SDSS has taken snapshots of my galaxies so I can quickly inspect them.

These images aren't nearly as sexy as the ones you've probably seen from Hubble, but keep in mind these were done quickly using a much smaller ground-based telescope -- and these guys are ~3 billion light-years away! The images are ~2 arcminutes on a side, corresponding roughly to 3/100th of a degree on the sky. That's less than one-tenth the apparent size of the moon. When you look at the following images and see how much stuff is contained within this tiny portion of the night sky, reflect on the sheer number of astronomical objects that must be in the entire universe. It's mind-boggling! (For a much more compelling visual perspective, look at the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field image, which encompasses a portion of the sky that's about the same size.)

Anyway. Here's my first galaxy, which is the center blob. This galaxy is in a cluster of galaxies (most are, in fact). That bright blue object to the northwest might be a field star in the Milky Way (field stars in a telescope image are the astronomical equivalent of bugs on a windshield).

And another galaxy, also located in a cluster.

This last one didn't make the cut. When I first measured the mass of the galaxy, it seemed quite large. But when I inspected the image it turns out I was fooled, and you can see why -- it's really two galaxies in the process of merging.

So that's it! Wish me luck with this proposal. If it goes through, I'll get to look at some even more nifty stuff. Meanwhile, I'm starting to get over the bronchitis a little, and will hopefully be posting and commenting more frequently.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Stickwick Sick

[Apologies to anyone who has emailed Stickwick or left comments, etc. I am SICK. I am also working day and night on a major project at work. No time or energy left to even look at my email or browse my favorite blogs. Normal service will hopefully resume soon.]

Just got back from the doc, and I've got bronchitis. Swell. I've been in bed for the last six days, and only ventured out of the house to see Serenity and to go to the doc. Feel like absolute crap, and it looks like I'll be working from home until this thing blows over. There's a bright side, however, which is that my home office is much more pleasant than my campus office, and my office-mate is infinitely cuter. Here she is helping me do some analysis...

and contemplating the deeper meaning of the results...

Update: I'm back in the office. Got a major proposal to work on, and it's a race against the clock until the end of the week. Feeling like utter crap. Barely have the strength to stay updated with the blogosphere. I've only been reading Michelle Malkin lately, but at the moment that's plenty -- she links to some disturbing stuff in Norman, Oklahoma. Oh, and this (filed under "WTF??!?")