Man, I hate paying them, but I did it twice this year (once in January, once a few days ago) so I can take advantage of the tax break.
We got Sicko from Netflix last night and watched it. Very thought provoking, though I think it would have been more effective if it just stayed focused on health care instead of talking about how wonderful France is for an hour. The whole Cuba thing wasn't really necessary, and I think it detracted from the credibility of the movie. I'd like to think everything was genuine and nothing was really staged by their government, but how can one really know?
Anyway, whatever the flaws of the movie, the main point is valid. Our health care system currently has the insurance companies as for-profit middlemen, and as long as that's the case, it will be far from ideal. If you don't like the gummint in charge of health care, fine. Let's just pass a law that says all health insurance companies have to be strictly non-profit, and cap the total compensation of its employees, force them to open their books to independent auditors.
That way, the gummint-haters let the wonderfully efficient corporations (cough) stay in charge of health care decisions while we remove a major obstacle to making the system better for everyone.
One of my favorite parts of the movie was all the Republicans complaining about Hillary's plan back in the 90's. The main talking point seemed to be "According to Hillary's plan, instead of making your own health care decisions, some bureaucrat is going to end up doing it for you." Of course, that's exactly the case today, the only difference being that the bureaucrat who would work for the government under Hillary's plan is at least in some way accountable, unlike the bureaucrat for the health insurance company who is only held accountable when he/she makes a decision that costs the company money.
First Rule of Blogging: Never, EVER, attempt to write a blog entry of more than a paragraph in the browser window. Always use a text editor because you never know when the browser will do something unexpected and erase everything.
Petrus Plancius was a Dutch astronomer and cartographer who was keenly interested in maps and navigation as one of the founders of the Dutch East India Company. In 1613, in an attempt to bring a little more order and structure to the map of the sky, he introduced several new constellations into the modern library in places on the sky previously blank. Close to the North Pole was a region previously considered by the Greeks to be a "desert in the sky," and into this region, Plancius introduced the constellation Camelopardalis, the Giraffe.
This faint constellation spans a pretty large area of the sky adjacent to the North Celestial Pole. Surrounding it in the other three directions (going clockwise around the pole) are Cassiopeia, Perseus and Auriga. The Giraffe is so faint that none of its stars have proper Arabic names, and there is no mythology surrounding it, but as with all areas of the sky, there are some interesting objects here.
Alpha Cam is a very rare blue-white O giant. Such stars are so hot that their spectra show almost no features as all of the atoms that would normally show spectral lines have been completely ionized. They also live very short lives. Beta Cam is a yellow supergiant star likely in transition from the main sequence to the point where Helium will ignite in its core, and while most stars in this particular state would tend to vary or pulsate like Cepheids, Beta Cam doesn't. It does seem to flash periodically (doubling its brightness during a time interval shorter than a second) like a few other stars, perhaps due to a magnetic-field flaring effect on a larger scale from solar prominences that cause geomagnetic storms we are familiar with on Earth, Kaler speculates.
RU Cam is without a doubt the strangest Cepheid in the sky, or at least it used to be. From the time it was discovered, it was a fairly reliable Cepheid variable, pulsating with a period of about three weeks, and it had been very slowly changing (which itself is unusual for Cepheids, normally reliable to within a few seconds). Near minimum, it had a spectrum of an R-class star, which means numerous bands associated with Carbon atoms appeared in its spectrum. In theory, Cepheids are supposed to gradually transition in and out of their pulsation phase, but it is supposed to take on the order of 1000 years, so we have no idea what happened here. Nor has it been seen in any other star! Rest assured, it is being closely monitored. If and when it does anything unusual, the result will be at least five dissertations and 100 journal articles about it.
Z Cam is another oddball. It was the first dwarf nova ever detected. It appears as a sun-like star in its "normal" state, but every 2-3 weeks it undergoes an outburst over the course of 2 days that increases its brightness by a factor of about 10. Sometimes, these outbursts will occur regularly, but then it will go into hibernation, remaining at an intermediate brightness for months at a time before starting outbursts again. The speculation is that this is a sun-like star in orbit around a white dwarf with a very short period.
It is the remnant of a classical nova outburst, the expanding shell of which can still be seen moving away from the system. When the mass transfer rate from the sun-like star is slow, then you get regular outbursts like a normal nova system, but sometimes, some unknown process causes the transfer rate to accelerate, so you don't get the build up and the eruption but instead a steady powerful wind from the dwarf getting rid of the infalling heated gas. BZ Cam is another strange repeating dwarf nova seen in this striking image.
For the deep sky objects in Camelopardalis, I'll start with IC 342. This galaxy is actually quite close to us, only three times further away than Andromeda, which is the nearest large galaxy to our own. It is a member of the Local Group of galaxies, a loose collection of 30 galaxies close to our own and gravitationally affecting one another (though not technically "bound" together due to the influence of other nearby clusters), dominated by the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies. The only problem with seeing it is that this galaxy is very near the plane of the Milky Way, also known as the "Zone of Avoidance".
There was a time when Astronomers were first trying to understand galactic nebulae. We didn't know whether they were clouds nearby in our own galaxy or distant objects, but we knew that few were seen near the plane of the Milky Way Galaxy. Perhaps our galaxy exerted some sort of repulsive force on these nebulae, keeping them above or below the plane, some speculated. Now, however, we can see by looking at longer wavelengths (which are better able to pass unhindered through the gas and dust in the disk of our galaxy) that galaxies uniformly populate the sky.
Another spiral galaxy just outside the local group is NGC 2403, a modest spiral galaxy that was home in 2004 to the brightest supernova explosion we've seen since Supernova 1987A in the Large Magellanic Cloud. With a magnitude of 8.4, this is one of the brightest northern sky objects that Messier missed in his catalog.
Closer to home is NGC 1502, a small cluster of about 50 stars that makes nearly a perfect equilateral triangle with Alpha Cam and Beta Cam. Pointing like an arrow to this cluster is a chance nearly linear grouping of about 20 stars known as Kemble's Cascade, a nice binocular object if you have a good finder chart for it. If you draw a line from Caph to Segin in Cassiopeia, across the tips of the W, then double the length of that line, it should end at NGC 1502.
Another galaxy in this region is NGC 1569, a small starburst galaxy about the same distance from us as NGC 2403 but apparently not a member of the Local Group. This galaxy has been undergoing a chain reaction of star formation and explosions for probably the last 25 million years. This is one of the few galaxies in the sky whose spectrum is blueshifted, meaning that a component of its motion is toward us. Most galaxies are redshifted due to the expansion of the Universe, but some nearby galaxies have random motions superimposed on top of the "Hubble flow" that cause them to have blueshifts.
I was pretty industrious before Xmas hit, but I always get lazy in the week between Xmas and New Year's. It just doesn't feel right to do anything productive during that week, and plus I want to play with all of the kids' new toys.
C*dy still hasn't got out that old video game emulator (probably illegal) that I bought him in the mall. Having worked in an arcade for three years of my teenage life, I definitely miss a lot of those old games. Little Ben is enjoying a lot of his things. Today, he brought out his little MP3 player (just a $8 deal that plays 12 different classical music snippets and has three big buttons on the front), hit a tune and started dancing by bobbing and weaving his head around. Very cute. Daniel is going from one toy to the next throughout the day, getting good mileage out of everything.
The one thing C*dy didn't get for Xmas was a good skateboard. He had a skateboard on top of his list, but we just didn't have the budget to buy him the kind of customized ride that I knew he wanted. We bought him a little $10 skateboard at the backwards R, just to throw him a bone and see if he was really serious about wanting a nice skateboard. Well, about eight hours of trying to do tricks with it later, it broke.
But he got the usual $5 here and $10 there from various relatives, and he had saved up enough prior to Xmas that he was able to go today to one of those mall stores that cater to his kind (a completely different culture than anything I remember from when I was growing up, but then I wasn't cool, so ... ). He got a nice custom board and has been trying it out most of the day (after he got his school work done ... since he's flunking a bunch of classes, he doesn't get privileges over the holidays unless he does school work for me or chores for M*chelle every day).
The older two kids are off on a ski trip where it is 10 degrees for a high and wind chill of -35 at night. Ugh, no thanks.
Well, after a fun morning of watching all the kids open their gifts, I got to open mine. I got the fancy boxed Calvin and Hobbes set to go along with my ultimate boxed Far Side set, so I'm happy, and I got some yummy chocolates. Then I spent the better part of the afternoon helping J*stin construct a ping pong table. We were originally planning on putting it in the upstairs game room, but when I got it out of the box and truly appreciated the size, I knew it was going to have to go in the garage. I played a lot of ping pong in my youth. When I was a teenager, we had a ping pong table in the house, and I would invite friends over for all-night round-robin tournaments, and I played a lot at the nearby university union building with my friend Scott when I was in high school.
The kids do not have the benefit of my experience, so right now, I'm waxing the floor with 'em. And I haven't even regained the ability to reliably put any spin on the ball yet. I'm sure they'll catch up.
Cassiopeia, the Ethiopian Queen, figures prominently in winter evenings in the Northwestern region of the sky, being the mother of Andromeda and wife of Cepheus. She got on the Greek gods' bad list (namely Poseidon's) because she claimed she was more beautiful than all the sea nymphs (the Nereids), so she is strapped to her throne as she circles the celestial pole, half the time upside down. Poseidon also sent the sea monster Cetus to ravage the coast of their country, and the king and queen responded by chaining their daughter Andromeda to a rock as a sacrifice, only to be rescued by Perseus. To the early Arab Astronomers, this was a large hand stained with henna, with each of the bright stars representing one of the five fingertips.
Shedir (Alpha Cassiopeia, sometimes Schedar) ) is the star in the W closest to Andromeda, and it is actually the 2nd brightest star in the constellation. It is an orange giant somewhat similar in properties to Aldebaran in Taurus, though it is about four times further away than Aldebaran at 230 light years. The name comes from the Arabic word for "breast", and it represents that on most star charts. Caph (Beta Cassiopeia) is the star at the end of the W closest to Cepheus and furthest from Perseus. It is fairly nearby, only about 30 light years away, and its name indicates "hand". It is a spectroscopic binary with a period of about 27 days.
Gamma Cassiopeiae is the central star of the W and one of the most peculiar variable stars in the sky. It is a B-type subgiant that spins very rapidly (every 8 hours, which means the equatorial matter is moving 0.1% the speed of light). Occasionally, instabilities inside cause it to puff up, and it loses a disk of matter thrown off from its equatorial region. This causes the brightness to fluctuate by a factor of 4 or more. It is a spectroscopic binary with a sun-like companion orbiting in a nearly perfect circle with a period of 204 days. It has an incredibly strong magnetic field interacting with this disk of hot gas, and that also causes the spectrum to vary in a crazy way. Ruchbah and Segin make up the last two stars of the W.
About halfway between Alpha and Gamma is Eta Cas, a well-known binary system with a central star almost identical to the Sun. So looking at this, you can see what the Sun would look like at a distance of about 20 light years. Following a line from Beta to Alpha and about that same distance further, you run into Mu Cassiopeiae (also known as Marfak), a sun-like star in terms of mass, but it is metal poor and only about half as bright as the Sun (metals tend to act as a blanket around the core of a star, heating it up and making it more luminous). This is an example of a halo star. While most of the stars in this area of the sky move more or less in the same direction very slowly (relatively speaking) through the disk, Mu moves just about perpendicular to that and very fast in a relative sense. It is a halo star plunging through the disk of the Milky Way right now. That's one reason it is metal poor, because it formed out in the halo long ago (instead of the disk where many generations of stars are constantly enriching the gas and dust that forms the star).
If you go from Gamma to Beta, moving in the general direction of Pegasus from the center of the W, then half again as far, you will run into Rho Cassiopeiae, a yellow hypergiant, one of seven such stars that have been discovered in the Milky Way. If I had to pick one star in the entire galaxy that is the most likely candidate to go supernova next, it would be this one. It is 500,000 times brighter than our Sun and located 10,000 light years away. The "habitable zone" around this star is 450 AU away! If placed in the center of our solar system, it would easily engulf Mars. These types of stars undergoing massive variations in size and color and are very likely close to the end of their lifetimes and about to erupt as Type II supernovae, perhaps on a timescale of tens or hundreds of years.
Moving on to the deep sky objects in Cassiopeia: Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Tycho's Nova form a pretty good square on the sky, only there is nothing visible to see at the nova location now. In 1572, one of only eight supernova explosions in recorded history visible to the naked eye occurred here, and it was closely monitored (though not discovered) by Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. Now there is a huge expanding supernova remnant here about 7500 light years away, not much further than the Crab. One reason it is much fainter than the Crab and expanding faster is the difference in the initial explosion.
It is thought that Tycho's supernova was a white dwarf star that reached a critical mass and temperature, and nuclear fusion began explosively in its core, blowing the whole star apart and leaving no remnant behind (so no pulsar to pump energy into the surrounding gas). The companion of the white dwarf probably had most of its outer layers blown off, and it was flung away from the site. In 2004, astronomers found a sun-like star moving away from the scene of the crime very rapidly and about the right distance for its speed, and they think that was the original companion.
Another famous object not visible for most amateur astronomers is Cas A, the single brightest source of radio energy in the sky for us outside of our solar system. It is a supernova remnant about 10,000 light years away that first went off 9700 years ago, based on the expansion rate and size. There is no record of it historically (it should've been seen in 1670 or so), probably because there is extensive dust along the line of sight that obscured it. Only with radio telescopes or deep images taken by Hubble have we gotten much detail.
There are lots of interesting nebulae in this constellation since the Milky Way passes right through it. Looking in the direction of Cassiopeia, we are looking almost directly down along our arm (the Orion arm) of the Galaxy. The best is the Heart and Soul Nebula, a region of ongoing star formation about 6000 light years away. The red light comes from Hydrogen emission. Within the Soul Nebula is the Mountains of Creation. This is probably what the Pleiades cluster looked like while it was forming. Bright blue stars are just starting to emerge from their cocoons of dust, blowing away the surrounding gas and dust and causing it to glow.
Closer to the W (near Shedir) is the Pacman Nebula, named for its distinctive shape. There are two Messier objects in Cassiopeia. The first is M52, an open cluster next to the Bubble Nebula, yet another glowing star-forming cloud. M52 is comparable in age to the Pleiades, but it is much fainter, over 10 times further away. Also present near Ruchbah is star cluster M103, one of the faintest of the Messier Objects, a cluster with only a handful of bright stars moving together through space. One of the most massive stars has evolved off the main sequence and turned into a bright red giant.
NGC 147 and NGC 185 are little elliptical galaxies close to the border of the constellation Andromeda that are likely companions of the Andromeda galaxy. They are at the same distance as Andromeda and separated from it by about 250k light years, or 2.5 times the diameter of our galaxy. Another nice cluster present is the Owl Cluster, also known as NGC 457. It is similar to either member of the double cluster (h and chi) in Perseus. Another older clusteris NGC 7789, perhaps a billion years old so there are no really bright stars here that stand out. It is one of the oldest clusters in the disk. Clusters don't get much older because they get pulled apart by the gravity of all the surrounding material.
Via Kevin Drum: The execrable Reagan toadie and Republican apologist Peggy Noonan now calls the evangelical wing of the Republican party "the idiot vote" because they support Mike Huckabee. This from the same woman who had the unmitigated gall to write a column as Paul Wellstone looking down from heaven, embarrassed by the big to-do his fellow liberals made over his funeral because they didn't understand religion like all of her pious Republican friends.
Dear Lord, PLEASE let the Republican party nominate Huckabee so they can fucking well CHOKE on him and all of his fundie baggage.
We've clinched the #1 seed in the NFC playoffs, so who cares what the hell Washington does. We can take the next two weeks off, at least the people who are banged up and need to get better. Next stop: home game in the divisional playoffs against one of the four also-rans, then the NFC championship at home against Green Bay, most likely, where we will again be favored.
Dang, after last season's December collapse, I never would've imagined Dallas would be sitting as such a huge favorite to go the Super Bowl at this point. I can't wait for the playoffs. Woo hoo!
Usually, Fox News isn't quite this obvious.
Try to imagine the frothing outrage from the wingnut trolls of the world if CNN published as "news" an entry from Hillary Clinton's blog.
Via Atrios comes the touching Christmas story of Circuit City taking care of its neediest employees: the executive VP's who were part of the decision to lay off senior floor staff early in the year to save money by hiring know-nothing kids. The senior staff were kicked out on the street, the chain tanked and is on the verge of failure, and everything came up shit.
Just like all news these days is somehow good news for Republicans, all business news is good news for the board of directors:
The basic story is that last March, the wise men who run Circuit City came up with the brilliant idea of laying off their more senior salespeople, who get $14-$15 an hour, and replacing them with new hires who get around $9 an hour. It turns out that this move was not very good for business. One of the reasons that people go to a store like Circuit City, rather than buying things on the Internet, is that they want to be able to talk to a knowledgeable salesperson. Since Circuit City had laid off their knowledgeable salespeople, there was little reason to shop there.
Apparently Circuit City came to this same conclusion earlier this fall and tried to hire back some of the people it had dumped. In any case, things have not gone well for the bottom line. The company is now losing money and its share price is down more than 75 percent from its value earlier this year.
We all know what happens when you mess up in the dog eat dog world of big business -- you get retention awards (that's because your stock options aren't worth anything). The Post reports that Circuit City's executive vice-presidents will get retention awards of $1 million each. That's 35 years worth of pay for one of sales clerks who earned $14 an hour. And that's just the bonus.
Ah, retention bonuses, because you sure want to retain valuable, competent executives like these!
So what's the rule at mall playgrounds about dealing with stupid parents? If I've got an 18-month old who can handle himself and walk around and have a lot of fun plus a four-year old who is oversized (but still two inches shorter than the maximum height supposedly allowed), then we're fine.
But what do you do when a parent comes in and sits down and you realize that they're letting their kid, who is twice as big as your four year old, run around the playground like a linebacker? He's not *trying* to hurt anyone, but he also is a hyper kid who won't stop to think about anything until someone yells at him or someone gets hurt. No one got hurt today, but that was a minor miracle as there were some real scares and a couple of tears from our littlest one.
Usually, I just cut off playtime and leave (or avoid entering when I can see the problem kid(s) already there). I've asked mall security once to come down and police things (they're a hundred yards away but don't have a view of the playground) when it wasn't crowded and D*niel really wanted to play but couldn't because of 2-3 enormous kids, practically teenagers, but I hate provoking a confrontation like that.
Now that I have the luxury of a little more time to spare, I will return to some constellation posts, and today I'll talk about the constellation Taurus the Bull. The Bull that this constellation represents appears in Babylonian mythology as the symbol of fertility and power. In Greek mythology, this is perhaps a form of Zeus who carried off Europa, a princess of Phoenicia. Half-immersed, the bull swims across the sea to the isle of Crete, where he reveals his true self. In China, this V-shaped group of stars is part of the larger White Tiger constellation, and the Bull played a major role in Egyptian and Celtic mythologies.
The bull has been perhaps the most important constellation in the ancient world. This is because the location of the Vernal Equinox (the sun's position in the sky when it crosses the Celestial Equator heading North, marking the first day of Spring) was in Taurus from about 4000 to 1700 BC. Most ancient calendars begin their year on the first day of Spring. From there it moved into Aries and then Pisces, as I discussed before when talking about the Age of Aquarius, which began around the year 7 BC.
The brightest star in Taurus (13th or 14th brightest in the sky) is named Aldebaran, which translates to "the follower" since it follows the Pleiades cluster across the sky. It is often considered the eye of the Bull. Though it is in the same direction as the Hyades cluster, it is actually much closer than that cluster and so not a member. Aldebaran was also considered to be one of the four Royal Stars of Persia, along with Antares, Regulus and Fomalhaut. I talked about Antares (in Scorpio) earlier as being ascendant in the sky during Fall. Aldebaran is ascendant during the Winter.
The star itself is a giant star, about 40 times larger in diameter than our Sun and somewhat cooler (hence its red appearance). It is about 65 light years away. Like many big stars, it is not entirely stable, so its brightness varies about a few percent. Aldebaran is one of only three bright stars (along with Spica and Antares) that are currently close enough to the ecliptic and the moon's orbital plane to be occulted by the Moon. The Moon is scheduled to occult the Pleiades this year on December 21 (more on this below) and shortly thereafter on the 24th will be a grazing occultation of Mars. The Moon won't occult Aldebaran until the year 2015 due to gradual changes in its orbital alignment.
Burnham tells an interesting story about occultations. Edmund Halley learned that the Greeks observed the Moon occulting Aldebaran in the year 509 AD, but Halley realized that the Moon's orbital alignment should've been different at that time. Either that, or Aldebaran had moved considerably over the past 1300 years or so. By doing a little further research on other observed occultations, Halley concluded that, yes, stars are gradually moving across the sky in very small increments that can only easily be measured over centuries. We now refer to this routinely observed phenomenon (with our more accurate instruments) "proper motion". Aldebaran has moved about one quarter of a full-moon diameter in the past 2000 years from our perspective!
The second brightest star in Taurus is El Nath (or Alnath), "The Butting One", is located at the tip of the Northern horn, right on the border with the constellation Auriga (this is technically the third brightest star in Auriga also). The third brightest, or Gamma Tauri, is at the vertex of the V in Taurus, and it is often called Hyadem I, being the brightest member of the Hyades cluster as seen from Earth. It is quite similar to Aldebaran, actually, just a little bit hotter and about twice as far away.
Zeta Tauri marks the tip of the southern horn. It is a bright B-type giant star with a sun-like companion orbiting with a period of about 1/3 of a year (this is an eclipsing binary system). This is a very odd rapidly rotating star, with a turbulent expanding atmosphere and a lot of glowing gas surrounding the system, apparently thrown off of the star. Another interesting but faint star in this constellation is T Tauri, a newly formed star with a very strong stellar wind, affecting the surrounding clouds of gas and dust (the nebula NGC 1555 is probably lit up by the outflow of T Tauri).
The most famous deep-sky object in Taurus (omitting for now the two clusters, Pleaides and Hyades) is M1, the Crab Nebula, the most notable supernova remnant, an expanding, glowing cloud of debris from an explosion first witnessed on Earth in the year 1054 AD. This cloud is located roughly along a line connecting the tips of the horns (Alnath and Zeta Tauri), maybe about 10% of the way along that line from Zeta Tauri, and it is about 6000 light years distant. It was the initial confusion of this glowing cloud with possible comets that prompted Messier to begin his famous catalog.
Since this is pretty faint, you won't see it too well in detail with the naked eye without a 10-inch or larger telescope (you can only make out the oval glow most of the time depending on conditions with smaller scopes). High resolution photographs over the years have shown the expansion of this nebula, and astronomers used that to work backwards to the date of the beginning of the expansion. That's when they made the connection with the supernova observed by the Chinese and (perhaps by) some Native Americans (but no records from the Europeans, strangely, even though it was as bright as the full moon for many days after first becoming visible). Perhaps religious prejudices of the time forced medieval historians to ignore it (suggests Burnham)?
To radio astronomers, the Crab Nebula is the 4th brightest "star" in the sky due to emission from excited electrons deep within the nebula. At the center is the famous Crab Pulsar, a neutron star rotating about 30 times per second. Each time one of its poles points toward us, we are swept with a beam of energy much like observers of a lighthouse. Another older supernova remnant is also nearby, known as S147, it is a very wide, faint remnant only visible on large angle deep images.
Perhaps the most beautiful open cluster in the sky is the Pleiades. As Tennyson wrote, "Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising thro' the mellow shade, glitter like a swarm of butterflies tangled in a silver braid." This is also known as the Seven Sisters in many cultures, and it is Messier 45. One of the reasons it is so easily visible in addition to its proximity (about 440 light years) is that it is very young, so there are several hot blue stars with short lifetimes that are still burning very brightly.
Most of the 1000 or more stars in the cluster are not visible to the naked eye or even with a small telescope since they are so intrinsically faint. In deep images, it would be impossible to tell just by looking which stars in the frame are part of the cluster's membership and which are just foreground or background stars. Fortunately, we have other bits of information. The easiest way is to measure the proper motion of all the stars in the frame.
The stars in the Pleiades cluster have some random motions about the center of the cluster, but the cluster as a whole is moving in a common direction, roughly in the direction on the sky toward Orion's bright star Betelgeuse. It covers half a degree (the width of the full moon) about every 30,000 years. We can also estimate distances to these stars and only include as members stars whose distances are very close to the mean cluster distance, but that's a little tougher to determine in some cases than proper motion.
The blue nebulosity of the cluster is actually not part of the cluster. Any reflective dust that would have remained from the giant molecular cloud that initially collapsed and fragmented to form this cluster would have been blown away by the strong stellar winds of these young stars. Instead, we think the cluster is currently moving through a thick area of dust within the interstellar medium of the galaxy.
In Greek mythology, the Pleiades are the daughters of Atlas and Pleione. Their names (shown in this image) are Sterope, Merope, Electra, Maia, Taygeta, Celaeno and Alcyone. They are sometimes seen as a flock of doves or a mother hen with several chicks. The cluster is very important in Aztec and Mayan mythology. During the time of year when it culminates (crosses the meridian) at midnight, legend had it that marked a time on the calendar when the world might end. The Pyramid of the Sun and the surrounding city of Teotihuacan in Mexico is all aligned in such a way that the East-West roads and temple faces are lined up with the rising and setting of the Pleiades at this time of year.
Among some American Indian tribes (the Kiowa and the Cheyenne), the Pleiades were seven sisters who fled from several giant bears they stumbled across in the wilderness. They sought refuge on a tall rock, and the great spirit lifted the rock up high and put the sisters into the heavens to protect them. The bear claw marks on the tall rock became Devil's Tower in Northeastern Wyoming, the natural wonder made famous in the movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."
There are various legends of a "Lost Pleiad", as though one of the stars was visible at some point in the past and then faded from view, but this could be said of at least four of the seven stars for various reasons (either because they are variable or due to the nebulosity surrounding them or due to close visual companions that may vary). There are no definitive answers here in any of my sources (I typically rely on Burnham and Allen).
Like Aldebaran, the Pleiades is occasionally favorably positioned with respect to the Moon's orbit that it can be occulted. On Fri Dec 21 (tomorrow!), the nearly full moon is going to plow right through the middle of the Pleiades cluster. Unfortunately, this will occur in the middle of the afternoon for observers in the US. It should be easily visible at this time for most of Europe, however. Maybe we'll see some pictures, though it is tough to artifically dim the moon properly so that the background cluster can be easily seen. We'll get a near occultation in the US next month, on Fri Jan 18 between about 1am and 3am low in the Western sky before the Waxing Gibbous moon sets.
The other interesting cluster in Taurus, the Hyades, forms a beautiful background behind the relatively nearby bright star Aldebaran. The brighter stars in the Hyades help form the characteristic V shape of the face of Taurus. The Hyades is the nearest open cluster in the galaxy to us, only 150 light years away, and that's one reason it is so hard to see on images. It is just so spread out. Compare it to the Pleiades, which is about three times further away. Both are somewhat similar, but the Pleiades is much easier to pick out because it is at just the right distance so we can still see it, but it is compact enough in an angular sense to be a cluster.
Since this cluster is close, all of the stars moving in a common direction don't quite move parallel to one another. Instead, they move along nearly parallel, converging lines toward a common point in space. Since we can measure the radial velocity and the tangential velocity, with a little clever trigonometry, we can deduce the distance of the cluster from the Earth. This technique is called moving cluster parallax.
One reason this cluster is so important: it is close enough for us to see the very faint, low mass stars. We like to think of clusters like the Hyades as somewhat representative of the way stars form as a whole. It helps our understanding of the galaxy to know how many sun-like stars form for every high mass Sirius-type star. How many faint dwarf stars form for every sun-like star that forms? This distribution of stellar masses that forms is known as the mass function. Only in nearby clusters can we truly count all of the stars of various masses (and luminosities), so what we see in the Hyades, we deduce is also true for much more distant clusters in which we can only see the most massive, luminous members. It is for reasons like this that the Hyades cluster is studied so closely.
Unlike the Pleiades, the Hyades has no hot, bright B-stars (all of the bright members of the Pleiades are B stars). That's because this cluster has been around about 5-6 times longer than the Pleiades. Presumably, the Hyades formed with its fair share of blue stars and once resembled the Pleiades, but by now, all of those stars have used up their Hydrogen fuel and evolved off the main sequence, probably blowing up as supernovae. All that's left in this cluster are the less massive stars that haven't burned up all of their fuel yet. Even with that said, this is one of the younger clusters in the galaxy.
The Hyades is also important as a part of the distance ladder. Because we can measure the distance to this cluster directly via parallax, we can directly figure the instrinsic luminosity of its main sequence (the group of stars that is in the main hydrogen burning part of its lifetime, occupying a strip on the H-R diagram). By measuring the apparent luminosity of the main sequence of other clusters, we can use the differences to figure distances. For example, the main sequence of the Pleiades has an apparent luminosity about 7.5 times fainter than the main sequence of the Hyades, so the Pleiades is about 2.75 times further away. Since we know the exact distance to the Hyades, we can know the exact distance to the Pleiades (instead of just a multiple of the Hyades distance). This technique is known as main sequence fitting.
The Hyades in mythology represent the daughters of the Greek god Atlas and Aethra, half-sisters of the Pleiades. This cluster represents rain and storms, perhaps because in the mythology, the sisters were placed in the sky while still mourning the death of their brother. Also, when this cluster is low on the horizon at sunset or sunrise, that tends to correspond with the rainy season in many parts of Europe. The individual names of the stars have been confused by many different sources, perhaps because the cluster is not as visually well-defined as the Pleiades. Among Native American cultures, the Hyades are considered to be the husbands of the Pleiades, always chasing their wives across the sky.
First Petrino dumps them, then Parcells stands them up, what's the matter with the poor Falcons? I remember when I was a kid, I kinda cheered for the Falcons for a while just to be different since everyone else in the family cheered for Dallas. I had no idea who Steve Bartkowski was, but the name sounded weird and I liked it. Of course, the Falcons were never on TV, so eventually, I reverted to my natural state as a Cowboys fan. Good thing, I guess. I already cheer for enough losers without adding the Falcons to the mix.
I have a couple of projects to work on over the break. One is to look at some instructional posters someone has designed to put in a high school science classroom and give my review/feedback. I've never done anything like this before, so I have no idea what to expect or how much time it will take or when I'll be able to have a block of time on the computer to just focus on it and do it.
The other project is to continue with constellation stuff. This is really useful material to have for me for a lot of reasons, and I'm putting the same information (with images) into different formats, too, so I can retell these sorts of stories to different audience levels as needed. It's a lot of work that involves a fair bit of research and reading plus a lot of computer stuff.
There are three times during the day when I can get this kind of stuff done, and they all revolve around the two little ones. Usually, if I'm not getting myself ready to go somewhere, I have about an hour or so in the morning when the house is relatively quiet because the little ones are awake but not too active yet. Then the golden 2 or so hours while little Obi-Wan naps in mid-afternoon, and I have to watch the other kids like a hawk to make sure the house stays quiet. Then an hour or two after the little ones go to bed.
But that time is also for wrapping presents and doing lots of other things, so ... I guess we'll see.
If you haven't been following the latest battle in the Senate, Glenn Greenwald has a good summary. Basically, it is now fairly clear that most of the major telecommunications companies in America were asked by the Bush administration to monitor all telephone communications without a warrant. Not just communications where one party is in a foreign country, but all communications where both parties are on U. S. soil.
You can't monitor communications within the U. S. without a warrant, period. That's in the Constitution. It is considered an unlawful search, essentially, and the law is very well established on this fact. In light of the importance of catching terrorists, the FISA law was established, which basically lets the government get around most of this. Basically, if you want to monitor a phone call, you can do it in real time as long as you get a retroactive warrant within 72 hours, and the FISA court has basically never turned down a warrant request.
So the question is, why did the Bush administration stop asking for warrants? Is it because they don't want a record of whose calls are being monitored? Is it because they're recording *everyone* and using computer algorithms to search transcripts for calls of interest? If it is the latter, they could've easily gone to Congress and asked for a rewrite of FISA to accomodate this request, especially during the aftermath of 9/11 when the Republican Congress would give Bush anything he wanted.
But they didn't do that, so we are left with the former reason.
The phone companies had to cooperate to make this happen. Those who didn't all of a sudden were getting all kinds of scrutiny from the Justice department. Basically, the phone companies were sort of bullied into this by the government.
Did you hear that, all you "libertarians" who are big Bush fans?
So far, lawsuits to prevent this have been hampered by the administration, which basically just says they can't go to trial with any of this for national security reasons, and Congress doesn't have the balls to do anything about it for fear of looking weak. The FISA law is up for renewal, and one of the things the administration wants is retroactive immunity for the phone companies for cooperating with the illegal searches.
Some Dems in the Senate are standing up against this, but a whole lot aren't. Yesterday, Chris Dodd (one of the minor Dem candidates) and several other Senators managed to throw a wrench into things, in part thanks to lots of activists making phone calls, and so now the legislation is delayed until at least next year, giving opposition more time to organize.
And a lot of us are out here wondering why Congress is so eager to do whatever Bush wants when it comes to this issue or Iraq or just about anything. Is it because they are partly culpable? Does the Bush administration have something on a lot of Congress members thanks to the wiretaps (is that whose phones they were listening to and why they didn't want to get warrants)?
We've really gone down the rabbit hole here, and our cowardly leaders have been driven by fear or fascist impulses. You pick. All I can say is that it is really depressing to think about. And don't get me started on how all of this is being reported in the "ultra-super-duper liberal" media.
We finished season 1 of Heroes. Very good show, but like most first seasons, it was a little clunky in places. I'm hoping this will work out like your typical Star Trek series and get great for seasons 3-6 or something. With the writers' strike going on, we may even get a chance to catch up with season 2 before they start airing new episodes again.
We're on season 9 of Stargate SG-1, by the way. Been slowly going through that for months now. Definite fall-off in quality over the past few seasons. I am a little frustrated about Anubis. They killed him off pretty cleverly by sending him through the gate to a frozen world, then he pops back up again about 4-5 episodes later with no explanation. Bah. I'm not sure we're going to make it through seasons 9 and 10 before moving on to some other show.
I would be enjoying my vacation from school a lot more if allergies hadn't started attacking about two days ago.
I have to say, I completely agree with Digby's prediction of what will happen to the next Democratic president, whichever candidate it turns out to be. And the number one reason it will be difficult to get anything done is the "liberal" media.
That's the same media that accused Democrats of crazy pointless obstructionism in the Senate anytime they blocked a judicial appointment or war bill when they were in the minority. Now that Republicans are in the minority, it is just an accepted fact that it takes 60 votes to get anything done in the Senate, and anyone who says otherwise doesn't understand they way things work in Washington.
I wish I knew how to solve this. My best guess is that it is going to take some super-rich liberal equivalent of Rupert Murdoch to start up a network opposing Fox. Kind of like Air America, only with actually enough money to get time on stations with decent signals in all major markets, not to bankrupt every six months, not to mention to own a TV channel of their own and bribe cable companies to carry it.
Then maybe it'll be shown in all government offices and other public places in blue states just like Fox News is shown on every public TV in red states (often with the sound turned off which is why they take such care to display headlines attacking Dems all the time, regardless of what is actually being talked about).
I'm sure Philly fans aren't going to fool themselves and claim that they beat Dallas today. Dallas beat themselves because Romo's thumb is screwed up and he could hardly throw the ball. If Romo even had half his season average QB rating today, we would've won by 20 thanks to the very good play of the defense. I actually don't mind this loss at all, especially since we're already guaranteed the bye week thanks to Seattle's weird loss to Carolina.
I would much rather the Cowboys spend the last two weeks of the season having to play for something (home field vs Green Bay) than put in that weird situation where they don't play a meaningful game for 3-4 weeks, and I was happy to see the defense play better this week. As long as Romo's injury is just a short-term thing, there's nothing to worry about.
I'm halfway through "Fatal Revenant" now, and the ending of the first part was really, really cool. Leave it to Linden to figure out a way to use the EarthBlood to not screw everything up. Now I really want to reread the first book in light of what I now know about everything that has been going on.
I would also like to point out that Donaldson is becoming positively Gene Wolfe-ish in his use of goofy adjectives. I mean, come on. Bedizened? Epitomic? Fulvous? And that's just in the last 10 pages or so that I read. Not that I mind so much, I can figure things out. I've just never noticed that in his other books before, so I wonder why he's doing it now. Or maybe I've been missing it.
After I gave my last final a couple of days ago, I was supremely uninspired to grade everything. I had about 100 finals to grade from two different classes, and pretty much all the free time in the world to do it, but I just couldn't get it done until finally tonight. All grades are entered, and I am officially done with the semester from hell with two overloads. Going to miss those fatter paychecks.
In other news, as if on cue, Al Gore announced that he has finally completed a long list of energy efficient renovations on his home. Naturally, people are now saying, "Huh, what took him so long?"
I'm telling you, he can't win, and he knows it. The reason he renovated his house is because it is the right thing to do, not for the good press (though why not take advantage of the press which is always beating him up), because like I've said many times, he could live in a mud hut and ride a bicycle or swim to various places around the world where he speaks, and he would still be criticized for something. It comes with the territory of being a leader on a controversial topic.
As sea levels inexorably rise over the coming decades and the globe continues to warm, I'm sure the next thing is that global warming "skeptics" will accuse scientists of rooting for catastrophic warming and all its effects just like they accuse anti-war liberals of rooting for deaths of American troops.
So it is worth saying now before it starts: If we were really rooting for such things, why would we fight so hard to prevent them from happening beforehand?
One nice surprise I got while we were on our little weekend getaway: we were wandering through a mall, and I stopped into a B Dalt*n bookstore to check the bargain shelves and look for ideas for people. I'm standing in front of the fantasy sec -- WHAT?!? Holy crap! The 2nd book of the Last Chronicles is out.
And it's 50% off, plus I get another 10% off for my member card because they're affiliated with Barn*s and N*ble, so I end up paying about 12 bucks.
I was thinking about rereading the first one before I got into the 2nd one, but I was too anxious. Now I kinda wish I had because I know there is a lot of important stuff I'm forgetting. Donaldson is really making this series dense with a lot of portentious dialogue that you can guess is going to get repeated over and over in the characters' thoughts for the next thousand pages. He likes to do that, and I like to guess as I'm reading what's going to be the thing that sticks, but there are a million important things that might stick!
Anyway, now that I'm into the second book, I realize what Donaldson is doing: For years, people have been asking him if he's going to abandon the plotline and go back and do a series on the legends of the Land. Tell the story of Berek and Kevin and the Land, etc. But that would be a tough story to tell because it spans so many generations, and it would be very different because it wouldn't be viewed through the eyes of Covenant or Linden.
Solution: time travel plus now Covenant is more or less omniscient and can comment about every bit of history he cares to mention from his own twisted perspective. I'm not sure if I like the plotline nearly as much as the first two series so far because it seems pretty random and jumbled with no clear theme, but I am very happy to see Donaldson rooting around in the past and letting Linden finally do all kinds of crazy powerful stuff that she only got the capability and confidence to do at the very end of the second Chronicles.
Atrios has been following the financial breakdown caused by all of these risky investments that are now being revealed as mostly worthless. Who is going to end up holding the bag to pay for what he calls Big Shitpile? Very likely the taxpayers, just like with the Savings and Loan bailouts, though it is interesting to watch the process in motion.
Anyway, Ben Sargent has a good take on the whole mess:
Apparently, Al Gore's newest horrific sin is accepting money for giving speeches about global warming. The same machine that put out the story about his huge electric bill is doing this, too. I guess it is to dampen any positive vibe he might get from accepting the Nobel Prize. I'm sure this story will echo for several weeks or months, just as I'm still hearing about the electric bill thing here and there.
I was kinda frustrated by the electric bill story because Gore never really responded forcefully, and he could've easily debunked the whole thing, but I guess he figures it isn't worth his time. No matter what he does, the traditional media is going to put forth narratives in which he can't win.
If he lives in a big house and uses electricity, he's a hypocrite. If he conserves and undergoes a lot of inconvenience to save electricity, he's a loon. If he gives speeches for money, he gets rich, which is for some reason not compatible with being a liberal spokesperson for any cause as John Edwards knows. If he does it for free, he'd be likened to a religious fanatic who believes so wholly in his cause that he must be crazy.
It is fascinating to watch and really sad to see such a professional hit job taking place and so many people are oblivious to it and willing to be tools and spread the story. I guess Gore is right to ignore it and just keep plugging away. I wonder if there will ever be a backlash toward those who promote and distribute these stories? I can't imagine it happening with the traditional corporate media.
There would have to be some magic crystallizing moment that transcends the media filter and changes the narrative. I can't imagine what that might be, but it would probably some horrific 9/11-type tragedy. Not necessarily a terrorist thing, but something that grabs everyone's attention and changes their thinking. Global warming doesn't work that way, though. It's too long term, too unpredictable.
The only hope Gore has of getting away from these constant potshots is for something or someone to pull back the curtain and almost literally reveal the people pulling the levers behind the scenes somehow. Maybe some kind of big Congressional hearing on how the oil companies are spending all of their PR money or some big documentary about it, but I can't imagine something like that working what with all of the spin control that would come out in advance like with any Michael Moore movie or any hearing. Someone just has to say "partisan" and everyone covers their ears and chants "pox on both houses" until the bad thing goes away.
Our little vacation was great, very relaxing, very fun. We even ran into Phil and Laurie outside of a W*lmart completely by surprise. Got lots of shopping done and lists compiled for relatives, and we got to eat some good food. Had an easy drive home since we left early.
The Dallas defense played relatively poorly today, especially considering all of the trash-talking between Kitna and a couple of defenders, but to their credit, they only allowed 7 points in the second half, which gave the offense a chance to find its rhythm and ultimately come back.
I can honestly say that at no point during the game today did I doubt Dallas was going to win. Didn't matter that we were behind or how far. Things are just working out during this magical season. This game does reveal how to beat Dallas, though. Run the ball effectively and that throws off our pass rush (Kitna wasn't touched today until the last play), and keep the ball away from our offense as long as you can.
I think we might lose again this season, but I hope it is in the regular season and not the playoffs. I would expect a loss at Washington during the last game, maybe, if only because we're resting and not really playing hard. I don't see Philly coming to Dallas next week and winning, nor can I imagine the pathetic Panthers beating us in Carolina, but Washington is gritty enough that if they need that win to make the playoffs at the end, they might take it from us.
I've been pushing myself to do tougher and tougher workouts on the treadmill at the Y a few times a week. One thing that REALLY helps is good music with the right beat. I have a few songs that I listen to reliably when I'm walking (3.8 miles/hour) that have the right beat and a few songs I listen to when jogging (6.0 miles/hour). Without these, I don't think I would have the willpower to really burn a lot of calories, especially the jogging (usually on a 4 or 5 degree incline).
I would like more variety, but it takes a lot of trial and error to find songs with the right beat, and I hate screwing up my workout with a lot of experimenting. Plus it is hard to remember which songs worked and which didn't. Today, I decided to look for help, and I found a really cool little freeware iTunes add-on called iTunes-BPM. You play a song and then click to the beat until you are reliably consistent, then you click "set" and it plugs the correct number of beats per minute into an iTunes column.
I did this for a big chunk of my library, then sorted the library by BPM and found about 20-30 songs at 115ish BPM (walking) and 20-30 at 150ish BPM (jogging). It worked perfectly, and I was able to work out tonight with the new playlists at a large variety of BPM. The Podrunner podcast has really long instrumental mixes at BPM's from 130 to about 180, but I could never find one slow enough for my walking. I don't know why they don't go down to 100 or so.
It has been a long semester. Taking on two overload classes has stressed me out a bit more than usual, and I find myself getting a lot more annoyed at stupid students this semester than usual. I've actually vented at a couple of students who overslept for exams, getting mad in front of them that they're wasting my time having to write a makeup because I have to be fair since I've been nice about this policy for others all semester. It's my own fault for letting things slide instead of being diligent about the excused absence policy. I've resolved to upgrade my syllabus in the future to allow students with no good excuse to make up exams for maximum half credit.
Anyway, today was the last day and I'm pretty much done all the grading. Now I just have to spend the next couple of days updating all curious students on their status, negotiating grades, etc. It will take all of my already thin patience to get through this without getting pissed off again because there will be several no-good-excuse makeups mixed in there while I'm already very busy. Oh, and did I mention the late advising people who can't seem to make their appointments and come prepared? I also have to write seven final exams by Monday.
I'm planning on getting a lot of this done by going home early on Thursday and Friday and working while the little one has his long afternoon nap. That concentrates all of the headache of office hours in the morning. If I can get done by Friday, then I will be able to relax during our weekend getaway. M*chelle and I are heading South again to stay at a nice little hotel and just goof around for a day and a half away from all the kids. We're coming back kind of early Sunday just to avoid the horrible highway traffic that crops up at the end of every weekend. Kinda figures that this Sunday is one of the only early Cowboy games of the season.
I have to decide whether to listen to it on the radio on the way back or just save it on the DVR and watch the whole thing when we get home. The only drawback there is that I have to listen to the network moron announcers instead of the very high quality local radio homers. Plus if I DVR it, I miss the post-game show, which is usually pretty good. Hmmm...
Good stuff on Kos today about the California ballot initiative to split their electoral college votes. Basically, Republicans are trying to get California to divide its electoral college votes in a representative way instead of "winner take all". This way when Dems win the state, instead of all 55 electoral college votes for president, they would get about 35 and the Reps would get 20.
I wouldn't mind this all that much if every other state in the country switched to the same system simultaneously, but that's not what's going to happen. For example, if they did something like this in Texas, then the Dems could steal some Republican electoral college votes from Texas. But if only California does it, then Republicans have effectively rigged the presidential election math to give themselves a huge advantage.
To try to get this initiative on the ballot, Republicans are going around the state asking people to sign ... a petition to fund research into causes of cancer in children. Ah, Republicans. Just when you think they can't get any slimier, they find a new low.
Our 18-year-old, J*stin, discovered the joys of text messaging about six weeks ago. He and his friends were back and forth all the time, and he kind of claimed the "family" phone for himself. M*chelle and I each have a phone, and then we added one more to give to any kid who is away at a party or on a trip or what have you. Or to use as a backup in case we forget to charge one of our phones.
About two weeks ago, we were away at the gym working out, and we left J*stin home alone with the 13-year-old, C*dy, who is in deep shit for flunking all of his classes. C*dy is confined to the library most of the time when he isn't eating or sleeping, and we make sure he has things to do, even if it is just tearing through my huge SF collection in there. Well, on that night, we came home and found J and C playing kickball in the living room.
So we basically busted J*stin down to Private, First Class, which is to say we reverted his privileges to that of a 13-year-old for a while. That meant he immediately lost access to "his" phone, and that happened right in the middle of a serious texting frenzy because someone was breaking up with someone and someone else was mad, and you wouldn't believe ... you know how it goes with teenagers.
Well, we got our first full-month-of-texting bill a couple of weeks ago, and catching up on bills today, I just opened it. J*stin racked up $172 in incoming-and-outgoing texting charges before we took the phone away. Wow. Needless to say, when I showed him the bill today and converted his marker-board-bank-account tracker from a balance of +54 to -118 (we normally just do it that way since most of the time, they don't carry cash, either because they aren't allowed or they don't want the hassle), he was shocked.
I guess it is time to convert to a plan that includes a much saner fee rate for texting. J*stin has asked for his own pre-paid cell phone for Xmas with a texting plan.
Update: I called customer service, and they agreed to knock about half the text messaging charges off of last month's bill out of the goodness of their hearts after I expressed some initial disbelief that such a thing was not possible. The guy said, "Hang on a minute..." and probably looked at our account and realized that we are outside of the initial plan boundary we signed up for and can easily tell them to fuck off and go with AT&T or something.
Also, for future benefit, they offered to put an unlimited text message add-on for $20/month for the kids' phone. In return for my negotiating on his behalf, I've got the boy doing chores for me for the rest of the afternoon. As I explained to him, this way we are each doing something we're good at and benefitting the family.