January 31, 2008


I'm giving a bunch of workshops this semester to area teachers in the areas of my specialty (one reason you've seen the new types of posts here in preparation for that). I've branched out to cover some new topics this semester, and it is really a lot of fun. Ruins the evening, though, since I have to be on campus instead of working out or being home with everyone. Getting a little extra money is nice.

I went to the dentist yesterday to get a couple of childhood silver fillings replaced. Not fun, very sore after. And I've given up slurpees for good, and I've had a week of caffeine withdrawal headaches to show for it.

Wish I could think of something interesting to blog about, but I'm just tired and have my usual bout of start-of-semester coughing sore throat laryngitis going on. It's beating me down.

Posted by Observer at 09:30 PM | Comments (0)

January 29, 2008


I decided to do a more complete update for the record since this is a neat topic, and I'll link to this from my Gemini post. To set the scene, I would like to talk about our local Galactic environment. Here we are on Earth in the solar system, but what is nearby around our solar system? What's space like in the vicinity of our local neighborhood?

Well, Earth's local environment within the solar system is dominated by the effects of the Sun, namely the solar wind. This is a superhot ionized stream of particles coming off the Sun. This wind pushes against the surrounding interstellar medium, creating a hot bubble of gas within which the entire solar system rests. This is the heliosphere, sort of like the extended atmosphere of the Sun, and I mean it is REALLY extended.

We use Astronomical Units to measure distances in the solar system. One AU is 93 million miles which is the average Earth-Sun distance. Neptune is about 40 AU away from the Sun and marks the practical boundary of the main solar system. There is a flat belt of icy debris out beyond Neptune that extends from about 40 AU to perhaps 400 AU or more. We call this the Kuiper Belt, and it is the source of many short-period comets such as Comet Halley. For scaling, the nearest star (Alpha Centauri) is about 500,000 AU away.

The heliopause is somewhere in the Kuiper Belt, on the order of 100 AU from the Sun. This is the limit of the hot bubble of the Sun's influence, where the outward-pushing pressure of the solar wind finally runs out of gas while pushing against the vast interstellar medium in which we are immersed. Our own little solar bubble is itself immersed in a hotter-than-average bubble in the interstellar medium. We call this enormous surrounding bubble the local bubble, and just as our own hot bubble is "blown up" by the Sun, something must have cleared out the local bubble.

And this brings us to the object I forgot, a little pulsar in the constellation Gemini that we call Geminga. Geminga is a rapidly spinning neutron star, likely the remnant of a Type II supernova explosion, about 330 light years from Earth (making it the closest neutron star to us). Based on the rate at which it is slowing (and having a good guess as to its initial rotation rate), we estimate Geminga is about 300,000 years old, so presumably what happened here is that Geminga went off fairly close to Earth back then, maybe close enough to cause us some problems according to the fossil record. The supernova cleared out a space that we now call the Local Bubble.

There are other bubbles nearby, some cleared by explosions, some cleared by young, hot clusters with enormously powerful stellar winds such as the Sco-Cen association, the nearest such cluster to us. The rest of the interstellar medium in our galaxy is pretty complicated, as you might imagine, and it is tough to study. I'll talk about how we do it and what we've learned some other time.

Posted by Observer at 10:31 PM | Comments (0)

January 28, 2008

Canis Major

To close out the Winter Circle, I'll finish with the Big Dog, Canis Major, home to both the largest star in the sky and the brightest star in the night sky. Located about 35 degrees above the SSW horizon on Winter evenings, Canis Major has five bright stars visible to the naked eye from within a city, enabling you to see the trapezoid formed by the front and hind legs as well as a tail. Sirius represents the front shoulder of the dog. Canis Major is commonly represented as one of Orion's two hunting dogs, perhaps chasing nearby Lepus the Rabbit, but there are many other tales to go with this bright constellation.

Sirius is the nearest star to us visible to the naked eye (8.7 light years away) with the exception of Alpha Centauri, and it is the 5th nearest star outside of our solar system overall. It is an A-type main sequence star about 25 times more luminous than our Sun. Like many nearby stars, Sirius has a notable proper motion, moving the equivalent of a full moon diameter in the sky about every 1000 years. The name translates to "the scorching one". When Sirius rises with the Sun during late summer, those are the hottest days of the year in the Northern hemisphere.

The Greeks first called these days the "dog days" because only dogs were crazy enough to go outside during the heat. Some felt that Sirius being so bright and lined up with the Sun was what caused the intense heat. Precession by the Earth's axis since that time has changed the date of Sirius' conjunction with the Sun. In 1844, famous mathematician and astronomer Friedrich Bessel mapped the proper motion of Sirius very precisely and found that it was wobbling back and forth on the sky due to the influence of an unseen companion.

It was another 20 years or so until telescopes developed to the point where we were able to photograph this companion, known now as Sirius B. Astronomers were puzzled by the fact that it was both very hot and yet very dim and only a fraction of the Sun's mass. Astronomers eventually concluded that it is a white dwarf, a bright, hot compact stellar remnant roughly the size of the Earth, only the 2nd ever discovered and the closest to Earth.

Some historians have theorized that Sirius appeared red a couple of thousand years ago due to descriptions by some astronomers and observers of the time (but not all agreed). The theory goes that perhaps Sirius B was a red giant back then, causing the overall light from the system to be red and has since blown off its outer layers as a planetary nebula. Burnham addresses this by pointing out that such a transition takes about 100 times longer than the given time. There are much simpler explanations to resolve this, poetic license being one I favor, though Burnham speculates that our eye's response to color has changed enough over time that perhaps things appeared redder long ago.

Looking South toward Canis Major, you can imagine the dog climbing up, facing forward away from the horizon, and Sirius is the front shoulder. The front foot to the right of Sirius is Murzim (or Mirzam), Beta Canis Majoris. This translates to "the announcer" since, like Procyon, it rises just before Sirius and so heralds the arrival of this bright and important star in the sky.

Murzim is the prototypical star of a small subset of variables. It is a hot B-star, pulsating rapidly (about every 6 hours) with a very small amplitude oscillation (just a few percent in brightness). It's a Cepheid-like pattern, though not clear enough to be used as a distance estimator. Gamma CMa is Muliphein, one of three stars that make up the triangle of the dog's head above Sirius, and there are questions about why Bayer designated this one so early in the Greek alphabet when it is the 15th or 20th brightest star in Canis Major.

Perhaps it was brighter long ago and has since faded? Burnham and Kaler both point out a historical note that it seems to have vanished in 1670 only to reappear in other records later, but this could easily be an observational error. This is one of several B-class giant or supergiant stars in Canis Major, which an intrinsic luminosity nearly 3000 times that of our Sun. We've never seen stars like this fade so rapidly, and even if a passing interstellar cloud were the cause, we would see a color change (reddening).

Epsilon CMa (Adhara), Delta CMa (Wezen) and Eta Cma (Aludra) make up the hind leg and the tail of the dog. Adhara and Aludra are both bright B-class giants like Murzim, though they don't oscillate. Omicron 2 is similar in type and is along the body, about 75% of the way from Sirius to Wezen (the star marking the hip of the dog). All four of these bright giants are luminous enough that they would dominate the brightness of Sirius or even the planet Venus if they were as close to the Earth is Sirius is. As it is, all are on the order of 1000 light years away and so comfortably dim to us. Wezen is a yellow supergiant, with a contracting core about to initiate Helium fusion, after which it will become a red supergiant like Antares in Scorpius.

A couple other variable stars of note: UW Canis Majoris and VY Canis Majoris are both located in the region just above the tail of the dog. UW is a rare, superhot O-type star with a bright, hot companion. The two orbit very close together (period less than 5 days!) and frequently partially eclipse each other, leading to regular brightness variations. Both are spinning rapidly and flattened due to their close orbit, and much gas is lost in an expanding halo around the system. Burnham speculates that this may be a very young binary system, with the companion stars still contracting.

VY Canis Majoris is a red hypergiant star, now considered to be the largest known star in the galaxy, with a diameter 2100 times that of our Sun. In our solar system, its radius would extend nearly out to the orbit of Saturn. It's large size means that it has a very weak hold on its outer layers, and so as it pulsates irregularly, it throws off arcs and shells of gas into the surrounding regions. This one is definitely a supernova candidate, but it's hard to say how soon it will erupt. All of the irregular gas outflow from the system makes it hard to get good information on the central star itself.

Now for the deep sky objects in Canis Major. The only Messier Object in Canis Major is M41, located right about where you would expect the heart of the dog to be, about four degrees south of Sirius. This is an open galactic cluster, around 200 million years old, so many of its massive stars have already finished their main sequence phase and moved on to become red, luminous giant stars. It gives this cluster a very nice array of colors in deep photographs.

There is one other very nice cluster present as well: NGC 2362, also known as the Tau Canis Majoris cluster since it is an array of stars surrounding the relatively bright Tau CMa. This is a much younger cluster, less than 25 million years old (perhaps as young as 5 million years old), and Tau is a very hot O-class star at the heart of it. This is a 40-50 solar mass star with an incredible 50,000 solar luminosities, so it won't last long. Already the powerful wind from this young cluster (as well as nearby UW CMa) has cleared out a cavity in the surrounding interstellar medium, creating a glowing bubble known as Sharpless 310 visible on red prints from the Palomar Sky Survey.

A very beautiful nebula is found above the head of the dog by following a line from Sirius to Muliphein and going that far again in the same direction. This is NGC 2359, otherwise known as Thor's Helmet thanks to its distinctive shape. This is a smaller version of an interstellar bubble, blown up by a massive star nearing the end of its main sequence lifetime. What happens, basically, is that a lot of the heavier elements in the core like Carbon, Nitrogen and Oxygen, get dredged up to the surface, and they are more opaque than Hydrogen and Helium. As a result, the outgoing light from the star pushes a lot harder on these atoms. This is known as radiation pressure, and it causes some of the atmosphere to get carried away, pushing aside any surrounding interstellar gas and dust as well.

Although the Milky Way crosses through one side of Canis Major, there are still a few interesting galaxies visible in this area of the sky, probably out of reach of most amateur telescopes, though. One very nice spiral near Adhara is NGC 2280, very similar in morphology to our own galaxy or the Andromeda galaxy. A bit further east is a pretty barred spiral galaxy known as NGC 2217 with a noticeable outer ring, perhaps the result of a merger in the recent past.

The Hubble Space Telescope caught an ongoing merger of the two spiral galaxies NGC 2207 and IC 2163 in a striking photograph. You can see the tidal effects stretching out both galaxies in the image, and we'll see a lot more of this once we move to some constellations that are well outside the plane of the Milky Way.

The final galaxy I'd like to mention is the Canis Major Dwarf, a recently discovered small galaxy all but invisible to all but the largest telescopes. This small galaxy has been captured by the Milky Way and slowly torn apart over the past few billion years. It is now just a tiny fragment of its former self as tidal forces have strung out the stars in this galaxy over a weaving path nearly a million light years in length. Follow this link to see some very nice animations of how Astronomers have reconstructed this process. This is officially the closest galaxy to our own now!

Posted by Observer at 01:19 PM | Comments (0)

January 27, 2008

Germany's Team

Ken Levine links to a funny video of Germany's biggest Cowboys fan suffering through the news of a disappointing playoff loss.

Posted by Observer at 08:58 AM | Comments (0)

January 26, 2008

It Hit Me

Today I was running errands when it hit me. The DragonLance books are so bad that they make the "Star Wars: New Jedi Order" novels feel like "Ender's Game". If I can plow through the last of the original DL trilogy then surely by God I can make it through the last few books of the 21 book NJO series. Right now, I'm kind of on a Stephen King kick, rereading my super fancy copy of the "The Stand".

Posted by Observer at 10:16 PM | Comments (0)

January 25, 2008


You may have noticed over the past week I've added a few new web comics to my sidebar. I've actually looked at many more. There are a really large number of comics out there that people are obviously spending a lot of time on (if the graphic quality is any indication) that just plain aren't funny, and they're supposedly geared for geeks like me. It's nice to have some comics to read since the funnies section of our paper is completely without redemption. They even moved the only good comics (Dilbert and Doonesbury) off the comic page, and I read 'em there so I don't link to the online sites.

In other news, it looks like I'll be back to teaching two overloads this Fall, which will be busy but nice money. I think last Fall went all right. The only real downside is that one of those two extras is a MW evening class, and I will miss being at home or going to the Y on those nights.

Posted by Observer at 10:06 PM | Comments (1)

January 24, 2008


For the first time today, I heard this term (which I thought was reserved for college athletes) applied to toddlers. Apparently, what some parents do with kids having summer birthdays (like our two little ones) is hold them out of kindergarten for an extra year. Instead of entering kindergarten as just-turned-5-year-olds, they will enter as just-turned-6.

Our 4-year-old, Daniel, born in July, is pretty much the youngest kid in his toddler class from the very beginning, and if we keep him on track, he'll always been one of the youngest kids in his grade. If we put him in a nice little private kindergarten program at 5 and THEN put him in regular kindergarten somewhere at 6, he'll be one of the oldest kids in his cohort growing up. Basically, when he's 5, we'll redshirt him.

I'm trying to figure out the benefits and drawbacks of this system. As someone with an end-of-May birthday, I was always in this boat. I got put into kindergarten when I was eligible by about 3 days, so I was about as young as you could possibly get for each grade all the way through school. I have to say, I think I might've liked it better to be a grade lower, even though I was always one of the smartest in my grade. All things considered, it worked out fine, I guess, but I still wonder what life would have been like as one of the bigger, more mature kids in my cohort instead of the youngest, scrawniest kid in my grade every year.

Posted by Observer at 07:33 PM | Comments (8)

January 23, 2008

Small Update

Busy day, getting ready for the first round of exams tomorrow and Friday in two of my three classes plus wrangling the little ones and running a bunch of errands. I almost got another constellation post finished, and then I realized I had completely forgotten to include Geminga in my constellation post on Gemini, so I went back and tacked on a paragraph on that for the record.

Oh, and a capsule review of the 2nd book in the DragonLance trilogy: ick. I was willing to suspend a lot (disbelief, patience, good taste) to plow through the first one just to see what the world was like that spawned all of these books. Now I get it, and there's no compelling reason left for me to care. It's hard to put my finger on just what is so horrible about this reading experience. It's like the famous Pauli quote: This isn't right. This isn't even wrong!

I feel like what I am reading is a description of a juvenile comic book (with a lot of the good pages torn out ... see below) with the same level of dialogue, only I don't even get to see the pretty artwork. Oh, and did I mention huge plot points are simply skipped and summarized in a few sentences or a little song?

I get two pages of summary: "Oh by the way, half the major characters went on a major quest to retrieve a priceless and important artifact that will help to win the war, and there was much heroism and danger involved, new creatures encountered, big battles, but that's all done now"" And then we spend 30 pages on board a miserable ship with nothing happening while we try to decide what to do next.

The Hell?

Posted by Observer at 11:40 PM | Comments (2)

January 22, 2008

Good News

Oh, I forgot to mention this yesterday. After going through all of Sunday with the water leak, having to crank the water off and on every time anyone needed to use it, the plumber who was recommended to us called first thing Monday morning and sent someone out before 10am. That alone was impressive, much better than any help we would've gotten with our (former) home warranty company.

The guy was very friendly and knowledgeable. He told me that it wasn't a freeze problem, just a worn-out faucet that had probably given way over the past few days with all of the expansion and contraction from the big temperature swings. He chopped it off at the brick and welded a new one into place. It's a frost-free faucet just like the old one, but it is still a good idea to keep it covered, and he was done in half an hour for around a hundred bucks.

Much faster, much cheaper and a much better experience than I imagined when it first started spewing on Sunday morning. We're blessed to know the right people (a contractor at our church and my brother the realtor) who can give us very good recommendations for stuff like this. We now have a reliable plumber, a reliable electrician and a reliable fix-it couple for projects around the house that I can't do (like maybe building our stupid barn ... I just know I'd screw it up).

I wish I knew a reliable mechanic, and I think I do have a line on someone very close who gets lots of positive online feedback, but I haven't tried that shop yet. I wonder if they'll be able to take care of our regular car and our minivan, too.

Posted by Observer at 07:58 PM | Comments (0)

Dreading the Future

I know I'm going to have to go through one of these soon with my 40th birthday coming up, so I found this quite funny.

Posted by Observer at 03:17 PM | Comments (2)

January 21, 2008


Two more constellations remain in the Winter Circle to cover, and today I'll talk about the constellation Gemini, which is found high in the SW sky near the zenith this evening, between Canis Minor and Auriga, just above Orion. The birth story of these twins is a little complicated. There were two sets of twin brothers mothered by Leda, one immortal (from which Polydeuces, or Pollux, came) and one mortal (Castor). The two brothers were alike in many ways, but each had his own specialty. Pollux was a champion boxer while Castor was a horseman and swordsman.

Castor was later killed in a swordfight, and his grieving brother Pollux asked their father Zeus to immortalize the two of them together in the sky. Unlike the myth, these two stars are not physically connected in the sky. In some stories, they were cattle thieves, and in these stories, the Milky Way is a herd of cattle in the sky, so perhaps these two are rustling a few cattle from the main herd.

Alpha Gemini is Castor, though it is not the brighter of the pair. Castor is a triple-double system. The main two stars are resolvable by a small telescope, both as bright blue A stars only a couple of arcseconds apart (with an estimated orbital period of 400 years), and each of these two stars is itself a very close binary seen spectroscopically. In addition, there is a faint red dwarf star much further away that is also a spectroscopic binary and gravitationally bound to this system. Kaler speculates that Castor C (the faint, remote companions) was perhaps captured by the main pair since it appears much younger.

The brightest star in Gemini is Pollux, a single yellow giant star about half as far away as Castor (about 34 light years), about 10 times larger than our Sun. Pollux holds the distinction as the brightest star in the night sky around which has been discovered an orbiting planetary companion. The companion of Pollux is a minimum of 3 Jupiter masses orbiting at roughly the same distance from its parent star as Mars orbits from the Sun. From that distance, Pollux is 16 times brighter in its planet's sky than our Sun is in ours.

At the foot of the twin figure Pollux is Alhena, a star similar to the brighter of the Castor triple system, but it is twice as far away and so fainter to our eyes. Another notable bright star, about a third of the way from Alhena to Pollux is Mekbuda, a supergiant Cepheid variable star, one of the few Cepheids in the night sky easily visible to the naked eye. Mekbuda varies in brightness with a period of just over 10 days. Knowing the period tells us the absolute luminosity and so makes it easy to determine the distance to this star.

Now for the deep sky objects in Gemini. Over on the Western edge of Gemini, about halfway between Mekbuda and Procyon and right on the border with Canis Minor is the Medusa Nebula, a planetary nebula nearly four light years across and 1500 light years away. This in the final evolutionary stage of stars like our own Sun. Nearby you can use Castor and Procyon as guide stars (look about halfway in between) to find another planetary nebula, the Eskimo Nebula. This one is a bit younger and more complex. At low resolution, the center of the nebula looks a bit like a face surrounded by a hooded parka, hence the name.

On the Eastern edge of the constellation, on the border with Auriga is an open cluster, NGC 2266. This is a very old cluster compared to most open clusters, and so it has a variety of different colors of stars as many have evolved off the main sequence to become red giants. Below this, near the foot of the twin figure of Castor is a pair of clusters, M35 and NGC 2158. M35 is a young open cluster with many bright blue stars while NGC 2158 is a much older cluster sort of on the borderline between what we would consider an open vs a globular cluster.

Very close to this pair, just to the West and a bit closer to the feet of Castor, is the supernova remnant IC 433, also known as the Jellyfish Nebula. This is somewhat similar to the Crab Nebula, a shell of hot gas surrounding a rapidly spinning neutron star that is rocketing away from the initial location of its explosion (probably because it was an off-center blast, this sort of thing is common in supernova remnants). The red glow you will see if you follow the first link is due to excited Hydrogen.

When electrons in Hydrogen atoms are excited, they move up to higher energy levels within the atom. As they cascade back down to lower energy levels, they give off a variety of energies (or wavelengths) of light, and one of the most common is Balmer Alpha, which represents the transition from the 3rd to the 2nd energy level and has a wavelength of 656 nm, right in the middle of the red part of the visible spectrum.

Finally, near the feet of the twins, just to the right of Alhena if they are upright, is a neutron star known as Geminga, which I discuss more fully here

Posted by Observer at 09:58 AM | Comments (0)

January 20, 2008


What a rotten day. I got home from church with the little ones and discovered that one of our outdoor faucets was spewing out water like crazy. Almost certainly, it froze sometime during the past few days, despite the fact that I insulated the holy crap out of it, and so now there's a split pipe somewhere in the house. Fortunately, this faucet has a release valve thingamabob so that the water spews outside rather than into the house.

I have a suspicion that this pipe has been slowly leaking for a while due to water seeping out of the foundation very slowly beneath the faucet, but it finally burst. Anyway, I went to a local hardware store to get a tool to turn off our water, but all they had was a device that was so flimsy it would've broken had I pushed it rather than turning the knob on the water control near the street. Of course, the valve right next to ours belonging to our neighbor I could almost turn with my fingers, but ours was frickin' glued open.

So off to the bigger hardware store to get the industrial strength water turner-offer, and it worked. I have to say, though, that it took just about all of my strength and leverage to turn the thing, and it still bent somewhat. Now everytime we need to use water in the house until the plumber comes, I'm going to have to troop out there to turn the water on and off. We'll let the water spew out of the side of the house while we use water for showers or toilet flushes or what have you, then I turn it back off. What a headache.

At least the house is livable and there's no damage being done, unlike when our electricity went out over the summer. I got a rec on a plumber from the same very great guy who also gave us a rec on an electrician (the fourth one we tried and the first one that actually did the job right and quick and cheap), so I hope he calls us in the morning. I'm sure since this is the first warm day after a long cold snap that we're not the only one with such a problem, so I'm worried it may be the end of the week before it is done.

I hope that they can get to this problem through our kitchen rather than having to take a sledgehammer and smash the bricks of our outer wall. It looks like it should be possible, but I'm sure as hell no plumber, so what do I know?

What makes the day much worse is that I'm having to suffer through no Cowboys when they should by God be hosting the NFC Championship today. I can't believe I was so wrong about the Giants. I thought they would quit, but they've apparently matured and are now real fighters. After the last game of the regular season, I wonder if they might give the Pats a better Super Bowl than the Packers would. My hats are off to that team. NYC's stupid fans don't deserve them.

Oh, and baby Ben has been crying or whining more or less non-stop today. Bless her forever, my sweetie took the little ones back up to the church this evening for the contemporary worship service (with child care, hooray!) so I got a couple of hours of wonderful wonderful quiet time at home. I'm still depressed, but I'm nowhere near as cranky as I was a couple of hours ago.

Posted by Observer at 07:45 PM | Comments (0)

January 18, 2008

UFO Sighting?

Big news from Stephenville, where supposedly a few dozen people spotted a UFO. This is supposedly a picture of the UFO, and I assume they think it is the bright spot to the left of the picture. Problem is, that's a sundog (or parhelion). AstroProf is thinking along the same wavelengths as me on this one.

Posted by Observer at 02:59 PM | Comments (0)

January 17, 2008


I used some of my Xmas gift certificates from BN and Amazon to buy some books that I read long ago but lost, including a bunch of Stephen King. I now have the very nice, unabridged collector's edition of "The Stand" as well as several other of his good novels. I'm not one to read everything he's written because I know he's hit and miss, but there is a large body of work out there identifying what's worth reading and what's not.

I picked up "Salem's Lot" for the first time, and that's not bad. I've read better vampire stories, but this was a good one. Now I'm just about done with the very good novel, "The Dead Zone", and just in time for USA to start from the beginning rerunning its series by the same name based on the characters in the novel. I don't know how good it will be, but I will give it a shot. Not sure if I will check out the Christopher Walken movie that was made out of this a couple of decades ago, but if I see it on the TiVo sometime, I'll record it out of curiosity.

I also bought a couple of anthologies of books I read long ago just so they're around the house for the kids to read. I bought the Dragonriders of Pern trilogy, which was one of the first series I ever read as a kid, checking it out of the public library at the time. I also bought the first four books of Weis and Hickman's "Dragonlance" series, even though after I finished the Death Gate 7-book series of theirs, I swore I wouldn't pick up anything by them again.

I've read enough reviews to accept that maybe this pair was good at some point, so why not read what is supposedly their best early work? The first book was passable. I'm sure the kids will like it a lot more than I did. I got the first three books of Terry Goodkind's "Sword of Truth" series for similar reasons, more for the kids than for me. It's pretty cool having a great big library of solid fantasy and sci-fi for the boys and maybe even the grandkids when the time comes. A lot of this stuff is just too hard to find at the public library anymore, certainly complete sets, and we have a damned fine library system, I think.

I think the kids will enjoy some of Stephen King, too, though I'll have to pick more carefully because many of his books are definitely inappropriate for adolescents. I'm going to see if the 13-year-old will like "The Talisman", which I liked when I was a bit older than him. "Eyes of the Dragon" is another one I'm looking to get soon, as that was a very good, scary fantasy by him that would be right up the boys' alley.

I'm not sure I liked "The Dark Tower" series well enough to buy it. Maybe if they come out with a nice, cheap paperback set in a pretty box, I'll ask for it as a gift next year.

Posted by Observer at 07:18 PM | Comments (0)

January 16, 2008

Form Letter

Gleen Greenwald has a helpful outline for professional pundits and journalists who wish to write to any blogger who criticizes their work. You can say these things in any order, but for full effect, all should appear in your letter.

1 - You never read the blog in question. Your own work, on the other hand, is read by many important and influential people, and you have more important friends you speak to regularly, often joking about the unwashed masses out there like bloggers.

2 - You are certain the blog in question that you have never read or heard of before writing this letter is biased, unprofessional, amateurish, unserious, etc.

3 - Unlike the blogger in question, you do actual "research" before writing anything or asking questions (this is especially important when you are criticized because you said something like "you didn't have time to do any research on this topic" or "this topic is too complicated for me to explain"). You might want to separate items 2 and 3 by a few paragraphs so the inherent contradiction isn't quite so glaring.

4 - You are routinely criticized by "both sides" and so by definition are the epitome of neutrality. Try to insert as much condescension into this blatantly obvious point as you can.

5 - Point out that you are privy to a lot of knowledge that the pitiful blogger doesn't have. Just because you never report it doesn't mean it isn't true, and if only the blogger knew what you know, the blogger would be deeply ashamed for criticizing you.

As Greenwald points out, widely read bloggers like him get letters like these routinely from various pundits and journalists, and they all follow a similar outline. One wonders what the state of journalism would be like if the people who write these letters would have one iota of that same skeptical anger toward sources who frequently lie to them or mislead them.

Could you imagine a CNN reporter broadcasting an interview in which he went up to John McCain and said, "Sir, when you said xxx about Iraq, I believed you, but then I went and did the research, and I found out that you were incorrect. Not only that, I have evidence that you knew the truth but were deliberately misleading. How do you explain yourself?"

I know it's pretty laughable to imagine what a truly objective, aggressive media would be like, let alone one with a liberal slant, but it's always a dream of mine.

Posted by Observer at 10:35 AM | Comments (1)

January 15, 2008

Canis Minor

Sticking to the Winter Circle, let's move around to another constellation that joins Orion, Taurus and Auriga in this pattern: Canis Minor. Being a very small constellation that's close (but not too close) to the plane of the Milky Way, there just aren't any good, bright deep sky objects here. It's a little too far from the Milky Way for clusters and big regions of star formation and too close to be able to see through all the gas and dust to the galaxies that surely lie beyond our galaxy in this direction.

The highlight, of course, is Procyon, the 7th or 8th brightest star in the sky (tough to rank stars when so many vary in brightness by a little bit) and one of the closest, being about 11 light years away (only about three times further than the Alpha Centauri system). To the Romans, this was known as Antecanis. To the Greeks, Procyon. Both translate roughly to "before the dog" since this star rises just before Sirius and Canis Major. The usual shorthand story for this constellation is that it is the smaller of Orion's two hunting dogs, but Ridpath's Star Tales has a much longer variant involving different characters if you are interested.

Like the Sun, Procyon is a main sequence star, just slightly hotter. What makes it bright is its proximity to us, not so much its intrinsic luminosity. It is about 40% more massive than the Sun and is thought to be a bit younger at 3 billion years old (compared to the Sun's 5 billion year age). It also has a white dwarf companion orbiting at an average distance of 15 AU (which would put it somewhere between Saturn and Uranus in our solar system). This white dwarf is the degenerate core remnant of a more massive companion (perhaps twice Procyon's mass or more) that has already finished its main sequence Hydrogen burning and undergone a planetary nebula phase, losing all of its outer layers millions of years ago.

Being hotter and brighter than the Sun, if Procyon has orbiting planets, they would have to be roughly 1.2 to 2.5 AU from the star in order to be considered habitable. Though there is some interest in finding a potentially habitable planet in such a nearby system, it seems to me very unlikely. First of all, the orbit of such a planet would be somewhat unstable with two very massive objects already in the system. Secondly, Procyon puts out a lot more of its light at higher energies compared to our Sun, and all of these high energy photons would be potentially harmful for life on a planet without a thick ozone layer to protect it. Finally, the evolution of the nearby massive companion surely would have affected the environment of any planet in the vicinity in a negative way, so even if the planet might be habitable, the odds of its being inhabited are slim.

The other bright star in this constellation is Gomeisa, a name that Kaler indicates comes from the Arabic for "the weeping one". Gomeisa is actually much larger and brighter than Procyon (though it is also a main sequence star), but it is over 10 times further away. This star is rotating so quickly that, similar to Gamma Cassiopeia (which I discussed previously), it has thrown off a disk of material that emits its own light. The disk is four times larger than the star itself, and it generates bright emission lines in the spectrum of the system. This star also lights up the surrounding gas and dust much like the stars in the Pleiades.

Posted by Observer at 04:04 PM | Comments (0)

January 14, 2008


Today, I'll talk about another northern constellation that is a part of the Winter Circle, Auriga the Charioteer. Allen strongly believes that this is one of the old constellations, like Taurus, that originated with the earliest civilizations of the fertile crescent. And like Taurus, the basic story hasn't changed much since then (though a few less common variations still exist).

Auriga is a chariot rider in the various myths (though in some he has lost his chariot, and he is not usually pictured in one now), holding a little she-goat and two goat kids. Even the Chinese mythology refers to the classic pentagon of stars (with one substitution, Alnath instead of Delta) as the "Five Chariots". In the Greek myths, the rider is the son of Hephaestus, and though he is lame, he is taught many skills by Athene, including how to tame horses and ride a chariot. Where the goats come from is not clear.

The brightest star is Capella, which translates to "little she-goat", and it is at the left shoulder of the rider, who is facing us. This is the 6th brightest star in the sky, and it is about 42 light years away. The main body of the figure is a slightly off-kilter pentagon much like the Ethiopian king, Cepheus. Capella is a very close non-eclipsing binary system with two giant-class yellow stars at a distance comparable to the Earth-Sun distance. These were once massive Sirius-like stars that are now evolving to become red giants. There is also a binary pair of cool dwarf stars orbiting a great distance from the central pair.

Burnham describes the scale of this system: If you shrink Capella A and B down to spheres about a foot in diameter, separated by 10 feet, then the two orbiting dwarf stars would each by about an inch in diameter, 420 feet apart, 21 miles away from the central pair. Beta Aurigae is Menkalinan, the right shoulder of the rider, another close binary system with two nearly identical blue main sequence stars in close orbit around one another, partially eclipsing each other about every two days. Also like Capella, a dim red dwarf star orbits the central binary at a great distance.

Gamma Aurigae is Alnath, shared with Taurus, which I've talked about previously. Delta is a fainter multiple star system representing the head of the rider. A famous asterism within this constellation is formed by Epsilon (Al Anz), Eta (Hoedus II) and Zeta (Hoedus I), the skinny triangle is a group of goats known collectively as "the kids". Epsilon (closest to Capella) and Zeta (the rightmost of the three if Cepheus is seen upright) are both eclipsing binaries, and Epsilon has long been a real puzzle to Astronomers.

This is a very widely separated system. Eclipses happen about every 27 years and last for 2 years. That's a LONG eclipse! What kind of gigantic companion could possibly cause such an eclipse? At first, we though the central star was gigantic, bigger than any other star known, but more data made us realize it can't be that big. The eclipsing companion must be somehow extended.

Perhaps the eclipsing star is surrounding by a large dusty disk, and it takes a long time for the disk to pass the central star. In fact, the central star gets slightly brighter near the midpoint of the eclipse, an indication that perhaps the dusty disk has cleared out a little bit close to the eclipsing star. The next eclipse of this system is scheduled to begin in August 2009, and it will be closely watched by professional and amateur Astronomers undoubtedly.

Rounding out the bottom of the pentagon are Theta (a strongly magnetic hot blue A star) and Iota (also known as Hassaleh). These two stars along with Alnath in Taurus form a triangle that contains all of the really neat looking deep sky objects in Auriga. The Milky Way also cuts through this region. AE Aurigae is a bright, hot main sequence O-type star and one of the "runaway stars" from the Orion Nebula region that I discussed when I was talking about the constellation Orion. Though intrinsically bright, this star is very far away (about 1500 light years) and obscured by intervening dust, so it is near 6th magnitude on average in the night sky, barely visible to the human eye under ideal conditions.

To find it, go in the direction opposite the skinny triangle of the kids until you're halfway to Alnath (the brighter of the two stars at the end of Taurus' horns). Extrapolating its motion back in time indicates that it left the Orion Nebula region about 2.7 million years ago, probably an ejected member of a multiple star system or a binary that was disturbed by another passing star. Surrounding this star is the beautiful Flaming Star Nebula, a cloud of gas and dust that AE Aurigae is passing through and lighting up much like the Pleiades system. As Burnham notes, you can actually see the wake of this star as it has moved from left to right through this field, pushing gas out of its way.

NGC 1931 and IC 417 form a nebula pair known as the Spider and the Fly. Both are regions where Hydrogen gas has been excited by nearby hot stars and some light from these stars is reflected in surrounding dust. There are three Messier objects clustered together in this region. M36 is also called the Pinwheel Cluster for its spiral pattern of bright stars. It is similar in age to the Pleiades but much further away (nearly 10 times further) and so much fainter. Nearby is M37, which Burnham considers the finest of the three for small telescopes. It is very rich in stars, with over 150 crowded into a small area and at least 500 in total, and it is somewhat older than M36 with a few bright red giants that stand out.

M38 is the third of the open clusters here. These types of clusters are fairly common in the galactic disk (as opposed to globular clusters, which are more common in the halo). Because they are immersed in so much surrounding material, these clusters are more likely to be spread out and ultimately disrupted by tidal forces over time. As such, any clusters that are still together are usually very young compared to our own Sun. Sometimes, groups of bright stars such as the Sco-Cen association or the Ursa Major moving group can have their motions traced back to the point where we realized they were once part of an open cluster as well.

Posted by Observer at 03:10 PM | Comments (2)

January 13, 2008


I don't think this is as bad of a meltdown as the Mavs losing in the first round, but it is very awful. This calls into question whether Wade can coach in the playoffs, whether people have figured out our offense and Romo, and it extends our playoff win drought to 12 years. It didn't have anything to do with Jessica Simpson, but I'm sure we'll hear all about that for months. For me, the bottom line is that our receivers (especially Crayton, but where was Owens?) played very poorly, and I hope Jerry goes out and gets another stud or two to complement Owens.

I'm now a Green Bay fan for the next month.

Posted by Observer at 06:49 PM | Comments (2)


The Cowboys overcame the initial Giants outburst (which was assisted by a bogus offsides call) and managed to calm the game down with a huge 96 yard drive. The Giants made a mistake punting on 4th and inches from near midfield, up 7-0. They had the Cowboy defense on its heels and then gave the offense an opportunity to change the momentum. That last Giant drive at the end of the first half will keep them in the game a little bit longer and make the final score a little closer than it ought to be, but I have no doubt now that Dallas is going to win. Eli is bound to throw a pick somewhere, and that will break open the game in the 2nd half.

If he doesn't, I'm confident the Cowboys are just going to keep scoring kind of like the Pats do, and the Giants sooner or later are going to lose a possession through a turnover or a punt, and then it'll be two scores and only a matter of time until the game is over.

Update: Ok, now I'm nervous. The offense (especially the receivers) looks out of sync, and I don't know if something wrong or the Giants (even with a missing cover guy) are playing out of their minds. This game just turned into a coin flip. He who has the ball last will probably win. Crap.

Posted by Observer at 05:14 PM | Comments (0)

January 12, 2008


One thing I fear about tomorrow's game is that the Giants will come out like Seattle did and set a rested and maybe lethargic Dallas back on its heels with some big plays in the first quarter. I think if we can be tied or ahead at the end of the first quarter, the rest of the game should go our way. I'll predict a final of 38-17, just because I want to believe so badly that Romo will be back to his old self. I was surprised the GB offense was so effective in that bad weather.

Too bad Jax couldn't keep it closer. I had hopes when they had it tied at the half, especially with the big 95-yard drive in the 2nd quarter. Someone has to figure out how to stop the Pats' offense. Maybe Indy can do it and hang on to win. I'd feel a lot better about playing Indy if we get that far.

Posted by Observer at 10:30 PM | Comments (0)

January 11, 2008


Bob Sturm has everything you need to get ready for the Cowboys game on Sunday. Wow, I can't wait. To think, our first playoff win in over 10 years if we can pull it off. We ought to, but against a division rival, you just never know. I would like to think that we should beat the Giants handily, especially since they are missing Shockey, who always kills us, but a couple of turnovers or big plays the wrong way, and you just never know.

Sometimes it doesn't seem fair that it all hinges on just one game. Why can't it be best two of three or three of five? Of course, that would be great to watch, but it would take forever and there would be all kinds of injury problems and all that. I mean, if the Giants lose this game, especially if they get their doors blown, they could end up firing the coach and maybe rebuilding a bit, while the Cowboys' win would mean a validated regular season, and Romo is over last year's playoff loss and will be counted on here for years to come in the playoffs.

If the Cowboys lose, it would be worse than the Mavs losing in the first round as the top seed last season. I mean, how humiliating, especially to lose to this classless bunch of clowns. It would mean a horrible 2008 regular season, because absolutely no one will care what happens since only playoff games matter, and the whole fanbase will just hold their collective breath until we finally win one. Conversely, a Giants' win means maybe Eli is finally taking that step up and will be worth it for several years to come.

It just doesn't seem fair that so much can depend on one game, but that's football.

Posted by Observer at 10:02 PM | Comments (1)

January 09, 2008

Fans vs Favorites

Preview photos of the contestants in the next Survivor season are up, and the podcast people have three really good, high resolution photos of the players. There are 10 favorites from past shows and 10 new players. Of the favorites, I am glad to see James there from this past season since he was very entertaining. Also glad to see Yau-Man there after he got ripped off so completely a couple of seasons ago. I wish Super Tom the fireman were there, but I imagine the others would vote him out the first chance they got anyway.

Posted by Observer at 10:15 PM | Comments (0)

January 08, 2008


To begin the discussion of the constellation Orion, I think it would be best to follow Burnham and quote from the 1929 book "1001 Celestial Wonders" by Charles Edward Barns:

For who would acquire a knowledge of the heavens, let him give up his days and nights to the marvels of Orion. Here may be found every conceivable variation of celestial phenomena: stars, giants and dwarfs; variables, doubles, triples, multiples; binaries visual and spectroscopic; clusters wide and condensed; mysterious rayless rifts and nebulae in boundless variety, with the supreme wonder of all supernal wonders at its heart - the Great Nebula - before which the learned and the laymen alike have stood silent in awe and reverence since the first lens unfolded to man's gaze its true vastness and intricacy, and which offers abundant field for all the geniuses of science ... for generations to come.

The constellation Orion actually originated with the Sumerians, where he was Gilgamesh fighting against the Bull of Heaven. In Greek mythology, Orion had no quarrel with a Bull, though he is often pictured as facing off against Taurus the Bull in the sky. Orion is a great hunter, armed with club and shield with two dogs following at his heels (Canis Major and Canis Minor). In one myth, Orion's target is not Taurus the Bull but rather the affections of the Pleiades which ride on the Bull's back, and so Orion chases them across the sky.

In most versions of the Greek legend, Orion's death comes from the sting of Scorpius, who was placed on the opposite side of the heavens, rising as Orion sets and vice versa. This happened because he either claimed he was a greater hunter than the hunting goddess Artemis (always a mistake to claim greater anything than any Greek god) or he mistakenly tried to ravish Artemis. Another version says that Orion was killed when Artemis' brother Apollo, who disapproved of the love between Orion and Artemis, tricked Artemis into piercing Orion with a deadly arrow.

Another story involving Orion claims that his pursuit of the Pleiades angered their father, who blinded Orion. To regain his sight, Orion was told by an oracle to travel East and face the rising Sun at dawn. Tennant speculates that his reappearance in the Eastern sky at dawn during the Fall signifies the end of his Summer of blindness. When he appears at dawn in the Eastern sky, he is looking upon Aurora, the goddess of the dawn, mother of the winds and of the Morning Star. Aurora fell in love with him and healed his vision.

As for the stars in the constellation Orion, I'll start with the brightest. Betelgeuse (armpit, arm or hand of the giant, depending on your source) is a red supergiant, one of only two red supergiants (besides Antares) that is among the brightest stars in the sky thanks to its proximity and the lack of intervening material. As you can see here, at its largest size, it would easily engulf all of the terrestrial planets in the solar system if it were put in place of our own Sun. It is large enough and close enough that it subtends a slight angle in the sky, allowing us to physically measure its diameter (instead of inferring it from other properties like with most stars).

This star is well along its evolutionary path, probably fusing complex elements in its core on its way to exploding as a Type II Supernova. Like many large stars, Betelgeuse pulsates, changing its size and luminosity over a period of months or years. At times, it is truly the brightest star in Orion, but most of the time, it is slightly fainter than the blue giant Rigel (left leg or foot of the giant), which is normally the 7th brightest star in the sky.

The only thing that makes blue supergiant Rigel's luminosity comparable to Betelgeuse is that it is about twice as far away (about 800 vs 400 light years). Burnham estimates that if Rigel were one of the 5-10 nearest stars to us (like, for example, the blue main sequence star Sirius, which is less than 10 light years away), it would be about 10,000 times brighter, which is about 20% of the brightness of the full moon.

Rigel is one of a number of stars moving away from its presumed birthplace near the Great Nebula in Orion. There's also an expanding bubble of gas centered around this region that I'll talk about later, probably a supernova remnant. Some of these stars were possibly binary companions of very massive stars that exploded and sent their companions shooting off in random directions. Or possibly they were part of a loose cluster of stars that ejected some members through gravitational interactions (a story for another time).

Rigel also has a relatively faint companion, Rigel B, about 9 arcseconds away, easily visible with a 6-inch or better telescope. Rigel B itself is a spectroscopic binary, two B-type main sequence stars orbiting one another about every 10 days. The other two bright stars in the rectangular pattern centered on Orion's Belt are Bellatrix (known as the Amazon Star) and Saiph (sword of the giant). Both Saiph and Bellatrix are hot blue stars like many in Orion, but Bellatrix is probably too close to be of the same group that formed from the Nebula region. Saiph is only dimmer than Rigel because of intervening interstellar gas and dust. Otherwise, they are similar stars at similar distances.

The three stars in Orion's belt are (from East to West) Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka, also called "the string of pearls" by Arab astronomers. These are all hot borderline O/B stars, recently formed in the Great Nebula region.

At the heart of the Great Nebula in Orion is the multiple star Theta Orionis, otherwise known as the Trapezium. There are four bright stars here that are very young 15-30 solar mass stars that are providing the majority of the light that reflects back and causes such a pretty sight through the telescope. The nebula is also known as M42 and is one of the youngest star clusters we see in the sky, even younger than the Pleiades.

Meissa marks the head of Orion, though its name doesn't translate as such. It is a very bright star intrinsically, but it is over 1000 light years away so doesn't appear bright to us. It is the brightest star in a small surrounding cluster, and the cluster is surrounded by the Meissa Ring, an illuminated cloud about 150 light years in diameter that is either associated with the formation of Meissa or perhaps the remnant of a supernova that went off from an even more massive star within Meissa's cluster.

There are literally over a dozen multiples in this region of the sky, all part of the same OB association of stars. Perhaps the finest example of many is Eta Orionis (Saif Al Jabbar, sometimes confused with Saiph), which makes sort of a right triangle with the belt of Orion. Through a telescope, one can see a close pair of hot blue stars less than 2 arcseconds apart, The brighter of the pair is actually a triple star, with two stars orbiting very close (about the same distance as it is from the Sun to Mercury) and the third orbiting out near where Saturn would orbit, and it is still debated whether another more distant star is also orbiting the same system. Nearby Sigma Orionis is another similar example, and it provides the light to illuminate the gas clouds in the beautiful Horsehead Nebula region, discussed below.

Among the variable stars in the cluster is W Orionis, a bright red giant and also a carbon star. Carbon stars are in a peculiar phase of their evolution during which Carbon created in the core is being dredged up to the surface by convection in the star's envelope. The carbon atoms are pretty good at blocking blue light, so these are very red stars. This two solar mass star is beginning the process of blowing off its outer envelope, and in a few million years, it will become a planetary nebula with a hot white dwarf left behind at the center.

Another interesting star here is HR 1988, about in the opposite place as Eta Orionis with respect to Orion's Belt. This sun-like star has two planets in orbit around it, discovered via the Doppler wobbling technique. One is a Jupiter-like planet orbiting a mere 0.13 AU from the central star (by comparison, Mercury's orbital distance is 0.40 AU) and the other is right at the border of the star/planet boundary, being around 13 Jupiter masses and orbiting about 3.5 AU away (which would put it squarely in the middle of our asteroid belt if it were here).

One last thing I should mention here is the usefulness of Orion's Belt and other bright stars to act as pointers to other major stars and constellations in the sky. This image shows how to use Orion to find many of the other stars in the Winter Circle.

Finally, on to the deep sky objects in Orion. The obvious first choice is the famous Orion Nebula, also known as M42. Though only visible as a fuzzy 4th magnitude patch to the naked eye just below Orion's Belt, the full extent of the luminosity of this magnificent object is visible in many long-exposure photographs, and it takes up an area of the sky about four times larger than the full moon.

At a little over 1000 light years distant, it is still among the closest active star-forming regions to the Earth. Already, many massive stars have formed and moved out of this region, and some remain, including the brightest stars at the center, also known as the Trapezium. The red color in the nebula comes from emission by Hydrogen gas. The blue color is reflected light by dust from all of the hot, blue stars in the region. The green is forbidden line emission from Oxygen.

As the Hubble Space Telescope has studied this region closely, we have discovered many stars that have dusty disks around them, presumed to be the precursors to planetary systems. Burnham recommends that the best way to observe this nebula with a small telescope is to go to a dark site, get your eyes well-adjusted, then position the telescope and turn off the drive so that the Nebula will slowly drift across your field of view. This makes it easier to see the full extent of the nebulosity.

Though Mayan records clearly show that they observed this object in the sky, no other ancient texts talk about the Great Nebula in Orion, at least not from Western Europeans or Arabic astronomers. Perhaps this region got brighter during the 17th century, when it was first mentioned and studied by many famous astronomers.

Just above the Orion Nebula, a nebula that seems to drop right out of Alnitak (the left end of the belt if Rigel is at the bottom of Orion) is a beautiful reflection nebula lit up by nearby bright stars. The major feature of this nebula is that some of the light is blocked by a very thick, dark dust cloud shaped like the head of a horse. This is Barnard 33, popularly known as the Horsehead Nebula. The feature is about 1500 light years away and 3.5 light years across (roughly the distance from us to the nearest star). Sadly, this is too faint and small to be seen with the naked eye, but it appears easily and beautifully in deep photographs of the region. Nearby to the left of Alnitak is the pretty Flame Nebula (also known as the Christmas Tree Nebula).

Above the belt and very near HR 1988 which I discussed earlier is another pair of objects, M78 and NGC 2071, two more bright cloud complexes lining the front of the gigantic Orion molecular cloud complex that spans nearly the entire area of the constellation on the sky. Circling all of this is Barnard's Loop, which may be an outflow boundary from a supernova explosion that occured long ago in the Orion Nebula region. There are many other smaller nebulae and clusters dotting the front of this giant cloud complex, enough to keep an observer busy for a lifetime.

Posted by Observer at 04:01 PM | Comments (2)

January 07, 2008

Very Short Summaries

I recommend these summaries of many famous speculative fiction works. Most are just a few sentences but somehow have grasped the narrative well. Very funny.

Posted by Observer at 02:21 PM | Comments (0)

Blame the Liberal

It's time once again for the favorite Conservative Victim pastime: Blame the Liberal. Today, the problem is that a Kos-like collaborative blog for conservatives (Red State) is having trouble functioning because the website managers can't figure out the software problems, and this is apparently somehow the fault of liberals since Daily Kos has overcome such problems. Now they're asking for big donations from their readers to upgrade and fix all the problems they're having that they can't figure out.

Atrios has a good quote, and his commenters are absolutely hilarious on this one. Here's a sampling of the funnier comments from both Atrios and the relevant Kos diary for you to enjoy:

We're in ur blogosphere, disruptin ur websites with inferior web programming protocols.


Wait, they don't have any "conservative" web protocol designers? ... The FUCK?


Have you tried praying to Jesus to fix your fucking shithole of a website? I hear that works wonders with your crowd.


Typical. What does a strong conservative do when he needs money? He begs for a handout!


To paraphrase: Our business model did not work out as well as we hoped so we need some welfare to help us out.


Maybe when they hire people they should ask what code they write instead of how they feel about Roe v. Wade.


shorter red state: "unfortunately, all the smart people are liberals."


shorter red state: "it's their fault for being smarter than us."


You see, with these guys, when it's a website designed to spread BS and vitriol about others, it's charitable giving. When it's children starving, poor people freezing or people drowning, it's a handout!


We've got liberal blogs like DailyKos, which truly are entrepeneurial, whereas the supposedly free market Right's sites like Red State, begging for handouts.


Home schooling is not the answer. My mother doesn't know jack about computers.

Posted by Observer at 12:58 PM | Comments (0)

January 06, 2008

Those Who Forget History...

A guest columnist on Time's website is a journalist covering the primaries, and reading this post makes you depressingly aware that the same dynamic that cost Gore the election in 2000 are in full force among our incredibly fatuous and self-absorbed press corps. I only hope the candidates can rise above the predictable narratives that the traditional media will be pushing.

Lots of good venom in the comments from liberals like me who are fed up with the lazy corporate media.

Posted by Observer at 06:50 PM | Comments (0)

January 05, 2008

Dog Whistles

Dog Whistle Politics is a new (?) term that in vogue now for messages candidates send out to the fringes in code. For example, when a politician talks about how important "States' Rights" are, that's code for sympathy with the old Confederacy. Basically, it is telling the southern white racist crowd that he's cool with them. Or when pundits warn of "certain segments" of the population becoming unhinged, that's code for "watch out for the angry black people".

Huckabee does a lot of it since he's trying to cater to the evangelical nuts while still appealing to mainstream voters. I almost said mainstream Republicans there, but I think evangelical nuts ARE mainstream Republicans. For example, Huckabee likes to talk about the importance of being "vertical" instead of horizontal. That's code to evangelicals that he wants Christian religion at the core of every government decision. Horizontal thinking keeps you out of Heaven, you see.

This sort of thing has been around for a long time. It's a wonder that the traditional media ignores it when the message is so obviously out of the mainstream (i.e. racist).

Posted by Observer at 04:24 PM | Comments (0)

January 04, 2008

Crystal Skull

Good story here about the making of the next Indiana Jones movie. I hope it doesn't suck.

Posted by Observer at 06:42 PM | Comments (0)

January 02, 2008


We've only had one and a half good regular seasons and not even any success yet in the playoffs, and already there's talk of other teams picking off the pieces of our coaching staff. Already, Parcells has taken our scouting director and made him the GM in Miami, and now the word is that genius Jason Garrett, our offensive coordinator and Obi Wan to Tony Romo, is interviewing for the Falcons' head coaching job.

Can we at least win a playoff game first, guys? Please?

Posted by Observer at 10:32 PM | Comments (2)

January 01, 2008

Movie Reviews

We're getting a little impatient with Stargate now, so we've been watching other movies instead, both Netflix and stuff the kids got for Xmas. I can report that Stardust was really good. I would give it about 8 out of 10, and I think Michelle was closer to 6. She's a lot tougher on fantasy movies than me.

Ratatouille was a bit better, and I had high expectations going in. I'm trying to think of a better Disney/Pixar movie that has come out. Maybe Toy Story, which is like the Star Wars of that genre for me. Ratatouille may be The Empire Strikes Back if Toy Story is Star Wars. It was very different in a very good way, and it had a happier ending.

I've gone on a bit of a book-buying binge since Xmas thanks to some gift cards from Barnes and Noble and Amazon. I've spent most of my reading time since Xmas going through my very precious Calvin and Hobbes set, and I'm not even done the first book yet! I do intend to read more this year than last. I found a bunch of very well kept used Stephen King books at a Half-Price Books sale, too, and I bought some of his best that I've read but lost or loaned out to people over the years. Still missing a few. I'm not a huge fan, but there are 6-8 books of his that I really like (out of, what, 50?), and I would put the Dark Tower series kind of on the fringes of that list. My favorite is "The Stand", and yes, I know its flaws. I'd love to read that famous Spider Robinson trashing review of it sometime, but I can't find the text of it, only references to it.

Reading more is not really a New Year's Resolution or anything. I just read in cycles, sometimes I'll go through a year or two of heavy reading and then go 6-12 months with nothing, maybe slogging through a difficult book. The latest Donaldson, I guess, made me remember how much I love a really engrossing book, and I've been stuck for a long time on Hobb's ships trilogy, which is really just okay for me, a real let down after I loved her other two trilogies.

Posted by Observer at 10:48 PM | Comments (1)