February 29, 2008

How to Invite Your Wife to Lunch

Here's a (paraphrased) email that got me a "yes": So, what's happening for lunch today? Am I going to be forced to trudge a lonely path to get some overpriced meager fast-food kind of meal I've had a million times and bring it back to my uncomfortable, boring little office and sit in front of a computer for an hour? Or do I get to have a delicious gourmet lunch at a nice restaurant on a beautiful day with the love of my life?

We had food at Pappas burgers for the 2nd time (our first visit was last week), and it was very yummy. Overpriced, sure, but reliably yummy.

Just got done with episode 4 of Survivor: good season so far, with a tribe of fans vs a tribe of favorites and lots of surprises, and I'm enjoying the Survivor Fans' Podcast every week. Our DVR has failed to record it twice due to conflicting recordings we forgot about, but fortunately, iTunes is updating with new downloadable episodes really quick.

Posted by Observer at 11:19 PM | Comments (1)

February 28, 2008

By the Company He Keeps

Glenn Greenwald wonders why Obama is getting grief in debates because idiots like Louis Farrakhan support Obama while nobody ever asks John McCain to repudiate all of the hateful, racist evangelical fruitcakes who support McCain.

Glenn has apparently forgotten that the traditional media is super-duper liberal with Marxist tendencies and Obama is a socialist and so they couldn't possibly behave like this.

Posted by Observer at 09:45 AM | Comments (1)

February 26, 2008

Next

Like most P. K. Dick stories, this movie had a good gimmick, but it seems like they could've done a lot more with this. I would like to see Nicholas Cage's character again with a much better script. Our other Netflix stuff right now is that we're trying "Stargate: Atlantis". So far, pretty "eh". It's tough to get movies because we don't have lots of time at night to watch a 90 or 120 minute movie, but a 45 minute TV show is about perfect.

Posted by Observer at 10:39 PM | Comments (1)

February 25, 2008

Leo Minor

Under the hind paws of Ursa Major and just north of the sickle in Leo the Lion, you can find Leo Minor, a constellation introduced by Johannes Hevelius in 1687. It has no mythology associated with it, and this small area of the sky is basically neglected or treated as a minor feature in a larger pattern in most ancient star mythologies.

According to several sources, the brightest star in this constellation doesn't have an alpha designation due to an oversight. It is 46 Leo Minoris, also known as Praecipua, which translates to "chief" since it is the brightest star in the constellation. Being a more modern constellation, the star name is more on the practical than the mythological side. This is an orange giant with a somewhat cooler outer temperature than the Sun, though its core is much hotter, fusing helium into carbon in an advanced evolutionary stage.

Beta Leonis Minoris is a very close binary system, containing a yellow giant star of about eight solar masses and a companion main sequence star similar to our Sun only a little bit hotter and more massive. A closely watched star for variable star observers is the long-period (Mira-type) variable known as R Leonis Minoris, the brightness of which varies by 7 magnitudes (a factor of about 600) over the course of about a year. These pulsations are not very well understood, though there are many theories.

One way Astronomers try to unravel the puzzle is by examining the spectrum of the star at each step of the pulsation cycle to learn about the temperature, density and other properties of each layer we can see in the extended atmosphere. Since all of the spectral lines from each layer are overlapping each other on the star's spectrum, though, there is still uncertainty about the interpretation. My guess is that when we have the angular resolution to measure the center of such a star and the limb of the star (it would have to be fairly nearby) separately, it will be easier to distinguish between these layers, and that's still some years off.

Another star of note is 20 Leonis Minoris, a sunlike star less than 50 light years from Earth with a dim red dwarf companion star. This star has a fairly high metallicity and also a relatively large proper motion compared to stars at similar distances, so it likely comes from a population mixed into the Milky Way sometime in the past, perhaps part of a tidal tail of stars from a dwarf galaxy devoured in the distant past.

There are no deep sky objects in Leo Minor that are easily accessible to small telescopes, but there is still plenty to look at courtesy of some of the larger telescopes used by professional astronomers. Starting at the front (West) part of the constellation and working back toward the rear as we did with Leo, we first come to is NGC 2859, a ring-shaped spiral galaxy with an image here taken from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

This galaxy is about ten times furthest away than the nearest large spiral, Andromeda, and so only visible as a faint blob in a small telescope. The ring (perhaps caused by the presence of the central bar or perhaps the result of a recent interaction with another smaller galaxy) only comes out in larger telescopes. This is a good test for astronomical imaging because there is such a wide range of surface brightnesses in this small object.

Next up, just a degree or so east of Beta LMi is NGC 3294, seen in a very nice image. Another couple of degrees to the East is the distorted galaxy NGC 3432 which has a couple of different tidal features indicating interaction with some nearby galaxy. This is also mentioned in Halton Arp's catalog of peculiar galaxies, a catalog he put together to study galaxy evolution, but he ultimately used this to support his hypothesis about redshifts.

In standard cosmology, redshift is a measure of distance due to the expansion of the Universe. The greater the spectral line shift of a galaxy, the faster it is moving away from us and so the further away it is. According to Arp, though, redshifts were caused by something else, perhaps material ejected from the cores of active galaxies. To support his hypothesis, Arp pointed to several images of galaxies apparently interacting but found at dramatically different redshifts. As our observational capabilities improved, the data generally support the standard explanation for redshifts, but the Arp catalog is still a great guide for amateur observers to interesting interacting (and fairly bright) galaxies.

Next up, a few galaxies in the Southeast corner of the constellation, within a triangle formed by 46 LMi, Algeiba and Zosma (both of the latter in Leo). NGC 3344 is the southern most of the set, a ghostly face-on spiral, the nicest image I've found in this constellation. Also nearby is NGC 3486, another face-on spiral. In the image linked, you can see lots of reddish dots sprinkled throughout the disk. Those are H II regions, which are regions of ionized Hydrogen gas surrounding young bright stars or star clusters similar to the Orion Nebula region. Notice, too, the small bar and ring at the center of this spiral.

Closer to 45 LMi, maybe a half a degree or a degree to the South, is the interacting galaxy pair NGC 3395 and NGC 3396, another pair of interacting galaxies from Arp's catalog. Not as spectacular as some that we saw in Leo itself, but it is still a fairly easy target for an 8" or 10" telescope in good conditions. Going much deeper with the Hubble Space Telescope also reveals a more distant galaxy cluster which is causing gravitational lensing in a more distant quasar. The discovery of such lensing, in which objects at lower redshift act like lenses to bend the light of objects at higher redshifts, was one of the definitive tests showing the standard interpretation of redshifts is likely the proper one.

Posted by Observer at 07:06 PM | Comments (0)

February 24, 2008

Leo

In mythology, near the Greek city of Nemea, there lived a lion who frequently came out of his cave to hunt down and kill the locals. As one of his 12 labors, Hercules was tasked with killing this lion, but it was impervious to ordinary weapons. So Hercules chased the lion into the cave and throttled it with his bare hands. Leo the lion has had a prominent place in the nighttime sky ever since those times. Leo had great importance to the Egyptians. The time of year when the Sun first entered Leo coincided with the rising of the Nile river most of the time, and the famous Sphinx may have the body of a lion for this reason.

Alpha Leonis is Regulus, which translates as "little king" and was named by Copernicus, in honor of the king of beasts. In Arabic, the name is Cor Leonis, which translates as "heart of the lion", and this is sometimes the name used in star charts. Regulus held great importance in many ancient civilizations, partly because it is a rather solitary bright star in its region of the sky (though it doesn't make the top 20 brightest stars in the whole sky) and also because it is found very close to the ecliptic plane in the sky. This means it is frequently occulted by the Moon (see image) and often approached very closely by the other planets.

Regulus was one of the four royal stars of Persia, the ancient guardians of the four corners of heaven. Each of the four stars (Regulus in Leo, Aldebaran in Taurus, Antares in Scorpius and Fomalhaut in Pisces Austrinis) is located along the ecliptic roughly 90 degrees apart in the sky, and so each is dominant in the sky during a particular season. Regulus is dominant during the Spring.

Leo is pretty easy to find thanks to the sickle asterism, with Regulus at its base. This looks like a backwards question mark in the sky and is formed by several bright stars in Leo, representing the mane of the lion. Regulus is a main sequence star, about 3.5 times the sun's mass and probably less than a billion years old. It is only about 80 light years away, which makes it fairly bright to us. It is also one of the few stars that is close enough and bright enough to enable us to measure its angular size and shape directly. The results published in 2006 were rather surprising!

As this picture indicates, Regulus is one of the fastest spinning main sequence stars known, completing its rotation about 16 hours (compare to our Sun, which takes a month). If it were rotating only 10 or 20 percent faster, it would literally fly apart. As it is, Regulus is highly oblate, so much so that the poles (closer to the core) are much hotter and brighter than the equatorial regions.

Regulus is actually a triple star system, with two small close-knit companions very far away, dwarf main sequence stars that are only fractions of the brightness of our Sun. A small telescope can spot the brighter of the two companions about 3 arcminutes away (one-tenth of a lunar diameter), but the fainter one is tough to see for small telescopes in part due to the brightness of nearby Regulus.

Moving on from Regulus (by the way, there is a nice image showing the Moon occulting Regulus in the year 1999) to the next brightest star in the constellation Leo, Denebola (Beta Leonis), from the Arabic for Lion's Tail. This star is very similar to the much brighter Sirius, just further away (about 40 light years).

Gamma Leonis is Algieba, from the Arabic for Lion's Mane, a fine double star consisting of two giant stars similar to the Sun in external temperature and color about 90 light years away. The velocity of this pair relative to the Sun is extremely high, nearly four times the average for stars in our vicinity, which leads us to believe it originated a couple of billion years ago from some different population of stars, perhaps from a merger between the Milky Way and some small dwarf galaxy.

The rest of the sickle going up from Regulus are Eta Leonis, Algieba, Adhafera, Ras Elased Borealis and Ras Elased Australis (sometimes called Algenubi). Eta is one of the pivotal stars in the outline of the constellation, but no traces of a proper name have been found in historical records. It is perhaps the most distant star in Leo from us, being a luminous supergiant about 2000 light years away.

Back to the other end of the lion, we find Zosma and Chertan, a couple of bright blue main sequence stars nearing the stage in their lives when they will run out of fuel and turn into red giants. Another useful star in this region is Rho Leonis, a hot blue star with a very smooth spectrum. Stars like this are so hot that most of the simple atoms in their atmospheres are ionized, which means a simple continuous spectrum with few absorption lines. That makes it a nice backdrop for studying the intervening gas and dust in the interstellar medium, because don't get ISM absorption lines mixed with with lines from the background star.

Another interesting faint star in Leo about halfway between Regulus and Subra (the forepaw of the lion) is R Leonis, one of the brightest and easiest to observe variable stars in the sky. This is a long period variable, changing its brightness by a factor of about 600 over the course of 312 days. R Leonis is a very luminous red giant with a loosely held atmosphere that pulsates gently over time in response to variations in the inner part of the envelope. CW Leonis is nearby, another giant star with a very interesting spectrum that reveals the presence of a surrounding shell rich with heavy elements and molecules such as water. We believe it is in the early stages of becoming a planetary nebula.

I also shouldn't fail to mention Wolf 359, the third closest star to the Earth at a mere 7.7 light years. The Alpha Centauri system and Barnard's Star are the only closer stars to our Sun. Being a very dim red dwarf star only about 10% of the mass of our Sun, this is way too faint for naked eye observations.

Now for some of the galaxies in Leo. I'll start near the head of the lion and work my way back to the two famous triples, so that means we begin with NGC 2903, a spiral galaxy about 20 million light years away from us very similar to our own Milky Way. Notice in the image the dramatic color difference between the central regions and the disk, caused by the different populations of stars. Typically, older, low mass stars occupy the central regions of galaxies where there is relatively little gas and dust while in the disk, the light is dominated by the rare luminous blue stars that are continuously forming from the abundant gas and dust present.

Near the back of the sickle are NGC 3190 and NGC 3227. NGC 3190 is the brightest of the least well-known galaxy triple in Leo, seen here as an elliptical on the left and two spirals, clearly warped by tidal interactions with one another, and we'll see even more spectacular examples of this later. This group is also known as Hickson 44 from a catalog of small galaxy clusters. This next image is a wider view and shows another galaxy (NGC 3227) all in the vicinity of the bright star Algieba.

In the torso of the Lion is NGC 3370, much tougher for small telescopes being five times further away than NGC 2903, it is quite stunning seen through the Hubble Space Telescope's camera. This is a key galaxy in the Hubble distance determination project because it hosted a particular type of supernova that is well-understood, and it is also close enough that we can pick out individual Cepheid variable stars, so we can use this to establish the distance to a supernova and then bootstrap our way out to more distant galaxies in which supernovae are seen.

Right next to Regulus (about a degree away) is one of the closest galaxies to our own, a little dwarf galaxy known as Leo I, sometimes called the Regulus Dwarf. This is part of our local group of galaxies and is actually a small satellite orbiting our own Milky Way at a distance just under 1 million light years (Andromeda is about 2.1 million light years away).

Now to perhaps the best known galaxy trio in Leo, about halfway between Alpha Leonis (Regulus) and Beta Leonis (Denebola), you will find three Messier objects and a few galaxies all bunched together. This is known as the M96 group and can be seen in wide angle in this image. M95 (seen more closely here) is in the lower right corner while M96 (closeup here) is at the bottom center of the image, both very nice spirals. Then in the upper left you see the M105 group, dominated by the large elliptical galaxy M105 and including a couple of fainter spirals, all of which are far enough away that the expansion of the Universe is carrying them away from us at a rate of about 700 miles per second.

The other triple is a little further on toward Denebola, about three-quarters of the way from Regulus, and it is known as the Leo Triplet or M 66 group, a set of galaxies about 30 million light years away. It contains the spiral galaxies M65 and M66, both very beautiful in deep images, elegantly warped by their mutual interaction. The third galaxy of the set is NGC 3628, which has a spectacular tidal tail seen here. This one is seen almost perfectly edge on and so has a nice dust lane right across the long axis of the image. Not only is the tidal tail of 3628 extremely long, but notice how the disk is puffed up like the hair on an angry cat from the dynamical heating of the interaction with the other two galaxies.

Another pair of interacting galaxies in this region is just a few degrees to the East, NGC 3607 and 3608, also known as Arp 87. What a spectacular collision these two have undergone, leaving behind a huge bridge of hot gas, dust and stars connecting the two enormous spiral galaxies. The edge-on spiral in the background of the linked photo is just that, a non-connected background object. These interactions between galaxies are actually quite common in the Universe because galaxies are so extended compared to the space between them (unlike the huge difference between stellar sizes and distances which make collisions of stars within a galaxy almost unheard of).

In fact, our basic idea of galaxy formation is that galaxies begin their lives as spirals typically, but after many interactions, they can lose their structure and much of their gas and dust, and this eventually turns them into starburst galaxies and subsequently into big piles of chaotically orbiting stars that we call elliptical galaxies or giant ellipticals. What we're seeing here are the beginnings of the kinds of larger clusters we see much further away.

There are lots of other fainter galaxies in Leo. I've only scratched the surface here and talked about the brightest ones and the neatest groups. There is enough here to keep an amateur with a decent-sized telescope busy for many nights.

Posted by Observer at 12:20 AM | Comments (0)

February 23, 2008

Changed Luck

Remember when I said I wasn't suffering from too many bad beats when I got people all-in and I had the best hand? I hereby take that back. The funny thing is, even with several horrible beats in the last couple of days, I'm still up about $20 from where I was last time I posted.

One nice thing about proper bankroll management (never buy in for more than 5% of your bankroll, always leave if your stack is more than 10% of your bankroll) is that I don't tilt when I get a bad beat because I know in the long run, I've got the right strategy and I can suffer several bad beats in a row (and I have).

Posted by Observer at 09:53 PM | Comments (0)

Good News, Bad News in Iraq

It looks like Al-Sadr has asked his followers to extend the cease fire in Iraq for another six months, which is great news for our troops in the short term, but I think bad news in the long run. The first effect is that it will continue the mirage of success that the traditional media is largely attributing to the Surge or something Americans are doing. After all the different things we've tried over the past several years, to think that this sudden downturn in violence is due to the latest shuffle on our part instead of the cease-fire called by the Iraqi Shiite leader is wrong, I think.

Worse is that this will bolster McCain's case that we're on the right track in war thanks to the reduction in casualties, but the right track will end where? With a radical Shiite cleric in power in Iraq? Someone with close ties to Iran?

I hope the reporters (and the voters) remember that success in Iraq is not simply a short-term reduction in casualties but instead a completion of the ostensible mission when we invaded, and that is the establishment of a stable, secure (Democratic?) state in the Middle East that we can consider an ally or at least not an enemy. Al-Sadr in power does not accomplish that goal, and it would mean this whole effort has been for nothing, in my opinion.

Posted by Observer at 09:19 AM | Comments (0)

February 22, 2008

Oops

Lots of wingnut blogs have been attacking Obama for relaying a story about an Army captain in Afghanistan who is having trouble due to resources diverted to Iraq, etc. According to the wingnuts, this captain's story "couldn't possibly be true" for one reason or another, but when someone actually went to the trouble to, you know, check it out, it turns out the wingnuts are full of shit.

Truly, I am shocked. I'm sure they'll publish full retractions immediately! (snort)

Update: I need a shower. I just visited all 10 ConservaBorg blogs linked in the first post, and not a single correction or retraction (yet) and certainly no indication from any of them that they did any original research or talked to the captain in question about the veracity of this. They're just saying it can't be true.

Update II: Jake Tapper also checked out the source, and he wonders if the wingnutosphere is going to direct any of their righteous anger toward the people actually responsible for this deplorable state of affairs in our military. I mean, they care about the troops, right? So I'm sure we can expect some criticism of the current Commander in Chief any ... second ... now ... (cricket chirping).

Posted by Observer at 03:49 PM | Comments (0)

Playing Better

Surprisingly, talking about my recent success in online poker last week didn't jinx me. I've been able to continue to do well, as long as I am careful and play tight, especially pre-flop. I don't stab at too many missed flops, but once in a while if I'm in position and it is obviously an abandoned pot, I'm not above throwing a decent bet out to claim it. I've caught myself playing loose once or twice during longer sessions when I'm getting tired of playing, so I'm trying hard to either quit at that point or tighten up because I break even at best when I loosen up.

Mostly, tight play keeps me even or slightly up, and then occasionally I win a huge hand by limping and then reraising all-in when I get AA or KK. Lots of people with AK, AQ, AJ, KQ, KJ, 99, TT, JJ, QQ are more than willing to push all-in against me, and I've actually won more than my fair share of those pots (probably something like 85-90% of such hands in the past month instead of the expected 60-80% on average). That's a big reason my bankroll has gone up so quickly so soon -- I haven't been sucked out on too badly lately.

If I were below average on winning with AA or KK, I imagine I would only be at an $80 or $100 level, but instead my bankroll is now over $200 from playing in .10/.25 games where I come in with $10 and leave if I get close to or go over $20 (and rebuy if I get below $5). The max buy-in for these games is $25, so I'm usually one of the shorter stacks at the table, and I find it is much easier to figure my odds this way and get big stacks to call stupidly.

If I have $10 and I raise to $2 with AA, then anyone calling me with a pocket pair is getting 5:1 odds on their money at best, and that's just not a good call, but $2 is small enough that there is some doubt about what I have. If I'm fortunate enough to build my bankroll up to around $500, I may move up and play small stacked in the .25/.50 games with a $25 buy-in, but that's a LONG way off. It's entirely possible I will get tired of poker again and switch back to another game before that happens (especially if the Diablo ladder resets again).

I've also done better in my brother's real poker game, winning a little in both of my last two sessions (190 and 90) by playing fairly tight, but the strategy in that game is very different because so many people limp into the pot every hand and people seem a little more willing to chase draws or commit big stacks to top pairs. It makes the game a lot more volatile, especially during Omaha rounds, which is where I've made most of my money surprisingly, mostly by making people overpay to draw.

Posted by Observer at 03:12 PM | Comments (0)

February 21, 2008

Consequences

Once upon a time, it would've been big news for the mighty New York Times to publish a story with multiple sources claiming a presidential candidate had an affair. But now, all the candidate has to do is say the paper just isn't credible, and you know what? He's right. This is the same paper that breathlessly printed front page story after front page story with bullshit about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction, the same paper that plugged the pointless Whitewater story for years.

Their reputation is shit on political stories, and that is well-deserved. So you won't see me hopping up and down and saying, "See? SEE???!!?" and pointing to this story, as if were God's honest truth. It beats me. I'm more interested in the reaction from both sides. Anyone on the left who treats this NYT story as credible without knowing anything else is shooting themselves in the foot, in my opinion.

Too bad. It would be nice to have a major media outlet that can be reliably trusted to print the objective truth as best they can and damn the consequences. I would like to think that someone at the NYT would've realized this before the last 15+ years of stupidity at that paper. Oh well.

Posted by Observer at 10:56 AM | Comments (0)

Fair Enough

A lot of people (including myself) tend to buy in to the argument that Hillary has too much baggage from all the years of attacks, inspires too much hatred among the wingnuts, etc., to be the best candidate. To be fair, I think that is attributed less to her and more to the attack machine that has been skillfully constructed since the early 90's.

By the time all of the attacks on Obama have been up and running for an entire election cycle, I have the feeling he's going to have the same kind of baggage. For those of you in October who are saying, "Boy, I really like Obama, but I wish I didn't have all of these nagging doubts from all of these scandals that keep coming up from his past," just remember that it's not Obama, it's the machine that is planting those doubts.

All the machine cares about is keeping a Republican in office so the cronyism and systematic looting of the government can continue. I think there will be a lot of "fatigue" in voters over the Obama "scandals" by November. Maybe not as much as with Hillary, and maybe I'll be surprised and some of these ginned-up "scandals" will backfire and elicit sympathy for Obama.

But I doubt it.

Posted by Observer at 10:35 AM | Comments (0)

February 20, 2008

Benefit of the Doubt

I'm sure once he officially attains the nomination, all conservatives will band together in harmony on the issue of John McCain and the shady financial dealings of the Keating Five. I mean, McCain is basically an honorable man who just happened to get mixed up with some very despicable people like Charles Keating.

Yes, sure, McCain's actions ended up costing the taxpayers $3.4 billion (that's BILLION with a "B") for that particular piece of the Savings and Loans bailout pie, but hey, he feels really bad about it, you know. And besides, did you hear that Hillary once made a lot of money on cattle futures? And she once knew a corrupt Arkansas banker? And her husband got a blowjob in the oval office, did you hear about that?

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

Uh, You Aren't the Prosecutor, Pal

Several people today have linked to this story about the Guantanamo detainees from "The Nation":

Secret evidence. Denial of habeas corpus. Evidence obtained by waterboarding. Indefinite detention. The litany of complaints about the legal treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay is long, disturbing and by now familiar. Nonetheless, a new wave of shock and criticism greeted the Pentagon's announcement on February 11 that it was charging six Guantánamo detainees, including alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, with war crimes--and seeking the death penalty for all of them.

Now, as the murky, quasi-legal staging of the Bush Administration's military commissions unfolds, a key official has told The Nation that the trials are rigged from the start. According to Col. Morris Davis, former chief prosecutor for Guantánamo's military commissions, the process has been manipulated by Administration appointees in an attempt to foreclose the possibility of acquittal....

When asked if he thought the men at Guantánamo could receive a fair trial, Davis provided the following account of an August 2005 meeting he had with Pentagon general counsel William Haynes--the man who now oversees the tribunal process for the Defense Department. "[Haynes] said these trials will be the Nuremberg of our time," recalled Davis, referring to the Nazi tribunals in 1945, considered the model of procedural rights in the prosecution of war crimes. In response, Davis said he noted that at Nuremberg there had been some acquittals, something that had lent great credibility to the proceedings.

"I said to him that if we come up short and there are some acquittals in our cases, it will at least validate the process," Davis continued. "At which point, [Haynes's] eyes got wide and he said, 'Wait a minute, we can't have acquittals. If we've been holding these guys for so long, how can we explain letting them get off? We can't have acquittals, we've got to have convictions.'"

As Avedon Carol notes, it's not just that they won't get a fair trial. Someone needs to remind all of these would-be prosecutors at the Pentagon that it wasn't the POW's who were on trial at Nuremberg.

Posted by Observer at 03:40 PM | Comments (5)

February 18, 2008

McCain

There was a time eight years ago when I might not have minded seeing John McCain as president, if only because I knew any Republican would be better than the Boy King, and also only if the Dems controlled Congress at the time. I've come to realize since that time that much of my mild fondness for McCain comes from the way the traditional media has portrayed him.

Atrios and others often make fun of how often McCain is called a "maverick" or otherwise portrayed as some kind of anti-politician straight talker, and it would be harmless if they treated all candidates with this kind of soft focus fuzzy lens.

It's really quite hilarious that it's okay when Saint John McCain flip-flops, lies, goes against claimed longstanding principles, etc... because even though he does all of these things regularly and constantly, he doesn't like doing it.

McCain's a skilled politician who is good at telling members of the media - and interest groups - what they want to hear. He's good at making them think he agrees with them on whatever issue they happen to care about, and even though he almost never follows up with any coherent action or leadership on these issues, he has flattered the chattering classes by validating their Very Wise Positions and appealing to their intellectual vanity. Then when Saint John McCain is forced by Circumstances Beyond His Control to change his position, everyone involved feels very sorry for poor John McCain. Elites have contempt for those rubes known as "voters" so it pains them when voters force their sainted John McCain to do all of these bad things.

Our elite discourse is run by shallow easily flattered fools.

I suspect before this election is over, I'm going to hear just the whole principled mavericky straight-talker thing to death, and I'm already pretty sick of it.

Posted by Observer at 10:37 AM | Comments (2)

February 17, 2008

Good Morning

I was catching up with my Randi Rhodes show podcasts when I heard the Thursday show. She replayed Bush comments from earlier in the week, where he held a brief press conference and opened with, "Good morning. Somewhere in the world right now, terrorists are planning attacks on American soil."

Doesn't that pretty much sum up this presidency? When he first learned something like that in August 2001, he decided to blow it off and continue his vacation. Ever since, he's been using a drumbeat of terror to get whatever he wanted.

Earlier in the week, the House failed to pass legislation that would enable continued warrantless surveillance anywhere anytime. Sadly, the catch wasn't the warrantless wiretaps. Instead, it was that Republicans insisted on tacking on retroactive immunity for telecoms who enabled the government to illegally tap any communication they wished to back when it wasn't explicitly legal to do so.

Dems were (amazingly) willing to allow the warrantless surveillance to continue because they are so afraid of being stupidly branded as terrorist sympathizers for upholding the Constitution. But I guess they drew the line at immunity for some reason and didn't want to throw that in, which is why the bill failed. Of course, Bush wasted no time in blaming the Dems for the failure, and that was the point of his speech, that because the Dems wouldn't pass the bill, we're about to get nuked or something.

If Bush wanted to continue his warrantless surveillance of Democr -- uh, terrorists, (what's the difference, right?), he could've easily done so by asking for a simple extension of what has already been granted with no other strings (like immunity) attached. What Republicans really did this week was say that letting telecoms off the hook for breaking the law is more important than protecting us from terrorist threats.

It is hard to underestimate the contempt I feel for this deeply harmful administration. As a country, we are so much better than this bunch of obnoxious clowns in charge. SO much better.

Posted by Observer at 09:20 AM | Comments (0)

February 15, 2008

Building

I've been playing online poker a bit more lately, but I'm avoiding tournaments since those lock you in for many hours at a time, and there's just not that kind of time available. Ring games are great because I can get up anytime, plus they are good practice for the real game I play with my brother's group occasionally.

I had built up my play money a lot and sold some of it, and combined with tourney winnings from a long time ago, I had about a $20 bankroll. FTP started a promotion where if you play enough ring games for cash every day (long enough for the rake to accumulate one dollar), you get a little bonus prize or get entered into a $2000 freeroll. I didn't have time for the freeroll, so I took the bonus prize and will let that build up until I can convert it into cash.

It only takes about 5 mins of playing to see that much rake at the nickel/dime tables (where the rake is 10%), and apparently, I've gotten better at ring games. Playing just a few minutes per day, I was able to build up to about $30 with some fluctuations (down to $8 at one point, and I tightened up and just waited for a big pocket pair and was lucky to not get those pairs broken when they happened).

Then FTP offered me another bonus where over 10 days they would pay me about one dollar cash for every $15 in rake taken, and I had some time to try it (with a normal load this semester as opposed to two overloads last semester), so I used the bonuses to build my bankroll up to about $45 (breaking even in the game but coming out ahead thanks to the bonus).

The dime/quarter game takes only a 5% rake, and I thought if I could keep my head above water with a 10% rake, then maybe I would do better at the higher stakes if I just bought in for $10 (instead of the $25 max). Basically, I just played the top ten hands or so plus the occasional pocket pair or suited ace if I was in position, and I played aggressive when I hit the flop. I was also willing to quickly give up on top pair, even with top kicker, and that was hard to do, especially after watching so many people take down big pots in showdowns with lesser hands.

Not always. Sometimes, I would stand up for myself and reraise all-in, but only about 10% of the time, and the other person has folded every time I've done that or called and lost with a crappy drawing hand. I get a LOT of people to call pre-flop when I bet big or push all-in with AA, and they are calling with AJ, AQ, mid pairs. Crazy stuff.

Anyway, I've been playing maybe an hour a day on average for a couple of weeks now, and my bankroll is now up to $140. I make a rule to stand up when I double up to $20 and buy in for $5 if I get below $5. So far, that's worked well. I think I play better at ring games when short-stacked, and people are more willing to call me when I bet big. I think the lower rake is making a huge difference, plus I find at these tables, the play is much looser (which is perfect for my tight style) since I'm not dealing with cheap people (like myself) buying in for the minimum and trying not to go broke.

It's not the first step to playing poker for a living by any means, but it is nice to play and break even or consistently win a bit more money so I can continue playing. My original buy-in long ago was for $50, and I've never put in any more. When I went broke the first time at ring games, I earned a bankroll back by playing in freerolls (which I spent wayyyy too much time doing). When I lost most of that, I earned it back by building up a play money bankroll in tournaments and ring games, then selling some chips for cash.

Now it feels like I have enough that I should be able to stay away from going broke for a good while if I stick to my conservative game play and small stakes. I'm not really tempted to go higher (the rake doesn't get any lower, but the max rake of $3 per hand starts to cut the percentage once you get to average pots of $30 or so, a level I'll never reach online), so I hope to avoid the mistake a lot of people make by playing with too large a fraction of my bankroll.

If I go on a bad streak or start losing money consistently, I guess it'll be back to play money or Diablo II or something else to waste my time (I wonder if Heroes IV is stable yet, hmmm...). And there are always constellation slide shows to work on. I'm going to enjoy this semester because next Fall, I'm going to be slammed again.

Posted by Observer at 10:37 PM | Comments (0)

February 13, 2008

One Nation Under Surveillance

Apparently, Congress is on the verge of passing a bill allowing the telecom companies retroactive immunity for enabling the government to break the law by eavesdropping on citizens without a warrant. A warrant that was painfully easy to get, the only drawback being that somewhere there was a record of who was the watcher and who was the target for some historian someday to look upon in horror.

Now we don't even get to have that.

As Froomkin noted and Avedon Carol pointed out, compelling companies to do what the government wants regardless of legality is pretty much the definition of a police state.

That's what the Republicans are for in Congress, virtually unanimously, and enough Democrats joined them to make it happen. For shame.

Posted by Observer at 03:18 PM | Comments (0)

February 12, 2008

Soundtrack

I went ahead and sprang for the "Once" soundtrack on iTunes. It is not the kind of music I normally listen to, but it has the same kind of weird charm as the "O Brother Where Art Thou?" soundtrack.

Meanwhile, a fun reading for the day is Eric Boehlert who is having a schadenfraude sundae watching Rush Limbaugh attack the Republican party and John McCain. He even refers to the "anti-McCain brain trust", but the list of names he provides is hardly what I would call brainy or trustworthy.

I'm also glad to see from reading and listening to a lot of political analysis over the past few days that the race is shaping up to be an Obama win. I think either Obama or Clinton can win, but I think Clinton will drag enough Republican trolls out of their cesspools that our turnout advantage will be dampened, which will hurt other races (like Congressional). Obama would not only win but have a good chance to have a big majority in the House and (I can dream) a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and we could even withstand the (inevitable) disloyal Dems when we're trying to pass big legislation.

Posted by Observer at 08:55 PM | Comments (7)

February 11, 2008

Cube

Throughout my childhood, I never had the patience to learn how to solve a Rubik's Cube. There were diagrams to help, and I think I even bought a book at one point, but I just couldn't follow how to do it. I kept turning the cube the wrong way, or I would forget where I was or what side had to be up. In the end, a screwdriver and some vaseline were all the tools I needed to disassemble and reassemble my cube in a much easier sliding form, but I still couldn't solve it without taking it apart.

So the other day while using stumbleupon to surf randomly, I came across a very well put-together solution page for Rubik's Cube. I grabbed C*dy's cube, and I started playing around. I know how to solve a side and the top row, fine, but I couldn't ever progress further.

Within a couple of minutes, I had the top two rows done very easily, and about five more minutes later, I had the whole thing solved. Wow, that was really cool. C*dy messed it up again, but I was able to solve it, and I can now do it with the instructions in front of me in less than five minutes every time. I don't know if I could learn it or if I want to, but it sure is cool to be able to solve it even with help.

Posted by Observer at 07:02 PM | Comments (1)

February 10, 2008

Once

After seeing so many critics go crazy for this movie, we went ahead and got it from Netflix. I wasn't disappointed, it pretty much lived up to what I expected (which is that it would be good but not great like the critics said). I think critics liked it more because it is so different than pretty much everything that comes out. I know if I were forced to watch every crappy movie that came down the pike, I would've appreciated "Once" even more. The music was good, but I don't know if it is something I would want to listen to in six months by itself. I'll give it some time before I listen again and see if it stands up without the movie.

Oh, we finished Season 10 of Stargate. It wasn't too bad. I don't know if I'm willing to check out Stargate Atlantis. We'll probably try some other show for a while. We prefer getting those from Netflix since most nights, it's hard to block out more than 50 minutes for TV after all the kids are in bed and we've finished everything that needs doing.

Posted by Observer at 11:16 PM | Comments (0)

Conversations, Cont...

Daniel: Dad, do you know what word rhymes with McD*nald's?

Dad: No, what is it?

(pause)

Daniel: AAAAAAA!

Dad: What's wrong?

Daniel: I forgot the rhyming word!

Posted by Observer at 09:10 PM | Comments (1)

February 09, 2008

Progress

I graded all 70 or so exams for one class (these were the harder of the two sets of exams to grade) today, *and* I managed to successfully clear Slim Pickings and Pathways maps in normal mode on the TD game. Both times I just let interest build up and used nothing but level-1 freeze guns (lots of 'em) and the red square missile towers. I'm going to play around with the other modes once I figure out how to clear some more maps. Void shouldn't be that hard to clear, but I'm not sure the other three are possible (at least with my strategy).

I've got to do a couple more constellations soon just to keep up with what I'm presenting in class and workshops and such. Leo is next just because that's where the eclipse is going to be in 11 days!

Posted by Observer at 10:14 PM | Comments (0)

February 08, 2008

Time Waster

The next iteration of my favorite version of the Tower Defense game is now available just in time for my weekend of heavy grading and beautiful weather outside. Dammit.

Posted by Observer at 09:56 PM | Comments (1)

February 07, 2008

Vacuum

Our old vacuum cleaner finally sucked up its last little bit of dog hair, so we're in the market for a new one. Any recommendations before we hit the Consumer Reports' buyers guide and Amazon pages?

Posted by Observer at 08:16 PM | Comments (4)

February 06, 2008

Lunar Eclipse

There's a total lunar eclipse coming up in two weeks, and our usual point person for these kinds of publicity things is unavailable. Looks like I'm it by default. I was hoping to just do something for my class and be a helper for any larger event. Today, I was virtually dragged by my fingernails into agreeing to some kind of planning meeting on Friday. God help me.

At least I have a nice body of pictures and constellation stories to tell in a big lecture hall in case it is cloudy, which was a major reason I've been doing this, for just such an emergency. And for my class. And for workshops. Local school presentations. Star parties. You get the idea. It is developing into a very nice body of work that is handy for a lot of different situations.

Posted by Observer at 10:13 PM | Comments (0)

February 05, 2008

Triangulum

Today, I'll talk about a tiny little constellation bordering Andromeda, Pisces, Perseus and Aries in the night sky. This is the constellation Triangulum, a small patch of sky that is home to one of the most spectacular nearby spiral galaxies. This is one of Ptolemy's original 48 constellations and for some, it represents the triangular shaped island of Sicily. First, let's look at the bright stars in this constellation.

The brightest star is actually Beta Trianguli, with no proper name. It is a blue A-class star that is on its way to becoming a red giant. It is in the final stages of hydrogen fusion in its core. It has a sun-like companion orbiting it every 32 days or so, which will lead to an interesting situation once Beta grows into a true red giant. It will engulf its companion and turn the system into two stars with a common envelope. The two stars will spiral closer together and the cores will heat up, eventually ejecting this envelope, but the process takes a long time and is not well understood.

At the tip of the triangle is the 2nd brightest star, Alpha Trianguli which is also known as Mothallah, Muthallath or Metallah, from the Arabic for head of the triangle. The Latin translation sometimes used is Caput Trianguli. This is another binary, very close with a companion period of less than 2 days (!). We don't know much about the companion because it is so faint, but the main star is slightly more massive than the Sun and like Beta at the end of its main sequence evolution.

Gamma Trianguli is an A star like Beta, but it is not part of a binary system despite a couple of visually nearby stars that are actually at much different distances. It is also a very fast rotating star, and we know this because of the broadening of its spectral lines. This star is spinning so fast that it is likely very oblate. Delta is one of Gamma's visual companions, consisting of two sunlike stars orbiting one another at a distance of less than 10 million miles (the Earth's orbital distance is 93 million). For a close binary like this, it is possible to have a system of planets in stable orbits if they are far enough away from the center, and so technically there could be habitable planets here. The system is nearby (35 light years away) and a target of some planetary searches.

Finally, there is TZ Trianguli (or 6 Trianguli), a double-double star much like Mizar and Alcor in Ursa Major. The main star is a yellow giant, and the visible companion is a slightly bluer dwarf star, orbiting with a very long period of over 2000 years. The two binary systems have much smaller periods of 15 and 2 days. Like many closely orbiting stars (and the Earth-Moon system), these individual pairs of stars are tidally locked to their closest companion, leading to some strong magnetic field effects. Burnham indicates that this pair makes for a nice yellow/blue contrast in a small telescope. You can find it if you follow a line South from Almaak (one of the feet of Andromeda) through Beta Tri and then about 2/3 again as far.

Now for some of the more interesting deep sky objects in Triangulum. If you draw a line from the Southern tip of the skinny triangle (Caput Trianguli) through Mirach and onwards to M31, just south of this line, about 4 degrees due west of Caput Trianguli, you will find the Pinwheel Galaxy, also known as M 33 (sometimes called the Triangulum Galaxy to avoid confusion with other galaxies known as "pinwheels"). Under perfect viewing conditions, this is faintly visible to the naked eye, somewhat fainter than the Andromeda Galaxy.

M 33 is about half the diameter of the Milky Way or Andromeda, and it is about 3 million light years away (whereas Andromeda is only 2 million light years away). This distance was established early on by observing Cepheid variable stars in the disk. Like Andromeda, M 33 is a member of our local group of galaxies, and it is likely a satellite of Andromeda. A highlight of M 33 is the brilliant star forming region known as NGC 604, which is reminiscent of the Great Nebula in Orion in our galaxy. A very nice high resolution photo of this galaxy can be found here.

In the Eastern portion of Triangulum, just a degree or so east of the visual group of Gamma, Delta and 7 Trianguli, NGC 925 is one of the HST Key Project galaxies in the hunt for Cepheids, visible as a smudge in 10-inch telescopes, you really need to look with a research-class 1-meter or bigger telescope to make out the full extent of this distant face-on spiral which is over 10 times further than the Andromeda Galaxy.

Going back over to the Western edge, a couple of degrees south of Caput Trianguli is NGC 672, about the same distance away as NGC 925 and an interesting spiral because it is in the process of merging with nearby irregular galaxy IC 1727. Though these galaxies appear separated by about 100,000 light years on the night sky, radio observations of neutral hydrogen show both of these galaxies are tidally extended and mixed with one another.

Moving east a couple of degrees from Caput Trianguli, we find NGC 784, an edge-on barred spiral galaxy. Not much to look at, this relatively small galaxy is even further than NGC 925, but it does play a crucial role in our research of spirals. That's because it is one of the few nearly perfectly edge-on galaxies that is close enough for our biggest telescopes to pick out individual stars. With the edge-on view, Astronomers have been able to figure out what kinds of objects are in the center of the disk, the edge of the disk (the "thick disk") and the inner halo.

Posted by Observer at 09:18 PM | Comments (0)

February 04, 2008

Big Sale

Fark points to this amusing book on sale at Amazon. I imagine you can pick up "19-0: The Historic Championship of New England's Unbeatable Patriots" pretty cheap now.

Nelson laugh: HA ha.

Posted by Observer at 10:52 AM | Comments (1)

February 03, 2008

Lesser Evil

Don't much like either team, but someone had to win, so I'm glad the NFC East representative did us proud. I'm pretty sure the Cowboys would've gotten beat, maybe badly. I was really wrong about the Giants this season. I don't know what changed about them from last season, but they dropped all the trash-talking crap and played solid. Eli looked like Romo on that long completion to set up the last touchdown. These two teams (Dallas and NY) are going to be battling it out to be the NFC representative in the Super Bowl for at least the next few years, I think.

The other upside is that New England still cheated, probably in the last Super Bowl and who knows when else, so I was glad to see them lose for that alone (not to mention running up the score on a lot of teams this season). The downside is that we are going to have to hear about the fucking '72 Dolphins for God knows how long until someone else finally does go undefeated the whole way.

Posted by Observer at 09:08 PM | Comments (0)

Andromeda

Today, I'd like to discuss the constellation Andromeda. This constellation is pretty low in the Western sky during evenings in the Winter, but it isn't quite gone yet, and she goes along with the story of Perseus I've talked about recently. Andromeda the princess, daughter of Cepheus and Cassiopeia was chained to a rock on the shore of the sea as a sacrifice to the gods before she was rescued by Perseus. In the sky, she is connected to the flying horse, Pegasus.

Among the stars in Andromeda, there are several of interest. The brightest is Alpheratz, a star that forms one corner of the Great Square of Pegasus. This star, also called Sirrah, was once a part of the Pegasus, but it is now by convention considered to be the sole property of Andromeda. Alpheratz is a hot blue B-type star with a companion only detectable in spectra of the system as the spectral lines shift back and forth about every 100 days. It also has an odd chemical composition (at least in its outer layers) as some elements which are more likely to be pushed outward by radiation pressure are overrepresented compared to their usual cosmic abundance.

Next is Beta Andromedae, Mirach, which has a similar apparent luminosity but is actually quite different. Mirach is a red giant star, with a diameter roughly equal to the orbit of Mercury and a luminosity about 2000 times solar. Mirach has a distant orbiting companion, a red dwarf much fainter than the Sun. Completing the graceful three-star curve of Andromeda, at the tip of one of her feet, is Gamma Andromeda, Almaak, a very nice double star that is among the best in the Northern sky. This is a pair of stars, the brighter one a yellow giant and the fainter a blue dwarf main sequence star, separated by about 10 arcsec. Both of the members of the double are themselves binary systems, but those companions are not so easy to find visually, and the fainter binary system is actually a triple (since one of the widely orbiting stars has a very close companion itself).

This arc of stars can be followed in sequence, and if you continue on the curve, you will run directly into Alpha Persei, or Mirphak. Pretty close to the line connecting Mirach and Almaak, on the Cassiopeia side, we find Upsilon Andromedae, a sun-like star with a distant binary companion and also three detected orbiting planets, all with masses roughly equal to or larger than Jupiter. This system was the first system detected in our surveys with multiple planets, though now many others are known.

Over close in the sky to the Andromeda Galaxy, we find one of the brightest examples of a long period variable in R Andromedae (for which I have no direct link since my primary source is Burnham). This pulsating red giant takes over a year to complete one cycle, during which time its brightness varies by a factor of about 20,000 (!), bringing it almost into a range visible to the naked eye. The archetype for this kind of star is Mira in the constellation Cetus. Like Mira, this star is on the verge of transitioning from an unstable red giant to a planetary nebula with all of its outer layers blown off into the surrounding interstellar medium.

There are several other interesting variable stars here, but nothing of a type we haven't seen before, so I'll move on to the deep sky objects in Andromeda. Any discussion of deep sky objects in Andromeda has to begin with the majestic Andromeda Galaxy, the nearest large galaxy to our own Milky Way. Also known as Messier 31 (M 31), the full extent of this galaxy in deep photographs is nearly 10 times the diameter of the full moon. When astronomers first observed it through telescopes, it was believed to be a spiral nebula within our own galaxy, perhaps even a forming solar system nearby.

The development of spectroscopy revealed that this object didn't have the same kind of spectra as the nebulae in our galaxy we are more familiar with, such as the Great Nebula of Orion. Instead of a spiky emission line spectrum, the spectrum of M 31 was much smoother and more continuous. That's because this is the aggregated light of billions of individual stars, along with reflection from glowing clouds of gas and dust.

Edwin Hubble ultimately made the crucial observations that showed us the true nature of M 31. Working at the 100-inch telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory, Hubble closely monitored the galaxy for many weeks, finding evidence of several variable stars on his deep photographs. Many of these variable stars turned out to be Cepheids, stars for which we can deduce the absolute luminosity by measuring their pulsation period. Knowing the absolute luminosity, we could then find the distance to these stars (and thus the galaxy) using the inverse square law. Instead of being relatively nearby within our own galaxy (which extends about 50,000 to 100,000 light years around us depending on which way you look and what you consider the edge), the stars in M 31 turned out to be 2.5 million light years away. To be fair, Hubble's original estimate was closer to 1 million, but that has since been corrected.

So Hubble revealed that the Andromeda Galaxy is an "island universe" well outside the boundaries of our own galaxy. He followed up this groundbreaking work by observing Cepheids in other galaxies. Using those to determine the distances to many galaxies, he then used the velocities of these galaxies (using Doppler shift), found by other Astronomers such as Vesto Slipher, and developed (what would become known as) Hubble's Law, a relationship between galaxy distance and radial velocity that shows us the Universe is expanding.

Like our own galaxy, Andromeda has many regions of ongoing star formation. The largest and brightest star cloud in Andromeda is near the southern tip and is known as NGC 206. Just a few hundred stars are easily picked out in deep photographs, but all of them are over 10,000 times the luminosity of our Sun, with some comparable to Rigel or Deneb in our own galaxy. With so many massive stars, there are bound to be supernovae in this galaxy, at a rate roughly equal to that of our own galaxy (we expect a supernova on average every 100 years or so). The first extragalactic supernova ever detected was S Andromedae in 1885, though at the time, Astronomers didn't realize what they were looking at.

Like our galaxy, Andromeda has many smaller galaxies in orbit nearby, the most prominent of which is M 32, easily visible in any photograph of M 31 as the brightest of the smaller companion objects, separated from the nucleus of the Andromeda Galaxy by about one full moon diameter. This galaxy recently collided with Andromeda along Andromeda's polar axis and passed through, creating chaos in both bodies. Some simulations show that Andromeda is transitioning from a classic grand-design spiral into a more ring-shaped galaxy as a result, and M 32 will be slowly torn apart through repeated interactions with Andromeda over the next few billion years or so.

Moving on to the other worthy objects in Andromeda, I'll start with the area near her feet on the border with the constellation Perseus. Probably the easiest galaxy to see here aside from the little M 31 group is the beautiful edge-on spiral NGC 891. With a total luminosity somewhat less than our Milky Way or M 31 and a distance 10 times further away than M 31, it is no surprise that this is a challenge for small telescopes. To really see the pretty pictures like this one requires a large telescope and lots of integration time.

About twice as far away is a faint face-on spiral known as IC 239. I found a very nice photo of the region here which also includes the elliptical galaxy NGC 1023 in Perseus. IC 239 has a low surface brightness and is tough to observe due to relatively bright stars nearby, and it is on the fringes of our local group of galaxies. Also on the border with Perseus is the S-shaped open cluster known as NGC 956 (also Collinder 27), for which I found a very nice picture here.

Moving toward the horizon, away from Perseus and toward Pegasus, you can find the open cluster NGC 752 about five degrees due south of Almaak, on the border between Andromeda and the tiny Triangulum constellation. This cluster is about 50% larger than the full moon and contains just under 100 noticeable stars. At about 1300 light years away, it is just bright enough to picked up with a good set of binoculars. What makes it interesting to Astronomers is that it seems to be a cross between a galactic open cluster and a globular cluster (more common in the halo), probably because of its advanced age (which I see cited in various sources as between 1 and 2 billion years) compared to other galactic clusters (which are usually much less than a billion years old).

Moving west from here toward Mirach, we run into a small galaxy cluster known as Hickson 10. We're talking a very deep field here, 100 times more distant than the Andromeda Galaxy. This is a group of four spiral galaxies, two of which are clearly warped due to their mutual gravitational interaction. Right next to Mirach is a little elliptical galaxy (NGC 404) known as Mirach's ghost. In a small telescope, it almost looks like a reflection of the bright star Mirach off of the internal optics of the lenses of the telescope, but it is a real galaxy first seen by Herschel in 1784. Like IC 239, this little guy is on the fringes of the local group, about 10 million light years away.

For the last two objects I want to mention, we look to the far Western end of the constellation, near the border it shares with Cassiopeia and Lacerta, a region of the sky about 10 degrees north of Alpheratz. First is a small open cluster of only a few dozen stars, NGC 7686 (or Collinder 456), for which I found a nice picture here. Also present is NGC 7662, also known as the Blue Snowball Nebula, a fairly easy planetary nebula to observe with a small telescope. Burnham notes that with a 10-inch telescope, the annular nature of the nebula is easy to see, though the central star is tough to pick out. The real puzzle with these nebulae is trying to reconstruct what was going on before to give them their unusual and varied shapes, and this is the main research interest of a faculty member where I got my PhD.

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

February 01, 2008

Tour Guide

The Sideshow links to a blogger's summary of a year spent following a couple of major right-wing blogs. Some observations match what I've looked at, though I'm not usually able to stomach the conversation enough to follow it more than once in a while:

A few definitions: Bloggers on The Free Republic are known as “Freepers”, while bloggers on Little Green Footballs call themselves “Lizards”. My observations are based on a year of daily reading of these blogs, and by necessity relies on both my own interpretation of what I encountered as well as generalizations. I invite readers to check out the blogs I mention for themselves, and welcome any feedback that disagrees with my views.

So let’s start with the obvious: many of the stories posted and comments on these blogs are racist beyond belief. Nearly every crime story posted there featured a criminal who’s name evoked comments about their ethnic origin, invariably African American or Hispanic (and all Hispanics are illegal aliens, or so the belief is in Freeper World). Theirs is a world in which almost all African Americans are welfare exploiting criminals raised in single parent homes, and Hispanics are mostly “illegal aliens” also sucking up undeserved government dollars and having multiple “anchor babies” while undermining American wages.

Freepers and Lizards use the exact same language about Muslims that the Nazis did about Jews. In Wingnut World, Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison is a traitor and an Islamist terrorist, and Barack “Hussein” Obama, as they call him, is often referred to as “Hussein” or “Osama”. Little Green Footballs wins the dubious award for religious bigotry here, with the posters screeching endlessly about “Mooslimes” and other crass descriptions of Muslims, endless sarcastic references to the “Religion of Peace” and characterizations of Muhammad as a child molester. They engage in frequent flights of fantasy whereby they, the “Lizards”, as they refer to themselves, engage in killing Muslims, and desecrating the Koran or mosques.

Right wing bloggers are homophobic to a degree I’ve not seen in any other segment of the US population. Gay people are “queers”, “fags” or worse. When Heath Ledger died, his appearance in Brokeback Mountain was cited as a huge mark against him. A few brave posters posited that while Ledger’s appearance in the evil movie showed bad judgement, he was, after all, just acting. No matter - NO healthy straight man could kiss another male for any reason, acting included, others retorted. Besides, that movie had an “agenda”. Gay people and liberals all have agendas, as does the “Mainstream Media” (also known as the “Drive-by media”, coined by one of their icons, Rush Limbaugh. The media is all liberal, by the way. Even Fox News is insufficiently “accurate” when it comes to reporting the TRVTH.)

Rudy Guiliani’s failure to hate gay people sufficiently is cited as proof he’s probably evil, and Mitt Romney apparently didn’t have sufficient homophobic credentials either - he’s suspect on this one. In fairness, there are degrees of this, but it is a rare poster that takes another poster to task for their openly stated hate views. This is a striking variance from progressive blogs; post something there that passes as hate speech and you will be called on it immediately, if not banned.

Right wingers use very different language in describing their political intentions. Instead of simply saying, “I won’t vote for ___”, they often say, “No one I know will vote for _____” or “No one in THIS house will be voting for ____”. I was often reminded of “Mary Poppins” and Edwardian England in general. They are immersed in authoritarian group think. You will frequently encounter the statement, ‘No one I know likes _________(fill in the Democratic politician) or “no one I know approves of __________ ( fill in the suspect activity). They avoid the need to tolerate differences by trying to eliminate those with opposing views from their lives.

Progressive bloggers, while overestimating the level of political engagement of most Americans, are far more realistic than the Freepers and LGF’ers. Example: The Freepers, literally up to the last minute, believed that Fred Thompson was surging and would be the GOP nominee. They did not believe he’d drop out. Even after he’d done so, some continued to deny it. Their hold on reality is tenuous at best. It would be - has been - extremely easy for any politician to deceive them simply by telling them what they want to hear (in a deep daddy-like voice, of course).

They are extremely insecure about their masculinity. (most are males, by the way). They enjoy discussing their guns in some detail and it is common to read elaborate descriptions how they’d commit this or that violent act on anyone who dared ________ (break in their home, try to take their gun, etc.). “Give me five minutes with that camel jockey”, they say (from their mom’s basement). “They won’t need to water board him after that!” They are a parody of themselves , and don’t realize it. Calling someone a “woman” is the worst imaginable slur. Hypocritically - and that’s a word that would expire from exhaustion if I used it every time it applied to the blogs I monitored - they attack Muslim nations for their own misogyny with great vigor.

Right wing bloggers engage in significant magical thinking about the realities of the economy. Poor people, struggling people, all those who are not prospering under our present oligarchy, are in this predicament because they are lazy, stupid, or wanted something for nothing. To admit the obvious: that they too are at risk of failing, would be too earthshattering to their worldview. By hating and blaming the victim, they are protected from a similar fate. This is the essence of magical thinking, of course - be it counting by fours to prevent disaster or avoiding cracks in the sidewalk to keep one’s mother’s spine intact. People who are viewed as “failures” - the weak, the sick, the poor, the oppressed - are hated. For a group that embraces “creationism”, they sure are social Darwinists.

“Freepers” spend a lot of time posting pictures of “The Enemy” (Helen Thomas, any of the Clintons, Chelsea included, any Democrat or “Liberal”) and urging other posters to “caption this photo!” This, combined with the requisite “Barf Alert” when posting any article or new item that doesn’t conform with Accepted Wingnut Assumptions, also astonished me. They are in a state of arrested development, stuck, unfortunately, somewhere around fifth grade. They cannot bear to be exposed to ideas that do not conform. Discussion is not really possible on right wing blogs. They are a community of “dittoheads”, to borrow a phrase from their real stronghold, talk radio.

Performing artists or other public figures are discussed in positive terms only if their political views are slightly to the right of the Kaiser. The world of right wing blogs is a very binary place - good and evil, black and white, gay and straight, us and them. Karl Rove knew his base well.

There are a few figures in American life who send both the “Freepers” and “Lizards” into paroxyms of hate. The Great Satan is currently Hillary Clinton, with Bill a close second. Attacks on Hillary are as misogynistic as you might suspect (though, again, the Muslim religion is attacked by them as anti-woman), with the un-creative monikers of “Shrillery” “Hitlery” and “The Hildabeast” frequently used instead of her name. George Soros is the Source of All Evil Funding. He is the Chthulu, the ultimate evil, of finance. Michael Moore, Jane Fonda (still), the Dixie Chicks, Bruce Springsteen, all disparaged constantly. But the Lifetime Achievement Award, despite strong competition from the Clintons, for evoking righwing blog hate must go to Ted Kennedy. He must be doing something right. Or, er - left.

If I had to sum up my view of wingnuts based on the blogs, I would use one word: Fear. They are afraid of everything and everyone who don’t exactly mirror themselves, or how they imagine themselves to be. And even then, even in the secure walled garden that is the right wing blog, they are unsure…newbies are highly suspect, and any newbie that doesn’t immediately fall into line tends to be quickly banned.

I’m not sure how much one can extrapolate about the right wing in the US based on a few blogs. One thing seems certain: The views of the Freepers and Lizards are reflective of the right wing “base” of the Republican party. I would be interested in an analysis of the socio-economic status of the readership of these blogs. It seems to me that many of these bloggers are archetypal angry white men, wedge-issued away from recognizing the real cause of their alienation and anger (an unjust economic system), spewing their fear-driven hatred on a variety of convenient scapegoats.

Kind of like Germany in the late 20s and early 30s…..

This pretty well fits the right-wing trolls and right-wing blogs I've run across. Sadly, this little fraction of the population (10%? 20%? 30%?) is never going to go away. We as a society have to learn how to function knowing that a large group of us thinks this way. I'm not sure whether to feel pity toward them or annoyance or just hatred because these are mostly grown men who ought to know better.

Posted by Observer at 02:26 PM | Comments (0)