April 30, 2008

Grade Grumbles

When a student comes to me to assert that I've made an honest mistake in my grading, for example, misinterpreting an answer or missing something important that deserves more credit, etc, then I really do listen with an open mind and welcoming attitude. I know it is intimidating to go to a faculty office to argue about grades for some, and to be fair, I don't want to discourage anyone.

With that said, here's what pisses me off: A student emails or initiates a conversation about a grade with the direct or indirect statement that I have somehow been unfair or unethical or incompetent because I took off too many points. 90% of these conversations end with no change of grade because nothing is deserved, and the attitude seems to be just a bargaining chip to try to get some points.

I look at all grade revision situations the same way. I look at it fresh and see if I gave a reasonable score. If I took off too few points, I will never adjust a grade downward. If I took off too many, I will revise to the new grade as needed. Simple as that. And I tell students this after I hand back almost every exam, so much that I'm sure they're tired of hearing the script. And if I end up giving points back, I almost always apologize for making the mistake in the first place and inconveniencing the student.

My favorite is the student who can't be bothered to attend class to pick up an exam and so shows up at my office while I'm busy, asking me to dig up an exam from 3+ weeks ago that she just remembered she didn't get back. And then she wants a full explanation of all points taken off. I tell her that the full solutions are posted on the web, please look at those and then we can talk about your dispute. Nope, not good enough, this is unfair and you took off way too many points and you need to talk to me about this right now.

Ok, fine. Here. This part is incorrect, and that's about 1/3 of the entire solution. From there, you made another mistake and completely made up this equation, which doesn't represent any real situation and has never been a part of any homework. That's about another 1/3 of the solution. Here is a simple arithmetic error worth a few percentage points of the problem. And then your answer is about two orders of magnitude off from what you could have estimated from the beginning.

And I only took off 40% of the points.

If you are satisfied, I strongly recommend you now go download the solution, which I told you to do in the first place, and study it before the final exam.

Is there anything else I can help you with, given my "go to hell" facial expression? No? Thanks, see you later.

Posted by Observer at 02:35 PM | Comments (3)

Just Shut Up and Write

You know, I kind of like the idea of the government getting a bunch of gifted speculative fiction authors together to bounch unconventional ideas around about how to solve society's problem, but ummm, I think you have to remember to mix in a dash of morality and ethics into your crazy ideas so that you don't end up sounding like Larry Niven:

Niven said a good way to help hospitals stem financial losses is to spread rumors in Spanish within the Latino community that emergency rooms are killing patients in order to harvest their organs for transplants.

“The problem [of hospitals going broke] is hugely exaggerated by illegal aliens who aren’t going to pay for anything anyway,” Niven said.

“Do you know how politically incorrect you are?” Pournelle asked.

“I know it may not be possible to use this solution, but it does work,” Niven replied.

Oh please please please, Mr. Niven, won't you please go on Larry King and talk about how much you would love it if John McCain were president?


I'll buy all of your books. In hardback.

(Link from Sadly, No!)

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

April 29, 2008


Two nights ago, about about 330 in the morning, I woke up to M*chelle wracked with pain somewhere in her guts. Scared the hell out of both of us. I didn't know if it was her appendix or a kidney stone or what, but it was extremely painful for her. By about 4am, I had convinced her that we should err on the side of caution and go to the ER.

There are two ER's I was considering. There's a downtown ER that we have been to a few times before. There's often a good wait there, but they will see people quickly if they are in a lot of pain. You have to wait if you are coming to get antibiotics for a cold or something. There's also a relatively new branch hospital near us, maybe five minutes closer, so I decided to go there.

I walked in to the ER lobby and two receptionists were chatting. They stopped after a second or two and looked at me. I said, "My wife is out there in the car writhing in pain, something in her abdomen, and we're not sure what to do."

They looked at me blankly like I had just recited Maxwell's Equations to them or derived the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus. Finally, the one nearest me spoke, "Ok, well, bring her on in and we'll get her checked in."

Am I stupid for expecting them to have an orderly or something to go out there and help her into a wheelchair? For there to be a triage nurse at the front desk to come out and see what's going on? I don't know, so I wheel her in, and they take their time checking us in and getting all of our information as though we were here for a check-up at 430am. After that's all done, we get to see our first medical professional, the triage nurse.

She asks several questions, starts a history and a chart, takes blood pressure and pulse and then hands us off to someone who leads us down a quiet, deserted hallway to one of the rooms. There doesn't seem to be any activity here, no people roaming the halls, no noise really at all, so I figure it is a quiet night and we'll be seen quickly.

430am becomes 515am, and M*chelle has changed into a hospital gown, peed in a cup (very dark, probably blood) and generally writhed in pain on the bed for 30 minutes. The nurse comes in and offers to put in an IV for pain control. M*chelle won't have any of that. I explained to the nurse that M*chelle didn't even get pain meds for giving birth, she's so afraid of needles.

Ok, the nurse leaves with a weird expression on her face, but then THIRTY MORE MINUTES PASS and nothing happens. We first arrived at 430am with my wife in excruciating pain and it is now 545am. Fortunately, the pain has been gradually getting better for her, and to be fair, the hospital did offer morphine while she waited, after being there for about 45 minutes.

I go down the hall to the nurse's station and very respectfully ask what the delay is. The nurse explains that a new doctor is due to come on shift at 6am, and we'll be seen after that. The doctor on the night shift didn't want to start a new patient so close to the end of the night (this would've been at 445am after we were checked in), and so in the interest of continuous care, they decided to wait for the shift change.

I was dumbstruck.

Seriously, what the fuck?

I said, "That sounds kinda silly. We've been waiting for an hour because we are waiting for a shift change? Isn't this the emergency room?" At least, that's what should've come out of my mouth. Instead, I said, "So we'll be seen at 6, is that what you're saying?"

She said that we would be seen after the doctor comes on at six.

I (really) said, "I don't mean to be difficult here, but we've been here over an hour, and as I've said to you already, my wife is pretty freaked out by hospitals. It is an indication of how much pain she's in that she's even here. I really hope she is seen soon, because otherwise, I think we're going to leave."

The nurse said, "It's just ten more minutes before six. Please try to stay, and the doctor will be here."

So I went back to the room and we waited while nothing happened until 605am. I walked back down to the nurse's station and said, "Ok, what do we have to sign or do to leave? We're not waiting any longer. I gave you ten minutes and then another five on top of that."

She said, "I only said you would be seen after the doctor got on shift, I can't control when he comes to see you. If you leave, it will not be in your best interests. It will be against medical advice."

I said, "I appreciate that. We're leaving. Please do what you need to do or tell who you need to tell."

She came down to the room and had Michelle sign a paper that said we were leaving against medical advice. I said, "Do we get to know the results of the urine test?"

The nurse said, "No, only the doctor can discuss that with you."

M*chelle and I were both thinking (but didn't say), "Oh, so you can start an IV with morphine and order M*chelle not to drink any water, but we need a doctor her to talk to her about her pee?" M*chelle signed the paper and by 610, we were out the door. The pain had gotten more manageable, and M*chelle was able to sleep again once we were home.

She went to her regular doctor in the morning and had a urine sample done in about 15 minutes total. She has some kind of infection in her bladder or urinary tract or something. She may have passed a small kidney stone. Hard to say, but now she's on antibiotics, and they're waiting on lab results for more information about the infection, and she hasn't had any pain since then (nearly 48 hours now).

I'm hoping the little hospital we went to contacts us at some point about billing so that we can ask who to talk to about evaluating what went on there. I can't wait for them to try to bill us for the urine test. I'll say, "Oh, sure I'll pay it if you can tell me the results, which we never got BECAUSE WE WAITED 90 MINUTES IN AN ER ROOM DURING A DEAD TIME OF INACTIVITY IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT AND NEVER SAW A DOCTOR." It would be nice if someone were held accountable. At least we'll never return to that ER.

Posted by Observer at 09:55 PM | Comments (1)


You know why Reverend Wright is "bad" for the candidacy of Barack Obama? Because the traditional media says he's bad and because they say he's important. Without Obama to bring into it, Wright is just another black pastor the media and everyone else can safely ignore. With Obama, he sells papers, and that's the point, to hell with anything else.

Perhaps the media will start following McCain's big supporter, John Hagee, around and quote him at every opportunity, talking about how awful it is for McCain that Hagee was a bunch of stupid beliefs.

Oh wait, sorry, that last part was a fantasy I sometimes have of a world in which we have a liberal media instead of a corporate media that spins facts in McCain's favor at every opportunity.

Posted by Observer at 08:12 AM | Comments (0)


Found this via StumbleUpon, and I thought it was appropriate with our big rebate checks coming out soon:

Dave Barry on the Economic Stimulus Payment

"This year, taxpayers will receive an Economic Stimulus Payment. This is a very exciting new program that I will explain using the Q and A format:

"Q. What is an Economic Stimulus Payment?
"A. It is money that the federal government will send to taxpayers.

"Q. Where will the government get this money?
"A. From taxpayers.

"Q. So the government is giving me back my own money?
"A. Only a smidgen.

"Q. What is the purpose of this payment?
"A. The plan is that you will use the money to purchase a high-definition TV set, thus stimulating the economy.

"Q. But isn't that stimulating the economy of China?
"A. Shut up."

Posted by Observer at 12:32 AM | Comments (0)

April 28, 2008


The timing was pretty good, and the tickets were fairly cheap, so I took M*chelle, 18-year-old J*stin, 13-year-old C*dy and 4-year-old Daniel to the Rangers game on Sunday afternoon. We left 15-year-old Ashl*y home to babysit little 2-year-old Obi-Wan (Ben), and that went well. We had done some diaper changing practice earlier in the week, and she probably is perfectly fine with the little ones as long as her two brothers aren't around to cause trouble. She was happy for the responsibility and the chance to earn a little money.

Anyway, it was pretty cold for the game, mid-50's with a strong North wind, but we were sheltered from the wind in the stands so that we could hardly feel it. It was comfortable unless we walked out on the open concourse, and then it was very blustery. The game went well. Against the odds, the Rangers won big and hit a few home runs. Daniel was pretty bored for much of the game. He's at an age where he gets bored very easily. He's starting to complain that school is boring because he doesn't get to do what he wants (which is to build and play with his wooden train tracks or cut pictures out of toy catalogs or watch a Thomas DVD), which is new for him.

So I spent a good part of the game keeping him amused and had to kind of ignore the other boys. They seemed to enjoy themselves, and I bribed them with some money to go get food. M*chelle pretty much hated it. The only thing she liked (big Strawberry Margarita) was like twelve bucks, and she wasn't impressed by the food. There is some good food there, but you have to experiment to find something that suits your tastes. There are a lot of choices down on the main level (we were in the upper deck behind home plate, but the up/down escalators were 50 feet from our seats).

At one point during the game, Daniel says in that loud four-year-old voice that carries 100 yards, "Look, Dad! Why are those three black guys down on the field?" Well, turns out he meant the umpires who were wearing all black, which we explained to him very loudly for all around to hear. M*chelle won't be going back, but she was a trooper and gave it a shot, and I hope to take the older boys again. Daniel liked it enough that I'm sure he'll ask to go again if he knows I'm going, but he'll be bored stiff if he does go. I'll have to sneak away to the ball game when he's off at grandma's next time or something.

In other news, M*chelle and I are going to be able to get away for two whole nights this coming weekend. That is the most peace and quiet and time away from home we've had since we went to Port Aransas last January, I think. We're looking forward to good food and a quiet hotel room with a jacuzzi. It will celebrate the end of audit season for her and the end of the Spring semester for me (almost, I'll still have finals week to go when I return).

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

April 27, 2008

Celebrity Jeopardy

Maybe my favorite skit of all time from the SNL shows of the Will Ferrell era was "Celebrity Jeopardy" with Will Ferrell as Alex Trebek hosting various celebrity impersonations (always Sean Connery). Now hulu.com has a couple of these skits (here is the other one) in their archives. It's gold, Jerry! Gold!

Posted by Observer at 08:32 PM | Comments (0)

April 26, 2008


In a way, I agree with Hunter over on Daily Kos, that Obama caving in to appear on a Fox News program is a mistake. On the other hand, I don't really care, and I think most people who vote don't really care. As bad as Fox News is, they're not THAT much worse than typical coverage on any of the other major networks, which says a lot more about how bad the traditional media is rather than how not-bad Fox is.

And not going on Fox sends signals to stupid wingnuts that Obama is somehow being held captive by the loony left and kept from appearing on a "rational, balanced" news network like Fox. Enough Republicans are willing to vote for Obama that I would like to see him actively court them. Let's transform the map and turn this into a 50-state election and rout those fucking wingnuts out of Congress.

And, as a proud member of the loony left, let me just say for the record that I vehemently, angrily oppose Obama conceding anything to Fox. If he does this, he's abandoning people like me!

There, I'm sure the wingnuts will like that.

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

April 24, 2008


I probably haven't mentioned lately how much I hate Antonin Scalia, one of the five justices who threw precedent out the window in 2000 to ensure his Republican buddy would win the presidency by stopping the vote counting in Florida. Now he says, "Get over it."

Uh, excuse me? Isn't the whole judicial system based on precedent? Should we just ignore precedents?

I wonder how Scalia would respond if I told him to "get over it" referring to Roe v Wade?

He's such an intellectually dishonest tool. Smart guy, yes. Brilliant legal mind. But a total partisan hack who has been a blight on the court and a best friend to wingnuts and corporate America alike. If only he would use his powers for good, but he's a Republican, so I guess that isn't possible.

Posted by Observer at 09:47 PM | Comments (0)

April 23, 2008

Seer and Oracle

I think Atrios has this just about right:

The Next Six Months

Some Republican or conservative group runs a dumb ad.

John McCain nobly distances himself from it.

Cable news spends all day talking about it and showing it for free.

Rinse. Repeat.

Like I'm sure all of you were, I was shocked, SHOCKED! to find out that the ultra-super-duper liberal dirty fucking hippie socialist media was hiring ex-military personnel to talk about the war only after the list had been vetted by the Pentagon in advance. Way to stick it to the man, liberal media!

Oh, wait a minute...

Posted by Observer at 08:44 PM | Comments (0)

April 21, 2008


Well, that didn't take long. The Rangers are now the worst team in the American League (though technically tied, record-wise, with Detroit, we all know better) and have a record only better than the pathetic Washington Nationals. Amazingly, they have been getting excellent starting pitching this season. By that, I mean they are getting the kind of starting pitching one would expect from an average team instead of something you would expect a gutter rat to puke up.

But what's wrong is the whole team is just plain sloppy. They are making all kinds of undisciplined mental mistakes, the sign of a team full of jocks that no one has any control over. Poor Ron Washington is clearly in over his head as manager. His promise when he came in here to work on fundamentals and get the young team into shape is now a sad joke.

The Rangers now own a 5-game and a 4-game losing streak this season, and if the current losing streak continues much longer, I'm sure Wash won't see the end of April as manager, and bench coach Art Howe may well end up being the caretaker for the rest of the season. Look, we all knew this team wasn't supposed to do anything this season, but they should be showing some signs of improvement from last April, which was a catastrophe.

They aren't. These guys need to be practicing the fundamentals of defense every day for the rest of the season. Just cut the errors (and mental mistakes that don't end up in the box score) in half and this team would be .500 right now. As it is, we're leading the league in virtually every category of suckitude. That's supposed to be delayed until at LEAST August, otherwise known around here historically as "the month of mathematical elimination".

Posted by Observer at 11:14 PM | Comments (0)

April 20, 2008


We're trying out a new name since Tater (Tot) didn't really stick. M*chelle likes Margaret van Hooten, to be the honorary sister of our other female, Isabella van Hooten (who just goes by Bella). This way, we can call the puppy Maggie or Miss Maggie. We're going to give it a try for a few days and see if it sticks. I'm still just calling her "squirt" or "little girl" by default.

Posted by Observer at 08:11 PM | Comments (1)

Hard Questions

If you've been following politics much, you may know that the televised ABC debate between Clinton and Obama this past week was a travesty. The two moderators asked a list of questions you would've expected out of Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity, digging up all kinds of obscure stuff to try to link either candidate to any controversial left-wing boogeyman they could think of. There was very little discussion of policy, but plenty on flag lapel pins. Should we have universal health care? No, let's ask instead about something a distant Obama business associate did in the 1960's.

In honor of that debate, Keith Olbermann has some questions he would like to see asked of John McCain sometime by the super-duper liberal media:

In your book you mention visiting burlesque houses, and you say that in Rio you indulged in, quote “the vices sailors are infamous for.”

Exactly how many times have you employed prostitutes? Or were you just referring to public drunkeness?


As a member of the Keating Five, you helped delay regulators from going after a savings and loan that ripped off elderly investors of their life savings… and cost taxpayers more than two billion dollars.

Why do you hate the elderly?

And taxpayers?


After first calling Jerry Falwell an “agent of intolerance,” you took that back and began praising the man, despite the fact that he blamed America for 9/11.

Why in six years have you not repudiated Mr. Falwell’s damning of this country? Why do you still symbolically share the same pew?


You proudly accepted the endorsement of Pastor John Hagee who wants the U-S to start a nuclear war as part of the Apocalypse; who called Catholicism “the great whore” and said Katrina was God’s punishment of New Orleans for holding, quote, “a homosexual parade.”

Senator McCain, does Pastor Hagee love Catholics, Muslims, New Orleans, gay people, parades and life on Earth as we know it, as much as you do?


Last year, you admitted lying to voters when you said South Carolina’s confederate flag was strictly a state issue, when you knew it wasn’t, when you knew it was offensive to many Americans, presumably, those who wanted America to win the Civil War.

Why did you lie to protect a racist symbol of terrorists who wanted to destroy this country when you could have, um, not?

Stupid questions, I know, that have no place in a presidential debate (though maybe I'd make an exception for the Keating Five questions since that's an action he took as a lawmaker). I'm just saying for those of you who think we have a liberal media, in what parallel universe does a moderator representing any of the major news networks actually ask one of these questions in a public, televised debate?

And I'm not even mentioning the wrongheaded political opinions that moderator Charlie Gibson expressed: this idea that reducing the capital gains tax rate has resulted in an increase in revenue in the past.

Oh. My. God.

Yes, in the first few weeks/months after such a rate cut, you do get an increase in stock sales, enough to offset the drop in revenue from the rate cuts in some limited cases, but in the long run, the government gets less money, and rich people pay themselves with dividends and end up paying less taxes that ordinary people. It's a very common trick when the capital gains tax rate is so much lower than the income tax rate.

People know this. Rich people like Charlie Gibson know this. The super rich people who employ Charlie Gibson know this, and that's why Charlie Gibson pretends not to know it. As the old saying goes, it is very difficult to get a man to understand something when he is being paid not to understand it.

For more on the questions, see this, then tell me the questions above are really all that different in tone or character.

Posted by Observer at 12:01 AM | Comments (0)

April 19, 2008


The constellation Hydra sprawls across an angular distance of about ninety degrees in the Southern sky. The head, near the northern end, is bordered by Sextans, Leo, Cancer, Canis Minor and Monoceros (all constellations I've talked about previously). The tail at the southern end is sandwiched between Centaurus, Libra and Virgo. Corvus and Crater are found on top of the body, while Antlia and Pyxis are just below the body. In mythology, I've already talked about the story of the water snake, Corvus, Crater and the god Apollo, but another legend has Hydra as the serpent brother of Draco the dragon. In this legend, the Hydra is the beast killed by Heracles as part of his twelve labors.

Rather than doing stars and then deep sky objects, I'll start at the northern (head) end of Draco and work my way backwards towards the tail. The northernmost object of interest in Hydra is the open galactic cluster Messier 48. You can find this by first finding Canis Minor. Follow the line from Gomeisa to Procyon, and then go about three times that distance along that line toward the South, and you will see M 48. This cluster is about 300 million years old and contains a few yellow giant stars that have already evolved off the main sequence. Most of the rest of the 80 or so starts are A-type main sequence stars resembling Sirius. This cluster is about 1500 light years distant and roughly 20 light years in diameter subtending an angle roughly equal to the Pleiades cluster in Taurus.

The head of Hydra can be found by following a line from Regulus in Leo about 2/3 of the way to Procyon in Canis Minor. About a degree or two south of that imaginary point in the dark sky, you will find the dim circle of stars that makes up the head. You can also find it by proceeding about 13 degrees due south from the Praesepe cluster (M44) in Cancer. A dim orange giant star about 350 light years away marks the nose of the serpent, Sigma Hydrae. I've seen several names for this star, all of which come from the Arabic for "nose of the serpent": Minaruja, Minchir, Michar and al Minchar al Shuja.

One of the other bright stars that makes up the circle of the head is Epsilon Hydrae, a noted multiple star system. To the naked eye, this system is about 3rd magnitude, but it is due to the combination of light from two fainter stars, a yellow giant and a blue subgiant orbiting each other at about the same distance as our Sun and Saturn on average (it is a very eccentric orbit). About 4.5 arcseconds away is another much more tightly spaced binary system in orbit around the two larger stars, and this quartet (likened to Mizar and Alcor in Ursa Major) is itself orbited by another faint companion star about 19 arcseconds away.

Continuing now from the head down into the body region of the constellation Hydra, we next run into Alpha Hydrae, Alphard, by far the brightest star in this dim constellation. Alphard translates to "the solitary one", and it truly is alone in the sky without many bright stars around. To find 2nd magnitude Alphard, start from Algeiba in the sickle of Leo and proceed South through Regulus. Follow that line about three times as far as the separation between these two stars (about 24 degrees in total), and you'll get to Alphard. This star is about 175 light years away and is an orange giant star, similar to Aldebaran in Taurus.

About 12 degrees Southwest along the body of Hydra, you can find a very nice planetary nebula known as the Ghost of Jupiter Nebula. This is also known as NGC 3242. Through a small telescope, it bears a resemblance to Jupiter, being a slightly larger angular size and apparently with some banding, just a different color scheme. This nebula is 1400 light years away, a distance estimated by observing the angular expansion rate along with Doppler shift estimates of the shell speed moving toward us.

Moving about 8 degrees ENE from the Ghost of Jupiter, we run into Nu Hydrae, also known as Sherasiph, which translates to "rib" of the snake. This is another orange giant similar to Alphard and at about the same distance, but it is about 5 times fainter thanks to interstellar gas and dust along our line of sight to the star. Moving further down the body, if you draw a line connecting Epsilon Hydrae through Alphard and go that same distance along this line, you will find a galaxy cluster known as the Hydra Cluster.

This isn't too hard to find with a telescope since the brightest galaxy in the group is about 5th magnitude. Two faint red stars bracket the group. They have magnitudes of about 4.5 and 6. The cluster, also known as Abell 1060, is about 140 million light years from Earth (which makes that 5th magnitude giant elliptical galaxy near the cluster core, NGC 3311, remarkably bright). The highlight of this little cluster is definitely NGC 3314, a pair of spiral galaxies that overlap each other along our line of sight. You can clearly see through the foreground galaxy and make out the shape of the background galaxy, and the nuclei of these two galaxies overlap almost exactly.

Following a line from Epsilon to Alphard took us to the Hydra Cluster last time. From there, continue on to the ESE about another 12 degrees, and this line will lead you to the spiral galaxy NGC 3621, about 22 million light years distant. This is one of those bright galaxies at a kind of intermediate distance that makes it very important in the distance ladder. It is close enough for us to make out some of the brightest stars, and by comparing those with the brightest stars in our own galaxy, we can work out the distance.

At the same time, when supernova explosions go off in galaxies like this, knowing the distance helps us work out the intrinsic luminosity of these supernovae. That way, when supernovae go off and far more distant galaxies, we will know how far away they are. Further along the tail of the snake, about 25 degrees Southwest of the bright star Spica (which, if you remember, can be found by following the arc of the Big Dipper's handle through Arcturus), is the globular cluster known as Messier 68 (or NGC 4590).

Over 100,000 stars crowd this cluster's densely packed core, including a number of variable stars (which are useful for establishing a distance to the cluster). The cluster is about 100 light years in diameter and likely formed at about the same time as the Milky Way. It's elliptical orbit about the galactic center is currently bringing it back in toward the galaxy, and it is currently about 30 degrees above the galactic center in galactic coordinates. That means if we are looking at the Milky Way edge on and flat with respect to the horizon, this cluster would be about 30 degrees above the direction of the galactic center.

About nine degrees ENE from here or 12 degrees due South from Spica is the star Gamma Hydrae, also known as Dhanab al Shuja, the tail of the serpent, a yellow giant star about 130 light years away. About three degrees due East of Dhanab al Shuja, you can find the interesting variable star known as R Hydrae. This red supergiant is known as a Mira-type variable, oscillating with a period of just over a year, during which time its intrinsic luminosity changes by a factor of nearly 500, from an easily visible 3rd magnitude star into a faint 10th magnitude star.

Burnham notes that the oscillating period of this star has shortened dramatically in the past 200 years, from about 500 days to 389 days, probably indicating a major change ongoing in the star's internal structure. The star is about 300 light years from Earth, and as it moves through the interstellar medium, the strong stellar wind from this star is blowing off a thick cloud of gas and dust. The outflow from the star forms a bow shock wave out in front of the star, imaged here by the Spitzer Space Telescope.

About six degrees South and maybe one degree East from R Hydrae is the Southern Pinwheel, a very nice symmetric face-on spiral galaxy also known as Messier 83. the southernmost galaxy in the Messier Catalog. Seen here in X-rays, this galaxy is very active with star formation, a process that tends to result in lots of high energy, short wavelength emitted light. This galaxy is about 15 million light years away and is one of the brightest and closest spiral galaxies to us, though still about seven times further than the great spiral in Andromeda.

The final object I want to talk about is a tough one to find, the globular cluster NGC 5694, located about 25 degrees directly Southeast from Spica (in the constellation Virgo). At 10th magnitude, this cluster is tough to pick out. It is about three times further away than the other globular we looked at earlier, M 68, at a distance of about 110,000 light years. In fact, it is so far away and moving so quickly that most Astronomers doubt it is even bound to the Milky Way galaxy at all. According to Burnham, it is moving at about 270 km/sec with respect to the galactic center, and at that distance, the escape velocity (even including the dark matter) for our galaxy is less than 200.

Has this cluster been a part of our galaxy the whole time and only recently ejected by a close encounter with a passing dwarf galaxy, such as the Canis Major dwarf that is being devoured by our galactic disk or one of the Magellanic Clouds? Or is this cluster truly an intergalactic wanderer, just passing through? Only detailed studies of the cluster's composition will tell us for sure, and this cluster is so remote, it will be a difficult task.

Posted by Observer at 08:31 PM | Comments (0)

April 17, 2008

Puppy Bills

About 120 bucks for a new crate and pillow, food dish and water bowl (big enough for the three of them), then another 120 bucks this morning for a vet checkup and starting vaccinations, and our life with a new pug puppy begins. Still no name we've settled on. The vet tells us another pug (an adult) was found within a mile of where we found ours a few days ago, so maybe this was a mass drop-off as there are many other vets in the area who may have heard a similar story to ours.

The little one got a clean bill of health, and the vet estimates her age (by her teeth and size) to be 3.5 to 4 months old. She weighs 8 pounds and 2 ounces, and she's a real cuddler. Isn't happy right now unless she is in someone's lap on the couch. She and the other two have a new favorite hobby in the backyard which is eating each other's poop. Very nice. I know it is a territorial thing and all, but ick. No dog is licking me for a while.

Posted by Observer at 11:09 AM | Comments (3)

April 15, 2008

Tater Tot?

Well, we put up signs and got no response in 72 hours total, and there are no "lost" signs anywhere in the neighborhood, so we are going to assume that this little female pug I found wandering around on the side of the road about a mile from our house was just abandoned, though I can't imagine why.

I have been through some female small dog name lists and come up with a few that I kinda like (some more than others). These are in no particular order: Biskit, Fritter, Pumpkin, Bandit, Daisy, Ellie Mae, Francesca, Mischief, Petunia, Pickle, Porkchop, Tater Tot, Princess, Puddin', Butter Bean, Fireball, Mahalito, Honeybun, Stinker, Lampchop, Muffin, Pamcake and Peanut. There may be a loose consensus forming around "Tater Tot", but we have to try it out for a day or two and decide.

M*chelle likes "Lindsey", but I like that name more for a human than a dog. Ideas are welcome. The kids have been pretty useless in trying to help, not coming up with anything that sounds remotely good. They're willing to go with whatever M*chelle and I decide, just happy to have a new dog in the house. I'll take her to the vet later this week and allow them to attach the IV to my wallet for yet another Pug.

I just bought a crate and pillow for her tonight, along with a new food dish and a bigger water bowl for all three of them. When I got home, the little puppy was howling after our oldest, Justin, who spent much of the weekend with her on his lap on the couch, so she seriously bonded to him. He had gone upstairs to bed, and she slipped through the baby gate and tried to go join him. When we brought her back down, she started howling for him again. Crazy little girl.

If anyone asks, we definitely have a full boat now. Kids full of pugs.

Posted by Observer at 09:51 PM | Comments (6)

April 14, 2008


Like Crater, the constellation Corvus the crow rides on the back of Hydra low in the Southern sky during the Spring, and its mythology is related to the other two constellations as I described previously. During the height of the Greek civilization, this constellation held a lot more significance than it does now because at that time it was one of about 10-15 constellations that straddled the Celestial Equator. Now, thanks to precession, it is at a declination about 20 degrees South of the Celestial Equator (thanks to Allen for that info).

Alpha Corvi is Alchiba, though like many Alphas, it is far from the brightest star in the constellation. The name translates to "tent" (from Al Hiba), which is what the four-star asterism vaguely resembles in Corvus. Another name for it historically is Al Minhar al Ghurab, which translates to the beak of the raven. Beta Corvi is Kraz, a yellow giant star about 10-15 times larger than our Sun and 160 times more luminous. Gamma is Gienah Corvi or in some cases Gienah Ghurab, depending upon whether the constellation is a crow (corvi) or a raven (ghurab).

This is the wing of the raven and the brightest star in the constellation, a blue giant fairly close to the end of its main sequence lifetime. Delta Corvi is Algorab, a double star consisting of a blue main sequence star and a cooler orange main sequence star that has just recently broken out of its early stage and has a lot of surrounding dust. Perhaps this is an early analogue to our own solar system? Gamma and Delta are the two northernmost stars in this four star asterism, and if you follow a line through them toward the East about 20 degrees, you will run into Alpha Virginis (Spica). Spica is also easy to find via the Big Dipper (follow the arc to Arcturus, speed on to Spica) and so can be used to locate Corvus.

Eta Corvi also holds some interest for Astronomers thanks to the presence of an extended disk of debris surrounding it, analagous to the Kuiper Belt in our own solar system. There even seems to be evidence of a fairly large gas giant well separated from the star, a Neptune analogue perhaps.

Now for the deep sky objects in Corvus. The most famous is certainly the pair NGC 4038 and 4039, two colliding galaxies known as the Antennae Galaxies. The titanic collision between these galaxies has probably been going on for a billion years or more. When galaxies like this collide, the stars within them usually don't affect one another. That's simply because of the spacing between stars is so large relative to the sizes of stars. It is for this same reason that stars remain orbiting in our galactic halo despite passing through the disk at high relative speeds over and over.

The gas and dust clouds, however, are extended objects and do collide, and the result is a massive burst of star formation. With many galaxies that have undergone collisions in the past, we can reconstruct what happened through simulations and also by looking at the stellar populations. How many stars of each type are present? The answer to this question can give us an idea of the star formation history of a galaxy. For some galaxies, we can identify one or more groups of stars that must have been formed during a burst of activity at one or more times in the past, likely triggered by a merger.

Where you follow a line from Gamma to Delta to lead your eye to Spica, following that same line in the opposite direction a distance roughly equal to the spacing between the stars leads you to this pair in the sky. Using these same two stars as finders, make an equilateral triangle, and the bottom vertex will be the planetary nebula NGC 4361, which vaguely resembles a spiral galaxy though this is coincidental. At magnitude 10.9, this should be visible with a good 8" or 10" scope.

There are several other galaxies and a small galaxy cluster in this region of the sky as well, but they are all much too faint for small telescopes, and no good images of them are available outside of grainy images culled from all-sky surveys. Next time, I'll complete this threesome of constellations by talking about the constellation upon which Corvus and Crater are "resting" in the heavens: Hydra the Serpent.

Posted by Observer at 08:02 PM | Comments (0)

April 13, 2008

72 Hour Rule

To my surprise, no one has put up any lost dog signs regarding the little Pug we found yesterday afternoon. About 6 hours ago, I put up a couple of "found" signs with our phone number at the intersection where we found the dog, and nothing has come of that either. I'm starting to think that maybe this dog just got dumped in a nice looking neighborhood by someone who couldn't care for it. Hard to believe because she is extremely well behaved, almost housebroken and not fearful or a biter. M*chelle wonders if she has a medical problem that is too expensive for someone to deal with, but we see no signs of it. The only problem she has is her extremely stinky poops.

Anyway, we'll leave the signs up for two more days, and if no one calls by then, we'll take them down and keep her. Next stop, the vet, and then to the store to get another crate to stack on top of the other two dog crates. Right now, she is double-bunking with our female, Bella, and I was shocked that she didn't cry at all last night. I'm not sure Bella got much sleep; she has seemed pissed off today.

We're thinking of calling her Pamcake since that's how D*niel and Ben say "pancake", and she almost got pancaked by passing cars before I found her. One of my co-workers is named Pam, so maybe next time I see her, I'll tell her we found an ugly little dog on the side of the road and decided Pam would be a perfect name for her. I'm sure she'll think that's funny.

Posted by Observer at 07:17 PM | Comments (0)

April 12, 2008

On Call

Such a pretty day around here, and I got some yardwork done despite some muscle aches from overdoing it early in the week during my workout. Late in the afternoon, I could tell my sweetie was itchin' to get out of the house, so I offered to call our usual babysitter to see if she was available on short notice. Hot damn, she was.

We just didn't have the energy to take all of the kids (especially the little ones) to a restaurant or for live music, so we treated ourselves to a night out at the Cheesecake F*ctory and then went over to see a band that turned out to be kinda crappy.

Another funny thing happened when I was on my home from a few quick errands before our date. I almost run over a little female fawn pug (from the size, maybe 4-6 months old) about a mile from our house. I stopped and saw that she was wandering around the neighborhood with no collar and probably due to get pancaked any moment by traffic on the busy main road, so I took her home. The kids were very excited, but I explained to all concerned that we're just holding her until the owner puts up lost signs or we put up found signs, etc.

When we got done with our date, we dropped by and rang the doorbell of the closest house to where I found the pug, but they had no idea, so tomorrow afternoon, we'll look for signs and/or put up a few of our own. Unfortunately, that means we'll probably spend at least one night with a scared, lonely, whiny puppy. The other two pugs are sniffing her out right now, and they all seem to get along fine. I'm sure M*chelle will have some pics/movies up later.

Posted by Observer at 09:23 PM | Comments (0)

April 11, 2008

Randi Moves

There has been a pretty crazy soap opera during the past week surrounding Randi Rhodes. A couple of weeks ago while doing a stand-up routine in San Francisco at a private club, she called Geraldine Ferraro and Hillary Clinton "fucking whores" based on how they've sold out on various issues she cares about. Well, Air America management (the 5th owner in 4 years or something) decided to take offense and suspended her.

It came out today that what was really going on was that management was trying to use the comment as an excuse to rework her contract she that they had more control over when they could fire her. She said no and left for the Nova M network, which is good news for us since there is an actual affiliate of that network in our area that has a good signal, but I don't think Nova M has as many affiliates as Air America did.

I don't know if they're going to broadcast her show live or time delay it or what, but I hope her podcasts continue because I've been subscribed to those now for six months or so, and while I don't listen to every show, I do listen occasionally when there's big news, and her take is very well-informed and usually makes me think, even when I disagree with her. She starts up again on Monday, and I'll find a way to listen.

Posted by Observer at 09:22 PM | Comments (0)

April 10, 2008

Working So Far

Wow, the Rangers just swept a doubleheader from the formerly 6-1 Orioles (sorry, Liz) and are a half game out of first at 5-4, having won two out of their first three series. Those two series wins were against the first place teams in two different divisions.

Yes, yes, it's early, but it was early last year when we SUCKED. You can't win a pennant in April, but you can definitely lose one, and we did that last April, digging such a deep hole with a horrible start.

Right now, we're getting much better starting pitching than we have any right to expect, and the hitting is average to above average, and we're winning some close games. It's nice. I would love it if they would still be competitive by the time I get a chance to take the two older boys to a game. What a concept, to watch a Ranger game in person that actually has some significance! Last time that happened, I got to watch us lose to the stupid Yankees in the playoffs.

Posted by Observer at 11:17 PM | Comments (2)

April 09, 2008


Continuing with some of the faint, minor Southern constellations, today I will talk about one of the faintest of Ptolemy's original 48 constellations, representing the mythical cup of Apollo, the constellation Crater. Found due South in the Spring at about 40 degrees above the horizon, the cup shape of this constellation opens up toward the Northwest. In mythology, Crater is linked in a story with Corvus the crow, a bird sent by the Greek god Apollo to fetch water. The crow didn't stay on task and returned with the bowl and the snake (Hydra), hoping to blame the snake for the delay, but Apollo didn't buy it. Now the cup of water is forever out of reach of the crow and all three (snake, bird and cup) are stuck in the heavens.

Alpha Crateris is Alkes, which comes from the Arabic for wine cup and is related to the English word "alcohol" (according to Kaler). There are no other bright stars in the region, and Alkes is 4th magnitude, so this is a hard one to find, about 30 degrees South of the hindquarters of Leo. It is an orange giant in a post-Hydrogen-burning phase of its lifetime, and its motion and composition implies that it was once in the galactic bulge. The actual brightest star in the constellation by a little bit is Delta Crateris, which has no proper name. It is similar to Alkes in properties, including an unusual proper motion which places it in the halo population of the galaxy or perhaps the thick disk of older stars that surrounds the thin disk where all of the gas and dust resides in the galaxy.

Beta Crateris is the only other named star here, Al Sharas, which translates to the rib, perhaps the rib of Hydra the snake since the star is in the part of the constellation bordering Hydra. One of the few deep sky objects attainable with a 10" or larger telescope would be NGC 3981, a nice nearly edge-on spiral on the Eastern border with Corvus, about 80 million light years distant. Another nice spiral imaged with the Hubble Space Telescope here is NGC 3511, and it is about half as far away as NGC 3981. Not much else of note is tucked into this nondescript corner of the sky, at least nothing that we can see with an amateur class telescope.

Posted by Observer at 08:47 PM | Comments (0)


Humbaba sent me this after the filter rejected his comment for some reason. This link tells you, among other things, that the average salary for an Astronomer is around $95k. I can tell you that's not the average salary for a non-tenured instructor, but it is believable for the field as a whole.

If I were willing to bust my ass and have my job depend on getting grants from various public and private sources of money plus publishing a bunch of papers, basically doing the job full time, weekends, nights and holidays included, then sure. But life is too short.

Posted by Observer at 05:56 PM | Comments (0)

April 07, 2008


Today, I will continue my efforts to fill out the Southern part of the constellation map with another faint, small constellation that was invented by Hevelius. The constellation Sextans fills in a small area of the sky directly south of Leo. In fact, the brightest star in Sextans, nearly 5th magnitude (so invisible without very good viewing conditions) is 12 degrees due South of Alpha Leonis, the bright star Regulus. There are no truly remarkable stars in this constellation, so I'll skip directly to the deep sky objects.

Probably the most well-known is NGC 3115, a lenticular galaxy sometimes known as the Spindle Galaxy. This is a spiral galaxy without the characteristic spiral arms and without much star formation as it appears the gas and dust in the disk has been pretty much used up. This can be found another 7 degrees south of Alpha Sextantis, or 19 degrees due South from Regulus. Closer to Leo, if you follow a line from Regulus to Rho Leonis and again as far in the same direction (maybe a little to the South of this line) is the face-on spiral galaxy NGC 3423, about 37 million light years from our own Milky Way. Lots of obvious star-forming regions here with their signature H-alpha emission.

Somewhat West of this is a very nice galaxy pair, NGC 3166 and NGC 3169, found just a half degree east from a line connecting Regulus and Alpha Sextantis, about 3/4 of the way from Regulus. These two interacting spiral galaxies are a mere 50,000 light years apart and about 60 million light years distant, so a tough target for a small telescope. Notice how blue 3169 is on the upper right of the linked photo, indicating there is still plenty of ongoing star formation compared to its compansion.

Another very nice face-on spiral in this part of the sky is NGC 2967, found 11 degrees due West from Alpha Sextantis, on the border with the constellation Hydra. This very faint (80 million light years distant) galaxy is reminiscent of the Whirlpool galaxy, M101, and it has a very large angular size on the sky. The light from its edges fade so gradually, it is very difficult to tell where the true edge of the galaxy is located.

The final deep sky object is in the center of the constellation about 4 degrees due South of Alpha Sextantis: the dwarf galaxy Sextans A. This is a tiny irregular galaxy and a member of our Local Group of galaxies, only 10 million light years away and a square shape about 5000 light years across. In the linked image, you can see that even though this galaxy is small and faint, there are at least three clear regions of ongoing star formation.

Posted by Observer at 09:35 PM | Comments (1)

April 06, 2008


My hope for this season's incarnation of the Rangers has lasted for about a week longer than I thought. Though they lost two out of three to open in Seattle, they just went into Anaheim and took two out of three, and that's a place they NEVER win. I think they've won maybe two games out there in the last two seasons, and they play like 12 there each season. It's ridiculous.

And now we're going into the opening homestand against the likes of Baltimore, and we're only a half game out of first. The pitching is great so far, and the hitting is also very good. Too many errors and poor defense. I hope that's corrected, but so far, I'm still interested. Looking forward to taking the boys to a game.

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

April 04, 2008


I really liked this Joe Heller cartoon today:

Posted by Observer at 12:40 PM | Comments (0)

April 03, 2008

A Last Time for Everything

Steven Brust pointed me in the direction of a famous Arthur C. Clarke short story which is online called "The Nine Billion Names of God". It was nice to read again. I recommend spending the five minutes to read it yourself.

Posted by Observer at 02:26 PM | Comments (1)

April 02, 2008

War Crimes

If you want to get a true libertarian's view on just how appalling this administration has been, you really have to read Glenn Greenwald. Glenn has a good summary today of the deliberately calculated evil that has been going on as well as how it has been shielded from prosecution by political appointees at the Justice Department.

One can only hope that someday this country will be in a position to look back and write an honest history and come to a consensus that not only is Bush the worst president inflicted on America in its history but that we can never be fooled again. Just a hope, though.

It's really sad that some 30% or so of the people in this country are so filled with hate at something, whether it is gays, Muslims, blacks, hispanics, women, teenagers or whatever, that they are willing to excuse any behavior by a leader who will feed their hate and punish their perceived enemies in some way. The idea of America, if not the country itself, deserves better citizens.

Posted by Observer at 08:54 PM | Comments (0)

April 01, 2008

Crickets Chirping

That's all I hear from the wingnut crowd over the Bear Stearns bailout. Meanwhile, news is trickling out that, yes, the government only LOANED out the money to bail out Bear Stearns, and it will be paid back.

Oh, what was that? The collateral?

Well, of course, a fine, upstanding investment bank like JP Morgan would only offer the taxpayers of these great United States the finest collateral available: mortgage-backed securities! Perhaps you've heard of them? Wonderful, wonderful financial vehicles, bound to pay off in spades. Oh yes, sure, some people call them "big shitpile", but they're just a bunch of dirty fucking hippies who want to RAISE YOUR TAXES and DON'T SUPPORT OUR WAR PRESIDENT, so don't listen to them.

Wingnuts will yell until the end of the Earth about some poor black lady using five dollars in food stamps to buy a six pack, but when a rich white guy makes off with five billion, no one says a fucking word.

Where's the $30 billion dollars to bail out New Orleans? I'm sure they would be glad to offer as collateral some of the finest levees this great nation has ever built. Yes, indeed.

Or how about giving a million dollars each in loans to 30,000 families who have been bankrupted by medical bills? I'm sure they can offer up big stacks of important looking forms and documents that will count as collateral. They would surely be willing to sign several pieces of paper, twice as many as JP Morgan would, each promising, cross their hearts and hope to die, that the money would be paid back in full.

Posted by Observer at 10:52 PM | Comments (0)