May 31, 2008

Ball Game

We got to see the Rangers tonight, a quick and fun 8-4 win bringing them to a game over .500 for the first time since early April after many (myself included) had given up by the end of April and wondered when Wash would be fired. 19 wins in May, the most in a month by this team since the 1980's. Really amazing.

Buying the tickets over the phone was an odd experience. I had to do it over the phone instead of on the web because I wanted four together, and they didn't have four in a row so I had to get a square of seats. Anyway, I'm trying to get the best seats in a relatively cheap section on the 2nd level about even with 1st base, and I found a good set, then as I'm preparing to pay, the guy asks me, "Ok, umm, this may sound like a weird question, but ... do you have a favorite soft drink?"

I said, "Err, well, I don't really drink pop, but I guess if I have to, I would drink Sprite or 7-Up."

He said, "Are you sure there aren't any others you drink?"

I'm racking my brains because I know there must be some kind of promotion, and then it hits me. I remember seeing a bunch of Ranger stuff on some Dr. Pepper cans at Costco, so I quickly said, "Oh oh, Dr. Pepper!"

He said, "Ah, ok, great, that means I can give you these tickets for half price."

Wow, that was a nice little surprise. And so the game was really quick since Ponson was pitching. He always works fast, and I got to see Hamilton hit one out. I had looking around before the game for a Hamilton jersey t-shirt, but (surprise) they were sold out everywhere. And we got to see a 30 minute fireworks show after the game, which was very well-done. The two older boys had a blast, and my stepdad met us there, too, so a fun time all around.

Posted by Observer at 10:50 PM | Comments (0)

May 30, 2008

Too Little, Too Late

Via Slate:

And this...

Posted by Observer at 07:12 PM | Comments (0)

Indy!

Yeah, I know it'll suck, but I'm taking the boys to see it anyway tonight.

Posted by Observer at 07:03 PM | Comments (2)

May 29, 2008

Clusterfuck

Remember all the hubbub when various authorities went in to the FLDS compound in El Dorado and took all the kids away to start placing them in foster families, etc? The Texas Supreme Court just said, "Ehhh, not so much."

I think the "Undo" command on this is already greyed out, so this is going to be like uninstalling a virus. I really feel sorry for all the kids stuck in that place.

Posted by Observer at 08:56 PM | Comments (0)

May 28, 2008

Gas Prices

Why are gas prices so high when there is no shortage of oil? A local columnist has done his homework on this:

"There’s a few hedge fund managers out there who are masters at knowing how to exploit the peak [oil] theories and hot buttons of supply and demand and by making bold predictions of shocking price advancements to come, they only add more fuel to the bullish fire in a sort of self fulfilling prophecy." — National Gas Week, September 5, 2005 as reprinted in the US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations’ report, "The Role of Market Speculation in Rising Oil and Gas Prices," June 27, 2006

There it is in plain sight for everyone to see, exactly what I’ve been reporting for the past few years: Many individuals who are investing in oil and natural gas futures are going out in the media and trying to convince the American public that either we are out of oil or there is a serious supply shortage of crude against worldwide demand. The question is: Does it surprise you to discover that the US Senate investigated the rigging of the oil market by speculators in the summer of 2006 – and concluded that there was no supply and demand problem with oil? Did you know that their conclusion was that speculators were responsible for a 70 percent overcharge in the price of oil in the months leading up to the summer of 2006?

This from page 1 of the Executive Summary of that Senate investigation, there is this one troubling line: "Today, U.S. oil inventories are at an eight-year high, and OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) oil inventories are at a 20-year high."

That’s odd because, in 2006, just like today, the media reporting covered the serious international shortage of oil and justified oil’s high price. Even more troubling is that the House of Representatives held a hearing this past December, ominously titled "Energy Speculation and Price Manipulation." How did it pass under the radar that both the Senate and the House studied the issue of price manipulation in our energy markets and both concluded that it was unregulated, massive trading in one futures market that was really driving up the price of oil and natural gas? And given that conclusion, why has Congress done nothing about it?

A week ago Goldman Sachs issued a new investor note, suggesting that somewhere between six months to two years, the price of oil could go into a "super spike" and prices jump as high as $200 per barrel. It became the major story of the night. Ignored in the reporting frenzy was that many legitimate and well-respected oil analysts dismissed Goldman Sachs’ prediction as groundless.

Get ready for the next shock to your system. In the past month we have added 11.9 million barrels of oil into our stock reserves, giving us 32.3 million more barrels of oil than we had on hand January 1. On May 5, we found out that for the second time in as many years, Iran was storing its excess crude oil on tankers in the Persian Gulf, because it had run out of storage space in the desert and was awaiting buyers for its heavy crude. That same day Saudi Arabia cut the discount price for its Arabian Heavy crude to $7.45, hoping to entice more buyers for immediate delivery. We didn’t hear that news, either.

While researching my third article for BusinessWeek online about the world’s oil situation in 2008, I asked for the most current report from Oil Movements. Because the oil industry is not transparent, Oil Movements tracks every tanker at sea, from both OPEC and non-OPEC oil countries, along with their cargoes’ final destinations. Anne O’Shea responded immediately to my request with their report dated May 8, 2008. Just so you will know, oil shipments are up from a year ago in almost every class, including Middle East oil in transit and Non-OPEC in Transit. The only class of oil shipment that has declined is covered on page 3 of that report. That chart is labeled, "4-Week Changes in Westbound Oil at Sea."

That’s right, shipments of oil headed west have shown serious declines during the month of April, down 800,000 barrels per day in the week before the publication of the report. Now, let me give you the first line from under the Westbound Oil shipments chart: "In the west, a big share of any [oil] stock building done this year has happened offshore, out of sight."

Could this be true? Oil Movements, the unimpeachable source for finding the real world situation on oil transits, is saying that oil is being hidden offshore, not declared in inventories? Yes, that is exactly what they are saying.

That same week our refineries cut their production runs back to 85 percent, down from 89 percent a year ago, to trim more gasoline out of our stock reserves, to increase their profits per gallon.

It’s amazing how quickly we forget our recent history. Congressional hearings in 2001, blasting certain Wall Street executives for using the media to sell the public on stocks in order to bid up the price – so their firm could divest of its shares without taking a beating. Meanwhile, other trusted advisors pushed stocks that were fundamentally worthless, because their affiliated banks had large loan agreements with those companies.

The year before Enron had been caught manipulating the California energy market, even forcing rolling blackouts across the northern part of their state apparently just for effect – to support their claim that there just wasn’t enough electricity to go around. Again, we now know that claim was untrue. It was Enron shutting down certain power generation plants, while placing bets on their unregulated energy futures market. The net cost to California consumers was almost $8 billion.

It didn’t end there. Amaranth Advisors, a hedge fund, literally was cornering the market on natural gas futures, to make it appear that there was a shortage of natural gas, when the Commodities Futures Trading Commission told Amaranth to liquidate its position on the NYMEX because its bidding had already moved natural gas prices far beyond the reasonable limits of supply and demand. Now, remember this name: ICE, short for Intercontinental Exchange – the "dark futures lookalike market."

Once the CFTC told it to back off its natural gas futures contracts, Amaranth simply shifted gears, got out of the NYMEX, placed its massive bets outside of government regulation in ICE and managed to drive natural gas futures to $8.50 per MBtu.

As the Senate investigation into the manipulation of the energy markets showed, "Amaranth – the day before they failed, natural gas was about $8.50; the day after it failed, it went to $4.46 MBtu." That’s right, one major hedge fund managed to double the price of natural gas simply by loading up on futures contracts; when the government told them their bets were unwarranted, they simply moved their monies to a futures exchange that was unregulated. Only when Amaranth failed did natural gas prices fall back to what was considered normal for supply and demand.

Sadly, like oil today, when this was happening we were being told that natural gas supplies were tight worldwide. That statement simply wasn’t true.

Likewise, British Petroleum was busted for manipulating the propane market in the winter of 2004 and fined $373 million. Of course, in Texas, under deregulation of our public utilities, our electric rates can be set using the futures market for natural gas, so the manipulation of the natural gas market spelled trouble for us. Consider this, by 2006, according to www.powertochoose.org, electricity rates for us had climbed to 15 cents a kilowatt-hour due to the high cost of natural gas. But, that was the exact same time period that Amaranth was proven to be manipulating the market and sending natural gas futures through the roof. Two months later the hedge fund collapsed and natural gas prices fell. Therefore, most Texans paid higher electric bills for Amaranth’s manipulation of the natural gas market.

Professor Michael Greenberger of the University of Maryland, a former board member of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, testified in front of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on December 14 of last year. Under discussion that day was the manipulation of the energy markets and prices, but Professor Greenberger added these comments: "Three, four months from now, you’re going to have a hearing on the subprime meltdown, and you’re going to find that the very same legislation [deregulating energy] deregulated something called collateralized debt obligations, CDOs." That legislation, friends, directly ties the mortgage meltdown to the high price of energy today.

It was called H.R. 5660, the Commodities Futures Modernization Act of 2000. At first this bill went nowhere in the House, not even up for debate. Then, a few months later, late one night a 242-page bill written by Wall Street lawyers, with the exact same name as the former House bill, was quietly added to an 11,000-page appropriations bill, and the Enron loophole was created. The power behind that bill was one Texas Senator, one Texas Congressman and their wives.

The second half of the article. See if you can guess which Texas senator was responsible for this mess before you read it. I guessed right.

"What’s been happening since 2004 is very high prices without record-low [oil] stocks. The relationship between U.S. [oil] inventory levels and prices has been shredded and become irrelevant."

Jan Stuart, Global Oil Economist, UBS Securities

"What you have on the financial side is a bunch of money being thrown at the energy futures market. It’s just pulling in more and more cash. That’s the side of the market where we have runaway demand, not on the physical side."

Tim Evans, Senior Oil Analyst, IFR Energy Services [From testimony: U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations’ report, "The Role of Market Speculation in Rising Oil and Gas Prices," June 27, 2006]

Record high prices without record low oil inventories, analysts saying that so much money flows into oil commodities that it gives the impression of shortages, when in fact no shortage exists. That mirrors the situation in the commodities market for food, as Bloomberg pointed out in its April 28 article, "Wall Street Grain Hoarding Brings Farmers, Consumers Near Ruin": "Commodity investors control more U.S. crops than ever before, competing with governments and consumers for dwindling food supplies." That’s right; food, oil and gasoline have become an "asset class." No longer are you fighting a neighbor at the supermarket over the last box of Cheerios®; now you’re fighting the futures traders, who are actually determining what you will pay for that cereal.

We started as a society that worships hard labor and the basic business ethic of building value into the goods you create. How’d we get from there to worshiping Wall Street’s billion-dollar boys — who create nothing, build nothing, own nothing and deliver no goods, and yet can throw so much money into products made by others that they determine what we consumers will pay for those goods?

It wasn’t always this way.

In the past, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission acted as the cop on the beat, ensuring that buyers in the market were not distorting or manipulating prices beyond what supply and demand normally dictate. Certainly, if a hard frost hit Florida and cost growers an orange crop, then bidding up the price of the remaining oranges was both a wise investment and allowed under the trading rules. Right now investors know that if they borrow and invest huge amounts in commodities futures, they can create a shortage on paper – which drives prices up just like an actual shortage of any given product would. What kept traders from cornering the market that way in the past were the government’s anti-manipulation rules.

The late, infamous Enron head, Ken Lay, realized in the eighties that he could make more money bidding up energy in the futures market than by actually creating and selling energy. But, under then-current rules, how much you could make swapping paper was limited. Fortuitously, Lay had excellent Texas political connections; and in November of 1992, the head of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission moved to exempt energy-derivative contracts and related swaps from any government oversight.

A vote was hurriedly put together before the Clinton White House would take over, and so Lay could finally start "dark" – unregulated – futures trading. The head of the CFTC was Wendy Gramm, wife of Texas Senator Phil Gramm; five weeks after she left, she became a board member of Enron in Houston.

Fast-forward to late 2000 and H.R. 5660, the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, sponsored by Republican Congressman Thomas Ewing of Illinois. That bill went nowhere, even though Tom Delay’s wife Christine was then working for a Washington lobbying firm, Alexander Strategies – which Enron had paid $200,000 to push through legislation for permanent energy deregulation in these "dark" markets.

Six months later came Senate Bill 3283, also named the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000. This time around the sponsor was Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, and now Phil Gramm was listed as one of the bill’s co-sponsors. Like it had in the House, this bill was destined to go nowhere until, late one night, it was attached as a rider to an 11,000-page appropriations bill – which was signed into law by President Clinton.

Now traders had an officially deregulated market for energy futures. Worse, that bill also deregulated many financial instruments – including the collateralized debt obligations that are at the center of today’s mortgage crisis, which may well cost us more than $1 trillion before it’s over.

As USA Today wrote of this fiasco in January of 2002, "But, as a power marketer, [Enron] could buy enough energy-futures contracts in a region to create a virtual monopoly." That’s right: As early as the winter of 2002, it was widely known that the 2000 Commodities Futures Modernization Act had created a monster, capable of running up energy prices outside of the normal law of supply and demand. Worse, our government had been warned this was going to happen. Representatives of the Federal Reserve, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the CFTC had already told Congress not to deregulate energy because "the market was ripe for manipulation." Everybody was warned; that’s why this deregulation bill was stealthily inserted into that appropriations bill without a floor debate.

Phil Gramm’s office denied that he had anything to do with writing the section of that bill that actually deregulated energy. And yet Prof. Michael Greenberger, formerly a CFTC board member himself, said that Gramm’s wife Wendy, along with a few lobbyists and Wall Street attorneys, had rewritten it. When Robert Manor of the Chicago Times wrote about this situation on January 18, 2002, neither Gramm could be reached for comment.

When Enron failed and took its private, unregulated energy exchange to the grave, another rose to take its place. The Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) was the brainchild of Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, British Petroleum, Deutsche Bank, Dean Witter, Royal Dutch Shell, SG Investment Bank and Totalfina. In 2001 ICE purchased the International Petroleum Exchange in London; renamed ICE Futures, it now operates as an "exempt commercial market" under section 2(H)(3) of the Commodity Exchange Act. As the Senate hearings pointed out in the summer of 2006, "Both markets operate outside of any CFTC oversight."

If you reread the quotes at the start of this story again, you find that many officials in the government warned against what would happen in a deregulated energy market, because it was so easy to manipulate. We already know this to be true thanks to Enron’s California misdeeds. And, as we pointed out last week, British Petroleum was busted for manipulating the propane market and fined over $300 million; and Amaranth Partners was caught manipulating the natural gas market, unconscionably causing the futures price for natural gas to raise every Texan’s electric bills. (It took two years for Amaranth to be exposed.) And yes, the manipulation happened in the new "dark" and unregulated exchanges, making it almost impossible to uncover. So it’s not a question of "if" some "theoretically possible" manipulation and distortion of the market will result from this bill, championed by Phil Gramm, his wife Wendy and Christine Delay’s employer, Alexander Strategies. The reason it is not theoretical is because we keep catching well-known companies doing it on a regular basis.

All you hear daily is that the world has a severe shortage of oil, or you can buy only 200 pounds of rice at one time, or we will have a gasoline crisis this summer, etc. But it takes only a minute to find hundreds of quotes from highly respected oil and economic analysts, (not to mention CEOs of the major oil companies), that completely dismiss the claim of oil, gas or food shortages that have been headlining the news.

Even more troubling is that within months of the CFMA’s going into effect, we knew it had enabled easy manipulation of any energy market, but nothing was done to fix it. Nor was anything done when the Senate held its hearings on this matter in 2006, or in the House hearings last December.

Today we call this situation the "Enron Loophole," but that’s untrue. It’s not a loophole: it was a new law passed in 2000 – and far more individuals than Ken Lay have used that law to line their pockets with hundreds of billions of American consumers’ hard-earned dollars. That’s not my opinion, that’s direct testimony by numerous experts before both the House and Senate.

Professor Greenberger warned about our "New American Economy" far better than I could:

"Should we have an economy that’s based on whether people make good or bad bets? Or should we have an economy where people build companies, create manufacturing, do inventions, advance the American society and make it more productive? We are rewarding people for sitting at their computers and punching in bets. That’s not the way our economy is going to be built, and India and China, with their focus on science and industry and building real businesses, are going to eat our lunch, unless the American public wakes up and puts an end to an economy that praises and makes heroes out of speculators."

Greenberger’s statement explains why Detroit and other American manufacturers suffer while Wall Street speculators make a fortune — and your rapidly shrinking checkbook pays for it, every time you buy food, fuel or feed.

All because there is no shortage of these goods, you’re just being told there is because it’s more profitable – for a few – that way.

And remember, the people making most of the money off of this (e.g. Bear Stearns) are guaranteed a government sponsored bailout if it all goes sour! They're all capitalist when the money is coming in, but they'll be glad to grab a helping of socialist welfare when business goes south.

Why does Congress pass laws to allow this or refuse to pass laws to fix it? Very simple, they want to get re-elected. Until we have publicly financed campaigns, this stuff won't stop. People just aren't educated enough and don't have enough time to pay enough attention to keep it from happening. We need laws to help us.

Posted by Observer at 01:25 PM | Comments (1)

May 27, 2008

40

I turned 40 today, not that it feels any different. My dad and brother took me out for a nice lunch (catfish, of course), and I got a nifty new Braun 360 shaver plus a Tony Romo jersey from M*chelle along with a couple of gift cards from other family members. I told her before I opened my gifts that if there was anything in there that needed to be put together, I was returning it.

I'm taking the boys and meeting my stepdad at the Rangers game on Saturday night. There's fireworks after the game. I'm planning on taking the boys as soon as the ballpark opens because they've never gotten to go to a game that early to maybe catch some batting practice home run balls and just wander around the ballpark. That's a birthday present for me and also for the two boys, who have birthdays coming soon (C*dy turns 14 on Friday, J*stin turns 19 on June 30).

Maybe I'm supposed to take this day to think about my life in perspective and see how things are. One reason I feel very young is that I'm in good health, have a happy marriage, have two little ones and three big kids, an active exercise routine and a great job. I feel like I'm just hitting my stride in life and am looking forward to the next 20 years of watching all the kids mature, building a life with M*chelle and continuing to teach.

Part of that comes with finding the right person late in life (when I was 33) and part of it comes from spending so much time in school. By my age, a lot of people have nearly 20 years in their job while I only have 12, and most people have kids earlier than I did. Anyway, though I don't say it here often enough, I think, I am blessed, and I am thankful for it, and what else could anyone want on their birthday?

I hope I'm still wearing my Romo jersey proudly when I'm 50!

Posted by Observer at 09:50 PM | Comments (1)

May 26, 2008

Passions

I'm really surprised at all the high emotion and drama between supporters of Obama and Clinton in the primary. I prefer Obama in large part because I think Hillary will motivate the wingnut base to come out and vote. Either will easily win the presidency over McSame, but I think Obama will have longer coattails and is really a map changer, bringing several new states into play while mostly keeping the traditionally blue states.

What excites me the most about the election with Obama as the candidate is how well he's doing when so few Moron Americans have even heard much about him other than he's a sleeper cell Muslim terrorist. Once people really get to see him give speeches (and he's drawing tons of money and will likely outspend McSame by a huge amount), I'm sure his numbers will only improve.

Anyway, my preference is not super strong. I'd be fine voting for Hillary. My problem is with people who are just absolutely one way or the other with no compromise. I understand the case for both candidates, I guess, but they aren't different enough for me to just go crazy about it, unlike the huge differences between either and McSame.

I don't really understand why Clinton is still running when she can't win. I mean, if you're just hedging your bets in case something awful happens, why not suspend the campaign? It's not like anyone else would be competitive. What is she getting out of running so actively and campaigning so hard?

Randi Rhodes has been questioning this, too, on the radio, though I think she's gone a bit overboard in the Clinton-bashing lately. It's not that Clinton shouldn't be criticized or that there are no grounds to criticize her, not at all. It's just, why not focus on McSame now? Apparently, the listeners all want to talk about Clinton, so Randi just goes along. I'd like the whole circular firing squad thing among the Democrats to stop now.

Posted by Observer at 08:51 PM | Comments (1)

May 25, 2008

Bootes

Today, I'd like to move a little bit North in the sky from the two constellations containing the Virgo Cluster of galaxies, Coma Berenices and Virgo, to a constellation with an a few possible origin stories and the 4th brightest star in the sky, the constellation Bootes (pronounced as three syllables with the emphasis usually on the second syllable, boh-OH-tease). Based on its position in the sky just "behind" the handle of the Big Dipper, Bootes is sometimes seen as an Ox driver with the Dipper as the wain or plough being driven. The pattern of stars in the sky is often referred to as the Kite asterism, as you can see in the star chart here, and the combination of Arcturus, Spica (in Virgo), Denebola (in Leo) and Cor Caroli (in Canes Venatici) forms the larger asterism known as the Spring Diamond.

In other legends, Bootes represents the hunter Arcas who was chasing after his mother Callisto, who he hadn't realized had been transformed into a bear. In this legend, the nearby constellation Canes Venatici represent the hunting dogs of Arcas. The origin of the name either comes from a Greek word meaning "noisy" (as the hunter is noisily yelling to his dogs while hunting) or another word meaning "ox driver". This constellation was also known by the name Arctophylax or Artophilaxe (from Allen's book), which means Bear-watcher or Bear-guard, and from this name comes the name for the brightest star in the constellation, Arcturus. Notice also the proximity of the word "arctic", which comes from a reference to the Bear constellations being in the North.

Still another legend associates these stars with Icarius, a grape grower who won the favor of Dionysus. This Greek god revealed to Icarius the secret of making wine, and so Icarius and his friends all got drunk. When they woke up the next day with severe hangovers, his friends assumed that Icarius had tricked them and tried to poison them, so they killed him. Dionysus that placed Icarius into the heavens to honor him. In this same legend, Icarius' daughter Erigone is placed in the sky below Icarius in the location of Virgo.

As I mentioned earlier, Arcturus, found by following the arc of the Big Dipper's handle, is the 4th brightest star in the sky, behind Alpha Centauri, Canopus and Sirius, and Arcturus is the brightest star in the North Celestial Hemisphere, outshining any of the stars in the Big Dipper or Orion. This is an orange K-class giant located 37 light years away, above us relative to the plane of the galaxy. It's diameter is about 25 times that of the Sun, and it radiates over 200 times as much energy as our Sun, most of it past the red end of the visible spectrum in the infrared.

The overall mass is not very well known (since it doesn't have a binary companion to help us "weigh" it), but it is thought to be between 1 and 1.5 solar masses. My guess is the low end of that range, because other indicators indicate an age much older than the Sun. For example, it is metal-poor relative to the Sun, and while composition is a very noisy indicator of age, it *is* an indicator (in this case, indicating an older age). Also, it has a very high proper motion relative to the Sun, a motion shared by about 50 or so other old stars, partly a slower orbital motion about the galactic center and partly a velocity more perpendicular to the disk.

This may indicate that it is part of the thick disk population, which is a body of stars orbiting the center of the galaxy like the disk but with a somewhat larger vertical velocity dispersion. That means as they orbit, they tend to bob up and down, passing through the disk frequently, sort of like the motion of a horse on a merry-go-round. Since very little gas and dust shares this sort of motion, this is thought to be an older population with no recent star formation. It could also be a population left over from a galaxy merger long ago.

The Hipparcos satellite, which measured not only the parallax distances but also the proper motions of over a million nearby stars, revealed many groups of stars with peculiar but similar proper motions to one another, and this has helped us reconstruct the history of several once-tight clusters and groups of stars that have broken up into otherwise unrecognizable groups, lost in the "noise" of the billions of stars in the galaxy. This is somewhat similar to our reconstruction of the asteroid belt in our own solar system. We do that by looking for groups or "families" of asteroids with similar compositions (they have completed way too many orbits over billions of years for us to be able to reconstruct their groupings dynamically).

Beta Bootis is Nekkar, which comes from the Arabic for "Ox Driver" and marks the head of the herdsman, the tip of the "kite" asterism that Bootes is famous for. It is an unremarkable yellow giant star a little over 200 light years away. It isn't even the 2nd brightest star in the constellation, far from it. The greek letter designations in this constellation begin with Arcturus as Alpha and then the rest are simply the bright stars ordered from the North toward the South.

Gamma Bootis is Seginus, and along with Delta Bootis (no proper name), these two are the 3rd magnitude left and right shoulders of Bootes, respectively. Seginus is a blue A star somewhat similar to the A stars that are common in the Big Dipper, but Seginus is well on its way out of that stage, slowly turning into a giant star as it ends the main sequence, Hydrogen-burning portion of its lifetime. Delta is a yellow giant like Nekkar and has a sunlike companion orbiting at a very great distance. The orbit takes about 120,000 years to complete, but we know the two stars are connected because their proper motions are identical and they are at the same distance from Earth.

Roughly halfway between Arcturus and Nekkar, about 10 degrees North-northeast from Arcturus, we find 2nd magnitude Izar (Epsilon Bootis), the 2nd brightest star in this constellation. The name is similar to Mizar in Ursa Major or Mirach in Andromeda, which all refer to "loin" or "girdle" or something in the middle part of the body. Burnham mentions that this is a very nice orange giant and blue main sequence star binary system that looks good in a 6-inch or larger telescope. Though these two are separated by about 200 AU (which is about four times the radius of Neptune's orbit), they are very close together on the sky (a few arcseconds) due to their large distance from Earth about about 200 light years. Here is a nice little picture of what Izar looks like through a small telescope.

The most prominent deep sky object in Bootes is a nice spiral near the Southern edge of the constellation, NGC 5248. This can be found by following a line from Izar through Arcturus about the same distance (15 degrees or so) again to the Southwest.

This galaxy is about 50 million light years away and is probably an outlying member of the Virgo Cluster of galaxies. What sets this grand design spiral apart from many others is that the spiral arm pattern so clearly seen out to great distances extends all the way to the central core of the galaxy, as seen in high resolution photos like the one I linked above. A lot of times the spiral pattern gets lost in the bulge or is disrupted by a ring or bar near the center of the galaxy. Knowing that it is possible for the pattern to extend this far helps us understand the density wave phenomenon that causes the arms in the first place.

10 degrees South of Arcturus and 10 degrees East of NGC 5248 is a fainter target, the 12th magnitude elliptical galaxy NGC 5532, also known as 3C 296 in a catalog of powerful radio sources. This is a very good example of a galaxy with a supermassive black hole in the center and a twin jet of material streaming from the region, each jet being over a million light years long. Closer to Arcturus, just a degree or so to the Southwest, is a triple galaxy highlighted by IC 983 (seen here in a very nice deep image). The little faint spiral in this trio is NGC 5490, which has had a couple of type Ia supernovae erupt in the past 20 years.

About 10 degrees North of Arcturus and a tiny bit West is the globular cluster NGC 5466 seen in a nice amateur image here. The interesting thing about this cluster is that it is so far out of the plane of the galaxy, making it very easy to see tidal tails trailing from the cluster that would normally be lost in the noise of the stars and gas in the disk. This cluster is slowly being pulled apart as it passes through the disk over and over, orbiting the center of the galaxy.

Posted by Observer at 03:34 PM | Comments (1)

May 23, 2008

Stupid Memes

Just like clockwork, the wingnut brigade is coming out with the talking point that Obama is the most liberal member of the Senate.

Wait a minute. I thought it was John Kerry?

Oh well, nevermind all that. Here is an intellectually honest debunking of that crap. We liberals WISH he were one of the most liberal, but actually, he ranks around 40th among Dems when you look at all the votes (and not much better if you cherry pick).

Another one on the horizon, I am sure, is based on this story, which talks about a newly discovered spot in Jupiter's atmosphere that is a result of the planet warming. It is only a matter of time before we get the same kind of spin we got with the evidence that Mars is warming.

The wingnuts will say that because Jupiter or Mars can warm on its own without human interference, that means the whole argument that humans may be causing global warming on Earth is bogus.

I assume these wingnuts do not employ air conditioning in their cars or homes.

After all, why turn on the A/C to cool off your house? Back in January, I'm sure the temperature in the house was well below 70 degrees naturally. Since the house can get that cold on its own, there is no reason to believe that you can cause the temperature to change on your house, right?

Posted by Observer at 01:37 PM | Comments (0)

Comments

I realized today that when my MT was reinstalled as the old version, comments were turned back on with all individual archive entries, so I was starting to get a trickle of spam comments on those old entries. Rather than create a "wrong file name" error on the comment script as I have done before, I simply removed the commenting code from all individual entries.

So in order to comment here, you have to use the comment link on the main index page and use the little pop-up window. I wish I could turn off some of the annoying filters that force me to moderate some comments and block other perfectly good comments, but for whatever reason, the blacklist add-on won't let me do that. So I guess this is a state of affairs I can live with.

Posted by Observer at 08:38 AM | Comments (0)

May 22, 2008

Conspiracy Theory

We never watch anything on live TV anymore except the occasional baseball or football game, and last night's American Idol finale was no exception. More than any other network, I find Fox makes a habit of screwing up the timing of shows to screw up DVR's. Last night, the Idol finale show ran about 5 minutes longer than scheduled, and the DVR cut off exactly one second before the host named the winner. Literally one second.

I thought it was funny that the exact same thing happened to Randi Rhodes (she said it on her show blog today). Her DVR cut off at exactly the same time as ours, and she's in Palm Beach County in Florida. I think Fox purposely does this to try to discourage people from recording stuff and skipping the commercials, and it sucks. Just one more reason to boycott the whole network.

Posted by Observer at 02:52 PM | Comments (4)

May 21, 2008

Omaha

I've done well enough in the low level (.10/.25) pot limit omaha hi/lo games that I decided I should read a couple of books and see if I really know what I'm doing. From what I've read so far, the answer is mostly "no". The main reason I'm up is just because I play super-tight and a lot of people make basic strategy mistakes. I'm also learning a lot about how to play Omaha Hi properly, but I think for now I will stick to Hi/Lo when there is a game available (which is not always since it is nowhere near as popular as Hold 'Em, unfortunately) and do Omaha Hi (which is about twice as popular) when I can.

Here's a true, funny quote from "Championship Omaha" by T. J. Cloutier and Tom McEvoy:

Unlike a lot of the high-stakes players these days, I won't take chances and lose more money than I stand to win. As far as I'm concerned, that's the biggest fault in a lot of players. When the win a little bit, they quit. When they lose, they go for almost their whole bankroll. It's called eating like a bird and crapping like an elephant, and it's easy to do in Pot-Limit Omaha.

Actually, I tend to do pretty well following Chris Ferguson's "build a bankroll from nothing" rules. They work well if you can manage to claw your way up to a bankroll in the neighborhood of $200, which I have done (though I'm below $200 at the moment). You never buy in for more than 5% of your bankroll (1% for tournaments), and if you ever get up to more than 10% of your bankroll at the table, you get up when the blinds come around to you.

Having a very small stack at big tables is not good because people will take advantage of you and push you around. You don't have enough blinds to participate in enough hands and see enough flops (because people will raise you off your limp pre-flop if you are short-stacked). If you have about half the maximum, then you can play pretty normally, but you also get good value for your money.

Big stacks are willing to play with you realizing there is a cap on how much they can lose in a hand, so I get called with a lot of 2nd-nut hands, and I simply do not play a big hand without the nuts. Where I lose money is betting the nuts on the flop or turn and getting outdrawn. It's kind of wild to learn that I can have top set on the flop and be a 55/45 underdog in the hand, but sometimes that's the case.

Anyway, I got my bankroll up to $200 playing Hold 'Em months ago, but it has been stagnant since then, mostly varying within $80 of that level up and down. Right now it is at $160, and most of the reason for that is that I tried to multi-table at higher limits (.25/.50) and found my .10/.25 game plan didn't work there. That was about a $180 lesson to learn, but I'm still playing with house money, so I didn't mind losing it so much.

Losing at the bigger limits kinda shot my confidence at the lower limits, and now I can't rediscover the game that got me from about $40 up to $240 or so. For now, then, I'm going to keep playing Omaha (mostly hi/lo) because I have a big positive result there so far, probably netting $100-$150 in a couple of months, usually playing two tables at a time.

I would have more than $160 in my bankroll as a result, but I lost some in Hold 'Em and also blew about $40 on tournaments. I'm sure I will regain my Hold 'Em groove again someday, but for now, Omaha is a nice change of pace. I might even try my hand at limit poker in both games at some point if my pot-limit game stagnates.

Posted by Observer at 09:19 PM | Comments (1)

May 20, 2008

Audacity

One of the first things the really made me politically aware of anything were the Iran-Contra hearings, and I still know a lot about what happened. So I was pretty surprised to learn that Ollie North had the audacity to appear on TV and disparage Barack Obama for Obama's supposed willingness to have diplomatic talks with Iran.

According to North, we shouldn't deal with terrorists at all, including talking to them, because that amounts to the same kind of appeasement Europe granted Hitler prior to World War II.

Hard to say where to begin with this. I mean, first of all, OLLIE FUCKING NORTH?!? This is the guy who sold weapons to Iran when they were our enemy by proxy in the Iran-Iraq war that was going on in the 1980's. This was back when Saddam Hussein was our buddy, in case you didn't know. He did this to illegally fund the Contra faction in Nicaragua because the Bush administration thought it wanted to get rid of the Ortega and his Sandinista faction, because they were socialists or something and so obviously they were going to let Russia put nuclear warheads there like in Cuba. Or something like that.

At any rate, to hear Ollie North criticize someone for having any kind of dealings with Iran ... that just blows the audacity meter right out. These guys just lie and bullshit with impunity, and they are praised as heroes by the ConservaBorg trolls of the world. It's truly amazing.

Posted by Observer at 09:03 PM | Comments (0)

Bike

Our oldest has been getting around on my old bike, a Peugeot Orient Express I inherited from my stepdad when I moved to Seattle back in 1990. I got a hell of a lot of use out of that bike and put hundreds of miles on it, and I continued to use it once in a while once I moved here. I had passed it on to J*stin, and he has ridden it to death, and it has been in the shop about every six months for the last few years.

Anyway, this week it kinda died. The seat broke off of the post, and the post is wedged so tightly into the frame that the bike shop can't get it out. We took it to a different place, and the guy there basically said it would take a long time to get the post out and get a new one in, involving a lot of effort. He said for the cost of the service, it would be cheaper to just buy a new bike. Given the quality of my old bike, we could buy a brand new bottom-of-the-line multi-speed bike for about $150-$200, which approaches the cost of the labor on the Peugeot, and the old bike could also use a tune-up, which is also adding to the cost, etc.

So I found a serviceable bike, test rode it, got it all tuned up and ready to go, and bought it for J*stin to get around this summer. I really wish I could trust him in a car just because it would be more convenient for us all, but he's just not there yet mentally. I would really like him to remain carless until he gets out of college and has a full-time job at some level.

Posted by Observer at 07:00 PM | Comments (0)

May 18, 2008

Barn

Well, we're mostly done with the barn, and as I feared, it has some flaws. We had to undo some things and cover over some other mistakes we made due to the very poor instruction manual, and the end result is about a two-inch irregularly shaped gap in the roof near its peak in the front. I figure some thick and very tasteful plastic can be attached to cover that over, and then we'll figure out a way to attach the central third of the outer roof cap (I am still not sure how the hell we're supposed to do that since it is 4-5 feet from any edge of the building and couldn't possibly be done before the end) and cover over any unused screw holes in the roof.

I figure as long as it doesn't leak and the door works (which we'll see tomorrow night when we finish that step) and it closes up tight, then it will work just fine. Oh, and I think we'll end up doubling up the plywood on the floor. We started with 6 pieces of 3/4 inch thick plywood as the manual suggested, but the way they suggested we lay it out, there are some parts that naturally wobble when we step on them because they aren't fully supported by the floor kit.

An easy fix is to double up the plywood and lay the 2nd floor layer in a different pattern for a sturdy, double-thick floor. It makes the barn 3/4 inches shorter, but it is already a little too short for me to stand upright inside anyway. I'll have to go to the store tomorrow to get whatever square footage of that we still need, then we'll nail the two layers together. Makes the barn heavier, too, which will be useful since we don't have an anchoring kit.

Maybe a tornado will just blow the whole thing away and then we'll be able to get that nice plastic pre-fab barn that looks like a giant Little Tikes toy at Costco.

Posted by Observer at 05:43 PM | Comments (5)

Upgrade Reverted

My ISP upgraded me to MT 4.13 or something like that to see if I would like it, but the comments weren't working. I don't have time right now to dig through a bunch of new documentation and rebuild my templates and all, so I told them to revert me back to the old version, which was really working great.

In the meantime, I got up yesterday morning very early and decided to take advantage of the last empty Saturday of nice weather of the Spring to finally construct the barn that we had laid the foundation for last year. We're mostly done and just have to build the roof and outer door today. The two older boys were very helpful, and I only sustained a few minor injuries.

Posted by Observer at 07:09 AM | Comments (0)

May 16, 2008

Presidential

One of the things I like most about Obama is that he has really played to his strengths in the campaign. He's a great speaker, and so most of the news clips are of him giving a speech rather than him doing a photo op in a tank or visiting a historic landmark or whatever. The focus is all about his speeches, and if you listen to any of them, I think you have to be impressed even if you disagree with what he's saying.

He's always calm, cool and collected, and that's the perfect antidote for the Moron American who fears the Angry Liberal. Obama agrees with most everything that Angry Liberals want, which to end the war in Iraq responsibly, reduce the deficit by making taxes fair again and provide health care coverage for everyone, among other smaller issues. But he manages to be for these things without sounding angry or accusatory, just very matter-of-fact.

I'm afraid if he allows himself to get swept up in the emotion of the campaign even once, if he has a "Dean scream" moment, it could really end up going badly for him. He (and his advisors) seem smart enough to avoid that. I hope so. Here is a recent speech he gave in response to a predictable Republican attack that his foreign policy amounts to appeasing terrorists. Very nice way to deal with that kind of attack.

He doesn't ignore it or respond with some vague message that goes over everyone's head. He responds directly, and he sounds very presidential doing so.

Posted by Observer at 12:45 PM | Comments (1)

May 15, 2008

The F Word

I got a call at home yesterday afternoon from the 13-year-old's school. It seems that C*dy was messing around with some friends in the hall, and he said something like, "Fuck no!" right as the assistant principal was walking by. So they call me and put him in all-day detention today. When the lady called me and explained what happened, I just said "okay" thinking it is a pretty stupid thing to put him in detention for all day but I know how these things are.

Then the lady says, "Do you want to talk to him?" Here I missed a chance. I told her I would just talk to him when he got home, but I should've asked for him. I would've told him to hold the phone away from his ear, then I could yell into the phone, "WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING, YOU STUPID FUCK?!? CUSSING IN SCHOOL? GODDAMN FUCKING IDIOT! FUCK!!!"

Then he could put the assistant principal back on, and I could very politely explain that I have no idea where he gets this from but I'm sure it will never happen again.

Probably better that I didn't. C*dy is getting to be subversive enough as it is without my encouraging it.

I almost forgot the best part, which was the note they sent home. In big all capital letters on the first line of the "your kid is in deep shit" form, it says, "C*dy said FUCK to another student." I guess they don't sugarcoat it on the forms, do they?

Posted by Observer at 10:53 PM | Comments (2)

May 14, 2008

Glasses

Little Obi-Wan turned 2 today, but we are waiting to celebrate his birthday until this weekend. He doesn't know any better, so why not? Unfortunately, we've noticed for the past few weeks that his right eye has been turning in a bit, almost so that he looks cross-eyed sometimes. So we took him yesterday to a doctor to get him checked out.

The gave him some drops to dilate his eyes, and then after a 30 minute wait, it took the doc about 10 seconds to diagnose him with farsightedness. I'm not sure quite how he did this, but he shined a light at Ben's eye and held up various lenses in front (perhaps until he could see the back of the retina in focus?) until he found one he liked and then wrote the little guy an eyeglasses prescription.

He says once Ben isn't straining to focus, his eye won't turn in anymore, and he said it is normal for kids to grow out of this condition by the time they are teenagers when it does happen. We looked around a bit tonight for glasses, but the place we really wanted to go was closed early today, so we'll try to go tomorrow at lunchtime and get something. How will we get Ben to wear them is another story.

It could've been a lot worse. If they had had to do surgery to correct his eye muscles or, worse, if it were some kind of tumor ... well, let's just say I'm glad it is only glasses. As far as I'm concerned that's the best possible outcome given his symptoms.

Posted by Observer at 10:45 PM | Comments (2)

May 12, 2008

Coma Berenices

Just north of Virgo and east of Leo is a small, faint constellation containing lots of deep sky fireworks, the constellation Coma Berenices. This was once considered an asterism as a part of Leo's tail, but Tycho Brahe first set it apart in his star atlas in 1602 as a separate constellation, and the designation stuck. The name comes from the Egyptian queen Berenice II. When Berenice's husband went on an expedition to Syria in the 3rd century BC, she was so grateful upon his safe return that she promised to sacrifice her famously long, beautiful hair to the goddess Aphrodite. She placed it in the temple, and it was gone the next day, and the court astronomer declared that it was now in the heavens. Coma Berenices translates as the Hair of Berenice.

Alpha Coma Berenices is also known as Diadem, a close binary star with two sun-like main sequence stars, much like the star Porrima in the constellation Virgo. These orbit each other nearly edge-on every 26 years, and their maximum separation on the sky is only about 1 arcsecond from a distance of about 60 light years. Beta is nearly identical to the Sun and only about 30 light years distant, and it has been a target in the search for extrasolar planets and dusty disks, but so far, we've found nothing here.

Also located in this region of the sky is the North Galactic Pole, so we are looking directly up out of the plane of the Milky Way's disk along a line of sight with very little dust and gas. That's one reason so many galaxies are easy to find in this part of the sky. Most of the remaining moderately bright stars in this constellation are in the open cluster about 270 light years away known as Melotte 111 or the Coma Berenices Cluster. The cluster is about twice as far away as the Hyades and so takes up a smaller area on the sky (only about 5 degrees in diameter), and its age is about a half billion years old. Here is a nice photo of this cluster on the sky.

There are seven (!) Messier objects in this small region of the sky, and I'll start with the nearest one to us, the globular cluster M 53. This cluster is orbiting currently up over the top of the galactic nucleus and about 60,000 light years away from us. Typical of halo clusters, this is very metal-poor, meaning it formed early in the history of the galaxy before the interstellar medium was enriched with heavy elements from the first generations of stars. Just one degree southeast is another globular, NGC 5053. These two clusters are fairly close together in space, though far enough apart so as not to gravitationally influence one another. NGC 5053 is moving in the opposite direction compared to M 53, but both are bound to our galaxy.

Among the extragalactic Messier objects, six of them are galaxies located in the Northern half of the Virgo Cluster, about 5 degrees due East from the tail of Leo the Lion, the bright star Denebola. Starting from the Eastern end of the group is Messier 91 (or NGC 4548), a classic barred spiral galaxy about 60 million light years away. This is one of the faintest and most difficult Messier objects, looked like an elongated blob in most telescopes since all you can see is the brightness of the bar.

A little less than a degree to the West is Messier 88, a somewhat brighter and more concentrated spiral. Though M 91 and M 88 are very close together on the sky and both members of Virgo, they are moving through the cluster in opposite directions at very high speed, with M 88 moving away from us and M 91 moving so quickly relative to the cluster center that it almost overcomes the overall expansion speed of the cluster (the Hubble flow) and so is almost stationary for the moment with respect to our own galaxy.

M 88's claim to fame is that it is one of the nearest and brightest Seyfert galaxies. Seyfert galaxies have very active nuclei and strong emission lines from highly ionized gas. The mechanism heating up the gas is likely a supermassive black hole accretion disk in the center of the galaxy. The Doppler broadening of the emission lines is indicating of the very fast rotation that should accompany an accretion disk around a gigantic (20+ million solar mass) black hole with an event horizon roughly the size of our solar system. There are narrow emission lines, too, but their brightness doesn't vary as quickly and so they come from a much larger region. Because the broad-lined emission can vary on short timescales, it must come from a very small region of space (due to light travel time considerations).

Moving about 2.5 degrees North and slightly East from M88 brings us to the next Messier object, Messier 85, a lenticular galaxy (disk-like spiral without the normally associated gas, dust and star formation) on the Northern edge of the Virgo cluster. Two degrees back to the South and a little further East, we find the lovely grand design spiral, Messier 100, seen nearly face-on. You can see only a circular blob of light through a small telescopes, but with photographic techniques and larger telescopes, the spiral arms really come out beautifully. The structure of this galaxy is so intricate that it was used to test the optics of the Hubble Space Telescope after the initial optics fix. This photo shows a type Ia supernova that erupted in this galaxy in 2006, very useful as the HST had already determined the distance to this galaxy via Cepheids.

Now moving a degree or so Southwest, we come to Messier 99, also known as the Coma Pinwheel galaxy, a faint face-on spiral galaxy. Among the Virgo Cluster galaxy, this one has one of the highest peculiar velocities, meaning that perhaps it has recently been accelerated by a close encounter with another galaxy. As you can see in this photo, this galaxy is somewhat asymmetric, which also may indicate a recent interaction with another galaxy, possibly a recently discovered "dark matter galaxy", a large mass of dark matter and Hydrogen gas with very little associated luminosity (detected via 21 cm Hydrogen emission).

About a half degree west from M 99, we find Messier 98, an even fainter mostly edge-on spiral galaxy with a peculiar velocity so large relative to the center of the cluster that its net motion is towards us. Of course, this won't continue, but right now, M 98 is likely passing near the center of gravity of the cluster and so like a pendulum nearing the bottom of its swing is near its maximum speed. As it continues to approach us, it will slow down over the course of millions of years and ultimately remain bound to the cluster.

The final Messier object in Coma Berenices is Messier 64, also known as the Black Eye Galaxy. This galaxy is about 5 degrees Northeast of the group of galaxies associated with the Virgo Cluster, but it is not a member of that cluster at a distance of only about 17 million light years away. The odd structure of this galaxy leads us to believe it is the result of a recent merger as there are two distinct stellar populations in the galaxy rotating in opposite directions! The dark dust band that gives the galaxy its name is easily visible with dark skies and a 6 or 8 inch telescope. In this nice Hubble poster, the inner part of the galaxy is orbiting clockwise while the outer part is moving counterclockwise.

Moving away from the galaxies near the center of the Virgo Cluster toward the Northern half of this constellation, near the Coma Berenices star cluster, we find another, smaller grouping of galaxies, some of which may be associated with the Virgo Cluster. The first of these galaxies we'll study is NGC 4565, about 1-2 degrees East of the center of the star cluster. This is a very pretty edge-on spiral, resembling a needle in a telescope (hence it is sometimes referred to as the Needle Galaxy). It is at the right distance to be a part of Virgo (30 million light years or so), but its overall space motion (in the plane of the sky) can't be determined well enough to be sure that it is bound to that cluster.

Another 2-3 degrees to the East is NGC 4725, seen in the linked image through the new Spitzer Space Telescope with an emphasis on its infrared colors (which brings out the dust in the arms). Here is a nice visible light photograph. This one is about 40 million light years away and may be associated with Virgo. Its claim to fame is that it seems to have only one spiral arm instead of the usual two. Perhaps it is more appropriately a ring galaxy thanks to a recent merger. Another nice nearly edge-on spiral at about the same distance is a degree North of NGC 4565, and that is NGC 4559.

A couple of degrees north of the star cluster is another nice pair of galaxies, the two spirals NGC 4274 and NGC 4314, seen together in this wider view. NGC 4314 is clearly a ringed starbust galaxy, having just undergone a violent interaction in which another galaxy likely passed right through its center. The subsequent shock wave has propagated radially outward through the galaxy, lighting up a ring of luminous starlight.

Finally, we turn to a little patch of sky within about a degree of the North Galactic Pole, about a degree West of Beta Coma Berenices, the Coma Cluster of Galaxies. This cluster is about 10 times further away than the Virgo Cluster, making it about 300 million light years away or more. The only two galaxies in this cluster which may be visible through a large amateur telescope are the two giant ellipticals at the heart of the cluster, NGC 4889 and NGC 4874.

Though the cluster is several million light years in diameter, it takes up an angular space in the sky of a box about one degree on a side, maybe four times larger than the full moon. Perhaps the best visual highlight of the coma cluster is the pair of interacting galaxies known as "the mice" (or NGC 4676). These are two spiral galaxies locked in a gravitational embrace that has lasted hundreds of millions of years and created enormously long tidal tails and massive waves of star formation.

Though only about twice the size of our local group, the Coma Cluster is an unusually rich grouping of galaxies, containing as much as 50 times the mass of our little group of galaxies. The extended halo of this cluster is a circle of about six degrees in radius centered on the two giant ellipticals, and in this great circle, one can find nearly 30,000 galaxies brighter than 19th magnitude, almost all of which are associated with this cluster. If you consider a bubble of the visible Universe centered on us and extending out far enough to encompass the Coma Cluster, that bubble contains hundreds of thousands of galaxies, and this bubble represents about 1/100,000th of the volume of the visible Universe.

Truly staggering when you stop and think about it.

Posted by Observer at 07:50 AM | Comments (1)

May 11, 2008

Faire

Very nice faire weather today, and we took advantage. Some of my fondest memories as a kid growing up were going to the big ren fest with my parents and later my friends in high school, and I definitely want the kids to experience that. It's really just an excuse to spend the day outside and pig out, which we all did. I've got to remember to get more than 6.5 hours of sleep the night before, though. If there had been a hammock shop there, I would've bought one just to get a chance to have a 20 minute nap during the afternoon. Hard to believe how quickly the time went. We got there at 1030, blinked, and it was 5pm.

We've got a birthday coming up next weekend, the beginning of a 9-week whirlwind with 6 birthdays, starting with Ben, who is turning two and ending with Daniel, who is turning five. So begins the summer season.

Posted by Observer at 09:05 PM | Comments (0)

May 10, 2008

Different Standards

The last time we had a guy running for president who basically got his fortune by marrying a super rich heiress (Teresa Heinz Kerry), the traditional media thought it was Vitally Important to Democracy and Transparent Politics that she release her tax returns.

Apparently, the same standard doesn't apply to Cindy McCain. I'm sure the situation is COMPLETELY and totally different; otherwise, our "ultra-liberal socialist America-hating terrorist-loving media" would be screaming bloody murder.

Surely they would.

Posted by Observer at 04:20 PM | Comments (3)

May 09, 2008

Duck!

Ducking office hours worked well today. Rather than go into detail, I'll just say it had the desired effect on me and defused a couple of potential confrontations. As a great fictional man once said, I love it when a plan comes together. Now if only my students would finish their finals early so I could have time to go to lunch before picking up the little ones.

And I have all of my grading done except for this last test, which I'll tear through tonight. The weather forecast looks good, too, so we may have another end-of-semester celebration this weekend by going to the local ren fest thing.

Posted by Observer at 12:38 PM | Comments (0)

May 08, 2008

Almost Done

Maybe it was the double overload in the Fall or just the weird schedule this Spring, but either way, I'm very ready for the semester to end, which happens tomorrow. I've been pretty sloppy this semester in responding to student emails (in some cases confirming wrong answers as correct, which then came back to bite people on exams so I had to fix that a few times), and I've had a few really high-maintenance students this semester that have at times sucked the life force out of me. Mostly grade grubbing.

Summer will be busy, but I'm ready for a change. My last office hour of the semester is tomorrow, and I will probably just skip it and go to the bookstore. Better for all concerned. There's nothing that can't be solved by email or corrected after the semester is over, if needed, and I'm crabby enough at some people that I would otherwise possibly say something I would later regret.

I already was sarcastic to one person this morning, expressing how NOT shocked I was that they came to my office an hour before the final with detailed questions even though I told them I never do that sort of thing on test day (for a variety of very good reasons). Oops. Not so bad, but then later another guy showed up with a ton of questions even though my office hours had ended a while back. I dealt with him, but I'm sure my lack of enthusiasm was infectious.

Posted by Observer at 11:29 PM | Comments (1)

May 07, 2008

Spam Killer

It is very gratifying that I finally found an easy solution to spam, which was turning off comments on archived entries. People can still comment off of main page links just not on links from individual entries, and that has killed 99.99% of spam that used to hit the site, a much better batting average than blacklist had (though blacklist still blocks 99% of what remains, which is still way too much).

I forgot to mention earlier that at the festival this weekend we saw a really interesting little band called Ume. Punk rock, and a little blond girl on lead guitar was also the lead singer, and she spasmed all over the stage, then after offered a petite little "thank you, we're Ume" like a cartoon character. This video is fairly representative. I couldn't listen to it for any extended length of time, but it was a neat little show.

Posted by Observer at 05:45 PM | Comments (2)

May 06, 2008

Virgo

Just North of the Corvus/Crater/Hydra combination is the second largest constellation in the sky, Virgo. Many cultures share a similar story of this constellation as a maiden or virgin carrying a stalk of wheat (indicating by Alpha Virginis, or Spica, which translates to ear of wheat). Even in Greek mythology, this constellation sometimes represents Persephone, who was lured into the underworld by her uncle, the God Hades, where she ate the seeds of a pomegranite and was eventually forced to spend half of her life there as a princess after some negotiation by her father Zeus (this is related to the seasonal cycle).

Other stories identify her as Callisto, who also figures prominently in the legends of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. Or perhaps she is Astraea the goddess of justice (which is fitting given the nearby Libra the Scales in the sky), who ruled a benevolent age of the Earth until the ways of mankind became so violent and upsetting that she retreated back to the heavens. The story that seems to have passed the test of time is that of the winged harvest goddess holding the ear of wheat.

The bright star Spica is surely the easiest to spot in Virgo, found most easily by following the arc of the handle of the Big Dipper through Arcturus and on to Spica. Spica is very close to the ecliptic plane, so the moon and the planets frequently pass very close to it, and the moon even occults Spica occasionally. Spica is a closely-paired system of two hot blue stars, the combined light of which is over 2000 times the luminosity of the Sun, making it a bright 1st magnitude star even at 260 light years away (30 times further than Sirius).

While these two stars do not eclipse each other from our perspective, the light curve does vary a bit as the stars orbit. That's because the two stars are so close together that their shapes are tidally distorted, so sometimes we see them elongated and sometimes end-on, making the total light from the system vary. Kaler reports that lunar occultation studies confirm the presence of more than two stars in this system, perhaps as many as three more dim companions, but they are very hard to study individually due to the intense amount of light given off by the central binary.

Spica was important to the Egyptians, and it was identified with their goddess of love Hathor. A temple was built at Thebes in such a way as to align with the rising of Spica on the autumnal equinox, when it was time for the harvest, but over time, the precession of the Earth has caused that alignment to shift noticeably. This is an example from the field of archeoastronomy, and it provided some of the first evidence that precession means the celestial sphere is not fixed.

About 20 degrees Northwest of Spica, a bit less than halfway along a line drawn from Spica to the tail of Leo the Lion, Denebola, is the 2nd brightest star in this constellation (though it is designated Gamma Virginis), named Porrima after the goddess of prophecy. Porrima makes up the vertex of a right-angled cup that extends about 20 degrees North and 20 degrees West, opening up toward Leo (see the star chart here for visual help).

Between this "cup" and Leo, you will find all of the Messier objects in Virgo except for M 104 (the famous Sombrero Galaxy). This is no coincidence as the nearby Virgo cluster of galaxies is located in this direction, so this an extremely rich field for extragalactic astronomy. The stars in the cup are all five in the neighborhood of 3rd or 4th magnitude. Porrima is actually a double star, with the two virtually identical stars separated by a very small angle, currently about 3 arcseconds apart (an arcsecond is the diameter of a stellar image in a telescope if the viewing conditions are excellent). The two stars are both on the main sequence and only a little more massive and hotter than the Sun, about 40 light years away.

Kaler points out that stars like Porrima mark an interesting transition point for stellar behavior. First of all, at about this mass, the nuclear fusion process in the core becomes more efficient (using Carbon, Nitrogen and Oxygen as a facilitator instead of purely the proton-proton chain), so the luminosity increases a bit faster as mass increases. Also, at this mass and higher, stars begin to transition away from having large convection zones in their outer layers like the Sun. Instead, their interiors are dominated largely by their radiative zones (at the extreme, very hot stars have no convection and are ionized all the way through, meaning spectral absorption lines are very weak or non-existant).

Convection helps a star generate a strong magnetic field, which in turn helps slow down the star's rotation. When the field interacts with the gas and dust that usually exists in a surrounding disk after the star forms, this acts as a brake on the star's rotation. For more purely radiative stars, this braking action doesn't exist and so they can become very fast rotators. Remember Regulus in Leo? Or Gamma Cassiopeia? There are plenty of hot blue stars in the sky that are very fast rotators thanks to this.

Porrima probably should've been named Zavijava, which is the name given to Beta Virginis, at the Western tip of the cup, 15 degrees due South from Denebola in Leo. Zavijava translates to "the angle of the dog kennel" and was originally the name given to what is now Porrima, but confusion over the years has changed our conventions on this and so we're stuck with Zavijava at the end of the line rather than at the true vertex of the angle.

Zavijava is very similar to either of the two stars in the double-star system Porrima that we discussed previously, and it is at about the same distance, 36 light years away. About halfway between Porrima and Zavijava on the Western arm of the cup is Eta Virginis, or Zaniah. Zaniah is almost exactly on the Celestial Equator, which splits the constellation Virgo into a Northern and Southern half, and one of the two intersections of the Celestial Equator and the Ecliptic is located halfway between Zaniah and Zavijava: the autumnal equinox. This is the location in the sky of the Sun on the first day of Autumn. Recall that Virgo is usually associated with harvest time because the Sun has historically been near this constellation at this time of year. This is likely also why Persephone (who spent Fall and Winter in the Underworld, then Spring and Summer in freedom) is associated with this constellation.

Zaniah is a very close triple of hot blue stars. They are so close (and the system so distant at 250 light years) that it is very difficult to separate the light from each component to study them all individually, though this was recently accomplished using optical interferometry. The name originates from another name for this angle of stars, the mouth of the barking dog or perhaps the kennel of the barking dogs (al zawiah translates to kennel). Moving North from the vertex at Porrima, about six degrees NNE, we run into Delta Virginis, which some have named Awwa or Auva for "angle" or "turn", so now you can see where Zavijava got its name, from a mish-mash of al Zawiah and Awwa. Awwa is a cool M-class red giant star about 200 light years away.

Finally, at the Northern tip of the cup, about 12 degrees North (and 1 degree West) from Porrima, we find the third brightest star in Virgo, for some reason designated Epsilon Virginis: Vindemiatrix. This name translates to the grape gatherer, as this star rises just before dawn during the grape harvest. The star is a yellow giant, about 100 light years distant, very similar to one of the components of the bright double star Capella in Auriga. Wikipedia notes that this star shares some characteristics (distance, motion or composition, not sure which) with the stars of the Hyades cluster in Taurus, but I have not been able to find a source to back up this claim.

It seems unlikely to me as the Hyades is on nearly the opposite side of the sky, and I'm certain we are not completely enveloped by the Hyades cluster so that we would have members all over the sky. The cluster is about 150 light years away and estimated to be less than 100 light years in diameter with most stars being in an inner 10 light year diameter sphere. Just goes to show that while Wikipedia can be very useful, it is important to read what's there with a skeptical eye and always look for credible backup sources if it is an important topic.

Moving on, I will now talk about some of the eleven Messier objects in the constellation Virgo. I suppose one way to do it systematically is to move from the Southernmost and work North toward the center of the Virgo cluster, so I'll start with Messier 104, also known as the Sombrero Galaxy. This is an outlier but generally accepted as a member of the cluster. The Virgo Cluster of galaxies is found mostly in a square whose opposite corners are Spica and Denebola (the tail of Leo). The central concentration is about halfway between Denebola and Vindemiatrix, a star I talked about previously.

The Virgo Cluster is a large group of galaxies (between 1000-2000) centered on a point about 60 million light years from us, and our own Local Group is a little bubble of 30-40 galaxies about 10-20 million light years in diameter that forms another part of the supercluster we share with Virgo. Most of the cluster galaxies are in the direction of Virgo, but some lie just across the border into Coma Berenices, a constellation I will talk about next time. Getting back to M104, this is a very nice nearly edge-on spiral (tilted about six degrees toward us) on the front side of the Virgo Cluster, about 30 million light years away from us. At 8th magnitude, it shows up nicely in a 8" or 10" telescope, which is ideal for most of the bright Messier objects I will talk about in this constellation.

In this deep image, you can see that it is a large, extended, low surface brightness halo with a couple of tidal tails extended from within the bright center. Like our own galaxy, the Sombrero has some satellite galaxies that it is slowly devouring, though this galaxy is only about half the visible diameter of our own Milky Way. The dust lane in the disk of this galaxy can be very clearly seen in this Infrared image taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope, and it doesn't look very disturbed.

Though we are pretty good at determining distances to galaxies these days, the distance to the Sombrero is still somewhat uncertain. I see quotes of distances anywhere from 28-50 million light years, though I tend to trust the lower end projections since they fit so many other aspects of the galaxy. The problem is that galaxies in the Virgo Cluster are a little bit too far away from our normal distance determination methods (using Cepheids or Planetary Nebulae or star clusters or bright stars) to work well. Normally, with an accurate value for Hubble's constant (which we have now thanks to observations by WMAP), we can use Hubble's Law to find the distance.

That's just d = v/H where v is the radial velocity of the galaxy and H is Hubble's Constant. The problem is that galaxies in Virgo have large peculiar velocities since they are in a cluster. They are swarming about the center of mass like a bunch of angry hornets, and this velocity adds a random component to their Hubble flow speeds. Ideally, a galaxy 60 million light years away should be receding from us at a speed of 1400 km/sec, but the peculiar velocities in Virgo can be as high as 2000 km/sec, overwhelming the "signal" we get from cosmological expansion. Since the cluster is close to us, this random component is very large compared to the cosmological expansion velocity, so that makes using Hubble's Law very tough. As our technology improves, so does our ability to pick out standard candles in these distant galaxies and improve our distance accuracy.

Now, a quick aside about dark matter. I mentioned that the peculiar velocities in this cluster are very high, on the order of 2000 km/sec. This fact and our knowledge that the cluster is bound together is another piece of evidence that tells us of the existence of dark matter. Here's how: when we look at galaxy clusters, we assume they are bound. That means all (or almost all) of the galaxies are gravitationally bound to their clusters. This is a good assumption because most galaxies exist in clusters, and we don't see clusters in varying degrees of dissipation in our Universe.

Compare the state of affairs for galaxy clusters with that of open clusters in our galaxy. Open clusters in our galaxy are NOT bound (due to the strength of tidal forces in the disk of the galaxy), and so we see them in varying degrees of concentration. Some very young ones are very tightly grouped together while most older clusters are very loosely bound, sometimes almost to the point where they are unrecognizable as clusters. With galaxy clusters, they are all pretty similar in terms of their concentration and velocity distribution, much like the globular clusters in our galactic halo, so we assume they are bound together.

The escape velocity of a cluster is like a speed limit. If a galaxy is moving faster than the escape velocity, then it will escape, and it is considered to be not bound to the cluster. The escape velocity depends on the mass and size of the cluster. The more massive the cluster, the harder it is to escape the cluster's gravity. So, if we count up the mass of all of the visible matter in Virgo, which means all of the stars, gas and dust, we can estimate the escape velocity of the Virgo Cluster. We get a number of about 1000 km/sec.

This is a problem, because if the escape velocity of Virgo were really that low while galaxy velocities are often as high as 2000 km/sec, then the cluster should be flying apart! The solution comes with dark matter: When we make the assumption that dark matter is 10 times more common than visible matter, like it is in our own galaxy, the escape velocity from Virgo grows to about 4000 km/sec, easily high enough to contain all of the "angry hornets" buzzing around the cluster's center of mass at 2000 km/sec or so.

There is also very hot gas bound to galaxy clusters, seen in X-ray images due to its high energy radiation. If we measure the velocity of such gas (which is related to the temperature), we also get a very high number. If we assume the hot gas is bound to the cluster, then you need a lot more mass than what you can see to contain that gas, and so the need for dark matter appears. Fritz Zwicky was the first to advance this argument for dark matter way back in the 1930's, but his ideas weren't generally accepted until more evidence came to light decades later. The problem is not so much that Zwicky was unfairly ignored, it's just that he had a lot of crazy ideas, many of which turned out to be wrong, and so when he claimed to discover dark matter, he wasn't taken as seriously as, say, Einstein or Hubble would have been.

Moving North about 15 degrees toward the center of the cluster, we move into the Messier Objects contained in Virgo's cup, starting with M61, a 10th magnitude galaxy very similar in properties to the Milky Way and located about 60 million light years away. This makes it one of the largest spirals in the Virgo Cluster. Moving North about four degrees brings us to the next Messier object, M49, one of the giant elliptical galaxies in the cluster with a major axis of 160,000 light years in length or possibly longer depending upon the angle of orientation with respect to us. It is at least five times more massive than our own galaxy, which is itself one of the largest galaxies in our own little cluster.

Going north another four degrees or so, we stumble across a string of galaxies known as Markarian's Chain, at the heart of the Virgo Cluster. In the linked image, that's roughly the same angular size as a standard photograph of the Pleiades. Most prominent on the Western end are two giant elliptical galaxies, M84 and M86. Proceeding East from there, we see a pair of connected galaxies that looks at first glance like a pair of eyes, known as Markarian's Eyes. They are also known as NGC 4438 and NGC 4435, and you can see in the linked image the dramatic effects of tidal forces on these two closely passing galaxies. A full moon would just barely cover the two ellipticals and the two eyes, to give you some idea of how separated these objects are in a line on the sky.

A degree or so Southeast of the Eyes, we find Virgo A, also known as M87, probably the largest galaxy in the Virgo Cluster, probably at least 20 times more massive than the Milky Way galaxy. In deep exposures, the surface brightness of the extended halo of this galaxy fills a region in the sky roughly equivalent to the Full Moon, and this is a galaxy that is 60 million light years away! At the heart of Virgo A is likely a supermassive black hole, from which is emanating an enormously powerful jet, a stream of plasma extended around 5000 light years from the core of the galaxy.

Another couple of degrees East from M87 is a cluster of five messier objects loosely arranged in a 180 degree arc of a circle that it about 3 degrees in diameter. The Southeastern part of the arc is anchored by the giant elliptical galaxy M60 and a close companion spiral galaxy known as NGC 4649 (seen better in this image). A little less than a degree West of M60 is M59, another large elliptical galaxy. To give you some idea of how big these big ellipticals are in Virgo, M59 has about 2000 globular clusters in orbit around it, over ten times more than our own Milky Way galaxy has. Each of these clusters contains anywhere from 50,000 to 10 million stars.

The last three Messier objects in the "cup" of Virgo formed by Vindemiatrix, Porrima and Zavijava about 25 degrees Northwest of Spica are M58, M89 and M90, three galaxies within about a degree of one another and about 1-2 degrees West of Virgo A. M58 is one of the few barred spiral galaxies in Messier's list, and it is also a rare spiral to be found so close to the directional center of Virgo. It is hard to say how far this is from the true center of Virgo. With a velocity about half that of the highest peculiar velocities, it is likely safely outside of the true core and so not subjected currently to the kind of tidal forces that can strip its gas and disrupt its structure.

M89 is another giant elliptical, almost perfectly round in shape. It isn't clear whether it is a true sphere or just an ellipsoid being viewed end-on from our perspective. Deep images of M89 show a little bit more asymmetry, including a jet-like feature similar to that seen in M87 (Virgo A). Most of the scruff surrounding the main body of this galaxy is probably tidally disrupted remnants of galaxies that have been devoured in the recent past.

M90 is another bright spiral with a two-phase structure. The inner disk is lumpy and clearly split into regions thick with dust and clumps of vigorous star formation. Then about a third of the way out from the center to the visible edge of the disk, it transforms into a very smooth appearance similar to that of a lenticular galaxy, which it may be evolving into. M90 also has a high enough peculiar velocity that it should be able to escape the Virgo Cluster. The peculiar velocity is so high that it is currently larger than the expansion velocity of the cluster as a whole and so the net radial motion is toward us, one of a very small fraction of galaxies in the sky that seems to "violate" Hubble's Law. It is only a technical violation, really, as I talked about previously.

Some other galaxies in this same little area that are not to be missed: NGC 4216 is a pretty nearly-edge-on spiral about 4 degrees West of Markarian's Chain. The pair NGC 4762 and NGC 4754 is also a very nice target a few degrees east of M60, at the eastern edge of the group of Messier objects I've been describing. Four degrees South from M58 is a large, bright face-on spiral NGC 4535. This spiral has been a good target for finding Cepheids and has helped the Hubble Space Telescope establish a proper distance to the Virgo Cluster.
Just half a degree South from NGC 4535 is another beautiful spiral, NGC 4526, reminiscent of the Sombrero Galaxy with its prominent dust lane and bright central region. This one is famous for hosting an elusive Type Ia supernova in 1994, a type of explosion that is an extremely important brightness standard used in distance determination.

Before I move out of the Virgo Cluster region of the constellation Virgo, I should point out a very nice sky chart of the "cup" of Virgo and the cluster galaxies within it. Now for a few more highlight galaxies in the Virgo Cluster. Next up is NGC 4527, a nearly edge-on spiral reminiscent of Andromeda but about 20 times further away on the near side of the cluster. Right next to it on the sky is NGC 4536, but distance estimates seem to put this one on the far side of the cluster, about 70 million light years away (a distance obtained thanks to a bright type Ia supernova, 1981b, which also made this a target for the Hubble Space Telescope years later). These two galaxies are so close together in the sky that they would fit within a full moon angular diameter, and they are found about 4 degrees Northwest of Porrima (the vertex of the cup), just across on the north side of the Celestial Equator.

Nearby, just a couple of degrees East of this pair, we find the giant elliptical galaxy NGC 4636, recently a target of the Chandra X-Ray observatory. The goal was to measure the concentration of dark matter in the galaxy by measuring the detailed properties of the hot gas in the galactic halo. Turns out the dark matter is very concentrated, not a diffuse extended halo as some theories might predict, and this rules out a few models (such as that dark matter can diffuse outward or puff up like a halo of stars in a globular cluster or a galaxy). NGC 4636 isn't much to see visually, just an ordinary elliptical, almost perfectly spherically symmetric (but the X-rays tell a different story).

To finish off the bright galaxies in the Virgo cluster (in this constellation, anyway), we need to look several degrees to the East of the main body, about 22 degrees due Northeast from Spica, and there we find the bright spiral galaxy NGC 5566, a barred spiral with a ring of stars around the center. It is imaged here with a couple of fainter companion galaxies. There are still a few galaxies left to cover, though, and they are in a little group just South of Spica and north of Gamma Hydrae. Their membership in the Virgo cluster is on the iffy side, but some are at the right distance.

NGC 5247 is the most prominent of this group, a face-on grand design spiral about 50 million light years away, and just a couple of degrees to the West is a tilted 11th magnitude spiral about 90 million light years away (probably not a member of the cluster) known as NGC 5054. South of these two is a nearby spiral NGC 5068 only about 20 million light years away but rather faint for this distance, indicating it is a small galaxy. Finally, a little further south is another small member of the group, NGC 5084, seen in this gallery of Virgo galaxies.

Over near the Eastern end of Virgo, following the Celestial Equator east from Porrima about 45 degrees and just a few degrees north is the faint star 109 Virginis, marking one of Virgo's feet. Right next to this star is the edge-on spiral galaxy NGC 5746. This is another galaxy that recently drew the attention of the Chandra X-Ray observatory. Chandra discovered a hot halo of gas surrounding this galaxy, which is a little unusual because most galaxies with hot halos have that gas due to vigorous star formation (and stellar explosions), but NGC 5746 shows a rather quiet history. Instead, the hot gas is actually gas from the intergalactic medium falling into this galaxy and heating up as it does so.

The final object I want to mention in Virgo is a frequently overlooked globular cluster, NGC 5634, just under 5 degrees due East from the bright star Syrma in the Southeast corner of Virgo near its border with Libra. Astronomers speculate that this globular cluster once belonged to the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy, a small irregular galaxy currently being tidally ripped apart thanks to repeated passages through the disk of the Milky Way galaxy. This cluster is located in the extended tidal stream of the dwarf galaxy and also has a similar population of stars (and similar composition) to the clusters associated with this dwarf.

Posted by Observer at 04:33 PM | Comments (0)

May 05, 2008

Weekend Trip

M*chelle and I went out of town for the weekend, thanks very much to a grandma who was willing to babysit the clan for 48 hours. We stayed at a nice hotel. We even got the first night comped thanks to a room mixup where they checked our room out to someone else at 9pm. At least we had the latch on the door so they didn't just barge in. We were just sitting on the bed watching "Juno" after a nice relaxing hour or so in a hot tub.

We had lots of good food, and we got to see lots of live music, which made M*chelle happy. Unfortunately, the place we went Saturday night to watch music started off ok. We got there 30 minutes before the show in a little open courtyard between two big buildings. There were about two dozen tables, and we sat in the front.

As time went on, more and more people showed up, and it was becoming abundantly clear there weren't going to be enough chairs and tables for everyone, so people just started standing in front of us. Oh well, I guess we have to stand for the show. Then it got so packed that we were like sardines. Our chairs were useful to have behind us so we could have a little bit of a buffer between the rest of the crowd on one side and also so we could sit between sets.

Fun, very loud show, and the crowd was fairly drunk and unruly. Me, I'd rather be on the couch watching a baseball game, but it was an interesting experience, definitely my first one in what effectively turned into a mosh pit.

This morning, it is back to reality with an 8am final. I didn't like taking them as a student, and I don't like giving them as a faculty member.

Posted by Observer at 10:20 AM | Comments (0)

Talking Down to the Rubes

Several blogs have pointed to this story in the NY Times in which they send several food reviewers out into the hinterlands to pass judgement on the horrible chain restaurants that populate the areas where the rubes reside in the flyover states.

It is almost impossible not to hate such a snooty attitude. It's a shame, really, because the reporters who work for that paper still do very important work occasionally when their corporate editors allow them to do something besides research Obama's bowling technique.

Posted by Observer at 09:38 AM | Comments (3)

May 02, 2008

Conspiracy Theory

So, a DC madam says that she has the goods on several Washington bigwigs (including members of Congress) who have used her escort service to acquire the services of hookers, and she'll rat them all out rather than go to jail. Then she turns up dead, and it looks like a suicide.

Pardon me for thinking something's fishy and we'll never know what. If I were her, I would do a "Tom Cruise in 'The Firm'" thing and put all of the damning information out there in a safe place and make sure everyone knew that if I turned up dead, that information would find its way out. Otherwise, the boat would just keep right on sailing forever and never find a harbor.

Maybe she did this. I guess we'll know soon enough. Link via the always linky Sideshow.

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

Survivor

I haven't been posting here about Survivor this season because I've been getting my fix of Survivor analysis via podcast. Still, I have to say here that this has been a very entertaining and unpredictable season so far. Last night's episode was a master class in using an immunity idol to completely change the numbers in a game. Even though there are still five more people to go, I suspect Amanda may have earned herself a million dollars last night and atoned for her horrible performance in the China season at the final tribal council. CBS is doing an excellent job this season of providing lots of extra clips on the Survivor website, too. It's a win-win because I get extra content, and they finally get a way to force me to watch a 15 or 30 second commercial every once in a while (but I can still mute it).

Posted by Observer at 01:51 PM | Comments (0)

Aftermath

Well, my student from the other day who pissed me off (one of a couple) finally came to see me face-to-face, and rather than report on the whole conversation in detail on a public blog, I'll just say that the encounter played out in the way I suspected it would.

There is justice in this big universe of ours, after all.

Oh, and if this student does end up taking the final, I'll be making a Xerox copy of it before returning it, just to be on the safe side. I smelled a rat on this one, but it turned out not to make a difference because the overall grade was so awful that trying to get a little tricky here and there wasn't really sufficient. It was like trying to hide an ace up your sleeve when you're down $500 in a nickel/dime limit poker game.

Posted by Observer at 11:01 AM | Comments (0)

May 01, 2008

FTP

I've played enough ring games over the past couple of months that I built up a bunch of bonus "Full Tilt Points". The only problem is that these are almost exclusively used to enter tournaments or satellites to tournaments, and I really had to swear off tournaments. They just take too much of a consecutive-hours time commitment.

Ring games are much easier and better because I can get up or sit down at any time, at least if I'm willing to play hold 'em. Lately, I've been playing a lot of Omaha Hi/Lo, and that has actually been more profitable than Hold 'Em. Six weeks ago, my bankroll was at about $240 and slowly climbing, but I guess I changed the way I was playing or something because I started going down despite earning bonus money.

It is probably because I tried to multitable for a while to earn cash bonuses quickly within the three-week window they provided. I earned about $160 in cash bonuses over three weeks, but my bankroll actually went DOWN to about $200 in that time. It actually dipped as low as $120 before I seriously tightened up my game, and maybe now I've recovered a style of play that will let me slowly build up again. Playing only one or two tables at a time works best for me because I can take notes on others.

Or maybe I'm just on another lucky streak. Either way, thanks to Omaha and Hold 'Em (mostly Omaha), I'm up to around $170 again. I think the Omaha players are the weakest and easiest to exploit, but there is SO much luck involved that my bankroll will fluctuate wildly if I don't play super-tight (which means I miss lots of opportunities to draw). I've probably netted about $120 in profit from Omaha over the last month while losing at least that much in Hold 'Em.

I think I've figured out what was wrong with my Hold 'Em game, because I'm on a pretty good week-long positive streak now. In the meantime, I've been earning bonus points that you can either use to enter tournaments (for cash) or trade for merchandise. A year ago, I bought a regular deck of cards with my bonus points. This time, I spent a lot more points to buy a two-deck set of plastic cards. They just came yesterday and are very nice, definitely worth more than my $50 buy-in from a few years ago.

Posted by Observer at 04:21 PM | Comments (0)