June 30, 2008


Our oldest turned 19 today, and we bequeathed our 3.5 cubic foot fridge currently in our walk-in pantry with the intention of replacing it with a 9-10 cubic foot fridge if we can find one that will fit through the 22.5 inch wide door. He also got a Josh Hamilton t-shirt and a ticket to next Thursday's game against the hated Angels (I actually stopped by the ballpark today for the shirt and to avoid paying a zillion dollars in fees for buying it online). I formally gave him my bike to take with him, and he got money from various relatives. A good pre-college send-off birthday.

His real present is going to be everytime I haul my ass out there 3.5 hours away down one of the most godforsaken stretches of interstate this nation has to offer.

Posted by Observer at 11:45 PM | Comments (1)

June 28, 2008

Dorm Fridge

J*stin's 19th birthday is coming up quickly, and we've decided to get him something for his dorm room, probably a little fridge. I still can't believe I paid fifty bucks to rent essentially a refrigerated lunchbox each year for three years while I lived in the dorm at UT. That company must have made a killing, but I sure loved my little fridge (mainly for making ice, if I remember).

Oh, in other news, Diablo III has been announced. That should be fun. I hope my Mac can handle all of the graphics and gameplay because the little preview video looked cool.

Posted by Observer at 10:32 PM | Comments (0)

June 27, 2008


The next part of the sky I'd like to talk about is the constellation Draco, wrapped around the North Celestial Pole, separating Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. Along with Cepheus and Camelopardalis, Draco completely encircles Ursa Minor and because it is so close to the Celestial Pole, it is circumpolar for most of the northern hemisphere. The most common story associated with Draco is that it was the dragon placed by Hera to guard her golden apple tree. Hercules (or Heracles) was tasked to acquire a golden apple and so had to kill the serpent with a poisoned arrow, and in many historical drawings of the mythological figures associated with the constellations, the foot of the warrior still rests on the dead dragon's head as both circle the pole in the night sky.

Draco's most famous star is likely Alpha Draconis, or Thuban, although this is only a fourth magnitude star and nowhere near the brightest star in this part of the sky or even in this constellation. As seen in this simplified star chart, due to the precession of Earth's axis, our north pole points in different directions over the centuries, wobbling slowly like a top that's about to fall over. In about the year 2700 BC, Thuban was the brightest star in the vicinity of the pole and so played a very important part in the mythology of the time. Thuban is found between Ursa Minor and Ursa Major, about halfway between the double Mizar/Alcor in the handle of the Big Dipper and Pherkad in the bowl of the Little Dipper. Thuban (the name of which translates to dragon) is a bright A giant star, similar in many respects to the bright star Vega, though Thuban is much further away at 310 light years.

Beta and Gamma Draconis represent the two eyes of the dragon, located about halfway between the bright star Vega and Pherkad. Beta is called Rastaban, which comes from Al Ras al Thuban (head of the dragon). Rastaban is a yellow supergiant, a rare kind of star since stars don't spend a large part of their lives in this stage. Kaler notes that although it is in a part of the H-R diagram that demands some kind of Cepheid-like pulsation instability, this star shows no signs of regular variation. Right next to Rastaban is the brighter of the pair, known as Eltanin, an orange K-class giant about 150 light years away.

Our next stop is Nodus Secundus, which translates to the second loop of the dragon's body (out of four). This star isn't really close to any bright landmarks. It forms a rough equilateral triangle with Kochab and Rastaban, mentioned earlier. It is the 4th brightest star within about 20 degrees of the north celestial pole, an orange giant star about 100 light years away. Kocab and Pherkad in the end of the Little Dipper form pointer stars toward our next target, about 12 degrees along that line, Eta Draconis, a third magnitude yellow giant about 90 light years distant.

About five degrees East of Eta is Aldhibah (Zeta Draconis), a 3rd magnitude blue giant star about 300 light years away. Seven degrees in the opposite direction is Edasich (don't ask me why, but it translates loosely to male hyena), one of two named stars in the sky with a known companion planet (though mass estimates indicate it could qualify as a brown dwarf instead). The other is Gamma Cephei (Errai). There are no other really noteworthy stars here of a type that I haven't discussed previously, at least not easily visible to an amateur astronomer.

To cover the deep sky objects in Draco, we'll start just a few degrees South of Edasich, where a pair of 10th magnitude edge-on galaxies can be found, and one of them is the only Messier object in Draco. Messier 102 is also known as NGC 5866, and there is some uncertainty over exactly how this galaxy should be named. Some think that M102 is actually an accidental duplicate in Messier's original catalog of M101, but there is some evidence that Messier intended to give this label to the edge-on galaxy NGC 5866. At any rate, it is a fine example of an edge-on spiral where the halo can be seen quite clearly due to obscuration of the disk by dust lanes. NGC 5907 is sometimes called the "splinter" or "knife edge" galaxy due to its bright, thin appearance. These two galaxies are physically part of the same small group of galaxies about 40 million light years away. A recent photo of NGC 5907 captured the tidal stream of a smaller galaxy devoured by this larger spiral billions of years ago.

Moving only half a degree or so due South from the Splinter Galaxy to a faint (12th magnitude) and very pretty pair of spirals in the sky are NGC 5908 and NGC 5905, seen here together. This pair is about three times further than the Splinter, and so not physically associated with NGC 5907 despite a close angular proximity. A little brighter at 11th magnitude is the spiral galaxy NGC 5985, seen here in close proximity to two other galaxies on the sky at about 100 million light years away. With excellent dark conditions, if you can follow the winding body of the snake counterclockwise around the pole from Thuban to Edasich to Eta Draconis, this trio of galaxies is about 1/4 of the way along the line from Edasich to Eta Draconis. About three degrees South of this region is our next object of interest, the Tadpole Galaxy.

It doesn't really make a good target for amateurs at a magnitude of around 20 (over 400 million light years away). It took the Hubble eight hours to collect enough light for the stunning photo seen at the link above. This is one of the neatest examples of a tidal tail formed from a galaxy collision. The tadpole as well as a companion also seen in the image have recently passed very close together, and this has strung out a tail of gas, dust and stars almost 300,000 light years long. Due to the recent nature of the event, star formation in the tidal tail is ongoing and makes the feature very bright. Such tails fade quickly as the bright, hot, short-lived stars die out, so they are rarely seen so brightly at such length.

NGC 4236 is a 10th magnitude spiral galaxy that, if dropped about 10 degrees South, it would land right in the center of the bowl of the Big Dipper. It is in the hind part of Draco that sprawls between the Little Dipper and Big Dipper on the sky, fairly close to the 4th magnitude variable star Kappa Draconis. Being so close on the sky to the Northern part of Ursa Major, it should come as no surprise that it is associated with the M81 group, a sprawling cluster of bright galaxies about 12 million light years away that dominates the deep sky pantheon in the region to the North and Northeast of the bowl of the Big Dipper.

On the other side of the Little Dipper, we found another nice 10th magnitude edge-on spiral, NGC 6503, located about 20 million light years away, about halfway between Eltanin in the dragon's head and the star Polaris. Unlike NGC 4236, this galaxy is much more compact and so easier to see with the eye. There is a little interesting history to this galaxy, as it is is very close on the sky (in an angular sense) to a much more distant quasar. Halton Arp used this as a case study to argue that the supposed distant quasar emission was actually just slightly off-center emission from the much more nearby galaxy, that the quasar and the galaxy were physically connected despite being at two very different apparent redshifts.

Arp was attempting to advance his thesis that quasars are not high-redshift objects at all but instead more ordinary nearby objects associated with galaxies. Seth Shostak, who typically co-hosts the very interesting SETI podcast, observed this pair of objects with a radio telescope and found no apparent physical connection, and like with most of Arp's unusual objects, the more plausible explanation turned out to be unsupportive of his thesis.

The final object I would like to note in Draco is NGC 6543, the Cat's Eye Nebula. Like NGC 6503, which I discussed previously, this object is found about 10 degrees North of the head of Draco, about halfway from there to Polaris. NGC 6543 occupies another important point in the sky, the North Ecliptic Pole, or the North Pole of the solar system (where the Earth's orbital plane extended out to infinity is the equator). This is an 8th magnitude object that is also compact and so easy for amateurs to see in non-ideal conditions, full of complexity and puzzles, studied intensively by both amateurs and professionals.

The basic statistics: the bright, inner part usually seen in emission line photo from Oxygen and Nitrogen lines) by a factor of about 5-6 further. The nebula is about 3300 light years away. The age of such a nebula and the distance to the nebula can both be found from very high resolution photographs.

The get the age, we simply take pictures a number of years apart and measure the angular expansion rate. We then use Doppler shifting to measure the true expansion velocity of the part of the shell expanding toward us. If the nebula is expanding uniformly, then we can just multiply the linear velocity and angular distance and get the base of a long skinny triangle. With that side and the angular size, we can measure the long leg of this triangle, which is the distance. For the age, we just reconstruct the motion. If it is expanding at 10 milliarcseconds per year and is now at a radius of about 10 arcseconds, then that's about 1000 years, assuming a uniform expansion rate (it probably should be slowing down as the outward pushing gas encounters the interstellar medium).

A former mentor of mine at the University of Washington, Bruce Balick, is pretty well immersed in the study of planetary nebula, and he's got a great web page here with more on planetary nebulae of all kinds as well as the Cat's Eye in particular, the structure of which he has written some papers about.

Posted by Observer at 08:46 PM | Comments (0)

June 26, 2008

What To Believe...

Horsey, via Bartcop:

Posted by Observer at 08:43 PM | Comments (0)


We've now been told two or maybe three different things as absolute truth on how to make the kids from Canada all legal and everything. This time, though, we got it from a SUPERVISOR, so it must be legit. We basically have to start all over. The kids can't become citizens just because M*chelle does (which we were told three years ago). They all have to have their own $1000+ applications go through the mill. YUM!

This week sucks, mainly because it is a typically busy week and I have to treat it as such and get things done just like I would any other week when all I really want to do is sleep half the day and fix my sore throat so I can eat. I am in a very low energy state.

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

June 25, 2008


My good friends at RedOrbit just sent me some swag in the form of a t-shirt, a long sleeve t-shirt and a sweatshirt, all very nice. It's just in time, too, since most of my ten-year-old college orientation t-shirts are shot to hell.

Boy, I can't wait to drive to the immigration office at fucking hell early in the morning tomorrow 50 miles away through traffic. The only thing more fun than immigration paperwork is the immigration office in person. Lots of shiny, happy people there.

And my throat still hurts like hell.

Posted by Observer at 10:08 PM | Comments (0)

June 24, 2008


The fever and body aches are gone, but my energy is still kinda low and my throat is incredibly sore for going on three days now. It is usually painful to eat and very difficult to sleep. I'm trying various remedies and am willing to listen to any ideas that don't involve swallowing nasty fucking apple cider vinegar. We only got back safely today because Michelle was willing to drive the crazy highways while I napped in the car. Otherwise, I'm sure I would've driven off the road being so tired.

I caught up on a ton of podcasts during the trip, but I'm still behind. I can't pick which ones to delete. I just need to remember to turn them on when the baby is asleep and I'm playing video games or something. That's a perfect time for a podcast. Randi Rhodes is my favorite, but it is hard to listen to two solid hours of uninterrupted political talk, so I break it up with comedy or other stuff. Still, she piles up ten hours a week, and I can't keep up very well. Sometimes, I just fast forward until I hear her get into it with a wingnut caller. Those are always highlights.

J*stin's college of choice is about a 3.5 hour drive away, which will make visiting easier (especially since the interstate connecting us is very low traffic and easy to navigate). His high school grades mean he's going to be doing a lot of remedial stuff, even for a junior college, but in my mind, he's getting these two years to prepare for a Div III or Div II four-year college, years he lost because of slow schools and his disability. We're paying for it as long as he takes advantage and works hard. The running is just a bonus for him.

We're worried he'll be in a dorm surrounded by athletes who are trying to get recruited and don't care about classes. Hell, I'm virtually certain that will happen. Will he get past that? If he can't, he may find himself in two-job minimum-wage hell for a while to pay some bills and/or save some money, and maybe after a couple of years of that, he'll be motivated enough to know what's he needs to do in college.

My best hope is he has a lot of fun, makes a few friends for life, matures to a point where our 15-year-old C*dy can't drag him into childish crap, and gets prepared for any college-level work, maybe an education major. Then in two years we'll see what his options are.

Posted by Observer at 09:42 PM | Comments (2)

June 23, 2008


In the middle of a violent thundering rainstorm in Lubbock, the three huddled and spoke quietly and quickly, a council had been convened and a momentous decision was made. Jesus, J*stin, stop looking out at the lightning and listen!

We aren't going to give the third college the time of day since they have way too many negatives that can't overcome all of the things we know about J*stin's top choice, which we visited first today. Visiting the third school tomorrow would add at least 7 hours to a long day of driving, and we're beat. We don't want to go if J*stin isn't willing to seriously consider them. And we respect and agree with his decision.

So now tomorrow we are going back to the top choice to sign the letter of intent, fill out applications, accept the half-ride scholarship. If you are reading this before it is announced, you can scoop all of the runner recruiting magazines that are actively looking for rumors as to which junior colleges have signed which runners for their teams.

Posted by Observer at 11:54 PM | Comments (1)

June 22, 2008


Our 14-year-old, C*dy, brought back some sort of illness from his camp last week, and he has effectively spread it to myself and the two little ones. It hit me the hardest. I was basically incapacitated and panting for breath last night while sweating out a fever, one of those illnesses where I can't get warm enough (unless I'm wearing sweats with a hood and under a blanket or two or sitting out in the Sun on a 100-degree day).

I wish I were nauseous so I could throw up and feel better, but no such luck. I was feeling well enough this morning to go to the Doc-in-a-Box to get some drugs. They did a strep test, flu test and white blood cell count on me, all showed negative/normal, so it's just a particularly bad bacterial infection, I hope. Bad timing as M*chelle and I are leaving for parts out West tomorrow morning to visit some colleges J*stin is thinking of attending. I hope I feel better by tomorrow.

Posted by Observer at 02:06 PM | Comments (0)

June 20, 2008

My Fantasy

Could it really happen to me?

A student comes to a young professor's office hours. She glances down the hall, closes his door, kneels pleadingly.

"I would do *anything* to pass this exam." She leans closer to him, flips back her hair, gazes meaningfully into his eyes.

"I mean..." she whispers, "...I would do...*anything*."

He returns her gaze. "Anything?"


His voice softens. "*Anything*??"


His voice turns to a whisper. "Would you...*study*?"

Posted by Observer at 08:14 PM | Comments (0)

June 19, 2008

Why Somone Might Vote for a Republican

The Republican good news fairy, from Tom Tomorrow:

Posted by Observer at 10:43 PM | Comments (0)

June 18, 2008

Tone Deaf

I had to laugh when I saw this McCain story. It seems he's trying to push a bunch of new nuclear power plants as part of his energy policy. Oh, THAT'S going to go over just great.

And exactly where will we store the waste?

I think he can write off the Nevada delegates.

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

June 17, 2008


Looks like we're going early next week to visit a few junior colleges nearby that have running programs that interest our newly minted high school graduate. Hard to believe he'll soon be away at college. I'm very happy for him, and I know he'll have a great time.

This week is a busy one with me teaching a workshop for three hours every morning. Same one I taught last summer, and it is going great. The extra money will be nice. I still had time today to start up a new Necromancer on the newly reset Diablo II ladder. For a few minutes, I actually appeared in the top 200 Necromancers, but then I was passed by the people with no lives and lots of time on their hands. I should've taken a screenshot. Oh well.

Posted by Observer at 11:51 PM | Comments (0)

June 16, 2008

Canes Venatici

Moving on from Bootes, we now look at the constellation Canes Venatici, which represents the hunting dogs Chara and Asterion, held on a leash by Bootes. This constellation is one of those inserted into a blank area of the map by Johannes Hevelius (like Lynx and Leo Minor, also in this area of the sky). The northern dog is Asterion (translation: little star), and the Southern dog, Chara (translation: joy), contains the two brightest stars in the constellation.

Alpha Canum Venaticorum (there's a mouthful) is Cor Caroli, which translates as the Heart of Charles. Whether it refers to King Charles I of England or King Charles II depends upon the timing in history. It was named under the reign of Charles II but is supposedly in honor of Charles I, who was executed after twice sparking civil wars in England. Cor Caroli is a famous binary, which its components about 20 arcseconds apart, making it an easy target for binoculars, with a 3rd magnitude A-star (Sirius-like) and a 6th magnitude F-star (a little hotter than the Sun). The system is a little over 100 light years from us.

What sets the brighter star apart from most others in the sky is its peculiar magnetic properties. It has an intense magnetic field, hundreds of times more powerful than our own Sun, and this combined with a 5+ day rotation period leads to oscillations in the star's spectral lines. As the star spins, some spectral lines are enhanced while others are suppressed, and these intensities vary (sometimes one element is stronger in the spectrum, sometimes weaker). Clearly, the magnetic field and the convection are combining to selectively raise up one element and then another (or at least make the lines of one element more or less prominent), but why the star does this is unclear, and there are very few others like it on the sky.

Beta CVn is sometimes called Asterion, sometimes Chara, after the names of the two hunting dogs of Bootes. Chara is only about 27 light years away and is a near twin to our own Sun. Since it is solitary, I wonder if we will discover planets around it someday. It doesn't make a lot of target lists because of its low metal abundance. We've found that stars with a lower fraction of heavy elements (metals) are less likely to have planets. This makes sense because if a stellar nebula started with a low fraction of metals, there would have been fewer heavy elements available for the formation of planets early in the star's formation process.

Next up is perhaps the most unusual star in this part of the sky, the variable star Y Canum Venaticorum (Y CVn for short). This star was named "La Superba" by Father Secchi, the director of the Vatican Observatory during the 19th century who made the first systematic spectroscopic survey of the bright stars. The name was inspired by its very strange and wonderful spectral features.

Y CVn is a star that varies between 5th and 7th magnitudes with a couple of different overlapping periods of a few months and several years, and it is one of the reddest stars in the sky. It is also a supergiant, and it is a carbon star. That last name comes from its composition. Most of the time, oxygen is more abundant than carbon, and in that case, elemental carbon is rarely seen (since in cooler environments, it will bond with the oxygen or nitrogen), but in carbon stars, the carbon is more abundant. Even stranger, the isotope Carbon-13 is very abundant in this star as opposed to the usual Carbon-12, and it isn't at all clear why.

The absorption bands of CO, CN and carbon chains soak up a lot of the shorter wavelengths of light in the visible part of the spectrum, making an already red star look even more so. Like most supergiants, it is losing mass rapidly due to strong stellar winds, and it is therefore surrounded by a shell of previously lost debris. Kaler notes that even though this star is 700 light years away (comparable in distance to Betelgeuse in Orion), the shell of surrounding material subtends an angle of 11 arc minutes, which is really enormous (around 2.5 light years in diameter).

Now, I'll move on to talk about some of the Messier objects Canes Venatici, going in order from West to East. The first is Messier 3, a globular cluster of about a half million stars found about 20 degrees due South of Alkaid, at the tip of the handle of the Big Dipper. At 6th magnitude, this is one of the few globular clusters visible to the naked eye under ideal seeing conditions. The cluster is about 34,000 light years away (a bit further from us than the Galactic Center), and it subtends an angle of about 10 arcminutes, making it 200 light years in diameter (though most of the mass and light is in the innermost 10% of that diameter). An 8" telescope resolves this pretty well, but it takes a 12" or larger telescope to really resolve the tight grouping of stars in the central region. This cluster contains quite a few more variable stars than most clusters, over 200 known to date.

Next up is one of the most famous objects in the Messier catalog: Messier 51, the Whirlpool Galaxy. This galaxy is about 30 million light years away and dominates a small group of galaxies in this section of the sky. The spiral structure so clearly visible in photographs is likely enhanced by its recent gravitational interaction with a small companion galaxy (NGC 5195, moving almost directly away from us) still connected to the main galaxy by a tidal tail. Such encounters tend to stir up the larger galaxy, compressing the gas and causing bursts of star formation.

Here is a very nice photo of the central bright region of the disk and nucleus of the galaxy, and even closer is this Hubble Space Telescope high resolution photo of the nucleus of this galaxy, a famous "X marks the spot" photo showing two intersecting dust lanes blocking some of the light from the central region, where a massive black hole resides. In 2005, a Type II supernova went off near one of the inner parts of a spiral arm. You can find M 51 at the vertex of the 3-4-5 right triangle whose longer leg is Alkaid (at the 90 degree vertex) and Mizar.

About the same angular distance from Alkaid to M51 and along the line connecting the two is the Sunflower Galaxy, also known as Messier 63. This galaxy is physically a part of the M51 group of galaxies and so is at about the same distance as Messier 51. There is a very large, visible, irregular halo of hot gas surrounding this galaxy, likely the result of interactions with other members of the small cluster of galaxies.

About 5 degrees due East from Messier 63 and just 3 degrees North from Cor Caroli, we find the starburst galaxy Messier 94. This galaxy is only about half the distance to the M51 group, but it is somewhat smaller and so about the same visual brightness. Wikipedia's entry notes that within the past year, a group has published a study of the rotation of this galaxy indicating that there doesn't seem to be any dark matter present.

Normally, dark matter is easily discovered in galaxies by monitoring how fast they spin. How fast stars move about the center is related to the mass enclosed by the stars' orbit. In our galaxy, for example, our own Sun is moving around the galactic center at a speed that suggests that the total enclosed mass of the galaxy is 10 times greater than what can be accounted for by ordinary stars, gas and dust, hence the need for dark matter. In M 94, however, the rotation speed of the galaxy suggests a mass that can easily be accounted for by the stars, gas and dust that is present. Could the observation be in error (this seems likely to me as the galaxy is nearly face-on, making rotation velocity measurements very difficult). Or is there something new and interesting going on in this galaxy?

The last Messier object in this constellation is found about 10 degrees due South from Megrez, the star that connects the handle and the bowl of the Big Dipper. This is a bright spiral galaxy known as Messier 106. This galaxy is seen with an inclination similar to that of Andromeda and even has a little companion nearby just like Andromeda as seen in this image. Looking at X-ray wavelengths revealed a very surprising, very beautiful puzzle seen here. It looks like this galaxy has two sets of spiral arms. We think that the hotter (bluer in the image) gas has been cooked out of the disk by the central jets from the core of the galaxy, which points almost straight through the disk instead of up out of the galactic plane.

Now for the non-Messier deep sky objects, proceeding from roughly from East to West through the constellation. This is practically top to bottom as this constellation is currently on its side about 60 degrees above the Western horizon, so when I say this constellation is South of the handle of the Big Dipper, that means it is to the left of the handle in the sky as you face West. About 10 degrees South of Alkaid (the tip of the handle of the Big Dipper) is the galaxy NGC 5371, fairly tough at 11th magnitude, but this galaxy is over 100 million light years away. It is seen here in a very nice photo right next to a (relatively) bright 9th magnitude star. Nearby, about a full moon diameter to the Southeast, is a faint galaxy group known as Hickson 68 (seen in this very nice large field view). This is a good challenge for a 10 inch telescope.

About five degrees South from the Sunflower Galaxy (Messier 63) is a pair of galaxies that are physically connected, NGC 5033 and NGC 5005. NGC 5033 is seen in a very nice image here. It is 37 million light years away and has a bit of a warped disk. The center of this galaxy is classified as a Seyfert (very active emission lines) nucleus, but the center of emission isn't at the physical center of the galaxy, which makes us believe the supermassive black hole responsible for the emission has been pulled off track by a recent galaxy merger. This would also explain the highly warped disk. The companion galaxy very nearby, NGC 5005, is seen here, but it isn't close enough to have any kind of tidal influence on NGC 5033.

Just a degree or so East of this pair is the unusual, faint spiral galaxy IC 4182. Despite being much closer (likely less than 10 million light years), this galaxy is actually fainter at 11th magnitude than the previous two (which are close to 10th magnitude). As a face-on spiral, this galaxy is undergoing a fair bit of active star formation, as this emission line photo shows. The history here is a bit interesting, as IC 4182 had a role to play in the cosmic distance scale debate. A few decades ago, Allan Sandage was probably the most prominent Astronomer among many who put forward the idea that the Universe is much larger (and therefore older) than the consensus view.

IC 4182 was a key piece of evidence for Sandage, since a Type Ia supernova went off there in 1937, one of the closest Type Ia's ever seen to our galaxy. Using other methods (such as Cepheids and other standard candles) to gauge the distance to this galaxy, Sandage deduced that Ia's are intrinsically very, very luminous, which in turn implies galaxies that host them are incredibly far away (which means, therefore, that the Universe is very old to have expanded that much). Later work has shown that there is apparently a lot of interstellar extinction along our line of sight to this galaxy, which threw off the distance determination techniques (standard candles appeared faint, making this galaxy seem further away). Interstellar reddening and extinction has definitely been the most difficult problem to work through as Astronomers have tried to establish an accurate distance scale over the decades.

The next stop is an interacting pair of galaxies on the southern edge of the constellation, about 6-7 degrees Northeast of the Coma Berenices cluster, 17 degrees due south of the star Alioth in the handle of the Big Dipper. The brighter of the two is NGC 4631, also known as the Whale Galaxy. This bright galaxy (9th magnitude, about 10 times as far away as Andromeda) is a little bit fattened on one end, giving it the appearance of an elongated fish like a herring or perhaps a skinny whale, and the distortion is due to its companion, NGC 4656. The small companion shown in the image is a little elliptical galaxy, NGC 4627, but it doesn't appear to be the cause of the massive distortions in structure and kinematics in the Whale.

NGC 4656 is the smaller of the two interacting galaxies, and it has been greatly distorted, so much that its appearance resembles a hockey stick more than a spiral galaxy. Though the two galaxies do not appear to be physically connected in visible light photographs, images taken through a filter that allows light from neutral Hydrogen through show a clear bridge of Hydrogen gas connecting the two galaxies. Moving a few degrees West from the Whale Galaxy, we find a faint face-on spiral of 10th magnitude (but much harder to see because the light is spread out over a larger area of sky than with the edge-on Whale) known as NGC 4395. This galaxy recently made the news due to its rather small central black hole. Astronomers think the size of a galaxy's black hole maybe be related to how big the bulge is, and NGC 4395 doesn't really have a bulge, just spiral arms with a pattern that extends all the way to the center (here is a nice face-on view). This could mean that without all the chaotic motion in the center that comes with a bulge, the black hole doesn't have the same chance over time to capture and devour lots of stars to grow its mass.

Another few degrees to the Northwest, at the Southwest corner of the constellation, we find the starburst galaxy NGC 4214. This 10th magnitude galaxy is only about 13 million light years away, and Hubble found ample evidence of ongoing star formation, including clear evidence of the kind of superbubbles of gas (blown up by stellar explosions) that we find fossils of in the disk and halo of our own galaxy. They're just much harder to see in our galaxy because we're trying to see them from within the disk through all of the gas and dust in the disk. This is a great example of how examining other galaxies reveals more to us about our own. Sometimes, it is easier to learn about something from a distance as opposed to a place inside of it. Our exploration of other planets has definitely taught us a lot about the Earth.

Now we'll finish off with the Western border of this constellation, one of the richest areas of the sky with a bridge of galaxies virtually connecting the large Ursa Major group with the galaxies associated with the Coma Cluster. We'll be moving along the western border of Canes Venatici, starting at a galaxy roughly 8 degrees west of Cor Caroli and 20 degrees due South from the star Megrez, the star that connects the handle to the bowl of the Big Dipper. The galaxy here is NGC 4244, a 10th magnitude edge-on spiral galaxy that is about six million light years distant. The thin bright, pointed shape has led some to refer to this as the Silver Needle Galaxy. This is in the foreground compared to most of the surrounding galaxies, which are in the Ursa Major group, about eight times more distant.

About two degrees northwest from NGC 4244 is a pair of spirals, NGC 4151 and NGC 4145. NGC 4151 is a relatively faint face-on spiral whose extended disk is barely visible in the linked image. About ten years ago, the Hubble Space Telescope took a close look at the core of this Seyfert galaxy and found quite a bit of structure. Such a project is easier because this galaxy isn't too far away (44 million light years, part of the Ursa Major group) and face on, so there is no obscuring gas in the way like in a tilted or edge-on disk). In this image, you can see how Astronomers studied the structure of the emitting region via various spectral emission line, each of which maps a slightly different part of the nucleus. NGC 4145 is just North by several arcminutes, and it is also at roughly the same distance. The pull of this galaxy on NGC 4151 has apparently displaced the nucleus of 4151 a noticeable amount.

Just a few arcminutes to the northwest of Beta Canum Venaticorum (Asterion or Chara, as I mentioned previously) is our next target, the 10th magnitude spiral galaxy also known as the Cocoon Galaxy (or NGC 4490). This is actually a pair of galaxies on the tail end of a very close interaction, with great distortion and tidal tails evident in both galaxies, along with very active star formation due to the compression of the gas. This is also a part of the Ursa Major group. About two degrees North of this is NGC 4449, an irregular dwarf galaxy only 12 million light years away, with an appearance and structure very similar to the Large Magellanic Cloud but otherwise unremarkable.

Finally, NGC 4217 is less than a degree West of Messier 106 (covered previously), a very pretty edge-on spiral galaxy with a prominent dust lane, somewhat reminiscent of the Sombrero Galaxy. Despite being 11th magnitude, this is a common target for astrophotographers due to its remarkable structure.

Posted by Observer at 01:20 PM | Comments (1)

June 15, 2008


Since the summer has officially begun around here, at least in terms of everyone's school year, our branch of the YMCA has opened their splash pool for the kids. 2-year-old Ben and almost-5-year-old Daniel are ecstatic about it, and they have a total blast every time we go. Then it turns into a problem if I want to go to exercise and stick them in the daycare. All they want to do is go to the pool.

Ben spends most of his time screaming in delight with a permanent "O" of excitement on his face, despite probably swallowing a gallon of water (and I don't want to think of how much urine and whatever other chemicals are in there). Daniel goes down the big kids' slide like a champ and is getting more and more confident every day. If we don't go to the Y, we often take them out into our huge driveway (which you can see clearly on the maps.yahoo.com satellite image) and fill up a splash pool and/or a wading pool for them to play in, plus maybe some sprinkler action.

The pool is very pleasant this year as opposed to last June when it rained all the time. So far, every day for the past month or so has either been in the 90's or almost in the 90's. Hardly a drop of rain. We're getting August weather already, and it is barely June. Really sucks. The electric bills are no fun at all, but at least we're on a fixed-rate plan that we first committed to a couple of years ago, wind power only.

In other news, I officially suck at poker now. I've tumbled all the way down to the single-digits with bad luck and horrible play in every possible game. I'm trying to build my bankroll back up with play money freerolls (cashed in two out of two, but that's only two bucks a pop for a 500k play chip entry fee) and some other freerolls I've qualified for related to the World Series of Poker, but I'm done with everyday poker until that bankroll is healthy enough for me to play "not scared".

My attention has therefore turned to other games. Freeverse finally released a patch for Heroes V a few months ago that turns the mess into a very playable game. I've worked my way through the first five (out of six) campaigns. I'm not sure what the non-campaign version of the game is like. I always thought Heroes III non-campaign was pretty fun, so maybe the Heroes V random maps will be good. I don't know yet if people have distributed their own maps for Mac Heroes V. Some of the player-generated maps for Mac Heroes III were incredibly fun to play.

Oh, and Diablo II is doing a ladder reset in a couple of days, so I'll have fun building up my summoning Necromancer for a while. That's the only kind of character I've ever been able to finish Hell mode with. My closest other type was a Hammerdin, but I couldn't get him to the finish. Took a freakin' miracle to get past the Hell Ancients with that character. The summoning Necro is really easy to play because it doesn't rely so much on my hack-and-slash skills but instead on tactics. It's not too hard to consistently outsmart the Diablo II monsters.

My goal now is to get the equipment using my necro to magic-find so that I can build a Smiting Paladin. Such characters aren't easy to run through the game, but they are super effective at killing Uber Diablo, which is summoned on the battle.net realms once in a while. My necro doesn't have a chance, nor my hammerdin. And within killing the Uber, I won't get the fancy Annihilus charm, which gives me + to all skills and some other nice stuff.

Why does this matter? Because it makes my character more buff.

What a silly question.

Posted by Observer at 10:41 PM | Comments (0)

June 14, 2008

Goodbye, Pumpkinhead

Of course, sympathy for Tim Russert's family and friends comes first with his unexpected death. However, as he was one of the elders of the cozy little Washington DC media social village, a fair and honest eulogy for him should be leavened with a little criticism, and Avedon Carol hits a couple of the important points.

One would like to think that his death would affect the prominent pundits who have enabled this administration despite their professions of "balance". Maybe it would make them examine exactly what they have accomplished for America through their work, making Americans feel like Republicans and Democrats are equivalent, like their arguments have equal validity, like their administrations have been equally good or bad. One would think that the Russert emulators of the world would take a moment to step back and wonder just what meaning their life has in the big picture.

Oh wait, nevermind, Gennifer Flowers just called a press conference about Bill Clinton's cock.

Posted by Observer at 09:30 AM | Comments (1)

June 12, 2008


Usually, when the older kids have birthdays, they get to pick something fun to do in addition to everything else. Most of the time it is a movie, but recently I took the two boys to a baseball game. For Ashley's upcoming birthday, she wanted to see a special event screening of the movie version of the manga known as Bleach. So I bought a couple of tickets online ahead of time since I was worried about a sellout. This movie was only showing at one time for two consecutive nights at a theater about 30 minutes away.

We got there very early just to be sure there was no big crowd to get in, and we walked in as the movie theater opened up for the showing with about 30 other people who were there early. The place only held 200, and it was a sell out. You don't get a much geekier crowd than a manga movie except maybe with Live Action Role-Playing (and I say this as a former LARPer). Lots of people showed up in costume, and a good time was had by all.

Well, sort of by me. I was completely lost and hardly able to figure out what was going on. Sometimes a brief image would appear on the screen and everyone would start cheering, knowing that a favorite character was coming up or something. Anyway, there was all that kind of stuff going on, and I wasn't sufficiently impressed with the movie to want to know more about this particular story. It was interesting, but I've seen a lot better.

Posted by Observer at 11:43 AM | Comments (1)

June 11, 2008

Fear of Liberals

Hunter at Daily Kos wonders why people are so worried about Obama being tagged as some super liberal:

What exactly are you afraid of?

What, will he start some wars? Will the economy go to hell? Will gasoline suddenly cost four bucks a gallon, so that getting from one end of town to the other starts to be something you have to plan for in your family budget? Oh, wait, no -- that's what conservatism has wrought. So what big, scary menace will "liberalism" rain down upon us all?

The horror of free public education? The apocalypse of affordable healthcare for families and the elderly? An energy policy that consists of something other than "hell, let's just sit on our asses and see what happens"? My God, maybe we'll have a foreign policy that doesn't revolve around sucking thousands of dollars out of your constituents' pockets, lighting all that money on fire, and using the pyre to make super-special Democracy Smores in the middle of the Iraqi desert?

What, are we afraid less American soldiers will die? That our trade deficit will be, if not reversed, at least addressed? Are Oklahomans all huddled in their closets, lest some of the now-legions of outsourced jobs start reappearing in their towns? What? What is it that is so absolutely alarming about the word "liberal" that you'd rather stomach having everything that's happened to America for the past decade continue, rather than being seen as someone who might secretly have tolerance for, shudder, that word?

The diary goes on to talk about why wingnuts are truly afraid of liberals. It's really laughable how they talk about us. The only argument that holds any substance with people (besides the abortion thing, and you think people would be over that after Republicans held all three branches for several years and did nothing) would be a worry about higher taxes.

Yeah, the top 1% do have to worry about higher taxes, but a lot of them see it as their duty to give back to the country that enabled their success. The ones who worry are mostly the ones who outsource corporate headquarters offshore to avoid paying taxes or export jobs or only pay the minimum rate because their compensation is mostly in the form of capital gains.

I'm not too worried about disappointing them.

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

Nothing New

Just as Obama is apparently now "the most liberal" senator (so much for Kerry) to ever exist, his wife Michelle is now apparently the new Hillary. Since Hillary is (for now) out of the race, the wingnuts need a new woman to demonize.

I guess the next step is to try to convince everyone Obama is some superrich out of touch Ivy League millionaire, which is tough since his mother turned to food stamps for a while in his youth.

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

June 10, 2008


Today, the ultra-liberal Marxist left-wing moonbat loony Washington Post editorial page put its hands on its hips, squinted real hard and just INSISTED that George W. Bush didn't lie about anything leading up to the Iraq War.

Oh sure, the Senate Intelligence Committee bipartisan report explicitly says otherwise in several different places, but it is important that we trust one of the flagships of the traditional "liberal" media instead. I'm glad people like Rush are around to tell me how liberal the media is, because otherwise, I think I would really feel like a fool because I can't seem to find the evidence.

Posted by Observer at 01:42 PM | Comments (0)

June 08, 2008

At Last

I'm glad Hillary finally suspended her campaign (even that took nearly a week, incrementally every day going a little further after the last primary) and officially endorsed Obama. It's about 6-8 weeks later than it really should've been, but maybe this long drawn-out process will have the benefit of activating a lot of new Democrats into the process. I know it did that in Texas. It was very nice to go down to the polling place and be surrounded by a few hundred fellow liberals. It hardly seems possible since we collectively have no voice in the media, local or national.

If you doubt me, start reeling off names of anti-war spokespeople who have regular jobs in the traditional media. For every one you might name (I'll even help you: Keith Olbermann, Paul Krugman ... good luck after that), I can name ten pro-war spokespeople who either host TV shows, have regular syndicated newspaper columns or appear as a pundit regularly on a panel show. If we get into talk radio, the ratio gets even worse.

Anyway, maybe it introduced a lot of new people to the process, and so it could be great in the long run. I just hope a lot of the people who came out to vote for Hillary can be convinced to get behind Obama. He basically believes the same stuff, though he was a lot better on the war and restraining presidential power in general. I like that Obama is starting off by campaigning in traditionally red states. Let's change that stupid map and make the whole election such a landslide that Republicans can't steal it just by screwing around with one or two states.

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

June 06, 2008

Photo Op

If you're wondering why so many liberals are still talking about Katrina so far after the fact, this story tells you what you need to know. They never intended to fix anything. From day one, the entire focus was on staging and controlling the media's coverage.

In a nutshell, that's the entire administration. They will do what they damn well please, and their only use for the media is as a tool to promote their agenda, something the media is only too happy to do in exchange for access.

Posted by Observer at 07:17 AM | Comments (1)

June 04, 2008

Beam Me Up, Scotty

The McClellan story has really fascinated me this week, and I watched Jon Stewart's interview, which was very good. Basically, he forced McClellan into a corner where he had to lie or admit to willful (not unintentional) deception. What I'd like to know is this: he says that he knew very early on that the war was based on lies. Ok, great, HOW DID HE KNOW? Who told him? And why didn't he tell us?

What seems to come across in his book and his interviews is that the main reason he's coming out with all of this is the Plame affair. He feels betrayed that the people he was loyal to (Rove, Cheney, Bush, Libby) lied to him and therefore made him look bad. So he's okay lying to the public about the war to the public or lying about Katrina or lying about anything, but if HE gets lied to, LOOK OUT!

I will say this for him, though, at least he stopped living the lie. Look at Ari Fleischer or Tony Snow. They ran for a payday at Fox News as soon as they could. McClellan will get paid well for his book, sure, but it took SOME courage to come out with this.

Posted by Observer at 11:15 PM | Comments (0)

June 03, 2008


Richard Clarke was one of the few (maybe the only, I can't recall) holdovers from the Clinton administration who was advising the incoming "grown ups" on terrorism. He wrote a devastating book about how the Bush people completely dropped the ball on bin Laden after Clarke left the White House.

So the White House called on Scott McClellan to say, "Ask yourself why, one and a half years later, after he left the administration, he's all of a sudden, coming forward with these grave concerns? If he had such grave concerns, why didn't he come out with them sooner?". It's funny to see McClellan reading the same quotes in the paper from the likes of the current press secretary. From the article, I understand McClellan has apologized to Clarke.

Gee, thanks. That's timely.

I believe Jon Stewart's staff were the first to dig up this quote last week on the Daily Show. I haven't gotten to see my recording of Stewart's interview of McClellan from Monday's show, but I'm sure it will be good. I imagine McClellan will be asked the toughest questions he'll face on this media circuit. Well, except for getting yelled at by "independent" Bill O'Reilly for being disloyal to the Boy King.

Posted by Observer at 11:35 PM | Comments (0)

June 02, 2008

Still Broken

Jamison Foser has an excellent column up about the McClellan story. If you think the media was only bad during the run-up to the war, you haven't been paying attention since. First, talking about criticism of the war prior to the invasion:

Marginalizing such criticism as merely the complaints of "the left" is grossly inaccurate. It is, instead, something approaching a consensus view.

And a well-founded consensus view, at that. Anti-war voices were marginalized by the media. That isn't something "a lot of people on the left" claim; that is a fact. News reports that did challenge the administration were buried on Page A17. That isn't something "a lot of people on the left" claim; that is a fact. The false claims in Colin Powell's deeply flawed presentation to the United Nations were reported as though they were true. That isn't something "a lot of people on the left" claim; that is a fact. Anyone who has "thought a lot about this over a number of years," as Gregory claims to have done, surely must be aware of countless other examples.

Next, regarding the media's performance in the past few years...

What matters most now are not the few journalists who still deny that they could have done a better job before the war started -- it is the many news organizations that have continued since the war began.

Journalists lavished praise on Bush when he declared "Mission Accomplished" rather than offering a sober assessment of whether it really had been. The U.S. media did their best to ignore the Downing Street memo -- and the establishment might never have covered it had it not been for the efforts of Media Matters, Rep. John Conyers, and progressive bloggers and writers. News reports endlessly repeated and reflected pro-war spin during the 2006 congressional debate over the war. In 2007, they went to work on behalf of Gen. David Petraeus.

And this year? This year, the media have all but ignored Iraq. The New York Times' David Carr explained this week:

Even as we celebrate generations of American soldiers past, the women and men who are making that sacrifice today in Iraq and Afghanistan receive less attention every day. There's plenty of blame to go around: battle fatigue at home, failing media resolve and a government intent on controlling information from the battlefield.

According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism's News Coverage Index, coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has slipped to 3 percent of all American print and broadcast news as of last week, falling from 25 percent as recently as last September.


[T]he tactical success of the surge should not be misconstrued as making Iraq a safer place for American soldiers. Last year was the bloodiest in the five-year history of the conflict, with more than 900 dead, and last month, 52 perished, making it the bloodiest month of the year so far. So far in May, 18 have died.

Television network news coverage in particular has gone off a cliff. Citing numbers provided by a consultant, Andrew Tyndall, the Associated Press reported that in the months after September when Gen. David H. Petraeus testified before Congress about the surge, collective coverage dropped to four minutes a week from 30 minutes a week at the height of coverage, in September 2007.

American Journalism Review senior contributing writer Sherry Ricchiardi further illustrated the lack of coverage of the Iraq war:

A daily tracking of 65 newspapers by the Associated Press confirms a dip in page-one play throughout the country. In September 2007, the AP found 457 Iraq-related stories (154 by the AP) on front pages, many related to a progress report delivered to Congress by Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. Over the succeeding months, that number fell to as low as 49. A spike in March 2008 was largely due to a rash of stories keyed to the conflict's fifth anniversary, according to AP Senior Managing Editor Mike Silverman.


By March 2008, a striking reversal had taken place. Only 28 percent of Americans knew that 4,000 military personnel had been killed in the conflict, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Eight months earlier, 54 percent could cite the correct casualty rate.

When important stories have been reported, they have quickly been swept under the rug by the rest of the media. That's what happened when The New York Times revealed previously secret ties between the Pentagon and military analysts who appeared regularly as impartial experts on television news programs despite having financial ties to defense contractors that stand to profit from the war. Reports that the Pentagon cannot account for $15 billion in Iraq spending were likewise met with a yawn.

It's bad enough that some journalists still won't acknowledge their profession's role in the nation's rush into war on false pretenses. But we're still stuck in that war, with no end in sight, and the media's performance has barely improved.

What has disappointed me the most over the past few years is that there have been some truly sensational revelations in Congressional hearings and instances where people simply refused to testify for no reason they would cite. But really, there isn't the kind of wall-to-wall coverage we had during the Iran-Contra hearings, even though the stuff going on is far worse. In fact, there's hardly any coverage. Too many Missing White Women, I guess. I don't know.

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