Saturday, December 03, 2005

Swap Your Bible For ... (wait for it) ...


I love the Wonkette, I really do.

An atheist student group in Texas has set up shop on their campus offering to exchange porn for Bibles. A religious type was predictably offended: "In my opinion, there are no atheists. There are fools."And you shall know them by hair on their palms. Except the real fools are folks not LINING UP for this great offer. So far, they've only given away five skin mags. We think the reaction would be different in D.C. Though, it's true, Clarence Thomas would argue that shouldn't have to choose.

Porno for Bibles [Atheist Agenda via Boing Boing]Group Collects Bibles, Passes Out Porn [WOAI]

Friday, December 02, 2005

A Decent Comment About Economics

I was reading about a particularly egregious abuse of statistics and followed a thread to here, which had an interesting comment:

I know a guy in my dorm, a pro-PATRIOT Act "classical liberal" who used to want to be an economics major. He was turned off by the fact that it involved a bunch of min/maxing, rather than waxing on eloquently about the perfection and beauty of the free market. And really, who doesn't get sick, on occasion, of undergrad econ courses with their endless Lagrangian multipliers and simple partial derivatives? I think what angered him more, though, was that it treats economics as an empirically falsifiable science (Not well, some might claim (is John Emerson around?), with perhaps excessively high standards for falsification of favored models, but at least in theory). This guy didn't want there to be any chinks in the armor of the free market. To him, this isn't an empirical issue at all: it's a moral one. I respect that, actually, but the problem is when these people demand that economics the empirical social science meet free market libertarianism the moral position. When the two clash, the strategy is to take "the free market is perfect" as a null hypothesis, and then set a standard for falsification above whatever evidence supports an alternative hypothesis.

Two comments:
1) I've had this particular conversation.
2) Lagrangian multipliers huh? I may have underestimated parts of modern economics.

Dr. Doctor

I'm being sent to a neurologist at the University of Washington who is also "the best diagnositican in the state", Phil Swanson, M.D., Ph.D.

Hopefully I will be "boring".

Thursday, December 01, 2005

What's the Difference Between an Astronomer and an Astrophysicst?

Given the below rant, I know someone is going to ask because I tend to use the terms interchangeably.

Technically there isn't much of a real difference, it just tends to be how you self-identify. Is it Radio Astronomy, Radio Astrophysics or Gas-Phase Quantum Chemistry? It depends on how you went through your career. A loose rule of thumb tends to be, if you're looking at it, it's astronomy, if it involves a lot of math and not many observations, it's astrophysics. However, I can't think of an example where this comes down one way more than the other. This may be my lack of imagination.

Here's a better way of demonstrating the difference:

If you walk into a bar and you feel cranky and want to be left alone while someone is trying to chat you up, tell them you are an "astrophysicist". The conversation sill stop, you will get a look like you just might be an escaped mental patient (maybe a violent one) and you will be left alone. If you do it right, you may not even be served any more.

However, if you are in a cheerful mood and feeling gregarious, tell people you are an "astronomer". People will ask you all sorts of questions, talk to you, buy you drinks and occasionally, beautiful members of the opposite sex will come up and start kissing you at random (this has happened twice to me, and yes there are witnesses).

That's the difference.

How to Be An Astronomer

I was asked the following question this afternoon by a reader (edited):

My niece is a junior in high school. She gets all A's, is an athlete, member of NHS, has a job, great citizen, etc. She wants to study astrophysics and work for NASA and thinks that going into the Air Force is a great way to get into NASA. Would you lend her some insight about avenues to NASA, whether it is the best place to be, the best schools to shoot for, etc.?

Truthfully? Going into the Air Force will all but exclude her from a career in astrophysics, especially if she goes in now. While she’s in the AF not learning to fly jets (almost no one gets to fly jets, but everyone wants to), others are in college getting a science education and getting ready for grad school. While it's true that a lot astronauts are from the military right now, they are generally on the pilot side or are "mission specialists" who started their careers as astronomers and later joined the military. All other considerations aside (and I have become relatively neutral on the question of joining the military since Geoff is so insistent on it), that really isn't a good way to become an astrophysicist. Even with service delayed until after college, there are too many competing pressures and, physics is hard. Very hard. Lots of Sci-Fi lovers think they know some physics. Very very few of them make it to the level of astrophysicist. You're going to need all your concentration even if you are exceptionally gifted. Stargate SG-1 aside, focus on the science. The Air Force doesn't really have a program directed toward cranking out astronomers. Heck, most universities don't have astronomy programs, and it's a tough slog.

How to become an astrophysicist:
1) Go to a university and take every math and physics course that comes your way. Take astronomy if they offer it, but if they don’t, then don’t worry too much. They are going to judge you on your physics abilities. You'll need all of them. Astronomers are science generalists, especially in the beginning. The good news, you don’t have to get *all* As. It helps, but basically you want to get good grades and do some undergrad research with a professor your junior and senior years. The prof is the one who is going to write your letters of recommendation for grad school, and the whole point is to go to grad school.
At the end of university you need:
A GPA >= pi
2 or more letters of recommendation from professors
If possible an undergrad thesis
A Physics GRE >= 50%
If nothing else, if you go to a hippie school and make MDMA for 4 years and have no grades, you must slam the GRE. Your Physics GRE score is approximately equal to your % chance of being accepted for grad school at a decent place. The University of Toledo is not a decent place (although they accepted me *over the phone* when they got my GRE score). The letters from the profs and the GPA are your backups in case you pull a 40%. If you get in the 20s… well.. chances are you won’t *want* grad school.
2) Pick your grad school with care. Use the Guide to Physics and Astronomy Graduate Schools to pick yours. By the end of my senior year I had mine memorized. You need to pick a school that has a specialty you are interested in. High Energy Astrophysics? Penn State. Radio Astronomy? UMass, Uof Arizona. GR and gravity? John Hopkins or USC or CalTech. Picking the wrong grad school will mean a high likelihood of washing out second year. The drop rate of 2nd years is 50%
3) Pass your PhD quals and pick a thesis. The washout rate for this step if 50% of those that survived step 2
4) Write your thesis, defend it, get it published. The washout rate from here is also 50% of the remainder.
5) Pay your graduation fees or people will get cranky with you. :)
6) Pick a postdoctoral job. You will have a specialty now and are ready to work. It’s hard to get a postdoc but somehow there always seems to be exactly 1 for each new graduate. It’s a little weird but it works.
7) If you have made it this far, you are in a rare strata of life. There is exactly one astronomer for every 1,000,000 people on the planet. Congrats. By this point you know the other 5,999 astronomers and they know you. Too much about you!
8) Shut up Spitzak
Now you are ready to join the Air Force. You’ve got something to really contribute and, if you’re in good shape, you have a decent shot a shuttle mission if you want one. By decent shot I mean 1:950 or so. Given that you are already 1:1,000,000 that should be a walk in the park. J You are ready to be a mission specialist.

Don’t want a shuttle mission? At this point NASA is calling *you*. More or less. It depends a little on what you did in step 3) but even the Galactic Photometrists get funding from NASA or NSF, so you’re in a good spot. Don’t want to work for NASA? Well, you can teach, go into research, sell out and work in financial services. Pretty much anything you want. You’ve mastered some of the hardest knowledge mankind has (unless you picked Galactic Photometry back in step 3. Maybe it’s best you don’t pick that.) Want you own satellite? It’s likely at this point that’s what you are doing. In my graduate class of 6 people, 2 have their own satellites. (2 of us work in non-astronomy and 2 are in research).

I’m not down on the Air Force, BTW. It’s possible I will get some blog comments here from astronomers who came up through the AF and I invite their stories. I don’t know any of you and I’ve never heard of anyone doing that successfully, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. It just hasn’t been my experience. I think there are a lot of great careers to be had coming in through the AF, I just haven't heard of anyone becoming an astronomer that way.

Toy Presidents


Some of the faces made me laugh rather loudly at work. And by some I mean
Clinton: He looks emaciated (2nd ed) and muppet-ish (1st ed)
HW Bush: He looks kind of like Dole...
Eisenhower: I had to click on it to make sure he wasnt wearing a robe over his suit. He wasnt, but the idea is still funny.
FDR: Looks more like the guy who played the President in Clear and Present Danger
Wilson: Need I say more
Hillary Clinton, more like Hilarity Clinton
The head of that Pope John Paul II will haunt my dreams and nightmares for eternity

I think they did a good job of hiding Nixon's horns.

Although you can still see the 666 birthmark on his left ear.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Fractal Self-Parody

I'm not even sure where to begin with this one. So many choices. Nothing I can say will add to the obvious. Even the study group is hilarious:

Nettle and his colleague Helen Clegg questioned 425 British men and women, including professional artists, poets and schizophrenic patients, about their creative activity, sexual encounters and mental health characteristics.

Creativity Linked to Sexual Promiscuity

Something Geoff Said

Sometime back, in a discussion about military service, Geoff pointed out that he and I have different ideas about what a soldiers primary duty is supposed to be:

Mark: to obey
Geoff: to help

Since then, I've liked his idea better (although I still think I am, unfortunately, correct). Andrew Sullivan and others reported this exchange, which to me neatly illustrated the two points of view and highlights the moral superiority of Geofferey's position.

Q: And General Pace, what guidance do you have for your military commanders over there as to what to do if -- like when General Horst found this Interior Ministry jail [where evidenceof toeture was widespread]?

GEN. PACE: It is absolutely the responsibility of every U.S. service member, if they see inhumane treatment being conducted, to intervene to stop it. As an example of how to do it if you don't see it happening but you're told about it is exactly what happened a couple weeks ago. There's a report from an Iraqi to a U.S. commander that there was possibility of inhumane treatment in a particular facility. That U.S. commander got together with his Iraqi counterparts. They went together to the facility, found what they found, reported it to the Iraqi government, and the Iraqi government has taken ownership of that problem and is investigating it. So they did exactly what they should have done.

SEC. RUMSFELD: But I don't think you mean they have an obligation to physically stop it; it's to report it.

GEN. PACE: If they are physically present when inhumane treatment is taking place, sir, they have an obligation to try to stop it.

"reporting it" without an obligation to stop it is a) just ass-covering, b) tacit approval and c) wrong.

At least in my godless moral framework.

Tropical Storm Epsilon

Jesus McFuck.

At 11 a.m., the center of Tropical Storm Epsilon was about 650 miles east of Bermuda and moving closer at a rate of 9 miles per hour. Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center expect it to stay well off the coast, though it will continue sending heavy surf and rough waves around the island as it rakes the ocean with tropical-storm-force winds 225 miles from its center.

Priceless Memorandum

Halfway through a very boring memo, someone stuck in this one, just to see if anyone read this far into it:

"Would you rather not hear more rhetorical questions?"

Tuesday, November 29, 2005


I this link over at National Review, but it's not more apologia, its a patent on an ... unusual method of propulsion.

A space vehicle propelled by the pressure of inflationary vacuum state is provided comprising a hollow superconductive shield, an inner shield, a power source, a support structure, upper and lower means for generating an electromagnetic field, and a flux modulation controller. A cooled hollow superconductive shield is energized by an electromagnetic field resulting in the quantized vortices of lattice ions projecting a gravitomagnetic field that forms a spacetime curvature anomaly outside the space vehicle. The spacetime curvature imbalance, the spacetime curvature being the same as gravity, provides for the space vehicle's propulsion. The space vehicle, surrounded by the spacetime anomaly, may move at a speed approaching the light-speed characteristic for the modified locale.

Now I've seem all kinds of crazy patents. When I was in charge of CertCo's protfolio of crypto patents, I had full access to the US Patent office and a staff of Steptoe and Johnson lawyers to bounce ideas off of. One of my favorites was a "device" that provided instantaneous communication by using the "extradimensional properties" of a hot magnet.

and it got a patent!

This one is a little harder to debunk. One link I expected to see in the references was one to something called the Tademaru-Harrison Effect, which causes neutron stars to propel themselves out of hte galaxy via an asymmetric magnetic dipole moment. It's not dissimilar to what this guy is proposing.

(I know it well because I had both Tademaru and Harrison as professors at UMass. Harrison is the same Harrison whom I often quote about democracy. Also Tademaru asked a question on the qualifying exam about it. I got a 2/10 on that problem which, ironically, was the highest score on that problem in almost 2 decades.)

He uses a lot unproven assumptions in his explaination (e.g. the cosmological constant) which, while not science, is fine for a patent. Patents don't care that much how it works or even that it works. It's the fundemental difference between science and technology. Patents are all about technology.
I need to spend some time thinking about this one.

Venture Brothers Update

Some good news for fans of the Venture Brothers:

We're currently finishing up the tenth script of the season

Ben Edlund is supposed to turn in the eleventh script of the season in this coming week

Ben Edlund is the creator of The Tick! one of my all-time favorite comics/shows/mental-breakdowns.

The color department kicked into gear about a month and a half ago and are blowing me away. They're currently working on the third episode...

ut-oh! 3rd episode??? I was hoping for some eps by Christmas! oh well, looks like the Spring.

For anyone who is new and doesn't know what I'm talking about, the Venture Brothers is the funniest show ever made. At least if you're an aging, 70's cartoon watching person of dry wit and a sense of the absurd.

Otherwise it's probably just ... strange.

Here is a test, read the following line out loud in your best villian voice:

"While you were castrating that priceless antiquity, I was feeding babies to hungry mutated puppies! Bwaaahahahahahahaha"

Did you laugh? If so, watch the show if not...

I just did this and have been asked to close the door to my office by my neighbor across the hall. She was not laughing.

She probably has a baboon's uterus.

A Confession

I'm embarassed to admit this, but I feel I have no choice.


This is hard to type.

ok, here goes.

I've been reading Arianna Huffington's blog.
Worse, I'm starting to enjoy it.

Oh, it started off innocently enough, just following the occasional link from Andrew Sullivan or occasionally from Kos. Sometimes interesting things would be written there, but I could never escape the feeling that Arianna was behind it all and I would get the guilty feeling like I had just bought something in a plain, brown wrapper like Playboy, Oui or the Village Voice.

Today I jumped over there just to see what was doing on. Arianna made a point about Bob Woodward I had been thinking for 10 years now and I realized with horror that we agree on a lot.

I am scared!

Anyway, back to Bob Woodward:

I found myself thinking about Woodward and his barrel-searching as I read Frank Rich's latest takedown of the administration's cover up of "wrongdoing in the executive branch between 9/11 and shock and awe":

Each day brings slam-dunk evidence that the doomsday threats marshaled by the administration to sell the war weren't, in Cheney-speak, just dishonest and reprehensible but also corrupt and shameless... The web of half-truths and falsehoods used to sell the war did not happen by accident; it was woven by design and then foisted on the public by a P.R. operation built expressly for that purpose in the White House.

During this time, Woodward was writing two books on the administration -- Bush at War and Plan of Attack -- and enjoyed unparalleled access to many of those guiding the aforementioned P.R. operation, including head shills Dick Cheney, Scooter Libby, and Andy Card.

So how come Woodward, supposedly the preeminent investigative reporter of our time, missed the biggest story of our time -- a story that was taking place right under his nose?
Some would say it's because he's carrying water for the Bushies. I disagree. I think it's because he's the dumb blonde of American journalism, so awed by his proximity to power that he buys whatever he's being sold.

Happy Birthday Geoff

The Boy turns 20 today. His mother calls him at the time of his birth every year, 6:13am and reminds him, in detail, about the 29 hours of labor she had.

I'm content merely to publish his email address on my blog. That would be
Write to him and say Happy Birthday, even if you don't know him well.

Monday, November 28, 2005

What happened at the MS clinic?

Thanks all for the notes. I guess going offline for a few days afterward left an information hole becuase I have received a lot of very generous notes the last few days. I wrote the following in response to one, once I got my head together. It covers the bases, and so I'm going to post it here. Again, thanks for your overwhelming support, I really do appreciate it.

What happened at the MS clinic? Below is a (very slight) paraphrase, but it reflects the conversation.

Short version (after the 90 minute exam):
Doc: While it's certainly possible you have MS, that's not my first impression. Also several signs argue against it.
Mark: like what?
Doc: You have no reflexes. Not diminished ones, just none. I can't raise a reflex at all, anywhere. It's weird.
Mark: It's that because of diabetes?
Doc: That's possible, but usually MS patients have exaggerated reflexes. The shorts in the spine cause hypersensitivty. You're the opposite, even with diabetes. Also, you NCV are not normal. Not nearly.
Mark: The Nerve conduction speeds? They told be 30 m/s was normal, if just barely.
Doc: No. 50 is normal. 30 is clearly compromised. It's also consistent with why you can't walk. The peripheral nerves are clearly damaged.
Mark: So it's not MS?
Doc: I didn't say that. It's defiantly a movement disorder though. We need another round of MRIs. BTW, your Wilson's hypothesis was clever. We should run the test. Let me check you for the Kayser-Fleischer ring. . Nope, but that's not conclusive.
Mark: Wait, I thought they ran that already.
Doc: No, but they did note you requested it. As I said, that was clever.
Mark: Thanks. I make a living being clever. What about Huntington's.
Doc: Also clever. And something we have to talk about.
Mark: Why?
Doc: I don't do Huntington's tests. I'm going to send you over to University of Washington for that. Dr. Ramii specializes in movement disorders and HD. He can handle it, but it will take several appointments and we won't get results until February.
Mark: I thought it was just as blood test. Is it as painful as the spinal tap?
Doc: No, it's a blood test. very simple. It's just that we handle them very sensitively. You'll need consoling no matter how it comes out.
Mark: why? Can't you just run it?
Doc: No.
Mark: Why not?
Doc: ... Because there is a significant suicide risk. Almost 6% of patients commit suicide within a year of getting a diagnosis.
Mark: Really???
Doc: Yes. Which reminds me. I'm also going to sign you up for a set of neuropsych evals.
Mark: I am NOT suicidal.
Doc: No, but you are having trouble remembering faces and names, get confused, have trouble concentrating, right?
Mark: Yes.
Doc: Neuropsych will figure out if it's real or if you're just getting old
Mark: or both!

Mark: So, looks like February until all this is done. What should I do in the meantime.
Doc: No meds until we know. I suggest a cane for now to help with your balance. Are you sure it's a balance problem and not just weakness?
Mark: It feels like I'm going to fall over, which seems like balance to me.
Doc:ok. Then yes, February.

Very short version:

One quick Postscript, the doctor called me about an hour after I left his office:
Doc: I looked up Protonix in the PDR. You said you were taking that to supress the chocking fits right?
Mark: Yes. And it works! I'm not all that concer...
Doc: Ok. It turns out Protonix supresses reflexes.
Mark: oh!
Doc: We should run them again in 2 weeks once that stuff washes out of your system.
Mark: But I'll start choking again in a few days if I go off it. I've run the experiment accidently once or twice while traveling.
Doc: I'm going to prescribe Zanex. It should give the same effect but without neurological side effects.
Mark: cool!

Things That Are Not Physics

I was thrown off by the address. OTOH it's still, an interesting fairy tail.

The Book of Mormon makes the bold statement that Jesus Christ, shortly following His resurrection, visited people in the New World and invited them to "feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that I am...the God of the whole earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world. ... Ye are they of whom I said: Other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice..." (3 Nephi 11:14, 15:21). The Bible states that Jesus "showed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days" and that this witness of Christ would be "unto the uttermost part of the earth." (Acts 1:3-8) and that Jesus would indeed visit "other sheep" (John 10:16).

Okay, well maybe that's not his strong suit. Maybe it's Physics. Let's see.

Look, instructions on how to make a solar power mirror!

At 40 degrees latitude on a clear afternoon, water can boil in 1.5 hours. Also you can point the solar funnel towards the stars on a cloudless night to freeze your pot overnight!

"point the solar funnel toward the stars ... to freeze your pot..."

while I *think* he means the funnel to act as a radiator (but it still wouldn't get any colder than the surrounding air with or without the funnel) ... it's not clear from the text ... well, let's just say "it's not clear from the text"

ooooookaaay. Maybe physics isn't his strongest suit either...

Update: I don't know how I missed this. It sort of, kinda, nearly toches on physics.
It certainly doesn't touch on engineering.


The fourth horseman of the Seattle Apocalypse is loose. Snow! The weather forecasters say we might actually get 2 or more inches.

Now, being from New England and Detroit, 2 inches isn't even an annoyance, it's what happens when the wind blows. Here though, schools will close, roads will lock up, people will horde food, water and sensible woolen vests. Given that it will snow tonight, I am guessing almost no one shows up on campus tomorrow.

This, believe it or not, makes sense.

It makes sense because, and I mean no disrespect, these people do not know how to drive in the snow. Rain? Oh they have that down cold. Snow? No. They are still in the lowest snow-driving category along with Hawaiians, Arizonians, Haitians, Puerto Ricans and Texans. ... Well... maybe not Texans. They still have trouble with cold rain. However, Seattle folk have not developed snow driving skills through practice and so they simply make the basic mistakes no Midwesterner would make after the age of 16. Generally, they drive one of two ways. Most of them act as though snow was an odd form of rain (which is somewhat true) and don't change at all. The result? Extremely polite driving behavior at 75mph on a frictionless surface. They spin, and wave to their neighbors. They skid, and wave to let you cut in. They flip off to the side of the road but use turn signals. And, very occasionally, they slide down Pike Street into the bay at alarming velocity, worried that they’ve cut off a pedestrian.

For example, today there was NO SNOW, but a little bit of ice. Result? The 520 bridge is closed due to crashes, the 90 Bridge is now a 3 hour drive (or bay tour, take your pick). These are not well developed skilz.

But those are the A students. The real D- folks take another approach entirely. They drive on snow as though it were a rain of broken glass or perhaps rare, endangered spotted-owl eggs. They drive S L O W L Y. As they listen to the sound their tires make, a worried sweat breaks out on their foreheads. Crunch! Crunch! Every mph over 3 means more dead baby owls. And, if their wheels spin, you can actually see the panic on their faces as they realize they are driving TOO FAST!

"Jesus Christ Harry! Slow the fuck down! You're spinning the wheels!"
"I'm only doing 2mph! What should I put it in reverse?"
" ... .... Yes!"

Why the problems? Because they don't salt the roads (bad for the roads and the spotted-owl eggs) and they don't really plow. There is no budget for it. I was here once during a storm in late February. The town of Kirkland, having exhausted it's entire snow removal budget on new ice trays for the Mayor's office fridge, instead of plowing chose to, get this, "drive garbage trucks around town to compact the snow. For better traction!" I'm not making that up. They succeeded in turning almost every major road into an ice rink, with resulting hilarity! No fewer than 3 garbage trucks had to be towed out of yards (and one swimming pool) after the "compacted snow" or as we used to call it on the New England Ski trails, "packed powder", or more simply "death ice", caused major accidents all over town.

It's going to snow tomorrow and I am going to "work from home". No way I’m getting on the road with these folks.

Weeeeeeee! Snow Day!

Working on New Art

I did manage to get a little art started this weekend, although nothing far enough along to post drafts. Maybe another week. The piece is a still life that contains another image (also of my creation), so it's a picture in a picture thing.

The inspiration for this is the unparalleled Tomasz Rut.


My Alpha drive crashed this weekend. Alpha was the first 233Gig USB 2.0 drive I got for the home server and is the oldest with, of course, most of the most interesting files.

I got it repaired, but lost about 20% of the file structure, including all my downloads of the Dave Chappelle show. Not good. So I went out and bought a new Maxtor 300Gig drive and backed up all the remaining files to it. Welcome drive Delta!

Alpha has been reformatted and put back into service, albiet only as backup storage and not online at all times.


I was walking down 5th Ave in Seattle this weekend when something I thought pretty cool happened. As I was walking into the city center, the monorail train passed overhead. 'I live in a city where a monorail is commonplace, cool'. The cherry on the sundae occured when I looked at the ads on the side, "Windows Cluster Server". Not only was the monorail commonplace, but it was advertising my company. Outstanding! Very 20th century Sci-Fi.

Then, later in the day, the 21st century stepped in.