Archive for October 2007

Just How Sure Are You?

October 31, 2007

The last 10 or 15 years or so have seen major revisions in the way astronomers have come to understand our universe. One of the biggest surprises (from observations that started to come out in the late ’60s), was that there was a large amount of matter out there, both in the galaxies we see and in clusters of galaxies, that we weren’t seeing – so called dark matter.

Astronomers knew that the matter was there – it had to be, ’cause if it wasn’t, then neither galaxy clusters nor the galaxies themselves could hold themselves together.

But advances in orbiting satellites and in X-Ray astronomy brought about discoveries like this (the bullet cluster), where an unusual event has cleanly separated “normal” matter from the dark.

Well that nails it down, doesn’t it?

Maybe not.

Last August, an astronomer at the University of Arizona at Tucson and his colleagues reported that a collision between two huge clusters of galaxies 3 billion light-years away, known as the Bullet Cluster, had caused clouds of dark matter to separate from normal matter. Many scientists said the observations were proof of dark matter’s existence and a serious blow for alternative explanations aiming to do away with dark matter with modified theories of gravity.
Now John Moffat, an astronomer at the University of Waterloo in Canada, and Joel Brownstein, his graduate student, say those announcements were premature.
In a study detailed in the Nov. 21 issue of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, the pair says their Modified Gravity (MOG) theory can explain the Bullet Cluster observation. MOG differs from other modified gravity theories in its details, but is similar in that it predict that the force of gravity changes with distance.

Sigh. Just when you thought astronomers actually knew something…


I Have Seen The Comet (And It Is Cool!)

October 30, 2007

Comet 17/p Holmes is about, oh, maybe a third the size of the full moon. It’s about at bright as the bright stars in the area – the 2nd and 3rd magnitude stars of Perseus.

This photo shows Comet Holmes next to a picture of Jupiter, scaled to the correct relative size.

From the time I existed the car in a relatively dark area (but nothing that any amateur astronomer would call dark), I located the Big Dipper and the north star, and the Cassiopeia. From there, gazing halfway to the horizon at Perseus, one star did indeed look “fuzzy” to the unaided (and very not-dark-adapted) eye. With binoculars, it’s easily recognized.

The entire time to locate – about 10 seconds, give or take. (IOW, if you have half a chance to see it, take a look! It’s not like Hale-Bopp in 1997, which was one of those “Oh, maybe we’ll se – OMG! LOOK AT THAT!” kinds of comets. But it’s worth the effort!)

Holmes has been a wonder – brightening by something over 400,000 times from a very faint mag. 17 to about 3 overnight. No one quite understands this, and I do believe that, although many comets have been known to brighten dramatically, this amount of brightening so suddenly has not been observed before. Astronomers were more than half expecting to find the comet had shattered into pieces, which would have exposed the virginal interior (with its volatile gasses) to view, but the comet itself appears to be quite intact. [Overnight some amateurs did report seeing a “double” nucleus, but that was most likely a background star that emerged from behind the comet.]

Needless to say, amateurs all over the world are watching to see what it’ll do next.

Your Hometown (Updated)

October 26, 2007

My home town is Buffalo N.Y.
Ran across <a href=””>this economic analysis by Edward Glaeser that details the origins and history of the city, it’s past successes and current decline. It’s no secret that, along with other cities around the Great Lakes now not-affectionately called “the Rust Belt”, Buffalo is in hard economic times.

The truth is, the federal government has already spent vast sums of taxpayer money over the past half-century to revitalize Buffalo, only to watch the city continue to decay. Future federal spending that tries to revive the city will likely prove equally futile. The federal government should instead pursue policies that help Buffalo’s citizens, not the city as a geographical place. State and local policymakers could take steps that might—might—help Buffalo stave off its demise, if they avoid the errors of the past. But make no mistake: Buffalo faces long odds.

This is not quite right. Buffalo (and cities like Cleveland and Detroit and even Chicago) received little federal help, if any. All of these cities (with the marginal exception of Chicago) saw decline for two reasons; the decline of the steel industry and manufacturing in general, and the rise of technology that made the transportation of goods by water much less significant to the country. All of those cities survived only in proportion to the distance they could move away from heavy manufacturing industry towards more modern, technology based industries.

Clearly, if this was a race between those cities, Buffalo probably came in last, or very close to it.

There is one big ball and chain around the city’s ankle, though, that’s been a hindrance to them in this race. And that was the politics of New York State. It’s not that the State of New York is inseparable from the City of New York, but it might as well be. Since the days of Nelson Rockefeller Albany has faced east and south. The state has two senators elected with more appeal downstate than up, and a tradition of electing celebrities from other states to high office. The allegiance of these celebrities to the city of New York is not in doubt. Their allegiance to the rest of the state always is.

The article points out the fact of “white flight” from Buffalo. In truth, that’s not the problem. The flight of the young (and I was one of those) to almost any place else has been the problem for most of my lifetime. A small fraction of those people left because of the weather.

The remainder left because there were too few opportunities to make a living, especially if you were a white male.

They left because of neglect. For the most part, Glaeser agrees with me.

Buffalo also suffered from lousy local politics. During the 1960s, the city government failed to deliver either safety or good schools. Race riots shook the area, and crime rose steadily. Fiscal crises became epidemic. Buffalo had difficulty recruiting police because of low wages and the dangers of the street. Leadership was especially dismal during the late sixties and early seventies, the city’s worst years. Mayor Frank Sedita, who faced ceaseless fiscal problems and surging violence from 1966 to 1973, was a traditional urban politician, better at playing to the city’s various ethnicities than at confronting its ongoing crisis.

My father left the city for the south towns in 1963. By the time I graduated from high school nine years later, there was nothing in the city to keep me in the area.

Update: Just one day after this was posted, the on-line organ of The Economist magazine, Free Exchange, published three pieces on the economics of the City of Buffalo here, here and here.

They are not particularly optimistic:

Buffalo, like most cities, initially boomed because of the way its singular geography aided production and transportation in a singular phase of economic and technological history. That time is gone and there is now no great advantage to being in Buffalo. It is cold and the city has developed no compensating new strengths.

They Told Me

October 26, 2007

They told me that if George Bush got elected, people who spoke their mind would be punished and they were right.

AAArrrggg. I’m stuck on channelling Glenn Reynolds again.

What Did Soprano Fans Expect?

October 25, 2007

The question is asked, apparently, by series creator David Chase.

Oh – Oooh! Teacher! Teacher – ask me. Ask me!!

They expected an ending, perhaps?

Yes, the AstroWife and I are Sopranos fans. I haven’t seen part II of the last season, yet (just out on DVD). But even though I know a few of the plot lines and the infamous blackout-ending while Don’t Stop Believing by Journey plays in the background, I’ll be buying the last part. I’ve got the rest, seen each episode two or three (sometimes 4) times, was surprised at how much I had missed each time I saw an episode again, and I’m sure I’ll be seeing the whole thing, front to back, again before I’m through. I enjoy it.

But Chase, in an interview for his new book The Sopranos: The Complete Book, says he’s exasperated by viewers who were upset that Tony didn’t die at the end.

According to the AP:

[Tony] had been people’s alter ego. They had gleefully watched him rob, kill, pillage, lie and cheat. They had cheered him on. And then, all of a sudden, they wanted to see him punished for all that. They wanted ‘justice’…

I’m surprised Chase doesn’t know his audience. The people he’s talking about, Soprano fans, did exactly what Chase and the writers wanted them to do. They watched him, they understood his problems and dilemmas, they were appalled at his violence (and at the way he came to the conclusion that his violence was the only way out of his problems), and they even came to like him (but not cheer him on, for heaven’s sake). But they understood that Tony was not a good guy. They saw evil and thought, for seven seasons over ten years, that evil was being engaged (and confronted).

What they did not want was pretty much what Chase gave them; a true-to-life ambiguous denouement (not an ending). They did not want that because the entire series is then transformed instantly from a confrontation between good and evil (on many levels) to a “slice of life in N.J.” tale. That wrenching sound you heard last summer was the sound of millions of fans getting whiplash as their concept of the series was forced to change. It was – not pleasant.


October 23, 2007

Admission – I have a minor addiction to the Fox TV series House. Everyone’s favorite pill-popping misanthrope has hired, fired, rehired most of, fired most the remaining interns and residence he’s had under him, has tried to have several under him (mostly female), killed at least one patient (with an assist from his almost-but-not-quite-yet team and alleged methodology/process) and yet, kept his job. This is after he’s driven away his original team (who, surprisingly, remain close).
Mega suspension of disbelief going on here. My biggest qualm with the show is that his *boss* should be fired for keeping him on staff for more than five minutes (which, I trust, would be the length of his tenure if this was not TV). She seems to serve no other purpose than to enable the idiot, genius though he be.

My biggest fear is that the Hugh Lorrie’s House character might be a (very) bad influence on impressionable young interns and doctors. They are, after all, so impressionable at that stage in their lives…

But other than that, he’s a great character.

There have been other insane/genius doctors on popular television – M*A*S*H’s Hawkeye Pierce comes to mind. But he wasn’t a misanthrope – he was just a perpetual frat-boy (until the writers turned him into a woman during the last couple of seasons). House will be caught pulling pranks (and outright law-breaking), but he’ll never be caught laughing with someone (laugh at them, yes. Not with them, however). He hates everyone, including himself and the God he doesn’t believe in, too much.

Except that he’s starting to have his doubts, isn’t he? Naw…
But maybe.

Lose the We

October 19, 2007

This is a great post at TCM. Consider this – a band of friends all from the same school of economics, at George Mason University. They share drinks, laughs and ideas, and ultimately, over years, realize that these ideas have matured. They’re also a bit different than the ideas of their contemporaries. How so?

Most economists favor the free market, with reservations. Masonomics rejects the reservations. If John and Mary are free individuals, and John trades with Mary, then John and Mary both are better off. End of story.

Most other economists believe in the need for government intervention. Like many non-economists, they talk about government policy in terms of we. We must, we have to, we need, we should, etc.

Once upon a time, “We, the people” was the preamble to a charter that reminded those in government of the limitations on the power granted to them. In today’s political discourse, “we” is more often the preamble to something like a call for an involuntary collective health system.

The ideas get even better. It’s worth your time to read.

They list several blogs in which the former denizens of the George Mason School of Economics just happen to participate, and I intend to peruse them. This could be the adult version of Ayn Rand.