Saturday, December 24, 2005

Seasoned Greetings

Tonight we had Christmas Eve service at Montgomery Place. Laura Jean and I took part in a lightly staged reading of W. H. Auden's long Christmas Oratorio, "For The Time Being." We were the first two (of three) Wise Men, decked out in tweed jackets, repenting our "tall errors of imagination." The poem is a pretty interesting, modern re-dressing of the Christmas story, at times funny (as in this excerpt), at times political. It made me want to read through it again.

Anyway, this year is the first year I'll be away from Fresno for Christmas, which is a little bittersweet, but also makes me feel a little bit like a grown-up. Tomorrow we'll have our very own Christmas morning here in Chicago, go to church and then fly to Maryland to catch the tail-end of family dinner there. To all of you I'm not lucky enough to see in person for the holidays, I'd like to wish you each a joyous week. (I really don't want to rant about the so-called War on Christmas except to say: Wha-huh?). To those celebrating Christmas: Merry Christmas. To those celebrating Hanukkah: Happy Hanukkah. To those celebrating something else or nothing at all, best wishes and joy. In the new year, I hope we all may come to better appreciate the gifts of those who are different in various ways.

I'd also like to share my new favorite carol; it's a gorgeous song by Vienna Teng, and you should totally check out her music if you get a chance.

The Atheist Christmas Carol

It's the season of grace coming out of the void
Where a man is saved by a voice in the distance
It's the season of possible miracle cures
Where hope is currency and death is not the last unknown
Where time begins to fade
And age is welcome home

It's the season of eyes meeting over the noise
And holding fast with sharp realization
It's the season of cold making warmth a divine intervention
You are safe here you know now

Don't forget
Don't forget I love
I love
I love you

It's the season of scars and of wounds in the heart
Of feeling the full weight of our burdens
It's the season of bowing our heads in the wind
And knowing we are not alone in fear
Not alone in the dark

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Year-end Top 5 Lists

At times, it seems the primary skills I picked up in grad school are drinking beer and commenting on pop culture. In that vein, I'd like to offer my year-end "Top 5" lists for music, movies and books. In reading these lists you may notice that a great many of the titles mentioned were not, in fact, released this past year. Being perpetually behind the times, it seemed simpler to limit the results to stuff that I heard, saw or read in the past year, regardless of how old it is. For example, I haven't really seen any of the movies currently being offered up as Oscar bait and which are making the top 10 lists of all the real movie critics out there. Oh well -- this is just what I liked about the past year; feel free to comment and (dis)agree.

  1. Sleater-Kinney, The Woods: Loud. Louder than your boyfriend's rock 'n roll. And better. And they give a great live show, too.

  2. Kanye West, The College Dropout: This hip-hop is the new punk rock. The first track, "We Don't Care", is a completely joyous song about how much it sucks to be poor, and it gives a deserving middle-finger to every authority figure in range. I think maybe he had some other big hits also.

  3. The New Pornographers, Twin Cinema: Listen to this band if you like super-catchy, yet sophisticated, power-pop. Each song crams in more hooky melodies, hand-claps and "hey ya's" than your average hour of pop radio (and why aren't they on the radio? oh yeah, they're Canadian). And the song "Sing Me Spanish Techno" will totally suck your brain out.

  4. The Arcade Fire, Funeral: A cycle of songs about children living in a world without grown-ups. I definitely have days where I feel that way.

  5. M.I.A., Arular: She's an ex-pat Sri Lankan, and current Londoner. There's an entire globe's worth of musical traditions in here, yet it mainly sounds like music played on trashcan lids while dancing on top of a burning cop car. In other words, pretty awesome.
(Hon. Men.: the Shins, Spoon, Talib Kweli, Neko Case, the Flaming Lips, Cibo Matto)

  1. Batman Begins: I love action and comic book movies, but a lot of them are frankly kinda lousy. This one's not. Christian Bale makes a great Batman and Bruce Wayne, but the film's got an even better villian, exciting action sequences, and an actually compelling storyline.

  2. Code 46: I'm also a sucker for any kind of sci-fi (LJ still makes fun of me for liking A.I.), and I really fell in love with this movie. Or perhaps I just fell in love with Samantha Morton's character. Hmmm. Anyway, imagine Gattaca as a zero-budget romance and with better acting. And I love that they filmed modern-day Beijing and Dubai as stand-ins for the cities of the future.

  3. Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit: See here.

  4. Brokeback Mountain: OK, so this actually is oscar bait. I don't know if it's as groundbreaking a movie as the critics say; I suppose a movie about gay cowboys is always going to be shocking to some. I enjoyed it for the simple pleasures of unpretentious story-telling, backed up by great acting. Heath Ledger deserves every award he's going to win for this one.

  5. Gangs of New York: Finally got around to seeing this, and I actually liked it a lot. I was expecting a polite Merchant & Ivory period piece, but it's really more of an urban western with a story lifted from a fascinating bit of forgotten American history (the Civil War draft riots). They should've lost the Hollywood romance between Leo and Cam, and stuck with the tribal street warfare set to rock music. Daniel Day-Lewis tears it up (as usual).
(Hon. Men.: Bad Education, The Incredibles, Million Dollar Baby, Born Into Brothels, Velvet Goldmine, Hotel Rwanda, Harry Potter 4)

  1. Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: A book to savor -- the anti-page-turner. This is the comprehensive tale of the rebirth of English magic, as related by the disreputable love child of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. It has footnotes better than a lot of fantasy stuff you pick up (no joke).

  2. Anne Fadiman, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: The story of a young Hmong girl with epilepsy and her encounters with the California medical system. The author tries her absolute hardest to be completely fair to the parents and the doctors and everyone involved, which just makes the tragedy of the story all the more wrenching. The most thought-provoking book on multi-cultural America I've read in a long time.

  3. Neil Gaiman, American Gods: The tale of a war between the old gods and the new gods of media and technology, as waged in the interstate truck-stops and tourist traps across the landscape of the Midwest.

  4. Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay: A funny and charming novel about comic books, escape artists and the different ways people can come together as a family.

  5. Joe Sacco, Palestine: Joe Sacco spent a year living in the West Bank in the early 90's after the first Intifada. Here he downlinks his impressions, sketches, opinions, thoughts, and myriad interviews with Palestinians living under occupation. Just cuz its a comic book doesn't mean it can't be hard-hitting journalism too.
(Hon. Men.: J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince; Ruth Ozeki, My Year of Meats; Laura Kaplan, The Story of Jane; Karen Armstron, Islam: A Brief History)

Saturday, December 17, 2005


So I finally graduated, and they handed me the piece of paper without too much fuss. Sadly, my Mom, Dad and sister Jessica all missed the ceremony. They were due into town the night before, but the closing of Midway Airport following the runway accident caused their flight to be diverted to Hartford (yeah, the one in Connecticut). The next morning, they had to catch a flight with a transfer in Baltimore (yeah, the one in Maryland) just to get back to Chicago, and the flights kept getting delayed longer and longer. The finally showed up in Chicago, exhausted and frustrated, about an hour after the ceremony ended.

Happily, they made it to the after-party/reception and we got to take photos while I was still wearing the silly robes. Laura Jean, Amy, Judy and David (my family-in-law) were at the ceremony to represent, and we all rallied and had fun for the rest of the weekend.

Here's a blurry picture of the processional - I often think blurry photos are kinda cool.

Look! a gamma-ray burst! Yay for dress-up in silly robes!

Laura Jean's family also got to see her in action at her new church. She gets to dress-up in silly robes every week!

I think Laura Jean looks especially cute in this one.

My family is very cool. They were totally calm and collected under pressure and they dealt with a thoroughly lousy airline experience with grace and humor. Also, they handled the freezing Chicago winter pretty well. Here they're looking sharp in their new winter coats.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005


In general, I like Maureen Dowd's columns, although at times she's what the Brits like to call "too clever by half." However, today's column got a laugh. She quotes Secretary of State Rice's recent comments defending extraordinary rendition of suspects to foreign countries to avoid laws that forbid us from torturing them on home soil.
"The United States government does not authorize or condone torture of detainees," she said.
and Dowd's response:
It all depends on what you mean by "authorize," "condone," "torture" and "detainees."
And if that's too much laughter for you, check out this article from the Washington Post, about the German national who was kidnapped and taken to a secret jail in Afghanistan and tortured for five months based on a "hunch" by a CIA agent that proved to be totally wrong. The really chilling part is when the CIA realized they got the wrong guy they seriously considered just dumping him somewhere and denying that it ever happened. Accountability please?

Monday, December 05, 2005

Wikipedia: Suck or Rule?

For those not in the know, is now officially the world's largest encyclopedia, offering nearly a million articles, all written and edited by volunteers. In fact, anyone (maybe you?) who happens to click onto their pages can edit or change them (without registering). This of course, has great potential to let blossom a million flowers of nerdiness, but it also crucially relies on the good faith (and competence) of the volunteer corps.

Recently they've decided to clamp down on unrestricted editing of articles, after a bio of John Seigenthaler (a former aide to Robert Kennedy) was edited to insinuate he might have been involved in the assassinations of both Kennedys. Oops. Mr. Seigenthaler was understandably upset and consequently ripped them a new one in a USA Today Op-Ed piece. Still, abuse like this seems difficult to control, given the nature of wikipedia. In my mind, the controversy is a another round in the struggle between free speech and (occasionally legitimate) state control over speech. No magic bullets here.

On the subject of wikipedia's general quality, one friend of mine likes to refer to the site as "decision making by a committee of twenty idiots". I don't quite agree: I like the fact that the site tends to have reasonably good articles on topics you can't get elsewhere. So it's not really a competition between "good" and "better", but rather between "good" and "nothing". The few times I've looked at subjects I do research on and know a fair bit about (gamma-ray bursts, HETE-2, astronomy) I've been pleasantly surprised at the level of detail. No obvious mistakes, good external links. Sure, some of the articles could be longer and more interesting, and there is a fair bit of stating the obvious, but for the most part way more informative than the string of generic news articles you would get from a google search. A good first start, which is what an encyclopedia should be.

Of course, gamma-ray astronomy is a fairly non-controversial backwater. I could easily put in a few hours of editing and improving the afore-mentioned pages (a better option than complaining about them) and be fairly certain that someone won't come along and undo everything. The same couldn't be said for articles on "aliens", "George W. Bush" or "Kennedy assassination", I guess.

So I'm curious. Do other people use wikipedia? Do you trust the stuff you find?

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Truth Is Out There

Turns out that the L'Enfant Plaza in DC (where conference I just attended was held) has a shiny glass pyramid that leads you to its underground entrance, just like the IM Pei pyramid at the Louvre. Of course, the Louvre entrance leads you to the finest art collection in the western world, while the L'Enfant entrance leads to a shopping mall. So it goes.

At any rate, it is clear that both pyramids mark sites of ancient power. The L'Enfant pyramid is actually the transmitting post for the gamma-rays that the alien Illuminati conspiracy uses to control the world governments, conveniently located in the heart of DC. Legend has it that the bones of the Messiah (a.k.a. Jean-Luc Picard) are buried beneath the pyramid's apex, and there have been reports of manifestations of great power from the pyramid.

Tellingly, when I snapped a photo of the Great Pyramid, I was accosted by a security guard who told me that photos of the plaza were not permitted unless I crossed to the other side (!) of the street. I'm probably violating some Homeland Security law by posting this photo, but the people need to know the truth!

Sunday, November 27, 2005


I'm back in Chicago for less than 48 hours. Thanksgiving was fun and it was good to be home and hang out with the family, but I'm getting a bit tired of traveling. Tomorrow I'm off to D.C. for the annual GRB conference, which should actually be fairly interesting, and as an added bonus I'll get to spend some time with my in-laws. Still, it would be great to have more than a nodding acquaintance with our apartment. Oh well.

Anyway, since the holidays are upon us, I know we're all in the mood for some heartwarming family movies. You know, It's A Wonderful Life, movies with kids and puppies and hugging and learning, stuff like that. Well, here's a trailer for something in that same vein. Enjoy.

[Warning: it's a quicktime video and it takes a while to download on a slow connection. Thanks to The Onion Blog for the link.]

Saturday, November 19, 2005

2K, why?

Last Friday, the Wage Peace group brought a traveling exhibit called Eyes Wide Open to campus to illustrate the costs of the Iraq war. They arrayed 79 pairs of boots in the quad honoring the 79 casualties from Illinois, some adorned with flags and photos. There was also circle of childrens' shoes memorializing the Iraqi civilians who have died in the conflicts (which credible reports have numbered at 20,000 to 30,000). The exhibit is a project of the Quaker pacifist group, the American Friends Service Committee, which has a long history of opposition to war.

The exhibit also emphasized that the Cost of War has reached more than $220 billion dollars (with no end in sight). The National Priorities Project emphasizes that the money spent on the conflict could have been used to fund any one of the following:
29 million more children enrolled in Head Start
full health insurance for 132 million children
nearly 4 million public school teachers hired
nearly 11 million four-year college scholarships
nearly 2 million housing units
9 years of fully-funded global anti-hunger programs
22 years of fully-funded global AIDS programs
basic immunizations for every child in the world for the next 73 years.

For me, the exhibit was a good reminder that war = death. It's always non-sensical to try to account for the statistics of death. Does a number like 30,000 mean more to us if it were described as 10 World Trade Center-sized scoopfuls of humanity? Would a number like 79 mean more to us if it were 79 little brothers, first cousins, husbands or daughters? During the major phase of combat operations, the major news networks were reluctant to speculate on how many Iraqi civilians were killed by American forces. This was war, after all. People die in wars.

I'm a strong opponent of this war, but I wouldn't exactly call myself a pacifist. I suppose that violence is necessary in certain situations. But behind the video-game media reports, the pundits debating the reasons for war, the important men making speeches, I think the pacifists understand better than most of us this key fact: war means death for the "deserving" and the "undeserving" alike (whatever those terms mean). I wish I knew better what to do with this knowledge.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Thesis Relief

Well, the thesis is officially handed in, although not before one last snafu.

Wise ones say you will always print out your dissertation twice, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. I had thought I was all done last night, but this morning I realized that my "extra abstract form" was o-so-slightly mis-formatted (the "extra abstract form" is not actually part of the thesis, but is something we hand in to the publishing company). So I trudged back to my office (through the first snowfall of the year) to re-print. Problem was, when I re-formatted, it didn't quite fit on one page. The title didn't quite fit on one line and it consequently forced the last line of the abstract onto page two. That short, runty little line on page two was completely irritating, but it took me a little while to squish it back onto page one without totally running afoul of the formatting police. Finally re-printed, I marched to the dissertation office and handed it in.

All in all, it's a pretty great birthday present to be done with it. I've been in school almost continually since I was five (with only a few breaks here and there), so it is very exciting to at least symbolically close out one phase of my life and begin another. In fact, I think I just may goof off tonight.

[PS- If anyone really wants to look at my thesis, I've put a PDF version on my website. Beware: it's a very large file (~8 MB). In due time the paper will be published and posted various places on the web that are easier to access.]

[PPS- A smaller, more readable version of my thesis paper can be found on at this address. It should be published in the Astrophysical Journal come June, and I'll post the final version after that. (05/08/2006).]

Happy Birthday Tim!!

In case you didn't know... 29 years ago on this illustrious day, little baby Tim was born. Also, Adult Tim finished his dissertation yesterday! Yay Tim! You rock.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Thesis Panic

Over coffee yesterday morning, I had a panic attack over the possibility of a hard disk crash taking out all my thesis research: the text itself, the figures, the datafiles, the code that generated them. Hyperventilate, hyperventilate, deep breath, deep breath, that's highly unlikely to happen, they have automated backups, don't worry about it. But, better safe than sorry, I backed up everything to another server.

Now I'm back to working in some final revisions and conforming to the university's ridiculous formatting requirements. All the requirements are driven by the need for the thesis to be legible after being microfilmed and reprinted. Microfilm?! No color figures?! This is the digital age! If anyone in the universe ever looks at my thesis it will be because I post it at, a nice, searchable, online service where you can print out a full color version for free and download the data in digital format. I will admit it's pretty cool that a bound hardcopy of my thesis will appear in the library and have its own catalog entry. But I have to admit the odds of anyone ever checking it out and taking it home for some bedtime reading are slim to none. Still, it seems like they could at least update their requirements to allow color figures.

Anyway, five (well, really four) days to go until I turn it in.


Today was quite cold. These are some photos of the trees along my walk to work.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Win some. Lose some.

The bad news is that the Kansas school board voted to approve new science curriculum standards that challenge evolution and support intelligent design (ID). The good news is that the school board members in Pennsylvania who tried the same thing in Dover (site of the on-going lawsuit against ID) were resoundingly voted out of office in favor of a pro-science slate.

What struck me most about these articles was how much the anti-evolution advocates have adopted the language of science in the service of a direct assault on the principles of science. There's just something deviously brilliant in adopting the mantle of "intellectual honesty" and "open debate", all the while leading kids toward adopting their pre-ordained conclusion. The IDers are smart and they know that actual scientists have a hard time rebuting the idea of an open debate.

It's true that there should be no sacred cows in science. This is a core value held by almost all scientists, and in practice there are few ideas that are not subject to speculation, review and criticism. But science is not just about being open to alternate ideas (however wacky), it is also about making rational, real-life decisions based on the evidence. The scientific process always involves judging between competing models. At the end of the day, you sometimes have to make a decision about which drug to administer to a patient, or which design of an airplane wing to implement. The poverty of the ID argument is that it has nothing to say about any of this. And at the end of the day, evolution is one of the most well-tested theories we have; it is the bedrock of modern biology.

The most charitable thing I could say about ID is that it belongs in a philosophy or theology classroom (although I don't think it works as a very compelling theology either, being essentially a rerun of the old God in the Gaps argument). But I'm old-fashioned. I tend to think you should teach science in science class, and Lord knows there's never enough time to cover everything worthwhile in the course of a school year, even without wasting time discussing the latest political cause of the religious right.

Another funny from the article was from the guy who runs the Intelligent Design Network who said that promoting ID in the classroom would "make science education interesting to students rather than boring." If that doesn't sound like a focus-grouped soundbite, I don't know what does. It's all about creating a brand: ID is fun and rad, while science is a boring subject that only the nerds enjoy. What a good message to be giving our kids.

The headlines make me mad. If I had kids attending Kansas public schools, I would be furious.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Ninjas vs. Pirates

The world demanded a way to answer the age old debate about who was more awesome, and the internet has provided us with answers.

For example, I think we all know who really won the last election.

[PS- This is pretty sweet also. Thanks, Jackie!]

Sunday, November 06, 2005

All is right in the world...

So Friday, I came down with some sort of death-illness, a cold or flu or something. Saturday was a gray and dank autumn day, where it couldn't quite make up its mind to rain and be done with it. Ordinarily such events would have inspired me to hide in bed, except that we took it as an opportunity to see.... (da da DA!) the new Wallace & Gromit film: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit!

There were bunnies. There were gadgets. There were daring chases. There were obscure cheeses and many fine examples of British orthodontry. At times you could spy on Gromit's puzzled brow, the actual fingerprints of his creators. I have to say, Nick Park and his team are total Jedi knights when it comes to stop-animation. Sure, making a clay figure walk around seems at least conceivable to me (not that I could actually do it, but the idea is simple, I guess). But I have no idea how they manage to get fog to drift through a moonlit graveyard, or how a were-rabbit grows fur. I can only imagine the time and attention to detail it must take to make even a few minutes of such animation, and this was feature length.

And today, I feel much healthier. Coincidence? I think not. Cracking toast!

[PS- Wikipedia sez that the animation proceeds at a rate of about 30 frames, or one second of film, for each day of production. For a 90 minute film that's about 15 years. I think this means that for this feature they had to use several animation teams working in parallel, but still, that's a lot of person-hours spent molding clay.]

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Crap: a new Robert Jordan book.

The Robert Jordan money train rattles onward with Book 11 (!) in the Wheel of Time series, titled The Knife of Dreams. For the uninitiated, Jordan started this series about 15 years ago and the first five installments were pretty awesome. Like most fantasy writing, the ghost of Tolkien hangs heavily over the series, orcs and swords and all that. But at least when it began, it was exciting, imaginative, well-written and deeply addictive. If only he had just wrapped it all up in a slam-bang Book 6. Instead it has all gone horribly, horribly wrong.

Perhaps it will stand as a cautionary tale for the young writer, an example of what not to do after banging out a couple of best-sellers. After Book 5, Jordan started slowing the pace down, exchanging action and suspense for tedious attention to detail, piling on minor characters and complicated subplots until the entire ship began to slip under the waves. The most likeable characters in the series either got pushed to the margins or underwent annoying personality changes. Simply keeping track of what was going on required a searchable index of names and backstory. Book 10, the Crossroads of Twilight, was an especially irritating new low in that it was an 800 page book ($24.99 in hardback) in which not a damn thing happens until the very last page.

Of course, his legions of fans kept buying his books throughout this long descent into suckitude, hoping for a return to his old form, or at least a conclusion allowing us to get on with our lives. It hasn't arrived yet. This has, naturally generated a certain amount of anger, visible in the reader comments for book 10. As of now there are 2376 reader reviews with an average rank of 1.5 stars out of 5. Reading through the reviews is a lot of fun. You can find some really funny parodies of the series and its bloated style, and a great fake interview with Jordan discussing his latest volumes (Book 17 "The Paint Dries" or Book 19 "Overtaken By A Snail").

So will I read the new book? Hell no! OK, that's a lie. I'll probably read it, but only because I'm a sucker. And because I'm weirdly fascinated by how bad its gotten. And because I'm totally addicted and need to know how it ends. But I'm not buying a copy, so there.

Monday, October 31, 2005

red sox, white sox, blue sox?

Like H-Bomb and lots of other people, I was pretty psyched to see the Chicago White Sox win the World Series last week. Although I think of myself as a transplanted Bay Area fan (Giants, A's, 49ers), local sports nationalism has carved out a (roughly equally sized) soft spot in my heart for the Sox and the Cubs. Plus I love underdogs, in sports and other things, so its nice to see both Red and White Sox take a series after so many decades of whiffs. So maybe that means it will be the Cubs' turn next year? Right? Right?

I actually watched or listened to most of the Series, although, lamely, I sat through the tedious first 13 innings of game 3 and bailed just a few minutes before it got interesting. My favorite bit was the Fox sportscasters name-checking Hyde Park (but not, say, Bridgeport) at the close of game 4. Probably had some UofC intern do their local color research for them; I'll bet Mayor Daley's friends will give them a stern talking-to. At any rate, the Sox played tough for the whole post-season; they didn't blow anyone out, but they did come through with clutch hits, clutch strikeouts and great catches when they needed them. Go Sox.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005


I received my first "crackpot" letter in the mail last week. It was addressed to Carlo and I, but he seemed unimpressed. I choose to accept this as a sign that I truly have completed my graduate training and am now a card-carrying scientist.

Like snowflakes, each crackpot is different. Perhaps a wealthy dilletante will employ a vanity press to print 1000 copies of his personal refutation of general relativity and send a copy to every professor within reach of the U.S. Postal Service. Religion often enters the mix. I recently heard tell of a lengthy treatise, jam-packed with equations, calculating the probability that Mikhail Gorbachev is, in fact, the Anti-Christ (the answer was 10^17 to 1, reportedly). Periodically the entire Astronomy Department at my school receives email spam from a source claiming to prove that "THE UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE IS UNTENABLE" (yes, all in caps). One professor in my department deposits all such correspondence on a table in his lab and over the years the stack has grown to several cubic feets worth of quality reading.

Despite this diversity, some observers have tried to impose order on the chaos, for example, John Baez's crackpot ranking system. According to this system, a true crackpot champion must excel at both Delusions of Grandeur and Delusions of Persecution. My recent correspondent got points in the first category, but not the second, although they made up ground by including a rhyming short-story about something called "Nergs". Check out their website if you're curious. It's actually fairly fascinating and kinda creative, so long as you don't try to parse the sentences.

Another hallmark is the seemingly random arrangement of scientific terminology into sentence form. Okay, granted, a lot of scientific writing is just crap. It's unlovely, crammed with jargon and seemingly written specifically for an audience of seven or eight fellow specialists. Given a close inspection of a paragraph plucked at random from the arXiv, most rational people might reasonably conclude that it was typed by monkeys. That said, there's something about most crackpot writings that trigger the BS radar. For example, "In the 4th dimension, energy is always moving and turning." What does that even mean?!

Probably a lot of these people are sincerely interested in science, and could greatly benefit from a tutorial or a few minutes of explanation. And everyone once in a while a crackpot will turn out to actually be a revolutionary. Einstein was just a poor shlub working in a Patent Office when he single-handedly destroyed existing scientific orthodoxy, and the great Indian mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan, came to the attention of the European establishment through an unsolicited letter to the English mathematician Hardy. So who knows, the answer to Quantum Gravity may actually be sitting on that table outside of my professor's office, buried under the competition. Of course these days any jerk can put up a webpage to say pretty much anything they want, so maybe a google search will light the way.


Cheney Plan Exempts CIA From Bill Barring Abuse of Detainees

Moral values voters, take note, the Prince of Darkness (a.k.a. Dick Cheney) is now arguing openly for the "right to torture" detainees without limits, guidelines or oversight. As the Human Rights Watch guy says in the article, "This is the first time they've said explicitly that the intelligence community should be allowed to treat prisoners inhumanely". I'm sure Jesus would be totally down with that. Of course, John McCain isn't having any of it, but then years of first-hand experience with actual torture might tend to affect your thinking on the issue.

I'm sure the right-wingers will trot forward situations where torture is justified in a limited sense, but as a general policy it is immoral, ineffective and stupid, and I'm shocked that we as a nation will are still having this conversation. Someone needs to sit Cheney down and make him watch The Battle of Algiers. Guh.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Travellin' Again

This past week has been filled up with travels, first to California for fun and then to Boston for work. At any rate, I have a backlog of stuff to share.

The California voyage was ostensibly to attend my 10 year high school reunion (more on that below), but we also stopped in on our dear friends, Mandy and Mia, at their new base of operations in Salinas. They are living there in community at an inter-faith Catholic worker house. The workers run a day shelter called Dorothy's Place (the colorful building in the picture) which provides two meals a day, showers, a place to rest your feet and a thousand other services for the folks living on Soledad Street (Salinas's Skid Row). Right now the community is small, just Mandy, Mia and another couple who are raising 15-month-old twin boys, but they seem to have great ambitions for building a thriving community dedicated to social justice.

Here's Mandy & Mia instructing one of the twins (I have no idea which!) in the art of silliness. While we were there we helped out with lunch preparation, played with the twins and checked out the community. I met the two of them through co-ops in Chicago and I've always been inspired by their insistence on making social justice and community integral parts of their lives. Conversely, I've always had a lot of respect for the Catholic Worker movement, but I never felt "Catholic enough" to really join in. So I'm intrigued to see how the interfaith nature of their community evolves, and I think Laura Jean and I would be interested in joining them at some point in our future. At any rate, it was great to spend time with them, and since Salinas is only a few hours from Fresno, it is nice to know we'll be able to see them pretty easily whenever we come home. We were also lucky enough to lure Cathy down from the Bay Area and spend some quality time catching up with her lovely self also. Very convenient, one-stop friend-shopping, I must say.

Last Saturday night was the 10 year reunion for the Class of 1995 at Clovis West High School. From right to left in the picture are Laura Jean, Elisabeth, her husband Dan, myself and Aaron. Since Lis is my oldest friend in the world, and Aaron is one of the relative handful of CW-folk I've kept up with, we banded together for the reunion. I have to admit I was a little leery of the whole reunion thing. High school actually became tolerable and even a little fun by the time senior year rolled around, but in general, Buffy has it right: before you understand who you are and what is important to you, high school really can be a minefield of insecurities. Old anxieties aside, it was actually a fairly interesting evening, full of double-takes and surreptitious name-tag glances. There were a several people I hadn't anticipated seeing and was pleasantly surprised to catch up with. In the end, we didn't feel compelled to party until they kicked us out, but we had a pretty good time anyway.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Sign of the Coming Apocalypse #316

I guess I missed this when it happened, but the above photo (courtesy of NASA's Earth Observatory website) is of the first ever hurricane observed in the South Atlantic. Nicknamed "Hurricane Catarina" (that's a "C", not a "K", along with an extra "a") after the Brazilian state of Santa Catarina where it came ashore on March 28, 2004. Meterologists learn at their mothers' knees that hurricanes are "impossible" in the South Atlantic, and this one caught them so much by surprise that they didn't even have a naming convention like they do in the Northern Hemisphere. Although its tough to do science with one datapoint, Catarina is destined to become a heavily studied event, and scientists have already started to debate whether it was simply a fluke weather event or the sign of changing conditions. At least a few groups (here and here) have speculated that global warming may play a role in increasing storm activity in the South Atlantic. As the pros at explain in a nice article, it is a prediction of climate change models that the intensity of naturally occurring hurricanes will be enhanced by global warming, mainly as a result of rising sea surface temperatures. So even if any individual event, like Katrina, cannot be directly attributed to global warming, the next century may well see a rash of destructive storms in the Caribbean.

So crazy it just might work...

OK, so here's my crackpot theory on why we've stepped into this cowpie in Iraq. Turns out, we invaded Iraq precisely because they didn't have any WMD and we knew it. If we really thought they had some big, scary arsenal of WMD we might have been a bit more cautious about poking them with a stick. I mean, we're not exactly falling all over ourselves to invade North Korea, are we? And why not? Because they might nuke us, or South Korea, if we did. Plus, twenty years of war and a decade of harsh sanctions meant that Iraq's economy was in the tank, their army was in tatters and they couldn't even get eBay to ship the plutonium to directly to them. After 9/11, Bush and Cheney were looking for a way to assert American military dominance in the Middle East, just like they had been planning for years. Iraq was actually the easiest target: evil dictator that no one likes, plenty of oil revenues to pay for the clean-up, the army's a pushover, and we get to move our military bases out of Saudi Arabia but still keep a military presence in the region.

The hard part would be convincing the American Public that up is down, hot is cold, etc. etc. Obviously, I'm exaggerating, but only a little bit, really.

If you really read about who does have WMD, it sure seems like Iraq is the only kid on the block without the new toys. The case of the Pakistani nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan got a little bit of press (from the New Yorker) last year when it came out that he (with tacit support of the Pakistani military) had for decades been selling highly sensitive nuclear technology on the black market to North Korea, Iran, Libya and probably others. Khan, a hero in Pakistan, may be the world's expert at wriggling out from under the world's non-proliferation rules. The Pakistani nuclear program got its start when Khan stole centrifuge designs from a European consortium, and it succeeded despite sanctions and international opposition. Nicholas Kristof opined that "if a nuclear weapon destroys the U.S. Capitol in coming years, it will probably be based in part on Pakistani technology." However, Khan was officially pardoned by Musharaff, and since Pakistan is a key ally in the War on Terror, the U.S. is looking the other way. Goes to show ya, our guys can do no wrong, and when you're drumming up support for war, sometimes you gotta bend the rules.

So now let's compare and contrast. In Thomas Friedman's latest apologia for the Iraq war, he theorizes that Saddam's foolishness regarding the U.N. inspectors was actually a stab at deterrence. By making it appear that he was hiding WMD that he did not actually have, Saddam was actually putting on an act to persuade his enemies (both internal and external) that he was dangerous and not to be messed with. Still, Bush and Cheney had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find even lousy forged evidence for Iraq's (apparently non-existent) nuclear program and yet took the nation to war over it, all the while next door our good buddies in Pakistan are running a free-for-all nuclear shopping spree. What gives? Obviously I'm not saying we should invade Pakistan next, but a little perspective and some accountability would be nice.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Happy Birthday HETE-2 !

Yesterday was the five-year anniversary of the launch of the High Energy Transient Explorer (HETE-2), the first scientific satellite entirely devoted to the study of Gamma-Ray Bursts (shown here before its launch, obviously). It's hit a few bumps in the road, but in the last few years has made some great discoveries. These have included the localizations of bursts on March 29, 2003, which finally proved the connection between long GRBs and Type Ib/c supernovae, and the short burst of July 9, 2005, which shed light on the nature of short GRBs. An international collaboration led by M.I.T., with help from Japan, France, Los Alamos, Berkeley and a few of us here at U. of Chicago, deserves the credit for keeping HETE running these past five years. To learn more about how HETE works, check out our home page:

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Born Into Brothels

Friday night was replete with UofC style entertainment. First up Happy Hour, this week the $1 pizza and beer deal was discounted further to "free" to celebrate the start of quarter, then followed by the Doc Films showing (usually $4, but cheaper since we bought quarter passes). I figure I need to get my fill of student discounts for the next few months until they kick me out and I have to pay the grown-up price for everything.

The film we saw was "Born Into Brothels", this last year's Oscar winner for Best Documentary. It is an unusual film in that it righteously tramples down the barrier of objectivity that so often exists between documentarians and their subjects. Zana Briski (along with Ross Kaufmann) has made a vivid and touching chronicle of her efforts to teach photography to a group of children living in Calcutta's red-light district -- go see it if you can.

She hands them each a camera, teaches them how to use it and sends them off to document their world. Like their mothers before them, the girls in her class are all in danger of slipping into prostitution, and the boys are not any safer for their gender. And so the filmmaker also throws herself into the children's lives, tromping the streets of Calcutta to find a boarding school that will take the children, making sure their papers and medical tests are in order, and in one case, securing a passport so one student can attend a youth photography summit in Europe.

The gift of the cameras seems so innovative in that it not only gives the children something to be proud of and to occupy their talents, it also gives them a voice and a method for analyzing and understanding the world they live in and each other. Their perceptiveness is at times heartbreaking, and several scenes have stuck with me. One girl offers bite-size comments on the personality of the other children while the film superposes the portraits they have taken of each other. Another girl pauses to consider whether she will "join the lines" when she is a bit older. A boy notes that he tries to love his father "a little bit" even though he is a drug-addict that nobody cares about. When talking about the photos, about what they like and why, all of them could easily hold their own in a college art class. The children seem to blossom in the camera's gaze, which is a tribute to the trust the filmmakers have earned with their subjects. By contrast, there are a few scenes showing the children's interactions with other grown-ups and the looks of stone-walling and rebelliousness that cross their faces are telling.

One problem I had is Briski's relationship to the parents. More often than not, the parents are shown as obstacles to the children "getting out." There is not a lot of sympathy for the parents who are about to lose their children to a boarding school in a different part of town. The film doesn't offer a systematic analysis of prostitution or child poverty in India, and so while I completely related to Briski's very human reaction of wanting to do something for the children she loved, part of me wondered if taking the children and putting them in boarding school was preferable to doing something to help the community itself thrive.

But that is just a minor (and perhaps unfair) quibble. In his review of the film, A. O. Scott compares the film to the books of Jonathan Kozol. Both revolve around an insistence on the full humanity of those people who are marginal in our societies. For evidence of this you can view a few of the children's photos here.

Friday, October 07, 2005


We went and saw Sleater-Kinney perform at the Metro last night. Since I am a huge S-K fanboy I've been looking forward to this concert for months, and I'm happy to say they did not disappoint. The Metro is a great small venue - no seats but we were able to get pretty close to the stage. I had seen S-K years before (with Fugazi) at a huge free Food Not Bombs benefit concert in San Fran. I was impressed then, but live music is immeasurably better when you can actually see the performers' faces. And last night S-K gave a great, passionate performance and even seemed to be enjoying themselves at the same time.

For those not initiated, Sleater-Kinney are a punk rock trio from Portland, Oregon. They've been around for a decade or more now -- some people call them the last of the riot grrrl bands still standing. Like a lot of great artists they have managed to evolve and not fade away once their original sound gets played out. That said, the basic formula remains two guitarists, Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, who fire off a rapid sequence of complex guitar riffs so that each seems to intermesh and bounce off the other. At their best, this interplay gives their sound a lot more intricacy than the usual power-chord-rhythm-plus-lead-guitar paradigm that most bands employ. Add in interlocking vocals and some thundering drums courtesy Janet Weiss, and they're pretty much unstoppable. Still they've had to put up with their fair share of sexist amazement that a trio of women can somehow flat-out rock harder than MTVs entire lineup of boyish pop-punk bands.

Anyway, their latest album, The Woods, might end up being my favorite even though it represents a pretty big departure from their usual style. Committing a bit of punk rock heresy, the new albums sounds very classic-rock-y, not so much The Clash as Led Zeppelin or The Who, with maybe a dash of Sonic Youth. They've also (somehow!) upped the volume -- as Spinal Tap would say, they've turned their amps up to 11 for these songs. The vocals sound borderline unhinged on a few songs and Carrie whips out a few yowling guitar solos that would make Jimmy Page sit-up and take notes. Here is a great interview with Carrie where she describes the methods and madnesses behind the change of style.

The show last night was very much in this new style. Many songs featured guitar solos either as a bridge between sections or acting as a segue to another song. The transition from "Let's Call It Love" into "Entertain", and the instrumental intro to "Words and Guitar" were both pretty awesome. The highlights for me were "Jumpers", which is the single although not a favorite until I heard it live, "Modern Girl" which is softer and more melodic but no less pointed for it, and "Rollercoaster", which is just a fun fun song that they played with big grins on their faces. They also played several rousing political songs, both "Combat Rock" which asks,
Where is the questioning? Where is the protest song?
Since when is skepticism un-American?
and an energetic cover of CCR's "Fortunate Son" (which now seems more relevant than ever). Horray for rabble-rousing feminist punk rock!

If anyone wants to check out their music, they have a few free downloads on their official site,, in addition to seven great albums.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

I have a blog now.

So. I have a blog now. I have to say I'm a little dubious that I'll be a religious and consistent poster, my life thus far is strewn with journals and diaries begun and quickly orphaned after a few days or weeks of zeal. On the other hand I do spend a fair amount of time in front of a computer and tend to procrastinate by reading blogs, so maybe there's hope. Plus, I do love to write and it will be nice to have a place to collect what I do write and make it accessible to anyone who might be vaguely interested in what I have to say.

You may be wondering about the name: Goats Reading Books. The name actually came from Laura Jean and it was her idea to use an alternate phrase that shares the acronym for gamma-ray bursts (GRBs), which is what I spend a fair amount of my time studying. Also goats are somehow inherently funny. Example given, this article from our friends at The Onion; not only is the picture of the goat really cute but the article pretty much killed me when I read it. I suppose GRBlog would have been a good choice too, but it's already been taken and put to excellent use.

What sealed the deal was a Google search on the keywords "goats reading books", the second hit from which was an listing for "My Pet Goat". Unintentional, but pretty awesome.

I tend to think a lot about science, culture, politics, activism, movies, music, friends and a fair bit of silly stuff thrown in, so I'm sure all that will come rushing out in my future posts. Stay tuned...