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.