Friday, October 29, 2010

Wobble Boffins!

My friend and collaborator Andrew Howard just published an amazing paper in Science (abstract only, full article costs $$). The paper, on which I am proud to be a coauthor, came out Thursday and has attracted a lot of attention from both the astronomy community and the public. This is primarily because in it we provide the first estimate of the frequency of Earth-sized planets around other stars, often referred to as "eta Earth," after the Greek letter in the Drake Equation. We estimate that about 1 in 4 stars has an Earth-sized planet!

The results are from the NASA-UC Eta-Earth survey that we have been conducting over the past 5 years at Keck Observatory.

The results have quickly made their way out into the realm of popular science. Here's my favorite:

Alien Earthlike worlds 'like grains of sand', say 'wobble' boffins

I'm going to start listing "Wobble Boffin" as my job description on my CV! Andrew has an excellent quote describing our methodology:
"We studied planets of many masses - like counting boulders, rocks and pebbles in a canyon - and found more rocks than boulders, and more pebbles than rocks. Our ground-based technology can't see the grains of sand, the Earth-size planets, but we can estimate their numbers," says Andrew Howard, boss scientist of the team conducting the study.
So there you have it, from the Boss Boffin himself :)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


yesterday while doing homework, owen exclaims, "aye chihuahua"

marcus replies, "i chi my wah-wah (water)!"

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Tha Swagger Wagon

From the wonderfully subversive (reverse-subversive?) Toyota ad series:

Where my kids at?!

For our part, we prefer the Mazda 5.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Crazy eyes

From an older article in Cosmos magazine:

A new study has shown that a bizarre deep-fish can rotate its eyes to look up through the totally transparent roof of its head in search of prey.

Though the barreleye fish, Macropinna microstoma, was discovered almost 70 years ago, most specimens were damaged when brought to the surface in nets.

The research from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), in California, is the first to show that the animal has a transparent fluid-filled sac in place of the roof its skull, and that it can rotate its tubular eyes to either look up or forwards through its head to focus on prey.

I was reminded of this article when talking with my collaborator Andrew while we were observing on Keck tonight. Andrew keeps an amazing little "memory book" in his wallet that he created to keep track of the crazy and sometimes useful facts that he has come across over the years. For example, there are 105 billion humans that have ever lived on Earth, and 6 pounds per square inch (PSI) is enough to topple most buildings. There is 140 g of potassium in a human body.

The fact that set us talking through many Keck/HIRES observations is that the eye has evolved 50 times independently over the history of the Earth. Hence, the weirdo pictured above...

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Portugal's drug decriminalization story

Did you know that Portugal decriminalized drugs 10 years ago? Not just marijuana, but all drugs. Nowadays, Portugal has lower usage rates and lower incidence of drug-related crime than any other EU nation or the US.

This week at Politico of all places there's an excellent excellent op-ed by Glenn Greenwald about Portugal's radical new policies toward drug usage. Here are a few snippets:

By any metric, Portugal’s drug-decriminalization scheme has been a resounding success. Drug usage in many categories has decreased in absolute terms, including for key demographic groups, like 15-to-19-year-olds. Where usage rates have increased, the increases have been modest — far less than in most other European Union nations, which continue to use a criminalization approach.

Portugal, whose drug problems were among the worst in Europe, now has the lowest usage rate for marijuana and one of the lowest for cocaine. Drug-related pathologies, including HIV transmission, hepatitis transmission and drug-related deaths, have declined significantly.

Here's another excellent op-ed about the addiction of the US drug-warriors. Let's end this silly war on US citizens. Prop 19 will be an important first step!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Some Photos

Now that my phone is once again talking to iPhoto, I was able to upload about 3 weeks worth of photos. Here's a quick sampling:

Owen doing some board work in my office: "Hoy es viernes."

Picking Owen up from school.

When Erin was out of town running a marathon in Iowa, I stayed with the boys for the extended weekend. Here's our Sunday morning trip to Will Rogers State Beach.

Bath time!

I recently gave a colloquium at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), just north of Pasadena. Here I am having some fun with the IR camera demonstration in the space flight museum.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Saturday Morning Reading

Erin captured this video by holding the camera below her book as she pretended to read. Meanwhile Owen was actually reading a book about construction equipment to Marcus. The video is kinda long, but fans of Owen and Marcus will find some touching moments in there (for example, starting at 2:35 and especially at 4:00).

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Lazy, lazy Prop 19 reporting

Imagine a forest fire near your house was raging out of control. The forest department would like to set up a series of controlled burns in an attempt to control the blaze. However, a number of citizens oppose the controlled burns because there are potential health risks to the firefighters, and improperly executed controlled burns could, potentially, lead to an even larger fire. Other citizens worry about planes dropping water on the flames because the planes could miss and hit a house, thereby endangering everyone inside!

Well, this sort of debate is highlighted in yesterday's LA Times front-page article on marijuana legalization. The headline reads "Health Gets Lost in Pot Debate" and the story before the fold is all about a woman named Carol McDonald who became addicted to marijuana. Later in the article we find out that her 19-year addiction to pot costs her $5000 a year, a case of bronchitis, and has led to tension in her marriage and trouble at work.

You see? We should carefully consider legalization because this one time, this one woman got addicted to it. If she did, then (gasp) other people can get addicted to marijuana, too! I suppose this is cause for concern because no one gets addicted to pot now that it is illegal. Fortunately, we have Shari Roan and the LA Times to tell us all about these previously unconsidered health risks that would only happen in the event that Prop 19 passes.

As the article unfolds we learn that there are "many" experts out there who oppose marijuana legalization because people might become addicted to the drug. Quoth Shari Roan, "the science of marijuana's health effects is in many cases unclear," and, well, um...Check out this Excel graph!

This is a really silly article full of sloppy, lazy reporting. I found it truly giggle-inducing. Keep in mind that this is on the front page of the Sunday LA Times!

Here's an example of a quote from an expert against legalization: "We generally think the problems with marijuana aren't as serious as the problems you tend to see with cocaine or heroin," said Alan J. Budney, a leading researcher on marijuana..., "But they are pretty substantial."

How substantial are they? you ask. Well, it's a good thing you asked, because Shari Roan apparently didn't. The comparison of pot to cocaine and heroine just hangs there flapping in the breeze. Lemme try that! "We generally think the problems with reading the LA Times aren't as serious as the problems you tend to see with PCP or crack, but they are pretty substantial."

Two paragraphs later we find out: "A 2004 study in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention found no increased risk of motor vehicle accidents causing traumatic injury among drivers using marijuana." [emphasis mine]

How substantial are those problems? Very substantial!

In the following paragraphs we learn that there is no strong evidence of increased risk of lung disease, studies show that pot is not a "gateway" drug, and that "the effect on school performance could be significant if more minors use the drug." Let's play count the qualifiers!

No where in the article does the author note that Prop 19 would make marijuana illegal for people under the age of 21 and would leave in place DUI laws. That seems like pretty important information to me. But it wasn't important to Shari Roan of the LA Times, because then she wouldn't have anything to write about.

Even more important to know whoud be the number of people who are addicted right now, even with marijuana designated a Class 1 controlled substance and thousands of people incarcerated each year for possession and use. But we only get to learn about one person. Remember that one lady who became addicted that one time?

So what about Carol McDonald? "Even after what she went through, McDonald said she would like to see marijuana legalized so that people who have problems with the drug will be steered into treatment." Wait, what was the point of this article again?

The byline of the article sates "Addiction and other concerns draw little notice in discussion of legalization." Maybe it's because there's nothing to discuss. Perhaps a more appropriate title for this article would have been, "Health would be just as much a concern after legalization as it is right now." But I guess that's not a very flashy headline, and the "news" probably wouldn't be worthy of the front page. Then again, the same can be said for the article as written.

iPhone issues

This is just a post where I can store pictures of the problem I'm having with syncing my iPhone with iPhoto. I have an appointment with the Genius Bar later today.

Update: I'm embarrassed to report that the problem was that I didn't reboot my computer after the last couple of software updates. I assumed that if the computer needed rebooting, it would do so after the software update. Well, at least I could upload the photos from my phone again!

Sunday Morning Music Video

With great music video and the award for best band name I've come across this week, here's Hollerado:

Fun, huh?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

A day at the cabin!

All week we had been planning to (finally) hike back to the cabin that some friends generously offered to us back in June. Ever since our first trek down into the valley we have been excited by the concept of spending a weekend at the cabin, but the whole prospect seemed a bit daunting in practice. What if Mar couldn't sleep in such close proximity to the rest of us? What if there was a bed-wetting incident with no washing machine. What if, what if, etc...

So I had the idea of just doing a couple of day trips to scope things out. There still exist huge benefits associated with getting away from it all, even if it is just for part of a day. Thus, we made our plans to head down to the cabin Saturday morning.

However, when Saturday morning arrived, there was no guarantee that we'd follow through with our plans. While there are great benefits that come with a good hike and a day spent in the woods, the trappings of modern life have their appeals as well. There we found ourselves at 9am, the boys watching Nick Kids, the both of us sprawled on the couch dozing off between rounds of Words With Friends on our respective iPhones.

Then came the familiar voice of Depression. I really hate that guy, but he likes to sidle up to us in moments like these and whisper nice-sounding suggestions in our ears. "Wouldn't it be great to let the kids watch TV all morning while you sleep for a few hours?" "Psst, send the kids outside and watch some TV of your own. Things don't get any better than that," "The weekend doesn't last forever. In a couple short days its back to the grind. Why don't you veg for a while?" and "Hey, isn't there some ice cream left in the freezer?" At the time, it always seems like that guy has great ideas. But just like the allure of a giant stack of pancakes, what at first sounds like a great idea, usually leads to self-loathing half way through.

So with our combined force of will we peeled the family off of the couch, packed two backpacks and the kids in the car, and headed to Chantry Flats in the San Gabriel Mountains. I'm so glad we did, because yesterday was a truly wonderful day:

The boys outside of cabin 14: The Green Lantern

Our friend Cool Moose greeted us. So did the spider webs.

Mar left Monkey inside.


Playing cards on the deck. Owen and I played War (he won), and I taught Owen one-card poker (I won). Erin made hot dogs for lunch. We had smores soon after.

Mar! His face is covered with a carefully mixed concoction of BBQ Ruffles, katsup, mustard and dirt.

Owen wins a double war hand (two ties in a row!)

Best. Lunch. Evar.

Sometimes a picture says it all.

Good ole long-arm!

Erin here. Not pictured, was a family barefoot boulder jumping excursion, a failed nap attempt for Mar, and plenty of chucking rocks & acorns into the stream. The water was nice an cold, reminding me of tubing trips down the Frio River when I was a kid. Both boys hiked the 1.5 miles down to the cabin, and made it most of the way back out (uphill) on their own two feet! It was such a joy to hear the water rushing, the woodpeckers working, and watch the giant trees swaying in the wind. I can't wait for our first overnight there!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


as quickly as we said hello to wally, we had to say goodbye. there have been a lot of tears (more from the grown-ups than the kids!) about the decision, but it was the right one for everyone. although he is a sweet & fun dog, wally was not ready to be in a house with small children. hopefully with our feedback, the humane society will find a loving home for him where he has plenty of room to run, play "mess-around", and grow into his giant paws....

Monday, October 4, 2010

New Addition to the Family

Erin and I were sitting on the sofa the other night, all being the modern family, each with a laptop on our respective laps. Erin paused, looked up and said, "You know, I really love Amy's dog, Miner. That is a great dog." This is in reference to her recent trip to Iowa to visit her (our) sister Amy, and Miner is Amy's black lab. In what was likely a calculated move as part of a long-term strategy to convince me to get a dog, Erin then added, "I'd really like a dog someday."

Well, it turns out that a long-term propaganda strategy wasn't necessary. For some reason, Erin forgot that A) I love dogs and B) one of the reasons I've wanted to own our own house is because it would allow us to get a dog. The way I see it, we've had our own house for nearly a year, so we've been waiting a long damn time for a dog!

So I looked up from my computer and said, "Yeah, me too. Let's go get a dog." Erin took a long look at me, presumably to let this statement sink in and to give enough time for me to crack up laughing in case it was a cruel joke. But I didn't laugh, the statement sunk in, and we went from two laptops to one with the browser URL aimed at the Pasadena Animal Shelter. We also looked a the Southern California Labrador Retriever Rescue because we both love Labs.

We agreed that we didn't want a puppy, and instead would prefer a dog > 4 years old that is calm, already trained and housebroken, and good with kids. Pit Bulls, chihuahuas and great Danes were out. A lab or a lab mix would be preferred.

We arrived at the shelter, took a number (a buzzer) and started looking around. Several dogs caught our eye, including a super-sweet 8-year-old German Shepherd, a 2-year-old boxer (that was really probably 10 months old), several lab mixes and a large-but-not-huge Dane mix named Luna. We first "interviewed" a lab mix named Handsome. He was great with kids, but strong. Like, Super-Mutt strong. Rip-your-arm-off strong. He was also shedding like mad. Next we met the way-too-young boxer. He was beautiful, but when we saw him leap over a bench to sniff something on the other side, rather than walking around it, we knew he was too rambunctious for us. A flying Owen and a delicate-flower-Mar is plenty to keep our hands full without chasing down a speeding Boxer after he digs under our hedge.

Our last interview was with a Lab-Greyhound mix named Wally. Wally was the only dog not barking in his cage when other dogs walked by, and when I went with the keeper to walk him back to the "socialization area," he barely tugged on the leash, despite being surrounded by his barking neighbors.

When Wally got into the socialization area, he wandered around sniffing stuff, but walked around obstacles rather than leaping them in a single bound. His fur was short and glossy, with minimal shedding. His mannerisms were purposeful yet calm. Marcus grabbed his ear and he didn't even flinch. The keeper let us grab his tail and he didn't mind. Owen decided to leap off of the bench and landed right by Wally's head. I flinched, but Wally did not. Wally gave a strong interview.

I'll let Erin take it from here:

We had some "family"discussions with the kids about how we wanted to find a dog that everyone liked, and one who would do things our family enjoyed - outdoor adventures, jogging with mommy & playing with us in the yard. After a lot of window-shopping at the various kennels, Owen said with much concern, "I don't really know if I want a dog. They're cute, but they poop all over our yard". It was tough to hold back the chuckles, but talk of a special poop-scooping device swayed him back to the dog-side.

We shared our concerns & enthusiasm with the shelter staff as we discussed making Wally a member of our family. While at the pound, the boys seemed a bit indifferent about the idea of a dog in our house, the moment I walked in with Wally, Owen's face lit up and jaw dropped to his lap.

What followed was a full-family exploration of our space through Wally's eyes, some experimenting with placement of his bed & lots of fetch in the yard. It won't be long before he's catching frisbees! He's got some pretty good manners, recognizes us (John & me) as the alphas, and is fitting right into the family. To our delight, Marcus says his name beautifully, and even held Monkey out to give Wally a welcome home kiss.

(The crazy-person voice is actually John using his doggie-talk voice. Well, okay, perhaps there isn't a difference.)

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Interesting times in CA

Our CA voter booklet arrived this week and I decided to give it a perusal over breakfast this morning while the kids watch Cars for the Nth time (where N >> 1). Front and center is Prop 19:


  • Allows people 21 years old or older to possess, cultivate, or transport marijuana for personal use.
  • Permits local governments to regulate and tax commercial production, distribution, and sale of marijuana to people 21 years old or older.
  • Prohibits people from possessing marijuana on school grounds, using in public, or smoking it while minors are present.
  • Maintains prohibitions against driving while impaired.
  • Limits employers’ ability to address marijuana use to situations where job performance is actually impaired.
Um, whoa! This proposition would basically treat marijuana like alcohol under state law. Just like with booze, adults would be able to purchase and use weed for recreational purposes. Counties could allow pot bars to sell joints to people while they unwind after work and take in the Monday Night Football game. Just like BevMo, which is a warehouse-sized establishment that sells nothing but a powerful drug (alcohol), we could within the year see the construction of WeedMo, with aisle after aisle of a different type of drug. Amazing.

The PRO arguments in favor of Prop. 19 basically state that marijuana enforcement is a failed policy, legalization opens up a new stream of tax revenue for local governments (mainly through sales taxes, but leaves the door open for weed licensing), and cuts off a huge revenue stream for drug cartels south of the border (but also in Canada, BTW, not mentioned).

The rebuttal is pretty interesting. People opposed generally fall under the heading of anti-drug, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the state attorney general, CA sheriff's association, etc. Since we're talking about legalizing a previously prohibited drug (i.e. dangerous substance), you would think the arguments-against section would list all of the dangers of marijuana to its potential users. Tell us about how people will start raving through the streets breaking windows an assaulting helpless young mothers. Tell us about how it leads to addiction, which leads to further crime. Tell us about all the potential for overdoses. Com'on anti-drug folks, warn us of the imminent danger!

The first thing under CON is: "Opposed by MADD because it allows drivers to smoke marijuana until the moment the climb behind the wheel." Um, what? They oppose the legalization of pot first and foremost because drivers could potentially smoke it...up until the get behind the wheel? Lemme try something: "CON: Opposed by MADD because it allows drivers to drink alcohol until the moment they climb behind the wheel." Hmmm, not very compelling.

Their next concern: "Endangers public safety." Why? How? Because people aren't smoking pot now? Because people who use marijuana now are a huge danger to society? Under the more detailed argument against, here is how marijuana would endanger public safety: "School districts currently require school bus drivers to be drug-free, but if Prop 19 passes, their hands will be tied--until after tragedy strikes. A school bus driver would be forbidden to smoke marijuana on schools grounds or while actually behind the wheel, but could arrive for work with marijuana in his or her system." Again, just replace "marijuana" with "alcohol" and see if the logic holds up. And why the focus on school bus drivers? Oh, right, "WILL SOMEONE PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?!"

This is your kid's bus. This is your kid's bus on drugs. Any questions?

To my mind, the reason the opposition's safety-based arguments are either vague or invoke innocent children riding school buses is because there is no evidence that marijuana is a dangerous drug. Any argument against pot should be directed to alcohol first, because it is proven that alcohol causes people to be violent, addicted, and can cause death through overdose. None of this applies to weed. Yet MADD isn't pushing a ballot initiative to outlaw alcohol. Why, because we tried that and it kinda failed.

As for the dangers of driving under the influence, it is first of all dubious that weed causes the same number of accidents that alcohol does. The Prop 19 opponents subtly and cleverly assert the equivalence of driving drunk and driving under the influence of marijuana, but don't point to any study that proves this. But even if pot-impairment is as bad as drunk driving, Prop 19 sets a legal age (>=21), leaves DUI enforcement policies unchanged, and doesn't revoke the rights of schools to insist that their school bus drivers show up to work sober (OMG, our hands are tied! We have to let our bus drivers drink--er...smoke out before they go to work!!! We can't do anything until after tragedy strikes your child!)

Clearly, I'm voting yes on Prop 19. Even so, I think there are potentially good arguments against pot legalization. But none of these arguments are made in my voter guide. The only people who will find the "CON" section compelling are the people who already think weed turns people into raving murders. Fortunately, according to recent polls those people only make up about 40% of the voters. 52% in California favor legalization (4% points margin of error).

So who are some of the other opponents of Prop 19? The California Beer & Beverage Distributors lobby. BevMo doesn't want the competition.