Sunday, November 21, 2010

Owen and Erin Playing Catch

Owen practices his diving catches just after the 2:00 mark.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Allan Sandage

Sadly, my academic great-grand-uncle Allan Sandage passed away last week. I never had an opportunity to meet him, which is a shame because he worked just up the road at the Carnegie Institute right here in Pasadena. I would have liked to talk with him about evolved stars as his 2003 paper on subgiants was part of the inspiration of my thesis project.

From his obituary in the NY Times:

[His advisor Edwin] Hubble had planned an observing campaign using a new 200-inch telescope on Palomar Mountain in California to explore the haunting questions raised by that mysterious expansion. If the universe was born in a Big Bang, for example, could it one day die in a Big Crunch? But Hubble died of a heart attack in 1953, just as the telescope was going into operation. So Dr. Sandage, a fresh Ph.D. at 27, inherited the job of limning the fate of the universe.

“It would be as if you were appointed to be copy editor to Dante,” Dr. Sandage said. “If you were the assistant to Dante, and then Dante died, and then you had in your possession the whole of ‘The Divine Comedy,’ what would you do?”

That's quite a burden for a postdoc! Later in the obit I figured out that I might not have had much of a chance of meeting him:

Dr. Sandage was a man of towering passions and many moods, and for years, you weren’t anybody in astronomy if he had not stopped speaking to you.

Well, I never spoke to him, so does that make me somebody? No? Darn.

I like talking with old-school astronomers. I always learn a lot and walk away from these conversations with a renewed awe of the way astronomy was done in the past. 10-hour nights perched hundreds of feet above the ground at the prime focus of a fully non-automated telescope. George Herbig once told me that you climbed into the prime focus cage with two thermoses. One full, one empty. And at the end of the night you climbed down with one full, one empty.

I hope that one day I can tell some young 33-year-old professor about astronomy back in the 2000's. We used to have to walk downstairs from our office and log in remotely to the telescope 2500 miles away. Then we'd have to use a mouse to click on targets and tell the telescope operator when to move. We used to communicate with this clunky system known as a Polycom, which gave only a tiny, 2-dimensional image of the person on the other line. The next morning, we'd type commands into our computers---which were this big by the way---and wait 2 hours for the reduced data to be stored on our hard drives. Yes, hard drives with only terabytes of space on them. It's amazing we ever got anything published back then...

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Friday, November 12, 2010

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

FDR's Second Bill of Rights

More here.

Note: I previously said that these rights "never came to pass." This was incorrect as many of these concepts have been realized through legislation since FDRs time. But it is pretty sad that we had to wait more than 60 years after FDR to get some semblance of universal health care. And even now, people are losing their insurance as they're unable to find work. It's also sad that these concepts are considered radical "socialism" by many in our country when they were proposed by a US president and things like universal health care have long been enacted in almost every other democratic country on Earth.

Check out my friend Leah's post about here 75 dollar emergency doctor visit in Australia. Then consider how we had to pay nearly $1000/month for insurance while I was a postdoc in Hawaii because Kaiser's Gold Family Health Plan doesn't cover maternity care in low-population states.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Trick Play

From Wikipedia:
The ball begins on the ground with its long axis parallel to the sidelines of the field, its ends marking each team's line of scrimmage in American football; in Canadian football line of scrimmage of the team without the ball is 1 yard their side of the ball. The snap must be a quick and continuous movement of the ball by one or both hands of the snapper, and the ball must leave the snapper's hands. The various rules codes have additional requirements, all of which have the effect of requiring the ball to go backwards to a player behind the line of scrimmage (i.e. in the "backfield"). The ball may be handed, thrown, or even rolled, and its trajectory and the ball during that passage are called "the snap". The snapper is almost always the center. The ball is almost always sent between the snapper's legs, but only in Canadian football is that required.

hat tip: Tim Morton

Sunday, November 7, 2010

"Tricky puzzles" with Owen

Owen and I like to play "Tricky Numbers" and "Hang Pig." Tricky numbers is long addition, but we don't call it that. Hang Pig is like Hangman, without the misanthropic imagery. Nonna the Montessori kindergarten teacher is thrilled. We are too :)

Tricky Numbers at the top with a maze at the bottom.
More Tricky Numbers, and "Dad" spelled Espanol-style.

Hang Pig!

Owen's view of the Solar System

This morning Owen drew his conception of the Solar System. Depicted are:
  • The Earth, with Hawaii, California, North America, the North Pole, and the ocean
  • Mars
  • The Sun
  • Planet Owen (newly discovered)
  • Jupiter and its red spot
  • Saturn and its ring
  • Pluto

OK Go! rocks our house

Saturday, November 6, 2010

"My truck!"

"Don't take it!"

Post Prop 19 arguments

There simply aren't any good arguments in favor of prohibition. But people keep trying. Fortunately, there are smart people like Andrew Sullivan publicly destroying these bad arguments. A snippet:

This is a core freedom for human beings and requires an insane apparatus of state control and police power to prevent it from occurring. All you have to do is burn a plant and inhale the smoke. If humans are not free to do this in the natural world in which they were born, what on earth are they free to do? My premise is freedom; Josh's is not.

Should we ban roses because they give us pleasure with their beauty and their scent? Should we ban herbs, like rosemary or thyme, because they give us pleasure and encourage us to eat more? Should we ban lawn-grass because maintaining it consumes too many people's weekend afternoons? Should we cut down trees because the beauty of them can sometimes distract someone from the road? I could go on.

The point is the government has no business regulating how its citizens derive pleasure from a naturally occurring plant. Period. The whole idea is preposterous. And yet it is taken for granted.

I hope the prohibitionists continue to roll out their "best" arguments between now and the next time legalization comes up for a vote.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Student of the Month

Today, Owen was awarded The Student of the Month for outstanding achievement!

He walked back to the classroom holding the award just like he is in this photo. "Mommy I'm so happy I got this!"

That's our boy!

Division along class lines

In the last week, I've had two conversations with new acquaintances about our choice to send the boys to public school. It's so strange and foreign for me that this topic comes up in meeting anyone new around here. It's almost like asking someone who they vote for. We're always rooting for the underdog. In both cases, I found myself defending our choice for public education and proud to stand my ground.

Pasadena Public Schools have a unique history among California schools. In the late 1950s, when public schools across the country were being integrated, Pasadena public schools were among the most reluctant to do so, outside of the deep south. Through the 1970s, the schools were still under de-facto segregation, because of demographic boundaries. When the black and brown kids entered the public schools here, nearly all the white kids pulled out--- taking their resources with them and creating a division in education primarily on class, and hence race, lines. To say PUSD schools have a negative reputation today would be an understatement. In the 1970s, prior to busing, at least 50% of white students in the district attended public schools. Over the next 40 years, that number dropped to 16% (2004). That's right. Only 16% of white children in Pasadena go to public schools. WHAT!??!?! This is especially remarkable considering that Pasadena is 53 % white. Anyone who can afford to do so, either moves to smaller and more affluent communities like South Pasadena or to La Canada or sends their children to private or parochial schools.

We chose to live in the city of Pasadena for it's size and diversity. We knew that the public schools here were on the mend, and recognized that our children would gain something equally important to academics. They'd gain a sense of the world around them, learn that while differences exist in income and skin color, access to quality education should not. Our children will learn kindness and compassion for those living in their neighborhood and community. They'll learn about respect and gratitude because we model it for them. Like most parents, we hope they will become responsible, thoughtful, and productive members of society. Our children may go to an ivy league school, or they may enroll in the UC system.

I don't mean to be preachy, but I'm feeling very strongly after these conversations this week. One played out like this:

x- So how do you like living in Pasadena?
me - We really like it here, blah blah blah
x - You said your oldest is in Kindergarten, do you send him to public or private school?
me - We're strong supporters of public school
x - So you'll probably be planning on moving to South Pas or La Canada in the next few years?
me - Nope (climbing onto my soapbox). We believe that our schools are as good as we make them. If we give our public school even a small fraction of what we would pay in a year of tuition to a private school, we help our children and the rest of our community. We give our resources and time and stay involved. We love our school.
x - Oh. You know the PUSD schools have a very bad reputation
me - Yes, and we know the history of the schools and the white-flight that took place when the schools were integrated.
x - Yeah, it's sad how that happened.
me - We're working to change that. Not to mention, we love the program in which O's enrolled
x - What do you like about it?
me - Owen is in a Spanish Immersion program. By 3rd grade he'll be reading, writing, and reasoning in 2 languages. The school is relatively small, his teachers are dynamic, and the community is fantastic.
x - Oh. That's nice to hear.
me - We think it's an exciting place to grow

This morning, I shared my thoughts with two members of the PUSD School Board. One of them was Ramon Miramontes whose recent comments have parents & educators at our school reeling. Look for a report from this morning's community meeting at San Rafael in Pasadena Star News. Hopefully, the quiet wave of families returning to public school will get a little louder!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Existential Crisis Averted

I'm fairly convinced that every astronomer experiences at least one period of existential crisis at some point in her/his career. After all, astronomy is a luxurious pursuit of knowledge only afforded to the wealthiest of societies. It doesn't build bridges or clean up oil spills. So isn't there a more worthwhile use of my intelligence and schooling? a burgeoning astronomer might rightly ask. Shouldn't I be teaching kids in Haiti?

Well, maybe we should. But if we did, who would come up with the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS)? And for that matter, who would come up with our snappy acronyms?

Who? John Tonry, that's who. John popped up on astro-ph to remind us that astronomers are, in fact, capable of useful endeavors:
Earth is bombarded by meteors, occasionally by one large enough to cause a significant explosion and possible loss of life. Although the odds of a deadly asteroid strike in the next century are low, the most likely impact is by a relatively small asteroid, and we suggest that the best mitigation strategy in the near term is simply to move people out of the way. We describe an "early warning" system that could provide a week's notice of most sizable asteroids or comets on track to hit the Earth. This system, dubbed "Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System" (ATLAS), comprises two observatories separated by about 100km that simultaneously scan the visible sky twice a night, and can be implemented immediately for relatively low cost. The sensitivity of ATLAS permits detection of 140m asteroids (100 Mton impact energy) three weeks before impact, and 50m asteroids a week before arrival. An ATLAS alarm, augmented by other observations, should result in a determination of impact location and time that is accurate to a few kilometers and a few seconds.
Of course, in addition to being altruistic, he is also an astronomer. So his abstract goes on to say

In addition to detecting and warning of approaching asteroids, ATLAS will continuously monitor the changing universe around us: most of the variable stars in our galaxy, many micro-lensing events from stellar alignments, luminous stars and novae in nearby galaxies, thousands of supernovae, nearly a million quasars and active galactic nuclei, tens of millions of galaxies, and a billion stars. With two views per day ATLAS will make the variable universe as familiar to us as the sunrise and sunset.
Either way, protecting Earth from asteroid impacts or providing a view of the variable universe, this is a really important concept.

Oh, and I used to work in the office right next to Prof. Tonry, albeit doing less useful things...

So awesome

A wonderful story from a mom who let her son dress up as Daphne from Scooby Doo, and the trouble she encountered. A great quote from among many:
If you think that me allowing my son to be a female character for Halloween is somehow going to ‘make’ him gay then you are an idiot. Firstly, what a ridiculous concept. Secondly, if my son is gay, OK. I will love him no less. Thirdly, I am not worried that your son will grow up to be an actual ninja so back off.

Let's play Numberwang!

Post election notes

Sadly, Prop 19 didn't pass in Tuesday's election. Score one for the old drug warriors and failed drug policy. But I'm encouraged because A) we're having this conversation B) the process led to a lighter punishment for possession (misdemeanor down from possible prison term) and C) it didn't lose by much. Losing by a 4-point swing isn't bad for an initiative that every major CA newspaper was against (see my LA Times review). Plus, the prohibitionists got their chance to roll out their best arguments and, well, they looked pretty silly in the process.

In better news, Prop 23 failed. I didn't post about this evil little initiative, but I'm glad it's gone. Basically, two Texas oil companies pushed to have clean air laws rolled back. "We're all about clean air," they said. "But let's roll back the laws just until unemployment drops below 5.4% for four straight quarters. Jobs and stuff!" In other words, let's just suspend sensible environmental laws until unemployment drops to a level it's only been three times since 1980, for a period of time that we've seen in, um, never. Or until pigs fly, whichever comes first. The voters saw through that lame idea.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


Visual poetry ("Words"):

Youtube montage version (equally beautiful, IMO):

This was all inspired by the absolutely amazing Radiolab episode. that I listed to as a podcast on my way back from Ohio Friday night. Fortunately it was a night-time flight with no lights on because I was crying a bit after the story of the 27 year old man who learned words for the first time.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010