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Monday, November 29, 2004

Christmas Present Peeking in the 21st Century

Hey, kids! Here's a great new way to snoop out those Christmas presents before Christmas! First, it's essential that you use your parents' computer. Tell 'em yours is old and doesn't have framiwhoozis enabled; they'll never know the difference.

Next, go to and do a search on your favorite artists or albums, such as, oh, say, Martin Denny's Forbidden Island/Primitiva, which I'm sure is all the rage with the under-18 set.

If your parents have purchased this from Amazon, there'll be a big message at the top: [Your parent's name], you have purchased this item on [date].

Cool, huh? I found this out inadvertantly while using my boyfriend's computer to listen to some stuff, since mine doesn't have sound enabled. Ah, technology... You kids have it easy. We had to look for our presents at the back of the closet, underneath Dad's Playboy stash.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Swift Swings into Orbit

After a three-day delay, Swift was finally launched on Saturday, Nov 20. We watched the launch from KARS Park I, across the Banana River from launch complex 17 -- about 3.5 miles away, according to Yahoo's maps. (KARS is the Kennedy Athletic, Recreational and Social Organization. They have a nice little park there, with picnic tables and pavilions and an American Legion hall and real bathrooms.) There was a roach coach there to sell drinks and snacks, but we were there so short a time we didn't buy any. A group was also selling souvenirs (T-shirts, caps, and patches) at a table under the tent. Niles got his Christmas shopping done early, he told me.

There had been, we heard, 280 people on our Tuesday tour of the Space Center, but there didn't seem to be nearly that many on Saturday (many probably had to go home). They set up a tent on the river bank with a TV, which broadcast the launch while big speakers relayed the launch control chatter. At T-4 minutes there was a planned ten-minute hold, which got stretched a bit to 16 minutes. The launch therefore went off six minutes late, at 12:16pm EST.

As with most of the interesting events of my life, I saw this one through a viewfinder. Niles was forced to rely on his old-fashioned film camera, since his digital camera's best zoom only showed two little bumps on top of the river. I of course brought my beloved Canon AE-1, which I think is about 23 years old now. I was able to get a pretty good view with my new (to me; I bought it used) 75-200 mm zoom. I believe this was the first chance I had to use it. The new polarizer I had to buy came in handy: at one polarization the rocket looked like a gray smudge against the blue-gray sky; 180 degrees from that brought out the black-and-white paint job.

I bought Kodachrome 64 slide film to shoot it with, and then remembered that I'd be using the telephoto lens, and 64 wasn't nearly fast enough. I ended up using Kodak "High Definition" 400. I'd rather have had their professional grade film, but they don't sell that everywhere, and we never had time to go to a camera store in Florida. I had to use a 1/500 shutter speed, because I didn't have a big enough aperture for 1/1000. We'll have to see how they came out.

When the countdown got to zero, nothing much happened for a second. Then there was a cloud of smoke (or steam), and a little bit later, a flame. From the briefing film we saw, Niles and I both expected that the rocket would be up and gone too fast to take more than maybe two pictures, max, but I got off several before it became just a bright spark on top of the vapor trail (and I have no auto winder).

A little to my surprise, we were able to see the boosters separate. Well, I, personally, didn't see them, because I took my eyes off the viewfinder long enough to shout to Niles, "Hey, do you suppose we'll be able to see the booster separation?" and when I looked again there were three thin little trails falling back toward the earth. I had forgotten how many boosters there were; I think the Delta can take as many as nine, and I thought this had six, but there were only three.

After a minute or so there's no point in taking more pictures of the rocket, so we took picturesque views of the vapor trail against a palm tree and boat dock, and pictures of the crowd. The winds soon dispersed the trail, which was kind of disappointing. The day had been beautiful, with a few high clouds. Off over the ocean to the east were a bank of clouds which provided a fetching backdrop to the rocket, when the polarization was right.

And, after that, it was sort of an anti-climax (as you might expect). Some people hung around, but we left. There was nothing to see, and we could check on the web for subsequent events.

So far, everything looks good -- the spacecraft has separated and unfurled its solar panels. It'll take about a month to check out the telescope. See here for the events leading up to the launch, and here for a wrap-up article. It has a lot better picture than I got! (Of course, that was taken by someone from Boeing, on the scene. Next launch I'm getting one of these babies (and a mule to carry it).

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The Satellite that Swings

Greetings from Titusville, Florida. My association with the seamy underworld of gamma-ray astronomy has been richly rewarded. I'm down here at Kennedy Space Center for the launch of the Swift satellite. We had a bus tour of the Center today, which consisted of driving around a lot of identical parcels of swamp land while the tour guides pointed out the sights: And here's pad 32A, where in 1962 the... VROOOM! around another corner...And over there, on pad 128C, is where the famous... I'm fairly sure there's really only one launching pad, which they drove around several times.

After the tour, we had a "briefing" from several people in charge of various things, including Anne Kinney of NASA, whose title is apparently "Director, Universe Division". So don't piss her off. The guy from Boeing showed us an "expanded diagram" of the Delta rocket which will lift Swift. "Notice I don't say 'exploded diagram'," he said. "That's a phrase we don't like to use in our business." Har!

We also got to hear the Swift song, which goes, in part:

We know that gamma ray explosions happen randomly all over the sky.
(It's like a lottery: a ticket for each square degree)
You see a FLASH! and then there's not another till about a day has gone by.
(But that depends upon detector sensitivity)

How I've longed for a song acknowledging the role of detector sensitivity! Another part:

Swift is the satellite that swings
Onto those brightly bursting things,
To grab the multiwavelength answer of what makes them glow.

Swift, the satellite that swings!

Go here to read about Swift, and hear an MP3 of the song. The singing is actually good.

UPDATE: Rats, the launch has been delayed due to a problem with the range safety system, i.e. the self-destruct (in case the rocket should go astray). It's that damned Gary Seven again. He thinks everything is an orbiting thermonuclear device. Next launch opportunity is tomorrow noon.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Is Satire Dead?

Is satire, like Arafat, on life support until we can find the numbers to the Swiss bank accounts?:

The semi-fictional Rick Cranky, on this site:

Well, frankly, I'm hoping a comet will hit the earth. Ideally, it would only strike a glancing blow, and obliterate the United States. But if the whole world has to go it's not too big a price to pay to rid ourselves of the mephitic influence of money in politics.

Penny Greenberg, in the San Francisco Chronicle:

My only consolation is that someday this planet will be a dead cinder in the universe and all the stupidity, greed, and intolerance and their sad, sad consequences will be lost to all memory.

YOU make the call.

Via Best of the Web.

Ted Rall Makes Good Point: A Sign of the Apocalypse?

Now that I've been inducted into Chimpy McHitlerburton's Undead Christian Army of Jesusland, I am on the lookout for signs of the Apocalypse. I believe I have found one: I am in complete agreement with this Ted Rall cartoon.

For those unwilling to risk contracting the Cooties of Impurity by clicking the link, Ted compares the U.S. to a classroom in which mentally handicapped children are "mainstreamed" by being placed in a classroom with the unspecial (c.f. the other week's "For Better or Worse", a comic deemed completely wholesome despite being produced in the United States of Canada).

Ted goes on to detail how this well-meaning experiment goes awry, since it not only places an extra burden on the other students, but also slows their pace of learning and blurs the difference between the achievment of the normal kids, and the necessarily lesser achievments of the handicapped ones. The danger is that the distinction will blur so much that the slowest learners will become the teachers!

(Speaking of achievments, notice that in the second panel the kids are studying relativity. The lower equation is a Lorentz mass transformation. Wonder who scribbled that on Ted's arm so he could put it in the strip?)

Ted is completely right in this. In the Sixties, many people began to believe that entire modes of inquiry had been closed off by dogmatic adherence to tradition. Those people appealed to their colleagues' and the public's spirit of free inquiry and fair play to get non-traditional viewpoints and methods accepted into the academy.

The problem was, of course, that many of these non-traditional viewpoints were rubbish. Once in, however, they were soon entrenched, driven out only when changing fads replaced them by other rubbish. Eventually it got so that any efforts to separate wheat from chaff was met by indignation toward the anthropocentric nutritional-imperialist mindset that decreed that wheat was more useful than chaff.

Which is where we find ourselves today.

My only surprise is that Ted Rall, of all people, would display such insight and spirit of self-criticism as to...

What? What are you all looking at? Was it something I said?

Via Tim "Divine Pool Cue to the Eye of the Unrighteous" Blair

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Religious Extremism in America

Michele has something to say about the kind of people who voted for Bush. In the comments to the post, MikeR (among others) is nervous about the looming influence of Bush's "core" supporters, the religious right. I pointed out that Michele and I (and many others like us) are now Bush's "core" supporters.

However, there's something that has to be mentioned to clarify the "fringe" nature of the religious element.

Below are the percentages of votes for the two main presidential candidates, alongside the percentage of the vote for the same-sex marriage ban in each state which passed in every single case by large margins, as you will see.

State% Bush% KerryWinner% for ban
Arkansas 5445Bush75
Georgia 59 41 Bush 76
Kentucky 60 40 Bush 75
Michigan 48 51 Kerry 59
Mississippi 60 40 Bush 86
Montana 69 39 Bush 66
North Dakota 63 36 Bush 73
Ohio 51 49 Bush 62
Oklahoma 66 34 Bush 76
Oregon 48 52 Kerry 57
Utah 71 27 Bush 66

(All marriage ban ballot measures taken from this CNN page. Presidential results taken from this CNN page, but you have to keep selecting states. Both results are from yesterday, November 3, 2004.)

So you see that in every state except Montana and Utah, Bush supporters were outweighed (in percentage) by ban supporters. Many Kerry supporters voted for the bans, sometimes by quite a lot. As a caveat, bear in mind that not everyone who voted in the presidential race voted on the bans (and, in principle, vice-versa). I was too lazy to check this for every state, but in Ohio, approximately 288,000 more people voted in the presidential race. Even assuming (for no good reason) they would all have voted against the ban that doesn't budge the numbers much.

Since I haven't been keeping up on this issue, I wasn't sure how many other states had passed similar bans. This page gives brief descriptions of the laws in all 50 states, and I was surprised to find that there are only a handful of states that have not banned them. Massachusetts explicitly permits them, New Jersey and Vermont allow same-sex domestic partnerships, and New Mexico, New York, and Rhode Island have no laws on the matter. New Mexico, in particular, seems to be trying to ignore the whole issue.

Most of these are legislative bans, which means the legislature giveth, and the legislature can taketh away, too. But there are some which are amendments to the state constitution, which (generally) require a plebiscite. Here are the results of the five states which (as far as I could tell) already had constitutional bans:

StateYear Passed% for ban
Alaska1998 66*
Louisiana 2004 78
Missouri 2004 71
Nebraska 2000 70
Nevada 200070

[*] Roughly. The linked article said the measure had passed by 2-1.

These margins are all huge. Despite the protestations of some, what you see here is not the influence of the religious right, but of the religious middle. If you define "religious right" by the gay marriage ban, then about 2/3 of the country is the "religious right". (Of course, in reality it's more -- how you say? -- nuanced.) Those of you who are against such bans (like me) can count yourselves on the fringe.

And, just in time, here's a column by Arnold Kling which I believe is refuted by the above information. He may well be right about about the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling spawning the 11 referenda on same-sex marriage bans, though.

UPDATE:When I wrote the above, I was a little worried that maybe the raw numbers did not support my conclusion. See, it might just have been possible that Kerry supporters made sure they voted against Bush, then left the voting booth with satisfaction, forgetting in their triumph to vote down the marriage amendment. But I was too lazy to run those numbers.

Fortunately, Jack at Captain Yips Secret Journal was more industrious. He has an Excel spreadsheet showing the number of votes for Bush and Kerry in each of the 11 states, plus the total for the two of them, and the number of votes for and against the marriage bans, plus the total for that issue. The numbers show that my conclusions about the people voting for the same sex marriage bans hold up: lots of them were Kerry supporters.

Using Jack's spreadsheet, I looked at the results assuming that the excess number of voters (presidential voters - ban voters) had indeed meant to vote against the ban. The results: the bans were still passed by large margins, except in Montana, where the ban was narrowly defeated. By the way, in Utah and Oregon, more people voted on the ban issue than voted for president. This is still true, it turns out, if you include all the minor-party candidates as well. Hmmm.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Bribe or Twist

Those wacky libertarians at Samizdata have unearthed a charming nugget from the British media, specifically the Mail on Sunday. In the "Review" section, a Peter Oborne has an article subtly entitled "RIP Democracy 1776-2004". The pull quote:

America thinks it can tell us about freedom and how the world should be run -- yet its own leader will be chosen by a handful of ignorant bigots who only listen to smears and lies...

Rubbish: most British journalists can't vote in US elections. Brian Micklethwait, who discovered this, is relieved to be unable to find it on line.

Brian also points to a round-up of British TV shows about the election at sunny Blognor Regis. Peter Oborne makes an appearance there, too:

Political commentator Peter Oborne visits America to assess the nation's democratic credentials ahead of the forthcoming presidential election. Joining the campaign trail, he discovers that the process is something of a sham as the most ill-informed people in the country ultimately decide who is to become the most powerful man in the world

I'm a little astonished that the British market can sustain so many shows on a foreign election. A goodly portion of my support for Bush is just a desire to see these people's heads explode if he wins. You think there's any way to get it on Pay Per View?

You cannot hope to bribe or twist
(thank God!) the British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do
unbribed, there's no occasion to.

--- Humbert Wolfe

Liverpool, Leipzig Precincts Reporting In

Via the InstaPundit hive-mind we find this very amusing and informative Guardian article on the trials and travails of foreign media covering the US election.

The article begins with the gripping tale of a Sky News crew in Arizona:

The Slash U ranch near Tucson, Arizona, 4am on a grim Wednesday. It's dark, there's a 30mph wind and cold, heavy rain...Having rejected a windswept field as a possible site for their report, the five-man team from Sky have settled on a barn. This is partly to protect their kit from the rain but also because the tackroom is straight out of Bonanza, loaded with cowboy saddles, reins, crops and horse feed and the rancher is wearing a stetson...Outside, in the satellite van, Dan Williams, Sky's Washington news editor, is watching anxiously on a monitor as US correspondent Andrew Wilson mounts one of the rancher's horses ready to deliver his piece to camera.

At five minutes to live, all the power goes out but they get it back with 60 seconds to spare. Yawn. To hell with that. I want to see Andrew Wilson on the horsey. That wouldn't be, like, hokey and everything, would it? From the sophisticated European media? Naaaaah.

It's a man's life in the foreign news corps:

During the 2000 election, a reporter from a German newspaper asked Karen Hughes, Bush's senior adviser, a question. Half way through her answer, something struck her. "Who do you work for?" she asked. "A German newspaper," he began. "Then what am I wasting my time talking to you for?" she asked, somewhat rhetorically, and turned on her heel. One Kerry aide was equally specific. "To us," he told the Washington Post last week, "foreign media are about as useful as lice."

She should have said, "as useful as tits on a boar", for that colorful sound bite.

(Not long ago, the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland grumbled that there were still "no votes in Leipzig", though there oughta be, by golly.)

What's more galling to international superstar anchors is how important tiny local cable stations and newspapers suddenly become...Last week, for instance, some overseas broadcasters began talks to gain access to Carl Rove, the mastermind behind the Bush campaign. He blew them off for lunch with the chief reporter of the Ohio Sentinel.

Maybe if you spelled his name right...

This just makes you weep, don't it? Imagine John Simpson brushed aside for hamburgers with Lucas McWeewiddle of the Podunk Commercial-Advertiser. Tears are running down my face as I type.

Moving on from the border ranch, the team [from Sky] hooked up with a gang of Tombstone vigilantes who head out to well-known immigrant routes, armed to the teeth. These people seem unlikely media stars. For one thing, their activities are very close to illegal.

Wow! Illegal! Not like those Iraqi "freedom fighters" and Palestinian "activists", eh?

Presented without comment:

On Monday, Woods [again of Sky] was at Love Park in Pennsylvania for Bill Clinton's appearance alongside Kerry - a bizarre spectacle in a long, thin park packed with 80-90,000 ecstatic Democrats who only had a sideways view of their idol as the stage had been rotated 90 degrees to face the media.

Here's the most harrowing part of all, when the intrepid British journos descend into the very Belly of the Beast:

...Williams and Wilson are filming in a TV evangelist's studio, asking Dr Richard Roberts about the Christian vote. "I have been preaching that we need to support a man of God who governs well," Roberts intones, whilst cynical London cameramen struggle to avoid blaspheming as they wire up their kit and drop things on their feet...The crew are slightly suspicious of Roberts when the studio manager takes them round the studio, showing off the digital editing suites. "That set up would cost several million dollars," cameraman Martin whispers. "Where's he getting the money?"

Uh, he makes it selling heroin to Queen Elizabeth? Extracts it from the pineal glands of innocent Muslim babies? Withholds it from the wages of 5,000 exquisite Balinese hookers who slave in the fleshpots of Dubuque in worship of him?

Well, probably not. I'm guessing people give it to him. Of their own free will! Shocking, I know.

Voting Report

I voted this morning in reddest Houston.

Based on reports on numerous blogs, I expected long lines (in the rain). But the only person ahead of me was Niles.

I was a bit disappointed. There was no one electioneering, no protestors, no moonbats, nothing. There were about thirty Bush signs, signs for various other candidates, and one lone Kerry, that we saw. I did mention that this was reddest Houston, right?

They checked my voter card and ID; since this is my first time voting here, I brought my passport as well as my driver's license. Can't be too careful.

Every other time I've voted (and this is since 1980), we've used the Hollerith card voting things. That's because, of course, I've only lived in economically deprived areas, like Silicon Valley. This time we used the eSlate, which was fine. It had nice big instructions, which was good because I didn't think of bringing my reading glasses.

Considering that they have all the space in the world to put the instructions on, the ballot was a little confusing. The first screen you come to asks if you want to vote a straight ticket. But if you don't want to do that, what do you do? It doesn't say. Knowing that it's hard to screw up a ballot, I pressed the "next" button, and that turned out to be the right thing.

There's also a "cast ballot" button. You'd think that it would work whenever you were done, but you have to click your way to the end of the ballot, until you see the big red "cast ballot" button on the screen, and then actually push the button. (It's not a touch screen. The "cast ballot" button is actually a big red button.) That's all to the good, I suppose, that you can't accidentally press it, but the way they have it now is a little confusing.

(Of course, if I were designing it, I'd have everything explained in minute detail, and people's eyes would glaze over and they'd never read the instructions.)

Here's a FAQ on the eSlate from Travis County. One of the questions is about the a paper trail in case of challenges. The answer hems and haws a bit before finally getting around to saying that, yes, the eSlate will produce a paper trail. The hemming and hawing makes me suspicious.

I'm not sold on this here now newfangled electronic voting business, especially ones that rely on "ballots" that never were. It's just too easy (in principle) to hack a machine. Even punch card ballots leave an actual card, touched by the voter's own hands. So even if someone has programmed the card reader to falsely record the votes, a machine programmed by a different person will still be able to read the original intentions.

Speaking of ballots, it's worth pointing to this old post of mine, on the occasion of the last election, discussing the film Tuesday in November. Made during the election of 1944, it was intended to educate people overseas about American democracy. It's hard to imagine now, but the State Dept. -- or, in this case, War Dept. -- used to churn out these kinds of things for informational purposes overseas. Or, if you'd rather, to gull them into believing that the US was a real democracy instead of a warmongering fascist plutocracy of oil barons and froth gibber spew...

The actual film, Tuesday in November, is available here. The main image I took from it was of a man marking a paper ballot the size of a newspaper. Must've been unwieldy in the voting booth. Wonder what he'd make of the little eSlate.

(Here's the eSlatesite again. Note that the DAU 5000, for disabled voters, has the following whizbang feature:

Special interfaces for the physically challenged, including head movement switches and "sip and puff" switches (that allow severely physically impaired voters to cast their ballot using only their breath).


We voted in the elementary school just down the street. The room we were in was divided in half, and there were a bunch of kids, apparently eating, at tables on the other side of some dividers. I don't know what the room is normally used for, but paintings on the walls showed a map of the world with several flags, and groups of people in various national costumes, including Australians (I found this amusing for some reason; I gathered this was supposed to represent the nationalities of kids going to the school, at least at one time). But around the top of the room was painted the words and music to -- oh, the horror! -- "It's a Small World"! How can they inflict this terror on tiny, helpless children? Someone call the UN! (Er, well, maybe not. That's probably the UN anthem.)