Thursday, November 20, 2008


J'ai dix-huit ans and I am a freestyle slalom skater.

Monday, November 17, 2008

First images of planets

From today's APOD, astronomers have finally imaged planets around other stars. See also this image from September showing the first image of a planet around another star.

Why is this important?

So far, hundreds of planets have been found orbiting other stars. Typically, they are found through detecting the gravitational pull they exert on their star, causing a small wobble in the motion of the star. But all that can be inferred from these discoveries is the existence of the planet, and a rough estimate of its mass.

Capturing light from another planet, and especially capturing a spectrum of that light, allows us to probe the chemical composition of its atmosphere.  Changes in the brightness or color of the planet over time allow us to infer its rotation rate. This will be how life will be discovered on other planets.  The discover article (pdf) shows a nice spectrum of this planet.

These planets were discovered now because they are particularly easy to find.  All the planets are very large (several Jupiter masses) and quite far from their host star.  The innermost planet (labelled d in the image) is at a Neptune's distance from its star.  These planets are thus quite different from the planets of our solar system, and we will need a new theory of planet formation to explain how they got out there.  We're still a long way off from seeing tiny Earth-mass planets orbiting close-in to their sun.

See movies here at the telescope home page to see how the image of the star was removed and then images taken over several years were added together to reduce noise.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


Dear President-Elect Obama,

I and millions of Americans supported, volunteered, voted, and cheered for you over the past several months. Now we are asking you to do the difficult job of holding to your promises.

A crucial promise to the long-term success and sustainability of our country is the promise of education. Rich, engaging, globally competitive education. Or, at the very least, a little reading, writing, and 'rithmetic.

So let’s break for a quiz: Quick, what’s the source of America’s greatness?

Is it a tradition of market-friendly capitalism? The diligence of its people? The cornucopia of natural resources? Great presidents?

No, a fair amount of evidence suggests that the crucial factor is our school system — which, for most of our history, was the best in the world but has foundered over the last few decades. The message for Mr. Obama is that improving schools must be on the front burner.

With respect and hope. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Ensemble planeta

I sang this in graduate school.  I guess I'm a sucker for a cappella.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Reports from a playboy

Peter's new article on Iraq is really funny, albeit reporting on the death of the oldest diaspora Jewish community in the world. Whistling past the graveyard indeed.
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - One of the last eight Jews in Baghdad, a portly retired accountant, erupts in a bellyful of laughter when asked why he never married.

"I was a playboy. Don't write that!" he jokes, grinning. "How old do you think I am? Wrong. I'm 65! Don't write that! Write that I am 55!"
How many Jews are there now?

"We know them all," says the ex-accountant, counting.

There's the ex-accountant himself, plus the nephew with whom he shares a rented house in Baghdad's central Karrada district. There's the man who lives near them, the man who leads the community, the very old woman, the male doctor and the female dentist. And the man whose brother was a goldsmith.

The goldsmith married the dentist a few years ago. A few months later, he was abducted by gunmen.


For a while,  I forgot that anything was going on in the world outside of my immediate, day to day activities and the election. But now I remember. 

Can we, on a national level, use the focus and diligence of the volunteers who brought Change to bring environmental change? Can these troops (and more) continue to be rallied? Al Gore speaks of national change and personal change

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Better than his base

The Economist's view of McCain? A fundamentally decent man doomed by his pact with the non-reality-based community.

Friday, November 7, 2008

What the kids are watching

Emotional Overflow

I don't have the brain space to process all the details of this election, but a friend passed on Judith Warner's NY Times blog which sums up my emotional response (and much of the country's) in an articulate and moving way.

(photo from the article added by David)

Peter's thoughts on Iraq

My brother, currently stationed in Baghdad with Reuters, has his own take on Iraqi's new willingness to negotiate with an Obama administration. His article seems to imply that the Iraqi's were deliberately stalling until after the election.

Obama's support among gays

As noted before, Obama saw a big drop in support among gays. Why?

In 2004, Gay marriage was a huge issue in several states, and is thought to have pushed Bush over the edge in Ohio. But this is a one-time issue: there are only so many times you can pass a constitutional referendum on the same subject. This issue was huge in swing states and may have pushed Gay support for Kerry to higher levels.

But in 2008, there were still some similar amendments, especially in populous Florida and California. Obama's support for Gay marriage in California was notably luke-warm, he basically said that he thought that marriage was between a man and a woman but that the constitution should not be amended to support his belief.

In the primary campaign, Obama gave a big speech to a black congregation in Atlanta where he specifically tied rights for gays and lesbians to the struggle for racial justice saying
And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that none of our hands are entirely clean. If we're honest with ourselves, we'll acknowledge that our own community has not always been true to King's vision of a beloved community.

We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them. The scourge of anti-Semitism has, at times, revealed itself in our community. For too long, some of us have seen immigrants as competitors for jobs instead of companions in the fight for opportunity.

But he made no such effort in the national campaign. Had he pushed harder for black support for marriage equality in California, it might not have foundered.

Statistics on the Election

Kevin Drum posts some interesting statistics of which groups came out for Obama relative to the national average and which did not. Unsurprisingly, Obama did well among the young, but surprisingly only tied Kerry amongst gays and lesbians, and did especially well amongst high earners (the primary victims of his tax plan).

Democrats have been wondering "whats the matter with Kansas?" Now Republicans will have to wonder "whats the matter with Connecticut?" Why is it that so many rich people come out for Obama despite their narrow short-term economic self interest?

I think my Dad fits the bill of one of those high-earners who were converted to Obama. He was turned off by the social conservatism represented by Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman. But also saw the value of his retirement savings wither away by inflation and the low dollar caused (he says) by Bush's budget deficits. Meanwhile, Bush did not so much cut taxes on high earners as on the wealthy through his massive cuts of inheritance and capital gains taxes. Bush showed his natural affinity for the ne'er-do-well sons of wealthy fathers like himself. Meanwhile, many people with high incomes who live in the coasts don't actually have much wealth: they spend their money on inflated real estate and watched the value of their expensive houses plummet under Bush.

But over on the Corner, there is a worriesome critique of Obama's constituency. Despite all his emphasis on the middle class, it is not totally unfair to characterize much of his support and his supporters as coming from a mix of poor blacks and rich whites. He himself may not fit into either category, but plenty of my fellow Obama volunteers did. My previous sentiments of unity with my black and hispanic co-volunteers should be colored with the yawning gaps in our education levels and prospects.

The response is to note that my current home town, solidly and genuinely middle class West Reading, came out overwhelmingly for Obama (pdf) while the more rural precincts of Berks county, with comperable income and education levels went for McCain. Values, represented in part by our choice to live in our cohesive and walkable town, seemed to trump income.

Already better with Obama part 2

I was thinking how much race relations improved during the campaign alone. While I was working on the campaign, there was an extraordinary mix of blacks, whites, and hispanics all working together. But none of the people working in the campaign really noticed that, which is exactly the point!

Then on the final weekend, when we moved to Mi Casa Su Casa restaurant, one of the regulars of the restaurant, an elderly black man, talked about how astonished he was to see all those white folks working to elect a black president. He finished his eggs and then asked us how he could help. Ezra Klein posted a set of pictures which helped capture the mood of black and white people working together.

Already better with Obama

Its remarkable how things can already improve just from Obama being elected, months before he is sworn in. The New York Times writes that negotiations in Iraq have already shown signs of improvement since the election. Money quote:
“Before, the Iraqis were thinking that if they sign the pact, there will be no respect for the schedule of troop withdrawal by Dec. 31, 2011,” said Hadi al-Ameri, a powerful member of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a major Shiite party. “If Republicans were still there, there would be no respect for this timetable. This is a positive step to have the same theory about the timetable as Mr. Obama.”
But now, the Iraqis appear to be feeling less pressure from Iran, perhaps because the Iranians are less worried that an Obama government will try to force a regime change in their country.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports on a huge upturn in the devastated morale at federal agencies. Agencies doing important work such as the EPA, the SEC, and the small business administration had lost many of their most talented people in the past eight years. Not only was their less oversight than was needed but there was less competent oversight. The result: tainted toys, polluted environment, and an economic meltdown. Now some of the best people may return to the federal government. Of course, this leaves open the question of why the Post waited until after the election to report on the meltdown of the federal government under Republican rule.
In numerous agencies, federal civil servants complain that they have been thwarted for months or even years from doing the government jobs they were hired to do.
"Even though we can show bodies on the floor from this danger, nothing gets out the door," said the OSHA veteran, who ticked off a list of Ph.D.-carrying colleagues who retired to be more productive elsewhere.
Also, some agencies have gone through much of this year with no leaders in the big window offices. In May, eight months before Bush was to leave the White House, half the administration's top 250 political positions were vacant or filled by temporary appointees.