Sunday, December 31, 2006

Rubik's Cubes

Rubik's cubes are not really all that difficult to solve. You just need to have an algorithm, and to follow it. It was amazingly difficult to find Rubik's cubes in stores this Christmas season, thanks to Will Smith solving one in The Pursuit of Happyness. It really gets me that people think that solving a Rubik's cube is "impossible," or that only "smart" people can do it. It is much like many older people with "technology" (i.e., computers): they decide it is difficult and they do not know how to do it, and like any self-fulfilling prophecy, the task becomes insurmountable.

While it does take a calculating mind capable of 3-D visualization to invent/discover complicated moves that move around certain pieces in a particular way while not disturbing other certain pieces, it takes a much less creative mind to simply follow directions and to figure out which order to apply these moves in. I am in the second category: I do not have the patience or the foresight to come up with complicated maneuvers, but I can look at a cube and figure out what needs to be done in order to solve it. Different people use different algorithms for solving Rubik's cubes. For the classic 3-by-3-by-3 cube, I choose a face (usually the yellow) to start on. I first get the four yellow corners in place, and correctly oriented. You can tell when the four corners are in the correct place when the yellow side is on the same side as the yellow center and the other-colored side (such as, say, blue) is on the same side as the other-colored (e.g., blue) center. I then get the yellow edge pieces in place, with the correct orientation. My next step is to put the four white corner pieces in the correct locations (these being the four remaining corner pieces). Once these four corner pieces are in place, I rotate them so that they have the correct orientation; I usually do this by "storing" one of the white corner pieces in a yellow corner spot while twisting the others around. I then take care of the white edge pieces; it usually possible to get them all in both the correct location with the correct orientation, but sometimes one will have the wrong orientation. This leaves the four other non-yellow and non-white edge pieces, which are easy to move to the correct positions. Sometimes I am left with a pair of edge pieces in the correct locations but with the wrong orientations; correcting this is the only fancy-schmancy "magical" scripted move I use.

If you know how to solve a 3-by-3-by-3 Rubik's cube (3x3x3? I'll call it a 33), then the 2-by-2-by-2 (a 23) is easy because it is just like solving the corners of a 33 one. I haven't quite yet figured out how to solve the 43 one, which I got for Christmas, though the algorithm I am currently trying is to basically try to reduce it to the 33 case, which I know how to solve. First, I want to get all of the 2x2 centers together, since the lack of fixed centers in the 43 cube is one of the reasons it is so tricky. For example, in a 33 cube, if the yellow and white faces in the solved cube are opposite one another, then it is impossible to make the center yellow and white pieces be on adjacent faces. This is not the case with the 43 cube. Having completed the step of consolidating the 2x2 centers—with the correct relative orientations—I now want to gather all of the edge pieces together. That is, there are two edge pieces that have blue and white on them, and I would like for them to be next to one another such that the two blue sides are adjacent and the two white sides are adjacent. I have not yet done this part, but I think I know how to. Once I have this done, the 43 cube will essentially be reduced to the 33 case: it will have 2x2 centers instead of fixed single centers and two pieces per edge instead of one, but if I treat these groups of pieces like single units, I can solve it like I would a normal 33 cube. At the end, though, it will be possible that, for instance, one edge will be flipped relative to its neighboring centers, which is not possible in the 33 case.... but I'll wait until I get there to deal with that.

The 5-by-5-by-5 cube is not mine to play with (and I'm not allowed to mess it up)*, but I am guessing that it is similarly reducible to some combination of the 33 and 43 cubes. Because it has fixed centers (thanks to the odd number of pieces per edge), it does not suffer from the same orientation issues as the 43 cube.

Apparently the original Rubik's cubes and the newer "retro" cubes have opposite faces differing by yellow: red is across from orange, blue is across from green, and white is across from yellow. The Rubik's cube I learned how to solve first, though, had blue and white across from one another (and yellow and green across from each other), so I still get mildly confused when I see an edge piece with both blue and white on it.

The 23 cube is notoriously stiff and difficult to move. This one in particular is also difficult to solve because the orange and red faces are nigh indistiguishable; I have colored the red squares red with a red Sharpie, but this now means that anyone who plays with it will be repaid with red fingertips. This 33 one is brand new, and amazingly smooth and easy to twist and turn. (I in fact bought it to replace no fewer than four 33 cubes that had been used and taken apart so much that none of them moved well anymore, and most of them had stickers of indiscernible color.) The only disappointing part about the new 33 cube is that the orange color is a rather icky orange. The 43 and 53 ones are monstrous and difficult to handle; note also that the more pieces a cube has, the smaller the individual pieces are. The 43 one one seems more poorly constructed than the 53 one; the stickers are not exactly in the middle of the squares, and already one piece has simply popped out and had to be stuck back in.

By the way, if you know where I could obtain a 1-by-1-by-1 Rubik's cube, please let me know. We'd like to complete the collection at the small-n end.

* Playing with Rubik's cubes is really really bad for your wrists, especially if you already have wrist problems induced from RSI (Repetitive Stress/Strain Injury). This means that Rubik's cubes are dangerous to have around if you have RSI and are ... compulsive.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Egg Nog

My father said I could share our super-secret family recipe for egg nog, as long as you all promise not to tell it to anyone. It's real egg nog, none of this wussy nasty syrupy stuff they sell in grocery stores these days. It's also about 40 proof and so fluffy and soft you don't even notice as it slides on down.

6 eggs (you want these to be fresh, so don't buy them a week before making the egg nog!)
3/4 cups sugar
1 pint whipping cream
1 pint half & half
1 1/2 cups Jack Daniel's
1 oz rum (though when my father and I are in charge, we usually assume "1 oz" means "1/4 cup")

About a day before you plan on actually having the egg nog, separate the eggs. Beat the yolks with 1/2 cups sugar until lemon colored and thick. Add the whisky, rum, and half & half. Separately, beat the egg whites with 1/4 cups sugar until stiff. Fold this into the yolk mixture.

Age this mixture in the refrigerator overnight. This is so that the alcohol can "cook" the eggs, making the final product completely safe to drink. The next day, whip the whipping cream (with a dash of vanilla). Fold the whipped cream into the refrigerated mixture; you don't want to mix them too much. The final mixture will be somewhat heterogenous at first, but after sitting for a bit will be light and fluffy and delicious. It is also quite yummy with a touch of nutmeg.

Here's to a happy rest-of 2006 and a delightful 2007!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Seed

For the big gift-exhanging holiday of December, my brother gave* me a subscription to Seed magazine, along with a copy of the current (November 2006) edition. The seed media group is the same group that puts out ScienceBlogs—a brilliant move, by the way, as I had kind-of-sort-of heard of them before ScienceBlogs, but now there is that instant name recognition. The magazine itself is really pretty: large shiny pages with gorgeous high resolution pictures and interesting layouts. I have only flipped through the magazine a few times, but so far it seems to be couched at a level that, while not too technical, doesn't "dumb things down" like many other popular science magazines tend to do. They are also quite clearly unafraid of tackling issues of science and culture; indeed, their slogan is "Science is Culture."

There was one article I really liked as I was flipping through the November edition, looking at pretty pictures. It's on page 31, and the title is: From Shanghai to Stockholm, A new program attempts to fast-track China's quest for science gold. I wasn't even going to bother reading the article (perusing for pretty pictures, remember?) until the three little letters "RSI" jumped up at me. Yes, it's a short article about the RSI-Fudan program I was a staff member at for two weeks this summer. If I have been able to determine on a personal level what the role of RSI should be in improving education in China, I have certainly not yet been able to verbalize it. Regardless, it's always entertaining to open up a magazine and unexpectedly see someone quoted on a topic I discussed with her just last weekend ...

* Standing in front of the magazine rack and mentioning, 'I wouldn't mind having a subscription to this magazine, myself,' helped in this decision.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A Case of "It's Funny 'Cuz It's True"

I'm currently "taking time off." This means that I wasn't paying attention while booking flights this year and am spending an extra week "away" than I had really planned on. But that's okay, because I can work on my paper from anywhere, because I have a laptop and many many papers strewn about this table and room. So far, I'm somewhere around panels 3–5, but without the little kids running around:

Panel #2 was also nice, especially seeing as how I didn't sleep at all on Saturday night.

You can also refer to this particular post if you're wondering why the blogging is ... less often and of lower quality over the next few weeks than usually.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Grand Canonical Ensemble

Will has pointed me to the new webpage for his band of second year Harvard physics grad students. Go. Revel in the unspoken euphenisms, metaphors, and sheer nerdiness of their subtitle of, "bringing you to the critical point." Laugh as they try to not laugh at their own abso-friggin-lutely hilarious lyrics as they ask the timeless question: How many roots of a Henkel function, between one point seven and three? If you've been looking for the proper way to immortalize George Smoot (who was, coincidentally, Will's undergraduate advisor), then the ode "Crack the Cosmos" will be right up your alley. Still confused about that rogue former planet, Pluto? The go check out "Planet Nine." And while I'm completely unqualified to comment on it, the actual music isn't glaringly awful either ...

Go, be amazed. And then mentally chide them for being Hahvahd students who use myspace.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Questions Raised by ApJ Proofs

My peanut star paper got accepted and is set to be published soon. How soon is unclear, though. On the proofs, after the author list, it says, Received 2006 October 9; accepted 2006 November 8; published 2006 December XX. But at the top of the page, it says, The Astrophysical Journal, 654:L000-L000, 2007 January 1. So what I want to know is: is this paper mollishka et al. (2006), or mollishka et al. (2007)? I know it is probably 2007, but 2006 would make me seem so much more productive and would be much less confusing ... and apparently the page charges are less per page for 2007 than for 2006, but the page charge sheet they sent with the proofs was for 2006 and not 2007.

Also, since when did Kelvins become kelvins?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Epic(?) Bets

Which do you think will be discovered first: the Higg's boson, or an Earth mass planet orbiting a G or K dwarf star* in the habitable zone?

Last night at the astronomy department holiday party, Jason and Jon (two graduate students) put \$20 each on a bet that an Earth mass planet orbitting a G or K dwarf star (the Sun is a G dwarf star; K dwarfs are slightly cooler) in the habitable zone will not be discovered by the time the first one of them graduates, which should be roughly summer 2010. Scott, who orchestrated the bet and is set to earn \$40 if such planets are discovered by 2010, is an expert on planet finding studies—especially compared to two graduate students! It came out later in the evening that the Kepler mission, a satellite specifically designed to search for planets, hasn't been delayed until 2012 like the grad students thought, but rather, is likely to launch in about two years. The European analog(-ish) to Kepler, COROT, is set to launch in about two weeks. The general expectation is that unless something goes horribly wrong with both of these missions—or Earth is the only Earth-like planet— then an extrasolar Earth analog will be detected by the time I get a Ph.D.

I was unwilling to get in on the planet game, but I did bet Mandeep \$1.00 that the Higg's boson will not be discovered by the time I graduate. Coming from a particle physics background, he is certainly more qualified to make such predictions, but that's completely beside the point. The LHC ("Large Hadron Collider") is due to start collecting data in 2007, and there is lots of evidence pointing at if the Higg's boson exists, then it should be detected by the LHC. On the other hand, we know of at least one Earth mass planet orbiting a G dwarf star in the habitable zone, whereas the Higg's boson is still a mere postulation and prediction.

* Aside from Earth itself, of course!
N.B.: This post title is shamelessly stolen from a recent similarly-themed post over on Galactic Interactions.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

End of the Quarter

It is officially the end of the quarter. Huzzah.

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Lists

There's this thing I've been (nominally) working on for the past two days which I very muchly so do not want to be working on. In fact, there are many things I would rather be doing. Here is a random list of such alternatives that have come to mind:

1. Calculate π to a 1% uncertainty by throwing frozen hot dogs down the hall. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to calculate how many thows this will require.
2. Visit The Federated States of Micronesia. I think the fastest way to get there from here is via Houston and then either Guam or Honolulu on Continental; it should take about two days. Then I could go to Yap! Don't worry; Micronesia still has about an order of magnitude more people than Vatican City, and almost twice as many as Greenland.
3. Go candlepin bowling, preferably at the bowling alley near the Alewife T-stop.
4. Fingerpaint in red wine.
5. Make a t-shirt where the front is the image to the right and the back says, "I believe!"
6. Have a free dinner of Indian food with today's speaker, even though I didn't go to this talk because I was supposedly working on this thingie. Note that I do not like Indian food.
7. Make a 3-D snowflake.
8. Play with my pet dragon. Or penguin.
9. Fill my office up with a house of cards. And then knock it all down.
Of course, what I'm working on isn't all that bad ... if it were, the above list would look more like the following:
1. Be gently flogged to death with scented bootlaces.
2. Marry an axe murderer.
3. Gnaw my fingers off one by one.
4. Watch Gigli again. It's a painfully bad movie—and not in a good way.
5. Read all 3964 3671 messages in my spam folder.
6. Take a swim off of Revere Beach near Boston, MA, right now at night in the cold and rain and mist.
7. Sit at my desk with a stopwatch, staring down the hall, and measure—repeatedly—just how long it takes for the motion sensors to allow the lights to go off.
It's interesting to note that #6 on that first list was the only one of these I've actually done, and the item on the first list most likely to make the second as well. I had garlic naan and a mango lassi and some lamb. I don't know what that means, though.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

AstroVino #9: Pinot Noir (& Beaujolais)

This past Monday we had the final night of wine-tasting in the class I have been taking this quarter. Focussing on the wines of Burgandy ("Borgogne" in French), we primarily had Pinot Noir, with one bonus bottle of Beaujolais at the end. Burgandies are apparently fairly fickle wines; to shamelessly quote from our notes, "... like the Cubs or Red Sox, it more often than not disappoints its ardent fans." The Pinot Noirs we tried lived up to the analogy: a few were delicious, while a few were simply not very good.

We started the evening with a 2003 Joseph Drouhin Côte de Beaune from Borgogne, France. (Côte de Beaune here is the coast being made fun of in the "Côte du Bone" from a few weeks ago.) An earthy wine (it "smells like dirt"), it seemed to become oakier as the night went on. Some people claimed to find hints of "chocolate and cherries" in it, but I didn't.

The 2005 Sebastiani Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast, CA was incredibly tannic and oaky; if you can get past this, it apparently is rather "fruit forward." We had a rather strange 2005 Parker Station Pinot Noir from Santa Maria, CA which was incredibly difficult to place ... it smelled something like fruit-scented Clorox, which is to say, like pineapples, pears, or candied apples, but kind of off. The 2004 Argyle Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley, Oregon was much clearer and paler than the others, and also somewhat more acidic. While some people claimed to taste cloves in it, it was really just "kind of yick." The 2005 Saint Clair Vicar's Choice Pinot Noir from Marlborough, New Zealand was one of the evening's spicier choices, giving off airs of black pepper and cinnamon.

One of the grad students taking the class donated a 2004 Laetitia Estate Pinot Noir from Arroyo Grande Valley, CA, which started off rather oaky, but got tastier and tastier as time drew on. I could actually believe claims of "chocolate and cherries" with this one, and also perhaps a lot of fruitiness.

My favorite wine of the evening, though, was not a Pinot Noir. Our bonus wine, a 2005 Morgon Beaujoulais from Romanèche-Thorins, France, is the only one on the list earning a smiley face. Beaujoulais wines are designed to be incredibly fresh and fruity, and are meant to be drunk in the year they are made. The grapes are fermented via carbonic maceration; the entire grape, stem, everything is thrown in the tank for the fermentation process. The Morgon we tasted was a dark purple color, smelled "perfumy," and tasted incredibly jammy, almost like blackberry jam.

We visited Charleston, South Carolina on Friday, and I saw a sign advertising an upcoming Beaujolais tasting. I was terribly excited by the fact that I know what that means! It's taken a few months, but the words associated with wine are no longer just nice sounding words: they actually have some meaning behind them ...

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Coordinate Calibration

The coordinates used by astronomers are referred to as "RA" and "dec." RA, or right ascension, tells us when an object will be viewable and is measured in hours (and minutes and seconds). It is set so that the RA of the sun on the March equinox (the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere) is 0 hours; the RA of the sun on the September equinox (the first day of autumn in the northern hemisphere) is 12 hours. Each month, the sun (and thus the sky) moves by 2 hours in right ascension. Since astronomers generally like to look at the sky at night, when the sun is not up, this means that objects with an RA near 12 hours are best viewed around March, while objects with an RA near 0 hours are best viewed near September.

The other coordinate is the declination, or "dec." The declination of an object, measured in degrees, is just the projection of the lattitudes on Earth onto the sky. For example, Columbus, OH is at a lattitude of 40°, so any star or galaxy directly overhead will have a declination of 40°. It also means that the so-called North Star, Polaris, which has a declination of 90°, will always be 40° above the horizon in Columbus.

RA and dec are designed so that by simply knowing an object's coordinates, an astronomer can tell you whether or not the object will be viewable from a certain location, and, if so, when. For example: can the center of the Milky Way (theoretically) be observed from Columbus, OH? NED tells me that the coordinates of the supermassive black hole (Sagitarrius A*) right at the center of the Milky Way are 17h45m40.0s -29d00m28s. The second set of numbers there is the declination: -29°. Columbus is at 40°, which means that the Galactic center will be 40°+29°=69° down from the zenith (the "zenith" is a fancy word for "straight up"). 90° is all the way down to the horizon, so when the Galactic center is "up," it won't get very far off of the horizon, and you'd be hard pressed to find someone to let you tilt their large telescope over that far. This is why the Galactic center is more commonly observed from the southern hemisphere, such as at one of the many observatories in Chile.

So when is the Galactic center observable? Well, the RA is at 17 hours and 45 minutes—let's call it 18 hours. 18 hours is halfway between 12 hours and 0 (=24 hours), so the Galactic center is best viewed halfway between March and September, also known as June. Luckily, this is also when the nights are the longest in Chile (Chile being in the southern hemisphere and thus June being in winter), and so when the Galactic center is up, it's observable for a long time.

This is all fine and dandy, but once you have an image of the sky, how do you know what the coordinates of all of your objects are? The standard way is to compare the locations of the objects on your image to the locations of objects in some catalog where they have measured this very carefully (known as astrometry, or "the measure of the stars"). Generally, you have a pretty good idea of where the telescope was pointing when the image was taken, and thus the coordinate of the middle of your image. You also generally know what the pixel size of your image is. When astronomers talk about "resolution," they don't mean a number of pixels (like 1600x1200) like you hear people talk about with normal digital photography. Instead, astronomers talk about how large a single pixel is on the sky.* For example, the pixel size of ACS, the newest camera on the Hubble Space Telescope, is 0.04" (the " is arcseconds; there are 3600 arcseconds in one degree). Ground-based telescopes generally have pixel sizes varying from ~0.2" to several arcseconds; HST has a smaller pixel size because there is (basically) no atmosphere in space, making it possible to resolve smaller objects than can be resolved from the ground.

Like with a map, it's a fairly straightforward procedure to go from one known position, a certain scale, and a sense of direction (given by the "known" stars in the catalog) to a set of coordinates for all of the objects in the image. Well, sort of. The first problem with this analogy is that, generally, when we make maps of things like cities or continents, we actually "know" where the things are we're mapping: we can physically go there, pull out a ruler, and measure the distances between buildings or whatnot. This doesn't really work when we're talking about stars thousands of lightyears away. And what if the resolution of our catalog is worse than of our data, and where they saw one blobby thing we see three or four stars? Which position do we believe or use for calibration? The second problem is that the sky is not flat, and, in general, the projected size a telescope "sees" at the edge of an image is not going to be the same as it "sees" at the center. If we want really precise astrometry, then these slight changes have to be modeled accurately.

And yet, deciding the coordinates for an object is massively simpler and less convoluted than trying to decide how "bright" it is ...

* More precisely, the resolution is given by the size of the smallest object that can be fully resolved, which is larger than one pixel and depends on many different factors, but that's a little too complicated for now.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

AstroVino #8: Chardonnay

Last week's wine of choice was Chardonnay, the wine people generally get when they just ask for a "white wine" and the wine people request if they want to sound like connoisseurs but aren't sure what to order. In other words, the Chardonnay grape is either incredibly versatile or rather bland, depending on who you ask. Chardonnay wines are often aged in oak barrels, giving them a distinct flavor: from my experience the first evening of the wine class, I was afraid I wouldn't be able to survive this week, but evidently the Chardonnay the other evening was chosen as to "make a point." Most of the wines (aside from obvious exceptions) this week were fairly uninsulting, but none made my list of favorites.

We began the evening with two French Chardonnays: a 2004 Pouilly-Fuissé Propriété Marie-Antoinette Vincent from Fuissé, France and a 2005 Les Sétilles Chardonnay from Bourgogne, France. French Chardonnay is referred to as "white Burgandy." The Fuissé was described as "crisp" by others, and the Les Sétilles* was slightly spritzy, with a tart, almost lime-like flavor.

We then moved over to California, with a 2005 Rodney Strong Chardonnay from Sonoma County and a 2005 Kali Hart Chardonnay from Monterey County. The Rodney Strong was "aged in small oak barrels" and according to my notes, "smells oakier than smells." Erm ... perhaps I mean "smells oakier than tastes"? The oakiness did come out more strongly after the wine sat for a while, though. The Kali Hart was slightly sweeter and more "robust," with "fairly tropical" and "butterscotch" flavors. Californian Chardonnays are supposed to be good as sipping wines, independent of any food.

The interesting wines of the evening definitely came from South Australia. It is a bit too expensive for Australia to get genuine oak barrels for aging wine in, so generally wine is stored in large steel tanks, and wood chips are tossed in if an oaky flavor is desired. This distinction, though, did not play into the ... interestingness of our Australian wines. We tried a 2005 Hugo Unwooded Chardonnay from McLaren Vale and a 2003 Yalumba Eden Valley Wild Ferment Chardonnay. The Hugo, as it was "Unwooded," was not aged in oak at all, and served mostly to bring out just how oaky the other Chardonnays were (such as the Rodney Strong). Now, the Yalumba was quite an adventure. We have a group of 12 people, and the wine bottles are passed around one at a time, so more often than not, you get to hear what everyone else has to say about a certain wine before you get a chance to taste it. "Weird," is always an amusing comment to watch circulate the table, trailing after a certain bottle. You see, the Yalumba was a "Wild Ferment," which means that instead of letting cultivated yeasts do the work of fermenting the wine, the winemakers at Eden Valley chose to let wild yeasts native to the grapes themselves have at it. This proved to make the wine taste ... interesting. It smelled like a construction site, like tar perhaps?, or like "model airplane glue." It didn't taste quite as off as it smelled, but let's just say, it's more of a conversation piece than a nice sipping wine.

* Yes, it does make my spine twitch a little to refer to something as "the Les ..." but I do my best to ignore it.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Guest Post: Why Mr. Cohen Isn't Funny

This post is a contribution from my brother, Reed, who is currently enrolled in the history Master's program at Clemson University. He will be reading and replying to comments here as well.

Within ten days of opening, Sacha Baron Cohen's comedy "Borat" made nearly 68 million dollars and confirmed the continued vitality of racist humor in the United States. In the movie, Mr. Cohen, misrepresenting himself as an obnoxious Kazakh reporter (this is called "lying"), travels around the United States putting Americans in awkward and uncomfortable social situations. Borat is misogynist. He hates Jews, Uzbeks and gypsies. His Kazakh home village is a picture of backwardness.

Actually, the village Mr. Cohen portrays in his film is not Kazakh. It is Romanian, and nobody there even knew Mr. Cohen until he arrived there purporting to make a documentary about the poor socioeconomic conditions. This is also lying. Mr. Cohen found many people in the village eager to participate in his film about their hardship and struggle. Very few people in the village spoke English, which allowed Mr. Cohen to fairly safely ridicule them. This is cowardice. An oblivious woman becomes Borat's prostitute sister and an elderly amputee becomes a pervert. This is all, apparently, hilarious.

For Mr. Cohen's character to be Kazakh made sense. Very few Kazakhs live in the United States or Great Britain. As a small, obscure minority we can all laugh at Kazakhs without risking the socially awkward possibility of actually encountering them. Nobody's secretary is Kazakh. A Kazakh family doesn't live two doors down the road. Your kid's coach isn't Kazakh.

But according to Mr. Cohen the joke isn't on Kazakhs, it's on Americans. In a recent interview in Rolling Stone magazine, he explains that "The joke is not on Kazakhstan. I think the joke is on people who can believe that the Kazakhstan that I describe can exist..." He chose the country because it was "...it was a country that no one had heard anything about, so we could essentially play on stereotypes they might have about this ex-Soviet backwater." Borat's anti-Semitism is designed to show "...the absurdity of holding any form of racial prejudice, whether it's hatred of African-Americans or of Jews." (Rolling Stone, Nov. 16) So Mr. Cohen is helping us by showing us how ignorant we are.

His defense is flawed and shameful. He deliberately chose a country of which many of us are ignorant. We certainly aren't ignorant of it now. Mr. Cohen's fictional Kazakhstan is backwards and ignorant, near-medieval. The Republic of Kazakhstan, the actual country that borders southern Russia and northwestern China, is a large, strategically important and socially dynamic country. In the movie, Mr. Cohen makes no effort to distinguish between the Republic of Kazakhstan and his bigoted creation. The few Kazakhs who live in the United States are now obliged to constantly explain that no, I do not drink horse urine and no, I do not in fact sleep with my sister and sorry, we actually do treat Kazakh women as human beings. They are angry and insulted, and it's easy to find their articles, letters and essays to this effect on the internet. When the Kazakh government very justifiably expressed anger and indignation at the film, Mr. Cohen, in character as Borat and flanked by Kazakh flags, held a press conference in front of the Kazakh embassy in Washington, DC and further lampooned the country. That Kazakhs are supposed to appreciate this subtle critique of American cultural intolarance is a stretch indeed.

While we're on the topic of intolerance, we need to discuss Borat's anti-Semitism in particular. Mr. Cohen is Jewish and he has family in Israel. He feels that his ethnic background gives him immunity from any serious charges of anti-Semitism. This logic does present a fairly convincing argument. I doubt Mr. Cohen hates Jews. What is not clear is his attitude towards Muslims. Kazakhstan is an overwhelmingly Muslim country. While Borat's religious affiliation is unclear, as an ethnic Kazakh he is by default ostensibly a Muslim. America has had a somewhat complex and troubled relationship with the Islamic world as of late. There is a tendency among many Americans to view Muslims as ignorant, oppressive and anti-intellectual. Borat personifies each of these flaws. By presenting no evidence to the contrary, Mr. Cohen reinforces religious stereotypes among Americans and further alienates the Muslim world.

And he's made a ton of money by doing so. The various lawsuits filed against Mr. Cohen and Fox will likely get nowhere, nor should they. The film will continue to show and Americans will continue to laugh. What we are laughing at is not American cultural peculiarities, but a grotesque racial characterization which we believe, which we buy into, far more than we would like to admit. Mr. Cohen has chosen to capitalize on this prejudice. He is a racist and a bigot. That is not funny.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

AstroVino #7: Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot

Last week's wine tasting focussed on the red wine of the Bordeaux region of France, specifically Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. These are the wines around which much wine lore has developped: that there are legendarily "good" years (like 1945 and 1961) and that wine has to be stored and such&such temperature for exactly so long before drinking. Cabernet Sauvignon is usually expected to age at least 5 years, if not 10 or more. These are also the wines that can get really really expensive. French wine labels are also notoriously difficult to understand (for example, in 2005 a survey was taken of the French population, and 72% of them couldn't parse the label on a typical wine bottle), so I won't really go into all of the descriptions here and now ... except for one little tidbit. Back in the day (mid 1800s), Napoleon III decided, for whatever reason, to have the winemakers of the Bordeaux region ranked. These rankings are still in use today, so a Premier Cru (1er Cru) is going to be among the most expensive and rarest wines around, on down to the 5ème Cru and the "Cru Bourgeois." Our first wine of the evening, a 2003 Château Potensac from Médoc, France was a Cru Bourgeois and right at the top of our price range; apparently any of the actually ranked 1–5 Crus are worth buying a wine cellar and holding on to for a while ... and if anyone ever offers you one, stop what you're doing, say "thank you," and listen to whatever it is they have to say.

We also had three other Cabernet Sauivignons: a 2001 Oberon Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, California; a 2004 Jim Berry The Cover Drive Cabernet Sauvignon from Clare Valley, South Australia; and a 2004 Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon Apalta Vineyard from Colchagua Valley, Chile. Others at the tasting claimed that the Jim Berry was "jammy," like berries, and that the Montes Alpha had hints of "vanilla and chocolate," but all four tasted quite the same to me. Quite good and very tasty, but quite the same. Cabernet Sauvignons are apparently quite good with steak, but do not hold up well against fatty or spicy foods.

Our other two wines of the evening were Merlots, which have been grown and marketted so that they are easier to deal with than the complex store-in-the-cellar-for-a-decade Cabernet Sauvignon: a Merlot is a much safer and easier option for "I want something to drink tonight." We tried two: a 2002 Sebastiani Merlot from Sonoma County, California (which is actually 79.0% from the Merlot grape, plus a smattering of Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, and "other reds") and a 2004 Wolf Blass Yellow Label (100%) Merlot from South Australia. My only smiley face for the evening went to the Wolf Blass; it was slightly spritzy and very fruity. The Sebastiani was a tad too tannic for my tastes, but still yummy. Supposedly these Merlots are more "velvetty" and "softer" than their Cabernet Sauvignon cousins, but even after being told so, I found the reverse to be true.

All said, I very much enjoyed all of these wines (it was only the second week I have finished all of my portions), but perhaps all of the fuss made over French wines and their dauntiness—while perhaps having some validity—isn't quite all it's made itself out to be.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

AstroVino #6: The Whites of the Rhone Valley

This past week we tasted white wines from and similar to those from the Rhône Valley in France. The wines were divided into two varietals: Viognier and Marsanne & Roussanne. The three Viogniers we tried were: a 2005 Domaine Miguel Viognier, Vin de Paus d'Oc, from Languedoc, France; a 2004 Jewel Collection Viognier, from Woodbridge, CA; and a 2004 Yalumbua Eden Valley Viognier from South Australia. I could talk about these for a while, but there isn't really anything all that interesting to say: the French wine was apparently rather "austere" while the Woodbridge was fruitier and the Yulambua was somewhat stony. Viogniers are apparently tasty with chicken and fish, but all we had was (very yummy) cheese and bread, which aren't quite the same.

I greatly preferred the three Marsanne/Roussannes we tried: a 2004 Côtes-du-Rhône "Parallèle 45", Paul Jaboulet Aîné from the Southern Rhône; a 2005 Marsanne "Santa Ynez Valley", Qupé from Santa Maria, CA; and a 2004 Rosenblum Cellars Château La Paws Côte Du Bone Blanc, CA. Oh, yes, that's right: because bad puns and wine belong together. The Côte Du Bone turned out to be my favorite of the evening: my first comment was a simple, Wow. Then it got a big smiley face next to it on the handout, which is all a good wine could ever hope for. It smelled very flowery and somewhat citrusy, but the taste was indescribably interesting and fascinating, in a good way. Apparently it is so-called because the guy who runs the winery is interested in animals or is a veternarian or something. The Qupé was also delicious, right up until someone mentioned that it smelled like buttered popcorn, and then I couldn't convince myself that it smelled like anything other than buttered popcorn.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

A Geocentric View

I think I've settled on a blog title: Geocentric View. geocentric view? a geocentric view? It's all so complicated.

Even though mollishtronomy did make me laugh out loud (thanks, John), I wanted something slightly less restrictive, as I write about things other than astronomy. Okay, while that is also true, the real reason is that I have a really difficult time spelling "mollishtronomy": it's terribly difficult to not put a "k" after the "h," and then it all falls to hell after that. Well, okay that and the fact that I'm just a wee bit compulsive and if I'm going to pick a "real" blog title then it has to be perfect. I'd considered your life in boxes for a while, but then general reaction to that one seemed to be, "... boxes?" I also liked the sound of beneath star-freckled skies, but not only is it a tad too complicated, but Columbus is rather cloudy most of the year. quiet Euclidean space is simple and clean, though slightly too mathematical, and if I'm going to go the mathematical route, then it should by no means be geometric or topological, and certainly not Euclidean for crying out loud. On the other hand, "Abelian grapes" is a little too far from, you know, what I spend all day doing and what I actually blog about, and besides, it's already taken. Both three double-blind mice and three blind jellyfishes have been duly considered, and both were decided to be Awesome group blog titles, which this blog is not. When I started writing this post, particles to pelt was the title of choice, but the universal response to that seems to be, "pelt? ... like, fur? huh?"

No, the credit for a geocentric view goes completely to the unsuspecting Sean Carroll over at Cosmic Variance and a Mr. W. H. Auden who wrote some poetry once upon a time. (I wonder how many more links I can cram into this thing?) The BBC has a recording of Auden reading the relevant poem, entitled "After Reading a Child's Guide to Modern Physics." It's well worth installing RealPlayer, though I found Sylvia Plath's intonation of "Lady Lazuras" much more intriguing: have you ever read a book where they have a poet character and the author goes on and on about how sonorous and melodic the character's voice is? What the author is really trying to say is that the (female) character's voice is like that of Sylvia Plath.

Anyhow, I digress. Here's the lovely poem:

If all a top physicist knows
Then, for all the so-and-so's,
Futility and grime,
Our common world contains,
We have a better time
Than the Greater Nebulae do,
Or the atoms in our brains.

Marriage is rarely bliss
But, surely it would be worse
As particles to pelt
At thousands of miles per sec
Wherein a lover's kiss
Would either not be felt
Or break the loved one's neck.

Though the face at which I stare
While shaving it be cruel
For, year after year, it repels
An ageing suitor, it has,
Thank God, sufficient mass
To be altogether there,
Not an indeterminate gruel
Which is partly somewhere else.

Our eyes prefer to suppose
That a habitable place
Has a geocentric view,
That architects enclose
A quiet Euclidian space:
Exploded myths - but who

This passion of our kind
For the process of finding out
Is a fact one can hardly doubt,
But I would rejoice in it more
If I knew more clearly what
We wanted the knowledge for,
Felt certain still that the mind
Is free to know or not.

It has chosen once, it seems,
And whether our concern
For magnitude's extremes
Really become a creature
Who comes in a median size,
Or politicizing Nature
Be altogether wise,
Is something we shall learn.

It's simple, yet "deep." While Auden is certainly not my favorite poet, he has quite a few pieces I enjoy, and I haven't found any of his works to be annoying or yicky. It's a poem about physics, and yet it's not revolting or condescending or plain wrong like so many scientifically minded poems are. I'll refrain from doing a full-out explication, but the penultimate stanza demands comment: both physics (a kind of science) and poetry (a kind of art) are ultimately a quest for understanding, the "process of finding out." Humankind is driven to it: we have to try to know. What Auden everso innocently asks, though, is just why the seekers seek, and would they be able to "stop any time they wanted"?

Oh, and it really gets me that in the recording the audience doesn't laugh at the end of the fourth stanza. I surely did.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Pac-man

I haven't felt much like blogging this week it seems, but I laughed out loud when I saw this, so perhaps you will as well:

Monday, October 30, 2006

An Evening with Jon Stewart and The Daily Show

A little less than a month ago, I felt glad for the first time* that I am living in Ohio instead of somewhere, you know, interesting.** There was this election or something two years ago that a lot of people cared about, and the general consensus is that since the votes in Ohio were the last ones to be counted that it matters more than other equally divided states with more efficient vote counting techniques. But whatever the cause, Jon Stewart is hosting the Daily Show in Columbus, OH (specifically on Ohio State's campus, maybe?) for the next two weeks. Indecision 2006! ... The Midwest Midterm Midtacular!!!!

Of course, by the time this was officially announced (i.e., when I first heard about it), tickets for the actual taping of the Daily Show itself were already sold out.*** So, instead, they decided to have "An Evening with Jon Stewart and The Daily Show" in the large basketball arena/colliseum on October 28, free and just for students. I've had my ticket in my desk drawer for weeks, totally stoked and completely convinced that it was going to be downright awesome.

It wasn't.

The basic format was "moderated." Jon Stewart did make fun of this a few times, granted. The dean of the College of the Arts asked some questions from the thousands that had been emailed in, and there seemed to be only two types of questions. There were the lame questions that just wasted everyone's time and weren't even funny, like "How do you think the world will end?" Then there were the really good questions that were mostly sidestepped by the cast because there was no good way to answer it in a short (moderated) format. The only decent question receiving a decent (i.e., actually funny) answer was: "Do you want to see Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld remain in the political scene so as to provide your show with more content?" After a curt "No," it was explained to the audience that everything Cheney has ever said publicly is simply ... wrong. And he shot a guy in the face for crying out loud.

The most annoying part was that acoustics in the building were horrible. Everyone kept asking each other, what'd he just say? What was that? Oh, and the dean doing the moderating clearly didn't know how to use a microphone. At some point handheld mics were finally brought out, but even then, it was very difficult to follow the conversation. And what's it say when the dean is introduced and there is a lot of booing from the crowd? And how come she got that gig anyhow, instead of someone who would have been more comfortable? There were large screens (... like you'd see at a basketball game ...), but the lighting was so poor that it wasn't any easier to see what was happening by looking at the screen than by looking directly at the very far away stage.

No, that actually wasn't the most annoying part. The most annoying part was that they clearly hadn't prepared anything of any value. Most of the entire hour and a half was filled by showing any clip pertaining to Ohio. Now, I'm a pretty big fan of Jon Stewart and the Daily Show, well, I like them, see, but I don't own a television and have never had access to cable, so I'm more of a fan who never watches the show per se, see, but at least the clips were new to me. But I could watch them on my computer at home and actually hear what was being said instead. And I'm certain that most of the people there had actually seen most of the clips before.

No, that's not true either. The most annoying part of the evening was the fact that I was in a very large room with thousands of Ohio State undergrads. And, oh yes, Saturday was also homecoming and *gasp* there was a home football game involving the Buckeyes slaughtering Minnesota 44-0. Now, there's this ... cheer? ... where someone will yell, "O! H!" and people will yell back, "I! O!" It's one thing during the game, but people will do it freaking walking down the street and then they'll give you nasty looks and accuse you of being from Michigan if you don't yell back. So put thousands of undergrads in a very large room still high from a wholly expected win, and they'll start doing this odd yelling thing. Jon Stewart commented, "I do not understand this ritual, but it seems comforting to you ..." Pretty much the entire evening, every answer to a question involved either saying the magic word, "Ohio," which would in turn elicit raucous cheers from the sharp-thinking crowd, or mistakeningly admitting that there are other states in the Union and getting lots of boos.

Ugh. I may be surrounded by cows and Ohioans, but at least my vote will count this year. And I'll still be watching the Comedy Central election day coverage with an odd pride about me.

* Not the first-first time, but just got along with the story, okay?
** Sure, the cost of living is extraordinarily less than anywhere Interesting, but isn't that the kind of thing you only actively notice if you're living in the expensive place with no residiual money to take advantage of the interesting stuff?
*** Seriously people, don't tell someone that if they email such&such address they can get tickets when there are already no more tickets left. It won't put anyone in a better mood.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

AstroVino #5: Syrah and Shiraz

This week was the first of a two week tour of France's Rhône River Valley. Red wines of the Rhône Valley are principally made from the Syrah wine grape. I personally was not captivated by any of the wines we tried, but most of them did improve as the night went on.

We had two French Syrahs: a 2003 Côtes-du-Rhône, E. Guigal, (S. Rhône, France) and a 2001 Crozes Hermitage, Les Jalets, Paul Jaboulet Aîné. Côtes-du-Rhône is supposed to be a "safe" French red wine, but I found it to be somewhat bland and uninteresting. The Hermitage was brown, it finished quickly (i.e., left no aftertaste), but it was better later in the evening than at the start.

The most memorable wine we tried was from South Africa, and had nothing to do with the taste, though apparently it was one of the top 100 wines on some wine list sometime recently. No no, it's memorable because of the name: Goats do Roam in Villages (2004), from Fairview Estate in Paarl, South Africa. It was quite purple and rather dry, but but Goats! The same winery also offers Bored Doe, Goat Door, and The Goatfather. Because bad puns and good wine belong together.

We had two Californian Syrahs as well: a 2004 Cline Cool Climate Syrah, from the Sonoma Coast and a 2004 Qupé Central Coast Syrah. These are supposed to be incredibly fruity "fruit bombs," but I was having to fend off the free association of the individual on my right who was insisiting that the Qupé had an undertone of play dough, so the fruitiness didn't really come through for me.

Now, just to be confusing, Syrah is known as Shiraz in Australia. The Syrah grape is native to France, but the French didn't know this until 1998, as the Syrah wine was introduced by a former crusader Guy De'Sterimberg, who claimed that he had found this fantastic exotic wine grape in Shiraz, Persia, when in fact he had found it in his backyard. But, hey, Australia can still get away with sounding exotic, so Shiraz it is. The one we tried was a 2002 Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz.

Speaking of goats, all of these wines kind of began to taste like one another after a while. This was partially, I think, because we didn't have very good cheese this week: if you're going to have goat cheese, have goat cheese, not the processed stuff from a canister. Really.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Title

My blog wants to have a non-lame title, but I haven't got any ideas. Do you?

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Fun with ApJ Week

This past week I received the proofs for the galaxies paper I submitted to the Astrophysical Journal (aka ApJ) in June. "Proofs" include to two versions of the paper: the actual proofs as well as the redlined manuscript. The proofs are an example of how the paper will look when it actually appears in the journal, tables and figures and everything. When verifying that the editors didn't ruin my figures, for instance, I look at the proofs. The last page of the proofs also includes a list of "Author Queries," which is where they explain that they have rearranged such & such sentence and ask if the rewording maintains the intended meaning of the sentence.

The redlined manuscript is a wholly different matter. In this case, while the proofed version was 15 pages, the redlined manuscript was 40. The two aspects of publishing a paper in an honest-to-goodness peer-reviewed journal are first the science editing (which includes the process of peer-review) and the secondly the manuscript editing. This second stage is so that all of the papers will conform to the same set of standards, so that they will all "look" the same. This is also the stage where an editor sits down with the paper and corrects all of the grammar and spelling mistakes. As you can imagine, this is the stage at which a well-written paper will sail through the process much more quickly than a poorly written one.

The redlined manuscript is the means by which the editors let the authors know of all the changes they made: every hyphen added or removed, every comma added or removed, every rewording and every cleaned-up equation. Well, not every-every. For instance, I prefer the word "barstrength" to "bar strength" when referring to the strength of a galaxy's bar; every instance I had of "barstrength" was changed to "bar strength," but this was only explicitly pointed out in the title. Some authors therefore sit down with their original manuscript and the new version and compare the two word-by-word, searching for inconsistencies and unremarked-upon switches of "which" and "that". Before electronic submissions, careful comparison was a much bigger deal: what if numbers were mistyped in a table? Now, though, such egregious errors are much less likely.

Then there are the various "grammar" rules set by the Journal. For example, apparently ApJ doesn't like it when sentences start with numbers larger than 9, so a sentence that I began with "Forty-eight of our 75 galaxies ..." was summarily changed to "Of our 75 galaxies, 48 ...". Then there are the rules that seem to change over the years: if it is consistency they want, then the rules should remain consistent. If an equation had brackets in a paper published four years ago, it should still have brackets in a paper published today.

For this paper, there weren't terribly many changes, and we didn't protest about any of them. At this stage, all I had to do was read through the manuscript carefully several times and email the editors back with a go-ahead. It felt very rewarding for so little work, but then, all of the real work had already been done. The maunscript editing stage is simply much easier than the scientific editing stage, which we're going through with the peanut star paper right now: the referee has sent back comments, and now I have to put actual effort and thought into incorporating and responding to them.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Telescopes after an Earthquake

It seems that while the telescopes on Mauna Kea were certainly affected by Sunday's 6.5 magnitude earthquake, nothing Really Bad happened, where by Really Bad, I think I mean, mirrors cracking and the like. My spy network at Caltech informs me that Keck headquarters had "moderate" damage (like things normally found on the ceiling being found on the floor), but all of the computers and such made it through fine. As for the telescopes themselves, it seems that the physical parts of the telescope in charge of making the telescope move in a smooth and predictable manner are somewhat damaged, especially on Keck II.

And as for the other telescopes on the mountain? Apparently, the world's largest telescope for observing at submillimeter wavelengths, the 15 meter James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT), was doing a routine inclinometry check. This is another way of saying they were carefully measuring how much the telescope was tilted when the earth began to do the hokey pokey, as is clearly shown on the plot to the right. The vertical spread here is about 0.05 degrees. Clearly visible is the main quake, followed by a 5.8 magnitude aftershock and then power loss.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

AstroVino #4: The German Whites, Riesling & Gewurztraminer

This week we tried out the German white wines, specifically, four Rieslings and two Gerwürztraminers. In general, while all of the wines were good, the ones from Germany were by far the best. I think I'm coming to the realization that it's not that I dislike white wine, but that I dislike the white wines I've had before this class.

German wine names are ... long. The four Rieslings we had were: a 2004 Joh. Jos. Christoffel Erben Urziger Würzgarten Rielsing Kabinet from Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany; a 2005 Wente Riesling (made in the Kabinet style) from Monterey, CA; a 2004 Pikes Clare Valley Dry Riesling from South Australia; and a 2004 Willi Haag Brauneberger Juffer Riesling Spätlese, also from Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany. With the two hailing from Germany itself, the long part before the word "Riesling" (a type of grape) is a name, probably of the winemaker, and the part after "Riesling" tells you about the style of wine. A Kabinet (from the winemaker's "cabinet") wine is a dry wine with less sugar than the Spätlese ("late vintage"). Other such adjectives include "Auslese," or "selected." The take-away message from the possible list of modifiers is that if anyone ever offers you a "Trockenbeerenauslese," take it and do whatever they say. A very rare, very expensive, deep golden wine, it's "the elixir of the gods."

All of the wines this week were slightly fizzy (or even spritzy!). The two wines from Mosel-Saar-Ruwer were quite excellent and somewhat sweet. The Australian one ... was fizzy, with a hint of rock. We tried all of the Rieslings with Granny Smith apples since the combination of sugar and malic acid often conjures up fruity connotations. If I had ever wondered what granite would taste like in liquid form, now I know it tastes exactly like the Pikes Clare Valley Dry Riesling after a bite of apple.

We also had two Gerwürztraminers: a 2005 Fetzer Valley Oaks Gerwürztraminer from Mendocino, CA and a 2003 Machmer Bechtheimer Stein Gerwürztraminer Spätlese from Rheinhessen, Germany. "Gerwürztraminer" literally means "spice from Tramin;" it forms a rich, spicy wine that apparently stands up well to food. (It definitely did a good job cutting through the heaps of goat cheese I was filling up on.) Especially recomended was Gerwürztraminer with fatty poultry, such as duck or turkey. As for the two we tried, again, while the Californian variety was quite potable, the German one was intensely interesting (in a good way). The Californian was an interesting example of achieving tartness without simultaneously screaming, acid!!

Bottom line: German wines are better when from Germany, even if you can't make heads from tails of the label.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Spectrographic Anecdotes

I spent most of today trying to compile a list of all of the spectrographs in the world (and in space). The primary conclusion I have come to thus far is that for the vast majority of observatories' websites, it is incredibly difficult to get a simple list of instrument specifications (e.g., what wavelength range does your spectrograph cover?). What especially amazes me is that this problem holds true for webpages that superficially look well thought and laid out. Yes, I'm naive, but life is quite cozy here under my little rock.

Then there are the webpages that simply won't load. The little wheel goes around and around and I wait and wait and eventually the connection times out. Shortly after I gave up on trying to access the Keck and the CFHT websites, Google headlines started including the Hawai'i 6.6 magnitude earthquake ... apparently power outtages and rampant destruction lead to webpages being down. Much much more importantly is the question of how those telescopes are doing: some of the largest telescopes in the world are on Mauna Kea, and Mauna Kea is frightfully close to the epicenter. I have not yet been able to glean any information from the web on how these telescopes are doing.

In happier news, apparently the Discovery Channel is in the process of constructing a telescope at Lowell Observatory. Also, there are apparently telescopes in/near Coonabarabran, Australia, which is excellent because "Coonabarabran" is a fun word to say. In fact, a quick Google search reveals that Coonabarabran is the "Astronomy Capital of Australia." Isn't that just hilarious??

Saturday, October 14, 2006

AstroVino #3: Zinfandel and the Italian Reds

I've been craving goat cheese all day. I don't have any goat cheese. Clearly, this means I should write up a little something about this week's wine tasting. Luckily, we are given comprehensive handouts with plenty of anecdotes, descriptions, and pictures, so I can manage to reconstruct the night five days later. We have bread and crackers and cheese (both hard and soft) to go with the wine, mild and unflavored to denumbify the tongue between successive tastes. I had volunteered to bring the bread and cheese this week, and I was quite pleased with the chèvre the cheese guy at North Market recommended. We also brought some sort of hard Spanish cheese, like manchego, but not, which also went over well.

This week was the first red wine week. We started with two Zinfandels: a 2004 Ravenswood Old Vines and a 2003 Ridge Vineyards Three Valleys, both from Sonoma, CA. Zinfandel wine primarily hails from California, and as such, the Zinfandel grape has often been referred to as "California's grape." The California Senate even went so far as to pass a bill declaring Zinfandel to be California's "historic wine," but the bill was terminated by the governor ...

There was long a question as to exactly from where the Zinfandel grape originates; it had to be imported from somewhere, back in the day. Zinfandel wine first appeared in California in the 1800s; an "old vine" wine is in fact made from grapes grown on re-grafted vines that survived Prohibition. Back in the 19th century, a shameless self-promoter by the auspicious name of "Count" Agoston Haraszthy claimed to have brought Zinfandel over from Hungary, specifically, vine stock of the Croatian Plavic Mali. Rumor had it that Haraszthy was eaten by alligators in Nicaragua; rumor also had it that Zinfandel was actually the Primitivo grape from Puglia, Italy. The first rumor grew up into a legend, as the Count was an ... interesting fellow, but the second rumor was generally disregarded, as wine made from the Primitivo is fairly disgusting.

Fast forward to the 1990s and the joys of genetic testing. Genetic type-matching for grapes was coincidentally developped at UC Davis by Carole Meredith and friends. Turns out, the Zinfandel and Primitivo grapes are genetically identical ... but that's not the end of the story. See, the Primitivo grape was actually introduced to the US after Zinfandel wines started popping up, which would imply that it didn't show up in the US at the same time as the Zinfandel grape. By 2001, Meredith had finally found the answer: Zinfandel is, in fact, the same as the Crljenak Kastelanski grape, which had nearly gone extinct along the Croatian coast of the Eastern Adriatic. And as for Haraszthy's Croatian Plavic Mali? It's actually the genetic child of Zinfandel, and it's still totally unclear as to how Zinfandel ever made it to the Golden State to begin with.

I enjoyed both of the Zinfandels we had. I still have a difficult time differentiating and describing the tastes, but I will remember that I liked the Zinfandels and that they apparently go quite well with food. We also had four Italian red wines: two Barberas, a 2002 Anté Barbera d'Asti (from Italy) and a 2004 Renwood Select Series Barbera (from the Lodi & Sierra Foothills in California); as well as two Chiantis, a 2001 Querceto Chianti Classico Riserva (from Italy) and a 2003 Tamas Estates Sangiovese (from Livermore Valley, CA). I have a smiley face next to the d'Asti, which I take to mean I liked it; the Renwood was a bit too tannic and had a bit too much of a bite for me, but I still found it drinkable. The Querceto was fun because the finish (a more polite word for "aftertaste") was decidably different from the initial taste, and I found the Sangiovese to be a bit fruitier.

But they were all quite good with chèvre.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Let me preface this post by stating clearly that my time at MIT was worth every penny, and if I had to make the decision again between where I am now and a debt-free-MITless existence, I would quickly re-choose my current debtridden state.

That said, last night I was called for the second time in a week by "a sophomore at MIT."

The first time, I was in the backseat of a full Jeep about to be dropped off. "Hi! This is Allison, a sophomore at MIT. Do you have a minute to speak?" "If you're asking for money, don't waste your breath, because you're not going to get any." I have to give her credit; she just kind of laughed and tried to convince me that they were just trying to ensure my contact information was still up-to-date. I said it was, and she started to ask if she could just talk to me about my impressions of and time at MIT, and I mentioned that I was kind of busy at the moment, but could I call them back in ten minutes? Well, no, they don't take incoming calls, but someone would call next week. You'd think the fact that I was willing to return the call in ten minutes would imply that I would be able to take an incoming call in ten minutes, but let's not jump to conclusions here.

Apparently last night is next week. "Hi! This is Amanda, a sophomore at MIT. Do you have a minute to speak?" "If you're asking for money, don't bother, you're not going to get any." "Uhm, okay, bye." Apparently we're not even going to pretend to care about all of my delightful insights of my time served at MIT or bother asking why I'm unwilling to give handouts.

I'm not exactly sure just why I get so infuriated whenever MIT asks me for money. A large part has to do with the fact that it will be many many more years before I fully pay for that education, and I will not even consider freely giving them money while I'm still being forced to give them money. A lot of the irritation is because I completely disbelieve that my money will be put to a good use; if I were to ever donate money, I would donate it directly to a student or living group, where I could be more gauranteed of students benefitting from my hard-earned cash.

Then there's that part of my current anger that certainly has to do with the answer another alum got upon asking just why does MIT need "just anything you have": because higher percentages of alumni who donate money translates into higher rankings. What?! Yes, that's right: MIT is claiming to care about rankings. What the hell?! Are we having trouble with name recognition here? Are we actively trying to attract the kind of student who prefers another school simply because a statistically insignificant ranking system based on questionable criteria implies that a small liberal arts school up the river is somehow "better"?? It's not like MIT is trying to crack the top ten or create name recognition that goes hand-in-hand with "research institution" instead of "football."

Ah, well. They'll call again in a year, and perhaps then I will be prepared to explain to the unwitting sophomore why MIT should care about exactly why an alum is unwilling to donate money.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Peanut Star

If this star weren't already named "GCIRS 16SW," I would christen it the Peanut Star. Like a peanut, this star has two nuclei (technically, individual stars, but for some reason astronomers say that the two stars in a binary system form a (single) binary star). The two stars are really really close to one another; so close, in fact, that they share material and have a "common envelope," which you can think of as the peanut's shell. Oh, and they're really big: each one is about 50 times as massive as the Sun with a radius about 60 times as large as the Sun's radius. That's freaking huge, by the way. (The axes in this model on the right are in units of the radius of the Sun.) You can count on one hand (without even resorting to counting in binary) the known number of stars in binary systems with comparable masses.

The aspect of this particular star system that makes it so interesting is the "GC" in "GCIRS 16SW." GC stands for Galactic center; specifically, our Peanut Star is only about a fifth of a light year (that's about 12,000 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun) away from the massive black hole, Sagitarius A*, at the center of the Milky Way. (In the picture on the left, the yellow arrows are pointing at Sgr A*, and the green arrow is pointing at IRS16SW.) For comparison, the star nearest our own Sun is about 4.2 light years away. While there is a lot of other evidence for really massive stars near the Galactic center, astronomers still don't know exactly how they got there. Massive stars don't live for very long, which means that either they were born frighteningly close to the big black hole, or they were born slightly further away and somehow got transported really close in very quickly. The problem with these stars being born so close to the black hole itself is that stars are usually born in a cloud of cold gas: the gas has to be cold so that it will collapse and get dense enough to form stars. But the gas near the black hole is moving really fast: it's not cold! Lots of ideas trying to solve this dilemma have been put forward, but so far, there isn't one terribly convincing explanation.

By the way, the short paper all about this object that I've been working on recently showed up on astro-ph today.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Paper Revision

I spent this week in the "well, we're going to submit this paper tomorrow afternoon, so ..." phase. The paper in question has eight authors, including four faculty members here. I hadn't fully appreciated just how... fun... it can be to have so many authors on a paper. Granted, at least everyone on this list is on speaking terms with one another, and they're all reasonable people with a distinct desire to get this paper finished.

I gave people all of last weekend to get comments to me. A few people actually sent comments, several others acknowledged (in person—their offices are down the hall from mine) that they had received my email, and the rest were silent, but easily tracked down. One person had actually checked most of my references, finding one error that amounted to something like this: "Like Jones et al. (2003), we used the spherical black cow model of Appleseed et al. (1994) ..." But if you go and look in the relevant table of Appleseed et al. (1994), you will find that the cow is actually brown, not black. There's nothing in any of the tables in the entire Appleseed et al. (1994) paper that says anything about black at all. Jones et al. just mistyped something somewhere, it seems. No big deal; we add a footnote saying we realize that Appleseed et al. found the cow to be brown, but since Jones et al. used black, we will too. Meanwhile, one of the authors who felt like they should actually "contribute" in order to be included in the author list, starts considering whether or not the cow prefers greener pastures, and in the process does a simple calculation to reveal that the cow is actually a nice hamburger (with pickles and mayonnaise). Well and good: I type out a paragraph explaining how this is odd, as cows who are hamburgers don't make for very stable cows. But as it turns out, this calulation depends sensitively on what color the cow is. So we redo the calculation using brown instead of black, and find out that the cow is only dangerously close to wanting to be a hamburger, but since this situation is still not very stable, we keep the paragraph in. But now we're making a big deal of what color the cow is! And so the author in charge of running the simulations is asked to re-run the simulations with a brown cow, which, of course, takes another day.

Then there was the author who said, "I don't know anything about elephants, so I won't comment on that section." Said author then came back with a huge list of complaints about how they didn't understand the section about elephants. Unfortunately, some of these complaints were perfectly valid, but others... not so much. And I don't yet have the skill (or tact) to politely explain why certain points simply do not need to be addressed.

I also learned this week to not show coauthors un-proofread versions of a paper. It seems so obvious, when I put it that way, but I didn't phrase it as such last night in my head as I rushed out in order to have dinner with the colloquium speaker. And so the emails started pouring in about repeated words and dangling participles when all I really wanted people to do was to comment on the new science.

There are interesting differences in approaches here. I was personally rather annoyed at myself this morning, as most (if not all) of the minutiae pointed out to me I could have caught if I had, you know, just read the paper. This made some of the more pedantic emails all that more annoying: it's not that I don't know what a dangling participle is and that they should be banished, but I simply hadn't yet read the paper and fixed those particular problems. Then there were the emails which implied that I hadn't caught errors such as variables having one value in a table and another in the text because my eyes had "glazed over" upon reading the paper so much. Erm, not really. The most productive approach was taken by the author who simply read the paper, checked for internal consistency and good grammar, and gave it back to me mid-morning with a few scientific comments and suggested citations to boot.

I did finally post the paper to astro-ph this afternoon, and I really do hope all of the co-authors are sated by the current version. I'm still waiting for one of them to send me one-more-sentence before actually submitting it to the journal... but I fully expect to submit it Monday. Hopefully this particular iterative process terminates...

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

AstroVino #2: Sauvignon Blanc & Chenin Blanc

Last night was the second class of the wine appreciation course-like thing I'm taking this fall. We're alternating red and and whites; this week was two of the classic whites: Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc. Both of these capitalized French names are kinds of grapes. One of the complicated things about wines is the naming conventions: in the Old World (i.e., Europe), wines are named after where they are made (e.g, Bordeaux or Burgandy). This is simply due to the fact that these places have been making wine for a long time, and for a long time, wine could not be transported well. The New World, being newer, takes the simpler route, with wines named after the grapes from which they are made.

We had three Sauvignon Blancs: a 2004 La Reine Blanche Sancerre from the Loire Valley in France, a 2005 Casa Lapostolle from the Rapel Valley in Chile, and a 2005 Villa Maria from the Malborough District in New Zealand. Likewise, we had three Chenin Blancs: a 2005 Vallee de Jardins Vouvray, also from the Loire Valley, a 2005 Bonny Doon Pacific Rim from somewhere in California, and a 2005 Coriole McLaren Vale from South Australia.

Now, I'm a scientist. I like trying to find patterns and using these patterns to try to predict the unknown. Luckily, this is a wine tasting course for scientists: what we may lack in taste differentiation, we try to make up in overanalyzing. The obvious comparison to be made with these wines is to compare and contrast the tastes of the two grapes. The much more interesting one, I find, is to examine how three wines made from genetically identical grapes can taste so drastically different... both climate and technique come into play. I found the difference the most obvious between the first two Sauvignon Blancs: the Loire Valley has a much cooler climate than the Rapel Valley, which is sunny, and this plays out in that the Lapostolle has a sweet, even fruity, taste contrasted against the much more acidic Sancerre. The Lapostolle was my favorite of the evening, actually; it was sweet, to be sure, but not overly so. The McLaren Vale was also fun, as the taste changed over the course of the evening. The real let down was the Bonny Doon Chenin Blanc, which just tasted blah (a Chenin Blank?).

All in all, it was another fun evening. I always enjoy watching how groups self-interact. While the bottles of wine were being passed around and everyone is tasting each for the first time, the room is silent except for the *click* of the precision pour. (Precision pours, incidentally, are incredibly ingenious.) But then all the wines are out, and people start discussing how each tastes, and soon the word "pineapple" is quite amusing. Eventually, more bread and cheese is brought out, people are discussing how long it will be until another ultraviolet sensitive satellite flies and the abundance of animals with different male and female names in English, and the glasses scattered about the table are becoming more and more empty. Good Monday night fun; ten points if you can guess why I'm writing this post on Tuesday.

If anyone knows how to take good notes on how something "tastes," by the way, please let me know. I could actually tell the difference between the wines (and, even, after I got the order of the glasses mixed up, I could identify which glass went with which wine), but when I tried to describe what it tasted like? "Uhm, so this one tastes like white wine, see." Even with all of the component tasting of last week, I'm at a loss of how to describe what I'm tasting.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Journal Club Talk: Star Formation Rates

One of the "neat" things done here to help graduate students become accostomed to talking in front of a group of people is a weekly journal club. The idea is that every Friday at 12:30 (usually people bring their lunch) a grad student gives a half hour talk (assuming no interruptions, of which there are always plenty, so it's usually more like forty-five mintues or an hour) on some recent paper. Usually, this paper is completely unrelated to their own research, so that instead of the student "defending" their own work, they are learning new science.

Journal club is one of the aspects of the program here that I gladly tell prospective students about, but personally try to weasel my way out of. In principle, it's a great thing to force grad students to learn how to make effective slides, to become comfortable standing in front of a room full of people, to be able to easily field unsolicited questions. In practice, it's fantastic, as long as I'm not the student in question. I succeeded in not giving a talk last year, but when, on our way to the conference in Japan in June, Paul (who is in charge of scheduling and running journal club this year) found out I hadn't yet given one, I found myself first up on the list for this year, unable to sneak out.

Thus I found myself standing in front of the department today talking about "Radial variation of attenuation and star formation in the largest late-type disks observed with GALEX." I had resolved to not be one of those students who waits until the last minute to prepare, but well, there's this paper I've been procrastinating on for a while, and I didn't get around to mailing it out to the co-authors until Wednesday night... which meant that I didn't start, uhm, reading the paper until yesterday morning.

I felt like I was in Junior Lab all over again, only I actually found the material interesting, wasn't being graded (per se), and didn't have a lab partner to ask questions of. It took me all day to actually read the paper, and I didn't start even making slides until about 5p.m., when I realized that I haven't actually given a talk in over two years. Everyone these days seems to be using PowerPoint... which I haven't used since, I think, 1997? So I dallied for about half an hour, finally deciding that, in fact, LaTeX would be easier.

I finished the slides this morning, and then Paul suggested that I might want to practice. That was about when I started trying to crawl out of my skin. Normally, I don't get the slightest bit nervous when talking in front of a group, but then, normally, I actually know what the hell I'm talking about. This... this, I couldn't have given you a solid definition of "attenuation" or told you how astronomers ("we") estimate star formation rates 48 hours ago. So, I tried practicing, and it was disastrous: I couldn't stand still, I couldn't find any words not etymogically related to "uhm," and I definitely couldn't remember half of what I actually wanted to say.

But the talk wound up going fine, I think. Have you ever been so tired you can't fall asleep? It was like that: I think I was so nervous I forgot to be nervous. There was a plethora of interuptions (before I could even get off the title slide!), which, as I discovered, actually helped. If your audience keeps interupting you, it makes the "talk" more like a conversation than an information dump. Some people get really nervous and upset if their audience can't keep quiet, asks really difficult questions ("But isn't that just bogus?"), or talks amongst themselves. I find that not only do I not mind, but I actually kind of like it: it takes the pressure off me. Furthermore, if need be, I know I can always regain control of the room (since I am standing in front of it).

The paper itself is fairly interesting, and, from what I can tell, important. The most compelling result "concerns the notion of a threshold" of star formation. The rate at which galaxies, or more specifically, regions within galaxies, make stars has lots of implications for galaxy evolution and other areas of astronomy. Unfortunately, we can't just take a yearly (or million-years-ly) census of a galaxy and count up how many new stars we see. Instead, people model what the spectra of stars of different mass look like (how much light they put out at different wavelengths) and the relative numbers and ages of stars of different masses, which can then be turned into "we expect to see this much of this kind of light when stars are forming at this rate." One star formation tracer is quite popular because it involves looking at an emission line from hydrogen, called Hα, which is a very strong feature in red light, which we can see from the ground. People have noticed that in most galaxies, at some large radius, Hα just quits being seen. Since this radius corresponds to a surface mass density, people have also talked about a critical "threshold" density below which no star formation can occur. The star formation tracer used in this paper, on the other hand, is ultraviolet (UV) light, which cannot be seen from the ground (at least while we still have an ozone layer in the atmosphere!). So, the data are from a satellite, GALEX. The main problem with the notion of a star formation threshold is that it's not actually a star formation threshold; it's an Hα threshold. This paper shows pretty convincingly that UV radiation is still seen beyond the threshold at which Hα is observed, which, presumably, means that star formation is occuring. They argue that no more Hα is seen at large radii because really massive stars (more than about ten solar masses) are needed in order to have Hα, and these stars are very rare and die very quickly. When it becomes very improbable to have even one of these massive stars within a large region, then no more Hα will be seen. The UV light, on the other hand, is sensitive to slightly less massive (and therefore more common) stars, and can therefore be seen at larger radii.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

AstroVino #1: Intro and Component Tasting

Tonight was the first class of the wine tasting class I'm taking this quarter. Offered by and at the home of one of the professors here, Rick, it's a ten week course covering over sixty wines from four continents. We've got a fun astronomy-filled group of graduate students, postdocs, professors, and a spouse or two. The basic goal of the course is for us to learn the language of wine, the kinds of wine we do and do not like, and how to pick which wines might go well with which dishes. (Given some of my past experiences with wines, this is probably a good thing.) Mostly for my own personal edification, I'm going to try to post my impressions of each week's class before I forget all the nice details.

This week we started off with a bit of a history lesson. I personally really like the idea of the first person to taste wine: grapes are stored in a jar, they ferment, some sad soul comes along and decides to fix everything by poisoning themselves, they take a drink, and hey!, everything seems a little bit better...

The first food of the evening was a handful of concord grapes. This was a real eye-opener for me. They tasted like artificial grape flavoring tastes... but in grape form!! Where have I been all these years?! Amazing, simply amazing. We examined how the juice tastes compared to the pulp (which is actually white), how the juice from the dark purple skin tastes compared to the skin and the pulp. And how bitter the stem is. The grape tasting was complemented by an Ohioan wine made from concord grapes.

The bulk of the class was dedicated to "component tasting." Did you ever do that thing in elementary school where you have to make a map of your tongue based on dipping cuetips into sugar water and salt water and bitter water and swabbing it in your mouth? It was like that, but with wine and no little kids going, ewwwwww. We were given a simple base wine (Almaden Mountain Chablis, a white box wine) which had been enhanced with six different flavors. The components were acidity (citric acid), sugar (sucrose), sweetness (glycerine), tannin (... grape tannin), oak (soaked oak chips in the wine), and simulated oxidation (adding dry Fino sherry). Most of the tastes were fairly subtle, but the tannin and the oak were quite strong. Apparently, by the way, if a wine smells like sherry (and thus not like "wine"), it is probably due to an overabundance of acetaldehyde, and means the wine has "gone bad."

The class finished off with an assignment: taste six different wines (three whites and three reds) and try to identify the components in each. The whites were an NV Gazela Vinho Verde (Portugal), a 2005 Reisling Piesporter Michelsberg Spatlese (Germany), and a 2004 Clos du Bois North Coast Chardonnay (California). The reds were a 2004 Milton Park Syrah (Australia), a 2004 Santa Rita Riserva Cabernet Sauvignon (Chile), and a 2004 Louis Drouhin La Foret Pinot Noir. Normally, I shy away from white wines as I have never really liked them, and I usually find even cheap red wines quite potable. I'm also not exactly known for trying new things, but I figure if I'm going to be doing this class, I should try everything.

And so I did. The Vinho Verde, a light fizzy chilled wine, was quite tart; it's main goal in life is to be a refreshing summer wine. The Riesling was sweet and fruity; apparently, wines from colder climates are usually more acidic, but 2005 was an unusually hot season (according to the German sitting across the table from me), which probably explains why this bottle was so sweet. And the Chardonnay ... tasted like oak. And so did the next one. And the one after that. Even after I had some goat cheese on bread, they all tasted like oak. Have you ever been in a wood-panelled sauna? This taste of oak is like that, but consuming your entire head. Even the wines that wouldn't recognize the inside of an oak barrel if they saw it were reeking of oak after the Chardonnay. It's hours later now and I've had ice cream and brushed my teeth multiple times and my nose and sinuses are still asking me what the hell I just put them through.

But at least I know now to shy away from Chardonnays and anything claiming to be oak-intensive ....

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Apparently, I'm a rampaging robot.

I wanted to look something up in a paper I've written, and obviously, finding it on astro-ph is easier than going to a terminal opening it from *gasp* the hard drive, or even worse, standing up and trying to find a paper copy on my desk. At least, this was indisputably clear to me, until I clicked on the convenient PDF button, and instead of being given the PDF, I was told:

Sadly, you do not currently appear to have permission to access http://arxiv.org/pdf/astro-ph/0606460

Mm. So this is amusing. It's also not the same error message you get if you're trying to access a paper that hasn't yet been made public. The page does include a link to their explanation of Access Denied, though:

Accesses from your site have triggered our automatic robot detection system. (Sometimes a block is caused by another user from behind the same proxy.) Blocks are usually removed automatically after about a week.

I sent them an email in response. I said,

I'm not a robot. I am a graduate student.
The meat of their automated reply was—and I paraphrase here—"blah blah blah orange elephants blah blah." They closed with—and this part is a direct quote—:
Message joins 79 other compelling messages current in queue.
Have a pure day.
Hopefully they'll be able to discern the stubtle different between the two worker classes, and I won't be forced to use a mirror site for a week.