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 " 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.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Nothing to Say

Absolutely nothing has struck my fancy enough in the last week to make me want to write about it. Perhaps I'm going through a phase of abnormally high standards: usually spending a morning trying to convince my office computer that, no really, it's okay, you can play a CD without throwing up and making loud ch-ch-ch sounds like a CD skipping that can be heard halfway down the hall (even though there isn't, you know, a CD in there anymore) would be enough to have me type out a post. Last weekend I had dinner with a girl I was best friends with in middle school, and apparently we've been living in the same city now for over a year without even knowing it, but there still wasn't anything there interesting enough to say anything about. I had some very tasty wine Monday night, but eh, it seems I just haven't been in the mood to say anything about that either. I had to go into a church on Tuesday and practice my hand-eye coordination with a touchscreen, but the results are still not in: the incumbent Republican U.S. Representative Pryce leads by ~3000 votes, but there are still ~10,000 absentee and ~10,000 provisional ballots to be considered. But that's okay, because the "Election Can Wait Til After Football." Good to know Ohio has its priorities in order ... I don't like blogging about politics anyhow, but Jim Talent did lose me a door prize. We had a map of Ohio with the 18 districuts outlined on it, and it took me days to get all of the red ink off my hands. My first published paper is supposed to show up on the Journal website Any Day Now (tm), but hasn't yet; I've been putting off writing up a summary my mother could understand since June. I saw Stranger than Fiction this afternoon, and it was quite good. If you like to laugh, go see it. I'd say more, but I don't like reading reviews of movies I haven't seen, so I certainly won't write a review of a movie most people reading this haven't seen yet. Emma Thompson's character has writer's block, but seeing as how I'm not trying to come up with ways to kill someone, I can't really use her muses as my own. I could go on and on, but I'd rather write and you'd rather read about something rather than how I can't come up with anything interesting. So to my three regular readers: what would you like to see me babble about?

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
About the Truth be true,
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
About a universe
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
Could feel at home astraddle
An ever expanding saddle?

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


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: