Wednesday, October 31, 2007

δ Carina: A Narrative

So the new kitty's name is now officially δ Carina. You may call her δ, Carina, or Carrie for short, but she probably won't respond to any of them. The choice of δ Carina as a name, in retrospect, was incredibly obvious. I had originally been trying to decide between Cassiopeia and Carina (and so either Cassia or Carrie for short), but for such a hyper little hairball, Cassiopeia seems a little to sophisticated. So Carina it is, but the all-too-obvious nickname/association with Carina is Eta Carina, the stupidly massive old cranky variable star in the constellation Carina. And my little bundle of skittish cord-chewing energy is neither massive nor old enough to be an η Carina, so the obvious other choice was Epsilon Carina (since in the land of mathematics ε is generally small but nonzero quantity). But as it turns out, eps Car is a binary star, and since I've got one cat and not two (though, seriously, ε Carina A and ε Carina B would be awesome names for sibling kitties), that was Right Out. So, in the spirit of taking the limit of small delta and epsilon-delta balls, δ Carina became the new name nominee; the only remaining question was: what kind of star is δ Car?

Well, as it turns out, there is no star δ Carina. The Bayer designation of stars names stars in a constellation as Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, etc. from brightest to, er, less bright; so, for instance, Alpha Centauri is the brightest star in the Centaurus constellation. So how can a consellation have no fourth brightest (i.e., Delta) star? Glad you asked. See, back in the day, Ptolemy made a list of the 48 constellations in the sky. One of the largest was Argo Navis, the Southern Ship. So there was an Alpha Argo Navis, a Beta Argo Navis, etc. But when the constellation got broken up in 1752 into Vela (the sail), Carina (the keel), and Puppis (the poop deck [hehe]), astronomers, being astronomrs and thus logical in all ways, decided to also split up the stars and keep the Greek lettering instead of, you know, re-assigning the names to the actual nth brightest stars in each new constellation. So, α and β went to Carina, but γ and δ are in Vela—leaving the name δ Carina free to be assigned to my new 9-week-old clingy attacking striped meowing fuzzball.

And so, as she attacks my hands and legs and arms and keyboard and oh my god I hope she's going to get tired out so I can get some sleep tonight, I present to you δ Carina, The First Day: A Narrative.

Oh no!! A new place! What do I do? I'm all trembling and scared.
Cords! And a ball! How do I choose??
Shoes!!!! My favorites! How did you know??
OK time to read some but how do I choose?
That was lots of hard work now it's naptime.
Whoa. I fell off that was scary. I'll hide here and let Athena the Raccoon protect me.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Kitty, Part 1

I got a kitty today!! The apartment I was living in for the last two years did not allow pets (something about undergrads being irresponsible creeps), but now I'm in a pet-friendly place and in town for a while, so ... I will do my best to not let this devolve into a cat blog, but first, there's this post which has been sitting in draft for for almost a year ...

Why I need a kitty:

Because my at-home vocabulary is too large:
Because I need another website to check obsessively.
Because traveling frequently will be just that much easier.
So I can take silly pictures and attach dorky captions to them.

Also, KITTY!!!

Monday, October 22, 2007

Turning a Sphere Inside Out

Ever wanted to see what it looks like when a sphere gets turned inside out, or simply know what is meant when people talk about turning closed surfaces (like a sphere) inside out? Hat tip to Scott Aaronson for this video:

As it turns out, I actually recognize several of the intermediate steps (for a few of the algorithms they show) as neat-o sculptures that often show up near math departments.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Dumbledore is Gay, and Authority is Not to be Trusted

So tonight was The Night with J. K. Rowling. I'm pretty tired right now, and perhaps rather inebriated, so I'm going to keep this short. No promises on a longer post later, but we'll see. If you haven't actually read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, well ... at least one horrid spoiler follow.

The obvious highlight of tonight's event was the question-and-answer session. The questions were all picked ahead of time, and were largely plot-centric (which meant that questions relevant to writing process/style such as the one we submitted were right out). As much of the internet already knows by now (I'm such a slacker, going out for chocolates and wine afterwards instead of writing a blog post immediately), one of the most interesting answers was in response to a question about Dumbledore's past. A general meme with the questions being asked was "I'm such a big fan, your books have had such a big impact on my life, here's my question." The person (a young teenage girl, if I remember correctly) who asked about Dumbledore actually phrased these compliments fairly well, talking about how the books had taught her a lot about relationships. She then asked, since Dumbledore is such a champion of the power of love, "did Dumbledore ever find love?" Rowling's response was essentially, "Well, since you've been so honest with me ... I always saw Dumbledore as gay." This was followed, of course, by a huge applause and lots of cheering; and, of course, the idea that this wonderful (even if fictional) role model that so many people have come to know and love is *gasp* not straight is fantastic. As far as the Harry Potter plotline is concerned, however, it is also relevant: apparently Rowling thinks of Dumbledore as having been in love with Grindelwald, which is why he was so devastated when he realized Grindelwald's true nature... and then was so reluctant to confront him later in life. Another of Rowling's comments on this revelation: "Wow, if I'd known people would be so excited by this, I would have mentioned it sooner," and "Oh my god, the fanfiction now."

I found another exchange to be particularly interesting not so much because it was enlightening, but because Rowling delivered a particularly juicy quote. The question had to do with whether or not the Death Eaters were influenced from history by the (obvious choice of) the Nazis. Rowling basically kind of avoided the actual question, but she did say, "You should question authority and you should not assume that the establishment or the press tells you all of the truth ... the entire series is a prolonged argument against intolerance and bigotry." Very well said, Ms. Rowling.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

“This is because taking the derivative of something makes it redder.”

Hat tip to Blake:

Also, I totally want a Derivative Machine now, especially if I can run it backwards!

Friday, October 12, 2007

Fine. I'll do a Harry Potter post.

In about a week—at 7p.m. EDT Friday, October 19, to be precise—I'll be in New York City to spend some quality 2000-on-1 time with the one and only J. K. Rowling. Apparently this is the first time she has toured the US since 2000; the stint in NYC will be the only not-for-just-kids appearence on her jam-packed four stop tour. Now, I don't particularly consider myself a Harry Potter "fan" ... you may have noticed the lack of zomghp7!!!$!!%!!!! posts here back in July. I do, however, enjoy the books (even if I don't actually own all seven yet—I'm holding out for a boxed set of paperback copies of the UK adult version). They are enjoyable to read, and the world Rowling has created is simultaneously entertaining and interesting. And, yes, I picked my copy of the Deathly Hallows up at midnight the night of July 20, and had it read by dinnertime that night.

Interjection: Just now, as I was writing this post, a friend messaged me and started talking about the band "Draco and the Malfoys," who are the foil to "Harry and the Potters." I am now disturbed.

So the reason I am bringing all of this up is that I need help. See, we've been told that there will probably be some sort of question-and-answer session at the event, but everything I can possibly think of wanting to know that could be gleaned from a one-question-one-answer situation is along the lines of, "So if the Potters were all alone the night that James and Lily died, the how did Dumbledore hear about it before everyone else in order to send Hagrid over there, and how come it took so long for Hagrid to arrive with Harry if he was one of the first ones to know?" This kind of technical nitpicking is right out for this particular venue, but I haven't got any better ideas.

So: if you could ask J. K. Rowling one question, what would it be?

Update (10/16/07): It's been pointed out to me that Rowling is a rich person. Wouldn't she like to donate money to astronomy like all of the other cool rich people?

Update (10/17/07): We just submitted this question to the website:

You've been writing this series for 17 years. How difficult was it to keep the style consistent over all that time, even when you as a writer surely must have evolved considerably?

Monday, October 01, 2007

Clouds, Clouds and More Clouds

I'm in the middle of a six night observing run at the MDM 2.4m telescope on Kitt Peak near Tucson, Arizona. This evening threatening clouds at sundown turned into enough lightning at the horizon to do a lightning shutdown—that is to say, after not bothering to open the dome and try to look at anything, I had the pleasure of shutting down the half dozen computers that run the telescope and its instruments, etc. as well as their UPS backup power supply. I've heard plenty of talk before of how annoying it is to be an astronomer on a cloud-covered mountain, but I always thought the irritation arose mainly from the lack of ability to take data, when in reality it's more like an irritation arising from the lack of anything to do. The last few nights have been cloudy off and on, but mostly with the patchy kinds of clouds that tease you as you chase for holes between them, or like last night when everything was beautiful and clear and we were efficiently going from one target to the next until around 1a.m. when in less than fifteen minutes the humidity rose by 10% and the sky became a thick blanket of white and we had to close up for the remainder of the night.

The run I am on is for "queue observing." The basic idea behind queue observing is that if a bunch of people have objects they'd like to have looked at once a night for a period of time, then they can combine resources and take turns observing all of the objects. In this case, "resources" are "graduate students who feel like getting some observing experience and perhaps their names on a paper or two." The main part of this queue observing run is to take spectra of supernovae for SDSS. SDSS is good enough at finding supernovae that, while they're looking (i.e., in the fall) there is always a list of supernovae to observe, and, unlike other kinds of transient objects (like gamma ray bursts), supernovae are generally bright for about two weeks.

This 2.4m telescope is, I believe, the largest in the world that does not have a regular night operator. That is, larger telescopes have a staff of people whose job it is to actually run the telescope: they open the dome and turn on the instruments and take the calibration images and make sure the telescope is pointed in the correct direction with high enough precision and is nicely focused and that everything is working nicely. Not so here. Here it's just me (well, there was another graduate student here the last three nights, but no staff at night), and so when it's actually safe to, you know, turn on the telescope, then I get to make sure that all of those things happen. The first night or two is usually hell because there are so many things to remember and it takes a while to completely nightshift and get used to the higher altitude and lower humidity; tonight is hell because there isn't anything to do and I didn't get up until 4pm so it's not like I can "just go to sleep."

Well, actually I did bring some DVDs from Netflix with me. I've already watched a disc of Lost and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (I've only recently started watching both shows). Seriously, all alone in the dark on an empty quiet mountain... I'm now surprisingly jumpy. And I'm not liking the forecast of it not clearing up until Tuesday night.