Monday, September 6, 2010

Good Internet Monday: NPR's Planet Money

Happy Labor Day. Here's hoping my wife goes into labor. Yeesh.

One thing I've come to enjoy immensely over the past few years is podcasts. I often ride a bus or walk to work, giving me plenty of time to enjoy several different subscriptions. One that I thought I would never subscribe to, or for that matter enjoy so thoroughly, is a financial podcast- NPR's Planet Money.

To be fair, Planet Money is as much a pure financial podcast as Harry Potter is a series of spell books- not at all. Each episode finds a topic, such as the economic state of Jamaica or the status of health care billing and administration, and puts a real face on it by interviewing the people affected by the topic. Concepts that are usually abstract to people who are not deeply involved in them, such as how the Federal Reserve tries to help the economy, are spelled out explicitly and with multiple examples.

One of the best examples is how the crew has explored the housing market crisis by pooling together $1000 to buy a piece of a real toxic asset- a high risk investment package containing thousands of mortgages. The team tracked down the people who are struggling to pay off their mortgages, leading to the "death" of their asset, aptly named "Toxie". As more of the pieces of Toxie go bad, either through foreclosure or bankruptcy, Toxie starts to "die"- that is, the team stops receiving checks that would otherwise pay off their initial investment and, in a healthier economy, yield a profit. The Planet Money staff explains all the ins and outs of how they obtained Toxie, what it contains, and why it is dying so quickly.

The topics covered are broad and varied, ranging from an excellent show concerning the impact of Net Neutrality on the web to "Deep Reads" with economists to deeply examine the current economic situation. Each show is engaging and thought provoking; I highly recommend it

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Constitutional Obfuscation

It has been difficult to dodge politics recently, as the coming election compels candidates to throw their pamphlets in your face at every corner. One particular candidate in New Mexico has recently caught my attention, Republican Tom Mullins. He has achieved this by handing out pocket constitutions along with his various informational fliers (which proudly point out that he is a Christian who will defend the constitution!) Excuse my cynicism, but the more someone touts the founding documents as a campaign tool, the more likely they are to have little to no comprehension as to what they say.

I was able to confirm this today. Tom had taken it upon himself to campaign at a local pancake breakfast that my family and I were attending. He stopped by our table, introduced himself (to me, but not my wife who is nine months pregnant but INVISIBLE!), and gave me the opportunity confirm my suspicions through this short exchange:

Spacecataz: (After reviewing his business card) I've noticed that you've been handing out a lot of constitutions.
Tom: (Notably proud of this) Yes.
Spacecataz: Do you believe that the United States is a christian nation?
Tom: (Again, quite proud) Yes.

At this point, I merely handed his card back to him in an attempt to signal my lack of support. I could have pointed out that the first amendment explicitly prohibits the endorsement of one religion over another; I could have enlightened him to Thomas Jefferson's concept of a wall of separation; I could have, perhaps more aggressively, asked to which Christianity he refers when describing our government.

All of those would have been a waste of our time, however. Again, excuse me for being a cynic, but any hope of Mr. Mullins being an enlightened man who would have provided a productive discussion on such topics goes out the window when one reviews his website.

Friday, August 20, 2010

On the Joys of Being a Computational Physicist

This is true:

It's even better, however, when your code takes days to run. No matter how little you're doing, as long as your code is running, you feel like you're doing something.

Whiskey Tango Friday: PIRANHA!!!

Ladies and gentlemen, we have our next "Snakes on a Plane":

Yes, the fish actually made a whirlpool to suck victims into their waiting jaws. I'd be stupid to miss this blockbuster!!!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Bad news and worse news.

A piece of ice has broken free from a Greenlandic glacier and is floating free around the arctic ocean. When I say "piece", I mean a glacier that covers 3 times more surface area than the island of Manhattan. It is so large that its momentum makes the possibility of slowing it down... well, impossible.

The NPR article above places this event in the context of global warming- something that is difficult to avoid given that temperatures in the arctic have climbed 4.5 degrees since 1970 and this is the largest glacier to break free from Greenland since 1962. The implications are staggering- the Greenlandic ice sheet (which I have visited on 8 separate occasions) contains enough water to raise sea levels by 20 feet. However, the writing maintains an even hand by pointing out that it is difficult to directly tie the glacier's newly found freedom to global climate change.

I would like you to contrast this story with the following set of clips taken during the peculiarly strong snow storms that occurred in our nation's capital this past winter:

Get it? Because it's snowing on Al Gore's book, global warming is a hoax! As the description of the video points out, there's no mention that the book points out that such acute weather events could indeed be driven by global climate change. The reporters also fail to mention that while this is going on, we were in the midst of the second warmest January since 1931 (on a global scale, not in D.C.).

The stark contrast between these two reporting styles is breathtaking. The Fox News reporters are wallowing in the information they are withholding from their viewers. How could anyone dependent on this news source possibly develop an informed opinion or make an informed decision?

What is Fox News saying now? We've been in the middle of one of the warmest summers in recorded history, with a phenomenal heat wave wreaking havoc in Russia. And now, a massive piece of the Greenlandic ice sheet has broke free.

No, seriously. What are they saying? I don't watch that crap. Please let me know.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Good Internet Monday: SMBC

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (WARNING- NOT SAFE FOR WORK) has quickly rose from what I would consider a "meh" comic to a regular laugh-fest. If you are a fan of dark humor and nerd jokes, I insist that you add it to your repertoire.

Be sure to check out the SMBC Theater. It's hysterical. Exhibit A:

I rest my case.

Keyboard Cleaning.

While cleaning my overly-gross keyboard, I realized the patterns in the gunk buildup tell me which keys I press most often.

Or which of my fingers are the dirtiest.

Or both.


Thursday, August 5, 2010

Neutrality, Neutrality

I praised Google back when they stood up to China (though they eventually stepped back), so it's only fair to criticize them here. Google is working with Verizon ISP to deliver content from sites such as YouTube to Verizon internet subscribers faster than other content (commentary here).

This is bad. First, it sets the precedent that ISPs can select which information gets to you the fastest, and, as appears to be the case here, raise prices if you want a plan that gets you this selective speed up. Imagine calling up Comcast to get a cable internet plan, but now you have to choose if you want a premium plan (that comes at a premium) that gets you YouTube at speeds that make it bearable or not. Secondly, it allows ISPs to exercise control over how information on the web is delivered to you -- if at all. This is plain dangerous, as control of information and knowledge is equivalent to control of the population that requires this knowledge in order to make decisions and self govern.

Is this really a tyrannical power grab by Verizon and Google? No, they just want to increase profits. However, it is a step in the wrong direction, especially by Google, who has been fighting for Net Neutrality for some time. The greatest aspect of the web is its openness. When ISPs can filter it as they want, we lose that freedom.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Charting Astronomers


*snort* hrmph! wha? Whozzere? Oh, sorry. I was sleeping for a bit. Sorry about that. It happens from time to time. Usually during a busy/stressful period I tend to let such things as blogs fall into neglect, then drag my feet when it comes to getting them running again.

In any case, what better time to get started than during a rather well publicized space weather storm (though I will get to that eventually.)

First, a rather neat picture I found on Phil Plait's excellent blog that charts astronomers' careers based on publications and "fame" (as calculated by a Google search.)

It is remarkable that, even though he dedicated so much time to public outreach and education, Carl Sagan could still be involved in so much science. Then again, these are not first author papers (as Phil Plait admits to having only two of those), so it is likely that he was put on many either as part of a spacecraft mission PI (primary investigator) or just to beef up paper credentials.

Incidentally, and mostly to satisfy my own curiosity, I would fall in the main career sequence/dark astronomer range with about 15 papers (four first author, one single author- suck it, Plait!) but likely very low on the media impact scale. My name is more common that I would care to admit, so my Google results are quite muddy. Additionally, I am NOT an astronomer, but a space scientist/plasma physicist, so the paper scale may not be weighted equally.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Round 1 Results and Thoughts

The first round started as expected but was full of some interesting surprises. Let's take a look.

According to the Consensus Big Board, my average of as many top-100 player boards as I can find, Green Bay had the biggest value pick, grabbing Bryan Bulaga at 23 for a 13.2 spot value. There was a lot of reaching going on in the first round, most notably by Jacksonville (reaching 47.2 spots Tyson Alualu) and Houston (Kareem Jackson, a 22 spot reach). Denver picking Tebow was a 31.1 spot reach, but this one is tricky because of Tebow's strange throwing motion, non-pro experience, but immense intangibles.

Biggest values still on the board: Clausen (13), Sergio Kindle (25.3), and Taylor Mays (yuck! 27.5)

What about Detroit? Suh was the consensus #1 player, so grabbing him at 2 was a slight value. Best was a slight reach, 5.4 spots, but they traded up to grab him. Best was clearly a gamble; if he pays off, Mayhew will look like the greatest anti-Millen ever to grace this planet. I like the pick but am nervous at the same time. I guess we'll see.

Here's the overall first round rankings. Remember that the consensus board ranks each pick using a BPA mentality. It doesn't necessarily mean anything about the quality of each pick but indicates how each pick compares to the overall talent board. Jax may wind up looking like geniuses, but for now they own the Al Davis Draft Award for 2010.

Remember: positive numbers are Values, negative numbers are Reaches.

1 St_Louis == Sam Bradford -2.8
2 Detroit == Ndamukong Suh 0.89999999999999
3 Tampa_Bay == Gerald McCoy 0.2
4 Washington == Trent Williams -3
5 Kansas_City == Eric Berry 1.1
6 Seattle == Russell Okung 1
7 Cleveland == Joe Haden -3.6
8 Oakland == Rolando McClain -1.8
9 Buffalo == CJ Spiller -1.4
10 Jacksonville == Tyson Alualu -47.2
11 San_Francisco == Anthony Davis -6.7
12 San_Diego == Ryan Mathews -15.1
13 Philadelphia == Brandon Graham -5.1
14 Seattle == Earl Thomas -1.6
15 NY_Giants == Jason Pierre-Paul -3.6999999999999
16 Tennessee == Derrick Morgan 6.5
17 San_Francisco == Mike Iupati -3.9000000000001
18 Pittsburgh == Maurkice Pouncey -10.5
19 Atlanta == Sean Weatherspoon -5.5
20 Houston == Kareem Jackson -22.0999999999999
21 Cincinnati == Jermaine Gresham -2.3
22 Denver == Demaryius Thomas -9.6
23 Green_Bay == Bryan Bulaga 13.2
24 Dallas == Dez Bryant 9.4
25 Denver == Tim Tebow -31.1
26 Arizona == Dan Williams 10.2
27 New_England == Devin McCourty -0.5
28 Miami == Jared Odrick 1.5
29 NY_Jets == Kyle Wilson 6
30 Detroit == Jahvid Best -5.4
31 Indianapolis == Jerry Hughes -4
32 New_Orleans == Patrick Robinson -9.8

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Consensus Draft Ranking 2010

As I did last year, I will be again producing a "Consensus Draft Ranking". This is where I produce a consensus top 100 player board by averaging as many top 100 boards as I can get my hands on, then use this list to rate how much of a reach or value each pick was (throughout the first 100, of course.)

This year, with my software already in place, I will be Tweeting the results live as they roll in. Check it out at

When all is said and done, I'll post the overall results here.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Space Weather, Ho!

We've finally had a solar storm! Ooooooh! Data! Plots! Explanations!

It started yesterday and continued today, as seen in the Space Weather Prediction Center's real-time Kp index. Kp is a single number that characterizes magnetospheric activity through ground based measurements of the Earth's magnetic field. It ranges from 0 to 9, 0 being nothing; 9 being doomsday. 4 or 5 is what I would call "stormy" or "disturbed" conditions. We hit that yesterday and reached a Kp of 7 early this morning.

It should be pointed out that while Kp was high, the "Disturbance Storm Time", or Dst index, was not very high (more accurately, it wasn't very low.) Dst is a rough measure of the amount of energy being deposited into the magnetosphere; the lower the number, the more energy there will be. This storm racked up a Dst of -40; a good storm will hit -100 or more.

I started receiving electron flux warnings from SWPC yesterday afternoon. This is a warning that the radiation belt electron flux (or how many electrons pass through a certain area per second) surpassed 1000 cm^-3*str^-1*s^-1. These are "killer electrons", or electrons with enough energy to penetrate the outer shielding of spacecraft and cause electric charge buildup on internal circuits. While the 1000 mark is one of SWPC's warning levels, the exact "danger zone" for electron flux depends on each satellite and is rarely well known.

FYI- based on the plot quality and fonts used, SWPC is clearly using IDL to generate their output. They should switch to a more modern language *coughpythoncough*.
**EDIT** It was pointed out, rightfully so, that only a short time ago I was a die hard IDL fan. As such, this comment is a bit hypocritical. Whoops.

Let's take a look at what could be driving this activity. The first key item to look at is Interplanetary Magnetic Field (IMF, or the Sun's magnetic field that is locked in the solar wind and carried to Earth). Specifically, the Z-component or "Bz". When IMF Bz is negative, the IMF can couple to the Earth's magnetic field to deliver energy to the magnetosphere system. The coupling method is called magnetic reconnection; I'll get to this later... eventually. The other things to notice are a jump in both solar wind density and Earthward velocity. Both increases cause the magnetospheric system to be driven harder, which we saw in the electron flux and in the Kp index. I'll need to see more data to figure out what kind of solar storm this is, but right now I'd guess that this is a high-speed-stream event.

I'll follow up on this storm and let you know if anything really fun happens with it.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Best Internet Thursday

Welcome to a new feature of this blog:
Mondays are typically reserved for examples of good internets; Thursdays are now roped off for the best the internet has to offer. Today's example: Conservapedia!

Has there ever been such an accurate aggregation of knowledge put forth by man? Me thinks not. And if you don't believe me, listen to this: Conservapedia has banned more IP addresses than the total number of users and the number of updates to the site combined. Why would they do this? As Andy Schlafly, creator of the site, says himself in this interview with a hard line reporter, it's to ensure that the site is only changed by "the best the public has to offer." Now that's integrity.

Here's an example of the upstanding excellence of Conservapedia via its article on Climategate.
Picture 1:

Caption: Al Gore on CNN's American Morning, December 9, 2009, in which he stated that snow is melting from the polar icecaps and glaciers at a rapid rate, and that the "global warming deniers" manipulated the emails from CRU out of context.

Picture 2:

Caption: Image from NASA showing a record snowfall in the western United States on December 9, 2009, contradicting Gore's claim. (NASA)

So next time Al Gore talks about the ice caps melting, just whip out the image of snow in the western United States while shouting "YA-BURNT!"

It's this type of hard line truth that makes Conservapedia the number one source for accurate knowledge in the world.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Computational Science and Reproducibility - Part 1

When developing numerical computer models with which to do science, an easy trap to fall into is creating an experimental environment that makes it very difficult to reproduce results from an earlier time. This problem is articulated very well by the people over at ArsTechnica, but given my every day experience with this challenge, I thought I would share my perspective here.

Depending on the model's complexity and the rate of development, it can become challenging to reproduce a simulation that was performed two years ago or one that you performed just two hours ago. This may sound surprising, but those who depend on such models understand how rapidly these situations arise. All of these things (and more) can change between one run and a subsequent, seemingly identical run:
  1. The source code changes in a seemingly innocuous way. A change for efficiency or to improve the appearance of the source can lead to this. If changes in the input parameters of the code must be changed through the source, this can often lead to changes in the results that are difficult to diagnose in the future.
  2. The input data changes. Many codes require a plethora of input data, and these files are often swapped around to see how different sources create different results It's easy to lose track of which files gave which results. Even when one is careful, small changes in the input can create large changes in output. Once, I updated some files that listed satellite positions so that they contained additional significant digits. Such a change sounds harmless, but the one one-hundreth change in the satellite's position produced drastically different results!
  3. The settings have changed. Grid resolution, numerical scheme settings, input parameters, smoothing and blending factors, activation of additional capabilities, and more - all of these items can be changed from run to run. As a code matures, uncountable combinations of settings are possible. Trying to reconstruct the right settings to reproduce a set of results is not an enviable task.
  4. The code was run on a different computer. Changing compilers, CPU architecture, or linking to different external libraries are all things that can change results- sometimes drastically. This problem frequently manifests itself when care is not taken to ensure the proper precision of floating point real numbers throughout a code. Various compilers handle this differently, and numbers that you thought were double precision can become single precision without warning.
  5. Breaking a long run into several parts can also change results. When simulations take days to weeks (even on super computing systems), it is commonplace to develop a system that allows you to save progress and restart the simulation later. Care must be taken to ensure that stopping and restarting yields the same answer as an uninterrupted simulation.
  6. The code gives different results when run in parallel versus serial mode. Large computer simulations can be sped up drastically through parallel computation- that is breaking the problem up into smaller parts and spreading the work over several computers. If not implemented correctly, there can be changes in the solution when switching from serial (one computer) to parallel mode. Things can get trickier if there are changes when the number of CPUs used increases (though the code was always used in parallel).
When you lose reproducibility, others can no longer independently verify your work- a key tenet of well-performed science. Furthermore, you can not return to an experiment for further analysis and open questions about your conclusions will persist. In the best case scenario, this leads to inconveniences in research and time lost when you are required to start from scratch. In the worst case scenarios, failure to reproduce results can strip you of your credibility.

So how do you avoid such problems? In my next post, I will outline steps that the space science modeling community frequently takes to overcome the pitfalls listed above.

Monday, March 8, 2010


Valve Confirms Games, Steam for Macs in April

With the announcement of Portal 2, I was starting to feel a bit weepy about permanently ditching Windows several years ago. I loved HL2 and Portal, and spent more time than I care to admit playing CS:S. This announcement means that I won't have to kludge together a Linux solution if I ever feel the gamin' itch again. It is a good day.


The commercials annoyed me, it's true. And I admit that at one point I declared that I would never buy another phone unless it was an iPhone. But I began eating those sentiments double-plus quick when I saw it in action. And, it's on Verizon, to whom I am very loyal thanks to their customer service that has bent over backwards for me on several occasions.

So now, I am the proud owner of a Motorola Droid.
More surprisingly, I've gone from being a Mac person to an Android person. Big time.

This weekend, I used the "My Tracks" application (free!) to follow my progress as I snowboarded down my first black diamond trail. I then uploaded the map to Google Maps while on the lifts. Be sure to click on the red way point marker to see my elevation, max speed, and other stats.

View First Black in a larger map

Android users can find the app here:

or learn more about it here.

I think I'll start posting more Android-esque items. This phone (and operating system) is pretty darn cool.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Time Lapse Recession

Great animation of the recession as unemployment rate by county over the entire nation can be found here:

It seems to me that more and more of these types of demonstrations are beginning to surface. Has anyone else noticed that the U.S. is starting to feel more like a case study and less like a nation?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The 3rd Reviewer.

Waiting for me in my inbox this morning:

There's a good amount of truth to this satire (despite the rather tired "HITLER REACTS TO :blank: LOLZ" genre). The peer review process can be an absolute gauntlet- reasonably and unreasonably so. There are cases where a reviewer asks for ridiculous changes or additional work. Conversely, there are times when such requests are completely justified. On the other side of the coin, the authors have already put in an intense amount of work to produce their manuscript and want to be done with it once and for all! Even though the additional experiments may be warranted and not so burdensome, the scientists may be loathe to do so because, in their minds, this work is finished. I have been guilty of this myself. Finally, when only one of the three reviewers is requesting the additional effort, it is doubly frustrating. It feels like the odd man out is just trying to be difficult compared to the others.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What Does the U.S. Manufacture?

Computers, but apparently not for long:

"The trend for low-priced computers will last for the coming years," said Shih, according to the AFP's quote of a Commercial Times newspaper interview. "But U.S. computer makers just don't know how to put such products on the market... US computer brands may disappear over the next 20 years, just like what happened to U.S. television brands."

Excuse the anecdotal evidence, but a town that relied on jobs provided by a local television assembly plant was featured in a documentary concerning the impact Walmart has on U.S. economics. The cheaper, foreign made televisions acquired and sold by Walmart led to the collapse of the American plant. The freshly laid off workers in this small town found low paying jobs at their local -- wait for it -- Walmart.

A brief scan through the comments on this story as reported by Tom's Hardware suggests that the readers don't believe that this will happen. They cite higher quality products from companies such as HP versus their foreign counterparts and note, correctly, that the above prediction comes from foreign rival Acer. I am not so optimistic, however. When is the last time that Americans, en masse, valued quality over low prices?

Snow Shoes, Heras!

I haven't been on a good hike for a long while. I finally broke my dry spell this past weekend with the help of brand-spankin' new snow shoes! I took them up the local ski hill twice already; it was a fantastic hike. Click on the way points for pictures, pop the map open in a new window for a better view:

I'm going to try to go very early this Friday to get some sunrise pictures; my next goal is to take my snowboard with me so that I can get down quickly.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Good Internet Monday - Google

Yeah, it's Wednesday. I know that. This one's a good one, though:

In a nutshell: There was a recent attempt to hack gmail accounts of prominent human rights activists in China coming from China. Based on Google's investigations, the attack was most likely by the Chinese government. In retaliation, Google will no longer be filtering searches on, and may pull out of China all together.

We'll have to see if Google actually follows through with these threats, but if so, this is fantastic. The Chinese government has been horribly restrictive about what information circulates from the internet to citizens. By no longer supporting these actions, Google can deal a major blow to censorship in one of the most populous nations in the world.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Whiskey Tango Friday: Stand for Christmas!

Here's a post-Christmas WTF link: Stand for Christmas. It's a collection of people who are butthurt by stores not using enough Christmas decorations, using non-Christmas decorations, saying "happy holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas", do not have a manger scene on display, etc. ad nauseum. They call out the worst perpetrators of such heinous actions, rank the stores, and vow to boycott the top (or is it bottom?) of their anti-Christmas list. It's kind of like reverse Santa.

In a way, this is fine. Everyone has the right to be butthurt, and to try to take action either to relieve the butthurt or to prevent future butthurt. But it seems to me that these people have some things backwards, as evidenced by the testimonials. I focus on the Walmart section, because... do I need to explain that?

[...I] proceeded to ask her why was there no Christmas music playing. She stated that 'some' folks were offended by it & I said 'what if I am offended by it not being played?"

The answer is simple: don't shop there if the absence of "White Christmas" is so unbearable that you are compelled to protest.

The answer is also not so simple.
I like to think that it begins with the irony that is clearly lost on this person. If Christmas isn't about buying crap for everyone while hearing the same four songs sang by 200 different "artists" 24/7, then why would this bother our modest, God-fearing Christian? Apparently, defending Christmas involves the proliferation of the most shallow aspects of the holiday at large retailers (as opposed to, y'know, church.) If I wanted to do the most damage I could to this holiday in terms of its perceived meaning and the number of people who celebrate it in a religious manner, I would not employ a campaign of mass censorship. Rather, I would do that which has already happened and is strongly endorsed by "Stand for Christmas": ensure constant over-stimulation by means of watered-down imagery, sound, and commercialization. Jesus is now secondary (or tertiary or worse) in this nearly-secularized charade*.

Given this person's insistence that their particular beliefs and rituals must be respected by the establishment (under penalty of offending someone?), it is an easy extrapolation to guess their response if anyone else were to receive the same treatment. They would become greatly offended if any sort of Islamic, Jewish, Mormon, etc. etc. holiday were to be paid the same respect. How is it someone could expect such special treatment with blatant disregard for others?

We are turning into a secular European country which is exactly what our founders fought to escape. Wake up America before you lose everything you hold dear.

Oh, that's right... these people are batshit insane**.

*Not that I don't enjoy it immensely. It's a great time to see family, eat too much, and binge on buying and receiving presents.

**To be fair, there are a number of very reasonable posters on the site. For example, this person seems to have reasonable expectations given both the number of people who do celebrate, yet keeping in mind the diversity of the populous:
I have no problem with employees saying "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings" since they don't have any idea which a customer celebrates. I do have problems if a store PROHIBITS the use of "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Hannukah" since we're spending money on gifts for THOSE specific holidays. Hello, if a customer is buying Christmas cards, Christmas tree, Christmas decorations, it's a safe bet they celebrate Christmas. Thanks to Wal-Mart for being inclusive to their customers rather than excluding customers who celebrate Christmas.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Hey, I know that guy!

National Geographic listed their top ten space discoveries of 2009. Number 7 goes to the Mars Phoenix lander, which discovered liquid water upon landing. Co-Investigator Nilton Renno is a University of Michigan AOSS-department scientist, and his (ex-)graduate student, Manish Mehta, performed the experiments that demonstrated that the lander would likely uncover ice by blowing away dust during touch down.

Manish was a fellow grad student during my time at Michigan; congratulations to him and the entire group.

Travelling Blues- Christmas Edition

My family traveled back to Michigan for the holidays, but it was not an easy trip. We were on 5 different flights, and something went wrong on every single one.

Our first leg from Albuquerque to Minneapolis took off on time and even landed- in Albuquerque. Mechanical problems killed the flight, and we were re-booked to go through Atlanta and then to Detroit the next morning. Give Delta credit: they gave us hotel and meal vouchers, then sent out apology letters and 10,000 bonus miles before we had a chance to complain.

The next morning, our plane had to de-ice. This takes a long time in ABQ. We landed in Atlanta 15 minutes before our next flight, which is when you are required to be on board so they can close the aircraft doors. We sprinted from terminal to terminal and then to our gate to find a large crowd. The flight had boarded, but onto the wrong type of plane! They had to clear the plane, find the correct one, and re-board. This gaffe allowed us to make our flight, which was a relief. Bonus surprise: our luggage made it, too.

The trip home had its share of fail, too: it took an hour to load the baggage after the doors had been shut. Another sprint found us on the next flight alright, but this time our baggage didn't make it. Delta told us it would arrive between 11 AM and 11 PM the next day. It showed up at midnight (note: the delivery company was a seperate entity contracted by Delta.)

It is both easy and tough to place all of the blame on Delta. Easy because the scapegoating feels right, but tough to pin them down completely. It was the worst time of year to fly, the flights were exceptionally crowded, and a bit of snowy weather in ABQ didn't help. We never had to argue to get flights changed or luggage delivered. In a way, these hangups were to be expected. On the other hand, when there are five consecutive screw ups, ranging from minor to major, you have to wonder if the experience is anomalous or systemic.

Anyone else have recent bad experiences? Opinions on the matter? I would love to hear them all.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Good Internet Monday - Scale of the Solar System

Christmas Vacation != Actual Vacation. Details forthcoming.

Anyway, here's a link that's been sitting in a Firefox tab for some time. I either stole it from Pharyngula or Bad Astronomy; I can't remember which (those are good blogs that you should be reading if you're not already.) It's the solar system correctly scaled. Be prepared to do some hardcore scrolling to find the planets.

Demonstrations like these are important. It's hard to grasp the vastness and emptiness of our solar system. In a presentation about the feasibility of traveling to Uranus, I learned that the largest barrier was simply the distance to reach the planet. It would take 21 years to arrive there. Think about that. If your child was born on the day the mission launched, you could legally (in the U.S.) share a champagne toast with him or her as they would be celebrating their 21st birthday.

Note: to zip directly to a particular planet, add #planetname to the end of the URL.