Friday, December 30, 2011

Reason #100: NASA

At 4:21 PM EST on New Year's Eve, NASA's GRAIL-A probe will enter into orbit around the moon after a commute of more than three months. About a day later, another probe, cleverly named GRAIL-B, will begin its own orbit nearby. Both probes will then be gradually maneuvered and sped up until they are evenly circling the moon's poles about every two hours.

As the probes methodically pass over every bit of the moon's surface, their speeds will fluctuate constantly as a natural effect of the moon's variable gravity field (caused by craters, mountains, etc). These fluctuations will themselves lead to fluctuations in the distance between the two probes. And kind of like a pair of 3D glasses, it is this distance, after all that has been accomplished, that NASA will be measuring in order to create a precise map of the moon's entire gravity field, telling us all sorts of stuff about its composition both on and below the surface. This entire project will have been carried off at a cost of $496 million, or less than two days in Afghanistan.

This would be enough, I think, to serve as today's reason all on its own. But since it's Space Friday (which I'm now comfortable declaring to be an Official Thing), and my 100th entry, I think I should go on a little.

You see, yesterday it was announced that China has its own plans to go to the moon by the end of the decade. But not like the GRAIL probes - we're talking boots on ground.

I've never been the type to value or devalue human accomplishments based solely on their nation of origin, so this is great news purely on its own merit and I'm happy to promote it as such. But even from a jingoistic, pro-NASA standpoint, this is wonderful, because if America really wants to be seen as a superpower again, nothing would get our asses in gear like another space race.

Our problem lately, after all, isn't one of not seeming powerful enough. Nothing says power like around one thousand military bases on foreign soil. What makes a true superpower, to me, isn't military strength, or even general influence - it's leadership. What made the 50's and 60's America's "Golden Age" wasn't everybody being afraid of us, it was everybody wanting to be us.

Military dominance comes at a financial cost greater than even our loftiest ambitions for space travel--as I'm always quick to point out by comparing how much NASA missions cost compared to Afghanistan--and comes with no added inspirational value, at least not for the rest of the world. But when we got to the moon first, it was an accomplishment for all of mankind, and all of mankind saw it as such.

Again, I have no great personal need for America to be #1 at everything, and indeed, even something as comparably mundane as the GRAIL mission can play a role in educating and inspiring young people to get into science and math, but imagine what an entire new generation of space nerds could grow up to do with everything that we've accomplished already. Better yet - imagine what the current generation of Chinese children will in fact grow up to do because of their government's current plans. And think about, if China's "beating" us already, how much worse it will be when their boom generation of scientists, engineers, and astronomers goes up against another American generation of...what? Mortgage brokers?

In a broader sense, this kind of thing is what the federal government is for - what this blog is really about; the things that people can't do on their own, but that they should feel privileged to buy into. Who else is going to build the bridges, roads, and dams? Who's going to provide for the elderly (or anyone, for that matter) when they can no longer provide for themselves?

Anybody in America is free to buy a shotgun and a deadbolt, and look out for nothing but their own. But are we great because of that, or because we're more than that?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Reason #99: Textbooks

Along with a plethora of other laws set to go into effect at the start of the new year is SB 48, a California bill that, for the first time in the nation's history, mandates the teaching of LGBT history in a positive, civil-rights context, and prohibits the use of educational materials that reflect negatively on people due to their orientation (which seems to me to be kind of the same thing, but hey, whatever works).

Supporters say that aside from being more, y'know, accurate, the new textbooks will inculcate a better understanding of LGBT issues among young people (surprisingly, no minimum grade level is included for when the changes should be put in place) and cut down on the kind of anti-gay bullying that's become infamous across the country.

And just to make the law's opponents (who have tried and failed to get rid of the law once already) seem extra evil, I should mention that it puts the same rules in place for disabled people, as well. Which actually seems sort of weird to me, because it's not like FDR's been getting less attention in history books because he was in a wheelchair. But again - whatever works.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Reason #98: Ballots

Despite both campaigns' claims to the contrary, the Republican Party of Virginia has officially ruled that neither Rick Perry nor Newt Gingrich has met the requirements to be placed on the ballot in Virginia's Republican presidential primary. Gingrich says he wants to run as a write-in--despite the fact that, well, he can't--and Rick Perry has officially filed suit against the state Republican Party and Board of Elections, claiming that their official requirements for ballot placement are nothing less than unconstitutional.

Interestingly, Bachmann, Santorum, and Huntsman also failed to get on the ballot, but I guess even they can't be bothered to give a shit at this point.

I almost wrote about this topic in support of the Virginia ruling, but to be perfectly honest, I think Rick Perry *shudder* may have a point. While the Perry campaign claims to have submitted 11,911 signatures in all (the minimum is ten thousand), to be valid, signatures have to be collected by someone who is themselves registered to vote in that district, and there have to be at least 400 signatures from each of the State's eleven congressional districts.

What the failure to do so says about the effectiveness of Perry's (or Gingrich's) organization is one thing, and certainly they knew about the rules far ahead of time and should have had no problem following them, but it strikes the wrong tone with me for getting on a ballot to be that difficult - especially it it's just a primary. When only two of the seven major candidates (Romney and Paul) actually managed to qualify for your ballot, it should be clear that something's fucked up.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Reason #97: Cohabitation

On the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, is a 547-acre plot of land home to the FBI's training academy. The academy includes both driving and running courses, and obviously, a firing range, where more than one million bullets are fired every month.

Naturally, the land has also become a safe haven for wildlife.

During hunting season, the academy is actually the one of the safest places for local deer to hang out (not to mention groundhogs, turkey vultures, and even a bear or two), and as a result they've become part of the family - hunters are allowed on the base proper, but not the FBI training grounds, which is probably mostly a security thing, but I'm going to go ahead and assume it's for the animals' sake as well.

What's interesting is that the deer will graze openly as close as fifteen feet away from the shooting targets, but despite becoming essentially immune to the sound of gunfire, they've learned over the years not to get any closer, and there are no records of any ever being hit accidentally.

They do occasionally run onto the jogging track, though, and allegedly once ate some flowers off of a 9/11 memorial - but that sounds like a frame-up to me.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Reason #96: Nabbing the Really Smart Ones

On December 12th, 18-year-old Isaiah Cutler robbed a market here in Pittsburgh with three other teenagers. They got away with over $8000 worth of cash and goods - including cigarettes and candy, because they're awesome like that.

About an hour later, seeking to further prove their own awesomeness, Cutler took a bunch of pictures with his friends showing off their goodies, and posted them on his Facebook page.

Needless to say, he's in jail now. He doesn't seem to have obtained an attorney yet, hopefully because no one is that desperate for work. What perplexes me, though, is that this all happened on December 12th, yet he's only been in prison since the 23rd. Rather than accept that it took almost two weeks for the Pittsburgh police to figure this one out, I'm choosing to believe they waited until right before Christmas to haul him away, because just arresting him normally wouldn't have been as much fun.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Reason #95: Lovejoy

Behold Comet Lovejoy as it careens toward Sarah Palin's house flies past the Earth yesterday.

Two neat things about this picture - how clearly you can see the different strata of Earth's atmosphere at the bottom, and how you can see two different tails at the top. The dust tail is the more curved one, whereas the ion tail, which aligns with the Sun's magnetic field, is straighter. Most comet photographs aren't clear enough to discern the two like that.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Reason #94: Stopgaps

Back in the ongoing drama over Obama's series of capital-J Jobs measures, the Senate passed its new version of the payroll tax cut, which favors lower-income employees rather than giving everyone an equal tax cut no matter how much they make, a week or so ago.

It's been held up in the Republican-controlled House all week, naturally, but today they at least were able to reach a deal to extend the current payroll tax cut two more months, so they can continue to argue about it without screwing everybody over at the end of the year. Which, unfortunately, constitutes a positive development by House standards.

Besides - kicking the can down the road worked so well with the supercommittee, right?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Reason #93: Less Mercury

The EPA revealed a huge new set of "Mercury and Air Toxics Standards", or MATS, to drastically cut mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Obama, naturally, and the clean(er) power industries are touting what a big accomplishment this is, but don't take their word for it - Scott Segal, a coal industry lobbyist, called MATS "the most extensive intervention into the power market and job market that EPA has ever attempted to implement." Sounds magnificent.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Reason #92: Less Crime

According to the FBI, in the first six months of 2011, violent crime went down 6.4% (compared to the first six months of last year), property crime (aka theft) went down 3.7%, and arson went down 8.6%. So yeah. Go cops.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Reason #91: Obama and the Supremes

The Supreme Court has officially scheduled five hours of arguments this March for the challenge to the individual mandate in Obama's health care reform package. From someone who's a little more familiar with court proceedings than the average Joe, five hours doesn't really seem like all that much (especially spread out over three days), but according to this article that's a record amount of argument time for the Supreme Court, only even approached before by McCain-Feingold's four hours in 2003.

Their ruling is expected to come over the summer just as the presidential election is heating up, and I've heard some say that it would actually be much better for him is they rule against it, because Obamacare is seen by conservatives as the quintessential liberal overreach, and going the other direction would just further galvanize existing anti-Obama sentiment. Personally, I'm rooting for it to fail if only so they can go back to the drawing board and take another shot at single-payer.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Reason #90: Hubble Make Pretty

I give you IRS 4, a young star about 2 thousand light years away and about fifteen times the size of the sun. This article explains why it looks the way it looks, but I can't quite get my head around it. Something about gas.

(Side note: I am on vacation for the next week or so. I'm going to endeavor to post something every weekday like usual, but more than likely they will be short and somewhat pithy, like this one. Rest assured that my full attention will have returned by Monday the 26th at the latest.)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Reason #89: Backing Away Slowly

So that's over.

After almost nine years, the Pentagon today officially declared the Iraq War to be ended. A few hundred military personnel are still on the ground as advisers and such, but considering the postwar presence we've maintained (and continue to maintain) in a lot of other places, I think we can call it progress.

My question, though, is just how many private contractors are still there? The Iraq War brought companies like Halliburton and Blackwater into the public consciousness it a totally new way, and as much as everybody will be talking about how this war impacted US foreign relations and the Middle East in general, the rise of war as a business model (not that it wasn't already going on) is, to me, just as big of a takeaway from Iraq as anything else, yet it's barely being talked about.

The best I could find is this article from October that estimates around five thousand "security contractors" (aka Blackwater) will still be there in January of 2012. That's down from 9,500 at the time the article was written and more than fifteen thousand in the summer of 2009, but now that the military has essentially no presence there of any kind, will that make the private soldiers more accountable for their actions, or less?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Reason #88: Femto Photography

With funding from DARPA, the Army Research Office, and a number of private enterprises, MIT has developed a technique for recording bullet-time images of light in motion. Except "bullet-time" is a horrible way to put it because light moves around a million times faster than a bullet.

Direct, traditional photography is almost impossible at that speed, so what they've actually done is program sensors to take complex mathematical measurements of a subject as a pulse of light one trillionth of a second long is shot through said subject at 186 thousand miles per second. The measurements--the exposure, essentially--are then reconstructed into a more standard "image" of the subject, at a rate of half a trillion frames per second. Photographing a bullet, incidentally, only requires around 20 thousand frames per second.

Because the pulse is so short, the actual "beam" of light is only a millimeter or so long, which ironically makes it look kind of like a bullet, except, you know, all awesome and glowy and stuff. They for some reason chose to test this process with a Coke bottle, resulting in the extremely awesome video below. A lot more can be found on MIT's website here.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Reason #87: Banning Cell Phones

I'm ashamed to say I don't know exactly what the law is in my state, but I'd long had a vague understanding that using a cell phone while driving is against the law - both here in Pennsylvania and in my home state of New York.

Turns out that some states have no rules whatsoever against phone use by drivers - twenty states still let even novice drivers use their phones, and around fifteen states still let drivers send text messages.

While they only really have the ability to make recommendations, the NTSB has finally come out in favor of a nationwide ban. The only way a driver would be allowed to talk on the phone, if they had their way, would be if the phone is hands-free to the point of being built into the car. So far, only ten states have gone that far on their own.

I for one think it makes at least as much sense as banning drunk driving. Endangering yourself is one thing--I don't really think there should be seatbelt laws, except probably for children--but endangering other people on the road is another.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Reason #86: VSLs

Have you ever seen Fight Club? There's a big speech near the beginning about how car companies have an actual mathematical process to determine their recall procedures - in short, if the lawsuits stemming from implementation of a defective part are estimated to be cheaper overall than the cost of recalling the part, they don't do the recall.

Turns out the government does that as well. Kinda.

The automatic Republican response whenever new environmental or safety regulations are proposed is always to bemoan the cost to businesses; it turns out, the government knows all too well how much a ban on, say, turpentine in Coca-Cola will cost the beverage industry. What they do with that information, then, is compare it to their department's VSL, or Value of a Statistical Life. If the lives it could save outvalue the cost to businesses, well, tough shit.

Assigning even a theoretical dollar value to a human being is icky from a PR standpoint, but when you think about it, this can actually be a fairly reasonable way of setting policy - indeed, the actual dollar value goes up and down based on various factors (up for cancer-fighting measures, perhaps, because cancer is seen as worse than the average malady; or down for older people, whom the Bush administration amusingly deemed to be of less value than the average person).

And if you're curious - they try to avoid talking about it, understandably, but according to the most recent story I found, the EPA currently values one human life at around $8 million.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Reason #85: The Ol' Heave Ho

Mankind has officially reached the heliopause.

But perhaps I should start at the beginning. Voyager 1 departed Earth in 1977, with the goal of doing a couple planetary flybys, followed by a straight-ish shot out of the solar system entirely. Three years later, it reached Saturn. The above image shows exponentially increasing distance, so if you look at Earth, then look at Saturn, it should not be surprising when I say that it is just now, 31 years after that, that Voyager is on the cusp of leaving the solar system entirely.

And even though it's been cruising for more than three decades, and is currently the fastest-moving probe in space at around eleven miles per second, it didn't become the farthest-reaching manmade object until 1998, when it finally passed Pioneer 10 (which was actually launched three years after Voyager I).

The outer "edge" of our solar system, it turns out, is determined by solar wind. Even as far out as Voyager is right now, charged particles from the sun are still blowing around. But out in what's known as the interstellar medium, there are other particles blowing back (from what? Fuck if I know). The point where winds (I love that they classify this stuff as "wind") pushing out from the sun and winds pushing in from outer space equalize is called the heliopause, and once you pass that, you are officially in interstellar space.

The trick is that when you're dealing with this kind of scale, even a "point" like the heliopause could take months or years to traverse, and there's no way to know exactly how big it is until you're through it. So while it's maybe a little too soon to start popping the champagne, we're far enough along that we can pretty safely classify Voyager 1 as the first manmade object to leave the solar system.

And with fifteen years of power left, there's still plenty of time to find a gas station.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Reason #84: Mumia

After 30 years of appeals and coming within spitting distance of the Supreme Court, former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal is at long last off death row. Convicted of killing a white cop in 1981, Mumia's death sentence has been a big rallying cry for lefties ever since due to allegations of systemic--and specific--bias regarding his initial trial, and due to the fact that he's since proven to be a fairly rational and well-spoken dude.

What finally nixed the death sentence was a ruling that his jury had been given "potentially misleading" instructions, and therefore a new sentencing hearing needed to take place. The Supreme Court could have overruled that, but they declined to rule on the matter at all, which meant that federal prosecutors had to determine whether to press for the death penalty all over again, or just leave it lie at life in prison.

Instrumental to their decision not to purpue the death penalty this time around was Maureen Faulkner, the widow of the victim, who doesn't seem to have forgiven Mumia or anything, but says she came to the conclusion that at this point, there was no way the actual execution would ever actually get around to happening (some of the original witnesses have in fact died themselves in the intervening three decades), and would rather just move on with her life.

As I've said before, I won't profess to being an expert on the case, or really have any opinion on whether Mumia is guilty. But the system is undoubtedly biased (and was probably way worse 30 years ago), and anytime someone escapes execution, I count that as a win - especially if it means I don't have to hear hippies complain about it anymore.

Reason #83: 14 Years

'nuff said.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Reason #82: Gay Foreigners

In a story that sounds tailor-made for pissing off Tea Partiers, the Obama administration announced today that for the first time it would be directing foreign aid funds (gasp!) specifically toward fighting human rights violations (good heavens!) against the international LGBT community (no!! God, no!!).

And lest this come across as a treacly matter like hospital visitation or not getting the nice apartments, keep in mind that many countries, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, still treat homosexual activity of any kind as a crime. The money isn't going towards Adam and Steve's nest egg, it's giving them the ability to walk down the street together.

Hillary Clinton will be making remarks about the new directive, which will affect State Department funds as well as Homeland Security, Defense, and others, in Geneva later today.

Maybe she'll remind her boss about the whole marriage thing while she's at it.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Reason #81: No, Really - Kepler

To hell with Space Fridays - Kepler just found the first-ever extrasolar planet that's not drastically bigger than Earth and within not just the habitable region of its star, but the habitable region of a yellow star that's "just a bit smaller and cooler than out own."

It's too early to know anything about the composition of the planet, dubbed Kepler-22b, but NASA is already willing to say that the surface of a planet like this would be in the area of 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and could very well be significantly if not totally covered in oceans. Oceans!!

And now that we know Kepler-22b is there, on top of the fifty or so other "Earth-like" planets Kepler has found so far, NASA can hand its info off to SETI, who can begin scanning the area for radio signals and other signs of technology - though at 600 light years away, even if we picked up Kepler-22b's primetime television lineup, we'd be more than half a millennia too late to buy the DVDs. Nevertheless, folks, you have to admit that these are exciting times.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Reason #80: Kepler

For those of you not cool enough to know, the Kepler space telescope was launched a couple years ago at a cost of $600 million (or about four days in Afghanistan) with the goal of intensely analyzing the light coming from just one small patch of space. Using what's called the transit method, Kepler is designed to pick out the tiny variations that would signify the passage of a planet in front of any given star.

We've been using the transit method for a while now, but Kepler is sensitive enough to detect smaller, Earth-like planets within what's called the habitable zone of a solar system. It takes a lot of follow-up observation to confirm that any potential extrasolar planet Kepler detects is the real deal, and even once confirmed it's impossible right now to learn much more about these planets beyond that they exist.

That being said, the real beauty of Kepler's mission isn't in the data, it's in the extrapolation. By methodically scanning every available star in just one tiny area of the sky, we can take the amount of Earth-like planets in that area and deduce, for the first time, a more realistic sense of just what percentage of stars could at least potentially harbor life. In other words, we could finally fill in one of the numbers on the Drake Equation.

Just to give you an idea, Kepler found 1,235 potential planets in its first four months of observation, around 50 of which were in a habitable zone. That was announced in February. So I for one am very anxious to see what NASA has to say on Monday when they announce their results from the subsequent ten months.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Reason #79: Uppity Cops

It was 35 degrees out when police showed up to evict Vinia Hall from her Atlanta home Tuesday morning. That in and of itself probably wouldn't have mattered to them, but as it happens, Vinia Hall is 103 years old.

Though the house is legally owned by Hall's grandson (at least insofar as you can be said to legally own a home that's already three years post-foreclosure), it was inhabited only by Hall herself, who's been there for 53 years, and her 83-year-old daughter (I wonder what a numerologist would think of this story), and as the men who showed up to kick them out were not in fact comic book supervillains, they decided to hell with the bank and let them stay.

Though clearly there's no way in hell JP Morgan Chase, who issued the foreclosure, would dare go through with the eviction in the current anti-bank climate, all they've said on the matter so far is that they'll "work out a resolution to keep them in the home," which is funny to me because it pretends they have a choice.

Amusing aside #1: Deutsche Bank, who actually owns the home, clearly wants to stay as far away from the matter as possible, issuing a statement that “Deutsche Bank was not involved in any way in the decision to seek to evict Mrs. Lee and her daughter. As trustee, Deutsche Bank does not control decisions or actions related to foreclosures or evictions.” Eviction? What eviction? They're just mortgage payments! No biggie!

Amusing aside #2: the incident clearly freaked out the daughter, who had trouble breathing and had to be rushed to the hospital, but Hall herself was unconcerned: "...I knew that they know what they were doing. God don’t let them do wrong." Man, it's too bad God doesn't seem to give a shit about all those other people who have been evicted.

But that, perhaps, is a different topic.