Sunday, December 28, 2003

Art and Science

I was just reading Tyler Cowen's discussions of art and law over at the Volokh Conspiracy. He came up with some interesting examples of legal-themed art. (Also see his post just below this one.) I've had a similar interest in science-themed art, or how advances in science have influenced artistic expression.

I reckon people are familiar with the influence of atomic theory on pointillism, for instance. The Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh recently (2001) had an excellent exhibit (jointly with the Van Gogh museum in Holland) called "Light," in which they showed the scientific research on the nature of light and how this led to new styles of painting.

There are some great paintings relating to other science themes I've come across myself. One of the best is Joseph Wright of Derby, who has a number of scienc-related paintings. And I especially like William Dyce's "Pegwell Bay." There are a lot of subtle things in this one. Note the apprehensive expression of the artist's son(?), looking over his shoulder at something out of our ken. At first glance, the family appears to be enjoying a happy day collecting seashells, but we know that they're actually gathering fossils. The great work on evolution was being done at this time, and the implications were unsettling. Pegwell Bay's cliffs were a good place to go to see fossils.

Also note the depiction of Donati's Comet, which isn't really visible in this scan. It comes out a little in some other images, but I'll have to look harder. Comets have the symbolism of ominous portents, although this depicts an actual comet, as well. One commentary I read on this painting describes the vast geological time depicted in the rock strata in the cliffs, and the astronomical time depicted in the comet.

I can't find the original commentary I read online, but here's another useful one.

Saturday, December 27, 2003

NPR: That evil Wal-Mart is lowering consumer prices!

Hah, hah... I never thought I'd hear it: NPR right now is interviewing a guy, Charles Fishman (sp?), who is complaining that Wal-Mart continually acts to lower the prices to they charge their customers! Now, he's coming at this from the angle that Wal-Mart's requirement that their suppliers lower wholesale costs by 5% per year, every year (if I heard him right). And it's a defensible argument to make; it might not be possible for a supplier to lower costs by that amount every single year, after all.

But I think his statement that Wal-Mart is pressuring prices downward, in the absence of market pressure to do so, isn't anything that's going to make me mad at the company. Sure, it might create some problems for their suppliers, but we have a free market, and they're always free to sell to somebody else. For my part, this confirms the customer-friendly attitude I've found there, and it's a welcome, detailed affirmation of their advertising claims. Heck, Wal-Mart ought to promote this guy's article!

"Native American" vs. "American Indian"

While I'm still fuming about the whole misuse of "Holiday" to replace "Christmas" in public discourse, it brings to mind another complaint I have (sorry for using Christmastime to complain--so I'll make this short and get back onto it another time), which is the nearly-universal substitution of "Native American" in place of the proper "American Indian."

This really ought to strike people as offensive itself. After all, most of us in this country are truly native Americans, having been born here. A few of us are, in addition, American Indians or have some Indian ancestry. This is true in my case, being part Indian on both sides of the family. I may be only some fraction Indian, but I'm 100% native American.

I noticed recently a plaque on the wall of Lovely Lane United Methodist Church in Baltimore, the first Methodist church in the United States. This plaque commemorated the "First Native American Bishop" in the church, I think. The funny thing is, it took me a minute to realize that the ca. 1900 plaque was honoring the first Methodist bishop to be born in America, not the first bishop of Indian descent! It actually used the term properly, and it was just the decades of misuse of this phrase that affected my understanding. Heh, heh...

OK, off the soapbox and back to Christmas cheer...

Goodbye, Iranian Girl

Nuts. "Notes of an Iranian Girl" is ending. I didn't read her blog all of the time, but hers was the only source of inside information I got from Iran, and she kept me up to date on the (originally) hopeful events going on with the student protests and the movement for democracy there.

It was partly as a result of her comments that I wound up attending the Washington, D.C. rally against the Iranian government back this Summer, where I ran into Michael Ledeen (a polite and very unassuming guy, by the way).

I wish her luck.

Friday, December 26, 2003

20,000 Dead in Iranian Quake

Oh, no--I just saw the Reuters story about this on Drudge, the first I'd heard of it. Apparently, a 6.3 magnitude quake has leveled much of the old city of Bam, 600 mi. SW of Tehran. Officials say about 20,000 people are dead, with perhaps around 50,000 others injured.

I don't remember specific numbers offhand, but how long has it been since an earthquake has killed that many people? We've recently seen bigger quakes kill relatively few people (think of the Los Angeles earthquake of a few years ago--wasn't that >7.0?), but then, this one happened to hit the historic district of an ancient city. I presume there were lots of very, very old buildings that just couldn't have been designed to withstand this kind of shaking.

Let's pray the death toll doesn't rise above this already-high number.

Thursday, December 25, 2003

Merry C-------- from NASA?

As far as skirting the word "Christmas," maybe this isn't as bad as the sign out front of my old church (see below), but it's pretty bad:

Date: Wed, 24 Dec 2003 14:05:19 -0500
From: xxxxx
Subject: Center Closed as of 2:00 p.m. due to Holiday

I just received a call notifying me that as of 2:00 p.m. today, Goddard is
closed due to tomorrow's holiday. You will receive a Center notification
soon; however, this e-mail can be considered your official 600/Space
Sciences notification.

Have a safe and happy holiday.

Space Sciences Directorate, Code 600

OK, to bring up the obvious: on Christmas Eve Day, you refer to "tomorrow's holiday"?! Come on people, it's not like it's a secret which December 25th holiday you're talking about!

I've got a funny mental image of these people playing charades or Pictionary, with "Christmas" as the word. They get it down to hints on the order of "it's a holiday that occurs on December 25th" and can't get beyond that.

I ought to send this to Jay Nordlinger...

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Wondering about al-Qaeda's plans

I was just reading this article that mentions the guy arrested at the Miami airport trying to sneak in a razor and hacksaw blade in his shoe. Now, he could easibly just be an unaffiliated nut, but what if he were part of al-Qaeda? What could their strategy be?

The MSNBC story also says al-Qaeda is thought to be trying another attack using airliners, and I've read that they are likely to try a coordinated attack. One guy trying to board a plane with a sawblade isn't likely to make for a successful (and coordinated) attack. In fact, the increase in security since 2001 makes sneaking any blades onto a plane difficult to do in any single case and therefore extremely difficult to repeat twenty times in a large, coordinated attack.

What if this guy were for real, but he wasn't meant to be part of a hijacking team?

What if his job was simply to plant the sawblade and razor onto the plane, where the hijackers would use it later--maybe months later?

Al-Qaeda could be trying a hundred such smugglings all over the country, at different times. If they're successful in just a few of them, then they've got that number of planes ready to be used. Then the hijacking teams can board en masse, without carrying any weapons and without suspicion.

So I'm curious--where was that plane headed? Do they tend to use the same planes for the same route over a long period of time?

Monday, December 22, 2003

Michael Jackson--flight risk?

So they've officially charged Michael Jackson today. He's supposedly been given back his passport to attend a promotional tour in Great Britain, and his lawyer is proclaiming that there's no risk he'll try to flee.

I wonder--if he did flee, would he get plastic surgery to disguise his face?

Sunday, December 21, 2003

Them vs. 'em--archaic survivals in Modern English

Finishing up my Christmas shopping today, I was flipping through the Oxford English Grammar at the bookstore. I came across an intriguing discussion of the common pronunciation of them as 'em (as in "Give 'em heck!", etc.). I hadn't thought about it much before, but I'd assumed that this pronunciation (which I commonly use) came about by not pronouncing the th- when the word is unstressed.

But the book explains it as the surviving form of Middle English hem, "them," which was largely superseded by them (a Norse form of the word) in Modern English. So the unstressed form lacks an initial h-, not an initial th-. This does make sense, when you compare the unstressed pronunciations of him and her as 'im and 'er, respectively.

I always like finding these archaic holdovers in common use, that we don't normally think about. Oh--another one the book mentioned was the dialects that use hisn and hern for standard English's his and hers. It says these are also archaic forms. I think I've heard these used sometimes, but not often.

Now I wonder about my dialect's pronunciation of once't and twice't for standard once and twice. Hmmmm... Any old forms being preserved there?

"The Holidays" vs. Christmas and Hanukkah

Sorry for the long absence, everybody. State is on a quarter system, so I've got six weeks of vacation until the next quarter, but it's turning out to be a working vacation. Conference poster to get ready, a paper to finish up (I hate this error analysis part...), and a couple of Hubble Space Telescope proposals to do. Or, rather, "redo"--I've got some that were rejected last time around that I can start with.

But on to the first thing on my mind. Jay Nordlinger over at NRO has had a recurring theme of the annoying trend of "Holiday" replacing "Christmas" in greetings, store ads, and public mentions in general. I've got my own story on this--

Last weekend, when I was visiting the University of Pittsburgh for some research work, I attended my old church there in town (I went to grad school at Pitt), First United Methodist. I was shocked to see a sign in front of the sanctuary that read,

Holiday Party -->

I think pretty much anybody would have to agree that it goes too far when a Christian church substitutes "Holiday" for "Christmas" in something like this. Now, this is a pretty liberal church, but to be fair, I doubt they consciously avoided the use of "Christmas." Rather, I suspect that the public use of "Holiday" has gotten so familiar that the person who wrote the sign probably didn't even think about it.

As a committed philosemite, I'm eager to see more explicit mentions of Jewish holidays in the public sphere (with the hope that they not get too commercialized, of course). And I have long suspected that the muddling of "Christmas" was due to a desire not to exclude the recognition of Hanukkah. But why not mention them both? Would it really be that much of a chore?

On the other hand, Hanukkah is actually a relatively minor Jewish holiday, as I understand, yet it gets quite a bit of attention this time of year. Contrast that with the dreadfully little public attention paid to the really important Jewish holidays, like Passover and Yom Kippur. OK, Passover gets some recognition, but I think it's nothing like that paid to Hanukkah. Even my 2003 appointment calendar got the Passover dates wrong, according to my Jewish ex-girlfriend!

And poor Yom Kippur. It's practically invisible to us gentiles, unless we make the effort to keep up with these things. Rosh Hashanna? When was the last time you heard a local TV station put on a "Happy Rosh Hashanna" PSA?

I strongly suspect that Hanukkah has gotten elevated in public importance because of its coincidental proximity to Christmas. And keep in mind that Christmas itself isn't the holiest day on the Christian calendar. That honor belongs to Easter, but you wouldn't know it from the attention paid to each. I think the bigger tradition of gift-giving (and therefore, in our imperfect human minds, of gift-getting) at Christmas is what's responsible for the misplaced priorities.

It struck me just this week that while the close timing of Christmas and Hanukkah (which is entirely coincidental) might be responsible for this obnoxious trend of removing the explicit mentions of either one, somehow the same is not true at Easter, which is necessarily close to Passover. Somehow, stores and other public places have failed to muddy the waters on that one. Why? Passover is a very important holiday (Is it the most important of the Jewish year? I'm not sure.), and Easter is the biggest of the Christian year, but they manage to keep them straight. Does anybody have a clue on this??

Interestingly, the press discovered Ramadan around late 1998, I think, when there was public debate as to whether Clinton should conduct bombing raids on Iraq during that Moslem month. For a while, Ramadan was timed close to Christmas and Hanukkah, and all of a sudden (as I remember it), the TV news felt obliged to have "Happy Ramadan!" PSAs and such.

But the Islamic calendar is very strictly lunar, unlike the Christian calendar, which is solar, or the Jewish, which is lunar but tied to the solar year. So while Christian and Jewish holidays stay generally in the same season from one year to the next, the Islamic month of Ramadan will occur at different seasons in different years. And now that Ramadan has moved on outside of Winter, have you seen anything mentioned in public about it? Does the press simply pay attention only to those holidays that occur in December?!

Friday, December 19, 2003

Christmas Vacation

OK ya'll, I'll be gone for two weeks enjoying the holidays. Everyone have a great holiday and Happy New Year! See ya bloggin' in 2004. :)

Monday, December 15, 2003

Saddam Hussein Captured

This is the top news story around the world, Saddam Hussein captured! Hussein was found in a hole 6-8 feet under a mud farm house, just across the Tigris river from one of his palaces on December 13. The only thing separating him from the troops was a styrofoam square, dirt, and a rug. Intelligence gathered from bodyguards and family members lead to operation Red Dawn, or capture/kill Hussein. 600 soldiers from the 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, and special operations forces of Task Force 121 were involved in the operation. Once found, Hussein did not resist, and was immediately hand-cuffed, blindfolded, and moved to a secure location. It was said he shouted in english "I am the President of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, and I want to negotiate." About $750,000 US dollars were found on him, along with two AK-47s, a pistol, and a taxi. So far Hussein has been uncooperative.

President Bush, in a short televised address from the White House, said Saddam will "face the justice he denied to millions. For the Baathist holdouts responsible for the violence, there will be no return to the corrupt power and privilege they once held.

"This afternoon I have a message for the Iraqi people: This is further assurance that the torture chambers and the secret police are gone forever. You will not have to fear the rule of Saddam Hussein ever again."

Iraqis were cheering and shooting guns in the street once they heard the news. Iraqi nationals in the U.S. were also excited about Hussein's capture, and can now visit their country and family without fear of retribution.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

The Google Scandal

My fiance pointed this scandal out to me last night, and I haven't heard anything about it on the news (except AOL), so I thought I'd share here what we found.

I'm not a webmaster, so I don't know all the details, but - when you create a website and provide links on that website, you can associate that link with a word or phrase. When you search using google with that word or phrase, that link will pop up. Usually if you search say for the word "physics" you'll get physics related links. However, if enough people link say a dog website with the word physics, then that will be the first link to pop up in your search. Seemingly having nothing to do with physics, yet a large majority of people had to associate that one website with the word "physics" for it to pop up.

With that in mind, there are always people who support the President, and who oppose the President. Somehow, the people who oppose the President have associated not-so-nice phrases with government and/or Bush websites. If you type in "miserable failure" the first link is a biography of President Bush from the official White House website. The 5-6 website links after that in some way are related to Bush. If you type in "weapons of mass destruction" the first link is mocking the Iraq situation.

It's very sad that people would defile the President on a global search engine, but at least few people who support Bush will be typing in miserable failure, or whatever else people have associated Bush's name with. I wanted to bring this to everyone's attention, and would love to hear feedback on this.

Monday, December 08, 2003

Astronomy in the Iliad

Keith Arnaud sent me this link to a book on Amazon he thought sounded interesting:

Astronomy was vital to the lives of ancient peoples; they invented
calendars from observations of the sun and moon and used the stars for
navigation. The heavens were also a focal point of their myths and
religious rituals. The peoples who lived in Crete and Greece from 2000
- 750 BC did not have an efficient writing system, and how they passed
astronomical learning down through the centuries has, until now, been
a mystery. This reading of Homer's Iliad reveals how mythology and the
great epic of the Siege of Troy was used to preserve vast knowledge
about the stars and constellations, the Moon and planets and ancient
ideas about the universe.

I'd have to read the book to see just what the author has found, but it's an interesting idea. Certainly there are astronomical references thoughout early literature, but I think this author is wanting to get at something deeper. I'm intrigued.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Opus is Back. Bill Watterson is missing.

I just saw the returned Opus comic strip in the News-Sentinel back at home. I was always a big fan of Bloom County, but I think Breathed has got to get back into the hang of this before he's really funny again. Earlier on, his strips had really great comic timing, and the example I saw Sunday was missing that. Plus, the drawings are a little...grotesque, almost. I like them better when they're simpler and cleaner. Not that I don't like detail, mind you--I'm especially fond of the beautiful, multi-pane color landscapes and dinosaur drawings that Calvin and Hobbes often featured. It's just this somewhat grotesque style that Breathed is doing now that is a little odd.

And there is something to be said for the method of James Thurber, who gave himself only five minutes to draw his cartoons. He actually had a timer. He'd found out early on that people thought his cartoons were better when he spent less time drawing them. But that's not for everybody, and as I said, I always enjoyed the elaborate paintings in some Calvin & Hobbes strips.

Speaking of Calvin, I came across this article on the now-reclusive Bill Watterson. Link via Instapundit.

Northern lights photos online

This time, my photos of the northern lights came out very well. I've posted them online here.

The images were all taken with 200 speed film, usually with 30-sec. exposures. The one labeled "road2" was 2 minutes, and a couple of the fainter ones were done with 15 or 20-second exposures.

For those interested in playing "Where's Waldo?", I've caught four airplanes in three different pictures, and in "road2" there is even a satellite making a longish streak in the center-right of the image.

I couldn't see the colors in any of these aurorae. What shows up here as green was very white to my eyes, although I once got a hint of pale blue-green when it brightened up. And the red regions were completely invisible. Once I could just make out a couple of pencil-thin, vertical streaks that turn out to be the brightest part of the red curtain, but otherwise I had absolutely no clue there was anything else to see. It's especially surprising, since the red clearly dominates many of the pictures, especially the "overlook" set. It's lucky that I happened to widen the field of view enough to catch them, accidentally as it was.

The image I'm showing here was taken from my back patio. I think it's got the best combination of colors of any of the photos.

Christian bumper stickers in Egypt

I'm impressed by this story from the AP that describes how Egypt's Coptic Christians are asserting their religion more publicly, putting those fish symbols on their cars, like many do here in America. There, it's a bumper sticker, rather than the plastic frame I see here, but the same design.

The shocking thing is the reaction from some in the Moslem majority--shark stickers on their own cars! Geez, I thought the atheists' reaction with "Darwin" or "Evolve!" legged-fish stickers was outrageous enough. That was the mocking of a Christian symbol, which is bad enough in its sarcastic intent. And I don't like mocking in general.

The Egyptian case is a bit different. I have little doubt that those Moslems (probably a small percentage) putting the shark stickers on their cars mean it as a joke, rather than a threat. But man, some of the things they're saying go right to the heart of the New Testament's counsel to Christians living under persecution. For example,

"The Christians had the fish so we responded with the shark. If they want to portray themselves as weak fishes, OK. We are the strongest," said Emad, who would give only his first name.

Insert in your favorite NT verse here. Or Old Testament, in many examples.