Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Curiosity on Route to Mars

Next stop: Mars. This past weekend the Mars Science Laboratory carrying the Curiosity Rover blasted off for the red planet atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, USA, as pictured above. At five times the size of the Opportunity rover currently operating on Mars, Curiosity is like a strange little car with six small wheels, a head-like camera mast, a rock crusher, a long robotic arm, and a plutonium power source. Curiosity is scheduled to land on Mars next August and start a two year mission to explore Gale crater, to help determine whether Mars could ever have supported life, and to help determine how humans might one day visit Earth's planetary neighbor.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


A fantastic jumble of young blue star clusters, gigantic glowing gas clouds, and imposing dark dust lanes surrounds the central region of the active galaxy Centaurus A. This image from the Hubble Space Telescope has been processed to present a natural color picture of this cosmic maelstrom. Infrared images from the Hubble have also shown that hidden at the center of this activity are what seem to be disks of matter spiraling into a black hole with a billion times the mass of the Sun. Centaurus A itself is apparently the result of a collision of two galaxies and the left over debris is steadily being consumed by the black hole. Astronomers believe that such black hole central engines generate the radio, X-ray, and gamma-ray energy radiated by Centaurus A and other active galaxies. But for an active galaxy Centaurus A is close, a mere 10 million light-years away, and is a relatively convenient laboratory for exploring these powerful sources of energy.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Gratitude Post

The sunrise today was good. Right now I am sitting in our living room and listening to MPR, which is no longer doing Thanksgiving programming, for which I am thankful. Soon I will go to exercise. I am beginning to almost like exercise... Not working for The Man or The Woman is a pleasure. I have some minor tasks today, then reading or writing or a walk along the river. It's a good river, not the Mighty Mississippi farther south, after the Missouri and the Ohio come in, but a fairly wide flow of clear, brown water. I think the brownness comes from tannin in the bogs up north.

Present and Future

I just wrote the following on facebook:
Gratitude practice is something Buddhists do. I'm working on setting up a practice with a Buddhist friend. I live by to-do lists, which is a way of focusing on the future and forgetting about the present. Better to live in the present and say, "Ah, yes!"

After I wrote I realized this was an actual insight. To-do lists keep me focused on the future, and I do live by to-do lists. I wonder what I can do with the insight. Maybe keep another list -- a gratitude list -- of what's happening in the present.

I would hate to give up all lists.

A second insight might be: my love of science fiction also keeps me thinking about the future.

A third insight might be: it's not entirely bad to think about the future. That's where the consequences of our current actions will happen.

There must be a way to balance present and future.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thinking About Occupy

I have been trying to work out my response to Occupy. Of course, I am in favor of it. But what else? What is my analysis?

I am irritated by people who write essays on what Occupy should be doing. Occupy is a work in progress. The people doing the actual work in the parks and on the streets should make the decisions about what to do next. I think it takes a lot of arrogance to advise them. What I want is news about Occupy, not opinions about it.

To me Occupy looks like anarchism in action: a community with distributed power, that makes decisions collectively. I like this. I got interested in anarchists recently -- before Occupy -- because they were doing interesting things: running publishing houses and poster collectives, publishing good books, printing wonderful posters, running book fairs and even one science fiction convention. They have been alive, while the rest of the left looked asleep. (Maybe there were leftists working in places I couldn't see them... Well, I could find the anarchists.)

Occupy has shown great creativity and good humor: the tents suspended by balloons over Sproul Plaza at Berkeley were wonderful. The We Are the 99% tumblr site is fabulous. The UC Davis cop pepper spraying through time and space tumblr site is also fabulous, though not entirely nice. The cop must be feeling pretty unhappy by now. He shouldn't have done it.

We can see from the police response -- a gazillion cops with shields and helmets, like Imperial storm troopers out of Star Wars -- that Occupy is getting through to the establishment. The viral stories about dirty, violent hippies and dangerous homeless people also show how freaked the bosses and politicians are.
I have not been able to track these stories to specific events, except the Vet who killed himself in the Burlington, VT camp. That is one event in a nationwide movement. I suppose he came to camp in the hopes that it would help him with terrible depression, and it didn't. This is one event. It's tragic, but depression is tragic and happens to many people in this society, especially to vets. Our society does a really bad job of helping its troubled and vulnerable members. At least the Occupiers are trying.

I talked to Patrick about the menace of homeless people at Occupy sites. Patrick says homeless people usually keep to places they know and avoid places where they may attract police attention. It does not seem likely that they would trek in large numbers down to Wall Street. I did see one homeless guy at Occupy Minnesota. But downtown Minneapolis is small. He was not far from places that help homeless people. And he looked pretty harmless to me. Like most Minnesotans, he was looking for coffee and would be fine as long as he got it.

But the viral stories are equating Occupy with homeless people. Both threaten civilized life as we know it: people working underpaid jobs and living in underwater houses, watching their steps, afraid that they will lose what little they have.

I figure Occupy is a movement I want to watch and not analyze. They are shaking up the US. All I do is write science fiction.

Friday, November 18, 2011

This colorful topographical map of the Moon is centered on the lunar farside, the side not seen from planet Earth. That view is available to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter though, as the spacecraft's wide angle camera images almost the entire lunar surface every month. Stereo overlap of the imaging has allowed the computation of topographical maps with coverage between 80 degrees north and south latitude. The results have about a 300 meter resolution on the lunar surface and 10 to 20 meter elevation accuracy. Data closer to the north and south poles is filled in using the orbiter's laser altimeter. In this map, white, red, green, and purple represent progressively lower elevations. In fact, the large circular splotch tending to purple hues at the bottom is the farside's South Pole-Aitken Basin. About 2500 kilometers in diameter and over 12 kilometers deep, it is one of the largest impact basins in the Solar System.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Occupy Again!!!

The blog Crooked Timber has a thread on Occupy right now. I wrote the following:
OWS is a work in progress. I have no idea how it will turn out. I don’t have advice. I bring coffee to the local Occupy group and wait and see. The Occupiers are raising the right issues and getting national attention.

Second, they are not a political party, vanguard or otherwise, they are a movement, like Civil Rights and the Anti-War Movement. I think we need to look at those for comparison re action and goals.

Third, in New York especially, OWS was/is creating an alternative society with housing, food, medical care, a library. It was/is a society that works by concensus, and it welcomed everyone, even the homeless. This strikes me as hugely important. A new world in the shill of the old. This is why the camps matter, and this may be why the camps are being destroyed.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


After all the political posts, I wanted a photo of country that's beautiful and empty. I found this on Wikimedia Commons.

Years ago Patrick and I were in the Black Hills and decided we had to see Carhenge. We dropped down into Nebraska and saw Carhenge (well worth a visit). Then we drove east through the sandhills. They were golden under a bright blue sky, almost empty of people, though there were cattle, and lovely.

Again and Yet Again Occupy

An AP report from Digby's blog:
From Atlanta to Washington, D.C., officials talked about how authorities could make camps safe for protesters and the community. Officials also learned about the kinds of problems they could expect from cities with larger and more established protest encampments.

In Portland, for example, protests were initially peaceful gatherings. Then the city's large number of homeless people moved in, transforming the camp into an open-air treatment center for drug addiction and mental illness.

On Oct. 11, just five days after protesters set up camp, police chiefs who had been dealing with the encampments for weeks warned that the homeless will be attracted to the food, shelter and medical care the camps offered.

I read the last paragraph to Patrick, and he said, "So?"
I replied, "We don't want to treat the homeless."
Pat said, "I guess."

Even More Occupy

This is via Digby's blog:
Over the past ten days, more than a dozen cities have moved to evict "Occupy" protesters from city parks and other public spaces. As was the case in last night's move in New York City, each of the police actions shares a number of characteristics. And according to one Justice official, each of those actions was coordinated with help from Homeland Security, the FBI and other federal police agencies.

The official, who spoke on background to me late Monday evening, said that while local police agencies had received tactical and planning advice from national agencies, the ultimate decision on how each jurisdiction handles the Occupy protests ultimately rests with local law enforcement.

According to this official, in several recent conference calls and briefings, local police agencies were advised to seek a legal reason to evict residents of tent cities, focusing on zoning laws and existing curfew rules. Agencies were also advised to demonstrate a massive show of police force, including large numbers in riot gear. In particular, the FBI reportedly advised on press relations, with one presentation suggesting that any moves to evict protesters be coordinated for a time when the press was the least likely to be present.

Now we know what Homeland Security is for.

Occupy Again

I've been trying to figure out why city governments find Occupy so threatening. This is part of the answer, courtesy of a Lambert Strether post on Naked Capitalism. He is writing about the bulldozing of Zuccotti Park:
And that’s the story: Occupier self-organization. Self-organization is how the Tahrir Square organizers beat Murbarak’s baltigaya, and self-organization is how the Occupiers will beat the 1%. Because look what Bloomberg bulldozed: Not only a library, but:

A media center
A kitchen
A medical tent (in which a patient was being treated)

None of what Bloomberg bulldozed was or is about violence. All of those institutions are about solidarity, people helping people. (For the homeless or the hungry, these institutions are helping people who can’t get help anywhere else.) Perhaps that’s really what Bloomberg didn’t like?


I had an appointment in Minneapolis yesterday. On my way back, I stopped at Occupy Minnesota to see if they were still there. They were and needed coffee. So I bought a couple of "canteens" -- cardboard boxes full of coffee -- at the nearest coffee shop and brought them back, along with a dozen cookies. Buying cookies one by one from a coffee shop is expesnsive. At least they were big cookies.

The porta-potties are gone, and there seemed to be fewer tables than before. However, the sleeping bags were neatly stacked in one area of the plaza, and there were a lot of them. The woman at the food table said most people were off on a march, protesting the closing of Zuccotti Park.

The governments in every city have said the encampments are messy and dirty and attract homeless people. Was Occupy Minnesota messy? Yes, a bit, the way any public space is when it's used by the public. A flea market is messy. So is a beach in the summer. There was one guy who looked homeless by the food table. So what? He could get a free cup of coffee and be treated like a human being. Is there anything wrong with a person wanting that and getting it?

The woman at the food table said they are negotiating to stay day by day.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


The police have cleared Zuccotti Park. They have done the same in other American cities. We will see what happens next.

Patrick says this is what the Minneapolis police have done to homeless camps for years. When they find one, they destroy it. Belongings are wrecked or taken away. When people come back to their home, they discover they -- who had so little -- have nothing now.

Society tolerates the homeless, so long as they remain perfectly homeless -- sleeping in doorways or in homeless shelters, run by others. But when they create their own shelters and communities and rules, they are attacked.

And for the same official reasons as are used against the Occupiers: the camps are messy and dirty and unsightly and dangerous.

SF Utopias and Dystopias

There was a discussion over at the Crooked Timber blog about the idea that most good SF is dystopian, rather than utopian, most likely because it's hard to write a ripping action tale about a utopia.

I added my two cents:
It makes more sense to talk about better societies than utopias. A lot of SF is about societies that are better than our current world. Or worse. The point is examine the ways in which societies can be better or worse and to talk about the possibility of change. Give people a look at what a society that is less sexist and racist and classist might be like.

If you consider that James Hansen may be right and Earth may end up with the same surface temp as Venus, SF that has the planet habitable in the future may be utopian or at least very optimistic. Or consider Jame Lovelock who has said that the human population will be down to one billion at the end of this century… Writing a future that does not have a major die off is optimistic. Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is pretty cheerful, all in all, since I don’t see humanity as going into space in a serious way. Certainly nothing as epic as the terraforming of Mars.

I got curious later and checked an online dictionary:

Utopia: any visionary system of political or social perfection.

Dystopia: a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding.

I'm not sure the words are true opposites. A utopia is perfect. A dystopia is only miserable. There are many societies on Earth today that are characterized (at least in part) by squlaor, oppression, disease and overcrowding. There is not one perfectly good society.

This leads me back to point above. It makes more sense to talk about better and worse societies here and in fiction.

Friday, November 11, 2011

I Love the Hubble...

Big, bright, and beautiful, spiral galaxy M83 lies a mere twelve million light-years away, near the southeastern tip of the very long constellation Hydra. This cosmic close-up, a mosaic based on data from the Hubble Legacy Archive, traces dark dust and young, blue star clusters along prominent spiral arms that lend M83 its nickname, The Southern Pinwheel. Typically found near the edges of the thick dust lanes, a wealth of reddish star forming regions also suggest another popular moniker for M83, The Thousand-Ruby Galaxy. Dominated by light from older stars, the bright yellowish core of M83 lies at the upper right. The core is also bright at x-ray energies that reveal a high concentration of neutron stars and black holes left from an intense burst of star formation. In fact, M83 is a member of a group of galaxies that includes active galaxy Centaurus A. The close-up field of view spans over 25,000 light-years at the estimated distance of M83

Thursday, November 10, 2011


I should state the obvious. I read a lot about economics, but there is much I don't really understand -- in part, I think, because I worked in accounting for years. I think like an accountant: there are problems that need solution, and there are resources. One uses the resources to solve the problems. It's very simple.

Here is a quote from the economist Dean Baker:
Economics is about making simple things complicated. The complexity both excludes most of the public from policy debates and also gives economists their status as masters of a complex discipline.

Complexity also obscures power relationships and the issue of ownership. Why do some people have so much? Why do many people work so hard and end up with little or nothing?
If a society is facing a huge problem -- global economic collapse and global warning -- why is it not possible to mobilize all the society's resources. Why are we told that ownership is more important than the survival of the human race?

Anyway, I write about economics a lot because I think about it a lot. I am not an expert.

Quote from Patrick

From Patrick, in honor of the Occupy movement:
Some days you're the bug. Some days you're the revolution.

In spite of my current bad mood, I am really cheered by Occupy, which is growing and developing new tactics: first occupations, then marches, anti-foreclosure actions, connecting with labor, moving money from banks.

As Big Bill Haywood liked to say:
The capitalist has no heart, but harpoon him in the pocketbook and you will draw blood.


Patrick got laid off from his current part-time job. It paid $12,000 a year and was his entire income. The nonprofit that employed him (on a contract basis, so he can't collect unemployment) had some kind of crisis and he was laid off, because they can't afford to pay him.

Remember that Patrick is the expert on adult homelessness in Minnesota. You'd think in this economy, with high unemployment and many people losing their homes, someone could find a way to use his knowledge.

Instead the US is killing itself with the Death of Ten Thousand Cuts.

In honor of all this I will quote from Hoover's Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon:
...Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers, liquidate real estate… it will purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up from less competent people.

We know how that turned out.

This may not be the most coherent post I have written. I am pissed.


In 185 AD, Chinese astronomers recorded the appearance of a new star in the Nanmen asterism - a part of the sky identified with Alpha and Beta Centauri on modern star charts. The new star was visible for months and is thought to be the earliest recorded supernova. This multiwavelength composite image from orbiting telescopes of the 21st century, XMM-Newton and Chandra in X-rays, and Spitzer and WISE in infrared, show supernova remnant RCW 86, understood to be the remnant of that stellar explosion. The false-color view shows interstellar gas heated by the expanding supernova shock wave at X-ray energies (blue and green) and interstellar dust radiating at cooler temperatures in infrared light (yellow and red). An abundance of the element iron and lack of a neutron star or pulsar in the remnant suggest that the original supernova was Type Ia. Type Ia supernovae are thermonuclear explosions that destroy a white dwarf star as it accretes material from a companion in a binary star system. Shock velocities measured in the X-ray emitting shell and infrared dust temperatures indicate that the remnant is expanding extremely rapidly into a remarkable low density bubble created before the explosion by the white dwarf system. Near the plane of our Milky Way Galaxy, RCW 86 is about 8,200 light-years away and has an estimated radius of 50 light-years.

The Current Financial Crisis in the US and Europe

From Brad Delong's blog:
I have been complaining for some time now that Reinhart and Rogoff think that the time is always 1931 and that we are always Austria--that the great fiscal crisis is about to erupt and send us lurching down toward Great Depression II.

Well, right now guess what? The time is 1931, and we are Austria.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Massive star IRS 4 is beginning to spread its wings. Born only about 100,000 years ago, material streaming out from this newborn star has formed the nebula dubbed Sharpless 2-106 Nebula (S106), pictured above. A large disk of dust and gas orbiting Infrared Source 4 (IRS 4), visible in dark red near the image center, gives the nebula an hourglass or butterfly shape. S106 gas near IRS 4 acts as an emission nebula as it emits light after being ionized, while dust far from IRS 4 reflects light from the central star and so acts as a reflection nebula. Detailed inspection of images like the above image has revealed hundreds of low-mass brown dwarf stars lurking in the nebula's gas. S106 spans about 2 light-years and lies about 2000 light-years away toward the constellation of the Swan (Cygnus).