One More Thing to Deal With

OK, an earthquake, a hurricane and now a frikkin’ supernova.

Berkeley Scientists Discover an “Instant Cosmic Classic” Supernova

At a mere 21 million light-years from Earth, a relatively small distance by astronomical standards, the supernova is still getting brighter, and might even be visible with good binoculars in ten days’ time, appearing brighter than any other supernova of its type in the last 30 years.

“The best time to see this exploding star will be just after evening twilight in the Northern hemisphere in a week or so,” said Oxford’s Sullivan. “You’ll need dark skies and a good pair of binoculars, although a small telescope would be even better.”

Go, Big Money!

Big Money Project, Giant Coin Makes Stuff Look Tiny In Tilt-Shift Photos

Lars Marcus and Theo Tveterås of Skrekkøgle, an independent design studio in Norway, crafted a 20:1 heavily lacquered wood replica of the Euro 50-cent coin to use in their Big Money Project. The project creates the illusion that the coin is actually small and the objects around it, such as a sports car and a dumpster, are actually tiny using tilt-shift photography effects.

Mine is only 3″ but it’s what you can do with it that counts. Or so I’m told.

Set Condition Plaid

As if this week weren’t eventful enough, we now have Irene bearing down on us. People at work who know what they are doing have been battening down the hatches or whatever the shore equivalent is, and I’ve been staying out of their way. Hannah got us wet but not much else (as far as I recall) in 2008 and Isabel knocked out power when she visited in 2003 (24 hours or so for me, longer for others) and came ashore as a cat 1, so this may be more of a problem. Just a heads up that I might submerge and go silent this weekend, if such circumstances are thrust upon me. I’ll have battery power for my iPod and flashlights and sandwich fixins, plus some books to read in case the power and/or internet are interrupted.


Really it’s afterquake; I’m not sure how much math will be here. But anyway, a few more comments on what happened, just because.

An event such as this allows for an evaluation of systems and protocols that you have in place. You can do simulations, but quite often you aren’t willing to invite any real risk in an exercise — the stress on the system isn’t real. So sure, you can time how long it takes for a response to happen in a test or know that a backup system is present, but under real conditions things fall apart quickly. You have different traffic patterns because of fallen trees and traffic lights that are out of commission. That backup system didn’t engage because of an overlooked problem, and you never actually tried it out because you didn’t want any downtime. At best you can find things that worked but would work even better or be useful in that situation, but never noticed because you weren’t in that situation. Hey, you know what? We need an emergency light here! Or, this system status data would really be useful to have in real-time. So there are flaws and potential improvements that only come to light under actual stress.

It took me more than an hour to get home, when it usually takes me less than 30 minutes. The district DOT people closed off Rock Creek Parkway to southbound traffic, which they normally do at 3:45 PM, but they did it at 2:30 and forced a bunch of Virginia-bound drivers into the downtown area to find another bridge. Bad call, IMO. Surprises are bad — I think you want to keep routines as constant as possible. Disruptions to routine usually makes things worse. Crossing the Potomac requires a bridge or tunnel, and shutting off a main route to one of them is one reason traffic was so heavy. There are more options for getting into Maryland.

I’m not at liberty to discuss the operations response at work, but I’ll put it this way: I’m sure the press would not have been shy about pointing out problems had they arisen. If I had not been caught up in the response, I probably would have appreciated this more in real-time: I work with a bunch of professionals. People who do what they need to do, without being told — checking on systems, making sure a backup has kicked in if there’s a problem with the primary, and then diagnosing what that problem is when they find one. And I cannot fathom why there are those in elected positions who think it’s worthwhile to put pressure on these people, essentially inviting them to leave government service, by under-compensating them so that they would have to be replaced by less capable people. This attitude filters down either by diffusion or by direct pressure. If you continue along that path you’ll be left with people who are senior enough that staying is still worthwhile since they are heavily vested in the retirement program and marginally competent junior people who can’t get better jobs in the private sector. When the senior people retire, the system will crumble. Maybe that’s what people are looking for, as an excuse to privatize or disband more of government, but I think it’s a bad idea.

It became apparent that there are government people working in fairly critical positions whose primary means of communication is a cell phone. The cell phone system froze for a period of time after the quake, isolating these people. This is where the argument about how “the market” will provide a solution just fails. Even with whatever FCC requirements exist, the system collapsed. It wasn’t a matter of one carrier reaching saturation, to be fixed by switching providers. What if this had been more serious? Would the rationale that lives were lost because the market does not value the extra capacity really hold up? Government regulations are an absolute requirement in cases where the players cannot be trusted to regulate themselves. The mantra that less regulation is always better is sheer idiocy. We already have too many wingnuts thinking that e.g. the EPA should be emasculated. As a citizen I don’t see the upside of more air, water and land pollution. Ultimately it’s cheaper to prevent it than clean it up. We don’t need fewer people inspecting our food or maintaining our roads. We don’t need softer building codes.

One more thing, about the mockery from the west-coasters: payback is a bitch. Yes, many people overreacted, because they are not used to earthquakes, and you stay calm because you go through it. But because they are common, you build for them. There are a lot of old buildings — i.e. structurally questionable — in DC. Not so much in LA, or especially San Francisco, because all of the really old buildings burned down, fell over and then sank into the swamp during some previous earthquake. How much of SF construction dates back before 1906? A 5.9 earthquake here is not to be compared to a 5.9 there. Here, it’s the biggest earthquake we’ve had in more than 100 years. You want a real comparison? What would be the LA reaction to a hard freeze? The city has only seen a temperature as low as 29ºF in the last 80 years — that’s the record low. Do you think maybe you’d scurry about in a bit of a panic if that were to happen again, worrying about bursting pipes and dead plants, because you aren’t built for that sort of thing? DC may not handle snow very well (not many really big cities do), but we get freezing weather quite a bit. It’s not a problem. I’ll keep a snarkball in the freezer, ready to throw at you, in case this ever happens.

James Bond Never Needed This

But I could totally see Mission:Impossible doing it. Spy vs. Spy: Casinos Can’t See The Cameras Hidden Up Gamblers’ Sleeves

In January, at the newly opened $4-billion Cosmopolitan casino in Las Vegas, a gang called the Cutters cheated at baccarat. Before play began, the dealer offered one member of the group a stack of eight decks of cards for a pre-game cut. The player probably rubbed the stack for good luck, at the same instant riffling some of the corners of the cards underneath with his index finger. A small camera, hidden under his forearm, recorded the order.
After a few hands, the cutter left the floor and entered a bathroom stall, where he most likely passed the camera to a confederate in an adjoining stall. The runner carried the camera to a gaming analyst in a nearby hotel room, where the analyst transferred the video to a computer, watching it in slow motion to determine the order of the cards. Not quite half an hour had passed since the cut. Baccarat play averages less than six cards a minute, so there were still at least 160 cards left to play through. Back at the table, other members of the gang were delaying the action, glancing at their cellphones and waiting for the analyst to send them the card order.

Chemistry Rising

Physics & Parsimony: Chemistry with Rising 9th Graders

What surprised me was that almost all of these students knew how to balance chemical equations. Yet they had no idea what any of it meant. They could also tell me that burning alcohol was alcohol reacting with oxygen and the result was water and carbon dioxide (some wanted to add intermediate “fire atoms,” though). While they had been taught to balance a combustion equation and even knew quite a lot about combustion, they nonetheless (to a student) had no idea what was going on.


We were hit with an earthquake (earlier today as I write this, yesterday as this is posted); preliminary reports had it at a 5.8 with the epicenter about 85 miles away from DC. I was at work and it took a second to realize it wasn’t someone rolling a heavy cart down the hallway. I was all “What the?” (as I moved to stand in the doorframe of my office) because earthquakes aren’t all that common in this area. But I’ve been through the experience a few times before.

I came home to find that entropy had increased in my abode from the shakin’ and bakin’. Most of the top row of CDs (Beatles through Dire Straits) had fallen, and many things on another set of shelves had tipped over or made it to the ground.

Also check out Virginia earthquake waves ripple across the US! from the Bad Astronomer

Looks like I will be busy fulfilling my duties as a member of an American chapter of the Society for Putting Things on Top of Other Things

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video