Wednesday, August 25, 2010


And now for something totally different that no one who reads it will possibly care about =) (That is, keeping with tradition...)

The age-old debate among amateur astronomers: to log or not to log, and in what detail? I say, log, sketch, describe, and record details about conditions and equipment, but don't bother with the object details that are easily looked up in any database. I write down time, date, location, seeing, transparency, equipment used, description, and sketch (in a circle traced from an altoids tin lid). Not too cumbersome but more than adequate.

And, don't bother with the specially marketed logging notebooks. They will never be exactly right for your preferences and aren't flexible enough for the many situations you encounter. I use very small circles for multiple stars, bigger for standard deep sky objects, bigger yet for huge and detailed open and globular clusters, and lots of circles mashed together when several interesting things are within a field of view or two from each other. Some descriptions are very short, others very long. I don't keep a list of transparency test stars (and find it incredibly tedious to accurately measure transparency, so I guess and round...), but I do have a list of eyepiece specs, Messier observation page numbers, etc. And I like to write down details about the trip and people and events in a diarylike fashion, right with the deep space observations. It's just easier to use a standard quadrille notebook and mold it to my purposes.

What's the purpose of all that work? At least tenfold:

  1. Logging objects lets you keep track of what you've seen in what conditions, so you don't fall into the trap of looking at the same dozen objects every time just because you like them and don't want to look up new things. Or you forgot you've already seen it. Easy to do with names like "IC1322".
  2. Drawing forces you to notice details that you would otherwise never see, and remember them. Without that detail, every object is just another grey smudge after you've seen the first dozen.
  3. Drawing forces you to improve your observational skills since you can compare your drawings to photographs and others' drawings for accuracy and things missed.
  4. Logging forces you to learn more of the scientific context, since to describe accurately you need to know what it is and how far it is and technical details like magnitude, degree of separation, etc. It's more satisfying to say "rich starforming region ~10 arcminutes across but obscured by dust cloud" than "brighter fuzzy patch next to a sort of darkish area".
  5. Describing objects forces you to notice more detail and also to mentally compare each object to the others you've seen, which gives you a growing context of understanding. You can't say "smallish cluster with a bright core" without knowing what is average size and average core brightness.
  6. Logbooks are incredibly fun to re-read over the years. It's stunning the level of crappiness of my earliest observations. And since I recorded all the details about my first star parties and astronomy camp etc etc, I'll always be able to relive those things.
  7. You will always have a reference when you can't remember what that cool green planetary nebula was or who gave a talk on galaxy clusters. It's like a research logbook in that way, which I also keep in a detailed manner (formerly in a notebook, now in the form of every version of every file and tons and tons of notes in text files and annotated pdfs...)
  8. You can use these logs to acquire Astronomical League observing club pins, since they require proof of every observation. It would be silly to start from scratch if you've already seen many of the objects.
  9. You can confirm your observations of very difficult objects by comparing your drawing to the digital sky survey. Lingering doubt makes it not very satisfying to say "I saw NGC4565" when you really mean "I think I kind of saw something in that area when I averted my eyes and jiggled the scope, maybe..."
  10. It's fun!

The downside to logging in this level of detail, of course, is that it takes a long time and is potentially very tedious (as when drawing a dense resolvable open cluster... try drawing 300 precisely-placed dots in a circle sometime...) I can observe every Messier object in a single night in March, but I'm still working on drawing them all. But it's definitely worth it! The longer it's been since I logged something, the happier I am that I did. Exponential returns!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

partisan versions of reality

I was recently in a position of being asked my political opinion as the local economic authority by people I don't necessarily agree with but who expected me to uphold their positions. Thinking about what I could have said (other than nodding and squeaking out some noncommittal platitudes), and listening to them discuss further amongst themselves, I realized that my main beef with Democrats, unlike my beef with Republicans, is mostly factual rather than ideological.

I suppose that's why, in this two-party-option society, I instinctively side with the Democrats despite having large differences with both. Then again, it could also be because while I agree with the stated positions of Republicans on non-social issues, the logic of the majority in getting there is just as faulty as the Democrats'...

The root of the problem, of course, is utter economic ignorance and/or denial of the power of incentives. You may or may not think it's a price society should be willing to pay, but laws setting the minimum wage above the market level DOES increase unemployment. Unemployment insurance DOES increase the amount of time people spend unemployed. Shortening pharmaceutical patents or fixing the price of prescription drugs WILL decrease innovation. People from other countries DO come to the U.S. for specialized medical treatments (and our private universities and many other things) that they can't get in the public systems in their own country. Redistribution DOES reduce the overall size of the pie. There IS an unavoidable choice between long lines and high prices. Trade-offs exist in every economic choice. There is no free lunch.

If everyone could just accept that reality and stop bickering over things that can't possibly be true, the ideological differences would pale in comparison. Yeah, I definitely err on the "when in doubt, choose freedom" and "people rise to expectations, let them take care of themselves and each other" - ie small government - end of the ideological spectrum. But I'm certainly not opposed to the government doing things it can do to help people in minimally-distortionary ways and without enormous unintended economic/political consequences down the road. The amount of wealth in the U.S. is hugely more than is needed to feed the entire population. If the government wants to guarantee basic survival, I have no major problem with that. But the promises the Democrats want the government to make are orders of magnitude larger than that, and completely unrealistic and infeasible. Sure it'd be great if everyone could have the middle-class lifestyle that the far left likes to yell is a 'civil right' (don't get me started on the abuse of that phrase...), but we don't live in Neverland.

There's already so much needless bickering and grandstanding in politics, can we at least have a little humility and be honest about the unavoidable costs of what we want to do and focus on persuading people we should do it anyway?

And also, integrate economics and statistics into the standard high school curriculum...

Friday, August 20, 2010

Earth to Newt Gingrich

Germans : Nazis :: Muslims : Al Qaeda

...and even if that weren't true, as long as the first amendment is around, even Nazis are allowed to hold up signs next to the Holocaust museum...

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Scientist At Work

(I mention this now because the last four posts are about Jake's trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo with his advisor at AMNH, Melanie Stiassny =)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Good old Daily Okie

The "maps that show Oklahoma as an outlier in new funny ways" category of this blog is mostly a joke, since I like maps, Oklahoma, and even moreso making fun of Oklahoma... but then I see this and it fits too perfectly to ignore =)

"Slant" is a measure of extreme partisan language; higher is more right-wing. The other axis is a user rating of conservativeness. Guess which newspaper is way up in the top right corner?

Source: Gentzkow and Shapiro, 2010.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

school of life

Things I learned while re-doing the body of my car for more hours than I can count on the street in front of my apartment (and I'm still not done. Field exams put everything else on hold...):
  1. The best way to meet your neighbors is to spend a lot of time outside doing something people like to talk about. I didn't know anyone in the building or neighborhood at all, but now I know the guy from the tool library who bikes past my house to and from work every day, and his grandson, and the guy Deangelo who bikes around with his tiny dog all day, and the lady named Green next door and her toddler son, and the couple across the street who like to ask questions, and the old guy across the street, and the lesbian couple next door, and the guy who seems to rent a room from Green, and the guy across the street who went to autobody school.
  2. If you act like you know what you're doing, people assume you know what you're doing. I hated to disappoint the guy who wanted advice on how to fix his car, and the woman who wanted to know if I owned an autobody shop she could bring her car to, with the response "I have no earthly idea what I'm doing, I'm making it up as I go along with some help from Google."
  3. Paint stripper advertisements are utter crap. "Strip your car in one hour with chemical paint stripper" HA! Expect to spend hours and hours with a scraper on each layer of paint.
  4. Hardware stores are even MORE fun than office supply stores. So much potential!
  5. Men are very in awe or intimidated by women working on cars, and women are overly congratulatory. I really think it's anti-feminist to make a big deal about women doing stereotypically male things. There might not be such a persistent gender gap if girls weren't constantly told how amazing they are to attempt anything male-dominated, implying that it's so much harder than it really is.
  6. Hispanics are generally more sexist than whites, who are more sexist than blacks. One hispanic guy couldn't even speak English but stuttered along until getting across the sentence "Isn't that too big a job for a lady?" The whites are a little better with "Not every day you see a woman doing what you're doing, way to go." The blacks almost never mention gender at all, and express more respect in the subtle manner of asking honest questions.
  7. People overestimate how difficult auto-body work is, and the auto-body business is a giant scam exploiting that fact. $600 to replace one window in your car? Try $50 in parts, and 20 minutes of work that anyone can do very very easily. Sure, sanding down a dent, filling it in with bondo, and repainting the area is a bit of a pain in the neck, but still only a few hours of labor and $30 of materials, not $1600, which is how much I got from the other guy's insurance company when someone backed into my door in a parking lot a few years back. I think the problem is that since cars are so expensive, people are terrified to try to repair them by hand, so they never learn how easy it is. I didn't try either until my car had accrued so much damage that I had nothing to lose...
  8. Despite the sexism, it made me smile when the woman across the street wanted to know if I own a shop she could go to because "us women got to support each other." That's so much better than the typical female backstabbing. And it's nice to know if I get sick of economics and open an auto-body/motorcycle/popsicle shop instead, I can corner the female market share... (Well, I already knew that, since the "women owned and operated" motorcycle shop Werkstatt in SF charges about 50% more than anywhere else for standard maintenance.) Not that I would ever try such a thing. I could never do anything girl-power-ish without gagging.
  9. Don't sit in a puddle of paint stripper - it BURNS. And always wear a dust mask when sanding to avoid paint-inhalation headaches. And don't get impatient when using screw cutters. And use low-gage wiring for heat guns. And keep your fingers away from the sandpaper clamps. And don't spray-paint in erratic winds. And mineral spirits would be more fittingly named miracle spirits.
  10. Those career predictor tests in elementary school that always told me I should be a mechanic were probably right.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Brownian Bummer Theorem

There isn't a single google hit for the phrase "Brownian Bummer". I am going to rectify that. All funny phrases that are lucky enough to mean something should be google represented.

Koszegi and Rabin (2009) presents a model of news-utility prospect theory in which people are loss averse over changes in beliefs about future consumption. As a result, people would rather learn about some future outcome (such as the value of their retirement portfolio) all at once rather than updated on a daily basis, since the psychological losses and gains are always, ceteris paribus, dominated by losses due to loss aversion.

An omitted result in the paper is the Brownian Bummer theorem, which says that in the limit, as you update your beliefs more and more frequently, this leads to pure torture (in utility terms of course).

*giggle* I like funny theorem names...

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Prop 8

Woohoo. Now let's win it in the Supreme Court so we can put all the nonsense behind us once and for all.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Mars is normal right now

My mom sent me a hilarious email recently, asking if it was a joke or not. Unfortunately it's not, but very wrong nonetheless. As much as I'd love to see what new insane features this rumor acquires as it mutates through time**, this has gone on long enough...

"Two moons on August 27" was the tagline. "Planet Mars will be the brightest in the night sky starting August. It will look as large as the full moon to the naked eye. This will culminate on Aug. 27 when Mars comes within 34.65M miles off earth. Be sure to watch the sky on Aug. 27 12:30 am. It will look like the earth has 2 moons. The next time Mars may come this close is in 2287."

The best part though, is the picture showing what it allegedly will look like:

To any astronomy buff, this should of course be instantly recognizable as a photo taken by the Cassini spacecraft as it orbits Saturn, of two of Saturns moons hovering over the rings. I can't find the exact image attributed to Cassini, but here's a similar example, showing Dione (the larger moon) and Mimas in crescent phase over the rings (Dione is additionally lit up on the 'dark side' by Saturn off to the right. Mimas is much farther forward, on the near side of Saturn, so it's not):

Pretty, huh? But no matter how close any other planet gets to Earth, we're never going to see "two moons" in our sky. You'll have to fly to Mars for that. Sorry.

Anyway, as already documented on all those websites like snopes, this email has been going around since 2003 when Mars did indeed come closer to the Earth on August 27th than it had in over 60,000 years - all of human history. But even then, to the naked eye it only looked like a very bright orange dot. You'd need a telescope to appreciate the increase in angular size of the disc.

So if you get an email like this, please tell them it is both grossly incorrect and seven years out of date, and instead tell them that Jupiter is reaching opposition on September 21, and this is when it will be the closest to us in 12 years, since Jupiter is nearing perihelion (which occurs in March 2011). That is, when Jupiter is closest to the sun (perihelion), which happens once every Jupiter-year or once ever 11.8 Earth-years, we can get as close as possible to Jupiter by being directly between it and the sun (opposition). We are directly between Jupiter and the sun once every 1.1 Earth-years (a little more than a year because Jupiter orbits in the same direction as us, so we have to catch up a bit after going back to the same point in the solar system that we were in during opposition the year before), so every 12 oppositions is a particularly good one. That's this September. Make sure you get a look at it through a telescope at high magnification. Pretty spectacular.

**Natural selection depends on two things: a source of mutation, and replication. I understand the replication of these emails. Gullible preteens forwarding every email they get to all of their friends, a fad that has recently been transferred to middle-aged women as well... but where is the mutation? Who decided to add a picture of Saturn? Who changes the year of the alleged event every year? Is there some secret club of astronomers who are giggling as they see how many new ludicrous details they can get to catch on??