Come fly with me

More joys of the Astronomy Picture of the Day, a.k.a. APOD. I think this must be one of the best (and most cost effective) public relations efforts ever managed by NASA. I used to work at NASA Ames Research Center, and I remember how important PR was, given their steady diet of taxpayer’s cash. It’s a good arrangement… I want to see cool space pictures, and NASA wants to show them to me for free. Last week APOD featured this: Liftoff With the Space Shuttle, which led me to a bonanza of online video here: STS – 112 Video Index (which is to say, videos from space shuttle mission 112, the most recent one). I really must insist that you take the time to download the movie that shows the view looking down from the external fuel tank as the shuttle takes off. You get an unbroken visual record as the shuttle moves steadily from one world to the next. First there is the familiar view as from an airplane of grasslands, beach, and ocean. Then after only 90 seconds (17 miles high! 2800 miles per hour!) the scene has become a view from space, with tiny clotted splotches of cloud painted flat against a dim Florida coastline. The last frame seen from this camera shows the soft curvature of the earth clearly highlighted against the black void beyond.

Before I leave the topic of APOD, I have to mention another title that caught my eye: October 24 – Gullies on Mars. Since my last name is Gulley, you can imagine I looked long and hard for a peek at my Martian cousins, but to no avail. Still, if their house is somewhere in the picture, they must have a marvelous view from their back yard.

Guest Rambles from Maryland

My good friend Jay is, in addition to his many other diverse interests from military history to birdwatching, an amateur genealogist. He recently sent me a hot tip that the 1880 U.S. census is now online courtesy of the Mormon Church. It took 17 years for church volunteers to transcribe all the handwritten documents and put them online at FamilySearch, but you can now read about your obscure relatives or famous people like Frederick Douglass.

My friend Jay, in addition to his interest in genealogy, also happens to live in Maryland near the erstwhile sniper’s hunting grounds. I asked him what it was like these days, and this is what he wrote.

My wife woke me at 6:30 AM Thursday morning, crying. She had been watching CNN. I was expecting to hear her tell me about the next victim of the D.C. area sniper. Is this one closer to our home, I thought. Instead, she said “They caught them.” It was over.

I work in Rockville, but live near Baltimore, so the everyday impact of the three week reign of the sniper had not been as acute as it was for those who lived in Montgomery County and Bowie in MD, and Virginia along I-95. But it had certainly seeped into our mundane everyday activities. A low fuel gauge in my car would propel me into unfamiliar decision-making terrain. Where do I gas up? The characteristics that made my usual station preferable – easy access to the major highway – was now a disqualifier. I brought a brown bag lunch to work to avoid going out at mid-day. Intellectually, you know that statistically the odds are extremely low that you will be a target. And, normally, people take a measure of re-assurance at some subconscious level by rationalizing, often a touch judgmentally — oh, that bad thing will not happen to me because I don’t associate with those types of people, or I don’t go into that bad neighborhood, or I don’t engage in that risky behavior. But these rationalizations clearly didn’t apply here, and that is why your intellectual side fought a slow losing battle against your growing anxiety. The slow losing battle turned into an outright rout when the young schoolboy was shot and when the sniper put us on notice that he was coming after our children.

More generally, during the three week period, I caught myself taking grim stock of each day’s top stories. Killer on the loose. Terrorists re-grouping. Steadily increasing drumbeats of war in Iraq. Economy is down the tubes. Boy, remember the late 90’s? Clearly, the naive optimism (and, I daresay, smugness) of those heady days when the Cold War was a memory and we were ‘safe’ within our protective and speculative bubble was not warranted and a correction was due. And, excepting the tragedies that refocused us, that change in perspective is not unhealthy. It’s just that it seems the pendulum has swung way too far. Now every day we have to worry about threats to us from ‘failed states’ on the other side of the world and ‘failed individuals’ on the other side of Main Street who lash out at people going about their lives. I can’t express the relief that the culprits in the sniper shootings were caught. But that same day, the government announced now-familiar vague warnings based on intelligence concerning terrorist actions against American railways. One danger is removed, another takes its place.

Science made stupid

I always enjoyed the book Science Made Stupid, a parody science book. The writing is hit-and-miss, mostly relying on goofy sound-alike puns (the three kinds of rock are ignominious, sedentary, and metaphoric). Enough of the writing hits the target to make you believe the author, Tom Weller, is truly (or was trained as) a scientist. I liked the throwaway reference to the Devil’s Grant Proposal National Wasteland in Wyoming. But the artwork is superb and lifts it far above lamer low-end parodies. Here’s a typical explanation, reminiscent of the explanations of Calvin’s dad in Calvin and Hobbes.

We sometimes speak of the tides causing the oceans to rise or fall. Of course, this is a fallacy. Actually, it is the land that rises and falls.
As the Earth rotates, the moon’s gravitational attraction is greatest first on one side, then the other. Land masses, being rigid, are pulled up or down accordingly. Oceans, being liquid, are free to flow back to their normal level. (see diagram).

This site is based in Austria; I have no idea if the author approves of the material appearing online like this. If Amazon is any indication, the book is out of print, so enjoy the website.

Watching the clock

My old pal Rob the Coffee Czar sent me a good link this morning: check out the animated timepiece at Industrious Clock at, which appears to be related to the Japanese design firm MONO*crafts. I haven’t even had time to check out all the mesmerizing Flash demos they have up, but the ones I’ve looked at so far are really impressive. The Industrious Clock reminds me of another handwritten clock called the Human Clock. The Human Clock is much slower, but really seems to have succeeded as a social phenomenon. When I first saw it some time ago, every minute seemed to show someone from Portland, Oregon. But they seem to have succeeded to the extent that you’re as likely to find someone from New South Wales as from Oregon.

Tune In and Turn Off with General Ned

Ned Lud was a real person who smashed a knitting frame and was thereafter celebrated for striking a blow against the job-sucking engines of the Industrial Revolution. From that seed grew the mythical figure General Ludd, a shadowy figure credited with organizing the anti-technology Luddites. My little graphic notwithstanding, I did find several references on the web to a site called It has since gone off line…

Hand of Smith revealed by Smith

Paving Wall Street : Experimental Economics and the Quest for the Perfect Market

EXTRA! Hand of Smith revealed by Smith; invisible appendage appears in wind tunnel

Vernon L. Smith was recently awarded the 2002 Nobel prize for economics. And what contribution earned him half a million dollars and a date with the Queen of Sweden? The answer has to do with wind tunnels.

As luck would have it, I’m reading a very good book on this very topic by a guy named Ross Miller who was once a student of Smith’s. Incidentally, the book, Paving Wall Street: Experimental Economics and the Quest for the Perfect Market, was given to me by a clever and generous reader of this weblog who works in the finance business. The key phrase in the title is experimental economics. Miller regularly uses the analogy of wind tunnels in his descriptions. Most economists, as they try to explain Adam Smith’s famously invisible hand, prefer to treat the “rational behavior” of humans in a very hands-off theoretical way. Vernon Smith asks instead: What can we learn about economics by actually performing experiments with real people? Quite a lot, as it turns out. His work showed that markets, even tiny ones without much shared information, can be extremely effective at pricing goods. And why weren’t economists doing this kind of experimental work years ago? Engineers, for example, are trained to start experimental simulations as soon as possible. No jet designer would build a plane without running it through extensive tests in a wind tunnel. Miller’s book shows how the cultural biases in the economics profession blocked the acceptance of experimental work early on, and then he traces his storyline through the vindication and ascendency of experimental techniques. Now the second edition of his book can acknowledge his mentor’s ultimate achievement.

By the way, here’s something cool: the resum� of a Nobel Prize winner, including 15 pages of publications. I’m picturing myself flipping through this and giving him a call: “Sorry, Vern, it doesn’t look like a good fit here… uh-huh. No, no, Vern, don’t feel bad. Look, here’s the number for Nobel & Co. in Stockholm. Give them a call… ask for Al. They might have something. You never know. Yeah… uh-huh. Buh-bye.”

Best… joke… ever.

That headline is no joke. This story is about the world’s funniest joke. I was absolutely certain that it was a bait-and-switch kind of a story about the psychology of jokes, but they did not disappoint. Follow the link, and there is a real joke there. As far as being the world’s funniest, I don’t know, but their rationale was: across genders, across many possible cultures, nations, religions, age groups, and languages, which joke, of a given list, ranked the highest? I was sorry to see the winner did not begin with So this guy walks into a bar, and …. But I’m getting ahead of myself. See for yourself. Here’s another related story at from partway through the study: Europe’s funniest nation revealed (surprise! it’s Germany). Incidentally, Dave Barry had a good joke on the joke scientists:

The American data proved to be somewhat strange. Dave Barry is a well known humourist whose columns are syndicated in many American newspapers. In January 2002 he kindly devoted an entire column to LaughLab. At the end of the column he urged readers to submit jokes that simply ended with the punch line:
‘There’s a weasel chomping on my privates.’ Within just a few days we had received over 1500 ‘weasel chomping’ jokes.


The Houston Chronicle has a story this week about football players who can’t get enough. When they’re not playing it on the gridiron, they’re playing onscreen: Texans addicted as anybody else to video-game craze. NFL players have the benefit of seeing themselves playing in the computer game. As you can imagine, they take great interest in how well their virtual proxies do. My favorite quote was this one from the Electronic Arts PR firm that publishes Madden 2002 NFL Football.

The first thing players look at is what their rating is… If they see John Madden during the season they’ll ask him, “How come I’m not faster?” They take it real seriously.

I’m not surprised. The faithfulness of the simulations that can be achieved these days is really breathtaking, from the creases in the uniforms to the stadium lights to the end zone dances. Take a look at one of the promotional videos from the Madden site. If Virtual You kept chucking interceptions, you’d be pissed too. I spotted this on Boing Boing; read Cory Doctorow’s riff on the same topic.

Mystery subscription

My latest issue of The Atlantic came in the mail. James Fallows has a thoughtful piece on what would happen in Iraq after we won a war. That, in itself, is interesting, but not surprising. The surprising thing about my new issue of The Atlantic is this: I never subscribed to The Atlantic. If anyone out there can help clear up the mystery of where my subscription came from, I would most obliged. This is from Fallows.

“My nightmare scenario,” Merrill McPeak, the former Air Force chief of staff, told me, “is that we jump people in, seize the airport, bring in the 101st [Airborne Division]—and we can’t find Saddam Hussein. Then we’ve got Osama and Saddam Hussein out there, both of them achieving mythical heroic status in the Arab world just by surviving. It’s not a trivial problem to actually grab the guy, and it ain’t over until you’ve got him in handcuffs.”

Where is Manuel Noriega today? You don’t remember and you don’t care because we put him in jail. Or maybe it was because he was really boring in the first place. I can’t remember…