Saturday, March 17, 2007

Hunting comets digitally without a telescope

According to Sky & Telescope magazine's SkyTonight website, Terry Lovejoy of Thornlands, Queensland, Australia, is the happy discoverer of a 9th-magnitude comet (still very dim) in the southern constellation Indus. It's the faint blurry green thing near the top of the frame at right. That's not what caught my eye, though -- comets are discovered regularly, and most don't make much of a splash. What caught my eye was the fact that Terry didn't use a telescope but an off-the-shelf, consumer digital SLR with a zoom lens (granted, one of the pricier telephoto zooms with an f2.8 maximum aperature).
Lovejoy's find opens a new chapter in the long and glorious history of comet hunting. It appears to be the first case of a comet discovered in a systematic survey with an off-the-shelf, consumer digital camera: a Canon 350D with a zoom lens set to 200-mm focal length at f/2.8. Lovejoy spotted the object near the frame edge in 16 exposures of 90 seconds each. He prepared the cropped composite here from eight of these frames. North is toward left, and the field about 0.8° wide.
The body of the 8-megapixel Canon 350D (also known as the Digital Rebel XT) lists at B&H Photo Video for $514.95. A few years ago, digital cameras with sensors like that cost thousands of dollars, but these days, the camera is practically a commodity and the part of the package that is apt to push four figures is a fine lens like the highly regarded Canon Zoom Telephoto EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM Autofocus Lens, which lists for $1,099.95 at B&H (image stabilization would add another 600 bucks to the cost of the lens, but comet seekers probably wouldn't need that, since they would be using a tripod anyhow).

Writer's grandson chalks grafitto with white sedimentary rock. Anticlimax ensues.

I've long been a fan of John McPhee, poet of the restless earth's continental drift. He's a marvelous writer. I still retain a sense of wonder at the organic life of rock which comes directly from Annals of the Former World, the collection of New Yorker articles for which he was awarded the 1999 Pulitzer Prize. But geology is only a small part of his output in a long writing career. He has written about everything -- including two classics of sports writing and creative nonfiction, Levels of the Game, about Arthur Ashe's early career, and A Sense of Where You Are, his first published book, about Bill Bradley. But McPhee can also be prolix, mannered and digressive to a fault.

I must confess that I did not finish his most recent piece in the March 12 New Yorker, "Season on the Chalk." I made it most of the way through but flagged near the end, and the magazine is still resting on the shelf in the bathroom, where I might pick it up again, or I might not. The article is about the huge chalk deposit that started to accumulate 100 million years ago and underlies the English Channel and its surroundings. It starts promisingly enough.
The massive chalk of Europe lies below the English Channel, under much of Northern France, under bits of Germany and Scandinavia, under the Limburg Province of the Netherlands, and—from Erith Reach to Gravesend—under fifteen miles of the lower Thames. My grandson Tommaso appears out of somewhere and picks up a cobble from the bottom of the Thames. The tide is out. The flats are broad between the bank and the water. Small boats, canted, are at rest on the riverbed. Others, farther out on the wide river, are moored afloat—skiffs, sloops, a yawl or two. Tommaso is ten. The rock in his hand is large but light. He breaks it against the revetment bordering the Gordon Promenade, in the Riverside Leisure Area, with benches and lawns under oaks and chestnuts, prams and children, picnics under way, newspapers spread like sails, and, far up the bank, a stall selling ice cream. He cracks the cobble into jagged pieces, which are whiter than snow. Chalked graffiti line the revetment have attracted the attention of Tomasso, who now starts his own with the letter "R."
(Since the article isn't online, I'm indebted to John Bucher at New Yorker Comment for the opening graf, which he must have typed up himself -- unless the article started out online in last week's issue, and he copied and pasted it into his blog before it was subsequently taken down. That's possible, because his link to the article no longer links to the actual article, but maybe that's not his doing. Now it links to another new feature of the redesigned online New Yorker: a rather leisurely and detailed summary of the article titled "Abstract," an apparent placeholder for missing or broken links to articles. John's post about "Season on the Chalk" links to several others and invites comment. This started out as a comment, but his comment link seems to have gone missing for the McPhee post, so I guess this is my comment. End of digression.)

While writers' dwelling on their own or closely related children usually puts me in mind of W. C. Fields' views about children, I was open-minded about the introduction of little Tommaso. After all, chalk has been associated with graffiti from time immemorial. Maybe McPhee could gather some metaphorical resonance from his grandson's reenactment of the human need to imprint ourselves wherever we go. Unfortunately, no. The extended passage becomes downright precious as Tommaso completes his graffito, with a bit too much grandfatherly pride breaking what spell the writing might have generated, and winding down anticlimactically with evidence that young Tommaso is not nearly the writer his grandfather is, though his grandfather is himself, in point of fact, undermining his own credentials with this little bit of familial indulgence.

Although I kept slogging on as McPhee meandered around the English and French landscapes and underground into caves carved into the chalk that have held champagne as it ages for hundreds of years and which pilots shot down during World War II used to escape from the Germans, my momentum was broken. Ultimately, all the signs of human activity never quite rose to the level of metaphor but only distracted from the rock itself. For this reader at least, McPhee simply did not animate the history of chalk with nearly the passion and poetry he previously brought to the history of rocks like limestone, basalt and granite.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Hillary's new Iraq plan has all the clarity, simplicity and political appeal of her old health insurance plan

Oh great. In an interview with Michael Gordon and Patrick Healy of the New York Times, Hillary Clinton said that as president she would keep U.S. troops in Iraq. While the Iraqi civil war continues to rage around them, they would ignore it and focus on their counterterrorism mission, protect Iraq from its neighbors, and continue to represent American interests in the region.

Questioning Bush's tactics but not the premises of his policy, the plan triangulates by half steps and half measures to perpetuate the morass we find ourselves in. It seems destined to fail. Like her ill-fated health insurance proposal of 1993, it offers bewildering complexity when bold initiatives are called for. If, by some miracle, the plan survives the Democratic primaries, it would most likely destroy any administration that tried to implement it. The American people want out of Iraq, and this doesn't do it.

Hillary did not put any numbers on her proposal, but Gordon and Healy juxtapose her plan with one that does have numbers in a way that makes it seem she endorses it.
In the interview, she suggested that it was likely that the fighting among the Iraqis would continue for some time. In broad terms, her strategy is to abandon the American military effort to stop the sectarian violence and to focus instead on trying to prevent the strife from spreading throughout the region by shrinking and rearranging American troop deployments within Iraq.

The idea of repositioning American forces to minimize American casualties, discourage Iranian, Syrian and Turkish intervention, and forestall the Kurds’ declaring independence is not a new one. It has been advocated by Dov S. Zakheim, who served as the Pentagon’s comptroller under former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Mr. Zakheim has estimated that no more than 75,000 troops would be required, compared to the approximately 160,000 troops the United States will have in Iraq when the additional brigades in Mr. Bush’s plan are deployed.
In all fairness, Hillary did not mention the Zakheim proposal, nor the numbers he suggested. It's useful to compare the story about the interview with the transcript provided by the Times. Hillary is mainly talking about the failure of Bush's policy and the likelihood that the surge will fail, leaving the next president still stuck in Iraq. She's much sketchier about her own plan. Still, she's quite specific, according to the transcript, about the basics.
And so it will be up to me to try to figure out how to protect those national security interests and continue to take our troops out of this urban warfare, which I think is a loser, and I do not believe that it can be successful. If we had done it right from the beginning, we might have had a fighting chance. We did not, and I think it is beyond our control now.

But what we can do is to almost take a line sort of north of, between Baghdad and Kirkuk, and basically put our troops into that region — the ones that are going to remain for our antiterrorism mission; for our northern support mission; for our ability to respond to the Iranians; and to continue to provide support, if called for, for the Iraqis.
Before Hillary and the other Democrats totally take over ownership of this war, they need to realize that the real issue facing the American public is no longer just Iraq. The real issue is whether we should get out of the business of empire before we expend even more treasure, both human and financial, destroy our democracy, and bankrupt our nation.

And, yes, there is a connection to healthcare: If we insist, we can probably afford to squander our resources in support of the imperial project for a few more years. We can afford universal healthcare. But we can't afford both.

UPDATE: Excellent post by Matt Stoller at MyDD today -- "Thinking Through Ending the War" -- that deals with some of these issues, their historical background, and why Hillary makes the decisions she makes about Iraq. Good discussion, too, in the comments. I like the suggestion by Cmpnwtr:
The way to win this argument is to attack internationalist interventionism by stating simply, "We need to take care of America first." "We have problems at home. Protection and safety starts here. Economic development and basic services start here. We need to stop closing bases in the U.S, and start closing them down overseas." This kind of non-interventionist, non-imperialist nationalism will win. I reject the idea that mainstream America wants troops in Iraq forever. If you frame the question as "permanent" bases, progressives win every time. Besides, if Hillary wants to run on a policy continuing the occupation in the primaries...she's history.
I agree with Matt that the public hasn't begun to think through the implications of our militaristic, imperialist drive for global hegemony. And Cmpnwtr is right that the way to work for change is to frame the issues in terms of the real (unmet) interests of the American people.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Happy 3.14159265... Day!

T reminded me -- how could I have forgotten?! -- that it's Pi Day. In belated celebration, here's a link to my post about pi poems last year, which included this handy mnemonic for remembering the decimal expansion of pi (each word contains as many letters as the corresponding digit of pi):
How I want a drink,
alcoholic of course,
after the heavy lectures
involving quantum mechanics.
All of thy geometry, Herr Planck,
is fairly hard…
And a Pi Day shout-out to the circular Pyare Square Building here in Madison, which seems to have staked a unique claim to this goofy math pun of a name, at least as far as Google is concerned.

Leni Riefenstahl and the esthetics of fascism

The Feb. 17, 1936 cover of TIME magazine, captioned "Hitler's Leni Riefenstahl," is an over-the-top example of what might be called fascist kitsch. This is how Henry Luce's flagship publication portrayed Hitler's athletic mountain maiden and favorite filmmaker, the woman who had just made the notorious propaganda film, "Triumph of the Will," the year before. Hard to believe now, but then, so were Riefenstahl's career and her long, litigious life.

Not everyone was taken in, of course. Walter Winchell was not nearly as susceptible to her charms as Henry Luce. As noted by Judith Thurman in the New Yorker, Winchell memorably called her "pretty as a swastika" -- a phrase that tellingly encapsulated both her youthful beauty and her fascist esthetics.

Aggressive legal action was one way she tried to keep biographers at bay and control her image (lying was another), but her death in 2003 at the age of 101 opened the door, and two biographies have already been published this year: Leni Riefenstahl: A Life by Jurgen Trimborn and Edna McCown and Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl by Steven Bach. Thurman reviews both books in a thoughtful essay in the current New Yorker.

And what's with that goofy cover shot of Riefenstahl on the slopes by pioneering photojournalist and fashion photographer Martin Munkacsi? Richard Schickel, a film critic for a very different TIME magazine than the one that ran the Riefenstahl cover, gives some context in his LA Times review of Bach's biography.
She achieved eminence first as a star, then as a director, of "mountain films," a popular, peculiarly Germanic genre in which wild, primitive people dare to scale beautiful yet menacing Alpine peaks, achieving death and transfiguration at the end of their exertions. At the time, most people viewed these movies as escapist, though Siegfried Kracauer (a mere critic at the time, not yet the eminent historian of German film he would become) saw in these films something "symptomatic of an antirationalism on which the Nazis could capitalize."

There was perhaps more to it than that. As Susan Sontag wrote in her seminal essay "Fascinating Fascism," the mountain films offered "a visually irresistible metaphor for unlimited aspiration toward the high mystic goal, both beautiful and terrifying, which was later to become concrete in Führer-worship." The would-be Führer saw this. And Riefenstahl, his would-be acolyte, was paying attention too. She read "Mein Kampf" and, typically, pressed that noxious rant upon a Jewish lover, saying, "Harry, you must read this book. This is the coming man."
Thurman begins her review by discussing the TIME cover and notes that Munkacsi was a Hungarian Jew who fled Germany in 1934.
The Nazi superstar and the Jewish émigré met at least once before the race laws precipitated his departure for New York, in 1934, and they had much in common, including international prestige and a penchant for self-mythologizing. But the source of rapture in Munkacsi’s pictures is freedom. In Riefenstahl’s, it is idol worship.

One of Riefenstahl’s most cherished ambitions, ironically, was a Hollywood career like that of Munkacsi’s fellow-émigrée Marlene Dietrich, and she clung to this fantasy tenaciously even after the Kristallnacht pogrom, in November, 1938, which derailed what was supposed to have been a triumphal cross-country American publicity tour with “Olympia.” Upon docking in New York and hearing the news, she refused to believe it, and dismissed the hostility that greeted her at nearly every stop as a plot fomented, she told an interviewer on her return, “by the Jewish moneymen.”
If you only know Riefenstahl through snippets of her films or the writing of film scholars who hail her genius as a filmmaker and pass lightly over her Nazi associations while taking her legend at face value, these books will come as real eye-openers. (Bach's seems the better researched and written, according to both reviewers.) Schickel sums it up this way:
It is difficult to overpraise Bach's efforts: Living the biographer's nightmare, trapped for a decade with a loathsome subject, Bach is determined to present her coolly, ironically, without loss of his own moral vector. What emerges is a compulsively readable and scrupulously crafted work, not unlike Klaus Mann's "Mephisto," that devastating novel about the actor Gustav Gründgens, another of Hitler's several semiconscious cultural ornaments-apologists. I do not believe this fundamentally ignorant woman ever perceived the inherent evil in Nazism. Her anti-Semitism was less virulent than reflexive — the common coin of many realms (including the United States) at the time. The disguise she wrapped around her ambition was that absurd, often unpleasant and peculiarly European one of the Grand Maestro, all art for art's sake — hysteria and narcissism mixed with contempt for her collaborators, grandiose graciousness to her groveling fans and patrons, and a talent that was all technique, no soul. She stood deluded at the center of evil and saw it only as a source of funding.

Bach ends his book with a quotation from Simone Weil: "The only people who can give the impression of having risen to a higher plane, who seem superior to ordinary human misery, are people who resort to the aids of illusion, exaltation, fanaticism, to conceal the harshness of destiny from their own eyes. The man who does not wear the armor of the lie cannot experience force without being touched by it to his very soul."
Leni Riefenstahl and the murderous regime to which she sold her soul are gone, but the fascist esthetics of trivializing suffering and romanticizing the beauty of violence (for a good cause, of course) are still with us, ensuring that Riefenstahl's name lives on.

A current case in point: It's striking how often Riefenstahl ("As a tribute to a particular world view, 300 could play on a double bill with Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will") and her sinister patron ("... it isn't a stretch to imagine Adolf's boys at a "300" screening, heil-fiving each other throughout and then lining up to see it again") are mentioned in reviews of "300," the movie epic about the Battle of Thermopylae that has been widely hailed for the visual beauty of its comic book violence.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Humor-free jokes aid in laughter study

If you're a psychologist studying the social dynamics of laughter, it's hard to come up with an experimental design that doesn't result in the findings being contaminated by the uncontrollable, anarchic nature of humor. One way to solve this problem is simply to get rid of the humor. Start with a really bad joke.
So there are these two muffins baking in an oven. One of them yells, “Wow, it’s hot in here!”

And the other muffin replies: “Holy cow! A talking muffin!”
(Groan.) It turns out that responses to this humor-free joke tend to depend on social setting and hierarchy.
When the woman watching was the boss, she didn’t laugh much at the muffin joke. But when she was the underling or a co-worker, she laughed much more, even though the joke-teller wasn’t in the room to see her. When you’re low in the status hierarchy, you need all the allies you can find, so apparently you’re primed to chuckle at anything even if it doesn’t do you any immediate good.
In other words, there's a lot of forced laughter in what passes for office humor. Cleverly designed reductionistic experiments like this, proving what's obvious to anyone who has ever worked in an office, keep the machinery of the social science enterprise humming along nicely. But they don't tell us much about the complex mysteries of humor. For openers, you'd need better jokes.

See Eustace's animated butterfly buddy and much more at redesigned newyorker.com

In case you haven't been there lately, the New Yorker's website has been redesigned. Among other things, Eustace Tilley's little butterfly buddy has been taking flying lessons. For more than eight decades, the foppish little member of the Lepidoptera Club -- every bit as much of a dandy as his larger friend with the top hat -- has been suspended, as if immobilized in amber, right in front of his pal's monocle, just hanging there, motionless. Now, suddenly, the butterfly has been granted the gift of flight. Whenever a page loads or you click on a link, the creature flutters off in search of nectar, perhaps like the ideal reader in search of a treat. The butterfly doesn't have to go far, and neither does the reader.

Until now, the New Yorker's website had seemed like a reluctant concession to the realities of the computer age, grudgingly assembled and almost deliberately unattractive. While you could find the articles the magazine chose to post online, such as the latest Seymour Hersh, it wasn't particularly friendly, and every week the previous week's table of contents was replaced by a new one and disappeared. Although the New Yorker archived many articles and most of its fiction, it did not make it easy to find them.

The new site is a major improvement. It actually manages to provide a pretty good online equivalent of the experience of browsing through the print edition -- not just the articles and stories, but the graphics and photos that have been a feature since the Tina Brown days. Also, cartoons now appear along with the articles, as they do in print. It's a crowded site, but not cluttered, with design and white space being used to create functional areas that quickly become familiar. The problem of the table of contents that disappears all too soon has been solved, with links to the three most recent contents displayed on the upper right. A collection of links to recent articles of note is displayed at the bottom of the screen. There's also a greater selection than there used to be of internet extras like audio, video, and animation (including a selection of New Yorker cartoons that have been rendered as animations with sound). Click on the link above, or check out the post at Emdashes for more information and links to other reactions.

Monday, March 12, 2007

When it comes to spelling and punctuation, just what degree of consistency should be considered foolish?

In my other life I write and edit publications for a number of different clients with different style conventions concerning spelling and punctuation. Some clients uppercase Internet, for example, while others do not. Some always drop the last comma in a series (Bob, Ted and Alice), while others insist for the sake of clarity on never dropping that final comma (Bob, Ted, and Alice).

I suppose I could refer to style lists for each client when I'm writing, but that would break the flow and seems a waste of time that could better be spent creating value for the client. Instead, I go by what feels right and my memory -- often imperfect -- of the client's preferred usages. I rely on our excellent proofreader, a retired English teacher who has style notes for each client and eyes like a hawk, quick to pounce on the slightest error. It's an imperfect system, but it works pretty well.

But there is no proofreader other than myself when I am blogging. And I certainly never refer to a standard style manual. Again, it would break the flow and waste time -- and what would it add, really? The result, however, is that my blog is covered with a residue of inconsistency, thick as dust. Sometimes I italicize the titles of books. Sometimes I put quotes around them. There is no consistency in my use of serial commas. My usages of that and which lean toward the loosey-goosey. Basically, I try for something that sounds reasonably conversational, makes sense to the reader, and looks OK on the page. The determination, however, is whimsical and changes over time. Is this bad? Should I feel guilty about this "anything goes as long as it feels good" laxity? Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don't.

But I'll probably spend less time obsessing about it since reading Arnold Zwicky's post titled "Foolish Hobgoblins" in Language Log. (H/t to TNH's Particles at Making Light.) When Emerson penned "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," he didn't define "foolish." Zwicky gives us an idea of where he stands by compressing the phrase and transposing the adjective. His post is devoted to the proposition that individual whim trumps hair-splitting rules when it comes to variable usages.
As a linguist, I have to point out that inconsistency is just another name for variability, and variability is not some pesky defect of languages, but a central feature of them (along with, at least, opposition, compositionality, redundancy, ambiguity, synonymy/paraphrase, and hierarchical structure -- plus, of course, shared norms). Language (both spoken and written) varies from person to person, from social group to social group, from occasion to occasion, and even for a single person on a single occasion, from moment to moment. And this is a very good thing. It would be insane to try to enforce a single choice between variants, on all occasions, for everyone.

So the question is: when is regulation (in favor of consistency) appropriate, and when should variability flourish? This is far too big a question for me to answer here, but I will talk about some cases -- mostly from the mechanics of written English -- where it seems to me a case can be made for letting people do whatever they feel like doing at the moment. You could always choose one variant, or always choose another (in either case recognizing that other people make different choices, and that's ok), or choose between them in some systematic way, or choose between them at your whim (in which case there might be a system in some of your choices, but not one that you're aware of -- and some of your choices will be made at random).
It's a fascinating meditation on variability in language and why it's a good thing, filled with interesting and amusing examples -- including this reference to the impulsive, do-your-own-thing side of Justice Antonin Scalia.
Now, a few words on apostrophes. Mark Liberman has already explored this territory, in a posting that takes up Jonathan Starble's considering (in the Legal Times)
the deep divide that exists among the nation's intellectual elite regarding one of society's most troubling issues -- namely, whether the possessive form of a singular noun ending with the letter s requires an additional s after the apostrophe.
and goes on to examine the practice of Justice Antonin Scalia in this regard, which is variable (Kansas's, Ramos's, witness's; but Stevens', Adams', Tibbs'), and his own, concluding, puckishly:
On this question, I agree with Associate Justice Scalia. At least, I'm rarely certain what the spelling should be in such cases, and so I add s or not, as the spirit moves me. If this is the thin edge of the moral-relativist wedge, so be it -- Antonin and I stand together, behind the right to follow the dictates of conscience in each individual s+possessive circumstance.
I'm astonished that Mark was not besieged by people screaming THERE OUGHT TO BE A RULE. Mark is, after all, advocating punctuation by whim: "as the spirit moves me". He even throws out a mischievous reference to "the thin edge of the moral-relativist wedge", alluding to the many people who believe that making linguistic choices is a moral issue, so that tolerating (or, worse, advocating) variability is moral relativism of the most deplorable sort.
It's curious how some people equate word choices with moral choices, especially since, although Zwicky doesn't mention it, a case could be made -- and probably has been made -- that Gödel's incompleteness theorems formally undermined the whole idea of consistency in language usage more than 70 years ago. For any set of rules in a given tradition of usage, there will always be some usage that is impossible to resolve within that set of rules.

In the end, we're all thrown back on our own resources, our own temperament and our own common sense. Sort of like navigating life's winding road -- you wouldn't want to spend so much time reading the map that you lose sight of the road.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Setting clocks ahead when it's still winter? So much for "spring forward, fall back."


Here comes the sun. It always seems a bit weird when we set our clocks forward and rob ourselves of an hour's sleep, and this year it seems weirder than ever, because it's three weeks early -- how can we "spring forward" when it's not even spring yet?