Friday, December 31, 2010

Another Solar Transit

This is some cool digital photography, not to mention a good use of photographic processing software:
Caption: Looking back on the year, have you wondered where the Sun was in the sky each day during 2010 at exacty 9am UT? Of course you have. Search no further for the answer! It was somewhere along this celestial figure 8 curve known as an analemma. Recorded from a residential backyard in the small town of Veszprem, Hungary, this composite analemma image consists of 36 separate exposures of the Sun made at 9:00 UT, spaced throughout the year, plus a background image made without a solar filter. The background image was taken on the sunny afternoon of October 9 (13:45 UT). On the left is the photographer's shadow. The positions of the Sun at the 2010 solstice dates are at the upper (June 21) and lower (December 21) extremes of the analemma curve. On the equinox dates (March 20, September 23) the Sun was along the curve half way between the solstices. The tilt of planet Earth's axis and the variation in speed as it moves around its elliptical orbit combine to produce the graceful analemma curve.

Image credit: Tamas Ladanyi/NASA

This picture was taken in Veszprém, Hungary, according to that Astronomy Picture Of The Day (APOD) caption, and the gallery page. As you can see from the shadow in the lower left hand corner, Tamas Ladanyi photographed the Sun by setting up the camera in the same place every week or so for a year. That in itself took a bit of determination and planning. Then he processed it to superimpose the Sun's position on one particularly nice photo.

Interestingly, Veszprém's latitude (47.1 N) is nearly the same as Seattle's (47.6 N). If I were to do such a thing from my house, the result would probably be similar, assuming I had both the wits and the determination.

Apparently, not many people have had those traits in regards to this sort of thing. This page of analemma pictures from Greece claims that only seven people have done it. Of course, if I did that here, most of the images of the Sun in the lower part of that figure eight would be just fuzzy gray patches.

Anyway, like the NASA Astronomy Picture Of The Day site where I found this picture, I can't think of a better photograph to wrap up the year.

Happy New Year.

Afterword: Visit Tamas Ladanyi's site to see some other interesting astronomy photos. He has some good photos of sunspots, among other things.

For a full size image, go to either the APOD page, or the photographer's gallery to see.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Burien Squirrel

Because I can, and because someone forgot this happened, here are pictures of the Burien Squirrel:
Image credit: Cujo359

Image credit: Cujo359

We walked over to one of the local parks in Burien, and happened to see this little guy. He was completely unintimidated by human beings. Dana finally got some really good shots of him here:
Image credit: Dana Hunter

Here she was shooting almost straight down at him:

Image credit: Dana Hunter

I suspect there is more than one squirrel in Burien, but this one certainly is in a class by himself when it comes to hanging with the bipeds.

A Room With A View

It's an old theme - a pretty lady looking out a window. At least, it would be old if not for the location of this window:
Caption: We said farewell to our teammates Sasha, Misha and Tracy this weekend and they are safely back on planet Earth. Tracy in quiet reflection of an incredible journey…homeward bound[.]

Image credit: Astro_Wheels/NASA

This "picture window", the Cupola, was a recent addition to the International Space Station. Here's how its builder, the European Space Agency, describes it:
Cupola will become a panoramic control tower for the International Space Station (ISS), a dome-shaped module with windows for observing and guiding operations outside of the Station. It is a pressurised observation and work area that will accommodate command and control workstations and other hardware.

Cupola, ISS Observation Module
Plus, as the article mentions later, it's a great place for astronauts to just sit and watch the world go by.

It was installed early this year, during Space Shuttle mission STS-130

Caption: Cupola's 'eyes' open, its window shutters are moved. After the insulation blankets and launch restraint bolts had been removed from each of the seven windows, by spacewalking astronauts of the STS-130 crew, Cupola window shutters could begin opening.

Image credit: ESA/NASA

That's a view from outside the Cupola, with one of the shields pulled back so someone can see out that window. Given how complicated this thing is, it may not be a big surprise that, prior to the installation of the Cupola, there weren't a lot of ways to look out of the ISS.
The cupola will be like a mini control tower sticking out from the Tranquility node, as opposed to the other station windows, which are flush with the station’s exterior. Its seven windows – one in the center and six around the sides – will provide the only views of the outside of the station from the inside, in particular the Russian and Japanese sections. And with the station just about finished, there’s more to see out there than ever.

Endeavour to Deliver a Room With a View
Maybe this description of what the Cupola was meant to withstand explains why:
The windows are protected by external shutters, which can be opened by the crew inside with the simple turn of a wrist. Afterwards, the shutters are closed to protect the glass from micrometeoroids and orbital debris, and to prevent solar radiation from heating up Cupola or to avoid losing heat to space.

Each window has three subsections: an inner scratch pane to protect the pressure panes from damage inside Cupola; two 25 mm-thick pressure panes to maintain cabin pressure (the outer pane is a back-up for the inner pane); and a debris pane on the outside to protect the pressure panes from space debris when the shutters are open.

Caption: Internal view of Cupola during vibro-acoustic testing.

Image credit: Alenia Spazio/ESA

The 10-year on-orbit lifetime calls for user-friendly replacement of the windows while in space. The entire window or the individual scratch and debris panes can be replaced. To replace an entire window, an astronaut would first fit an external pressure cover over the window during a spacewalk.

ESA Node 3 and Cupola
Here's part of what the ESA site has to say about how the Cupola was constructed:
Cupola is a 1.6-tonne aluminium structure about 2 m in diameter and 1.5 m high. Its dome is a single forged unit with no welding. This gives it superior structural characteristics, which helped to shorten the production schedule and lower overall costs.

ESA Node 3 and Cupola
I'll bet it took a few tries to stamp out that puppy - not to mention a big press.

That vibro-acoustic testing the picture caption referred to is just one of a whole battery that have to be done in order to be certain that the assembled module and its parts won't shake apart, rust or rot, or fail due to unforeseen stresses. There are other tests to make sure that the electronics will work in all the conditions they need to, and that the software operates correctly in all foreseeable circumstances.

The cupola is part of the Tranquility module, which is meant to be a sort of all-purpose area, as well as a control room for station operations:
At 15 feet wide and 23 feet long, the Tranquility node will provide a centralized home for the station’s environmental control equipment – one of the systems that remove carbon dioxide from the station’s air, one of the station’s bathrooms and the equipment that converts urine into drinkable water, all of which is currently taking up space in the Destiny laboratory. And there’s enough room left over to house the station’s new treadmill and its microgravity equivalent of a weight machine, moving it out of the Unity node where it’s in the way whenever spacewalk preparations are going on inside the adjacent Quest airlock.

Endeavour to Deliver a Room With a View
I added that link to the article on the urine conversion equipment. It's an example of how the ISS and other space projects are still pushing technology that we may need here on Earth some day. Even if we don't, it's clearly going to be needed in space at some time in the future.

Sometimes I think that most people don't really understand what is so hard about building things like a space station. There are many reasons - it's work that's done where the assemblers have to bring everything they could possibly need, where the people doing the work must either do it in space suits, which allow almost no freedom of movement whatsoever, or by remote control. The things they're assembling are almost insanely complicated, with connections for electronic, plumbing, and pneumatic systems. But perhaps the most important reason is that it's such an incredibly harsh environment, where if radiation doesn't kill you and you don't run out of oxygen, some little speck of metal or rock moving at ten thousand miles per hour will. We're shielded from all that down here on the surface by the atmosphere and the magnetosphere.

The fact is we have it pretty good down here on the surface, compared to up there.

So it's great to see an engineering project of this magnitude up there and working. Four different space agencies, and no doubt dozens of contractors, all have to cooperate and communicate well enough to make sure that the different sections of the ISS all work together. That they've managed to do that says volumes about what people are capable of when they put their minds to it.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

If It Were Done, ...

Caption: Riverbend's book. Alive or dead, she's a casualty, like millions of her countrymen.

It's hard not to read something like this without some mixed emotions:
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ruled out the presence of any U.S. troops in Iraq after the end of 2011, saying his new government and the country's security forces were capable of confronting any remaining threats to Iraq's security, sovereignty and unity.

Mr. Maliki spoke with The Wall Street Journal in a two-hour interview, his first since Iraq ended nine months of stalemate and seated a new government after an inconclusive election, allowing Mr. Maliki to begin a second term as premier.

A majority of Iraqis—and some Iraqi and U.S. officials—have assumed the U.S. troop presence would eventually be extended, especially after the long government limbo. But Mr. Maliki was eager to draw a line in his most definitive remarks on the subject. "The last American soldier will leave Iraq" as agreed, he said, speaking at his office in a leafy section of Baghdad's protected Green Zone. "This agreement is not subject to extension, not subject to alteration. It is sealed."

Iraq Wants the U.S. Out
Of course, the most prevalent feeling is that it's about time we were out of there. We never should have been there in the first place. It's pretty clear that Iraqis have good reason to want us gone, we've wrecked the place, and it wasn't all that great when we got there.

Still, it does feel sad to be getting the bum's rush out of there. We lost good people there, and spent a lot of treasure, too. It's hard not to expect that people would be grateful for that, but I doubt I would be if I were in their place.

Caption: BARWANAH, Iraq (November 7, 2006) - U.S. Marines gather around the boots, helmet and rifle to pay homage to a fallen Marine during a memorial service in Barwanah, Iraq, on Oct. 25, 2006. Photo by Sgt. Jason L. Jensen, U.S. Marine Corps.

Image credit: U.S. Army Central Command, reduced by Cujo359

The other sad thing is that feeling of having gone through Vietnam all over again - lives lost and wealth destroyed in the name of making sure that some people didn't have to admit they were wrong, and others didn't lose profits from military spending. Our thousands of dead, the walking wounded who may never recover, the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who died, and the millions who lost their homes all suffered for nothing.

Somehow, this song seems appropriate:

The speculators made their money
On the blood you shed
Your Mama's pulled the sheets up off your bed
The profiteers on Jane Street
Sold your shoes and clothes
Ain't nobody talking 'cause everybody knows
We pulled your cycle out of the garage
And polished up the chrome
Our Gypsy biker's comin' home

Lyrics: Gypsy Biker
This video is a memorial to someone's friend, but I like it. It's the story of a life, and the people who valued that life. Hundreds of thousands of lives were extinguished in Iraq for no reason at all. It was started by a lie. Our current national house of prostitution (Congress), and our current con man of a President have decided that no one who told that lie will ever pay for it. And why should they? They did nothing to stop this tragedy from unfolding when they had the power. Many, in fact, profited from it, if only indirectly via campaign contributions from defense contractors.

As another great writer of tragedies once wrote, If it were done, when 'tis done; then 'twere well/It were done quickly.

It's taken more than eight years. In the end, we didn't even get that mercy.

The only good thing we can say is, at least for us, it will finally be over in a year or so.

UPDATE: Added the last two sentences in the fourth paragraph from the bottom. It's part of the tragedy of this war, and part of the folly, that the people who made the bad decisions are benefiting from them.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

For Those Having Flash Problems

funny pictures of cats with captions
Image credit: I Can Has Cheezburger

It took long enough, but apparently Adobe released a 64-bit version of the Flash player, called Flash player "Square" for 64-bit versions of Microsoft Windows, MacOS, and Linux. It's a beta version, but so far, it's been working fine for me.

I just happened to find this page out of desperation, because nothing I was doing with the new Fedora Linux (14) was working. If you're using Linux, or one of those other 64-bit OSs, you might want to check it out.

Ubuntu Linux has a workable solution for operation Flash in a 64-bit environment, but Fedora plays by different rules, as do some other distributions.

Those of you who can play the video in this article needn't worry about any of this.

Quote Of The Day

Economist Dean Baker:
Robert Samuelson is once again calling for cuts to Social Security and Medicare, ostensibly in the name of generational fairness. Samuelson makes the now common argument that a hugely disproportionate share of government spending goes to these programs that primarily serve the elderly. Of course, using Samuelson logic we should also complain that a hugely disproportionate share of government expenditures go the very wealthy.

Robert Samuelson's Social Security Demagoguery at the Washington Post
It constantly amazes me how many assclowns will spout off about how taxing the rich more is "unfair" or "class warfare", yet those same people seem to be perfectly OK with taking away money that ordinary people have been saving up via Social Security their entire lives.

As Close As TV Gets To Journalism

Caption: Jon Stewart talks to disabled firefighters, police officers, and equipment operators about the stalled bill to help 9/11 first responders, on the Dec. 16, 2010 edition of The Daily Show.

Image credit: The Daily Show (see NOTE)

Not long after noting how superficial voters can be, I happened on this article in The New York Times:
Did the bill pledging federal funds for the health care of 9/11 responders become law in the waning hours of the 111th Congress only because a comedian took it up as a personal cause?

And does that make that comedian, Jon Stewart — despite all his protestations that what he does has nothing to do with journalism — the modern-day equivalent of Edward R. Murrow?

In ‘Daily Show’ Role on 9/11 Bill, Echoes of Murrow
What the article is referring to is this episode of The Daily Show, which was dedicated entirely to discussing the bill before Congress that was meant to provide additional funds for treating and caring for firefighters, police, and other workers who worked in the vicinity of the World Trade Center either on 9/11 or afterward. These people were trying to rescue people trapped there, and to remove rubble and other dangers so that bodies of the victims could be recovered. It was being blocked by a Republican filibuster, and, as usual, the Democrats were doing nothing to either end-run this maneuver or bring it to the public's attention. That all changed after that Daily Show episode. Suddenly, the television news channels that had utterly ignored the issue for months, including Fox "News", were all over it.

It's sad to have to write this, but Stewart is probably as close as television journalism gets to actually performing a public service these days. That's sad, of course, because he's not a journalist. Whether it's berating a loudmouthed financial "analyst" for his failure to foresee problems with any of the investments he was plugging, explaining how a President who promised to end the government's assault on civil liberties is doing the opposite, or telling a clueless Democratic hack that his act is getting old, Stewart has been reading us the news far more than most of the "real" journalists on television, particularly at the national level.

You really have to ask yourself why.

Television news is famous, one might say infamous, for the sort of "man in the street" interviews Stewart did with the 9/11 veterans two weeks ago. Their standard operating procedure, when some bizarre crime happens in a place such things usually don't happen, is to keep asking people in the vicinity "Aren't you pants-pissingly scared?" until they can find someone dumb enough to say he or she is pants-pissingly scared on camera. Yet it's pretty clear that no television journalists, at any of the broadcast networks or the four "news" channels, were interested in talking to the folks who were suffering thanks to breathing that toxic air while they were trying to excavate the area and look for survivors. This lack of interest is particularly strange here, since there's clearly lots of suffering and emotion involved. Plus, as Stewart demonstrated, there are clearly some who are giving interviews.

The only conclusion that seems logical is that they just didn't want to know. I don't know why that is, but it's hardly the first time that I've been amazed at the lack of curiosity in those quarters. This story, in particular, is easy to cover if you're willing to talk to a few people. Yet, as this article and Stewart both note, no one did.

The superficiality and lack of curiosity in our electorate is certainly reflected in the medium where most of them get their news. I suppose we can only hope that there's some comedian out there who's willing to do a little digging the next time there are people in need.

NOTE: This was a publicity photo, which normally television shows are willing to have reproduced. Its appearance here is not an endorsement by The Daily Show, Comedy Central, or any others responsible for the show, nor did they approve or contribute to the content of this article.

Monday, December 27, 2010

What Does This Say About Us?, Pt. 4

Caption: If you ever want to run for President, I suggest you not be caught driving one of these.

Image credit: cliff1066/Flickr

Josh Marshall addresses the issue of whether Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour would make a viable Presidential candidate in 2012:
Any number of things would have to change to make Barbour a remotely credible presidential candidate -- starting with erasing the image of Boss Hogg from the cultural memory of every American over the age of 30. And that would probably be one of the easier tasks on the list.
There are substantive knocks on Barbour. But you don't even have to go there to realize that the presidency is simply not in the cards. Do you see Barney Frank as a plausible presidential candidate? Even if you're a big Barney fan, probably not because you recognize that a) he's considerably more liberal than the rest of the country and b) even with social change being what it is a portly Jewish gay guy from Massachusetts with an irascible streak probably just doesn't compute as a presidential contender. Turn the ideological and sectional hour glass upside and you've got Haley Barbour's prospects as a national candidate pretty much down to a tee. In his bearing, mannerisms, appearance, accent and style of politics Barbour embodies a lot people's caricature of the unreconstructed, good-ole-boy South. And the confederate flag signed by Confederate President Jefferson Davis near his desk doesn't help either. As Newsweek put it in a profile a year ago, "The cofounder of one of the nation's largest lobbying firms may or may not be the Good Ole Boy Republican Fat Cat his liberal critics make him out to be, but he certainly looks the part."

Can Haley Recover?
[link from original]

I should mention that this article actually does point out some "substantive knocks" on Barbour's chances for being President, things that ought to disqualify him in any sane society, but that's not the point here.

The point is that nearly everything in that paragraph is superficial nonsense.

Who cares what the guy looked like? Should it matter that a man happens to look like a foolish TV character? This was, after all, a not-particularly thoughtful work of fiction produced nearly a generation ago. While I remember Catherine Bach in cutoffs and the orange Charger named after a Confederate general, nothing much else made an impression on me at the time.

For that matter, you have to wonder why a portly Jewish guy would be out.

He speaks his mind? Should that count against someone? I suspect that depends on what that mind is saying.

He has a Confederate flag in his office? Why? If it's to remind him that his ancestors made a big mistake 150 years ago, then I'd say that's not a bad thing. Maybe it's nostalgia for antebellum society. Once again, the "why" has a heck of a lot more meaning than the fact itself. Taken with his recent remarks about the Citizens Councils of the Deep South during the Civil Rights era, it suggests a pattern of insensitivity to racial issues, or perhaps even full-on racism. What it doesn't do, in and of itself, is prove much of anything. We're the sum of our actions, not particular ones that have to do with office decorations.

Image credit: Library Of Congress/Wikimedia

Under the circumstances, it's hard to imagine this guy being elected President nowadays. Look at that nose, and did the guy ever shave?. He's not fat, but he sure is an ugly mug, isn't he? Couldn't he get someone to straighten that bow tie, and isn't that a clip on? No way was he going to make a good impression on TV.

He had this habit of speaking his mind, too. Ahem, excuse me, General McClellan, if you're not using that army may I borrow it? It's hard to imagine someone more divisive. Did he mean to suggest there was actual slavery going on here?

And wouldn't you know it, he was a Republican.

Taken altogether, what we know about Haley Barbour, his lobbying firm, his apparent attitudes about race, his whole life, actually, it's hard to imagine anyone I'd want in the White House any less. But that's based on a complete picture, not what he looks like or what he chooses to put in his office. No one who occupies the Oval Office is going to be even close to perfect. Choosing who goes there based on what they stand for, and what they've done in the past, is a lot more important. If resembling Boss Hogg were Barbour's principal imperfection, he'd be the best President ever.

I don't mean to suggest here that these aren't Josh Marshall's priorities, by the way. I think it's implicit that he doesn't think that way just based on what he wrote in that article. What he appears to think there are lots of us out here in the Land Beyond DC who do think that way. Given our recent history, I can't say he's wrong, either.

Afterword: No mention of The Dukes Of Hazzard and presidential politics would be complete without mentioning this little gem from the 2008 election:
[Democratic Presidential candidate John] Edwards announced his candidacy while helping to rebuild communities destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
Somehow, that never seems to get the sort of attention that his support from Cooter did.

Lawrence O'Donnell Is A Wanker
As it happens, John Edwards had some serious character flaws, but they had nothing to do with his being supported by an actor who used to play a hick on TV.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Ho, Frickin, Ho

Nothing says "I care" like a recycled photo:

Image credit: Cujo359

Except maybe this:

funny pictures of dogs with captions
Image credit: I Has A Hot Dog

If you're celebrating Christmas, hope it's a good one. For the rest of us, it's the weekend, and that's good enough.

Friday, December 24, 2010

I (Won't) Be Home For Christmas

Caption: Denver Airport snowed in, December, 2006.

Image credit: ashleyniblock/Flickr

I'm so glad that I'm not traveling over the holidays this year:
Delta Air Lines plans to cancel 500 flights Saturday because of heavy snow expected in Nashville and Atlanta. For the first Christmas in 17 years, Nashville and Atlanta could get more than just a dusting of snow, according to the National Weather Service. The storm is expected to intensify and move northeast on Sunday to the mid-Atlantic states and New England.

In fact, a good section of the U.S. is getting snow Friday night. Winter weather advisories were in effect from Kansas east to Kentucky and from Minnesota south to Arkansas on Friday.

Some Regions Getting Fresh Snow for Christmas
Atlanta is a major hub airport for Delta. Odds are fairly good that if I'd been flying Christmas day, I would have been going through Atlanta. Of course, it could be worse, I could have been trying to get to or from Europe:
Thousands of travellers were stranded at the main Paris airport Saturday after hundreds of Christmas flights were cancelled, as freezing weather and widespread snowfalls caused travel chaos across Europe.

About 400 flights in and out of Roissy-Charles de Gaulle were scrapped, with some 30,000 travellers plans disrupted by the cancellations and delays, said the airport's director Patrice Hardel.

Flights in Belgium and Germany were also affected and motorists stayed off the roads as western Europe battled the latest cold snap.

Christmas chaos in Europe as snow strands thousands
Frankfurt and Heathrow, the other two of Europe's three busiest airports, have been either closed or operating at reduced capacity much of the week.

As it turns out, at least part of the problem is that the airlines in Europe weren't planning ahead:
Airport authorities at Charles de Gaulle ordered part of Terminal 2E to be cleared of passengers because of fears that the roof might collapse under the weight of 60cm (2ft) of snow.

In 2004, the same roof collapsed shortly after the terminal opened, killing four people.

The disruption at Charles de Gaulle was also blamed on a shortage of de-icing fluid, and the cancellation of flights led to 2,000 people being stranded at the airport overnight.

The French authorities, struggling to cope with the country's third major snowfall of the winter, said fresh supplies were on their way but would not arrive before Monday.

Snow paralyses transport in parts of Western Europe
Who could have foreseen that there would be lots of snow in winter, or that they might need de-icing fluid? Only people familiar with air travel, I suppose. You'd think they'd rather have a little extra on hand than have to refund thousands of tickets, and having to put 2,000 people up for the night in Paris hotels.

There's at least one woman who is probably sorry her flight wasn't canceled.
Claire Hirschkind, 56, who says she is a rape victim and who has a pacemaker-type device implanted in her chest, says her constitutional rights were violated. She says she never broke any laws. But the Transportation Security Administration disagrees.

Hirschkind was hoping to spend Christmas with friends in California, but she never made it past the security checkpoint.

"I can't go through because I have the equivalent of a pacemaker in me," she said.

Hirschkind said because of the device in her body, she was led to a female TSA employee and three Austin police officers. She says she was told she was going to be patted down.

"I turned to the police officer and said, 'I have given no due cause to give up my constitutional rights. You can wand me,'" and they said, 'No, you have to do this,'" she said.

Hirschkind agreed to the pat down, but on one condition.

"I told them, 'No, I'm not going to have my breasts felt,' and she said, 'Yes, you are,'" said Hirschkind.

When Hirschkind refused, she says that "the police actually pushed me to the floor, (and) handcuffed me. I was crying by then. They drug me 25 yards across the floor in front of the whole security."

Woman arrested at ABIA after refusing enhanced pat down
They're really good at beating up and arresting 56 year old women, but they don't seem to be much good at finding security problems:
Houston businessman Farid Seif says it was a startling discovery. He didn't intend to bring a loaded gun on a flight out of Houston and can't understand how TSA screeners didn't catch it.

Nearing the height of last year's Christmas travel season, TSA screeners at Bush Intercontinental Airport somehow missed a loaded pistol, one that was tucked away inside a carry-on computer bag.

"I mean, this is not a small gun," Seif said. "It's a .40 caliber gun."

Man boards plane at IAH with loaded gun in carry-on
I'm sure Mr. Seif obeyed all the instructions from the TSA agents. It would be nice if they were just useless, but sadly, the TSA are a danger to travelers, and they're an expensive one, at that. Their current budget (PDF - see page 24) is just shy of $7 billion. That could buy a lot of snow plows and de-icing fluid.

Based on the dates of those reports, these two incidents with TSA occurred roughly a week apart.

Why do I hate traveling in winter? Your fate is in the hands of airport administrators who don't think they need to have collapsed roofs beefed up to meet worst case winter conditions, airline logisticians who can't plan for a snow storm, and "security" people who couldn't find their asses with both hands and a big type copy of Gray's Anatomy.

Come to think of it, those are good reasons to avoid airline travel the rest of the year...

UPDATE: James Ala has a quote from a report about the man who managed to smuggle that gun through the TSA (in)security checks. It appears that the TSA does, as I expected, routinely miss these things. It's not the first such report, either.

Quote Of The Day

Caption: This is a chart of cloture motions asked for and acted on in the U.S. Senate between 1919 and 2010. In the last two legislative sessions (2006-2010), they have reached record proportions. Clearly, the current Senate rules are becoming a problem.

Image credit: Chart from this table at the Senate's web site by Cujo359

Jon Walker, on all those "political reality" considerations Washington, DC is always so concerned about:
This time with my family just reinforces my firm belief that pursuing good progressive policy meant to help people will become good politics. People don’t care about floor speeches, the silly rules that prevent bills for passing, CBO scores, or show votes for amendments that everyone in Washington knows aren’t going to pass. Most people vote for politicians hoping they will make good decisions that will result in improved lives and communities, not for someone they think will make a great floor speech on C-SPAN 2 before an empty chamber.

Dear Congress, Almost No One Knows or Cares About Your Kabuki
Count me as one of those people. I'm an engineer, or a computer scientist, depending whether we're talking generalities are specifics. I only learn about congressional procedure out of self-defense when I have to argue with fools who like to make excuses for the party or politicians they favor. The plain fact is that very few of the procedures Congress uses are defined, or even implied, in the Constitution. They are rules that each legislative body has agreed to use while conducting business. Those rules must be subject to change if they aren't working for the country's citizens anymore.

As I've pointed out before, there were ways that the Senate could have gotten around Republican filibusters, had the Democratic leadership wanted. No one talked about the "nuclear option", did they? No one floated the idea of letting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan hang fire while we waited for the Republicans to stop obstructing the process at a near-record pace this session, nor did they mention disallowing all GOP-sponsored amendments until they agreed to limit themselves to a certain number of silent filibusters. This much I know about Senate procedure: if the Majority Leader doesn't want something to make it to the floor, it won't. That would include all those earmarks that Republicans say they're against, but really live by as much as Democrats do.

The logical conclusion is that this state of affairs was just fine with the Democratic leadership. It was only in the lame duck session, after they had lost the House in the last election, that they got serious about doing anything that was the least bit progressive. Vice President Joe Biden let the cat out of the bag toward the end of last year. In effect, he said that if the Democrats didn't have enough Senators to override cloture, we voters just need to elect more. As the election results proved, this was a stupid idea from the word go. Why? Read that quote again. We don't care about procedures, particularly when many of us know that those procedures aren't set in stone. The ultimate message of this election, no matter whether it was Teabaggers or progressives who were sending it, was "Get it done".

We wanted results, and all we got were excuses. Sometimes, failure is punished in DC. For the Democrats, at least, this was one of those times.

UPDATE: Added the cloture motions chart from this table at the U.S. Senate's web site.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Happy Winter Solstice 2010

It's the day when the days start getting longer again. Up here in the Pacific Northwest, that event has a meaning that it might not have in more southerly climes. Up here, where the days are about seven and a half hours long in late December, the return of longer days is something to look forward to. In England, which is even further north than Seattle, they have been watching for the solstice since the Bronze Age. They stuck big rocks all over the island to mark that day, like this one called Long Meg, near Carlisle:

Caption: Long Meg stone is sandstone, but the daughters are porphyritic granite. Long Meg is 20 metres or so from the main circle and at the winter solstice, from the keystone in the circle, the sun is seen to set in the groove on the top of Long Meg.

As I've written before just about every major religion that originated in the Northern Hemisphere celebrates the solstice in one way or another. However you're celebrating it, have a good one.

Monday, December 20, 2010

That Old Devil Moon

Caption: Partial lunar eclipse, 7 September 2006. Viewed from the disused Second World War buildings at the Forestry Commission's "Yew Tree Heath" car park in the New Forest. As the moon rose above the flare stacks of Fawley Refinery it was already partially eclipsed by the earth's shadow. Most of the moon's surface was in the 'penumbra' (part-shadow) which gives it an orange-red tint, for the same reasons that a setting sun looks orangey-red.

Image credit: Jim Champion/Wikimedia

I'd almost forgotten:
Barring cloudy weather, astronomy enthusiasts and sky gazers across North America will be treated to the only lunar eclipse of the year Monday night.
As the moon moves deeper into Earth's shadow, indirect sunlight passes through Earth's atmosphere, casting an orange and red hue over the moon.
According to NASA, the total phase should last about three and a half hours when it begins as a partial eclipse at 1:33 a.m. ET and it will finish at 5:01 a.m. ET. The totality phase -- when the moon is entirely inside Earth's shadow -- will last approximately 72 minutes.

Only Lunar Eclipse of 2010 Takes Place Monday Night
That's about 10:30 PM Pacific time, tonight. It should look a bit like that picture, a sort of reddish-orangy glow. If you're lucky enough to be somewhere it isn't raining, you might be able to see it tonight.

If you can, enjoy.

UPDATE: Naturally, the sky was cloudy here today. Thankfully, that wasn't true everywhere:
Caption: A total lunar eclipse is seen as the full moon is shadowed by the Earth on the arrival of the winter solstice, Tuesday, December 21, 2010 in Arlington, VA. From beginning to end, the eclipse will last about three hours and twenty-eight minutes.

Image credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA

Click on the image to enlarge. There are larger versions of the photo.

UPDATE 2 (Dec. 22): Dana Hunter got some decent pictures of the event.

A Reminder Of A Time Gone By

Caption: An N2Y trainer aircraft at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida. (Click on images to enlarge.)

Image credit: Armyjunk/Bitbucket

I ran across this picture the other day while looking at this photo journal of a visit to the National Naval Aviation Museum. What caught my eye was that I didn't recognize the aircraft, even though it was clearly a U.S. Navy aircraft from the 1930s. The other thing that caught my eye was the name "U.S.S. Akron" on the side of it. After a bit of digging, I figured out that it was a Consolidated N2Y trainer. What's interesting about the name U.S.S. Akron is that, at least in the 1930s, there was no aircraft carrier with that name. That was the name of a rigid airship, one of the largest ever constructed.

How could an aircraft be assigned to a airship? That's an interesting question.

Like the famous Hindenberg, the U.S.S. Akron was a very large aircraft. With a hull that was 785 feet (239 meters) long, she was about as long as the aircraft carriers of her day. Here's a picture of her, with an aircraft crossing over her bow:

Image credit: U.S. Navy/Wikimedia

So the idea of carrying airplanes in an airship didn't seem so outrageous. It wasn't easy, of course. Even compared to landing and taking off from an aircraft carrier, this wasn't easy.

Notice the bar on the top of the N2Y's wing. That's for the mechanism they used to pull those aircraft up into the airship when it was "landing", and release it to fly away. The mechanism was called a "trapeze", for what should be obvious reasons. Here's a picture of one of Akron's fighter planes trying to get hooked to it:
Image credit: U.S. Navy/Wikimedia

It looks like the pilot of that biplane, a Sparrowhawk fighter, is trying to guide the aircraft onto the trapeze using his hand. That would take some nerve; it would have been very easy to lose a hand doing that, or even an arm.

Akron carried four of those fighters, and generally a trainer or two. Her mission was to do what is now done by AWACS aircraft - early warning and reconnaissance. They could fly thousands of miles from their base, and even the limited number of aircraft they had could have covered a substantial area. Had they been operational at Pearl Harbor in 1941, it's possible the Japanese attack there would have been discovered in time.

Unfortunately for Akron and other Navy airships, they were victims of budget cutting during the Depression. They were difficult and dangerous to fly in heavy weather, and they crashed alarmingly often. Akron crashed in April, 1933, less than two years after she was commissioned. Her sister ship, U.S.S. Macon, also crashed after less than two years in operation. No Navy airship lasted a decade.

Compared to a fleet aircraft carrier of the time, which could carry anywhere from 50 to 100 aircraft and operate them in all but the worst weather, the costly and fragile airships just weren't worth the money and the lives lost.

Caption: U.S.S. Akron flying over Manhattan, New York City, in 1932.

Image credit: U.S. Navy/Wikimedia

Still, they must have been majestic sights, if you were lucky enough to see one. The hazardous task of flying them and operating aircraft from them was a testament to the courage and determination of the people who did it.

As with most changes, we lost something as the price of a gain.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

LOL Of The Day

I Can Has Cheezburger on the importance of adding new material to your repertoire:

funny pictures - "Ask me again if the cat's got my tongue, Herb! Ask me one more FREAKIN' time!!"
Image credit: I Can Has Cheezburger

Believe it or not, old jokes aren't always the best ones.

Sunday Photo(s)

Updated at 6:00 PM PST

The Bonneville Power Administration has a string of power lines that lead through downtown Federal Way from dams east of here to Tacoma. Here is a shot of two of those towers just south of the Federal Way Commons shopping mall:

Image credit: All photos by Cujo359

This is just a little further up the transmission lines, near one of my favorite computer stores:

This picture, from a couple of weeks ago, shows the transmission lines at Celebration Park:

This is also the northern terminus of the BPA Trail. The trail follows the transmission lines from Celebration Park:

Then the transmission lines cross Fourth Avenue Southwest:

Then proceeds past the Weyehauser Aquatic Center:

Where it heads across Campus Way, turns left, and then continues on to Tacoma:

Click on the pictures to enlarge, and have a good Sunday.

UPDATE: Added the fourth picture.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

At Last, The Senate Manages

After almost two years with an almost unprecedentedly large majority, the Senate's Democratic leadership finally managed to pass a bill without screwing it up:
By a vote of 65 to 31 this afternoon, the Senate voted to repeal the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy. Republican Senators Scott Brown, Richard Burr, Susan Collins, John Ensign, Mark Kirk, Lisa Murkowski, Olympia Snowe and George Voinovich joined Democrats in the final vote to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Burr and Ensign did not vote with the Democrats earlier in the day when the GOP filibuster was broken, but signed on for the final vote.

Senate Repeals Don't Ask, Don't Tell
All it took was the Defense Department practically begging them to pass it, the House spoon-feeding them a bill that would work and giving them no time to screw it up, and they found enough Republican Senators courageous enough to vote for cloture.

Of course, now we'll have to listen to all the clueless Obama supporters telling us how his eleventy-dimensional chess brought this about. Needless to say, that's utter nonsense. This happened, because the military realizes that it can't afford to keep losing good people like Dan Choi and Victor Fehrenbach. The fact is, there was plenty Obama could have done to speed this bill up, and he didn't. There was plenty he could have done to set the tone for it, like stopping gay service members from being expelled, particularly, as in Fehrenbach's case, when the admission that they were gay was not made voluntarily. Like everything else of interest to liberals, Obama talked a good game, but always failed to live up to the talk.

Let's see if he can bring himself to sign this bill. Count me as one progressive who won't be shocked if he refuses.

Why is this bill a good thing, other than that it gives the DoD back some of its cannon fodder? It's a good thing for the same reason I don't have a special "gay rights" keyword, even though I've written about DADT and other gay rights issues rather often - it's not just a gay right, it's a human right. This is about being able to join the military, or serve your country, without regard to your genetic inheritance. That's as important here as it is for women, black people, or any others who have been denied that opportunity because they weren't quite "right" somehow.

In any event, it's a good day for human rights, and those are rare these days.

Afterword: Ian Welsh points out another possible explanation for the passage of this bill besides the DoD's desperation about holding onto good people:
Gays dropped their votes to Dems significantly from 2008 levels. Hispanics voted for Democrats at about 2008 levels despite horrible policies against them. You only have leverage if you are willing to defect in a high profile fashion.

Why DADT Repeal Will Pass and Dream Won’t
[links from original]

I can't discount this. I've certainly pointed out often and annoyingly, that people who aren't willing to take their votes elsewhere don't count. In this case, though, the DoD's pleading, together with polls that indicate service members overwhelmingly accept gays as comrades, probably had more to do with it. Congress seldom denies the Pentagon what it wants. That's probably what brought those Republican Senators on board. The Democrats, on the other hand, may have had extra motivation.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Want To See A Celtic Tiger In Reverse?

Have a look at this Jeff Danziger cartoon, and then look at this image again:
Image credit: Danziger cartoon cropped and processed by Cujo359

It's the punchline, or part of it, at least. I don't know if showing it this way spoils the joke or not, so call it an experiment in humor technology.

Hint: It's the writing in the window.

The other hint: It has to do with flim flam-motivated austerity. Some background information.

(h/t Earthbound Misfit)

Gawker Takes One In The Gizmodo

Image credit: Cujo359

Speaking of the online revolution, here's yet another example of why I don't register for very many online chat services like Twitter and, well, Gawker:
E-mail addresses and password details for 200,000 registered users of Gawker Media websites are now circulating on peer-to-peer networks after a weekend hack attack. The company warned users to change their passwords -- including on other sites, if they use the same passwords elsewhere.

The websites affected include Lifehacker, Gizmodo, Gawker, Jezebel, io9, Jalopnik, Kotaku, Deadspin, and Fleshbot. Users are required to register, providing their e-mail address and a password, in order to leave comments on those websites.

Gawker Media Hacked, Warns Users To Change Passwords
I think you'd be well advised to do the same, or have a special junk e-mail account for all those sites that demand you cough up an e-mail address before you're clean enough to talk there.

Actually, I do both. It's still annoying when you know you'll end up with crap like this cluttering your in box when, to use the words of Network World, some site you registered at got caught with its pants down around its ankles and clown makeup on.

Meanwhile, if you have an account on Gawker and haven't yet received word of this, here's a page at its Lifehacker affiliate that tries to explain what you need to do and why.

How's The Online Revolution Going?

Talking Points Memo writes:
Note: Amazon claims the outtage was due to internal problems, not hackers. We'll have details as available.

Everyone said they couldn't do it, but now Operation Payback has taken down Amazon.

For about half an hour, was down, according to SkyNews. German, French and Italian servers were also experiencing problems.

The pro-Wikileaks hackers had boasted they would take down Amazon last week, but nothing happened at the planned hour of attack. We were told in an email from Casaba Security that Amazon survived the attack because of its advanced infrastructure: "

Hactivists Take Down Amazon
I suspect that Amazon has had enough experience with script kiddies and ordinary criminals trying to take their site down for fun or profit that they're pretty well defended. Just to test, I did a query for Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder, and here's the result I saw:

Image credit: Screenshot by Cujo359

While I haven't bought anything, I've had no trouble navigating the site today.

Not only is attacking the online businesses like Amazon that have knuckled under to government pressure going to make them look like the victims here, but it will almost certainly prove ineffective. A software upgrade is far more likely to take down Amazon than any denial of service attack.

If you want to make a statement, I suggest doing a query like I did, then following the more sympathetic-appearing links. Then, go buy what you found somewhere else, and let Amazon know you did.

Lost business will be a far more effective means of persuasion.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Sunday Photo(s)

For some reason that I just can't explain, I've always found railroad tracks eye catching. Maybe it's just those parallel lengths of steel cutting through the landscape, looking like they don't quite belong, but having obvious purpose.

Whatever the reason, I photograph them rather often. Here's a sampling.

These tracks are in Kirkland, Washington, a little north of the main drag through town. This is looking south:

Image credit: All photos by Cujo359

And this one is looking north:

It's a branch that services some of the industries in the area.

These tracks are along the shore of Puget Sound, near Saltwater Park in Shoreline, Washington. There are two mainlines, where the Sounder commuter train and a bunch of Burlington Northern Sante Fe trains run daily. This is looking to the north, toward Lynnwood and Everett:

and this is toward the south, and Seattle:

These are some disused tracks that are now mostly used by the The Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie, Washington. They have a bit of clutter on them, but they're still interesting:

This is a main line and siding along the Columbia Gorge, about an hour or so east of Portland:

It seems like a lot of trains run along the shore up here. This one's near Astoria, Oregon:

So, yes, I've seen a lot of track in my travels, and a few trains, too. But that's for another Sunday.

Click on the pictures to enlarge, and have a good Sunday.

UPDATE: Corrected the name of the railroad museum, and added a link. I have some more pictures of the outside exhibits of that museum in an earlier article.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Quote Of The Day

Eli, in an essay at FireDogLake:
I know I would be perfectly happy to stick to ridiculing stupid Republicans and media wankers, maybe post the occasional Muppet video, but it didn’t work out that way. We didn’t change our values just because a Democratic president moved into the White House, and unfortunately the executive branch didn’t either. Conflict was inevitable.

Progressives still believe in transparency, due process, rule of law, environmental protection, DADT repeal, marriage equality, choice, immigration reform, unions, Social Security, affordable universal health care, and the overarching principle of standing up for ordinary people against the rich and powerful. The White House… still doesn’t. Through a combination of compromise, incompetence, inaction, and deliberate embrace, Obama has ended up on the Republican side of every single one of these issues – and attacks and ridicules us for refusing to follow him there.

the Other War Without End
I can't think of anything to add. To any damn fool who wants to ask why I spend so much time knocking Obama and the Democrats, I'd like to say this is as good a description of my feelings as any, right down to the Muppets. Things don't magically become OK because George W. Bush isn't the one doing them anymore.

From Flannel To Armani

Paul Krugman wrote this today in a thoughtful essay on his blog that discussed how our notions of corporations have changed over the years:
These days, we’re living in the world of the imperial, very self-interested individual; the man in the gray flannel suit has been replaced by the man in the very expensive Armani suit. Look at the protagonists in the global financial meltdown, and you won’t see faceless corporations subverting individual will; you’ll see avaricious individuals exploiting corporate forms to enrich themselves, often bringing the corporations down in the process. Lehman, AIG, Anglo-Irish, etc. were not cases of immortal hive-minds at work; they were cases of kleptocrats run wild.

Hive-minds and Kleptocrats
Down at the worker level, I suspect that the "gray flannel suit" concept still has some validity. Corporate leaders these days, though, are anything but products of a hive mind. The standard idea seems to be that the person running the corporation should get as much out of that entity for his own purposes, and leave nothing behind if at all possible.

One of the ironies of this is that it wasn't all that long ago that Jim Collins wrote Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don't, which had as its basic premise that truly effective leaders created organizations that could function without them. From the Amazon review of the book:
Five years ago, Jim Collins asked the question, "Can a good company become a great company and if so, how?" In Good to Great Collins, the author of Built to Last, concludes that it is possible, but finds there are no silver bullets. Collins and his team of researchers began their quest by sorting through a list of 1,435 companies, looking for those that made substantial improvements in their performance over time. They finally settled on 11--including Fannie Mae, Gillette, Walgreens, and Wells Fargo--and discovered common traits that challenged many of the conventional notions of corporate success. Making the transition from good to great doesn't require a high-profile CEO, the latest technology, innovative change management, or even a fine-tuned business strategy. At the heart of those rare and truly great companies was a corporate culture that rigorously found and promoted disciplined people to think and act in a disciplined manner. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don't
Department heads, or whoever it was who ran individual parts of the organization, and the people overseeing and working with them would all know what they had to do to meet whatever the organization's goals were, and that those people would be effective leaders in their own right.

Yet the idea remains rooted in corporate culture that to be successful, a corporation must pay phenomenal amounts of money to someone to run it, and that this person is the one who can make or break the company. I can tell you that from an engineer's perspective, that doesn't sound even close to right. To us, the best designed products are easy to maintain, and need less maintenance than badly designed ones. While no organization can run itself by itself forever, the complete dependence on having a "star" CEO is one that I can't fathom.

Plus, ironically, while we celebrate the individual at the leadership level, this attitude often devalues individuals at every other level. "Star" leaders will make the decisions, not their subordinates. In a sense, an organization that is completely dependent on its leader is not so much an organization as a guided crowd.

Here's what the U.S. Army has to say about what an effective leader is, as discussed in Army Regulation 600-100, Army Leadership:
(1) Leads others: Leaders motivate, inspire, and influence others to take the initiative, work toward a common purpose, accomplish tasks, and achieve organizational objectives.
(5) Creates a positive organizational climate: Leaders are responsible for establishing and maintaining positive expectations and attitudes, which produce the setting for positive attitudes and effective work behaviors.
(7) Develops others: Leaders encourage and support the growth of individuals and teams to facilitate the achievement of organizational goals. Leaders prepare others to assume positions within the organization, ensuring a more versatile and productive organization.

AR 600-100 (8 March 2007) Page 3 (PDF)
Naturally, these are excerpts, but even the Army, which probably takes the autocratic leadership role about as far as any organization does in our society, recognizes that an effective leader builds an organization, not a cult of personality.

There are many reasons for the decline of American business in the last few decades, but I think this transformation in leadership philosophy has to rank as one of the primary ones. Let's hope its days are numbered.

The Chutzpah Of Hope

While I'm making screenshots of my web browser, I thought I'd share this one:

Those are all scam e-mail messages. Some say I've won a lottery, others that I'm in line for some sort of inheritance, or could be if I just claim to be a Nigerian national, or some such. One even claims that I need to send all my personal information to the FBI, because the United Nations is investigating some Nigerian scammers.

As you can see, these have all arrived in the last four weeks. There are fifteen of the bloody things, roughly one every couple of days, on average. Of course, these are going to the e-mail address I use for blogging, which I never use for financial reasons. You have to admire their persistence, if nothing else. You'd think by now they'd realize that this market was saturated years ago.

Another Time Wasting Technology

Well, that's another thing off the list ...

Thanks to being confronted with the notion at the Mozilla home page that if I didn't have a "persona" loaded on my web browser I just wouldn't be cool anymore, I take a few minutes and created one.
Image credit: Screenshot and Firefox persona theme by Cujo359

Yawn. Click on the image for a bigger yawn.

I must admit, I was never that fond of the idea to start with, so call it a case of lowered expectations met. Still, it was pretty easy. The basic steps are:
  1. Create a 3000x200 pixel image for the header image.
  2. Create a 3000x100 pixel image for the footer image
  3. Load the persona module, if you haven't already.
  4. Use the persona module to create a custom persona.
I started out with a picture of the sky I liked, and just cut out the two images using Gimp. It only took slightly longer to do it than it did to be completely bored with it.

So, you might be asking, why don't I put something really interesting in the header image? Good question. The reason is, as the instructions explain, you're supposed to use something pretty bland so that you can still see the letters and icons in the header without having to squint or turn up the contrast. That rather limits what you can do, doesn't it? Perusing the personas gallery showed that there wasn't much there that was significantly less boring and still followed the guidelines.

Anyway, if anyone's interested in using this persona, I'll figure out how to post it to the gallery. I'll call it "What I Saw Just Before I Went Mad".

Hint to website content makers - if I'm staring at the header of my web browser, what you're putting on the Internet is really boring.

UPDATE: Trying to get into the spirit of things, created another, more interesting persona. Here it is:

Not quite as boring, right? Now, look at the menus and icons in the header. They're harder to read, even after I enlarged them. That's why bland is better.

UPDATE 2: Since this second persona doesn't suck totally, I've submitted it to the gallery. It's named "Lake Washington Sky". We'll see how tolerant they are of Internet personas named after rabid animals.

UPDATE 3 (Dec. 11): The "Lake Washington Sky" persona is now part of the gallery. Enjoy.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Pike Place Market At Midnight

On Monday, I was in downtown Seattle at a concert. Sadly, I couldn't get any good pictures of the event, but I did get a couple of decent ones of the neighborhood. This is what the Pike Place Market looks like at midnight on a Monday.

This is the main entrance:

Image credit: All photos by Cujo359

This is the entrance at the other end of the market:

This is the parking lot where the street vendors are often working during the day:

As always, click on the images to enlarge.