Sunday, August 30, 2009

Minnesota Astronomical Society Star Party Update

Jupiter and 3 moons
Originally uploaded by Mully410

In an earlier post, I mentioned I was planning to head out to the Onan Observatory for a public star party hosted by the Minnesota Astronomical Society. I followed through with that plan.

The day started out great with a clear sky, slight wind and a great temperature around 60F. As the day progressed, the clouds rolled in. By the time it got around to my deadline for a go, no-go call, it was mostly cloudy. Since I was already 2/3rds of the way to the observatory visiting my parents, I decided to head out there anyway.

I'm sure glad I did. The place was packed with maybe 50 people at the start. The skeeters were also out in force. The highlight for most was Jupiter. Through MAS's variety of telescopes, I saw Jupiter's cloud bands and 4 of its moons. The above shot was taken with my little camera held up to the eyepiece of one of their 16" scopes. I was only able to get 3 of the moons in my frame for some reason. From left to right the moons are: Europa, Io and Ganymede according to my StarMap Pro software on the iPod. The big white blob is Jupiter, of course.

MAS Star Party Onan

I also saw the M13 and M15 clusters but my personal highlight was Neptune. I hadn't see Neptune through a telescope until this night. It looked like a blueish greenish dot that was definitely not a star. Very interesting.

My lawn chair came in handy. I kicked back and watched for satellites and checked out Jupiter with my binoculars. I was surprised that I could see the 4 moons with my 7x35 Nikon. I mostly use that for bird watching.

I will be out there again and will likely join their club in future. I had a fun time talking with a members about various telescopes and have pretty much decided on what scope I'll get, if I get around to getting one...10" Orion Newtonian Reflector on a Dobs mount.

Blurry Moon

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Demystifying Adventures of the Amazing Randi

Here is a very interesting article about James The Amazing Randi in the San Francisco Weekly. It's got a little bit of history, a little bit of present a little bit of TAM7.

The Demystifying Adventures of the Amazing Randi

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Lunr Flickr Winners!

Lunr Flickr Winners!
Originally uploaded by Mully410

Click on the above shot to embiggen. This is a screen capture of the MyMoon web site news section where they announced the winners of their photo contest.

A while back, I entered my photo, Independence Moon, into a contest sponsored by MyMoon. MyMoon is a collection of Lunar scientists and artists. They are funded by the by NASA's Science Mission Directorate (the part of NASA that brought you robots on Mars and spacecraft gathering information about Saturn, and the Hubble Space Telescope).

Here is a snippet of who they are:

MyMoon is created by you (the Net Generation) and the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI). Joining us are lunar scientists, educators, engineers, artists, storytellers, and others to provide interactive information about the Moon and opportunities for you to be involved.

Here is what they said about the contest:

Participants were asked to submit their best and most interesting image that captures the character of their neighborhood and includes Earth's Moon.
Here is another snippet from the rules in their Flickr Group Discussion:
The submissions will be judged by the League of Extraordinary Lunar Scientists and Artists!

My photo came in second place:

Fireworks and Moon

Click photo to embiggen

Go to their Flickr group to view the competition that just wasn't good enough to beat my picture. (OK. One guy had a better shot.)

Monday, August 24, 2009

Trapped on the Tarmac? Legislate Airplane Delays?

Plane Contrail

On August 21st, there was another flight left on the tarmac for 6 hours. The last flight delayed that made headlines was on August 8. That's 2 plane loads of passengers forced to stay on plane for an unreasonable amount of time. It probably sucked big time on those planes, especially with crying kids and little food.

I've spent a few extra hours on planes over the years. One plane had a bad NAV computer so we sat around for an hour while they fixed it. The fix didn't work so we were all unloaded. By the time we all got processed through customs and back to the gate, we ended up back on the same plane. This took about 4-5 hours, total. Not a big deal for me because I wasn't in a hurry. The plane I took back from Vegas lately was delayed for about an hour because a connecting flight was delayed. The airline decided to hold up our plane until those dozen people arrived. Also, not a big deal for me. I come prepared. My essential airline survival kit includes a one pound bag of peanut M&Ms, a big bag of beef jerky, magazines or a book and a fully charged iPod.

Are these latest planes delays a big deal? For the people on those planes, I'd say yes. Legislators seem to think so. There are demands to hold airlines accountable. There is talk of new laws to protect us from these inconveniences. Do we need Congress to intervene and create some new laws on this? I say no.

According to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association:
On any given day, more than 87,000 flights are in the skies in the United States. Only one-third are commercial carriers, like American, United or Southwest. On an average day, air traffic controllers handle 28,537 commercial flights (major and regional airlines), 27,178 general aviation flights (private planes), 24,548 air taxi flights (planes for hire), 5,260 military flights and 2,148 air cargo flights (Federal Express, UPS, etc.). At any given moment, roughly 5,000 planes are in the skies above the United States. In one year, controllers handle an average of 64 million takeoffs and landings.
It seems to me that a few unreasonable delays and stupid mistakes are inevitable. If August 8th was an average day, then almost 30,000 commercial flights took place that day. One trapped passengers on the tarmac for about 6 hours. That's 1 in almost 30,000 or .0033% of the flights. If every day is an average day and the next terribly unreasonable delay was on August 21st, that means there were 2 of these incidents within a span of 14 days. If all 14 days were average days, then about 420,000 flights took place with two of those flights delayed or stopped on the tarmac for an unreasonable amount of time. 2 in 420,000 or .00048%.

With all the more important things going on in this country like the WAR, the economy, health insurance, and deficits to name a few, is it reasonable to have our legislators drop everything and begin work on this "problem?" I think not. Leave the airlines alone. Fix more important things.

Finally, if you insist on complaining about how terrible air travel is feel free to hop in your car, get on a train or ride a horse to get where you want to go. See how convenient that is...

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Mr. Deity and the Really Unique Gift

Here is something for your Sunday morning viewing pleasure.

Go here and help support the wonderful and funny people who are responsible for Mr. Deity.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Galileoscope Update

Many Telescopes

Since I still haven't received my Galileoscopes, I emailed the Galileoscope people last week. I received an auto-reply back that asked me to call a phone number and leave a voice-mail message. I finally got around to calling that number this week.

Much to my surprise, a woman answered the phone. She was very helpful. She looked up my order number and determined that my order was one of the earliest. She explained that many of the earliest orders got mixed up and some haven't shipped yet. She is going to check to see if my order will ship on Wednesday and let me know via email. I'll keep you all posted.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Ban This Dangerous Killer Drug?

If you had the power, would you ban this drug?
2% to 3% of people are allergic to it and may have some or all of the following symptoms after taking it:
  • Hives
  • Rash
  • Itchy skin
  • Wheezing
  • Swollen lips, tongue or face (angioedema)
Adverse reactions also include Anaphylaxis which includes some or all of the following symptoms:
  • Constriction of the airways, including wheezing and a swollen tongue or throat, that results in difficulty breathing
  • Shock associated with a marked decrease in blood pressure
  • Weak and rapid pulse
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Hives and itching
  • Flushed or pale skin
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
300 to 500 Americans* (maybe thousands world-wide) are killed as a direct result of its use every year because their airway swells shut and they suffocate.

One out of about every 13,600 people allergic to this drug will die if they use it. That's a 0.0074% ratio of deaths to prevalence.
As you can see, this is a very dangerous drug. It kills hundreds of people in the United States every year. In fact, it's the number one allergy related killer in the United States, more than food allergies and bee stings.

Given today climate of lawsuit craziness, can you imagine a company that would market such a dangerous and lethal drug?

Have you guessed which drug this is yet? Heroin? Wrong. Cocaine? Wrong. Viagra? Wrong. Lipitor? Wrong.

It's Penicillin. Yes, that's right. It was discovered by the Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming in 1928. It's derived from a fungi. Click the link to learn more about it. Until mass production of it was figured out in 1944, if you got an infection like strep throat, gonorrhea or an infected wound of some kind, you pretty much died (or they chopped off the offending body part and you probably died later as a result).

Fleming discovered it but you can thank a bunch of very smart chemical engineers, doctors and scientists working for BIG PHARMA for its mass production. And don't forget to thank the US military for demanding it and funding it's production and distribution. Oh the irony...

My laziness has prevented me from finding a solid figure on how many lives have been saved by penicillin and its derivatives but I suspect that more than a billion people saved may be a plausible guestimate.

Now...can you imagine a world without this drug?

* most references I checked said about 400 are killed in the US every year but some said 300 and 500.

Mayo Clinic




Thanks to goodcatmum's flickr photos for the creative commons permission to use the above photo.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Minnesota Astronomical Society Star Party at Onan August 29

Telescopes (2)

I'm planning on attending the next public star party hosted by the Minnesota Astronomical Society. It's at the fine Onan Observatory at Baylor Region Park near Norwood-Young America on August 29th.

This is technically an all weather event. If it's cloudy, they have videos and presentations available. I will call their hot-line before I go to make sure it's clear. I don't want to drive the 50-60 miles unless I can see stuff through telescopes.

Last time I went, I had a spectacular time.

Here is what they got:
  • A computer controlled Meade 16" Schmidt-Cassegrain sitting atop a massive concrete pier
  • Two state-of-the-art systems -- one primarily for visual observing, the other intended for video-enabled observing. Each system has multiple refracting and reflecting telescopes, each selected with a specific purpose in mind and installed atop computer-controlled Paramount ME mounts
  • Obsession Dobonsian-style reflecting telescope with a 20" primary mirror
  • Standalone and mounted solar viewing telescopes equipped with h-alpha filters
  • 15x80 binoculars on a portable parallelogram mount
  • And more!
This time I will make sure to bring a few things I forgot on my last trip: binoculars, lawn chair, some snacks and drinks and an extra fleece layer.

Go here for MAS' complete events calendar.

Please let me know if you want to join me for this mini-expedition. If many want to go, perhaps we can rent a van or a bus.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Before You Get All Worked Up about Obama Protesters....Remember

I think there is a lot of selective remembering going on in the news lately. I've written about Confirmation Bias and I'm pretty sure this is what is happening. So far, things haven't gotten as ugly for BO as they were for GW.

Remember the big shoe party?

How's this for a violent protester?

Here is a whole slew of videos of protests against the last President of the United States. Check out some of those signs.

How about this video of a polite anti-nuke protester and how he treated former President Reagan?

In my opinion, it's ignorant and unfair when people categorize a whole group of people based on the actions of a few. That goes for all sides of all issues. People are individuals and are responsible for their own actions. If the faulty logic that all the Obamacare protesters are Republicans therefore all Republicans are violently rude liars, wouldn't we be able to say then that all Christians hate gays like the Westboro Baptist Church or they all have sex with children like Branch Davidians or some Catholic priests? Or all Democrats are ararchist vandals and terrorists?

And don't forget this when you talk about lying:

Contempt of court citation

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Perseid Meteor Shower August 12 - Tips and Links

Moon Venus Jupiter

The Perseid meteor shower is going to peak on August 12, 2009. I will be out around 11pm on the 11th and will likely go out again around 10pm or so on the 12th. It looks to be a nice clear sky in my area. Try to get out before the Moon shows up around midnight. I've collected some information to help you with your viewing.

Perseid meteors happen because the Earth is passing through the debris of Comet Swift-Tuttle. The tiny little bits (meteoroids) hit our atmosphere at very high speed. The light streak you see is actually the air heating up from the high speed compression and heating.

Perseid meteors appear to radiate from the constellation of Perseus, duh. From my area in Minnesota, Perseus is located in the north eastern sky after midnight this time of year. Perseus is easy to find in the sky. Look north east and locate the "W" shaped group of stars. That is Cassiopeia. Perseus looks kind of like a lopsided "V" upside down just below Cassiopeia. Anyway, it really doesn't matter if you can find these constellations. Just look north easterly. Here is a map.

So, locating and looking north east is the most important thing to know to find the Perseids. The second most important thing is to get away from city lights. If you can get north of your city, without more cities north of you, you will be able to see far more meteors. I see meteors every now and then from my back yard and I'm in a northern suburb of St. Paul.

Another important part of meteor watching is to let your eyes adjust to the darkness. Get into a spot where you won't be bothered by street lights, automobile lights and other lights. It will take about 15-20 minutes for your pupils to dilate. If you have to use a flashlight, cover it with red plastic or something red (or use your red flashlight app on your phone or iPod). Red light won't ruin your night vision. You will still see some of the brighter meteors even if you can't get perfect night vision.

Get a comfortable chair and bring some layers to keep you warm. You might be surprised how chilly 70F is when you are sitting still in the middle of the night.

Sit back and relax. Simply scan the north eastern section of the sky. You will see brief flashes of light. Hopefully, we'll see some larger burst that last more than a couple seconds.

More about meteors:

What NASA says

Highlights from Sky and Telescope

Star Date Online

20 Things You don't Know About Meteors (this is an old article but the list is still valid)

A Select Article from Bad Astronomy

Photography Tips

Everything you ever wanted to know about meteors

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Minneapolis Skeptics Drinking Skeptically August Meet-Up

The next Minneapolis Skeptics Drinking Skeptically Meet-up is Thursday August 13, 2009. We start around 5:00 pm but you can come and go whenever. Most people filter out around 10:00 pm (likely due to the cafe closing around that time). RSVP at the Minneapolis Skeptics Meet-Up site. We don't typically have much for an agenda for this event. Last month met with the head of Twin Cities Coalition of Reason. We also discussed a wide variety of topics including: astrophysics, feminism, atheism, The Amazing Meeting 7, conspiracies and Kevin Trudeau. Come join the fun.

Here is the whole snippet:

We are back to our regularly scheduled Meet-Up day, the 2nd Thursday of the month. We had about 15 people at the July Meet-Up at the Common Roots Cafe. This is a good venue for a couple reasons. We get a private back room for free and they have decent food, beer and wine.

Those that attended the July Meet-Up agreed that Minneapolis Skeptics become a part of the United Coalition of Reason. I'll provide any updates I have from that group. I've also been in contact with the Twin Cities Skeptics group and will provide some updates on that. One thing you'll notice right away is that I will list their events on our calendar. You'll have a Meet-Up request for their next event shortly.

Other than those short items, there are no other official topics. Keep your eye on the news media and bring your best stories of woo woo and pseudoscience.


PS: Our fee for this Meet-Up service is due in August. It costs us (meaning Eric) $12 per month. Not a lot, actually. Less than a dollar per person per meeting. Please chip in what you can so we can continue to use Meet-Up.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Critical Thinking Club of St. Paul Presents - The Utility of God

Here are the details for the latest meeting of the Critical Thinking Club of St. Paul.

Location: Kelly Inn, Rice Street and I-94

Date: August 9, 2009

Time: 10:00 a.m. to Noon

Presenter: Greg Peterson

Subject: “The Utility of God.”

Breakfast Buffet $10.00 Coffee only $3.00. Please RSVP to

In a poem, Voltaire wrote, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.” But just how necessary is God? Not merely belief in a god, which seems to make some people behave better and some worse, but god as an actual being? Many theists claim that God is necessary to the existence of morals, and even an atheist like Woody Allen seems to believe that without God, there can be no ultimate meaning. Further, most religions claim God as a creator, without whom there could not be order and complexity in the universe. And finally, some people make the case that without a divine origin, human free will is impossible...that in a materialistic universe, everything must be determined, including our thoughts and actions. Greg Peterson maintains that while religion might have merit as a human enterprise, God cannot be our source of morality or meaning, is unnecessary to explain order and complexity, and provides no solution to the issue of free will. So how can humans retain whatever benefits we can find in religion while admitting that the theism behind most religions has outlived its usefulness?

Greg Peterson was born into a nominal Christian family in Red Wing, Minnesota. Following a radical conversion to biblical fundamentalism in his late teens, he attended Northwestern College in St. Paul, MN, where he earned bachelors degrees in biblical studies, written communications, and sociology. As a free-lance religious journalist he was published in Contemporary Christian Music, Christian Bookseller, and Twin Cities Christian, and provided marketing support for several church and parachurch ministries. He worked for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, helping to market the ministry’s books, films, and other materials. Over a period of many months in his late 30s, Peterson became more skeptical about some of the claims of Christianity and began reading more widely in critical, philosophical, and scientific literature, and seeking out the opinions of people of other faiths and of no faith. Now in his late 40s, with two adult children, Peterson formulates his position as, “I am unaware of any compelling reason to believe in the gods of the theistic religions.” While not ruling out the possibility of some type of supreme intelligence, perhaps along deistic lines, Peterson thinks he can show conclusively that the gods of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity are unnecessary, unlikely, and unattractive. Peterson now makes his living in health care communications, enjoys reading and nature, and counts among his closest friends atheists, pastors, and theologians.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Hyperactivity, Sugar and Your Child

I attended a birthday party for a four year old the other day. It was great fun. A half a dozen kids running, jumping, sliding, screaming, yelling, laughing and crying (a little bit). I long for the time when the biggest crisis in my life was getting dirt on my candy after dropping it on the ground.

Parents are convinced that when you add sugar to a child it causes the child to become excited, over active or out of control. In fact, I saw the opposite at this recent birthday party. My observations from a childless perspective showed things differently. When each child arrived at the party, they started out a little shy to the other other children. The parents quickly got them dressed in their swimsuits and they proceeded to the slip-n-slide and the inflatable pool. Within a few short minutes, the newly arrived children were yelling, screaming, running around and basically having fun. Using the same flawed logic of the myth, we should concluded that kids + slip-n-slides + inflatable pools = hyperactivity*. I found it interesting that nobody commented on the excitable children at this point.

One crucial element needed for a successful birthday party is candy and this event was no exception. The variety of shapes, colors, textures and bursts of flavor from candy can't be beat. Kids love candy. After the pool and slip-n-slide fun-time, each child at this birthday party got a little gift bag with some small toys, stickers and candy. There was a little trading between the kids but mostly they immediately dug into the candy. While this was going on, I heard a number of parents mention that all that sugar was going to make their kids hyper, the car ride was going to be difficult, or my son will never get to sleep tonight, the kids will be "bouncing off the walls." I think we've all heard that sugar makes kids hyperactive*. This is a myth**. What I saw was children who sat down, looked their bags and quietly ate candy. After the candy, we ate dinner of hot dogs and then the birthday boy opened gifts. The gift opening was pretty exciting for the children. Perhaps children + gifts = hyperactivity?

The reality is that there is no causal relationship between sugar and hyperactivity in normal healthy children. What is going on here is a problem with confirmation bias. When parents know their child has had some sugar, they are more prone to see the excited child. There is tons of research confirming this bias. Here is a snippet from a report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association:
Studies were required to (1) intervene by having the subjects consume a known quantity of sugar; (2) use a placebo (artificial sweetener) condition; (3) blind the subjects, parents, and research staff to the conditions; and (4) report statistics that could be used to compute the dependent measures effect sizes.

The meta-analytic synthesis of the studies to date found that sugar does not affect the behavior or cognitive performance of children. The strong belief of parents may be due to expectancy and common association.

Junkfood Science blog goes on to detail some of the implausibilities of the the "sugar rush" myth. Sandi has a lot of references to plausibility and study designs.

Medicinenet has another good article on how foods, in general, may or may not affect behavior. Here is a snippet:

Any parent that has ever witnessed the aftermath of a child's birthday party has probably blamed sugar for the mayhem that followed the cake and ice cream. But the fact is that sugar may actually be an innocent victim of guilt by association.

Experts say the notion that sugar causes children to become hyperactive is by far the most popular example of how people believe food can affect behavior, especially among young children.

However, despite years of debate and research on the relationship between food and behavior, no major studies have been able to provide any clear scientific evidence to back up those claims.

Our bodies are very effective it regulating our glucose levels unless you are hyperglycemic (high blood sugar) or hypoglycemic (low blood sugar).

Those of you with kids, try to think hard about this before you restrict your child's candy intake. Could it be that your child is naturally excited to be with all sorts of other children, to play new games and participate in fun activities? Then go read this essay on the joys of candy.

For more reading about this see a Google search for "sugar hyperactivity" which shows about 3.9 million results.

* I'm not referring to the clinical definition of hyperactivity as in ADHD etc...

** In my quest to be less of an asshole, I refrained from mentioning what I knew about this topic to anyone at the party. It's difficult for me not to comment but I resisted in this case. It's been my experience that debunking the sugar rush myth generates arguments similar to proposing negatives about religion or Obama.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Penn Says - TAM7 - The Amazing Meeting 7

Penn Jillette shares his thoughts on the recent The Amazing Meeting 7. I was there and agree with his assessment.

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