Thursday, December 29, 2011

Sending a shuttle simulator to the Aggies

Well this is good news for space exploration efforts and for Texas. (Especially since we got robbed out of an actual space shuttle for the Johnson Space Center.)
NASA's long-running space shuttle program came to its end in 2011, but thanks to a recently signed agreement between the space agency and a Texas university, one of the winged spacecraft's iconic cockpits will continue to "fly."

The Shuttle Motion Simulator (SMS), which for more than three decades exposed astronauts to the sights, sounds, and motions they'd experience when they launched and landed on the real orbiters, is being moved 100 miles from NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston to Texas A&M University in College Station. Once there, the hydraulically maneuvered platform will resume work as a simulator.

"The SMS at College Station at Texas A&M is going to be returned to be an operational simulator," Paul Hill, director of mission operations at NASA Johnson, said. "And there, more students and engineers will have the opportunity not just to see it, but actually use it to develop new operations and develop new equipment to be used by next-generation spacecraft.
(from Robert Z. Pearlman at

The Twelve Caesars - page 300, Domitian

Domitian pretended to be extremely modest, and though he displayed a novel devotion to poetry, which he would read aloud in public, his enthusiasm was matched by a later neglect and contempt of the art.

Who knew the ancient Romans had poetry slams?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Twelve Caesars - page 296, Titus

Titus' reign was marked by a series of dreadful catastrophes - an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Campania (The eruption that destroyed Pompeii, Herculaneum, Stabiae, and Oplontis.), a fire at Rome which burned for three days and nights, and one of the worst outbreaks of plague that had ever been known. Throughout this assortment of disasters, he showed far more than an Emperor's concern ... . He ... devoted the property of those who had died in the eruption and left no heirs to a fund for rebuilding the stricken cities. ... He stripped his own country mansions of their decorations, distributed these among the public buildings and temples [stricken by the fire], and appointed a body of knights to see that his orders were promptly carried out. Titus attempted to cure the plague and limit its ravages by every imaginable means, human as well as divine - resorting to all sorts of sacrifices and medical remedies.

This passage portrays Titus as having a genuine affinity for his people and a concern for their welfare. If it is to be believed, this account demonstrates the emperor's eagerness to give of his own personal belongings to help relieve the sufferings of his subjects. This could be the best example of a benevolent dictator that we have from ancient history.

Well, benevolent toward his own people. There is that whole destruction of the Jewish Temple thing, too.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Blending philosophy and nativity

Hover text: I think you could get up to about 11:59:57 before you'd have trouble swallowing the chocolates fast enough. At that point, you'd need some kind of a liquify-and-chug apparatus to get up over the 11:59:59 barrier. Anyway, Merry Christmas!

Yes, a Merry XKCD Christmas to you all!

(Click here for more Zeno info.)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Twelve Caesars - page 244, Nero

Physical characteristics of Nero:

Height: average.
Body: pustular and malodorous.
Hair: light blond.
Features: pretty, rather than handsome.
Eyes: blue and rather weak.
Neck: squat.
Belly: protuberant.
Legs: spindling.

... He was entirely shameless in the style of his appearance and dress, but always had his hair set in rows of curls and, when he visited Greece, let it grow long and hang down his back.

The only thing Suetonius left out was the Emperor's fantastic neck beard.

Nobody rocks this look like I do!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Twelve Caesars - page 200, Claudius

Until this reign there had been two terms in the Law Courts, the summer and the winter; Claudius made them continuous. Another of his changes was to institute permanent courts ... for judging fiduciary cases, instead of entrusting them to the annually appointed Roman magistrates. He cancelled Tiberius' supplement to the Papian-Poppaean Law which implied that men over sixty years of age could not beget children; and sponsored a law authorizing the Consuls to choose guardians for orphans; and passed another law, ruling that no person who had been exiled from a province might enter the city or even Italy.

A new form of punishment which forbade some persons to go more than three miles outside Rome was likewise introduced by Claudius. ... Hitherto, when Romans wished to travel abroad, the Senate had considered their applications; Claudius reserved the right to deal with these himself.

In other places in The Twelve Caesars, Claudius is portrayed somewhat as a dolt, but this passage makes him seem much more competent. Not nice, but competent. He tended to the housekeeping of the Empire with the changes listed above and other changes listed elsewhere. And, even though it's likely that a great many people were unhappy with such changes (especially those with places to go to), it's obvious that Claudius was not distant from the workings of the government.

Claudius passed laws, changed laws, altered customs, and challenged assumptions. He even proposed adding new letters of his own invention to the Latin alphabet (they didn't stick, though). And it seems like he had a purpose in mind for each change, even if it may not be obvious to a reader today or a Roman in the past.

I offer you this backward C, for all of your "PS" sounds; this upside-down F, so you can stop using V as a consonant; and this half H, because it's all Greek to me.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

The Twelve Caesars - page 249, Galba

One day, as Galba's grandfather was invoking sacrificial lightning, an eagle suddenly snatched the victim's intestines out of his hands and carried them off to an oak-tree laden with acorns. A bystander suggested that this sign portended great honour for the family. 'Yes, yes, perhaps so,' the old man agreed, smiling, 'on the day that a mule foals.' When Galba later launched his rebellion, what encouraged him most was the news that a mule had, in fact, foaled. Although everyone else considered this a disastrous omen, Galba remembered the sacrifice and his grandfather's saying, and interpreted it in precisely the opposite sense.

And thus a toss-off, dismissive joke becomes the inspiration for a man, signaling to him that he was destined to become Emperor of Rome.

-- Don't worry. It's good luck.
-- Yeah. In Haiti.

Monday, December 05, 2011

"NASA Telescope Confirms Alien Planet in Habitable Zone"

Great news!
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — NASA's planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft has confirmed the discovery of its first alien world in its host star's habitable zone — that just-right range of distances that could allow liquid water to exist — and found more than 1,000 new explanet candidates, researchers announced today (Dec. 5).


The potentially habitable alien world, a first for Kepler, orbits a star very much like our own sun. The discovery brings scientists one step closer to finding a planet like our own — one which could conceivably harbor life, scientists said.

"We're getting closer and closer to discovering the so-called 'Goldilocks planet,'" Pete Worden, director of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., said during a press conference today.
(from Mike Wall at

Perfect. Let's get packing.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

The Twelve Caesars - page 23 Julius Caesar

[As military commander, Julius Caesar] lost no opportunity of picking quarrels -- however unfair and dangerous -- with allies as well as hostile and barbarous tribes, and marching against them. At first the Senate set up a commission of inquiry into the state of the Gallic provinces, and some speakers went so far as to recommend that Caesar should be handed over to the enemy. But the more successful his campaigns, the more frequent the public thanksgivings voted; and the holidays that went with them were longer than any general before him had ever earned.

Nothing succeeds like success.

Absolute badass.

Friday, December 02, 2011

One of my favorite things, and one not so much

Steel drums and Dvořák.

But, hey, it actually comes out sounding pretty cool!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Two of my favorite things

Classical guitar and Dvořák.

Thanks, Jorge Caballero.

The Twelve Caesars - page 190, Claudius

Nevertheless, these honours did not protect [Claudius] from frequent insults. If ever he arrived a little late in the dining-hall, there was nothing for it but to tour the tables in search of a vacant couch; and when he took his usual after-dinner nap the company would pelt him with olives and date stones. Some jokers exercised their wit by putting slippers on his hands as he lay snoring, and then gave him a sudden blow of a whip or cane to wake him, so that he rubbed his face with them.

Now, this was a time before Claudius became emperor, so it is not surprising that his colleagues were not afraid of him. He didn't have his imperial power, yet. But it is a little surprising that he was treated so badly even though he was the brother of a very popular public figure (Germanicus) and the uncle of that public figure's popular son (Gaius Caligula), who just happened to be the ruler of Rome at the time and hadn't yet squandered the favor shown to him by the people.

If Suetonius's account of the practical jokes is accurate, then Claudius must have been a true dolt. Or, if not, then sufficiently timid to have attracted the constant attention of wiseacres.

OK, OK, I'll be your emperor! Just please, please stop slapping me!

Monday, November 28, 2011

"Pluto's Moons Could Spell Danger for New Horizons Spacecraft"

Let's hope this scenario does not come to pass for our Pluto-bound space probe.
When NASA's New Horizons spacecraft reaches Pluto in July 2015, it may find the region more hazardous than anticipated. The discovery of several moons around Pluto — and the potential for more — increase the risks during the probe's flyby.

The main problem is debris. The small moons are under constant bombardment from nearby space rocks called Kuiper Belt objects, but the moons' low gravity prevents them from holding on to chunks of dirt and rock that fly into the air when hit. The debris instead finds itself caught in orbit around Pluto, where it could pose a serious threat to New Horizons.

It'd be a shame if New Horizons meets an untimely end just as it arrives. I so want to see what that planetoid looks like close up.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Twelve Caesars - page 230, Nero

Nero's confidence in the resources of the Empire was not the only cause of his furious spending; he had also been suddenly excited by tales of a great hidden treasure ....

When this hope failed to materialize, Nero found himself destitute -- and his financial difficulties were such that he could not lay hands on enough money even for the soldiers' pay or the veterans' benefits; and therefore resorted to robbery and blackmail.

First he made a law that if a freedman died who had taken the name of a family connected with his own, and could not show adequate reason, five-sixths of the estate, not merely one half, s
hould be forfeited to the Privy Purse. Next, he seized the estates of those who had shown ingratitude to their Emperor (i.e., by not leaving him enough); and fined the lawyers responsible for writing and dictating such wills. ... His invariable formula, when he appointed a magistrate, was: 'You know my needs! Let us see to it that nobody is left with anything.'

Sound familiar? Like politics is all too universal? Human behavior constant throughout the eras?

I find it particularly interesting that Nero fined not just the writers of wills that fell short of his expectations but also those who dictated such wills, those poor people whose job was simply to write down what someone else had said. Even they felt the anger of Nero. I would have referred to those transcribing drudges as "dictators", but that would have reduced the proper infamy that that word carries in our language today. In this scene, only Nero would deserve that title, though the official position had already been abolished a few Caesars earlier.

Yes, I am dictating, but please don't say that word around me. You know, Dictaphone.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

What I am most thankful for on this earth:


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Getting a laugh out of me

I love it when something can make me laugh out loud -- literally -- even when I am alone. By myself.

This entry from's article "27 Great Moments in History If the Internet Was Around" is just one of those somethings:

Doubting Thomas's reaction is classic.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Checking out the neighborhood

Someday, this could be what our new home looks like.


Imagine that. Then read more about this fabulous shot of new real estate here.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Twelve Caesars - page 260, Otho

[Otho's] early wildness earned him many a beating from his father; he is said to have been in the habit of wandering about the city at night and seizing and tossing in a blanket any drunk or disabled person who crossed his path.

The interesting thing about this passage is Otho's apparent pastime in his youth: the practice of treating less fortunate people very badly by tossing them in a blanket.

Many years ago a very wise professor at the university I attended explained to the class that the strange practice of tossing someone in a blanket (which we had come across in a passage of Medieval writing, possibly Chaucer, where a character was treated in like manner) was actually a very violent act. It wasn't a simple celebratory act, which our modern, student minds had visualized as looking something like this:

Pictured: fun.
Image by Floyd Davidson

It was more an act where someone was wrapped up tightly in a blanket and beaten or tossed in the air, most likely to not be caught before hitting the ground. It was a very cruel act, and many, many years ago it was used as a form of punishment. Not something to be taken very lightly.

I found the information enlightening then, and when I came across this passage about Otho's young cruelty I remembered that old professor right away and all the bits of enlightenment he shared with me and my classmates. And those were good memories. The learning, that is, not the cruelty we learned about. Remember, the young Otho wasn't merely teasing those poor people on the streets; he was exhibiting a complete disregard for their welfare and safety.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Twelve Caesars - page 129, Tiberius

[Tiberius] was, moreover, quite unperturbed by abuse, slander, or lampoons on himself and his family, and would often say that liberty to speak and think as one pleases is the test of a free country. When the Senate asked that those who had offended in this way should be brought to book, he replied: 'We cannot spare the time to undertake any such new enterprise. Open that window, and you will let in such a rush of denunciations as to waste your whole working day; everyone will take this opportunity of airing some private feud.'

Though Tiberius is infamous for his depravities, he seems remarkably pragmatic in this situation. Just as modern politicians need to be thick-skinned when it comes to public criticism, so too did ancient Roman public figures. There's a certain amount of futility in trying to punish every single bad comment that is directed at politicians, and that amount is a whole truckload. Besides, if you were to try to chase down all of the sneers and jeers against you (assuming you are a politician) you would be so occupied with this endeavor that you would get bogged down and have absolutely no time for the job that your constituents elected you to do. Tiberius recognized that, sick creep that he was.

Tiberius also raises the idea of free speech and freedom of expression (though only for Roman citizens, I'm sure) as an example of a good thing for a thriving society, and we here in the United States are certainly no strangers to this concept. He welcomed criticism, and we can only hope that our modern political types would follow his example.

Imagine that: Me, the paragon of free speech! Who'd a thunk it?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

"Why the Milky Way May Be Facing a Midlife Crisis"

Does this mean it will want a really big Corvette, then?
Our Milky Way galaxy and its neighbor, the Andromeda galaxy, seem to be going through a midlife crisis.

New research reveals that both galaxies are in the middle of transitioning from young, star-forming regions into older, stagnant ones, a transition that is revealed by the galaxies' color. Generally, such a change comes after two galaxies collide, astronomers said, but this pair seems to be making the shift on its own.


But the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy are shifting from blue to red without a collision, which was a surprising discovery, the researchers explained.

Since they are already slowing down, when they crash into each other in the future, the collision most likely won't generate a new powerhouse.
(from Nola Taylor Redd at

"When" they crash into each other. Folks, our galaxy is doomed. But don't lose any sleep over it. It won't be for another five billion years or so. Plenty of time to engineer a new empire.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Honoring those who served

And those who still do.

Let's remember them on this Veterans Day. And, if you get the chance, remember to thank them, too.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

The Twelve Caesars - page 253, Galba

At about this time a ring of ancient design was discovered in the fortifications of the city that [Galba] had chosen as his headquarters; the engraved gem represented Victory raising a trophy. Soon afterwards an Alexandrian ship drifted into Dertosa, loaded with arms, but neither helmsman, crew, nor passengers were found aboard her -- which left no doubt in anyone's mind that this must be a just and righteous war, favoured by the god.

So the other day, I found a piece of lost jewelry (probably Kathy's), and Galba went apeshit. Called it a "sign". Thinks he's an emperor now, or somethin'.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Passing by

Welcome to the neighborhood.


NASA has captured a new radar image of 2005 YU55, the huge asteroid due to make a close approach to Earth tomorrow (Nov. 8).

The agency's Deep Space Network antenna in Goldstone, Calif. snapped the image at 2:45 p.m. EST (1945 GMT) today (Nov. 7), when the aircraft-carrier-size 2005 YU55 was about 860,000 miles (1.38 million kilometers) from Earth, NASA officials said.

2005 YU55, which is 1,300 feet (400 meters) wide, will get quite a bit closer still. It will come within about 201,700 miles (324,600 km) of our planet at 6:28 p.m. EST (2328 GMT) tomorrow — closer than the moon, which orbits 238,864 miles (384,499 km) from us on average.

A space rock of this size hasn't come so near to Earth since 1976 and won't again until 2028. But there is no danger of 2005 YU55 striking Earth or the moon on this pass, or any other passes for at least the next 100 years or so, researchers said.

Don't be a stranger. But, still, don't get too close.

I hope you understand.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

The Twelve Caesars - page 78, Augustus

In one period of exceptional scarcity [Augustus] found it impossible to cope with the public distress except by expelling every useless mouth from the city, such as the slaves in the slave-market, all members of gladiatorial schools, all foreign residents with the exception of physicians and teachers, and a number of household-slaves.

Slaves? Useless mouths? I would have thought that slaves would actually be quite useful. You know, as free labor. That's kind of the reason they were made slaves in the first place, right? Sure, get rid of the foreign residents, I can understand that, but why cast out all the slaves?

And really, the gladiators, too? C'mon, Augustus, what were the people supposed to do without their sports?

Next year, I go free agent, and then I'm takin' my talents to South Beach.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Developing tractor beams

The concept of tractor beams just might make the leap from science fiction to ordinary fact.


Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The Twelve Caesars - page 51, Julius Caesar

The entire Senate then dispersed in confusion, and Caesar was left lying dead for some time until three slave boys carried him home in a litter, with one arm hanging over the side. The physician Antistius conducted the post mortem and came to the conclusion that none of the wounds had been mortal except the second one, in the chest. It had been decided to drag the dead man down to the Tiber, confiscate his property, and revoke all his edicts; but fear of Mark Antony, the Consul, and Lepidus, the Master of Horse, kept the assassins from making their plans good.

This, of course, is the assassination of Julius Caesar, rendered most famously by Shakespeare in the play of the same name that actually focused on one of the conspirators, Marcus Brutus. What I like in particular about this passage is the bit about the removal of the body, another example of Suetonius's penchant for curious detail.

In talking about the aftermath of the assassination, Suetonius takes the time and space to record not just that Caesar's body was carried away but that it was carried away by slaves. Boy slaves. And there were three of them. And one of the arms was hanging off the side of the stretcher, perhaps left there due to the carelessness of the boys. There's no explanation of why the boys were there or who prompted them to collect the body of the Emperor of Rome and carry it away, but there they were. Curious bits of detail, and it's writing like this that grabs my attention, holds my interest, and makes me keep reading works like The Twelve Caesars.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Air show 2011

We went out to Randolph AFB this morning, and we saw lots of things. Things that looked like this:

Yes, mean-looking things. And sleek things. And absolutely big things, utterly sublime and breathtaking.

We also saw the coolest F-16 ever to split the air on this planet.

And the mark of possibly the most dangerous Punisher fan around.

And we saw a bit of history, too, in the form of the quintessential bomber of World War II.

And we saw a few more historical bombers, one of which could not be outdone in the patriotism department.

And above all, it was perfect weather. Cool in the morning, clear, warming into the afternoon, and nothing to block your view of aviation prowess.

It was a good day.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Lost in translation?

Or just a cop-out because the word's subtle meanings are too hard to convey on an air freshener can?

I decide.

I'm not fluent in Spanish, but I know enough to know that this translation is a cop out. "Spring & renewal" is certainly a masterful stroke of marketing for the English language, and it works very well on this can of product. It sounds good, it sounds fresh, and who wouldn't want to be renewed every time they spritzed a bit of sweet smelling stuff into the air?

Overall, it sounds nice.

But "renewal" doesn't translate well into Spanish. The closest word to it is "renovación", and I get the feeling that the marketing types at Febreze felt that they couldn't put that word directly below the English word because it would remind English-speakers of home renovations (surely a stressful and dusty activity) rather than pleasant, fragrant renewals.

So they picked the best word they could come up with that conveys nice, pleasing scents. "Flores". Which means "flowers". It's a nice word, but it certainly doesn't mean "renewal". And I don't blame the marketers for choosing that word. Explaining in Spanish the exact concept of renewal would result in clunky phrases or long, letter-cluttered words (like "rejuvenecimiento"), and nobody wants that on their air freshener cans. They'd prefer to think of sweetly scented things, like flowers. And they certainly don't want to think too much about what it is they are supposed to be smelling.

So, Febreze Marketing Department, it is a translation cop out. I know that. But it is an understandable one, and I don't fault you for it.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Twelve Caesars - page 289, Vespasian

Vespasian was square-bodied, with strong, well-proportioned limbs, but always wore a strained expression on his face; so that once, when he asked a well-known wit: 'Why not make a joke about me?' the answer came: 'I will, when you have finished relieving yourself.'

That's hilarious!

That joke would be mildly funny if were to take place today, but it's an absolute riot given that it was told a couple of millennia ago about one of the Roman emperors, to that emperor's face, and recorded for all of posterity by one of the world's eminent historians, Suetonious.

And it says something positive about Vespasian's character and sense of humor that he did not have that "well-known wit" killed immediately. (Perhaps he did, but there's no indication of that here, and I'm going with the thought that Vespasian followed it up with, "Ya got me there!")

OK, I'm finished. You may tell your joke now.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

NASA needs private help

It's good to hear NASA admitting that the private sector should be a part of future space exploration. And it's even better to hear that this involvement is now being encouraged.
LAS CRUCES, N.M. — For NASA to achieve any of its lofty goals for the future, the commercial space industry must succeed, NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver said.

The space agency has bet big that private spaceships will be ready to carry cargo and astronauts to orbit soon. The future of the International Space Station, as well as the future of NASA's robotic science missions and human deep space ambitions, depend on that outcome, Garver said yesterday (Oct. 20) here at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight.

"In order to make good on the entire plan, it is this part of the plan that must be successful," Garver said.

Too bad it took the forced retirement of the Space Shuttle to make this happen. But, hey, if that's what it took, then so be it. Let private companies start contracting for launches, and let's not rely on the Russians anymore than we absolutely have to.

Especially when it comes to getting into space.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Twelve Caesars - page 103, Augustus

As for Augustus' attitude to religion: he is recorded to have been scared of thunder and lightning, against which he always carried a piece of seal-skin as an amulet, and to have taken refuge in an underground vault whenever a heavy storm threatened -- because, as I have already mentioned, he had once narrowly escaped being struck on a night march which frightened him badly.

I'm not going to comment on Augustus's fear of lightning and thunder -- or even on the curious notion that such a phobia can adequately sum up any person's attitude toward religion -- but I do wonder about the superstition of protecting yourself from stormy weather with a piece of seal skin. I have never heard of this belief, but I suppose there's really not much difference between that and carrying around a rabbit's foot for good luck.

Who knows? The Romans may have been right about seal skin. If so, then there are a lot of Canadians who should fear no thunder.

Or cold weather.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Twelve Caesars - page 88, Augustus

As a young man [Augustus] was betrothed to the daughter of Publius Servilius Isauricus, but on his reconciliation with Mark Antony, after their first disagreement, the troops insisted that they should become closely allied by marriage; so, although Antony's step-daughter Claudia -- borne by his wife Fulvia to Publius Clodius -- was only just of marriageable age, Augustus married her; however, he quarrelled with Fulvia and divorced Claudia before the union had been consummated. [I wonder what they were waiting around for. A quarrel? --ed.] Soon afterwards he married Scribonia, both of whose previous husbands had been ex-consuls, and by one of whom she had a child. Augustus divorced her, too, 'because,' as he wrote, 'I could not bear the way she nagged at me' -- and immediately took Livia Drusilla away from her husband, Tiberius Nero, though she was pregnant at the time. Livia remained the one woman whom he truly loved until his death.

Well, it took him awhile, but it seemed Augustus found his true love at last.

And wuv, tru wuv, will fowow you foweva

These seem like messy marriages for Augustus, but they are no more numerous or scandalous than any you might see with modern-day celebrity relationships, and at least there don't seem to be any murders or mysterious suicides involved. (Even when Augustus became thoroughly disgusted with his daughter, Julia, later in life, he sent her into exile rather than execute her.)

By light of his familial relations alone, Augustus seems to be quite a bit more noble than Caesars to come. Sadly, though, that's not that difficult a goal to achieve.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The moon is a rich mistress

Why are we not yet going back to the moon?
A new map of the moon has uncovered a trove of areas rich in precious titanium ore, with some lunar rocks harboring 10 times as much of the stuff as rocks here on Earth do.

The map, which combined observations in visible and ultraviolet wavelengths, revealed the valuable titanium deposits. These findings could shed light on some of the mysteries of the lunar interior, and could also lay the groundwork for future mining on the moon, researchers said.

"Looking up at the moon, its surface appears painted with shades of grey — at least to the human eye," Mark Robinson, of Arizona State University, said in a statement. "The maria appear reddish in some places and blue in others. Although subtle, these color variations tell us important things about the chemistry and evolution of the lunar surface. They indicate the titanium and iron abundance, as well as the maturity of a lunar soil."


Furthermore, Apollo data indicated that titanium-rich minerals are more efficient at retaining solar wind particles, such as helium and hydrogen. These gases would likely be vital resources in the construction of lunar colonies and for exploration of the moon, the researchers said.

We need to be up there mining that stuff someday. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Heavy metal is easier than you think

In fact, it's child's play.

Besides the girl's guitar solo, the best part is at 3:31.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The Twelve Caesars - page 136, Tiberius

Some aspects of [Tiberius's] criminal obscenity are almost too vile to discuss, much less believe.

I will leave it at that. Suetonius goes into way too much detail for me to comfortably post the subsequent sentences here. Even Project Gutenberg saw fit to excise the worst bits from their online reader version of The Twelve Caesars. So if you ever find this passage to read, read it at your own risk.

You can't unread it. And you will never get it out of your mind.

R.I.P. Steve Jobs

So the internets are brimming over with sadness now that Steve Jobs has passed away, the voices almost universally singing his praises and lamenting the passing of his greatness. I won't, though.

I'm not going to speak ill of the dead. In fact, I will acknowledge that Jobs was a very shrewd businessman, despite his aura of "coolness". And he built a very fine company. But I will say this: I have never owned an Apple product. Ever. And I even stopped using iTunes a while back because using Amazon to purchase music was easier and cheaper.

And I don't feel as if I've missed out on anything.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The Twelve Caesars - page 164, Caligula

When the moon shone full and bright [Caligula] invited the Moon-goddess to sexual intercourse in his bed; and during the day would indulge in whispered conversations with Capitoline Jupiter, pressing his ear to the god's mouth, and sometimes raising his voice in anger. Once he was overheard threatening the god: 'If you do not raise me up to Heaven I will cast you down to Hell.' Finally he announced that Jupiter had persuaded him to share his home ....

And who would argue with a god? If Jupiter wanted Caligula to come live with him, then Caligula should go live with him, right? After all, he was in the god's good graces, given that the deity was willing to listen to him on a daily basis and even put up with the little emperor's petulant demands.

No word on whether the Moon took him up on his offers, though.

Not sure if she was willing.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

The Twelve Caesars - page 204, Claudius

Claudius fell so deeply under the influence of these freedmen and wives that he seemed to be their servant rather than their emperor; and distributed honours, army commands, indulgences or punishments according to their wishes, however capricious, seldom even aware of what he was about. I need not dwell on matters of lesser importance: how he revoked grants, cancelled edicts, brazenly amended the texts of letters-patent he had issued, or even openly substituted new versions for the old. Suffice it to record that he executed his father-in-law Appius Silanus; Julia, daughter of Tiberius' son Drusus; and Julia, daughter of his own brother Germanicus -- all on unsupported charges and without the right to plead in self-defence.

Suffice it, indeed.

Claudius, like most emperors, is probably remembered more for his negatives than for his positives (and there is no doubt that he accomplished some good things for the empire, and there have been some efforts to rehabilitate his image). But his proclivity to being influenced by his lessers in ways that resulted in profound consequences (such as family murder) is hardly the mark of an inspiring leader.

Looking like a British shoe doesn't help, either.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What else I've been listening to

The Pistolero finally drove me to purchase The Warning by Queensrÿche, and I'm certainly not disappointed for having done it. You can read my comments about the album here, but the nutshell version is that I've enjoyed getting familiar with it over the past few weeks. And I'm glad I got it.

But, in focusing on The Warning, I almost forgot to mention what else I've been listening to lately. And that's a shame, because it's some pretty good stuff.

It's this:

That's the latest album from Symphony X, a progressive metal outfit that's been around since the mid-1990s but that I've only just begun to pay attention to. And I'm really getting to like them.

Symphony X (I still haven't figured out whether that's supposed to be pronounced eks or ten) reminds me a lot of Dream Theater, another prog metal band that I liked briefly in the 1990s. And the singer makes me think of Ronnie James Dio. And when you put Dream Theater and Dio together, it's bound to be something good.

And it is.

I first ran across Symphony X several years ago, and I downloaded a few songs just to check them out. I liked what I heard, so when their album titled Paradise Lost came out in 2007 I downloaded a few more to see if they kept my interest. They did. So when Iconoclast came out earlier this summer I went the extra step and got the whole album.

And the thing keeps growing on me. I like it more and more with every listen.

The album has a general theme to it of machines supplanting humanity, taking over in a Borg-like manner, I suppose. As such, many of the songs cover subjects that are dark, threatening, and bleak. But there is also an unmistakable energy that keeps the blood pumping and the senses sharp.

But don't take my word for it. Have a brief listen, and then decide what you think of it.

There's a lot more, and I wish I could play the whole album for you. But if you are into metal and haven't yet checked out Symphony X, I suggest you try them out. Download a few songs and see if they grow on you like they did on me.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A new look at Uranus

Mike Brown/Caltech

Pretty, ain't it?

That's Uranus, which normally looks like this:

Except that the image on top was captured in infrared by Caltech astronomer Mike Brown at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii. You can read more about this image, and why Mr. Brown was taking pictures of Uranus and Neptune in infrared, at It's a nice article, showing how the search for knowledge can lead to some unexpected and pleasing discoveries, and how simple opportunity can open the door to great advancements and achievements.

And there are some great images there, too.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

What I've been listening to lately


So the South Texas Pistolero finally convinced me that I had waited way, way, way too long to get Queensrÿche's The Warning. And I'm a bit surprised at myself at how long it took me.

You see, I'm a huge fan of Queensrÿche, or rather I'm a huge fan of a stage in their career. I didn't really get into them until a friend of mine told me back in 1986 that I should check out Rage for Order when that album first came out. I already liked the band somewhat because I was familiar with the songs that had received a lot of airplay -- songs such as "The Lady Wore Black" and "Queen of the Reich" from the band's self-titled introductory EP as well as "Warning" and "Take Hold of the Flame" from The Warning -- and I respected QR's sound immensely. But I had not actually bought any recordings, and it was not until I got Rage for Order and fully immersed myself into it before I realized, Hey, these guys are great!

I still love Rage for Order. To this day I listen to it. And when the next album, Operation: Mindcrime, came out, I was more than eager to get that and enjoy it to its fullest. Ditto for Empire, which some see as a sellout record, but I don't. It's still a great work with many fantastic songs on it (there's a lot more to it than "Silent Lucidity").

After that, though, I lost interest in QR's new stuff, and, from what I've read about some of the follow-up albums, I didn't miss much.

But, back to The Warning.

This album is great, and I can't believe I never got to enjoy the full experience until now, 27 years down the road. Thanks, Pistolero. I should listen to you more often.

First off, there's "Warning" and "Take Hold of the Flame", great songs that received a lot of airplay back in the day. But there's also another song that I was somewhat familiar with, and that I had forgotten about until I listened to this album again. That's "Before the Storm", another great tune that must have been played on some radio station in the 1980s. (Probably KXZL -- any longtime San Antonians remember that one?)

There's also "Deliverance" and "No Sancturary", which I'm really growing to like, as well as "NM 156", "Child of Fire", and a great piece that shows the promise to come for this band, "Roads to Madness".

All in all this is a very strong work, even if it is the band's first full album, and the musical talents of Tate and company have really stood the test of time. Queensrÿche was ahead of the pack with The Warning. I'm just sorry it took me so long to catch up.

And now, a bit of "Before the Storm":

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Twelve Caesars - page 141, Tiberius

Tiberius had asked the Senate to choose him a Council to advise him on public affairs, consisting of twenty men -- in addition to certain old friends and intimates -- only two or three of whom died natural deaths. All the rest he killed, one way or another ....

By now you should be getting the message that Tiberius was thought to be harsh and cruel, and he was apparently OK with people holding that opinion of him. The author of this account, Suetonius, can be a bit of an unreliable historian at times ("two or three of whom" is remarkably vague), but his view is backed up somewhat by other Roman historians, and this short passage captures succinctly all the cruelty Tiberius is known for, and it explains the infamy he has earned.

"All the rest he killed" just about says it, doesn't it?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Retranslating the liturgy

November 27, 2011 will be a significant day for American Catholics. It won't be quite as game-changing as Vatican II, but this day will cause comfortable Catholics to begin to pay more attention during mass, and it is of interest to a fan of the English language like me.

It is the day the Church introduces the new translations of the liturgy.

A little background: In the early 1960s, the Roman Catholic leaders decided some changes were needed to bring the Church up to date with the modern world, and they met for three years to decide exactly what changes were needed. This meeting was called the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II for short. And it was a big deal to Catholics throughout the world.

Probably one of the biggest and most notable changes was to the language of the liturgy of the mass. Before Vatican II, all masses were conducted in Latin. After Vatican II, masses could be conducted in the local vernacular, which means that in the United States of America, after the mid-60s, Catholics began to use English (or Spanish) instead of Latin. This was before I was born, but my parents confirm that it was a big deal at the time.

That's well and good -- now everyone could understand what they were saying in church -- but this change happened rather quickly (within a couple of years after the Council ended). And apparently some of the translations were a bit rushed, producing some liturgical phrases that were more approximations than translations.

So, Pope Benedict XVI in 2000 declared that the languages of the mass should be retranslated from Latin to ensure that the spirit and the messages of the liturgy are more accurately reflected in what the people say. I've already seen the revised versions of the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds, and it looks like only minor changes will result. So there shouldn't be as big an adjustment as occurred with Vatican II. But long-time Catholics will need to rememorize some of their prayers and what they say during the mass, and that could take some getting used to.

In any case, the new liturgy goes into effect November 27, 2011, which is the beginning of Advent. If you're Catholic, consider yourself warned. Don't be surprised if things sound a little different during mass. If you're not Catholic, it won't bother you at all.

Unless you have Catholic friends and they suddenly start complaining about church after Thanksgiving.

Friday, September 09, 2011

The Twevle Caesars - page 262, Otho

Otho excused himself to the Emperor [Galba], saying that he had arranged to view a house that was for sale; then slipped out of the Palace by a back door and hurried to the rendezvous. ... At all events he hastily got into a closed sedan-chair of the sort used by women, and headed for the Camp, but jumped out, and began to run when the bearers' pace flagged. As he paused to lace a shoe, his companions hoisted him on their shoulders and acclaimed him Emperor.

And that's all he needed to become the leader of the Roman Empire. A quick hoisting by his friends, a little murder later, and then BAM! he was the emperor. Just like that.

For all of about three months, that is.

Damn! Ruling's hard!

Saturday, September 03, 2011

The Twelve Caesars - page 64, Augustus

But attempts against Augustus' life were made by men from even the lowest walks of life; so I must no forget one Telephus, a slave, whose task it had been to remind a lady of her engagements; he nursed a delusion that he was fated to become emperor, and planned an armed attack on the senate as well.

I did not realize ancient Rome was such a place of opporunity. Apparently even the simplest of human personal planners could aspire to be the leader of the world, and then even get his name entered into the tomes of history.

Hello, I'm Telephus. I'm going to be emperor some day.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Twelve Caesars - page 273, Vitellius

Paying less and less attention to all laws, human or divine, Vitellius next assumed the office of Chief Priest, and chose to do so on the anniversary of the Allia defeat (circa 390 B.C.; a day of evil omen). On the same occasion he announced the elections for ten years ahead, and appointed himself Consul for life. Then he dispelled any doubt as to which of the Caesars was to be his model by sacrificing to Nero's ghost and, at the subsequent banquet, while a popular flutist was performing, called for something from 'the Master's Book' as an encore. When the flutist obliged with one of these compositions, Vitellius jumped up delightedly and led the applause.

What a great idea!

Wouldn't it be convenient to know what the results of the elections would be for the next ten years? It would certainly leave the guesswork out of politics.

And having a leader appoint himself your leader for life definitely relieves you of any burden to think about who you might like to vote for anyway. I can't think of any problem with this arrangement. This guy Vitellius probably ruled for the next fifteen or twenty years or so until he died a natural death, beloved by his people.

Oh, wait ----

I give the mob eight of the best months of my life, and what do they give me in return? This!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

What I've read in the past

Sabra did a nice post based NPR's Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy novels. She highlighted the ones she's actually read, and then she shared her beefs with the contents of the list.

I'm not going to get into the merits of the contents of this list (all such lists are subjective, and we're always going to disagree with what someone else has put together), but I thought I'd go back through it to see just how much of it I have read myself. I'm a big science fiction fan, and, though I don't get too many chances to read for pleasure, I'd like to think I'm fairly well read on the genre, especially the classics.

So, let's take a look at the list Sabra posted, and let's see if I know my stuff. (Bolded items are books that I've read, some with comments.)

1. The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien
I've read this many times. Hasn't gotten old yet.

2. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
3. Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
Ender's Game was a very good read, but it felt like a self-contained book to me. I'd read that Orson Scott Card had turned the book into a series, but I had no interest in following up on it.

4. The Dune Chronicles, by Frank Herbert
I love Dune. I don't care for the follow up books (I read through the next three), but I will read Dune again in a heartbeat.

5. A Song Of Ice And Fire Series, by George R. R. Martin
6. 1984, by George Orwell
7. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
8. The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov
I love this trilogy. I talk about reading these books here, here, and here.

9. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
10. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
11. The Princess Bride, by William Goldman
12. The Wheel Of Time Series, by Robert Jordan
13. Animal Farm, by George Orwell
14. Neuromancer, by William Gibson
15. Watchmen, by Alan Moore
16. I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov
17. Stranger In A Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein
18. The Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss
19. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
20. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
21. Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick
This is one of my favorite sci-fi books. And the movie version just happens to be one of my favorite sci-fi flicks, though for different reasons.

22. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
23. The Dark Tower Series, by Stephen King
This is a partial reading. I got through the first three of the Dark Tower books before I lost interest. But I absolutely love the Robert Browning poem that served as King's inspiration.

24. 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke
Wonderful. Simply wonderful.

25. The Stand, by Stephen King
26. Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson
27. The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury
Another wonderful piece. This is actually a collection of short stories about Mars, and the work should never be taken as a serious piece of space travel adventure. It should always be viewed as a look at our world in the 20th Century through a Martian lens. In Bradbury's exquisite style, to boot.

28. Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut
29. The Sandman Series, by Neil Gaiman
30. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
31. Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein
32. Watership Down, by Richard Adams
33. Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey
34. The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein
35. A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller
36. The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells
37. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, by Jules Verne
38. Flowers For Algernon, by Daniel Keys
39. The War Of The Worlds, by H.G. Wells
40. The Chronicles Of Amber, by Roger Zelazny
41. The Belgariad, by David Eddings
42. The Mists Of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
43. The Mistborn Series, by Brandon Sanderson
44. Ringworld, by Larry Niven
Very enjoyable. Weird and humorous, but also quite serious in spots, Ringworld and its sequels present a universe like nothing else.

45. The Left Hand Of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin
46. The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien
47. The Once And Future King, by T.H. White
48. Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
49. Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke
50. Contact, by Carl Sagan
51. The Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons
52. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman
53. Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson
54. World War Z, by Max Brooks
55. The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle
56. The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman
57. Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett
58. The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever, by Stephen R. Donaldson
59. The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold
60. Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett
61. The Mote In God’s Eye, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
62. The Sword Of Truth, by Terry Goodkind
63. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
64. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
65. I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson
66. The Riftwar Saga, by Raymond E. Feist
67. The Shannara Trilogy, by Terry Brooks
68. The Conan The Barbarian Series, by R.E. Howard
69. The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb
70. The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger
71. The Way Of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson
72. A Journey To The Center Of The Earth, by Jules Verne
73. The Legend Of Drizzt Series, by R.A. Salvatore (I've read a few Drizzt novels, but nowhere near all of them.)
74. Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi
75. The Diamond Age, by Neil Stephenson
76. Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke
77. The Kushiel’s Legacy Series, by Jacqueline Carey
78. The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin
79. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury
80. Wicked, by Gregory Maguire
81. The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Series, by Steven Erikson
82. The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
83. The Culture Series, by Iain M. Banks
84. The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart
85. Anathem, by Neal Stephenson
86. The Codex Alera Series, by Jim Butcher
87. The Book Of The New Sun, by Gene Wolfe
88. The Thrawn Trilogy, by Timothy Zahn
89. The Outlander Series, by Diana Gabaldan
90. The Elric Saga, by Michael Moorcock
91. The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury
92. Sunshine, by Robin McKinley
93. A Fire Upon The Deep, by Vernor Vinge
94. The Caves Of Steel, by Isaac Asimov
95. The Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson
96. Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven &Jerry Pournelle
97. Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis
98. Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville
99. The Xanth Series, by Piers Anthony
100. The Space Trilogy, by C.S. Lewis
I read these books after learning of their existence from Alan, a fellow local blogger. Believe it or not, I hadn't heard about Lewis's science fiction works before that! In any case, I discuss these books here, here, and here.

So, I've read 26 out of 100 of the works on this list. I guess I'm not as well versed in the SF/fantasy genre as I thought I was, at least according to NPR listeners. But, as Sabra pointed out in her post, there are a number of authors on the list above whose works that I've read and enjoyed that don't happen to be on the list. Take Piers Anthony: I've read several of his books, just not anything from the Xanth Series as listed at 99. And I've read other things by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle that aren't on there either.

But it's an interesting list, nonetheless. And, if nothing else, it gives me some ideas for some future reads. When I have the time.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

What we did today


I got out that old Winchester Model 77 .22 that I had shot previously with my wife (told you about it here), and this time I took my son out to the range. That's him shooting in the video. It's his first time firing a rifle, and he didn't do half bad. Once he got used to the other, larger caliber rifles popping off around him (his first time at the range, too) he settled in to the shooting at hand and found the whole experience much more satisfying than shooting pellet guns.

But, then again, don't we all?

I took Keith's advice from the comments in that post linked above and switched ammo. In the previous shoot I was using Remington rounds, and they were fouling the chamber something fierce. We had to stop shooting on that day in January well before we ran out of ammo because the gunk built up too much and the jams and misfeeds were getting too frequent. For today's shoot, I used CCIs, and we only had one jam the whole morning. Thanks for the advice, Keith.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Tweaking, yet again.

Oh, no.
‘Star Wars’ Gets New Tweaks for Blu-ray Release
I can't stand it anymore. I wish I could go back to my original VHS tapes of the first three. "Star Wars" was fun back then. Now it's a chore to watch.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Terraforming, anyone?

This sounds like good news for future space exploration and possible colonizations. I hope it turns out to be the case.
The soil on Mars may be more capable of supporting life than previously thought, a new study suggests.

Researchers have long suspected that the Martian surface is packed full of oxidizing compounds, which could make it difficult for complex molecules like organic chemicals — the building blocks of life as we know it — to exist. But the new study, which analyzed data gathered by NASA's Mars Phoenix Lander, suggests that's not the case.

"Although there may be some small amounts of oxidants in the soil, the bulk material is actually quite benign," said lead study author Richard Quinn of NASA's Ames Research Center and the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View, Calif. "It's very similar to moderate soils that we find on Earth."

On the first manned mission to Mars, make sure you take a plow. And some seeds.

And let's see what happens.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Twelve Caesars - page 145, Tiberius

Tiberius used to punish with life those who wished to die. He regarded death as a comparatively light affliction, and on hearing that a man named Carnulus had forestalled his execution by suicide, exclaimed: 'Carnulus has got away!'

Is it any wonder that Tiberius was a cruel man, so much so that, supposedly, the crowds roared their approval when it was reported that he had died? His disregard for any life fed his cruelty, and he was roundly hated by the masses.

This death? Ain't no thing but a chicken wing.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Thinking about the Death Star

The other day I watched Return of the Jedi again with my son. And as we watched I was reminded of something about that movie -- and the rest of the Star Wars "episodes" -- that used to bug me and still does a little bit. I know there's a whole cottage industry out there that delights in producing criticism of George Lucas and the mistakes he made with the Star Wars movies (and, believe me, I agree with at least a few of those criticisms), but I don't think I have ever run across a critique that draws attention to this one problem that I have, and it's a very basic problem of engineering.

It's this: The Death Star is built wrong.


Mind you, I'm not an engineer myself, and I'm nothing more than a very basic amateur astronomer, but I don't think a station of that size could actually be constructed. At least not the way that construction is portrayed in the Star Wars movies. And the problem is a simple one of gravity.

The force of gravity causes large clumps of matter to collapse in upon themselves. The larger the object is (i.e., with more mass), the greater the gravitational pull to itself is, but even the smallest of objects possess some modicum of gravitational attraction. And they always try to pull themselves together. Leave a whole bunch of loose objects floating around inside an abandoned space craft and they will eventually clump together because gravity is relentless.

This is how planets and moons and asteroids are formed. With small bodies, the gravitational attractions are weaker, and you end up with weird, misshapen piles of rock.

A pile of space rock.

But as the bodies get larger the gravitational forces compress the material even more, and you end up with more spherical shapes that are denser and more like a planet or a moon. This is a process called accretion.

Now, back to the Death Star. It's round, and the characters in the original movie, Star Wars, mistake it for a small moon because it is really big. At the official website of the Star Wars universe, this Death Star is described as being 160 km in diameter. The second Death Star that was under construction in Return of the Jedi is much larger at approximately 900 km in diameter. The problem with this is that, at these sizes, the gravitational forces of all the materials used to build the station would begin to accrete into a dense mass of unusable rubble.

Not dense, and not rubble. At least, not quite yet.

For comparison, here's a picture of an actual asteroid called 433 Eros:

Eros is about 34 km across, so the gravitational forces are not quite strong enough to make it round. It looks like an oddly shaped pile of rock. In fact, it is an oddly shaped pile of rock.

Now, here's another asteroid called 4 Vesta:

Vesta is about 530 km in diameter, which is between the size of the original Death Star and the second one under construction in Return of the Jedi. See its shape? It's almost a ball, which means that its gravitational forces are compressing it together like a couple of cosmic hands crumpling a piece of paper into a lumpy ball.

Now, here's the biggest of the asteroids in our solar system, and it's called Ceres:

It's very much spherical. And do you know how big it is? It's almost 1,000 km across, which is just a little bit bigger than the second Death Star. At that size, the Empire's contractors would need to really start thinking about how to keep the entire structure from collapsing in on itself before they even got into the business of installing life support systems, power plants, or space ship bays, much less fully functional planet-destroying weapons.

So, the Death Star is built wrong, wrong, wrong. Does it make much of a difference in the grander scheme? No, it doesn't. There have been much worse movies with even more egregious mistakes that the directors have tried to pass off as serious efforts. And, despite Lucas's tinkering with the "Special Edition" versions of the movies, the original three Star Wars flicks are still quality cinematic products that make for a great adventure, and I'm not done enjoying them. Not by a long shot. But the depictions of the Death Star still bug me today, just a little bit. And I truly wonder if I'm the first person to give voice to this basic flaw.

Flawed, like the characters within.

P.S.: The process of planet formation called accretion also explains why the planet Naboo is wrong.

A rocky planet with a liquid water core?

Even more wrong.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Skylight sidewalks

Shedding light on your underground office, if you have one.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Twevle Caesars - page 256, Galba

Galba heard about this message [from the troops dissatisfied with his ascension after Nero's death and calling for the royal guards to put someone else on the throne] and, thinking that he was being criticized for his childlessness rather than his senility, singled out from the crowd at one of his morning receptions a handsome and well-bred young man, Piso Frugi Licinianus, to whom he had already show great favour, and appointed him perpetual heir to his name and property.

Galba was one of the unfortunate emperors who ruled for less than a year, from June 68 A.D. to January 69 A.D., which was known as the Year of Four Emperors. He never really got a chance to establish a real reign, and most people besides historians have probably never heard of him. It didn't help his legacy that he was without children and had to rely on a hasty selection to pick a successor, a selection that angered one Marcus Salvius Otho, who wanted to be Galba's heir himself and who replaced him as emperor.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Twevle Caesars - page 207, Claudius

Claudius was so timid and suspicious that, though making a show of simplicity in the early days of his reign, ... he never attended a banquet unless with an escort of javelin-bearing Guards, and waited upon by soldiers performing the duties of servants. Before entering a sick-room he always had it carefully gone over: pillows and mattresses were prodded, and bedclothes shaken out. Later, he even required all visitors to be searched when they came to pay him a morning call, and excused no one the most thorough examination. Indeed, it was not until the end of his reign that he reluctantly gave up the practice of having women, boys, and girls pawed about during these examinations, and of removing the stylus-case from every caller's attendant or secretary.

What this passage tells us first and foremost is that Claudius was very paranoid, though I suppose that is not a bad quality to have if you are a Roman emperor and you've ascended to the throne following the assassination of the previous, corrupt ruler. And that your rise to power came about because the assassins wanted to put you there.

Please don't kill me!

But a bit more interesting than that is the apparent acknowledgment that there was something inherently dangerous about ancient Roman stylus cases.

I can understand an emperor wanting everyone searched for weapons before granting audiences (even if meant searching children), and I can understand the emperor's wariness of sharp, pointed sticks in his presence, but what could possibly be threatening about the case holding the stylus? I assume such devices were simply small boxes or sleeves that would contain the styluses the secretaries used to take notes, but was it the case itself that was suspect, or was it that, by confiscating the case, the guards were sure to get the pointy stylus as well?

Were all secretaries then unable to take notes in Claudius's presence, or were they offered some other alternative? The passage quoted above does not expand on this point, as it deals primarily with the measures Claudius would take to alleviate his paranoia, but that little bit catches my curiosity.

What was it about those cases?

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The Twevle Caesars - page 150, Tiberius

During the period of Tiberius' retirement from Rome he only twice attempted to return. ... On the second occasion he rode up the Appian Way as far as the seventh milestone, but then retreated because of a frightening potent. This was the death of a pet snake which he used to feed with his own hands. When about to do so as usual he found it half eaten by a swarm of ants; and a soothsayer warned him: 'Beware the power of the mob.'

And that sign scared Tiberius back into his self-imposed semi-exile on the island of Capri, a place where he had chosen to live just a few years into his twenty-three-year reign. He preferred living there because he could carry on with his depraved habits out of the watchful eye of his fellow Romans. Tiberius was generally known as being cruel and detached in his later years, and his death -- when it came -- was greeted with cheers by citizens of all classes in Rome. No wonder he was spooked by a sign that some seer said represented the masses destroying him. They wanted to, and he knew it.

Sure, hate me now. My successor is Caligula. See what you think after a few years with him.

Friday, August 05, 2011

What I've been listening to lately


No kidding, I really have. That's a great guitar tune. It's pretty catchy, and it's actually begun to worm its way into my brain lately, so much so that I catch myself at times thinking, Hey, I'm humming an anime theme song! And I kinda like it.

Thanks, Alan, for exposing this to me. I've never been a big fan of anime (unless you count the 1980s Thundercats), but I'm starting to get a little interested in the universe surrounding the planet Gunsmoke. Maybe I'll check out an episode or two.