Life, I tell you! Extraterrestrial…. liiiiiiife!


So, here is a quickie, to get warmed up and breathe a little life back into my own posting habits.

Science News reports that some very clever people have come up with a laser technique for detecting microbial activity. We can not only use it to, say, detect Martian life from orbit, but even use it to detect life on worlds orbiting other suns! Even better, it uses very inexpensive, off-the-shelf equipment. Which means maybe even some enterprising amateurs could conceivably be the first people to discover extraterrestrial life.

How cool is that?

Climate Change We Can Believe In

So far, so good: Obama and his team are making strong, prominent statements about climate change as an important national security concern. This is very, very good news. With most trends happening faster than the models predict, and Kyoto about to expire, there is little enough time to act before the window closes and catastrophic change becomes inevitable.

Thank goodness the grown-ups are in charge.

Do us proud, Obama&Co. There won’t be time for a do-over.

Here’s the relevant podcast from PRI.

Jet Pack Ahoy

Photo by Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post, 2008

In keeping with our occasional “where’s my flying car?” motif, I thought I’d pass along this little goody. The Denver Post reports that daredevil Eric Scott successfully avoided plummeting to his death in Royal Gorge with a 135-pound rocket-powered backpack strapped to him.

The pack, designed by aerospace engineer Eric Strauss, carried Scott across the 1,500 foot wide, 1,053 foot deep canyon. According to the Post, he had 33 seconds of fuel, and made it across in 25.  Plenty of time to spare!

Troy Widgery, founder of Jetpack International, the company that created the pack, is pursuing a childhood dream. Next up, he says, is a pack with three turbines, capable of staying aloft for nine minutes and crossing the Grand Canyon.

Update:  CBS News has the story, too. Both the Denver Post and CBS have video of the flight, and CBS has an interview with Scott. CBS is saying the flight took either 21 or 23 seconds, and he had a total of 30 seconds of hydrogen peroxide fuel. Either way, he made it with about 7 seconds to spare. Heh.

Twitter as a Real-Time Community Space


This’ll be short, but Eat Our Brains has been Looking At Me, Ma! So I’d better give it just a dab of attention.

I dipped my toe into twittering the other day, and had an epiphany. I think I figured out one reason Twitter is way cooler than it seems at first glance.

As most folks know by now, Twitter is a sort of web-based IM’ing thing. You sign up, and you type in what you are doing, whenever you feel like it. You can only type in a certain number of characters (120? something like that). At first read, it seems no different than some form of instant messaging, but it’s more than that. It creates community spaces. It’s transformative. Because of its simplicity and accessibility.

You can tap in by web or by mobile phone and follow a person’s activities. Other people follow your activities. It creates this fluid, shifting web of connectivity. It really feels very river-like. Because the messages are so short, it is easy to just slip into the stream of words, go for a swim, and slip back out again. It feels… seamless.

Here’s something else, though. I am an introvert. I need lots of islands of quiet space and room for reflection in my life. And with all my commitments, adding another way to connect exerts a limited pull, despite the fact that Twitter definitely has some fascinating elements.

The web is all about connectivity and community. But I sometimes wish that more tools were built for us introverts…

Still, I may do more investigation of Twitter. I find how it works interesting, from a sociological perspective.


PS  My Twitter name is feralsapient. What’s yours?

Obama & Change; Crypto & the 2nd Amendment

Thought the first: Apropos Obama and change. He’s getting flak for choosing experienced politicians to flesh out his administration. For instance, in the NYTimes today, in an article regarding his meeting with Clinton to discuss her taking the Secretary of State role:

… there are clear dangers for Mr. Obama as well … her appointment could undercut his argument that he is bringing true change to Washington.

I get why people are concerned that choosing Washington insiders might undercut Obama’s message. We’re all sick to death of the secret memos, the corruption, and the spinelessness we’ve seen over the past eight years. But change is not simply about the people. It’s about the process.  Obama’s message was that he wanted to change the way politics is played in Washington. Reaching out to former rivals in substantive ways is, guess what;  a change! And using people who have experience in getting things done when the country is in this current state of crisis seems like a wise move to me…. As long as he combines this reaching out with a willingness to hold the criminals accountable.

Thought the second: I got a grin out of xkcd’s latest comic. I’m so there…

Remember, kids: you read it here first. As I said then:

The Second Amendment was clearly intended to protect from seizure the tools the citizenry need to defend themselves from tyranny. Muskets and bullets were the tool of choice back then, but it’s quite clear that the underlying intent was to uphold ordinary people’s ability to defend themselves from a government gone wrong.

In a very real sense, the right to privacy and a free internet is the new “right of people to bear arms.” Even the expression “forewarned is forearmed” gives this notion a nod. Access to information is the new equalizer. There may be no way an ordinary citizen, even armed with an uzi, can stand against the assembled might of the US government, as our founders intended, should our government fail in its duty to not abuse its authority. But we can keep them honest, with access to information and the right to protect our personal information from unreasonable search and seizure.

The struggle against tyranny has graduated from bullets to bits.

Cool Links 1: Cassini Images of Enceladus

I have a couple of nifty items to share today. First, check out these NASA images of Saturn’s tiny inner moon, Enceladus.

Encelades and Saturn's Rings

Be sure to view all the images and read the captions — it’s the compilation of images that makes these Cassini images so striking. A couple of the close fly-bys show striking detail of the moon’s surface. (Via Patricia Rogers.)

The Twin Provenances of Sin and Courage

I want to confess something I’ve never told anyone before.

Occasionally I meet someone with my surname, and when that happens, we often wonder together whether we are relatives–whether somewhere in the past we share a common ancestor. We compare notes about our families. Are we related?

Here’s the confession part: I am white, and have never met a black person with my own surname. And I have always had low-grade anxiety over what I would do if I did. Because slaves often ended up with the same surnames as their owners. And I have ancestors in the south, so it seems likely that there are descendants out there of slaves that my ancestors owned.

What could I say to this person? Certainly not: let’s compare family histories and see if my great-great-grandpa owned yours. In short, I am ashamed of my slave-owning roots. (And no, I’m not certain I have a slave-owning ancestor. But it seems likely, knowing what I know of my family’s history on that side: where they lived [Virginia starting in the 1700s] and what they did for a living [farming]).

This is something that has percolated in the back of my mind for years. But I’ve never said anything to anyone about it. It’s been my dirty little secret.

So, I had a conversation with my mother this weekend. My niece is about to wed, and folks are coming into town for the wedding, and family stories often surface around these kinds of events. My mother mentioned that I had an ancestor, a great-great-grandmother in Michigan, whose husband fought and died in the Civil War. It turns out this ancestor of mine was a member of the Underground Railroad, and had a home with a secret underground room. She helped runaway slaves cross over into Canada.

As my mother told me this, I felt relief. Yes, I almost certainly have some truly oppressive assholes for ancestors. But I am thankful that I also have one who had the moral courage and good judgment to be on the side of the angels.

So, in commemoration of those who–

  • Lived and died in bondage (we recall your suffering and grieve for your hurts at the hands of your oppressors);
  • Had the chance, and took their courage in their hands to flee (we rejoice that you found your freedom); and
  • Participated in the Underground Railroad, and aided escaping slaves (we honor your willingness to do what was right).

here is a multi-media site with maps, information, photos, and recordings about the Underground Railroad. Celebrate freedom. Click the pic and enjoy the ride! (And PS, Thanks, G’G’Gramma, for giving me something I can be proud of, from an ugly time in our nation’s past.)

Hubble Spots Anomaly; Borg Fu? Warp Drive? or a Big Ol’ Smudge?


Here is something fun. Sky and Telescope reports that the Hubble has spotted an unidentified object out in the far reaches of space.

What’s its distance? That would certainly be a first step to figuring it out, but only the broadest constraints can be put on its distance. Its lack of parallax motion means that it can’t be closer than about 130 light-years, and a lack of cosmic hydrogen absorption in its spectrum means that it can’t be farther than 11 billion light-years (when “distance” is defined by light travel time). That leaves a lot of leeway.

Wasn’t it our very own Sean who was speculating that all we need to do to attract the attention of the transdimensional gods is to muck around with, say, 5% of the known universe? Or was it Stuart? (I know, I know — that dot is a lot less than 5%. But it sure sounds interesting) (via Gizmodo)

Haiti Needs Help!

Updated below.

The Caribbean island nation of Haiti has been hammered by Fay, Gustav, and Hannah. According to CNN, over two hundred are dead due to storms, and thousands are starving, in need of food and water, even as Hurricane Ike bears down.

Charity Navigator, an independent organization that rates charities, lists several organizations rushing to respond, here. I’ve chosen the American Red Cross for my own donation, but there are many other worthy organizations you can choose from.
Please help if you can. The need is urgent! Don’t delay. Online donation only takes a couple of minutes, and even a five-dollar donation can make a difference.

09 Sep 08 Update: Ike has passed over Haiti and more people have been killed. It’s a tiny, impoverished country, and the people have very little means to rebuild. The Caribbean is just getting hammered, folks. Please, do what you can to help.

Science Debate 2008

I found something nifty. A group of citizens concerned about the state of science and technology in the US kicked off an effort which is now co-sponsored by 38,000 scientists, engineers, and scientific/ engineering/ mathematics organizations, to quiz the presidential candidates on their knowledge of and positions regarding important scientific issues of the day.

Science Debate 2008 has posed a series of questions to each candidate on subjects ranging from climate change to energy to education to stem cell research and ocean health.

No response is up yet from McCain, but you can see Obama’s answers to the top 14 questions here. Here’s a taste of his position on one of my topics of concern, climate change:

Specifically, I will implement a market-based cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions by the amount scientists say is necessary: 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. I will start reducing emissions immediately by establishing strong annual reduction targets with an intermediate goal of reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. A cap- and-trade program draws on the power of the marketplace to reduce emissions in a cost- effective and flexible way. I will require all pollution credits to be auctioned.

I am impressed with his specificity, here. A reduction of 80% below 1990 levels by 2050 is what climate scientists say is needed to forestall the worst effects of climate change. I’ve seen arguments made for and against cap-and-trade, versus a carbon tax. I’m no economist, but from what I have read from the experts, cap-and-trade should work, as long as it’s well thought out, and I would support this. (More on this if y’all are interested; just let me know.)

His answers to several of the other questions are equally thoughtful and have real specifics.  I’ll be interested to see McCain’s responses.

This is just a quick post — if I get time, I will delve into some of his answers and discuss his positions further, but my first impression is, damn — it sure will be nice if we can get a smart person back in the White House again. Digits overlapped…

And kudos to the people who thought this up — we need to be asking our leaders these kinds of questions.