The August 21 Eclipse


What to do if you are in the PATH OF TOTALITY?

Found that at this wonderful site.


A good map from Xavier


You’re damn right I donated.  Support Xavier who has done the entire eclipse community as well as the general eclipse-viewing public a great service by performing all the work necessary to bring us this wonderful tool.

The Deaths Of Great Inventors

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In this NYRB wrapup on the movies about Steve Jobs, Sue Halpern gets to talking about public expressions of grief at Jobs’ death:

Yet if the making of popular consumer goods was driving this outpouring of grief, then why hadn’t it happened before? Why didn’t people sob in the streets when George Eastman or Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell died—especially since these men, unlike Steve Jobs, actually invented the cameras, electric lights, and telephones that became the ubiquitous and essential artifacts of modern life?

“Awww hell no!” I giddily squealed, aflame with the joy-fire of Internet Outrage.  I was good and hot because I knew I had this Sue Halpern in my crosshairs.  I’d just been reading, in Paul Johnson’s Birth Of The Modern, about the death of steamboat inventor Robert Fulton.

Birth of the modern

Says Johnson:

By then Fulton was dead, of a neglected cold which became pneumonia.  The day of his funeral, the legislature went into mourning, and the New York shops shut — they respected inventors in those days.



Johnson’s doing the reverse version of Sue Halpern: “they knew how to act in the old days” vs. “we’ve gotten so weird” but it’s the same conservative (right?) point: things used to be better, more appropriate, whatever.  It’s a point that I love getting mad about, because a quick inspection of the messy, insane past will usually prove it wrong.

“Ugh, Sue Halpern,” I thought, warm in smugness, “Don’t be such a presentist.  There’s nothing new under the sun, babe.  The style might be different, but they made a big show about the deaths of inventors (or maker/producer/facilitator whatever Jobs was) in the past, too.  Did you not know that at the conclusion of Alexander Graham Bell’s funeral they suspended phone service in all of North America in mourning?!  Did you not take two minutes to see if there’s footage on YouTube of people crowding the streets for Edison’s funeral?”

“Hell,” I thought, “when Edison died they preserved his last breath in a tube!”

Imagine my disappointment then when I got to work and discovered the NYRB had already dealt with this in a footnote:

When Bell died, every phone exchange in the United States was shut down for a moment of silence. When Edison died, President Hoover turned off the White House lights for a minute and encouraged others to do so as well.

Darn it, ruined a real satisfying chance for an “ACTUALLY.”  But I’m glad the whole thing happened because it got me reading about the death of George Eastman, founder of Kodak.  Here’s how he went out:

On March 14, 1932, Eastman invited some friends to witness a change of his will. After some joking and warm conversation, he asked them to leave so that he could write a note. Moments later, he shot himself once in the heart with an automatic pistol. The note found by the household staff read simply: “To my friends, My work is done–, Why wait?” When his casket was carried out of the Eastman House, the accompanying music was *Marche Romaine*.

That’s from this site related to the PBS American Experience about Eastman.  They go on:

If there is one thing that can be said about Eastman, it is that he was a rational man. Throughout his life, he sounded the same themes again and again — adventure, happiness and control, and the greatest of these was control. The early death of his father and his family’s subsequent poverty stamped him with an insatiable need for stability, which he found in bachelorhood and a financial empire and held close ever after. As far as he was concerned, there was no world beyond the one he could dominate. Even when he punctuated his labors with travel, his drive for order went with him in his compulsion to plan out every last detail of his itinerary. In this light, Eastman’s career can be seen as act of self-sacrifice. With one of his cameras in hand, it became possible to capture an instant of abandon, even happiness, and so we came to possess, as part of our human heritage, images of people smiling on adventures large and small. Of course, Eastman was often caught in camera in far-off locations as well, but in the end one fact is inescapable: one must look long and hard to find a picture of George Eastman smiling. In harnessing his impulses, he gave the world an experience that he never permitted himself.

Sure enough:


About Halpern’s original point tho: maybe there’s something to public expressions about Jobs’ death that have to do with what people use Apple products for: music, photos, videos, social media, personal expressions of themselves.

If we’re talking about the emotional meaning of Jobs, couldn’t we see him as the guy who did the most to take cold computers and turn them into facilitators of human connection and self-expression machines?  Isn’t that what all Apple ads end up being about, from the 1984 ad to the Think Different ones to this?:

In doing that, wasn’t Jobs not just a tech pioneer but a part of a social revolution?  Who more than Jobs made it as easy to be the star of your own movie and the spectator of everyone else’s?  Is that why we care about him?

And is caring about Jobs wildly exaggerated anyway except among Silicon Valley bros?  Nobody really saw the movie.

Special Snowflakes


Wandering into a hipster-type boutique in the East Village to buy a present for an Evil Santa/White Elephant type thing during a brief stop in NYC, I heard this song playing:

I really liked this album when it first came out, still do I guess.  From the wiki page for the album:

In an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, Pecknold admitted that his girlfriend of five years found the stress this album placed on their relationship too much, and ended things. Upon hearing the completed album, she realized that Pecknold’s efforts were worth it, and they tried to work it out. The couple has since split up.


Added to this, he stated they wanted to record very quickly, saying he wanted to do the “vocal takes in one go, so even if there are fuck-ups, I want them to be on there. I want there to be guitar mistakes. I want there to be not totally flawless vocals. I want to record it and have that kind of cohesive sound. Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, to me, is the best-sounding album because it sounds like there were only six hours in the universe for that album to be recorded in. So I want it to have that feeling.

(Remember now that after reading this for the first time when the album first came out, I went back and gave a good hard listen to Astral Weeks, which I found totally boring even though I’m obsessed with the Van Morrison song “And it Stoned Me”:

Morrison, in 1985, related the song to a quasi-mystical experience he had as a child:

I suppose I was about twelve years old. We used to go to a place called Ballystockart to fish. We stopped in the village on the way up to this place and I went to this little stone house, and there was an old man there with dark weather-beaten skin, and we asked him if he had any water. He gave us some water which he said he’d got from the stream. We drank some and everything seemed to stop for me. Time stood still. For five minutes everything was really quiet and I was in this ‘other dimension’. That’s what the song is about.)

Anyway, we’re talking about snowflakes.  Here are the opening lyrics of the song Helplessness Blues:

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me
But I don’t, I don’t know what that will be
I’ll get back to you someday soon you will see
What a striking and succinct summation of what we might call “the hipster dilemma.”  The same album starts out with these words:
So now I am older than my mother and father
when they had their daughter
now what does that say about me
Now, ain’t that exactly an anxiety that drives sensitive youngish people of “my generation,” what I will crudely call hipsters, crazy?

A snowflake, from the wikipedia page “snowflake,” which I am free to use and remix provided I attribute the photographer, Dakota Lynch.

The snowflake is a powerful image.  At what point did the idea that “every snowflake is unique” get taught to every schoolchild in America (or at least snowy America)?  Here is George Will turning the idea of “special snowflakes” on its head, in a piece about the recent fusses at Yale and elsewhere:
On campuses so saturated with progressivism that they celebrate diversity in everything but thought, every day is a snow day: There are perishable snowflakes everywhere. The institutions have brought this on themselves. So, regarding the campuses’ current agonies, schadenfreude is not a guilty pleasure, it is obligatory.
It’s possible Peggy Noonan beat him to it.  Addressing (more or less) young people in a May column about “trigger warnings”:
I notice lately that some members of your generation are being called, derisively, Snowflakes. Are you really a frail, special and delicate little thing that might melt when the heat is on?
Forget the point they’re making about kids today, let’s stick with the metaphor.  There’s something interesting in the fact that snowflakes are wondrous and individual, our symbol for special uniqueness, but also that snowflakes are weak and useless unless heaped in an enormous pile of other snowflakes, completely subsumed as individuals and lost forever into a mass of snow.

Snow and ice: how are they different?

The song could equally be “I was raised up believing I was somehow unique, a snowflake distinct among snowflakes” etc “but now after some thinking, I’d rather be a snowflake in a huge snow pile melting into individual nothingness but perhaps collective somethingness among other snowflakes.”
Snowflakes: worth thinking about!  More from wiki:
In 1988, Nancy Knight was documenting snowflakes for the National Center for Atmospheric Research and found two identical snowflakes of the hollow column type.
Was all set to have a laugh at whether this was the best use of Nancy’s time but then found this wonderful obituary of her.  No one who took part in the National Hail Research Experiment will be mocked on this page.
Nancy’s colleagues recall her spirited approach to hunting for hail and other items of interest. “Some of my most hilarious memories of Nancy on field campaigns were driving,” says Karyn Sawyer, the former director of UCP/JOSS. “We’d be rocketing along a dirt road somewhere, and she’d insist that we stop because she had spotted an interesting bird.”

Nancy Knight w/hail


Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 1.53.47 PMWent through NASA’s new Flickr of the Apollo missions looking for good ones I hadn’t seen before.  Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 1.53.58 PM

Some very great shades of blue.
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Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 1.53.13 PMNASA’s foil game is so on pointScreen Shot 2015-10-13 at 1.56.53 PMGoodbye spaceman!Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 1.57.16 PM  Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 1.56.45 PM

Making movies
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Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 1.57.34 PMWish traffic in LA were like this. Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 1.57.25 PM


Always enjoyable

How big is the universe?

Devoted ten minutes to the puzzle, after discovering I myself had no idea really.

Let’s start with basics.

Sun and earth distance

stealing this from an apparently abandoned online toy store somewhere in the EU

One problem is it’s hard to render these distances on any map.  Take just sun to Earth, for instance.

Sun to Earth

93 million miles.

The earth’s diameter is 7,918 miles.  The sun’s diameter is 864,327 miles.  So if we made a map, where the Earth was one inch, the sun would have to be nine feet tall and 978 feet away.

Another way: if Earth is a golf ball (1.68 inches diameter) the sun is a 15.26′ ball, five and half football fields away.

OK, how about to the edge of our solar system?

Well, what’s the edge?  Neptune’s the most distant planet, right (after that unpleasant Pluto business)?

Sun to Neptune

4.18 light hours (or .00047684 light years)

But the real edge of our solar system, people seem to think, is way crazy farther past even Pluto.

It’s in a place that is still mostly just a theory, a sphere of wandering ice comets called the Oort Cloud:

Very difficult to render how far away the Oort Cloud is, at this level the scaling is so ridiculous that a 2D map with like dots on it becomes pretty irrelevant.

From the sun to the Oort Cloud – the edge of the solar system – is something like 1.87 light years.


The next solar system over, Alpha Centauri, is 4.37 light years from the sun.

VERY good chart, thanks so much NASA/Penn and also for putting that map in the public domain, although I guess as a federal taxpayer I do own it kind of.

You can see Alpha Centauri with your naked eye, I believe, I think our excellent friend Jeff even pointed it out to us once.  From Earth it appears to the eye as a single object even though it’s a two-star system:

Us and Alpha Centauri are in the Milky Way.  You can see the Milky Way from Earth, even though we’re in it, because it’s a spiral, and we’re in the spiral:

The laser in this picture is pointing toward the Galactic Center, which is 27,000 light-years away from the sun.

The Milky Way is 100,000-120,000 light years in diameter.

How many stars are in there?  Maybe: 100-400 million stars they think.  These numbers are much revised over history and expect will be revised many times again.

The Andromeda Galaxy as seen by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer

The closest galaxy over is Andromeda, which is 2.5 million light-years from Earth.

It is in our (comically named) “Local Group,” which has more than 54 galaxies in it.

Comically named I say because the diameter of the Local Group is 10 million lightyears.

From Earth to the edge observable universe in any direction is 46 billion lightyears.

What’s that you say?  How can that be?  Back up.

Does the universe have a center?  Are we the center?

If we’re the center then… what?  If not then… what?

Universe in an expanding sphere. The galaxies farthest away are moving fastest and hence experience length contraction and so become smaller to an observer in the centre. (says Drschwarz on Wikipedia)

Well at this point, I’m afraid I’ve lost comprehension for now and more reading would be necessary to even begin to wrap a desperate brain-finger around the most basic essays into this fathomless question.

From the wikipedia article “Observable Universe” section “Size,” subsection  “Misconceptions:

Many secondary sources have reported a wide variety of incorrect figures for the size of the visible universe. Some of these figures are listed below, with brief descriptions of possible reasons for misconceptions about them.

13.8 billion light-years

The age of the universe is estimated to be 13.8 billion years. While it is commonly understood that nothing can accelerate to velocities equal to or greater than that of light, it is a common misconception that the radius of the observable universe must therefore amount to only 13.8 billion light-years. This reasoning would only make sense if the flat, static Minkowski spacetimeconception under special relativity were correct. In the real universe, spacetime is curved in a way that corresponds to the expansion of space, as evidenced by Hubble’s law. Distances obtained as the speed of light multiplied by a cosmological time interval have no direct physical significance.[23]

15.8 billion light-years
This is obtained in the same way as the 13.8 billion light year figure, but starting from an incorrect age of the universe that the popular press reported in mid-2006.[24][25] For an analysis of this claim and the paper that prompted it, see the following reference at the end of this article.[26]
27.6 billion light-years
This is a diameter obtained from the (incorrect) radius of 13.8 billion light-years.
78 billion light-years
In 2003, Cornish et al.[27] found this lower bound for the diameter of the whole universe (not just the observable part), if we postulate that the universe is finite in size due to its having a nontrivial topology,[28][29] with this lower bound based on the estimated current distance between points that we can see on opposite sides of the cosmic microwave background radiation(CMBR). If the whole universe is smaller than this sphere, then light has had time to circumnavigate it since the big bang, producing multiple images of distant points in the CMBR, which would show up as patterns of repeating circles.[30] Cornish et al. looked for such an effect at scales of up to 24 gigaparsecs (78 Gly or 7.4×1026 m) and failed to find it, and suggested that if they could extend their search to all possible orientations, they would then “be able to exclude the possibility that we live in a universe smaller than 24 Gpc in diameter”. The authors also estimated that with “lower noise and higher resolution CMB maps (from WMAP’s extended mission and from Planck), we will be able to search for smaller circles and extend the limit to ~28 Gpc.”[27] This estimate of the maximum lower bound that can be established by future observations corresponds to a radius of 14 gigaparsecs, or around 46 billion light years, about the same as the figure for the radius of the visible universe (whose radius is defined by the CMBR sphere) given in the opening section. A 2012 preprint by most of the same authors as the Cornish et al. paper has extended the current lower bound to a diameter of 98.5% the diameter of the CMBR sphere, or about 26 Gpc.[31]
156 billion light-years
This figure was obtained by doubling 78 billion light-years on the assumption that it is a radius.[32] Since 78 billion light-years is already a diameter (the original paper by Cornish et al. says, “By extending the search to all possible orientations, we will be able to exclude the possibility that we live in a universe smaller than 24 Gpc in diameter,” and 24 Gpc is 78 billion light years),[27] the doubled figure is incorrect. This figure was very widely reported.[32][33][34] A press release from Montana State University – Bozeman, where Cornish works as an astrophysicist, noted the error when discussing a story that had appeared in Discover magazine, saying “Discover mistakenly reported that the universe was 156 billion light-years wide, thinking that 78 billion was the radius of the universe instead of its diameter.”[35]

180 billion light-years

This estimate combines the erroneous 156 billion light-year figure with evidence that the M33 Galaxy is actually fifteen percent farther away than previous estimates and that, therefore, the Hubble constant is fifteen percent smaller.[36] The 180 billion figure is obtained by adding 15% to 156 billion light years.

OK, friend, you lost me.   You’re on your own.

I guess the point is whether or not I do, today, finally remember to buy paper towels is not super important.

a veritable ogre

A good article in Nature about temperamental herpetologist Edward Taylor:

There is a darker side to Taylor’s legacy, however. He was a racist curmudgeon beset by paranoia — possibly a result of his mysterious double life as a spy for the US government. He had amassed no shortage of enemies by the time he died in 1978. An obituary noted that he was, to many, “a veritable ogre—and woe to anyone who incurred his wrath”

“I named about 500 species,” he would later tell a reporter, “but I can’t always remember the names of my own children.” His wife, Hazel, could not bear his long absences, and they divorced in 1925.

Here’s one of his favorites, the Philippine parachute gecko: