Wednesday, January 31, 2007


There was an interesting article today on Science Daily about procrastination.
Date: January 10, 2007

"Essentially, procrastinators have less confidence in themselves, less expectancy that they can actually complete a task," Steel says. "Perfectionism is not the culprit. In fact, perfectionists actually procrastinate less, but they worry about it more."

Other predictors of procrastination include: task aversiveness, impulsiveness, distractibility, and how much a person is motivated to achieve. Not all delays can be considered procrastination; the key is that a person must believe it would be better to start working on given tasks immediately, but still not start.

Oops, did I say today? I meant three weeks ago. I also meant to write about it three weeks ago, but I wasn't sure that I had anything constructive to add to the conversation. Now I've finally decided that I have something to say, hence this post. Not only have I ended my procrastination on this specific topic, but I'll be cutting back on stalling altogether for a while (or at least try). I'm throwing down the gauntlet!

February will be "new blog post per day month." That's right, every day (not just Fridays) I will post some new material. Starting tomorrow February 1st, here's the rules I'm imposing on myself:

  • Every day I will put up at least one new post.
  • At least one post each day must have a minimum of five sentences of original content.
  • The penalty for skipping will be 2^n original posts in one day (n = # of days where I violate one of these rules).

So basically, I can't just post a link or embed a video unless I include 5 sentences of commentary or have another post which is compliant. It shouldn't be that hard to pull this off. I've got a few ideas for some posts, but I imagine that most will be hurried ejaculations of whatever is on my mind. Not bad for a reworking of a failed New Year's resolution, eh? Maybe I'll even get around to resurrecting the nascent and comatose Science Pundit podcast.

Let the fun begin!

Friday, January 26, 2007

Friday Madness 1/26/07 : Speaking In Tongues

A while back, Andrew Newberg, MD, Associate Professor of Radiology, Psychiatry, and Religious Studies, and Director for the Center for Spirituality and the Mind, at the University of Pennsylvania, did a study where he looked at brain scans (SPECT) of people experiencing glossolalia (speaking in tongues). This is the same Dr. Newberg who earlier did a SPECT study to see if meditation helped patients with early symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease.

I was intrigued by both those studies when I first read about them, but was disappointed when I saw the details. They reminded me of a Johns Hopkins study where researchers showed that "magic mushrooms" created a mystical experience (I had a lot of fun with that one on a previous post.) None of these studies actually showed anything. They didn't have proper controls. They weren't rigorously testing hypotheses. It seemed to me all they were doing was trying to find evidence for God so they could win the Templton Prize.

P.Z. Myers at Pharyngula gave Newberg a real "bitch-slapping" when he looked at the study. He explains the flaws much better than I can. In fact, I thought there was nothing more to say on the subject. That is, until I saw this debunking video made by (18 year old) Emily.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Very excited pug

When I was young, I learned that dogs recognize each other by smell. My observations seemed to confirm this. Social animals need to recognize each other. Humans have evolved unique faces and the ability to visually distinguish them. We are primarily visual animals. Dogs come in all colors, shapes and sizes. But they were bred that way by an animal that likes to visually differentiate things; wild dogs (wolves) don't have anywhere near the diversity of our best friends. Can they tell each other apart with purely visual cues? I don't know.

They can certainly recognize their own species on sight (and sound), but can they only do this in persona? In other words, can they recognize their own type in a photograph or television image? I don't know about the photograph, but as for the television...

Okay, so this whole post was just an excuse to put up that pug video I found.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Welcome to Aquarius

We have just entered into the zodiac constellation Aquarius. There's actually a little more to it than vague, fabricated fortunes from the daily paper; the zodiac is a good way to keep track of the sidereal year. Cider what, you ask? Simply put, the sidereal year is one complete orbit around the sun. The name comes from the latin word for star. Since the stars remain relatively fixed (compared to closer objects such as the moon and planets), they serve as a good metric to measure the year and determine dates. The zodiac are 12 constellations evenly spaced along the ecliptic--the plane formed by the Earth's orbit around the Sun. They can be used to gague our planet's position during its orbit. This might just sound like a year, why the fancy adjective? Because it turns out that there's more than one type of year.

Allow me to sidetrack by bringing up that there is more than one type of day. Ask your typical person on the street to define a day and tell you how long one is, you'll probably get an answer like "A day is he time it takes for the Earth to rotate once about its axis, and it lasts 24 hours." One rotation around its axis is a sidereal day since we can use the stars to track the rotation. However, the 24 hour day is the time the spinning Earth takes to line up the Sun to the same longitude. In other words, it takes the Earth just under 24 hours to spin one complete (sidereal) rotation. But during that interval, it has moved along ts orbital pass and so the Sun isn't lined up where it was at the start of the day. It must continue spinning a little longer to reach this point. Phil the Bad Astronomer has a great post explaining all this much better than I ever could hope to do.

Back to the year, besides the sidereal year, we also have a tropical year. This would be, for example, the time between winter solstices. This is determined by the tilt in the Earth. During the winter solstice (from the latin for "sun stop" or "sun pause" because it is the date when the sun's maximum position in the sky stops progressing and changes direction), the Earth's southern hemisphere is tilted towards the Sun while the northern is tilted away. The summer solstice is the opposite. The equinoxes occur when the tilt is perpedicular to the line with the sun, hence both hemispheres are equidistant from the sun. If the tilt of the earth were constant, then the sidereal and tropical years would perfectly jibe. But alas, it's not.

Which brings us to the precession of the equinoxes. (cool picture) Precession is a wobble. Think of a spinning top. Besides the primary spin, the top has a wobble which causes the axis to draw out a circle on the ceiling (ignoring proper movement of the top). The Earth is basically doing the same thing. It's tilt is slowly wobbling so that as time passes, the equinoxes and solstices fall at different times during the sidereal year. Therefore a time travelling astronomer should be able to tell you what century he's in by looking at the stars.

This brings me to the interesting case of The Farnese Atlas.
The Farnese Atlas is a 2nd-century Roman marble copy of a Hellenistic sculpture of Atlas kneeling with a globe weighing heavily on his shoulders. It is the oldest extant statue of the Titan of Greek mythology, who is represented in earlier vase-painting, and more importantly the oldest known representation of the celestial sphere. The sculpture is at the National Archaeological Museum (Museo Archeologico Nazionale ) in Naples, Italy. It stands seven feet (2.1 meters) tall, and the globe is 65 cm in diameter.
In 2005, at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in San Diego, California, Dr. Bradley E. Schaefer, a professor of physics at Louisiana State University, presented a widely reported analysis concluding that the text of Hipparchus' long lost star catalog may have been the inspiration for the representation of the constellations on the globe, thereby reviving an earlier proposal by Georg Thiele. The constellations are fairly detailed and scientifically accurate given the period of its creation, implying that the globe was modeled after a scholarly work. The position of these constellations is consistent with where they would have appeared in the time of Hipparchus - leading to the conclusion that the statue is based on the star catalog.

In other words, Dr. Schaefer used his knowledge of precession to figure out where the constellations would've been at the time the atlas was made, and determine that it was a star map.

As the Earth precesses through the zodiac, we go through different ages which are determined by which constellation we're in around the begining of the year. When I first found out that we we entering the age of aquarius, I got so excited because I thought that I had finally figured out what that song from Hair meant. Boy was I disappointed when I went to listen to the song again and heard nothing but astrological hippie nonsense. I certainly sympathize with Julia Sweeney and her revelation about Deepak Chopra.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Infrared Sombrero

My homepage on my laptop is (and has been for my last 3 computers) the Astronomy Picture Of the Day (APOD). Today's picture is just fantastic! It is an infrared picture of the Sombrero Galaxy taken by the Spitzer space telescope. Doesn't it just want to make you do a hat dance?

Friday, January 19, 2007

The Science Blogging Anthology

Super science blogger Coturnix has released the science blogging anthology. It is a collection of the top 50 science blog posts as determined by other science bloggers. I didn't participate in the post review (due to the timetable limited by The North Carolina Science Blogging Conference, the whole nomination and selection process took a quick 3 weeks--half of which I was on vacation), nor did I submit a post of my own for consideration. (I felt bad as a mere lab monkey trying to rub shoulders with bona fide scientists.) But had I chosen to submit a post, it probably would've been my Von Neumman infinite series post--I really like that one.

Anyhoo, I've read most of the posts in the anthology and therefore highly recomend the book to anyone interested in science.


Friday Madness 1/19/07: Locura en español

¿De donde acaba el genio, a donde empieza el loco?
Asi pregunta Mecano sobre "Eugenio" Salvador Dalí.
Dali se desdibuja
Tirita su burbuja
Al descontar latidos

Dali se decolora
Porque esta lavadora
No distingue tejidos

El se da cuenta y asustado se lamenta
Los genios no deben morir
Son mas de ochenta los que curvan tu osamenta
"Eugenio" Salvador Dali

Bigote rocococo
De donde acaba el genio
A donde empieza el loco

Mirada deslumbrada
De donde acaba el loco
A donde empieza el hada

En tu cabeza se comprime la belleza
Como si fuese una olla express
Y es el vapor que va saliendo por la pesa
Magica luz en Cadaques

Si te reencarnas en cosa
Hazlo en lapiz o en pincel
Y Gala de piel sedosa
Que lo haga en lienzo o en papel

Y si reencarnas en carne
Vuelve a reencarnarte en ti
Que andamos justos de genios
"Eugenio" Salvador Dali

Realista y surrealista
Con luz de impresionista
Y trazo impresionante

Delirio colorista
Colirio y oculista
De ojos delirantes

En tu paleta mezclas misticos ascetas
Con bayonetas y con tetas
Y en tu cerebro Gala Dios y las pesetas
Buen catalan anacoreta

Si te reencarnas en cosa
Hazlo en lapiz o en pincel
Y Gala de piel sedosa
Que lo haga en lienzo o en papel

Y si reencarnas en carne
Vuelve a reencarnarte en ti
Queremos genios en vida
Queremos que estes aqui,
"Eugenio" Salvador Dali.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Rome is coming!

The second season of HBO's series Rome debuts tomorrow night and a certain blogger is very excited about it.

Last season ended with the assasination of Julius Caesar, and this season I envisage to be about the rise of Octavian (as brilliantly played by the talented Max Pirkis). It appears that the central event this season will be The Battle of Philippi. This was where the Triumvirate led by Octavian Caesar and Marc Antony defeated the armies of the conspirators Brutus and Cassius.

Here's how Anthony Everitt
described the second battle (there were two battles over 24 days) in his book AUGUSTUS.

Late in the afternoon of October 23, he (Brutus) led out his troops and combat commenced. There seems to have been little in the way of maneuver; the two sides simply slugged it out like tired boxers. Octavian's troops fought bravely, and silence about his whereabouts suggests that their general was sufficiently recovered to lead them. Eventually they began to push the enemy back "as though they were tipping over a very heavy piece of machinery." Retreat turned to rout. Antony led the pursuit until night fell.

In other words, a bloodbath. It should make for good TV.

In the meantime, which Roman Emperor are you?

You scored as Trajan. You are quite fortunate to rank as the emperor Trajan, possibly the greatest of Roman emperors. You have relentlessly expanded the empire and even humbled the mighty Parthian empire. Loved by all, vastly larger than life, you are the model for all future emperors. It is hard to find a bad thing to say about you. HAIL CAESAR!







Marcus Aurelius




Antoninus Pius


















Which Roman Emperor Are You?
created with

Friday, January 12, 2007

Ich bin ein holzfäller!

For my German sailing buddies Stefan and Arne.

Friday Madness 1/12/07 : The Surge

I'm back from my vacation now. Expect a blog about it soon (perhaps with a little primer on The Physics of Sailing).

Anyhoo, our pertinacious leader has made my choice for Friday Madness topic really easy: the proposed surge... did I say surge? I meant escalation. So in an effort to keep my blood pressure down, I'll just post a video.

WARNING: Contains Graffic Images!

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Vacation time!

For the three of you who read my blog regularly, I'll be on vacation for the next week celebrating the big XLI. I won't be able to post since I'll be on a boat and won't take my laptop with me (no Friday Madness this week).

Also, I just put up a post about free will I had started writing (then neglected) a couple weeks ago.