Pan experiment



Blame the greedy, blame the idiots, blame “The Decider”

Yeah, the buck stops at the top and the self-styled “Decider” had all the wrong ideas at all the wrong times for all the wrong reasons. Here’s how the NYT explains it in a beautiful analysis today:

From his earliest days in office, Mr. Bush paired his belief that Americans do best when they own their own home with his conviction that markets do best when let alone.

He pushed hard to expand homeownership, especially among minorities, an initiative that dovetailed with his ambition to expand the Republican tent — and with the business interests of some of his biggest donors. But his housing policies and hands-off approach to regulation encouraged lax lending standards.

Mr. Bush did foresee the danger posed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage finance giants. The president spent years pushing a recalcitrant Congress to toughen regulation of the companies, but was unwilling to compromise when his former Treasury secretary wanted to cut a deal. And the regulator Mr. Bush chose to oversee them — an old prep school buddy — pronounced the companies sound even as they headed toward insolvency.

bush_homeHow could one affable, good ol’ boy from Texas screw up so many things so quickly? Good question. But he didn’t do it alone. He had a whole host of enablers who elected him to office twice without ever looking at his resume. If they had, they would have seen that what George Bush did as president is exactly what he has done all his life: Time and again he was elevated to a position he didn’t deserve by his father’s influence and money, screwed things up royally, then turned to his father’s buddies – including the bin Laden family – to bail him out. Only difference this time, is we’re the folks doing the bailing!

Hey – let’s look what else Texas has given us – I mean,  how about them Cowboys!? America’s team playing it’s last game in hole-in-the-roof stadium. (Yeah, so god can watch his team!)  Yeah – and in the last quarter they give up  back-to-back touchdown scampers of 77 and 82 yards from scrimmage?

Hey, how about them Lions?! Wonder if the Big Three Idiots fly in to watch their team? Does nothing good come out of Texas these days? Or Detroit? As the NFL teams go, so goes their states? Hmmmm . . . Maybe we need to root harder for the Pats.

See why I seek solace in the night sky, coming back to “reality” only  once in a while to look at a football game? Every time I look at the “real” news, I see something like the preceding. Yeah, I saw a lot of this coming. But there’s little comfort in knowing that the nightmares you had in 2000 were an accurate preview of the country in 2008!

Believe me – I hope that the Miracle Man can perform miracles. But he’s the ultimate version of the kid who is given a barn full of manure for Christmas and immediately grabs shovel and with a smile says – “There must be a pony here somewhere!”

Arghhhhhhh . . . and speaking of shovelling crap, I’m guessing his new chief of staff didn’t emerge from the Chicago sewer system without some of the smelly governor’s slime sticking to him. Damn!

ooops –  I forgot – major mood shift time Merry Christmas . . .


I know, I know . . . some folks don't like snow. Sorry. I love it! Gives the world a major do over! Hmmm. . . maybe that's the derivation of "snow job?" Ah what the heck - grin and bear it 😉

What’s a blog and why do it ?

Blogs are an evolving medium with no single, simple definition. I see blogs that have evolved into online news magazines, such as TPM and Huffington Post. And I see long-established media giants, such as the New York Times and CNN, evolving towards blogging. Hey, the BBC even uses the mini-blogs called Twitter.

But that’s big-time blogging, all of it. There are thousands upon thousands of other blogs. What are they about? Fortunately, as I mulled this over I stopped myself and went back to something I wrote five years ago. Now five years ago is ancient history in terms of the Web and computers, but I read it and you know what? It’s pretty good. I don’t think I would change a word. So if yo’re curious and you want to know more, I suggest you go here. 😉

The Star of Bethlehem – Found once more!

In the western sky at dusk on June 17, 2 BCE, a strange, brilliant "star" dominates the Bethlehem horizon among the more familiar stars of Leo. (Chart from Starry Nights.)

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East [or at its rising] and have come to worship Him. When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. – Matthew, New King James Version

Is this the star of which Matthew wrote? A recent newspaper headline seems to indicate it is.

Astronomer Dave Reneke believes he has solved the Star of Bethlehem mystery

* Software maps Star of Bethlehem
* ‘Solves mysteries’
* ‘Pinpoints star’s location, date of Jesus’ birth’

I don’t think so.

In fact, I believe anyone can find the Star of Bethlehem – just look in your heart and if you can find it there it will blaze forth for you in the smile of a child, in the brilliance of Venus in this year’s western sky at dusk, in the bouncing joy of a puppy, or in the kind gesture of neighbor, friend or enemy, for the star is simply a symbol of the Christian spirit of Christmas – nothing more, nothing less.

Still, every year at this time I, like anyone with a little knowledge of the night skies, gets questions and suggestions about that wondrous star – the one the Wise Men in the East saw at it’s rising. The one they told Herod about. And the one that went before them as they journeyed to Bethlehem and stopped and in some miraculous way told them which house it was over and so they entered. They did not, as so many Christmas scenes represent, kneel before a child in a manager. What they found, the Bible says, is Mary and a “young child” in the house. In fact, using the information he got from the Wise Men, King Herod calculated that the child was as much as two years old, so he ordered all children under the age of two killed.

(Hmmm. . . is there a lesson for us there – about how human beings can take a piece of news and turn it into a horror story through their reactions?)

This story – with its truly horrible ending – is told in only the Gospel of Matthew. It is not mentioned elsewhere in the Bible and there is no indication in Matthew’s account that anyone except the Wise Men was aware of this star. So even from the Biblical account I think it’s reasonable to assume there was no really obvious change in the heavens, but a change that could only be detected by Wise Men – people who followed and interpreted the meaning of the stars – what today we would call astrologers. It’s obvious such changes took place – but it’s impossible to prove they were connected to the birth of Jesus.

However, many people assume there really is some blazing Christmas star that was seen 2,000 years ago and they want to know if they too can see it. The issue, with all it’s spiritual overtones, can’t be proven one way or the other. I find searching for it as hard, provable fact about as satisfactory as searching for the historical Jesus – and a meaningless exercise in either case. As I said – yes you can find the Star of Bethlehem – just look in your heart for the Spirit of Christmas – look for all those things the Christians brought to the pagan celebration of the return of the Sun after the winter solstice – the spirit of love, of joy, of peace on earth and good will to men – a spirit of universal harmony which is certainly dear to me. I’m serious. Find that and it will be the most wondrous “star” you will ever “see.”

OK – that obviously doesn’t satisfy a lot of literally-minded people and many have sought the “real” star. My friend Dom – who is not so literally-minded – thought a recent news story from Australia would interest the amateur astronomer in me and it does. It is of one more “discovery” of this star. Take a moment and detour off to take look here.

I think that story is wrong in many ways – not the least of which is the implication that a fancy computer is needed to do the kind of calculation referenced in the story. It isn’t. I can do this on my computer using Starry Night software – and I’ve done so. You could too with any of a number of software packages. And planetarium directors have spiced up countless Christmas shows with one version or another of the star story using their special projectors and they have been doing this throughout my lifetime. In fact about 40 years ago I wrote a feature story for the local newspaper about one such planetarium director’s theory of the Star of Bethlehem. He attributed it to a triple conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn. He had a very clever interpretation involving the retrograde movement of the planets which made the “star” – in this case “star” was taken to mean an astrological sign – in fact stand still before the Wise Men. And to the naked eye when a planet – a wandering star – switches from normal to retrograde motion it does for a few days appear to stand still. How in the world you would coordinate this action with a specific house and decide to enter that house is anyone’s guess – but astrology involves lots of interpretations which I think are pure guesswork and fantasy. (Yes, it drives me crazy when people confuse astrology with astronomy!)

But long before the computer, long before the fancy planetarium projectors, wise men were doing the math and working backwards and “discovering” all sorts of explanations for the Star of Bethlehem. One such wondrous explanation came from none-other than the genuinely great scientist Kepler who 400 years ago was the first to discover that planets moved in ellipses about the Sun – not circles – and through his calculation learned about that long ago triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that my friend the planetarium director used. (That one was in 7 BCE, as I recall – not 2 BCE.)

But Kepler didn’t think that conjunction was the star – though it is often reported that this is what he thought, Kepler actually thought that the triple conjunction somehow spawned a later nova – a brilliant, exploding star. He came to this incredible conclusion because he witnessed a nova – new star – and such a planetary conjunction had occurred a year or two before in the same area of the sky. So he reasoned that there was some connection between a spectacular – and rare – planetary conjunction and nova. There isn’t, of course – a planetary conjunction is a mere alignment of the planets so that from our point of view they appear to be very close to one another when in fact they remain hundreds of millions of miles apart. And there are trillions of miles between them and even the nearest stars, so again any alignment is simply how we see things.

None of this prevents the authority in the story from Australia from declaring that he has identified the Star of Bethlehem and it is in fact a conjunction of planets – in this case the two brightest ones we see, Jupiter and Venus. That’s cool because on December 1, 2008 many people all over the world saw a wonderful conjunction of Venus and Jupiter with the crescent Moon to form (in Australia) a smiley face – a frowny face over us – but by all means a spectacular sky event. (See this earlier post, and this one, and this one.)

I do believe that one problem with the conjunction suggested in this latest news story is that it would indeed be an awe-inspiring event to the general public – it would fit the usual popular interpretation of the Star of Bethlehem as a spectacular sign in the night sky. But Matthew seems to think that only the Wise Men were aware of this event.

The Jupiter-Venus conjunction – the focus of the latest story – took place on June 17, 2 BCE. The two planets are so close together I believe they would have been seen by the naked eye , for a brief time, as a single star of exceptional brilliance. The brightest objects in our sky are the Sun, Moon, Venus, and Jupiter in that order. So to combine the last two would result in the appearance of an unusally bright star. (In those days the only difference between a star and a planet was the star seemed to stay put and the planets “wandered.”)

By the way – this event, the conjunction in 2 BCE, has been known for decades, I’m not sure how long exactly, but I have found it mentioned in an article about planetarium shows printed in 1981, so I hardly see this as new. In fact that article is a great source for a variety of different explanations for the star.

But I understand the excitement. And if you are looking for a star to make your personal reminder of the Star of Bethlehem this Christmas, I suggest you look into the western sky – southwest for most of North America – and you’ll see brilliant Venus a bit higher each night at dusk as we approach Christmas. It will be easy to see – it is the first “star” to come out and it shines brighter than any other – absolutely dazzling in full darkness.

That is my personal Christmas Star this year – and it has been many other years, but not all. Venus goes through cycles where sometimes it’s a “morning star” and sometimes an “evening star” and these aren’t in sync with our calendar, so it is only some years that it happens to be prominent in our Christmas sky – either in the evening or the morning.

But for me it is simply a symbol – a reminder of something far more precious – the deep joy of the Christmas season where many people are inspired to think of the need for harmony and peace – and some are touched enough to act and discover once again that the only Star of Bethlehem that matters is the one in the human heart.

Playing the Star of Bethlehem game

OK – the Amateur astronomer in me can’t resit playing some games with the Starry Night Software and this idea of the planetary conjunction in 2 BCE.

Here’s one difference I can’t explain – and it may be an error of the reporter, or the astronomer – or , of course me and my software. The news article says:

Similar to the planetary alignment of the “smiley face” witnessed across the Western sky last week, he said a “beacon of light” would have been visible across the eastern dawn sky as Venus and Jupiter moved across the constellation of Leo on June 17, 2BC. [Emphasis is mine.]

My problem is this – my software puts this event in the Western, evening sky. But oh my – what a conjunction it is! In a half a century of amateur astronomy I’ve never seen such a thing – and this was particular to Bethlehem. In other sections of the world it would not have been seen quite this way. However, if someone in Bethlehem in 2 BCE had owned a small telescope – and, of course, they didn’t because the telescope was still 1,612 years in the future – this is what they would have seen!


See the two “stars” on either side of Jupiter – all on the same equatorial plane with the planet? Those are the four moons that Galileo discovered in 1610 when he first turned a telescope towards the giant planet. The smallest telescope will reveal them, but to have another whole planet in the same telescope view – that’s unusual. And to have it this close is extremely unusual. The software show the gap between them as less than 10 seconds of arc. The disc of each planet is obviously much larger than this gap.

But the reality, of course, is that the two planets are separated by at least 500 million miles. To put that in perspective at this particular instant in 2BCE Venus was about 60 million miles from Earth.

Look in your southwestern sky tonight and you’ll see a Venus about 8.5 degrees from Jupiter. There are 60 minutes in a degree and 60 seconds in a minute – so when you think that they were separated by less than 10 seconds in 2 BCE – well let’s see – right now they’re separated in our sky by about 30,600 seconds! In real terms right now Venus is about 87 million miles from us and Jupiter is about 539 million miles away. If someone were on Jupiter right now and trying to send a radio message to us it would take 46 minutes to get here – even though it would be traveling at the incredible speed of 186,200 miles a second!

Here’s Venus and Jupiter as they appear tonight about half an hour after Sunset.


Poll: Will the bubble never burst? Not for the bush league bubble boy!

Despite it all, Mr. Bush said he will “leave the presidency with my head held high.” And, presumably, with his eyes closed to all the disasters he is dumping on the American people and his successor.

Read the whole editorial here. It’s a worthy reminder of what we are saying goodbye to – and not soon enough. But it also raises a question and your input is most welcome. This total obliviousness really puzzles me.

‘The View from the Center of the Universe’ – Introduction

“The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering our Place in the Cosmos” by Joel R. Primac and Nancy Ellen Abrams – a book. Amazon | Book Website | Primack is a physicist who has done significant work in cosmology. He is married to Abrams, a lawyer and writer with wide-ranging interest and knowledge. | This entry is an experiment in personal blogging. I have read this book three times. I now wish to go through it one chapter at a time, writing a summary in my own words. I see this as primarily an exercise for me, but it may be of use to others.


We’re out of touch with the universe and disconnected from it and this is a relatively new phenomenon. Past cultures have shared a world view – we don’t. Some of us have a world view based on religion, but science challenges that world view – has for four centuries – and leaves many of us adrift: We feel we inhabit a universe without meaning and we feel insignificant within it. It doesn’t have to be this way.

From a scientific perspective, we are central to the universe and significant. At first glance this looks like a huge step backwards to the perspective held for more than a thousand years where the Earth was at the center of a universe which clearly revolved around it. Man, in this view, is central to the Earth. But science – starting with Copernicus – describes a much different universe, starting with the Sun at the center of our solar system, not Earth. From that point onward nearly every new astronomical discovery made us look less and less significant. Our sun is a fairly ordinary star which is part of a typical galaxy of billions of stars which is, in turn, one of billions of galaxies in an ever-expanding universe. I mean, how insignificant can you be?

Well, you could be a flea – or a bacterium, or an elementary particle.

Seriously, one of the arguments made by the authors is that we are at the center of things in several ways. We are “in the center of all possible sizes in the universe, we are made of the rarest material, and we are living at the midpoint of time for both the universe and the Earth.”

The authors derive our central position from science – not from a misguided sense of self-importance. Of the three points just made, I’m very comfortable with the first two – I’m not sure how they derive the third one about time. As I understand it, the universe has been around for about 13 billion years, but it should last much longer than that, although I don’t know how you define when it ends. But this is just the start of the case they make, so I’ll wait.

More importantly, the authors argue that we should take our scientific understanding of the cosmos as the model for our lives and religions. I’m not sure what “religions” means in this context, unless it simply means our view of ultimate reality. While I don’t like the term “religion” here, I do see that there is plenty of mystery left – plenty of undiscovered and perhaps undiscoverable – science, so maybe this is where they are going.

They say we’re the first generation who “can know what the universe may really be saying.” I’ve seen it a little differently. I think we are the universe becoming aware of itself. Hmmmm . . . is that different? well, yes. Their view makes it sound a bit like we are outside the universe looking in – as if we are a separate entity discovering the universe. I see us as inside the universe – at one with it – and becoming self-aware in much the same way an individual can become self-aware through meditation. But again, perhaps this is where they are heading – or perhaps they will convince me to modify my view.

They plan to explore several themes that are close to my heart – my own explorations – such as:

  • “There’s no way to have intuition about things one has never experienced, and most of the universe fits into that category.”
  • “It’s ironic that seeing reality takes a lot of imagination.”
  • Big questions with scientific answer: “What is the Universe made of? How did it get this way? How big is it? Where did it come from, and where is it going? Are we alone in it?”
  • And the biggest question not addressed by science which I think can be summed up by what someone once called the two most devastating words in the English language:”So what!?”
    They put the question a bit differently – “What difference does all this make for me?”

I would ask another related question – Is there a cosmic order? And if the answer is “yes,” as I suspect it is, why should there be?

One basic approach they adapt here is to try to create a new, symbolic shorthand. They argue that “symbols are far easier to remember than a long, logical argument or a mathematical equation. . . . Each of the symbols in this book represents a fundamental but incomplete insight about the universe . . . No single symbol can ever represent the universe completely. To get a sense of the whole, we have to somehow absorb the meaning of all the symbols together, and this takes imagination.”

As I said, this is my fourth time through this book. I obviously think it is good and worth the effort. But that doesn’t mean I think everything in it is correct and for me the jury is still out on the entire approach of creating these symbols. Maybe I need to make more of an effort to accept them, but something in me has rebelled against them to this point.

This concluding sentence to the introduction, though, I like:

What matters above all is not the details but the overarching realization that we are living at the center of a new universe at a pivotal time.

Yes – but again, the implied dichotomy bothers me. We are that universe. This grand separation – this implication that the universe is something we stand out of and study – bothers me. Still, this is a very important book written by people who have a far, far greater command of the science than I do.

Now here’s a challenge

I never ceased to be amazed at how the human mind can take two contradictory ideas, meld them together, and say – this, I believe.

Thinking like this is exactly what has destroyed any shred of Christinaity that was once in me. (See this post.) But more to the point, it presents an incredible challenge to me. How do you respond to this sort of thing without falling into the same hate-filled morass where this person dwells?

I have plenty of responses to it. I started to write a few on the comments form. But I knew that nothing I said would hit home. And what’s worse, everything I said, i said in anger. i was merely being sucked into the swamp with them. So I didn’t comment. This is much the way I have felt throughout the presidency of George Bush. When it started I was a practicing Quaker. But that approach requires we regardothers with understanding and love. I could not love George Bush. He simply made me angry. he made me angry every time he strode to the podium.

I still believe in the harmony promoted by Buddhism. I believe a smile is the best answer. I feel Gandhi was right. But all these feelings come from my intellect, not my heart – they exist in my abstract thinking – they vanish when i am confronted with real examples, such as the Web site mentioned. And, of course, I understand that this Web site is mild compared to some of the hate material on the Web.

My questions, though, are not rhetorical. i can, of course, ignore, or otherwise write off, people such as this. But I feel doing that only delays the time when you have to confront them as people have to confront a Hitler. They are, in my mind, the very evil that they think they are standing against – and I don’t want to become more of the same. So i walk away = knowing that,too, is no answer, though I may avoid making the situation worse.