Saturday, July 13, 2013

A Special Love For Words

Prior to his death, Roger Ebert penned a love note to poetry:
In the eighth grade Sister Rosanne required us all to learn a poem by heart. I was assigned “To a Waterfowl,” by William Cullen Bryant. For years thereafter 
I regaled listeners with as much of it as they desired:
     Whither, ’midst falling dew,
While glow the heavens with the last steps of day,
Far, through their rosy depths, dost thou pursue
      Thy solitary way?
....Is it unthinkable that today’s grade schools require the memorization of a poem or two? Sister Rosanne assured us we would thank her in later years. When I meet old classmates from those years, I find she was correct.
Another friend of a lifetime is John McHugh, who was born in Sligo, Ireland — Yeats Country. When we met in the late sixties he was a reporter at the Chicago Daily News (where Carl Sandburg had once been the film critic), and I was at the Chicago Sun-Times. John had apparently ingested Yeats in volume, and often on late beery nights he would recite him at O’Rourke’s Pub in Chicago.

I remembered more of  it than I realized.
I've never been much of a lover of poetry, but in the manner of his mention of Sister Rosanne above, our teacher was Tom Brown.  He was our seventh grade English teacher, and he had us memorize and recite numerous poems.  Ones I remember a little bit of include, "When the Frost is on the Punkin'" by James Whitcomb Riley, "Casey at the Bat," and "In Flanders Fields."  The funny part is that a friend of mine who's 8 years younger than I has mentioned two of those at various times on her Facebook page, and people that much older than I have commented on remembering having to learn them, too.  It amazed me how much one teacher could shape the collective conscience of a community.  Apparently, Roger Ebert experienced something of the same thing through poetry.

Samuel Adams and Catholics

In a story about how Samuel Adams beer is catching flak for leaving "by their Creator" out of  an ad which quotes the Declaration of Independence, we get this little fact:
Sam Adams himself wrote a lot about God. His dad even wanted him to go into the clergy. Instead, Adams became a lawyer and one of the firebrands of the American Revolution. In 1772, he penned a report called The Rights of the Colonists that was presented at a Boston town meeting.
In it he argued for religious tolerance. Except for Catholics. Because, he explained, Catholic dogma and doctrine leads “directly to the worst anarchy and confusion, civil discord, war, and bloodshed.”
So ol’ Sam wasn’t perfect. None of our Founding Fathers were. But he probably wouldn’t have been happy about the beer named for him eliding the creator from its ad.
The founders of the nation couldn't have guessed that Catholics would be the largest single denomination in the country, and they'd have been horrified by the prospect.  That's one thing I keep in mind when conservative Catholics join in with evangelical Protestants and insist that the United States is a Christian nation.  Until the past sixty years or so, when somebody said that, they meant Protestant.  I won't be making the Christian nation claim.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

A Second a Day from Birth

A Second a Day from Birth. from Sam Christopher Cornwell on Vimeo.

The music is very good, but it is dad's giggles that make it for me. (wiping away tears).

Physicists as Economists

They're almost certainly going to be better than regular economists (h/t Ritholtz):
Mark Buchanan in his new book, Forecast: What Physics, Meteorology, and the Natural Sciences Can Teach us About Economics, describes the central plank of the theory as being a belief in the universe’s dynamic tendency toward disequilibrium and instability. It’s a direct challenge to the prevailing economic theory that markets are inherently self-correcting and always reverting to equilibrium.
Take events such as the 1987 stock market crash, the bubble, and the flash crash of 2011. The econophysicists will tell you that the market at those times displayed patterns akin to the interaction of water molecules before boiling point or like the tectonic plate activity before an earthquake. They see positive feedback loops, where new market participants are repeatedly influenced by the actions of those before them, moving prices within the entire system inexorably toward an eventual breaking point: a financial bubble leading to a bust.
Even outside of the most newsworthy bubble events, markets constantly go through this dynamic process, says Mr. Buchanan. Using a metaphor from the physical world, he describes it as “avalanche” of common behavior that “sweeps through the system and, as it goes on, fosters a large, coherent change. Then, suddenly, that idea falls out of favor, and there is correction in the other direction.”
Markets are based on human sentiment, once in a while tempered by fundamentals.  Of course they are going to be irrational.  Have you ever talked to anybody who is madly in love?  Investors are like lovers.  Everyday is either the greatest in the world or the worst day ever, it seems.  Then you mix in the herd mentality, and you have some serious trouble.  I remember hearing about the efficient market hypothesis and thinking that this is the stupidest thing I've ever heard.  I don't know that you can boil down economics to physical laws, but markets are definitely irrational.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

In Corn After Corn, Insecticides are Back

Morning Edition:
Companies like or that sell soil insecticides for use in corn fields are reporting huge increases in sales: 50 or even 100 percent over the past two years.
This is a return to the old days, before biotech seeds came along, when farmers relied heavily on pesticides. For Dan Steiner, an independent crop consultant in northeastern Nebraska, it brings back bad memories. "We used to get sick [from the chemicals]," he says. "Because we'd always dig [in the soil] to see how the corn's coming along. We didn't wear the gloves and everything, and we'd kind of puke in the middle of the day. Well, I think we were low-dosing poison on ourselves!"
For a while, biotechnology came to his rescue. Biotech companies such as Monsanto spent many millions of dollars creating and inserting genes that would make corn plants poisonous to the corn rootworm but harmless to other creatures.
The first corn hybrids containing such a gene went on sale in 2003. They were hugely popular, especially in places like northeastern Nebraska, where the rootworm has been a major problem. Sales of soil insecticides fell. "Ever since then, I'm like, hey, we feel good every spring!" says Steiner.
But all along, scientists wondered how long the good times would last. Some argued that these genes — a gift of nature — were being misused. (For a longer explanation, read my from two years ago.)...
In parts of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska, though, farmers are running into increasing problems with corn rootworms.
"You never really know for sure, until that big rain event with the strong wind, and then the next morning the phone starts ringing [and people ask]: 'What's going on out there?' " says Steiner.
Entire hillsides of corn, with no support from their eaten-away roots, may be blown flat.
Yep, farmers fucked up again.  We just can't seem to understand that whole resistance thing.  However, farmers weren't the only ones to fuck up.  Monsanto convinced the regulators to allow 20% refuge areas when those pesky scientists were recommending 50%.  Well, it is what it is.

How an American Manufacturer Succeeds

Fast Company features Marlin Steel:
Speed is part of the moat, the willingness to do a job as quickly as a customer needs it. Quality is part of the moat too. Scattered around the factory floor are "check fixtures"--simple wooden boards with the outline of a wire part etched into the surface. To see if the part is made correctly, a worker slots it into the outline on the board. If it's made right, it fits.
Often three nearly identical images of a part are etched into the same check fixture. The one on the right is the customer's requirement--say, a tolerance of 0.12 inches. The one in the center is Marlin's "okay to ship" standard, always better than the customer request--say, a tolerance of 0.06 inches. The one on the left is the "Drew" standard--perhaps a tolerance of 0.03 inches--four times the precision of the customer's spec. "If we send them that left one, they will never leave," Greenblatt says. Toyota--legendary for its obsession with quality--was so impressed with Marlin's exactitude that in addition to baskets, it also buys check fixtures from Marlin.
But for Greenblatt, the most important element of the moat is what Marlin didn't have before Boeing called: engineering and design. No one at Marlin designs baskets on slips of notepaper today. Five of 28 employees are degreed mechanical engineers. "We give people slick, elegant designs that make it worthwhile to use us rather than a commodity-part supplier from China," says Greenblatt. More to the point, says designer Alur, "people come to us with a problem and we try to solve it." Marlin has taken something utterly pedestrian and turned it into a tool of innovation--for its customers.
I highly recommend anybody in manufacturing reads this article.  It is fascinating.  The dude did good with his company, but he also got really lucky.

It's Not Just The U.S. Anymore

America's hat has a conservative party with a war on science, too (h/t nc links):
The appointment of National Research Council president John MacDougall in Canada — effectively the country’s top scientist — is being received by scientists the way James Watt was received by environmentalists in the Reagan Administration as head of the national park system. Like Watt, MacDougall seems antagonistic to the field that is supposed to be fostering with federal funds. Recently, MacDougall announced that “Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value.” It turns out that all of that stuff by Galileo was just academic crap.
Gary Goodyear, minister of state for science and technology, announced that the NRC will shift its focus away from basic research to “large-scale research projects that are directed by and for Canadian business.” That will mean little or no funding for basic research under the $900 million annual budget. It is part of the conservative governments shift toward industry despite protests from leading scientists that the approach is simplistic and shortsighted. Those commercial applications are built on a foundation of basic research.
McDougall’s bio says that he began his career as a petroleum engineer and ultimately became the owner of an international engineering consulting firm.
I'm sure that when the government started funding the internet they knew it would have commercial value.  Or maybe GPS.  Or Tang.  Oh, wait, the only government research that will ever have commercial value is the research the corporations have the government give them funding for.  Why don't they call it what it is, which is cronyism.  Here in Ohio, that is our JobsOhio program, where the government runs a "private" corporation which hands out money to create "economic development" for campaign contributors, but the program can't be publicly audited.  Yeah, no corruption there.

Happy Birthday Nikola Tesla

I can't add anything to what Ritholtz posted, except, "thanks for the alternating current, it kicks ass."

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Real Meaning of the Zimmerman Trial

Jelani Cobb:
The answers to these questions have bearing that is more social than legal, but they’re inescapable in understanding how we got here in the first place and what this trial ultimately means. George Zimmerman got out of his car that night as an amateur deputy and protector of the Retreat at Twin Lakes gated community. Trayvon Martin was a visitor to that community. Nowhere in Zimmerman’s initial emergency call does he broach the idea that Martin might belong there, that he might actually be someone who warranted protection, too. Instead, there is the snap judgment that the teen-ager is one of the “fucking punks” who “always get away”—a judgment that Zimmerman’s supporters and the Sanford Police Department either co-signed or deemed reasonable enough to absolve him of responsibility for what ensued.
What remains frustratingly marginal in this discussion is the point Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel raised in her testimony—that Martin himself was afraid, that a black person might assess a man following him in a car and on foot as a threat, never mind that he might have seen Zimmerman’s weapon and suspected his life was in danger. The defense paid a great deal of attention to the implications of Martin referring to Zimmerman as a “creepy-ass cracker,” but, to the extent that we think about the epithet, we’re concerned with the wrong C-word. Imagine George Zimmerman being followed at night, in the rain, by an armed, unknown black man and you have an encounter that far exceeds the minimal definition of “creepy.” Indeed, you have a circumstance in which anyone would reasonably fear for his life. Add a twist in which that black man fires a shot that ends a person’s life, and it’s hard to imagine him going home after a brief police interview, as Zimmerman did.
He may get acquitted, but George Zimmerman is a jackass and an idiot.  And Florida's Stand Your Ground law is absolutely idiotic clearance for murder as justified homicide.  It could be also known as the Make Sure He's Dead law. Well, if nothing else, this will probably bring my racist troll in to say that all blacks are scary racists who should be shot.

A Labor Day Weekend Spectacular

Charles Pierce has an idea for the Indians-Tigers match up on Labor Day weekend:
Instead of Throwback Day, when they make those poor players suit up in the old baggy uniforms so they all sweat more than Victor Mature did in Demetrius and the Gladiators, I reckoned they should make every team play a series in which they adopt one of those nicknames from out of the dim times before modern marketing made commodities out of everything from the right-field wall to the right fielder. Why, just with these two teams this weekend, we could have had the Detroit Tigers, who have always been the Detroit Tigers, playing the Cleveland Molly Maguires, or the Cleveland Forest Citys, or the Cleveland Blues, who merged with the St. Louis Maroons in 1885 and made purple, I guess. Someone explain to me how this isn't a marketing masterstroke here. There are about 50 years' worth of obscure MLB team swag on which nobody has made a buck yet. Whatever happened to my America, anyway?
My idea gets even better when you realize the Indians franchise was once named after a group that the oligarchy of another age called a terrorist organization. They did three years in the early 1900s as the Cleveland Molly Maguires. And considering that I once saw a notice on the center-field message board at old Tiger Stadium that bid welcome to something called The Eugene V. Debs Memorial Marching Kazoo Band, I think a Labor Day series between these two would be something to see. Imagine the sports anchors having to explain what the Molly Maguires were. Imagine the tsunami of terrible punditry that would ensue.
"And now, will you please rise and join Ronan Tynan in the singing of The Internationale ... "
And do I have to mention that these two teams will play what is likely to be another crucial series in Detroit on the weekend before Labor Day?
I don't think too many average baseball fans have any what he's talking about.

A Bit of an Engineering Problem

Pacific Standard looks at the expansion of the Bingham Canyon copper mine in Utah:
The tunnels are only the very beginning of the underground project at Bingham Canyon. According the plan, they will wind 2,000 feet beneath the ore body. Then, 300 miles of smaller tunnels will be bored across the rock, one above another, creating a dual-layered lattice. The layers will be connected by vertical funnel-shaped shafts. Finally, the ore above the upper lattice will be blasted, and the shattered ore will flow down the funnels to the lower lattice, from which it will be removed.
Secondary problems will have to be solved. The rock is saturated with groundwater; thousands of drainage holes must be drilled, and a massive pumping system installed, to keep the tunnels from flooding. Because so many miles of latticework must be constructed, Rio Tinto plans to use speedy tunnel-boring machines rather than traditional drill-and-blast techniques. But machines that meet its needs—that can operate at steep angles and turn in tight radii—don’t yet exist. They’ll have to be invented. Rio also plans to use robotic trucks and scoops to remove the ore. (“We’re going to drive them from the surface using PlayStation controls,” Gass said.) That system will have to be custom-built, too.
For Bingham, as for any mine shifting underground, the pay-off for all this preparation would be twofold. First, after the initial blast, the production of ore is self-sustaining. The ore body simply collapses under its own weight, and as one load of broken ore is trucked out, more flows in to replace it. It’s a safe, predictable process; essentially, gravity does the work of dynamite. Second, unlike in pit mining, no overburden—the ore-free junk rock—has to be shifted. Underground mines shift ore and nothing else.
The technique, known as block-caving, is not new, but the scale is. Copper mines are measured by the amount of ore they process. “Twenty years ago, a big underground mine would have been six, eight thousand tons a day,” Gass said. “We’re designing this to be over a hundred and fifty thousand tons a day”—as much as the pit now produces. After the first set of five block caves has been mined out, sometime decades from now, a second set below it may follow. A third, still deeper set is possible after that. Ultimately, more ore may be dug out from underground at Bingham than will be removed from the open pit in its entire existence.
Wow, that sounds like a lot of fun.  I really can't imagine the scale of that place.  Further up in the article it says that for every day's 150,000 tons of ore processed, they get 820 tons of copper and 149,000 tons of tailings.  What a fucking mess!  Earlier in the year, the mine had a landslide which closed the pit and will probably cut output in half.  If you like major engineering feats, read the whole thing.

I Guess Being Connected Pays Off

It is being reported that Jon Corzine will not face criminal charges in the collapse of MF Global:
The complaint says that the firm filed false segregated funds reports with the CFTC on Friday, October 28, but it doesn’t say who signed off on the reports. Early in that day, Corzine told O’Brien to pay off $134 million in overdrafts to JPMorgan, MF Global’s lender. O’Brien made the payment by transferring money from customer accounts at JPMorgan to a proprietary account at JPMorgan, and then transferring the money from the proprietary account to pay JPMorgan. The Chief Risk Officer at JPMorgan told Corzine that this had happened, and asked for assurances that it was legal. O’Brien responded to an inquiry by Corzine by showing the second transaction. ¶64(k). Corzine didn’t ask where the money came from and didn’t do anything else about it. The Complaint says that:
Corzine also failed to halt multiple subsequent transfers of funds from customer segregated accounts that were made for proprietary purposes. Corzine failed to implement any controls or take any steps to ensure that customer segregated funds were not and would not be unlawfully used. ¶64q
And then there’s this:
Corzine knew on Friday morning that MF Global had transferred $175 million to MFGUK even though he thought MF Global had immediate access to only $82 million in proprietary cash. He further learned from JPM shortly before 2:00 p.m. ET on Friday that the funds were used to pay the overdraft referred to in paragraph 64 above and were in fact transferred from a customer segregated account.
I’m sure there is some reasonable explanation as to why responsible officials do not think any crime was committed. Perhaps I have misread the facts, or maybe whatever happened doesn’t constitute a crime, or something else. Somebody who knows should come forward and provide that explanation. It isn’t enough to send a couple of “federal investigators” out to leak this story.
Where are all the "very serious people" worried about the rule of law?  They stole from segregated funds and filed false documents denying it.  But, since they were paying off bankers, that's all right.  It's alright to fuck retail customers and retirees, but don't ever fuck one of the big banks.  That's a crime you'll get punished for.  We are so fucked.  We only seem to have a government which exists to protect the interests of giant corporations.  Fuck everybody else.

Southie Class

It's like they try to make Townies look respectable:
Near the end of Bulger lawyer J.W. Carney's cross-examination of Weeks, tensions boiled over in the courtroom. After Carney implied that Weeks was a rat, just like his former boss who's on trial, Weeks took offense. "I walk the streets of South Boston, I walk the streets of Boston. I don't worry about it," Weeks told the courtroom. At one point he told Carney to call him a rat in the street and see what happens. Eventually Bulger, who spent much of Weeks's testimony quietly seething in his chair, had seen enough. Weeks said he felt bad for the informants they killed because "I had the biggest two rats in front of me," meaning Bulger and Flemmi. The boss cursed at Weeks from his seat, saying "fuck you" loud enough for the whole room to hear. Weeks responded with a "fuck you" of his own. Bulger was reduced to playground insults at this point. "You suck," he said. "What are you going to do?" Weeks asked, before the judge told them both to shush. Shortly after, another emotional day of blockbuster testimony in the Bulger trial finished for the day.
As a comment I saw said, "Two murderers who get pissed when they're called a rat."

All Around The World, Men Are Stupid


Don't worry, ladies, it isn't just here that men do incredibly stupid things (generally to impress the females):
On the island of Pentecost in the South Pacific chain of Vanuatu, there is a legend that birthed a strange -- some may say insane -- tradition. The story goes that in a village several hundred years ago, a woman was fighting with her husband. She ran from him and climbed a tall tree. He ran after her and also climbed, and when she jumped off the top, he followed suit. He plummeted to his death, but she had tied a vine around her ankle and was saved, her fall broken just in time before she crashed into the earth. For three months of every year since then the village builds a tower of branches 60 to 150 feet tall and performs the Nagol Ceremony. The "land divers" (men only, from the Longwaran tribe of the island) climb up and fling themselves to the ground, liana vines tied around both ankles. Apparently this is to remind the women that the men will never again be outsmarted. The men auger into the mud beneath, often hurting and sometimes killing themselves, but in doing so exhibit extreme bravery.
At least we know where bungee jumping started.

Levitating Superconductor on Mobius Strip

Via Ritholtz:

Andy takes a closer look at one of his favourite demos from the 2012 Christmas Lectures, bringing together a levitating superconductor and a bewildering Möbius strip made from over 2,000 magnets. As his super-conducting boat whizzes along the track, Andy demonstrates the remarkable properties of the superconducting material (Yttrium barium copper oxide) which allows it to seemingly float both above and below the track

Monday, July 8, 2013

Peak Water

Via Big Picture Agriculture, Lester Brown looks at areas that have hit a peak in irrigation water:
In the United States, farmers are over-pumping in the Western Great Plains, including in several leading grain-producing states such as Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska. In these states, irrigation has not only raised wheat yields but it has also enabled a shift from wheat to corn, a much higher-yielding crop. Kansas, for example, long known as the leading wheat state, now produces more corn than wheat.
Irrigated agriculture has thrived in these states, but the water is drawn from the Ogallala aquifer, a huge underground water body that stretches from Nebraska southwards to the Texas Panhandle. It is, unfortunately, a fossil aquifer, one that does not recharge. Once it is depleted, the wells go dry and farmers either go back to dryland farming or abandon farming altogether, depending on local conditions.
In the states that draw their irrigation water from the Ogallala aquifer, wells are starting to go dry. In Texas, a large grain and cattle state, which is located on the shallow end of the aquifer, irrigated area peaked in 1975 and has dropped 37% since then. In Oklahoma, irrigation peaked in 1982 and has dropped by 25%. In Kansas the peak did not come until 2009, but during the three years since then it has dropped precipitously, falling nearly 30%. Nebraska, now also a leading corn-producing state, saw its irrigated area peak in 2007. Since then its grain harvest has shrunk by 15%. Even though aquifer depletion is reducing grain output in several key states, it is not yet sufficient to reduce the overall US grain harvest, the bulk of which is produced in the rain-fed midwestern corn belt.
The rain-fed midwestern corn belt is one of, if not the, most significant natural advantages the United States has.  My fear is that in the long term, climate change may hurt the corn belt, either by drying some areas out or making others too wet, or both.

The Birth of a Tornado

National Geographic:
June 3, 2013—Tim Samaras spent more than 30 years researching tornadoes. Samaras submitted this footage to National Geographic in the weeks leading up to his death, as part of his last storm-research expedition. His son Paul and fellow storm chaser Carl Young also died in the El Reno, Oklahoma, tornado.

A Connection Between MRSA and Confinement Buildings?

For the study, researchers from Johns Hopkins University and elsewhere examined workers at several pork and chicken farms in North Carolina. Because the workers could be at risk of losing their jobs if farm owners found out they’d participated, the researchers didn’t publish the names of the farms or workers, but surveyed them about how animals were raised at their farms and categorized them as industrial or antibiotic-free operations.
The scientists also swabbed the nasal cavities of the workers and cultured the staph bacteria they found to gauge the rates of infection by MDRSA. As a whole, the two groups of workers had similar rates of normal staph (the kind that can be wiped out by antibiotics), but colonies of MDRSA—resistant to several different drugs typically used as treatment—were present in 37 percent of workers at industrial farms, compared to 19 percent of workers at farms that didn’t use antibiotics.
Perhaps even more troubling, the industrial livestock workers were much more likely than those working at antibiotic-free operations(56 percent vs. 3 percent) to host staph that were resistant to tetracycline, a group of antibiotics prescribed frequently as well as the type of antibiotic most commonly used in livestock operations.
This research is just the beginning of a broader endeavor aimed at understanding how common agricultural practices are contributing to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The scientists say that surveying the family members of farm workers and other people they come in frequent contact with would help to model how such infections spread from person to person. Eventually, further evidence on MDRSA evolving in this setting could help justify tighter regulations on habitual antibiotic use on livestock.
 This is going to be a major issue going forward for confinement operations.  If I were in building design, I would consider some significant changes to try to minimize routine antibiotic use.  Farmers are going to have to get out ahead of this, and soon.

Locomotive Fire Led To Quebec Disaster

The problem was that the engine had been left on by the train's engineer to maintain pressure in the air brakes, Ed Burkhardt, chairman of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA), said in an interview. As the pressure gradually "leaked off," the air brakes failed and the train began to slide downhill, he said.
The fire service said it contacted a local MMA dispatcher in Farnham, Quebec, after the blaze was out. "We told them what we did and how we did it," Lambert said.
Asked whether there had been any discussion about the brakes, he replied: "There was no discussion of the brakes at that time. We were there for the train fire. As for the inspection of the train after the fact, that was up to them."
It was not immediately clear what the MMA dispatcher did after speaking with the fire service. Burkhardt said the fire service should have also tried to contact the train's operator, who was staying at a nearby hotel.
"If the engine was shut off, someone should have made a report to the local railroad about that," he said.

Canadian crash investigators say they will look at the two sets of brakes on the train: the airbrakes and the handbrakes. Members of the team are due to speak to reporters at 10 a.m. (1400 GMT) on Tuesday.
Burkhardt said that after the pressure leaked out of the airbrakes, the handbrakes would not have been strong enough to keep the train in place.
I guess I didn't know too much about air brakes.  I thought if you lost air pressure, the brakes would engage, and that only when you built the pressure up would they disengage.  Anyway, the accident made a mess of that downtown.  Well the pipeline guys really think this scores one for them now.  That'll be an interesting discussion.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

NASA Photo of the Day

July 6:

NGC 6384: Spiral Beyond the Stars
Credit: ESA, Hubble, NASA
Explanation: The universe is filled with galaxies. But to see them astronomers must look out beyond the stars of our own galaxy, the Milky Way. This colorful Hubble Space Telescopic portrait features spiral galaxy NGC 6384, about 80 million light-years away in the direction of the constellation Ophiuchus. At that distance, NGC 6384 spans an estimated 150,000 light-years, while the Hubble close-up of the galaxy's central region is about 70,000 light-years wide. The sharp image shows details in the distant galaxy's blue star clusters and dust lanes along magnificent spiral arms, and a bright core dominated by yellowish starlight. Still, the individual stars seen in the picture are all in the relatively close foreground, well within our own galaxy. The brighter Milky Way stars show noticeable crosses, or diffraction spikes, caused by the telescope itself.


Via the Dish, Robert T. Gonzales highlights the above short film:
This is Glas, a 1959 Oscar-winning short subject documentary by Bert Haanstra about glass making, and it is the most mesmerizing thing you'll see today.
The film is notable for a number of reasons, but what caught my attention was how effectively it contrasts the meticulous, method-based craftsmanship of the glassblowers with the automated processes of the bottle-building machines. It's an especially powerful comparison, considering that glass blowing remains widely practiced to this day, even after decades of global industrialization.
It reminds me of this Stella ad:

Meanwhile, Newcastle mocks Stella's emphasis on the "chalice":

NRA May Need To Enter Liability Insurance Business

Des Moines Register:
A new Kansas law allowing gun owners to carry weapons in public buildings, including schools, has thrust a major Des Moines-based insurer into the national gun control debate.
The EMC Insurance Cos. insures 85 percent to 90 percent of all Kansas school districts and has refused to renew coverage for schools that permit teachers and custodians to carry concealed firearms on their campuses under the new law, which took effect July 1. It’s not a political decision, but a financial one based on the riskier climate it estimates would be created, the insurer said.
“We’ve been writing school business for almost 40 years, and one of the underwriting guidelines we follow for schools is that any on-site armed security should be provided by uniformed, qualified law enforcement officers,” said Mick Lovell, EMC’s vice president for business development. “Our guidelines have not recently changed.”
A smaller Des Moines-area insurer — Continental Western Group, based in Urbandale — has followed EMC’s lead with a similar position in response to the new law, according to the Kansas Association of School Boards’ insurance program.
So has Wright Specialty Insurance, based in New York.
Huh, whodathunk more guns in schools might lead to more accidental shootings?  Clearly not the genius who introduced the bill:
Forrest Knox, the Kansas state senator who is the chief advocate of the new gun law, maintains that having legal guns in schools and other government buildings could prevent injuries. He’s been pushing the legislation for years.
Knox said that local governments are free to opt out of the law allowing weapons in public buildings, but only 300 of the 3,000 counties and municipalities in Kansas have sent letters to the state attorney general seeking exemptions....“I’m not an insurance expert, but it’s hard for me to believe that if schools and other public buildings allow law-abiding citizens to carry that that increases risk — it’s news to me,” Knox said. “Law enforcement responds better (to school shootings now), but it still takes a few minutes, and a lot of damage can be done in a few minutes.”
One thing you are right about, Mr. Knox, you're not an insurance expert.  Around here, one state representative would like all teachers to carry.  Remembering the teachers I had in school, I can't see that as being a good idea.  And what happens if the teacher misplaces the gun or has a student take it away from him or her?  That probably wouldn't make the school any safer.  We really need smarter elected officials.

Republicans Hate Those Pesky Facts

Bruce Bartlett tees off on a couple of shitty bills coming out of the idiot wing of our federal government, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.  One tries to force in dynamic-scoring at CBO and make CBO less able to do its work.  The other tries to whitewash inflationary increases out of the CBO's baseline budget:
The only purpose of this legislation is to obfuscate the effect of inflation on spending so that it will be easier for Republicans to slash it without appearing to do so. They can hold constant spending for programs they don’t like, but are afraid to cut openly, and simply let inflation do their dirty work, while claiming that they haven’t cut spending at all.
This is part of a long-term effort to eliminate data collection or pervert it so that policy is biased toward Republican priorities. For example, Republicans have:
  • Forced the Internal Revenue Service to drop a program called the Taxpayer Compliance Measurement Program in order to make the extent of tax evasion harder to calculate. This has made it easier to cut the IRS budget
  • Abolished the Office of Technology Assessment and the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations because they often produced widely respected data that conflicted with Republican dogma on issues such as global warming.
  • Prohibited the federal government from collecting data on the cost of gun-related injuries and death in order to prevent it from being used by gun control supporters.
  • Are currently attempting to defund a Census Bureau program called the American Community Survey. Among other things, it would eliminate the government’s ability to properly calculate the unemployment rate. Republicans claim it is too intrusive.
There are many other examples as well. It’s almost as if Republicans instinctively distrust any fact that conflicts with what they want to believe. Thus during the 2012 campaign, many Republicans simply refused to believe polls showing Mitt Romney losing to Barack Obama. A few also accused the Bureau of Labor Statistics of doctoring data showing that the unemployment rate was falling.
Republicans should not be let anywhere near positions of power.  Their war on data and facts is crippling the ability of the government to function properly, so they can turn around and say, "see, government doesn't work."  I don't understand why so many people fall for their crooked scam.

Oil Train Derails, Blows Up Part of Quebec Town

National Post:
The runaway train caused a series of explosions, destroying the heart of Lac-Megantic and sending spectacular fireballs dozens of metres into the sky. Up to 60 more people are believed to be missing, but authorities are refusing to give any numbers beyond the one confirmed fatality.
“The train went by at 75 miles an hour, it was going like a crazy train,” said resident Gilles Fluet, who had just called it a night and left the popular Musi-Café shortly after 1 a.m. Saturday with his two friends when he saw the freight train barrelling down the tracks that cut through town.
“The wheels were smoking, because the brakes were overheating. I said to my friends, ‘Run, because that’s not going to make the turn. It’s going to crash.’ We could see they were all tankers carrying oil.”
They ran up the street and turned the corner just before the first explosion. “It was a hot wind, a bit like a torch had hit us,” Mr. Fluet, 65, said. “The wife of the guy with me was burned on her arm and leg. She was knocked down by the explosion.”
The pictures are stunning.  Investigators haven't determined exactly how the train took off:
The president and CEO of Rail World Inc., the parent company of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, said the train was parked uphill of Lac-Megantic before the incident.
“If brakes aren’t properly applied on a train, it’s going to run away,” Edward Burkhardt told The Canadian Press.
“But we think the brakes were properly applied on this train.”
Mr. Burkhardt, who indicated he was mystified by the disaster, said the train was parked because the engineer had finished his run.
“We’ve had a very good safety record for these 10 years,” he said of the decade-old railroad.
“Well, I think we’ve blown it here.”
The multiple blasts came over a span of several hours and wiped out some 30 buildings. Locals say that many are still unaccounted for in the town of 6,000, about 250 kilometres east of Montreal.
That is not good.  Back a number of years ago (ok, 12 years ago [Fuck! Time flies!]), a train got away from the engineer in a railyard near Toledo, and ran unattended until it got past Kenton.  Luckily, nobody got seriously hurt:
 The CSX 8888 incident, also known as the Crazy Eights incident, was an unmanned runaway CSX Transportation freight train in the U.S. state of Ohio in 2001. Locomotive #8888, an EMD SD40-2, was pulling a train of 47 cars including some loaded with hazardous chemicals, and ran uncontrolled for two hours at up to 51 miles per hour (82 km/h). It was finally halted by a railroad crew in a second locomotive, which caught the runaway and coupled to the rear car.

The train consisted of CSX #8888 and 47 freight cars, 22 of which were loaded. Two tank cars contained thousands of gallons of molten phenol, a toxic ingredient of paints, glues, and dyes that is harmful when it is inhaled, ingested, or comes into contact with the skin. Attempts to derail the train using a portable derailer failed and police shot at an emergency fuel cutoff switch, which had no effect because the button must be pressed for several seconds before the engine is starved of fuel and shuts down. A northbound freight train, Q63615, was directed onto a siding where the crew uncoupled its locomotive, #8392 (another EMD SD40-2), and waited for the runaway to pass. The locomotive's crew of two, an engineer with 31 years of service and a conductor with one year's experience, chased the runaway train and were able to couple onto the rear car. They slowed the train by applying the dynamic brakes on the chase locomotive. An EMD GP38 locomotive was prepared further down the line to couple to the front of the runaway to slow it further, if necessary. Once the runaway had slowed to 11 miles per hour, CSX trainmaster Jon Hosfeld ran alongside the train, climbed aboard, and shut down the engine. The train was stopped just southeast of Kenton, Ohio, before reaching the GP38. All the brake blocks on #8888 had been completely destroyed by the heat from being applied throughout the runaway trip. The name of the engineer who let the train slip was never made public.
We did a good bit of work in Kenton, and the city officials there were pretty worked up that day.  They were imagining something on the order of this disaster in Lac-Megantic.