Wednesday, June 27, 2007

"We are stardust..."

This is one of my all-time favorite Fun Facts:

Harlow Shapely's quote has entered the larger culture - that "We are stardust, we are golden" as Joni Mitchell / CSN paraphrased it -- that every single heavy atom in us had to have been cooked up in the heart of an earlier generation of star.

Well, I've run across a factoid that's even neater. From Energies by Vaclav Smil, MIT Press 1999:

"High intensities of heterotrophic metabolism mean that living organisms surpass the Sun in power output per unit of mass.

Given the star's enormous mass (1.99 x 10 to the 33 g), its immense luminosity (3.9 x 10 to the 26 W) prorates to just about 200 nW/g of the stellar matter. In contrast, the daily metabolism of children (averaging about 3 mW/g of body weight) proceeds at a rate about 15,000 times higher, and respiring bacteria reach up to 100W/g, or 500 million times the Sun's rate. Stars astonish with their total energy fluxes, but ATP-driven energy conversions in heterotrophic organisms have unrivaled intensities of energy conversions per unit mass." (p.39)

In other words, not only are we made of stardust, but we burn brighter, too. I find that fact to be inexpressibly poignant.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007


I grew up in a blue-collar suburb. I knew other kids who read (not all of them the college-tracked kids...), but I didn't know anybody as deep into SF as I was.
And at Big Nerd College ("A Technological University"), lots of guys read the stuff... but nobody seemed to have time to do much about it.

I first heard of fandom because Asimov mentioned it all the time.
(My Asimov stories:
1. A summer in the late 70s, M & I are out for a drive, we wind up at the Rensselaerville Institute. And there he was, strolling across the grounds with a young woman on his arm.
2. Saw him again at one of the "New York is Book Country" fests in the '80s.
3. I sent him a postcard once; in his F&SF column, he had asked for info on a poem; using M's Granger's Index to Poetry, I was able to tell him.)

I saw Harlan speak at my college in the fall of 1974, and he positively excoriated fans and fandom. I never found fandom until well after college, and never really got involved until after I was a grown-up.

Back in the '80s, Latham-Albany-Schenectady-Troy fandom (Byron & Tina Connell, wombat, etc.) put on 4 cons: 1981, '82, '85, '86

My first look at the Con scene:
Fall of 1982, LastCon Too: Aaron and I got press credentials and looked in.
I interviewed Wilson Tucker, we went to see the masquerade.
Fulfilling several fandom cliches, I was gratuitously insulted by a teenager who was dressed in a Robin Hood get-up. I was 27.

Years later I discovered that one of my my college pals was involved in the revived local fandom, and with Albacon. I've been to seven of them to date, starting with the first:

1996 I was 41 yrs old. This one was on Wash Ave. Nancy Kress, Sheffield
1997 Oct 17-19 Ramada Sch'dy Melissa Scott (Paul Edward Zimmer dies)
1998 Oct 9-11 Ramada Friesner

2000 Oct 6-8 Ramada Glen Cook
2001 Oct 5-7 Ramada Larry Niven; Bonnie & Ted Atwood
2002 Oct 4-6 Ramada Mike Resnick
2003 Oct 11 Bujold I brought Alice (at 11) to Lake George
I'm pretty sure I missed 2005 (Terry Brooks),
I'm certain that I missed 2004 and 2006)

Out-of-town Cons:

Readercon 15 July 2003 I was 47 for my first out-of-town con
A day trip/one-day membership to meet Howard Waldrop, Rucker, etc.
Noreascon 4, Sept 2004 I was 48. My first WorldCon.
Terry Pratchett I brought Alice (12) along
Boskone 43, Feb 2006 Ken MacLeod. Mary was 9.
I brought all the girls. Mary's 1st con, M's 1st.
Readercon 18 July 2007: which will be my 12th con;
M & M's 2nd; Alice's fourth

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Sunday, June 24, 2007

Hand-crafted vs. factory-made

Over at LibraryThing I've been involved in a long-running discussion of Why That Stuff You Read Sucks. I'm recycling a point I made over there:

By this point in the thread, I think we all understand that people read for different reasons. What I'm still not getting is why this is a problem.

Because it's also true that people write for different reasons:

1) Because they need to express themselves.
2) In hope of entertaining others.
3) In hope of making a living.

These are not necessarily mutually exclusive reasons.

But I can only speak for myself. I read, I write. I long ago decided not to ever try to make a living from my pen.

I also do a bit of carpentry. I do it entirely for my own purposes, I derive satisfaction from the activity, and the end products are useful. People who come by admire my bookshelves. People often see my bookcases, and then ask if they can commission me to build some for them.

But I work wood for myself, for my own purposes. A few extra bucks might be nice, but I have no need to make custom bookshelves for others. I especially don't want to try to make a living as a cabinet-maker. For one thing, taking such a step would place me too much at the mercy of the taste of others. The craftsmen who DO meet this market - and I've talked to a couple - I rather tend to admire. Are they prostituting their art? I doubt they see it that way.

I also have no need to resent Ikea for selling the ignorant masses cheap, wobbly, factory-built bookcases. I especially have no need to yell at the customers of Ikea for not appreciating fine custom carpentry. People buy what suits their own needs. MY need is for several hundred feet of built-in custom bookshelves; other people can be perfectly happy with a DIY Ikea "BILLY" unit.

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

"Ahhh! My hand!"

Earlier today (well, yesterday, now), the eldest kid and I made a nerd road trip up to the new digital-tv transmitter shack up in the hills.

All afternoon, I had been brooding about standing at the foot of the broadcast tower while it was radiating a few megawatts of radio energy into space.

So, come sunset, I went down to the basement and dug out a couple of 48" fluorescent bulbs, and threw them and the family into the car. We drove over to the nearest high-voltage power line, and we watched the fireflies while we waited for full dark, and then we played light sabers in the gloaming.

ADDENDUM: Here's a guy who did an artistic installation of hundreds of fluorescent tubes under his local power line:

Better pictures here:



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Sunday, June 17, 2007

"Radio, live transmission..."

I have so much seniority that I'm now required to take off a day per month (...use/lose time). My eldest kid is done with school for the year; so, this being her First Day of Summer, we went for a Road Trip in the Miata, which ended up being an expedition up to the "new" digital TV transmitters.

(About two years ago the local broadcasters pooled their resources and put up One BIG Tower for their new digital tv signals.)

It's about a mile past the old tower farm (aka "Televisonland"), and then a further half-mile up a gravel road marked "TOWER #3 / PRIVATE ROAD".

There were two cars there; I got out to read the signage ("You are under video observation", for one) when an old engineer came out to see what we wanted. I gave him the Secret Lodge Sign, and he offered us the fifty-cent tour.

It's about the biggest transmitter shack you ever saw. They have TWO 1.2 megawatt diesel generators, and he claimed about a weeks' worth of fuel.

Each station has its own locked room, maybe 25 x 30'; so the whole complex must be 60' x 100'? Big. The tower is taller than the old analog towers, too. We did some handshaking, I dropped my father's credentials: it turns out that the guy (who never DID give me his name... odd, that) had done a summer at WPTR in '57, so he could name the Chief Engineer; which of course means that he was two steps from my father. Small world.

We stopped at the Tollgate for the traditional post-Pinnacle repast. I got to tell the young one the traditional tales of Guys I Know Who've Worked at Transmitter Shacks, the stories of Our People.

Now I have Ian Curtis in my head:

Radio, live transmission.
Radio, live transmission.

Listen to the silence, let it ring on.
Eyes, dark grey lenses frightened of the sun.
We would have a fine time living in the night,
Left to blind destruction,
Waiting for our sight.

And we would go on as though nothing was wrong.
And hide from these days we remained all alone.
Staying in the same place, just staying out the time.
Touching from a distance,
Further all the time.

(chorus: Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance, to the radio. &c.)

Well I could call out when the going gets tough.
The things that we've learnt are no longer enough.
No language, just sound, that's all we need know, to synchronise
love to the beat of the show.

And we could dance.

(chorus:) Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance, to the radio. (repeat.)

ADDENDUM: one of my radio pals found pictures of this:


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Friday, June 15, 2007

Beliefnet's 'Belief-o-matic' quiz


1. Secular Humanism (100%)
2. Unitarian Universalism (92%)
3. Nontheist (85%)
4. Liberal Quakers (76%)
5. Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants (69%)
6. Theravada Buddhism (65%)
7. Neo-Pagan (59%)
8. New Age (49%)
9. Taoism (48%)
10. Orthodox Quaker (46%)
11. Reform Judaism (46%)
12. Sikhism (46%)
13. Bahá'í Faith (38%)
14. Mahayana Buddhism (35%)
15. Scientology (35%)
16. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) (34%)
17. New Thought (34%)
18. Christian Science (Church of Christ, Scientist) (27%)
19. Mainline to Conservative Christian/Protestant (26%)
20. Seventh Day Adventist (25%)
21. Eastern Orthodox (22%)
22. Islam (22%)
23. Jainism (22%)
24. Orthodox Judaism (22%)
25. Roman Catholic (22%)
26. Hinduism (15%)
27. Jehovah's Witness (11%)

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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Today's 'Fun with Numbers': More on graduation rates

So, the rule-of-thumb is that about 1/4 of American adults are college graduates; and something like 20% are high-school dropouts. But the post-war boom in education has really transformed the attainments of the citizenry. (Case in point: the Iowa- class BBs were designed to be operated by sailors who possessed a third-grade education. The 1980s refit raised that a bit.)

Which leads us to some interesting boring questions:

1) What year did a majority of American adults have a HS education?

from the Stat Abstract, the ready-to-hand 2004-5 edition:
1960: 41.1% HS 7.7% college grad or more
1970: 52.3% HS 10.7% (note that Linda was part of the elite: the most educated 10%)

linear interpolate: add per yr: 1.12% and +0.3%;
which gives us a rough'n'ready answer of: About 1968.

Which might be an interesting coincidence: "1968" being, after all, The Year It Changed.

Ok, I'm interested enough in the answer to actually look it up in the 1970 Stat Ab:
1965: 49.0%
1966 na
1967 51.6%
1968 52.6%

The more robust, closer to 'real' answer: probably about 1966.

From this, we learn that the day I started college, I became part of the better-schooled half of the populace? Wow.

Further: today's citizenry is twice as educated as 1961??
(2003: 84.6% of adults have a HS diploma, vs. 1960: 41.1%)

A question for another day is the depreciation of the HS diploma:
my mother-in-law's Boston Latin dipoma from about 1940 probably certified more actual 'education' than most college degrees do today.

A second interesting boring question emerges:
2) In what year did the percentage of college grads exceed the number of HS
dropouts? (bringing the nominal average up past "HS diploma" level. Yes, yes, there's data on Associates degrees, and post-grad education tips the balance, too.
I could go look up DoE data on "average years completed", too. But this stat I'm thinking of is slightly different from the simple 'average'.)

College grads dropouts
1990 21.3% 22.4%
1995 23.0% 18.3%

linearly interpolating, we get
1991 = ~21.64% ~21.58%

Which is slightly interesting: the landscape changed the very year I started having kids.

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Bright college days

This weekend is my college 30th-reunion weekend, so my alma m has been dunning me with emails.

They sent me one bursting with pride about the Class of 'Ought Seven, 1131 strong. A minute's digging leads to the factoid that there were 1371 admitted: a completion rate of 82.5% . (Actually, commencement must have included some laggards from previous class years.)

Turns out 1) that college completion rates are actually lower than I thought; and 2)yes, elite private schools take the kids who are much more likely to graduate.

Overall, only 36.4% of students graduate on time: one in three. (Which rather cheers me up about taking so long to finish.) "1300 SATS and "A" average" kids have 68.9% completion rates; not surprisingly, kids who aren't such obvious college material are drastically less likely to finish.

I went to a college whether they actually did that thing that they do at the service academies - - at frosh orientation, we were told: "Shake hands with the guy on your left; shake hands with the guy on your right; one of the three of you won't make it to graduation".

Turns out that that's true overall. Hadn't really thought about it when I was 17.


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Saturday, June 02, 2007

Here's a cheerful thought

The guy in the news with XDR-TB is mostly being portrayed as an unthinking, selfish asshole.

But not only is his case a public health failure, it was yet another failure of Homeland Security.

He had been placed under a 'no-fly' order - and yet he got into the country anyway. Say it again: the 'no-fly' order did not protect us.

Still, by the time Mr. Speaker made his way to the United States border, an alert had been attached to his passport that warned customs agents to detain him. But the guard waved him through — a matter that is now under investigation.

Now, suppose AQ decides to deliberately infect people with, say, Ebola, and put them on planes headed for the US....

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