Crapped out

Weeeell...we gambled on the aurora display in Seattle and lost. But it was fun being spontaneous and taking a chance.

We arrived in Seattle after two good flights, right on time. We killed a couple of hours in the hotel and at dusk (630pm Pacific, 0030 UTC) we set out on a walk to see what we could see.

Our first stop was atop a WallyPark parking structure a couple of blocks away. My reasoning was to get as high as possible (elevation, not psychoactive) and above street lights with a good view North. The WallyPark was perfect. But we squinted into the not-quite-dark sky for about 30 minutes, got a bit chilled from the wind and the 40-ish degree temp, then decided to take a break and wait for full dark.

Our break was a tasty BBQ snack at Sharp's Roast House, right next door. (An unfortunate name. Given that we're in Seattle, I thought a roast house would be a coffee shop. Go figure.) Good BBQ, great atmosphere and a whiskey collection for the ages. This picture shows only one of several similar racks of hooch.

After our snack we returned to the roof of the WallyPark, stared North and possibly, maybe, saw a greenish glow right on the horizon. But it was very faint, so we decided to go to Plan B.

We walked back to the hotel and bribed (yes, really) the shuttle driver to take us to what he thought would be the best vantage point nearby – the light rail station at Angle Lake. We went to the top of both the light rail track and the adjacent parking structure, stared into the dark Northern void, but no aurora. Nada.

Somewhat disheartened, we trudged home to the hotel, walking about a mile through the cold suburban streets of Seatac. We changed our reservations to leave the next morning.

Looking back, I think I made one big mistake in our viewing plan. Every online resource says to avoid city light pollution. I ignored this advice, thinking that the skies would belit up brightly by the aurora. As I explored the actual measurements of light pollution, I found maps like this.

There we were in a sea of light pollution, looking north through the worst of it. Not surprising we couldn’t see the Northern Lights.

All in all, I’m glad we took the chance. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. We had an interesting weekend and learned a few things.

Impulse trip

I woke up this morning and read about the unusually strong Northern Lights to be seen this evening, if you’re in the right parts of the world. And the fact that the aurora will be visible as far south as Seattle and Portland. And that the kp index, a measure of the strength of the magnetic storm causing the aurora, will be especially high tonight – 7 out of a possible 10. Finally, I read about Seattle having weirdly clear skies for the next 36 hours.

After a few minutes thought, I woke K up and asked her if she wanted to go to Seattle. Her first answer was “What’s wrong?” Once she heard why I wanted to go, the answer was yes. So in two hours, we booked flights, got a hotel room, got ready and we took off for the airport in hope of seeing something special.

We’re now in Seattle, 5pm, and hoping for a natural physics show starting about 7pm. Pictures to follow.

What’s in a name?

Hahahahahaha….Facebook just changed its name to “Meta”. I bet Ron Artest, who changed his name to “Metta World Peace” back in 2011, will have a few things to say about that. At least he could blame the decision on drugs. I imagine the FBers charged with coming up with the new name spent millions and crowd tested the name.

Perhaps the brand had become so toxic they had to, but geez…taking a 100% recognizable worldwide brand and changing it to something inane like Meta? Smells like desperation.

Though really, anything they chose as the replacement name for Facebook was going to be mocked. Unless they chose 42.

Paradigm shift

I really like reading Casey Handmer’s blog about the state of space exploration. He goes pretty deep with details to justify his opinions. Today he’s written a long post, ostensibly about SpaceX’s Starship, but more accurately it’s a brutal indictment of NASA. It seems that NASA, Boeing and other “establishment” aerospace players can’t even admit that SpaceX, if successful with Starship, has changed the economics of orbital and deep space launch forever.

I really hope Handmer is right. If so, we’ll see at-scale trips to the Moon and back within my lifetime. Hell, within the next five years. Colonization becomes possible, even practical. This is a profound paradigm shift, as impactful as the invention of steam engines and automobiles. What wasn’t possible is now possible, even inevitable.

Musk can be a real jerk at times, but the combination of Tesla (cars), Tesla (energy), Starlink (satellites and broadband networks) and SpaceX (rocketry) still amaze me. How can one guy change the world through technology over and over?

Tesla and SpaceX being headquartered in TX, and the new space launch city being built on the TX Gulf coast, are the only good reasons I can think of to move to TX. (And Khraungbin. Can’t forget Khraungbin.) I missed all the Apollo and Shuttle launches, but I now have a chance to go see a Starship launch.

A second helping of Dune

Well, I took the late afternoon and went to see Dune on the big screen. IMAX. Couldn’t talk K into going, even with the amazing promise of spending 3 hours with me in a dark, extremely loud room. Go figure.

And…I’m still disappointed. The movie was better on the big screen, but it was still long and plodding. It was still monotone and way too dark (the lighting, not the mood); still looked a lot like it was shot through gauze. I liked Chalamet a tiny bit better on the big screen, but still…foppish. I could hear Lady Jessica’s lines for the first time, but the idea of a weak, almost-always-crying Bene Gesserit is just wrong.

So I’m glad I gave it a try, but at this point I’m not a fan of the 2021 Dune movie. It’s a long, extended, beautiful shot of a desert, with a few decent battle scenes and hellacious special effects. And an absolutely overwhelming musical score (thanks, Hans). I sure hope The Wheel of Time fares better.

Facebook = bad

The recent dump of internal documents from Facebook, accompanied by whistleblowers, has made it obvious to anyone listening that Facebook promotes conflict. Is a strong force for dividing the nation(s). Wired has a nice, objective summary of the findings, including some good data showing that Facebook had to know that its platform promoted conflict, anger and divisive speech. The metrics make that clear.

That was all pretty obvious to me in 2016 when pre-election chatter drove a wedge between some of my family members. We pretty much “lost” an aunt and uncle in that foray, and that’s when I deleted my account and data from Facebook. It had been good to keep in touch with certain family members and high school friends, but the downside price is/was too high.

Facebook was always a toxic mix of ads, creepy connectedness and algorithmic amplification of emotion, particularly negative emotion. It finally caught up with them.

It didn’t have to be that way. Facebook’s algorithms could have been weighted toward privacy, respect, ethical speech and collaboration. I wonder who made the calls over time that led them to build such a dark platform?

Gravity and time

This announcement was really exciting for me. Scientists now have proof that Einstein’s time dilation effect works at the quantum level, not just in macroscopic space. Even better, it’s time dilation due to gravity, not velocity.

Everyone (OK, lots of people) is/are familiar with the concept that if I travel at lightspeed for a few years of my subjective time and return home, thousands of years may have passed at home. That’s been a science fiction staple since the 60s. But fewer people are aware that Einstein’s general theory of relativity also predicts that time passes differently in gravity wells due to the warping of space-time. The larger the gravity differential in frames of reference, the larger the time delta. The example the Quanta article uses, that living on the top of Everest will make you age a tiny bit faster than living at sea level is a good one. Time moves more slowly at the bottom of a gravity well.

This was a big part of the story in the movie Interstellar (one of my top 10 movies ever), when part of the crew traveled to a planet with intense gravity due to its proximity to a black hole, and the hours or so they spent there meant that their crew mate who stayed on the ship had aged 30 years when they returned. (They didn’t really model the gravity very well in the film; it would have smashed them like a bug…so some hand-waving was involved.)

But back to reality. The method used to measure gravity’s effect on quantum processes was ingenious. They used a laser to excite a tiny cloud of strontium atoms, so that their electrons would change quantum states predictably. By measuring the frequency (time) of each state change at the top and bottom of the cloud, they could see and measure the effects of gravitic time dilation.

The mysterious nature of gravity and its role in how the universe works is one of my favorite subjects. It’s great to see a little of the mystery peeled back.

Jack’s solar garden

Wow, I love this idea. Agrivoltaics. Why isn’t this being started everywhere? This gives struggling farmers a new income stream, plus takes electricity cost out of his P&L. And the plants grow well.

Would be perfect for my little Fallbrook town, once very farm-intensive but now with a lot of cleared, fallow land available. And about 350 days of sunshine each year. The electricity can power pumps for wells, which solves most of the water problem.

All this, and new word to boot: agrivoltaics.

Dune, some spoilers

So we saw Dune two nights ago, via HBOmax. I’ve been mulling it over, but my major reaction is…disappointed. The media is full of reviewers gushing over the movie, but I can’t agree. And I’m the biggest Dune fan you can imagine. During the movie I stopped occasionally to explain to K what was happening and the context – it was amazing how all the details came back to me so easily. But back to why I was disappointed.

First, I really disliked Timothee Chalamet cast as Paul. Not entirely sure why, but for me he wasn’t believable as a fierce fighter and the eventual ruler of the universe. Too foppish.

Next, there was something about the cinematography that was off. Everything appeared to be filmed through gauze. I get it that Arrakis (Dune) is a world of brown sand, but…come on. Give us some color.

I had a very hard time hearing Lady Jessica’s voice – her lines – over the dominating sound track. I may have to go back and watch it with closed captioning on. As for the sound track – Hans Zimmer is great, but I could’ve used a little less mood music.

And the pacing…they told less than one half of the first book’s story in a two and a half hour movie. I love the story, but this was slow. And stopping the movie right in the middle of the story left those who don’t know the story with a big “so what” moment. That’s the end? Denis Villeneuve may get a decade-long franchise out of this, but I still think cutting the movie off there was a mistake.

Zendaya as Chani had about two lines in the whole damn film. Same for Dave Bautista as Beast Rabban. I thought they were both decent choices for those roles, but zero character development or screen time for them. What a waste.

There were some good points. I loved the scale of the interstellar ships, and the representation of tech in general was solid. Oscar Isaac was a great choice for Duke Leto, and same for Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck. And Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho stole every scene he was in.

But on balance, it just wasn’t the movie I had hoped for. I think I’ll take an afternoon soon and go see it in Imax- perhaps that will make the difference.

Middle ground

I’ve had something on my mind for a while, and it’s time to put my thoughts on paper screen. Vaccine mandates. They are yet another divisive issue in America, and for good reason – it’s complicated. Here’s my take.

Pro mandate points:

  • To stop a pandemic, the best possible tool is to get everyone vaccinated. Full stop. A virus needs a susceptible host population to infect and mutate among, and if there’s no one left to infect due to vaccinated or natural immunity, the virus dies out.
  • You get vaccinated not just for yourself, but for everyone else. It’s for the greater good.
  • Vaccines have improved modern life immeasurably, removing polio, measles, mumps, malaria and many other crippling diseases from our lives. The science works.
  • There are many jobs that require the extra protection of employees being vaccinated, from a risk management point of view. An employer of health care providers, nursing home staff, and teachers all have perfectly logical reasons to insist that their employees not spread a disease among the more vulnerable clients (people) in their care.

Con-mandate point of view:

  • Consistent with my position on abortion, in a free society I and only I get to decide what happens to my body. My agency over the bag of meat that supports my brain is absolute.
  • In general, government powers should be restricted. Government overreach *is* a problem, and allowing federal, state or local governments control over the citizen’s body seems a very bad idea.

So…two compelling arguments. It’s definitely a debate worth having. And the middle ground isn’t obvious. But after thinking it through, I’ve found a middle ground position that makes sense to me.

My position can be summed up in two succinct points:

  1. My body my choice. The government cannot force me to ingest something I don’t want to.
  2. I’m OK with employer mandates, but not government mandates. Getting a job with another employer is a choice I can make if I don’t want to be vaccinated. Or subjecting myself to regular testing protocols. But leaving the country or becoming a criminal if I say no isn’t a real choice. So for an employer vaccine mandate (requirement of employment), the employer’s risk management need is satisfied, and the employee’s right to choose is satisfied.

This logic works for me. I wish more people could agree and stop demonizing each other about it.

I’m not a zombie

This may be the most interesting subject in the world: consciousness. Something we all experience (at least, I think everyone else is conscious), something that defines us, something that can’t be seen or measured. Something that completely eludes science (so far). The “Hard Problem” indeed.

About the only thing we (sort of) know about consciousness is that it’s associated with the brain. Cut off a hand, it hurts, but you’re still you. But damage the brain sufficiently, and you’re gone. People like to talk about having a soul, and even as an irreligious agnostic I have no argument with that. “Soul” is just another word for “consciousness”.

Kudos to The Guardian for publishing such a thoughtful piece. There’s a book or two in there somewhere.