Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Road Trip

Well, I'll be on the road for the long 4th of July weekend (I'm taking Monday off to make it a 4-day break), heading for South Carolina to reacquaint myself with my once-and-future hobby of sport rocketry, and to visit with my best buddy, who runs a small rocket kit company (Aerospace Speciality Products). We'll be attending SCIPower 2006, a 3-day event combining high-power sport rocketry and experimental rocketry (the distinction is, loosely speaking, whether you buy manufactured rocket motors or make your own). Notwithstanding the date, sport rockets are not fireworks, and this weekend will not be about wild-eyed pyros. Hobby rocketry is a well organized hobby, and launches are conducted under the rules (including strict safety codes) of two national organizations: the Tripoli Rocketry Association (which is sanctioning SCIPower) or the National Association of Rocketry.

In the last couple days, I've been seeing stories about the 50th anniversary of the interstate highways, and about how they've changed the country. Naturally, with my road trip coming up, I've been thinking about highways myself (today, I've been thinking about whether my route, which passes through Pennsylvania, will be open and dry). While all the commentary correctly praises the scope and vision of the interstate highway project, much of it bemoans the sameness of interstates and their disconnectedness from the country the pass through. This notion is not new: In 1983, author William Least Heat-Moon published Blue Highways, a paean to all the homey, intimate roads that were not interstates.

Well, I must raise my voice in dissent: It's certainly true that driving on the interstates is a different experience from poking around the back roads... but it's an experience that has its own rhythm and seductive charms. I've always loved long-distance driving (sometimes I'm surprised I didn't end up a trucker)... traveling huge distances at once, as if striding across the land in ten-league boots, and watching the landscape transmute before my very eyes. I find it exhilarating, enthralling... not at all the sterile, utilitarian pursuit the critics claim.

Then again, there's the fact that the interstate highway project is a great example of how well government can do things, big things, despite the conventional wisdom that government is inherently incompetent and inefficient. I think I have a longer riff on that subject in me, but it'll have to wait: I have a date with the open road in a little more than a day, and I have maps to read and coolers to pack, and "miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep."

Unit of the Day: The Walrus and the Carpenter might have made a more scientific estimate of whether seven maids with seven mops could sweep a beach clean if they'd known about the phi unit, a logarithmic unit used to measure grain sizes for sand (and grit and gravel, as well). Starting at 0=1 millimeter grain size, each step on the phi number scale corresponds to a factor of 1/2 in grain size. Thus, 1 phi unit = 0.5 mm; 2 phi units = 0.25 mm; etc. In the opposite direction, -1 phi unit = 2 mm; -2 phi units = 4 mm; etc.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Smoking... The Old Global Warming?

There's a new Surgeon General's report out about the effects of secondhand smoke, and there's -- as is so often the case -- good news and bad news.

The bad news is that the health risks of secondhand smoke are even more profound than previously thought. There is no risk-free level of exposure, and children and people in poor health are especially at risk. Not only that, but 126 million of us are still exposed to secondhand smoke, despite the growing number of states and cities that fairly comprehensively ban smoking in public places and workplaces.

The good news is that there are all those states and localities that have acted to curb exposure, and there is, according to this report, little evidence that sweeping bans in places like Boston and New York have produced the economic damage to the hospitality industry that critics had feared.

But there's more good news, and it's related to another (you should pardon the expression) burning issue of the day: Nobody's trying to quash this report. As Matthew Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids puts it, "There is no longer a scientific controversy that secondhand smoke is a killer." Unlike with global warming, the Bush administration is not trying to silence or suppress this science; instead, the Government itself is the author of this report.

Last week my wife and I went to see An Inconvenient Truth, the Al Gore documentary about global warming. It's an important film with a vital message (and it's also very entertaining; Gore's rep as a boring guy is undeserved), essentially a film treatment of Gore's dynamic and shocking climate change "slide show" (actually a very well done, high-tech presentation). Interspersed with the presentation are vignettes of Gore's life, focusing on the events that shaped his awareness of, and passion for, the issue of global climate change. One such event was the death of Gore's sister from lung cancer, after a lifetime of smoking. The Gore family had been tobacco farmers, and this loss opened their eyes; they were out of the tobacco business within a year.

Unfortunately, the tobacco industry at large wasn't quite as ready as the Gores to recognize their own state of denial. In ways eerily similar to the current climate change discussion, tobacco companies denied the clear scientific consensus on the dangers of smoking, and promoted the idea of scientific "controversy" where none actually existed. Sound familiar?

It took the good offices of federally funded researchers and the Surgeon General, along with the muscle of dozens of state attorneys general, to beat back challenges to smoking science; the really bad news is, this time around, with global warming, the Government is fighting against the science, not for it. Just ask James Hansen (or George Deutsch, if you can find him). The even worse news is that once the shackles were off, scientific research into the health effects of smoking (including this new report on secondhand smoke) showed us things were far worse than we had imagined. If the same thing happens when we win the fight (as we must) to free global climate change science, we're sunk.

Or at least, those of us within 20 feet of sea-level are. Think about it. Think hard.

Unit of the Day: The mgon is not a Klingon word; it's used to measure very small angles. The symbol for milligon, 1 mgon = 10-3 gon (gee, that's helpful, right?). The gon is another name for the grad, a measure equal to 0.01 right angle, or 0.9 degrees. Thus, the mgon = 0.0009 degrees, or 3.24 seconds of arc. Surveyors' instruments are often marked in mgons, but you're unlikely to see it on your kid's protractor.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Flotsam and Jetsam

No big theme today, just random thoughts to get me back on the blogging "horse":
  • The Vernon budget referendum failed again Tuesday, and I was sincerely bummed. But yesterday I went a picnic thrown by the Vernon Democratic Town Committee (the website is under construction), and attended by the mayor and several Democrats from the Town Council, and I ended up feeling hopeful. We face frustrating opposition fed by the culture of selfishness the national Republican Party fosters, but it's good to know that some people in town are committed to fighting back. In addition, a representative of Joe Courtney's campaign was there, and he had encouraging information about the fight to replace Republican Rob Simmons in the Congress.
  • The Reminder, a weekly community/shopper newspaper, finally printed its story on the citizens' budget forum, quoting both me and Mara... but the article didn't appear 'til the day of the next referendum vote, so it can't have had much impact on the outcome.
  • Steven Berlin Johnson told us that Everything Bad Is Good For You, but who knew that included porn?
  • This afternoon we learned that Joe Lieberman will be visiting Pratt & Whitney tomorrow, and he's going to be in our area. Sadly, I'm afraid it would be a career-limiting move to wear my Ned Lamont button.
  • Hey, I like hot girls on skates as well as the next guy, but do we really need a resurgence of roller derby?
  • Finally, one of my fondest culinary fantasies was destroyed last week when, while participating in a comments thread on Pharyngula, I learned that giant squid is inedible. I'd been dreaming of fried calamari rings the size of hula hoops!
Unit of the Day: The microflick has nothing to do with how you get a tiny piece of schmutz off your fingers; instead, it's a unit of spectral radiance used in optical and communications engineering. It's equal to 10-6 flick (what else, eh?). Radiance is the power radiated per unit solid angle per unit of emitting surface. To measure radiance's variation with wavelength, spectral radiance is defined as the radiance per unit of wavelength span. In practice, spectral radiance is typically in microflicks, which are mathematically equivalent to 10 milliwatts per steradian per cubic meter. Now try to work that into a conversation!

Saturday, June 10, 2006

We're Famous!

Just a quickie tonight. Thursday night we attended the town budget meeting I mentioned in Wednesday's entry, and we seem to have made the papers. My daughter is quoted in this Hartford Courant article, and my own comments are mentioned toward the end of the article in the other local paper, the Journal Inquirer. A third paper, the weekly community/shopper Reminder, also had a reporter at the meeting, but we haven't seen that story yet. Sadly, none of the reporters seems to have taken pictures of us with our posters!

ATalbot was at the meeting too, fresh from the gubernatorial debate at Rockville High and dressed in full Ned Lamont for U.S. Senate regalia, and he spoke passionately in support of the education budget, which supports his attendance at the Connecticut International Baccalaureate Academy in East Hartford. He and Mara were the only students who spoke, and I was very proud of them both.

No Unit of the Day today; it's late.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

What I Did On My Spring Vacation

Well, I may not have been writing in my own blog much recently, but I have been writing on other folks'... at least in the comments sections:
  • I actually got a "letter" published at's Altercation blog here (scroll down to Correspondence Corner), in response to this piece by regular Altercation contributor LTC Bob Bateman.
  • I've been contributing to several comments threads at Pharyngula, including this one on whether the 2000 and/or 2004 election was stolen (my first comment here); this one on the disappearing chemistry set (me here); this one on the "Motie" baby born in China (me here); and, most recently, this one on George Will's prudishness about AIDS (me here).
  • I've commented in a couple places (esp. at HobbySpace, here) about X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis winning the Heinlein Prize, and about his evocation of Robert Heinlein's The Man Who Sold the Moon as an influence in his space-related entrepreneurship.
Now that I'm back in business here, of course, I'll try to save some of these pearls of wisdom for y'all... but I encourage you to check out the blogs I link to (more coming soon); they, and their commenting communities, never fail to amuse and enlighten.

Unit of the Day: The perch, introduced in the 12th century by the Norman conquerors, is an alternate name for the rod (16.5 feet or 5.0292 meters) of England. Amusingly enough, the same term also denotes both a unit of area (equal to a square perch!) and one of volume (of masonry, a stone wall one perch long by 18 inches high by 12 inches thick). Perch also serves as a traditional unit of distance in Ireland, and (as an alternate spelling of perche) a unit of both distance and area in French North America. Or it might just be a fish President Bush claimed to have caught!

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Self Flagellation

OK, it isn’t only the crazed albino monk from The DaVinci Code who occasionally needs to scourge himself to atone for his sins. I have some sins of my own to address, sins of omission and neglect:

First, this blog. Not that I think my pearls of wisdom represent any particular gift to the world, but opening this spot and inviting you all to read it represents a commitment, and it’s one I’ve failed to honor. If there are still any of you out there, please forgive me. If you’ve just joined (or rejoined) this merry ride, I promise to be more diligent in the future: At least 3 posts per week, without fail. Really. I promise.

But the real sin is something bigger: Yesterday, my town voted down its budget referendum... for the second time, and I helped let it happen through my complacency and inaction!

From the mayor's original budget through this second referendum, over three quarters of a million dollars have already been cut, including over $370,000 from the capital improvements budget and over $330,000 from the education budget. And now, with this second rejection, more cuts will be forthcoming. There's speculation that freshman athletics at Rockville High School will have to go, and an anti-tax group is seriously suggesting that the high school delete AP classes and replace full-time teachers with part-timers.

Based on the press reports, even the Republican town council members seem frustrated with the obstinate electorate, wondering how it will be possible to satisfy anti-tax voters without resorting to even more draconian cuts than the potentially crippling reductions they've already approved... but those Republicans should look in the mirror. Tip O'Neill famously declared that "all politics is local," but sometimes all local politics is national, too: Since the days of Reagan, Republican leaders and their allies in the punditocracy have been preaching the gospel of endless tax cuts and total disrespect for the value of government. Now local Republican officials are reaping what their national leaders have sown: Their constituents will not vote for even the most modest additional taxation, no matter how badly it's needed or how essential the services it would fund.

My personal sin is that I've stood by and watched it happen. When my family moved to Connecticut almost 6 years ago, I was very pleased to note that my new neighbors seemed so much more willing to invest in schools and local services than my former neighbors in Florida had been. Vernon was a great place to live: Affordable home ownership, very good public schools, timely and efficient town services (I didn't know how important snow plowing and leaf removal could be before I moved here!), a great parks and recreation system... basically lots to be proud of. Gradually, though, it started to get harder to pass a budget... not only for Vernon, but for other similar towns in the Hartford area (and probably throughout Connecticut, for all I know). Each year the upcoming budget referendum was greated by a growing crop of anti-budget yard signs, expressing not reasoned criticism of the budget proposal itself, but only an uncritical no-new-taxes message: What's in Your Wallet? Vote No!; Are You Broke? Vote No!; and on and on. Each year I fumed at the reactionary selfishness of this position, at the foolishness of people who refused to see the value we were getting for our money. I fumed... but I did nothing. After each of the last two annual budget fights, I swore to myself that next year I'd get involved... and then each year budget season came before I realized and I ended up just fuming again.

No more! Tomorrow my wife and teenage daughter and I will attend the scheduled meeting to help draft this year's third attempt at a budget. We'll be there with posters and passion, and I, at least, will be there ready to speak out in advocacy for responsible budgets and the value of community. And next year I'll be at the first budget meeting, and I'll put out my own signs and organize my own advocacy group. I might not end up changing much, but I damn sure won't be sitting on the sidelines griping about other people.

It's presumptuous of me to say so, because I've neglected my duties in this area for so long, but I urge all of you to do the same. Let your town council, your school board, your state representatives, your congressmen and senators know that you want good government, that you value the shared community work that functional government represents, and that you're willing to pay your fair share to achieve those goals. And even more important than telling your elected representatives, tell your neighbors. It's not enough, I now realize, just to vote; you must speak out, and influence the voters around you!

Unit of the Day: Geeks among you probably already know that tera- is a metric prefix meaning 1012, or one trillion, as in teraflops (trillion floating point operations per second) or terabytes, but you may not know that it was derived from the Greek word for monster, teras. (Our words terrible and terrific have this same root.) The three prefixes mega-, giga-, and tera- thus mean something like huge, gigantic, and monstrous. (Adapted, as always, from How Many?)