Picture(s) of the Week

Many thanks to the kind words left in the comments section of the last Picture of the Week, as well as the kind emails people have sent (you know who you are, and I appreciate it). I would BARELY consider myself an amateur astronomer, as there are still truckloads of ignorance I carry with me onto the field. At best, I'm an armchair amateur astronomer. I have a decent scope (8" reflector), a decent camera, and I have a rough idea where to point these instruments. I'm trying to show people just how much you can do with very little in the way of gear, and just a little (very little) practice.

I went out last night, and snagged this picture. Enjoy.

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I was browsing old bookmarks tonight when I stumbled upon "another" face on Mars image. Here is the original, taken by the Mars Global Surveyor (sorry, but the site doesn't provide any more information as to where/when it was taken):

Can you see it? I jumped out at me as being WAY cooler than the lame-o one that Richard Hoagland has been screaming about for years. At least the face that I found is in three-dimensions, and portrays a masculine jaw, powerful neck, cheekbones and more! Here is the image zoomed in:

Pareidolia can be fun, just so long as you recognize it as what it is: an illusion, caused by a brain that instinctively seeks out patterns whether they're there or not.

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This is not a skeptical entry in anyway, so forgive my ramblings.

Regular observers of this blog might have noticed that I haven't been updating here very much these past few weeks. There is a reason for this. A very lame reason.

I have a confession to make:
I am a slave to my new technology. Specifically, my 32" LCD HDtv, and the PS3 which plays not only a game I had been waiting for for 3 years to come out (Metal Gear 4), but also blu-ray discs.

I'm not paying for high-def TV, so all of my HD is experienced on blu-ray, and I sheepishly admit that I have very quickly become a blu-ray snob.

I recall back to my college days (the late 90's), and my resistance to DVD technology. Having had developed a respectable film library on VHS, I thought that DVD was simply an uneccessary frivolity for people with more money than brains (I was 19, and therefore a total pride-filled prick). Then I learned about "deleated scenes". It sounded intruiging. "Director and cast commentary"? Wow. I jumped on board on Sept 22, 2001, buying my first DVD player (which has lasted up until just a month ago!), and the movie "Snatch" and I was instantly hooked. I became a DVD snob overnight, and there was nothing anyone could to do to turn me back over to VHS. Hell, you might as well have asked me to cut a hole in my car and push it with my feet a'la Flintstones.

I later watched with bemused detachment as the Blu-ray/HD-DVD war raged on for a few years, acting like I was above the fray while those foolish peons spent their money on a format which may collapse. I thought that even if they picked the right format, the most they can get out of the new technology is a better picture.

Well la-tee-freaking-da! "No thanks" thought I. I could patiently wait out the format war, and it would also be no problem to wait several YEARS until the prices came down.

Yeah. I didn't. I bought a big hdtv. That same week, my loyal DVD player broke down and I decided to scale up while I was out looking for a new player. A PS3 plays games I want to play anyway, as well as all my DVD's and Blu-ray discs (which had won the format war, as we all know now).

Well Holy Moses, smell the roses! What a difference a blu-ray makes! I have a modest collection of movies, some new films (Which look amazing because they were shot with HD in mind), some classic films (The Godfather looks especially incredible, revealing previously unseen details), and the Discovery Chanel's documentary, "When we left Earth" (which was shot with high definition cameras, revealing every liver-spot, wrinkle and shaving knick of the various astronauts being interviewed).

It isn't just the blu-ray player that adds definition, as even my DVD's are showing a lot more detail than my old analog television. Back to the Future, Lord of the Rings, Cosmos, and Firefly all had a lot more detail in those dvd's than I had imagined, all revealed by the LCD.

If you have the money to burn, which I understand is in short supply these days, you WILL see an incredible difference in the now-hypnotic picture. Oh yeah, make sure you buy and HDMI cable. They're expensive, but they're necessary.

So that's what's been occupying a lot of my otherwise skeptical time. Bullshit-guy-watching-his-new-tv-too-much. Pathetic, huh?

Well, say what you want. At least I didn't put Aliens at the centre of an Indiana Jones movie.

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Picture(s) of the week

I had been purposfully holding off on the Picture of the Week bit of this blog, because I wanted to make the pictures exclusivley my own (since finding "Skeptical-themed" pictures on a weekly basis turned out to be more difficult than anticipated).

I recently bought some real high-grade astro-photography gear (not the absolute highest....I'm not shelling out $12,000 after all), and last night I went to a really dark sky, and took the following pictures.

I hope you enjoy viewing them a lot more than I enjoyed taking them. Which shouldn't be hard because it was below freezing last night.

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Stargazer Steve is a weekly column for The Arthur
Stargazer Steve
It’s Astronomy, not Astrology!

Astronomy may well be the oldest profession in the world (no matter how many other jobs lay claim to that title). Ancient farmers needed to know when to plant and when to harvest, and the appearance of a constellation in the sky was as good as marking your calendar. Indeed, in that ancient time, the stars truly did affect human lives, such as the ability to feed and maintain those lives. This evolved into a reverence of the stars, then into worshiping the stars. Before long came the idea that the stars are there just for us, and it is this human-centered worldview that astrology taps into. Astrology is the idea that the motions of the planets, stars and other celestial objects have specific influences on our daily lives. I’m a Taurus, because the sun was supposed to have risen in the constellation Taurus on my birthday. Therefore, the motion of the planet Venus (for some reason) also determines what will happen to my personality, income, love life, health etc… Extreme egotism aside, let’s look into astrology for a moment.

In the early 19th century, astronomers had long been puzzled by the strange orbit of Uranus. English astronomer John Couch Adams and French astronomer Urbain Le Verrier had devised mathematical models that predicted an 8th planet in the solar system, tugging on the orbit of Uranus. Once it was discovered, it was eventually given the name Neptune, after the Roman god of the sea. It should be noted that before the discovery of Neptune, astrologers around the world had not assigned any traits to be attributed to the planet, for the obvious reason that no one had any idea it was there. Not surprisingly, after the discovery of Neptune, astrologers quickly assigned traits to it.

Several decades later, other astronomers were still wrestling with explaining the incredibly elliptical orbit of Mercury. Once again, several astronomers had devised mathematical models that predicted an extra planet to be there, this time between Mercury and Venus, which perfectly (mathematically) explained the strange orbit. So certain were the astronomers, that they even gave this planet a name: Vulcan. Some amateur astronomers even reported seeing Vulcan transiting in front of the sun (we now know that they were likely seeing sunspots). Not to be left off the bandwagon again, astrologers quickly began assigning personality traits attributable to those born under the influence of Vulcan. Decades later, Einstein’s theory of General Relativity came along, and perfectly explained the weird orbit of Mercury, without the need of a hidden planet. Some astrologers tried to bury the Vulcan fiasco under the rug, while others held on like grim death, some as late as Linda Goodman’s 1968 tome of astrological pseudo-science, “Sun Signs”.

As I mentioned, I’m a Taurus. This is because on my birthday, May 6th (buy your presents now!), the sun rose in the Taurus constellation. Or did it? You see, the sun did indeed rise in Taurus on May 6th …two thousand years ago when the Babylonians made all this stuff up. But what astrologers have failed to account for is a little thing called ‘precession’. The axis of the Earth wobbles like a top, completing a 23.5 degree rotation every 26,000 years. This means that the position of the stars in the sky changes very slightly even from one night to the next, and two thousand years ago, the sun rose in different positions at different times than it does now. In actuality, on my birthday the sun rose not in Taurus, but in Gemini. And everyone who reads this who thinks that they are a certain sign, are actually in the sign that comes after. But astrologers don’t seem to care, and would rather I just shut up and take it. Like a Taurus.

Want to test astrology? I’ll tell you how. Take any set of horoscopes you want: you can grab them from scrolls, newspapers, or even the priciest books. Find a nice friend who will put up with this. Randomize and blind the readings so that your patient friend will hear the readings, but not know which sign is assigned to the readings. If you want to make it even more scientifically sound, you can double-blind the test and get someone else to randomize, and another to hide the signs with their matching readings before they give it to you. Double-blinded studies rock. Then, get a friend (preferably, but not necessarily one without an intimate knowledge of astrology), or several, to read the readings, and pick out which one best suits them. If they get it right, great! Have them do it again the next day. If astrology is all it’s cracked up as it says, your patient friend should get it right every single time. However, if they get it wrong, eliminate their choice, and have them pick again. Continue this until they get it right, or feel sheepish for ever believing this nonsense in the first place (if they did), then buy them lunch to make up for being such a tool…a fully-justified, skeptical, prudent tool.

Astrology doesn’t work. Astrology can’t work. Centuries of testing with the most mundane requisites of proof show that astrology doesn’t deliver what it says it can. While it may be a harmless little distraction for some, remember that people in positions of real power dictate their lives, and our lives based on what their horoscope says. Companies, employers, and government officials have all fallen under the sway of astrology. Even Nancy Reagan used to arrange her husbands meeting schedule with heads of state and business based on what an in-house astrologer told her. This is serious business, both literal and figurative. We live in an age of incredible discovery founded on 400+ years of inquiry and scientific method. Are we really so willing to abandon the incredibly wondrous and far more beautiful findings of science just so we can comfort our selves with a 2000 year-old brand of mysticism that encourages us to not only treat science with hostility, but to harbour the idea that the entirety of the cosmos are here for our benefit?

For me, I’ll go to my telescope, view a nebula or a galaxy, and continue to learn all I can about these objects, rather than try to figure out ways that I can tell people how those objects 2 million-light-years away are all about me.

Special thanks to the Bill Nye video in yesterday's clip, and to Phil Plait and his new book, "Death From the Skies"

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Astrology pisses me off. Not only does it fall apart under it's own arbitrary rules, but it truly is dangerous. No, it's not as dangerous as vaccine denial or virtually anything coming out of the so-called 'complimentary and alternative medicine' (or CAM) community. And yes, a lot of people just passively look at their horoscopes at the end of the paper and forget about it.

But it doesn't end there. Companies and employers make real business decisions that affect economies and people's lives based on the idea that celestial objects have specific meaning for our lives. Nancy Reagan was big into this clap-trap and she would even schedule her husband's meetings with government officials, foreign and domestic, based on the motions of the planets and stars. I'll repeat that: the leader of the free world (during the Cold War!) adjusted his schedule based on what astrology told him.

This is serious anti-science, and it falls apart under even the slightest of scruitiny. For some really useful information on this, go to Phil's page on the subject.

Or, if you're in a rush, this video is less than a minute and a half, and nicely sums it up.

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About time, Steve

A while back, Pharyngula posted this. I meant to post it as well. I didn't. Then Bad Astronomy, then Skeptigirl and others posted it as well. It's about time I threw my hat in the ring.

It's a long-overdue site called Stop Jenny McCarthy. Great kudos to the folks that put this site together. I (and many others) have written about this irresponsible fraud before, so just click here to find a helpfull article which links to more and better helpful articles describing her anti-vax proclivities. Quite frankly, I'm too tired to (lather, rinse) repeat what the scientific community has been saying about the de-bunked autism/vaccine link. I won't stop fighting, but enough with the history lessons.

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CDK007 has some really cool, informative videos on sciencey-related topics (especially Evolution, which I cannot recomend higher). Recently, some creationists got pissed off by this video, and had youtube remove it. Check it out, and send a message to creationists that free-speech cannot be censored.

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Venus Envy

Stargazer Steve is a weekly astronomy column for The Arthur

Stargazer Steve:
Venus Envy
We’ll continue our tour of the Solar System with Earth’s near-twin and closest neighbour: Venus.

Venus got its name because of its apparent beauty. Firstly, because of Venus’s position between the sun and Earth, it has phases visible (barely) from Earth, just like the moon. Secondly, it has a thick veil of clouds, which, in concert with its nearness to Earth, also helps make it highly visible (those clouds have a high albedo, which basically means that they are highly reflective). After the moon, it’s the brightest object in the night sky by far, shining at up to -4.7 magnitude (to help put that in perspective, the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius shines at -1.7, and the moon shines at anywhere between -2.7 at thinnest crescent and -12.74 at full)!

But the beauty ends there, as Venus seems custom-made to be as deadly a place to visit as can be conceived. From the pressure, temperature, and poisonous gas, Venus has yet more tricks up its sleeve that would prevent life from not only developing on it, but it seems stubbornly determined to remain as hostile as possible to visitors, so that if that ball lands in Venus’ yard, it’s keeping it. Then destroying it. Like a jerk.

Firstly, there’s the pressure, all 90 atmospheres of it. On Earth, for every 10 metres you travel under water, you gain 1 atmosphere of pressure; therefore you’d have to scuba-dive nearly a full kilometre underwater to approach the surface-pressure of the atmosphere on Venus, so you can imagine the difficulty in landing probes there. The Soviets had an amazing Venus exploration program where they sent missions there year after year after year, slowly getting a little closer to the surface each time. Venera 4 in 1967 entered the atmosphere, deployed its parachutes fell for 93 minutes! In that time, the various forces working against the probe descended upon and it was crushed by the pressure, before even landing. Later missions had increasingly smaller and smaller parachutes, and eventually, the Soviets landed a probe. Venera 13 landed on the surface in 1982 and transmitted pictures. These pictures showed that there were rocks that had clear signs of weathering, indicating that cloud activity wasn’t just limited to the upper-levels, and that storms do occur close to the ground as well. The probe survived for 127 minutes and probably still sits there to this day, most likely a heaping, crushed and semi-melted pile of metals.

Secondly, there is the temperature. At a surface temperature of around 462 degrees-Celsius, it’s the hottest object in the solar system (after the sun, of course). Its extreme kiln-like surface temperature is due partly to its close proximity to the sun, but mostly to a green-house effect gone wild. 94% carbon dioxide (CO2) and trace amounts of nitrogen, sulfur-dioxide and water-vapor all swirl about the atmosphere, locking in nearly all the sun’s heat. The hotter it gets, the worse it gets. For example: most people are surprised to learn that water vapor is a greenhouse gas, but it is. Venus probably used to have water oceans, but they were boiled away a long time ago, and there’s no going back. When water evaporates on earth, it harmlessly re-condenses and falls back to the surface. On Venus, the problem is that that its perilously-thin magnetic field means that lots of ultra-violet (UV) radiation can get to the planet (and unable to escape because of the greenhouse effect). UV radiation breaks apart water molecules. So instead of having a nice molecule of H2O, you have H2, and a lone O. H2 is a really light molecule and it tends to zip about the atmosphere, colliding with other H2 molecules. These collisions can accelerate the motion of the molecules, and eventually they will speed up so much that they’ll just leave the planet altogether. The water that used to be liquid and gas, has been destroyed forever when the H2 molecule decided that Venus was a terribly unfriendly place to live, opting instead for the blackness of space, where it could be left alone and enjoy a nice retirement.

Venus is a fine example of a greenhouse effect left unchecked. The Earth has only trace amounts of CO2 in its atmosphere and we feel its increases in dramatic ways. CO2 is a planet-killer, need proof? Look at Venus. CO2 is able to pile up in such huge quantities on Venus because, unlike Earth, Venus has no way to sequester carbon. On Earth, our oceans and tectonic activity help to lock away our carbon in rocks and petroleum. Venus has no such activity, so when volcanoes spew their goo, the carbon stays where it lay, until it gets swept into the atmosphere.

Thirdly, there is the poison. On Earth, it rains water. On Venus, it rains sulfuric acid. So...yeah. Wear a raincoat. A terribly thick one should do nicely.

Fourthly, the planet’s surface is actually quite young, compared to other planets. On Earth, our oceans act like a lubricant to allow the continental plates to move about. This movement releases heat from the core, and (mostly) everyone is perfectly happy with the odd earthquake here and there. Venus, as mentioned, has lost all its water supply. This means no tectonic motion, leaving Venus with no way to release heat from the core. This heat builds up over time, and eventually, it’s got to blow. Periodically, the heat from Venus’ core escapes in a period of mass, planet-wide volcanism, completely resurfacing the entire planet in several kilometres of magma.

To me, Venus is much like Hollywood: a nice place to dream about, but I’d never want to visit, much less live there.

Clear skies!

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No overhead spending?

John McCain just complained about the "overhead projector" again.

what a friggin tool.

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This video. So triumphant.

I'm sick of having to apologize every time I say something critical of a religion. As if playing nice is the ideal goal, Every time I critisize/insult a religion, I'm chastized as being culturally insensitive.

Well fuck that. Their churches impose their idealism on me and mine, and has been for the entire existance of Canada. Suddenly I'M the one who is being a dick?

Well, I'm sorry monsignor. That dog won't hunt.


Hey! It's been a while! My bad. In case you haven't been paying attention, there are two elections going on right now, and they've been occupying much of my attention. I am, after all, more expert in Political Science than any other field. Well, today I voted, so the Canadian election will soon be out of my head.

Today's entry is about the Indiana Jones 4 movie that came out over the summer. I didn't see it in theatres because, well, I was afraid. You know how some people were reluctant to see the Star Wars prequels because they were afraid that their awesome childhood memory would be sullied by this blatant cash-grab-disguised-as-an-expanding-mythology, and those that DID see Episode 1 that were from that same generation quickly wished they hadn't, and proceeded to have a huge black-eye in their childhood otherwise-awesomeness?

Well, I'm not quite old enough to remember Star Wars when it was first in theatres, but I do remember seeing the Temple of Doom on the early Movie Network (from the mid-80's) and The Last Crusade in theatres, and I was terrified that this new movie would sully my memory. After all, the trailer makes the thing look a little too Tomb Raider for my tastes, and that's the exact opposite the way that it's supposed to work: Tomb Raider is supposed to steal from Indiana Jones, not the other way around, dammit!

Well, It came out on blu-ray, and I'm watching it right now, as I type.

And I'm saddened.

This movie stinks.

Not totally, as there are some chase and fight scenes that are very Indiana Jones-appropriate. I won't give away any spoilers here, but sufficed to say, it contains government conspiracies, ancient alien wisdom, and psychic powers.


The film is about 3/4 over, so I hope the last bit will redeem the first chunk-o-sad.

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