2008: Some good points!

2009's icy hand of time is about to descend upon me, and I have precious little time to write before I get semi-mostly-hardly-drunk.

I just want to send out a few shout outs (or as we say in Canada, "shoot-oots"), in no particular order:

1) Phil Plait, for re-igniting my love of astronomy and inspiring me to get a telescope and learn the crap out of the stars....and to photograph them.. I read his first book at the beginning of the year, and he even left a comment of one of my first blog entries....in fact, it was the first comment on this blog ever. Phil Plait busted my blog cherry.

2) The Skepchicks, for great discussion, humor, and several links to this blog.

3) Skeptigirl, for being what I can perhaps most accurately describe as my 1st skeptic-blogger-internet friend, and for the loads of cross-links we've been doing throughout the year.

4) PZ Myers, for coming to Toronto, sitting two seats next to me, and drinking a bottle of the beer I recommended.

2008 was largely a bad year for skepticism in Canada. But with the support and solidarity that I've found in the skeptical community we can still fight back and win. We're the fucking good guys.

and Ben Stein eats babies.

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The Top (but really bottom) 7 ways Canada failed the Skeptical Community in 2008

7) George Stroumbouloulopoulous

Here is a guy who has interviewed the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Gore Vidal. In fact, it is these names that prevents him from sinking lower on this list. But in the span of one week, he interviewed both Ben Stein AND Jenny McCarthy. If you read this or any other skeptic blog, you don't need a primer on these two, which is good because I'm getting sick of repeating myself. Needless to say, the CBC is a tax-payer funded institution...this means that I pay George's salary. In return, he interviews an anti-scientific bimbo who is on an anti-intellectual crusade driven by ignorance and ideology, and the other is a bimbo who is on an anti-intellectual crusade driven by ignorance and ideology.

6)Anonymous psychic near my hometown/Simcoe County School Board.

In case you missed it, may I be the first person to cordially welcome you back to earth. The story in brief: An educational assistant told a teacher that a psychic had tipped her off that one of the students, an 11 year-old autistic girl was being sexually assaulted by a man between the ages of 23 and 26. The mother had already outfitted the girl with a GPS and audio recording device, and was able to conclusively prove that this was not possible. The Children's Aid Society backed off, but the School Board continued with the investigation, forcing the mother to pull her daughter out of school, take time off of work and all the usual mental stress of having a allegation of sexual assault of a child thrown out into the open. Still, to this day, the identity of the psychic is unknown. I thought that in a liberal democracy, we have the right to confront our accusers? As a further affront to all things skeptical and legal, no one has been fired or charged and the psychic is presumably still at large. The implication of this incident is staggering: now, the word of a psychic is enough to launch a full-scale investigation. The law clearly states that the school board must launch an investigation if there is reasonable evidence of truth in the allegation. I guess that a deck of cards/crystal ball/bag of chicken bones/lines on one's palm now counts as reasonable evidence.

5)Anti-vaxxers in BC, causing an outbreak of the mumps.
Thanks to a bunch of anti-vaxxers, there was an outbreak of the Mumps near Chiliwack, BC, and infecting nearly 200 people. There will now be many, many children who will be sterile and/or blind later in life because of this. Herd immunity be damned.

4) Conservative Albertans
That may seem like a sweeping generalization (or a obvious redundancy), but Conservative Albertans are decades behind the rest of Canada when it comes to evolution (in more ways than one.....BURN!!!). Normally I wouldn't bother to mention this, but please understand that I'm a little nervous, being that it is conservative Albertans who run our country these days.

3) The New Indiana Jones Movie.
Just for playing in Canada.

2) Stephen Harper.

Whatever your political persuasion may be, it's hard to give credit to Stephen Harper's respect for the scientific community. Since taking the PM reigns in 2006, he has been systematically undermining research, slashing science budgets and engaging in a blatant display of anti-science (particularly with regards to his political appointments, and his attempts at silencing research that implicates the Alberta oil sands for furthering the problem of global warming) propaganda that reminds me of George Bush. Lately, this man has been making me absolutely embarrassed to call myself a Canadian.

1) Gary Goodyear

Lots of other blogs mentioned this, but I say with pride, ego, and childish jealousy that I was the first. Stephen Harper appointed Gary Goodyear, a former chiropractor and acupuncturist as the Minister of Science and Technology. Goodyear's legit science credentials end at his undergraduate degree from U of Waterloo, after which he went on to pursue a slew of pseudo-scientific degrees and fellowships. Now he is in charge of our science policy, which has already been taking a beating under Harper. Not only do we have to contend with Harper's anti-science, what little science we have left is under the purview of a pseudo-scientist. It does not bode well.

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This is directed to my natural science friends who have not had the benefit of a humanities indoctrination/education and might not have heard of a little social phenomenon known as "culture jamming".

Culture Jamming is mode of social protest by which the protester turns the medium of an advertisement against itself. It can be witty, but oftentimes I find it to be tacky, uncreative, cheap, and above all: pretentious.

Not everyone has the means to re-work a highway billboard, but the drive for protest is strong amongst the young, and so those with less agency are forced to resort to more low-budget culture jamming, such as putting stickers on ATM's that say "Enjoy Debt", or using black marker to draw a skull on the face of a model on some advertisement in the subway.

I've always found culture jamming to be terribly pretentious, as it places the protester in some sort of self-appointed position of knowledge and wisdom, wherein it is their solemn duty to expose the corruption and lies for the benefit of all mankind, who is clearly too stupid to know better, think for themselves or question anything without the benefit of a sticker on a bus-ad.

Today, I saw a fire hydrant that was the victim of culture jamming. Ideally, if one were to culture-jam a fire-hydrant, it would be to expose some sort of corruption in the fire-department, or act as a commentary of wanton waste of water. No. This particular culture jammer wanted to teach me and all passerby (and, presumably the fire fighters who may need it one day) about digestion. You heard me.

Not only is this way-the-crap wrong, but I would love to see the culture jammer try to digest "anything". Lets start with the fire hydrant.

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I finally get the internet. Let me explain as best I can...

As a child of the 80's, I was raised on breakfast cereal, action figures and their harbinger: the Saturday morning cartoon. I have been conditioned to be a good little consumer and have been accumulating crap my whole life. I'm used to the idea that if I want something, I have to go out and physically get it: if there were no stores in my small town, then I'd be shit-out-of-luck. If I wanted to watch a movie, I'd have to go and rent it, buy it, or tape it when it came on TV. I taped loads of my favorite cartoons and movies, but was limited to whatever happened to be on at that time, and was utterly at the whims of the sudden news briefs (and in 1991, there were lots of sudden news briefs as a result of the Gulf War).

Same goes for music: I'd be limited to whatever was at Zellers (this was before Wal-mart came to Canada as a result of NAFTA), which was very little. The point is: if I wanted to indulge in some form of media-entertainment, I had to physically be in possession or of, or in proximity to it (such as the movie theatre, or the radio). When I was in high school, I salivated over anything related to Star Wars or Weird Al Yankovic that I could get my hands on, which was precious little.

But I think I'm finally wrapping my head around the idea that all media exists today in a perpetual virtual state. Intertoob'd media rules the roost, and it's going to be a tremendous money saver once I get used to the idea that I no longer have to buy DVD's from the shelf, and a space-saver once I get used to the idea that I no longer have to fill walls and walls of disks, plastic and helpful little liner-notes.

While it is true that I can easily do the same thing with books, I find it terribly difficult to read a book on a computer screen. I have no idea why, but I get hella-bad headaches after about 10 minutes of screen-reading (which is probably why I rarely did my university readings that were online....I also didn't own a printer until third-year). Besides, there is something incredibly comforting about sitting on the couch with a book-in-hand.

Meanwhile, I have nearly 300 compact disks made even more compact as they've been squeezed onto my ipod, along with 50+ hours of audiobooks (which kept me company during my drive to Halifax), and several trilogies of movies.

Speaking of which, I have a movie in my pocket. How friggin incredible is that? thanks to portable media players, I can watch Star Wars or Futurama whenever I want, wherever I want....and it's in my pocket. You know how some people think of the future as flying cars or meal-in-a-pill? For me, it was always a movie in my pocket (or wrist-watch, thanks to Dick Tracy)....The future really is now.

Anyway, I wrote this because I'm uploading every Eric Clapton CD onto my computer right now and I think it just really kicked in how amazing it is that I can do that, and store the disks away.

Internet. Wow.

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Sigh. It had to happen. You know, the Halloween season is often treated as the most potent lightning rod for all things woo, as self-proclaimed ghost-hunters, astrologers, psychics and the like all get to mooch off the general public and make a decent paycheck because "spooky-spooky ghost" is ubiquitous at that time of year. It's largely harmless, meaningless fun. Most people who engage in that type of revelry aren't doing so because they honestly believe in that crap, but because it's fun to get scared. I get that.

But Christmas season is an entirely different beast. This is the time of year that appeals to the believer and weak-agnostic alike: like maybe there is something "special" after all. Maybe, just maybe, there ARE miracles in the world. There is a lot of love being thrown around, and people tend to get all mushy about it. Just as people are desperate to believe in supernaturalism because they're scared shitless of hell and death, people are just as likely to believe out of love.

Once in a while, though....the mainstream media gets a hold of this idea, and tries to combine them, for a dialectic tale of superstition meant to convince you there's something beyond science because you're scared of death, AND because you're surrounded by love. Remarkable.

This time, the offender is MSNBC. The story, in brief, is that a dying girl in a hospital gets visited by an angel (captured on a security camera), and is cured. Go watch the video if you can stomach it.

What saddens me is not that the mother believed it was an angel...people can believe what they want (just as I can believe that this is the product of an incredibly uneducated, dogmatic, superstitious and above all, desperate mind).

But this news story quickly became about whether or not angels exist. This was a NEWS story! What the crazy is wrong with MSNBC that they treat this like news???

The mother said in the video “either this is an angel here to take my daughter to heaven, or it’s here to heal her”. Yeah….those are the only two options. God forbid (so to speak) that maybe it’s NOT an angel, but a trick of the light. This terribly ignorant presentation is exacerbated by them not even inviting a token skeptic. There's the host, who implores that "If you're a skeptic, then you might have to change your mind after you see this"....okay, so we know where she stands. There's the reverend, who is so moved by this story that she's even teary-eyed....okay, so she's also a believer. Then there's the rabbi, who says that it's not about whether or not this was an angel, but whether or not people are "open to wonder".... translation: "This is an angel stupid, and if you don't see that, you're a closed-minded fool"

The skeptic in me also would like to point out that we’re only treated to a single frame of the offending video, not the whole video itself. I know a thing or two about cameras and I know how poor their lenses are compared to our eyes, and how easily they can malfunction and create images that aren’t there (need proof of this? take a photo of someone pointing a lit flashlight at the camera), and I guess what I’m trying to say is how important it is for people to smarten the crap up and think for 5 fucking seconds.

There are many things I hate about the holiday season: the crass commercialization, the labeling of the days of December as `shopping days `till Christmas`, and the ubiquitous Christmas music. However, I don`t think I can take the superstition much longer before I really start being a mega-shit-head.

FYI, there are, thankfully, still way more things I love about the holiday season. If you need me to point them out, then I sincerely doubt that you will gain anything from my listing them off for you.

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Okay, enough skeptic/atheist bloggers have written about how important this day is to divorce it from religion and enjoy the day with your loved ones.....blah-blah-blah. Today, something decidedly interesting, from an observational point, happened today, and I learned something about myself.

During Christmas dinner, something which has always been a family affair, and occasionally we'll have someone else over who might not have a family dinner to go to, and I've always though it was rather nice of my parents to share the meal with friends. This year's friend o' the family has been a friend for years, but she made me realize something about my discomfort level with religion.

I've always maintained that I could easily and respectfully keep my mouth quiet and even wait a moment of a loved one wanted to express their religion for something as innocuous as a prayer or making the sign of the cross or any other such superstitious, tribal nonsense. I wouldn't necessarily make a scene or anything....just sit there quietly and patiently wait while they felt the need to forget and express that forgetting that it was their friends and family, not invisible sky-daddy who made the meal that's before them.

Tonight, I learned that I can't be comfortable and adult about this. Before grabbing the fork, our guest asked if we could wait to say "grace" (something that we only really did at Christmas and thanksgiving dinner 10-15 years ago). Some in the family thought this was a great idea and I immediately felt "who the fuck does she think she is?" creep across my non-fed mind. The table was silent (it should be added that my brother and father both thought that this sudden interruption was ridiculously unwelcome and getting in the way of some valuable food-in-the-mouth time) and I sat there, anxious, uncomfortable and just wanting to eat for fuck's sake! My sister even opened her eyes a little, saw that I wasn't joining in the tribal revelry, and gave me the kind of look that says, "Come on! You're being rude! At least close your eyes and pretend".

Fuck no. Why should I be the one who has to pretend? Why is it not fine for the religious to demonstrate true "grace" and say their prayer silently to themselves? Why can't they just pretend? It's my fucking house, and I was made to feel uncomfortable in it over such an otherwise innocuous thing: not saying grace.

Well, at least I now know one of my limits: don't put god in between me and my food.

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One of the best things about he ubiquitous nature of modern media storage is how often I can watch all the old movies, television shows and cartoons I used to love as a child. Sometimes the shows are exactly as I remember them (The Real Ghostbusters, He-Man), and other times, they're WAY better than I remember (Back to the Future, GhostBusters).

But sometimes, the show can be way, WAY worse. Tonight, Teletoon (Canada's version of The Cartoon Network) is airing the *ahem* classic films, Gremlins 1 and 2. As a kid, I friggin loved these movies. I had a little rubber Gizmo toy that I carried around me like a gris-gris, and I had just about every piece of merchandise I could get my hands on. Gremlins 2 used to be playing on the television (in the VCR....remember those?) on a nearly-continuous loop. I loved the Gremlins movies.

Wow, was I ever wrong. Mercifully, I tuned in too late to catch the first installment, but this second attack on my senses/film is in full swing, and man is it ever shitty. From the super-genius gremlin to the she-male gremlin, from the appearance of Hulk Hogan talking to the audience in the cinema (in a very lame film-within-a-film twist), to ever-present product placements advertising the toys that were released that holiday season, I feel as though a part of my childhood has been tainted.

Hulk Hogan. Always a hero.

Knowing how I now perceive my childhood commercial idolatry, I must never, ever again watch Howard the Duck.

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Pur-dee piktur

Phil Plait has posted his Top Ten Astronomy Pictures of 2008. Phil is the kind of scientist that I can dig: he truly understand the metaphysical implications of science and scientific discoveries. He doesn't just select the prettiest pictures he could find (although some are indeed quite pretty), but he also picks images that have significance.

Check them out.

And as a reminder, I'll be co-hosting an astronomy radio show today at 7:00pm EST, where you can tune in here. My co-host is an astro-biology master's student, and I'm the amateur astronomer of the show...hopefully it will at least resemble the quality to be heard at Astronomy Cast. Tune in!

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Borrowed from Skeptigirl from the Friendly Atheist, am I a hardcore atheist? The ones in bold are the ones I am/did.

1.Participated in the Blasphemy Challenge.
2.Met at least one of the “Four Horsemen” (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris) in person.
3.Created an atheist blog.
4.Used the Flying Spaghetti Monster in a religious debate with someone.
5.Gotten offended when someone called you an agnostic.
6.Been unable to watch Growing Pains reruns because of Kirk Cameron.
7.Own more Bibles than most Christians you know.
8.Have at least one Bible with your personal annotations regarding contradictions, disturbing parts, etc.
9.Have come out as an atheist to your family.
10.Attended a campus or off-campus atheist gathering.
11.Are a member of an organized atheist/Humanist/etc. organization.
12.Had a Humanist wedding ceremony.
13.Donated money to an atheist organization.
14.Have a bookshelf dedicated solely to Richard Dawkins.
15.Lost the friendship of someone you know because of your non-theism.
16.Tried to argue or have a discussion with someone who stopped you on the street to proselytize.
17.Had to hide your atheist beliefs on a first date because you didn’t want to scare him/her away.
18.Own a stockpile of atheist paraphernalia (bumper stickers, buttons, shirts, etc).
19.Attended a protest that involved religion.
20.Attended an atheist conference.
21.Subscribe to Pat Condell’s YouTube channel.
22.Started an atheist group in your area or school. (I tried to....lack of interest killed it)
23.Successfully “de-converted” someone to atheism.
23.Have already made plans to donate your body to science after you die.
25.Told someone you’re an atheist only because you wanted to see the person’s reaction.
26.Had to think twice before screaming “Oh God!” during sex. Or you said something else in its place.
27.Lost a job because of your atheism.
28.Formed a bond with someone specifically because of your mutual atheism (meeting this person at a local gathering or conference doesn’t count).
29.Have crossed “In God We Trust” off of — or put a pro-church-state-separation stamp on — dollar bills.
30.Refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Okay, this is American, but our Canadian equivalent can be found in the preamble of our Constitution
31.Said “Gesundheit!” (or nothing at all) after someone sneezed because you didn’t want to say “Bless you!”
32.Have ever chosen not to clasp your hands together out of fear someone might think you’re praying.
33.Have turned on Christian TV because you need something entertaining to watch.
34.Are a 2nd or 3rd (or more) generation atheist.
35.Have “atheism” listed on your Facebook or dating profile — and not a euphemistic variant.
36.Attended an atheist’s funeral (i.e. a non-religious service).
37.Subscribe to an freethought magazine (e.g. Free Inquiry, Skeptic)
38.Have been interviewed by a reporter because of your atheism.
39.Written a letter-to-the-editor about an issue related to your non-belief in God.
40.Gave a friend or acquaintance a New Atheist book as a gift.
41.Wear pro-atheist clothing in public.
42.Have invited Mormons/Jehovah’s Witnesses into your house specifically because you wanted to argue with them.
43.Have been physically threatened (or beaten up) because you didn’t believe in God.
44.Receive Google Alerts on “atheism” (or variants).
45.Received fewer Christmas presents than expected because people assumed you didn’t celebrate it.
46.Visited The Creation Museum or saw Ben Stein’s Expelled just so you could keep tabs on the “enemy.”
47.Refuse to tell anyone what your “sign” is… because it doesn’t matter at all.
48.Are on a mailing list for a Christian organization just so you can see what they’re up to…
49.Have kept your eyes open while you watched others around you pray.
50.Avoid even Unitarian churches because they’re too close to religion for you.

I "scored" a 22, which means, according to the Friendly Atheist, "21-30: You are an atheist, but babies aren’t running away from you. Yet."

Parts of this list I found kind of idiotic, to be perfectly honest. Especially the one about being a 2nd or 3rd generation atheist. Why the crap should that be a positive or a negative? I thought the positive trait that we atheists like to be smug about is that we have thought our way out of religion, not born out of it, and grew up in a household without it. It smacks of dynasty-ism to me.

It's also a little American-centric, but whatevs....If I were American I suppose I'd forget that there is a rest of the world out there too (BURN!)

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I can haz more radio?

The time and date of the upcoming radio show has been finalized. The one-time astronomy show will be at 7:00 pm EST on this Wednesday, Dec 17, and you can listen online here, or if you're anywhere near Peterborough, Ontario, at 92.7 fm.

Tune in, mutha-fuckas!

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I can haz a fotostreem?

It's high time I started a flikr page, so I did. There's not alot on there right now, but as time goes on I'll be putting my astrophotography stuff up there, which might be a usefull tool to anyone else thinking of getting into it (remember, I've only been doing this since June, and seriously since September, so it's not difficult).

I'm still busy with the new computer, so to keep you busy, here's another picture of the last night's perigee'd moon. This is five images stacked on top of each other, but no fancy-pants telescope was used....just the zoom lens at 300mm. It's pretty, and is my desktop wallpaper.

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Das iz beeg moon, yes?

Thanks to a facebook tip by Evan Bernstein of the SGU, I went outside and photographed the living crap out of the moon, full, and in perigee (appearing 14% larger and 30% brighter!). Below is 9 images arranged together in a 3x3 matrix.

For you telescope and/or photo-nutz out there, all images were arranged using Canon's "Photostitch" program, and the photos were taken with a Canon Rebel XT, iso800, shutter speed at 2000 (like I said....it was bright), hooked up to a 2x barlow lens up to my 8" reflecting scope on a dobsonian mount (whew!)

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I bought a new computer today and I'm still trying to force my fingers to get used to the new keyboard. I have to get back to setting this (mega-kickass-powerful-sweet) computer up, but I just wanted to post this really quick. And might I add, holy shit.

This is yet another nail in the coffin against those who preach that the materialist model of the brain is insufficient to explain the various subjective experience with regards to conscienceness. We can now IMAGE certain subjective stimuli.


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Freedom from Religion

I recieved this email today from the CFI, so here it is, copied and pasted.

On Human Rights Day, the Center for Inquiry Works to Uphold the Universality of Rights.

New York, New York (December 10, 2008)--Today we mark the sixtieth anniversary of the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and above all its affirmation of the freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and expression.

At the United Nations General Assembly meeting in Paris in December 1948 at which the Declaration was adopted, Eleanor Roosevelt told the assembled delegates: “As we bring to fruition our labors on this Declaration of Human Rights, we must at the same time rededicate ourselves to the unfinished task which lies before us.” That task was to make the Declaration “a common standard of achievement” for humanity, and it remains unfinished.

Combating "blasphemy" prohibitions at the United Nations

The Center for Inquiry is appalled that at its current session the U.N. General Assembly is adopting a resolution to combat the “defamation of religions,” which urges member states to curtail freedom of expression out of respect for religious belief, particularly Islamic belief. Since 2005, such declarations have been pushed by the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

In a forthcoming editorial, the editors of Free Inquiry magazine write, “The U.N. should be doing everything in its power to stamp out criminal prohibitions of blasphemy and apostasy in Islamic states, not lending them its moral authority.”

At the Human Rights Council’s ninth session in October, CFI participated in the debate over “defamation of religions” and released a position paper titled, “Islam and Human Rights: Defending Universality at the United Nations.” On December 12-15, CFI's Representative to the U.N., Dr. Austin Dacey, will be in the Netherlands for public discussions on the future of freedom of expression in Europe, which are already making news in the Dutch press.

Campaigning for one law for all in Britain

On December 10, CFI senior research fellow Ibn Warraq will be at the British House of Lords to participate in the launch of a campaign concerning the operation of Islamic Sharia courts in the United Kingdom.

The courts, which arbitrate civil matters such as divorce, financial disputes, and even domestic violence, now operate in five major cities. The courts are voluntary, but powerful tradition and lack of information conspire to leave no real choice for many, particularly young people and women. The purpose of the campaign is to lobby for legislation outlawing the use of religious courts to determine family law and inheritance matters, and to undertake an information campaign informing Muslim women of their family law rights under UK law.

The One Law for All Campaign against Sharia law in Britain has already received widespread support from AC Grayling; Ayaan Hirsi Ali; Bahram Soroush; Baroness Caroline Cox; Caspar Melville; Deeyah; Fariborz Pooya; Gina Khan; Houzan Mahmoud; Homa Arjomand; Ibn Warraq; Joan Smith; Johann Hari; Keith Porteous Wood; Mina Ahadi; Naser Khader; Nick Cohen; Richard Dawkins; Shakeb Isaar; Sonja Eggerickx; Stephen Law; Tarek Fatah; Tauriq Moosa; Taslima Nasrin and others.

The Center for Inquiry, which recently opened a branch in London, is among the many organizational supporters.

To get involved in the campaign, please visit the campaign website, email onelawforall@gmail.com, or call 07719166731.

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Cruisin' for a bruisin'

So, it seems that the celebrity King of holy-shit-did-he-just-say-that, Tom Cruise is visiting Toronto to plug his upcoming we-gotta-kill-Hitler movie, Valkryie.

Now, first of all, am I the only one who sees film as having nearly zero potential to be good and original? Kill Hitler? Come on. Get fucking serious. The tagline is "Many saw evil. They Dared to stop it". Lame-o. If it turns out to be good at all, it will because of director Brian Singer. Who rocks.

Now, I know full well that the various entertainment outlets in Toronto are practically tripping over each other to score this mega-A-list celebrity interview. Admitedly, it's not often that a movie-star of Cruise's strata visit Toronto just to promote a single movie and are here for no other reason. I don't expect an already incredibly shallow industry to treat his dangerous and batshit-crazy scientology history as just one of those quirky eccentric things that celebreties do.

But surely people know by now that a)As an interviewee, he's uninteresting and flat, and B)He's a total dickwad:

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Skeptic Radio?

Well, this Tuesday, Dec 16, I'll be co-hosting a one-time radio show about astronomy. It's just a university-radio station, but it should be a good hour. The time has not been set yet, but it will be sometime after 5:00 pm EST. I'll let y'all know more as soon as I do.

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I mentioned I'd be occasionally posting pictures from my trip to Halifax, so here's a bunch of composite panorama shots

historic Lunenberg.

A neat little inlset at Peggy's Cove

The Peggy's Cove lighthouse.

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No longer panicking

I love the works of Douglas Adams. As a young teenager (millions of years ago), his words were the first I ever took to beyond comics, and I devoured everything I could get my hands on. I openly wept at work when he died. I laugh out loud in public places when I read his stuff. As with my other favourite authors (Sagan, Tolkien, Vonnegut), it always sinks in terribly sad when I realize that I've read all there is to read from that author.

I've been on a huge DNA (Douglas Noel Adams for you non-mega-fans) kick lately. I listened to the entire series and then some on audiobook during my roadtrip to Halifax, I've been watching and re-watching the 2005 film and 1982 BBC Miniseries over and over again. But there's only so much DNA to go around.

In 1997, when I was learning this crazy new thing called the "internet", I emailed DNA two questions: 1)Are you a musician, and 2) Are you a Beatles fan? He answered me! "1)Yes, strictly an amateur one 2) Yes, in much the same way that China is a large country". I'm a bit of a pack rat, so I hope I saved it and it's findable. It might be a worthy mission over the holidays: Find and frame the email from one of my heroes.

But today, I found something that has been lying around online for a while: a new (to me) DNA short story! If you're a fan remotely as much as I am, read it. I promise you'll dig it.

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Amateur astronomy can be a fickle thing. I took it up in late-May/Early-June, and at this time, Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn were all in the night sky, but my scope was terribly out of shape, and it took several months just to get the proper equipment. Late August rolled around and I finally had a good scope to play with, but by then, Saturn and Mars had slunk out of sight (and will be so for about 12 months now!), and by the time Saturn would re-appear, it rings would be even more difficult to see.

FYI, I eventually did see Saturn and her rings last month at crazy-o'clock in the morning.

But this is a hobby which requires utmost patience, because if the weather doesn't cooperate, you don't get the goods. I have enough know-how and technology these days (the latter of which is surprisingly easy and affordable), but the weather doesn't always cooperate. Astronoming (my word, copyright 2008) in the summer is easy because of the temperature, and rewarding because from my lattitude, I can see the centre of the galaxy and all the kickass nebulas and galaxies that are usually visible in the summer (i.e. The "Summer Triangle", Vega, Deneb, and Altair), but there simply isn't very much of the night sky.

Autumn rolls around and there is a little more of the night sky, but, astronomically speaking, there is a lot less to look at, and the weather, while still warm enough, nonetheless is very humid and tends to make my lenses all dewey. And now that we're looking at winter around the corner, there is PLENTY of night sky (wonderfully so, in fact), and though Jupiter is about to sink below the horizon, Saturn has re-emerged, along with Venus. But, it's friggin freezing out there, and if I want to get to areas with a sufficiently dark enough sky, it tends to be nearly 10 degrees colder out there than here.

A few days ago, the crescent Moon, Venus and Jupiter were within a 3-degree triangle in the night sky. But it's been cloudy here almost every night for the last month, and GODDAMMIT! I missed it. I also missed the Leonids Meteor Shower....crap-balls. But tonight, during a rare pause in the cloud, I still managed at least to get Venus and Jupiter in the same shot:

But it was cold. Stupidly cold...-30 degrees Celcius. It was this 7th-circle of hell-cold that beat me tonight. After just 30 minutes, all my gear was nearly completley frozen, and I had to get home.

I am learning patience. But I am not a Jedi yet.

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Today is my 1st birthday if I would have been born on Saturn. 1 Saturn-year ago today, Saturn was in the same position in relation to the sun (not in the night sky) as it is right now. Care to do some investigation and figure out when my terran-birthday is, and how old I am? I'll accept a correct answer within 5 days, and the winner gets my accolades. What could be more desirable (other than lying on a beach in Jamaica with a team of scientists trying to figure out new ways to be nice to you)?

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Stargazer Steve is a weekly astronomy column for The Arthur. And yes, I know that I post more columns here than the paper can keep up with, but I'd rather get them out there while they're on my mind. Also, it's fun for me.

Jupiter: No place to get Stupider

Jupiter is one of the most breathtaking sights to be seen in the night sky, and it doesn’t take much to reveal some of its secrets. A pair of binoculars can reveal the four-largest moons, and a modest backyard telescope can reveal the bands of clouds moving across the giant. This week, we’re going to dig a little deeper into this incredible world.

Jupiter, as I hope you remember from grade 5 science class, is the largest planet by far. In astronomy, “large” is a word that can either mean more massive, or more voluminous; on both counts, Jupiter dwarfs us. In terms of diameter, Jupiter is over 10 that of Earth. In terms of volume, 1321 Earths could fit inside Jupiter. And as for mass, Jupiter has nearly 320 the mass of Earth, so if you weighed 180 lbs on Earth, you would weigh 426 lbs at the cloud tops (we’ll find out why standing on the surface would be a problem in a moment). It is so incredibly massive that it has 2.5 times the mass of every single object in the solar system (aside from the sun)! Jupiter’s sheer size and mass also grants it two neat distinctions. 1) Some people refer to it as a “failed star” because if it were just 13 times more massive, than deuterium (2H, or ‘heavy hydrogen) would be burning in its core, which is one type of brown dwarf star, and 2) Jupiter is about as big as a planet can get: if you add more mass to it, gravity will cause it to shrink rather quickly, take mass away from it, it will also shrink; Jupiter is at that perfect size and mass ratio to be about as big as a planet can possibly be. While it is true that we are finding more planets outside our solar system (called “exoplanets) many times the mass of Jupiter (“Jupiter-Mass” is now a unit of measurement), these objects are smaller, brighter and hotter.

I mentioned the surface-problem earlier. Well, the problem with Jupiter’s surface is that there isn’t one. Jupiter is made up of roughly 75% hydrogen and 24% helium (more on that remaining 1% in a moment), so if you were to land a ship on Jupiter, the deeper you got down into the clouds, the atmosphere just would get denser and denser until, before you knew it, you’d find yourself swimming in liquid hydrogen and helium (by this time you would have been crushed by the pressure long ago so don’t worry about trying to find a landing site). Deeper still into the planet, the pressures are so intense as to create a core of metalized-hydrogen, but there are no clear points of demarcation between the gaseous, liquid and solid layers…so no surface to speak of.

This is a photo I took of Jupiter on Sept 17, 2008 using a Canon Rebel XT attached to my Orion XT8 8" reflector on a dobsonian mount.

This metallic-hydrogen core creates for Jupiter an incredibly powerful magnetic-field, which generates two interesting side-effects. Firstly, just like on Earth, when solar wind smashes into the magnetic field, the particles from the sun reverberate along the field lines and smack back into Jupiter, creating tremendous aurora near the poles that could easily swallow the Earth many times over. The second cool effect of the magnetic fields involves the nearest moon, Io. The tiny moon spews volcanic particles into Jupiter’s magnetic field, which interacts in such a way as to cause Jupiter to emit radio signals. If you’re driving on an isolated road, depending on how active Io is at the moment, you can actually tune in to the radio signals on a regular AM station (the precise station changes constantly) and hear Jupiter’s weird little bloops and bleeps. There are even times when Jupiter is brighter in the radio spectrum than even the sun!

As mentioned, only 1% of Jupiter is made of materials besides hydrogen and helium. It should be noted that hydrogen and helium are nearly colourless, so everything we see in Jupiter’s cloud structure are trace elements. 1% may seem minute, but that 1% is about the same amount of the mass of all the continents on Earth: stretch that into a gas then there is a lot to see. And Jupiter does indeed have a lot to show off.

For instance, the bands of clouds that circle the planet travel at different speeds and directions. As a result, where these bands crash into each other, tremendous Earth-sized storms of different colours rage around the planet, merge and eventually die out, or get swallowed by a bigger storm. The most famous storm of all is Jupiter’s “Great Red Spot”, a hurricane nearly 3 times the size of Earth that has been raging for at least 400 years (when Galileo first observed it). We don’t know exactly how such a storm so powerful can last for so long, but it certainly indicates that Jupiter has some kind of internal power source.

Speaking of which, Jupiter actually emits more light and heat than it receives from the sun. While the planet is very massive, it’s not quite massive enough to cause nuclear fusion of any kind, ergo, it has no way to bloat out (like the sun does). This means that there is nothing to prevent the tremendous gravitational pull of Jupiter from slowly drawing its material inwards. This increases the pressure, which in turn increases the heat emitted. This is likely where the energy comes from to feed its massive storms, and cause it to rotate at such a maddening speed. (The earth takes 23.56 hours to rotate, while Jupiter, at over 10-times Earth’s diameter, rotates in a little over 9 hours).

After the Moon and Venus, Jupiter is the brightest object in the night sky, and as of January 2009, it will have slunk out of sight, washed in the glow of the dusk light of the sun. But by the summer, it will re-emerge in the constellation Capricorn, so watch for it. It’s bright and is a wondrous sight.

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Stargazer Steve

Stargazer Steve is a weekly astronomy column for The Arthur

Stargazer Steve:
The Solar System is Stupidly Big.

I’ve written a lot about the objects in the solar system, but I’ve neglected to write about the solar system. So this edition of Stargazer Steve is dedicated to explaining a bit about how the solar system formed, why it formed the way it did, the size of it, and the robots we have out there exploring it.

The solar system, at nearly 1.5 light years in diameter, is big. You may think you know what big is, but that’s peanuts compared to the solar system.

Firstly, let’s look at the basic structure of the solar system on a macro scale. At the centre is the sun, Sol: a mass of incandescent gas, and a gigantic nuclear furnace (future articles will be about this monster). Next, there are four rocky planets, followed by an asteroid belt comprised of trillions and trillions of rocks and metals (most no bigger than a pea, but a few are bigger than Africa). Beyond that lay two giants made primarily of hydrogen and helium, and two more worlds made up largely of gas and ice (sometimes Uranus and Neptune are referred to as not Gas Giants, but Ice Giants). If you thought that the solar system ends with Neptune (or Pluto if you’re the type of person who can’t let things go), you’re in for a literally big surprise. Beyond Neptune’s orbit is a region known as the Kuiper (pronounced Kyper) Belt, which is similar to the inner asteroid belt, but is many times more massive (what with it being in a huge orbit and all), and contains much more ice (out here, most of the ice is not just water ice, but also frozen methane and nitrogen, and this is also the birthplace of many of our short-period comets), and also is the home of the dwarf planets Pluto, Eris, Haumea and MakeMake. And further still is the heliosphere (made up of the Heliopause and Heliosheath), a bubble-like pocket that our sun has blown for itself in the gas and dust that sits between the stars (called the Interstellar Medium) using nothing light (photons). It’s here that the solar system exists no longer in a plane but in a sphere. And further still, is the Oort cloud: extending 50,000 AU (an AU=Astronomical Unit, the distance of the Earth from the Sun) in radius, the Oort cloud is one quarter the distance to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri.

Like I said: the solar system is big. Ridiculously big.

You might be asking the solar system, “Hey! Solar system! What’s with your shape? Why is some of you planar and others a sphere? Why rocks in the middle, gassy worlds slightly further out, and then: MORE ROCKS?” Well, the solar system can’t talk. And you should feel sheepish for asking. I’ll just tell you.

The early solar system was once a large cloud of gas and dust several light years across, and as the years went on, gravity pulled the cloud into its centre, forming the sun. Elsewhere in the cloud, gravity helped to form the early planets and some moons, called planetessimals. When the sun kicked on its nuclear fusion (which continues to this day), it blew off the remaining gas and dust that was not massive enough to form a planetessimal, leaving only the heavy objects behind. The rocky worlds near the centre were too massive to be blown very far, and the gas/ice giants were too far out to have their gases blown off of their host planets, whose own gravity had gained quite a bit of muscle out there. Over millions of years, gravity drew these planetessimals together to form the bigger worlds we know today. The Kuiper Belt objects are basically old planetessimals whose tiny mass is just enough to stay where it was formed because the solar wind is just weak enough, and the countless billions of collisions are preventing them from getting much bigger. The Heliosphere/sheath/pause is simply the limit that the suns solar wind reaches when it smashes into the interstellar medium, and the Oort cloud is hanging on like grim death because it is simply closer to our star than another.

While most of our solar system exploration has been limited to the planets and moons, we have sent a few intrepid robots whose sole mission was to go far, and report what it saw. Pioneer 10 was launched in 1972, and became the first man-made object to make contact with the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. But the real stars (ha!) are the Voyager probes 1 and 2 (both launched in 1977). These two robots have been traveling at just a shade under 60,000 kph, and have only entered the heliosphere as of 2007, and still have a long way to go. They’re not headed towards any particular star, but at its current speed, Voyager 1 should pass within 1.6 light years of a star in the Ophiuchus constellation in 40,000 years….hopefully they’re watching. Sadly, by 2025, both probes will be unable to power any single instrument, and we will only know where they are by using telescopes. This limited life-span of its onboard miniature nuclear power-plant in mind, the engineers of the probes also included a solid-gold phonograph record into the Voyager designs. On the record, “The Sounds of Earth”, were visual instructions on how to play it, and it contains spoken greetings from Earth in 55 languages, and well as sounds of rain, volcanoes, earthquakes, a train, a dog, blacksmithing, the Saturn 5 rocket liftoff, and musical selections including Beethoven and Chuck Berry. Long after we have either killed ourselves off or have evolved into something entirely unlike humanity, it’s comforting to know that parts of our culture will survive into the infinity of the cosmos.

The solar system is big, and we’ve only just started to explore it. In our lifetime, it’s likely that we will have regular robotic missions to every major object out there, and maybe even to the Oort cloud. There’s a lot to see, and even more to learn, if only we had the political will to spend the comparatively small amount of money to get there and pursue science for its own sake, not some pretense of metaphysics or misguided demands for “practical” outcomes. Space exploration is practical, and we’re just now getting good at it.

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