19 Nov

SOFIA Seeks Secrets of Planetary Birth

right here: SOFIA Seeks Secrets of Planetary Birth

I know it’s silly to see an alternate spelling of my daughter’s name in this context and imagine her becoming a groundbreaking astronomer when she grows up. Or building a massive intelligent telescope for which she is the namesake. Romantic parents imagine their children as pioneers. Pragmatic parents know the lives of pioneers are anything but romantic and too often have the hero’s share of tragedy. There’s also a post-singularity angle I could work here, but not with my own kid.

It’s romantic enough to think of a giant jet in our stratosphere aiming its telescope into the hearts of planetary accretion disks.

Now to find cool science with the acronyms NOAH, JORDAN, ADAM, and TRAVIS.

Here’s an excerpt from the article linked above.

You don’t always have to have a rocket to do rocket science. Sometimes a mere airplane will do – that is, a mere Boeing 747 toting a 17-ton, 9-foot wide telescope named SOFIA.

Short for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA will observe the universe while gliding through the stratosphere at 45,000 feet. When it begins operations next year, it will be the world’s biggest, most advanced airborne observatory.

“SOFIA will be able to locate the ‘planetary snowline,’ where water vapor turns to ice in the disk of dust and gas around young stars,” says Marcum. “That’s important because we think that’s where gas giants are born. The most massive planetary cores are fashioned [around the snowline] because conditions are best for rock and ice to build up.” (Sticky ice particles help form planets just as they help you make a snowball to hurl at an unsuspecting friend.)

“Once a large enough core forms, its gravity becomes strong enough to hold on to gas so more hydrogen and helium molecules can ‘stick.’ Then these large cores can grow into gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. Otherwise, they remain as smaller rock-ice planets.”

“SOFIA will also be able to pinpoint where basic building blocks like oxygen, methane, and carbon dioxide2 are located within the protoplanetary disk.” Knowing where various substances are located in the disk will cast light on how they come together, from the “ground” up, to form planets.

19 Nov

Jumping Heads

In the mornings, as I walk from the train to the office, I watch other people in transition: stepping into or out of buildings or the streetcar, squatting with their possessions in doorways, warming their hands with coffee or asking for change or public solitude. I wonder what they looked like when they were younger, whether this life is a surprise or inevitable; what they’ll look like and how they’ll feel when they’re old, if they live to be old; what old might mean; all in swift imaginary scenes like a catalog of sights captured from the corners of my eyes. Sometimes, I try to plant myself in someone’s head to watch me walking by and run the thought experiment in reverse. I get distracted, though, imagining what it’s like to be them and never really see myself.

This morning as I passed the corner diner three blocks from the office, I watched a women, probably in her early 50’s, salty short hair, medium build and wearing a thick wool coat,* step briskly inside and settle alone at the big U-shaped Formica counter. What, outside of hunger, brought her there? She’d moved too decisively for the visit to be random. The food’s pure diner–attentive service, large (formerly “healthy”) portions, but expensive. Maybe for the sexy no-nonsense waitresses? For the two cooks sweating over the grill and talking in rapid-fire Spanish, slinging hot dishes almost as fast as they speak? For the easygoing elbow-to-elbow contact with the other diners hunched over eggs and cakes, eavesdropping or chatting with their neighbors, construction workers and execs finding common ground, couples eating off each other’s plates, a little old scarecrow of a man settling in with his paper and receiving his breakfast without ordering. And suddenly I’ve slipped from one head into the next, sipping my always hot coffee, winking at the waitress who doesn’t acknowledge but accepts the flattery, clearing my sinuses with tobasco steaming off my huevos rancheros. The closer I get to work, the thinner my imaginary connection grows until it snaps at the office door and I’m me again, waving to our friendly receptionist and trying not to stumble down the curving stair to the “lower atrium” and the double-wide I share with a project manager who commutes two days a week from Boise. I try to get to know my coworkers through conversation, but avoid getting into their heads, reserving that kind of intimacy for people I’ll never see again. I don’t want to think, much less say to a coworker, even sympathetically, “Man, I’ve been inside your head and I get you.”

*I had mistyped “wearing a thick wool cat” and almost left it.

18 Nov


Lately, when I want writing inspiration, I find Sherman Alexie.

When I need grounding, I read anything Molly Gloss.

When I want to know whether I’ll be writing when I’m in my 70’s, I read my friend Tony Wolk. I also read his friend, Ursula, who is now 80, but daunting with her bold silver litcrit yin yang rodeo buckle.


The other day when the wind was blowing in 40 MPH gusts, I went for a run. Just to see. I live in an established suburban neighborhood anchored with trees that had danced with storms since my grandparents ran wild: mighty oaks, old growth fir, and two jolly green poplar that on clear nights bookend the moons of Jupiter; towering over a younger wiry crop of developer-planted dogwood, cherry, and maple. The wind frantically dipped the tree tops, whipped up leaf demons, and bullied small branches to the ground. It tried to push me around, but I’m skinny and, without leaves or needles or webbing, don’t have much lift. One big gust tossed a cat–a fluffy little tabby with ears like lateen sails–out of the skirts of a big fir and into my arms (really, onto my shoulders) as I jogged past. I whooped and she howled and dug in, burying her nose in my armpit. The tree stood on the lawn of a white neo-colonial with a red front door–red for good fortune in finance–so I carried her there and rang the bell. A friendly older gentleman answered, a lawyer or professor or other professional orator from his demeanor, he swept me in and thanked me profusely while scolding and cooing over the cat–who rumbled in response to “Oh now now you are now now puss puss.” His wife–younger and lovely in her own feline sort of way–exclaimed and rubbed noses with little Onnyannpp, offered me a cold cloth for the blood, and insisted I stay for tea. Three cups and one photo album of adventure vacations and graduations later, the cat twining round my ankles, they conferred briefly nose-to-nose then suddenly offered one of their daughter’s hands in marriage. I smiled apologetically at my new dear friends and held up my left ring finger. Then I told them about my three sons of marriageble age: one a budding economist in the blossoming field of online publishing, one an athlete developing a method for knitting bones with sound, one a musician who speaks three Eastern languages and laughs at jokes in six. And so you find me here in the first row of pews on the groom’s side, with my own beautiful wife, holding kleenex in one hand and my little daughter’s hand tight in the other, waiting for the bride, hoping that the wind howling outside has not blown her away, and wondering if there are two feet sticking out from under this little church, rapidly curling and ready to drop a pair of sparkling red shoes.

[This odd little piece started out as a handful of sentences about how it was windy, I went for a run, caught a cat blown from a tree, returned the cat to her owner, was rewarded with an offer of marriage, countered with an offer of my son’s hand, and ended up in church for the ceremony–a sketch of of initial conditions and unpredictable outcome (leaving out the background info for all parties that would make the outcome far less random). Then I started dropping in more language, and shaving; dropping in and shaving (like a homeless guy in a public restroom on the mornings of successive job interviews). I stopped after I’d seriously exceeded the time I’d given myself to work on the piece, thought it was either droll and wacky or flat and wacky with a few sparks, but “good enough for blog (vanity press?) work,” and not good enough to send out. I’m focusing more on productivity instead of my usual practice–smothering a piece with love that I only mean to flirt with. But I can use pieces like this as phrase and idea banks I might draw from later, and I’ll continue to play with the theme of apparently random outcomes.]


My heart thuds and whooshes in my ears all day long. I notice it more at night, when the world is quiet. The doctor says my EKG is normal and my blood pressure is par excellence. Extracurricular reading says it might be anxiety. I’ve been anxious all my life and maybe it’s just catching up with me. Dry observations aside, it annoys the hell out of me. Time to dust off the old tai chi again, I think–long form, Yang style, the way I learned it back in another century.

13 Nov

Virtual Room of One’s Own

I often see tweets from an outstanding local writer on how slow she is–her average daily output being about 300 words. I suspect that those are 300 carefully chosen words resulting in fairly polished text, not 300 words blurted onto a page (or e-mail or blog, etc.). But even 300 words ill chosen are better than nothing, especially if we write them when we really don’t want to be writing. (There’s a nice guest post on Jeff Vandemeer’s blog about this.)

It helps me that my tools for personal writing (either offline or online) are very different from my workaday computer tools (the MS Office Suite, a fancy text editor, and CMS and web dev tools). When I open PageFour or my intentionally simple blog env (or my little red spiral bound notebook), I know why I’m there, I’m not distracted by the tools or thinking about other projects for which I use them and should probably check up or work on. If I’m not connected to the blog, I intentionally go offline.

Cory Doctorow has written that he drafts everything in a text editor to minimize computer-related distractions. I can’t do that easily–only because my thinking is still shaped by some visual presentation and sense of organization of the parts. But it’s worthwhile to have that separation–the virtual desk or “room of one’s own.”

09 Nov

Getting Hot Over Instructions

Why it’s so important to be thoughtful when writing instructions:

On Saturday, Debby made a big pot of “black bean harvest chili” that included, along with beans and sauce, chunks of butternut squash, dark beer, and canned chipotle peppers.

The first taste almost blistered the skin off the roof of my mouth (although it was also incredibly delicious for the first 100 ms). Debby, hot pepper girl that she is, gave me a predictable look of scorn, took a big bite and raced for the sink (only three steps away, but she raced). If I hadn’t been drowning my personal furnace with our last bottle of beer, I might have taunted her as she ran the tap straight into her mouth. Instead, I set the empty bottle on the counter with a decisive clink and raised my eyebrows. She glared from under the tap, clearly knowing that the only other (and much weaker) extinguisher left was the gallon of milk we’d meant for the children. She turned off the water, wiped her mouth (delicately) with a towel, and marched (three steps) back to the chili–ignoring my offer to run to the store for more beer–and said, “We’re going to fix this or end up killing everyone (but us) in the dinner party.”

Did I mention that we’d invited two other couples over? (One was couple my brother and sister-in-law, so any damage done there probably didn’t count, but the other couple were close friends, and foodies to boot!)

So what the hell happened? We’d picked up the recipe via Saveur.com–where the recipes are almost always bulletproof–and Debby is a thoroughly competent and increasingly spectacular cook. We shrugged it off and theorized that the recipe author was Venusian and for them, this chili was probably mild. Debby fished out all the chipotles she could find, and we dumped in a jar of spaghetti sauce and soup broth to cut it down. We weren’t able to retrieve the sauce from the cans of pepper, nor most of the baby nuke pepper seeds.

On the Scoville scale from 0 to 1,000,000 (it goes higher, but only for pepper spray and pure capsaicin), the undiluted chili was probably at Scotch Bonnet level: between 100,000 and 350,000 units. Post-dillution, it was closer to 8,000 to 10,000 (Jalapenos, Hungarian Wax, and most chipotles–which are often smoked Jalapenos). Since we’d used the same brand of canned chipotles just a week before, we guessed that there’d been some QC or pepper supply issue at the factory along the lines of “Dammnit we are out of Jalapenos but look at these freight damaged Habaneros! They will be a delightful treat for our customers who are used to less. As my venerable grandmother who founded our company once said, ‘Smoke em if you got em, boys!'”

At dinner everyone had a small bowl along with lots of bread, salad, cheese, pasta, and other neutral or low-temp side dishes, and some bold wine. We all agreed that it was tasty and about as hot as we’d ever want our chili. We topped the evening with a giant pan of apple crisp and full bodied vanilla ice cream. Everyone left with their own food baby, totally sated and still talking about our little food adventure.

Today, I was reading the ingredients again, and had an aha moment.

1 small pie pumpkin or orange squash
1 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 can (28 oz) plum tomatoes, chopped
2 cans (19 oz) black beans, drained and rinsed
1 bottle (300 ml) stout (such as Guinness or Dragon)
2 tbsp brown sugar or maple syrup
1 tbsp chili powder
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tsp each cinnamon and oregano
2 canned chipotle peppers, minced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels

Note the number and units of chipotles. It calls for two peppers, from a can. We added two cans (6 oz or so). So it’s pretty clear that two things happened: we added too many peppers; and the peppers themselves were either not your typical Jalapenos (fresh peppers of the same variety can differ drastically in heat, depending on the crop) or another, hotter variety as described above.

How’d we make our mistake? Tip for recipe authors–do not, repeat, do not use the container type (canned, jarred, bagged) as an adjective prefixing the noun/food item, at least when for ingredients that make a huge difference in flavor or may kill the consumers of said recipe. Cooks are often moving fast and focusing on the food noun itself–we are more likely to see the container type if it follows food name. Especially if there are other ingredients that read “cans of”–even people who work with words for a living can read “cans of” instead of “canned” in a big list followed by a paragraph or more of instructions. Or, if you do used “canned” as they did above, it’s okay to add a note along the lines of:

Note: Dear harried cook or people who overlook the little things, please be sure to use two chiles from a can of chiles, not two cans.

In retrospect, it’s possible that the early disaster made for a more successful dinner party. And, leftover chili cold from the fridge the next evening was tasty and didn’t need any help (that didn’t stop me from adding slivers of cheddar). Debby and I agreed to try the recipe again, and this time we’ll have a six pack on hand.