Monday, May 26, 2008

Mars Phoenix Lander

When I saw this photo, the little hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

It is a picture of the Phoenix lander, as it parachutes down to the Martian surface. The lander is the smaller of the 2 bright spots; you can just make out the parachute shrouds connecting it to the canopy above. This picture was taken from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE camera, which left Earth in August of 2005 and has been in orbit around Mars for the last year or so.

Wow. This is equivalent to having a picture taken of a speeding bullet BY a speeding bullet. Another analogy I heard was that the Phoenix mission is like sinking a hole-in-one by teeing off in Washington DC and the cup being in Australia. This picture is akin to having a pre-programmed camera present to take a picture of the ball just before it goes in.


The Bad Astronomer over at the BadAstronomy blog(nice to see a non-political post for a change) summed it up the best:

Think on this, and think on it carefully: you are seeing a manmade object falling gracefully and with intent to the surface of an alien world, as seen by another manmade object already circling that world, both of them acting robotically, and both of them hundreds of million of kilometers away.

Oh yeah. Coooool.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


I got this pic from The Planetary Society and it is so amazing I thought I would add it here. Yeah--I am a space geek. Remember, I grew up in the '60's, and I used to get up and watch the Gemini and Apollo missions launch from Cape Kennedy (now Cape Canaveral, it's old name). So I get kind of geekily excited when we get a space triumph like this one. The idea that we can put a laboratory like this one on another planet after shooting it across space for 10 months and have it land in pretty much the spot we wanted it to land--that is pretty awesome. I will be anxiously awaiting more pictures from Mars over the next few weeks, although without a rover, I'm not sure they are going to be that different than what we are seeing today. Still---cool . . .

Friday, May 23, 2008


Emma has been home from school most of the week, with fever and generalized grouchiness. Lots of mouth breathing, too. Not fun.

It was the last day of school for Nicole, and they held the awards ceremony today. The whole 2nd grade numbers only about 15 kids, so they start calling out the names for the Honor Roll medals, and they don't call her name. Hmmm. Anya was there, and could see the distress building in Nicole's face.

Then, they called the straight A students; Nicole was only one of two students to get all A's---you go girl! So, she got a trophy from the principal himself. I think she was pretty proud of herself; I know Anya and I are.

So begins the summer. I remember the excitement of the last day of school when I was a kid, and how the summer seemed to stretch ahead of me almost endlessly. It's sad to think that we didn't have SpongeBob 24/7, or the Internet. No--we had to play outside, all day long. I'm pretty sure I didn't wear shoes for about three months; by the time summer ended, the bottoms of my feet were transformed into some sort of human leather soles, impervious to rocks, glass and probably razor blades. There was a lot of bike riding and kick-the-can, and periodically we would get obsessed with marbles, or yo-yo's, or spinning tops. Do kids even know what to do with a top anymore?

Okay--I don't want to sound like some old guy with a creaky voice and baggy pants, so I better stop. I am hoping the girls can get out and enjoy their summer with their friends and just have a good time.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Art musings

So we trotted down to New Orleans this weekend, and pretty much had the day to ourselves Saturday. It was a beautiful spring day, so we headed over towards City Park, and had lunch at Cafe Degas. I really enjoyed it; I think it is one of Anya's favorite restaurants in the city. The food is very good, basic French cuisine (probably not very cholesterol friendly!) in a great setting. We actually ended up there twice--after we spent a few hours at the museum we went back for the dessert menu--mmmmmmm.

At NOMA, there was the George Rodrigue exhibit, and Mr. Blue Dog himself was there, signing books. Now this is where I will being to rant a little, so my apologies. Rodrigue has an extensive body of work going back 30-40 years. His early works are actually pretty interesting; I really liked the dark, foreboding landscapes, dominated by towering, somber oaks, their branches terminating in what seem to be claws. There is a technical skill displayed. These paintings are "painterly," as Anya likes to describe them.

And then there are the Blue Dogs. I was looking at the large metal sculpture that he had done (he does sculpture, too--I didn't know that), and my attention was drawn to the dog's eyes. A circle, two marks at the 4 o'clock and 8 o'clock positions, and the eyebrow thingy coming off and over at about 11 o'clock. There it was again. Again. And again. And again. Every dog, every eye--again and again. I mean, maybe he has an assistant draw the eyes for him.

One of the 1st Blue Dogs (I think) was there, and it was actually kind of interestingly done (the eye was different, too, somehow, like some conscious thought had gone into its construction). But it's like suddenly, the Blue Dogs began selling like hotcakes (very expensive hotcakes) and Rodrigue was off to the races. Blue Dog this, Blue Dog that, Blue Dog with a celebrity, Blue Dog with whatever happened to be fashionable that day. Formulaic I believe is the word I am looking for. I thought the Blue Dog with Drew Brees was embarassing.

His scenes of Cajun life, once artistic and somewhat masterful (like The Aioli Dinner from 1971) in more recent works seem to be quickly thrown together, almost appearing as if he is trying to imitate some kind of outsider art. Ummm, childish I believe is the word I am looking for.

So what? Is it art? I don't know--I'm not an artist, but I am married to one, and I can hope that some of her brilliance and "painterly" knowledge rubs off on me. And Anya and I have had this discussion before. There is a gallery in the Quarter that featured the works of one artist, whose "badge" was a skinny, line-like saxophone player, standing underneath a wrought-iron balcony, blowing his skinny soulful heart out at the moon hanging above. Nice image, yeah, kinda touristy--but again and again and again, in commutations and permutations and repetitions that eventually make one realize that that "special" painting (for $14,000) maybe isn't so "special" after all. When does art become formula? Can a formula be art? Mr. Rodrigue makes (according to the website) $22,000 per painting. His work is admired and sought after by many, as perhaps is the same for the saxophone painter. But is . . . it . . . art? Are you really reaching and stretching yourself as an artist painting the same dog's eyes day after day? How do you sleep at night? Easy, I'm sure, if you are counting sacajawea's all the way to Dreamland, but as an artist, what do you feel? Accomplished? cheap?

When I asked my artist wife, she replied, "we just don't know." Kind of like that wave-particle duality thing, or what's at the center of a black hole, or where they buried Hoffa's body. I'd like to believe that a true artist develops, and expands and explores their art form, and doesn't sacrifice their instinct for money.

But--we just don't know, although as far as Hoffa goes, I like the theory that he's encased in the north end of Giants stadium in New Jersey.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Bouguereau, Meissonier, Gerome--Art and Shifting Paradigms

Yeah--great title for this post, huh?

My lovely wife is a talented artist, as you may well know. Her work is beautiful, and impressionistic, and I love it. Of course, I'm not an artist, but I like to think that I know art when I see it, to paraphrase Potter Stewart. Maybe it's just me, but I like to see something when I look at a painting, something represented--flowers, a pond of lilies, the London skyline or the front of Chartres cathedral. Sometimes great washes of abstract color can be attractive, but I get lost with a canvas consisting of a big red square, or something that looks like it was constructed with a spirograph. I'm not even getting into the idea of painting, for example, the same skinny sax player beneath a wrought iron balcony and a crescent moon OVER AND OVER AGAIN, and selling it (for big $$$$) as art; that's another post for another day.

So I ran across this article about Tom Wolfe and an apparent revolution in the art world:

The three names in the title of this post were the "It" artists of late 19th/early 20th century France, and a French newspaper conducted a survey

in which they asked leading French art dealers, critics, curators: Who would be the French artists of the 19th century who would still be the giants of art in the year 1997? By the standards of that day, it was a huge survey. And the results were, number one, Adolphe William Bouguereau; second, Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier; and, third, Léon Gérôme. They were looked upon as the giants."

Who? Wait, there's more. "Even after the era of Andy Warhol, who left an estate of $510 million, we cannot begin to comprehend the scale on which these artists--Bouguereau, Meissonier, Gérôme--lived." Wolfe sketches in some detail. "Two- and three-story-high studios. Belgian hangings on all the walls. There were always Persian rugs strewn wherever you could strew one: on top of the piano, on top of the balcony railing, on the bed, everywhere, even on the floor.

Yeah, I said the same thing--who? As Wolfe notes, by 1920 these guys were gone, replaced by the Cubists and Picasso and the then avant-garde. The article is good reading, covering the intersection of politics and the modern art world, among other things--even poetry and verse are getting swept in the change. ". . . Picasso is a fraud?" You just gotta read this.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Great Satan

The ongoing disaster in Myanmar from Cylone Nargis is this week compounded by the earthquake disaster in China. I haven't seen anyone directly blaming Bush for either disaster (at least, not yet), but perhaps the folks at DailyKos will oblige.

So, there is this article about disaster relief that I found to be well-written:

THERE is a certain familiarity to the concomitant series of actions and reactions when disaster strikes in the world. The US stands ready, willing and able to offer assistance. It is often the first country to send in millions of dollars, navy strike groups loaded with food and medical supplies, and transport planes, helicopters and floating hospitals to help those devastated by natural disaster.

Then, just as swift and with equal predictability, those wedded to the Great Satan view of the US begin to carp, drawing on a potent mixture of cynicism and conspiracy theories to criticise the last remaining superpower. When the US keeps doing so much of the heavy lifting to alleviate suffering, you'd figure that the anti-Americans might eventually revise their view of the US. But they never do. And coming under constant attack even when helping others, you'd figure that Americans would eventually draw the curtains on world crises. But they haven't. At least not yet.

So it was last week. The US stood ready to help the cyclone-ravaged Burmese people. It did not matter that Burma's ruling junta was no friend of the Americans. With more than 100,000 people feared dead and many more hundreds of thousands left destitute, US Air Force cargo planes loaded with supplies and personnel started arriving in nearby Thailand to begin humanitarian operations in Burma. . . . The resentment that comes from needing the military and economic might of the US translated into the most absurd criticism. Jan Egeland, the former UN boss of humanitarian affairs, cavilled about the stinginess of certain Western nations. His eye was on the US. Former British minister Claire Short was equally miffed, describing the initiative by the US and other countries as "yet another attempt to undermine the UN", which was, according to her, the "only body that has the moral authority" to help.

I love moral authority as much as the next guy, but the UN's moral authority is a mighty hard sell given that the UN club includes the most odious regimes in the world, such as Burma. And notice how the UN's moral authority did not quickly translate into helicopters laden with food and water?

My thoughts exactly. What's left underreported is that one of Myanmar's best friends (BFF4ever!) is ---- CHINA! Yeah, they just got hammered by the quake, but the Chinese haven't exactly been using their leverage in the region and as an ally to pressure the Burmese military to let aid into the country. Yes--the same China that is THE stumbling block to a resolution to the evil situation in Darfur.

And they call us the Great Satan.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Sharp contrasts

Jenna Bush was married in Crawford last weekend. I didn't follow the story very closely, and at least to me it didn't seem to generate a huge amount of interest. But then my wife pointed out the pictures to me, specifically the ones with the couple at the altar, with Reverend Kirbyjon Caldwell.

Over at the Anchoress ( there was this:

Things certainly seem upside down all over, don’t they? Looking over pictures of the Bush wedding this past weekend, someone commented that the Clinton’s would never have had a private wedding without the press,

“but if they did, they’d still make sure every story mentioned that the preacher marrying the couple was African-American. The Clinton’s never, ever missed an opportunity to pander or play the race card, although in such a case, it would be seen as noble, rather than racist. But the truth is, when you constantly need to go out of your way to mention someone’s race, or someone’s gender, or someone’s sexuality, it’s because you are conscious of it. And if you’re conscious of it, that means you’re not really “color-blind” or “gender-blind”. In fact, it means exactly the opposite. It means you’re fixated.”

And there was this comment on the same blog:

Seeing the photo [of the young couple and Rev. Caldwell, above] and reading your post reminds me of a long ago article about the two-man architectural team who designed the houses on Bush’s property. Both architects were gay, both worked and met extensively with Laura and Governor Bush — whom they described as completely gracious and welcoming, as well as completely interested in the most up-to-date methods of making their structures eco-friendly.

I find this all curiously refreshing. Bush has his faults, no doubt, but the perception of him as a reckless frat boy, racist and homophobic, is incorrect. There is a sense of class here. Now there's something you don't see often: a sentence with the words "Bush" and "class."

It's the idea of talking the talk and walking the walk. Last year, when global warming was at the front of the news cycle, much was made (appropriately) of Gore's sprawling mansion and its ginormous energy footprint. Less was made (unfortunately) of the environmentally friendly design of Bush's Crawford ranch. Yet quietly, without fanfare--there it was.

Much the same with this preacher; what a contrast with the "other" Reverend, and Obama's inability to explain his rapt attention for over 20 years in Wright's church. My guess is that Rev. Caldwell (who, by the way, is an Obama supporter) is more representative of what a "post-racial" society could be like, and certainly more in line with Dr. King's dream.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Kids and fruit

Emma and two clementines. Sounds like the title of a painting, or maybe some indie movie on IFC. My wife took a series of these yesterday afternoon. All of our kids are beautiful.

Kids, misplaced

A couple of thoughts, random as usual . . .

Apparently the other day Michelle Obama did an interview with Meredith Viera (I'm not sure if it was "60 Minutes" or "The View," and is there really a difference anymore?). There were some questions about Rev. Wright (of course), which seemed to make Mrs. Obama uncomfortable. When she non-answered, Viera pressed on with a question about her personal feelings about the Reverend. This is Mrs. Obama's answer:

MICHELLE OBAMA: You know what I think Meredith? I think we gotta move forward. You know, this conversation doesn’t help my kids. You know, it doesn’t help kids out there who are looking for us to make decisions and choices about how we’re going to better fund education.

. . . this conversation doesn't help my kids. So, were the words "GODDAMN AMERICA" helpful to your kids? How about "America's chickens are coming home to roost?"

This concern about her kids is, to put it mildly, misplaced.

And speaking of misplaced concern, let me harken back to a previous post here. On April 16th, I posted about the anguish of the FLDS moms in Texas, as their kids were carted off by authorities. Turns out that some 41 of the kids have or have had broken bones. Of the 53 girls between the ages of 14 and 17, 30 have either been pregnant, are pregnant or both. Some of these girls have been pregnant 2 or 3 times.

I know the broken bone issue needs a little more analysis before one can draw any type of reasonable conclusion. But the pregnancy incidence is disturbing.

Where were the moms concerns while their teenaged daughters repeatedly got pregnant? Their concern about their kids is, once again, misplaced.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Expelled and the concept of evil

I have been trolling some of the skeptical blogs (esp., following the discussions about the film Expelled, recently released, and produced/promoted by Ben Stein. Stein, you will remember, is famous for his turn as the monotonic professor in Ferris Bueller's Day Off ("Bueller? Bueller?"), and for his appearances on the Visine commercials. He was also a speechwriter for Richard Nixon, but I don't want to get sidetracked right now.

Expelled is about the Intelligent Design controversy; ID is essentially creationism dressed up in a white coat to give it some scientific trappings. The movie presents as part of its story the claims of some professors at different colleges and universities who allege that they were dismissed from their academic jobs because they dared mention the heresy of ID in thee presence of evil Darwinists and evolutionists. The angle here is the issue of academic freedom.

Suffice it to say, the professor's allegations do not hold up well under close examination. Their loss of jobs or tenure had to do more with lack of publication, for example. You can find the details at

But that's not the real problem with Stein. A significant portion of the film is taken up with equating the Nazi's with Darwinism, and with the Nazi's as representing nothing more than Evil Science run amok. Yeah, that's it--science leads you to killing people. It is an extremely batty thing to say, and apparently Stein goes as far as showing in the film scenes from the Holocaust. Stein is actually quoted as saying
"the last time any of my relatives saw scientists telling them what to do they were telling them to go to the showers to get gassed."

It's an incredibly cheap shot, and Stein should be ashamed. The Nazi death camps were run by the SS, 99% of whom were NOT scientists. The Nazi's also employed musicians to cover up the screams of the dying; I doubt that Stein thinks that music is evil.

Stein's movie is barely making a ripple, and has consistently received bad reviews. Most are seeing it for the craven piece of propaganda that it is, a calculated attempt to influence and exploit--no different than Al Gore's "documentary" or any of the crap that issues from the orifices of Michael Moore--although I'm sure that it will enjoy a long shelf-life at many of the more fundamentalist churches. But the bloggers at BA(and at other skeptical sites) have been particularly inflamed in their reactions and responses, some going so far as to label Stein as an "evil" man.

Eh. Stein is a buffoon, an ass, an idiot perhaps, misguided, maybe disturbed, but "evil"?

Evil is the guy flying a plane into the WTC. Evil is the guy beheading Daniel Pearl, or the "father" in Austria who's been raping his daughter for the last 20 years. Evil is what's happening in Darfur. Evil is what's happening to Tibet. I've spent a lot of time in the last few days sparring with other bloggers over this issue. The level of anger and rage at this stupid little movie seems vastly out of proportion to any effect it will ultimately have on our society. Yet, this is what the bloggers are apoplectic about, this is what is consuming the comment boards--this is what they consider "evil."

Ben Stein--I've lost a lot of respect for this guy (not that I had a lot to begin with). But if we start defining downward what evil is, the word and the concept will become meaningless, and we will lose the ability to recognize it for what it really is.

It's a movie--that's all.