All posts by Greg Laden

Celestial Calculations: This Book Promises To Not Hurt You

To calculate the exact location of a star, planet, or satellite, read the appropriate chapter in this book, download the source code, data files, or binaries, as needed from the publisher, and off you go on a wild adventure that combines star gazing, mathematics, and coding.

I am especially attracted to science or technology books that contain something the reader can work with. A book about a programming language should walk the reader through developing a good example of useful code. A book about computational science should include templates for workflow in data analysis. It is rare, though, to find a book about a pure science (as opposed to technology) that does this. Celestial Calculations: A Gentle Introduction to Computational Astronomy (The MIT Press) by J. L. Lawrence is one of those pragmatic publications.

J.L. Lawrence comes from the world of technology. He is a CTO of a company that builds computer systems for satellite-launching customers including the government. So, one might imagine that he has an interest in pulling out the old slide rule and doing applied rocket science.

Consider the situation of a serious amateur astronomer. You can look at the stars and planets through a good set of binoculars, or an amateur telescope. After a while, you may want to upgrade to a telescope that can be linked to your laptop for positioning. Or you might build a star tracker to allow your camera to get a nice shot of a comet. And so on.

But eventually you may also want to get into the math of the heavens, combining that with some coding skills you can easily pick up, and figure out how to locate planets, find specific stars, track the moon’s behavior with great accuracy, and convert between all the values of time and space that happen when round objects of various sizes find themselves falling towards each other in great, seemingly infinite time, spirals. And so on.

Celestial Calculations is written for amateur astronomers who want to use accessible math combined with extensive ready to go code written manly in python, java, and visual basic.

The prose that discusses the math and astronomy is straightforward and accessible, and if you read the book just for that you will come away much better informed about the solar system and broader universe. If you do that, you will probably skip about 20% of the technical discussions and math (maybe a bit more). The math is very clear and you can work through the concepts in your head, more or less, to get the idea, and appreciate the dynamic relationships between things in space. The programming is all relegated (but with notes in the book) to a major on line archive that you can download and use on your own computer to make the calculations, and modify as you wish.

The software is developed with a Microsoft Windows user in mind. The software should run on any platform, but you may have to fiddle with paths and other environment issues if you are using a non-Windows machine.

First Named Atlantic Storm of 2019

Ninety-seven percent of North Atlantic cyclones form after June 1st and before November 30th. Note that the end of the Atlantic hurricane season used to be October 31st, but it was moved because the hurricane scientist got tired of cleaning out their locker six times a year instead of just one time. Over the many years of tracking storms, 89 named storms have happened outside the named season.

So it is not utterly odd that Tropical Storm Andrea is now swirling about in the Atlantic, southwest of Bermuda.

It is possible, but unlikely, that Andrea will turn into a hurricane. It is too early to be sure bla bla bla but all the available information about this storm strongly indicates that it will move up the middle of the Atlantic and eventually become a large wet spot somewhere in Europe. I’m putting my money on Ireland. (yes, I now, too early bla bla bla, but Ireland.)

For your information, the next named storm will be Barry. Then…

Chantal
Dorian
Erin
Fernand
Gabrielle
Humberto
Imelda
Jerry
Karen
Lorenzo
Melissa
Nestor
Olga
Pablo
Rebekah
Sebastien
Tanya
Van
Wendy

New Prothero: Twenty Five Dino Discoveries

There is a new book by Don Prothero, and it is a new book in the microgenre of “25 things.”

The Story of the Dinosaurs in 25 Discoveries: Amazing Fossils and the People Who Found Them by Don Prothero is available now for pre-order, and is expected to hit the shelves in mid July. It will provide excellent summer reading!

You know of Prothero because of his many books including the current classic (now in its second edition) Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters. The “25” genera includes The Story of the Earth in 25 Rocks: Tales of Important Geological Puzzles and the People Who Solved Them, and The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution.

This book has a chapter devoted to each discovery. The nature of the discovery varies, and the definition of discovery is, necessarily and helpfully, very wide ranging. In many cases, the discovery, recovery, eventual reporting or publication, and integration of a dinosaur species is a long and drawn out process involving multiple field trips, many different characters, and a lot of action. For example, the “discovery” of spinosaurus (from Egypt) comes to us as a story involving two world wars, several expeditions, great human tragedy, and some cool dinosaur bones. Other discoveries are more about how we think about dinosaurs. This is especially true of the first few chapters, which serve to illustrate how clueless early researchers were about certain things, while being pretty smart about other things.

Chapter 6, on Eoraptor, focuses not on a specific discovery, but rather, on the question of what a dinosaur actually is, how taxonomy has changed, and on attempts to identify and define the basal dinosaur (which is not Eoraptor, but it kinda is). There are other similar orienting pauses elsewhere in the book as well.

Although the chapters vary a great deal in the range of time, space, or fossil material covered, they follow a general pattern of putting together in one place most of the pertinent facts about a particular episode in the history of dinosaur research, and the pertinent facts about a particular part of the overall dinosaur bestiary. All in all, there is a good bit of history, history of the science, anatomy, evolutionary biology, scientific drama, greatness and tragedy of the act of discovory (or loss), and many many bones.

It is important for you to know that Prothero brings the reader up to date on many, probably most, of the current dinosaur controversies and conundra. The Story of the Dinosaurs in 25 Discoveries: Amazing Fossils and the People Who Found Them is divided into four sections. The first is about early finds and early thinking, from the dark ages of dinosaur research. The second focuses on the long-necked giants, the third on theropods, and the fourth on the ornithischians (duck beaked, horned, and spiky armored dinosaurs). I’ve put a current draft of the TOC at the bottom of the post to give you an idea of the detail of coverage.

I highly recommend this book.

Also by Prothero: When Humans Nearly Vanished: The Catastrophic Explosion of the Toba Volcano, Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future, UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens: What Science Says, The Princeton Field Guide to Prehistoric Mammals (Princeton Field Guides), California’s Amazing Geology, and coming out in the future: Fantastic Fossils: A Guide to Finding and Identifying Prehistoric Life, and a bunch of other books.

TOC:
Part I. In the Beginning
1. Megalosaurus: The “Great Lizard,” the “Scrotum Humanum”, and the First Named Dinosaur
2. Iguanodon: Gideon Mantell, Louis Dollo, and the First Dinosaur Fauna
3. Cetiosaurus: The “Whale Lizard,” Richard Owen, and the First Known Sauropod
4. Hadrosaurus: Joseph Leidy and the First American Dinosaur
5. Eoraptor: The First Dinosaurs
Part II. The Long-Necked Giants
6. Plateosaurus: Ancestors of the Giants
7. Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus: Marsh, Cope, and the Bone Wars
8. Diplodocus: The Real “Jurassic Park” and Carnegie’s Gift
9. Giraffatitan: The Tallest of the Tall, and the Tendaguru
10. Patagotitan: Who’s the Biggest of Them All?
Part III. Red in Tooth and Claw: The Theropods
11. Coelophysis: The Little Dinosaur of Ghost Ranch
12. Cryolophosaurus: Denizen of the Polar Darkness
13. Spinosaurus: Lost Giants of Egypt
14. Tyrannosaurus: King of the Tyrant Reptiles
15. Giganotosaurus: Biggest Predator of All?
16. Deinocheirus: “Terrible Hands” Lead to Big Surprises
17. Velociraptor: “Terrible Claws” and the Dinosaur Renaissance
18. Sinosauropteryx: Feathered Dinosaurs and the Origin of Birds
Part IV. Horns and Spikes and Armor and Duck Beaks: The Ornithischians
19. Heterodontosaurus: The Origin of Ornithischians
20. Stegosaurus: The “Roofed Lizard” and the Thagomizer
21. Ankylosaurus: Armored Dinosaurs and “Mr. Bones”
22. Corythosaurus: Duckbills with Headgear
23. Stegoceras: The “Unicorn Dinosaur” and the Boneheads
24. Protoceratops: The Griffin Legend and the Origin of Horned Dinosaurs
25. Triceratops: The “Dinosaurian Bison” and the Last of the Dinosaurs

Make Your Own Pixel Art

First, what is “pixel art?”

Is that just art that is rendered in raster? Not exactly. Pixel art is the sort of art you draw for digital cartoons or similar things. The skills and tools of making pixel art would apply to designing icons or logos used in electronic products as well.

To demonstrate what pixel art is, I’m including a few examples from the newly published Make Your Own Pixel Art: Create Graphics for Games, Animations, and More! by Jennifer Dawe and Matthew Humphries.

This book will give you an introduction to the tricks of the trade of making technologically simply but artistically potent drawings, including ways to animate them.

The non-OpenSource (boo) software that is used throughout the book is not expensive and is easy to use, and yes, OpenSource alternatives are suggested and briefly discussed. The book relies on Aseprite and Pro Motion, with GraphcsGale (Windows only, boo) being a free alternative.

Techniques covered include shading, texture, proper use of color, motion and animation, and making things look sentient. Apparently, you can make money doing this sort of thing! This book is probably a good investment, at the very least to see if you have the talent and interest.

Author Jennifer Dawe is an animator and character designer who has been a professional pixel artist for the past 15 years. Author Matthew Humphries is Senior Editor at PCMag.com and a professional game designer.

Little Myth on the Prairie

I have been slowly and steadily working on a project that involves an old topic of interest: the dynamic changes in society, economy, and settlement pattern as Euro-Americans ensnared the middle and western parts of the continent in their material and political net of civilization, sometimes known as the Westward Expansion. And for this reason, I came across a book, a NYT Book Review “Best Ten” for 2017, of interest, that happens also to be on sale cheap in Kindle format.

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser.

As pointed out in a review by Patricia Nelson Limerick, the exploitation and eastward shipping, for profit, of bison hides and precious metals (and everything in between) was not the only gig in the west. The story itself, the stories of pioneering, gun fighting, Indian, er, relations, and everything else, collected in situ and refined through the myth-mills of the publishing industry, amounted to a significant and valuable commodity. One of the most productive ore lodes of daring narrative in the plains and midwest was the one tapped by Laura Ingalls Wilder via the Little House series, and other tales. Also, her daughter was in on it.

Prairie Fires pulls back the switch-grass curtain. To quote from PNL’s review:

Rendering this biography as effective at racking nerves as it is at provoking thought, the story of Wilder’s emergence as a major sculptor of American identity pushes far past the usual boundaries of probability and plausibility. For anyone who has drifted into thinking of Wilder’s “Little House” books as relics of a distant and irrelevant past, reading “Prairie Fires” will provide a lasting cure. Just as effectively, for readers with a pre-existing condition of enthusiasm for western American history and literature, this book will refresh and revitalize interpretations that may be ready for some rattling. Meanwhile, “Little House” devotees will appreciate the extraordinary care and energy Fraser brings to uncovering the details of a life that has been expertly veiled by myth. Perhaps most valuable, “Prairie Fires” demonstrates a style of exploration and deliberation that offers a welcome point of orientation for all Americans dismayed by the embattled state of truth in these days of polarization.

-Patricia Nelson Limerick, review, The New York Times

Check it out!

How Old Is The Universe?

According to this paper, which I have no idea what it says, the Earth may be about 12.5 billion years old. This is younger than the previously favored answer, which put the universe at 13.8 billion years old.

More precisely, or actually, less precisely, the lead author on that paper says that the universe may be between 12.5 and 13 billion years old.

There is a write-up here.

So, that hold-the-date card they sent out for the 14 billion year anniversary of the universe? Keep it tacked to the fridge for now, but be prepared to pencil in a new date.

CIA Secrets and Bill Bryson on English

A lot of people like this book. I found it to be OK. But it is cheap for Kindle, so knock yourself out (but if you live in Minnesota, pronounce the ‘k’ in ‘knock.’): The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way

And, the book we have all been waiting to be declassified: The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception

Once a top-secret training manual for CIA field agents in the early Cold War Era of the 1950s, The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception is now available to the general public. An amazing historical artifact, this eye-opening handbook offered step-by-step instructions to covert intelligence operatives in all manner of sleight of hand and trickery designed to thwart the Communist enemy. Part of the Company’s infamous MK-ULTRA—a secret mind-control and chemical interrogation research program—this legendary document, the brainchild of John Mulholland, then America’s most famous magician, was believed lost forever. But thanks to former CIA gadgeteer Bob Wallace and renowned spycraft historian H. Keith Melton, The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception is now available to everyone, spy and civilian alike.

Dem Vs Trump: How are we doing?

There is a new poll pitting various Democrats against Trump. Before you complain to me that we should not be looking at polls because it is not election day, think again and take note of the fact that polls are data and I’m a data-oriented scientist, so don’t even say that to me. (I’m working on a post that will serve as an answer to that complaint every time it comes up on Facebook)

Anyway, this is a Quinnipiac University poll taken in Pennsylvania. Quinnipiacis a good poll. Details are here. Also note that I’m not posting this poll because its results show something I want to push, or use to cause your hair to burst into flames. I’ve not looked at the results, yet here I am writing this blog post. I will now look at the results, figure out a good way to show them to you, then finish the post. brb.

The poll has a LOT of interesting data that will figure as important down the road as the number of candidates cull out and we get to see the results of a bunch of natural experiments (like, which non-dropping out candidate tends to accrete which demographic as they drift away from dropper-outer-candidates).

But here is what the head to head shows:

These results vary considerably when adjusting for age, gender, and race. Note that in this sort of matchup, reaching above 50 is considered by pollsters as a sort of magic number. Only Biden does that here, but Sanders is (obviously) vert close.

I think the most important message here is this: The candidates do not vary much in this very early indication of their electability, even if they vary a great deal in how they rank among Democrats.

Putting aside the head to head and looking at some of the other data, among registered democrats, Biden has 39% support, Sanders has 13% support, with Harris, Warren at 8%, Buttigieg at 6%, Booker at 5%, O’Rourke at 2%, and Klobuchar at 1%. Nobody else registers. Someone else has dropped, interesting, to an apparent low at 2%. I’m thinking people realized, “no, no, NOT someone else, pleasssseee!!!”

Again, that varies by age, gender, race, etc. Among the young, Biden and Sanders are essentially tied (Biden just ahead, 29-27), while among the old, Sanders barely registers and Biden swoops (Biden: 47%, Sanders 4%). Putting both Biden and Sander aside for a moment, and digging into the demographic weeds, Harris, Warren, and Buttigieg pop among those with higher incomes (Sanders gets very little support there, Biden plenty). Harris pops among older folks, Booker and Buttigieg do a bit better with younger folks. Liberals like Buttigieg and Warren.

Speaking of Tolkien and Cannibals… cheap books

Perhaps prompted by the news of a Tolkien biographical movie, this book — J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography — is suddenly cheap on Kindle.

And as long as I’m mentioning cheap Kindle books, and since cannibalism is a common theme here, see: Man-Eater: The Life and Legend of an American Cannibal.

And I know some of you like Sue Grafton, so S is for Silence: A Kinsey Millhone Novel for two bucks is nice.

Update on Mechanical Keyboards

All keyboards are “mechanical” in some sense, or at least most of them, in that something moves. But what we call a “mechanical keyboard” is one that has individual switches under each key cap, instead of some sort of silly squishy membrane. This gives the keys a different tactile sense, and often, a sound.

This post — Mechanical Keyboards What Are They And Which One Do You Want — is a little, but not too much, out of date. The basic information is correct. There are one or two more kinds of keys than described, and there are emerging manufacturers that may or may not be making good switches, and there are many more offerings of el-cheapo keyboards. And, still, the DasKeyboard is still one of the better (and more expensive) options.

My Avant Stellar keyboard finally broke in enough places (I’m tough on keyboards) to require major repair or replacement. I looked briefly at really old Northgates (20-30 years old?) on ebay, bid on a few, but was outbid and decided not to spend an exorbitant amount of money on a decades old untested machine. I also realized that I have two computers sitting next to each other, and when I change between them, it feels wrong, because they have two entirely different kinds of keyboards. But, I realized, if I get a new DasKeyboard for my Linux machine, since I have a Mac DasKeyboard on the Mac, then I would quickly become accustomed to switching back and forth and all would be well. So, I got the Das Keyboard Model S Professional Cherry MX Blue for the Linux to match the Das Keyboard Model S Pro for Mac, and now everything is good.

Except possibly one thing. You may recal that I had earlier complained about the font used on the key caps on the DasKeyboards. At the time, I used stick on labels to upgrade the DasKeyboard to how I like it. For some reason, as I sit here typing on the new DasKeyboard with the small typeface that I don’t like much, I’m not bothered by it, so I may not make that change. We’ll see.

So now all is well in keyboard land, and my pile of no longer in use keyboards available for spare parts grows.

Tolkien, The Movie

I’ve been reading Huxley (9) LOTR. The other day we got through Gandalf’s long soliloquy on his problems in Isengard, and Huxley went more or less off to sleep. Later, I heard him singing from the bedroom, “Frodo and Bilbo sitting in a tree … K I S S I N G.”

Anyway, vaguely apropos of that, there is this:

Should be interesting and, of course, highly controversial, as are all things LOTR.