New interesting planets found

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When a planet passes in front of a star, it is like having the planet in a huge laboratory setting with spectrometers picking up energy from that star as it passes around that planet and through its atmosphere, if it has an atmosphere. It is possible to use this information to estimate the size of the planet and to say something about its composition.

There are two ways in which this super natural laboratory is foiled. One, the star itself is noisy, spitting out a wide range of unruly energy types unpredictably. The other is if the instruments on our end, at Earth, are messed up by things like the atmosphere, or the fact that the Earth is spinning so we can only see the star and planet for a few hours a day.

For these two reasons, astronomers seem to like to do two things. One is to find “quiet” stars, stars that have a steadier output of energy, so they make better backlights, as it were, for the planets. The other is to put instruments on rocket ships and fly them out of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Both things are happening, and it is working.

A new paper in Nature Astronomy reports on a very interesting observation addressing planet types not previously seen much, if ever, and that are missing in our own solar system. They use the term “Missing Link” to refer to planets that are larger and less rocky, or smaller and less gassy, then the Sun’s solar system style plants are.

The abstract says, in part:

One of the primary goals of exoplanetary science is to detect small, temperate planets passing (transiting) in front of bright and quiet host stars. This enables the characterization of planetary sizes, orbits, bulk compositions, atmospheres and formation histories. These studies are facilitated by small and cool M dwarf host stars. Here we report the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS)1 discovery of three small planets transiting one of the nearest and brightest M dwarf hosts observed to date, TOI-270 (TIC 259377017, with K-magnitude 8.3, and 22.5 parsecs away from Earth). The M3V-type star is transited by the super-Earth-sized planet TOI-270 b (1.247+0.089?0.083 R?) and the sub-Neptune-sized planets TOI-270 c (2.42?±?0.13 R?) and TOI-270 d (2.13?±?0.12 R?). The planets orbit close to a mean-motion resonant chain, with periods (3.36 days, 5.66 days and 11.38 days, respectively) near ratios of small integers (5:3 and 2:1). TOI-270 is a prime target for future studies because (1) its near-resonance allows the detection of transit timing variations, enabling precise mass measurements and dynamical studies; (2) its brightness enables independent radial-velocity mass measurements; (3) the outer planets are ideal for atmospheric characterization via transmission spectroscopy; and (4) the quietness of the star enables future searches for habitable zone planets. Altogether, very few systems with small, temperate exoplanets are as suitable for such complementary and detailed characterization as TOI-270.

An extensive discussion is to be found here at US Riverside’s news agency.


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Stem In A Box: Great new toy, er, tool for learning

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The Tinkering Labs Electric Motors Catalyst is made for kids about 8-12, but a little younger with supervision and older by a few years is cool.

I’ll put my unboxing shots off to the right so you can get an idea of what the kit contains.

Below, there are a few videos provided by the company in the form of videos, some made by kids who used the kit.

There is an increasing number of tinkering kits on the market, and they vary in two respects: How much different kinds of tinkering you can really do, and how well made the parts are. The Tinkering Labs Electric Motors Catalyst is at the top of the scale for each of these variables, among those I’ve seen. Considering that you get materials to cover STEM principles far and wide in one kit, Tinkering Labs Electric Motors Catalyst might be the cheapest kit (at just over $50, probably) per key concept, especially when compared to the higher priced LEGO offerings and similar.

The kit includes 2 standard electric motors, a battery pack (and batteries), two axles, various wheels made of wood, a large range of metal and wood connectors and shapes including wooden gears, various bolts and such, and a pair of safety goggles, just in case. Especially cute is the Giant Piece Of Blank Paper that will be cut up and used for a variety of things.

Supplementing all the materials, which come with a handy tin to hold hardware and a bag to hold stuff, are several guides and challenge cards and the like. A longer book provides an overview of the numerous building techniques that actually make up the core concepts of the kit, and the challenge cards (with a nice holder) guide the kid in a wide range of different directions.

Parents should be prepared: Things in your house may be … different … after this kit is deployed. But you know what they say. You’ve got to break a few eggs to make an omelets.

And yes, there will be omelets.

Among the most interesting and potentially most fun deployments of this kit involve the supplied various colored markers. This may be a job for the giant piece of paper. Or, perhaps, you have a tile floor and some Mr. Clean? In any event, it is possible to make fast, cheap, and out of control Spirograph with this baby. I wonder if it can be used to decorate a cake?

In addition to this kit containing all you need to make dozens of different things, it would not be difficult to include LEGO parts, erector set parts, or other stuff you happen to have laying around the house.

Note that this is not a robotic toy. The motors are standard motors, not step motors, and there is no logic circuity or controller. This is just rudimentary make it spin and shake technology, as you can see in the various videos supplied below.

I will be bringing this item back in a couple of months to remind you to buy it for some kid at Christmas time. Meanwhile, there are always birthdays.


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Our Changing Earth: New Climate Change Book

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Our Changing Earth: Why Climate Change Matters to Young People by Arjun Marwaha is a book for young people, about why climate change should matter to young people, and it is written by an actual young person! Marwaha is a high school junior from California, decorated for his excellent essay writing, who has a passion for helping people understand climate change. The book does that well.

Between the years 2030 and 2050, a quarter of a million people per year will lose their lives to climate change. Blazing temperatures and catastrophic weather are well-known climate change effects, but these simply do not compare with health-related effects: the transmission of water-borne and vector-borne disease. Arjun Marwaha, a high schooler with a passion for STEM, has committed himself to foster awareness for climate change among the youth of today. In Our Changing Earth, he delves into how our planet will be altered in response to climate change, and why this is relevant particularly to young people. Looking forward, Arjun hopes to promote awareness among all humans for the greatest threat to humanity in the 21st century and beyond: climate change.

The author covers sea level rise, increase heat, disease, ocean acidification, dividing the outcomes of anthropogenic climate change into earth-based effects and human health effects. Over eighty sources are used and referenced, and the book includes a glossary of terms divided out by chapter. (I might have put those term definitions in boxes within the chapters, but it is a matter of taste).

Perfect for your high school age child who may benefit from seeing the point of view of another like-minded, like-aged person. Good for anyone who wants to know more about climate change’s effects and causes. I enjoyed, in an apocalyptic depressing sort of way of course, Our Changing Earth: Why Climate Change Matters to Young People.


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Two Amazing Books Set In Africa

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Right now, for a limited time only, The Poisonwood Bible: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver, is available cheap in Kindle format. You probably know the book.

The novel is set against one of the most dramatic political chronicles of the twentieth century: the Congo’s fight for independence from Belgium, the murder of its first elected prime minister, the CIA coup to install his replacement, and the insidious progress of a world economic order that robs the fledgling African nation of its autonomy. Against this backdrop, Orleanna Price reconstructs the story of her evangelist husband’s part in the Western assault on Africa, a tale indelibly darkened by her own losses and unanswerable questions about her own culpability. Also narrating the story, by turns, are her four daughters—the self-centered, teenaged Rachel; shrewd adolescent twins Leah and Adah; and Ruth May, a prescient five-year-old. These sharply observant girls, who arrive in the Congo with racial preconceptions forged in 1950s Georgia, will be marked in surprisingly different ways by their father’s intractable mission, and by Africa itself. Ultimately each must strike her own separate path to salvation. Their passionately intertwined stories become a compelling exploration of moral risk and personal responsibility.

The other amazing book is this extended novella, or shortish novel, mixing compelling and hilarious fiction with thinly veiled actual observations and experiences on the OTHER side of the Congo, in and alongside the Western Rift Valley, as an enigmatic primatologist and a partly clued-in explorer-guy search for an elusive creature that might or might not exist. If you are a member of the Skeptics movement and want to know more about your own origins, In Search of Sungudogo by Greg Laden is a must read.

I’m sure that either one of these authors would appreciate a nice review once you’ve read the book!

“You know how to review a book, don’t you? Just put your lips together and click on something.:” — Archer Mallows, explorer-guy


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Chantal, Welcome to Storm World

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Chantal is the next name in line to be use for an Atlantic tropical storm or hurricane name. I’m going to go out on a limb (where I will be duly chastised by my friends and colleagues who are tropical storm experts or meteorologists), and say that a storm currently brewing in the Caribbean has a very good chance of becoming Chantal.

Right now the National Hurricane Center is saying that [al952019], sitting right now leewaard of the Lesser Antilles, has a 10% chance of formation into an actual named storm over the next two days (i.e., it won’t) and a 20% chance of doing so over the next 3 days.

About half of the usual Atlantic hurricane models have not put out estimates of intensity or location, but the few that have show a pretty good chance of this storm reaching an intensity of about 40KT or more at 48+ hours. After that, the models vary as to whether the weather flat-lines, declines, or goes up in intensity. To become a “named storm” (and that matters, especially to insurance people) the storm has to get to 35KT. SO, I’m thinking this system is our Chantal.

More importantly, the various models all agree on this. As a giant wet spot, an annoyingly vigorous low pressure system, or as a named storm, Chantal (or would-be-Chantal) is going to affect the Caribbean islands. Might go through Puerto Rico, might stay south of the Greater Antilles (but look out Jamaica) and hit the Yucatan on the way to the Gulf, or something in between. I don’t think this is an anything-can-happen situation. I think this is your-Great-Aunt-Tillie-is-going-to-get-soaked situation.

I post this here our of bravado. I will follow the course of the storm and revel in the greatness of my prediction over the next 10 days or so. Or, possibly, delete this post like nothing happened if, indeed, nothing happens.

Stay tuned.

Here is Chantal now. Note the big giant blob comming off the coast of West Africa. Dorian?


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In Search of Sungudogo: A Novel

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I wrote a novel called In Search of Sungudogo.

I wrote this novel, really, a novella, a few years ago as part of a publicity and fundraising stunt several bloggers were doing all at once. Some bloggers shaved their beards or got Mohawks while live streaming, others did other things (nobody can really remember) and I live blogged the construction of a novel by putting out one chapter an hour until I was done.

The final product was rough, especially the beginning and the end. And the middle. As you might expect.

But a heavy revision resulted in what I think is a pretty good story. Those of you who saw the previously Kindle-published version are familiar, but it is further updated since then, not a lot, but with some helpful improvements.

The story started out as a take-off on the Heart of Darkness by Conrad. Other than certain personality shades shared between Archer Mallow (of Sungudogo) and Conrad’s protagonist, Captain Marlow, the similarities are no longer there. It is the story about a search for an as yet unverified form of ape, by a primatologist and a logistical expert familiar (more or less) with the region.

The setting is a part of Africa I am very familiar with. Many of the scenes in the novel are based on things that I’ve experienced, seen, or heard about in my work there. There really is a restaurant that has everything yet nothing, the park guards really are issued one bullet at a time, the volcanoes really do eat small planes. Also accurate are the geography and geology of the area, except where the story veers off into science fiction. And yes, this is science fiction.

In Search of Sungudogo is available in Kindle form now, and will be available in print form very soon, just a matter of days. I’ll let you know when that happens.

Feel free to put a review on Amazon if you like it!


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Who will be ahead on Super Wednesday?

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This year’s nomination process for US POTUS is a little different than usual. Super Tuesday happens FIRST instead of later in the race. Well, first, after the first states. The first state is New Hampshire. Except Iowa goes before New Hampshire, but whatever. After that are Nevada and South Carolina.

So, in that pattern we get a middle of the country white state, an eastern white state, an eastern southern state with a large African American population, and a random labor state (Nevada Democrats are union workers in the casinos, and such), first, and thus, an early look at what some semi-representative parts of the nation think of the candidates.

But then, this year, right away, boom, Super Tuesday.

So, CBS has put together a poll on the standing of the candidates in all the Super Tuesday states plus the first states. And, it is rather amazing.

Here is the breakdown:

Tier 1
Biden 25%
Warren 20%
Harris 16%
Sanders 15%

Tier 2
Buttigieg 6%
O’Rourke 4%
Castro 2%

Tier 3
Everybody else, all under 1%

Now, we need to adjust slightly. Note that Texas is in this poll. That is why O’Rourke is in the second Tier, I suspect. And, good for him. If his candidacy could guarantee Texas it would be good. Klobuchar’s Minnesota, also a Super Tuesday state did not help here in this poll. Among the many Minnesota Democrats I hear from, the most widespread comment I get is “Amy’s great. Senator Amy is great,” and that’s about it. We may be keeping her home. I suppose California being in this group may be helping Harris. Note also how well Warren is doing. Mass is a Super Tuesday state but I would think New York Dems would be very big on her.

For this poll, I suspect that Warren is underestimated and O’Rourke is overestimated, but overall, these numbers are roughly as expected. Notice that as noted elsewhere, Sanders is a 16%er and that’s it. Not much more and not much less.


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Language: The mysterious magical murmuring that we do

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Karen Stolznow is a well studied linguist and a spectacularly famous podcasting skeptic, who has published the following items:

God Bless America: Strange and Unusual Religious Beliefs and Practices in the United States

Haunting America

Would You Believe It?: Mysterious Tales From People You’d Least Expect (in which I have a chapter!)

Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic (see my review here)

Hits & Mrs.

Karen was our most recent guest on Ikonokast Podcast. CHECK IT OUT


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Which of your browser extensions are selling your data?

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I don’t know but you better watch this:

I found your data. It’s for sale.

Hover Zoom was an extension that grabs your data and sells it. That they take your browser’s history to sell is in their agreement, so your fault, I guess. After the report that came out above was passed to the major browser companies, the banned Hover as well as a half dozen other leaky extensions.

Nacho Analytics is behind this, claims they are totally legal, and is pissed that they got found out. The Washington Post essentially put Nacho out of business by closing down those extensions.

There are nearly 4,000 Google Chrome extensions that do this sort of thing on the Google Web Store. SO, this is Google’s fault as much as anyone’s.

I stopped using most extensions a long time ago.

This is Google telling you all the great things you can do to manage some of your information, but unhelpfully not telling you a thing about HOW to actually do it:

The way to do that is to go to the three dots thingie on your browser, then “settings” then “advanced” and you’ll find privacy settings there.


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A History of Impeachment

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There are books about impeachment that are relevant today. I’ve already suggested that you have a look at Impeachment: An American History by Jon Meacham, Peter Baker, Tim Naftali, and Jefrey Engel. I also noted that the newest edition of “Impeachment: A Handbook” is out.

And now, there is a new volume:

High Crimes and Misdemeanors: A History of Impeachment for the Age of Trump by Frank Bowman.

For the third time in forty-five years, America is talking about impeaching a president, but the impeachment provisions of the American constitution are widely misunderstood. In High Crimes and Misdemeanors, constitutional scholar Frank O. Bowman, III offers unprecedented clarity to the question of impeachment, tracing its roots to medieval England through its adoption in the Constitution and 250 years of American experience. By examining the human and political history of those who have faced impeachment, Bowman demonstrates that the Framers intended impeachment to be a flexible tool, adaptable to the needs of any age. Written in a lively, engaging style, the book combines a deep historical and constitutional analysis of the impeachment clauses, a coherent theory of when impeachment should be used to protect constitutional order against presidential misconduct, and a comprehensive presentation of the case for and against impeachment of President Trump. It is an indispensable work for the present moment.


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Kornacki and Grey, two books cheap

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You probably want to have a look at this book by The Great Kornacki, though I don’t approve of the title: The Red and the Blue: The 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism

And this, I have not seen and have no opinion of, but it looks like it might be interesting: Union Pacific: A Western Story by Zane Grey, the author of Riders of the Purple Sage and other frontier America books.


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Beak of the Finch: cheep, er, cheap.

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The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time by Jonathan Reiner is right now cheap in Kindle form.

It is a very good account of the incredibly important work on evolution done by the Peter and Rosemary Grant on Daphne Major island in the Galapagos. This is the study that demonstrated real time evolution of birds among the group initially studied by Charles Darwin. Those observations by Darwin helped shape is conception of natural selection, and the more recent work by the Grants is a modern day demonstration that Darwin was right.


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