Thursday, April 30, 2009

Things That Go BANG In The Night

A gamma ray burster detected a week ago by the NASA Swift satellite and designated GRB 090423 (CNN article here) marked the discovery of the oldest known object in the Universe -- a supernova of a giant star about 600 million years after the beginning of the Universe itself. This object is about 13 billion light years away (red shift z = 8.2), about a billion or more light years more distant that the most distant quasars (z around 5 or 6). This object is important because it and others like it will provide a way to probe the earliest generations of stars formed in the cosmos.

A more recent bang in the sky was SN 1006 -- a star about 7,000 light years away that went supernova on April 30, 1006 -- 1,003 years ago. For calendar nazis, I understand that today is not the actual anniversary due to the Julian-to-Gregorian conversion. This object was somewhat smaller in scale than the GRB 090423 blast, but still pretty substantial, making it very probably the brightest star (other than the sun) seen by human eyes.

Above, the Chandra image in x-rays of the supernova remnant a thousand years after the blast. The bubble has expanded to a diameter of 20 parsecs -- over 60 light years. Below, a Hubble image of a ribbon of gas and dust from the same nebula.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Tracking Swine Flu using Google Maps

View H1N1 Swine Flu in a larger map

Infectious cases of the H1N1 Swine Flu—a mutation of a pork virus that jumped from pigs to humans—happened in Mexico City in March, and are spreading over the world thanks to the ubiquity of modern air travel.

On the map, the pink markers are suspect, the purple markers are confirmed, and deaths don't have a black dot in the marker. The yellow markers are negative.

People in Toronto are all too familiar with this, having gone through the SARS near-pandemic from 2002 to 2003. As of today, the number of swine flu cases worldwide exceed 2,000 -- a substantial percentage of the total SARS cases (over 8,000).

SARS had a pretty significant negative impact on the economy of the city of Toronto, and more generally, the world. The current swine flu outbreak is happening in the midst of a global recession, so I expect it will be a force acting to make the overall economic impact worse.

I have no idea who the creator of the map is, although the profile of the anonymous creator shows a reference to biomedical research.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Star Trek Advance Reviews

The hype machine has ramped up this week. An advance review on CNET dated April 22 from a writer who describes herself as a Star Trek virgin provides reassurance that the new Star Trek movie will appeal to people who have never seen any of the series or the movies.

For hardcore fans like all in this household, the Gizmodo review is more meaningful. "Star Trek will disappoint no one." he begins, and goes on to enumerate the reasons why. My favourite quotes from the review:

The Star Wars cheap shot --
As the lights dimmed and the familiar Star Trek Federation logo slid on screen, the emotion of all those hours of watching Next Generation reruns as a kid came sloshing back into my brain, dripping out of my eyes as tears of pure happiness. I expect that it was essentially the same emotion Star Wars fans felt during the opening credits of Episode 1, but without the massive letdown afterwards. (Ha ha, suckers.)

On updating the look and feel --
That's not to say Star Trek is now gritty—it's just more...modern. And more sexy. Like when you upgrade from a six piece KFC meal to a 12 piece bucket: you're going to get more breast and thigh.

To paraphrase one of the Usual Suspects, I like thighs. They're juicier.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Just Call Me Joe-Bob

A few days ago, Ramey Ko of the Association of Chinese Americans was testifying before the State Elections Committee of the State of Texas in the US. In response to Ko's testimony regarding problems that Americans of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean descent have in voter identification in elections, State Representative Betty Brown, a Republican member of the Texas State Legislature representing District 4 (Athens/Terrell) said the following:
"Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese — I understand it's a rather difficult language — do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here?"

Additional source for this story here.

I am not Texan, or even American, but I just have to comment on this.

Brown's remarks undoubtedly summarize the intellectual position of at least some portion of the American population. And there are bound to be people of similar minds on this side of the border. I am reminded of the difficulties that I had growing up with a Chinese name -- one that was very different from the Anglo-Saxon mainstream. At my first job when I was a teenager, the advice given to me (I worked in in a telephone sweatshop) was that I should identify myself using a name that was more consumer-friendly.

However, that was then and this is now. Brown's colleague, Representative Trey Martinez Fischer and the people who run the Rum and Monkeys website have made available the "Betty Brown Name Generator", a web application that will help anyone with a name that is non traditional (or at least non traditional in Betty Brown's judgement) replace their name with one that people like Ms. Brown would understand and would identify with.

I am very pleased to report the following result from the Betty Brown Name Generator for me:

My Betty Brown Approved Name is Joe-Bob "WalMart" Brown.
Try The Betty Brown Name Generator yourself!
Created with Rum and Monkey's Name Generator Generator.

Y'all should call me "Joe-Bob", although if we are in a business meeting together, you could call me "J.B." At parties and in public, I will continue to respond to "hey you". While I have issues with being called "WalMart", y'all could call me "Wally" if y'all needed a nickname.

I can't help thinking that Betty Brown's problem with some names might be due to their (relatively larger) number of syllables as well as cultural context with which Ms. Brown may lack familiarity, even though she is an elected government official in a state of the wealthiest (and theoretically best educated) nation on Earth.

The Betty Brown Name generator can be seen to therefore have some wider application. In addition to the modifications to biology and astronomy textbooks that will be required to implement the position taken by the Board of Education of the State of Texas on intelligent design versus conventional scientific theories of cosmic origin and biological evolution, there could be similar rewritings of history textbooks as follows:

- replace "George Washington" with Forrest "Pabst Blue Ribbon" Brown. Even though General Washington is a Founding Father of the great nation of America, his name does have too many syllables in it for easy comprehension. Also, if this change is made, George Washington Carver can be Forrest Blue Brown Carver. Texas history books could thus immediately identify Dr. Carver as a man of colour by his name alone.

- replace "Benjamin Netanyahu" with Billy-Ray "Chicken and Dumplings" Brown. Although a long-time ally of the United States, Mr. Netanyahu's Hebrew name also has way too many syllables and "Benjamin" just makes him sound stuck up. Discussing Middle East history of the last few decades and how they were driven by an American ally named Billy-Ray should make this subject both more comprehensible and sympathetic to students in Betty Brown's Texas. Also, the "Chicken and Dumplings" nickname can be a vehicle by which the Texas educational system introduces the richness of Jewish heritage and culture and in particular, matzoh ball soup to ordinary Americans. But instead of forcing those ordinary Americans to learn the Hebrew word "matzoh", they could move with immediate understanding to "Chicken and Dumplings".

- don't replace "J. Robert Oppenheimer" with Joe-Bob "Cracker Barrel" Brown. Even though this distinguished American physicist and I share the same Betty Brown approved name (except for the nickname), Oppenheimer was attacked by Senator Joseph McCarthy, and in a Betty Brown world, it would be inappropriate to give him a name that makes him more like a "real American". (In the Sarah Palin sense of the term "real American").

- replace "Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar" with Billy-Ray "Cracker Barrel" Brown. This American physicist of Indian origin for whom the Chandra Space Telescope is named clearly has way too many syllables in a name which would be incomprehensible to people living in the world of Betty Brown. Therefore, physics textbooks in Texas can make reference to the "Cracker-Barrel Limit" instead of the Chandrasekhar Limit for calculation of the upper bound of stars which can collapse to form a white dwarf star. Keep in mind though that all this long-hair stuff is only a theory -- you know, like evolution. Or the Germ Theory of Disease. Or gravitation.

- and for goodness sake, definitely replace the names of Samuel Chao Chung Ting, Yao Ming and Kalpana Chawla. Real Americans in Betty Brown's Texas can't believe that people with names like these could win a Nobel Prize and be on the staff of a major scientific facility intended to be in Texas, or play basketball in Texas, or die in a space shuttle accident over Texas.

Betty Brown's remarks have done a lot to demonstrate the care and commitment that she feels toward people of Chinese descent, as well as to show the seriousness and credibility of some members of the Texas State Legislature. I, Joe-Bob Brown, her spiritual brother, wish her the very best political future that her remarks have shown that she deserves.