The Wonder of Weird Worlds

31 March 2012

Exoplanets that stagger the mind and whiffle the imagination.

Day 100 of the year, but who’s counting?

I’ve only been paying a wee bit of attention to the news of exoplanetary discoveries. It’s amazing how many planetary systems we’ve managed to discover in the past few years. I am always amazed at this type of exploration – much like all the new species we keep finding on earth. Wonders never cease.

As we’ve already limited our own solar system to 8 planets (sorry, Pluto, you’re too evil), and an increasing number of planetoids (Ceres, Pluto, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris and so on). However, we have turned our attention ever outward (if that’s how spacetime works, it might be backward) to new places. I thought I should look at some of those, just because it’s kinda cool.

Most Ancient, ‘Impossible’ Alien Worlds Discovered

As we discover more worlds orbiting distant stars, we are finding that “conventional thinking” doesn’t seem to apply to the growing menagerie of exoplanets. And this most recent exoplanetary discovery is no different.

In fact, the two exoplanets found to be orbiting a star 375 light-years away shouldn’t exist at all.

The two gas giant planets were spotted during a survey of “metal poor” stars. When focusing on a star called HIP 11952, researchers from the Max-Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, discovered a slight wobble in the star’s position.

The wobble is being caused by the gravitational tug of two exoplanets — one is nearly the size of Jupiter and orbits the star every seven days, the other is approximately three-times the size of Jupiter and has an orbital period of 290 days.

Exoplanet Art Slideshow

Kepler 16-B is an exoplanet that is orbiting two stars.

Worlds such as this one are referred to as “Hot Jupiters” – big gas giants that are very close to their parent stars (there’s a Hollywood joke in there somewhere).

Star Rips Exoplanet to Shreds with X-Rays

Located 880 light-years away, the star CoRoT-2a is ruthlessly pummeling a closely-orbiting planet with powerful X-rays, blasting an estimated 5 million tons of material off of it every second! The planet, dubbed CoRoT-2b, orbits its star at a distance of about 3 percent the distance between the Earth and the sun — only around 2.8 million miles — and receives a hundred thousand times the X-ray radiation that Earth receives.

In turn, the planet’s close proximity may be responsible for keeping up the high rotation rate of its star, increasing its magnetic activity and thus its X-ray output.


That’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There have been over 100 exoplanetary systems discovered, and the number will undoubtedly increase as we go ahead. The most troubling aspect of this bonanza is the underlying argument that we are searching for worlds that may be suitable to support human life. In point of fact, we already have one. Now’s not the time to bail and try to find greener pastures light-years away.

Reminds me of Gil-Scott Heron.

265 Days to Dec 21st 2012

Complexity and those who Immerse themselves in it

30 March 2012

Keen observations on the complex of complication.

Noam Chomsky interview in Slate

Q: In your new book, you suggest that many components of human nature are just too complicated to be really researchable.

A: That’s a pretty normal phenomenon. Take, say, physics, which restricts itself to extremely simple questions. If a molecule becomes too complex, they hand it over to the chemists. If it becomes too complex for them, they hand it to biologists. And if the system is too complex for them, they hand it to psychologists … and so on until it ends up in the hands of historians or novelists. As you deal with more and more complex systems, it becomes harder and harder to find deep and interesting properties.

Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind

Which reminds me of the premise of Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind by Guy Claxton. He characterizes three aspects of the brain’s thinking: the instantaneous reaction, the logical D-mode, and the undermind, which deals with the most complex ideas we have to think our way through. In essence, the key to working through a complex idea (or problem or whatever way the complexity manifests itself) is to keep ruminating on the idea, and providing new input. Read articles, books, sites, have conversations about the subject. Then kick back, daydream on it for a while, and a bit later BLAM the solution presents itself.

Sort of like the snappy comeback that occurs to you the day after it would have been useful. These things take the time they take, and no amount of D-mode is going to solve a complex problem. It’s better at simple things that can be seen all at once. The undermine takes in the larger, more complex stuff. I must admit that knowing this helped me wade through all this calendar nonsense. The finished Abysmal Calendar just showed up one day (Dec 21st 2005, as it turns out).

Here are a number of quotations I’ve extracted from Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind, which I think illustrate how an intuitive playfulness and focus on one’s work can work together to create true innovative thinking, by seeing through the obvious to the underlying elements. Undoubtedly, this is the kind of thing that James Gleick describes in his book Chaos: Making a New Science.

Everything is gestation and bringing forth. To let each impression and each germ of a feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own intelligence, and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity: that alone is living in the artist’s life. —Rainer Maria Rilke

There are a number of metaphors that creators use to describe their process, but none more common than that of gestation… Gestation has its own timetable: psychologically, as biologically, it is the process par excellence that cannot be hurried. And it cannot be controlled; once the process has been set in motion it happens by itself… —Guy Claxton

If I were obliged to name the class of things to which [poetry] belongs, I should call it a secretion… —AE Housman
Differences between people characterised as rigid, and other characterised as less rigid, may be attributable… to personality differences in time availability… Time availability makes possible broader cognitions, more abstract thinking. and consequently greater flexibility. —Milton Rokeach

… the undermind is keeping a continual check on what is happening below the horizon of conscious awareness, detecting what might be important or dangerous, and deciding when to butt in to consciousness with a ‘news flash.’ —Guy Claxton

Say it nay so

What I continue to find gobsmacking are the off-the-cuff criticisms and knee-jerk denials of people who delve into said complexity and extracted something intriguing. Einstein observed that common people responded positively to relativity before it was accepted by the scientific community. Given the scientific community had a much larger framework into which to fit relativity. The more important aspect of Einstein’s discovery is that he came up with stuff as a clerk, where he had time to mull over what it might be like to ride the lightning. There is an argument here for dilettantes (and plenty of arguments against them, like the proverb “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”)

I studied literature back in the last millennium, and am a voracious reader (check my reading list if you don’t believe me). I have heard the value of non-fiction upheld, and fiction dismissed out of hand. Not everyone, but it makes me scratch my head. Fiction has been around far longer, particularly if you consider language a metaphor.

But the value in stories, particularly the fantastic, the complex and the playful, is that the communicate with our undermind, with the part of our mind that understands that princesses have less to do with entitled debutantes and more with archetypes. The value of fiction over nonfiction is that they explore different things. Same as science and religion. Comparing them as if they were equivalents is a faulty premise to begin with. Oranges are obviously an inferior fruit to apples, because you can’t eat the skin…

Posts of Interest

And one of my personal favourites in 6 years of blogging in theAbysmal, American Plutocracy, which I feel describes the history of United States more tellingly than “factual” history has ever managed, because it works through myth, metaphor with a generous sprinkling of fact. The key to the whole thing is weaving the narrative threads through knots of commonality. The beauty in American Plutocracy is that it came about as a result of my research into various fields of interest, starting with H.P. Lovecraft, who lived during the Depression, mycology, WWII, astronomy, chemistry, and some calendar-related stuff. And suddenly, all these connections started coming to mind. The undermind noticed them, and kept kicking them up, demanding I pay attention.

If I’d set out to develop that story deliberately, mapping it out, sketching, outlining, revising, it would probably be sitting in the pile of all the other things I’ve started writing that never amounted to much beyond a good idea and pages of notes.

I think that the role of the artist, regardless of the medium, is undervalued, and has been for some time (although this varies across time, cultures and the phase in which the culture finds itself). I’m seeing a resurgence, which is encouraging, because Ottawa could really use some insight into complexity. It has, as late, fallen into dismissive oversimplification, the last gasp before being ridden out of town on a rail.

266 Days to Dec 21st 2012

The Thirteen-day Fortnight

29 March 2012

theAbysmal Calendar and lucky 13.

A commenter reminded me of a project I’d been working on and had been hoping to post. Thanks for the memory jog.

theAbysmal year is divided based on the formula 4 x 7 x 13 + 1 = 365. Thus far, I’ve divided the year into 13 x 28-day months, and 4 x 91-day years, which leaves 7 x 52 day periods. If we organize the days into 13-day fortnights, then they can be grouped into 4s (that’s 52 days) and 7s (which makes 91 days, equal to a quarter of 13 7-day weeks). At any rate, here’s the way it breaks down visually.

In the Mesoamerican Calendar, the one I’m most familiar with that used 13-day periods, they were arranged in groups of 20 as part of the sacred calendar (which Mayanists refer to as the Tzolkin). The resulting 260-day calendar wasn’t linked to the year, didn’t skip any days for leap days, but was a cog that linked all the cycles of time together – cycles of 365 days and 360 days in particular, as well as planetary synodic cycles. Because the Mesoamerican system was a continuous cycle of days, without any leap years to keep the calendars synchronized to the year. As a result, theAbysmal and the Mesoamerican systems are incapatible.

At least theAbysmal zero day (december 21st 2012) is identical to the Mesoamerican Long Count date of, which is kind of a zero day (at least according to the GMT (584283) correlation).

theAbysmal Year

First, having mapped the 13-day periods through theAbysmal year, I was pleased to note that the days midway through each quarter (circled in the image below), occupy similar roles here as they do in the 13-month year. They are midway in the fortnights in which they occur. This adds a little something to the significance of these days, which are already loaded for bear.


Each quarter is 91 days, which divides nicely into 13 weeks, or 7 fortnights. Here’s what each quarter looks like organized by 13-day periods.

There is an advantage to having a choice of periods to use when scheduling one’s activities. The 7-day week is familiar, and we have long scheduled our lives around it. To some, the seven days of the week are a religious observance (as with the Hebrews, the 7 days of creation and the Sabbath), to others, it is a secular, financial structure (payments scheduled weekly, biweekly). the 13-day fortnight has been used as a sacred cycle as well.

The 7th day of the 13 is the centre point, with 6 days before, and 6 days after. I read (some time ago, and I don’t recall the source) that activities were restricted to the central days of the fortnight – the “energies” during the first three days (if memory serves) were considered too weak, as with the last three. So the central seven days were considered ideal for undertaking work (although I’ve forgotten the nature of the work in question – I seem to recall it was more spiritual in nature, as opposed to everyday, but such is anecdotal evidence).

Four Fortnights

I’m not sure what to call these. As four weeks makes a month, four fortnights makes one of these. This is a common division in the Tzolkin. There are 5 such periods in 260 days. In a 364-day year, there are 7. These periods weave with the months, quarters and so on, and synchronize at the end of the year.

At least the 52-day periods are equivalent to the 52-weeks of the year. As go the first 52, so goes the year. The same can be done with the first 13 days and the 13 months of the year. It’s up to us to choose how to use it. Not all these measures are necessarily useful for everyone, but the more choice we have, the better, no?

Annual Divisions

Here we go with the week, the fortnight, the month, the 52-day period and quarters.

Now all I need to do is figure out how to put together 4-day periods – there’s 91 of those in a year, but I’ll leave that for another day.

267 Days to Dec 21st 2012

Water. Water? Everywhere…

28 March 2012

The essence of life, in essence.

I’d like to dedicate more time to his subject, but for the time being, just a few links and general musing on the subject of water. It’s an increasingly important issue, as our fresh water is treated like every other natural resource – used to create profit at the expense of those who need it (which is pretty much everybody).

Agriculture uses the most of it, and a good deal of it is mixed with cement to make concrete. The cause of development can undermine watersheds, drain wetlands and trap water in toxic concrete. The idea of “development” is falling under increased scrutiny for irresponsible practices.

Water and the Seasons

theAbysmal Calendar has been defining the seasons in terms of the amount of daylight, or at least the relative position of the Sun in the sky. From a Northern Hemispheric bias, the longest night is the winter solstice, when the Sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn. The days grow longer after that point as the sun moves towards the Equator and the Tropic of Cancer.

We often think of the amount of light as part of the season. Temperature is another important variable, and of course, water. Many equatorial regions have two seasons – the wet and the dry. Japan has five, in essence, as the end of summer is a cool rainy season there. Here in my corner of Canada, the winter brings snow (usually – this year was an odd one).

While the local seasons are defined in no small part by the water cycle and temperature, the more global seasons are determined by the relative location of the sun. Nevertheless, water is so fundamental to our survival, that we too often take it for granted – especially in Canada where we have such an abundance of fresh water.


Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Walkerton Contamination Tragedy

Deepwater Horizon Gulf Oil Spill

There are plenty more examples of toxic spillage, leakage, seeping, fracking, contamination, and so forth. These are just a handful off the top of my head.

The addition of chlorine and fluoride to municipal water is another curious situation. There is a great deal of controversy about this. The Canadian Government’s stance is that the levels are low enough to avoid adverse effects, and that many of the problems due to excess fluoride are due to the use of toothpaste and other substances that contain it. The most curious thing about fluoride is that it is a biproduct of the fertilizer industry. It also happens to be excessively expensive to dispose of. This is hearsay on my part, for the record.

Here are some links on fluoridation and chlorination.


Government of Canada’s Stance

Health Canada’s Take

2.1 Health effects

Dental fluorosis is the most widely and frequently studied of all adverse effects of fluoride. It is the effect occurring at the lowest level of fluoride exposure in the population. Mild and very mild dental fluorosis are not considered to be adverse effects, whereas moderate dental fluorosis is found to be an adverse effect, based on its potential aesthetic concern, and is used as the endpoint of concern in this risk assessment.

Skeletal fluorosis is the most serious adverse health effect clearly associated with prolonged exposure to high levels of fluoride in drinking water. Skeletal fluorosis can occur at very high exposure levels, and has rarely been documented in Canada.

The weight of evidence from all currently available studies does not support a link between exposure to fluoride in drinking water at 1.5 mg/L and any adverse health effects, including those related to cancer, immunotoxicity, reproductive/developmental toxicity, genotoxicity and/or neurotoxicity. It also does not support a link between fluoride exposure and intelligence quotient deficit, as there are significant concerns regarding the available studies, including quality, credibility, and methodological weaknesses.

Fluoridation – a Horror Story

EPA – Drinking Water Contaminants

The Case Against Fluoride

Second Thoughts About Fluoride

Fluoride Damages Childrens’ Liver and Kidneys

Iodine Protects Against Fluoride Toxicity

Good News in Public Health


Health Canada’s Stance

Chlorinated Tap Water Linked to Birth Defects

Chlorine and Cancer

268 Days to Dec 21st 2012

Billions and billions of degrees of Carl Sagan

27 March 2012

the man who could make the infinite accessible.

Carl Sagan was one of my heroes growing up, who still remains one (can’t say the same for Superman). Having gone back to looking at his work, it’s amazing how much have it I’ve kept with me.

“We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.”Carl Sagan

Sagan was notorious for his use of “billions and billions” to refer to the sheer immensity of the cosmos. The image above is a representation of the distribution of galaxies (those aren’t just stars). Billions just doesn’t cover it.

It’s this very sentiment that leads me to not suffer fools graciously (and by fools, I mean people who are in a position to know better, but would rather be proud of their ignorance). The more we learn about anything, the more the cosmos knows. In that light, do you think the cosmos is really in need of so many different experiences of “Jersey Shore”? If that isn’t a sign of the end, I shudder to think of what’s yet to come.

Here was a man who really knew his stuff, and yet instead of isolating himself among academics, and his peers, he shared his passion with us plebes – those of us who could benefit from having someone explain scientific understanding of the cosmos in a way that doesn’t require knowledge of advanced physics and mathematics. This skill is undervalued, and a rare thing indeed, especially as we become increasingly specialized. My hat (if I wore one) is off to you (which I guess is always the case).

There’s a tribute series to Carl Sagan on the Youtube, but I’ll embed the first six videos here to share. Science is meant to be a joy. If it is a chore, then you’re doing it wrong.

269 Days to Dec 21st 2012

“We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.”
Carl Sagan

If you have to aks…

26 March 2012

Timing as an intimate, internal intuition.

For this Quarter, I am committed to learning some music theory. Not just the theory, as in an interesting idea to be toyed with, but in its practical application in the playing of music. My neighbours probably won’t appreciate my slow learning curve, but eventually, they will either move, or learn to love it. Or maybe grin and bear it.

The object of my affliction:

I’ve chosen this particular instrument for a few reasons:

  1. Louis Armstrong built Jazz with it
  2. It looks like a blunderbuss
  3. It requires a well exercised diaphram to play

I can make sound out of it, have the beginning of an embouchure, but am still working on learning the circle of fifths. I’m dedicating one week this quarter to learning a new scale. Once I have the major scales down, I’ll move on to the relative minors – or not, depending on how much practice I need before moving on.

There are a number of sites and videos to help with this, but like so much else, it takes practice to get anywhere. Trumpet Studio has a number of free resources which I have found invaluable. Especially the ultimate warmup which lists all the keys. You’re on your own for fingerings (ahem).

Also, I’ve been using Musescore, free music composition software. I’ve transcribed the score for the tenor sax, and changed it to suit the trumpet‘s range. I’ve also taken jpgs of music and entered them in. It has helped me play the pieces so I can see how the notes on the page relate to the music in my head.

Also, I have come across some free sheet music online, however, most of it is still for sale. For the free ones, I’m ever so grateful.

And it’s in B-flat which I know at least…

The purpose of this is to apply time and timing to playing music, which along with dancing is the essence of the musical experience. I’m hoping to embody the complex communication that is sound. And at some point to make noises that aren’t completely jarring and upsetting.

Also among my assortment of gear (I like collecting stuff):

Harmon mute

Silent Brass

Although the arban method is still pretty much out of reach for me. You can look through it online here. It’s pretty technical. I mean, look at this:

What in hell am I supposed to do with that? I’ll just be happy to play “charge” at the next hockey game I go to.


270 Days to Dec 21st 2012

Nothing to see here

25 March 2012

271 Days to Dec 21st 2012