Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Merry Christmas from Saturn's Moons

Images of Saturn's moons in motion recently taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft. Set to music from the Nutcracker.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Known Universe

Just a look at our place in the universe. Puts things into perspective.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Reactionless Drive?

An Israeli researcher has proposed that it may be possible to use a certain quantum effect to generate propulsion without any change in mass. If true, then the science fiction dream of a "reactionless" space drive would be possible. Experiments must still be run, however. From an article published on arXiv and summarized on Technology Review, then referenced on Slashdot:

According to quantum mechanics, a vacuum will be filled with electromagnetic waves leaping in and out of existence. It turns out that these waves can have various measurable effects, such as the Casimir-Polder force, which was first measured accurately in 1997. Just how to exploit this force is still not clear. Now, however, a researcher at an Israeli government lab suggests how it could be possible to generate propulsion using the quantum vacuum. The basic idea is that pushing on the electromagnetic fields in the vacuum should generate an equal and opposite force. The suggestion is that this can be done using nanoparticles that interact with the vacuum's electric and magnetic fields, generating the well-known Lorentz force. In most cases, the sum of Lorentz forces adds up to zero. But today's breakthrough is the discovery of various ways to break this symmetry and so use the quantum vacuum to generate a force. The simplest of these is simply to rotate the particles. So the blueprint for a quantum propulsion machine described in the paper is an array of addressable nanoparticles that can be rotated in the required way. Although such a machine will need a source of energy, it generates propulsion without any change in mass. As the research puts it with magesterial understatement, this might have practical implications."

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Jupiter's Moon Europa May Have Fish

National Geographic reports that Jupiter's moon, Europa, may have the necessary conditions for fish-sized life to live in its vast, dark oceans:

In the oceans of a moon hundreds of millions of miles from the sun, something fishy may be alive—right now.

Below its icy crust Jupiter's moon Europa is believed to host a global ocean up to a hundred miles (160 kilometers) deep, with no land to speak of at the surface.

And the extraterrestrial ocean is currently being fed more than a hundred times more oxygen than previous models had suggested, according to provocative new research.

That amount of oxygen would be enough to support more than just microscopic life-forms: At least three million tons of fishlike creatures could theoretically live and breathe on Europa, said study author Richard Greenberg of the University of Arizona in Tucson.



Read the entire article, Could Jupiter Moon Harbor Fish-Size Life?, by Victoria Jaggard.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Berlin Wall Falls - 20th Anniversary

Twenty years ago today, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall came down; it was the beginning of the end of communism throughout eastern Europe. Communism is a vile totalitarian system responsible for the deaths of at least 100 million people.



Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Japanese Edition of The Bible's Most Fascinating People


The Japanese Version of my book was just released. You can see it at the Japanese version of Amazon.com.

And I continue working on my other writing projects. I just turned in the first third of a devotional book to my editor today. I hit my deadline. The next third is due November 18 and the entire book will be due on December 23. Then I'll get to work on the sequel. My first deadline for that is February 22, 2010.

Then there is the book I'm doing for my London publisher...

Friday, August 07, 2009

The Worst of All Possible Worlds?

That the world is an evil place seems self-evident to many people. They demonstrate it by simply pointing to the latest headlines of war, crime, disaster, racism, and worsening test scores. Pundits warn us ominously that America is running higeldy pigeldy down the road to Hell.

But is this negative perception, fueled by endless news accounts of horrible things, an accurate one? Is life barely more than miserable? Let’s consider.

An article in a recent Scientific American indicated that at any given moment, 93 percent of the world’s human beings feel happy about their lives as a whole. These percentages of happiness remained constant regardless of income, education, or the place individuals happened to live. If things are as bad as everyone suggests, then how could this be? But think about your own life. Are you planning on slitting your wrists as soon as you finish reading this article? Probably not. Chances are, you’re pretty comfortable and generally content just now. Think you’re unique? Think again.

The world’s population stands at about 6.3 billion. Many think this is a bad thing and moan endlessly about the population explosion. But stop and ask a simple question: why are there so many people? Was sex really invented in the 60s? Have birth rates skyrocketed? Not at all. Birthrates are actually declining. So the question remains: why so many human beings?

Because not so many people are dying!

Human life expectancy in 1800 was 40, while the world population was only about 900 million. Infant mortality was rampant. Disease proliferated. Starvation was common. Since then, life expectancy has nearly doubled, and the population has skyrocketed as a consequence. According to CIA statistics recorded in the CIA World Factbook, less than 0.9 percent of the world population died last year. That’s less than one percent. That’s from all causes. Or to put it another way, a bit more than 99.1 percent of the human race didn’t go to their graves last year.

So let’s consider some obvious implications.

The number of people who have died this year because of crime? Less than one percent of the human race.

The number of people who have died because of natural disasters? Less than one percent.

The number of people who have died because of terrorism? Less than one percent.

The number of people who have died because of starvation? Less than one percent.

The number of people who have died because of diseases? Less than one percent.

The number of people who died as a consequence of war? Less than one percent.

Statistics like those would seem to demonstrate that the world’s not quite so awful as the nightly news would like us to believe. (Stopping to consider the last time one heard of a life insurance company going bankrupt might be another bit of evidence.)

Certainly there is suffering and evil and doubtless the headlines on today’s paper are filled with ugly information. But the real reason the news is almost always bad is because bad is unusual and newspapers and television are interested in novelty.

Consider: do the newspapers or television report on the millions and millions of people who went to work today, did their jobs, came home, kissed their spouses and children and had a quiet evening? Of course not. That would be boring. Instead, they’ll report on the single whacko who went to his job and machine-gunned all his coworkers. Now that’s interesting.

Humanity is warlike and violent, right? Then why, according to the CIA, is only two percent of the world’s gross economic production devoted to defense spending? That means that ninety-eight percent of what the world spends its money on each year is for stuff other than making guns and bombers.

For much of human history, human beings spent a lot of time concerned about having enough food to eat. Famines were common. People regularly worried about whether they’d be able to eat today. Now, the biggest health concern in the United States is obesity. We have so much food that we have to spend gobs of cash on fancy ways to lose the extra weight it puts on our bodies.

In 1804 the former Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton was shot to death in a duel with the Vice President of the United States, Aaron Burr. In the twenty-first century, commentators become apoplectic when the Vice President says a bad word to a political opponent. They bemoan the loss of civility in political dialogue. I don’t know about you, but if the worst thing a politician does now is call his opponents “girly men,” we have little to complain about.

Hard as I try, I have difficulty thinking that this is the worst of all possible worlds, or that the world is getting worse and worse. Quite the opposite. Take a break from the nightly news. Go outside, notice the blue sky and green grass. Take a deep breath. Relax. Put things in perspective. Then smile.

The Good Old Days

Ah yes, the good old days, they were so lovely. A trip to the dentist with no anesthetic while he drilled and poked. What memories that brings back! A world without antibiotics, when a scratch could kill you. The good old days, without inoculations, when millions suffered or died from what are now preventable diseases. The good old days, when horse manure filled the streets and flies spread illness, when water was not safe to drink so people all had to all drink beer—but since there were no refrigerators, it was warm.

The good old days, when hurricanes came without warning because, without satellites, no one could see them building in the Atlantic weeks ahead of time. The good old days when the news from across the country took a week to get to us, when communicating with a loved one meant waiting weeks for a letter. Ah, the good old days when people spent three weeks crossing the Atlantic at the mercy of winds in a tiny boat. The memories! When life expectancy was but 45, and 40 percent of children died before their fifth birthday.

The good old days when instead of worrying about obesity people worried about famines and starving to death. The good old days, when doctors did more harm than good. The good old days?

The Good Old Days—They Were Terrible is an interesting book written by Otto L. Bettman. Originally published in 1974 by Random House it is still available today. In it, he describes the way things really were in the relatively recent past. Given how much criticism is commonly thrown at schools today, it is intriguing to discover what Bettman has discovered about schools of the past. In his book he writes, “Criticism of the public school system…usually takes the form of nostalgia for its ‘Golden Age,’ the days of the Little Red Schoolhouse. Here, it is believed, was the wellspring of the nation’s greatness, where the three R’s were taught in an atmosphere of patriotism and simple virtue, where individualism was sanctified….In a time of widespread educational hysteria it is a vision hard to resist; however, it is not an accurate one.”

He reports, in contrast to the rose-colored memories:


“…the teacher was more warder than instructor, his routine being more physical than intellectual. Some school boards in selecting a new teacher made it a rule to pick a strong fellow—especially on the frontier, where, according to Hamlin Garland, ‘baseness and vulgarity’ prevailed among the older boys. Biting, eye-gouging and slug scuffle matches were favorite sports, but boys saved their most barbaric excesses for strangers….a Miss Barstow, taught public school in Canton, Mass. On October 8, 1870, the young woman, said to be in feeble health, punished four boys for unruly conduct by shutting them in the school building after class was out. Finally, when she released them, Miss Barstow is said to have given the boys ‘a slight reprimand.’ Their response was immediate; they stoned her to death.”


Bettman demonstrates that the extent of education in the not so distant past was remarkably poor. He relates that in 1890 barely twenty percent of all African-American children received any education at all, and that education, for those twenty percent who were lucky enough to get it, amounted on average to about 100 days worth of instruction. One might be tempted to imagine that such poor education was something only minorities suffered from in the past. Not at all. City schools, according to Bettman, were routinely plundered by political bosses, who packed school boards with their own cronies. The result was schools that were overcrowded and under funded, where many teachers were doing well just to maintain order. The New York commissioner of education admitted in 1871 that “thousands of children leave school without being able to read or write.” And the percentages of those who even went to school to begin with was not high, especially among the poor and immigrant groups, who, despite compulsory education laws, tended to keep their children at home so they could work.

Bettman demonstrates that many of the problems facing the world today—education being just one of his examples— are problems that it has faced all along. In many, many respects, conditions are either unchanged or actually considerably better today than they were in the supposed “good old days.”

In the Los Angeles Times I’ve read opinion pieces, as well as seen reviews for books, such as We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, by James Meek, which argue that the West, and America in particular, are in their twilight years and face inevitable decline. What startles me in such pieces is the remarkable historical amnesia, since the chattering classes were saying much the same thing in the years between the first and second World Wars. Otto Spengler, a German scholar, had quite a hit on his hands when he wrote his book, The Decline of the West, published in two volumes in 1926 and 1928.

Remarkably, the West somehow managed to not just survive Spengler’s critique, depression, world war, and a cold war, but to prosper and even expand its influence, much to the disappointment of pessimists everywhere. Given the pattern of history, I’m always puzzled by those who imagine that the world is getting worse and worse, or predict the worst possible outcomes. But then most people don’t pay much attention to history.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Astronomy picture of the day


NASA offers an astronomy picture of the day every day, at Astronomy Picture of the Day. Today's was very odd as it shows three suns rising over Gdansk, Poland.

Chances for Peace

Interesting article at Slate.com by John Horgan arguing that war may not forever be a part of human society:

A recent decline in war casualties—especially compared to historical and even prehistorical rates—has some scholars wondering whether the era of international war may be ending.

Counting casualties is fraught with uncertainty; scholars' estimates vary according to how they define war and what sources they accept as reliable, among other factors. Nevertheless, a clear trend emerges from recent studies. Last year, 25,600 combatants and civilians were killed as a direct result of armed conflicts, according to the 2009 Yearbook of SIPRI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, to be released Aug. 17. Two thirds of these deaths took place in just three trouble spots: Sri Lanka (8,400), Afghanistan (4,600), and Iraq (4,000). In contrast, almost 500,000 people are killed each year in violent crimes and well over 1 million die in automobile accidents.


If nothing else, it does put things in perspective a bit and points out that really, things are not getting worse and worse.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Money for the Soul

According to the United States Federal government, the Gross Domestic Product of the United States for 2005, for instance, was a bit over twelve trillion dollars. The Federal government will spend nearly two and a half trillion, or about twenty percent of that.

What did the government spend money on? Nearly $402 billion was spent on defense, and $28 billion on Homeland Security. $510 billion went for Social Security, $290 billion to Medicair and $180 billion to Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program. $57 billion was spent by the Department of Education. The Department of Health and Human Services spent more than $68 billion. Almost $30 billion was spent for Veterans Affairs. The Justice Department spent about $19 billion dollars.

Each year, according to Worldwatch Institute, Americans and Europeans spend about $15 billion a year just on cosmetics. They also spend nearly $17 billion a year on pet food. Going to the movies? Americans drop about $10 billion annually.
All this may help put something in perspective. I run across people who believe that the money spent by NASA is a complete waste. “Why spend billions going to the Moon and Mars when we have poor people that need our help?”

Do you know how much the U.S. government will actually spend on NASA in 2009? About $16 billion, which is a billion less than what Americans will spend on pet food. NASA’s piece of the federal pie is actually less than one percent of the Federal budget. Already, more than thirty percent of the US budget is devoted to caring for the poor and suffering.

Let’s put all this in a way that might be easier to comprehend. If your annual income is $36 thousand, then one percent of your annual budget works out to three hundred sixty dollars: about thirty bucks a month.

What a spendthrift you are if you spend that going out to dinner and a movie each month! Why aren’t you donating that windfall to the poor!

Incidentally, if we add up the money that the US population spends on just video games and movies combined, it adds up to about what’s being expended by the space program each year. The sixteen billion dollars that NASA will spend in 2009 works out to about 64 dollars a year for each person in the United States. Only $5.34 per month.

So ask yourself: do you think that trips to Mars are worth $5.34 a month? How much do you spend each month for your cable or satellite TV? How about for cookies?
And remember, it’s thanks to that NASA budget that you have that TV signal beaming into your house while you munch on those cookies. How about the other stuff that the space program has given you in your daily life that you take for granted, like accurate forecasting of hurricanes, instantaneous communication, and the navigation by the Global Positioning Satellite system that guides planes, ships, and smart bombs? Then there are the medical advances we could discuss, like MRIs and medical monitoring, all thanks to that $5.34 a month.

But even if there were no practical benefits, I think going to Mars is worth at least $5.34 a month. There is, after all, more to life than just the practical. It isn’t all just about giving money to the poor. If we do not leave ourselves room for art, for music, for scholarship, and for all the rest that inspires, then haven’t we become even poorer than the poorest outcast? Would the critics of the space program suggest no money be devoted to art, to movie making, to music and books, until we take care of all those who are hurting? Do we cast stones at writers who spend all that time creating novels when they could be devoting their days to volunteering in a homeless shelter?

Those who think the space program is a waste of money haven’t thought things through very well. This isn’t an either/or situation. Those who decry money spent on space are spouting clich├ęs that may sound compassionate, but in the final analysis are just silly or worse. They rob us of our souls. When the philanthropist Ruth Lilly in 2002 gave approximately $100 million to the Modern Poetry Association, which publishes Poetry Magazine, most people thought it wonderful. But some critics complained that the money “could have been given to the poor.” Of course, Judas voiced a similar complaint when a young woman poured expensive perfume over Jesus.
Frankly, I worry about people who think giving money for poetry a waste, just as I worry about those so earthbound they never bother to look up and wonder about the stars.

Why Space?

Stephen Weinberg, a Nobel winning physicist, is reported to have stated that “the whole manned spaceflight program, which is so enormously expensive, has produced nothing of scientific value. Human beings don't serve any useful function in space.” Although he is a brilliant physicist, his statement, if accurately reported, is remarkably ignorant regarding the scientific contributions of human space travel. Over seven hundred pounds of rocks brought from the moon, among other bits of science that came from the manned missions to the lunar surface, doubtless contributed something to science. The Hubble Space Telescope has had some scientific value, I think most people would agree. But if it weren’t for people in space, there would be no Hubble Space Telescope. People carried it into orbit aboard a space shuttle and have repeatedly had to fly up to repair and refurbish it. The Hubble wouldn’t have been launched, and it would have broken down and burned up in the atmosphere years ago, if it weren’t for the manned space program.

So an obvious value of the space program over the last fifty years is the science that has been produced, both by human crewed vehicles and the many robotic space probes that have flown. But a question many others still have is this: has the space program benefited ordinary people who aren’t interested in science? Has all that money poured into the cosmos done any earthly good?

Certainly. There are many things that we use every day that wouldn’t exist apart from space (and I’m not talking about Tang and Velcro): communication satellites that transmit telephone, radio, and television signals instantly to any part of the world. Military reconnaissance satellites mean that our enemies can run but they can’t hide. Weather satellites allow us to see storms approaching, so that hurricanes don’t hit without warning. Other satellites allow the creation of maps of incredible accuracy, show us resources like oil, gas, and minerals, monitor arable land, pay attention to the ozone layer and any number of other environmental details. Global positioning satellites help guide aircraft, ships and truckers, as well as hikers and commuters. Satellite radio beams commercial free music and entertainment to our cars and homes. Satellite TV is ubiquitous and popular—and even if you have cable TV, your cable company depends on satellite transmissions to get all those channels to you. Then there are the spin-off technologies, ranging from modern electronics, computers to photo enhancement technology.

Then there are the intangibles that we have gotten from space: the wonder of seeing the earth from the moon; the impact those views have had on how people perceive of themselves in the universe. The desire for conservation and responsible use of the environment has been influenced by seeing the world as a tiny, fragile object in an otherwise very hostile universe. Then there’s the joy of exploration, scientific discoveries and data.

It is, of course, impossible to predict what the space program may still bring us in the future, since it is impossible to predict the future with any degree of accuracy. But given the benefits the first fifty years have given us, is it unrealistic to imagine that the future will also bring us tangible benefits from space as well?

Robert Heinlein wrote, “It’s not good for the human race to keep all its eggs in one basket.” Stephen Hawking, the noted physicist, echoes this sentiment, arguing that human colonization of other worlds is important to insure the survival of the human race.

There are potential economic benefits: raw materials, trade (once colonies are established), energy (power satellites, Helium 3). What is the gross domestic product of planet Earth? What possible benefits could we see having another world, with its own economy? Can we predict the future gross domestic product of other worlds? What will mining the asteroid belt do to the economy? What shortages can be relieved or eliminated all together?

The Gross Domestic Product of the United States according to the CIA World Factbook for 2004 was 11.8 trillion dollars. Of that, about 16 billion was spent by the U.S. government on the space program. That amounts to 0.14 per cent of the GDP spent on space. By contrast, that means 99.86 per cent of the GDP was spent on other stuff. For those who complain that we should focus our attention on the poor or whatever their favorite concern might be, I would suggest that indeed our focus is on the poor and all those other things. Let’s put it another way. 54 dollars of your taxes that you paid this year went to the space program. Chances are you spent that much going out to dinner just once.

Since NASA began in 1958, the United States has spent, based on the current value of the dollar, 419 billion dollars on space. In contrast, just in the year 2007 alone, the United States will spend 456 billion dollars on the war in Iraq—enough to fund NASA at it’s current annual budget of 17.3 billion dollars for the next 26 years. The total United States government budget for 2007 was 2.8 trillion dollars. Of that, 586.1 billion went to Social Security. 394.5 billion for Medicare. 367 billion for unemployment and welfare. 276.4 billion for Medicaid and other health related benefits.

Weinberg, and those like him, have an opinion. But, as Douglas Adams, the author of the humorous science fiction novel Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe wrote, “All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great deal more robust, sophisticated and well supported in logic and argument than others.”

40 Years Ago

Forty years ago today I was in Ohio. In a bit more than a month, I was going to be going to junior high for the first time. And my dad would be leaving to go to Viet Nam for the second time (he was career Air Force). On the night of July 20, 1969 we all gathered around the television and watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin step out of the lunar module to walk around on the moon. For my parents, the thing that amazed them most about the event was the fact that we were watching it happen on live TV--that NASA could actually broadcast the signal all the way back from the moon. Recall that it had only been seven years previously that the first relay style communications satellite had gone into orbit. Before that, it hadn't even been possible to get live TV signals from Europe. Only seven years later, we were seeing live TV from the moon!

John Glenn had become the first American to orbit the earth in 1962. Seven years later, Americans were walking on the moon. That was 40 years ago. The last time Americans--or anyone--strolled on the moon was December, 1972. Nearly thirty-six years ago. In that time, we've sent probes to all the planets in the solar system. Three satellites and two rovers are currently at Mars. Casinni circles Saturn. MESSENGER is nearing orbit of Mercury. A European satellite orbits Venus. And thirteen people are now aboard the International Space Station, the largest space craft ever obrited, with an internal volume equal to a large four bedroom house.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Shuttle Docks with the International Space Station

Space Shuttle Endeavour docked today with the International Space Station. For about the next two weeks, the station will be host to 13 people, a new record for the number of people on one spacecraft.

MSNBC has a much speeded up video of the docking today:

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Restored HD Versions of Live TV From First Moon Landing

The images beamed live from the moon on July 20, 1969 that we saw on TV were rather poor quality because the video was incompatible with broadcast equipment of the time. So they aimed a TV camera at the monitor and broadcast that. Ugh. Then the original tapes were mislaid for the last 40 years or so. NASA has been looking for them for a few years now and recently found them. You can now see what the broadcast video would have looked like had broadcast technology been up for the task back in 1969. Of course, it's still black and white and still not anywhere close to the quality we can get with modern cameras. But its a heck of a lot better than what we've seen up til now.

Go to NASA.gov.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Video of Space Shuttle Endeavour Launch

Here's video of today's Space Shuttle Endeavour launch:

Shuttle Endeavour Finally Launches

The Space Shuttle Endeavour took off today at 3:03 PM Pacific Time and is safely in orbit. The weather was finally good enough. There are 7 astronauts onboard the shuttle and 6 on the International Space Station. So that ties the record number of human beings that were in orbit at the same time (previous times that there were 13 people in space were 1995, 1997 and March 26, 2009, when there were 3 aboard a Soyuz, 3 on a space station and 7 on the shuttle). So this is the first time there have been 13 in space aboard only two spaceships. After the shuttle docks with the ISS in three days, that will set a new record for the greatest number of people aboard a single space vehicle, when all 13 people will be in the International Space Station at the same time.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Video of Falcon 1 Flight 5 Launch

Here is the video of Falcon 1's launch on Monday, July 13, 2009:

Monday, July 13, 2009

SpaceX Successfully Launches Falcon 1 to Orbit

For the second time in a row, SpaceX has successfully launched a Falcon 1 into orbit. This rocket carried a satellite from a paying customer: Malaysia.

Meanwhile, the Space Shuttle Endeavour was delayed once again by weather. NASA has rescheduled for launch on Wednesday about 3:00 PM Pacific Time. Weather is still predicted to be only about 60 percent favorable. If they don't launch on Wednesday, they'll probably stand down until July 26, in order to allow a Progress Cargo Ship, previously scheduled, to resupply the International Space Station.

SpaceX Update

SpaceX is now estimating a launch time of 7:30 PM Pacific Time for the launch of their Falcon 1 rocket.

Falcon 1 is a two stage, liquid oxygen and rocket grade kerosene (RP-1) powered launch vehicle. It is entirely privately funded. This will be the fifth launch of a Falcon 1. The first three launches failed to achieve orbit. The previous launch, their fourth, was their first successful launch to orbit.

Falcon 9, a larger version of this rocket, is a human-rated rocket designed to ferry the Dragon spaceship, which can carry up to seven people, to low earth orbit. SpaceX was granted a 1.6 billion dollar contract from NASA to ferry cargo to the International Space Station using a cargo version of the Dragon. The first launch of a Falcon 9 is scheduled for later this year.

Weather Scrubs Shuttle Launch Again

No Shuttle launch today. Weather once again did not cooperate. So they will probably try again on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Next Launch of SpaceX Falcon 1

The five hour launch window for the next launch of the SpaceX Falcon 1 opens at 4:00 PM Pacific Time today, Monday, July 13, 2009--four minutes after the Space Shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to lauch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Falcon 1 will be launching from Omelek Island, a seven-acre strip of land at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The launch pad is part of the U.S. Army's Reagan Test Site.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Try, Try Again on Monday

The Shuttle will try to launch again on Monday, July 13, 2009 at 3:51 PM Pacific Time. Once again they scrubbed the launch due to weather concerns.

Shuttled Scheduled to Launch Sunday

Space Shuttle Endeavour is set to launch today, Sunday July 12, 2009, at 4:13 PM Pacific time. Weather has a seventy percent chance of cooperating.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Shuttle Delayed

No Shuttle launch today (Saturday, July 11, 2009). Lightning.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Shuttle Scheduled For Launch on Saturday

Assuming the weather co-operates, the Space Shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to take off at 4:39 Pacific time on Saturday, July 11, 2009. There's only a 40 percent chance of the weather being good enough, however.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Interplanetary Internet Online

Well, barely. The first node has been set up on the International Space Station. It was actually first tested in November, 2008 when computers on Earth and NASA's Epoxi spacecraft simulated the transmission of data from Mars to Earth. Rachel Courtland at Wired.com has more information on how it works and what the future holds.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

How Campbell's Hero's Journey Works

The mythologist, Joseph Campbell, pointed out that stories and myths generally follow a specific formula which he called, the Hero's Journey.

Brandon Root, of Spiteful Critic, has done a fine job pointing out how this works with some recent movies:

Hold On, I’ve Seen This Before: How Star Wars, Star Trek, The Matrix, and Harry Potter are Actually the Same Movie

By way of GeekPress.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Neurosky: Reading Your Mind

Mind-computer interface:



The video is from the Washington Post. The article is here.

Neurosky's website is here.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

First Extragalactic Exoplanet Found?

New Scientist reports that a new planet may have been found orbiting a star in the Andromeda Galaxy, two million light years away.

LRO/LCROSS Launched On Time Today

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) launched on time today at about 2:32 PM (Pacific Time), together with the smaller lunar impacter, Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS. LRO will map the moon in greater detail than has been done before, while LCROSS will smack into a shadowed crater on the moon's south pole to see if it can find some water ice. This is the first lunar probe launched by NASA in over ten years. It is the initial step in the goal of putting people on the moon permanently.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Sending People

The Space Shuttle will once again be leaving for the International Space Station on Saturday morning, assuming the weather and equipment cooperate.

I get puzzled by many things. One question that I’ve never really quite fathomed goes like this: "Given the success of the unmanned space probes, such as the twin rovers on Mars, or Cassini and Huygens at Saturn and Titan, or the Hubble Space Telescope, what is the point of sending people into space? People are expensive. They have to be fed, and they require complex life support systems. Can’t we get enough science just from our unmanned probes? They only cost a fraction of a human crewed system, they don’t eat, and they don’t need life support."

While it is true that unmanned spaceships are less expensive, and while it is certain that they have been marvelously successful, I’m not sure why some conclude from that, that we have no reason to be sending people out there, too.

It’s like asking your neighbors, after they come back from their summer vacation, “Why did you waste all that time and gas actually going to see the Grand Canyon, when lots of people have already been there and brought back perfectly good videos and photographs? You really thought you could do any better than everyone else who has gone there before? Think how much you’d have saved if you had just ordered a DVD off of Amazon! No traffic to fight, no bad weather to stand in, and you wouldn’t have had to worry about you or your children falling into that big hole. Quite a dangerous place, after all.”

Those who think sending people into space is wasteful apparently believe that robots are the equal of humans, or perhaps even better than humans. So I have to wonder, would they likewise suggest to your boss that you be replaced with a machine? After all, a machine would be a lot cheaper in the long run. The machine won’t get sick. It won’t expect to get paid. It won’t take coffee breaks. And it would never think of wasting all that time on a trip to the Grand Canyon.

I just don’t understand how someone can imagine sending robots is enough. Don’t you believe that a human being on Mars might be a bit more versatile and a bit more valuable than a small wheeled vehicle that can travel only a few dozen feet a day? Not to denigrate the robot, but why do those who ask the question seem so pleased to underestimate human capabilities?

Humans are a bit more adept than machines, and more easily adapt themselves to the unexpected. And even with our machines that we send into space, they are hardly autonomous. They require a lot of careful handling by a team of scientists back on Earth, who work feverishly night and day to try to keep things working, who not infrequently have to try to puzzle out what might have gone wrong a hundred million miles away and hope that their radioed commands will save the day. If there were people on the other end, it wouldn’t be nearly as difficult. “Hey Joe, could you try plugging that cord into the power supply? It seems to have fallen out.”

I love computers and use them every day; but I’m painfully aware of their limitations. When I search my hard drive or the web for a specific file, I’ve got to be very careful about how I word my request and how I spell everything. Otherwise, I am simply not going to get what I’m looking for. How intelligent is your computer at home, after all? Do you really want to leave the exploration of the universe up to that thing on your desk?

Why go to watch the Super Bowl in person? Isn’t seeing it on TV just as good, or even better than being there in person? Why would you be excited if you won free tickets to see the game? If you went to the game in person, you’d have to sit on hard benches, sit in the sun or cold or rain, struggle with parking, pay an arm and a leg for bad food and tiny drinks, and have to put up with the noise of a stadium filled with people. And then you’d just be squinting down at the ant-like figures on the field far below, in desperate need of binoculars just to figure out what was happening. So just stay home, where you can stretch out comfortably on your nice soft couch, with close up views, and instant replay, and all the munchies you need.

It is, quite frankly, not nearly as stirring to watch R2D2 stride across an alien landscape as watching a human being do it. Our memories of Neil Armstrong taking that first small step should be enough to remind us that there is much more to exploration and space travel than just the science. Odd how that part of the equation doesn’t figure in to those who question the need for people.

And if all the people who have already signed up to ride on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is any indication, most of us would jump at a chance to go into space ourselves. Virtual reality and video games and movies and TV are fine, but we’d really like to experience it. We kind of like reality, I think. Isn’t it a good enough reason to send people into space just the simple fact that we want to go?

But, if you think watching the Super Bowl on TV is good enough, then please send me your tickets. I’ll be happy to endure all the hassles of reality in your place.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Context

Of all the mistakes that we make in reading the Bible, I think that the most common sort is to take passages out of context. Sometimes it is relatively innocuous, as when we use the words of Revelation 3:20, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me” and then use them for the purpose of evangelizing the lost. In context, the passage is directed at Christians for their repentance. Other times, pulling a passage out of context can be amusing, as the story of the unemployed woman who concluded that God would give her a job soon, because when she opened the Bible at random, her eye fell on a whole book of the Bible called “Job.”

Much less amusingly, I’ve noticed that some Christians misuse passages of the Bible in order to pound on people that they don’t like. 1 Thessalonians 5:22 as rendered in the King James Version has been a classic seized upon to condemn many: “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” Even if you can’t find anything in the Bible that forbids the behavior, if you don’t like it, just throw that in the person’s face and watch them squirm. Tell them that just because something they are doing looks bad, they stand condemned. Unfortunately, only the King James words the passage that way. The NIV translates it simply as “Avoid every kind of evil” while the TNIV says, “reject whatever is harmful.” Even the KJV wording, if understood in context, is simply explaining that people should abstain from evil whenever it appears.

But understanding it as it was intended is simply not as useful for those concerned with outward “appearances.” But as I recall, it was the Pharisees who were quick to condemn for how things looked to the neighbors. They often criticized Jesus for the company he kept, and for doing or saying things that were at odds with proper appearance. Imagine how tongues wagged when that prostitute washed Jesus feet with perfume and her tears, while kissing them and wiping them with her hair! If the popular understanding of 1 Thessalonians 5:22 really meant what so many think it does, then Jesus himself stands condemned. The first clue that we’ve misinterpreted is when our interpretation results in such an obvious absurdity.

Another classic in missing the context is 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. Read by itself, it seems that Paul is explaining that there are some people, due to their reprehensible behavior, who have thereby been excluded from heaven. In verse nine he writes that “wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God” and then he lists who he means by that: “sexually immoral,” “idolaters,” “adulterers,” “male prostitutes,” “practicing homosexuals,” “thieves,” “the greedy,” “drunkards,” “slanderers” and “swindlers.” He concludes by stating a second time that the people he has just listed will not “inherit the kingdom of God.”

Therefore, so the popular argument goes, if you are gay (just to pick on one of the sinners in the list), you simply can’t go to heaven. So there. Odd how the other sorts of sinners are usually ignored in the enthusiasm to pick out that one particular sort of sinner as an example, but I digress…

Fortunately, the rather hopeless interpretation of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 is dependent upon ignoring the context of Paul’s words. In verse 11, Paul adds “that is what some of you were.” You see, some of the people to whom Paul was writing his letter were sinners that he had stated could not inherit the kingdom of God. So Paul points out “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” Paul affirms that while some of the Corinthians were wicked people, they were also redeemed wicked people. And Paul doesn’t say that by their efforts and good deeds that they had earned a ticket to heaven. Their redemption was something accomplished by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.

It is worth pointing out that in the same letter to the Corinthian church, Paul again uses virtually identical language, but with a different target: “I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable."

Thus, Paul’s point in both passages is the same. Rather than saying that certain sorts of sinners are by definition excluded from heaven, he is simply saying that unredeemed humans don’t inherit the kingdom of heaven. It is redeemed humans that inherit it. Otherwise, following hopless illogic, one would have to argue that no human beings go to heaven, since Paul very explicitly says that “flesh and blood” can’t go there.

One comforting thing: our imperfection in how we interpret the Bible, our ease in pulling passages out of context, our very real failings, do not prevent God from working through us. Look again at the passage about Jesus knocking at our heart's door in Revelation 3:20. It was that very passage, used by my Sunday School teacher when I was seven, that led me to accept Jesus as my Savior. Even out of context, God can still use his word to his advantage. God is still God, no matter how human we may be.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Weariness

Paul writes, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9) It is a famous passage, that we’ve read many times before in both good and bad places along the road of life. The frustrating part of the verse, however, is that it provides no mechanism for how to fulfill it. Sure, we’d all agree that getting tired and worn out—discouraged—from working hard for Jesus is something to be avoided. But the question on my mind, whenever I feel such discouragement is, “Okay, how?”

It’s like the passage in James’ letter, where he talks about faith versus works and tells us that faith without works is dead. James gives an illustration of what he means by faith without works being empty. If you found someone in need of food and clothes and simply told them, “Hey buddy, you should get some clothes on and get yourself something to eat” you’d have done nothing worthwhile, unless you actually give him some bread and a new shirt.

So, Paul warns us that we’re not supposed to become weary in well-doing. I doubt anyone would disagree.

But how do you pull that off? How do you keep from becoming discouraged after spending years at something only to see little or no progress? Or after facing repeated financial crises? How do you keep from not thinking it must be your fault, since, after all, you’re the one that is living your life? If God were really in it, wouldn’t there be lives transformed for the better? Wouldn't something work out in some spectacular fashion? Why instead, despite all our efforts, when we look in our souls, all we see is not a glass half-full, but a glass plumb empty.

Being weary from well-doing is incredibly destructive. It saps the will, turns the heart negative, makes it impossible for the eye to witness even one positive event, to discern even one benefit to one’s continued existence.

How to avoid the bone crushing, dust-filled empty wasteland of weariness from doing good, from pounding endlessly at a cliff of granite without the smallest crack or chip appearing? Frankly, becoming weary in doing good seems nearly inevitable. Simply telling us not to become weary is like telling the runner not to get tired.

Even if one sees great blessings, weariness is going to creep up on you. What if the church magnificently prospers, the money rolls in, the sinners repent, broken lives are repaired, the damaged and hurting are made well again? What if one sees tremendous results? Will the sense of weariness fade away? Won’t the end of a long, productive week still bring a sense of exhaustion? Can’t discouragement and the sense of emptiness trouble such a successful individual just as much as the one who feels all his labor has been in vain? Does outcome really matter, or is it the work itself that induces the weariness?

Notice that a warning against becoming weary is addressed to those who work at the good, regardless of the outcome. Jesus told his disciples during his sermon on the mount that they were to seek God and his righteousness. One should notice that the wording is not completely dissimilar to the Declaration of Independence’s promise that we have a right to pursue happiness. There’s no promise we’ll actually find it; only that we get to chase it. Seeking God, seeking righteousness may not be guarantees of finding what we’ve been looking for. The author of Hebrews concludes the listing of the greats of faith by pointing out that many worked hard for God, suffered much for God and then never received anything that had been promised by God (Hebrews 11:39).

Such realizations from scripture and life don’t particularly help me not feel weary in doing good. Again: if we’re not supposed to feel weary or to grow discouraged, then how, practically speaking, do we manage? Oddly, Paul seems to suggest elsewhere that the answer is paradoxical. In his letter to the Romans he writes “... we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3-4)

Paul argues that for the Christian, suffering produces perseverance which carries with it character and hope. This is counterintuitive. It seems unlikely. In fact, isn’t it our experience mostly that people quit when the hard times come? Didn’t Jesus give a parable about that once, something about seeds tossed along the road? (Matthew 13:18-23)

Ah, but that then supplies the answer, doesn’t it? Patience and self-control are both fruits of the Spirit, according to Galatians 5:22. And the difference between the “good” soil and the not so good soil was that when troubles and such came along, the seed that wasn’t in good soil withered: it quit. It’s not that the other seed didn’t have the same troubles, but it just kept growing anyhow.

James likewise writes that the testing of our faith produces perseverance (see James 1:3-4, 12). Meanwhile Peter tells us in 2 Peter 1:6 that God has given us everything we need for our lives as Christians. And among those things he has given us is “perseverance.”

So, after all that, there’s no magic elixir to find, no spiritual Red Bull that you can get that will rev you up and keep you from getting tired or discouraged. What you have is actually a lot better: God living inside of you, finishing the work in you that he has prepared for you to do (see Ephesians 2:10). Tired or not, you’ll keep on keeping on, because that’s simply what we as Christians do. Our weariness does not lead to quitting. Instead:

Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint. (Isaiah 40:28-31)

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Roman Morality

I occasionally run across those who like to use the Roman Empire as a warning. It reminds me of a poster I saw once: “Maybe the reason for being is to serve as a warning to others.” The short form of the dire message I here goes like this: “the Roman Empire fell because of moral decline.” Next, my instructor will make comparisons with some hideous offence that he or she sees in America today, followed by the warning that if we don’t straighten up and fly right, we’ll go the way of the Romans.

I’m still trying to figure out when the Romans had any morality that they could abandon. For instance, before he seized power, Julius Caesar boasted of slaughtering over 100,000 people in just one of his trips into Gaul. Not 100,000 on the battlefield either. Julius Caesar’s body count came from razing villages, where he hacked off the heads of children, women, old men, and the disabled. When he got home, there were no newspapers decrying his abuse of human rights. Instead, this slaughter was celebrated by everyone in Rome as a part of Caesar’s greatness. There were speeches praising him, triumphal celebrations, and murals and statues were made to show in gory detail how Caesar and his troops had raped barbarian women and sliced barbarian children's heads off.

All that, and Rome's greatest days were yet ahead of her.

Meanwhile, the political corruption in the Roman Republic (which continued in the time of the Empire that followed Caesar’s death), would have made Enron executives green with envy. Bribery was a normal cost of doing business. Government posts were openly sold to the highest bidder. Politicians switched sides weekly, depending on who was paying them at the moment. Votes were bought and sold over and over again. Some citizens in Rome made their living simply by selling their votes.
In his early days, Julius Caesar received a nice post as governor. The pay for such a post was modest. And yet somehow, in the year or two he was governor, he went from being the equivalent of several million bucks in debt to having a vast fortune of millions. He didn’t manage that by the wise investment of his paltry salary. He stole, he took bribes, he plundered the people he was supposed to be governing.
Emperors had to watch their friends, wives, and children carefully and most of them still wound up dying from either poison in their food or a misplaced knife. And then when the wife or child took the dead emperor’s place, the other children, sisters, brothers, mothers, uncles and aunts, had a tendency to turn up dead very quickly.

And then there’s the issue of marriage and sex; these two things were not closely related among the Romans, and marriages were made and unmade quickly and repeatedly. Marriages and sexual liaisons were made for material gain, or to solidify a political pact. Caesar’s soldiers referred to him affectionately as “the bald adulterer” and sang songs warning towns they were entering that the men should lock up their wives and daughters and mothers because Caesar was coming.

The bottom line is this: there was no decline in Roman morality. It was bad to the bone from its earliest beginnings until the day it ceased to exist. Not that their morals were much better or worse than those of any other nation that one would care to study. People, especially people in power, tend toward corruption, greed, and vice. And yet their nations still endure and prosper.

As to American morality, there are those who will argue that in America we've fallen into wickedness and hedonism and that we got what was coming to us on 9/11 or from Katrina. This strikes me as really odd. How can it be that there are those in the US who agree with the Islamo-fascists’ opinion of us? Do we really think someone who cuts off people’s heads or blows themselves up so they can kill children on a bus has great insight on issues of morality? Can terrorists offer us legitimate and thoughtful critiques of American morality?

So when the British sacked Washington DC and burned the Capital and the White House during the War of 1812, that was because we’re sinners? And the bombing of Pearl Harbor was that really because of our moral decline?

I tend to think that our morals have improved over the years. I just ask myself, would I rather be a black man living in Selma in the 1950’s or today? Did anyone talk about or worry about spousal abuse or child abuse in the 1950’s? Think it didn’t exist then? Think again. It’s just that no one considered it an issue needing any attention.

Or how about this: is an America with or without slavery a better place? Do we think the Romans ever worried about killing civilians when they fought wars? Had they, or anyone, prior to the twentieth century developed the concept of war crimes? How about the Geneva Convention? I’m doubtful that Genghis Khan would have even been able to understand our disgust at those pictures from Abu Ghraib.

When someone tells me that America is in moral decline, when someone tells me that the world is going downhill, when I start to feel depressed by the bad news on TV, I just pick up a history book and take a look. It reminds me that things have been far worse.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Grains of Sand Like Stars

Go to the beach and sit down on the sand—or if no beach is nearby, find a child’s sandbox. Pick up a handful of sand and bring it up to your face so you can see the individual grains; let them trickle through your fingers. Look up and down the beach at all the sand and imagine trying to count every last tiny mote of it.

Then, come evening, lie on your back and stare up at the black sky dusted with gleaming pinpricks and realize the unfathomable vastness of the universe: there are more stars in that sky above your head than there are grains of sand on all the beaches and in all the sandboxes in all the world.

Our home galaxy, the Milky Way, contains at least 200 billion stars. If but five percent of those stars have planets, that means that 10 billion solar systems exist beyond our own. But given that current technology would not allow us to find solar systems like our own, it is likely that the percentage of stars with planets is far, far higher. And yet, that’s just the stars within one galaxy. The observable universe contains at least 100 billion galaxies averaging the size of our own Milky Way.

What does all that mean? That the number of planets in the universe is probably far vaster than the number of stars. And even odder to think about: if even only one percent of those planets are capable of harboring life, and if only one percent of those have intelligent beings on them who can look up at their night skies and wonder about what they are seeing—the number of civilizations in the universe will be uncountable billions.

There are 86,400 seconds in a day. There are about 31and a half million seconds in a year (if you figure at year at 365.25 days). If you were to start taking a photograph of each star in just our galaxy, and took a photograph once every second, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, with no time off for sleeping or anything else, it would take you over thirty-one years just to photograph the first one billion stars. To get photos of all the stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, given that there are 200 billion of them, would take you over six thousand years: the length of all recorded human history. Then you’d still have another hundred billion galaxies to go, just in the visible universe, each with its 200 billion stars.

One can devote an entire lifetime to the study of a single subject, for instance Russian literature. And one could specialize further and devote oneself to the work of just one Russian author, say Dostoyevsky. Or maybe you’d like to devote yourself to the study of Russian history, perhaps twentieth century Russian history (I took a year long course in that in college as an undergraduate). Most of us in high school or college took a course in World Civilization, which covered the entire history of our planet in a single year. Not much detail in a class like that. Now imagine trying to cram the history of multiple civilizations into your brain: the billions that maybe lie scattered across our skies.

I marveled at the grains of sand trickling through my fingers one sunny summer day not long ago, while the waves were roaring in the background. And I couldn’t help imagining how they represented worlds scattered across endless oceans of night, each with waves and sunny beaches that I would never know.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Perseverance

Paul writes in Romans 5:3-4 that “we know that suffering produces perseverance.” On the face of it, his words seem to make little sense. In my experience, for most people suffering tends to produce quitting.

Our human reaction to trouble sometimes makes about as much sense as the man just hired to a new job. The first day he’s excited, goes about his work with enthusiasm, and heads home happy. Same with the next day. But on the third day, he starts wondering, “You know, I haven’t seen any sign of a paycheck from all this work. I thought I was supposed to be getting paid like fifty thousand dollars a year, but my bank account’s still just as empty as it was three days ago. I check my mailbox every day and there are no checks, just more bills. What gives? Why do I keep coming?” And so he asks himself the same questions the next day and the next. Three weeks go by and still nothing. On the twenty-ninth day of the month he wakes up, looks at his alarm clock, and just shuts it off. “They say I’ll get paid at the end of the month but here it is with only one day left to go and still nothing. No sign of that pay check! Why go on?”

It is so easy for us to become discouraged in life, to imagine that the current struggle is an indication that somehow all our suffering has been pointless. Naaman had to dip himself seven times into the Jordan before his leprosy left him (2 Kings 5). Do you suppose after six dips without a change he was wondering whether there was any point in dipping himself yet again?

Someone once wrote that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. But if you’re pounding on a rock with a sledge hammer trying to break it, what happens if you stop one blow short of making it shatter? What about the Israelites who walked around Jericho over and over and the walls just kept looking as strong as ever? (Joshua 6)

Perseverance in the face of obstacles and trouble and repeated failure is not insanity. Suffering can produce perseverance if we can recognize that suffering is just the road to hope. Suffering is not an end to itself; it’s a journey. Why quit before you reach the goal? Is the goal unworthy?

Remember something else. They don't build statues to those who say, “It can't be done,” “it’s not worth it,” or “why don’t you quit?” There aren’t any monuments memorializing Job’s wife who told him “curse God and die” when everything hit rock bottom for him (Job 2:9). They don't build monuments for those who tried to stop people from being great, who told the struggling artist that “surely you can find something more productive to do with your time.” They don't name streets after those who don’t take risks.

When the first colonies are built on the moon and distant planets, the only thing that might be named for Senators William Proxmire and Walter Mondale, senators who did everything in their power to try to stop NASA and cut its funding, will be the latrines. Assuming anyone remembers them at all. But cities and statues named after Werner Von Braun, Neil Armstrong and John F. Kennedy will be common, don't you suppose?

There is no glory for those who play it safe, who always want to be careful, who never risk anything, who quit. God did not call us to an easy life, a life where everything happens quickly and without trouble. If you think God’s will means life runs smoothly and you’ll never hurt, then you’ve not been paying much attention to life or the Bible.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Success

Paul begins the eighth chapter of Romans by commenting that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Although that was true of God, it never stopped people from commenting, “You know Paul, you showed such promise as a young man, but now, look at you: never sure where your next meal is coming from. And we haven’t forgotten about your little fiasco there in Damascus when you had to slip out of town by way of a basket. Maybe you should think about making some changes in your life? Perhaps re-visit some of the choices you’ve made? Have you thought about getting yourself a real job since God’s not blessing your current efforts? I’m not saying you’ve committed any real major sins—though you do talk about some “thorn in the flesh” that God won’t relieve you of. So perhaps you should focus some energy on that—you know, work on improving your prayer life?”

I’ve had a lot of people over the years criticize me for doing what I think God wants me to do. Most of them have used spiritual sounding arguments to prove that I have gone off track. “Where’s God’s blessing in your life?” they would ask. And what did my critics mean by God’s blessing? It usually boiled down to one of the following: money, recognition, and numbers.

I read through the Bible once a year. I’ve been doing that since I was sixteen. I have yet to find where God’s blessing, or God’s notion of success, can be determined by any of those physical things. Frankly, in my experience, most Christians’ notion of success is identical to the non-Christians’ concept of success. The thought is widespread in the Church that unless numbers are large, income is huge, and buildings are enormous, then God is displeased and we’re doing something wrong.

Odd how the world’s concepts of success are usually draped with the skinned carcasses of genuine spirituality. You know, wolves in sheep’s clothing. Job’s friends were certain that good things came to good people, bad things to bad people. Therefore, one had to follow all the rules just so in order to get Santa Claus—um, God—to deliver. Oddly, their theology exactly matched that of the Devil:

“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.” (Job 1:10-11) Doing God’s will, according to the Devil, was financially beneficial. Therefore, if God took that perk away Job wouldn’t perform for God anymore.

Let’s review:

Paul was called by God, hands were laid on him, and the church sent him out to minister to the Gentiles (review Acts 13:1-3). And yet this is Paul’s description of what his life was like after that: “Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.” (2 Corinthians 11:23-27)

Things really went badly for Paul once he left Antioch. So, was Paul not doing what God wanted him to do? Had he and the church made a mistake? Was Paul guilty of a hidden sin? Was Paul not praying right? Had Paul’s lack of attendance at the latest seminar on church growth been his undoing? Maybe he needed brother Wonderful’s latest book and video series?

In Romans 8:35-39 Paul writes: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

In verse 36 Paul quotes from Psalm 44: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” That’s an interesting choice. The author of Psalm 44 was asking God why everything was going wrong for Israel, pointing out that if they’d abandoned God and gone off and started worshipping idols, then bad stuff happening might make sense. But instead, they were not only doing what God wanted, following him closely, but “for your sake we face death all day long.” They were suffering for righteousness sake! So why wasn’t God making things better? Why wasn’t everything working out? Why weren’t they successful?

When the world’s idea of failure happens, it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love us anymore. That’s Paul’s whole point in Romans 8. And Paul is not just preaching to us; he’s also preaching to himself. Having experienced shipwreck, arrest, beatings, and stonings, it would be natural for him to sometimes think that God didn’t love him. It would be easy for people to look at his life and tell him that he was mistaken about God’s will for him. But that would be wrong. Paul was actually entirely successful.

Why? Because success is simply doing what God has asked us to do, regardless of the consequences.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Trust

In the abstract, trusting God is an easy thing to do. In real life sometimes it can be tough. Life is a struggle; it has lots of good times and some bad times. How do we remind ourselves in the swirling dizziness of life, as we are buffeted and beaten about the face, that everything will be okay, and that God really does love us and know what he’s doing?

God never tries to justify himself to us. Why should he? He’s right to think that if we love him, we will trust him.

Consider: if I go out late at night, my wife trusts me because she knows me and loves me. I do not have to justify myself, give answers for every action I take, every place I go, every word that I say. If I step on my wife’s foot, she does not assume I purposely stomped on it because I wanted to cause her pain. If she finds me snoring some afternoon in my office, she does not conclude that I’m a lazy goof-off.

Likewise, as we think about God and the bad things that happen to us, trusting him is something that should come just as naturally. But all too often the storms of life lead us to start doubting that God really knows what he’s doing, or really cares about what happens to us.


“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Remembering

In the course of my now more than half century of life, one of the things I’ve noticed is the difficulty I sometimes experience in bringing to mind how God took care of me in past crises—especially when I'm in the middle of a new one. I believe that part of the reason for that has been my failure to rehearse the past events. Time erodes memories, both good and bad. I find that if I can force myself to relate in my head the positive things God has done, to think about past problems and how they turned out, that it helps a lot in any current problem. Then I reread the first half of Psalm 77, which reflects that sort of experience and approach:

I cried out to God for help;
I cried out to God to hear me.
When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
at night I stretched out untiring hands,
and I would not be comforted.
I remembered you, God, and I groaned;
I meditated, and my spirit grew faint.
You kept my eyes from closing;
I was too troubled to speak.
I thought about the former days,
the years of long ago;
I remembered my songs in the night.
My heart meditated and my spirit asked:
“Will the Lord reject forever?
Will he never show his favor again?
Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
Has his promise failed for all time?
Has God forgotten to be merciful?
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”
Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:
the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.
I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.
I will consider all your works
and meditate on all your mighty deeds.” (Psalm 77:1-12)

Using Pulsars for a GPS in Space

Bartolome Coll and Albert Tarantola have proposed using pulsars "To Define Space-Time Co-ordinates." In essence, a GPS system for spacecraft in the solar system and beyond. The summary of their paper, published at arxiv.org, is summarized this way:

Fully relativistic coordinates have been proposed for (relativistically) running a "GPS" system. These coordinates are the arrival times of the light signals emitted by four "satellites" (clocks). Replacing the signals emitted by four controlled clocks by the signals emitted by four pulsars defines a coordinate system with lower accuracy, but valid across the whole Solar System. We here precisely define this new coordinate system, by choosing four particular pulsars and a particular event as the origin of the coordinates.


The full paper may be downloaded from the arxiv.org site.

Via Geekpress.com.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Russian Edition of My Book, The Bible's Most Fascinating People


The Russian Edition of my book, The Bible's Most Fascinating People, is now available apparently. I googled myself: my name plus .ru; a search for my name plus .jp came up empty, so the Japanese edition is apparently still not available.

You can see it here:

Russian Bookseller Translated by Google

Successful Launch of Soyuz to ISS

The launch this morning of the Soyuz, taking 3 astronauts to the International Space Station, went without a hitch. Come Friday, they will dock with the station, increasing its crew size from three to six.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Space Station Crew Size Doubles This Week

SpaceDaily.com reports:

A Belgian, a Canadian and a Russian blast off for the International Space Station on Wednesday as Russia steps up its rocket launches to support a doubling of the station's crew.

The astronauts will lift off aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket at 4:34 pm (1034 GMT) from Russia's historic Baikonur cosmodrome on the Kazakh steppe.

They will hurtle into low Earth orbit and then make a gradual ascent to the station over two days, docking on Friday.

The voyage marks a doubling of the station's permanent crew from three to six and with it a rise in the frequency of manned flights aboard the Soyuz, a Soviet-designed rocket that originated in the late 1960s.

Belgian Frank de Winne, Canadian Robert Thirsk and Russian Roman Romanenko will join Russian Gennady Padalka, US astronaut Michael Barratt and Japan's Koichi Wakata aboard the station.

Until now, the crew of the International Space Station was limited to only three. Now, thanks to recent construction and the new waste processor coming online, the station population can finaly grow to six.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Happy Birthday Arthur Conan Doyle

Arthur Conan Doyle, the author who created Sherlock Holms, was born 150 years ago today, on May 22, 1859.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Quote for the Day

It has always been the prerogative of children and half-wits to point out that the emperor has no clothes. But the half-wit remains a half-wit, and the emperor remains an emperor.

- Neil Gaiman

Sunday, May 17, 2009

New Star Trek Movie Sent to ISS

According to UniverseToday.com, Paramount sent a copy of the latest Star Trek movie to NASA, which then uploaded it to the International Space Station for the astronauts there to enjoy.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Salmonella Vaccine Coming?

According to MSNBC, thanks to experiments on the International Space Station:

A series of experiments conducted aboard the International Space Station may soon lead to a vaccine against food poisoning from salmonella bacteria.

Researchers are analyzing a batch of the bacteria brought back by the shuttle Discovery crew last month. Earlier studies showed salmonella can become more virulent in weightlessness; further investigations proved its virulence can be controlled, toggled on and off like a switch.

Now two groups are working to develop compounds for a salmonella vaccine, said space station program scientist Julie Robinson.



The article goes on to point out:

The salmonella investigations are the most mature of dozens of experiments that have been conducted aboard the space station, which so far has led to 162 publications in science research journals, Robinson said.



In case you were wondering what the space station was good for.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Amazon Kindle

About a month ago, for my birthday, my wife gave me an Amazon Kindle.

Its magical qualities were apparent almost immdediately, and after having used it on a daily basis ever since, I am now convinced that it is an example of Arthur C. Clarke's Third law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

If you enjoy reading books, then you will love the Kindle. The e-ink screen is easy on the eyes and the Kindle itself feels perfect in my hand, being the size and weight of a paperback book. It downloads new books in less than a minute--even a book as large as The Brother's Karamazov or The Count of Monte Cristo. It's internal memory has enough space to hold 1500 books; so far, I've only got about 79 on it. They take up much less physical space than they otherwise would.

I also have the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times delivered wirelessly every morning. No more lost newspapers, stolen newspapers or soggy newspapers. I actually prefer reading them on the Kindle to reading them in newsprint. The only downside is the lack of comics; but thankfully, the comics are available on the web at places like comics.com, so I can still keep up on my favorites.

If you get a Kindle as a gift, you'll be very happy with it if you like to read.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Upcoming Launch of Falcon 1

According to a press release from SpaceX, they are planning on launching their next flight of Falcon 1 on April 20, 2009:

Hawthorne, CA (March 30, 2009) – Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) announces that the launch window for ATSB's RazakSAT on Falcon 1 Flight 5, is currently scheduled to open Monday, April 20th at 4:00 p.m. (PDT) / 7:00 p.m. (EDT).
SpaceX's Falcon 1 launch site is located approximately 2500 miles southwest of Hawaii on Omelek Island, part of the Reagan Test Site (RTS) at United States Army Kwajalein Atoll (USAKA) in the Central Pacific. Due to the location of the launch site, the Kwajalein local date at the opening of the launch window will be April 21st.

RazakSAT was designed and built by Astronautic Technology (M) Sdn Bhd (ATSB), a pioneer and leader in the design and manufacture of satellites in Malaysia. The satellite will be launched aboard the Falcon 1, a two-stage, liquid oxygen/rocket-grade kerosene vehicle, designed from the ground up by SpaceX.
Falcon 1 will place RazakSAT, equipped with a high resolution Medium-Sized Aperture Camera (MAC), into a near equatorial orbit. The payload is expected to provide high resolution images of Malaysia that can be applied to land management, resource development and conservation, forestry and fish migration.

SpaceX will provide live coverage of the Falcon 1 Flight 5/RazakSAT mission via webcast at: www.SpaceX.com. The webcast will begin 20 minutes prior to launch and will include mission briefings, live feeds and launch coverage from the launch site. Post-launch, video footage and photos will be available for download on the Web site.

Friday, March 27, 2009

ISS Video

Video from MSNBC of the International Space Station flying around the Earth:


The International Space Station is the largest human-built object ever put into space. It is 240 feet long by 336 feet wide. It currently has 26,500 cubic feet of living space, about as much as a four bedroom house. It weighs more than 600,000 pounds. It orbits the Earth once every 90 minutes or so at an altitude of about 190 miles. It has been continuously inhabited since November 2, 2000 with a crew of 3. Beginning the end of May, it will have a permanent crew of 6.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Kepler Scheduled for Launch

Tonight, Friday March 6, 2009 at 7:49 PM (PDT), a Delta II 7925 is scheduled to launch a space telescope named after Johannes Kepler into solar orbit: it will swing around the sun once every 372.5 days. With a mass of 2290 pounds, the telescope has a 55 inch diameter mirror, making it the largest telescope beyond Earth orbit. With 42 1024x2200 CCDs, it is also the largest camera ever put into space. Its primary mission is designed to last three and a half years, though that could be extended for longer.

And what is the purpose of the Kepler telescope? To discover Earth-like planets around nearby stars.

As of February 2009, three hundred forty-two planets have been found orbiting other stars. Most of these planets are massive gas giants. The majority of these planets were found by means of radial velocity observations, which means they have been detected by the gravitational effect that they have on the stars around which they orbit. That is, just as an Olympic athlete spinning around and around in preparation for releasing the hammer in the hammer throw wobbles back and forth, moved from a center location by the weight of the object he is about to hurl, so a star is pulled back and forth by the planets that orbit it. That wobble, at least for the larger planets the size of Uranus and bigger, can be detected by current instruments.

But finding planets like Earth, until the launch of Kepler, has been impossible. Kepler changes that by giving us an instrument with the ability to locate planets around stars that are like the Earth. A small percentage of the large planets that have been found by our instruments were discovered not by the radial velocity observations, but by the transit method. If a planet crosses in front of a star’s disk, then the observed brightness of the star drops by a small amount. The amount by which the star dims depends on its size and on the size of the planet. Our instruments on the ground can detect such drops in brightness if the planet is a large one. The Kepler instrument is sensitive enough to detect such crossings by planets like Earth.

For an Earth-like planet orbiting its star at the same distance as the Earth orbits from the sun, the probability of Kepler catching it passing in front of its parent star is only about 1 in 210. That is, out of 210 stars that have planets, only one of them will have them going around it at an angle that will take it in front of its star from our perspective. Of course, if Kepler catches one planet going around a star, the chances are good it will find some others because planets in a given system tend to orbit in similar planes. For instance, if an alien Kepler-like mission were looking at our solar system and saw the Earth pass in front of the sun, there is a twelve percent chance that such a mission would also detect Venus.

The Kepler Mission is designed to simultaneously observe 100,000 stars like the sun in a small patch of the sky near the constellations Cygnus and Lyra. If you go outside at midnight in late July and look straight overhead, then hold your hand out at arm’s length, your hand would nearly cover the amount of the sky that Kepler will be studying for three and a half years. Kepler will measure variations in the brightness of 100,000 stars in that region every 30 minutes. These stars that Kepler will study are between 600 and 3000 light years away (stars further than 3000 light years away are too faint for Kepler to observe planetary transits). The 1 in 210 probability of finding an Earth-like planet means that if 100% of stars observed in that tiny patch of the sky all had Earth-like terrestrial planets, Kepler would find about 480 of them.

To put this in greater perspective, the Milky Way Galaxy, the galaxy in which we and these 100,000 stars that will be observed all live together, make up only a tiny fraction of the stars that exist in our galaxy. The Milky Way Galaxy has around four hundred billion stars in it. Kepler will be examining but a tiny fraction of one percent of the stars (specifically, about 0.000025 percent) of our own galaxy. There are more than a hundred billion of other galaxies just in the observable universe—and each of those holds multiple hundreds of billions of stars. Chances are, there are a lot of places very much like Earth out there.

Kepler begins the first opportunity in human history to actually find some of them.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Happy Square Root Day!

March 3, 2009 is square root day.

CNET points out:

Tuesday is Square Root Day, a rare holiday that occurs when the day and the month are both the square root of the last two digits of the current year. Numerically, March 3, 2009, can be expressed as 3/3/09, or mathematically as √9 = 3, or 3² = 3 × 3 = 9.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Regrow Teeth?

MSNBC.com reports:

WASHINGTON - Ever wonder why sharks get several rows of teeth and people only get one? Some geneticists did, and their discovery could spur work to help adults one day grow new teeth when their own wear out.

A single gene appears to be in charge, preventing additional tooth formation in species destined for a limited set. When the scientists bred mice that lacked that gene, the rodents developed extra teeth next to their first molars — backups like sharks and other non-mammals grow, University of Rochester scientists reported Thursday.

If wondering about shark teeth seems rather wonky, consider this: Tooth loss from gum disease is a major problem, here and abroad, and dentures or dental implants are far from perfect treatments. If scientists knew exactly what triggers a new tooth to grow in the first place, it's possible they could switch that early-in-life process on again during adulthood to regenerate teeth.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Quote for the Day

Writing well means never having to say, 'I guess you had to be there.'

- Jef Mallett

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy 200th Birthday, Abraham Lincoln!

Abraham Lincoln was born two hundred years ago today, on February 12, 1809.

Lincoln was elected the sixteenth president of the United States on November 6, 1860. His opponents in the race were Stephen A. Douglas, a Democrat, John C. Breckinridge, a Southern Democrat, and John Bell, of the Constitutional Union Party. He won despite not even being on the ballot in nine southern states.

Abraham Lincoln is the only person whose rise to the presidency was met with violence and civil unrest. As it became clear that Abraham Lincoln would be elected president, several southern states announced their intention to leave the Union. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina declared its secession. By February 1, 1861, six other states had followed, proclaiming themselves a new nation: the Confederate States of America. Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as president on March 4, 1861 (the date of the inauguration was not changed to January 20 until the time of Franklin Roosevelt when the twentieth amendment to the constitution was ratified on January 23, 1933.) In April 1861, after American troops were fired upon at Fort Sumter and force to surrender, President Lincoln called upon the governors of every state to send detachments to recapture the forts, protect the capital, and to “preserve the Union.” North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas then seceded, along with most of Virginia (a few counties refused to join the rest of the state in seceding and became the new state of West Virginia in 1863).

Abraham Lincoln’s time as President was consumed by defeating the secessionist Confederate States during the Civil War, the greatest crisis that the United States has ever faced. During the course of the war he introduced measures that resulted in the abolition of slavery. In 1863 he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It freed the slaves in all the territories of the United States that were not, at that time, under Union control. It thus made the abolition of slavery in the rebellious states an official goal of the war. Lincoln then promoted the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery altogether. It was ratified shortly after his assassination in 1865.

Lincoln’s rhetoric both before and during the Civil War resulted in a shift in American values. Before him, most politicians had stressed the sanctity of the Constitution. Lincoln shifted the emphasis to the Declaration of Independence as the foundation of American political values: an emphasis on freedom and equality for all, in contrast to the Constitution’s tolerance of slavery. His position gained strength over time, because it highlighted the moral basis of the American conception of government in distinction to the legalisms of the Constitution. He argued in his Gettysburg address that the United States was born, not in 1789 when the Constitution was ratified, but rather in 1776 when the United States declared its independence.

Lincoln did more during his administration to centralize the American government than any president before him. In writings before his administration, it was common to hear the phrase, “The United States are...” After his administration, it has always been, “The United States is...” During the Civil War he proclaimed a blockade, he suspended the writ of habeas corpus, and he spent money without congressional authorization. He also imprisoned eighteen thousand suspected Confederate sympathizers without trial. Lincoln was vilified by his political opponents as a despot.

Prior to Lincoln’s presidency, the Thanksgiving holiday had been but a regional celebration in New England. In 1863 Lincoln declared the final Thursday in November to be a day of Thanksgiving and the holiday has been celebrated every year since then.

It was during Lincoln’s administration, in 1864, that the phrase “In God We Trust” first appeared on an American coin: specifically, the two cent piece. It appeared but intermittently on U.S. coins after that until 1938 when that the phrase became a legal requirement on all coins. “In God We Trust” first appeared on paper money in 1957.

Abraham Lincoln was the first president to be assassinated. His assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was a well-known actor. He was also a spy for the Confederacy. He had originally intended to kidnap Lincoln and hold him in exchange for the release of Confederate prisoners. But when he heard President Lincoln promote voting rights for the freed slaves, Booth decided to assassinate him instead. Booth shot Lincoln on the night of April 14, 1865 while Lincoln watched a production of the play, Our American Cousin. Lincoln was in a coma for nine hours after being shot and never regained consciousness. He died at 7:22 AM on April 15, 1865.