My personal journey with Carl Sagan 3

By my estimate, I am at most three degrees removed from the late astronomer/writer Carl Sagan. In spirit, however, we are much closer. My connection to Sagan, who died on this date 11 years ago, is pretty convoluted, so bear with me while I try to explain it. First, some background. In 1972 Sagan and his colleague at Cornell University, Frank Drake, helped devise a plaque for the Pioneer 10 and 11 probes to Jupiter and Saturn. The plaque depicted the nude bodies of a man and a woman, the location of the Sun relative to prominent stars, and other basic details about the origin of the probes. The idea was to leave a calling card on the probes, in case any intelligent life “out there” should find them. Later in the decade, Sagan and Drake repeated the exercise, making it much more elaborate, for the Voyager probes to the four gas giants. The Voyager Golden Record was a metallized phonograph record, with greetings in 55 languages (including one from Sagan’s son), music from across the globe and 115 photographs. One of the photographs is by the famous landscape photographer, Ansel Adams, depicting in his signature style the Snake River ...

Updates to school-related posts 2: Brittany McComb

Nevada senior Brittany McComb made a name for herself in June 2006 when she delivered a valedictory that testified to her love for Jesus, and encouraged other students to find Him. She had earlier agreed to leave such remarks out of the speech. School officials disconnected her mike in the middle of her delivery in response. Juvenile behavior all around. McComb, who is now a freshman at a Christian school, Biola University in California, became the darling of conservative Christians looking for more examples of the “war on Christianity” and the pernicious influence of the American Civil Liberties Union. The conservative legal group, the Rutherford Institute, agreed to take her case to the U.S. District Court in Nevada, alleging her free speech rights were violated. The text of the suit is here — Adobe Reader required. The case has been stalled in the courts since. The defendants in McComb’s suit filed two motions to dismiss, which the district court judge denied. They have since appealed to the Ninth District Court of Appeals in California, and filed opening briefs earlier this month. Rutherford Institute attorney Doug McKusick says McComb’s lawyers will file their replies in January. The case raises several issues. ...

Updates on school-related posts 1: Tericka Dye 11

Ex-porn performer Tericka Dye is still teaching, somewhere. Last spring the media were aflurry with the shocking revelation that a well-liked science teacher in western Kentucky had, for a brief time in her younger days, performed in porno movies. Tericka Dye, a teacher at Reidland High School in McCracken County, Ky., was dismissed, despite parental support and an excellent reputation as teacher and volleyball coach. She appealed the decision administratively, but was not reinstated. She then filed a lawsuit against the McCracken County schools, which a local judge dismissed, then appealed that decision to the Kentucky Court of Appeals. In February Dye withdrew the appeal, ending the legal battle, preferring to set the whole episode behind her. She has found work as a teacher elsewhere, according to the Paducah Sun. Her lawyer advised the “don’t ask, don’t tell” strategy when dealing with new employers; don’t volunteer her past life if they don’t ask. She may also be working under a different name, since googling “Tericka Dye” would spill the beans. Dye admitted to performing as Rikki Andersin in a handful of porno movies 13 years ago when she was young and foolish. As she told it, she was psychologically a ...

Scary “Christian” youth stuff 2

We were watching CNN late Saturday night and caught the tail end of a report on Teen Mania, Ron Luce’s Christian youth indoctrination organization. Watching the pre-teens and teens at one of Luce’s BattleCry events was downright scary. Luce’s message, which is tinged heavily with his brand of fundamentalism, is that popular culture is corrupting our youth. He pounds into his young congregants the need to reject all the commercialism, sex, drugs and whatnot rife in secular culture. He woos impressionable pre-teens and teens with the usual fundie blend of showbiz and pulpit-pounding demagoguery. While telling them to reject pop culture, he uses (Christian) rock music, pyrotechnics, and variety of merchandise to convert his BattleCry event audiences to the Teen Mania way. Watching adults sway in some kind of hypnotic rapture during a fundie church service is one thing. Seeing kids as young as 10 with their eyes closed and arms upraised, entranced by Luce’s brand of religion by the hundreds is alarming. Pop culture is evil, kids. It’s poisoning your minds, removing all that is good from your souls. Instead, empty your minds of all free will and follow me instead. That’s the Luce message. An army of Christian ...

Upgrade complete

It’s all finished. You’re seeing this on WordPress 2.3.1 now. I updated a few plugins, too, and all seems well. Thank goodness.

Meanwhile, sensible Christians reclaim the holiday from know-nothings

A Christian organization has stood up to the “war on Christmas” nonsense emanating from Fox News shills Bill O’Reilly and John Gibson. The group has challenged O’Reilly and Co. to quit their assault on the so-called assault on Christmas and actually respect the holiday’s meaning. Details are here.

Congress declares (Christmas and Christianity) = good

I’ve been lying awake for nights worrying about whether the USA approves of Christianity and Christmas. I mean, as issues go, it must rank at least on a par with global warming, a looming energy crisis, potential recession and a pointless war. The House of Representatives, since it has nothing else better to do with its time, has allayed my fears. Yesterday, by an overwhelming majority, it resolved that Christmas and Christianity are good things, officially approved by the House. The resolution (text below) was introduced by a Republican from Iowa and co-sponsored by a passel of other Republicans (and a few Democrats). Despite its skirting the Constitutional prohibition of establishing a state religion, most of our reps blindly voted for it. The tally was 372-9, with 40 not voting and 10 voting “present” (basically abstaining). John Yarmuth (D-3rd Ky) abstained. Our other local reps in southern Indiana and central Kentucky voted aye. What a total waste of time! A resolution has, of course, no legal meaning. Supporting a resolution approving of Christianity and Christmas does absolutely nothing meaningful, other than to demonstrate that the congresspeople want to look like they are doing something meaningful. I suppose they want to ...

Adios, CompUSA …

The wires are buzzing with news that CompUSA, one of the few brick-and-mortar computer retailers left, will be no more. Its assets will be sold off following the holiday rush piecemeal by an asset-management firm. It was inevitable, and a little sad, but times change. Back in late 1997, I decided I needed a second job. I walked into Louisville’s only Computer City store, filled out an application, and within short order was working the floor as a commissioned computer sales associate. That was back in the days when computers still cost more than $1,000 and margins were high, so a salesperson could actually make a commission and the store could actually turn a profit. I was (to my mind) surprisingly successful in sales, and was able to make almost half my teaching salary working part-time at Computer City. (That’s a sad comment on teaching salaries, by the way.) It was hard work, but fun in many ways. At the time, Computer City was a subsidiary of Tandy Corp., which also owned Radio Shack. It was not making Tandy all that much money. So when CompUSA, formerly known as SoftWarehouse, offered to buy the entire Computer City chain in 1999, ...

Upgrade in process 2

Not that (I hope) anyone will notice, but I am in the process of upgrading my WordPress site from version 2.0.10 to the latest, 2.3.1. To the end user, there should be no noticeable difference. I am taking the cautious route, as I advise anyone with a website to follow. First, back up the entire site, including the database tables. Then if you have not been staying on top of software updates do the upgrade in stages. Check to see if everything works before proceeding to the next step. For WP, the upgrade is generally troublefree. You overwrite the old files (except wp-config and your theme files!) with the new ones. Any database upgrades are handled by the new files. If only php-nuke and Joomla upgrades were as well organized … I started first with 2.0.11, then with 2.1. Everything seems to be OK, so I expect to finish the next two steps, 2.2 and 2.3, in the next few days. If the site looks funky, you’ve probably caught me in the middle of an update. Just come back later.

My students’ finalist essay in the Cassini Scientist-for-Day contest

Last month, my Physics First students entered the Cassini Scientist-for-a-Day essay contest, in which they had to argue why the Cassini team at the Jet Propulsion Lab should pick one of four possible targets for the NASA probe to study. Nationally, about 400 students participated, submitting 188 essays for judging. Five of our 13 submissions made it to the semifinals, and one proceeded to the final round of judging. On that basis, we were invited to join an hour-long video conference with the Cassini scientists on Dec. 5. In the end, none of our submissions were winners, that honor going to two high school students in Palo Alto, California, and Wilmington, Delaware, but the success we did have is a measure of the hard work and talent of the students involved. The Cassini-Huygens probe has been exploring Saturn and its moons since 2004. Huygens successfully landed on the moon Titan, while Cassini careens through the Saturnian system. The Cassini team has to decide which targets to image well in advance of the probe’s arrival, since there is a limited window of opportunity to take the pictures. There is no turning around to take a second look! For the contest, the ...

Earthrise – Japanese style

Almost 40 years ago, the Apollo 8 astronauts took this famous photograph of the Earth above the horizon of the Moon. Eventually entitled “Earthrise,” the December 1968 image was a Christmas greeting from the first humans to leave near-Earth orbit and visit another celestial object. It became an icon of the late ’60s, appearing on T-shirts, posters and greeting cards. Space enthusiasts loved it, since it gave earthlings their first real glimpse of what space travel might look like. Environmentalists loved it, because it showed “this island Earth,” a small blue sphere in the dark of space, the only home to humans (that we’d better not muck up). A few months later, two members of the Apollo 11 crew actually walked on the Moon. They brought back another iconic photograph: This one also ended up posters and greeting cards. NASA should have demanded royalty fees on these two; they could have funded another Moon landing! It’s been a long while since anyone walked on the Moon, or even orbited it. The Apollo program petered out in the mid-’70s, and manned space exploration has receded from the public consciousness. The Space Shuttle program, except for two fatal catastrophes, has made space ...

Meet a scientist, virtually

The video conference came off well, despite some minor technical glitches and the seeming inability of some teenagers to avoid talking altogether. We were using iChat on an eMac, with a webcam I brought from home. The video quality was pretty bad, largely because of the equipment on our end. I suspect NASA/JPL has somewhat more sophisticated video equipment. Still, you could tell there were people on the screen, despite the pixellation and slow response time. Audio was a different issue. The audio through the network was garbled, like those early webcasts using RealPlayer. I gave up on the iChat video finally, and just connected my desk phone to their teleconference line and put it on speakerphone. Then at least we could understand what they were saying. So, we had blocky video from iChat and somewhat clear audio from the telephone. Not ideal, but it worked. The format was straightforward. We introduced ourselves (not individually, by schools) and the four Cassini scientists introduced themselves. Then they opened the floor to questions from the students. Each school took a turn, until the hour was up. From what I could gather, at least two of the conferees entered the contest individually. The ...
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