Friday, August 28, 2015

Next Stop: Kuiper!

NASA has decided which object the New Horizons probe will stop by and visit next: A piece of floating real estate that goes by the name 2014 MU69.

The 30-mile diameter rock is a part of what astronomers call the "Kuiper Belt," an area of small objects that stretches from Pluto outward and which is one of the outer layers of the solar system. It's named after astronomer Gerard Kuiper. It's not the most distant group of objects in the solar system, though. That would be the Oort Cloud, which is a still-hypothetical sphere of small icy objects thought to be a possible source for comets. The Oort cloud, if it exists, is thought to be between two thousand and five thousand times as far from the sun as is the Earth.

While 2014 MU69, discovered by Hubble telescope researchers last year, is not quite that far away, it is still a billion miles more distant than Pluto and New Horizons won't reach it until January 2019. Except for course corrections, regular systems checks and the completion of downloading all of the data it gathered from Pluto, scientists plan to put the probe to sleep for the journey. They say this is to conserve energy, but it may also be to forestall three and a half years of "Are we there yet?"

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Hold the Peanut Butter

Nancy Warner was making jelly and she ran out of fruit to flavor it with, so she used the next available thing: Beer.

One winter the Vermont architect and archaeologist, who canned like crazy as a hobby, found herself with lots of cans, lots of sugar and fruit pectin, but no fruits to give her jelly flavor. But she did have a lot of beer, and she had heard of jelly made with wine. So she began experimenting, and today she's moved into a commercial kitchen and makes 3,000 jars a week.

Even though the jelly retains much of the beer taste, sweetened by the added sugar, polishing off a jar will not put you at risk of a traffic stop. The cooking and chemical interaction with the sugar removes the alcohol.

I suppose technically the jelly could be made with any beer. A peanut butter and Guinness sandwich sounds intriguing, but I would hope good taste would prevent the creation of Blatz jelly. Consuming Blatz without the benefit of its wisdom-deadening alcoholic properties? That way lies madness.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Printed Matter

The technology of 3-D printing is still being developed, as people figure out more and more things that can be created by printing out thin layers and gluing them together.

This story at Smithsonian shows how a team at MIT developed a 3-D printer that uses molten glass to make some pretty fantastic objects. Rather than create a series of thin plastic or resin layers cut to certain shapes, this printer extrudes a thin stream of molten glass through a nozzle. The nozzle moves in patterns directed by a computer according to the image the user sets, and layer by later builds the object.

The video the story refers to is here, and the resulting objects are amazing. Traditional glass manufacture might be able to approximate the finished pieces, but probably without the precision available to the machine.

Here's one of the printed objects, on display with a special light in order to create some interesting effects:

Here's another object from the same printer:

Several items from the "print run" will be on display at the Smithsonian's museum next year.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Forty, Still Runnin'

Born to Run turns 40 years old today, its iconic status as music in its own right and a launching pad for Bruce Springsteen's big-league career firm on the earth and in the airwaves. As many of the items noting the anniversary point out, that status was never assured until the record was released, and the 14 months taken to create it led a lot of people to wonder if it would ever come out or if Springsteen's career would consist of two well-received but commercially underwhelming records of R&B street poetry.

But an early version of the title track had been in significant rotation on some influential East coast radio stations for several months, meaning that when the single and album released on the same day following Columbia Records' promotional campaign, the best description was "detonation." Born to Run was a Top 10 album in its second week of release and led to the fortunate/unfortunate Time and Newsweek cover twinbill.

"Thunder Road" opens the album with a quiet piano and harmonica sequence before "A screen door slams" and we are off with Mary and her lover, the narrator. As their story progresses, other instruments gather and the sound builds until the singer offers Mary her chance to escape the town he feels is a trap for them both. "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" follows, the musical biography of the formation of the E Street Band in its best-known lineup.

The third track, "Night," is one of the album's lesser-known songs along with "Meeting Across the River." Its narrator has no Wendy like his counterpart from the title song, and he still seeks her while he tries to inject life into his existence through his time behind the wheel. "Backstreets" closes side one with a story of two lovers who have each other and little else. A later Sprinsgteen might contemplate whether that would be enough but here he just tells the tale in wistfully bitter words.

Side two opens with Ernest "Boom" Carter's staccato roll before the Wall of Sound guitars and keyboards kick in -- no delicate lead in here, and we are caught up immediately into the urgency and passion of the title track. The singer is convinced that not only is there something better than his current workday life, he and Wendy will never find it where they are now -- leading to the irony of one of New Jersey's best-known songs being about leaving New Jersey. Instrumentally, "Born to Run" alternately swirls and hammers, leaning on the sweep of horns and strings as the narrator cajoles and promises Wendy a better life and then pummeling sequences of guitars and drums to emphasize the street racing and highway dreams aspect that's the closest thing to salvation their current life can offer.

"She's the One"'s icy piano base dances around a fairly standard tale of a man who loves a woman that doesn't return his affection equally, if at all. Again, a later Springsteen would probably have added some depth to both characters, with both the man's passion and the woman's coldness being more than they seem at first, but here we only see them as presented. It's not the most fully realized picture on the album, but within its limitations it offers some vivid images. Most of those come from the music itself more than the lyrics Springsteen sings.

"Meeting Across the River" tells the story of a small-time guy looking for a bigger score, but with such a somber air that it seems as much pre-eulogy as narration. It's the other "other" track, along with "Night." Although Album-Oriented Rock (AOR) stations often played many songs from an album instead of just the singles, neither "Meeting" nor "Night" showed up on the dial very often.

Born to Run closes with "Jungleland," the last "epic" Springsteen would try until 2009's "Outlaw Pete." In it the Rat, a hood with gang affiliations, meets his love the Barefoot Girl and drives away, following one of Springsteen's most common symbols of true love triumphing. But the Rat has not come to the night with clean hands, and both the police and his gangland life have made it impossible for this dream to come true. "Jungleland" was also one of the last of Springsteen's lyrically dense story songs, with the characters who came in later albums having much more of an Everyman or Everywoman identity. The word-packed images gave way to plain-spoken declarative sentences. It's easily one of the most majestic songs instrumentally the E Street Band created, with what is probably Clarence Clemons' finest saxophone solo moving the Rat's story to his end and epitaph.

Though Springsteen's discomfort with Columbia's promotional efforts led to an early end of the campaign, "Born to Run" stayed on the charts for 29 weeks. The willingness of that old AOR format to play songs other than an album's hit singles kept almost all of the tracks in front of listeners, and Springsteen's ability to infuse his performances with a religious zeal made sure that his fans stayed in love with its best tracks. Although singles chart success would have to wait for 1980 and "Hungry Heart," Born to Run kept Bruce Springsteen in the music business. It also added a challenging level of instrumental and lyrical complexity to the rock side of rock and roll, until that point (with the exception of The Who), found mostly in mid-tempo folk and Ozymandian progressive rock extravaganzas. Myth and poetry in popular music no longer required misty shores and mountains -- it could be found on the asphalt and under a street rod's shiny hood.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Not Reading

Some incoming first-year students at Duke University deserve half a pat on the back for their decision to skip their school's summer reading entry.

Duke, like many universities, assigns its incoming students a book to read and schedules discussions for the new students during their first days on campus. These books are rarely burdened with actual deep content and frequently represent some idea or theme that's trending among college administrators.

This year, Duke picked Fun Home, a long comic book (which is all a "graphic novel" is, and I say that as a fan of comic books) written and drawn by Allison Bechdel. Bechdel chronicles her difficult relationship with her closeted gay father and her experiences discovering her own sexuality as a lesbian woman. I've never read it, so I don't have much to say about it.

Incoming Duke first-year student Brian Grasso made clear and public his choice to skip the novel. He said that reading and viewing the graphic depictions of sexual situations would compromise his religious and moral beliefs (Full disclosure: Duke is affiliated with my own denomination, the United Methodist Church, but that probably doesn't mean much to a significant percentage of its faculty, staff and students).

The reason I give Mr. Grasso and his fellow skippers only half a pat on the back is that they should be saying they won't read the book because there's no reason for them to do so. Colleges choose this pseudo-intellectual exercise supposedly as a way to introduce their new students to the concept of the life of the mind which is a feature of their university communities.

But the books are almost always shallow, rarely offer anything but sentimentalism or empathy mining and carry absolutely no consequences if ignored. Students receive no grades for their discussions or projects and can't be expelled if they skip the book, show up to whatever session the college drags them to, sit quietly and leave when it's all done. I may be misremembering my own 18-year-old thinking, but I didn't exactly need lessons in how to ignore assigned reading.

So fight the power, Mr. Grasso, but don't stop halfway. Reject the idea you have to read this comic book, not because it has some pictures that might compromise your faith journey, but because the whole project is lame and requires someone to put a stake in its heart.

(Note: I selected the USA Today story because it came closest to the middle in the reporting on this matter -- it lacked the full-throated cheerleading for the protesting students I saw on several more conservative sites and the snarky mockery in most of the more left-leaning coverage. Nevertheless, it's not perfect, as writer Alexandra Samuels seems to think that the students' faith requires the label "alleged" when their willingness to buck their school's system and listen to the snickering put-downs of many of their opponents would indicate that faith is actually there and not merely allegedly so.)

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Hot Hits in the Hot Season!

This infographic at Personal Creations shows which songs dominated the charts for the most weeks during each summer for the last 50 years.

It seemed like "My Sharona" was a #1 hit for more than six weeks in the summer of 1979, but my memory of Casey Kasem's "American Top 40" that far back is a little fuzzy. I do remember that when it fell out of the top spot, it was replaced by Robert John's drippy "Sad Eyes."

My friends and I couldn't figure out how that song was number one when almost everyone hated it, even girls. It didn't even have the saving grace of being a good slow dance song because it was about a sad breakup that was happening because the singer's wife or steady girlfriend was coming home and the fling had to end. In fact, just a couple of years ago "My Sharona" came up in a conversation with a high school buddy who made a point of saying, "And that 'Sad Eyes' crap that came after it, blecch!"

At the risk of sounding like an old curmudgeon (which I am not; I am a middle-aged curmudgeon, thank you very much), I will point out that a bunch of summers after, say, 1993 offered stuff that makes me wish for "Sad Eyes." I've got plenty of music made in the 90s, Oughties and Teens, so it's not just that I think stuff from when I was younger was better. But it seems that what floated to the top of the charts during those years was hardly the best that year offered. This is not unique to these decades; I am willing to bet that the summer of 1974 offered much better and more sensibly punctuated music than Paul Anka and Odia Coates singing "(You're) Having My Baby."

I listen to Top 40 radio so I can know what the youth in my church are talking about, and I can't recognize more than a handful of those songs -- which means that even though I heard them, they didn't stick with me at all. And of the handful I recognize, I can probably say I like two or three (especially that "Call Me Maybe." That sucker's an earworm par excellence!)

Which is, I guess, another exhibit in the argument that Famous Don't Mean Fantastic, which is proven or disproven every other day or so depending on which example you want to cite. I don't know if that one will ever have a definitive answer. What does have a definitive answer is how awful it was to listen to a Top 40 station during the hot season in 2013. Twelve weeks of "Blurred Lines?"

A cruel, cruel summer indeed.

(H/T JenX67)

Saturday, August 22, 2015

When Is Skim Milk Not Skim Milk?

Well, when it's skim milk, at least as far as Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Adam Putnam and Florida law are concerned.

The Ocheesee Creamery, run by Paul and Mary Lou Wesselhoeft, wants to market their skim milk as skim milk. They make it pretty much the way the name describes. They take whole milk and skim the cream off it. The cream contains most of the fat found in milk, which is why people trying to lower their fat intake choose it. Dairies often do this not just to create skim milk, but also to process the cream for sale as well, either as cream or churned into butter.

Skimming the cream also reduces the amount of vitamin A in the milk, since it's a compound found mostly in the cream and not in the rest of the milk. Florida law requires people who want to market skim milk as skim milk to inject vitamin A back into the milk after the skimming process has removed it. The Wesselhoefts say their customers don't want any additives in their skim milk, and so they don't put anything into it. Fine, says Florida, but you can't label that as skim milk. You have to label it “Non-Grade ‘A’ Milk product, natural Milk Vitamins Removed.”

In other words, according to an actual state law and some soulless automata fueled by real taxpayer dollars, genuine skim milk that comes straight outta Bessie and gets the cream skimmed off has to be labeled as imitation skim milk.

A couple of years ago, some bureaucratic homunculus ordered the Wesselhoefts to stop selling their skim milk unless they changed the label to the above phrase. Since the majority of their customers are folks who are looking for natural foods, they figured they wouldn't sell too many bottles that way. Although the Ocheesee Creamery still skims the cream in order to sell it, they now have to pour the milk left behind down the drain. Last year, they decided to sue on First Amendment grounds, saying that the United States Constitution gives them the right to call skim milk by the name skim milk.

During oral presentations in court, the state agency's lawyer said that skim milk has to have vitamins re-inserted because people expect their whole milk and skim milk to have the same nutritional value. That seems a weak argument, as Floridians probably expect their state agencies to be run by people whose neurons can fire without jumper cables and they are presently being disappointed there as well. The judge in the case also appeared skeptical of the value of that position.

The lawyer said that the genuine skim milk was "literally imitating" the skim milk with the re-added vitamins, which is proof right there that there are some words you don't need to understand in order to be a lawyer.

P.S. -- If the suit is successful, I hereby allow the Ocheesee Creamery to use "Straight Outta Bessie" in their marketing free of charge.