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Hot diggety dog—for the first time, I saw three sliver moons associated with the same new moon!

(I’m also setting a record for the most delayed sliver moon update: I’m talking about the new moon of 30 March, more than a lunar month ago. The subsequent new moon last Monday was a total bust for sliver moons.)

Can't believe I saw the early-morning sliver moon of 28 March. I just happened to be awake, and looking out the window, at precisely 6:36 that morning—the one minute it was visible before the scudding, silhouetted clouds enveloped it. Two minutes later—complete overcast. But for that moment it was Dawn © Mother Nature.

I wouldn’t have had a chance to view the 30-hour sliver moon of 31 March if it hadn’t been so close to the vernal equinox. Knew exactly where and when to look, and good thing, too: though it had been sunny (and butt cold) all day, the inevitable raft of stratus clouds was closing fast, and I just got a glimpse (and a photo!) of it ahead of the cloud front. This time, though, the solid overcast didn’t settle in for at least ten minutes; the western sky was obliterated almost at once, but a few lonely stars continued peering through the murk.


Plate 1. SLIVER MOOOooOooOOON!

Wow—a 30-hour sliver moon successfully viewed from Cleveland. Never thunk it possible. That must be close to the theoretical limit for sliveriness at this latitude and climate.

After that, Tuesday’s two-day sliver moon should have been ridiculously easy to spot. And again, a brilliant sunny day with the threat of oncoming clouds from the west around sunset. Luckily, the sky remained visible for a while after dark; I was playing board games that evening and didn’t think to go look until around 8:30. A classic Cheshire Cat sliver moon, its lower horn starting to disappear behind filaments of cumulus, greeted me in the parking lot.

That’s three sliver moons within a span of five days, and each sighting occurred in a window of visibility scant minutes wide. Sometimes I’m just walking around lucky.

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Looks like I’m about to set a new record for late-posting a Sliver Moon update. I actually have a sliver moon backup. And for good reason: to make a very long story short, thanks to being assigned a last-minute teaching duty this semester, I’ve done hardly anything the last six weeks except work, sleep and freak out (in every possible permutation).

And view the occasional sliver moon.

One of the very few advantages of this beastly cold pseudo-spring is that we’ve had an unusual amount of sunshine (i.e., any at all). And—more to the point—clear skies in the evening. All I had to do was look vaguely westward within a couple hours after sunset on March 3, and I’d see a blazing two-and-a-half-day sliver moon. Since this time of year is the very best for spotting planets and sliver moons in the evening (on account of the steep angle of the Ecliptic relative to the horizon), I’d have seen March 2’s one-and-a-half-day sliver moon as well, if it hadn’t been cloudy to the west, sigh.

The sad part of all this lovely sky-viewing weather is that apart from an occasional sliver moon, there is hardly anything worth seeing in the evening. Jupiter is riding high and bright, but other than that, all the planets are on the wrong side of the sun.

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After about two weeks of unrelenting overcast, we finally got some clear sky late yesterday afternoon—just in time for SLIVER MOON! The sky after sunset was one of those crystal-clear sunsets with an entire rainbow of colors and nearly infinite visibility—the kind we only get in the Midwest when it’s about 2 °F outside. In fact, it was fully ten degrees warmer than that: the last couple of days’ worth of unceasing gales has scoured out all the smog and cleared the air a bit.

Funny, that after a half a year of not even coming close to viewing a sliver moon, last night’s would be clearly visible for about three hours. Took most of an hour to shovel us out from Thursday’s blizzard, but the sliver moon was smiling over my shoulder the entire time.

When we got home from work, Katheryne pointed a little north of west and asked me what that star was. I said it couldn’t possibly be a star—it was far brighter than any star—and no planet should be that far north. At first I reckoned it had to be an airplane, but it stayed fixed relative to the stars. Later, I saw Orion below and east of it, and Aldebaran directly to the east along the Ecliptic, and realized it had to be Jupiter. The last time I saw Jupiter, and recognized it, it was half-buried in the glow of sunset—so that had to be at least half a year ago. That’s just sad. In Seattle I always knew where to look for all the visible planets. And Seattle is justly famous for its dreary skies. Oh SIGH.

For some reason this winter has already been much tougher on me than average. November was butt cold, and though December was far more annoying than its just below average temperature overall would suggest: we had five days with highs over 50 °F and a huge number in the twenties. And the Saturday before Christmas was so bizarre I didn’t even enjoy the warmth. The temperature peaked near 60 °F but we had torrential rain all afternoon and evening, during which we had to drive some 60 miles home. Cleveland got over two inches of rain that day. What the pluperfect hell? It didn’t help that I was barely starting to recover from the ’flu, which perhaps accounted for much of my sensitivity to the weather. Alas, it will get even colder: Monday night’s forecast low is –8 °F, the coldest we’ve been in at least three years. Nowhere left to go from there but up.

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Another plane trip, and another post about airline safety cards! Here we have a selection from Southwest’s B737 300/500 Safety Features of This Aircraft, as Performed by People Who Have Taken Far Too Many Sedatives.

As I’ve mentioned before, airline safety card artists seem to have a rough time drawing children: they never come out accurately proportioned. In Southwest’s case, the kid being helped with his oxygen mask was a carbon copy of Alfred E. Neuman, shrunken down to child size. Alas, I didn’t get a picture in time. They recently changed the graphics: in the new diagram (Plate 1, panel 3), Alfred’s half out of shot. Even from just his right side, though, you can tell he’s a little scamp, and chock full of trouble. Look at that smirk!

Continue for (unintentionally) silly pictures….Collapse )

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Welcome to Part II of my Yucatán travelogue! Part I, in which we fly to Cancún and enjoy a late tropical storm, is here.



Sunday: Chichén Itzá.

We could not imagine visiting the Yucatán without a day trip to Chichén Itzá, the most famous of the Mayan archæological sites. Laura had contracted (with the same company who had provided our shuttle) for a guide who would drive about ten of us to Chichén Itzá, and then to a nearby cenote—a limestone sinkhole with a pond at the bottom, very picturesque and great for swimming—for a late lunch and a dip.

Javier, our guide, spent the entire trip, about three hours each way, talking nonstop. But he was well worth listening to, as he filled us in on all sorts of Mayan and contemporary Mexican lore, with some paleontology and geology thrown in as a kind of intellectual seasoning. Wished I could hear him better, but he was talking mostly to our companion riding shotgun. He kindly raised his voice, though, to tell us all the account of what it was like to live in Maya country during December 2012, when all the New Age folks in North America converged on Chichén Itzá to witness the end of the world from the officially sanctioned location. He said that the locals welcomed them at first, but changed their tune when they’d had a chance to observe how vast a quantity of illicit drugs was suddenly flowing into the region, and thence into thousands of insatiable hippie bloodstreams.

We crossed from Quintana Roo1 into Yucatán state and paid the heftiest toll I’ve ever seen on any highway, ever: a staggering 251 pesos (over 20 USD). How many dozen people in Mexico can afford to drive on this highway? We paid another toll (smaller, but still excessive, even compared to the Ohio Turnpike) on exiting at Chichén Itzá.

On the way in we stopped at a large shop selling Mayan jewelry and objets d’art. Javier informed us that we should stock up on souvenirs here, since the vendors on site at Chichén Itzá acquired their wares directly from China, whereas the stuff at the Mayan store was genuine. I had to wonder whether he had some sort of deal with the folks at this store, but he spoke truth about the vendor booths at the ruins: all their cheaper stuff looked exactly the same across all booths. Also, the variety was far greater at this store.

All around Chichén Itzá these trees were blooming a ridiculous flame orange. They’re aptly named “flamboyant trees.” Their blossoms are shaped a bit like ginkgo leaves (Plate 6; click on any photo to see a large version).

Continue for pictures....Collapse )

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We spent a week in the Mayan Riviera, México, to see my friend Laura get married and to generally celebrate and have fun. We successfully did all three, and got quite a few surprises along the way.

(This travelogue will be heavier on the pictures than previous ones. I bought a nifty little Nikon Coolpix camera, and I’m delighted with it. Click on any thumbnail to see a larger version in Flickr. Most of the photos are 8 Mpx, so you can get nice detail if you want it.)



Saturday.

Paradoxically, from northern Ohio it’s quicker to fly to Cancún, México, than to Salt Lake City. That was my first geographical surprise on our way out. (The second was that Cancún is due south of Nashville; I’d pegged it as south of Washington, DC.)

Normally, the sun right outside our window would quickly get annoying, flooding us with too much light and warmth when all we wanted to do was either nap or goof around on a dimly lit laptop. But once we got over the Gulf of Mexico, my habit of staring out the window was richly rewarded with cool photo ops with reflected sunlight. We had just left the USA when I snapped this one of several richly branched rivers merging with the Gulf, reminiscent of the Mandelbrot set (Plate 1). The ocean has a lovely, silver matte finish, and the cloud shadows look like “reverse field” clouds.

Continue for pix…Collapse )

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I feel sorry for the artists who draw the diagrams in airplane safety cards. They have to draw people dealing with all sorts of emergency situations, but for PR reasons aren’t allowed to give them realistic facial expressions or body language.

Click on any photo for a large version.Collapse )

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So I was goofing around on my computer just now; Yuki was lounging on the carpet just behind me, and Altair was perched atop my old Mac, peering out the window. Suddenly I heard, "Huk! Huk! Huk! Huk!" I spun around and lunged for Yuki-chan to toss her off the carpet—but she was still just sitting there, staring at me with an innocent expression. With a sinking heart, and a rising gorge, I turned to Altair, and here's what I found (with the culprit entering from left to inspect her handiwork):

Cut for pix (and nausea inducement)...Collapse )

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It’s been a while, eh? Alas, I really haven’t felt like writing in yonks.

I haven’t seen many sliver moons recently, either. It’s gotten so bad that I’ve almost fallen out of the habit of looking for them. (As I’ve complained many a time before, the stargazing here is considerably worse than even in Seattle.) Last Monday I was typing away, around nine in the evening, getting some work done, and I saw outside an early-evening sky surprisingly free of clouds. Sure would be nice if we had a sliver moon tonight, I mused. Then I looked at the calendar. The new moon was on the 9th—two days previous—so there was a sliver moon out there somewhere. Kewl! I dashed out and got where I could see the whole western sky. Crap—a large bank of wispy altocumulus clouds extended from the horizon up to about where I expected the sliver moon. And it was early enough that the moon might not even be visible yet. But then, as my eyes adjusted, I spied a hair-thin crescent riding just about the top of the clouds. Now that was exquisite timing.

I hope to be posting again soon. We got back from a vacation to the Yucatán last week, and I’ve got an entire travelogue to write. Cheers all!

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It’s a new record for delay in a sliver moon report! The sliver moon window will open again on Friday, and yet I’m only now recording last month’s sliver moon sighting.

I’ve seen many a sliver moon since I began this journal, but I believe this is the first one that I sighted from an airplane (and only from an airplane). We’re at the time of year when evening sliver moons should be easy-peasy to sight, the Ecliptic being so close to vertical after sunset; but the whole trick is that too view a sliver moon in the sky, no matter how far above the horizon, it is necessary to have visibility above a mile or two above ground level—and that’s one thing we’ve had over a total of about four hours since last October. No wonder our nighttime temperatures have risen so much in the last couple of decades—it’s solid overcast all night long around here, all the time.

At sunset on February 12 I was peering out the right-side window of a Boeing 737 on the Hopkins Airport tarmac, wondering at the near absence of clouds above. Only a soaring zigzag of cirrus sullied the western horizon. I knew where to look for the two-day sliver moon, but I couldn’t spy it anywhere. Then I realized I was looking too low, and twisted my neck around to get a view straight up. In the upper edge of the window I could see a misshapen, glowing sickle I knew was the sliver moon. Did that count as an official sliver-moon sighting?, I wondered. I mean, photons from the sliver moon fell on my retinas, but I didn’t really see it in the sense that it formed a pleasant image in my mind. Also, I’d nearly slipped a disc trying to look upward enough; a real sliver-moon viewing shouldn’t cause that much pain.

Figured I’d have a better chance a while later, en route, as the sliver moon slipped nearer the horizon. Then realized I was sitting on the north side of the plane during our hop to Chicago. Eeps.

Fortunately, we angled south for a couple of minutes while getting lined up on the approach path, and I was rewarded with a crystal-clear Cheshire Cat moon in a midnight-blue sky. Below, a layer of stratus clouds hugged the earth so closely that it must almost have looked like fog from ground level. I imagine that’s what home has looked like for the last four months or so.

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I really hate insomnia. Overall, I’m getting an adequate amount of sleep; but in any one night I’m getting either two hours or twelve hours, with nothing in between. Luckily, it’s only a matter of time before my wildly oscillating sleep schedule dampens down and I can reliably zonk out more or less through the night again.

One side benefit, though, is that I’m in a good position (i.e., sitting up in bed, reading) to catch an early-morning sliver moon, as I did last Sunday (11 November): a bright sickle of a two-and-a-half-day sliver moon, well to the left of an early-rising Venus. ’Twas an especially welcome sight after those two weeks of unremitting overcast skies culminating in the high winds, lashing rain and general power-outageness of Sandy.

If you happen to be awake during the predawn hour on Tuesday, 11 December, you may be in for a special treat: a sliver moon riding along a string three planets—Saturn, Venus and Mercury (listed from high to low). Viewing from the US West Coast, you’ll see Venus and the moon just about in conjunction (actual time of conjunction 8:08 AM EST, 13:08 GMT). And Mercury will be bright enough (magnitude –0.6) to see even when the rising sun has considerably lightened the sky; brighter than any star in the vicinity, and in fact brighter than any star in the northern sky except Sirius (which will be setting around the same time in the southwest). I may even set my alarm to get up and see all this, provided that the insomnia has backed off my then.

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Some 20 years ago now, the brother got me hooked on The Furry Freak Brothers, the adventures of a trio of California hippies whose motto is, “Dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope.” It’s not quite subversive enough to make it a true underground comic, but it’s unlikely to appeal to a very large segment of the American population. I was therefore delighted to find that it had managed to rub off onto the spouse a little bit. That I can credit mostly to a single, one-page Freak Brothers episode that has spawned no fewer than three Things We Say in Certain Situations.

Continue for pix of silly comix…Collapse )

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In honor of today’s blue moon*—the last until July 31, 2015—I’m posting my last sliver moon sighting a full two weeks late. This time of year, an evening sliver moon is nearly impossible to see this far north unless you have a good view of the western horizon and a crystal-clear sky—and most of the time I’m 0 for 2. I must rely on my almost superhuman insomnia and finite bladder capacity to get me up before dawn, two days before the new moon, and on 15 August that’s exactly what happened. Sometime around six in the morning I got up and spied a perfect two-day sliver moon hovering above the neighbors’ huge tree silhouetted in the east, with Venus blazing away a bit higher up.

If you see the dazzling full moon tonight, also look for the Summer Triangle high and to the west (of the moon). If you orient the three bright stars to form a V, the star at the point of the V is Altair, with Deneb and Vega at the top left and right, respectively.

__________________

*The full moon occurred just before 10:00 AM EDT (13:58 GMT) August 31. If you live in North America and saw the moon last night (August 30/31) after midnight, it was closer to full then that it will be tonight.

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Alas, it’s getting to be the time of year when evening sliver moons are exceptionally difficult to spot before they set. Luckily, last Saturday’s two-day sliver moon was but a couple of hours short of a three-day crescent; so not only was it still in the sky a half hour after sunset, but since it was blazing away at magnitude –7.2, it easily punched through the veil of cirrus clouds obscuring the small part of the western sky not blotted out by thunderheads.

I came back out about fifteen minutes after first sighting, and I saw half a sliver moon above the silhouettes of trees down the block. That’s the first time I’ve actually spied a sliver moon in the act of setting since we moved from Seattle.



You early birds will be in for a treat the morning of 15 August. Before sunrise, a two-day sliver moon may be visible in the twilight, accompanied (at a respectable distance) by Mercury, near maximum elongation (the point in its orbit when it makes the greatest angle with the sun as viewed from Earth).

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The weather over the last month has alternated between “tolerable” and “infernal.” Last Thursday was definitely the latter, with a high temperature over 90 °F and dew point well into the 70s. On a day like that, you have to put your Slurpee on an entire mound of towels, or the lake of condensation will engulf the tabletop and run off directly into your lap.

Late in the afternoon, and knowing that the forecast predicted thunderstorm activity, I checked the Doppler radar in case I needed to delay my ride home. Looked like we were going to get clobbered, but not ’til well after I got home. The bad news was that the storms would arrive just in time to obscure the two-day sliver moon.

I should have known. Every time we’re promised a good thunderstorm on a hot, muggy day, and a huge squall line appears to be bearing down on us, it either swerves southward at the last moment, or dissipates. I looked out to the west just after sunset, and above a shelf of rapidly dispersing cumulus clouds, there rode the two-day sliver moon, just visible as a cream-colored sickle in a periwinkle sky. (Periwinkle was one of my favorite Crayola 64 colors.)

As I write this, one week later, we’re trying to cool off from an afternoon that reached 96 °F at the local airport. Now midnight, the temperature has plummeted to a brisk 88 °F, and the dew point to a parched 75 °F. Oh, well—sleeping won’t be any more difficult than in our hotel room in Maui a few years ago. Time to crank up the ceiling fan to “Full Gale.”

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One reason I haven’t been posting much to LJ this year is that I’ve been spending far too much time on line surfing BoardGameGeek. I don’t have anywhere near the level of sheer obsession displayed by many BGG regulars, who boast of owning over 500 games and post pictures of entire rooms devoted to storing their collections. Nonetheless, I enjoy learning about new games (of which I’ve ’blogged before), and when someone asks a probability/statistics question on the forums, I delight in racing to figure out and post the answer before anyone else does.

I was first exposed to BGG while looking for references to obscure games I played in my early childhood. A long while back I wrote about two of them, genuine, drug-inspired products of the 1960s. I’d like to tell you of two more that were more difficult to track down: I remembered hardly anything about them, least of all their names..



Several of us in my first-grade class got to cut out for part of the school day and play games, because we could already read and do basic arithmetic. Not that we were super-geniuses, or anything—at least some of us were destined to mediocrity as high-school students; it was just that our parents had been unusually involved in teaching us stuff when they should have been doing more useful things like sitting semi-comatose in front of the TV. We didn’t entirely goof around: we played educational, primarily math-related games. One that we didn’t like very much was Tuf, a maths dice game in which players tried to build the longest mathematical equation. All but the most basic arithmetical dice completely stumped us. We didn’t know anything about percentages or grouping by parentheses, let alone logarithms and all the other scary stuff on the orange die. We played a different math dice game that I enjoyed much more. All I remember about it was that it used a big handful of dice marked with numbers between 1 and 18, and that using higher numbers scored more points. What’s the chance I’d actually find the game in the BGG database?

Pretty good, actually. One evening when I was putting off work I called up all the mathematical games using BGG’s search function. I could thin the herd by about two-thirds right off the bat, since my game had to exist in the early 70s, but many didn’t have publication dates, so I still had to scan though several hundred possibilities. And there it was! Unlike Tuf, Heads Up provided the equations; all you needed to do is fill in the numbers using the dice. And sure enough, using larger numbers scored better: the score was the total of all numbers in correct equations. I was wrong about the upper limit, though: the numbers only went up to 15.



I’ve got another one…Collapse )

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Woohoo—I got to see Tuesday’s transit of Venus with my own eyes!

I’d been waiting for the day ever since I missed the transit of 2004: it was over before sunrise on the American West Coast. Lots of amazing pictures appeared on the ’Net. I remember best this iconic photo, taken at dawn on the Florida coast:



Google honored the event with a custom icon.



Several months ago, I bought a couple of Solar Viewers—really just pieces of #14 welder’s glass in frames—in anticipation of this week’s transit. I gave them a test run during the annular eclipse on May 20. The eclipse hadn’t even started when the sun slid behind the ever-present stratus clouds on the western horizon, but I still gained some wisdom, for I was reminded of something I already knew, but didn’t appreciate: the sun is actually very small in the sky, when reduced to its actual disk. I knew full well that the sun and full Moon are about the same size as viewed from Earth, and I had read that both appear about the same size as a US quarter at a distance of nine feet (2.7 m), but, really, it isn’t as big as I felt it should be. I started to wonder how I’d ever see Venus—only a third the sun’s distance, but only 1/120 its diameter—against the solar disk without magnification. Venus’s apparent diameter should be about 1/40 the sun’s, I figured. But the planetary silhouettes in both the Florida photo and the Google icon look much larger than that. Also, the frame of the Solar Viewer advertised that it was good for viewing planetary transits*—which means Venus, since there is no way Mercury would be visible against the sun without considerable magnification (not to mention an above-entry-level solar filter). So, would I see Venus or not?

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Again, I’m way late with the sliver moon update. I have not had much fun this week, but that’s a long story (and a rather disgusting one).

I wasn’t sure I was going to get to see last Tuesday’s two-day sliver moon, even after the sky cleared up in the afternoon: I was scheduled to have dinner with my two semi-bosses and a visiting scientist from Harvard, a VIP with whom we hoped to collaborate on eye-disease research. The dinner wasn’t scheduled to begin until 7:30, and as the most junior member of the party by far, I doubted I could skip out early just because the sun had set and there were sliver moons to be viewed. As it happened, our table had enough of a view to the west that I could gauge when the evening sky had darkened enough for good sliver-moon viewing. When the dusk had progressed enough that the first stars would likely be visible, I excused myself as if to go to the bathroom, strolled off in a dignified manner until I was out of view, and then sprinted outside, into a courtyard with a decent view to the west.

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, but for some reason it was midsummer hazy. Odd, given how unsettled the weather had been all day. The sliver moon and Venus, almost side by side, were well above the horizon but already starting to turn Creamsicle orange; the moon looked very slivery, indeed, despite being two full days past new.

We adjourned around 9:15. Venus and sliver moon had by then deepened to a lovely, full orange, and the moon’s “horns” were beginning to disappear in the haze.



I missed the great eclipse of 20 May, sigh; it began here almost precisely at sunset. (If I’d known about it enough in advance, I’d have scheduled a trip out west with a stop in, say, Reno, to view the annular eclipse. I plan to watch two total eclipses, on 21 August, 2017 and 8 April, 2024 (which won’t require any traveling!); I need to put the annular eclipse of 14 October 2023 on the agenda.) However, weather permitting, I’ll be perfectly situated to watch next Tuesday’s transit of Venus. I bought a couple of “Solar Viewers”, really just pieces of welder’s glass in frames, specifically for the occasion. You don’t want to miss the transit if you can help it—the next one won’t occur until 2117!

(Transits of Mercury are much more common—fourteen during the 21st century alone—but there’s no way you could see one with equipment you can buy for twenty bucks.)

While looking for the local time of the transit, I stumbled across this really handy site that shows precise times and the apparent path of Venus across the face of the Sun. I hadn’t appreciated just how much the Earth’s rotation curves the path; at the equator, Venus actually traces out a loop near the edge of the Sun’s disk.

Aw, crap. The site has an embeddable transit simulator, but when I tried to place it on this page I only got a big black rectangle. Oh, well—you should try it out.

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Last Monday’s sliver moon was so easy to spot—a late, two-and-a-half-day waxing sliver moon only a month from the spring equinox—I feel kind of embarrassed taking credit for it. But sliver moon sightings are seldom enough around there that take credit I will.

We’ve had two kinds of days in April: butt cold and midsummer hot. Monday evening was one of the former, and also very windy. The sliver moon rode above a raft of stratus-like clouds that, even from miles away, had a distinctly shredded, wintry appearance. Have you ever been on final descent in an airplane in the early evening, and as a curtain of silhouetted clouds sweeps up toward you, you see how the cloud tops, from up close, don’t really have sharp outlines, but rather are sort of ragged and wispy? The western horizon looked just like that, but from a distance. It must have been a hurricane up there.

I looked again, about 45 minutes later, and the moon had descended well into the cloud layer. It was all fuzzy and indistinct, as if dissolving in the murk.

If you get a chance, try and find Venus in the west after sunset. It’ll be easy-peasy if you can see the sky at all. You’ve probably been seeing it for months; Venus has been the brightest object in that part of the sky (apart from an itinerant crescent moon) all spring, and this week it’s at its most dazzling. More amazing still, it won’t set until well after 11:00 PM, unless perhaps you live in the easternmost portion of your time zone (Boston and DC, perhaps).

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Today’s lesson learned: Don’t go to 7-Eleven the evening of a $640-million lottery drawing.

All I wanted was a Slurpee. Honestly. It’s usually a twenty-second transaction. I should have copped a clue when I pulled in the parking lot and found myself in a traffic pattern worthy of LAX. Didn’t get any better when I went in. A huge, muscular guy I’d seen working there a couple times before was hanging out by the registers, obviously there to quell incipient riots. And they needed him, too; the atmosphere was one of barely restrained panic—and there were still five hours to go before the drawing. Had no problem drawing my Slurpee: I had the Slurpee machines, as well as the rest of the food-and-drink part of the store, to myself. I gritted my teeth and queued up at the back of the crowd. I won’t call it a “line” because I’m too much of a mathematician to apply that label to a disorderly mob all trying at once to capture the attention of two harried cashiers.

I’ve complained before about lottery-ticket buyers at 7-Eleven; but this time surpassed anything I'd ever seen. The couple immediately in front of me got stuck at the register for several minutes trying to figure out how to purchase lottery tickets, while the outer echelons got progressively more hysterical. These were people who had all the trappings of being fully functional members of society; the sheer turmoil must have unnerved them. Also, in their defense, I note that the cashier did a terrible job with the vending part. They had clearly never played the lottery before. Under the circumstances, the transaction should have gone like this.

Buyer: “Want!” [hands Seller coin of the realm]
Seller: [delivers Buyer printed tickets, says nothing]

But when they said, “Uh, we’d like some, uh, lottery…things…” the cashier, ignoring the $640-million elephant in the room, asked them what game they wanted to play. And when they didn’t immediately respond—they of course didn’t remember the name “Mega Millions”—she started listing all the games and their variations, and when the drawings would occur for each. This only intimidated the couple more; they clammed up, and the cashier kept not telling them what they obviously wanted to hear, which was, “Here’s your numbers. Enjoy your $600 million.”

Another weird thing: You might think (as I did) that they’d be selling nothing but Mega Millions tix as fast as the printer could spit them out. But it appeared that the regulars were also purchasing vast numbers of their usual scratch cards, in proportion to the increased number of Mega Millions games. Why? What kind of universe that claims to make sense occasionally would permit this to occur?

Am kind of surprised I’m not still there, jockeying for position to pay for the Slurpee I’d long since finished (or spilled). I can’t even imagine what it’ll be like if nobody wins tonight, and the jackpot advances to nearly $1 billion for Tuesday.

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Last week was our yearly trip to Las Vegas to meet Dad and the sister and to generally goof around. It was a pleasure this year to see the brother, as well—he hasn’t joined us in Vegas since sometime in the 90s.

Was lots of fun, as always, but unexceptional for our Las Vegas vacations, except for one bit:

Friday morning we drove out to the Pinball Hall of Fame and Museum a couple miles east of the Strip. (I’ve written of the Museum before; it’s a delightful nostalgia pit). In our eagerness, we arrived 20 minutes before it actually opened. There was little we could do but hang around outside and soak up the copious, life-giving sunshine. (I got more sun in four days in Vegas than in the past three months here.)

I’d knocked back several iced teas at breakfast, and the floodwaters were rising with alarming rapidity. I excused myself and jogged about half a mile down Tropicana Ave. to a Texaco that looked big enough to have bathrooms. Luckily, the ’strooms were inside, so I didn’t have to ask for a key, but the men’s was occupied when I arrived, and continued to be occupied for a looong time. I walked nearly a mile in a tight circle next to the beef jerky aisle before the door finally opened. I expected the occupant to be a senior citizen carrying a freshly- and completely-read copy of the New York Times, but instead a young man emerged: he was maybe six feet five, weighed about 130 pounds, and wore a dirty baseball cap atop a blond version of the Weird Al frizz. You know the heavy clouds of mist generated by dry ice in water, which hug the ground and slowly spread out across the floor like an amoeba? Well, the bathroom emitted something similar, but consisting of pot smoke. As I stepped inside, I faced a dilemma: Should I take enough time to let the remainder of the smoke to clear out, in hopes that the next person wouldn’t think it was me? Or should I try and finish up really fast so that it wouldn’t completely saturate my clothes and make me smell like a pothead?

Not sure which I decided on; my memory of the next few minutes, like the interior of that men's room, was rather hazy. But before I left I apparently bought a Mounds bar as compensation for the use of the facilities, and stowed it in the pocket of my windbreaker.

The rest of the vacation went well, and I thought no more about my Mounds bar—until last night, just after dinner. It had stayed in my pocket, wrapper intact, through two more days of wear, packing, a plane ride inside my carry-on bag, and five more days home. It was one millimeter thick; I had to scrape it off the cardboard tray with my teeth because it melted instantly to the touch.

It was good.

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When I was little we had a simple dice game called Bowl and Score. The game comprises ten six-sided dice with a bowling printed on one face of each. The dice are treated like bowling pins: roll the ten dice, and those with the pin side up are “left” after the first ball. These are thrown a second time for the spare shot. The dice are thrown in the same way for every frame of a standard game of bowling, including extra rolls as needed in the tenth frame. Scoring is exactly as in real bowling.

You’ll notice, right off, that Bowl and Score offers exactly zero strategy. Indeed, it didn’t hold my interest all that long, even though as a kid I was nuts about bowling. But I recently got to thinking: just how good a bowler is Bowl and Score? Better than I?

You could find Bowl and Score’s average to a reasonable degree of accuracy by rolling a few hundred games and taking the mean of the results. But to a statistician, just finding the average isn’t enough. To really understand the game, you need to characterize it completely, by finding the full probability distribution: the likelihood of every possible score, between 0 and 300.

Working out all the probabilities mathematically is straightforward in theory but very, very tedious in practice. (How many ways are there to score, say, 157? Care to enumerate all of them?) It’s much easier to approximate the probability distribution by sampling. Thanks to modern computers, random numbers are available in bulk. If we simulate enough games we can approximate the true distribution as closely as we wish, constrained only by the number of CPU hours we can stand to invest. Last night, after drinking a little too much Dr. Pepper, I decided to program a Bowl and Score simulator and see what it would tell me.

Bowl and Score was easy enough to implement. Using the statistical programming language R, I wrote the algorithm in only ten minutes, and simulated 100,000 games of bowling in another ten, on my not-too-new desktop PC. Below is a histogram of the results.

Cut for illustrations…Collapse )

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A high-school classmate posted a picture to Facebook of a rather strange garden utility, imported from Japan. It’s a kind of meshwork with vertical prongs of metal, designed to keep cats from wandering around on your garden. You set it down over your seedlings, and the plants grow through the holes in the mesh. The prongs aren’t sharp enough to cause injury—if they were, they’d be called spikes—but are closely spaced enough that cats would have a hard time placing their paws between them, even if they’re trying to be careful. That seems like an unusual length to go to, just to keep cats out of one’s garden.

But what really kills me about this product is its name—one of the funniest bits of mangled English I’ve ever seen: Don’t Cat.

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(that’s “40”, and not “extra large”)

In defiance of every law of the universe, we had really nice weather for both Christmas and Boxing Day: clear skies, high in the mid 40s, and barely a breeze. It was a cinch, therefore, to see Monday’s two-day sliver moon, with an already blazing Venus (though less than half as luminous as it will be in a few months!) perfectly even with it to the south. Coming only four days after the solstice, it was the most southerly sliver moon I’ve seen since I started keeping track, and perhaps of all time.

Keep a lookout after sunset on January 2, when a waxing gibbous moon will pass quite close to Jupiter. Mighty Jupiter is well past its brightest point for this year, but at magnitude –2.3, it is still by far the most commanding object in the sky besides the Moon, once Venus sets.

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Over the summer I heard about a really nifty retro bowling alley in town, but it’s on the west side, which makes it about as convenient and enjoyable to travel to as Dar es Salaam. I reckoned it could be years before I ever had occasion to visit that part of the city; but as it happened I recently had a board-game meetup in the library right across the street.*

Visiting Mahall’s Twenty Lanes was essentially stepping through a window into my early childhood. The sign on the side of the building recalls the golden age of bowling—1950s, maybe early 60s. You can bet the “Mahall’s” is backlit at night, too:

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