Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Blue Sunsets

Mars sunsets are blue:
A 6-image mosaic taken by Curiosity on sol 587 (April 1, 2014) of the sun setting behind the tall western rim of Gale crater.
I was reading about this phenomenon in Green Mars, where Sax, the "disinterested scientist", ponders the effects that the thickening atmosphere on Mars is having on the color of the sky. The short answer is that it all depends on Rayleigh scattering (the elastic scattering of light by particles much smaller than the wavelength of the light). Essentially, the martian atmosphere contains a lot of very small specks of rocks and minerals ("fines") which, combined with the different chemical makeup of the atmosphere, diffuse light differently. Here's another, undoubtedly better, explanation.

One of the fascinating things about KSR's Mars trilogy is how the details how the human colonization of Mars would change things. For example, finishing his research, Sax "...concluded that if the atmosphere was thickened to one bar, then the sky would probably turn milk white." p. 162 Now that would make for an interesting sight!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

First Lines of Kim Stanley Robinson's "Green Mars"

"The point isn't to make another Earth. Not another Alaska or Tibet, not a Vermont nor a Venice, not even an Antarctica. The point is to make something new and strange, something Martian.
In a sense, our intentions don't even matter. Even if we try to make another Siberia or Sahara, it won't work. Evolution won't allow it, and at its heart this is an evolutionary process, an endeavor driven at a level below intention, as when life made its first miracle leap out of matter, or when it crawled out of sea onto land."

- Kim Stanley Robinson, Green Mars.

I was compelled last week to read the amazing last 100 pages of Red Mars again, which led me straight away into the second book of KSR's Mars trilogy. Green Mars starts off on a different tack then its predecessor - the revolution is in the background, and KSR shows us the life in hiding for those committed to keeping Mars as unblemished as possible. While the first 65 pages contain as much landscape description as advertised, it's still a very compelling book: KSR has a gift, unequaled by any other SciFi writer i'm familiar with, to write compellingly both about science and about human nature.

Thursday, April 17, 2014


I've had this song in my head all week.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

McMansions and the Mortgage Credit

Completed the always painful and frustrating process of doing my taxes last night. As someone that likes to think about good design, I continue to be amazed at the byzantine structure of our tax code. Ostensibly, the many, many (MANY!) rules and regulations in the US tax laws are supposed to push people towards the behaviors that we, as a society, want to encourage. For example, take the home mortgage deduction. Promoting home ownership is a good thing, right? Well, that's what I've always thought, but watching the ecologically disastrous and soul-crushing sprawl taking over our country I've started to have second thoughts.

This rethinking was sparked again by Thomas Frank's "Let them eat McMansions!" article where he claims that "we have sprawl, wars over cheap gas, stagnant wages and longer hours because your boss wants this awful, ugly house." Heh. Beyond the snickering, however, is a darker truth: these ugly opulent houses are damaging to our social fabric. Frank provides plenty of examples in the article, but on tax day, this was the most interesting fact to ponder: what sparked the McMansion trend in the first place? A: Our tax policy!
There have always been grand houses in America. What put them into mass-production in the mid-’80s? The most obvious answer is that decade’s transfer of wealth to professionals and managers, a shift made possible by the top-bracket tax cuts of 1981. Where corporate earnings had previously been spent on skyscrapers and company planes, it now poured into the personal bank accounts of executives. Tax policy then steered those executives’ spending toward residential real estate. According to James K. Galbraith, “The 1986 Tax Reform Act removed the deductibility of non-mortgage interest,” leaving mortgage interest as the only remaining deductible type and thus “creating a powerful incentive for households to try to own their own homes.”
Essentially, those with extra money look to take advantage of a legal tax haven by sinking more and more of it into ever growing houses. And so this is what the market provides! I'm actually in the market for a house right now - a "mid-level home," meaning ~2000 square feet, with 3-4 bedrooms and a half-acre or so of land.  It's shocking how few new houses meet these specifications.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Escaping the Web of Social Pressure

"The creative individual has the capacity to free himself from the web of social pressure in which the rest of us are caught. He is capable of questioning the assumptions that the rest of us accept."

- John W. Gardner

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

First Lines of Sergei Lukyanenko's "Night Watch"

"The escalator crept along slowly, straining upward. In an old station like this, what else could you expect? But the wind swirled like a wild thing inside the concrete pipe--ruffling his hair, tugging the hood off of his head, sneaking under his scarf, pressing him downward.
The wind didn't want Egor to go up."

- Sergei Lukyanenko (translated by Andrew Bromfield), from Night Watch.

A fabulously entertaining book about a centuries-old struggle between the forces of light and dark that I picked up on the strength of the popular Russian film. So far, it's a very quick read infused with very interesting philosophical ideas and (to me) exotic Russian mysticism and fatalism. Hard to put down!