The horrible secret is out!

Dr. D was bribed! That piece of broccoli earned him $100!

And here I thought he ate the broccoli out of the goodness of his heart...


On the East Coast Tourney

Shan and I had fun over the holiday weekend working for the PSU Women's Volleyball Booster Club at the East Coast Championship tournament. We personally sold more than $1400 worth of PSU vball gear, and the rumor is that the Club brought in ~$20k. That money goes, for example, to an endowed scholarship for the team and to support their travel to international tournaments. Being in the booster club is fun (thanks, Frank!), and it looks like we're headed for expanded roles, since we've been among the dozen or so most active volunteers out of the ~300 total members.

There were definitely some interesting moments. We heard some gossip about impending changes to the team's coaching staff (here is the official press release about the sad news that Mike Schall is leaving us). Shan and I are both sad to see Mike go, but I'm hoping that some of the rumors about other changes turn out to be true. Let's just say one of my volleyball role models may wind up back at Penn State.

Talked to one of the coaches from Lion's Pride and heard some interesting tidbits about local volleyball politics. Actually, though, the point of that conversation that sticks with me the most was our discussion of the PSU Men's team. Scott tells me that Matt Proper can touch 11'11" when he jumps. Mike always points out to me that I tend to talk too much about my vertical, but the only reason it comes up in conversation is because it is the only thing that allows me to play volleyball at a reasonably competitive level. When you're 5'6", you're not usually the first one picked when we are dividing up for teams in a game that requires height. Well, I was pretty happy when we measured verticals at the YMCA one night and I found I could touch 9'6". That means if I ever found myself on the opposite side of the net from Proper, he'd only have a 2'5" advantage when trying to hit over my block. :)

(For those of you of European descent, or who have been astronomers so long that you don't remember English units, the values from the previous paragraph are 3.63, 1.68, 2.90, and 0.74 meters, respectively).

It was great fun talking to the players (mostly in the age range 12-18, I think), the parents, and the siblings who came to PSU from Georgia, Michigan, Ohio, Toronto, Virginia, Maryland, and all over PA. With some luck, most of them will wind up playing their way into a scholarship so they won't be saddled with $34k of student loan debt like I was.

Lastly, I'm going to chicken out a bit. There was one incident that really annoyed me this weekend. I don't want to get dooced, so I will heed her advice and won't give too many details. Given that advice, all I will say is that complaints were lodged about the Booster Club for selling t-shirts to support one of the university's athletics teams. The complaint came from someone who should know better than to complain about volunteers giving 10 hours of their time on a holiday weekend to raise money for his "corporation".


On All of My Favorite Topics

Well, King Kaufman and I agree again. The horribly inconsistent officiating in the NBA struck again, and it pretty much altered the ending of the Suns/Mavs game. I thought the Suns were getting the short end of the stick, but then the call on Harris pretty much gave the Suns the momentum and helped them win the game. Phil Taylor at CNN/SI says the same thing. Note to David Stern -- if you want people to come back to the NBA, the referees need to become less of a factor in the outcome of games.

One of my operatives in the street tells me that the new restaurant "Alto" in the place of the old Victorian Manner Manor is quite good. Expensive, but good. It would be really nice if we could get to moderate, but good, but I'll settle for expensive, but good if it means not a chain and not another mediocre offering by the local restaurant conglomerate. It's just down the street from us, so I'll give it a try and report back.

I don't think I've said anything about PSU football here, but it is one of my favorite topics, so I'll add one quick note here -- I saw something recently (I think in Peter King's MMQB @ CNN/SI), about how the NY (ok, NJ) Jets have the most young, recently retired players as coaches on their staff. I took a quick look and saw that both Sam Gash and Richie Anderson (ex-PSU running backs, and even teammates, I think) are coaches. I'm no Jets fan, but any team that picks up two Nitz as coaches is definitely doing well in my book.

This weekend is the East Coast Volleyball Championships all over PSU and State College. There will be approximately one bazillion vball teams descending on us for a 3 day tourney. Shan and I will be helping out the PSU Women's Volleyball Booster Club by selling t-shirts. It is pretty amazing how much we make on t-shirts, and it's nice to know it goes to support the team. If you're bored, come by buy a shirt.


On Missing Good Talks

Wish I had been there -- Spankly Freaking says Alley's talk was very good.

More importantly, I wish the doubters (including one of the bloggers linked on the right there) was there -- not that it would change his mind, though. Personally, I have been looking for a nice, succinct summary of the facts with a rebuttal of some of the credible skeptics so that when minds Meander towards denial of global warming, I can point them back to the path of good science. Apparently, this group is considering such a thing, and I wish I had something useful to contribute.


More on Broccoli

Background: Dr. D hates veggies. I really enjoy needling Dr. D about this particular point. Every meal together, I offer him whatever veggie is within reach. It never works.

A few years ago, I had a great plan. Jane had her two year old (at the time) daughter with her at a party. I asked her to get a piece of broccoli and ask Pat to eat it. I thought that no one could resist such a simple request from a sweet little girl. The only reason my plan fell through was that she wasn't sure who Pat was, so she went up to half the folks at the party offering them raw broccoli (most of them took it and ate it), but she managed to miss our target.

This past weekend was Michele & Rajib's wedding in Michigan, and a bunch of us (including Dr. D) caravaned there. Much fun was had by all. I started the needling at dinner on Friday, offering Pat any of my green beans, but he successfully resisted. At the wedding on Saturday, Kim and I were on two of Pat's three sides, and we tried to coerce him to eat a cucumber, as seen in the following picture:

Note the face. That is not happy Pat.

This did not deter us, though, and the pushing became more persistent. In a fortunate coincidence, who should be sitting on Pat's other side, but Jane's daughter! She not only asked Pat to eat a piece of broccoli, but told him she would give him money if he would do it (seriously). As you can see, she succeeded where we failed!

Although two very wonderful people got married on Saturday, that particular day will be remembered by most of us as the day Pat ate a piece of broccoli and survived. Now we just need another wedding so that we can get him to try asparagus!


Breaking News!

Just got back from a wedding where much fun was had by all.

However, I must report that my master plan hatched ~5 years ago finally came to fruition. A person, let's call him "Professor D, the Meat-Eating Penguin" ate BROCCOLI.

Evidence was captured in the form of pictures. These will be posted and all the gory details given when I return home.


More NBA complaints

One -- the refs are behaving as normal -- completely arbitrary calls and non-calls. Shawn Marion just got hammered on a dunk attempt at a crucial point in the game, and no flagrant foul was called.

The Suns are behaving like normal. They blew a big lead in this game (now in OT), and I saw on CNN/SI the other day a rumor that they are going to shop Shawn Marion. Well, if they can rid themselves of every popular player in their history, why not Shawn? I hope no Suns fans are fans of Amare Stoudemire. I'm sure he's next.

Why am I bothering even watching?

On Tuesday YMCA volleyball

Tonight was fun. We had a good crowd -- Frank, Jason, Christine, Zeke, Nick, Glenn, Keith, Zack, and a few guys whose names I don't know yet. The game was actually pretty competitive all night.

My neck was bothering me all day, so when I got there I started out pretty tentative, and didn't play well at all during our first game. However, as I loosened up, I started playing much better, and I hit about 8-10 sets from Christine and Jason pretty well (they weren't getting much of a block up, which definitely makes my life easier).

I got pretty roughed up, though, and came home with a nice mark on my face. First off, Zack blocked a pretty weak attempt on my part off of a bad set, and when I landed and turned to try to pop the ball back up, Christine kicked the ball pretty much full force right into my chest. I think I'm lucky she got me half in the ribs. If the ball was a little lower, I think I would have been sucking wind for half an hour. Instead I could just keep playing.

Later though, Zeke hit the ball hard and I came up on it trying for an overhand dig. Unfortunately, I didn't remember to get my hands up (not sure why...) and took the ball with my face. It was quite graceful, actually. Luckily, they tell me you couldn't read the word Mikasa imprinted in my skin, so I guess I made out ok. I think I'll remember to get my hands up next time.


Random points about different things

This is why Paul Shirley gets paid to blog. Pretty funny.

About restaurants -- Qdoba definitely gets a thumb's up (from multiple folks, besides me) -- it is yummy and as close to good Mexican food as you can get in State College, but it is no Zazu's. Funny -- Zazu's is a Mom & Pop, Qdoba's a chain. Why is it we get nothing but chain restaurants?

Went to Bellefonte Elementary School today with a grad student, and we met every single K-5 class (four per grade, two at a time) for a brief presentation on astronomy. Both of us were really impressed with some of the questions, even from the youngest students. Richard recently asked me for an example of some of the good questions that we get, and I couldn't remember one, so here are a few from today before I forget them:

1) What causes galaxies to collide like that?

2) If we moved the Hubble Telescope farther from the Earth, could we take better images of the 10th planet?

3) Why do some of the galaxies in the Deep Field look so yellow?

4) Is there more than one universe?

The question wasn't phrased well, but a third grader said something about her sister telling her that we can only see about 10% of what is in the Milky Way -- I honestly think she was asking about dark matter!

There was one group where we couldn't get a single student to ask even one question, but all of the others did, and there were many good ones, which kept the program interesting.

I learned a new joke while we were at the school, too -- What did one strawberry say to the other strawberry? If you had listened to me in the first place, we would never be in this jam!

Just watched the NBA MVP get knocked to the floor after a shot attempt, no whistle blown! Are you as amazed as I am?

Done with this core dump -- on to a more focused topic.


On commencement

Saturday was graduation day for another crop of astronomy students, and for the third year in a row, I was "faculty at large". This meant I got to put on the cap, gown, and hood and take a seat in the second row with about 50 or 60 other faculty. This is actually a *big* change even from my first year at graduation, when I was one of about a dozen and most of those were folks from the Dean's Office rather than the Departments.

Anyway, I volunteer to go because it is nice to see our graduates walk across the stage and to meet their families and congratulate them after the ceremony. One additional benefit is that having been involved with summer camps where I've worked with students in other science departments I usually know another dozen students besides the handful of astronomers that are graduating in a particular year.

Some random points:

  • The speaker this year, H. Robert Horvitz was great. He was funny, interesting, didn't go on too long, and made some excellent points. Without being partisan, he told all of us what we know (science is being attacked) and asked us to help educate our peers and our congresscritters.

  • Another Horvitz point -- he won the Nobel Prize for his work, which began as basic research. That is, his work has many practical applications today, but when he started it was basic science. He advocated strongly for investment in basic science. Obviously, we are not going to cure Parkinson's by measuring the gravitational radiation from merging black holes, but basic science is basic science, and it is all good.

  • Change of gears from the speaker to the event -- I saw several students I know graduate from other departments. One pre-med told me that he's going to UVa for med school. That makes a third student I've worked with at PSU ending up at the same grad school I attended. I hope they all like CVille, otherwise I might be getting some complaints next Fall...

  • Post-graduation party for 2006's astronomers was fun as usual. One interesting conversation sticks in my mind -- one of our most successful students ever was at the party with his Mom. She was asking several of us about life in astronomy. She's an academic, and is very worried about her son's future (presumably, like every Mom in the world). After getting several opinions from folks in various careers in astronomy (including me and my very non-traditional job) she warned her son about what life is going to be like. Astronomy as a career is definitely not for everyone, but I think this particular student will be just fine.


Some praise for Apple (& PC Medics)

I've been critical of Apple, so now it is time for a word or two of praise. I called Apple, they told me my iMac would be covered under the repair program I mentioned previously and that I should take it to a local Authorized Service Provider. PC Medics (our local A.S.P., and more importantly, former team in the CRPR volleyball league) took my poor iMac in, got me some new parts (a logic board and power supply), and it was fixed for free.

So I have to say that Apple came through again -- hardware failed, fixed for free, good as new.


On officiating sports

If you read my post on PSU beating UC Irvine in the Final Four of the men's vball tournament, you probably gleaned that I'm the type of sports fan that is hard on referees / umpires / whatever they are called in your sport of choice. I will tell you that you are absolutely correct.

My enjoyment of a game that I'm playing in or watching is directly proportional to the quality of the officiating. On Saturday night, Penn State lost to UCLA in the final. It was another horribly officiated match. I will keep most of my complaints to a minimum, though, because (1) PSU proved perfectly capable of losing on their own without the help of the official, and (2) this guy was even worse than the last two jokers, and he blew a call so badly in PSU's favor it was hard to hold much of a grudge. I should insert the disclaimer here that Frank tells me he got the call right, but I'm skeptical.

Anyway, I'm building to the point of this post, but I need to make one more diversion into another subject -- officiating in college football. I'm *so* glad that the Big Ten instituted instant replay. Let's just say I'm a bit of a fan of Penn State football. In recent years, there have been some horrendous, game-changing decisions by officials. If you are a college football fan at all, you probably remember a few years ago when Joe Paterno was being called senile because after a game with more than one egregious calls, he chased down a referee, spun him around by his shirt and gave him an earful on national TV. I was at that game and witnessed our side lose a game because of bad officiating after they worked ridiculously hard to overcome what in most games is an insurmountable deficit. When interviewed after the game, Joe complained about the officiating crew coming from Ann Arbor (the home of PSU's hated rival Michigan). Again, Joe got heat -- was he crazy? He was accusing the Big Ten of a major conspiracy, hiring refs with ties to one of the teams in the league! Well, if you are still skeptical, read this profile of "referee" Dick Honig, the ref Joe chewed out on that day. Why, it turns out our friend Dick is a UM alum, donor to the university, maintains a shrine to their stadium in his office, and according to this blog, his wife is a season ticket holder. Should we be shocked if he lets some bias creep into his calls? Joe's complaints led to instant replay, so the playing field has evened out a bit, but it is ridiculous how many replay calls get blown, too.

Finally, the point of this post. I can't watch the NBA any more. Even Shannon noticed, pointing out that I've gone this whole season without watching a game. The first game I watched was a Suns / Lakers round 1 playoff game. I thought about why I hadn't bothered to watch a game. The answer is partly that I've been really busy, partly that I got tired of my favorite team (the Suns) trading away or letting go via free agency every player I liked (Majerle, Barkley, Kidd, Finley, Nash...), and partly that there are other things I'm more interested in these days. However, while watching that game I realized a big part of my dissatisfaction is the officiating. The NBA is horrendous in terms of its officiating. The rules are arbitrary (I particularly loved before the circle under the basket was instituted the unwritten rule that they never called a charge if the defender was under the basket), the rules are arbitrarily enforced (Shaq knocks a guy out cold, and that person gets called for a foul for throwing his 10 lb head at Shaq's 100 lb arm), and you never know from game to game what to expect from the referees. King Kaufman's article in Salon today says essentially the same thing, specifically about how Shaq was officiated in the Heat/Nets series the other night. Anyway, about halfway into that Suns/Lakers game when Kobe threw an elbow into Raja Bell's face, I almost turned the game off. I knew that watching the game was sure to cause a spike in my blood pressure. Raja deserved the suspension he got for throwing Kobe to the floor, but I understand why he did it -- the refs were letting Kobe do whatever he wanted, so if they weren't going to blow the whistle whenever Raja got hit in the face, he was going to dare them to blow the whistle when he took a shot at Kobe. Sportswriters (or Twerps as Mikey likes to call them) get all up in arms anytime a conspiracy is aired about the NBA "fixing" a game so that one team or another wins, but I have to say if it is possible in any league, it is the NBA, and they have only themselves to blame for this perception. I'll probably watch a few more playoff games, and maybe the Finals if the Suns make it (or the Nets), but really, I could care less about the NBA and it is the officiating that changed me from a fan (hey, I paid something like $50 to actually attend a Wizards / Clippers game before either of them were playoff eligible) to caring little about the league at all.

My take on gas prices

Disclaimer up front -- I'm an astronomer and have never taken an econ or any other kind of business or finance class. I will not pretend to even remotely be an expert on financial markets of any sort.

That being said, I am eminently qualified to give my inexpert opinion. I've read all of the articles that say why gas prices are so high, demand in China and India, the new summer low emission blends, etc etc etc. Everyone says there is no way to reduce prices in the short term because of all of the demand. However, the trend that I have seen is that if CNN (my default news source) says that oil prices jumped that day, then sure enough every single gas station in our town will increase their price to the exact same number that day at exactly the same time. So there is a direct, immediate correlation between the price of oil and gas prices. Except when there isn't.

What I mean is that in the past week, there have been two stories in the news about oil prices going down -- the first had to do with an unexpected excess supply above what analysts predicted. Oil prices dropped about $2 a barrel, but did the direct, immediate correlation between gas prices and oil prices that holds when oil prices jump also hold when oil prices fall? No. Next, there was the article about Iran writing a letter to the US, and how oil prices fell $6 a barrel. Any correlation between the price of oil falling and gas prices? Nope. Still $2.93 a barrel gallon.

I'm sure there is some good macroeconomic reason why this is true. However, someone needs to explain it to me, because I can't understand a correlation that works in one direction but not the other.


On the quality of restaurants in State College

My fellow Nittany Lions, I am here to tell you that the state of the restaurants in State College is weak.

Seriously. I was not the biggest fan of Charlottesville, VA, while I lived there (most people that live there fall hopelessly in love with the place and can't bring themselves to leave), but I will say one thing about C'Ville -- the restaurants were amazing. There is a reason you have to get to Continental Divide the minute it opens at 5:30 or else you are facing an hour wait -- the food is that good. There are plenty of small, independent places that all were pretty reasonably priced (that is, a grad student could afford to eat there occasionally) and good.

Contrast that to State College -- we've had a boom in chains lately (Olive Garden, Outback, TGI Friday's, Applebee's, blah blah blah), but there are really no reliably good restaurants in this town that are moderately priced. There are definitely some very good restaurants (Zola's, Kelly's, and La Bella Trattoria), but they are all pretty high end (well, La Bella isn't quite in the same league as the other two). There are lots of mediocre spots (The Deli and Mario & Luigi's come to mind), but really if you don't want to spend $40 a person on dinner, one of the chain places is in my opinion the one option where you can at least expect the food to be consistently of the same quality.

Tonight, I went to Garfield's for the first time with some friends. First off, the hostess was giving us all sorts of mixed messages (15 - 20 minutes, no 20 - 30 minutes, you are third in line for a table, oh wait, you are up), and in the end we wound up waiting not quite an hour before we got seated. Our waiter was good, but we waited a while for our food, even longer for the check, and even longer for the credit cards to be swiped. All in all from arriving to leaving we were there almost 3 hours. The food was pretty good, but not 3 hours good. Mark another one off the list...


We are!

Penn State!

Tonight was the Final Four Men's volleyball tournament in Rec Hall. First, I need to go on record -- I love watching women's volleyball, but men's doesn't always keep my attention. The athletes are so good, that the games don't hold much suspense, a service ace follows a service error follows a quick kill follows a service error... there are rarely many long rallies or that many digs. To give you some perspective if you are not a fan, the starting middle for UCLA is 6'11", or approximately a foot and a half taller than I am. They set him quick, and the ball has hit the floor at a hundred miles an hour before the opponent's blockers can even leave their feet.

That being said, the PSU / UC Irvine game was outstanding. Penn State is the #4 seed, and Irvine is the #1 seed. If you look at PSU's record this season, against top competition (Irvine, UCLA, Hawaii...) they lost each match in a sweep 0-3 (vball matches are best 3 out of 5). IPFW was the three seed, and they lost in a pretty quick match 0-3 to UCLA. However IPFW beat PSU earlier this season 3-2. I was hopeful, but also not too optimistic that PSU would beat the #1 seed Irvine.

PSU came out on fire. They were clearly ready for this game and were not intimidated. They beat Irvine in game one in a close game 32-30. Then, they won game two after a slow start (they were down 5-1) by the impressive margin of 30-23. Then, in game three, they had match point at 29-28. Irvine scored and after a few deuces, won game 3 33-31. Irvine also came from behind to win game 4 30-27. Game 5 only goes to 15, and with Penn State in the lead 14-13, half the lights in Rec Hall went out. The NCAA folks made us wait until they came back on (it wasn't really all that dark), and after about 15 minutes of waiting, Holt served an ace to give Penn State the win.

A few comments... (1) The serving by Penn State was horrendous in games 3 & 4. UCI is a good team, but PSU had about 10 service errors in game 4 alone. Meerstein had 3 or 4 in a row, and finally resorted to hitting floaters and giving up on his jump serve.

(2) Meerstein & Proper are the stars of the team, and rightfully so. However, my vote for MVP of the game goes to Wentzel. He was rock solid all night and hit some crucial aces.

(3) The officiating was bad. I'm really tough on officials, and my buddies (*cough* Nate *cough*) like to give me grief about this attitude problem. In my defense, I never boo my own team, I try to treat the other team with respect, but if the ref blows a call, I will boo lustily. I should also confess that I have a *loud* speaking voice (I've been asked to lower my voice in a crowded bar by the people at the table next to me), and when I yell at a game, just about everyone hears me. I *hope* the refs heard me tonight. There were some downright bad calls (one of UCI's players foot faulted and when I looked at the ref who is supposed to make that call, he was zoning out looking at the net, and wasn't looking anywhere near the player's feet and there was a UCI serve that landed out by about a foot, and the line judge called it in), but mostly they were just inconsistent. PSU's setter got called for being over the net on a set, and two points later, UCI's setter did basically the same thing and no call. PSU got called for two hits on sets off of bad passes, and UCI didn't get called even once, even though they were just as guilty. That bugs me. The refs for the championship better do better.


On Murphy's Law applied to Final Exams

Well, Tuesday morning I gave the final exam for my Spring semester class. That means, of course, that I finished writing it Monday late afternoon, and printed it out Monday night. I'm on record as being a fan of Apple computers, and I wrote my exam using Apple's new word processor -- "Pages". I like Pages, and have been using it for a while, but at the same time, it has been a bit flaky for me and I'm losing some patience with this app. For example, every once in a while there is a noticeable lag between hitting the delete key and a character being deleted. You would think this operation would not require much CPU power, but apparently it is a bit too much for my 1 GHz G4 with 1 Gb of RAM. Maybe with 2 gigs I could delete in real time.

Anyway... back to what was my point. You would think that printing out a final exam would be easy. Of course, as everyone knows, the more desperate you are feeling, the more flaky your computer behaves. So, for some reason, Pages decided I wanted 2" margins on top, bottom, and left and 0.25" on the right, and it shrank my text to fit this new page layout. This is not what I wanted, but no matter how I tried to fix this, it wouldn't revert to my original margins. The solution was cut and paste the text into a new document, reformat it, and one short hour later it was fixed. So much for a 5 minute print job.

Of course, Murphy's Law didn't just hit my computer. When my exam started at 8:00am, everything seemed fine. Everything was going smoothly until about 8:20am, when a tractor apparently outfitted with a spare engine from an F15 started up right outside our classroom window. Of course it makes sense -- the grass has to be cut! Why not do it during prime exam time right outside the biggest classroom building on campus? Thankfully it only lasted about 20 minutes and the students didn't seem to mind too much, but I felt badly for them.

I mentioned this to the front office staff in our department, and they did get me an apology from the physical plant folks, but it would have been nice if no apology had been necessary.


On affirmation

I was never an amateur astronomer when I was younger, unlike a number of my colleagues. I did occasionally look at the Moon through a small telescope, but growing up near the brightest lights on the East Coast I didn't even know that more than a dozen stars even existed. My first observing experience came as an REU student at the Very Large Array -- my roomie was the president of the local astronomy club, and I got hooked on observing watching Shoemaker-Levy 9 impact Jupiter. The beautiful, clear, dark skies of New Mexico didn't hurt.

Anyway... since then, I've volunteered for just about every open house observing night I could fit into my schedule. I did one this past Friday, and we were treated to a great night. Two of the grads added Messier objects to my personal list -- I *think* I've seen M81 one other time from the roof of Davey Lab, but it looked great on Friday, so I count that as my first real observation of this galaxy. Also, Stephen pointed our 12" at the open cluster M38, adding another to my tally.

Probably the best part of the night, though, was that one of my students from a past semester introductory astronomy course wandered up to the roof. I didn't think he recognized me at first, but after chatting for a while, he told me how much he loved astronomy and that my course was one of his favorites at Penn State. It sounds hokey (like a lot of what I say), but comments like that from former students definitely are appreciated.