On fulfilling requests

Richard requested the following:

Please meet Louxcie -- the latest addition to our collection of tabs, torts, & torbs. In this case, I think she's a tortedo.


On keeping another promise

I did it. I called DirecTV today and signed up.

Unfortunately, because of all of the publicity about the great Big Ten Network / Comcast war, it seems like I procrastinated too long. DirecTV appears to be stealing lots of Comcast customers in Centre County. My install appointment is on 9/25 -- almost one month from today.

It's going to be tough waiting until 9/25 for the joy of going to Comcast and happily returning their crappy HD / DVR box and telling them I don't want them or their 20% rate increases any more.

In the meantime, if anyone else wants to join me in the transition, I'm happy to give you my account number so we can each get the $50 referral bonus. Just plan on waiting at least a month for the install behind all of the other former Comcast customers.

On gas prices

I have a complaint about gas prices in State College, not gas prices overall.

The fact that gas is exactly the same price at every gas station in this town (with the one outlier that is $0.01 a gallon cheaper than everyone else and the other outlier that is $0.04 - $0.10 more expensive than everyone else) suggests to me that the market in State College isn't as open as it should be.

It used to be that whenever I drove to NJ to visit my parents, I would always fuel up in PA, because gas was always cheaper in PA than NJ. Now, though, it is the case that gas is usually cheaper in NJ than PA. In PA, though, it seems that State College seems to stay higher longer than other places. My latest data point on this comes from this past Saturday. I drove to Harrisburg for an event at the Whitaker Center, and I always check the price at the big truck stop in Clarks Ferry (I only stop there if absolutely desperate). They are the only major station near a bunch of intersecting highways, so they always tend to be $0.05 or $0.10 more expensive than the other stations along the route. It is usually cheapest (among the easy to get to stations that I know about just off the highway) to stop in Mifflintown at the Sheetz there -- they are usually $0.05 - 0.15 cheaper or so than the Clarks Ferry truck stop, and usually a few cents cheaper than State College. Well, Clarks Ferry is at $2.69, and in State College we're still pegged at $2.75 where I think we've been since Memorial Day. I just checked on-line, and the Flying J in Mill Hall (the cheapest gas on the way to NJ along I-80) is at $2.61. I wouldn't be surprised if Mifflintown was around $2.65. A quick check of Pennsylvaniagasprices.com shows many parts of the state where gas is $2.51 - $2.59.

So, the cheap station in our area is $0.14 cheaper than all of the State College stations, and the overpriced station on 322 on the way to Harrisburg is even $0.06 cheaper than State College stations. And it looks like gas is $0.24 - $0.06 cheaper than us across the state.

Something is fishy.


On Black Dwarfs

You know, this is probably one of maybe 5 posts having anything to do with astronomy, and yet astronomy is listed prominently in my tagline. So consider this a concession to keeping astronomy in my tagline. Oh, and it is something I find pretty interesting, too.

I really enjoy working with teachers -- I teach a workshop for science teachers every summer, and they have been (with a few individual exceptions) a great group to work with. They are very engaged in the course, they ask great questions, share interesting insight from different points of view, and in general are just a fun crowd.

Last year, though, I think I blew the mind of one of the teachers -- one incident in particular really caused her distress. It happened during a lesson on stellar evolution. We teach that Sun-like stars become red giants, then expel planetary nebulae, then become white dwarfs.

I grew up reading kids' astronomy books, though, and I remember vividly seeing illustrations of the lifecycle of a star, and it always ended with the white dwarf becoming a "black dwarf". The idea was that a white dwarf that has cooled to the point where it is no longer visible becomes too dark to see, hence "black dwarf".

Now that I've learned a bit of stellar evolution and a bit of observational astronomy, I taught the teachers two things -- (1) in the lifetime of the universe, no white dwarf has cooled beyond say 4000 K or so, and (2) the dividing line between white dwarf and black dwarf has to be some arbitrarily assigned value for "no longer visible". To me, this means that there is no star currently in the universe that you would call a "black dwarf".

When I taught this last year, the 5th grade teacher was aghast, because she has her students act out a stellar evolution play in her class, and the kid that gets the black dwarf part gets to do a melodramatic death scene, which is the highlight of the whole play. She was *very* disappointed, even after I told her that all she needed to do was decide that in her classroom the dividing line between white dwarf and black dwarf was at a relatively high luminosity. Since the line is arbitrary, who says it can't be arbitrarily high?

I taught this again this year, and because of my experience last year, I asked the teachers -- how common is it in middle school textbooks for the book to give the endpoint of stellar evolution as the black dwarf stage? They almost universally agreed that their books used this terminology, so they taught it that way. I pointed out that I *never* teach this in Penn State courses, and I guessed that almost no one else did, either. We took an informal survey of the ~5 other faculty that they saw during the workshop, and none of them teach black dwarfs, either.

In the end, I think that it really doesn't matter, but it does seem interesting that the concept of black dwarfs is so widespread at the K-12 level and so uncommon at the university level and in the refereed literature (my unscientific study shows that if you search for the exact phrase "black dwarf" in the abstracts of refereed articles in ADS, you get a few articles from the 80s that seem to use the term the way K-12 books due in the '00s).

Maybe we should start working on the K-12 textbook publishers so that in the '20s, they'll be up to date.


On missing Ray Gricar

You know, I don't often think about the quality of the district attorney's office, but this article really makes it seem like they are not the sharpest knives in the silverware drawer.

They really seem completely incompetent.

I don't think I've read a single positive thing written about the office since Gricar disappeared. Hopefully someone with a clue will take over before every criminal in State College goes free.

On shock

Here's a link.

NASA latest news

Anyone want to guess what I might be doing for the next five years?

It's funny how your life can change pretty dramatically after one email pointing you to a NASA press release.