May 31st, 2010

[BRIEF NOTE] On the possibility of a Betelgeuse supernova

Betelgeuse, the brightest star in the constellation Orion (hence its name Alpha Orionis) forming the northwesternmost corner of that constellation and the ninth-brightest star in the night sky massive star. Though only a few years old, its mass-twenty times that of the Sun--means that it's a "highly evolved" star, aging and fluctuating hugely in light and size; its size is huge regardless, its size stretching beyond the orbit fo Neptune. Even though its something like six hundred light-years away, Betelgeuse is such a huge star that astronomers have actually been able image its disk for more than a decade.

Betelgeuse is a fine candidate for a supernova, with its mass and its age and its instabilities. Astronomers predict that it's likely to do just that at some time in the next thousand years. It may have done that already, actually, but because of the limits of the speed of light we just wouldn't know. The indispensable James Nicoll has linked to a report--based on an unsubstantiated report, but still--that Betelgeuse is about to burst forth any day now.

Betelgeuse has been shrinking continuously since 1993, at an increasing rate. By June 2009, it had shrunk 15% from its size as measured in 1993.

But wait! There's more. It is rumored, though I have been unable to find any reliable confirmation of the source (which is claimed to be first-hand) that the latest observations from Mauna Kea show that Betelgeuse is now shrinking so fast it is no longer round. (Due to conservation of angular momentum, when a massive star collapses gravitationally, it collapses faster at the poles, becoming increasingly oblate — flattened — as its final collapse accelerates.)

What does this mean?

Well, briefly, what it means — if true — is that Betelgeuse could be within as little as weeks of a Type II (core collapse) supernova.

Supernovaed Betelgeuse would be a bright, bright star. "The supernova that created the Crab Nebula, SN 1054, was bright enough to see in daylight for 23 days, and remained visible for 653 days ... and it was 6,300 LY away. Betelgeuse is almost 12 times closer, and can be expected to appear around 140 times brighter by virtue of that alone." Earth is far enough away from Betelgeuse that there's not going to be apart from the amazing show of brightness; Betelgeuse certainly wouldn't do what Hobus did to Romulus.

This is, I repeat, an unconfirmed report. But it's a cool one. Wouldn't I love to see a supernova with my own naked eye!

[LINK] "The end of Brian Mulroney"

Last year's investigation/circus surrounding the question of whether former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was bribed has ended by wrecking his public reputation.

If Brian Mulroney had a reputation left, Justice Jeffrey Oliphant shredded it today.

Mr. Oliphant’s report on the relationship between the former prime minister and German arms dealer Karlheinz Schreiber found that neither man can necessarily be taken at his word, even when they’re testifying before a judge.

In several instances, Mr. Oliphant said, he simply didn’t accept Mr. Schreiber’s account of the facts — a nice way of saying the little German influence peddler was making stuff up. Or, as the judge nicely put it, “I was struck by his proclivity for exaggeration.”

But it was Mr. Mulroney who came in for a much tougher time. The word Mr. Oliphant used most often was “inappropriate.” Much tougher terms could easily have substituted.

He said he didn’t believe Mr. Mulroney’s testimony that his decision to accept envelopes full of cash was just “bad judgment.” If that was the case, he said, Mr. Mulroney had many opportunities to correct the mistake, and rejected every one. He could have issued Mr. Schreiber a receipt, demanded cheques, or put the money in a bank where there would have been a record. He didn’t do any of them. And he continued to take more envelopes even after having time to think about the propriety of accepting the first. An “error in judgment” applies to one mistake; making the same mistake three times over a lengthy period is something else.

Instead of doing his best to rectify his mistake in accepting the cash, said Mr. Oliphant, Mr. Mulroney deliberately sought to hide the fact he’d taken the money. In this he and Mr. Schreiber thought as one: “They both wanted to conceal the fact that the transactions had occurred between them.” The best opportunity for Mr. Mulroney to have come clean, Mr. Oliphant said, was during Mr. Mulroney’s suit over allegations related to the Airbus affair. Mr. Mulroney claimed he didn’t reveal the full extent of his dealings because he wasn’t asked the appropriate questions, an argument Mr. Oliphant dismissed as “patently absurd.” He noted it was during Mr. Mulroney’s years in office that a tough, new ethics code was introduced, which required public officials to act in a way “that will bear the closest public scrutiny,” and added that in his estimation, Mr. Mulroney failed his own test.

“The conduct exhibited by Mr. Mulroney in accepting cash-stuffed envelopes from Mr. Schreiber on three separate occasions, failing to record the fact of the cash payments, failing to deposit the cash into a bank or other financial institution, and failing to disclose the fact of the cash payments when given the opportunity to do so goes a long way, in my view, to supporting my position that the financial dealings between Mr. Schreiber and Mr. Mulroney were inappropriate,” he said.

[BRIEF NOTE] On Facebook, privacy, and a proposal for social networks

Some of you may know that today is Quit Facebook Day. Started up by Torontonians Joseph Dee and Matthew Milan, this day is a way for Facebook users to register their upset with Facebook's--shall we say lack of concern for private data. Last I heard, they rounded up twenty-six thousand supporters, at least one of him is a LJ friend of mine. Against Facebook's remaining half-billion users, I can't help but think this is wasted if noble gesture.

At her blog apophenia, very interesting social media writer danah boyd was quite upset with the ways in which Facebook violated individual privacy, not only in terms of data collection but in making private data accessible to others, like friends of their friends.

If Facebook wanted radical transparency, they could communicate to users every single person and entity who can see their content. They could notify then when the content is accessed by a partner. They could show them who all is included in “friends-of-friends” (or at least a number of people). They hide behind lists because people’s abstractions allow them to share more. When people think “friends-of-friends” they don’t think about all of the types of people that their friends might link to; they think of the people that their friends would bring to a dinner party if they were to host it. When they think of everyone, they think of individual people who might have an interest in them, not 3rd party services who want to monetize or redistribute their data. Users have no sense of how their data is being used and Facebook is not radically transparent about what that data is used for. Quite the opposite. Convolution works. It keeps the press out.

The battle that is underway is not a battle over the future of privacy and publicity. It’s a battle over choice and informed consent. It’s unfolding because people are being duped, tricked, coerced, and confused into doing things where they don’t understand the consequences. Facebook keeps saying that it gives users choices, but that is completely unfair. It gives users the illusion of choice and hides the details away from them “for their own good.”

I've a suggestion. By this point, Facebook has become a critical service for very high proportions of the general population, in Canada and other technology-heavy countries. I know that my social life would be much more difficult to plan without Facebook's groups and portable messaging systems. I would go so far as to say that social networking systems--Facebook, LinkedIn, et cetera--are becoming almost as important as telephone systems. Why not regulate them the same way? Some measure of global coordination would be necessary--Canada's privacy commissioner has clout, but Canada's only a small share of Facebook's market--but I think, hope, it could be done.

(Then again, telephone companies have fairly large and secure revenues. Is Facebook making a profit? Regulating marginal businesses tightly might not be such a good idea.)

[BRIEF NOTE] Some notes on faith

Tall Penguin, the blog of a co-worker of mine, became famous when P.Z. Myers linked to a picture of our bookstore's Bible section stripped of Bibles by some amused people. People strayed for her accounts of the life that she built after she left the denomination of the Jehovah's Witnesses behind, how she started to radically reconsider her world from that point. She gained such famed that she became the subject of a podcast interview at the blog Irreligiosity.

The interview is great; hers is a terrible story. The extent to which the denomination sought to manipulate people--to isolate them by discouraging them from critical thinking via higher education, by lying about the procedures determining doctrine, by reversing doctrines arbitrarily (one moment receiving organ donations was cannibalism, the next it was acceptable) at the expense of so many lies--horrifies me. The doctrine of the 144 000 people who would ascend to heaven in the end times, strained by the fact that the current number of Jehovah's Witnesses number in the million, is ridiculous: arguing that people in the past who seemed faithful were not and that it is quite possible that people with true faith will replace the bad one is as self-serving as any that I think of. And Tall Penguin broke away from all that, simply because of a chance encounter that she had with a book that her partner had brought home, something that inspires her to think critically about her universe. Given the denomination's dislike for engagement with outside thoughts, and its appalling desire to police the innermost thoughts, it isn't surprising that she was a victim of a shunning.

Faith is something that I have been engaging with personally of late; I still go to St. Thomas's. I've found it centering; I like the idea of structure. At the same time, the idea of faith that supposes itself to be beyond reason appalls me. I would like to believe that I can have a faith that is compatible reason: if I was asked to believe something unbelievable--if, in short, it seems to violate natural law--I wouldn't be attending St. Thomas's. (Yes, I think there can be natural law, of a sort at least. Read Robert Wright's Non Zero for more.) I would like to think that it is possible to combine an informed faith with respect for reason. I think it is possible. Certainly Tall Penguin's story confirms that there are some faiths that are entirely uninterested in reason. Is that a risk for all denominations?

What do you all think? I would be interesting in hearing from others.