Wednesday, April 29, 2009


While driving home from chorus rehearsal, I admired — while keeping one eye firmly fixated on the road ahead at all times — the transcendent beauty of the crescent moon low in the night sky, colored a dusky reddish hue by atmospheric debris.

And I thought to myself...

What a marvel it is to realize that there's another world right up there, so near that you could fly there in a day's time if you had the technology at your disposal.

I'm terrified of high places. But I'd go to the moon if I had the chance.

I hope I live long enough to see human beings exploring the moon's surface again.

Mars would be even more awesome.

Sweet dreams.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Do I look like Buster Poindexter to you?

Today, we came within shouting distance of a new record temperature for this date.

The mercury climbed to 93 degrees (that's Fahrenheit, for the benefit of those in other localities not tethered to our arcane system of weights and measures) at its peak, just two degrees shy of a mark set in 1931.

It was hot all over the region. Even in perpetually cool San Francisco, they were looking at 92.

Ironically, exactly one year ago, we set a record for low temperatures on April 20, bottoming out at a chilly 32. The high that day was a still-brisk 58.

A lot can change in a single orbit around the sun.

The average high for this date is 70. We usually don't see weather this toasty until at least mid-May.

Stupid global warming.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

What's Up With That? #70: Doctor Wu and the Royal Scam

Until I was in my early 40s, I never took maintenance medication of any kind.

Now, I swallow enough junk every day to cover my pharmacist's greens fees.

I think it's a racket.

I take two different medications to control my blood glucose level — one every morning, the other twice every day with meals.

Here's the weird thing about that. Every time I have blood work done, my A1c — I forget what the abbreviation stands for, but it's a measure of long-term glucose levels — is well into the normal range.

My nurse practitioner says that means the medication is doing its job.

But how does she know that it doesn't mean that I don't actually have a blood glucose problem, and therefore don't need the medication?

I smell a scam.

I now take three different medications to regulate my blood pressure. My doctor added another one after my most recent checkup.

My wife has metastatic breast cancer. My only child is leaving for university this fall. I'm trying to start a new career direction at age 47. I'm a self-employed small businessperson in a lousy economy.

Maybe there's a reason why I have high blood pressure.

Another scam.

In addition to the prescription drugs, I take a multivitamin, an aspirin, and — this was another recommendation from the last exam — a fish oil capsule. That last is supposed to keep my Omega-3 up.

I didn't even know I had an Omega-3. I don't wear a watch.

Scam number three.

And we wonder why health care is so doggoned expensive.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Haumea ya like me now?

This just in from the International Astronomical Union: We have a new dwarf planet, and its name is Haumea.

Okay, so it's not actually new: Haumea has been floating around out there in the Kuiper Belt since whenever the solar system began. (Let's not have that argument today.) What's new is its name, its official recognition by Earth's scientific community, and its status as the solar system's fifth (so far) dwarf planet.

Those of you who haven't been following the arcane inner workings of the IAU over the past few years may have missed the announcement that we have such entities as dwarf planets. On August 24, 2006, the IAU developed — for the first time — an official definition of the word planet. (You might suppose that one of the very first things that an astronomical society would come to grips with is the definition of planet, seeing that planets are among the primary objects that astronomers study. But you would be mistaken.)

That definition excluded the ninth and outermost of the traditionally accepted planets: Pluto, discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh of Arizona's Lowell Observatory. Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet under the IAU's nomenclatural system, along with Ceres — formerly called an asteroid — and Eris, the distant body identified in 2003.

Eris (originally designated 2003 UB313), being roughly one-fourth larger than Pluto, was at first viewed by some scientists as the Sun's tenth planet. Its discovery launched a debate within the astronomical community as to whether Pluto and Eris really ought to be considered planets at all. After much wrangling, the IAU adopted its new terminology, downgrading Pluto from planet to dwarf planet, along with Eris and the aforementioned Ceres.

Makemake, discovered in 2005, joined the ranks of the dwarf planets in July of this year. Like Pluto and Haumea, the diminutive Makemake (smaller even than Pluto) is located in the Kuiper Belt, a vast expanse beyond the orbit of Neptune that is home to thousands of gigantic chunks of space debris. Astronomers conjecture that the Kuiper Belt may contain between 30 and 40 additional dwarf planets — they're still looking, and will keep the rest of us posted.

As for Haumea, our newest dwarf planet boasts several features that make it unusual. It's believed to be ovoid or elliptical in shape — think of a humongous chicken egg — unlike the other known planets and dwarf planets, all of which are spherical (more or less). Haumea rotates at high speed, leading scientists to theorize that it and its two known moons, Hi'iaka and Namaka, are leftovers from a collision involving a larger object. Haumea and its moons travel a sharply inclined orbit outside the plane of the larger planets' orbits, helping to explain why an object of its size wasn't discovered earlier.

Following its discovery in December 2004, the body now called Haumea was nicknamed "Santa" by the cheeky skywatchers at Caltech who first identified it. (Its moons, in turn, were referred to in early reports as "Rudolph" and "Blitzen.") Of course, snugger sphincters at the IAU prevailed, resulting in the little celestial family being officially named after the Hawaiian fertility goddess and two of her daughters. Like bureaucrats in other fields, the IAU top-kicks demonstrate a frustrating lack of humor.

Haumea is far too small and distant to be seen with the unaided eye, so don't strain your optic nerve trying to spot it in the night sky. Just take comfort in knowing that a friendly dwarf planet and her moons are up there, somewhere, smiling down on us all.

Astrologers, on the other hand, are infuriated.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

My new best friend: Throat Coat

In the main, I tend to be skeptical of folk remedies, homeopathic medicines, and such like. (I think astrology is bunk, too.)

I'm a convert, though, to Throat Coat, an herbal tea from the fine folks at Traditional Medicinals. Because I make my living using my voice, I'm game to try anything that might help me preserve its function — especially when I'm battling some kind of upper respiratory bug, as I have been lately. Throat Coat came highly recommended by colleagues in the speaking business, as well as a number of professional vocalists, so I decided to give it a whirl.

What do you know? It works. And despite the word "medicinal" in the company name, it's perfectly palatable from a flavor perspective. It's slightly sweet, with a hint of earthy spiciness.

According to the box, Throat Coat contains as its key ingredient something called slippery elm. I'm certain that, now that I'm ingesting the stuff on a regular basis, some scientific study will soon appear, indicting slippery elm as a root cause of esophageal cancer, nervous system dysfunction, and early-onset Alzheimer's. But for the moment, I'm enjoying the fact that it keeps my throat lubricated without creating phlegm.

Uncle Swan's bottom line: Throat Coat isn't exactly a miracle panacea, but it does make my throat feel better. If you're a yakker or singer -- or, like myself, both -- try steeping yourself a cup and see whether it helps.

It probably can't hurt.


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Monday, April 07, 2008

Astronaut of the year (literally)

Just a few hours ago, NASA astronaut and biochemist Peggy Whitson achieved a noteworthy milestone:

She became the first woman in history to spend the equivalent of one full year in space.

Dr. Whitson — currently the commander of the International Space Station and its resident mission team, Expedition 16 — is nearing the conclusion of her second extended tour aboard the ISS. At this writing, she has logged slightly more than 180 days in space on her present assignment. Combining this mission with the 184 days, 22 hours, and 15 minutes Whitson spent aloft six years ago as flight engineer of ISS Expedition 5 (June 5 to December 7, 2002) gives the groundbreaking astronaut a grand spaceflight total of 365 days and change.

Whitson also holds the record for most spacewalks (Extra-Vehicular Activities, if you want to get all technical about it) by a female space traveler: six EVAs totaling 39 hours.

Last fall, when Space Shuttle Discovery's STS-120 team, under the command of U.S. Air Force Colonel Pam Melroy, visited the ISS, Dr. Whitson and Col. Melroy became the first two women to command active space missions simultaneously.

Dr. Whitson and her colleague, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, are scheduled to return to terra firma aboard Soyuz TMA-11 — the same craft that carried them to the ISS last October — on April 19.

We bid them a safe journey home.

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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Special victim

I don't know Evanthia Pappas.

But I intimately know someone like her.

Evanthia, a prosecutor who works for the Sonoma County District Attorney's office in the so-called "special victims unit" (dealing with sexual abuse and domestic violence crimes), was diagnosed a year ago with stage 4 inflammatory breast cancer. IBC is a relatively uncommon disease — it accounts for only about two percent of breast cancer cases — and is much tougher to diagnose and treat than solid-tumor breast cancer like KJ's.

The M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston has offered Evanthia the opportunity to participate in a clinical trial of an experimental treatment involving stem cell transplantation into her bone marrow. It's an expensive ticket — Evanthia's portion of the bill totals approximately $250,000 — and no insurance company, pharmaceutical entity, or government program covers it.

With the help of family, friends, and coworkers, as well as our local Greek-American community, Evanthia is raising this hefty sum on her own.

Having spent a dozen years in the health care industry, and seven years and counting as the husband of a woman battling breast cancer, I've read reams of information about breast cancer and its treatment. I know that the course of therapy Evanthia Pappas is attempting probably isn't the light at the end of the dark and terrifying breast cancer tunnel. Most researchers discontinued investigation of bone marrow transplant treatment of breast cancer more than a decade ago, because, quite frankly, there was no clinical evidence that it worked. Sad — infuriating, even — though it is, I understand fully why Evanthia's insurance company won't cover an experiment that the current medical literature doesn't support.

But, as KJ just said to me, "Someone had to be the first to try the treatments I'm getting now."

And she's right. Evanthia Pappas may or may not benefit from this experiment. It may help her body stave off her cancer, and it may not. Her participation in the trial, however, may help medical scientists learn something new that will eventually save other women's lives. For that, if for no other reason, it's worth a shot.

A quarter-million bucks is a ton of cash. But it's a small price to pay for hope.

If you're so inclined, you can make a contribution to Evanthia Pappas's quest for life by writing a check payable to The Evanthia Pappas Transplant Fund (S-5 Account), and mailing it to:
San Francisco Police Credit Union
2550 Irving Street
San Francisco, CA 94122
Evanthia will thank you. And someday, your wife or daughter, mother or sister, lover or friend may thank you, also.

After all, it's only money, right?

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

What's Up With That? #51: A hole in the bucket

I'm no rocket scientist — the wags among you are shouting, "No [insert vulgar reference to excrement here], Sherlock!" even as I type — but here's what I don't understand about the current situation with Space Shuttle Endeavour.

First, let's set the scene. When Endeavour launched last week, a piece of debris from the main external fuel tank — either insulating foam, or ice, or a combination of the two — struck the underside of the shuttle, causing a small gouge (3.5 by 2 inches) in one of the orbiter's heat shield tiles. Similar damage, on a considerably larger scale, resulted in the post-reentry destruction of Space Shuttle Columbia five years ago.

Now to the source of my confusion. NASA knows all too well that debris flying off the fuel tank and striking the shuttle can cause damage that puts the orbiter and its crew at risk. And apparently, numerous post-Columbia attempts to eliminate this flying debris have proven unsuccessful. (It's my understanding that NASA has been able to minimize the castoff of foam and ice somewhat, but due to the nature of the fuel and equipment being used, can't curtail this entirely.)

So why doesn't NASA devise a shield of some sort to protect the underside of the shuttle from flying debris?

The first guy who drove any distance in a primitive automobile surely said to himself, "You know, I love this machine, but getting smacked in the face by bugs, raindrops, and other airborne junk really sucks." That's why we have windshields on our cars to this very day. How hard could it be to invent a lightweight panel that attaches to the base of the shuttle, between the orbiter and the fuel tank, that deflects hurtling detritus in the same way that a windshield does? The device could be jettisoned at the same time as the fuel tank, and the shuttle would speed on its merry way unharmed.

Surely I can't be the only person who's thought of this. I'm not even an engineer, but it seems perfectly obvious to me.

And since we're on the subject, NASA has expended beaucoup time and effort conducting model tests to determine whether the damage to Endeavour is significant enough to require repair before reentry. I don't get that. If you can fix the problem — and NASA says they can — why would you not? Why go through all of this exercise in "cautious optimism" that the damage won't endanger the shuttle and its crew, when you could eliminate the worry altogether by just sending an astronaut out with a repair kit to patch the hole? Who wants to be sitting at the Johnson Space Center witnessing another Columbia-like disaster and thinking, "Maybe we should have run that test one more time"?

I guess that's why I'm not a rocket scientist.

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Friday, June 15, 2007

Out of time!

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the late Don Herbert, better known to generations of teleholics as "Mr. Wizard." Herbert's 1950s show, Watch Mr. Wizard, pioneered the concept that television for kids could be educational without being either condescending or boring. In the '80s, Herbert returned to the tube on Nickelodeon, with Mr. Wizard's World, bringing his genial blend of professorial wisdom and whiz-bang science to a whole new audience.

Had there been no Mr. Wizard, we would never have known Beakman's World or Bill Nye, the Science Guy. Don Herbert made being a science nerd cool — which, for those of us who are nerds, is no small accomplishment. We'll miss you, Mr. Wizard.

The funny thing about my Common Elements art gallery — the one in which comic artists pair up unrelated superheroes who have some characteristic in common — is that on occasion, the characters involved share more than one "common element." Sometimes, in fact, there are several common elements in the piece that I didn't even consider when I developed the concept.

Take, for example, this newly arrived gem from the pen of longtime comics stalwart Bob Layton. It features Booster Gold, one of the central figures in DC Comics' recently concluded maxiseries 52, alongside the legendary Captain America. (You can click the pic to see it in greater detail.)

When this concept came to me, I had one — and really, only one — Common Element in mind between Booster and Cap. Both heroes, although their adventures are set in the present day, began their careers in other time periods: Captain America in the 1940s during World War II, Booster Gold in the 25th century. Hence the title I assigned to the concept: "Out of Time."

From the beginning, I wanted Bob Layton to draw this Common Element. Layton is best known in comic circles as "the Iron Man guy," thanks to his lengthy association with the Golden Avenger as both artist and writer, often in partnership with scripter David Michelinie. Bob's also recognized as one of the most gifted inkers in the industry. From my perspective, it's his overall artistic talent — penciling, inking, and conceptual design — that makes him great.

When the opportunity arose to commission Bob, I jumped at the chance to turn him loose on my "out of time" idea. As I was rounding up pictures of Cap and Booster to send to Bob as reference, I noted (to my surprise, given that I hadn't seen it before) that the two heroes shared an even more obvious commonality than the one I'd envisioned: the five-pointed star motif emblazoned on their rippling pectorals. How could I have missed that? I don't know, but I did, until I had the pictures of each character on the screen in front of me.

Since I added the scan of this artwork to my permanent gallery at Comic Art Fans, other collectors have pointed out additional connections between Booster and Cap. For one, both are blond. For another, both were recently killed off in their respective storylines — Booster, though, has already been "resurrected," and I don't know a single comics fan who doesn't believe that Captain America will make a triumphant return as well.

I also thought of one more similarity. Both Cap and Booster, at one point in their careers, abandoned their more familiar code names and costumes in favor of a temporary superhero identity. Captain America, disillusioned by the Watergate scandal, shrugged off his iconic red-white-and-blue for several months in the mid-1970s, in the guise of the more iconoclastic Nomad. During the year-long events of 52, Booster Gold — who at the time was believed to be dead — became the mysterious Supernova, whose real identity wasn't revealed (to the characters or the audience) until late in the series' run. (Astute readers, however, had solved the puzzle long before Supernova unmasked.) Someday, I'd like to team Nomad and Supernova in another Common Elements commission that ties these threads together.

Speaking of Booster Gold, the current issue of Back Issue magazine (#22) features an excellent article about Booster and his erstwhile partner, the Blue Beetle. If you look closely, you'll see my Booster pinup — penciled by Booster's creator Dan Jurgens, and inked by veteran Joe Rubinstein — smiling back at you on page 78.

Thanks to Back Issue editor Michael Eury for using my contribution!

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

The best part of waking up is cat poop in your cup

Here's the sort of thing that gets reported on CBS Radio on a slow news day in late winter...

The most expensive coffee in the world is Kopi Luwak, also known as civet coffee, from certain remote regions of southeast Asia. Kopi Luwak is ground from coffee beans that have been swallowed, then partially digested by a vaguely feline creature known as the palm civet.

In short, Kopi Luwak is cat poop coffee.

You know I love my coffee, but there's no way I'm drinking this.

Roasted Kopi Luwak coffee beans sell for between $120 and $160 per pound from an online outfit called Animal Coffee. For the truly adventurous, Animal Coffee sells "completely unprocessed natural Kopi Luwak" — in other words, with the beans still embedded in palm civet feces, "exactly as found when hand-collected in the jungles of Sumatra." Oh, joy.

And here I thought my grandmother's chitlins were disgusting.

Incidentally, the palm civet is the animal best known — aside from its coffee-excreting habit — as the original source of the SARS virus that caused so much panic a few years ago. Just in case it wasn't bad enough that people were brewing their morning cup o' joe from chunkies that came out of the darn thing's butt.

What I'm curious to know is, who's buying this coffee? Future Fear Factor contestants with money to burn? Apparently, one possible answer is the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which, according to the Animal Coffee site, included Kopi Luwak as one of the freebies in the swag bags given to nominees and presenters at last year's Emmy Awards.

I wonder whether anyone told the TV stars where their coffee came from.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

You don't mess around with Jim

Jim Hamm, the 70-year-old California man who was attacked by a mountain lion last month, is celebrating Valentine's Day by going home from the hospital.

Jim and his wife Nell celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary during his unplanned vacation at San Francisco's California Pacific Medical Center. Nell is the hero in this story — she saved Jim from becoming lion lunch by clubbing the attacking beast with a stick until it finally took flight.

One note of future advice for Jim and Nell: Never go strolling in carnivore country, especially if your last name sounds like a tasty delicatessen meat.

In other news from the animal kingdom involving someone named Jim, a six-year-old English springer spaniel named Felicity's Diamond Jim won Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show last night. The jovial Jim beat out more than 2,600 other stylish canines representing 165 breeds and varieties to claim honors as America's top dog.

Among Diamond Jim's competitors in the final posedown was the preshow favorite, a Dandie Dinmont terrier belonging to entertainment legend Bill Cosby. When notified of his pooch's defeat, Cosby reportedly said, "Hey, hey, hey — that's not okay," and assuaged his grief by consuming an entire box of Jell-O Pudding Pops.

For his part, Diamond Jim is retiring from the show ring to work as a therapy companion for Alzheimer's patients. Hopefully, his new job won't bring him into contact with any mountain lions.

Although I have it on good authority that he does enjoy a bite of ham now and then.

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

What's Up With That? #43: Some people call her the Space Cowgirl

In what is believed to be a first in the NASA ranks, an active-duty astronaut has been arrested on felony charges, including attempted kidnapping and attempted vehicle burglary with battery.

It's tempting to look at her mugshot and say, "She's obviously no rocket scientist." Except for the fact that she is.

U.S. Navy Captain Lisa Marie Nowak (to be referred to hereafter as "Yes-wack"), a NASA mission specialist who flew on Shuttle Discovery last July, drove from the Johnson Space Center in Houston to Orlando International Airport to confront a woman she believed was romantically involved with another astronaut. Nowak told police that she and the male astronaut in question, shuttle pilot William Oefelein, had "more than a working relationship, but less than a romantic relationship," whatever in tarnation that means.

Nowak apparently discovered — via e-mails she confiscated — that the other woman, an Air Force captain named Colleen Shipman, was involved with Oefelein. Incensed at the prospect of competition for Wild Bill's affection, Nowak blazed a 1,000-mile trail across the southern states, wearing an adult diaper so she wouldn't have to take potty breaks. (Listen, you don't want to have to stop to pee when you're already... well... you know.)

When she caught up with Captain Shipman in the OIA parking lot, Nowak was wearing a trenchcoat and wig, and was armed with a BB gun, a four-inch folding knife, and pepper spray, the latter of which she deployed in the startled Shipman's car. Shipman escaped and called the authorities, who corraled Nowak as she was disposing of the evidence of her sordid escapade.

As a member of the Discovery crew on Shuttle Mission STS-121, Nowak operated the shuttle's robotic arm during three spacewalks undertaken by two other astronauts — who right this moment are thanking their lucky stars that Lisa didn't "wig out" while they were pulling an EVA. An astronaut since 1996, Nowak gained notice at the time of her shuttle flight for being the first Italian American woman in space. [Insert your own ethnically insensitive, Godfather-derived joke here, if you have no shame.]

Nowak, incidentally, is married — though not to the aforementioned astronaut Oefelein. She's also the mother of three children, who will doubtless find themselves the subject of intense schoolyard buzz for the rest of the academic year.

According to her official NASA bio, "Lisa enjoys bicycling, running, skeet, sailing, gourmet cooking, rubber stamps, crossword puzzles, piano, and African violets."

They conveniently omitted her fondness for kidnapping, mayhem, unrequited love, and Depends.

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Monday, September 18, 2006

To Eris is human

Now that the dust has settled on the whole "Is Pluto a planet?" business (the official answer, in case you hadn't been following the latest motions and shakings of the International Astronomical Union, is a resounding "no"), it's time to give everyone's new favorite trans-Neptunian object — heretofore designated as 2003 UB313 — a real live name.

To the chagrin of Lucy Lawless fans everywhere, that name is Eris, after the goddess of chaos in Greek mythology. Or, if you want to get technical, it's 136199 Eris, due to the fact that as a dwarf planet, Eris also is assigned a number, as is the case with asteroids and other subplanetary solar system objects.

The trio of astronomers who discovered Eris three years ago had nicknamed the object Xena, after the character played by Lawless on the once-popular TV adventure series. Scientists in general being a stuffy bunch, the IAU turned up its collective nose at the idea of a major astronomical find (Eris is larger than Pluto, the body formerly known as the ninth planet) being named after the scantily clad heroine of a defunct entertainment program. However, in assigning the name Eris to the dwarf planet and the name Dysnomia (the Greek word for "lawlessness") to its tiny moon, the IAU proved that even science geeks with telescopes can sport a sense of humor once in a great while.

Lawless, the erstwhile Warrior Princess, was busy tuning up her vocal chords for the next episode of Celebrity Duets and was unable for comment.


Tuesday, September 05, 2006

What's Up With That? #37: Dognapped!

The search is on for a stolen puppy belonging to an eight-year-old cancer patient at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center.

Chemo the puppy, a 15-week-old Chihuahua/Doberman mix belonging to young Kyle Wetle from Monterey, was taken from Kyle's parents' car on Saturday as it was parked in the medical center's garage.

Three questions arise from this story:

One: What kind of villain steals a dog from a car at a hospital? The first person to respond, "One sick puppy," gets spanked. Hard.

Two: How do you successfully breed a Chihuahua with a Doberman? I'm trying to imagine the logistics involved, and I just can't get there.

Three: Who feeds a puppy Skippy peanut butter and canned corn? Mr. and Mrs. Wetle, judging by the above photograph. (Apparently, Chemo prefers creamy over chunky.)

Here's hoping that whoever snagged little Kyle's dog — and you know who you are, Cruella — brings the pup back soon.

UPDATE, TUESDAY 9/5, 4:30 p.m.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported only moments ago that Chemo has been returned to a happy Kyle Wetle and his family, mere hours after I posted about the puppy's theft.

Once again, the power of the Swan sends the criminal underworld into cowering terror.

Now I just hope Kyle and his folks quit feeding the little mutt peanut butter and corn. Dogs are carnivores, people! At least switch him to chunky, for pity's sake!

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

Pluto no longer planet; still Mickey's dog

Ending decades of controversy, the International Astronomical Union today redefined the term "planet." Pluto, considered the most distant planet in the solar system for the past 75 years, no longer qualifies.

That makes the score Planets 8, Pluto 0.

I know that some of you are yawning "Who cares?" at this bit of news, but for those of us interested in astronomy — and I was quite the astronomy buff in my younger days (the science, not the Blue Öyster Cult song) — the demotion of Pluto is big news. Stargazers have argued for years over whether Pluto, a rogue ice ball with an elliptical orbit inhabiting the outskirts of our sun's gravitational pull, really fits the traditional view of what a planet is. Now it's official: It doesn't.

Fasten your seat belt. It's about to get astronomical up in here.

This whole imbroglio started in 1930, when astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered the celestial body known today as Pluto. Tombaugh's find ended more than 80 years of intensive observation by scientists searching for a ninth planet beyond the orbit of Neptune, a search spawned by irregularities in Neptune's orbit that were thought to be caused by the gravitational effects of another large body roughly Neptune's size. When Tombaugh identified the pinpoint of light he dubbed Pluto (choosing a name that began with the initials of Percival Lowell, an earlier astronomer who had devoted much of his career to the ninth planet hunt, and who founded the observatory where Tombaugh worked), the mystery appeared to have been solved.

Except... not.

As happens on occasion in science, the smart guys had messed up. Astronomers initially miscalculated the size and density of Neptune, leading them to perceive that its orbit was being affected by a huge nearby planet. Later research determined that the perceived discrepancies in Neptune's orbit were accounted for by a more accurate determination of its mass, and not by Pluto, which turned out to be a piddling little thing (about two-thirds the size of Earth's Moon) rather than another ice giant like Neptune or its neighbor Uranus. Oops.

Matters grew even more complicated in 1978, when astronomers learned that Pluto had a moon of its own, now known as Charon. Given that Charon is approximately half the size of Pluto, some scientists thought the duo should be classified as a "double planet," or that perhaps Charon should be considered a planet in its own right. (We now know that Pluto has at least two other, smaller satellites, Nix and Hydra.)

Thus, a slope became slippery. If tiny Pluto could be called a planet, and maybe Charon also, what about Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt that lies between Mars and Jupiter? And what about the recently discovered, but as yet officially unnamed, bodies that share Pluto's realm in the Kuiper Belt on the solar system's outskirts — objects popularly known as Xena (official designation: 2003 UB313), Sedna (90377) and Quaoar (50000)? If the International Astronomical Union had adopted one of the proposals under consideration before today, the number of solar objects called "planets" could have skyrocketed into the dozens, perhaps hundreds.

Instead, the astronomical community made the smart move: They determined that it was a mistake to have listed Pluto as a planet in the first place. Instead, Pluto is now officially a dwarf planet. The new definition of planet (of the non-dwarf variety) states that such an object must "clear the neighborhood around its orbit." In other words, objects that share relative space with numerous similar objects — as Ceres does in the asteroid belt, and as the Pluto-Charon duo does out in the solar suburbs — aren't true planets.

So, after 75 years, we're back to an eight-planet solar system, with numerous dwarf planets floating around among and beyond the Big Eight. Just imagine an octet of Snow Whites, surrounded by a horde of little Sneezys, Dopeys, and Docs.

God's in His heaven, and all's right with the universe.

What exactly this all means about the status of Goofy, however, remains unclear.


Monday, August 21, 2006

"No" means "no," even in dog language

A Florida woman was mauled to death by her Presa Canario (that's a breed of dog, for the benefit of the uninformed) while trying to bathe the beast. Police arriving on the scene were compelled to shoot and kill the dog to avoid being attacked themselves. The woman's nine-year-old daughter watched the proceedings in horror.

There's a lesson here: When a Presa Canario tells you he doesn't want a bath, he doesn't want a bath.

This is the same breed of dog, by the way, two specimens of which fatally mauled a San Francisco woman to death five years ago, in a nationally infamous case. As much as I love dogs — and I've been a dog fancier all my life — some types simply don't belong in civilized society.

I know I'll hear from the Presa Canario fans (translated: vicious dog wackos) on this, but so be it. Not to sound unsympathetic toward this unfortunate woman in Florida or her surviving loved ones, but you people and your Cujos (yes, I know Cujo was a St. Bernard — I'm speaking metaphorically) deserve each other.

Suppose it had been that nine-year-old girl the dog got angry with?


Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Whole lotta shakin' goin' on

Hey, kids...


We were in the car just leaving our Wednesday evening church study when we felt the thump. I thought I'd run over something, much as I did when the famous Loma Prieta quake hit back during the World Series in 1989.

Shifting bedrock due to unstable plate tectonics is one of the joys of residing here in beautiful Wine Country. We live practically a stone's chuck from the Rodgers Creek Fault, one of the most seismically active geological formations in this part of the world, and theoretically a potential site for The Big One they keep warning us about.

Not that I'm moving, mind you.

I mean, you probably have hurricanes or tornados or locust infestations or drunken rednecks running loose where you live.

I'll stick with the occasional temblors, thanks.

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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Good luck and Godspeed, Discovery

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


One hundred years ago today, a powerful earthquake and subsequent fire destroyed much of what then comprised the city of San Francisco.

What are you looking at me for?

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