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Thursday, January 15, 2004

It's another year already!

Comets, Quakes, and Steamboats

Once there was a big comet. It was called the Great Comet of 1811. By coincidence, this comet appeared in 1811.

At the entrance to the Arbat Square an immense expanse of dark starry sky presented itself to his eyes. Almost in the center of it, above the Prechistenka Boulevard, surrounded and sprinkled on all sides by stars but distinguished from them all by its nearness to the earth, its white light, and its long uplifted tail, shone the enormous and brilliant comet of 1812 -- the comet which was said to portend all kinds of woes and the end of the world. In Pierre, however, that comet with its long luminous tail aroused no feeling of fear. On the contrary he gazed joyfully, his eyes moist with tears, at this bright comet which, having traveled in its orbit with inconceivable velocity through immeasurable space, seemed suddenly -- like an arrow piercing the earth -- to remain fixed in a chosen spot, vigorously holding its tail erect, shining and displaying its white light amid countless other scintillating stars.

Here's the rest of War and Peace, in case you want to take a couple of minutes and read the whole thing:

When you're finished, you can find lots more to read here:

Back to the comet. The brilliant comet of 1812 that Tolstoy mentions is now known as the Great Comet of 1811, since most of its visible days were in 1811. At one point its tail reached 60 degrees across the night sky. The Great Comet of 1997, Hale-Bopp, also had a double tail, but not quite that long.

      hale-bopp1      hale-bopp2

Here's Hale's description of he and Bopp independently discovering the comet on the same night.

The Great Comet of 1811 is scheduled to return in the year 4876. Hale-Bopp should be back in about 4376, depending on how hard Jupiter pulls on it. Or maybe Jupiter's already done the pulling, I'm not sure.

On February 7, 1999, the spacecraft Stardust was launched toward the comet Wild 2.

      99pc0162      99pc0159

A few days ago, the Stardust made a flyby of Wild 2, about 242,000,000 miles away. It got to within 150 miles of the comet, collected some samples of comet's coma, and took some pictures of the core of the comet. They're the most detailed pictures ever taken of a comet. Here's Wild 2:


This is the Stardust spacecraft, before launch:


This is the part that collects the comet particle samples:


The samples it collected are headed back to earth. The return capsule should land in Utah in a couple of years.

Here's where Stardust is today:


In 1811, on the opposite side of the planet from Tolstoy's Pierre, President Teddy's great-great-uncle, Nicholas Roosevelt, took off from Pittsburgh on the steamboat New Orleans. The boat was called the New Orleans because that's where it was headed.

James Rumsey had built and successfully demonstrated a steamboat in 1787. John Fitch built one around the same time, propelled by 6 oars on each side. In 1807, Robert Fulton launched the Clermont, the first commercially successful steamboat.

Here's a 1907 replica of the Clermont:

      clermont10      clermont14

The trip of the New Orleans was significant because no steamboat had ever been on the Mississippi River, let alone traveled down the Ohio River to its mouth, then down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Needless to say, there were quite a few people talking about dumb it was. It was a little like people talking about the Lewis and Clark expedition seven years before, or about space exploration today.

As Nicholas left on his trip some odd things were happening. There was a huge comet in the sky. Tens of thousands squirrels were acting squirrelly, making a mass migration to the south. Rivers were flooding at unprecedented levels, and people were getting sick. There was more than a little discussion about the end of the world coming. Here's what Charles Joseph Latrobe, Nicholas's wife's cousin from England, said about it:

Many things conspired to make the year 1811, the annus mirabilis [year of the miracle] of the West. During the earlier months, the waters of many of the great rivers overflowed their banks to a vast extent, and the whole country was in many parts covered from bluff to bluff. Unprecedented sickness followed. A spirit of change and recklessness seemed to pervade the very inhabitants of the forest. A countless multitude of squirrels, obeying some great and universal impulse, which none can know but the Spirit that gave them being, left their reckless and gamboling life, and their ancient places of retreat in the North, and were seen pressing forward by tens of thousands in a deep and solid phalanx to the South. No obstacles seemed to check their extraordinary and concerted movement. The word had been given them to go forth and they obeyed it, though multitudes perished in the broad Ohio which lay in their path. The splendid comet of that yearlong continued to shed its twilight over the forests, and as the autumn drew to a close, the whole valley of the Mississippi, from the Missouri to the Gulf, was shaken to its centre by continued earthquakes.
Charles Joseph Latrobe

It turns out the squirrel migrations aren't quite so miraculous:

The earthquakes he was talking about were the New Madrid earthquakes. While the New Orleans was steaming down the river, the river started shaking, even changing course occasionally. Normal earthquake type things occurred, such as disappearing islands, falling trees, and collapsing riverbanks. This pretty much terrified the people on the river at the time. There was only one steamboat, but there were other flatboats and keelboats. Some places they couldn't even see where the river belonged because the river and the ground had shifted so much.

Some local Indians naturally thought that the steamboat was responsible for the comet and the earthquake, along with various and other sundry problems of the time. In one sense they were right -- the New Orleans was a harbinger of the infestation of Europeans, who would subsequently boot the Indians into awful places such as Oklahoma.

Here's the story about the first steamboat voyage on the Mississippi, by Charles Joseph Latrobe:

Here's one that's a little less accurate by Nicholas's wife's brother, C.J.H. Latrobe:

Here's where New Madrid is:

New Madrid

About 200 moderate to large earthquakes occurred from December 1811 to March 1812 in the New Madrid seismic area. The biggest were in Arkansas on December 16 and in Missouri on January 23 and February 7.

The February 7 earthquake destroyed the town of New Madrid, with a magnitude of 7.9 to 8.8, depending on who you ask. It is the largest recorded earthquake in the lower 48 states.

Here's something from the New York Evening Post:

Russelville, (Ken.) Feb. 19
We have seen a statement made by a couple of gentlemen just from New Madrid, which says that that place is much torn to pieces by the late Earthquake; so much so, that it is "almost" impossible to get along in any way, but entirely so on horseback. The houses of brick, stone and log are torn to pieces, and those of frame thrown upon their sides. The ground near that place for 100 acres has sunk so low that the tops of the tallest trees can hardly be seen above the water; in other places more than half the length of the timber is under water. The citizens have fled to the mountains, and were, when the informants left there, waiting for an opportunity to move to Kentucky. It is said that they are near one-thousand in number! Merciful God! What a horrid situation.

Here's a first-hand account of the New Madrid earthquakes, by a guy who lived near Louisville:

Here are some newspaper reports:

The steamboat New Orleans did make it down the river to Natchez and New Orleans. A couple of years later, the New Orleans was tied up on the side of the Mississippi River overnight, and the water level dropped a foot or two. The steamboat ended up stuck on a tree stump, which punched through the hull and sank the boat.

On Sunday, 10th July, left New Orleans, and on Wednesday the 13th, arrived at Baton Route -- landed some cargo, and in the evening departed, and arrived at Mr. Clay's landing two miles above, on the opposite shore, the usual place of taking on wood; the night being dark and rainy, the captain considered it most prudent to secure the boat for the night. He then commenced taking in wood and repaired the machinery which had been disordered. After the wood was on board, he sounded all around and found plenty of water. She appeared to lay along side of a steep bank and from the apparent safety and security of the situation, all the passengers retired to rest, free from apprehension or fear of danger. Early in the morning, preparations were made for departing, and at daylight, the engine was put in motion, but the vessel would only swing round and could not be forced forward by the steam. The water had fallen during the night from sixteen to eighteen inches; the captain then concluded she had lodged on a stump and endeavored to push her off with spars against the bank, but without effect. He immediately satisfied himself it was a stump and found it by feeling with an oar, about fifteen or twenty feet aloft the wheel on the starboard side; he then ordered the wood thrown overboard, and got an anchor out of starboard quarter, and with the steam capstan hove her off, when she immediately sprung a leak, which increased so rapidly that time was only allowed to make fast again to shore, the passengers to escape with their baggage; and crew with assistance from shore, saved a great part of the cargo, when she sunk alongside the bank.
Pittsburgh Mercury, August 24, 1814.

Quake Predicting

In 1843 and 1895 there were earthquakes in the New Madrid seismic zone of 6.0 and 6.2.

In 1990, a guy named Iben with a PhD (in zoology) decided that another major earthquake was coming to the New Madrid area on December 3 of that year. He figured that tidal loading at certain latitudes would be extra high because the high tides occurred when the sun, earth, and moon were aligned just right, and this would cause the earthquake. The gravity of Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter were even mentioned in some reports. Most seismographicalologists, geologists, and natural philosophers knew this was bunk. Even I did, and I don't know much about earthquakes. Iben didn't mention why there had been no earthquake in 1964 and 1982 when the same tidal forces came into play.

But Iben got on TV and in the newspapers. Since there was a notable lack of terrorist hysteria at the time and it was far too early to worry about Y2K, people got worked up into an earthquake frenzy. They had earthquake parties, bought lots of survival gear such as duct tape and plastic bags, and even closed some schools on December 3.

The NY Times reported that Iben predicted the 1989 San Francisco earthquake a week in advance. He didn't, of course, but it made a good story.

Iben died in a few months later, July 18, 1991, from a heart attack.

Today, a guy named Vladimir and some others at UCLA are predicting earthquakes. They're not getting it down to the day, but they've been fairly successful (or lucky) at nailing them down to within a few months. They look for four major factors:

      1. Small earthquakes becoming more frequent in an area.
      2. Earthquakes becoming more clustered in time and space.
      3. Earthquakes occurring almost simultaneously over large distances in a region.
      4. More medium-magnitude earthquakes vs. small earthquakes.

The Library of Congress Online

I found the "Rambler in North America" at the Library of Congress site. It has a lot of historical papers online. It's really interesting to browse through.

Here's a good letter, written in about 1775:

This is the cover page of the book with the letter:

      Letters from a Farmer

Here's a story of some people who took a pack trip through Yosemite in about 1875.


Digital Ortho Quads are nice aerial images you can download from the USGS. You can also get 3D satellite data and lots of other maps from the same place. Finally the government is doing something I like!

Some people in the government are apparently afraid that terrorists, or worse, democrats, will get a bird's eye view of the Capitol building, so they fuzzed it up in their aerial images:


I think this is funny. Pictures like that are available lots of places. The Capitol and some surrounding office buildings, the Treasury building, the White House, the Old Executive Office Building, and the Naval Observatory are fuzzed up. The Supreme Court building (just to the right of the Capitol) was left untouched.

In unrelated news, the Supreme Court agreed to hear two cases that could embarrass the Bush administration -- the case of 16 foreigners accused of membership in al Qaeda or the Taliban who are detained at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and a case deciding whether the Constitution authorizes President Bush to order the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens captured abroad fighting for terrorist groups.

FAT Format

I mentioned a few days ago that Microsoft was licensing their FAT File format. Someone pointed out to me that the patents listed on Microsoft's web site apply to the use of long file names. All digital cameras I'm aware of use only the short filenames, 8.3 format.

Microsoft could be trying to bluff people. They say that they are charging 25 cents per copy for people to preformat the media in FAT format.

Mud Slinging

I think there's hardly anything as boring as a non-negative political ad. The problem is, it's considered bad form for one politician to call another a sorry, low-life, scheming, cheating liar. A good mud-slinging campaign can really improve politics. has come up with a solution. They came out with the "Bush in 30 Seconds" contest. People make their own ads and the best are put on the internet.

These are all anti-Bush. I hope someone does some anti-Democrat ads too. I could learn to enjoy political campaigns this way! Here are a couple of funny ones. They require Quick Time. Those Democrats use Macs, ya know.


All in all, I think I prefer to follow the real political campaigns:

VoIP Tapping

VoIP is "voice over Internet Protocol." Companies can use their wideband internet for long distance communication. The FBI doesn't like it because they can't tap VoIP conversations.

But don't worry... it won't last long. The FCC will probably require VoIP providers to provide wiretapping access. That way "criminals, terrorists, and spies" won't be able to communicate privately. And, of course, a warrant or court order won't be necessary for wiretapping VoIP.

Privacy fans say this isn't fair. Bush says fair has nothing to do with it. It's war.


The cause of Alzheimer's disease has probably been found: Television.

Actually, it's a protein called amyloid beta. Amyloid beta has been known to be in Alzheimer brains for quite a while, but they never knew if it was a cause, an effect, or unrelated. Now they've shown that it causes dementia in mice. And mouse brains, although intellectually superior to humans, operate in a similar manner. Maybe there's hope for me!

Banished Words

The Word Banishment Committee of prominent educational institution Lake Superior State U. of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan has released this year's banished words. The university has been banishing words, unsuccessfully, since 1976.

All Canadians are Terrorists

Another story about how the U.S. narrowly avoided a terrorist attack from Canada.

Free Speech Zones.

A 65-year-old guy named Bill went to see President in Pittsburgh. He took a sign with him that said, "The Bush family must surely love the poor, they made so many of us."

The local police, under direction of the Secret Service, ordered everybody along the motorcade path with anti-Bush signs into a Free Speech Zone, a baseball field inside a chain-link fence, 1/3 of a mile from the speech site.

Bill didn't think that was fair, because they let everybody with pro-Bush signs stay. So he stayed. And he was arrested for disorderly conduct. And the police took his sign.

In St. Petersburg a couple of years ago, three people, two of them grandmothers, were arrested for holding up small handwritten signs outside the free speech zone.

Seven people were arrested for holding up signs at the USF Sun Dome. They had refused move to the protest area hundreds of yards from the entrance of the Sun Dome.

Similar things happened in St. Louis, Columbia, SC and at a Boeing plant somewhere.

The Secret Service says the policy is to protect the President, and that politics and publicity have nothing to do with it.

All this comes from the, so it's possible it could be stretched and/or slanted just a bit. But even if it's partially correct, this behavior seems way out of line to me. The free speech zone is supposed to be contained by the U.S. border.

Secret Court Cases

It's not unusual to have closed court hearings and sealed evidence, but they've been having secret federal court cases in Miami. That seems pretty strange to me.,0,2167647.story

Microsoft and the Israeli Rebels

The Israeli government stopped buying Microsoft software, at least for a while. Microsoft had refused to sell Office components separately. Then, when Israel told them to forget it, Microsoft said, "We were just joking, you can buy what you want."

But Israel said, "No, thanks."

Didn't another computer company have some problems with unbundling about 25 years ago?

Microsoft did agree to keep supporting Windows 98 and Windows ME for a couple more years. They were supposed to stop support on those products Friday. To most people, that means the security updates will keep coming for a couple more years. At least Windows 98 and ME are not as susceptible to viruses and trojans as Windows XP.

Now, Microsoft has agreed to support Windows 98, 98se, and ME through June 2006.


Two volcanoes on Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula are erupting.


Klyuchevskaya is the mountain in the lower left of this picture. It's been sending ash 50 meters high. 1500 meter plumes of ash have been coming off Shiveluch, near the top center of this picture. Shiveluch is one of the regions largest and most active volcanoes. It just ended a two-year eruption last year.


Kodak is going to stop selling film cameras in the U.S., except for the disposables. Digital is taking over.

Odyssey Launch

Last Saturday, the Telstar 14/Estrela do Sul 1 satellite was launched from the Odyssey Launch Platform at 154° west longitude on the equator. About half the satellite's bandwidth will be used for Brazil, and most of the rest will be used by "Connexion by Boeing" to  support internet-to-aircraft internet service.

Here's the rollout and erection of the rocket on the launch pad.

And the launch!

      esd_t14_tall      esd_t14_wide

Pictures of Today!

An A-10 pilot inspects the AGM-65G Maverick missile on his A-10 "Warthog", Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, Jan. 7, 2004:


The spiral galaxy NGC 3370.


The Sombrero galaxy, M104.


A Martian landscape, from the Spirit spacecraft.


Here is the full, hi-res panorama (7 megabytes):


A new Boeing 767 Tanker that's had a bit of controversy lately. This is a beta test version.


An aviator on take-off:


Speed kills! This picture has not been doctored -- the speed limit is really 17 mph!


Wood and snow.

      pict0651      pict0663

On the Ten Mile Range, Colorado

      pict0705      pict0710      pict0719

Overdue aspen leaves


Standing lenticular clouds


Gray Weather

      pict0749      pict0754


Funny looking cows, east of Grand Junction, CO.

      pict0795      pict0797

Utah in the snow.

      pict0822      pict0824      pict0836

      pict0841      pict0900      pict0902

      pict0904      pict0930      pict0933

      pict0949      pict0951      pict0952


The newest house in Watson, Utah

      pict0866      pict0868

Legal Notice

(^) 1811, no rights reserved. Unauthorized duplication, reproduction, republication, or replication of this fine literary attempt, in whole or in part, electronic or otherwise, is fine with me.

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