Older blog entries for kelly (starting at number 427)

13 Jan 2011 (updated 14 Jan 2011 at 02:10 UTC) »

Ophiuchus, the 13th Astrological Sign?

I heard today about some noise that's going around about how astrologers have added a new sign to the zodiac, and how this changes everything or some such nonsense. It's sadly fascinating to see stuff like this, because it really exposes the degree to which the Internet has not only not made people less ignorant, but in fact increased the rate at which ignorance spreads. Apparently even Time Magazine is in on this nonsense, based apparently on a press release from the Minnesota Planetarium Society.

Here's the real story.

The ancient Babylonians divided the year into 12 segments, the Babylonians being fond of the number 12 (and also the number 60), and gave names to star groupings that corresponded to each of those twelve segments, enabling them to observe the sky and determine where in the year one was, a very useful skill in a place where the timing of planting is important. The zodiac has exactly twelve equal divisions because that's how it was constructed. It's a human construct, with no natural meaning whatsoever; basically a bookkeeping device. The leading edge of Aries, the first sign of the zodiac, arbitrarily corresponds to the position that the sun is in in the sky on the vernal equinox, the first day of Spring, which is anciently the first day of the year. The key point is that a "sign of the zodiac" is one of twelve equal divisions of the solar year. (These are not to be confused with months, which are anciently defined by the moon's cycle.)

There are, of course, other asterisms in the sky, such as the Great Bear (Ursa Major) and Orion, which are well known to most people but which are not part of the zodiac because they are not in or near to the plane of the ecliptic, the path the sun takes on its apparent annual cycle through the sky. Now let's fast forward to 1922, when the International Astronomical Union (IAU) formally adopted its constellation map, dividing the celestial sphere into 88 named chunks of astronomical real estate. In so doing, they largely kept the traditional Western names for these asterisms (although some of the Southern hemisphere constellations have modern names because those asterisms were not visible to the Babylonians and so they never named them), but the boundaries they settled on did not take into consideration the Babylonian origins of the signs of the zodiac or their astrological significance. As a result of their lack of concern, the ecliptic ended up passing through not twelve constellations (as it would had they remained faithful to their Babylonian predecessors) but indeed thirteen, and the division is not even remotely equal. The thirteenth is Ophiuchus, the Serpentbearer; the ecliptic passes through one corner of the constellation's defined area, although not particularly close to any major star in the constellation. The key point here is that a constellation is one of 88 (unequal) divisions of the celestial sphere.

The thing is, this isn't new. Astrologers and astronomers alike have known about Ophiuchus' intrusion on the zodiac since, presumably, 1922. Some astrologers think this matters; others don't. I've seen complete astrological systems based on the Ophiuchus being part of the zodiac, and I've seen so-called "sidereal" astrologies that take into account precession, which I talk about below. The ones that don't are called "tropical", for some reason I don't recall anymore. Diehard skeptics, of the sort who have a compulsive need to prove astrology wrong, often trot the Ophiuchuan issue forward as "proof" of the wrongness of astrology, along with the precession issue, and it's quite likely that the press release that started all this was motivated by that attitude. Astrology, like all forms of divination, involves the use of essentially randomly-generated symbols to spur self-reflection. The symbols used and their correlations are basically arbitrary; as a result, whether the symbols correspond to anything "real" or not is completely irrelevant. You'll get essentially the same results from astrology using the classical Babylonian/Greco-roman zodiac as you will with using this not-really-new 13-sign approach. Or you can play with Vedic astrology from India if you want something completely different, although the cultural context there may be too foreign for most Westerners to get much from it. Or not. Whatever floats your boat.

In addition, there's an additional complication. The Sun's position on the first day of spring, which originally defined the leading edge of Aries, as I mentioned above, is no longer in Aries. The axis of the Earth's rotation precesses in a cycle of about 26,000 years, causing the apparent position of the Sun against the celestial background to make a full cycle around the sky over that 26,000 year cycle. We're a couple thousand years into the cycle that was started when the leading edge of Aries was defined as the vernal equinox, and as a result the Sun is actually in Pisces on the first day of Spring. In about five hundred years, it'll be in the constellation of Aquarius on the first day of Spring, and according to most astrologers it's already in the sidereal sign of Aquarius, which is the origin of the popular phrase "Age of Aquarius". However, the astrological sign of Aries always starts on the first day of Spring, because that's how it's defined; where the Sun is against the stars in the sky simply isn't part of that definition. The Babylonians almost certainly didn't know about precession of the equinoxes.

Fundamentally the error here is with the Minnesota Planetarium Society, who has unnecessarily (and likely willfully) conflated the astronomical concept of "constellation" with the astrological concept of "sign". A constellation is not a sign, even though there is a historical relationship between two, and in fact twelve of the constellations have the same names as the twelve signs. The IAU did not, in 1922, create a thirteenth sign of the zodiac when it decided to define Ophiuchus to include a bit of the ecliptic. Unless, of course, you decide that you want that to be the case, in which case they did—but only for you.

So if you're a fan of traditional astrology, you can go on using it the way you always have, without worrying about this. It doesn't matter. On the other hand, if you want to worry about it, you can do that too. Just don't lose any sleep over it; that would be foolish indeed. As I mentioned, astrology is an entirely human creation, as are the astronomical names for the asterisms, and these definitions and symbolisms can be changed by humans whenever they want, but only if they want to, and not just because some "skeptic" demands it of them.

Addendum: Apparently AOL's article on this nonsense suggests that the Babylonians deliberately skipped Ophiuchus because "they wanted there to be 12 signs". This claim ignores reality, which is part of the basis of my rant on the Internet being used to spread ignorance. Ophiuchus is certainly near the ecliptic (and there is evidence that Greek and Roman astrologers even read some significance into this, treating the sun's near-passage to a bright star in the asterism as a meaningful event), but the fact remains that the zodiac is defined to have twelve signs in it. The modern fictitious "discovery" of a "thirteenth sign" is merely a consequence of the modern definition of the constellations and has nothing to do with the Babylonians.

Syndicated 2011-01-13 22:21:00 (Updated 2011-01-14 01:15:29) from Kelly Martin

The Alphabet, According to Google

I did this back in September, when "instant search" became available on Google.  Basically I typed each letter in and noted the first result.

A is for "Amazon"
B is for "Best Buy"
C is for "Craigslist"
D is for "Dictonary"
E is for "Ebay"
F is for "Facebook"
G is for "Gmail"
H is for "Hotmail"
I is for "Ikea"
J is for "Jewel"
K is for "Kohls"
L is for "Lowes"
M is for "Mapquest"
N is for "Netflix"
O is for "Orbitz"
P is for "Pandora"
Q is for "Quotes"
R is for "Ravinia"
S is for "Sears"
T is for "Target"
U is for "UPS"
V is for "Verizon"
W is for "Weather"
X is for "XBox"
Y is for "Yahoo"
Z is for "Zappos"

Syndicated 2010-12-09 03:49:00 (Updated 2010-12-09 03:49:39) from Kelly Martin

Nicki Minaj, Food Network, Turkey and Black Friday: hot topics for November 26, 2010

I took Thanksgiving off from the blog, it being Thanksgiving, and there wasn't a lot of movement on the hot list since my last post on Tuesday; just the same topics jockeying about.  However, today there's several new ones, most of them variations on "Black Friday".  Black Friday is, of course, the colloquialism for the first day after Thanksgiving, traditionally considered the first day of the Christmas shopping season, although these days that starts around the middle of October now.  Black Friday first started showing up back on November 4th, but the term has been increasingly prominent and appearing in more variations over the past week or so.  Best Buy, the electronics retailer, is the first name to pop up; not surprising as their portfolio likely matches best with the interests of internetoholics.

Turkey and the Food Network no doubt both pop up because of Thanksgiving itself and its tradition of gorging ourselves on turkey and other such foods.  Although it's now after the fact, I recommend brining your turkey; Alton Brown has a good recipe.

The odd one out (that is, a topic not apparently related to Thanksgiving) is Nicki Minaj, apparently a pink-haired rapper from either Jamaica or Queens.  (The pink hair is apparently a wig.)  The only interesting thing about her that she seems to be claiming to be bisexual in order to get media attention (or appear sexier) then subsequently denying that she's bisexual to avoid controversy.  Most of her gossip-rag media attention (other than the present week, which appears related to an album release) seems centered on speculation about her orientation.  The consensus appears to be that she's a "fauxmosexual": fundamentally straight, but willing to act otherwise because that creates buzz and sells records.  Whatever; I've already learned way more about this whole cluster of concepts than I ever cared to.

Syndicated 2010-11-26 19:36:00 (Updated 2010-11-26 19:37:04) from Kelly Martin

The TSA: Hot topic for November 22, 2010

After a weekend of the same old topics jockeying about (the only one new one to show up was Erin Barry, who is just another player in the petty drama that I mentioned on Friday), a completely new term showed up late last night. And for once it's actually a matter of some real significance: the TSA, or Transportation Security Agency.  The TSA is in the news lately because of John Tyner's now-famous "Don't touch my junk!" ultimatum, issued in San Diego to TSA agents who decided he needed a "pat-down".  His outrage has led to a groundswell of complaints and commentary regarding TSA screening practices and made the TSA the whipping boy of the day.

And to be fair, the TSA deserves it.  Current US airport security practices were never really calculated to stop determine terrorists.  Their main intention was always to increase the general anxiety of the American public about foreign terrorism, in order to perpetuate the need for such invasive practices.  This was done for two reasons: one, to make Americans more complacent about having their privacy, and right to travel freely, shredded, and two, to create revenue for the companies that manufacture and sell security solutions.  The actual practices used are designed to be extremely visible; that they're annoying just adds to the effect because it just adds to the visibility and thus keeps public anxiety at a high.  That they're almost completely ineffective (either as designed or as implemented) in actually stopping a determined terrorist is, quite simply, irrelevant; that was never their purpose anyway.  This is "security theatre", plain and simple: the government is pretending to provide security as a cover for what it's really doing, which is eroding your rights a bit at a time, and hoping you won't notice because you're too scared to care.

There is now an Internet-organized boycott of TSA body scanners scheduled for this Wednesday, which is (because of the Thanksgiving holiday) anticipated to be the busiest travel day of the year.  The government has already whined about this, urging people not to participate in the boycott because it would create delays at airports.  That is, I imagine, the point.

Oh, and for those of you who think you'll just travel by train: Amtrak passengers are subject to security screenings too.  For now these aren't as intrusive as those mandated by the TSA at airports, but that could change at any time.  TSA has authority over Amtrak and can, at any time, change the regulations for riding on the nation's passenger trains, as well.

Syndicated 2010-11-22 16:39:00 (Updated 2010-11-22 16:39:20) from Kelly Martin

20 Nov 2010 (updated 22 Nov 2010 at 16:14 UTC) »

Tony Parker: Hot topic for November 19, 2010

Today's only new item is Tony Parker, a basketball player who is in the spotlight apparently because he was caught sending sexually explicit text messages ("sexting") to the wife of another player (whose name is apparently Erin Barry).  This seems to have come out in the context of his divorce, which is, of course, totally unsurprising.

I'm sure this sort of thing goes on all the time, and this is only making the news now because it involves both a basketball player (Parker) of some repute and also a television celebrity: his soon-to-be ex-wife is Eva Longoria, who is apparently somehow involved in Desparate Housewives, which I understand is a TV show of some fame.  Ok, whatever: two people who are famous for things I don't generally pay attention to.

Oh well, I suppose the masses need their opiates.

Syndicated 2010-11-19 23:37:00 (Updated 2010-11-22 15:47:47) from Kelly Martin

Kate Middleton, Emma Watson and Four Loko: Hot topics for November 18, 2010

Three new items today, this time from an upcoming movie (Emma Watson), an upcoming royal wedding (Kate Middleton), and an energy drink (Four Loko).

Emma Watson presumably shows up because of her appearance as Hermione Granger in the upcoming Harry Potter movie.  I haven't been able to bring myself to read the HP books: first, I am still peeved at Rowling for going after fan websites for "copyright infringement", but more importantly, from what I have read in excerpt and in summary, I just don't like her sort of writing.  She breaks at least some of Lawrence Watt-Evans' laws of fantasy; at the very least the second, fifth, and sixth.  As far as I can tell, in her books magic is used almost entirely as a macguffin to advance the plot or to create a desired effect, rather than being an integral and necessary part of the fabric of the universe against which the characters interact.  (Contrast the role of magic in LWE's Ethshar books, which I adore, or in his equally excellent Dragon trilogy.)  I also don't like the racist and classist overtones in her writing.  Also, like so many fantasy novelists, I have caught the glimmer of what I call "superman disease": as a series like this progresses the main characters become increasingly powerful, with experience and time, forcing their opponents to be equally inflated so as to make for interesting conflicts.  This typically results in each book ending with some massive conflagration, only to be outdone in the next book by an even more massive conflagration.  (This does make for good movie material, admittedly.)  For another example of this, see Raymond Feist's Riftwar saga, although I think he did well in recovering from that with the later Serpentwar saga, set many years later with entirely new primary characters.  Avoiding this basically requires the author to create a complete and consistent universe in which many stories with different characters can be set; this is far harder than just creating a handful of characters and just enough of a universe for them to move around in.  Another reason I like Lawrence Watt-Evans. 

Kate Middleton is, for those who don't follow the British royalty, Prince William's recently-announced fianceé.  Royal-watching is not one of my major pastimes, but apparently both the dress she wore and the ring William gave her are hot items on the "celebrity replicas" market.  Ok, whatever. 

The last item, Four Loko, is of somewhat more interest: it's one of those caffeinated alcoholic beverages that the FDA has been going after of late.  Four Loko is apparently the first such beverage to be decaffeinated in response to the FDA's effective ban on the addition of caffeine to malt liquor beverages.  One has to wonder if this will also apply to Cuba Libres or to Irish coffee.  Then again I don't think anyone sells a premixed Cuba Libre or Irish coffee (nor would I want to drink such a thing), and besides those are made using distilled spirits instead of malt liquor.  Frankly I find energy drinks revolting; while I have no problems with caffeine (I have three or four cups of rather strong coffee a day, and also occasionally drink Mountain Dew or Pepsi when I can find the 'throwback' formulation made with sugar instead of corn syrup), one of either guarana or taurine (I know not which) has a flavor which is nearly vomit-inducing for me.  So I'm not going to cry any tears over the loss of these products.

Syndicated 2010-11-18 17:24:00 (Updated 2010-11-18 17:32:36) from Kelly Martin

16 Nov 2010 (updated 18 Nov 2010 at 18:11 UTC) »

Manny Pacquiao and Skyline: Hot topics for November 16, 2010

Today brought two new items to the top ten list: Manny Pacquiao (a boxer) and Skyline (a movie).

I'm a bit annoyed to be writing about a boxer or about a boxing match.  And so I won't.  You want to find out r Frankly I think boxing is just about the most barbaric of the competitive sports we still engage in, even more so than American football, and would be quite happy to see it go away entirely.  Boxing was a far higher profile event when I was younger; I think Mike Tyson did a lot to make the sport disrespectable.  Which, to be frank, I'm quite entirely happy with.  I will admit when I first saw the search term ("Pacquiao v. Margarito") my first thought was "Is a pacquiao some sort of new cocktail?"  But that would have been "margarita".  My bad.

The other rising item today is Skyline, which is apparently a low-budget alien invasion movie.  MTV doesn't seem to think much of Skyline: not good enough to be good, and not bad enough to be good for being bad.  I'm almost as uninvolved in movies as I am in sports, so I won't be seeing this one.  This is another one where I wasn't able to predict what the search was for; I was kind of hoping it would have been for the chili, but again my hopes were dashed.

Syndicated 2010-11-16 13:47:00 (Updated 2010-11-18 17:28:52) from Kelly Martin

Applebee's: Hot topic for November 14, 2010

There was nothing new yesterday (which is good because I was busy) and only one rising topic today: Applebee's.  Best I can tell this is because Applebee's offered free food to veterans on Veteran's Day.  Fairly nice of them, even if Applebee's food is some of the most uninteresting food on the planet.  I haven't been in an Applebee's in probably ten years; in general I tend to disprefer chain restaurants, favoring instead to eat at unique local establishments.

In other news, I'm working on a ham radio FAQ based mainly on the searches that I see hitting this blog.  Not sure how "frequent" these questions are, but anyway.

Syndicated 2010-11-14 16:53:00 (Updated 2010-11-14 16:53:33) from Kelly Martin

Keith Olbermann, Cam Newton, and Wiz Khalifa: Hot topics for November 12, 2010

Once again today, there are four new rising topics today.  One of them, Veteran's Day, is out of date (having been yesterday), but didn't show up until today presumably because of the seven day sampling window.  Also showing up today for the first time (that I've noticed, at least) are MSNBC political opinion journalist Keith Olbermann, Auburn college football player Cam Newton, and rapper Wiz Khalifa.

Keith Olbermann's appearance in the rising topics comes later than I would have expected (but again, consider the seven day sampling window) after his suspension last Friday (and almost immediate reinstatement) for the offense of donating to Democratic political campaigns.  I think the best headline I saw in connection to this was "News flash: Keith Olbermann might be a Democrat!"  Anyone who hadn't figured that out by now had to be entirely dense.  MSNBC also apparently didn't realize that people would notice that they let Joe Scarborough get away with making donations in previous years.  In any case, Olbermann is so transparently partisan that there's no risk that anyone could reasonably suggest that this somehow impacts his "impartiality" as an opinion journalist.  Boner move, MSNBC.

Cam Newton is a college football player at Auburn who is apparently the focus of a scandal involving paid recruitment, which is a major no-no in the college football world, even though I suspect nearly every big-name college skirts, evades, circumvents, or just outright ignores the rules in this area.  College football is big money, and the big-name colleges (like Auburn) spend a great deal of money on getting the best players so they can get even more money from the businesses who want to use them as walking billboards to drive sheeplike fans to buy merchandise they don't need.  College football exploits the players, creates incentives for colleges to make decisions that don't favor academics or the social interests of their students, and has all sorts of disproportionate impacts on women.  And with all the recent information on football causing serious, irreversible brain damage, I think it's really time that we reconsider the merits of this "pastime" as a national obsession.

The third rising item today is for yet another bad-boy rapper getting arrested; today's lucky winner is Wiz Khalifa, who was arrested in North Carolina for possession of marijuana on his tour bus.  Frankly I don't care if a rapper does pot in his bus, and I don't see why North Carolina should care, either.  But if you're a prosecuting attorney, and you can nail a high-profile out-of-state bad boy with an easy bust, hey, go for it.  It makes getting reelected easier.

Syndicated 2010-11-12 18:21:00 (Updated 2010-11-12 18:21:10) from Kelly Martin

NYC Marathon, Conan O'Brian, Zenyatta, and the Dallas Cowboys: Hot topics for November 11, 2010

I haven't posted one of these in a few days because there haven't been any new rising terms, just the same ones as previous days, with some permutations in the order.  But today were have four new ones.

The Dallas Cowboys are presumably up because they recently fired their coach, but also possibly because they forgot to renew their domain name.  Oops.

Conan's up because his new show on TBS premiered on Monday.  Conan has became something of a folk hero, especially on the Internet, after NBC gave him the Tonight Show, then ripped it away from him after their ill-considered experiment of putting Leno in prime time predictably backfired.

Zenyatta, meanwhile, is a horse.  And apparently not just any horse; this horse had a 19-race unbeaten streak before coming in second by a head in the Breeders' Cup Classic on Saturday.  Reportedly she's being sent to pasture to be bred with an "as-yet-undetermined" stallion.  I fully expected Zenyatta to be the name of yet another celebrity musician or performer; her being a horse wasn't high on my expectations.

The fastest rising term for today, though, is for the NYC Marathon.  It seems odd to me that it should be rising so aggressively now that we're now four days out from the actual event (it was run on Sunday), but the seven day averaging window often means that a single-day spike won't show up for several days.  I think marathons are a bit silly (to me running is something you do to get away from bears, not something you do for the sheer sake of it), but to each their own.  In any case, I have to admit being rather impressed with Edison Pena, who managed to finish the marathon (in six hours, a firmly respectable time) only a few weeks after being hauled out of a collapsed mine in Chile.

Syndicated 2010-11-11 16:56:00 (Updated 2010-11-11 16:56:41) from Kelly Martin

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