The Unusual Pluto-Charon Binary Orbit

Pluto Animation - Click for Full SizeThe New Horizons spacecraft is just two months away from Pluto, so I find myself checking online compulsively for photographs. As of now, they are still pretty crummy: it’s still just about ten pixels on a side. I know: it’s small, it’s dark. But I’m excited. I’ve been waiting close to fifty years to get a good look at this over-hyped piece of space debris. I would think that we would get better and better pictures each day. But instead, I assume they aren’t taking pictures all the time because it takes power and they want to save as much of that as they can. The picture there on the left is about the best we have, which dates from last month.

But I learned something really interesting from an article by Alan Stern, Pluto: The Last Picture Show. Pluto and its relatively large moon Charon constitute an actual binary system. Now up until now, I’ve always been bugged by this term. The reason is that all planets with a single moon are technically binary systems. Take, for example, the Earth and Moon. The Moon does not orbit around the Earth. Rather, both the Earth and Moon orbit around the center of mass of the two objects. (Actually, it is far more complicated than that because technically, every other object in the universe is effecting the orbit — but don’t worry about that.)

With the Earth and Moon, the system is so dominated by the Earth that the center of mass is inside the Earth. The Moon has a mass of only a bit more than 1% of that of the Earth. But they are far apart: roughly 400,000 km. That puts the center of mass about 2,000 km inside the surface of the Earth. Charon, in contrast, is really large compared to Pluto: almost 12% its mass. On the other hand, it is close to Pluto: less than 20,000 km, or 20 times closer than the Moon is to Earth. But this puts the center of mass about one Pluto radius above the surface of the dwarf planet. That’s why you see Pluto in the image above moving in a circle. The same kind of image of the earth would show the same kind of thing, but the Earth would just be circling around itself — displaced, not really orbiting.

I don’t actually know of any other pair of objects in our solar system that exhibit this behavior. The truth is that the Moon with 1.2% of the mass of the Earth is highly unusual. Moons are usually far smaller than the planets that they orbit. For example, Phobos is just 0.00000002 times the mass of Mars. So the fact that Pluto managed to grab onto something as large as Charon is incredible. Of course, it probably was not the case that Charon was just sailing past and got captured by Pluto. It might be something more like how the Earth and Moon formed with a collision that resulted in two bodies. Or something else entirely.

Alan Stern summed up my feelings about this whole thing, “So, we’re just two months out — it’s nearly show time. What will we find? Not to tweak you, but I don’t know. No one does. That’s what makes this distant exploration so very exciting, so suspenseful, and so wonderful!” The truth is that we know surprisingly little about Pluto. And in just two months, New Horizons is going to come within 10,000 km of Pluto. That’s closer than Charon ever gets to the dwarf planet. It ought to be very exciting indeed!

The Psychopathic Army Choice

CalvaryI’ve always felt there’s something inherently psychopathic about joining the army in peacetime. As far as I’m concerned, people join the army to find out what its like to kill someone. I hardly think that’s an inclination that should be encouraged in modern society, do you? Jesus Christ didn’t think so, either. And the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” does not have an asterisk beside it, referring you to the bottom of the page where you find a list of instances where it’s okay to kill people.

—Father James
In Calvary

Omar Khadr and America’s Sick Torture Program

Omar KhadrWhat do creepy pseudo-sexual torture and Micky Mouse have in common? They are both results of the creative American mind! Those two sides of America came together in the case of Omar Khadr. He is Canadian, but his father took him to Afghanistan where he made the boy a soldier for al-Qaeda when he was just 15 years old. At 16, he was captured by US special forces. He was eventually sent to Guantanamo where he was sadistically tortured — apparently because the 16 year old boy was one of the “bad guys,” rather than a victim of war. If you want to know the gory details of the sick American mind that we have institutionalized, read Jeff Tietz’s Rolling Stone article, The Unending Torture of Omar Khadr. But you don’t want to know.

Max Fisher at Vox provides the relatively good recent news, The US Tortured a Child Soldier at Gitmo for Years. On Thursday, He Won His Freedom. But before getting to that, let me highlight one bit of torture that backfired:

Army Chaplain James Yee was assigned to Guantanamo, where he was surprised to find Khadr, an English-speaking boy, among the prison’s population. Yee later told the journalist Michelle Shephard that he would sometimes see Khadr reading a book of Disney cartoons. An interrogator had presented the book to Khadr during an interrogation, intending it as an insult. In fact, Khadr had been delighted.

I think it is really interesting that our official American torturer thought that giving Khadr a Disney comic book would be an insult. The torturer had apparently so dehumanized Khadr in his own mind that he couldn’t see that he was dealing with a boy — a child — someone who would delight in the playful antics of Mickey Mouse and Goofy. You cannot dehumanize other people; you can only dehumanize yourself; we have done so much to dehumanize ourselves in our efforts to dehumanize “the evildoers.”

Mickey MouseEventually, Khadr pleaded guilty to something that he apparently didn’t do so that the United States government could save face and so Khadr could be transferred to the Canadian government. As an American, that makes me feel so ashamed. I’ve been arguing about this for years, but it still stabs at me. As a child, I was taught that one of the reasons that America was great was that we, unlike other countries, didn’t torture people. I’m sure that wasn’t even true then. Regardless, now we know: (1) that we do torture; (2) that we do it in ways that show we have sick sexual fetishes; and (3) that we do it to children.

Omar Khadr is currently out on bail in Canada — living with his lawyer and his wife. He is currently appealing his guilty plea with the United States. We’ll see what happens to that. Clearly, the plea was coerced. But I doubt that the United States will ever admit to that. As it is, media outlets like NPR still won’t refer to the things that were done to Khadr, and so many others, as “torture.” No, we must continue the charade that only the bad guys torture. And since the United States is by definition not the bad guys, nothing it ever does qualifies as torture — especially when it is done to 16 year old boys.

Obama’s TPP Argument From Authority

Obama Wall StreetPresident Obama is acting more and more like a drunk friend who is embarrassing himself in public. I want to put an arm around him and get him safely home before he can hurt anyone or embarrass himself any more. Most recently, he was talking to Matt Bai, Why Obama Is Happy to Fight Elizabeth Warren on the Trade Deal. Bai said, “Senator Warren said this week this pact could be used to roll back Dodd-Frank, which is closed to your heart…” The president interrupted him before he could finish, saying, “She’s totally wrong.” He went on to say, “The notion that I had this massive fight with Wall Street to make sure that we don’t repeat what happened in 2007, 2008. And then I sign a provision that would unravel it? I’d have to be pretty stupid”

Massive fight with Wall Street? I don’t remember that. About the worst thing that I remember Obama doing against Wall Street was saying that some of them were “fat cats.” We could start by noting that Dodd-Frank itself, while an improvement, is still pretty weak tea. But I can’t remembering two things about Obama and Wall Street. The first is that Wall Street was among his biggest backers in 2008. The second is that he bailed out Wall Street while allowing home owners to just dangle. As Roger Hodge put it in The Mendacity of Hope, “TARP participants were asked to fill out a simple two-page form, several orders of magnitude less complex and less onerous than an application for unemployment insurance or food stamps.” So “Obama: Wall Street Slayer” is at best the figment of his imagination, or just a pretty story that he thinks he can get over on the rest of us.

Dean Baker has a deeper memory than I do, In Arguing for TPP President Obama Gets Carried Away in Resting on His Credentials as a Foe of Wall Street. He adds six specific examples:

  1. He has not sought the criminal prosecution of any executives at major banks for issuing or securitizing fraudulent mortgages, nor against executives at credit rating agencies for knowingly granting investment grade ratings to securities containing large numbers of improper or fraudulent mortgages.
  2. He opposed the Brown-Kauffman bill, which would have broken up the big banks.
  3. He did nothing to push cram-down legislation in Congress, which would have required banks to write-down the value of some underwater mortgages to the current market value of the home.
  4. He supported the stripping of the Franken Amendment from Dodd-Frank. This amendment (which was approved by a large bi-partisan majority in the Senate) would have eliminated the conflict of interest faced by bond-rating agencies by having the Securities and Exchange Commission, rather than the issuer, pick the rating agency. (The line from opponents was that the SEC might send over unqualified analysts. Think about that one for a while.)
  5. He only began to push the Volcker rule as a political move to shore up support the day after Republican Scott Brown won an upset election for a Senate seat in Massachusetts.
  6. The administration had to be pushed by labor and consumer groups to keep a strong and independent consumer financial protection bureau in Dodd-Frank.

I’m starting to get a really bad taste in my mouth regarding Obama’s recent TPP tour. He’s begun to sound just like the caricature of conservative lore. He’s the smart guy who knows what’s going on and all the little people just need to follow along. It isn’t necessary to see the see what’s going on with the man behind the curtain: just focus on the Great and Powerful Obama.

Right now, I don’t so much want to take Obama home as punch him in the stomach. Anything to shut him up. When any politician tells you to trust them while not allowing you to see what they are doing, the Scarecrow’s reaction is the right one, “You humbug!”

Morning Music: Stéphane Grappelli

Stéphane GrappelliWill sent me a French language documentary about Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli. I’m very fond of them both, but I must admit to being more of a fan of Reinhardt, even though my understanding is that it was Grappelli who really influenced Reinhardt. Sadly, there isn’t much on YouTube featuring Reinhardt. Part of the problem is that he died so young. Grappelli lived to be almost 90 years old, and he was performing almost to the end.

I remember my first introduction to Grappelli. I was at a garage sale and there was Paul Simon for one dollar. This must have been around 1980. I had never been much of a Simon and Garfunkel fan. But that first Paul Simon solo album was something entirely different. And on that album was an instrumental, “Hobo’s Blues” with Simon on guitar and Grappelli on violin. It was my first indication that those French had something special to offer.

Here is a nice international trio: Martin Taylor on guitar from England, Jon Burr on bass from America, and Stéphane Grappelli on violin from you know where. And they are playing in Australia. And they are doing the Rodgers and Hart classic, “Blue Moon.”

Anniversary Post: Alcoholics Anonymous

Alcoholics Anonymous PropagandaOn this day in 1935 — Exactly 80 years ago! — the two most famous drunks in history met and formed the most successful cult in American history. Those two drunks were, of course, Bill Wilson and Dr Bob Smith. I don’t think these guys really meant to do evil in the world. But that’s what they did. Rather than approach alcohol addiction as a health or social problem, they approached it as a religious problem. They explicitly when back to the Oxford Group — a movement of people who considered themselves sinners and who wanted to purify themselves. This is where the vaunted “Twelve Steps” comes from.

If you’ve spent any time actually reading the official AA discussion of the Twelve Steps, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, you will find just how arbitrary they are. While reading the book, about halfway through the steps I had a sudden realization: it was a first draft. You probably know the experience of writing an essay, being about a thousand words in, and realizing that you are making exactly the opposite argument you started out making. It’s a profound experience: discovery through writing. But Bill Wilson and his followers didn’t do that. They just forged ahead, contorting their arguments more and more to get to the end without having to rethink the system.

A Orange (who has written more thoroughly about AA than anyone I know of) wrote, “Those statements imply that the original members of AA looked long and hard for something, anything, that would work to save alcoholics from self-destruction, anything to break the cycle of addiction, and that the Twelve Steps were what finally worked for those pioneering alcoholics.” But that, of course, is not what happened at all. “The truth is that a newly-sober alcoholic named William Griffith [Bill] Wilson — a down-on-his-luck former Wall Street hustler who put on airs of having once been a prosperous stock broker — just sat down, in December of 1938, and wrote up twelve commandments for the new religious group that he and fellow alcoholics Doctor Robert Smith and Clarence Snyder had started.”

None of this would matter, of course, if AA and the Twelve Steps actually worked. But they don’t. In fact, AA uses a kind of tautology, “It works if you work it!” So to them, people stay sober as long as they go to meetings. But the correlation clearly works the other way around: only people who are sober go to meetings. And, at this point, the vast majority of people who go to meetings do so only because they are forced to by the criminal justice system. If it weren’t for this, I doubt the group would attract 10% of its current members.

The other side of this is that Hollywood has pushed AA in a big way. You think Scientology is the biggest cult of Hollywood? No way! It’s AA! And make no mistake: AA is a cult. Some have claimed that it isn’t, because it doesn’t have a charismatic leader. But that is a misunderstanding of the movement. Bill Wilson (“Bill W”) of legend is that figure. He’s the one who wrote the Twelve Steps and they are consecrated. No one is allowed to say, “You know, that ninth step may not be such a good idea. Most people don’t like ex-druggies dragging them into their own little trips.” No. The Twelve Steps are perfect. They can never be questioned, just as the divinity of Jesus cannot be questioned. AA is a cult.

The only credible research I’ve read on AA’s effectiveness found two things. First, it found that AA was exactly as good as nothing in terms of how long it kept people off drugs. Second, it found that people in AA had relapse episodes that were roughly three times as long as those who were not involved in the program. That’s not too surprising. Consider first that AA tells addicts that they are powerless. But even more important, if you fall off the wagon, you know you are going to have to go back to the group and tell them what a terrible sinner you are. I know that would make me keep using for as long as possible.

AA is a great pox on our society — a kind of court mandated torture used on people who like drugs too much. And it has been harming our society for 80 years.