On Gary Johnson

Former governor of New Mexico and best of all possible candidates for the Republican nomination for president Gary Johnson was so thoroughly and systematically excluded from the nomination process that he dropped out of it. This is disappointing on a number of fronts, one being Johnson’s decision to instead seek the Libertarian nomination. This decision in particular has caused a great deal of consternation among those of us who supported Johnson enthusiastically as a Republican and who also recognize the substantial cultural threat the Libertarian Party poses to the cause of liberty in America. Consternation to the point of choosing sides and denouncing as traitors those friends who chose differently.

There’s a right answer to the question of whether to continue to support Johnson as a Libertarian Party candidate. But I have ten months’ worth of data yet to collect. I will make a decision before I vote, but not much before. I’ll be happy to defend my decision at that time. But for now, I intend to wait and learn more about the probable consequences, including to my long-term happiness and my short-term survival, my vote will have.

Deciding for myself how I will vote is more important to me right now than deciding whether people who disagree with my decision are people I care to keep as friends. I’d like to think most people have friends that provide numerous and diverse values to them. If I’m going to lose half of my friends each election cycle, I’m seriously going to stop talking about politics.

And people ask why I left advocacy for good.

Celestial Nomenclature


Why I Stopped Watching Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader, Reason 227

I wanted to open this blog with the actual clip from Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader, episode 107 (S01E08), but I could not find a copy anywhere on the Internets. This was way back when that show was brand spanking new and I thought I’d watch a few episodes to see how it was. This was the last one I ever watched. Awful show.

Anywho, I’ll have to describe it. The second contestant of the episode, a man, eventually got asked the following question:

In the Southern Hemisphere, the vernal equinox occurs in which month?

Already, there are major, major problems with this question. The contestant bailed out rather than trying to answer. After, the host revealed that the expected answer was “September.” There are even more problems with that answer.

First, no American, public school 5th-grader would know the answer to that question, no matter what it’s meant to ask. Second, no American, public school 5th-grader would even know what the words “vernal” and “equinox” mean on their own, let alone used together. These are just not subjects on the public school 5th grade science curriculum anywhere I can find.

The difficulty of the question alone was enough to turn me off the show right there. But the major problem–the one of celestial nomenclature–really put me over the edge. I was fuming about it for weeks. I remember talking to many people about it at the time. I thought I blogged about it, but I can’t find any such post.

“Vernal equinox” is a term of art. It means a very specific thing. It is the traditional name for a point on the (geocentric) celestial sphere. It is not synonymous with the more modern term “spring equinox” or the even more modern “March equinox.” It is synonymous with the old naval and astrological term, “first point of Aries.”

Allow me to explain.

The celestial sphere is a fictional spherical surface astronomers use to locate objects in the sky. For our purposes, we can assume that the distant stars are fixed points on the inside of this sphere, and that the local objects (the Sun, Moon, and planets) move around relative to the stars.

There are two very important planes that intersect this sphere and delineate imaginary circles in space where they intersect the sphere. The first is the celestial equator. This plane is coextensive with the Earth’s equator. It is just extended from the equator out into space. The second is the ecliptic. This is the plane on which the Sun appears to travel around the Earth. Because the Earth has a tilt to its axis of about 23.5°, the celestial equator and the ecliptic intersect at about 23.5°. Wikimedia Commons has this lovely graphic:

Celestial equator and ecliptic

The ecliptic is a very important plane for a number of reasons. It traces an imaginary arc across the sky. The sun will follow this arc as it moves from East to West over the course of a day. At night, the planets can be found on or very near this line. The constellations of the Zodiac lie along this line. Your “sign” –insofar as you put stock in such nonsense– is the constellation of the zodiac the sun was in on the day of your birth.

Hold up, back up, wait, what? I thought I just told you that the sun moves along the ecliptic from East to West each day! Now I’m telling you it stays in one zodiacal constellation all day long? Yes. The Sun doesn’t move around the ecliptic daily; it moves around it yearly. The stars are pretty much fixed relative to the ecliptic.* The sun appears to “trace the line of the ecliptic” during the course of the day because the Earth rotates relative to the Sun in its relatively stationary position on the ecliptic. The Sun creeps along the ecliptic over the course of a year.

As you can see from the diagram above, some parts of the ecliptic are “above” (North of) the celestial equator, and some parts are “below” (South of) it. It crosses at two places. The places where two celestial planes cross are generally called “nodes.” One of these nodes will be called the “ascending node” and the other the “descending node.” Which is which depends on the relative motion of the two bodies that define the planes. In this system, the two bodies are the Earth (defining the celestial equator) and the Sun (defining the ecliptic). That diagram doesn’t indicate any directions, so I’ll have to tell you that, viewed from celestial North down through the plane of the ecliptic, the Earth revolves counter-clockwise about the sun. Viewed relative to a stationary Earth, the Sun appears to move along the ecliptic counter-clockwise around the Earth. That’s left-to-right in the front of the diagram and right-to-left in the back of the diagram.

So you can see that, as the year goes along, the Sun will first pass through the node in the front of the diagram, labeled γ, and, six months later, through the rear node, labeled Ω. When the sun appears to pass through γ, it moves from the celestial Southern hemisphere into the celestial Northern hemisphere. This is the ascending node. When it passes through Ω it moves from North to South–the descending node.

The Sun/Earth system has nodes. So does the Earth/Moon system. The nodes in the Earth/Moon system are important for calculating eclipses. Other orbital systems also have ascending and descending nodes. But the Sun/Earth system has a special name for its nodes. These names date from quite long ago. In Western astronomy, the oldest such names make reference to the zodiacal constellations in which these nodes appeared to early astronomers to be fixed. The ascending node was at one time (approximately 2,000 years ago) right at the boundary between the constellations of Pisces and Aries, with the sun moving into Aries. So it became known as the “first point of Aries.” Likewise, the descending node was just between Virgo and Libra, with the sun moving into Libra. So it became the “first point of Libra.”

The first point of Aries remained a useful astronomical landmark for centuries. If one knows where the first point of Aries is in the sky, one can, using a clock, a calendar, and a sextant, determine one’s longitude on the Earth. This was very useful in seafaring. The nodes were known by these names (in various languages, allowing for differences in zodiacs) from antiquity.

The word “equinox” enters English very early, before 1391, when Chaucer used it. When it entered English, it bore only one meaning. It referred to the nodes of the Sun/Earth system. They were differentiated at that time as the “vernal equinox” and the “autumnal equinox”, for their association with the seasons in the Northern hemisphere. The ascending node, or first point of Aries, became the vernal equinox because the sun crossed it during Spring in the Northern hemisphere, the exclusive home of English at the time. The descending node likewise became the autumnal equinox.

The word “equinox” did not gain meaning as the moment at which the sun passed through one of the nodes until at least 1588, and the phrases “vernal equinox” and “autumnal equinox” didn’t gain such meaning until about 1664. For some time, the phrases properly held meaning as both the points in space and the moments or dates on which the sun passed through the points. I say properly, because, during those years, English-speaking astronomers were confined almost exclusively to Northern hemisphere cultures. There was no need to differentiate the seasonal words from the celestial meanings.

When English became prevalent in Southern hemisphere cultures, the terms became very confusing. Astronomers still referred to the ascending node of the Sun/Earth system as the “vernal equinox”. But in the Southern hemisphere, the sun passes through this node in Fall, not Spring. In the mid-18th Century, the phrases “Spring equinox” and “Fall equinox” appear, describing only the moments or days. Vernal and Autumnal retained the celestial meanings, but began to lose their seasonal meanings, despite being words with seasonal origins.

That brings us to today. Today we have a set of terms to refer to the celestial positions (the ascending and descending nodes) and another set of terms to refer to the dates on which, or moments at which, the sun passes through those nodes:

γ Ω
Position on celestial sphere Vernal Equinox Autumnal Equinox
Moment or day when the Sun passes through Spring Equinox (Northern hemisphere)
Autumnal Equinox (Southern hemisphere)
Autumnal Equinox (Northern hemisphere)
Spring Equinox (Southern hemisphere)

So you can see the phrase “vernal equinox” refers to the same point in space no matter where on Earth you happen to be. But the phrase “Spring equinox” refers to a different moment or day depending where you are. Use of “vernal” to mean “Spring” in this context is archaic and inappropriate because, as English is spoken in both hemispheres, it is ambiguous. Because “vernal” has properly retained only a celestial meaning, using it to refer to a moment or day can only mean some time on or about March 21, no matter where you said it or your listener heard it.

The vernal equinox is in the same place, and the sun passes through it on the same day, in the Northern hemisphere as in the Southern hemisphere.

The Spring equinox can be on or about March 21 or September 21, depending on where you are. But it doesn’t add any new ambiguity to the language. It piggybacks on the already ambiguous term, “Spring.” That’s a concept (and an ambiguity) that has been in the language much longer and is already well-established.

Another interesting feature to note is that, at about the same time “Spring equinox” split the date/moment meaning off of “vernal equinox”, the concept of “Summer” also underwent a significant shift in meaning. Up until about the mid 18th Century, “Summer” and related seasonal terms described local meteorological conditions with strict adherence to celestial events. “Summer” was the warm period centered on a solstice†. It changed at that time to take account of temperature lag, so that “Summer” would actually describe the warmest months of the year instead. These lag behind the celestial summer centered on the solstice by a month and a half in the temperate bands between the tropics and the arctic/antarctic circles. So today, “Summer” begins on what used to be Midsummer’s Day (the local Summer solstice).

Given all this discussion, you should now see that Are You Smarter‘s question is defective in a number of ways. It should have asked “Spring equinox”. Then its answer would have been correct. But it asked “vernal,” which has lost the meaning they intended. As written, the answer to the question is March, not September. If they’re going to use “vernal equinox” to mean a moment or date, then it is going to refer to the moment or date when the sun passes through the vernal equinox, nothing else. The histories of astronomy and English point strongly to this conclusion, and continuing to use “vernal” to mean “spring” is, prescriptively, incorrect now that English is spoken in both hemispheres. Most importantly, the question is defective because there is no way a 5th-grader could be expected to know what “vernal equinox” really means. Is the point of this show to answer the questions as if the contestant were a 5th-grader, or is it to give the correct answer?

*Actually, they move very slowly. This is why the astrologers recently “corrected” everyone’s signs. The dates for the traditional Western Zodiac got set a long, long time ago, based on even older astronomy going back to when the vernal equinox really was at the “head” of Aries the Ram (hence “first point of Aries”).

†Interestingly “solstice” never had a “point in space” meaning, and it hasn’t ever acquired one.

Edit: The shift from celestial seasons to meteorological ones happened in 1780, not the 1800s. So use of “vernal equinox” to refer to one date in the Northern hemispher and another in the Southern is even more archaic than I thought. Please stop it now.

The modern, and very clear convention is to use “March equinox” and “September equinox” for the ascending node transit and descending node transit, respectively, because March is March in both hemispheres. This practice even more clearly differentiates meteorological from celestial phenomena, and reinforces the conceptual difference between the moment and the point-in-space.

PSA: “Period of Time”

This phrase is always redundant. Please use either “period” or “time.” Do not use both. The phrase “point in time” is also redundant, and based on a poor understanding of physics. Likewise “moment in time.”

As a general rule, the “in time” modifier is easily dropped without affecting clarity. This will tighten your prose, making it easier to consume quickly.

23andMe Sale!

23andMe offers ridiculously low cost, private genotyping to just about anyone. They take your spit and use it to test your DNA for hundreds of thousands of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). Many of these SNPs are reliable predictors of gene sequence, and 23andMe can tell you tons of interesting stuff about tote traits, disease risk, heredity, and more! I’ve found out all sorts of really interesting stuff, like the fact that my father’s father’s mother, who was half Cherokee, could not have actually been my great-grandmother, or that I have a relatively rare inability to produce an enzyme called adenosine monophosphate deaminase, which is important in generating energy during exercise! (I later learned that my grandfather had only discovered that his mother had not given birth to him a few months before his own death from pancreatic cancer. So that turned out to be an accurate analysis of the data on my part!)

I think it’s a very valuable service. For example, I know that I do not have any of the common BRCA gene mutations linked to increased risk for breast cancer. Getting screened for those in a clinical setting costs thousands, and it isn’t covered by insurance. 23andMe tests so much more and costs only $99 with a 12-month commitment to their $9/mo data update service. With the update service, they’ll email you about new research on any of the SNPs they’ve typed for you. You can buy prepaid subscriptions, too, if you want to give a gift! Those are $207.

If your relatives have been typed by 23andMe, you can, with mutual consent of course, see which traits you share, what genes came from which parent, and, like I did, whether your lineage is what you’ve been told it is. An excellent reason to make 23andMe a gift this Christmas!

Knowledge is power, and 23andMe is a lot of knowledge for a very low cost. And now through December 27, they’re offering $23 off your purchase if you use this link:

$23 off 23andMe

Also, every time someone uses that link, I get a chance to win an iPad (or other ossum gadget).

23andMe isn’t available in New York State, because Albany has outlawed non-clinical genetic testing. If you are a New York resident, you have to collect your saliva sample and mail it to 23andMe while you are not in New York.

Take advantage of this cool offer! And feel free to ask me anything if you want to know more about 23andMe!

Ruminations on Holiday Shopping

WalMart sells replacement plans for Cabbage Patch dolls.

At WalMart, I was helped by a man named Dexter wearing a long-sleeved Henley shirt.

I went to two Targets, a Giant Eagle, a Home Depot, and a WalMart today. I encountered two charity collection drives. A Salvation Army bell ringer, and a Firefighters’ Union toy drive. Both were stationed outside the WalMart.

I have done something I never expected to do. I purchased an artificial Christmas tree. Forgive me.

A Brief Follow-Up

Thank you to everyone who expressed concern. The official diagnosis is chronic sleep deprivation, causing anxiety, poor concentration, fatigue, and depression.

Dear Diary

My soul has been broken for so long I’ve forgotten what it feels like to be alive. That white hot electric shine of meeting each moment knowing, with full certainty, who I am and how to meet the next challenge barreling down on me. The quiet serenity of confidence in my ability to meet the future, and the blazing inferno of rage that anything should stand in my way. That secret, sacred, insatiable center feels cold and empty and dead. It has for some time. I’m 29 years old and I don’t think I can honestly say I’ve ever really truly been in love. I sit here trying to think what that feels like and I come up empty. Crushes, infatuations, casual flings, hatesex, good friendships I’ve tried to develop into more–nothing that came even close to what I expect love to be. To my credit, I don’t think I’ve ever told someone I loved them either, so at least I seem to know myself. I know that I’ve so wanted to experience this unknown that I’ve been willing to overlook real facts that stand immovably in the way of achieving it. I think I’ve hurt people that way. Part of the problem is I just don’t let anyone in. I’m already convinced no one will meet my high standards, so I just shut everyone out. I’m just so used to having walls up, I’ve forgotten that they’re not supposed to be there. Perhaps I never really knew what that was like. I don’t date. I don’t go out on weekends. I don’t socialize with anyone. Other people have ceased to interest me. All I see are the faults, and none of the beauty. Can it really be that there aren’t beautiful people in the world anymore? I may be dead inside, but I’m not so far gone as to believe that. I can’t blame anyone else for this. I’m doing it wrong. Or just not doing anything at all. People used to know me. I was out in high school. Catholic high school, actually. Recently, I watched Glee (in a marathon, both seasons) and was struck by how sexy Kurt’s confidence was, especially near the end of season 2. I found myself thinking, “where are the guys like that?” But then I remembered that I was one of those guys in high school. I was damn scared, but I was never paralyzed by fear. In my sophomore year I came out rather spectacularly, with a dramatic if slightly overwrought open letter to everyone at the school. I wish I had a copy of that still. I wish I were still that same person, who could tremble with excitement and anxiety and even terror, yet still act and act fabulously. And I had friends. Mostly girls, but some guys. Straight guys. Jocks. No one fucked with me after that. At my Catholic high school. Years later, when I was applying to take the bar, I had to go back to my old therapist from when I was depressed in high school because the State Supreme Court insisted on knowing every little detail about my mental health history. To get a letter from him saying I was sane, he made me come in for another session, ten years after my last with him. Of course, we disagreed starkly about egoism, and he had difficulty understanding that, ultimately, egoism was what kept me from suicide during that time. But he mentioned to me that he had spoken to the headmistress of my school some years after he last saw me. She knew I was seeing him, so there was no issue of confidentiality. He said she told him that she was still, to that day, impressed by that letter I wrote, and that it was the most courageous thing she had ever seen a student do. I thought, “well that’s interesting.” I guess I was already dead inside by then. I was out all through college, but somewhere along the way I grew to really hate gay people. The way they politicize their sexuality. The way they think shoving it down everyone’s throats is the only way to get some people to accept it. They way they package deal everything. The way they stereotype themselves and then conform their behavior to those stereotypes. And while these are all perfectly valid reasons to feel disgust, somehow, the disgust became the whole of it, so there was nothing left to like. I guess that’s when I started slipping back in. What I saw so disgusted me I wanted nothing to do with it. Really, I didn’t want anyone to erroneously associate me with that. So I stopped telling people. It was two years of law school before anyone knew, and when, in the third year, I chose to tell someone, it was the ultra-christian right wing girl and she, oddly, turned out to be totally cool with that. I guess at the time it threw me for a loop that people didn’t know, but now I think about it, I realize I’d been moderating my behavior and checking my pronouns the whole time. About a year ago, I was visiting some law school friends and I said something that definitively telegraphed “homo” to them and, although they tried to act as if they’d known all along, I could still tell that they hadn’t been sure. I thought at first, “this is your fault, because you weren’t observant enough to detect the signs.” But now I think back on it, it was probably my fault, because I was hiding who I was. When did that happen? When did I start giving a damn what anyone else thought? When did I become that guy? No one at work knows. Or if they do, it’s not because I’ve told them, or done anything that would give them any clue. Technically I can still be fired for being gay. Possibly, that’s just an excuse I use to let me remain utterly chaste, passionless, and impersonal at work. There’s no one there I feel particularly close to. They’re nice, but they’re not the people I want as friends. I don’t know what kind of people I want as friends, I guess. I don’t really have any. Not local, anyway. There is a small handful of people I know on the Internet who I can say, certainly, that I want as friends. None are local, and I need–crave–personal contact. I have one semi-local friend, who lives 45 minutes away. We work the same job in different offices, so we talk every day. Just about stuff. You might know him as The Vegan. Not a romantic prospect for two reasons. One, he’s a vegan, and for all the wrong reasons. Two, he’s not gay, which, believe it or not, is a major turn-off. The rest of the people I still know from law school or law school-adjacency I either don’t know well enough or have come to know too well to care to remain friends. The same problem. High standards, so I just shut everyone out. I don’t mind being slow to make friends, but really this is ridiculous. But how is anyone supposed to get to know me if I don’t talk about myself? If I just expect they’ll be turned off by my religious views. Or my political ones. Or my ethical ones. I don’t blame the views. The philosophy isn’t at fault. It’s my failure to implement it. Maybe I’ve always know that. Maybe I realized that years ago when I gave up advocacy to focus on practice. Heh. Now there’s something I can get fired for. I wonder what would happen if anyone at work knew that I loathe ARDIWA, the corrupt government that created it and the rotten culture that lets it continue to exist. I don’t hate my job. It’s challenging, at least for now, and it pays well. But I still wake up every morning wishing it didn’t exist, and I can’t help going to sleep each night feeling a little soiled for having helped it persist another day. I don’t hate my job. Maybe if I keep telling myself that, eventually I’ll believe it. But this is the sinking ship I’ve chained myself to for the next 9 years and 4 months. I’ll be eligible for a judgeship in 5 years. That was my original goal going into law school. So maybe there’s that to look forward to. It’ll still be a judgeship with ARDIWA, though. And I’ll still wake up wishing it didn’t exist, and I’ll still go to bed feeling soiled. Maybe by then I’ll have learned not to hate it. But what else can I do? I’ve already given up two dreams to get where I am. I’m financially semi-stable, if living paycheck to paycheck while carrying $100,000 in loan debt and expecting to pay only interest for the next ten years counts as semi-stable. The union at work disgusts me every time I have to have dealings with it. Recently, a number of the judges I work for decided to nominate me for an outstanding service award for some special work I did for them a few months ago. The Agency pays the cash awards, but the union picks who gets them. Union membership was one of the nomination form questions. I don’t expect to win. At least here I don’t have to join the union, and the union cannot strike. I gave up my second dream because I couldn’t do it and make money (i.e., live) without joining a despicable union. I loved film. Before that, I loved acting, and after it, I loved the law. I still remember what that passion felt like. But I’ve given it up so many times, each time it feels less and less like what I think love should feel like. Now, I have an obligation to myself. A $100,000 obligation. I must try very hard not to regret law school. I think in general I am miserably unhappy. I feel like I’m falling into the future with no way to see what’s coming and no way to be prepared for it. I’m terrified of the political and cultural direction things are going and I have zero confidence in my ability to handle whatever’s coming around the corner. I feel like an out-of-control ragdoll, tumbling along, bouncing off of or slamming into whatever ends up in the way; obstacles I created for myself with all my past decisions. I think I could bear it all if I weren’t so heartrendingly lonely. They say there’s a difference between being lonely and being alone, but I don’t think that’s true. It’s tough to draw fire from distant stars. I need a blazing sun within my reach, and with my last dying candle going out, there’s little chance of me ever finding one.

This will probably prove to have been unwise.