Once in a lifetime astronomical events

I was walking out of a PTA meeting one evening in November, and looked up and saw a unique body in the sky. I pointed it out to every I saw walking by, as it was the comet ISON which flew through the night sky until Thanksgiving. You may have heard about this comet, as the press declared it would be 15 times brighter than the moon! Which, while technically true, isn’t quite as impressive in the night sky since it is much, much, much smaller than the moon. Still, it was a bright new object that I’m not used to seeing.

About a million years ago, ISON was flung out into deep space on a collision course with the sun. It’s hard to imagine something just flying for a million years, being pulled this way and that by various large body objects, and then explode into our sun on Thanksgiving of all days. In all honestly, the comet didn’t really look any different to my eye than any of the other planets we get to occasionally see. It was cool for me to look for the object after Thanksgiving and not see it. Once in a lifetime is quite apt.

After graduating high school, my goal was to be an astro physicist. I had read many stories, and seen many movies, about space travel. I even wrote in my Bioethics high school class that we should just turn the Earth into a giant farm and all move out in to space stations. My teacher didn’t agree and asked if that was really what I wanted, but still gave me an “A” for my efforts. The real genesis of my desire to be an astro physicist wasn’t Star Wars, but one evening on Orcas Island when I was 9 or 10 years old. We were experiencing a “once in a lifetime” meteor shower event. I was able to lay outside and look up at the night sky. Without city lights, everything was brilliant and massive. I counted 100 meteors and another 20 satellites that night. It was fascinating and powerful, and I was hooked.

I read every Brian Swimme and Stephen Hawking book I could fine. In modern physics I read Einstein’s relatively and hung out outside the school library imagining flashlights on the front of spaceships moving at light speed. After my sophomore year as a Physics undergrad, I got a summer grant to do research with the University telescope. I was only the second research project on the new telescope, and my job was to image remote galaxies and determine how far away they were from the Earth. Specifically, I looked for bodies called “H2 regions” and used the computer to determine their angular size. From there, it was simple trigonometry to determine distance. I was within 1% error of commonly accepted values, so we determined our telescope was pretty good.

It got me thinking, though, that 1% error could still equate to a difference of light years in physical space. So, we could get out there, and be off by a LONG way. Our Universe is immensely vast, and we learn more about it constantly. The ISON comet got me thinking about space again, so I started reviewing facts about our solar system. How big is our sun? So big that 99.8% the mass of the solar system is in the sun. Most of the rest of the mass is in Jupiter. No matter how big I think the Earth may feel, it is a tiny little spec in a tiny little solar system on the outskirts of a tiny little galaxy in our Universe. I recently learned that Neptune has a storm cloud similar to Jupiter. They creatively call it the “Great Dark Spot” and it is as wide as the Earth.

Ultimately, back in college, I found research to be quite boring and opted to pursue computer engineering as a career. Later in life, I learned that I could have gone into writing software models of the universe, but I didn’t know that was an option at the time. I do tend to still look up at the night sky quite often. I have a star chart that I use every once in a while and I keep trying to get my boys interested in the stars. I don’t think they really care, but they humor me and it’s fun.

My other hobby is reading the Mars One newsletter. If you haven’t heard of Mars One, it is a concept for a reality tv show being produced by the Dutch. Each year, they will send a group of astronauts to live on Mars. These are one way tickets, so they need to bring everything they ever need. I find it fitting that reality tv will make it to Mars long before science. While Earth is 78% nitrogen, Mars is 90% carbon dioxide. Therefore, I’m wondering if Mars One settlers will plant cacti? I wonder how their night sky will look different from ours. I also wonder how many of the settlers “once in a lifetime” experience will end pleasantly.

Fact or Fiction

My wife asked me “Do you think you risk sharing too much about yourself on your blog?”
I reply “No, because it’s fiction.”
“It’s fiction?”
“of course. I write fiction. Everyone knows this is fiction.”
“Well …” she hesitates. “It seems like you write about real things on your blog. My friends read this blog.”
“I know. It’s supposed to seem real. I once read that the best fiction sounds real, and the best non fiction sounds fake.”
“I’m not sure you’re writing fiction.”
“You don’t? Why not?”
“Because everything you’ve written about so far is true. It has all really happened in the way you describe it. You’ve told me all about everything you’ve written about.”
“Hmm. That can’t be right. I’m sure I’ve made up plenty right here on this blog.”
“Okay, honey.”

As I have read through my past posts, I can see what she means. The major events described have in fact happened to me, and are not just snippets from my imagination. However, dear reader, I can assure you this is fiction. The best lie is 99% true, and I have endeavored to supply no more than 99% factual truth. If, you’ve read something and wondered if I was writing about you, that would not be possible. As they have been known to say, any similarities to persons living or dead are purely coincidental and unintended. No Kimberly, I was not talking about you with that post the other day, and George there is no reason to think I would ever blame something like that on you! Please bear in the mind that this blog is fiction, with a 99% basis in reality. I write this to put structure on myself and to try my hand at something other than status reports and technical specifications.

Now, about that $6 check …

What I’ve learned since becoming PTA treasurer

In the last few months I’ve added a new 15 hour a week hobby to my life and that is being the PTA treasurer for the local elementary school. This has literally sucked up all of my free time and much of my waking thoughts. I thought I’d share some of the items I’ve learned about myself in the process.

1) I like things that are routine and predictable, but I don’t like boring repetition.
Each month I balance the books against our bank statements. Each week I process check requests from the school. Every day I do a quick check of the bank to make sure no charge hits us unexpectedly. These things I actually quite enjoy. Last year, I really did not enjoy filling out the stupid deposit forms. It’s been nice to give that step away to the assistant this year.

2) People bounce their checks … a lot
I remember being fresh out of college and working to bring in a steady income along with getting my financial ducks in order. I took out a lot of debt to get through college, both official and on plastic, and it took a while to get everything squared away. I celebrated by buying a super cheap bottle of wine when I got rid of all the plastic debt and have never looked back. Once, about 10 years ago, I accidentally bounced a check. I was shocked – how could I let this happen? I now obsessively track all my outstanding checks and payments to make sure that never happens again. This role has taught me that I may be the only one in this community that doesn’t bounce checks. I feel bad for the donor when a $12 check bounces because I empathize with the embarrassment. Then, the bank comes in and hits us with an addition $25 fee because someone else wrote a bad check.

3) Credit card debt is out of control
Last year, after our auction, and major portion of the credit cards people used were denied. When I say major, do you think that means 15, 25, or 33% of the credit cards? Yeah, it was at least that high. I have had several people angry with me for not reimbursing their requests instantly (by the way, we have operating by laws and I can’t issue checks without going through a series of controls). I am not kidding, when people have been mad at me for $6 checks, and have asked that I pay the late fees/interest rates on their credit cards.

4) I hate filling out 990 forms

5) I am a bigger jerk than I thought
I have found through the course of this role that I have no sympathy for people who need their costs reimbursed immediately. I am likely biased that I have often had to wait almost a full quarter in previous jobs to be reimbursed several thousand dollars (flight and hotel costs for work). While that was one extreme example, it is not uncommon to wait over a month for reimbursement. Regardless, their pleas for quick turnaround fall on deaf ears. I’m not circumventing the process, and risking our controls, because someone can’t manage their credit cards. I also don’t think our teachers walk on water (I love our teachers, they are fantastic, but they are professionals and don’t need to be coddled).

6) I am amazed at what the PTA provides
Without the PTA, the school wouldn’t have art, music, dance, recess monitors, tutors, green grassy playfields, a projector, iPads, access to current social studies curriculum, would offer insufficient math instruction, and wouldn’t be able to provide a full library. I personally view these items are a requirement for elementary education, and am surprised that the parents have to raise so much money to fund these things – well over $350/kid. I live in a good neighborhood where parents are able to kick in this much. Not far from where I sit, asking parents to provide even an additional $30/kid would be asking a lot. Until our state is able to fund all of this, which despite the court findings is likely a long ways off, I’m happy that our parents are able to step up and fund these items. I’m happy to be able to act as treasurer and keep these great items coming for our kids. I’m hopeful for other communities to find ways to provide for their kids.