Supermoon: what it is, and what it definitely isn’t

Look up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s a SUPERMOOOOOOON!!

I have written at some length about the moon, with its wobble called libration, and how its elliptical orbit means that it varies in its distance to us between roughly 360,000km and 406,000km. That’s a difference of ~46,000km, or about ten percent of its distance at apogee. Apogee is what you call the moon’s furthest point in its orbit, and perigee the closest. As the moon orbits us about once a month (thus the lunar cycle), that means that during a predicted perigee, the moon is about two weeks away from apogee.

The moon orbits us at an inclination of about 5 degrees to the solar plane — it is for that reason that we do not see a total lunar eclipse somewhere on the planet once a month, but rather only on those months where the moon is roughly aligned with the plane of the Earth’s orbit around the sun. That means we get to see the sun illuminating the moon most of the time; its phase indicates where in the rotation it is, and what face is pointed toward the sun. A supermoon is when the full moon phase happens to coincide with the perigee — meaning the moon is not only at its visibly largest point, it’s also got the full face illuminated.

Astrologers have consistently through the ages attempted to link supermoons with natural disasters. Because the Sun, Earth and Moon are all in a sorta-kinda-straight line, and the moon is SOOOO MUCH CLOSER TO US THAN NORMAL, naturally this must mean there’s a lot of possibility that the moon is going to cause calamity on our planet. This makes sense, if you believe the heavenly bodies exert any more influence on the planet than the evidence shows them to exert. The problem with this line of thinking is, if you claim an effect and give a window, and the window’s large enough that statistically, it’s very likely something within the range you’re claiming will happen, then selection bias will do the rest of your work for you. Because you’ve primed people to watch for natural disasters, when they happen, SURPRISE, suddenly that means you were right!

To wit:

On March 19, Earth’s satellite will be at its closest point to our planet in 18 years — a mere 356,577 kilometers away. The event — also called a lunar perigee — was dubbed a “supermoon” by astrologer Richard Nolle back in the 1970s. The term is used to describe a new or full moon at 90% or more of its closest orbit to Earth. Next week, it will be at 100%.

Nolle is responsible for coining the upcoming event, and he’s also responsible for the latest buzz sweeping the Internet about how the supermoon will affect the planet. On his website Astropro, Nolle warns Earth’s inhabitants to prepare themselves during the “supermoon risk window,” which ranges from March 16 – 22. During this time, Nolle claims there will be an increase in supreme tidal surges, magnitude 5 or higher earthquakes, and even volcanic activity.

I’m amazed that Fox News got most of the science right in this, excepting contradicting his quote — there’s a closest perigee every year, where perigee and apogee actually fluctuate year after year, and this “closest point in eighteen years” only means “one or two percent closer than normal”, and anyway, it’s still further away than its closest recorded perigee of 356,375km on Jan. 4, 1912. The only earthquake noted on that day (given humankind’s lower population density) was a 5.5. I’ll tell you later why that’s unimpressive. Still, they deserve credit for siding with the astronomer that says there’s no risk, and that the only major effect of this alignment is the increased risk of moonquakes — which only affects you if you live on the moon. My problem with this article is that the astrologer is given any kind of credence at all. There’s no reason for that. The fact is, there’s absolutely no reason to consult an astrologer about any nonsense that they themselves proffer without evidence and continue to cling to, despite evidence to the contrary. They should not be consulted pretty much ever, when you have a credulous people willing to attribute natural disasters to anything but nature.

The reason I say this, is because people are blaming the impending supermoon for the Japanese earthquake last week.


The supermoon event occurs on March 19th. The astrologer in question painted a “danger window” around that date of March 16th through March 22nd, predicting “supreme tidal surges” (like predicting the sun will rise — the moon affects tides, and having the moon and sun at opposite sides of us actually does create really high and low tides!), “volcanic activity” (what counts? Tiny amounts of ejecta happen from most volcanoes every few months!), and “earthquakes above 5.0 magnitude.”

It’s this last one that people are blaming the Japanese quake on. Never mind that a) the quake happened on March 11th, when the moon was roughly at a 75 degree angle to us compared to the sun — e.g., at not quite half phase — and b) it was about 400,000km away, since apogee happened on March 6th.

Also, according to these statistics, there are 1319 earthquakes every year that fall between 5.0 and 5.9. That means there will be, on average, (1319 / 365) * 8 = 28.9 earthquakes that fall within that range, somewhere on Earth during the eight days given for the supermoon “danger window”.

That’s not even counting the earthquakes that surpass that level. Again, according to the site, there’s on average 134 6.0-6.9 magnitude earthquakes per year, and 15 7.0-7.9’s, and one 8.0+ per year. That means statistically, (134/365) * 8 = 2.9 earthquakes that measure between 6.0 and 6.9 during that window. It also means 0.32 7.0-7.9’s, or a 32% chance of a whopper. And though the 8.9 earthquake that just happened in Japan probably relieved a lot of the tectonic stress of the rest of the plates, there’s still a 2% chance that an 8.0+ would happen during that eight day window.

And since nobody will remember this astrologer’s predictions if they’re wrong, selection bias means he’s making an excellent bet by predicting 5.0+ quakes.

The Earth is not in any kind of danger, having a perigee fall on the same night as a full moon. Think about it for half a second, and you’ll realize that the rotational differences that mean such “supermoons” are possible on the “every several years” order of magnitude, means the month prior and following a supermoon must needs have a very close proximity between perigee and full moon. And it means that on off years, the perigee and full moon might be off by a day or two. Why wouldn’t those types of syncronicities cause increased earthquake activity, if this astrologer is giving us a “danger window” of eight days?

Nonsense, top to bottom. Or apogee to perigee.

CRTC: a pawn in Harper’s larger game?

In reading news about the CRTC of late, I can’t help but notice a few converging threads. I legitimately feel that I am above conspiracy theory, and I like to say that without evidence, our understanding of reality is potentially unreliable. Therefore, I write this post tentatively, knowing I may be drawing incorrect conclusions.

Source: Wikimedia Commons. Click for original.

Pictured: the CRTC.

But if they are correct, they are damning conclusions indeed.

The Tory government appears to have a greater strategy of discrediting and generally casting as an anacronism the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunication Council for at least the last year. Harper’s government — not to be confused with The Harper Government, which you can protest such use by signing this petition — overturned the CRTC’s decision last year to disallow Globalive from entering our wireless market due to regulations requiring telecom companies to be locally owned. On this point, I agree with Michael Geist, that content, not ownership, preserves Canadian culture. The overturning of this decision, while well-founded, undercut the CRTC’s ability to make a second ruling — as they so often have done, given the fullness of time and understanding of the public and experts’ opinion in such matters — with the overturning coming so shortly after the original decision. The problem with this is the impression left of the CRTC as an impotent body that cannot make regulations that under any circumstances contradict what the ruling party happens to believe.

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RCimT: Stuff to be mad about

As I implied yesterday, there’s far too much going on in this world right now that deserves my ire. I have to mete it out carefully or I won’t have enough to go around, because the meds for my Stretch Armstrong leg are seriously putting a damper on my ability to draw from my bile reservoir. For you though, my faithful readers, I’ll do my best. (I love you both!)

Egypt did a grand thing in ousting Mubarak. The military made many overtures of solidarity with the protesters over the last month, and they installed a “transitional leader” in Vice President Omar Suleiman. Suleiman however has absolutely no intention of transitioning Egypt to a democracy. The military is now singing a totally different tune than during the initial protests — claiming that they will start to move against strikers if they don’t get back to work soon. So Egypt traded one tin-pot dictator for another. Hooray.

Meanwhile, a CBS reporter was violently molested while covering the Egypt protests, and because she happened to be a woman, people are throwing their careers away to snipe at her for daring to try to do something in a dangerous place. Because, you know, being raped and beaten in public and having to be rescued by a group of women and Egyptian soldiers just isn’t enough damage. Lara Logan knew exactly what kind of danger she was in by daring to do her job while in possession of a vagina, thank you very fucking much.

I’m sad to have to report that being right about the “God question” (e.g., being an atheist) does not mean you’re right about other stuff, like gender politics. How a thread can go on so long where so many men think it appropriate to discuss amongst themselves “how to get women into science” while wholly and completely dismissing the women in the conversation, is beyond me. People in positions of privilege discussing how to get the unprivileged into the conversation should, obviously, not dismiss the same unprivileged. DUH. There are a few shining beacons of truth and level-headedness in the Pharyngula thread about the original talk, but they are a cool drink in a vast expansive desert of retardery.

Meanwhile, the Republicans who were swept into power recently with promises of rebuilding the American economy with jobs-a-plenty are enacting several laws on their real priority: shrinking government to only small enough to legislate every vagina in the country. While the House has failed at their attempt to redefine rape, they succeeded in passing an amended version of HR3 to ensure no federal funds are ever spent on abortions. They have also defunded Planned Parenthood, the last line of defense against teenage pregnancy, for daring to refer to abortion doctors the 2% of their visitors that need them — never mind that this means more teenagers will get pregnant and need abortions to begin with. And South Dakota is busy legalizing the murder of abortion doctors. These idiots are decidedly not “pro-life”. They’re “pro-fetus”. Once the fetus grows to the point where they might be born (whether they survive, or not; whether they kill the mother, or not), they obviously couldn’t give a shit about them. I’m sure there’s gotta be a Bible passage somewhere that justifies allowing both mother and baby to die just so a medically indicated procedure doesn’t happen that’s supposedly contrary to some vague interpretation of some arbitrarily chosen translation of some arbitrarily chosen “holy book” out of the thousands that one could choose from.

And there’s always more bullshit when you get religion involved, it seems. Why is it every one of the things I see today that is detrimental to the betterment of humankind as a whole, is inspired by religion? Seriously. It’s getting to be too big a trend to ignore. A new investigation shows that children are still in peril and clergy are still stonewalling investigators even ten years after the scandals in some Roman Catholic dioceses were uncovered and supposedly stopped. If they weren’t in the positions of power they find themselves, children wouldn’t be imperiled by this overriding demand, handed down from the top, to protect Catholicism from its own chief practitioners.

Or how about the religiously inspired Wedge-strategy-approved tactic of sowing disinformation about evolution by legislative fiat? Never mind that there’s no scientific controversy about the theory of evolution — only a controversy in that the theory of evolution apparently runs afoul of some very small-minded provincial interpretations of certain religionists’ ideation of their deity and how special humankind is in the grand scheme of things. No, scientists are well aware that all the evidence available shows evolution is a fact, and that the theory of evolution is merely an attempt at describing the mechanism behind that fact. Any controversy at the moment is in exactly how much influence natural selection, epigenetics, genetic drift, etc., have on the “big picture” of evolution. If this law were aimed at teaching THOSE controversies, I’d be fine with it and others of its ilk, but you’ll invariably find it espoused by people who unironically claim in court that the Earth is six thousand years old.

Canada’s got its own shitty little legal squabbles going on, too. For instance, the Tory-held senate rejection of this bill:

Bill C-389 would amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to protect the rights of transgender or transsexual citizens. It would prohibit discrimination on the basis of “gender identity” or “gender expression” in the workplace or elsewhere, and would amend the Criminal Code so that crimes committed against people because they are transgender or transsexual would be treated as hate crime.

Their grounds? That people might try to go peeping-tom in opposite sex bathrooms and defend themselves by claiming they’re really transgendered.

And the CRTC’s raising people’s suspicions lately about the partisan nature of some of their decisions — like that pesky law they’re suggesting we eliminate that prevents broadcasters from presenting lies as truth in news media.

“It’s totally bizarre. Nobody in the industry has called for it,” Mr. Murdoch said. “Where is the motivation for change that would lower the standards of truth and fairness in broadcast journalism?”

NDP MP Charlie Angus noted that the proposed change precedes the start of Sun TV, a network that has been shepherded in large part by Kory Teneycke, the former director of communication to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

“We all know our Prime Minister well enough to say we don’t have to be in the realm of conspiracy theory here,” Mr. Angus said at a news conference on Monday. “We can draw our conclusions and they are pretty clear.”

It’s no conspiracy. It’s no coincidence. That law is preventing Sun TV from being everything that Fox News is to America: a trojan horse in the news media, intended to pull people’s understanding of reality, and the Overton Window, ever-further to the right. Truth be damned, we need our propaganda, sayeth Harper and his cronies.

That’s it. I’m spent for the moment. I’m sure I’ll find more to rage about soon though.

#DearJohn Boehner: how do you reconcile these statements with your actions?

I am a Canadian, so politically unsophisticated and unwise in the ways of the world. Tell me, dear readers. How does one reconcile this:

His promises on behalf of the new House majority — reducing the size of government, creating jobs and fundamentally altering the way the Congress conducts its business — are mostly as lofty as they are unspecific, and his efforts to legislate them into reality must be done with ambitious upstarts within his own party and a fresh crop of Tea Partiers, some of whom seem to believe that it is they, not he, now running the show..

And this:

“The American people have humbled us. They have refreshed our memories to just how temporary the privilege of serving is. They have reminded us that everything here is on loan from them,’ Boehner said waving the symbol of his new office. “That includes this gavel, which I accept cheerfully and gratefully knowing that I am but its caretaker. After all, this is the people’s house.”
“I wish them great success in achieving the kinds of reforms and policies the last election was all about,” McConnell added. As for the Senate’s Republican minority, he said, “We will press the majority to do the things the American people clearly want us to do.”

…with Boehner’s House Resolution number three (the third resolution written for this new House)? Wherein, in an effort to reduce the amount of abortions being prescribed by doctors, rape is redefined to include only forceable rape?

For years, federal laws restricting the use of government funds to pay for abortions have included exemptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. (Another exemption covers pregnancies that could endanger the life of the woman.) But the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” a bill with 173 mostly Republican co-sponsors that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has dubbed a top priority in the new Congress, contains a provision that would rewrite the rules to limit drastically the definition of rape and incest in these cases.

With this legislation, which was introduced last week by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), Republicans propose that the rape exemption be limited to “forcible rape.” This would rule out federal assistance for abortions in many rape cases, including instances of statutory rape, many of which are non-forcible. For example: If a 13-year-old girl is impregnated by a 24-year-old adult, she would no longer qualify to have Medicaid pay for an abortion. (Smith’s spokesman did not respond to a call and an email requesting comment.)

Considering that 71% of the people of the US are opposed to this bill (and that’s just the survey — you should see the outrage on Twitter on the #dearjohn hashtag), you’d think it’s a political non-starter. So how do you reconcile all these disparate claims and goals and actual action?

If the Republicans want to pass a bill to make it harder for rape victims to get justice, that’s probably a vote that can be used against them later, right? One can hope. I mean, it’s gotta be political poison to endorse a bill that essentially tells rape victims that their rape just wasn’t enough punishment. Right? RIGHT?

Reproductive rights are human rights. If you’re forced to carry a baby to term, or worse, die during childbirth, just because some politician has decided you must just be a slut, then the system is broken. The myth that people are using rape laws as loopholes to get abortions so they can be promiscuous without repercussions is JUST A MYTH. I don’t know how ideas like this have gained as much traction as they have.

How does one prove astrology? BY STARTING OVER.

The undying zombie astrology thread has attracted another latecomer to the party, this time Curtis Manwaring of Astrology X-Files, an astrology software developer who put together a seemingly testable hypothesis and added it as a comment on that thread. I’m moving my response to its own post, because frankly, nobody seems to be reading any of the follow-ups that have linked to it, and would rather continue the fight there. I’m tired of the single zombie thread, which is responsible for the vast majority of my database difficulties, causing me to hack my website to absurd degrees as a result. If it keeps attracting newcomers, I’ll close it, and add a comment saying “this post is closed, please visit any of the posts linked on page 9 of the comments if you want to continue the discussion.”

The meat of Curtis’ comment appears to be a way to test astrology, or at least one aspect of it. My problem with the suggestion is the same that I’ve had with the concept of astrology as a whole — it depends on a foundation that is simply not there. It builds on hypotheses that have simply never been proven, but rather always taken for granted. For instance, the hypothesis that there is any sort of correlation between the planets’ movements and people’s individual lives. Beyond this, much of what he suggests appears to disagree with other astrologers in the thread — even if you exclude Jamie “Darkstar” Funk of Dark Star Astrology (who has since attempted to shed his association with his ridiculous arguments here by changing his name). And to make matters worse, it appears to misunderstand statistical significance, the importance of sample sizes, and the importance of controlling for variables.

This is, as all my discussions against unfalsifiable and self-perpetuating memes, a long one. Grab a coffee.
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Things Fox News viewers “know” that just ain’t so

I thought you might like to see this set of survey responses from a survey done on December 9th, cross-referenced against what TV station the viewers happened to watch. The most interesting set of responses were from Fox News viewers. All of these beliefs are totally and completely demonstrably false. They are as follows:

* 91% believe that the stimulus legislation lost jobs.
* 72% believe that the health reform law will increase the deficit.
* 72% believe that the economy is getting worse.
* 60% believe that climate change is not occurring.
* 49% believe that income taxes have gone up.
* 63% believe that the stimulus legislation did not include any tax cuts.
* 56% believe that Obama initiated the GM/Chrysler bailout.
* 38% believe that most Republicans opposed TARP.
* 63% believe that Obama was not born in the US (or that it is unclear).

These are not a matter of politics. They are a matter of facts and reality. Fox News viewers got these by and large wrong. All these numbers were higher than the corresponding views of people who generally did not watch the network. Fox News is in the habit of misinforming its viewing public, and every one of the pieces of misinformation benefits a specific party — dun dun dunnn, the Republicans. That the Repubs have to have their image burnished by outright lies is pretty damning, wouldn’t you say?

But what’s even more damning is the number of MSNBC/CNN folks that are completely unaware that they believe outright lies about important issues, such as the health care reform bill that recently passed. From a different poll:

On Health Care Reform, Those Who Believe That It Will… MSNBC/CNN Viewers Fox News Viewers
Give Coverage To Illegal Immigrants: 41% 72%
Lead To A Government Takeover: 39% 79%
Pay For Abortions: 40% 69%
Stop Care To The Elderly: 30% 75%

This is beyond sad. None of these things are true. They are empirically false. They are lies. Falsehoods. Wrong. Not just wrong, fractally wrong. So wrong that when you zoom in on any one aspect of the falsehood, it’s exactly as wrong as the whole thing. These falsehoods depend on swallowing lies compounded with lies.

I reiterate — they aren’t matters of perspective or opinion. They are matters of fact, and the facts do not correspond with any of these assertions. Each of these lies have an eroding effect on the freedoms you value most. When the major determining factor for who wins elections is how many people believe outright lies, you don’t have a democracy any more. Democracy depends on an informed electorate. You are evidently lacking in that dependency, given the number of people watching the “liberal channels” and still believing the total fabrications spouted by the vested interests in the right wing.

I weep for democracy.

Live blogging 2012: Doomsday

Yes, that’s right, not the original 2012, the cheap knockoff Christian propaganda film. Stephanie Zvan and I are about to subject ourselves to this… oeuvre… and I intend to live-blog it as we go. Completely alcohol-free, at that. Heaven help us.

Apparently George W. got here first. The bastard. I swear I didn’t spoil myself on this epic retardery in advance. Well, not much. Aside from the IMDB comments thread, and a tiny snippet of George’s post.

Beginning time: 10:41 AM. Refresh for updates.
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Reducing irreducible complexity

This is how the “irreducibly complex” eye, the “irreducibly complex” bombardier beetle, or a mousetrap, are each totally reducible. Each of these intermediary steps has examples in present-day nature. (Except the mousetrap. They don’t reproduce, mutate, or are subject to natural selection.)

I loves me some QualiaSoup.

It’s Okay If You’re Joe Scarborough. Or Sean Hannity. Or GE.

As written into his contract with MSNBC which bars political contributions that may indicate a lack of journalistic integrity, for having made $7,200 of political contributions to three Democratic candidates, Keith Olbermann has been suspended indefinitely without pay. This is in marked contrast to MSNBC’s treatment of Joe Scarborough, who in 2006 donated $4200 to a Republican candidate and received no punishment when the fact came to light as Scarborough “hosts an opinion program and is not a news reporter”. It is also in contrast to MSNBC’s chief rival FOX News’ treatment of Sean Hannity for donating $5000 to Mayor Crazy of Crazyland USA, Michelle Bachmann. And it is in contrast to MSNBC’s parent company GE:

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, GE made over $2 million in political contributions in the 2010 election cycle (most coming from the company’s political action committee). The top recipient was Republican Senate candidate Rob Portman from Ohio. The company has also spent $32 million on lobbying this year, and contributed over $1 million to the successful “No on 24” campaign against a California ballot initiative aimed at eliminating tax loopholes for major corporations (New York Times, 11/1/10).

So the message here, from the execs at MSNBC: it’s okay if you’re a Republican, offering money to Republicans, or if you’re lobbying to keep from having to pay taxes (probably roughly the same as the amount you just spent on lobbying, coincidentally enough!) to the government.

Keith Olbermann, however, is held to a different standard. Despite being derided constantly as a “far-left Bill O’Reilly”, and thus nothing better than an opinion show host, by every asshole on the right that thinks there’s some measure of equivalency between the effluence coming from O’Reilly’s mouth nightly, and the occasional moment of actual journalism you get from KO. also provides ways to take action:

Ask NBC and MSNBC to explain their inconsistent standards regarding political donations.


MSNBC President
Phil Griffin

NBC News President
Steve Capus

Phone: (212) 664-4444

I don’t have a dog in this fight, as a Canuck. But as an outsider looking in, I have no problem with pointing my American readers in the right direction.

News flash: global warming is really happening.

Despite people’s insistence that it isn’t, the climate is really changing, and certain animals dependent on certain climates are being squeezed out. Natural selection is going to kick in, and in a big way. These walruses are pretty much screwed, for instance.

We’ve only been screaming about global warming for decades. The more ground the anti-science crowd gains in pushing the truth out of the public sphere, the less prepared we are for the consequences: more, and more violent, inclement weather patterns; less potable water; lower crop yields; and resource wars. And that’s just with the predicted minimum two degrees centigrade warming that we absolutely cannot avoid.

Hat tip to Greg Laden, who includes a LOLrus in his post, bringing real gravitas to the seriousness of this issue.