Archive for the ‘Visualizing’ Category

In January of 2013, I wrote this post about U.S. Military spending. Most of the numbers and basic facts, as well as my suggestions on what to cut still stand today, three years later (the numbers used here are for 2014). However, there are some developments that I should point out:


[IISS – click for image credit]

The U.S. military spending has gone down from $711 billion to $581 billion, if I can take the two different sources as valid and make an apples-to-apples comparison. China’s has gone down a bit, also. Russia is about the same, and so are most of the other nations. Interestingly, Saudi Arabia has doubled its spending during those years and risen to slot number 3 with $80 billion.

I put these numbers in a chart ranking the top ten military spenders in the world.

military spending 2014-1

The U.S. still spends more than the next NINE COUNTRIES COMBINED on the military, yet the population of the U.S. (321 million) is about one tenth of that of all those countries combined (3.1 billion). So overall we’re spending more than 10 times as much per capita as every other country in the world on the military. And this is AFTER all the “terrible” cuts by Obama.

Interestingly, with the rise of Saudi Arabia in this chart, they are above our ranking in spending per capita. The U.S. does about twice the spending of the major European nations per capita, about four times that of Russia and 18 times that of China.

When I listen to the Republican candidates during the debates, they are ripping into the current administration for slashing the military budget and destroying our military capability.


Are they telling me that it takes ten times the spending per capita of the next nine countries combined to defend our country?

Are we getting that much less value for our spending than China and Russia?


Or are we just spending stupidly, to use a Trump term?

Perhaps we should stop spending our military money in other countries. We’re not defending the United States and its citizens. We’re blowing money on the military industrial complex which has a vested interest in wars going on overseas all the time.

We are fanning the flames of terrorism on purpose. We’re killing innocent civilians and children by the scores with our drones. And at home we’re telling the voters that we have to be afraid of terrorists killing us.

Fear works.

None of this makes any sense to me.

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The south-east corner of Montana is closer to Texas than to the north-west corner of Montana. I know you’re all going to run and check your maps now.

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There is a general hatred of Iran that festers in the United States. This hatred is constantly stoked by the political right and it surfaces now more than ever, due to the recent nonproliferation talks and the “deal with Iran” that everyone on the right seems to call such a “bad deal” without providing substance as to why.

I was stationed as a soldier at Luke AFB in Arizona in the late 1970s. We were training Iranian pilots in American fighter jets then!

It all came apart in the late 1970s, and on November 4, 1979, under President Carter, the Iranian revolutionists captures 52 American diplomats and took them hostage for 444 days. The hostages were released “coincidentally” the day Reagan took office.

According to Wikipedia:

Fifty-two American diplomats and citizens were held hostage for 444 days (November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981), after a group of Iranian students, belonging to the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line, who were supporting the Iranian Revolution, took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

This is when our hatred of Iran started, over 35 years ago. When it happened, I had Iranian friends from my time as an exchange student. Of course, we lost all contact.

This got me thinking about Iran and its people.

Here is a population chart as of 2011 – which is the most recent data I could find (Wikipedia):

Ages Iran

As of 2011, there were about 75 million people in Iran. It’s by far the largest Middle Eastern country.

About 48 million Iranians, or 64 percent of all of them, or about two-thirds, were born after the hostage crisis. They do not know an Iran of the pre-revolutionary time.

About 62 million Iranians (all those highlighted in yellow) were about 15 years old or younger or not born at the time of the revolution. That’s a full 83 percent who were either children or not even born then.

Only 17% of all Iranians are therefore old enough now to have realistic memories of the time before the revolution.

I am personally older than 68 million Iranians or 91 percent of all of them.

And this is all data as of 2011. By 2015, there are probably about 5 million more – so the numbers are even worse.

The vast majority of Iranians are young people who want peace, stability, prosperity, education for themselves and their children. They don’t want war with America or anyone else. They want to travel, they want to visit the Grand Canyon and New York City, like all the people in Japan and China and France and Germany. They want to live normal lives, without hunger, censorship, and religious oppression.

In a few more years, all the old wackos will be dead and the only people left are the young generations.

We should watch Iran closely, but we should give them a chance to join the community of civilized nations, those that don’t preemptively invade or attack other sovereign nations, like we…

— hmmm, I guess not like we.

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Kepler 452b

The headline in USA Today was startling. A ‘Goldilocks’ planet was found, one that could harbor life as we know it, based on the fact that there could be liquid water on its surface. It’s a bit lager than Earth, approximately 12,700 miles in diameter, compared to Earth’s 7,926.

What the article didn’t say, however, is what it would be like to stand on that planet, earthlike or not. With a diameter this large, the volume of the planet would be about 4.3 times that of earth, so its mass would also be that much bigger.

Gravity is proportional to mass. This means that if you weigh 150 lbs on Earth, you’d weigh more than 4 times as much, over 600 lbs on 452b.

We couldn’t land there and be comfortable. Any beings used to that, probably squat end Jubba-like, would feel like bouncing balls on Earth.

The planet is 1,400 lightyears away.  If beings on that planet sent us a message in the year 600, the message would arrive just about now.

To put the time into perspective: In the year 600, Pope Gregory the Great decreed “God Bless You” as the religiously correct response to a sneeze. In the year 600, quill pens, made from the outer feathers of crows and other large birds, became popular. Mohammed, the founder of Islam, was alive during that time.

Suppose we received a message from any 452b beings. If we responded now, our answer would reach them around the year 3,400.

If we could build a ship that could travel at a tenth the speed of light (which is way beyond our current capabilities), it would take the ship 14,000 years to get there.

I am ready to go. Where do I sign up?

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Moon one Pixel

Picture Credit: http://www.joshworth.com

If you ever want to visualize the incredible size of just our solar system, and how it is almost completely empty, go to this website by Josh Worth.

On that site you can scroll from the sun to the various planets, and as you scroll, you “feel” how small the planets are and how far they are away. If the moon were the size of a pixel, as seen in the picture above, Earth would a tiny dot of a few pixels and about 35 millimeters away from the moon.

Pluto is smaller than the moon. The moon has a diameter of 3,474 km, and Pluto only 2,368 km. It’s only 18% the moon’s mass. So it would be smaller than a pixel, and could not even be seen on this scale.

However, on this scale, it would still be about 685 meters away from this point. That’s about a third of a mile or the length of about seven football fields.

So, if the Earth were the size of this dot on this picture, then Pluto would be a speck of dust a third of a mile away.

The New Horizons spacecraft left Earth in January 2006 and has traveled more than eight years. It’s the fastest human-made object ever, traveling about 100 times faster than a modern jetliner. And it has been on the way for eight years leaving that blue speck on the screen aiming for that speck of dust 685 meters away.

And it’s going to hit it three days from now.


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  • The closest state to Africa is Maine.
  • Alaska is the northernmost, westernmost, and easternmost U.S. state.
  • The southeast corner of Montana is much closer to Texas than to the northwest corner of Montana.
  • Reno, Nevada is further West than Los Angeles, California. Check it out here.
  • Spokane, Washington is further west than San Diego, if only by a third of a degree (117.4250 West  vs. 117.1625 West)
  • Mountain City, Tennessee is closer to Canada than it is to Memphis, Tennessee. Check it out here.
  • Alaska is the westernmost, northernmost and easternmost state in the U.S.
  • All of South America is east of Ohio, or Atlanta, Georgia, for that matter.
  • Rome is further north than New York City.
  • Regensburg, Germany is on the 49th degree latitude, the same as the long, straight border of the United States and Canada. This means that all of the continental United States is south of Regensburg, Germany.

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When I posted about visualizing the speed of light a couple of days ago, one of my readers pointed out another site that did a great job helping visualize the size of the solar system. If the moon is one pixel wide, what are the various sizes of the objects and their distances from each other. It starts out with the sun and you can scroll to the right to start getting to the planets. There is also a “speed of light” button on the right lower corner, the “C” button, which turns on auto scroll at the speed of light. Thanks, PS, for pointing out this site to me.

Visualize the Size of the Solar System by Clicking Here


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Here is an amazing video that shows what it would be like to be sitting on a beam of light traveling away from the sun, flying by Mercury, Venus, Earth, some asteroids and finally arriving at Jupiter, 45 minutes later. It really gives a sense of the immense size of the solar system, not to mention the universe.

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Common wisdom says there are about 6,000 stars visible with the naked eye on earth. Of course, half of them are below the horizon. Of the 3,000 stars above the horizon, 500 of those too close to the edge, or obstructed.  That leaves about 2,500 visible stars on a clear, dark night.

There are 4,200 religions in the world.

That means that there are more religions in the world than there are stars you can see on a clear night.

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Jupiter and North America

[picture credit: John Brady]

The green speck is what North America would look like on Jupiter to scale.

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While we marvel about the possibility of millions, even billions of intelligent civilizations in the universe, we really only know for sure of one: our own. It has, as a sentient culture only existed for a couple of hundred thousand years. If I can classify civilization as a group of sentient beings that records its history, then we’re only about 5,000 years old as a civilization. If technology is the defining factor, we’re only about 150 years old. All these time spans are very short in the context of cosmological terms, where time periods are counted in millions of years, even billions. We also don’t know how long a civilization lasts. Our own has so far not lasted long, and there are some signs that we’ll do something stupid soon and it will have been a very short period indeed.

So let’s speculate that an intelligent civilization lasts about 10,000 years from first recording its history until flaming out and dying off.

Our universe is 13.77 billion years old and the Earth is 4.54 billion years old. There are almost half a million 10,000 year spans in 4.5 billion years. So our civilization, based on my assumptions here, lasts about half-a-millionth of the time span of the earth.

If other planets on other stars had similar timescales, and if there were half a million such planets in our galaxy, all forming about at the same time the Earth formed, we could conceivably have had half a million civilizations on these planets alone without overlap. This means every one of those civilizations could have existed throughout its entire life-cycle without ever knowing about the existence any of the others. All of them could have been advanced technological civilizations with active programs in place to scan the sky for signs of life. They still would never have seen a trace of any. They existed, but separated from each other by time.

This makes me think of camera flashes in a stadium:

Watching the short video above I can’t help but think of each of the flashes to be a 10,000 year civilization somewhere in our galactic neighborhood. The short video spans perhaps 10 million years of time. We’re one of them flashing right now, but we never saw those before us or after us. Yet they all exist.

Taking this thought process further: If the universe is 13.77 billion years old, and the Earth only 4.54 billion, there could have been several full solar systems that came and went before ours even started.

Let’s say a solar system formed when the universe was 5 billion years old, and matured to the current state of ours at 9 billion years. There could have been highly advanced civilizations in that solar system that never knew about ours, since our own sun had not even formed at that time.

So when we think about civilizations in the universe apart from ours, we have to think not only about those that may exist right now, but all of those that have ever existed, and now we can multiply the current estimates of possibly trillions (see my post about this here) to millions of trillions.

Meanwhile, it would be nice if we could finally find just one flash of consciousness in the vast dark. Just one.





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There are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe, most of them millions of light years apart from each other. Our own galaxy is the Milky Way. Of course, we’re living inside of it, so we cannot ever take a picture of it. The picture below is of another galaxy (Andromeda) that we think is similar to our own. But that’s close enough for this exercise in visualization. You can click on the pictures to enlarge them.

Milky Way 1 The Milky Way is about 100,000 light years in diameter. That means that the light takes 100,000 years to go from one edge of it to the other.  Our own sun is in a minor spiral arm, called the Orion arm, about 28,000 light years from the center of the Milky Way. That means it’s a little over halfway out from the inside. Milky Way 2 In the picture above I marked a random spot. Let’s just say that’s about 28,000 light years from the center. If you enlarge the picture, you’ll see a little circle at the end of the arrow. That’s approximately the bubble where all the stars we can see with our naked eye on Earth are located. If you go outside right now, every star you see is actually in this little red circle. That’s how far we can see. That’s the “approximately 1,000 light year bubble.” Milky Way 3 About 1930, when radio became popular, we started broadcasting. Our radio waves of Churchill speeches or Hitler diatribes started leaving the earth at that time. Since then, of course, we added Gilligan’s Island and I Love Lucy over the years, bringing us to Family Ties, Seinfeld and finally Breaking Bad. There is a bubble of radio waves that started leaving the Earth around 1930 in all directions. That bubble is now 170 light years in diameter and growing every second. That bubble represents the entire reach of technological humanity into our universe. In the above picture, I tried to put that bubble of 170 light years in perspective, and I found it’s just a tiny little dot. If you zoom in on the picture above and look at the little red dot at the end of the arrow, that’s about how far humanity’s “scream” into the world has reached, at the speed of light. It will take a while before the scream reaches any listeners anywhere – and they’d better not blink, lest they miss us entirely.

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Would you believe that Reno, Nevada

is west of Los Angeles, California?








Don’t believe it? Scroll down to the map!













Map Reno

Now that I have your attention, I have a few other facts similar to that. I’ll let you check the map yourselves.

1. Spokane, Washington is further west than San Diego, if only by a third of a degree (117.4250 West  vs. 117.1625 West)

2. Mountain City, Tennessee is closer to Canada than it is to Memphis, Tennessee. Check it out here.

3. The western-most state of the United States is Alaska.

4. All of South America is east of Ohio, or Atlanta, Georgia, for that matter.

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[click to enlarge] Source: USGS

This is an excellent visual of our earth, with all its water sucked out of the lakes and oceans. This is what the earth would look like dry. The water is collected in one large sphere visible over the Western United States. This illustrates how thin a layer our oceans actually are.

The largest blue sphere over the western United States represents all of Earth’s water. Its diameter is about 860 miles and its volume is about 332 million cubic miles.

The smaller  sphere over Kentucky, that looks like a pin, is all the fresh water on Earth. 99% of that is ground water, which we cannot directly access. The sphere has a diameter of 169 miles and a volume of 2.5 million cubic miles.

The tiny blue dot over Atlanta represents the fresh water in all the lakes and rivers on the planet. Those are really our accessible water resources. It’s what we can drink and use to flush our toilets and water our crops. This sphere is only 35 miles in diameter and has 22 thousand cubic miles of water.

Check out this resourceful USGS article for more details.


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Memory Lane

Memory Lane

Everyone has memorable or favorite songs. When we hear them, we are instantly transported back to a time in our lives, sometimes to a specific period in our lives, like the senior year of high school, or even a specific day, like that first night with that special girl by the camp fire.

I noticed that when I hear such a song, I instantly mind-travel back to that period, or season, or day, when I first heard the song, or when it was popular on the radio. Some of the associations are so vivid, I can smell the air, I can see where I drove when I heard the song, sometimes as long as 40 years ago.

So I did something that I could not have done only ten years ago: I made a list of 50 songs that had special meaning to me. Predictably, many of those were songs that were popular in my youth and younger years when I tended to be more into music. To refresh my memory, I sampled collections of hit songs in some of the target years, and favorites jumped out at me that I had forgotten about.

Then I went on iTunes and bought the collection one song at a time (unless I already had it on CD somewhere). There are no artists with two songs on the list. I just picked the top 50. I called the playlist “Nostalgia.” When I play that list, in random order, I can literally mind-travel, jump around over the years and decades, and imagery of long past events flash bright in front of me, feelings and moods come to life, and the people of those days are suddenly around again – copies of their former selves, of course.

My mind always ponders mathematical implications. I realize that my list is unique in the universe. If a million other people all picked their own top 50 favorite songs and called the list “Nostalgia,” every list would be different. I’d venture to say that if I asked any random person about their list, I might not find a single one of my songs on their list. Yet, every one of us would have those unique, personal experiences when mind-traveling down memory lane.

Why can music do this to us? How is the melodic word, propped up by rhyme and rhythm, able to create such powerful associations in our heads to recreate the smells, the feelings, the places we lived when we were first imprinted with these songs?

Modern human evolution covers only a very short time span, perhaps 200,000 years, perhaps much less. Until very recently, like only a few centuries ago, knowledge and experience had to be transmitted from one person to another, from one generation to the next, by spoken and most likely sung words. Music and poetry may well have evolved to be so important in our experience now because it helped package knowledge and experience by creating associations. It’s easier to remember a poem that rhymes and is associated with a melody than it is to remember just spoken words. Those of our ancestors that were able to make those powerful associations and benefited by surviving and passing on those skills were the ones whose tribes survived through the ages. That’s probably also why we have songs that get stuck in our heads. We call them earworms.

Our brains are not good at remembering strings of numbers or words. But they are excellent at recognizing patterns, like seeing faces in tree bark or angels in clouds or animals in the stars of the night sky. When smells, images, feelings about people and places, come together with sounds, rhymes and rhythms – in short music – then magic is created.

That magic can now fuel the trips down our memory lanes unlike any generation before us could – because we have playlists to arrange them, iTunes to buy the songs from, and YouTube to trigger our memories about periods or things we have forgotten. The Nostalgia playlist is like the shoebox of photographs in the attic on steroids.

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