Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Building your future, one step at a time

I recently read two articles that really inspired me, and the odd thing was that one of them was about a group that ordinarily I’d have a hard time feeling any sympathy for.

In The Daily Beast, a young Hasidic man (link: described how he decided that despite his community’s strictures, he needed to learn English and get an education. It might seem odd that someone born and raised in the U.S. would not speak English, but in his closed society in Rockland County, N.Y., such efforts were not allowed and could even make him unmatchable in marriage.

In a deal that went down late at night, he bought a small transistor radio and learned English, then got himself admitted to public school. Despite being totally unfamiliar with American culture, he managed to learn his way around and pursue his dreams of getting an education and a good job. There’s an amazing twist to the story, and I won’t give it away. Read it for yourself, and be inspired.

The other story, in the New Yorker magazine (link:, is about men trying to build a better future for themselves after serving time in prison for crimes, many of them bad crimes, in California’s state prison system. Carl Sagan once said that it’s amazing how brilliance can sprout in even the most unlikely places. The men in the story discover books, start reading and become determined to better themselves. Sure, there are a lot of idealists out there who want to help them, but these men are so determined to get ahead and live life the right way that they forge ahead through the many disadvantages placed in their path. There’s still a ways to go for many of them, but they’re getting there.

When I worked in the post office, I remember that one time a woman came up to me and said that she wanted to go to college, as I was. This was in the early 1990s. I had long since given up hope for advancement in the post office, and was focusing on my next career. Her main worry, she said, was that having a college degree might hurt her chances of advancement in the post office.

This was not an idle worry. The Postal Service was and is notorious for limiting the advancement options of people with college degrees. Look, a place that would promote an elementary school dropout is not one that’s going to respect a diploma. Many postal managers were high school dropouts with GEDs who were very proud of their lack of education, which they saw as a sign of wasted time. Even other workers were negative toward my goals.

But I had set my sights higher and was determined to make something of myself. In the meantime, I tried to make change real in the post office, but my low position meant that my ideas never were taken seriously.

Oddly, I was aligned with the views of the postmaster general at the time, but local postal management told me his views had no relevance to the Postal Service. These were the same folks who thought the internet was a passing fad.

I quit the post office in 1994 and began making my way in a new field. I still watch as the post office tries to change and adapt, and cannot because of its leadership. Preventing the smart people from advancing was a good way to protect postal management, but the system is paying the price.

Individuals, though, have to forget this whole notion of blind loyalty to collective groups and forge their own path. It’s not easy, as the young Hasidic man finds out, and the cost can be your ability to ever connect with a woman, but it has to be done.

No one ever regrets going to college, no matter their age. If you’re thinking of doing it, do it! You’ll be glad you did.


December 14, 2016 Posted by | Life lessons | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The book of worlds is being rewritten

The latest photo from the dwarf planet Pluto shows something no one could have imagined: Pluto is red.

There has been plenty of talk about “the whale” and “the heart,” and no doubt we’ll find other patterns on Pluto as the days until the close encounter dwindle and the New Horizons probe starts to send back its data and pictures, but this is a magic time. We’re seeing Pluto like we’ve never seen it before.

No more speculation or artists conceptions, showing hills, craters and mountains, and endless guessing on what the surface looks like. After a voyage that has taken more than nine years and 85 years since the discovery of Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh, the world of mysteries and its moons will be revealed to us.

I have heard it said that Pluto is the favorite “planet” of many people. Maybe that’s because it was little more than a dot of light, indistinct from a distant star, in so many photos. You’d see those photos, usually taken a few days apart, with markers showing you that something had moved. That was Pluto.

And that was all we knew.

As a child growing up, we learned the planets and I can recall in elementary school at Our Lady of Hope the fun we had when the teacher went to the “A/V room” and brought out the filmstrip projector. Instead of a boring lecture, we would get a filmstrip. In religion class, we’d see “The Good News of Christ” or “The Story of Jacob and Esau.” My favorite was in science class, when we saw “The Planets.”

Incidentally, one incident I recall from one of the religious filmstrips was that there was always the kid who got to run the projected, and during the soundtrack, every so often you’d hear an audio indicator to tell you to advance to the next frame. One afternoon, I guess the projector guy fell asleep because we saw the same frame for 10 minutes.

At the time of the planets filmstrip, the best photos of the planets were those taken from Earthbound telescopes. There might have been pictures from the Mariner probes, but the really detailed surface photos from the Viking landers didn’t come until 1976. Jupiter and Saturn looked nice and big, but Uranus and Neptune were small circles. And Pluto was, of course, a dot.

The final frame had the roundup of the numbers: 9 planets, 31 moons and thousands of “asteroids.” (today, they’re called minor planets, and we’ve seen closeup photos of two: Ceres and Vesta.).

Also lots of comets. Again, we’re gotten close a couple of times since then and have a lander that might or might not be active on one comet while its mothership orbits the comet.

Pluto stayed a mystery, though occasionally we learned something new. In 1978, a photo showed that Pluto had a bulge that turned out to be a moon, Charon. Since then, we’ve found four other moons and learned that Pluto and Charon are some kind of weird double-planet in orbit around a center that’s far above the surface of Pluto. In the movies we’ve seen from New Horizons, they dance around each other. The other moons seem to be tumbling in chaos.

In a way, July 15 is going to be like Christmas Day when, after weeks of anticipation you finally see what’s beneath the wrapping that’s hidden those boxes for so long.

Whole books about Pluto will become obsolete, and new books will be written. We’ll never think of Pluto the same way again.

In his series “Cosmos,” Carl Sagan told of the “Travellers’ Tales” of voyages that took place before the world was fully mapped, and how they were like the ones that in his time went to Jupiter and Saturn.

“We are outward bound on our mission to explore the outer solar system.
Ten thousand years from now Voyager will plunge onward to the stars.
We have made the ships that sail the sea of space.
We travel past Jupiter three quarters of a billion kilometers from the sun Saturn, one and a half billion, Uranus, three billion and Neptune, four and a half billion kilometers away.
In our ship of the mind we retrace the itinerary of the two Voyager spacecraft on their journeys to Saturn and beyond.
Saturn was first glimpsed through the telescope by Galileo.
Its rings first understood by Huygens.
But only now do we begin to penetrate its deeper mysteries.
Saturn is the second largest planet in the solar system.
Like Jupiter, it is cloud-covered, and rotates once every 10 hours.
It has a weaker magnetic field, a weaker radiation belt and a grand, magnificent exquisite system of rings.
The rings are composed of billions of tiny moons each circling Saturn in its own orbit.
The biggest gap in the rings is called the Cassini Division after the colleague of Huygens who first discovered it.
There are many other gaps each produced by the periodic gravitational tugs of one of the larger outer moons.
From just beneath the ring plane we see a sky full of moons.
Within the rings, the individual moons become visible.
They are orbiting chunks of snow and ice each perhaps a meter across.
In young parts of the ring system, there hasn’t been enough time for collisions to round the edges of these fragments the snowballs of Saturn.
Far from the rings, bathed in its red light we encounter Saturn’s immense cloud-covered moon Titan.
It has an atmosphere denser than that of Mars and a thick layer of red clouds which are probably composed of complex organic molecules produced by solar ultraviolet light and other energy sources from the methane-rich air.
No ship from Earth has ever penetrated those clouds and viewed, close-up, the surface of this tantalizing world.
It seems likely that the ground is covered, encrusted with organic molecules raining from the sky.
There may be volcanoes and valleys of ice and, just perhaps hiding in the warm places, some very different kind of life.
Near an ice cliff of Titan through a rare break in the clouds of organic molecules we can see, looming and lovely, the ringed planet, Saturn.
It is a view that will still be appreciated centuries from now by our descendants, who will know it well.
As well as we have come to know Hudson’s Bay and the Barents Sea Indonesia, and Australia and New York.
They will look back to when Titan was first seen by Voyager spaceships on their epic journeys past the giant planets out of the solar system to the great dark between the stars.”

How I wish Sagan were alive to see this mission to Pluto.

July 9, 2015 Posted by | Living in the modern age, Observations with Vinny | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

New version of ‘Cosmos’ is a dream come true

I finally got around to watching the new “Cosmos” on Tuesday, two days after it aired on the National Geographic Channel.

I wanted to finish the 2000 version of the original series with Carl Sagan first, and had the DVDs in hand for that series. People who are expecting Neil deGrasse Tyson to be a Carl Sagan clone and for the new series to track with the old one are in for a disappointment. First of all, a big part of Sagan’s series was the music of Vangelis. It’s kind of odd to not hear the introduction music or the song “Alpha” in certain sections.

Tyson is his own man, and he takes “Cosmos” in a new and fresher direction. Science has advanced tremendously in the 34 years since the original aired and even with the updates that Sagan made to his original as well as the 2000 update, much has changed.

We have a space telescope, we have clear proof of planets orbiting other stars – something that was only theorized in the original run – and we have a global Internet in which information is available to nearly everyone instantaneously.

The commercials are disruptive, so I’m sure that near the end of the 13-episode run we’ll start seeing the ads for the complete DVD collection, as we would if the series were on PBS. I think that’d be the best way to watch Tyson’s version.

He’s an engaging personality and his appearance the following day on “The Colbert Report” showed that he’s willing to go where the people are to make his case for science.

One thing it has done is made me even more determined to find and share my 1993 interview with Carl Sagan. I have a microcassette player now and just have to plow through all those little tapes. Just as Tyson describes Sagan being so friendly and accessible, I found Sagan to be that way when I called him to interview him before he came to Florida Atlantic University for a presentation.

Maybe I’ll get to interview Tyson one of these days. That would be a great joy in my life.

In the meantime, there are 12 more episodes of “Cosmos” ahead. It’s going to be a great three months.

March 11, 2014 Posted by | Living in the modern age, Observations with Vinny | , , , , , | Leave a comment

It’s time to grow up: Astrology has never been true

In the third episode of Carl Sagan’s 1979-80 science series “Cosmos,” the famed astronomer takes a look at the pseudoscience of astrology.

The episode, titled “Harmony of the Worlds” (or “The Harmony of Worlds”), is mainly a look at the life and work of Johannes Kepler and his three laws of planetary motion, but also explores the attraction of astrology. One shot, at a New York City subway newsstand, shows various astrology magazines and then has Sagan, standing on the roof of a building in Rockefeller Center, showing the day’s horoscopes for two New York City newspapers – the Post and Daily News (the latter’s headline is “The Beatles Are Back!”) and comparing them and analyzing their “advice.”

Kepler, Sagan admits, was an astrologer. He did it for money, as many astronomers did in the 17th century. But Kepler was “the last scientific astrologer, and the first theoretical astrophysicist.”

We like to think we live in a modern age, and in so many ways we do. Technologically, we’ll look backward to someone living in the year 2100, but right now we have some wonderful and amazing things. Still, the remnants of old beliefs clog our system, and astrology is one of them.

I first learned about the nonsensical nature of astrology from Isaac Asimov, who pointed out in a book I read that precession had made all the astrological stuff nonsense. The First Point of Aries, the vernal equinox, Asimov explained, had moved into Pisces. Counting Pluto, there are 33 constellations through which a planet can pass. The suddenly-famous constellation Ophiuchus, which has been around forever, suddenly got famous because of the news – which isn’t news – that the Sun is “in” Ophiuchus for longer than it’s “in” Scorpius.

So the story that really isn’t a story but is old news – that all the “signs” are off – has become the story, with countless articles and columns declaring the Minnesota Planetarium Society’s Parke Kunkle basically the man who stole the spiked punch bowl at the prom, in effect.

Oh my cats and canaries, you mean astrology isn’t true?

Countless spelling-challenged people commented on newspaper rant boards about how their lives were turned upside down. “I’m not a Scorpion but a Ofuican?” went the general rant. People howled at the tattoos they’d gotten that were now wrong, but of course astrology’s spin-meisters were out in force to say that it was all under control, and that the astronomers were basing everything, as they usually do, on science and reality, the fools.

Here’s a great story from The Christian Science Monitor that lays out the whole controversy in plain English.

And while I’m at it, on Wednesday night I took out the telescope and had another great observing session until the rising full moon made its presence felt.

It was an interesting night because for the first time I used my new Orion Dynamo battery as the main power unit on the mount. It worked great, by the way. I had my Celestron PowerTank fully charged for backup.

I had planned to use my new 6×30 finder with the right-angle eyepiece (to save my aching back from those near-zenith alignment stars) but forgot my Allen keys, which were needed to remove the old finder and put on the new bracket for the new finder. I found them after I finished observing – in a closet – and made the change for next time.

Setup was a breeze, as always, and I aligned initially on Jupiter, which is always a fine sight.

After it got darker and the stars came out, I did a two-star alignment on Capella and Rigel, and tried to use Navi as a calibration star, but that didn’t work. I finally settled on Alpheratz for calibration, and all slews were close to spot-on. I revisited Jupiter, slid over for a look at Uranus and then went for the gusto with the 40mm eyepiece and a shot at NGC 869, part of the Double Cluster in Perseus.

The scope slewed beautifully and I got a nice shot of NGC 869, then commanded that it find the Double Cluster (under Named Objects). The mount moved a tad, and there were the two clusters in all their glory.

I also had a great slew to the Andromeda Galaxy and watched it for a while, then tried M1, but the sky was too bright by then due to the moon. I got great slews to M36 and M37 in Auriga, then finished it all off with a slew to my old friend, M42, the Orion Nebula.

After that, the moon was becoming intrusive, so I shut down for the night.

I’m looking forward to a star party during my vacation next month, and hope to have more time to observe since I’ll be off at night instead of working.

Remember, astronomy is real, and astrology is bunk.

January 21, 2011 Posted by | Education, Living in the modern age, Observations with Vinny | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Advertisers waste time, money on the uninterested

It’s a sad reality that when a communications medium becomes flooded with advertising, people eventually get the message and stop using it, or find a way around the incessant ads.

In the book “Contact,” Carl Sagan wrote of a man who become a multi-billionaire and tax refugee because he invented a device that would automatically lower the volume of the TV when an ad came on. Little did Sagan know that a few years after his death, the TiVo would make TV watchable again because you could watch old TV shows on commercial TV and do 30-second hops through programming to bypass the ads.

I was thinking more in terms of the Postal Service, though, and whether I will miss Saturday delivery. Chances are, I won’t. It’ll be just another day of junk mail ads, most of which end up in the trash.

I shudder to think of the vast forests that have given their lives and leaves to try to persuade me that I really need a Delta SkyMiles/American Express card. Seriously, since adulthood, I have received a pitch about once every six weeks for the card.

The junk mail piece comes in an envelope with “Your travel documents enclosed,” but there are no travel documents inside, just a come-on for the card. Back before you could prevent them from calling you, I’d get telemarketed for the card, too. One of those calls ended in a string of obscenities by me for being interrupted yet again.

And yesterday, I received yet another pitch for an American Express card. Into the round file with that one, and more trees die to tell me something I don’t need to know.

Other memorable junk mail pieces are the “surveys” from the National Space Society and the Democratic National Committee, the pitches for money from the National Coalition Against Censorship and the USO. I’ve gotten hundreds of “renewal notices” from the ACLU, and countless “collection” warnings from Wired magazine. All have in common the fact that I once was a member or subscriber, and stopped.

Of course, there’s stuff I like to get in the mail, like my magazines, catalogs from outfits like Orion Telescope and more. I am not opposed to all junk mail, just the stuff I don’t want.

Advertisers are creating tons of “bad will” with relentless pitches aimed at the uninterested. Someday, maybe they’ll learn to stop. Until then, I guess we just have to deal with them.

July 20, 2010 Posted by | Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment