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October 31st, 2005:

AstroWorld turns out the lights

And so it ends: After 37 years, AstroWorld is closing its doors for good. While we wait to see who buys the land it sits on and what they decide to build there in its place, here’s a one last visit story, with pictures, for your entertainment.

Guaranteed!

The Texas Lottery Commission is set to take action on the recent sore spot of overinflated jackpots by passing a rule to guarantee prize amounts.

If the proposed rule is adopted, the grand prize winner will be paid either the advertised jackpot or the jackpot based on sales, whichever is greater. The guarantees would apply to jackpots paid with the 25-year annuity, not to winners who choose the immediate cash-option payment.

The proposed rule also would require lottery officials to make a “fair and reasonable” estimation of potential jackpots. If the jackpot falls short of the estimate and ticket sales, the lottery would be allowed to pull money from other lottery funds to cover the difference.

What to do when those other sources of funding run dry is apparently a discussion to be held on another day.

In all seriousness, I think this is a good and necessary step for the TLC to take. If we’re going to have a lottery, we may as well be able to have faith in the fantasies that it’s selling. As long as they’re sufficiently conservative in their sales estimates and thus in their advertised prizes, this ought to go a long way towards fixing the problem.

Alito

As was the case with Harriet Miers, I’m not going to have too much to say about the current SCOTUS nominee, Samuel Alito. We’ll all be up to our collective clavicles in commentary on this one, so I see no reason to add to the clutter. I would appreciate it if someone who’s smarter than I am could explain in simple words why President Bush didn’t just nominate this guy from the get-go. What was it that made him look at Harriet Miers and say “She’s the one”?

Finally, since poor Harriet is about 95% of the way back to the obscurity from which she came, I’ll nominate the Pink Lady for offering the best parting shot:

In this morning’s announcement, Bush praised Judge Alito as the nominee with “more prior judicial experience than any Supreme Court nominee in more than 70 years, calling him “brilliant.” Harriet Miers, meanwhile, has been holed up in her apartment listening to “Killing Me Softly.”

My apologies to those of you who now have that stupid song stuck in your heads. You kids who didn’t grow up in the 70s being forced to listen to your parents’ radio stations have no idea how lucky you are.

UPDATE: And the “Thank you, Captain Obvious” award goes to the nimble thinker at the New York Times who gave us the headline Nomination Likely to Please G.O.P., but Not Some Democrats. Because this would be the first time that ever happened with this crowd.

Another quality committee from Governor Perry

Grits tells the sad yet predictable tale of what happens when Governor Perry convenes a panel to identify flaws in Texas’ criminal justice system and suggest possible reforms “from the initial stage of investigation into a crime to appellate and post-conviction proceedings.” I suppose we should all be happy that at least this committe has more than one member on it. Check it out.

McMartin student apologizes

This is fascinating. Remember the McMartin Preschool and the intense national hysteria that followed accusations that the owners and their employees spent the days molesting their young charges? It all eventually fell apart as the extremely shoddy interviewing techniques, coupled with the increasingly bizarre and hard to fathom allegations and ultimate lack of physical evidence led to recantations and vacated convictions, but not before many innocent people had their lives ruined.

Anyway, the LA Times magazine has printed an apology from one of the kids who was supposedly molested to those who were accused of the crimes. It’s compelling reading, so go take a look. Thanks to Kevin Drum for the link.

RIP, Richard Smalley

Richard Smalley, a professor at Rice who shared in a Nobel prize for his co-discovery of buckyballs, died last week at the age of 62.

Born on June 6, 1943, in Akron, Ohio, Smalley’s childhood was one of middle America and middle class. As a youth he spent hours with his mother, Esther Virginia Rhoads, collecting single-celled organisms from a local pond and viewing them under a microscope.

After earning his chemistry doctorate from Princeton University, Smalley accepted a job as an assistant chemistry professor at Rice in 1976.

At Rice, Smalley’s research group set about building a series of beam-and-laser machines that could vaporize material, leaving individual atoms in the residue. By vaporizing different materials, and cooling the resulting atoms to very low temperatures, the researchers could study and manipulate how the atoms clumped together.

Jim Heath, now a professor at the California Institute of Technology, joined Smalley’s lab in 1984 as a graduate student. Heath recalled his first day on the job, when Smalley patiently explained the experiments he wanted completed, and demonstrated how to operate the equipment.

There was just one problem: at 3 a.m., when he had finally finished the day’s experiments, Heath realized Smalley had forgotten to tell him how to turn off the machine. With trepidation, Heath called the senior scientist at his home and woke him up.

“He was actually delighted that I was still there working that late,” Heath said. “That was the sort of environment he created. He pushed people reasonably hard, but he balanced that by being a very compelling, almost Moses-like teacher. He knew what he wanted. You’re unlikely to ever meet someone who had a more intense and focused mind than Rick.”

A year after Heath began working in the lab, Smalley, along with Robert Curl at Rice and Sir Harold Kroto of University of Sussex, discovered a new form of carbon. This fullerene, or buckyball, contained 60 carbon atoms arranged in a perfect sphere.

Few scientists had expected to discover a new arrangement of carbon atoms because the element already was so well-studied.

“It was an absolutely electrifying discovery,” said James Kinsey, then a chemistry professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who later became dean of natural sciences at Rice. “Within a year or two, you couldn’t pick up a chemistry journal without one-third of the articles being about fullerenes.”

The new carbon material proved to be surprisingly strong and lightweight, and had almost magical electrical properties. The buckyball’s discovery helped fuel today’s explosion of nanotechnology research, in which scientists are racing to exploit the unique properties of myriad nanomaterials, with applications for everything from medicine to bulletproof vests.

Eric Berger relates a few more anecdotes about Smalley, including that he was elected Homecoming Queen at Rice in 1996 as tribute for his role in earning the Nobel. He was obviously quite a guy. Rest in peace, Richard Smalley.

(Shameless name-dropping aside: I never knew Dr. Smalley, but I am acquainted with his co-laureate Bob Curl, who is a longtime fixture in the local tournament bridge scene.)