RSS feed for entries


Hold this thought

A thirteenth century Persian poet, Muslihuddin Sadi, said it best:

If of mortal goods you are bereft,
and from your slender store two loaves
alone to you are left,
sell one, and from the dole,
buy hyacinths to feed the soul

So, if some flowers are good, more must be better. In that vein, maybe this view of poppies near Gorman, California, will be useful in these parlous times.

panoramic view of orange poppy fields stretching from horizon to horizon

(Clicking on the image will take you to the full size picture. There’s some rather bad manual stitching involved, since I hadn’t planned to take this kind of picture at all, but I couldn’t resist trying once I was sitting there.)

See all y’all in a couple of weeks.

Technorati Tags: orange, poppies, California

    Print This Post Print This Post

A moral story for the weekend

I am not big on chores. You could say I’m microscopic on them. So when I see something like this

sow's thistle growing in the gutter at my house

my attitude is pretty much to find something else to look at. I mean, actually cleaning out the gutters just because there’s whole plants growing in them …. I wouldn’t want to do anything overhasty. But life goes on, even in Southern California where it never rains, and sooner or later something happens.

So one day when I’m sitting in the garden, looking at other things besides the gutter, I hear a whirring noise above my head.

Anna's hummingbird collecting thistle down from the plant growing in the gutter

It’s nesting season for the hummingbirds, and suddenly as far as I’m concerned sow’s thistles can grow wherever they want.

Which brings me to the moral of this story. Don’t do your chores. Avoiding them works much better.

I’m off to Anza Borrego for the weekend to gawp at wildflowers.

Technorati Tags: hummingbirds, nesting

    Print This Post Print This Post

Violating the Law

The Second Law, that is. This should not be possible unless you add energy to the system. For instance, if there were a giant fan in Los Angeles, blowing their so-called air out to sea.

view of the coastal ocean with a dirty plume of LA air that should be blowing inland

But there is no giant fan.

I saw this while hiking northwest of LA, and it’s not the first time I’ve seen it. This is what the plume of LA pollution normally does. It’s not a matter of ground and upper level winds either. The pollution is near ground level and so was I, going from sea level to about a thousand feet up a coastal mountain.

How does dirty air move out into the ocean against the wind? How? This is really bothering me. If anyone knows how this happens, tell me!

Update: a commenter on this post at Shakesville suggests what I think may be the answer:

OK, maybe…
The polluted air is denser and lies along the ground. Ground drag doesn’t allow it to move as readily as the cleaner, eastbound air above, which thus moves across the top of the smog bank and, being cooler, sinks, displacing the polluted air, which moves west because it is blocked by the coastal mountain range to the east.
cory | 03.11.08

Technorati Tags: pollution, inversion, convection, Los Angeles

    Print This Post Print This Post

Ash Monday: Southern California Weather

It’s sunny here right now. It’s about 75F, 25C. Just like the stereotype.

Except there’s also a wind blowing off the Mojave Desert that is dry as an oven and gusts to 80 mph (approx 120 kph). (Sure, the sustained winds are half that, but it’s the gusts that rip the roof off. They came close to doing it to mine.)

The oven gale comes on top of months of almost no rain. Everything is dry as matchsticks. So it’s all going up in flames. Yesterday, the sky where I am was filled with ash and the sun was blood-red. After a brief run through the garden, trying to prop fallen plants back up, I look in the mirror and there’s ash in my eyebrows.

smoke-filled sky with the red sun barely shining through

But it is sunny. And 75F.

We’ve gotta be special around here. No normal bad weather for LA.

    Print This Post Print This Post

More Cellphone Adventures: Moving to Voip

It seems like a good time to think about how to dump Verizon, T, Qwest, and Co. With friends like these

Verizon Communications, the nation’s second-largest telecom company, told congressional investigators that it has provided customers’ telephone records to federal authorities in emergency cases without court orders hundreds of times since 2005. [emphasis added]

… who needs enemies?

Read more »

    Print This Post Print This Post

Riverbend is in Syria

I’m relieved to hear she and her family made their way out. I’m depressed that she and her family had to make their way out.

Just go read.

    Print This Post Print This Post

Writing about the future with a crow quill pen

I am ashamed to admit, though once I was proud (or proud-ish), to say that I was a member of Science Fiction Writers of America.

This is the crew who’s been discussed recently for takedown notices that rival those of Big Media in counterproductive silliness. Cory Doctorow was told to take down his own work. What is it about these people not doing their homework before plastering the planet with takedown notices? It seems to be a function of reduced grey matter to think it’s a good idea to plaster the planet with takedown notices.

This is the crew who sends mailings to members about the evils of creative commons. If you look at the bottom of my blog, you can imagine where I stand on that. But okay. It’s possible to have honest differences of opinion.

However, this is just downright paleolithic. A then-current veep of SFWA wrote that “I’m also opposed to the increasing presence in our organization of webscabs, who post their creations on the net for free.” Explaining why he didn’t want to run for president of the organization, he said he didn’t want to be a party to promoting the “downward spiral that is converting the noble calling of Writer into the life of Pixel-stained Technopeasant Wretch.”

I have to admit, he has a way with words. That last trenchant phrase has become the motto of thousands and a global holiday. You can even buy the t-shirt or mug.

What was SFWA’s official reaction? Did they distance themselves? Did they realize it was high time for the futurists to catch up with the present? The official reaction was nothing. Search their web site, and I, at least, can’t find anything at all.

And then there’s something that was not remotely funny. At the 2006 WorldCon in Los Angeles, Connie Willis was a speaker. Harlan Ellison was next to her. They are both giants in the world of science fiction. He decided it would be humorous to reach over and grab her breast. The initial reaction from him and from too many within the SFWA community was, “Why don’t people have a sense of humor any more?”

There was a firestorm. I gather his later reaction was to apologize for offensive behavior.

How can there be so much pathetic cluelessness in such a great writer? Patrick Nielsen Hayden said it best: “the basic message of Ellison’s tit-grab is this: Remember, you may think you have standing, status, and normal, everyday adult dignity, but we can take it back at any time. If you are female, you’ll never be safe. You can be the political leader of the most powerful country in Europe. You can be the most honored female writer in modern science fiction. We can still demean you, if we feel like it, and at random intervals, just to keep you in line, we will.”

What was SFWA’s official reaction to a huge issue of principle involving two of its members? Embarrassed silence, as far as I can tell. Mealy-mouthed mumbling. No censure. No statement denouncing appalling behavior. Nothing. Nothing front and center, where it belongs.

These are supposed to be the people envisioning new worlds. Boldly going where no one has gone before.

I don’t think so. There’s much I don’t know about the future, but, taking the longest view of humanity’s cultural evolution, one thing is obvious.

The future belongs to the free.

Technorati tags: SFWA, creative commons, futurist, pixel-stained technopeasant

    Print This Post Print This Post

Friday Bird Blogging

I know. It’s still not Friday. That’s just the way it is.

I’m feeling bellicose. Having a Fourth Branch of Government will do that to you. So here’s to fighting hummingbirds. They do it right. Take no prisoners.

    Print This Post Print This Post

How not to get fat

Even as a child, I knew what was wrong with math teachers. They were mathematicians. Math was easy for them, which meant they hadn’t a hope of explaining it to me.

In a similar vein, I have to throw in my two cents’ worth about staying thin. I’ve always been thin, both my parents were thin, and I should really just keep my mouth shut. But I can’t stop myself. There’s so much nonsense out there, I have to point at it, even if it’s not political nonsense.

1) A huge proportion, say 80% in round numbers, of anyone’s weight is determined by genetics. Trying to fight that is like trying to have the will power to grow black hair if you’re blond. There is no point. Forget it. Besides, obsessing about oneself doesn’t make anyone attractive, even if it does make them thin. Attractiveness comes down to health, fitness, cheerfulness, and caring. That’s true regardless of gender. So, could we all just stop the useless, ga-ga admiration of thinness? (Madison Ave., I’m looking at YOU.)

2) Fitness, on the other hand, is not useless. Get out there and move. Enjoy walking. Do it. (That’s all. There’s really no more to say about it. Memo to self: remember to keep New Year’s resolution about exercising more.)

3) Food, which is not that big a deal unless you don’t have enough of it, should be way down the list of concerns. The most important thing about food is to enjoy it. If there’s any difference — besides genetics — between me and people who have more trouble with weight, it’s that I seem to enjoy food much more than they do. I savor it, and I’m the slowest eater I know. I don’t eat just to have something in my mouth, because there’s little enjoyment in that. And I almost always wait to eat until I’m hungry, because food eaten when you’re not hungry tastes about half as good.

About hunger, one thing I’ve noticed is that lots of people don’t seem to distinguish between wanting a treat and actual physical hunger. It goes so far that sometimes I’m not sure they mean the same thing by hunger as I do. Hunger (when not due to malnutrition or starvation) is a physical sensation at the bottom of the chest, accompanied by a pleasant feeling of heightened alertness and an interest in all food, not just treats. Someone who’s hungry for pizza but not for plain bread is not actually hungry according to me.

I’m just like the next person, as far as that goes. If I eat when I’m not really hungry, I gain weight. The genetic component may be the brain chemistry that signals real hunger sooner rather than later in some people. But the sensation of hunger is also something whose degrees one can train oneself to recognize. And then it’s possible to train one’s reaction to different degrees of hunger. (If it wasn’t, there would be no anorexics, although their overtraining is something to be avoided like the plague that it is.)

Retraining reactions to hunger involves paying very careful attention to the physical feelings of it that your body gives you, and then deciding at which level you’ll act on it. That process is a mental habit, and it can be changed like any other habit. It takes careful and continuous attention for about six months to a year to change the habitual setpoint, but after that it’s just as automatic as the old habit was. It does not involve a lifetime of effort and self-control. (I’m not just gassing, here. This is something I’ve had to do as I get older and my metabolism slows down.)

As to what to eat, that’s easy. In Michael Pollan’s memorable words: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. (And if you want to cheat, remember: chocolate is a plant.) No, seriously. Eat what you enjoy, with people you enjoy, and all the rest will fall into place.

Technorati tags: fitness, health, diet, weightloss, New Years Resolutions

(Postscript. For information from someone with actual experience, see, for instance, Kyle Pott’s post on losing 50 pounds, via Lifehacker.)

    Print This Post Print This Post

Going Out Of This World on Rubber and Laughing Gas

(SpaceShipOne: First Private Launch, 21 June 2004)
by Mia Molvray, photos by Paul J. Kores
(c) 2005

SpaceShipOne’s rocket runs on rubber and laughing gas, and two days later I could still feel the laughing gas. Watching the ship reach for space was a charge that just doesn’t go away.

It didn’t start that way. It started with being turned away from Mojave Airport in the middle of the night while a gale like a tornado in training pounded the car. “The parking lot isn’t set up yet,” said the polite man whose job it was to guard the entrance to the airport. Not “set up”? What did they plan to do? Unroll it from storage in a hangar somewhere? This did not sound promising.

sunrise at Mojave Airport
Sunrise at Mojave Airport
Miss Mojave helping out
Miss Mojave, in tiara and blue jeans, helps the cause

We turned around, like the enthusiasts ahead of us, and headed off into the inhospitable night. It was our own fault, unfortunately. The web site said clearly that the lot would open at three a.m. for the 6:30 launch, but my partner, Paul, and I wanted to arrive early. Nothing would be worse than missing the launch because we were stuck in a traffic jam of arriving sightseers. A parking lot, we thought, is a parking lot, and we’d just wait the hours out somewhere, dozing on lawn chairs.

At Mojave Airport, we found out, that’s not the way it works. Unlike most little rural airports, Mojave’s is huge. Part of it is even used as an airplane junk yard for 747s and other big jets, and they just look like small planes in the distance, which shows how enormous the place is. An airport that size, it turned out, has no trouble accommodating thousands of cars. They just wheel generators and flood lights onto the packed dirt and, presto, there’s an instant parking lot. It says a lot for the folks who run the airport that traffic wardens and lights were ready a mere hour later, long before three a.m., and long before the whole town could become a snarl of frustration and lost tempers.

Our notion of dozing in lawn chairs proved ridiculous. Any native could have told us it wouldn’t work. The town of Mojave is not as dry as the desert of the same name, but it is in the desert, so daytime temperatures in June can reach over a hundred and cool off into the fifties after dark, which causes high night time winds. Sand and dust blew off the packed dirt of the airport in clouds, rocking our car and sandblasting the paint. Paul, who’s over six feet tall, couldn’t sleep in our small car no matter what, so he wrapped up in his windbreaker and some towels and braved the elements. I tried to sleep draped across the seats, despite a gear shift and parking brake that were out of sympathy with this project. Supposedly, the winds died down toward morning, which was why the flight was scheduled for 6:30, but it didn’t seem possible that the raging sandstorm could disappear in mere hours. Weeks seemed more likely.

I was surprised to find myself waking up (it had been one of those nights where I knew I hadn’t slept a wink). Early dawn spread a sapphire glow in the east. People had been arriving all night long, and setting up chairs along the fence marking the viewing area. Paul, it turned out, had found prime spots right along the runway, while I and the gear shift had negotiated our uneasy truce. In less time than it took to suck down a morning cup of tea from our thermos, the sky grew flame-colored and the sun floated up from behind one of Mojave’s low mountains. The wind was a gentle breeze ruffling the hair of little kids who’d be going to Mars someday because of what they were seeing here.

The improvised parking lot was now a sea of cars. One van was painted with rockets and stars and said “62 miles up or bust!” SpaceShipOne’s target was 328,000 feet, which is the European definition of the beginning of space. (NASA’s is lower.) The crowd was fifty people deep or more at its thickest along the fence, but sparser where we were. The fence consisted of a yellow nylon rope strung between steel posts set every ten yards or so. Anyone, large or small, could have stepped right through, but nobody did. There was supposed to be a three foot gap between the public and the fence, and airmen from the Civil Air Patrol at nearby Edwards Air Force Base marched up and down trying to get all of us to pay attention to the rules. They had about as much success as you would expect, but they were very nice about it.

Well before 6:30 the excitement started cresting. Rumors would sweep through the crowd that the White Knight had been sighted, that it was on this runway, that it was on that runway, or that it was near the media area a few hundred yards away. The White Knight is a twin-engine jet, also designed by Burt Rutan, and made to carry SpaceShipOne up to launch altitude.

There was supposed to be a link between the control room and a local radio station, but a glitch interfered. The radio station played country music and there was talk of waving a handkerchief out the control tower to give people a heads up at major points. When the White Knight carrying SpaceShipOne underneath it did appear, it was without any fanfare. A few minutes after 6:30 the world’s most elegant and unearthly aircraft rolled easily down the runway.

White Knight and SpaceshipOne rolling toward takeoff

We were cheering our hearts out as it rolled past. Technological achievements can be exciting, awe-inspiring, and life-changing, but they’re not, as a rule, aesthetically pleasing. The White Knight and SpaceShipOne are take-your-breath-away beautiful. The White Knight is not large, as aircraft go, and it looks so light and ready to fly that a strong breeze should be enough to send it swooping skyward.

The mood in the crowd was friendly, excited, tolerant, and polite . . . even toward the one gent (there’s always one) who was on his cell phone giving a loud blow-by-blow account to someone at the other end. “It’s coming down the runway now. It’s rolling past us now. It’s stopping at the end. . . . Yes, it’ll be turning soon for take-off.” I tried to remind myself that the poor person at the other end couldn’t be here, and that it was all in a good cause, but it didn’t help. It was like being at the movies when someone two rows over says, “Ooh, look Darryl, he’s about to kiss her. Ooh, he’s getting closer. Ooh–,” and so on. Kill all cell phones.

Well, the plane did turn, waited a moment, gathered speed for takeoff, and lifted effortlessly into the air. They say the mark of genius is to make difficult work look easy, and Burt Rutan is definitely a genius.

The White Knight – SpaceShipOne pair, followed by two chase planes, flew higher and higher in wide circles over the airport. At over 45,000 feet, SpaceShipOne would drop away and fire its rocket for the flight to space. The process was going to take an hour or so, which meant there was time enough to wait in line at the Porto-Lets. A connection between the control room and the radio station had been established, so word would come through when it was time to scan the skies for the historic event.

White Knight and Spaceship One, high in the sky

I found out when I came back that it is next to impossible to spot a small white plane that was growing smaller by the second in the vast bowl of bright blue sky. At one point, it passed through an atmospheric layer where it and a chase plane left contrails, so I finally managed to focus them through my binoculars. The problem was that their altitude-gaining circles took them right past the sun, which was well up in the sky by now. Looking at the sun through binoculars is a disaster, so tracking the planes required split-second decisions about whether it was better to lose the aircraft or my eyesight. I chickened out and lost the aircraft. And, in the perverse way of real life, they were no longer leaving contrails. The whole crowd of us was standing around saying, “Can you see them? Can *you* see them?” Nobody could see them, not even one man who’d brought a three-inch telescope to track the event.

Suddenly, not far from the sun, there was a lengthening line of white. SpaceShipOne had fired its rocket. Everyone was yelling and cheering and pointing. There was a brief interruption in the plume of white and a sort of kink in the trajectory, but I had no way of knowing whether that was all part of the plan or not. The plume of white resumed and the leading tip moved faster than anything I’d ever seen. In what felt like no time, but was actually 80 seconds, the rocket burn stopped and we all knew that Mike Melvill was coasting to space, looking at a black, starry sky and a round Earth. We found out later that he was also tossing candy up there and watching it float.

Minutes went by, all of us waiting, looking up, as if what we were trying to see wasn’t invisible. Then came the double sonic boom of SpaceShipOne’s re-entry, like a huge single heartbeat. Moment’s later, someone spotted the tiny dots of aircraft meeting the space ship and following its glide down. Through the binoculars, I could see SpaceShipOne, already in its gliding configuration with its wings flat like an airplane’s rather than up to stabilize its descent. It floated down as effortlessly as it had gone up, following a similar spiral path. Soon it touched down in a perfect landing while a storm of whooping, hollering, whistling, cheering and shouting broke out.

Spaceship One landing

A short while later, the White Knight seemed to be about to land, but instead it revved its jets, climbed steeply, and banked like a fighter in a fully deserved victory lap. Then it landed.

Over the next few hours, details emerged that those of us actually watching the event didn’t know. The kink in the trajectory had been due to a problem with the trim of the wings. Mike had worked around it, but it had taken 30,000 feet from the spacecraft’s altitude. Even so, Edwards AFB reported that the rocket reached the 328,000 foot boundary of space with 491 feet to spare. The trim problem turned out to be minor, and by the time you are reading this the Xprize for the first passenger-carrying, private launches to space has likely been won, and most likely by this very ship.

The last event on the program was a close-up view of SpaceShipOne as it was towed past the cheering crowds. Mike Melvill was standing on top of the ship, waving with as much exuberance as all of us behind the fence. It’s not entirely fair to NASA, since they have lofted a spacecraft or two, but somehow this felt more like the real thing than anything that has gone before. This was *us* doing it, not some bureaucracy with carefully scripted astronauts.

Unexpectedly, the van towing the space ship stopped and Burt Rutan himself got out. He came running across the wide trough of packed dirt up toward the fence. In seconds, he was headed back to the van with a big grin on his face holding a sign one of the viewers had given him. He passed it to Mike and the cheering broke out all over again. The sign said SpaceShipOne: Government Zero.

Mike Melvill standing on Spaceship One

    Print This Post Print This Post