Category Archives: Science

Writing Is Sometimes Work

Writing can be like a partial conversation among friends. Writing can be therapeutic by admitting to things that concern or anger you. Writing can be artistic as you commune with the muse whose job it is to inspire you.

However, writing can also be work.

Lately, I haven’t written much because inspiration has been difficult. As an idealist who likes to believe that by pulling together we can accomplish anything, today’s “I’m right and you’re wrong” attitude is a definite buzzkill.

What’s wrong with “My opinion and your opinion are mutually exclusive and universally exhaustive, but go ahead and tell me about your opinion anyway,”? Nothing, but instead of conversing, we prefer to find an internet site, radio station, organization, or whatever that reinforces our own opinion. It’s easier than critcally thinking.

In 1998, Andrew Wakefield published a flawed–if not faked–study that linked autism to childhood vaccinations. The study was discredited and the former Dr. Wakefield was stripped of his medical license. However, some believed–and continue to believe Wakefield’s tripe.

Right now, in Asheville, North Carolina, 36 children are suffering from chickenpox. While chickenpox may not be fatal–although in some cases it has, it hopefully won’t be for any of these children. Meanwhile, their parents will most likely continue to limit themselves to associating with others who agree with their concerns about vaccinations.

Perception

Perception is a strange and wonderful thing. Many people live with the perception that “it will never happen to me.” Objectively this sounds foolish, if each of us included everything that could, indeed, happen to us, we would  be paralyzed with fear and spend our lives quivering under our beds in a fetal position.

However, since we are not data driven, realistic, computational intellects, we take totally unnecessary chances that make no sense and what do we have to show for it?

  • The ability to fly
  • Transplanting organs from a dead person to a living person
  • Automobiles, with gas stations full of highly flammable/explosive fuel located throughout the world
  • And a very humongous, etc.

On the other hand, a logical, realist would be naked and cold, banging stones together outside his cave because fire is just too dangerous.

 

Whatever Shall Be Will Be

Hurricane Florence is getting closer. The eye of the hurricane will be about 250 miles to the south of where I live, but, it’s not the eye that causes problems.

Hurricanes–cyclones–rotate in a counterclockwise direction. (Cyclonic means counterclockwise.) This means that if one’s location is above the eye, the hurricane is going to push the water in (deja vu–didn’t I say this yesterday????). So being above the eye is not necessarily a good thing.

Florence is now a category 4 hurricane, which means it moves faster and inevitably covers more territory. It may become a category 5. In any case, I’m going to get wet.

My wife, being much smarter than me, is taking our children to safety, far west and uphill from here. After all our years together, she knows that I live to help, so she understands (but does not necessarily give explicit approval) to my plan to stay here and provide emergency communications.

I expect to be successful, but this could be my last rodeo. After this, I may have to hang up the emergency communications hat and satisfy myself with the more sedate aspects of amateur radio; maybe I’ll take an occasional cruise, or whatever.

Actually, I look forward to that.

Major League catchers eventually succumb to their knees. Superstar quarterbacks succumb to traumatic brain injury. I suspect that, after this storm, I’ll succumb to whatever affliction affects disaster junkies.

Maybe I’m due to have some fun instead of a having one more additional fulltime job.

What do you think?

Pick at the Peak of Ripeness!

florence_tmo_2006257_lrg

September is when the hurricanes off the east coast of North America become ripe enough to be harvested and truly enjoyed. Like grapes or tomatoes, there are a few outliers that ripen earlier, but also like tomatoes and grapes, early hurricanes lack that full-bodied flavor that literally knocks you off your feet–sometimes permanently. Like tomatoes, hurricanes are best when picked fresh off the vine and tasted immediately.

If you don’t live in an area that experiences hurricanes, it is difficult to truly share the experience, but, I shall try. First, although the wind looks impressive on television, it is the storm surge of water that kills the most people. In Virginia, where we have been assured that there is no climate change, the sea levels have inexplicably risen and the land has subsided–a fancy word for “sunk.” The land sinks because industries such as paper mills pump so much water out of wells that the land actually sinks.

Evacuation is an option, but if you are not on the road at least three days before a hurricane makes landfall–with a confirmed reservation at a hotel well inland–you are going to bounce around in your car stuck in a 200 mile traffic jam in high winds heavy rains, and other cars tunning out of gas.

As the storm approaches, the water comes into the rivers and tributaries at high tide, the wind tends keep the water trapped inland, so the next few high tides keep adding. Then, there’s the rainfall. Yesterday–long before the hurricane is due, we got between 3 – 5 inches of rain. Since the most important thing around here is real estate development, all the low-lying wooded areas have been elevated so that instead of the water flowing into those areas, it flows the other way, into mature neighborhoods. Since electricity is also lost early in the game, the sewage treatment pumping stations fail; the water flowing through the streets tends to exhibit wads of toilet paper and worse.

The loss of electricity also means, given that there was never any global warning, everybody gets to enjoy the 90+ degree temperatures and 80+ percent humidity sans air-conditioning. Plus, ATMs, gas pumps, cash registers, etc. don’t work without electricity, so forget your debit or credit card. It’s exact change, cash only.

Afterward, the streets are lined with soggy wallboard and furniture from houses that were flooded. These sit, bake in the sun, grow mould, get rained on, wash the mould into the watershed, repeat. But, hey, Katrina barely bothered Louisiana and Maria was no problem for Puerto Rico, so what, me worry

It’s not a complete picture of what you may be missing, but hopefully it will help you share in our experience.

 

The Story

I’ve been working on a story for a while, but writing it keeps getting in the way.

I’ve always admired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes,” which was published as a serial in the Strand magazine, a monthly publication. My story–“The Story”–has been under development for a while. Like most writers, I d-r-a-g things out far too long as I write them. It’s a case of “Wait! It was a small dog, not a puppy!.”

As George Lucas supposedly said, “Movies are never completed, only abandoned.” The same is probably true of stories, so I’m going to publish–on this blog–at least a chapter a month. I make no promise that a particular chapter (including one that I may publish) will not be removed or eliminated.

Welcome to the wonderful??? world of writing. You may have the chance to experience my dreams, frustrations, pain, and stupidity, as I try to write a story.

I’ve already changed at least five chapters, but, interestingly, all of the characters remain, although their experiences might be different. If I share, I’ll try not to be too confusing (I’m not responsible for confusing myself).

If it’s worthwhile–I hope you enjoy.

Chapter One is coming soon.

Show Me the Data!

Too many decisions are made with questionable–or worse, self-serving–data. Even worse, they are made for us rather than by us.

In Washington, DC there is a five cent charge for each plastic bag you use at the store. I, like almost everyone else, am tired of seeing those bags stuck in trees, fences, etc. My family recycles about 95 percent of the plastic bags we receive, including the ones in which the newspaper is delivered. The other five percent are repurposed as litter bags, to wrap shoes before they go into the luggage, and for many years, to separate one string of Christmas lights from the others when the season was done.

The idea, I guess, is to use reusable bags, which require energy and raw materials (look–there goes the carbon dioxide into the atmosphere) and reusable bags have microbes delivered  by the fresh fruit and vegetables. The microbes that remain in the bag have nothing better to do that to wait for the next shopping trip. Drop in an orange or two, a banana, and some grapes and the microbes are off on a reproductive orgy.

So, the answer, apparently, is to wash the reusable bags, but water is also a precious commodity in short supply. Is washing reusable grocery bags more ecologically sound than single-use bags that can be recycled?

I’ve yet to see definitive data on any of this to guide me in my decision. However, I do believe that there is a segment of the population who will discard the plastic bag, along with the various wrappers, skins, or bones of the initial contents inappropriately (i.e. on the ground somewhere outside the store).

They say you can’t legislate morality. Likewise you can’t make stupidity or callousness punishable acts. The people who care, will continue to care. The people who don’t, won’t.

In the meantime, can someone show me the data thata will tell me the magic combination for carrying groceries home?

Us vs. Me

 

illustration-of-human-evolution-ending-with-smart-phone-resize

“Wait, I need to take a selfie!”

Far too many events today are due to decisions by people who think only of themselves.

This is unnatural.

The hermit, alone in his cave, has always been an idiosyncratic caricature. The word hermit is derived from the word for desert or desert dweller. Deserts are not particularly attractive to people who depend on hunting and gathering. Deserts are more successful as after the invention of are air-conditioned houses and refrigerated food trucks. (Casinos, although optional, seem inevitable.)

Humans from earliest times sought out one another.  Our ancestors, the Homo erectus, (stop thinking dirty thoughts–it refers to having the ability to stand upright) or Homo sapiens neanderthalensis  tended to keep their families together, eventually becoming tribes. Some believe that the reason that there are no identifiable descendants of the Neanderthals is because the two groups combined and interbred, ultimately resulting in us, Homo sapiens.

We belong together, but sometimes are reluctant to admit it. As such, in order to survive and prosper, we must look at things in terms of the common good. Life is not a zero-sum game (if I win, you lose). It is a life-or-death struggle in which WE win or lose.

I could wax poetic for another 300 pages, which I might enjoy, but WE, as a totality, would not, so I’ll stop.

* Links courtesy of Wikipedia. If you use Wikipedia, then use PayPal to send them a few bucks–better yet, a few bucks a month.

Tithing

In ancient times, the Israelites, or if you prefer, the Jews, were expected to set the first ten percent of their harvest aside as an offering to God. Many of us–Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, have roots reaching back to that same practice. Of course, back then, they slaughtered animals, the priests took a portion for their services–after all, they did not farm or own herds–but the rest was burnt on the altar as a sacrifice.

Most churches today, wouldn’t know what to do if someone placed a lamb in the collection basket. Even worse, the children in the congregation would be traumatized by the idea that a cute little lamb (although they really are dirty and stupid creatures)  would be slaughtered (even though they might very well enjoy that same lamb–with mint jelly–if it were packaged on a Styrofoam tray covered with shrink wrap at the grocery store).

It’s a different world. Today, very few of us raise sheep (my friends in New Zealand excepted, of course), so that’s not what we bring as a sacrifice. So what do we offer?

  • Church goers often donate cash to their church.
  • Many people donate money or goods to various charitable organizations.
  • Some people donate time to soup kitchens or shelters for the homeless.

But their are other opportunities to contribute to the good of all, even if you can’t help out at a soup kitchen and wouldn’t know which end of a hammer to use for Habitats for Humanity.

You can donate computer time. and it’s painless.

When you are not using your computer, you can let it work for others. Calculations that once required a supercomputer are now divided up into byte-sized (sorry about the pun) chunks and sent to thousands of personal computers. Each personal computer is limited; a hundred personal computers has possibilities; a thousand personal computer is awesome.

A million personal computer working on a problem might just solve it.

If you participate, you can set your computer to work on such issues whenever you aren’t using it. There are sites working to track asteroids that threaten the earth, the cure for various diseases, the global warming issue–does it exist? What causes it, and what should we do?

There are a variety of other questions to be answered. Curious? Check out

boinc.berkeley.edu.

 

A Slight Diversion

Just an update —–

I’ve continued to work on my story, but there is my day job, and, because of my interest in electronics, I recently acquired a 3-D printer kit and assembled it over the weekend. That’s the problem with radio–it entices you to keep on wanting to learn new things.

SONY DSC

I’m working on learning the software, so I haven’t printed any three-dimensional thingies just yet.

Don’t worry, I consulted with the key characters in my story, and they approved. They told me it’s what they would have done.

Radio – STEM Applied

Too many things today, in my opinion, are observer activities rather than ones that encourage participation. The term “couch potato” was coined to describe the sentient state television induced on humans.  Commercial radio and television behave the same way whether we’re involved or not; I’ve never intentionally watched a soap opera, but they are broadcast nevertheless.

However, there are participatory activities; you can probably guess where this is going.

My favorite means of interacting with radio is Amateur Radio; why “amateur?” because ham radio operators, by law, cannot charge for providing communications via ham radio. Why “ham” radio? No one knows; there are dozens of theories, but none of them can be proven.

So why does amateur radio even exist, and how is it different from CB, Family Radio Service, or, for that matter, cellphones?

sam-cristoforetti-01-320

Samantha Cristoforetti (Amateur Radio Call Sign IZ0UDF) is an Italian European Space Agency astronaut, Italian Air Force pilot, engineer, and Star Trek fan. 

Amateur radio is a service, defined by federal law (the Code of Federal Regulation, Title 47, Subchapter D, Part 97). As a service, this places certain obligations and requirements on those who are licensed. The first portion of the law explains its basis and purpose; I’ll give you the condensed version.

First, amateur radio is valuable because it provides noncommercial communications, particularly during emergencies. As a friend used to say, amateur radio exists to support emergencies. If there’s no emergency—have fun.

When Puerto Rico got hit (twice) by Hurricane Maria, virtually every mode of communications was disrupted, and that means cellphones, internet, wired telephones, television, etc. FEMA (The Federal Emergency Management Administration) and relief organizations like the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, etc. relied on amateur radio operators for communications. (one of my colleagues provided communications and has an excellent brief, if you’re interested.)

Second, amateur radio is intended to advance the art of communication. Make no mistake, it is an art; in far too many places,  it is a lost art.

The purpose of communications is, and should be, the means to share ideas. Far too often, though, it has been replaced by people who talk just to hear their own voice.

Third, the law addresses advancing skills for both communications and technical capabilities.

While ham radio uses voice for communications and Morse code, there are dozens of digital data modes, several ways of sending television, and some that use technology originally developed by a Nobel laureate astrophysicist, who just happens to be a ham.

Fourth, to expand the number of trained operators, technicians and electronics experts.

Amateur radio requires a license. However, having proven an understanding of electronics theory, rules, regulations, and proper operating procedures, hams can design and build their own equipment, able to transmit up to 1,500 watts. (By comparison, CB is 4 watts and cellphones 0.2 watts.)

Fifth, Continuation and extension of the amateur’s unique ability to enhance international goodwill.

Unlike the trolls on social media, hams are licensed and therefore not anonymous. In fact, standard practice is to follow up a radio conversation with a “QSL” card to confirm the contact. The card may be a physical post card, or it may be electronic; in either case, it includes the ham’s full name and address plus technical details. Hams collect this information and are proud of how may other hams in other countries they’ve contacted. .

Incidentally, the International Space Station has both a Russian and an American ham radio station. When their workload permits, astronauts schedule time to talk with children at their schools to encourage interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). Unfortunately, with the shuttle traveling at 17,500 miles per hour, conversations are short. At that speed, the shuttle is overhead for only about 8 minutes. However, to a seventh grader who gets to talk to an astronaut, what an exciting 8 minutes they are.

Want to know more? Try the American Radio Relay League , email me (steve@sfnowak.com) or add a comment; I’ll try to give a good answer that we can share with others.

All th best, or as we hams say, “73!”

Still Thinking about Radio

Why, you are probably asking, am I so fascinated by radio? While the media’s use of radio, television, and social media sensationalizes and encourages controversy, argumentativeness, and even violence, I find that focusing on the technical application of physics is far more enjoyable.

Back in the day, you could take things apart to see how they worked, and even try putting them back together. A mechanical alarm clock that was headed for the trash is a perfect example–all those gears. It was expected that when you tried to put it back together, there would be pieces left over, but it still gave you some idea as to how it worked–and that was without a Youtube video to explain it. Then there was the other direction–building things–anything–not huge projects, but small and interesting ones.

cat whisker

Did you ever  build (or even see) a crystal radio? A length of wire for an antenna, a second wound around a tube (such as a toilet paper tube), another wire connected to a ground—such as the center screw in an electrical outlet a galena crystal, and a set of headphones. By moving a flexible wire around the crystal, it is possible to tune in a station. In the Second World War, soldiers would build a “fox-hole” radio using a razor blade as the crystal and a pencil lead for the cat’s whisker. When I built my first crystal radio, I began to understand how a basic radio receiver works and was hooked.

I built my first computer, which arrived in the mail and consisted of a circuit board and a plastic bag full of parts. It initially had 256 BYTES of memory and had to be programmed using hexadecimal numbers (that’s where you count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, A, B, C, D, E, F, 10). By the time I was done with it, it had 8 kilobytes, stored programs and data on cassette tapes, used a mechanical teletype and I programmed it using “Tiny Basic.”

Could I build a smartphone? No, I cannot, but then neither can you. I do, however, have a conceptual understanding—and can explain—how the various parts of a smartphone work and how those parts are integrated. When I’ve asked my kids if they understood how theirs worked, their expression seemed to indicate wonderment as to why anyone would ever want to know.

There’s hope, though, through the MAKE movement, which encourages young people–especially girls–to build, modify, and experiment. I hope they enjoy it. Al I can say is that over the years, my interest in radio and the electromagnetic spectrum has caused me to learn, but more importantly, to think.

I Like Radio

I like radio.

In fact, I’m fascinated by the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Some consider it overreach to include direct current, like the electricity produced by a battery, but the AC electricity that powers most homes and offices definitely belongs. AC power oscillates, changing direction and then back again in some approximation of a sine wave.

sine

For most AC power in America, this occurs 60 times per second. For years, this was to as 60 cycles per second until the late 1960s when it was changed to “Hertz” (Hz). This name change was to honor Heinrich Hertz, the German physicist who proved the existence of electromagnetic waves. Unfortunately, since Hertz had been dead since 1894, we was totally unaware of the honor. Perhaps the living physicists put their sliderules and partied to songs like John Mellencamp’s Hertz so Good. [I know the song was recorded at least ten years later, but physicists are not big partiers, so it may have taken them a while to pull things together.]

spectrum

There are radio waves as low as 3 – 30 Hz, referred to as “Extremely Low Frequency,” but most of us don’t notice them until somewhere around the AM Broadcast band. The spectrum continues through shortwave, or high frequency (HF), very high frequency (VHF), which includes television*, FM radio, and aircraft communication. Ultra high frequency (UHF) include a number of other radio services, including cell phones. Microwaves, which are useful for radar and reheating leftovers start around 1 gigahertz (GHz) up to about 40 GHz, are next.

Going up. Next stop includes infrared through ultraviolet; smack dab in the middle is visible light. I think it’s safe to say that visible light was the first segment of the electromagnetic spectrum to which humans were aware. In fact, to many people, “spectrum” is what you see with a prism or in a rainbow.

Once you get above ultraviolet, there are X-rays and Gamma Rays, which have the ability to pass through matter and create an image that can be recorded. However, they also have an additional characteristic—they become ionizing, which means that they can change the electrical charges in matter. Ionizing radiation can cause cells to mutate. While comic book storylines propose that mutations result in superpowers, that’s just a STORYline. In actuality most mutations are bad; however, bad mutations can be useful, if applied to a confined area, such as a cancerous tumor. When the cancerous cells mutate, they often die.

To the best of my knowledge, the only thing above gamma rays are cosmic rays, but who knows what remains to be discovered.

Don’t touch that dial. I’ll be back soon with even more.

* I find it disappointing that many people do not know that with a simple indoor antenna your HD flatscreen smart television will receive the local television stations without cable. Picture quality is almost always better, because the signal doesn’t have to be compressed the way it is for cable. In addition, when television switched from analog to digital, they each ended up with three channels that fit in the same bandwidth as the old analog system. Since it’s “use it or lose it,” the other two channels tend to rely on shows that are far less expensive—so you may find Soupy Sales or Mr. Ed. Finally, since a smart TV connects to the internet through your wireless router, you can still access Netflix, Amazon, etc., all without the television being connected to the cable.

The CES and Other Illusions

Every year I read about the great new products at the Consume Electronic Show, this year held 8 – 12 January in Las Vegas. The products are marvelous. They’re amazing. They’re introduced amid a glamor of models, cosplayers, and celebrities. They represent the cutting edge of technology.

Unfortunately, most of us will see, much less be able to use most of them. Like, where are the flying cars?

Driverless cars, domestic robots, virtual 3-D that’s adult—NOT porn (I’m not kidding, that’s what they say), and (wait for it) the ability to see INSIDE YOUR HAIR! Now, given that I have much less hair than I did in my younger days, that just might be important to me. Can I stop by WalMart, BestBuy, or even Brookstone and pick one up? Not so much.

There are the latest video games (yawn)—but—wait! Here’s something special— a smart kitty litter box! Something practical—but it’s for the show, not the store.

Oh well.

I’d write more, but I need to go sweep up around the plain, old-fashioned, low-tech kitty litter box.

XMAS, Improved

My friend, Rick Martinez, with whom I’ve shared wonderful intellectual and philosophical conversations—as well as my writing efforts throughout the years—comments on some of my blogs. This is in response to my last blog, and is a beautiful thought for the season. I formatted it as a blog, but the thoughts and words are Rick’s, unchanged.

Thank you, Steve, for writing about Christmas—the Birth of Christ. No matter of all the “scientific” facts surrounding when Jesus was born and who believes what–there’s at least two general things we all acknowledge and accept as true. At the time and in the area of Christ’s birth, what was true 2000 years ago continues to be true today–some 2000 years later: There were believers and non-believers and warring factions back then as there are now. And–for Christians all over the world, the most tragic words ever written of our Lord are those set down by the Apostle John in the beginning of his Gospel:

He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

Bethlehem had no room for Him when He was born;

Nazareth, no room for Him when He lived; and

Jerusalem, no room for Him when He died.

It’s Different for Some People

Nice shirts!

I noticed that the story about the UCLA jocks who were arrested for shoplifting in China disappeared pretty quickly. Some stories stay on the Internet news sites as “Breaking News” for weeks, but not this one.

I wonder why.

You had to love the press conference that was arranged for their public apology where they were all wearing matching UnderArmour shirts with the UCLA logo.

Do you think they all might have stopped to buy those shirts together at the campus bookstore? I’m not saying the company gave them to the school, who then gave them to the ball players. But, then again . . . .

What if, instead of jocks, this incident had involved science, technology, engineering and mathematics students? Would the President have gone to the Chinese leader and asked for them to be released?

Silly question:

  1. Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba would never invite boring science, technology, engineering, and mathematics students for an all-expense paid trip to China.
  2. Those are the kind of people who know that it’s wrong to steal sunglasses from anybody on any continent for any reason.

Finding Life

I’m sure that over the past ten years I’ve mentioned this—at least once or twice, if not more.

We’re having a Thanksgiving potluck at work on Friday. I usually contribute jambalaya, but this time I decided to bake bread—sourdough bread. In the 19th century, during the gold rush, someone discovered that there were microbes in the air near San Francisco that would not only leaven bread, but also give it a crisp crust and a savory almost sour flavor. Sourdough has been popular ever since, to the point that we don’t even realize that it is routinely overpriced.

For a while it was claimed (and maybe even believed) that you could only make sourdough in the climate conditions found in the Bay Area. Fortunately, that’s not true.

I bought a sourdough “kit,” which included dried sourdough starter (which included some of the lactobacilli that make the magic happen), a crock for storing starter, and a book of recipes. That was in 1982, and I’ve kept it going ever since. This has not always been easy, especially with a few deployments taking me out of the home scene.

Nevertheless, the starter has lived long and prospered. Today it was combined with flour and water to make the “sponge,” the first step in making sourdough bread. As I write this, the  lactobacilli should have everything under their control. I have already returned  a cup of sponge to the crock to be the starter for the next batch and carefully placed the crock in the back of the refrigerator.

I’ve added more flour, water , and salt to the mixture, and tomorrow it will be formed into loaves and baked. I will literally “break bread” with my coworkers.

I see sourdough the way I view wine and cheese; it is what it is because we combine living organisms with the hand of man. Wheat is alive, we harvest it, and it dies, but when we add yeast–or better yet, sourdough starter, it lives again and morphs into something new and better. Then we share it, which is another living thing.

I’m told that there’s an old Russian saying, “Where there’s food, their’s life. Where there’s life, there’s hope.” You may not agree with their politics, but you must give Russian philosophers their due.

Pass the bread, wine, and cheese. Share life.

P.S. Most of this was typed one-handed because Alex the parrot claimed the other hand as her perch.

Spreadsheets

If you’re reading this, you probably have at least a basic understanding of computers—whoa! Don’t leave! Bear with me for a minute.

I used to communicate with others on NetZero dialup and write articles on a DOS (that’s disk operating system—pre-Windows for you youngsters) word processor. The first spreadsheet program I recall was Lotus 1-2-3, once a powerhouse, but now an answer to some stupid question on Jeopardy. We’re so used to spreadsheets that we have no appreciation as to why they were the first “killer apps.”

No, really! That’s how it was done!

Prior to the 1980s, complex production was tracked on the manual equivalent of spreadsheets. Seriously. We’re talking about blackboards (yes, real chalk boards—not whiteboards; you never got a buzz from chalk dust, just a nasty cough). Businesses would have huge blackboards mounted on the walls and/or wheeled stands—not one blackboard, mind you, but many. The blackboards were set up with grids, and if a change occurred in one variable, the person tracking it would go from blackboard to blackboard, updating the appropriate sections.

Maybe it’s easier with an example. If chairs usually cost $10, but the price changed to $12 and the company had orders for 15 rather than the usual 10, the human Excel operator would go to the place on the blackboard where chair costs were written and change it from $10 to $12. He (the male to female ratio of geeks was even worse back then) would then go to the place where quantity was tracked and change the 10 to 15; it could be the next blackboard or one in a different room. Next, he’d replace $100 (10 chairs at $10 each) with $180 (15 chairs at $12 each). A small mistake (is that 180 or 160? I can’t read my own handwriting) in one part of the blackboard jungle would cascade throughout, and might take days to correct.

Today, almost every computer seems to have Microsoft Office, which includes Excel, an extremely powerful program. I’m told that over 80 percent of Excel users are only able to utilize about 5 percent of its capabilities, but still are able to accomplish almost everything they want to do.

All that on one screen with no chalk dust.

The Brain? Abby Normal

foot

Aaron Hernandez (the late football star) is in the news because he committed suicide while in prison after he was sentenced for murder. His dead body provided shocking information that medical science was not able to discern; his autopsy showed chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Now, let me get this straight—it’s the twenty-first century, and instead of having flying cars (dammit!) we are just beginning to realize that if you hit someone in the head, over and over, it affects them. It impairs their judgement, causes mood swings, and inappropriate behavior.

Well, we’d better stop that—unless getting hit in the head is part of a professional sport that generates millions of dollars in revenue.

Sounds curiously like the justification for the gladiators fighting to the death in the Roman Coliseum. That, of course, pleased the crowds, but was barbaric.

We’d never stoop so low today, but, if it has major network coverage, instant replays with everything coordinated to accommodate commercial breaks, and attractive cheerleaders, it’s okay. Hell, we’ll have a dedicated section of the newspaper every day!

Hmm.

Being surprised that repeated head trauma causes problems is kind of like the medical logic that “if you shove an ice-pick up somebody’s nose far enough so that it reaches the brain and you wiggle it back and forth, they act differently afterward.”

Is it just me, or are we missing the blazingly obvious?

Maybe I should just shut up and bang my head against the wall repeatedly, until it makes sense.

Autumnal Equinox

Throughout the year, the time allotted to daylight each day changes. Longer times of daylight coincide with summer, which is different north and south of the equator. Summer is when the earth’s tilt favors one hemisphere or another.

Near the poles, summer daylight gets so long that at its peak there is no night; the sun just makes a circle above the horizon. Of course, in winter, that means that there are l-o-n-g nights. Even here in North America, within the lower 48 states, the difference between sunrise in Maine and sunrise in Florida on any given day can be significant. Add the difference at dusk, and you find that sunny Florida gets a shorter amount of daylight than chilly Maine.

But there are two days a year, the vernal (spring) equinox and autumnal (fall) equinox during which the amount of daylight and dark are approximately equal—approximate because you have to allow for variations due to refraction, etc. It doesn’t happen on the same date each year; the autumnal equinox, for example occurs anywhere between 21 September and 24 September.

Incidentally equinox is constructed from the Latin words for equal and night. I have to wonder why they didn’t call it equal day. Perhaps day was time for work, but the parties and other fun happened at night.

Friday, 22 September, is the autumnal equinox, when light and dark are pretty much equal. Maybe we should take some inspiration and focus on where we could be pretty much equal. For example, spending the same amount of time listening and thinking about what was said to match thinking of what we’re going to say and talking. (Don’t forget to include the time to think).

If everyone did this, it could be a celestial event of astronomic proportions.

Mother Nature and the Odds

I live in an area that has experienced hurricanes, but not since 2011. Some around here now feel that we’re free of that threat. There might be some truth, at least for a while, given that current weather trends tend to have wind shear that trim the tops of hurricanes, weakening them, and there is a natural pattern that tends to push the storms back out into the Atlantic.

We’re good, right? After all, once a weather pattern occurs, it doesn’t change—does it?

Long ago, in statistics class I was taught an interesting fact. You flip an honest coin 100 times, and it comes up heads each time. What are the odds it will come up heads on the next flip?

Fifty-fifty.

We’ve blamed el Nino, la Nina, butterflies in Africa, etc. I don’t think we’ve quite figured anything out.