Category Archives: Uncategorized

Enjoying Astrophysics and Quantum Mechanics at Home



Image courtesy NASA; NOT the black hole discussed on the blog.

Scientists are busy with the Large Hadron Collider, probe spacecraft to the outer planets, telescopes and mathematics to understand the wonders of the universe.

They really don’t need to go so far and invest in so much technology; it’s far easier to study much closer to home. For example, I have constructed a black hole in my own home. I confess that it was quite by accident, but it’s here and functioning nevertheless.

It started out as a simple cardboard box (shades of Calvin and Hobbes and their transmogrifier!). Its initial purpose was a place for me to drop my keys and other essentials that I tend to carry or keep in my pocket: eye drops, Chap Stick, pens, wristwatch, etc. Over time, it has continued to gain mass as church bulletins, programs for school concerts were added.

Naturally, I assumed that my wife or kids were responsible, but they vehemently denied putting anything in or on the box. Naturally, I accept these statements as absolute fact, with the logical conclusion that its gravitational attraction has become strong enough that anything not firmly secured elsewhere would make its way into the box. It is no longer a surprise to find soiled socks, soccer gear, or even the occasional electronic device in the box.

I’ve observed the lights in our house and realized that the black hole may be at least one reason that the house is always darker than we like it. Buying more lamps and increasing the bulb size does not seem to help. In addition, compact fluorescent lamps and LEDs guaranteed to last five years have the light sucked out of them in mere months.

I’ve tried to examine the light near the black hole to see if it is bent by the mass of the black hole, but have not been able to objectively observe this. A friend claims that with special equipment (a six-pack of beer) the bending of the light should be visible, but I haven’t tried that.

So while we have not yet achieved production of energy by cold fusion, constructing a black hole has now been successfully achieved. I am hopeful that the Nobel Prize committee is writing out a check to me at this very moment.

Climate Solution


The Paris meeting is over. The coal producing nations want to continue to export coal. The developing nations point out that Europe and North America had at least a century of cheap energy from coal, so they’re not asking for anything we didn’t have.

What to do? What to do?

In the past I’ve mentioned BOINC, the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing system. Initially used in the SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) project, BOINC uses thousands (millions?) of personal computers to analyze data. While it’s true that a single modern PC is more powerful than major computers a decade ago, SETI thought that using the free time when owners’ computers were not checking out cute cat pictures or whatever would provide the computing capacity of a supercomputer—lots of users—and many of us have multiple computers. I’ve had all my computers supporting BOINC for about twelve years, and have helped projects addressing diseases, food, and climate change. What a great idea they had out at Berkeley.

Let’s apply the same idea to energy. The energy companies are constrained by the fact that it will take thousands of square miles of property to install enough solar cells to provide adequate power. What if the power companies took the same distributive idea as BOINC? Imagine your local power company coming to you and saying, “I’d like to install solar panels on your roof (for North America, it would be those roofs that face south). We’ll pay you 10% of the wholesale rate for the electricity your house produces; this will automatically be calculated into (deducted from) your electric meter reading. We still pay retail, they pay wholesale, but the planet benefits. (If you don’t like this planet, don’t participate. Each house is already connected to the power grid, so half the structure is already in place.

Even better, if each house had an electrical storage system so that as the grid needed power—day or night—it could access it. Power losses would affect smaller areas, since the generation and storage would be distributed.

If you think it’s worth a shot, let your congressional representative and senators know. Maybe this idea is half-baked, but there are engineers who can finish the baking job.

A Communications Drill

There was an emergency drill in Virginia this weekend, which simulated a group of boy scouts stuck at about 5,000 feet as the weather deteriorated. (Virginia has mountains as well as seashore). This was complicated with widespread power loss in the same area. Although the “event” was several hundred miles away from my location, the entire state participated.

In my years in healthcare, many times I’d see disaster planning and disaster drills with a lot of “wishology.” People would believe (wish) that power would stay on, and think that they had to budget for power. What needs to be kept operating? What should be shut down? Obviously the surgical facilities and patients with respirators need power. The televisions and the fancy fountain in the lobby—not so much.

The same is true about communications. I remember one hospital telling me (when the technology was new) that they had a satellite telephone.

“Great,” I replied. “Who are you going to call?”

They hadn’t thought about that.

In this drill, we focused on the fact that if the Red Cross needed cots, that meant they had used all they could get their hands on—their stock, the next few counties’ stock, etc. The only place to get more cots was from a distant location. The same held true for hospitals; if they needed supplies, or even doctors, they too had used up all the local resources. Although we were using ham radio as the means to tie the state together, it was really less about radio and more about the ability to convey a message to someone who can respond to it, and getting a response.

Imagine if that was what drove communications at home, work, on the television, etc. It might be better for everybody.

When Did I Catch Up with the Future?

As a kid, the ice cream guy and the paperboy both had these mechanical devices on their belts to dispense coins for making change. Busses had the same device, but it was mounted near the box into which you put your fare. You dropped your money in, it sat on a little shelf, and if correct, the bus driver would press a lever to drop the coins into the hermetically sealed, iron-sheathed, impenetrable lock box. It must have been so, because nobody robbed bus drivers.

These people also “counted back” your change. No computer told them how much change was due. If the cost of an item was $1.73 and you handed them a five dollar bill, merchants of all types would do the following:

Put two pennies in your hand and say, “That’s $1.75,” then add a quarter. “Two dollars, followed by three more bills (or maybe silver dollars), “and that’s five. Thank you.”

I got used to handing my credit card to the cashier so they could imprint it on the proper form (don’t forget to get the carbons to prevent identity theft!). Then I was required to swipe the card myself through a reader; today, with microchips, you plug your credit card in.

My point?

As an old guy, signing the little LCD pad was always a challenge. Today, however, I noticed that I was able to sign as legibly on the electronic pad as I can with pen and paper.



Is this a game or is this real? Wargames

Is this a game or is this real?

Psst! Over here! Under the desk!

Yeah, it’s me.

With all the hackers, worms, Trojans, spam, and who knows what, I have to protect myself.

I’ve got the latest virus protection and firewall. I never click on hyperlinks. I’m suspicious of every e-mail, CNN, Fox News, and talk show.

But, still, every time I turn around, I’m told to change my password. Most of the time it’s because I changed my password the last time around and forgot to write it down. Of course, you’re not supposed to write passwords down, but then I have more passwords that Greece owes Euros.

Honest—I have passwords that are just to protect my passwords. Which I am going to change as soon as I finish this blog.

So, from now on, I guess I should write everything on parchment with a quill pen and have it hand delivered for security’s sake.

Which makes blogging very, very difficult.

Too Busy with Wonderful Things

Finding time to write has become a challenge.

I thought that once I was done with my editing course, I’d have all kinds of time, but not so much.

I’m too busy spending time with family, catching up on guitar and drum practice, completing a few projects, and whatever.

I’m having a ball so today’s blog is short.

I Miss Them

Do you want to know what I miss? Impressionists.

When I was growing up, Frank Gorshin, David Frye, and Rich Little entertained us by combining humorous situations with the voices of well-known celebrities. Those of us who grew up way back when will never forget hearing the voices of Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Alfred Hitchcock, William F. Buckley (pause) Jr., and of course Walter Brennan in unlikely combinations and outrageous scenarios.

Today we have some comedians who do an impression or two, thanks to shows like Saturday Night Live, but no one like David Frye who could do a whole album populated with dozens of characters, all of whom were recognizable. They didn’t have to be perfect impersonations—just recognizable impressions, which made it fun, as opposed to disrespectful.

Of course, I have to admit that we no longer have personalities with distinctive voices (or faces). All the girls on television look like they’ve been recycled from some female star in the 1960’s. All the guys look alike, if you divide them up into about six different groups. Voices? Does anyone know or care what a Kardashian sounds like? The only decent voices to impersonate are the members of Monty Python, Ian McKellan, or Alan Rickman—all of whom are British. And, to his fans, I’m sorry, but Chuck Norris does not have a truly distinctive voice; Burgess Meredith had a distinctive voice.

The best American voice we can hope to parody today is James Earl Jones. It’s a great voice, but hard to build a drama with one voice, no matter how distinctive.

So, here’s to the impressionists, whose time has come and gone—and all that laughter with them.

The Philosophy of Painting

Since I’ve submitted my final assignment for my on-line course with UC Berkeley, I’m hoping to blog more regularly.

Therefore, today, I painted our bathroom. It was an awful green—kind of bile-gone-bad green. We’ve been meaning to paint it from the day we moved in, but there kids, jobs, life, and everything else that took precedence. So, much later than we planned, it went from “that” green a light blue-grey/grey-blue.

I noticed that when I first started, I was meticulous about moving the tarp, keeping drips under control, and using the right brush or roller for each surface.

By the second coat—eight hours later—I was much less anal retentive, especially when lying on the floor painting under the toilet water tank. At that point my thinking was, “I can touch up the ceiling if I get a smudge on it, and “Goof Off” will remove the drips on the floor.

In my younger days, I would have cleaned and saved the brushes and rollers. At this stage, I know if I paint another room, I’ll pick up a new roller and pan as well as brushes, because it’s easier than finding where the old ones are. Besides, throwing away the old paint roller is probably more ecologically correct than using 600 gallons of water to clean up a dollar roller cover.

On that note, and since my fingers ache from holding brushes and rollers, I’ll end todays’ philosophical diatribe.

What Living in the South Means to Me

The current brouhaha about removing the Confederate Battle Flag from various public places in the South might be confusing to those of you living in other parts of the United States, foreign countries, and California. After all, when a war is over, the winner usually tells the loser to get rid of all the signs, symbols, and other objet d’art related to their adversarial positiion.

I was born in the North, and ancestors on my mother’s side fought for the union. My father’s ancestors weren’t yet settled, but did enter the New World through northern ports.

Ancestors aside, I have lived in three Southern States, accumulating over fifteen years south of the Mason-Dixon Line. I have studied the history of the South and of the Civil War. Here’s my synopsis:

The South wanted a divorce.

The North sis not.

The North prevailed, so like people who stay married “for the sake of the kids” they remained married.

On a More Personal Note

To me, the South means “Clean Eyeglasses.”

You walk out of your air-conditioned house into the heat and humidity, and you wipe the fog off your glasses.

You get out of your air conditioned car, and you wipe off your glasses.

You are either constantly cleaning your glasses or you can’t see through the fog.

And that might explain a lot.

A Finch or a Phoenix?

My kids found a baby bird on the ground the other evening, and concerned about its welfare, they asked what to do.

While I claim no expertise, and probably broke a dozen federal, state and local laws, I recommended that they keep it safe from predators overnight and release it in the morning.

A million years ago, whenever a baby bird was displaced, I was the kid in the neighborhood who ended up caring for it. Some did not survive. Some were able to adjust to nature. One—a sparrow—never realized he was a bird and remained with us for his natural life. Spoiled, but with a great personality is the best way to describe him.

The baby bird this week (named “Timothy” by my daughter) was released into the underbrush behind our yard and demonstrated that he could fly, at least a little bit. In the absence of proof positive, I’m going to assume that he’s done well and will live long and prosper.

However, some predator, such as the last remaining saber toothed tiger might have gotten him.

That’s reality.

As humans, we face reality every day at work, at home, or at school. However, we have a little something that other creatures do not have—dreams. We can imagine a better, brighter, more wonderful future. Hopefully it’s for whatever time we’re allotted, but even if we never see it, it’s nice to look forward to what might be.

Reality holds us back; dreams spur us forward. I choose the Phoenix.

Never underestimate power and the importance of dreams.



No photoshopping here!

Every time I turn around, I need to change a password.

Worse, when I got fed up with Internet Explorer’s habit of spinning, crashing and burning, I switched to Google. That meant that all of my browser stored logins and passwords disappeared; and since they were stored, I didn’t always have the information in hard copy, so I had to reset many passwords.

Then, when I realized that Google knew more about me than my proctologist, I switched to Mozilla. Even though I have been more attentive to saving passwords, the super-secret list is always in another part of the house, so the inconvenience continued.

Now, I see where the Chinese know everything about government employees—which is more than the US Government can claim—except for the NSA.

So, it’s getting scary.

The scariest part is that we haven’t heard what Russia is up to. Informed sources tell me that they won’t make an announcement until it matches an opportunity for Vladimir Putin to be photographed with his shirt off.

(Side note: To fellow Galaxy Quest fans—I never suspected that Putin was such a big Tim Allen fan.)

allen2 allen

Trolls and Other Slimy Things You Find under a Rock

I read the newspaper. I also read a wide range of magazines. However, there is a time lag, so I do try to read the news online. I say try because:

  1. It often isn’t news. I don’t care who’s had a liposuction, hair plugs, sex change, or is selling their 97 room mansion, complete with indoor landing strip.
  2. I prefer reading to video—not because video is bad, but because there is always an unnecessary commentary before, during and after the video. In many cases they have to rerun segments of the video over and over to allow for the commentary.
  3. Most news stories allow for comments. Unfortunately, these are, for the most part, anonymous. This brings out the worst of the worst in people. If you read Malcolm Gladwell’s books, it’s the equivalent of the abandoned building with broken windows—normal people will throw a rock through a window because it is now the norm.

Our newspaper, the Virginian-Pilot now requires editorials to be signed. Let’s put that into context.

What if the following were anonymous?

“Give me liberty or give me death!” (Actually this one sort of is, it’s impossible to positively attribute to Patrick Henry.)

“I shall return.”

“I have nothing to offer but blood, soil, tears and sweat.”

“I ask, not what your country can do for you, but what you and do for your country.”

“I have a dream.”

Great people with great ideas state their thoughts and take ownership.

Trolls merely mumble from under their rocks.

My point – if you have something worth saying, proudly take ownership of it. Ben Franklin did, and so did Malcolm X. Be great—you have the capacity, so do it.


lightBummers—I hate them.

Flat tires, dead batteries, diarrhea, incompetent bosses, and getting struck by lightning. I’ve managed to avoid one of these in my lifetime. Unfortunately, there’s no medal for doing so.


On the other hand, like mosquitoes or paper cuts, such things are irritating but really do no substantial damage. However, sometimes we lose sight of that fact, and give such issues far too much importance.


But some people, like Bruce Springsteen can use the word bummer to write, “Madman drummers, bummers, and Indians in the summers with a teenage diplomat.”


Over the weekend while at the beach, I decided to do at least one touristy thing and bought a hermit crab, complete with crab habitat (a little cage with screened sides for the crab to climb.

My daughter read that they’re social, so it needed a playmate. We were near our favorite pet store and lo and behold, they had the perfect partner crab.

Today I dropped some things off at Goodwill, and peaked at the potential treasures they offered. There, with the purple price tag (meaning it was half off this week) was a complete terrarium. I brought it home and cleaned it up (salt is the preferred cleaning agent) and the crabs moved in. I’m waiting for comments from them, but none so far.

Beware of Sermon!


Today’s Sunrise from Virginia Beach, VA, USA.

Sorry, we interrupt the sunrise over the Atlantic to deal with some totally expected, unsurprising idiocy from the media (as in not too bright….etc.).

Fox News had two stories today;

Is your number of sex partners normal?


Is Christianity really at an end? (Although after the teasing, slightly provocative headline it does state that the demise is overstated.)

First, let’s talk about sex partners. Reasonable people may make mistakes while searching for someone with whom they can share a beautiful interdependence. Others take advantage of this. In a perfect world a shining arrow would appear over them perfect sex/love/sharing kitchen, children, soccer duties, etc. partner.  That partner may not be perfect, but would be a perfect fit for you.

Second, if Christianity were at an end, (and I weren’t a Christian), I’d head for the hills. I mean I’d head for the hills that would make the Mount Everest Sherpas pass out. If God invested his only Son in us and now Christianity is at an end, I think He’d have every reason to say, “That’s it! Let’s throw in the cards and I’m going to open a sealed deck and deal a new hand.

End of sermon.  Back to the sunrise.

Memorial Day Etiquette

I’ve heard various opinions as to the handling of Memorial Day, with each opinion aghast at those who have differing opinions.

Memorial Day began as “Decoration Day” when the veterans of the Union Army—now known as the Grand Army of the Republic—decorated the graves of the Union Civil War Dead with flowers as a tribute to their sacrifice. The Union dead enjoyed a more civilized burial in many cases; for example, at Gettysburg, priority was naturally given to those who had given their lives in defense of the United States. Being July, and hot, by the time they had buried the Union casualties, it was not possible to move many of the Southern dead still lying on the field (military, first responders, and medical people know what I’m saying—I’ll save the rest of you from the details). The only option was to dig a proper grave next to the remains, and roll the body in. These were not marked, nor will they be, since they are a prime target for artifact hunters.

Naturally, the veterans and families of Confederate soldiers had similar memorial practices, so as the nation healed, a single day was chosen to honor all who had died in combat—Memorial Day.

To some, saying, “Happy Memorial Day,” is disrespectful, since it is a day to honor the war dead.

So, what should you say?

I gave this a lot of thought and decided on the following:

  1. Every Soldier, Sailor, Marine, Airman or Coast Guard took the oath and the responsibility in order to protect what we hold dear.
  2. To honor and remember is appropriate.
  3. However, those who died did so in order that we could enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Therefore, acknowledging that this nation and even this holiday was built on their commitment as well as their sacrifice, I believe that celebrating acknowledges their victory. They protected our right to be the outrageous, unrefined, out of control Americans we were meant to be.

This is a holiday that was “built on the shoulders of giants.”

So enjoy. What if someone wearing “the cloth of our country” who died in the 1860s, or who is the most recent KIA were suddenly allowed to come back? I think he or she would prefer to see families gather, cook outside, smile and laugh because home and hearth, family and friends, the American way is what they wanted to protect.

Happy Memorial Day to the living, thanks to those who gave the last full measure.

There Are Some Nights…

I hear lots of people talking about going home at the end of the day and watching TV or even doing something significant. The older I get the less often that happens. I tend to wind down in the evening; if I’m productive I do some “therapeutic soldering” on some project or another.

However, there are some evenings when I’m just beat. I may have gotten a whole lot of things done that were on my to-do list (nothing like the folks at the Hadron accelerator, but accomplishments nevertheless).In any case, I just want to relax, wind down and call it a night.

Tonight is one of those; in fact it’s a perfect example. I could explain why, but I’m just too tired.

So, on that note, good night.


I have allergies. I made it almost sixty years without them, but then they showed up—BANG!

Or should I say, “Ahhchooo!

We Nowaks are famous for the ferocity (and volume) of our sneezes.

I’m allergic to dogs (we have a dog).

To cats (two cats)

To birds (Alex the parrot lives in my office/radio room.)

To dust mites (We have a dog, two cats, a bird and two teenagers, so we have plenty of dust and the mites that go with them.)

I’m also allergic to pollen. Lawn pollen, and tree pollen.

It’s spring in Virginia. My normally while car is yellow. My normally brown wooden deck is yellow. When it rains, the puddles leave yellow trails behind as they evaporate.

Which got me thinking (always dangerous)—given pollen’s purpose, does that mean I’m now afflicted with a sexually transmitted disease?

Photographs and Memories*

As my wife’s parents move, and since my own parents are gone, there are many photographs that are floating in limbo. I’ve been scanning them under the assumption that digital storage won’t fade and disappear the way silver halide prints do (of course Kodachrome—no longer available—was the one method that provided permanent, beautiful, colorful images). Now the “experts” (hereafter referred to as “them”) recommend printing out all images, because digital images will disappear.

I like seeing photographs of my great-grandfather because I was named after him, and he was the first of the Nowaks to come to America. My great-great-great aunt Matilda (if I even have one)? Not so much.

Not every picture is a treasure, but then some are. The trick is separating the wheat from the chafe.

So when all is said and done, we mere humans need to ———


The Death of a Genius, but Then Again…

townesNPR began their story with “Charles Townes, a physicist who won the Nobel Prize for his part in the invention of the laser died Tuesday at 99.”

As a kid, I was fascinated by lasers. LASER—light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation. Originally a ruby rod with a coiled light around it, lasers later became the heart of CD, DVD and Blu-Ray, optical cable, and a $3.99 pointer available at the checkout line at Wal-Mart. Oh, and after the fictional light sabers of Star Wars, it is now a potent weapon in the US military arsenal.

My first laser had been a positioning aid for a radiation therapy machine. It was in a box roughly 6 inches by 6 inches by 12 inches and required 110 volts AC power, but it didn’t change the fact that I finally had my very own laser!

Now, in my copious free time I’m building a high power green laser into the shell of a magic wand from an amusement park. My how things change.

After the laser, when it seemed that everybody was getting involved, Dr. Townes shifted to astrophysics where he contributed to the discovery of the black hole at the center of our galaxy. Geniuses are like that, they move on to new areas to investigate.

We read of scientists who decide that we don’t need God. So long as we have gravity the universe will form and life will follow. Such was not the case with Charles Townes.

“Consider what religion is,” he told NPR in 2005. “Religion is an attempt to understand the purpose and meaning of our universe. What is science? It’s an attempt to understand how our universe works. Well, if there’s a purpose and meaning, that must have something to do with how it works, so those two must be related.”

News accounts reported that he died. Many of us would say that he’s merely moved on to a place where his curiosity and quest for knowledge will be finally and delightfully satisfied.