Friday, April 29, 2011

Eagle Cam

In Iowa. These guys never heard of the Iowa Caucus. See here.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Cat Tragedies

We had two cats: Nadine and Grover. Nadine joined our household fifteen years ago about a year before Ben was born. Ben has been with Nadine his entire life.

Nadine was a tiny little calico. Feisty. Opinionated. If Ben was up beyond 8:30 she came over and told him to go to bed. Of course, since she slept with Ben, this was her bedtime, too, and she was pissed off he was keeping her up.

When Nadine joined us we had two large cats, Gus and Jack. Jack died of kidney failure about a year or so after Nadine joined us but Gus stayed strong another three years. He succumbed to the sarcoma that derived from the stabilizing agent found in cat vaccinations. That agent has since been removed from vaccinations.

Nadine was fun to be around as a kitten. She put Gus through the hell that only an elder cat trying to quell the energy of a kitten can truly experience. Gus was big. Very, very big. Greater than 25 pounds big with paws as big as saucers. He never hurt Nadine but was not above taking a large paw and, carefully retracting his claws, holding her down so he could get his breath.

Nadine adored him.

When Gus died she decided it was time to grow up and adopted Ben. From then on she took her mothering duties seriously. She brought in live mice so Ben would properly learn to hunt. Ben never caught on but she was patient with him, thinking that if she brought in enough mice he would eventually get the hang of it.

She always came over an supervised our gardening to make sure we were doing it right. Often, she shunned the litter box in order to make her own contribution of fertilizer. Nadine always contributed her part without complaint.

Nadine never complained as long as there was a warm fire in the wood stove and she could not actually see the bottom of the food dish. If she needed to make herself understood it was her gentle way to find a sensitive area of skin and lick that spot over and over and over. She had us well trained.

Grover came to us as a rescue. He was also a calico-- three color of spots-- male and not deaf. That's commonly believed to be impossible but it's not.

While not as big as Gus was, Grover was of respectable size. He was always a timid cat and it took a year for us to actually discover his personality. He was a lap cat. Subservient to Nadine, he had his owns likes, dislikes and preferences. Being a white cat, he preferred us to wear black, expensive clothes. Nothing made him more affectionate than a black suit or dress pants.

Grover liked nothing better than to curl up in front of the wood stove and sleep. Sometimes you could smell the hair smoldering and he'd have to be moved. He didn't mind. The sacrifice of some hair follicles was worth it.

Grover liked to be hugged. Ben often liked to lie down next to him and hug him. As long as that fire was going, Grover was up for it.

Grover was the kind of cat that wold come over and ask to be petted. Liked to have his hips and belly rubbed. He was the kind of cat that didn't like tuna and chicken.

We decided that either he was a dog in disguise or he was a mutant. Either way, he was ours and we loved him.

Last week we went on vacation. We left Nadine with Inez, Wendy's mother. Grover did not do well in kennels or with friends so we left him with enough food and water-- we were only going to be away a few days.

The night we came back, Inez called us. Nadine wasn't herself. She wasn't doing much. Wendy picked up Nadine the next day and she walked around the place and seemed okay. But that afternoon, Ben came down and told us she wasn't moving. I checked on her. She was breathing but fairly unresponsive. We took her to the ER.

Nadine had advanced abdominal cancer. The physicians at Tufts Veterinary Hospital discovered a large malignant mass in her abdomen. It had begun to leak blood which is why she started failed without warning. She died Friday evening.

We were in shock over the weekend. We had some friends and family over for Easter. Nothing untoward. Five o'clock on Monday morning I heard Grover yowling. I went downstairs and found him, hind legs paralyzed. We took him to the ER. He'd through a clot from his heart that clogged the where the dorsal aorta divides into the femoral arteries.

This wasn't a surprise in and of itself-- we knew Grover had a heart condition. But having it happen so close to Nadine's death is rough.

That was about 36 hours ago. He is still in the hospital. He has not regained the use of his back legs and his kidneys have begun to fail. In an hour or so I am going back out to Tufts and bring him home to be buried. It's cruel to make him linger.

Humans are unique in that we often adopt into our family non-humans. We bond with them. We love them and they, in their own way, love us. I remain convinced that the relationship between humans and animals is perhaps the salient difference between us and other lifeforms. It is not a relationship that we impress humanity on species other than our own, though that confusion can happen. But it is a true and real bond.

The cost of this bond is many of the species we bond with do not live as long as we do. It is a relationship that will inevitably come to a close and we end up burying members of our extended species family.

We're smart enough to realize this and, in the best of circumstances, kind enough to accept our side of that relationship without complaint.

We get as good as we give and we get a lot.

It's a hardship to outlive your family members.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Sucks to be Virgin Mobile

Or it sucks to be me since I have Virgin Mobile.

I got my account back in December. The device is good though maddening sometimes-- I'll do a blog on how to take a phone and make everything about the phone wonderful and interesting while making it act as a phone extremely difficult. The price is good. The coverage is adequate given the price.

The customer service is abysmal.

Okay, first let's talk about the website. Which is difficult to use and often downright dysfunctional. Indeed, it is the website that is invoked when you contact Virgin from the mobile-- and it does not work on the mobile. So you cannot contact and update settings on your mobile account on your mobile.

Then, let's talk about billing. The $25/month is the only recurring cost. All other costs require "topping up". Basically you have to have a certain amount of money in your account to cover any other expenditures. Like insurance.

After I set up insurance and (like a fool) expected the insurance to be taken out of the account I found this out. I got a flurry of emails about how my insurance was going to lapse. I called up customer service and was told it wasn't a problem. Next month another flurry of emails. That's when I found out it needed regular topping up. So I set up a recurring $15 topping up charge back in March and topped up some money to cover it until then.

Two days ago I received an email that said I had to deal with my insurance right then or it would expire and never be able to be reinstated. I didn't response because I often don't check email on weekends.

So I find this out and go to the website first: it's dead. Missing or failing ip addresses. I call Virgin Mobile and find out the phone system is on an "upgrade" and won't be back on line until Sunday.

Clearly, I'm not the demographic their business model is aimed at. Email and text messages are fine. But mainly I want my services to work. As advertised. Reliably. And, most important, without me having to worry about it.

I don't live my life tethered to email or text messages. I read them, or don't, at my leisure. It's my life. Not theirs. And I refuse to live my life on their terms.

The phone is tied to Virgin but Virgin is really Sprint in disguise. I'm wondering if I can just take my mobile and convert directly to Sprint.

At least their business model works.

Addendum: Well, I finally talked to Virgin. And sure enough they dropped the insurance. They said it was clear that it was their fault-- there was enough money in the account to cover the insurance fee.

Of course, that said they could not reinstate the insurance. Only Asurian could do that. Asurian assured met they could not reinstate the insurance and sent me back to Virgin. Virgin then tried to tell me that I had lapsed the payment. I said back there had been plenty of money in the account at the time of the insurance lapse. All they had to do was take it out.

On hold for a while. Then they said they needed to transfer me. And then hung up.

Called back and found out that there had been a problem with their system but that, in fact, I had insurance and had been charged for that insurance three days ago.

There's an hour of my life I'll never get back.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Say Hello to the Moon

Not much for this blog entry since I'm on vacation.

A bit over a year ago I wrote a blog entry on Obama's NASA budget. (See here.) The gist of the article was that the consequence of concentrating on earth orbit commercial rockets instead of NASA building heavy lift vehicles was human deep space exploration.

That was then.

Two weeks ago SpaceX announced a planned development based on their Falcon 9, the Falcon Heavy. The Heavy is a semi-heavy lift vehicle capable of putting 50 tons into low earth orbit. The Saturn V could put 100 tons into orbit. Presumably, we've learned enough about miniaturization that what took 100 tons to get to the moon in 1967 could be done in 50 tons in the 21st century. Heck, most of what the Saturn V was propulsion to get to the moon. If we could scale back to a smaller payload, maybe the Falcon Heavy could reach the moon on its own.

They have also been talking about even bigger rockets.

And the target price point is cheap: $1000/pound. Much cheaper than Apollo. Way cheaper than the shuttle and with much more capacity than anything that currently exists. More capacity than the shuttle since the shuttle structure itself was so heavy it limited what the vehicle was capable of lifting.

Now, that said, we need to see what dance the funding does. I still stand behind the notion that only the government is really interested in deep space missions and a trip to the moon and has the deep pockets to fund them. Of course, I've been wrong before. Happily, happily wrong.

Elon Musk has brought the moon back within reach. (BBC article here. YouTube here. Aerospace analysis here.)

I feel strongly enough about going to the moon I'll go so far as to quote myself last year:

If we intend to do deep space manned missions, we need the Moon. To get to the Mars we need a heavy lift vehicle that will get a good sized payload completely out of Earth's gravity well-- Surprise! We need it for the Moon, too. To land humans on Mars-- or any other body with significant gravitation-- we need to know how to get there safely, how to live there safely until return, and how to return. All of this could be learned on the Moon with a 2.5 second light delay and a three day rescue mission.

But forget that for the moment. I said we need the Moon base. Hell, we need Luna City: a true colony on the Moon. Luna City would be closer in time than the American colonies were to London. So we can have all of the hard vacuum and experimentation we want (which we do not have with the ISS) along with real radiation shielding and gravity that might well be enough not to steal months and years of life from the inhabitants.

Forget even that. We need the Moon because it makes real exploration and utilization of the rest of the Solar System possible-- which, I submit, is impossible when transiting directly from Earth. The moon has about 17% of the gravity of earth. Launches from there are trivial compared to here. Toxic material? Not a problem. No environmental catastrophe on the Moon.

In addition, we can finally separate the cost of take off from the payload. The idea of an electromagnetically propelled launch system has been around since the forties. (See a patent here. Additional info here.) The idea is to transfer motion energy to a payload using ground based systems. Right now, a rocket has to carry its own fuel to lift the payload. This puts the launch system in the unenviable position of carrying the weight of the fuel to lift the payload and the parasitic weight of the fuel to lift the fuel. Does this seem smart? A better solution is to accelerate the payload and then leave the means of that acceleration behind. Only the mass of the payload is launched.

Why not do it here on earth? Several reasons: 1) is that pesky gravitational field again. It's a lot easier on the Moon. 2) There's vacuum on the Moon. Consequently, there's no loss due to friction. Not only do you need less energy to launch, launching is more efficient. 3) Energy is cheap. On earth you can get about 10 watts of solar radiation per square foot. On the Moon, it's about 130 watts/square foot.

What's needed on the moon? Smelting facilities. Factories. Heavy industry. I'm not talking about some six man habitat. We don't need ISS on the moon; we need Detroit.

This is an expensive undertaking but the very first step is to put a small manned base on the Moon.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Even Elephants Get This

One of the most obvious and perhaps least appreciated human trait is cooperation. Well, it turns out that elephants also cooperate. And cooperate very, very well.

See here.

They were even able to figure out that they needed to wait for a partner so that they could complete the task.

Now, these elephants I'd elect to congress.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

More Light Dawning

Nothing makes people show the wombats between their ears than talk of climate change.

Well, looks like we might see more problems than we thought. Greenland and Antarctica are melting faster than expected. (See here.)

What a surprise.

Now, let's see what effect this will cause in American politics.

(Hint: Not Much.)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Light Dawns on Marble Head

People have been pointing out that as long as we're dumping antibiotics into animal feed trying to slow down the growth of bacterial resistance in human medicine is a lost cause.

And it's been a lost cause in the states since industry is agin it. They managed to figure this out over in socialist Denmark and Finland a while back.

Where's the science? says industry. These are code words and translate to: "As long as I own congress and the FDA you're health means nothing compared to my profits. I'm relying on difficult science to keep the public off my back so I can keep making my dirty money."

Well, here's the science. Not that it will make a difference.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Weirder than Fiction: The Governator

Arnie is back... as an animated crime fighter named... The Governator.

See here. Complete with trailer.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

New Thinking on our Old Ancestors

Some new articles have come across my desk in the last couple of weeks.

There's a lot of rethinking of human evolution going on out there. Where it stops is anyone's guess but it's going to be a fun ride.

First, let's talk about our friend, the Neanderthal.

Both of my readers (my wife and my friend Jan in KC) know I'm a big fan of Neanderthal. It's not a coincidence that my first published story, A Capella, was about Neanderthals. I think they've been vastly underrated. I'm happy to be able to say as time goes on I've been proved right.

It's a small triumph but one gets what one can.

The latest damage to the image of Homo neanderthalensis as a stupid brute comes in the form of fire.

Fire is Homo sapiens' friend. We've had control fire for a long time-- between 230k and 1.3 million years depending on how you look at the evidence and how you define control. But our image of Neanderthals was that they might have had fire but didn't control it like we do.

The continuing question has been how humans managed to operate in cold environments without fire. There's a site in England, probably of Homo heidelbergenis, about 800,000 years ago. The evidence suggests that the inhabitants did not have control of fire. There's unequivocal evidence that humans (not Neanderthals) had control of fire about 230k years ago at Terra Amata on the French Riviera-- why they needed fire there is beyond me. However, there are very old sites in South Africa and Kenya suggesting control of fire as much as 1.4-1.5 million years ago.

Paola Villa at the University of Colorado and Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University wanted to determine the earliest continuous control of fire. They did this by analyzing a database of sites and the evidence at the sites of fire use. They discovered that Neanderthals had continuous use of fire starting about 400k years ago-- close to when they first evolved in Europe-- and considerably before the site at Terra Amata.

This is not to say that Neanderthals had control of fire prior to Homo sapiens but they were at least contemporary. These guys get smarter the more we look at them.

Article here.

The other article that's interesting confirms a supposition Darwin had back in the day. Darwin suggested that the use of tools had influenced the evolution of the human hand.

Now, the human hand got its start from the human big toe. Once we started walking upright we developed the human foot with the big toe. It turns out that much of the blueprint for the hand and foot are shared so when we got a big toe we got a big thumb, opening the opportunity for the hand to come under selective pressure.

Anthropologists at the University of Kent knew that there were many differences in our hands as compared to the our relatives that contributed to our own manual dexterity from making stone tools to typing out this blog entry. They decided to investigate Darwin's hypothesis.

They did so by investigating how variation in hand size would have an effect on the efficience of building stone tools. They found that variation did have an effect-- showing the selective opportunity.

Article here.

Finally, John Hawks works with the Neanderthal genome. He's been blogging about his results. One of the things he's discovered is that there is the same frequency of Neanderthal genes in Chinese and European populations but that the Neanderthal genes represented in the two populations are different. The current hypothesis is that there was some mixing between the African and Neanderthal populations in West Asia. The groups split and genetic drift caused different genes to get established in the different populations. (Article here.)