- Third Space Shuttle almost lost – The story of STS-27, the second flight after the Challenger catastrophe. Because of NASA negligence with regard to the external tank foam shedding issue, more than 700 heat shield tiles were damaged, and it was pure luck (a matter of inches) that a critical burn-through did not occur during reentry. Further, because the military wouldn't allow normal communications with the shuttle during that flight, the crew couldn't even convince mission control that there was a problem.
- Caravaggio was early 'photographer' – The first photograph was taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826, but the painter Caravaggio was apparently using a temporary form of photography as the basis for some of his paintings more than 200 years earlier.
- Strange particle created; may rewrite how matter's made.
- Neutron tracks revive hopes for cold fusion. Meanwhile, our best hope for power production from fusion remains ITER, which isn't scheduled to produce "first plasma" until 2016. Faced with energy problems that aren't going to go away, should all of our fusion eggs be in one basket? No offense to the ITER people. It just seems to me as though there was never a better time to increase our investment in work toward fusion power.
- Java Development Kit version 6, update 14, will include the "Garbage First" garbage collector, which, according to James Gosling, will bring real-time-like garbage collection to the normal Java VM (as opposed to the real-time VM).
- Bush administration asserted right to suspend 1st amendment, etc.
- Seymour Hersh says Dick Cheney ran "an executive assassination ring."
- The myth of the filibuster.
Saturday, March 28, 2009
Friday, March 27, 2009
My friend Margaret Bamberger received a nice write-up in the Austin American Statesman newspaper today.
The following photo is from Margaret's anti-strip-mining days, as mentioned in the Statesman article. Margaret is kneeling in the foreground, with a copy of her crying cow artwork held up behind her.
Bill Carter, by way of Margie Crisp, writes the following about this photograph:
This picture at Hub Cap Annie's was part of the "Don't Buy It" campaign to keep Austin from investing in a lignite unit at the Fayette Power Plant — after Austin opted out, LCRA dropped plans for the lignite plant and went in with Austin on another Western coal unit. If the lignite unit had been built, a large part of Fayette County would have been strip-mined — hence the crying cow, which also appeared on fund-raising letterhead and so forth.
All the folks in the picture other than Margaret and me were part of the pre-city council Max Nofziger entourage. Max is on my left (to my right in the photo) in shades and cap. On the other side of me is Ester Matthews, who was Max's administrative assistant when he was on the City Council. I don't remember the other folks' names.
Sunday, March 22, 2009
David Bamberger has lately been altering one of the valleys on his ranch in order to slow rain water as it flows off of the plateau above it, and then down its slopes. His hope is to give rain water more time to soak into the soil and limestone. In these parts, we tend to get most of a year's rain in a few deluges, and the alterations are an additional means to the end of holding onto that precious water. I expect he'll blog about this in the near future.
Knowing that my old friend Jerry Gatlin is a private pilot, and that I can take a half-decent photograph, David asked us to get photos of the work before the spring grasses began to obscure it. So, Jerry and I went flying on Saturday. The ranch is a short hop from here by air, and soon Jerry was aggressively banking us over the valley about 500 feet above the plateau, while I rattled around in the back of the buffeting aircraft doing my best to snap the necessary photos.
(Five hundred feet was about as low as Jerry would fly under the circumstances, for a host of good reasons which I wouldn't think to criticize. Unfortunately, that means that my fantasy of rocketing down the length of the main valley of the ranch at treetop level remains a fantasy. Dang.)
Fantasies aside, there were a number of problems with the photography. One was all of the buffeting, which made it very hard to hold myself, let alone the camera, in one place (at one of the aircraft's windows, for instance). Another was the fact that somewhere over the course of the shoot, I managed to accidentally flip a switch on the long lens I was using - the switch that disables its image stabilizer. It's a low-profile switch, so I have no idea how, or when, I managed to hit it, but it was in the correct position before the flight, and in the wrong one at the end. Yet another problem was that the day was overcast while we were over the ranch (it cleared-up later, natch), so the shutter speeds weren't nearly as high as I'd've liked. And, of course, atmospheric haze is always a problem with photography at a distance.
Nonetheless, usable photos were taken. A few examples follow, but I'll leave most of them for David to debut on the ranch's blog whenever he gets around to describing this project.
Rain-catching features on the plateau and valley walls.
The valley and surrounding plateau. In the past I've shot panoramas there, specifically A Valley in High Lonesome, no. 1 and no. 2. After all of the work that's just been done there, it may be quite a while before it looks the way I found it back then.
Because Jerry doubted my ability to remove atmospheric haze, above is the same photo of the valley, prior to my haze reduction work.
The famous "chiroptorium", once known as "Bamberger's Folly", occupies the upper-right quadrant of this photo. A small valley was selected, then three progressively larger, partly overlapping, concrete domes were constructed in it, with a curving tunnel joined to the main dome acting as the entry-/exit-way. The valley was then partially filled-in to bury the structure, thereby creating a sequence of caves. The cave mouth can be seen clearly, complete with the wooden fence across it which keeps the cattle out. (Once upon a time, each evening's bat emergence was preceded by a cow emergence.) The buried mass of the domes can be inferred, somewhat, from the bulge of the earth to right of the mouth. On top of that bulge are a number of small features; the round ones are the caps on ventilation shafts, the rectangular one is a solar panel.
Jerry Gatlin and the airplane he half-owns. He loves flying, and, in his line of work, he has to do a lot of it, so at some point he decided to cut out the middle-man and do his flying personally. In his spare time, he does things like flying for the Angel Flight project.
Monday, March 16, 2009
The owls still haven't begun nesting (or, if they have, they aren't doing it in my box), but they are still in my area; I was just filling my bird feeder when I noticed an owl in one of the branches overhead. It was probably waiting for a mouse to visit the bird feeder.
Saturday, March 7, 2009
Years ago, an author I respect, Joe Straczynski, in one of his postings on the Internet, stated his opinion that Mark Twain's autobiography was the greatest work in the English language. With a recommendation like that, I promptly bought and read the book. I'm not a writer, have never been an English major, and there are still quite a few books in English that I haven't read, so I cannot say whether or not I agree with Joe. I can say that I found it an excellent book.
Mark Twain was no stranger to the death of loved ones, and he did us the courtesy of writing eloquently about his experiences. His recountings give the inexperienced some understanding of what is to come, and provide the experienced with some company in their pain. And with his credentials in such matters established, he saw fit to share, from the safety of his own grave (for he had insisted that certain portions of his autobiography not be published until he was dead, or dead for some particular number of years) his own view of death. Though it flies painfully in the face of many established beliefs (a pain Twain regrets), it has stuck with me, and I pass it along for the benefit of any kindred souls.
From chapter 49 of The Autobiography of Mark Twain, as edited by Charles Neider, pages 326 to 327:
[...] I have long ago lost my belief in immortality—also my interest in it. I can say now what I could not say while alive—things which it would shock people to hear; things which I could not say when alive because I should be aware of that shock and would certainly spare myself the personal pain of inflicting it. When we believe in immortality we have a reason for it. Not a reason founded upon information, or even plausibilities, for we haven't any. Our reason for choosing to believe in this dream is that we desire immortality, for some reason or other, I don't know what. But I have no such desire. I have sampled life and it is sufficient. Another one would be another experiment. It would proceed from the same source as this one. I should have no large expectations concerning it, and if I may be excused from assisting in the experiment I shall properly be grateful. Annihilation has no terrors for me, because I have already tried it before I was born—a hundred million years—and I have suffered more in an hour, in this life, than I remember to have suffered in the whole hundred million years put together. There was a peace, a serenity, an absence of all sense of responsibility, an absence of worry, an absence of care, grief, perplexity; and the presence of a deep content and unbroken satisfaction in that hundred million years of holiday which I look back upon with a tender longing and with a grateful desire to resume, when the opportunity comes.
[Update of March 9, 2009] I agree with Alison in Austria's critique of the quote above. Nothing can be experienced of nothingness, so it is a blatant failure of logic when, at the end, Twain claims experiences of the nothingness prior to his birth – the same nothingness that he asserts will follow his death.
Personally, when I read that quote, I assume that the failure wasn't lost on Twain; that in his mind he did equate death with annihilation, and the result of annihilation with nothingness, but that he decided that it was simpler, and/or more effective from a literary standpoint, to express his perspective by ignoring the logical failure of attributing qualities to nothingness. I further assume that he trusted the readers who accepted the death-is-annihilation view to see through his sophistry, while trusting everyone else to be sufficiently offended to move on to the next paragraph without further ado.
Of course, that's a lot of assuming, and I could be wrong. I'll just add that I don't associate Twain with clumsy thinking, while I am aware (because he tells us so in his autobiography) that he was not above toying with the facts in his stories when he thought the stories would benefit. In this case, he may have been toying with the logic of the piece in order to make it easier for his readers to wrap their minds around a concept (absolute nonexistence) that might be unfamiliar to them, and/or antithetical to their beliefs. If so, it was a dubious tactic, because it conflated incompatible concepts (nonexistence and existence), and that leaves us to guess about what he really thought.
Granting all of those problems, I must admit that I still enjoy that passage every time I think of it.
Friday, March 6, 2009
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
My dear friend Margaret Bamberger is sleeping comfortably. She is not expected to wake up. Her fight with cancer is nearly over.
I had spoken with her by telephone on Sunday. Her responses were slow and her speech slurred, but she was still there, just barely. Yesterday, I called the ranch to ask about her. To my surprise, I received an email reply today telling me that she was still smiling at familiar voices, and that if I wanted to come out and be with her, I was welcome. I got to the ranch as quickly as possible.
In Margaret's bedroom, I found her daughter, Margie, looking after her. Margaret, bald from a month of full brain irradiation, was asleep in a hospital bed that had been brought in for her. She was no longer responding to familiar voices. She slept. If she was aware of voices anymore, I believe it was only when they bled through the thin spots in her dreams. I hope they were good dreams, and that we made them a little bit better.
I spent about four hours there, talking with Margie, Margaret's husband David, and a few visitors, sorting out some computer problems that were arising from Margaret's absence, enduring awkward silences, blowing my nose much too often, and crying as little as I could. I was grateful for every distraction that came along. Without them, all I could do was watch Margaret die a little more with each breath, and struggle to think what I would say to her whenever I finally managed to leave. In all those hours, it seemed that I ought to be able to find some right set of words that would capture a small, choice fraction of what she'd meant to me. Something I could leave behind in her dream, echoing warmly, slow to fade.
I never found those perfect words. In the end, I stroked her head with one hand, stammered-out a few essential truths, and made my exit into the recently fallen night as quickly as I could.
Sometime later, as I eased my truck past the end of the ranch house driveway, a large bat dove through my headlights, and a nightjar flushed from the side of the road. Those are things Margaret would have liked. Of course, Margaret loved almost everything about the ranch, and much too soon for all of us who knew her, she will be laid to rest there. The grave has been dug. A green burial is prepared. The ceremony will be restricted to immediate family and the ranch family. She has too many friends to do it otherwise.
I have seen my friend Margaret, who added so much to my life, for the last time. When I'm not numb, it hurts a lot.