Sunday, February 28, 2010

A 2nd Year Cooper’s Hawk

A recent visitor to my bird feeder, identified by Sallie, my raptor rehabber friend: “This is a 2nd year Cooper's Hawk. Just the species I’d expect to go for your sparrows. (Hatched in 2009.)” … Just one of several ways that my bird feeder feeds birds. This hawk is welcome back anytime. Unfortunately for it, but fortunately for the sparrows, she/he may not want to come back. The pile of branches on which it is perched is a pile a of branches I keep near my bird feeder both to provide small birds with shelter from potentially lethal winter winds (not that we get a lot of those around here), and from predators like this hawk. I don’t begrudge the hawk any prey it can get hold of, but, by the same token, I begrudge none of its would-be prey a safe hiding place and the good sense to use it. What’s a good day for prey like a house sparrow is a bad day for a Cooper’s Hawk, and a good day for a Cooper’s Hawk is a bad day for its prey. Generally speaking, I wish prey and predators their equal shares of good and bad days, so that both may survive. (Of course, because house sparrows are an invasive, introduced species, the hawk is welcome to eat every last one of them in the Americas, as far as I’m concerned. Maybe then I’d start seeing some of our native sparrows.)

By the way, the “2nd year” designation means that this bird was born the previous year. At this point he/she is not quite one year old. By the time he/she is fully mature at 5 years of age, the irises of its eyes will have turned red, its breast will be predominately red, and its back will be a dark, gray-ish color.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Owl Sighting

There was a screech owl in a brooding posture on the floor of my box a few hours ago. A male would be unlikely to adopt that posture, in my experience, so I assume the owl was a female whose mate must have recently claimed the nest box, and talked her into trying it on for size. (I heard a male in my back yard calling quite persistently one night last week.) She's gone now, but this is an encouraging sign as far as nesting in the nest box this year is concerned.

On the other hand, I saw at least one similarly encouraging visit last year, and nothing came of it, so don't anybody get their hopes up.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


It can hardly be a coincindence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression "as beautiful as an airport."

Airports are ugly. Some are very ugly. Some attain a degree of ugliness that can only be the result of a special effort. This ugliness arises because airports are full of people who are tired, cross, and have just discovered that their luggage has landed in Murmansk (Murmansk airport is the only known exception to this otherwise infallible rule), and architects have on the whole tried to reflect that in their designs.

They have sought to highlight the tiredness and crossness motif with brutal shapes and nerve-jangling colors, to make effortless the business of separating the traveler forever from his or her luggage or loved ones, to confuse the traveller with arrows that appear to point at the windows, distant tie racks, or the current location of Ursa Minor in the night sky, and wherever possible to expose the plumbing on the grounds that it is functional, and conceal the location of the departure gates, presumably on the grounds that they are not.

— The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams, pp. 13-14.

(And that was before the advent of the TSA.)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Network Neutrality

The following is the slightly corrected text of a comment I submitted to whichever part of the government was studying network neutrality, and requesting comments from the public, back in mid-January. I submitted this comment as a private citizen, but, of historical necessity, it references my employer. Let me be perfectly clear about this: I in no way speak for, or represent, my employer. Neither do I decide, or have input into, any of its policies. My employer doesn’t know, or care, about about my opinions. I’m speaking for myself only. Believe me.

I reproduce the comment here in the hope that some reader’s perspective on network neutrality might be informed by it.

I’ve been using the Internet since 1987, before the web was invented, and long before most people had even heard the word “email”, let alone “Internet.” In 1993 I created The University of Texas at Austin’s first home page on what is estimated to have been one of the first 200 web servers in existence. I was ordered by my employer to take it down, because the web was not the future they had selected. I ignored the order. The future they had selected had already come and was rapidly fading into irrelevance, but their policies blinded them to that fact.

If the visionless decision makers who told me to take down those web pages had had control over the network, and the type of traffic it carried, they could have stopped me. And if 199 other visionless decision makers, or just a handful of top-level Internet infrastructure providers, had possessed similar power and the will to use it, the web could have ended there and then. Today’s world and economy would be a very different place than it is, and not a better one.

Do not let anyone acquire that power today. The future network technologies that could be choked-off are, by definition, beyond imagining by all but the few people who will be imagining them now and in the years to come. The importance of any one of them might be as world changing as was the World-Wide Web. Nobody should be in a position to hold a kill switch on any of them, or be able to confine them to low-bandwidth ghettos in which they may stagnate and die. The Internet Service Providers arguing against pure network neutrality, whether they admit it, or even realize it, are arguing that they should have such kill switches, or the ability to lock technologies into ghettos to whither and die. Nobody is gifted with the insight and vision necessary to pass judgement on every new network-based technology that will ever come along, so nobody should have that power, in whole or even in part.

Well, that’s my perspective on the issue, anyway. And, needless to say, the “visionless” quality of the decision makers referenced here turned out to be a temporary condition. They, too, embraced the World-Wide Web long before most people had ever heard of it.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

When do Hedgehogs Start Hibernating?

He phoned the BBC and asked to be put through to his department head.

“Oh, hello, Arthur Dent here. Look, sorry I haven’t been in [the office] for six months but I’ve gone mad.”

“Oh, not to worry. Thought it was probably something like that. Happens here all the time. How soon can we expect you?”

“When do hedgehogs start hibernating?”

“Sometime in Spring, I think.”

“I’ll be in shortly after that.”

— So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish by Douglas Adams, pg. 54.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Moon – Been There, Done That

Our Moon, Third Quarter, February 5, 2010.
©2010 Chris W. Johnson

While I’ve had my back turned in recent weeks, the Obama administration announced the scrapping of NASA’s Constellation program to return astronauts to the moon, explore asteroids, service distant space telescopes, and lay the groundwork for human exploration of Mars. I’ve since read several articles about this, and still have no idea what the new plans for our human spaceflight program are. It’s not even clear to me that the Constellation goals have been abandoned, but Constellation, itself, is history. Whether that program was the right way to accomplish those goals, I don’t know. (Although, development of the Ares V heavy lift booster strikes me as a good idea, regardless; having a tool like that available creates a lot of opportunities.) It does, at least, seem clear that Constellation was inadequately funded to accomplish its original goals in a timely manner, if at all. While some of this bothers me not a bit—I think human exploration of Mars is a bad idea for the foreseeable future (contaminating a planet with humans, and whatever other Earth biota they bring with them, is a not an aid, but a hindrance, to searching it for its own unique lifeforms)—I’d have liked … really, really liked … to see us go back to the moon.

The oldest, and seemingly most common objection to human lunar exploration dates back to the Apollo era and is that it costs too much, and we need that money elsewhere. The most common reply to such concerns is that NASA is a tiny fragment of the federal budget (currently less than 1%, if memory serves), so, even with some budget increase to support a crewed lunar program, if you’re looking for money for other projects, there are a lot of agencies whose budgets can be raided to far greater effect. A less common, but at least equally important response, is that the only things “lost” to space exploration are the hunks of metal, plastic, etc. that we fling into space (or into the ocean, along the way). We loose no money to it - all of the money stays on Earth, where it supplies good paying jobs and tax revenue. (My own job has nothing whatsoever to do with the space program, I hasten to add. Money-wise, I have no stake in this, other than being an American taxpayer.)

Yet another objection has more weight to it, in my opinion: That human space exploration is expensive, dangerous, and, beyond low Earth orbit, exceedingly rare, and not currently possible; therefore, we can do exploration cheaper, safer, and more often if we do it robotically. I agree with that argument. But the political reality is that we will have human spaceflight – the money associated with it flows into too many congressional districts for abandoning it to be politically tenable. And even I don’t want to see it abandoned – I just want to see it go someplace for a change, and not cannibalize the robotic exploration programs as it does so.

But there’s yet another objection that I’ve been hearing more and more in recent years, which is: “been there, done that.” That one takes my breath away. It’s like the tourist who visits the Grand Canyon, stops at a few scenic overlooks, maybe takes a donkey ride, and then crosses it off his list of places to see. Been there, done that. That there might be something more in those ≅2,000 square miles than was apparent during his hit-and-run visit never occurs to him. (And those who would never visit at all, because “it’s just another hole in the ground,” make even our hit-and-run visitor a master of insight by comparison. Their lunar equivalents might choose a phrase like “just rocks, dust, and more rocks,” but the failure is the same.)

The moon doesn’t offer us the life and color that a natural wonder like the Grand Canyon does, but it is a natural wonder nonetheless, covered with mountains, valleys, plains, extinct volcanoes, and even caves, that no human eye has beheld, except, perhaps, in glimpses from orbit. So, yes, we’ve been there, like the hit-and-run tourist. But have we “done” it? The notion is absurd. And if we go back without including in every crew an Ansel Adams-grade photographer, complete with the digital equivalent of a large-format, bellows camera, to climb those mountains, walk those canyons, and capture those sights for us, we’ll have cheated ourselves. Think of the moon as the greatest, remotest (inter)national park that Earth has, and one that only 12 explorers have even set foot in, and then imagine that we’ve seen everything worth seeing, and know everything worth knowing. I can’t.

"X-15: Extending the Frontiers of Flight" a Free E-Book from NASA

NASA is offering the book X-15: Extending the Frontiers of Flight by Dennis R. Jenkins as one of their small library of free e-books for most popular viewers. (Thanks to NASA Watch for pointing it out.) Personally, while e-books may indeed be the future (at least until civilization next stumbles, and they – trapped in their unusable viewers – all become inaccessible for a few centuries, if not outright lost), I still prefer real books, and couldn't care less about the e-book-ness of this text. It's just nice that it's available for free and in at least one semi-open format (PDF), and that it's about the X-15, which was a fascinating program. If you, too, find this sort of thing fascinating, have a look.

By the way, some related reading recommendations (in good, old-fashioned books) spring to mind:

  • At the Edge of Space: The X-15 Flight Program by Milton O. Thompson
  • Flying without Wings: NASA Lifting Bodies and the Birth of the Space Shuttle by Milton O. Thompson and Curtis Peebles. Personally, the reference to the Space Shuttle doesn't impress me (quite the opposite, actually), and therefore doesn't strike me as a reason to read the book. But the lifting bodies were fascinatingly novel technology, and should not be forgotten, and this is a good book on the subject.
  • Wingless Flight: The Lifting Body Story by R. Dale Reed
  • Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles by Roger E. Bilstein. What can I say? It's been about 50 years since development of the Saturn V started, and more than 50 since the Saturn I, and there's never been a rocket to match it, and, sadly, for the foreseeable future, its singular status seems to be assured. The story of how it came to be, and in some cases how it almost didn't (think F-1 combustion instability, for one thing), is a helluva story.
  • The Soviet Space Race with Apollo by Asif A. Siddiqi – Nearly lost history extracted from behind the fallen iron curtain. While people who care about such things are now generally aware that the Soviets built and flew a massive rocket known as the N-1 (see this page, and this other page, for some details) as part of a program to land cosmonauts on the moon – a program that probably could have worked, but was cancelled after the first four test flights failed catastrophically (whereupon all of the N-1s built and waiting to fly were cut into scrap metal, and it became official Kremlin "truth" that they'd never, ever intended to land cosmonauts on the moon) – what most of even those people probably don't know is that even as America was preparing to launch Apollo 8 (the first human journey to the moon), the Soviets had a vehicle on the launch pad capable of the same task (albeit with a smaller crew and a spacecraft which could never have supported moon landings), and cosmonauts trained, ready and willing to fly it, waiting in frustration for the Kremlin to give a go-ahead that never came. Fascinating stuff.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

“Texas Rancher an Unlikely Environmentalist”

NPR’s All Things Considered ran their story on my friend David Bamberger yesterday. They've provided a nice page to go along with it containing what I presume is the text of the story, photos, and a link to the audio. I haven't had a chance to listen, yet (I’m operating on a weird schedule), but I encourage anyone so much as curious to have a look/listen.

It's a shame that it can be considered “unlikely” for a rancher to be an environmentalist. Like farmers, their livelihood is tied directly to the long-term health of the land they work, so they should be some of the most practically skilled environmentalists there are. Unfortunately, like Wade Goodwyn (author of the NPR piece), I have the same impression – that ranchers (and farmers) are, overall, unlikely to also be environmentalists. The phenomenon of farmers working their land until it’s no long viable and then moving on to destroy new land is well recorded. Such farming is more akin to mining than any other industry. Ranchers have acquired a similar reputation. There are exceptions, of course. David’s a prominent example of one. And there are probably quite a few others who are similarly skilled, but less adept at publicizing their efforts than he. (David is uniquely skilled in public relations.) But my impression remains that they are in the minority.

I’d be interested to hear the thoughts and experiences of farmers and ranchers, or people with a background in the same, on this matter. Please leave a comment.

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By the way, anyone wanting a better look at the chiroptorium or the Scimitar-Horned Oryx can find some photos of them on this blog. These include a spherical panorama of the chiroptorium’s main chamber that I shot while standing about a foot deep in bat guano and flesh-eating beetles – an interesting experience, and, as visits inside the chiroptorium are almost never permitted (so as not to disturb either the bats, or the research that's going on there), this may be the only way to get a good look at what it's like in there. There are also pictures of the Scimitar-Horned Oryx from an afternoon I spent crawling through the grass on my belly in the large pasture which is home to the females and juveniles.

Among my panoramas is a view of one of the Oryx’s secondary pastures. Prints of this panorama have been shown at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the New World Deli, and (currently) at the Johnson City public library. That 6' X 22" canvas is, by the way, available for purchase. If you buy it from the library, I’ve agreed to use the proceeds to make the library a print of it for their permanent collection.