Friday, September 24, 2021

Watching In Horror

      Tam puts it better than I could have: "I'm watching people go crazy in real time."

      American politics has become toxic.  I have pretty strong opinions about a lot of it, but I have even stronger opinions about not getting threats via comments.  It's pretty much the same impulse that prompts me to avoid dangerous locations and situation not in spite of but because I carry a gun.  Trouble one avoids is the best kind of trouble.

      I just wish more people thought that way about current politics instead of racing one another to the abyss.  Last one in's a rotten...egg?

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Gathering Flowers

     Gathering flowers with a camera, that is.  One of the nice things about morning walks is that you can put together a "virtual garden" as you go.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Keep On Staying Okay, Please

      Stay okay wherever you go:

      Even after you push the button to make the silhouette man walk thataway.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Update On The Kittens

      Our neighbor called me Sunday.  She'd bought a larger cage for the kittens, with closer-set bars, but the darned thing was a flat-pack and somehow, the wrong parts had gotten interlocked in shipping.  Could I help?

     I could and did.  I'm no great shakes at that kind of puzzle but we managed to unsnarl it and set the cage up.  This provided a perfect opportunity to play with the kittens as we transferred them to their new quarters.

     Photographs were difficult.  Kittens are kinetic!

     As soon as they had some toys, they were bouncing around, playing, climbing and mock-fighting one another.
     The yellow and white kitten sat still long enough for a quick portrait.

     They're scrawny but healthy.  They get one warm bath a day.  They're drinking water and eating soft food, though they're still getting some kitten formula, too.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Sunday, September 19, 2021

When Is A Sailor Not A Sailor?

      There's a fair amount fuss and foofraw in the media and online about the Inspiration 4 crew, just back from a three-day mission in Earth orbit: do they qualify as "astronauts," or not?

      "Astronaut" is not like "Able Seaman" or getting certification as an aircraft pilot.  You need to be be serving as a crewperson on a spacecraft that crosses into space.  That's 50 miles for the U.S. and 62 miles (100 kilometers, the von Kármán line) for everyone else.   That's it -- but the catch is that "crewperson" designation.  If you were defined as a "spaceflight participant" in the FAA paperwork, you don't get astronaut wings.  You might get honorary wings -- at the FAA administrator's discretion.

      Some of the coverage has been unduly snarky.  The crew is about perfectly lined up to trigger everyone: a cheeky billionaire (and amateur jet pilot), a pale and slightly chubby IT guy/space geek, a crewcut female African-American CAP pilot*/analog astronaut/Ph.D. and STEM popularizer, and a bubbly 20-something physician's assistant who knew very little about space travel before she was tapped for the mission.  If you were looking for something to be irked by, at least one of them has probably got it.

      Some media reports (looking at you, CNN) have characterized the mission as a "joyride."  Never mind that no one has done this before (or that Dr. Proctor made it to the final set of cuts in the NASA astronaut selection process); never mind that taking four people, giving them six months of training and sending them off to orbit is positively ground-breaking.  If you want to paint the mission as "rich white guy buys way to orbit," you can.  (You do have to ignore the fundraising aspects, which put more than the mission cost into the coffers of St. Jude Children's Hospital.  I guess that's easy for the sniffily inclined.)

      But once he and his fellow spaceflight participants have shown it can be done, there's nothing keeping Purdue or MIT -- or General Atomics -- from chartering a Dragon and sending up three or four researchers with a lab-ful of experiments to keep them busy.  Will they be astronauts?  I don't know.

      I do know that wings or not, official or not, I'll keep calling the Inspiration 4 crew astronauts.  They have indeed sailed the starry sky -- and come back safe and sound to tell their tale.  Wings aren't any use in vacuum anyway.
* I have said this elsewhere and I will say it here: back when I knew people in Civil Air Patrol, they tended to get handed pretty tired airplanes and were expected to do serious SAR work and the like with them.  It tickles me to see a CAP aviator in the pilot's seat of something as state-of-the-art as a Dragon, no matter how automated it is.  About darned time.  And on the topic, FWIW, male pilots outnumber women pilots about eleven to one; for the Shuttle, the ratio was roughly forty to one.  A woman who flies spacecraft is a rara avis indeed.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Friday, September 17, 2021

The Handmaid's Tale

      Margaret Atwood has always been a bit sniffily assertive about not writing science fiction, so much so that even Ursula K. Le Guin (who quite happily wrote science fiction, SF that sold well and was a literary success) gently took her to task over it from time to time.  As a result, I hadn't read any Atwood, since I find most "mainstream" fiction dull and pretentious.  If she was going to insist that was what she wrote, I would respect her claim by not reading it.

      But a copy of The Handmaid's Tale showed up at the used-book store, there was a Hulu series that went multiple seasons (of which Atwood said "it could have been worse."  I haven't seen it), and I thought I might as well read it.

      It's well-written.  Atwood's world-building is good, and her "what-if" is pretty obviously "what if a Christian sect went as far as or farther than Islamic extremists in rebuilding society?"  You get one unquestioned assumption in SF and I'll give her that even though she disdains SF.  Starting from there, she throws in declining fertility rates in Western countries (a true thing, though probably more related to affluence and the enormous decline in infant and child mortality*) and gets...what she gets.  It's a disturbing future.  It's intended to be.

      The story is told non-linearly, in two interwoven, discontinuous narratives with an afterword.  Her villains commit their worst villainies offstage; onstage, there's rather more "banality of evil" and, worse, the deliberate weaving of it into everyone's lives.  The weakest part of the background is the neo-Puritan religion, a consciously distorted Christianity; she does her best to never treat it in more detail than her viewpoint character could know.  While I'd like to tell you it's completely implausible, it isn't.  There are women alive today who have been in the thick of something only too similar, in Afghanistan and the former "Islamic State."  It does require a number of precursors or pressures that the real world hasn't got.  Published in 1985, there are scenes and elements that today seem dated -- as happens to all fiction.

      It is an entertaining book, not a screed; the characters are no better or worse than they are, all ordinary, all trapped even if they wove the snare.  As SF, it holds up well.  Alas, Ms. Atwood doesn't want to be on those shelves with the robots and rayguns, spaceships and time travelers.  Like Le Guin, I can understand (and resent) the impulse, but I'm not quite sure I can forgive her leaving James Tiptree, Jr. and Joanna Russ alone out there with the slavering aliens.  After all, she knew how dangerous it was.  She spent an entire novel saying so.
* We don't realize this, but it's true; my father, born in 1927, lost three siblings in childhood (of ten total), two before he was born, and his family was not atypical.  Having small families is a luxury of the (relatively) well-off and healthy.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

The Antlion

      Leaving the house a couple of mornings ago, after nearly a week with no rain, I looked down at the raised flower bed in the front yard and saw something I'd never noticed before.

     The flower bed has been empty this summer.  Despite good intentions, I never got around to populating it.  But something had -- something that made tiny, conical craters.  They seemed familiar; I'd seen them before, but where?

     Memory came though at last: these were antlion dens!  Or hunting lodges, or traps.  Ant traps.  I had never known any lived in Indiana.

      I tickled the slope of one pit with a blade of grass.  Nothing.  Tried another.  Nothing.  (It turns out some antlions will play dead, if whatever is in their trap doesn't feel sufficiently antlike.)  I tried a third, very gently.

      Success!  The antlion began flinging sand toward the end of the grass stem, a tiny, frantic handful at a time!  I didn't want to wear it out, so I stopped.  I never caught sight of the insect's mandibles, which are pretty impressive, spiky implements that will handle even our largest ants.  The antlion's chubby body is a kind of natural ghillie suit, fuzzy-looking and able to keep it hidden and well-anchored.  They're the larval stage of a flying insect; they can spend a couple of years safely hidden, making ants tumble to their waiting jaws, before forming a coccoon and emerging to live for a few months as a good sized, dragonfly-appearing critter.

      And the sand-throwing?  While it's entertaining to think of it as analogous to man hunting rabbits with handfuls of flung gravel, what's really going on is that digging out sand at the bottom of the pit allows the sand along the sides to fall, carrying the antlion's dinner with it.  The bug is just tossing that sand up to the edge of the crater, not at the ant. 

      Out in my front yard, tiny sarlacs lie in wait.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

I'm Frustrated

      We're in a slow, steady race with the virus now.  The infection rate is up and down, but overall vaccinations are slowly increasing in a linear ramp.

      Barring another easily-spread mutation, the U.S. may get into another trough of low coronavirus infection rates about wintertime.  Maybe; I'll wait and see.  I've lost any optimism I once had about this mess.

      Here's the "excess mortality" chart, all causes of death, with 2020 and 2021 overlaid on prior years back to 2015.  Make up your own reasons why it's so much higher for this year and the previous one -- and take comfort that the curve is getting closer to what it once was.  I'm not going to debate you.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Monday, September 13, 2021

Power Outage

      A little after 9:00 last night, our power went out.

      I had gone to bed early.  Tam was up, reading a book on her iPad.  So when the power went out, it didn't make much difference.  She always carries a flash light.  I always have one where I can put hands on it -- on my nightstand, in this situation, and not hidden in a drawer but right on top, between the phone shared and the clock/radio (probably a sure mark of a Boomer).

      As the minutes ticked on, Tam deployed lightsticks (to aid in navigation and give the home that "there's someone in here" look) and I put a high-efficiency battery lantern on the towel shelf in the washroom.

      Trying to get to our power company's website with my smartphone to check on the outage, service was weak and creepingly slow.  Tam reported the same on a different carrier.  Out the front and back windows, the city was dark as far as we could see.  There was decent sky glow from the direction of downtown but not so much to the east, north or west.

      The closest cellular tower is at a substation several blocks away.  From the evidence, there was a problem there or on the incoming feed to it.

      My smartphone eventually got a connection and pulled in the map.  The power company uses symbols -- green discs for small outages, orange squares for larger ones, yellow triangles for small neighborhoods and black diamonds for power interruptions that hit 2,000 or more customers.  We had a full set: a scattering of green, an orange square over on Keystone Avenue, and a funny symbol near the substation.  Zooming in eventually showed it was a black diamond over a yellow triangle.  At least 2,500 customers out.  It was big.

      Power stayed off off the next two and a half hours.  Holden Wu decided to guard the doors, going from front to back and flopping down in "draft excluder" mode in front of of whichever door Tam or I was near. Huck kept watch in my room, peering out the window.

      This morning, local TV reported someone had crashed their car and taken out a pole for a major power line along Keystone Avenue, knocking out power to more than 14,000 homes and businesses.

      Do you know where your flashlights are?