Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Did You See the Crescent Moon?

Did you see the crescent moon tonite, its razor-thin sickle hanging over the glow of the just-set sun?

Coming around the turn, I looked up and saw backpacks and bottles set down by the track team assembled at the far end of the straightaway talking and stretching. Beyond them, I saw coaches and kids doing calisthenics and soccer drills. Beyond them, I saw younger siblings climbing and playing on a jungle gym, under the gaze of a watchful parent or two. And beyond them, I saw the open field, and the silhouette of trees on the horizon, and the fading glow of sunset.

And finally, hanging above those backpacks and bottles and soccer balls rolling in the field, I saw that crescent moon, barely bright enough to show up against the gray-blue early evening sky.

Now it is dark outside, and the sky is black. But somewhere over the Pacific, somewhere between here and tomorrow, a razor-thin crescent hangs in the sky.

Did you see it when it was here?

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 Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Passing of a High Bypass Ratio Turbofan

The sun was setting behind the house across the street. Wisps of stratus clouds in the west were lit up pink against a turquoise sky. In the pre-dusk shadow of early evening, it began to get cold. But in spite of the growing chill, I was crunching on the ice left in my iced tea glass.

I was in the front yard, alone among the empty yards up and down the block, picking up acorn caps from the grass and throwing them around the mulched base of the Monterey Oak. The oak tree next door was particularly prolific this year, and there were many caps to gather.

I heard a ringing whine in the sky in the east — the whine of high bypass ratio turbofans. I know you've heard the sound — not the piercing jet engine roar of old but a humming, musical sound that doesn't even seem mechanical as it approaches.

It sounded like a big plane.

I stood up to watch as a 767 climbed out of Bergstrom Airport. The fans sang as it approached, and as it flew overhead the pitch wound down. I turned to follow it as it passed.

Although the sun was gone where I stood, it was full day at that altitude. The aluminum skin flashed brightly as it continued to, I don't know, Los Angeles or San Francisco.

And then it was gone. There we were alone on the block again: me, my ice, and the (many) remaining acorn caps. I turned back to the grass and resumed my work.

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 Thursday, February 23, 2006

Why Are They Whispering To Me?

So here I am, at the third of these meetings, and someone comes up to me and shares a thought about the environmentalists. Walks up close and speaks in a voice that only they and I can hear. Whispers something like,

I thought there would be more of them here tonite,


I'm for saving the stratosphere too, but there are limits.

Why are these good people whispering to me? I'm flattered, but what is it they see? What am I doing to encourage such assumptions?

Don't they see the fire burning inside?

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 Tuesday, February 21, 2006

An Even Multiple of 10

So the good people at State Farm sent us their monthly greeting today.

Rates have changed, they said.

Imagine that.

But wait. There's more to this than first meets the eye.

Rates have changes, they said. Change in operator age.

Our rates dropped. And, um, let's just say that it's not my birthday that is this year an even multiple of 10.

There she sits, the fair and industrious Trudy, moving her piles of papers from one side to the other, organizing the bills, categorizing the receipts, making this household run. There she sits, pointing happily to the form.

I don't know if it is all due to my age, she says stoically. But overall our rates have certainly gone down — $12.50 a month!

Did I mention an even multiple of 10?

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 Monday, February 20, 2006

Some Birds I Saw

The sky was bleak — that dull grey that I remember from my youth in the midwest. The air was thick with fog and mist and drizzle. The trail by the lake was mostly empty. Who wants to run on such a cold, damp day?

In truth, weather like this is perfect for running. ... But I don't want to talk about that. I want to tell you about some birds I saw...

There were four Wood Ducks swimming in the water under a looming cypress tree at the bottom of the hill. At the top of the hill, the air was full of the sounds of the city: the rush of traffic on the freeway, the sound of excavation and construction. But by the water's edge, all that was far away, and the ducks found the seclusion and low water level ideal.

Further along, there were Coots and Lesser Scaups and Redheads floating just off shore. Now and then one of them would up end and dive to the bottom, resurfacing with a weedy morsel hanging from its beak. But mostly they were just bobbing in the waves watching the world go by.

And beyond them there was a solitary Great Blue Heron wading. It must have been standing on a submerged log, for it was really too far out in the water for it to be as shallow as it appeared. Next to the size of the others, the heron was a massive beast, but it didn't seem to know so, and it watched the world go by as if it were just another duck.

Who wants to run on a cold, damp day, anyway?

Town Lake Hike and Bike Trails
Austin TX

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 Saturday, February 18, 2006

Teaching Computer Basics

I don't think it's how they expected the class to start.

We started by turning off a computer and unplugging all its cables. I had everyone gather around as I unplugged all the cables and proceeded to put them back together again.

Both power cords. The keyboard and mouse, coded in purple and green. The USB cord. The ethernet cord. The monitor cord. One by one we looked at them and I showed them how easy it is.

If you ever have to do this, you don't need to worry. Take your time. Get a chair. Sit down next to your computer (with your glasses, if you need them), and plug the cables into the matching sockets one by one.

Two hours later, as were were finishing our work with folders and files, after I showed them how to find the folders and the file they had all just created, a woman in the back row looked up. She had been taking notes and smiling wide smiles periodically as we covered something that must have always mystified her. Now she looked up and held her hands above her head.

I feel so empowered! she said.

That's certainly not how I expected the class to end.

Computer Basics class
Ruiz Branch Library
Austin TX

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 Friday, February 17, 2006

Laughing with Howard Zinn

1. Prejudice

When I told my friends I was coming to Texas...

He paused, looking out at the hundreds of people in the auditorium. Then he continued.

Well, you know what they said!

He was in Texas, and the audience knew just what he was talking about. They laughed loudly.

There are a lot of prejudiced people, he said, pausing again, prejudiced people on the left!

And the audience laughed even louder.

2. Speak Up

From way back in the auditorium, we could see him easily as he stood at the podium.

Howard Zinn is a tall man with striking grey hair and distinct features, and his voice is clear, although at one point the moderator asked him to speak more directly into the microphone.

It had been 30 minutes since he was introduced. He had already covered a lot of ground. He stopped for a moment at this request, looked out at us, looked back at the moderator and other panel members sitting at the table on the stage and said in mock disbelief, They haven't heard a word I've said!

We laughed.

The truth is that from way back in the auditorium, we could hear him easily as well, and he knew it. So it all seemed quite funny. Then he looked out at us again, standing silently for a moment.

I will start over, he said.

And we laughed even harder.

Howard Zinn
Empire, Resistance, and the War in Iraq
Historians Against the War conference
University of Texas
Austin, Texas

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 Thursday, February 16, 2006

Preparing for the Day

So I'm using my Mac and there's this flash on the screen — a blink or something. I look up, and the menubar, normally white across the top of the screen, is only halfway there. Instead of the white with black letters, it's black and blue and very difficult to read.

Those non-Macintosh users of you should know that on a Mac, the menubar is at the top of the screen, not the top of each window. There's only one menubar, since there's only one screen. So when the menubar goes all funky on a Mac user, it's kind of like taking a lollipop away from a kid. In my case, I was still holding the lollipop, but it had changed colors for no obvious reason and was generally freaking me out.

So I'm sitting there freaked out and all by the menubar pyrotechnics, and then the dock goes poof. I guess it didn't literally go poof, since I don't think it made a sound, but it might as well have. I was sitting there kind of mesmerized by the menubar and the dock just plain went away, making me gasp out loud.

Those non-Mac users of you should know that on a Macintosh, the doc is a little palette of sorts that sits at the bottom (or side) of the screen and hold icons of your applications and other things. It's kind of like a dashboard on the machine. And as I sat there, it suddenly disappeared — not something docks do. And when it was gone, the icons it held had fallen to the bottom of my screen, literally. The icons were all lying in a heap on top of one another in the lower left hand corner.

And it all went downhill from there.

I'll spare you the details, but let's just say that were I not a zealous backer-upper of my data, I'd be in tears right now. From the point of dock-poof on, things got worse and worse, eventually leaving me no alternative but to erase my hard disk and reinstall the operating system from scratch. And although I'm sparing you the details, I must tell you that this erase and install exercise was neither straightforward nor pleasant, nor was it quick. In all it's taken almost a week to straighten things out.

Now I can say, with all of that behind me...

I can say...

I can say that I sure am happy I bought that external hard drive to keep my data backups.

What are you doing to prepare for the day?

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 Monday, February 13, 2006

Representative Democracy

They were discussing a word. One single word. It had been that kind of meeting, the kind you'd read about in a Dilbert strip.

"I like the word ambiance. It's a nice word for our Mission Statement."

"I like value. That's what we need more of."

"Cherish is good."

"So is flourish."

Now they were discussing charm. The consensus seemed to be to replace it, but someone in the front row objected to the proposed alternative.

The crowd wasn't particularly sympathetic. Perhaps it was the hour, or perhaps they were finally getting tired of word smithery. They seemed intent on sticking with the proposal.

"Well then let's have a vote!" the person in the front row said.


From the startled look in the crowd's eyes, you could see they were thinking about cigar smoke filled back rooms and wondering if this was some sort of tactical maneuver. There hadn't been any voting so far, so why now all of the sudden?

But vote they did. And with the call for hands, there wasn't any need to count. The objection was soundly defeated and the proposed alternative word chosen.

The objector graciously accepted the result but added, "That kind of shows you that we don't have a representative crowd here tonite."

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 Friday, February 10, 2006

The Mess on the Floor

Official denial of official misdeeds. Big black lies cutting off at the knees anyone who dares to criticize.

Anyone who believes that this won't do, anyone who desperately clings to truth or thinks that transparency somehow matters is bound for disappointment, because deception and corruption and shameless disregard for the principles on which we stand is the norm, is the means, is the way for official crooks and creeps to run rampant over the nation.

So they've done what they wish. They've taken what they want. And they've left a big mess lying broken on the floor, a mess that will take generations to fix.

They know what they've done. Just look at them smiling.

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 Thursday, February 9, 2006

Waiting for the Rain

The ash trees are bare, but the Monterey Oak still has green leaves and also some brown. A blustery wind makes the leathery leaves rustle in a cold front that's blowing thru town. A low deck of clouds is obscuring Orion and Betelgeuse and also the moon. The rain barrels are empty from watering the trees, so I hope the rain makes it here soon.

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 Monday, February 6, 2006

Problem Solver

I don't want to be sitting here doing this right now.

Then why are you sitting there doing that?

I'm not sure, but I don't want to be.

Well, there's an easy solution to that problem, you know.

Good night.

Now you're talkin'.

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 Sunday, February 5, 2006

The Modern Inquisition

There is a poison running thru federal laboratories in this country, a poison dispensed with deliberate intent, a poison meant to stifle science in deference to the dominant creed.

Scientific results are subjected to dogma tests, filters applied by political appointees sitting in distant halls judging the work based not on the data or the analytical methods but rather on how it conforms to the themes preached from the top.

If the censors object, you shut up if you know what's good for you.

  • EPA: Christie Whitman (2003), EPA Administrator
  • FDA: Susan Wood (2005), Director of the FDA Office of Women's Health
  • NASA: James Hansen (2006), Director of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies

It's a return to the days before Socrates when data and evidence had no place in scientific reasoning. It's a return to contemplations of angels dancing on heads of pins. It's a return to the Galileo's inquisition.

Heaven help those who cross the judges.

  • John DiIulio agrees that his criticisms were groundless and baseless due to poorly chosen words and examples. He sincerely apologizes and is deeply remorseful. John DiIulio (2001), Head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives

And heaven send more of those who fearlessly say no.

  • It is not the job of public-affairs officers to alter, filter or adjust engineering or scientific material... Michael Griffin (2006), NASA Administrator

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 Friday, February 3, 2006

City Slickers

We took a walk into the fields, the dog and I. It was sunny, and he hadn't been out lately, so it seemed a good thing to do. The dog was interested in sniffing out the hiding spots of cats, and I was looking for a piece of old machinery or something like that to take home as art.

Well, the dog didn't find any cats, although there were plenty of other things to investigate. And for my part, after we had been wandering around a bit, I did find an interesting piece of rusty pipe.

As I picked up the pipe to look at it, I noticed that all the cattle in the field were looking at us. Every last one of them, near and far, had stopped grazing and turned in our direction.

In times past, the dog was fond of harassing the cattle, but for some reason this time he left them alone. As I was reflecting on this, I noticed that the cattle had started moving. Moving toward us. And then one of them started running. And then the others. And then I noticed that there was a bull among them. And they were all running fast.

I looked at the dog. He was still sniffing.

I looked back at the gate. It was far away, and soon there would be cattle between it and us.

Come on, Guinness, I said to the dog. Let's go!

I threw down the pipe and dashed for the gate. Guinness trotted along with me, curious what game we were playing now and still not noticing the cattle -- the cattle who would soon bar our escape.

But we got there first.

I scrambled over, and Guinness slipped underneath, wagging his tail with delight at this new game. And just then, the first of the cattle came around the corner of one of the buildings, their hooves thudding dully into the muddy ground.

There was laughing from the drive. It was Trudy.

From the house, she had seen the cattle stop their grazing and begin moving en masse, but from where she sat she could not see us. So she came outside to see what was going on. And what she saw when she got outside was her husband and her dog running home at full tilt. It made her laugh very hard.

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 Thursday, February 2, 2006

Dervala's remarkable 60th birthday tribute to her dad.

[dervala/nought to sixty]: I asked my dad what he thought about turning sixty.

I feel fine about it, he said, mainly because I don't feel one bit different inside than when I was twenty-five.

He lived in Zambia then

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You'll Lose Your Hair

Kadish, Parif, Farhad and I stood in the hall talking. We were discussing groceries of all things -- organic beef and vegetables. Someone mentioned Whole Foods.

But if you shop there, Parif said, you will lose your hair.

He was looking at Farhad, whose hair is thin. I was thinking maybe this was a joke on him, but I didn't understand, so I waited for Farhad to respond.

There was silence for a moment -- just the four of us standing there, and me trying to figure out what I missed. Finally I spoke up.

Lose your hair?

I mean lose your pants, Parif said.

Farhad nodded knowingly, as he often does. Kadish was silent, as he often is. I still didn't understand.

Lose your pants? At Whole Foods!? I asked.

Lose your pants, or what ever the expression is.

Oh! I laughed out loud. Lose your shirt!

Something tells me Parif doesn't shop there.

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 Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Lonely Green Notebook

When the boy was in fourth grade, he broke his right arm playing soccer. When he was in fifth, he broke it again hot dogging on a bike.

Now, the boy is right handed, and fourth and fifth grades are key years for writing muscles. And to my everlasting shame, without me even noticing that it had happened, he went thru the years barely able to hold a pencil. I exaggerate, of course, but his aversions to writing are legion in this household.

With that background, I share this short story about the boy and the notebook in which I regularly pester him to write (by way penitence for his father's sin of negligence)...

It was the night before Christmas.

As we got ready for our trip to Canada, I told the boy to pack his green notebook ... and a pen. He did so but innocently set them on top of his bags instead of inside.

Early the next morning, as we prepared to drive to the airport, he casually moved the notebook to the bench in the hallway as he took his bags out to the car.

Just before I locked the house, I saw the green notebook left behind, grabbed it, and handed it and the pen to the boy as I got in the car. He had a sheepish look on his face.

At the airport, as we were scrambling to fill out baggage tags for our suitcases, the boy asked, Does anyone have a pen? I turned quickly and looked at him. What? he asked. I accidentally left it in the car.

Now as it happened we had plenty of time, so before we went thru security, I asked Trudy to watch all the bags, and I walked with the boy back out to the car to get the notebook and pen.

So he went to Canada equipped with a notebook. Now a quick question for you. How many pages do you think he wrote while we were on the road?

Oh that poor lonely notebook.

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