Wednesday, December 31, 2014

What is Home?

Yesterday on Twitter Astronaut Ron Garan retweeted a fancy script font image that read, "Home is where love resides, memories are created, friends always belong, and laughter never ends." What? No it's not.

I have seen platitudes like this my whole life and they never felt right to me. I thought maybe it was because I was a curmudgeon, a skeptic, non-spiritual. This month I finally figured it out. Maybe some people are connected to people, some people are connected to nature. Bruce Means asked me to read a manuscript for him that is the story of his recreation of John Muir's 1000 Mile Walk to the Gulf. Because it is easier for me to read things on my iPad I downloaded a PDF of the original and read that first. John Muir grew up in Wisconsin after moving from his birthplace in Scotland as a young boy. The south was very foreign to him and strange. Not home. Towards the end of the book he explains it all very eloquently.
In Kentucky...thousands of familiar flower faces looked from every hill and valley. I noted no difference in the sky, and the winds spoke the same things. I did not feel myself in a strange land.
In Tennessee my eyes rested upon the first mountain scenery I ever beheld. I was rising higher than ever before; strange trees were beginning to appear; alpine flowers and shrubs were meeting me at every step. But these Cumberland Mountains were timbered with oak, and were not unlike Wisconsin hills piled upon each other, and the strange plants were like those that were not strange. The sky was changed only a little, and the winds not by a single detectible note. Therefore, neither was Tennessee a strange land.
But soon came changes thick and fast. After passing the mountainous corner of North Carolina and a little way into Georgia, I beheld from one of the last ridge-summits of the Alleghanies that vast, smooth, sandy slope that reaches from the mountains to the sea. It is wooded with dark, branchy pines which were all strangers to me. Here the grasses, which are an earth-covering at the North, grow wide apart in tall clumps and tufts like saplings. My known flower companions were leaving me now, not one by one as in Kentucky and Tennessee, but in whole tribes and genera, and companies of shining strangers came trooping upon me in countless ranks. The sky, too, was changed, and I could detect strange sounds in the winds. Now I began to feel myself "a stranger in a strange land."
But in Florida came the greatest change of all, for here grows the palmetto, and here blow the winds so strangely toned by them. These palms and these winds severed the last strands of the cord that united me with home. Now I was a stranger, indeed. I was delighted, astonished, confounded, and gazed in wonderment blank and overwhelming as if I had fallen upon another star. But in all of this long, complex series of changes, one of the greatest, and the last of all, was the change I found in the tone and language of the winds. They no longer came with the old home music gathered from open prairies and waving fields of oak, but they passed over many a strange string. The leaves of magnolia, smooth like polished steel, the immense inverted forests of tillandsia banks, and the princely crowns of palms — upon these the winds made strange music, and at the coming-on of night had overwhelming power to present the distance from friends and home, and the completeness of my isolation from all things familiar.
Elsewhere I have already noted that when I was a day's journey from the Gulf, a wind blew upon me from the sea — the first sea breeze that had touched me in twenty years. I was plodding along with my satchel and plants, leaning wearily forward, a little sore from approaching fever, when suddenly I felt the salt air, and before I had time to thing, a whole flood of long-dormant associations rolled in upon me. The Firth of Forth, the Bass Rock, Dunbar Castle, and the winds and rocks and hills came upon the wings of that wind, and stood in as clear and sudden light as a landscape flashed upon the view by a blaze of lightning in a dark night.
As strange and unfamiliar as the south was to John Muir, it is my home. I get great comfort from those dark, branchy pines and the smell of their needles baking in the sun. The sound of a pileated woodpecker banging his giant head on a hollow trunk, and the rising, smooth white noise as the wind moves through the long needles — that is home to me. Here there are all the right animals, the right plants, the right light, the right water, the right soil, the right air. These are the things my grandmother taught me to identify, to study, to love. My grandmother died, but the piney woods will thrive as long as we let them. It is my responsibility to care for these woods and struggle against their aggressive fecundity to assert my own tiny bit of order on it. When it's not trying to destroy my civilization with humidity and mice, my home amuses me.

My Best Inventions of 2014

It's the last day of the year, time for my 2nd annual list of the best things I invented in the last 12 months.

I guess my life is pretty settled because I can't think of anything I invented this year. I'm still enjoying last year's best invention, the closed cell foam insulating cast iron tub backrest. I did come up with one unique problem solution. I'm going to count that. It also involves rare earth magnets like last year's invention.

I had a weird health year. I spent way too much time reading about how little medical science knows about what might be wrong with me. I found only two useful things I could implement for improvement. One was green lipped mussel extract to help my back pain. It's one of those alternative medicines that's been proved to work. It's basically an anti-inflammatory that doesn't hurt my stomach. The other problem I have is acid reflux where only two treatments have been proved to work. The first is proton pump inhibitors like Prilosec and Nexium. I have been taking those every day for 14 years. The only other thing that has been proved to help this condition is to elevate the head of your bed six inches. Well my bed is a loft. The mattress is already so close to the ceiling if I elevated one end I wouldn't be able to sit in bed and watch TV. I don't have a couch. My loft is my only place for leisure time. I thought and thought and realized I don't have to sleep the same direction as I watch TV. King size mattresses are almost square. I'm shorter than the width of my bed so there's no reason not to sleep on it sideways. Now every night I elevate one small part of my mattresses and then sleep on top of that hump.

Step one is to insert this enameled steel meat tray under the edge of the mattress
by the ladder. I can stand on the steps to do this.
Step two is to heave up on the tray and prop it up with this live oak mallet.
Pull back the covers, move the pillow from the TV watching spot, climb in and go to sleep.
I mounted a pair of very strong cup magnets on the wall to store the tray
during the day. The mallet fits in the space next to the ladder.
Ready for tonight!

If you have any problem that could be solved with magnets like this, here's the link. I got them on Amazon from Applied Magnets. I bought four but two were more than enough.

I'm pretty sure this is terrible for my mattress. I try not to climb in and out too much when it is deformed in this way. I am pretty light for what mattresses are designed for, so I hope it might withstand this treatment for several years. I have a spare king size mattress in storage so if I break the springs and metal starts sticking out of this one I can dismantle the loft and get it down. Maybe that will be the time to install a dump truck mechanism under the loft so a motor can lift the head of the bed after I lie down. That sounds like a maintenance issue though. This steel tray thing has a very satisfactory failure mode. It won't be in anybody's way if I leave and somebody else without acid reflux wants to use my house. 

I found one more thing that helps my back feel better, a workout video that came with an inflatable peanut-shaped ball. Here it is on Amazon. It involves a lot of stretching moves and core strengthening exercises. There was one more you can download from their website. I do all three. I ripped them to iTunes and put them on my iPad so I can take them with me if I go out of town. If I do it at least five times a week my back doesn't hurt so much. It also involves a lot of balancing. I think that might've helped my recovery from vertigo. Well, it didn't hurt. It made me feel like if I had the illusion of falling over my muscles would automatically take over and correct. I never did fall down, so maybe this is true, or maybe I'm just really careful.

Going out of town reminded me of another invention. Creation really. OK, it's just an outfit. But I didn't copy anybody. I went as Global Sea Level Rise. It did involve making a skirt out of a t-shirt, so that is sort of an invention.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Orion EFT-1 Launch

I got in my car and drove about 5 hours last Wednesday to go see a Delta IV Heavy rocket launch from Cape Canaveral. That's the biggest, fastest rocket currently available to launch things into space. It was launching the test setup of the Orion capsule. (I got to see it up close in 2011) It would go farther and faster than anything designed to hold people has gone for 45 years. I guess it's my cynical nature that makes me think we've failed for the past 45 years, not that we just accomplished something. It's the same feeling I get when my old professors retire and they just stop teaching that subject. No Dr. Payne? No Psychoacoustics class. No Dr. Braden? No more Physics of Photography. Letting knowledge, skills, and experience just go away offends my intellectual nature. If building Orion is the only way to pass on the knowledge of how to build a Gemini style heat shield then I don't think it's a waste of money even if the program gets cut later and nobody ever goes to space in a capsule like that.

Phil Plait expressed his serious misgivings about Orion and the yet-to-exist Space Launch System that would power it into space. I don't disagree with him, but if not this, what? The engineers that have experience sending things to space need to be working with new engineers, need to be sending things into space. I don't care if it is the wrong thing, an underfunded thing, a failure or a success, as long as the new engineers are learning what the older guys know so their own ideas carry us forward. It's a job for these engineers and they get hands on experience making a thing for going to space. It just went to space. They must feel good about that. They deserve it. Given a chance they are better equipped to make something better because of the experience building this thing.

In the post launch press conference a reporter from The Guardian asked Bill Gerstenmaier how much sooner they'd be ready to launch people into space (and bring them back) in Orion if they had a bigger budget. He said it's not happening in a serial fashion just because they can't afford to hire more help, it's happening that way because they need certain research to be completed as input to the next stage of the design. Scott Kelly needs to stay on the space station for a solid year, for example, before they have all the data they need to determine the proper specifications for the habitat module that ESA is going to build based on their cargo ship.

I get the impression that they are keeping their options open. They seem to be enjoying the luxury of management being actual engineers. Back in the '90s when I worked in consumer electronics we used to joke that managers thought you could get nine women pregnant and have a baby in a month. I told that to my friend the spacesuit engineer and he said he'd never heard that joke. Must be nice.

Somebody in the press conference mentioned that the heat shield is tedious to manufacture. It's a honeycomb type thing and each cell has to be filled by hand – in my mind I'm imagining West System epoxy in a syringe, I don't really know what it is. So they are trying better ways to manufacture that. The next Orion that launches into space won't be the same as this one. If you do something in a hurry you don't have the luxury of trying new things. You over-design it, see if it survives potentially destructive testing, then lock that down and work on whatever didn't pass. Since they don't pay these engineers very much the least they can do is shoot something they made into space from time to time. What else is going to motivate them to not just leave the space program to get a better paying job?

I went to the launch attempt Thursday and actual launch Friday with a friend who has a Johnson Space Center badge. He got a placard to allow him to park on the NASA causeway for the launch. I brought the folding chairs.


Thursday was interesting to see all the traffic on the road at 3 am. It didn't seem cold when we got there, but after a few hours of a damp wind I was chilled to the bone. As soon as the launch window opened at dawn they stopped the countdown because of a boat in the restricted area. By the time they got him out of the way the wind had picked up and automatic sensors stopped the countdown two more times. By then the valves on the liquid hydrogen tanks got cold and required extra cycles to close all the way. They called off the launch for the day so they could save battery power and try the next day.

Friday morning there were no boats in the restricted area. I wore an extra layer of jacket. The valves were functioning nominally and the rocket took off right on time. The sound seemed instantaneous with the "liftoff" announcement on the public address speaker. That may have been because the rockets light up several seconds before it moves, before it registers that it should be making noise. I was busy trying to shoot video and still pictures and grab a screen shot of my sound pressure level app all at the same time. I couldn't really take it all in. I envy the people I see in photos just watching. I can't do that. I have to share with all you good people!



Orion Launch from Barbara Tomlinson on Vimeo.

After the launch we went to the Visitor Center and looked at Shuttle Atlantis. The space shuttle was a lovely space plane. As much as I enjoyed watching the parachutes opening exactly right on Orion it didn't make me feel the pride in the American space program a shuttle landing did. Those lovely lines, the big rockets! Beautiful space plane.
The shuttle looks kind of ratty up close.
How did Serenity get away with a hand painted logo?
There's a 7" fuel line (not shown) from the external fuel tank
going into the engines.
There's a Nature exhibit at the Visitor Center. Your basic taxidermy and silk plants and some signage that brought out my inner pedant.
Leatherneck is a slang term for a member of the Marines.
A species of sea turtle is a Leatherback.
This is why I can't have friends or a job.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

That shirt is atrocious

Today's science event is Philae attempting to land on a comet. I woke up and turned on the live stream immediately. It was a lot of old white men with cool European accents who sounded like they were reading the Acknowledgements out of the front of their book. Not my favorite kind of presentation. I turned to Twitter to see if I could glean any interesting facts about the comet or the engineering behind the landing.

I was quickly in the middle of another Sexism in Science discussion because of Dr. Matt Taylor, from North East London and a lead scientist on the mission. He chose a particularly sexist shirt this morning.

(Click photo to link to tweet to read the conversation after it.)

The consensus from Twitter scientists that cross my path is that this is a sexist shirt and he could have worn something else colorful and interesting that didn't have objectified women all over it.

But over at the Daily Mail they didn't see it as a sexist shirt at all.
Twitter users praised Dr Taylor for being ‘a proper cool scientist’ and ‘definitely not boring’ after he appeared on the European Space Agency live stream and BBC Breakfast wearing a multi-coloured shirt emblazoned with illustrations of glamorous women, which he teamed with shorts, which showed off his tattoos.
Here's a video from Nature interviewing Dr. Taylor. Skip to 1:22



The Nature reporter is grinning like a Cheshire Cat in this video. She KNOWS it's going viral because of this guy's shirt. If she was a problem solver and averse to controversy like me (instead of a person who can keep her job) she would have told him to take that top shirt off before she aimed the camera at him. He's wearing a WHOLE OTHER SHIRT underneath that. (As a scientist I must concede it could be a dickey.) Reporters and scientists are very different, as pointed out by them asking scientists all morning, "How do you feel right now?" and the scientists, every woman and man, gave the media person a withering look that says, "I don't know that! How is that a REMOTELY interesting topic? I can't be arsed to come up with an answer for that idiotic question." But they could all be arsed to put on a long sleeve shirt and a jacket before being interviewed.

Dr. Taylor has a lot of tattoos in addition to the comic book shirt. Which makes me think about my "Why I Hate Tattoos" blog from years ago.
I think people's personalities are so variable a tattoo puts too much emphasis on just one aspect of it.... 
If I'm going to a job interview I wear something that makes me look professional. If I'm going to see my dad I wear something that makes me look conservative, if I'm going to see my mom I wear something edgier.... This is because I respect them. I want to show that I get who they are and understand what they value. My personality is pretty blatant. I can't really change the fact that I'm prone to curse and correct errors of fact all the time. But I can emphasize different aspects of myself outwardly through my appearance.
Tattoos just eliminate that option. I am very uncomfortable with that. People with tattoos are THAT sure who they are and who they want to be in EVERY SITUATION? FOREVER?
Yes, apparently it would be a personal betrayal for him to wear something that respects the audience of stuffy old white guys in awesome horn rimmed glasses. His audience is apparently a different audience than what everybody imagined when they got dressed to go to an event to be streamed live all over the world. His audience is the readership of the Daily Mail.

I would love to just hate this guy and go on a rant about how offensive he is and get a few juicy paragraphs out of it, but I can't. If I worked for ESA and this guy came into the lab wearing this shirt I would not be embarrassed or uncomfortable. I can see how other people would be and I think he made a bad decision to wear it. But I can't put him down as a bad person, just a physicist with bad taste and lack of sensitivity. I know a lot of these people and I forgive them. As I said in my Tattoo blog.
Some of my favorite people have one thing they do that I don't like particularly, but I know enough other stuff about them that I respect and appreciate that I just ignore the parts of their personality that I think are silly. Like my brilliant physicist friend who is so obsessed with his own penis he made a plaster cast of it and created a hard plastic gear shift lever in its exact likeness.
A lot of people, women scientists and men, on my Twitter feed think this is an opportunity to rail against creating a hostile environment for women in science. I applaud them. But seriously, that was not my big problem with science. I can deal with objectification of women. It's the inability to get and keep a job because management despises innovation and creativity and wants yes-men and people to be quiet and take a lot of shit. This is what is holding back women in science, not soft-core porn.

My major professor in undergraduate school had some really graphic photos of women in his office. I think old students sent him post cards on purpose to try to one-up each other. He had a row of them on the chalk tray of the blackboard in his office. I remember one vividly. It was from Brazil and featured a close up of a bare ass coming out of some cut-up-the-butt denim shorts with a little dusting of beach sand on the protruding cheeks. You could see the fine blonde hairs on her butt shining in the sun. It was a very good close-up. It was the sand that bothered me. I wanted to reach out and dust it off. I hate sand on my skin. But I had a brother who read Playboy in high school because my mother got him a subscription. I was trained to think there was nothing wrong with these images. I was lucky this was the preparation my mother gave me to prepare me to be a woman in science. How did she know?!

There was a straight-up centerfold on the back of my professor's office door. But if you were in there the door was open and you couldn't see it. It often had a coat hanging over it. I only ever saw it when he had to close the door to get a book from the shelf behind it. Now that I think about it, somebody really should have told him to get rid of that stuff. In fact, it's possible that when I got to know him well enough I probably told him. I recall that when I went back to visit after I graduated he had removed all that stuff.

Last weekend I went to see this professor, now retired, at his house. He clearly does not notice the things used for decoration. His house is decorated with the mid-century furniture his wife bought in the '60s, the same pink plates on stands, gilt tea set on the coffee table. Clearly he is one of these men who just doesn't notice this stuff. He only pays attention to technology. And he likes to keep old things as long as they still work. That cell phone is from the '90s. He built these speakers in 1964.

This is why I am inclined to give Dr. Taylor a pass on his sexist shirt. I have been trained to excuse men for liking pictures of objectified women. In my experience it does not stop them from being good scientists, good mentors, and very supportive of women scientists.

The people I blame for holding back women in science are not men scientists. They are managers who are holding back ALL scientists. Managers who don't let engineers innovate and manufacture new amazing things but want to just keep the same old stuff that makes known amounts of money. Women are just going to be eliminated first because if they have a strong enough personality to learn to forgive weird behavior in their fellow students and professors and stick with the program then they have a personality that men managers hate in women.

While I was writing this Philae touched down. But the anchors did not shoot. They are not sure if it's going to STAY on the surface. The live stream is still ongoing.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Table Manners: A Short Story

“God, honey, it’s disgusting!”

“What?” he said.

“My father! He sounds like a turtle chewing a hard boiled egg! There’s more couscous lodged in his wrinkles than he managed to swallow! One Labrador isn’t going to cut it. We’re going to need to get a terrier to clean the food off Dad’s shirt!” she exclaimed. 

“Oh,” Phil said. “Well, he doesn’t have to eat with us,” he problem-solved over his shoulder as he left the kitchen.

The next night at dinnertime Lois served four plates and then took one of them to the living room. Her father was sitting in his chair watching the financial news. She set up a little folding table without even waking him. Then she shook him gently by the shoulder. “Here’s your dinner, Dad. I thought you might like to eat here while you watch your show so you don’t have to get up.”

The rest of the family sat down at the kitchen table. When Junior finished his first helping he got up to take the biscuit basket out to his grandfather to see if he wanted another one. Then he sat back down and ate all the rest of the biscuits with butter and jelly.

After Lois cleared the table she went out to the living room to get her father’s tray. He had cleaned his plate. He always liked okra and tomatoes and meatloaf. And Lois had enjoyed hers more because she couldn’t hear him slurp it up. She felt very smug as she loaded the dishwasher that night.

On Friday night Phil brought home a rotisserie chicken. Lois cut off a thigh for her father. He liked dark meat. She arranged little piles of buttered rice and field peas. She set up the TV table for him while Phil and Junior served their own plates at the table. She sat down to eat and about the time Junior got a whole chicken wing in his mouth there was a crash. Lois ran to the living room. Her father sat with a knife and fork in his hands and all his dinner was scattered on the carpet. “Oh, Daddy!” cried Lois. She moved the TV table out of his way so he could get up. A waterfall of rice and peas fell onto the carpet in front of his chair. He stepped gingerly to not crush any into the carpet. Lois picked up the plate and the chicken.

“Buddy! Here Buddy!” Lois called. The dog came and obligingly ate all the rice off the carpet, neatly licking all the butter off every pea without swallowing a single one. Lois sighed as she went for a dustpan, a bowl of sudsy water, a sponge and a roll of paper towels. When she came back to the kitchen with her bowl of dirty water and soggy paper towels her father was at Junior’s place at the kitchen table finishing a portion of peas and rice while Junior gnawed on a chicken bone in the chair with no place setting. Junior asked his dad to be excused and everybody got up. Lois sat down to finish her own dinner alone, disappointed, but determined.

The next night Lois had to improvise because the financial news doesn’t run on Saturday. She served three plates as usual, then she put some of the mashed potatoes in one of her medium sized mixing bowls. She put in a spoonful of corn, some pole beans, and topped it with a slice of pot roast torn into bite size pieces. She poured some of the pan drippings over the whole thing. She poured some cold water in a plastic cup with a screw-on lid and a straw. She stabbed a spoon in the bowl and went to the back door where Junior was lying on the floor coloring. "Get the door for me please, Junior," she said. 

Junior opened the door and Lois took the bowl and cup out to her father. He was on the back deck with Forbes magazine and his binoculars near the bird feeder. Then she went in to dinner with her husband and son. She told Junior three times to get his elbows off the table and corrected Phil when he tried to put his dirty knife back down on the placemat. It should be placed across the plate. She was getting the hang of this. Table manners would prevail.

On Sunday morning Lois went for her long weekly run while Phil made breakfast for the men. After she got back and showered and came out to the living room with her coffee she found Phil and her father reading the funny pages while Junior was building something with his Lincoln Logs. She sat down on the floor for some quality time with her son. “What are you building, Junior? Is this your house?”

“Yeah, that’s the house where we’ll live when I’m grown up,” said Junior.

“And what’s that you’re building out in the yard?” said Lois.

Junior replied matter-of-factly, “This is a trough for you and Daddy at suppertime.”

That night was Sunday Supper. Junior’s aunts and uncles brought dishes of food over and they had a big meal together. Everybody sat at the long table in the dining room, even Granddad. 

On Monday night Lois left the TV tables in their little stand in the corner of the living room. She waited for the financial news to end, then announced that dinner was ready. Everybody sat down to eat together that night, and every night after that.


Updated version of the Grimm fairy tale "The Old Man and his Grandson," 
By Barbara Tomlinson ©2014