Saturday, January 2, 2016

2015 Was a Very Small Year

I didn't write much in 2015. I was busy knitting. I have 145 items in my iPad database of designs. I didn't really keep track of how many finished objects I made. I don't derive my satisfaction from running totals. I started out the year wondering if constant counting and calculating would improve my dexterity with numbers, but I think I have proven I have a bona fide brain deficit and no amount of practice is ever going to make me flawless. It still makes me sad to hear about people who "hate math." I'm grateful my innumeracy never turned into loathing.

I didn't go anywhere in 2015. My car stayed in my home county and two adjacent ones in Georgia and Florida.

Nothing awesome happened to me in 2015.

My house sank, but I fixed it. A duck dented my car, but I fixed it. I felt like crap all year, and I couldn't fix that. When I take my car to the mechanic they keep replacing parts until it works better. If doctors did anything like that I might go to them for help. I did not see a doctor in 2015.

I had no drama in my life in 2015. Nobody told me what to do, I never raised my voice in anger at anyone. I woke up every day and did exactly what I felt like doing.

I think I was the best hermit I could be in 2015.

I am a little worried about money though. I don't see how my mother and aunts can keep buying the stuff I knit at the same rate. I looked online at job openings near my brother's new house since he has an extra bedroom now. I tried to imagine myself going to a job interview. Tried to imagine driving down the turnpike in South Florida to go sit at a Windows computer applying styles to Microsoft Word documents. It was about the same feeling I have when I think about making a doctor's appointment. Despair, hopelessness, dark misery.

The chirpy little job descriptions caused a rising background hum of cynical growling on top of the constant ringing in my ears.
Excellent technical writing skills for environmental consulting applications are required as are outstanding engineering/scientific problem-solving abilities. The selected candidate will demonstrate passion for the business of environmental consulting, technical excellence and quality, leadership potential, a commitment to lifelong learning and growth, and the desire to build a long and rewarding career with the Firm.
I feel so much negativity for "passion for the business," "leadership potential" and "desire to build a long and rewarding career with the Firm." I just want some fucking health insurance. Why do I have to buy into this Tony Robbins bullshit?

I actually do like working with teams of engineering consultants. I like making people stop fucking up the environment. I just don't give a damn about the business of it. To me the whole point of working in a big company is division of apathy. Lots of people don't give a damn about a stylesheets and passive voice. I will handle that, they can handle making a profit. I do not expect the head of accounts receivable to be passionate about illegal sea walls, don't ask me to be passionate about time sheets.

Does anybody read that paragraph and feel inspired and motivated? Are they coasting along on the delusional wave of normal behavior? Career, children, pets, crippling debt? Do I really want to hang out with them 40 hours a week? I don't know. It would be fine I guess. I would adapt. But how many of them would be happy with a year like I just had? I probably spent less than 40 hours TOTAL FOR THE YEAR in the company of at least one other person. And I liked it. Isn't it a shame to waste that aptitude?

It's very difficult to stop doing nothing, of course. Reduce, Reuse, Recluse, Repeat. Here's the first video I ever uploaded to Vimeo. I made it with Keynote. I miss Graham Chapman.

I Didn't Speak Dressed as a Carrot from Barbara Tomlinson on Vimeo.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Conflatulagration: Formal Terminology for Flaring Flatus

I woke up this morning wondering if an astronaut ever tried to light a fart in microgravity. If they could do it without setting off a fire alarm that would alert Houston and get them in trouble they've probably done it. Those Nomex flight suits.... But what if it turned out to make a really fascinating spherical ball of flame and a charming burst of soot, or nothing happened at all, which could happen because there's no convection to bring more oxygen to the party, and they wanted to share their findings? They'd need a big word for the title of the white paper. "What happens when astronauts on the space station light their farts?" simply isn't formal enough. It would have to be "Controlled Studies in Microgravity Conflatulagration" or "Flaring Flatus While Floating: Combustion Experiment Foiled by Lack of Convection"

I checked the etymology of conflagration and flatus. They are both Latin. Conflagration comes from con - (expressing intensive force) + flagrare - to blaze. And flatus comes from flare - to blow. "Flaring your flatus" is therefore redundant, but it makes me think of those tall pipes flaring the gas off a landfill or oil derrick so I like it anyway.
Gas Flaring in Louisiana, with gravity in full effect
Photo by me, 2010
The thing about living on a planet with 7.3 billion other people is whenever you think of something new, chances are good somebody else already thought of it too. So I googled "conflatulagration." I found a single occurrence of the word conflatulagration on the Internet.

It's in a comment after an economics article in The Guardian in 2011 answering another commenter who wanted to know why oil prices go up when anybody in Libya farts.

This user has 305 comments on Guardian stories. Skimming over them I see farts are sort of his pet topic. He would get along with my step-sister. I think she would enjoy the term "fartisinal" quite a lot.

I'm not really a fartficionado. I only know about flaring flatus from stories my father told us when we were little about what he got up to when he was in engineering school. And when I went to that same school my brother's friends confirmed it is a real thing that engineering students do. Lots of astronauts were engineering students once. So I consider the probability that somebody tried to light a fart in zero g is better than the odds of being one of the people on earth to make up a formal word for it.

There's a TV show called Going Deep with David Rees where he spends about 25 minutes investigating the details of things people think they know all about, like how to tie your shoes. Of course I watch every episode. These are my people. David Rees was on The Daily Show last week. Trevor Noah clearly doesn't get it. "But if you are compelled to investigate the details of every trivial aspect of life, how do you LIVE?" 

I'm still trying to figure out what he means. How do YOU live, Trevor Noah? Ignorant of the fascinating details of the world? What kind of life is that?!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Why won't millenials buy cars and houses?

I watch a lot of NASA TV. At least once a week there will be an interview with an astronaut and somebody will ask them when they first wanted to be an astronaut and what did they do to become one. Some wanted to be astronauts since childhood. I am surprised that children plan for careers like that. I'm surprised at the children in the audience who are already thinking about it and ask the question.

I don't remember ever having career goals as a kid. What I wanted to be when I grew up was a grown up. I really didn't like being a kid at all. I found it limited my ability to get things done. I liked to make things. I didn't play pretend with other kids, or do any sports. I read books and learned to sew and knit and do cross stitch. I worked all year making elaborate Christmas gifts for my relatives. I didn't think about what job I would have as an adult, but I did desperately yearn to not be stuck doing kid stuff anymore. I made my dad take me to the drivers license office the first day they were open after my 16th birthday to take my driving test even though I had never driven his car before. I mostly did my learner's permit driving in my grandmother's stick shift Toyota pickup. But I was willing to embrace anxiety and take a stranger for a ride in an automatic transmission Delta 88 so I could get that badge of adulthood. Even though I slammed my clutch foot on the brake at least once I still passed.

I heard that some of my cousin's kids just breezed past their 16th birthday without going for their driving test like it didn't even matter. I was stunned. This is how it is now. It's a trend. (Study source: AAA Foundation for Highway Safety)
Delay in licensure was found to be widespread: only 44 percent of respondents reported that they obtained a driver’s license within one year of the minimum age for licensing in their state, and only 54 percent reported that they obtained a license before turning 18
I worked during high school doing data entry and office work. I had my most responsible job of my life at age 19 as a sophomore at Georgia Tech. I was the Features Editor of the school newspaper with responsibility for a large staff. I determined what people had to do and how much they got paid. I worked 40 hours a week and was a full time student. I got my first F in Calculus IV. And I still wasn't thinking about what I wanted to do for a career.

One of my nieces finished her first year in college and went back to her Mother's house for the summer. She said she didn't want to get a job because if her friends texted about doing something she didn't want to have to say, "No, I can't, I have to go to work." I had a hard time wrapping my head around that. I'm not sure if it's because I didn't have texting at her age, or because I didn't have any friends in the town where I lived during my sophomore summer. The summer of 1986 I went to work from 9 to 5 every day and did electrical riser diagrams in AutoCAD. Only one project would fit on the computer at a time because the hard drive was only 40 Mb. I had to copy the drawings onto 5 1/2" floppies and clean off the hard drive for the next job. I made $4 an hour and my boss charged architects $40 an hour for the work I did.

I bought my first new car in 1989. I'd had 5 new cars by the time I was 32. I bought my first house at 25. I was doing what I always wanted to do, be a grown up. And I still hadn't picked a career. I was a 1099 contractor in electronics development. Between projects I would renovate my house. I loved being a grown up. I got my own way and I got to make things. It was all I ever wanted.

It is a well established fact that I am weird. Which is why I am embarrassed that it constantly surprises me to realize things that are totally normal for other people that I never even thought about. It has slowly dawned on me in the last week that a lot of people still cling to aspects of being children. Evidence: all the full grown adults on Twitter changing their names to Halloween puns. This is probably why so many people have children. They liked being children, they wouldn't mind being reminded of it. Not me. No way. I want very much to not relive that 17 year prison sentence of other people telling me what to do.

Is that why millenials don't buy cars and houses? They don't want to be grown ups? They like to be kids even more than people nearer my age who still buy houses and cars despite having Halloween pun names on Twitter? Kids today have even less motivation to be grown ups? Why was I so desperate to be a grown up? Because being a kid SUCKED. But now young people clearly are not as fundamentally frustrated by their teenage lifestyle as I was. The other analysis points to the internet as the reason for this contentment.

This sounds right to me. I mean, I lived in this exact same spot as a teenager and I HATED it. It was a long distance phone call from my house to the kids in my class at school, not that I really wanted to talk to any of them. I wanted to go to college with people I liked and never have to come back here. Yet here I am, happily typing this essay in the Spartan I rebuilt on the burnt out slab of my childhood home in the woods. Because internet. I can connect with people, get the materials I need to make things with online shopping, all without going in my car. The same car I have had since my first internet service provider, Mindspring, went public in 1996.

The point of the other analysis online seems to be what to do about this. How about accept it? Adapt to it. Car makers want to figure out a way to get people to run through 5 new cars in 10 years like I did in my 20s? How about stopping to ask if that's even a good thing? If 20 somethings don't need cars make something they do need. The internet could use a lot of work. If Ford wanted to run a fiber optic cable to my house I would be cool with giving them $50 a month instead of Windstream. But I'm not buying a Fiesta.

Why don't millenials want your giant subdivision houses? Well, that's just the economy, stupid. They do want paid-for tiny houses. That's another thing I know about. But I have to go make something now and don't feel like thinking about this anymore.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Unclaimed Property as a Tax Dodge?

I got a letter from PriceWaterhouseCoopers this week. They are doing an audit for Google and found that Google owes me some money. It's earned revenue from my old AdSense account. I assume it's from YouTube and the few ads I had on my blog for a while. In 2010 I decided ads on my blog were dumb because I was never going to reach the payment threshold. So I deleted them. Not really sure what happened to YouTube ads on my rocket videos. I sort of forgot about it for 5 years.

Anyway, the letter says the money is going to be handed over to the State of Georgia as unclaimed funds because I haven't logged into that AdSense account since 2010. If I want to actually claim the money I have to sign the letter and return it to PriceWaterhouseCoopers, then open a new AdSense account and the money will be transferred to it. But AdSense still won't remit any funds below a $100 threshold. Ever. A quote from the AdSense agreement:
10. Termination
.... If you terminate the Agreement and your earned balance equals or exceeds the applicable threshold, we will pay you your earned balance....  Any earned balance below the applicable threshold will remain unpaid.
Remain unpaid? Indefinitely? I don't think you can do that. The accountants must be appeased! What happens to amounts under $100? Some consultant at PriceWaterhouseCoopers is probably really bent that Google won't change this language in the AdSense agreement. I bet they can't think of any legitimate journal entry to transfer that amount from liabilities to equity. 

I took one financial accounting class at Georgia Tech in about 1987, so this is definitely not my field. I am fully prepared to be totally wrong about this. But I did learn double entry bookkeeping and the basic element of ethics it implies. If a company has a number in the credit column they have to have the same number in the debit column. Right now Google has $75 in the account for owing people money that is offsetting $75 in an actual bank account, collected from an advertiser because somebody watched an ad on a video I made. This makes it so Google doesn't have to show that $75 of actual money as an asset. It's a liability, owed to me. But they never intend to give me that $75. That's obviously unethical to me. 

And now you know why I was unable to make it as a businesswoman and closed my S-Corporation in 2005.

If I do nothing I guess PriceWaterhouseCoopers makes Google hand $75 over to Georgia. Google has to subtract it out of their column of actual money. Then it becomes Georgia's actual money to earn interest on indefinitely while it sits in another column on Georgia's books as money still owed to me. That sounds more fair. Maybe the right course of action is to not return the letter to force that to happen.

In the best case scenario this weird threshold loophole is a waste of administrative resources for accountants, mail clerks, and me. This has to happen ALL the time. In the worst case scenario, it's ... I don't know. I draw the line at calling something fraud this far from my area of expertise. I am merely skeptical and curious for an explanation. Any knowledgable comments appreciated.

Note: this is a free blog provided by Google. I am not missing the symbolism of criticizing their accounting on a service they are giving away. I pay a yearly fee for my URL registrations but I don't pay Google anything for hosting content. Directly anyway. I do apparently provide them a tiny single line tax dodge. You're welcome.

Friday, July 24, 2015

How to Inhabit a Habitable Planet

I've really been enjoying watching the press conferences for the New Horizons Mission to Pluto. I love listening to scientists tell me things I didn't know. (Carbon monoxide ice is soluble in nitrogen ice. Well, I never!) Also I get some relief from our nonsensical society when for a whole hour people speak pragmatically about physical processes and the process of understanding them. (For a Pluto overview if you've been under a rock, check Bad Astronomy.)

The scientists in the press conferences talk about Pluto in terms of geology and compare what happens there to processes on earth, like having atmospheric pressure, heat from radioactivity in the rocky core of the planet, flowing nitrogen ice that behaves like our water ice glaciers. They can point to a crater and compare it to the crater that formed Delaware Bay. Nobody has, but they could if they wanted to. I thought of it today when a scientist compared a crater to the size of the Washington DC metro area. How many politicians in Washington know that the Delaware Bay was formed by an impact event? I bet not many. How many even know that radioactivity is what makes the inside of the planet hot? I bet not many.

And this is what made me write a blog today. This is what is bugging me. Why is it so much fun to look at planets and talk about their geology and how they got to be that way but nobody wants to talk about Earth the same way? When politicians talk about global climate change and sea level rise they never talk about the logistics of relocating Miami and converting high rise condos in to aesthetically pleasing fish habitat. They talk about how it's not their fault. They talk about changing our energy mix to stop the climate changing.

Why is that interesting? It seems like the complete wrong thing to talk about to me. I mean for politicians. That's a problem for scientists, how to slow the runaway CO2. The politicians need to work on the societal issues. Move your shit off the beach! Redesign your public water systems. Plan ahead, that's your job. This is happening. You have control of zoning, of development, of infrastructure. Why are you not planning for worst case scenarios? Japan has buildings that dance a jig and stay safe in an earthquake yet California is utterly incapable of dealing with a perfectly ordinary drought. This is idiotic. Figure out your civilization, humanities majors. If you pay them the technical people will be happy to design it for you.

When we have the luxury to look at a new planet from space and think about how to explore it we go about it very differently from how we explored Earth. (They just discovered a Goldilocks zone planet this week.) But even inhabitable planets, they don't just shoot a robot at Mars and wherever it lands is fine. They figure out where exactly they want to end up to check for evidence of flowing liquid. You can't find all the good stuff in just one spot. It's not the Stargate franchise, where every planet has one interesting part that looks like a Canadian gravel quarry and everything useful is in walking distance. Planets are not homogeneous objects. Or small. Even Pluto is big enough we can't get a good look at the whole thing from a speeding space probe. Why do people act so funny about Earth? Why can't we just admit some places aren't really a great place for a city? And then move it? The reasons you put it there have changed. It's not a failure to admit that. Is it? Why?

I guess it's because somebody owns that property. People who own things think it's their right to fuck it up. They also think it's their right to make it stay the way it was when they got it.

This is not the case when it comes to beachfront property in Florida, where I have the most experience and pent up rage. You buy some lines on a map. If what is inside those lines is sand when you buy it, fine. If a hurricane comes and then your land is under water, too bad. If the whole sea level rises, same thing. See, the problem is that the people that buy sand in a box on a map in Florida are rich people and they want what they want and fuck you too. They will pressure the government to put the sand back for them. And the government will do it. Because rich people.

But when we go to take a look a Pluto nobody owns it. Hell, even the team studying it is scattered over several universities. The data is in the public domain. And this system works. They look at the big picture, then they zoom in and study all the details. They think about the atmosphere, how much is there? Is it leaving? How much longer will there be an atmosphere?
They rushed to Pluto because they wanted to get there before the atmosphere was all gone. They almost didn't make it. The blue data points  in the graph above (from today's press conference) are measured from Earth by occultation calculations. The number they just measured shows a giant drop. They almost missed it. Atmosphere is thinning fast, washed away by solar energy.

Look how calmly they talk about the fact that the atmosphere on a planet can just ... go ... away. Yet politicians acts like the earth is a known, static system that they can bend to their economic will. It's a PLANET! Planets do what they want. Have you seen lightning?! Lightning will fuck you up! And that's just an instantaneous event! Look at geologic time! Planets don't give a shit. Planets can start out all hot and moist and next thing you know the whole thing is a big rocky desert. Just ask Curiosity. How many politicians really get that Mars is not the same as it used to be? It CHANGED. It's a PLANET. It's what they do.

So why do politicians not make plans for what to do when Earth changes? Why do they not take advantage of a global perspective and pick out some better places for cities? When Louis and Clark got to the Columbia River Estuary the first thing they did was say, "Damn, these 50 foot waves make it hard to get your boat in the mouth of the river. Build jetties!" They ruined a whole ecosystem before they'd been there long enough to even measure the baseline ecological condition. And only the baseline in that instant, let alone did they have any grasp in regard to geologic time. The reason the beach makes your compasses all screwy is because it's A VOLCANO. Maybe not the best place to settle down. (I'm simplifying. Basalt formations in that area are highly magnetized. This region has been in the news recently for it's lack of habitability. I haven't read the original article because I already knew it was tectonically active. When I saw tweets about it I just said yeah yeah and kept scrolling. But I googled it just now to include the link. I think it was this New Yorker piece that started the recent buzz. Oh, it's due for a giant earthquake. Yeah. I know.)

The reasons modern humans settled where they did are dumb reasons. Why can't they stand back and be logical now that we have a global perspective? Prehistoric settlements made a lot more sense. They were where the food was. Then they moved. They were often on a shoreline. But they could build a hut in a couple of days and it would last a few months. Sea level rise, so what? How many politicians even understand that people used to live in places that are totally under water now? I don't understand why we can't cope with a 10 foot sea level rise. It's perfectly normal for this planet. You should have been ready for it when you planned your cities even if you didn't cause it. It's hardly even the issue WHY the planet is warming. It's a dynamic planet. Why is urban planning so locked in? They should have planned better. They shouldn't let rich people just do whatever they want.

I'm not even talking about geologic time, but in the time of human habitation. Is the problem just that nobody knows about this stuff? They don't cover it in school? Why the hell not? If people are ok with somebody saying that the Sputnik Planum on Pluto is young, and mean 100,000,000 years, then why can't they plan for climate conditions that people used to live in right here on earth 12,000 years ago? They act like that is forever ago and irrelevant. They can't see farther back than their grandparents or farther forward than their grandchildren. That seems dumb to me. All the evidence is right there.

Let me give an example. There are Apalachee Indian Villages in the middle of Apalachee Bay not far from my house. I've floated right above them in a boat and seen sonar images of them. These are people who ate oysters and venison just like modern people. Here's an excerpt from a 1998 paper by Michael Wisenbaker for the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research. (I don't know who that is, I just Googled general terms and it came up at the top of my search.)
Paleo-Indians began trickling into the Apalachee region of Florida, the area between the Ochlockonee and Aucilla rivers, about 12,000 years ago. Sites from this period, which lasted about 2,000 years, are more rare than those of later periods. The state’s climate and ecosystems were much different then, with extensive grasslands interspersed with woodland hammocks. Temperatures were more uniform throughout the year, characterized by cooler summers and warmer, non-freezing winters. Mammoths, mastodons, camels, sabercats, dire wolves, giant sloths and short-faced bears roamed the coastal plain in search of food, water and mates before widespread extinction eliminated them sometime before the end of the Pleistocene epoch about 10,000 years ago. 
Sea level was lower (from 115 feet 12,000 years ago to 40 feet 8,000 years ago) at this time. This resulted in Florida being close to twice its current size when Paleo-Indians first arrived in the state. Rainfall amounts were much less than now and fresh water was not nearly as readily available because of lower water tables due to less precipitation and reduced sea levels. Paleo-Indians, therefore, would have been more limited on the present land surface as to where they could have subsisted and settled since fresh water was crucial to their survival. Conversely, some areas now underwater provided additional areas for them to live.
There you go. Very matter of fact. Used to be different. Widespread extinction. Seems people would want more information about THAT, no? Yet people act like these tiny variations we see in our weather are some horrible catastrophe. Punish somebody for causing it! No, we should just be prepared. I'm not advocating wrecking the planet obviously. I'm just saying even before humans changed climate we should have been prepared for the natural cycles and we clearly aren't. Don't act so damn surprised. Don't BE so damn surprised. Get EDUCATED! PAY for research about EARTH. (I'm still really testy about Congress saying NASA should spend their meager money on exploring planets and stop sending up satellites that just look at the earth.)

I recognize that my education and experience is a giant privilege. I feel bad for people who would like to have this knowledge and don't have access to it. I feel less bad for people with even more privileges than me who have access to this knowledge and refuse to accept it. I have a 90 acre pond down the hill from my house that has gone from a dry field to a body of water a couple of times in my life. Being able to experience this first hand is a privilege. It makes it seem natural to me to expect change and it makes me intolerant of those who have no idea, because I have no idea they have no idea. We're all ignorant in our own way. But I'm working on understanding the implications. Since I can't fathom people who grew up in cities I turn my interest to the creatures that evolved here. How do they deal with these short term climate changes? When the pond started filling up after the last drought ended and all those Eastern Spadefoot Toads dug their way out of their hibernation and started breeding en masse, that was so cool. They can just hang out for years underground, waiting. They aren't as demanding as people. They don't try to change the world, they just cope with it. There is something to be learned from toads.

When I started typing today I didn't really know I was heading for, "You know what your problem is? You aren't enough like an Eastern Spadefoot Toad." But they never sent a probe to Pluto, so they aren't perfect.

Spadefoot Toads from Barbara Tomlinson on Vimeo.
We got 11" of rain in 4 days after a two year drought. This big puddle used to be a 90 acre pond. It's going to take more than 11" of rain to fill this up again. But to the frogs this is good enough. The Eastern Spadefoot Toads are making the most of the opportunity. Music: They Might Be Giants, Theme from Flood.