Friday, May 27, 2011

Dyscalculia: Why I Can't Get Eight Plus Six

Today's Science Friday had a segment about dyscalculia, which I'd been pronouncing wrong. The emphasis is on CU. This is a defect of the intraparietal sulcus where you can't process numbers like other people. During the show a sixty year old called in and said she was just now learning what was wrong with her. Her story sounds like mine a little bit. I didn't know there was a name for it until about 2005 when I heard Daniel Pinkwater on NPR telling a story about when he was in grade school. It was a horrible story where everybody said he was stupid and he'd never be anything but a ditch digger. I felt so bad for Mr. Pinkwater. And I was so very grateful for my mother standing up for me to my evil first grade teacher who shaved her eyebrows and painted them back on halfway up her forehead.

Dyscalculia is inherited, like color blindness. My genetics has done me some favors, like I've weighed the same thing since I was 16 and I can see without glasses despite the spasms of accommodation. But that's balanced by migraines, acid reflux, the color blindness gene and dyscalculia. My brother can't spell but they don't have a name for that. I am grateful I can point to the part of my brain that's faulty and blame that.

Now when I was in first grade my mama knew I wasn't stupid. I taught myself to read when I was 4 and they put me in first grade when I was 5. But when it was time for us to do arithmetic I would stubbornly add when I was supposed to subtract if the number on the bottom was bigger. 12-7=? Hmm. 7, 8, 9, stick on a 1, 19. My teacher called my mama in for a conference. I don't know what mama said to her. I guess she told Mrs. High Eyebrows to worry about the little boy that peed every time he had to read front of the class and she would take care of my math problem. And she got me some flash cards.

HP65 at Johnson Space Center Apollo exhibit.
My dad has one just like that.
My mother has trouble with math too, so even though she didn't know what dyscalculia was she did have a color blind brother and a color blind son and knew how genetics worked. She probably just put 2 and 2 together.... Wait. Well, no, but whatever, she guessed it was an inherited trait and figured I was just like her. I remember when I was just small she told me how excited she was when she got to high school and took geometry. She ROCKED geometry after eight years of struggling with arithmetic. This is common in dyscalculics, according to the expert on Science Friday. Where the brain can't combine quantities properly it does fine with relationships like parallel lines and equal angles. That dream of geometry got me through multiplication tables in third grade.

Daniel Pinkwater scored high enough on the SAT to get in college by studying like mad and memorizing. I did the same thing to get through first grade. Then my dad got me a calculator. He has been collecting HP calculators since before I was born. He started me out with cheap drug store calculators when I was so little I was likely to gum it up it with whatever I was eating. He got me an HP11c when I got to high school. Reverse polish notation made all of my dreams come true. When I started Georgia Tech he upgraded me to an HP15c. I still have it and it still works. I paid $30 for the iPhone app so I can leave it safe at home now because they're worth about $300 on eBay.

When I was in middle school I found a book in a cabinet at the house that was about math. It showed how you could add a long column of numbers by picking out the groups that make 10 and then add those up. I studied that book and that's how I managed to do well on the SAT where they don't let you use a calculator. When I decided to go to graduate school I read somewhere you had to get a 600 on the math portion of the GRE to get in so I crammed like hell for a week on arithmetic. When I got in to take the test I wrote out the multiplication tables on the scratch paper before I started so I could quickly look stuff up. And I missed it. I only got 550 on math. I was heartbroken. Turns out I was on the wrong page on the FSU website and only computer science majors have to score that high. I overshot the requirements for Oceanography by 250 points overall. (I'm still mystified how I only ranked in the 30th percentile on the written portion of the GRE. You guys feel ripped off for reading my blog now don't you?)

Some of the flash card sums I still know. 5+7=12 is instant. I know that one. Anything +9 is easy because adding a 1 on the front and taking away one is not a problem. (I actually think of 1 and one differently. 1 in front of other numbers adds an order of magnitude but one is counting up or down to the next number on the other end of the line.) Anything doubled, I'm there. But when I was studying for the GRE I found out I don't know what 8+6 is. I know 8+8=16 though, and I know if I count down two I get there, 16, 15, 14. Now I am as curious about this as you. The whole time I was typing that I didn't know it was going to be 14 until I got to the end. Frankly I was rooting for 12.

When I was making up mnemonic devices for these things I used the shapes a lot, imagining manipulations of the digits to get the shape of the answer, which I suppose goes back to that geometry thing. My Aunt Jano says she sees a magnitude in her mind when she reads a digit. I don't see a magnitude. I see the shape of the actual arabic numeral but that's it. I think it is entirely possible that I cannot wrap my head around 8+6 because it is two round numbers that equal two digits with nothing round in them at all. 1 and 4 are just straight lines to me. How can two round things combine to be something so pointy? It's impossible, I refuse to believe it. Or apparently the artistic center in my brain that I have recruited to do math since the intraparietal sulcus is unavailable refuses to believe it.

I wonder what my life would be like if I had the sense Mr. Pinkwater did? If I had gone to a school to be a writer instead of one where I had to manipulate equations all day every day? They said in the Science Friday piece that people with dyscalculia are unemployed at a higher rate than other people. Well I certainly have been unemployed more than anybody else I know, especially other Georgia Tech grads. I wonder if it's because of the math or because the part of our brain we're using to do math instead of the normal part is the part other people use to put up with psycho bosses? I'm pretty sure my deficiency at arithmetic is less related to my unemployment as the character flaw of being intolerant of people I don't respect telling me what to do.
My original HP15C purchased new in 1985 and my iPhone simulator. Notice the pencil markings
 on the real one? You can store numbers in the memory so I have dimensional analysis conversions
saved in there. I could save them in the iPhone version too, but how would I remember
which button was the number of seconds in a year or the speed of light in km/sec?

AT&T Customer Service Chat

There should be an online game where you can throw Chinese stars at cartoon AT&T middle managers who are as inept at ducking as they are at implementing technology. Somebody should really get on that. It needs some kind of biofeedback and instead of points it would display a blood pressure readout and you throw the stars until your blood pressure gets back in the normal range. Of course it's going to need to work with very little bandwidth.

So here's what I've figured out about the AT&T phone tree. No matter what support number you call they route you to the office in the region for the area code you're calling from. No wait, let me clarify, the area code programmed into the phone you are calling with. (Pardon my prepositions) I still have a Georgia number in my cell phone. But I'm in Texas. It is extremely difficult for me to get the right people on the phone. I'm sure whoever thought of this believed it was a brilliant idea. When phone number portability came to pass they probably realized what was going to happen and they quickly got a new job so they wouldn't have to go back and un-do what they'd done.

So when I call AT&T support I have to be transferred and cut off multiple times, and when I finally get somebody they make me turn my modem off and on for 40 minutes before they admit they have a network problem and have to send somebody out to fix their equipment on my street corner. I end up wasting 25% of my allotment of monthly voice minutes on my AT&T cell phone trying to resolve an AT&T DSL issue.

I'm a problem solver not just a complainer though. I ended up taking my laptop to Panera Bread with free wifi. I realized I was going to get a migraine from high blood pressure if I had to go through the phone tree one more time where they insist you put in your phone number, which I don't have. I just have DSL. Who has a land line anymore?! See? I feel my pressure rising just reflecting on it. So I went hunting for an online chat. I'm putting the link here so I can find it faster next time. Here it is: AT&T chat link. Right side bar. Of course as I write this it is down. That's just brilliant.

In the time between my DSL connection dropping I clicked that link enough times to get offered a customer service survey! Oh boy! There's a box at the bottom to type stuff in. Look out! I don't foresee any results, but I gave them some useful tips. (Note to the survey company: That logo is terrible. See Steve Leacock for a new one immediately.)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Endeavour SRB video

Hurray! Solid Rocket Booster video is online! Once again it's really great.

#Kahlua's top secret hiding place on TwitpicAt 0:45 it goes through the cloud deck then you can see the clouds below. It made me imagine @astroengine's hamster just took off from his enclosure in a toilet paper roll.


Drew Feustel, Spacewalker May 25, 2011 by Ron Garan
Ron Garan (@AstroRon) is just killin' it with the Twitter photos lately. He really has a good eye. He took this one from the cupola this morning. I like that the highlights are a little blown out. I can really feel the sun coming in at that strong angle and imagine the geometry with the space station above the earth and the sun way out there to the left side of the photo.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Soyuz Lands Upright

The weather in Kazakhstan this morning was 78° F and not windy. I watched live video of the capsule under parachute for about 7 minutes, then the photographer lost his angle. The parachute pulsed like a jellyfish. I'm not sure why. I think it would be like riding in the car with a pedal-patter though. Surges of acceleration. Pretty unpleasant after almost 6 months in zero gravitational acceleration. I watched all the live video until they took Nespoli, Kondratyev and Coleman to the medical tent then they started doing video replays. They just showed video replay of the actual touchdown shot from one of the helicopters. It was pretty spectacular. A flash and a giant cloud of dust billowed up. Not sure if the dust was from the retro rockets or the impact. It was a VERY short flash. I tried to do a screen shot. I missed the flash from the retro rockets. The helicopter landed pretty quickly after that.
Soyuz Touchdown
It seemed to take them at least 15 minutes to get the hatch open though. Poor things were probably boiling in there. They got Dima Kondratyev out first and two men carried him to his chair. That dude is a badass. (These are all screenshots from the NASA TV feed.)

Kondratyev being carried away from the Soyuz

How do you like landing in the Soyuz?
Who's the guy in the butcher's outfit?
Next Cady Coleman got out. She seemed chipper. The crowd all laughed when just one man carried her by himself. I don't see what's funny about it. Seems the only appropriate thing to do. A two-man carry would have insulted the women of America and the men of Russia.
She eases out of the capsule onto the little platform
She goes down the slide
This one guy carried Cady Coleman to her chair and waiting nurse
Paolo Nespoli was the last to get out. I think he was feeling a little ooky. They did bob around under that parachute a long time. Motion sickness was bound to happen, first time in gravity again and everything. Plus he's a lot taller than those other two. He was probably intensely uncomfortable for a long time. So they didn't really show pictures of him like they did the other two. That was polite. Even this brief view of his back you can see he's slumped over and not perky like Cady was.

Nespoli exits Soyuz capsule
They continued to show footage of the American astronaut and the cosmonaut for a while. Somebody brought Cady some flowers. She was excited to smell them. She said she hadn't smelled anything in a long time. They also took turns with the satellite phone talking to their relatives back home. I think it's worth mentioning that while Dima Kondratyev looks like a badass, Cady Coleman is like Buffy the Vampire Slayer badass. 
Next the onlookers carried them in their chairs to the medical tent and NASA TV started replaying recorded video, which I started with at the top. I took some more screen shots of the replay because I thought it was interesting how they got that little deck thing on there. It reminds me of an accessory for an above ground pool.
Here's the capsule by itself just a few minutes after touchdown.
First they put this ring together from two halves
Then they snapped in two ladders and a slide
Then they positioned it over the capsule and extended the legs
It was about like my ladder levelers back home. They didn't appear to chock the capsule to keep it from tipping or anything. They tugged on the parachute to get some slack in the lines. Then they just put this over the hatch so they could reach down in there from a stable platform, unbuckle their harnesses and then pull them out. I understand they take the capsule back to the lab and study it for performance and whatnot. It's a pretty long way from civilization. I guess they drive a truck with a forklift out there. It's a two hour helicopter ride back to wherever they go for the welcome ceremony after they change out of their space suits in the inflatable medical tent. Then Nespoli and Coleman get on a plane and fly to Houston right away. I bet they sleep on the plane.

When I was at the Johnson Space Center a few weeks ago I noticed the American astronauts have a pocket in the leg of their suits with a dose of motion sickness medicine in it. I wondered if it was for a water landing? For the life raft? Or maybe for this sort of thing. Do the Russian suits have those too? Maybe Cady and Dima took theirs and Paolo didn't. Maybe he was too wedged in there and couldn't reach that pocket. It's way down on the ankle of the American suits.

Anyway, I'm glad they made it back. That Soyuz landing makes me nervous.

*Update already, here's a link to a nice picture of that touchdown.
*Update Wednesday, here's a photo of the instant the retrorockets fired. NEAT! Thanks @Cmdr_Hadfield via @astroengine!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Pope Calls the Space Station

"On tap for the crew today: Focused Inspection, EVA Preparation, PAO Events/The Papal Call and some Off Duty Time. #sts134" Wait, The Papal Call? The Pope is calling the space station? I wasn't expecting THAT!

I only now had a chance to watch the video. Irene Klotz wrote out the whole thing on Discovery Blogs if you want to read it instead of watch the video.

I'm not sure what I really expected, but I'm pretty sure not this. Of course it made me cry about four times. The pope reading from his papers sounds so innocent, like a middle school class was assigned a project to write a letter and one student was chosen by the principal to read his letter out loud at the assembly. Skip to 3:50 if you are in a hurry. He talks about science and technology and conservation and peace. I like the way he pronounces "attack" in reference to Gabby Giffords. He segues into a question about how the astronauts think science and technology can help peace on earth. Mark Kelly gives him a very good answer -- most war is over resources. The ISS runs on solar power and the shuttle has fuel cells. Solve the energy crisis with technology, war averted. Ron Garan addresses the pope's question about our responsibility for the future of our planet. His comment about how thin the atmosphere looks from the space station is scientifically odd but it is a good image. I'm just not sure how the thickness of the atmosphere relates to any cause and effect down here on earth.

You can watch past where Ron Garan blatantly plugs his website (8:46) before anybody says anything about God, and it's not the pope. Ten whole minutes before any of it bugged me. At the end the pope speaks in Italian to Paulo Nespoli whose mother just died. "I know in a few days you will come back home and you will not find her waiting for you." What a sweet way to put that. "How have you been living through this time of pain on the International Space Station? Do you feel isolated and alone? Or do you feel united amongst ourselves, in a community that follows you with attention and affection?" Paulo answered, "My colleagues on the space station... were very close to me in this important time, for me a very intense moment." And he said he felt close to all his relatives who were with his mom at the end of her life. It was kind of a personal question but the Pope pulled it off. He also just went from one question to the next without digging them for some sentimental admission. I guess it is sort of a given that the pope is more dignified than Fox news.

I have to admit I kept thinking of Tim Minchin's Pope Song (must be 18 to watch) while I was watching this. I'm only linking and not embedding it here because it would make it seem like it's relevant to the Pope Calls the Space Station video and it's completely unrelated. It made me think of how the actual person and the office are so different. I refer you to the Penn Point (NSFW) where Penn Jillette regrets saying Fuck You to a man right to his face. He says (at 0:55) you should only say Fuck You politically, morally, and conceptually. I think the distinction Penn Jillette makes applies to Tim Minchin's song. He wouldn't watch the pope reading his letter to the astronauts and say Fuck You. His song is about the reprehensible position the pope took on the priest child abuse scandal, which counts as political, moral and conceptual. Plus it's very catchy.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Tiny Moon

I love this picture Ron Garan uploaded from the space station today. The moon looks so tiny! I think it's interesting that when viewed from the earth the moon against the horizon looks bigger from brain fail basically, but this picture with another object in the frame makes it look so small.

Phil Plait had a post recently about the moon being squished by atmospheric effects. That's nothing to do with this specifically, but if you click the link and look at those pictures of the moon you'll see Paulo Nespoli shot them with a longer lens. He was zoomed in on the moon. This is more like a wide angle lens to get the whole shuttle in the picture. That will make the moon seem farther away/smaller, like the side rear view mirror on your car versus the middle one.

NPR, AP, and Reuters Respectful in Space. Fox, Not So Much.

I just watched the NASA TV feed of Cady Coleman and Mark Kelly doing interviews with earth-based news organizations. First they talked to Scott Simon at NPR. It kind of made my eyes well up a little bit to hear his voice on NASA TV. I think it got Cady Coleman a little bit too. I wonder if they're saving this interview for Saturday? I was so proud he only asked them about the science they're doing and didn't even mention Gabby Giffords.

The AP reporter did the signal check and then immediately asked Mark Kelly if he had talked to his wife after her surgery and how was she doing. He told her he hadn't talked to his wife today because of their different schedule, but he had swapped email with her surgeon and she was fine. He had talked to his brother Scott. They quickly moved on to questions about the mission.

The Reuters interviewer also jumped right in with the signal check and then asked a few good questions.

But then it was Fox's turn. When their audio came up they were in the middle of another story. There was just some unrelated audio going on and on. Finally a voice came on and said they would be with them in 2 minutes. What the hell? Who does Fox News think they are? Two minutes is FOREVER when you're doing nothing and have a ton of work waiting to be done. They made them listen to a whole bunch of jabbering. Mark and Cady looked like they were telling jokes about it. (See screen grab) Fox was completely unprofessional in comparison to the three that went before them. The interviewer of course asked about Gabby Giffords and then at the end of Mark's answer he said, "Oh, that's fantastic. I'm sure you miss her and she misses you." What? What kind of reporting is this? Then he asked Mark to show them Gabby's ring around his neck and the rubber bracelet embossed with some message about her. It was just embarrassing.
Cady Coleman accidentally called Mark Kelly "Scott" when they were talking to Scott Simon.
She didn't stand a chance. Maybe if she'd been talking to Ira Flatow she would have kept the Kellys straight.
 I think Mark was messing with her about it while they waited for Fox News to get around to talking to them. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Suspicious Extinct Rat Discovery

Red-crested Tree rat rediscovery after 113 years - bizare monotypic genus from El Dorado Nature Reserve
Red-crested Tree Rat (Santamartamys rufodorsalis) by Lizzie Noble/Fundacion ProAves via Flickr
Once again @astroengine comes up with the good links on Twitter. This time an article in Wired Science about an animal that was thought to be extinct. Apparently this animal just "shuffled up" on the handrail of a deck where two nature reserve volunteers happened to be hanging out. I read the article and I didn't get a good feeling from it. It seemed lacking in scientific rigor. There was a link to the original photo at the bottom of the article so I clicked that and got the Flickr page of the original.  There were actually more shots than the one in Wired. I like this one better. (I hope I gave proper attribution here. Flickr gave me the HTML to insert that photo there.)

Then I went back and clicked more links in the Wired article and got Wikipedia? Now ok, sometimes I use Wikipedia links on my blog, but not for something like the only recorded instance of an animal. The Wikipedia article has links in it as well, so I clicked one. The first one is the IUCN Redlist which seems slightly more rigorous. I think I would have used that instead of Wikipedia. The other link was a USA Today article that surprisingly has more detail than Wired Science. Just to keep my expectations in line it went to pieces in the last sentence.
The whole episode is slightly surreal, says Salaman. The animal actually met the biologists on the stair as they were heading up to their bunks "It climbed up the banister and walked up to them and sat there for two hours, It's almost as if it were trying to show it had survived."
Great, a sentimental scientist. I am impressed that these volunteers had such a long attention span for an animal they just thought was cute, though. Two hours? Man, I hope they brought a sandwich. They didn't even know it was a rare species until later. Apparently Lizzie Noble has the same instincts as me about these things. When she doesn't know what she's found she emails pictures to experts. In her case it was this Paul Salaman character. He knew what they were only because he'd sent people to look for them in 2007. He probably found out about them in 2005. Before that they were a secret in a museum, two specimens collected in 1898. Back in the those days when anybody found something interesting they'd kill it and skin it out and cram it full of sawdust and sew it up again and send it to one of the big museums, like in Chicago or New York. That's why so many species are known to exist in my home county in Georgia, because a famous naturalist lived there around that same time frame. Mr. Stoddard killed and stuffed hundreds of specimens (need to take a poll on this guess) and sent them off to be formally identified and cataloged. His son was playmates with my grandmother and her brothers and sister. I grew up hearing stories about him. Like the time he asked people to be on the lookout for Ivory Billed Woodpeckers. One day a man came to his house to tell him he had seen some, and then obligingly shot them. Here they are. Probably the last pair of Ivory Billed Woodpeckers in Georgia.
Lady Longleaf the Opinioneer

So anyway in 1898 somebody like Mr. Stoddard on a field trip in a Columbian cloud forest killed a couple of these rats and skinned them out and sent them to the New York Museum of Natural History. In 2005 Louise Emmons of the Smithsonian Institute studied these old skins and decided to call them Santamartamys rufodorsalis. That's a whole genus to itself. I have to tell you I think that 107 years is a bit long for a backlog to pick a genus for something. I'm impressed they bothered to look at them at all. So after this unique genus and species was identified Paul Salaman got some funding to send people to look for them. They didn't find them. Then this one just "shuffled up" to a couple of volunteers who were there to look for frogs.

So anyway, that Wired Science article isn't that good. I am a little bitter that whoever wrote that has a job and I don't. Granted if I worked for Wired I wouldn't get to tell all my personal anecdotes. I'll put it behind me. I'm glad they found that rat chillin' on the banister and not busily storing calamondins in the engine compartment of their station wagon like the rats back in Beachton.

Monday, May 16, 2011

STS134 Launch Day

Twitpic - The beautiful space shuttle blooms inside of a clou... on TwitpicTrey Ratcliff wins the best launch photo prize with this piece of work he posted to Twitter soon after the launch. (TwitPic requires me to embed that thumbnail link. Can't get it any bigger legally.) The full size version has a lot of detail and no noise. Trey's HDR style was just the ticket for the overcast weather of today's launch. This even got a mention on the NPR blog. (tip from @Harbles) I wouldn't characterize this as "a nice shot" though. It kind of diminishes what he did here, starting with getting up at 3 am to set up a tripod in just the right spot to get a good setting over the water. Then this is probably multiple shots combined with software to get the high dynamic range that makes it so striking. Edit: I did some research and found out that I've been making HDR photos this whole time and didn't even know it! Apparently if you use just one image and do a lot of dodging and burning and adjusting of brightness and contrast and noise reduction that is considered HDR. Well hell! I've always done that! Even back in the darkroom. I'd pick the contrast value of the paper, dodge and burn parts of the image on the print, adjust the chemicals, all kinds of tricks to get the picture the way I wanted it. So it was just natural to look for the same adjustments in Photoshop and use them. Anyway, that's what this image is. Just a regular handheld prime lens photo. I still want to to know what the light is at the launch pad. Did they still have the Xenon lights on even though it was daytime?

*More Edits on Tuesday: Phil Plait blogged the same thing I did. I told him I thought we were wrong now and it was a single image. He tweeted Trey Ratcliff and got this response.

 Trey Ratcliff 

It's still a professionally edited photo, though, and it kind of makes me cringe to see NPR equate this shot to the one somebody took with their camera phone from a plane window. And Phil did it too. And people on Trey's own blog linked to that plane photo in the comments. Dang.

I left NASA TV via going on the computer at the end of my bed all night so I sort of half-followed the tanking and progress through the countdown. I woke up fully at around 7 when the commentators started grating on my last nerve. Somebody really hosed up the audio. The microphones were way too hot and it was clipping like hell. Then when the countdown got to 0 Livestream started stuttering about every 30 frames. It was intensely annoying. The clouds reflecting the light of the flames back up the ship made the camera feed on the external tank go all overexposed everywhere except the important part, the tiles, which is fine for the engineering but less fun to watch. So I have to say it wasn't my best launch experience. Something was just off today.

I tried to find a better source for NASA TV and came up with Ustream, with beautiful video, but the audio out of sync by at least an entire word. It was good audio though, so I listened to all the press conferences. The standard launch briefing was followed by Gabby Gifford's staff answering questions. Her chief of staff, Pia Carusone, is really good. She gave honest, non-evasive answers to all the questions, most of which were very personal, but for the most part understandable coming from People magazine. I think the Orlando reporter that wrote this is the one that asked how the experience changed the congresswoman's relationship to God. Carusone immediately said, "I don't know. I guess I'd have to ask her," then she tried to think what she was supposed to say and came up with something ambiguous to keep her from getting in trouble with the faithful. "Nobody has ever asked that before," she concluded. Well I'm glad about that! And I'm glad she said "I don't know," instead of producing some pandering pabulum. The reporter clearly couldn't write anything about "I don't know" so it doesn't turn up in the article. It will just warm the cockles of my heart if Gabby Giffords continues to progress through cranioplasty and the rest of her recovery with this kind of spiritual-free dignity.

The reporters tried to get Carusone to give them something sentimental to write but she wouldn't do it. "Did she clasp Mark's wedding ring as the shuttle launched?" "No. I didn't see her do that." She also explained very plainly that the congresswoman sat down for the last few minutes of the countdown because it might have upset her balance to tip her head back as the shuttle went up. They wanted her to be comfortable. That's very sensible I think.

I could find no other mention of the shuttle launch on the People magazine web site. I guess they take that name really literally. Rockets aren't people. Who cares.

Outside the US it is actually news though, including the part where they're going to do some PHYSICS with the cargo in the shuttle. Thank you Guardian.
Tens of thousands of people crowded in and around the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida for the launch of the shuttle's 16-day voyage to deliver $2bn (£1.23bn) worth of astrophysics equipment to the International Space Station, designed to search space for antimatter. Nasa is planning just one more flight, of the Atlantis in July, before the 30-year shuttle programme is shut down.
I love this paragraph. It is perfect to go with Endeavour, spelled the British way. "Centre" and "programme" and the pounds conversion point out how foreign this commentary is. Nobody in the US gives 16 ounces about the science. I'm relieved that one media outlet thinks some of their readers are interested.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Futurespecting Ambiguity

I've noticed a job skill much in demand these days is "ability to deal with ambiguity." I must not have that skill because I really don't even know what that means. I just did a job search on LinkedIn with the keyword "ambiguity" and I got more hits than I do when I use the keyword "science." It's usually in the context of something like this from a typical Dell job ad:

-Candidate must be organized, enthusiastic, creative, results oriented, innovative and able to deal with
ambiguity and tight deadlines while working effectively in a team environment

I was right there with them until they got to the "deal with ambiguity" part. Do they mean mind reading? That thing where your boss tells you to do something really vague that you've never heard of so you Google it and read some forums, guess what he means and do that, then email it to him and hope he doesn't respond? Because I can do THAT. I just never called it dealing with ambiguity. I just call that working with engineers.

This is my favorite job ad I found with the "ambiguity" filter.

Field Sales, (Central Region)

ThoughtWorks Studios - Austin, Texas Area

You will have the following competencies:

Communication. Proactive communicator. Can easily build credibility and trust across a wide range of people. Able to give and receive feedback constructively. Comfortable having difficult discussions. Great coach and mentor.
Resilient: Personal and professional resilience. Can accept mistakes and handle conflict. Able and willing to make decisions and not always be right. Stands up for our people, can become unpopular.
Strategic. Actions and decisions driven by TW’s values. Looks forward to the future, though able to balance the ideals of tomorrow with the realities of today. Business focused; able to empathise with leaders and win their trust. Able to balance the day-to-day business needs with ThoughtWorks’ values and aims around diversity.
Team Work. Intuitively collaborative and able to work with all kinds of people. Leads by example. Passionate about getting people to their next level. Inspires and is inspired by the people around them. Spots when others need help. Willing to step in and do what is needed as necessary. Low ego.
Ambiguity. Undeterred by ambiguity, uncertainty and lack of resources. Able to hold many different possibilities and conflicting viewpoints in mind and work through to a solution. Understands Global: National: Local: Personal and is able to prioritise as needed. Is the cultural monitor and sense checker of our business. Is the protector of ThoughtWorks values. Futurespects what is possible, and then implements a solution.
Sense of Urgency. Has a strong desire to bring about positive change in individuals and the team, and works proactively to help people achieve at their highest potential.


This clearly has nothing to do with engineering. I have no idea what this company does and I am pretty sure I don't move in the same circles with anybody like this. Although I would love a job where I get to just make up idiotic sounding words. Futurespects? You mean forecasting? What was wrong with the word we already had? Made up words -- if I'm allowed to do it ironically I'm totally in. Maybe I could make up my own bogus marketing language to be used like the faux latin placeholders in graphic design mock ups.

MetaThink Space
Actionated intellimetagence to earflag haterphernalia mediaflips

Charismatic Animals

Conservation Project Manager

Environmental Defense Fund - Austin, Texas Area

Desired Skills & Experience

The successful applicant will have the following minimum qualifications:
  • Master’s degree level education and five years experience in natural resource economics, fisheries management, endangered species conservation, or similar field 
  • Demonstrated leadership in building coalitions and working with diverse stakeholder groups (e.g., local resource users and managers with varied social and economic backgrounds, government agencies, private sector) 
  • Strong preference for Spanish-speaking candidates 
  • Ability and flexibility to travel extensively, up to 50% throughout the Gulf region including the U.S., Mexico, and Cuba 
  • Preference for experience working on conservation of endangered and/or charismatic animals or other specially protected animals 
  • Demonstrated analytical and problem solving skills
  • Demonstrated ability to communicate effectively to diverse audiences via reports, briefings, public testimony, presentations, etc.
  • Preference for candidates with knowledge of and/or experience with working in Mexico and/or Cuba (or other Latin American or Caribbean countries) 
  • Preference for candidates with knowledge of international environmental/conservation issues and institutions
  • Excellent writing and speaking skills, and experience with media
  • Experience in grant writing and reporting

Texas lied. So much for no skills associated with this occupation. I don't think dead deer, pan fish or tumblebugs are going to get me this job. I guess that Masters Degree and 40 hr HAZWOPR certificate is worth squat unless you spent a summer in Sarasota bonding with Tursiops. Damn you, dolphin groupies!

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Hill of Life

A Lady Longleaf Adventure
We had over two inches of rain Thursday morning at Barton Creek in Austin. We really needed it.  After the thunder and lightning and heavy rain stopped I headed out to see if I could see any affect on Barton Creek.

As soon as I got on the trail I heard something odd. Blehhhhh. It sounded like a goat. There are no goats on the greenbelt. I heard it again and it sounded more like a child. But unlike a child it just did it once and stopped. I figured it must be a deer so I climbed up the steep edge of the trail and peered under the low branches. Sure enough, right off the trail was this fawn. It looked like it was all wet from the rain and had slid down the hill, piling up some leaves with its butt on the downhill side. It didn't seem to be sliding anymore though. It was just unhappy. I took some pictures of it and then moved away and hid by a fence to see if the doe would come back. It was about 2:00 in the afternoon and really time for deer to be lying around chewing their cuds, WITH their babies. It was not looking good for this little guy. His mama should have been with him through that storm. Maybe she freaked out from the lightning and bolted. Deer are not the bravest of animals. I decided nothing was going to happen until later in the afternoon when deer get active again, so I went away. I kept coming back from time to time to check on him. I came back a final time just before sunset and found a place to sit up the hill from the deer, probably twice as far away as the trail where a lot of people were going by. I figured if the mama deer didn't mind them she really wouldn't mind me. I sat there with my iPhone and searched up the Texas policy on orphaned deer. They take a pretty firm stance for leaving them alone.  This one wasn't really fitting the criteria for non-orphaned deer. He was definitely crying. It was definitely an orphan situation. But I had waited too long and didn't want to bother one of the licensed wildlife rehabilitators. Most of them said not to call after 6:00.

Deer are not endangered. Lots of baby animals don't make it. Logically I know doing nothing is the right thing to do. But there is the complication of proximity to people in this case. Mostly I didn't want a dog to find it and drag it out on the trail and freak people out. While I was sort of hiding up there I heard probably 20 people go by. Even when the deer bleated right when they were walking by nobody stopped and went, "What's that?" The dogs were so preoccupied with the smell of what must be about 20 pounds of recently reconstituted dog crap they didn't pay any attention. It really did smell like a kennel at the top of that trail. 2" of rain was not enough to wash it away.

After I finished reading all the official information online on my phone and the deer hadn't made a sound for almost an hour I went down to check on him again. He was still. No breathing.

I picked him up and carried him up the hill away from the trail. I'm glad he was able to die peacefully instead of being killed by coyotes tonight. I'm pretty sure he'll be eaten by them either way. Judging by the scat there are plenty of coyotes out there.

Notes on video: I went on down to Barton Creek between checking on the deer and watched these Longeared Sunfish, aka Cherry Bream doing their breeding dance. They are very pretty.  I sat on that rock taking their pictures then this guy showed up with that big dog and washed him in the creek WITH SHAMPOO! I could smell it from where I sat on the waterfall. I think it must have been "Perch Plus." He threw the ball out into the creek to get the dog to rinse off. "Rinse your head!" he yelled at the dog. The dog stirred up so much mud I couldn't take anymore pictures of the fish. There is a strange dance of humanity, pets, and wildlife out there.

I feel the urge to protect the people from the wildlife, and vice versa. The other day when I saw a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake just laid right out across a boulder on the main trail up the Hill of Life. I sat there until full dark to direct people and their dogs around the snake. Nobody seemed the least phased by it. The dogs all bounded by oblivious to it. I still think I was right to sit there and keep people from stepping on it. As it got dark it was pretty impossible to see it. Fully 10 people and 8 dogs went by after I noticed the snake and took up my watch.

*How did the rain affect Barton Creek? Barely

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Contaminated Clothesline

European drying cabinet
I found some cotton/nylon blend shorts a few years ago that I love. I looked online for more clothes made of a cotton/nylon blend and only ever found one more pair of shorts. But that was back in Beachton where I'd just wash the dirty pair in the sink and hang them on the line while I wore the clean pair. They'd be dry in just a few hours, the beauty of the blend.

Here in Austin I have a laundry room with a washer and a dryer. I still look for more of those cotton/nylon blend shorts, but then I remind myself I can just wash the ones I've got and wear them again. Not like I need a different pair of trousers for every day of the week to sit here at the computer by myself. I already spent all that money on the appliances so I shouldn't spend more on clothes. I actually put a clothes line up here on my depressing little patio, but I hesitate to use it regularly. If I put the clothes on there when they're clean and damp, what am I going to get back? I live downhill from a busy highway. My car is constantly covered in dust. There's pollen out there and all kinds of other odoriferous contaminants. I'm not sure what will wear them out faster anyway, the dryer or sunlight. So here I just go with the dryer.

I actually had a plan to build a laundry facility out in Beachton, one day, eventually, if I felt like it. I just went to my aunt's house to wash clothes when I had more than a sinkful. Laundry rooms in the house are just fraught with issues. Noise, vibration, humidity, risk of water leaks, potential ventilation issues. In the winter you want to capture the excess heat and in the summer you wish you didn't have it. If you could put it in another building why wouldn't you?

Apparently most people don't do that though. But there are alternatives to the usual stuff. I read this neat article today by Martin Holladay in the Green Building Advisor blog about innovative ways to dry clothes, including the European clothes drying cabinet in the stolen picture up there. He discusses the idea of a drying room, which sounds kind of awesome if you live somewhere that has contaminated outdoor air. (There's a picture of some other stuff, like unvented condensing dryers, which sound terrible, if you click that link.)

Another dryer idea I read about a long time ago was a scheme to pull hot dry air out of the attic to feed into the tumble dryer. If you combine that with this drying room concept you could make something even better. Build an insulated drying room on an exterior wall, use an inline ducted exhaust fan in reverse to pull the hot dry attic air into the room and then have an exterior wall fan to draw the air out again. You'd have to be sure to balance them and put them on the same switch or something to make it idiot proof.

I guess if you put the washer, a laundry sink and the water heater in there too you'd have a pretty good set up. The insulation in the walls and the weather stripping on the door would provide a good deal of soundproofing.

Be more careful? It's way too late.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Engineer motivation

I watched the press conference for STS-134, the Endeavor shuttle mission, on Spaceflight Now today. Mike Moses gave a thorough explanation of what they've done to repair and troubleshoot the heater issued that cause the scrubbed launch 10 days ago. They showed video of men taking the interconnect box out and showed them open it up. It wasn't even sooty inside. The man that took off the cover looked at it closely, and I'm sure he was sniffing it to see if he could smell the tell-tale signs of the smoke getting out. Apparently they did find vaporized fuse circuitry in a hybrid driver in the box but have not found what caused the current surge. They are going to keep looking for the source of the failure. It could be inside the box or in external wiring.
NASA photo from

Whenever I hear of any kind of wiring problem in a woodsy place like Cape Canaveral I'm inclined to blame rodents. I wonder what kind of mouse countermeasures they have in the Vehicle Assembly Building? What about on the launch pad? Do they leave those access panels open when they're working on the shuttle? It would be the work of a moment for a family of white-footed deer mice to move into a nice place like that wiring chase. They have some good looking black sheathing on the wire bundles in there, though. It kind of looks like it would be less toothsome to a mouse than your typical automobile wire insulation. I'd sure like to know if that was a consideration when they chose the jacketing.

So they didn't mention finding any cosy nests of run-over pine straw next to the hydrazine heaters, but they did say they took the failure out of the shuttle and ran some redundant wiring. Tests show full functionality. They can finish testing the stuff they took out to figure out the source of the failure while working up to a new launch time of May 16 at 8:56 am EDT.

I love watching them talk about engineering. I'm glad to know people out there still know about this stuff. I sure fell down on the job. I once designed a wire harness with one of those big mil spec Amphenol connectors on it. I even got the Air Force to use colored wire instead of just white and felt very proud of myself. But I don't get to do that stuff anymore because I'm too old to be allowed to do new things in high tech. At my age I'm supposed to have a specialty and I don't. I expect NASA has already eliminated all jobs doing new things and are just having the people who have done everything before do it over again two more times.

One reporter asked a question about layoff notices going out soon. Would this delay affect that? Mike Moses said no, they would still give out the layoff notices because they are required to by law, but that the people would still be working to complete the mission and nobody would be let go until after the shuttle was in the air. Well isn't that special. They really are counting on everybody having engineer mentality where they work for a technological goal while repressing any concern about their own future. They don't worry that their concentration may suffer? Isn't anybody mad that the whole country has kind of forsaken them? Well, the part of the country with the money.

Engineers are not supposed to be sentimental. They are self-deprecating individuals motivated by innovation. Another reporter asked about a rumor that they might try to get STS-135, the last Atlantis mission, to launch on July 4th. I got all teary-eyed at that idea. Wouldn't that be a glorious thing? Well, the real engineers behind the desk quickly gave three good technical reasons why that wasn't going to happen. It had never been a goal to get a launch on that date.

I have always known engineers are supposed to be oblivious to themselves as they focus on technology. I learned it from a joke my dad used to tell all the time when I was little. My dad is a Ramblin' Wreck from Georgia Tech and a Hell of an Engineer and he likes to tell jokes. Some people who first meet him might be taken aback and wonder if he has Witzels├╝cht, but he has always been like this. His condition is not the onset of dementia that could be alleviated with serotonin reuptake inhibitors. It's just worse now because he has access to more jokes thanks to the satellite radio comedy channel. I maintain he should be mindful of his audience when he choses a joke to tell and shouldn't just repeat everything he hears. He maintains I have no sense of humor.

Anyway, I used to think this was a good self-deprecating joke. Now I think it might actually be an allegory for a world with nothing left but sports fans and loose bolts. Anyway, here's my dad's best joke about engineers. I usually change the set-up to suit the audience, but I'll give it to you the way I heard it when I was a toddler. I can't help college rivalries.

Three college students were standing on a gallows about to be guillotined. The executioner asked the Auburn student if he had any last words.
"Waaaaaaaaaaar Eagles!" and he put his head in the little trough and the executioner released the latch and the blade came down and schreeeeee stopped right above his neck.
"Well, if it doesn't work that means you get to go free! You, University of Georgia, any last words?"
"How 'bout them dogs!?! Woof Woof Woof!" and he put his head in the little trough and the executioner released the latch and the blade came down and schreeeeee stopped right above his neck.
"Well, if it doesn't work that means you get to go free! Right, Georgia Tech, any last words?"
"Yeah, if you tighten that bolt right there this thing would work a lot better."