Wednesday, July 25, 2012


New England cottontails are endangered. But mine or doing fine as far as I can tell. Not sure how the invasion of coyotes has effected them, but our rabitat is great. Thickets galore.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Is Engineering Passé?

Solutionism? Why would anybody make up this word? I immediately disliked it when I saw it. Scientists and architects sharing one roof is usually called "an engineering firm." I get that they're trying to promote green roofs, but even those are the arena of engineers, maybe with a landscape architect on the team.

Is "engineering" passé? I mean "engineering," the word, as in what engineers practice. Used in a sentence, "I'm studying engineering." I dislike engineering used as a verb, "I'm engineering a solution to this problem." The proper word there is "designing."

I've noticed that in popular media and TV shows where they have engineers as characters they never say "engineering." They just use the word "science" over and over. I'm thinking of the recently finished series Eureka. All those people were engineers, not scientists, but they probably used the word science 10 times for every 1 time the word engineer snuck into the dialog. I don't watch the other popular show with actual scientists on it, "The Big Bang Theory," primarily because the way the actors have to pause for the live studio audience to laugh makes me want to throw things. I think they may make fun of engineers as inferior, but I can't verify that. If they're at least making the distinction that's a step in the right direction. I think the general public needs to understand engineering now more than ever -- crumbling infrastructure, coping with climate change.

My dictionary defines "ism" as chiefly derogatory: a distinctive practice, system, or philosophy, typically a political ideology or an artistic movement. Sticking it on the end of "solution" really rubs me the wrong way.

The Apple Dictionary has this to say about "solution":
word trends: Everyone is familiar with advertisements offering all manner of solutions: high-end storage solutions | a leading provider of payment solutions. The usage began during the 1990s in the computer industry, where solutions were packages of software and hardware put together by IT companies to do a particular job for their customers. It is now an all-purpose word in commercial language for products, services, or companies, and is sometimes almost meaningless: frozen meal solutions are just frozen meals, after all. The term's overuse perhaps implies a stressed, anxious society, where everyday needs are marketed as problems that require solving. See also issue.
Making up a new word out of an overused meaningless word is some real meta marketing. I don't think they're doing us any favors. Engineers are trying to move us forward and marketing people are just dragging us down.

Update: I googled solutionism: NY Billboard features it. It turns out this ad campaign is big on social media, pulling in content from Twitter etc. Great. Now my negative opinion will automatically be added to their website. From that link:
Dow combines the power of science and technology to passionately innovate what is essential to human progress. The Company connects chemistry and innovation with the principles of sustainability to help address many of the world's most challenging problems such as the need for clean water, renewable energy generation and conservation, and increasing agricultural productivity. Dow's diversified industry- leading portfolio of specialty chemical, advanced materials, agrosciences and plastics businesses delivers a broad range of technology-based products and solutions to customers in approximately 160 countries and in high growth sectors such as electronics, water, energy, coatings and agriculture. In 2011, Dow had annual sales of $60 billion and employed approximately 52,000 people worldwide.
How many of those 52,000 are engineers? Why not USE THE WORD! How can you have science, technology, and products and no ENGINEERING?! Say it! THEY'RE CALLED ENGINEERS!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Mason Wasp Carrying a Cutworm

I saw this wasp carrying a caterpillar on my gate post when I came home from the grocery store. I turned off the car and started filming him. I sorta got bored because he was just wandering in circles then "POPSICLES!" I had to go put away the groceries. I never figured out where he was going with that caterpillar. And yes, it's probably a female wasp, but I picked another song in the male perspective, so I'm calling it a him.

According to the Audubon Guide to Insects this is a Mason Wasp. They lay their eggs in the abandoned cells of dirt dauber nests and sometimes in pre-existing cavities, like that hole in the pressure treated latch of this gate post that a carpenter bee bored out. This wasp must have fallen out of it when I opened the gate. The guide says the females provision their egg with paralyzed cutworms, which are the larvae of moths (caterpillar is not an inaccurate identifier). So I identified predator and prey in just one field guide description!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Theater Shooting Reaction: US vs. Europe

I woke up this morning and looked at Twitter. @grrlscientist in Frankfurt, Germany was live tweeting from a live video feed out of Colorado about the shooting at the Batman midnight premier in Aurora. It was a good way to get the news. She pointed out the horrible reporting without me having to actually see it myself. I have no interest in watching live coverage of that. I'm sure it's heart wrenching and mind numbing at the same time.

As people in the US started waking up and more reactions appeared I noticed a trend. Americans are sympathetic and are saying the things you're supposed to say. Europeans are saying what they really think. They think rampant American gun ownership is insanity.

I think we just have a different relationship with guns. They just aren't comfortable with guns like we are. They don't have a long comfortable history with them. Which is weird because marksmanship originated in the UK. But here in the American South guns are like tractors. They are dangerous, but useful. Actually, I know more people killed and injured by tractors than guns, yet there are hardly any regulation on tractors at all. Guns are just something we have. We don't even need a reason. It's like having china and silver. I sure as hell don't need that, but I have it.

All my life I've been around guns. I live on what is historically a hunting plantation. All around us are hunting plantations. I was raised to NEVER point a gun at a person. We never had toy guns, never played games of shooting one another. My mother didn't allow my brother to even point his finger at me and pretend it was a gun. Guns were not toys, not a joke, not ever. When Dick Cheney shot his lawyer friend quail hunting everybody here was incensed. First rule of hunting "You don't SHOOT people!" Everybody I asked from the archeology expert at work to my mother said those exact words.

My major professor at Georgia Tech designs movie theater sound systems. He patented the speaker system for AMC theaters solid toroidal screen technology. He invented the IMAX speakers. And he carries a .45mm handgun wherever he goes.

When I was a student in the '80s I had a mechanical engineering student friend who was licensed to carry a concealed weapon and he carried it wherever he was allowed. This did not include on campus or into bars. He had a special place he kept it locked up. He did wear it to movies though, shoulder holster, over a t-shirt, under a buttoned up collared shirt. He went on to have a career in the Army where he had lots of other guns. He is now retired and lives in Colorado where he competes in target shooting competition.

My father got a varsity letter in marksmanship in college.

I have a friend who once got pulled over for speeding and the policeman asked him if he had any guns in the truck. My friend said yes and got his handgun out of the console and gave it to the cop. The cop looked at it, complemented my friend on his choice of ammunition, handed it back, and wrote the speeding ticket.

When I graduated from college my mother told everybody I was going to be a science teacher in Miami. My uncle gave me a .38 special for a graduation present.

In America we have experiences with guns, we have anecdotes, good memories. Good people have guns. I am used to it, I expect it, and I don't really see how my gun or my friends and relatives guns relates to what happened at that movie theater in Colorado at all.

I don't have any answers or easy solutions to stop this evolving style of American geek terrorism. It makes me very uncomfortable. But it's not my area of expertise. I have to trust that people that think about this stuff for a living will come up with something to try. I read that law enforcement has already changed their training tactics to act faster based on the Columbine shootings.

I don't know what will change based on this recent event. It could be more loss of privacy and the immediate hiring of guards to sit at theater emergency exits, but I'm pretty sure it won't include everybody in America being asked to hand over their guns. That is the first thing that occurs to people in Europe, but the last thing that would occur to me or anybody I can think of that I know in real life. I'm not saying I'm right and they're wrong. I just think it's interesting how we're so different. What changed in the UK after the National Rifle Association was founded there in 1860? The American version was started in 1871, and it certainly is more in the spotlight than the UK version, if it even still exists. (I can't believe I'm linking to Wikipedia, but there it is.)

Maybe the American fondness for guns is related to herpetology. Americans love to kill snakes. They hardly have any snakes in the UK. Seven native species of reptiles, three snakes? That's as bizarre to me as it is bizarre to them that so many people in the US have guns. (I am not advocating shooting snakes. I believe killing snakes is a terrible idea, but I also recognize that it is a real thing that other people do. The mass killing of Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes has caused them to become an endangered species.)

*Update: Here's an article from an American in the New Yorker taking the other side of the argument from me. He sees guns as people-killing devices, instruments of violence. Completely different viewpoint from mine where guns are no more violent than tractors. I expect this may be related to growing up where there are tractors vs. where there are just millions of people. Maybe there could be a rural exemption on new gun control rules?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

I think humans are just another species

There's a new kind of widely deployed radio tag that is collecting fabulous behavioral data on a common terrestrial species. This database is so extensive it not only characterizes the general behavior of the species but can be used to accurately predict the behavior and future location of individuals!

As a scientist I think this is impressive. Any biologist or ecologist or natural scientist would be over the moon if they had access to this wealth of data on migratory birds, subterranean nocturnal mammals, or endangered snakes. Any meteorologist that had enough data to predict the weather like that would never be able to wipe the silly smile off his face.

But we don't have that data on wild animals or meteorology. We have it on humans. And it makes people furious.

I picked up this story this morning off Twitter from @GrrlScientist: That’s No Phone. That’s My Tracker. am i the only one who finds this to be (1) unsurprising yet (2) infuriating?

We had a little discussion about it on Twitter. She doesn't enjoy cell phone tracking data as a thought experiment for data collection on other species. She just thinks government and corporations are going to use this for nefarious purposes. She can't believe I don't think so too.

I am not going to contradict somebody that thinks something bad happened to them because they had no privacy. I am really in no position to judge how tracking behavior affects the world at large because my life is so simple. I never go anywhere or see anybody or talk to anybody on the phone. I will take @GrrlScientist's word for it and use my empathy to understand her anxiety over it.

But at the same time I can't help looking at it objectively. This is an amazing set of data. From an engineering standpoint the implications for usability and planning are huge. Why does everything have to be so negative? I have a lot more confidence in engineers than bureaucrats. I think engineers can get things done. Companies and governments, they are pretty incompetent.

I guess it's sort of like the guy that was incensed about having aerial photos of his house in a government file. I never had any idea that I had a right to privacy in the first place. I've always known exactly what my phone was doing. I keep Google Latitude turned on all the time. My two friends that also use it can always see where I am. Of course anybody else in the world can get that information too with a few extra steps. So what? I don't GO anywhere that needs to be a SECRET because NOTHING is a SECRET, EVER! If anybody thinks otherwise they are delusional. The reason it doesn't bother me is because I don't think anybody GIVES A SHIT. I am not that interesting. Even the people that are supposed to love me and care about me don't give a damn where I am on a daily basis. There is not a single person that I am in contact with that much. I could be dead under a fallen tree for three to five days before anybody would get suspicious because I hadn't been logged onto Google chat. Then they could look on Google Latitude and see where I am.   For me having my phone as a tracker is a GOOD thing.

I'm sorry it's so worrisome for other people. I don't understand it logically, but my empathy is fully engaged. I believe people are upset by this. I just don't relate to the societal implications because I don't relate to society.

My alliance is with technology. If I can provide a data point on the far left end of the bell curve by keeping my cell phone on all the time, I'm glad to do it. 

I expect people with power to do the worst thing that makes them the most money. It's not that I don't trust them, I trust them to do THAT. I'm not sure what people expected them to do otherwise. I feel like it's my responsibility to design a lifestyle compatible with corrupt corporations and ridiculous government. Make myself irrelevant to them. Do a small year. Achievement unlocked.

But as little as I think of The Man, I do have some modicum of confidence that there are wholesome intentions behind the electronics engineer or database designer who set up cell network devices to collect this data in the first place -- to verify how their equipment works and help them make improvements in future designs maybe. Or just because they could. I don't really mind if that's the reason. I would totally do that. "I have an extra A/D converter on this quad chip. What can I connect to it? Oh, how about this signal here? OK, Firmware Guy, can you add another variable to the table and we'll keep track of this parameter too? Thanks!"

Anyway, I'm opposed to demonizing the device or the engineers that made it. I believe in my heart of hearts that none of them intended to "economically, racially, sexually nor religiously manipulate" the users. (Quote from @GrrlScientist) But if people really think that's what's happening with data collected over the cell phone networks it's up to somebody besides electronics engineers to prevent these nefarious deeds. Because (if I'm any indication, and I'm an extreme case so I might not be) the people on the technology side have no insight into that at all. None. We are introverts and we don't think like that. Yes, we know that more CEOs are psychopaths compared to the regular population, but we don't really know what that means. Electronics engineers are very rarely psychopaths. (I read this somewhere a year or two ago but I can't look it up again right now.) Nerds don't know how to manipulate people. Not even a little bit. (@robdelaney on Twitter: Just saw a great panel at Comic-Con, “How to Talk to a Human Woman.”)  So anybody who understands how psychopaths with marketing budgets manipulate people? Do what you can to prevent injustice.

I would like to go back to thinking about how we could use this model of data collection for insight into modeling natural ecosystems and the complex interactions that humans keep tearing up before they even understand them.

Friday, July 13, 2012

How to Build an Abnormal Topless Vehicle (ATV)

The other day my mother asked me for advice on buying a UTV. I didn't know what one was, but I said I'd do it because opinions. Turns out a UTV is an All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) with "utility" substituted for "all". Instead of riding it like a saddle it has a seat like a golf cart. ATVs are mostly supposed to be fun, and that's pretty much what my mother wanted. Most of the utility needs we have take a whole truck or a tractor, which we've got. Also her idea of fun is not racing around at top speed, bouncing all over the place. Being in the woods to observe nature is the fun part. She just thought the seat with room for two side by side looked better for her and my aunt tooling around with a gin and tonic in the cool of the evening. She'd found a place that would sell her a used UTV for around $5000. You can get a whole truck for that! She didn't realize that a UTV is so much narrower than a standard vehicle it wouldn't line up with the ruts in our roads, making it ride at an uncomfortable angle all the time. I asked my mother why she wanted one at all, considering she has no way to haul a trailer to get it serviced, let alone get it here in the first place. She had very specific things she wanted. 
  • To get out of the house on a hot afternoon
  • Stay up out of the ticks
  • Have some wind in her face
  • Not have her grandchildren in the back of the truck while she's driving where she can't talk to them
Oh, well she just needs some modifications to the truck. She and my aunt share an old rusted out diesel Isuzu P'up my grandmother bought new in 1986. It's been resigned from road use for two years already. Might as well commit to it. I asked my friend Ronnie if he wanted to chop an old truck. He said sure! My mother set up a dinner party with my aunts to discuss it. They thought it sounded like a great idea and gave the go-ahead. When Ronnie had time to come over from Jacksonville for a few days we turned the truck into a fun ATV (Abnormal Topless Vehicle) that meets all my mother's requirements. It's basically a diesel powered porch for retired women in the woods.

The main problem with Phase 1 of our project is that the truck doesn't start anymore. That's sort of a bummer. We think maybe the welding messed up the starter. It will push start fine, and we live on hills. If I can find a replacement for it then I get to play mechanic. Ronnie only had 4 days off work and had to go back home yesterday. {Link to Picasa Album with Captions and Videos}

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Small Year Progress Report

It's halfway through the year. I read a blog about email yesterday that discussed an analytical tool for Gmail. (Here's how you get it.) The author of the blog has a HUGE email volume compared to mine. I thought Gmail Meter might be a good way to summarize how my small year is going. So I loaded it up last night about 10pm and told it to generate a report from January 1 to June 30. It emailed me a report at 3:15am. That seems like a long time, but it's fine considering it's not running on my computer.

So this is my whole year so far. The guy in the blog had 7005 conversations just last MONTH. Most of the email I get is sale ads. I have it filtered, labeled, and archived so it skips my inbox. My top email senders are Sierra Trading Post (every day with a coupon), a daily comic email, Victoria's Secret, Fine Homebuilding, and a computer programmer in Melbourne that I've never met but we've been swapping complaints on email for over a decade.

Most of my email skips my inbox automatically. This is a fantastic strategy I learned from my friend Jonah in Austin. He also knows how to make his own cheese.

What do you know! The shortest month has the lowest % of email! In March I helped a friend get rid of a lot of stuff on Craigslist when he was moving. Swamped with email.
Over 1000 messages in one thread? That's probably using it like IM for my friend that was moving. He really needs to learn to use IM. Also the guy that made this data analysis tool, what is he using to set up that bottom axis? Those are some weird values.

I'm like Quick-draw McGraw on the email aren't I? This is the best indicator of a small year. I am NEVER too busy to answer an email. Although sometimes I'm doing some project where I can't stop right then or it will ruin my paint brush. The busy guy on the blog answers 25% of his email after more than 1 day.

He also answers 35% of his email in less than 10 words. OK, he seriously needs to get on IM. He's using email wrong. I do try to not be too wordy in email since everybody else is so damn busy. If I have a lot to say I write a blog.

Most people don't answer my email. But apparently when they do they tell all. I only reply to 8% of my incoming mail because it's mostly sale ads. The guy in the blog replies to 30% of his. I initiate 22% of my email threads where he starts 9% of his. So people are reaching out to him all day every day, wanting something, demanding his attention. 

This is what a Small Year is about. Taking time off from people demanding something of you all the time. I get a lot of requests from my mother and aunt for stuff -- bring me calamondin juice, pressure wash my deck, get me a computer and email address, show me how to make a database of pictures of trees, hook up plumbing to my bathtub in the yard, turn my truck into a convertible. I actually prefer those to "make a woman-owned company and get on the GSA Schedule so I can get a contract to modify a database for the Veterans Administration." That last request is not compatible with a small year. The only year that fits in might be one that ends with a bullet in the brain pan. Federal contracting is not my idea of a good use of my time.

I meant for the small year to include spending as little money as possible. Unfortunately I've already spent almost $14,000 this year according to my bank's online money map. That stops now though, because I have no more income. My unemployment benefits stopped a month ago.

At least every month in the small year is below my 12 month spending average. That's technically smaller. January looks weird because I deposited money into my checking account and then transferred it to savings. I got repaid for some personal loans. That $8000 in my savings account has to last me the rest of the small year now. I did actually spend more in January than any other month because I bought those two Spartan Royal Mansion aircraft trailers. That project really killed the small potential for the year, money-wise. I've already spent a lot on special rivet tools. I'm going to need to sell more mini-warehouse contents on eBay to finish the Spartan I'm converting into a laundry room/lab/office. Or maybe I should call it the Distribution Center, serving as the packing and shipping headquarters for selling off all the stuff I acquired back when I had a 3000 sq ft house. The 216 sq ft metal outbuilding will double my mouse-resistant living space. With running water and electricity it has a different type of functionality than my shed. And with a low ceiling and room for free standing furniture it is different than my house. I'll be able to have an actual chair.

That's pretty much what the small year has been so far, fixing up that Spartan. I passed the point two weeks ago where I stopped taking things off it and started putting things back on. It was a fine point and I almost missed it. It was between scrubbing the frame with a wire brush and orange cleaner and painting it with Gempler's Rust Converter. Since then I've installed the hold-down straps and roughed in the plumbing. I've got a $300 stack of stinky plywood out there now. I'm waiting for some strong men to come install it for me Friday. I already painted the C side of the plywood blue. I'm going to paint the B side just as soon as it's screwed down. I'm so sensitive to the smell of plywood, but I don't know what else to use. I built my house without any plywood. I had a man come and saw the Advantek subfloor for my 6'x12' bathroom while I stood a good distance upwind. I held my breath and screwed it down and quickly covered it with thinset and Hardibacker so I wouldn't smell it. The rest of the walls and floor is all real wood. The roof is steel on purlins. I suppose I could have used 1x6s in the Spartan, like a deck, but I still would have had to hire somebody to drive the screws into that steel because I'm not strong enough to do that.

Happy Independence Day!

It's a national holiday so I'm trying to do something to distinguish it from all my other days. I woke up so early the moon was still up. It was less than 75°F, so I rode my bike over to the ancestral home to take my mother some frozen calamondin juice. She and some of my nieces are making pie for a pot luck tonight. (It's like key lime, only orange flavor.) Mama made me a cup of coffee and then wandered off and my nieces were still asleep, so after I drank my coffee I rode back home to make celebratory muffins. To eat. All by myself. Because I'm independent and that's how I roll.
4th of July Muffins for One (makes 6) 
Dry ingredients:
1 c All Purpose flour (120 grams)
4 Tbsp sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup fresh blueberries
1/4 cup dried cranberries 
Wet ingredients:
Half an egg (figure it out)
2 Tbsp calamondin juice
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1/3 cup milk 
Whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt, then toss the berries in the mix and stir to coat.  
In a separate bowl whisk together the egg, oil, milk, and calamondin juice.
Gently and thoroughly mix the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients.

Divide the batter into 6 muffin cups.

Bake at 375°F for 20 minutes or until they're brown and smell done. Remove from muffin cups immediately and cool on a rack.

I don't have a range. I do all my baking in this
toaster oven on my front porch. This is my
view from the top step by my door. Very handy
design. Thanks, Oster.

I figure these are patriotic because blueberries and cranberries are native to North America, and they're red and blue. Calamondins come from the Philippines, which is symbolic of America being all up in everybody's business all the time. I usually make these with just cranberries and a few tablespoons of chopped up calamondin peel that I candied last winter. I'm running out of the peel though.

Since it's probably uncommon to have a stash of frozen calamondin juice extracted last fall these could be made with orange juice. Cut the sugar back to 2 or 3 tablespoons. (I converted this from an orange/cranberry recipe and jacked up the sugar because calamondins are so sour.)

I've tried putting the sugar in with the wet ingredients but I couldn't tell any difference. Accidentally using baking SODA instead of powder though, that makes a BIG difference. I should probably add a bit of baking soda to this recipe to counteract the acidity of my calamondin juice. They might rise higher.

I have all day to eat 6 of these.