Sunday, June 17, 2012

No Privacy from Airborne Eyes

"The farmer heard the small plane droning in the distance as the pilot scanned the creek for signs of manure contamination." This is how I imagine this story started. Start the telephone game, result: The Environmental Protection Agency is using drones to spy on Americans!

There were never any drones. It was just regular planes like the kind that fly over my house all the time. I saw the Daily Show bit last week making fun of the Fox News team who were outraged that the EPA would use drones to spy on farmers. Jon Stewart seemed primarily interested in the fact that it's not the same drones as in the war zones. I was just not that interested at all because I've used Google Earth. What's the big deal? The Environmental Agencies are the main source for high resolution aerials on there. This is not new.

There is no privacy from the sky. There just isn't. I don't know if it's a right or not, it's irrelevant. It's already a lost cause. Aerial photography and photogrammetry has been an invaluable tool for planning for decades. They even do flights where they scan whole counties with lasers (LIDAR) to accurately map basins. The water flowing across your land is the business of the Environmental Agencies. Fires started on your land are the business of the forestry service. I am glad to hear and see these planes going by, and the military helicopters too. They're doing their job. I'm glad somebody has one. If I'm out in the yard taking a shower when they fly by I just give them a big wave. I expect they are up there for some important reason besides invading my privacy. Actually catching somebody in a private situation is just a bonus.

I do check Google Earth frequently to see if the latest view of my house caught me in the yard. The most recent one is taken from the East so a tall tree is blocking the view of my shower, but you can see my birdbathtub and the orange apron of the gopher hole by my driveway and the roof of my buildings. I used to rationalize that an aerial picture of me in the shower would only be the top of my head and shoulders, nothing to see here. But the views are actually rather oblique. As long as my tall trees are in the way though, it's fine.
But in Nebraska, the cattlemen have raised new concerns about the effect of the flights. “It is truly an invasion of privacy,” said Chuck Folken, who runs a farm and cattle feedlot in Leigh, Neb. Farmers worry about photos of private homes and back yards winding up in government files. “We don’t need our own government . . . flying over us, taking pictures of us, telling us what we’re doing wrong.”
Winding up in government files? Get a clue man! Pictures of private yards are in ALL the files, government, private, and public to the world. They're free for everybody on the internet! You may not need them flying over telling you what you're doing wrong, but I sure as hell appreciate it when they find out about what you're doing wrong and STOP you. As a person who isn't doing anything wrong I'm pretty glad they're watching out for people that are. That's why I pay taxes. I need there to be a mechanism for stopping people like that guy from ruining the whole ecosystem.

Just to prove this "invasion of privacy" complaint is a ridiculous reaction for 2012 I opened up Google Earth and grabbed a sample of screenshots. They always show the source of the photo at the bottom of the window. (I worked for Merrick in 2000, a company that gets hired to do these aerials.)

1994 Aerial Photo of my driveway, USGS
2004 Aerial Photo of my driveway, Florida Department of Environmental Protection,
which is weird because this property isn't even in Florida. But Florida is downhill from here,
therefore they care what happens on the uphill side of the state line.
I don't know why they update the copyright date for a 2004 photo.
Current 2012 Google Earth screen capture of my driveway taken by yet another government agency
When you're looking up close you get the aerial photos. It's only when you zoom out that they make a matrix of satellite and aerials. Those last two listed on this picture are satellites, the first is flying small planes.

To me this whole story is as dumb as somebody being flabbergasted to find out that their phone number comes up on a display on the other end when they call somebody. Yes, Caller ID, it's been around a while. Welcome to the future.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Is that you, Tattoo?

Over two years ago I wrote an article I called "Why I Hate Tattoos." I guess I did a most excellent job with the labels because that article is on the top page of all the search engines for "I hate tattoos" "hate tattoos" and even "I hate tatoos" with tattoo misspelled. Those are the most common search terms that direct people to my blog. It's my third most viewed page and has more comments than any other article. (It's only in the 4000 views range, which is nothing compared to blogs people actually read. It's merely an ongoing oddity to me.)

I got another comment on there today. They are typically opinions that are far more hateful than anything I wrote or people who defend tattoos and hate on those of us who make negative points about them. I get confused when these things pop up in my email because it reads like an attack on me personally.
I don't mind if people dislike tattoos; that's their opinion and to them I say "don't get one." Pretty simple solution and there's not really any need to go on about how much you hate them.
It's MY BLOG! A web site has to have a purpose to get a ranking high enough to make the top page of the search engines and the purpose of this web site is for me to go on about whatever I want.

I feel confused by a lot of comments because I don't remember writing "I hate PEOPLE with tattoos." I kind of remember that the first point I made was that some nice people have bad tattoos. So I have to go reread what I wrote. Still confused.

Then I realize the new comment must be aimed at some of the other comments, which I've forgotten because they were from months and years ago. Some of them are pretty bad. Like this one guy that says no woman with a tattoo will ever get married. He's close-minded at best if not downright delusional.

There seems to be an age divide on this issue. Several of the pro-tattoo comments seem to be from young people who don't even have them yet. The anti-tattoo opinions seem to be from people with a longer view of life that comes with age.

I have been old a long time, in my mind. My dad claims I was a complete adult at 11: seeking responsibility, thinking rationally, immune to peer pressure, intense dislike for juvenile behavior of any kind. And since my mind has always been old I never really thought about the physical ravages of aging.

But lately I've figured out that I'm not just grown up, I'm culturally old. I just realized there is a pretty solid standard I had never considered until it came up in an episode of Veep. Apparently some women my age have already started menopause. According to Wikipedia, the range starts 2 years BEFORE my current age. When I found that out I felt retroactively humiliated. Do all my friends in their 20s look at me like the Old Maid on that card deck I had as a child? Here I thought we were contemporaries, but I may have been completely wrong. Now I get why at my annual exam the nurse asked me, "Are you still having your period?" I said, "No, I take the pill continuously to keep from having PMS and migraines." But now I realize she was asking if I had started menopause. It always knocks me back to be reminded that people don't see things the same way I do. The most recent tattoo commenter again:
Honestly, when I'm old, who's going to want to see my body?
Christ. Really? She says in the comment that she's planning to settle down with a partner after she gets some tattoos. Doesn't she expect that partner will see her body after she's old? How is she going to AVOID somebody seeing her body? If they don't want to they might HAVE to. Did she read my article and look at my picture on the right and think to herself, "Ew, good thing she's a hermit so nobody has to see her body."

The reason I'm a hermit is because I am too sensitive, not because I'm hiding a hideous body. Some random blog comment comes in my email and I get a complete complex from taking a couple of sentences out of context. I can't handle the merest hint of criticism. I used to think it was a senseless waste that nobody gets to see my body, but it's an unavoidable side effect of abandoning all ships. Relationships, friendships, I'll have none of them. Now that I know old people are expected to be like those sailors on the haunted ship from Pirates of the Caribbean, rotting corpses with live sea creatures inhabiting their ribcage, I feel even better about my choice.

But I feel bad for this person that thinks life is not just as short as humans' rather long actual life span, but that past an arbitrary, and apparently low, number of years there's nothing worth planning ahead for.

The best comment on the tattoo post is from Mark M. this March. I should remember to read this one again whenever I get another negative comment.
A tattoo is a attack against doubt. Science is a celebration of doubt. Therefore, a tattoo is an anti-science, anti-open-mindedness, anti-thinking statement. A thinking person is always ready to change his or her mind. The person who gets a tattoo is saying, "I'm not going to change my mind." Either that, or the person has so little regard for herself that she doesn't care that she may someday regret writing permanent pictures on her skin.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Cordgrass is not a Ropey Seaweed

Did you all hear about the 60' section of Japanese floating dock that washed up in Oregon? Covered in potential economically devastating invasive species? Volunteers scraped it clean and buried everything on dry land and then disinfected it with a flamethrower.

Here's the story I read last night off a tweeted link from @guardianscience. It tries to describe the potential devastation. "Spartina, a ropey seaweed from Europe, chokes commercial oyster beds."

No. That is wrong. Spartina is a native marsh grass from the Eastern United States. Spartina is crucial to the ecosystem of the Chesapeake Bay but it is an invasive species in estuaries in Europe and Oregon. It's totally not seaweed. It grows in the air. Everybody I know calls it Spartina but the common name for it is cordgrass. So I guess the person that wrote this mistake used a thesaurus to change "cordgrass" to "ropey seaweed."

There's a great example of economic damage that is more relevant than a made-up European seaweed, considering the dock came from Japan. There are already Japanese animal invaders screwing up Oregon oyster beds. Up until this year they would spray Sevin Dust from helicopters at low tide to try to control burrowing shrimp. That whole coast is seriously messed up from anthropogenic meddling, not just invasive species. If they hadn't taken the old oyster shells out in the first place none of this would happen.
Washington's multimillion dollar shellfish industry is being seriously threatened by burrowing shrimp that expel sediment, soften tideland, and cause surface organisms to sink and die.
The thing about a new species coming from somewhere else is that's how they ALL got there. From somewhere else, but maybe they established their balance before people came along to observe it. Or maybe people came along and tore it up before they made good notes about what it was like before human interference. I think Lewis and Clark started building that jetty at the mouth of the Columbia River before their first fire roasted salmon was sizzling and flakey. There is no real record of the balanced ecosystem of any of those estuaries. As soon as white men got there they immediately started to change things to suit themselves. From the original story:
Lindeberg said, "The only defense for invasive species is early detection. Just like cancer."
Yes, but what about offense? New species have a hard time invading an undisturbed, naturally balanced ecosystem. When there is high diversity there are less opportunities for one new species to change things to suit themselves to the detriment of the natives. The problem is rich men mess with nature to make money for themselves. They don't care about any organism except more oysters, or more quail, and then they get invasive species. And they just keep messing with it, spending money to keep it out of balance in the way it suits them, poisoning the invaders. They can't just let it be naturally in balance.

Anyway, nobody cares about this Spartina mistake. I read this last night and tried to forget it. But it's been nagging at me. So today I looked at it again. I googled "Spartina, a ropey seaweed from Europe" and got lots of hits. When I looked closely at the fine print and realized it's an AP story. That's unfortunate. Byline on the Seattle Times version. Jeff Barnard, AP. I found him on Twitter, @JeffBarnardAP. Should I tell him he's wrong? Isn't it too late? Why can't I just not care?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

52 Hertz? Loneliest Whale? I'm skeptical

I've been looking into this Loneliest Whale story. @NubianOR Tweeted a link to this website that said this:
Dubbed “52 Hertz” after the frequency range in which he typically sings, the animal has been called the loneliest whale in the world, since his love songs seem destined to go unanswered. Most other species of baleen whale, such as blue whales and humpbacks, sing at frequencies much higher, between the 15-25 Hertz range.
Well that's clearly stupid. 52 Hz is higher than 15-25 Hz. But it's all still really low bass. I've heard recordings of whale song. I didn't think they were that low. If they were I would make a business selling subwoofers to oceanographers. Most of them listen to the sounds on shitty computer speakers that can't produce anything below 100 Hz. Actually, they mostly look at them as waveforms or spectrograms.

First step in addressing skepticism is to find more stories about the same thing. This one was copied verbatim from Animal Planet. Where else is it? Here it is on EarthSky, which does those little snippets on NPR. It said the same thing, only reversed it and said 52 Hertz is lonely because he sings so high. Then they played a sound clip of what a normal blue whale sounds like. Which was definitely NOT 15-25 Hz. I mean, I could hear it. My speakers don't go below 100 Hz. The idea that anybody listening to EarthSky could hear 15 Hz is a long shot. I hear people driving by on the highway 1/2 mile from my house who have stereos capable of producing 15 Hz, but I am pretty sure they aren't listening to NPR in there.

Did they mean 15 Hz -25 KILOHertz? Which, well, that's everything you can call sound. Or do they really mean it's just a 10 Hertz rang? A burp if you will. Are all of the clips I've heard of whale song sped up to a higher frequency, like what they played on EarthSky? Are they really as low as 15 Hz? I mean, it makes sense that they would be. Low frequencies travel much much farther, as shown by the stereos of the cars on the highway. I only hear what's below 100 Hz. But I thought whale song was at least several octaves. I studied under a bona-fide marine mammal acoustics expert. If I got my Masters degree without getting this straight then I am very disappointed. I really thought the baleen whales made a full spectrum of sounds. We study the toothed whales more, but humpbacks are pretty seriously studied.

Well let's get to the bottom of this. Show me some spectrograms. NOAA has some online. These don't go above 500 Hz! Maybe it's because this is the outfit looking for seismic sounds. Let's check the biological oceanographers.

Here's the story on NY Times. They give the name of a biologist at Woods Hole, Mary Ann Daher. Let's look her up. That was sort of a dead end. All the same story rehashed. She did release this story after she found these sounds in some declassified Navy recordings she was studying. (You know those free telescopes NASA just got that were for spy satellites but turned out to be obsolete before they were finished? The Navy probably has information about what goes on underwater that makes regular university oceanographers look as ignorant as the cast of Jersey Shore. Such a shame that so much money is spent on science that is kept a secret and so little on things we can share!)

I googled "humpback audiogram" and got good results. I figured if I looked for the whales range of hearing it would relate back to the noises they make. I opened a PDF about a bioacoustic assessment because I thought I would understand that.
Humpback whales emit a variety of sounds, the most extensively studied being their long duration song on the winter breeding grounds. The dominant frequencies of song lie between 120 – 4000 Hz, with a total bandwidth of 20-8000 Hz and weak high-frequency components up to and above 15 kHz [e.g. Thompson et al. 1979; Payne and Payne 1985; Au et al. 2001a, 2001b; Cerchio et al. 2001].
Thank goodness. That was what I thought. For a minute there I thought I'd spent $8000 on a master's degree and came away unacceptably ignorant.  I think what we have here with the Lonely Whale story is just a spasm of extremely bad science writing and not me being wrong. Acoustics is really not well understood. It is sort of unpopular. I was only one of two students studying it when I was in undergraduate school. I don't understand at all. I think it's fascinating.

But they were comparing 52 Hz to a blue whale as well. Let me look those up. Found a paper paid for by Canadian defense. It has a handy chart outlining the delta frequency and center frequency of the main types of sounds all the baleen whales produce. I can read it but I sort of doubt any of the people that wrote those articles about the lonely whale would have a clue what this says. Here's the blue whale chart.

The important bit I think is these doublets. Those are indeed in the range specified in the articles. This must be what matches the sounds they are attributing to 52 Hertz. Kind of ridiculous to leave out all this other sound though. That's a huge range of over 11 octaves. Saying blue whales only make sounds between 15 and 25 Hertz is like aliens made of pepper coming to earth and reporting back that the only sound humans make is sneezing.

Here's the thing. You can only record those sounds very close to the whale. If they're basing these statements about 52 Hertz on recordings from fixed hydrophones and the whale was always far away from them then they don't know shit. Even if he was making a large range of sounds they wouldn't be able to detect them. All they know is he doesn't make any lower than that. Which could be a birth defect or injury or something. I think there are way too many unanswered questions in this story to even speculate that this is one weird whale on his own.

What's the voice got to do with it? You think Jennifer Tilley is lonely? And considering how long they've been hearing him he's clearly getting along pretty well. I think it's dumb to anthropomorphize him as some kind of pathetic creature, the BFG of the sea, eating sea cucumbers by himself because he doesn't approve of his relatives eating other whales. (That's a toothed whale thing, so it's kind of a bad analogy.) I'm not even convinced it's a whale at all. I bet the Navy doesn't even think it's a whale. It's probably just a Hunt for Red October-based inside joke.

Kind of a shame EarthSky didn't explain that what they were playing wasn't actually the frequency they just stated. Just goes to show, just because it sounds like science doesn't make it accurate.

Hats Off to the Solar Dynamics Observatory

Remember that video I shot of the launch of the Solar Dynamics Observatory? That was cool. Snell's Law FTW.

And look what it's doing now. This makes me cry. Full of awe. Awesome. I watched the livestream of the activities in Fairbanks, AL for the Venus transit. I never got the name of the guy in the blue shirt with the SDO logo that did most of the talking but he was really good. Thanks, whoever you are. I miss listening to smart people talk.

One thing the presenter explained during the live presentation was why you can see the sun THROUGH Venus as it crosses the limb. Of course you can't really. At first he blamed it on the projector and he had an audience member look at it on the laptop screen. He saw it there too. So the presenter changed his explanation. Science happening before our eyes. The new explanation was because SDO was updating images faster than usual. They were only fully zeroing out the CCD sensor every minute and a half. He said some shitty digital cameras do this residual image too. You can see some of the last picture you took. Here's an explanation of CCD dark image ghosting that @RojSmith found and forwarded to me on Twitter yesterday when we were both watching the same livestream and swapping remarks.

Brown Thrashers

I'm so frustrated with internet searches. There's the same inane information over and over and I can't find out anything that passes any of my bullshit filters! Sand grouse, whatever, do REGULAR SONGBIRDS drink water in the nest from their parents' feathers? Just the ones the eat seeds instead of juicy protein-filled insects? Why isn't there a chart or something that says what birds feed their babies? I guess if I want to know I have to have enough money for a big house and books. What I did find is the first page of a paper on Jstor that says it's not uncommon for birds to take water to their babies in their feathers. It also says people used to think birds carried water to their babies in their crop, but that turned out to be false. Of course it still says that on Wikipedia.

So what do you think? When this wet brown thrasher goes back to the nest will the babies drink some of the water? I wish I had some kind of web cam I could train on these things. I took the pictures of the inside of the nest by holding my phone out at arms length pointing down just to find out what was in the nest. I'd seen a cowbird at the birdbathtub and wanted to be see if it was only brown thrasher eggs. The nest isn't really where I can observe what's happening without disturbing them. Maybe if I climbed the wax myrtle tree with the binoculars.

Link to pictures if you aren't running flash

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Asshole Tracks

I've been drilling out rivets on my Spartan and I keep running the drill into this drip rail when the rivets break through. It makes these tell-tale marks that announce that I'm not very good at this.

When you miss with a hammer and make dents in the wood all around a nail the experienced carpenters call those asshole tracks. At least this is my recollection of being ridiculed by my friend Taylor when I was helping him sheath a roof. "What happened over here? Look at all these asshole tracks!" I remember that day vividly. It was the day I realized I was a good golfer. I had a friend who was a scratch golfer who traded me a bag of clubs for a 20 gallon aquarium. Then he took me to play a round. He showed me how to swing a club and we played golf. I hit the ball two times for every one time he hit it. But when I was hammering nails I hit four times for every one time Taylor hit. He'd drive a nail home in two blows and I was hammering away like an over-caffeinated woodpecker. Clearly I am twice as good at golf as carpentry. Unfortunately at the end of a day of golf you haven't got something you can live in so I never bothered to nurture that aptitude. I gave away my golf clubs and bought an air compressor and three kinds of nail guns.

That day on the roof was over 10 years ago. I wasn't sure I was remembering asshole tracks right so I tried to look it up. The internet is pretty thin on slang from people that use heavy machinery instead of computers. I couldn't find any occurrence of "asshole tracks" used in this way. So I thought I better take care of that internet oversight. If anybody else has heard this please say so in the comments. Or if there's another word for it, let me know. Fine Homebuilding keeps their site so clean nobody is allowed to say "asshole" on there. I didn't find anything even searching their forums.

Is there another word for it when you make asshole tracks in metal? I think I can polish those out with a scotchbrite pad so I'm not that worried about it.