Meet Gizmo – Our Newest Family Member

Gizmo is a three-year-old kitten who joined our household this week.

While many other people got gadgets for Christmas this year, we got Gizmo. He’s a small white shorthaired cat with a solid black tail and big black spots on his back and the top of his head. He has almond-shaped eyes titled at an angle to his pink nose that gives his face an Asian look. He is quite agile, so he can navigate the forest of knick-knacks and gewgaws in our house without knocking too many things over.

His job is to evict and/or eat any rodent that trespasses in our house. As a bonus, he supplies us with endless amusement and kitty cuddles, and we are generous enough to supply him with human cuddles in return.

We met Gizmo at a local pet store that was providing space for Tabby Town (a no-kill shelter nearby) to display cats available for adoption. We got to handle and “meet” the kitties that interested us, and Gizmo was determined to be Our Cat. That was Saturday (Dec. 17), and we made arrangements to have him brought to our house the following Wednesday.

Since then, Gizmo has lived up to Tabby Town’s descriptions:

“sweet and gentle, tried & true”
“You’ll love his antics when he wants attention”
“very playful”

He likes to chase the red dot from our laser pointer, and a little toy mouse tied to a string. A few minutes of play – a couple times a day – seems to wear him out enough that he sleeps the rest of the day. When he wants attention, he sticks his face right into yours.

Gizmo is a complete clown of a cat, the spirit of a kitten in an adult cat’s body, and we love him to death already.

Havel, Hitchens and Kim at the Pearly Gates

I don’t literally believe the myth about St. Peter and the “pearly gates”, but it provides a useful metaphor for the passage we will all make one day from this world to the next one.

After all, the Pearly Gates are a busy place, so there must be a very long line of people waiting for their turn to negotiate with St. Peter for admission to Paradise. I’ve stood in enough long lines in my time on this Planet to know that time is often filled by memorable encounters and conversations with those near our position in the line. (For our international readers, we Americans say “line” instead of “queue”.)

So when the passings of prominent figures are clumped together on the time line, I imagine these prominent figures waiting in line together at the Pearly Gates. Last weekend, three big names dropped off the Roster of the Living simultaneously.

Vaclav Havel was a creative dissident playwright who led the Velvet Revolution that freed Czechoslovakia from authoritarian rule. Christopher Hitchens was also an articulate writer who opposed the Vietnam War but advocated the Iraq invasion, and who was an evangelical atheist until his last breath. Kim Jong Il was a pathetic tyrant who was completely full of himself. (A hole in one on his first swing of a golf club? Give me a break.)

What would these three have to say to each other while they wait in line? Would Havel and Hitchens debate over the existence of God? Would Kim insist that he was God? I’d like to think that the other two would want to kill Kim, but they’re all already dead.

Comedy writers, there’s a lot of fun to be had with this scenario. If you have an idea of what’s happening in this scene, let us know in the comments below.

They’re Not Bongos

I’ve heard many commentators refer to the “bongo drums” at the various Occupy Wall Street actions, and it kind of annoys me, mainly because it’s inaccurate. The term is mainly used to belittle and ridicule the occupations, but I’ve heard it used by people on “our side” who should know better. The most appropriate term to use would be “hand drums.”

Many years ago, I built a website for a maker of hand drums. (I won’t link to his site, as I was never fully paid for it, but that’s another story.) In the process I learned a lot about hand drums, and what all the variations of hand drums are properly called.

The most common drum you’ll find in public drum circles is the conga. Check out this picture from the Washington Post web site…

At the Wall Street Occupation in New York, drummers play congas and large tom-toms. (Image from Washington Post)

In this picture, we see (from right to left) a red conga, a blue conga, a snare drum behind it, a blue floor tom (another “kit” drum), a red conga, a tan conga, and an improvised steel drum. No bongos.

These women and their djembe drums were at an occupy rally in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. (photo by a right-wing blogger)

This picture was posted for ridicule by a right-wing blogger from South Carolina who infiltrated the local occupy rally to gather fodder for his mean-spirited rants. He prefaced this picture with, “they even had bongos.”

No, they’re djembes. You don’t know what you’re talking about.

THIS is a set of bongos.

Bongos are indoor drums. They are small… far too small to be heard in the midst of dozens of congas, djembes, floor toms, snares, and hundreds of dancing and howling revellers; so they are rare in large public gatherings of drummers.

A bongo player struggles to be heard at a march in New York. (photo by Scott Lynch, "Scoboco" on Flickr)

The only place I could find a picture of a bongo player at Occupy Wall Street was from somebody’s Flickr stream, and this guy looks like he’s working really hard to be heard above the ambient noise of downtown Manhattan.

Eagles Are Us

Bald Eagle on La Crosse Marsh

A bald eagle warily watches a photographer near La Crosse, Wisconsin.

One of the special treats of living near the Mississippi River is that we share our space with bald eagles. Usually we see them in the wintertime near the river, as they like to catch fish from the open water.

The eagle shown here was spotted over the marsh, along the bike trail between La Crosse and West Salem. A set of high-voltage power lines run next to the trail, and the eagle was perched in one of the towers.

Eagle on power tower

A wide view of the eagle's perch.

Too often when we get this close to a special bird, we either don’t have our best camera along, or the bird flies away before we can get it out. To our amazement, this bird struck some iconic eagle poses for us before flying off to look for food in some other part of the marsh, away from the paparazzi.

Bald Eagle near La Crosse

The eagle near the bike trail warily watches a photographer with his other eye.

A Month of Storms in 100 Seconds

RoZ and I are both weather geeks, and I’m a sucker for time-lapse video. I also think the brief animation of weather photos (satellite images, radar, etc.) that we see on TV or the Internet are kind of lame.

Knowing that the satellite picture is regenerated every half hour (and that the weather was about to get interesting), I set up our computer to automatically grab the image every half hour. I let the automatic frame grabber run until the weather got boring again, and assembled the 1300+ images into the video presented below.

You’ll see the progress of hurricane/tropical storm Irene, Lee, Katia, Nate, Maria and Ophelia. In between, there’s a persistent low pressure system that whirls over the midwest.


Mourning Dove and Downy Woodpecker

It’s time to share some pixels that finally escaped our camera today.

On the top of the page are some cattle sharing their pasture with a pair of sandhill cranes, as seen from our favorite bike trail about nine miles from home. (If you don’t see cattle and cranes, click on the title of this post.)

We have a grape vine supported by a trellis in our back yard. This year, a mourning dove built her nest in the grape vines.

A mourning dove minds its nest, nestled in a trellis of grape vines.

Today we were entertained by this woodpecker. Our bird book seems to say it’s a downy woodpecker, but we’re willing to be corrected if we’re wrong.

A downy woodpecker hunts for seeds on a tree near the La Crosse marsh.

Sympathy for the Klutz

We’ve all had incidents at work that we’re not very proud of, but they’re the kinds of incidents that inspire a lot of good-natured banter with our co-workers. The day the wrong file was deleted, or an armload of dishes was dropped, that kind of thing.

A utility worker in the Arizona desert had that type of experience late last week. As he was trying to fix or replace a finicky piece of equipment, he flipped the wrong switch or cut the wrong wire or something, and all the lights went out from Orange County to Tijuana to Arizona.

As much of a disaster as that was, I’m willing to cut the poor worker some slack. We’ve all had our own experiences creating disasters, but things got fixed, and now we laugh about it with our coworkers in the lunch room. Read on

Decennial Anniversaries

I put up a new banner image tonight. RoZ is sitting next to the Firehole River in Yellowstone National Park in an image captured exactly ten years ago (give or take a day). At this time in 2001, we were finishing a road trip of a lifetime through the western United States, and we would soon be preparing to spend two months in Europe.

In the coming weeks and months, we will release a new project that will tell a much more complete story of this life-changing experience. Until then, the web site we published while we were in Europe is still online, but that will also be incorporated into this new project. Stay tuned.

Twenty years ago this summer, in 1991, I was living in my step-van in Austin, Texas, slowly getting back onto my feet after leaving a commune I had been with for the previous thirteen years (yet another story that’ll be told in full, someday).

Thirty years ago, in the summer of 1981, I was living in Isla Vista, California (the student ghetto of UC-Santa Barbara). I was essentially in exile from the commune, but I had my own bike, a PO box, food stamps, a place to keep my stuff, a cozy place to sleep in a secluded piece of an overgrown park, but no roof.

Even though I was essentially homeless for about six months, I have fond memories of that summer. It helps that it never rained. But I also became part of a whole community of young hippies that populated the low-rent houses of the neighborhood, and together we participated in the Diablo Canyon blockade, one of the biggest anti-nuclear actions ever conducted.

The summers of ’91 and ’81 could be considered traumatic life-changing events, but in retrospect they were memorable and enriching experiences. The summer of 1971 was spent recovering from physical trauma: a serious bicycle accident that had me in the hospital for a few days in June and licking my wounds for the rest of the summer.

I don’t know what kind of life-changing event – if any – 2011 will bring. I’m willing for this year to be the one that breaks this decennial pattern, but if something big happens this summer, I hope it’s something good.

Egrets, Geese and Cranes on La Crosse River Marsh

We’ve said it before, that one of the great things about living in our part of the world is the bird population. Our favorite bike route is the La Crosse River State Trail, and the first few miles from the Medary trailhead would be a birder’s paradise.

Canada geese are overabundant around here, but at this time of year you can see them out with their babies.

Two families of Canadian geese on the La Crosse River Marsh, as seen from the nearby bike trail.

Two families of Canada geese on the La Crosse River Marsh, as seen from the nearby bike trail.

We’ve been noticing sandhill cranes for the past two years now, and we see them on at least half our rides.

A family of sandhill cranes forages for food in a young cornfield near the La Crosse River Bike Trail.

A family of sandhill cranes forages for food in a young cornfield near the La Crosse River Bike Trail.

This pair of birds was chattering to us while we were taking a break as we approached West Salem. We’re not sure what they are, so if you can help identify them we’d appreciate it.

A pair of small birds pose for photographers along the La Crosse River Trail near West Salem.

A pair of small birds pose for photographers along the La Crosse River Trail near West Salem.

We see a lot of great egrets and great blue herons, but the herons haven’t posed for us yet. The birds are related and look very much alike. The link below opens a three-second video. It’s a 6-frame burst of a great egret landing on its perch overlooking the La Crosse River Marsh as seen from the bike trail.

The video will load in a new window or tab. If you have trouble viewing it, make sure you have QuickTime extensions installed.

Egret on the Marsh

That’s the Spirit

A view of Mars from the rover "Spirit"

A panoramic view of Mars taken by the rover "Spirit" from a hilltop several miles from its original landing site.

Many years ago, some scientists and engineers designed a robot to crawl around on Mars, taking pictures, gathering data, and performing experiments along the way. In most space projects, the design work is a big part of the cost, so to build two robots doesn’t cost much more than to build one, and they can back each other up in the event something goes wrong with one of them.

They launched the robots – named Spirit and Opportunity – in 2003. At that time, space machines on their way to Mars were haunted by a streak of bad luck where they had a tendency to disappear when they should have been landing. But these machines both landed on opposite sides of the planet as planned, overcame some early glitches, and went on to perform beyond expectations.

Each rover had its own team of scientists minding it back on Earth. With the rovers on opposite sides of Mars, one crew slept while the other crew worked. They were scheduled to work for the expected life span of the rovers, which was 90 Martian days… just over three months.

Last week, the space agency announced that Spirit has gone dark… six years after it first landed on Mars. Scientists have learned many amazing things about Mars that we didn’t know before. For the rest of us, we get to see Mars as a place that doesn’t look much different than some parts of Arizona.

We now have a better understanding of that world and our own world, but when we find answers we also find more questions. But we’re not finished yet… Opportunity is still running, roving around, taking pictures, digging up dirt, drilling into rocks, and doing all the other amazing stuff that was designed into it nearly a decade ago.

Many people say we shouldn’t spend money on exploring the solar system, that we have far more pressing needs at home. The total cost of designing, building, launching, tracking and controlling the two rovers is about a billion dollars. That’s less than one B-2 bomber, or one day of the Iraq war. I think our great scientific minds are put to better use building space robots instead of war machines.

The same factories that build military hardware also build machines for interplanetary exploration. The rocket scientists who design cruise missiles can also design Mars landers. And the technology that enables these missions benefits all of us… after all, the first digital cameras were designed for robotic spacecraft.

The life of Spirit says so much about the kinds of amazing and cool stuff we can do. We need fewer bombers and tanks, and more Spirit.