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.

Hawk Encounter

red-tailed hawk from below

A red-tailed hawk stands watch above our front sidewalk.

We saw a large bird in our neighbor’s maple tree 18 months ago. Today a similar bird (a red-tailed hawk, please comment if you disagree) appeared in the large tree in front of our house. It was the robins who brought it to our attention, sounding uncharacteristically alarmed in the outer branches.

Just like last year’s bird, it was kind enough to pose for pictures. But this year we have a better camera, so we got better pictures. Seven-image phototale after the jump. Read on

The “Green Thing”, Back in the Day

We’re not big on regurgitating viral emails. It amazes us how many lame and cheesy messages keep popping into our inbox, years after we first saw them. Why is so much crap viral, but dispatches of much higher quality fade out in a couple of days? Must be a conspiracy of some sort.

At any rate, we recently received a forward from an unusual source… unusual in the sense that this is someone who we’ve regarded as somewhat conservative. After the jump is a rant I wish I had written, as it succinctly describes the drift toward “magenta” living (opposite of green living) that we boomers have witnessed over the course of our lifetimes. Read on

A Peek at the Democratic Process

Follow this link, and you’ll find a¬†video of firefighters marching into the capital in Madison, complete with bagpipes and full regalia. (The video quality is not the best, but then it’s not ours.) The second video on that page has much better quality, and it’s a great summary of what the area around the capital looks like this week. There are also several cool pictures.

We also recommend this video (scroll down the page and watch part 4), provided by Wisconsin Eye (our state’s equivalent of CSPAN). Like many videos of government proceedings, it’s punctuated with long boring parts. It’s from yesterday afternoon’s session of the state Assembly, which was scheduled to begin at 5 o’clock. While the Democrats were in caucus, the Republicans started taking votes at 4:57. At about 3 minutes into the video, the fun starts as the Democrats show up while voting is already underway.

Angry words are spoken about rules being broken and – amazingly – the Republican leader finally says to his colleagues across the aisle, “you’re right”. The earlier votes are annulled, and battles are rescheduled for next week.

The Dog Days of Winter

The video that follows is NOT one of ours, but it’s one that we deemed worthy of putting in one of our youtube playlists.

After the snowstorm we had last week, this is kind of what getting around felt like…

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0sUL0KCIc48

… except that our snow was much more dense than that. When sidewalks become canyons, that’s a lot of snow.

Sunset in Berlin

Nine years ago tonight, after a long day of traveling, we arrived to our room in the Sunflower Hostel in Berlin. We were greeted by an unusual pattern of clouds radiating from the setting sun. We clamped the camcorder into the window and started rolling.

Ther resulting video was accelerated 15-1 (IF I remember correctly), and the audio is a montage of clips from the original recording. The trains you hear are a mix of S-bahn, U-bahn, commuter and intercity trains.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k4_ViRMAXS4

Underground Broadcasting

Literally…

Screen shot of video from the Chilean mine.

In a screen grab of a live video stream, the last rescuer of the Chilean miners awaits the capsule to return to the surface.

This was probably the most popular underground video of all time.

Good News for a Change

One by one, 33 Chilean miners are riding to daylight on the most claustrophobic elevator in the world. They’ve been buried a half-mile underground for over two months, and after all this time, a successful rescue is in progress. As I write, it’s 22 up and 11 to go (plus some rescuers who rode the elevator down to help).

MSNBC is supplying a live video stream of the scene at the mine, and it’s hard not to be riveted by this video. They even have a camera down in the mine, where you can see this little tiny capsule with a guy in it rise up thru the roof of the room.

Then we go to the scene at the top. The camera zooms in on the hole, where a pulley holds the moving cable to the center of the hole. We see the wife of the miner in the capsule waiting for her husband to arrive into daylight for the first time in months, and it’s hard not to feel the tense anticipation.

For 69 days, her mate was buried half-a-mile underground, and for many of those days, there was no contact, and no way of knowing whether they would ever see each other again at all. And now she’s watching the cable rising from within the hole (how strong is that cable?), but she cannot rest until the capsule rises up out of the hole, he is out of that capsule and they are in each other’s arms.

It’s hard not to cry watching these reunions, one after another, as the afternoon goes on.

And then the harness is stashed into the capsule, it’s lowered into the hole to fetch the next guy, and the cycle repeats itself.

Even though The Rescue is going well, it isn’t over until every one of those 33 miners – and equally importantly, the handful of rescuers who volunteered to go DOWN into that hole to help them – are safely back up on the surface.

And when that time comes, Chile: enjoy your time in the sun. You’ve done something to make your country proud and happy.

UPDATE: Everybody is out of the mine, including rescuers. Apparently, everybody is in good shape, considering what they’ve been thru.

What They Tell Us vs. What We Want To Know

I’ve been reading up a lot lately on web usability, which is the art and science of making web sites user-friendly. Most of the literature deals with presentation (fonts, colors, layout, etc.) and programming elements (pop-up info boxes, dialog boxes, etc.). This diagram (hat tip to Jeffrey Zeldman) deals with actual content:

A venn diagram of what they tell us vs. what we need to know

Of course, this example illustrates a university website, but it could easily be adapted to the sites of  government agencies, non-profits, and even many businesses and corporations of all sizes.

When I showed this to RoZ, she had an immediate reaction to its humor and astute accuracy, even though I introduced it as “kinda geeky.” She made remarks about “publicity vs. useful information.”

It vividly illustrates a disconnect in modern communication where our major institutions have fallen completely out-of-touch with the people they serve.