Monday, December 31, 2012

Tuesday Tool New Year Edition

A tool is a device that will allow you to do a job more effectively, yes?  Well, the job at hand is having a quiet, yet celebratory evening at home with the Real Doctor to end the year.  The tool is
Navarro Vineyards Cuvee 2009 Gewurztraminer Brut Methode Champenoise Sparkling Wine.  Because, sometimes, a cordless screwdriver just isn't the right thing. 

A 2013 full of love, happiness, wisdom, health, peace and prosperity--and, where permissible, good wine in moderation--to all who stumble upon this blog.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Wednesday words vowel movement edition

I found myself lying awake last night, and circumstances reminded me of the word "owl."  A curious word--it's got one vowel, but two syllables.  I tried to distract myself from the anxieties that were keeping me awake by thinking of another such word, and I got nowhere.  Not even "awl," despite the similarity.  Plenty of words have two vowels and one syllable, and that old Scrabble standby with two letters and two syllables, "aa", percolated into my sleeplessness.  What eventually let me get to sleep was thinking of my niece's pronunciation when she was feeling cranky this summer, pronounced with the kind of whine that only a young child can pull off: "I'm hot" pronounced "I'm hoo-oe-aaaawwt!"  One vowel, at least three syllables, stretched out over about fifteen seconds, and "Mom" was pronounced just the same way.

Anyone know any other one-vowel, multisyllable words?  Please comment if you do.  I'll sleep better.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Friday Flora

Sort of seasonally appropriate: a microforest, from a bog/pine forest/sand dune interface, Oregon Dunes:
Sort of inappropriate, no matter the season: a stinkhorn fungus, from a few yards away:

Second thoughts on enzyme kinetics (and Newtown)

Some unorganized thoughts about the fallout from the idiocy surrounding our national response to the incidents in Newtown:

1.  In a conversation with a near-random stranger (I purchased a truck topper from him; he actually works as a small cog in the military-industrial complex), the subject turned to preparations for Christmas.  The fellow has kids, and he said something to the effect of "I don't know, I'm just not that into it this year.  I mean, I think about those kids in Massachusetts..."  I heard basically the same thing from a local hunter.

2.  Dead people are dead, regardless of age.  I heard a right-wing TV bloviator saying that he was rock-solid on unfettered gun rights after Columbine, after Aurora, after Virginia Tech, and everything else.  But Newtown changed his mind, and now he says he supports some restrictions on gun ownership.  Well, bloviator, I'm glad you're seeing sense, but the people who died in Aurora (and the people shot dead every day) are just as dead as those shot in Newtown, and their deaths were just as meaningless.  Perhaps you should apologize for pissing on the graves of those earlier victims of gun violence?

3.  Alert reader MM pointed out in response to the earlier post that we, as a society, need to ensure better access to mental health care, and that mental health issues have no more social stigma than colon polyps.  To use the language of enzyme kinetics, the fraction of "evil" enzyme can be reduced.

4.  Looking at the letters to the editor in our local paper, there seems to be mostly qualified support for the idiot State Representative who suggested increasing the number of guns, especially in schools.  Only one letter writer thought it was insane. As has been noted, I live in a very "red" area. 

5.  I still haven't heard anyone give a convincing explanation for why a semiautomatic weapon of any sort is really necessary for a civilian.  The hunters I've talked to, at least around here, all value marksmanship, and use bolt action rifles.  One told me that you you should need only one shot; if you need two shots, you might have slipped; if you need three or more, you need to practice your marksmanship, and you don't belong out there.  But that's if you're sissy enough to need a gun; if you're for real, you use a bow.

6.  What was Wayne LaPierre on at that "Press Event"?  I mean, he basically claimed that he was the victim at Sandy Hook.   

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Wednesday Word Wha?!?!? edition

I saw a billboard as I was driving home from Eugene the other day, and it definitely got me interested in what was being advertised.  It urged me to stay in Roseburg at the such-and-so hotel, which features among other amenities a "110% hospitality guarantee!"


What are the SI units for measuring and quantifying hospitality?

110% relative to what?  is there an RDA for hospitality?

If you have more than 100% hospitality, is that a bad thing?  Like, if you have a friend who is trying to get into your privacy a little (ten percent?) too much?

If they fail to provide more than 110 percent hospitality, how do they honor their guarantee?  If they're only 85% hospitable, do they track you down later and provide you with the remaining 25% of hospitality?  Or, is there a set exchange rate--one percent of hospitality is worth so many dollars?

Thus far, I've resisted the temptation of going to this hotel and pestering the desk clerk with these questions.  I'm not sure if I'll be able to resist much longer.

Monday, December 17, 2012

A simple lesson in enzyme kinetics

(Ever since a college class on physical chemistry, I retreat to the verities of thermodynamics when confronted with the incomprehensibility of human behavior.  There’s no understanding what happened in Connecticut a few days ago--just trying to arrive at a mechanism that will allow you to get through your day without hiding in a bunker to avoid every other human being.)

Look, here’s a test tube of solvent with two solutes in it. 
One is a substrate—a chemical that can undergo a reaction, but doesn’t readily do so.  The other is an enzyme—a chemical that, when it bumps into the substrate, makes it undergo the reaction. 
Enzymes are proteins, noodle-like strings of amino acids that must fold up into a specific shape to do their job.  This process can, and does, go awry at a certain rate; a defined proportion of a population of this enzyme will be misfolded.  If there are only a few molecules of the enzyme, then it’s unlikely that you’ll find a single misfolded enzyme.  If there are thousands of molecules of the enzyme, then you’ll find a couple misfolded enzymes.  If there are millions of molecules of the enzymes, then it’s a certainty that you’ll find a good number of misfolded enzymes.
Now, the misfolded enzyme is evil.  When it bumps into a molecule of substrate, it makes it undergo the wrong reaction, one that produces a lethal product.
Very simple.  Since the proportion of misfolded enzyme is constant, if you increase the amount of enzyme in the jar, you will increase the amount of evil enzyme.  There’s no way around that fact. 

Let’s say that you keep the amount of enzyme in the jar constant, but you increase the amount of substrate.  You will increase the likelihood that a molecule of evil enzyme will bump into a molecule of substrate, and make something lethal.  This is physical chemistry, this is the way the world works, and arguing against it is like arguing against gravity.

(In the picture, I’m just looking at the "evil" reaction; the “good” reaction still happens, but I’m more interested in the “evil” reaction catalyzed by the evil enzyme.)

If you’ve had college biology, you may have encountered enzyme kinetics.  That’s what we’re seeing here.  You can make a graph showing the relationship between substrate concentration and the rate at which the reaction happens.  Eventually, you saturate the system, and the reaction goes as fast as possible. 
There’s two ways you can avoid producing the lethal product.  Make the concentration of enzyme really, really low—it will be less likely that you’ll have any of the evil enzyme.  Or, you can make the concentration of substrate really, really low—it will be less likely that a molecule of substrate will encounter a molecule of evil enzyme.

In any population of humans, there’s going to be a small percentage that just ain’t right in the head.  If there’s only a thousand people in your population, and there’s a good social support network, then there may not be any such troubled individuals.  But, in a country of 300 million, there’s going to be people who do evil.  Unless we reduce our country’s population to a thousand people, there will be psychopaths, just like in a collection of millions of molecules of enzyme, there will be evil misfolded enzyme.

For a normal human being—for most of my neighbors here in a pretty “red” part of the country—an encounter with the substrate in this argument, a gun, is part of a recreational experience.  People hunt, or practice marksmanship, or just go plinking tin cans.  Many of my neighbors have the kind of semi-automatic weapons used in Clackamas and Connecticut and Aurora and Milwaukee, and nothing bad happens.   

But if you put the substrate of a semi-automatic weapon into the hands of a psychopath, you get that lethal reaction that we saw in Clackamas a week ago and in Connecticut a couple of days ago. 

If you increase the concentration of substrate—of guns, especially those guns that are useless for hunting—you will increase the rate of the reaction.  This is reality, this is how thermodynamics says the universe works, despite the idiot fantasies of Dennis Richardson, the Oregon State Representative from Central Point, just down the interstate from here:

“If I had been a teacher or the principal at the Sandy Hook Elementary School and if the school district did not preclude me from having access to a firearm, either by concealed carry or locked in my desk, most of the murdered children would still be alive, and the gunman would still be dead, and not by suicide…we need to ensure that our children are safe, and we can’t do that by disarming those who are on the scene.”  

I don’t know if Representative Richardson ever studied any physical sciences in school; if he were taking introductory bio from he, he’d have just failed.  This is really simple stuff. 

As I’ve said, many or most of my neighbors have guns, mostly for hunting.  More than a few have handguns (We once got our car towed by a guy who had his on the dashboard, and who reminded me a little too much of the character John Goodman played in “Barton Fink”*).  Some have semiautomatics.  They tend to feel more strongly about their weapons than I do about my most prized possession.  They will all aver that they are of sound mind and practice all the rules of gun safety.  Most will point to a highly ambiguous clause in the Constitution.  A few of the fringier ones will maintain that their ability to outgun government representatives is the bulwark that prevents tyranny, which I’d find laughable if it didn’t reflect a cocktail of psychosis and lethal force. 

Reading and talking with gun enthusiasts, I’m struck by the degree to which these weapons are signifiers of something transcendent and essential to their self-regard.  They try for words to explain it to me, and give up—it ends up being like explaining religion or love.  Having not had their—I’m at a loss for what to call it…epiphany? Love affair? revalation?...I’ll admit that I utterly fail to understand their point of view.  I’m fine with hunting rifles.  But no one needs an automatic or semiautomatic weapon, any more than they need a howitzer or Sherman tank. 

Reading Representative Richardson’s remarks, two things are clear: he wants lots of guns, and he ardently wants dead children (just not as many).  Other gun enthusiasts have basically said that there’s no eliminating psychopaths, but the right to hyper-lethal weaponry is sacrosanct—so, we just have to accept a certain baseline of slaughter.  In their view, we’d be best off if we were in the saturated region of the enzyme kinetics graph. 
If we, as a society, want evil such as happened this week to stop, the only way we can do it is to reduce the concentration of substrate—of weapons whose designed purpose is to kill lots of humans—to zero.  If we, as a society, don’t have the will to do this, then we, as a society, are affirming that we want this to happen again, and again, and again. 

This is not politics; this is really basic, simple physical science.  How we get there is politics. 

*I’ve heard it argued that a well-armed society is a polite society.  This is both true and utter horse$#!+.  I was very polite and most agreeable with the tow-truck driver.  I did not feel especially freedom-y, and I don’t think I would have felt any more freedom-y if I were also armed. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Wednesday Word Inigo Montoya Edition

In the last few weeks I've been getting bothered by a phrase I've heard over and over again.  Every time I hear it, I think "that word, I do not think it means what you think it means." And yet, every politician or celeb or plain Joe Schmoe who gets some award or is elected to some high office says

"I am deeply humbled...*"

As I learned the meaning of the word, if you were the direct object of a humbling, you would be degraded, perhaps forced under a yoke while people hurled dung at you.  If you were describing yourself as humbled in the passive voice, you might dress yourself in sackcloth and ashes and go about on your knees.  You would not have just been elected president, or have won the Vacuum Cleaner Salesperson of the Year (Southern Wyoming District) Award.  If either of those had happened, you might have chosen to describe yourself as exalted, or on cloud nine, or maybe blurted out that "You like really like me."  You might even have taken the opportunity to reflect a little on your own inadequacies.  But you would not have been humbled. 

Just sayin'. 

*Try googling "I am deeply..." and see what happens.  Also, people are always deeply humbled.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Tuesday Tool Getting to know the inner person edition

Today's most significant tool would have to be the colonoscope. 

'Nuff said. 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Culture comes to the hinterlands (updated wth video)

One of the things that I have really missed since moving from Sacramento to Roseburg is a lively classical music scene.  The Real Doctor and I were spoilt rotten by the concert programming at UC Davis—the yearly series by the Alexander Quartet, the recitals by Garrick Ohlsson and Joshua Bell and the like.  The scene here is considerably colder, as might be expected in a town of 20,000.  Roseburg’s nearest neighbor with artistic aspirations is Eugene, over an hour away, and beyond that, there isn’t much less than three hours away.  Roseburg gets a yearly visit from the Eugene Symphony, which is the best orchestra in the southern Wilamette Valley.  There is a Community Concert series, whose offerings tend to be jazz or pop-classical.  There is the Umpqua Symphony Association, which focuses mainly on local talent for its handful of concerts each year.  If we went to every concert that could be filed under “classical music” this last year, we’d have seen less than 10 events, of wildly variable quality.

Given that, here’s a big shout-out to the proprietors of MarshAnne Landing Winery, who have seen fit to invite some classical musicians to have recitals in their tasting room/gallery.  The space can hold thirty people or so, making it quite cozy; the “stage” is nook with a decent-but-not-fabulous upright piano and room for a string quartet or a single very expressive violinist.  The concerts are the personal effort of the winery’s proprietors, so programming is necessarily modest.  Joshua Bell won’t be playing there, and the two recitals we’ve seen may be all for the season, but they’ve been thoroughly appreciated.  I don’t feel like being the music critic here; my attitude is more gratitude than judgement.  So, I’ll go on about some externalities.  

One program featured the violinist Lindsay Deutsch, playing a very casual show of Gershwin, Piazzola, Vivaldi, Brahms, and De Falla (the pianist played one of the Debussy Images while the violinist took a break).  The concert reflected the cultural stereotype that when you go out into the sticks, you have to play pop or light classical stuff.  It was pretty clear that there were a few audience members who would not be satisfied with any violin show that did not involve some of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons—and “Winter” was duly served up, to audible sighs of contentment.  The Brahms concerto was presented, but with apologies about its length and (to prevent boredom, I guess) as isolated movements separated by shorter, snappier pieces.  It was nice to get the Piazzola; it’s a little off the beaten path, and I really enjoyed the De Falla “Suite Popular.”

The concert by Chamber Music Amici of Eugene was a bit more “Serious”; a Mozart violin sonata, a cello sonata by the 20th-century Portuguese composer Luis Costa, and a string quintet by Bruch that, while written in 1918, had only been published around 1980.  It was so nice to hear unfamiliar stuff presented straight up; the cello sonata was convincingly delivered and the Bruch made me go home and buy a recording.  The performances were good; the Amici have day jobs, and though most are connected with music, the violinist for the Mozart is a practicing physician. 

A couple of the instruments being played were of interest to the Real Doctor and me.  We are both a bit geeky about violins, and sometimes my attention to the music can be diverted by attention to the violin it’s played on.  In this case, the instruments were both inspired by Guarneri “del Gesu”, but took the inspiration in different directions.  The first, from across the room, really had the look of a del Gesu, but as it was played, it just didn’t seem to have the same tonal oomph.  It (and the player) was clearly aspiring to tonal richness, but it just was not really there.  The second instrument looked del-Gesu-ish, maybe early 1730’s, but just didn’t seem visually to be abused enough for a violin of that age.  However, its sound was rich—not as rich as the best del Gesu’s, but much more satisfying than the first violin.   

There are different schools of thought about what makes the difference between a good and a great violin.  Being who I am, I tend to think in graphs.  Here’s what some people like, which happens to be the first violin:
On any note, at any volume, the violin can only produce a limited number of interesting tones; however, it’s extremely uniform across the entire spectrum.  There’s also this:
Combine that with the fact that it tends to sound good under the ear of the person playing it, and you have what some people—including big names such as Hahn and Tetzlaff—find satisfying. It should also be noted that the brown line for your average student violin rarely gets as high as the brown line above. 

Here’s a rather different sort of violin, which happens to be the second violin, and also is more like the violins of Stradivari and del Gesu.
Few or no notes are wanting in tonal richness, and some regions are positively oozing with the stuff.  But,
It takes a lot of work to pull that stuff out of the violin.  It’s harder to play, and effectively use the entire endowment of the fiddle—but if the player has the skill and patience to exploit it, the results are amazing. 

The violin is a tool, a physical entity.  So what makes this difference?  The musicians giving these concerts were generous enough to let us take a closer look at their instruments and tell us about them. 

The first violin was a Vuillaume, made in the mid-1800’s.  Vuillaume enjoyed a reputation for making the finest copies of the finest violins, so it’s not too surprising that the fiddle visually announced itself as “del Gesu” from across the room.  However, close-up, a couple of details emerged.  One was that the arching was very low—if you looked at the fiddle side-on, it was several millimeters skinnier than a classic Cremonese instrument, which bulges out 15 or more mm front and back.  Another structural detail that affects sound was the absence of recurve as the arch blends into the side of the violin; if you were an ant, marching from the bridge to one of the sides, your trip would be downhill all the way, rather than pitching up for the last few paces.  These structural details—and lack of tonal richness--are pretty characteristic of Vuillaume.  Now, these are not horrible fiddles; I wouldn’t reject one as a gift, and one recently sold at auction for over $200,000.  They are just not my thing.

The second violin of note was an American instrument made by Carl Holzapfel in Philadelphia in the 1920’s, who was (it turns out) the great-grandfather of the violinist.  It had nice arching and nice recurve.  As I mentioned, it also had terrific sound; according to the violinist, it won a slew of awards and was the pride and joy of its luthier.  Holzapfel has some limited recognition as a good maker, and despite the obvious quality of the instrument, it will never sell for a tenth of what the Vuillaume will bring.  Go figure.

This raises a couple of questions.  The obvious one is why does sound mean so little in the sale price of a musical instrument—but the answer there is probably like the answer to why a 500-square foot apartment in downtown New York costs as much as our farm.  Another question, to which I don’t have a good start of an answer, is why Vuillaume made the copies he made in the way that he made them.  Was he aware of arching, and discounted it as meaningless?  Did it just not register in his eye?  I just don’t know.  To emphasize the point, I’ll close with photos of a different Vuillaume and a real Cremonese violin (alas, I can’t remember its identity; I think it’s a Petro Guarneri; the photos were taken during the 2012 Claremona workshop).  
And here, courtesy of Michael Darnton, is a video of a Brothers Amati violin that really illustrates the classic shape I'm talking about: Go watch this!

Thursday, November 29, 2012


Found this scrap of newspaper in a forgotten nook of the house. 

It's interesting that there was a spot--a sort of bench-cupboard next to the fireplace, probably intended for firewood--undisturbed for such a long time.  There were a few other items in there, some of which will appear here, some of which have been returned to their original owner (who grew up here, and is now an elderly lady living in town).  Also interesting to note the evolution (or lack there of) in the funnies.  I know I've seen the gag in Gasoline Alley before, and the ones in Smokey Stover and Winnie Winkle seem familiar (the gag-per-frame thing in Smokey Stover is interesting).  The plot in Smilin' Jack seems a bit outre, but probably isn't to the devoted reader of Apartment 3-G.  I suppose I should also lament how the funnies have been shrunk and made less colorful; sic transit gloria sunday.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

An update on the aliens...

There was an unfortunate incident with our chicken Sixteen of Sixteen* this morning.  She has been feeling a bit more perky of late, although she still looks horrible--a few of her tail feathers are growing back, but a patch of her skull the size of a nickel is visible and her neck skin is healing in grotesque lumps.  Nonetheless, she charged out the door of her box when I opened it to change her scratch and water, and clearly did not want to go back in.   I deferred worrying about it: the other fifteen birds had already dispersed throughout the yard and were busy gathering the morning's bugs, and Sixteen of Sixteen, though she didn't want to be caught, also didn't want to leave the coop.  I went and saw to the next stations on the feed list, the goats in the garden and then the goats in the play castle.  The fifteen other chooks seemed to be very happy scratching around the sheep pens, well away from the chicken coop, their alien minds more on worms than murder.  

When I was feeding the goats in the castle, I heard the alarmed calls of an abused chicken.  I dropped what I was doing and saw that a dozen chickens had converged on Sixteen of Sixteen and were chasing her around.  She would occasionally stumble, and couple of birds would jump on top of her.  Her screams grew more intense, and when I finally reached her, she was trapped in a corner of a fence, screaming and being vigorously pecked by the bird who was standing on top of her.  It was Fifteen of Sixteen.

I was able to remove Fifteen of Sixteen (who, curiously, seemed to be in a mental state similar to that of a hen sitting on eggs; normally, she's a bit flighty, but allowed me to pick her up and had the same mental vacancy of a setter) and throw her as far away as I could.   Sixteen of Sixteen was a bit shocky, so didn't offer any resistance to being picked up.  Her neck, which was scarring up, was once again raw and bleeding.  She's back in protective custody. 

Alien minds.  Maybe, when they were all chicks, they did a dramatic reenactment of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery", and it just got out of hand.

*Like Seven of Nine, though I never followed this show.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Tuesday Tool Standard Time Edition

Today's object that makes life better is

the Light & Motion Urban 300 LED bicycle headlight.  It gets dark dark here about 5:00; the sun goes down, and it's usually quite cloudy, so even if there's a full moon it's dark.  If you wanna go for a ride after all the contractors have gone and left you alone, you need lights.  This one (and its big brother the Urban 500) is excellent. 

(I just gotta say, I've been riding with lights for fifteen or more years, and I'm just amazed at how much better, brighter, longer-lasting, and cheaper they've gotten.  When I started, it was with a home-made rig using 6V batteries for model airplanes and a halogen lamp bulb jury-rigged into a flashlight reflector, and that was as good as you got unless you shelled out hundreds of dollars for a Night Sun outfit (which wasn't that much better).  Since then, the Real Doctor and I have gone through four generations of outfits, and they've gotten so much better.  This little self-contained unit that charges with a micro-USB is an order of magnitude better than its predecessor in our collection.  I suppose there is a lighting equivalent of Moore's Law.  I wonder what I'll be riding with five years from now.)

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Aliens in my backyard

One of my favorite authors, Stanislaw Lem, has as a recurring theme the utter impossibility of really understanding and communicating with aliens if we ever meet them.  I agree with his assessment, based on personal experience.  I didn’t need to travel to Solaris or Quinta meet an alien mind.  They roam our property in the bodies of sheep and goats and chickens, and though I’ve become somewhat familiar with their patterns of behavior, I can’t say I truly understand them.

The most alien are the chickens.  This sort of makes sense, given the evolutionary distance between humans and avians.  I appreciate their eggs, I appreciate the pests they consume, I appreciate the fertilizing effects (if not the aroma) of their poop, but I just do not get the chicken mind.

Chickens are social creatures, and the bedrock of their society is ruthless hierarchy.  If there are sixteen chickens (as we have here), there will be one chicken that fifteen chickens have free license to abuse.  It’s pretty easy to identify this bird, and the ones that can be freely picked on by twelve, thirteen, or fourteen other chickens.  They are the ones with ratty, reduced, or completely destroyed tails and pecked patches on their necks.  

We have one bird, number sixteen of sixteen on the order, and her rank had been apparent for some time.  However, a week ago the alien minds of the chickens went a little bit too far; when I came by in the evening to shut the birds up, I found this poor Lakenvelder cowering in a nest box, the walls smeared with blood.  The chicken was staggering, grievously wounded. She had no tail feathers, revealing the mangled, bloody nub of its tail.  Her skin from the top of her head to her upper neck had been completely flayed off, leaving a portion of her skull exposed, and she was still bleeding heavily.  I quickly got a small dog crate to put her in, and she gave an unnervingly un-chickenlike scream as I picked her up.  Amazingly, she is healing, and has a good appetite, but she still looks like hell. 

Here is where my understanding fails.  This is within normal for chickens.  It doesn’t matter if the flock is stressed or not, crowded or not, fed or not, all one breed or not.  It’s part of the chicken psyche, an occasional outcome of the pecking order. There are all sorts of things that have been tried to mitigate a problem that can reduce flock yield by 15%, ranging from beak trimming to contact lenses to a kind of hot sauce that you can put on a bird's back to make it distasteful to its “superiors.”  But the trait can’t be eliminated.  I know this is not totally alien to the human mind—ask any dalit--but it’s alien to me, and I’m happy to say that I can’t relate to it. 

Our birds have started laying eggs, and this brings up another annoying facet of the chicken mind.  Not only are they prone to cannibalism, but they will also eat one another’s eggs.  I’m not sure that our birds do this, but I did find one egg that had been broken.  I can’t tell if it was pecked at or merely trod upon, but it has me worried.  The lore among chicken growers is that once they develop a taste for egg, they can never be cured*. 

I suppose this isn’t totally out of the range of human experience, but at least infanticide (and infantophagy) within a group is pretty universally frowned upon.  The practices are found in some mammals, but the motivation is probably different (e.g. males of harem species killing the offspring of their predecessors, presumably to free up mates to receive new genes).

That said, there are aspects of the chicken psyche that, while I find completely alien, I would kind of like to experience. 

Perhaps driven by egg-eaters, some of our hens have started to lay their eggs in our hay-storage area.  I was only alerted to this by a soft clucking noise coming from a narrow space between bales this morning.  Shining a light into the space, I saw a buff-colored chicken butt.  I left it alone and set to feeding the sheep, and when I returned there were two chicken butts crammed into the space.  A little later, there was the celebratory cackling that heralds the arrival of an egg into the world.  Only one bird was there, but she was still firmly planted there.  I was able to stick my hand under her, and lift her up and out of the stack of bales—and here she demonstrated the state of consciousness I’d like to experience:  she seemed to have achieved the Buddhist ideal of the empty mind.  Her body was still, she was not especially responsive to pretty dramatic stimuli (like getting bodily picked up and squeezed between two bales of hay), and she had a peaceful expression and made a contented purr. 

Maybe a lama can achieve this mental state, but it’s still alien to me.  Maybe it’s the yin to balance the violently hierarchical yang of the chicken mind.  But the serene, empty mind is my human mind’s projection onto the mental state of the sitting hen—what's really going on in there is alien, unknowable.  Given the evolutionary history of our barnyard chooks, it makes me wonder what consciousness would be like if dinosaurs evolved in that direction.

Deep thoughts about shallow minds?  This video is relevant.

*I heard one story of a chicken owner who discovered that her hens’ eggs were being eaten—she found broken shells and consumed yolks.  She didn’t want to get rid of her whole flock, but she couldn’t watch them all the time to tell who was the culprit.  One suspect after another was turned into soup, sometimes on flimsy evidence, but the eggs—produced in ever-diminishing numbers—continued to be eaten.  She was down to the last couple of birds when she discovered that the ovivore was her dog, who had figured out the latch to the coop.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Saga of the Waters...continued

Just over a week ago I wrote

There are still unresolved mysteries in the property’s water situation.  While digging in the yard, we broke a PVC pipe that started gushing water under pressure.  It’s pretty clear that it comes off the main water line; however, I followed it out some ways, and it just ends.  There’s also a spigot—dry, or at the least plugged—way out in the middle of the field, over a hundred meters from anything else.   Pipes from the original system—a gravity-pressured system fed by a tank on a tower in that back of the house—are still buried in the back yard.  But after a year, and gallons of bleach, and two cartridge filters and a UV filter, I’m pretty confident that we have pure, potable, non-stinky water and reasonable wastewater disposal.  

Unfortunately, I need to update this. 

We have a hint about the dry spigot in the middle of the field.  As I was walking to the house from the excavation for the barn, I saw this:
Les jeux d'eau de la ville d'Umpqua, part deux
Isn't that nice, thought I, a leak in a live line in the middle of nowhere.  Scooping away some mud revealed a capped pipe pointing from the general direction of the house to the general direction of the dry spigot.  The cap had rusted, and is about to give up.  I need to dig up the pipe (it's at least 20 meters from any live pipe I know about) and put a new cap on it.  

It gets worse, though.  I continue to find the effects of the torrential rains we received a couple of nights ago--Roseburg airport got 3.5 inches, another place near here got four inches.  Last night, I noticed that our house water was turning a little turbid, and smelled a little like dirt.  I checked what the well was producing and found this:
Clearly a problem
We called our local well guy and gal, and got the info that older wells (like ours) can be contaminated by ground water after heavy rains.  The cement casing surrounding the well pipe can crack as it ages, so we're guessing that has happened.  The fact that we're seeing it in the house means that it's such a heavy load that it's not even settling out in our reservoir.  It has probably overwhelmed our bag and cartridge filter, and the turbidity means that the UV filter won't be able to kill everything.  So, we're stuck with boiling everything and having a faint odor of soil.  "Like pioneer days!" said the well gal.  "It will be a couple of days.  [Well guy] is so busy, that storm washed every single river pump around here all the way to Reedsport."

The saga continues...

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving--go have some turkey, go for a walk, or do both. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Tuesday Tool Apres le Deluge edition

I'm afraid the tool of the day is a repeat.  It's the muck boot.  We had at least two inches of rain overnight, and I spent the day dealing with it.  The rain (combined with a few 40mph gusts of wind as a prelude) revealed some inadequacies in our current goat housing, and made the poor critters quite unhappy.  No frolicking--just staying in the dogloo and moping.

So, the day was spent cleaning out soaked bedding and winterizing.  If you're doing that, you want muck boots.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

One Year Later

It's been one year since we purchased our farm.  Here's a panorama from December of 2011
 And here's a panorama from today.
 By all means, click on them to blow them up. It is somewhat gratifying to see the difference this way; working here all the time, the changes tend to be incremental and less noticeable.  Left to right...there's a new truck, a necessary vehicle for the farm; most of the driving I do day-to-day is in this, hauling hay and building supplies.  You can see the house, the forest of dangerous trees having been removed.  The steel gateposts marking the entry to the field have been removed, and a new road put in.  In the far distance, you can see the reservoir shed, just to the left of the big pine tree that had its lower branches pruned out.  To the left of the big oak with the water tank beneath it, you can see the SHMU (SHeep Mobility Unit), where half of our sheep live.  There's a lot fewer brambles overall. Before you get to the center of the panorama, the old sheep barn that was getting swallowed by brambles has been removed.  Closing out the panorama, you can see the nice new four foot, no-climb and electric perimeter fence along our driveway.  

It's hard to see in the photos, but the population has changed.  There are a dozen or so chooks, six Nigerian Dwarf Goats, and sixteen Shetland sheep.  None of them are visible in today's shot, but one of the goats was trying to eat my pants as I was taking the pictures.  

There is a lot that can't be seen--almost all of the work on the house, for example.  And there's a lot that hasn't been touched, such as everything across the creek.  But, there is progress.  In today's panorama, you can see some earthmoving equipment involved with putting up a new barn.  One of the people there did a bit of work here about when the first picture was taken, and hadn't been back since.  He said he was amazed at how different the place looks. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Wednesday wordage

Q:  Which is the odd one out?
a) Bloop
b) Slow Down
c) Train
d) Mistpouffers
e) Julia

A: (Highlight for answer: They are all unexplained noises; Mistpouffers is the only one that is not an undersea phenomenon.  I absolutely love that there are replicated observations of inexplicable things.  I was reminded of this by the What If blog's mention of the Oh My God Particle.)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Tuesday Tool: the Saga of the waters

I don’t know the exact name of this one.  It’s a device required for the final stages of a complete plumbing system.  Since we have a nearly complete plumbing system, it’s appropriate.  But, to begin at the beginning…

We bought this property understanding that the water system needed some work. Water for the house came from a well, was pumped uphill over a hundred meters to a concrete reservoir, then was pumped another hundred meters to the house.  This basic set-up is not a problem, but its condition was troubling.

The well was grim.  Inside the dilapidated wellhouse, the well presented itself as a metal pipe, six inches in diameter, protruding a few inches from the muddy ground and leading to the bottomless depths.  A couple of cables went down into it, disappearing into the dark water to power an immersed pump, and a pipe came out, bringing water.  The electrical panel regulating the pump made a constant clicking noise.  There was no cover, so there were snails and a couple of dead frogs visible on the surface of the water.  Water samples showed coliform bacteria, not a good sign, but not surprising.  Wells generally have a pressure tank—a big steel tank with a balloon of compressed air inside to keep water pressure up—and this had one, though we found out later that the balloon was punctured and full of water.  Surrounding the well house, there were the remains of old piping and an ancient pressure tank.

The line from well to reservoir did not inspire a lot of confidence.  It was PVC pipe, in pretty good condition, but...  It didn’t go straight from the well to the reservoir; rather, it went straight south for a ways, then straight west, so it was much longer than it needed to be.  Normally this would be pretty hard to tell, since normally such pipes are buried to protect them from animals and a freezing environment.  However, this one was still in an open trench for most of its course.  The cable supplying power to the well house was laid in the same trench, except at the dogleg where the pipe turned 90°--apparently, there was not sufficient cable, so it spanned several meters of the hypotenuse, lying exposed on the ground rather than exposed in the trench. 

The reservoir was, if anything, worse.  It’s a giant concrete tank, the top of which is at ground level.  Water comes in the east end, and there is a pump which sends water out the west end.  There is an access port on the top that one can easily fit through.   As purchased, the entire thing was covered by an utterly dilapidated shed; perforated walls, a tin roof that was falling apart, and full of the nests of birds and wasps and hornets.   There was no cover for the access port other than a piece of cardboard that had caved in and gotten soaked.  This made falling in and drowning a hazard, as had been discovered by many frogs, mice, and a squirrel all in various states of waterlogged and anaerobic decay.  Add to this the observation that an owl had taken a liking to perching above the access port and horking up its fewments; perhaps it liked to listen to the plop they made in the cistern. 

The line from the reservoir to the house was not especially inspiring either; this is a chunk of that line from where it actually enters the house.   
The story of the house in one picture
Note the place where a leak in the very rusty pipe had been “repaired” with rags held on by a hose clamp. 

The plumbing inside the house caused a bit of head scratching for our plumber.  There appeared to be a second pressure tank in the basement—but it was just a tank, no pressure.  There was what appeared to be a pressure-boosting pump—but it didn’t do anything when it was turned on.  The line feeding the water heater ran from one end of the house to the other—and then back to the water heater.  An earlier remodel of the house left a lot of abandoned pipe in place—with no covers for the cleanouts.  The hot water smelled of sulfides.  And so on…

The previous owner of the place assured us that the septic tank was in perfectly fine condition; it had been installed “oh, about 20 or 30 years ago” and pumped “not too long ago, should be fine for the two of you for a couple of years,” according to the seller.  The Real Doctor and I were a little skeptical. 

Needless to say, a lot of work has been done in the last year.  Here’s a big shout out to Gilbert Pump and Well Service and Plummer’s Plumbing, not to mention brother H and the Real Doctor.    

I still need to make a new house for the well, but the situation there is much better.  Much bleach went into the well after the corpses came out.  There’s a real cap for the well, so it’s closed up tight.  The clicking noise from the pump controller was a switch that was having its death spasms, causing the pump to constantly cycle on and off, so the pump controller has been replaced.  Needless to say, there’s a new pressure tank too. 

There’s a new water line that makes a straight shot from the well to the reservoir. It’s buried.  The new cable is now in a conduit, also buried. 

Shortly after we bought the place, I had to go to L.A. for a couple of weeks.  During that time, I got a phone call from the Real Doctor; she warned me that she had emptied the reservoir and was going to spend an hour inside it with a bottle of bleach and a stiff brush, and that if I didn’t hear back from her in an hour I should call 911.  Well, she survived, and I’m glad.  We also got a proper riser and lid for the reservoir, and a better pump, and both a cartridge and a UV filter to sterilize everything that comes out of the reservoir.  I also built a new house for the reservoir.  It was my first go at construction, and I am definitely not proud of it at all, but it’s so much better than what was there. 

We’ve replaced bits of the line from the reservoir to the house.  There was the incident when we returned from Claremona to find a bit of our field turned into a marsh by a pipe rupture; uncovering the break gave us this nice image, showing the completed reservoir house to boot. 

Les jeux d'eau a la ville d'Umpqua
Also, the final 20 meters of line were replaced with PEX for better freezing resistance. 

The interior plumbing has all been updated to PEX or PVC, except for a little bit of cast iron.   The pressure pump was discarded.  Another cartridge filter was added.  Simplifying the plumbing system turned up hidden horrors: Brother H. courageously drained the hot water heater, which had a layer of chunky precipitate in the bottom that must have been inches thick, in addition to a large quantity of mysterious gelatinous goo.  The sacrificial anode in the water heater was completely covered in a centimeter-thick layer of scale, leading to its replacement—so now, instead of reducing sulfates in our water to make stinky sulfide, we are reducing magnesium, a big improvement.  That big, mysterious water tank got drained and taken to the dump; when we took it out of the basement, it barfed up a layer of the foulest sludge I’ve ever seen:
Be glad it's not in smell-o-vision
The nephews had great fun rolling it over to the scrap heap.  With every rotation, it would poop out more sludge, making it look like the trail of a cow with diarrhea and hiccups:
Be glad that you don't get the sound effect
Which leads naturally to a discussion of the septic system.

The septic tank is a thousand-gallon concrete crypt, buried a half-foot under the surface of our back yard.  According to the county records, it was installed in 1983.  There’s a pipe leading out of the house, coupled to the tank by a rubber sleeve.  Another pipe connected by a rubber sleeve leads around the side of the house to the drain field in front of our driveway. 

Soil is a fluid, and stuff floats in it, getting driven up and down by buoyancy and traffic.  Sewage pipes, it turns out, tend to be less buoyant that septic tanks.  While the pipe from the house and the septic inlet started at the same level thirty years ago, over time the pipe sank about three inches, distorting the rubber sleeve into an elongated “S” shape.  The pipe is four inches in diameter, so we fixed this just in time.  We were not so lucky with the outlet pipe—when Brother M, and Brother H and his family were all visiting, we discovered that the outlet pipe had sunk by about five inches.  I discovered this because I was in the yard when the Real Doctor was taking a shower, and noticed stinky water oozing up out of the ground.  It took an emergency visit from the honey wagon and some concrete under the outlet pipe to put things right, and we were extraordinarily lucky that (thanks to the construction of the addition) we had a porta-potty on the premises.  Stay tuned, though--there are hints that our septic system may need to be altered to meet code.   

There are still unresolved mysteries in the property’s water situation.  While digging in the yard, we broke a PVC pipe that started gushing water under pressure.  It’s pretty clear that it comes off the main water line; however, I followed it out some ways, and it just ends.  There’s also a spigot—dry, or at the least plugged—way out in the middle of the field, over a hundred meters from anything else.   Pipes from the original system—a gravity-pressured system fed by a tank on a tower in that back of the house—are still buried in the back yard.  But after a year, and gallons of bleach, and two cartridge filters and a UV filter, I’m pretty confident that we have pure, potable, non-stinky water and reasonable wastewater disposal.   

But what of the Tuesday Tool?  It is not, despite its appearances, a scale model of a coliform bacterium so the plumber knows what to look for during inspection.  We are getting some plumbing installed in the addition—a toilet, a sink, and a second shower, with a new standpipe.  When you get your plumbing inspected by the county, you need to pressure test it.  So, you take the covers off of the cleanouts, put these things in, and inflate them with a bicycle pump.  This keeps the water from going into the septic system.  You then go up onto the roof of the house with a hose, and start filling the entire of system of pipes by way of the standpipe.  If there are any leaks—a bad glue job on the PVC, or a crack in the pipe—water will come gushing out of them.  Sure enough, this test revealed a cracked bit of PVC in the new piping, which was easy to replace.  Once that was done, the inspector was satisfied, and we could proceed with confidence that our plumbing was good. 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Anthropic influences in the iron cycle

It's been a busy week here at the farm.  We have borrowed our general contractor's heavy trailer, and we've been making use of it and the strength of a co-worker's son to clear out some of the scrap iron that we purchased when we purchased the property.

We acquired a lot of garbage with our 24 acres.  We have a 3-yard dumpster which we've been filling pretty regularly.  When we had a visit from the local Les Schwab tire franchise to repair a flat tractor tire, we paid them a few hundred dollars to take away over a dozen used tires ranging in size from compact car to truck to tractor.  And then, there were the mountains of scrap metal.

Re-wiring and re-plumbing the house gave us a lot of copper--the old knob-and-tube wiring used 14 ga. copper, much heavier than the current standard, and there was a whole house's worth of the stuff.  There was also yards and yards of copper tubing from the old fuel oil system, a lot of copper sheet from I-don't-know-what, and lots of other copper junk.  Copper gets top dollar for metal recycling.

But, as Stalin remarked, quantity has a quality all its own.  Scrap iron--even "dirty iron" or "scrap/tin," the difficult mix of iron and copper and plastic and rubber and fiberglass represented by a used water heater or a bale of rusty fence wire--will only get you $130 a ton at the recycling places in town.  However, in cleaning up our fields and barns and fences and grounds, we accumulated two giant piles.  According to the receipts from the scrap yards, over the last week we have hauled away nearly five tons of

tin roofing
washing machines
water heaters
bits of a Model T truck
barbed wire
no-climb fencing
bent T-posts
oil drums
rusted-out troughs
dairy stanchions
tire chains
animal traps
water tanks
bridge supports
rusted-out culverts
mangled gates
bed frames
lumber dryer pipe

I still have to cut up the frame of the Model T truck so it will fit in the trailer (that's what the quail in the photo is perching on), but we have taken care of most of it.  The enormous piles of scrap--we've been accumulating them for so long that I've been using them as landmarks--are gone.  There is still about a ton of scrap in the creek below our house, but that will have to wait until next dry season; it is out of sight and for now out of mind.  Right now, I will enjoy the clearer view, and the fact that our property weighs a bit less.


This iron-rich scenario is true for many farms--it seems you can't pass a farm without seeing a dead combine or tractor or other rusting hulk.  And of course, being a microbiologist concerned with element cycles and a tree-hugger, it leads me to wonder.  Going in to the last century, most of the world's economically viable iron was still in the ground, concentrated in well defined deposits.  One of the unintentional goals of the last century was to take that concentrated, easily accessible iron and disperse it evenly across the face of the earth.  Getting iron out of the ground is unlikely to get any cheaper.  As it is, the economics of iron are such that people will pay me over a hundred dollars a ton for grotty iron.  They will then spend more money to separate it, put it on a boat, ship it across the Pacific to China, melt, and re-form it into agricultural implements or whatever.  Scrap iron prices fluctuate, but the trend is that they go up.

So, I wonder what it will be like five hundred years from now.  I assume iron will still be useful and valuable.  Where will it come from?  Will the iron cycle have closed on itself, as far as humans are concerned?  Will we still get iron from the ground?  Would the discovery of 4,000 kilos of iron in various oxidation states near a creek in Oregon be an economically significant event, or would it not even be worth fifty quatloos?  I just don't know enough about the geology on this, but it's something I wonder about when I see a fifty year old tractor rusting away in the corner of a field. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Tuesday Tool Civic Responsibility Edition

Oregon is an exclusively vote-by-mail state, so today's tool is the fountain pen.  It was actually used some time ago, but seems appropriate for today.

The Real Doctor and I went out for a walk this evening, and I wondered which of our neighbors our votes exactly cancelled out.  Probably any one of them; we live in an area that is deeply conservative, and it's no surprise to see road signs about the evils of Agenda 21 and how Obama is destroying America with communism.  I do my darndest to keep discussion away from politics; the contractor working here today failed to do so, and unleashed a violently bitter diatribe about the evils of all politicians from a delivery man.  I think election day has everybody riled up. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

Friday Flora Green Shoots edition

It's officially the rainy season here; it was striking how quickly this came up after the very first rains:
It's rainy, but it's not yet wet.  Digging in the pasture, we found that the soil is moist less than a foot down, and Oak Creek isn't running yet.  It's nice to look out the window and see green.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Wednesday words

Q:  What do the following have in common?
a) the European badger
b) the gorilla
c) the yellow-headed blackbird
d) the villain of the 1968 sci-fi classic Barbarella

A:  They are all tautonymic.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Strong arms, yes, but feet of clay [updated]

I have a favorite picture from the 2003 Tour de France.  It shows Lance Armstrong, Tyler Hamilton, Joseba Beloki, Ivan Basso, and a couple of other riders struggling through the last few hundred meters of the climb to L'Alpe d'Huez.   I took this picture, sharing a bit of the roadside with a few hundred thousand cycling fans from a babel of countries.  It was a hugely memorable scene.  At the time, I was a fan of pro cycling, with a subscription to VeloNews and up to date on who was on what team and how they were doing.  I was not the huge Lance Armstrong fan that others in our party were, but the reasons had more to do with attitude than anything else.  I wasn't a huge fan of any individuals, really--maybe Laurent Jalabert for his very French attaque a outrance attitude, or Johann Museeuw for is lowland toughness.  What I really cared about was the racing.  As I sweated through a ride over the Col de Colombiere or Old La Honda, I could imagine being one of those guys.  I can't deny that I was pretty excited to see those guys in person.

I was also pretty aware that there was a lot of ethical questions churning up the hill along with those riders. This was years after the Festina Affair, and every year more riders got caught doping.  I remember being kind of upset that Virenque was there, spoiling my view of the other riders--wearing yellow no less!--and wondering how many of the others with him were similarly tainted.

Well, we now know that the answer is pretty much all of them.  They all had a variety of public images: the loyal domestique, the hard man, the hyper-focused time trialer, the playboy with lots of talent but no focus, the redeemed doper, the frustrated always-a-bridesmaid, and so on (and if you followed the sport then, you could probably identify each of those characters with a name).  But now, alas, they all share the same public image, Doper.

I stopped following cycle racing within a few years of this photo.  The stink of dope got too strong,
and I also realized that riding a bike was a better use of my scarce time than watching others ride. 

I can't say that I am mad at any of the individuals in that photo, or any of the other riders on the mountain.  As I mentioned, I didn't have much personal investment in any of them, and dope or no, they were all stupendously gifted and dedicated athletes.  However, I am mad at the sport.  It's not in the least an exaggeration to charge the sport with the murder of some of its best and brightest--some who got caught and fell into a suicidal vortex of drugs and shame (Il Pirata, VdB), and others who didn't get caught but whose hearts stopped when EPO thickened their blood into ketchup.  I wonder if everybody came clean back in 1999, would these guys still be alive?  Would I still give a rip about who won Milan-San Remo?

Never mind.  The fall of Armstrong won't bring those guys back to life, and I doubt I'll return to caring about pro racing.  I'm told it has cleaned itself up, but I've heard that before.

There is one thing that the sport of pro cycling hasn't taken from me with this photo.  The Real Doctor and I rode our bikes up to where this photo was taken.  Riding a bike--even up a grueling climb like L'Alpe, and especially up L'Alpe while being mobbed by epically drunk Dutchmen--will always be fun.

[update, 22 October 12--I read that the organizers of Le Tour have stripped Armstrong of his titles, and rather than bump everybody up a place--since the peleton was doped da capo al fine--there will be no winner of Le Tour from 1999 to 2005.  This is completely appropriate.]

Friday, October 19, 2012

Friday Flora Fall Edition

This is the view out the kitchen window yesterday; the creek that runs through this forest is all dry except for a few deep puddles, all the poison oak is turning beautiful colors and the rest of the foliage is turning or falling.  Today's view was different.  The rain started in the afternoon, the second storm system of the season.  We live in a Mediterranean climate, and the season that is not summer has started.

Thursday, October 18, 2012





A narrow fellow in the grass laundry room...