Archive for the 'Outdoors' Category


Header Mark II

You, a reader of my blog, are now enjoying new and improved(?) scenery at the top of the page courtesy of my recent trip to Acadia National Park. Pictured is what I believe to be minuartia groenlandica, or the mountain sandwort.  Translated further, it is a plant (wort) that lives in alpine to sub-alpine environments amongst granite ledges and the gravel that results from those ledges’ erosion.  Aptly named and described by its wiki, I think, since this is exactly the kind of place I found it. It is relatively rare in Maine because the state is on the southern end of the flower’s range and the environment that it likes isn’t found in too many places there.  The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry (more specifically the Bureau of Geology, Natural Areas, and Coastal Resources within the aforementioned Department1) says that it hasn’t had a documented observation of one of these since 2002.  This suggests to me that either they haven’t bothered looking, or 2002 is when the particular webpage I am looking at was written.  Maybe both of these things are the case.

Anyway, I found all this out by searching the Internet, which is fantastic. I know that statement kind of makes me sound elderly, but I think anyone with half a measure of curiosity should be able to take a step back and wonder at the combination of clever technologies that allows me to start with a digital picture, type “tiny white flower Pemetic Acadia National Park” into Google, find a picture of the same flower captioned “mountain sandwort” on the webpage, type “mountain sandwort Acadia” into Google to get to a pdf describing “Focus Areas of Statewide Ecological Significance: Acadia East and West”, which gives me the scientific name of the flower, etc, etc.  Real life is science fiction.  Sort of.  I suppose I won’t be truly mesmerized until I can snap a picture of something relatively obscure like this flower, have my camera wirelessly transmit that picture to a server on the internet, which will run a sophisticated image analysis algorithm on it to identify the flower, compile the sum total of human knowledge on that flower, attach a few other pictures of the same species and related species for reference, and zip all that back to me in, say, a quarter of a second.  You can actually do this with Google Goggles, but it works only a very small subset of the world so far.  Until they get their act together2, I will have to find other things to marvel at.  Shouldn’t be too difficult.

1 Bureaucracy, what bureaucracy?
2 I mean, come on, right? Clearly, they are just twiddling their thumbs down there in Silicon Valley.


The Value of Empty Space

If memory serves, my family was sitting around after dinner one evening back during the W. Bush years, and the subject of space exploration came up.  The context, I believe, was that the President’s Moon base and manned Mars mission proposal had been publicized not too long beforehand.  One of my aunts wanted to know what we thought of the proposal.  The ensuing discussion boiled down to the two positions that always seem to come up when human exploration of space is discussed by anyone: (1) manned space exploration is cool, is cheap relative to various other budget items, and usually invents a bunch of useful technology along the way, and (2) the manned space program is billions of dollars we could be spending to try and solve all our very real and immediate problems here on the homeworld.  I was backing position #1, but my memory is that I was a bit outnumbered and definitely out-articulated1.

Of course, it became clear the President’s proposal was largely meant to sound dramatic and ambitious rather than actually be dramatic and ambitious.  No wonder, given what else was going on in January 20042.  The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s budget did get a mild bump in inflation-adjusted dollars during the Bush presidency (about 15% over the course of eight years), but not near the kind of investment that would be needed for the task3.  President Barack Obama’s re-focus of the projects dropped the Moon base, but kept the manned Mars mission on the distant horizon (2030’s).  I was always a little ambivalent about the Moon base – sort of a we’ve-already-been-there thing – but the extended timeline of our next great manned mission, combined with the not-so-selective austerity measures taken by Congress, has allowed NASA’s budget to slowly shrink both in current and inflation-adjusted dollars.  I argued/am-arguing that this is a bad thing. As for why, and why we shouldn’t just pile NASA’s money into aid programs and the like, here are a couple of reasons.

One, NASA is cheap4.  About one half of one penny of every tax dollar to pay for the entire organization.  This amounts to about $18 billion out of the $3.5 trillion annual federal budget. 12% of the budget goes to “safety net” programs, not including Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare.  A weirdly unpopular 1% of our federal budget goes to non-security-related foreign aid.  So by a pretty conservative estimate, NASA gets $1 to every $26 spent on the betterment of our fellow (pre-dominantly American) humans.  If one slices and dices further, the ratio becomes even larger.  Large chunks of Social Security/Medicaid/Medicare are clearly meant to prevent poverty and human suffering.  If it is just the manned space exploration part of NASA’s mission that is the problem, then the ratio goes up again. I’m not discounting the value of spending money on aid programs, far from it, but perhaps there are better places in the federal budget to go looking for funds than NASA5.  As for how much to spend on NASA, 1% is a nice, admittedly arbitrary ballpark figure that Neil deGrasse Tyson recently mentioned to Congress.  A whole lot can get done for that kind of money.

Two, NASA is valuable.  Personally, I think the idea of sending humans flying through the passively hostile emptiness of space to visit (and perhaps stay in the future) other astronomical objects is of intrinsic value. Few things are as difficult a task or as inspiring an achievement.  In more practical terms, NASA projects and research have a tendency to spawn useful technologies.  The best tasting of these: freeze-dried (Space) ice cream6.  These projects also produce a wealth of fundamental science, which can be interpreted as science for science’s sake (enough justification for me) or perhaps a little more optimistically as knowledge about our universe that might change our world 20+ years from now.  Beyond these reasons, I see manned space flight as crucial to our survival as a species.  This is meant both directly (“Well, there’s an asteroid the diameter of Texas headed this way and no Bruce Willis to take care of it.  Guess we should’ve colonized Titan after all.  Oops.”) and indirectly (“Sorry Mr. President, but spending half a trillion dollars on the new F-885 fighter/bomber didn’t poll as well as spending that money on terra-forming Mars.  Fortunately the Chinese and the Russians had the same problem, so we should be ok.”7).

At a more basic level, and this gets back to the intrinsic value part of my point, it would be a terrible shame to ‘see’ all of these other worlds, all the myriad of strange and beautiful things that clever astronomers have enabled us to observe, and never go to any of them.  It’s akin to continually looking at a map, observing all the lovely towns, roads, rivers, mountains, oceans, and shorelines, then folding the map up, popping it back in the glove compartment, and turning the car toward home.


1 “But, but, uh, SPACE! It’s awesome.  And our descendants could be Jean-Luc-Picard-ish.”
2 We may have been fighting a couple of wars, and there may have been an election ‘coming up’ by USA standards.
3 There is an argument to be made that sufficient funding (in aggregate) was in NASA’s budget already, but this supposes a flexibility that NASA might have had but did not want to have.  The simple version is that, yeah sure, we might have been able to do the Moon base and manned Mars mission over a reasonable timeframe, but at the expense of cancelling or delaying pretty much everything else NASA had previously been tasked with doing.
4 Yes of course I mean this in relative terms.
5 For some insight into where the money goes, and thus where it might come from for NASA and and other worthy programs, check out the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
6 Sadly and contrary to popular belief, Tang and Velcro, among other items, were not invented by NASA scientists.  For various actual technologies, check out the NASA Spinoff website.  The 1977 edition has bonus sideburns and moustaches in the photos.
7 I can fantasize, right?



Greetings.  As you may have noticed, I have changed the header image for the blog from a big block o’ red to a photo snippet that I hope you enjoy as much as I do.  I took this one (the uncropped version) near Montana de Oro State Park near San Luis Obispo, CA.  The park name means “Mountain of Gold”, though it was named for the wildflowers in the spring/summer, not the metal.  The exact location of this gone-by dandelion was just south along the coast from the state park in some land owned by Pacific Gas and Electric.  There are trails and lovely bits of coastline, which you can wander along for the price of signing in at the little gate and avoiding the couple dozen cattle that graze there.

You might wonder why PG&E owns the land.  The answer seems to be that its part of the piece of land along the central coast of California that contains the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.  That consists of two ~1 gigawatt reactors, so it’s a big one.  Interesting tangential detail:  Google Maps will bring up its  “approximate” location for you and shows an outdated satellite image of the spot (“Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power”), but Bing Maps, i.e. Microsoft, simply says it can’t find any such place.  They probably also both send automated logs of my searches and IP address to the FBI.  Good times.

Anyway, nice place (San Luis Obispo, the state park, and the PG&E land).  Go visit if you’ve got the opportunity.


Tomatoes vs. Whiteflies

My wife, a friend, and I are sharing in the “gardening” of two tomato plants this summer.  Gardening goes in quotes here, because we are all apartment dwellers and thus the tomatoes reside in a large pots sitting on one of our friend’s balconies.  Weeds are not prevalent.  Sun is plentiful.  The soil came out of a bag.  Under these conditions, tomatoes grow like the (friendly) weeds that they are.  The quotation marks are particularly important for my share of the gardening, which involves picking up the watering can, filling it in the sink, and then dumping it over the two tomato plants.  Done.  Now to dust off my hands, wipe my brow, and crack open a tasty adult beverage.

This is not to suggest that apartment-based gardening is without effort or hazard.  Evil little creatures called (as one might expect after seeing them) whiteflies, probably silverwing whiteflies, attacked one of our two potted tomato plants last year.  And yes, of course I’m anthropomorphizing the insects who put a dent in my summer tomato eating schedule.  I refuse to excuse their little black hearts by ascribing their destructive behavior to their natural lifecycle.  Anyway, the one they did attack had a short, tortured existence after the infestation really got going.  See, whiteflies are like tiny (~1 mm) plant vampires, sucking the sap from the underside of the plant’s leaves until the leaves start becoming pale and withering away.  As you might expect, this has a dramatic effect on the plant and in this case, reduced the tomato output (the only metric that really matters) by >90%.  The vampire simile breaks down after that:  Whiteflies are not immortal and do not respond to silver, stakes through the heart, running water, sunlight, crucifixes, or garlic.  They also don’t respond to most insecticides and quickly build up a tolerance to the insecticide used on them, like bacteria vs. an overused antibiotic.  There are lots of suggestions on how to control these agents of evil, but in our case, laziness may have been the largest contributing factor to this year’s success – planting late in the summer often means that the whiteflies have already moved on to look for other breeding grounds…and we planted in early July.