Some Excitement in the ’Hood

I was just finishing up with my post-workout ice regimen when a helicopter buzzed the house. It sounded much meatier than the usual news chopper or police bird. And lower. The windows rattled and the walls reverberated, then the sound faded.

Only to return a couple of minutes later. On the third pass I went outside to see what was going on. That’s when I saw the smoke. There is a hill directly behind our neighborhood, and it was on fire.

The view from our house.

The view from our house.


Over the throb of the helicopter, I could hear the fire itself, crackling as it romped through the dry grass on the side of the hill. No sirens, however, despite the proximity of the fire to my neighborhood. The brush is pretty low, and there are railroad tracks along the back of the property, so the chance of the flames reaching structures on our side was pretty low.

So rather than prepare the two hard drives that serve as backups to all our systems, I grabbed the camera and walked down to the fence at the back of the neighborhood.

Happily for the helicopter driver, and for spectators on the sidelines as well, there is a little pond right next to the site of the fire. I got some good pics, but the helicopter descended completely out of view during fill-up.

The helicopter rises from loading at the pond, shrouded by smoke.

The helicopter rises from loading at the pond, shrouded by smoke.

The helicopter getting a load of water, with a lucky accident as the camera focussed on the fence.

The helicopter getting a load of water, with a lucky accident as the camera focussed on the fence.


The above pictures I got while standing on a neighbor’s boat, in exchange for a promise to share my pictures with him. Then he told me a house number that doesn’t exist. Huh. Anyway, thanks, Steve!

This one’s my favorite, I think:

The chopper drops a load of water directly upslope from firefighters.

The chopper drops a load of water directly upslope from firefighters.


The Helicopter would sound a siren just before releasing the water, to warn crews below. In this case, the water almost directly onto the ground crew.
The fire helicopter passes directly overhead after releasing a load.

The fire helicopter passes directly overhead after releasing a load.

At one point the fire flared up right next to the tracks, and the helicopter diverted and dropped a couple of bucket loads right in front of us. I have video, but I’m still working on getting it in the right orientation.

An exciting day! I hope none of the firefighters were hurt, but hats off to guys who will put on heavy clothing and go tromping up and down a grassy slope that’s on fire. Thanks, guys!

America’s Oldest City

There’s a town in New England called Jamestown or Jonestown or something like that. It has signs proclaiming it to be America’s first town. But it’s not even close to that. Not even remotely close.

Let’s start with America’s actual oldest town, and work back from there. It’s hard to say for sure, but the Acoma Pueblo is probably the oldest burg in the US where people still live. It launched around the year 1000, give or take. That’s a bunch of years before any European mofo visited our shores. These days, Acoma is a kind-of-crappy little town on I-40, but that crappy little town is the oldest still-occuipied settlement in North America. Truly, America’s oldest city. A little reverence is due when you drive through.

The Taos pueblo has been continuously occupied since long before Europeans tripped over the continent on the way to India. This isn’t a matter of who was here first; there is a condo complex in North America dating to the time of William the Conqueror. It’s still occupied, largely unchanged. It’s still condo, but the covenants are a bitch.

So, OK, the claim by Jamestown that they’re the oldest burgh on the continent is clearly delusional. But what do we care about those crazy aboriginals? What really matters is when Europeans built themselves a town.

Only, the Spanish were building towns in North America for a full century before the English set timid toe to shore in North America. Santa Fe was a going concern by the time the Pilgrims staggered ashore.

That leaves Jamestown as the oldest settlement in North America founded by people who speak English. Which, you know, is really the seminal moment in world exploration. I’d be proud if I lived there. Really.

Lost Opportunity

A while back I drove through a wind farm to visit a particularly smart friend of mine. I noted on the way that many of the turbines were still, and brought it up with Enrico Fermi (that’s not his actual name).

“Big problem with wind,” Enrico said, “is that it doesn’t blow when you really need it.”

I accepted it at the time, but today I say ‘fie’. Fie! Spin those turbines. If the power’s not needed immediately, it can be stored. Use the power to pump water back up to the reservoir behind a dam. That’s quality energy storage.

There’s a reservoir south of where I live, large and flat with a modest power-generation station at the end. It’s always windy there. If there were windmills local, set to pump water back up into the reservoir, then that modest power station would be able to put out a little more. It wouldn’t matter if the wind blew when no one cared, the power would be stored for later.

The reservoirs behind dams are our nation’s batteries, and they’re rechargeable. Mostly we rely on the sun to move water back upstream, but that doesn’t mean we can’t push the process a little bit.

Getting the Numbers Right

Apple found itself on Greenpeace’s dirty list last year, receiving harsh criticism from the environmental group for its North Carolina data center. Based on Greenpeace’s estimates of the energy consumed at the facility, Apple was responsible for a lot of coal being burned. That’s not good.

While I’m really glad there are organizations like Greenpeace holding corporations to a higher standard than does our government, and I understand that Apple is a prime target for all sorts of activists because using their name generates a lot of press (Foxconn also makes Samsung toys), I really wish the activists would be a little more careful. It’s their own credibility at stake as well as Apple’s.

NOTE: I am completely aware that I come across as a shill for Apple in the following paragraphs. I went back over the text with the conscious resolve to temper the narrative, to be more balanced. The thing is, there is no balance. Greenpeace was stupid, and nobody won.

Take the data center in question. Both Greenpeace and Apple agree that Apple has built the largest solar farm in the US and the largest fuel cell generation plant in the US to provide power to the facility. Apple says those provide 60% of the power needed to run the place, and they are expanding the solar farm with the goal of reaching 100%*.

Greenpeace says the power those the solar and fuel cell plants generate is just a drop in the bucket, and the rest of the power must come from coal. Yikes. Apple says the facility will use 20MW when fully up and running, and they’ve got that covered. Greenpeace says it will use five times that much, and Apple certainly does not have it covered. That’s a big discrepancy. How do the two organizations end up so far apart?

Outsiders have used various methods to guess how much computing power is in the sprawling facility. The footprint of the building is very large; if it were filled with servers from wall to wall, power consumption would likely be much higher than what Apple claims. The thing is, the building is not filled to bursting with raw computing power, if public documents are to be believed. In fact, only about a third of the square footage is devoted to humming hardware; the rest of the building is devoted to ‘other stuff’.

So where did Greenpeace get their power estimate? According to an article I can’t find the link to anymore, the reasoning goes something like this: “Apple says they are spending a billion dollars on the facility. A typical billion-dollar data center would burn 100 MW of power, based on the performance of similar data centers. Even if Apple gold-plates the whole building, they’re not going to spend five times more for a 20MW facility than their competitors.”

OK, I can follow that logic, but you have to be careful that you don’t follow it off a cliff.

Here’s the thing: that billion dollars includes the cost of the largest solar farm and the largest fuel-cell generation facility in the United States. Greenpeace is including the cost of providing clean(er) energy to inflate their estimates of how much dirty energy the facility is consuming. If Apple simply used coal-fired electricity in their plant, they’d look better in the face of Greenpeace math.

Put another way, yes, Apple will pay five times as much for a data center as others will, if it means they don’t have to pay so much for power in the future. Apple is building a data center that is much less vulnerable to future energy cost spikes, which is a smart thing to do when you have the cash on hand now to control costs down the road.

Apple knows that electricity is its lifeblood, and there is a major initiative to make the company energy-independent. That’s just smart. They are also focussing on renewable sources for that power, which increases the up-front costs significantly, and won’t pay off for decades. From hearing the speeches, I honestly believe that doing what’s right is important among the execs at Apple. Note to investors: Apple is also becoming very good in the clean energy business. Ahead of the curve as an energy provider. I wonder, idly, if some of those dollars spent in North Carolina are to establish a beachhead in the coming energy war.

As for Greenpeace, they’ve said they’re happy about Apple’s commitment to clean(er) power, and they hope the tech giant keeps improving. We can all agree on that.

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* Time flies. Since I wrote my draft, I’ve seen a letter from a Big Shot at Apple saying the facility is now 100% renewable – though that’s a slippery term, and corporate big shots aren’t generally noted for honesty. They don’t lie so much as spin. But still.

Something My Science Textbook Lied About

It was fifth grade. Science period. There were two teachers responsible for the entire herd of fifth-graders, so they were not specialized in any particular field. Just give the kids a general idea of all the subjects, and the specialists will fill their heads later. Our teacher relied heavily on the veracity of the textbooks we were provided.

I remember this day well. I was sitting over on the right side of the classroom. The goal of the exercise was to understand the Scientific Method. I capitalized Scientific Method in the previous sentence because understanding it is really friggin’ important. It’s how we got here, for better or for worse.

The textbook chose Bernoulli’s Principle (these days, the press would doggedly refer to it as Bernoulli’s Theory, and imply that it might not be true even as planes passed overhead) as the Nugget of Knowledge that we, as young scientists, would ferret out through a process of forming a theory and putting it to the test experimentally or through observations of the world, then revising or scrapping the theory if the test did not yield the expected results. (The revising and scrapping parts were not included in this exercise, which is too bad, because it’s the fundamental strength of science.)

For me, as the evidence was exposed in the pages of the text, it was a puzzle to solve. A race with my fellow students to get the answer. Halfway through the lesson my hand shot up, and when recognized I gave the “right answer”. I recapitulated Bernoulli. I was a little disappointed by the teacher’s reaction. I had the right answer, but the important thing was how we got to the right answer. That’s what the scientific method is all about.

But even before the glow of my triumph was diminished by the cool reaction of the teacher, I was bothered. My gut told me that one of the key pieces of evidence cited by the textbook was, in fact, bogus. But it was a SCIENCE BOOK. It was right. It had to be.

The false evidence: You know how when you’re in the shower the dang shower curtain will assault you, pushing into the tub and wrapping around your leg? That was presented in this little science exercise as evidence of Bernoulli’s Principle. Even in fifth grade, even as I read that supposed clue to bring me to a conclusion I had long since surmised, it wasn’t working for me.

For years hence I thought of mechanisms where the rushing shower water got the air moving around it, lowering the pressure on this side of the curtain. But that would have required noticeable wind.

Yet, I continued to believe that shower curtains assaulted one because of Bernoulli’s Principle. The science book said so. I tried to make the water-coupling-with-air theory work. As I showered I tried to measure air flow. I held my hand next to the curtain on many occasions, forming explanations for why I couldn’t feel the wind. If I couldn’t come up with the explanation, that was my failure, not the theory’s. Um, principle’s.

The fact is, shower curtain assault has nothing to do with Bernoulli’s Principle. It’s convection. Finally I had to accept that my Science Book had been just plain wrong. It took many years to get there.

So here’s the true lesson about Scientific Method afforded me that day, one that took me years and years to learn: Don’t invent complicated explanations for why the other guy is right, when there’s a better answer in front of your face. Then prove the better answer. Proving the better answer is a step that a lot of our ‘science rebels’ miss. The actual science part. They deserve every bit as much disbelief as the mainstream guys do.

Reading some Grimm

Most mornings, I spend my first waking half-hour slogging on an exercise machine. For the first two-thirds of the workout I’m able to read, as long as the story does not require intense concentration. I’m also a cheap bastard, so I gravitate toward e-publications that are free.

Lately as I’ve slaved over the machine, I’ve been reading stories translated from the original texts of the Brothers Grimm. Honestly, they’re not that compelling. They’re like pop songs; each story has a hook and some are more successful than others. If there’s one thing the stories do well, it’s repetition. Escalating cycles. Humility and standing up to your word are paramount.

As I was pumping the exercise machine the other day, appreciating the closure of a particularly contrived parable, I asked myself, “Is this how short stories worked back then?”

In fact, that is how short stories worked back then. The whole idea of ‘short story’ as we think of it today had not been defined. And while we credit Poe and Doyle with inventing the short story, we have to give a respectful nod to Wilhelm Grimm as a progenitor of the form.

I’m smiling as I picture poor Wilhelm in a modern writers’ workshop. “So,” the perceptive critic starts, “the cat has sleeves.” The critic raises exactly one eyebrow as she pins her gaze on the writer. Wilhelm smiles sheepishly. “When you have sleeves it changes you,” he says. He’s right, but the helpful critic never buys it. The problem isn’t really the sleeves, it’s the structure.

Willy Grimm wrote stories, and they are short, but they are by no approximation short stories as we understand the form today. Mostly they are shaggy dog stories. There’s a cadence to the stories, complete with rhymes, as folks who do the right thing are rewarded, as long as they don’t get uppity afterward. But lacking is the development of an idea. Short stories today are the retroviruses of ideas. Somehow what you read injects itself into who you are.

The ideas in Bros. Grimm’s tales are pretty simple, if you can call them ideas at all. “You shouldn’t be greedy because greed is bad, m-kay?”

There are some points of interest. Many of the stories as we know them have been pretty seriously watered down from the original. The princess and the frog? Not the story I was given as a kid. The bitch makes a promise to a frog just to get her ball back, with no intention whatsoever of honoring her word. Later the frog shows up on her doorstep and her dad the king forced her to live up to her word. She resists the frog and makes a liar of herself all the way, until he turns into a handsome prince of some sort. Then she’s all over him. If I’m the prince getting my body back after all those years, I’m saying, “seeya, gold digger, you lied and whined and now suddenly you’re my friend? Methinks not.” and finding my own happy pond. Probably a reflection of the times, but women in these stories are rewards. Do right, you get yourself a hot princess. Her opinion doesn’t matter much, because obviously to get to that position where you deserve the reward you are a virtuous prince, and she’s not going to argue with that.

OK, so modern ideas of sexual roles in society can’t be used to indict Msrs. Grimm. How were they to know that women were relevant unto themselves? But still, the stories come off as clumsy. Not really stories at all, but anecdotes which sometimes have a conclusion but just as often don’t. The characters go through a series of events and at the end, they are finished with those events, and life goes on.

Which makes these fantastic tales surprisingly realistic.

Fun With Lights

There’s a big ho-down comin’ at work, and my boss was asked to come up with a list of pending accomplishments for her team, accompanied by pictures. So, I needed a picture of me writing, to accompany the announcement that I will soon be finishing Munchies, my long-anticipated novel. Anticipated by me, anyway.

Now, all that was required was a simple picture of me at the computer. But in my head this portrait quickly grew to include dramatic lighting that somehow gave a Munchies-like feel to the picture. That meant color gels, splashes on the walls, and dramatic light on the face, preferably from the glow of the screen.

It was also fun being the talent for once, while my sweetie gave direction from behind the camera.

In the end three of the lighting setups were moderately successful; I have picked out representatives from each of those to show below. The pictures are unaltered except for some cropping; color and exposure are straight off the camera.

For all these setups there’s a tight-beam green-gelled strobe is directly behind my head. In the first two another strobe is splashing light against the wall behind me. I’m thinking it would have been cool to make it a strong primary color, just so see how it looked, but I didn’t do that.

The second and third pictures have only the computer’s LCD screen lighting my face. This required very long shutter times to capture enough light. (The light from the strobes is a fixed quantity no matter how long the shutter is open, so you use exposure time to adjust the mix between flash and ambient light.) Quite a few almost-awesome shots were lost because I wasn’t holding still enough.

Anyway, here are some samples from the shoot. As always, you can click to biggerize them. All the shots were taken with my 85mm lens at very wide apertures to keep exposure times from getting totally ridiculous.

Two strobes and overhead halogens

Two strobes and overhead halogens

Two strobes and screen light

Two strobes and screen light

One strobe and screen light

One strobe and screen light

Not appearing in this list are shots where the green light was behind to my left, where it shone on my face a bit. An interesting effect, but it didn’t really work out this time.

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