Category Archives: Current Events

Fire and the Field of Dreams

Texas wildfires are hitting too close to a lot of homes and too close to the homes of many hearts.  Parks and schools have burned in addition to hundreds of houses.  Now there’s a fire east of my soaring club. One of our members lives in a house adjacent to the Field and he’s been doing aerial reconnaissance with his Piper Cub. Today he says the Field (our field of dreams with thirty gliders and sailplanes, two tow planes, a nice new clubhouse, and a lot of equipment) will be OK provided the winds don’t shift the wrong way.  Fire bomber airplanes have been hammering at the west edge of the fire. At present the Field is covered in smoke. May God forbid we should hear a Mayday to come to the Soaring Club of Houston and try to trailer out the sailplanes!

Drought Etiquette

In a searing and seemingly endless drought we have to cut each other and our fellow beings some slack. Early this week  a Library patron returned a book saying it had been in his closet, and a palmetto bug (large leggy outdoors roach) got into the closet (like many other creatures trying to find water and shade) and this bug ate the hand-inked title and call number on the old book’s spine!  The title and call number were completely gone but the  binding and glue intact.  No blame.  The book went to the Marking Table.  Mid-week there was a story in the Austin newspaper about a couple who live in Manor, Texas and own llamas, which are Andean creatures with thick coats.  The heat was getting to the llamas so now they get let into the house every afternoon to cool off.  The photographer got some adorable photos  of llamas in the house. Llamas have amazing ears. 

Now e-mail is going around my soaring club’s listserv about a neighbor’s cow that has  invaded our airport.  The cow was apparently attracted by the strip of  green grass that the club has tenderly watered with our well water to be there for takeoffs.  It is NOT pleasant for a glider being pulled behind the tow plane to be enveloped in a cloud of dust!  Anyway, the cow got in and has eluded capture so far. There was idle chat about inviting the cow to our Labor Day BBQ picnic – as the entree.  But actually we’ll return the cow to its owner and continue to operate with complete courtesy to our farmer-neighbors.  After all, every so often we misplace a little something on their land, like for example a $40,000 glider making a landout.

 It’s in everybody’s interests to stay neighborly.  Especially in such an inhospitable, distressing drought.  Hurrah for those who have put out  a bowl of water out for the birds or lugged water out to a city tree, and for the retired teacher, featured in today’s Houston Chronicle, who relocated ducks and turtles from a dried-up pond at Hooks Airport to wetter and better places!

Black Rain

66 years after Hiroshima, the New York Times reports that survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have joined the Japanese movement against nuclear power.  The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster this year moved them and a great many other Japanese people out of the stance of quietly accepting nuclear power and the government’s reassurances that radiation from it will never hurt anyone.  This reminds me of one of the best novels I ever read:  Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse. The story relates, with unforgettable detail and quiet humor as well as great sadness, the lives of some ordinary people in Hiroshima the day the bomb dropped.  The young woman at the center of the story was exposed to unnatural, black, radioactive rain.  Years later radiation sickness rears its ugly head to scuttle her chances for a good marriage.  This is one of those novels that you read once and never forget some of the characters, the scenes, and the ways it made you think.

Genesis Discovery

Despite an unfortunately emphatic return to Earth in which the parachute failed to deploy and the sample return capsule pancaked onto the Utah desert, the NASA Genesis Discovery Mission succeeded. Witness the June 24 issue of Science. The magazine’s cover is a photo of the particle concentrator extricated from the spacecraft-pancake. Two articles announce important findings from analysis of the concentrator, changing our understanding of the composition of the primordial solar system. And these are just two high-profile examples of the journal and conference papers occasioned by Genesis samples being sent to researchers around the world who have asked for them.  Not bad for a mission with a spectacular equipment failure at the end!

What saved the science was contingency planning. The nominal mission would have had the sample return capsule, dangling under a parachute, delicately snagged in mid-air by a helicopter. But design decisions were driven by considerations of how to salvage the samples even if the return capsule broke. Five silicon collector arrays that basked in different regimes of the solar wind were each of a different thickness. Every fragment bigger than a breadcrumb revealed what array it came from. The particle concentrator and its matrix were more robust than they might have needed to be. So the concentrator, which was identified in the early proposal stage as being of potentially high scientific value, ended up mainly intact – high value science and all.

Official state firearm

The BBC online informs us that the state of Utah has designated a state firearm, becoming the first state in the USA to do so.  It joins a state fossil, fruit, bird and so forth.  The firearm in question is the Browning M1911 pistol.  I’m actually not dead set against this.  My stepmother was a direct and proud descendant of John M. Browning, the rifle inventor.  Browning firearms really do hold an exceptional place in Utah history.

Unfortunately, the modern pro-firearms movement seems to have its taproot in insecure masculinity.  Consider the effect on generations of fragile, potentially violent, Southern male ego of having lost the Civil War.  Add the skeleton-in-the-closet fear of slave rebellion or Indian uprising.  No wonder gun nuttery flourishes across the US even though it’s a deplorable phallacy that more guns make a society more safe.  Sigh.  Now that Utah upped and designated a state firearm, can Texas be far behind?

Christmas lights night

Last night I went with my friend Eileen for a Christmas-light tour of her neighborhood.  The neighborhood is a residential air park called Polly Ranch, and her car is a spiffy BMW convertible and she had the top down, so the tour was special.  Highlights:

Four or five Santas in airplane-sleighs plus or minus aviator glasses or spinning propellers.  Two of Santa’s airplanes were twin engine types.  Since they are yard-art inflatables, this brings a new slant to the aviation descriptor “light twin.”

There were two life-size three-dimensional Santas, one of them animatronic.  There were one or more renditions each of the Grinch, Charlie Brown and company, and Garfield the cat.  Reindeer, elves, nutcrackers, tin soldiers, snowmen and common-garden-variety Santas were out in force along with giant wrapped presents and candies.   Also, nativity-donkeys, Three Kings, and Child in the Manger tableaus – some of these in the same yards as a profusion of the Santa stuff.   Why choose between coruscating consumerism and the Christ Child, when you can have both?

Also notable for one reason or another:

A side yard with three reindeer done in purple lights.  Purple?

A yard with dominated by a rabble of candy-canes in lights of various colors, heavy on the red and blue, most of them standing a bit off vertical.

Then there was the yard with strings of white lights randomly flung over trees and trailing to the ground in all directions.  The effect was as if the innocent trees had been toilet-papered with strings of lights.  Eileen guessed that the family teenager(s) had been ordered to decorate the yard this year.

On the other aesthetic hand, palm trees, with their tall slim boles, lend themselves to being neatly wrapped with lights, whether white or blue or a candy-cane effect of red and white.

One home kept the LED lights and glitz under control and had luminarias- the brown paper bags filled with sand and glowing candles (or electric equivalent) – lining a curving walkway to the front door.  Nice.

Then there was the soundtrack. Eileen played and, since we were in her convertible, to some degree serenaded the neighborhood with Christmas songs by the a capella jazz/musical farce group Straight No Chaser.  They ring changes on Christmas carols, like using the theme from Mission:Impossible to as the intro measures to their version of “We Three Kings.”  (It sounds great.)  To their credit, the carols that Straight No Chaser really folds and spindles aren’t the religious ones but the schmaltzy/silly secular ones.  Which are fair game.

Saturday Night Lights

Yesterday the colleague on her way to relieve me at the Rice Library Circulation Desk phoned fifteen minutes before she was due in to ask, “What the HELL is happening on the Rice campus?  I can’t find parking anywhere!”  Luckily she spotted somebody pulling out of a parking space and vultched that one.

I had no idea why the dearth of parking on campus.  My student assistant volunteered there was a basketball game, but neither of us really thought a Rice basketball game would flood the campus with cars.  Finally, after my colleague arrived, a library patron enlightened us.  It was state high school football playoffs in the Rice Stadium.

My colleague took over running the Circulation Desk.  I got off work and headed toward the Rice Village for Christmas shopping.  Just as I cut across the stadium parking lot, the stadium erupted in blaring music and cheers.  Wow.  Rice’s own football games rarely generate that kind of vibe.  The stadium disgorged thousands of people of whom about half were jazzed, the other half dejected. There were so many cars, pickup trucks and SUV’s trying to leave that I thanked my lucky stars to be on foot. I moved faster than the motorists.

Today the Houston Chronicle ran a photo from the big game on Page 1, no less.  Turns out the Pearland (Texas) Oilers beat the Katy (Texas) Tigers 38-35 by  a touchdown with 47 seconds left in the game.  There was a crowd of 41,000+ in attendance.   Like they say, high school football is big in Texas.  Would that excellent education were as high a public priority as exciting football.  But this is the state with the Board of Education that tried to put creationism into biology textbooks and take slavery out of texts  teaching the Civil War.

killer headline

I like, featuring the Astronomy Picture of the Day,  other attractive daily stuff, and First Headlines, which invariably mixes the momentous, the alarming and the weird.  Today we see this one:  “Man shot to death with crossbow in Toronto library – Suspect arrested in what police describe as ‘definitely a unique case’. ”  Some guy did indeed shoot another guy in the back with a crossbow in Main Street Library in a Toronto suburb.  Kids and moms saw it because the elementary school in the neighborhood had just let out.

A more recently breaking headline reveals that that the murder victim was the bowman’s father.  The odds are that thereon hangs a sad and sordid tale.

On a more edifying note, today’s Astronomy Picture is M33, the star-formation-spangled Pinwheel Galaxy.

Not how stealth technology works

It seems that the world’s most advanced nuclear submarine ran aground.   HMS Astute was launched in August as the first of a new class of high-tech British Navy attack subs designed to be very dangerous and stealthy.  According to The  Telegraph online, the sub was transferring  sailors just off the Isle of Skye when the stern grounded.  Instead of powering the sub loose and possibly damaging the special acoustic tiles that make the sub inaudible underwater, the skipper waited for the tide to turn.  Astute floated free and was towed back out to sea to resume its sea trials.   In the meantime, it was a spectacle to onlookers on the Isle  and on the water.  According to the Daily Mail online, a  tourist boat was even running people out to look at it.

How embarassing.

When I lived in Berkeley some years ago, the U. S. aircraft carrier Enterprise ran aground on a sand bar in San Francisco Bay.  It was visible  from all the high-rises and skyscrapers in the East Bay and San Francisco.  Since the incident  happened on a weekday, tens of thousands of office workers watched as attempts were made to refloat the carrier.  Finally almost the entire 3,000- man crew was ranked on one side of the main deck.  Their weight  tilted the big ship.  With tug boats pushing from the other side, it slid loose.  The procedure made for a fabulous page-one picture in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The then-Captain of the Enterprise subsequently got a demotion.  In the Navy, it’s disastrous  for your career to either run into another vessel or to run aground.  The Daily Mail suggests that the skipper of  HMS Astute might face a court-martial depending on what the investigation discovers.  In any event, the most advanced ships (or planes or computers) in the world are only as smart as the people designing, building and  running them on a given day.

The Walruses of Complacency

In a recent article in the Green Living Tips newsletter, Michael Bloch  reflects on the notorious flaws in BP’s emergency response plan for the ruptured oil well in the Gulf of Mexico.  Apparently the plan was more of a cut-paste-and-print job than robust contingency planning.   Nobody reviewed it well enough to catch the part about oil spill impact on walruses. “While these walruses would certainly be a wonderful tourist attraction, you probably haven’t heard of their presence in the region as it appears they haven’t been in the Gulf of Mexico for 3 million years,” Bloch writes.  Evidently material was cribbed from a similar document for a different part of the world.  The plan also included the emergency contact number of a marine biologist who died five years ago.

BP has a lot to answer for, but there’s plenty of fault to go around.  The document in question had much in common (including the walruses and the deceased scientist) with several other oil companies’ Gulf of Mexico emergency response plans.  Neither these companies nor the government’s oversight agency, the MMS, took the possibility of a catastrophic oil spill seriously.   The insatiable American appetite for resources and wealth is implicated too.  Bloch  concludes, “BP’s mess in some ways is an oil spattered reflection of us all.”