Friday, February 20, 2009
Wild In The Urbs: The Early Bird Gets Something.
This little bird was busy this morning taking its breakfast meal on the sage plant. Notice the yellow matter coating its beak of this little bird. It's from the underside of the sage leaves that the bird is resting on.
Here's a shot of the bird feeding.
The photo is taken through a foggy window and a screen. Hence the poor quality. But it's still possible to make out the food on the bottom of the sage leaf and on the beak.
Native plants rule! You're welcome, little fella.
Thursday, February 19, 2009
Thinking about the scifi movie Wyvern and its surprisingly good script prompted thoughts of other screenplays I wish I'd written. Here they are, in no particular order:
The Zero Effect: A modern imagining of Sherlock Holmes with Bill Pullman as Daryl Zero, a late 20th Century American private detective, and Ben Stiller as his assistant.
Miller's Crossing: A little known Coen Brothers movie and perhaps one of the best gangster movies ever made. Very reminiscent of the writings of Dashiell Hammett, whose writing I've worshipped for years.
Serenity: The most interesting science fiction movie to come along in a long time. Joss Whedon's depiction of good intentions gone horribly wrong is the best portrayal of the true evil of modernity, which is the notion that human nature should be modified by our leaders to fit a social purpose.
The Princess Bride: The sweetest story of romantic love and the love of a grandfather for his grandson ever told.
Barcelona: Young Americans, unapologetically American, living in Spain and falling in love with Spanish beauties during the Reagan years.
Team America: World Police: Funny, funny, funny political musical satire. With puppets.
Tremors: The perfect movie about monsters terrorizing a small secluded town.
Cylons, Humans, Whatever.
The scifi website io9 offers this analysis:
"Some stuff from last week's "No Exit," which could have some bearing on upcoming episodes, cleared up by the show's writers. Humans probably originated on Kobol, then spread to the colonies. Earth was destroyed because the skinjob-style Cylons living there built their own Centurions, who then rose up against them. Cavil is the only "skinjob" model to know the Final Five's identities, because he corrupted the other six models' programming so they'd never speak of the Final Five or search for their identities. (So he had to box D'Anna when she learned the truth, or it would destroy his "house of cards.") The Cylon events summarized by Cavil in "No Exit" may be seen more fully in "The Plan" TV movie.
Now that Adama has agreed to use Cylon technology to repair the cracks in Galactica, he's admitting there's no longer any difference between humans and Cylons, and also that Galactica is in as bad shape as Tyrol says. This will set up a lot of the rest of the series. And there will be more Boomer development coming soon." (Here.)
My own theory based on the recent episodes is that the Final Five cylons were humans back on "Earth" before they became Cylons. The Final Five invented the resurrection process when they were still humans. They died during the destruction of Earth by the centurion cylons but when they went through resurrection and their minds, their memories, and perhaps even their souls were downloaded into new bodies, they became cylons. The Final Five are, therefore, the consciousnesses of human beings implanted into android bodies.
My preference for the big season finale is that there be a final battle between cylons and humans. Many of the humans we've followed during the series die but resurrect into new android bodies and begin new lives as cylons.
California's Taxpaying Chumps.
The Republican caucus in each house is holding firm against tax cuts. Their initial plan to ameliorate the budget problem without raising taxes went nowhere. (Here.) But several individual Republican legislators are lining up to provide the votes necessary for the Democrats, and our RINO governor, to get their budget and their tax increases.
The Democrats argue that taxes are necessary to solve California's budget crisis. Who knows if that's really true. The news stories about the budget never state the actual budget number being voted on. The stories only describe the dollar amount of the so-called budget cuts and the four tax increases. Without knowing the actual amount of the proposed budget there is really no way for an average taxpayer to know whether the tax increases are really needed.
This taxpayer is skeptical. For most of the past decade, California's general fund budget grew at about 1 to 2 percent per year. But in 2005, the budget grew by a whopping 15 percent from $79 billion to $91 billion. Then in 2006, the budget grew another 11 percent to $101 billion. From 2007 to the present the budget has grown to $103 billion, again a small increase in keeping with increases early in the decade.
California's overall expenditures, which include special funds and federal money, are even higher. But those too grew slowly during the early part of this decade increasing from $99 billion in 2000 to $105 billion in 2004. But in 2005 overall expenditures increased to $117 billion, and in 2006 they increased to $131 billion. Expenditures increased even more in 2007 to $145 billion and then declined in 2008 to $144 billion.
California's budget numbers tell a sorry tale of government profligacy. From 2005 to 2007, the state government was awash in cash from the housing and stock market bubbles. Instead of wisely putting money away for down times, spending the money only on capital improvements, or returning money to the taxpayers, the government instead used that money to increase continuing programs, thus locking in future spending based on revenue from two unsustainable bubbles.
If California had set aside the excess revenue from the bubbles into a reserve fund and increased its budget at 2 percent per year from 2005 to the present, the general fund budget for this year would be about $86 billion. Anticipated revenues for this budget year are just over $87 billion. (Here.) California would have a balanced budget and a significant sum of money in reserves to tide it over during this recession. Instead, the government went on an irresponsible spending spree and California's taxpayers are expected to foot the bill and save the day.
How much is that bill going to cost? The Sacramento Bee newspaper has a nifty little calculator for Californians to figure out how much their taxes will increase under the budget plan. (Here.) The most interesting aspect of the tax plan is that taxpayers with children will see their taxes increase more than taxpayers without. An odd policy.
Given the sorry history of California's budget, you'd think legislators would be ashamed of having to ask taxpayers to save the state from the government's irresponsibility. You'd be wrong. Here's what the Democratic Senate President Pro Tem Darrel Steinberg said to Republican legislators opposed to tax increases the other day: "I just wish you could deviate just a little bit from your philosophy, from the endless mantra of no new revenue, no new revenue ever, and be a participant and partner with us in solving this problem." (Here.)
Don't worry Senator. We'll be participating in solving this problem. But it's not the problem you think. The problem isn't a budget shortfall. The problem is controlling irresponsible and spendthrift legislators.
Long ago when property taxes skyrocketed out of control and the legislature did nothing about it, the voters revolted and passed Proposition 13 to roll back property taxes and make it nearly impossible for the legislature to increase taxes. More recently, Governor Gray Davis was recalled from office over the car tax. This year, the Democratic legislature is going to increase the sales tax, the gas tax, the income tax, the car tax, and decrease the dependent tax credit for children. Don't think for a minute that Californians will let this happen without a backlash.
Budget numbers in this post were compiled from the websites of the California Department of Finance website (here), the Legislative Analyst's Office (here), and the Senate Committee on Budget and Fiscal Review (PDF here). A useful overview can be found at California Budget webpage of Sunshine Review. (Here.)
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Saving Water In San Diego.
According to a recent story in the Union-Tribune, the per-capita water use in San Diego is 157 gallons per person per day. (Here.) Rationing may force San Diegans to find a way to save 20 percent of their water usage. That would reduce per capita usage to 125 gallons per person per day.
Here's a way for my fellow San Diegans to make that work: remove your lawn and replace it with native plants. I did that and my water usage has shrunk by 50 percent. This month last year my average daily use was 61 gallons. This month, my average daily use was 31 gallons per day.
Labels: San Diego
Digital TV Arrives In San Diego.
Not that those who didn't prepare for the transition will be deprived of TV. Three stations, including the Public TV station, haven't made the change. And Mexican Spanish language stations won't make the transition at all. This could be a good opportunity to learn a second language and become hooked on telenovelas.
SpaceX Facility Tour.
These are the only pictures available from the tour because the company refused to let us take our cameras into the building. The front part of the building is where the business offices are located. The back end of the building is where the rockets and the manned capsule are manufactured.
We entered the building from the side, by the security office, and found ourselves in the back corner of a very large open space with high windowed walls and a very high ceiling. Large cubicles filled the space with a row of offices at the back. The enclosed offices are for HR. Every other employee works in a cubicle, including the top executives, supposedly even Elon Musk, the wunderkind owner.
We walked along the back wall past the HR offices to the middle of the building, turned right, and passed through a door into the manufacturing part of the building.
The first thing that catches the eye is how spacious and clean the facility is. The building was formerly used for manufacturing Boeing airliners. So, it's big. The second thing that catches the eye is a white space capsule looking very much like an Apollo, in the center of the room. The third thing noticed is a persistent familiar hum. The fourth thing is the life-size Cylon warrior robot standing next to a pillar about 50 feet away. That's a Cylon hum filling the air! The Cylon is standing next to a microphone, as if it's giving a speech. That Cylon sets the tone for the tour. This is no ordinary manufacturing facility.
The Cylon is facing the cafeteria, which is well stocked with hot and cold beverages and snacks. Behind the Cylon is where all the work is done.
The first stop on our tour was the Falcon 1 booster assembly area. A partially assembled Falcon 1 rested on a track. The mockup space capsule is near the rocket. The capsule is SpaceX's Dragon, the craft the company proposes to use for shipping supplies and personnel to and from the International Space Station. Although we were not allowed to take photos, the mockup looked very much like this. (This photo of the Dragon is taken from Wikipedia here, is credited to PistolPete037, and is reproduced pursuant to Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 here.)
Across an aisle was the engine assembly area. Several engines were standing in various stages of assembly. Farther into the building we came across the actual Dragon capsule. It looked to be about 12 feet in diameter and perhaps 18 feet tall. The capsule's hull appeared to be complete. Again, it looked very much like an Apollo capsule. Apparently, this is not a coincidence. Our tour guide praised the design of the Apollo and used the word "perfect" more than once to describe it. Dragon's function is to carry astronauts and supplies into space, not exactly the same as Apollo's, but similar, and so its form follows Apollo's.
Although the shell of Dragon's hull appeared complete, the interior was incomplete. The interior was an empty space waiting for flooring and instrumentation to be installed. No accessories were attached to the exterior. Work appears to be progressing on Dragon but it is not complete. Nearby stood a base for the capsule. The base was partially covered with tan, thick, pieces of some kind of rubbery material. The material looked like irregularly shaped bricks. These bricks were the ablative heat shield for Dragon's re-entry.
After Dragon, our tour took us past enclosed rooms. One of the rooms is a command center used during launches. We passed these rooms to the back where raw materials, such as aluminum, were delivered, stored, and machined. This area is also where the Falcon 9, SpaceX's larger launch vehicle, is assembled. Across from this area an enclosed tent stood behind some screening and signs warning against photography. We weren't told what was in the tent. Three young men were working on something in the tent. A peek into the tent revealed some kind of fabricated panel that looked very much like a canopy for a jet. Who knows, perhaps it's something to do with Dragon? Behind the tent two inner stages for Falcon 9 stood on end, each about 30 feet tall.
Our tour next took us to the cafeteria where we were allowed to have some drinks and snacks under the watchful red eye of the Cylon. The coffee was brewed in a futuristic brewing machine, the Keurig. That machine is an engineer's dream. (Here.) Mine, too, actually.
After the cafeteria, we toured an enclosed area where testing of components is done. This area included machines to test for temperature, pressure, shaking, salt, humidity, and electromagnetic interference. In a bit of whimsy, the Electromagnetic Interference Chamber was named "Voodoo Lounge." After touring the testing area, and not touching anything, we were taken to a conference room to watch some videos, including Elon Musk's tour of SpaceX's launch facility at Cape Canaveral, the successful Falcon 1 launch, and animations of Dragon in action. All the videos are available for viewing at SpaceX's website on the multimedia page. (Here.)
The engineers who gave the tour answered questions after the videos. Here's the data dump of those answers.
- SpaceX relies on off the shelf parts to manufacture its rockets. This is done to reduce cost by avoiding the need to have custom made parts. The off the shelf parts meet aerospace and "mil" specifications.
- SpaceX employs about 400-500 people. Many are young. Our three tour guides were engineers. One was just out of college, the other two appeared to be in their late 20s or early 30s.
- Our guides were proud of their company's commitment to safety. They were also proud of their company's ability to produce quality products at low price.
- They said they are focused on getting Falcon 9 done. As one of them put it, they are "head down", working to get Falcon 9 launched.
- They love their work. And why shouldn't they? SpaceX gets 100 applications for every job listing. SpaceX employees must know they are working on something that is both practical and visionary, and really cool, to boot.
And here are my final impressions. SpaceX is for real. Their manufacturing facility looks state of the art. The working area is clean and organized. Real work is being done at the facility. The company has a business plan and is executing it. The employees we met love their work and are committed to succeeding. We took our tour on a Sunday in the middle of a long holiday weekend. While we were there, people were working in the manufacturing facility, and also in cubicles. Our tour guides willingly came in to promote their company and escort a group of enthusiasts around the facility. They had no reason to do so, but they did it on their own time.
The work they are doing at SpaceX is exciting and potentially revolutionary. But it also looks very ordinary. Their building looks like an ordinary manufacturing building. The office space has the look of any other technical work place. Cubicles, desktops, computer screens. The manufacturing area looks ordinary. The only things extraordinary about the place are the rockets lying on their side and the space capsule standing in the middle of the work space. This is what the future of space travel will look like. It will look ordinary. And just like today, when it's hard to remember what life was like before the personal computer and the cellphone, we will forget what ife was like before human space travel became commonplace.
Monday, February 16, 2009
NASA Constellation Photo Essay.
This is photograph number 23 from the essay, described as follows: "Engineers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama completed first-round testing on Sept. 11, 2008 of a key motor for the next-generation Ares I rocket. The ullage settling motor is a small, solid rocket motor that will assist in vehicle stage separation and provide the forward motion needed to push fuel to the bottom of the fuel tanks during the launch to orbit of the Ares I rocket."(Photo credit: NASA/MSFC)
That may be a solid rocket motor blasting away but it looks like a test firing of a death ray. Makes me wonder, if you could line up your ship correctly and get it close enough to the target, how effective would the blast from a propulsion or control rocket be as a weapon in space? But that's another topic. There are other equally cool photos in the collection. Go check them out. (Link here again, so you don't have to scroll back to the top.)
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
In The Macroverse: Fierce Little Buggers.
What the hell are these things? And better yet, how can they be killed?
For more macro-photography of the natural world visit the photo web page at picasaweb.google.com/tdavera. (Here.)
Flushing Baseball's Cheaters Out Of The Game.
Eventually the names will out. Baseball's dilemma is what to do about it. Bonds presents the biggest problem because he cheated his way to becoming the greatest homerun hitter of all time. If Bonds is banned and his record taken away the lifetime record reverts to Hank Aaron, a class guy who deserves to be number one. The problem is that Bonds single season record would revert to Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa, both of whom are probably guilty as well.
Banning all steroids cheaters from baseball could be difficult. There are so many. But ignoring the scandal won't make it go away. The players who didn't cheat deserve to see the cheaters exposed and punished, and the fans deserve to know the extent of the corruption.
So, here's a modest proposal.
Let's give steroids cheaters a special place at the Hall of Fame. Don't add a Wing of Shame. Instead, designate the restrooms as memorials to the steroids era. Assign each shamed player to his own urinal or toilet, and imprint a picture of the player on the urinal or in the toilet bowl. For example, an A-Rod or Roger "The Rocket" Clemens urinal, or a Barry Bonds toilet. Visitors to the Hall could then leave an appropriate tribute to the baseball players who soiled America's national pasttime. And with so many players implicated in steroids, there would never be a line for the restrooms.
Monday, February 09, 2009
I Am Chump.
But I feel like a chump. Not because I did my duty and paid my taxes. No, I'm a chump because I live in California. In this state, the government can't get its act together and pass a budget that works. Instead, California's government is running out of money and the state's controller has threatened to delay paying state tax refunds. Already, the controller has notified some vendors that the state will delay payments for services rendered for at least 30 days.
There is no solution in sight. We have a legislature gridlocked by partisan division. The parties are united in one thing only: their stubborn refusal to face facts and deal with the state's funding catastrophe.
The governor has no political clout whatsoever. He's a Republican (well, in name only) in a state where every other statewide elected official, but one, is a Democrat, and where both houses of the legislature are dominated by strong Democratic majorities. Arnold is a leader without followers and supporters. As a Republican he gets no support from Sacramento Democrats. He came in as a Republican conservative on money matters and liberal on social issues. Over time, he's morphed into a Republican, still liberal on social issues and no longer fiscally conservative. That has lost him the support of Republicans in the legislature. His political one man show has left him as weak as a girly man.
But the governor has done one thing right. He's tried to save money by cutting state payroll costs. First, he tried to cramdown state employee salaries to the federal minimum wage when the state entered its new fiscal year back in July without a budget. It's a measure of the strength of this state's public employee unions that the governor's plan went nowhere.
Now the governor has ordered state employees to take off two days of unpaid leave each month. This amounts to a 10 percent pay cut, albeit at 10 percent less work. But it's a measure of the governor's weakness and this state's immense partisan division that employees who work in departments run by elected state officials have been told to report to work by their bosses.
For example, employees of the state controller's department have been told to report to work. The controller won't save any money by reducing his employees' salaries. Instead, he saves money by withholding money from vendors and taxpayers.
So, that's California. In the middle of a terrible recession state employees get to keep their jobs, a small percentage are forced to take a 10 percent pay cut by getting two unpaid days off per month, but most get to keep their full salaries. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate in the state is around 9 percent and taxpayers who overpaid the state have to wait for their refunds. Chumps. We're a state full of chumps. But we've got the best weather in the country.
Sunday, February 08, 2009
Wild In The Wild: HawkWatch 2009
If you're in Southern California, head out to Ramona on any of the remaining Saturday mornings in February. You'll see birds like this beautiful American Kestrel, the cutest raptor of them all. For more photos of last weekend's HawkWatch 2009, visit my photos website at picasaweb.google.com/tdavera. (Here.)
Tuesday, February 03, 2009
The Audacity Of Nope: Tom Daschle Out.
Monday, February 02, 2009
Ending The Paleolithic Era At Sea.
The oceans are an aquatic wilderness. Food from the sea mostly comes from fishing boats that take to the waters to hunt for schools of wild fish, gather them in nets, and bring them back to market.
Today's San Diego Union-Tribune has a story on an aquaculture experiment proposed by Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute for the deep waters off San Diego that would change all that.
"Hubbs' operation would cover about 30 football fields' worth of the ocean's surface in water that's approximately 300 feet deep.Before Hubbs can go forward with its proposal it needs to convince environmentalists and fishing interests of its value, and obtain permits from the federal government. But Hubbs is on the right track.
"At first, the institute would deploy eight circular nets – each large enough to hold about 125,000 fish. The nets would be anchored to the sea floor and stocked with striped bass, a fish that was introduced to California more than 100 years ago. The captive bass would grow for about two years until they top 2 pounds each, at which point they would be collected in batches and sold to seafood wholesalers.
"The species was chosen for several reasons, including the availability of juveniles for rearing and what Hubbs researchers said were slim chances that any escaped fish would disrupt the native food chain.
"Over five years, Hubbs would install 24 pens and produce 3,000 metric tons of fish annually – about three times the current commercial fish harvest brought ashore in San Diego County.
"That would provide a dramatic boost to the state's aquaculture industry, which generates about $100 million in revenue each year for seafood producers. At full capacity, Hubbs officials said, they could raise about 3 million fish per year worth $21 million." (Here.)
Imagine if food from land were produced the same way that most sea food is produced. Hunters would leave the city every day to roam the wilderness in search of wild game to bring back to market. Long ago, humans figured out that hunter-gathering was inefficient and unreliable and we turned to agriculture. It's time to bring the production of sea food out of the pre-civilized era and into the modern world.
Taxes Are For Chumps.
Daschle, former million dollar "special policy advisor" to the lobbying firm of Alston and Bird (here), visited Capitol Hill to make the case for his nomination as Secretary of Health and Human Services. Because he's the second tax cheat nominated by President Obama for a cabinet position, Daschle had to spend the day dealing with his personal tax problem. Or as the Associated Press put it:
"Fighting to salvage his Cabinet nomination, Tom Daschle apologized from morning to night on Monday for failing to pay more than $120,000 in federal taxes." (Here.)Sorry, morning to night is not enough. Even apologizing from now to April 15th won't cut it, although there would be poetic justice if he did.
Vice-President Joe Biden said during the campaign that it's patriotic to pay higher taxes. Not to question Daschle's patriotism, that's apparently a job for Vice-President Biden, but Daschle's tax dodge suggests that, when it comes to taxes, he believes dissent is the highest form of patriotism.
Sunday, February 01, 2009
Slaves Of Our Chemical And DNA Masters.
"The researchers found that a woman's oestradiol level was positively associated with self-perceived physical attractiveness. Women with a higher oestradiol level also reported a greater likelihood of flirting, kissing and having a serious affair (but not a one-night stand) with a new partner.Because, you know, human beings merely serve our chemicals and DNA.
"Oestradiol levels were negatively associated with a woman's satisfaction with her primary partner.
"'Our findings show that highly fertile women are not easily satisfied by their long-term partners and are motivated to seek out more desirable partners,' Durante explained. 'However, that doesn't mean they're more likely to engage in casual sex. Instead, they adopt a strategy of serial monogamy.'" (Here.)
Scifi Channel Movie: Wyvern
So, anyway, the movie gets off to a good start in setting the scene with some coy references to Northern Exposure. The cast includes some actors from that TV show, who play variations on their roles from the series. The town doctor, not played by the actor from Northern Exposure, is very clearly based on the big-city doctor in the series.
The movie does the monster genre things right. The computer graphics are very good and the plot pushes all the right buttons: monster suddenly appears, vague sightings, animals and people getting killed off, the monster revealed, the town isolated and under siege, the townsfolk trapped in a restaurant, the humans fight back, loved ones die, the hero resolves his conflict, and victory. Think Tremors.
Wyvern also does some non-genre things right. The film is written by the award winning Jason Borque, who has a solid career making documentaries, television shows and movies, and feature films. (Here.) His script show literary talent.
In the story, the wyvern is unleashed on the world when human-caused global warming melts a glacier in which the dragon had been trapped by Odin millenia ago. The wyvern's release is a direct result of humanity's greed and arrogance, which causes people to do what they want regardless of the consequences.
Meanwhile, the movie's hero is a guilt-ridden big rig trucker who blames himself for the death of his brother. His brother has died in a truck accident that happened when the ice melted and the truck fell into the water. The hero was driving the truck and couldn't save his brother. The hero blames himself for this brother's death because his own greed and arrogance caused him to take the job and push on down the highway, even though he didn't need the money and he knew the ice road was at risk.
Resolution comes in the movie when the hero faces down his guilt and lures the dragon into a final conflict that directly parallels the accident that killed the hero's brother. It gives nothing away to say that the hero saves the day, atones for his sin, and gets the small-town girl.
When Scifi Channel repeats Wyvern, as it inevitably will, check it out. It's worth the time. And if you need another reason, it's the final movie with actor Don S. Davis of TV's Stargate. Davis passed on unexpectedly last year. (Here.)
Mars Science Laboratory Display-O-Rama.
For more photographs of the mock up of the MSL on display at The Reuben Fleet Science Center, visit my Picasa Web Albums page (picasaweb.google.com/tdavera/)and view the Mars Science Lab Fleet folder. (Here.) For more information on the MSL mission visit NASA's webpage. (Here.)