Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Astronauts, Cosmonauts, and Medical Tests

A question I answered on Quora:

Which medical visits should a candidate do and pass in order to become an astronaut?

It's not really a question of tests to ‘take’ and ‘pass.’ You will be asked questions about your medical history in order to assess the risk to the program. First, to see whether there are any conditions exist that would be a hazard to you and other crew members: conditions like diabetes mellitus (which eliminated me), arrhythmias, apnea, exposure to infectious diseases, any mood disorders, etc. etc. Basically, things you don't want to have a problem with while locked in a ‘room,’ or worse yet, while trapped inside a helmet (which has happened, more on that below). Second, training an astronaut is very very expensive, so these kinds of no-go medical conditions have to be caught early: once trained, NASA wants to keep you on the candidate list as long as it can! For these reasons, medical clearance will be based not only on the medical records you supply, but to a greater extent by the NASA medical team that evaluates you continually during your career. This medical team is highly specialized to ensure that the risk to you, your fellow crew, and the equipment is minimized.

A word on ‘Astronauts’ vs. ‘Cosmonauts.’ The selection process is similar, but also different in some very important areas, which arose from the types of missions that the two programs ran. The US system was developed for Shuttle missions, while the Soviet/Russian system was developed for Salyut/Mir missions. The fundamental differences were mission length, and mission culture. Shuttle was a 14 day maximum trip, while stays on Salyuts or Mir were considerably longer, and only depended on the Soyuz vehicle cycling. The medical selection profiles were therefore quite different, and those vestiges remain. Astronauts are selected, from among other things, for their ability to focus intensely on their portion of the mission and its timetable, which is controlled from the ground. Cosmonauts are selected, from among other things, for endurance and compatibility with each other, and the ability to self-manage their time. Salyut/Mir were under the absolute command of the lead Cosmonaut, following the naval tradition. He was there, he knew what the situation was; the ground was not, and did not.

This led to several difficult situations during the Shuttle-Mir program, and not only between astronauts and cosmonauts, but also between Houston and Korolyov Centers. When first assessing system compatibilities before docking, NASA couldn't believe that the Russian ground control did not know the ‘configuration’ of Mir at every moment. Yes, they knew which Soyuz or Progress was docked to which port, but Korolyov Center did not know the position of every switch, or even what was plugged into what. That was the Commander’s job, not theirs. NASA was stunned at the autonomy.

Long stays by Astronauts on Mir often caused friction between the crew, because each agency exerted absolute control over crew selection (using the above described criteria). This resulted in several disputes, and refusals to cooperate by both crews. One astronaut retreated to their cabin for days at a time, and simply would not interact. On one EVA, an astronaut froze with vertigo (this is actually quite common), and the cosmonauts inside did not respond as he thought they should. The astronaut was expecting to be ‘talked down,’ while the cosmonauts were confident he would talk himself out of the situation.

It will be interesting to watch NASA shift to a longer mission mentality as the objectives change from low Earth orbit to deep space, multi month timelines. NASA might learn a lot from the Russians. Then again, they might not. The commanders were notoriously bad at keeping up with medical records protocols, and Salyut/Mir medical results for long duration missions are a mish-mash at best, and only reliable once they were back on the ground and under the supervision of their full medical teams.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The World in Which I Dream

A group of four or five of us moved slowly along the dusty trail towards the low rhythmic singing. The red light of the setting sun moved quickly in the tropics, our shadows reaching out ever farther ahead of us into the African scrub, and over the cliff above the oxbow.

 We came upon the singers suddenly, surprising ourselves because they were standing on a ledge several feet below the rim of the cliff. Four grey figures sang on, oblivious to our appearance. Covered in mud and dusty rags, their bodies vibrated with the sound from the lowest registers. Two of the singers had no heads. Their windpipes took up most of their raggedly cut necks, and it was from these that the hypnotically low sound came. The two on the ends were half as tall, and their mud-caked dreadlocks were full of cracks. Their torsos were covered with designs in red, orange and grey clay; some with simple triangles and circles, others with complex saz-like patterns. The sound held us immobile in front of the frightening quartet until the song suddenly ended, and the singer nearest me quickly reached out and clamped down firmly on my privates, dragging me down the cliff and out onto the muddy shore of the river. At this point I was overcome with extreme terror, knowing that we were waiting for something large to appear from the river. My captor began a keening, and I heard his companions back up on the ledge take up the same song. Panicked, I strained over my shoulder to see if my companions were still there, but there was no one besides the immobile singers. I had been left alone with these creatures, and I could only guess that my colleagues and our guide were still running breathlessly into the sunset.

A light splash brought my attention back to the river, and I whipped my shoulders around, the pain telling me that I had been twisted for some time, desperately hoping to see any threads of help. The quiet moving in the water brought my heart to a stop. A long dark shape had approached our shore, and I began to shake as an enormous crocodile's head became slowly more defined in the fading light. The glassy eyes fixed on us, and I knew we had been spotted. My captor seemed unperturbed, and did not loosen his grip or cease his wail as the reptile's head came out of the water onto the silty slope. As the neck and forelegs emerged, I noticed that the rest of the crocodile was strangely light colored, matching the river's tans, rather than the dark greenish brown of the head. Even more strange was that the forelegs had no scales and the feet had no claws. Confused, I gazed down, and noticed that my own feet had disappeared into the mud, and small bubbles were rising out of the imprint they had left on the surface. A deep rumble made me look back up, and I could not breathe. I had to look above me to see the crocodile's head, which I realized was now about ten feet above the ground, as the monster was standing up to his full height. I was about even with the crocodile's belly button—-which I immediately realized no reptile could have—and nothing made sense any more.

The crocodile's head was on an enormous man's body, and I could just make out small drops of water running down his stomach and arms in the last light of the fast tropical twilight. My captor had stopped keening, and I realized he had also released me. However, between the depth of the mud around my feet and the confusion I felt at being in front of this thing, I was immobilized. The crocodile's head dipped towards us, and I heard a voice that gave me gooseflesh: full of sibilants and guttural notes, I knew that a question was being asked of me that I had no hope of answering, let alone understanding. My chest hurt with anguish and loneliness, but my captor began a high piping chant within which I caught some very old Somali words that I struggled to follow, piecing together a litany of crimes.

  "Sobek wishes to know why you are here, where you do not belong. He wants you to realize that he has come far, far from his home in the land of his lake to this place, to reunite what you have torn apart." ...

  "Sobek says that he has judged you, and your soul is found wanting. You are full of lies that you call truths. You have brought thousands of strangers here, and they have moved things that were not to be moved. You have moved the Nile. You have moved Sais and Philae. You have moved the dead. You are a thief and a plunderer." ...

  "Sobek says you have moved His Mother and Father, His Brother and His children. He says you have hidden your wives from Him, and He is full for them, having not lain with them for millennia. Your soldiers have slain His priests, pulled down His temples, and hacked His name from countless walls." ...

  "You have made images of his Mother that are untrue, and built temples to this lie. You have brought pestilence to both the dark waters. He says he can taste it in them, along with the blood of women and small children, killed by centuries of your brothers for false beliefs." ...

  "Sobek sentences your soul to the Devourer, and He shall cause you to be shat out into the Lake of Fire."

  The rumbling voice had stopped, and the last notes of my captor's chant floated out over the dark ripples. I slowly moved, and could see the figure ahead dimly against the dark sky. I began to croak, my voice sounding weak and childish as I shook uncontrollably. I spoke of my years of work trying to bring help to this region, to build schools, to build networks that could reliably distribute food, and the drilling and digging of so many wells. I tried to explain that many of these things I was accused of were not of my making, and were far beyond my control, were not of my people, nor even of my time. I spoke of my wife who was waiting for me, and expecting a child we had hoped could replace the one recently lost. I cried openly, and began to heave with sobs. The singer became agitated, and began to slap me, but I only stopped when a deafening roar came from Sobek, which made me stumble as I struggled in the stotches I had made. I fell forwards, and put my forehead on the cool mud, my arms stretched out in front of me, my weight on my knees and elbows. I heard a rustle and felt Sobek move, and then felt the air hurriedly rush out as His jaws closed around my head.

  I could see my decapitated body slowly get up, and my companion took me by the hand, and led me back to the group. I could hear my notes joining the others as we resumed the low rhythmic chant I had first heard on the wind a few hours before.

  Sobek slipped back into the water and headed back down river to the Fayyum and into his own insanity, caused by ten thousand years of watching Man change his land, and not understanding any of it.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Musings on Deep Time: it's all about the fizz

Musings on Deep Time Many of us have heard how old the Earth is, how old the solar system is, and perhaps even how old the universe itself is. Maybe you have even seen a timescale laid out, showing how if the age of the Earth was compared to one year, man and all his history wouldn't appear until December 31st. In fact, the other night, during the relaunch of the Cosmos television series made famous by Carl Sagan, the new host Neil DeGrasse Tyson did that, comparing the age of the universe to an Earth year. On that scale, everything we have ever done fit into the very last second of December 31st! In this same episode, DeGrasse Tyson gave a very brief description of the far future of the universe, and that got me thinking. I deal a lot with geological time in my job, so I'm used to thinking in tens of thousands of years, in millions of years, and occasionally in billions of years. Because of my past work with NASA and time at Caltech and MIT, I'm also interested in astronomical timescales, so even tens of billions of years are 'comfortable.' I was not prepared for the cosmological timescale. And neither are you. I guarantee it. 1. It's all about the fizz You have probably seen a timeline of the history of the universe that begins with the Big Bang, proceeds with all that star and galaxy formation stuff, and ends up with the large scale structures we see today. It struck me that these timelines always stop at the present. What about the next 20 billion years? What about the next 2,000 billion years? What do we think is going to happen? And so I went looking for papers on the subject. It turns out there aren't very many. Apparently such conjectures aren't good for publication records or tenure. And there's good reason for that - the various scenarios have large error bars, and depend on answers to questions we still haven't answered, like how long does matter last? How large can the universe get? How, exactly, do black holes die? How is mass related to gravity? What the heck is this 'dark matter' and 'dark energy' stuff? It turns out that those questions are much more complicated than we ever expected, and the answers (where we have any) are very weird. Anyhow. I shall sidestep all those complications, and cut to the chase. First: how long will the universe last? An unimaginably long time. Well, possibly even forever. But it's a forever I never want to see: it's very likely a very cold, very dark place. The only things in it are a few flecks of imperceptible light, so dim and weak that nothing could ever detect them. Every few duotrigintillion years (we'll get back to that) you might come across an electron. That's it. That's all. No trace of the Earth, the Sun, or of anything we ever did. No trace of any other civilization on any other star, on any other galaxy. Absolutely nothing. It will all be erased. The ultimate void. Perhaps Genesis had it backwards. Conclusion: very boring. Stultifying. So let's tell this story backwards, and find the very last 'really exciting' thing that happened. It turns out that label belongs to the disappearance of the last black hole. Yes, we think they disappear. They might be fearsome juggernauts in our universe right now, destroying entire stars, spinning whole galaxies, and fueling all kinds of science fiction nonsense, but in the end, they will simply fade out of existence. How the heck does that happen? Aren't they supposed to swallow everything forever? So here's the first little piece of weirdness I promised: black holes actually fizz. Stephen Hawking came up with this startling conclusion. I'll deal with the details somewhere else, but the essence of it is that at a very, very slow rate, black holes give off energy, and each time they do, they shrink a bit. If you wait long enough, even the biggest black hole imaginable will eventually evaporate. How long? A googol years. So there you go: you finally have a use for that word, googol. No, not Google. Googol. One duotrigintillion. A one followed by a hundred zeros: 10,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000 years. How do we wrap our brains around a number like this? Here's a little taste of how hard that is: let's try the DeGrasse Tyson trick, and make January 1 be year 0, and midnight December 31st be a googol years later. Now we've got a scale for the 'exciting' portion of the universe's lifetime laid out before us. Let's find out where man sits! And… you can't find it. Every single day looks the same: fizzy black holes. They get bigger as you go backwards, but even there, on January 1, the very beginning of our universal timescale, the whole day seems to be full of really boring, gassy black holes! What about the first second of January 1? Same. What about the first millisecond? Same. And so on. Microseconds, nanoseconds, femtoseconds, attoseconds, yoctoseconds, and beyond. We keep trying to find Earth, even our Sun, our Galaxy, anything. But on this scale, the scale of black hole lifetimes, of a googol years, even something so unimaginably old as the Earth, the Sun or even the 'TODAY' mark--13.8 billion years from the start--is too close to the beginning to see. So, on our cosmic calendar, before we even had time to look at our watches, everything we have ever known about, even our Sun, and even the very last star ever to shine, is gone before we know it, and we still have 365 days of fizzing to go. Can't we try a different trick? How about laying out that same googol years in a line, from here out to where Voyager 1 is, about three times as far from the Sun as Pluto, or 20 billion kilometers? Now, surely we should be able to see something other than fizz? Nope. Even before you have moved along that line over the width of one atom, everything is all fizz! It turns out that on that incredibly long line marking out the time from the Big Bang to the evaporation of the last black hole, the little mark for 'TODAY' is only 1/60,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000th of the width of an atom from the start. A googol years is a very, very, very long time, and most of it is really, really, really boring. However, remember that even this was not as boring as the 'cold dark forever' I described previously, which might last a googol googol years! Next: we zoom in so we can finally see something, sixty orders of magnitude, to the end of normal matter, at one tredecillion years, or a one followed by forty-two zeros: only 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years! After wrapping our brains almost around a googol, this ought to be easy. Right?

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

These Are Not The Debates You Were Looking For

This has to be one of the most thoroughly--and deliberately--disinformed democracies the world has ever known. Sadly, both parties have made this into a class warfare election, with both candidates relying on demonstrably false data. I am disappointed that neither the liberal nor the conservative media have taken their candidates to task for this, as well as their opponent. It is simply disingenuous for the 'fourth estate' to pretend they are unbiased.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Scientists are naïve

I have been reading/browsing/listening to a lot of stuff on science communication, and one thing that is coming through in spades is that we scientists are a bunch of rubes.

Much of the lack of respect from the policy and business community, in addition to the inattention to science by the general public, comes from the fact that we not only preach integrity, but we live by it too. It makes us "boring." To our detriment, because other communities, while mouthing integrity, do not live by it at all, and quite happily get the decision outcomes they want. It's a balance: do you want integrity, or results?

Now I certainly do not espouse abandoning integrity, but science in general should be less naïve about what will be used against us, and stop being “shocked, shocked” when it happens.

Science does not live in the real world.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Fevered words:

This is what happens when you write when you are mad.

Someone sent me this article by John Coleman, founder of the Weather Channel, and noted climate change skeptic. This will make more sense if you read Coleman's piece first. No, really - go read it, then come back here. I'll wait.

The question from the sender was: who is Coleman, and what are his credentials?

Well, reading Coleman's article got me wound up, and I decided to write a piece in the voice of an angry conservative (which I am, but not to this extent: I let my emotions take control). See if you can spot the devilish details that _I_ embellished or ignored to make my points, or juxtaposed simply for effect. The same type of techniques so well employed by Coleman in his piece. I was hoping this might make it onto some of the lists that circulate this type of vitriol.

But I'm sure this will bite me in my employment ass later, or be paraded in front of me at some Senate Confirmation hearing or other, along with trivial details from my tax returns from beyond the statute of limitations ... (look out, libertarian diatribe building!)

John Coleman is the founder of the Weather Channel, so he does have good credentials. I do not know if he has a science background, but he may well have training in meteorology. He is a good contrarian and a worthy curmudgeon.

So, a comparison based on something I recently heard on the radio. A doctor tells you you have a rare form of cancer called "testaloma," and tells you you can only eat lettuce from now on, and then refers you to the Mayo Clinic. The Clinic concurs, and they convene a world-wide conference to discuss your symptoms, and several thousand of the world's leading experts in cancer agree that you have testaloma, and that lettuce is really the only thing they can think of. Do you take their advice?

In fact, they write a report that is reviewed by ten thousand more doctors, and all the NIH's in the world, and they agree you have testaloma as well, and that perhaps Bibb, Boston and Iceberg lettuce are all acceptable, but lettuce is all you get. Do you take their advice now?

But wait - there's a reporter in the crowd at the conference, who has been taught that she must give equal weight to opposing sides in order to be a good reporter. So she seeks out contrarian views, does her due diligence, and devotes an equal number of column inches to the few non-doctors who object and to the many non-doctors who are suspicious that doctors are all feathering their nests (some of them receive money from ChavezCorp lettuce harvesters), and other assorted anti-lettuce kooks. Her editor is delighted, because this is a "fight," and fight sells copy. Now who do you trust?

...and so it goes on and on.

Come on people! I'm a conservative somewhat to the right of Genghis Khan, have never voted for a pinko Democrat, but I KNOW MY SCIENCE. I have my doctorate in Geoscience, and I manage a large part of this great nation's investment in climate change science. I tell 90% of scientists asking me for money to go away, and some of them get fired because I said "no." Too bad. This is real, and we are avoiding this as assiduously as we are avoiding the fact that we have maxed out the national credit card, and no stupid "Stimulus Package" is going to address that. We all spend too much on consumer products instead of building value in our society and capital in our industries, and we spend far too much energy getting from here to there, and running all our little gadgets. I'm not concerned about the warming here, just the fact that we are exponentially increasing the use of a resource that is finite.

Whether the world is warming or not I will leave until later. The scary part is that we will be in dire straits if our energy sources are restricted. This is fear that I sympathize with in the diatribe by Coleman and his conspiracy-mongering cadre. Our alternatives are very limited - most technologies are really in their infancy, and not ready to mainstream. The only thing on deck is coal, and my bet is that we and the Chinese will burn every ounce of coal we can dig up (and the two of us have the largest coal deposits on Earth). When that runs out, look out. Time to send the Marines to get it. Our societies can't change directions on a dime, and THAT is what concerns any President - Dubya or the current occupant, Obamarama. We are currently pouring our wealth into lovely places like the Middle East and Venezuela. Billions. Trillions. Folks who I am convinced will one day suffer regime change to even more virulent rulers, and who will gladly and blindly kill their golden-egg laying goose, and set off a nuclear weapon in the USA. THAT is what concerns the President, as he slowly absorbs his daily security briefs.

So, who paid for all this 'science' that tells us about the climate? Well, actually it is the Republican administrations, mostly. Strangely, science generally does better under the GOP. Democratic administrations love social issues, but social issues are expensive, so there's usually not much left when they get to science's level in the Federal money-barrel. Republicans like science, but for a very Washingtonian reason: it allows delay on difficult issues while "more study is done." Who put together the U.S. Global Change Research Program? George H.W. Bush. Who flattened the USGCRP budget? Clinton. Subsequent occupants had other things in the money barrel that were quite expensive, so neither social issues nor science stood much of a chance during the budget-sausage-making - it ended up being a wash. I'll be interested to see what the current President does.

Do scientists like money? Wait, wait... Do bears s#!t in the forest? Are they desperate for it? Of course. Say for instance that for your job, your career, you had to write about ten major essays every year and submit them to the government, manage an office, and continually hire employees. Your boss keeps yelling at you to sell product, which actually means writing several extra essays and sending them to magazines. Most of your essays get rejected. About 90% of them. But that's your only product, so you are desperate. Every two years or so, your boss puts you in front of a committee, and you are told you are not working hard enough, and are not smart enough to work at your company, so you have to resign and go find a lesser-ranked company that does not push so hard, and has lower quality employees. Welcome to academia for the vast majority of scientists. That's why they accept money from industry, and from people who have vested interests in the outcomes of their research, which can potentially later ruin their careers. Of course the smart ones build empires - they are ambitious as well as smart. It's the American thing to do.

OK, now that I have outgassed, on to global warming.

The main "greenhouse gases" water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are present in the atmosphere in very small amounts (0.4% H2O, 0.035% CO2, 0.0001745% CH4, 0.00003% NO2). Yes, that's very small. So who says something has to be big to have an effect? If you don't believe it, I have a very small amount of Plutonium for you. Go on, swallow! It's less than 0.00003% of your weight!

We know these gases are increasing in concentration. We know they have been high in the past (much higher, in fact than they are now). However, from the isotope signatures in the current atmosphere, we can tell that this latest increase is in large part due to our activities (transport, construction and electric power generation are the main sources). If there are any left, any elementary school science teacher can give you a kindergarten-level demonstration involving breathing into empty 2 liter coke bottles, thermometers and a lightbulb that will show that CO2 absorbs more energy. The same experiment with CH4 and NO2 we leave for slightly higher levels of education. So, the sad truth is that most of this might actually be of our making. But is it bad? Can't we plant more stuff in Canada now? Yes, of course, there will be some winners in all of this. And some losers, like the American southwest, which is in for a drought that may last several centuries. We will have to adapt, because there is no other choice. Some adaptations will actually increase our wealth. That will be an interesting game which I am all for, because America is very good at that kind of game once we get in gear. The bad thing is that this is all very positive for the first few decades, even perhaps a century. After that, things look like they are really different. Different enough that we do not understand the fundamentals of the system.

Do you remember doing titrations in high-school chemistry? Waiting for that very last drop to change the color of the solution? Do you remember that the pH changed very suddenly when you reached that last drop? Do you remember that this was actually an experiment in a 'buffered system' where you could add a lot of acid to the solution and not really affect the pH very much? Most of the Earth's chemical cycles are buffered, and they can take a lot of change before 'changing color.' Thank goodness, because we keep getting hit by meteors, volcanoes pour out magma and all sorts of gases, and oceans keep getting created and closed by plate tectonics. This means that all the inputs and drains for the various chemicals in the system keep getting turned on or off, and the system still stays relatively stable, most of the time. The problem occurs when you get to that last drop, that tipping point. Then you get a shift to some other semi-stable configuration, and it might or might not be friendly to trilobites, to dinosaurs, or... to society as it runs today. We simply do not know what kind of system will result. Worse, we have no idea where that point is. It could be 500 years from now. It could be a within our lifetime. This is typical behavior for a chaotic system. I am fully confident that humans will survive, but just as certain that it will not be all of us, and we will not be able to live the way we do today.

I knew Roger Revelle, and I have met David Keeling, Hans Dieter Suess, Fred Singer, and Maurice Strong. I have no desire to meet Gore, and I don't know Chauncey Starr. I do not get invited to the Bohemian Grove gatherings, and I am a proud member of the hoi-pelloi. Coleman's logic is a personal insult to all of them, and could be compared to a childish attack on Coleman for daring to have such a blatantly pro-energy surname.

My conclusion: Coleman is an ostrich. A respected ostrich.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Chilean Scree

In December of 1996 I travelled to Termas de Chillán, Chile for a meeting as part of the work I was doing at the time for the National Science Foundation. I flew to Santiago, and then took a flight on LanChile to Concepción, where I got a rental car for the drive to Chillán. The drive was quite long, several hours, but it was through country that was beautiful -- Chile always reminds me so much of Colombia that I never mind driving there.

Chillán is a largish town in the peneplane of the Andes, laid out in a typical Spanish colonial plan - plaza mayor with a church, the alcaldía, etc. - colored half-walls wish whitewashed tops. I could have been anywhere in Boyacá. A small road lead out of Chillán towards the hot springs, or termas, which I took, and soon left the pavement for a fairly smooth gravel road, which would its way through the foothills towards the mountains. In the distance, as a surreal backdrop to the town, was the volcano of Chillán, a beautiful cone with a snow-capped peak. As is usual at high altitudes, it looked a lot closer than it actually was, because the air is so clear. Slowly, the farm clearings were less frequent, and I realized that the seemingly endless pine forests of Chile were all artificial - they have been replanted with European species to replace the abandoned farmlands of the first wave of settlers that have fled to the cities. The native forests of Chile are starkly different from the pine forests - the first thing that strikes you is the stunning number of different types of trees - and the 'roughness' of the leaf cover. A riot of cellulose, thrown carelessly over the steep hillsides, covered in lichen, moss, and creepers. Among these forests were all sorts of cabins for what I guess were winter (June-July) holiday-makers, who wanted to be near the ski slopes in Termas.

As I sped along the road, I saw a dark shape on the road ahead, and quickly realized that it was someone lying in the road, next to a bicycle. I hate to say it, but my first thought was: "ambush," and I brought the car to a slow crawl next to the unfortunate soul - I rolled down the window, and carefully looked at him and at the surrounding trees as I crunched by on the dry gravel. There was no movement - none. He did not look injured, no blood, no scrapes, not even torn clothing, which made me suspicious. I stopped the car, locking my doors, and thought hard about what to do. In the US or Europe, there was no question about what to do. Get out and help. But here... I thought about blowing the horn, and I decided that might help, if not startle the victim, so I sat for several minutes blowing the horn. Nothing. Not from the limp rag on the ground, not from the cabins along the road, not from the dark trees. Finally, I had to leave. What else could I do? I was quite afraid of being attacked, or worse, kidnapped. Perhaps this was Colombian hysteria invading a safe part of Chile, or memories of my Moroccan roadblock experience, but I decided to head off to see if I could find other people to come back with. A few miles farther down the road, I found a police station, and I roused an officer there and told him of what I had found. The police officer headed off back down the road on a horse. I never did find out what happened, but I felt that I had done all I could for the man. I headed on to the Termas and to my meeting, climbing ever higher into the mountains.

The Termas are really a cluster of Germanic chalets centered about a set of hot springs. There is a ski complex for which this all serves as a typical base lodge during the winter, with a set of chair lifts etc. The meeting was going well (it had already started by the time I arrived), and I was simply there to give a speech, and not really to take part in many of the discussions, so I had a great deal of spare time. During much of the spare time, people would wander off on some of the many forest trails for walks. Some of these walks were quite strenuous, as they climbed steep mountain trails that headed off to different hot springs, mud baths, and sulphur pits in the area. Again, looming over all this was the volcano, looking ever so much closer. I took several walks, each longer and longer, seeing how high I could climb in the surrounding mountains - several times I got above the clouds, and was able to see for hundreds of miles over the amazing ranges nearby.

Each time, I could see that the volcano was actually on the next range over, and that a days' hike would easily bring one to the snow line on the side of the mountain itself. I decided to take the next day and climb at least to the snow line, and to the summit if the time went well. I got up very early, before sunrise, gathered some food, my camera, and put on several layers of clothes. Feeling satisfied that I was ready, I headed off, and drove to the bottom of the path that I had found up at the stem baths, headed past the sulphur vents, past the bubbling mud pits, and up far along the trail, until the car was a tiny green dot, and the base complex was a set of small buildings thousands of feet below. I reached the end of the trail within an hour or so after that, and continued up into the clouds, clambering over rocks that were literally shattered from the daily freezing and thawing they went through at his height. It was a beautifully sunny day, and I soon had to peel off my outer layer to cool down. I had brought along some water and some trail mix, which I carefully rationed out as the day wore on. Even though the marked trail had ended, it was obvious other people had come before me -- small cairns were erected along the faint footpath, and here and there there was the careless litter of other hikers. Soon there was snow covering the ground on the more sheltered parts of the path, and soon I had to pick my way across large sheets of it, punching my feet through the upper crust of ice to get a foothold. Above, always over the next ridge, was the volcano, drifting in and out of the clouds. I picked out my path as I came to higher vantage points, headed in the general direction of a saddle that I could see linking my ridge with the slopes of the volcano.

By noon time, I could tell that I would certainly not make it to the summit -- the volcano was a lot larger, and a lot farther away than I had originally judged. What was obvious was that I would be able to make it to the permanent snow line, and cross over to the top of the ski lift, where the rest of the Conference was headed for an afternoon outing. Once they turned on the chair lift for the group. I could easily get home without the exhausting trek back downhill.

As I came over one spectacular set of ridges, I could make out that the saddle was now quite close, but below me. The only way this could be so was if there were a set of steep cliffs between my position and the saddle. As I moved sideways several hundred yards to get a better view of the topography in front of me, I realized with dismay that there was indeed a set of steep cliffs on my previous path, and that there was no immediate way to get from the ridge I was on down to the saddle and across to the volcano without climbing down the cliff face, or traversing an enormous scree slope.

A scree slope is an interesting feature - as the cliffs weather, pieces of rock splinter off and fall down to form piles of broken rock, ranging from pebbles to pieces just heavy enough not to be able to lift. All of this 'scree' formed a steep slope sitting at the angle of repose that started at the foot of the cliffs and dropped several thousand feet into the valley below. I knew crossing scree slopes was dangerous. I knew doing it alone was doubly dangerous. No one at the conference really knew where I was -- one person did know I was on the volcano, but as I was finding out, it was a very big place to look for a very small person. I could clearly see the chair lift, about a mile away (or so I judged, but I was now questioning all estimates of distance), and I knew that the walk back was difficult. The scree slope was about 800 yards across. To make it worse, the clouds had started to come in, and a stiff wind had started to blow. I pulled the hood of my anorak over my head, and tightened it around my face, sealing out the wind, and decided to cross the scree slope.

I slowly started to crawl on all fours, distributing my weight evenly so that I could avoid shifting too many stones. Several times my shoes caught on the sharp edges of the shattered stones, and the disturbed rocks would start to roll, crashing down the slope until they were too far away to see. I made good progress, and was about five hundred yards out on the scree slope when I realized that my blood sugar was getting low, and that I was beginning to get more and more careless.

Then I heard, or rather felt, a sound that made my blood freeze. A very low rumble shook the entire slope, and I felt the scree shift underneath me. I began to think about what the angle of repose meant - that the slope was unstable, and that anything - a careless hiker, for example - could set off a massive rock slide. If the scree face shifted, I stood a good chance of going down with it, and being buried and chewed up by the grinding rocks. I very carefully lowered myself onto the rock face and listened. Only the wind whistled by, carrying a few droplets of rain and sleet. I started to shake with fear, and fought rising panic that was tightening around my throat.

I knew I had to sit tight, calm myself, and either continue or turn back immediately. A, I thought about you and your mother, and how much I loved you both. I moaned and started to cry as I thought about you growing up without me, never knowing how I had died in the Andes, I thought about my mother, who was so sick and how this would affect her. I desperately wanted some miracle to occur, and to be magically transported away from the scree and back to Virginia.

By this time, of course, things were compounding. The clouds had closed in, and the drops had turned into snowflakes - it was now snowing, and I realized that I could no longer see the chair lift, or much of the slope of the volcano. I also knew that the snow was slowly covering up my tracks, and that if it started to snow hard, I stood a good chance of getting lost. I had to make an immediate decision. Trembling, I turned back the way I came, and inched back across what seemed an endless skirt of scree.

I don't know how long it took me to get off the slope, and I have since regretted not taking photos of that last part (I think the film had run out), even if it was to leave some scrap of evidence for people to look at if the camera was found. Needless to say, I did make it back down the mountain to the car, and back to the hotel room and my Conference. I haven't gone climbing alone since, and haven't gone near a scree slope, even when with someone else.

Monday, September 22, 2008

All I want is my two front teeth:

From CBC Radio's "Quirks and Quarks" podcast:

Dr. Joy Richmond, Professor of Pediatric Dentistry at UBC, just mentioned that many of the present dental problems are actually caused by our highly processed food.

In the past (and as recently as the Dark Ages), our food was quite coarse, containing a lot of grit and abrasive material that ground our teeth down. This wear allowed our teeth to fit better in our jaws. That wear is no longer a factor, and our teeth retain their points much longer than is natural, which causes much more force to torque the teeth each time we chew (or grind our teeth), and it is this that causes much of the crookedness and crowding in modern teeth.

This is visible when we look at the statistics of dental problems in ancient skulls - in general, older skulls have fewer dental problems than modern ones (although of course, if you did have problems, they were probably pretty agonizing, since there was little that could be done about it).

Monday, September 01, 2008

Yoda loves it

I spotted this chocolate bar brand on the shelves yesterday. What an odd name. And before you Star Wars freaks flame me, yes, I know Yoda's hideout was spelled 'Dagobah.' Apparently it is a Sinhalese word for stupa.

Friday, August 29, 2008

A Theory and a Request


To whom it may concern, August 29th, 2008
When we get to the National Science Foundation’s website after we utilize this mobile internet we just got today, as we have heard about the foundation on National Public Radio. We are [names removed] and are students at Indiana/Purdue University’s IPFW campus in Fort Wayne Indiana. We approach you however, independent of the Universities’ credentials, because we would like to conduct this idea under our own studies, having access to the professors, staff, information, and equipment that all students who attend do. We have been in attendance in []’s instance since January of 2005, where she is on the brink of more than one minor degree, and a chemistry course away from General Education. Amongst other profound endeavors that is, including these proposals, theoretical hypothesizes, and parenting. We have many calculations and information assembled in this cause, and have written NOAA about the following ideas and have received correspondence from them on this to follow, with links to exceptional maps and data; everything involved of the world. We understand the theories and mechanics needing to be changed, challenged, properly how, citations included, and perhaps how to make lots of noise.

Just look at the continents, it is taught in the science courses of elementary school and therefore known that the largest fit back together on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge; Greenland, North America, South America, Africa, Europe… There is exceptional movement in the Indian Ocean of Australia and the islands of the pacific. There is the location in the northeastern Euro-Asian continent where a great depression underlain of that was deepest; and then thereby filled by the eastern Euro-Asia landmass, evident by the mountain bunching phenomena that is exclusive to the Northern and Southern Asian complexes. All, over billions of years in those matters indeed.

But none have moved as far as Antarctica, having traveled down the pacific basin before the supercontinent separated much, part of that grand cataclysm and wrought out of the Arctic Ocean in the north. This is why the Pacific Floor is so smooth on the ocean floor off the West coast of America; one can view the equilaterally vertical trenches that gape across the horizontal decline from the Arctic Ocean basin to Antarctica multiply in succession and disappear under the Western North and South American continents; among other places crashed open by the cataclysm that laid open the worlds entire surface in and at the many huge cracks over the globe. These are in addition to the oppositional characteristics, as the Atlantic Trench and with the many other fractures certainly provide the evidence of their own existence. It is almost as if the original supercontinent was stamped out of the entire pacific basin originally, then oriented however to then be divided by another cataclysm whereby knocking Antarctica from the Arctic Basin to the South Pole and possibly breaking the supercontinent in two at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
Antarctica is broken into three segments of land, the main body, and then conjunctively to the great ice shelves, to a contacting medium land mass, that is also oppositely connected to a third land mass which is small and tail like. The middle mass bares a unique and nearly 180 degree rotation from the affixing coastal point upon the main land mass, and the small tail mass affixes directly towards the main mass, non-rotated. We believe that the opposite side of Antarctica hit hard and fast at the bottom of the Earth, and is rumpled.

We feel as though we can discount any contrary geological or geographical evidence that is against this rough theory and since it is stated by us that we are seeking a grant of money to take the time and effort to research and propose a tectonic explanation and descriptive evolution of the general processes that caused this geography to come into is present being as the known surface of the earth. If you would play heavy to us, we will devise the mechanics of the unified fields of the universe, explain gravity, and produce a superior algorithm to define the process of quantitative analysis and resolution that will define the physical structure of numbers as the most efficient process therefore, and show the world the shape of a finite core’s connection that progresses uniformly into higher quantitative fields that will define the universal mechanic in work over the entire universe. This by the definition of the field as was the old definition and applied to thus; while being uniform to many of the rules and laws of Physics.

But for now, won’t you supply us a grant for the sake of the planet in the name of Antarctica from the Arctic Ocean? You know, there is a great oval ring of mountains as a crater near 15percent of our planet large, when you generate that which has moved and that which has not moved much at the top of the planet? It is evident by the Aleutians and the northern mountain ranges. What a puzzle indeed. What we desire for the formulation and establishment of the mechanics are around 72,000 dollars for the year in which we would like to conduct our research analysis, and challenges to existing theories. That is 36,000 for each of us for this very year. If there are formalities or greater extrapolations necessary to attain such grants from you, then please forward the appropriate forms and requirements for us to complete. Thank you for you time, and considerations.

Sincerely Yours Truly,
[names removed...]


I was suitably impressed, but not convinced that this merited an award.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Screen Sharing gone mad:

This is what happens when you screen share from one machine, and then screen share back to the original:

The interesting part is that the farther back you go, the farther back in time you are, so it is much like the display of Time Machine itself, with the past receding into the background. As each screen refreshes, it carries its events backwards by one step.

This is the first time I have been able to get "Back to My Mac" working through all the various firewalls.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Jaque: El bien germina ya

I am always proud to be Colombian on the 20th of July, but this year it was the 2nd of July that I was most proud of.

Well done!

Libérenlos ya!

Monday, June 09, 2008

iPhone 3G

July 11 is the word

Hmm. I've held off until now - my current non-iPhone contract is up soon. ...temptation strikes, especially with the push-synchronization features with my Outlook setup at work...

USD$199 for an 8 gig model, USD$299 for the 16 gig.

More here, at Apple.