A geek moment

Yesterday I bought the new PCalc for iOS 8, which is a fantastic calculator program that now lets you customize your layout. I’ve been having a fine time tweaking keys and creating new ones that do all of my most-used conversions (Celsius to Fahrenheit, kilometers to miles, kilograms to pounds, euros to US dollars, etc.). When I got through all of those, I began checking out the various options for my remaining key spaces. And that’s when I found this:


…which made me laugh out loud. I wonder if reading Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a prerequisite for app coding classes?

I might have to put that key on my layout just because it makes me snort.

Posted in humor | 2 Comments

Gravitational waves, part II

Planck cosmic microwave background

Remember how, back in March, the science-heads were agog about new evidence of gravity waves from the Big Bang? I wrote a happily awed post about it, in which this sentence is particularly relevant:

Of course, the results must be replicated for this discovery to be confirmed…

Ahem. Well, it seems that confirmation is not going to happen this year. Or for a few years, if ever.

The BICEP team was attempting to locate gravity waves by isolating primordial radiation from surrounding “noise,” or other forms of light polarization. When you’re looking back in time 13 billion years or so, you’re talking very, very, very faint light. Light that is easily interfered with. BICEP’s paper indicated that all sources of interference had been anticipated and accounted for, including interstellar dust.

Here’s the problem: the data that the BICEP team used to control for interstellar dust was not raw data. It came from a PowerPoint slide that was presented at a conference. Of course it would have been great if the BICEP team had been given access to the actual data rather than the processed results from a PowerPoint PDF, but the original slide was presented by the European Space Agency’s Planck team—which was in direct competition with BICEP.

So BICEP used this slide to locate an area of space relatively free of interstellar dust, and that’s where the telescope was aimed. BICEP also used the slide to estimate the amount of dust in that area, and then subtract it from the collected data.

Naturally, as soon as BICEP released its not-yet-peer-reviewed paper, the Planck team pounced on it and performed its own analysis of dust distribution. Their conclusion: that stuff is everywhere, including the point of space BICEP used in its study. The abstract says:

We show that even in the faintest dust-emitting regions there are no “clean” windows where primordial CMB B-mode polarization could be measured without subtraction of dust emission.

Thus BICEP’s results are in question because the point of space its scientists thought was relatively free of interstellar dust isn’t that free after all. Which means that the polarization patterns BICEP detected may not be signs of gravity waves, but rather signs of…dust.

There is good news, however. In the course of its analysis, Planck identified several areas that would make better candidates for trying to detect gravity wave polarization. And the last line of the abstract says:

The present uncertainties will be reduced through an ongoing, joint analysis of the Planck and BICEP2 data sets.

In other words, “Let’s work together.”

(The image is of Plank’s measurement of the cosmic microwave background.)

Posted in astronomy | Leave a comment

Aurora in real time

Not a slideshow of still photos, not a time lapse, but real time video of a gorgeous aurora display in Yellowknife, Canada.

How could a person ever look away?

Posted in video, weather | 1 Comment

The rescue

Last night while I was prepping dinner, I heard the most god-awful ruckus of dogs outside.

Wild barking is not all that unusual around here. People frequently walk their dogs through the courtyard, and if the dogs aren’t trained — which is true 99.99% of the time — they sometimes have hissy fits when they see each other. I’ve learned to tune it out.

But this went on for some time, and it was a more frantic ruckus than usual. I finally went onto the veranda to see what was happening, and found two dogs running around the garden area of the building across from us, yelling their heads off. I couldn’t figure out what they were so excited about until I noticed a black shape in the very top of the pomegranate shrub. A cat.

That was enough to send me out the door and down the stairs. I walked across the courtyard and played alpha dog, scaring the dogs in the garden. They scattered, which is when I realized that there were five of them. It was a stray pack, and hell, if I’d known that I would have brought a defensive weapon with me. Dog packs are a real problem around here, and my wife and I have both been attacked on different occasions. She still has two scars from her run-in. Fortunately, I’m very good at intimidating the crap out of dogs when necessary, so I made sure they were well out of our complex before going back to check on the cat.

She was a small black cat with a red collar, and she was terrified for very good reason. I’ve no doubt those dogs would have killed her if they’d caught her. I tried to talk her down, and she took a couple of steps, but the branch bent down under her and that was as far as she’d go. Scanning the shrub, I realized that she might not be able to get down. It’s not a tree, with a good trunk to climb and regular branches. Actually I’m not even sure how she got up other than the magic of adrenaline.

Black cat

I headed back to our flat and fetched our stepladder. At the last second I got smart and put on my thickest sweatshirt. Then I went back down and set up the ladder.

When I reached out to touch the cat, her entire body was trembling. She was panicked. I soothed her, wrapped my hands around her, and pulled her off.

If you’ve ever taken a cat out of a tree, you know that it requires three hands — two to hold the cat and one to detach its claws from the branch. It was a good thing this cat was small and I could hold her one-handed, because the death grip she had on that branch was almost more than I could manage. But I finally got her out, at which point she flipped around in my hands and launched onto my chest, digging in with every available claw as she clung to safety.

I was very glad I’d worn that sweatshirt.

So there I was, standing on the ladder with a terrified cat dug into my chest and shoulder, when what should come through our courtyard but…

…the entire population of a mountain bike club. Twenty kids on bikes, roaring through. Except they didn’t just go through, because one of them got a flat tire right at the head of the stairs to the street, not ten meters from me and the cat. He and a couple of his friends stopped to fix the flat, but the other eighteen or so riders couldn’t stand being still, so they rode continual circuits — down the steps, get off the bike and run it back up the steps, get back on, ride around the guy with the flat and go back down the steps.

The cat was freaked. There was no way I could climb off that ladder and set her down with the bike circus going on right next to us. So I stood on the damn ladder for ten minutes, with the cat suctioned to me and absolutely unwilling to move, until the kid finally fixed his flat and the whole gang whizzed down the stairs for good.

Ah, peace and quiet. I carefully backed down the ladder and crouched down. The cat jumped off my shoulder and onto the garden wall, where she stood with her tail bushed out for several seconds. Then she realized she was safe, and sat down calmly. I wished her well, packed up the ladder and left.

There are holes in my sweatshirt. Did I mention I was glad I wore it?

Posted in good news, life | 9 Comments

Happiness is…

Spices and teas

…a box full of spices and teas from my favorite local spice merchant. One great thing about living in the Algarve is how many of these bags are produced from locally grown crops, including two of my favorite “too late at night to have any caffeine” teas, Boa Noite and chamomile. The Boa Noite tea is an infusion of leaves and flowers from a dozen species, both native and cultivated. Combined with a touch of honey, it’s simply wonderful.


While placing my order, I discovered that my merchant carries two types of cinnamon: Cassia (Cinnamomum cassia or aromaticum), which is the kind I’ve used all my life, and Ceylon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum or verum), which I’ve never tried before. A bit of research turned up the fact that the Ceylon variety is the most commonly used in Europe, while Cassia is the most commonly used in North America. As it turns out, many recipes calling for cinnamon were originally meant for Ceylon, not Cassia. And there is a marked difference in the scent and taste: Ceylon is sweeter and far more subtle, adding a richness to drinks and desserts that Cassia can’t manage.

Last night I tested the Ceylon in my hot cocoa, and wow, what a difference. Instead of shouting “Cinnamon!” over the taste of the cocoa, the spice simply immerses itself into the drink and brings all the cocoa flavors to a higher level. “Rich” is a good way to describe it. I’m hooked.

Posted in food | 7 Comments

Wallpaper Monday

Aurora by Woodend

Winner of the Earth and Space category and overall Winner of the Astronomy Photographer of the Year, 2014 — a glorious aurora photo by James Woodend. You can read more about it on the Greenwich Observatory’s page, and look at many more gorgeous photos while you’re at it.

For me, it’s the arc of light and its reflection that make this photo. There are a zillion beautiful aurora photos out there, but the symmetry in this one stands out.

(Click the image to borealize.)

Posted in wallpaper | 3 Comments

Scotland referendum results in one image

This might be the most perfect thing I’ll see all week.

Reinstall scotland

I sincerely hope that as Scotland is reinstalled, the divisions caused by the campaign don’t cause any bugs. Or perhaps I should say, more bugs than already existed.

May Scotland v.2.0 be prosperous, and may the memories of Westminster politicians last longer than such things are wont to do.

Posted in Europe, politics | 4 Comments

Wallpaper Wednesday

Bardarbunga volcano

It’s not really large enough to be a good wallpaper (975 x 650 pixels), but what a shot! This is the lava flow, smoke, and ash clouds of an eruption from Holuhraun Fissure, near Iceland’s Barbabunga Volcano.

If Mordor existed, surely it would look like this.

(Click the image to biggify, and to see more photos of the eruption.)

Posted in wallpaper | Leave a comment

Filed under “What the hell is that?”


Pilots of ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicles) are always getting to see cool stuff in the ocean depths, but this one takes the cake. Tentatively identified as a siphonophore — a collective group of organisms operating as a single entity — it’s an awesome purple in color and a shape like I’ve never seen before. Neither had the ROV operators, whose voices can be heard in this video saying things like, “I can’t believe that’s a living thing.”

The best part of operating ROVs is that we get to see creatures like this alive, well, and moving about in their native environment, rather than bringing up limp, dead, colorless bodies from the depths and trying to figure out what they were. I love “leave no trace” science. (Except for those glaring lights, but I don’t think those really faze a siphonophore.)

Posted in biology, video | 3 Comments

Wallpaper Wednesday

Porto lighthouse

The Farol de Felgueiras (or Felgueiras Lighthouse) near Porto, Portugal, gets some massive waves during winter storms. This photo is actually a combination of two images: the original showing the wave topping the lighthouse, and another to introduce lower waves in the foreground. It was taken in January 2013 and was made a Photo of the Day by National Geographic.

Note to self: This winter, get to the coast during one of those storms.

(Click on the image to embiggen. The download button is just below the photo on the NG page.)

Posted in Portugal, wallpaper | 4 Comments