The great recycle bin caper

A few weeks ago, I packed up after my Pilates class and exited the studio to find that most of my students still hadn’t left. They were milling around the courtyard, having some sort of strategy session, and several of them were holding latex gloves.

It turned out that one of my students had dropped her car keys into the plastics/cans bin while tossing her recyclables. (There are three bins right outside the place where I teach, and students often arrive with their cars full of recyclables because it’s so convenient to take care of them there.) She had already dug through as much of the bin as she could reach through the opening, to no avail. It was time for more drastic measures.

Portugal recycling bin

(Typical Portuguese recycle bins for paper, plastics/cans, and glass, from back to front.)

These recycle bins are about two meters high, so they hold a lot of stuff. There was no way my student was ever going to find her keys by reaching in through the front.

So the students got together with a couple of employees from the studio and tipped the recycle bin over in the street. This blocked half the street, but whatever, it’s Portugal. Drivers are used to that.

Fortunately for my student, the locking mechanism that keeps the bin’s bottom in place was broken, so she was able to open it up. One student held the metal bottom up and out of the way, while the rest (and my wife and I) began going through a few weeks worth of plastic and metal recyclables.

I learned one thing from this: many people do not know how to recycle. Rinsing is apparently a foreign concept. Some of the crap in that bin was disgusting, and I was very happy for my latex glove.

The student who had lost her keys crouched on the edge of the bin, reaching in with a long-handled tool that someone had lent her, scraping things forward and looking through them. Soon it became obvious that even with the tool, she couldn’t reach far enough, so a different student actually crawled inside—for which I thought she deserved the Altruistic Act of the Week award. You couldn’t have paid me to crawl in that thing.

Soon enough, the entire contents of the recycle bin were strewn around the street and sidewalk, and there was no sign of the keys. Someone said, “Did you check inside your car?” The student said yes, twice, but another person said, “I’ll just go look again.” She came back shaking her head—no keys.

Our assembly line went into reverse and we scraped all that crap back into the bin, fastened the bottom in place, and tipped it back up. Now the street was clear again, but we still had no keys.

The student said, “Oh God, I recycled glass, too. I might have dropped them in there.”

The glass bin was full. Not even the combined strength of all of us could have tipped it over, and besides that, it was obvious that this bin did not have a broken lock mechanism. We couldn’t get in.

The student thanked everyone profusely for their help, and folks began to drift away, wishing her luck as they left. She already had two offers for a ride home to pick up her spare keys, and decided to go with my wife and me. So we, and the courageous student who had crawled inside that bin, ended up being the last ones left.

We chatted a bit, and then the courageous student said goodbye and walked down the sidewalk to her car, which was parked behind the one with no keys. My wife and I headed for our car along with the keyless student.

“Hey!” we heard. “Look what I found!”

We turned to find the courageous student standing by the keyless car, holding up a large keychain. The keyless student clapped her hands to her face. “Oh thank God! WHERE did you find them?”

“On top of your car.”

Two people had looked at that car three times, and other students had walked past it on the way to their own cars, but nobody saw the keys. They were silver, attached to a silver metal keyring, on top of a silver car.

Needless to say, the student who had lost them was mortified. We all had a great laugh and went on our way, glad that the story had a happy ending.

Here’s the interesting thing. The following week in class, nobody asked that student if she’d ever found her keys. I was looking forward to it, but everyone let her off the hook. Most of my students are expats from northern Europe, so maybe this is a cultural politeness thing. If this were my class back in Oregon, no way would she have gotten away with keeping quiet. We western Americans are much nosier—especially if we were the ones sorting through dripping cans and plastics! We’d figure we deserved to know the end of the story.

I suspect my student has never been so glad that her classmates are mostly Dutch, German and British.

Posted in life, Portugal | 6 Comments

Wallpaper Monday

Icelandic sodhouse

Trying to get back on my old schedule here…

The photographer doesn’t say exactly where this is, just that it was taken in Iceland in August 2014 to showcase a traditional sod roof. A quick check on Wikipedia reveals that sod roofs were common on rural Scandinavian log houses until the late 19th century.

A sod roof or turf roof is a traditional Scandinavian type of green roof covered with sod on top of several layers of birch bark on gently sloping wooden roof boards…The load of approximately 250 kg per m² of a sod roof is an advantage because it helps to compress the logs and make the walls more draught-proof.

…Sod is also a reasonably efficient insulator in a cold climate. The birch bark underneath ensures that the roof will be waterproof.

The term ‘sod roof’ is somewhat misleading, as the active, water-tight element of the roof is birch bark. The main purpose of the sod is to hold the birch bark in place. The roof might just as well have been called a “birch bark roof”, but its grassy outward appearance is the reason for its name in Scandinavian languages: Norwegian and Swedish torvtak, Icelandic torfþak.

But this house is a modern frame construction with siding, so it’s interesting to see the old sod roof paired with it. I wonder how well it insulates compared to synthetic insulation? And whether that insulation factor increases with snow?

(Click the image to sod all.)

Posted in wallpaper | 8 Comments

Wallpaper Thursday

Castlerigg stone circle

Castlerigg Stone Circle, near Keswick, Cumbria (England). Though not as large or well-known as Stonehenge, those in the know say it’s among the most beautiful of Britain’s prehistoric monuments.

(Click the image to encirclify.)

Posted in wallpaper | 2 Comments

Cool sciency stuff

Or in the first instance, hot. The director of aerial imagery for DJI, a company that builds drones, joined up with a photographer who had the right permits and contacts to get extremely close to Holuhraun’s eruption in Iceland. The resulting footage is breathtaking.

(Note: the title sequence is incorrect; the volcano is in fact Holuhraun, which is in the Bárðarbunga system.)

From a write-up in WIRED:

During a second flight, he attempted to get even closer to the eruption, but it was out of range. When the drone would go out of range, its failsafe would trigger, bringing it back to the launch point. Cheng needed to be closer to get the shot he wanted. According to Cheng, “One of the policemen came over to us and said, ‘We checked the rules, and vehicles can’t drive closer. However, you could theoretically walk closer. I have to inform you that we officially do not recommend this, because it’s dangerous.’”

Armed with gas masks and heavy boots, Cheng stashed his drone in a backpack and hiked in another kilometer. He was finally able to fly to the edge of the eruption and capture the shots he was after as the sun was going down.

Check out the write-up; the story of how this footage was procured and what happened to the drone is interesting reading.


If, like me, you used to play with harvestmen as a kid (also known as daddy longlegs) and wondered how the heck they could ever catch any food when they were built on such a gangly and fragile model — well, the science is in, and the answer is: glue.

Here’s WIRED again (I know, but they were killing it this week):

But gluing up springtails [the preferred food of harvestmen] isn’t easy. Not only are their carapaces engineered to repel moisture (glue needs to set before it can stick), they are covered in tiny, detachable scales. However, the harvestman’s glue seems to do a good job of overcoming these counter-adaptations. The high-speed cameras showed that within 1 millisecond of contact, the glue had spread into the springtails’ complex microstructures. And as the springtail struggled against it, the glue just got stuck to more places. The glue even held against the springtails’ trademark leap.

The article embeds two videos demonstrating the effectiveness of this glue, which I watched with fascination. The sheer power in the springtails’ snaps is amazing, and yet that glue does indeed capture and set almost instantly. There must be a zillion commercial applications.


And speaking of spiders, reverseLoop’s Imgur page has photos of a spider engaging in some pretty advanced engineering. It seems the spider wanted to build a web in the arch of a garage roof, but couldn’t find a viable anchor point for the bottom of the web.

So it built one, using a suspended weight.

Spider weight

That is a small rock, wrapped in silk and then suspended from the base of the web. Here’s a close-up:

Spider weight closeup

I’d bet half the human race would not think of such a solution to this problem. Impressive.


Did you know that a fan named Christo Graham put together a new Muppet album? It is…

…wait for it…

Muppet Christ Superstar.

The vocals are a bit uneven, but “Heaven on Their Minds” is a standout, and when the chickens come clucking in at the end of “Superstar,” I laughed out loud. Seriously, the Muppets need to do this for real.

Muppet Christ Superstar

Okay, yes, that doesn’t qualify as sciency. But it was too good not to share.


And finally:

You’ve probably heard those urban legends about someone going in for an MRI and forgetting to take off their watch/earrings/ring/whatever, and having said bit of metal do all sorts of damaging stuff when the machine was fired up.

A bunch of scientists (read: juvenile delinquents in lab coats with a perfect academic excuse) got their hands on an MRI machine that was due to be decommissioned, and decided to make an educational video with it. So here for your viewing pleasure is the reality of the magnetic field in an MRI machine…plus a wrench, a stapler, an office chair…

Posted in biology, humor, science | 4 Comments

Austerity hitting home

The sheer breadth of the devastation caused by the austerity imposed upon Portugal is hard to describe without filling a book, but a quick look at this week’s local headlines gives a good overview.

Austerity check

I mentioned the €505-per-month minimum wage to one of our hosts in Scotland and he thought I was pulling his leg. That’s understandable, since the minimum wage in the UK is €1420 per month. To put that in perspective, the UK pays the lowest minimum wage in the western EU, with of course the exceptions of Spain and Greece. Even Spain manages to pay €750.

And when was the last time you saw a headline stating in relieved tones that the overall unemployment rate was stable at 14 percent? Well, compared to the 17.5 percent that it hit in the first quarter of 2013 — a record in Portugal’s history — 14 percent starts to look pretty good. Avert your eyes from the youth unemployment rate, though. It’s currently near 36 percent.

As for the pay of professionals — which has been cut every year for several years in a row — I guess we should be happy that we’re beating out some of the nations in the Middle East and Africa. Woo!

We are fortunate in that only one of those headlines applies to our family. But there’s another headline that I haven’t been seeing; an effect of austerity that isn’t as easily quantified as those numbers. And it definitely applies to our family.

Our son started school three weeks ago. As of today — the end of the third week — he still has no teachers for five of his classes.


They are: art, Portuguese, Spanish, geography, and mathematics.

Teachers are assigned their classes and schools by the state, based on their preferences and seniority. Small-town schools don’t get a lot of priority. Once the assignments are handed out, classes that didn’t get teachers and teachers that didn’t get an assignment all collect in a “market” run by the ministry of education. This market was an utter failure this year, last year, and the year before that. The result is that we now find it normal that our son will not have teachers for two or more of his classes for at least the first month of his school year.

I have to say, though, five is a new record. But it’s not all that surprising when the government laid off tens of thousands of employees from the education sector in an attempt to satisfy the austerity requirements imposed on the nation. Among those were thousands of teachers.

Our son’s maximum class size used to be 26 students. That is now the minimum, with many classes going up to 40 students. His teachers are frequently not teaching their actual expertise. He’s losing around 10% of his education time to austerity cuts and general mismanagement.

The Portuguese government has turned its back on its youth. And they are responding with what you’d expect from youths who fully understand how little valued they are: they’re making plans to leave. A recent survey of Portuguese students at the Catholic University in Lisboa found that 46% of them expect to emigrate once they finish school.

Our son may be joining the crowd. He’s already planning to finish his advanced education abroad.

He is fourteen years old. When you were fourteen, were you planning to leave your country?

Posted in Portugal | 4 Comments

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 | 3 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