Wallpaper Monday

Green Lake

No, it’s not a Photoshop job. It’s Green Lake (Grüner See), in Tragöss, Austria. Photographer Marc Henauer writes:

In spring, snowmelt raises the lake level about 10 meters. This phenomenon, which lasts only a few weeks, covers the hiking trails, meadows, and trees. The result is magical-to-watch diving landscapes.

(Click the image to inundate.)

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Wallpaper Tuesday: Cassini


I forgot to post a wallpaper yesterday because holy cow, did you see the Tour de France stage? It was incredible! We were glued to our TV.

Today is a rest day on the Tour, thank heavens, because I need to get some work done. But first it’s time to catch up on something I’ve let slip — the tenth anniversary of Cassini’s arrival in the Saturnian system.

There have been lots of geeky anniversary celebrations, but if you like pretty pictures, Ars Technica has the best selection (and the easiest to page through), including the image at the top. That’s Titan — the largest of Saturn’s moons and the second largest in our solar system — crossing the face of Saturn with the planet’s rings in a remarkable edge-on view. The shadow of the rings covers much of Saturn’s lower half.

If you’d like a blast from the past, check out Carolyn Porco’s blissed-out essay, written the day after her dream of exploring Saturn’s system — fourteen years in the making! — came true with a flawless insertion of the long-traveling Cassini probe into Saturn’s orbit. The essay is a textual time capsule, a space pioneer’s thoughts at the very beginning of what is now a 10-year success story of immense proportions. If life were fair, Carolyn Porco would be a household name.

Her essay begins:

There are times when human language is inadequate, when emotions choke the mind, when the magnitude of events cannot properly be conveyed by the same syllables we use to navigate everyday life. Last night, the evening of June 30, 2004 was such a time.

In a history-making maneuver so flawless, so perfect it seemed dreamt, one comparatively tiny machine, along with its builders, its operators, its scientists, its well-wishers — indeed, all of humankind — fell into the embrace of giant Saturn, a place that had been a distant destination, in the mind and in the future, for nearly a decade and a half.

It’s long, but very much worth the read. Like her colleague Carl Sagan, Carolyn Porco is a scientist with the heart of a poet.

Star Talk Radio interviewed her this month, in two episodes titled “Madame Saturn: A Two-Part Conversation with Carolyn Porco.” If you listen to podcasts, check this one out. Here’s an overview of the second part, which will give you a taste.

And this is two weeks late, but: Happy anniversary, Cassini and Carolyn.

(Click the image to titanate.)

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How to change a town’s personality

One thing I have always loved about Loulé is that it’s a real Portuguese town, by which I mean there are no chain stores here. If you want Starbucks, try Lisboa. If you want KFC, Burger King or McDonald’s, you’ll need to go to the bigger coastal towns or the malls.

Until now.

About two months ago we noticed some construction across the street from one of our largest grocery stores. It proceeded at an incredible rate by Portuguese standards. I’ve watched buildings take more than a year to finish, but this one was thrown up in about six weeks. The landscaping took another couple of weeks.

I mentioned it to my wife when the building was first being framed, and said it looked like a fast food restaurant. The next time we both drove by, she said, “It looks like a McDonald’s.”

And then these banners popped up all over town:

McDonald s banner


Loulé now has McDonald’s!
Oh, what a great joy
McDonald’s has arrived
to this land of poetry!

(Excuse me while I go wash my brain.)

Then the fliers appeared in our mailboxes, announcing the grand opening and offering us a free sundae if we ordered a burger. Que alegria!

I’m sure some tourists will be delighted to have a familiar “face” in town, but we’re crushed. It feels like Loulé just lost some of its soul. This isn’t a tourist town, really — it’s too far inland. But it does become very touristy on Saturday, when the daily market doubles in size and the flea market (here called the gypsy market) sets up at the edge of town. Entire buses pull in just to deliver tourists for the morning, and the town makes a lot of income in those few hours.

But that’s Saturday until one o’clock. The rest of the week, this is a town for the locals, most of whom won’t go to McDonald’s. The food is terrible compared to local cafés and restaurants, and not cheap either. The kids will probably love it, though, and the restaurant is conveniently located very near several elementary schools. Just what our kids need, easy access to the American fast food diet.

Look out, Loulé, the barbarians are at the gate.

Posted in life, science | 4 Comments

An accident of theres

In a rare moment of reading for fun, versus for editing or doing my own writing, I’m hanging with Jasper Fforde’s One of Our Thursdays is Missing, the sixth in the Thursday Next series. I had to stop and laugh at this section:

The taxi slowed down and stopped as the traffic ground to a halt. The cabby made some enquiries and found that a truckload of their had collided with a trailer containing there going in the opposite direction, and had spread there contents across the road.

‘Their will be a few hiccups after that,’ said the cabby, and I agreed. Homophone mishaps often seeped out into the RealWorld and infected the Outlanders, causing theire to be all manner of confusions.

This explains so much.

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Sit down and bliss out

Turn down the lights, turn on the speakers, and watch some fabulous photography of the night sky. Here are the winning and honorable mention photos from the 5th International Earth and Sky Photo Contest, and they’re lovely.

A couple of things I noted:

1. There are three Oregon photos in here, one labeled and two not. (The two unlabeled shots are of Crater Lake and Yaquina Head Lighthouse.)

2. There are nine judges and only one of them is a woman? Really?

Posted in astronomy, video | 3 Comments

Best wedding photo ever and other tidbits

Wedding tornado

I’ve been saving up a few links in my tabs, and it’s time to clear ‘em out. To get started…

A Saskatchewan, Canada photographer had the opportunity of a lifetime when a tornado photobombed her shoot. The photo of the happy couple kissing is equally awesome. This couple can never, ever get divorced.

Science magazine (abstract here) has published the results of a study that found people are so uncomfortable being alone with nothing but their thoughts that they will actually subject themselves to a nasty electric shock just for the distraction. Wait, did I say people? I meant men. Only 25% of women in the study shocked themselves, but 67% of the men did. Here’s the best part:

…every participant had already received the shock before the trial. And every one had said they would pay to not experience it again. Hard cash.

“What is striking,” the investigators write, “is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid.”

This is amusing until you think about the people that US prisons have held in solitary confinement for weeks, months, and even years.

You have GOT to listen to this one-minute audio clip and hear the “sound illusion” for yourself. Don’t read the text first. Just listen to the clip. Here is what will happen: You will hear an artificially garbled bit of speech, which you will be utterly unable to understand. Then you will hear the actual speech. Then you’ll hear the garbles again, and this time…you’ll understand. Which is impossible, because it’s exactly the same recording. What has changed is that now your brain expects to hear certain patterns, and so it does. It’s a beautiful illustration of how our brains use previously-learned information to make sense of sensory input.

Check out this cool NASA prototype for a new exploratory rover. It’s designed to operate underwater and even cling to the bottom of ice, because the places in our solar system most likely to house any kind of life are those with liquid bodies, frozen or otherwise. Europa, here we come!

Posted in astronomy, life, science | 6 Comments

Wallpaper Monday

Yorkshire TdF

The imagery from Yorkshire on the first two days of this year’s Tour de France was jaw-dropping. We’ve been parked in front of our TV, working and occasionally looking up to check the screen. “Scenery!” we call out if there’s something lovely on, which alerts the other to stop and look. If it’s really gorgeous — such as Bolton Abbey, holy cow — we’ll stop our DVR, rewind, and watch it again. Ah, the joys of constantly recording television.

We have already agreed that Yorkshire is on our “must visit very soon” list. There are fairly cheap flights from here to there, so it’s feasible as a budget trip. In the meantime, seeing that much green has made my Oregon brain very happy, while seeing all of the fabulous ruins and the rugged landscape has made my literary brain happy, too. That scenery explains a lot about the great Victorian era English writers.

For those who don’t want bicycles in their wallpaper (hard as that is for me to understand), here’s a gorgeous shot of Swaledale. Both images are from the Guardian.

(Click either image to yorkify.)

Yorkshire Swaledale

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It’s official; I am no longer entirely American

Yesterday I spent the whole day writing, to the exclusion of pretty much everything else (just ask my poor neglected wife). Late in the afternoon an email came in from a Spanish friend commenting that it was my “National Day,” and I had no idea what she was talking about.

Today I opened my laptop and noticed that the date was July 5.

“Hey, it’s the start of the Tour de France!” I said, and happily settled down to watch gorgeous footage of Yorkshire. (The Red Arrows flying in formation over Harewood House is now one of my favorite moments of a Grand Départ.)

After the stage ended and Mark Cavendish went down in a nasty crash that made us cringe to watch it (seriously, ow), I checked various news sites to see if anyone knew the extent of his injury, which sure looked like a broken collarbone to me. And that’s when I started seeing photos of fireworks and remembered that yesterday was Independence Day back home. Oh, that national day! Wow, totally forgot.

I used to be painfully aware of every holiday that I was missing. Now I’m so detached that even when a friend comments on a US holiday, I don’t make the connection. I wonder if there’s a name for that phase of expatriation. Going native?

Anyway, tomorrow the Tour starts in York, and on Monday it’s from Cambridge to London. Can’t wait.

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Austerity at work


Between 8:00 and 9:15 this morning, the public health clinic of Loulé—which serves a concelho (district or county) with a population of 70,600—had exactly zero physicians working in urgent care.

This is illegal, as the law requires a minimum of two doctors in urgent care at all times, 24/7. But when the Ministry of Health cuts funding to the public clinics and then cuts it again, and then again, it’s hard to pay the doctors—or the nurses, clerks, or even the people who do the cleaning and maintenance. Loulé’s health clinic used to have 8–10 doctors on staff. It now has two, covering both urgent care and scheduled care. And if one of them gets sick or otherwise can’t come to work…well, that’s a problem.

Other staff has been similarly cut. Our public health clinic is literally falling apart. But hey, the report card to Portugal’s austerity overlords looks good! See how much money we’ve cut from our budget?

Yesterday morning the public health clinic was also operating illegally, with only one doctor in urgent care, and not full time at that. Monday was a similar situation.

The agency that operates our clinics responded to this ongoing problem not by sending over an additional doctor or two, but by ordering the only other doctor in the clinic—the one responsible for seeing patients who have made appointments—to work in urgent care instead. This meant rescheduling all of the appointments for all of the patients who were supposed to come in today, yesterday and Monday. They will now have to wait until the end of August.

The President of the Town Hall (think mayor) was alerted to the situation, and got fairly irate about it. He’s been trying for some time to get funding released from the Ministry of Health, and it’s just not happening. So he decided to bring a little publicity to the problem, and ordered his staff to move his office to the front of the public health clinic.

As it turns out, he was in a meeting with the President of the São Brás Town Hall (the neighboring district) when he was alerted to the problem. The São Brás President said, “Hey, we’re having the exact same problem with our clinic, and I can’t get anyone to listen to me, either. Let me go with you.”

So two Town Hall Presidents sat outside the health clinic today, working in their “office” with mobile phones, paperwork, and iPads. It attracted a bunch of attention, with reporters from many newspapers (including one of the nation’s largest) and TV news stations swarming over. I sincerely hope it gives a nice, juicy black eye to the Ministry of Health. This is how you run a third-world nation, not a developed one that was once proud of its public health program.

But that pride, and that quality medical program, was before austerity.

(Original Portuguese article here.)

Posted in Portugal | 1 Comment

A dose of homesickness

I opened up my Atlantic newsfeed this morning and what did I see but this headline:

The Gem of the Pacific Northwest: A Visual Ode to Oregon’s Seashore


It’s a lovely 5:45 video consisting of a series of vignettes along the north and central Oregon coast. Ah, the mist…the firs and pines, spruces and hemlocks…the quality of light…every sight and sound is so familiar. Hey, those kids are at Beverly Beach State Park! I used to live literally up the hill. And the scenes of the Newport waterfront murals at the end might have made me blur a little bit.

Sometimes being away from Oregon is harder than others. This video was a definite dose of homesickness this morning. (I can’t embed it, but the link will take you there.)

It’s been two years since my last visit. I think I need an Oregon fix.

Posted in Oregon, video | 5 Comments