The sunlit path

Watching my home nation undergo a tidal change in social understanding has been an amazing experience. There are very few times in our lives when we can know, without a doubt, that we are watching history in the making.

When Portugal recognized my marriage, I knew that returning to Oregon to live was never going to be an option—not so long as our marriage would be legally stripped away from us the moment we crossed the US border. Besides being a covenant, an oath of love and loyalty, and a socially recognized family unit, a marriage is also a bundle of legal protections. Those protections are especially important for a bi-national marriage, when one spouse can be summarily deported for overstaying a visa. And the US doesn’t issue visas or residency cards for “roommates” of citizens.

I’d be a careless and irresponsible spouse if I put my family in danger. So home was not an option.

Then the Windsor decision happened, and the US Supreme Court declared that the federal government could not treat state-sanctioned heterosexual marriages any differently from state-sanctioned same-sex marriages. There was a lot of rejoicing that day in June 2013, because those of us watching the court system knew that United States v. Windsor was going to have an enormous effect on state laws.

But even in my wildest dreams, I did not think that effect would be the tsunami it has been. There was a time when I could rattle off from memory the names of states with equal marriage rights. I can’t do that now. There are already 32 of them, nearly half of which happened just this year. (One of those was Oregon, on 19 May.) In five more states, the courts have declared the state law preventing issuance of same-sex marriage certificates to be unconstitutional, but then issued a stay on the ruling pending appeal. It is a near-certainty that those appeals will be decided in favor of equal rights.

It is now easier to remember the states that don’t have equal marriage rights than the states that do.

This gif from the Huffington Post is a good illustration of how the gradual build-up went kapow in late 2013 and 2014.

MarriageEqualityMap GIF4

Nor is it just legal change. By 2010, more Americans supported equal marriage rights than opposed them. In a single decade, the nation shifted. What made the difference?


I remember a time when the common agreement was, “If every gay person suddenly turned blue, everyone in the US would realize they’ve been living with, working with, or attending church with someone who is gay. And that those people are perfectly ordinary and normal. Wouldn’t that change everything?”

We haven’t literally turned blue, but we have been coming out in greater and greater numbers. It’s amazing how extremely conservative politicians suddenly modify their stance on equal marriage rights when they find out their own son or daughter is gay. Denying rights to a vilified “other” is one thing; denying them to someone you love is something else. And the impact of the high-profile announcements cannot be overstated. Most of us can only affect our small circle of family, friends and acquaintances, but some individuals can affect millions.

That’s why announcements such as Tim Cook’s are so important. As Tim wrote today in Bloomberg BusinessWeek:

…if hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is, or bring comfort to anyone who feels alone, or inspire people to insist on their equality, then it’s worth the trade-off with my own privacy.

Kudos to Tim for turning blue, and for leaving us with this beautiful ending to his article:

We pave the sunlit path toward justice together, brick by brick. This is my brick.

As for me, home is now an option. Of course, I’ve made Portugal my home after all these years, so I don’t plan to return to Oregon any time soon, but just knowing I can makes all the difference. When I learned that I could take my family back to Oregon if we wanted to go, I had a good cry and a large gin and tonic.

Posted in life, politics, USA, video | 9 Comments

Wallpaper Tuesday

Coquille Falls

A little view of home — Coquille Falls, on the southern Oregon coast. Portugal is such a lovely place, but it really does need more waterfalls and ferns.

(Click the image to scenify.)

Posted in wallpaper | 4 Comments

Don’t lose that number

Recently I placed an order in a shop, and the owner wanted my mobile number so that she could call me when the order came in.

I have had the same mobile number for nearly eight years. It’s burned into my brain. But I can never repeat it in Portuguese. It always happens the same way: I get five numbers into it and then lose track of where I was. Under pressure, with the clerk’s pen poised and an expectant look directed my way, I flounder back and forth in my mind, pulling up the number in English and mentally translating, then losing my place again halfway there.

Clearly, our brains (or my brain) handle the memory and translation of numbers differently from that of words. I have no problem rattling off Portuguese numbers or translating English numbers into Portuguese. But remembering a string of nine numbers in Portuguese rather than English? It just doesn’t happen. Translating it on the fly? Nope. There’s something in the combined process of numeric memory recall plus translation that puts a wrench in the works.

One of these days, I’m going to remember to print out a card with my damn number on it and stick it in my wallet. So long as the numbers are written down, I’m golden.

In the meantime, I keep finding this song running through my head.

Posted in life, Portugal | 6 Comments

Wallpaper Tuesday

Jacobite train

Photographer Vytenis Malisauskas labeled this photo “Glenfinnan Viaduct,” but it could also have been called “The Jacobite.” This is the Jacobite train, better known to moviegoers as the Hogwarts Express. The real-life route it travels from Fort William to Maillaig, Scotland isn’t quite as spectacular as the route it travels in the Harry Potter films, but it’s close. The Glenfinnan Viaduct, with its 21 arches, is so beautiful that it was imported wholesale into the Harry Potter films.

(Click the image to steamate. And yes, I know it’s Tuesday. Monday got away from me.)

Posted in wallpaper | 1 Comment

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 | 7 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