Saturday, April 29, 2006

Kayaking, Part 2

Loaded Up

As "promised" in my previous kayaking post, here's a picture of our (Beth's) Mini loaded up for a kayaking trip. Pretty silly looking, eh?

Well, we went out again today, this time to McDaniels Marsh. This body of water covers well over twice the area of Grafton Pond, although it's extremely shallow. I remembered to take a GPS unit this time. We paddled together to about 1.25 miles away from where we parked before Beth decided to stop for a rest while allowing me to go on for a while alone. I got to what I believe was pretty much the far end of the marsh, at 1.65 miles from the car.

We saw a painted turtle, some small fishes, and a few ducks. I also spotted a couple of amphibians (newts or salamanders, I'm guessing), a kingfisher, and a healthy looking snapping turtle.

When we got back to shore I flipped my boat to try draining it, and (much to my surprise) discovered that there were about a dozen (maybe more) leeches attached to the hull! Which leads to my question of the day: Does anyone out there have advice for the best way to humanely remove a leech from a kayak's belly?

I'm really quite bewildered as to why they would have attached there in the first place. Surely, they didn't find it loaded with any tasty juices!

The best approach I was able to come up with for removing them was the "grab and pull" technique. This was fairly easy in the case of the smaller ones, but the larger ones really had quite a good grip on the boat and weren't too keen on letting go. I have nothing against the leeches (although I really don't want to transport them around the state) and I have no desire to cause them any harm. I can't help but think that the amount of squeezing I had to do to maintain my grip must have been uncomfortable, if not downright damaging, to the poor creatures. Perhaps I'm underestimating just how hardy they really are. They certainly turned out to be less squishable than they look!

After getting my hull cleaned, We flipped Beth's kayak and found leeches there, as well. She had fewer of them, which I'd tend to attribute less to the color difference in the boats than to my having gone farther into the marsh than she went.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

A Random(ish) Collection of Thoughts

I've been listening to public radio quite a lot recently and I've been reading Robert Reich's blog. These have stimulated in me some thoughts that I think might be worth mentioning here in my blog:
  1. Why are Americans so adept at electing presidents who are either incapable or unwilling when it comes to properly pronouncing the word "nuclear"? It's just three syllables. The "E" is long. There's only one "U". And the "C" is followed by an "L" with no vowel between them. How difficult is that?
  2. If there are any high school teachers reading this who might have a bit of free time to run a simple experiment, I'd appreciate the following:
    • Have your students take out a sheet of paper.
    • Ask your students to each write 20 complete sentences of varying complexity. Stress that the goal is 20 complete sentences. The subject matter is irrelevant. There is no requirement to tell truths. There is no requirement that the sentences be grouped into paragraphs.
    • Request that your students not copy from each other or confer or seek advice. The hope is that each student will do his or her own work.
    • Provide a sufficient amount of time for completion of the task.
    • Collect the papers.
    • "Grade" the papers. Basically, this is a pass/fail experiment. The goal is to figure out how many of your students are capable of completing the assignment with no preparation.
    • We're looking for two things: (1) Different sentence structures. (That is, a page full of "I am sad.", "I am bored.", "I am tired.", "This is dumb.", etc.,. . . does not pass.) (2) Complete sentences. (No fragments, nothing that lacks a subject or a verb, etc.,. . .)
    • Let me know what percentage of students passed. If you'd like to forward me the papers, I'd probably be interested in reading them, but that's not essential to my request.
    I bring this up because I was listening to some people discussing the state of our educational system and what needs to be done to fix it. For a few years, I've been hearing rumors of employers having difficulty finding employees who are capable of writing. And I have a notion that this test is a very simple, very quick way of determining, to some degree, which students really should be identified as being in desperate need of intense help. I happen to believe that if someone is in high school and can't pass this test, that student has cheated the system (or been cheated by the system) for too long. As an absolute minimum, inability to pass this test should be a guarantee of no diploma.
  3. On Tuesday, Diane Rehm had a guest opining about how wrong it is of these retired generals to speak their minds about D. Rumsfeld. I believe the guest himself was a retired general, although I may be mistaken. Among the things he said was this: "If the president supports him, then I support him." I wonder whether to interpret this as "If the person who occupies the office of the presidency supports him. . ." (in which case, this is blind faith in leadership and it reflects a troubling lack of thought). Or perhaps it should be interpreted as "If George W. Bush supports him. . ." (in which case, this indicates faith in someone who has proven to be unworthy of trust, let alone faith.) Either way, it makes me worry.

Monday, April 17, 2006

New to Kayaking

After half a year on layaway, Beth and I finally completed the transaction and took delivery on our new kayaks this past weekend. We learned or were reminded of several good lessons:
  • What is known in New Hampshire as a fairly small pond is the equivalent of what would, in Maryland, be known as a pretty substantial lake. Our first outing with our new boats was to a beautiful body of water known as Grafton Pond. It has apparently grown from its original size as a result of damming, but it's still considered to be pretty small. In Maryland, there are no natural lakes. (A fact I learned years ago from Beth, who knows many things.) This means that our Maryland-oriented sense of inland bodies of water is pretty warped. In a sense, these lowered expectations are good for us. They keep us from taking for granted the comparative grandeur of our new environs.
  • When the wind kicks up, a flat body of water can become surprisingly choppy, surprisingly quickly.
  • There are places (for example, one particular area I found myself in while trying to complete a circuit around a little island) where paddling against the current is a fairly futile exercise. Sometimes, it makes sense to just let the current do with you as it will for a while. When the view is nice and there's no rush to get anywhere quickly, this can be a most enjoyable approach.
  • It is wise to carry a GPS device with you when kayaking. Covering pretty good stretches is really quite easy in a kayak, and without a GPS device handy, it would be easy to lose track of where you put in. As Grafton Pond is not very big (by local standards), and as we were eager to get out on the water, we had neglected to pack a GPS device with us. So, once out on the water, we made an early decision to not go into the various coves and out-of-the way areas of the pond. Instead, we made sure to keep the access beach in pretty plain sight. This, of course, detracted from what the expedition could have been, but we had a wonderful time anyway.
  • Mini Cooper + roof rack +kayaks results in an assembly that's too tall to fit though our garage's doorway. So, while we can attach and detach the rack to and from the car inside of the garage, we have to load and unload the kayaks to and from it outside. The overall appearance of the whole assembly is fairly comical. (I'll try to remember to take and post a photo on our next trip.) We got ourselves some pretty short kayaks. Had we gotten the Pungo 120 model instead of the Pungo 100, the boats would actually have been longer than the car.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Thanks, Science Guy

I've said before and I'll surely say again that in my view, my generation is as much defined by Ultraman and Kung Fu Action Theater as by anything else. This may well define me as the lone member of "my generation". I'm not sure about whether that's the case or not. There may be others out there.

The bottom line on that definition probably amounts to little more than this: For better or for worse, my cultural awareness is and will likely always be something that (at least in part) is tinted by the influence of television. Whether that's ultimately a good or bad thing is not something that I'm interested in discussing at this point. (At least not during this blog entry.) However, I have mentioned it as simply a noteworthy scrap of information. Having said as much, I am willing to go on record as saying that neither is this truth a cause for great celebration nor is it one of the world's great tragedies. I'm quite certain that it falls somewhere on the line between those two extremes.

I bring this up as a way to getting to Bill Nye, the Science Guy.

A few nights ago, I was flipping between channels, when I happened to stop for a few minutes of Countdown With Keith Olberman (in which the part of Keith Olberman was being played by some other fellow whose face I didn't recognise and whose name I didn't catch). His guest for this segment was Bill Nye. They were discussing this fossil find (Tiktaalik, link 1, link 2).

Bill Nye said something that struck me as being very important, and I am extremely grateful for his having said it (even if it didn't reach nearly as large an audience as it needs to). I don't have the exact quote, so I'm paraphrasing here:
This notion of evolution as "improvement" is wrong. Improvement is a human idea and it has no bearing on the processes of evolution.

I bring this up because I think it's a very important concept. It is, in my view, one of the most fundamental concepts in our understanding of the universe.

"Evolution" does not equate with "improvement".
"Evolution" does not encompass "improvement".
"Evolution" does not engender "improvement".
And "evolution" does not imply "improvement".

The idea of improvement plays no role in the process of evolution. And I think that one of the great failings of our science education has been the failure to make this concept crystal clear.

This is one of the biggest problems I had in my high school biology class. Evolution is obvious. It makes sense. But to me, it always seemed that "improvement" was generally considered (if not outright taught) to be a strong overtone or a deep underpinning (take your pick) of the theory of evolution. And this always struck me as wrong, wrong, wrong.

It took me a while to come to terms with this discrepancy. And what I came up with all those years ago is exactly what Bill Nye said. In essence: I was not wrong in my understanding of how evolution works. My thought process was not at odds with science. Logic is logic, and rational thought is possible. The disconnect was merely an error of word association.

If you associate the word evolution with the word improvement, it won't make sense.

The reason: That association of words is nonsensical and illogical.

Thank you, Bill Nye, for saying so publicly.

It is fair to say that a fruit fly is just as evolved as a human being is. In fact, by some measures, it may be fair to say that a fruit fly is more evolved than is a human being. Certainly, a fruit fly's lineage includes many, many more generations than does a human being's. It takes us a long time to reach sexual maturity and to reproduce. In fact, it's probably fair to say that the human reproductive cycle is among the slowest in the animal kingdom. This does not mean that fruit flies are any better or worse than we are. We coexist. That's evidence of only one thing: Neither species has gone extinct yet. That is an observable fact. And there's no value judgement involved in saying so. By the same token, we are no more highly evolved than gorillas or chimps or monkeys or dogs. We have simply evolved along different (divergent) paths.

The idea that evolution is about adaptation is misleading. The idea that evolution is a process that is heading towards something (perfection?) is misguided. And the idea that evolution is about improvement is inaccurate.

Evolution is not about anything. It's just a natural process. It's simply the way things happen. And it is utterly indifferent to qualitative assessments.

Monday, April 10, 2006

About a Random Conversation...

I ran into John yesterday while I was on my lunch break from the book store. I hadn't seen him in a few weeks, and I hadn't ever discussed politics with him, as I had previously only spoken with him while we were working--and, of course, the company has a policy that discourages talking politics. Well, as this was my lunch break and as he's moved on to other employ, I asked him whether he had heard that I am running for president.

Almost immediately, he said, "I'll vote for you."

My instant response was, "Don't vote for me unless you're already not going to vote for someone else."

Interesting, this, because John knew nothing about my politics and I knew nothing about his, but he turned out to be exactly the sort of person at whom my campaign is aimed. In describing himself as someone who has opted out of the voting process, and in describing his reasons for having done so, he made it very clear that my target audience is not just a theoretical quantity. It is a living, breathing segment of the population.

This, of course, is something that I knew, but it was nice to hear it described so precisely by someone other than myself.

John used the term "puppet" where I have been known to use the term "bozo" (see my candidacy announcement). But that's just a matter of semantics, no?

Since I started this campaign, I have been deeply (almost troublingly) surprised by two things:
  1. How terribly easy it is to say "I'm running for president."
  2. How often the response is "I'll vote for you."
Add to this list my recent revelation about how easy it is to come across people who either are in my target audience or who are teetering on the edge of falling in. I'm generally very much an introvert. I don't do a lot of talking in general, and I do especially little talking with people I don't know. But every once in a while, I hand someone one of my campaign business cards or tell someone about my candidacy. My experience with John was the second similar experience in a week. The first was a discussion with a young waiter in a restaurant in MD. I don't think he was quite at the stage of having opted out, but he was clearly frustrated by the political system as it currently operates, and very encouraging to what I told him of what I'm doing.

As for the first, I have described this phenomenon as follows:
This would be a dangerous piece of knowledge if only I had actual aspirations of getting elected or if I thought for a second that I might extend my great experiment beyond these four years.

As for the second, I see three possible explanations:
  • People view me as extremely trustworthy. (I hope)
  • People just think it might be cool to vote for someone they've met, no matter what that person represents. (I fear)
  • People are so very bothered by the status quo that they figure I can't be any worse than what they already get. (I suspect)

Friday, April 7, 2006

Population Density

Below are two satellite images. One is centered on our old house in Maryland. The other is centered on our new (much older) house in New Hampshire. We used to live in a "town" (in quotes because in reality, it's nothing...not a city, not a town, not a village...really just a "rough idea of a place") that's ten square miles with a population well over 50,000 people. We now live in a town that's 40 square miles with a population between 6,000 and 7,000 people. I'll let you do the math. (What you'll come up with is that there's a lot less crowding here than there.) I figure what's pictured below is less than 4/100 of a square mile of ground in each case. And in case it isn't obvious, what you're looking at in the top photograph are two cul-de-sacs, surrounded by townhomes (or "row houses", depending on where you're from).


If I've done my figuring correctly, I've scaled these two images to show a land mass that's just about equal. (I figure ten seconds of latitude is the same distance no matter where on Earth it is. If you know otherwise, please let me know.)

Thanks to the USGS for making this sort of imagery so easily accessible. To get your own, go here:

Thursday, April 6, 2006

The Big Lottery Win

Well, I mentioned earlier that it would probably take me a while to get really ramped up on this blogging thing. But so far it seems both easy and enjoyable, so I think I'll get there without losing interest along the way.

Here's the latest news to report:

  1. After getting home from the movie tonight, I checked my lottery tickets from the $150+ million Powerball (4/1). Zero hits on ticket 1. Zero hits on ticket 2. And a big $7 win on ticket number 3. I believe that effectively doubles my lifetime lottery winnings.
  2. Beth took me to see V for Vendetta tonight. I thought it was fantastic! I'm only a few pages into the book (Beth's more than halfway through). We're both enjoying it so far. She tells me that the book is quite different from the movie (or vice-versa). But even if the book turns out to be much better than the movie, I'm not going to let that detract from my opinion of the movie. I'm funny that way.
  3. Yesterday evening we returned home from a few days spent back in MD. Work had me come down for a few days in-office to break the monotony of my telecommuting and to meet the folks who have been hired since we moved north at the end of August. The "excuse" for the timing was to attend the annual meeting at the start of the new fiscal year. Sadly, while the fiscal year started on schedule, the meeting has been postponed until some as-yet undetermined date. The days in the office felt much less productive than days spent here. But it was good to see the folks I knew and to meet the folks I didn't.
  4. Sunday we got to see family. Monday evening, we got together with Jim and Suzanne and their home zoo—including a couple of octopus hatchlings. On Tuesday evening, we got together with Joan and Carl. All of that visiting was really nice. That's what makes us wish we could stay longer.
  5. On the other hand, we missed our own little beasties. It was nice getting back to them yesterday. Newton, having messed in his box a little (which was expected) seems unfazed by the experience of spending a few days without us (unexpected). Sherman, on the other hand, was really quite clingy last night.
  6. Beth, formerly frightened of flying, is now seemingly completely at-ease with the whole process. On the way back, she got to be picked for a random search. I'm not sure whether that beats my lottery win, but it's certainly up there.
I guess that's enough for tonight.

Saturday, April 1, 2006

Congrats to Jim and Suzanne!

Big doings over at Monkey Tails! (Actually really teeny doings, but exciting!) We hope to see these little critters in a couple of days, as we'll be back roaming the wilds of Maryland for about half a week. Congratulations to the proud "parents".

Quick Note

Just wanted to post a quick note to say that my prodding inspired Beth to return to her blog with a new post this morning.