Shallow Thoughts : : misc

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Sun, 13 Jan 2019

Snowy Views and Giant Curling Icicles

[Snowy back yard] And the snow continues to fall. We got a break of a few days, but today it's snowed fairly steadily all day, adding another -- I don't know, maybe four inches? Snow is hard to measure because it piles up so unevenly, two inches here, eight there.

[Snowshoe trail, Jemez East Fork] The hiking group I'm in went snowshoeing up in the Jemez last week -- lovely! The shrubs that managed to stick up above the snow all wore coats of ice, which fell by afternoon, littering the snow around them with an extra coat of glitter.

[icicle] And it was lovely here too, with a thick blanket of snow over everything. (I need to get some snowshoes of my own, to make it easier to explore the yard when conditions get like this, otherwise the snow would be thigh-deep in places. For the hike last week, I borrowed a pair.)

[Curling icicles] And, of course, there's the never-ending fascination of watching icicles, snow glaciers moving down the roof, and, this time, huge curving icicles growing downward above the den deck. They hung more than four feet below the roof before they finally separated and fell with a huge THUMP!, leaving a three-foot-high pile of snow that poor Dave had to shovel (I helped with shoveling at first, until I slipped and sprained my wrist; it's improving, but not enough that I can shovel ice yet).
Images of the snowstorm and the showshoe hike: Snowstorms in January 2019.

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Sun, 06 Jan 2019

Keeping track of reading

About fifteen years ago, a friend in LinuxChix blogged about doing the "50-50 Book Challenge". The goal was to read fifty new books in a year, plus another fifty old books she'd read before.

I had no idea whether this was a lot of books or not. How many books do I read in a year? I had no idea. But now I wanted to know. So I started keeping a list: not for the 50-50 challenge specifically, but just to see what the numbers were like.

It would be easy enough to do this in a spreadsheet, but I'm not really a spreadsheet kind of girl, unless there's a good reason to use one, like accounting tables or other numeric data. So I used a plain text file with a simple, readable format, like these entries from that first year, 2004:

Dragon Hunter: Roy Chapman Andrews and the Central Asiatic Expeditions, Charles Gallenkamp, Michael J. Novacek
  Fascinating account of a series of expeditions in the early 1900s
  searching for evidence of early man.  Instead, they found
  groundbreaking dinosaur discoveries, including the first evidence
  of dinosaurs protecting their eggs (Oviraptor).

Life of Pi
  Uneven, quirky, weird.  Parts of it are good, parts are awful.
  I found myself annoyed by it ... but somehow compelled to keep
  reading.  The ending may have redeemed it.

The Lions of Tsavo : Exploring the Legacy of Africa's Notorious Man-Eaters, Bruce D. Patterson
  Excellent overview of the Tsavo lion story, including some recent
  findings.  Makes me want to find the original book, which turns
  out to be public domain in Project Gutenberg.

- Bellwether, Connie Willis
  What can I say?  Connie Willis is one of my favorite writers and
  this is arguably her best book.  Everyone should read it.
  I can't imagine anyone not liking it.

If there's a punctuation mark in the first column, it's a reread. (I keep forgetting what character to use, so sometimes it's a dot, sometimes a dash, sometimes an atsign.) If there's anything else besides a space, it's a new book. Lines starting with spaces are short notes on what I thought of the book. I'm not trying to write formal reviews, just reminders. If I don't have anything in specific to say, I leave it blank or write a word or two, like "fun" or "disappointing".

Crunching the numbers

That means it's fairly easy to pull out book titles and count them with grep and wc. For years I just used simple aliases:

 All books this year: egrep '^[^ ]' books2019 | wc -l
 Just new books:      egrep '^[^ -.@]' books2019 | wc -l
 Just reread books:   egrep '^[-.@]' books2019 | wc -l

But after I had years of accumulated data I started wanting to see it all together, so I wrote a shell alias that I put in my .zshrc:

booksread() {
  setopt extendedglob
  for f in ~/Docs/Lists/books/books[0-9](#c4); do
    year=$(echo $f | sed 's/.*books//')
    let allbooks=$(egrep '^[^ ]' $f | grep -v 'Book List:' | wc -l)
    let rereads=$(egrep '^[-.@\*]' $f  | grep -v 'Book List:'| wc -l)
    printf "%4s:   All: %3d   New: %3d   rereads: %3d\n" \
           $year $allbooks $(($allbooks - $rereads)) $rereads
  done
}

In case you're curious, my numbers are all over the map:

$ booksread
2004:   All:  53   New:  44   rereads:   9
2005:   All:  51   New:  36   rereads:  15
2006:   All:  72   New:  59   rereads:  13
2007:   All:  59   New:  49   rereads:  10
2008:   All:  42   New:  33   rereads:   9
2009:   All:  56   New:  47   rereads:   9
2010:   All:  43   New:  27   rereads:  16
2011:   All:  80   New:  55   rereads:  25
2012:   All:  65   New:  58   rereads:   7
2013:   All:  59   New:  54   rereads:   5
2014:   All: 128   New: 121   rereads:   7
2015:   All: 111   New: 103   rereads:   8
2016:   All:  66   New:  62   rereads:   4
2017:   All:  57   New:  56   rereads:   1
2018:   All:  74   New:  71   rereads:   3
2019:   All:   3   New:   3   rereads:   0

So sometimes I beat that 100-book target that the 50-50 people advocated, other times not. I'm not worried about the overall numbers. Some years I race through a lot of lightweight series mysteries; other years I spend more time delving into long nonfiction books.

But I have learned quite a few interesting tidbits.

What Does it all Mean?

I expected my reread count would be quite high. As it turns out, I don't reread nearly as much as I thought. I have quite a few "comfort books" that I like to read over and over again (am I still five years old?), especially when I'm tired or ill. I sometimes feel guilty about that, like I'm wasting time when I could be improving my mind. I tell myself that it's not entirely a waste: by reading these favorite books over and over, perhaps I'll absorb some of the beautiful rhythms, strong characters, or clever plot twists, that make me love them; and that maybe some of that will carry over into my own writing. But it feels like rationalization.

But that first year, 2004, I read 44 new books and reread 9, including the Lord of the Rings trilogy that I hadn't read since I was a teenager. So I don't actually "waste" that much time on rereading. Over the years, my highest reread count was 25 in 2011, when I reread the whole Tony Hillerman series.

Is my reread count low because I'm conscious of the record-keeping, and therefore I reread less than I would otherwise? I don't think so. I'm still happy to pull out a battered copy of Tea with the Black Dragon or Bellweather or Watership Down or The Lion when I don't feel up to launching into a new book.

Another thing I wondered: would keeping count encourage me to read more short mysteries and fewer weighty non-fiction tomes? I admit I am a bit more aware of book lengths now -- oh, god, the new Stephenson is how many pages? -- but I try not to get competitive, even with myself, about numbers, and I don't let a quest for big numbers keep me from reading Blood and Thunder or The Invention of Nature. (And I had that sinking feeling about Stephenson even before I started keeping a book list. The man can write, but he could use an editor with a firm hand.)

What counts as a book? Do I feel tempted to pile up short, easy books to "get credit" for them, or to finish a bad book I'm not enjoying? Sometimes a little, but mostly no. What about novellas? What about partial reads, like skipping chapters? I decide on a case by case basis but don't stress over it. I do keep entries for books I start and don't finish (with spaces at the beginning of the line so they don't show up in the count), with notes on why I gave up on them, or where I left off if I intend to go back.

Unexpected Benefits

Keeping track of my reading has turned out to have other benefits. For instance, it prevents accidental rereads. Last year Dave checked a mystery out of the library (we read a lot of the same books, so anything one of us reads, the other will at least consider). I looked at it and said "That sounds awfully familiar. Haven't we already read it?" Sure enough, it was on my list from the previous year, and I hadn't liked it. Dave doesn't keep a book list, so he started reading, but eventually realized that he, too, had read it before.

And sometimes my memory of a book isn't very clear, and my notes on what I thought of a book are useful. Last year, on a hike, a friend and I got to talking about the efforts to eradicate rats on southern California's Channel Islands. I said "Oh, I read an interesting novel about that recently. Was it Barbara Kingsolver? No, wait ... I think it was T.C. Boyle. Interesting book, you should check it out."

When I got home, I consulted my book lists and found it in 2011:

When the Killing's Done, T.C. Boyle
  A tough slog through part 1, but it gets somewhat better in part 2
  (there are actually a few characters you don't hate, finally)
  and some plot eventually emerges, near the end of the novel.

I sent my friend an email rescinding my recommendation. I told her the book does cover some interesting details related to the rat eradication, but I'd forgotten that it was a poor excuse for a novel. In the end she decided to read it anyway, and her opinion agreed with mine. I believe she's started keeping a book list of her own now.

On the other hand, it's also good to have a record of delightful new discoveries. A gem from last year:

Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour bookstore, Robin Sloan
  Unexpectedly good! I read this because Sloan was on the Embedded
  podcast, but I didn't expect much. Turns out Sloan can write!
  Had me going from the beginning. Also, the glow-in-the-dark books
  on the cover were fun.

Even if I forget Sloan's name (sad, I know, but I have a poor memory for names), when I see a new book of his I'll know to check it out. I didn't love his second book, Sourdough, quite as much as Mr. Penumbra, but he's still an author worth following.

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Fri, 21 Dec 2018

A Splint for "Trigger Thumb"

It's been a while since my last blog post. Partly that's because I've been busy with other things, like a welding class, learning a lot of great new techniques. But it's also because I've been trying to keep typing to a minimum (not easy for me) because of a thumb problem.

It's called "trigger thumb" and apparently is caused by a tendon that gets stuck in its sheath. It can be caused by repetitive motion, but in my case I just woke up with it one day, after a day when I hadn't been doing anything particularly hand-intensive.

Cortisone injections and surgery are the usual treatment. I may yet try cortisone, but the number of such injections you can get are severely limited (like, twice in a lifetime), and the surgery didn't sound appealing, so I wanted to try other approaches first.

Some discussions I found mentioned splinting. I tried splinting it with a popsicle stick and tape, but a straight splint made it much worse: keeping it straight made it want to stay straight, and after removing the splint it was quite painful to try to bend it. For weeks it just kept getting worse.

But I finally found something that helped: a bent splint. I glued two pieces of popsicle stick together at an angle, and at bedtime I taped them to my thumb so it stayed a little bent overnight. That helped quite a bit. But it was a pain to set up and tended to come loose. I wanted something I could just slip on and off, without going through all that tape, that wouldn't come loose. Preferably with an adjustable angle.

[trigger thumb splint v.1: steel] So I cut some strips of steel, got out the welder and made myself a bent splint. It's tough to weld thin pieces with the MIG welder, and I melted it in places. But it worked amazingly well. I lined it with some Moleskin, and after a few days with it, the thumb definitely started to feel better. The tendon was still popping, but it hurt a lot less and I could start using my hand again. And the metal splint let me adjust how much my thumb was bent, which wasn't true at all with the popsicle stick approach.

Plus, it had a neat sort of Spanish Inquisition/Hannibal Lecter look. It looks like a torture device, but really, it's amazingly comfortable.

The only problem: it was heavy. I could feel it dragging down on my thumb all the time. I wished it was a little lighter.

[trigger thumb splint v.2: brass] The hardware store sells strips of brass that looked like just the ticket. But you can't MIG weld brass, only steel. Good thing I was taking that welding class! I asked the instructor, and he brought in some carbon-bronze filler rod and showed me how to "TIG braze". It's difficult and fiddly: brass melts very easily, and the trick is to get the base metal hot, then bring in the filler rod and blip the TIG pedal just enough to melt the rod so it flows in without melting the base metal. While my instructor made it look easy, when I tried it myself I always ended up getting the temperature too hot and melting some of the brass.

So my splint looks a bit ragged in spots. Still, the finished product works wonderfully, and it's quite a bit lighter than its steel cousin. Dave thinks it still looks Hannibal Lecterish, but that doesn't bother me. I skipped the Moleskin this time: it's comfy enough without it, and it's a lot easier to slip the splint on and off.

I'm still trying to spend less time typing until my thumb heals completely. But with the splint, and occasional ice packs, it's improving, doesn't hurt any more, and I'm hoping I can get by without cortisone.

And besides, isn't it more fun to weld up your own medical equipment? (Don't tell the AMA!)

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Thu, 18 May 2017

Pot Sherd

Wandering the yard chasing invasive weeds, Dave noticed an area that had been disturbed recently by some animal -- probably a deer, but there were no clear prints so we couldn't be sure.

But among the churned soil, he noticed something that looked different from the other rocks.

[Pot sherd we found in the yard] A pot sherd, with quite a nice pattern on it!

(I'm informed that fragments of ancient pots are properly called "sherds"; a "shard" is a fragment of anything other than a pot.)

Our sherd fairly large as such things go: the longest dimension is about two inches.

Of course, we wanted to know how old it was, and whether it was "real". We've done a lot of "archaeology" in our yard since we moved in, digging up artifacts ranging from bits of 1970s ceramic and plastic dinnerware to old tent pegs to hundreds of feet of old rotting irrigation tubing and black plastic sheeting. We even found a small fragment of obsidian that looked like it had been worked (and had clearly been brought here: we're on basalt, with the nearest obsidian source at least fifteen miles away). We've also eyed some of the rock rings and other formations in the yard with some suspicion, though there's no way to prove how long ago rocks were moved. But we never thought we'd find anything older than the 1970s when the house was built, or possibly the 1940s when White Rock was a construction camp for the young Los Alamos lab.

So we asked a friend who's an expert in such matters. She tells us it's a Santa Fe black-on-white, probably dated somewhere between 1200-1300 AD. Santa Fe black-on-white comes in many different designs, and is apparently the most common type of pottery found in the Los Alamos/Santa Fe area. We're not disappointed by that; we're excited to find that our pot sherd is "real", and that we could find something that old in the yard of a house that's been occupied since 1975.

It's not entirely a surprise that the area was used 700 years ago, or even earlier. We live in a community called La Senda, meaning "The Path". A longtime resident told us the name came from a traditional route that used to wind down Pajarito Canyon to the site of the current Red Dot trail, which descends to the Rio Grande passing many ancient petroglyphs along the way. So perhaps we live on a path that was commonly used when migrating between the farmland along the Rio and the cliff houses higher up in the canyons.

What fun! Of course we'll be keeping our eyes open for more sherds and other artifacts.

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Mon, 05 Sep 2016

The Taos Earthships (and a lovely sunset)

We drove up to Taos today to see the Earthships.

[Taos Earthships] Earthships are sustainable, completely off-the-grid houses built of adobe and recycled materials. That was pretty much all I knew about them, except that they were weird looking; I'd driven by on the highway a few times (they're on highway 64 just west of the beautiful Rio Grande Gorge Bridge) but never stopped and paid the $7 admission for the self-guided tour.

[Earthship construction] Seeing them up close was fun. The walls are made of old tires packed with dirt, then covered with adobe. The result is quite strong, though like all adobe structures it requires regular maintenance if you don't want it to melt away. For non load bearing walls, they pack adobe around old recycled bottles or cans.

The houses have a passive solar design, with big windows along one side that make a greenhouse for growing food and freshening the air, as well as collecting warmth in cold weather. Solar panels provide power -- supposedly along with windmills, but I didn't see any windmills in operation, and the ones they showed in photos looked too tiny to offer much help. To help make the most of the solar power, the house is wired for DC, and all the lighting, water pumps and so forth run off low voltage DC. There's even a special DC refrigerator. They do include an AC inverter for appliances like televisions and computer equipment that can't run directly off DC.

Water is supposedly self sustaining too, though I don't see how that could work in drought years. As long as there's enough rainfall, water runs off the roof into a cistern and is used for drinking, bathing etc., after which it's run through filters and then pumped into the greenhouse. Waste water from the greenhouse is used for flushing toilets, after which it finally goes to the septic tank.

All very cool. We're in a house now that makes us very happy (and has excellent passive solar, though we do plan to add solar panels and a greywater system some day) but if I was building a house, I'd be all over this.

We also discovered an excellent way to get there without getting stuck in traffic-clogged Taos (it's a lovely town, but you really don't want to go near there on a holiday, or a weekend ... or any other time when people might be visiting). There's a road from Pilar that crosses the Rio Grande then ascends up to the mesa high above the river, continuing up to highway 64 right near the earthships. We'd been a little way up that road once, on a petroglyph-viewing hike, but never all the way through. The map said it was dirt from the Rio all the way up to 64, and we were in the Corolla, since the Rav4's battery started misbehaving a few days ago and we haven't replaced it yet.

So we were hesitant. But the nice folks at the Rio Grande Gorge visitor center at Pilar assured us that the dirt section ended at the top of the mesa and any car could make it ("it gets bumpy -- a New Mexico massage! You'll get to the top very relaxed"). They were right: the Corolla made it with no difficulty and it was a much faster route than going through Taos.

[Nice sunset clouds in White Rock] We got home just in time for the rouladen I'd left cooking in the crockpot, and then finished dinner just in time for a great sunset sky.

A few more photos: Earthships (and a great sunset).

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Fri, 03 Jun 2016

Walking your Goat at the Summer Concert

I love this place. We just got back from this week's free Friday concert at Ashley Pond. Not a great band this time (the previous two were both excellent). But that's okay -- it's still fun to sit on the grass on a summer evening and watch the swallows wheeling over the pond and the old folks dancing up near the stage and the little kids and dogs dashing pell-mell through the crowd, while Dave, dredging up his rock-star past, explains why this band's sound is so muddy (too many stacked effects pedals).

And then on the way out, I'm watching appreciatively as the teen group, who were earlier walking a slack line strung between two trees, has now switched to juggling clubs. (I know old people are supposed to complain about "kids today", but honestly, the kids here seem smart and fit and into all kinds of cool activities.) One of the jugglers has just thrown three clubs and a ball, and is mostly keeping them all in the air, when I hear a bleat to my right -- it's a girl walking by with a goat on a leash.

Just another ordinary Friday evening in Los Alamos.

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Wed, 13 Jan 2016

Snow hiking

[Akk on snowshoes crossing the Jemez East Fork]

It's been snowing quite a bit! Radical, and fun, for a California ex-pat. But it doesn't slow down the weekly hiking group I'm in. When the weather turns white, the group switches to cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

A few weeks ago, I tried cross-country skiing for the first time. (I've downhill skied a handful of times, so I know how, more or less, but never got very good at it. Ski areas are way too far away and way too expensive in Californian.) It was fun, but I have a chronic rotator cuff problem, probably left over from an old motorcycle injury, and found my shoulder didn't deal well with skiing. Well, the skiing was probably fine. It was probably more the falling and trying to get back up again that it didn't like.

So for the past two weeks I've tried snowshoes instead. That went just fine. It doesn't take much learning: it's just like hiking, except a little bit harder work remembering not to step on your own big feet. "Bozo goes hiking!" Dave called it, but it isn't nearly as Bozo-esque as I thought it would be.

Last week we snowshoed from a campground out to the edge of Frijoles Canyon, in a snowstorm most of the way, and ice fog -- sounds harsh when described like that, but it was lovely, and we were plenty warm when we were moving. This week, we followed the prettiest trail in the area, the East Fork of the Jemez River. In summer, it's a vibrantly green meadow with the sparkling creek snaking through it. In winter, it turns into a green and sparkling white forest. Someone took a photo of me snowshoeing across one of the many log bridges spanning the East Fork. You can't see any hint of the river itself -- it's buried in snow.

But if you hike in far enough, there's a warm spring: we're on the edge of the Valles Caldera, an old supervolcano that still has plenty of low-level geothermal activity left. The river is warm enough here that it's still running even in midwinter ... and there was a dipper there. American dippers are little birds that dive into creeks and fly under the water in search of food. They're in constant motion, diving, re-emerging, bathing, shaking off, and this dipper went about its business fifteen feet from where we were standing watching it. Someone had told me that he saw two dippers at this spot yesterday, but we were happy to get such a good look at even one.

We had lunch in a sunny spot downstream from the dipper, then headed back to the trailhead. A lovely way to spend a winter day.

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Sat, 14 Feb 2015

The Sangre de Cristos wish you a Happy Valentine's Day

[Snow hearts on the Sangre de Cristo mountains]

The snow is melting fast in the lovely sunny weather we've been having; but there's still enough snow on the Sangre de Cristos to see the dual snow hearts on the slopes of Thompson Peak above Santa Fe, wishing everyone for miles around a happy Valentine's Day.

Dave and I are celebrating for a different reason: yesterday was our 1-year anniversary of moving to New Mexico. No regrets yet! Even after a tough dirty work session clearing dead sage from the yard.

So Happy Valentine's Day, everyone! Even if you don't put much stock in commercial Hallmark holidays. As I heard someone say yesterday, "Valentine's day is coming up, and you know what that means. That's right: absolutely nothing!"

But never mind what you may think about the holiday -- you just go ahead and have a happy day anyway, y'hear? Look at whatever pretty scenery you have near you; and be sure to enjoy some good chocolate.

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