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Setting Things On Fire

Date/Time Permalink: 03/10/12 01:50:05 pm
Category: Iowa

Here you sit, using electricity to read this article, which I also used electricity to publish. We're using computers to do this. It still sounds futuristic, and yet what do we use to keep this electronic infrastructure running? The same technology invented by prehistoric cavemen: setting things on fire.

First we burned wood. That made a campfire and gave us a way to cook food, but soon we wondered what else we could do. Eventually we started burning coal, oil, and gas. That gave us light, and eventually, steam power. And then... no, wait, there isn't any "and then". We're still stuck there today. From the internal combustion engine that powers our cars by burning gas to the electricity that comes from burning coal, we still don't rely on any means of generating electricity besides:

  1. Find flammable thing.
  2. Set it on fire.

We're coming up on a century since Enrico Fermi demonstrated the concept of nuclear reaction to the world, and yet here in Iowa the concept of nuclear power makes people jittery. Jittery enough that they'll dress up like zombies and march on the capitol to protest the very idea that power utilities should even consider nuclear options.

I'm not making this up: Zombies.

The protesters mainly emphasize that nuclear alternatives will make our costs go up, but still pay lip service to the typical boogys of health and safety, as if nuclear radiation were this dark witchcraft that will turn demons loose. I know people are beyond hope on that angle, but let's address the cost point:

Iowa currently gets about 75% of its power from setting things on fire - 73% coal and 2% natural gas. Iowa thankfully has vast coal mines... wait a minute, no we don't! We have to haul all that coal in from out of state. For the year of 2008 alone, those coal imports cost $500 million. That has to be delivered by rail from Wyoming. So we have to set more things on fire to power a train to bring coal to Iowa so we can set it on fire.

What is the cost of all this in terms of pollution? Who could begin to guess? We're still trying to establish that global warming is a fact. Somehow, the connection between setting things on fire and producing heat and pollution is still news to some people, even though cavemen knew it well.

And by the way, if you're worried about radiation, guess what? Coal ash is MORE radioactive than nuclear waste! And unlike nuclear waste, which is relatively easy to contain and ship away, when you set coal on fire, it makes smoke, which flies up in the air and gets into everything. You breathe it, you swim in it, you eat it, you have no choice. Need I harp on the fact, I've worked at a coal plant myself and got quite acquainted with "fly ash", the finer ash produced from burning coal. We got decked out in "bunny suit" hazmat gear and face-mask respirators, and after getting off at end of day and scrubbing down, we'd still drive home picking fly ash out of our ears. It's finer than talcum powder; one grain of it in your eyes will blind you for life because the ash grains are shaped like cockleburrs. Yes, precipitators attempt to catch most of it on the way to the smokestack, but even the most conscientious coal-burning plant in the world cannot set something on fire without producing some smoke and ash; it's just a matter of keeping the pollution under EPA standards of acceptable pollution. And when you do catch the fly ash before it gets into the air, what do you do with it then? Well, some of it gets recycled as cinderblocks and cement - the rest goes into a landfill.

Oh, and coal ash is radioactive too.

Nuclear power would bring more science jobs into the state. It would be cheaper in the long run, more than worth the moderate temporary cost of building the plants. It would allow Iowa to continue to lead the way as being one of the more progressive states in the Midwest. And...

(if this is your first time hearing me say something shocking and controversial, welcome to!) would actually be cleaner, overall, than setting things on fire!

Neil deGrasse Tyson agrees

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Some Winter Iowa Pics

Date/Time Permalink: 01/28/12 04:01:22 pm
Category: Iowa

Iowa is even beautiful in the wintertime, although this year has been freakishly snow-less. Here a few snaps I thought I'd share:

Cattails blossoming out to seed. When they do this, they look like skewered sheep.


Freaking epic sunrise over the woods, with neighbor's one big tree hamming it up in the foreground.

sunrise in Iowa

sunrise in Iowa

Yeah, all I got today. I love life in the hicks!

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Iowa International Food Festival 2011

Date/Time Permalink: 10/08/11 05:30:38 pm
Category: Iowa

For the old Iowa folder, a few scenes from the Iowa International Food Festival. Cool little Saturday activitiy. We ate our way through the place, sampling lots of hard-to-find exotic cuisine. And I tried some Cajun-fried alligator from Fat Tuesday's! I'm totally hooked on alligator now, which tastes a bit like pork.

Iowa International Food Festival 2011

It was crowded. You could barely squeeze through most places.

Iowa International Food Festival 2011

More crowds, with the gold roof of our distinctive state capitol building in the distance.

Iowa International Food Festival 2011

There were breakdancers.

Iowa International Food Festival 2011

The sun blotted this one out, but I swear there is a native American up on that stage.

Iowa International Food Festival 2011

This alligator was at the Iowa Reptile Rescue booth. He'd let people pet him, but because I just came from the Fat Tuesday booth eating alligator meat, this guy kinda recoiled from me. Understandable. He still smiled for the camera though. Honestly, when you bring live reptiles to a food festival, what do you expect?

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Did You Know Deer Will Let You Get This Close?

Date/Time Permalink: 06/19/10 07:23:01 am
Category: Iowa

Interrupting my morning perusal of Projects I Will Never Finish, I toddled off for a coffee break this foggy Iowa morning and happened to catch this guy out my living room window. Now, deer in this neck of Iowa woods are nearly an everyday thing - trouble is, they're usually so shy that by the time you get into halfway decent photo range, they're turning and bolting away, leaving you with a picture of a tiny tan-and-white blur receding into the brush that you have to explain is a deer.

morning deer 1

morning deer 2

morning deer 3

So this time, I said, "The heck with trying to capture it on film, I'm going to go out and just enjoy my coffee and watch the deer." So of course, the deer let me get so close this time I could practically pet it! Well, a few minutes of that, and I went back for the camera just to prove to myself that I am not lucky enough to get close-up deer shots.

Instead, surprise, I got these! Not only that, but he had a buddy with him. I didn't get them both together because the camera battery was dying. So I stop and take apart the camera and fiddle with it, the two deer stand side by side and pose patiently, I get the camera going and bring it up, the two deer have given up and wandered off away from each other until my camera fritzes out again, at which point they decide to regroup for pose number-two, etc.

So, from my cumulative months of deer-stalking experience, here's everything I can tell you about how to get close to deer:

Find young deer. These two are barely out of the fawn stage; I'm pretty sure they were both does. It could be that they're young enough to have not had too many encounters with humans before, haven't learned fear, or something.

Be quiet. I was barefoot. The tread of heavy boots seems to upset them on previous occasions.

Be early. These were taken at 6 AM, and it's also very foggy this morning, so they felt a little bolder about coming out from cover.

When the deer first spots you, freeze. It will likewise freeze. Have a brief, non-aggressive staring contest. After the deer has watched you for about a minute, it will flick its tail. Stay still. It will watch you for another few seconds, then look away or down and go on about its business. Now you can start walking closer until it once again realizes that you're invading its personal space and zooms in on you, at which point this little dance repeats all over again.

I'm pretty sure the tail flick is a test to see if you're a predator who will chase it at the slightest sign of movement.

After I'd gotten within about fifteen feet, the deer just started behaving like it was completely comfortable with me and its friend wandered up out of the woods, where it had apparently been watching us to see how this encounter went before taking its own chances.

After a while, I started to relax, too. I started chatting, telling them I'd make them famous by posting them on a blog this morning, and so on. They shook their heads and twitched their ears at me, apparently fine with this idea. I started whistling while fiddling with the camera, and both of them pricked up their ears and looked at me with this expression that said, "Whoa! That's a cool trick! How do you do that?"

I think they were quite as entertained with me as I was with them.

Update: Only a few days after this posted, I saw this Boing Boing link to a video of a deer kicking the stuffing out of a dog (border collie mix?) and even trading punches with a cat. Pursuing the matter further, there's quite a few videos of deer attacking people.

So I'll just point out, (a) I would have been more careful with a buck than a doe, (b) I would definitely have thought twice about going close to a doe if there were baby fawn in the picture, (c) it just so happens that my parents owned an animal shelter which I helped out at in the tradition of the "family business" - so I have experience with animals both wild and domestic and know a bit about General Animal Common Sense - not that I'd get overconfident about it.

But I'm adding that and the links to these videos just to be sure I said, PSA "Hey kids! Be careful around deer! They can kick your butt!" in case anybody gets the wrong idea from my own interaction.

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Leapin' Lizard! I'm Blogging the Blizzard!

Date/Time Permalink: 12/09/09 11:44:38 am
Category: Iowa

NOTE: This post has nothing to do with Linux, computers, or geeking. This post is about Midwesterners bragging about the harsh weather they've survived, and being unbearably smug about it. And let's not have any buttinski Californians, Arizonans, or Nevadans pointing to a tiny white spot on the ground and going "Look it snowed here too!" This is a Midwesterner thing. You wouldn't understand.

The Great Blizzard of 2009! That's how we Midwesterners are going to tell it to our grandkids. Why, young'uns, the snow was piled so high you needed a periscope to see to drive! Neither man nor beast could withstand the piling drifts, freezing temperatures, and window-rattling winds. Even the other penguins flew South for the winter! What, don't believe your grampaw Petes? Well, I got pictures...

Like remember the snap I took of the woods from our front window? Here's the same shot, six months later:

front window

These, friends and neighbors to the South, are called "seasons." There's four of them, and they all have their own unique flavors, like the bottles of syrup they put on your table at iHop.

almost neighbors

This week, we live in a Currier and Ives postcard. But some of the phenomena is a bit freakier than twee Colonial charm. Like our porch:

snow-filled chair

That is a perfectly ordinary lawn chair out on our little side porch, and, believe it or not, there is no one sitting in it. That is a natural snow formation, which built up gradually since yesterday and all night last night. Untouched by human hands - it has to be, since we can't even get out there; the door's blocked by snow and frozen shut. When nature actually makes a snow-man for you, it's trying to tell you something. Most likely it's "Stay inside!"

Other Midwestern bloggers are snuggled over laptops by the fire to blog The Great Blizzard of 2009:

Opening the Door got some pretty pics before the mean part hit.

Between Lightning, a mommy-blogger who documents the blizzard, power failure, and dinner by candlelight. Amazingly, our utilities have had no interruption the whole time - even satellite TV!

Levi says "Blizzard!" Have you noticed that most of these photos are taken from windows, doors, porches...?

PhotoXopher photo-blogs a real, genuine Minnesota blizzard commute. Yeah, that's about the size of it.

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And This Is The Woods In The Snow

Date/Time Permalink: 12/07/09 04:20:34 pm
Category: Iowa

I always say you should never post to a blog just to say you're sorry for not posting... but I'm sorry for not posting lately. The Holiday rush has given me great, heaping piles of work to keep up with. About the only way you can tell I'm not dead is from the webcomic faithfully updating every odd-numbered calendar day, right on schedule.

But during a break, I managed to get into my beloved wilderness for a few minutes. Iowa just had its first real snowfall of the year, so I at least gave a thought to that blog I used to post to and brought a camera.

Just for comparison, photos of the woods from spring and summer are here and here.

snowy woods

Snow and woods. There's more, but it all looks like this. For miles.


And these pawprints. I'm not yet Mark Trail enough to know whether I'm looking at racoon (too big?) or wolf, fox, or cougar (what? in this area?) but I do know that this set of tracks did something freaky. They follow the same path I usually walk. Taking the same clearing, making the same turns, and even using my bridge! See, I built a little bridge of branches across the stream at one point back in the spring (not pictured), and now it's a freeway for Mr. Big Paws here.

Oh, by the way, this is nothing but a light flurry compared to the winter storm that's going to sweep the country in about 24 hours. This is one of those dire storms, when they talk about it on the news, they play Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain" for background music while they rail on about the horrific blizzard conditions and blowing snow and huge drifts and how if you have Holiday shopping or errands left to do, you're absolutely screwed because they'll need a helicopter to rescue you on your roof from the snowflood.

And then the weather person just leers out of the screen and cackles witchily and gloats "It's going to snow so hard, it'll leave SNOWFLAKE-SHAPED DENTS IN THE GROUND!"

The news takes a little too much glee in reporting these. Yeah, that's what we're looking forward to. So who knows when I'll be able to blog again? I might be holed up in a snow cave with huskies and a Saint Bernard, trying to scribble my next post with a raven's claw on a piece of rawhide. We'll see.

Edit: As of 9:30PM central, the news casters just can't rave enough about what a bad-ass storm this is coming down our throats. "It's gonna snow so hard, it'll snow UNDERGROUND! It's going to snow so hard, the snowflakes will be SCREAMING and ON FIRE as they fall! It's THUNDERSNOW!" Etc, etc, etc. I'm starting to get nervous over here.

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A Walk in the Woods

Date/Time Permalink: 09/02/09 08:42:29 am
Category: Iowa

Nothing enhances your morning coffee like a hike through the dewy wild woods of Iowa! A few shots:

some yellow flowers

I have no idea what these are. I'm guessing some variety of buttercup or wild rose? There aren't many of them around.

big yellow daisies

These, on the other hand, are growing everywhere. Some species of Asteraceae, I gather.

lotsa daisies

I mean they grow everywhere! They weren't around a month ago, now they've exploded.

foggy clearing

Early morning fog on a clearing. I can't see, but I think we've shaken the Nazgul off our tail for now.

I've found the area around the new igloo to be an endless source of entertainment - so I've started a new category, "Iowa", for the occasional photobloging adventure. Squirrels and chipmunks were all we had to work with at our last digs, but wildlife is crazy abundant around here. We've had run-ins with deer, raccoon, hawks, possums, one snake, and frogs.

Lots and lots of frogs. For a while there, lots of baby ones were getting in under the garage door and we've all become experts at frog-catching, turning them loose in the woods across the street. Amphibians are blessed with very little brain, so they aren't hard to catch. Throw a towel over them (so they don't hop away) and scoop them up into a baggie. And you have to shake them out of the bag afterwards; their brains just aren't capable of such sophisticated thoughts as "The bag's set down open; now's my chance to escape!" No, instead, they sit there in an open baggie with a look on their face that says, "I wonder what's going to happen next!"

So, I'll be trying to document the critter incidents as they come.

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Iowa wildlife report: bunnies!

Date/Time Permalink: 05/07/08 01:38:34 pm
Category: Iowa

Excuse for not mowing the lawn lately #137: I have a nest of bunnies.

bunny pic 1

bunny pic 2

bunny pic 3

The kids discovered a bunny nest on our front lawn. Evidently, rabbits dig holes in the ground, birth their brood, and then cover the hole with some dried grass and bits of their own fur. We have been careful not to touch them so as not to leave human smell on them, and so far they seem to be OK with our occasional intrusion.

As I understand it, rabbits lactate like any mammal, and the mother nurses them only a few minutes out of the day, but rabbit milk is powerful nutritious, so it balances out. Bunnies take about a month to mature enough to go it alone. Also, rabbits aren't particularly attentive mothers. We've seen her come back to the nest at night. Usually she leaves it with more grass and fur piled on it, in an attempt to hide it better. With wilderness all around us, I don't know why she chose the lawn of a suburban home for her nursery.

So the pics aren't too sharp, because I'm trying to be non-intrusive. I resisted the urge to pose them with left-over Easter candy. The big one on top was aggressive, hopping up at me a little and making fierce spitting noises. Then they all turned over and tried to burrow deeper into the ground, so I'd have nothing but pictures of six to eight (?) bunny butts.

This is your "Awwww! Cute!" moment for the day.

UPDATE: The bunnies matured after two weeks and all left the nest to go on with their bunny lives. The one aggressive one was the first brave adventurer, bounding about our lawn for two days to scout the world while the others stayed behind. He even let me pet him on the last day before they all left!

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An Iowa Weather Report, Because You Care So Deeply

Date/Time Permalink: 12/16/07 07:12:33 pm
Category: Iowa

Boy, it's been cold in Iowa this month...

CROWD: "How cold is it?"

Well, OK, I'll try...

It's been so cold... Your belches freeze in midair and you have to thaw them out to find out what you ate. I was outside thinking, and an icicle fell off my thought balloon and conked me. I built a snowman and he ran off to get a coat. My goosebumps have frostbite.

And I was motivated to go out with a digital camera and catch some snaps of the ice on the local flora. See, we had an ice-storm this last week, and then one day was sunny and beautiful and some of the ice was melting and the rest was sparkling like a thousand diamonds, so I figured to capture it.

picture of ice storm aftermath

picture of ice storm aftermath

picture of ice storm aftermath

picture of ice storm aftermath

picture of ice storm aftermath

picture of ice storm aftermath

I'm mindlessly following a fad here. Every time there's an ice-storm, any blogger who lives near it has to blog it, just like all bloggers who own a cat have to post pictures when the cat has kittens.

And me with my lousy-poor photography skills. I can just hear ERM chuckling at me...

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suddenly the moon