anagram for Penguin Pete = I PEG NEPTUNE

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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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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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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The Great Iowa Storm of 2007

Date/Time Permalink: 02/26/07 06:11:51 am
Category: Iowa

Here in Des Moines, we have just been through the most amazing freak storm I've ever seen in my 37 years. It lasted a solid 48 hours, and was amazing because we saw every variety of precipitation in one shot.

First it started out with a shower of hailstones the size of dried peas. Then it rained, because the temperature was over 40 degrees. When it was raining, at one point we had to turn off the heater because the humidity was so intense. This was a sign that there was a heck of a big storm front moving in, as usually the humidity breaks before the rain falls! Then it switched to sleet and then freezing rain. The freezing rain made a three-inch thick coating of ice all over everything, and then the snow began. The snow itself lasted a full twenty-four hours. All told, we had about two inches of rain, three inches of ice, and over a foot of snow.

Shoveling this was interesting. A layer of shin-deep pure snow on top of what can only be described as a Slurpee coating the ground, with water at the very bottom. Wet and slushy, the ice/snow mixture has brought down tree branches and power lines all over the state. We were lucky enough not to have lost power for more than a few minutes, but tens of thousands all over Iowa weren't so fortunate. As it is, I've seen lots of downed branches all over the neighborhood. Every tree and bush looks like it has bloomed pure white foliage. A particular towering pine tree across the street from us, which is easily as tall as a four-story building and has stood for 100 years, has lost six branches which crashed down under the weight of the ice. That was sad, because I've loved seeing it out my front window covered with snow during Christmas, but the tree itself may yet survive.

And here I still haven't gotten my act together enough to get a digital camera! But here's a slideshow courtesy of WhoTV viewers, if you scroll down below the forecast to the link "Ice Storm Slideshow" and have your Javascript turned on.

Iowa plates

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suddenly the moon