Doors, Computers, Tigers

Friday, 29 September 2006, 22:06 | Category : Philosophy
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Here’s where this mental exercise started… Loren got me interested in reading Space and Place by Y-Fu Tuan. More on that book later, when I’ve read further. My thought process began with a door, then ran through computers, and ended up at a tiger. As I read tonight, I happened to glance across the room. Not at anything in particular, just one of those random glances you sometimes make in the midst of a prolonged ponder. I focused on the door, about 12 feet away, the bookshelf beside it, then another door nearby. I thought about how my brain seemed to synthesize several responses to the scene in a package: the door is about 12 feet away, the wall is white, there are about 6 books on each shelf (it’s a narrow bookshelf). Then I thought about how a computer would “see” that scene, if it had a camera attached. I can grasp how it would characterize color. I can understand how it might deduct the presence of multiple books on a shelf, by an algorithm that would note the different roughly parallel rectangles formed by the book spines. But then I thought about distance. How would a computer know distance? Certainly, it could use a laser range finder – but in the absence of a direct measurement tool, how would it do this? Our brains, I’m sure, use a combination of experience and knowledge to perform a quick calculation – but even when there aren’t reference objects available, like the futon between me and the door, our brains can do a pretty good distance calculation in most situations. I don’t know how a computer would do this type of intellectual gymnastics. Then I thought about tigers. Tigers are very good at leaping. Along with many other things, I learned this from Winnie The Pooh. And the Discovery Channel. And Wild Kingdom. Tigers leap very well. But I don’t think they calculate distance. Tigers don’t say to themselves “Let’s see, the deer is on top of that earthen bank, the bank is about 13 feet away, I have to clear a 3 foot shrub…”. I think tigers think effort. They don’t know how far they need to jump, they just know how hard they need to jump. I’ll admit I have no scientific basis for making such a statement, it just seems to me that distance is a concept that tiger brains don’t handle. They don’t experience the world that way, in the same way that we don’t calculate the distance to the basketball goal, we just know we need to shoot the ball that hard. We can, however, stand on the basketball court, look at the goal, and estimate that we are 18 feet away. Same physical setting, 2 different ways of experiencing it. When we shoot the ball, we’re tigers. When we mentally calculate the distance, we’re people. But neither of these experience sets is applicable to a computer. So I go back to wondering how a computer would devise a value for a distance. If you have knowledge of how this is done, feel free to enlighten me. Just remember, no laser range finders.

A Journey Of A Thousand Miles

Friday, 15 September 2006, 20:55 | Category : Walks
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It was about this time last year that I started walking. I’ve walked for most of the past 52 years, of course. I’ve even had periods when I walked regularly for exercise. But last fall I started again, and haven’t stopped. Almost every morning, generally around 6:00, I step out my door and begin the morning ramble. For the next hour, I’ll take one of several routes, or variations on a route, and walk while the day comes alive. In many ways, it’s the best part of my day. I’ve worn out two pairs of shoes along the way, solved innumerable personal, local, regional, and world problems (although typically I’ve forgotten the solution by the time I get back home). I’ve “met” several people, regulars who are also out early. We speak as we pass by each other. I don’t know their names, but I’ve named them in my head. There’s Norm, who I have decided is a transplanted Yankee, who never speaks but does this arm-lifting thing with his elbow at a 90-degree angle as he goes by. There’s Dianne, who runs with a sort of stiff gait, but who I’ve decided runs 5 miles or more each day. Quan Tri is, I think, Korean. She doesn’t walk every day. She always stares at the ground ahead of her, until she gets about ten feet away. Then she looks up, smiles faintly, waves, then looks back at the ground ahead of her. I’ve already mentioned Abigail, whose name I do know. There’s Two Dog Lady, who has appeared recently walking two large boxers, who never seem happy to see me. I hope that lady has good control over those dogs.

Like I said, I’ve been very regular at this for a year. It has occurred to me recently, that I’ve walked a thousand miles, probably more, because I sometimes add an evening walk. But a thousand is a good number to contemplate upon.


After a long, hot summer, the mornings are cool again. And with the sun rising later, it’s dark when I begin. Right now, Orion is riding high in the southeast. On clear mornings, I can watch as the fainter stars in that constellation fade, until only Betelgeuse and Regulus are still visible in the brightening sky. Just below Orion, Sirius, the brightest star in our sky, stays visible almost until the sun rises. I watch as the eastern sky begins to turn a faint gray, then lighter into deep blue, then rosy-pink as the sun comes up. The transition from dark to bright occurs surprisingly fast. One moment the trees are silhouetted against the early dawn sky, the next there is a swollen orange orb shining through.

It’s that moment just before the sun actually rises when I see deer, if they’re out. There are two places I sometimes see them, one at the edge of a new subdivision being built, where the houses under construction push up against the remaining woods, the other at the edge of a schoolyard where another patch of woods lingers. I don’t know if the deer know their days here are numbered, but they have to feel the pressure as their habitat disappears. I wonder how that feels – do the deer truly have a memory of a time just a few years ago when several hundred acres along my route were a combination of woods and meadows? I last heard coyotes about five years ago, and in that five years my community has changed from a town to a small city. I think about this while I walk. One route crosses what was an open pasture two years ago, but now has streets and fifteen or so houses under construction, with more to come as soon as they can be hammered together. I wonder why undeveloped land is such an affront to some people.

Another thing my walk has done is make me more opposed than ever to those automatic sprinkler systems in residential lawns. I see them running in light drizzle, in heavy rain. But mostly what I see is lots of water running off the lawn and into the storm drains. My personal estimate is that at least half of the water sprayed out through those systems every morning is wasted. And they shouldn’t be watering their lawns every day anyway. That develops a shallow root system that will cause the grass to die during times of drought unless the water is applied constantly. Grass doesn’t want to be watered every day. But every morning I pass the same lawns being watered and overwatered by a grid of popup sprinkler heads, spraying water onto grass and driveways and sidewalks and streets. And I hear the sound of water rushing through the storm drains.

So I walk, and walk, and walk. I think it’s helped my knees, holding the arthritis at bay. Along with watching what I eat, the walking has helped me lose forty-five pounds since March 1. I’ve walked through all four seasons now. I know now I can walk in temperatures as low as 24 degrees F. I’ve walked in temperatures as high as 97F – obviously not my morning walk! I’ve walked in sun, in rain, in light sleet. I’ve learned that you really do eventually begin to look at it not as something you have to do, but as something you want to do. I wake up ready to get out of bed and walk. And I get to spend a little time with the world, with the stars, the rising sun, and just a few friends. It’s not a bad way to start the day.

How Much Is Pluto Worth?

Thursday, 14 September 2006, 12:57 | Category : Stargazing
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Unless you’ve been, well, out past the orbit of The Planet Formerly Known As Pluto (actually, out past the orbit of the Pluto-Charon double solar system object), you’re probably aware that Pluto is no longer a planet. Those fun-loving cosmic tricksters at the International Astronomical Union pulled it’s membership to the Planetary Club a few weeks back. What prompted this, you might ask. You might say “Xena”. In 2003, a team of German astronomers discovered an object 3.5 billion miles from the sun, with an orbit of about 560 years. It was assigned the cute little name of 2003UB13. They have a rule for these things. But the rule also allows it to have a happier name, so this was called Xena. Potential Trouble For Pluto #1 arose when the diameter of Xena was calculated to be 1864 miles. Pluto’s diameter is around 1150 miles. Pluto was a planet, Xena not so much. But Xena was bigger. Potential Trouble For Pluto #2 came when Xena was discovered to have a moon, which was named Gabrielle. Things with moons, under the paradigm then in force, were called planets.

In the months between the discovery of 2003UB13, aka Xena, and this past August, things got increasingly sticky for Pluto. Nobody wanted to call Xena a planet – well, some people did, those who have been hoping for a tenth planet for decades – but most astronomers didn’t want to give it the keys to the Planetary Club liquor cabinet, because it’s becoming apparent that there could be hundreds of objects like Xena (and Pluto) floating around out past Neptune. You think it was hard to come up with a mnenomic for nine planets, try coming up with one for 372 planets! And in the case of Xena, apparently Gabrielle actually orbits around the planet, whereas with The Planet Formerly Known As Pluto and its little moon Charon, the orbital center is at a point in space between them. Sticky!

So, this past August, the IAU decided to just boot Pluto from the club rather than enlarge the member’s lounge to accomodate any number of rabble. It’s a bitter blow, no doubt, to the little Cosmic Overachiever who had been lording it over his fellow rocklets in the Kuiper Belt. It’s value dropped immediately. How much? $38.95, but more on that later. Today, as if to rub it in Pluto’s face just a bit more, 2003UB13 got a spiffy new name – Eris, named for the Greek goddess of discord. Very appropriate, really. And Gabrielle? Gabrielle was renamed Dysnomia, the spirit of lawlessness. They may regret that if the Kuiper Belt Liberation Front begins hurling rogue comets and meteors at us.

So back to the $38.95. How exactly did I determine that Pluto was worth less than a ticket to see Trans-Siberian Orchestra? Well, Sky & Telescope magazine sells books. One of their books was called “The New Solar System”. Published in 1998, it had the latest info on our sun and its planets. All nine of them. It included all the neat stuff found by the Mars probes up until that point, the latest Jupiter and Saturn missions. On all nine planets. It sold for $39.95. Today, you can buy it from them for $1. And that $38.95 price drop is purely because Pluto got exposed as just another small solar system object. They’ll call it a dwarf planet, sure, but that’s just until they build the new fence just outside the orbit of Neptune. Which itself is just a tiny chunk of rock surrounded by an enormous amount of swirling gas. Not so different from Congress. And the mnenomic thing? Kottke.org held a contest for a new one. Here’s the winning entry:

My! Very educated morons just screwed up numerous planetariums

The runners-up:

Many Very Earnest Men Just Snubbed Unfortunate Ninth Planet

My vision, erased. Mercy! Just some underachiever now

Most vexing experience, mother just served us nothing!

All that, for $38.95. I’m not sure it was worth it. (I bought 3 copies, maybe it was).

A Gardener’s Prayer

Tuesday, 12 September 2006, 20:28 | Category : Gardening
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Oh Lord, grant that it in some way may rain every day, say from about midnight until three o’clock in the morning…but You see, it must be gentle and warm so that it can soak in; grant that at the same time it would not rain on Campion, Alyssum, Helianthemum, Lavender and other plants which You in Your infinite wisdom know are drought-loving plants…I will write their names on a bit of paper if You like…and grant that the sun may shine the whole day long, but not everywhere (not for instance on Spirea, or on Gentian, Plantain-lily or Rhododendron), and not too much…that there be plenty of dew and little wind, enough worms, no plant lice and snails, no mildew, and that once a week thin, liquid manure and guano may fall from Heaven.

– Karel Capek

(I know how he felt)

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No More Ranger Rants

Friday, 8 September 2006, 23:10 | Category : Autos, RangerRants
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I got a new sled today. After several months of looking and pondering, I had focused on either the Toyota Matrix or it’s twin Pontiac Vibe. Found what I wanted today, and so – no more Ranger. I may miss having a truck, but I can haul a bunch of stuff in this, including my telescopes. And so – the Vibe:

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