Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Social engineering

One of my (many) pet peeves is the baggage claim area at the airport. You know how it is - the flight was late and crowded, many people are worried they'll miss their connection, everyone rushes to the baggage claim area and then waits and waits for the bags to appear. So, when the bags finally appear, everyone rushes forward to stand around the belt conveyor or spinning conveyor to grab their bag. Under ideal conditions, it looks like the top picture to the right. Sure, you can stand right up at the conveyor and wait for you bag. You're not blocking anyone's view and when you see you bag, grab it and swing it off the conveyor, there is no one right next to you that gets whacked with your bag.

But more often, the scene looks like the second picture below on the left. I couldn't really find a picture of a crowded baggage claim area so I substituted a picture that reminds me of one. They are very similar except here, the zebras are worried that the "luggage" is going to claim them :-)

There are more people looking for bags than there is room around the conveyor. Not only do the first or most aggressive people keep the rest from getting to their bags, the people in back can't even see their bags. The people in front probably think that no one else is under the same pressures they are under. No one else will mind that they push to the front to get their bags, knock into others as they swing their bags off the conveyor and bump into them as they leave. Why would we?

Well, my idea is that everyone should stand back. Far enough so everyone can see the whole conveyor. Then, when you see your bag (or think you see your bag), you move forward to check it out. If it is your bag, it is much easier to get it off the conveyor and get away from the claim area without bumping others or being bumped. Is it ever going to happen? No.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Squirrel on my walk

Normally, I wouldn't consider a picture of a squirrel all that exciting. But the squirrels in the woods behind our office are not the tame, gray squirrels I'm used to. These squirrels are very much afraid of humans. I can hear them scurrying off as I approach. Sometime, I'll see them run up a tree and hide on the side away from me. This is where their having eyes on either side of their head come in handy. If they cling to the tree with their head facing up, they can see a predator approach from either side of the tree and run to the other side. And that's what they've been doing to me for five months!

Well, I've finally succeeded. I think this one must be a young squirrel who isn't as afraid of people as it should be. It did run away as soon as it heard me but when it climbed the tree, it decided to watch me from a branch. I guess it felt safe enough because I was pretty far away. He (or she, I can't tell) didn't know my camera has a 12x optical zoom (equivalent to a 420mm lens on a 35mm camera) so I was able to snap these two pictures without needing to move too much. He didn't seem to be scared off by the various "beep" sounds the camera makes as it changes modes and focuses. I could have gotten more pictures if I didn't have to get back to the office. I continue to be impressed with this camera, a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7S, with this wide zoom range and its built-in image stabilization - I don't use a tripod on my lunch-time walks.

Friday, August 17, 2007

I love history, too, but...

...some of the ways we discover history bother me. I read the other day about an Etruscan tomb that was found intact in Italy. The archaeologists are both excited (that it is perfectly preserved) and surprised that it had not been looted: "When we found fragments outside, we thought we would find that the tomb had been violated. But the main burial room was completely intact." Until now, that is. It's one thing to investigate old buildings and other common sites. But when we disturb burial sites or religious shrines, I don't like it. We make big trouble when someone tries to disturb our own burial sites (or even our battlefields) but seem to think nothing of disturbing sites of Native Americans or other, older civilizations. Perhaps that is because no one is left (or has the power) to tell us to back off.

I guess I would be disappointed to know how much of the history I read and love has come from excavating burial sites. I'm slowly working my way through J. M. Roberts, History of the World now (an older edition than the link points to). The book would probably be half its size if it wasn't for shady archaeologists' plundering of old burial grounds. It does seem that there is more concern being shown about this, though. I hope this continues. There are small differences between people looting old tombs to make money and museums and universities looting old tombs to increase knowledge. For instance, the museums and universities usually put the items on display. Sometimes, they are able to preserve them. They study them to see how they fit in with other objects while the people who loot for money often just spread the items out to the high bidder. Usually, only the owner sees them from then on.

But why do we have to see these things? Do we have to bring Mount Everest to a museum near us to believe that it exists? Do we dismantle it piece by piece to study it? Couldn't we leave the artifacts where they are and carefully let some researchers look at them where they are? I'm probably being too simplistic here but I'll fall back on my "this is my blog and I'll say what I want" statement. You're welcome to disagree!

[Update - I put a new link on the right. It points to the History Channel site "This Day in History" section. I find it fascinating to look at brief stories about things that happened in the past on this day. Often, the stories will follow over a few days and you can try to imagine being back there when it really happens. The parallels between then and now are very interesting.

Unfortunately, they've changed the site in the last year and it starts off playing a movie highlighting the top stories so turn your speaker down if you find it embarrassing.]

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Living in an amusement park

We live in an area that a lot of people visit for their vacation. I sometimes feel that these visitors think that those of us who live here are just employees at the "Vacation Amusement Park". The picture to the right is supposed to be one of those mascots that walk around the amusement park so that people can have their pictures taken with them. From what I understand, visitors to the parks seem to think they can ask anything of the people inside these costumes. They can treat them any way they want. After all, "These people are paid well enough and trained to handle these situations." Well, that's not true. And for those of us who aren't employed in the vacation industry at all, it can get a little ridiculous.

Visitors get quite upset when we don't know the location of every street and business in our area. They get upset when we don't know the dates and times of various special events, fairs and movies. We don't necessarily know the time of the next high tide and we may not even realize that their favorite band is playing some place we've never heard of. Because we live here, we are supposed to memorize the local events calendar.

Another disappointing thing is to see how people act when they are on vacation. They seem to think it's OK to act like a fool if they aren't home where people they know will see them. Well, it turns out that screaming out your car window while driving through a residential area at 1 AM is wrong no matter where you are. Making U-turns in the middle of town is illegal no matter where you are. Cutting in front of people in a line is impolite whether you're late for the ferry or not. Even if we were all paid to endure these things, it wouldn't be right. But it's one of the things I guess you have to put up with when you live in a beautiful place where lots of people wish they could live.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Building boom

You may have heard that there is trouble in the housing market. Well, that's not the case everywhere. Take the place where I take my walks at lunch. In the past week, I've noticed a tremendous amount of activity. Can't see what I mean? Look at the path in the picture on the right. You'll a large number of ant hills (the light brown mounds about an inch high) running along the path in two rows. What I find strange about this is that they all seemed to appear overnight although more are appearing every day. They are all in shaded areas along the path. Finally, I never see any ants around them! Usually you see ants entering and leaving a nest but none of these show activity. But I know they are active because some of the hills have gotten run over by bikes or stepped on and the next day they are cleaned up. Some idiot even tried stuffing things into the holes and they were cleared out the next day. Still no ants visible. Maybe, since they build them in the shade, these are ants that don't like the heat and only come out at night. Could we be in the middle of an invasion from Canadian ants? I'll keep my eyes on this and let you know what I find.

Sunday, August 05, 2007


I've been continuing with my walks in the woods behind our office. I walk during lunch and usually take my camera (Panasonic DMC-FZ7S). I've mostly been taking pictures of the birds I find back there but, once in a while, something else gets my attention. I noticed a dragonfly one day. It would speed off looking for something and then come back to the same spot. It did this a number of times which allowed me to get ready for this shot. I've taken pictures of other dragonflies but they always seemed to be resting on something that hid their wings. This one, with bold, amber colored wings, really stood out.

Dragonflies have always fascinated me. They are terrific fliers (they are fast, over 20 miles per hour, yet they can hover). They seem to actually have a sense of curiosity. When I used to try to catch them, and would miss with the first swipe, they would often come back to have a look - or were they gloating? Their colors can be amazing. I've seen bright red, metallic green and mixes of blue and black that are as striking as some butterflies.

Can you imagine seeing a dragonfly with a wing span of two feet or more coming at you? There are fossils of dragonflies this size from the Permian period (between 250 and 300 million years ago).

I'll be trying to post some more pictures I've taken during my lunch-time walks in future articles. I'll also be talking more about the camera I use. I'm very impressed with its features but I'm still learning to use it correctly.

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