Monday, October 31, 2011

Cat story

I was reminded of this story when I got together with my old college friends a few weeks ago as mentioned in my post titled Too much to write. I was spending part of the summer on campus because I'd gotten a chance to do some extra-credit biomedical research. Since that was the field I wanted to go into when I graduated, it seemed like a good idea. By good fortune, my two best friends were also going to be on campus, too. One of my friend's girlfriend (who he would later marry and who would organize our get together in Too much to write) would stop by to visit during the summer, too. She was working at a resort in the Pocono Mountains not too far away. During one of those trips, she brought along a little kitten she had adopted. I was never crazy about cats but I liked all living things and could tolerate cats as long as they didn't bother me.

Well, she had a problem. She couldn't keep the cat in the dormitory on the resort and my other friends were going to be going home for a while before classes started for the next semester. So, since I was going to be staying on campus until everyone came back for the fall, she asked if I could keep the cat for the few weeks left on summer. "Taking care of cats is very simple, " she said. "Just put out some food and water and have a litter box in another part of the room and he'll be happy. And if he turns out to not like being inside all the time, you can just leave him outside and put food and water out for him. Cats are very smart and he will come back to the food and water and you can bring him in when you want and leave him out when you want." She finished with, "You won't have any trouble."

You probably know where this is going but I'll fill in some details. He was a very nice cat but he was a little too affectionate. He was busy all night and wanted to play. No matter how many times I put him on the floor, he jumped back on the bed. So, then I decided to move to the upper bunk of the bunk beds in the room. He still managed to jump up and get on the upper bunk - of course making a lot more noise as he "rope climbed" up the blanket and grabbing onto me as he finished his epic climb. So, then I locked him in the closet but he cried and cried until I let him out. So, the next day, as much as I was afraid to, I put him outside the dorm with some food and water. I stayed there with him for a while and played with him to familiarize him with the area. He cried a little as I walked into the dorm and closed the door behind me but I couldn't help it. I had things to do.

When I got back, I went to see if he was there but he was gone. I filled the food and water dishes and went on my way. I checked back the next morning and he still wasn't there. I don't remember, after all these years, whether the food and water were being used. I just remember the panic I felt. I'd lost my friend's cat! I walked all over looking for him. I had a lot of things to do but I couldn't think about anything besides finding the cat. I asked all around and walked and walked. There wasn't much time until classes started and I was sure the cat was either dead or had been adopted by someone else.

Finally, the day before my friends were to get back to campus, I heard a cry. It was my friend's cat! He was on the other side of the building but at least he'd found the right building. I ran around to get him and took him to my room. That night, I didn't have a problem with him wanting to play. He was exhausted and slept all night. He was hungry and thirsty too. He'd had quite an adventure. The next day, I took him and all his stuff down to where my friend's girlfriend would have her room. She wasn't there but my friend, her boyfriend, was there setting things up for her. I gladly handed him the cat and his stuff and told him the story. As I helped him get the room ready, we turned our backs and the cat jumped out the window! We were on the second floor and he jumped into a bush. We ran down to look for him but he was gone. We never saw that cat again. But I'd done my duty and had passed him off to my my friend. As bad as I felt, I'd done my duty.

It would take sixteen years for me to learn to love cats. I got a cat of my own at that time and she changed me forever. But until that time, I swore I'd never have anything to do with cats again.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

It happens every fall

My title is a bit of a play on the movie titled It Happens Every Spring which was one of my favorite baseball movies when I was growing up along with Angels in the Outfield, the 1951 version, because it was about the Pittsburgh Pirates. An interesting side note is that Paul Douglas is in both movies. He plays a catcher and friend of the lead character in It Happens Every Spring but he plays the manager and a lead character in Angels in the Outfield. But this post has nothing to do with baseball. It has to do with our gas fireplace. Boy, talk about getting off topic.

We have a wonderful gas fireplace. This thing is so good you could almost heat the entire house with it. And there is no smoke, no wood to split and did I mention no smoke? We don't have to worry about a chimney fire and don't have to get the chimney cleaned. We don't have a flue to worry about and no air leaks during the winter. Too good to be true? Almost. Its one problem is that every fall (see how the title works?), we have to light the pilot light and I can never remember how to do it. It's just too long between lightings for me to remember this. If it was once a month, I'd probably be OK. But doing something once a year gives me too much chance to forget how to do it. And this morning, I once again showed how well I can forget things.

The first problem is getting the glass cover off. I tried sliding it up and lifting it out like I thought I remembered doing last year but it didn't budge. Then I remembered it had something to do with getting into the lower metal grate and releasing it. How to get the metal grate open? That turned out to be the easiest job - it just tilts out. I did that after yanking and pushing and sliding the grate to no avail. Then, with the bottom grate opened and no apparent screws holding the glass cover I realized that there were two latches that held the bottom and flipped those which released the bottom of the glass cover. With the glass cover just hanging there, wonder of wonders, the glass did slide up and lift out as I remembered doing last year. My confidence took a big boost. I was going to do it. But then I couldn't remember why I needed to get the glass cover off in the first place. All the controls were in the bottom part covered by the metal grate - which was open already!

So now I had to figure out how to light the pilot. Well, actually, I first had to figure out how to get the gas flowing so I could light the pilot. And this, I'm ashamed to say, was where I finally got stuck. There were three or four knobs and switches down there and I had no idea which order to do them in. There was a knob that had three positions - "off", "pilot" and "on". I moved it to "pilot" and heard nothing. I was afraid to leave it like that because maybe the gas was flowing slowly. I finally had to ask, "Where is the manual?" I know my wife had the manual last year but she wasn't sure she remembered where she'd put it. Then she had a great idea. "Let's look it up on the Internet." We knew it was a Vermont Castings fireplace so I went to their site but they seem to make a million different gas fireplaces and none looked like ours. So now, to look up the particular manual for our fireplace, we had to find the paper manual to know which one to look for.

Finally, after I'd tried a few more configurations of knobs and switches, my wonderful wife found the manual. Then it was simple. You not only turn the knob to "pilot" but you push the knob in which starts the gas flow. Then you light the pilot either with a match (that's the only reason to remove the glass cover) or with the handy igniter switch in the lower panel. You continue to hold the knob in with the flame burning for a minute until the safety allows the flame to burn on its own. The safety causes the gas flow to stop if the pilot light goes out because it's no longer producing heat. Holding the knob in overrides the safety until there is enough heat to keep it on. After you release the knob, you turn it to the "on" position and you're done.

So that's it for this year. After getting everything back together, the very next thing I did was look for the electronic manual for our fireplace since we now had the model number from the paper manual. The electronic manual is now safely saved on my computer and ready for next fall when this will all repeat. But next year, I'll bring up my handy electronic manual and review it before attempting this again. If I can remember where I stored the manual a year from now.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Harvest time again

Just like it happened about this time last year, see Cranberries, I saw a cranberry harvest as I was returning from work. I was heading home to a nice meal and the welcome of my family and these poor folks were rushing to finish before dark. I stopped to snap a few pictures and saw more activity this year. Last year, I only saw the machines that shake the cranberry plants that allow the berries to rise to the surface. This year I also got to see corralling of the floating berries into a section of the pond where they would then be pumped into trucks to be hauled to storage or processing buildings. The first picture is a good overview of everything. Click on the pictures to see larger versions. To the right of center in the picture, you can see the harvesting machines getting the berries to separate from the plants and rise to the top. To the left of center, you can see the guys in waders corralling the berries and dragging them to shore.

In the foreground, you see the berries that have been brought close to shore for pick up. In the picture on the left, you can see a closer picture of the berries themselves. They don't look so appetizing floating in the not-very-clear water with all the other material floating around them. These guys don't worry about that. That's for the processors to worry about. The water is actually very clear. It has just freshly flooded the bog.

The next two pictures show closer views of the workers. The guys corralling the berries look like they are having fun but it is really hard work. If they mess up and let berries escape their nets, they have to go to a lot of work to get them back. The berries are a lot heavier than you'd think because there are so many of them.

The picture on the left is a closer view of the harvesting machines. I used to think the harvesting machines were boats but now I see that they are not. They have wheels and ride on the cranberry beds. That's another reason the bogs are only flooded with 6 - 8 inches of water. I couldn't stay to watch them finish and it's a good thing I didn't try. I saw them at the same bog finishing up their work. There are no lights on the bogs so I know they didn't work through the night. They just got up much earlier than I do and got to work much earlier than I do. I'm glad I have the job I do!

The last picture shows a non-human cranberry harvester. It was moving very fast and I wasn't able to get a good picture but I was lucky to get a picture at all because it swam under water for long periods and I was only able to follow it by walking very fast and following the trail of bubbles. I'm guessing it is a muskrat but I'm not sure. It was too small for a beaver and not as long as an otter. I'll probably never be sure. Click on the picture to see if you can figure out what it is.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The boys went to see "Real Steel"

I've always been fascinated by robots and it seems like my son is taking after me. My wife and daughter weren't interested in the least. So, we had a boys day at the movies.

Most of the time, robots are misrepresented in movies and books and are used as artificial (ha ha) villains. They always have to be menacing and they don't follow orders and attack the people or they do follow orders from evil people and hurt the good people (whoever they are). But in the movie Real Steel, although the robots are menacing, they always follow orders if they can. The story is set in a near future when boxing with human participants has been outlawed and boxing matches now consist of two robots bashing each other until time runs out or one is knocked down for a count of 10. The concept is a little like Robot Wars with much more sophisticated robots. The story, though, is more like Rocky.

I liked the movie for a number of reasons. First of all, the robots were terrific. I don't know if real robots could take the punishment these do but it sure looks convincing. Another reason I liked the movie was that in one scene, when a creditor finds the hero and beats him up (with some thugs to help), the fighting robot owned by the hero does not start on its own to defend the hero. That would have been ridiculous (even if it would have been satisfying to see the bad guy get beat up). Another good scene from the movie was when the underdog robot (owned by the hero) is able to stay in the fight with a much more advanced robot because the advanced robot was losing power. Being bigger with more advanced capabilities would use up a robot's stored power more quickly. And, if the robot was as good as the story implies and its previous matches didn't last long, this wouldn't have shown up before. One last thing I really liked about this story was that the hero was an ex-boxer. His son discovers that their robot has a mode where it can match the movements of a human and this allows the robot, with less sophisticated equipment, to beat more advanced opponents being operated by people who weren't boxers themselves. I liked the fact that just knowing how to operate the robots was not enough. It took skill and knowledge to do it right. I find this to be true in real world engineering, too. Just knowing the equations and how something works isn't enough. You have to understand what you're trying to do. You can just plead ignorance and barge ahead with a plan. You've got to know what you're doing and what the customer wants.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Too much to write

My title tells two tales. It explains why I hadn't written to my friends in so long and it explains my dilemma in writing this post. This post is one of of few posts that I'll write about visiting my best friends from college who I hadn't talked with in over five years.

They are my best friends - aside from my wife who is my very best friend. I think college friends become such good friends because you meet them under circumstances when you're on your own for the first time and you come to depend on them as you learn your way around in this strange, complex, adult world. I especially depended on my new college friends because I'd led a sheltered life in a small town. I was an only child with just a few close friends. No one in my family (including grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins) had ever been to college. Even though it scared me to death, I felt the need to strike out and face the challenge of being away from my parents. Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA was a four hour drive away from the 400 or so people in Finleyville, PA. My friends and I helped each other along. We were all in the biology program but two of us combined that with electrical engineering. As we each got married later, we were all in each others' weddings. As the years went on, we didn't keep in contact as much as we'd have liked. So, when one friend's wife called recently, it was a pleasant surprise. He was turning 60, as I'd done earlier in the year, and she wanted to have a surprise for him. I missed the call and couldn't call back because it might ruin the surprise if my friend answered. So, I would send an email. Then I realized the problem - the same problem that had kept me from writing or calling for the previous five years and the problem I have now with this post. There was just too much to say. How could I organize it all? Each time I went to write a line, three more stories flooded into my mind. I couldn't stay organized long enough to get a coherent message written.

But then, like facing a new project at work where I didn't know quite where to begin and didn't even know what I didn't know, I had to ask myself, "What is it your are trying to do?" My goal was to answer the simple question, "Could I get to their house for the week-end?" In this case, the question may have been simple but the answer wasn't. Cindy was still going through day-long tests in Boston, I was trying to find time to visit my mother who I hadn't been able to see for over a year and my mother-in-law had collapsed and been to the hospital and was still resting at home. While I'd love to go see my friends, I wasn't sure I could commit to going. Even if I could go, I wasn't sure if my family could go with me. And, in the end, that is what I said. I just answered the question, "Did I want to go?" with a resounding Yes. But the answer to, "Could I go?" had to be left open. All I could do was to go down the list of high priority things that needed to be handled first and then say, "I'll be there if I can."

In the end, I got to see my friends but I had to go alone. It was a terrific week-end but I missed my family. While I was having a wonderful time catching up on my friends' lives, I was anxious to get home to my wife and kids (and yes, even the cats and my dog). I'll tell a few stories from my trip. There is too much to write but I've got a start. Even if I can't write it all written down, whatever I do will be better than nothing. Or putting it off again!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Riding the 'T'

In Boston, when you refer to the 'T', you're talking about the transit system but especially, the subway system. I've loved streetcars and trolleys since I was a child. Then my parents took me to New York City and I fell in love with the subway. When I moved to New England and made trips to Boston, I was pleased to find that Boston has both trolleys and subways. It's an old system, the Boston subway was the first subway in North America, but that just adds to its charm. It's not as efficient as newer systems but it sure is fun to ride and explore.

So, when my wife needed to go to Boston for two days of tests, we took the kids. Rather than drive around, we took the 'T' and my children enjoyed it. We rode on four of the five color-coded sections of the system. But just for fun, without needing to go there, we decided to ride to the end of the Blue Line. I'd always wanted to do that. On the map in the picture, that's the end on the upper right of the Blue Line. We got out and walked around. There used to be an amusement park there called Wonderland. Then it closed and a dog racing track, by the same name, was opened there. Then dog racing was banned from Massachusetts but the station kept the name. That's not the first time the thing that gave a station its name has gone away. There used to be a department store called Lechmere at the end of the Green Line. Even after that chain of stores closed, though, the station kept the name.

Maybe, one of these days, we'll go to the end of each of the lines on the Boston subway system. That would be fun. I don't know why it's so much fun but it is.


Well, I've finally published all the posts I mentioned in Another long time between blog posts but... last month. It took longer than I thought it would but at least I finished. I've updated that post with links from each of the 10 posts I said I'd publish to their eventual location. It's always nice to do something you planned to do. If I can do that more often, I'll be a happy guy.

Monday, October 10, 2011

New England Aquarium - part 2

In my previous New England Aquarium post, I mentioned that I had more pictures from our visit there that I was going to post this time. After a long week-end of driving (more about that some other time), I'm finally going to show them.

The first picture is in a new part of the aquarium that is quite exciting. If there aren't a million people at the aquarium (like there were by the time we got to the tank) and if they aren't a bunch of children who never learned to take turns (as there were when we got to the tank), you can actually step up to the edge of this tank and touch the rays and sharks (!) as they swim by. In the Shark and Ray Touch Tank this day, the sharks were few and far between and when they came by, I was usually being pushed out of the way by kids and their parents who also didn't know about taking turns. But the rays were much more numerous and I was able to sneak up close enough for a photo this one time. This is such a beautiful scene to me. Just as the penguins seemed to be flying in the water, these rays seem to fly rather than swim.The contrast of the sandy bottom in the foreground and the light blue further back makes it seem like they are leaving the sea and flying into the air.

The last picture I want to show you is of the Sea Anemone tank. The colors are amazing and I wish I had better skills at photography to get them into my pictures. If I'd had a tripod, I could have set the camera for a long exposure to get more light. But I didn't have my tripod so I just have to be satisfied with what I was able to do. The fact that the picture is taken through the glass of the tank doesn't help, either. I wonder if a polarizing filter would help there? I'm going to look into techniques for taking pictures through glass.

Isn't it funny how so many things in the sea are named after something on the land? Sea Anemones are named after the Anemone flower. We have Sea Cucumbers, Sea Lions, Sea Horses, Sea Urchins, Sea Weed and even Sea Monkeys. Then there is the Star Fish with its doubly removed name. It's not a fish and it only looks like a caricature of a star but that's what we call it. With the vast expanse of the sea and the myriad creatures in it, you'd think we could be a little more creative in our naming.
Here is the ocean, vast and wide,
teeming with life of every kind,
both large and small.

See the ships sailing along,
and Leviathan,
which you made to play in the sea. 

Psalm 104:25-26  New Living Translation

Friday, October 07, 2011

New England Aquarium

Click to see the diver on the right
While my wife was going through two days of tests in Boston at the Boston Medical Center, I took my children to the New England Aquarium. I had been there about 20 years ago and was looking forward to seeing it again. My kids had never been there. We got there early before the crowds filled the building. It probably got so crowded because the weather was so bad that day.

From the aquarium website
The biggest feature of the aquarium is its huge, saltwater tank. Hundreds of different kinds of fish and turtles swim around in what looks like a coral reef. In the first picture at the top, my son joked that we came to an aquarium to see people. Yes, it takes a lot of people to maintain the environment and to feed the animals. The small picture to the left gives you a better idea of the scale of the tank. It holds 200,000 gallons of salt water and is 40 feet high and 23 feet wide.

Another popular feature is the penguin display. They are quite active (and noisy at times) and everyone seemed to spend the most time watching them. And yes, another human in the picture. It's amazing how many people it takes to maintain the aquarium. I don't remember seeing this many people at the zoo. Someone has to clean up the mess the penguins leave behind on the rocks and the penguins are too busy to do it themselves.

They don't just stand around. The penguins love to swim. The next picture, on the left, shows the penguins swimming around the huge pool provided for them. It circles the large salt water tank shown above. It was hard to tell when one penguin started and stopped but they seemed to like swimming for long periods. They are fast and graceful and seem to be flying underwater and, being birds, maybe that's why it looks that way.

Well, I'm running out of space and time so I'll leave the last two pictures for the next post. I've got a picture of some rays swimming in another large pool in the aquarium and I'll finally show you some invertebrates - sea anemones.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Be careful, you're being watched

As I mentioned in previous posts, Cindy has been going to Boston for various tests. As mentioned in "Under the Sea", for one set of tests, we went for two days and the weather was terrible. But on the next trip, the weather was wonderful. Cindy and I happened to make that one-day trip without the kids so we just strolled around the Public Garden. We watched the ducks and the people but weren't aware that we were being watched, too. The picture at the right shows Cindy relaxing a bit before she needed to go to the next appointment. Do you notice who is watching her? You never know who is behind you.

As you can see in the next picture, the squirrels were keeping their eyes on us (just click on the picture to expand it so you can see the squirrels more clearly). We don't know if they just found her interesting or if she looked like she might give them some food. Maybe they thought we were hanging around in their territory a little too long and were giving us the, "OK, move along. We saw these acorns first," look. I guess we'll never know. It shows you that when you're in the big city, watch your back!

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

"Under the Sea"

Well, I didn't get all my draft posts published in September as I had hoped in Another long time between blog posts but... but I'm still pretty pleased with myself. Even after not posting anything for 17 days, I still managed to publish 11 posts for the month. That's about what I've been averaging over the last few years. I also learned the lesson that I'm not a good enough writer to post every day. I think I'll stick to posting every 2 to 3 days and even putting up with gaps of up to 17 days.

When my wife needed to go to Boston for two days of tests (see Amyloidosis), we wanted to bring the kids along so they would know what was going on. But the children and I were not able to go into the various testing and consulting rooms so we decided to explore Boston. Since the remains of Tropical Storm Lee were bringing days of rain to the area, we weren't going to be doing much outside. So, I took the kids to the New England Aquarium. One of the things we did there was to go to the Simons IMAX Theater associated with the aquarium. We saw a wonderful movie titled Under the Sea.

We've seen some really good 3D movies. At least Evan and I saw a really good 3D movie, Avatar, not to be confused with Avatar: the Last Airbender which we also saw and enjoyed. We've also seen some really horrible 3D movies. But this one ranks up there with the great 3D movies. You really feel like the schools of fish and colonies of coral are right there in front of you. At some points, you feel like you need to get your arms out in front of you to push the kelp away so you can see the wonders ahead. The camera work is amazing. When you consider how difficult the environment is for taking these pictures, you just have to shake your head and wonder at how they pulled this off. You know the equipment must be large and imposing yet the animals don't seem to notice. Of course you know they did and it is the skill and patience of the filmmakers that makes this work. It is so clear. I have trouble getting scenes in focus with my auto-focus camera. How do you do it hundreds of feet below the ocean surface with hundreds of subjects to focus on? So you not only marvel at the beautiful images but, if you're like me, you marvel at the technical aspects of this movie, too.

I took a class in marine biology in college but all we ever saw were animals that we were able to dredge up on a short visit to the Duke Marine Lab in North Carolina and the organisms in the small aquarium in our lab and pictures in books. This movie should be a requirement for anyone thinking of studying the oceans. It makes you understand how something as vast and diverse as the ocean can also be so fragile and in need of our stewardship. To see a more extensive website devoted to this movie, see this page at the IMAX website.

Two more things before I finish. One pleasant surprise was the narrator. Jim Carrey does a really good job. When I first saw his name on the opening credits, I worried that we were in for a bunch of goofy voices and silly jokes but Mr. Carrey just spoke clearly and eloquently. He seemed as amazed as we were at what we were seeing. But one other thing that I wish would have been different was the 3D glasses. For a normal 3D movie, these glasses would be fine but for an IMAX movie, I found myself wishing they were bigger. Yes, you could move your head to look at different part of the huge screen but I find one of the nice things about IMAX movies is that your peripheral vision kicks in and makes you feel like the movie is all around you. With the normal 3D glasses, I just felt like the movie was in front of me. But it was still a fantastic experience and I highly recommend it.