Category: Unintended Cosequences

RedGreenEver heard of the Red Green Regatta? It’s held every year in Fairbanks as part of Alaska Days, scheduled this year for July 20. The idea is a short race on the Chena River (downstream) between “boats” made of whatever, incorporating the Red Green theme (you do watch the PBS show, don’t you?) and held together with duct tape. This year, as I’ve mentioned before, it’s been wet: 5.45″ in July through last midnight and raining right now. The Chena was so high the race was cancelled. Not that the judging of the boats was cancelled! Photos were posted by our local PBS affiliate, KUAC, and I couldn’t resist stealing one and linking it to their site. So just click on the picture for more!


Camera Design

There are times I wonder if product designers ever use the products they design.

3 diginal cameras

My digital cameras. Top to bottom, they are 2.1 MP, 5 MP and 10 MP. The photo was taken with my iPhone.

This is not a new complaint for me. My second post was on smoke detectors, and a couple of months later I included cars and washing machines.

Now it’s digital cameras.

I’ve had three of the things, steadily increasing in resolution and decreasing in price and size. That part’s great. But my first digital camera, the clunker on top, had a viewfinder as well as a very small screen. I finally retired it when it started giving me double exposures, photos which were cut in half in the middle, and other peculiarities, but at least I never had a problem knowing what it was pointed at.

Camera number two was a Kodak with over twice the resolution of the first, and it took great pictures – except in bright light. I couldn’t see what I was photographing. No viewfinder, and while young eyes may be able to see those digital screens outdoors in bright light, I can’t. A good many of the photos on my blog before last fall were taken by guessing where the camera was pointed, as I certainly could not see the screen. It was large enough; I just couldn’t see anything but gray.

Last fall my brother-in-law showed me his camera, which had both a large screen and a viewfinder, like my first digital camera but with a large screen. Great! I wrote down the name and looked it up on the internet when I got home. I found it all right – a discontinued model. So I searched, not just Canon, but several on-line stores, for a digital camera that had both a screen and a viewfinder. After all, I’m surely not the only person who has trouble seeing those screens in bright light.

Turns out that the combination, or even a viewfinder, was available only in expensive, SLR cameras, not in the pocket point-and-shoot I wanted. I wound up getting a “used” camera of the type my brother-in-law had, and it’s been quite satisfactory, though I’m sure I’m not using a tenth of the features. But sooner or later, I suspect, it will refuse to work with a computer upgrade, as the Kodak did, and I’ll have to look for another camera.

Why on earth did the camera designers decide that a viewfinder was no longer necessary? Have they never tried to take a picture in bright ambient light? A cell phone I can understand – picture taking is strictly secondary. (Of course it’s rather difficult to dial a number if you can’t see the screen, but it’s usually possible to find some shade.) But why has the viewfinder become obsolete in cameras?


I don’t normally get childproof caps. For one thing, I almost never have children in my home. For another, I suspect the average 5-year old could open them far more easily than I can.

pliers opening bottleI think my worst experience with these caps was the time I broke my wrist, several thousand miles from home. A cousin took me to the emergency room, where the ER doctor applied a plaster splint from upper arm to fingertips. The cousin was kind enough to run into a drug store and fill the prescription the ER doctor had given me for pain – but I forgot to ask him to get non-childproof caps. And I was staying by myself.

Have you ever tried to open a childproof cap by yourself, one handed, half sick with pain, and somewhat disoriented? I finally managed, with the aid of my chin. And I was careful not to put the cap back on fully.

vacuum breaker

I’m not sure this gadget has a name, other than “vacuum breaker”, but as far as I’m concerned it’s worth its weight in gold.

Unfortunately, either the childproof idea has spread, or my ability to open things has declined with age. I won’t even mention blister packs, which require a heavy-duty knife or tin snips to open them, not to mention the waste they generate. But surely the caps on plastic bottles of water or soft drinks are supposed to screw off. Aren’t they? Not to mention the metal lids of peanut butter jars.

I’m happy to say I’ve found solutions to at least the plastic bottle and peanut butter problems.

The plastic bottles are hard to open because I simply can’t grip hard enough any more to break the molded seal between the screw part of the cap and the collar. (Exactly how they get those caps on the bottles is a mystery to me.) But the solution turned out to be simple – vice-grip pliers. They can be adjusted via the screw in one leg to fit exactly over the cap, and they provide plenty of leverage.

Peanut butter, pickles, sauerkraut and other things that come in glass jars are usually vacuum packed, and it is the vacuum that makes those lids hard to turn. But it is possible to break the vacuum before you try to turn the cap. I found a little plastic gadget in one of the junk catalogs that litter my kitchen table. It’s simple. It’s cheap. And it works! I just lever the lit up slightly before I try to open it, and it turns easily.

Now if someone would just come up with solutions to the dozens of other types of packaging I find myself struggling to open….

My computer screen lit up with a message Tuesday morning. Your Bluetooth mouse could quit at any time — change the batteries. Fine – I’ve finally figured out how to change the mouse batteries with the computer on, though it does require attaching my old USB mouse to re-connect to the Bluetooth mouse with fresh batteries. (If there’s a keyboard command for find Bluetooth mouse I haven’t found it.) The problem is that I had changed the mouse batteries the day before.

I use rechargeables, and I try to keep some plugged in and charging all the time. Now rechargeable batteries eventually reach the point where they won’t hold a charge, and I think mine have reached that point. I checked them out on the battery tester. The two I took out of the mouse, which just came off the charger yesterday, tested as weak, and I added them to the sack of dead batteries. (I’m not sure dead batteries are actually recycled locally, but I do turn them in separately to try to keep them out of the landfill.) Guess I’d better put rechargeable batteries on my shopping list; I’m going to have problems the next time the keyboard needs batteries. (It takes three.)

Battery tester–good, fresh battery, but my insulin pump won’t accept it.

That was not my only battery problem recently. My insulin pump runs on one AAA battery. This powers not only the pump itself, but also the backlight, the warning beeps and the vibrator if I don’t respond to the beeps, which I generally don’t hear. The manufacturer recommends non-rechargeable alkaline Energizers, simply because the pump is programmed to respond to their power loss curve as they slowly wear out, in order to give me a timely warning. Because I go through so many and have to have them on hand, I purchased a couple of large packages recently. (I didn’t need a twenty-pack and a twenty-four-pack, but I put the twenty-four pack away and then couldn’t find it until after I bought the twenty-pack.) Both had manufacture dates of 2010. Both claimed a shelf life of seven years. Last time, when neither of the two I tried from the twenty-four-pack worked, I managed to find one that my health supplier shipped. Recently I was out of the extras, and tried two more from the twenty-four-pack. Then three from the twenty-pack. The third one worked, but I now have six AAA batteries that show up as good on the tester but won’t work in my insulin pump. (They are working just fine in my anti-mosquito clip-on.)

I know the pump is picky, but only one battery out of seven? Shall I call Medtronics, or Energiser?

Are we getting too dependent on batteries? I said last week, the Jarnian Confederation acts only to prevent Human-occupied planets from preying on each other or on other sentient species, or to provide emergency aid. But it needs some structure to do this. The interaction of my characters with this structure provides much of the plot of my fiction.

Originally (and still to a large extent in Homecoming and Tourist Trap) the Confederation as a whole was ruled by the R’il’nai. As their numbers dwindled, the Councils were developed to provide the remaining R’il’nai with information and a part-Human sounding board. Membership was originally determined by tests to determine the fraction of traits R’il’nian-Human hybrids showed that were clearly of R’il’nian origin. Those with over seven-eighths R’il’nian traits were considered part of the Inner Council.

The Outer Council was composed of High R’il’noids, those with more than three-fourths R’il’nian traits, and was primarily an advisory, fact-finding and enforcement body subject to the Inner Council. Those with more than half R’il’nian traits were considered R’il’noid. R’il’noids were essential to the running of the Confederation and were subject to Confederation law but not to planetary law. This was primarily because of problems that had arisen in the past because of planetary laws (such as a ban on travel at the new moon, punishable by death) which prevented R’il’noids from carrying out their professional duties. At that time virtually all adult R’il’noids had the R’il’nian empathy at least to the extent that they could be trusted not to take advantage of their immunity to planetary law.

R’il’nian-human hybrids were rare, is spite of official encouragement for R’il’nian males to father offspring from Human or R’il’noid women. Such matings were often sterile. A R’il’nian scientist, Çeren, developed an in vitro fertilization method that greatly increased the production of crossbreds, and also developed a more objective method of ranking R’il’noids by the fraction of active R’il’nian-derived genes. The unintended consequences of both these developments (which were desperately needed at the time) set up the problems in my science fiction.

By the time of Homecoming the Inner Council was actually making most of the decisions to run the Confederation, though the only surviving R’il’nian, Lai, had absolute veto power at least in theory, though he rarely if ever used it. Barring that veto power, the Inner Council was ruled by a majority vote providing at least 5/6 of the Inner Council members were present and voting. Reconsideration of a vote already taken required a 2/3 plus majority. By the time of the trilogy veto power no longer exists, and this is how the Confederation is ruled and the Horizon War was started.

The Perversity of Inanimate Objects 1 4/10/10
Insulin Pumps 5/20/10
Wars With Word 5/28/10
The Perversity of Inanimate Objects 2 6/4/10
Float Chair (fictional) 6/24/10
Tricycles are not Bicycles 8/8/10
Why Temperature Remembered doesn’t match the Record 4/5/11
Does Banking Software Work? 4/21/11
My New Toy – an iPad 2 5/12/11
Before Computers 6/5/11
How do you Eat a Salad? 4/28/12
Battery Woes 5/12/12
Printer Woes 6/14/12
Adult Proof 9/8/12
Digital Cameras 9/29/12
Who Needs a Nightcap? 9/3/13

500+ posts is too many for me to keep track of, and quite a few are “reference” posts, such as the ones on planet building or horse coat color genetics. So I’m putting in a new feature, an index page that links to posts linking to the posts on a given topic. (Sound confusing? Try doing it!)

These indexing posts start today (see below) and will appear occasionally until the reference posts are all indexed. After that I’ll just be updating the index posts, which will be accessible from the Index tab above.

With 550 posts as of today, I’ve started to have problems remembering what I’ve already put on here. This is particularly a problem with posting existing content such as poems, short pieces from the Summer Arts Festival, or science explanations originally written for the Alaska Science Forum. I can’t remember which books or DVDs I’ve posted reviews on. It also is starting to be a problem when I want to link to a previous post and can’t remember when it was put up or what the title was. And there are posts on this blog that have permanent information, like the series on planet building and the one on horse color genetics, or the book and DVD reviews. I want to make it easier for my readers as well as myself to find things.

I made a start some time ago by adding an index page, which can be accessed from the menu at the top of any page. Right now, the only links are to index pages on my author site. This takes you out of the site and sometimes back in, which is rather clumsy. The index list is also incomplete.

I’m going to start posting an occasional entry which is strictly an index of past posts on a particular topic. These posts will be linked from the index page, and will link forward to the individual blog posts. As it takes a while to find all the posts that belong together, this will be a slow process—probably extending over the next few months. The first in this series, on DVD reviews, is already queued for January 3. Others will follow, most on Thursdays.

I probably won’t be indexing every post. Some, like those early posts which were simply glossary entries for my books, are on the author site and really belong there. Others, like the regular Monday updates on North Pole weather starting in November 2010, can be found easily enough just by using the calendar on the site. But I hope that by the time I have finished this, older posts of interest will be easier to find.

Did you remember to change your clock yesterday? I spent close to an hour yesterday morning trying to remember where all the clocks were. The computer is automatic, but that leaves two indoor-outdoor thermometers, my wrist watch, my insulin pump and my glucose monitor in the computer room alone. In the kitchen I have the microwave, the stove clock, a travel alarm visible from the stationary bicycle, another thermometer, and the timer on the plant light. Then the bedroom: a radio alarm and a light-and birdsong-and alarm gadget, plus another thermometer. Finally the plant room, with two more timers. Most have to be set 23 hours forward, as it is impossible to reset them backward. I even found the reference on how to change the time on my GPS, in the process discovering a warning against using it while driving.

On Alaska Standard Time, the sun rose at 8:59 am — an hour earlier than ADT — but it will set at 4:09 pm, far too early. Our day length now is only 7 hours and 17 minutes, and the sun at its highest is less than 9° above the horizon. From my south windows, it barely skims the trees, and driving it seems it is always in my eyes.

The birches and aspens have completed their color changes: green, yellow-green, yellow, gold, brown, bare black branches,  white as the branches were covered with a layer of frost, and black-brown again as the wind rose and blew the frost off. That last will alternate through the winter, with periods when branches are white on top and black on the bottom due to fresh snow in windless conditions. There is snow on the ground, but it is deepening slowly here in the Interior. It was 5″ deep yesterday, but it was still too dark to see when this post went live. There is enough packed snow on the roads to make intersections slippery. This time of year I worry about drivers new to the state and those who have forgotten their ice driving skills, or who do not have winter tires.

It isn’t light enough to see the depth of snow yet, but when it became too dark to see last night we had about 5″ on the ground, with more expected overnight.

P.S. As of 8:30 this morning it looks like close to 8″ of snow on the ground. And I’m not looking forward to driving home from my afternoon OLLI class, which lets out just minutes before sunset.

This is post number 488. Remember to comment to take part in the drawing.

I don’t often repeat posts, but with the projection of the  world population passing 7 billion this week, I thought it was time to bring this one out again.

Domestication is a mutual process—the plants and animals domesticated historically have met us halfway.

We and our domesticates have entered a kind of symbiosis—both we and they benefit, at least in numbers.

Plant and animal domestication was the first step toward civilization.

There are only two ways of increasing agricultural yield: Increase the amount of food produced per acre, or increase the amount of land farmed.

Once domestication occurred, we were locked into a positive feedback loop between food production and population. But a positive feedback loop is inherently limited and unstable. Are we approaching a crash?

I’ve been taking a Teaching Company course on DVD for the last couple of weeks, and I have to say it’s one of the best I’ve taken so far. I’ve always been interested in the process of domestication, especially since it became clear that the early agriculturists were generally less healthy than their hunter-gatherer ancestors. How did wolves become dogs? Who first thought of riding a horse? Did riding come before or after driving? And are cats really domesticated, or did they domesticate us?

The course is “Understanding the Human Factor: Life and Its Impact” by Professor Gary A. Sojka, but it’s really about human impact. I can’t say it answered all of my questions, or even asked them, but it did a good job of summarizing our current state of understanding, and of steering a middle course between “domestication is a sin and all domesticated animals should be returned to the wild” (most would not survive, and we probably wouldn’t, either) and “animals have no feelings and were put on this world solely for our use.” There are fewer moral problems with domesticated plants and microbes, though even here there are quandaries. How dangerous are monocultures, for instance? Or reliance on a small number of closely related varieties? (Think the Irish potato famine.)

If I have an argument with Professor Sojka, it is that he is too optimistic about the future. This may be appropriate for a college course, but I don’t feel enough sense of urgency. Yes, some people—a small minority even in the West—are beginning to think about long-term sustainability. (The politicians aren’t, by and large.) But the major problem—a population that is rapidly outstripping the carrying capacity of our planet (if it hasn’t done so already)—has become a taboo subject for serious discussion.  “The demographic transition will take care of it.” But will that happen soon enough?

Historically, our population has been kept in check by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Famine. War. Disease. Death by wild beasts—today, accidental death of all kinds. All of these are premature deaths—death by old age simply is not mentioned.

Today, we tend to regard such deaths—those of the young—as particularly tragic. We fight them in every way we can—and in many ways, we’ve succeeded. What we’ve forgotten is that every person born dies eventually, and to reach sustainability we have to reduce the number of people being born until it balances the number who die. Otherwise the four horsemen will eventually increase the death rate to match the birth rate—or more.

Food and energy both rely on sunlight—the sunlight that falls on the earth today and the sunlight that fell hundreds of million years ago, and is now stored in fossil fuels. I group food and energy for several reasons. Fertilizer. Biofuels. Pesticides. Transportation. Pumping water to where it is needed for crops, in some cases pumping down water that has been in storage since the ice age. All of the advances that have allowed us to hold back that horseman, Famine, ultimately rely on those fossil fuels and fossil water, or plan to replace them with agricultural products. And fossil fuels are becoming increasingly risky to exploit—look at the BP oil spill.

But an increase in agricultural output to match the increase in population means more efficiency—which we are obtaining today largely through fossil fuels—or more land in agricultural production. There is only so much land suitable for agriculture, especially if we want to keep the ecosystem services we depend on going. And one of the oldest causes for war is the desire for more land. Desire for more energy, often perceived as a need, is a rising cause of wars today.

Disease? In part that ties back to our methods of food production, as well. Certainly much antibiotic resistance can be linked to the widespread use of antibiotics in animals, and many diseases that started out in animals have crossed over to human beings. I find it interesting that all of the great world religions, many of them very pro-natalist, trace their origins to early city dwellers. Disease can spread rapidly among city-dwellers. In fact until the last century or two, urban areas were dependent on immigration from the countryside to maintain their populations. Having many children was important to these early city-dwellers—most of their children would die before having children themselves. That’s not true today, thanks largely to public health improvements—but the mindset and the religious imperative remain.

All living things—plants, animals, and human beings—are driven to reproduce. In our case, that deep-seated drive is reinforced by religious and social pressures. We claim we have a right, even a duty, to reproduce. But do we? Not in nature. Nature says the “right” to reproduce must be earned. It’s a lesson I hope we can learn before it is enforced by the Four Horsemen.

This is Post 486. Comment to join the drawing.