Saturday, February 26

The mystery of the rock on the road

Today I discovered a rock about the size of a small watermelon or a big un-husked coconut lying right in the middle (almost) of the road. There was no evidence of a trail leading to where it could have rolled from, and besides it couldn’t have rolled since it had moss on it.

Nearby was a possible source of rocks from which it may have originated, but again, no roll path. We had some very strong wind yesterday and the rock may have been picked up by the wind and carried to where it landed, not leaving any trail.

To give you an idea of the strength of the wind, here’s a picture of an entire cheap plastic lawn chair that had been completely toppled by it.

Thursday, February 24

What’s next?

Today Apple introduced a bunch of new MacBook Pro computers, their high-end portables. Apple is the first computer maker to incorporate what they call Thunderbolt, a super-fast way to connect computers to other things in order to transfer stuff so fast it will blow your socks off.

I was on the flight deck of the USS Enterprise during one of the many air shows we put on for foreign dignitaries on our world cruise in 1964. A Vigilante jet flew over us at 500 feet altitude and maybe 1,000 miles per hour and the sonic boom blew not only socks but shoes off of everyone there. Since I was standing on a catwalk beside the flight deck, my shoes flew overboard, falling 90 feet to the ocean below. I successfully sued for shoe replacement but had to settle for no sock replacement since the captain said everyone should have known that their socks would be blown off and should have prepared by wearing their oldest, crappiest socks. He hadn’t counted on the shoes being blown off since the Vigilante was only supposed to be going 800 miles per hour, not 1,000.

Apple now has a lead in using this Intel Light Peak technology and is many months, maybe even a year, ahead of competitors. What’s next? My money is on Vulcan Mind Meld.

Photo credits: Apple Inc., Wikipedia

Tuesday, February 22

Pirate hunter

It was sad to hear that the Americans recently captured by Somali pirates were killed by their captors. The ship that sent a couple of boatloads of Navy Seals to capture the yacht is the Sterett, a destroyer named after Andrew Sterett, commander on the US schooner Enterprise during the Barbary War of 1801. They were battling pirates in the Mediterranean. Interesting to me was the makeup of the four-ship American force chasing Somali pirates. One of them was my alma mater(?) the USS Enterprise! The huge nuclear-powered ship (still the fastest American aircraft carrier despite its fifty-year-old-ness) chasing pirates in outboard-motor-powered skiffs! Perhaps we need to re-balance our forces to a more appropriate size to match the task at hand. Or maybe the Navy has something else in mind, hmm?

I’ll stay tuned.

Photo: US Navy

Monday, February 21

Spell it any way you want

I have never seen the name of a world leader spelled so many ways. I read a news article on Yahoo! News about Moamer Kadhafi. The New York Times says it’s Muammar el-Qaddafi. Los Angeles Times: Moammar Kadafi. CNN: Gadhafi. Al Jazeera: Gaddafi.

Years ago National Lampoon had an article on the many ways to spell the name of the Libyan (or is it Lybian? or Libbyun? or Liberal?) leader. Of course they took it to extremes and claimed that there were dozens of ways to spell the name. Including, if I recall correctly, Gadfly, Krakpotty, Goofy, Kuppacoffee, and even Chicago.

Imagine! How many ways can the world spell Obama? Let me guess — Obomber, Obambi, Oblivious, Obese. O well, at least they all start with O.

Larry King’s neck absorbed by chest

Retired TV host Larry King was spotted leaving the hospital after doctors told him they couldn’t re-create a neck for him. He will have to live with the condition known as necklessness for the rest of his life. The condition that causes bad taste in choice of jackets will not be affected.

Sunday, February 20

It’s been awhile

We haven’t seen this much nice clean clear water in Martha Creek in several years. This is about half the creek’s flow since it goes underground for several hundred feet in this area. Twenty-five years ago or so we witnessed this culvert half full which is pretty significant since it’s about a foot and a half (half a meter) in diameter. Then there’s one time we would rather forget when the water diverted around the plugged-up culvert entirely and took out a few hundred feet of road. Another of our creeks flooded so much we had to use our old bulldozer, rest its soul, to remove the boulders that blocked the road.

So this new climatology is a lot more to our liking, thank you.

Saturday, February 19

It keeps coming…

4.29", 110mm over the past week

This being a La Niña year, I was worried that our heavy autumn rainstorms would mean no winter rain. For the past several weeks we’ve had very little rain, but this most recent storm laid it on pretty heavy. It seems we’ve had more rain this year than in the last ten or so. The creeks around us roar loudly, a sound that we missed for a long time.

When we moved here thirty years ago, the first few winters each brought several feet of rain. Now it’s several inches. Let’s hope it doesn’t go back to several feet again; it was difficult keeping the roads drivable back then.


Another odd day. I awoke to see big flakes of snow falling. None were sticking too well around the house, but up the hill there was plenty. The radio spoke of snow in the Bay Area as low as 2700-foot (825 meter) Mt. Tamalpais and even Berkeley.

Only a week ago it was shirtsleeve weather, and you could easily work up a sweat on even a moderate hike. Poor trees. They don’t know what to do. The leaves that had emerged on the oak trees a couple of months ago have already died and fallen off. Climate change has a really bad effect on migrating birds since they depend on length of daylight to determine when to move north or south, while the insects they count on being there for them depend more on temperature to tell them when to hatch. The birds arrive to find that the bug larvae have already departed.

The raven in this photo doesn’t worry though. He and his mate simply follow us wherever we go, knowing that at the end of the trip there will probably be either a handful of grain or some dry dog food kibbles to keep them happy. Snow, schmoe; climate, schmimate—big deal! We’re ravens!

Friday, February 18

Masters of the Universe chow down with the Prez

You can go here for a picture big enough to fill your computer screen that was taken yesterday when the president met with a whole passel of high-tech mucky-mucks at a private home near San Francisco . (Click the link under the photo.) President Obama is flanked by Apple’s Steve Jobs to his left, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to his right. Straight across the table is Oracle’s Larry Ellison, who is looking forward to devastating any competition in the upcoming America’s Cup race to be held in San Francisco Bay. Absent is Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer and Intel’s Paul Otellini. Otellini will be meeting the president in Oregon today and giving him a tour of Intel’s new factory there. Why did Intel put an expensive new facility in Oregon instead of Silicon Valley? Simple. California is no longer a good place to do business, says Paul. The president aims to correct that. Good luck.

Photo credit: The White House

Thursday, February 17

A better doctor

The recent victory of IBM’s supercomputer, Watson, over two of the best Jeopardy game show players brings forth the question: What can Watson do for a day job? The answer that immediately crossed my mind is to become Dr. Watson. Imagine a physician who is not bound by the scope of experience, the size of his/her memory, and by the prejudice of geography. For example, someone in Massachusetts could go to the doctor with symptoms that mimic bubonic plague: swollen lymph nodes, lethargy, high fever and so on. What is the chance of the Massachusetts doctor diagnosing the real cause: Tularemia, a disease endemic to the Central Valley of California? The patient could have been bitten by a tick while visiting in Hanford for a few days. Recently in India an African disease was spotted by an Indian doctor who had spent time practicing in Africa. The patient had never left India; the disease was only now starting to show up in the country. Without the physician’s out-of-country experience, the sickness would likely have been misdiagnosed.

What Dr. Watson’s advantage would be is that every symptom ever noted could be at hand for immediate consideration. A correct diagnosis would become part of Watson’s database and an incorrect diagnosis would also be noted for later reference. One of Watson’s features is his degree of certainty (named after former IBM president Thomas J. Watson, Watson is a he). If his certainty is low, there wouldn’t be a firm diagnosis and the case could go to a live physician.

How many Dr. Watsons would we need? That depends on how fast he could handle queries. Perhaps at the start he’d get difficult cases referred from practicing physicians, then evolve into “Dial-a-Docbot” where you could call from home or access him via the Internet.

IBM has a real winner here, one that can do so much more than handle Jeopardy queries such as, “This is the best, most insightful, most humorous and brilliant blog on the Internet, ever.”


“What is Musings of a Slowly Rotting Mind?”

Update — I guessed right: IBM says Watson’s first real-world use will be to help doctors. See this article in Technology Review.

Monday, February 14

An interesting look at the recent happenings in Egypt

I am a subscriber to Stratfor, a geopolitical-analyzing group that does some very insightful reporting on what’s going on in the world. They came up with a twist on the booting-out of Hosni Mubarak that I hadn’t seen anywhere else. It comes down to the Egyptian Army doing the kicking-out because Mubarak wanted his son, Gamal, to succeed him in the presidency. Trouble is, Gamal Mubarak was never in the army, and therefore was possibly planning to bring in a new way to govern by reducing the army’s role. The people’s uprising in Tahrir square was the perfect excuse for the army to carry out their plan to depose the dictator and secure their own continuing control of the country. Ironically, Hosni Mubarak may have been planning to accede to the citizens’ wishes for more freedom all along by putting his non-military son in charge.

I have Stratfor’s permission to present their entire article by CEO and founder George Friedman on the issue. It is very worth reading.

By George Friedman

On Feb. 11, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned. A military council was named to govern in his place. On Feb. 11-12, the crowds that had gathered in Tahrir Square celebrated Mubarak’s fall and the triumph of democracy in Egypt. On Feb. 13, the military council abolished the constitution and dissolved parliament, promising a new constitution to be ratified by a referendum and stating that the military would rule for six months, or until the military decides it’s ready to hold parliamentary and presidential elections.
What we see is that while Mubarak is gone, the military regime in which he served has dramatically increased its power. This isn’t incompatible with democratic reform. Organizing elections, political parties and candidates is not something that can be done quickly. If the military is sincere in its intentions, it will have to do these things. The problem is that if the military is insincere it will do exactly the same things. Six months is a long time, passions can subside and promises can be forgotten.
At this point, we simply don’t know what will happen. We do know what has happened. Mubarak is out of office, the military regime remains intact and it is stronger than ever. This is not surprising, given what STRATFOR has said about recent events in Egypt, but the reality of what has happened in the last 72 hours and the interpretation that much of the world has placed on it are startlingly different. Power rests with the regime, not with the crowds. In our view, the crowds never had nearly as much power as many have claimed.
Certainly, there was a large crowd concentrated in a square in Cairo, and there were demonstrations in other cities. But the crowd was limited. It never got to be more than 300,000 people or so in Tahrir Square, and while that’s a lot of people, it is nothing like the crowds that turned out during the 1989 risings in Eastern Europe or the 1979 revolution in Iran. Those were massive social convulsions in which millions came out onto the streets. The crowd in Cairo never swelled to the point that it involved a substantial portion of the city.
In a genuine revolution, the police and military cannot contain the crowds. In Egypt, the military chose not to confront the demonstrators, not because the military itself was split, but because it agreed with the demonstrators’ core demand: getting rid of Mubarak. And since the military was the essence of the Egyptian regime, it is odd to consider this a revolution.

Mubarak and the Regime

The crowd in Cairo, as telegenic as it was, was the backdrop to the drama, not the main feature. The main drama began months ago when it became apparent that Mubarak intended to make his reform-minded 47-year-old son, Gamal, lacking in military service, president of Egypt. This represented a direct challenge to the regime. In a way, Mubarak was the one trying to overthrow the regime.
The Egyptian regime was founded in a coup led by Col. Gamal Abdul Nasser and modeled after that of Kemal Ataturk of Turkey, basing it on the military. It was intended to be a secular regime with democratic elements, but it would be guaranteed and ultimately controlled by the military. Nasser believed that the military was the most modern and progressive element of Egyptian society and that it had to be given the responsibility and power to modernize Egypt.
While Nasser took off his uniform, the military remained the bulwark of the regime. Each successive president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, while formally elected in elections of varying dubiousness, was an officer in the Egyptian military who had removed his uniform when he entered political life.
Mubarak’s decision to name his son represented a direct challenge to the Egyptian regime. Gamal Mubarak was not a career military officer, nor was he linked to the military’s high command, which had been the real power in the regime. Mubarak’s desire to have his son succeed him appalled and enraged the Egyptian military, the defender of the regime. If he were to be appointed, then the military regime would be replaced by, in essence, a hereditary monarchy — what had ruled Egypt before the military. Large segments of the military had been maneuvering to block Mubarak’s ambitions and, with increasing intensity, wanted to see Mubarak step down in order to pave the way for an orderly succession using the elections scheduled for September, elections designed to affirm the regime by selecting a figure acceptable to the senior military men. Mubarak’s insistence on Gamal and his unwillingness to step down created a crisis for the regime. The military feared the regime could not survive Mubarak’s ambitions.
This is the key point to understand. There is a critical distinction between the regime and Hosni Mubarak. The regime consisted — and consists — of complex institutions centered on the military but also including the civilian bureaucracy controlled by the military. Hosni Mubarak was the leader of the regime, successor to Nasser and Sadat, who over time came to distinguish his interests from those of the regime. He was increasingly seen as a threat to the regime, and the regime turned on him.
The demonstrators never called for the downfall of the regime. They demanded that Mubarak step aside. This was the same demand that was being made by many if not most officers in the military months before the crowds gathered in the streets. The military did not like the spectacle of the crowds, which is not the way the military likes to handle political matters. At the same time, paradoxically, the military welcomed the demonstrations, since they created a crisis that put the question of Mubarak’s future on the table. They gave the military an opportunity to save the regime and preserve its own interests.
The Egyptian military is opaque. It isn’t clear who was reluctant to act and who was eager. We would guess that the people who now make up the ruling military council were reluctant to act. They were of the same generation as Hosni Mubarak, owed their careers to him and were his friends. Younger officers, who had joined the military after 1973 and had trained with the Americans rather than the Soviets, were the likely agitators for blocking Mubarak’s selection of Gamal as his heir, but there were also senior officers publicly expressing reservations. Who was on what side is a guess. What is known is that many in the military opposed Gamal, would not push the issue to a coup, and then staged a coup designed to save the regime after the demonstrations in Cairo were under way.
That is the point. What happened was not a revolution. The demonstrators never brought down Mubarak, let alone the regime. What happened was a military coup that used the cover of protests to force Mubarak out of office in order to preserve the regime. When it became clear Feb. 10 that Mubarak would not voluntarily step down, the military staged what amounted to a coup to force his resignation. Once he was forced out of office, the military took over the existing regime by creating a military council and taking control of critical ministries. The regime was always centered on the military. What happened on Feb. 11 was that the military took direct control.
Again, as a guess, the older officers, friends of Mubarak, found themselves under pressure from other officers and the United States to act. They finally did, taking the major positions for themselves. The demonstrations were the backdrop for this drama and the justification for the military’s actions, but they were not a revolution in the streets. It was a military coup designed to preserve a military-dominated regime. And that was what the crowds were demanding as well.

Coup and Revolution

We now face the question of whether the coup will turn into a revolution. The demonstrators demanded — and the military has agreed to hold — genuinely democratic elections and to stop repression. It is not clear that the new leaders mean what they have said or were simply saying it to get the crowds to go home. But there are deeper problems in the democratization of Egypt. First, Mubarak’s repression had wrecked civil society. The formation of coherent political parties able to find and run candidates will take a while. Second, the military is deeply enmeshed in running the country. Backing them out of that position, with the best will in the world, will require time. The military bought time Feb. 13, but it is not clear that six months is enough time, and it is not clear that, in the end, the military will want to leave the position it has held for more than half a century.
Of course, there is the feeling, as there was in 2009 with the Tehran demonstrations, that something unheard of has taken place, as U.S. President Barack Obama has implied. It is said to have something to do with Twitter and Facebook. We should recall that, in our time, genuine revolutions that destroyed regimes took place in 1989 and 1979, the latter even before there were PCs. Indeed, such revolutions go back to the 18th century. None of them required smartphones, and all of them were more thorough and profound than what has happened in Egypt so far. This revolution will not be “Twitterized.” The largest number of protesters arrived in Tahrir Square after the Internet was completely shut down.
The new government has promised to honor all foreign commitments, which obviously include the most controversial one in Egypt, the treaty with Israel. During the celebrations the evening of Feb. 11 and morning of Feb. 12, the two chants were about democracy and Palestine. While the regime committed itself to maintaining the treaty with Israel, the crowds in the square seemed to have other thoughts, not yet clearly defined. But then, it is not clear that the demonstrators in the square represent the wishes of 80 million Egyptians. For all the chatter about the Egyptian people demanding democracy, the fact is that hardly anyone participated in the demonstrations, relative to the number of Egyptians there are, and no one really knows how the Egyptian people would vote on this issue.
The Egyptian government is hardly in a position to confront Israel, even if it wanted to. The Egyptian army has mostly American equipment and cannot function if the Americans don’t provide spare parts or contractors to maintain that equipment. There is no Soviet Union vying to replace the United States today. Re-equipping and training a military the size of Egypt’s is measured in decades, not weeks. Egypt is not going to war any time soon. But then the new rulers have declared that all prior treaties — such as with Israel — will remain in effect.

What Was Achieved?

Therefore, we face this reality. The Egyptian regime is still there, still controlled by old generals. They are committed to the same foreign policy as the man they forced out of office. They have promised democracy, but it is not clear that they mean it. If they mean it, it is not clear how they would do it, certainly not in a timeframe of a few months. Indeed, this means that the crowds may re-emerge demanding more rapid democratization, depending on who organized the crowds in the first place and what their intentions are now.
It is not that nothing happened in Egypt, and it is not that it isn’t important. It is simply that what happened was not what the media portrayed but a much more complex process, most of it not viewable on TV. Certainly, there was nothing unprecedented in what was achieved or how it was achieved. It is not even clear what was achieved. Nor is it clear that anything that has happened changes Egyptian foreign or domestic policy. It is not even clear that those policies could be changed in practical terms regardless of intent.
The week began with an old soldier running Egypt. It ended with different old soldiers running Egypt with even more formal power than Mubarak had. This has caused worldwide shock and awe. We were killjoys in 2009, when we said the Iranians revolution wasn’t going anywhere. We do not want to be killjoys now, since everyone is so excited and happy. But we should point out that, in spite of the crowds, nothing much has really happened yet in Egypt. It doesn’t mean that it won’t, but it hasn’t yet.
An 82-year-old man has been thrown out of office, and his son will not be president. The constitution and parliament are gone and a military junta is in charge. The rest is speculation.

"This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR"

Friday, February 11

VERY cool slo-mo

Not to get too geeky, but what the hey—here’s a fascinating demo of hi-def slo-mo using a camera you don’t even want to know the price of. This link is to the Engadget site. After watching the video, click on the Phantom Flex link for more.

Sunday, February 6

Raymond, California—The day before Super Bowl Sunday

We had a rare opportunity to be in Raymond on Saturday, the day before the big day. We were heading to Fresno to pick up a barbecue grill and would be passing through. I had been curious about what the town does in preparation for America’s biggest sports spectacular. As we drove through town toward the west, we noticed several pickup trucks parked by the combination grocery store and bar. The store is located about a block away and down the street from the Frontier Inn, another bar with a lot of pickup trucks parked nearby. We saw a man entering the post office by himself. Since we didn’t see any other people out on the streets, we figured everyone must be at home cooking up a bunch of hot wings and nachos. And getting the beer nice and cold. Down the road a piece I spotted a large yellow dog which seemed to be guarding the entrance to a place where you can get your name and a brief synopsis of your life’s accomplishments carved onto a polished granite slab. If you’re not “all that good with words,” they have a list of suggested phrases, like “He was a good husband,” “She was a good wife,” and “R.I.P.” For a town that depends on the production of granite, I thought that little business was a brilliant piece of entrepreneurship. Too bad Raymond doesn’t have a cemetery; I’ll bet sales would really pick up and the big yellow guard dog wouldn’t be so scrawny.

Unique, twice

You’d think that a company that made its reputation by churning out billions of identical products could cook two of its breakfast sandwiches for this ad. But look closely: They put together one perfect egg-sausage-cheese thingie, took its picture, then printed it twice. Maybe it’s so hard to make even one of these look good enough to eat they figured they’d better stay with a winner rather than try to duplicate it.