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October, 2010:

The Zombie Bandwagon

On this fine Halloween Sunday morning, I have to ask: W(h)ither zombies? I’ve read about why pirates like parrots, but the undying love steampunkers hold for death-in-self-denial has always puzzled me. I guess it’s part of the punk rather than the steam, and I’ve always been better at steam than punk. A recent blog post by Charles Stross has created enough noise in the blogosphere to wake the dead: Charlie is annoyed at the fact that steampunk has become a bandwagon, and he doesn’t do bandwagons. (My overall reaction to the post is that Charlie protesteth too much, and by the end sounds like he’s annoyed because he didn’t jump on the bandwagon when it rolled past his house.)

One place where Charlie and I agree: zombies. They’ve been done to, well, you know. He’s locked horns with Cherie Priest, a gung-ho Seattle steampunk writer who’s had a lot to do with populating the steampunk universe with shambling horrors, which she very aptly calls “rotters.”

The problem may be that steampunk as a subgenre is shattering, and parts of it are slithering across the floor and merging with paranormal costume fantasy. (I’ll know when I grab and read one of Cherie’s books.) Perhaps it’s time to claim a subsubgenre as “hard steampunk,” where we get to keep the pipe fittings but bury the dead. I could do that. I may already have. (See “Drumlin Boiler,” which I’d rather see considered steampunk than weird western.)

Zombies are not a new thing. I was given a zombie story called “Impulse” to read aloud at a Boy Scout summer camp campfire gathering in 1964, and it was decent. (I wish I could find it again, but I don’t remember the author. I think it goes back to the Fifties.) Unless I misrecall–and that was 46 years ago–it was about some sort of telepathic alien goo that tries to use a dead body as a disguise and finds it doesn’t work well. Surprise! I saw plenty of zombie movies as a much younger man, and have read more than my share of zombie fiction. (The best? George R.R. Martin’s “Override.”) To my hard SF mind it’s a difficult business. Biological systems are more resilient than mechanical ones, but after all, we call them “dead” when they don’t work anymore. If they get up and start working again, I find it hard to still think of them as dead.

In truth, what I mostly think of them as these days is funny. I have a whimsical novel called Ten Gentle Opportunities on ice right now that turns De Camp’s Harold Shea concept on its ear, and posits a sort of magic hacker from a universe where magic works as a consistent alternate physics (with spells a sort of immaterial software) who jumps universes to escape from an enraged magician and lands here on Earth. To escape pursuit while still in his own magical world, he makes his way into a zombie trap, where the zombies check in but can’t check out. Alas, physics is a bitch, whether magical or not.

Getting the dead to stay dead was an increasingly serious problem. Formerly living material was powerfully endomagical: Once the Great Magic of life drained out of it, a corpse would soak up any uncommitted Third Eye magic in its immediate surroundings, and if enough were available would get up and start shambling around again, breaking things and getting into fights.

For most of history, magic had been rare and valuable, and the few magicians in the world tended to be well-bred and tidy. Unnecessary or broken spells were always frotted back to the primordial chaos from which they had been drawn. Alas, as the archipelago grew crowded, younger magicians lacking an inheritance increasingly turned to drink and careless spellmaking to obtain what they wanted. Few landless magicians studied hard enough to advance to Adamant Class. The spells blikked up by drunken Ruby-classers were complicated and fragile, and rapidly broke down into increasingly tiny fragments that nonetheless had to be individually frotted to be rid of them. No one would bother, especially the Amethyst and Adamant classes, who thought of spellfrotting as something one did only to one’s own magic. So little by little, invisible grains of useless magic blew around the world on the very winds, ready to be absorbed by a corpse’s hungry substance.

Most folk lacking the Third Eye grumbled that Global Enlivening was a conspiracy by magicians, who were the only ones who could unbreakably bind a corpse to its own etheric shell such that both would comfortably and permanently disintegrate. Within Styppkk’s own lifetime, mean-time-to-shamble had fallen from a comfortable fortnight to only three days, and if a magician could not be found (and paid) to conduct a proper funeral and shellstaking by then, one’s deceased relatives would wander off, though walls as easily as through doors.

The problem had grown acute enough two centuries earlier that the world’s Adamant magicians had collaborated on the creation of the great lychfields, which were zombie traps: The bait was earth magic, which though powerful was not absorbed by dead flesh. The simple spell at the heart of every lychfield made earth magic smell like Third Eye magic, attracting zombies that were already ambulant. Once inside, they could not get out, and eventually exhausted the ambient magic they had absorbed and crumbled to bones and dust.

Styppkk had read it all in Wiccapedia, and as he got to his feet he felt around in his many pockets for the requisite spells. He knew how to command zombies and had done it a time or two, usually as a way of getting cheap if not especially skilled labor. This time what he wanted was a diversion. In only seconds, the shambling horrors in the lychfield would smell the magic he had in his pockets, and would turn in his direction. Then the real fun would begin.

Seconds passed, then minutes. Nothing. Styppkk looked around in the gloom. He saw no movement. There was no sound but the unnerving trickle of water down the granite walls enclosing the lychfield. He took a step forward, and crunched on ancient bones–then tripped over a motionless body that shuddered only slightly at the indignity.

Something was wrong, and Styppkk knew that in relatively short order, Jrikkjroggmugg would be over the wall and on his case again. He fished a clamshell phial from an inside pocket, snapped it open, and dipped his left pinkie in the dust it contained. Seconds later, his pinkie burst into brilliant but cold flame, and Styppkk could now see clearly to the far wall of the lychfield. There were plenty of zombies, but none were moving. In many places, they were stacked like cordwood or leaning against one another like tottering monoliths in a henge. Styppkk counted hundreds by eye.

On a hunch, Styppkk flipped down his helmet’s crystal daggers again, so to see how strongly the magically animated zombies were glowing. Nothing was glowing very strongly…but every zombie in sight was glowing identically. Of course! Like water, uncommitted Third Eye magic sought its own level, and newly-arrived zombies confined in close proximity to older zombies lost some of their magic to the lychfield’s older denizens, until at some point there was so little magic to go around that nothing was even twitching, much less shambling.

Styppkk fixes that, of course, and I get to make fun of the zombie fad on a large scale, while putting forth my own vision of magic-as-alternate-physics. (Want me to finish it? Then find me an agent. I’m not having much luck on my own.)

That’s my take on zombies. They’re kind of like reuben sandwiches or Drambuie: Not my thing on the consumption side, but as a bartender or deli owner I’d serve them up without a twitch to paying customers. (Hey, I sold lots of C++ books from Coriolis, right?) As for bandwagons, well, let’s consider that bandwagons don’t roll without customer demand to pull them. Sorry, Charlie. Zombies taste good, whether or not they’re in good taste. People are buying Cherie Priest’s books and those of many others who are plowing that same field, which means that zombies are now firmly planted in the fantasy landscape. I’m a starships guy by birth and I’ve been waiting for the elves’n’gnomes’n’dragons thing to die out for fifteen years or so, but by this time, them having taken over 80% of the SFF shelf space at Border’s, I’d say it ain’t gonna happen.

Which doesn’t mean I’m going to start writing zombie stories, apart from (perhaps) Ten Gentle Opportunities, which treats zombies only in passing. I will only raise for my fellow writers the possibility that unless you’re big enough to have your own wagon (as Charlie Stross certainly is) it probably makes sense to grab the first one past that you know you can ride–and if the other passengers’ arms come off as they pull you aboard, so be it.

Odd Lots

A Big Lake in Autumn

I’ve been a little out of it the past few days, in the wake of an inadvertent encounter with Chinese Five Spice Seasoning, with which I’ve tangled before. Which of the five is the culprit remains a mystery, save that it’s unlikely to be either cinnamon (Chinese or otherwise) or cloves. No matter. I’m a caveman, not a gourmet, and spices regularly cause me various kinds of grief. (This time it was a bad migraine.) All better now. Hey, is that a giant beaver over there? Where’s my club? I’m hungry.

Anyway. We took a quick trip to Lake McConaughy last weekend, to find a lake just a few feet from full. All that beautiful lake bottom is now underwater, as it should be, but for almost ten years the lake was as much as fifty feet down due to drought in the watershed. I didn’t get photos of the crib when the water was at its lowest, but the two photos below (taken last weekend and about thirteen months earlier) will give you a sense for the magnitude of the change. In one year, the water rose over thirty feet, and once the winter rains begin methinks the spillways will see their first use in quite awhile.

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LakeMcC-10-2010.jpg

We’ve had a slightly cool autumn, but Saturday took a foray back up into the mid-80s. Carol broke out her bikini and we got a little more than knee-deep in the 70-degree water before deciding that the season was indeed a little past its peak for swimming. So we ran the Pack along the beach, pausing now and then to fish burrs out of their paws and get photos of the fall foliage.

CarolInLakeMcC-10-2010.jpg

MicrowaveTower-10-2010.jpgWhile driving a Nebraska county track to the south shore, Carol noticed something odd in the dry cornfields to either side: The corn had been harvested from the top halves of the stalks but not the bottom halves. This seemed consistent (we stopped to look) and had a machine-like precision about it, suggesting that corn is harvested at various times depending on how dry the cobs need to be. We passed an evidently abandoned microwave tower, which provided a natural cover photo for a short novel concept I’ve been saving for a NaNoWriMo November when I don’t have to travel. It certainly won’t be this year.

We’re shopping for a new vehicle to replace Carol’s increasingly cranky 1995 Plymouth Voyager. The Ford Flex fascinates me, as it seems designed to maximize interior space, which is always handy when you’re transporting dogs in bulk. It’s AWD (which we need given where we live) and it can park itself. Precisely how (and how well) it pulls that trick I’m not sure, but given that flying cars will not be an option in my lifetime, I think I’ll take that and be glad of it.

Odd Lots

  • Don Lancaster has released a free PDF of his classic RTL Cookbook . No catch. Just go get it.
  • One serious problem with legalizing marijuana, for medical use or otherwise, is that there is no one “marijuana.” Like breeds of dogs, weed comes in a multitude of varieties, with various strengths and compositions and effects on human beings. You simply can’t predict what will happen to you when you take it, which isn’t what I like to see in medical therapies–or, for that matter, recreational activities.
  • This is good, but not for the reasons you might think: If Macmillan is consigning much of its backlist to a POD agreement with Ingram/Lightning Source, the line between “conventional” publishers and POD publishers begins to get blurry indeed. That’s good, as discrimination against POD titles by reviewers and other gatekeepers in the publishing and retailing businesses has been very discouraging. Mainstreaming POD has got to happen at some point, and the gatekeepers will have to–gasp!–evaluate titles on their own merits. (But that’s…work!)
  • Those who think cellular phones were the first mobile phone technology are almost forty years off, as this excellent detailed history of mobile (car) telephony shows. This stuff was huge (as in takes up much of your trunk), hot (as in temperature), and fiendishly expensive, but over a million people were using it in 1964. Love those early-60s control heads!
  • I just heard that a lost and never-performed composition by Ralph Vaughan Williams has been discovered in the Cambridge University Library, and will soon be performed for the very first time. He’s my all-time favorite composer, and it’s delightful to think that there’s still something he’s written that I have never heard. (Thanks to Scott Knitter for the link.)
  • We got missed (barely) by a 35-foot asteroid yesterday, but I’m guessing that there are plenty more where that came from. And does 35 feet qualify one as an asteroid? I would think they had to be bigger than that. I would call it “modestly scary space debris.”
  • Maybe you have to have been an electronics geek for 47 years (like me) to appreciate the humor, but this made me laugh. Hard.

Steampunk Geiger Counter, Conclusion

PillBottleProbe500Wide.jpg

The Geiger counter is still a lashed-up mess of clip leads and greasy junk on my workbench, but as I mentioned in my last daywander, it does work, and detects the radium paint on a couple of sixty-year-old military aviation panel meters. I may not be able to work on it much for the next few weeks, so in this entry I’m going to summarize what I’ve learned so far.

PillBottleProbeDetail350Wide.jpgBut first, a couple of notes on the probe I made. I noticed years ago that a species of pill bottle with a two-way cap allows two bottles to be connected at the cap. It occurred to me that one of these bottles was by sheer chance just about the size of an Amperex 75NB3 Geiger tube. So I mounted the JEDEC A3-1 socket in the cap, and cut a foam doughnut with an Exacto knife so that it would fit (with just a little compression) inside one of the bottles. A 5/8″ hole in the doughnut keeps the Geiger tube centered and immobile inside the bottle. I put a PL-259 on the cable because I have a lot of PL-259′s here, and they have a pleasing sort of retro look to them, especially after they tarnish. (This one was new from a sealed bag. It won’t look so shiny next year.)

My first conclusion, after a huge amount of time spent trying things, is that it’s not easy getting to 900V with nothing more than a pushbutton, a spark gap, and 3V worth of batteries. In fact, the best I could do was barely break 700V, which is right on the edge of what allows this particular tube to operate. (Smaller tubes like the CK-1026 may work at lower voltages.) Change out the spark gap for a 1N4007 silicon rectifier and you’re at 900V in twenty pushes of the button–more with a larger cap, less with a smaller cap. The transformer matters crucially. The one I’m using has a 1:14 turns ratio, which is very uncommon.

My second conclusion is that the sort of greasy black bakelite barrier terminal strips that I used for the spark gap and general connections are very leaky at high voltage. The caps are mounted on a steatite bar, which is very low-loss, and when I soldered everything else together in a sort of self-supporting wad in mid-air, the charge stayed on the caps almost twice as long. Obvious in hindsight, but I never thought about it when I was putting the thing together. The final device will be assembled with this in mind. If it doesn’t look especially retro, that’s ok.

My third conclusion is that some sort of amplification is necessary. With 900V on the tube I could clearly hear the clicks indicating activity, but they were not loud and this was in a workshop as quiet as most tombs, at least those lacking zombies and poltergeists. I set up a small homebrew two-tube speaker audio amp on the bench (lineup: 6AV6-6AQ5A) and piped the tube’s output into it. Suddenly the clicks filled the room, and I’m guessing that some of those may not have been heard with the tube running barefoot into headphones. A portable hip-hung retro counter would use battery tubes, of which I have many.

I’m still working on several elements of the design, particularly a better way to charge the caps than pushing a button twenty times. I’m almost ready to test a rotary interrupter that will be operated with a crank. I also have a small hand-cranked telephone magneto that generates 120VAC, and much can be done with that.

But as for whether a truly steampunk (i.e., no active devices) Geiger counter is possible, the answer is a qualified yes. A skilled and patient mad scientist from 1900 could do it. He might have to wind his own step-up transformer, but if I can get to 700V with greasy junk and a spark gap, 900V is not out of reach. I consider myself a citizen scientist but I’m not especially mad, and unlike most mad scientists I have a wife, dogs, and a driveway to shovel in colder weather. That being the case, I’m bringing this research project to a close. I will build a Geiger counter, but it’s going to be more 1950 than 1900. I’ll continue to discuss the project here under a different title. Deco Geiger Counter? Deiselpunk Geiger Counter? Still thinking about that, but you’ll know it when you see it.

Daywander (10/10/10/10:10 10!)

What were you doing today at ten after ten? Over here, Carol and I had just left the garage on our trip down the mountain to go to church, and she was swapping in a new mix CD I had made to the 4Runner’s 6-CD changer. Not very cosmic, except in the sense that it was life proceeding as usual and well. Sure, my back still hurts (and for some reason, more than usual today) but Carol is by my side and my dogs are always happy to see me.

Better still, we went over to Wal-Mart after church and I found a species of dry-roasted peanuts without MSG, thanks to Jen Rosenau’s suggestion. They’re a little odd and not quite the dry roasted peanuts I’m used to, but tasty, albeit a little bit sweet. And lord knows, they’re cheap.

Ubuntu V10.10, Maverick Meerkat, was released today at 10:10 (I think; that’s the legend at least) South African time. I torrented it down earlier today in sixteen minutes flat, and will install it in the day or so. (I may try tonight if I don’t run out of steam.) It’s not a big-deal release, and I’m installing it immediately on its release to test if installing a Ubuntu version on Day 1 is less wise than waiting a month or two, as I’ve generally done in the past. I’m going to try Wubi this time, and will report in detail when it’s in and working.

I guess the best news of all is that I counted some Geigers today for the very first time. My radiation test sample is a 1950s aviation panel meter with radium paint on the scale and the pointer. After trying a number of transformers in the last two weeks I hit the jackpot with an old Merit A-2924 interstage transformer, which has the most extreme impedence ratio of anything in my formidable junkpile: 125 : 100,000 ohms. Alas, the spark gap only took the charge on the caps to about 550V. I swapped in a 1N4007 silicon rectifier diode instead of the spark gap and the charge went up to 900V without any trouble, using the pushbutton interrupter. The Geiger tube I have gives a loud signal into high-impedence headphones at 900V, but the volume goes down steadily and becomes inaudible under about 720V. This bodes ill for the notion of a steampunk Geiger counter (they didn’t have 1N4007s in 1900) but it was way cool to finally hear some clicks coming off the tube.

The interesting thing is that I get no reading at all from the 0A2WA gas rectifier tube, which was “salted” by a smidge of Kypton-85 in 1962. Half-life is 10.7 years; divide something in half four and a half times, and there isn’t really much of anything left.

There’s much more to try, and I’ll continue the series after I do some of that trying. But all in all, today was a very good day. I give it…a 10.

Odd Lots

  • My Geiger counter project is still alive, but I ordered an old telephone magneto from eBay and it just got here. Now I have to work up a scheme to transform its hand-cranked 120VAC to 900VDC in the capacitor bank. Will report back once that section of the device is in the can.
  • I’ve seen these people in used bookstores and tent sales, and although I knew (vaguely) what they were doing, I hadn’t seen a detailed description of the culture. Here’s why you don’t find lots of bargains at used book sales.
  • A correspondent who will remain nameless suggested that, since I’m fighting ongoing shingles pain, I should get a Colorado medical marijuana card and do a series on the Colorado weed scene. After all, an MMD is the third-closest retail establishment to my home (after Blockbuster Video and a nail shop.) Well, no. I’ll go with gabapentin. But if you’re curious about the kind of nuthouse medical marijuana has become (at least in Michigan and probably Colorado as well) read this.
  • Taco sauce cleans the oxide layer off of pennies, leaving bright metal in its wake. How? We’re not entirely sure, but here’s an interesting discussion of the question–and some fun citizen science.
  • The Soviet Union had a lot of hardware done and mostly tested for a lunar landing circa 1970, but it didn’t have the required launch power of a Saturn V, so the program was mothballed and the landers abandoned. (Thanks to Frank Glover begin_of_the_skype_highlighting     end_of_the_skype_highlighting begin_of_the_skype_highlighting     end_of_the_skype_highlighting for the link.)
  • On the same site, and in the same vein, are some photos of early Soviet snowmobiles, many of which were powered by aviation engines and air propellers rather than treads of some kind.
  • This may be TMI about chicken nuggets. You judge. I’ll stick with beef.
  • Here’s an interesting take on the Periodic Table, called Helix Chemica, from the 1944 book Hackh’s Chemical Dictionary. “Hackh” is a wonderful name. I think I’ll steal it.
  • Our President wants a better America through science, technology, engineering, and math. A little more glue behind the Presidential Seal would be a good start.
  • Ok. This is silly. But there is something wonderfully, goofily likeable about it.
  • Like I predicted, people are going to be making jokes about this thing forever. I liked this one. Not only epic fail, but epic humilation. Anger is deadly.

The Fox vs. Skunk Conundrum

We got hit with a skunk cloud the other night, and as I cranked windows shut it struck me: We haven’t smelled skunk in several weeks. That’s remarkable, because when we first moved here we’d get intense skunk clouds at least once every night and often twice. (Here, a “skunk cloud” is a passing front of skunk smell, distinct from getting sprayed directly.) The cloud drifts with the breeze and half an hour later it’s gone unless the night is dead calm.

We considered these a fact of life, and they were with us for the first couple of years we lived here. In the fall of 2004 a skunk gave birth to a litter of four kits in the space between our house and our neighbor’s, and we have a video of the kits cavorting and wrestling with one another probably six feet from one of the lower level windows. After that skunk clouds gradually began to get scarcer, and at just about the same time, we spotted the first red fox we’d ever seen in the neighborhood. In fact, it was the first red fox I’d ever seen in the wild in the US, anywhere. (We did see one in Surrey, England, in 2000.) In 2007 a dead skunk appeared in the gully behind our house, stinking to high heaven but also heavily chewed on. I was unaware that anything but great horned owls prey on skunks, but something clearly did this one in, and by the smell of it, the last few minutes had been quite a battle.

Back in 2008, I first saw a fox running past the house with something white in its mouth. I thought it might have been something filched from a trash can overturned by a bear, and thought no more about it. However, after that we began seeing fox running around with small white objects in their mouths on a regular basis. It was not one fox, but at least two. (Their coloring is noticeably different, as you can tell once you see the same individuals two or three times.) I couldn’t get close enough to see what the white objects were until a month or so ago, when I spotted a fox digging furiously in the side of the hill next to our stone stairway. Right beside the hole was something I immediately recognized as an ordinary chicken egg.

We’ve seen fox carrying eggs twenty times or more now, to the point where it’s unusual to see a fox trot by the house without one. Somebody in the near vicinity is obviously feeding them, since there are no chicken coops in our squeakily tony neighborhood. I’ve been finding eggshells in the gully all summer. The fox are sleek and healthy, and not nearly as skittish as they used to be.

Feeding wild animals is never a good idea, and in most places it’s against the law. I want fox to be afraid of me, and if they can’t somehow find a sustainable place in the local ecosystem, feeding them doesn’t fix the problem. I’ve even got an idea who’s doing the feeding, by tracking the fox as we track meteors: I take note of which direction they’re running when they have eggs in their mouths, and the lines all point to somewhere down toward the end of the Langdale cul-del-sac.

I might pursue it…but we don’t need the skunks here. If the fox are driving out the skunks, overall it’s a plus, and pace Woody Allen, the fox need the eggs. (I don’t know how they repel skunks, and online research hasn’t turned up much.) On the other hand, if the neighbors in question stop feeding the fox, we’ll have starving and eventually diseased fox limping around, which is sad on the surface of it, and a possible hazard to people walking small dogs. (Guess who.)

This isn’t a storybook world. Animals compete, fight, and die–far too often in my gully. There are no good answers. But at least we can leave our windows open at night.

Prayers and Squares

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St. Raphael’s parish surprised Carol this past Sunday with a prayer quilt. It’s an interesting church ministry called Prayers and Squares that I’d never seen before coming to St. Raphael’s, but it’s evidently quite common and his its own Web site. It works this way: A parish’s quilters (we have several) make small quilts about 30″ by 40″. At each corner of the quilt squares is a knot with two threads about 3″ long left free. Before the quilt is presented to its recipient (often while they’re still in the hospital) it is placed at the rear of the church or in the parish hall, and people tie a knot in one of the pairs of threads while saying a prayer for the recipient. There’s enough thread so multiple knots can be tied at any given corner, and thus the quilt is never “full.”

It’s a sign to people who are in the hospital that the parish is thinking of them and that they are not alone. Carol was not in the hospital all that long, but she was touched by the gesture, and later that afternoon while she rested on our bed, she put the quilt over her. The Pack stood guard, and vowed to shred any squirrel that dared attack her. (Aero is actually in the photo, but he went undercover to Carol’s right, so as to surprise any squirrel who managed to get past the others.)

QuiltEmblem.jpgIn the corner of the quilt is an insignia with Carol’s name and the date the quilt was presented.

Religion as a concept is taking a lot of flak these days for various reasons, but few recognize the force for healing and comfort that religion can be when it remains true to its purpose. Small as it is, our parish does all sorts of things that might be listed under “aid and comfort,” including a food pantry that was recognized last year as the best in the Colorado Diocese. Nobody talks it up, nobody brags. They just do it.

Carol puts the quilt over herself every night, and I suspect she will long after her illness is just a memory. Whether or not you believe in God, I think it’s always possible to believe that helping others is the highest good that we can aspire to, and an awful lot of that happens where nobody but those involved ever notice.

Odd Lots

  • I’m still pretty sore from lingering shingles pain on my back, and a little grouchy in consequence, though I’m trying manfully not to show it. On the good news end, Carol is much better, and we both had cheese ravioli last night. I think it was the first meal worthy of the name that she’s had in almost two weeks.
  • Anger really does make you lose: Sony has condemned “No Pressure” and completely disassociated itself from 10:10.
  • From the Terms-I-Didn’t-Know-Until-Yesterday Department: milk float, a small delivery vehicle (often electric) used to deliver milk in urban England. Some photos here.
  • And another from that department: steamdevil, a small vortex of condensed water vapor rising into cold air from a warm body of water like a lake or a river. This is the time of year you tend to see them, and Spaceweather posted a nice example from Wisconsin.
  • I’ve always suspected that grains aren’t good for me, but here’s some analysis as to why. Your Body May Vary, but a lot of this sure sounds familiar. Note well the caution on soybeans, which give both Carol and me a lot of trouble.
  • Napa’s cool summer has winemakers biting their nails: They may lose much (and perhaps all) of their harvest if a freeze comes before the grapes mature, but if they can walk the tightrope to harvest without falling, this year’s late-harvest wines (my favorite kind) could be spectacular. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • The Colorado Springs marijuana industry has made the New York Times , and has injected new life into local newspapers. I like The Independent, our quirky little free paper (its offices are in an old church with interesting architecture) and every issue I flip through down at the Black Bear Coffeehouse has another page of MMD ads. The latest issue had a 48-page pull-out supplement, devoted entirely to You Know What. The world is clearly crazier than we can imagine.
  • Mars may have had not only oceans, but (c’mon, this is obvious!) also icebergs. (Thanks to Frank Glover for the link.)
  • Australia is about to get its first native-born Roman Catholic saint: Sister Mary Helen MacKillop, who in 1870 got a child-abuser priest removed from his position. In retaliation, friends of the priest orchestrated her excommunication, but she was exonerated in 1872. She will be canonized later this month, and I’d say she now stands fair to become the patron saint of whistleblowers.