Shallow Thoughts

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing, Science, and Nature.

Sun, 06 Apr 2014

Snow-Hail while preparing for Montreal

Things have been hectic in the last few days before I leave for Montreal with last-minute preparation for our PyCon tutorial, Build your own PiDoorbell - Learn Home Automation with Python next Wednesday.

[Snow-hail coming down on the Piñons] But New Mexico came through on my next-to-last full day with some pretty interesting weather. A windstorm in the afternoon gave way to thunder (but almost no lightning -- I saw maybe one indistinct flash) which gave way to a strange fluffy hail that got gradually bigger until it eventually grew to pea-sized snowballs, big enough and snow enough to capture well in photographs as they came down on the junipers and in the garden.

Then after about twenty minutes the storm stopped the sun came out. And now I'm back to tweaking tutorial slides and thinking about packing while watching the sunset light on the Rio Grande gorge.

But tomorrow I leave it behind and fly to Montreal. See you at PyCon!

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[ 18:55 Apr 06, 2014    More misc | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Fri, 21 Mar 2014

Flicker Morning

[Northern Flicker on our deck] "There's a woodpecker sitting on the patio", Dave said, shortly after we'd both gotten up. He pointed down through the gap where you can see the patio from upstairs. "It's just sitting there. You can go down and look through the door; it doesn't seem to mind."

Sure enough, a female northern flicker was sitting on the concrete patio deck, immobile except for her constantly blinking eyes and occasionally swiveling head. Definitely not a place you'd normally expect to see a woodpecker.

Some twenty minutes earlier, I remembered, I'd heard a couple of thumps on the roof outside the bedroom, and seen the shadow of wings through the drawn shades. I've heard of birds flying into windows and getting stunned, but why would one fly into a roof? A mystery, but I was sure the flicker's presence was related to the thumps I'd heard.

I kept an eye out while I made coffee and puttered around with normal morning chores. She wasn't budging from that spot, though she looked relatively alert, keeping her eyes open even while sitting immobile.

I called around. (We still don't have internet to the house -- Comcast keeps giving us the runaround about when they'll dig their trench, and I'm not entirely convinced they've even applied for the permit they said they'd applied for three weeks ago. Maybe we need to look into Dish.) The Santa Fe raptor center had a recorded message suggesting that injured birds be put in a cool dark box as a first treatment for shock. The Española Wildlife Center said if I thought she was injured and could catch her, they could take her in.

I did suspect she was injured -- by now she'd been there for 45 minutes or more, without moving -- but I decided to give her some time to recover before going for a capture. Maybe she was just in shock and needed time to gather herself before trying to fly. I went on with my morning chores while keeping an eye out for coyotes and ravens.

For two hours she remained there. The sun came out from behind the clouds and I wondered if I should give her some shade, food or water, but decided to wait a while. Then, as I was going back to the bird book to verify what kind of flicker she was and what gender, she suddenly perked up. Swiveling her head around and looking much more alert than before, she raised herself a little and took a few steps, to one side and then the other. More head swiveling. Then suddenly, as I was reaching for my camera again, she spread her wings and flew off. A little heavily and stiffly, but both wings looked okay.

So our morning's flicker adventure has a happy ending.

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[ 11:46 Mar 21, 2014    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Thu, 27 Feb 2014

New house, no internet

[My new office] I'm writing this from my new home office in our new house, as I listen to the wind howl and watch out the big windows to see lightning over the Sangre de Cristo mountains across the valley.

We're nestled in the piñon-juniper woodlands of northern New Mexico. It's a big jump from living in Silicon Valley.

[The house is nestled in pinon-juniper woodland] Coyotes roam the property, though we don't catch a glimpse that often, and I think I saw a grey fox the first morning we were here. These past few weeks, Sandhill cranes have been migrating far overhead, calling their wild cries; sometimes they catch a thermal (once right over our house) and circle for a while, gaining altitude for their trip north.

And lightning -- summer thunderstorms were something I very much looked forward to (back in San Jose we got a thunderstorm maybe once every couple of years) but I didn't expect to see one so early. (I'm hoping the rain and wind will blow all the pollen off the junipers, so I can stop sneezing some time soon. Who knew juniper was such a potent allergen?)

And the night sky -- for amateur astronomers it looks like heaven. We haven't had a telescope set up yet (we're still unpacking and sorting) but the Milky Way is unbelievable.

[My new office, from the outside] We're in love with the house, too, though it's been neglected and will need a lot of work. It's by architect Bart Prince and it's all about big windows and open spaces. Here's me looking up at the office window from the garden down below.

Of course, not everything is perfect. To start with, in case anyone's been wondering why I haven't been around online much lately, we have no internet to the house until the cable company gets a permit to dig a trench under the street. So we're doing light networking by mi-fi and making trips to the library to use their internet connection, and it may be a few more weeks yet before we have a connection of our own.

I'm sure I'll miss the Bay Area's diversity of restaurants, though at the moment I'm stuffed with lamb, green chile and sopaipillas (a New Mexican specialty you can't really get anywhere else).

And of course I'll miss some of the people and the geeky gatherings, living in a small town that isn't packed with Linux and Python and tech women's user groups like the Bay Area. Still, I'm looking forward to the adventure.

And now, I'm off to the library to post this ...

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[ 19:36 Feb 27, 2014    More misc | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Fri, 07 Feb 2014

Early expirations: A surprise-a-minute with a ACA/CoveredCA health plan

I went to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription a few days ago. The pharmacist said "We don't seem to have any insurance on file for you." I said "That's funny, I just gave you my new insurance card about a week ago, at that window right over there." That would be my shiny new hard-won Blue Shield card with my Obamacare/ACA/CoveredCA plan number.

The pharmacist went into the back room and came back a minute later with a printout. "Looks like that insurance expired on 1/18. Was that a temporary plan number or something?"

"Well, if so, they sure never told us about it, and we've paid through the end of February."

He went to the back room again and got someone to call Blue Shield. And in 10 minutes (whew, I was worried they'd hit the same hour-long queue we individuals have to wait through ... I tried calling them with a billing question last week and had to give up when my phone battery ran out long before I got through the queue) they came back and gave me the prescription for $5.

Does that mean that the problem is solved and the early expiration date was just a mistake? Or did they do some one-time override, and I'll have to argue every time I go in using this card?

As it happens, I'll never know, since I'm about to leave the state. So I get to go through the ACA application process all over again (oh, joy!), this time in a new state using the federal Healthcare.org website, about which I've heard so many wonderful things. It'll be interesting to see how Healthcare.org stacks up now compared to the CoveredCA site back in November.

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[ 20:04 Feb 07, 2014    More misc | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sun, 02 Feb 2014

Windshield Washer Fluid Freeze-out

I'm nearing the home stretch of a move from California to New Mexico. (I'll be writing about that eventually, but right now I'm in the middle of Moving Hell.) Since we're about to drive our cars out to a place that's getting freezing temperatures, Dave got the bright idea that we ought to replace our windshield washer fluid with a type that doesn't freeze at 32°F.

Easy, right? We drove down to Pep Boys -- and couldn't find any. All they had was marked as 32°. So we asked the gentleman at the counter.

Pep Boy: Sorry, we only carry the 32-degree kind. We're not legally allowed to sell the other kind.

Us: Uh, what?

Pep Boy: We're not legally allowed to sell the antifreeze type because it hardly ever gets down to freezing here.

Us: But what do people do when they're driving up to Tahoe or something?

Pep Boy: They start with the tank empty, stop partway up and buy some, and fill up there.

Us: ...

We drove down the street to O'Reilly's, to double check. O'Reilly's sells a concentrate with additives (methanol) for subfreezing temperatures. Just add water. Wait, what?

I did a web search when we got back home. Sure enough, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) has made it illegal to sell pre-mixed windshield washer fluid with methanol, because the methanol evaporates contributes to "ground level ozone and air pollution", according to The Hanford Sentinel: Looking for winter windshield washer fluid? Good luck!

It's illegal to sell pre-mixed. But it's legal to sell concentrate -- even though the concentrate contains far more methanol than pre-mixed would have.

Words fail me.

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[ 19:30 Feb 02, 2014    More misc | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Wed, 29 Jan 2014

PyCon Tutorial: Build your own PiDoorbell - Learn Home Automation with Python

[Raspberry Pi from wikipedia] The first batch of hardware has been ordered for Rupa's and my tutorial at PyCon in Montreal this April!

We're presenting Build your own PiDoorbell - Learn Home Automation with Python on the afternoon of Wednesday, April 9.

It'll be a hands-on workshop, where we'll experiment with the Raspberry Pi's GPIO pins and learn how to control simple things like an LED. Then we'll hook up sonar rangefinders to the RPis, and build a little device that can be used to monitor visitors at your front door, birds at your feeder, co-workers standing in front of your monitor while you're away, or just about anything else you can think of.

Participants will bring their own Raspberry Pi computers and power supplies -- attendees of last year's PyCon got them there, but a new Model A can be gotten for $30, and a model B for $40.

We'll provide everything else. We worried that requiring participants to bring a long list of esoteric hardware was just asking for trouble, so we worked a deal with PyCon and they're sponsoring hardware for attendees. Thank you, PyCon! CodeChix is fronting the money for the kits and helping with our travel expenses, thanks to donations from some generous sponsors. We'll be passing out hardware kits and SD cards at the beginning of the workshop, which attendees can take home afterward.

We're also looking for volunteer T/As. The key to a good hardware workshop is having lots of helpers who can make sure everybody's keeping up and nobody's getting lost. We have a few top-notch T/As signed up already, but we can always use more. We can't provide hardware for T/As, but most of it's quite inexpensive if you want to buy your own kit to practice on. And we'll teach you everything you need to know about how get your PiDoorbell up and running -- no need to be an expert at hardware or even at Python, as long as you're interested in learning and in helping other people learn.

This should be a really fun workshop! PyCon tutorial sign-ups just opened recently, so sign up for the tutorial (we do need advance registration so we know how many hardware kits to buy). And if you're going to be at PyCon and are interested in being a T/A, drop me or Rupa a line and we'll get you on the list and get you all the information you need.

See you at PyCon!

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[ 20:32 Jan 29, 2014    More hardware | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sun, 19 Jan 2014

Our black squirrel: Little Blackie

[LB, our black squirrel] We've been having occasional visits from black squirrels for maybe five years now, but mostly they're shy and don't stay long.

Black squirrels are interesting. As far as I know, they're a color variation of the usual Eastern grey squirrel we get as our most common yard visitor here in San Jose. (For a while we got a lot of Eastern Fox squirrels, but I guess that population moved away since I haven't seen one in years.) Our native Western greys are larger and more wary, and keep to the hills and forests, never venturing down into the city.

Black squirrels have been common in Palo Alto for many decades, I'm told, but it's only in the last five or ten years that they've started expanding southward. First I would see a few in Sunnyvale and Mountain View, then a couple in Campbell, and then, finally, a few years after that, they made it here to West San Jose. (Campbell is farther south than our house, but the squirrels as they expanded their range probably moved toward the less urban hills and parks.)

This year we had our first friendly, regular black squirrel visitor. I called him Little Blackie after the pony in True Grit. He's by far the most beautiful squirrel we've ever had -- his fur glistens in the sun and looks amazingly soft. Unfortunately he's also difficult to photograph well -- the point-and-shoot tends not to focus on him very well, and he's always underexposed even when I use exposure compensation.

LB was very quick (as squirrels go) to figure out that our fencepost was a good source of walnuts, and even pretty quick to make the association that people near the office door means that another nut may appear soon. (Most squirrels take forever to figure that out, and when you come out to put up another nut, they run away and don't come back for hours.)

After a few months of regular feeding, he was tolerating us only a few feet away as we put nuts on the fencepost, and then it was a few more months before he worked up the courage to take nuts from our hands. He still doesn't linger -- he grabs the nut and runs.

[black squirrel LB hanging by his feet] This morning he was quite entertaining, when he decided I was coming out too slowly (I try not to make sudden movements when approaching wild animals) and jumped from the fencepost to run along the gate. I met him halfway, and offered the nut to him as he sat on the gate. He grabbed it, but his nervousness about being in a different place made him too hasty, and he missed his grab and the nut went bouncing down onto the driveway.

He looked at me with a bemused expression, jumped back to the fencepost and ran back along the fence -- but couldn't quite work up the nerve to run down and get the nut off the driveway. So I fetched it for him, and offered it to him up on the fence.

Nothing doing -- that was too weird. So he waited until I went back to the fencepost, whereupon he scampered right over, grabbed the nut and ran off to hang from the tree.

Wacky Blackie! Here are the best photos of him I've been able to get so far: Little Blackie, our black squirrel.

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[ 11:29 Jan 19, 2014    More nature/squirrels | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Mon, 06 Jan 2014

Government accountability

Do you ever get annoyed at how government takes your tax money and tosses it around, without much accountability as to how much money goes where?

[COST $7557022.00] Well, in New Mexico they want to make sure you don't get that feeling.

When you drive by a highway construction project, the cost of the project is right there -- down to the nearest dollar. (With no commas, so be careful when counting those digits that you don't run into the car in front of you.)

$7557022.00. Now that's accountability!

(We won't talk about the completion date of fall 2013 and the fact that this photo was taken in early 2014. I hope that doesn't make the costs overrun to $7557022.50 or even $7557023.00.)

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[ 21:18 Jan 06, 2014    More humor | permalink to this entry | comments ]

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