Punkin’ chunkin’

We spent a couple of hours on Saturday morning at the Fourth Annual Howard Volunteer Fire Company Punkin’ Chunkin’. I discussed the same event and the three different sorts of catapults here in 2012 and again in 2013. The Trebuchet stores potential energy by raising a weight against the pull of gravity. When the weight is released, potential energy is transformed into kinetic energy which swings a massive arm, releasing the projectile. The Ballista works by storing potential energy in semi-rigid arms connected by ropes, much like a crossbow. My favorite catapult however is the Onaeger, or Torsion Catapult, shown in the first image. Imagine stretching a rubber band between two stationary pegs. Place a pencil between the lengths of rubber toward the middle of the span and wind the pencil around a few times. When you release the pencil the potential stored in the bands is released and the pencil will spin. The single torsion rope of the machine shown below was made of 1″ nylon and wrapped perhaps ten times between stationary posts. I was amazed that the projectile arm was twisted something less than 180° when the machine was ready for firing. I should mention that the members of Team Carbo, shown below, are the reigning World Champion Punkin’ Chunkers in the Torsion Division (their winning toss was measured at 3,105.34 feet). For the first time at this event, a compressed air canon was present. Team Sky Buster is currently ranked eleventh in the world in their division with a shot of 3,777.32 feet. My very particular reason for attending the Chunkin’ this year was to capture images which I wanted to try to stack, using a program called StarStaX, by Markus Enzweiler. This software is intended to be used to stack one hundred or more sequential images taken of the night sky to produce Star Trails. Although I haven’t yet tried my hand at this I thought the software might allow me to show the stages of a Punkin’ launch. The torsion catapult accelerated so quickly that its composite shot is composed of just four images.The second image of a trebuchet was constructed by stacking thirteen images. I liked the final product but wished that I could have selected just one of the thirteen to contribute the background information. As it is, the movements of four folks standing close to this catapult are distracting. The gentleman on the far right nodded his head during the sequence, the one to the far left took several steps forward. The gentleman who triggered the machine backed away from it after launch and I could not eliminate evidence of all of his movements from the final stack. I like the result anyway and especially enjoy the view of the punkin’ receding into the distance and over the lake. You may be interested to know that the burst rate of the D600 is 6 frames per second and that each shot was taken at 1/4000 of a second.

A nonrandon assortment of genes

Imagine you and your Upper Paleolithic family are walking through the woods and happen upon an abandoned litter of Grey Wolf pups (Canus lupus). Your kids instantly fall in love with the bunch and ask to bring the group home as pets. Being the good parent that you are, you acquiesce. Over the next few weeks, and as the pups grow and mature, it becomes clear that the kids have chosen favorites from among the group. The ones which are friendly, playful, and submissive are the ones the kids gravitate toward, while the ones which stand-off and are aggressive when approached are the ones your kids shy away from. Eventually, individuals belonging to the latter group wander back into the woods and two individuals belonging to the former group remain to become part of your family. Let’s assume these are male and female (and let’s ignore the potential influences of inbreeding). The two produce a large litter. Children from an adjacent encampment visit and ask whether they might have two of the pups as pets. You agree and they select what they believe to be the friendliest male and female, and off they go. These individuals have a litter and yet another group of kids asks about a pair, and so on. If the primary focus of selection remains friendly, playful, and submissive behavior, and if these traits are genetically controlled, then over time, the members of the growing canine population will become more friendly, more playful, and increasingly submissive. This tale is entirely hypothetical but it is exactly the way in which we believe groups of archaic Grey Wolves may have given rise to what we know today as the much beloved and highly domesticated dog, Canus lupus familiaris. This practice of artificial selection has been used by humans for millennia to improve the animals we raise for food, textiles, and for work. So, let’s talk about sheep, Ovis aries, and recognize the many breeds that have been developed by artificial selection and under the watchful eyes of human farmers. Joanna and I have raised Shetland Sheep since Pairodox was first established in 1989. Those of you who read this blog carefully may have picked up on a few words, phrases, or sentiments which have suggested that Joanna and I have made the decision to disperse our flock. To say that this decision has been difficult would be an understatement, for we have applied the tenets of artificial selection for more than two decades to produce the animals that now grace our pastures. I will not provide a detailed historical review but suffice it to say that our flock began with five unprepossessing animals. Now, more than four-hundred and thirty-six animals later, we care for a spinner’s flock of forty-four animals which, in my opinion, can hold its own in direct comparison with any and all registered Shetland Sheep in the country. The improvements in fleece color, crimp, and luster and in animal conformation and adherence to breed standard have resulted from a good genetic base, lots of naturally occurring variation, and a rigorous program of selection, breeding, and of culling. The dilemma Joanna and I face is how to reconcile doing the right thing with this highly nonrandom assortment of genes and parting with animals and characteristics we have known for such a long time. The Livestock Conservancy lists the Shetland as a recovering breed. Trying to find a willing and responsible someone with appropriate infrastructure to take on the entire group has proven difficult. What we have decided to do, and the strategy which has already been set in motion, is to identify a small number of folks willing to accept a handful of animals. This way our efforts are preserved and our animals will be distributed among a number of good homes. I suppose this is akin to not putting all of your eggs into one basket. The first animals to leave the farm will do so tomorrow. Wish Joanna and me luck in the aftermath of their departure. I took some ovine portraits this past weekend during a brief period of sunshine and blue sky, it rained buckets yesterday.

Chasing a rainbow, in reverse

I think that I am, in many ways, different from lots of folks. And I’m OK with that. When our kids were small they had t-shirts which showed a group of identically marked fish, all schooling in the same direction, and one very little fish, differently colored, swimming in the opposite direction. The shirt proclaimed, It’s OK to be different. I should have such a shirt. And, so it was, that I was washing the dishes after dinner this evening when I happened to look out the picture window to the north-west and saw that the setting sun was casting an eerie yellow light which illuminated the remaining clouds of a weather system which was moving quickly to the north. Joanna said, That’s pretty, why don’t you get your camera? I replied, What’s so pretty about a jaundiced, yellow, sky? I don’t know why, but I made my way back through the kitchen and on to the living room for a view in the other direction, to the south-east. I turned the corner and took in the view for perhaps less than a second, and ran upstairs to grab my camera. I was down the stairs, negotiated the hall, through the kitchen, and out the back door having switched on my camera and put on my shoes. I stopped, cranked my 24-70 all the way out, and took a look … damn … not wide enough. So I began to run down the driveway. After putting myself 100 yards further away from the beautiful, double, rainbow I brought the camera to my eye again … damn … the increased distance didn’t seem to make much of a difference. I turned and ran the remaining 900 yards to the very bottom of the drive, and brought the camera to my eye. Damn and blast … the view looked just as it had the first time I had checked, just outside my back door. Without attempting to figure out the physics of the situation, I dialed in the appropriate exposure, composed as well as I could and squeezed off four shots before the sun fell below the horizon behind me, putting an end to the show. I walked, dejected, and swearing, back to the house. My shoes were full of water and my pants were wet to the knee. Joanna greeted me at the back door and asked, Wad-ya get? I said, in as sarcastic a tone as I could muster, A nice fractional view of a rainbow. I learned two lessons this evening. 1) You should never, ever, try to photograph a rainbow without first grabbing the widest piece of glass you own. I have a 14-24 which would have been perfect for this shot, but I didn’t take the time to grab it out of my pack. Big, big, mistake. And, 2) One should never, ever, under any circumstance try to run away from a rainbow to gain a wider field of view, for it doesn’t seem to be possible. There are at least two followers out there who I know of who I hope will enlighten me as to why this may be so. Thanks in advance. POSTSCRIPT: If you are interested to know why the rainbow did not recede as I ran away from it, click the title to this post. Scroll down to read the superb explanation provided by Elke from Theory and Practice of Trying to Combine Just Anything. She has provided proof of what Joanna has always known to be true, and that is You can’t ever catch a rainbow.



I lost a good friend in August and I’ve been thinking about him and about his legacy. We were at his farm over the weekend so Joanna could attend a meeting of her sheep-to-shawl team. Because I function only as the team’s logistician I was not involved in the strategy session which was being held around the dining room table. Autumn’s profusion had arrived, and the camera was with me in the hopes of capturing some color. As (bad) luck would have it, it rained sometime around sunrise and the sky had yet to clear by mid-morning. Wayne’s place is a pretty typical crop farm in that the homestead and outbuildings occupy an acre or so and the rest of the land is divided among fields of corn, grass, and soy beans. The combines have been running, down by the river near us, for two weeks now and I have been keeping a close eye on fields of sunflowers there. Wayne’s crops have dried down and the combines are scheduled to begin work there this week. The timing of our visit was lucky, for I was able to walk the fields just days before harvest. Doing so allowed connections to be made which were both strange and tenuous, and comforting and strong. In comparison to many others, Wayne was a particularly meticulous and careful farmer. He was a good businessman and watched the markets. He had a firm handle on what it would cost him to bring in a crop, well before even seed had been purchased. He could tell you, give or take, what the crop would bring when it would come time to sell. His equipment was a top priority and was always in excellent condition. Wayne was the sort who tended to things well before they failed; he sought out problems and fixed them. He even washed his equipment, you know, with water. Something I have never done; and I consider myself to be pretty darn fastidious. He was one of those folks who never, ever, rushed. He was so well-organized, so smart about everything, that he didn’t need to. He knew what needed to be done, and did it, mostly by himself. I could see my friend hauling seed and fertilizer. I could see him preparing the ground and planting. I know he watched the weather and prayed for rain, in good measure, and at the appropriate time. If I listen carefully I can hear that sigh of relief he must have breathed when he could scan his fields for those first hints of green, those long rows of tiny fingers which would grow to become broad strokes of color, covering the hills and hollows. Were he still with us, Wayne would have taken great pride in the fact that he had gotten his crops this far. He wouldn’t have smiled that broad smile of his until the harvest had been completed though. And, even then, he wouldn’t have relaxed until his grains had been stored and the equipment had been washed, greased, put away, and prepared to do it all again next year. This past Saturday I was able to walk through crops which represented the posthumous result of his very hard work. The soy beans were dried, browned, and full. The corn was ready for harvest and many hundreds of thousands of stalks stood tall in long, very straight, rows. If you looked closely, you could pick out bits of bright yellow, peeking from behind protective husks beginning to curl back, thin and dry. Silk waved, though barely a breath of air could be felt, even as I turned my cheek in the direction I thought the breeze might be coming. These fields were bountiful. They did what they were supposed to do. They did what Wayne directed them to do. These were the visible fruits of his hard labor, his good management, and a little bit of good fortune. Although Wayne and his wife had full-time jobs off the place, they dedicated all of the rest of their time to running the family farm and living life by the rhythms which were imposed upon them by the seasons. Dedicating themselves to this ancient tradition was important. With regard to this all-or-none sort of commitment, Joanna and I have often observed that This is what we do. Were you aware that 2014 has been named the International Year of Family Farming by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations? The intent is to … raise the profile of family farming and smallholder farming by focusing world attention on its significant role in eradicating hunger and poverty, providing food security and nutrition, improving livelihoods, managing natural resources, protecting the environment, and achieving sustainable development, in particular in rural areas. Although it is not my intention to enter into a discussion of the influence of agribusiness on the family farm, I would observe that it has been upon the backs of people like Wayne and his family that the tradition of the family farm persists in this country and at this time. That there were more like them.

A pretty picture and a bit of physics

This will be the last of the images from our weekend visit to the Cape; a pretty picture of a Galilean Thermometer. I think they’re beautiful and this one doesn’t disappoint. Being the sort of person who is naturally curious about such things, I was surprised to discover that neither the volume of the spheres nor the composition of the colored fluid they contain has anything to do with the way in which this intriguing instrument works. The key to understanding its operation is to know that each of the little tags is a precisely calibrated counterweight which imparts a slightly different density to each of the spheres. So how does this seventeenth century gizmo work? See if this makes sense. As the ambient temperature changes, so does the density of the fluid in the tube (which is, by the way, a mix of alcohol and water). You will recall that there is an inverse relationship between temperature and density such that the fluid in the tube will become less dense as temperatures rise and more dense as they fall. As the density of the fluid changes so too does the relationship between the buoyant force (pushing up) and the gravitational force (pulling down). The little spheres maintain their relative order in the column at all times. As temperature increases, the fluid in the tube becomes less dense and the gravitational forces pulls more strongly against the buoyant force and the balls fall (in relative order of density). As temperature falls, the fluid in the tube becomes more dense and the buoyant force becomes stronger, pushing more forcefully against the gravitational force, and the balls rise in the column. The tag on the sphere which rests comfortably in the middle of the column indicates the ambient temperature. I really do appreciate this instrument for its beauty and its mechanical elegance.


Metaphor or simple bloviation

Here are two more of the images I captured while on Cape Cod last weekend. I uploaded these to my WordPress media library, inserted them into what was then an empty screen, and discovered that I was at a loss about what to say about them. And so it was that, somewhere in the middle of my run yesterday afternoon, it struck me that both could be viewed as metaphors for the way in which we think our minds distill events to that essence we call memory. In some of the more far-flung wanderings you have read here, I have discussed the physical nature of the nervous system. I have talked about the electro-chemistry of impulse transmission. And I have rambled on about the complex nature of sensory inputs and the ways in which these manifest as reality. So, if memories are part and parcel of the nervous system, how, given what we know about the nature of nervous impulses, can we explain that intangible we know to be memory? This is where my images may help. First you should know that both were taken using long exposure. Because the rocks were stationary, they are clear, crisp, and may be easily discerned. The surrounding environment was moving under the influences of wind, current, and tide. Elements that were less well anchored moved about, while things which were more firmly attached moved less. Things that moved appear blurry, indistinct. Elements which moved less appear to be only slightly blurred, and some detail may be noted in these elements. Now, let’s go back to thinking about memory. To someone who isn’t a neuroscientist it might be difficult to imagine how new ideas may be stored in the brain if it is composed, at maturity, of a finite number of cells. So, any explanation that learning simply involves the addition of more brain matter cannot be right. What we do know about learning is that synaptic communication between and among neurons leads to the formation of new circuits for the transmission of electrochemical impulses and these may represent our behavioral and perhaps cognitive capacities. In fact it has been argued that both learning and memory are characterized by increases in neural connectivity and the formation of complex neural networks. Imagine, for example, any small number of individual neurons, and the vast number of circuits that might be established between and among them. It has always made sense to me that well established circuits may be more easily accessed when we attempt to recall them days, weeks, months, or even years later. Now, back to the images. The parts of each scene which were stationary sent lots of reflected light into the camera sensor and the subsequent rendition of those parts of the image is clear. Parts of each scene which were moving did not send as much information to the sensor and their subsequent rendition is less clear or not at all discernible. So, when you look at these scenes, imagine them as metaphors for the neural circuits of memory. Each has areas of crisp rendition, representing well established neural pathways, memories which we may recall with ease. Each has areas which are a slightly blurred, representing less well established connections, memories which we may only dimly recall. And each has very blurry areas which represent very dim memories which cannot be organized into coherent recollection. What do you think? Is all of this too much of a stretch?



Retrospective nineteen (September 2013)

Given the way in which blogs are presented, I am convinced that posts which reside more than a scroll or two behind the most recent are doomed to languish and to be forgotten. Because I believe there is value in looking at contributions from days, weeks, and even months ago, I present here a gallery of images presented during September of 2013. Perhaps it will be interesting to scroll through these and to compare them to those presented during this past month. Be patient, it may take several minutes for all of the images to load fully. Hovering over an image will reveal its title. Clicking one will take you to a carousel view and you can either move through the collection or click the links to read each post in its original form. Note that this is the nineteenth in my series of retrospective posts. You may find interest in taking a look at the retrospective from a year ago and if you missed any of the others, you can find them all by clicking Retrospective in the tag cloud in the sidebar.

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