Sunday, June 21, 2015

A Word About That Flag

UPDATE: The Confederate Flag will come down. As reported by FITSNews, SC lawmakers have decided to remove the flag from the State House grounds to the Confederate Relic Room, a museum in downtown Columbia near US Hwy 1 and the Congaree River. And that's perfectly fine by me. Reportedly this will be done as soon as the lawmakers can manage it. We'll have to wait to see how soon that actually is.

Now, predictably, the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston is being ignited as fuel for a political argument that is only tangentially related to the shooting itself. Not just one, either. Obama thinks it's a good time to throw down on gun control, but most of the media focus is on the Confederate battle flag on the State House grounds. Though I'd rather continue to talk about the courage and grace of the people of Charleston, I feel a bit forced by current discourse to address this. And I'm pretty sure that most of you aren't going to like it.

I am going to play Devil's Advocate here to a degree, because those of you who do not live here know even less of this state and its people than you imagine. Your understanding is shaped by outmoded memes, ancient movies, cartoons, popular culture, and the opinions of comedy show hosts funneled into your television sets. 

As I mentioned in my last post,  I've lived elsewhere; I've seen your brand of racism; you have no basis for your sense of superiority. Rather, look to the superior example of the people of Charleston, SC, who have met adversity without rancor or an escalation of violence.


Before I move on, I should explain where I stand, culturally.

My father was Native American. My grandparents were immigrant German-speaking Hungarian Jews. Obviously no member of my family has ever owned a slave, nor would we want to. But we do understand symbols; particularly symbols of oppression. Also recognize that I am trans-cultural, having been been born and raised in this state, instructed from first grade until my graduation in nearly all-black schools. I'm also from what was once called a broken home. My mother worked in a factory, and eventually remarried. My step-father was a South Carolinian who worked for The State newspaper, saved his money, and after his parents' death bought the farm on which he was born in order to raise Christmas trees.

I, as the grandchild of an immigrant Jew from Europe, whose close relatives were gassed to death in concentration camps, have no problem looking at a swastika. Here's why: symbols have only the power that we decide to give them. That's not intuitively obvious to people who have been taught to desperately cling to oppression, but it's true. It is just a design. It doesn't inherently mean one thing. Rather, it means something to you. To the Nazis, that crooked cross was a symbol of their superiority. To a Jain, it is an emblem of peace. To Jews, it is an emblem of oppression. To many modern Germans, one of embarrassment. To me, someone not quite two generations removed from that war, it is a reminder of a regime and a philosophy that must be remembered with clarity so that it is never again repeated. I don't feel fear, but resolve. When I see it, I'm reminded, Never Again. I'm also reminded that the superiority of the Nazi was an illusion, and a lie. I don't need to ban a symbol that holds no power over me.

I hope the parallel is clear, and that you recognize that the analog between the swastika and the Confederate Battle Flag is quite good. Nevertheless, having control over my own interpretations, I have neither love nor hate for a mere scrap of cloth. Remember, a symbolic bit of color isn't more powerful than the meaning you hold in your heart. If you're fixated on racism, that's all you see. So to some there can be no other meaning. But to many South Carolinians, it's a remembrance of family members who fell in a horrible war on their own land. You may join me in disagreeing with the causes (or excuses) for that war, but that doesn't change the fact that these were also humans, as were their children and grands. To others, this same symbol might be a rebellious reminder that in America even an offensive viewpoint may be aired; a symbol of oppression; or -- just as the swastika is to me -- a reminder of a past that we should always remember with absolute clarity so as not to repeat it. Because it is a symbol, and meanings are assigned by all of us separately and individually, it is all of these things at once.

If someone tells you that a symbol -- not just the rebel flag, but any symbol whatsoever -- means the one thing they decree it to mean and nothing else... well, let's just say that they're not imparting the truth. That's simply not the way that symbols work. When someone like this black student at USC Beaufort says it means something completely different to him, that's because it does. And he's not the only one, either. None of us have the authority to assign that meaning for another person.

Furthermore, there are multiple ways to deal with an offensive symbol.  One is to engage in censorship, make the symbol taboo, accentuate the differences, and give it more and more strength as you do. Frankly, that doesn't appear to work very well.

Another path is to set usurp the meaning of the symbol and rob it of its power, leaving it either impotent or representative of a positive concept. I want you to recall that the swastika was a symbol of peace in Jainism for thousands of years before the Nazis hijacked it. If a symbol can be corrupted, it can be purified. This is reappropriation or recontextualization. Follow the link for numerous examples. And here's where it gets touchy, and a little complicated. Meanings change over time. If you were raised from infancy in an environment that celebrated that flag as nothing more than a symbol of regional pride, then that is what it is, regardless of what it meant to a dead generation. Reappropriation replaces the meaning. They're not lying when they report what it means to them, and are genuinely offended at being told (quite inaccurately) what they supposedly think.


It is not that South Carolinians deny a racist past. On the contrary, this state has had more first-hand experience with the devastation resulting from racism than most of you can possibly imagine. Also, it is not that South Carolina does not have racism today: we certainly do. I started school in the 1960s. I was one of that first group of children bused from one district to another. I grew up in a school that was overwhelmingly Black. I despise racism, regardless of the direction from which it comes. I hate it, not only because of the way that it has hurt my friends, but also because of the way it has hurt me.

But we don't really have the luxury of the Northern brand of racial censorship in the South... that which would lock something away and pump it up until you scream in terror at the slightest peek.[1] We see the same television shows you do. We are constantly bombarded with messages about how racist we are, how evil we are; and no matter how hard we work to demonstrate otherwise, it doesn't matter outside the borders of our state, because it's not the sort of thing that you who own the media are interested in putting on television, in books, in newspapers. Nevertheless, you relentlessly whip that horse. So we have gone down another path. That is to reclaim and rehabilitate those symbols, and to balance that attempt with respect for others.

Those of you from elsewhere tend to think of "southern hospitality" as some sort of cliché or a joke. It isn't. It's a very deep-seated thing; part of what we call "home training" -- manners. For us, manners don't end with saying "please" and "thank you" and knowing how to set a table. Rather, it's the core understanding that even people you don't like deserve that base level of respect due from one human to another for no reason other than that they are human.

Lack of understanding of this is why people from other places are shocked when they move here and discover that we act civilly to one another... that a white guy and a black guy can go hunting together, armed to the teeth, in a pickup truck with a rebel flag in the back window... and it's the black guy's truck.

It's easy, and somewhat thoughtless, to dismiss all rebel flag proponents as "neo-Confederate revisionists". Of course, some of them are; and for the rest this is partially true, as reappropriation is indeed revisionism (minus the amnesia). But "neo-Confederate"? You're not going to find much of that, not seriously. To be sure, we still jokingly bat around phrases like "the South shall rise again", but you need to stop laughing at that, too. As your factories rust, we build new ones. Bankers in the Southeast look to Charlotte, not New York. And when you want a sunny vacation, we gladly take your money. But no one here wants a return to plantations and slavery. They do, however, cherish local autonomy from oppressive central control, believing that the most sensible government is that which is closest to the People. They don't want the slavery of others, nor do they want the tyranny that you would impose on them. And there is the modern Southern meaning of that rebel flag. It veils a reminder that a government must continue to serve its people, or they will abandon it.[2]

This is not a horrible message. This censorious fellow would like to shock "neo-Confederates" into line by calling them traitors. Of course, the newsflash, dateline 1776, is that this entire country was established by traitors. Every man who stepped aboard ship and chucked tea into Boston Harbor was a traitor to his legitimate government. Every man who signed the Declaration of Independence, or raised a gun against a redcoat was a bona fide traitor to the Crown. In America we advertise our treachery daily, we revel in it, and on the fourth day of July we celebrate it with fireworks and gluttony. You can't do that and shame another man for the same. To be American is to proudly and unrepentantly embrace the actions of the traitors who founded this country. These men would have still been patriots had they lost the war, just as the men and women of Tiananmen Square were patriotic Chinese despite their massacre at the hands of their government. Clearly it is the motivation of a person that justifies his action. It is not the ends that justify the means, but the reasons. And we're not talking about the symbolism of people 150 years dead, but of a person alive today. But perhaps that's a bit too subtle for a Pennsylvania boy who's never set foot in South Carolina or spoken to his own neighbor.


Obviously, it's not all kumbaya. There are tensions. Some people are racist assholes. And some people cannot conceive that a person is not thinking the thoughts that they think for him. And some people cannot get past their own pain. Some can't be bothered to consider the intent of another person, just as others can't be bothered to consider someone else's anguish. For this and many other reasons, there is deep disagreement as to what direction to take with that particular symbol, the rebel flag. Reappropriation or censorship.

click to visit the Washington Post
Once, the rebel flag flew above the State House dome, but it was removed as a compromise measure in 2000 to fly low in a more modest place among the other memorials on the grounds. Though I think it could be more modest still (it is directly in front of the State House steps), contrary to some reports, it is not flying above those that were capable of being lowered to half-staff in memory of the victims of this shooting (Those are on the dome itself). The flag on the war memorial is a semi-permanent part of a monument, and is not ceremonially raised and lowered as the US and Palmetto flags are. It is affixed to the top of the pole by a metal link, not a pulley system, and cannot be lowered, only removed; and by law this must be done by the vote of the General Assembly.

Now, for my part, I don't advocate censorship, and would rather see this symbol reappropriated as a symbol of defiance and tolerance. Defiance, in that it is a reminder that the points expressed in the Declaration of Independence didn't expire on July 4th, 1776, but remain as relevant today as the day they were penned.[3] Tolerance, in that it is a reminder that a society with free speech must not limit those freedoms to what is popular.[4] However, I also don't think this flag is something that needs to be glorified. One doesn't need the government to re-appropriate a symbol, except to the extent that government follows their constitutional mandate to protect free speech. Re-appropriation is done by the people; and they should not be discouraged from reclaiming something for good intent. Neither can it be forced upon them, and I have no fantasy that this particular symbol is essential to communicate the concepts I mentioned above. We could get along without it on state property just fine.[5]

But I also believe that a compromise, arrived at in good faith, should not be summarily tossed aside. One's word should actually mean something.  In this case I feel that it means the issue deserves some thoughtful discussion. South Carolinians aren't of one mind about that flag. The fact that there are people who are passionate about both sides of this issue simply reminds us that this is exactly what compromises are for.

Senator Lindsey Graham attempted to be respectful of the feelings of many groups when he opined on the topic of this flag on CNN. There are a lot of things I don't agree with Senator Graham on, but I see his point here.

As Senator Graham has stated, this is perhaps a good time to review whether the Battle Flag should remain in its present place; somewhere else; or be taken down entirely. But this is purely a matter for South Carolinians. It is up to us to voice our opinions to each other, weigh them, and come to a decision that works for us. This is our state; our home. You have one of your own. So please, tend to your own nest, as you haven't finished fouling it yet.

[1] What I mean by the "Northern form of racial censorship" is the idea of making something taboo. For instance, the "N" word is socially acceptable, but only for some people, and even then often in a generally negative context. For all others it holds exactly the same stigma as it always has, and that's the same as no rehabilitation at all.  More generally it means locking something away. For instance, in ghettos. You might want to consider that the black population of South Carolina is about 30%, or roughly two and a half times the national average. As such, we don't exactly have ghettos in the sense of say, NYC. Instead we have poor neighborhoods... and white people live in them, too. And we have black neighborhoods that look just like the white ones, and we have mixed neighborhoods that look like the others.

[2] Yes, I know that's not what the Civil War was about. That's the point of re-appropriation. You take something and give it new meaning, while remembering what it once was, now divorced of its former stigma and power.

[3] If you're surprised to see defiance here, don't be. Read the Federalist Papers and examine the thoughts of the Founding Fathers regarding the proper role of government as a servant of a free and sovereign People. Though equal rights were not afforded to everyone at the time, it should have always been our aim to extend them to everyone; and never to use the fact that they were historically limited to deny them to all. Poor execution of a principle does not invalidate the principle.

[4] The Oxford English Dictionary lists a word that is specifically reserved for the toleration of only those views, beliefs, or behavior that agree with your own: "INTOLERANCE"

[5] This flag does something, however, that a substitute such as "Don't Tread On Me" does not. It reminds our government that the message is not intended solely for those who would attack the United States from without. Rather, it is intended for them.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

First Reactions

On Wednesday, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC was visited by a racist bastard who shot down nine innocent people -- six women and three men -- who were there to do nothing more than worship God.

I will not name the son-of-a-bitch because these people get too much name recognition from the media as it is. Also, I don't want to participate in the silly fiction of saying "allegedly". Those bullets didn't materialize out of nowhere. I would much rather remember the names of those fallen:
The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41
Cynthia Hurd, 54
The Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45
Tywanza Sanders, 26
Ethel Lance, 70
Susie Jackson, 87
Depayne Middleton Doctor, 49
The Rev. Daniel Simmons, 74
Myra Thompson, 59
You can read more about them at this article provided by NPR.

Since the jackass they have in custody confessed to it, we don't even have to engage in some twisted fantasy that this was anything other than a racially motivated shooting. But while we're doing that, let's not engage in the twisted fantasy that a racially motivated shooting is any more or less heinous than a mass murder for any other reason. If these people had been killed because of their religion, because of sex, or because they're Southern, it would be as despicable; and if it were for no reason at all, the cold chills should never stop.

This was a heinous act because it it was a mass murder of human beings. Good, kind, pious, generous, loving human beings.

I doubt that you, Reader, no matter who you may be, possess the argumentative skills necessary to convince me that the criminal murder of any one group of individuals has more or less intrinsic importance than the criminal murder of any other. Further, I seriously doubt that you have the argumentative skills to convince yourself of that, either.

Now much is being made of the "troubled racial history" of South Carolina, and to that end I'd like you to take a look at this and other photos of the aftermath.

A multi-racial, multi-ethnic, peaceful memorial service at
Morris Brown AME Church in Charleston, SC
(image via

Where are the lootings? Where are the riots in the streets? Where is the nasty hatred that you mistakenly believe to be the hallmark of the South?

Seriously, and I mean this from the bottom of my heart, as a South Carolinian born and raised: if you are from some other state in this Union, and you feel the need to open your mouth or raise a pen or click a keyboard and instruct me about the deep-seated racism of this home of mine, then do yourself a favor:

Shut up.

You're embarrassing yourself, and you don't even know it, bless your heart. I've lived elsewhere; I've seen your brand of racism; and I'm not fond of hypocrites.

I want you to look at the people in Charleston. Look at their behavior. Note that they did not have to be told not to riot or loot. Nor did they have to be told to mourn the passing of some very good people whose virtues are acknowledged by one and all save the sick bastard who shot them dead.

I would like you folks who believe you know better than we how to handle our affairs to look to yourselves and see how well you did. Look to Ferguson, Missouri.  Look to Baltimore, Maryland. Look to the unnecessary anguish, destruction, demolition, hatred, anxiety, and fear that comes from doing things your way. Then look at how the adjacent city of North Charleston handled a similar issue. Then let us do this our way. And pay close attention, please; because you really need to.

The families of the victims displayed outstanding moral quality by stating their forgiveness. I don't know if I could have done that so soon. But it was the killer's desire to start a race war, and the worst possible way to honor the fallen members of that church would be to provide it. With very few exceptions, you'll find that the response is to bring us together, not tear us apart. Instead of a race war this Sunday, Emanuel AME Church will reopen for worship.

I cannot adequately express how proud I am of the people of the city of my birth, and of the members of Emanuel AME Church in particular.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Big Dogs and Little Horses

An infantryman in the US Army carries round 100 pounds of gear into the field with him. The Army would like to off-load that gear onto robot. For a number of years now, Boston Dynamics has been addressing the problem with a number of generations of a robot including Spot, Little Dog, and the famous Big Dog, as well as its successor, Alpha Dog.

What Boston Dynamics have managed to do mechanically is astonishing. Here's a video introducing the lastest, "Alpha Dog", known to the military by the obligatory yawn-inducing designation of "LS3" (Leg Squad Support System):

Boston Dynamics (BD) and the DARPA both describe Alpha Dog as a "robotic mule". This got me wondering, how do BD's robots stack up against real mules? After all, if you're trying to replace a thing, you might ask whether your replacement is better than the thing itself, right? I looked at some specs published by BD (PDF) (I had to extrapolate some) and did some quick math. It's not going to be exact, but it should do the job. My info about the mules came largely from having had a stepfather who owned a farm, plus a search or two to confirm some figures. This ain't an exhaustive comparison, folks. Rather, it's me thinking out loud.


A new BD robot can cost as much as $32 million to develop. A production model might cost $100,000 dollars. A mule typically costs between around 2 thousand dollars to buy, and about the same per year for food and maintenance. In comparing operational costs, I exclude the cost of military labor: these guys get paid regardless.

For perspective, you can own, feed, and shoe a mule and provide him with regular veterinary visits and buy replacement mules for over 40 years for about what you'd spend in acquiring one Alpha Dog. This disregards the development costs of the robot. It also doesn't take into account what you'd spend on gasoline, replacement parts, and highly technical mechanics (the analog of veterinarians). This is mainly because you'd only need to gas up a robot when you're actually using it whereas a mule eats every day.

An Alpha Dog carries twice what a mule does, though, so you'd only need half the number.

We're going to have to call this in favor of the mule. You might argue the mule is more expensive than stated because of the need for a stable and paddock, but I'd just throw the  $32 million development costs of Alpha Dog back into the equation and more than even things out. Best to not push it. Also, my graphs show 5-year costs because in robotics you're constantly working on making the current model obsolete. This isn't a jeep: they'll go obsolete frequently. And robots aren't replaced kind-for-kind. Remember the cost of a new mule is a few thousand. The cost of a new model robot is more R&D... to the tune of millions of dollars.

Mule wins, by a long shot.

Relative costs minus R&D. Concerning operating
costs, I think I'm being kind to the robot.

Relative costs, including R&D. I included the cost of buying
a paddock and stable for the mule as "Development Costs".

However, the tools of war aren't chosen on cost alone, or we'd all still be fighting with slings and arrows and flying Sopwith Camels. Let's keep looking.


A mule can carry around 200 pounds of cargo. The Alpha Dog is rated at 400 pounds. So one robot should do the job of about two mules. Also, an LS3 model would appear to go pretty much anywhere a mule could go. Go Dog!


A mule gets tired. An Alpha Dog doesn't. This seems an advantage, until you remember that this robot is designed to walk along with men on foot, and they get tired, too; faster than mules.
"A difference which makes no difference is no difference at all."

Everybody's on foot
Public Domain image via


Keep in mind the words of the briefing in the preceding video:
"...squads want to move under cover and concealment. They do not want to move on roads. That tells you right away that if you can have a robotic platform, it must be able to go over logs, through streams..."
Yeah, but in order to meet that requirement for "concealment" it would have to go over logs and streams and rocks, and all the rest fairly quietly. Now have a listen to a video that hasn't had the sound muted for voiceover or catchy music:

One of the things you don't get to experience in many videos of the Boston Dynamics "dogs" is how incredibly LOUD they are. This is because they run on electricity supplied by a generator powered by a two-stroke internal combustion engine as well as hydraulic actuators powered by the same. This thing is like firing up a chainsaw, then revving it constantly as you walk through the woods.  In the lab they're a lot quieter because they're tethered, with hydraulic pressure supplied through an umbilical.

A mule, on the other hand, doesn't have that much to say. It might bray now and then, but it never gives off a constant 110 decibel advertisement of its position. And while a mule does give off an odor, so does the gasoline exhaust of the robot.

The mule wins again. .

Portability And Storage

An LS3 model can be packed in a crate for years and airdropped into a combat zone at need. Mules need constant care and feeding, they take up more room in transit, aren't easily stacked, and tend to die horrifically if you throw them out of aircraft.

No contest. The robot wins.

Other Factors

If your Alpha Dog is out of gas, it isn't moving until refueled. That's no different from any other piece of mechanized equipment. However, if your mule is hungry, it can graze. Of course, this is no solution in an arid desert, but even most deserts aren't that arid, but in that situation you have no more chance of finding gas than grass. Foraging is foraging, whether it's searching for a patch of green or siphoning gas tanks. Either may have the advantage depending on where it's deployed. No winner.

An Alpha Dog may be more resistant to small-arms fire than a mule. If you're facing an RPG attack, I don't see that either would fare well. However, a mule has a sense of self-preservation whereas a robot does not. You might be faced with gunfire to find that your mule has turned tail and run away. Advantage robot.

I have to put some consideration as to what I expect the pack "animal" to carry. It's been a long time since I was in the military, but I'd want to carry my own small arms and as much ammunition as I could whether I had a mule, Alpha Dog, or a Radio Flyer wagon. The things I'd off-load would be stuff like tents, bulk food, additional ammo, and bulky and heavy specialized weapons, etc. And while I'd want something that will stick close should the battle come to me, I think I'd be unlikely to deliberately take an LS3 into any situation where the din of its gas-fueled power plant will give me a disadvantage. Besides pinpointing a squad's position, the sound would prevent them from hearing the enemy.  Best to leave it behind with a guard or handler, just as you would with a mule, and turn it off.


Boston Dynamics has been performing wonders with their military robots. Based on its maneuverability, survivability, and carrying capacity, as well as its ability to be easily stored and deployed, I can see why the military wants these things despite their obvious expense. Expense, after all, has never been a huge problem for DARPA. I'm sure they think otherwise, but all things are relative.

Nevertheless, I can think of some significant downsides to the robots in some situations; and I'm certain that the various armed forces are well aware of all of them, and more. Boston Dynamics are constantly addressing these concerns with additional features like manipulator arms and greater autonomy. I can also think of situations where the mule is arguably better, but that argument is long past. Cavalry is mechanized. But who knows... maybe someday we'll have a robot advanced enough to recognize danger and run away.

I also think that the applicability of this robot is somewhat overstated even while its capabilities are essential in the circumstances for which its designed. The reason for using a legged robot is to maintain cover in difficult terrain. In that very situation, the din of this device is a major drawback. In most situations I'd say that not only would a Humvee or wheeled "mule" do the job, but it would do it better with more carrying capacity. So I doubt you'd see one of these robots in most situations. In practice you might carry an Alpha Dog as cargo in a truck should your mission require it, deploying it on legs only when needed.

Finally, war is the most evolutionary process we have. By this I don't just mean that it spurs technical innovation, though it does. Rather, I mean that it's survival of the fittest, not the most advanced. Wars are won more by force than showmanship; and highly trained, expensively outfitted soldiers have been taken out with nothing more advanced than a pipe bomb in a baby carriage. While it's impressive to have a high-tech robotic "Gunga Din" along, it must continue to be human brains and mission planning to determine whether it's worth its bulk.

An M274A4 4WD Mechanical Mule.
These have been replaced by the M-Gator from John Deere
Photo via

Saturday, June 13, 2015

5 Low-Tech Beast Barriers That Work

Ok, so yeah... I'm a computer consultant. That doesn't mean I've got a digital-only outlook on life. Sometimes the very best solutions are mechanical, and simple, simple, simple. And a lot of those are found on the farm.

1. Dog-proof Rollerbar

Here's one I saw today, on Facebook. RSPCA Australia offered a solution for the problem of dogs that climb over fences... a simple rollerbar made of PVC, hung on a taut cable:

From RSPCA Australia, via Facebook
This is just beautiful... the dog's paws can't get a grip. And if he does manage to get a purchase, the bar will roll with his weight and the little beastie will slip back into his own yard.

By the same token, if Rover is more of a digger, then railroad ties buried under the fence will put a stop to that, but that solution is a bit of a chore. In my dog's kennel, we stopped him from digging by placing some 12-inch pre-fab concrete paving pads just inside the fence perimeter. It took minutes to install and stopped the digging cold.

2. Kissing Gates

I saw a lot of these in the Midlands of England... Oxfordshire and the surrounding area.

A superb example of a traditional kissing gate.
Photo by Adrian Cable via

A traditional gate next to a
'gateless walkway'
akin to a kissing gate
via Country Estate Fence
The gate has no latch. It just swings freely between the two posts. A human or a dog can easily navigate between them, but the cattle find it impassable. The advantage over a regular gate is that it's easy to navigate while carrying a load; but most importantly it can never be accidentally left open, and the latch can never be learned by the animals. Sometimes the V-shaped portion is replaced by a rectangular or circular area to allow larger people, equipment, or the disabled in wheelchairs to pass.

A variation of this one has no actual gate... just a fixed bit of fence extending between the two posts. Again, a man or dog can simply walk around the end of the fence, but a cow's long body can't navigate the twisty passage. We used a variation of this in a wooden cattle chute on my stepfather's farm.

3. Stiles

This is another thing you see a lot in the UK but almost never see in the Southeastern US. A stile is just a set of steep stairs that go over a low fence or wall. A human can negotiate it, but many animals can't. Often they look like very civilised stairs, but the sort I'm accustomed to looks a bit like this:

A stile at Arnold's Farm on Banbury Rd in Warwickshire
Photo by David Stowell via
You face the tall post and use it to steady yourself as you step over the top rail. This one has a "dog gate" on the right side. You can lift it to let Rover through.

My stepfather attended a one-room schoolhouse in Georgia. It had a fence surrounding it, and entry was through a stile. The purpose of the fence at that time was to keep the animals out.

One of the reason you rarely see these things in the US any more is that America is so very big. Also, so very thinly populated.As a result, we have an automotive society, and we've developed a concept of private property that generally keeps us off other other people's land.  Seriously, most of my neighbors in the UK had no real conception of the astonishing spread of the US landscape. On the other hand, villages in England are very compact by our standards, and actually quite close together. Public walking paths between villages and towns are not only common, they're protected by common law and statute. There is a presumption of access to the entire countryside, so long as no damage is done to crops or livestock. All of the images above from are of barriers on public walking paths. For a comprehensive map of them, you might want to visit You can see the extensive network of public footpaths near my former home by searching for Caversfield and selecting either location (they're side-by-side).

4. Cattle Grids

In the US these are called cattle guards. While they're ubiquitous in the West, you can go your whole life East of the Mississippi without seeing one. The first one I ever saw was on the walk up to Uffington White Horse from the car park.

A classic cattle grid outside at the Rowley Farm in County Durham
Photo by P. Glenwright via
It's nothing more than a ditch covered with a series of parallel bars. The bars are often round tubes so that a cow's hoof will slide off of it. Cattle grids don't always work well. Sheep and goats, for instance, are pretty agile, and can simply walk across. But it's a neat idea, and it does the job well for cows.

I've heard some folks complain that they must be cruel because a cow could break its ankle between the bars. In practice, the cows aren't that stupid.  The device works because the cattle quite reasonably don't want to get their legs caught in the gaps. It's not like they get caught blindly walking across. Rather, they choose not to try. However, vehicles drive over the grids easily, and humans easily step across on the bars.

One interesting fun fact: you don't always need the bars. Apparently you can sometimes get by with just painting bars on the ground. OK, so maybe the cows are that stupid.

5. Squirrel Baffles

There's a never-ending arms race going on between birdfeeder enthusiasts and squirrels. That's right, just plain old grey squirrels. For some reason, people love to feed birds, but couldn't care less if the neighborhood squirrels starved to death. The "problem" consists of keeping the squirrels out of the bird feeders. People have tried an amazing variety of defenses against voracious squirrels, and the squirrels easily outwit a surprising number of these clever devices.

A working solution requires you to do a number of things: 1. put the bird feeder on a post that's at least 10 feet away from any tree or structure. 2. install a baffle of some sort on the post.  Both are necessary, as squirrels are jumpers par excellance. This YouTube video illustrates what happens if you do one, but not the other.

The embed code has a jump to the proper timestamp, but if it doesn't work, 
just go forward to the 5:45 mark to see the little guy win.

See the problem? Yeah, the nearby urns are "structures", and provided the squirrel with the advantage he needed. But given the restriction of "no nearby structures", the baffles actually do work. You could spend a lot for one, but a very good working solution is to simply make one out of a length of furnace pipe from your local hardware store. I was going to give instructions, but as is often the case, I've found some already posted that are almost ideal. Here's a link to Today's Homeowner.

You can make one of these effective baffles cheap
Instructions at Today's Homeowner
The only improvement I'd offer to what they've got there is that this works best if you do NOT attach it solidly to the post. In fairness, they don't, but the hose clamp they use can get wedged into your endcap after a few lucky hits. A few small L-brackets may do the trick better. Attach them to the pole, but just rest the encap on them. The vertical portion of the bracket should be lower than the horizontal portion, so the endcap easily moves. Also make the hole in the endcap just large enough to accommodate this.  That way, the whole baffle tilts when a squirrel jumps onto it, and he loses purchase and falls off. Any attempt to climb the post only puts him inside the stovepipe. The pipe itself can be painted and decorated, so long as you don't use any decoration that would give the squirrel a climbing advantage.

Buy one or make it. It's just some
scrap wood and a few long screws
My stepfather had another deterrent in addition to a baffle: he put the bird feeder on a... "teeter", he called it. If the squirrel jumped from a nearby tree, the feeder would swing away and the squirrel would fall off. Unfortunately, so would a lot of birdseed. Pretty soon the squirrels found out they could get whatever they wanted with an airborne kick at the feeder, followed by a smorgasbord on the ground.

My own solution is a lot easier, I think.  I just put up a squirrel feeder. It's just a bit of board with a long drywall screw exposed vertically. You screw on an ear of corn, and put it in a spot that's easily accessible to the squirrels. With an easy meal at hand they're more inclined to leave the bird feeder alone. Sometimes it's just easier to understand what's motivating the animal.

Bonus: The One That Got Away

There's one animal that defies all barriers, though. When I was a kid we had a raccoon that would raid our trash cans. Keep in mind that this was in the 70s when the galvanized trash can was the standard.
  • We put a brick on the top of the can, hoping to dissuade the raccoons. That only gave him better leverage to turn the can over. 
  • We tied the can to the fence to prevent it from being turned over. He pushed the brick off.
  • We tied the top to the handles on the side. He untied the cord.
  • We used a better knot. He gnawed through it.
  • We set up booby traps, tying pull-string fireworks to the can hoping to scare him away. After the first night, he untied the fireworks.
  • We got a latching trash can. He learned to unlatch it.
  • We got a dog. The raccoon made a new friend. But he stopped raiding the trash. Why? I assume it's because the dog food was easier to get. I think, sometimes, it is just cheaper to pay the protection racket.

It's a common problem
Mosaic from Google Image Search

Saturday, June 06, 2015

The Watery Origin of the Moon

All this discourse about the Moon has me thinking about that heavenly body and its formation. For all the thought and experiment, the money and effort expended to examine the Moon, visit the thing, and bring back samples, we still don't know where it came from. Early ideas about its origins include propositions such as:
  • the Moon was a passing body captured by the Earth
  • the Moon accreted in orbit at the same time as the Earth from the same material
  • multiple moons collided to form the one large one we know
All of them are unsatisfactory, in no small part because they cannot account for the Moon's angular momentum and near-circular orbit relative to the Earth.

Theia strikes a glancing blow
(via Wikimedia Commons)
The current reigning hypothesis is that a Mars-sized planetoid (named "Theia") struck a glancing blow to the proto-Earth (sometimes called "Earth Mark I"). Earth Mark I is imagined to be more watery than our present Earth, and slightly smaller in mass, with a shorter day, yet not a particularly inviting place; at least not for life as we're accustomed to it. Fascinating as this is, it's not what I want to report today, so I'll let Wikipedia explain it. I'll only mention that it's not entirely without problems, notably that actual analyses of Moon rocks retrieved by the Apollo missions don't match the chemistry predicted by this hypothesis. Variations exist to address this, including the "Drop-Moon hypothesis"... that a more head-on impact caused a splash of molten Earth that coalesced into a "drop" that became the Moon.

New life for an old idea

While the giant impact hypothesis has yet to account for a few things, it seems, on the face of it, intuitively more reasonable than the supposition, once widely and seriously held, that the Moon formed by planetary fission... in other words, that the Earth simply spit it out. The usual mechanism for this is imagined to be centrifugal force from a still-soft and rapidly-spinning proto-Earth.

Myth Busted.
via Wikipedia
As classically stated, this is highly unlikely. Can you see the problem? As illustrated above, the Earth and Moon would share the same axial tilt. But that's not what we see... in truth, the Moon's orbit is more closely aligned with the ecliptic plane than the Earth's equator. That is, the Moon properly orbits the Sun concurrently with the Earth. If you were to plot it out, the Moon's path around the Sun is very nearly the same as Earth's.

As unlikely and ridiculous as the Fission Theory may seem at first glance, this old model (surprisingly!) still has legs. One new variation is proposed by Japanese astronomer Okej Tenyoshou, professor emeritus of crypto-planetology and holder of the Kaiju chair at Toho University in Tokusatsu, Japan. Tenyoshou seeks to provide a model that better accounts for the similar chemistry of Moon rocks than does the Theia hypothesis.

Tenyoshou hypothesizes that the Earth wasn't always a water world. It was once a dry desert planet somewhat larger than the present Earth and similar to many of the "mega-Earths" that are increasingly found to be common by space-based observations made by the Kepler, Hubble, and Spitzer orbital telescopes. Tenyoshou calls his proto-Earth "Mogwai", and imagines a collision not with a Mars-like world, but with a Europa-like icy or watery planetoid he calls "Nuremashita". According to Tenyoshou, the proto-Earth being drenched by that impact set in motion a chain of events culminating in the Moon erupting from the mantle of planet Mogwai, leaving us with the present Earth-Moon system. As the geological processes involved are highly complex, Tenyoshou has created a fascinating visualization of the event. (click to view. My apologies. Due to technical limitations I'm unable to embed it here)