Irma Wasn’t Enough? Here Comes Maria.

As I write this, Hurricane Maria is riding across Dominica and other Caribbean islands, trying to destroy whatever Irma left standing. I cannot imagine what it must be like for the residents of those small islands. Maria has been gaining and losing intensity, in the sense that it’s going back and forth between Category 4 and Category 5. Neither of those is something you want to see coming at you.

Sometime Wednesday, Maria will hit Puerto Rico (the red blob in the center of the storm track). We are of course worried about our friends and the family property in Ponce. The current predicted storm track looks as though it will hit San Juan hardest, but will likely also hit the southern coast of Puerto Rico harder than Irma did. All we can do is wait and pray.

Here’s a stunning and sobering video composition of Irma, Katia, and Jose as seen from a new NOAA weather satellite, GOES-16.

Click to view the video on the NY Times website. Do it. It’s worth it. Be sure to scroll down the page, as there are several video perspectives. These amazing images are from a satellite that’s not yet even fully operational.

Do we really want to cut funding for this kind of science? (The current administration does.) Or are we ready to take seriously the problem of global climate change?

Cassini, We’re Going to Miss You!

The Cassini spacecraft is about to end its role in one of the most incredible scientific journeys in history. Launched almost twenty years ago on a billion-mile trip to Saturn, Cassini has been sending back astounding images and data ever since. An international collaboration of U.S. and European space agencies, Cassini has probably delivered more surprises to researchers on Earth than any probe before or after—ranging from pictures of the mist-shrouded surface of Titan with its methane lakes and rivers, to the water geysers and hidden ocean of Enceladus, to the stunning beauty and complexity of the rings, to the crazy giant hexagon* on the north pole of Saturn itself.

NASA has produced a breathtaking video summary of Cassini’s journey, which I would embed here if I could find the embed code. But click here, and watch it in full screen. It’ll be the best five minutes you spent today.

Cassini has been a workhorse of stellar quality. But it’s finally running out of fuel—years after the originally planned end date of its mission—and to keep it from accidentally colliding with one of the potentially life-hosting moons, it’s going out in a blaze of glory, burning up tomorrow morning in Saturn’s upper atmosphere. It makes me sad. I wish it could have been kept in a parking orbit somewhere safe, so that some future exploration crew could have docked with it, put placards on it, and turned it into the Saturn branch of the Smithsonian, to be kept in perpetuity. But caution ruled, and rightly so, I guess. We’re looking eagerly for extraterrestrial life, and it wouldn’t do for the field to be littered with bits of Earth life. Plus, she’ll be doing science all the way in as she augers into Saturn, where she’ll melt and burn and vaporize at the end. What a way to go.

I feel kind of weepy, imagining that. But you can watch it live right here, Friday morning at 7-8:30 a.m. EDT.

Here’s a collection of some of Cassini’s greatest hits.

*Which I still maintain is a hex socket for aliens to use in opening up the top of the planet. JPL scientists insist it’s a weather system, and usually I believe them. This time, I’m not so sure.

Hurricane Irma, Round Two


Irma Round One (Puerto Rico) left us with gratifying news for our family—friends and neighbors okay, and the house in good shape. We’re still awaiting a detailed report, but word is that the south side of the island didn’t get hit too badly. If there was any damage to the house, we haven’t heard about it yet and it’s unlikely to be serious. We’re keeping an eye on Jose, but it seems to be sheering away.

With that worry down, we turn our attention to Florida, where my brother will be first to feel the effects, near Miami, and then right up the length of the state, where we have family and friends in various locations. Chuck and Youngmee and the dogs are hunkered down in place, having decided that they’re probably as safe in their own house as anywhere on the road or in upstate Florida, given that the whole state is in the hurricane’s crosshairs. The late shift toward the west is good news for them, though not so good for folks on the Gulf Coast. Keeping all appendages crossed, and praying for everyone’s safety!

(Image from National Hurricane Center/NOAA)

Hurricane Irma Looms

One mean hurricane is barely past, and now another is bearing down, this one on the Caribbean Islands and South Florida. I was just in Miami celebrating my brother Chuck’s 70th birthday, and all was peaceful. Maybe not much longer.

But before that, the islands are squarely in the storm track, with Puerto Rico first to be hit. Some of you will have read my chronicles of our work on my mother-in-law’s house in Puerto Rico. I guess all that new work is about to be tested. We can’t be there to help batten things down, so here’s hoping our faithful steward can do what needs to be done. (Of course, that’s just property. There are a whole lot of people of limited means down there who are staring down the barrel of this thing with everything to lose.)

Crossed fingers, blessings, best wishes, and prayers for everyone in the line of fire for this one. As well as for those still reeling from the effects of Harvey.

When Good Cats Behave Badly

Annoyed kitty, touchy kitty 
Grouchy ball of fur 
Moody kitty, grumpy kitty, 
Grr, grr, grr.*

Our return home was marred by one tiny detail: Moonlight, our beloved 18+ year old cat, had developed an infection in our absence and started using the dining room carpet instead of her litter box. Ugh. Our stalwart housesitter, being new to animal care, knew something was wrong but didn’t know what (not that she could have done much about it, anyway). So we walked in, put our bags down, sniffed the air, and within half an hour were preparing to tear up carpet. We had to throw out about half the carpet in the room. Fortunately, it was a patchwork carpet—pieces of different colors laid down artistically by yours truly. That at least made it easier to take up.

Now—great quantities of Nature’s Miracle, vinegar, and peroxide later—we are engaged in medical treatment and retraining, per excellent advice found on the net.

Just in time to go away again. Jayce and I are off to Miami to help my brother Chuck celebrate his 70th birthday. How can that be possible? We aren’t that long out of school, really! Allysen’s mom is having some medical issues, unfortunately, so Allysen is staying behind this time. And Lexi? She’s in Norway!

*From a GrumpyCats.com t-shirt owned by my daughter.

Last Day in Iceland: Reykjavik

We had already planned to spend the day seeing the city of Reykjavik, and it turned out we had picked the day of a huge annual Culture Festival, a little like our First Night. The parks were full of musicians and people celebrating one way or another, and it also turned out to be a day when nobody minded if you parked on the grass at the edge of the overfull parking area. (Coming from Boston, where that would be an invitation to the tow trucks, it felt like a big boon.)

Here’s a picture of the National Library, which unfortunately was closed.

Across the street was the National Museum of Iceland, which I got no pictures of, but which had a lot of interesting exhibits about the history of Iceland (something I was completely ignorant about). After working our way through that, we set off on foot to see the “grim church”—which was not at all grim, but a magnificent modern cathedral named Hallgrímskirkja, a Lutheran church with a towering steeple you can go up in for a view of the city. There was a music festival on in the church, as well—unrelated, I think, to the city festival—so we listened for a bit and then went topside for the view.

The fellow on the pedestal in front of the cathedral is Lief Erickson, the statue a gift from the United States, back in the 1930s. I’m not sure what the occasion for the gift was.

Next morning was departure day, with an early drive to Keflavik and the international airport. Their method for handling departures was interesting, to say the least. After working our way through a long duty-free store—I’ve never seen so much chocolate and licorice and booze in my life—we spotted the sign to our gate: 20 minutes walking time away, according to the helpful sign. (They might have mentioned that sooner, I thought.) We sped up. At the end of that race, we found ourselves at the end of a pretty narrow concourse, where people were trying to get on four different flights with the exact same departure time and were gathered in a big scrum. (“Are you in the line for Boston?” “No, this is the line for Dulles.” “Toronto is over there.”) Boarding was via stairs—one last lungful of crisp Iceland air before stepping into a flying canister full of the last flight’s exhalations.

Somehow we made it, though. Four hours later, I was peering down at the Maine coast with its splattering of islands—I had no idea there were so many!—and less than six hours later, we were back in Boston. Home again.

Off the Rails in Reykjavik

Very little went according to plan in Iceland, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t have a good time. Our rental car, once we got it, turned out to be a stick shift—which wasn’t a problem (I learned to drive on a stick), but a surprise, as many people I know do not know how to drive stick. Another surprise was learning that the one place to buy fuel for less than the standard amount is at Costco, only recently arrived in Iceland! I made a mental note to check for my Costco card, and we set out.

Our initial impression of the country was of extremely spare and utilitarian architecture—square and drab and a bit ugly. The road from the airport to Reykjavik passed through some pretty harsh lava-based land, which put us in mind of Mordor and the Emyn Muil that Frodo and Sam made their way across. It was not without beauty, though; the mountains against the horizon drew us onward.

We reached our Airbnb outside the city a little subdued by the exterior architecture—and were stunned to find ourselves in a beautiful two-bedroom apartment, very Scandinavian Design, clean and elegant and definitely upscale. Our host confided that we were their first rental customers—it was their actual home, which they leave for a summer home elsewhere. I guess they haven’t learned how much they could ask for it!

Our first day we set out at the crack of lunchtime to drive the Golden Circle tour of the most popular geologic spots on the island—where tectonic activity drives everything from geysers to geothermal power stations. The Garmin GPS that came with the car had other ideas. It took us way off the intended route, and we saw some sights most tourists miss, such as this lovely lake.

It also set us back a couple of hours, so we traded getting to see the Thingvellir Park for an unexpected adventure. Eventually—switching to Googlemaps on my phone—we found our way back to the route and the volcanic crater lake of Kerið. This was pretty cool.

As was the geyser at the Geysir site. They have a geyser that pops off every 6-8 minutes, and while it’s not huge, it’s fun. There’s also an odd pair of spring-fed pools, side by side, one cloudy blue and the other crystal clear. Why? No explanation was given. In fact, the conveying of information is one place where the Icelanders could pick up a few tips from the U.S. Park Service. Not only is little information available; it can be hard to tell where the actual attraction is!

Our last stop of the day was the Gulfoss Waterfall, which easily rivals Niagara for its breathtaking power and beauty—all hidden in a stretch of flat terrain that looks like the last place on Earth you would look for a waterfall!

You set out down a basically unmarked boardwalk, which dips down… to reveal a gorge and thundering beast that looks for all the world like the Falls of Rauros on the River Anduin.

By the time we got back, it was 11 pm, and we had just one more day to spend in Iceland. What to do?

(continued)

Final Days in Helsinki after Worldcon

This will be told mainly in pictures. We took a ferry across the Baltic to Tallinn, in Estonia, on Monday and walked around the old medieval town there. That was fun, though I got awfully tired of walking on cobblestone.

Tuesday we mostly crashed, but then rode around the city on the tram and checked out the market square and a nearby brew pub—very nice. There are a lot of small breweries in Helsinki, as it turns out. The American-style IPA has made definite inroads. Chatted a bit with the brewmaster of this pub, who turns out to be a lover of hard SF and space opera.

Wednesday we visited Church of the Rock—a church partially carved into solid bedrock. They seemed to have an ongoing service (they were speaking German when we were there), while catering to a steady flow of tourists. Then on to the Ateneum, a big art museum in the city center. Allysen went on to a modern art museum, while Jayce and I took a city ferry to the island fortress Suomenlinna, and spent several hours walking around. Among other things, Suomenlinna has a church that doubles as a lighthouse, a restored Finnish submarine from WW2, various fortifications and cannons, and a tomb that looks as though it marks the grave of a man from Numenor. All the roads and paths were cobblestone. I have developed an extreme dislike of walking on cobblestone! But I loved the views.


Today we leave for Reykjavik and two days in Iceland.

Worldcon Oddity: Peeing in Helsinki

Every worldcon I’ve been to in recent years has had its own oddities. In Spokane, it was four days of breathing smoke from wildfires on the US/Canadian border. In London, it was staying an hour from the con on a cramped sailboat that had been misleadingly billed on Airbnb as a houseboat. Also, there was Wardrobe Malfunction Day, when my belt broke and I walked around the convention center holding my pants up with both hands.

In Helsinki, it was peeing in the convention center restrooms. The urinals looked perfectly normal, but there was nothing to warn you that they flushed automatically both before and after use. So you would step up to the fixture and before you could even reach to do what you had come to do—floosh!—the thing would flush energetically in your face. (It didn’t spray literally in your face, but it felt as though it was about to.) Granted, it fit with the image of Scandinavian cleanliness, but it was certainly disconcerting.

Startling, too, was the high-speed hand-dryer mounted next to one sink, so close that when you stepped up to wash your hands, you got an instant blast of hot air on your left shoulder.

Perhaps weirdest were the urinals in one restaurant, which apparently had been installed by a very tall Viking plumber—because they were mounted too high on the wall for a person of mere modest height like me to use. I briefly contemplated ballistic trajectories of peeing upward and outward and hoping for the best, but I finally opted to choose other means. I’m sure the janitorial staff thanked me.

We now return you to our regular non-weird programming.

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