Madrones on my estate

My new house in Oregon is located within the “Madrone Estates”. That’s right, I apparently now own an Estate! Ha ha!

I assumed that “Madrone” probably referred to the last name of the person who established the neighborhood, or something like that. But then I discovered that instead it refers to the madrone tree – a lovely native tree that’s all over my property! Its fancy latin name is arbutus menzeiseii, and it is easily recognized by the dramatic red peeling bark. (The beautiful picture to the right is not mine but it gives a good idea what they look like. Are they not gorgeous?)

Apparently in the spring they bear bell-shaped flowers – something to look forward to as the months roll by!

A wooly bear in my yard

I was raking up a ton of leaves that had fallen in my yard when I discovered a little ball of brown and black amongst the leaves. I repositioned him in a tree and took a picture:

I did some sleuthing and found that this is a wooly bear caterpillar (they roll into a ball when disturbed). They transform into the beautiful Isabella tiger moth.

I marvel anew at how different these forms can be. And then there’s this amazing part of its lifecycle:

The banded woolly bear larva emerges from the egg in the fall and overwinters in its caterpillar form, when it literally freezes solid. First its heart stops beating, then its gut freezes, then its blood, followed by the rest of the body. It survives being frozen by producing a cryoprotectant in its tissues. In the spring it thaws. (Wikipedia)

Wow! I’ll have to look for this guy again in the spring. I hope he makes it :) (But maybe he’ll be a moth by then!)

My first air race!

On August 18, I participated in a special event to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the first all-women’s air race in 1929. That historic event featured 20 women pilots (including Amelia Earhart and Louise Thaden) and was a challenging nine-day race from Santa Monica, CA, to Cleveland, OH.

Here in 2019, I gathered along with 13 other pilots to fly the same first leg of the 1929 event, from Santa Monica to San Bernardino, in an event sponsored by the Los Angeles 99s. It’s a distance of about 70 miles. I was flying a Cessna 172 with 160-hp engine – a solid plane but not exactly a racing machine. I’ve been to Santa Monica several times, but I’d only flown to San Bernardino once, three years before. I plotted a route over Dodger Stadium and north along the foothills before turning south at the end for San Bernardino. I picked an altitude of 3500′ since I figured that, for this relatively short flight, any benefit gained by flying at 5500′ would not offset the cost of climbing, especially in this particular plane.

We had a delayed start just getting to Santa Monica due to a lingering marine layer, as often happens this time of year. My co-pilot Tara and I were ready to leave El Monte to fly to Santa Monica and start the race, but we had to sit around obsessively checking weather reports until I judged it safe to proceed. It worked out great – when we reached Santa Monica, the clouds were still there, but just high enough that I could fly my typical altitude and maintain a safe separation. We landed and joined the other pilots prior to the official departure.

Period attire was encouraged, and the other pilots were decked out in flying suits, leather caps, scarves, and goggles. Wow! I didn’t have anything that cool, so I wore a polka-dot dress that could almost pass for 1920s. I will say that flying in a dress is rather inconvenient – I had to flight with my kneeboard to get it positioned 🙂

Departing Santa Monica was a bit of a scrum. Several racing planes had already departed, but the radio traffic on ground control was still very busy with multiple requests for flight following to San Bernardino mixed in with regular Santa Monica traffic. After a long time holding, I finally got to taxi onto the runway to “line up and wait” and then we were off! Tara had the stopwatch to time our departure and landing.

I was able to follow my planned route exactly. I flew a lot faster than I normally do. We were making excellent time, about 130 mph ground speed (I think we were also favored by a tailwind). I monitored the engine temperature and other instruments carefully to ensure I wasn’t stressing the plane. It performed like a champ – I was even able to lean the mixture without it getting too hot. I maintained speed approaching San Bernardino. They instructed us to cross over midfield and enter the left downwind for runway 24. I was eying the runway and debating whether to request a short approach, but then noticed another plane on final and we were cleared #2, so no short approach. I turned in sequence, made a precise short-field landing, and was able to exit on the first taxiway, and when the wheels came to stop, so did the stopwatch! Our time from takeoff to landing was 40 minutes and 34 seconds.

It was fun being welcomed in to the FBO with ground crew directing us with hand signals – that always feels like special treatment. At the FBO, we had a lovely lunch and then were treated to a performance of songs from a musical that was written a while back about that first 1929 race! You can read more about the event in KCRW’s article.

Finally, there was the awards ceremony… during which we were delighted to learn that we received second place! We didn’t have the second-best time overall, but there is some complex handicapping math applied to normalize for different types of planes and engines, and apparently we did very well given the equipment we had. Hooray!

I flew us back to El Monte at a more leisurely pace. It was clear skies and easy flying back. I finished the day with a third superbly executed landing – super gentle and well controlled. It’s one thing to get somewhere quickly, but also important to finesse the landing at the end!

Reading with your ears

Before text-to-speech, there was the optophone. It scans the letters in a text and converts them into chords that represent the visual shape of the letter. Instead of hearing someone speak the text, you hear what the text looks like.

This invention was published in Nature in 1914 (!). (By the way, there’s a bit of delicious irony in the disclaimer attached to the 1914 article in its current digital form: “This text was harvested from a scanned image of the original document using optical character recognition (OCR) software. As such, it may contain errors.”) You can access a PDF scan of the original paper for the full details, including the claim that the device “should, with some practice, enable totally blind persons to read ordinary books and newspapers through the sense of hearing.”

The device conducts a horizontal scan, with 8 “dots” moving in parallel across the letters. Each dot is assigned to a different tone. With no input (totally white background) all the dot-tones are active. When a dot crosses a dark region (text), its tone disappears, so the sound changes. I think they must have inverted this plan later, to turn on the sound when a dark part appears, based on the examples.

With practice, in theory you can learn to “read” words by their tonal patterns. Give it a try! This is the optophone “reading” the letters f, i, k, j, p, q, r, and z:

Not super harmonic, but I can see that it’s possible to distinguish letters. However, it’s a slow way to read, even after practice, which led to the development of more “compressed” versions. In general, the goal wasn’t necessarily efficiency, though – it was an attempt to make available the large volume of existing printed matter to those who could not see, without requiring a translation to e.g. Braille first. Neat invention!

Morse code mnemonics

Morse code just got 10 times cooler – or maybe just 10 times easier to learn!

A few years ago, I stumbled on the mind-blowing binary tree version of Morse code. I was so excited about this that I downloaded a “learn Morse code” app on my phone and started practicing it, gradually working up to faster comprehension speeds. But then I got distracted by some other shiny thing and stopped practicing and Morse code went dormant in my brain.

Two days ago I re-encountered it in this amazing video by the always impressive Nelson Dellis:

Nelson gives us mnemonics for learning Morse code. This is absolutely BRILLIANT since Morse code is already audible. :) After watching his video exactly *once*, I already know Morse code for my name and can recall it with negligible effort:

-.- .. .-. ..

(mnemonic: KAN-ga-ROO i-bid ro-TA-tion i-bid)

*and* I discovered a beautiful symmetry in my Morse name!

I’m truly impressed by how quickly and easily this mnemonic sunk in. Nelson, you rock!

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