Meet the camelopard

So… there’s a faint northern constellation called Camelopardalis. It is so named because someone thought it looked kind of like a giraffe. Which was known as a kamelopardalis, or a camel-leopard, in Greek – because come on guys, it has a long camel-like neck and it also has spots! This cracks me up! :) Words are awesome!

Surprisingly, even English-speaking folks used “camelopard” in medieval times (pr. kuh-MEH-luh-pard).

Of course then I had to wonder why we started calling it “giraffe”. Apparently “giraffe” derives from the Arabic word “zarāfah” (fast-walker). So that one’s pretty good, but not nearly as descriptive. I say, bring back the camelopard! Who’s with me?

Do I have sentient squirrels?

Last year, I bought some solar-powered garden lights and put them along my driveway to make it easier (and more welcoming) to follow the driveway to my house. I was very pleased with the little spots of light marking the edge of the driveway. Then I kept finding two of them knocked over… with scrape/gnawing marks on them. The top part of one disappeared entirely. These had plastic tops, and maybe weren’t as durable, but it was weird to have a piece just disappear. What animal would want it? But what human would take just the top of one light? The two affected lights were under a tree, and squirrels maybe jumped onto them? My best hypothesis was that the squirrels thought they were some kind of bird feeder and hoped there were seeds inside the glass. I finally relocated them to the front of the house and bought metal ones to replace along the driveway. Neither set has suffered further attacks.

Recently I was doing some yard work, and I found the missing top, buried in leaves! But it just raised more questions. Because something spent some serious time and effort extracting just the solar panel. See below an undamaged top (left) and the one I found (right):

You can click to enlarge. It looks like dedicated… gnawing, to me. A human would have used a tool – or just taken the whole top with them (why dig out the solar panel and then leave the shell?).

The back side is equally weird, with the rechargeable battery and its cover removed. A human would have opened the cover with their fingers. Instead, whatever took this battery dug/gnawed it out.

This no longer looks like someone thought it was a bird feeder.

So I’m standing here with this chewed-up solar light and I’m wondering just what kind of squirrel is hungry for this technology. Or am I living next to the rats of NIMH? Help?

Access your Kindle highlights

I’m always a little sad when a Kindle e-book that I borrowed goes back to the library and I can’t access my highlights anymore. Sometimes I’ve scrambled to copy the highlights to my computer before the book evaporates. I’m happy when I re-borrow (or buy) the book and the highlights come back!

But guess what: today I learned that you can access your (Kindle) highlights even after the book is gone! Yes indeed! Just visit https://read.amazon.com/notebook and you can browse at will. This is so great! I think it’ll inspire me to use highlighting more, knowing that I can review (and even search) the highlights I’ve made.

Oregon’s Moon Country

Did you know that the NASA Apollo astronauts trained and sharpened their field geology skills in the 1960s in central Oregon?

This excellent 28-minute documentary by PBS called “Oregon’s Moon Country” describes how Oregon’s lava fields and craters were chosen as good training sites. The historical footage of the astronaut field trips in Oregon is combined with videos of their subsequent explorations on the Moon (videos from the Moon!!!) as well as interviews with astronauts, geologists, and other experts.

Apparently one astronaut, Jim Irwin, became good friends with Floyd Watson, who served as a local host in Bend, Oregon. Later, Floyd sent Jim a tiny sliver of Oregon lava and asked him to take it to the moon, and Jim Irwin did (!). (I find this story a little hard to believe.)

I look forward to the chance to visit some of these sites myself – including Fort Rock (a ring of tuff):

and Newberry National Volcanic Monument:


You can learn some more about the Newberry sights with this virtual tour. The area seems to be closed for the season, but it could be a great place to visit next spring!

Railroad terminology

Recently I had the pleasure of taking a free online course offered by the Transportation Safety Institute (TSI) called Rail Nomenclature. As a big train fan, it was a delightful opportunity to learn about terminology related to trains and rail systems and to get more insight into how they work.

The introduction to the course quoted George Bernard Shaw as motivation:

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has take place.”

… which has so many implications beyond just terminology for railroads! I agree!

I learned a lot from this course. For example, did you know that we have both the Federal Railroad Administration (in charge of transport of people (Amtrak) and freight via railroad) and the Federal Transit Administration (in charge of public transit, which includes buses, subways, commuter rail, etc.)? I was intrigued to learn that the U.S. has 47 rail transit systems, 4000 miles of track, and 4.2B trips per year – more than airlines, but fewer than buses. (This is just for systems controlled by the FTA, so the numbers exclude Amtrak numbers.)

The course covered terminology used to describe train cars themselves, parts of the track, signal systems, power systems, and more. There was quite a bit of detail about braking systems in particular – important if you’ve got several tons generating momentum to dissipate when you want to stop. When the train is going more than 3 mph, it uses “dynamic” brakes in which the motors driving the wheels stop and become generators instead. If electrical storage is available, they can serve as regenerative brakes. When the train is going more slowly, it employs friction brakes (e.g., calipers squeeze pads against the wheels to slow their rotation). Both of these brake types are familiar to car owners. However, the train has a third option for emergencies: track brakes, in which the train uses strong magnets to press metal shoes directly onto the rail for additional drag (I guess this would be like toe stops on roller skates :) ).

Another cool fact is that the rails do double duty: not only do they provide a surface for the train to roll on, but they also provide a medium for signaling. This can be as simple as a track circuit: if you run power through a segment of metal track with no train on it, the circuit is closed and the corresponding signal can show a green light indicating the track is unoccupied. When a train enters that segment, its axles short the rails together and current drops, triggering the signal light to change to red. Thus, any train approaching that segment gets an automatic warning of whether the track ahead is occupied, even if the approaching train cannot be seen. No person or computer is needed to actively monitor it. (If power to the track fails, the signal defaults to red.)

More courses are available through the TSI course catalog. This particular class required Flash and was a little difficult at first to get working due to popups etc. However, the course instruction was very visual and fun to follow along – it used Flash to animate drawings of the concepts as they were discussed. I don’t know if they plan to revamp the course, since Flash support ends on December 31, 2020. You might want to check it out now before it’s gone! You get a certificate at the end, of course. :)

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