Monday, August 24, 2015

Droning On and On

When I was a kid, one of the coolest things anyone could get was a free-flying, radio controlled (RC) airplane. No one I knew had one, but I recall one of my friends was building a model airplane (one of those made out of a forest of balsa wood, covered in tissue paper) that he was hoping to outfit with an engine and controls. I don't recall if he ever finished it or not; if he did, I was not around for the flight, because I'm sure I would have remembered that.

On the way to the beach we used to go to was a town park. Almost any time you drove past that park you would see RC planes flying around over the treetops from the parkway. There was a club of some kind that met down there, or maybe that was just the only place you could find sufficient open space to actually fly the things.

You never saw those things flying around in the neighborhood. You couldn't fly those things around the neighborhood. While the streets we lived on had plenty of room for take-off and landing, the big trees, telephone poles and electrical wires overhead were a serious obstacle. The big park was wide open, so you didn't have to worry about that. But even if someone had been making an RC helicopter (and I don't remember seeing any of those back then; the closest we got to that was this), I don't think we would have been allowed to fly them around. You see, those airplanes, they were noisy. Imagine a team of landscapers arriving next door at 6 in the morning. Now imagine them flying back and forth over your house. Common sense of the day was that you didn't disturb the neighbors like that. If we had, the neighbors would have gone to our parents to complain, and I think it would have been an easy decision for parents to make: keep the peace in the neighborhood. Fly the planes in the county park.

Fast forward forty (!) years. Now we have drones, which are glorified RC helicopters. They take off and land vertically, so no need to try to find a gap in the ever-increasing traffic on suburban streets. They're noisy, but not as noisy as those RC planes. And they're relatively cheap--I just found a model available for $80. And they can be equipped with nifty little cameras, which means everyone and their uncle in the YouTube generation has yet another means of striking gold with a viral video.

Is anyone restricting these things right now? Last month, a Kentucky man was arrested after using his shotgun to blow a drone out of the sky over his backyard. He says it was hovering over the yard where his 16-year-old daughter was sunbathing. Last week, I read a story in the Washington Times that stated pilots have reported nearly 700 instances of close encounters with drones. Earlier in the year, a drone was used to drop contraband in a prison yard. And finally, there's this video, which shows people largely harassing animals with drones.

As kids in the time and place I grew up in, I believe we never would have gotten away with the kind of crap . The first time a neighbor came to our parents and complained about us hovering the drone over their house, outside their bathroom window, or buzzing their pool, that would have been it. We would have lost our drone privileges. And probably been grounded, AND had to go and apologize directly to the person or people offended. In many cases, however, these are adults who are flying--and abusing--these things, and the sense of entitlement trumps and respect at all for the people or animals around.

Drone technology allows us to do some great things. Last month, I saw a presentation in which a drone was used by a grad student at a local university to make maps, and to monitor things like stream bank erosion and sedimentation in a lake. There are a lot of good things they can do. They can also be used for fun, but we've got to show more sense in doing so, because there's also a real potential that someone's going to get seriously hurt.

Have you had any close encounters with drones?

Monday, August 17, 2015

Monday Musing, Full Nest Edition

Well, it's been a while.

When I posted last, I kind of thought I'd be back last week, but time and circumstance worked against me. It was rather low on my priority list during the week.

The big news is we picked up the Magpie at JFK airport on 8/7. After almost a full year in Japan, she had finally returned. There was much rejoicing. We spent the night with some friends who live near the airport and were gracious enough to once again open their homes for us, and then we drove out to the east end of Long Island for a long weekend with family. Our relatives throw an annual bash called Lobsterfest, which involves much eating, drinking and socializing. It was a bit of a whirlwind, I think, for the Magpie, who had to deal with the effects of jet lag and didn't get the luxury of having a few days of recovery before being dropped in the middle of all of this. A splendid time was had by all.

And so now our nest is full, though that is a temporary state of affairs. I'll be back at work today, we have all this week with both girls home, and then next week (either Sunday or Monday, I'm still not quite sure which) the Magpie is off for her senior year. Late next week we take the Catbird off for her freshman year, and the house will be empty. It will be a bigger adjustment for us to make for sure.

Funny thing, after sending the Magpie off on her Japan adventure last year, I said to my wife, "Albany is going to be a big come down after spending the year in Tokyo." I don't really know what the campus looked like at her university there, but I know what U Albany looks like--quite frankly, it's hideous. The campus is loaded with buildings that would be perfectly at home in Stalinist Russia. It's a dystopian future world as envisioned by a campy 1950s sci-fi film. And, of course, she will not be surrounded by Japanese people and Japanese culture. I know she'll work hard to retain her Japanese, but it will be a lot tougher to practice the language skills she's worked so hard on.

One thing I had not thought of when she departed last September is that she wouldn't want to be here. Neither of my girls are party animals (and this is not just me being a naive parent). Both have been perfectly content being homebodies. But now that the Magpie has tasted life in Tokyo, I think it will be much harder for her to want to be around here. Our little pocket of central New York is beautiful, but it doesn't necessarily have a lot to offer young people right now--especially someone with a major in Japanese. We've known for some time that she's going to have to move eventually to get a job. I just don't think we (okay, I) imagined that she'd really want to. Now, I can't imagine her wanting to stay around here.

It doesn't make me sad. Not yet, anyway. This is part of the natural order of things. Children grow and become their own people with their own lives, separate, yet intertwined with their parents. For now, I'll enjoy the nest while it's full.

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Inescapable Cellphone

Back at the beginning of May, I worked with a group of 9 girls from one of the local colleges, organizing a clean-up along the trail at a local state forest. It was part of an effort called "Into the Streets," where teams of students go off and do community service projects throughout the area.

The group was very nice and energetic. We spent a chunk of time hauling a fallen tree out of the picnic area (the forest ranger had cut it into movable chunks but had not had time to move said chunks out of the area), and then we walked a 2.5 mile loop, trimming back some overgrowth, moving the occasional tree detritus off the path, picking up a stray piece of litter. When we broke for lunch, they still had a couple of hours left on their day, but there wasn't a whole lot left to do.

The group's leader--I don't know if she was the official point person for the group, or if she just assumed command--asked me what the plan was for after lunch, and I told her honestly that there was another section of trail, but I had no idea what condition it was in (I had not had time to get up there and pre-scout it). I gave them the option: we can walk that next section of trail, or you can call it an early day.

She said they would discuss it, and we sat at the picnic table. The girls were amusing to listen to. They all had their cell phones out and were checking out Facebook and e-mails and the like, sharing pictures with each other. After about 20 minutes, the leader says to me, "We decided. We'll go home early."

In the time we sat at the picnic tables, there had been no discussion at all.

How had they decided? Was it just a given that they'd knock off early if given the chance? Had they talked about it in their cars on the way up to the forest? "Hey, maybe we can go home early, let's see." Did they have some sort of telepathic link that they were beaming messages back and forth into each other's heads while we ate lunch?

Of course they did. They all had cell phones.

What amazed me about their decision is not that they would make it via text message, but that they could have that discussion via text message and I would have no clue that they were having it. There was never any sense at all that a discussion was taking place: no verbal tip-offs, no changes in behavior or direction of the conversation, nothing. I was completely in the dark on this. It made me wonder a little what else they might have been talking about behind my back--"What's with the cheesy mustache?" "Get a load of that hair!" stuff like that.

Despite knowing how useful they are, I have long resisted entry into the cellphone era. Oh, I've had two previous phones, but one contract we dumped when we moved up here because AT&T was only able to provide us a signal if you stood in. Just. The right. Spot on the front lawn, and that was about it in the entire county. A second one...I don't know what happened with that one. But 3 years ago, my wife jumped into the smartphone era, a necessity for her business, and hasn't looked back. I continued the resistance, even though there were lots of times when it would have been great to have one. Now I have one.

It's a hand-me-down, which is fine. And on the very first day I had it, it proved itself useful, as the Catbird wasn't where I was expecting to find her following graduation rehearsal. Two minutes out on the road, my phone chimed with an incoming text from my wife, alerting me to the Catbird's new location. While I was glad not to have to go traipsing all over town in search of her, I also did a silent curse--think Seinfeld saying, "Newman!"

Don't get me wrong, in just a month the cell phone has proven quite convenient, quite necessary. What's amazing--and alarming--is how easy it is to start relying on it for everything. I've already used it as a watch, a camera, a flashlight, a document scanner. Oh, and I've made a few calls with it, too. It's almost insidious, really, how you can get by fine without one, until you have one. Once you've got it, you can't do without it. Not surprisingly, as much as I'm glad to have the phone, I'm trying to avoid complete dependence on it.

Are you totally reliant on your cellphone? Do you even have one?


Monday, July 20, 2015

The Mockingbird Sings A Different Tune

Of all our feathered friends, the northern mockingbird has one of the greatest, most descriptive names ever: Mimus polyglottos. Rather than have some awkward Latinized name to memorialize the person who discovered it (see: Bachman's warbler, Vermivora bachmanii), the mockingbird's name pretty much sums up what the bird is all about: "Many-voiced mimic." Here's a sample:

Of course, the mockingbird is also famous as the central metaphor for Harper Lee's renowned 1960 book, To Kill A Mockingbird. Never out of print, taught in high schools all across the country for years, held up as a condemnation of racism (at least among white Americans) , the book is once again on the minds of many people after the release last week of Go Set A Watchman, and a lot of people are not happy.

First, a caveat: I have not read Go Set A Watchman. It's also at least 4 years since I last read Mockingbird (one thing I miss about my girls being out of high school is they're not bringing books home from English class that I want to read--or re-read; I have to find them on my own!). Specifically, people are not happy about the portrayal of Mockingbird's hero, Atticus Finch. In Mockingbird, he defends a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman in a 1920s deep south town. Finch is revered among a large segment of (white) America: he is portrayed as brave, honest, tolerant, and, presumably, free of the racism that pervades his small town of Maycomb, Alabama.

Not so fast. Again, without having read Watchman, based solely on the reviews and criticisms and reactions that have been rolling in for the last week or so, it seems that Atticus has another side, one that was not revealed in Mockingbird, and this has sent shockwaves through the legions of Atticus admirers. Atticus, it turns out, is a racist who supports segregation. The result is a lot of hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth over how this could happen, how could Ms. Lee tear down this amazing hero in such a way? And again, I say, Not so fast.

Though Watchman is set some 20 years after the events of Mockigbird, though it was published some 50 years after Mockingbird, it is not a sequel. It looks like a sequel, yes, but it was not conceived of as a sequel by Ms. Lee. For those not familiar with the story, Go Set A Watchman was written by Lee first. She submitted it to her editors, who instead guided her through a re-write process that resulted in Mockingbird, a very different story with a very different approach. Those of you reading this who are writers know how much a story can change from one draft to another, even when you're not setting out to make huge changes. For non-writers who may be reading this, the short answer is: a lot. Lee changed a third person point of view in Watchman to first, and put herself squarely in the head of a 6-8 year old girl to tell the story, instead of a 20-something looking back. Changes of this nature are going to lead to all kinds of changes throughout the manuscript, whether intended or not. It's a literary version of the butterfly effect. Atticus in Watchman is not the same Atticus from Mockingbird. Same name, yes, same house, same law practice, but not the same man. He's more like "Alternate Universe Atticus," and his presence should not stop you from enjoying what we might think of as "the original Atticus Finch."

Monday, July 13, 2015

Carrie's Query Critique

For those of you who may have a query in need of perusal, get thee to Carrie Pestritto's blog for a chance to get critiqued by an agent (and the chance to get 'the Carrie Treatment' your first 100 pages!). Good luck!

It's Invasive Species Awareness Week!

Yesterday marked the beginning of Invasive Species Awareness Week here in New York. The purpose of  this week is to promote awareness and understanding of invasive species and to help stop their spread. Invasive species are plants, animals or other organisms that can cause harm to the environment, the economy, and/or human health. They are usually not native to the area in question and have high reproductive capacity. You may remember a few months back I linked to a short article I wrote for our local newspaper on a species called the emerald ash borer; last month I had another run on steps boaters and fishermen and women should take to help prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species. That article can be found here. I should have another article running this week, on efforts in New York to keep the Asian longhorned beetle in check.

Invasive species are an issue that can affect us all, with potentially enormous costs. Check with your state and local resource agencies to find out which ones are in your area and what you can do to help keep them under control. And here is a video that was put together by some good friends of the organization I work for:

OCCA - Clean, Drain and Dry from Blue Water Studio on Vimeo.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Monday Musing: Hugs and Brain Cramps

Over the last few weeks there's been a flurry of hugging going around. It's a natural consequence of high school graduation--people suddenly come at you with arms open, as a way of saying both "Congratulations!" and "I understand the emotional whirlwind you're going through, I'm there, too." It's not unpleasant, but it's a little strange considering that some of these folks are people I would not classify as great friends. Friendly, yes, but not friends.

At any rate, because my mind works the way it does I found myself in one of these clinches (oops, better be careful there, that gives it significance that it didn't have) wondering how it is that we don't have more head-on collisions with people we don't know well when we hug. What I realized is there seems to be some sort of hug protocol where the default is to lean to the left (Interestingly, thinking about it some more, we seem to tilt our heads to the right to kiss); you don't generally see people leaning to the right when initiating a hug. I'm not wrong on this, am I? Do you notice this, too? I'm curious if this is a universal approach or more of a western culture thing.


Major brain cramp last night. I went to brush my teeth before going to bed, looked at the toothbrushes lined up in the bathroom--and had no idea which one was mine. They're all the same basic model except for color. "Is mine the green one or the orange one?" It was a strange moment, a piece of information that either went missing from my brain or where the information retrieval system broke down for a minute. I actually had to ask my wife. It was more amusing than disconcerting, but definitely a strange thing. Every have something like that happen to you?


The two men who escaped from the maximum security Clinton Correctional Facility last month have been recovered, one shot and killed, the other shot (just 3 miles or so from the Canadian border) and now back in prison. From the beginning, this breakout captured the public's attention and imagination, with it's Shawshank Redemption-style breakout. It was an audacious plan, we can admit that, but before we start writing books and making made-for-TV movies about it, let's remember this: the two men who broke out were (are) killers, plain and simple. They're not heroes; let's not lionize them.

That's about it for me today, how's things by you?