New Mexico — Land of Enchantment, UFOs, and More

Intro

I travel a lot, both for work, and some with family. One of the areas I most enjoy visiting is New Mexico. There is something about the combination of scenery, food, and general atmosphere that appeals to me; I find the geology of NM particularly interesting. I haven’t lived there, although I hope to spend my upcoming sabbatical in the Albuquerque area, so it will be interesting to see how my impressions hold up over an extended visit.

In recent weeks I have spoken with 3 different couples who are headed to NM for something or other. I provided some recommendations based on my experiences. Now, in the spirit of “If you need to do something 3 times, find a way to automate it” I have decided to jot down some notes here for others.

I have broken this out by general areas of the state. I have not been everywhere in NM yet, and in some places I’ve only spent a few hours. So, if I missed something important, let me know in the comments.

FYI, my favorite place to get away for a few days is Old Town Santa Fe, so that has a section all its own, below.

A few things that I especially recommend have a ♥ symbol next to them.

Northern NM

Taos, etc.

I have yet to make it to NW New Mexico, to the Four Corners area. That is on my list.

In North Central NM is the Carson National Forest, which I have yet to explore.

Taos is in this part of the state. If you like to ski, I’m told the skiing is nice. I found it to be a pleasant town, but I was not overly impressed. I also didn’t hear the infamous “Taos Hum” that 2% of the population hears.

If you are in the area, head NW on US 64 out of Taos. a bit out of town is one of the Overland Outfitters stores. It is one of the older ones, and has quite a nice selection of items of leather, sheepskin, and more. Continue NW on US 64 to the ♥ High Bridge, the 7th highest bridge in the US. It, and the Rio Grande gorge, sort of “appear” as you drive towards them. It is an amazing view into the gorge, but you may want to avoid it if you have a problem with heights (or depths!).

If you have time, or it is on your route, get on US 285 S to NM 567, then to NM 570 to NM 68 S. I doubt this is a good route in the winter, but in the summer it is scenic and quite pleasant. This eventually connects up to US 84 if you are headed to points south.

Along US 285, south of where it enters the Carson National Forest, is the town of Ojo Caliente. On route NM 414 to the west is a well known mineral hot springs & spa resort that I’m told is quite good. They also have private pools for starry night soaking outdoors.

Los Alamos, White Rock

There are a few ways to get to Los Alamos. The “back way” on NM 4 through Jemez Springs is a lovely drive, and passes some interesting geological formations; it may be a difficult drive in the winter. A bit north of Jemez Springs is “Soda Dam” — an area of fascinating mineral deposits caused by hot springs with minerals dissolved in them. The springs still bubble up there.

South of Los Alamos on NM 4 is Bandelier National Monument. This is an archaeological preserve where native Americans carved homes out of the tuff (soft stone formed from volcanic ash) hundreds of years ago. If the area isn’t closed because of weather or wildfire, it makes for an interesting walk around the main path; there are some 70 miles of trail in the overall park.

Los Alamos the town, and Los Alamos the National Lab, are skirted to the south by NM 4, and somewhat to the north by NM 501/NM 502. The lab doesn’t have anything for the public to see unless you count driving past a few ominous low buildings surrounded by multiple rings of barbed-wire fences and walls — don’t stop to take pictures unless you want to meet armed guards who ask you lots of pointed questions!

Los Alamos and White Rock have a number of interesting things to see and do:

  • ♥ The Bradbury Science Museum is operated by the lab and has a changing set of exhibits. The permanent exhibits give a history of the lab, the development of the atomic bomb, and a fair amount on nuclear physics, including some hands-on exhibits for kids.
  • ♥ The White Rock Overlook in the town of White Rock provides a spectacular view of the Rio Grande Gorge.
  • ♥ The [Anderson Overlook] is just outside of Los Alamos to the west on NM 502, and gives an incredible view of the mountains and valley to the west.
  • The Don Quixote Distillery & Winery has some interesting local versions of gin, and even a blue corn vodka, although I’ve heard some of the wine is not so great.
  • I’ve heard some good things about the Los Alamos Nature Center but have not been able to visit yet.
  • One of my favorite bookstores, Otawi Station in Los Alamos, closed permanently several years ago; if you’ve heard me mention it before, well….

One of the features in the area you don’t immediately notice because of its size is the Valles Caldera. Actually, everything in this area is on the flanks and residue of that ancient (but believed only dormant) super volcano that has a rim 22km in diameter! This whole north western part of New Mexico is volcanic in origin, and there is still considerable geothermal activity, including hot springs, with some seismic activity.

Santa Fe

There are so many things in the area that I find interesting, I’m not sure I can list it all.

Santa Fe is a sprawling small city. I am not familiar with much of it, but the area I have spent a lot of time in is the Old Town area, and vicinity. You can easily fill several days wandering the shops and restaurants. If you are after art expressed in some physical format — in wood, stone, oil, metal, or some combination — you can find it in the area, in price ranges from $50 to hundreds of thousands (at least). Antiques abound, as does hand-crafted jewelry.

Hotels

Your best bet if you want to see the area is stay at one of the hotels in town. That also covers your parking, which can be difficult to find in town.

I have stayed at a half-dozen of the hotels in the area. Here are a few I can recommend based on my stays and the recommendations of others.

There are lots more, in every price range. Some of the hotels also offer “casitas” — detached, small cottages in town.

Dining

Nearly every place you can eat offers something interesting. I can’t begin to list them all. I do suggest you get a reservation for any place you really have your heart set on visiting.

To the north of Santa Fe on US 64 is one of my favorite restaurants: ♥ Gabriel’s. If you are in the area, you really should have lunch or dinner there.

We also liked the restaurants at the Inn at Loretto (the Luminaria) and La Fonda (La Plazuela). I would suggest dinner at the first, and lunch at the second. The restaurant at Inn of the Anasazi is also quite good.

Having lunch or breakfast at the Plaza Café diner is recommended. It may not look like much from outside, but the food I’ve had there is good, as is the pinyon coffee.

La Boca features Spanish cuisine and some really nicely prepared dishes, and is near the plaza. So is the related Taberna, although I have not eaten there; it features “nuevo latino” cuisine.

We have a certain affinity for the Blue Corn Café — it is not overly special, but it I’ve been stopping there for years because of its convenient location. Get the chile “Christmas” — both red and green.

There are all sorts of food guides to the area, and lots of people will share recommendations. Your best bet is to wander around and identify some candidates. Before you ask for recommendations, get some idea if you want cozy romantic dinner, or a family-style meal to help narrow the list.

North of Santa Fe about 20 miles is the ♥ Rancho de Chimayo. It is a restaurant in an old hacienda, nestled in a small valley near a creek. The food is good but not outstanding, but combined with the setting makes it well worth adding to your list if you are in the area for a few days.

Shopping

Art galleries abound in the area. If that is what you want to buy, get one of the maps or guides. You will also find some in the general area around the plaza.

If you spend a day or two wandering the shops within 2-3 blocks of the plaza, you will find all kinds of amazing things. Some of these buildings are historic, so don’t make a presumption of what is inside by what the outside looks like. Besides, half the fun is in the exploration! You will find everything from high-end shops to quirky artist boutiques.

The market, held on the patio of the old palace on the square, features handmade items (mostly jewelry) by local, native artisans. That occurs nearly daily, depending on weather. There are many unique and beautiful pieces, although not always the best prices.

When I’ve been there, the plaza has lights at night, and sometimes a band performing. It is quite nice, although there are a lot of panhandlers that seem to come out at night.

♥ Shops where I usually stage a visit include the Overland Outfitters (I’ve gotten several coats there), the Santa Fe Olive Oil & Balsamic Co (taste scores of exotic flavors), the Chile Shop (everything chile related), the Earthfire Gems Gallery for all sorts of fossils and minerals, O’Farrell Hat Shop (I’ve gotten two custom-made hats), Keshi Zuni (lots of hand carved fetish animals), and Boots & Boogie (the owner makes custom western boots and is a real character). Those are simply the ones I remember off the top, but there are scores more worth seeing. Every time I visit, I find more.

You will find shops selling all kinds of native pottery, weavings, clothes, jewelry, wall hangings, lights, woodworking, exotic foods, cookware, and more. If you like to window shop, this is the place.

One warning — if you see something you love but the price makes you hesitate, keep in mind that many store owners will discount items if it isn’t the height of tourist season (and sometimes even then). Many things are marked up specifically to let them appear to give a discount. So, unless it is absolutely one-of-a-kind that you’ve always wanted, make a note and keep shopping: you may find something like it at another store, and less expensive.

Other Attractions

10,000 Waves is the best Japanese baths outside Japan, according to some of my friends. Get a tub outside at night and see the stars without urban light pollution! Or, get a massage and spa treatment.

To the north of Santa Fe, on US 64 is the opera house. You might not immediately think of opera and NM, but it has a world-class reputation, and a high-profile set of performances every year. (Arts, in general, are quite good in the area.)

To the east of the plaza is the historic Loretto Chapel, completed in 1878. For a fee, you can tour the inside, including seeing the “miraculous” spiral staircase. (Loretto is no longer a consecrated chapel, but is a dedicated museum.)

I’ve already mentioned the art galleries, especially along Canyon Road. There are also several museums. I’ll add to this account as I go along.

Central NM

Albuquerque

This is the biggest city in NM. This is likely where you’ll fly in, if you are coming from out of state. I haven’t explored too much of the city yet, but there are a few things I can recommend so far.

Old Town is a set of shops and restaurants. There are some interesting things to see here, but I prefer Santa Fe.

Sandia Peak is an uplift that towers over Albuquerque. You can get to the top by taking a cable car tram from Albuquerque, or by taking the ♥ scenic drive around from the other side and up NM 536 from NM 14. The view is incredible, with an elevation of 6850 ft above Albuquerque (10,678 ft above sea level). The temperature can be 20-30 degrees below what you are experiencing in the city, so bring a jacket!

If you take the drive, you can continue up NM 14, the Turquoise Trail, and see all sorts of old mining towns and artist colonies. It’s a pleasant drive compared to the Interstate, but it does take longer.

NRAO

If you are in Socorro (south of Albuquerque on I-25) with a few hours to spare and you have an element of geek, then you should detour to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory Very Large Array. Take US 60 W through Magdalena to NM 52 S. Then watch for the signs. There is a small charge for the tour, but it is interesting, as is the small gift shop.

Southern NM

Truth or Consequences

I’ve been through here once, and stayed at a wonderful small spa hotel with geothermal hot springs, the Sierra Grande, which I can recommend. There are several others in the area.

Outside of town is Spaceport America. I have not been there, and it is supposed to be pricey, but it is home to several commercial spaceflight organizations including SpaceX and Virgin Galactic.

Las Cruces

I stopped here briefly, for dinner, on my way north. My memory was of trying a local pecan flavored beer with my dinner. I was not impressed.

If you are driving north on the roads here and look vaguely Hispanic, be sure you have ID with you. This is close enough to the border with Mexico (and El Paso) that Immigration has some checkpoints to be sure they catch illegal immigrants.

White Sands

If you take US 70 NW out of Las Cruces, you will encounter ♥ White Sands National Monument before you reach Alamogordo. This is well worth a visit. It is a desert, but not of regular sand, but of gypsum crystals. It is like nothing else I’ve ever seen.

Cloudcroft

The drive on US 82 through the Lincoln National Forest has a 4300ft vertical change between Alamogordo and Cloudcroft. This is one of the highest elevations in the US. It is a very scenic area, with wonderful forest and the smell of pine. I would like to visit there again and maybe stay longer.

Artesia

The name of this town is based on the fact that it originally had many artesian wells. It was a major agriculture center until the aquifer was drawn down in the 1920s. Now, the area has a boom in oil and gas production from a variety of wells, going below the strata where all the water was. There are a few things of interest to see in the town, but the main reason I stayed here was I was spending a few days in the area and they had a good selection of hotels.

Carlsbad Caverns

This is a national park that is a ♥ “must see” if you are in the area. Spend the day on some of the main paths, or get on one of the guided tours. At the end of the day, from May to October, sit in the amphitheater and watch the exit of hundreds of thousands of bats on their nightly hunt. It is an amazing place to explore. (Nearby is Lechuguilla Cave, which is not open to the public, but is the deepest cave system in the US.)

I recommend taking the natural entrance into the cave, as the walk from there is mostly downhill into the main part.

Roswell

Last, but not least, is the home of UFO lore. UFOs and extraterrestrials are the theme of many things in towns, including a museum, several gift shops, and even restaurants. I found some wonderfully fun gifts, including my UFO driver’s license. I managed to see most of the interesting things in about 6 hours, but that may be because it all started to run together after a while.

To the east, is the Bitter Lake Wildlife refuge, and the Bottomless Lakes State Park. The former is interesting because of the rare species and diversity, and the later because of the line of water-filled cenotes. Follow NM 380 southwest from Roswell.

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Wild life adventures

Some long-time friends of mine live in an old house in Pennsylvania. They have been doing renovations recently, and running into unexpected issues. Some issues are taken advantage of by their cats. Two recent such instances: finding a bird in the basement, and bats in the attic. I take it much hilarity and cat antics ensued with both.

We had bats in our attic this year, too. (And no, I am not using it as a euphemism, although I wish that is all it was.) We had field mice up there 3 years ago, after we had new shingles put on. Apparently, the roofers disturbed some of the soffit panels and didn’t reseat them properly. The mice climbed up (the gutter spouts? assistance of itty bitty spiders?) and nested in the attic over the winter. When that happened, we had the exterminator bait the attic and install some patches to the soffits. That took care of the mice — as far we we knew.

Then, in March of this year, we heard scratching and scurrying noises in the ceiling on the second floor. We thought the mice were back, so we called the exterminator again. He went up in the attic and looked around some; he said the mouse bait was still there, untouched. He thought we might have birds that had gotten in as he saw daylight through a couple of holes. He didn’t think our problem was mice.

(Aside: I don’t go up in the attic anymore. There is only one small hatch to get up there, in a bedroom closet, and there is no way to get an extension ladder in to climb all the way up. A stepladder will go part way, but it then requires a pull-up to get up into the space. Given the ravages of the years, plus the accumulation of…er, heavy thoughts… that is now beyond my capabilities. We should have gotten a hatch in the hallway, with pull-down steps, when we had the house built.)

So, we called in a wildlife relocation specialist because the exterminator only kills insects and small rodents — they don’t harm birds, if they can help it. Chad, the cheerful animal specialist, sealed up the biggest couple of holes he could find from the outside, put screening over others, then set up a trap for birds. In two weeks, only one bird was caught (a hapless, innocent bystander sparrow), which I then released. Chad opined that — given the lack of activity — birds couldn’t be our problem. So he went up in the attic, looked around, and found evidence that either chipmunks or squirrels had been up there. Oh, and bats —a medium-sized colony. The exterminator had missed that — either he didn’t know what to look for, or he didn’t do a complete survey.

Apparently, bats go dormant over the winter, and only really wake when the temps get above 50 for about a week. So, we had to wait to take care of the bat issue, because bats are a protected species, and we couldn’t depend on them leaving until the weather was warm enough. However, we could pursue a solution to the squirrels and/or chipmunks.

He sealed most of the holes, but left a one-way passage for the bats, and a trap for squirrels. He put out poison bait inside the attic for chipmunks. We caught one big gray squirrel in the trap, which was taken to a park far away and released. The chipmunks outside are too numerous to do much about, unless I want to sit in the garden every day with poisoned seed, and a .22 to pick off the ones who aren’t currently hungry. Even with that, we’d only see a slight respite — the neighborhood is full of them, and they are prolific.

(Another aside: bats are generally beneficial. They eat all sorts of flying insects, especially mosquitoes. Considering how wet it has been here this year, we can use the help. However, bat droppings can create problems with diseases and insects, so we definitely don’t want those in the attic. Bats also have a high incidence of rabies, so it is better to keep a distance from them. If the attic was totally sealed, any bats left inside would try to find some opening to get out; bats can squeeze through tiny openings, including tiny cracks between joists and chimneys that don’t necessarily lead outside. That would result in an exciting rendition of “Da Bats Are In Da House!” Thus, the humane, reasonable, and far less adrenaline-inducing approach is to seal up everything but an opening with a one-way contraption so that once the bats leave the attic, they don’t come back in.)

Within a few weeks, the bats awoke, stretched, had coffee or whatever, and presumably left. Chad came back and finished sealing things up. We now have a 3 year guarantee of bat exclusion, and a $1500 hole in our savings. However, the only bats now are in our belfries, and that makes for much quieter nights. As a side-effect, the sealing job means we are unlikely to get any other critters moving into our unfinished penthouse.

(Aside: Chad said the bats have their young in late spring — he can’t seal an attic from then until early autumn, because the young may be trapped inside. Baby and juvenile bats may die without their mothers, or surrogates. Thus, there are two “seasons” for bat exclusion — early spring, and fall. And no, I was not going to nurse baby bats all summer. so we had to move quickly to get the exclusion done. )

Now, the only critters around here are the chipmunks (digging holes in the garden, and under the sidewalks), one remaining small grey squirrel (at least one other was taken by one of the red tailed hawks that lives nearby — much cheaper than the wildlife relocator), lots of bunnies (minus whatever the hawk gets), way too many mourning doves (minus… you got the idea), and other wildlife. We live in a suburban area, but seem to have plenty of wildlife, including a family of shrews that lives in my compost heap, raccoons that keep knocking down our birdfeeders (I think they are in a gang), some ducks that tried to nest in our pool, toads and tree frogs, and sometimes flocks of starlings, which we try to dissuade. We also see many robins, red-wing blackbirds, chickadees, hummingbirds, cowbirds, goldfinches, house finches, cardinals, and the occasional grackle visit our feeders, as do the mourning doves. We hear bluejays in the distance, but we are too far from the woods to get them to visit up close. Last year we had an oriole visit, but we’ve seen none this year. In the general neighborhood, we also see Canadian geese, several varieties of ducks, and heron near the ponds, and swifts occasionally at dusk.

At our previous house, next to the woods, we had also wild turtles, garter snakes, a fox, a family of owls, several deer, moles in the lawn (grrr), and a few coyotes, all within a short distance of the house. I sort of applauded the coyotes because they helped keep the feral cats in check that were preying on the birds.

It is very depressing to realize that I have reached at least middle age: when someone asks me for a story about my wild life, instead of a tale of parties, drinking, and romance, I talk about birds, bunnies, and bats in the attic.

Father’s Day Memories

[This is mostly personal musings and a little history.  It is probably more for family and a few friends than general interest, but you are welcome to read it.]

Last year, I blogged here about Father’s Day, along with some other issues. I’m a little surprised, and sad, that a year has gone by so quickly. A lot happened, but it also seems that so little happened, too. Where does the time go?

I am on a business trip on Father’s Day. I’ve got the day free, and my thoughts turned to my father. I realize that the images that come first to my mind is when he was old and infirm, a month or two before he died. Yes, those are the most recent memories, so that is perhaps why they seem the freshest. Yet, for all the years he was alive, my father was generally a picture of health. He never seemed to get ill until he reached his 80s. I wish I could have those memories, of him hale and hearty, be my primary ones.

As a child, I spent more time with my mother and grandmother, because my father worked during the day, and when he came home he was tired and had things that needed doing around the house. Weekends meant cutting the lawn and running errands that my mother have saved up for him. I can’t recall many memories of him day-to-day — only on vacations and holidays. Then, as I grew older, time was taken up with school, clubs, and eventually, girlfriends.

My father lived a life I can’t imagine, and I feel guilty about not trying harder to understand it when he was around and I could ask him questions. He was born at the end of WWI and lived his teenage years during the Great Depression. As a child, he was truck by a truck and in a coma for some time, not expected to live, then very ill with scarlet fever (which contributed to his infirmity and eventual death 70 years later). Thereafter, he wasn’t quite as outgoing as he used to be…at least, that is what my uncle told me. With what we now know about the effects of head trauma, I am not surprised. I have often wondered what he would have been like had that not happened to him?

Dad volunteered to serve in WWII (he had a deferment because of work he was doing — he waived it), although my sister and I never heard him talk about it until we were adults and he was in his 60s. Little wonder — he was in one of the first units into one of the concentration camps. As a result of that experience, and others, I ma certain he suffered from what we would now call PTSD for quite some time, and there was no real care for his generation of veterans.

Dad’s twin brother died at 49 from cancer (I wrote a little about him and his wife, Elsa, when she died in 2013), and that affected him deeply. A few years later he unexpectedly became unemployed; age discrimination meant he was only employed sporadically thereafter, and that was a deep wound to his pride and sense of fairness. I know there were may other things that meant life was never quite what he had hoped it would be. In his later years he developed heart problems, cancer, and had several strokes. But he never gave up. He was stubborn!

Dad suffered many a setback in life, but kept on trying. I know I learned a certain amount of stoicism from him. He never got awards or public notice, but he was heroic in many ways. He believed in doing the right thing, no matter the consequences, and he didn’t shirk tough or difficult jobs.

I realize that I was a bratty kid, too. When my father decided in his mid 50s that he was going to focus on getting back into better physical condition, instead of cheering him on, I made jokes, maybe because I was so far from athletic I couldn’t understand. Dad went on to run in the senior class in marathons and did well (even winning once, as I recall), but rather than laud him for his success and his will, I think I ignored it; I was too wrapped up in my own pursuits. How dearly I wish now that I had attended at least one of those marathons and cheered as he crossed the line!

My father wasn’t really outgoing. He couldn’t tell jokes very well — he could only remember two or three, and kept telling them over and over. He was not mechanically inclined — if anything, he was 90% thumbs. He didn’t read a lot, but loved historical TV shows and movies. He was brilliant with numbers. He was a planner, who liked to follow a schedule, and the unexpected often threw him for a loss. Meanwhile, I was a jokester, into science fiction, and dead-set on taking everything apart and putting it back together again to see how it worked. I’ve always been a spur-of-the-moment person who can’t seem to notice the time. Dad and I didn’t seem to have a lot in common, so I don’t recall many things that only he and I would do together. We never had many heart-to-heart conversations, either. I regret all that now.

I never got to meet either of my grandfathers as they both died young. My mother’s father died from after-effects of being gassed in WWI, we believe. My father’s father died on the original day of Mom & Dad’s wedding. I am so happy that both my parents lived to see their grandchildren. It was clear that was a joy for them both. Their lives were hard, but towards the end they had a sense of accomplishment.

The years continue to pass for me. I no longer see an unbounded future. I don’t feel as old as I look, but I can no longer take the stairs two at a time. I find myself reflecting on the past almost as much as I do daydreaming about the future.

Although my daughter is named for my mother (who was named for her grandmother, who was named for her grandmother), I see echoes of my father in her. She is quiet, stoic, and loves history. She is fiercely stubborn, and smarter than she gives herself credit. She doesn’t have the affinity for math, but she dislikes my spur-of-the-moment approach to things. She’s not much into the engineering aspects of the world around her, so rather than leave all my tools to her I need to encourage her to keep a rolodex of good mechanics. She’s had her own health issues that have shaped her young life. She’s definitely not a fan of most of my humor.

I realize that Elizabeth’s memories of me will be like mine of my father: she spends lots more time with her mother than me. I am away for work a lot. Our interests don’t intersect much, so there aren’t many things we do, just the two of us. She doesn’t really get quite what I do in my career, or the scale at which I do it. I know she is focused on her own future, not my present. I don’t begrudge her that — it should be a bright future. 40 years from now she may think back to me on Father’s Day. Perhaps the memories she will have of me will be of me decrepit and forgetful (i.e., as I am right now!). If she has children of her own, that will give her an additional lens thru which she may see me a little better, as my being a parent has helped me understand my own parents. I simply wish I had reached some of these realizations when they were still alive.

I’ll close with some of the lyrics to the song “The Living Years” by Mike (Rutherford) and the Mechanics that always move me to tears if I really listen to them:

Every generation
Blames the one before
And all of their frustrations
Come beating on your door

I know that I’m a prisoner
To all my Father held so dear
I know that I’m a hostage
To all his hopes and fears
I just wish I could have told him in the living years

Crumpled bits of paper
Filled with imperfect thought
Stilted conversations
I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got

You say you just don’t see it
He says it’s perfect sense
You just can’t get agreement
In this present tense
We all talk a different language
Talking in defense

So don’t yield to the fortunes
You sometimes see as fate
It may have a new perspective
On a different date
And if you don’t give up, and don’t give in
You may just be O.K.

Say it loud, say it clear
You can listen as well as you hear
It’s too late when we die
To admit we don’t see eye to eye

I wasn’t there that morning
When my Father passed away
I didn’t get to tell him
All the things I had to say

I think I caught his spirit
Later that same year
I’m sure I heard his echo
In my baby’s new born tears
I just wish I could have told him in the living years

I remember, Dad.Father's Day 1956 I never said it enough, but thank you. I wish I could have told you more often, in your living years.

And to all the other fathers out there — a Happy Father’s Day to you.

Two items of interest

Here are a couple of items of possible interest to some of you.

First, a group of companies, organizations, and notable individuals signed on to a letter to President Obama urging that the government not mandate “back doors” in computing products. I was one of the signatories. You can find a news account about the letter here and you can read the letter itself here. I suggest you read the letter to see the list of signers and the position we are taking.

Second, I’ve blogged before about the new book by Carey Nachenberg — a senior malware expert who is one of the co-authors of Norton Security: The Florentine Deception. This is an entertaining mystery with some interesting characters and an intricate plot that ultimately involves a very real cyber security threat. It isn’t quite in the realm of an Agatha Christie or Charles Stross, but everyone I know how has read it (and me as well!) have found it an engrossing read.

So, why am I mentioning Carey’s book again? Primarily because Carey is donating all proceeds from sale of the book to a set of worthy charities. Also, it presents a really interesting cyber security issue presented in an entertaining manner. Plus, I wrote the introduction to the book, explaining a curious “premonition” of the plot device in the book. What device? What premonition? You’ll need to buy the book (and thus help contribute to the charities), read the book (and be entertained), and then get the answer!

You can see more about the book and order a copy at the website for The Florentine Deception.

My Angry Posts

Yes, my tweets/posts recently have had less overall humor and a bit more anger. Sorry — that’s just me reacting to recent events.

I don’t suffer fools and the venal very easily — especially when they are fools who should know better.

Take vaccines. History shows that the single greatest killer of people is disease. Smallpox, TB, polio, diarrheal diseases of children, typhus, malaria, plague…. Measles also makes that list. We have some effective tools to limit…or even eradicate… some of those diseases, as we did with smallpox. Instead, as a species we have people who reject decades of experience and scientific study, who are letting some of these diseases persist. Polio is one horrific example, where semi-isolated groups are using religion and politics to prevent children from getting the vaccine. We are so close to eliminating that terrible scourge and there is evidence the disease is making a comeback.

Measles is still endemic in much of the world, killing many every year. It and smallpox were two highly contagious and deadly diseases that swept through new populations of indigenous peoples when introduced, often killing more than half of the population, and sickening the rest. (See this for some historical context.)  We were able to eliminate smallpox completely.  With will, we should be able to do the same with measles.

Why is it a concern?  Measles is not simply a rash. In a percentage of people it is crippling…or deadly.  I had a relative who went completely deaf before she was 10 because of measles; she was born before the vaccine was widely available. One of her friends died from the disease.  Those are terrible — and not rare —  outcomes. It’s worse when you consider that those who refuse to vaccinate also endanger the lives of children and adults in whom the vaccine did not gen up full immunity, or who cannot be vaccinated because of underlying medical conditions.  I had measles as a child and I still remember how terribly sick I was.  I would not wish that, nor the horrible potential side-effects, on anyone I cared about.

Someone sent me an article that had statistics showing that (effectively) early vaccinations were not understood as requiring a booster, and maybe not as effective for life-long immunity as having the disease.  He was implying that this was somehow “proof” of something…that the vaccine shouldn’t be used, perhaps?  That was the implication.  Instead, it is simple statistics and medicine that can be understood with minimal effort, and understanding that correlation does not prove causation.  However, to a paranoid, everything is proof of a conspiracy, and everyone who disagrees is part of the conspiracy.  Facts are simply attempts to fool the naive into believing there is no conspiracy.

Conspiracy?  To do what?  Protect people from a potentially crippling and deadly disease?  Yeah, right, that’s evil.  I can see hundreds of thousands of people signing on to actively promote that as a conspiracy.   Some no-nothings said the same kinds of things about the smallpox vaccine, and the polio vaccine.  It’s easy for them to switch to measles now because they haven’t seen the widespread devastation those diseases caused.  They never knew people — friends and family — who had to spend the rest of their lives in an iron lung, or who died from measles-caused encephalitis, or died gasping for breath as a result of pertussis.

Think about it: someone refusing vaccination for their children is basically saying “I’m going to gamble with their health and physical safety, and that of everyone they encounter, because I believe that vaccination causes … well, something.”  The link with autism has been thoroughly debunked, as has every other myth I’ve heard about.  It’s a terribly selfish and anti-social attitude with no foundation.  Tens of millions of people have received the vaccine over the last 50 years, and there has been no correlation found with anything…other than being less likely to get measles.  And here’s what someone with autism has to say about all this.

One of my favorite high school teachers had a withered arm from polio.  I worked with someone who had a useless arm caused by polio because his parents didn’t get him vaccinated.  They both managed okay with only one good arm, and they were thankful that they hadn’t died, but it was a life-long loss.  My aunt became a recluse because of her loss of hearing.  And to think of all the heartbroken parents who lost children to a preventable disease….  The human loss (and potential for loss) is heartrending.

As a parent, I am deeply concerned about my child, even thought she is now an adult.  What angers me is that people are willing to endanger others — including her and the rest of my family — because of paranoia and willful stupidity.  If it was only them, natural selection would help take care of the problem, but they pose a danger to me and my family, too by rejecting standard vaccination: our immunity may not be sure, and will likely degrade with time; there are also succeeding generations who may be at risk.

Of course, most of them have been vaccinated against measles and they are only willing to make the choice to endanger the next generation…they are safe, and hypocritical. They should eschew all medicines for themselves, including antibiotics, flu shots, and tetanus inoculations, too.  Those things have “chemicals” in them and are advocated by the “medical conspiracy.” Expose them to rabies and TB and cholera and malaria while we’re at it. Let’s speed up that natural selection a little…it’s the closest we can (legally) come to getting a little chlorine in the gene pool.

It isn’t only the stance on vaccines that make me angry these days.  The sanctimonious pinheads who are elected to office (and the no-nothings, bigots, and lazy who vote for them, or who don’t vote at all) also add to my anger level.   These are the people who blame the sick, the elderly, and the poor for their bad luck and disadvantaged environments.  Despite too many of the rich having way more of everything (except compassion) than they will ever need (and those same people claiming to follow a religious figure who instructed his followers to give everything to the poor), the hypocrits continue to pursue policies that further disadvantage and hurt the most impoverished among us.   These same jerks seek to exclude and injure others because of their skin color or heritage, although they use indirect terms to pursue that goal.  They seek to deny happiness to people who are born with different sexual orientations, and they treat women as less than even second-class citizens through oppressive health and employment regulations.  So many of them claim to follow religions that command they love one another, yet they pay no attention to people dying in other countries …and often they are eager to send our military to kill even more.  These are the people who, in the interests of making yet more money for the uber-rich, refuse to take actions that will help address climate change and reduce the pollution in our world.  These are the people who seek to destroy knowledge and spread falsehoods because they know the facts do not support their world view (I’ve blogged about this here, before).

I have spent much of my life trying to provide education to those who want it, to help them succeed and make the world a better place.  I have family and friends, including many who will long outlive me.  I want them to have a world where human life and dignity are valued — for everyone.  Where they do not need to fear preventable disease.  Where they are allowed to worship — or not — as they see fit, and to not be subject to physical harm because they do not share someone else’s beliefs.  Where they can love who they want, without criticism because of skin color, or body shape, or background. A world where if they fall ill, or a natural disaster befalls them, they do not need to make a choice among food, shelter, or health care, because they cannot afford more than one and they have no other options.  I hope for a world where knowledge is valued above myth and superstition.  I want those who follow after to have heroes based on something they can aspire to other than fame for a big butt or speed on a sports field.  And I want them to live in a world where their leaders are actually concerned about their welfare, rather than the interests of the monied few.

Recent news has not done much to make me believe that world is within reach, and each day is one less I will have to see a change.  It brings despair that my efforts have been for naught, and concern for the future they will inherit.  So yes, I am angry.  You should be too.

A Medical Scare — Protect Your Vision

[Updated Feb 8]

This year has gotten off to a lousy start.  It began with a stomach bug that wouldn’t go away for several weeks.   Luckily, I have avoided the flu (so far), and managed to keep all my New Year’s resolutions (so far),  so I guess things could be worse.

Wednesday (Jan 14), however, brought something really new to me, and I’ll share it here because therein is a caution for all of you — especially those with a little bit of “advanced wisdom” that signifies a bit more age.

Over the last few weeks, I have been mildly annoyed by a new “floater” in my left (and dominant) eye.  This is something that many people experience, and is generally only an annoyance.  They are caused by a little collagen tissue that has worked loose inside the eye, or perhaps a few blood cells leaking into the vitreous humor.  They are inside the eye so you can’t focus on them to see them, but they block some of the incoming light so they make a shadow on what you do see.  If you have yet to experience one of these, it is (in my experience) as if you have a smudge on your glasses (if you wear them) or a slight shadow that obscures something in your field of vision in brighter light.

Some floaters are absorbed after months or years, but in almost all cases they cease to be an issue because the neural circuitry of the eye/brain “learns” they are there and edits them out.  You also learn to move your eye (unconsciously) to pull in a picture from “around” the floater — our visual systems really are quite adaptable and amazing.  Thus, the floaters “go away.”

Having a mostly working brain, by Wednesday I had basically adapted to this new addition to my vision.

Sometime that afternoon, I noticed little black specks moving rapidly across my visual field.  I don’t recall that I consciously was thinking about them — they matched the behavior of a small fly, so it wasn’t really foreign.  I remember idly thinking it was curious that there would be a fly in my office on a cold day in January, but I was inside where it was warm, so maybe?  I was busy with visitors, so I dismissed it from my thoughts and focused on what I was doing.

Later, I had to leave to go pick up my car being serviced, and as I left, I noticed some sparkling “things” out of the corner of my eye.  When I would turn, whatever it was that I thought was moving wasn’t there.  Odd.  And then the loaner car I was driving appeared to have some defective windshield glass, with a wavy texture when I was looking at it sort of from my left side.  Strange — a BMW shouldn’t have wavy glass, right?

At the dealership, as I waited for my car, I noticed more “bugs” and other strange things, including curved lines, especially as I turned my head.  It looked like rather strange artifacts I have seen in bad video.  It was now quite clear to me something was wrong.  If I covered my left eye, my vision was fine.  If I covered my right, I saw the effects.  It was definitely my left eye.

There is a range of things that can cause visual phenomena such as this.  I knew it wasn’t drugs, because I don’t take any that could cause that and it wasn’t both eyes.  It wasn’t a migraine, because it wasn’t the aura/tunnel effect that describes a classic ocular migraine, and I’ve never had one of those.  It probably wasn’t a classic stroke, both because it didn’t match what I know about strokes, and I had no other symptoms.  (NB: everyone should learn quick triage for if someone else might have a stroke, using FAST.)

However, I wasn’t sure what else it might be.  I also knew from my days as an EMT that such phenomena should not be ignored in hopes they disappear.  They usually mean something.  And it could perhaps be a precursor for something worse, perhaps be a tear in my retina, or bleed in the eye, or some kind of unusual stroke-like incident.  I am highly dependent on my vision, so needless to say, I was now deeply concerned.

Of course, my regular optometrist was gone for the day by the time I determined all this, so I cancelled out of a phone conference, called my wife to tell her to hold dinner, and drove to the urgent care clinic on the way home.  The place was full of flu patients, so I had to wait over an hour. (Oh, and I kept away from most of the people in the room.  I sure hope I kept far enough away!)

The good news from the doc (finally): not a stroke, and not an intraocular bleed.  There was something observable in my eye, but the doctor on call didn’t know what it was.  He didn’t think the retina was involved.  He urged me to see an ophthalmologist ASAP the next day.  I went home, and left a message for my optometrist; he called me a little later, and after hearing me describe the symptoms, he reassured me that it was probably not damage to my retina, but he would arrange for me to be seen by a specialist the next day.

Yesterday (Thursday), I spent 3 hours at the eye clinic, mostly waiting.  Pictures, dilation, exam, and testing.  Then more exam.

The diagnosis is something called posterior vitreous detachment, or PVD.  This is not uncommon in people after about age 50 (me), and more common in people with severe myopia (also me).  It is when the vitreous pulls away from the retina, and bits of connective tissue and other cells get into the gel.  The increase in material, and the physical changes, lead to an increase in floaters, visual distortion, and phantom flashes of light.  Apparently, I am now more likely to have it in my right eye, too — not as a result of it happening to the left, but simply because it shows I have a tendency for it.

The good news is that I have no damage to my retina, but I have to watch it (figuratively) carefully for the next few weeks for symptoms of a tear developing.  I also got a clean bill of health for several other issues, such as macular degeneration and glaucoma — also good.  My vision is going to be poor for a while, however, so reading and working at the computer may be a bit more of a chore.

Here, however, is where the warning for you comes in, dear reader:  In about 10% of these cases, the separation also results in a tear of the retina, with about 40% of those being a complete separation of the retina.  This is bad news, and can lead to permanent loss of sight.   The good news is that most of these tears and separations can be fixed with a laser or a cryoprobe — but the longer it goes unfixed, the less likely it can be fixed: diagnosis and treatment are optimal if in the first 24 hours!

So, I had an adventure (I seem to have many of those), but in the end I merely have an inconvenience.  I’m writing this up because many of my friends and relatives are adding to their accumulated wisdom and laugh lines, and that translates into older eyes.   I urge you — if you see a sudden increase in floaters, something that looks like a big curtain or cobweb suddenly over your vision in one eye, or flashing lights and wavy lines in what you look at — see an ophthalmologist ASAP!  The exam doesn’t hurt, and if there is underlying damage, a quick response may save your vision.  No matter what you see on TV, there are no artificial eyes or transplants: take care of the eyes you have, so if nothing else you can continue to read my occasional blog posts. 🙂

Updated Feb 8

It appears that I had another detachment event yesterday, as I had a big increase in the number of floaters.  My vision in my left eye is now full of cloudy things moving around.

Over the last few weeks I have been challenged with this in a major way.  Most of what I do during my regular day is read — either papers, or online.  Even before yesterday, this was a huge challenge.  I read for 30-45 minutes and develop a headache from trying to focus my eye.   I also find my concentration affected, because I keep noticing movement that I don’t expect to be there.  I tried covering my left eye, but my right eye is my weakest eye, and that resulted in significant fatigue as well.

I’m going to put up an autoresponder on my email to let people know there may be a delay in getting back to them — I am operating at only a fraction of my usual capacity.  However, it is difficult to be too upset about this — I can still see (sort of), and I am thankful for that.

Oh, and this doesn’t unduly affect my driving, so you don’t need to avoid me on the roads…unless you did so before this happened. 🙂  I can see well enough to drive.  It is only when I want to focus on type or small things that the effects are most noticeable.

Updated Feb 3, 2016

One year on, and now I have new floaters in my right eye.  Probably a small PVD.  And just as I was nearly recovered from the incident, above.   Oh well, at least nothing really serious.

Be It Now Resolved…

It is almost that time of year again, to reflect on goals and resolutions — resolutions past, and new resolutions.  It’s the start of a new year!

I have managed to keep all my 2014 resolutions (although I still have a few hours to break #4 — ladies, I’m keeping my phone at the ready; heck, I’ll keep it on all next year, too!).   I also seem to still be keeping my 2013 resolutions and 2012 resolutions, although not everyone will agree that I’ve kept #17 from 2012.

For 2014, I’ll probably keep all the resolutions from the last couple of years, but add some new ones simply to challenge myself.  I’d challenge someone else, but no one listens to me anymore, so this is the best I can do.

Without further ado, I hereby resolve in 2015 to:

  1. Not make any movies about assassinating crazed despots…unless I get the millions in advance.
  2. Cut back on 2nd breakfasts…when anyone is watching.
  3. Not to become a Belieber.
  4. To not get caught again performing unauthorized experiments on undergrads. (NB: I resolve to not get caught, not to stop the experiments.)
  5. Obtain no piercings or other body modifications, especially those that set off the TSA’s magnetometer at the airport. Again.
  6. Not to let slip the secret that Dick Cheney is secretly a Brony.  (oops!)
  7. Not to exact my revenge on that certain someone…especially when approximate revenge will do.
  8. Not to exceed the speed of light…when anyone is watching.
  9. Drink a little less coffee each day, at least to the point where I don’t constantly hear those damn bees.
  10. Under no circumstances contract Ebola, or anything else that would cause me to bleed out of every orifice, such as  watching anything with a Kardashian in it.
  11. Remember — Death before Dishonor…if we respect alphabetic order.
  12. Go to the gym at least 2 times a week.  Sometime before next December, go inside, too, just to check it out.
  13. Be understanding that Jennifer, Adriana, Alessandra, Kate, Candice and the rest are really, really busy and simply have not yet been able to whisk me away.   (That must be the reason, right?)
  14. At university events, pretend to be chalant and gruntled.
  15. Overcome my cravings for cat bacon.
  16. Groot.  Often.  Except when anyone is watching.

Best wishes to you all for 2015!

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