Sunday, February 27, 2011

The slide show continues: Alligator Farm

Having mentioned this place in a couple of posts, some explication might be in order.

The Alligator Farm has been a tourist attraction in the St. Augustine area since sometime in the 1890s. It started off in one location, then moved to its current site in the 1930s. It began as one of those typical cheesy roadside attraction places -- get your picture taken with a 'gator! -- but at some point the owners figured out they needed a raison d'etre that was a little more high-class than simply the desire to part tourists from their dollars.  
The Alligator Farm decided to transition into being not just a tourist trap, but an educational facility dedicated to the study and preservation of members of the order Crocodilia. The management cooperates with National Geographic, conservation organizations, and universities on research and preservation projects, and the live animal collection now includes representatives of all 21 members of the order Crocodilia, including some really strange looking ones, like gharials from India.
What they have the most of, of course, are American alligators, including albino 'gators:
The Alligator Farm has a few other critters in its collection, like some remarkably ugly birds from Africa, various snakes (e.g., a king cobra), a komodo dragon, and Galapagos tortoises.
The park is nicely done. It's laid out in a way that means you never have to backtrack (unless it's by choice), the interpretive signage is quite good, and it really is more than just alligators, although the Crocodilian theme is everywhere:  in the art, the signage, benches, even door handles:

The doors, incidentally, lead into a building where a humongous stuffed New Guinea crocodile (Gomek) is on display. The beast was captured in New Guinea in the 1980s and sold to a private collector, who then sold him to the Alligator Farm. Gomek was apparently quite docile for a salt-water crocodile (all crocodiles are more aggressive than the typical alligator, and salt-water crocodiles especially so) so keepers were able to get quite close to him to do feeding demonstrations. Park visitors loved it. Gomek died of old age at a length of over 17 feet -- I watched the video tape of Gomek being handed nutrias and decided the keeper was flatout insane to be on the same side of the fence. But then I thought the keeper in the alligator pen busy handing out dead white rats was pretty crazy, too. 

Then again, he was pretty careful about not turning his back on the ones that were closest to him. The enclosure had a total of about 50 large alligators; ten of them each get tossed a rat when they do the shows, which means they're all guaranteed some fur and bone to crunch on a couple times per week, but their normal diet consists of alligator chow -- a mix of various ingredients that's been developed to include all the nutrients 'gators require and that apparently comes in bars about the size of motel-room soaps.

Another part of the park has a boardwalk over water filled with gators -- there are dispensers where for a quarter you get a small handful of alligator chow pellets you can toss at the beasts. I had no real interest in watching 'gators gathering like koi to wait for a handout, but that definitely wasn't true of all park visitors. The beasts have gotten so used to the handouts that if you pause to lean on the railing and just contemplate the view, pretty quickly there's a whole herd of 'gators in the water below, all doing the reptilian equivalent of a "feed me, feed me" dance. 
All in all, I thought the place gave good value for the cost of admission. Don't know if I'd go back unless I happened to have one of the grandkids in tow, but I'll recommend it to anyone else heading for St. Augustine for a weekend.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Georgia has been on our list of places we wanted to visit, at least briefly, since we moved to Atlanta. Maybe it was all those years of reading Pogo in the comic strips, but I've always been curious about the "land of trembling earth," and so has the S.O.

Visitors to Okefenokee have several choices on how to approach the swamp: there's the Suwanee Canal Recreation Area operated by the US Fish & Wildlife Service on the east side, Stephen C. Foster State Park on the west, and a private park (Okefenokee Swamp Park) on the north. There are also a couple other locations where a person can launch a boat, but don't have any other services. Both the recreation area and the state park have various amenities (visitor center, cafe, boat rentals, etc.). If a person has the time, there are guided boat trips, and it's also possible to go camping, although the number of wilderness sites that are accessible by canoe or kayak is limited.  The state park does have cabins and campsites, and, prior to our trip, I did look into what the costs would be for a cabin rental there. (I may complain about the state of Georgia, but the state park system does have a decent web site and on-line reservation system.) We decided to go in through the east entrance.
After wandering into the Visitor Center and sitting through a short, vertigo-inducing film (seeing the swamp from a dragon fly's perspective can be a tad disorienting), we decided to take the tour road over to an area -- Chesser Island -- with a boardwalk, observation tower, and a historic homestead. The homestead is interesting. The house was built in the early part of the 20th century using sawmill construction, and is beautifully preserved.
According to the volunteer docent hanging out at the homestead, when the last family members left, they donated quite a few items to Fish & Wildlife to ensure the interior of the house would be preserved in as original condition as possible. I'm always a little dubious when I hear claims like that, especially if it's been 50 years since the last family member left, but you never know. At least they (Fish & Wildlife) didn't burn it down or abandon it, which puts them way ahead of a lot of national parks when it comes to preserving vernacular construction and local history.
Sawmill construction is a technique that was used a lot down South. It's probably structurally the weakest way possible to build a house, but when the structure is fairly small, the roofing material is light weight, and you don't have to worry about snowloads, it's a fast, easy way to throw up a building. There are no wall studs to speak of, just corner posts, and sometimes even those are pretty feeble looking. It's one of those building techniques that causes engineers and architects to do a double-take and wonder out loud that sawmill houses over 100 years old are still standing.
The exterior of the house has battens, another typical feature of sawmill houses.
It's also typical southern construction in that the entire structure rests on piers -- blocks of wood -- that strike me as being much too far apart. There seem to be a lot of houses in the south that specialize in defying gravity, perched on piers (usually loose laid field stone) that look extremely unstable. These piers didn't look unstable, just not close enough together.

The white sand around the house, incidentally, is typical of the area. It's a very fine beach sand; at one time the area was shallow ocean bottom. Rural families in the Okefenokee area would keep the area around their houses raked so there'd be a wide strip of naked sand between the buildings and the forest; it served as an ideal fire break in an environment (pine forest) where fire is common.

After touring the homestead, we continued on our way to the boardwalk and observation tower. The walk to the tower is nice -- the boardwalk kind of meanders and has a couple short side trails to provide different perspectives. 
The tower itself gives a nice overview of the swamp. You can see the mix: open water, grassy areas that from a distance look solid but aren't, and the pine-covered islands -- areas where the land is a little higher and drier. Photo at the top was taken from the tower. There were other visitors there at the same time, and it seemed like we were all interested in the same thing:  seeing an alligator in the wild. One woman claimed she could see an alligator from the tower, but the only thing visible to me was a herd of turtles sunning themselves on a mudbank. 

We did see an alligator while at Okefenokee, but it wasn't anywhere near the observation tower. On the drive in, we had noticed a couple motorcyclists had stopped to look at something in the ditch next to the road. On the way out, we stopped, too, and there he was -- spitting distance from the pavement.
Odd how one 'gator by itself is kind of neat, but a zillion of them hanging out together in an enclosure at the Alligator Farm was really, really creepy.

Having been to Okefenokee once, it's now been added to the list of places I'd like to see more of. Maybe next time we'll rent a cabin at the state park and do a guided boat trip from that side.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

So what happens if we do shut down?

According to a recent report prepared by the Congressional Research Service, the results won't be quite what the teabaggers are hoping for.

1. Nonessential personnel (like clerks at the Social Security administration) get furloughed. So if you think a disability claim takes forever to be processed now, things could be about to get a whole lot worse. Then, when/if the furlough ends, those nonessential personnel may or may not get retroactive pay -- in other words, it's possible we'll be locked out of our jobs but will still get paid later for the time we spend sitting at home, meaning a recalcitrant irrational Congress will have inconvenienced the public without saving anyone a dime.

There was some speculation at our staff meeting today about quietly working remotely so we don't fall too far behind on getting the journal out, but apparently if a shutdown occurs, it will be a true shutdown: LNA's intranet will go down, at least in terms of remote access. Which is actually fine with me -- I like my job, but I'm not too keen on doing it for free.

It's possible all the public .gov websites will vanish, too, for the interim. I find myself thinking it's a shame the Global Positioning satellite system is considered essential by the military, because it would be a real nice wake-up call to everyone if they got up on March 5 and discovered their cars could no longer tell them how to find Starbucks. (And now I'm wondering just how many people even realize the GPS system is a U.S. government system? Probably about 1 out of a 1000, if that.) 

2. Personnel involved in military, law enforcement, or direct provision of health care activities (current inpatient and emergencies) keep right on working.  The good news: the nursing assistants at the VA hospitals will continue emptying bedpans. The bad news: TSA won't miss a beat in indulging in anal probes at the airport. Agencies are also allowed to keep sufficient numbers of personnel working to protect life and property (e.g., the Forest Service will send timber markers home, but can keep firefighters on standby). 

During the last government shutdown, back in the 1990s, some of the stuff that happened included the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopping disease surveillance, the National Institutes of Health stopped accepting new patients into clinical research, 368 units of the National Park Service closed to the public as did national museums like the Smithsonian, passport and visa applications stopped being processed, and various nonemergency services to veterans ceased.

Whether or not the shutdown will actually happen is still debatable, of course, but given the current atmosphere in DC, I'm happy I have hobbies to keep me busy if I get an unexpected unpaid vacation.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Training day

I spent 7 hours in a classroom today learning how to effectively telework. I'm not sure just how useful the training was, or if our branch is ever going to implement telework as a routine option so I'll have a chance to apply some of what I learned today, but the networking at trainings is always interesting. Trainings are one of the few places where people from the different branches at Large Nameless Agency get to interact and swap agency gossip.

Not that there was much gossip of interest today--the only thing that came out was that the Director is a workaholic who assumes that if you're an employee who's been unlucky enough to be put on an electronic tether (aka the Crackberry) you're prepared to answer that thing 24/7. I got the distinct impression he thinks people shower with their smart phones so they can respond instantly to texts, e-mails, you name it. Once again I found myself thinking there are times when it pays to be low in the food chain.  I like my job, at least most of the time, but it's not my life.

The other hot topic was the impending government shutdown. The overall feeling is that it will happen, it will be followed by passage of a spending bill that includes massive funding cuts, those cuts will affect LNA, and there are going to be significant problems down the road. It's hard to say just where those hits will occur, although my personal preference would be for LNA to start jettisoning some of the contractors we use. I've never been able to figure out how any agency can justify paying contractors more per hour than a direct employee would receive for doing that same job, but I see it happening all the time at LNA -- so much for the ideology of the marketplace that claims the private sector can do everything and anything cheaper and more efficiently than federal employees.

As for teleworking, I would love to have the chance to try it. Our manager is not a fan -- she's turned down numerous requests in the past -- but she may no longer have a choice. It used to be a case of the employee having to justify why he or she should be allowed to telework; the new policy (effective any day now) will be that the managers will have to justify why not. It's a notable shift in perspective, and should increase the numbers of people working from home considerably.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Random thoughts

We spent Presidents Day weekend in St. Augustine, Florida, extreme eastern end of the Spanish el camino Real (the other end's in San Diego), one of the all-time tourist meccas, and home of the famous Alligator Farm. It occurred to me (again) that one of the many things I have to be thankful for is that I'm not stuck working in a public contact job in a town that depends on tourism to survive. Sitting and watching the hordes of tourists for awhile can convince almost anyone that whenever humanity's evolutionary peak occurred, we're well past it now and are quickly sliding back down into the muck.

It also struck me while tourist watching that, wow, we really are a Fat, Fat nation. I'm one of those people who tends to be a skeptic about the much hyped and dreaded Obesity Epidemic and what it's doing to us as a country, but, holy shit, there are a lot of unbelievably fat young people wandering around. It can't just be the fast food and ready availability of empty calories; there's got to be something environmental happening -- either that, or we're devolving into shmoos. 

Other stuff I learned:  Really tall lighthouses are hard to photograph. If you're close enough to see the stuff at the base, you're too close to get a non-distorted shot of the whole thing. The St. Augustine light has a focal plane of 161 feet so you spend a lot of time working on developing a nice crick in your neck while wandering around the grounds trying to figure out the best angles from which to mediate the experience through technology. The light does, however, have its original 1874 first order Fresnel still sitting in it, still lit every every night, and looking really nifty after sunset.

The least crowded space on a sunny February weekend in St. Augustine is the beach. All the tourists are back in town stocking up on overpriced chocolate and tacky, tacky souvenirs made in Spain and Mexico, as well as the inevitable dried alligator heads.

And, for what it's worth, seeing a whole lot of live alligators en masse is more than a bit creepy. Yeah, they're remarkably slow and awkward out of the water, so even I could probably outrun one, but I still don't ever want to come close enough to any in the wild to put it to the test.

Shared sacrifices

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Ocmulgee National Monument

Ocmulgee National Monument has one of the niftiest Visitor Centers I've seen in a long time. The 1930s architecture grabbed my attention so thoroughly I almost forgot about the rest of the park -- I recommend clicking on the photo above to get a closer look at that decorative frieze. The park itself is a little over 700 acres right on the edge of Macon, Georgia, and was created to preserve the archeological resources at the site. The park museum has an impressive collection of artifacts and interesting interpretive displays. The site was a major Native American settlement prior to the arrival of Europeans; several sizable mounds remain, including a large temple mound.  
 The Monument was created by executive order in 1936. Much of the work at the park was done using WPA funding, including reconstructing an earth covered structure. The earth lodge is interesting, and I've no doubt the interpretive material is reasonably accurate, but there was something a bit bizarre about walking around to the back of it and seeing the grates for the ventilating system.
Of course, the ventilation grates in the earth lodge weren't the only unintentionally amusing sights at the park.  After we climbed to the top of the temple mound, up the stairs pictured here,
having negotiated quite a few sets of stairs, we step off the landing at the top, walk out a few feet to admire the view of Macon and I-16, look back, and see this:
It's ramped. After climbing a zillion steps, it turns out the step down on to the mound itself is ramped. Bizarre. 

I have no idea how the park maintenance guys get the lawn mowers up there to cut the grass, but they obviously do -- the sides of the mound aren't manicured, but the top is like a lawn.
The park has a number of trails that meander around in the woods, so a person can spend a pleasant hour or two ambling (or jogging, if so inclined). There's also a park road that winds around from the Visitor Center to the temple mound for visitors who want to see the major mounds but aren't up to walking quite that far.

Update: The other side of the earth-lodge. The passageway isn't particularly easy for anyone much above 4 feet tall, but the interior room (once you get there) is surprisingly large.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

More cake! Happy birthday, Val

It's my youngest sister's birthday, and for a change I actually remembered.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Break out the cake - it's Darwin Day!

The cat came back

I am feeling remarkably cheerful this morning, although I'm not sure why. It was not a particularly fun week at work -- had to do substantive editing (aka major rewriting) on a couple papers to save the authors from potential embarrassment. One schmuck conflated domestic ferrets with black-footed ones, which is a rather wince-inducing blooper when the critters are completely different species. It would be knd of like confusing coyotes and cocker spaniels (both canids, but for sure not the same canid), and definitely not something any thinking person would want sliding into print.

The author, of course, did not fall into the thinking person category. I'm not sure if he's pissed because I changed his precious prose or because I, a nonbiologist, spotted what is an elementary error, but pissed he was. Too bad. I don't particularly care if he makes a fool of himself, but I'm not letting junk science slide into the journal. I have no clue how the blooper slid past the peer reviewers, although to be honest I'm not sure I would have picked up on the error if I hadn't edited a couple of the articles cited in the reference section and knew they didn't say what the author was suggesting they said.

One of my little obsessive-compulsive fact-checking things tends to be the references -- I've never been too keen on authors who sprinkle a lot of citations through an article, dropping numbers here and there like fresh cilantro on a tostada, but clearly don't know what's actually in the stuff they're referencing. I'm not sure if you'd call it tertiary citing or what, but I see authors all the time where something gets cited because somebody else cited it because somebody else cited it. You have to wonder just how long it's been since anyone went back and looked at the original paper. Sometimes it's a token genuflection (must bow in the direction of the Great Man who did the seminal work in this field) and sometimes it's the result of a quick lit search that pulls a list of titles -- and the author says, Aha, this one sounds like it applies to what I did! and plugs it into the citations list without ever bothering to look beyond the title (or to make sure it's in a language he or she is likely to be able to read; the fact the title is in English on PubMed doesn't guarantee the article itself isn't written in Swedish).

Then, on top of dealing with idiot authors too dumb to realize copy editors exist to make authors look good, we've been working short-handed. One of the other editors has been out sick since before Christmas, and it's beginning to catch up with us. We started falling far enough behind schedule on getting things into production that the Editor-in-Chief actually pulled a few things from the Table of Contents to shrink the size of an upcoming issue and give us some breathing room.

So why am I in a good mood?

Captain Jack is back. The Captain is a battered, definitely been through the wars feral tom that's been hanging around this apartment complex since we moved here in 2007. He's a domestic shorthair with Sylvester coloring, a broken tail, and torn ears, is missing an eye, and is covered with scar tissue. He's like an old pirate, hence, Captain Jack. You can tell this guy is a scrapper -- and you can also tell he stays busy. Every time we see feral kittens around, they're miniature versions of Captain Jack.

He's been looking like he's led a tough, adventure-filled life since I first spotted him several summers ago. I'm not sure just how many lives he's burnt through, but it's got to be several. Every time I see him around, I wish I could adopt the dude -- he's earned a soft pillow and a peaceful retirement -- but he's definitely the most feral of the semi-feral cats that call this complex home. There are several clowders living in the crawl spaces under the buildings. The manager tolerates them because he figures they keep rats and mice away. Some of the other cats are mellow enough that they might make adoptable pets, but the Captain doesn't have much use for people.

About a year ago, the maintenance man spotted the Captain sprawled next to the driveway. The cat looked really, thoroughly dead. Didn't move. So the maintenance man got out a shovel, tried sliding it under the cat, still no movement -- he had to grab him by the tail to drag him on to the shovel. The cat remained totally limp. Then he walked across the street and flipped the "body" over the chain link fence into the patch of woods there.

The next day the cat was back, looking like he always did.

I had been thinking maybe this time the Captain was gone for good -- I hadn't seen him around for a couple months -- but when I left for work Thursday morning, there he was, sleeping under my car, no doubt nursing sore feet and a hangover and regretting the latest tatoo.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Get a flu shot, Bucky

I think I spent the longest 5 minutes of my life at work this afternoon. It was like being back in grade school, where you stare at the clock trying to force the hands to move so you can make your escape. I would have sworn I had been editing a paper on influenza killing badgers and ferrets for several hours. . . checked the clock, and I don't think the time had changed at all.

On the bright side, who would have guessed that badgers would be susceptible to influenza A? The list of species that either carry influenza A strains or are susceptible to them keeps growing. It's like each time a paper comes out saying "Influenza in giant anteater" or "Influenza in Canadian skunks" another set of researchers looks around for some other mammal with a cough and says, We can top that. Let's check that beast out.  And, lo and behold, influenza A in dogs, cats, ferrets (both domestic and black-footed), bearcats, badgers, and more. 

And, just in case you're wondering how someone got close enough to a skunk to hear it coughing, the fine furry friends were being raised on a "mink" ranch. 

Monday, February 7, 2011

Pulitzer Project: Now in November

Now in NovemberEver read a book and have a "well, just how am I supposed to describe this one" reaction? That's what Now in November, the 1935 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, did to me. The writing is lovely, lyrical, but the plot line is one long exercise in proving that just when you think things can't get any worse, they do.
The story focuses on a family that has moved back to the family farm for unspecified reasons, although there's a general impression that whatever business the head of the household had been in previously had failed. The farm had been in the Haldmarne family since the Civil War, but it had been many years since any Haldmarnes had lived there. The property had been rented  to tenant farmers, and then just allowed to be fallow until the current generation of Haldmarnes found themselves forced to use it as a safety net -- and it's a safety net with holes. It turns out the land is mortgaged, so the family has to worry about selling enough produce or livestock to keep the bank at bay.

The narration is from the point of view of one of the family's three daughters; she makes it clear while describing their move to the farm that, although her father had done farmwork, the work is still more than one man can do by himself, but he doesn't want his daughters helping, so, on top of his other worries, he has to figure out how to pay for a hired hand. He manages to find hands locally who are willing to work for room, board, and shares (a portion of the proceeds of whatever crop they manage to sell), although that arrangement is rife with uncertainty, too.
"Much of everything, it seemed afterward, was like that beginning,--changing and so balanced between wind and sun that there was neither good nor evil that could be said to outweigh the other wholly. And even then we felt we had come to something both treacherous and kind, which be could be trusted only to be inconstant, and would go its own way as though we were never born."
Still, the family apparently muddles along for about ten years. The craziest sister graduates from high school and then gets a job as a school teacher at the local one room grade school; the other two sisters remain on the farm helping their parents as best they can. Money's tight, but they're managing until drought hits. It's the third dry year in a row, and the worst yet. Crops wither in the fields, the price of milk being paid by the local dairy drops, things get worse and worse.

Things end badly, of course. Their homecanned produce spoils because the rings were cheap and didn't hold a seal. One of the neighbors falls, breaks a hip, and becomes bedridden and senile overnight. Another, a tenant farmer, ends up evicted because he's unable to pay the rent. Two of the sisters fall in love with the hired hand who, naturally enough, is in the love with the third one, who views him only as a friend. The crazy sister, the one who had been bringing in some money by working as a schoolteacher, loses her tenuous grasp on reality and slashes her wrists. (And even as they fishing her out of the watering trough in the sheep pen, the narrator is wondering how they're going to manage without her income.) Their mother is horribly burned when a grassfire threatens the farm buildings. And so it goes -- one calamity after another. Beautifully written, and incredibly depressing.

Next up, Honey in the Horn by Harold L. Davis -- another book and author I'd never heard of prior to starting this project.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Feeling old

I scanned another tray of my dad's slides recently. He took hundreds of slides starting sometime in the 1960s and continuing until he died in 1996. I bought a scanner with a slide attachment a couple years ago with the intention of scanning them all as soon as possible, but of course I didn't. It's a time consuming process, and I've never been noted for my patience.

It's been kind of an odd experience, going through the slides and realizing that at the time the Old Man took them, he was considerably younger than I am now.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Why am I not surprised?

Was listening to the local news this morning -- the lead story was about a DeKalb School District principal who resigned and is about to lose her Georgia teaching certification because of irregularities with the CRCT procedures at her school. I can never remember what the abbreviation stands for, but it's the achievement testing all kids in Georgia are subjected to at various points in their school career. It's tied to (of course) the whole No Child Left Behind standards and whether or not schools are considered to be meeting whatever goals the schools are supposed to meet if they want to keep on receiving enough money to continue functioning.

There's been a lot of pissing and moaning about the sad state of education and teaching to test, i.e., drilling the little barracudas to spew out the right answers so they manage to color in the proper circles on the multiple choice op-scan sheets. Less attention has been paid to a couple of the inevitable consequences:  rampant cheating in various forms (letting the kids collaborate on answers, actually providing answers to the group as a whole, altering score sheets after the fact -- all of which have been well-documented in Georgia) and thinning the herd to make sure only the smart/well-trained students are still enrolled on the days the tests are administered.

This latest DeKalb scandal is an example of the latter. An elementary school principal has admitted she expelled ("unenrolled") at least 19 low-achieving students so they wouldn't be part of the officially enrolled student body on the days the CRCT was being given. The story given to the parents was their kids were being given the boot due to truancy or poor attendance, but then they were allowed to re-enroll once the testing was safely over.

You know, it doesn't surprise me at all that high schools try to skew their statistics by ejecting (or encouraging to drop out) any and all problem students (a group that can include everyone from well-behaved kids with learning disabilities to hard-core delinquents), but the idea of expelling elementary students? That is flat out wrong on so many levels. . . No wonder home schooling is a growth industry.