Category: Humor

Planetary Defense



Like many people, I have an interest in the idea that the Earth has been the victim of a multitude of asteroid impacts, over the Eons, and might become targeted again.  Unlike many people, I have looked up the orbital parameters and mass for some near-Earth asteroids and applied Kepler’s Laws to estimate what effort might be necessary to change the path of a potential Earth-impacting planetoid. 


Figure 1:  There was a movie about this

 What I found was that it would be extremely expensive, but within the realm of possibility. Well, damn the expense!  If it can be done, we would do it or suffer the consequences.  I used the Cassini Saturn-orbiting probe as my example of “current technology”, which tells other Space Nerds how long ago that activity occurred.

 The scenario was that we should launch a mass the size of Cassini with that probe’s velocity to collide with the asteroid – not to blast it into pieces, because that would not be nearly enough.  Rather it would be to change the orbit – to delay (or advance, works either way) the arrival by one Earth radius.  The idea being that when the threatening asteroid got to its intercepting point, the Earth would not yet (or no longer) be there.


Figure 2:  Cassini:  Now, I don’t mean to ram billion-dollar space probes into asteroids.  I just used this as an example of what mass has been launched before – at what velocity.

The truth is that I don’t remember* how many “Cassini masses” would be required, but I seem to remember that it was at least 20, so we will go with that.   After all (and as I pointed out at the time) Boeing would be happy to launch 20 measly rockets, just to have the “Boeing Saves the World” press coverage.  That choice of Boeing* is another indicator of the age of this calculation.  Today, I reckon SpaceX would be the contractor of choice.  Tell me Elon Musk wouldn’t be happy to get that media coverage! 

 There are a lot of details that make this far more complicated than I might have led you to believe.  For example, Cassini only got out to Saturn by making “slingshot” passes of Venus (twice), the Earth and Jupiter.  It is actually the velocity that is the critical element and a very great deal of that was gained by those encounters.  I have assumed that we learn of impending doom long before the pending event, since Cassini was launched in 1997 and arrived at Saturn in 2004. 

It also took a long time to engineer the craft and develop the mission but, we imagine that development of a simple impactor would be vigorously expedited, given the circumstances.  It might be better to just send a big bag of sand.  And one might entertain the idea of releasing the sand from the bag just before impact to spread it out some.  See, you don’t want to make a lot of fragments, since those will undoubtedly have a variety of orbits, some of which might still intersect the Earth.

 One complicating problem about all this was pointed out by Carl Sagan.  If I change the orbit of the asteroid and don’t do the job in “one fell swoop”, the effect is to move the location of impact, not into space, but to another location on Earth.  Sagan compared this to “walking” a very large Nuclear bomb across whatever countries are between the initial impact zone and the “edge of the planet”.  Carl had in mind some kind of rocket placed on the asteroid that would gradually move the impact zone.  I checked that idea and it requires a lot of “rocketry” and so lots of logistics and assembly and fueling.  My simple-minded “throwing rocks” (or sandbags) scenario was a lot less complicated but still not in the “one fell swoop” category.

Now, I told you all that so I could tell you this:

I am currently attending the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.  This is the 50th such conference and it is no coincidence that the moon landing was also 50 years ago.  The Conference “proper” has yet to start.  I have just finished the second of two sessions of  what is called the Microsymposium 60 – a “preliminary” event, like the no-name band that opens for Pink Floyd*.   

 *Shall I just put an asterisk on these “tells” for how old I am? LPSC

Figure 3:  Lunar and Planetary Science Conference

 Microsymposium 60 (Spellcheck fails miserably when they make up words like that, so I copy-and-paste these things) was all about how there is now a “Moon Rush” of private contractors and government effort to return to the moon.  That sort of news is usually hyperbole*, but this time it might be different.  Government will probably not come through anytime soon, but there is a moon lander by a private company that – if all goes well – will land on April 11…this year!  I just learned that in Microsymposium 60.


Figure 4:  Space IL Beresheet probe. This was a Lunar X-Prize entry, but the X-prize expired un-won.  They went on anyway.

Other private companies have been making moon landers, too.  They are ready to go and showing their wares (along with Instrument Makers) to eager planetary scientists today and throughout the Conference.  In case you think these are lightweights, among the presenters were Lockheed Martin and SpaceX. Some of the lesser known companies have made equipment and whole probes before.  A company called Masten has made over 600 flights, (many with landings) to date.


Figure 5:  Masten

Microsymposium 60 will be the subject of yet another post (or magazine article).  This post is to reveal where I am about to go listen to technical presentations for three hours this afternoon.  Notice (below) that this is for “the media”.  Yup, I am “credentialed” Working Press (it says so, right here on my plastic badge) for the entire Convention.

Workshop for the Media on Planetary Defense
at the 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference

Everything you’ve always wanted to know about near-Earth objects and planetary defense: a workshop for journalists and science writers. (that’s  me! – Steve)

Sunday, March 17, 3:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. (4:00 p.m. EDT, GMT -5)
The Woodlands Waterway Marriott Hotel and Convention Center
Indian Springs

The workshop is free but places are limited, so registration is required.

In this three-hour workshop, experts will report on the methods and status of finding, tracking, and characterizing near-Earth objects (NEOs) and planning for planetary defense. Plenty of time will be provided for questions and discussion.


Journalists and science writers will have an opportunity to learn about such developments as:

  • Progress in ground-based optical and radar observations of near-Earth asteroids and comets.
  • Advances in modeling and understanding atmospheric, land, and water impacts of NEOs.
  • Current understanding of NEO characteristics.
  • NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirect Test, the first mission that will demonstrate an asteroid deflection technique (the kinetic impactor).
  • Functions of the Minor Planet Center, the International Asteroid Warning System, and the Space Missions Planning Advisory Group.
  • The first test of the global asteroid-impact warning system and plans for a second test.
  • Interagency and international cooperation on planning for planetary defense.
  • The status of planning for a dedicated, space-based asteroid detection telescope.

Experts on hand will include:

  • NASA Planetary Defense Officer Lindley Johnson
  • NASA NEO Observations Program Manager Kelly Fast
  • NASA Planetary Defense Coordination Office Program Executive Rob Landis
  • NASA NEO Observations Program Scientist Michael Kelley
  • University of Arizona Associate Professor, Small Bodies, Situational Awareness, Vishnu Reddy
  • Near Earth Object Camera (NEOCAM) Principal Investigator Amy Mainzer, Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Hasta Luego,



The Leonids? Are They in Town Again?

trimmed_beard_stevecu(I was rummaging around on some thumb drives and found this from 2001.  The Alert Reader will point out that USB drives were not around then.  True.  This was in a folder called “Floppy_Recovery”.  I actually bought a 3 ½ inch floppy disk drive and copied a pile of floppies into this particular USB some years back.  I added some “file photos” that would never have fit on a floppy, anyway).                Homepage


The Leonids are neither a sixties group, nor a box of stronger breath mints, nor followers of a religion devoted to a deity named Leon ,  as you may have thought by the name but rather an event that takes place once a year around November 18th, when meteors rain down from the general direction of a point in the sky near the constellation Leo.  Well, perhaps “rain” is a misleading choice of words since the normal Leonid meteor “shower” consists of one meteor every few minutes and I personally have sat out in the November damp chill and not seen a meteor for fifteen or twenty minutes at a time.  Only the most demented Astronomy Nerds (A.N.’s) would put up with the amount of inconvenience involved to see what, for the non-Astronomy Nerd is less interesting than counting the number of cars with one headlight at four in the morning on a dark stretch of country road.

It is especially taxing for the urban A.N. because it involves a trip out of town of at least an hour to an isolated dark spot.  You might think that there are plenty of dark spots out there, but I dare you to find one!  About anywhere you can drive to in an hour around here (here is Houston) is lit either by passing cars or billboard lights or gleaming florescent signs.  In Texas, more than a few of the people who like to hang out in the country also like to mount a half dozen searchlights on their vehicles.   The one hope is to find a State Park and even then the non-Astronomy Nerds will wander around all night with flashlights that could illuminate the Grand Canyon.   They mean no harm, you understand, but these folks have never heard of the concept of night vision and routinely put their beam of light directly on your face as a sort of a greeting. and say “Hi! Whacha’ doin’?”

There is one exception, a state park that actually has made an effort to keep illumination off the sky and provided areas down twisting footpaths away from the roads where one can find uninterrupted darkness.  It’s Brazos Bend State Park and there is a nice dark place get a wide angle view of the sky or to set up telescopes. If you go there, please keep the flashlight use to a minimum and never illuminate anyone’s face. I didn’t manage to reserve a campsite early enough because all the other Astronomy Nerds thought four months ahead as opposed to my three.   I did find a spot in Stephen F. Austin State Historical Park.  It’s located near San Felipe which was the capital of newly declared independent Texas before it was burned to prevent it from falling to the advancing Mexican Army, who wanted Texas to be dependent again.  There are some reconstructed buildings (one’s a museum), statues and historical markers near the park entrance.  (Trivia question:  What does the F. in Stephen F. Austin stand for?)



Those unfamiliar with astronomical events always assume that you will be looking at a meteor shower with a telescope.  As an exercise to prove how silly that is, extend your arm at the sky with your thumb up.  That tiny piece of sky covered by your thumb is many times the field of view of an average telescope.   You could see more of the sky by looking through a two-foot-long pipe than through a telescope!  Meteors happen all over the sky, during a shower or otherwise.  Why on earth would you limit your view to a tiny patch of sky?

It is obvious that hardly anyone bothers to look at the sky anymore.  I’ve had people swear to me that they’ve seen the space station hovering overhead (turned out to be Jupiter).   Others expect to see Venus always near the moon.  A few are not even aware that the moon can be seen in the daytime. But, shoot, is there any real reason for your average person to look at the sky these days?  Especially urban dwellers for whom the night sky is a brown haze, illuminated from below, at the best of times?

Stephen F. Austin

I go out to see these things because I find it fascinating but I am aware that some do not share my enthusiasm.  Nevertheless, I dragged my wife and children along on this last expedition.  When I make the journey with other A.N.’s   we throw lawn chairs in the trunk and leave at midnight.  Provisions such as beef jerky and Shiner Bock beer (with appropriate designated driver, of course) are to be found in fueling depots along the way.  Stay up most of the night, doze off in the chairs and drive back with stiff necks in the morning.  This will not do for a family outing, however.  Especially with small children…who will only stay awake at night when you desperately want them to sleep.

It becomes a regular camping trip, then, complete with tent, sleeping bags, flashlights, blankets, pillow, portable propane stove and an ice chest with the entire contents of the kitchen refrigerator (as opposed to the garage refrigerator).  Might as well take along the telescope (for looking at planets and stars, not meteors, you understand) and the bicycles because we’ll have some daylight hours to kill.  Appropriate stuffed animals and annoying hand held electronic games to keep the offspring occupied.   The target for leaving had been ten o’clock.  It was eleven thirty when we left.

SFA_Park              The first thing we found out at the campsite is that we have forgotten what to do on camp-outs.  We rode bicycles, walked around for a while and played twenty questions.  It was still only four o’clock in the afternoon and we were sitting around looking at each other. So we did what any bored campers would do, we went into town.  Not really into town, but that peninsula of fast-food and big-box retail that grew up around the interstate.  There we bought charcoal, which we’d forgotten.  I’m not sure how we were planning to cook the hotdogs for dinner unless we boiled them on the propane stove…in a pot, which we also forgot.  And while it might be possible to roast marshmallows over a propane flame, I doubt it would be much fun.  Of course, any cooking would require matches, which we had also forgotten.

“So,” you are perhaps thinking, “Just when is he going to get to the part about the meteor shower?”

Meteor showers are best after midnight ’cause that’s when the Earth (the part of Earth where it’s after midnight, that is) is plowing “head-on” into this cloud of dust that makes meteors.  The cloud itself has been spewed out along the orbit of a comet that crosses the Earth’s orbit.  Now, I know what you’re thinking.  It’s the same question reporters ask astronomers (in an urgent voice) every time the subject of comets and or near Earth asteroids comes up.

You’re thinking “Crosses the Earth’s orbit!  But what if it hit the Earth?”

Relax, you are far more likely to be struck by lightning, hit by a bus and bitten by a shark, all simultaneously.  The orbits don’t actually cross but just come close enough to where the Earth will run into that scattered dust cloud.  And, even if they did cross exactly, then a collision would require that they both arrive at the same point in their orbits at the same time, which almost never happens neither.

So, there are times when there is a particularly thick cloud of dust that we happen upon.   Not really thick, but just relatively thick, it’s still a dead ringer for absolute emptiness.   That’s what’s called a meteor storm.  Or the shower is said “to storm”.

Like this:  “I understand that some predictions say the Leonids are going to storm this year”

This is a particularly cool thing to say around Astronomy Nerds because somebody is always predicting a “storm” and so you would sound like you actually know what you’re talking about.  Of course you would be saying this to impress a bunch of people who hang out in the dark all night, staring up at the sky, so I’m not sure how useful this advice is.

The Leonids were supposed to storm last year, too – and the year before.  I made the trip back then with the largest of my two sons and we saw a few good meteors.  I always thought it would be cool if I could call them “My Three Sons” like the early sixties sitcom but I only have the two.  I suppose I could say “three” if I count the cat who is indeed a male albeit a “repaired” one. (Fixed?  Heck, I didn’t even know he was broken!) .

Yes, I know, you’d like to hear about the meteor shower.  Well, I arose after a fitful few hours of sleep to look at the sky and was extremely disappointed to see a complete cloud cover. I wasn’t surprised because this sort of thing happens all the time with meteor showers ’round here.  I sat down in my lawn chair to be miserable about it for a while.

While we are sitting here being miserable, let us discuss the difference between meteors, meteorites and meteoroids.  Way out in space is the particle of dust or bit of rock or chunk of stone that is cruising along, unaware that it is about to run into a planet.  That is a meteoroid.  Anything that ends with “oid” is out in space and usually relatively small.  I say relatively because a “planetoid” or “asteroid” can be the size of, say, North Dakota and still be small when compared to a planet or an asteroid like Ceres, which is bigger than Texas.  When this unsuspecting meteoroid actually passes through the atmosphere it makes a streak of light that can be seen by all the Astronomy Nerds and anyone else foolish enough to be out in the cold, damp night, assuming its not completely clouded over like now.  That is a meteor.  Most of these streak-makers – the vast majority – burn up completely, but a meteorite is a chunk of rock that you can pick up off the ground that once was a meteoroid and made a meteoric flash of light before its arrival.

Meteorite                                                   Meteoroid                                      Meteor

I used to say wait till it cools off before you pick it up, but a meteorite, (I find out) by the time it hits the ground, has slowed to mere “falling rock” speed and has cooled off considerably.  I suppose it might still be warm, but it won’t be red hot.  Small comfort to anyone who happens to be in its path.  Relax!  As far as I know, there is only one documented case of a meteorite hitting a person.  Those who minds retain such useless information (yo!) remember seeing a black and white picture of a huge ugly bruise on the unfortunate lady’s abdomen.  She recovered.  These days meteors bring in big bucks from collectors so it might be worth the pain if it did happen.  But it’s actually far more likely that you’ll win the state lottery so hope for that instead.

I sat there for a while thinking what a bummer it was that I had planned this for months and here I was going to miss the whole thing.  I could have driven out to West Texas, maybe, where the climate tends to be drier.  I noticed a small hole in the clouds with a few stars visible and decided that maybe a few meteors would pass across it.  This is what is metaphorically called “grasping at straws”.

Over the next hour, to my great astonishment, the sky cleared off completely.  I saw a meteor, then another, then more.  It was about two A.M. with a peak expected around four.  I’d seen enough to wake up the family.  You have to be careful about waking up your family at two A.M. It is absolutely essential that you have something impressive to show them or the next time you try this silliness you’ll be out there alone.   Nobody was disappointed.   This was a major meteor storm to be sure.  At first I’d counted for a minute and found about six firm meteors.  That is to say, I’m sure they weren’t fireflies. That’s an hourly count of 360 – impressive enough.   I don’t want you to think that I did this in any scientific way.  In fact, I didn’t have my watch on.  I counted, one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two.    And since I can’t walk and chew gum, I kept a tally of meteors on my fingers.  I belong to that group that prefers the one-thousand-one method to the more popular one-mississippi method.


Around three or three thirty or so (I didn’t have my watch, remember?) I counted 12 in a minute.  Then, sometime after four there were 22 in a minute.  I had my shoes off, you see, to count toes and used eyelids and was lucky that there weren’t more than 22, or I’d never have seen ’em.

(Since then, I have learned a new method of finger-counting, which I described in “On Zeno’s Swim Team”.  It’s good up to 99. )

I didn’t have a clear view of the whole sky by any means and there was a bit of haze, but it was still an experience of a lifetime.  A published “official” count in the newspaper the next day was 1250 for the peak.  These are from people who count for an entire hour with stopwatches and click-counters.  My 22 in a minute calculates out to 1320 per hour.  Not bad for fingers and toes and “one-thousand-one”!

I kind of hated to call my friend who is a fellow Astronomy Nerd who was unable to make the trip and tell him what he missed.  I already have a cousin who’s mad at me since I described the experience.  She knew about the shower but didn’t go see it because I didn’t call up and tell her how good it would be.  Truth is, I didn’t know how good it would be either.

Trivia answer:  Stephen Fuller Austin

Hasta Luego,


Thirty Four Hours in Ripon

stevetrucker2 Transferred from WordPressmariluslogoclickhere

September 16, 2016,  2 PM Loves Truck Stop in Ripon, CA

I was on my way to Walmart in Ceres, CA in the last post.  Jill had the address for Walmart, so I wasted no time getting there.  Only I somehow missed the whole Walmart.  Turns out it was on the corner, facing the cross street, so I turned (as directed) and drove off into oblivion.  I always get a sinking feeling when that happens because I could go for many miles before I find a place to turn around.  But, I found a big, empty parking lot in just half a mile.  I pressed Jill’s “re-route” button and she sends me back the way I came.  My speed is too low because I am scanning for that blue sign, when a Walmart truck passes me.  Now I can follow him home.

I came in the wrong driveway and, even using all the pavement, I still had to hop the curb with the trailer tires.  This might not have been the first time,  because there were yellow posts just back from the curb.  The critical problem is so far away that I can’t tell if a collision is near.  Also, I am seeing it in the fish-eye mirror that makes it look even further away.  Pivoting the big rectangular mirror out lets me see enough to ease the wheels up on the curb just inches from the posts and get through.  My mouth gets very dry when I am doing things like this.

While I am shopping, the parking lot began to fill.  A few items were forgotten, but best to exit before I get trapped by cars parking around the truck.  Sometimes it seems that people think the drivers can call up Scotty and have their trucks beamed out to the highway  Believe me, I have wished that many times myself.

The next stop is 18 miles away in Ripon.  There is a Flying J (FJ) Truck stop and a Loves at the exit and following Jill’s directions puts me in a lot where I can see both signs.  Of course, these signs are on sixty foot poles and can be seen from miles away.  It is not until I have committed an hour and a half to the 34 that will reset me that I notice I am in the Loves lot, not FJ.  I could “creep” the truck over without losing that break time, if I keep the speed low.  But  after the last software update,  Jill has been saying things like “Warning! If you  keep driving it may invalidate your break, which is not finished” when I move the truck while on break.

No worries, I can walk across the street to use the shower, and I did.  The truck is in the backlot and the FJ storefront is almost the same distance away as the Loves.  I should explain that flying J was bought out by Pilot – or the other way around. In any case, my Pilot shower credits are good there, as well.    A short walk before a nap reveals that there is a supermarket just ten minutes away, past a corner of an orchard –  almond trees, it turns out.  In the morning I might make a nice stroll to buy those items I forgot at Walmart.  This is not an activity for the afternoon, since the temperature is 101° F now that we have descended into the Central Valley of California.  It was 48° in the morning in  Arizona, but that was high up in a mountain pass.

I made the shower run and after a nap, I did my laundry, also at the FJ. There was time to sweep out the cab – a never ending task since the first time I step back in from the oily, greasy and litter strewn truck lot I negate any previous cleaning.  Morning was a good time for a walk (58°F) and I made it to the Supermarket for “remainder” shopping.  I found the bakery French loaf that Walmart did not have, milk and cookies and took pictures of the almond orchard.

almondorchardandinsetAbove:  Almond trees ain’t much to look at.  These are a frequent road-side sight along this stretch of CA 99. The almonds are seeds of a fruit that you see here (inset) dried and split open.  The light brown kernel is what you see if you ever buy almonds “in the shell”.


Later, I swept out the trailer, since I may get a produce load and they are nitpicky about cleanliness.  Some even insist on a washout, so my work might have been unnecessary.  However, while normally trailers come and go, this particular trailer (15820T) has been with me for nearly two weeks now. It was there for the Great Massachusetts Beef Journey, the Frozen Catfish Sojourn, the Thirty Thousand Pounds of Bananas and the Twenty Mules Frozen Chicken dash to California.  It was there at the Ad Hoc Truck Stop and the Tire Shop at Santa Rosa. It seems like part of the family now, so I reckon it should be clean.

To be available at Two AM tomorrow when my 34 is over, I need to sleep now.  I have partaken of the previously mentioned milk and cookies as I was writing this part and they are as effective a sleep aid as any I have purchased over-the-counter at a pharmacy.

Good Night.

I was just awakening from an afternoon nap when a pre-plan came over the satellite link.  I will be taking on a produce load in Salinas and delivering it to Denton, Texas.  The pick up date is the 19th, so I sent my acceptance with a comment that I will be fully rested and ready with 11 hours of drive time and 70 hours of eight day duty at 2 AM on the 18th.  It may be that I can get an early start on this load, but I have no idea if that will be possible.  Of course, it is Saturday evening and I reckon there won’t be anyone available to ask.

This is as good a place as any to end this post and pick up with the new load later.

Over The Road,


A Long Time Ago in Argentina

SteveTrucker2  Homepage   DreamVacations   Portfolio

[In 2002, I was back working in Houston, but I was still sent to  South America, occasionally.  But, this particular post has to do with a private trip we made first to Peru where my wife’s family lives.  It was a convenient place to let the the two young sons visit their aunt,  uncle and grandmother while the wife and I sneaked off to Argentina for a week. the prices I quote seem ridiculously cheap and not all of that is inflation from then to now – as explained in the text.  I was writing “Ten Things You Should Know When Visiting (Blank)” articles, in those  days and I just hit a big vein of them in a long-untouched directory copied faithfully from computer to  computer over the years.

I can’t find any pictures of this particular trip and I think we were in a video camera phase at that time.  We still have the videotapes somewhere, but we never look at them.  Someday we will transfer those to digital media and look at the young strangers who took that trip so long ago.  Meanwhile I have scarfed a couple of “file photos” just to break up the text.  I have put in a few modern remarks which are set off from the 16-year-ago prose with brackets [like this].

  Ten Thing You Should Know When Visiting Buenos  AiresBuenosAires9deJulio

  1. The streets and freeways are quite clean, which is unusual in this part of the world. As in many cities there are “recyclers” who comb the garbage for anything of residual value but, astoundingly, they clean up after themselves with brooms and extra garbage bags.  This is probably because the Argentinos like to think of themselves as displaced Europeans.  I myself have higher ambitions than to be a European. [With no offence to my European friends intended – this was before I met y’all 😉 ]. The hotel even has European bathroom fixtures, complete with bidet.  Do you know anyone who actually uses a bidet?…’cause I don’t.


  1. The streets are about a bus and two cabs wide and that’s what one usually finds in the width of the street. That is, except for Avenida Nueve de Julio [Ninth of July Avenue] which is the widest in the world, they say.*   The sidewalks are about three feet wide – barely enough room for two to pass without stepping into the street.  And ye had best not, if ye want keep yerself in one piece, ’cause the buses zoom by, with inches to spare, at ridiculous speeds.

*[That’s it in the picture above.  If you see 10 pictures of Buenos Aires at random, five of those have this street in them]

  1. The buses themselves are 80 cents (of a Peso) and the machines you drop your coins into actually make change. Best to get a seat if you can’t reach the grab bars, ’cause these vehicles spend most of their time in robust acceleration followed by vigorous braking. For variety there are sudden lurches to the left and right.  I never found a bus schedule but the hotel staff, store clerks and food servers are most helpful in this subject, as many of them probably depend on busses.  There is a Metro (a subway, I mean to say), but I didn’t manage to see any of it.


  1. As usual, no one is marching in the street, screaming anti-American threats. The anti-American mindset exists mostly in the imagination of the press (that includes the US media), some perpetual malcontents who manage to get a lot of face time on TV and a few asinine dictators who would be universally hated in their own country if they could not whip up an anti-American frenzy as a diversion. I won’t mention names but two of  them rhyme with Bastro and Busien.  If you’re still worried about it, pretend to be from New Zealand.  Most folks don’t even know where the heck that is.  If you meet an actual Kiwi, you may have some explaining to do.


  1. The best bet for changing money is the ATM’s with several networks. They’re called “multicajeros” (mool tea kah hair ose…accent on hair).  Look for the symbol of your particular network.   You get the latest exchange rate and they are to be found in banks with armed guards standing politely about, the better not to worry about muggers.  I never have any trouble with muggers, but I am six foot three and probably weigh twice  what you do.  There are lots of armed guards in Latin American countries and they are, generally speaking, polite because they have a strong sense of self-confidence.  It has to do with the Uzi and the flack jacket.  It pays to be just as polite to them.


  1. Prices are (by law, apparently) quoted in Pesos. The symbol for Pesos is “$”.  You might have thought that was for dollars.  Apparently it began with a really skinny “P” over a regular uppercase “S”.   When, rarely, prices are quoted in US Dollars, a “U” is added before the “$” and an extra “$” is appended.  Like this:  U$$   Prices are, to say the least, astounding just now (July 2002).  Some examples of ridiculously affordable purchases: Lunch for two in a rather pleasant sidewalk cafe consisting of steak and side dish with beer and dessert:  $20  (remember – that’s  U$$ 5.63).  High quality leather jacket: $400 (about U$$ 113).  Tango show, dinner and drinks for two in a really plush dinner theater:  $220  ( U$$ 62).  I got a hand-out for a burger joint that priced the bacon double cheesburger with fries and a drink at less than one US dollar.  I was too busy at really plush dinner theaters and rather pleasant sidewalk cafes to actually eat there.


  1. One thing you never make fun of in Argentina is the Tango. Don’t worry – I didn’t learn this by painful experience, but rather by simple observation. The Tango started about a hundred years ago as a saloon dance and has evolved into a refined art form that is most highly regarded.  There are “Tango Shows” in elegant theatres where the dancers on stage perform energetic, kick intensive maneuvers that would quickly start a fist-fight on any pubic dance floor.  Instead of the original one guy with a guitar, there is an orchestra with a string section, a piano and two accordions.


[I remember this fountain, which we saw on a bus tour.  That must be the Capitol Dome behind it.  Another  bus tour took us to a Dude Ranch where Gauchos did horse-riding tricks and there was a period house with clothes and furniture of the Early 20th Century.  It was there I met the only black  man in Argentina (a tourist from Nigeria, it turns out).  He asked me to take a picture of him with one of the hats in the exhibit.  When he put it on, the “spittin’ image”  of Nat King Cole looked back at me.  It was quite a vivid impression, like having seen a ghost.  You  can tell, because I remember it to this day in 2018.  The picture below is the real Nat, of course.  That man could sing circles around most vocalists of today.  He was also an accomplished piano and banjo player.  If you can find it on Netflix or at the Redbox, watch the movie “Cat Ballou”]


  1. Another thing (or rather, person) you don’t make fun of is Eva Peron. A First Lady of renown in the fifties, she has achieved a status of near-sainthood. If you can get through a day in Buenos Aires and not see a picture of Evita, then either you were not paying attention and are in serious danger of being hit by the busses I mentioned, or you don’t know what Eva Peron looked like.


  1. There are several pedestrian streets referred to as peatonales (Pea at tone Al ess…accent on Al). These are of course lined with “retail opportunities”.  Evidently there is a long tradition of “barkers” (I don’t have a Spanish equivalent for that) who stand at strategic spots and talk up their establishment and hand out…well…hand-outs.  There are also people who want to “talk” to you for just a minute (I’m not sure what they’re up to and I don’t want to find out).  And, of  course, the depressingly common occurrence of street beggars.


  1. Don’t call home from the hotel, because they are not participating in the “ridiculously affordable” phenomenon – not on phone calls, anyway. There are telecom shops called “Locutorios” (Low coo tore ee ohs…accent on tore) where you are assigned a phone booth with a chair (they want you to be comfortable). Rates are usually posted on the front door and are reasonable.  You make all the calls you like, your accumulating charges appear on a digital readout and in the end you pay at the counter.

Buenos Aires is in the midst of a short window of opportunity for affordable travel. Argentina was well-known as an expensive place before and  I expect it will return to that status when the economy recovers.  I reckon I’ll check the news for the latest country to declare bankruptcy before I plan my next vacation.

Hasta Luego,


Santa Claus and Superman


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Think about it.


Two legendary figures. Both are instantly recognizable by their silly costumes. Both are infinitely helpful, benevolent and altruistic. Both can do amazing things that no human being could accomplish and are admired almost universally, especially among children. I’ve never seen them together, have you? What makes you think they aren’t the same guy? Who does he think he’s fooling with that phony looking beard?

Look at the similarities. Both prefer bright primary colors. Claus with his warm red suit and Superman with his stunning blue ensemble avec flashy red cape (and outside-jockey shorts) topped off by yellow highlights. Both show up unexpectedly then leave before you can thank them.

Wait just a minute! What about this Lone Ranger guy!

…Nah, he’s into earth tones and hangs out with Jay Silverheals.  Both Claus and Superman do their big work alone.

 Superman flies with no apparent help. Claus flies with the aid of reindeer, or is that just a ruse? They both exhibit an affinity for cold climates. Actually, both are commonly known to inhabit the Arctic reaches. Santa in his Workshop and Superman in the Fortress of Solitude. This you think is a coincidence?

Larry Niven pointed out that Superman had a pretty awful childhood – his folks dead, planet destroyed. He might be superhuman but just how much can any sentient life form put up with before he goes crackers? This guy’s schizophrenia is perhaps manifold. Santa might be an intermediate identity, half way between meek mild-mannered reporter and Super-hero.

Come to think of it he is already three people before you count Santa Claus.  His birth name is Kal-El (son of Jor-El of Krypton – a prosecuting attorney who looks like Marlin Brando – before the great “ballooning”).

Perhaps, orphaned and homeless himself as an infant, El/Kent/Superman engages in a forlorn form of bargaining-stage grief by dedicating one day a year to fulfilling the dreams of children…all of them. We know he wouldn’t have any trouble whipping out a few billion toys, but that might seriously cut into the time he spends catching bad guys or saving the structure of Space-Time itself.  But there is this trick he has of squeezing a lump of coal into a big, facet-cut diamond – so to provide funds to buy all the toys he might need,

I stumbled across another – and perhaps ultimate – explanation of this “Claus” persona.  There are these guys who are called “Mummers” you see.  Quoting

“Mummers tradition dates back to 400 BC and the Roman Festival of Saturnalias where Latin laborers marched in masks throughout the day of satire and gift exchange.”

The tradition has survived the intervening 24 centuries to thrive until today. 


This is an example of a modern-day Mummer.  I picked an “average” costume from  The Prize Winners are way “over-the-top” by comparison.  Something we cannot say about Santa – nor about Superman…Well, “over the top” actually may be appropriate there.

Perhaps the unwilling visitor from Krypton has adopted this ancient custom.  I believe this may be the explanation of El/Kent/Superman’s additional pseudonym (i.e., Claus). 


  • Our beloved legends are far more complicated individuals than we imagine.
  • They may be far fewer individuals that we believe,
  • This proves two long held popular “truisms”:
  1. “Go big or go home.” If you want to be different, then leave a vast gulf of space between yourself and the surrounding “different” individuals.
  2. “Crazy like a fox”. Success and insanity are by no means strangers.  The fact that Schizophrenia may be thrown in on top of it is not particularly surprising.

    So, what else is going on up there at the top of the world?

Praecepta Absurde,


On Zeno’s Swim Team

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When I was about 6 years old, my mother was a Water Safety Instructor (WSI).  And, since I had to go where she went most of the time, I learned to swim.  Not from her, you understand.  It is a well-known fact among aquatically inclined people that you cannot teach your own children to swim.  Your own children will cling to you like a second skin and refuse to let go.  They won’t do that to a total stranger – at least not until puberty.

So, Mom was teaching swimming to Intermediates which includes a child of the other WSI who is teaching Beginners – myself one.  It makes for a free child-care situation which was good because Mom had a way of spending money on things…actually many things…actually everything.

I remember once when I was being dragged out to a department store while Mom was shopping.  That happened a lot, you see.  Mom was using the ancestor of a credit card called a “Chargaplate”  – a thin metal plate with Dad’s name and a number embossed on it.  By this time, I knew that this was just an IOU and Dad would pay later.  Mom might have seen me eyeing the chargaplate and said to me, “Now, don’t tell your father I bought this.”

You might say I was a clever child, but this one seemed a no-brainer to me.  I knew darn well that Dad would be writing a check for this amount later in the month – and he wouldn’t be smiling.  One of my earliest memories was Dad cutting up credit cards with a pair of scissors (Chargaplates required tin snips).  Mom would then go back to the store and say she lost them and ask for new ones.  How do I know?  Didn’t I just tell you she dragged me along on shopping trips?  It all ended in Divorce not long after that.

We are trying to get back to swimming here and so, just to even out my criticism of my mother’s spendthriftery, I’ll relate a true story of her Water Safety credentials.  She and Dad were at a party down at the Galveston Yacht Basin where our doctor kept his boat.  Dad was an early adopter of “Bartering” – way before it became a hippie status symbol.  If you wonder why, re-read the paragraph above.

For example, Dad repaired our Doctor’s boat motor in return for the Doc sewing up the wound in my arm.  It took five stitches – I was swinging on a rope tied to a telephone pole.  The rope parted and I wound up hanging by my impaled right arm from a hurricane fence.  All the other kids who had encouraged the Big Guy to swing on that rotten old rope ran like thieves.  Mom came out and “plucked” me off the fence and took me to the Doc.


File photo detail of a hurricane fence.  These were universal around the houses in my neighborhood.  The “barbs” at the top were intentional to discourage climbing.  We climbed these pretty much on a daily basis in the summertime.  These days they install the fencing itself “upside-down” so there is just a blunt corner at the top – for obvious reasons.

When Mom brought me home with my arm stitched up, the “backdoor” neighbor had hammered down all those barbs along all her fences – not just the common one.  She was a Catholic with about 8 children.

Anyway, Mom and Dad were – at the Doctor’s invitation – attending a Yacht Basin party.  There was a little boy  – maybe three years old – playing with a dog.  Actually, he was trying to push the poor animal over.  Doggy departed suddenly and the boy plunged into the water of an empty boat slip.  The water is quite deep there, as these were big boats.

My Mother immediately and instinctively jumped in, grabbed the kid and handed him up to Dad who was by that time prone on the deck and reaching down.  The party-goers were stunned and amazed.  The parents of the kid were very thankful.  Mom had her faults, but Dad and I both were very proud of her that day.

Swimming, we were talking about swimming, right?  I learned to swim at an early age and it became a habit.  I was good at it, unlike other sports and swimming does not require a lot of equipment.  Plastic goggles go for about $10 these days.  It is not hard on the ankles, dogs don’t chase you and instead of sweating through a 105° day in Houston-August I was in a pool full of water.

There was swimming in Charles F. Hartman Junior High School (grades 7, 8 and 9), but it came with a very weird requirement.  The excuse was that they did not want wet bathing suits in the lockers because they go all moldy and stink.  The requirement was that you had to swim nude…unclothed, in the buff, in your birthday suit.  So, I would have to strip down and “cavort” with a bunch of naked boys if I wanted to swim?  No thank you very much.  This was not “co-ed”, of course, or I would have reconsidered. That wasn’t the only weird thing about Junior High School, but we are trying desperately to get to the swimming story as the title suggests.

I still went swimming outside school, though – properly attired of course.  We had a membership for a pool club called the Tropicana.  I was actually on their swim team for a while.  Pool clubs were quite common in those days because few houses had anything resembling air-conditioning (Yes, that’s what I said) and summers were Murder in Houston.  The Summers still are, but everything that can hold a living human body inside has A/C now.

The Tropicana was a unique aquatics venue.  It was an indoor pool in a metal building.  If you looked closely, you would find that the building was supported by steel wheels on a railroad track.  When the weather was appropriate, the entire building rolled back and the Tropicana was now an outdoor facility.

There was another quite interesting pool in town, as well.  The part under the diving boards was actually about 15 or 20  feet deep.  That left room at the bottom for a clear plastic hemisphere about five feet in diameter.  This dome was held down by chains connected to the concrete below and air bubbled up from a hole in the bottom beneath the center of the dome.  By that time, I was an accomplished pool denizen and was quite comfortable descending to pop my head in the dome and watch the swimmers around me.   I would occasionally make forays out into the water when I saw coins tumbling down from the pockets of the diving board users.  As often as not, I could re-coup the admission fee and once I had enough left over for a hot dog.  It was best to get there early, because the dome usually filled up with other wannabe scuba divers and became uncomfortably claustrophobic.

PoolDomeThis is a “file photo” of something like that pool dome.

The pressure was considerable higher that deep and ears had to be “popped” by attempted exhalation while pinching the nose.   Ascending afterward also required re-adjustment of the ears and discharge of the expanding air in the lungs.  All this would, of course land the pool’s managers in Court with a cornucopia of lawsuits, these days.  I don’t remember the name or location of this place, but I am quite sure that the “diving bell” feature is no more.

I swam in Austin at the University of Texas in one of three pools there.  In my last semester, I was working in a metal shop and showed up at the dressing room in rusty old jeans, a dirty army-surplus jacket that I wore while welding and worn, old steel toed boots(I had them resoled and I wore them on the Walkabout).  I showered and dressed out for swimming and then afterward, I walked away to class in slacks, a Hawaiian shirt and boat shoes (my Clark Kent mode).

I am still swimming today.  Since we still have the gym membership until unemployment bankrupts me, I swim every day.  I have been building up in distance and I swam 63 laps only this morning – it’s some old guy’s age.  To be clear, a lap is two lengths of the pool (one northbound, one southbound) to arrive at the starting point.  The pool is 25 yards and the total distance is one and three-quarters of a mile.  It takes about two hours.  I am quite sure that the twenty-somethings swimming around me are utterly incapable of such effort.

As you might imagine, swimming laps is extremely boring.  The mind tends to wander and I used to lose count of the laps quite often.  I have a rule that when faced with uncertainty over whether it was 10 or 11 laps (e.g.), I always choose 10.  That way there can be no doubt of the final count as a minimum.  While this has the effect of maximizing the exercise, I found myself forgetting every few laps as my attention drifted.  The logical extension of this problem would have me swimming excessively with a dismally small count.

To remedy this, I have developed several strategies to force myself to remember the correct count.  Visualization:  The brain – or at least MY brain -seems to remember visual clues much better than mere numbers.  So I adopted the habit of counting laps on my fingers in front of my goggled eyes.

So, what do I do when I get to 10?  There is a really clever way to count – unambiguously – to 99 on two hands.  It is a system used by Korean schoolchildren and it is called, “Chisemba” if I remember correctly.

One moment please…

Okay, I don’t find it online, so I will explain it, myself.  Or, rather I will visualize it for you (see photo below)


So, we got to 9 on one hand.  Next is a “1” on the left hand to indicate 10 and so on up to 90.


You see that we can count all the laps we are likely to need  on two hands.  Only for a brief glance at the push-off, I don’t swim with my hands like that, in case you wondered.  It does make an amusing mental image though.

Now the problem is that sometimes, when distracted by neighboring swimmers (or talkers)  I forget to make the visual count.  So, another form of memory aid is needed to back this one up.  Say we have decided to swim 30 laps.  By the time we get to lap number 3, we have covered 1/10th of the total.  At 5, one 1/6th is done.  Then at lap 6, 1/5th  , at lap 7 ½, 1/4th  at lap 10, 1/3rd, at lap15, one half.  If you need something to fill the long gap between 10 and 15 laps, then 12 laps is 2/5ths.  I might forget the count but remember that I just passed the half mark, and so on.

There are also points along the  way that represent fractions of a mile  (9,18,27 and 36=1 mile).  I used to work in nautical miles so (10,20,30 and 40 =1 nm).  I can also “go metric” and come up with kilometers (11, 22=1k, 33, 44, etc).

In the higher lap counts, there are oddball combinations like ½ a mile and half a kilometer (29) and in case I really get bored (everyday!) there are integer squares (4,9,16,25…) and prime numbers (1,3,5,7,11,13,17…) and 42 (the Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything according to The  Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

And at the end of the swim, we count down by fractions as well, when 2 laps shy of 30, there is 1/15th remaining,  1 lap is 1/30th, a half lap is 1/60, then 1/120, 1/240, 1/480…etc.  Each of these distances – while small – must take some finite time to accomplish, right?  So, I never finish and I am still in the pool right now reaching out with my index finger toward the side of the pool, trying to cover that infinite series of fractions, yes?


File photo* of a swimmer reaching to finish that infinite number of fractional laps

That is one of Zeno’s Paradoxes.  Zeno was an Ancient Greek who evidently got paid to think up goofy stuff like that.  Where do I sign up for that position?   I may be overqualified!

*Art Nerds among you will recognize Michelangelo’s God Creating Adam currently on permanent loan to the Sistine Chapel.  That is the image that popped into my head when I imagined the infinite series of fractions.  I would have used the Adam portion of the image, since Adam doesn’t have all those Cherubs around him – but Adam is doing the backstroke and is attired for the Charles F. Hartman pool, if you get my drift.

Praecepta Absurde,


Recent:            Review   The Farthest – Voyager

Whence Electricity?      The Grand Ice Age  

Advice to the Modern Traveler (#1)

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Walkabout posts

July 26, 2016

It is entirely possible to lock yourself out of the modern, electronically keyed hotel room.  Even with the card-key in your hand and even with a new card-key made by the concierge.  Even the “Super” may not be able to get into the room.

Here is the secret


All you need to do is leave a plastic bag (with bread and apples) hanging from your door latch.  If the bag slips and turns the handle slightly (as seen above), it will effectively keep everyone out of this room.  The same room with all my luggage, medications and other “stuff”.

I am slowly coming to the conclusion that the Universe was created as a practical joke.

You have been warned! 😉