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Thursday, June 21, 2007

Tips of icebergs and humps of whales

I always thought the rule-of-thumb on icebergs was that only one-seventh appeared above sea level. However, according to Nick Jans, author of “Alaska’s Tracy Arm and Sawyer Glaciers,” only 10 percent of the ice can be seen. At the visitor center for Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier I met the photographer of this beautifully illustrated hardcover book -- Mark Kelley. He said that if a person had only one day in all of Alaska, the iceberg-laden Tracy Arm fjord would be the place to go. I cannot disagree, especially when one is lucky enough to go there on one of the few sunny days that the Juneau area enjoys on any given summer – our cab-driver counted only 13 clear days last year during the warm season.

A wild unfinished Yosemite… no ice work … surpasses this.
-- John Muir, who explored the Pacific Northwest in the late 19th century

Our boat captain, who’s made over 1500 trips to Tracy Arm, brought us to within a stone’s-throw (a good, flat skipper-rock maybe) of the North Sawyer Glacier. According to author Jans, when a big piece of ice calves off, it can be especially dangerous as a ‘shooter’ coming back out of the depths after its plunge. The deep blue bergs come from compressed depths (900 below sea level) of the glacier where air has been completely squeezed out.

PS. If you want to get a bit off the beaten channel for cruise ships on the Alaska’s Inside Passage, visit Sitka on Baranoff Island. I recommend you spend some time on land and stay at a place like Old Sitka Rocks maintained by my buddy Bob Medinger and his wife Barb. Bob captained us to a fantastic volcanic island sanctuary for puffins and other sea birds. On the way there and back, only few miles from Sitka’s harbor, we saw numerous humpback whales – close enough to really sense their awesome size and speed – one of the leviathans knifed past our boat only a few hundred yards off to starboard at over 5 knots! (I was watching from the above on the main mizzenmast … just kidding.) By the way, Alaskan whalers caught a bowhead last month that had a century-old harpoon fragment embedded in its neck, thus pinning the marine mammal’s age at 115 to 130 years!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Don’t Juneau car problems never reproduce for the mechanic?

Working for a software publisher makes me well aware that bugs never reproduce when you bring a programmer over to watch over your shoulder. A corollary of this rule is that when you experience transient car problems they never re-occur when the mechanic is present.

I bore the brunt of this perverse state of nature this week while on vacation. Immediately after picking up my car from National Car at the Juneau Airport on Wednesday, the transmission in our Toyota Corolla acted up -- it went out of gear at about 30 mph. I brought it back and told the National Car people at their airport counter -- a man and a woman -- about this problem. He vehemently denied the possibility of a problem and literally sprinted out to give it a test drive, telling my wife and two daughters to get out. I jumped in as he peeled out of the lot, all the while complaining that there could be nothing wrong with the transmission. This guy also said that if I was complaining as a way to get a bigger car that I'd best forget it, they would only give me a smaller car, which he knew I could not accept due to us being full up in the one we had. Aarghh!

The National Car guy (their mechanic?) made a three-minute loop around the airport, during which the transmission worked fine, and so he told me it was OK. I said no, he said yes, I said no, he said yes -- and so forth – neither one of us willing to give in. This continued at the counter where the woman working for National Car talked on her cell phone ignoring us both. After a while, she broke off from her chat and asked her colleague if the car was OK. He said "Yes." I said "No, I want another car." She said "Sorry, but that's all we have -- the others all need an oil change." What could I do: I kept the car and said that my complaint ought to be put on record by National Car Rental. This was totally ignored.

The car ran fine for a while, but the transmission went out again the second day. I managed to nurse it back by down-shifting and then going back to automatic. The funny thing is that before the tranny went out again, in my determination not to be bothered by the rudeness of the National Car guy I’d just about convinced myself that the shifter had accidentally bumped into neutral the first time it acted up.

Needless to say, I am lodging a complaint with this National Car Rental. I usually go with Hertz and will do so again in future. They have never treated me badly. I like Hertz’s Gold service very much.

Oh, by the way, Juneau is a great place to visit. Perhaps the most spectacular sight is nearby Mendenhall Glacier – pictured here.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Estimates of the age of the earth vary astronomically

Recently it was my pleasure to represent Stat-Ease at a corporate sponsor’s luncheon provided by the American Society of Quality (ASQ). Their featured speaker was Storey Musgrave, who spoke about his work in 1993 to repair the Hubble space telescope. Thanks to work by Storey and other astronauts, not to mention all the scientists who built and now maintain the telescope, Hubble resolves stars such as those pictured in spiral galaxy M81 11.6 million light-years away in the constellation of Ursa Major (the Big Dipper). This image was released on May 28 by the Space Telescope Science Institute.

When you're looking that far out, you're giving people their place in the universe.
-- Storey Musgrave

Ironically, that evening at ASQ’s annual banquet I was making small talk with an aerospace engineer sitting next to me, when suddenly he asked me: “Do you believe in evolution?” Caught off guard, I made the mistake of admitting I do. That was the wrong answer! According to this fellow the Earth was created only 6,000 years ago, which differs astronomically from data supplied by the Hubble Space Telescope and other sources that lead to an estimate of 13.7 +/- 0.2 gyr (gigayears – an astronomical unit of time in billions). A display at the newly opened Creation Museum shows a T. Rex dinosaur looming over Adam and Eve – providing visual support for the Biblically-derived age of six millennium.

Opinion polls suggest that Americans are split 50/50 on one side of this issue of evolution. I do not care to debate it myself – it just interests me to see the passion of people like my dinner mate – a highly-educated technical professional. If you are a fan of history like myself, you will enjoy To the Edge of the World by Harry Thompson – a book on Darwin’s journey to South America that provides perspective on the opposing view of Creationism by his colleague Robert FitzRoy (1805–1865), who captained the Beagle on Charles Darwin's famous trip around the globe. The first to use the term "weather forecast", Fitzroy subsequently headed up the British Meteorological Office and developed an innovative network of storm warnings that undoubtedly saved the lives of many seafarers. If you are looking for good summer-time reading, pick up this book from your local library.