Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Statement on the 1964 Socorro UFO incident

Here is my all-purpose, final statement about the Socorro UFO incident of 1964.

I did not arrive in Socorro until 1966, so I have no direct experiences to report.

Please consider two things that will make this story very difficult either to verify or to disprove.

Firstly, there was no physical evidence left behind of any technology unavailable in 1964. Some scorched bushes and depressions in the sand are well short of proof of alien visitation. The police officer who reported the incident could have been fooled by special effects concocted by the many intelligent, bored, mischievous students then attending New Mexico Tech, which has always had a highly select and technically oriented student body. Furthermore, campus research activities at the time provided access to heavy equipment and weather balloons, and many mining students had both expertise in and access to explosives.

On the other hand, it is all too easy for college students to claim that they staged a hoax. It is the kind of thing an upper-division student might say to impress a younger student.

I have nothing useful to add except the skepticism expressed above.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Another “where is he now”

I was waiting in line at the Manzanares Coffeehouse today here in Socorro, and overheard a customer mentioning Martha's Black Dog Coffeehouse, the business that used to be there.

I spoke up. “Hi, I'm your volunteer Martha's Black Dog history consultant. I was there the whole time.”

The man looked familiar, and said he thought he knew me. I introduced myself and he grinned.

It was Andy Horwitz, founder of Bow Wow Records, one of the greatest little record stores ever. It opened on Central Avenue in downtown Albuquerque, sometime in the 1980s, and the stock was outstandingly eclectic. Many are the gems that I picked out of his bins, and many were the pleasant hours I spent yakking with Andy about any and all kinds of music, from the best of the popular current stuff to the farthest corners of ethnic and forgotten music. He had reggae, he had African, he had Hawaiian music, not to mention the all-important rock and roll.

Andy was a veterinarian before he opened Bow Wow, hence the name. Today he was very professionally turned out in a sharp suit, on his way to do some work for a pharmaceuticals firm.

As we parted, he told me something that I didn't know, or didn't remember: I was his second customer at Bow Wow.

Sure, it was only a business, just like Martha's was only a business. To make money, to pay the bills, to survive. As I told Andy today, Martha often claimed that the only reason she opened a restaurant was so there was someplace she could hang out where they couldn't throw her out. But some businesses go beyond just making a living, and customers will always remember how they made up a slice of what we call home.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Probably not ball lightning

On September 20, 2009, at around 15:36 MDT, I was driving north on I-25, somewhere around the first five miles north of the northernmost Belen exit, in a hard rain in the middle of an electrical storm. My speed was somewhere over 60 mph. I saw what looked like a direct lightning hit on one of the utility poles paralleling the freeway on the east side, a fraction of a mile ahead of me. I was concentrating on the road, since the rain was coming down hard enough that I was using the faster windshield wiper speed, traffic was somewhat heavy, and visibility was not very good.

A very short time after the lightning hit, my attention was attracted to a bright light in the direction of the pole that had just been hit. At first it resembled a reflection of the sun, as when a highway sign is hit by a low-angle sunbeam and reflects it completely. However, that wouldn't explain it; the sky was completely overcast and there were no holes where the sun might have gotten through.

As I approached the impact site, it became apparent that the source of the light was at about the same distance east of the freeway as the utility wires. The light was a brilliant blue-white color, and it didn't seem to be a point source. It looked sort of amoeba-like, although the windshield didn't really give me a clear view. It was not at a pole, but about a third of the distance between the nearest pole and the one just south of it.

As I passed even with the site of the light, it seemed to me that it was not a point source at all, but an irregular blob of brilliant light at least a few feet in diameter, judging the distance by parallax. Its angular size was perhaps half the size of my fist held at arm's length.

Wrenching my attention back to the road, I had a strong afterimage, as when one inadvertently looks at the sun. I was a little concerned that I might have burnt my retina, but the afterimage faded within a minute or so. I checked both my rear-view mirrors as soon as I could spare the attention, but did not see a strong light in either mirror. The duration of the light was at least five seconds, perhaps as much as ten.


New Mexico Tech is well-supplied with weather researchers, and I asked some of them about this. I was wondering if it were ball lightning. Here is a reply from Dr. Harald Edens:

I've seen a handful of reports and even a photo from alleged ball lightning in The Netherlands when I still lived there, that were caused by lightning-induced arc-over between tramway or railway overhead power lines that are everywhere in the cities over there. It made me very skeptical of ball lightning reports that have to do with power or phone lines.

As far as I know, many ball-lightning reports that cannot be explained by other means (including my own observation several years ago) are of some phenomenon that is not necessarily attached to anything. It also apparently is not all that bright (about the brightness of a 100W bulb), while plasma arcs on power lines can be blinding. Perhaps the arc looked big and spherical because it was scattering light through microscopic dust on your windshield, or it happened to be larger than the wire separation due to convection of the plasma arc that makes it bend upward into an inverted 'U' shape. I myself find anything that is extremely bright difficult to distinguish in shape, and appears round.

This is only my opinion, and ball lightning or not, I find it an interesting observation of yours!

It seems that based on the surface brightness alone, my observation was of a simple arc and not ball lightning. And there was a lot more than dust on my windshield at the time—it was a heavy, driving rain.

If you are reading this and have any other thoughts on what may have caused it, please leave a comment or send e-mail to john@nmt.edu.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Melrose Woods: A cultural battleground

Most of New Mexico's hard-core birdwatchers would agree that Melrose Woods is either the best single birdwatching spot in the state, or at least way up there. However, since it is also beloved of dove hunters, it is the locus of the occasional skirmish in our beloved American culture wars.

This bit of state trust land contains a few acres of poplars, some quite large. It is the only big patch of wooded land for many miles, in the middle of a huge sea of grasslands. During migrations, especially in May and September, there are generally numbers of migrant birds resting and feeding there. Moreover, it has been the location of a number of amazing records, such as Fan-tailed Warbler and Gray Silky-flycatcher, that are hard to find anywhere in North America. Located near mile marker 354 on US-60, on the north side of the highway, west of Melrose (and around 30 miles west of Clovis, NM), the highway gate is at 34°25'54"N, 103°48'07"W. There is a chain but no lock. Be sure to leave the gate closed.

Here is a quotation from my online field notes of September 4, 2004:

Drove into Melrose Trap to find five truckloads of dove hunters staring dourly at me. I can't imagine why I didn't blend right in, being a good old boy from southeast NM from way back. Maybe it was the giant camera rig, the binoculars, or the shorts and Birkenstock sandals. They were blasting away with shotguns right next to the trucks, probably to see if they could make me jump (they didn't).

My field notes didn't record the social interaction. I looked around at the hunters and focused on one who was considerably older, sort of the patriarch of the group. “Did y'all do any good?” I asked, which is a polite way in this culture to inquire about success in hunting and fishing. He nodded deeply. “Excellent. Glad to hear it,” I said, and continued on into the woods. When I returned they had left. Dove hunting is an early-morning activity; I didn't expect they'd linger.

Growing up in Hobbs, I was really quite comfortable around hunters. You have to be. When deer season opened, over half the male population of the public schools would be gone.

Last weekend, I spent all of one day and pieces of two more working Melrose for interesting records and what bird photos I could get. Saturday the 5th I was there for a couple of hours but left at 5pm. I noticed that the birdwatchers had hung a couple of hummingbird feeders in the woods, the better to get looks at the migrant hummingbirds.

Sometime after I left and before dawn the next morning, party or parties unknown blew one of the feeders to bits with a shotgun, and left a note: “You are fucking gay bitches!”

This didn't particularly surprise me. I knew a few intolerant yahoos in Hobbs, along with every other kind of people.

However, next day I was out there by myself around mid-day and a couple of youths showed up in a loud, purple pickup. I was sitting a little ways into the woods and came out to see what all the noise was. I did not converse with the gentlemen, but I did see at one point one of them holding what might have been a long gun, or maybe he just brought out a broom with an extra-long handle—I could only see it in silhouette. They climbed around on some of the old buildings and walls; they didn't approach me and I didn't approach them. I sat down and continued watching birds, with one eye on my car. After a while I ate lunch at the car, then left for a while, hoping they'd leave. They were gone 45 minutes later when I came back.

I have no idea whether they were involved in the destruction of the hummingbird feeder or the angry note.

Sorry if you were expecting a slam-bang ending. They can't all be Pulitzer material. Call it just an observation of life in these times.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Dolphin-safe beef

You can read this post on my
regular site; I'll look for comments here.

Mr. Gaar's marvelous perpetual motion machine

The story is on my regular web, but you can post comments here.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Kree-kree: Dangers of live music

You can read this story on my regular web, but I'll look for comments here.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Oryx: armed and dangerous

You can read this story on my regular web, but I'll look for comments here.

Disney train

Disney's special Amtrak train, promoting the upcoming release of their new production of A Christmas Carol, stopped over in Albuquerque on June 9. Click on the thumbnails for larger images. Hewlett-Packard has a technology called “Train Wrap” for printing whole trains like this.

Lead units, Amtrak 157 and 71.

First car, MRLX 801101.

Second car, MRLX 801102.

Third car, MRLX 801103.

Fourth car, MRLX 800863.

The cherry on the sundae: an old open-platform observation car with a lighted drumhead sign, MRLX 800702.

Monday, June 15, 2009

A javelina and two reptiles

This javelina, properly Collared Peccary, Tayassu tajacu, was wandering around near the entrance to the Washington Ranch, a short distance west of Carlsbad Caverns National Park headquarters. Click on the thumbnails for larger images.

Ant nests of the harvester ant (Pogonomyrmex spp.) are quite common around here. There is generally a large cleared circle two or three feet in diameter around the hole. There is one in my yard, very close to where I park the car, and a number of people have suggested that I poison them out. However, if I did that, I would never get to see this extremely attractive reptile (Phrynosoma cornutum, the Texas Horned Lizard), which specializes in feeding on ants. The genus name means “toad-bodied”.

All summer long in Socorro you can find whiptail lizards. This beautiful specimen was photographed on the north ramp of Speare Hall on the NM Tech campus where I work. The snout-vent length is about five inches, the glorious tail much longer. Identification of the several species of whiptails in this area is subtle, but I believe this is a Chihuahuan Spotted Whiptail, Cnemidophorus exsanguis.

Monday, April 27, 2009

So much for levity in technical docs

I received this e-mail about a publication I wrote.

I'm reading through the the Tkinter tutorial
and in the "Anchors" section is a discussion
of setting locations using terms such as N
(for north) meaning the top; S (for south)
meaning bottom; E (for east) meaning left
and so forth. Reading on, I found this:
"We apologize to our Southern Hemisphere
readers for this Northern Hemisphere

Last I looked, even in the Southern Hemisphere,
Hemisphere, north on a map is toward the top,
south is toward the bottom, east is toward
the left, etc. (Google a map of Australia,
and you'll find north is up)

While I appreciate that you academics are
whiny PC wimps, I at least would think that
there should be something to apologize FOR
before abasing yourself.

Second, I would have thought a professor in the
in the technical field would be far about [sic]
the stupid PC form of writing.

My reply:

Perhaps you have not seen McArthur's Universal Corrective Map of the World.

My remarks about hemispheric chauvinism were a poor attempt at humor. It is my policy, when writing dry technical works, to leaven the leaden prose with the occasional bit of ham-handed levity. I am not actually an academic, but a staff member who holds only a pathetic and superannuated (1970) bachelor's degree in computer science.

I'm currently revising the Tkinter reference for version 8.4, so I will include the above link in the new version in hopes that my joke might not fall so flat.

Thank you for your valuable communication.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Santa Fe: Pink Adobe; Kakawa Chocolate House

Pink Adobe restaurant, Santa Fe, NM

The Pink, as it is known locally, has been a fixture in the Santa Fe restaurant and nightclub scene for decades. I had eaten there only once before, and we sat in the bar and had bar food. Very nice bar food, I seem to recall.

My friend Mongoose convinced me to try it again, and it was a winner from end to end. A warm sourdough baguette came out first with some fresh butter. Simple, but perfect.

For the salad course, I chose the goat cheese salad. It came out in a beautiful bowl with three thumb-sized pieces of herbed goat cheese atop first-rate mixed baby greens. To one side were several pieces of roasted squashes and bell pepper. All was adorned with a subtle but tasty vinaigrette.

The lobster, crab, and shrimp enchilada is one of their best-sellers. This is a typical sort of Santa Fe crossover dish, with deep roots in New Mexican cuisine presenting ingredients that can't be found within a thousand miles. Mine came with a goodly dollop of excellent guacamole on a few large chips, black beans, and an upscaled version of the standard "Spanish rice" that appears on just about every "Mexican" plate in the state. The rice was separate, not covered up with tomato sauce as is usual around here, and quite tasty.

The enchilada itself was heavenly. Generous bites of seafood, lots of cheese, and one of those cream sauces that defies analysis because it was so well-balanced and subtly spiced.

Nice staff, nice room, beautiful place-settings—everything I could ask for. Located directly across the street from San Miguel Mission, the ancient and beautiful Roman Catholic church.

No doubt the desserts are every bit as good as the other courses, but Mongoose had other plans.

Kakawa Chocolate House

It was worth a two-hour round trip for this part alone!

New Mexico magazine had a feature review of this world-class artisanal chocolatier. Have a look at their web page for general information, and please note that they do ship.

Their specialty is chocolate drinks, hot chocolate and also warm and cold. Mongoose had the Sciscenti's American, which was extremely tasty, smooth, and rich, with a long series of pleasant aftertastes, based on the one sip I stole of her drink. I opted for one of their historical Mesoamerican drinks, the “chili (mild)”. I am a fan of pretty spicy food, and even though this was supposed to be mild, it was too hot for Mongoose. I was able to detect small levels of heat (relative to my preference), but that was only part of an amazing spectrum of gustatory and olfactory effects. My drink had a lot more texture to it; it was thick and had a lot of small bits blended through it, all quite delightful. The aftertastes went on for several minutes in a long and complex series. I was reminded that chiles are fruits, after all, and the subtle sweetness was not just from the agave nectar that was the only specifically added sweetener. The menu described this drink as bittersweet, and that's accurate: not bitter, but far from oversweetened. Very much to my taste. This is the other end of the chocolate universe from Hershey Bars, my friends: a complex, adult bouquet of flavors and aromas.

I took some items from their mind-boggling chocolate cases home with me. So far I have tried two of them. The Aztec Brownie was another immersion in deep, complex chocolate flavor. Lots of nuts, quite crunchy, but nothing got in the way of the depth of the cocoa flavor.

When I saw the bacon truffles, made with wild boar bacon, I had to try them. It may seem outrageous, but it was tasty and balanced, another interesting data point in my recent quest for foods that qualify as both sweet and savory. The dark chocolate ganache was outstanding, of course, and the bacon did not struggle with it. It was not so much chocolate-covered bacon, as a truffle with just a hint of smoky bacon flavor and a few bits of tender bacon texture.

Seating is rather limited, and most of it was taken up by two groups of people lounging around: several people in a side room playing Celtic music, and another group playing chess. The server had to do some shuffling of furniture to liberate a table and two chairs, but she was very accommodating. Later we had a chance to meet and talk with Mark Sciscenti, the owner. The level of his scholarship and devotion to authenticity and creativity were apparent. A few of his “elixirs” were said to include ambergris. I was unaware that ambergris was historically used for flavoring, although I knew it was ridiculously expensive. Sciscenti has found an equivalent from botanical sources.

If you are getting the impression that this guy is a fanatic, that's accurate, but I mean that in a very good way! The one overarching principle of everything I tasted was that the amazing flavors of the chocolate always shined through.