The Art of BEEing: Yes, my bees sting

I got the bright idea relatively late this morning (after the day started to heat up) to go out and remove the bee feeder so I could clean it. After I had opened the hive up and pulled the top feeder I figured I’d go ahead and swap out some of the now-drawn honey super frames as well so that hopefully the bees would start drawing comb on the new frames and I could use the full frames to feed through the winter and then have empty comb ready in case we get a decent spring flow next year. I left the hive open, headed into the garage and got some blank frames, and went back over to the hive and started to pull a frame.

And I was met with a wave of bees. Not just the usual one or two that do their due diligence in buzzing around and making sure you know they are unhappy with you taking apart their house, but hundreds. And they were not happy. Despite the bees bouncing off my lightweight (and untucked) bee jacket like hailstones, I remained relatively calm, decided it had been a bad idea to go after the frames, and started to close the hive back up… Then I realized I had a bee on the inside of the jacket and it was bouncing off my glasses. All caution thrown to the wind, I swatted it against my face along the idea of at that point the odds were better of not being stung in the eye by trying to kill it before it could sting than of leaving it alone. I was successful on that one, but the arm movement to swat at it seemed to trigger the others to start stinging.

At least 7 stings later I made it back to the relative safety of the back porch which, being out of sight of the hive, usually gets all but the most adamant of defensive bees to turn around and give up the chase. In this case that still worked, but then I realized there were still several bees inside the bee jacket. I didn’t want to bring them in the house, so in a wild bout of unattractive strip-tease I managed to yank off the bee jacket, brush a few straggler bees off my shirt and jeans, open the back door, get inside and slam it shut.

Moral of the story – when you decide to be stupid around bees they are not afraid to remind you of the consequences of your stupidity. In this case I had been lulled into complacency by my habit of feeding them early in the morning when the air is still cool, and most of the time my doing so barely elicits a change in tone from the colony.  That is a relatively quick and non-invasive activity, which was my intent when I went out this morning. Had I taken the smoker and worn my heavier suit, or potentially even just had take the step to tuck in the bee jacket, I could well have done what I decided to do at the last minute today without any stings…  But I didn’t, and I my tuition for the lesson are a few stingers in me, a few dead bees, and a backyard colony that’s gong to need a few hours to settle back down (so I’ll probably use the clothes dryer for laundry today instead of the clothesline).

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Democratic Legitimacy and the lessons of an illegitimate, incompetent, and incapable presidency

It’s been 6 months since Mr. Trump ursuped the office of the US presidency following one of the most bizarre election cycles in US history. Even before the foreign involvement elements of the election which are currently monopolizing press coverage, the very nature of the primaries gave a foreshadowing of what was to come – open lies, disregard for the legitimate press, incomprehensible actions, vindictive tendencies, and a complete and utter lack of regard and respect for the basic tenets of a democratic system and those living within it. While other candidates detailed how they would go about achieving their platforms (with various degrees of believability), Trump simply kept adding elements to his based on whatever direction the populist trends of were pointing and never bothered to address how they could be achieved or what the impacts would be.

There is a concept known as Democratic Legitimacy which in large part explains the mess the US finds itself in at the moment. The Trump regime has had to fight against it from the start – it didn’t so much win the Republican nomination as inherited it from the abdication of real candidates. A fair number of the votes it did get in the presidential election were not actually for Trump but against Clinton, as well as from partisan voters who voted Republican despite misgivings over the individual. By gaining the presidency not by the real election of the popular vote but through the arcane (and inherently undemocratic) institution of the electrical college, the regime already started off on a poor footing relative to legitimacy – when you only win by virtue of non-representative vote counting and the majority of people did not vote for you it’s hard to consider it a legitimate victory.

Mr. Trump aside, the current government, being controlled by one party as a result of an inherently flawed winner take all system, has an obligation under the tenants of Democratic Legitimacy to take extra steps to avoid even the impression of laws being passed or considered based on partisan principles. The idea of Democratic Legitimacy is that actions speak louder than words when it comes to being a legitimate democratic government – there are numerous examples of regimes calling themselves democracies without actually being one. Key elements of this are actually embracing and following the underlying guidelines of democracy such as honesty, integrity, open access to information, consideration of the views of all stakeholders, merit based appointments, respecting the rule of just laws, and acting in the best interest of the population regardless of individual viewpoint. The Trump regime has failed in these areas to a tragically humorous level.

Whereas past administrations of both parties have had occasional blunders in these areas, the Trump regime distinguishes itself as only having the occasional observance. Policy decisions are arbitrary and inconsistent. Appointees with grievous conflicts of interest are routine. The legitimate press is excluded from access in favor of known dubious outlets. Decades of successful policies are arbitrarily reversed. Groups of men claiming to act against “big government” sit in closed sessions to determine the legality of what women can do with their own bodies. People who have the best health coverage in the country, paid for fully by taxpayers, work to find ways of removing what little coverage is available to everyone. The confirmation hearing for an existing Supreme Court Justice nominee is blocked for over a year by a Republican congress, and then that nominee is replaced without ever having a hearing by a new one and the rules are changed to fast-track him through. Longstanding regulations protecting the health of entire communities and regions are repealed in the interest of a handful of temporary jobs. Longstanding traditions of the president divesting from personal business interests and openly revealing their dealings are simply ignored despite calls from all sectors of society for that transparency. These are not the actions of a legitimate leader or government.

Trump’s background should have been a warning to those of his supporters who believed he could deliver what he was promising. His background experience as a real estate developer was based on a history of failed promises and rule bending. Real estate “development” is one of the most artificial businesses there is, and in general is based on finding ways around the regulations intended to protect those who are already there or, if that can’t be obtained in the required timeframes, simply ignore rules and use massive financial backing to lock things up in litigation so long that the impact of going back to the original state is no longer an option.

The end goal of a developer is not to create a longstanding and positive part of the organic local community, but to take profit, move on, and leave the fallout to those left holding the actual property – regardless of impact to those who were there to start with. A great example of this is what happened where I used to live in Indiana. It was a mainly rural county with low population density, and the county had a zoning regulation requiring minimum lot sizes and certain spacing between new houses, ostensibly to protect the character of the area for those living there. When challenged by a consortium of well-funded external developers, the resources of individual landowners to defend this regulation were soon expended and, without a public vote, the zoning board (with developers as members) decided to allow developers with plans to build at multiple locations to take an average of all their planned projects in the county. This resulted in what had been a relatively open market with organic growth mainly by independent homeowner / builder combinations buying lots of 1-10 acres for individual properties being overrun by groups that had the external funding to buy land by the thousands of acres for speculative building at a greatly reduced price per acre. To comply with the revised zoning, the developer would then break ground for a “luxury” community with significantly larger lots than required and maybe build a model home, then stop work on it, focus on building several higher density “basic” communities on much smaller lots which, at an individual basis, would not have met the zoning requirements, and eventually claim the market no longer supported the “luxury” community and either sell it to another developer or apply for a zoning exemption to turn it into a “basic” one. For over 5 years I watched new “basic” developments popping up in contravention of the actual zoning while the offsetting “luxury” one sat idle and was sold multiple times. The quality of life for those originally living in the area decreased dramatically with increased noise, traffic, and pollution as well as increased taxes to pay for the infrastructure changes needed to keep up with the external growth, and the profits of the development went out of the county.  The point of this example – someone whose background is the large real estate development industry is coming from an area where regulations and restrictions are seen as nothing more than things which can be bought off or worked around with no significant individual impact to themselves.

This is the general background Trump came from – one where rules do not apply, individual accountability is zero, and if by some stretch of fortune something does come back at you, you throw enough money at it and it goes away. In addition, Trump lived in a virtual bubble where people were paid to cater to his every whim. The end result – a dangerous person who has no knowledge of the realities that exist outside his own ego nor any sense of consequence for his actions.

In a healthy democracy a person like Trump would have never made it to the level of a national primary candidate much less receive a party nomination – he would have been called to account numerous times for lack of relevant experience, understanding, and accountability. This is a key reason why the German system has the 5% hurdle – painfully learned by the experiences of the Weimar Republic. But the US system is not a healthy democracy, nor has it been one for many years. A healthy democracy puts the best interests of the whole over that of the individual or party, but what was seen in the 2016 election was a triumph of partisanship over democracy. It’s now up to the population to ensure that the government is held accountable for their actions and to continue to live up to the democratic principles of openness, transparency, and working for the common good.

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Book Review: Goodbye to Berlin

Goodbye to Berlin
Isherwood, Christopher
Vintage, 1998 ed, of 1939 original

Per the author’s introduction, this collection of loosely connected sketches featuring a first person narrative from a character sharing his name, his background, and many of his experiences is fiction and was intended to be something larger than it came out to be. It is a convenient, and perhaps accurate, approach to classify the gray area between autobiography, fiction, and reflection. It also makes it possible to write the stories an author anticipates for themselves but which may never have had a factual base.

The beauty of this book lies not so much in this format, nor it’s direct timeframe, but in the detailed and generally factual description of life as an English writer in Berlin as the Nazis came to power. With contacts ranging from a wealthy Jewish family where he works as a private english tutor, through the English ex-pat community with all it’s variations, the matron of his middle-class boarding house through to the working class family whose son invites him to move in with them when his finances take a turn for the worse, the fictional Mr. Isherwood sees a broad swath of humanity in one of the leading cities of Europe just as it’s light is about to be extinguished. From neighborhood dives filled with pick-pockets and prostitutes winding down their day to high end nightclubs, tenements to mansions, rural holidays to urban centers, the book slices a cross section of the society just as it is about to change in a way that would make these scenes unrecognizable for decades.

The book ends as the author leaves to return to England, having decided that it is too dangerous for him to stay in Germany any longer. The timeframe is approximately 1933, and while war is still a few years away the daily decline has already begun.

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Book Review: Black Wings Has My Angel

Black Wings Has My Angel
Chaze, Elliott
New York Review Books, 2016 ed of 1953 original

Basically a pulp fiction novella with a bit more depth, this is a good period piece of mid-1950’s America. The story revolves around an escaped convict’s obsession for carrying out the perfect heist which he and one of the other prisoners developed while in prison. His partner was killed in the escape, but after a fling with a hotel prostitute in a backwater town leads to an unlikely affair he finds in her a perfect and willing accomplice. The plan takes time to develop, and as they travel the country in search of the perfect place the tone shifts from pulp crime to road novel to social observations of time and place.


Eventually, however, the book shifts back away from descriptions of how neighbors water their lawns or the dangers of being on the backside of office politics in a pre-OSHA factory, and the long planned heist takes place, but despite the apparent success of their plan the couple find themselves caught in the uncertainty of their relationship with one another and the various worlds they have created around themselves. The book ends as any good 1950’s story must – but it leaves a reader pondering how it would have ended had it been written in a later period.

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Through the Camera: The Flower Eater

I was wondering why my purple lantana had noticeably less flowers on it than the yellow one next to it… And then I caught the chuckwalla in the act of selectively munching down the purple flowers.

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The Busy Skies

Several weeks ago I purchased a device called a SDR Dongle to try and catch the signals coming from my wireless temperature transmitters and import them into a computer application    . I quickly found an easier means of doing that job, but by that point I was hooked on the possibilities opened by having the device. SDR stands for “Software Defined Radio” and it essentially functions as a broadband receiver that decodes / encodes radio signals into something a computer can work with. Combined with some impressive (and free) software it can be a very powerful device for identifying and understanding what is happening in the airwaves around you.

Well and good, but it probably would have ended up as an occasionally used tool had I not discovered that the frequency on which ADS-B messages from aircraft are transmitted also happens to be in the SDR reception band. Beyond that, several of the popular flight tracking services are actively looking for ADS-B receiver stations in order to increase their coverage and accuracy, so finding the necessary information and software was very easy. I signed up with flightradar24 and, since I didn’t want to leave my desktop on all the time to run it and I already have a Raspberry Pi running continuously for the swamp cooler control, I used their setup package for the Pi. A handful of mouse clicks and copy and paste lines later I was streaming ADS-B reports to the flightradar24 servers, as well as had the data available for my own use.

Based on some recommendations I opted to install the Virtual Radar Server on my desktop and link it to the datastream coming out of the Pi. This software takes the decoded ADS-B messages and portrays it in a much more easily understood format – a table of the message content as well as a real-time updated map for the aircraft which are sending position reports. It also uses the airplane registration to automatically go out and obtain public record information such as the year it was built, ownership information, and pictures of the airplane. In addition to this, it can also be configured to create a database of the recorded information.

ADS-B is a line of sight transmission system, and being in a valley with mountains around me in nearly all directions I wasn’t expecting to see much of the traffic around me since mountains are in the way. That generally is the case, but I also happen to be under the main eastbound departure track from LAX so there actually is a fair bit of commercial traffic overhead, and depending on timing I sometimes get messages from westbound departures as they transit through a window between mountain peaks. I’ve set up the virtual radar server to launch when I power up the desktop, so even though it’s generally only recording for a few hours each evening, in roughly a month of operation of the receiver I now have a reasonably large database of what’s gone by overhead and decided to take a look at it today.

I was fairly surprised by the results. There were 5,576 unique airplanes which operated 17,980 distinct flights. Of those, 2,165 airplanes were only recorded for one flight, meaning 3,411 airplanes were picked up multiple times. 3 of the top 5 repeat aircraft were helicopters, which isn’t overly surprising given that the local airport is the base for 2 law enforcement helicopters and there is a forest service firefighting helicopter also based in the area, and it’s been a busy season for them so far. What I found most surprising was that the second most frequent airplane was a Spirit A321, which had racked up 41 distinct flights on the database. In terms of commercial aircraft, there were 1,101 unique Airbus aircraft vs. 2,236 unique Boeing aircraft

Some charts..

Leading manufacturers, airframe count:

Leading types, airframe count:

Leading foreign registrations, airframe count:

Leading types, by flights:

Leading operators, by flights:

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Shop Projects: Building a better swamp cooler control

When I moved into the house the swamp cooler had a very basic control. It was a dial switch with several of the pre-printed markings scraped off and left with the settings “Off” “Fan” and “Cool”. That was pretty much how it operated – set the switch to off and nothing happened, on fan it just turned the fan on at high speed, and on cool it turned the fan on at high speed as well as ran the water pump. Better than nothing, but not very good.
As I got to know more about the system I wondered why the low speed settings didn’t work given that all the documentation I had showed I should have a high and low speed setting. On investigation I discovered that for some reason the system had been installed with only 4 instead of 5 wires, and the installer decided that they could dispense with hooking up the low speed side of the fan motor. I wanted the low speed option which meant I’d need to open things up and run another wire, and since I was already going to be going into the system and would need to replace the dial switch for one with the low speed markings I decided I might as well upgrade the controller.
My plan was to get a programmable thermostat like those in common use for air conditioners, but I quickly found that unlike most air conditioners, swamp coolers generally use a line voltage controller, they have different numbers of outputs, and the selection is pretty basic. There are a few low voltage options on the market, but they were well off the cost / performance curve of line voltage models and my system was already set up for line voltage. I was unable to find any line voltage systems, so I opted for a basic Dial brand 7619A swamp cooler thermostat. Since I wanted a programmable time function, I also picked up a 1 Hp motor capacity programmable timer. After running the additional wire up to the swamp cooler, I connected the timer in series with the power input to the thermostat and had what I thought I wanted.

In general the system worked as designed. At the times I had set, the timer turned on or off the power to the swamp cooler control. When the power was on, the thermostat determined whether to turn on the cooler based on the temperature it sensed. So far so good, but ….

There were a few shortcomings still to be addressed. First off, the thermostat was designed for constant power to it and had no setpoint memory – so whenever the power to it turned off (which the timer did several times a day) it next powered up to the default setpoint of 77 degrees F. Second, the thermostat relied on manual settings for the fan speed and water configuration. Third, there was no accommodation for humidity settings, so on one abnormally humid day I came home to find it happily adding yet more water to the already damp air.

For many users these would be trivial issues. For the way I use my swamp cooler though they were close to deal breakers and I wasn’t at all satisfied with the setup. Where I live in the desert it is not unusual for night lows to be in the 50’s while daytime highs are over 100, and my house is fairly well insulated. On a typical day I like to keep the system off until the house starts to heat up in the early afternoon, then run it through the afternoon and evening. Once the outside temperature drops below the inside temperature I’ll shut the water off and use the fan to cold-soak the house overnight. The house also has an air conditioner, but I have it set at a relatively high setpoint so that it only comes on if we have an extremely hot day or on the few days a year when it is either too humid for the swamp cooler to be effective or outdoor air quality is particularly poor.

I had been thinking for a while about how to improve the situation, but it took a mistake on my part while overriding the timer one day to turn that into action. On that day we were under an excessive heat advisory (and the high at my house that day ended up being 116) so I decided rather than using the timer to keep the system off all day while I was at work it was probably worth letting it run on the thermostat. I remembered to hit the override button on the timer, but I forgot to set the water selector switch on the swamp cooler thermostat to “on”. I came home expecting a relatively cool house, and instead I walked in and found the swamp cooler running, the air conditioner running, and the inside temperature at 105.

It was time to act. I bought a Raspberry Pi computer, a couple of temperature / humidity sensors, some suitably sized relays, and a box to put them in. After a few hours spent learning the basics of the Python programming language, I hooked up the sensors and relays (but did not connect them to the swamp cooler), launched the code, and let it run for a few days in the background to confirm that it was operating as I expected. Following a couple of minor tweaks, I took the plunge and connected them to the cooler. Since I anticipated I would want to be able to override the control at times, I also included an isolation switch to allow going back to the existing timer / thermostat system. The basic setup is as below:

As the system currently stands, when operating under the Pi control the system looks at indoor and outdoor temperature and humidity and the time of day. Based on the values and differences between inside and outside temperature and humidity as well as the rates of change, it determines when to run the fan at high or low speed and if water is needed to meet the desired setpoint for the conditions. During the portion of the day when I am typically not at home the system is generally off, but will turn on if the house becomes unusually warm. Likewise, if the temperature continues to go up it will turn off just below the air conditioner setpoint to avoid having the situation where it is sucking hot outside air in while the air conditioner is running. Overnight, when it is colder outside than inside, it uses a reduced setpoint to coldsoak the house.

I was happily surprised by the capabilities and ease of setup and configuration of this Raspberry Pi based system. For a total cost of under $100 and a few hours of time I have a very capable adaptive swamp cooler controller with the flexibility to change and update as new situations arise.

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