Monday, June 29, 2009

Random Monday.

Arrived safely.

-Took a bunch of photos of landscapes in the hopes one or two would turn out; will post them soon. Also got photos of the raccoons living in the hollow tree in our front yard.

-This isn't our final, end-of-the-world move, this was just a quick trip to drop off a couple boxes of books and the husbeast's toy truck and like that. Friday we head back to Charleston for a few more weeks (already dreading that). The final, apocalyptic move will be at the end of July.

-Sekhmet is back in Charleston with auto-food and auto-water. She doesn't travel well at all. Plus she's a bitch to everyone but me.

-Got some knitting done on Cameo in the truck yesterday; not a lot, but enough to MAYBE be able to try it on while I'm here.

-I am currently outside, on the in-laws' front porch, using their home network to connect to the web while I watch the Goober play in her sand table. (She's making fish cakes.) I love weather where it doesn't hurt to breathe. Haven't been hit by any giant moths, flying cockroaches, or mud-dauber wasps, and no armored centipedes have crawled over my feet. It's quite lovely.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Leaving, on a.. big blue Suburban...

Don't know when I'll regain my sanity.

Have packed up half my office and am now down to the tedious crap like packing up my laptop. Will be blogging from the in-laws' house, probably Monday.

Oh yeah. This is gonna be fun.

I think I'd rather have a root canal.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Turn your back for a minute...

...and they disappear.

She built that all by herself. I'm quite proud. As the husbeast and I say to each other, "Your DNA is showing." (In this case, I think she gets a double whammy of engineering DNA from both sides, poor kid.) When I walked into the living room and didn't see her, I called out, and she said 'here I am, Mumma' and I felt really dumb 'cause she was right in front of me.

Then I went for the camera.


Packing continues apace. We have discovered that a twelve-inch cube box, when COMPLETELY filled with hardcover, full-color printed books, weighs 45 pounds/20 kg. I am unable to lift them (or rather, probably could lift them, but I run a major risk of breaking my bad wrist, and hey! What a good way to make this move worse!) so the husbeast's been stacking them in the garage.

One more day of packing boxes (I've only got four book-boxes left, that gives me courage to go on), packing crates, and Rubbermaid ten-gallon (40 liter) containers, and then we're off to Ohio to fill up the in-laws' garage and basement.


Sekhmet has recovered what sanity she has, after last night's lick-fest. She never suffers any ill effects from her love-in with the menthol stickies. Just temporary insanity. She's never interested in the stickies until they go on my arm, so some of you may be right; maybe she's trying to free me. She hates stickers in her fur, maybe she's trying to help me out.

Or maybe she's just raving mad. Furry eyelids and hair between your toes would make you nuts, too.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Sekhmet, you fucker.

That is my cat, licking a menthol-soaked bandage stuck to my bum wrist. I wouldn't mind, except:

1. She is following me EVERYWHERE and climbing all over me to get to it, and


I assume there was catnip used to make this thing; it's a cheap Target version of the IcyHot one (which has never gotten a reaction like this). Catnip is a mint, and mints have menthol in them.

Either that, or she's just a fucker. Can't rule that out.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

It's real.

We've known this day was coming for eighteen years. This last posting in Charleston, I've been counting the days. But the retirement, the fact that we are at long last moving out of here, finally felt real today.

Because I bought boxes.

Funnily enough, back in the day, I worked for a box company (corrugated containers, in the biz). I was an accounting clerk, nothing exciting. I paid the bills. But being me, I couldn't help but learn how things worked. You know, the Zen Of Boxes. Since then, I've become a box snob. At least when I'm paying for them.

Commercial box places charge unholy amounts - three to five bucks per box. Which is just ridiculous. So I did a quick internet search, located someone in the area who was manufacturing boxes, and bingo. A buck a box. That's what I'm talkin' about.

I went to Coastal Corrugated, and let me tell you, if you need boxes and are in the area, they're who you want. No minimum purchase (some manufacturing places make you buy in lots of twenty-five or fifty), and the boxes are really well made. I'll spare all of you the discussion of what makes a good box, but these folks pay attention to detail, and your boxes will be nice and square and hold up well.


I've been selling handspun yarn (big news flash), and, well, I average about seventy-five cents an hour in pay. Mostly I spin for relaxation, so making money at it is kind of like doing physical therapy that pays for itself. But there's this new benefit that I hadn't expected.

Remember Frog in a Blender? It's getting knit into a cowl, with little froggy flippery things around the bottom edge.

Love. It.

The Summer Dusk silk and wool blend was knit into a glorious scarf and given as a gift.

I am thrilled that my work has been turned into something so wonderful. Look at that!! BEADS! YOW!

And I just heard from the person who bought the indigo silk and wool blend telling me it arrived safely. That yarn is also earmarked for something special.

What a lovely thing, my work being turned into so many beautiful things.


And the Goob?

She knows something's going on, and she's ready to rock. She's especially excited about the boxes, and informed me tonight they need colored with crayons.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Great zeros in history.

Now then. There is great debate and hair-splitting in math history circles about 'true zeros' and 'some kind of place holder that isn't a zero for some dumbass reason I will expound upon for an hour/ten pages'. It seems to me that the defining point for the hard core math geeks has to do with whether the zero symbol is used in a 'true' positional notation system. (The definition of 'true positional notation system' varies by who is talking/writing, of course.) So I'm going to just include the most noteworthy of the symbols that meant 'nothing' or 'empty set' or whatever from around the world. If you want to explain to me why the Mayan monumental zero wasn't a true zero because it wasn't a 'real' positional notation system, go right ahead in the comments, but know that I will roll my eyes and shake my head when I read it.

I'm trying to do this in chronological order, but there's some overlap. Also when possible I will include the date of the earliest known usage of the symbol, and a picture of said symbol.


The Babylonians inherited the unholy number/cuneiform writing system originally developed by the Sumerians. This civilization ran in a fairly unbroken line for thousands of years, with breaks to change names and move locations. So while I was talking the other day about Sumerians and base sixty, THOSE Sumerians were about four thousand years back from THESE Babylonians.

That said, the 'double wedge' shown above is considered a symbol "to indicate the absence of units of a given order of magnitude" (from Georges Ifrah). Meaning it was used just like our zero today. Their notation system DID use positions like ours does, but because of the base sixty, it was not a simple progression by tens like ours is - 1, 10, 100, 1000, etc. Their system went up in sixties (near as I can figure without the degree in advanced math I'm not ever getting): 1, 60, 3600, 216000. The exact 'steps' of the system vary a bit over the four or five thousand years the civilization shifted around, but by the time they settled on a positional notation system about 2000 BCE, that was generally how they did it. Interestingly, I think, is that they used the positional notation system for about two thousand years before finally inventing (or deciding to use) a zero symbol, under the Selucid Turks in about 300 BCE.


The Mayans seem to have had TWO types of zero, to go with their two types of writing. The first kind was a fairly straightforward text style that was used for actually doing mathematical computation; the zero from that system is the eye-shaped symbol in the upper left of the picture. The second type of writing was the flowery symbolic 'writing' they used for monuments, shown in the bottom row of the above picture - there were several versions of the zero used for monuments. Mostly they look like four-petaled flowers. They'd make a cool tattoo for a math history geek.

The Mayans are kind of entertaining because they only NEEDED the first zero. The Mayans ran on base twenty and wrote their numbers out much the same way we do in base ten, with the positional notation and all (ones, twenties, four hundreds, etc). It was an efficient system, which is probably why the Maya were some of the best mathematicians in the ancient world. However, when they did inscriptions on monuments, they wrote their numbers out formally, so - for instance - 1234 would be written out "one thousand, two hundreds, three tens, four ones". Obviously for that kind of system you don't need a zero to hold a place, you just skip the empty positions - 1000 would be "one thousand". But for religious and aesthetic purposes, the Mayans liked to spell it out. "One thousand, zero hundreds, zero tens, zero ones." So it's a useless sort of zero, though kinda pretty.

Their real zero, in their math papers and notes, dates back to at least 300 BCE. Our understanding of the Mayans is kind of sketchy thanks to Christian missionaries torching huge piles of their manuscripts, so it's possible the New World zero is older. We just don't know.


This one is ours; you can see the evolution of it above, as it traveled along the trade routes from India, where it was invented (along with the rest of the positional notation system), to the Arabs, and then to Western Civilization.

There is a text (the Ganitasarasamgraha, if you must know) dated to 850 CE that has calculations that math types agree HAD to be done with some kind of positional notation. Experts claim from analysis of complex manuscripts that the entire system - positional notation and a use of zero for empty 'slots' - was in place by about 950 CE but not much before that. There appears to be some kind of academic slug-fest over these dates, with accusations of forgery and misinterpretation flying about, so have a big grain of salt with this. (Personally, I suspect the system goes back further and we just haven't found evidence of it yet.) There is, in fact, commentary by an Arab dude (Severus Sebokt; no, I did not make that up) written in 662 CE, talking about how the Greeks didn't know jack and just inherited their civilization from the Middle East, and how the Hindus had a better number system that ran on 'only nine figures'. This is interesting for two reasons. First, of course is the implication that the base ten system is older than the Hindu manuscripts can demonstrate, and second is that even in the 600s, people were sick to death of hearing about how awesome the Greeks are (I'm in august company).

From there, the system moved over to the Arabs, who were busy dominating the trade routes between east and west and making big bucks off it. They needed a good system to count their big bucks, and adopted the Indian base-ten-with-zero method to do so. We're not sure when it happened - more academic slug-fests there - but by looking at the symbols above, anyone, even those of us with no official training, can see the evolution.

Western civ is said to have discovered the numbers while slogging about, killing people, during the crusades. I'm kinda skeptical. I think what really happened is the system oozed north from Spain (which was held by Arab peoples from 711 to 1492 CE) and west from Byzantium which, while considered European, had Asian trade routes running through it constantly, and had close ties to Western Europe until it was taken by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 CE. Just like most of the rest of Arab knowledge got into Europe (including knitting).

There you go, those are the high points anyway. I'm sure there are thousands of gory details I could have included, but I wanted a brief overview, not a dissertation.

At the moment, I feel an urge to write about the Phonecians. I'm tired of numbers.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Still freaked out a day later.

So yesterday, desperate to distract the Goober with something - anything - and buy the husbeast and I a moment's peace, I gave her a world history book. I'd gotten it on sale about a year ago and figured I would give it to her when she was in grade school and NEEDED a world history book (something more entertaining than the text books); it's written at about a fifth grade level, and like all Dorling-Kindersley books, is full of pictures. I was hoping the pictures would save me. They did.

The crazy thing was, when I laid the book in front of her, she put her finger on a photo of the gold mask of Tutankhamen's, and said clearly, "Ooooh, Egyp!" and flipped the book open. She seemed disappointed the whole book wasn't about Egyp, so I'll probably be getting her a kid's book about that, next.

Thing is, I've got no idea how she knew that. It's probably from me. When I read any kind of book, if it's got pictures (it usually does; I'm a big fan of pictures and maps and diagrams), the Goob will lean over my shoulder and point and ask questions about 'who dat lady made of stone?' I know she's gone through several history and art history books with me and it's likely Tut's in one of those. But for the life of me, I don't remember explaining that to her.


This weekend I got a fun e-mail. My Sock Roulette victim had finished her half of the pair.

Awesome! I'd left the end of the toe of the sock I sent her undarned, figuring she could pick it apart and add length if she had to. And she did. But I think we did a great job.

Sock Roulette will be happening again next year. I think I've got all the wrinkles ironed out now; there will be two swaps, one for women's size medium and one for women's size large. It will start in February just like this year. I've given up on posting a huge montage of finished socks, at least this year, because it's gotten away from me and some of us are moving pretty slowly on finishing our pair (I haven't knit my own sock yet). I've got some ideas on how to fix that, too. But, anyway, something to look forward to next February.


A few comments on Schoolhouse Rock, since everyone enjoyed the zero one I included on my last post.

First, for those of you who are overseas or young, Schoolhouse Rock was, originally, a series of three-minute cartoons that aired in the seventies. They would run jumbled in between commercials, on Saturday morning children's television. Back in the dark ages of the seventies, there were no cartoon channels. We got half a day of programming on Saturday mornings, and occasional cartoons on Sunday mornings and weekday afternoons. That was it. I remember getting into fist fights with my brother over whether we were watching monster movies or Tom and Jerry on weekday afternoons.

Anyway, as with many catchy jingles, we absorbed them to a degree we never realized.

Years later, in high school, my senior year, our English teacher said she was going to make us memorize the Preamble (the beginning of our constitution) as an assignment. Right there in class, someone started singing "We the people..." and the whole class joined in.

(The actual text of the preamble starts about one minute in.) The teacher listened to us sing the whole thing, smiling, and right then and there gave us all As for the assignment. In the other classes she asked them if they knew the "We the People" song, and when they sang it, she gave them As too. This was the beginning of my great love of children's educational television. Tell me we don't use that stuff later.

Fast forward twenty years - ish - to 2005 when I was in college again and forced against my will to take English 100*. There was another woman in the class who was a few years younger than I was, and clearly remembered Schoolhouse Rock, too. When the class did parts of speech, we were completely unable to keep a lid on it, and would be in the back of the classroom, singing the jingles for the parts of speech. One day we did pronouns, and I ripped right through the song, with all the complicated names and runon sentences.

(The pronoun one is my favorite of the Grammar Rock toons.) It impressed the hell out of everyone, and my friend asked me how on earth I'd remembered that one, and I said "Oh, I have the DVD." A kid sitting near me said "You have kids?" and I said "No." and all the other kids in the class stared at me. But the professor (who had been raised overseas) immediately asked to borrow the DVD. So I loaned it to her and she loved it and got her own copy.

These days? The Goober loves the DVD and will ask for it. She asks to watch "the singing paper". Bill from "I'm just a Bill" is on the spine of the DVD case, and that's what she sees when looking at her shelf of DVDs.

And whenever she asks, she gets to watch them. I worry about making her watch them so much that she's bored or worse, hates them, but if she's asking? Oh hell yeah, kid. Watch some Schoolhouse Rock. Her favorite seems to be the x4 multiplication tables, I think because she really likes animals:

So there you go. Schoolhouse Rock on a Monday to cheer you all up.

*I was forced to take English 100 by the dean. I did it under protest, but did not take it out on the professor because the prof was wonderful. Did an excellent job of teaching basic concepts; not her fault I already knew them. She told me much later that she knew I'd be trouble - in a fun way - the first week of class when she gave us a quiz. It was an article about Mae West, and we were supposed to put in quotation marks where they were needed. I aced the quiz and across the bottom wrote "I used to be snow white, but I drifted" - a famous quote from Mae West. The paper I had to write for the class was eventually turned into my Knitty article on the history of knitting. And after it was all over and the dust had settled, my professor went to the dean with a copy of that paper, some of my other work, and links to my Knitty articles, and bitched him out for making me take that class when I very obviously didn't need it. And then she thanked me for being so nice about it in her classroom.

If only all the classes I'm forced to take were so pleasant.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Zero, my hero*

By request. Sorry, this one's gonna wind up being in two installments, too. I just don't have the heart to babble on about number theory and history up past a couple thousand words. I imagine people's eyes glazing over and drool dripping into their keyboards. And that's no fun. So today, zero as a concept. Tomorrow, Great Zeros In History (the different cultures that used zero, near as I can figure out without a degree in advanced math).

First off, I hate to ruin it for everyone, but the concept of zero itself isn't THAT big a deal. It is, in fact, a direct offshoot of the big deal in numbers, the positional notation system. Now, positional notation, THAT was a fucking good idea.

To avoid bogging this down into a twenty thousand word dissertation on positional notation systems, I'll use our own decimal system here in western civilization as an example. Say we've got four digits. 1, 2, 3, and 4. As they sit, there where I typed them, they are one, two, three, and four. Sitting their on their own. But when you clump them together, 1234, they assume the value of one thousand, two hundred and thirty-four. It is not the fact that they are clumped together that determines the value; it could just as easily mean ten, the sum of each separate digit added together. But because of where the numbers are in relation to each other, the POSITION that each holds, they assume a higher value than the digit alone. The 1 digit is in the 'thousands' space, the 2 is in hundreds, the 3 is in tens, and the 4 is in ones. Jumble the digits around to, say, 4123, and the value shifts, even though the digits remain the same. Very clever, no? Took mankind quite a long time to come up with this idea, though different civilizations cooked it up at different times.

So when you have an even thousand, you put the digit 1 in the thousand space, but you've got a problem 'cause it's sitting there looking like this: 1. And there's nothing to tell you if that's one, a hundred, a thousand, or a kazillion. That's where zero comes in. It bumps that one over into the thousand place in a definite, unmistakable way, 1000. No one else can come along later and be mistaken about what value you mean by that. It's a thousand.

If numbers themselves are abstract - and they are - zero is even more so. Because it's both nothing and something. We're all taught that it symbolizes nothing, an empty set. Yet by using it within the positional notation system, it's both something and nothing. It indicates that while there's nothing in that 'slot', it gives value to the other numbers around it. There is some indication that this conundrum is what kept a few of the more advanced civilizations from discovering or using zero; they bogged down on the philosophy of it and lost the practical use.

Now try to remember this for tomorrow, because there is a definite relationship between positional notation and zero, in terms of use and discovery. Almost every civilization (I won't say all 'cause I'm still researching) that used zero, discovered it or invented it as a way to hold a place. Not always in a positional notation system, but they wanted a symbol that meant nothing to take up space.

Now if you'll excuse me I've gotta go look at pictures of Mayan and Babylonian numerical notation. I'm not sure which civilization was nuttier, when it came to writing down numbers, but I KNOW that I'm amazed either one accomplished anything with that kind of math to swim through just to add up a couple goats. I mean, come on, EXPONENTS?

*How wonderful you aaaaAAAARE.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Reality check.

(Still working on zero. It's taking a spot of research. Those wacky Mayans.)

A run down of current projects. Thinking of what all I've got to do between now and next year gives me heartburn, but I still have to face it. Like move twice, get through the husbeast finding another job, do the Christmas knitting, break down the shop and then put it back up again... yeah. Good times.


I'm still working on the lavender cardi-thingie.

It's from the top down, so you can see the shoulders and the back of the neck. I'm knitting down the fronts now, and will - maybe today - join the whole thing up at the under arms. Once I'm down below boob level I'm shifting from stockinette to ribbing, to hopefully emphasize the waist I used to have before I gained ten pounds in the last week on this new damn medication.

Still spinning Purple Trainwreck.

I'm up to about 900 yards, and am a little over halfway through the massive pile of fiber. I think. This was a good idea; it has helped me decide a lot of questions I had about how to spin The Bells Fiber. (The pound of Purple Trainwreck was done entirely as a practice session, before I dye and spin a pound of glorious wool sent too me from Australia by Bells.) Still don't know what in hell I'm doing with this stuff. I'm wavering between trying to sell it in the shop, and knitting a Tomten Jacket for the Goob. Though if I wind up with enough yardage, I'll probably chuck both ideas and knit myself something.

What I'd really like to do is ditch it all and spin this:

Which in terms of the color wheel is the exact opposite of Purple Trainwreck. It was supposed to be pastel, inspired by lemonade. But of course I screwed up the intensity of the dye solution, so I'm calling this "Menolade" which is the Goober's not-quite-right word for lemonade.

I uploaded the silk/merino blend that I spun to the shop, finally.

I like how the silk makes it shiny enough that the copper color of the penny is reflected. As usual, I hope no one buys it. I also am dyeing fiber for the shop - Purple Trainwreck and Mermaid Tail - and hope no one buys the Mermaid Tail. 'Cause I need more fiber. (Ha.)

The other day, the Goober decided to 'wook at books'. So she did.

I swear I did not doctor this photo in anyway. She really did drag out all her books and wind up in the middle of a giant puddle of them. This is one of those fine "I can't be screwing up too badly" moments of parenthood. A lot of days you wonder (or at least I do), but if the kid spends an hour looking at books, well, something's going right.

Maybe now I'll go wook at books myself. Gotta straighten out those Mayans.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Meme thingy.

Getting motivated to do the zero thing; it needs some quickie research first (zero was invented four times; can I remember where? Hell no). So for now, the meme that's been going around. I'm so out of it I don't know if I've been tagged or not, and it looks kinda fun.

What is your current obsession?
Spinning. It comes and goes in phases and generally I don't fight it. For several months now I've been spinning every spare minute. I think it's the satisfaction of making yarn from a ball of fuzz.

What are you wearing today?
Oh boy. Tie-dyed sweat pants, ratty socks, a tee shirt that says "books, cats, life is good", and a denim shirt with holes in it. It's been a lousy couple days. Good thing I don't have to discuss my hair.

What's for dinner?
Dunno. We've got an actual menu system (posted on the refrigerator, no less), but this week I've been ignoring it because my medication makes me wanna puke. Maybe I'll do pasta. That sounds okay.

What did you eat for your last meal?
I haven't been eating meals, but small snacks. Heavy on the granola bars. (Nature Valley, cinnamon flavor. They're almost good.)

What's the last thing you bought?
Snaps and thimbles, to finish the lavender cotton cardi with.

What are you listening to right now?
My daughter telling me about how she's in a jungle and something flew out of a tree at her and is 'flinging all my stuff'. Now the giant bird stole her lunch. My usual response to these statements is 'oh, heavens'.

If you could go anywhere in the world for the next hour, where would you go?
The Victoria and Albert Museum. Why think small? I'll chain myself to a toilet in the loo and refuse to leave.

Which language do you want to learn?
Mandarin. I haven't learned an Asian language yet, and the whole tonal thing sounds interesting.

What do you love most about where you currently live?
The biscuits. They make good biscuits in the south.

What is your favorite colour?
I'm not really able to narrow it down to one. I love all colors, especially clear, super-saturated ones.

What is your favorite piece of clothing in your own wardrobe?
I suppose that's got to be my good old Levi's jeans. Though I'm also fond of my collection of 'long floaty dresses' in silk and rayon that I wear in hot weather.

What were you doing ten years ago?
Trying to hold down a part time job and fly back and forth between Hawaii and Ohio to deal with a couple major family illnesses. Glad that's over. I think 1999 was the year I logged enough air miles to go around the world twice. And did I get to go somewhere cool? No. I went to Ohio. Isn't that always the way?

Describe your personal style?
Usually I go for comfort, but when I dress up or start spending big bucks on clothing, I go for classic. My last clothing purchase was at Brooks Brothers.

If you had $300 now, what would you spend it on?
Fiber. It's an obsession. Or perhaps I'd kick in some of my own cash and buy a drum carder. That's the newest, latest I-want-that.

What are you going to do after this?
More of the same, I imagine. Possibly knit, read some books. Try not to puke. It's a barrel of laughs at the moment - see why I'm talking about numbers?

What are your favorite films?
Lord of the Rings. Sorry, it's a cliche, but they're awesome. Um. The movies I watch over and over... Bull Durham, Triple X, The Italian Job (remake with Marky Mark), Mulan, Aladin. I like humor. Obviously.

What inspires you?
As a person? Generosity of spirit. Kindness (so simple, so underrated, so difficult sometimes). Cleverness. Smart is all well and good, but those people who take old ideas and twist them around into something new and useful, wow. That's cool.
As a fiberhead? Sort of the same thing - new takes on old ideas. I think everything's already been done, in terms of clothing, so at this stage it's a matter of making old ideas seem new.

Whose work/designs are you inspired by?
Terry Pratchett. Meg Swansen. Stephen Hawking. Vincent VanGough. Jesse James (the mechanic, not the outlaw). Martin Luther King. Boudica. Hannibal of Carthage. Um...

Your favourite books?
Geez. All of them? At the moment, I'm reading the "in Death" series by J D Robb (again). For reference I'm using "The Universal History of Numbers", "The Cartoon Book of Chemistry", and "Mad Science". Knitting books I return to over and over are "Unexpected Knitting" by Debbie New, everything by EZ and Meg, and "Knitting in the Old Way".

Do you collect anything?
Yarn and fiber, of course. Tea pots. Books.

What makes you follow a blog?
Good writing, humor, and an entertaining take on things. I'll read just about anything if it's written in an entertaining, humorous style. But of course I like to learn stuff, so new information is a plus. Doesn't really matter what topic.

What was the most enjoyable thing you did today?
So far? Lay in the recliner with my kitty. She's nice and warm. And purrs.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Book review!

I've been meaning to do this a while, and since I'm actually awake and coherent at the moment (no, I was not coherent for the Sumerian number system thing; that was drugged stream of consciousness. Be very, very afraid).

Knit it Together, by Suzyn Jackson. (For sale here.)

Full disclaimer: I was sent this book for free and asked to review it by the author and publicist. Given the rep my Vogue Knitting reviews have gotten around here, I'm pretty impressed by the request.

That said, it's a good book. It is not the kind of knitting book I normally buy, but it's a nice book, one I was glad to add to my library. I've already used it for reference, plotting a group project with a friend.

As you can probably figure out by the title, it is about knitting groups. How to organize one, how to keep one going, and what to do with one once you've got it. It starts off with a short history, which of course I always appreciate; this one specifically covers knitting groups, starting off with the guilds of the middle ages and working on through the informal groups that met during the world wars to knit for the troops, and the recent explosion of knitting around the world. From there it's a well-organized series of discussions about knitting as an educational experience (with discussion of Knitting Camp with Meg Swansen), as political movement, as charity.

Each section contains patterns by the author, designed to be knit by groups. While the rest of the book contains good, solid information, it's the patterns that really impress me, because it's not the same old usual stuff. The author went to some real effort to come up with new ideas. Among other things, there is a jacket knit in strips, an entrelac bag (each person knits on another square), some mosaic knitting (ditto), a really cute tree of life hanging that would be great for large religious groups, and some modular shawls and wraps that could easily be used as christening or prayer shawls for Big Events. There's even a baby mobile where each person knits a separate dangly bit and they're assembled. Clever, interesting stuff.

If you're looking for a book about knitting groups, or HAVE a knitting group you want to breathe more life into, I think you'd do well to have a look at this book. It's the nicest treatment of group knitting that I've ever seen. (And if you think I'm just saying that 'cause I got a free book, go read one of my VK reviews.)

Sumerian base sixty, and how it haunts us.

I like that everyone in the comments yesterday gets the significance of base sixty. Or at least, has the same reaction to it that I do, which is, "WHY IN...??!!??" The reason I know what little I know about number theory and history is due entirely to the Sumerians. I first heard about the base sixty thing in College Part One, and have been digging around through history and tech books ever since, trying to figure out why exactly they did it. No one really knows. There are half a dozen theories, but I've got my own. (Big shock.)

But first, a word or ten about the Sumerians themselves. 'Cause, see, they were really weird.

The biggest deal, when it comes to the Sumerians, is that nobody knows who they were. That is to say, they just popped up in the Middle East one day seven-ish thousand years ago. Culturally, linguistically, they're different than the people who lived around them. It's thought they came from central Asia, somewhere near modern Kazakhstan, but nobody really knows for sure. This is useful to know, because it plays a part in some of these number theories. Plus I like historic mysteries, so I almost HAVE to mention it.

Sumerians, and most other middle-eastern civs of the day, ran on clay. They were in a double river valley (Tigris and Euphrates, cradle of civilization, blah blah, don't you remember this from sixth grade?) and so they had all the clay they could use, and they did use it. For everything. Building, storage, cooking, decorating, and most importantly for us, record keeping. They didn't write on paper. They wrote on lumps of clay. If those lumps of clay were then fired (either on purpose, or by accident in the equivalent of house fires), they literally lasted forever unless someone ground them to dust.

Politically, the Sumerians used a theocratic city-state system. Which means each city-state was run by a PRIEST, and the cities were centered around a temple, not a palace. Each city was dedicated to a different god, and it's thought the pantheon's doings in later years reflect the political jockeying of the city-states in the very early years. Because this civilization lasted three thousand years, in different forms.

And depending on how you look at it, it survives today, right here on your computer, in the lower right corner if you're running Windows.

So, why did the Sumerians use base sixty? Well. There are theories. Lots of theories. In short:

-It has been suggested (since the fourth century, no less) that base sixty was chosen because it has a huge number of divisors (numbers it can be divided by), and therefore was 'easiest to use'. I've had modern mathematicians offer this as a theory, also, when I've discussed it with them. The problem with this theory is, civilizations 'choose' which base number system to use when they're counting goats on their fingers; they have no concept of what a divisor IS at the time the base system is established.

-The system is based on the days of the year. 365.24something days, rounded down to 360, and from there sixty becomes a 'natural' unit. This has the same problem as the first theory: when they were establishing the base system for their civilization they couldn't have known how many days there were in the year. They needed the advanced math to figure out the days in the year, BEFORE they could choose base sixty. There are related theories of base sixty established by 'natural' reckoning, like the hours of the day, the visible diameter of the sun, or number of planets (that they could observe with the naked eye). You still need advanced math to figure this stuff out BEFORE you decide to use base sixty.

-It is based on their system of weights and measures. Which totally screws up cause and effect, like the earlier ideas.

-It arose when the Sumerians moved into the area, and combined with another civilization that was already in the area, and somehow base ten plus base six (and why in hell would they be using base six? It just triggers more questions) equals base sixty. Sure, you can get base sixty easily from that doing the MATH, but culturally it makes no real sense. Usually one civilization snuffs out the other - at least culturally, if not literally - and moves on from there.

-It's really base twelve (duodecimal), which isn't totally unheard of in other parts of the world, like Western Europe (a dozen donuts, anyone?)

-Mystical reasons. The mathematicians were also priests and used numerology all the time. Different gods were represented by different numbers, and the upper god of Heaven (An/Anu) was sixty. Again there's a big question of cause and effect going on.

What do I think? As usual, I think it's a combination of all these reasons. Or most of them.

Going from what I know of the Sumerian numbering system (and you're gonna have to take my word for it, or read the article, 'cause I don't wanna be here all day), I think they were running equally on base ten and base twelve, and the sixty came up just as an easy factor for both those systems. (5x12=60, 6x10=60, that's the lowest number where the two systems 'meet' neatly.) It would make sense then, that their most 'good' god, the highest, most celestial, would be assigned the number they would see as wholeness, the one that is the neatest factor of both numerical systems they were using.

Base ten was probably the original system, the holdover from goat-counting on their fingers, and was, for the most part, used for practical purposes.

Base twelve was probably created by the priest/ruler class. I bet it was used, originally, for 'holy' purposes, for all those reasons listed above. 360 days in the year, six visible planets, etc. It looked to the priests like the natural world ran on sixes and twelves, so that's what they used. Note that the stuff we still use base twelve for is the stuff they would have considered holy - time, planets, astronomy, geometry.

As for everything else, like their accounting (boy howdy, do we have piles of their accounting tablets)? It's a jumble of the two systems. There are symbols in their writing system for 1, 10, 60, 600 (10x6), 3,600 (60x60 or 36x10). And so on. All other numbers were written as multiples of these symbols. What's that look like to YOU? To me that looks like base six/twelve and base ten jumbled together.

Now. This probably sounds insane, like a really dumbass way to run a civilization. But you know what? We're still dealing with vestiges of this dumbass system every day. And not just when you buy a dozen donuts instead of ten. The Sumerian system evolved over three thousand years, and was picked up by other civilizations (notably the Phonecians), and from there the Greeks, then the Romans, and here we are today, seven thousand-odd years later, still looking at dozens (see that? A special word for groupings of twelve, in an allegedly base ten civilization) of holdovers from those crazyass Sumerian priests/math geeks.

Look at your clock. Twenty-four hours in a day? Sorta. It's even more base twelve than that. Twelve hours of sunlight, and twelve hours of darkness. That's how it was originally figured. The clock - such as it was, usually a sundial - was 'reset' every sunrise and sunset. In older texts, even Roman ones, there are references to 'summer hours' and 'winter hours'. Because the days, regardless of length, were divided into twelve equal parts, and since the days are longer in summer, so are the hours. It doesn't stop there. Sixty minutes in an hour, sixty seconds in a minute. When we hit sixty, we start over at one. No one ever stops to think "why don't we go to a hundred before we start over?" or at least not very often.

Not only are there 360 degrees in a circle, it has carried over in the modern world to latitude and longitude, which is measured in minutes and seconds, all on base sixty just like time minutes and seconds on a clock. Yes. Modern GPS systems ultimately run on base twelve, like the ancient Sumerians.

Twelve months in a year. An arbitrary division, but twelve was seen as the 'neat' number to divide it into. Thirty days in a month; half of sixty. (We've since tinkered with the calendar, adding days and moving them around here and there, but the basic organization of it remains the same.)

And for Americans, the Imperial measurement system is a jumble of base ten and twelve. Twelve inches in a foot. 36 inches in a yard (3x12).

I imagine for the ancient Sumerians it was just as simple to switch back and forth, and they did it just as easily as modern humans, with just as little thought to it.


If we're still having fun with this, and everyone's interested, tomorrow I can do zero, and how it's not really the big deal it's made out to be - sort of.

For anyone finding this SUPER fascinating, I suggest "The Universal History of Numbers", by Georges Ifrah. (Oh, look! He has a new book out!) Unfortunately it is a translation, and therefore a bit dry, but it's still a really amazing book.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Number theory, base, and Sumerian freaks.

So, numbers. Number theory is kind of interesting because numbers are something everyone knows, but almost no one really thinks about. They're the foundation of civilization as much as peanut butter toast, and are just as ancient.

Numbers are said to be the oldest, most abstract idea the human race has ever had. They may be the FIRST abstract idea we ever had. We've used them for so long, and learn them at such a young age, that I bet everyone is thinking "abstract? What's abstract about three?" well, quite a lot, actually.

It took the human race quite a long time to understand that this

(those are herd animals of early neolithic tribes; really) is the same as this.

And from there, it was really quite a huge leap to decide that those things are both the same as this:

Think about it. What does a 3 on a piece of paper REALLY have to do with three herd animals? Nothing, except in your mind. You could make any squiggle, and assign it the value of those three herd animals and call it three or Fred or George or cement, and it would be just as accurate as 3 is. VERY abstract. You can use the counting words for all kinds of wild stuff: three hours (time), three meters (distance), three goats (concrete stuff), three planets (astronomy), you name it. Invent numbers, and you can control (or pretend to control) the world.

What's really interesting is, numbers have been invented more than once. You'd think this would be a major big deal like the wheel and only get invented once. But no. People all over the world have developed different systems of varying complexity. Tally sticks - bits of wood, ivory, clay, whatever, with little hatch marks scratched into them - date back to the stone age.

This one is from Africa and is twenty five thousand years old. Sometimes, with these really old sticks, we can figure out what they were counting. Usually days, phases of the moon (of course there are piles of sticks we've no idea what they were counting). There are ancient caves with drawings of animals that have hatch marks next to them, for all the world like the 'kills' graphic on the sides of planes:

Except the ones in caves are thousands of years old and about bears and stuff.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Before you decide this is all hopelessly primitive and we've left it behind in our new, high-tech, computerized world, guess again. Anyone do this, counting rows while knitting?

I do it all the time. Guess what? Goes back to those twenty-five thousand year old tally sticks. You may be counting something different, but the method is exactly the same.

To go further with this, we now have to get technical. Unfortunately.

BASES (also known as radix)

There are almost as many number systems as there are languages - the two seem to go hand in hand. One of the ways they are classified is by base. It's the number of unique digits (including zero, if they have it), before the higher numbers are expressed as combinations of those unique numbers. For instance, the number fourteen is ten-and-four, linguistically; four-ten, fourteen. The technical, modern world runs - mostly - on base ten (I am not starting on binary and hexidecimal, at least not today). We've got the numbers 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. All other numbers are expressed as variations of those ten. Get it? (I hope so, 'cause I'm trying to keep this from getting complicated.)

Right. Well. Obviously base ten - the decimal system, deci from Latin or Greek or whatever meaning ten - comes from counting on our fingers. Simple, easy, count your herd of goats on your fingers and from there gradually move forward to the Grand Unification Theory, counting on your fingers the whole way. The vast majority of the planet ran on base ten, through human history. Chinese, Egyptians both ancient and modern, Greeks, Hebrews, Romans, Indian and Indus civilizations, they ran on base ten.

Occasionally there were civilizations who ran on base five - the fingers of one hand. The Carib and Arawak tribes in the Caribbean, some Oceania islanders, the Khmer of SE Asia, and assorted African tribes used base five, which makes sense and works just fine as long as you're counting goats and not moving into really complex math.

Then there were the civs that ran on base twenty - all your fingers and toes. The thought of their multiplication tables makes my head hurt, but using your fingers and toes to count on still makes sense. From linguistic studies, it's thought the Celts used base twenty (from whom we have the holdover word, score, as a special word for twenty). The Basques still use base twenty. Some parts of Scandinavia, Inuits, and the Ainu of Japan all ran on twenty. But the most notable folks to use base twenty were the Maya, who had an extremely complex mathematical and callendrical system they worked out using their numerical system.

Then it gets weird.

The Sumerians used base sixty. And because we ultimately inherited their writing and numbering systems, we have vestiges of that damned base sixty system floating around us, all day every day. Buy a dozen donuts? Special words for eleven and twelve? Twenty-four hours in a day, sixty minutes, sixty seconds, 360 degrees in a circle... all the Sumerians' fault.

Why? Well, that's for tomorrow.

Did I mention they were the world's first accountants? This is a bill of sale.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Bah, humfuck.

Was gonna do a freaky topic post today about number theory, but a migraine kicked in and I'm not doing base sixty while unable to see. I was also thinking about doing atomic theory, but ditto explaining electron clouds when I can't see.

So. What's going on?

The Goob and Sekhmet are playing peacefully. It's freaking me out.

The husbeast got the engine in his truck AND the transmission hooked to it. He's doing the Snoopy Dance.

I'm still spinning Purple Trainwreck and knitting the Little Purple Cardi. There is other fiber in the house and I'm starting to really want to spin it up. Especially the yellow; that's the opposite of purple. I'm kinda tired of looking at purple.

The quote for the day is not a quote, it is a new word:

Wookee: verb. To make a piece of machinery fit by wrestling it around with brute strength.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The history of Brussels Sprouts.

And why they'll never be as good as cake. (I warned you the topics would get weird.)

First we start with a sorta-quick botany lesson. (Which thrills me, 'cause botany is my thing.)

There is a huge family of plants (taxonomy is another day) called Brassicaceae or Cruciferae, which contains a good many veggies we eat. They're known as the cruciferous vegetables, due to the taxonomy classification. Among others, there's broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, mustard, kale, turnips, rutabagas, horseradish, and wasabi. Big family of plants. Very good for you; lots of beta-carotene and fiber and minerals and all that rot. They are popular the world over because they grow in crappy soil and in weird conditions (cabbage is a WINTER crop in many places - grow other food in the 'real' growing season, then grow cabbage on the off season). For many, many years, in many places, the Cruciferae are what kept the human race going, nutritionally. It is not a coincidence that just about every culture in the world has a recipe for pickled cabbage: sauerkraut, kim chee, suan cai, etc. (I knew a guy in Hawaii; his mother was German and his dad Japanese, and his mother was famous for an east-meets-west pickled cabbage she made.)

Okay, so cabbages are a big deal nutritionally. Botanically they're pretty cool, too, because they're all the same plant, or damn near. Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts, among other things, are all cultivars of one plant: Brassica oleracea. See, people all over the world took cabbage and selectively bred it into whatever they wanted. That's why there are eleventeen million different kinds of leafy greens and cabbage and radishes and, and.

Cabbage itself is a wild mustard (technically) and is thought to be native to the Mediterranean area. Broccoli and several others are thought to be native to Italy. The list goes on.

Brussels sprouts are not native to Brussels; though they did probably come from somewhere in northern Europe. I suspect they would do better than traditional cabbages, because they're closer to the ground (the ground holds heat; it's warmer down there). They'd probably survive short frosts if covered with some straw. They were bred between the 1600s or 1700s, making them some of the most recent of the dozens of cabbage cultivars out there. Alton Brown did an episode of Good Eats starring brussels sprouts, and you can find the recipes here, if you've an urge to cook some.

So why aren't brussels sprouts as good as cake? Well, that's kind of an easy answer, but it's depressing. Remember the previously-blogged-about human fat tooth? (If not, link here.) In a nutshell, we evolved to crave fats because for most of human history, they were hard to get and we needed them. In addition, we're evolved to crave sweets because sweet = mother's milk (at first) and then sugary foods contained calories that we need. Again, for most of human history, sugar was pretty hard to get, so we could get away with eating all we wanted.

Short answer? Cake tastes better because we evolved to think cake tastes better. Not a damn thing we can do about it.

Go eat your leafy greens.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A hopeless jumble of topics.

I went to the doc today and was given more medication on top of the old medication and I'm having a pain flareup and blah blah and poop and if you guys hang in for another day or two you're gonna be getting some freaky-ass blog posts. (Hey. Maybe the freaky-ass blog posts start today!)


The hopefully last word on radiation is thus:

The husbeast is getting ready to retire and doing health checks and crap. For entertainment (knowing I'd been writing about radiation), he asked what his total radiation exposure is. See, whenever he's down a hole on a submarine or whatever, he wears a little pencil-shaped sensor called a TLD (stands for Thermo-Luminescent Doohicky, I think) that monitors his level of radiation exposure. So he got the total for all the radiation he's been exposed to while working on ships for the entire twenty years he has been in the Navy. Know how much? It's less than he got in a month of riding around in jet boats in Pearl Harbor when he was at his last command. (He rode around in jet boats for four years, meaning he was exposed to about, um, forty-eight times more radiation fooling around outside in normal conditions than he was in submarines.)

Yes. You read that right: Twenty years of radiation exposure from working on nuclear submarines is LESS than a month of sunny days in the tropics.

Believe me now when I say it's all relative? And to quit the sunbathing already?


Have been spinning way too much, and my finger - the finger that the fiber goes over - has gotten raw. I'm not sure if it's really raw (no blood or anything), or if it's just some lovely symptom of this dumbass pain flareup (I get super-sensitive to pain; a papercut last night felt like I'd severed the tip of my finger). So I'm just gonna keep spinning until I see blood. Fuck the pain.

Ditto on the knitting; I'm working with cotton right now.


The Goober is still big into her Little People animals and yesterday I got to shout the fun statement, "HEY! Get this horse out of the dining room!"

The neighbors think we are either insane, or have small children. Or both. (I think it's both.)

Today she got out her alphabet of animals and told me what letters each one was. She knew about half. Not bad.


Thanks to everyone helping out with moving suggestions. The military will pay for one thousand pounds of stuff (packing and moving), and store it for one year. Anything OVER the thousand pounds, we pay for. They allow for 10% over, so 1100 pounds. When we moved out of Hawaii, I think the weight was 1107; they were nice and didn't charge for the seven pounds. But we are definitely maxed out.

Since then, I've gotten rid of about half my books, but we've acquired a washer, dryer, and refrigerator. We intend to rent a U Haul and take the husbeast's tool and spare part collection with us to NE Ohio (we obviously couldn't do that from Hawaii), as well as taking a few boxes of my books, the spinning wheel, knitting gear, and stash. With luck, that will take care of the weight. If not, well, I guess we pay.

I'm probably going to be ditching some furniture. Haha.


The husbeast put the engine he's been rebuilding into the truck yesterday. There was much rejoicing. I watched him sweating buckets in ninety degree heat (uh... 45 C? thereabouts?) with eighty percent humidity, and thought "You call this a hobby?" But it takes all kinds, so I kept my mouth shut. I'll stick to knitting in the air conditioning, though.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The moving plan.

Since everyone seems curious.

We're packing up our house and putting it in storage, then staying in NE Ohio with the in-laws while the hub finds a job. Then we move on from there; we hope to only be with the in-laws for a month or so, which is normal for us when we moved from one duty station to another with the Navy. (Pack up house in Norfolk and put it on boat; stay for month in Ohio; go to Hawaii just as furniture arrives. You get the idea.)

So we'll be in Ohio for a month or so, and after that, we've no idea, but we hope to stay in the NE United States to be near both our families. (My family is also in NE Ohio and my father is in bad health.) Ideally I want to move to one of the smaller towns outside Columbus, go to Ohio State, and eventually work somewhere in that area. There's enough high-tech industry in that area for the husbeast to get hired at, that it's a reasonable goal.

Anyone near Ohio need an NDT inspector?

A day of photos.

'Cause I still got nothin'. Spin, knit, work on stealth project, puke stomach acid, repeat. Not very exciting. (Yes, still fucking around with the medication. Another doc appointment Thursday. Goodie. I'm thrilled.)

So at six thirty this morning, I was awakened by the Little Girl Voice saying "Mumma. I can't find the pig."

For those who were wondering, yes, yesterday's quote of the day revolved around a Little People goat. She's got at least a hundred Little People animals (I get carried away), and the Goober will separate little groups of them and play with one group exclusively for a couple days, then change. Sometimes it's birds. Sometimes it's jungle animals. Lately, it's been farm animals.

They were having a dance when nap time hit, so the Goob left them on the dance floor. Looks like they were having a conga line. From the little brown cow in the upper left, clockwise, we've got a cow, turkey, sheep, goat, pig, cow, and in the middle a horse . She found the pig down the side of the couch after an hour's search this morning.

Since then, Sekhmet has taken up residence on the couch, on the Goober's blankie, next to her gorilla. Tee hee.

Sekhmet's sleeping next to a gorilla. Teeheehee.

I've knit up about one ball of the lavender cotton. I'm following the pattern (really), but I decided recently to get serious about fitting clothes to myself, so I added some slope to the shoulders (a couple short rows), and scooped out the back of the neck so that once I add an inch or so of ribbing it'll ride perfectly.

I'm knitting it top down, and Wendy Bernard is doing a fine job of explaining how in hell I'm to do that. Such a good job, in fact, I'm able to fool around with the unfamiliar pattern and scoop and short row and make it work.

While I was taking photos I stuck the gauge swatch in the window to try to get a more accurate color sample.

That looks about right on my computer.

Otherwise, I'm still spinning during nap time (whoopee), and I divided up a pound of merino for dye and sale, hopefully soon.

The husbeast and I are finally realizing WE MOVE IN SIX WEEKS and are starting to freak out a little. My advance planning for moves is hit-or-miss; usually I'm in denial about moving and so do almost nothing. But last time we moved (from Honolulu to Charleston) I took the denial a little too far (I was in class while the house got packed up) and the move was a DISASTER. So this time I'm trying to be a grown up and do all the obvious stuff: make lists, throw out or give away stuff we don't need to take with us (we're doing all right on that one), and start boxing up things we intend to take ourselves and not have taken by the movers. We have to keep the weight under a thousand-odd pounds or pay for it ourselves. Between the husbeast's spare-parts collection and tools, and my books, plus the new appliances, well, I'm not optimistic about making the weight restriction. Oh yeah. This is gonna be fun. And just think! This time I get to work around a three-year-old as well as do all the move bullshit!

I think I need to go spin some more yarn.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Quote of the day:

ME, hearing something clatter on the dining room floor: What did you drop?

GOOBER: A goat.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Bugger it.

Gave up on the circle cardigan again. I finally got it to a point where I could try it on... and I don't like how it fits.

When the Goober's a little bigger I'll finish it for her. At the rate she's growing, give it another year or two.

In the mean time?

I'm still trying to stick with the 'finish stuff' theme this year. This is an intense, saturated lavender cotton yarn I've had for at least five years. I'm going to knit it into "Cameo" by Wendy Bernard. I can try it on as I knit it, so I don't wind up with another fiasco like the one I just threw back into The Pit. So long as I finish the damn thing (to wear this summer, but we've heard that before), it's definitely part of the 'year of finishing' because using up stash was one of the goals.

While I'm at it, I'm going to finish the gauge swatch for the Christmas sweaters. Remember them? The ones I wanted to have at least one of finished by this time of year? The one I bought seven pounds of yarn from Australia to knit? Hahahaha. Yeah. Those. Well, step one is a swatch. Maybe I could finish THAT.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

A lovely day.

I spent most of it spinning. I'm thrilled to report there is, finally, a visible dent in the massive pile of Purple Trainwreck lurking in my office.

Unfortunately, the wads I pulled off are just in other containers, not spun up yet. So there's still a whole lotta spinning to be done - I just moved the wool around a bit.

I started plying. It's still visibly uneven. I'm chalking it up to migraine drugs and pretending I did it on purpose. (Aren't I clever?)

More wool arrives Monday. Bwahahahaha.


The husbeast got some new parts and he and the Goober repaired to the garage this afternoon to torque down something or other.

The Goober also checked out the tool box. Here she tells me where the wrenches are:

And here she says "oooo, gadgets".

All in all it has been a slow, at-home, boring day. Just the kind of day I love.

The Stealth Project.

For those of you contributing bits to it, I have e-mailed everyone from whom I have gotten packages, to let you know they've arrived. If you have not gotten an e-mail, I don't have it yet.

For those of you curious and wanting to contribute, you can but I've gotta have knitting in hand by next week, let me know.

Either way, e-mail me at SamuraiKnitter AT gmail DOT com.

Thanks to those participating!

Friday, June 05, 2009

Radiation part two: When to panic.

Now that we've discussed (probably in way too much depth but I'm a geek and I can't help it) what radiation IS, it's probably really damned obvious already when to panic and when to say 'whoopee'. But I'll go over it anyway 'cause, well, I'm a geek.

The husbeast and I were kicking around ideas last night on how best to communicate this bit, and we discussed several analogies used by the military and I finally settled on the one that had made the most sense to me when the hub was explaining it, back in the day when I was deciding when to panic: Shit, and stink.

Yes, of course I can work a four letter word into a discussion of radiation and how it works. It's me.

Referring to yesterday's lesson, we'll go with uranium for our example. Uranium would be the shit. The alpha particle radiation put off by the uranium would be the stink. Stink is just stink; but if you get shit on you, you're in trouble. In formal terms, this means that if you were to get hit by some alpha particles put off by uranium, it would be radiation exposure. If you inhaled, ate, or otherwise wound up with uranium stuck to or inside your body, it would be radiation contamination. The husbeast does radiation safety as part of his job. According to him, standard procedure is to do swabs of the mouth and nose and test; if there's radioactive material in the swabs, THEN people freak out. Otherwise, as he put it, "heck, if it's on your skin, you can usually clean it up with soap and water". Alpha and beta particle radiation emitted from a source outside your body is stopped by your skin; wash your skin, and the problem is solved. Once the particle-emitting source is inside your body, though... then, THEN you've got a big problem. One nobody really knows how to treat. Isn't that fun?

Now you understand why most people who study the stuff are so casual about the term radiation, or at least want to know what kind before they spaz out.

For the average citizen who doesn't work at a nuclear power plant or a research lab/medical facility using radioactive isotopes, the opportunity for radiation contamination is about nil. Radiation exposure, sure. You get that all day, every day, from cosmic rays and sunshine and the radon gas in your basement. Contamination? That's a whole other story. The only thing I can think of is if you ate the interior of your smoke alarm. Even then I'm not sure smoke alarms contain enough alpha-emitting isotopes to kill you. You might have to eat a couple smoke alarms. (Smoke alarms need a small amount of Americium 241 to operate. It emits alpha particles and if left inside the smoke alarm and shielded, is safer than an afternoon of sunbathing. A discussion of risks and statistics available here.) Personally, I think if you're crazy enough to eat the inside of a smoke alarm, you've got bigger problems than radiation contamination.

Gamma rays, cosmic rays, and neutron radiation are a whole other ball game. Their mechanisms are slightly different, but the effect on the body and how to prevent said effect is about the same, so I'm lumping them all together. These are the zoomies that will go right through you, knocking off bits of atoms that make up your cells. In the case of neutron radiation, it can do fun things like create gamma rays when it runs into things, or turn atoms in your body into radioactive isotopes, so it's like from-a-distance particle radiation contamination. The only way to protect from this stuff is shielding. Water, cement, lead, some specialized kinds of glass, and some plastics all work. Those big tanks of water seen in video tours of nuclear reactors? Yup. Not only is it a coolant, it's shielding, too. Clever, no? Just like particle radiation, average citizens get the majority of their gamma, neutron, and cosmic ray exposure from natural sources like sunshine and, of course, the amount of it you are hit with will decide whether or not you should panic. Our bodies are used to constant low-level radiation, known as background radiation. A big blast and you're dead.

The Chernobyl accident is probably the best example of when things go wrong. One of the reactors exploded and then caught fire (why is still hotly debated; short story, they were fucking around to see what would happen). Massive amounts of radioactive material was barfed up into the atmosphere, into the ground water, and over everything downwind in the form of radioactive soot from the fire. The Soviet Union claims that 47 emergency workers and less than ten others were killed directly from the accident, to which I and most others say "my ass". But just like radiation exposure/contamination on a personal level, it worked the same way for the soil. Radioactive material (the shit, not the stink) got into the soil, and from that, it is now in every plant that grows on the soil, and then on into any creature who eats the plants. So the entire food chain is contaminated. As for radiation exposure (the stink), no one's quite sure what the levels were, because all the sensors maxed out; sort of like how your car's speedometer only goes to 120 but the car can go faster. However, the radiation was so bad that it set off warning alarms at another nuclear power plant in Sweden, and it was only after that the Soviet Union began to admit that, well, yeah, they'd sorta blown up a nuclear reactor.

But, anyway, my original point was, just like the other examples, the problem with Chernobyl was the massive amount of radioactive dust and soot put off by the explosion and fire. Breathing it led directly to radiation contamination and we're back to 'when to panic'. Incidentally, wine snobs refuse to drink any wine made in Europe after 1985. The explosion happened in April of '86 and according to them soil contamination has ruined every vintage since then. I'd be interested to try a comparative tasting and see if I could tell a difference.

To summarize. Radiation exposure happens all the time and unless it's massively high amounts - almost impossibly high for average citizens - you scrub down with soap and water, keep an eye out for skin cancer indicators, and otherwise forget it. Radiation contamination, get yourself to a hospital and hope for the best. There's no real treatment, just comfort care. Though contamination is also nearly impossible for average citizens.

Bottom line, get the hell out of that tanning bed, and don't build a breeder reactor in your garage, no matter how much fun it sounds like. (Besides. The NRC will show up and I have it on good word that those guys have NO sense of humor at all.)

(Okay. One last comment on the safety of nuclear power plants. I'm not saying they're safe, but I will say it's all relative. We had a spill at a 'clean coal' plant here in the US last December that dumped heavy metals into a major watershed and contaminated a massive area with crap like arsenic, thallium, lead, and mercury. The only clean power we have at the moment is wind and tidal/water, and geothermal - even those create a small amount of mess during the process of manufacturing the power plants. Is depleted uranium worse than coal ash sludge? You be the judge, but personally, I think one's as bad as the other.)

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Twenty years ago today.

I'm so hopped on migraine meds I missed this earlier. I don't know how.

Twenty years ago, today, I was an idealistic college dropout, twenty years old, who watched this unfold on television, live, as far as I can remember. My father was and is a total news geek and if I was in the house, ever, he called me over to watch things as they unfolded. (I also caught live footage of the fall of the Berlin Wall this way. Among other things.)

Even at age twenty, I understood the significance. THE TANKS STOPPED. They did not want to harm the general public. And you know what happens when the military sides with the general public.


They missed it by a hair's breadth.

All the world over, I think everyone has associated with this guy, this everyday citizen who no one knew, who was on his way home with groceries, who was just sick and fucking tired of the violence and had totally had it. So he stepped up, and he said his piece (or demonstrated it) and made it known: the little guy was done with the violence.

I'm not sure anyone knows what ever happened to him. No one's quite sure who he WAS, at least here in the west. I sincerely wonder if he is still alive and somehow, I doubt it.

Religion isn't really my thing, but I hope wherever he is now, it's peaceful and he can get his groceries, and go home, and make himself a nice quiet dinner.

A radiation primer, part one. May the gods help you.

(Now that I've finished writing and proof-read this, I've considered changing the title to "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.")

Yeah, you read that right. I still feel like crap and am working on Stealth Projects and spinning, so you're stuck with another of my topics from out of left field. In this case, the husbeast (who inspects nuclear reactors) and I (who lives with him and wonders just how dangerous his job is) have said for years we wished more average citizens understood the basics of radiation. Thanks to the media and some health care providers, people hear the word 'radiation' and their first response is, 'oh my god I'm gonna die'. And, well, what you should really be asking is 'what kind of radiation, and how much?' The answer is long, but I'm gonna try to keep it as brief as possible, and maybe entertaining into the bargain. Basically, we're gonna talk 'what kinds' and then get into the really annoying 'measurements' aspect. Proof reading this later, I've realized, 'what kinds' is taking forever, so I'm gonna do 'measurements and when to panic' tomorrow. 'Cause I'll probably still have a migraine. Plus, I think I need the husbeast to give this a proof-read, just to make sure I got the details right.

First, let us review. (Some of this should be familiar to long-term readers from my previous opus on the EM spectrum and visible light and color and reflecting spectra. This time we're branching out into more wavelengths.) So. The Electro-Magnetic Spectrum.

(I've got a really disturbing number of EM spectrum illustrations on my hard drive. As with most others, this one is from Wiki Commons.) As you see from the above chart, visible light is only a small part of a huge band of wavelengths; they go from low frequency (think sound waves) to high. The low-frequency stuff can mess you up, but generally it takes a good long time and (if you ask me) scientists really aren't quite sure what its effect on the body is. That "static field" over there at the far left can be, among other things, the magnetic field we're stuck into when we have an MRI done. I'm not saying an MRI is dangerous. I'm saying that if we lived inside one for two or three decades, it's likely something weird would happen and science has yet to figure out what. I doubt it's a priority. Likewise, the effect of fields created by high-voltage power lines is hotly debated, and research continues. Microwaves WILL heat your skin and burn you, as will the infra-red of heat lamps, salamanders (those super-broilers in restaurants) and, haha, sunlight. While all of these wavelengths will mess with you to some degree or other, their effects are pretty direct, so far as science has figured out so far.

Then there's visible light. We've discussed that before. Again, I doubt enough research has been done on exactly how visible light effects us. But I will say, as someone totally photosensitive who gets migraines, I'm not convinced it's entirely UV rays that causes me to shriek and put on sunglasses. But, by most analyses, visible light is considered harmless. (Though there have been warnings these last few years about the super-bright visible light spectrum produced by high speed photocopiers.)

All this is radiation, okay? The whole spectrum. The stuff we've discussed, including the visible light. All radiation. But it's rather run of the mill. We literally see it and live with it every day. We're getting to the radiation you need to freak out about, maybe.

Ionizing radiation.

Ionizing radiation is the stuff that damages your DNA and in some cases will literally knock bits off the atoms that make you up. Which, obviously, is really bad. The shift in the spectrum from 'regular' radiation to ionizing radiation happens in the UV (ultra-violet) band. Yes. The UV band that causes skin damage and cataracts that everyone has suddenly discovered in the last few years is bad. It's separated into UV-A, UV-B, and UV-C, and there is, as always, debate about which one causes the most damage. But you know how welders wear goggles to protect their eyes? It's UV light they're protecting themselves from. Every sunburn you've ever had was caused, mostly, but UV light; we've found in recent years that sunburns can trigger skin cancer, ultimately because UV light is ionizing radiation that can cause DNA mutation. Granted, it's mild mutation, often we never notice it, but it happens. (Notice tanning beds lurk in this portion of the spectra? So does sunbathing. I'm not sayin', I'm just sayin'.)

FYI, genetic mutation never turns you into one of the X Men. Which sucks ass because I'd love some super powers, but instead of the Power of Laundry I'm stuck with no wisdom teeth, good bones, and freaky retinas. Not enough for Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters (every discussion of radiation needs a link to Marvel Comics). Usually, radiation damage causes nothing, or health problems of varying degrees of seriousness. Occasionally, one of those freak mutations causes evolution.

So, where were we? Oh, right. Ionizing radiation. After the UV portion of the spectrum, it gets kinda freaky, and we're into the realm of 'freak out' where the spectra lurk that people associate with the word 'radiation'. This doesn't mean you SHOULD freak out, because a lot has to do with dose. Most people don't know it, but two-thirds to three-quarters of our lifetime radiation exposure comes from the sun, earth, and other natural sources like radon gas. While it's not GOOD for us, the human body evolved soaking up a regular dose of all kinds of radiation, and so long as we don't up the dose significantly, our bodies will keep on keeping on. They're used to it. It's what they do.

X rays are next, and we all know those from breaking our arms or skulls or whatever. Yes, x rays are a kind of light. When we get an x ray, basically we're having our picture taken with a special kind of light; that x ray machine is just a super-fancy camera with a hell of a flash bulb. Before anyone thinks they're going to die of an x ray, guess again; unless you're an x ray tech, the vast majority of your x ray exposure comes from sunlight. Mostly x rays cause DNA damage, like UV rays. However there's some overlap in the spectrum between x rays and gamma rays.

I gotta wrap this up before one of you comes over here and kills me.

Lastly in the spectrum comes gamma rays, particle radiation, and cosmic rays. There are detailed, complex definitions for the different kinds, but I'm lumping them all together because their effect is the same in the human body and if I start on sub-atomic particles and decay rates and electron vs. neutron radiation one of you will stab me to death with a knitting needle.

These are the wavelengths that knock bits of your atoms off and cause most of the really horrifying damage that makes all of us freak out (including me). The kids who got stuck cleaning up Chernobyl died of this high-end gamma and particle radiation; other types of radiation exposure probably would have killed them too, but the gamma rays and particle radiation killed them first. Even at the unholy doses they received it took them a week or two to die; the movies where people are exposed to radiation and immediately keel over are just that - movies. Ditto for stuff glowing in the dark. Incidentally, the Chernobyl workers are thought to have died not so much from the radiation zooming around in the air, but from the radioactive particles of soot that they INHALED during the fire. Generally, external exposure is not nearly so serious as internal contamination caused by inhalation or eating contaminated food. Generally.

And, all right, I'm indulging in the tech stuff. There's also alpha and beta particle radiation, which act something like gamma but are more easily blocked; alpha radiation will be stopped by your clothing. Alpha and beta are both used medicinally quite a lot; a lot more than gamma, though it is used too. When I had a bone scan, I was given an alpha-particle emitting isotope that settled in my bones that they then took pictures of with very sensitive radiation detectors. That's how bone scans work. Kinda cool, huh? All particle radiation is caused by just that - actual bits of atoms. For alpha particles it's two neutrons and two protons. For beta particles it's electrons and positrons. They come from atoms that are so unstable they literally can't hang on to all their bits, and they just fall off. Some atoms naturally leak them; this leakage as known as decay. For instance, uranium 238 decays into thorium 234 by shedding alpha particles of neutrons and protons. (The numbers refer to the atomic weight; I'm including them for the one or two hard science types I get here, but the rest of you can ignore them.) Lots of atoms do this, and it's quite a natural process. It's where the majority of our everyday radiation exposure comes from. The danger is when mankind refines the stuff and puts it all in one place, like a bomb or a reactor, and then of course you've got LOTS of particles oozing off at the same time. It's still safe if you shield it properly, but, well, it's typical of humankind. No smarter than refining oil, just different.

All right. I think this is a good place to stop. Tomorrow's topic, "now that I know about radiation, why do I give a shit?"