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Sunday, January 04, 2015

Owl Spotting: Seeing things at night and then during the day

This past Saturday night I saw an owl in a tree branch. The branch was over the entrance to a path in a park near my home. On the branch, clear as the night, was the owl. It was dark, a bit hazy because of the recent rain, but there was the owl, resting on a branch about 40-feet overhead. I didn’t see the owl completely. I couldn’t see his body or wings or even his beak. But I saw his eyes, looking out across the parking lot and sparkling from the reflections of street lights. He was there, and I would guess, looking for his next meal. Owls hunt at night and I had the good fortune to see one on this night.

To be honest, I wasn’t so sure what I was seeing was really an owl. I knew there owls in the park because a local community group, Friends of Sligo Creek Park, posted a picture of the type of owl that lives in the park. I don't remember the type of owl, but there are owls where I stroll and I was looking at one.But was this one of those owls?

I saw reflections in his eyes, those were clear lights. Little sparks of green twinkles, sparks, peering out from the branch looking for a mouse or rabbit for dinner. I walked around the tree, looking for some movement in his eyes, to see the hunter surveying the land below for prey and food. I thought I saw the head swivel. Turning even if only slowly. I was skeptical. If this was really an owl, how could I be sure?

I scanned the other trees and branches for more owls. None were there. I did not find any other owls, no eyes, no reflections from eyes, and nothing that looked about the size of an owl. Owls were, I thought, clever at camouflage and blended into their surroundings. Naturally, I wouldn’t see them, even when looking for them. Still, what I saw could be a single owl, perched on the branch.

I was pretty sure it was an owl because I knew they were in the park, it was night, owls hunt at night, and I was positive I saw reflections from his eyes. I started to convince myself I saw this bird of prey. To be honest with myself, I also saw reflections from the lower part of the owl---some area just below the tree branch where the owl was perched. Could it be, I wondered, I was seeing reflections from his eyes above the branch and reflections from his feathers below the branch? Not that feathers reflect light but maybe so. Maybe they did, how could I know? And if the feathers do reflect light, it only showed this owl was there.

I went home and told my wife I had been looking at an owl in the park. She was not impressed and dismissed my story with “So, what? Who cares? You delayed coming home for an owl?!”

Today, while running in the park in the afternoon I visited the same spot from last night to see if I had seen an owl. I didn’t think the owl would still be there but I did think I might see some branch or something in the tree that would disprove my owl siting. I couldn’t prove I had seen an owl, but I could tell if I was fooling myself.

Here’s what I found:

The owl is perched on the branch.

The real owl, nothing more than a balloon.

My “owl” was not an owl, but simply a mylar balloon caught around the branch of the tree. Sure, there were reflections from his “eyes” but there were no eyes there, just folds in the balloon. And the reflections below the branch? Not feathers but the balloon, yet again.

When I realized what I had seen the night before, I pondered possible explanations. Maybe I could find a way to keep my owl siting. There are, to be sure, a few possibilities.

  1. The owl was there last night for real. He flew away and between the time he left and I looked today a balloon was caught in the branch. That’s certainly possible.
  2. The owl is a shape-changer; an owl at night and a balloon during the day. This is stretch but so what. It keeps my owl siting real and shape changers, while rare, exist in stories.
  3. There is a sorcerer in the neighborhood who turned the owl into a balloon today but let the owl be an owl last night. The owl is under a spell and, as others would say of me, so am I.
  4. Or, perhaps I just saw the balloon and nothing more.
 It was great seeing the owl in the tree, my first time seeing one in the park. I know it was a balloon, but the other explanations make for a better story.

I write this not say I saw an owl, I didn’t. But sometimes we think we see things, owls, people, etc. and we didn’t really see what we thought we saw. It’s probably a good idea to keep an open mind and not be too sure of what we see. 

P.S. I’m still looking for an owl in the park. It would make a good story to see the real thing.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Dancing Atoms

IBM Research produced a video of atoms dancing titled A Boy and His Atom: The World's Smallest Movie. It's an incredible movie where the atom is an individual atom and the boy is a small collection of atoms grouped to resemble a boy. The movie was made with an electron microscope and you can see how IBM made the movie here.

It was not so long ago, about 100-years actually, when atoms were mere postulates on what comprised matter. Einstein thought about them and from that we had the experiment of pollen dancing in water as the water molecules hit the grains of pollen. It was the first indirect proof of molecules and atoms. Now, we can see a movie with individual atoms as the actors of the movie.

This is truly amazing.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

On Line Courses: Some Statistics

Not long ago, I took the on-line course titled "Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Computation" given by Mr. Umesh Vazirani. The course is offered by Coursera which hosts a large selection of courses. The course site and the way the courses run is worthy of a separate posting. For now, let me share some statistics that Mr. Vazirani sent students at the end of the class.

Some of you have asked about course statistics, which we are glad to share with you:

  • # of people signed up for the course: 26K
  • # of people that watched the first lecture: 12K
  • # of people who turned in the first assignment: 6K
  • # of people who turned in the fourth assignment (midpoint): 3K
  • # of people who took the final: 2104
  • # of certificates: 1523
  • # of certificates with distinction: 373
So, you can see that about 26,000 people signed up for the class; I was one of them. Yet the attrition was tremendous. Half the people who signed up even watched the first lecture. Then half of that turned in the first assignments, and the numbers keep dropping.

The original numbers are, I think, misleading. The fact is that over 1500 people completed the class and almost 400 did so with distinction. That means that this free course, in a subject that is not for everybody, reached over 1500 people who benefited from Mr.Vazirani's lectures and efforts.

That's remarkable.

Friday, November 02, 2012

The Northerm Lights

Here's a beautiful black and white picture of the Northern Lights from Outside magazine.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Robotic hand from Sandia Labs

Here's a robotic hand from Sandia National Labs that can hold a hammer, screw driver, fruit, and assortment of other items. The hand can manipulate the item and even put a battery in a flashlight.





Friday, August 10, 2012

On-line courses: Join the Million

Coursera, the company that provides support and Web hosting for massive open online courses at top universities, announced Thursday that more than 1 million students have registered for its courses. The company now serves as a MOOC platform for 16 universities and lists 116 courses, most of which have not started yet.
I took a course from Coursera in Cryptography and it was quite good. I am taking two now; one in quantum computing and one in finance. The courses do take time to watch the videos, do the homework, and simply keep up. Still, they're free, interesting, and if you have the time, worth the effort.