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The Owl and the Nuclear Power Plant

Posted on April 13th 2011 by Amy in Illinois, Science & technology

Last month Arthur and I were dispatched to the old Zion nuclear power plant on behalf of Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation in response to a Great Horned Owl that was stuck in the generator building. This was about two weeks after the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan and at the height of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant crisis. Not that we were thinking about that or anything…

We got the call on Wednesday morning. We provided our details to our contact at the plant so we could be granted access to the facility the next day. When we arrived at the plant, which is along Lake Michigan (see map), we were greeted by a female armed guard who unfortunately had no idea who we were. After consulting with her colleagues, our identities were made known and we were allowed to drive into the compound.

View Larger Map

As a first step we got a short safety briefing and learned more about the owl that had been seen for at least three days inside the generator building. Hard hats and safety goggles were distributed and we headed back to our car in order to proceed to the main event.

But first, our car had to be searched. We drove to the checkpoint, left the car and watched a security guard give our minivan the once-over, including using mirrors to check underneath the car. After our car passed inspection, we parked at the generator building and carried our equipment to the next security point. Although we had already given our details over the phone the previous day, and to the main security gate just moments earlier, we again had to provide ID cards and personal details to this latest security guard. He proceeded to telephone our information to another security person who had control over the one-way gated doorway into the main part of the building. Luckily our credentials passed with flying colors and we were allowed to awkwardly shuffle into the building where the owl had been spotted.

Me in a hard hat

The generator building was enormous! Our guide, Angela, showed us where the owl had most often been seen. It would often perch on metal support beams near the ceiling.

plant overview
Overview of the large building from the catwalk

While the bird had been seen fairly regularly by multiple plant staff over the course of the previous 3 days, we learned that the owl had last been seen that morning, about 12 hours prior to our arrival. Several of the building’s windows had been left open the night before, and though the owl was seen the next morning, there was a period of about 30 minutes between the last owl sighting and the last window being closed. Chances were good, therefore, that the owl had left the building on his own sometime that morning. There was also speculation that the owl may be one of a possible nesting pair in the building, so we conducted a search. We had taken an elevator up 4 floors to the main part of the building, and then we climbed four flights of open stairs to access a catwalk in order to search the beams for the owl or possible owl nest.

plant beams
We scanned the beams for any sign of the owl

Our search proved fruitless as no owl was spotted and no signs of a nest were found. We hope that the owl indeed left of its own accord. Even though we didn’t find what we were looking for at the plant, it was a really interesting visit. Neither of us realized there was a nuclear power plant in Zion, although it did sound a little bit familiar to me. The Zion Nuclear Power Station was in operation from 1973 to 1997. The plant is currently licensed to the company EnergySolutions, which is working on dismantling the site. This process will take about ten years. It was EnergySolutions staff that escorted us through the owl search and we learned a lot of things about nuclear power plants that we didn’t know before.

New Affiliate Nexus Tax in Illinois will destroy small businesses and result in less income for the State

Posted on January 7th 2011 by Arthur in Illinois

The new Internet Tax bill HB 3659 with Amendment 3 is suddenly blazing through the Illinois House and Senate. This new bill will cause hundreds of online merchants to terminate their affiliate programs in Illinois, causing thousands of small businesses, individuals and non-profit organizations to lose all or part of their income.

The tax bill is supposed to generate more revenue for the state, but the reality is that many web-based businesses will leave the state, resulting in less income for Illinois. This bill is all pain and no gain. I have already received an email from Amazon telling me that it will terminate my affiliate account if Governor Quinn signs this bill into law. 🙁

I just faxed the following letter to the Office of the Governor.

Dear Governor Quinn,

I am writing to you to urge you to PLEASE VETO the tax provision included in Senate Amendment 3 to HB 3659 (also known as the Amazon Tax). The provision would require out-of-state retailers to collect Illinois sales tax if customers were referred by any website operated by Illinois businesses or residents.

What typically happens when a state passes a provision like this is that online retailers simply cancel their affiliate programs in that state. This leaves small businesses and others who derive income from this work (including non-profit organizations who have on their website affiliate links to retailers like Amazon) with a reduced or no income.

The state earns no additional tax benefit and in fact loses income as the affiliates are left with a reduced taxable income themselves. Over 200 merchants terminated affiliate programs in New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island, where similar measures passed.

Over a dozen other states have considered essentially identical legislation but have rejected these proposals largely because of the adverse impact on their states’ residents.

Please veto this amendment or my small business and that of thousands of other online marketers and affiliates in Illinois will be devastated.

Thank you for your consideration.

If you’re an affiliate in Illinois that will be affected by this awful law, please write to Governor Quinn and urge him to veto this bill. You can find more information and contact details here.

For more information see:

Transformers 3 filming in downtown Chicago

Posted on July 17th 2010 by Arthur in Chicago, Illinois, Movies

Through August 23rd, Paramount Pictures is filming Transformers 3 in Chicago. It’s been all over the local news here these last couple of weeks as the road blocks and detours cause a bit of extra chaos downtown, especially on the weekends when most of the action takes place.

This weekend the production crew took over Michigan Avenue Bridge and part of Michigan Avenue and turned it into a war zone. We drove down to Chicago today to witness some of the movie magic. Here are movies and pictures from our visit.

This video starts with the sky divers gliding around Trump Tower. They were actually gliding for a while before the video starts, it was very neat. We later found a great place across the river to see some shots of Shia LaBeouf, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Josh Duhamel and the other soldiers running up and down stairs. We watched them for several hours as they were being directed by Michael Bay

Movie helicopter
This helicopter with camera in front was flying around most of the afternoon, presumably taking shots of the skyline and buildings to later add CGI robots

Shortly after we arrived we saw five stuntmen jump out of a helicopter, glide around Trump Tower with their winged suits (very cool!) and then open their parachutes and land on a barge in the Chicago River. We saw this twice but it was done at least once more before we arrived. The skydivers jumped out of a black helicopter while the above white helicopter circled around filming them

Some of the tall buildings had camera men on top to film the skydivers

Scuba divers
Scuba divers of the Chicago Police were ready to jump in the water in case a skydiver ended up in the river. All went well what we saw, except once one of the gliders missed the barge and ended up on Wacker Drive

There were a lot of Paramount trucks and trailers everywhere around the set

These actors just picked up their machine guns and other weapons at a wardrobe trailer and are walking to the set. The second guy from the left is Josh Duhamel, who also played Major Lennox in the first two Transformers films

The bridge was partially opened all day with several wrecked cars attached to the north side of the bridge. The cars were hanging from steel cables.

Car wrecks
Pile of cars in front of the bridge

Movie set
Area in front of the bridge, with wrecked taxis, parts of buildings and lots of smoke and fire. One of the taxis had a 555 telephone number on it 🙂

Transformers HOPE posters
Transformers “Hope” posters based on the Obama poster by Shepard Fairey

Car wreck
In an alley off E Wacker Drive we saw people positioning an upside-down MTA bus (a fake Chicago CTA bus) with some other debris

Car wreck
This wrecked truck was right in front of the Corner Bakery where we had lunch

Car wreck
Same car from the side

Car wreck

The Transformers cars were parked on Michigan Avenue and covered up to keep them clean

More Transformers

More Transformers

Terminator 3 Public Assistance T-Shirt
All around the area were people in these yellow t-shirts telling people to keep moving and not block sidewalks or get too close to the set


Lots of other people have posted videos on YouTube. Here are some nice ones:

Video by billyripkin, from YouTube

Video by spudart, from YouTube

Video by mjleshock, from YouTube

Video by zztopeurope, from YouTube

Good backyard bird week

Posted on October 17th 2009 by Arthur in Birds, Illinois, Life in America, Nature

We’ve had a good week for backyard birding. Not only did the White-crowned Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos return for the winter, we also had five new song birds! Since we moved to this house in February we’ve been keeping track of all the birds we’ve seen in our backyard. This week we added five new species.

It started last Monday with a Yellow-rumped Warbler that was hanging out in the back and the next day Amy spotted the first Chipping Sparrow at our feeder. On Wednesday we heard a thump against the window and found a little Golden-crowned Kinglet laying on the roof, knocked out. We picked it up and put it in a box in a warm place. A half hour later it started to scratch around in the box so we let it out in the backyard. The kinglet immediately flew to our tallest tree and we watched it for a while as it was flitting around the tree top looking for bugs. Yesterday we saw our first Red-breasted Nuthatch flying back-and-forth between a feeder and a tree and just a few minutes later a Ruby-crowned Kinglet was hopping around the big tree where we had earlier seen the recuperated Golden-crowned.

Wow, that makes 30 different species in our yard so far! I never guessed we’d get so many in our suburban neighborhood! Especially the beautiful warbler and kinglets were a huge surprise. We’ve also been seeing a Cooper’s Hawk almost every day, terrorizing our song birds. Last week we saw him eat a House Sparrow and Amy caught it on video (gruesome!). He likes to sit on the lightest slat of our fence, which is the same color has himself, so he blends right in.

Here’s our complete backyard species list:

  1. Ruby-crowned Kinglet (16 October 2009)
  2. Red-breasted Nuthatch (16 October 2009)
  3. Golden-crowned Kinglet (14 October 2009)
  4. Chipping Sparrow (13 October 2009)
  5. Yellow-rumped Warbler (12 October 2009)
  6. House Wren (3 August 2009)
  7. Blue Jay (31 May 2009)
  8. Northern Flicker (25 May 2009)
  9. Red-tailed Hawk (24 May 2009)
  10. Ring-billed Gull (19 May 2009)
  11. Baltimore Oriole (18 May 2009)
  12. Common Grackle (6 May 2009)
  13. White-crowned Sparrow (6 May 2009)
  14. Tree Swallow (May 2009)
  15. Brown-headed Cowbird (April 2009)
  16. Common Starling (30 March 2009)
  17. American Tree Sparrow (30 March 2009)
  18. Downy Woodpecker (20 March 2009)
  19. American Robin (18 March 2009)
  20. Song Sparrow (15 March 2009)
  21. Red-winged Blackbird (15 March 2009)
  22. American Crow (March 2009)
  23. Northern Cardinal (15 March 2009)
  24. House Sparrow (12 March 2009)
  25. Mourning Dove (6 March 2009)
  26. House Finch (6 March 2009)
  27. Black-capped Chickadee (3 March 2009)
  28. Cooper’s Hawk (March 2009)
  29. Dark-eyed Junco (26 February 2009)
  30. American Goldfinch (22 February 2009)

Blue Jay

Day at the Field Museum

Posted on September 26th 2009 by Arthur in Chicago, Illinois, Museums

Today we spent the day at The Field Museum in Chicago. It had been a while since we had been to this excellent museum. One of the reasons we went today was to see a lecture by author Glen Chilton on his new book about Labrador Ducks. Amy wrote some more about this here.

Field Museum
Main Hall of the museum

Field Museum
Me in front of the display of T-Rex Sue

Go there! (too late, we already did)

Posted on July 25th 2009 by Amy in Funny, Illinois, Leiden, Space

I got a big kick out of reading this placard in one of the telescope exhibits at the Adler Planetarium during our visit there last week. Our old home town has several great museums and we visited them all, including the outstanding Boerhaave.

Sign for Leiden museum at Adler Planetarium

Foto Friday: Waiting for a band

Posted on July 24th 2009 by Arthur in Birds, Forest Preserves, Foto Friday, Illinois, Nature

Can you guess what’s in the bags hanging in this tree?

Bird bags hanging in a tree

Those bags have different birds inside them, ready to be banded. There’s Common Yellowthroat, Bluebirds, Song Sparrows and Red-bellied Woodpecker. Doesn’t it look a little surreal?

We visited a group of bird banders last Tuesday morning at Rollins Savanna Forest Preserve and observed their work for a couple of hours. They told us about bird banding and showed us how they handle and band the birds. They had ten mist nets set up that they use to catch birds and every half hour they walked past all the nets to take out the birds that got caught. After carefully removing each bird from the net it was put in a little bag and then hung in this tree until they were ready for banding. It was an interesting experience.

Common Yellowthroat
Common Yellowthroat

Field Sparrow
Field Sparrow

Bird banders at work
Bird banders at work

Celebrating Apollo 11: An Evening with Astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell

Posted on July 23rd 2009 by Arthur in Chicago, Illinois, Space

Yesterday we spent the day in Chicago to visit the Adler Planetarium and see legendary Apollo and Gemini astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell at a special event organized by the museum. We had a great time and even got to shortly meet Buzz Aldrin in the end as he signed our copy of his new autobiography Magnificent Desolation.

Adler's Apollo celebration poster
Poster for the Apollo 11 Celebration at Adler Planetarium with the famous picture of Buzz Aldrin on the moon with Neil Armstrong and the lunar module reflected in his visor

We took the 7:38am train from Round Lake Beach and arrived at Chicago’s Union Station at 8:55. Here we took bus 130 to the Museum Campus where we spent the rest of the morning and better part of the afternoon at the Adler Planetarium. The last time we had been here was about 10 years ago, and a lot of the exhibits had changed since. There’s a nice new exhibit about the Apollo program called Shoot for the Moon that tells the story of astronaut Jim Lovell’s life and career using artifacts from his personal collection. It even includes the fully-restored Gemini 12 spacecraft flown by Captain Lovell and Buzz Aldrin in 1966, which is on long-term loan from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.

Jim Lovell's artifacts
Jim Lovell’s helmet and glove. Note the glove has a little booklet attached to it with instructions about the extravehicular activities the astronaut was supposed to perform on the moon, but unfortunately it was never used because Apollo 13 never made it to the moon

Shoot for the Moon was closed for the public for a short time in the morning and in the afternoon as Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell were visiting. We did not get to see them there, but that was okay as we were going to see them in the evening anyway. After the museum we walked to Shedd Aquarium and took a Shoreline Sightseeing water taxi to Navy Pier where we had dinner at Capi’s Italian Kitchen.

The special event with the astronauts took place starting at 7pm at the Thorne Auditorium of Northwestern University, just north of Navy Pier. We walked there and there was already a huge line outside when we arrived at 6:15pm. Unfortunately it was not allowed to take pictures during the interview but everyone started to take pictures when it was over so we quickly took this one:

Jim Lovell's artifacts
From left: moderator Craig Nelson, Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell

The two astronauts were on stage talking about their experiences in the Gemini and Apollo programs. They received a huge applause from the 800 people in the auditorium when they arrived and a standing ovation when they left. The interview was moderated by author Craig Nelson (Rocket Men) and lasted about 90 minutes. Questions that had been gathered from the audience were read and answered too.

It was wonderful to see the two American heroes in person and afterward Buzz Aldrin was available to sign his new book Magnificent Desolation.

Buzz Aldrin signing books

The interview ended at about 8:30pm and people poured out of the auditorium to stand in line for Buzz’s book signing in the hall, where a table had been set up. I think that they underestimated the number of people interested in the signing as it was a bit of a chaos to get everyone organized into an orderly line, which eventually extended to well outside onto the street. We were toward the end of the line and people there were getting worried that it would take hours to get through the line and that Buzz may not stay that long. A couple of the organizers came outside to reassure people that Buzz knew how long the line was and that he personally guaranteed that everyone who wanted to get a signature would get one, even if you have multiple books to sign. That was nice!

It actually went pretty fast and within an hour we were there. Buzz was signing very quickly and was not doing any personalizing. When it was my turn I thanked him profoundly and told him what an honor it was. He looked up, smiled at me and moved on to the next book. He is without a doubt the coolest person I have ever met in person. He was the second person to walk on the moon, which is probably the highest achievement of mankind.

Here I am proudly displaying my signed book before we ran to catch our train:

Signed book

We Choose the Moon

Posted on July 14th 2009 by Arthur in Illinois, Space, Websites & Tools

July 16th will mark the 40th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11, culminating in Neil Armstrong becoming the first human to step foot on the moon on July 20th in 1969. To commemorate this historic event, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum has set up an incredibly cool online experience which allows you to track the Apollo 11 mission from pre-launch to lunar touchdown. You can visit the website at where you can see that the pre-launch is already underway:

Screenshot of We Choose the

As part of the Apollo 11 celebration, former NASA astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell will be at Northwestern University in Chicago on July 22nd for an evening discussion reflecting on their careers in space. We got two tickets for this event, which you can order here. Buzz Aldrin, of course, was the second man to set foot on the moon on Apollo 11, and Jim Lovell became most famous as the commander of the Apollo 13 mission, which suffered an explosion on its way to the moon but was brought back safely to Earth. It’ll be interesting and exciting to see these two legendary astronauts in real life next week. Aldrin will also be signing copies of his new book, Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon.

A Birdy Day

Posted on May 31st 2009 by Arthur in Birds, Illinois, Personal

We woke up this morning to a new backyard bird: a Blue Jay! Finally we saw one of these beautiful birds at our home. I called it a few days ago when I wrote that we were overdue on a Blue Jay. Pretty cool:

Blue Jay at backyard feeder

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