Monday, March 31, 2008

Global dreads

kw: book reviews, science fiction, thrillers, horror

State of Fear by Michael Crichton is billed as a techno-thriller. In keeping with his other novels that I've read, I call it techno-horror. Where Stephen King leans heavily on the occult and unknown, Crichton finds sufficient fodder in the horrors of our every attempt at the "scientific management" of crises of any kind. His stock in trade is the perverse tendency of complex systems to do many unexpected things for every "expected behavior".

What I find amusing in this novel is the explicit explanation of the title. Every demagogue in history rose to power by exploiting peoples' dread of the unknown. All too often, the aspirant to power first created the dreadful condition he (very rarely, she) declaimed. This is particularly true when the "aspirant" is a large, complex synergy of ambitious power-mongers, such as the "military-industrial complex" that President Eisenhower decried sixty years ago.

Near the climax of the book, a character updates this to PLM, the "politico-legal-media" complex. Let's think about that a moment. Isn't it true that people without fear are not politically controllable? Thus politicians need an enemy that the people fear, against which they promise to protect us. Isn't it true that much litigation is now sparked by fear of being sued? So many today consider "the best defense is a strong offense," and being offensive is a strategy, not a consequence any more. And the media? They thrive only in a climate of fear. Good news doesn't sell.

There isn't quite a fear-of-the-month club at work here. Fashions in dread take a decade to run their course. To find out what is in fashion, in case you aren't listening to the news, just follow the money. The fashionable fear of the 1980s was AIDS. Today it is Global Warming. Even the fear of terrorism is getting out-of-date, even though it is much more urgent.

State of Fear is set in the context of Global Warming, but that's not what it is about. The drama here is propelled by an environmental movement gone bad. Since the world isn't getting the point, and so many "crises" are ambiguous, some folks have taken matters into their own hands: they plan to cause a large piece of Antarctica to calve away as a huge iceberg, to create a tsunami that roars into Long Beach and San Francisco Bays, a flash flood, and a few other horrors that are timed to coincide with a major environmental conference.

The "good guys" in the book are, of course, on a mission to foil these plots. This they do, amid plenty of derring-do and new levels of cliff-hanging suspense. I don't know how he managed it; the author somehow exaggerated the experience of being struck by lightning.

There is plenty of technical speculation on things that might cause the various disasters, presented as fact. And there is a character who reminds me most of John Galt: an opinion-turner who debunks the theory of Global Warming at every turn, even as he leads the offensive against the disaster-mongers.

Yet Crichton's own point is not that Global Warming is totally wrong. It is that we don't know and probably never can know. In a summary of his own understanding in an appendix, three of 25 statements sum up his thinking on GW:
  • We are also in the midst of a natural warming trend that began about 1850, as we emerged from a four-hundred-year cold spell known as the "Little Ice Age."
  • Nobody knows how much of the present warming trend might be a natural phenomenon.
  • Nobody knows how much of the present warming trend might be man-made.
He also acknowledges that the recent rise in carbon dioxide levels is probably, at least in part, caused by human activity.

I'd like to throw in the point here that in Journal of the Geological Society; February 1995; v. 152; no. 1; p. 1-3 it is stated that near the end of the Age of Dinosaurs (late Cretaceous age), carbon dioxide concentration was about 1,300 ppm, and the authors call this "low". Compare this with 360 ppm today. Further, many references state that "global mean temperature" was about 5°C (9°F) warmer than now. We can't assume the relationship is totally linear, but a rise from 360 ppm today to 450 ppm by 2050AD is unlikely to result in more than a half-degree C (less than 1°F) rise. In addition, the Cretaceous climate was not driven only by CO2. Other factors, such as a much greater methane level, and a different arrangement of the continents, contributed.

All that aside, the book is a fast ride of high drama, a great read. And I think it safe to assume the premise behind the title is correct: a new fashion in fear will hold the world in its grip a decade from now, and Global Warming will be, as a theory, passé.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Mobile Polyhedra

kw: mobiles, polyhedra, geometry

Some months ago a young friend showed me how to make the origami modules for a novel kind of dodecahedron. It has a slightly stellated look, but is not a stellated solid. After some thought, I figured out how to make a number of other polyhedra. The original module has the appropriate angles for the dodecahedron and other shapes that use about thirty modules, but I had to modify it for other shapes with different numbers of modules.

After several months of fooling around I had nine polyhedra of various kinds, some a solid color and some multicolor. I decided to construct a mobile. The backdrop for this image was several black plastic bags. I'll have to get some dark cloth if I want to do any more pics like this. The mobile consists of two smaller mobiles connected by a three-foot rod. Since this image was taken I have replaced the long rod with one of larger diameter that doesn't sag as much. That keeps the whole thing within a foot of the ceiling, making it suitable for hanging in my office (this is my basement workshop).

The larger sub-mobile consists of the original green dodecahedron (30 modules), a lavendar icosahedron (also 30), a pink rhombic dodecahedron (24), a light blue icosadodecahedron (60) and a dark blue rhombic triacontahedron (60).

The smaller sub-mobile consists of a yellow icosahedron (30, smaller modules), a cuboctahedron (24), a shape I think is a snub cube (48) and a darker-hued icosadodecahedron (60). The latter took the most planning, to get each planar section a single color. Purists put these together with friction only. These are glued for durability.

Once I make the appropriate drawings I'll submit a post with directions for the modules and information about making some of the shapes.

Friday, March 28, 2008

To pick this fruit, you need a forklift

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, fruits, competitions

Here's a pumpkin that'll make 100 pies – it weighs 100 pounds (45 kg). OK, once you remove ten pounds of seeds and fiber it'll make 90 pies.

How do you grow a big pumpkin? This isn't really that big. The pale color indicates it is a very young Giant Pumpkin (not the Great Pumpkin, Linus...just a giant one). And you have to start with the right genetics.

Seeds from Dill's Atlantic Giant variety are a good place to start. In a backyard garden, the plant will be cramped for space, but should have no trouble producing a 300 pound (136 kg) fruit.

Give your vine more space, say 800-1000 square feet (75-95 sq m), and spend a bit on fungicides and pesticides, and the same seed can produce a 650-pounder (295 kg) like this one.

The man has his arms around it so he can "thump" it to see how solid it is. Pumpkins are around half air when ripe, and some are airier than others. That makes it hard to tell the weight from the size.

This image and the prior one were cropped to conceal the identity of the two men posing with their pumpkins.

If you want to approach, or surpass a half-ton (1,000 lbs or 454 kg), you need better genetics than stock Atlantic Giant seeds provide. Get involved with the people who communicate via and sooner or later you'll be able to buy or beg seeds from a pumpkin that weighed as much as a VW bug. These obsessive Growers do their own cross-breeding of the biggest of the biggest Atlantic Giant stock, and keep meticulous records. Certain seeds go for $400 and up at auction...that's each!

In Backyard Giants: The Passionate, Heartbreaking and Glorious Quest to Grow the Biggest Pumpkin Ever, Susan Warren reports on the lives and hard times of a few dozen men, women, and couples who grow pumpkins you could get inside of. Ms Warren got to know these growers of the earth's largest fruit, and followed a bunch of them around for the 2006 growing and contest season.

She was fortunate to witness the weigh-in of several of the largest pumpkins of 2006, including Ron Wallace's 1,502 pound (681 kg) monster, the first pumpkin to officially surpass 1,500 lbs. That record was made at the Frerich Farm weigh-in near Warren, Rhode Island. The Rhode Island club, the Southern New England Giant Pumpkin Growers, hosted the event; they've become a force to reckon with in recent years among gourd growers.

Ron and his father Dick have been growing these giants for more than a decade now. Prior to 2006 they'd had more bad luck than good, but it seems everyone else had the bad luck that year, while they turned in three of the four largest pumpkins ever grown, at different weigh-ins.

Pumpkins over a half ton are notorious for "weighing light". There is a recognized method for measuring across the top of a pumpkin in three directions so as to calculate its weight. The "tape weight" is only a rough measure, however, and there seems to be a much greater margin of error for the largest fruits.

I've used that word three times now...pumpkins are fruits, even though we don't typically think of them so. They aren't apples, after all. But "vegetable" is formally confined in meaning to the stems, roots and leaves of a plant, while the seed-bearing organ is a fruit. Squash, including pumpkins, are fruits.

Well, records are made to be broken. Ron Wallace's good friend Joe Jutras boosted the record another 187 pounds in 2007 to set a new record of 1,689 lbs (766 kg). Behind Joe's pumpkin you can see several others that weighed less, but some came rather close. "1500" seems to be the new standard, and everyone is now thinking of trying for a full ton.

So how do you get a one-ton fruit to the weigh-in? An engine hoist is too small; you need a heavy tractor with a crane attachment to get it into a large pickup truck...put a pallet into the truck bed first. At the weigh-in, it is going to be picked out with a forklift, and set onto the scale by forklift.

2006 was a tough year for the Southern New England club. Tons of early rain, too hot, too wet, too dry, or just too everything, and still the pumpkins grew. By contest season, late September and early October, however, many growers had lost all their fruit to various rots, parasites, and other hazards faced by their fragile giants. Yet it was still a year for several folks to bring personal-record fruit to be weighed.

As I read, I wondered at Ms Warren's good fortune. But I soon realized, she took care to gather material from three major pumpkin-growing regions: New England, Ohio Valley, and coastal Oregon. The record fruit of the year, and perhaps a record pumpkin, was sure to come from one of those areas. If you collect enough stories, you have the pieces you need to tailor a narrative to follow the fellow who finally wins.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Uncle bear, or fearsome predator?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, bears

I had just turned twelve, so it was late 1959. My father took me with him on a hunting trip with several men he knew. All he and I did was walk around on a freezing mountaintop in Utah until we heard shots. Nobody saw a deer that day, but one fellow had surprised a bear. It charged, so he shot it.

All of us took some meat, and the shooter took the skin. The rangers we contacted measured the carcase and skin. The bear was the largest black bear shot in Utah by that date, at 7'-7" (or 2.3 m). Its estimated weight was 550 pounds (250 kg). No license was needed to shoot a bear at that time, as they were not a popular target and were abundant. By the way, I've butchered a few animals in my time, mainly deer. You can take a deer apart with a knife. For this bear, Dad and his friends used an axe to separate the joints.

I have a copy of a painting that used the bear's skin as a rug for an old Mountie showing off his trophies to a visiting grandson.

Does this picture show what most of us think when we think of bears at all? Take a careful look: the flat face, friendly smile, high forehead, well-rounded body, clawless paws...we know it is a caricature, but just how distorted is this image? To find out, read Bears: A Brief History by Bernd Brunner, translated from German by Lori Lantz. The word "history" is fraught with misleading connotations; here it really means "history of human-bear relations".

In his Acknowledgements, Brunner mentions recasting the book for a mainly American audience with Ms Lantz's help. I reckon the German edition is more Euro-centric.

This more accurate drawing of an American Brown Bear ("Grizzly") shows how bad the caricature is. The bear's face is as long as a dog's, in proportion, it can no more smile than it can sing, its claws—as long as your fingers—cannot be retracted, and its midsection is relatively narrow. This is one lean, strong animal. This image is copied from the Grizzly page of the Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management.

While a large black bear can weigh up to 250 kg, brown bears in the "lower 48" are similar size, but in Alaska and Canada they can exceed 400 kg. Then throw on another 50-100 kg, for any bear, of late fall fat, and they go into hibernation very heavy indeed.

There are eight species of bear, and all are now either endangered or close to it. Most Endangered Bears Ranked page at National Geographic Society has brief information on all of them, and their status. No bear species is currently a shoo-in for survival to the end of this century.

But it is the history leading up to this point that interests author Brunner. Had there been native great apes (other than humans) in medieval and renaissance Europe, and later America, I wonder if so much legend and myth would surround bears. No European or American saw a gorilla or chimp prior to the 18th Century. Thus the black bear (more rarely brown bear, meaning the Grizzly), being the only large animal that was frequently seen standing, became a stand-in for human archetypes.

To some earlier peoples, bears were gods; to others they were prey; and to others, they were competitors. The relationship was often complex; nobody is neutral about bears. This makes it rather hard for us to imagine, to realize, that they have nearly no interest in us. Curiosity is needed by highly social species such as ourselves. For a mainly solitary bear species, curiosity deeper than "how do I get food out of that over there?" is a distinct handicap. Bears only tolerate one another for a week or so around mating time, and it is only male-female toleration. Same sex encounters lead to avoidance or fights. Period.

Of course, most people immediately think "...lonely existence..." but bears can't feel loneliness. They are best adapted to, and quite happy with, almost total solitude for 50-51 weeks yearly. Where several bears find themselves in one area because of a concentration of food (salmon runs, for example), they ignore one another.

To me, the key message of Brunner's book is that bears aren't "big people". They are really unlike us in nearly all ways. In the past few thousand years, humans have made a few bear species extinct and driven the rest close to extinction. While many thousands have been killed for food, medicine and skins, many more died because their forests were cut down for grain fields. Only at the very edges of human-bear habitat do we find bears entering human territory, and that is usually because a bear is starving.

A black bear needs a home range of a couple square miles, say 1000 acres (400 hectares). When land in a forest gets dissected into pieces smaller than this, bears have to cross from piece to piece to find food. If your neighborhood is between to small patches of forest, don't be surprised to find your hard an occasional bear thru-way. If your flimsy garbage can is on that thru-way, expect it to be raided.

It is bad enough that we've made bears dance for us, ride circus horses, and go stir-crazy in zoos. We are crowding them out of their territory, in every place they can live. Good bear habitat is also good human habitat. But, as the author says, "...the greatest threats to bears may be our own perceptions of them. What cultural filters distort how we see bears today?" To most people, "good bears" don't seem to eat, except when you throw something to one in the zoo.

If you see a bear "in the wild", or even on your yard, it is looking for food. You are probably not the kind of food it is looking for. But if you get between it and food, you stand little chance of escaping harm. A bear doesn't care about you. We "cutify" bears and claim to care about them. Good. Care for them by making sure you don't tempt them with your garbage, nor buy homes in former bear habitat.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Lavic is my favorite

kw: vacations, rock collecting

As mentioned in my teaser post of March 9, my brother and I spent March 8 collecting rocks at Lavic Siding. Later in the day we visited a rock store in Barstow, where the owner told us that Lavic is nearly the only classic locality which still has abundant material, easily found. Our experience was little different from visits to Lavic that I've made going back forty years.

This image taken from the "road" stop from which we began to collect, shows the Cady Mountains to the north. They are considered to be the source of the Jasper. A quarry in the Cady's was used for aggregate for the Route 66 topping, and I could see jasper in the asphalt. The Cady Mountains are reworked sediment, so when we say "source" we don't mean ultimate source; that is unknown, but occasional lava-jasper contact material indicates that the jasper is older than Pisgah crater and its lava fields, which are nearby.

We collected to the right, on the low hills, and behind the camera viewpoint. The ground is open, and the bushes are not nearly as abundant as they appear in this low-angle photo.

This is a typical view of the rocky ground that composes the alluvial hills. The visible jasper pieces here are all less than two inches (5 cm) in their largest dimension. Sometimes, you'll encounter a piece that doesn't "want" to be picked up. A little digging reveals a chunk of jasper that could be up to the size of a fist. Not many are larger than that.

The challenge is to gather solid pieces without porosity. Many pieces have abundant holes throughout. Such pieces don't polish well, unless you want to epoxy-fill a rough-ground piece and polish that. There is enough solid material to be had, that there is no need for such measures.

This high-crowned cabochon I made in 1970 has some of the nicest moss-jasper pattern I've ever seen. It is often called jasp-agate, having the texture of moss agate, but being primarily jasper "shreds" in a clear-to-milky-bluish chalcedony matrix. Some of the chalcedony forms little fortification agates, and I like such pieces the best.

We probably didn't find material that is its equal on this trip, but what we found is pretty good. A closeup of the cabochon, and three typical textures from rocks collected on this trip are shown below. They show what I like about Lavic jasper. All but the first were photographed under water, which gives a better idea what they'll look like when polished. The three are broken surfaces, so there's no desert varnish or caliche to obstruct the view.

This closeup, right near the center of the cabochon, shows the red-brown-yellow jasper shreds, the clear matrix, and the bluish spots, including one mini-agate. This is classic. Whatever the process that formed the jasper, it had to be complex.

The whole area here is just 5x9 mm, and it ought not be hard to find on the image above of the cabochon, which measures 40x30 mm. That is the "large standard" cabochon, by the way. If you go to a rock show, most of the cabochons on display by dealers are this size or smaller. It's hard to wear a stone much bigger than this, unless it is in a Western-style belt buckle. I have a big belt buckle or two, but haven't had the temerity to make a big stone for a belt!

The area of this view and those below is about 20x35 mm, so these three stones could probably produce 30x40 mm cabochon rough. Also, all three weigh a little less than a pound (about 0.4 kg, I suppose). This stone is just a little smaller than my fist.

This stone has plenty of bluish-white inclusions, including a nice mini-agate. It is the reddest piece I found. The pattern is less distinct than in the moss jasper, but is nice enough to keep the stone from being as boring as red paint. That is the trouble with a lot of red jasper: it is just red.

This piece is a breccia, a cemented-together, and now solid, agglomeration of broken chunks. The stone is smaller than the one just above, but only by a little.

The beige to yellow to brown colors seen here are more common than the red, but are less popular. However, a stone such as this has plenty of textural interest, and I find it of great beauty.

There is something about breccia that appeals on a deep level. Perhaps it is the beauty-out-of-trial aspect.

This layered piece shows a very common texture. The stone is the same size as the one just above.

Layered jasper has more color variety; the colors in this one include green, yellow, and red. I haven't seen much green jasper from Lavic. The green color usually requires either chrome or iron in a semi-reduced state. The intense reds and yellows here indicate the main colorant is fully oxidized iron. In its presence, I don't know how the green color forms.

Lavic jasper and jasp-agate are mysteries, beautiful ones.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Electronic addiction?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, internet, critiques

"A mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems" – Paul Erdö we might say a programmer is a device for turning coffee and pizza into "the next cool hack," be it a great game or a "killer app". (Credit for the image goes to the Digital Daily blog, where it heads an introduction to "internet addiction.")

Most of us are not programmers (and some of us old programmers don't fade away, we just turn into power users). Not that many are power users. Yet millions of otherwise "ordinary people" spend at least as much time online as they do watching TV, to the chagrin of TV advertisers.

It is just forty years since I learned Fortran and began programming. I spent thirty years writing scientific software. I was sufficiently knowledgeable that, while I was in graduate school getting advanced degrees in Geology, I was a (uncredentialed) professor of Computer Science. But that began about ten years into my career.

I hadn't learned programming and operating systems in school; I was around when operating systems were invented. The first computer I used, an IBM 1130, didn't have an OS at first, but we loaded the Executive deck (containing a mini-IBM 360 OS) in front of the Fortran Compiler deck, our program deck, and a series of blank cards afterward if my program specified card output rather than printed (on an IBM Selectric typewriter). The 1130 had one of the first disk drives, a removable 5-Mbyte single platter 14 inches across. It was used to hold the various decks' contents during running of the program. We didn't have a way to write data to the disk in 1968.

In the ensuing years, I became one of those pale creatures who would write code for 36-48 hours at a stretch, with periodic infusions of pizza and various colas (I abhorred coffee).

Fast-forward to 1994. Comet Shoemaker-Levy is about to crash into Jupiter. A friend at work tells me about Mosaic, the first full-featured Web browser (it evolved into Netscape). By this time, I've been spending less than half my time programming, and the other half doing various kinds of analysis for an oil company; I do have degrees in Geology, after all. For a few days there, I didn't get much done that was useful. I'd used the text-based Internet a few times, but the Web—it just blew me away.

Do the math; another fourteen years have passed. I use the internet a lot. I surf, blog, and e-mail. I don't use MySpace or Second Life, though the latter intrigues me a little. I have begun to husband my time, however, and SL is a huge time-waster. But I spend more of my time on the Web than was once the opposite.

Yet, I do a lot of stuff that needs no computer, no connection, even no electricity (except for lights): talking to family & friends, church activities, reading, walking & other forms of exercise, gardening & yard work, and making mobiles and other hobbies. I did learn to take time to smell the flowers...and grow 'em.

I think I am in the middle of the spectrum of middle-class computer use. I don't know if Lee Siegel would agree. In Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob I find I may be one of "the enemy": a booster of the technology. I am certainly aware of its damaging potential. I see others following, even more intensely, the path I trod when all I had to accompany my late-night coding vigil was a character-cell-based 12-inch green-screen CRT terminal.

My son and his friends are online a very great amount. He never turns off his laptop. He just shuts its lid to "hibernate" it while carrying it between classes or to-and-from everywhere. His campus is a gigantic wi-fi hot spot, so he's online, potentially, 24/7.

Author Siegel attempts the impossible: to critique the invincible. The language of internet use and boosterism makes it as unassailable as Mother and Apple Pie, a fact he notes in almost every chapter.

I am not sure why I found the book hard to get all the way through. It is well enough written, and his points are valid. Culture sure seems to be infolding itself into a cluster of millions of blind egos, and many who ought to know better quail at being thought "unpopular". Like we're all adolescents at the Homecoming Dance, afraid our tie will get laughed at, or something! His points all show up the juvenile nature of a technology that is as much about fun as about work. That'll change.

I am not a blind supporter of the Internet. I don't confuse its libertarian tendencies with "democracy" (surely the least-understood word in today's political discourse). What he sees as critical dangers and risks I see as growing pains. I imagine the first architects to actually design houses (or, more likely, temples) soon came to decry the "anarchy" of do-it-yourself home building. The human race had only been at it for a few thousand years, and by the way, "cave man" didn't live in caves, but used them mainly for ceremonies and burials, and for storm shelters when their flimsy shanties blew down.

We're at the shanty stage of computer use. We've only been doing this for seventy years or less. We've only been "on the Web" for twenty or so years. Sure, there's a lot of goofiness going on. We don't need the Internet to remind us we're all kids at heart. I need only enter the Men's Room to be reminded that most men (in a building that contains only professionals, at that) never learned proper bathroom etiquette from their Mom or Dad. How do you think such creatures are going to behave in a medium where anonymity is the rule? DUH! (I ignore women's juvenility; I'll leave that to female commentators)

Sure, it's a mess. What new thing isn't? Let's see what the next couple hundred years bring. This too shall pass.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The art of grief

kw: images, memorials

The day after my return from California, I reported on the most memorable sight of the trip, the Watts Towers. Just a few days earlier, in the Mojave Desert, I had seen a piece of folk art that is quite a bit more modest.

We've all seen little crosses—and more elaborate displays—beside the road, commemorating a spot where someone died in a collision. This one is right at the Lavic overpass, where old Route 66 (now National Trails Highway in that area) crosses over US 40. That is a perfect spot for an accident, because the left turn is as sharp as road-building technology can make it. Of course, the roadbed is rough enough that it is hard to travel at a dangerous speed.

This little cross, about three feet high, is apparently of found material, but it is the decoration that interests me. There is no name that I can see; it is a memorial understood only by the maker. But he or she was prompted to add a spray of plastic flowers. Perhaps the unadorned cross was just too stark.

These expressions of love and grief interest me as abundant examples of folk art. Though most are erected very quickly, they are often very beautiful. They seem to hark back to the beginnings of funerary art, before we all began to pay professionals to produce granite or marble memorials for grave sites. With this little cross in Lavic, I decided to photograph any that I see, particularly now that many states have begun to remove them. Here I will show just a couple of others, from my local area.

At the intersection of US 202 and Silverside Road in Talleyville, Delaware, this is about as simple as they come. It is hard to get in a position for a good photograph. Both roads are very busy, and this is on a median right below the traffic signal.

I've seen it there for more than ten years. It is barely possible to make out the date, 12/13/1997.

I used a long lens from a nearby parking lot. It wasn't easy even to get to a parking lot on the median, across a feeder. This is one aspect of these memorials: Putting them up, or getting to the place you want to put them, is often risky. I can think of two I'd like to photograph, but it will require stopping on the wrong side of a feeder or freeway ramp to do so.

Crosses are the most common motif of roadside memorials. Enter "roadside memorial" in a Google Images search box, and you'll see what I mean. This montage is taken from the first two pages of returns. The second item is a Russian Orthodox cross. I suspect there are also Celtic crosses out there.

Of course, only Christians and the nonreligious who are sympathetic to Christian imagery use crosses. I have yet to see a Jewish or Hindu motif, but I'll snap one if I see it.

Christian or not, many memorials do not use crosses, though nearly all use flowers. This one appeared near the driveway into Brandywine High School three years ago.

Some memorials use hearts, some use pictures, and one in this montage uses a surfboard. The elements are meaningful to the maker, and usually to the victim. What is most distinctive, however, is that unlike most folk art, they are intended for display, and are placed at a meaningful location rather than in one's home (though I expect that many memorializers have a shrine to the victim in the home also, for at least some period of time).

I had thought to make a significant effort to collect images of these ephemeral pieces of folk art. They'd make a good subject for a book. As it turns out...

Holly Everett has written such a book, which is published by Texas A&M U. I should have known. It is too good a subject to remain unpublished this late. Though in her title Ms Everett mentions only Crosses, she discusses memorials of all kinds. You may consider this a pre-review of the book. I suspect it'll show up where I can get it before long.

Meantime, I'll continue to photograph these roadside memorials wherever I find them. Note that only the three larger images in this post are mine. The two montages were pasted together from images found on the web, and the book cover is from the TAMU web site linked above.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Taking the race card out of play

kw: opinion, politics, candidates

I sent the following to a Philadelphia talk show host, who spent Tuesday evening (March 18) discussing Senator Obama's speech in Philadelphia from earlier in the day:
Last evening I got the feeling you were panning Senator Obama's speech, that you thought he was "playing the race card."

If he can't talk about race, who can? He is uniquely positioned to discuss race in America. I don't think he was playing the race card; I believe he intends to take the card out of play.
I think this speech one of the great speeches of my lifetime, that is, since WWII. To let the Senator speak for himself, the speech follows, as prepared for delivery:

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
“We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.”

Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.

The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.

Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution – a Constitution that had at is very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.

And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part – through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk - to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.

This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this campaign – to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America. I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for of children and our grandchildren.

This belief comes from my unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people. But it also comes from my own American story.

I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners – an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.

It’s a story that hasn’t made me the most conventional candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts – that out of many, we are truly one.

Throughout the first year of this campaign, against all predictions to the contrary, we saw how hungry the American people were for this message of unity. Despite the temptation to view my candidacy through a purely racial lens, we won commanding victories in states with some of the whitest populations in the country. In South Carolina, where the Confederate Flag still flies, we built a powerful coalition of African Americans and white Americans.

This is not to say that race has not been an issue in the campaign. At various stages in the campaign, some commentators have deemed me either “too black” or “not black enough.” We saw racial tensions bubble to the surface during the week before the South Carolina primary. The press has scoured every exit poll for the latest evidence of racial polarization, not just in terms of white and black, but black and brown as well.

And yet, it has only been in the last couple of weeks that the discussion of race in this campaign has taken a particularly divisive turn.

On one end of the spectrum, we’ve heard the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action; that it’s based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap. On the other end, we’ve heard my former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike.

I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy. For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely – just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.

But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.

As such, Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems – two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.

Given my background, my politics, and my professed values and ideals, there will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not enough. Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church? And I confess that if all that I knew of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television and You Tube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way

But the truth is, that isn’t all that I know of the man. The man I met more than twenty years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor. He is a man who served his country as a U.S. Marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing God’s work here on Earth – by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.

In my first book, Dreams From My Father, I described the experience of my first service at Trinity:

“People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend’s voice up into the rafters….And in that single note – hope! – I heard something else; at the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion’s den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones. Those stories – of survival, and freedom, and hope – became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world. Our trials and triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than black; in chronicling our journey, the stories and songs gave us a means to reclaim memories tha t we didn’t need to feel shame about…memories that all people might study and cherish – and with which we could start to rebuild.”

That has been my experience at Trinity. Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety – the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity’s services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.

And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.

Some will see this as an attempt to justify or excuse comments that are simply inexcusable. I can assure you it is not. I suppose the politically safe thing would be to move on from this episode and just hope that it fades into the woodwork. We can dismiss Reverend Wright as a crank or a demagogue, just as some have dismissed Geraldine Ferraro, in the aftermath of her recent statements, as harboring some deep-seated racial bias.

But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America – to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.

The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through – a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American.

Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students.

Legalized discrimination - where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments – meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today’s urban and rural communities.

A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family, contributed to the erosion of black families – a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods – parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement – all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.

This is the reality in which Reverend Wright and other African-Americans of his generation grew up. They came of age in the late fifties and early sixties, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted. What’s remarkable is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them.

But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn’t make it – those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations – those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicia ns, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.

And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright’s sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning. That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.

In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committ ed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.

Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze – a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.

This is where we are right now. It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy – particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.

But I have asserted a firm conviction – a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people – that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice is we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.

For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances – for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs - to the larger aspirations of all Americans -- the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for own lives – by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.

Ironically, this quintessentially American – and yes, conservative – notion of self-help found frequent expression in Reverend Wright’s sermons. But what my former pastor too often failed to understand is that embarking on a program of self-help also requires a belief that society can change.

The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country – a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old -- is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know -- what we have seen – is that America can change. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope – the audacity to hope – for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination - and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past - are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds – by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.

In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world’s great religions demand – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.

For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina - or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

We can do that.

But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.

That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, “Not this time.” This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can’t learn; that those kids who don’t look like us are somebody else’s problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.

This time we want to talk about how the lines in the Emergency Room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care; who don’t have the power on their own to overcome the special interests in Washington, but who can take them on if we do it together.

This time we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life. This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn’t look like you might take your job; it’s that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.

This time we want to talk about the men and women of every color and creed who serve together, and fight together, and bleed together under the same proud flag. We want to talk about how to bring them home from a war that never should’ve been authorized and never should’ve been waged, and we want to talk about how we’ll show our patriotism by caring for them, and their families, and giving them the benefits they have earned.

I would not be running for President if I didn’t believe with all my heart that this is what the vast majority of Americans want for this country. This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected. And today, whenever I find myself feeling doubtful or cynical about this possibility, what gives me the most hope is the next generation – the young people whose attitudes and beliefs and openness to change have already made history in this election.

There is one story in particularly that I’d like to leave you with today – a story I told when I had the great honor of speaking on Dr. King’s birthday at his home church, Ebenezer Baptist, in Atlanta.

There is a young, twenty-three year old white woman named Ashley Baia who organized for our campaign in Florence, South Carolina. She had been working to organize a mostly African-American community since the beginning of this campaign, and one day she was at a roundtable discussion where everyone went around telling their story and why they were there.

And Ashley said that when she was nine years old, her mother got cancer. And because she had to miss days of work, she was let go and lost her health care. They had to file for bankruptcy, and that’s when Ashley decided that she had to do something to help her mom.

She knew that food was one of their most expensive costs, and so Ashley convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches. Because that was the cheapest way to eat.

She did this for a year until her mom got better, and she told everyone at the roundtable that the reason she joined our campaign was so that she could help the millions of other children in the country who want and need to help their parents too.

Now Ashley might have made a different choice. Perhaps somebody told her along the way that the source of her mother’s problems were blacks who were on welfare and too lazy to work, or Hispanics who were coming into the country illegally. But she didn’t. She sought out allies in her fight against injustice.

Anyway, Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they’re supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come to this elderly black man who’s been sitting there quietly the entire time. And Ashley asks him why he’s there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, “I am here because of Ashley.”

“I’m here because of Ashley.” By itself, that single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man is not enough. It is not enough to give health care to the sick, or jobs to the jobless, or education to our children.

But it is where we start. It is where our union grows stronger. And as so many generations have come to realize over the course of the two-hundred and twenty one years since a band of patriots signed that document in Philadelphia, that is where the perfection begins.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Mary Shelley vs HG Wells et al

kw: book reviews, fantasy, gothic horror, satire

It took me half the book to figure out the locale, Whitby. Meeting "Mr. Alucard" solved that one. Long prior to that, the heavy, thudding hints dropped by Brenda, the heroine of Never the Bride, led me to peg her as the Bride of Frankenstein. In between, human-Martian (à la War of the Worlds) crossbreeds spend a week at her B-&-B by the sea before fleeing pursuit from the Martian-dominated denizens of their remote town.

On the theme of "Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it," Paul Magrs has brought together all the archetypes from the Gothic horror films of the 1930s, and dug up a few more of other genres, such as the Thief of Time. Some, including Brenda, Alucard, and a few more "ordinary" humans, are the "good guys", while others range against their efforts to keep an overburdened netherworld from spilling back into this one...or so it seems.

In spite of the clashing genres, it is an enjoyable read. Elsa Lancaster would have loved the rôle.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Reversal stories

kw: book reviews, story reviews, science fiction, fantasy, anthologies

The anthology is Eclipse One, edited by Jonathan Strahan. A blurb on the cover states, "New Science Fiction and Fantasy". To my mind, only two of the fifteen remotely resemble SciFi: "Electric Rains" and "Lustration" (see below). As a solar eclipse reverses the sun/sky relationship, these stories are intended to turn assumptions topsywise. They do. The ideas:

  • Unique Chicken Goes in Reverse by Andy Duncan – A frizzled chicken (one with feathers that grow in backwards) with healing powers, which she names "Jesus", is a lonely girl's favorite companion.
  • Bad Luck, Trouble, Death, and Vampire Sex by Garth Nix – When one's grandmother is the world's most dangerous witch, her death leads to, well, all hell breaking loose...
  • The Last and Only or, Mr. Moscowitz Becomes French by Peter S. Beagle – A psychological version of Kafka's "Metamorphosis".
  • The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large by Maureen F. McHugh – A mildly occult story of amnesia.
  • The Drowned Life by Jeffrey Ford – A parable of losing the rat race. The metaphor is living underwater.
  • Toother by Terry Dowling – An ugly story of a person with a bite fetish, who vanishes at a crucial moment.
  • Up the Fire Road by Eileen Gunn – Is the Sasquatch a shape-shifter?
  • In the Forest of the Queen by Gwyneth Jones – A modern take-off on English forest mythology.
  • Quartermaster Returns by Ysabeau S. Wilco – Putting the old saw into words: You aren't allowed to die if you owe the Army anything.
  • Electric Rains by Kathleen Ann Goonan – The sky is full of nanostuff, driving most folks to get uploaded. A girl is taking hear dead protectress to a burial place, avoiding being rained on.
  • She-Creatures by Margo Lanagan – A brooding riff on alien abduction fears.
  • The Transformation of Targ by Paul Brandon and Jack Dann – A bad guy with nice urges tries to reform. His "educator in evil" shrink has other ideas.
  • Mrs. Zeno's Paradox by Ellen Klages – You really can't get there from here. At some point you have to halve the Planck length, and it's only 143 steps from halving a centimeter.
  • The Lustration by Bruce Sterling – A wooden computer, mafioso priests, and artificial intelligence in a thoroughly alien milieu.
  • Larissa Miusov by Lucius Shepard – Perhaps some folks really can go down a hole and pull it in behind them.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Watts Towers, a first look

kw: vacations, sightseeing

They comprise the largest work of art produced by one person working unaided. For 33 years, Simon Rodia worked alone to build these towers, using no blueprints, scaffolding, welds or bolts, using only tile-setter's tools. The tallest tower is 99½ feet (30.3 meters). When the city of Los Angeles wanted to destroy them as an "earthquake hazard", a consortium of preservationists made a good case for an engineering test. When the main tower was unaffected by a 10,000 lb test, they were deemed safer than the skyscrapers then a-building downtown, and allowed to stand.

Their innards are reinforcing rod, textured steel bars, wired together (no welds), and covered with a concrete coat a couple inches thick. Into this coating, the artist embedded shells, tiles of many sorts, pieces of rock, broken china and glass, the bottoms of colored bottles, and other found materials. He must have spent a lot of time collecting stuff! You can find out a lot more about the Watts Towers at the Watts Towers website and in this Wikipedia article.

My father, his friend, and I visited the afternoon of March 10, 2008. Dad has been there a few times, but it was the first time for me. This picture captures the tiny feeling I had looking up at them. But there is a lot more than just a few towers. At their web site, you'll find out about the Gazebo, the two decorated walls, the staircase, and other marvels built into and around them.

A closeup shows examples of the seashells, dinner plates, and tiles used for decoration. Other panels had stamped impressions in the concrete and rock and slag coatings.

The Watts Towers Arts Center has been set up nearby to teach and lead tours of Rodia's monument. We visited on a Monday, when everything is closed. Tours are scheduled only on Friday-Sunday, and the Center is closed on Monday. We did talk to a guard, who gave us a brochure with Rodia's biography and a short description of the towers' details. The web sites above are much fuller.

Conserving the structures has turned into a time-consuming job for a number of people. When an earthquake did come, the towers pretty much shrugged it off. However, the concrete cracked in a number of places, so people had to remove and restore some sections to prevent rusting of the steel inside. The towers were completely photographed in the 1970s, so whenever a piece of tile or other decoration is found on the ground, they can get it back to the spot it came from. Still, I found a number of gaps where stuff had fallen off and not yet been restored.

These details aside, the Towers are awesome.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Cash upon demand

kw: book reviews, science fiction, science fantasy

In recent years, Terry Pratchett has focused his Discworld novels on the careers of an individual or two at a time in his hyper-legendary city of Anhk-Morpork. The city's coat of arms has hippopotami rampant, its symbols are the Ankh (the loopy Egyptian cross) and the Morpork (an odd owl), and its central character is the Patrician, Lord Vetinari, as clever a rogue as ever managed a metropolis. Two prior posts of mine (
here, in an omnibus review of four books, and here) cover Pratchett offerings that focus on Commander Vimes of the Guard. I seem to have missed an earlier book that introduces Moist von Lipwig, but in Making Money we get a view of his career once he has straightened out the Ankh-Morpork Post Office.

Moist, under another name, had been hanged ... almost. Lord Vetinari had him "hanged" into a catch-basket, after which he offered him more honest employment, on terms he could hardly refuse, as they involved continuing to breathe. As Making Money opens, Moist has succeeded wildly, but is bored, and is found climbing buildings by night, to keep sharp. Vetinari has anticipated this, and contrives to lure him into the post of chairman of the city's largest bank and its mint, but with a twist: the bank is owned by a pug dog, and Moist must keep himself, and the dog, alive, long enough to resurrect the city's flaccid banking the face of a banking family that compares well (evilly?) with the Borgias.

Pratchett writes in a lovely parody of classical rhythms, and his plots loop one around until you think you're seeing the back of your head. He uses trolls (siliconic variety), golems, vampires, zombies, and other "species" as stand-ins for the ethnicities we aren't supposed to poke fun of in print. The author's fun-poking, however, far from perpetuating stereotypes, exposes and detoxifies them.

Here, however, I wish to comment more on form than on substance. In most fiction, the visual artistry of a book, between the covers and endpapers, is confined to a "readable and balanced" typeface and perhaps dingbats to indicate longer time periods between certain sections. Where drop capitals are used, they are usually enlarged, bolded letters from the text font. In his books, Pratchett takes advantages of several tropes of 19th Century typography: each chapter's opening page contains not just a title and a paragraph or two, but also a clever graphic such as the A-M coat of arms and a humorously cryptic summary of the chapter's contents (the hand guides the unwary reader). Sections begin with a drop-letter, as used in many publications, a nod to the much earlier practice of initial-letter illumination. In this case, they are of an elegant incised hollow font also used in the chapter headings. Click on the image to see more detail.

These elements adorn a writing style that indicates a writer who is enjoying himself hugely, and intends to pass on as much enjoyment as possible to the reader. Here is a sample:
When he was a child, Moist had prayed every night before going to bed. His family were [sic] very active in the Plain Potato Church, which shunned the excesses of the Ancient and Orthodox Potato Church. Its followers were retiring, industrious, and inventive, and their strict adherence to oil lamps and homemade furniture made them stand out in the region where most people used candles and sat on sheep.
Pratchett is also the apparent coiner of a lovely phrase, "War is a wicked waste of customers." This is my new favorite.

He does indeed ensure the reader's enjoyment.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

A day on the rocks

kw: vacations

I am on vacation in California, visiting relatives. On Saturday, March 8, my brother and I drove out into the desert to collect rocks. Once I download my pictures I'll post more. We collected 30-40 pounds of Lavic Jasper, mainly in tumbling size pieces. I always enjoy seeing the Joshua Trees, like those shown here. This is a stock photo from Joshua Tree National Monument, which is a couple hundred miles from Lavic.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Weapons as toys, toys as weapons

kw: book reviews, science fiction, future fiction, politics

The first edition of The Zap Gun by Philip K. Dick was published in 1965, written in 1964. I suppose he thought it safe to put his novel forty years into the future. Of course, now 2004 is mostly four years in our past. I found it mildly interesting to see the trends that have reversed on him. Principally, while there remain tensions between the US and Russia, the world has not rigidified into a Wes-bloc and Peep-East (the latter from PRC plus Eastern Bloc). He couldn't have imagined resurgent Islam or a terrorism-dominated Mideast.

Linguistic trends hold up better. Many terms are shortened, so we have Indy (independent) filmmaking, iPods (I used to know what it acronymizes), and "the burbs"; we don't have Dick's cogs (cognoscenti) or pursaps (poor saps; all who aren't cogs).

We didn't settle the cold war by agreeing to "plowshare" our weapons development (all image, no substance), a process he also calls "weapons fashion". No, the richest nation on Earth simply made weapons of domination and occupation too costly for anyone but themselves, but then began selling them at a discount to all takers. Ergo: well-armed terrorists.

Dick wrote at a time that we could still dream of steaming jungles on Venus (we didn't quite know it was a steamy 800°). He makes use of telepathy and clairvoyance. He, like many, expected air cars. Here's why we never will have air cars: wheels on the ground are cheaper than any hovering technology, for getting you through your daily commute. Even maglev trains are becoming white elephants (France's TGV still beats out all maglev contendors, economically; the "lifting current" exceeds the propulsion current).

For the same reason, economics, the concept of "Slavers from Sirius" that is this story's backdrop, just doesn't make sense. Robots are cheaper than slaves, once you have the tech infrastructure.

The title of this post probably gives away too much of the story. It is a game, of a sort, that overcomes the interstellar slavers. But in Phil Dick's hands, getting there is all the fun. It is a classic I'm happy to have run across.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Detoxify? You'll have to try harder

kw: observations, opinion, nutrition

Very early this morning (~1am, Wed, Mar 5) I finished a midnight phone call, a fortunately rare occurrence. Being a bit jazzed, I read a little, then turned on the TV. I saw the last half of an Oprah interview of Dr. Oz. Two of the segments interested me the most, because they overturn ideas Dr. Oz had once promoted.

First, twin teenage girls, a pair who say they drink lots of water to keep their skin in top shape, were tested for that proposition. One had to double her water intake, the other one could only drink the minimum needed to avoid a "dying of thirst" feeling. So one went form drinking a liter daily to two liters, the other to just under a half liter.

Measurements were made, before and after a period of several days, of skin flexibility and several other measures of general health. The result? No difference whatever, except that one twin went to the restroom lots more often. Dr. Oz explained, "Even a piece of steak is 65% water after cooking medium-well", and that fruits are typically more than 75% water. We get lots of water in everything we eat, unless someone has their morning Wheaties without milk.

Secondly, a common "detoxify your blood" diet uses lots of juiced vegetables and things my brothers and I used to call "lion milk" (a concoction our mother tried on us for a while). Twelve young women were split into two groups of six. The members of one group were forced (and after a while, it took a bit of force) to detoxify almost exclusively, the others ate a more ordinary, but healthy, diet. I don't recall the term, but I think it was two weeks. The result? No difference between the two groups, based on before-and-after blood work.

Again, Dr. Oz had a possible explanation: Our body is quite good at eliminating waste and toxins, if we simply refrain from taking in any new ones.

Bottom line: modest measures typically accomplish nearly all of the good.

Monday, March 03, 2008

It is not just the belts

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, scientists

There is little I could say, or ought to, about a recent biography, James Van Allen: The First Eight Billion Miles by Abigail Foerstner. So much is written already—about him and about the book— since he passed away in August 2006. See the University of Iowa's James A. Van Allen page, and particularly their tribute page (the first link). By the way, I'm puzzled why the Library classifies the book in the 523 section (Specific celestial bodies & phenomena): I suppose for his cosmic ray research, a lifelong passion. It ought to be a BIO.

The book itself is great, but the man is greater. He, more than anyone, "invented" science rocketry. Before that, however, he invented and developed the radio proximity fuze (I found out that "fuse" refers to burnable fuzes; "fuze" is the more general term).

Prior to the development of nuclear weapons, the proximity fuze was the anti-aircraft weapon that was winning the war, in both European and Pacific theaters. My Dad spent a couple years in New Guinea and nearby islands in the 1943-45 period, at times sheltered by the A-A shield these shells provided. Interestingly, Van Allen was there in 1943 with the Navy. Dad, an Army man, doesn't remember meeting any sailors, and we had tens of thousands of troops of all military branches there.

Of course, his name is nearly a household word for the "Van Allen Belts", two concentrated tori of radiation that encircle the Earth. They are composed of energetic particles trapped by the magnetic field; the protons and electrons form distinct belts, segregated by their mass-to-velocity ratio (each has a single charge, but their masses differ by a factor of 1,800).

Dr. Van Allen exemplified the unusual scientist who excels both in hands-on science and as an administrator and executive. Primarily for the latter reason, whether driving the scientific use of captured V-2 rockets in the 1950s or the development and deployment of the Voyager and Pioneer spacecraft in later decades, his skill as a motivator made him the father of space science. The subtitle of the book indicates that, by the time of his death he was continuing to monitor the information being received by three of these spacecraft at distances of eight billion miles (about 86 AU's).