Saturday, February 28, 2009

We'll always need someone like Lawrence Welk

kw: memories, heroes

I watched the Lawrence Welk program on ABC, on and off during the decade and a half that it ran live. I haven't seen it much since, though it has been in continual reruns ever since. My wife has begun to watch the PBS reruns in the last few years, and now we watch together. The current run, produced out of OETA in Oklahoma, has lasted nearly ten years longer than the original program.

I usually avoid programs that tug at my heart strings, whether dramas or "specials". For example, while I really like the premise of Extreme Makeover Home Edition, I rarely watch. I am just too big a softie, and need to use up a few tissues. But in the case of the LW program I make an exception. It touches my heart without overpowering it. The pieces are often reverent without being maudlin, sometimes corny but always enjoyable.

I find it amazing that so many PBS stations (three in this area) carry the program. The continued and vocal support it gets from people of all ages gives me hope that there is a core of strength in this country. It is composed of equal measures of family values, unabashed patriotism, and a healthy fear and love of God. Just like the show.

The media culture, including most PBS stations, dominated by the overly "progressive" ideology found on East and West coasts, is a culture bent on self-destruction. But these poor folks can't overcome the influence of the "flyover country" that lies between. The Welk programming isn't found everywhere, but I've found that other programs continue to feed that righteous need, programs such as Prairie Home Companion, though it has lost something in the past ten years (Find out more about it here).

People like Lawrence Welk (and many of those who worked with him) and Garrison Keillor (and a number of his cohorts) are heroes of mine. They have the precious skill of entertaining without degrading, rather they ennoble their audience.

There is a verse in 2Thess that speaks of a "restraint", holding back the extreme lawlessness of the last days until one day it will "get out of the way". Lotsa people don't like any restraint, but a restraint is in place, and continues to rescue the human race from the worst of which it is capable. It will not always be so. For now, the popularity of the Lawrence Welk program and similar warm-hearted work is a clear indication that the restraint is safely in place. For now.

Friday, February 27, 2009

If the bees go, we're all going

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, honey bees, environmentalism, ecology

This image will make many people edgy, not because the bee is dying, but because it's too close. I am deathly afraid of bees, I guess because I have a low tolerance for pain, plus a single sting when I was in grade school caused allergy symptoms. I could never be a beekeeper.

I used to live next door to one, though. His "honey house", where they spun the honey from the hive supers, was on the next piece of land. I went in there with him once, and felt a bit creepy the whole time. Bees were crawling all over the walls. He assured me, they are pretty calm when there is a lot of honey nearby and they are, as they were, away from the hive.

That place had a regular clientele of older people who came regularly to get stings on their arthritic hands. They claim it helps a lot. One came in while I was there, and got several stings on each hand, one per sore knuckle, at about $2 per sting. The keeper just grabbed a bee from the wall and held it so it stung where the old fellow pointed, one bee after another after another. I found it fascinating and almost forgot my creepiness.

He is out of business now. This was in South Dakota, and northern plains bees get trucked all over the country to pollinate crops, more so than most. They also suffer the greatest losses from bee diseases (they live stressful little lives) and have been particularly hard hit by CCD, Colony Collapse Disorder. My friend and his son lost so many hives over the winter of 2006 that they simply folded the operation. He still has some 12,000 acres of grassland that he ranches, or rather his son does, now that he has retired (he's a few years older than I am). So far there isn't a cow collapse disorder epidemic.

CCD is the subject of Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis, by Rowan Jacobsen. In conscious imitation of Silent Spring, which the author cites a time or two, the book digs into the history and possible causes of CCD, and urges action so that its title not become an "I told you so" prophecy.

Honey bees and humans have coevolved over thousands of years. This article from Villanova U reports on beekeeping in Israel 3,000 years ago. It is likely that bees have been kept since thousands of years before that. They were probably the first livestock animal species. But traditional practices have been all-but-forgotten since the Industrial Revolution applied advanced machinery powered by fossil fuels to every facet of production, including agriculture…especially agriculture.

The monocrop is now the norm, whether we're talking about a monocultural suburb (most still are), a field of wheat or maize the size of Manhattan Island, or an almond orchard in California that reaches to both horizons. Wild bees can't fly more than a couple of miles without starving to death, and they prefer to fly a half mile or less from a hive to the farthest blossom. Those huge grain fields don't need pollinators, but the almonds do. So do the fields and orchards that grow every fruit, nut, legume or vegetable. Nearly every one is pollinated by honey bees.

These days, many of those bees are trucked into the fields and orchards, becaue the local bees just can't keep up. We're in several vicious circles at one time. One of them is: just before blooming, spray for insect pests (This kills wild pollinators also); truck in bees during flowering time; get the bees outta there before you have to start spraying for the pests that attack the fruit (not that it matters, half of them have died already, and most will die in a few weeks); pay a ton of money to the beekeeper (who may or may not be able to then afford new bees). Why are so many bees dying?

Most of Fruitless Fall is detective work into the proposed causes of CCD. The symptoms are stark. Just about when the hives ought to be the busiest, the bees disappear, over a few weeks' time. They don't die near the hives, like mite-infested bees do. They seem to get out there and get lost, and never make it back. The possible culprits include mites (of a different kind perhaps), new bacterial or virus infections, new systemic pesticides (a chief cause of confused behavior), and the stress of spending a quarter of their time on long-distance trucks. It seems clear to me that the culprit behind CCD is "all of the above."

Things come even more clearly into focus when the author recounts the experiences of a few beekeepers who have been willing to "learn from the bees." One allowed evolution to do its work, by refraining from using miticides, and by breeding into his Vermont bees strains from Russia that cope better with mites and some diseases. He considers the mites his friends; they kill the weaker bees and flag trouble spots. He lost a lot of bees, but the stronger ones built back up, and now he has a valley full of bees with excellent resistance to mites and quite a number of other pests, plus they are hardy, being raised in the New England climate.

Another investigated the effect of hive cell size on colony health. Bee strains known to be mite resistant are a little smaller. Commercial honey frames have pre-manufactured wax cell bases with the cell size set, to which the bees conform. This investigator produced some frames with a smaller base width, causing the bees to make smaller cells, and lo-n-behold, they began doing a better job of getting rid of mites. There were side effects, however, such as poorer mid-season performance.

Wild bee colonies make honeycomb with different cell sizes, smaller near the bottom and larger near the top. So another couple of beekeepers tried making a top-bar frame (just some wax along the top). The bees could make "wild" style combs. These hives thrived like none other. It turns out that bees produce different sized workers for different parts of the growing season, and a particular size for overwintering. Commercial one-size-fits-all frames have been forcing the bees to produce the wrong sizes most of the time. Chalk up one more stressor.

Of course, wild-style comb can't be trucked around the country. It is too fragile. So what are beekeepers going to do? We just might be saved by the recent trend toward localism. It may be a bit harder to take care of a field that is frequently crossed by a non-crop swatch. But wildflowers that bloom successively over the whole growing season will feed the bees in off-seasons. Crop blooming typically only lasts a couple of weeks, or less. Beekeepers have been feeding corn syrup to bees to keep them alive between different crop flowering times!

Bee yards used to be pretty unkempt places. Let's return to that. Those "weeds" are helpers! Today, in the California almond growing areas, you'll find acres of alternating rows of two kinds of almonds, because they have to cross-pollinate. But they have to have bees to pollinate at all. So beehives are trucked in and distributed between rows, in huge numbers. It doesn't sound economical, but this would help: remove a third of the trees in strips and let weeds grow, like in shelter belts. Even plant flowering weeds that bloom when your crops don't Take a clue from areas where small farms abound with plenty of shelter belts: they don't need much in the way of trucked-in pollinators, if any.

When I first heard about CCD nearly two years ago, I began watching the flowers in my yard, and particularly my apple tree. There aren't many honey bees in the area. My apple tree was pollinated by at least thirty species of bee and a few kinds of wasps, plus some flies, mostly about half the length of "houseflies". I have lots of apples every year, and the past two were no exception. In my suburb, with its frequent patches of forest, there are plenty of alternative pollinators. I also saw many different kinds of bees on all the flowers, even dandelions.

The author laments that studies are only produced where there is money to be made (or lost). When will those who fund "studies" realize that there is a crying (and expensive) need to understand the genuine value of "unfarmed" patches of land. They are probably the key to the productivity of many farms! And for honey bees, here is the bottom line: they do better when they can stay put, they do better when they aren't dosed with poisons, and they do better when they live on weedy patches between fields. Sure, beekeepers may be earning more for pollination services than for the honey, but that could change again if farmers get smart and let some wilder places grow to boost the numbers of natural pollinators. These are a few of the ideas we'll need to turn the situation around before the honey bee goes extinct.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Sinking Atlantis, again

kw: legends, myths, lost worlds

Remember this image? Similar images, purported to be Atlantis, are everywhere now. I posted about it a few days ago, asking, If it isn't Atlantis, what is it? My own speculation is that it is the trace of a seismic or sonar survey, or perhaps trawling. That is the position taken by most commentators. The Bits Blog at the N.Y. Times reports on Google's debunking of the Atlantis idea.

Two things come to mind, however. There are many sonar and seismic surveys done, often over equally large areas. The ocean floor ought to be marked up like the wall of a house inhabited by artistic toddlers. I've done some looking around, and so far I haven't found anything similar.

But it is hard to get an idea of the scale of this thing. It is 120x120 km, or 75x75 miles. I clipped an image of the Los Angeles area at the same scale for comparison.

It takes a couple hours, or more if there is traffic, to drive from Oxnard to Oceanside or San Bernardino. A 120x120 km square takes in from Lancaster to Irvine and Santa Monica to Riverside. That's a lot of territory. Though the "Atlantis" image looks like a city laid out in blocks, the blocks are big. Each one is about the size of Anaheim or Pasadena.

It's worth while looking for more traces on the ocean floor. I don't know why this one formation off Africa should be unique. I am pretty sure the formation was caused by something towed behind (and below) a ship.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The little freedoms that matter

kw: book reviews, fiction, short stories, anthologies

Lots of good stories have a surprise, a twist, at the end. Many of Elizabeth Berg's stories begin with the twist. The title story of The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted (and Other Small Acts of Liberation) is just such. With flashbacks to various Weight Watcher meetings and other scenes, the story seems to unfold backwards. About halfway through the book, a companion story, "The Day I Ate Nothing I Even Remotely Wanted", forges through the one day the character makes a serious attempt to keep her diet, ending with a dose of NyQuil, the only thing all day that tasted good.

Weight is a major theme, for about half the stories. I began to wonder why. A quick check in Google Images just fed my curiosity: Ms Berg is a very attractive woman, with no weight problem that I can see. Of course, in this culture that idolizes Size Zero, 99% of the grown women are practically forced to think of themselves as too fat. When I was young, Size 14 was considered normal, at least for Euro-American women.

Berg's primary theme, however, is growth, the growth that comes from leaving one's comfort zone, if even for a moment. The best example is "Sin City," of a woman who really escapes her mundanity for a while with a jaunt to Las Vegas. Then there is "How to Make an Apple Pie", my absolute favorite. The only thing to which I can compare it is a story by Mark Twain of an old fellow who could never complete a story. But this recipe does get completed, at least in a PS. Best pie recipe I've ever seen, but don't be surprised if you can't do it!

The author's extra dash of empathy allows her to write well in the voice of characters ranging from nine to 79 (or so). Her bioblurb states that she has written a nonfiction book, Escaping into the Open: The Art of Writing True. I'll have to scare it up. Stay tuned.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Threshold sharpening

kw: photography, techniques

I have been learning how to use Nikon's ViewNX, the free software that comes with their digital SLRs. My interest is mainly in working with NEF (Nikon Electronic image Format) "raw" files. I am also getting ready for a beginners' class in digital photography and digital darkroom that I will teach this Summer.

The "Quick Adjustment" tools include Sharpening, with a range of 0-10. I must assume for the present that this is similar to the 0%-100% range seen in other software (I am most familiar with Irfanview; by the way, with its plugin package, Irfanview can handle NEF files).
For the sake of my students, I created this montage. Click on it for the 900x600 original. Printed on a 6x4 inch sheet, it shows the effect of the sharpening levels noted at 300 dpi and 150 dpi, as printed. The clips are from an image of a dogwood tree, taken in full sun, ISO 200, f/8, 1/320 sec.

The unsharpened image shows the raw resolution of the lens and sensor combination. The D40's sensor has a pitch of 8µ, and the circle of confusion for f/8 at 600nm is 4.8µ. Thus the slight "fuzziness" of the Sharp0 clips primarily shows lens performance. Not quite diffraction-limited, but within a factor of two. The "Sharp2" images have the look of being diffraction-limited, while the Sharp4 and Sharp8 images look over-sharpened. At Sharp8 the sky is getting a granular look also. I like the look of Sharp2 the best, at both resolutions.

I know what is really happening. A 100% sharpened image is created and proportionally added to the unsharpened image, but the images with just a little sharpening added look as good as images would with a specific algorithm (using Fourier transform) to deconvolve the fuzziness of the unprocessed image.

A Tip: When using ViewNX, if your PC is a few years old, as mine is, have a book with you. Each sharpening operation took more than half a minute on a 6Mpx image, saving intermediate results took about an equal amount of time, and converting to a 'jpg' file took almost a minute.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

One for the records

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, books about books

I could gush wildly about the Guinness record books, but that would simply be redundant. Larry Olmstead doesn't gush, but he definitely presents a thorough run-down in Getting Into Guinness: One Man's Longest, Fastest, Highest Journey Inside the World's Most Famous Record Book. What began as a sporting article with a 'hook' turned into a mini-obsession for a few years. Olmstead came out of it with a couple of records of his own, but writing the book got him blacklisted by the Guinness World Records editors!

The author's original attack on a record involved playing 18 holes of golf in Australia, flying to Los Angeles, and hopping off the plane to play another 18 before the day ended. Crossing the International Date Line helped extend the day enough to make the attempt even possible. For several months he held the record of playing two courses the farthest apart on the same day. Then someone repeated his deed, but going a few suburbs farther away for the second game, to break his record.

A couple years later, egged on by "What have you done lately"-type comments, he played poker for 72 hours and two minutes, setting a record that still holds. Writing this book doesn't constitute any sort of record, but I think getting blacklisted by the Guinness editors does!

To prevent this becoming a rather short exercise in 'look what I did', Olmstead gives us a thorough history of the famous, fifty-year-old endeavor that is Guinness World Records (and several variations on the title), which is now published in about forty languages worldwide. It has become the second-most-read book, second only to the Bible. One chapter, plus bits here and there, are a mini-biography of Ashrita Furman, who holds the record for having the most records. Furman seems uncannily able to dash off records such as pogo-stick-hopping up the CN Tower in Toronto or rolling an orange many miles by pushing it with his nose, or carrying a brick (hand downward) for several hours while walking thirty miles or so.

What makes Guinness so popular? In a word or two: Human Interest. Ostensibly about the highest, lowest, longest, shortest, biggest, smallest, fastest (even slowest?) and a host of other -ests, it is about people, people, people, and to a lesser extent about animals and some less animate creations…which are mainly human artifacts. Though the book was set up originally by the brewery whose name it carries, it has long been an independent entity. Recently acquired by the Ripley organization, a publishing rival, it'll be interesting to see how Guinness World Records and Ripley's Believe-it-or-Not continue to coexist, if indeed they do.

What I and the author, and many others, find odd is that so many of the records the Guinness organization collects remain unpublished. Less than a tenth of new records are published each year, along with a few percent of the entire database of old favorites such as the two Roberts (Wadlow the tallest, Hughes the fattest—Actually, Robert Hughes's nearly 1,200-pound weight has been surpassed, so recent editions no longer list him). The privately-held company that publishes the books continues mum on the subject.

Getting into Guinness closes with four Appendices, including detailed instructions for applying to have a record set and recorded in Guinness. The book is a good companion volume to your own set of record books—you do have a few, don't you?

Friday, February 20, 2009

If it isn't Atlantis, what is it?

kw: legends, myths, lost worlds

I heard about this on "Late Night" early this morning. This image, from Google Earth, is located on the sea floor at coordinates 31°20'N, 24°22'W. It is thought by some to be the remains of Atlantis.

Note: I have enhanced this image, by stretching the contrast and lightening, to make the formation easier to see (though it is quite evident without the processing).

Whatever this is, it is large, about 120x120 km (75x75 mi). The "blocks" are thus about ten km wide (E-W), ranging down to half that, and several km in the N-S direction. The width of the lines that look so much like streets is actually greater than the width of most city blocks.

Could there really be an Atlantis? Atlantis was called a Continent by Plato, though the word was not so precisely defined then as it is today. He compared it in size to Asia, by which he meant the peninsula occupied by modern Turkey, AKA Asia Minor. Asia Minor is about 600x2000 km (370x1200 mi). The feature pictured here could represent a major metropolitan area, as it is larger than the Los Angeles metro area. But let us note that the sea floor here, in the abyssal plain, is composed of oceanic crust. It has been sitting right where it is now for millions of years.

It'll be interesting to follow this story…

The morning dipper

kw: photography, astronomy

This morning, I was out very early, and saw Ursa Major high in the sky. I couldn't resist grabbing my tripod and camera to see what kind of picture I could get. I did this very fast because the temperature was 20°F (-7°C), which is risky for the LCD screen in a digital camera. This is a crop from the middle of the image I took.

Particulars: ISO set to 1600, 18mm f.l., f/3.5 (5mm aperture), 30 seconds. I hand-set the lens to infinity, back-setting it from the inner stop a little because autofocus lenses can go "beyond infinity", which allows them to hunt for a focus point at or near infinity. As we'll see below, I still haven't got this quite right.

The red background color is skyglow from the city lights, though I live about five miles outside city limits. This shows that, in my location, the exposure parameters above are the maximum I can accomplish. I need to find a darker location for sky shots!

This crop shows the bokeh circles caused by my being a little out of focus. The upper bright star is Mizar, partly hiding dimmer Alcor. This is the best-known double star, and is a good test of eyesight. The lower bright star is Alioth.

There is an actual benefit to being not quite in focus. True star images are larger than the speckles in the skyglow!

From the number of faint stars visible, I estimate that the image records stars as faint as Magnitude 5 or 5.5; I doubt any 6th magnitude stars can be clearly discerned.

Professional astronomers using film (many still do) will overexpose a plate so that the skyglow reaches a density between 0.5 and 1.0 (Density is logarithmic, so such a plate looks pretty dark, passing between 1/3 and 1/10 of incident light). This serves to smooth out the skyglow to the point that faint stars are easier to discern against it, plus adding a great deal to the amount of light recorded from those faint stars, compared to a shorter, more "aesthetic" exposure.

This is the same as the top image, processed to remove the excess red from the skyglow, so it looks more like what the eye sees (the camera is more sensitive to both red and blue than the eye is). The colors of the stars are still approximately correct.

Without the red haze to distract the eye, I find it easier to pick out the stars. Remember, you can click on any of these images to pull up the larger image behind it.

From the top, the seven "dipper" stars are Alkaid, Mizar (with nearby Alcor), Alioth, Megrez, Phecda, Merak, and Dubhe. A little dimmer, but quite distinct, the three brightest stars along the right side of the image are in the constellation Draco; from the top, Thuban, Kappa Draconis, and Giauzar. Dubhe is seen as yellowish, Kappa Drac and Aklaid as bluish, compared to the others.

I have had the ambition for many years to produce a photographic sky atlas for myself. When comets Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp were here, I photographed them using film with an ISO of 1600, and exposures up to a minute in length. I noticed that the pictures showed quite a few stars that I don't see by eye, even with a rather wide-angle lens.

Fast films are subject to reciprocity failure. I estimate that the actual ISO of the film I was using was 400-600 for a one-minute exposure. Digital sensors have no reciprocity problems, and the amount of skyglow I recorded in a half minute is very similar to a one-minute exposure at f/4 on film, when I shot Comet Hyakutake this time of year in 1996. I think I have verified that I can photograph things I cannot see, so it's time to schedule a vacation to somewhere with a dark sky … during warmer weather!

This is a clip from the CyberSky program, which I used to verify star positions. The colors it shows are exaggerated. I set it to show stars to magnitude 6.0. There are just a few stars in this image which I cannot clearly identify in my photo. This also indicates that I am recording stars to M5+.

Now I just have to get my focusing right!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

In his world the government is redundant

kw: book reviews, science fiction, future fiction

"Welcome, I'm Robert Burger King, may I take your order, please?" Had I written Jennifer Government, which was actually written by Max Barry, that would have been my opening line. Maybe that's why I only write reviews.

So, a passel of cool ideas: Family names have given way to the name of one's employer (I first thought, from the title, that Jennifer was much bigger or more dangerous than the FBI agent she turned out to be). Taxation has been abolished, so even the government must "run as a business"; that leads to painful scenes like a victim's family being asked to pay for investigatory and prosecution expenses. The Western Hemisphere plus Australia & Britain is the largest of three market blocs, while today's "third world" is still as anarchic as ever. Within the American bloc, free trade is freer than ever, complete with corporations that hire mercenaries and wage war.

Jennifer Government, formerly Jennifer Maher when she was in insurance, is caught in the middle of this war. Of course, she gets out alive, as do a few of those dear to her, but the pathway is strewn with bodies. Only one or two of those are her responsibility; NRA mercenaries are much more prolific corpse-producers.

The book jacket blurbs all emphasize the book's humor. There's a little, such as Billy NRA being mistaken for Bill NRA, a much more dangerous dude, though Billy is the one who survives the confrontation. But I was in little danger of laughing myself to death. The emotional roller-coaster never let up, and was sometimes as nausea-inducing as a real coaster. And the book's villain, one John Nike, is the first completely unredeemable character I've encountered. Interestingly, the other major characters are as complex, as good-and-stupid-and-smart-and-bad as we all are underneath. This kind of range is rare in a younger writer.

Mixed feelings on my part. I think I'm glad I read it, but the jury is still out.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Bester's cautionary tales

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

The stories are not simply about wish fulfillment. They involve what happens once you get your wish. The collection is Virtual Unrealities by Alfred Bester, stories selected by Robert Silverberg, Byron Preiss, and Keith R.A. Decandido.

A stack of ideas:
  • Disappearing Act - Some shell-shocked veterans are teleporting in time and space. But are they visiting real times and spaces? Secondary idea, relevant today, AKA Lincoln's Dilemma: Can the republic be saved without destroying it?

  • Oddy and Id - If some people are truly accident-prone, can there be an opposite, a "fortune-prone"? Can there be more than one?

  • Star Light, Star Bright - Can the world survive the childhood of a truly all-powerful genius?

  • 5,271,009 - Can an Artist every truly mature? What would it take to make one do so?

  • Fondly Fahrenheit - A perfect robot among imperfect people…or is it>?

  • Hobson's Choice - If you had to live in another place and time, what would youpick? Would it matter?

  • Of Time and Third Avenue - An almanac from forty years in your future is dropped in your lap. How would you use it? Could you live with yourself?

  • Time is the Traitor - They say you can't go back. If you did go back, are you the same you?

  • The Men Who Murdered Mohammed - An exploration of time as a purely subjective phenomenon, and I do mean subjective.

  • The Pi Man - A Compensator is a device that smooths out glitches. Here, a person is a Compensator for the Universe. It leads to interesting compulsions.

  • They Don't Make Life Like They Used To - The last man and last woman on earth, with rather unexpected results.

  • Will You Wait - Selling your soul to the Devil ain't what it used to be.

  • The Flowered Thundermug - Living out of one's time, a common theme of Bester's. The future has a very weird understanding of its past (today).

  • Adam and No Eve - The last man on Earth, because he wasn't on Earth when his new catalyst released all the nuclear forces in iron atoms. There's more left than I'd expect.

  • And 3½ to Go - An uncompleted story, a fragment that ironically ends, "It's much easier to begin a thing than to finish it."

  • Galatea Galante - Pygmalion with a twist.

  • The Devil Without Glasses -
  • We know the human race is largely asleep to reality. Among those trying to wake us up, which ones are the good guys?

Be careful what you wish for…

Monday, February 16, 2009

Gut is everywhere

kw: rethinking, fear

In my prior post (just below, or click here) I reviewed The Science of Fear, in which Daniel Gardner surveys the conflict between Gut and Head, and the use made of this conflict by media and political leaders. I didn't state it too strongly, but Gardner states a few times that both Gut and Head are located in our brain, just in different brain systems of different evolutionary ages.

Rethinking this, I realize it is not entirely true. Before there was much of a brain, there were glands. They did the thinking for the earliest animals. The brain adds analysis. What author Gardner calls Gut is a combination of the deepest part of the Limbic System and the Endocrine System.

We can see this when we find ourselves in adrenaline overdrive before any analysis has taken place. Some threats seem to go right from the senses to the glands, and we even forget to fear until we're halfway up a tree or well down the road. Various articles I've read over the years show how the endocrine system is actually the fastest, with the emotional brain lagging a little, and the analytical brain being left entirely out of the loop until the crisis is over.

To a significant extent, Gut really is located in our gut.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Dread, terror, horror - pick your poison

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, fear

A story making the rounds sets the scene of a happy day at the beach, interrupted by someone shouting, "Shark!" What does everyone do? Run up the beach to their car, light up a cigarette, and head for home. It is intended to start people talking. How many people are killed by sharks in the US (off its coasts) every year? Usually none. How many people die in auto accidents in the US every year? About 45,000. How many people die of smoking-related cancer and heart disease in the US every year? More than 400,000.

For another perspective, more people ought to take up genealogy. It is interesting to find out about ancestors' families who lived in Victorian or Elizabethan times, or earlier. It's also interesting to see how many children the "average woman" gave birth to. My own family, with four of us boys, was average for the times (1950s), and there were plenty of families with six or eight kids. My grandparents' generation is filled with 8- and 10-kid families, and twelve or more was not a rare occurrence. A closer look makes this not interesting, but appalling. One of my great-grandmothers gave birth to nine children. Three survived to adulthood. Two married and had children. Among the descendants of those two couples, two persons lived into the 20th Century. Then there's a change in the trend: The descendants now number fourteen. What happened? Twentieth Century medicine, advancing to 21st Century medicine. In all my life (61+ years), I've only known two youngsters under five who died. My grandparents knew dozens.

I remember the father of a friend who died in 1967 of "uremia", or kidney failure. Dialysis was not common, and was costly, not covered by insurance (for anyone who had it). I have a friend today who has had a kidney transplant. I visited him at the dialysis center once, before the transplant. Such living is more hoping to live some day. I remember another friend's mother dying of cancer in her fifties. Close to forty years later, in late 2000, I had a worse cancer, but radical surgery plus chemotherapy seems to have cured me.

Such a little thing, a Fiddleback. My first wife suffered a bite from one of these "recluse" spiders, and with medical help, was entirely well a month later. Her doctor said, without the medicines, she'd have healed in about six to twelve months, and had a permanent scar on her leg the size of a football. Unless she died first, which one Fiddleback victim in twenty does unless they are treated. The fact is, prior to about 1950, fear of disease and early death due to bites and other accidents was entirely realistic and justified. Then there are people to worry about. Consider this quote:
Gallup polls consistently find that about 20 percent of Americans say they "frequently" or "occasionally" worry about getting murdered despite the fact that only 0.0056 percent [that is one in 18,000-my insert] of Americans actually are murdered annually. The average American is three times as likely to be killed in a car crash.
(I just looked up some figures. In 2004, there were 16,137 homicides in the US, and 42,636 people died in car crashes. The ratio is 2.6:1.) The quote is from page 192 of The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn't—and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger by Daniel Gardner. The author surveys the results of many, many studies and trends that expose the psychological underpinnings of our fears, particularly the irrational ones. When F.D. Roosevelt said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," he was talking about irrational, unreasoning fear, fear that posed a greater threat to the US than the Depression. If your first impulse upon seeing a fire is to grab yon bucket and throw its contents, doesn't it make sense to first check whether the bucket is filled with water rather than oil?

It is quite settled psychological understanding now that we have two minds, a quick, emotional, rapid-responding mind and a slower, rational, painstaking mind. The most ebullient youngster will sometimes take things slow, think things through and make a rational decision. The stodgiest, most Vulcan-like square among us can jump like an Olympian when the right emotional button is pushed. The author calls the emotional mind "Gut" and the rational one "Head". We frequently find Head and Gut at odds, and the book is about the distressing frequency with which Head not only loses, but fails to put up any struggle at all.

Head may say, "Nothing good happens fast," but at the tickle of a pickpocket's touch, Gut can send you pelting after a thief, not caring whether he might be younger and in better shape than you. Gardner relates losing his wallet in Nigeria late one evening, and his instant decision to enter a slum to look for it, a decision that could easily have cost his life. What did he wish to recover? A picture of his children. Gut had said, "Save the kids!!" and without thinking, he tried.

Why is this? Gut is inherited from ancestors going back to little primates who were easy pickings for most predators bigger than a house cat. Even when apes got to the size of modern Chimps, they were still no match for the average lion, tiger, or crocodile. Instant Gut reactions saved their lives frequently enough to become hard-wired into all their descendants, particularly in us. So what's the value of Head?

Those who live by Gut alone can have no social life. Head allows us to communicate, to plan, to relate to one another and anticipate others' responses. It makes us more than a forest full of hot-blooded apes. The ecology of Chimps shows us how much they gain from being social creatures, and they have only one-tenth the amount of Head-type brain that Humans have.

Sitting on a fence, if you start to slip, a very fast reaction—perhaps a quick grab—will most likely keep you from falling off. That is Gut in action. It is good at what it does. While picking your way across the yard in the twilight, a sharp rustle or snap in the nearby bush can have you on the porch before you know you've moved. That noise probably wasn't a lion, but your reaction to it was pre-programmed into your brain by critters for whom a lion was a high probability. But there are drawbacks.

I worked a few years as an electronic technician. One of my colleagues was quite a practical joker. Almost everyone had fallen for this one: when someone was intently working on a circuit, he'd creep in unseen and make a snap with two fingers of one hand against the palm of the other. It sounds just like a capacitor discharging. The victim would always jump and zip both hands into the armpits (the safest place to have your hands when sparks begin to fly). On one occasion, though, the circuit being worked on was worth thousands, and was broken. The joker didn't get fired, but had his own encounter with a management "lion", who convinced him that jokes were intolerable on the job.

Consider the folks in the beach story. Somehow, the awful carnage on the roads slips below our radar, and the slow death suffered by so many tobacco users doesn't arouse us at all. But a SHARK! Now you're talking about a really awful way to die!! Or are you? I've seen someone going out slowly; I think the shark would be quicker and better, given my druthers.

But the book is about, not just the science of our fears, but the science of Using fear. How many TV ads threaten you, more or less subtly: don't use our product, and you'll have less fun, or get fat, or fail to "hook up", or just DIE. There's no mystery behind all the advertising about cholesterol. Among the three or four risk factors for heart problems, cholesterol is the one we can take a pill for. And the people who make the pills can afford lots of advertising. Guess what the biggest risk factor is? Getting old.

Gotta tell it: One neighbor in Oklahoma was an elderly man whom I often encountered taking walks. He was a retired professor of agronomy, and had been active all his life. He had the best garden in the county. One time I didn't see him for more than two weeks. When I saw him again, he was going slower. He said he'd had a heart attack. He said to his doctor, "Look, my cholesterol is below 120, I walk an hour a day, I don't smoke, I'm thin. I don't have any risk factors for heart disease!" The doctor said, "You have the biggest risk factor there is: you are 84." But there's no pill for being 84.

Merck or Bristol-Myers Squibb don't advertise their pills to old people. The actors are all in their 40s and 50s. And the news media are no help. It is always true that "if it bleeds, it leads". I seldom watch the nightly news for this reason. I don't need my Gut stirred up with an hour of well-crafted, emotional stories about crime, malfeasance, evil politicians, disaster, and woe. And I have an alternate channel ready to watch if an ad comes on that's just too much.

Then there's terrorism. From 9/11/01 and for about a year, it was on the tip of every tongue. Then the fear died down. Not enough to prevent two wars. By the way, I'm still in favor of both wars' early goals. But both have gone on too long. Anyway, terror fear has gone up and down, but it is certain that, if the recent Presidential election had been held prior to mid-2003, Obama would have lost by a landslide, to any Republican willing to shake a rifle, and Mrs. Clinton would have fared even worse, had she been the nominee. But our fears of terror have been replaced by fears of losing our homes, our savings, our jobs and our retirement funds.

Oh, yes, we've gone on since the book was written a year ago. Just yesterday, a quisling Congress voted in favor of the greatest theft in history. This one and its sister theft (proceeds donated to Henry Paulson, and passed on to a huge pack of fools) total $US 1.6 trillion. The money won't accomplish its goal, but it'll make a bunch of people feel better for a while. Meanwhile, middle class America just might get around $400 per person "tax cut", which is really only a one-time rebate. Let's see, 1.6 trillion divided by 3oo million is 5,333 per person. So the "tax cut" comes to less than 1/12th of the total boondoggle.

Neither President Obama nor a single Democratic Senator or Representative was interested in the proverb that Nothing Good Happens Fast. It was just like those time-share condo salespeople, who offer you a "great deal" that is "only good today, right now". Never true, and never worth it.

I used to have a definition of politics, as the craft of forcing people to do what they're probably going to do anyway. I have a new one: scaring them into doing things the worst way possible. As a species, we have a lot more evolving to do.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Today's early sky

kw: photographs, available light

At 5:30 this morning I went out for the paper and noticed that the fast-moving clouds were just starting to get a bit of pink. Sunrise was more than an hour away. I ran in and got the camera and a tripod. The camera is a Nikon D40 with the "kit lens", the AF 18-55mm. It doesn't have indicators for the distance when in manual focus, and it focuses beyond infinity, so I had to put it in manual focus and guess at the setting.

I used Shutter mode and took a 25-second shot. That was overexposed, so I did a second one at 10 seconds, this one. The light in the sky is what astronomers call "civil twilight", when it looks dark to the eye, but there is too much light for good astronomy. You can see a star or two coming through the blue. A look at the larger version of this pic will reveal that I set the focus rather badly. I plan to learn more about setting focus manually before the next such opportunity.

This is the same image, with the gamma shifted to 0.33 and the contrast reduced a little, so that it looks more like what I could see by eye. There is still probably more blue here than I could see, but the pinking in the clouds is about right. The dim light on the house is from a street light across the road. And of course, without thinking I ran out without closing the front door.

I hadn't tried night shooting before. I used to do it with ASA 800 film, but at an exposure of a second or longer film suffers from a lot of reciprocity failure, probably dropping to an effective ASA of 400 or 300. A digital sensor has no reciprocity failure, so I think the top image is a genuine ASA 800 exposure.

I've had ambitions of putting the camera on my telescope's clock-driven mounting and trying for wide-angle star shots. It is definitely sensitive enough to capture views well beyond what the eye can see. I'll have to try it soon.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The mouth of plants

kw: musings, embryology

This morning I did the mini-delivery of the newspapers. A few neighbors have an agreement: whoever gets out first will put the newspapers on the porch for the others. Sometimes the papers get delivered a little later, and my neighbor across the street has gone to work already. Then I do it. Today was such a day. It was nice to be out on a spring-like morning, seeing the just-past-full moon about to set.

I happened to be thinking about plants. A friend of my wife's gave her flowers yesterday. We had them in a vase, and seeing them standing in the water reminded me of something I read a few years ago.

All metazoans, multi-celled creatures, all plants and animals, develop in a similar way. Once the ovum is fertilized it begins to divide. People with great diligence have watched this early development process, carefully noting where the embryo's features are formed, in relation to the original cell. At a certain point, the embryo is a hollow sphere, and then one side buckles in to form the "inside". In animals, this "inside" becomes the alimentary canal. In plants, it is the vascular system. One point becomes the mouth of animals, and that same point becomes the root of a plant. In either case, that particular point is the location where the male gamete entered the ovum.

What I was thinking about was this. The "mouth" of a plant is its root system. Not only does it make sense—that is the locus of intake—but embryology shows it. As I walked down my driveway, I looked at the dogwood tree on the lawn, imagining it as an animal perched on its mouth, sucking from the ground. Then I saw all the little grass plants as tiny versions of the same thing.

I dunno. Is this too nerdy? I just thought it is cool.

Monday, February 09, 2009

The hock shop from everywhen

kw: book reviews, science fiction, science fantasy, time travel

Sometimes I read a story thinking the author bit off too much to chew. This time, I felt that I'd bitten off too much. Psycho Shop by Alfred Bester and Roger Zelazny doesn't quite have the totally breathless pace of old pulp SF, but manages to cover a great deal of ground anyway.

What starts out as a bit of investigative reporting for our hero, Alf, turns into as weird a riff on all possible archetypes as I've seen. Nobody is what or who they seem to be. A most unlikely personage even turns out to be God, or at least the Demiurge.

The idea of note here is that the master of a far-future technology can trade bits of his client's personality in and out, rather more simply than changing a spark plug in a lawnmower engine. And when you're done, you may have started out a lawnmower, but now you can also trim hedges (Oh, what a metaphor!). Most of the creative tension of the novel involves exploring just how far such shenanigans can be taken…including in a very Frankensteinian direction.

Other curious ideas abound. Lots of writers have tackled interspecies romance; these authors attempt to raise it so sacramental levels (can't be done). Many have characters whose repressed memories drive the plot; here it seems to be the plot. But the word "character" is almost violated by the actors in this drama. Almost entirely affectless, they inhabit a story whose narrative tension is carried by dialogue, with hardly a hint of feeling. You know what they are doing, but not what they are thinking. It reminds me of the Foundation novels of Asimov: nearly all dialog, but his robots were more human than the "human" characters. There are no robots here, just cat-people, snake-people (scions of a far-future technology) and at least one people-people.

For a novel about a time-traveler, there is less time travel than any other I know. Nearly all fo it comes at the end. Riding into the sunset is a little hard when the "sun" is setting on the existence of the Universe. So the star-uncrossed lovers manage to sidestep that eventuality.

When I return to mundanity from a time-based fantasy, I always have the same question, that mirror's Fermi's question about aliens: "If time travel is possible, where is everybody?" Don't say it must be too espensive. Everything is too expensive at first, but the price always drops.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Giving a crap about crap

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sanitation, human waste

I know the Rose George would prefer that I use the word s**t rather than crap, but I simply can't do it. Ms George's new book about crap, which uses the s-word quite consistently, is The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why it Matters. To anyone reading this: if it is lunchtime, you may do well to finish eating and take a little stroll before reading further.

What we do, or fail to do, about crap is a measure of civilization. After reading the book, I'd say it is an accurate and quantitative measure. Perhaps it is no surprise that the numbers are falling, not rising. Today's figure: 40% of the human race—that is 2.6 billion people—have no toilet facilities whatever. A term I've heard applied to primitive childbirth is more appropriate to the daily experience of half of humanity: when the urge comes, squat and drop it.

I typically really savor a well-written book; the longer, the better. In this case, I found myself wishing it would all be over. It takes 238 pages of reading to get to the end notes. In the ten chapters, we get a continent-by-continent tour of what is being done to improve sanitation. Again and again, we find the ironic fact that there is often a ministry of water, and often one of water quality, yet there is hardly a nod in the direction of what one does with used water or used food. The keenest measure of water quality is whether you can keep the crap out of it. For most people, to date, it isn't being done.

Indian activist Joe Madiath is able to get people to help themselves by igniting the disgust factor. He leads them to see what they don't see, the amount of feces lying about, an ignored "feature" of their landscape. He leads them to calculate, step by step, the amount produced daily in their village, the various ways it migrates into the air, the food supply, and the water supply. Finally, they conclude, "Each of us is eating 10 grams of crap daily! Not just our own, ten grams of our neighbors' crap!!" At that point, a tipping point is often (not always) reached, and the people of a village will band together to build effective latrines (or build better ones if theyv'e had poor ones), and socially enforce 100% compliance with their use. Once they "get it" that a single open defecator contaminates the environment of everyone, they get genuinely serious about cleaning up the place and keeping it clean.

But progress is slow. Tradition, particularly a tradition as convenient as squat-n-drop-it, is strong. Joe Madiath's grassroots initiative is one of several that might transform India over a century or more, but that is quick compared to government top-down initiatives. The other country as large as India, China, has had more success than anyone else with top-down imposition, but only locally. The fact that one of those localities is Beijing owes most to the Olympic aspirations of the nation. The small successes of China, great though they are compared to almost everywhere else, derive from one factor: Mao instigated them. What he said was what was done, for thirty years, and to some extent, still is.

Even as such slow measures are going on, the "first world" is falling back. Major cities are closing public toilets, finding them harder and harder to maintain. It has been a long time since I saw a public, truly public government-owned, toilet facility (our Americanisms "restroom" and "bathroom" are so wimpy). When I am out and about and need "facilities", where do I go? I have my short list of stores and fast-food joints that have clean toilets I can use, either freely or for the bribe of buying a soda. At least the businesses know it is good business to care for their customers.

The hardest cultures to sanitize are those with little water. Our Western "civilization", built as it is upon the flush toilet, simply cannot be imposed on a place which doesn't have a gallon of water with which to flush every pee, or two gallons to flush every defecation. Various pit composting methods are a requirement, and the jury is still out, whether enough people will be inventive enough to produce products and methods that are cheap enough, and simple enough, and safe enough, for the poorest people in dry places. Yet, as both China and India have shown for centuries, composted crap is a helpful fertilizer, and using it as such saves huge amounts of water.

India is one of the "wet" cultures, meaning that they use a little water to clean up, rather than dry paper as used in "dry" cultures. There is a whole chapter on this. The author mentions several habits of her own that she has changed after researching the book. Whether she, a denizen of a "dry" culture, has become a "wet" is not stated, even though she expresses profound disgust at the way dry paper is used to clean the filthiest part of the body. Let me take a personal digression.

I compromise. I grew up "dry". After cancer surgery that removed half my colon, I became a member of the four-times-a-day club. There isn't enough colon to reliably dry the chyme my small bowel produces and make it into suitably solid turds. Some days are almost as "normal" as my before-operation condition. But usually, it is like having chronic mild diarrhea—and some days I am a fire hose! That stuff is sticky. Dry paper just won't get it off, and I really hate cleaning skid marks off my undershorts. So I began to use baby wipes. Things developed over time; eight years have passed. Nowadays I carry a small pack of moist, flushable wipes. I first wipe two or three times with folded, dry paper. Then I fold a moist wipe once, wipe, fold it and use the fresh surface to wipe a second time. That is usually enough, but sometimes I use a second wipe. Then a bit of drying with some of the dry paper gets me ready to pull up my shorts and get out of there. Even on days when my bowel is behaving very well, this cleans me better than any possible method using only dry paper. P.S. There are flushable wipes made for adults, but they are hard to find and cost four times as much as flushable baby wipes. I'm not proud.

I wonder if environmentalists will ever wake up to the crap situation. It is amazing how much water we waste with our "flushing civilization". Raw waste is too dangerous to put on crops (don't eat salads in China). But properly composted waste is another story. Though some people oppose its use, and it is outlawed in most Western countries, it is a fine fertilizer. By contrast, "sludge" made from composted wastewater solids is too often contaminated by chemicals that have not necessarily passed through humans on their way to the sewage plant. Sludge is also not usually composted sufficiently to destroy all pathogens. Though it is often legal to use on crops, many people oppose its use, and a number of lawsuits have been won by people claiming to have been harmed.

The human race is a work in progress. What we do with our waste stamps us. If there is a galactic civilization out there, I suspect we are labeled, "A civilization in infancy, with slender promise of maturing".

Saturday, February 07, 2009

The best concert for years

kw: concerts, recitals, classical music, piano

We used up most of today traveling to College Park, Maryland to hear our friend Jennifer present her Masters' Recital. In the Gildenhorn Recital Hall she played the following for us:
  • Two sonatas in A Major by Domenico Scarlatti
  • The Piano Sonata in E-flat Major by Ludwig van Beethoven (3 movements)
  • Etude d'execution transcendante #10 in F Minor by Franz Liszt
  • Klavierstucke #1 by Franz Schubert
  • Sonata #3 in B Minor by Frederic Chopin (4 movements)
I was told by a faculty member that the attendance varies a lot, but this one, by filling half the hall, may be a record-breaker. There are a lot of us who love Jennifer and her playing, and will go out of our way (!) to hear her play. But it was not only "distant friends" who came from Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey to this recital. A goodly number of her schoolmates attended.

We rode to and from the campus with friends, which helped make the day even more memorable and enjoyable. Why do I title this "the best for years"? It has been about two years since that last time we heard her play!

Thursday, February 05, 2009

A kink in the ocean floor

kw: oceanography, geology

Now that Google™ Earth has better topography information for the sea floor, I decided to have a look at the "poster child for sea-floor motions", the Hawaii-Midway-Emperor chain of islands and seamounts. Look here for the latest version, which has new tools for ocean floor exploration.

The outlined islands to the right comprise Hawaii. The label shows the location of the Midway island group, and the Emperor Seamounts form the rest of the chain. The chain ends at the Aleutian Trench at the top of the image.

Here is what is happening. There is a "hot spot", anchored in Earth's mantle, over which the Pacific Plate is moving at a rate of a few centimeters yearly. The top of the hot spot is just east of the Big Island of Hawaii, under the newest island, Loihi, which hasn't made it to the surface yet. With its peak (crater) about a kilometer down, Loihi is more than 2/3 of the way up and growing with each undersea eruption. The active volcanoes on the Big Island, mainly Kilauea, are still fed by the hot spot, but waning.

Midway Atoll, a ring of coral islands collectively called "Midway Islands", is about halfway from Hawaii to the kink in the chain. It was atop the hot spot and the active volcanic site more than twenty million years ago. Prior to about fifty million years ago, the Pacific Plate was moving nearly due North. The Emperor Seamounts north of the kink record this motion. The oldest seamount, which is on the brink of vanishing into the Aleutian Trench, is about 120 million years old. Its flattened top is more than a kilometer beneath the surface now. It, like all the seamounts, was an atoll once, but the ocean floor of which it is a part has sunk further into the earth as it has aged and become colder and denser. Between 50 and 45 million years ago, the ocean floor changed direction, so now it is moving about northwest or west-by-northwest.

This is the eventual fate of the Hawaiian Islands over the next few million years: to erode down to the ocean surface, then as the ocean floor slowly sinks under them, to develop coral caps and become atolls, but finally to sink beneath the waves, and after 100+ million years, to be subducted into the Japan Trench, assuming the current motion continues without another kink. They have several thousand kilometers to go, at the rate of a meter every eleven years, or 90 km per million years.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

A snow day for some

kw: snow, beauty

Early this morning, after shoveling some snow, I just had to take a quick photo as the East warmed up toward sunrise. This pic isn't as clear as I'd like, but it is pretty good for handheld 1/10 second.

I feel lucky that we were just on the edge of the storm, and had only three or four inches of loose snow. Not much further north, there was more than twice as much.

There is something so specially pretty about fresh snow on a Dogwood tree.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The journey is the point

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, travel, art, pilgrimages

In the Mojave Desert, about midway between Mojave and Boron, is an eminence named Castle Butte. I have seen it, but never been right up to it…not that I didn't try. It is not hard to get to these days, as suburbs run right up to its base. Forty years ago, there was a maze of dirt tracks. Somehow, no matter which track I took, I'd wind up going directly away from it. I nearly circled it, without ever getting within two miles of it. I sure would have liked to pick over the agates that tumble down its sides. Never happened. So I know how Erin Hogan feels.

Ms Hogan's personal journey "out west" from her Chicago home is chronicled in Spiral Jetta: A Road Trip through the land Art of the American West. Of six places she set out to see, she got to four of them. I haven't been to any of them, though I found pictures of five. The pix you'll find by clicking on the thumbnails below give only a glimpse of five of these large, and quirky, works of art.

The author set out on a trek that was planned for three weeks, with minimum planning. A confirmed extrovert, she dreaded solitude, but chose to embrace it and see if she could learn to live with it. As we introverts already know, that means learning to live with yourself, with no buffer of other people to distract you from yourself.

Getting to the Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, in the bed of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, was her first test. Firstly, it is a couple days' drive from Chicago. Then, there's the last half-hour on a track that tests your resolve to actually arrive. Once there, she found the artwork smaller than she'd imagined, but after a while realized that it embodied a sense of time. It had been built out into the lake, which later rose to immerse it. Recently, the lake has shrunk away and the earthworks are salt-encrusted and stained with red algae. It wears its history like the heart on a callow lover's sleeve.

If getting to her first goal was difficult, the second one proved beyond her abilities. A Jetta is not much of an off-road vehicle, and you definitely get off the roads in the Lucin area, where Nancy Holt secreted her Sun Tunnels. These four concrete tubes line up with the sunrise and -set on the solstices. That means they don't do much of interest for 363 days yearly.

The author, after a couple hours out of cell phone range, and with the ground continually threatening to rip out the undercarriage, gave up, spent the evening at a bar, declined an offer to be shown the way (by "getting out of Dodge"), and spent the night back at Salt Lake City.

Her next assault proved more fruitful. After a serendipitous visit to Hole N" The Rock, she got up onto Mormon Mesa without destroying her car, but found she was trying to navigate on a featureless plain, with the sun right overhead, and no compass. She finally found Double Negative, which was dug out rather than erected by Michael Heizer, a pair of trenches that align with one another across a large gully. From the satellite photo in Google Maps, I was able to scale the distance across the gully at that point: about 800 feet (240 m).

By this point in her trek, the author was getting more comfortable with herself. The landscaped helped. She couldn't avoid its beauty. I've always loved traveling through the desert West, and it just gets you out of yourself.

James Turrell's Roden Crater, in Arizona, was another miss. It is private, open by appointment only, and all her letters, e-mails and calls went unanswered. She drove through the area, a field of cinder cones, but could not tell which one might harbor the earthworks.

Lightning Field, erected under the direction of Walter De Maria, was quite a bit easier. She had an appointment, and they take you in for a 24-hour stay (at a rather steep rate for overnight in a cabin). On the way from the Roden Crater area, she'd picked up a friend who agreed to experience a couple of the places with her. They were housed with three other artistic souls (women 'of a certain age', it turned out).

This field of 400 metal spikes, that covers 0.6 square mile (1.6 sq km) in a regular array, at first seems unpromising. In the high midday sun, you can hardly see the spikes, though they are around twenty feet tall. Sunset, and later, sunrise, provided the show that made it all worth it. For a short time, the sun zinging through all the poles seems to capture most of the light.

Having survived a couple thousand miles of driving alone, an evening in a sleazy bar, nights in various motels—all obtained at the last moment—a brief, depressing visit to Juarez, Mexico, plus wind, sun and rain, the author now had her friend with her, and their shared memory of Lightning Field. They made their way to Marfa, Texas. This has no large earthwork, but it does have several extraordinary art installations, such as Donald Judd's 100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum, shown here.

Marfa is mainly a locale for artistic tourism these days. Throughout the book the author refers to the Dia Art Foundation, which has supported the construction of some of the works she visited. Dia began by helping support Donald Judd's work, but he formed his own foundation after a falling-out (something he did, sooner or later, with almost everyone). Tours of various large-scale works by Judd and others can consume a day or two.

Marfa was the end of the author's artistic pilgrimage. Once you've seen a few larger-scale artworks, art that fits in a "gallery" isn't really the same any more. Sure, it is still beautiful and retains its power to transform, but it is seen as part of something greater. Ms Hogan dropped off her friend at a nearby airport and headed for Chicago, alone. She'd learned to live with herself.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

When you hear The Museum, this is the one you think of

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, museums, natural history, autobiographies

It looks like a cathedral. When it was established in 1887, its aim was to exhibit God's creation in all its glory. Though natural history is not considered a religious subject any more, the collections at The Natural History Museum, London still constitute one of the most awe-inspiring spectacles to be had. There are a multitude of resources that describe the NHM in detail; its Wikipedia article is a good starting point. Also see the article on the British Museum, its parent institution.

My aim is not to add to an already huge mass of words about the NHM and her sister museums, but to introduce a mini-museum of mental images produced by Richard Fortey, the Trilobite Man at the NHM until his recent retirement. Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum is a lovely, cluttered storeroom of the marvelous people and sequestered collections that make the NHM more than a place to see dinosaurs and famous gemstones. It is a great research institution in its own right, with collections exceeding 80 million items and a research library (actually, several thereof) comprising 7 million volumes.

One cannot properly curate such a mass of material in a corner closet. This little map, from the brochure given to visitors, shows only the public areas of the museum. They make up about a tenth of the total hallway/gallery space. Behind numerous doors, a person privileged with a "backstage tour" will find literally acres of galleries, hallways, passages, offices, and laboratories. Dr. Fortey likens the place to Gormenghast, the endless castle of fiction.

Apparently, when the author first began work at the museum, he did quite a lot of exploring, finding his way to the Large Mammal department, the Entomology section, or the Ornithology collections, then having to puzzle his way back to his own office. He is certain that the buildings still house marvels he may never see. Note to prospective travelers: it is quite possible to make a week-long trip to London for the express purpose of seeing the NHM, and not see all of its public displays.

Some of the museum's scientific staff are quite public figures, sociable, amiable, and quite comfortable with popping up in a public gallery to nosh with the crowds, or lobbying the politicos whose good favor is now needed for the voluminous research grants that keep the institution going. Others, and this is the majority, are more private men and (increasingly) women, who identify species, extract fossils from matrix, sort specimens, describe new species in print, spend endless hours amid books making sure one has one's history right, corresponding with colleagues worldwide, and, more and more, writing grant proposals.

For about a century, a museum scientist was a Civil Service employee with tenure and more security than nearly anyone else on Earth. These days, it is publish or perish, pretty much like any professorial post in Academie. But what a lot of curious characters passed across the stage of the NHM in the meantime!

Though there have been rumors of a secret distillery hidden in the full-size model of a Blue Whale, when its underbelly trapdoor was sealed shut in 2007, nothing was found inside but a telephone book and some small change; they were sealed in. The real Dry Storeroom No. 1 is a huge lumber-room with a great many almost-cast-off objects…which is also considered quite a trysting place. One "Whale Man", who was quite expert at determining a whale's age by removing a little bone in its ear, would never attempt the ear surgery when sober.

But I am most impressed with the volume of printed material the institution's personnel has produced. The author writes of this or that polymath, who spent a lifetime preparing a series of monographs on, let us say, a diverse family of snails (gastropods), one which takes up a couple feet of shelf space, and all in quite readable prose. One then wonders how the fellow also managed to become an expert musician or artist, serve on the board of the opera company, and attend every opening of a certain favorite orchestra or theater company.

Finally, the author tells us again and again how the collections and their curators have been crucial in the service of public health or safety—one expert even saved the British Isles from the muskrat. (I'd thought until now that no weedy, pest species had ever been wholly extirpated. It seems we're much better at exterminating the dodos and rock wallabies, but not pesky critters like crow or woodchuck). If there is a Ten Commandments of Museums, one of them is surely Never Throw Anything Away. Access to collections going back five hundred years allows Dr. Fortey and his colleagues to solve taxonomic problems that can be solved no other way.

And this is his true love, taxonomy. What is that? The Naming of Names. If you and I need to correspond about what you might call the Rainbow Serpent, which is called the Shiny Racer in my neck of the woods, only after we establish that both names refer to Serpens iridescens can our work together be meaningful (I made all that up, and I Googled it first, to make sure it didn't exist!). From time to time, re-studying a genus of bats may result in a complete restructuring of their relationship to other bats. That is what science is about; not setting up a standard that can never be challenged, but discerning the way things really are.

While molecular biology is now a big help to taxonomy and systematics (the science of ordering all those species and their relationships), there is still a great need for the "Trilobite Man" or the "Antelope Woman" to study not just morphology, but the life-habit and ecology of all the species of interest, to see how they fit into the fabric of the natural world. Dr. Fortey writes of taxonomists,
Their duty is directed towards an inventory of the biosphere, which now needs their services more than ever before. It is probably one of the better manifestations of what it is to be human.