Sunday, May 31, 2009

It takes big eyes to see fine detail

kw: musings, physics, light, visibility

After reviewing The Lightness of Being recently (post here), I began to consider how it takes such large machines to study the tiniest things. Then I spoke with someone who was asking about diffraction, and I explained that it is a visible manifestation of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.

[Airy Disk, image from the Wikipedia Commons. For a discussion, click here.] This shows the blur circle that results when parallel light of a single wavelength passes through a circular opening and is then focused to a "point" by a perfect lens. The radius of the first dark ring is given by the formula

The ratio f/d is just the focal ratio, or f-number of the lens. What this firstly shows is that the absolute size of the Airy Disk is independent of the size of the lens, for a given ration of focal length f to lens diameter d. Thus, when your camera reports it is using f/4 to record a scene, the smallest dot its lens can make on the film or digital sensor is 2.44 times 4 times the brightest wavelength. If we use 0.6μ (600 nanometers, nm) as the "effective" wavelength for whitish light, that smallest dot is about 5.86μ. Let's call it 6μ. If you work out the uncertainty in the position of a photon that results from a given diameter lens, the Heisenberg formula will give the same answer, about 6μ when the ratio of the lens diameter to its distance from the recording medium is 1/4.

Most point-and-shoot digital cameras these days have pixels of 3μ x 3μ or smaller, which is why these small cameras try to use larger lens openings in the range f/2.5-f/3. The sensors in my digital SLR are closer to 7μ x 7μ, because the sensor is larger. That allows me to use smaller lens openings for some depth of field and still have a lot of detail in the image. This camera is more than twice the size and ten times the weight of a more ordinary pocket camera.

OK, I am getting ahead of myself here. I wrote above that the dot size depends only on the f/number of the lens. That is just the beginning of the story. Let's consider an f/4 system, because we have worked out the relevant figures just above. The blur circle is about 6μ in diameter. The "Rayleigh criterion" for resolving detail states that the center of one spot must be no closer to the center of the next than the radius of the blur circle. In such a situation, one bright center is on top of the dark ring of the next center. Two such spots in an f/4 system are thus 3μ apart.

Now let us consider three possible "eyes" with a focal ratio of f/4. First, we'll discuss a camera with a lens-and-sensor arrangement similar to the human eye in size. This is the situation with many pocket digital cameras. The sensor might record 10 mpx (megapixels), or 3650x2740, and have a size of 6mm x 4.6mm (6,000μ x 4600μ). The individual pixels are only 1.6μ x 1.6μ. The lens focal length for "normal" focus is about the size of the image sensor's diagonal dimension, or 8mm (8,000μ). At f/4, the lens diameter is 2mm (2,000μ) (The lens is bigger than this, allowing it to record images whose blur circle is closer to the size of the image pixels, but it can "stop down" to f/6 or f/8 to exclude excess light or allow greater depth of field).

No matter what the size of the pixels is, the smallest details that can be resolved are in the range of 3μ apart on the sensor. Effectively, 6,000/3 = 2,000 and 4,600/3 = 1,533, such that the true image "detail size" is 3mpx. Only for focal ratios near f/2 can you capture all the detail that sensor can resolve.

Now let us consider a "spider eye", with a lens-to-retina distance of about a millimeter. I picked a spider's eye because it is not segmented like the eyes of most insects, but is a tiny lens-and-retina eye. If such an eye has a lens diameter of 1/4mm (250μ), it will also be able to resolve details that are 3μ apart on the retina. But the largest possible retina that can be kept a millimeter from the lens has a size of less than 3mm x 3mm. Let us suppose the "sweet spot" or middle region is 1.5mm x 1.5mm (1500μ x 1500μ). Let us further assume that the nerve cells in the retina are smaller than 3μ (they are probably close to 2μ in diameter). Then it will be, in effect, a 500x500 pixel array, or about a quarter megapixel. That is sufficiently detailed for many uses, but is actually a bit blurrier than analog TV. Actually, the eye of a real spider uses a spherical lens almost in contact with its retina, so its focal ratio is f/1 or even smaller. This allows for more detailed seeing than an f/4 eye at such a small size, and works in darker environments.

Now let us consider a large landscape camera, of the type often called Graphic; Graflex was a favorite older brand of large camera. These typically were a foot long or more, and recorded on film sizes of 4"x5" (100mm x 125mm) or larger. Such cameras are still made, and some photographers still use large sheet film in them. They make stunning images. One can also get scanning backs for them to record digital landscapes, but they are very costly. How will such a costly system perform at f/4?

Parameters: Focal length about 12" or 300mm, diameter 3" or 75mm. A scanning back or film cassette size of 125mm x 100mm (125,000μ x 100,000μ) is commonly used with a lens of this length. Scanning backs have pixel sizes ranging from 5μ to 10μ, because they have resolution aplenty. A 100mm scanner with a 125mm travel and 10μ pixels will be using each pixel to the fullest. Its final image size is 12,500x10,000, or 125Mpx. That is more than forty times the detail than what we found for the digital camera considered above, and hundreds of times the detail that can be captured by the spider eye.

Now suppose you are using these three systems to look at an object just one meter from the camera lens, and about half a meter (500mm) across. The spider eye will cover the item with 500 pixels (or fewer) each way, seeing details no smaller than a millimeter. The small digital camera will record an image that is effectively 2000 pixels the large way, seeing details as small as 1/4 millimeter. This is about how well your eye does from half a meter away also. The Graphic camera will record near-microscopic details, with 12,500 x 10,000 pixels, recording details smaller than 1/20 mm, or 50μ.

Just considering visible light, it becomes clear that larger cameras are needed to record finer details. To see smaller details than this, or to resolve smaller features of far-away objects, the same principle holds, as I'll get into in the next day or two.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Living inside the parrot cage

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, birds

I've never had a pet bird. Somehow, the thought never appealed to me. Even when a robin or sparrow banged off a window and needed resuscitating, I never tried to keep the revived creature.

Some people want exotic pets; want them enough to break laws to get them. Even when trade in an animal is legal, the constant cost pressure ensures that those who capture wild animals for the "pet" trade are the least qualified. It is amazing that many formerly wild pet animals become affectionate pets. They've typically suffered incredibly, beginning with their capture.

In the case of a blue-and-gold macaw that Nancy Ellis-Bell named Sarah, one foot was lost because it got too tangled in the net, and the captor was impatient. When Sarah became a rescue bird, Nancy was asked to take her in, and she did. The touching story of caring for a parrot so traumatized that she would not tolerate being touched, who had become an infamous biter, but who later came to tell Nancy, at very appropriate times, "Love you," is chronicled in The Parrot Who Thought She Was a Dog.

A blue/gold is a large bird, two feet tall (0.6 m), weighing about two pounds (0.9 kg), with a beak the size of a child's hand—and capabable of removing said hand. Macaws are intelligent and have distinctive personalities. Many, including Sarah, have a sense of humor, and enjoy laughing, either mimicking human laughter or using the quieter parrot chuckle: "Heh, heh, heh".

Typically, when you hear that chuckle, you know it means, "Gotcha!" The author heard it time and again, as Sarah gradually took over the room, the house, the deck, and the yard. "Did I leave that drawer open?…Oops", "Heh, heh, heh", and you pick up the papers (shredded of course) or underwear (not shredded but well strewn) that was therein. And you didn't leave it open; parrots can open anything without a large metal lock. The birds are easily bored, and their attention span and inquisitiveness is stuck at about three years old. Imagine taking care of a three-year-old who lives for eighty years!

When the author and her husband Kerry took in Sarah, they already had quite a menagerie of dogs and cats. Luckily they lived on a big piece of land, but in a small house: there was somewhere for the other animals to go once Sarah became queen of the house. She had the patience and determination of a glacier. Give her time, and she'll mash you flat.

A year ot two later, in a pet store, Nancy saw two cherry-headed conures for sale, smaller parrots, also wild caught. She couldn't resist taking them home. This began to get like the old joke about "my house is too small", "bring the cow and the pig inside", which goes on until you remove all the animals, and the house doesn't seem so small any more. But this family is still gaining animals even as you read this. The story continues.

The conures needed a different kind of care than Sarah had. Renamed Zach and Zoe, they were also given the run of the house, but not allowed outdoors at first. Zach became a shoulder-sitter, but Zoe, like Sarah, shunned contact. And the only time Zoe flew outdoors, she flew right away, and the family was back to two parrots.

The Bells and their dogs and cats found themselves living in a parrot cage (they never considered keeping Sarah in the cage she came in). Even after Sarah was allowed outside, she spent most of her time indoors, particularly when Nancy went inside. Much of the book relates the slow growth of a relationship that developed, so that Sarah came to trust Nancy almost enough to allow contact. The one time Nancy simply had to grasp Sarah and hurry her inside, the parrot tolerated it amazingly well, only nipping once (and drawing a bit of blood).

But if you've been around a parrot, you know they can be very loud. Much of the author's work is carried out over the phone, and rather early on, the bird shouted over the phone call, "Crap! It's all crap!" It took the author a while to retrain her editors and clients to take the parrot's interruptions in stride, and even laugh at them. Her shrieking and screaming were another matter. This was the typical way Sarah reacted to frustration, and on one occasion, led to a neighbor calling the police, suspecting a domestic violence situation. All was quiet when the police came, but they were a bit bemused at the big bird watching them when they came to the doorway.

Sarah did not live the eighty-plus-year span that is possible for macaws. If I get the timeline right (the chapters are not all in sequence), about five years into this saga she flew quite a bit farther than was usual. She'd been confining her flying to the space from the housetop to the lower branches of some nearby trees. This time, she flew nearly to the top of a hundred-foot pine.

She would not try to come down. Though she flew from pine to pine, particularly in response to efforts to either climb to her or cut the tree down, she never returned to the house or yard, and soon died, probably of exposure.

She was barely buried when Nancy got a call from someone who needed a home for a scarlet macaw. Slightly bigger than a blue-and-gold, these are the largest parrots. This bird, named Will, became a bosom buddy of Zach, the bereft conure. So the present count is two parrots in the Bell household, plus a few dogs that replaced the two they had earlier, who were old and have also passed away. And of course, country cats come and go. (Technical note: the images here are stock photos, not the birds from the book.)

I don't think Sarah really thought she was a dog. She clearly considered herself superior to the two family dogs, and almost totally ignored the cats. She did play tug-of-war with one dog, on one occasion, but having gained possession of the toy, she treated it all as "been there, done that" and didn't repeat.

Through it all, the author has tried to give her animals as good a life as her situation makes possible. Staging one or two "get-away days" with her husband kept the environment from turning into one of unrelenting cabin fever. When you live in a parrot cage, you tend to live by parrot rules. They are ill-inclined to live by your rules, of course!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Surviving the death of Earth

kw: book reviews, science fiction, far future fiction

Terraforming Earth, by Jack Williamson: Why would there be a need to terraform Earth? As the second-ever Grandmaster of SciFi tells it, someday Earth will get clobbered by a big asteroid or comet. His someday just comes around sooner.

The comet in the 1998 movie Deep Impact is 11 km (7 mi) across, which is considered big enough to end civilization. The initial impactor of this book—there are more than one, with unknown amounts of time in between—is stated as ten miles across, or 16 km. The Cretaceous impact that made the dinosaurs, and 85% of all animal species, extinct was 10 km (6 mi), so the size is in the right range, except for one thing. The aftermath of the 16 km impact, with about four times the energy of the Cretaceous impact, is described as making Earth entirely lifeless. That's a bit implausible.

Life is tough. Metazoan (complex) life is not nearly as tough as bacterial life, but it is pretty durable. The biggest danger from an impact that doesn't melt the planet's crust is "impact winter" caused by the heavy dust cover that would block the sun for a year or two. Lots of unlikely critters survive the long winters of the polar latitudes.

Jack Williamson's post-impact Earth is running with lava. That would require multiple impacts with objects in the 200 km range. A renewed Hadean Era would last a few tens of millions of years. Those self-repairing robots had better be able to make repair parts from moon dust! With such quibbles aside, what's the story? Pretty cool, really.

A visionary scientist, who is fortunately a pretty good fund-raiser, establishes a colony on the Moon, designed to preserve a cross-section of Earthly life, cultural artifacts and learning. Overseen by advanced robots (I pick the 23d Century for this to be possible), the colony is prepared to clone selected persons and train them to return to Earth and re-establish an ecosystem, and finally to re-populate the planet. All is designed for the very long term.

Everything goes awry when the comet comes too soon, and only a handful of people escape the Earth. Only a fraction of the tissue bank is in place in Tycho Station, and only a fraction of the storage spaces for artifacts and libraries is in use. Nonetheless, there is enough to make an attempt. Beginning some decades after the impact, the clones of five people are "born", raised, and trained for their mission.

The book, told from the point(s) of view of a succession of clones of the colony Historian, follows the staccato journey through time of these five and a few others who are added to them at various stages. In some intervals, thousands or millions of years pass before a new set of clones is deemed to be required by the overseeing computer system. Earth is actually terraformed several times, as successive impacts, unknown amounts of time between them, re-sterilize Earth, fortunately also removing an inimical race of aliens at one point.

Finally, Earth's population clears up the impact risk by developing to the point that their technology can remove all threatening comets and asteroids. At this point, living clones of the original Tycho colonists are redundant, and face an uncertain future.

A yarn like this one makes me wonder, how likely is it that any agency or organization will be able to set up a repopulation colony on Moon or Mars? So far, it takes great amounts of resources for a major nation like the US just to accumulate about a hundred man-hours of Lunar visits: It cost $2Billion in the 1969-73 time frame. That's about $10-20B today, but at a time when there's less interest in doing something like that among the nation's people. We are about to retire the Space Shuttles; in at most five years they will fly no more. No viable replacement has been identified, and it would take ten years to produce, anyway.

Someday I'll gather the data to write a riff on how space has proved to be too expensive for us.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

May you love yourself as much as your dog loves you

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, inspirational

Trixie Koontz has passed on, and her editor Dean Koontz now calls her TOTOS: Trixie On The Other Side. She has channeled her latest book, her third, through his computer: Bliss to You: Trixie's Guide to a Happy Life. It is a delightful, fun little book.

Trixie's advice is simple, so simple we overlook it. I'll leave it for her to tell, as I can't even list the main items without giving too much away. Suffice it that we'd be as happy as our dogs usually are if we lived more in the moment, and she really means in the moment. A sample of dog wisdom: "When you stop to smell roses, be careful not to inhale bee." And near the end of the book, I think it safe enough to quote this:
"To approach bliss, you had to shed idea that life is about you first, had to realize life is about others.

Therefore you have to overcome tendency to think like cat."

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

If we are light, why aren't we shining?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, physics, theories

If you had a fast enough camera, with sharp enough "vision", a snapshot of a proton (the hydrogen nucleus) might bear some resemblance to this artistic depiction. How fast and how sharp? A full cycle (not a rotation but something roughly similar) takes about 10-24 seconds, so the shutter speed needs to be 10-26 seconds or faster, and the size of the whitish enveloping sphere is about 10-13 cm, so the "camera" needs to resolve details in the 10-15 cm range. Strangely enough, that kind of camera would not be really, really tiny; it would be huge. A particle accelerator, which Dr. Frank Wilczek calls a "superstroboscopic ultramicroscope", with a size of twenty kilometers or so, is expected to do the trick: the Large Hadron Collider, which is soon to come on-line. Its detector is not a postage-stamp-size chip like the one in your digital camera, but a complex the size of a five-story building (or several thereof).

Such a "camera" puts the energy of a small stick of dynamite into two clumps of protons (a few million per clump) by zipping them around in a huge circle in opposite directions, and letting them collide head-on inside a building-size detector. The resulting "picture" is not a 10-Megapixel or so image, but a clump of data thousands of times that voluminous, perhaps a terabyte, with which one may determine where the quarks and gluons (see next paragraph) are situated (or were, before everything went Wham). In the realm of subatomic physics, you have to destroy a proton to figure out how it was put together. To get reliable results, you have to do it many times. Luckily, there are lots of protons on hand.

In the image, the three colored globes represent quarks, and the smaller two-colored items represent the appropriate gluons that bind the quarks together into a proton, in this case. Other configurations result in other kinds of particles. The quarks are said to exchange the gluons and thus remain bound together as a proton.

A similar image that showed the particle physics explanation of the binding of an electron to the proton to make a hydrogen atom would show two small spheres of different sizes exchanging a pale wisp that represented a photon, in such a way that they were kept together at a distance about 100,000 times greater than the scale of the image above.

There are two more kinds of binding that we have some idea about. One has its components in pairs rather than triplets, and describes the weak interaction that can change a proton to or from a neutron. The other has, perhaps, a single binding particle, that interacts with both "matter" particles and their energy content, and literally binds the universe together. It is called the graviton. "It" may consist of more than one "thing"…nobody knows yet.

In Dr. Wilczek's book The Lightness of Being: Mass, Ether and the Unification of Forces, he describes the theories behind the understanding of these forces. This popularization of the deepest concerns and strongest theories of physics is written for the educated amateur. I have to confess, I got lost time and again; perhaps I am not a sufficiently "educated" amateur. But I am not totally bereft of understanding. My opening paragraphs outline major elements of the theory of forces, most of which I learned from this book. And the way of thinking and explaining the author uses helped me work out a partial understanding of something I've asked a few scientists about, though none has answered my e-mail.

As simply as possible, I've asked this:
Black holes permit the escape of nothing, not even light (photons), because the gravitation potential below the event horizon of a black hole exceeds the speed of light. If gravity is quantized, and is carried by a particle (which we've chosen to dub the graviton), will not the intense field trap such particles also? If so, how does any gravity escape from the black hole to mediate its attraction for the objects that continue to fall into it, and thus make black holes such as Cygnus X-1 detectable?
I expected an answer that invoked the general theory of relativity, in which gravity is considered a distortion of space-time by concentrations of matter and energy, such that the inertial paths of objects are curved in the way we would calculate for a centrally-directed "force". However, general relativity conflicts with any quantum theory of gravity in which its effect are attributed to particles.

I see that both sides, relativity and my concept of quantum gravity, are incomplete. Regardless of what the relativistic explanation might be, and regardless of how gravitational quanta might be reconciled to it, such a graviton , which I will call the G particle, must have these characteristics:
  • G is a boson, like the photon, the gluon, and the W and Z bosons that ferry the Weak force about.
  • G is massless, like the photon, so it propagates at the speed of light, c.
  • Because both masses and energy are subject to gravitational attraction, the G particle carries no energy, and is thus not subject to gravitational attraction—else it could not escape a black hole.
  • G probably has spin zero, like the photon.
  • Whereas the photon can mediate both attraction and repulsion, because it is subject to (or carries) electrical charge, G is "blind" to electromagnetic forces and to the "color" charges of both gluons (dubbed either r, g, b or r, w, b) and W/Z bosons (with colors g and p, to make them distinct from gluon colors). Thus G can mediate only attraction—unless it is somehow also "visible" to the "dark energy" that is accelerating the universe, and mediates repulsion for whatever it is that the term "dark energy" refers to!
Take this as a somewhat chagrined testimony: There isn't really that much math in the book, but most of the author's math left me in the dust. However, he is a great explainer, and is able to transmit the "shape" of a concept even when you don't grasp the math that he finds so beautiful. Much of the material is based on the discoveries in quark-gluon interactions that led to his Nobel Prize five years ago. His colleague Richard Feynman, upon being asked "What did you do to earn the Nobel Prize", answered, "Buddy, if I could explain what I did in one minute, it wouldn't be worth a Nobel." It takes considerably more than one minute to grasp some portion of Dr. Wilczek's explanations (it took me six days), but I learned enough to understand how it is worth the Prize.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Griffith Park Observatory Renewed

kw: travel notes, sightseeing

When I lived in Southern California I went to the Griffith Park Observatory several times a year to see a planetarium show, and usually to look through their telescope. Late on the second day of our trip (Saturday, May 16), I took my wife there. My brother had returned to his conference on Mayan studies, and his daughter took our son (her cousin) to hang out with her friends.

The park was so full we had to park a half mile from the observatory and walk up. I shot this picture from a spot near where we parked. The small dome on the left (east) houses the "nighttime" telescope, the large central dome is the planetarium, and the small dome at the west end (in front of the main dome from this perspective) houses the solar telescope and spectrograph used in the exhibits at the west end of the building. You can see in the picture that the western dome is open and facing the Sun. The building faces north.

The basement of the building, which used to be inaccessible to the public, houses two new attractions, the Gottlieb Transit, shown in part here, and the Nimoy Theater, which was not running any shows when we visited. We were short of time, so we didn't see any planetarium shows either. We just scoped out the museum and scientific displays on the main floor and the new Gottlieb exhibits.

The planet models seen here are Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune; Uranus is behind Saturn's ring and the smaller planets are off-view to the left. There is an exhibit below each, giving a succinct list of facts about each planet. The dark globe at lower right gives viewers some idea of (moderately) deep space. Seen from a particular angle, one sees the Big Dipper. You can barely see a distorted dipper shape from this angle. The seven bright stars in the Dipper are at quite different distances, so looking at the constellation from different angles you see it as aliens might see it from other parts of space.

This is a replica of one of Galileo's telescopes. It is about a meter long. I was surprised at how small the objective lens is, only about 2 cm (3/4 inch). My first telescope, made at age 11, has a diameter of 7.6 cm (3"). However, this was sufficient for Galileo to discover craters on the moon and the larger satellites of Jupiter.

This is part of a planetary and science history in the east wing of the main building. They also have the "donut hole" from the Palomar telescope's mirror. The entire mirror was polished to perfection, then the central meter was cut out for light to get to the prime focus and other instruments.

Until a few years ago, the "donut hole" was used as an indoor telescope (with a 55 foot focus!) that people could use to look at a small picture of Saturn in the other end of the building. Now it is on display against a wall, and its optical path is blocked by a scale model of the Palomar observatory.

A great uncle of mine was working at CalTech in the 1940s, and was one of the polishers of the big mirror. He and two dozen other men, chosen because their hand temperatures were the same, polished the mirror by hand. In the 1970s I worked in CalTech's Physics machine shop, and did some work that was carried out in the same room where that mirror was ground and polished. I was also working on a telescope, but this one was a radio telescope, made of lots of metal tubes that had to be very exact lengths. It was my boss's job to get the lengths right and mine to fit them together and attach the panels that made the reflecting surface.

The telescope we can look through, opened after dusk most evenings, is larger than most amateur instruments, but not considered all that large. It is 12.5 inches in diameter (32 cm), but is a refractor, using lenses instead of the mirror optics that most amateurs use. It is of superb quality, sixteen feet long, with its main focus f/15 to reduce secondary "rainbow" from its achromatic objective lens. I love looking through it. The beauty of a refracting telescope is that the objective has no obstructions, so images are perfectly clear without spikes or other artifacts. A reflecting telescope's mirror nearly always has a second mirror in front of it, to take the image out to where you can look at it. Light scattering off this "central obstruction" degrades the image a little.

I regret that we only had about 90 minutes to spend at the Observatory. We had a family dinner to get to, and congratulations to confer on our niece, in preparation for her graduation the next day.

Pacific Asia Museum

kw: travel notes, museums

Our second day in California, we slept in, then got together with my brother and visited the Pacific Asia Museum. He's probably the best museum guide on the planet. He has been to museums everywhere and knows his antiquities. He also knows many of the curators. However, Pacific Asia was new to him.

As a geologist and rockhound I was particularly interested in the Jade exhibits. This piece, about a foot (0.3m) tall, is Chinese. Two minerals go by the name Jade, jadeite and nephrite. Both minerals are hard, tough, and very thermally conductive—when you hold jade in your hand, it doesn't heat up quickly, compared to most stones.

Most jade from China is nephrite, while most jade from the United States is jadeite. Nephrite is a little easier to cut and carve, and is sometimes called "soft jade". The green color in this photo is very close to the real color of the stone; jade is famous for being hard to photograph, because its green color is often outside the color gamut of both film and digital imaging.

I once made a bracelet of several pieces of jadeite from Wyoming. My prior experience was making cabochons of agate, jasper or petrified wood, which are all forms of microcrystalline quartz. I was very pleased with the smooth cutting jade. Though it is also of hardness 7, somehow jade doesn't wear out a grinding wheel as quickly as quartz, and the cutting is easier to control.

The museum's collection is very comprehensive. However, because their name is Pacific Asia, they don't include any material from the Americas. That is little loss, because Pasadena is full of museums, such as the Norton Simon and Getty museums, that are chock full of Western art.

The major temporary exhibit, in which photography was not allowed (and I didn't cheat), traces the ethos of Samurai and Bushido in modern Manga, those thick, action-packed "comic books" from Japan that are becoming so popular here. But there were other exhibits from Japan, and my wife (who is Japanese) and brother (who spent half a year in Japan learning ivory carving) had a lot to say!

The most intriguing to me was an exhibit of netsuke, which are little fob-like objects, typically carved from the teeth of whales or swine—you'd be amazed how big a hog's tusk can get.

This is a closeup of a case with eighteen pieces. Though it is not evident in any of these, every piece has a hole in it, for stringing it. Something of value was on the other end of the string, and the netsuke would be slipped through a loop on one's costume, as a holdfast. The string could be used to retrieve the valuable object from a pocket, but guarded it from being dropped.

These days, netsuke (the word is both singular and plural) are valuable in their own right. It takes about 100 hours of carving for a skilled carver to produce one piece, and some intricate ones may take half a year to produce, 500-1000 hours! Good ivory carvers command more than minimum wage, so even a "common" piece will cost you US$1,000, or at current rates, ¥100,000 (The Japanese use a different Yen symbol when writing prices, but I don't know how to show it).

In the gift shop, they had a number of Tibetan singing bowls on sale, with wooden strokers. My brother showed me how to stroke the rim to produce the ringing sound for which they are famous—it is quite Philistine to just ding them with the stroker like it was a mallet. It takes a bit of pressure, and you drag the stroker around and around. Gradually a tone is heard, which can get quite loud with a minute or more of stroking. It is generated by a "circumferential mode", a vibration along the circumference of the bowl's rim. A truly unique sound, and so beautiful I can understand why the bowls are used to calm one's mind for meditation.

If you're ever in Pasadena (my home town!), look up this museum.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A hiccup - and a lecture

kw: travel notes, conferences

I was traveling with wife and son for a few days, and got away just one blog post before the laptop began crashing every time it tried to connect to WiFi. Now that it is working again, I have some catching up to do.

We were in California for the college graduation of my brother's daughter. The day of our arrival, my brother, an archaeologist, was speaking at a conference on Mayan culture. His topic was the ball game Ulama, and its possible significance as a passion play.

Here he is speaking on the significance of the details of this stone ring. He made the case that it represents the eye of a macaw (large parrot), which had great religious significance to the Maya. The written and carved classical Maya language used a great variety of abbreviation techniques. When a scribe had the leisure to do so, he would depict the head of a macaw fully, somewhat stylized. There were several more brief forms, and the most brief was a stylized eye ring with the "dots" representing the nubbly skin around a macaw's eye.

If the ring in the Ulama court represents a macaw's eye, then the game over which it is watching could represent a myth of creation and rebirth. My brother thinks this is why the winner, not the loser, of the game was sacrificed. Just as a Christian passion play is expected to end with the death of Jesus—you don't root for him to "get away"—, because He is going to be raised from the dead, so the Mayan game ended in the death of one or more members of the winning team, and their blood was then used ritualistically to invoke life from the gods. 

The modern version of the game is played, not for life or death, but for status, among the cluster of Mayan communities that still play. I was surprised to learn that scholars no longer think that the goal of the game was to put the ball through the hole in the ring. Many ancient ball courts have no such rings, but all are "watched over" by various figures, usually some kind of depiction of the macaw. The game, like its modern version, was probably played more like volleyball, to induce the opposing team to miss.

It was interesting to sit with him after the lecture as his colleagues came by to either support or question his thesis. It was a quiet way to spend the time after a long day of travel.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Gaining on Insanity

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, mental health, quests

Mental health, or its lack, runs in families. Not all offspring of an afflicted person, or couple, will manifest the disease, but the chances are higher. Being bipolar (thankfully at a moderate level), I recognize that my mother was also bipolar, but my father and brothers seem to be unaffected, and my son is remarkably stable, thank God!

Patrick Tracey is not so fortunate. Several of his family members are schizophrenic, though he himself is not. In Stalking Irish Madness, Searching for the Roots of My Family's Schizophrenia he chronicles the disease in his grandmother, two sisters and an uncle, and his grandmother's great-grandmother. His grandmother was a Sweeney, of a family in which madness is well known, and the earlier ancestor was an Egan, probably the most-afflicted surname. The variant Madigan actually refers to the "Mad Egans".

The author is not schizophrenic, though his writing shows evidence of paranoid tendencies. However, knowing his family history, is it paranoia to decide against having offspring, who'd have a great chance of mental illness? This is similar to a cousin of mine, who had her tubes tied because she didn't want to have offspring who might carry or suffer her extreme allergies.

By the way, not all schizophrenics are paranoid; the designation "paranoid schizophrenic" is a distinct category. Schizophrenics in general are those who are so troubled by various kinds of hallucination that they cannot function normally. Many hear voices, but not all. The afflicted among Egans and Madigans are so troubled by voices that they cannot pay much attention to "real life" around them. The author's sister Austine is almost catatonic, being so overwhelmed with voices that she seldom hears anything else, while his other afflicted sister, Michelle, cheerfully carries on dialog with her voices, but can include "outside persons" in the conversation.

Other schizophrenics see things others don't see, or hallucinate other senses such as touch, taste or smell. In all cases, the diagnosis is typically given when the hallucinations dominate the person's life. Whatever the sort of hallucination, in schizophrenics it rises to the level of obsession, and is typically accompanied by delusional thinking.

Sometimes the delusion is itself the affliction; this is the case with paranoid schizophrenics such as a friend of mine. He is able to function normally for various periods of time, but unless he takes his medications, he frequently "flips out" and may flee imagined persecution. He once held a steady job as an electronic engineer, and was doing side jobs. When he found out that some of the devices he was making were being used for illegal gambling, he became convinced that he was a target of organized criminals, and fled halfway across the country. Later checking uncovered that the supposed "mafiosi" were in no way organized, but were a couple of petty criminals. But he has not moved back, nor has he obtained long-term employment since.

The stereotypical schizophrenic is the raving, voice-ridden "nut" that one might see on a street corner. Considering that one person in a hundred is afflicted by overpowering voices, we all know at least one. However, not all who hear voices are schizophrenic. I'll offer myself for an example. In the hypomanic phase of my bipolar cycle (I seldom experience full-blown mania), I hear voices whenever I shut my eyes, but not with my eyes open. I can seldom understand the words, or at least I don't recall what they say. In quiet circumstances, particularly with subdued light (like a business meeting with PowerPoint in progress!), I tend to drift into a state of lucid dreaming, with both visual and auditory sensations. I can usually tell the difference between such hallucinations and reality…usually.

Thus, it seems Pat Tracey is saner than I, or perhaps more circumspect. Much of the book's content narrates his travels through Ireland, seeking information about his ancestors and their sanity, and the prevalence of madness among the Irish. He is drawn eventually to a well in farthest western Ireland, called Gleanna-a-Galt. Its waters are reputed to heal the mentally afflicted. He gathers some of the water to take to his sisters. He finds that the water contains a high level of lithium. That is known to help bipolar people, and can help many schizophrenics also, so the well's reputation is probably well founded.

When he returns home, he slips some of the water to each sister, but gives no report about its effectiveness. It is sad to think they got no help from it, but it is better for bipolar. Among those I know who have bipolar disorder, lithium salts are the most consistently effective treatment, though the therapeutic dose is a nearly toxic level; it has to be watched. The amount in Gleanna-a-Galt well water is much lower than the amount given medically.

The author's conclusion is that schizophrenia's cause is not wholly genetic, but rather that certain genetic types are more likely to react to stressful circumstances by "flipping" into a hallucinatory state, and they never flip back. I see the affliction in all its forms as several extreme manifestations of ordinary variations of human experience, particularly in the tendency to dream lucidly.

Some people, like my solidly stable wife, seldom remember dreaming in sleep, though sleep researchers assure us that everyone dreams for part of every night's sleep. People like myself dream frequently, often remember the dreams, and may begin dreaming before being fully asleep. Others find dreams popping up while they are fully awake. When such dreams cause trouble, they become symptoms of schizophrenia.

Although schizophrenia means "divided mind", the experience is really one of being divided from common experience, because of the distractions of the hallucination/dream. Dissociation of a personality into more than one seeming entity is a different condition entirely, though it often happens that one or more of the dissociated fragments becomes a distraction to the "main person", leading to a condition that is schizophrenic in effect, whether that is the correct DSM diagnosis or not (DSM is the acronym for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

While Patrick Tracey could not find out everything he sought, nor effectively treat his sisters, he did come to terms with the disease and its history in his family. His trek to Ireland was a kind of flight, and at its end, he is at peace to return home, to help his family cope as best they can with the incurable. While I hope and pray for his sisters, as well as others I know who are so afflicted, I know that the disease seldom leaves, and is quite resistant to all treatments. Pray with me for continued medical progress, and perhaps breakthroughs!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Travel to the smog

kw: travel notes, successes, stereophotography

On the way out to California again, with a much smoother experience this time. I like flying through DFW when going coast to coast, because it makes six hours of air travel into two three-hour legs with a break in between. Contrary to my experience in April, there were no weather problems or canceled flights. When we landed and the plane pulled up to the gate, there at the next gate was our next aircraft. The notice board shown here told it all. I was particularly glad because this time I had my family with me, and shenanigans like winding up at the wrong airport would have caused multiplied stress. Two smooth flights, a nice mix of talking with my wife and son, reading and working crossword puzzles made the day about as good as a travel day gets.

On the way into the Ontario airport, we descended through the top of the smog layer. I remember in decades past this would be very brown or orange, but it is not that intense any more. The two images that make up this pair were taken a few seconds (and thus about a thousand feet horizontally) apart.

I took care to clip these from the original images to show a good stereo pair of the mountains, properly framed. The images are in order for straight-eyed viewing, NOT crossed eyes. Hold a sheet of notebook paper so that it nearly touches your nose, and is lined up with the center, the boundary between the two halves of the image. Relax until the right eye sees the right part and the left eye sees the left part, and the mountains will be in 3D. The foreground will not appear in 3D because it is too close, and most of it moved completely out of the frame.

We landed at midday, which gave us time for a few other events before the day ended, but that is a subject for another time.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Life in the food lane

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, cooking

Moira Hodgson is presently a food critic. I tend to think of critics as professional complainers. However, at least in her book It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: My Adventures in Life and Food, Ms Hodgson appreciates more than she condemns. Having grown up all around the world—her father was in the British Diplomatic Corps—and having learned to enjoy a range of food most folks would find astonishing, she has the taste buds to fairly evaluate just about any cuisine.

When one's earliest memories include being served fine food aboard a cruise ship upon which the family must spend a few weeks traveling half across the globe, one's standards get set quite high, quite early. Growing up multilingual tunes the ear to words as the food trains the palate. Thus, the author's primary vocation has been writing, and much of that writing has been about food, from cookbooks to a recipe column to restaurant reviews.

Growing up as she did, just a few years older than the leading edge of the baby boom, she experienced the forefront of the various revolutions we tend to lump together as "the 60's", societal, sexual, political. She seems as ill-attuned as I am to politics, but social upheaval seemed like home country to her: she'd already lived in Beirut, Saigon and divided Berlin (a few among many), so when Western society seemed to flip upside-down, the skills one applied to moving between countries applied equally well to one's country becoming a very "other" place.

Her relationships with men were as various and fraught as her culinary gyrations. Though she has now settled down with a husband and son, there seemed little likelihood of domestic tranquillity in the first thirty-plus years of her life. Serial monogamy (without benefit of clergy), spiced with side affairs was as much her style as her men's.

Her extraordinary life story is wrapped around food, however, and this is her life's love and life's work. The book includes 28 recipes, the most eclectic collection I've seen, from Steak Tartare or Chilled Lemon Soufflé to Lamb Tajine with Green Olives or Wonton Soup (of a sort quite different than you'd make from the recipe on the Wonton skin wrapper). The earlier privations of postwar England are reflected in recipes for Wartime Sponge Cake (which contains dried egg) and Wartime Cream (which contains no cream).

When I'm asked where I grew up, I usually reply, "All over the place," though the "place" I mean is the United States. Ms Hodgson really did grow up all over the place, that place being the Northern Hemisphere. She has some statement about being south of the Equator in Saigon, but that city is firmly North, by almost eleven degrees. Singapore, a port of call if not a residence, is quite a bit closer, being one degree North. Such quibbles aside, it is an extraordinary and enjoyable read about an uncommon life.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

kw: musings, technology, computers

On a colleague's bookshelf I saw a copy of Managing Gigabytes, by Ian H. Witten, Alistair Moffat, Timothy C. Bell, and I couldn't resist a look inside. Published in 1994, the book is primarily about data compression techniques and indexing of large data collections. Just fifteen years ago, a few Gbytes was "large". It got me thinking.

In 1994 the PC I was using had a 500 Megabyte hard drive. A few years later I added a second drive with 2.5 Gigabytes (The current version of Windows won't fit on a drive that small). Some time ago I removed the hard drives and consigned the rest of the computer to a recycle bin. The home computers I have used line up like this:
  • 1979-1980 - Tandy TRS-80 that used an audio tape for data storage. It belonged to a student who worked for me. I used it as a virtual terminal, connected to a projection TV, to teach FORTRAN programming. It took about a minute to load the program from the audio tape. I don't know what amount of data the tape could store. A few dozen Kbytes, most likely. At that time, the mainframe computer that I used at that University had two disk drives the size of washing machines, that held 100 Mbytes each. A third drive used removable disk packs that could hold 50 Mbytes. I still have one in a closet.
  • 1981-1987 - The first computer I owned was a Texas Instruments TI-Pro. It had two 5¼" floppy disk drives. Each held 360 Kbytes. A 10-Mbyte hard disk drive would have cost another $1000 so I passed on that option. I would put a disk with WordPerfect in one drive and a data disk in the other to hold my word processing files. A similar procedure was used for any program I wished to run. I had a large box full of software disks. During this time the University got a new mainframe, with disk drives that held 640 Mbytes each, five of them. This was a 3.2 Gbyte data store! In 1987 I gave the TI-Pro to my dad so he could learn to use e-mail and basic word processing. He used it for about five years.
  • 1987-1995 - I got an Acer "PC Compatible" that had a turbo mode of 10 MHz. Its disk drive was 40 Mbytes. This one has also been sent to recycle, after removal of the disk. I never recycle those! At this time, I was working for an oil company as a supercomputer systems analyst, and they had a huge data center because of the data-intensive seismic processing data they had to store: hundreds of tapes and dozens of large disk drives. This was the first multi-Gigabyte datastore that I ever managed, starting eight years before Managing Gigabytes was first published.
  • Shortly after moving East we bought a computer for my wife, a HP with a 30 Gbyte disk.
  • In 1999 I replaced the Acer with a Dell that had a 40 Gbyte disk. The HP fell out of use about 2003, though we still use it on rare occasions. I still use the Dell, though it takes considerable management to keep it running. There are so many patches to that version of Windows XP that it runs quite slowly.
  • In 2007 I bought a 120 Gbyte external disk for the Dell, to which I moved the larger datasets, such as my 6 Gbyte music collection and about 7 Gbytes of photos. I do not use mainframe computers at work any more. My work PC is a laptop with an 80 Gbyte disk, which is now four years old. It accesses about a Tbyte of networked disks, where I keep all the data files for my job (a few hundred of us share the main "personal" drives).
  • I recently bought a Lenovo laptop, on which I'm writing this. Its disk is 160 Gbytes. My son has a slightly smaller capacity laptop we got him for college a couple years ago. He has bought a 500 Gbyte external drive for it. His music collection is much larger than mine. These days a 1 Tbyte disk is less than $100…
A quick search online located numerous web sites with articles titled "Managing Terabytes" (mostly dated around 2002) and "Managing Petabytes"; a Pbyte is 1000 (or 1024) Tbytes. The next prefixed level is Exabyte (Ebyte). The Google Earth photo archive is probably a large fraction of an Ebyte. I don't know if it is the largest private data store on Earth, but I think it likely.

Only one entity is likely to have more data on hand than Google. We used to joke that if an infinite-capacity "God-disk" were ever invented, the government would order two of them. These days, many large corporations, Google in the forefront, would also be lining up to buy rooms full of God-disks.

Monday, May 11, 2009

One shovelful at a time

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, lexicography, memoirs, obsessions

In a dearth of faith, how is one to move a mountain? One shovelful at a time. Depending on the "mountain", I suppose we are fortunate that this or that person might find such shoveling enjoyable: it is a tough job, but someone has to do it.

As to obsessive reading, the "shoveler" I have in mind is Ammon Shea, who has read through the Oxford English Dictionary (the OED), as he writes, "so that you don't have to." The OED has 21,730 pages and nearly sixty million words of print. To read it in a single year, one must read 418 pages each week: nearly sixty pages every seven days or more than eighty pages daily if one takes weekends off…and those are rather large pages!

Shea finished reading through the OED in July, 2007. Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 pages is his memoir of the experience, with a nifty sampling of words that struck his fancy. During that year, his eyes got worse (he had to procure eyeglasses after the first few weeks), his skin got paler (ten hours daily in a library basement), he became composed of coffee (a quart or so daily), and he learned that blinding headaches do eventually go away. And, he writes, he loved the experience.

I sympathize with him about halfway. I do read dictionaries and encyclopedias for enjoyment … from time to time (There is one dictionary that I have read from cover to cover, but it is far smaller than the OED). It seems that at least for the past ten years, Shea has read nearly nothing except dictionaries. His girlfriend is a professional lexicographer. He has a collection of hundreds of dictionaries, and is in awe of an older friend named Madeleine who has thousands.

It is the existence and work of people like Alix, the author's girlfriend, that makes this all possible. The oldest half or better of the OED is the work of James Murray, who famously defined a lexicographer as "a harmless drudge." Thirty-four years of his life, and a much greater sum of years for hundreds of other people, went into producing the massive, twenty-volume work (to find out more, see The OED Online. It is not free to use, but a "word of the day" is offered freely; today's word is downthrow, whose current meaning is overthrow or usurp, except in Geology, where its meaning is more literal. They have, literally, a million more where that came from).

Let's see: iatrogenic, impedimenta, matutinal, painstaker, peccability, recrudescence, sitzfleisch, upchuck, wailer, xerostomia. These ten comprise a few percent of the "interesting" words that Ammon Shea has offered up, with short definitions and his own quirky commentary, to accompany each of his 26 chapters. These ten are all the ones that I already knew.

I cannot say that now I have learned a few hundred new words, for two reasons: Firstly, many of the words denote stuff I don't think of as needing a word. For example, nefandous means "too odious to be spoken of". When "the kid" points and says, "What is that?" we don't reply that it is nefandous, we say, "Hush, it isn't polite to point," or "I'll tell you when you get older," hoping the tyke will forget all about it. Secondly, many, many words are so out of date they haven't been used for generations and some have been replaced. A great many are rather forgettable anyway. Thus, nobody today mentions charientism, since tact is now current, and is loads easier to pronounce.

This points up the greatest attraction and value of the OED, and why it should be taken in larger amounts than just looking up a definition. It is a historical record of hundreds of thousands of words, whether current or not, particularly of how each has been used throughout its history of usage in print. While upchuck is a mere fifty years old, mumpish was used for being sullenly angry for some three hundred years before being replaced by sulky a generation or two ago, and many a word still in use, such as amorous, is little changed from a Latin word of twenty centuries past.

Shea mentions that seven words are defined as hiera picra, with no further explanation. I hope he has since found that this term means "priestly bitters" and refers to a certain type of traditional medicinal dose.

Now that he has finished reading the OED and written this enjoyable book about it, can you guess what he'd like to do next? You got it: to read it again, but more slowly. His web site doesn't mention if he's doing it.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Weirdness winding down

kw: book reviews, continued review, story reviews, fiction, fantasy, horror

The third and fourth (final) sections of The New Weird are titled Symposium and Laboratory. Three of the five pieces in Symposium are essays, and the other two are discussion threads. All revolve about "What is the New Weird?" This is a clear indication that, if New Weird ever existed as a unified genre, that is over. Based on my own understanding of the fiction collected for this volume (see the prior two posts), the rubric is struggling to include material that is not always new (in tone or goal) nor weird.

In an old Pogo Possum panel, Howland Owl is holding a book titled "Nuclear Physics". He remarks, "New Clear Fizzix? 'Taint New, 'taint clear…" he drops it into a bucket full of water and adds, "And nary a fizz!" 'Nuff said.

Laboratory is a seven-part, seven-author continuing narrative. I think of Weird as having a supernatural or fantastic or at least occult element. The "weird" in this case is more "unsettling", such as the locust-worshipping cult, some of whose devotees implant living locusts under their skin, or the parasitic Salps, which seem strange but whose life cycle is an enlargement of several kinds of small parasitic wasps. The denouement, which I cannot really call an ending, seems to be a thermonuclear blast, though the description is an attempt to make it more eerie than that. In sum, this is more akin to the segment on some showings of "America's Funniest Videos": "Weird Enough For Ya?". No, not really.

In the book as a whole, I liked quite a bit of the fiction. Some I definitely didn't like. The volume is a fine attempt by the VanderMeers to gather together threads that bear at least a glancing relationship to the quite diverse meanings of "weird" (my big unabridged dictionary lists seven senses). However, it is a bit like herding squirrels.

Friday, May 08, 2009

I thought I was wired, but I was just weird

kw: book reviews, story reviews, continued review, fiction, fantasy, horror

Almost half of The New Weird is taken up by the section titled Evidence, containing nine selections. The last of these, "The Gutter Sees the Light That Never Shines" by Alistair Rennie, opens ugly, and a bit of hopscotch convinced me it gets uglier, so I didn't read much of it. There is enough ugly in my soul already; I don't wish to add to it.

"Immolation" by Jeffrey Thomas could have got quite ugly, but instead ennobles the unloved, producing a story of friendship upon a background of betrayal. The idea that clones become nth-class citizens is not new, but is freshly portrayed.

"Jack" by China Miéville balances a rather horrifying portrayal of novel bio-engineered "punishments" with a tale of the regard an enforcement officer has for his quarry, based on the maxim, "If we didn't have such enemies, we'd be forced to invent them."

"The Lizard of Ooze" by Jay Lake seems to have begun as a riff on "The Wizard of Oz", that ran away with the writer's imagination. Stripped of its weird and speculative elements, it is a story of deception and conflict, with a typically against-all-odds success for the (almost) good guy.

"Watson's Boy" by Brian Evenson and "The Art of Dying" by K.J. Bishop both manage to go nowhere artfully. The first narrows the characters' world down to nearly featureless corridors to explore the resulting obsessions, and the second puts a story of unwitting sacrifice upon a backdrop of professional assassins' territory.

It took a while to think through "At Reparata" by Jeffrey Ford. Reparata is a kingdom built on caprice, supplied by unearned wealth, which is ravaged and eliminated by a magical moth made of the king's grief. It's an odd combination of lyrical and pulpish narrative styles.

Letters from Tainaron by Leena Krohn is pure description, and a part of a larger work. It almost stands alone, but makes more sense as a descriptive sideshow for the novel. The letter-writer describes interacting with "men" and "women" who are really insects, millipedes and other invertebrates. But all this is by implication; nowhere is a certain beetle-man, for example, called so, though his antennae and jointed limbs are depicted. This is a showcase of descriptive text, which I understand is a defining characteristic of New Weird.

"The Ride of the Gabbleratchet" seems also to be a part of something larger, though it seems the rest of the work is as yet unproduced. "Ratchet" is an old word for bloodhound, because of the hounds' voices, and "Gabble" is a corruption of Gabriel, whose trumpet knells the end of the world. So these are the Hounds of Hell, though in this instance they are space/time/dimension-hopping horses and riders a bit more ghastly than "the Devil's Herd" from "Ghost Riders in the Sky" (the song). The story line is successive escapes with the aid of a collective being called the Vermiform, also a dimension-hopper.

This ends the explicitly fictional sections of the book. The two smaller sections that follow are (1) essays and (2) experimental excerpts…or so it seems.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Is it just me, or is it weird out today?

kw: book reviews, story reviews, fiction, fantasy, horror

An image of one of Mike Libby's Insect Lab creations adorns the covers of The New Weird, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. I didn't know there was a new weird. In the overly long introduction, Jeff V. belabors the death of the Old Weird, exemplified by H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, and the arising of the New, among writers whose work is exhibited in this volume.

Starting in 1967, at a lonely period of my life, I went to the local library, found the Science Fiction section, and checked out the first five books. A few days later I brought them back and checked out the next five. This went on for months until I got halfway through the L's. The first story I read by Lovecraft spooked me so badly that I got quite a bit more selective and began to read the blurbs in the book jackets. Fortunately, I had Doc Smith to look forward to (hear year's end), whose over-simplified space opera was just what I needed. Since those days I have avoided the sorts of material one finds in Weird Tales and similar rags.

Though "Weird", new or old, encompasses horror, that is only a small part of its territory. The necessary element is the supernatural, or at least the unexplainable. Much horror writing, then, does not fit in the Weird bailiwick, and vice versa.

I have, so far, read the first section of The New Weird (it's a big volume), titled Stimuli. Of the six stories in this section, "The Luck in the Head", by M. John Harrison, is all style (overwrought style) and no substance; it goes nowhere and leaves its protagonist as empty as he began; "In the Hills, the Cities" by Clive Barker starts out as overly-erotic fantasy, so I skipped it; "Crossing into Cambodia" by Michael Moorcock is an exaggerated soldier story, speculative fiction of global war and nuclear exchange but no particularly weird element; and "The Neglected Garden" is straight supernatural horror that I skimmed, very lightly.

"The Braining of Mother Lamprey" by Simon D. Ings is of more interest to me. It explores the world after a Change that inverts much of the natural order of things: science doesn't work any more, magic does; spontaneous generation is the order of the day; and children are born precocial instead of altricial (they can take care of themselves) and are exiled to a fenced region to duke it out…those who survive until they are tall enough escape over the fence into the Adult world. The protagonist is faced with a dangerous dilemma and a deadly opponent. In a triumph of magical ju-jitsu, he exploits the weakness hidden in his enemy's strongest talent.

Finally, "A Soft Voice Whispers Nothing" by Thomas Ligotti also doesn't seem to go anywhere, but it did remind me of something. The protagonist moves from a somewhat ordinary place to a city "in the north" that is predominantly gray. The language loses color with the progress of the story. This was a device used by Albert Camus in "The Stranger", which also goes nowhere, but leaves the reader with a certain sympathy for a suicide, though Camus's protagonist is effectively committing suicide by judicial process.

In the three images above, one has exaggerated color saturation and one is nearly grayed out, but not completely. The closing sentences of "Soft Voice" bring back a hint of literary color, just as seeing a low-saturation image a few times will make it seem more colorful. To many people, who don't pay much attention to what they see, the third image above might seem quite normal. One expects the story's protagonist will not live long.

I'll continue piecemeal reviewing as I read them.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Sometimes, single is as normal as you're going to get

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, family relations

A South Dakota rancher told me of one of his neighbors, a woman and her mother who were running a substantial spread. He said men didn't tend to stay to long in that family. The latest, the younger woman's husband, was a nice fellow who liked to drive around and "look over the place," but didn't really do much. "She just sorta kept him as a pet until she was done having children," he told me, "then the man went his way." This sort of story underlies Garrison Keillor's tales of "Norwegian bachelor farmers" and their alleged fear of marriage, and his description of Lake Wobegon as a place "where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average."

A similar trend can be seen in The Mighty Queens of Freeville: A Mother, a Daughter, and the Town That Raised Them. Amy Dickinson's memoir of a life anchored in the very real Freeville, New York focuses on the many women of her family and their tendency to live their lives without men around. Not that they don't get married. The marriages just don't seem to last. But the women last; they survive, they prevail, and they mostly raise their kids alone…alone, that is, if you ignore the close-knit web of mother, aunts, sisters, and female cousins that sustains each of them. The author describes the frequent get-togethers as "continued conversations that started decades ago."

A few of the marriages do last. One great-aunt and her husband had been together almost seventy years by the time the author's daughter began college. A few others had hung together, enough to give a ray of hope to the women on occasion.

This is mostly a story of Amy Dickinson's life as a single mother: more than fifteen years raising a toddler to young womanhood, then seeing her off to college. She had picked a man with little real interest in being a father, and only a passing interest in being married. Once he left, she prevailed, as her mother had. When her own father simply wandered off one day (Amy was twelve), her mother had to support the family. When the youngest went to college, the mother went also, eventually becoming a college professor. She's the first to admit that, had her husband stayed around, she'd still be living in a trailer, living on the edge of poverty. Amy prevailed by becoming a gifted writer and speaker. If you've heard of her, it may be because she has been "the new Ann Landers" for some five years now, and is heard on various NPR programs.

This is also a memoir of the author's daughter Emily. Though the two women have quite different temperaments, they attained a comfortable, friendly relationship that must be the envy of many a mother with a rebellious daughter. Though the author presents herself as a bit of a panicky worry-wart, she has managed to gather the composure to take a few risks, such as turning down the first writing job that was offered her, for it was a higher-stress position than she cared for, even though she desperately needed the money. She was soon offered a more suitable job, and managed to bypass much of the "pay your dues" work entailed in the normal path to the title of Columnist.

Emily has this kind of composure in spades. Single moms struggle to shield their children from the unpleasant realities of "broken homes." Though Amy tried dating a few times while raising her, she shied away from prospect after prospect. In this she was wiser than many, who risk their children's well-being by getting re-involved rather too quickly. Emily took all this in stride. When, after Emily had been away at college for a little while, Amy re-connected with a man she'd known "for ages", who was now also single, Emily's response was "Hubba, hubba!"

This isn't Lake Wobegon. Amy, having become one of the strong women, is ready to take a man, not as a pet, nor as a dominator, but as a partner. It seems she isn't nearly so panicky any more.

Monday, May 04, 2009

A crisis by any other name...

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, aging, aging gracefully

When I saw The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk and Adventure in the 25 Years after 50, I snatched it up with high hopes. Having already learned by experience that people tend to experience some kind of self-reinvention about every ten years beginning at age 35, I hoped to learn more of the particular drives, risks, and opportunities that occur at ages around 55 and 65. I hoped to learn why so many are saying "Sixty is the new thirty" and why my experience doesn't square with that Pollyanna-ish assessment. I hoped to find what it is that is unique about "late middle age", for those of us who aren't quite ready to admit to "eldership" yet. Those hopes were only partly realized.

The author, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, already at the height of a distinguished career, in her own "third chapter" of life, having eight well-accepted books already published, interviewed forty people of ages between 50 and 75. Considering the number of quotes and references, she must have bounced a lot of this off of her friend, the cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson.

She states, both early on and in the conclusion, that her forty subjects are all privileged people, and that their experiences may not apply to those who still have to worry where grocery or rent money may come from. Being a person who would most definitely retire if he could afford to, I found that unsettling. Having only recently been able to re-invent my job to better suit my changing (growing?) personality, I'd still prefer a more definite break, a more sweeping revamping of my surroundings.

To avoid the extra-long moniker of "Ms Lawrence-Lightfoot", I'll take the cheeky presumption of using the author's first name. Sara is very thorough in her approach, as any good sociologist ought to be. It is more thorough than I could easily bear. I'd hoped for a forty-fold "Dutch uncle" talk, the words of wisdom distilled from forty lives. What I got was tiny excerpts of what they had to say, longer narratives of their mannerisms and chosen surroundings, and much, much longer disquisitions by Sara. I felt that each snippet was analyzed to death.

Granted, many of the participants found it hard to put into words, the new styles of learning that they had each developed, independently and personally. Each had been driven, often by ennui, to learn new things, accept new challenges, and enter new arenas. Perhaps their "words of wisdom" would have meant little to anyone other than themselves. I still wanted to hear them try, and I didn't.

I suppose there are many readers who will find this book more congenial than I did. It has an undertone, a combination of new-age pseudo-spirituality (or even anti-spirituality) and a fondness for progressive political activism, that I find quite abhorrent. This is coupled with a certain attitude of "Isn't this just to cool!", to which I often replied inwardly, "No, not really."

It would be an oversimplification to aver that Sara's forty subjects are reacting to imminent mortality by attempting to leave some permanent stamp on the world. Though it is certainly true in a few cases, in most there is much more of one or both of these: "I want to experience what I've ignored for the past 30-40 years," and "I may be just one person who can't make that big a difference, but I'll never forgive myself if I don't try." Therefore, the two biggest themes to emerge from their experiences are Art and Political Activism.

I have a couple of, not counter-examples, but sideshows to all this:
  • My good friend R—, retired from blue-collar work at age 62 and now 67, is seeking to "find his place" in the Christian community as more than a "consumer". He is at his best in one-on-one situations, and he is living the frustrations of someone with a well-developed White Knight Syndrome who is learning when his help is needed and appreciated and when it is not. He is growing and learning, mostly the hard way, but that's the best way.
  • My father, at age 87 firmly into the Fourth Chapter, was a business executive whose employer was bought out and shut down, so he was out of work at age 52. He spent the first half of his Third Chapter in business for himself, and succeeded quite well. He had two passionate hobbies in this forties to his early seventies: painting and the collecting and repair of antique clocks. When my mother needed full-time care, he learned nursing and took care of her until it became too demanding and he had to hire additional help. After she died, he soon found a congenial travel companion, and they married some time ago. I have some of his paintings and clocks; he has given away or sold most of the ones my brothers and I didn't take. He doesn't paint any more, though he is willing to fix a broken clock for a friend. He likes seeing new things, expecially by traveling.
  • When we moved away from Oklahoma a decade ago, we lost contact with T—, who married for the first time at age sixty, and had six children by the age of 68. Though at age seventy he looked older than my father does today, he was holding two jobs and always looking for an "angle" for making money: an oilfield venture, or a business to operate. I am told he is still going strong in his early eighties.
All three of these men still have their worries about money. My father is the most well-off of the three, but still rations his travel time, to avoid the "terminal pauperism" of outliving his retirement funds and leaving his wife destitute after his passing. These men only partly fit into Sara's framework. Though she takes a more free approach than other sociologists, seeing more layered experiences and more overlap of "stages", there is still a framework there that fits some people and not others.

What she has produced is an approach to understanding the "later-than-midlife" crises that arrive at ages after fifty. I do know people who match her thesis very well. Many of them partake of various "Institutes of Lifelong Learning" at colleges in the area (particularly the ones that are tuition-free!). Others are busier with their "retirement" than they were when at work, learning by sweating, so to speak.

Being nearly twelve years into my Third Chapter, where do I fit in, if at all? I'd like to retire, and I was close to doing so when the current economic troubles began. My ideal retirement situation? First, half-time work either as a science instructor at a junior college, or gathering more music students, particularly if I can attract intermediate students who want to learn the folk genres in which I specialize. That could pay enough of the bills that I wouldn't need to "hit" my IRA and 401K. The other half of the time, I dream of seeing all of America's national parks (that includes Canada, at least). I'd probably find it rather fun to participate in a Lifelong Learning program, maybe as both a learner and a teacher, which many do. I've carried on private studies in subjects of my own quirky interest since my forties. Taking actual courses in some of them is an attractive option.

What are we to do with the third chapter of our lives? Far from dropping old passions and moldering in a rocking chair, we are most likely to trade new passions for old, to learn because it is fun to learn, and to restore those corners of ourselves that we've neglected because we were "making a living". If some want to get back out there and "change the world" some more, that is worth a try. For me, if I change myself, the change in me will change others. That's good enough.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Saturday at Rockwood

kw: travel, sightseeing

Saturday afternoon, after the rain had stopped for a while, we visited Rockwood Park, home of the Shipley Mansion, which houses the Rockwood Museum. We've visited before on a couple of occasions for the Ice Cream festival, and had one tour of the mansion. This time, we walked the grounds. I was scouting photo opportunities, because I plan to lead a field trip for a Photography class in July, and this is one place that the grounds are free.

Shipley Mansion at Rockwood Park

The mansion is quite impressive. But I discovered something several years ago when I took my parents on the tour here in the morning, and to Winterthur (the biggest DuPont mansion) the same afternoon. Captain Shipley was decidedly rich. The DuPonts were filthy rich!

HaHa (Recessed Stone Wall)

The Shipley family and those who followed produced an English landscape garden surrounding the house. The landscaped grounds and those further away, left in a more or less open meadow condition, are separated by walls recessed into the land, called HaHa's. The walls can be seen when looking toward the house, but from the house and yard, they are not seen, and it looks like unbroken landscape.

Wisteria Growing Right Up the Trees

There is only one small area of formal garden, in an area that used to be the kitchen garden. the few flowering plants there were not yet in bloom. Dogwoods were the main flowering plant to be seen elsewhere; Landscape gardens are not known for floral beauty, being composed of trees and shrubs. One of the few kinds of flowering plant in bloom, this early May day, was Wisteria. There are a few wisteria vines used on trellises near the house and the carriage house. In one area to the southeast of the main house, wisteria vines have climbed up the trees, reaching fifty feet or more. They are the largest wisteria I've seen anywhere.

I was told by a docent that there will be almost nothing in bloom in July, but that many of the plants in the conservatory will be set out during the summer. There are a number of unusual species, so perhaps we'll have a few exotic views. The main photography venues I could discern for the moment are the house and the various landscape views. No doubt there will be more intimate views to be had; there's no telling what a van full of avid photography students can discover!

Friday, May 01, 2009

Getting to see him perform

kw: local events, concerts

Last evening (Thursday 4/30) we went up to Rutgers (New Brunswick, NJ) for the Concert Band's Spring Concert. Our son is the Marimbist and sound effect specialist in the Percussion section. During the evening, he played bass drum about a third of the time, but also marimba, vibraphone, xylophone, chimes, upright bells, and several kinds of sound effects devices. I was real proud; he seems to be their most versatile percussionist.

Nicholson Music Center is a lovely venue on the Douglas Campus, one of five campuses that make up the State University of New Jersey's New Brunswick/Piscataway facility. The auditorium looks like it seats about 500, but is designed to seem much more intimate. We had good seats, about halfway up near the center. Before the performance a taped announcement advised us not to record or photograph the performance. I wasn't too bad a boy. I took only 24 photos, and I didn't use flash.

The Rutgers University Concert Band was joined by the Mainland Regional High School Wind Ensemble. This pic shows the combined bands being directed by the Rutgers conductor and director, Timothy Smith. Three student conductors led portions of the program, and the Mainland director, Keith Hodgson, conducted several selections.

There was variety aplenty, and the various conducting styles meant the musicians needed a dash of extra flexibility. The selections were mostly rather modern pieces. Fortunately, the latest generation of composers is producing work that is more harmonious than the atonal work of the mid- to late 1900s. The closing number, by the combined bands, was Sousa's Washington Post March, one of my favorites.

Fortunately, Rutgers is not too far from home. We were able to return home by midnight.