Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Weird processing

kw: dreams, teaching methods

In the dream from which I just awoke, I was being questioned by an interviewer regarding my tutoring methods. I had been taking notes, and we were on question #8, "Do you use time-resistant tutoring methods?" I had answered, "No," and we were discussing just what methods I would use. I had referred to question #4, which referred to a scholarly work by Miller. I wonder, does anyone else have dreams with footnotes? Perhaps it was because I was using Zotero last evening.

As we spoke, I was reading back over my notes. I could see the notes on all eight questions in my dream, but now, when I close my eyes, I can only see a portion of the note regarding Miller. So, what is a "time-resistant tutoring method"?

As I recall, my interlocutor and I were discussing the kinds of subject matter that were best learned by rote memorization, such as times tables and historical series of events (and of course, their dates). Memorization is dependent on the diligence of the student. For other subjects that are more concept-based, the onus is on the tutor to repeat and repeat, in different ways, so as to make the subject matter memorable to the student.

But I realize that the reason I answered No to question #8 was that I didn't know what time-resistant methods are, and I still don't. I suppose they must have something to do with the latter method. I do recall instructors and tutors who were skilled at repeating a concept in various ways to help me fix it in my memory, and that must be the point.

Nonetheless, as it happens, I am not a tutor, my wife is. For that matter, so also is my son. But not me, unless private music instruction is considered tutoring. Aha! Now I have it. In two weeks I shall be conducting a 3-hour workshop in methods of photographic composition. I've been pondering what to teach, but subconsciously I've been worrying how to teach. This is a good point to help me prepare. Now, if there really is a reference on tutoring methods by someone named Miller, I'd better look it up!

Monday, May 30, 2011

A question a day would have taken years

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, questions, philosophy

Mark Kurlansky is best known for Salt and Cod, hefty books of historical and societal importance. Salt, in particular, weighs in at more than 500 pages. By contrast, his most recent title, What?, his 22nd, comes to 83 under-filled pages. That includes Acknowledgements and Index. The full title is What? Are These the 20 Most Important Questions in Human History – or Is This a Game of 20 Questions?.

The twenty chapters do indeed take up a question each, but not in the Universe-halving manner of a game of 20 questions. I suppose it could be argued that, simply for universality, some of the twenty must be at least among the most frequently asked questions (the Journalist's Arsenal is of course included). But the result is more like an extended game of Jeopardy!. And since a number of the items the author asks are quoted questions, we often see typographic fancies such as,
…why did the Confucians answer, "Why must your majesty use the word 'profit?'"?
The book opens with a half-page quote from Rilke, which is translated later on. Other than its few declarative sentences, every sentence in the book, except one, is a question. Although several philosophers and other great questioners are mentioned, it becomes clear that the author is not among them. After taking a single hour to read through the book, I puzzled for a day about how to react to it. My eventual reaction:

Friday, May 27, 2011

A heap of ideas

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, philosophy

I believe it was in 1994 that the film Reality Bites was released, and a niche neologism became mainstream. Almost any water-cooler tale of mild misfortune is answered with, "That bites!" So when I saw a book jacket emblazoned with "Philosophy Bites" I wasn't sure how to take it.

Just above the title is the Wittgenstein "duck-rabbit" drawing, which I've always thought was a really bad rendition of either animal. In this case, I take it as a cheeky tip-o-the-hat to the pun, because the book is about a series of podcasts of the same name, which actually take off from the term "sound bite". Each podcast is an edited interview with a philosopher on a specific topic, a philosophy bite.

The book Philosophy Bites: 25 Philosophers on 25 Intriguing Subjects, by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton, is primarily a transcript of 25 of these podcast interviews. Each podcast lasts some 12-15 minutes, and each chapter of the book is 9-12 pages, so the reading is a bit quicker than the listening (at least at the speed I read).

While many people think of philosophy as an exercise in terminal navel-gazing, or in armchair quarterbacking of an imaginary human condition, these interviews strive to meet philosophy's more practical aspects, where the rubber meets the road, you might say. For example, the opening chapter explores "Yuk!" reactions (the interviewee is Julian Savulescu), and how taste changes over time, so that certain pleasant and unpleasant settings and experiences can change places, while others seem permanently rooted. I thought of the reaction I had to reading that Martin Luther, in common with many people of his time, "enjoyed" a teaspoonful of his own feces daily, considering it a health-promoting dose. Then there is the very widespread fear of genetically-engineered "monsters" of all kinds, whether BT corn or chimeric sheep, while nearly an equal number of people are fascinated by the prospect.

The chapter I found the most esoteric was Timothy Williamson on Vagueness. There is even a term for this: The Sorites paradox, based on the Greek word for "heap". Dump a bucketful of sand on the lawn. Is it a heap? Most people would agree that it is, though some might call a single bucketful a rather small heap. But how small can a heap get? Remove one grain; is it still a heap? Keep doing so. At what point do you not have a heap any more?

The chemistry professor once handed a student in my Organic Chemistry 301 class a stick of chalk, and asked, "What is that?" The student dutifully replied, "A piece of chalk." The professor asked him to hand back half a piece of chalk. The student broke it in two and handed over one. The professor, replied, "This isn't half a piece. It is a piece of chalk!", thus pointing up the vagueness of the word "piece". It may have been half of a stick of chalk, but as a piece, it was simply a piece. If you keep breaking the half into halves, then one of those in half and so forth, at which point do you say of one of the tiny bits, "This is not a piece any more."? Is it when the remaining bit is a single diatom shell, or portion of one, or must it be even smaller? Certainly a single molecule of silica is no longer a piece of chalk, but where is the borderline? Similarly, four sand grains, three in a triangle holding the fourth aloft, constitute the smallest possible "pile" or "heap" of sand, but nobody would really call that nearly invisible thing a heap. Where is the borderline?

Well, this is one place that philosophy seems to become impractical. But it is a very real aspect of machine learning and machine recognition of natural language. My GPS unit, a nice Tom Tom unit, has voice recognition, and is very good at figuring out when I have said, "Drive me home." But when I've tried to say, "Find a hardware store," it usually either asks, "Do you want to go to Wendy's?" or jumps into the "Pick a State, now pick a City, now tell me an address" mode in which it seldom can figure out the way I pronounce street names. It'll be a long time before, "Drive to that heap of a hotel on Ninth Avenue," can be parsed.

Much more practically, Michael Sandel discussed Sport and Enhancement. Is a competition between two steroid-buffed, oxygen-bloated teams going to draw crowds the way more "naturally" trained athletes would? Is it that much different from watching robots compete? I say we have such a situation already: professional wrestling. Those guys may as well be machines, and in some ways, some of them already are. They draw huge audiences.

Then there is a discussion of Art with Derek Matravers, specifically on how art is defined. A lot of the words were spent on Marcel Duchamp's signed urinal, and whether it is sufficient to admit that art is what an "artist" says it is. But who decides if the person is an "artist?" Are artists totally self-declared? It turns into an infinite regression. My own take is, to be art, a piece must require more skill than that required to sign one's name legibly.

What made the book so engaging to me is that I found I had an opinion about every issue discussed. I suppose I could produce a paragraph on my own thoughts about every chapter (Not a bad idea; maybe I'll keep the book handy as posting fodder on slow days!). But whoever might read this, I'll leave it to you to enjoy the interviews, and have opinions of your own, on your own. This is a great book to be curled up with on a rainy day or two.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

This story has legs

kw: medical tests

I am in the process of getting the base line studies done so I can convince my doctor I am not in imminent danger of heart attack or stroke, and cruise along on autopilot for a decade or so. Today was a test of arterial health in my legs.

It all started when I did a screening test, at one of these outfits where they check your arteries in certain key places using ultrasound. They also do a differential blood pressure test between arm and ankle, which is supposed to detect blockages in an artery in the leg. This test in particular produced a result that they flagged as abnormal. Although my doctor had his technician repeat the test, which came back normal, he decided to have me tested more thoroughly. Today I visited an imaging center for the more thorough test.

Thorough hardly begins to describe it! I had the usual blood pressure cuff put on each arm. But on the legs, each leg had four cuffs, at ankle, calf, lower thigh and upper thigh. The technician first did blood pressure on my arms, using Doppler ultrasound to pinpoint breakthrough pressures. Then she operated the sequencing machine that worked its way up one leg, and then up the other one. The farther up the leg you go, the harder it is to squeeze off the blood flow. On both sides, the uppermost cuff was rather painful! Anyway, from the small, approving clucks I heard from the technician, I infer that the test was pretty normal. I won't really know until the report is sent to my doctor.

I complained in the past about having a doctor who was too passive. My current family doctor is possibly a bit too aggressive. This is part of the give-and-take I've decided to participate in to be sure I am in good health, so I have the basis to push back against any future tests that I deem too intrusive.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Can't what?

kw: proverbs; refutation

The ironic saying is, "Those who can, do. Those who can't do, teach. Those who can't teach consult." 'Tain't so. Those who can't do can't teach either, and consulting is a species of teaching. There may be consultants and teachers out there who were failures at "doing", but they can't be called successful.

The single most interesting and exciting college course I took was titled "Geochemistry of the Solar System", taught by a professor who was fully involved in NASA programs to explore the planets and other solar system bodies. At the time the course was taught (1983), there was no on-site geochemistry of Martian materials (and no Martian meteorites had yet been identified), but there were plenty of results already on moon rocks and meteorites. Thus, much of the course depended on remote sensing results by robotic spacecraft that had passed by the terrestrial planets and larger moons.

I have on occasion been bothered by the tendency of many professors to stop teaching once they get tenure. Some teach only the minimum they are required to do. But the best are those who can't wait to talk about the exciting results of their professional activities with students in classes and seminars. So, while "publish or perish" may be a brutal way of keeping current the skills of our professors, it makes it that much more likely that what they are teaching will be more relevant.

The proverb needs updating: "Those who teach best do and teach and consult all at once." (there has got to be a better phrasing)

Monday, May 23, 2011

Our other cousin

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, apes, natural history, memoirs

Can you tell which of these is the real Chimpanzee? The one on the right is a Bonobo. These were once called "Pygmy Chimpanzees", but now they are recognized as a separate species, particularly because of very different behavior. But the simplest clue is that a Bonobo has much nicer hair, parted in the middle and often kept smoothed down on purpose.

An adult Bonobo is also a little smaller on average than an adult Chimpanzee, though either ape is larger as an adult than most of us imagine. The performing chimps we see in the movies are seldom more than five years old, a little shy of puberty, similar in development to a ten-year-old human. By age six or seven, an adult Chimpanzee, male or female, can stand about five feet tall (1.5 m), is stronger than the strongest human and is much more impulsive, making them much too dangerous to allow free human contact. A Bonobo is equally strong, if a little more placid in temperament.

The Bonobo is the fourth great ape. Gorillas have their Dian Fossey, Chimpanzees their Jane Goodall, and Orangutans their Biruté Galdikas. Who speaks for the Bonobo? It just might be Claudine Andre of Lola ya Bonobo (Paradise for Bonobos), a sanctuary for Bonobos orphaned by the bush meat and "pet" trade. If only she would publish, if even a memoir. For now, we must content ourselves with Vanessa Wood's book Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo.

Bonobos turn out to be much more like our rose-colored fantasy of Chimpanzees than do chimps themselves. Compared with chimps, Bonobos are more altruistic, tolerant of new acquaintances (rather than ready to kill at first eye contact), female dominated, and they prefer to resolve conflict with sex all around. Indeed, they are such sexual apes that much of the book is rather embarrassing, with a hint in the back of a reader's mind of, "If only people were more like that…".

The book is roughly half about the apes and half about the author and her husband, Brian Hare. Now both scientists in North Carolina, they teamed up and followed Bruce Tuckman's model of group development: Forming, Storming, Norming, with the emphasis on Storming. She is flint-eyed clear in portraying herself, warts and all, as moody, needy, a daydreamer, but also loving, persistent, and prone to trust (often after some more storming).

Quite against her better judgment, she and her husband (fiancé at first) Brian find themselves in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, because "that's where the Bonobos are," and Brian wants to study them, particularly how they differ from chimps. As it happens, Bonobos are suspicious of human males, so Brian Hare's scientific testing must rely on Vanessa to do things like measure ear canal temperatures and get saliva samples. Should you decide to read his scientific publications—there are a lot of them—just remember it was Vanessa who did all the hands-on work with the apes!

The title of the book is a bit of fun at the reader's expense. When you first meet a Bonobo, if he or she decides to befriend you, you'll be presented with a penis or clitoris to rub, and the friendship will proceed no further until you do so. This is the Bonobo handshake! Fortunately, they aren't too concerned if you don't present yours. They'd rather just hug or groom, particularly the younger ones. This is a big contrast to meeting a new Chimpanzee, whose first thought is whether to dominate you or submit to you (with great reluctance): somebody is going to get a beating either way. Unless the chimp is a newly orphaned infant, in which case it will cling to anyone that is available, until about age three, when dominance games begin. No human has successfully dominated an adult chimp. Nobody needs to dominate a Bonobo. They'd truly rather make love than war.

Interestingly, the full spectrum of both Chimpanzee and Bonobo reactions is seen in humans and human societies. As the author explains, when the hominids first split off from the apes about six million years ago, three branches resulted, the Chimpanzees, the Bonobos, and the genus Homo (originally Australopithecus). Humans share a middle ground of temperament with both kinds of apes, with an added fillip of cooperation that is seen primarily in Bonobos. Chimps will share food only with a trusted associate; Bonobos share freely. Based partly on upbringing and partly on something inborn, most people are more prone to sharing, but some are not (I know a younger man whom I first knew as a little child: pathologically selfish, he was evil as a child and has spent most of the last thirty years in jail or prison, all in spite of a "good Christian upbringing" and an older brother who is almost his total opposite. Sometimes nature trumps nurture).

There are so many facets to the book that I must simply leave the rest for the reader. It is a fascinating account of a fascinating near relative of ours, one that deserves to be known better. The work of Claudine Andre is remarkable in the midst of a war-torn country, one that is still being plundered for its mineral wealth when not in the midst of civil war. As the author and her husband continue their work with Lola ya Bonobo, I hope the publications continue, and perhaps a newer memoir as more is learned.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The longsuffering of God

kw: false prophets, prophecies, mercy

If he were living in the Israelite theocracy, Harold Camping would be in big trouble. Here is what is recorded in Deuteronomy 18:20-22 (NIV):
20 But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, is to be put to death.” 21 You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD?” 22 If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed.
It is quite clear that Mr. Camping is a false prophet. False prophets were to be put to death. But this is not ancient Israel. The present situation is better described by First Timothy 2:3b-4, which speaks of "God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth." Peter likens this age to that of Noah, in which God waited patiently while the ark was being built (First Peter 3:20).

As most everyone is now aware, the judgement day has not yet arrived. Though God, we read, has appointed a day, it is still in the future. We know very little of it, but we do know that it will take everyone by surprise. No genuine prophet will ever predict its day. But there is one other thing we can learn from history, which is riddled with such false predictions. Many of Camping's followers will rally around him, and he will make some kind of announcement that certain calculations were done incorrectly. No biblical prophet relied on calculations, but no matter. People will believe what they want to believe. I feel deep sadness for these deluded believers.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Losing another day

kw: dentistry, local events

As I reported in A Lost Day, I had a temporary crown put on a tooth on the 9th. It has been sensitive ever since, more so than it ought. Finally, this morning I called the dentist to ask if there was something he could do. Usually it is a case of a lingering infection, which a round of antibiotics will take care of.

When I called, after I'd answered a couple of questions, the dentist asked me to come right in. He pulled off the crown and said, "Oho, what do we have here?" It was a first for him. Somehow, a seed had gotten wedged inside. The crown must have tipped at some point, but not come off.

Although my appointment to put on the permanent crown was more than a week away, he actually had it already. We discussed it and decided to put the permanent crown in and get it fitted, but use temporary cement, in case any further work might be needed.

He needed to clean off the tooth stub surface to put the crown back. I initially opted to let him do it without anesthetic, but it was pretty intense, so he tried to numb the tooth. As before, he had to inject pretty far back, and this time it didn't "take" properly. He even used a Ligmaject, a special injector that puts anesthetic right at the tooth's root, but some sensation remained. To save time, I told him it was "numb enough" and just gutted it out. He gave me four Advil before I left. He and I share a lot of trust in its efficacy.

I got home about midday and dozed away the rest of the day. The numbing has worn off and so has the Advil, and I have general soreness. We'll see if the tooth cools down over the next week. It ought to, and then a few weeks later I'll get the crown permanently cemented in.

Prior to age 25, I had lots of fillings put in, the silver amalgam kind. Some are now almost fifty years old, which is pretty impressive. But they have a finite lifetime, so I guess I have more of this kind of nonsense in my future.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Taming the seas

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, domestication, animals, fish

Certain conditions for the successful domestication of an animal were laid out by Francis Galton in an 1865 article, "The First Steps towards the Domestication of Animals" (Trans. Ethnological Soc. London, vIII, pp 122-137):
  • Hardiness
  • Fondness for Man (or at least Tolerance)
  • Desire of Comfort
  • Usefulness to Man
  • Breeding Freely (i.e. in all seasons)
  • Gregarious or Loyal and thus Easy to Tend
These traits have led historically to the domestication of livestock, such as cattle, sheep, swine and horses, and to certain pets, notably dogs. House cats are the prime example of an animal that is not gregarious, but is extraordinarily loyal to the comforts of a home. Can these criteria be applied to fish, and thus guide our efforts to "farm" them?

Paul Greenberg believes they can, and must be, so applied. In his book Four Fish:The Future of the Last Wild Food, he presents the demise of the wild fishery upon which much of human nutrition has depended, and its replacement by fish ranching. It is a bittersweet transition.

After growing up an avid fisherman, as an adult he noticed that fish markets displayed little of the diversity of the past, and had become dominated by just four varieties of fish: Salmon, Sea Bass, Cod and Tuna. The short version of his message is that salmon in the market are already mostly farmed, certain representatives of the "bass" and "cod" prototypes are getting that way, but tuna are unlikely ever to be a "manageable" fish, primarily because of Galton's principles. If a prediction made by Galton is accurate, we may thus expect the total extirpation of all species of tuna during this century, for "they are doomed to be gradually destroyed off the face of the earth as useless consumers of cultivated produce." While Galton was writing of land animals, it is likely that, once we have fished tuna to near extinction, the perception of them will shift to match that once attributed to wolves, as voracious competitors for fish we'd rather eat ourselves.

The book is composed of four long chapters, one per type of fish, plus a long concluding essay on what is needed for a sustainable fishery. To pick the most important criterion, I rely on that which informs sustainable sport hunting: most meat for most people is taken from domestic stock (in this case farmed fish), with smaller numbers left to sports fishermen. The "profession" of fisherman would thus go the way of the market hunter.

What is the possibility that any fish really matches all the Galton criteria? Pretty good, really. Two standouts: Kahala and Tilapia, one marine, one a freshwater fish. I've eaten farmed tilapia, and it is an excellent whitefish. In other words, it has the potential to replace bass and cod on the menu. The kahala, in the midst of being renamed "Kona Kampachi", could replace fattier fish like tuna. Where most "bass" type fish and all tuna will thrash themselves to death against nets meant to contain them, these fish are tolerant of confinement and, while not particularly "fond of man", are at least tolerant of being "managed".

In order to get ground truth on the state of each variety of the four fish, the author traveled the world, participating in sport fishing expeditions and visiting fish farms of all kinds. His is a mostly optimistic message. He hopes fisheries management will become more rational, but mostly we must rely on the power of human desperation: we will do better once it becomes absolutely imperative because our own survival depends on it. Agriculture resulted from such a paradigm shift about ten thousand years ago. We did it before, and we can do it again.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Something to say

kw: personal experiences, marketing

Today I was in marketing mode, a rarity for me because it isn't my favorite activity. I attended a company conference, a combination of technical learning and "intramural" marketing, where I put up a poster. Its subject is not cleared for the "outside world"; suffice it to say it has to do with helping researchers find articles and reports they need among the company repository of technical documents. Curiously, it is not well known, so my poster is an early foray into improving our visibility.

I've had posters up before, a few times in the past couple of decades. This one seems to strike a chord. During the open poster session, I had a pretty constant stream of people taking the handout, asking questions, or taking my card. It wasn't the drudgery that many "marketing exercises" typically become. I am actually looking forward to tomorrow.

I recalled a story about someone who was stranded among people whose language he didn't know. What he did know was some technical stuff that happened to be helpful to the people. When rescuers came for him, he was doing pretty well for himself, in spite of the fact that he hadn't learned the language. He'd been passing on his knowledge by showing, not telling. As the story ends, he explains his good fortune by saying, "I had something to say." It is good to have something to say that is worth saying!

Monday, May 16, 2011

BA down, MA to go

kw: local events, passages

Just when it ought to be over, it isn't, quite. We've known our son was planning on graduate school for some time, now, but it hit home: Sunday was his graduation day, and the day he became officially a graduate, and a graduate student. What a day it turned out to be!

The Rutgers web site promised plenty of parking and seating for its first combined commencement ceremony in many years, to be held in the stadium. To our observation, there actually was plenty of seating, both for the 7,500 or so graduates who actually attended (of 12,000 eligible), and for the crowd, which filled the 20,000 seat stadium about 90%. But the parking situation was another matter.

We had been advised on one web page to park in one of the stadium lots, then drive to any departmental special event after the commencement. At another, it recommended parking near the last event we planned to attend. We initially decided on the former strategy. We live 90 minutes from the stadium, so we left at 7:30 AM for the 10:00 event, figuring we had sufficient time. Not so: We got onto Hwy 18 in New Brunswick just before 9:00, and hit a traffic jam with several miles to go. I foolishly bypassed the chance to exit at Hwy 27, and it took forty minutes to get to the next opportunity, which required jumping a median.

At that point, we switched strategies and drove into New Brunswick to park near the location where the Humanities Department would hold their afternoon convocation. This is the event at which our son would actually cross the stage (The morning event was mainly the keynote speech by author and professor (emeritus) Toni Morrison, plus the mass conferring of degrees). We caught a shuttle bus from the Student Center, which took us to the stadium. We were "only" half an hour late, and missed most of the student processional.

A memorable passage from the keynote address: "A century from now, or two or three, people may say, 'Was it really true that you had to go into debt, and work two or three jobs to pay it off, to obtain the education which is the wealth of your society?'"

After the keynote address, I texted our son, recommending that he walk or take a shuttle back to New Brunswick (only a mile), leaving his car where it was. He agreed. We returned by shuttle, and during the reception time before the afternoon convocation for the Humanities Department, got to see him briefly. The convocation went well; there were only about 400 students this time. However, photo opportunities were limited. Just as he was about to cross the stage, a row of students stood up and blocked our view. I held my camera above the crowd and shot wildly, and missed him entirely. I did get a photo of him when he obligingly came over where I could see him and posed with his diploma cover. Whew!

The rest of the afternoon was taken up with moving his possessions to a different house. What with making connection to the owner, and all the loading and unloading, it took us up till dinner time. We took him out to eat, returned him to his new home, and returned to our own home by about 10:00 pm. Now we have a preview of this time, next year, when he expects to get his Master's degree. At least we know to avoid Hwy 18 next time around!

Friday, May 13, 2011

One way it might be going

kw: book reviews, science fiction, terrorism, natural disasters

Let's see how many projections Fred Pohl is making in All the Lives He Led:
  1. The Yellowstone supervolcano erupts in about 2065, burying half of North America in ash to depths between a meter and a kilometer. Millions die and the US is instantly relegated to Third World status.
  2. Virtual reality based on free-space holography is developed (so I don't know why people in the novel still watch the news on screen displays).
  3. Plastic surgery can make anybody look like anyone else, irrespective of race or gender. A key player in the novel is a transsexual, and the "he" of the title.
  4. Terrorism becomes the ordinary way to protest. Kind of like the '60s on steroids; just replace every sit-in with a bombing.
That'll do. There are a few minor points, such as the data coil replacing flash drives and a personal data visualization device called the opticle. Add a lens attachment to a high-rez smart phone display, and the opticle is already in use.

The background is a "millennial Jubilee" celebration of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD and its consequent incineration of Pompeii. Brad Sheridan, an ordinary low-life punk who was eight when Yellowstone blew up and sent his Kansas City-based family into refugee status, has become an indentured worker at the Jubilee (Giubileo in Italian). Never one to make friends, he has over time acquired a friend or two and, eventually, a lover. But he has a past, including his "Uncle Devious", who ripped off family and friend alike to fund "Tibetan aid" causes that turned out to be funding terrorists.

When I wrote "a friend or two" above, I meant it. One of his two friends is murdered, and first he is implicated, then his girlfriend. Of course, she has gone missing, and finding her leads to a whole 'nother ball of worms. At the book's end it is still unknown whether the human race will survive the latest terrorist threat, and it is an even bigger surprise whose decision that is.

But the mechanics of the tale are riveting. If Yellowstone does explode within the next few decades, the book's scenarios are a pretty accurate projection of its effects. With the flip-flopping of who is poor and who is rich, for a time at least the world is a meaner place. And it just may be that terrorism becomes "business as usual" everywhere.

One historical point needs attention: a character describes Hitler and Stalin as the two deadliest leaders in history. Chairman Mao propounded policies that killed three or four times as many as those two combined. But the collection of incidents recounting human inhumanity is telling, and the philosophical point remains: Is humanity worth saving from the ultimate terrorist threat? Grandmaster Frederick Pohl leaves the reader to ponder that one.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Put up with it

kw: wordplay

No links today . . .

There is a cute piece of whimsy that gets e-mailed to me every few weeks, with 48 uses of the word UP. One online dictionary lists about thirty definitions for UP. I wonder when someone will get really creative with PUT. The same dictionary has nearly seventy definitions for PUT, but I read somewhere that the Oxford English Dictionary has about 300.

That is probably more than any one is willing to put into a comprehensive e-mail. Not that I'm put out about it, mind you . . .

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

White Bear, RIP?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, animals, bears

This image (© Monado) is used at Tropical-Rainforest-Animals.com for their article on the effects of global warming on polar bears. It does seem quite evocative. Truth to tell, though, the article is short and hortatory rather than explanatory.

For explanation, read The Great White Bear: A Natural & Unnatural History of the Polar Bear by Kieran Mulvaney. The nine chapters in this book present a through summary of the natural history of polar bears, and it becomes clear that his message is the "unnatural history", the story of polar bears' interactions with humans and the human world, and particularly the changing climate, to whatever extent we are responsible for that.

Consider a predator, an obligate carnivore, that can weigh 3/4 of a ton, stands as tall as 13 feet (4m) and has been known to prey on beluga whales. The only seal it is reluctant to tackle is the walrus. Its primary prey is the ringed seal, which is the size of a smallish man or average woman. We "two-legged seals" are just another prey animal, except that we have too little blubber, but we do have guns. This bear moves through its world with the confident swagger of an emperor. If Terry Bisson's semisweet story "Bears Discover Fire" is ever realized, our own status as top predator on the planet will be seriously in jeopardy.

Female bears are about half the size of the males, which do a lot of fighting over them. But the female has to fatten up the most, not to over-winter, but to "over-summer". All polar bears fast for about four months when the ice is offshore and seals cannot be had. Females have the added requirement to nurse cubs in a den dug into the permafrost or icebound snow, for another 3-4 months, fasting all the while. Sometimes the fast lasts eight months. How much would you have to eat, from May to July, if you knew your next meal would be in April? It is no surprise that polar bears are a bit testy while they await ice-up.

This underlies the extreme caution people learn if they live at Churchill, Manitoba, the "Bear Capital of the World". This odd little town sits right on a bear migration route, near an area where they gather while awaiting the November freeze-up. If you meet a polar bear in Churchill in the Fall, and it hasn't eaten since July, guess who is most likely to survive the encounter!

The message the author brings after his chapter on Churchill, though, is that the bears are fasting longer and getting leaner each year. It has been going on for a couple decades at least. The polar bear is really an ice bear. The sea ice in the Arctic is steadily reducing, and if it goes completely, the populations of several animals will crash, including the polar bear and several species of seal, plus the ice-edge ecosystems that supply food to those seals and the fish they eat. A world without polar bears will probably also be a world without walruses.

I think back to the Medieval Warming that occurred between 950 and 1250 A.D. There is some disagreement over whether it was warmer than the present warming, but it was certainly longer (so far; we have 300 years to go). How was the Arctic ice affected in those years? Somehow polar bears survived. It would be instructive to determine if their genetic variability, or lack thereof, would indicate a genetic bottleneck some 1,000 years in the past. So far as I know such a study has not been done.

Whether you believe we are primarily responsible for the current climate change, or only partially responsible (my own position), or not at all, it is a fact that climate is changing and polar bears are being seriously impacted. Author Mulvaney presents a clear and eloquent explanation of just how the bears' livelihood is linked to the timing of sea ice expansion and retreat. The changes seem to be happening too fast for evolutionary changes to allow the bears to adapt effectively. If polar bears survive the 21st Century, those of the coming century will be rather different than the bears of today. Less dependent on particular timings of ice, perhaps having learned to exploit a wider range of prey, they will be as well-adapted as they can be to the conditions they must live with, or die from.

Will the polar bear become extinct in the 21st Century? It is most likely that some of the twenty populations of polar bears will vanish. This assumes that some refugia of sea ice will remain. If all the sea ice goes, year round, then it is likely that no bears will survive. That is a sad prospect.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A most versatile mineral

kw: mineralogy, minerals, crystals, morphology

In the local rockhound club there are two pairs of collectors who specialize in a single mineral. One pair of women collects only gypsum in all its varieties, and a pair of men collects only calcite. Calcite, in particular, is known to have more than 300 crystal habits.

These six thumbnail images illustrate just 2% of the crystal habits of calcite. In reading order: a bipyramid, stacks of scalene plates, pyramidal iceland spar, nailhead spar, two scalenohedral crystals, and a hexagonal column with flat terminations.

What is a crystal habit? Depending on the symmetry of the chemical structure and the underlying details of how molecular units fit together, a mineral can have various preferred faces that make up its crystal form.

For example, table salt usually crystallizes as little cubes. If you dissolve some and let the solution evaporate slowly, you'll get some milky cubes big enough to see. However, if you add a little swimming pool acid (hydrochloric acid) to the solution, and let it evaporate, the cubes' corners will be replaced by small triangular faces, and with strong enough acidity, the triangles will dominate, making double-pyramid-shaped crystals will tiny squares at the corners, or perhaps no square faces at all. The predominance of squares or of triangles express different crystal habits of table salt.

Calcite has a more complex symmetrical system than table salt does. It is a trigonal mineral, meaning that its basic crystal form is either a 3-sided prism or the bipyramid seen at top left.
It has a strong tendency for the opposite trio of faces to form, so pseudo-hexagonal shapes such as the column at lower right are also common. The trigonal form is most easily seen in the plates at upper right. Each side of a plate is composed of three faces that come together at a low angle; the faces of the other side are rotated 60°. These plates are actually terminations of the nailhead spar sort, without any intervening material.

The columnar prism faces are parallel to the rotational axis of the crystals, the c axis. The flat plate that terminates the prism at lower right is perpendicular to the c axis. In between, there are three common angles at which triangular faces can lie, the steep angle seen at upper left, the very low "nailhead" angle seen at upper right, and one in between. Depending on the acidity or alkalinity (the pH), and the concentration of various other soluble minerals, these many kinds of crystal faces can develop in all sorts of combinations, which leads to the many crystal habits of calcite. So far as I know, calcite has the greatest number of crystal habits of any mineral.

Monday, May 09, 2011

A lost day

kw: local events, dentistry

It probably happens to thousands of people every day. But when it happened to me, that is personal. I broke a tooth on Mother's Day, at a church lunch.

At first I thought that there was a piece of bone in the piece of pizza I was eating, but when I retrieved it, there was some silver filling material attached, and a quick swipe with my tongue confirmed that a big hunk was gone out of a molar. That ended lunch for me. Luckily, the break hadn't gone through into the nerve, so I had no pain.

In the morning (today), I went to the office early and called the dentist to see if I could get an appointment right away. The scheduler called back before 8AM and asked if I could come right in. I got there in record time. Two quite uncomfortable hours later, I had a temporary crown, and a numb face.

It turns out I have an extra-long jawbone and the nerve enters way, way back there, so the dentist had to use a scarily long needle to reach it. He did a fine job of it, but it took a while. He and his assistant were very good about keeping me from biting my cheek or tongue as we went through the various exercises of shaping what was left of the tooth into a crown base, and making various impressions.

I was barely able to speak afterward, but I did discuss with him that I'd noticed how every few months I'd have the dental floss break when cleaning that group of teeth. He said it is common for a crack to take a year or two to work its way through a tooth until a piece just about falls off. In this case, the crack started at the end of a large filling that was installed more than forty years ago, perhaps closer to fifty. Pretty good life out of a silver filling of that era. But I have a mouth full of them...

At the dentist's advice, I rounded up my things at the office and went home to sleep off the anesthetic. He predicted it would last until about 1PM. It actually took until 4PM. And I did sleep. I hope I can sleep tonight. I helped my wife cook dinner, which we just finished. That and getting this little blog post written is all that keeps the day from being a total loss!

Friday, May 06, 2011

Coastal poetic diary

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, birds, animals, wetlands

I must first praise Mark Seth Lender for eloquently saying something I have been seeking the right words to express:
"To argue for your life with a lion like a Maasai, nothing in your fists but a lion spike (the sharp flame-hardened scapula of a giraffe) which you thrust, bare-handed, into the lion's maw impaling him as he bites down and mauls you with his outstretched paws—now that is hunting."
I would only reword the very end to "now that is sporting." I have long thought that "hunting" as practiced by most "sportsmen" is simply killing for fun with no "sport" involved, and I deplore it. I am full of sympathy with those who hunt to eat and eat everything they kill, but I find trophy hunting (and trophy fishing) quite disgusting.

Now to the book, which is not about hunting at all but about the lives of the birds and a few other denizens of a salt marsh, Salt Marsh Diary: A Year on the Connecticut Coast by Mark Seth Lender. The author has a poet's way with words, compressing more feeling into his prose than most mortals. As he introduces one chapter, "Turk-turk-turkey comes jerk-jerk lurking on, tip to toe. Cautious, like ice just itching to melt."

The book is composed of about sixty two-to-four-page pieces, not quite essays, a bit bigger than ordinary diary entries. I guess I'll call them vignettes. They are culled from his syndicated column, also titled "Salt Marsh Diary," and arranged with the seasons, through the year. A patient observer will find much to observe no matter what the season.

Much of his focus is birds, the most visible of the marsh's residents and visitors, from herons and egrets to hawks—red-tail and merlin and falcon—and warblers to terns to ducks and geese; when he is not photographing them he is writing about them. He spares a few words for marsh mice and other small mammals, for flies and bees as pollinators, and for monarch butterflies as they migrate through.

Each vignette wafts one away to stand beside him, to see and hear and smell the unfolding scene on the marsh. We can't all of us do everything, and writing like this turns hours, days, months of observing into a few minutes or an hour or two of reading and savoring the experience. Having freighted memory with these, should I have the chance to stand along or within a salt marsh, the experience will be enriched, perhaps enabling me to see things I might otherwise miss. While many natural histories have photos and plates, this book doesn't need them. I might hope for another book from him, of photographs accompanied by relevant vignettes. This one is evocative rather than informative, though much of both is here. A fine read.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Planting time - for the bees

kw: citizen science, honey bees, bees, hobbies

It is time to get those Lemon Queen seeds and start a new batch of sunflowers! I had a fun time last year gathering and reporting bee sightings as part of the Great Sunflower Project. But it'll be late May or early June before I have new sunflowers blooming. (This image is from The Dailygreen, an article on citizen science.)

I am hoping in the future the Great Sunflower people introduce a project that begins earlier in the spring. My apple tree has already bloomed and dropped its blooms, as have the crab apple and flowering pear trees. They engendered quite a bit of bee activity for just a short time. The dogwoods are in bloom, but don't seem to attract bees. By their smell, I suspect they are pollinated by flies. I am sure there is some reliable pollen-producing flower suitable for extending the bee counting activities into mid or late April and through May.

Until then, this year I'll plant the sunflower seeds indoors to give them a head start in my sun porch, and put them out when they get flower buds.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Blessings in the bush

kw: book reviews, crime fiction, mysteries, african setting

I have enjoyed yet another "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" novel by Alexander McCall Smith: The Double Comfort Safari Club. I particularly like these for two reasons. Firstly, they are not "murder mysteries," but instead delve into the mysteries of human behavior and inconsistency. Secondly, they are very homey. Precious Ramotswe, the proprietor of the Agency, is a comfortable woman of "traditional build" which means large economy size, who has a wise manner and few foibles. Her assistant Grace Makutsi is more like an excitable kid sister, with foibles aplenty but a lovable nature.

Sometimes the two of them together can team up to solve a situation. More frequently, Mma Ramotswe, moving with almost glacial inertia, brings matters to a conclusion while her assistant watches. This is not "action fiction," but is more true to life, in which most detective work is boring routine punctuated with the occasional surprise. Nobody here is a kung fu expert, though it might be said that our dear lady detective is adept in mental aikido.

In this novel she is faced with a few delicate cases, one requiring travel to the stunning Okavango Delta, plus the twists and turns of Mma Makutsi's ongoing courtship with her fiancé Phuti Radiphuti, complicated by a debilitating accident he suffers and intervention by a hostile maiden aunt. It takes a force greater than Mma Ramotswe's to dislodge Rra Radiphuti from the aunt's control, but that's what friends are for.

The Botswana setting is about as different from the familiar Western environment as I can imagine, and its beauty and charm—and occasional qualm and venality—are brought out with great grace by the author. The land is caught halfway between historical African culture and the Westernized veneer wrought by a few centuries of missionary efforts. The people, as people do, make the best of both worlds as they slowly evolve into a modern culture. The simple qualities of thought that underlie the Setswana languages (the people are multi-lingual) might at first lead one to think the people are simple-minded. They are far from that. They may think differently, but they are neither shallow nor simple. There is much here to tantalize the innately problem-solving reader, without the chilling effect of the killings most mystery stories seem to require.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Second twistiest

kw: weather phenomena, tornadoes, records

As my wife and I drove across Ohio and Indiana last Tuesday, 4/26/2011, we were listening to Kentucky radio stations and their almost continuous tornado warnings or reports. The following day, the 27th, we were able to hear a few more such reports, but went out of range before we got to Missouri. We were glad to be north of all the bad weather, but sorry for the people caught up in it, and we prayed for them. In more than 300 cases, the answer to such prayer was "No." That day marked the middle of a cluster of tornado outbreaks that may yet rival the Super Outbreak of 3/19/1974, the worst outbreak of the Twentieth Century. I have a few notes on that outbreak in a book review I wrote in 2007.

We did not know at the time the magnitude of the event. It may yet exceed some or all of the records set in 1974. The only record that is sure to stand is the 1925 record of nearly 700 killed by a single tornado, which also had a ground damage track nearly 220 miles (350 km) long. To compare:
  1. Tornadoes – 1974: 148 in 18 hours. 2011: 211 in 48 hours, but it is not known if more than 148 occurred in any single 24-hour period.
  2. Deaths – 1974: 300-330. 2011: 334 and counting, making it the second deadliest outbreak after the 1925 event.
  3. Ground track – 1925: 219 mi (352 km). 2011 (Tuscaloosa-Birmingham tornado): 80 miles, in a supercell that produced tornadoes over a 380-mile (610 km) path, but no single track that exceeded the T-B tornado.
The Tuscaloosa-Birmingham tornado may also be the second widest recorded. Its damage track is 1.5 miles (2.4 km) at its widest, while the huge Wilber-Hallam tornado of May 22, 2004 was 2.5 miles (4 km) at its widest. Such tornadoes are almost as wide as they are tall; their tops are typically at an altitude of 3-4 miles (5-6.5 km) above the ground surface. The dynamics of such storms begin to approach those of hurricanes, which are considerably wider than they are tall.

There are the inevitable questions about global warming. One set of events does not necessarily signal a trend, but it is true that a warmer climate will have more energy available for producing extreme weather. The climate certainly is warming up, and human additions to the greenhouse gas budget are now known to be a factor. There is a price to pay for revving up Mother Nature!

Monday, May 02, 2011

When our global engine was fueled

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, geology, geological history, plate tectonics

When I was quite young, I was told that the Earth has mountains because the planet is still shrinking as it cools down internally. This had been the prevailing theory for about a century. Then in 1969 I changed my college major from Physics to Geology, and the University was just implementing a new curriculum based on plate tectonics as explained in the book The New View of the Earth: Moving Continents and Moving Oceans by Seiya Uyeda (the latest edition is 1978, but it was first translated and published in English in 1968).

This was a new understanding, that the crust of the Earth is composed of about a dozen stiff plates that grow by volcanic accretion (spreading) on some boundaries, grind against one another along others, and are consumed into the mantle or squeezed up into mountains at others. The most prominent and still rising mountain chain is the Himalayas, pushed up as the Indian plate jams northward into the Asian plate. The "grinding against" region of greatest familiarity to Americans is the San Andreas fault zone that runs from the Gulf of California between Baja and the rest of Mexico, northward through San Francisco and out to sea near there. Nearly all the spreading/accretion regions are beneath the sea, most notably the Atlantic, but Iceland is a portion of the mid-Atlantic Rise that emerges above sea level.

It is now thought that plate processes have proceeded for at least two or three billion years. In that time, the continents alternated between a scattered condition, even more scattered than today, and a merged condition where there was primarily one large supercontinent. The most recent merging produced a supercontinent we call Pangaea, for "all Earth". The rest of the planet was oceanic, and nearly all this global ocean was a single superocean we call Panthalassa, for "all sea". But Pangaea was C-shaped, and there were large islands that almost completed the outline of a circle closing the C, so this is considered a separate ocean has has been given the name Tethys, from the name of the wife of Oceanus, the original Greek sea god.

Tethys Ocean was first enclosed about 260 million years ago (mya), and grew in importance and size for 200 million years, then waned and was squeezed out of existence by about 6 mya. Among other things, this "temporary" ocean is responsible for the high-energy economy this generation enjoys. The growth, career and waning of Tethys is the subject of a remarkable book, Vanished Ocean: How Tethys Reshaped the World by Dorrik Stow.

Dr. Stow has done what I once hoped to do: become a globe-trotting professor of Geology. As I now judge things, I lack the strategic vision to synthesize the many threads of Earth science he has mastered and expressed in this book, so I have gratefully, and rather slowly, read through every bit. Of the many messages he brings, I'll briefly outline just one, the physiography of the continents at a few key epochs, and what that means to the modern economy. First, we will look at this figure from the book (p 24), including its caption.

The great continent that lies athwart the equator blocks an equatorial current that would otherwise run right around the planet. Whenever this has been the case, the Earth has had a period of global cooling with ice ages. Such is the condition today, with the North-South American landmass crossing the equator, and a significant secondary blockage by Africa. We are actually in the midst of an ice age that has lasted for two million years, with periodic interglacial warmings.

Between these two "icehouse condition" stages, the Earth's climate was much warmer. A circum-equatorial ocean current allows a much greater buildup and distribution of heat and a "greenhouse condition" to prevail. Tethys grew, broke through Pangaea as the supercontinent broke apart into Laurasia and Gondwana, and presided over more than 200 million years of greenhouse warming.

This growing ocean was ringed with areas of upwelling from deeper, nutrition-laden waters, wherever its currents impinged on the continental margins. Other areas of upwelling ringed the continents, until by the time tyrannosaurs were chasing Triceratops about, a very active period of organic accumulation on the ocean floors had been going on for 50-100 million years. The accumulation was facilitated by anoxic conditions in the deep ocean because of the very high surface growth of plankton. When lots of plankton die and rain down to the ocean floor under anoxic conditions, organic-rich sediments get laid down, and once they are buried and heated to about 100°C, they produce a lot of petroleum. Further heating cracks this to natural gas.

Thus, the height of the Tethys is marked by large accumulations of oil-producing sediments, which were overlaid by capping layers of clay and silt as Tethys began to be squeezed out of existence. The map below shows the major oil-bearing zones, and it is easy to see that about half of them are marginal to Tethys. As Tethys was squeezed by the later episode of continental convergence that led to today's configuration, these were concentrated into a belt that is centered on the Middle East, but also includes the Gulf of Mexico. Major secondary belts are the North Sea and offshore California-to-Alaska. The storage of all this oil was completed before 15 mya, and most of that much earlier.

Here we see the results of the second great energy-storing episode in Earth's history—the first was the laying down of great coal deposits 50-150 million years earlier, when terrestrial and swamp vegetation was buried in large amounts. The energy-rich economy we enjoy today is largely due to the growth and shrinkage of Tethys. The huge salt deposits in many of the oil provinces testify to the drying of the remnants of this great ocean, and incidentally provided trapping layers for the oil forming from its deeper sediments.

Today, the north-south axis of the Americas plus Africa is holding Earth in an icehouse condition, with periodic interglacial episodes. All of the history of civilization is a history of the latter two-thirds of the latest interglacial episode. We are possibly extending its duration by burning the legacy of millions of years of organic accumulation and releasing carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. In a few decades, the age of oil will be over. Will the human race then find itself using the fossil fuels that remain to stave off the cold of the next ice cycle? Icehouse conditions are expected to last a good while yet; Dr. Stow thinks even 50 million years into the future, and conjectures that a land connection between South America and Antarctica will have closed by then, further deepening the icehouse. Time will surely tell.

This is but one important story the author has to tell. He gives many details of the evidence he and others have gathered to piece together the story of how Pangaea was rearranged into a series of continents that coasted the great Tethys Ocean, then pressed it out of existence. The Mediterranean Sea is a re-emergence of a small portion of Tethys, and future oceans are being born as the Red Sea and the East African rift zones get organized as new spreading centers. They will probably become axial rifts of the next generation of oceans as the slow, persistent drama of plate tectonics continues.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Panning the arch

kw: travel notes, landmarks, photographs, genealogy

Late yesterday we returned from a five-day road trip. I was on a genealogical expedition and my wife accompanied me. We followed I-70 across five states into Missouri, where we stayed at Marshall, the county seat of Saline County, and paid a few visits to Malta Bend, where my father was born, and a goodly number of his ancestors. Drive time each way was a day and a half. We started out last Tuesday early, stayed the night in western Indiana, and arrived in Marshall about lunchtime Wednesday. The Marshall Public Library has a wonderful (though small) Genealogy Room with very friendly people to help.

A couple of hours there made it clear we had plenty of family graves to locate, in three cemeteries. One family was split between two cemeteries because of the fears of one couple that a property was not being well maintained. Fortunately, when we visited, we found it is being well cared for. So here is the rundown.

We first visited Ridge Park Cemetery in Marshall, where the caretaker showed us how to find the graves of the stray couple, the parents of my father's cousin. Then we had dinner and checked in to our hotel. The following day we went early to the Malta Bend cemetery. There we found ten of my father's ancestors' graves, and those of eighteen other relatives, including, sadly, five children and infants.

Some of the gravestone inscriptions faced west, and some faced east; a few faced north or south. There was no geographic pattern, such as facing walkways. It seemed instead that some people would face a grave to the east in anticipation of resurrection, while others would face it to the west as a symbol of the sunset of life. So while I photographed everything, I decided to return in the afternoon.

We went into Malta Bend to look for landmarks my father had marked on a map and an aerial photo. Only three buildings remained. The town had about 420 people in the 1920s, and there are about 250 now. It is a dying town. There are no stores, only two churches still operating, and people do all their business at Marshall or, if they want to drive 80 miles, in Kansas City. Before getting lunch we went to Little Grove Cemetery, south of Malta Bend. We found nine graves of interest there. It is about half the size of MB Cemetery, and both are smaller than one of the 26 sections of Ridge Park Cemetery. In the afternoon, back at MB Cemetery I was able to get much better pictures of almost half the gravestones. In total I got pictures of 39 headstones and several plotstones that announce a family group. Before returning to Marshall, we drove west to Grand Pass, population 52, where one of my great-grandfathers grew up. We saw no buildings of any great age there. For a dying town, it has had a complete turnover of construction in the past century.

I also obtained copies of many documents at the library, mostly lists of cemetery "residents", but also the record of an ancestor who was in the Civil War, and the surprise information that one couple I'd thought had died in Ohio, instead had died in Malta Bend and were buried there. That solves one family conundrum.

We turned in early, and awoke quite early Friday to watch the wedding of William and Katherine. Then we had breakfast and took off, arriving at our hotel in Springfield, Ohio in time for a rather late dinner. We slept well and drove home Saturday. On Friday, however, we took an extra hour to go into St. Louis to see the Gateway Arch.

Though we have passed by St. Louis a few times, the fastest route uses Hwy 270 north of the city, and we had never seen Gateway Arch. Fortunately, parking was not too costly, and there is no admission at the Arch unless you want to go up inside to the top. We are both fearful of heights (though we did visit the Empire State Building last month), and did not want to take the time either.

Getting to the parking garages proved a bit of a challenge. The usual approach, which the car's GPS unit took us down, happens to be partway under water because of the flooding on the Missouri River. We took some side streets, which are all cobblestone in that area; very difficult to drive on! However, we soon stumbled on a garage that advertised "Arch Parking" at a reasonable rate and parked there. It was right on the edge of the Gateway property, but the walk was still about a quarter mile.

The Arch gave me the chance to try some rather challenging panoramic photography. The grounds are simply not large enough to photograph the Arch with ordinary lenses. This is my best attempt. It is composed of three horizontal pictures, taken from an angle that I could get both "feet" in one frame. The panorama stitcher in Windows Live Photo Gallery did a fine job with them.

Then I followed the Arch's shadow to a spot where I could take the next panorama. It is composed of eight images, and it is evident that the stitcher has centered the fisheye simulation at the center of the final image. I had been expecting the ground to come out flat. Silly me! There are also a couple of fitting glitches. I tried using the Canon Stitcher, but it would not properly put the images together at all.

From the opposite side, on the stairway down to the river, I tried again. This time I was far away enough that I could use four images. Again, Stitcher failed completely, but the Windows Live software did a pretty good job with no glitches. The flat ground sure seems to swoop, though.

Both panoramas make it clear that I need to include lots more surrounding material for such projects, so I have something to crop out for a final image. I could probably use a circular mask on the backlit image. These two pictures are fun, but that is about it.

The trip was enjoyable though tiring. We have concluded that we'll fly in the future. A 2,200 mile trip is too much driving for a two-day visit. I have plenty to keep me busy with the family tree, for the next few months.