Friday, October 21, 2011

Friday photo

Au Sable River, Huron National Forest, Michigan. October 2011.

Here's another photo from my Au Sable trip. I thought I should offer up a nice colorful-trees image, while we're still in autumn.

The raft is a replica wanigan, a floating kitchen and supply store for lumbermen who worked in the deep woods, far from the main camp. Up the hill from this spot is the Lumberman's Monument, a celebration of those 19th Century men who supplied the nation with timber and stripped the Michigan landscape of its native cover. As you can see from this older image, they were effective at their jobs. The statue today is surrounded by second-growth trees.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Friday photo

Grass stalks reflected in the Au Sable River. Huron National Forest, Michigan, October 2011.

I just loved the feeling of geometry here.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Who's Who

[via Daily Dish]

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Friday, September 9, 2011

Friday photo

Sugar Creek. Turkey Run State Park, Parke County, Indiana, July 2007.

Morning along the river. The early bird gets the gnats.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Friday photo

Washington Monument. Washington, DC, February 2007.

Today's image features our National Phallus, the venerable Washington Monument. Begun in 1848, but not completed until 1884.1 It's the usual project, overly ambitious and poorly-administered, soon running over budget and sitting half-completed for a generation before someone decided to just finish the damned thing. Which they finally did, after they gave up the plan for the Greek temple surround the base. And it wasn't even a government project.2

The Monument has been in the news lately, of course, because of cracks discovered after the recent East Coast earthquake; more have been discovered in the wake of Hurricane Irene. Reportedly, the Monument is sound and not about to fall over, but that hasn't stopped our modern-day Jeremiahs from discerning God's wrath in natural phenomena. Pat Robertson begins with "I don’t want to get weird on this, but," and realizing it's already too late for that, continues, "it seems to me the Washington Monument is a symbol of America’s power. It has been the symbol of our great nation. We look at the monument and we say this is one nation under God. Now there’s a crack in it. Is that a sign from the Lord?” Not to be outdone, a certain Professor of Practical Theology3 at Southeastern University speculates on what message God might be sending, asking, "If the crack in the monument is, in fact, a God-sent ‘sign’ for the moment, then what might God be saying? And to whom is He speaking?"

I sometimes think God is just some great, vaporous infant. He cries every time He's unhappy, which is most of the time, but He can't tell you exactly what the problem is.

Perhaps He's just gotten around to noticing that the founder of His Own Country was honored by constructing a pagan edifice. The Washington Monument is an obelisk, a style of monument that first adorned Egyptian temples and has no Christian connotations whatsoever -- although the things are so cool that even the Vatican still keeps one that was erected by the beloved Emperor Caligula.

We needn't be surprised at this. Who can't admire the architecture of the Classical Age? If you look around Washington, DC, you'll see a lot more references to classical Rome and Greece than you do to Christian sources, and the buildings all resemble Greek temples more than Christian cathedrals. Both Rome and Greece also copied the Egyptians' obelisks. The Romans not only built their own, but they plundered them from Egypt, too, long before Napoleon began the modern tradition of collection development, so that today only half of all surviving Egyptian obelisks are still found in Egypt.

Frankly, I don't mind a bit that, in honoring our primary Founding Father, Americans also honored one of the most accomplished cultures of the ancient world.

1. Which makes me think of Orwell's 1984, which was published in 1948 and gained its title by reversing that last two digits. But I can't quite make any other connections, so I guess I'll have to drop the whole thing.

2. If you look closely at the photo, even though it's backlit, you can see the difference in color between the marble in the original base and that used to complete the monument.

3. It's hard to even type that without giggling, isn't it?

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Book review: AD 381

A couple years ago I wrote a post about Charles Freeman's book The Closing of the Western Mind, which argues, in a nutshell, that the triumph of Christianity in late Antiquity truly did usher in an intellectual Dark Age, wherein philosophical and scientific questions (and there was not yet a distinction between the two) were settled by theological arguments from authority and free inquiry was discouraged. In A.D. 381, Freeman continues his argument, exploring in more detail how the late Roman emperors injected themselves and the state into theological disputes.

Several reviewer of the book have complained that Freeman in simply updating Edward Gibbon and blaming Christianity for the fall of Rome. This is not how I read Freeman. He blames Christianity – or, to be more precise, certain later Christians and Roman emperors, and the precedent they established – for killing off a great and ancient Greek tradition of free inquiry. But he does not blame Christianity for bringing down the Empire itself.

By the end of the 4th century, while Christianity was growing but did not yet dominate, the Empire was barely maintaining itself. Grown too large for its own governance, it had split into two coeval sections, with capitals at both Rome and Constantinople governing the West and East. The powerful Persian Empire threatened the East, numerous Germanic tribes were invading from the North, and Roman armies were spread across borders that had grown too long and too distant to be efficiently defended. With the military removed so far from the core of the empire, the interior trade routes were less well-guarded and commerce became more difficult and expensive.

Although the East retained a cohesive state for another thousand years, the West disintegrated both politically and economically. After 400, trade all but disappeared in Western Europe. Cities became small towns; the money economy disappeared; well-manufactured goods, once common in even a peasant household, disappear from the archaeological record. Rome's famous aqueducts went dry for a millennium, and even the lead and copper pollution levels recorded in ice cores testify today to the demise of manufacturing during the Medieval Period.


None of this does Freeman blame on Christianity. Given the entirely worldly difficulties that Rome faced, it should be no surprise if the Empire failed to overcome them all. As I read Freeman, he would instead blame the fall of Rome for the intellectually authoritarian turn that Christianity took following the 4th Century. Throughout the Roman world, the scholarly decline was almost comparable to the economic and political collapse. According to Freeman's account, even the renowned Medieval scholars are recognized to have written poorly and less grammatically than their predecessors; where a rich Roman citizen could possess a library with thousands of works, medieval monasteries would be considered impressive if they contained a few hundred. Theology replaced naturalistic inquiry. A Christian mob probably destroyed the remnants of the Great Library at Alexandria1 in 391, and in AD 529, Plato's Academy was shut down after 900 years of free inquiry. Had the Christian authorities not been so hostile to non-Christian literature, more would likely have survived to the present day.

What happened? By Freeman's reckoning, the emperors meddled in theology and set a precedent of resolving scholarly disputes through authority instead of inquiry. As the Empire's organization became ever less adequate to meet external threats, the later emperors were prone to blaming their ineffectiveness on a lack of internal unity. And as Christianity absorbed more and more of the Empire's inhabitants, the emperors began to see the divisiveness of the Church as a principle weakness of the empire. In the centuries after Jesus's death, Christian clergy had taken the Greek practice of philosophical disputation, applied it to theology, and then – disastrously – made it a matter of eternal life or death to declare and defend a single position. “I don't know” was not an acceptable answer, even though it would have been the best answer to questions which were essentially unknowable.

One of the major, unknowable, questions concerned the exact nature of Christ – was he fully human, or fully divine? Maybe he was a human who was temporarily occupied by God? Or was he entirely God all along and only appeared human? However you answer the question, some unpleasant consequences seem to follow. If he was human, then why should we be worshiping him? Or if he wasn't human, then he could hardly have suffered through his crucifixion, in which case his great sacrifice would seem to be greatly overtouted. According to the disputants, immortal souls were at stake, although a cynic might notice that the emperors' habit of extending patronage to certain churches meant there was a lot of money and status at stake in elevating one's own views and disparaging a rival's.

The emperors began to take sides in these disputes, something that had never happened with philosophy or pagan religion. In AD 381, the emperor Theodosius issued an edict declaring the Nicene faith – an incoherent declaration that Jesus was simultaneously fully God and fully human, and you could conveniently flip from one to another whenever you needed to dodge a contradiction2 – was orthodox and that all other views were heretical. Clergy with contrary views were disfranchised and their churches closed. A decade later, Theodosius banned pagan rituals and sacrifices altogether.

Theodosius's efforts did not succeed in solving theological questions; all he managed to do was thoroughly politicize these disputes and cement the role of the state in establishing religious orthodoxy. Through the following century, Christians continued to gain strength and began to suppress pagan practices even more thoroughly than had been Christianity in earlier eras.3 Curiously, the disputatious eastern empire survived as the Byzantine Empire until 1453; it was the western empire, where theological questions seemed less urgent and there was no such thing yet as “papal authority,” that thoroughly fell apart.

As for the promises of orthodoxy … Freeman tells this story. In AD 428 the bishop of Constantinople, Nestorius, put the case as baldly and boldly as could be: “Give me, king, the earth purged of heretics, and I will give you heaven in return. Aid me in destroying heretics and I will assist you in vanquishing the Persians.” A few years later, Nestorius himelf was condemned for portraying Jesus as too human. Not that he had adopted any known heresy; he just wasn't orthodox enough. Thus the promise of fundamentalism; thus the all-too-often-delivered reality.

1. The case is ambiguous and disputed. It seems likely that the Library suffered several episodes of destruction after its zenith in the last couple centuries BC. It's not clear how much was left to be destroyed by the mob in 391, but they did destroy what they found.

2. Yes, that's my own definition.

3. It comes as a surprise today to be told that the Romans were religiously tolerant, but it's fairly true to say they were. In conquered territories, they did their best to amalgamate local religion with their own, while polytheism would naturally tolerate anyone's decision to choose a certain god as his particular patron. An upstanding citizen would be expected to make a show of honoring a city's gods, just to keep them happy, but this didn't require him to reject any other gods. Jews refused to adopt polytheism, but they were never upstanding citizens (generally not legal citizens at all). I'm not well-studied enough to say this with confidence, but I suspect Christians would never have suffered persecution if the religion had remained confined to the lower classes; their religious views wouldn't have mattered to anyone.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Friday photo

Golden Spike National Historic Site, Promontory, Utah. June 2005.

Did you know it could have been "Golden Rail National Historic Site"? Alas, a certain San Francisco booster discovered there wasn't enough enthusiasm for donating that much gold, so he settled for a golden spike instead. Nevada also offered a silver spike (from the Silver State, of course), while Arizona produced a silver spike with a golden head and a San Francisco newspaper gave a second golden spike. At the famous completion ceremony, these were (gently) tapped into place with a special silver-plated maul and then immediately pulled out again so that real spikes could be put in their place. Railroad magnates Leland Stanford and Thomas Durant tried to drive the iron Last Spike into place, but made a hash of the job; a real rail worker had to finish. The precious spikes were dispersed to various repositories and none resides at Promontory today*.

As a matter of fact, neither does the transcontinental railroad. The site was forced as a huge and inconvenient detour around the Great Salt Lake and, even today, it's almost 150 miles of vacant desert and single-lane road from Brigham City. Fortunately, the Salt Lake is quite shallow and crossing it with a trestle was well within 19th Century engineering capabilities. The Southern Pacific Railroad** completed such a cutoff in 1904 and, except for tourists visiting the National Historic Site, no one has seen much need to travel around the north side of the lake ever since.

A previous post on the financing of the transcontinental railroad

* The second golden spike has since been lost, perhaps in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire

**Not part of the original transcontinental railroad, which was built by the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Action-adventure games

I want this game.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Forever and ever, amen

It's always amusing to hear people intone that God is the same today as he was yesterday, and will be the same tomorrow. It clearly contradicts all historical experience -- just pick any period in history, examine the teachings and behaviors of any Church, and ask yourself if there have been no changes from then until now. It also contradicts Scripture itself, at least as God was portrayed in some of the early books of the Bible.*

So it's hard to resist poking fun as someone who says, "God wants me to do X," and when he changes his mind, breezily announces that "God wants me to do Y." Matt Hinton pokes a little fun at Oregon football player Lache Seastrunk, a highly-recruited player who has just transferred to Baylor in search of playing time. When he first went to Oregon, Seastrunk told reporters, ""I just really leaned on God and asked Him where I really need to be."

Now that he's going elsewhere, it's "When I first intentionally went there, I felt like God wanted to be there. But God also does things — God also pulls you out of the storm before it happens. So I felt like something was about to go down and God just wanted me to get up out of there." So nice of God to pull you out of a storm you wouldn't be in if you hadn't listened to Him in the first place. He can be just swell that way.

In the Mr. Deity world, I imagine the following conversation:

Larry: "We totally punked him! Oh, I know! Now tell him you want him to go to Alaska-Fairbanks!"
Mr. Deity: "That'd be awesome! He's from Texas; Alaska would just kill him!"
Larry: "Plus, they don't even have a football team!"

* My favorite example: when the Israelites worshiped the golden calf at Sinai, God told Moses that he was going to destroy them all and offered to make Moses's own descendents become the great nation of sycophants that He longed for. Apparently six or seven centuries is plenty of time for even God to forget that He had made the same solemn promise to Abraham. Fortunately, Moses was a far more forgiving and compassionate person than Yahweh and talked Him into changing His mind back again.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Fun with Photoshop

I missed the Indycar race Sunday. Hate to do that, but my sister-in-law was appearing in an excellent performance of "Singing in the Rain" and, if I skipped that, there wouldn't be any YouTube highlights to tell me what I missed.

What I did miss was a major executive-decision screwup: with 5 laps left and the cars running under caution due to rain, the race was restarted even though it was clearly still too wet to race safely. Unnecessary mayhem ensued and Will Power, never the shrinking violet, let Race Control know what he thought of their decision:

(And no, that wasn't ABC that put Power's fingers on a loop)

At iRacing, someone suggested that this was a great topic for Photoshop and I agree. Here are my submissions.

Will Power, the movie actor:

Will Power at the center of historic events:

Will Power vacations in Scotland:

More here

More. This is fun!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Friday photo

Wet cat. Monroeville, Indiana, August 2011.

This may be the most bizarre thing I've ever seen: a cat sitting in a puddle of water. Surely it's a sign of the apocalypse; can Republicans embracing tax hikes, or Richard Dawkins joining the Southern Baptist Convention, be far behind?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

(Bear) death in Yellowstone

A month ago a hiker was killed by a grizzly bear in Yellowstone; nothing was done against the bear. Monday the Park Service killed a different grizzly bear that had charged a man and taken the food in his backpack.

The difference? The first bear appears to have been doing nothing but protecting her cubs (a misjudgment, but an understandable one). That sort of behavior doesn't indicate that the bear is any more likely to attack another hiker than any other bear.

The second one, however, seems to have figured out that hikers carry food and that you can get it from them (rather easily, in fact, if you're a bear). Its chances of challenging the next hiker he comes across, and even seeking out the trails where hikers can be found? They might be rather high, which makes this bear far more dangerous than the iconic "mama grizzly." So the bear was destroyed, even though no one had been killed -- yet. Thus confirming the dictum that "a fed bear is a dead bear."

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Buyers, beware

I don't know eBay rules, or even if the seller is serious. But surely this sale will not go through?

$430 bid for the box an iPad came in. On the one hand, the ad clearly says, "the ipad 2 box does not come with ipad 2 or any accessories.this auction is for the box's for someone whom are trying to get the box to make their ipad 2 complete."

On the other hand, the box is also described as having "Connectivity: Wi-Fi + 3G" and "Storage Capacity: 32 GB." I'll bet it doesn't.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Friday photo

Giant Forest. Sequoia National Park, June 2005

Thursday, July 28, 2011


Disaster can strike with so little warning. For example, one day long ago, my younger brother needed to back up my car in the driveway so that he would have room to shoot a little hoops. He touched the gas a little too hard, had to jump on the brake, and skidded through the gravel to a halt just inches short of our oldest brother's truck. Yes, he'd just come within an ace of damaging both of his older brothers' cars! He'd probably have fled to California years earlier than he actually did.

He got lucky, but this poor driver did not:

The wealthy French Riviera city state of Monaco was the scene of a pileup involving five luxury cars with an estimated value of more than $1.1 million.

The collision, involving a Bentley Azure (worth an estimated $400,000), a Mercedes S Class ($120,000), a Ferrari F430 ($230,000), an Aston Martin Rapide ($230,000) and a Porsche 911 ($130,000), occurred in front of Monaco's Place du Casino

So do you call Flo, the gecko, or just sing the State Farm jingle?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

"In Jesus' name, boogity boogity boogity amen!"

This was the prayer before the NASCAR Nationwide Series race this evening:

Yep, that's why Jesus died for you, Southern style.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Friday photo

Swimmer. Adrian, Michigan, July 2011.

I took my camera to the Ohio-Michigan Summer Swim League meet in Adrian this week and this was my favorite shot of the day, with my brother's youngest daughter performing the breast butterfly stroke. It's a good action shot, one that manages to freeze the action without destroying the impression of motion.

I've done a modest amount of sports photography, mostly of amateur events, and it's amazing how many shots taken at the peak of the action don't make good action shots. Just freezing an instant (in this case, about 1/1000 of a second) usually catches the athlete in an awkward-looking moment, with an arm half-cocked, or the leg one-quarter lifted, or some such thing. If you read up about action photography, they'll tell you to look for the right moment, and give you some hints as to when that's likely to occur. For example, in basketball, the peak of a jump shot is likely to be the "right" moment.

But I haven't seen anyone discuss why, during the right moment, this instant looks right and the instant before just looks clumsy, awkward, and unnatural. I don't have the answer, either, but I suspect that there's something about finding a sort of peak of the motion while avoiding the middle. For example, a tennis player's serve would look good with the ball in the air and the player preparing for the smash, or on the follow-through. But the instant just before the ball is hit would likely appear clumsy and (paradoxically) more frozen, ruining the sense of action.

In the photo above, it seems to make all the difference that the swimmer is caught with arms fully extended and not, say, three-quarters extended. Just to throw out a hypothesis, I suspect that motion is generally seen as movement from point to point (or from position to position) and we like an image that conforms to the way we see it; that is, we want to see those destination points, not the instants in between. Arms fully extended, or arms swept all the way back, look good and action-packed -- but in between is less pleasing. What happens in between is too rapid for our eyes to see properly and looks unfamiliar when it's frozen at 1/1000 of a second.* Perhaps we just prefer those ever-so-slightly-slower moments that our eye can detect in real time, that remain recognizable when they're captured in a still photograph.

One more stroke of luck in this photo's favor: good sports photos need faces and emotion in them and the splash has just the proper break to show at least some of the face, the eyes especially. Even with the swim goggles, an impression of determination and concentration comes through.

* Bearing in mind that cinema needs only 24 frames per second to give a convincing illusion of motion.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The language bobbies

The BBC lists 50 of the most hated Americanisms, as nominated by their readers. Some of them are current business jargon, such as "24/7" and "deliverables." Others have been around quite awhile. One person disparages "expiration date" and wonders what ever happened to "expiry." Truth is, that one expired on this side of the Atlantic some tim before I ever started listening to English. In general, it's the usual collection of pointless peeves that language mavens (including myself, at times) always whine about.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Google plays hardball

Last May Google lost a lawsuit to the Belgian newspaper consortium, CopiePresse, over Google News linking to their newspaper stories without permission or compensation. Today they're firing back in a big way - by blocking all search results to the newspapers in question altogether.

Google claims they're only complying with a court order. CopiePresse claims they have no objection to having their stories referenced in search results; they only object to some of the content appearing in the Google News results and that Google is deliberately obscuring the difference between search results and copying content.

That's probably true, so some extent. But I've never found that Google News provides me with much more than the headline anyway; if I'm interested in a story, I still have to click through to read more than a sentence or two. So I've never understood the absolutist position that some newspapers take on this issue. It's free advertising! Imagine if movie studios tried to claim that tv stations should pay them for showing movie trailers? No, the fiscal incentives run the other way; studios pay tv to advertise their movies. Google is trying to prove to CopiePresse that the incentives do indeed run the other way and, because they're complaining about it, CopiePresse seems to secretly agree.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A lesson in incentives

Because I have far more important things to do, I've been spending a lot of time lately on iRacing, an online auto racing simulation with some 25,000 subscribers who can run practice sessions or race other members in any of two dozen cars on four dozen different tracks (each of which has been laser-scanned for accuracy to the nearest millimeter). It is, too understate the matter, addictive.

As I usually do when I start in with a new activity or a new system, I've been busy exploring the rules and culture by reading every manual they have and exploring the forums for information on how this all works. And the most interesting thing I have found so far is iRacing's approach to encouraging safe driving.

The problem is simple: you've attracted a bunch of people who aren't professional race drivers, but would like to drive as aggressively as professional race drivers, and you want to encourage them to keep a lid on it and stay within their limits. Somehow, you have to create a system of incentives that will discourage poor driving, reward safe driving, and be self-enforcing -- with 25,000 drivers, there's no way to have an impartial judge watching every race.

To that end, the system automatically monitors "incidents" and awards "incident points" based on the severity. Going off the track is 1 point. Spinning around or making contact with another car is 2 points. Especially hard contact is awarded 4 points. Based on a weighted moving average of "incidents per corner," a safety rating (SR) is awarded and continually updated. You need to maintain an adequate SR in order to advance your license, which you need if you want to race in advanced series with faster and more powerful cars. Don't take care of your SR and you'll be stuck racing the rookie series with the clueless noobs forever.

The controversial part is this: the SR is based on a no-fault system. If you and I make contact, we both accrue incident points. It makes no difference whether I hit you, you hit me, or we were both being too aggressive ... none of that matters. We both get points and, if we accumulate too many, our SR's suffer. That pisses people off. The forums at iRacing are filled with bitter complaints from drivers who've accumulated points and can't raise their SR's high enough to get our of the Rookie class, because all those other dolts keep crashing them out of races. Why does the service tolerate all those bad drivers who are holding me back?

And more experienced, wiser drivers will reply that the system is working exactly as it's supposed to work. When the complainer posts replays of the incident, as often as not they'll point out that the driver himself was often at fault, not holding his line as well as he thought, or getting impatient and trying a high-risk passing maneuver. Most of the time, you can examine the guy's record and discover that doesn't have nearly as much control of his car as he thinks he has. Usually he has some sort of expectation that he should be able to drive the same line in traffic that he does in practice and everyone else should just get out of his way.*

More importantly, though, they'll try to impress a driver with the necessity of thinking safety first. In real life, if your race car gets crashed, you suffer the injuries and you pay for the repairs, no matter how it happened. You don't rush into a dicey situation thinking, "If there's a crash, at least it won't be my fault." You suffer the same as if it had been your fault. And that makes you more cautious. In a no-fault system -- and God himself runs a no-fault universe -- it's always your responsibility to avoid trouble. You do that by being patient, by watching to see if your opponent is driving steadily or erratically, and by taking the approach that it's more important to finish the race than it is to get to the front.

This seems to be a hard lesson for some to learn. If you're constantly getting involved incidents that don't seem to be your fault, the first step is to examine replays and see if you aren't really more at fault than you thought (often you are). But the next step is to ask yourself, "Am I putting myself in dangerous situations too often? Am I taking risks that, even if I keep it together myself, have a high chance of ending badly?" 'Cause if you are, then you're not a safe driver, regardless of whose fault the final incident turns out to be.

That's the beauty of the no-fault system: you can never avoid the consequences and so you can never shirk responsibility. If you want to advance very far in iRacing, you have to temper your aggression and learn at least a modicum** of good judgment. It's all about the incentives.*** The drivers who complain about the system would generally like to do what they do and make everyone else responsible for the outcome. The no-fault system does exactly the opposite by making it always your responsibility, no matter how bad the drivers are around you. Just like it is out on the street.

* I came across this attitude back in my undergrad days playing pickup basketball. Quite a few guys were of the opinion that once they had begun a drive to the basket, it was some sort of violation if the other team still tried to defend it. In fact, I find a lot of the same attitudes at iRacing that I did on the basketball court -- the inflated egos and sense of entitlement, the win-at-all-cost attitudes conflicting with the let's-just-have-fun approach, and the mildly inverse relationship between whining and talent.

** You don't necessarily need much more than a modicum. The SR system is pretty generous and drivers who are conscientious, but unskilled, can still do pretty well. And even the upper level series contain a pretty fair amount of trouble. But then, have you watched a NASCAR race lately?

*** When the developers put the system together, they actually considered charging small amounts of money for excessive incidents. They decided against it, probably wisely.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Friday photo

George Gordon Meade Memorial. Washington, D.C., March 2007

Friday photo, public softcore edition. George Meade, of course, was a Union general of the Civil War who took command of the Army of the Potomac and, in his first battle, decisively defeated Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg, crippling the Confederate army and and earning a statue of a naked woman ministering to him. If he was awarded the real thing, it has gone discretely unrecorded

According to the description on Wikipedia, that's Chivalry to Meade's left, accepting the offer of a coat she obviously needs a hell of a lot more than he does. The dude copping a feel from behind her is Progress; it's not clear whether he's progressing upwards or downwards.

It might only be my inner sixth-grader that gets so amused by this statue, but it also amuses me to see how dramatically cultural tastes and norms change from generation to generation. The 1860's were a pretty religious and typically prudish age, but even the genteel classes saw no embarrassment in adding a naked figure to a statue of a hero and putting it up in the nation's capital, for all to see. I'm guessing this is because they still admired the art and literature of Classical Greece and Rome, whose statuary features plenty of nude figures. I'm not an art historian, but I would hazard a guess that any nude in a 19th Century statue almost certainly represented one of the ancient gods or was the personification of some abstract virtue. Nudity in the 19th Century was not about sensuality; it demonstrated your good taste and your classical education.

Monday, July 11, 2011


It's hard for me to fathom, but there are still a lot of people out there - not all of them men - who dismiss women's sports as some sort inferior endeavor. Slower, weaker, less athletic, less skilled. Less deserving of attention. What nonsense. Two of the most dramatic, clutch, courageous, even heroic athletic performances I've ever seen were performed by women.

Here is one, which fifteen years later still puts a lump in my throat:

And yesterday was another that I shall never, ever, ever forget:

[UPDATE: Dammit! Video pulled because of a copyright claim by FIFA! What sort of idiots try to quash free advertising? Most sorts, it seems.]

Friday, July 8, 2011

Friday photo

Devils Tower, Wyoming. December 2004.

I consider this the most perfect photo of Wyoming that I've ever taken. Geology and culture blended seamlessly. Perhaps it would be even more perfect if the grazing animal were a cow rather than a horse, but that's a pretty close call. After all, one could hardly have run cattle without horses. Either way, this is iconic Wyoming.

And Devil's Tower, that magnificent, 867' tall, exposed igneous intrusion. That is, it was a plume of magma that forced its way into the surrounding rock before cooling some 40,000,000 years ago. That seems ancient, but geologically I suppose that counts as recent history. The rock one finds on the surface today is 200,000,000 years old, five times older than the Tower itself. The ground used to be a lot higher than it is today, but that's all gone now, softer sandstone that's been eroded away over the ages, leaving the harder, granite-like plug standing in place, with nothing left to plug but the sky.

When I first visited Devils Tower, perhaps in 1978, Close Encounters of the Third Kind had recently made the site known to the rest of the world and the Visitor Center bookshop was selling Bob Balaban's diary of the filming of the movie (Balaban played François Truffaut's interpreter and had the honor of being the only actor in the movie to utter the phrase, "close encounter"). I no longer have the book, but I recall his account of being driven to the location. Like most of us at the time, Balaban had never heard of Devils Tower and had no idea what he was going to see, just that there was some sort of Point of Interest. His account of the drive went something like this:

Balaban: "Is that it?"

Driver. "You'll know it when you see it."

Balaban: "Is that it?"

Driver. "You'll know it when you see it."

Balaban: "Is that it?"

Driver. "You'll know it when you see it."

Finally they drove around a bend in the road ... and he knew it when he saw it.

Death in Yellowstone

I missed this story a couple days ago, but a hiker was killed by a grizzly bear east of Canyon Wednesday. He and his wife had the bad luck to surprise a bear with cubs, who charged the pair and fatally mauled the man. The Park Service plans no action against the bear, since it seems to have been acting only in perceived self-defense and has no history of aggression against people.

It's only the sixth documented fatality from a grizzly bear in Park history, and the first since two killings in 1984 in 1986 (although perhaps one should also count the death that occurred just outside the arbitrary Park boundary last summer). Both of those victims were hiking alone in bear country, just as I always did. In '84, a Swiss woman died in her tent after taking all proper precautions; Pelican Valley, where she was camping, has been closed to overnight travel ever since. Two years later, a wildlife photographer was killed and devoured by a grizzly near Otter Creek, south of Canyon. His tripod held a camera with a wide-angle lens mounted on it, indicating that he probably made a choice to approach too close to the bear that killed him.1

1. Whittlesey, Lee. Death in Yellowstone, 1995.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Dying for what you believe in

My sister's friend likes to say, "Some things are tragedies; others are just too bad." It's a mean thing to smirk at a fatal accident, but when this happens:

A New York man died Sunday while participating in a ride with 550 other motorcyclists to protest the state's mandatory helmet law.

Police said Philip A. Contos, 55, hit his brakes and his motorcycle fishtailed. Contos was sent over the handlebars of his 1983 Harley Davidson and hit his head on the pavement.

He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

"The medical expert we discussed the case with who pronounced him deceased stated that he would've no doubt survived the accident had he been wearing a helmet," state Trooper Jack Keller told ABC News 9 in Syracuse.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Fast squirrel

The guys on the iRacing forum post some terrific automobile-related videos. This one has a wildlife theme as well:

Friday, July 1, 2011

Friday photo

Rainbow over Hayden Valley. Yellowstone National Park, June 1995.

Rainbows. The only cheaper subject for a nature photographer is sunsets, and that only because they happen to you more frequently. You get especially spoiled living in the mountains, because unlike the Midwest, where the clouds may cover the entire sky for hours on end, a sharp end to the storm is likely to arrive while the rain is still falling. Also, thunderstorms are especially common in late afternoon and when the cloud's edge approaches, the sun is sinking down to the optimal level for creating rainbows (a 42° angle from sun to rainbow to observer).

As far as the mythology of rainbows goes, I'm mostly familiar with the Noah story, where God promises never again to destroy the Earth with a technique that could never have worked in the first place. You can read a quick summary of some alternative mythologies at the relevant Wikipedia article. I often wonder how much anyone took these stories seriously; after all, we all still know the myth of leprechaun's gold at the end of the rainbow, although people who believe it are probably as scarce today leprechauns. Were these stories ever for the adults, or were they always meant as children's entertainment?

Still, I was a bit surprised to learn how long ago people were trying to figure out how rainbows work, from a naturalistic framework. Based only on surviving writings, we can push it back at least as far as Aristotle in the 4th century BCE. It was probably easy enough to understand that the sunlight was being reflected back from water droplets in the air, since the rainbow always appears in the opposite direction from the sun and, in fact, you don't even need rain. The spray from a waterfall will do nicely. But the Greeks were also damned good with geometry, and Aristotle used these skills to explain how logical it was that that the rainbow should have such a perfect semicircular shape. He grasped that the light had to be reflected at a particular angle back to the observer and that the entire set of points that satisfy this condition would form a circle.*

Figuring out why their are colors is pretty tricky, but sometime around 1300 the Persian astronomer Kamāl al-Dīn al-Fārisī used a large, spherical globe filled with water to model a raindrop and worked out that the ray of light is refracted twice, once as it enters the droplet and again as it leaves, having bounced off the far interior wall. He eventually concluded that the white light was somehow being decomposed into the various colors, anticipating Isaac Newton's famous prism experiments in the 1680's

Traditionally, we divide a rainbow into seven colors, but those bands don't really exist and Roy G. Biv is as fictional as Cupid. The bending of the light is seamless and the change in colors ought to appear perfectly seamless as well. But we don't see color that way. We have three types of photoreceptor cone cells in our eyes that each respond to a different wavelength and what we see is a calculation based on those three inputs. Birds, reptiles, and amphibians, on the other hand, have four or five different types of cones and almost certainly can discriminate colors far better than we can. Set your monitor to 256 colors and take off your glasses - that's probably how a bird would feel if you were to suddenly give them human vision.

* The ground cuts off the bottom half of the circle, of course, but full circle rainbows can be seen from the air. I have a cousin who flew on helicopter gunships in Vietnam and tells me that he saw one. I could really envy him the experience, if it weren't for all that war and shooting and danger business that went along with it.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Friday photo

Kaweah Valley from Moro Rock. Sequoia National Park, California, June 2005.

Moro Rock
is an impressive chunk of granite which, if I understand the process, formed deep underground, got pushed up toward the surface during the uplift of the Sierra Nevada, and was then exposed when softer material eroded away. As you drive up into Sequoia National Park, you'll see it rising impressively above you. But you don't get the full effect until you take the 800', 400-step climb to the top, when you see the Kaweah Valley falling away, some 3500 feet below. That contrast is the primary feature of this photograph here. If you were to try to hike down, you'd find it three times steeper than the Grand Canyon, which is probably why Moro Rock prefers to sit where it is and just look around at the crest of the Sierra.

Moro Rock has a special meaning for me because it is, as best I can recall, the very last place on Earth that I ever tried to pray, on a late September evening when I pleaded with God to convince me he was there and was listening to me. When you have it all to yourself, Moro Rock is a very quiet place.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Sky diving elite

I just might never have seen anything quite this awesome:

We earth-bound schmucks can scarcely appreciate what's going on here, because we have the ground to help us control our motion. In the air, there are six degrees of motion these guys need to control: three for movement (up-down, left-right, and forward-backward) and three for rotation (forward or backward roll, spinning left or right like a skater, and rolling left or right like a cartwheel). If you ever made the mistake of watching that forgettable Space Camp* movie, you might recall the spinning chair that combines all three degrees of rotation in a bewildering fashion, and how hard it was to sort them out and gain control. These guys have mastered that and movement through space.

It's hard, really hard. That's why the Wright Brothers spent years working with gliders a few feet off the ground before building their airplane. They knew that learning to fly was going to be far harder than figuring out how to get the machine in the air.

The way these guys exit is just beautiful.

Via Daily Dish

* Not only a forgettable movie, but one which had the bad luck to be released all too soon after the Challenger disaster.

Friday photo

Surf. Humboldt County, California, July 2005.

There are rumors, no doubt fueled by Hollywood boosters, that California is a land of sunshine. I think they forget there's a northern California, too. The last time I drove north out of San Francisco, the clouds moved in just as I reached Eureka and I decided, This is where the pacific Northwest begins. Good to know.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Friday photo

Turkey Run State Park, Indiana. July 2007.

I wrote a small blurb about Turkey Run here a while ago. I'm gone this weekend, so you'll just have to reread that one.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Baring the soul (eHarmony spoof)

This brought tears to my eyes ....

... while laughing out loud.

Via the Daily Dish

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Knowin' my history ....

In the wake of Sarah Palin's defiant defense of her description of Paul Revere's ride, a lawyerly defense that she certainly must have needed explained to her after her sycophants dreamed it up for her, I'm trying to imagine her book report on George Washington. I picture it going something like this:

He who chopped down those cherry trees so that we could have homes and towns and, um, making sure while he's standing in that boat fathering our country that, uh, we're not going to lie about defending free enterprise and we're going to develop our country.

Makes as much sense as her comments on Revere, I'm afraid, except that the cherry tree story isn't at all factual. Doesn't matter; neither was Palin's portrayal of Paul Revere. Oh, sure, if you tear her paragraph limb from limb, you could overlay each part onto an accurate version of the event, but that's not historical knowledge. Poor students do this all the time and anyone who's taught history has seen it in exam booklets over and over: disconnected facts dropped almost randomly on the page, with no sensible connection between them, which read like a 2-year-old playing with a jigsaw puzzle. It's simply not possible for someone with any adequate understanding of the night of April 18, 1775, to have uttered that phrase.

Palin is that student who sat in the back of the class without listening, absorbing a few scraps of information without understanding any of it. She knows Revere rode a horse, she knows it was during the Revolution and that the British were the enemy, she's been told something about bells being rung in warning, and she even knows that it somehow connects to the famous "Shot Heard 'Round the World," although she doesn't know how. And she hurriedly assembles these random facts and comes up with a mental image that's completely wrong: Paul Revere riding through the streets of Boston ringing bells and firing warning shots.

As the saying goes, historians never miss a chance to miss a chance to educate the public on historical knowledge. It's depressing to see some historians, however reluctantly, declare that if her isolated factoids aren't entirely bogus, than her whole story has to be considered historically accurate. It does not, any more than a NAPA store is an automobile. That's why history exams include essay questions, where you can't make the lucky guess that might win on Jeapordy! You have to show you understand what your facts mean. By letting Palin's comments pass for "historically accurate," the whole concept of historical understanding gets short-changed.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Friday photo

Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park. May 2005

Here's a nice little view of Mammoth Hot Springs, the headquarters for Yellowstone National Park. It's just inside the northern boundary, 50 miles from Old Faithful and even farther from the more remote reaches of the park; it was selected more for its convenience to the outside world than to the rest of the park. The first government building1 in Yellowstone was a blockhouse built in 1879 on Capitol Hill (the slope you see extending out of the upper right of the frame in the photo); the superintendent was still worried about the possibility of Indian raids (the Nez Perce, fleeing the US Army, had come through just a couple years previously and had killed a couple of tourists).

The red-roofed buildings in the distance are stone officer's barracks from the Fort Yellowstone days, when Yellowstone was an army post between 1886 and 1918. The US Army had been given control over the park after understaffed civilian administration failed to prevent poaching and other destruction. By all accounts, the Army did a commendable job, policing the tourists effectively and reducing poaching to levels that the wildlife could survive.

Those officer's barracks are still in use, most of them serving as residences, while the one nearest the main road is now the Visitors Center. The cottonwood trees lining Officer's Row were planted with, shall we say, military precision: they form a perfectly straight line from one end to the other. That flat area between Capitol Hill and the yellow hotel and restaurant on the left was a parade ground for the cavalry troop stationed there -- even though it's prone to sinkholes. In the winter, the parade ground was sometimes flooded to form a skating rink.2

The Army gave up command in 1918, when the newly-minted National Park Service was up and running. They were ready to go, since it no longer made sense to station soldiers along the former frontier when they were badly needed elsewhere. But they left behind some solidly-constructed buildings and a helluva lot more wildlife than there would have been without them.

More reading:
Bartlett, Richard A. A Wilderness Besieged
Haines, Aubrey L. The Yellowstone Story

1. There was already a hotel at the site, to serve tourists who wanted to explore the hot spring terraces before heading off into the interior.

2. This is still done today, but behind the hotel and not on the parade ground.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Alexander Hamilton, borrower and taxer

Dragooning the Founding Fathers to fight contemporary political battles is a time-honored tradition. Without a doubt, if Washington, Jefferson, and Adams were all here, they would ... well, they'd agree with me and take my side on every question. And since their word is Holy Writ, that proves I'm right. About everything,

Okay, not really, but I do sometimes find myself wondering what the FF's would think if they could suddenly be transported from their day to ours. I tend to imagine them stumbling around dazed for a few days, loading up on hard liquor, and then, when that runs out, quietly going off to kill themselves, James Madison perhaps muttering darkly “I told you it would never last.” Only Alexander Hamilton, I suspect, would recover from the dizzying shock and slowly come to think, “Hey! It worked! Commerce! Wealth! Power! Oh, it's everything I wanted!”

Hamilton, as the man most responsible for putting the United States on a sound, capitalist-friendly fiscal footing, has long been a favorite of conservatives. A historian whom I can't recall once noted that one can trace the relative ebb and flow of conservatism and liberalism by counting the rise and fall in biographies of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. It's no coincidence that one popular biography of Hamilton was penned by a senior editor of National Review.

So, while the question of the day is about our national debt, and whether or not the GOP is bluffing about be willing to default, if I could conjure up just one of those Founding Fathers, I would want to hear what Hamilton had to say. Because if there could be such a person as the patron saint of the national debt, Hamilton is the man. He believed in a national debt. More importantly, he believed in timely, reliable payment of that debt. That last point is crucial; in fact, Hamilton actually advocated having a national debt just so that the government would need to make timely, reliable payments. Long before there were any guitar-playing pirate-waiters to make the point, Hamilton preached the value of a solid credit rating.

Hamilton knew that, whether they like it or not, governments sometimes have to borrow money. Emergencies happen, mainly unexpected wars when the country would need to quickly raise, train, and equip a larger army than it could afford to maintain permanently.1 The kings of Europe had found themselves borrowing money from banks for centuries and the US would be no different. It couldn't be helped.

What could be helped, however, was the rate of interest that the government would need to pay when it did borrow. Governments needed a good credit rating at least as much as merchants did. Hamilton had closely watched how the British government operated and was deeply impressed. The British borrowed constantly, repaid promptly, and by proving itself the pinnacle of safety, could borrow at the lowest possible rates. Hamilton had come away deeply impressed with England's ability to leverage money and, as the first Treasurer of the United State, he wanted his new country to do the same.

To do so, however, was going to require a hard-core sales job. The Continental Congress had borrowed outrageous sums of money financing the War of Independence, still owed soldiers their back pay, and was hard-pressed figuring out how to pay off everyone they owed. Millions of dollars in loans were owed to private individuals, but many of those people were not the original lenders. Over the years, as the nation's poor financial standing became increasingly apparent, many people had sold their securities to speculators, at a substantial discount (often as low as 15% of face value). To many traditionalists in Congress, men who approached financial matters from a moral perspective, it stuck in the craw to simply pay the current owner full value. Hard-working, patriotic Farmer Brown, who had risked his scarce capital to aid the struggling Revolution when the outcome was uncertain, would never get more than his 15¢ on the dollar. The sharp speculator who bought the loan from him would succeed in making a killing off Mr. Brown's distress.

Hamilton did not say, “Morality be damned, we have bigger fish to fry,” but that is the gist of his 1790 Report on Public Credit. At all costs, the United States must demonstrate good faith in paying its debts. "Credit rating,” although the term hadn't been coined yet, but the concept is foundational to all of Hamilton's policies. The people with money should be willing to lend it to the government. No, they should be eager to lend money to the government. They should be so certain that their investment is rock-solidly safe that they will lend at the lowest possible rates. Anything else, any policies that shake the confidence of investors in the reliability of the Treasury, will end up increasing costs, squandering treasure, and draining investments. Everyone loses, both as individuals and as the Public.

But why was it necessary that the current holder get the full payment, and the original purchaser nothing beyond what he had sold the bond for? Hamilton made a feeble effort to defend the speculators on moral grounds, arguing that he too had risked his money on an uncertain outcome and demonstrated his faith in the nation. Given the way government officials were moving to profit off a scheme that looked less and less risky,2 it was an unconvincing argument. Hamilton may have advanced it only half-heartedly anyway, since it was beside the point. Again, he was looking to the future and the future he wanted was one where investors not only could loan with complete safety, but could sell their bonds at full value anytime they needed to. The bonds would be easily traded because the purchaser would know that he could redeem it at full value. With that kind of value, a government loan would be as good as money. It would be money, for all practical purposes, and those practical purposes were uppermost in Hamilton's mind.

Specie, that is, gold and silver coin – the original cold, hard cash – was scarce in North America and hard to increase without discovering more metal. A growing economy needs a more flexible money supply and rock solid government bonds would fit the bill nicely. If money is more plentiful, it can be borrowed more cheaply, to the benefit of everyone attempting a profit-making venture. Settlers could purchase homesteads; merchants could fill ships with goods. Again, everyone wins.

A solid, reliable national debt was an essential foundation to it all. It meant cheaper borrowing for the government, and ultimately lower taxes to pay for it. Entrepreneurs would have access to cheaper money, too, removing an impediment to trade and development. Hamilton was the great advocate of capitalist development, but it all depended on a government that was scrupulous about meeting its obligations.

No doubt Hamilton would have abhorred the way we spend tax money; I can't imagine him approving of Social Security or Medicare. But would he have been willing to gamble the nation's credit rating, even to eliminate the evils of social spending and high taxes?3 Perhaps, if he had to choose between modern levels of government spending or toying with default, he would tell Madison to move over and also drink himself to death.

1. If I had to list the number of ways in which the United States departs from its founding ideals, the modern military would be at the top of the list. A large standing army, it was believed, would almost inevitably be used to control the public; it would tempt Presidents to seek glory in foreign adventures; and if neither of those happened, it would still be an enormous financial burden. Of the three, only the first danger has failed to emerge. On the other hand, we've so militarized our police forces that it hardly makes a difference.

2. Several Congressmen, and at least one Treasury employee close to Hamilton (although apparently not Hamilton himself) were sending agents scouring the country for loans to buy up before word got out and the price began to rise. Such insider trading is, of course, illegal today.

3. High to him; current tax collection is, overall, a bit low compared to late 20th Century norms.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Friday photo

Rain on North University Street, Ann Arbor, Michigan. February 2011.

Rain. We have rain. We've had rain. We've had rain all month. We've had rain all spring. We've had rain since late winter. I think I could use up fingers counting the days without rain and still have enough left over to plink out Chopin's "Raindrop" Prelude.1

So far this month Ann Arbor has received over 6" of rain, which is twice the 3" average for May, and it's expected that we'll add to that throughout the weekend2. For April, it was 5.5" and for both March and February it was somewhere around 4" (including snow). This past Wednesday, it was 2.2" in one day. That's a lot of water, far above the monthly average for at least four straight months now.

Fortunately, Michigan drains to both west and east. That means neither the Grand River draining into Lake Michigan, nor the Huron River flowing through Ann Arbor toward Lake Huron, has to contain the full collection of rainfall in the way that the Mississippi River does. Here's a map of the Mississippi drainage. Just look at that! Half the country's waters drain through New Orleans! No wonder the lower Mississippi is so vulnerable to flooding -- they have to receive everyone else's water, not just their own.

So for all the rain we've had in Michigan, flooding has occurred only sporadically. Michigan sheds its excess water quite easily and has enormous basins on either side to catch the runoff. Lucky us.

So far, I've seen no rainbows in the sky, but I don't worry too much about the entire world flooding.3 For that, I have something better than a rainbow: a basic understanding of how the world works and some basic arithmetic. For example, Michigan averages 35 inches of rain per year. But to flood the earth enough to cover the mountains with just 40 days of rain? Let's use that arithmetic: Mount Everest is 29,035' above sea level and there are 960 hours in 40 days and nights. That requires a rate of flooding of 30 feet per hour! Ten times as much water, in a single hour, as a Midwestern state receives in an entire year! That's ... well, incredible. As in "not credible," not to be believed

Where would so much water come from? The ancients of the Near East seem to have imagined that the sky was a solid shell and that the "waters of the deep" surrounded both earth and sky in all directions; when Genesis 1:6 has God declare, "Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters," that should be understood as a division in three dimensions, not just two. There was water below the earth and above the sky, so in order to flood the earth, "the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened." [Genesis 7:11] For those forty days and nights, the waters were no longer divided from the waters. It wasn't just raining. The earth was simultaneously foundering and receiving an infinite ocean pouring through those windows in the sky. Under that kind of assault, an ark might have to be as watertight as a submarine to avoid flooding itself!

Fortunately, we have a more accurate cosmology today and we know that such quantities of water just don't exist anywhere within reach. The moisture in the ocean, lakes, rivers, and clouds is all there is on earth and if there were enough to cover the entire planet, it would do it every day. That doesn't save us from floods altogether, alas; it just means that floods are very local affairs. Some are big enough to feel like the end of the world, if you were to experience them, such as the Glacial Lake Missoula floods I mentioned last autumn. William Ryan and Walter Pittman have even suggested a breakthrough of the Mediterranean into the Black Sea as the origin of the Flood mythology. But that's a local catastrophe nonetheless; if you have too much water, that just means that somewhere else has less than it did before. Now doesn't that make you feel better?

1. Not Chopin's name for opus 28, no. 15, just so you know.

2. The forecast looks a little better for the race in Indianapolis Sunday, but it's likely to be hot and breezy, which should make life exciting for the engineers. I won't be surprised if some good drivers struggle with unexpectedly slow cars when the race gets under way.

3. We just escaped yet another prediction of the end of the world, so I'm just wallowing in complacency these days.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Friday photo

Sequoia tree, Giant Forest. Sequoia National Park, June 2005.

Here's a curious arrangement of rock and tree. I can't say much about it, except that it's obvious the rock was there first. What's peculiar to me is that it looks like the tree has gone out of its way to incorporate the boulder. I suppose the circumference of the tree began to butt up against the stone several centuries ago, altering the pattern of growth. Now it just looks like it can't decide if it's a sequoia tree or a python.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Friday photo

Pelicans on Yellowstone River. Yellowstone National Park, June 2005

One of the last photos I took in Yellowstone and one of my favorites (you'll probably need to click and enlarge it). I had just composed this scene of the sunset over the Yellowstone River -- the cheapest and easiest way to engage in nature photography, let's be honest here -- when three pelicans swooped in from the left. I saw them just in time to delay tripping the shutter* and waited until they entered the frame. Ah, and then one of them tired of the others' conversation or something, and decided to land in the river. What a stroke of fortune; the outstretched wings and the ripples from his feet breaking the water are just so much more dynamic than the river and sky, or even than the three birds in flight would have been.

Pelican flight is absolutely gorgeous and stately. They don't do aerobatics like the swallows that nest under the eaves of Lake Hotel. They don't flap frantically. They glide through the air as if on a tram, faster than hawks and eagles normally soar, more immune to buffeting breezes that bounce seagulls about. Once my sister and I were standing on the high bluff on the east side of LeHardy Rapids, looking down on the river, when a similar flight of three pelicans suddenly swooped into view below us. A video could never convey the effect; such serendipitous beauty can only be savored in the moment.

Which is to say, I hope you enjoy the photo. But it's not the same as being there.

* An unfortunate feature of digital cameras is that they take several seconds to save the digital file between each shot, unless you've set the camera to 'burst' mode. Landscapes don't usually move, even in a volcano like Yellowstone, so I didn't typically use burst mode.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Arab spring in Tunisia

Via Global Museum, this article about the cultural benefits of removing ignorant autocrats from power: Tunis museum flourishes after Ben Ali fall

Just as a fresh breeze now blows through the country's politics and press, Tunisia's cultural institutions too have the chance to flourish.

Instead of protecting the nation's treasures from the hands of former ruler Ben Ali and his wife, [Taher] Ghalia is heading up a major renovation project to bring them to the people.

"They weren't interested in culture. There was a trade in antiquities, but fortunately the Bardo wasn't touched," said Ghalia who clashed with the couple earlier in his career.


"It wasn't even about politics," says Ghalia. "It was simply that these people weren't very educated and didn't bother about our heritage.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Friday photo

Dirt road. Jackson County, Michigan, September 2005.

I don't know about you, but this looks nothing like Michigan to me. Even the foliage looks foreign, even though there's nothing in here that you can't see in southeast Michigan. Maybe it's the combination of dirt and hill; in the farm country where I grew up, unpaved roads tend to be gravel and flat, straight, and open to the sky.

For this shot, I timed it so that a car had just disappeared over the hill and its cloud of dust was not quite dispersed, giving the image a lonelier, remote feel .

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Who is Bin Laden?

Years ago I came across a pile of 'ancient' Reader's Digests and found an anecdote from 1944 or 1945, which told of British mother whose young son was puzzled when she referred to an object on the beach as a "shell." He knew nothing of seashells; the only shells he knew were the exploding kind.

That came to mind when I read this post by Jamelle Bouie at the American Prospect blog. The 5th-most-common Yahoo search on Osama Bin Laden this week is the basic question, "Who is Osama Bin Laden?" Mostly, this came from teenagers, the oldest of whom were only 7 or 8 when 9/11 occured. Observes Bouie,

Given the extent to which bin Laden had mostly drifted from our national conversation (especially in light of the Great Recession), it's not a huge surprise to learn that a non-trivial number of teenagers are baffled by his significance. Still, it's sobering; not because it reveals anything profound about our educational system or the attacks on 9/11, but because it points to an absolute truth: for each generation, America is a very different place, and the America we lost on 9/11 -- the America that didn't profile citizens, torture people, or monitor their phone calls -- isn't even a distance memory for the children and teenagers of today's America.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Friday photo

Flag reflected in rain puddles. University of Michigan, April 2011.

How can you miss Oregon when it's been raining every day in Michigan for the last couple weeks? It seems like every day, anyway, although the National Weather Service may have statistics to prove otherwise. But rain is visually interesting, so I dawdled my way across campus the other day, trying out a few shots that featured the rain and its effect. This one came out ... not especially attractive, but interesting in its own way.

Freezing the flag's motion, and the ripples' motion, gives it an entirely different look than in real life. It's barely identifiable as a flag, but a touch of extra saturation brings out enough red to trigger recognition. The bricks are red, too, but reflect the overcast sky so strongly that they remain a particularly ugly shade of greenish-gray.

To my cynical eye, it almost looks like a pool of blood flowing across the bricks, which is not any effect I had in mind when I took the photo. Nor did I intend the flag to represent any political critique of our country. But now that the photo is there, it almost seems to have its own ideas on what it's going to mean. Or, to take more responsibility, my own mind doesn't reject the association of American flag + blood on the streets = some appropriate commentary. It's just too easy these days, with Americans now fighting in three different Middle Eastern countries where they too often can't tell what they're shooting at, and too often kill people who only want to be left alone. And supporting a few other countries where the rulers are celebrating spring by deliberately shooting down their own people in the streets.

I wish our flag didn't trigger those associations so easily. One of the more painful moments for me is to watch the Olympics or the World Cup and watch fans waving their nations' flags with joy and pride. I can cheer for our athletes, but it's hard for me to wave our flag; it's been coopted by the uglier nationalists in our midst, whose cry of "God Bless America!" always seem to carry the subtext, "(and no one else, unless they toe the line)." Most often, that phrase carries an overtone of belligerence, and too often the vocal tones are undeniably angry. While other nations have their ugly nationalists, too, I just don't get that impression of hostility when I hear hockey fans give a full-throated rendition of "O Canada", even if that sort of national consciousness surely must owe a lot to awareness of those noisy foreign neighbors.

As I said, I get jealous. I wish my flag triggered a more innocent kind of pride.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Friday photo

Tower Fall. Yellowstone National Park, May 2002.

It's peculiar that I had lived in Yellowstone for so many years before I ever caught Tower Fall at the right time of day for this scene: the massive spray from the waterfall backlit by strong sunlight, filling the entire canyon with a dazzling light. I have this scene in both slides and born-digital images and may have to scan one of the slides someday for comparison.

Tower Fall is a fine example of a hanging creek, a small river that's cutting downward as fast as it can, but just can't keep up with the more powerful and erosive river that it empties into. In this case, Tower Creek has to drop 132 feet in order to catch up with the mighty Yellowstone River just a couple hundred yards away. Multnomah Falls near Portland, Oregon, is an especially spectacular example, if you happen to be going that way.

The creek and waterfall were named by the members of the Washburn expedition of 1870 early in their explorations. In his account of the expedition, Nathanial Langford added this footnote to the story of the naming of Tower Fall:
At the outset of our journey we had agreed that we would not give to any object of interest which we might discover the name of any of our party nor of our friends. This rule was to be religiously observed. While in camp Sunday, August 28th, on the bank of this creek, it was suggested that we select a name for the creek and fall. Walter Trumbull suggested "Minaret Creek" and "Minaret Fall." Mr. Hauser suggested "Tower Creek" and "Tower Fall." After some discussion a vote was taken, and by a small majority the name "Minaret" was decided upon. During the following evening Mr. Hauser stated with great seriousness that we had violated our agreement made relative to naming objects for our friends. He said that the well known Southern family -- the Rhetts -- lived in St. Louis, and that they had a most charming and accomplished daughter named "Minnie." He said that this daughter was a sweetheart of Mr. Trumbull. Mr. Trumbull indignantly denied the truth of Hauser's statement, and Hauser as determinedly insisted that it was the truth, and the vote was therefore reconsidered, and by a substantial majority it was decided to substitute "Tower" for "Minaret." Later, and when it was too late to recall or reverse the action of our party, it was surmised that Hauser himself had a sweetheart in St. Louis, a Miss Tower. Some of our party, Walter Trumbull especially, always insisted that such was the case. The weight of testimony was so evenly balanced that I shall hesitate long before I believe either side of this part of the story.

Given Nathanial Langford's track record with campfire stories, I wouldn't hesitate an instant before disbelieving every side of this part of the story. His tale of the origin of the national park idea, that the party was camped at the confluence of the Firehole and Gibbon Rivers (to form the Madison) discussing the profits to be made from claiming the areas around the waterfalls and geysers under the Homestead Acts and charging tourists to see them, when one of his companions solemnly declared that they should reject such base scheming and work to have the area given over to the people as a national park -- well, that story has long been debunked, with a corresponding decline in Langford's reputation as a scrupulous man.

In any event, Walter Trumbull ended up marrying a woman named Slater, while Samuel Hauser married one Helen Farrar only a year after this supposed campfire spat. You'd have thought naming a waterfall in the first national park after your lover would earn you a few more boyfriend points than that, but women are fickle, I suppose. Neither man ever managed to marry a Miss Tower or Miss Rhett.

This William Henry Jackson photo nicely illustrates why "Minaret" would have been an entirely appropriate name for this waterfall. The sketch below was made by one of the soldiers on the Washburn expedition and, as far as us white folks go, is certainly the very earliest pictorial representation of Tower Fall.

By the way, if you click on the Jackson photo and look closely, you'll spot a small boulder perched precariously on the edge of the waterfall. For over a hundred years, tourists enjoyed speculating on how long it could stay there; it looked like it should fall any minute, but maybe it would last another century, or two, or three? Well, it didn't. Spring floods knocked it off the edge in 1985 or 1986, shortly before I first laid eyes on Tower myself. Alas.