Sunday, February 7, 2016

Travels of an expatriate

Street scene in Fez

We often travel to seek the strange and the mysterious, which sometimes means simply seeing how other people in other cultures live their lives.  American writer (and musician) Paul Bowles spent his life traveling and observing other peoples.  His fiction evokes the strange, the mysterious, and even the frightening and bizarre.

His best known novel, The Sheltering Sky, follows an American couple into the Sahara, where they find more than they sought, in writing that casts an almost hypnotic spell on the reader.  Bowles's best known short story, perhaps, The Delicate Prey, also set deep in the Sahara, is a horrifying tale of crime and punishment among residents of the desert, desert dwellers whose ideas of justice are untempered by mercy.

I was introduced to Bowles through his fiction, his stories of the Sahara and its effects on those who lived in, or visited the life of, the desert.  I had also heard stories of Bowles's private life -- stories of a man who spent most of his life as an expatriate in Tangier, who lived for years in an interesting marriage to a lesbian writer, and who was a friend and confidante of many American writers including members of the Beat generation.

I was unprepared for the writing to which he evidently devoted much of his time -- travel writing for mainstream publications.  His book, Travels, contains some 39 essays, most of them published in the late, lamented Holiday magazine during the 1950s and 60s  -- a magazine that was to travel writing what the New Yorker is to general literature.   His writing presents scenes and vignettes almost as strange as those in his fiction, but in a first-person narrative form  that is far more accessible to the uninitiated first-time Bowles reader.

Tangier was his preferred residence, and Morocco his preferred country, and some of the best essays describe experiences in Moroccan cities, in the mountain areas (the Rif, the Atlas), and in the bleak (but always surprising) expanses of the Sahara.  Bowles first moved to Tangier in the early 1930s as a youth.  Tangier -- for many years an "international city" under French and Spanish administration --  has no major "tourist sites," he acknowledges, but, in a 1958 article, he found much to love.

In Europe, it seems to me, the past is largely fictitious; to be aware of it one must have previous knowledge of it.  In Tangier, the past is a physical reality as perceptible as sunlight.

 He saw both the city and the country evolve from a primitive residence of Berbers and Arabs, governed by French and Spanish colonial powers, to a far more modern and independent nation. 

Bowles (who died in 1999) was no sympathizer with colonial rule.  He was even less, perhaps, a sympathizer with the "modernizing" (read "Europeanizing and Americanizing") ferver of Moroccan nationalist leaders.  Where Morocco's rulers saw progress, Bowles saw foundering attempts at globalization -- the gradual replacement of local crafts and foods with mass produced imported goods and services.

The last essays in this book were written in the early 1990s.  I'm not sure to what extent Bowles's fears for the future have come true, although "McDonaldization" continues unabated in many parts of the world.  In an article written in 1984, he wrote about the medieval medina in Fez:

Yet with the increasing poverty in the region, the city clearly cannot continue much longer in its present form.   ...  A house which formerly sheltered one family now contains ten or twelve families, living, it goes without saying, in unimaginable squalor.  The ancient dwellings are falling rapidly into disrepair.  And so at last, it is the people from outside the walls who have taken over the city, and their conquest, a natural and inevitable process, spells its doom.  That Fez should still be there today, unchanged in its outward form, is the surprising phenomenon.

I visited Fez, for my first and, so far, only visit, in 2012.  I have nothing earlier in my own experience with which to compare it.  All I can say is that the city, when I visited it, was magical -- magical and apparently non-ersatz, thriving, and packed with local manufacturing (e.g., leather tanning) and shops, and local residents.  (It also had its share of tourists, of course.)   I would love to find a place to stay overnight within the medina on a future visit.

So the death and decay of Morocco is all relative, I suppose.  The past was always better.  I'm not being entirely ironical, because by Bowles's standards the past no doubt was better, more true to local culture -- even though the Moroccan residents probably had less money, less food, and worse housing.

Bowles's travel articles aren't limited in topic to Morocco.  He writes about locales as disparate as Paris, Seville, Istanbul, Algeria, Central America, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Kenya, Madeira, and Thailand.  He writes a series of articles about a project he undertook under a grant, recording tribal music throughout the mountainous areas of Morocco -- at a time when the Moroccan government was hoping to stamp out "folk music" as an indication of non-modern backwardness.  Always, Bowles has an eye for the strange, an ear for the good story, an empathy for the people with whom he speaks, a sensitivity to their music and to their lives.

Reading the essays and articles in Travels is as close as most of us will get to obtaining a feel for many various cultures in the world, and especially for those cultures as they existed before and a decade or two after World War II.  And learning about the world's hidden places and cultures from a gifted writer with a clear sense of perception renders them no less intriguing or mysterious.  Intriguing and mysterious to us, as they were even to Bowles himself.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Return to Laos

Mekong Riverview Hotel

Getting there may or may not be "half the fun," but planning a trip almost always is.  Most of my travel is thus planned long in advance, with various aspects of my trip meticulously considered, and bookings arranged early on.  Not that I don't value spontaneity -- I just like to tackle early those details of the trip that are necessarily non-spontaneous.

Rarely do I decide to take a major trip a mere six weeks in advance.  But when advised that my sister and my nephew were going to Laos next month, visiting with family members for a couple of weeks, what could I do?  I said sure, me too, I wanna go, when will you be there?

Maury celebrates fifth birthday with
Luang Prabang classmates in 2004.

My six-year-old great niece and her mom have returned to Luang Prabang, after an extended stay in the Bay Area. Maury's mom is writing travel articles for Southeast Asia publications.  Maury, my great niece, originally began first grade in Luang Prabang in the fall of 2004, but then switched to a Sonoma county school last fall.  Now she's back in Luang Prabang, at an international school where most of her classes are taught in English, but some in Lao.

So yesterday I decided to go.  No time to ponder schedules for weeks, as is my wont.  Within an  hour I had booked round trip flights from Seattle to Bangkok, via Seoul (surprisingly inexpensive), and round trip flights on a local airline (not quite so cheap) between Bangkok and Luang Prabang.  I also booked six nights at the Riverview Hotel, overlooking the Mekong river -- the hotel where I stayed with delight on my prior visit to Luang Prabang in October 2004 -- and a single night between flights at the airport hotel in Bangkok.

My parents would have gone downtown and engaged in lengthy discussions with a travel agent, with a number of subsequent phone calls confirming various aspects of the trip.  Through the magic of the internet, I can do the entire thing myself with minimal fuss.  That sounds totally natural to most of my readers, but to me -- who began his travels in an earlier world -- it still instills awe.

All one needs now is enough available credit on your Visa card, and the world is your oyster.  Hopefully, you will have reached a nation that has no extradition treaty with the United States before your Visa bill arrives.

Just a little light travel humor.

So I leave Seattle on March 20, spend six nights in Luang Prabang, and return home on March 29.  A whirlwind trip, but travel causes time dilation, as Einstein well knew.  My time in Laos will seem lengthy and full of event -- but once I get home, I'll marvel at how quickly the time flew. 

Such is the sad way the world works -- and that our lives pass!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Groundhog Day

I just feel moved to expound on the subject of Groundhog Day, noting that today is indeed the Feast of the Purification, a/k/a Candlemas Day a/k/a Groundhog Day.  But long-time bloggers,  like old-timers in general, find themselves apt to tell the same story over and over.

In fact, a perusal of my archives reveals that I've already discussed the subject.  Twice, in fact, in 2009 -- at the beginning and at the end of the six-week prescriptive period of additional winter.  And in 2010, I added a macabre touch to the day, publishing a recipe for Groundhog Stew.

What can I add to our annual celebration of the rites of Marmota monax that I haven't mentioned before?  A little poetry, perhaps?  Recall that a groundhog is also known, depending on whence you hale, as a woodchuck:

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck
if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
A woodchuck would chuck all the wood he could
if a woodchuck could chuck wood!

There you go, readers.  You get rhyme, alliteration, homonyms, and scientific knowledge all in one fell quatrain.

Recall -- by the way -- that groundhogs not only go about their business under the name of woodchuck, but also use the varied monikers of whistler, thickwood badger, Canada marmot, monax, moonack, weenusk, and red monk

Long before anyone began badgering (!) the benighted woodchuck each year at this time, his powers of prognostication were attributed to mere forces of nature.  From pre-groundhog England we have the verse:

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.

From Germany (in translation):

For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day,
So far will the snow swirl until May.
For as the snow blows on Candlemas Day,
So far will the sun shine before May.

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Today was sunny and bright.  Any Seattle groundhog who popped his head above ground definitely saw his shadow, foreshadowing six more weeks of winter.  Alas!

But hark!  There are no groundhogs in the State of Washington!  They live and thrive east of the Mississippi and northwards into Canada.  But not in these parts.  We do have their distant marmot relatives: the hoary marmot, the yellow-bellied marmot, and the Olympic marmot.  But no one would mistake these friendly, intelligent and generally magnificent mountain animals with the common groundhog.  Our mountain marmots are far superior to that peculiar beast held aloft by the mayor of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, in the movie Groundhog Day

Having no resident groundhogs, and clearly not being physically attached to England or Germany, we in Seattle are free from all Groundhog Day traditions, superstitions, old-wives tales, and/or empirical observations. 

Sometimes a sunny day is just a sunny day, as Freud once observed.  A sunny February 2nd in Seattle is (1) a miracle, and (2) simply a day to be enjoyed in shorts and t-shirts.  We may or may not have six more weeks of winter.  But "winter" in Seattle isn't what most of the nation -- especially those parts of the nation subject to the reign of the groundhog -- call "winter."  To us, it's just a little more rainfall than usual.

Happy Groundhog Day!

Friday, January 29, 2016

First Hill Streetcar

One more quick report on a subject dear to my heart -- public transportation in Seattle.  On Monday, I hopped an introductory free ride on our city's newly-completed second streetcar line. 

The First Hill line runs from Broadway at Denny (in front of Seattle Community College), south on Broadway to Yesler, east several blocks into the Central District as far as Fourteenth, then back west on Jackson through the International District, past King Street Station, and ending up in Pioneer Square.

I rode the streetcar through rush-hour traffic (about 4 p.m.).  The ride took 29 minutes.  As I've mentioned to others, I probably could walk from SCC to Pioneer Square in less time than that, following a more direct route.

But the streetcar isn't intended as a fast ride from terminus to terminus.  It will pick up passengers at a number of intermediate stops, giving them faster transportation than is provided by existing bus routes. 

Besides, well, shucks, street cars are pretty cool!  It remains to be seen whether the First Hill route will be as successful as the existing South Lake Union route, which passes through the heart of the Amazon building boom.  In any event, I welcome the opening of the new route.

And in a further note on the mass transit front -- since my discussion a couple of weeks ago of the extension of Seattle's existing light rail line north to the University of Washington, South Transit has announced that service will begin on the new 3.1 mile tunnel segment, with its stations on Capitol Hill and at Husky Stadium, on March 19. 

Life is good when you live in Seattle.  And find yourself fascinated by public transportation.

Thursday, January 28, 2016


You've all been waiting for it.  I've been plagued with telephone calls from the New York Times and the Washington Post asking for it.  National editorials continue to question my -- to date -- refusal to speak out.  So here it is.

 I support Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee, and as the next President of the United States.

I have nothing against Bernie Sanders.  He's a courageous guy.  You'd have to be, to ask for the Democratic nomination, when you've never been a Democrat until now.  I would have no difficulty in supporting him, if he were the nominee.  But I hope he's not.

Bernie Sanders wants us to "send a message."  Sending a message is important, but not as important as holding the presidency.  Regardless of which party wins the presidency, the Republicans almost certainly will hold at least one, and probably both, houses of Congress.  The difference between what Clinton and Sanders would be able to push through a Republican Congress is miniscule. 

What a Democratic presidency can accomplish in the next four or eight years isn't really the important issue in this election.  The critical concern is what a Democratic president can prevent from happening.  The likely choices for Republican nominee have promised to dismantle Affordable Health Care immediately, and to cancel the agreements with Iran (and possibly Cuba) on "day one." 

Essentially, the Republicans plan -- should they win the presidency -- to return the country to 2008 within weeks of occupying the White House.  As just a first step on their march backwards to the McKinley Administration. 

And don't forget the appointments they would make to the Supreme Court.  No more wishy-washy liberals like Chief Justice Roberts.  Nine little Justice Scalias scowling from the bench.

Bernie would stop the Republicans dead, just as readily as would Hillary.  But I don't think Bernie Sanders can win -- not with a "Socialist" -- or even "Democratic Socialist" -- label hanging from his neck.  Granted, maybe he can, but the stakes are too high, and the advantages in his winning are too small for me to be willing to risk it.

The Democrats lost elections they should have won in 1968 and 1972 because they nominated an unelectable candidate (McGovern in 1972) or split the party badly before electing a potentially electable candidate (Humphrey in 1968).  We can't afford to do it today -- not with a Trump or a Cruz, or even a Rubio, salivating at the thought of occupying the White House.

Therefore, I'll support whichever Democratic candidate I feel has the best chance of capturing the independent vote as well as unifying his or her own party, regardless of difference in nuance between the candidates' political messages.

To me, it appears obvious that Hillary plays that role.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Teaching with humility

When we think we know something about interstellar space, or the inside of a knife blade, so well that we can whistle it backward, we may feel sure we are quite wrong.  Nothing in the real world is ever so simple.  In the world of books, life and the universe are often quite simple, but books are merely diaries of our explorers, and the latest chapters in these diaries indicate that electrons, instead of being little hard round balls of electricity, are more like little clouds of particles which behave like waves and are influenced by waves. 
When we talk about the stars or the inside of a knife blade, we must get accustomed to talking about things we don't understand; because our explorers bring back such imperfect maps, and also because we all have minds too feeble for the real wonders of the world.

These lines come from a book for children published in 1931 -- The Stars for Sam, by W. Maxwell Reed.  My folks gave me the book when I was about ten years old.  My recent reading of Oliver Sacks's memoirs reminded me of the book, which I no longer seem to have (although admittedly the boxes in my basement contain many mysteries).  Amazon put me in touch with a used book dealer, however, and I was able to purchase a used copy for $20.

I loved the book as a kid, but I recall feeling that it was a difficult book.  And I can see why.  The Stars for Sam is written very clearly, using concrete examples throughout, and is written with a humorous tone in places.  But it resolutely refuses to "dumb down" modern science for lazy children. 

The book contains descriptive chapters, describing for readers what was known at the time about the sun, each of the planets (including recently-discovered Pluto), meteors, comets, the Milky Way, galaxies, and how it was believed that the solar system was formed (now outdated).  But it also tackled the nature of elementary particles, sound, light, temperature, Doppler effect, color, gravity, Einstein's general theory of relativity, and the bases and results of Einstein's special theory.

This is pretty heavy stuff for a child's book, especially one written in 1931.

But I imagine that other books for young people also attempted to cover some of these subjects, although probably not as gracefully and elegantly as did Mr. Reed.  But what really impresses me about The Stars for Sam -- as suggested by the quotation above -- is the author's intellectual humility.

Relativity was a subject that was giving adults problems decades later.  The nature of the electron and of light is understandable only in terms of quantum theory and mathematics.  Reed describes, clearly and at an elementary level, relativity theory.  He does not use the term "quantum," but he explains clearly some of the experimental difficulties that  quantum theory helps to explain. 

Above all, he insists that all knowledge is provisional.  We form models of the electron, of space, of time, based on the knowledge that we have.  Our understanding of any physical phenomenon is always provisional -- subject to revision by new experimental data.  (Of course the theory of evolution is "just a theory," Reed would say, if that were his subject.  Everything is "just a theory.")

And no matter how much we learn, the ultimate nature of reality will always escape us, just because of the limitations of our intelligence and because our imagination is tied to our limited perception with five physical senses.  We simply do our best to form images of reality that are as close to "true reality" as possible. 

In his Preface, Reed observes

When the author went to school he had the impression that his teachers and the libraries together represented almost complete knowledge.  He appreciated that there were some things to be discovered, but not many.  Now he finds himself trying to impart to the next generation exactly the opposite doctrine.  He wants to make clear not only that we are on the verge of making great discoveries as yet unsuspected, but that due to our limitations in the three dimensional world we can probably never really understand the space-time-life world. Our three dimensional minds must ever have distorted ideas.

Pretty impressive for a child's book in 1931.  Few of my teachers (or texts) a quarter-century later shared that humility.

The Stars for Sam was worth my twenty bucks.  The book probably isn't an appropriate book for a child today -- too many of the facts discussed have been revised by subsequent work in astronomy -- but it's an appropriate reminder to adults of how best to teach science to the young.

Friday, January 22, 2016

I Fidanzati

Last night at the Seattle Art Museum's Italian film series -- after watching I Fidanzati -- I told my companion, "Well, I don't think I'll be writing in my blog about this one."

The 1963 film by director Ermanno Olni seemed to go on forever.  And it had no plot, which is to say, nothing happened.  Well, that's not true.  Lots of things "happened," but they didn't seem to add up to any recognizable story line.

But now, the day after, I've reconsidered.  Here are just a few words about the film, in case anyone has the opportunity to see it.

The plot, such as it is:  Giovanni and Lilliana, probably in their late 20s, are a long-time engaged couple -- "fidanzati" -- living in Milan. They act bored and irritated with each other.  Giovanni has received a job offer, a chance to advance his career, working on industrial construction in Sicily.  Lilliana doesn't want him to go.  He goes.  He spends weeks wandering around the coastal construction site listlessly, observing with occasional interest the peculiarities of Sicilian life. 

The two exchange letters.  Giovanni confesses how much he loves Lilliana and misses her.  She replies that she had been desperately scared that he was leaving her for good, that the job was just an opportunity to get away from her.  Their letters become increasingly open and self-revealing, in ways that their face to face conversations had never been.  Finally, Giovanni telephones her.  The phone call is brief and awkward, and they exchange simple small talk.  He wanders around the construction site in the midst of a storm.  End.

The story is boring, but the photography is excellent and the scenes of northern Italy and Sicily around 1960 are fascinating just from an historical point of view.  Italy by then was well beyond the poverty of the post-war days, but still remained uniquely Italian -- Italy did not yet derive much of its national personality from the rest of Europe, let alone from America, as it has increasingly since.

Nevertheless, the corporate life of Giovanni's employer -- airline flights, modern hotels, tight schedules, quick decisions, work to be accomplished -- already contrasted to an enormous degree with the slow, rural, traditional life of its local Sicilian workers.  The bemusement of Giovanni, and the northern Italian company bosses, with local customs and festivals is obvious.

The film reveals Giovanni's growing homesickness by his rapid flashbacks to scenes with his girlfriend in Milan, and -- by its focus on the minutiae of his daily life in Sicily -- demonstrates his loneliness and boredom.  It is this very loneliness that enables him to pour his heart out in his letters to Lilliana. 

But do Giovanni and Lilliana really love each other?  Absence has clearly made their hearts grow fonder, but how will they feel once Giovanni returns to Milan and they once more find themselves together daily.  The awkward telephone call may portend doom -- but, on the other hand, phone calls are often awkward, especially when the participants haven't seen each other for a while and -- for that matter -- rarely use telephones.

I suspect that Olmi intends for us each to write our own ending, to draw our own conclusion as to the couple's  future happiness -- a conclusion that hinges on how optimistic or pessimistic we each feel individually regarding the prospects of romantic life.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Beyond Pluto

By second grade, I could tell you the name of all nine (9) planets, and the number of their then-known moons.  So could a lot of other kids.  (I didn't know much about dinosaurs, however, with which so many of today's tykes are familiar.)

Who likes to see the verities of their early childhood destroyed in adulthood?  Not me.  It broke my heart when Pluto was voted off the planetary island, giving us only eight true planets.

But now it appears that something else is out there.  Something big.  Something so big that no one will deny it's a planet, if in fact it really is there.  Michael E. Brown at Caltech has observed behavior in a number of small objects, traveling in elliptical orbits that suggest they are under the influence of a much larger body. 

Much larger.  To cause the effect on the small bodies that he has observed, the large body would have to be at least as massive as the Earth, and probably up to ten times as massive.  This body -- I'll call it "Eko-Pluto" for present lack of a better temporary name -- has not yet been observed, but its existence seems strongly suggested.  And if it exists, no one will challenge its status as a planet.

Don't expect to visit Eko-Pluto anytime soon.  We finally got to see a close-up of Pluto, thanks to the New Horizons space probe, nine and a half years after the probe was launched.  Pluto's that far away.  But Pluto is, at its fartherst distance, "only" 4.6 billion miles from the sun.  Dr. Brown estimates that Eko-Pluto would be somewhere between 20 and 100 billion miles away; it would,take 10 thousand to 20 thousand Earth years to circle the sun just once. 

That's a long way for you to travel, and you're going to be a chilly tourist once you get there.  And, of course, so far we don't know for sure whether there's actually any "there" there, once you do get there. 

And you might feel a tad lonely.  As one reader eruditely commented, after reading the New York Times's article,

"Le silence eternel de ces espaces infinis m'effrait."

(The eternal silence of these infinite spaces is terrifying.)  You got that right, mister.  But, for me sitting in my armchair, it would be warm and comforting to know that our sun once more had nine planets.

Like it's supposed to.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Uncle Tungsten

Sacks's bar mitzvah photo

And speaking of chemistry ...

Since my last post, two days ago, I have finished reading Oliver Sacks's memoir, Uncle Tungsten.  Since Sacks's death last summer, his life and work have been much discussed and reviewed.  Therefore, rather than a "review" of Uncle Tungsten, I'll just offer a few remarks.  

The book is a memoir of Sacks's life up to the age of 14.  During most of his boyhood, young Oliver had a precocious and obsessive interest in chemistry.  (Both his parents were physicians, and many members of his huge family of Lithuanian-Jewish ancestry were scientists.)  Sacks uses the story of his boyhood as a framework for a short history of the field of chemistry, from its earliest beginnings in alchemy up to about 1948, when as a young teenager, Sacks began to appreciate the impact of quantum physics on chemists' modern understanding of their field.

Like all kids -- like myself, as discussed in the prior post -- his interest in chemistry began with an attraction to color, smell, tactile sensations -- in other words to the properties of tangible materials.  Because of his family, he had opportunities from a very early age to see scientists in action, as well as to have a source for chemicals and other materials to work with.  Tungsten offered a particular allure, because one of his uncles owned a company that extracted and produced tungsten in many forms and for many uses.

Sacks thus learned chemistry by handling materials, wondering about their characteristics, and seeking out information on his own.  In his memoir, he implicitly equates his first tentative steps toward chemical knowledge with the first tentative applications of the scientific method in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  As Sacks the boy learned more, Sacks the adult leads us step by step through the history of the discipline.  He suggests that he is merely passing on to us the knowledge he himself had learned at the age of 9 and 10.  To some extent this may well be true, but the elder Sacks obviously did substantial historical research in order to present this scientific history -- and this research is confirmed in his acknowledgements.

Young Oliver learned chemistry the way that early scientists once learned it -- by observation and by seeking explanations for what he observed.  This approach is the opposite of that taken by high schools and undergraduate programs where, for the most part, students learn theory from books, and may then illustrate those theories by prescribed laboratory exercises.  Sacks was always interested first in the observation, and only than in the theoretical explanation.  And to Sacks as a boy, learning about the men who advanced the world's knowledge of chemistry was as important as -- and a substantial part of -- learning about chemical theory itself.

Thus, even as a boy, Sacks immersed himself in the world of the senses, rather than simply read books.  His instincts as a youth prefigured his approach to the practice of neurology as an adult, where he insisted on as much contact with the patient as possible -- learning about patients as living human beings, rather than simply running their symptoms through a prescribed differential diagnosis.

Oliver Sacks lost his enthusiasm for chemistry at the age of 14.  In this book, he wonders why.  In part, he feels, it was chemistry itself that had changed.  Quantum physics gave chemical elements, compounds, and reactions a ghostly quality.  What's happened to cause and effect when a hydrogen atom may change its state of excitation at any moment, totally unpredictably, and when one can predict behavior at the atomic level only statistically?

He also suspects, sadly, that loss of his once burning enthusiasm for chemistry was a predictable accompaniment of growing up.

Was it, perhaps, ... that I was growing up, and that "growing up" makes one forget the lyrical, mystical perceptions  of childhood, the glory and the freshness of which Wordsworth wrote, so that they fade into the light of common day?

However that loss occurred, to be replaced by an interest in medicine, during the years when his peers were playing soccer and cricket, Oliver developed a profound fascination with the world of chemistry, and with the way in which scientific knowledge is advanced.  His recovered enthusiasm, as an adult author, proves contagious.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Playing with chemicals

A chemistry set!  When I was about 12 or 13, my parents finally gave in, despite their better judgment, and bought me a chemistry set for my birthday, or maybe for Christmas. 

I guess they still make chemistry sets, but they no longer possess the glamor and universal appeal they had decades ago.  When you can wipe out an entire planet in virtual reality, what's the fun of making a stink bomb?

The most popular sets were made by Gilbert (which also made American Flyer trains), but mine was a Chemcraft, a larger and more elaborate set than I've shown in the illustration.  It came with test tubes, other small pieces of glassware, and a large number of bottles and stoppered tubes filled with a wide variety of chemicals.  I also dreamed of beakers, flasks, and glass retorts -- the apparatus of Dr. Frankenstein's laBORatory -- but these larger pieces had to be ordered separately.

So did my joy of ownership segue quickly into depth of scientific knowledge?  Not exactly.  Most of the "experiments" outlined in the manual that accompanied the set pertained to "magic" -- turning water to wine and back to water, through the magic of phenolphthalein (a pH indicator).  That was the simplest of the tricks, but most of the others also involved the production, instantaneously, of variously colored liquids.

From these tricks -- and the little magic shows by which I bewitched the younger kids in the neighborhood -- I progressed to serious stuff.  Like heating a combination of sulfur and paraffin in a test tube, producing hydrogen sulfide gas.  That little stunt -- performed in our basement -- rendered that portion of the house uninhabitable for several days, as well as destroying the test tube.  Or making a makeshift gunpowder, by nervously grinding potassium nitrate, sulfur, and charcoal together.  By god -- it works!

These recollections are occasioned by my in-progress reading of Oliver Sacks's memoir of his childhood, especially with respect to his extensive experimentation with chemistry, Uncle Tungsten.  I felt guilty, even as a kid, that I did nothing more than play with chemicals.  I never made much effort to understand the nature of the chemical reactions involved in my experiments.

But Sacks's introduction to chemistry was exactly the same.  He was in love with the colors he could make.  He made explosives.  He bought pure sodium metal, dumped it in a London lake, and watched it scurry explosively along the water's surface.  From his basement "laboratory," he made his own family's house uninhabitable.

Writing in 2001, Sacks lamented the fact that so many of the chemicals he loved to play with -- acids, explosives, poisons -- were no longer available to modern children.  In a footnote, he quotes Linus Pauling, winner of Nobel Prizes for both chemistry and peace:

Just think of the differences today.  A young person gets interested in chemistry and is given a chemical set.  But it doesn't contain potassium cyanide.  It doesn't even contain copper sulfate or anything else interesting, because all the interesting chemicals are considered dangerous substances.  Therefore, these budding young chemists don't have a chance to do anything engrossing with their chemistry sets.  As I look back, I think it pretty remarkable that Mr. Ziegler, this friend of the family, would have so easily turned over one-third of an ounce of potassium cyanide to me, an eleven-year old boy.

My own set did come with copper sulfate, and a microscope set that I also owned contained a small tube of potassium nitrate.  But alas, even in those earlier days, when we eagerly walked downtown to replenish our supplies of that latter precious substance from a local pharmacy, we were met with a polite refusal to sell.

The moral that Sacks draws, and in which I would concur, is that science is fun, and that many or most scientists (or at least chemists) have been drawn to their profession through childhood play.  Kids need the opportunity for that play.  I never got beyond the stink bomb and magic trick level of chemical research.  Sacks, with greater intelligence and sharper focus, worked his way into a deeper and deeper appreciation of chemistry, without ever leaving behind his spirit of play, his repeated reaction that "Jeez, isn't this cool?" 

I went on to spend a number of summers doing chemical analyses in an industrial laboratory.  There was a certain amount of play, or at least fun, in that work as well.  But I had skipped over the steps that Sacks walked through, where the play leads directly to understanding, and curiosity to innovation.  In my summer job, I learned to understand the concept of "cookbook chemistry," which, intellectually, wasn't really much beyond what I'd been doing out of my Chemcraft manual when I was thirteen!

Friday, January 15, 2016

Light rail comes to the U district

I suspect that if I went back over past blog posts, I'd discover several posts discussing the extension of Seattle's light rail from downtown to the University of Washington's Husky Stadium. 

Probably, sarcastic posts.  Ones noting that it took the primitive Egyptians ten or fifteen years to build the Great Pyramid at Giza, using only manual slave labor, but that it's taken about eight years -- using all the best modern technology -- to extend light rail by 3.15 miles.

But let bygones be bygones.  A week ago, SoundTransit announced that the extension would be up and running by the end of March.  The UW station has been virtually completed for several months, awaiting only, I gather, some work on other portions of the line.

I'm a public transit nut -- note all my posts delighting in New York's subways.  I'm also delighted by this extension.  Once the station is open, we will be able to travel underground -- under the ship canal and under Capitol Hill -- from the UW to downtown's Westlake Center, with a single stop at Broadway and John on Capitol Hill, all in eight minutes. 

At present, Seattle has only the one light rail line.  Students will be able to travel directly, with no change of trains, from the Stadium to Sea-Tac airport.  More to the point, your fearless publisher will be able to travel directly to the airport, once he books the mile from his house to the Stadium station.  It's an easy walk without baggage, or with a light bag or daypack.  With anything bulkier, I'll have to catch the No. 43 or 48 bus north to the Stadium.

Either way, getting to the airport -- just downtown, for that matter -- will be a simpler matter than it has been in the past.  The temptation to pay exorbitant airport parking fees on short trips out of town will be much less. 

The line will be further extended beyond the Stadium to Northgate by 2021, an extension already well under construction.  And a second line from the Chinatown station, across the I-90 bridge, through Bellevue, to Redmond is in the final planning stages.

Forty-six years after voters made the disastrous decision to turn down plans for a heavy rail subway system -- largely provoked by the opposition of a Bellevue shopping center owner who didn't want to make it easy for Eastside shoppers to shop in Seattle -- we finally have the beginnings of an urban rail system.  Not as comfortable as heavy rail, not as comprehensive as then planned, and with costs for property rights and construction that are much higher than they would have been in 1969.

But it's a start!  Thank you SoundTransit.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Gotta go

Science has solved many problems that seemed virtually unsolvable when I was a kid.  We used to whisper among ourselves, "They say that protons and neutrons are elementary, that you can't get any smaller.  But what happens if you cut a proton in two?"  Now we know that protons and neutrons are not elementary.  They are composed of smaller particles -- quarksQuarks are elementary particles. 

So much progress!   Available to all of us.  Just look it up in Wikipedia.

But with respect to one of the most heatedly debated topics of my early teens, no serious research has been done.  So far as I'm aware. 

The question is somewhat questionable, as so many topics debated by young teenage boys tend to be.  I hesitate to bring the matter up in a family publication -- the sort of staid, reputable publication that I've always intended Confused Ideas to be.  But -- at the risk of embarrassing some of my more squeamish readers -- I've decided to open the issue for discussion.

The issue was debated -- and, for all I know, may still be debated -- wherever two or more adolescent boys got together for a camp-out.   Camp-outs where beverages tend to be consumed in quantity during the hours before sleep overcomes the campers.

You can see where this is going, right?

To set forth the factual context as delicately as possible, let me simply point out the obvious.  First, in the Northwest Corner, though summer days may be hot, the nights tend to be chilly.  And second, all that Coca Cola or Dr. Pepper, once consumed, has to go somewhere.  At about 3 a.m., guys tend to wake up with full bladders.  And at the same time, they realize that it's cold.  And so they debate whether to lie in their sleeping bag, keeping relatively warm, with bladder uncomfortably distended, until dawn.  Or whether to brave the cold, dash into whatever bushes may be at hand, relieve themselves, and climb miserable and cold back into their sleeping bag.

As to the reality of the above dilemma, there's no dispute.  And one generally chooses one's own poison -- excessive fullness or freezing cold -- depending on one's own preferences.

But the debate, the dispute, revolves around the question of whether the choice -- cold or full bladder -- is a specious choice.  One vocal set of 13-year-olds argues that keeping the contents of a distended bladder at 98.6 degrees F. requires sufficient energy as to cause the person to feel subjectively "cold."  The remaining set of youngsters argues that the full bladder acts like a "hot water bottle" (q.v., for those not familiar with the term), one that keeps the body warm for a longer period of time.  This latter group of noisy adolescents, struggling to control their changing voices, argue loudly that one does not throw a hot water bottle out of one's bed at a time when he wishes to stay warm.

I could see both sides of the argument, even as an obnoxious youth.  I see both sides now.  The only difference is my adult ability to look beyond black and white, to seek out more nuanced answers.  The answer to the debate, I now suspect, depends on the ambient temperature, on the body weight of the irritating kid, and on the volume of his maxed-out bladder. 

My nuanced conclusion, however, isn't much help to boys with rudimentary mathematical skills attempting to decide whether to leave the warmth of their sleeping bags at 3 o'clock in the morning.  And it's based on no scientific research.

Has this issue ever been researched?  If not, surely some foundation has ample funds to provide a grant for the necessary advanced studies.  I will volunteer the two middle school kids next door as -- is the term outmoded? -- guinea pigs.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Kemo Kimo

Why it seems important, I'm not sure.  But it bothers me to half-remember events from my childhood, with no assurance that I've pierced the fog of time correctly.  Did it really happen?  And if so, did it happen as I remember?

That "botherment" applies to songs, as well.  In sixth grade chorus, we sang a nonsense song -- which I now discover is classified as bluegrass -- which both entertained me and puzzled me.  Do I remember the lyrics correctly?  I found myself singing it in the shower this morning, and this is how I remember one of the verses and the chorus:

 My true love lives up the river,
Hey dee-ing dang, dilly dally day.
A few more jumps and I'll be with her,
Hey dee-ing dang, dilly dally day.

Kemo kimo, dee row art,
Mi-hee, mi-hai, mi-hum drum penny winkle,
Tit tat pitty pat, blue eyed pussy cat,
Sing song kitty won't you kai me oh? 

What puzzled me, as a kid, about the song was not the nonsense chorus (reproduced here strictly phonetically; I have no idea how it was spelled in our song book) but that one verse.

I knew from my careful and obsessive reading of Batman comics that "up the river" meant only one thing -- "in prison."  (Only later did I learn that this was New York slang for Sing Sing, a prison that was literally up the Hudson River.)  But if the singer's true love was in prison, why would a "few more jumps" reunite the star-crossed lovers?  Well, my 12-year-old brain concluded, the only way you get to prison is to commit a crime.  A "jump" must be a thug term for a robbery or a burglary. 

But that was my hypothesis, not my firm conclusion.  It took an adult mind to appreciate that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and that sometimes living up the river simply means living up the river.

I've tried to find the verse that I've provided you, but have been unsuccessful.  Nat King Cole recorded a version of Kemo Kimo, called "The Magic Song," in 1947.  But his recording had totally different lyrics for the verses, and largely different lyrics for the chorus.

Ke-mo, ki-mo spare-o-spare
Ma-hi, ma-ho, ma-rump-sticka-pumpernickle
Soup-bang, nip-cat, polly-mitcha-cameo
I love you.

 The "2nd South Carolina String Band" had a mildly racist ("white folks" and "darkies") version, with totally different verse lyrics.  Its chorus was somewhat closer to the one that I recall than was Nat King Cole's.

Kemo, kimo! There! oh where?--
With a hi, and a ho, and a in come Sally, singing
Sometimes penny winkle, lingtum, nipcat,
Sing song, Kitty, can't you ki' me, oh!

I'm almost certain that I remember correctly the chorus as we were taught it (spelling excepted), and that in some dark school district warehouse there remain stacks of moldy school song books containing "my" Kemo Kimo.

Ah, would but that I could get my hands on one!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Theseus: King of Athens

Theseus was one of the great legendary Greek heroes.  Much of what we know of Greek civilization comes from Athenian writers, and Theseus was to Athens what Romulus was to Rome.  He inherited a small kingdom -- really not much more than the Acropolis itself -- from his father, and by force and by diplomacy, he forged a united kingdom out of all the tiny villages that stretched across the plain of Attica.

A couple of weeks ago, I discussed certain aspects of Mary Renault's historical reconstruction of the Theseus legend in The King Must Die.  That book covered Theseus's legendary descent from the god Poseidon, his actual descent from the King of Athens, his childhood in the Peloponnesian coastal kingdom of Troezen, his father's eventual acknowledgement of paternity, Theseus's sudden transport to Crete to face the bull ring and the Minotaur, the earthquake that leveled the palace (the "Labyrinth") at Knossos, and his struggle to overthrow Minoan rule over Crete and its domination of the Greek world.  The novel ends with Theseus's return to Athens.

I've now re-read, after many years, Mary Renault's sequel -- The Bull from the Sea.  In my earlier post, I was interested in discussing certain aspects of The King Must Die.  I didn't actually review the book (a book that has been reviewed by hundreds of writers, professional and amateur).  I'll just toss in my belated opinion -- The King Must Die brilliantly recreates the Minoan world, and the primitive Hellene societies that the Minoans dominated. 

The King Must Die also brilliantly ties together the sometimes conflicting legends concerning Theseus -- including his encounter with the Minotaur in the Labyrinth -- and makes some cohesive sense out of them.  If the Theseus legend has some origin in the life and exploits of an actual person, Renault may have given as good a description of that person's life and times as anyone in our own day could produce.  The "Goodreads" book review site asks us to give books we review a number of stars, from one to five.  With no hesitation, I gave the Renault novel five stars.

I also give The Bull from the Sea five stars.  The plot of the earlier volume led up to a dramatic climax with the earthquake and Theseus's leadership of the anti-Minoan revolt.  The Bull from the Sea lacks a climax that is quite so identifiable.  But the central event is perhaps Theseus's exploration of the Black Sea shoreline, where he encounters a fierce band of Amazons -- female devotees of Artemis -- whose leader he defeats in combat.  As an agreed consequence of the defeat, the leader (Hippolyta) becomes first his captive, then his lover, and ultimately his de facto queen.

The plot is too intricate to summarize in this blog post.  But Renault does a masterful job of tying together the many legends of Theseus's exploits into a single coherent tale-- a tale as free of supernatural interventions as possible.  At the same time, she presents a moving love story -- the relationship between Theseus and the only woman he was ever able to truly love -- a woman as courageous and as strong as himself, Hippolyta.  She also presents a moving story of his tragic relationship with their son Hippolytos -- a boy he could never understand, a son as courageous and strong-minded as himself, but his total opposite  in many ways.

"When I was small," he said, "I asked you once why the guiltless suffer, too, when the gods are angry.  And you said to me, 'I do not know.'  You who were my father, and the King.  For that I have always loved you."

I made him some kind answer, wondering if I should ever make him out.

 As a boy, Hippolytos had once asked his father to explain the purpose of man.

I had never heard such a question.  It made me shrink back; if a man began asking such things, where would be the end of it?  It was like peering into a dark whirlpool with a deep and spinning center, going down and down. ...  "That," I said, "is the business of the gods, who made us." 
"Yes, but for what?  We ought to be good for it, whatever it is.  How can we live, until we know."

The politician and soldier stares at the philosopher, his own flesh and blood, and finds him inscrutable.

The Bull from the Sea also ties the Theseus story together with other Greek legends.  We encounter Medea, Oedipus, Antigone, the battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs, and Achilles.  Yes, that Achilles.  It had never occurred to me that the Trojan War occurred in the generation following that of Theseus, as the Mycenaeans supplanted the Minoans as a leading power in the region.  And Theseus's son by his legal wife, the Minoan Phaedra, was Akamus, who as an adult was involved in the Trojan horse story.

All biographies and biographical tales are tragic in some respect, if they are written truly, because human life is tragic.  Theseus ends as an old man, suffering the after effects of a paralyzing stroke.  While visiting an old friend, the King of Skyros, he reflects on his life.  He had accomplished much, he recognized, but Athens was already corrupt and being weakened by poor leadership.  Its unity, for which he had devoted his life, was being broken up by ambitious regional leaders.  He wondered what had been the use of it all. 

His host was eager to introduce Theseus to his teenage son, Achilles.  His son, the host king said, hero worshipped Theseus and was eager to meet him.  Theseus was Achilles's "touchstone for a man," his father confided.

I lay down, being tired, and sent off my servants.  I was thinking, before I fell asleep, of the flashing, light-footed boy, awaiting tomorrow.  It would be good to spare him that.  Let him keep this Theseus who speaks for the god within him.  Why change a god for a lame old man with a twisted mouth.

Theseus recalls the hereditary duties of kingship which his family owed the gods.  When the king's time has come, the king goes consenting to his death, giving his life to strengthen his people.  The palace at Skyros is built on a high cliff above the sea, just as his own palace on the Acropolis is perched high above the plain.

He shuffles out the door, and down the path toward the cliff.  The tide is coming in.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Il Grido

The drifter -- the guy who wanders from place to place, clueless but well-meaning, non-malicious, but leaving hurt feelings and broken hearts behind -- is a stock figure in American films and literature.  It is interesting to see a similar character portrayed in an Italian film.

Il Grido (1957) is an early film by the acclaimed Italian director, Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007).   I watched a showing last night, the first weekly offering of the Seattle Art Museum's Italian film festival.

The film is set in the Po River Valley, a flat, featureless, agricultural region of northern Italy -- still occasionally malarial in the 1950s.  Its tedious landscape was then starting to be disfigured in places  by new industries.  Antonioni's black and white cinematography -- his landscapes often look like stage backdrops -- is further flattened by the perpetual haze of the region.  Haze, not fog, just a blurring of distant objects.

Aldo works at a sugar refinery, and is first seen where he is employed, standing at the top of a tall, phallic, observation tower, the industrial purpose of which is never explained.  Irma, his "girlfriend" drops by to inform him that her husband -- who has been off in Australia for seven years, looking for work -- has been reported deceased.  That's wonderful, Aldo says.  Now we can get married and provide our daughter a family.

Irma doesn't share his enthusiasm.  She admits that she has met someone else, and that she no longer loves Aldo.  Aldo's emotions run from disbelief, to denial, to sorrow, to a decision to "man up."  He slaps her repeatedly in front of villagers, to win her back by showing her who's boss.  "Now it's final," Irma declares.  Aldo leaves town, hitchhiking, taking his daughter with him (with Irma's consent.)

The acting -- especially for a 1957 film -- seems melodramatic, reminiscent of soap opera or even silent film.  I'm no expert on Italian directors, however, and Antonioni may have had artistic reasons for selecting this effect.

From this point on, the film is a study of Aldo's long descent, witnessed by his young daughter.  He hitches rides with trucks, traveling across the un-trafficked, post-war Italian countryside, in search of a new life.  He hooks up with a couple of women he meets along the way.  His odyssey is no joyous Kerouac-esque adventure, however.  It is a study in how few emotional, educational, and economic resources male members of the post-war working classes possessed. 

He finds lodging in hovels and shacks.  His two short-term lovers are each desperate to find a man, and demand little from him.  The second provides him a job pumping gas on a forlorn, straight stretch of Po Valley highway.  But Aldo is unable to connect emotionally with either woman, except in bed.  That connection proves insufficient for him -- and certainly for each of the women -- and he drifts on and on, after sending his daughter back to her mother.

Finally, he returns to the town where he had left Irma.  He sees his seven-year-old daughter, now nicely dressed, entering a house.  He looks in the window, and sees Irma living a happy and (relatively) prosperous life. 

He walks back to the refinery, now deserted, about to be flattened and replaced with a modern airport..

He sees once again his watch tower, the symbol of his life when the going was good.  He climbs the circular stairway to the top, slowly, step by step.  He stares out across the bleak industrial/agricultural landscape of the misty Po Valley.  He leans over the railing a couple of times.  And then he tips over, falling to the ground.