Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Urrrrp!


Friday evening, I fly to London, and thence by train to St. Bees, Cumbria, for the start of my hike eastward on the Coast to Coast pathway (western half, only).

Sunday evening, I began feeling queasy. Queasy turned to nauseous, and nauseous turned to hanging my head over the rim of the toilet.  After several repetitions over the course of the next few hours, I eventually succeeded in emptying my digestive system of whatever was disturbing it -- including, so it seemed, the interior lining of my stomach.

Monday, I lay in bed most of the day.  No longer nauseous, but totally wiped out.  Just going downstairs to get a glass of water was an exercise in balance and determination.  Eating was out of the question, until I tentatively nibbled on a piece of toast in late afternoon, and then a small bowl of cereal before bedtime.

Today, I'm once again eating, but still languishing about the house -- lacking in energy, a bit spacey, but obviously improving.  I'll be ready for departure on Friday, even though packing will now be a last minute operation.  (It never takes nearly as long as I anticipate, in any event.)

But this entire mini-crisis has been a reminder to me of how the best-laid plans of mice and men, etc., etc. etc.  Even for a guy who loves to lay plans -- especially for him, perhaps -- fate throws the occasional monkey wrench ("spanner," I guess, since I'm bound for England) in the works.  I can't depend with absolute certainty on my body's working to perfection -- or even to the level of less-than-perfection to which I've become accustomed.  Even though I take Vitamin D tablets regularly.  I'm not a robot, a machine that requires only an occasional squirt of oil to operate on all cylinders.

Hardly original thoughts, are they?  And yet, when you're used to decent health, it's startling to find it lacking.  This has been, as I say, merely a mini-crisis.  But it reminds me that I'm mortal, a piece of living meat with an ever-shrinking shelf life. 

I have to learn to take nothing for granted.  And I need to fully appreciate these days when bad health is merely a temporary inconvenience, an irritation, a brief interruption in my well-laid plans -- and not yet an irreversible condition. 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Creation


As I recall vaguely from physics (and I do cheat with a quick look at Wikipedia), a "Hamiltonian" is an operator commonly expressed as the sum of operators corresponding to the kinetic and potential energies of a system in the form

 \hat{H} = \hat{T} + \hat{V}

where those little carets over the letters indicate operators.  I recall a professor saying that if you had enough information, you could theoretically write a Hamiltonian operator that would describe the entire universe in terms of energy at the instant of the Big Bang, and predict the universe's precise evolution, right up to the present and beyond.  Maybe what God really said in Genesis, he joked, was "Let there be the Hamiltonian."

Just a little physics humor.   Some of you may still be reading.

I was reminded of the Hamiltonian by an article in this week's New Yorker about a British computer programmer named Sean Murray.  Mr. Murray has written something like a Hamiltonian for his own universe -- a computer game called No Man's Sky, soon to be released, apparently, by Sony.  His universe, available for exploration and exploitation by game players, will contain 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 unique planets.  Have fun, kids!

Unlike most computer games -- and electronic games is a subject I know very little about -- Murray's game does not use vast amounts of memory to contain all the information required to portray each of those 18 x 1018 planets.  Instead, his game contains a number of algorithms -- read the article, if you need more information -- that generate each planet as it is visited, and give the viewer a graphic representation of the planet based on its size, orbit, chemistry, and other knowable features.  Most planets will be lifeless.  Some will be inhabited by various life forms.  Some may have signs of past civilizations, just as in real science fiction.

The design allows for extraordinary economy in computer processing: the terrain for eighteen quintillion unique planets flows out of only fourteen hundred lines of code.  Because all the necessary visual information in the game is described by formulas, nothing needs to be rendered graphically until a player encounters it.

I suppose we are now drawing closer to the features of this "game" that I now find so irresistibly fascinating.

[T]he game continuously identifies a player's location, and then renders only what is visible.  Turn away from a mountain, an antelope, a star system, and it will vanish just as quickly as it appeared.  "You can get philosophical about it," Murray once said.  "Does that planet exist before you visit it?"

Indeed.

I'm not interested in hearing your psychiatric comments on my personality, but I'm often surprised that I can leave an object on a table overnight, and find it exactly where I left it the next morning.  How clever of the algorithms (although until now I hadn't thought to use this word), I think to myself, to enable it to be recreated -- exactly as I left it -- as I re-enter the room after a night's sleep!

I've posted before about scientists (of unknown competence) who suspect that we are characters in a computer game, and that the game will crash in the near future because our own digital profligacy will have exceeded the storage capacity of our creator's system.  This theory makes as much sense as any other cosmology that unaided reason can devise.  My own suspicion is that the star kid who started up the game of Earth got bored long ago and left it running while he went to get lunch.  But damn -- his game had a good programmer.  I can stare at my computer screen, casually turn my head away and look at something else, and then quickly look back at the screen.

It's still there, unchanged.  Or -- it was instantly recreated for my benefit, unchanged.

Murray admits that some of the planets his algorithms create are boring.  But even when they turn out to be boring, they're interesting to explore just because they are new and unknown.  I guess the first explorers of, say, Australia might have eventually become bored.  But they kept at it, not knowing what was apt to show up.  And as one of Murray's co-workers remarks about their game's universe, "It is a bit like it really does exist, isn't it?"

Murray, and we the human race, may be learning what it's like to be God the Creator.  Which is a fascinating thought.

Sure.  It's all fun and games (and money for Sony) right now.  But -- as the story of the Tower of Babel reminds us -- it probably won't end well.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Into the abyss


Hiker walking past Vishnu
basement rock canyon walls

The bottom line is this -- the Phantom Ranch (see last prior post) remains beyond my reach.   I feel like Adam and Eve -- barred from Paradise by an angel with a flaming sword.

I arrived at the Grand Canyon's South Rim on Friday afternoon, greeted by light snow showers that, by Saturday, had become heavy snow showers.  Very similar to my arrival and first full day in April 2012.  And the forecast was for minimal precipitation on Sunday, with perhaps a ten degree warming trend.

Conditions sounded ideal for a repeat of my 2012 hike to the river with -- perhaps -- the opportunity for an additional push onward to the ranch.

But in 2012, I began my descent on the Bright Angel trail bundled up and carefully avoiding slips on ice for the first mile or so going down into the canyon.  On Sunday this year, it was already shirtsleeve weather at the top when I began hiking at about 7:50 a.m.  I reached Indian Garden -- three  thousand feet below the rim -- at 10 a.m.  The old-fashioned dial thermometer that the National Park Service thoughtfully provides, hanging on a tree, showed that it was already 70 degrees.  I still had another 3.5 miles (and 1,300 feet elevation) to the river, and another 1.5 miles beyond that to the ranch.  A mule tender predicted that temperatures would reach the upper 80s by afternoon at the river. 

In 2012, by the time I reached the river, it had been only 70 degrees.

It was a tough decision, because Indian Garden itself felt very comfortable, and I felt very good following the descent.  But the probable increase in temperature bothered me, and I (chickened out) (made the prudent decision) (choose one), and decided to descend no further.  If I'm ever to make the round trip to Phantom Ranch in a day, I'll have to do it earlier in the year, departing from the top in freezing morning temperatures.

As a consolation prize, I made the three-mile round trip out to Plateau Point, a nice view point with an excellent view of the boiling Colorado -- gazing down at the river as it churned about, taunting me, 1,300 feet below.

Indian Garden is a bit of an oasis -- a woodsy area with surface water (at this time of year), resting on an impermeable layer of "Bright Angel shale" that keeps the water from soaking away before plant roots can take advantage of it.  Below this last sedimentary level, the trail enters the "Inner Canyon."  The wide vistas about the canyon provided until that point -- and that figure so prominently in photographs of the Grand Canyon -- give way to steep walled, narrow canyons of dark, extremely hard, metamorphic rock.

Beyond the siren call of Phantom Ranch, it's this geology of the lower portion that attracts me.  Just past Indian Garden, the trail passes what is called -- without hyperbole -- the Great Unconformity.  During the eons that layers of rock were laid down, there was a period when millions of years of sedimentary rock were gradually built up, and then eroded away all the way back down to the metamorphic "basement layer."  The present sedimentary layers that today rise to the rim were later deposited upon this re-exposed basement, leaving a gap of 1.2 billion years of  geological record totally erased -- or as the Park Service describes it, gone like pages torn out of a book.  The hiker can see where the lowest of the "newer" sedimentary layers lie directly on top of a metamorphic layer that predates the sedimentary layer by 1.2 billion years.

And -- being language-obsessed as I am -- it's perhaps the names given these basement layers, as much as their interesting geological development, that captivates me:  Vishnu schist, Brahma schist, Zoroaster granite, Rama schist, and -- most ancient of all - Elves Chasm gneiss.  To a non-Hindu, at least, these are rather dark and forbidding names, calling forth thoughts of ancient legends or war and cruelty, and applied in the Grand Canyon to the darkest and most ancient of primeval stone and rock.

In 2012, I found it impressive to walk through narrow canyons of this material -- stone forged under great heat and pressure through countless eons, back before the smallest one-celled life forms first began questioning their place in the Universe.  It was like being present at the beginning of time -- a far more potent experience than simply studying examples of these rocks in a museum or along the National Park Service's (excellent) park walk displays.

Emerging from amongst those walls of Vishnu schist into the warm and welcoming arms of the Phantom Ranch, with its warm beds, steak dinners, and happy, laughing guests, would be like experiencing the emergence of intelligent human life fully-formed from the stuff of lifeless stardust.  Or so I like to think. And babble about.

I'll give 'er another try, maybe next year.  

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

On the trail


Over the years, a quick check suggests, I've posted five times about my trips to the Grand Canyon.  Perhaps I've exhausted the topic.

Perhaps.  But Friday I fly to Phoenix, and thence by car once more to my favorite park for pre-summer hiking.  A short visit -- I'll stay there just three nights.  I hope to do a little hiking.

In 2012, I hiked from the South Rim down to the river and back in one day.  Against the Park Service's fervid advice.  But it had been snowing up at the top (it was still April), and temperatures were quite pleasant at river level, so the usual fears of heat prostration didn't pertain.

Last week, temperatures down at the river were running in the 90s, and I had my doubts about trying it again.  But the weather has moderated over the past few days.  I'll just have to wait and see what conditions are like when I arrive Friday evening.

If conditions are ideal, I'd like to hike once more down to the river, and then another two miles up the river to Phantom Ranch.  Ever tried getting reservations at the ranch?  Good luck!  I tried to get accommodations for my family a couple of years ago.  They have to be obtained thirteen months in advance.  On the appointed first day of the month, you call the designated phone number over and over, hoping to get through while everyone else is doing the same thing at the same time.  All reservations for the month in question -- thirteen months in the future -- were gone within a half hour.

So if I can't stay at Phantom Ranch, I'd at least like to look it over and say that I'd seen it.  But getting there would add another four miles to my day's hike.

I was pretty exhausted when I arrived back at the rim three years ago.  And as folks are kind enough to point out, I'm not getting any younger.  We'll see.

The Grand Canyon is so beautiful, so awe-inspiring, so "awesome" in the real sense of the word, that it's silly to turn a hike in the canyon into some kind of "personal best" contest with myself, some kind of desperate attempt to prove that I'm still a kid.  I'll keep that prudent sentiment in mind this weekend.

I recall a Park Service sign pointing out that -- on average -- every two or steps down the trail takes you through another million years of geologic history.  That's something to think about.  Something to make one feel small and insignificant. 

But then -- as the one-time tiniest kid in my class -- that's always come easily to me anyway.  I'll let y'all know how things work out.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Pathfinding through the fells


Three weeks from today, I'll be flying en route to London, preparing to hike the western half of the famous Coast to Coast path -- as discussed in an earlier post.

This will be the fourth hike of this sort I've done in Britain, and I suspect the most difficult.  The path starts from St. Bees on the Irish Sea, cuts through the fells and dales (the ups and downs!) of the Lake District, and becomes more horizontal as it traverses Westmorland, ending up at Kirkby Stephen near the Yorkshire border.

Three years ago, Maya and I discovered how easy it is to lose one's path when hiking in the Lake District high country.  A combination of fog, rain, a faint path, and lack of signage finally doomed us.  We had to retrace our steps to our former night's accommodation and call a taxi to take us circuitously (and expensively) to our next night's rest.

I blamed myself for our misadventures, but the guide book I'm reading in preparation for the C2C (as they like to call it) warns us that the signage is intentionally poor in Britain's national parks (one of which includes most of the Lake District).  The point seems to be that real men don't need signs.  Hikers of the proper sort have a compass, a wet and soggy map, and the brains that God presumably gave them to put the two together.  Unlike American national parks -- whose shiny, well-engraved wooden signs remove all ambiguity as to the proper direction -- at least on dedicated trails.

The C2C path has standardized locations, of precisely known longitude and latitude, designated by number as "waypoints," points that can be located on my iPhone's GPS. I have downloaded maps showing the path's waypoints by number (and they are also marked on the sketchy maps provided by the company that has arranged my accommodations).  However, I'll be going into this hike with no previous "on foot" GPS experience, and I don't want to rely on aiming for waypoints as my primary means of finding my way over and through the misty fells.  (GPS waypoints are intended only as backups to more normal path-finding techniques, in any event -- you can't use them as you would a GPS in your automobile.  "Turn left at that funny looking oak tree and then follow the path for 3 tenths mile.")

No.  Luckily, I'm provided with an excellent pocket book containing highly detailed hiking maps along with precise instructions.  I just have to keep the book reasonably dry during inclement weather.  But the book does repeatedly suggest that various portions of the route are tricky to follow, even using its expert guidance.  The book's maps are sketches emphasizing landmarks, not contour maps.  I do have a good compass, and I'm hoping to locate contour maps -- at least for the area covered during the first couple of days, when route-finding will apparently be most difficult.

I always tend to worry about these difficulties more than proves necessary once I'm on the scene.  And it's a pleasant kind of worry, reassuring me that the hike will be a challenge, and that I won't be just trudging alongside a road (which, unfortunately, too much of the Hadrian's Wall hike -- as fun as that hike was, historically and scenically -- proved to be.)

It's a mere seven day hike, with a warm bed and great food awaiting me at each day's end.  If I get lost -- well, let's face it.  It's not like getting lost in the North Cascades.  Nor can I pretend that I'm Daniel Boone, struggling through an unknown countryside, and fighting off wild animals and Indian attacks.

But it should be enough of a challenge that I'll have a few stories to relate when I get home.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Submarine volcano


Over the years, I've climbed four of the five volcanic peaks in Washington -- Mt. Rainier (twice), Glacier Peak (twice), Mt. Adams, and Mt. St. Helens (once before the eruption, several times to the crater edge since).  I was with a group climbing the remaining volcano -- Mt. Baker -- when one of our group developed problems half-way up, and we had to turn around and help her back down.

Mt. Olympus is not a volcano, but -- along with the rest of the Olympic range -- a part of the remnants of Pacific Ocean sea floor that were jammed up against the continent by the eastern motion of the Pacific and/or Juan de Fuca Plates -- remnants that failed to dive under the North American Plate like most of the moving sea floor, and instead were scraped off and ended up above ground.

But even Olympus -- though not a volcano -- apparently resulted indirectly from volcanic activity.  It ended up above the North American plate, rather than subducting beneath it, because it came from a portion of the moving plates that had been built up volcanically to a high elevation -- a "seamount" -- while still far under the surface of the ocean.

Which brings me to the lead article in today's Seattle Times. About 300 miles off the coast of the Northwest Corner, at the junction of the Pacific and Juan de Fuca tectonic plates, one finds the Axial seamount, a volcano rising about three thousand feet above the ocean bottom.  The article points out that -- since it lies nearly a mile under water -- the volcano resembles the shield volcanos of Hawaii more than the pointy peaks of the Cascade range, and results from a flow of magma rather than sudden explosions.

Nevertheless, even non-explosive eruptions are fascinating to scientists for what they reveal about volcanic activity in general.  A week ago, during a 24 hour period, 8,000 small earthquakes were recorded in the area, caused by the movement of magma beneath the sea floor.  These quakes would suggest the imminence of an eruption, but so far an eruption has not been detected.

The Times article was devoted primarily to a discussion of the sophisticated monitoring devices maintained by the University of Washington, and the University scientists' observations based on the resulting data.  But for us non-geologists, the article was fascinating because it brought to our attention the existence of this nearby display of the Earth's dynamism.

This week, the disaster in Nepal has shown one possible effect of the constant movement of tectonic plates.  The Axial Seamount shows us another, one far more benign in terms of its effect on human population. 

Axial is only 3,000 feet high, a baby volcano compared with, say, Mt. Rainier.  Fortunately, it lies far outside the jurisdiction of the State of Washington, so I feel absolutely no compulsion to add it to my scorecard of ascents by attempting to climb it.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Equal protection


Today, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the long awaited question of same-sex marriage.  The press has debated the issue so extensively over the past several years, and public opinion has moved so rapidly in support of such marriages, that when the Court finally reaches its decision -- whenever it is handed down, and whichever way it goes -- the event may seem anticlimactic.

The actual consequences of a decision against same-sex marriage probably would affect only persons in Southern and some Midwestern states with conservative populations and legislatures.  Even with respect to those states, however, whatever else the Court decides, it appears almost certain that the Court will hold that the "Full Faith and Credit" clause of the Constitution requires all states to recognize the marriage of any couple legally wed in any another state.

To me, the frustrating aspect of the legal debate is the apparent inability to recognize the distinction between civil marriage and marriage as a cultural and/or religious status.  Even Justice Kennedy, who has been on the "liberal" side of this and similar social issues, and who may well cast the deciding vote, worried aloud at today's hearing, noting that the definition of marriage

has been with us for millennia.  It’s very difficult for the court to say, ‘Oh, we know better,’

But marriage, as a civil institution, is a governmental creation, a grant of certain privileges to (and the requiring of certain duties by) individuals who choose to join together as partners. When it comes to ensuring fairness in the granting of governmental benefits, it is the highest duty of the Supreme Court to "know better."

The state isn't consecrating these partnerships, or calling down God's blessings upon them. It's conferring a status under civil law.

It may well be that historically (although with many historical exceptions) marriage has existed between one man and one woman.  It may well be that such a limitation reflects the religious belief of many or most Americans at this time in our history.  It may even well be that such is God's plan for human life and the rearing of children.

But the state does not endorse religious or cultural models, except perhaps unconsciously when those models are accepted without question by a vast majority of the population.  The state isn't required to recognize or authorize marriage, any more than it authorizes baptisms or confirmations or requires church attendance.  The government is free to leave marriage to the clergy as a purely religious rite.   But -- if the state wishes to authorize marriage as a civil relationship (perhaps as a means of ensuring the protection and proper rearing of children) -- with all the tax and other benefits that the status confers -- it must do so and confer those benefits subject to the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Legally, this conclusion seems obvious to me.  And I fail to see how permitting all citizens to marry interferes with the religious and cultural traditions that limit marriage to one man and one woman, any more than the government's allowing men to use a razor interferes with Hasidic strictures against shaving. 

Much of the argument and confusion about this issue seems based on the simple failure to differentiate between religious and cultural norms for marriage, on the one hand, and the government's constitutional duty to make civil marriage equally open to all citizens, on the other.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

A dome with a view


In the early hours of Easter Sunday, just a week after my 21st birthday, I arrived in Florence with forty or so of my college classmates -- beginning a six-month study-abroad program. 

After a couple of hours sleep, a number of us walked from our suburban residence -- alongside the road to Fiesole -- into the center of town.  There, for the first time, appeared before me the towering brick dome of Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral -- known simply as "the Duomo" ("the Cathedral").  I  was awestruck.

I've returned many times to Florence -- never again, alas, as a 21-year-old -- and I've never ceased to be awestruck. 

A couple of weeks after that first arrival, I climbed to the top of the Duomo -- the equivalent of climbing a 40-story building -- muttering in my novice's Italian frequent "scusi's" and "permesso, signore's" as I squeezed past other visitors (at a time when visitors were primarily Italians themselves.)  At the top of the dome, at the base of the lantern, is a balcony from which one views the entire city, and much of Tuscany beyond.  That view is almost an obligatory tourist attraction -- and if the reader has ever visited Florence, he probably has shared my appreciation.

From the garden of the "villa" in which we lived and studied, one could glance up from his books each day and stare at the Duomo in the distance, glistening in the Tuscan sunlight.

Rather than continuing to wax nostalgic, I should say that these memories have been revived by my reading of Brunelleschi's Dome, Ross King's account of how the present cathedral was constructed in the mid-fifteenth century and, in particular, how the challenges inherent in the design and construction of the cathedral's dome were met by the first of the great Renaissance architects, Filippo Brunelleschi.  As King points out, not only was this dome the most ambitious project of its kind since the height of the Roman Empire, but it remains today the world's largest masonry dome -- larger than those of St. Peter's in Rome, St. Paul's in London, and the Capitol in Washington, D.C. 

And it was built without modern technology, by a civilization just beginning its revival from the technological torpor of the Middle Ages.

King's book is interesting from both an historical and an engineering perspective.  He sets forth in clear language the technical problems that Brunelleschi needed to overcome in constructing such an edifice, and his daring decision to build the dome without the use of any interior, supporting, wooden scaffolding -- relying on gravity and mortar alone to hold the rising dome together as it was built.  He describes the engineering difficulties encountered in building a dome of such large dimensions -- and a pointed rather than circular dome -- with none of the visible exterior buttressing that French and German builders used in constructing the pointed arches of Gothic churches.

The author describes the ingenious tools that Brunelleschi designed and built in order to raise and position mammoth blocks of sandstone to unprecedented heights.  He describes the perils of the workmen, as they lay bricks while hanging over the abyss below.

At a less technical -- and more human -- level, he relates the political, artistic, and personal infighting between Brunelleschi and competing architects -- especially his chief rival,  Lorenzo Ghiberti, whose gilded bronze doors on the neighboring Baptistery are one of Florence's artistic wonders.  Although Brunelleschi and Ghiberti built and designed like angels, they squabbled and fought like adolescents. 

The book is a short read, containing a wealth of architectural and engineering information, a story of technological triumph immersed in a sea of political in-fighting, military history, social and economic background, and Tuscan landscapes. 

For anyone who has ever visited Florence, there will be "ah ha" moments, where one thinks "yes!  I remember seeing that!"  In reading how Brunelleschi constructed both an interior and an exterior dome, I remembered my first climb to the top -- how I found myself leaning farther and farther inward, to avoid the slanting roof over my head.  I realized at the time that I was in some sort of space between two shells -- but after reading King's book I have a much cleared picture of just where I had been climbing.  The reader will find many similar enjoyable revelations.

Florence can be enjoyed on many levels.  But Brunelleschi's Dome, by showing the genius and hard work that produced the city's most memorable building, adds greatly to that enjoyment. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Alex Crow


On his fourteenth birthday, Ariel played Pierrot the clown in a school play.  He stayed dressed in his clown suit after the play, because one of his classmates had hidden his clothes as a joke. 

Later the same day, the rebel soldiers came to town.  They abducted some of his friends as involuntary conscripts; they killed the others.  Ariel hid in a walk-in refrigerator while the rest of the town was gassed to death.  Only Ariel survived.  For the next few months, Ariel wandered about, struggling for survival -- an orphan and a refugee -- dressed in the clothes on his back -- those of Pierrot the clown.

A year ago, I reviewed Andrew Smith's funny, revolting, and preposterous YA novel, Grasshopper Jungle.  Yesterday, I ran across the New York Times's review of Smith's latest novel, The Alex Crow.

I had to read it.  And I have.

But for a jammed rebel rifle, Ariel would have died on his fourteenth birthday.  He escapes one harrowing experience after another, including forcible rape by older boys in a UN refugee camp, until, just before he turns 15, he bumps into an American officer at the camp.  The officer -- Major Knott --befriends him, brings him back to America, and places him with the family of a friend and co-worker in West Virginia.

We never learn the location of Ariel's homeland, except that it's in the eastern hemisphere.  But, as Major Knott learns, Ariel has accomplishments beyond those of a survivor.  He is fluent in both English and French ("I like languages").  He knows immediately that West Virginia is "in the eastern United States, between Virginia and Ohio."  He is intelligent, and he is observant.

In West Virginia, he meets his adopted family, including a brother Max, just sixteen days his senior.  Max and Ariel are sent to a summer camp for six weeks.  A major portion of the novel relates their adventures at camp (extremely funny at times), the growing if strained friendship between the two brothers, and Ariel's gradual discovery of the reason Major Knott was so generous with his time and energy, and so willing to bring Ariel to the United States.

All bullying involves the bully's desire to exercise control over another.  But not all those who long to control others are obvious bullies -- they aren't necessarily tough "big kids" in school, or violent rebel soldiers, or teen rapists, or insecure camp counselors.  Nor even overly-inquisitive psychologists.  Sometimes control freaks come to us under the guise of friends, as good people who wish to "make the world exactly the way we want it to be.  All for the best, of course."

After reading the review -- a favorable review -- in the Times, I was expecting a book full of horrors, a book every bit as bizarre as Grasshopper Jungle.  A book that, as the review put it, "left me uncomfortable and emotional and  wondering what exactly would make someone write a book like this."  But no.  Aside from a bit of science fiction, that isn't what I read.  I found Ariel's life to be amazing and unusual and frightening and sad, but not unbelievable. (Although there were a couple of bizarre side plots, involving other characters.) And very touching.

And the aspects of science fiction?  In another five or ten years they may seem prescient.  To those of us in 2015 who know of drones, drones used both for observation and for targeted killings; of omnipresent surveillance cameras; of warrantless monitoring of communications; of unchallengeable "no fly" orders; of the exponential increase in the computing power of chips -- none of the disturbing and intrusive science in The Alex Crow seems preposterous.  Just not fully developed, as of yet.

So far as we know.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Electrifying


Tree exploded in Arboretum by
lightning bolt.
Photo:  Seattle Times

Lightning is rare in the Northwest Corner.

We get it several times a year, but generally it's what we call "heat lightning" -- where the sky lights up from some storm beyond the horizon, often so far away we can't even hear the thunder.  As kids, with closer strikes, we would count the seconds until we heard the thunder, and divide by five to calculate how far away (in miles) the electrical discharge occurred.  Six or seven miles was fairly common.

But sometimes we see real, honest bolts of lightning, up close, zig-zagging down from the sky,  just like we see in movies (or like I've seen flying into cities like Miami).  Not often, but sometimes.  Just like sometimes we have a heavy snow during the winter.

A little over an hour ago, as I sat at this very same computer, with no warning at all, the room lit up with lightning.  Before I could begin counting "one one thousand, two one thousand," a bomb seemingly exploded.  The entire house shook.  The roar of thunder -- after the first sharp explosion -- rolled on for five or ten seconds.

I wasn't terrified.  It wasn't like being hit with an earthquake.  But it was startling, and it was close. Very close. The Seattle Times reports that about 500 houses are without power because of lightning strikes.  Not me.  The lights didn't even dim, as they frequently do during tree-downing wind storms.

But it reminds me once again -- an obsession of mine -- of how tenuous is our hold on life.  That was one loud blast, and it was close.  I don't know what it struck, but something -- a tree, a chimney, someone holding an umbrella -- served as a conduit between ground and sky for a fierce discharge of amperage.  It could have been my roof.  It could have been me out in the yard.

Nature's amazing, and -- as the cliché has it -- capricious.  I mentioned in a recent post that a meteorite could strike us at any time -- but we learn to disregard that fact.  A meteorite, an asteroid, a killer earthquake -- or a simple lightning bolt.

Both my cats have been under my bed upstairs ever since the bolt hit.  They may not share our human ruminations on mortality and fatalism.  But they know something damn scary when they hear it.

I'll go calm them down, uttering soothing platitudes that I don't really believe myself.  "Come on you guys -- it was just a little thunder.  Nothing to worry about!"

Nothing at all.

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8:30 p.m. -- "Lightning struck a large tree at the Washington State Arboretum, causing it to shatter." --Seattle Times
The Arboretum is across the street from my house. No wonder it sounded close.

Friday, March 27, 2015

"I got in!"




In the movie Billy Elliot, young Billy's dance teacher has persuaded him to apply to the school of the Royal Ballet in London.  Following an apparently disastrous audition, he waits nervously to hear the verdict, pretending to everyone that he couldn't care less.

One day he walks into the house and sees "the letter" waiting for him on the table, surrounded by his father, brother and grandmother.  He picks it up, looks around with a look of panic, and retreats to his bedroom behind a closed door.  Finally, his family can stand the suspense no longer.  They burst into his room.  He's sitting on the bed, holding the opened letter with tears in his eyes.  They stare at each other.

"I got in!" he croaks.

This is the time of year when college admission decisions are being mailed out, and scenes similar to Billy's are being re-enacted around the country.  When I saw Billy Elliot, I recalled my similar response when I received "the letter" from the only university to which I'd applied (the University of Washington, my safe "back-up," had a much later deadline).  My brother was standing beside me as I retrieved the letter from the mailbox. 

I couldn't do it.  I couldn't open it in front of my brother, letting him (or anyone else) watch me at that moment of extreme vulnerability.  I walked into another room and closed the door.  I, too, "got in."  My joy was explosive.

This all comes to mind because, yesterday, Maya -- my great niece -- received notice that her application to the University of California, Berkeley ("Cal" to most of us) had been accepted.  Maya is probably better mentally balanced and certainly more self-confident than either Billy or I were, so she may well have received her letter with total composure.  But when she relayed the news to her relatives, there was no denying her excitement and happiness.

She now has to decide between Berkeley and another UC school.  I'm lobbying strongly for Berkeley, a university experience that I think will be helpful to her in many ways -- in ways beyond mere preparation for her chosen field of environmental studies.

But however she decides, I'm confident that she is a young woman who will make the most of her time in college.

Congratulations, Maya!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Trust


I drive for hours in the dark on a two-lane highway, squinting to avoid being blinded by on-coming headlights. 

I stand near the tracks of the New York subway, watching my train roar into the station.  Having a headache, I borrow some ibuprofen from a friend's medicine cabinet.  I trek in remote areas of foreign lands, whose language I don't know and about whose dangers I know little, relying on the expertise and good will of guides whose poverty and beliefs contrast sharply with my own Western lifestyle.

These kinds of conduct may seem a bit risky, but for the most part we take our response to risk for granted.

We assume that the guy standing next to us on the subway platform won't -- on sudden impulse -- shove us onto the track as the train approaches.  But we know it's happened.

We assume the ibuprofen is pure and has not been tampered with.  But we know of cases where unknown persons for unknown reasons have contaminated ibuprofen with deadly amounts of cyanide.

We trust our trekking guides. But we know of cases where guides have, at best, been thieves, or, worse, have betrayed hikers to terrorists. 

These thoughts are prompted, of course, by what now appears to be the suicidal crash of the Germanwings flight in southern France.  The co-pilot apparently had no reservations about taking 150 passengers' lives with him when he died, anymore than the suicidal automobile driver cares about the lives of those in the on-coming vehicle.

We know that these criminal acts occur, and that they are largely unpreventable.  We can sometimes minimize the risks slightly -- stand away from the subway platform edge, choose guides carefully, examine pills for signs of tampering -- but we can't guarantee our own safety.

And so we base our lives on trust.  We know rationally that bad things can happen; but we also know that these bad things happen relatively rarely.  And so we choose to assume they will not happen, and act accordingly.

Some people cannot trust.  They cannot trust other people; they cannot trust the law of averages; they cannot trust themselves.  In extreme cases, they lock themselves in their homes and rarely venture out.  They don't enjoy travel, it goes without saying.  Their inability to trust often extends to other areas of life; in effect, they spend their lives merely existing.  They don't live, for fear of dying.

I suspect that there will be a drop in the number of people flying in the next few months.  I suspect that Germanwings, especially, will suffer from cancellations.  But most of us will shudder at the fate of all the passengers, young and old, who died; then we'll shrug it off, push the incident from our minds, and continue to fly.  We will continue to trust that our pilots and crew value their own lives, as well as the lives of their passengers.

A meteor (or piece of a satellite, or a falling safe) dropping from the sky and hitting us would be every bit as fatal as an airline crash or a head-on collision.  We don't live from day to day in terror of meteors or other falling objects. 

That's the way our minds work.  That's the psychological defense mechanism that allows us to live interesting and productive lives.   It works for me, and I'm glad it does.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Skydiving


A year ago, I reprinted a travel article I had written in my youth, one that had been published in my home town newspaper.  Readership of that post was high, somewhat to my surprise.

I'll tempt fate and now offer another product of my younger years, written the same summer for the same newspaper -- a summer when I was contemplating what to do with the rest of my life.  Newsprint yellows and crumbles with age.  If nothing else, adding these two articles to my blog may ensure their survival for a few more decades.


Anyone who has been skydiving for the first time recently will recognize that techniques have changed over the past 45 years.  Landings today are gentler.  First dives are made in tandem with an instructor, and are made from much higher altitudes -- providing a much longer experience of free-fall.

As with my prior "blast from the past," I reprint this story exactly as it appeared in the newspaper.  Outdated slang and unfortunately chauvinistic attitudes or language have been left intact.  The article was published in the Longview Daily News on July 4, 1970.

-----------------------------------------

"Once you're in that plane, you're going to make the jump.  No one comes back down with the plane."

You sit crouched on the floor of a stripped-down Cessna 170 and recall your instructor's warning earlier in the day.  Your decision is irrevocable.  You go to your first sky dive.

Early on this fair Saturday, after months of thought and conversation, you and a friend walked bravely into the office of Seattle Sky Sports, a non-profit outfit in Issaquah.  You forked over $35 each, signed liability waivers with some trepidation, and were enrolled in a 10:30 a.m ground school class.

Although students from 16 to 60 are welcome, your classmates, 11 men and two girls, all appeared to be in their twenties.  The instructor, a lithe, sharp-looking blonde named Gloria, was personable, articulate ("I teach high school when I can spare the time from jumping") and possessed of a subtle, ironical sense of humor.

After a couple of movies illustrating the beauties of the art, Gloria did her classroom bit.  She painstakingly outlined steps for each procedure, the essential theoretical background, and courses of action to be taken in any emergency.  She reassuringly detailed her company's safety record.  She stiffened your determination.  "None of my pupils has ever backed out of his jump after going through ground school."  ("There are many paths to distinction," your companion muttered.)  A final slap on the back before lunch.  "Even if you screw up everything, you'll live to tell about it, but the idea is to do it right."

In the afternoon, she put you through a series of physical exercises designed to simulate different aspects of the jump.  For example, you repeatedly did a jump and roll from a four-foot platform, an impact equivalent to that of the actual landing.

You completed a short written test on the morning's lecture (grades are strictly pass-fail, and everyone passed).  Dressed in white coveralls and helmets, you and your classmates were grouped by threes into planeloads.

You stumbled aboard the plane, encumbered by the heavy parachute pack on your back and the reserve chute and ground-to-air radio on your chest.  The static line, which on a first jump will automatically open your chute, was fastened with care to the pilot's seat. 

Why are you doing this?  Maybe you fear heights and want to face that fear.  Maybe you fear death and want to cheat it   Maybe you fear a purely mental and abstract life, devoid of physical challenges and dangers.  Or maybe you simply seek a groovy feeling.  Whatever your motivation,you find yourself now aboard a tiny plane which taxis across the field and lurches into the sky. 

For some reason, you are strangely calm.  Mt. Rainier towers reassuringly familiar to the south, and you note with interest how Interstate 90 blazes through the center of the green Snoqualmie valley.

The plane climbs.  At 2,000 feet the door is opened, and your new instructor hurls out a yellow streamer to check wind patterns.  He watches intently as it falls to earth.

Far below you see the air field and the small circle which you know is your gravel landing target.

At 2,800 feet, the door again is opened.  Your buddy goes first.  He creeps out and suddenly, alarmingly, is gone.  The plane circles while the instructor watches.

"Real good," he says.

You look down and see his chute far below.

Your instructor searches your face.

"Scared?"

"Yeah."

"Good.  Then you'll make a good jump."

The door is still open.  The air rushes by.

"Okeh.  Sit in the door."  You throw your legs over the edge, eying the ground between them.  Although far below, it looks like an aerial photo stretched out at your feet.  The illusion is too compelling to permit fear.  You've actually felt more panic standing on a 10-foot stepladder.

"Okeh.  Get out there."  Your feet rest on a rod jutting out from the cockpit.  You stand up, grabbing the wing strut.  You edge out to the very end of the rod, standing on one leg, raise the other into the air.  You await the order.

"Go."

He slaps your leg.  At some mental level below that of rational thought, you respond by pushing off from your only link with the rest of the world.

Rush of air.  No spatial orientation.   Train of thought impossible.  "Man's not made for this."  A two dimensional creature thrust suddenly into a 3-D world.  "Forgot ... suppose to arch back ... gotta try to do it."

Within five seconds, your chute is open.  Utter confusion is transformed into utter joy.  You forgot to count, forgot to hold your arms and legs correctly, forgot to check that your chute was opening.  And yet you are overwhelmingly happy.

You are scared of heights, but you feel not the slightest fear.  A world of serene beauty surrounds you, your great orange and white canopy shelters you.  You  are enveloped by a soft silence, a feeling of great peace.

Suggestions for steering your way down crackle over the radio.  You obey almost automatically, almost annoyed at the intrusion.  Not even apprehension about the landing can disturb your euphoria.

But the ground nears and rushes up, and you see figures moving about as you zero in on the target circle.  You press your legs together and remember to look away to the horizon, avoiding an otherwise inevitable misjudgment of the impact time.

You hit and roll instinctively, and easily to the ground, then stand to help the ground crew fold the parachute.  You are, perhaps, suffering rather pleasantly from mild mental shock.

"Hey, this is a first-timer.  Landed right on the target.  What's this world coming to?"

You know that you should give full credit to the expert radio guidance, but you just stand there with a big, silly, happy grin on your face.

You've been sky-diving, and the world is yours.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Thanks to NBC


I was just a skinny kid.  A skinny kid who knew all about the planets, who liked thinking about rocket ships and outer space.  Who knew the future was bound to be far more exciting, even bizarre, than the dull life of his small, peaceful town in the Northwest Corner.

I was just a skinny kid with my ear pressed to the speaker of our radio console, a large combination radio-phonograph, disguised as mahogany furniture, that sat in the place where -- a few years later -- one would expect to find a television set.

Because I was a skinny kid back in the days before -- well, not the days before television existed, but the days before my family owned one.  Before TV signals could actually be received in my home town's remote corner of the then very remote Northwest Corner.

I was scrunched up on the floor, ear to the speaker, listening to a strange story.  A story of men who traveled to Mars in a rocket ship, and who discovered not the sandy desert revealed by today's unmanned Mars landers, but something far more wonderful.  They discovered their own small towns, just as those small  towns had appeared when they were children, in about 1926.  And they discovered their long-deceased relatives -- mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, grandparents -- welcoming them with love and joy, just as the men recalled them from the past.

They had found Heaven, and Heaven was apparently only a few months distant by rocket ship from Earth.

But things are never as they seem, apparently.  Especially on Mars.  Martians, it appears, are skilled at telepathy and at mass hypnosis.  They could read the fondest dreams and wishes of the crew members of the expedition.  They could create the world the Earthlings dreamed of.  They could make them extraordinarily happy -- and unsuspecting.  Then, while they were all asleep ...

But one crew member lay in bed and began to have doubts --

Carefully he lifted the covers, rolled them back.  He slipped from bed and was walking softly across the room when his brother's voice said, 'Where are you going?'
'What?'
His brother's voice was quite cold.  "I said, where do you think you're going?'
'For a drink of water.'
'But you're not thirsty.'
'Yes, yes, I am.'
'No, you're not.'
Captain John Black broke and ran across the room.  He screamed.  He screamed twice.
He never reached the door.

Heady stuff, for a small town, skinny kid.  I've never forgotten the story.
A decade later, while idle on a rainy day in San Sebastian, Spain, poking around a bookstore, I found an American paperback of science fiction stories.  The cover read:  The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury.  I read for the first time the name of one of the great, if idiosyncratic, writers of science fiction.  And spent that rainy day reading one of the landmark books in sci fi literature -- a collection of short stories, published in 1950, describing the exploration and settlement of Mars from 1999 to 2026 (we were more optimistic, in those days!).  

The stories, unlike much sci fi literature, used Mars as a vehicle to focus on our own problems as human beings, and on the devastation and ruin we bring with us like a plague, wherever we venture. 

The radio program I remembered so well was an adaptation of the sixth chapter in the book -- entitled "The Third Expedition," but had been republished from a sci fi magazine where it had appeared in 1948 as "Mars is Heaven!"

Nowadays, I belong to a British book club that releases classics from all ages in carefully printed and bound volumes.  Today I received my bound copy of The Martian Chronicles.  On thumbing through the book, I immediately recalled the radio program, and wondered if there was any present record of that early broadcast.  Thanks to the internet, I learn that there is indeed, and moreover  that I can now date the program to which I listened with wide-eyed excitement as a child.

From April 1950 to September 1951, NBC radio carried a science fiction series called "Dimension X."  The program presented 50 dramatizations of science fiction stories during that period, including stories by such masters as Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Kurt Vonnegut, and George Lefferts; numerous stories by Bradbury -- and even one by L. Ron Hubbard. 

Dimension X broadcast its adaptation of "Mars is Heaven!" on July 7, 1950, and rebroadcast it on January 7, 1951.  For either broadcast, I would have been ten years old -- just about the age I would have estimated.  I'm delighted to discover what literate programing NBC was able to offer in the mid-twentieth century, and I'm happy to recognize how lucky I was -- as a small, skinny, ten-year-old kid, living in Podunk, WA -- to be introduced to one of the most enjoyable of science fiction authors.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Octennial


And thus ends my eighth year of churning out posts for this blog.

The churning has been more subdued this year.  But, of course, quantity isn't everything.  How has my quality been?

A difficult question to answer, since "quality" is so subjective.  As far as popularity goes, my most read posts have been book reviews.  In fact, the most popular review of the year discussed only a small portion of a book -- something from India about a fakir's "Indian rope trip."  The second most popular was a review of The Maltese Falcon

My third most popular post, oddly enough, was a reprint of a newspaper article I had written 44 years earlier, recounting an eventful visit to Damascus.

Other popular topics were my visit to southern Africa, my terror of bears in Glacier National Park, and my satisfaction at reading studies that seemed to show that -- as we suspected all along -- more brawn means fewer brains.

But these statistics merely show which topics lured readers to the page.   They say nothing about the degree of satisfaction those readers experienced, having completed their reading.

We can't know everything, and sometimes ignorance is a good thing.  If we knew how everyone we met really saw us, we might well be paralyzed into inaction.  I might find myself walking around with a bag over my head.  Similarly, a writer -- especially a novice writer -- may be better off ignoring hostile reviews. 

So I will continue writing posts for another year, hoping they are readable, hoping they are worth reading, hoping they somehow, in some small way, improve a tiny corner of the universe.  Hearing nothing to the contrary, I'll blithely take my writing's quality for granted.

But certainly focus on improving quantity.