Thursday, March 31, 2011


Most of the time during "spring" break, I was home doing things that needed doing. But there was time for entertainment -- for 11 episodes of Firefly, or nearly four-fifths of the entire run of the series. I will finish it shortly. It came recommended by my brother Jay years ago, and more recently by Sheldon Cooper.

They didn't lead me astray. It's a cracking good yarn. But I can see how not everyone would get it, including Fox programming types. "What are these cowboys doing in spaceships? And why do they speak Chinese sometimes?"

That kind of thing can distract easily distractible minds, and obscure merits like well-drawn characters, good dialogue, interesting stories, an unusual background conceit, strong special effects and intriguing hand-held camerawork, some action, and a dollop of humor. I was also impressed by -- dystopian isn't quite the word, and neither is pessimistic, but they're close -- the series' acknowledgment that humanity will take its wicked tendencies with it into the future.

Firefly isn't the first SF to posit a future with war, murder, torture and much other violence; an upper class with its boot heel on everyone else's neck; slavery or at least debt bondage; treachery, double-dealing and more. But the show does a good job of weaving all that into its stories, with some nuance. The characters endue a world like that (much like ours) and yet it's completely believable when, in one episode, they are all enjoying a lively meal together, laughing and telling stories -- until a mechanical failure threatens their lives, something else mankind is certain to take with it into the future.

It may be too bad that there weren't more episodes, but on the other hand, during a longer series the producers would have been obliged to depict some of the background menace more fully, which can turn ridiculous (e.g., The X Files, or in that case, more ridiculous). To cite another example, the 2000s version of Battlestar Galactica held up well enough toward the end, but the Cylons were a better menace before we knew much about them.


Wednesday, March 30, 2011

RIP, Aashid Himons

I didn't know Aashid Himons well enough to know what his last name was, or that he had been Archie Himons earlier in his life. A quarter-century or more ago I just knew that he was Aashid and his band was Afrikan Dreamland, a -- the only -- Nashville reggae band. He was quite a talent.

I saw him perform a couple of times on the Vanderbilt campus in the early '80s, and met him once at a Nashville club after a performance because I was there with a friend of mine. That friend had done some camerawork for the band for one of its videos, maybe even the one that appeared on MTV in the mid-80s under the band name "Dreamland," apparently because the channel was too lily-livered to use a scary word like "Afrikan."

Aashid was an enormous man. He had the largest hands of anyone I've ever met, before or since, and a surge of dreadlocks on his head. That night he was in the mood to talk about his experiences playing in the band, and somehow or other got on the subject of keeping track of how much tax was owed from the band's take for each show. At which point he offered some wise financial advice to those of us listening. "The only way to deal with the IRS," Aashid said, "is to pay the bastards."

Aashid Himons died earlier this month in Nashville at 68 years of age. More about him is here and here.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Evening at the Art Institute

I didn't want to over-program our visit to the Art Institute of Chicago last week, so some of the time I let Ann decide what we were going to look at. Sometimes she surprised me. In the lower level is an exhibit area always given over photography, and she wanted to see that.

My reaction was, really? You want to look at these pictures? She did. The gallery sported a kind of photos that I like: Depression-era B&W. Prominently on display were images by Margaret Bourke-White, including a good many shots of factories. One shot immediately caught my eye -- Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936. I recognized it as the picture used for the first cover of Life magazine. Another image of hers looked familiar, but maybe that was because it resembled a still from Metropolis, even though it was not. The image depicted three enormous gears of a stamping press at a Chrysler plant in the mid-30s, and one worker off in the corner, dwarfed by the machinery.

Elsewhere, Ann was intrigued by displays of East Indian artifacts. For my part, I didn't know that 18th-century India produced such aesthetic daggers (katar), which tended to be of steel and gold in the case of the Art Institute's examples, one of which featured a tiger feasting on an ungulate of some kind. Not quite as compelling as some of the southeast Asian kris collections I've seen, but well worth their place in the museum.

I did direct her attention to a few places, such as Chagall's "America Windows," which I was glad to see has been re-installed toward the east end of the museum. We spent some time sitting on one of the benches facing the windows, taking a longish look. The windows seem to be an international favorite, since I overheard other groups of people on the benches having conversations in French and German. I asked Ann what she saw, and she said a sun, a moon, a hand holding a wand, a man blowing a "flute-whistle-telescope," a city, a ghost lady flying, the liberty [Statue of Liberty], a bird flying in the sky, candles, and a turtle jumping. If we'd spent more time at it, I'm sure she could have come up with more, since the texture of the work is that rich.

I wanted to see the new(ish) Modern Wing, which I hadn't visited before. Mostly this meant wandering along its vaulting atrium rather than inspecting its galleries, since by that time both of us were getting tired. Being a free-admission Thursday evening, the place was swarming with museum-goers (note to the AI: $18 is steep admission for adults, though kids under 14 free almost makes up for it). The Modern Wing is a Renzo Piano design, and much complimentary prose has been written about it. Maybe I wasn't in the mood for it, because I kept thinking that I was in an airport. Just add some gate signs in the atrium, open a few airport restaurants and give the museum-goers some carry-on luggage, and the place would be a terrific replica of a well-designed airport terminal.

Back in the older part of the museum, just before we left, we took note of an installation called "Public Notice 3," by an artist named Jitish Kallat. It's notable because Kallat installed LED text in five colors on each of the risers of the museum's grand staircase.

Later, I looked up the basis of the text, which was a speech by Swami Vivekananda at the First World Parliament of Religions, which was held at the Art Institute concurrently with the Columbian Exposition of 1893. "Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful Earth," he said, among other things. "They have filled the Earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now... I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen."

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Monday, March 28, 2011

Quasi-Spring Break

Not a bad spring break, if you could call it that, since temps hovered down toward the freezing end of the thermometer most days, with the bonus of cold rain several times and a light snow at least twice. The equinox has come and gone, and so has the new year's day of March 25. Orion tilts toward the southwest in the evening, and there are more birds around that before. But all those things don't quite add up to spring, which won't be till I can sit on my deck and read.

Missed the perigee full moon on the March 19. "The biggest moon in 18 years," said National Geographic on its web site. I'm sure it was up there somewhere over northeastern Illinois, but an overcast sky denied me the sight.

Last Thursday afternoon I went downtown with Ann. At Dearborn and Adams at about 5:45, we passed by a small demonstration. Why they were at that particular location, I couldn't say. Ann was eager to keep going, so I barely had a moment to document the scene, taking this shot from across the street and on the flip side of a banner that said "Stop the War on Libya Now!" Almost the entire group is in the image, plus a handful of passersby.

The building in the background is the 1.5 million-square-foot Citadel Center. I inadvertently captured an image of its copy of the Winged Victory (Nike) of Samothrace in the lobby -- the golden shape in the upper right.

Last week I also learned that Utah now has an official state firearm, the Browning M1911 semiautomatic pistol, along with a state tree, animal, fish and cooking pot (the Dutch oven). I'm glad the Utah legislature was able to take time out to tackle that subject. It reminded of a graffito I saw in a bathroom in the early '80s in Logan, Utah. "Don't sing in the shower," it said. "Utah shoots john singers."

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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Item From the Past: Mt. Fuji & T-Shirt

This is about as close as I ever got to Mt. Fuji, during a short visit to the area around the spring equinox in 1993. The remarkable thing was that the peak was actually visible, rather than obscured by clouds.

A short while before, a graphic artist friend of mine created a t-shirt to commemorate her wedding, and she sent one to me (note the cartoon characters holding hands). I told her in a fit of exuberance that I would have pictures made featuring the shirt in famous places, and send her copies. This was one of the first such pictures, if not the first, and I made a few others, but eventually the notion fell by the wayside.

A decade later, I received a Route of Seeing cap from Ed, and not-quite-seriously had the idea to do the same as with it as with the wedding t-shirt. Except now, in the age of digital photos and e-mail, it would be much easier to send him the images. During our trip in '05, whose ultima was Yellowstone NP, I managed to take a few pics featuring the cap.

The next year, I took it to Canada and documented its visit with a few more pictures. The cap seemed to have a penchant for continental divides.

And then I lost the cap.

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

St. Patrick's Horse Outside, With Bongos

Spring Break has arrived, more or less. It's a faint occasion for me, since I'll be working next week, but the girls are off starting Saturday, which will certainly change the tone of life around the house during the day. Posting will resume on March 27.

Spring is nearly here, too. This morning I heard a woodpecker and then saw it on a tree limb not far from my front yard. I spotted some robins and the very first croci peeping out. The largest piles of snow on nearby blacktops, mostly accumulated in February -- mostly on February 1 -- are finally gone.

Best of all, I ate lunch today on my backyard deck. Not ideal for an alfresco lunch, since it was overcast and windy, and I needed a jacket, but simple fact of eating outside was enough. I even saw a fly buzzing around the planks of the deck, but it was too sluggish to make a run at my lunch.

I was glad to see that Messenger has successfully entered into orbit around Mercury, the first spaceship ever to do so, which happened just a short time ago. Another marvel of the age. Something I'm more than glad to pay taxes to support.

I didn't realize until reading about the craft recently that the name's actually a tortured acronym: MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging. I'd assumed it wasn't quite so literal a name. You know, humanity's messenger to the inner Solar System. Just a quibble. Even after more than five decades of space flight, it's still a signal achievement.

I've pontificated on St. Patrick's Day before, and so far we're no closer to a time when North American calendar makers also include St. David, St. George and St. Andrew as a matter of course, but never mind. Ann came home today and wondered out loud whether any leprechauns were going to be around this evening. I said no, it's really hard for them to get visas these days. She paid me no mind.

Here's something suitably Irish for the feast day of St. Patrick. A creation of lads from Limerick, in fact, and something not suitable for your children or your workplace, unless you work, say, at a tattoo parlor.

Link for Facebook readers.

This is quasi-Irish and OK for kids, but they might not get the joke.

Link for Facebook readers.

Also, something not Irish at all. A day without Richard Feynman on the orange-juice bongos is like a day without sunshine.

Link for Facebook readers. But really, you should look at the original blog sometime.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Nuclear Notes

Time, I figure, to reacquaint myself with other nuclear accidents. Back when I took a seminar about the Manhattan Project, that subject was an appendix to my studies. That was so long ago that Chernobyl hadn't happened yet, and previous Soviet nuclear accidents were mostly still secret, such as the one at the Mayak nuclear fuel reprocessing plant near the city of Kyshtym in 1957, when tons of nuclear waste overheated and apparently caused a non-nuclear explosion that released radiation in an amount second only to Chernobyl.

Chernobyl might have remained secret longer but for how far the radiation blew. Word got out, of course. The first I heard of it was at a little store, and post office substation, in the first floor of the building in Nashville where I worked at the time. The proprietor, a bearded, chatty fellow, told me that "a nuclear power plant blew up in Russia." Unlike the Challenger accident a few months earlier, I don't remember that we huddled around our small workplace black-and-white TV that day to find out more, and looking up information on line wasn't an option.

I haven't had time to make it all the way through "Meltdown in Chernobyl," an episode of the excellent series Seconds From Disaster, but what I've seen so far is good.

The Windscale fire of 1957 -- clearly a bad year for nukes -- is an incident that ought to be better known. Maybe it is in Britain, but not here. In those days, the British were eager to make plutonium and tritium for an assortment of nuclear weapons, and let's just say that corners were cut. I'm not any kind of expert on nuclear energy, but even I'm astonished that Windscale featured an air-cooled reactor. With a chimney. The accident involved a massive fire in the reactor and clouds of radiation going up and out through the chimney. It seems that the crew narrowly averted a much larger disaster.

The gruesome SL-1 accident in early 1961 in Idaho inspires morbid fascination. I might be misremembering, but I first saw it mentioned on a calendar I had at some point in the mid-70s (published by National Lampoon?). The theme of the calendar was something bad every day, and the January 3rd entry mentioned that three men had died in a nuclear accident that day, but details were sparse, it being a calendar.

"Three workers were reassembling the control rod drives on 3 January in preparation for startup the following day," notes a site called Johnston's Archive, which is maintained by a physicist. "At about 9:01 PM the three workers were on top of the reactor when one manually removed the center control rod as rapidly as possible, over a 0.5-second period. The reactor became supercritical... producing a steam explosion. The worker who extracted the rod was killed instantly, impaled on the building's ceiling by a control rod... [One] hypothesis is that the rod was intentionally withdrawn in an act of murder-suicide; this was the conclusion of the investigation of the incident."

So as not to end on such a glum note, here's an amusement from Johnston's Archive, "A TEXAN definition of a planet." Or maybe he's serious. But I'm amused.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Low Humor

It turns out no event is too dreadful for the Aflac Duck to joke about. Gilbert Gottfried, whose comic niche seems to be Annoying Voice, has been fired from his talking duck gig for exceedingly tasteless tweets, but I suspect that the incident will be good for his career in the long run. There's probably a new spot for him on satellite radio somewhere. And here's an article about the absolutely least important question now facing mankind.

Then again, tasteless jokes have their place. In the midst of a terrible event, the constant, relentless seriousness can be overbearing. At some point a little imp whispers in our ears, "Enough! Make a joke."

Most people can resist the urge, but not everyone. Much later, the jokes aren't so offensive. Of historic interest, almost. Like one I heard not long after the Challenger accident. What does NASA stand for? Need Another Seven Astronauts.

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Monday, March 14, 2011


We've been following the terrible news from Japan, as you'd imagine. From Friday to Sunday, we received a number of e-mails and phone calls asking about Yuriko's relatives. I'm glad to report that they live at quite a distance from Miyagi Prefecture, which is up on the coast from Tokyo and roughly 400 miles from Osaka -- a little further than San Francisco is from Los Angeles.

Some of the early reports of the disaster on US TV, at least, seemed to offer no clear information on just what part of the country had been hit by the earthquake and tsunami. If you'd never heard of Miyagi Prefecture or Sendai, it would be easy to imagine that was pretty much anywhere in the Japanese archipelago.

At this point, we can only hope the nuclear part of the disaster is more Three Mile Island than Chernobyl. At least the Japanese didn't go with the "we don't need no stinkin' containment building" school of nuclear power plant design favored by Soviets of yore.


Sunday, March 13, 2011

Item From the Past: Benjamin Harrison's Final Resting Place

In March 1999, I visited Indianapolis’ Crown Hill Cemetery. It’s an enormous, picturesque, old-style cemetery with plenty of trees and headstones and even a few hills. President (Benjamin) Harrison is buried there, so I went to see his stone, but it was a fairly drab affair, an undistinguished family stone surrounded by artless individual stones.

Though I don't seem to have taken any pictures it, the nearby monument of Vice President Thomas Hendricks -- Cleveland’s first, a Hoosier who died in office in 1885 -- was a more aesthetic stone. Best of all in the vicinity was Gov. Oliver Morton, the “War Governor” of Indiana (in office 1861-67), who has a spiffy bust of himself atop his monument. By golly, he wanted people to remember him. Of course, almost no one has.

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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Add Trap Doors and a Gong

Lilly, who has been watching American Idol with some regularity, has stopped doing so. "It's gotten boring," she said. I'm not in a position to comment on that opinion. Her media interests come and go, after all. Only Spongebob has been constant in her esteem over the years.

About five minutes every few months is all I've ever seen of American Idol, but despite that I was able to offer some suggestions that would spice up the viewing experience for her and the rest of the teen demographic. Trap doors, for one thing. Losers go out through trap doors. The producers could rig things so that no one would be hurt, and the effect could be dramatic. Also, a gong for losers. Like on The Gong Show.

Once I mentioned that, I had to explain The Gong Show to her. Well, describe it, since I'm not sure anyone can quite explain it. You could make an argument that it was an absurdist masterpiece, if you had a lot of time on your hands and nothing better to do. But it isn't something that could be revived, since the moment has passed, and since we have YouTube in our time to fill a similar niche hundreds of times over. Naturally, YouTube has a lot of clips from the original show.

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Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Presumably, Gee Jon Had No Cellmate

After hearing about the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois today, I spent a short while poking around a few death penalty web sites, especially since I was curious which other states have no capital punishment. More than I thought: 16, counting Illinois. Surprisingly, a handful of states have had no death penalty since the 19th century -- Wisconsin, since 1853; Michigan, since 1846; and Maine, since 1887.

I also came across some odd, and oddly morbid, facts about the practice. In a short article about the history of the death penalty in this country, the data-rich mentioned in passing the introduction of the gas chamber, which was a popular option for states in the mid-20th century. I'm just old enough to remember characters on cop and lawyer shows threatening suspects with the gas chamber.

"In 1924, the use of cyanide gas was introduced, as Nevada sought a more humane way of executing its inmates," the web site says. "Gee Jon was the first person executed by lethal gas. The state tried to pump cyanide gas into Jon's cell while he slept, but this proved impossible, and the gas chamber was constructed."

Italics added. It's a little hard to imagine prison officials actually trying such a thing -- the stuff of comedy, if it didn't involve someone's death.

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Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Subway vs. McDonald's

Here's a sentence I wrote today: "At year-end 2010, the chain had 33,749 restaurants worldwide, compared to McDonald's total of 32,737." The chain being Subway, and the news hook is the fact that Subway has surpassed McDonald's worldwide in number of locations.

That's an impressive number of locations, all right. If you got it into your head to visit a different location every day, it would take you more than 92 years just to visit them all once, without repeating -- and that's only the ones existing now. So it would be a multi-generational project. "Son, you're a man now. Time to start visiting the Subways in Asia. Begin in Singapore and work your way north."

East Asia is, in fact, a prime target for more Subways; there are only about 1,000 locations there now. In the early '90s, I don't ever remember seeing any in that part of the world, but it didn't occur to me to look for them, either. Among American brands planted in the Orient, McDonald's dwarfed all competitors in those days, though others were scattered around, such as the incongruous A&W I ran across in I forget which mall in Kuala Lumpur.

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Monday, March 07, 2011

The Cookie Gaggle

Saturday night was noisy around here. Enough of Lilly's friends were visiting to form a gaggle, which means noise. But it was mirthful noise.

At some point one of her friends suggested making cookies, and it happened that we still had a "sugar cookie baking kit," a green box acquired sometime after Christmas at some discount. One of the gaggle had the further idea of documenting the process with our digital camera, so they took turns with camera in hand.

Mostly the shots were girls mugging for the camera. But there were a few process shots.

The kit included cookie-cutters in conventional festive holiday shapes. Christmas is long over, but I guess these could be Mardi Gras cookies. Close enough.

No pics of the final product, however. They didn't last that long.

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Sunday, March 06, 2011

The Day to Remember the Alamo

Commandancy of the Alamo—
Bejar, Fby. 24th 1836—

To the People of Texas &
all Americans in the world—

Fellow citizens & compatriots—
I am besieged, by a thousand
or more of the Mexicans under
Santa Anna—I have sustained
a continual Bombardment &
cannonade for 24 hours & have
not lost a man—The enemy
has demanded a surrender at
discretion, otherwise, the garrison
are to be put to the sword, if
the fort is taken—I have answered
the demand with a cannon
shot, & our flag still waves
proudly from the walls—I
shall never surrender or retreat
Then, I call on you in the
name of Liberty, of patriotism &
every thing dear to the American
character, to come to our aid,
with all dispatch—The enemy is
receiving reinforcements daily &
will no doubt increase to three or
four thousand in four or five days.
If this call is neglected, I am deter
mined to sustain myself as long as
possible & die like a soldier
who never forgets what is due to
his own honor & that of his
country—Victory or Death

William Barret Travis
Lt. Col. comdt


Thursday, March 03, 2011

It's Not For Girls

No croci yet, but I heard a woodpecker this morning drilling into wood. For insect eggs? I couldn't say for sure, but it's still too early even for larval insects. Maybe woodpeckers need to get into practice before the spring drilling season.

Speaking of edibles, not long ago I discovered that a major retailer around here carries Yorkie bars. I'd never seen them for sale in the United States, so it was my impulse buy for that morning. This particular store has an international aisle with mostly the usual -- "Polish Foods," "Mexican Foods," etc. -- but also "British Foods." That was odd enough for me to look at the selections, and there it was.

Note the slogan right there on the package, It's Not For Girls (emphasis not added by me). Predictably, that upsets some literal-minded people, but I have a feeling it doesn't really discourage any girls from buying Yorkies in Britain or anywhere else. Lilly tried some, at her insistence, and seemed to like it. The UK adverts seem to have fun with it as well, such as this one, which I've linked to before.

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Wednesday, March 02, 2011


Disunion is a excellent blog. Shows the kind of thing old media, the New York Times in this case, can do if it wants to. It follows -- if "follows" is the right word -- the events of 150 years ago, day by day, as the nation falls into disunion and then war. As of 150 years ago today, of course, disunion was in full swing, but war was still only a dreaded possibility.

Today's entry is particularly interesting, since it only indirectly deals with the situation in the United States. Rather, it discusses the emancipation of the serfs by Alexander II of Russia on March 3, 1861, the day before Lincoln took office on the other side of the world (February 19 O.S.).

But if your mood doesn't run toward such heavy reading at the moment, see this blog, which promises the dream of reading exactly as much as you want to, and no less.

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Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Ducks in the Library

When in doubt, take a picture of a sunset. This is the view from our deck as the Sun went down on the first day of meteorological spring. Today, that is.

Heard the usual blather on the radio today about the upcoming equinox. Something about spring starting then, but I'm not persuaded. It's usually still fairly chilly around here around the vernal equinox.

This made my day: The Schaumburg Township Library seems to have the entire Carl Barks Library of Donald Duck Adventures in Color, which are large-format comic books (ahem, graphic novels). Ann was not far away looking for things to read and I happened to notice one of the series that hadn't been reshelved yet. The publisher was Gladstone -- that name can't be a coincidence -- of Prescott, Ariz.

Gladstone republished a lot of Barks and other Disney comic authors in the late '80s and '90s. I remember seeing some of them then, but wasn't in the market. I'd read most of the stories years earlier anyway, and didn't want to pay just to have a collection of them.

But now there are small(ish) people in the house who have never read them, so I checked out No. 1 of the series, which features an early Barks comic book effort (with another Disney animator, Jack Hanna) called "Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold," which I don't think I've read. But I'm going to have to wait until Ann is done with it -- she took an immediate interest.