Saturday, December 31, 2011

Boys, Architecture and Reading

I’m not sure what is the attraction between boys and: fire stations, trains, trucks, fill in the blanks.  Over the years I’ve maintained my interest in gasoline stations and railroad stations among other things.  For those two I think part of the link for me is to the unique architecture of those structures (in my teen years I briefly considered architecture as a career). Those structures can be totally functional, yet quite distinctive in design. You know them when you see them.  Not more than 20 miles from me is a small town wooden train station converted to a private home. That one is easy to spot as the owners purposely kept some features of the building intact – it looks like the train tracks were taken up just recently when in fact that spur line was abandoned many decades ago – a common story in New England. Other former stations and railroad outbuildings can be a little difficult to spot, but not if you train yourself (really, no pun was intended) to look for that distinctive railroad architecture.

Gasoline stations are the same way.  Roadside wooden buildings with an extended roof in the front held up by two pillars?  Probably a combo 1920s gas station and small store, especially if you’re in the South.  A compact art deco stucco building with a steeply slanted roof situated on an urban corner – now a ratty used car lot? Likely a candidate for a once spiffy 1930’s “fillin station.” Maybe ESSO or Sinclair.  I, for one, find it fun to spot and photograph these repurposed buildings.

I have a couple of kids’ picture books on the topic of gasoline stations, all vintage 50s readers, picked up at yard sales and used book stores. Aside from the architecture they display, the storylines make for interesting reading.

This boy doesn't know how to dress when visiting a greasy garage.  He looks like he's headed to a prom.  Must be a rich kid. 

 The Filling Station informs us: "The attendant is the man at the filling station. He puts gas and oil into the cars. He takes the money for the gas and oil. He keeps the money in a safe." Greedy capitalist! Where are the Occupiers when you need them?

Were there no child labor laws in the 1950s??

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Classic First Editions, Going Once...

I guess I did find a list of "Tops for 2011" that interested me. is a website for those selling used and rare books. An for that type of thing.  Here are their top 3 most expensive sales in the modern fiction, first edition category.  Interesting literary cross section, wouldn't you say?

1. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee - $25,000
First edition of Lee’s first and only, Pulitzer Prize-winning, novel; signed “with best wishes Harper Lee.”

2. The Hobbit or There and Back Again by J.R.R. Tolkien - $20,447
First edition, first impression of Tolkien’s classic with a complete dust jacket featuring the requisite ink correction to the "e" of "Dodgeson" on the rear flap. Published in 1937, this first edition is highly valued because only 1,500 copies were printed.

3. Dr. No by Ian Fleming - $14,500
Published in 1958 by Jonathan Cape, this first edition of the first 007 novel was signed by Fleming.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Santa's Carbon Footprint

Holy Rudolph, did you know the gigantic size of Santa Claus’ carbon footprint? I forgot that you would need to take into account all those lumps of coal going to bad girls and boys (coal is almost pure carbon of course).  And then there’s the baking of those cookies and processing and transporting all that milk that each household leaves out for the old red man to munch on.  Whew!  But thankfully a thoughtful enviro-NGO has made the required calculations and now Santa Nation can sign on to the Kyoto protocols with a clear conscience.

Actually, I applaud the exercise by this NGO.  We need to lighten up a bit, especially during the holidays.  And the carbon footprint hijinx reminds me of silly grad student days sitting around converting random measurements to furlongs-per-fortnight with my fellow punch-drunk-from-studying scientists-in-training.

But it also reminded me that a respected ecological researcher published a straight-forward article in a very respected science journal calculating how many monsters Loch Ness could support knowing what we know (a lot) about the fishery productivity there and making some assumptions about the size and weight of a Loch Ness monster.  I think I recall that by his calculation the famous Loch could only support a monster and a half – not enough for a sustainable population of course. But the most interesting thing was the backlash from a few in the scientific community who thought it improper for a scientific journal to waste its space encouraging such nonsense and wrote scathing letters to the journal editor on this topic.  Of course we irreverent grad students thought this was all great stuff.  Prominent science bigwigs fighting in public.  Science shouldn’t be serious all the time, especially when you realize it is just a means and mechanism for describing this world we all inhabit.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Boxing Day

I get bored by the barrage of Best of the Year stories and features that print and digital media trot out every year between Christmas and New Years.  I guess it could be considered the equivalent of the Christmas Newsletter sent by some friends, family members and former college roommates.  Interesting, but only in moderation.

So I have no Top 10 favorite/earth-shattering/soul-ratting/did-you-miss-this-one? lists of 2011 newsie items to offer.  Just three humble observations on this Boxing Day.

1) Do Americans realize that Santa Claus is a Canadian citizen? (check out his place of residency).   We don’t want to follow the Canadian system of socialized medicine, so why do we reorient all of U.S. society, including 100% of our buying habits, between mid November and December 25th to be lined up with this foreign celebrity and his cultish elves?

2) One of the Back To The Future stainless steel Deloreans just sold for $541,200.  Seems like a bargain since a rebuilt flux capacitor alone goes for that much or more.

3) The menu of a new Asian restaurant in our area offers this tempting umbrella drink: “Virgin Pine Colada.”  I didn’t try it but it sounds tempting.  Better than the old Pine Coladas that had no sap or pitch aroma at all.  Maybe I’ll treat all my friends to one on New Years Eve.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Educational Support for Sudanese Children

Life for Sudan is a 501(c)(3) formed in 2006 for the purpose of helping Sudanese refugees in this country and those trying to rebuild South Sudan after decades of war. Most of our organization’s focus is on one aspect of education or another.

As you might well suspect, facilities for pursuing secondary and higher education opportunities in South Sudan are still few and far between. Many Sudanese families and individual students seek their education in neighboring Uganda and Life for Sudan currently supports a number of children enrolled in schools there. Modest funds go a long way in that tuition (and in some cases board as well) can cost as little as $99.60 per semester (less than $300 a year) for secondary school.  For this modest fee we can help a child obtain the critical education that will make a lasting difference in her or his life and the lives of their family members.  Again as you might expect, we have many more requests from families than we can fill. For instance, here are three children from Magal Village in the Bor area of South Sudan in need of educational support:

Alier Ngang Chuei: 5th grade boy who lost one of his parents
Athiei Magot Riak: 6th grade girl, orphaned
Ayom Nur: 5th grade boy, orphaned

If you would like to help support our efforts, you can read more about our Christmas-time appeal on our website or go directly to the charitable site Network for Good to make a secure credit card donation.

We appreciate your support.  Life for Sudan has no paid staff members which allows us to maximize the benefit of the funds that friends and supporters donate to us.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Half-Priced Lawyers

Judging by the lower sign, I guess this business in North Las Vegas wasn't a good idea - even at half off.

Name It

Not sure what to say...  Maybe it's called a "chool" or possibly a "stair."

Bruce, We Hardly Knew Ye!

Say it ain’t so! Universal theme parks announced it will retire its Jaws adventure ride starring that oh-so-popular mechanical shark, “Bruce.” (Bruce was the name of director Stephen Spielberg’s lawyer and affectionately attached to the trio of troublesome mechanical sharks used to film the original Jaws movie in 1975 – see my September post).

The verdict according to the news article: "Jaws" really was a relic. We've got CGI sharks now, and CGI-based movie rides like "The Simpsons Ride" and "Shrek 4-D." The next attraction to open in Florida? A "Despicable Me" 3D movie.

Really, you think the Simpson’s or Despicable Me could replace Bruce the eating machine? Get serious.

But maybe the real story here is that reality was first replaced with a robot and now that robot is losing its job to a bunch of digits – zeros and ones and some fly-by-night 3D. Nothing is safe. Nothing sure. It’s unnerving. If it’s Bruce today, which one of us tomorrow?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Atheists Go to Church “For the Kids”

A new study conducted by Rice University in Texas reports that 17 percent -- about one out of five scientists who describe themselves as either atheists or agnostics -- actually go to church, although not too often, and not because they feel a spiritual yearning to join the faithful. They go “for the kids.” I haven't read the full Rice report yet but you can read the ABC news account here.

I guess I can see the stated explanation – the atheist parent wants to let their children make up their own mind. But the article doesn’t even hint at another possible reason. Perhaps the atheist parents aren’t 100% convinced that they have it all figured out and attend church services either for some spiritual insurance of sorts (“hey, it can’t really hurt, can it?”), or maybe to check the whole “God thing” out to see if they just might hear a persuasive argument or two along the way. You never really know what those wacky scientist might be thinking, now do you?

Friday, December 2, 2011

Save Us From The Vortex

If I could banish a word from the English language it might be “transform” or “transformation.” Why so, you ask? Scientists and engineers use this term all the time. Are you anti-science Mr. SpongeHead? No, and also no, I’m not reacting adversely to the transformer action figures in comics and films, even though I just don’t get them (hey, I raised two daughters, ask me about My Little Pony, I used to be able to name them all).

Basically, I have little patience with metaphysical movements and secular-spiritual programs that are out to transform me. I usually don’t have any problems ignoring such stuff, it is around us daily afterall, but when you combine it with geology, watch out man, now you’re treading on a turf you shouldn’t be on! A turf worth fighting over as a matter of fact.

On a recent vacation trip to the Southwest my wife and I spent a night and the better part of two days in Sedona, Arizona – red rock country. Great locale, great town. We loved our stay. And, yes, I was well aware of Sedona’s reputation as a “spiritual place” before traveling there. I was prepared for it to have an atmosphere not unlike a Boulder, San Francisco, Ann Arbor, even Burlington, VT – or most of Southern California. But I wasn’t prepared for subterfuge on the part of the local government. At the town’s Visitor’s Center, nice, mature, normally-dressed workers help you with directions, recommend accommodations and restaurants, and hand out helpful maps. It was one of these grandmotherly attendants who was helpfully pointing out sites of interest and suggesting day trips to us on a copy of the area map she was about to give us who stopped me in my tracks. This municipal version of a Wal-Mart greeter then pointed to a number of swirly designs at various positions on the map stretched before us and pronounced, “And you may want to visit some of our Vortex sites – you know, where the Earth’s energy is concentrated.” I pretty much make it a point not to cuss at grandmotherly greeters to begin with, but I was a bit too dumbfounded to do so even if I had really desired. I do know I looked like the proverbial deer-in-the-headlights as I just stared, my brain thinking, “Hoo Boy.” And I stared some more. I’m not sure how exactly, but I thanked Grandma and seemed to have gotten out of the Visitor’s Center without either swearing, or laughing.

Rather than me try to explain Vortex sites, let me have two websites do the talking. The first is from the official Visit Sedona website, created and maintained by the Sedona Chamber of Commerce. I’m not making this up.

What is the definition of "vortex"? "A place or situation regarded as drawing into its center all that surrounds it." In other words, a vortex is a site where the energy of an area is concentrated. Because Sedona as a whole is known to be a spiritual power spot, a vortex site in Sedona is a place where one can feel Sedona's spiritual energy most strongly. Page Bryant, a medium, came up with the term while investigating sacred locations in the area.

Are all vortexes the same? Opinions differ. Some people say that all vortexes are equal in their ability to amplify energies; others will tell you that there are different qualities at different sites. Pete Sanders identifies some sites as upflow vortexes (where energy rises out of the earth); others as inflow vortexes (where energy flows into the earth). Upflow vortexes, such as mountains, mesas and pyramidal-type typography, are useful when one wishes to view life from a higher plane, to develop a more universal perspective or to send a prayer or affirmation out into the world. According to Sanders, upflow vortex sites make people feel positive, exhilarated and rejuvenated. "They literally unwind you and help you tap that universal oneness and harmony," he says. Bell Rock is an example of an upflow vortex. Inflow vortexes, such as valleys, canyons and caves, are good for introspection and spiritual problem solving. "If you want to understand and/or heal something from your past or go inward for past-life memory, those skills will be enhanced in an inflow vortex," says Sanders. Boynton Canyon is an example of an inflow vortex. According to Sanders, most of Sedona (excluding cliffs and mesas) is a huge inflow area because it lies in a valley cut by Oak Creek.

How do I find the vortex spot when I get to the site? There is no "x" that marks the spot. The entire area is considered to be a vortex. This makes it much more accessible. A visitor can decide to linger at the base, take a gentle walk or climb to the apex. How will I experience a vortex? Each person will experience a vortex differently. Possibilities include new insights, intense feelings of joy or release, sense of wellbeing, a physical healing, new or heightened spiritual awareness. After working with nearly 5,000 people, Andres has observed that Sedona encourages all kinds of shifts and that vortexes are real. "But unless you trust your own ability to sense," says Andres, "it may be difficult to tell what, if anything, is really happening."

Why doesn't everyone feel the same effect? Everyone is different and so are their experiences. While one person might see colors or energetic swirls, another might simply feel more supported and uplifted.

The second site is the business website of two folks who are making a living off of Vortex sites. They used to work in Sedona but, by a strange quirk of luck and using their Sedona-learned skills, they found Vortexes both inside and outside of their home right in Santa Rosa in northern CA. No word as to whether they had to pay the Sedona Chamber of Commerce any royalty fees or anything.

Vortex, which means whirling energy, is a site on the earth's surface which emanates measurable high levels of electro-magnetic energy. Several well known vortex sites are located in the beautiful red rocks of Sedona, AZ, and many famous structures were built at vortex sites around the world, including Stonehenge in England and the Great Pyramid in Egypt.

Each chakra in the human body also is a vortex site of heightened energy and stored information. Human vortex energy is affected by earth vortex energy, often through accelerated dreams, visions, past life memories, mental clarity, chakra cleansing and balancing, creativity and physical healing.

Since Spring Equinox 2001, 8 Earth Vortex sites and 2 Portals have been activated at The Crossroads, the small parcel of land where Jan and Marystella live.

Each of the vortices and portals, located at 9 sites at The Crossroads, has a specific gatekeeper, a clear purpose and multiple lessons. Living in these energies has been a long and amazing journey for Marystella and Jan. Their teachers include the Land and her Ancestors, the Spirit of the Redwood trees and the Mermaid Gatekeeper at the Water Vortex. They've been invited into the Akashic Records' Circle of Remembering, embraced by the Unconditional Love of the Goddess and heard the Song of the Sirens. The gifts Jan & Marystella have received from Land and Spirit are given back as guidance on your Journey.

Your yearning, by any name - more money, less stress, new relationship, peace on earth, creative outlet, spiritual connection, physical health - is a Call to Action. It's a call to Grow your Self, Vibrate your Essence, Live your Purpose.

If you're ready to cross the next threshold into a terrain beyond your old beliefs, to lift the veil of forgetting and embrace your deepest remembering, welcome to the Journey. Now is the time to transform the life you "think" you need to live, into Living the Intention of your Life.

By the way, after your Vortex Journey in Jan and Marystella’s backyard or laundry room, you can purchase Vortex Green Jewelry from them, “lovingly crafted and energized in accelerated Earth Vortex Energy.”

I’m thinking of whipping off an e-mail to the federal Department of Energy to see if they’ve caught wind of this Vortex energy source yet. With it we could put the final kibosh on that pesky proposed tar sands pipeline from Canada. We might need to drill an Accelerated Earth Vortex (AEV) well in Jan and Marystella’s laundry room though. I’m sure they won’t mind.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


I guess we're beginning to see the end of the various occupier groups. It does seem like there is a huge divergence in why folks were protesting and what they wanted to see as an end result.  I don't imagine that debate will pass quickly, even with the coming of winter weather.

The whole situation reminds me of one of my all time favorite movie lines - from Marlin Brando.

Sunday, November 27, 2011


A balmy post-Thanksgiving late afternoon had me outside stringing Christmas lights on our Charlie Brown tree on our front bank. It felt more like a great mid October day than late November – pleasant afternoon air and a pleasant seasonal chore. I could hear a group of boys yelling and hollerin’up the street having a good time at some outdoorsy game – maybe kickball, I couldn’t be sure. I could hear one boy louder than the others and at one point amid the leisure-time mayhem, I heard him pronounce with gusto, “You can’t do that – it’s against the rules!” I chuckled because it reminded me of playing with my friends as a boy, and I thought, “Rules?” If I recall correctly most of the games we played had no hard and fast rules. The rules were usually determined by whose ball we were playing with or whose yard we were playing in. Or more often than not, who was the largest or most powerful sole in our pack of kids. Fluid rules. Rules to suit the occasion and our king-of the-hill male attitudes. That seems natural. Life wasn’t an even playing field we learned. Deal with it.

It got me thinking about more adult years when my career choices had me working for one-owner companies. Interesting organizations they could be. I put in 19 years with two separate one-owner consulting firms. How many times did I run into a situation where the owner decided the “rules?” Often arbitrary and ad hoc. And more often than not with me on the bottom of the pig pile when the dust settled, not the top! “Wow,” I thought as I finished my light stringing and headed back up the driveway in the rapidly dimming light. The Charlie Brown tree looked good.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Best Guitarist Ever?

Update: check out AVI's post on the Yardbirds.

Rolling Stone magazine just listed the top 10 rock & roll guitarists ever (their opinion anyway).  But aside from being in the Top 10 list, what else do Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck have in common?

1. Jimi Hendrix
2. Eric Clapton
3. Jimmy Page
4. Keith Richards
5. Jeff Beck
6. B.B. King
7. Chuck Berry
8. Eddie Van Halen
9. Duane Allman
10. Pete Townshend

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Not Quite Singing for Your Supper

In October I posted about singing scientists.  Well, there's more.  Specifically there's Carl Winter, food scientist at UC Davis worrying over food sanitation, nutrition and the like. You can listen to his audio versions or see clips of Winter performing in front of other scientists (I know, it's hard to contain yourself).  Who can resist a singing scientist?

How about: You’d Better Wash Your Hands (Beatles “I Want to Hold Your Hand”)

Oh yeah I'll, tell you something
I think you'll understand
For the sake of sanitation
You'd better wash your hands
You'd better wash your hands
You'd better wash your hands

Or,  Staying Alive (BeeGees)

Well you can tell by the way I choose my food
I’m a worried guy, in a cautious mood
Food safety scares, they’re everywhere
And they’re telling me I should beware
There’s pesticides, Mad Cow Disease
Sure don’t put my mind at ease
Biotech, and MSG
Messin’ with my sanity

Don’t want hepatitis or that gastroenteritis
I’m just stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Scrubbin’ off my veggies and I’m heatin’ all my burgers
Up to one-eighty-five, one-eighty-five
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive

Friday, October 28, 2011

Halloween Spending

The National Retail Federation estimates that Americans will spend the following for Halloween in 2011:

Total Halloween expenses—$6.9 billion (that's more than twice the amount Americans spent for Halloween in 2005)
Largest Halloween expense—$2.5 billion for costumes
Amount spent on candy—$2 billion

The research also shows that Halloween isn't just for kids anymore. In 2011 nearly 70 percent of adults plan to hold their own celebrations for Halloween.

Off the top of my head, I can think of at least three factors for this accelerating trend:

Lots of adults wanting to have a good time (less charitably put: another excuse to party and drink).

Aging Boomers not letting go of their youth.

Secular holidays and their celebrations/spending are replacing religious holidays. Christmas is, for all intense and purposes, a secular holiday in the minds of most Americans. Even Easter has been slowly taken over by the Marshmallow Peeps Brigade (Full disclosure: I love marshmallow peeps).

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Can’t Find My Way Home

I’m reading a short book I picked up called Facing the Lion, Growing up Maasai on the African Savanna by Joseph Lemasolai Lekuton. It relates Lemasolai’s boyhood growing up in northern Kenya and how he eventually came to attend St. Lawrence University where he received a BA and MA before getting another master’s degree at Harvard. The Maasai are nomadic people, moving their cattle to follow grazing opportunities. At least one child from each family was required to attend school and there were missionary-run schools in the region, some with even boarding capabilities. Lemasolai attended one of these but sometimes his family might be camped a few miles away and sometimes they might be 50 miles or more distance. Come the school vacation period, all the children had to make their own way back to their respective family camps, even though they did not know exactly where their families had settled at that point in time. They would start out walking in the general direction, often asking other Maasai families they encountered along the way for shelter, food, and directional help. Lemasolai once took two full weeks to locate his family’s camp.

I can relate. When I was in my second year of college here in the Northeast my family moved to the South due to my father’s job transfer. So one day my parents, younger brother and sister and any and all pets all trucked on southward with me staying back at college. After awhile, with some hefty tuition payments coming due, I set out to find where the family moved to. Now I was what you might call a “classic pain-in-the-butt teen” so I think my parents employed the services of some moonlighting folks who run the Federal witness protection program. It took my private investigators a month to find out their new address in the Atlanta suburbs. OK, I exaggerate – like Lemasolai, it was only two weeks.

I couldn’t resist this classic Blind Faith tune, originally from the short-lived Eric Clapton-Steve Winwood concoction.

Friday, October 21, 2011

I Was Working in the Lab Late One Night

Yes, you guess correctly, I do have a 45rpm copy of Monster Mash by Bobby “Boris” Pickett. It reached #1 on Billboard in September 1962, just in time for the Halloween season. And then it did something few singles releases have every done with the same recording by the same artist, it re-enter the Top 10 some eleven years later (some sources say Monster Mash re-entered the Top 10 TWICE - at 8 and 11 years, but the 8 year event seems to be in dispute). I don’t know the full record on re-release/re-entry into the Top 10, but I’m only aware of it occurring one other time – with Chubby Checker’s The Twist (August 1960 and November 1961 – hitting #1 BOTH times). I don’t believe that feat has ever been repeated.

Some sources report that Elvis Presley thought Monster Mash was the silliest record he’d ever heard. Anyway, MM’s success shows the popularity of novelty songs, especially those from the 1960s and 1970s. Vincent Price, The Beach Boys and many others recorded covers of this hit.

Bobby Pickett was born in Somerville, Massachusetts to a father who was a theater manager. As a youngster, Bobby would watch many horror films and later incorporated impressions of them in his 1959 Hollywood nightclub act.

Pickett co-wrote Monster Mash with Leonard Capizzi in May 1962. The song was a spoof on the dance crazes popular at the time, including the Twist and the Mashed Potato, which inspired the title. The song featured Pickett's impersonations of veteran horror stars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. It was passed on by every major record label, but after hearing the song, producer Gary S. Paxton agreed to take it on. Rocker-to-be and George Harrison friend, Leon Russell, played piano on the studio track. The single was released as being by "Bobby 'Boris' Pickett & The Crypt-Kickers".

Pickett performed his song live at Halloween shows well into his 60s, but died in 2007 due to complications from leukemia.

I’m actually not a fan of most horror movies (except the campy ones) and not big on the recent attractive-vampire trend in books and films. So this clever Lego version of Monster Mash suits me fine. Some days I feel like a Lego scientist anyway. "Rrrrrrrrr, Mash good!"

Friday, October 14, 2011

Open the Pod Bay Doors, Hal

Researchers have discovered that today’s vehicle computers are reasonably susceptible to hacker attacks. Without any special knowledge about the cars, researchers were able to take control of the door locks, disable the brakes and even stop its engine, among other things.

This is thanks to cars’ increasing dependency on computers to perform basic functions. Computer can now do everything from wipe the windshield to maintain tire pressure. Researchers say the typical luxury sedan just rolling off the assembly line has about 100 megabytes of code to control 50 to 70 computers inside the car. Some luxury cars have 100 million lines of software code, compared to only 1.7 million lines on a U.S. Air Force jet fighter.

Using homemade hacking software they dubbed "CarShark," Washington-San Diego researchers in lab and road tests "demonstrate the ability to adversarially control a wide range of automotive functions and completely ignore driver input – including disabling the brakes, selectively braking individual wheels on demand, stopping the engine, and so on," the researchers wrote.

Wonderful. So car hacking could turn into car jacking in the wrong hands. Picture being inside your car at an intersection someday and Mr. Thug standing next to your car can turn off your engine and unlock your doors. You are not in control - Mr. Thug and Mr. Computer are.

“Open the pod bay doors please, Hal.”
“I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Greenpeace Gets a New Toy

The new 190-foot ship, with two A-frame masts soaring almost as high over deck, is equipped with a helicopter pad and rapid-action release system for its inflatable boats, which in the past have carried activists into confrontations at sea.

The name Rainbow Warrior is drawn from an apocalyptic Cree prophesy that in the days when the Earth faces man-made devastation, mankind will join together to heal it and will be known as warriors of the rainbow.” …the perfect ship with which to navigate the perfect storm" of ecological and economic crises, and vowed that it "will confront environmental criminals across the world."

Well, at least the new ship, helicopter and inflatable boats don’t use any of that nasty oil stuff that we’re protesting against. Oh, wait….

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Singing Scientists

Back in 1959 Tom Glazer teamed up with Dottie Evans to record a series of six albums called “Singing Science”. Their little ditties covered a wide range of topics from “Constellation Jig” to “A Thumbnail Sketch of Atomic Energy”. You probably even know Tom Glazer, but you don’t know you know. His peak of commercial success came with a parody he wrote and performed entitled “On Top Of Spaghetti”, the tale of a lost meatball.

In the Glazer tradition there are many Singing Scientists out there willing to pick up the torch – for better or worse. Here are two examples:

Matthew Barnett, an Auckland based Senior Research Scientist in AgResearch’s Food Metabolism & Microbiology Section and part-time rock band member, has written and recorded a music video about his research - Nutritional Epigenetics - which is about how food and genes inter-relate. “It’s great to be able to sing about your passion. New Zealand scientists are doing some amazing work. We’re passionate about what we do and it’s fun to start singing the praises of some of the research,” he says.

That's why I chose chemical engineering? The video, called "A Reactor for Your Future" was a project for Principles of Chemical Engineering and Process Modeling and the objective was to make an promotional video for Chemical Engineering at Yale. The film features a prospective engineering student encountering various illustrious scientists who made contributions to chemical engineering at Yale and singing along with them to a folky, indie song.

Oh these wacky scientists with time on their hands.

The Big Roads

The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways.  
I’ve written previous regarding interstate highways, the road trip experience, and small towns. So when I saw Earl Swift’s book in the recently received section of our library, I had to take it out, even though my reading table is already piled high.

The Big Roads starts at the beginning of cross country road concepts in the US, with the first gas or steam-driven carriages. The book is written from an engineer’s point of view, so it goes into a lot of minutiae that even I’m not too interested in, but overall it’s a decent read. One interesting myth that Swift quickly dispels (that I always believed) is that President Eisenhower was the driving force in getting the country behind building the massive interstate highway system we know today. Supposedly he patterned his ideas after the great German autobahns that he experienced in WWII and believed this country sorely needed to be able to move massive amounts of military troops and equipment in defense of the country. Those were reasonable considerations, but in fact the overall design and concepts for our interstate system were hatched in the 1930s and were much better thought out than Eisenhower’s own plans. Eisenhower assumed that interstate corridors needed to run through the countryside, avoiding major cities. Professional planners realized early on that the interstates needed to help relieve traffic pressure on the cities, not the sparsely populated Nebraska plains. Surprisingly, Eisenhower was not one to get involved with details of any federal initiatives and the construction of the interstate system was well underway before he actually came to realize that what was being constructed was not his plans!

But the parts of Swift’s book that most interest me is the launch of a new era in the US as far as personal mobility. Swift states:

No surprise, then, that the new highways couldn’t come fast enough. Americans loved everything about their cars, loved driving, loved that they could follow an impulse to go wherever they chose, without a thought to routes or timetables. They loved that they lorded over their surroundings while they did it. They were cocooned, protected from the world, even as they were free to explore it. They could ride in silence or with the radio blaring, need never surrender personal space to a sweaty, foul-mouthed stranger, need not suffer inane chatter.

What wasn’t to love about the car? Americans took to it not only willingly, but with gusto. They did not have an automotive life foisted on them …. The people chose their path. They wanted what they were getting. Now they wanted the barriers to their automotive pleasure lowered. They wanted interstates, and damn it, they wanted them pronto.

Road trip??

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Rocky Start for St. Augustine

Several weeks ago I wrote that I picked up a 1957 book, Giants of the Faith on a whim for $0.25. One of the chapters profiled the life of St. Augustine of Hippo, a pillar of the Christian faith that I knew relatively little about. As I hinted in that first post, Augustine wasn’t much of a saint in his youth – anthying but.

A large part of Augustine’s story and ultimate redemption is due directly to a persistent Christian mother, Monica. Born in Numidia in North Africa in 354 to Monica and a pagan father, Augustine was enrolled as a catechumen (one receiving preliminary spiritual instruction) and the sign of the cross made over him. But not baptism. It was then the custom of many Christian parents to postpone baptism until early adulthood so that the guilt attaching to the sins of youth might not be made greater and more dangerous by following upon baptism. In his later years, Augustine deplored the unfortunate custom. Comparing the reasoning underlying this practice to that of a sick man who wished to be made sicker in order that he might more quickly be healed.

But in his youth Augustine sowed many wild oats, even when he had his mother living under his roof (who never stopped praying patiently for her son). Augustine came to adopted the beliefs of Manichaeism, followers of Mani, a Persian who had founded a new creed in the middle of the previous century (“Mani” – doesn’t that sound like he could be in the cast of Jersey Shore?). The Manichaean doctrine (widely distributed and very popular) flattered the intelligence by maintaining that no doctrine should be accepted on faith. That good and evil existed for sure, but when a Manichaean fell into sin, they could simply claim that their better nature was overcome by the forces of evil. Wow, how 21st century this guy was. The young Augustine bought it hook, line and sinker and made the most of the good life, even as an intellectual and teacher.

Fast forward a number of years to where a little maturity and motherly prayers slowly began to kick in to Augustine’s reasoning and powers of observation. The Mani evidence wasn’t adding up and Augustine struggled with that realization. It became painfully clear to Augustine that the road block to his attainment of the divine truth and wisdom was not intellectual, but moral. Seeking out Christian leaders, he came to realize that to be wise, it is not sufficient to merely know the truth, but it is necessary to live justly and virtuously. This he learned not from Plato he said, but from the teaching of Jesus as recorded in the scriptures.

Still, even with the knowledge of the path he should take, he wrestled with the wild, enjoyable life he was leading. “Soon, in a little while, I shall make up my mind, but not right now.” His oft-repeated half-prayer was “Give me Chastity, O God, but not yet!”

Augustine's conversation to the Christian faith finally came in 387 at 33 years old in the agony of a garden experience, much like the ordeal of Christ in Gethsemane. Like the Apostle Paul before him, Augustine could honestly cry out, “The good which I will, I do not; the evil which I will not, that I do.” Augustine would later write on this chapter of his life:

“I still thought that it is not we who sin but some other nature that sins within us. It flattered my pride to think that I incurred no guilt and, when I did wrong, not to confess it... I preferred to excuse myself and blame this unknown thing which was in me but was not part of me. The truth, of course, was that it was all my own self, and my own impiety had divided me against myself. My sin was all the more incurable because I did not think myself a sinner.” (Confessions, Book V, Section 10)

Augustine’s moral conversion had been preceded by an intellectual one and the culmination of many discussions with “wise” men coupled with the prayers, sacrifices, and example of his mother, Monica. Sinner to saint.

Augustine went on to become that pillar of faith, certainly revered in the Catholic and Anglican churches. But many Protestants also consider him to be one of the theological fathers of Reformation due to his teaching on salvation and divine grace.

Friday, September 30, 2011

In Praise of Tacky

My dream in weak moments of overwork, looming deadlines and impatient clients? To open a tacky little gift shop in an out of the way place on Cape Cod – emphasis on tacky. That would be the perfect job. Work like crazy for July through August making your windfall and then take the rest of the year off. Perfect job. I’ve thought about this maybe a million times in the past 10 years.

And I think I have a flair for tackiness – a keen sense of what those Midwest tourists are looking for to bring home to Cousin Roy and Aunt Edna. Rubber lobsters, lobster baseball caps, and, get this, plastic lobster back scratchers – with glow in the dark lobster eyes! This last item I really have been thinking about for a long time, and not just thinking mind you, but conducting market research. I’ve got it all worked out. Design a beaut over here in the USA. Tim, my industrial engineering friend, could knock out a winning design in one evening. Then I’d farm out the manufacturing to China, or Bora Bora, or somewhere. If I wanted to ride this new Made in America trend (probably popular with those Midwesterners), I’m sure I could keep production here and find some plastics firm in Poughkeepsie or somewhere. Details. I was expounding excitedly on my plan to AVI the other day, but he was barely listening. “I think this could be big, AVI. Maybe go franchise on these tacky gift shops. Coast to coast on the lobster theme. I could end up as a big business typhoon!” I gushed. “Tycoon” AVI corrected. “Yeah, that too.” Now I was the one barely paying attention, fixated on my perfect future.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Odd Warbirds

I’m a bit of a history buff and one of my favorite topics is military aviation, especial the WWII era. Wars invariability lead to a massive acceleration in the development of technology, within compressed timeframes by necessity. Well-trimmed peacetime budgets are left in the dust as the race for survival takes over. The 1930’s designed aircraft the U.S. began WWII with were totally antiquated by the end of the war. In fact, the U.S. had let its military budget languish so much that most of our aircraft were pitifully outclassed when war broke out. The Brewster Buffalo is a great example of this. They were called Flying Barrels, or worse, Flying Coffins.

Germany had a number of superior aircraft when the initiated the conflict, especially in the realm of fighters. And the German innovative engineering and design never stopped throughout the war. The Allied forces were extremely fortunate that the bombing of Germany, however costly, was successful in disrupting production and manufacturing, otherwise the outcome could have been different. As it was, Germany got the first jet fighter into limited production and produced V-1 rockets (“Buzz bombs”) in numbers.

One brilliant German design that could have helped change the air war in their favor was the Dornier 335 “Pfeil” – “Arrow” – a very clever push-pull design. The Pfeil's performance was much better than other twin-engine designs due to its unique "push-pull" layout and the much lower drag of the in-line alignment of the two engines. The Luftwaffe was desperate to get the design into operational use, but delays in engine deliveries meant only a handful were delivered before the war ended.

There are many advantages to this design over the more traditional system of placing one engine on each wing, the most important being power from two engines with the frontal area (and thus drag) of a single-engine design, allowing for higher performance. It also keeps the weight of the twin powerplants near, or on, the aircraft centerline, increasing the roll rate compared to a traditional twin. In addition, a single engine failure does not lead to asymmetric thrust, and in normal flight there is no net torque so the plane is easy to handle. The choice of a full "four-surface" set of cruciform tail surfaces in the Do 335's design, allowed the ventral vertical fin–rudder assembly to project downwards from the extreme rear of the fuselage, in order to protect the rear propeller from an accidental ground strike on takeoff.

On 23 May 1944, Hitler, as part of the J√§gernotprogramm directive, ordered maximum priority to be given to Do 335 production. The main production line was intended to be at Manzel, but a bombing raid in March destroyed the tooling and forced Dornier to set up a new line at Oberpfaffenhofen. The decision was made to  rapidly shut-down many other military aircraft development programs and use the production facilities for the Do 335.

Delivery commenced in January 1945. When the United States Army overran the Oberpfaffenhofen factory in late April 1945, only 11 Do 335 A-1 single-seat fighter-bombers and two Do 335 A-12 trainers had been completed.

French ace Pierre Clostermann claimed the first Allied combat encounter with a Pfeil in April 1945. In his book The Big Show he describes leading a flight of four Hawker Tempests over northern Germany, when he intercepted a lone Do 335 flying at maximum speed at treetop level. Detecting the British aircraft, the German pilot reversed course to evade. Despite the Tempest's considerable low altitude speed, the RAF fighters were not able to catch up or even get into firing position. In its single-seat version it was one of the fastest piston-engined fighters ever built, with a claimed top speed of around 475 mph.

Flying the Pfeil was an experience, thanks to its high performance and unusual configuration. While the performance provided an exhilarating ride for the pilot, the configuration prompted some doubts. His main concern was the ejection seat, the Do 335 being only the second production type to feature this. Before firing the seat, explosive bolts which held the upper vertical tail surface and rear propeller were fired to clear a way for the egressing pilot. Despite the ejection seat, he had to jettison the canopy manually.

Only one Do 335 survives today. It was captured by Allied forces at the plant on 22 April 1945. The aircraft was test flown from a grass runway at Oberwiesenfeld, near Munich, to Cherbourg, France while escorted by two P-51s. The Do 335 was easily able to out distance the escorting Mustangs and arrived at Cherbourg 45 minutes before the P-51s.

Brought to the U.S. for testing, it then sat in storage in Maryland until the 1970s when it was restored (for static display, not air worthy). Dornier’s 335 Arrow can be seen today in the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air & Space Museum at Dulles Airport alongside other unique late-war German aircraft.

Rags and Bones

During graduate school in the 1970s, my wife and I had a number of albums (yes, vinyl LPs) that were part of a series of easy listening music – probably produced by Living Strings or 101 Strings or some such record series. We used them mostly for background music at suppertime as I recall. One album consisted of instrumentals of popular British pop tunes, probably including some songs of Petula Clark – AVI’s favorite! A few of the tracks had sound effects woven into the tracks, or maybe separating musical tracks, and in one place you heard the clip-clopping of horse hoofs on cobble stones and a British bloke calling out like a town crier. But with such a thick British accent you couldn’t understand his words. And that was after 10 years of learning to decipher Mick Jagger.

At that time we were friends with a couple who had recently emigrated to Newfoundland from the UK for the better jobs that Canada had to offer – she British, he a Scot. So on one occasion when we had them over to our apartment for dinner or just drinks, I played that part of the album with the “town crier” and asked them to interpret. They couldn’t understand the guy’s words either! But they offered that it sounded very much like the call of a rags-and-bone man. I of course said, “Say what?” Our friends explained that a rags and bone man went from neighborhood to neighborhood in a horse drawn cart (traditionally) purchasing used materials from people for recycling – a junk man that came to your door.

Here’s Wikipedia’s take on rags-and-bone men:

Historically the phrase referred to an individual who would travel the streets of a city with a horsedrawn cart, and would collect old rags (for converting into fabric and paper), bones for making glue, scrap iron and other items, often trading them for other items of limited value.

They would use a distinctive call to alert householders to their presence, sometimes also ringing a hand bell. The call was something similar to "rag-and-bone", delivered in a sing-song fashion. Long usage tended to simplify the words, for instance down to "any raa-boh", even to the point of incomprehensibility, although the locals could easily identify who was making the call.

The rag-and-bone men were an important component of society before automotive transport. Householders had limited ability to travel to collection points, so the various customers for rags, bones, and such materials relied on the rag-and-bone men to supply some of their materials. The increasingly widespread use of cars made these dealers unneeded in many areas.

Once the world became more mechanized, some rag-and-bone men traded their horses for a lorry or pickup truck. Other social changes, such as the tendency for all members of a household to work outside the house, not to mention higher levels of traffic, made casual street-by-street pickup unworkable.

Focusing predominantly on scrap metal, these men still appear almost on a weekly basis in many parts of the Black Country as well as other parts of the West Midlands. They also often make heavy use of telephones being called on a case-by-case basis to collect an old appliance such as a fridge, sometimes for a small charge.

In the UK a popular comedy television series centered around a family-run rag and bone business. The show was called Steptoe and Son. Of course when Hollywood Americanized it for TV here it became Sanford and Son.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Speaking of Instrumentals

Did you really think the Beatles were the vaguard of the "British Invasion" into American music in 1964? Then you'd be wrong.

Telstar is a 1962 instrumental record performed by The Tornados. It was the first single by a British band to reach number one on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, and was also a number one hit in the UK. The record was named after the AT&T communications satellite Telstar, which went into orbit in July 1962. The song was released five weeks later on 17 August 1962. It was written and produced by Joe Meek, and featured a clavioline, a keyboard instrument with a distinctive electronic sound.

This novelty record was intended to evoke the dawn of the space age, complete with sound effects that were meant to sound "space-like". A popular story at the time of the record's release was that the weird distortions and background noise came from sending the signal up to the Telstar satellite and re-recording it back on Earth. It is more likely that the effects were created in Meek's recording studio, which was a small flat above a shop in London. It has been claimed that the sounds intended to symbolize radio signals were produced by Meek running a pen around the rim of an ashtray, and that the "rocket blastoff" at the start of the record was actually a flushing toilet, with the recordings made to sound exotic by playing the tape in reverse at various speeds.

The record was an immediate hit after its release on August 17, 1962, remaining in the UK pop charts for 25 weeks, five of them at number one, and in the American charts for 16 weeks.

Credit: 45rpmsingles on You Tube

Leave Well Enough Alone

Back in the heydays of Top 40 radio, you’d hear a wide variety of music styles. It wasn’t all Beatles, or even all rock & roll for that matter. Older crooners, like Frank Sinatra, or younger crooners, like Tom Jones, often cracked the Top 10 on the charts. Not to mention gooey bubble gum songs and the like. In the 1960s and into the 70s there seemed to be room for instruments to also reach the Top 40. My pet peeve back then was with the music industry turning a successful Top 40 instrumental into a vocal by the bolting on of cheesy, often force-fitted lyrics. I think this happened to Love is Blue and many others, including a couple of my favorites, these two gems from 1963:

Cast Your Fate to the Wind by a pre-Charlie Brown specials, Vince Guaraldi and Washington Square by the Village Stompers (billed as a folk song because of its era, but actually they were a Dixieland style group). No matter, both were superior in their original instrumental versions.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

What's a Retirement?

Several colleagues at work will probably retire within a year or so.  When people ask me about my retirement plans, my response is: after paying college tuition for two daughters, and then two weddings, "Retirement?? I'm still saving up for my mid-life crisis!"

If you care to help me reach my mid-life crisis, I accept cash, checks, money orders, gold coins, and most rare soda bottle caps.

1967 E-type Jaguar, don't you know.

Happy Coffee Day

How did they know?  National Coffee Day is September 29th - my birthday.  It can't be just a coincidence.

Anyway, have a cup on me.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Was Faith Helped or Hurt by 9/11?

With the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks upon us and getting plenty of focus in the media, I was thinking about the spiritual impacts of such an event, especially for those of the Christian faith. In 2003 the website ran an article by Steven Waldman and the staff titled The Real Spiritual Impact of 9/11. It was far from a full treatise on the topic, but did contain some interesting observations less than two years after the events of 9/11, especially from the Christian pollsters at the Barna Research Group. Excerpts from the Beliefnet article:

"At first, it looked like 9/11 was having an enormous spiritual impact. Atheists, ‘seekers,’ lapsed Catholics, secular Jews and seemingly everyone else poured into churches and synagogues. Evangelist Franklin Graham predicted that Americans were committing themselves to God in an ‘enduring’ way and Pat Robertson predicted ‘one of the greatest spiritual revivals in the history of America.’

Then the flood of new worshipers receded. Church attendance went back to normal, and polls began to indicate that people were no more likely to pray, read the Bible or attend worship services than before. Nine out of ten Americans reported that 9/11 had ‘no lasting impact on their faith,’ according to a study released this week by Barna Research.

What's more, according to Barna Associates, the percentage of people who said ‘moral truth is absolute’ actually dropped from 38% in January 2000 to 22% in the fall of 2001. This was surprising since President Bush and others have talked of the attacks as a war between good and evil, a clash of absolute moral principles.

There were other signs that come 2002, Americans didn't view organized religion as much help. Only 11.2% of Americans sought advice from a minister, priest or religious leader, according to a study by the University of Chicago. Indeed, while the pews were emptying out, psychologists' offices were filling up. Drinking and pill use increased, Beliefnet found, at the same time formal worship declined.

Perhaps Americans experienced 9/11 much in the same way as a death in the family. For many, worship services provide powerful, comforting rituals that help them get through short-term crises but don't aid in the long run."

This reminded me of some research I had come across regarding early earthquakes in New England and the effects on the population in “the colonies” way back then. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) website has this historical excerpt from Historic Storms of New England by Sidney Perley related to the great earthquake of 1727:

"The people of New England were affected by this earthquake as they had never been before, being fearful of divine judgments for their sins and lax responsiveness to the call to religious duties. The clergy taught them that it was 'a loud call to the whole land to repent and fear and give glory to God.' The next morning great numbers of the inhabitants of Boston gathered at the old North church for prayer and other religious services. The old South was then opened, and those who failed of admission to the Brick church flocked thither, and that was also filled. Rev. Thomas Paine of Weymouth, Mass., and some other ministers, tried to prove to their congregations that the earthquake had not a natural cause, but was a supernatural token of God's anger to the sinful world.

The clergy improved the opportunity of leading the public mind toward the choice of a better portion than this earth can afford. The people were willing to be taught, and ready to believe, for the event they had just passed through convinced them of the uncertainty of temporal things, and a needed preparation for the life to come. Many who had before cared nothing for a religious life became penitent and devout. Seriousness was the expression on the faces of most of the people, and in some towns, large numbers were added to the church. In the parish of Chebacco in Ipswich, Mass., for instance seventy-six persons became church members. The earthquake had its effect upon some licentious characters, who became truly reformed, and afterward led honorable and moral lives. But, in too many cases, when their fears were gone, the religious thoughts and habits of the people lost their hold upon them."

Then these two pieces about two very different events set about 275 years apart reminded me of the Old Testament verse:

What has been will be again,
What has been done will be done again;
There is nothing new under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 1:9

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Wimpy Jaws/Hollywood Jaws

In 1974, writer Peter Benchley published Jaws, a novel about a rogue Great White shark that terrorizes the fictional coastal community of Amity Island. The left pic is the cover of the hardback first edition. Not so scary. But then Benchley’s novel was adapted into that 1975 Stephen Spielberg film that scares us (at least me) to death after 35 years. And we got the right hand pic to go along with the film. “My, what big teeth you have, Hollywood Shark.” Rapid evolution at work, I guess.

As soon as I heard about Benchley’s book I knew where he got the idea for the story line. In a very warm 1916 summer, five people were attacked and four killed along the New Jersey shoreline in the space of just 13 days. I knew this because when I took up SCUBA diving in my high school years I was also developing a professional interest in oceanography. And, like most any teenage boy, gruesome stories were appealing, so I read everything I could get my hands on about shark attacks, including the 1916 event. While they never proved the NJ attacks were the work of a single shark, or that it was a Great White, we knew – and Benchley knew. It had to be.

The U.S. Navy put a lot of research into the subject of shark behavior in WWII with so many downed pilots and aircrews and sunken vessels to deal with, especially in the warm South Pacific waters. Copper sulfate mixed with dye was the best repellent those wartime scientists could come up with. It was of dubious value as in actual tests some feeding sharks would wolf down the containers for a snack. I did not read Benchley’s book when it came out and my wife and I were still active SCUBA divers when Jaws became a summer blockbuster hit. We waited almost two years before we saw Hollywood Jaws.

In the film, Chief of police Martin Brody, biologist Matt Hooper, and fisherman Quint hunt the shark after it kills four people. Spielberg's film makes reference to the NJ attacks: Brody (Roy Scheider) and Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) urge Amity's Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) to close the beaches on the Fourth of July after the deaths of two swimmers and a fisherman. Hooper explains to the mayor, "Look, the situation is that apparently a great white shark has staked a claim in the waters off Amity Island. And he's going to continue to feed here as long as there is food in the water." Brody adds, "And there's no limit to what he's gonna do! I mean we've already had three incidents, two people killed inside of a week. And it's gonna happen again, it happened before! The Jersey beach! ... 1916! Five people chewed up on the surf!"

By the way, Spielberg’s screenplay was/is much superior to Benchely’s book. In the book, novice author Benchley decides that he just HAS to insert sex into a perfectly good terror story. So he sets up a super awkward affair between the Woods Hole scientist Hooper and Chief Brody’s wife. Awful, awkward and amateurish dialog and scenes are the result. A young but wise Spielberg knew better than to have his film go down that literary dead end. He showed early promise, that Spielberg.

The trivia and backstories about the filming of Jaws abound and could fill several posts. But I am drawn to the mechanical shark, Bruce (named after Spielberg’s lawyer). Created back in the shops at Hollywood, they (there were several partial shark bodies so the filming could occur at different angles while crews worked the fish’s mechanical levers and internal gears) had guts made of pipes, levers, and battery powered servo motors. But I guess they don’t have salt water back in California because the fabricators never took into account what the Martha’s Vineyard water would do to all those iron innards. Bruce was a major pain in the butt and here’s where Spielberg caught a lucky break. While waiting for his crews to get the various Bruces to work correctly, Spielberg went ahead and filmed as much ahead as he could. So fortuitously you don’t see the Great White in all his glory until well into the movie. The tense soundtrack and a surfacing fin now and again fill in very well and build the suspense up and up until when Bruce does raise his head above water, in all his toothy splendor, we film-goers are ready to leap out of our seats. And I do – every time. It never gets old.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Clear As A Bell?

I borrowed the new Rob Bell book, Love Wins (Rob Bell 2011), from a friend a few weeks ago and found it super frustrating. Bell is a Michigan pastor and one of the leaders of the Emergent Church movement – a movement that I have a lot of interest in and feel strongly that the traditional 20th century American Evangelical church needs to be challenged by some new thinking and even new
“movements.” Maybe I’m most frustrated because I expected more – a better written book – out of a leader of a major spiritual movement.

But some of my complaint is stylistic, I’ll admit. First of all, this is a 200 page book, exactly 200 pages, as if Bell’s contract specified that length and so he had to stretch things to make them fit. And the book’s use of lots of white space on the pages and Bell’s grouping of prose as if it were poetry is part of that conspiracy. See this Chapter 1 excerpt:

“Does this mean, then, that going to heaven is dependent on something I do?

How is any of that grace?
How is that a gift?
How is that good news?

Isn’t that Christians have always claimed set their religion apart – that it wasn’t, in the end, a religion at all – that you don’t have to do anything, because God has already done it through Jesus?”

Bell uses this short, stacked question format over and over. Very much 5th grade-boy-needing-to-stretch-his-composition-to-fit-teacher’s-assignment if you ask me.

But also note Bell’s style – barrage them with questions – that will fill up space!  In the early chapters just about every line is a question. Now, a book with the subject of questioning tradition should have a lot of questions. But Bell’s extremes leave the text unfocused and in many chapters it is hard to follow his thesis, even though I think I know what he’s getting at – and I may even agree with him, by golly. I just expect more of a spiritual leader purportedly on the vanguard of new Christian thought.

Rob, baby, work on that next book, ditch your current editor, clear your head - and write more like a scientist.  My advice anyway.

These Are Anxious Days

“These are anxious days. The battle is on for the minds and hearts of our young. Enemies of religion and morality are trying to lure our children away from God …their parents…decent living. Unfortunately, it is not enough for conscientious parents merely to forbid objectionable comics, sordid magazines, immoral movies and TV shows. Priests, teachers and psychologists all agree that we must replace these dangerous pastimes with something wholesome – and every bit as interesting to alert young minds.”  The source:

A) Sarah Palin to Tea Party activists, Des Moines, Iowa, August 2011
B) Pat Buchannan, speech during the 2000 Presidential primary, Concord, NH
C) Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, speech to the Virginia State Senate, Fall 1984

Give up? To be fair, I should have listed “none of the above.” The narrative comes from a rear dust jacket pitch for reasons to subscribe to the Catholic Youth Book Club, 1957. Hmmm, not much changes with human nature, heh? Same concerns, different decades.

The book this text came from is one I picked up for $.25 at our local swap shop: Giants of the Faith, by John A. O’Brien. The book profiles five “giants” including St. Paul and St. Augustine – the ones I was most interested in. How is the apostle Paul portrayed? And I had to admit that even though I grew up Catholic up to the age of 20, I knew relatively little about Augustine and most of his writings. I’ll have more to say about Augustine in a future post, but even part way through that chapter I’ve certainly learned that the dust jacket scenario above could have been written with Augustine’s early years in mind!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Endless Summer

The end of summer 2011 is in sight, so an appropriate story is in order:

High School classmate Bob Halstead and I trekked into downtown Boston one evening in 1966 to view the summer surfing classic, The Endless Summer at the artsy Exeter Street Theatre.

Director Bruce Brown follows two surfers, Mike Hynson and Robert August, on a surf trip around the world. Despite the balmy climate of their native California, cold ocean currents make local beaches inhospitable during the winter. They travel to the coasts of Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and Hawaii in a quest for new surf spots and to introduce locals to the sport. And in doing so they made a film that would resonate among spirited outdoor-loving youth for at least the next 100 years. Setting out, the goals weren’t quite so lofty for the film itself. Brown had created surfing films before, but The Endless Summer had the right timing, superb film quality, great scenery, great musical score, all wrapped in a semi-amateurish but disarmingly interesting acting style.

The narrative presentation eases from the stiff and formal documentary of the 1950s and early 1960s to a more casual and fun-loving personal style filled with sly humor. The surf-rock soundtrack to the film was provided by The Sandals. The "Theme to the Endless Summer" was written by Gaston Georis and John Blakeley of the Sandals. It has become one of the best known film themes in the surf movie genre. I still have the original LP and in my freshman year of college had an original full-size wall poster. Wish I still had that sucker.

As far as the Exeter Street Theatre itself, it was housed in the First Spiritual Temple at the corner of trendy Exeter Street and Newbury Street in Boston. The theater opened on May 4, 1914, with 1,376 seats and was known world-wide to serious movie-goers who referred to it as the Grand Dame of Boston theatres. The movie theatre was notable both for its ambiance ("You felt like you were in some kind of Tudor manor or English country church") and programming ("It was a theater where people did not call to see what movie was playing, but called only to determine if the movie had changed)."

The theatre closed its doors in 1984, becoming a two-story Waterstone’s bookstore which was badly damaged by fire in 1995. The building reopened in fall of 2005 as a Montessori school.