Google+ Followers

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Why the focus on Wisconsin for Climate Change?

map source
This is the question that bothered me when I first learned of the Wisconsin Glacier that is considered responsible for the natural formation of New York, including the the large boulders that remain in Central Park. On a NYC Park tour at Alley Pondour guide (whose last name is actually Park -- an aptronym if ever there was one) explained that there was a time when the entire area was covered by ice a mile thick.

I found it somewhat confusing that the ice over New York should be named for Wisconsin and discoverd the answer in the online Britannica : "Wisconsin Glacial Stage, most recent major division of Pleistocene time and deposits in North America (from 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago). It was named for rock deposits studied in the state of Wisconsin."

Mystery solved, at least as far as that goes. The entry does point out the correlation of the end of that period with the extinction of certain species, including the mammoth and sabre-toothed cats. But it's says it's not necessarily accurate to say that their demise was simply the result of overhunting because a lot of factors go into climate and even more into species survival.

There's more information about Wisconsin geology here That's the source of the map pictured above.

Obviously, the climate policy censors have not yet gotten around to that site yet, as it says, "Changes in climate have followed a regular pattern for the past 700,000 years. Each cycle lasted about 100,000 years and consisted of a long period of generally cooling climate during which glaciers grew, followed by shorter periods of conditions similar to or warmer than those of today."

Related post

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Seeing the whole picture

Perhaps you've seen some of these pictures in the past. Generally, at first glance you'll be sure of what you're seeing. But if you take a close second look, you may not be so sure.  Is it a duck or a rabbit? The answer is that it is drawn so that it could represent either, depending on your perspective.
Here's another one that is old enough to have been rendered into an 1888 German postcard. The old/young woman illusion is sometimes titled "My wife and my mother-in-law." 

I find if I look at these types of pictures for too long, I start to feel a bit dizzy, as my perspective keeps slanting to see it first one way and then the other. Perhaps that's what Calvin's cubism experience is meant to represent -- that feeling of dizziness -- one can experience when shifting perspectives.

Calving opts to drop the dizziness in favor of dogmatic certainty. In that way he reminds me of the figure of Dilke in the matter in which he is immortalized in John Keats' famous "Negative Capability" letter: "I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, upon various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."

In truth, most people go through life with a Dilke-like attitude that averse to being at all uncertain. There is great satisfaction in finding certainty due to the mental relief it brings. However, there are many things that are really not all fixed as either old or young, duck or rabbit. Forcing only one designation on them actually distorts the truth of the image by telling only half the story. But that is exactly what many people do in their adoption of dogmas: at a particular point in their lives, they chose the equivalent of "Team Duck," and will forever vehemently oppose "Team Rabbit" as evil incarnate for pushing a false agenda. Any reasoned approach to point out that the picture has elements of both will be ignored or refuted by repetition of the assertion, "This is a duck; everyone who has any sense agrees it's a duck. You have to be really stupid or possibly insane to claim it can be a rabbit."

That's my view of political affiliations and self-affixed labels; they lock people into only one way of seeing things. While insisting they have the answers that settles everything, they have not even begun to comprehend the questions. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Context for common content

This is a reworking of a post I wrote this past August 6th, Andy Warhol's birthday, and the same week of my visit to the Whitney Museum in its new location. I had been to the old one a few times,
including once for a special Hopper exhibit.

The MoMA houses some of his most iconic works, which includes the Campbell's soup cans. But what Whitney has is his Green Coca-Cola Bottles pictured here. The museum's description begins as follows:
Green Coca-Cola Bottles was created the year that Andy Warhol developed his pioneering silkscreen technique, which allowed him to produce his paintings through a mechanical process that paralleled his use of mass culture subjects. Here, the image of a single Coca-Cola bottle is repeated in regular rows, seven high by sixteen across, above the company’s logo.
. Instead of stressing the monotony inherent in repetition and mass production of consumer goods, Warhol stressed that there was a great equalizing effect in offering everyone the same Coke, no matter how rich or poor they may be: “'A Coke is a Coke,' he explained, 'and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.'”

In the card next to the work in the  museum the description actually was even more positive, as it also included this statement, "All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good." I looked up the quote and found that it's part of a full paragraph from  The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B & Back Again). Here it is:
What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.
Objectively, we know that the  sugar-loaded, caramel-colored drink is not a really good choice for nutrition or dental health. But there is something reassuring in the sameness and the fact that the exact same quality of the product is within everyone's reach. Coke puts consumers all on equal footing.

This becomes even more fascinating in light of  Horace M. Kallen's "Democracy Versus the Melting Pot" published in the Nation on February 25, 1915. Contrary to the general spirit of the age that promoted the assimilation of immigrants into a more uniform American culture, he defended the differentiation of ethnic identities what only came into vogue many decades later. Nevertheless, he maintained that a certain amount of assimilation is inevitable.

A certain uniformity occurs with no conscious agenda through fashion or what he calls, the "process of leveling up through imitation" that is promoted through "'standardization' of externals." This was the age in which people came to be more alike in terms of consumption:  "In these days of ready-made clothes, factory-made goods, refrigerating plants, it is almost impossible that the mass of the inhabitants of this country should wear other than uniform clothes, use other than uniform furniture or utensils, or eat anything but the same kind of food."  Certainly, Coke fits into that category.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

What the Brontosaurus skull can teach us about science

I enjoy visiting science museums as much as I enjoy art museums. Just as you don't have to be an artist to appreciate art, you don't have to be a scientist to appreciate science and how discoveries are made and new theories formed. The latter is one of the things that tends to strike me about exhibits that admit to having set things up incorrectly based on mistaken assumptions about, say how the dinosaur was likely to have stood,  on two feet or all four (as was the case for a star dinosaur at the Museum of Natural History in New York).

In the case of the Peabody Museums's Brontosaurus, the exhibitors actually lost their head. That is, to say, they now realize that the skull they put on it doesn't belong to the species at all. Unfortunately, they do not have the right skull to complete the skeleton, so the one on view is admittedly wrong, as you can see from the explanations posted here:

But, wait, there's more!  What you thought of a Brontosaurus might, in fact, be an Apatosaurus. With respect to the identification, what had been proposed back in the 1870s proved to be more correct than what was said in 1903, as was proven by a study as late as 2015!

Fascinating, isn't it, that  even something based on truly ancient and fixed evidence -- the fossils of long-extinct dinosaurs -- can be subject to changing theories that have to be revised.  Scientific advancement requires some measure of humility, the ability to say, "we were wrong" and accept the better explanation rather than force the contrary evidence to fit into the pre-established paradigm.

This what I believe Richard Feynman meant in his often quoted, "Science is the belief in the ignorance of the experts." Science can only advance if people do not accept previously established theories as axiomatic but continue to test and experiment. The job of  the true scientist is not to make the data fit the theory that corresponds to a particular agenda but to make the theory fit the data.

Related post:

Thursday, August 20, 2015

What do you expect?

Today I heard someone say what crystallized for me what exactly irks me about the popularization of the meme pictured at right. 

The initials after the quote stand for Erin Hanson, a twenty-year-old Australian who penned these lines while still in her teens:

There is freedom waiting for you,
On the breezes of the sky,
And you ask "What if I fall?"
Oh but my darling,
What if you fly?

On that site, the picture used to illustrate the poem shows a drawing of a girl sitting with her legs dangling over a cliff and a pair of colorful wings on her back. 

The theme is a twist on "nothing ventured, nothing gained." You have to assume some risk to gain the potential benefit of advancing and changing. That's quite true, but I'm still bothered by the way this is set up because we all know what will happen to anyone who tries to jump off a cliff with just a pair of costume wings. 

A life devoid of hope and dreams is pretty gloomy. However, a life based on false hope and irrational expectations is pathetic and sad. So what do you do? You keep your expectations within the realm of possibility and keep the risks within check.

Perhaps that's my own parental bias, but I see it this way. You don't do your children any favors by encouraging them to try things that are not only beyond them but would cause them injury. In other words, you don't tell your kid to go ahead and climb a mountain until s/he has completed training for such a feat. 

What you can do is tell a kid to try to ride a bicycle even if there is a risk of falling and injury (I broke my ankle twice by falling off a bike) because it is a rational expectation that the kid will pick up on the balancing skills and the risk of a broken limb along the way is a manageable one. 

Aspiration is a good thing, but an expectation that one will achieve actual flight is dangeorusly delusional. Before anyone says I'm being too literal, I assure you, I'm very adept at abstract thinking. My point is  not just about defying the laws of physics but about the larger idea of setting up expectations.  

What's attainable, and what's worth the risk? That's something that everyone has to answer for him/herself. Would I venture into woods near dark? No. But I would venture on trails with plenty of hours of sunlight and adequate water. 

From my perspective, venturing out, say to go for an interview, meet friends, or see a new place is worth the risk of hitting traffic or getting somewhat lost, so long as you have a way to get back on track without getting into seriously dangerous areas.  But if I wanted to fly, I'd take a plane. 

Related post:


Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Secret Life of Ghosts, Or Whatever Happened to Aunt Gertrude?

Image from
You may never have heard of Leslie McFarlane, but odds are good that you've come across at least some of his work, if not the plays, short stories, and articles, then the children's books that have outsold any other title series for boys.

In 1976 (a year before his death) McFarlane  published an autobiographical book, Ghost of the Hardy Boys. The ghost here is the the author himself who depicted the first volumes of the Hardy Boys under the name Franklin W. Dixon. Unlike authors, like George Eliot or Mark Twin,who selected pen names for themselves the writers who churned out popular children's books for the Stratemeyer Syndicate were assigned names, which often carried on to other ghost writers as no author was considered irreplaceable.

The irony of this book is that he devotes many pages protesting that he is far more than the writer who first breathed life into the pair of boy detectives and their formidable Aunt Gertrude only to be forced to both begin and end with the series that he did not own the rights to. The 20 Hardy Boys books he wrote served as his bread-and-butter and kept his family afloat when the Depression hit and other publishers had little or no money for authors.

Work from the Stratemeyer Syndicate served as the artist's equivalent of a day job while he wrote what he considered more serious literary work, which, he did succeed in publishing after a number of false starts. The false starts are as entertaining as they are educational.

McFarlane, who is Canadian by the way, embarks on his writing career by working for newspapers, including J. Jonah Jameson, who discourages his literary ambitions because he views as pulling a potential journalist in the opposite direction needed for a newspaperman. But McFarlane doesn't give up and continues sending out manuscripts to magazines, often, not with any real understanding of what truly fits the publications. But he is not forced to simply learn by trial-and-error, as some editors take the time to give him really valuable feedback and direction.

That is one of the reasons why this book is of particular interest to people who write; it gives quite a bit of insights into the literary world. McFarlane learns to distinguish between what's popular and what's good and how to churn out what's popular for the sake of making money. But here's the rub: though he presents his Hardy Boys work as just for the sake of money, he takes particular pride in his craft, particularly in his infusion of humor and the memorable creation of the boys' Aunt Gertrude.

I put Aunt Gertrude into the title because her treatment in the reworked versions of the books issued in the later part of the 20th Century belie the fact that he does feel connected to his creation, for all his protests that it's all the property of the the syndicate. He is horrified to discover that her dramatic entrance into the series was completely cut in the new editions of the books, as demonstrated to him by a staff writer for a magazine named Bob Stall.

When Stall first approaches McFarlane to talk about the Hardy Boys series, he says he's not interested in discussing that work. After all, he feels he should be recognized for the four novels, 100 novelettes, 200 short stories, 75 television scripts, and 50 films he wrote. But Stall manages to get his attention when he shows him how the books have been eviscerated in the new editions:
They haven't just been streamlined. They've been gutted from beginning to end. Those old books were well written. They had words you could roll around in your mouth and taste. They had funny scenes. They had scenes you could wallow in. These new ones move faster all right, but too fast. There's never a place to stop and linger. That's why the old were so great for a kid. They had flavor. And now the flavor is all gone. 
Stall adds:
The books were written for a literate generation ... But not these new ones. And they'll engender an even less literate generation. 

Remember, this was reported back in 1976.  By today's standards, attention spans were long then; just look at the pacing in movies and television shows of the era compared to today's. Yet, people who remembered the previous generation noticed a difference and saw it as the sign of a trend.  Certainly, kids' books today move at an even faster pace than those that were read in the late 20th Century.

You don't have to be a Hardy Boys fan, and I assure you, I never was, to appreciate McFarlane's reaction or to accompany him on his always entertaining journey to becoming a better writer and laughing with him at his youthful pretensions, which may just remind you of your own.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

How many times did Edison fail in attempting to invent the lightbulb?
That's a trick question really. In fact, Edison did not invent the light bulb, though he did succeed in developing a viable version based on a carbon filament that he patented in 1879.  Finding it did take a lot of trial and error, around 3000 experiments, according to a Live Science account. But he wasn't done even after that patent. Within a year, he came out with a bulb based on a bamboo filament.

There is a very precise number connected to the experiments involved that would make people with OCD cringe, 2,774. It's cited in a Rutgers newsletter on the Thomas Edison papers  here:
No one, including Edison, ever counted the number of experimental lamps that they made. There were hundreds of experiments before he developed the bamboo lamp. And many additional experiments before the lamps were adequate for commercial production. In a letter to Edison in spring 1884, Francis Upton noted that the lamp factory had conducted 2,774 experiments (presumably since it had started operations in October 1881).
The link in that paragraph take you to a digital image of a handwritten note on the bamboo lamp.

Inside Edison's Lab. Photo by Ariella Brown
But what of the famous quote about Edison claiming not to have failed 10,000 times but to have found 10,000 ways that did not work? There does not appear to be a written account saying exactly that, though it does apply to his experience with the battery more than the bulb. The Rutgers newsletter dug up a quote that comes pretty closed in Edison: His Life and Inventions an authorized biography by Frank Dyer and T. C. Martin which was first published in 1910.  In it Edison's friend and associate, Walter S. Mallory, offers this account:

"This [the research] had been going on more than five months, seven days a week, when I was called down to the laboratory to see him [Edison]. I found him at a bench about three feet wide and twelve feet long, on which there were hundreds of little test cells that had been made up by his corps of chemists and experimenters. I then learned that he had thus made over nine thousand experiments in trying to devise this new type of storage battery, but had not produced a single thing that promised to solve the question. In view of this immense amount of thought and labor, my sympathy got the better of my judgment, and I said: 'Isn't it a shame that with the tremendous amount of work you have done you haven't been able to get any results?' Edison turned on me like a flash, and with a smile replied: 'Results! Why, man, I have gotten lots of results! I know several thousand things that won't work!'"
Photo by Ariella Brown

There you have it, not exactly in the words you find on quotes sites, but the same idea. If you're interested in learning more about Edison and his experiments, including the invention he did consider a failure (talking dolls), do take the time to visit Edison's lab in Menlo Park, NJ. It's held by the National Park Service. Find information on exhibits, hours, fees, etc, here. If you time it right, you can go over to see Edison's home, Glenmont, pictured here on the same day. Special events are planned for Edison Day on June 6.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Favorite books from the children's section

My daughter recently finished reading The Orphan Train and declared it to be her favorite book. It certainly is good and worth reading. I'm not sure I would call it my favorite. But I'm not sure I can pin down any single book as my favorite. Among all the books I've read, I'd find it too difficult to select one or even a handful for that distinction. I can, however, give a listing of favorites among children's books that  have much to offer adults as well.

To start, there's  a picture book geared toward the very young: Leo Lionni's Frederick. This fable really encapsulates what's behind capturing and representing experience in literature without getting all theoretical.

Another book  that touches on a similar theme in a more extended narrative set in the past in a Jewish community  is Pheobe Gilman's Something from Nothing.

While those two works are not as well-known as they should be, my next few selections are likely among the books you have read. They include:
Amelia Bedelia
The Snowy Day (wonderful illustrations)
Alice in Wonderland
The Little Prince
A Wrinkle in Time
The Chronicles of Narnia
Matilda (I prefer it to Ronald Dahl's better known and more often adapted Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)
Anne of Green Gables

Not quite as famous, though still classic works include:
All of a Kind Family
The Borrowers
Five Children and It

A few of my favorites have been written relatively recently. They include
Everything on a Waffle
The View from Saturday
Note:I tried to keep to books aimed at children 12 and under to limit the list. It would grow a lot longer if I were to include the books marketed to tweens and young adults. Also I may add on more books as I discover or rediscover them.

Related post

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Chocolate variations

Mark Miodownik devotes nearly 20 pages of Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World to chococolate. Yes, chocolate. Though the cocoa beans are a natural product, it takes quite a lot of processing to turn them into the confection popular around the globe. Miodownik warns readers that the bean in its natural state tastes nothing like the chocolate he loves to eat; he's tried eating right off the plant and regretted it.

He then goes through the history of chocolate consumption. It started out as drink made by the Olmecs and then the  Mayans. That brew did not have the sweet taste we associate with hot chocolate today, though. It was rather bitter, which after explorers introduced the drink to Europe in the 17th Century, it proved less popular than coffee or tea.  Adding sugar wasn't enough to make it wholly palatable as the 50% cocoa fat rendered the drink "gritty, oily, and heavy" (83).

It took two centuries for a Dutch chocolate company called Van Houten to come up with a way  of applying  a press to the to remove the cocoa butter from the roasted, fermented beans. The yielded  the cocoa powder that serves as the basis of today's cocoa drinks, as well as the ingredient that goes into chocolate cakes.

Arriving at the solid chocolate made into bars was actually the real of what Miodownik calls "counter intuitive genius: having removed and purified the cocoa fat, and having pulverized the cocoa powder separately, why not mix them back together again, add in some sugar, to create an ideal cocoa bean" (83).  And solid chocolate was born.

He says credit for the first chocolate bars does not go to the Dutch or the Swiss but to an English firm called Fry and Sons. However, the Swiss are credited as the first producers of milk chocolate. With an abundance of milk powder from the Nestle company, they combined two products with long shelf lives to achieve a milder, sweeter chocolate than ever before (84).

 It's the differences in milk that produce different tastes in and for chocolate around the world. Sounding a rather Britishly biased, Miodwonik describes  American chocolate as having a "cheesy, almost rancid flavor." That results from incorporating milk in which enzymes reduce fat.  In contrast, the chocolate in the UK gains a "milder caramel flavor" from the sugar added to liquid milk that is reduced to a concentrate before being added to the chocolate. Europeans still opt for powdered milk, which he says provides a "fresh dairy flavor with a powdery texture" (85).

Generally, one prefers the taste of chocolate of one's native country, and the differences in ingredients do explain the outrage some British ex-pats felt at being denied their Cadbury chocolate in the US, as per the recent Financial Times article "British tastebuds caught in crossfire of chocolate war." It all due to the uncommon content of chocolate on different sides of the Atlantic.