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Monday, February 28, 2005

It hurls a mean piano

This is why I read the Wall Street Journal, and this is why I have not given up on humanity quite yet:

A Scud It's Not, But the Trebuchet Hurls a Mean Piano

Giant Medieval War Machine Is Wowing British Farmers And Scaring the Sheep
By Glynn Mapes, Staff Reporter of the Wall Street Journal

ACTON ROUND, England--With surprising grace, the grand piano sails through the sky a hundred feet above a pasture here, finally returning to earth in a fortissimo explosion of wood chunks, ivory keys and piano wire.

Nor is the piano the strangest thing to startle the grazing sheep this Sunday morning. A few minutes later, a car soars by - a 1975 blue two-door Hillman, to be exact - following the same flight path and meeting the same loud fate. Pigs fly here, too. In recent months, many dead 500-pound sows (two of them wearing parachutes) have passed overhead, as has the occasional dead horse.

It's the work of Hew Kennedy's medieval siege engine, a four story tall, 30 ton behemoth that's the talk of bucolic Shropshire, 140 miles northwest of London. In ancient times, such war machines were dreaded instruments of destruction, flinging huge missiles, including plague-ridden horses, over the walls of besieged castles. Only one full-sized one exists today, designed and built by Mr. Kennedy, a wealthy landowner, inventor, military historian and - need it be said? - full-blown eccentric.

... [He and his neighbor] have spent a year and $17,000 assembling the trebuchet. They have worked from ancient texts, some in Latin, and crude wood-block engravings of siege weaponry.

The big question is why?

Mr. Kennedy looks puzzled, as if the thought hadn't occurred to him before. "Well why not? It's bloody good fun!" he finally exclaims. When pressed, he adds that for several hundred years, military technicians have been trying fruitlessly to reconstruct a working trebuchet.
  • Cortez built one for the siege of Mexico City. On its first shot, it flung a huge boulder straight up - and then straight down, demolishing the machine.

  • In 1851, Napoleon III had a go at it, as an academic exercise. His trebuchet was poorly balanced and barely managed to hurl the missiles - backward. ``Ours works a hell of a lot better than the Frogs', which is a satisfaction,'' Mr. Kennedy says with relish.

... The heart of the siege engine is a three-ton, 60-foot tapered beam made from laminated wood. It's pivoted near the heavy end, to which is attached a weight box filled with 5 tons of steel bar. Two huge A-frames made from lashed-together tree trunks support a steel axle, around which the beam pivots. When the machine is at rest, the beam is vertical, slender end at the top and weight box just clearing the ground.

When launch time comes, a farm tractor cocks the trebuchet, slowly hauling the slender end of the beam down and the weighted end up. Several dozen nervous sheep, hearing the tractor and knowing what comes next, make a break for the far side of the pasture. A crowd of 60 friends and neighbors buzzes with anticipation as a 30-foot, steel-cable sling is attached - one end to the slender end of the beam and the other to the projectile, in this case a grand piano (purchased by the truckload from a junk dealer).

"If you see the missile coming toward you, simply step aside," Mr. Kennedy shouts to the onlookers.

Then, with a great groaning, the beam is let go. As the counterweight plummets, the piano in its sling whips through an enormous arc, up and over the top of the trebuchet and down the pasture, a flight of 125 yards. The record for pianos is 151 yards (an upright model, with less wind resistance). A 112 pound iron weight made it 235 yards. Dead hogs go for about 175 yards, and horses 100 yards; the field is cratered with the graves of the beasts, buried by a backhoe where they landed.

...what spurred him to build one was, as he puts it, "my nutter cousin" in Northumberland, who put together a pint-sized trebuchet for a county fair. The device hurled porcelain toilets soaked in gasoline and set afire. A local paper described the event under the headline "Those Magnificent Men and Their Flaming Latrines."

...One thing has frustrated Mr. Kennedy and his partner: They haven't found any commercial value to the trebuchet. ...

... Finally, there's the prospect of flinging a man into space - a living man, that is. This isn't a new idea, Mr. Kennedy points out: Trebuchets were often used to fling ambassadors and prisoners of war back over castle walls, a sure way to demoralize the opposition.

... In a series of experiments ... they've thrown several man-sized logs and two quarter-tone dead pigs into the air; one of the pigs parachuted gently back to earth, the other landed rather more forcefully.

Trouble is, an accelerometer carried inside the logs recorded a centrifugal force during the launch of as much as 20 Gs (the actual acceleration was zero to 90 miles per hour in 1.5 seconds). Scientists are divided over whether a man can stand that many Gs for more that a second or two before his blood vessels burst. ... More.

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The young American mind ...

This post reminds me of the WSJ article about Senior reports and how well they go over with our parents and kids. Opens larger in a new window.

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Tar Heel Tavern week #2 coming up

The first Tar Heel Tavern is up at Science and Politics, go have a look. UPDATE: The Second Tar Heel Tavern is posted now.

Bora asked me to host the second Tar Heel Tavern. Welcome! OK, did you go see the first one as I asked you? His poems were a nice touch, weren't they? Don't expect such genius from me; although I was once (ahem) a professional poet, I will not summarize this week's offerings in iambic pentameter. Promise.

I can't take a lot of stress (my favorite movie is "Fluffy Gets Fed," see below) so I ask that you save your political posts one more week. Let the next guy take the Pepto-Bismol.

Submissions should be from local bloggers OR be on TarHeel themes/issues. (That is, they cannot be BOTH from out of the area AND not about the area; if you're "from here" anything but politics is OK. Did I fix this, now?)

Read Bora's guidelines. Please send submissions to me at by 3 pm Saturday, subject line "Tar Heel Tavern." Include the URL and name of your blog, and the URL and title of the post.

I'm looking forward to reading your stuff. Thanks for coming by.

Fluffy Gets Fed

As I get older, my tolerance for stress is just going down, down, down. These movies should have won Oscars, as far as I'm concerned. (Click to open larger in another window.)

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Sunday, February 27, 2005

seeing something for the first time

Celia at Clearcandy Daily, feeling nostalgic for childhood, asks: when was the last time you saw something for the first time? What a wonderful question.

I see things for the first time every day: in books, in my head, on the web, in the real world.

Books: just yesterday I "saw" that the medieval Greenlanders, starving, refused to eat fish, which were plentiful everywhere around them; Jared Diamond muses they may have developed a taboo very soon after arriving on that icy island.

My head: I realized that the older I have gotten, the more I use only one criterion to choose friends: "will these people do what they say they're going to do?"

The net: I was knock-me-down amazed by "The Somerville Gates" and "The Brick Testament."

The real world:

L.A. El took us to see "The Garden of Oz" when we were performing next to the Hollywood Bowl (we were too bush league to play IN the Bowl, natch). "The Garden of Oz" is a long, very steep hillside in Laurel Canyon, behind a tall fence, which has been completely terraced and tiled. It is some kind of shrine and is more spectacular than any one picture can convey.

At the base of my mailbox I saw this wonderful pool of water, frozen in concentric circles. I went back to the house for my camera even though I was already late.

How amazed and amused we were when we saw, for the first time, an "elegant stinkhorn" fungus, poking gloriously out of the leaves near the house. That first time there were actually two. Then it was seven years till I saw another one, just this fall. Sadly, my step-dog broke it. The brown stuff is sticky and, yes, stinky. Flies queued up to hover around it and amorously plumb its depths.

Another thing I recently saw, for the first time, was an appaloosa deer. That is to say, it looks exactly like this picture except it's a deer instead of a horse. It lives in our neighborhood. With boldly spotted white hindquarters, it looks like a mistake, or something designed for target practice.

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Wonder Bread

When I was a kid I LOVED Wonder Bread. I liked that you could roll it into little balls; you could smash it flat and toast it against a light bulb; you could plaster it up against the roof of your mouth and when you peeled it off you could see the ridges.

I liked the way my high school cafeteria sandwich - Wonder Bread, peanut butter and Kraft Concord Grape Jelly - was purple with seepage every day at lunch after having been wrapped in Saran Wrap the previous day and marinated overnight.

I bought Wonder Bread for my kids once but they didn't like it; I have to admit the "dough conditioner" taste now poisons my enjoyment too.

Even though Wonder Bread is not very Jewish, there is a recipe for Wonder Blintzes on the official website.

BadAunt at present simple wondered why, after two weeks, her Japanese supermarket bread "was still soft, spongy, and white. There was no mould, it hadn't gone stale, and it looked and felt as fresh as the day I'd bought it." I have found her this article from the Tampa Tribune:

Old Bread Idea Hard To Swallow
By Michael Sasso Sep 25, 2004

... Interstate Bakeries Corp., the nation's largest bread baker, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection ... [its] attempts to keep its Wonder and Merita brands on store shelves for seven days may have hurt quality and be at least partly at fault for its financial woes.

... its extended shelf-life, or ESL, program is partly to blame. In recent years, Interstate Bakeries has been adding a special enzyme to its cakes and breads that help them retain moisture and stay soft. Traditionally, bakers have kept bread on grocery shelves for three days before pulling it and taking it to discount bread stores. With its ESL program, Interstate Bakeries found it could keep bread fresh for up to seven days before removing it from store shelves. That would reduce waste and save money.

However, Pinheiro said the company had to change its bread's formula to make it stay soft for seven days, which hurt quality. Interstate Bakeries' bread at times has felt "gummy" or "doughy," he said.

"The consumer perceives freshness as being soft, so that's why we went ahead and adopted it," Wimberly said.

Sternberg, the Interstate Bakeries spokeswoman, said the company believes its bread's quality has not been hurt by its ESL program, and it maintains that its bread stays soft and fresh for seven days.

For more on "food science:" Making your dinner tasty."

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He waits on his porch for his teacher to pick him up.

This picture is scanned from a Wall Street Journal ad circa 1998. The caption: "100-year-old George Dawson waits on the porch every school day for his teacher to pick him up." When I saw it, I started weeping. I still get teary when I see it.

Shortly after this picture was taken, George Dawson became quite a celebrity; here is his story, courtesy of Google.

Grandson of slaves, Dawson was born in a three-room log cabin on a farm near Marshall, Texas in 1898. He started work at 4. When he was 10, he saw a good friend lynched. When he was 12, he was sent out to work on a nearby farm. He earned $1.15 or so a week which helped feed his parents and four younger brothers and sisters, who went to school though Dawson could not.

As a young adult, he traveled all over, sometimes riding the rails as a hobo. He visited Mexico and New Orleans and went to Canada to see snow. He broke wild horses, built levees on the Mississippi, and shoveled dirt into mule-drawn wagons.

In 1928, he moved to Dallas where he worked on the railroad, did road crew work for the city, and tended boilers at a dairy for 25 years.

Dawson "helped" all seven of his children with their homework every night. They never realized he couldn't read.

In 1996, a literacy volunteer knocked on Mr. Dawson's door and told him adult education courses were being taught a few blocks away. Mr. Dawson responded eagerly, "Wait, I'll get my coat."

"I agreed to take it on temporarily, and in walks this 98-year-old man wanting to read," his teacher Carl Henry, retired head of the music program for the Dallas schools, recalled.

Dawson: "My first day of school was January 4, 1996. I was ninety-eight years old and I'm still going....I'm up by five-thirty to make my lunch, pack my books, and go over my schoolwork. Books was something missing from my life for so long....I learned to read my ABC's in two days -- I was in a hurry....Now I am a man that can read." He signed his name for the first time at age 98.

The Discovery Channel, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Nightline, People magazine and Good Morning America profiled his life. Two universities awarded him honorary degrees.

He collaborated with a Washington state schoolteacher to write a book about his life, "Life Is So Good." (It was translated into other languages; this is the cover of the French edition.)

The book's financial success let Mr. Dawson raze his dilapidated house and build a new one. Still, after all the travel and the interviews and the awards, he settled back into his regular routine of attending adult school classes in social studies, science and math, and cooking himself the "common food" to which he attributed his longevity: hot chocolate and white bread for breakfast, barbecue and milk for lunch, catfish for dinner. George Dawson died July 5, 2001 at the age of 103. It was quite a ride.

See President proposes cuts to adult literacy programs.

So Get Involved Already!

If you want to help people learn to read, at this Verizon site and America's Literacy Directory websites you can find places near you to volunteer.

Locally, the Orange County Literacy Council writes: "Anyone who is a good reader and enjoys working with people can be trained to be an adult literacy tutor." They have a directory for other North Carolina programs.

Or you can work with kids in the Student Reading Program in the Chapel Hill/Carrboro schools. It's super fun, I just waltz into that school building a couple times a week and sit with one kid at a time for 20-30 minutes, reading. They are bouncy and cute and really need us; many do not have a parent at home who can read with them. Susan Pearce (919-967-8211 x 336) is director. You can try to email her at but they have a killer spam filter on their system so better to call.

Also, I do a lot of reading with my mentee (Here's my post on what a delight that is). Call Graig Meyer 921-2170 for information on joining that program. (Call before March 2 to get in on the current round.)

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President proposes cuts to adult literacy programs

ProLiteracy Worldwide Responds to President’s Proposed Cuts in Funding for Adult Literacy Programs

Syracuse, NY, February 10, 2005 - ProLiteracy Worldwide, the largest organization of community-based adult literacy programs in the world, today expressed concern over the Administration’s proposal to reduce funding to adult literacy programs by 64 percent in 2006.

The budget calls for a total of $200 million in adult basic and literacy education state grants, down from the $569.7 million requested in FY 2005. Many programs serving adult learners would see their budgets slashed from 50 percent to 75 percent under the proposal; some programs could be forced to close their doors altogether.

“Most adult literacy programs cannot serve everyone on their waiting lists with the public and private funding they receive now,” said Robert Wedgeworth, ProLiteracy president and CEO. “While the Administration wants no child to be left behind, it appears willing to leave many adults without the reading, writing, math and comprehension skills they need to support their families and take part in this country’s democratic process,” he noted. “This is ironic because statistics show that children are more likely to be successful readers when their parents are successful readers.”

Wedgeworth also said it was ironic that the Administration is seeking to cut back adult literacy funding several months before the U.S. Department of Education is due to release its follow-up to the 1993 National Adult Literacy Survey that indicated between 40 and 44 million U.S. residents over the age of 18 fall into the lowest level of literacy skills. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy, scheduled for release later this year, is likely to show that adult literacy continues to be a significant issue in the U.S.

Research shows that low-level literacy skills can be linked to every significant social problem facing the U.S. today:
  • According to the National Institute for Literacy, 43 percent of functionally illiterate adults in the U.S. live in poverty.
  • More than 60 percent of incarcerated adults in the U.S. do not have adequate reading or writing skills.
  • The health care industry attributes a $63 billion annual loss to low literacy.

“Adult education and literacy programs are the frontlines in the fight against this issues,” Wedgeworth said.

Contact: Rochelle Cassella, (315) 422-9121, ext. 353 or email

More on this.

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Saturday, February 26, 2005

Whatever they do is normal.

OK, since we're telling, my ex-husband was just like picture #3. (Click and it will open, bigger, in another window.)

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Food Science: making your dinner tasty.

One of my early jobs was in the now-defunct Food Science Department at MIT. Here are some projects I remember:
  • Improving the mouthfeel of artifical fruit-like gel matrixes. I could not find a whisper of this work now, it's probably completely outmoded.

    What is Mouthfeel? Citations from the Word Spy:

    Lipton product manager Stuart Miller says ice cream on stick normally lasts customer age 6 to 12 between 4 and 7 minutes, but no-drip ice cream lasts 8 1/2 to 9 minutes; key to no-drip ice cream is new 'stabilizer' that promotes bond between water and fat in mixture and does not affect quality, texture, taste or mouth feel (The New York Times, August 26, 1973)

    Another option is No-Cream Cream. It's a recipe from the Fetzer Vineyards Food and Wine Magazine, which the winery published several years ago. The "no-cream" is an excellent ingredient that can be added to most any savory soup or sauce when you want to simulate the richness and mouthfeel of cream without the added fat or calories. (Sun-Sentinel, August 1, 2002)

    Anyway, fruit-like gel matrixes are, for instance, fake blueberries in breakfast cereal. Problem: instead of being juicy like cucumbers when you chewed them, the artificial fruit-like gel matrices got DRYER inside your mouth. Did MIT improve this product? Any eaters of articial blueberries, please report back to me.

  • Shear flow in salad dressing. What you want in a salad dressing is that it pour easily from the bottle, but thicken up and sit in a plump little blob once it hits the salad. This work was sponsored by an oil company. Here is some recent work:
    Agriproducts Inc. has been developing new applications of its No. 1 product, gum arabic... gum arabic systems are used to emulsify and impart smooth, creamy mouthfeel ... In addition to nutraceutical applications, where the gums suspend and emulsify particulates, these gums are used in pourable salad dressings from reduced-calorie products to "standard-of-identity" french dressings.

    "It imparts great 'clingability' to the products, including our systems," he says. "Manufacturers want dressing to cling to cold lettuce, not to pool in the bottom of the plate. Our products are satisfying that need without getting gummy or gloppy, maintaining smooth rheology and still imparting good cling."

    Shear Flow, cont.

    "The same sample can exhibit drastically different behaviors depending on the handling. Viscosity is a fluid response to shear flow, where shear flow may be visualized as rubbing two hands past each other with a sample between them. ... The speed of rubbing is related to the rate of shear. ... Fluids with large extensional viscosities are said to be “stringy.” Therefore, depending on the type of force applied to a fluid, the same fluid can be independently viscous and stringy.

    "'Too stringy' is a frequent consumer complaint about these products: The product does not break cleanly when the container is maneuvered to stop flow, i.e. a stringy filament strand forms from the lip of the container (Clark, 1997). This property - extensional viscosity - is a measurable rheological parameter of fluid foods, contributing to texture."

  • "Enhancing" shelflife. My bosses were working on a system which would keep potato chips viable for years. Perhaps centuries. See previous post on bread shelflife.

Here are a few tidbits from today's food sciences industry. Working to make your food tastier. Just skip along to the next post if it's too much for you.

  1. From a study supported by the California Dairy Research Foundation:

    Our group is investigating transport into and out of micelles, particularly as it occurs within complex systems such as emulsions and gels. Surfactant aggregates known as micelles have a profound effect on the rate at which oils and other hydrophobic solutes are transported out of oil droplets within emulsions, and this transport has a major impact in such areas as food stability, flavor perception, and oil metabolism within humans.

    Equilibrium partitioning experiments allow us to determine the relative affinity of the different components of whey proteins for the reversed micellar phase, and to explore how differences in protein size and hydrophobicity, as well as protein charge, affect their solubilization within the microemulsion. One interesting outcome of this research was the discovery that the smaller of the two milk proteins, a-lactalbumin, has a substantial effect on the properties of the microemulsion phase, suggesting that this small, interfacially active protein may act as a "cosurfactant" and aid in the formation of the microemulsion phase. This observation gives rise to the possibility of using proteins such as a-lactalbumin to aid in the formation of biocompatible microemulsions.

  2. From Food Rheology: Instrumental and sensory characterization for a texture profile analysis of fluid foods.

    Texture is a criterion by which quality is judged and an important factor when selecting or rejecting products. Therefore, an understanding of food texture is paramount to deliver foods that adhere to consumer expectations. ... In this research project, fluid foods were exposed to a variety of rheological methods, exerting different stresses to invoke unique flow behaviors. Rheological methods included measurements for shear viscosity, biaxial extensional viscosity, an empirical stringiness index, and yield stress.

    ... Clark (1997) conducted a fundamental approach to measuring extensional viscosity for the purpose of discerning the extensional flow of pancake syrups with different hydrocolloids. In this study a fundamental rheological instrument called an opposing jet rheometer was used to study the extensional flow behavior of xanthan and carboxymethyl cellulose (CMC) gums. These two gums are commonly used hydrocolloids in pancake syrup. Sensory tests were not conducted in this study to evaluate extensional viscosity, however the researcher hypothesized the importance of extensional viscosity on pancake syrup texture.

  3. Extending shelf life of fresh minced camel meat at ambient temperature by Lactobacillus dlbrueckii subsp. delbrueckii, by Ichraq Kalalou, Mohamed Faid, and Ahmed Touhami Ahami at Ibn Toufail University, Morocco

  4. On Hydrocolloids and American food design: Hydrocolloids are filling an unprecedented array of needs in food development ...

    "The whole idea of a fluid gel system is very interesting to our customers wherever they're looking for unique means of suspending particulates, ranging from large particulates like a gel bead to finer materials like pulp in home-style orange juice or spices," says Hartnek. "This technology has lots and lots of potential applications."

    The most spectacular new applications of gums and gum systems are coming in the creation of entire new foods. A prime example is Hercules Inc.'s development of a new spoonable dessert, a fruit-flavored flan for which carrageenan provides the characteristic texture and a pectin formulation gives the required stability. The acidified fruit desserts have a creamy, somewhat cuttable texture typical of a neutral-flavored flan. They would be packaged in a cup, like yogurt, but are much firmer than yogurt. The carrageenan used is rather unique since it is much more stable at low pH levels compared with other types, which tend to break down.

    Another new application that Sapone describes is an instant, liquid-based dairy dessert that could be either refrigerated or made shelf-stable in a pouch, retort container or squeeze bottle. A consumer would mix the fruit-flavored liquid syrup with equal parts milk and stir, and within 15 seconds the combination would produce pudding-like textures.

    With new gums and gum systems, FMC's Food Ingredients Division, Philadelphia, is formulating potential new products with unusual textures, as well. "We're following through on the trends toward convenient, ready-to-eat-type products that are portable, handy to take to school, lunch or work," says Jeff Dopf, market segment manager for gels and emulsions.

    "We're trying to look outside the box and see what the consumer is willing to accept," Dopf adds. "That's the approach we're taking: What can we do with these gums?"

    Among the more innovative ideas is the University of Maine's development of a gum system to prevent the bleeding of individually quick-frozen low-bush blueberries in blueberry muffins. ... The problem, as reported by frustrated bakery processors, has been that the berries bleed into the batter, producing grayish-blue streaking that turns off most consumers. ...

    Bakers already had tried applying powdered starch to the berries before mixing them in batter, but it didn't reduce leakage as much as they hoped. In research funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Maine Blueberry Commission, Bushway and colleagues tried guar gum, gellan gum and gum arabic before settling on the gum that best addressed the problem: carboxymethylcellulose (CMC).

    "Chicken could be dipped into a hot, not very concentrated slurry of [a similar] product ... when the gel dried, it created an intact film. You could create a transparent film or one with a texturized surface that simulated skin by letting it dry on a coarse, uneven surface. The film was not only edible, but could be formulated to be heat-reversible as well."

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Anti-smoking campaign, Japanese style

This poster is the most recent example I've seen of indescribably wonderful Japanese signage. I found it via present simple, a blog I enjoy very much; it's by an English teacher from New Zealand, now living in Japan. She writes really well. (And SHE got it from Funky Drummer, another Japanese site.)

If you like this kind of thing you have probably already visited, but if you, like me, can't keep up, well all we can do is do the best we can. This is a Smallville-esque platitude of the kind collected by Omar G., brilliant but merciless auteur at "Television Without Pity."

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site: i used to believe

This is one of my favorite sites: I Used to Believe. Here are some of the childhood beliefs sent in by readers:

i used to think that people didnt die i just thought when they turned 100 they started all over again thats also why i thought old people were so short.

i used to believe that if i didnt spend equal amounts of time with each stuffed animal then one would get jealous and kill me in my sleep.

I think I am a relatively normal adult, but when I was five I used to believe that the goal of parents was to kill their kids. I remember once that I interrupted my father and he put his hand around my neck to quiet me down. I remember thinking, "okay this is it." Eventually, he let go and I thought to myself, "well, he won't do it now, there would be too many witnesses."

I always used to think that there was a totally different world through the mirror. The reason why we couldn't get through was because the person the looks exactly like you on the other world does the exact same thing. Whenever you poked the mirror to get to the other world, the other person pokes it too, blocking you from getting through.

I used to believe that when the judge sentenced a criminal to an impossibly long sentence (like 100+ years) that they kept his body in prison after he died until it was there for the whole sentence.

I couldn't understand why no-one had invented a word for something that isn't big but at the same time isn't small so I used to express the concept with the word "little-big" or "big-little". It was a revelation to me when my mother asked me go to the shops for a medium sliced loaf (of bread) and I discovered that someone somewhere had actually solved the problem that was perplexing me at the time.

I had a strange fear that if I closed my eyes in the bathtub, William Shakespeare would come up through the drain and kill me. I knew his name, but I had no idea who he was, so I just naturally assumed he was some sort of bathtub vampire

When I was younger, I wanted to be a kangaroo SO BADLY when I grew up. My dad spent hours trying to tell me that I couldn't be, and I threw horrible temper tantrums EVERY TIME.

I thought, in kindergarden, in order to read a book you had to read the page then turn it around and wave it back and forth. Little did I know the teacher was just showing us the pictures and it was not required if you were reading to your self.

For some reason, when I was very little, I thought that TV shows "stayed inside the TV" until it was turned on. When we watched TV, the shows were "leaking out." When I started going to school, I would come home in the afternoon, try to watch "Sesame Street" and find that it wasn't on. I then asked Mom not to watch TV while I was at school, as it "wasted" "Sesame Street."

I used to believe that if you saved the bits of crud that collected in your eyes overnight instead of wiping them away, they would eventually grow into a whole new eyeball. Every day I would leave the 'sleep' in the corner of my eye until I got to school where I would hide it behind a door. I was hoping that eventually I would grow an army of eyeballs there.

My Mum told me that the Queen used to have an injection every day so that she didn't have to go to the toilet like the rest of us. I always used to wonder why she was the only person allowed to have it.

I grew up in Texas and when I heard someone was "sentenced to death" I thought that they'd been forced to write the same sentence over and over again until they died, since one of my teachers at school made us write sentences on the blackboard when we were bad.

i used to think raisins were inside out flies. i still can't eat them to this day

I used to believe that cough medicine had a toggle effect. In other words, if you took cough medicine when you didn't have a cold, it gave you a cold

I used to believe that clowns were not people dressed up in costumes but were a separate race or species that always looked like that and married other clowns and had baby clowns and whole clown families.

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Fielding's Advice to Bloggers #5

More excellent advice from Tom Jones by Henry Fielding.

Showing what is to be deemed plagiarism in a modern author, and what is to be considered as lawful prize.

The learned reader must have observed that in the course of this mighty work, I have often translated passages out of the best ancient authors, without quoting the original, or without taking the least notice of the book from whence they were borrowed.

... To fill up a work with these scraps may, indeed, be considered as a downright cheat on the learned world, who are by such means imposed upon to buy a second time, in fragments and by retail, what they have already in gross, if not in their memories, upon their shelves; and it is still more cruel upon the illiterate, who are drawn in to pay for what is of no manner of use to them. A writer who intermixes great quantity of [material from other blogs] with his works, deals by the ladies and fine gentlemen in the same paltry manner with which they are treated by the auctioneers, who often endeavour so to confound and mix up their lots, that, in order to purchase the commodity you want, you are obliged at the same time to purchase that which will do you no service.

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Friday, February 25, 2005

Good one from Orient Lodge

Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them. -- Laurence J. Peter

The Somerville Gates

[UPDATE - guess this is a too-late kind of situation - see below]

This website (you'll have to look there for pictures of the whole thing) was sent to me by my friend Sharon, and I like it even though I don't do cat blogging. Hargo says about his Somerville Gates installation that it:
has been compared with Christo's "The Gates", Central Park, New York City. These comparisons have been unfair; sometimes the media has exaggerated -- even lied -- about the similarities. Differences abound, and some of the most overlooked are listed below...

BoingBoing Update today:

Geoff Hargadon -- Hargo, now that he's a star -- is the creator of The Somerville Gates, a micro sendup of the saffron extravaganza now in New York's Central Park. And he has become almost preposterously famous. After he posted photos on his website of his 13-gate installation -- made from stuff he picked up at Home Depot that he glued together and painted orange -- Hargadon received more than 4 million hits, so many that he had to take it down yesterday because his Internet service was charging him for every visit. He owes thousands, he says.

Museums across the country are after him. Manhattan's Pratt Institute wants a Somerville Gate for its permanent collection. Ditto, the Browne Popular Culture Museum in Bowling Green, Ohio; the Portland Art Museum in Oregon; and Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C. Someone from Tufts University invited him to display the work in a juried art show.

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Brick Testament

I know this guy has gotten 1,000s of "testaments" from the media, but his site was new to me this morning when Melina sent me the link. In case I am not the only one who can't keep up, have a look at The Brick, which has bunches of bible stories rendered in Legos. They are quite amazing. (Here, Noah & Co. emerge from the Ark.)

The Rev. Brendan Powell Smith has put some of this out in book form.

He warns that his book is not an official LEGO product, and is not authorized, sponsored, or endorsed by The LEGO Group.

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Bloglines, because I can't keep up.

I just discovered Bloglines. It's a fast way to look at the new entries on a bunch of blogs and what I particularly like about it is:
  • The type is large so I don't have to squint at sites with little white letters on black backgrounds (or little blue letters on purple backgrounds or...)

  • I don't have to wade through advertisements and things that blink and shudder. I have excellent peripheral vision and some of those ads give me mal de mer.
Anyway, a site I enjoy scanning on Bloglines is Quotes of the Day, as I am just goofy in love with l'esprit d'escalier. Here are a few excellent zingers:

Thomas Fuller"Many would be cowards if they had courage enough."
Italian Proverb"Once the game is over, the King and the pawn go back in the same box."
Sigmund Freud"America is a mistake, a giant mistake."
Neil Armstrong"I believe that every human has a finite number of heart-beats. I don't intend to waste any of mine running around doing exercises."
J. Paul Getty"The meek shall inherit the Earth, but not its mineral rights."
Will DurantOne of the lessons of history is that nothing is often a good thing to do and always a clever thing to say.
And a couple music quotes:
Aaron CoplandThe whole problem can be stated quite simply by asking, 'Is there a meaning to music?' My answer would be, 'Yes.' And 'Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?' My answer to that would be, 'No.'
Friedrich NietzscheOnly sick music makes money today.

Speaking of music quotes, the excellent Lynne at Reflections in d minor has a good one, from the limitless stockpile created by instrumentalists mocking each other:

Richard StraussNever look at the trombones. You'll only encourage them.

Her website provides "Music, art, culture, Web-surfing, backwoods living and arrogant opinions." The type is not tiny and there are no annoying blinking ads. You'll love it.

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The Outer Banks

I wrote first about erosion, development, and the Outer Banks here, and then here. This post concludes my beach rant.

Orrin Pilkey, professor emeritus at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, has for decades been the Cassandra and Lorax of the Outer Banks. He warns us of simple things:
  • The Barrier Islands are migrating inland. Storms rip sand from the east (ocean side) and dump it on the west (bay side). Vegetation is supposed to stabilize the newly deposited bay-side sand, providing a base for the island to shift onto.

  • Preferring the beach side, we build permanent structures where they don't belong. We flout the ocean. Everything we do to stave off the inland migration, however, will eventually destroy the beach and/or fail.

    • Hardening the shoreline - building jetties and seawalls, dumping rocks and sandbags - robs sand from adjacent areas. "Seawalls protect buildings but destroy beaches."

    • Beach replenishment (dumping sand) degrades the coastal ecosystem by killing every living thing in the sand.

  • The ocean will win in the end.

From Shoring Up N. Carolina Islands: A Losing Battle? by John Roach:

Humans made their first significant mark on the Outer Banks in the 1930s when the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps built a dune ridge along the Outer Banks to help stabilize the islands.

Since then, the dune has been continuously maintained. Whenever storms push the dune sand over the island, trying to keep the Outer Banks above the rising sea level and making what coastal scientists call a platform for the islands to migrate onto, crews are dispatched to push the sand back and rebuild the dune.

The dune was first rebuilt after every storm by the National Park Service until the 1970s. When the park service called it quits, the North Carolina Department of Transportation moved in to protect U.S. Highway 12, which was constructed after World War II, according to Rice.

Pilkey: "U.S. Highway 12 has been allowed to all but stop nature's course in the Outer Banks so that thousands of people can access their million-dollar homes inside the Cape Hatteras National Seashore."

"We know that roads that run perpendicular to the shoreline or go right up to the beach act as conduits for storm surge, so we shouldn't build or rebuild them," Pilkey's colleague Andrew Coburn said. "Yet you find them in nearly every oceanfront community."

From Fighting the Tide: Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Retreats from Rising Sea
by Andrew Shepard, Associate Director, National Undersea Research Center at UNCW

[Written as the decision was being made to move the Hatteras Lighthouse] According to a National Research Council study on the lighthouse’s predicament, if present trends continue, sea-level will rise up to 0.5 feet and the shoreline in front of the lighthouse will retreat 400 feet by the year 2018. By the year 2088, the retreat may reach over a half a mile inland.

Evidence of past barrier islands can be found hundred of miles inland and well offshore of the Carolinas. Before human’s developed the coast, it was like a tree falling in the woods-- nature did its thing and no one noticed the quiet movement of the beaches. Things are different now. By 2018, well over half the nation’s population will live within five miles of a beach. Houses and hotels now extend from end to end on most of North Carolina’s barrier islands.

Stanley Riggs, coastal geologist at East Carolina University in Greenville: "The minute we put something out there we want to protect it. All of a sudden we are at war with the ocean." Retreat is no longer an option.

North of Buxton there's a stretch of Route 12 where the dune is an arms-length from the cars. In stormy weather, time your trip to reach that area at low tide: at high tide, the ocean is over the road. After bad storms the road is completely buried in sand. Traffic stops while bulldozers pushed it back off the road.

Pilkey: "The sea level is rising now, which provides a crooked shoreline. Nature abhors a crooked shoreline, so nature is trying to straighten the shoreline out."

The ocean wants the sand to be in the road. The Army Corps of Engineers and the Highway Department want it back on the dune. The dune's been washed out so often it has no sea oats. It's a sandbox sierra built by real Tonka Toys. The ocean, just yards away, licks at it and laps over the top.

My son points out that inlanders, who don't have access to the ocean lifestyle, foot the tax bill for endless projects that allow beachfront property owners and developers, at least for now, to recoup and grow their investments.

The state subsidizes beach development by building and maintaining roads, bridges, sewers; by dredging inlets and building jetties; by providing disaster assistance after storms. Once structures have been built, even if everyone knows they shouldn't be there, resources are massively deployed to protect them. The government even offers flood insurance, so there's little risk.

Pilkey made his pitch concisely in this article:
The price society is paying for beachfront development will only go up, and each storm will make this point again. But there are some things we can do:
  • End the sympathy for beachfront-property owners and recognize foolish acts for what they are.

  • Encourage the removal of destroyed and threatened buildings and replace them with natural dunes.

  • Stop charging federal and state taxpayers for replenishing beaches.

Here are some related reads:

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Thursday, February 24, 2005

Ocean, beaches, storms, and money: the Outer Banks

Skip this post if you are not interested in the interaction of nature and human arrogance. Published in the Charlotte Observer on 9/28/2003:

Building mounts despite Outer Banks erosion
Desire for beach homes backed by state policies
by Bruce Henderson

The sea is rising on one of the most hazardous coastlines in America, erosion is accelerating and Hurricane Isabel just sliced up Hatteras Island.

In the inexorable logic of coastal development, that makes the Outer Banks an even more desirable place to invest. Experience says new homes will pop up amid Isabel's wreckage like mushrooms after a summer rain.

The aftermath of a hurricane on the N.C. coast conjures an odd mix of gung-ho rebuilding spirit and sober vows to rethink state policies that allow development on the most shifting of sands. Taxpayers, meanwhile, help foot billions of dollars in recovery costs.

Backed by flood insurance, property rights and compliant politicians, owners usually rebuild. New owners rush to join the party.

"We have a (state) policy of what to do after a storm," said Todd Miller of the N.C. Coastal Federation, the coast's leading conservation group. "And that's to build it back bigger and better and more dangerous than ever."

With high-energy waves and a gently sloping shoreline, the Outer Banks are among the East Coast locations with "very high" vulnerability to rising sea level, concluded a 1999 report by the U.S. Geological Survey. In such places sea level typically rises more than one-tenth of an inch a year.

On northern Hatteras, state maps show, the ocean shoreline is eroding as much as 16 feet a year. Four other stretches of beach on Hatteras face double-digit erosion losses. Average erosion rates appear to be rising across the N.C. coast, state officials say.

Rebuilding dunes to protect N.C. 12, which runs the length of the Outer Banks, is worsening erosion in some places, coastal geologists say.

While Isabel was a massive but relatively weak Category 2 hurricane, skeptics worry a more fearsome storm will someday wipe the coast clean. Four hurricanes have smacked the N.C. coast in the past seven years, and some authorities believe Atlantic hurricanes are in an upswing cycle.

The Division of Coastal Management gets about $1 million a year from the state parks trust fund for beach communities to buy unbuildable lots for public access. But beachfront property is too expensive for most grants.

The Coastal Resources Commission endorsed hazard notifications to potential property owners, Moffitt said, but the Real Estate Commission didn't agree.

The coastal commission has supported ending public subsidies that encourage unwise development, she said, but has no authority to make it stick.

... Oceanfront communities provide most of the property-tax revenue for their counties, she added, providing more incentives to rebuild.

... Fran whacked North Topsail Beach, on an island off the southern N.C. coast, hard. The storm left about 350 lots unbuildable because of heavy structural damage and erosion.

Federal authorities had previously declared much of the low-lying northern portion of Topsail Island too damage-prone to offer flood insurance. "We need to get out with the least amount of cost possible and don't come back," state Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, D-Dare, said after touring Fran's damage.

Yet North Topsail is now bigger than ever. The state paid to repair the island's main road after Fran. A beach-renourishment plan is in the works.

"We've exploded with building" this summer, said Sue McLaughlin, the town's planning, zoning and coastal-management permits officer.

See part one and part three of this series.

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Book a Minute

This morning I also discovered Book a Minute. Where was this site when I was struggling with that most detestable book, Moby Dick? It includes classics, science fiction, and bedtime stories (though my kids would not let me skip even one word, so I'm not sure this last section is functional).

Tuck Everlasting
Winnie:I love you! I'll do anything for you!
Jessie:Drink the water.

Hamlet:Whine whine whine ... To be or not to be...I'm dead.

Note: For those with a somewhat longer attention span there is also The Three Minute Hamlet, complete with soundtrack.

Don Quixote
Don Quixote:Chivalry demands I destroy that evil thing.
Sancho Panza: No, master. It is something ordinary and harmless.
Don Quixote:(falls down)

There is a companion site, Movie a Minute, for people who don't have the patience to sit through an entire movie.

Gone With The Wind
Scarlett:I'm a whiny little brat, but my will is like iron. Watch my eyes flare.
Rhett Butler:I don't give a damn.
Audience:Gasp! We've never heard anything so depraved in our lives!

The Empire Strikes Back
Luke:I have to go to Dagobah.
Yoda:You have to use the force.
Luke:I have to go to Cloud City.
Darth Vader:You have to go to the dark side.
Luke:No I don't.
Darth Vader:I'm your father.
Luke:No you're not.
Darth Vader:Fine, I'll cut off your hand.

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Michele sent me to the Unkempt Women

On a schedule I have not yet figured out, Michele sends us (her loyal followers) to various blogs to visit and say hi. The one I have just visited is splendid: vitriolica webb's ite.

The authors, located in Azeitão, Portugal, write about their "Unkempt Women" blogspot thusly: "Vit and Madge occupy the same body. They have other friends in there, but this blog is all theirs. Vit writes, Madge draws, or sometimes the other way round." Well, OK, I have become quite tolerant of individuals who claim they are multiple.

Here are three posts I like:

  • In Portugal it is illegal to let one's children go bare-foot."

  • Lame Imitations: "The desperate desire is to emulate the Rio Carnival and try to make it look as if the Samba was the national dance of Portugal... but in the concentrating faces of the dancers, making sure to get the Samba right, making sure they are doing the Samba better than the girl next to them, or trying to be sexily Samba-ing for the RTP television cameras, it is plain that it is not the national dance of Portugal."

  • In Praise of Blogging - includes a montage of 197 of the original drawings that have appeared on this blog.

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Wednesday, February 23, 2005

"Melinama's Sonnet Service," the golden years

I've decided to tell you the story of the Melinama Sonnet Service. This career evolved just after I graduated from college. I was studying calligraphy for fun, and also because I had gotten a little bit of freelance work designing posters for my fellow musicians.

On one family vacation I sat alone day after day in a cabin in Moosehead Maine, doing italic renderings of passages from Daniel Deronda (my read at the time) on parchment paper while everybody else went on long boring fishing excursions on the deep black freezing cold lake. With lots of black flies.

I was wondering what to do with my life. Since calligraphy was my enthusiasm of the moment, I considered that as a possible career, but had to admit my work was a bit smudgy and imperfect.

Also, there is so much calligraphy produced that nobody wants or needs. I didn't want to be one of those people who make lots of non-useful things with their craft.

Example: remember macrame? If you do, you know this is a picture of macrame, and you remember people made miles of it and were always gifting you and everybody else with awful objets full of knots, sticks, and shells.

(If you don't remember macrame, you are probably so young you never make anything with your hands at all, because crafts and carpentry and cooking all seem to have gone out of fashion.)

In a lightbulb moment I remembered my knack, discovered in seventh grade, for writing a sonnet -- Petrarchan or Elizabethan -- on any subject, in half an hour. Aha, something to write out in a fine hand! Practical apps!

Thus was hatched the "Melinama Sonnet Service." I would produce individually composed and calligraphed sonnets for anniversaries, birthdays, etc. I explained this intention in iambic pentameter, inked it on a poster, and, this being Cambridge Massachusetts in the 70s, stapled it on hundreds of telephone poles.

Eventually, surprisingly, the Boston Globe contacted me, and the Christian Science Monitor (whose photographer took these pictures, I think), and Susan Stamberg, who interviewed me for Weekend Edition on NPR one Valentine's Day.

It turns out media people love the idea of somebody writing sonnets for a living. Maybe that's what they would rather be doing.

And so for about three years I did indeed make my monthly nut writing sonnets, $30 a pop, a royal sum in my opinion. Here are three high points:
  • Reuniting a retired army man in China with his high-school sweetheart. A rickshaw entered into that poem.

  • Getting a commission for seventeen sonnets for a Bar Mitzvah! The mother wanted one for each person who was going to light a candle after the emcee "wheeled in the cake"! I protested that a thirteen year old doesn't need seventeen candles! She said, that's OK, I'm going to blow a few out when nobody's looking! I said, in that case, I think sonnets of ten lines rather than fourteen are indicated, as otherwise the multitudes will grow restive! I was expecting her to say: but then it isn't a sonnet; instead she agreed, and even paid full price!

  • Getting hired by a Harvard poetry professor. Actually, what happened was, he had me come to class and made his STUDENTS pay me. Nickles and quarters rolled reluctantly out of their pockets. He had told me (approximately): "they think they are so cool with their angsty free verse. Not one of them understands rhyme and scansion. I want you to come teach them." They, grumpy and aloof, reluctantly proposed various details to be included in the poem. I went in the next room and wrote it. It was a moment of sublime triumph.
Somewhere in my attic is the box of first drafts (I was too cheap in those days to pay to make xeroxes of the finished products). I had to quit the gig eventually when the awful rhymes started haunting my dreams. After all, I did not scorn to write poetry about people's grandmothers in gingham aprons, but there are no noble rhymes for potato pie.

p.s. I can still do it. I would accept PayPal.

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