Thursday, June 22, 2017

Sara Winchester and Her Mansion

Winchester mansion was built by Sara Winchester of Winchester Rifle fame.  Legend has it that after the death of her husband and infant daughter, Sara Winchester came to believe her family was haunted by ghosts, possibly the ghosts of those killed by Winchester rifles.  So she built this mansion in San Jose, California, and had construction ongoing everyday of her life to ward off the ghosts.  The reality is that she did have construction going on her entire life, but she also dismissed the builders for periods of time.  Maybe she needed peace and quiet.  The results include:

--  160 rooms (some hidden)
--  40 bedrooms
--  2 ballrooms
--  40 stairways (some hidden)
--  One stairway goes nowhere ending at the ceiling.
--  47 fireplaces
--  10,000+ panes of glass
--  17 chimneys
--  Some chimneys stop floors short of roof.
--  Small rooms built inside larger rooms.
--  Balconies built inside mansion rather than outside.
--  Doors that can't be opened
--  Child-size doors next to adult-size doors.
--  A new room discovered as recently as last year.

Bubbly Math Professor

I'm taking an online calculus course from Coursera, and the instructor, Professor Jim Fowler from Ohio State University, is something to behold.  It's pleasant to meet someone who loves what he does, and Fowler is someone who loves math and teaching math.  Energetic, effervescent, and animated -- he jumps around a lot --you can't take your eyes off him.  If calculus is the subject, Fowler is the show, and maybe after watching his videos you will like math too.  I encourage you to bop over to coursera and watch a video or two of his.  Most are short, between 5 and 10 minutes, so it won't take long.  The course name is "Calculus One" with the subheading "The Ohio State University."  I believe you will have to sign up with Coursera and enroll in the course, but it's free (as long as you don't check the certificate box), and you can drop the course immediately after viewing the videos without penalty.  But I'm wagering many of you will want to stick around if for no other reason than to watch Fowler.  He also teaches a course on Convergence, and watching a couple of those videos are just as good.

PS: Coursera also offers an excellent course on Relativity (Frames of Reference, Time Dilation, Length Contraction, etc) with little math involved.  The name of  that courses is "Understanding Einstein: The Special Theory of Relativity" from Stanford University.

PSS:  Coursera link:

Monday, June 19, 2017

New York City Photo Archive

New York City has an extensive online photo archive.  The archive includes photos from the NYC Police Department's Alien Squad, its Subversive Surveillance Unit.  They've included photos of Communist Party conventions at Madison Square Garden and photos of the German American Bund at Siegfried Camp in Yaphank, Long Island late 1930's.

You can search by category.


Alien Squad
American German Bund
Brooklyn Bridge
Brooklyn Navy Yard
Grand Central Station
Madison Square Garden
Times Square
Trinity Church
Wall Street

Have a look and enjoy.

I am walking down a street in a neighborhood, happy with the smells of early summer and the sounds of children playing, dogs barking, and birds chirping.  One of life’s many simple pleasures for the healthy and ambulatory.  Up ahead I see four people in conversation. There is a young man and woman of the same age attended by an elderly woman standing slightly behind and to the side of them.  They are facing a second man.  As I move closer I can tell the man and woman are having a disagreement with the other man.  Let’s suppose the young couple are the elderly woman’s grandson son and wife, and let’s observe how they ignore her.

The conversation continues until the man not related to her asks the elderly woman for her opinion.  There is a pause, and then like a bicyclist maneuvering over a gravelly and treacherous path, her words come forth tentatively and with effort, as much an indicator of her age as are the crevices and age spots etched into the contours of her face and hands.

My mind immediately travels back in time to a smiling young woman with a sweet, girlish voice and smooth, rosy skin.  She too is with men, but she is the center of attention and attraction and never ignored, but maybe envied.  It’s a bubble of time, a moment sealed in amber, a lesson in the fleeting nature of youth; but my visit is short and my mind hurls me back to the present. She is bone thin and ancient.  Her skin sags under the weight of sorrow. There is no present for her; she lives in memories while she waits for that great debt collector time to collect its final payment.  

And I think NEVERMORE!

And I walk away in sadness.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Turtle Guts and Vulture Vomit: Worst Smells Ever?

Field biologists discuss what really grosses them out.

My Cat and the Mirror Con't.

Update:  My cat remains intrigued by the body-length mirror I placed at the top of the stairway.  Now when I'm going downstairs he races past me to stand in front of the mirror and watch me descend the stairs.  He's no longer freaked by my being in two places at the same time; he takes it as a given.  I've also caught him looking at it from different angles.  He looks like he's figuring out how much territory he can peruse by changing his angle of view.  I'm waiting for the day I catch him cleaning himself by looking in the mirror.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

So How Intelligent Are Cats?

So how smart are cats?

I put a body-length mirror at the top of the stairwell yesterday, and my cat, Romulus, is fascinated by it.  First time he saw it he stood starting into it; I think he realizes he's looking at himself and is fascinated by the idea of it.  Enthralled, his tail flips left and right in strong strokes of inquiry.  But what really got him going was when I walked up the stairs.  First my head appeared in the mirror, then my shoulders, then slowly the rest of my body as I reached the top stair.  Now I'm in front of him and behind him at the same time, and he freaks.  I never saw him display such frenetic energy as he displayed while trying to figure out what was going on.  How could I be behind him and in front of him at the same time?  Looks to me like he recognized both of us.  He would probably have quite a time of it if I took him to a hall of mirrors.  Imagine a cat looking at its reflection in a convex or concave mirror.  That tail would be working overtime.

I've read elephants recognize themselves in mirrors, but Chimps do not.  Very disturbing to chimp fans; very pleasing to elephant fans.  (I wonder how big a mirror must be for an elephant to recognize itself close up.  I also wonder how scientists know when an animal recognizes itself in a mirror as opposed to recognizing another of its kind.  I mean how much experience do we have doing this?) Scientists who study animal cognition think this is important, but I wonder if the entire field of study isn't biased.  They seem to use human cognition as the standard against which to evaluate animal cognition (and intelligence).  If the animal does what we do, then it's smart, and if it doesn't, then it isn't. But is this how we should measure animal cognition and intelligence?  What premium has evolution placed on a cat recognizing itself in a mirror?  Does it enhance survival?  I doubt it.  Does their culture care, like ours does, how well groomed they are when looking for mates?  Besides, cats seem to have no problem grooming themselves without one.  Only we seem to need the aid of a mirror.

Would a human raised in the wild by wolves, recognize herself the first time she looked in a mirror? Cats are highly intelligent, but their intelligence is cat intelligence, not human intelligence, useful to them, not to us.  Abstraction is great if you have hands and opposable thumbs to build things with, but not so much so when you walk on four paws.  There is not one kind of intelligence -- human intelligence -- but many types of intelligences, and I wish researchers would stop comparing animal intelligence to human intelligence as if human intelligence was the standard upon which intelligence is judged.  What matters is if an animal's intelligence is sufficient or excels at surviving.  That their intelligence doesn't work like ours matters not a whit.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The History of Television -- Part II

You can read The History of Television — Part I directly below this post.

Fast forward to the 1980’s.

They say cable television was invented in 1948 or 1950, but I think they are lying.  I think that Wikipedia entry in the History of Television has been put there to test us, to see if we are paying attention, to see if we are exercising our critical analysis skills, because if cable existed in the early ‘80s I never saw it.  They must have been hiding it in some lab.  But the technology had improved in many areas.

We now had color TV — black and white had been consigned to the museum — Good Riddance — you could see the picture at night, there was no crackle in the audio, I almost never had to jiggle the antenna wire, and I no longer had to watch potato farming and Gumby on Sunday mornings. But entropy was conserved with the preachers.  Gone were the small town preachers, replaced by televangelists who were everywhere. In addition to being on TV all Sunday morning, they were on at night too.  

Televangelists practiced the old adage “Do as I say, Not as I do.”  For example, they would tell us to live the moral life and never ever have sex out of wedlock or betray someone’s trust or be greedy, while they met their mistresses in seedy motels, ripped off old ladies of their life savings, and spent it all on wine, women, and gaudy theme-park churches.  I don’t know how they managed it, but somehow they found a way to extend the collection plate through the TV screen into the living room.

But I lived in Las Vegas at the time, so it wasn’t a total loss. Vegas is pacific time, which meant football started at 9 AM and didn’t end until 2 PM.  And the one thing a televangelist cannot and better not do is mess with football.

And the TVs were bigger too, which meant the cathode ray tubes were even bigger and heavier.  Which brings me to my FRIEND.  She had just moved into her new house and needed a FRIEND or two to move a few pieces of furniture around.  So she calls me, her FRIEND, and asks me if I wouldn’t mind coming over Saturday at 10 AM to move her TV from downstairs to upstairs.  It won’t require much because her brother-in-law will be helping too, and he’s 6’ 4” tall and 250 pounds.  Remember that part about it not requiring much.  So like an idiot I say...

SURE.  I’ll be there at 10.

At 10 in the morning I walk into her new two-story duplex, meet her brother-in-law who is all of 6’ 4” and 250 lbs and more, and then look at the T.V.  Now THEY say the heaviest TV ever manufactured was 750 lbs, but THEY had obviously never come to my FRIEND's house to weigh hers.  If I had been blind I'd be swearing to this day we had lifted one of the anchors on a Nimitz class aircraft carrier.  There it sat against the wall, a piece of finely finished furniture with a 32 inch TV screen and a CRT the size of a boulder daring me to try.  If it had been a person, it would have had its fists up daring me to try.  If it had been a crab, it would have had its claws extended daring me to try.  If it had been a shark, it would have had it mouth open staring at me with those dead eyes daring me to try.

But what could I do?  I had promised.  We were FRIENDS.

Oh, and did I tell you we both — me and her brother-in-law — had bad backs.  I mean before we lifted it.

Now, I can hear you all saying, what’s the big deal?  Just slide it over to the stairs, then slide it up lifting the front end only long enough to get it over each step.

Nay, Nay!  I say. This piece of furniture was finely finished furniture, which is to say it had legs — fragile, delicate, diaphanous, wood-carved legs.  Which is to say we had to lift it up the entire flight of stairs.  And these weren’t one of those stairways that have a landing halfway up where you can put the TV down and rest.  No, this stairway was one long stairway.  The kind of stairway that says, don’t bring anything heavy up here.

Now, I was pretty cocky back then and therefore undeterred.  Although I was only i75 pounds, I could bench press 300, and so I figured I was going to show this TV a thing or two.  But you know what I learned?  I learned that bench presses don’t help you lift squat.  Squats help you lift squat, and I’d never squatted a day in my life.  Nor had I done any deadlifts. 

But we managed to lift and carry the TV from hell all the way to the foot of the stairs, then set it down and nurse our backs and rest.  We procrastinated for about a half hour more out of dread of what was to come than out of any real need to rest.  But you can only procrastinate for so long.

Then we did the impossible.  We got it upstairs somehow, both of us the worse for the effort.  He took the lead while I took up the rear, our bad backs bent over the entire way.  I almost fell down the stairs twice when he pushed instead of pulled, and he almost fell back twice when I pushed when he wasn’t expecting it.  Both of us screamed for mercy and God’s help all the way up, while she — my FRIEND — screamed the entire time at both of us to be careful and to stop banging it into the wall.

Lucky for us, the anchor fit through her bedroom door.  I say lucky because none of us geniuses bothered to measure the entryway width before carrying this … this … this thing up. I wonder what it would have been like lifting this finely finished piece of furniture at a 45-degree angle to the door to jigger the
fragile, delicate, diaphanous, wood-carved legs around the door frame.
Once we got the boulder through the door and plopped it down in front of her bed, we collapsed onto the floor gasping for breath and worrying if our backs would ever be the same.  While we were recovering, my FRIEND assessed the lay of the land.  She stepped back a distance to the left toward me looking at the TV all the while nodding and tapping her foot on the floor saying hummm.  Then she walked all the way over to the right toward him looking at the TV all the while nodding and tapping her foot on the floor saying humm.  Then she stood in front of the TV all the while nodding and tapping her foot on the floor saying Humm.  Then after a pregnant pause she said . . .



Both of us got up, walked downstairs, and left without saying a word.  I don’t know about him. He was her brother-in-law and I guess was stuck with her.  Me?  She was no longer my FRIEND.  But I did start doing heavy squats the next day.

The moral of the story:  If you want to keep your friends, don’t ask them to help you move.


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The History of Television — Part 1


When I was a young shaver, we didn't have TV until my aunt gave us hers. It had a six inch screen with vacuum tubes. The electronics sat in a tray and took up more space than the cathode ray tube. (Which is saying something given the size of cathode ray tubes at the time, even one with a six inch screen).  You'd turn it on and wait and wait and wait while the vacuum tubes “warmed up,” what ever that means. If today's standards applied then, you would be on the phone with the cable company before the picture displayed. 

The TV sat inside this massive piece of furniture that looked a lot like a cabinet but was wider than it was tall, yet stood as tall as I did, an eight-year-old boy. The thing weighed a ton and took 4 guys to carry into the house.  I’m convinced with the slightest assistance it would have plowed through the floors to the basement. The six-inch screen looked ridiculous overwhelmed as it was by the size of the cabinet.  All that for this?

The collective cultural lie was these TV’s displayed a picture in black and white.  What they really displayed were shades of gray. The contrast was terrible. You had to plant yourself six inches in front of the six-inch screen to see anything, and forget about night scenes.  You needed night vision goggles to see night scenes, and they weren’t invented yet.  But one did quickly get used to the snap, crackle, pop of the audio.  

And that was when the signal was good, which it often wasn’t.  Then you had to jiggle the antenna wire at the back of the TV until the reception improved, and since you can’t see the picture while behind the TV, this task quickly became a family endeavor.  My mom, dad, and brother would sit in front of the TV and guide me while I jiggled the wire.

Dad:  No, no, twist it more to the left.  No, that’s not working.  Try to the right.  Better, better.  A little more. No! NO.! Too far, back a little. Slowly, slower.  STOP!  That’s it. Right there.  Don’t move it.

But sometimes the picture would only get better while I held the wire.  Which let to … 

Dad:  STOP!  That’s it. Right there.  Don’t move!  EVER!

That’s right.  I got to kneel behind the TV holding the wire while the rest of the family watched the Lone Ranger.

Me:  Dad, what’s happening now?

Dad:  The Lone Ranger has cornered bad guys.

The sound of shooting.

Me.  What’s happening? What’s happening?  Is the Lone Ranger okay?

He’s fine son.  He just shot the guns out of the hands of the bad guys.

Back then bad guys wore black hats, good guys wore white hats, and the good guys shot the guns out of the bad guys’ hands. Seven guns shot out of the hands of seven bad guys with a six-shooter. Boy, the Lone Ranger was good.

In an act of pure desperation borne out of addiction, my mom once made my dad climb a ladder to the roof to jiggle the antenna until the picture was better.  Later we purchased a smaller TV (larger screen) with a rabbit-ear antenna.  I have pictures of me holding that antenna while the family watched the show.

And the TV would stop working regularly. For the longest time I thought the TV repairman was a close relative who visited often.  I still remember the crackle of the vacuum tubes as he worked on them. I was told never to go near the TV while the repairman worked on it.  The electricity might arc though the air and shock me.  So who was this repairman?  Was he secretly superman — the man of steel, impervious to electric shock?
But it was a novelty watching Hop Along Cassidy and the Lone Ranger, minus the night scenes, of course.  But not Sunday mornings.  Unlike today, back then we had 4 or 5 channels to choose from, and Sunday was a day of rest for broadcast companies.  I would wake early on Sunday to a farmer harvesting potatoes, two preachers on different channels, and Gumby, a clay-like animated character. I take my hat off to the person who took all those still photos moving Gumby only slightly between each one to simulate movement. 

These were all good reasons — the lousy reception, lousy contrast, lousy program selection, and the antenna, including its extension, me — for going back to your room and picking up a book.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Devil’s Slide, Utah

This is an old photo of Devil's Slide taken in 1873 or 1874.  Pretty neat, huh? Take a close look at the train. Right behind the engine is what looks like a coal bin and may be part of the engine platform. That makes sense because you would have to keep shoveling coal to keep producing steam. Following the coal car is what looks like the train personnel's living quarters. It has windows. Wish the caboose was in frame. Imagine living and working on a train as it traveled across mountains and valleys.  A very different life.  I wish I could do this just once.

That trough-like (for lack of a better word) object descending and scarring the mountainside looks manmade. But it might be the Slide referred to. If so, does that mean its nature's creation? To me it looks manmade, and if so, it's probably a conduit for water and ugly contaminants that would otherwise flood mine shafts and miners. Wouldn't go in the water.  Ugly, and the water is probably unhealthy, even toxic.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Books of a Different Kind: 1

Books of a Different Kind: 1

Knitting With Dog Hair

First, disclosure: I haven’t read this book, and I won’t.  My excuse is I can’t knit, and even if I could I don’t have a spinning machine.  Nor do I want to make one.  (Yes, the book includes instructions for building a spinner.) Personally I think this takes recycling a bit too far.  But for those who are interested …

The complete title is Knitting With Dog Hair: Better a Sweater From A Dog You Know and Love Than From A Sheep You’ll Never Meet.  So there you have it, the reason -- intimacy -- a way of taking Fido with you to places where Fido is not welcome.  

At 112 pages, it packs a lot of information and includes chapters and sections on

Chap. 1: Why a Dog (What Will the Neighbors Say)  

Chap 2: Collecting the Raw Material (How Much is Enough & Storing the Harvest)

Chap 4: Spinning the Yarn (Making a Drop Spindle)

Chap: 8: Projects (Golden Retriever Scarf)

Chap. 10 Spinner’s Guide to Dog Breeds

This is all sounding too much like work.  But on the positive side, with some experience you can get a job shorning sheep the next time a shorning sheep job opens up. 

There is even a section on allergies, which begs the question: Why would you own a dog if you're allergic to its fur?  Or do you intend to knock on your neighbor’s door with shears and garbage bag in hand and ask if you can shave Spot?

Indeed, what will the neighbors say?  I'm interested in what that section has to say.  Out of context ( or maybe in context) this all sounds a bit psychopathic.  What do you say when a friend says they like your scarf?  Where did you get it?  "Oh, I made it myself from Rover's fur."  Make sure you add that, no, you did't skin him.  Rover is still happily with us.  He just shivers during the winter months but feels so much better during the summer. Friends?  What friends?  

And all this for only $97.99 on Amazon. If you can afford the book, you can afford to buy a scarf.  Maybe more than one.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Guns, Cars, and the State of Georgia

Liquid Assets in the state of Georgia


No, this isn’t one of those SAT or IQ test questions where you are asked to pick the one that doesn’t belong.  A gun is actually a liquid asset in Georgia. 

This would be a SAT or IQ test question in the state of Georgia. 


Cars are definitely not a liquid asset in Georgia.

Let me explain.

When my brother and I sold our parent’s home in Georgia, we had to do two things before turning the house over to the buyer: get rid of the car in the garage and the guns in the house.  So my brother and I made the 650 mile drive down the freeway, me driving and both of us eating potato chips and Rancho flavored Doritos.

In the garage sat my dad’s 1989 Buick Electra, a total of 32,000 miles on it.  My dad getting on in years, and never a good driver, parked it there 10 years ago where it sat till this day.  It had sat there for so long, it had settled with the house.  The tires were flat, the gasoline in the tank was 10-years old, and the battery defied every charger we tried.

And we couldn’t find the title.  

Still, how much of a problem can this be?  People sell or otherwise get rid of clunkers everyday.  Charities always take clunkers.  All we need to do is find the title or take the death certificate down to the DMV and get a new one.  

Right?  What could go wrong?

Somewhere in a 3,700 sq. ft. house withering under the weight of years of collected junk resides one title for a 1989 Buick Electra with 32,000 miles on it, but we can't find it.  It might as well be buried at sea.  So down to the Georgia Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) we drive with death certificate in hand.  

There are no parking spaces at the DMV.  It’s early voting season, and people in Georgia vote at the DMV.  The line is long, very long, and everyone came in their own car.  We circle the parking lot in a holding pattern waiting for an empty terminal to taxi into.  A half hour later we swoop in and nab a space and enter the DMV.  Hallways are clogged with people, but they are all here to vote.   Not a single customer is in the Title and Tags Department, so we walk right up to a clerk, hand her the death certificate, and request a title in my name.  

Clerk: No problem.  I need your driver’s license.

I hand her my Maryland driver’s license, and my brother hands her his New York driver’s License.

Clerk:  Oh, you’re both from out of state?

Brother:  Is that a problem?

Clerk: No, but we will need proof of out of state residence.

Me:  Well, you have our driver’s licenses.  Our addresses are on it.

Clerk:  Sorry, but that’s not good enough.  We need additional proof.

There was a time not too long ago when you needed a certified copy of your birth certificate to get a driver’s license.  Now it’s insufficient proof you live where it says you live.

The clerk whips out a pre-printed form of acceptable documents and places check marks next to the ones that will serve as proof of out of state residence.  Documents like Income Tax Receipts, what ever they are.  I have been filing tax returns for a very long time, and I don't recall ever receiving a receipt for one.  You just pray and hope it didn't get lost in the mail.

Me: We have none of these documents with us and we are from out of town.  They are in Maryland and New York.  

Clerk:  Yeah.  This is Georgia.  Next!

Back at the house our realtor calls, and my brother suggests we take her down to DMV and put the title in her name.  She lives in Georgia.  She agrees to try it, and while we wait for her to arrive my brother finds one of the guns hidden in his bedroom.  It’s 38 magnum long barrel revolver — beautiful.  We drive to the gun store, find a space right away — no voting at a gun store — walk up to the counter, and talk to the clerk who is the store owner.

Brother:  How much will you give me for this?

Gunstore Owner: 500 dollars.

Brother: Deal.

Me:  Wait! Don’t you need proof he owns the gun?

Owner:  Nope.  This is Georgia.  In Georgia you don’t have to register a handgun, nor do you have to prove ownership.  Here, possession is 100% of the law.  Just bring it in and we’ll give you cash.

Brother:  Yeah, this is Georgia.

With 500 more dollars than we had before, we head back to our house, stuff our realtor into the backseat, and skedaddle back to the DMV where the voting line is now further down the block and parking takes even longer.  We enter into another holding pattern circling the parking lot.  56 minutes later we park and enter the Tags and Title Department, which is once again devoid of customers.  We sit down, and I explain what we want to do.

Me:  Since being out of state is such a problem, we want to put the title in our realtor’s name.  See, this is our realtor.  Say hello to our realtor.

Clerk:  Hi.  Are you a relative?

Realtor: No.

Clerk:  Sorry, you must be a relative.  This is Georgia.

Realtor:  We could tow it and abandon it somewhere.

Me: No.  

Desperate Me:  Why won’t you accept a power or gas bill?

Clerk:  We will.

Me: Why aren’t utility bills listed on the document sheet?

Clerk: Shrug.

This is Georgia.

Me:  Hey, all I need is a computer with access to internet.  I can download my latest power bill.

Realtor:  We can do it at my office.

We head back to our house where my brother finds another handgun.  We head back to the gun shop where there are plenty of spaces, and my brother sells this one for 300 dollars.  Again, no questions asked.

This is Georgia.

We print my power bill at my realtor’s office then head back to DMV where the line is still longer.  One hour later we enter a very empty Tags and Title Department with power bill in hand.

Clerk:  Okay, the title will be issued in your name (mine).  You should receive it in the mail in about three weeks.

Eeck!!!  I have to have it removed from garage by Friday.

Realtor:  Not a problem.  I know two guys who will buy the car for 200 dollars and remove it from the garage tomorrow.  You will have to mail the title to them as soon as you receive it.

Me:  Deal.

Next day at the house, while waiting for the buyers, my brother finds yet another gun.  I’m beginning to believe my parants lived in an armed encampment.  Back to the gun shop where he sells this one for 100 dollars.    Perhaps it would have been easier to have bribed the clerk with a gun.  It’s legal.  Giving her the gun, I mean.  But give her a car without title?  Jail time.

The buyers of the car arrive and can’t start the car.  None of their equipment works, so they call AAA.  When AAA arrives the guy uses his super-duper charger, and the car starts right up.  They fill the tires with air, back the car out of the driveway, and drive away.  10-year-old gas, 10-year-old tires, 10-year-old battery, and they drive the car away under its own power.  I could have sold the car for a thousand dollars.

So, in Georgia buy a gun not a car.  In a pinch for money, it’s much easier to sell a gun than a car.

Oh, and my brother found one more gun before we left. 

Monday, January 30, 2017

Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart

Earth Abides is a Science Fiction Classic, a post-apocalyptic (not dystopian) novel written in 1949. Isherwood, Ish for short, is living in a bungalow in the desert doing research for his thesis when he is bit by a rattlesnake while picking up an abandoned hammer he finds in the sand. When Ish recovers from the bite, many weeks later, he learns that something like 99% of the world's population has succumbed to a flu-like plague. He returns to his parent's home, but they are nowhere to be found, and neither is anyone else in the neighborhood. Strangely, almost everyone is buried. There are survivors, but they are few and far between, individual grains of sand spread across the countryside and cities. Eventually Ish hooks up with several other survivors and the Tribe is born.

I've heard great things about this book from fellow Science Fiction lovers, and there is certainly plenty to chew on here as Stewart puts the tribe through its paces, but I had trouble with the story from the beginning. First, character development is sparse, and the interaction between characters is almost nonexistent. This story is about Ish; everyone else exists just so Ish can fret. We listen in on his thoughts as he spends too much time judging others and worrying about saving civilization from complete collapse. And that's the problem. He spends more time worrying than doing.


Hint: He fails to save civilization, and that's my second problem with the story.

The founders of the Tribe, those who survived the plague, fail to impose any structure or discipline on their society or their children. They let their kids do pretty much whatever they want to do rather than insist they learn to read and write, learn to raid libraries for books containing general, practical knowledge, and learn to do useful trades and crafts. There is a carpenter in the tribe, and Ish knows some medicine, yet neither takes on an apprentice. Can you believe that? So eventually all knowledge is lost. I consider this a crime against humanity. Being a noble savage sounds good, maybe even fun, but you die young and often in pain. How many teeth will rot out of young mouths, and how many lives will be lost to pathogens and parasites that did not have to be lost if only the founders had insisted on their children attending home school?

But don't listen to me. I guarantee you my reaction and review is in the minority. People love this book, and maybe you should read it too. After all, it is part of Science Fiction's canon. And to be fair, Stewart does do a good job presenting the life-and-death cycle of man the species, and as the closing line says, man comes and goes but the Earth Abides.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Plastic ... or ... Not

Is there a philosophy of plastic bags?  Their use?  The nature of their being?  What one can know about plastic bags?  The ethics of plastic bagging?  I would not have thought so, but there is a convenience store and supermarket nearby that makes me wonder.

The convenience store, like all convenience stores, sells junk food at exorbitant prices. Yet this doesn’t stop me from going to the store every day to purchase a couple bottles of pepsi, some chips, and an ice cream or two.   The first time I ever bought something in this store that’s what I purchased.  And this is what happens:

I place my items down at the register, and the male clerk rings up each item, placing each one right back down on the counter.   I swipe my credit card, and he gives me a receipt.  

Then we stare at one another.  Waiting.

I refuse to say the obvious.  He must take the first step.  We wait.  We stare.  The line builds.  Customers are getting grumpy.  Finally, he says

Clerk: What?

Me: Bag?

Clerk: Huh?

Me I want a bag.

Clerk: A bag?

Me:  Yeah.  I want a bag.  One like those over there.  See the huge roll of plastic bags next to you?  I want one of them.  One will be sufficient.  I don’t need two.  Just because I managed to carry them all the way to the register in my hands and arms doesn’t mean I want to carry them all the way to my car in my hands and arms.  So I need a bag.  Unless, of course, you want to wait while I carry them one item at a time to my car.  

So, I get my bag.

At first I thought this was one clerk’s idiosyncratic behavior, but over time I’ve come to realize all the clerks do the same thing.  No one wants to part with a plastic bag.  There has been little but some progress over the years.  We no longer stare at one another waiting till one breaks.  Now every time I lay down multiple items at the register the clerk asks, 

Clerk:  “Want a bag?”  

Me: Yes.  Yes I do.  How thoughtful of you.  Thank you.

It’s a ritual, and neither he nor I will give in.  It’s the hesitation, the willed desire not to part with a plastic bag that has me flummoxed.  It’s as if he’s parting with a dear friend and each moment postponed is another moment together.  

I admit to getting a little mean about it.  Two days ago he stood waiting bag in hand as I approached the register, and with a mischievous twinkle in my eye, I said, “No Thanks.”  Gotta keep them on their toes.  And don’t break the ritual.

I’ve been thinking of reasons why this would be. Is this in his contract?  Do convenience store clerks have contracts?  If so, then perhaps his agent has had perks written into his contract like a professional football player has perks written into his.  If a professional football player can get an extra million for scoring X number of touchdowns in a game or Y number in a year, then perhaps a convenience store clerk can get a bonus for each time … oh, I don’t know, let’s say … each time he gives away less than 5 bags in a 30-day period.  

Now the female clerk is nothing like the male clerks.  She gets it.  Maybe she doesn’t have a contract, or maybe she does but has no perks written in to it.  I don’t know.  I only know that whenever she is working the register and I place down 15 items, she doesn’t have to even think about it.  She just scans the items and places them in a plastic bag.  Imagine that!  Intuitively she looks at all the junk on the counter and says to herself, “This man needs a bag!”  No asking if I want one.  She knows I need one. It’s the civil thing to do.  She should be manager.

My experience at supermarkets is different.  Supermarket clerks are eager to bag. Sometimes so eager that proportion becomes a problem.   Either the clerk places each item is in a separate bag, or one bag is so stuffed to full that it is double-bagged, even triple-bagged, which begs the question . . . 

And supermarkets have an odd custom when it comes to prepared foods.  By prepared food I mean cooked on site in their own kitchens.  Clerks insist on bagging hot prepared food separately.   Now I can understand keeping warm food away from ice cream, but a can of corn, a cucumber?  

This makes no sense to me.  How am I going to carry this bag separate from all my other bags in such a way that the hot never touches the not hot?  And if I should be so lucky as to do so, what about my car — I neglected to buy one with a separate hot-food compartment.  So after all the effort of keeping not-hot foods away from hot foods, I throw all the bags in the trunk, where the hot chicken touches and forever corrupts a cucumber.  Plastic bags aren’t thermoses.

They do the same thing with canned cat food.  What’s with that?  Am I weird?  Am I the only person who doesn’t care if canned cat food is packed in the same bag as human food?  What do you think you are protecting the human food from?  The cat food is secure and snug inside cans.

By the way, I have like 50,000 plastic bags at home, all waiting for a rainy day to be used.  I use them as trash bags in my car.  I also use them to … to … to?  Some are so old they may be collectors’ items.  The store names on the bag no longer exist.

And, no, I don’t save aluminum cans . . . yet.