Archive for September, 2011

Don’t Light A Match

September 30, 2011


  Well, news from CERN has it that there are particles moving faster than the speed of light.  Sounds like a big deal given E=MC2 and all of that.  However, reading through the blogs, it seems that Einstein’s theory already allowed for neutrinos of the “Tachyonic” sort to exist always at faster than light. 

  Dang complicated though and they’d not theretofore been detected. Guess we’ll have to wait for review of the evidence to see what, if anything, new was discovered.  But don’t you wonder where this stuff comes from in the first place though?  Scientific insights I mean? Here’s what erstwhile Princeton Psych Prof Julian Jaynes had to say about it:

  “The picture of a scientist sitting down with his problems and using conscious induction and deductions is as mythical as the unicorn.  The greatest insights of mankind have come more mysteriously.  The literature is full of insights which have simply come from nowhere.*”  Said Einstein of his theory: “Suddenly the happiest thought of my life came to me”.  And “Why is it that I get my best ideas in the morning while I’m shaving?”

  Insights come when you stop thinking about the problem.  For example, years ago friends and I were encamped upon a glacier dreaming of first ascents up in the Interior Ranges of BC.  A storm set in and held us down for days.  One member of our party never left his tent and became more morose by the day.  Seriously depressed after several. 

  “We’re gonna die” he’d wail from inside his tent.  The situation wasn’t pleasant, but wasn’t that serious either.  Finally I decided to stick my head in and try to assuage his fears only to be nearly overcome with horrible odor of freeze-dried frijoles begotten methane.

  “Hey man” I said to him in recoil, “get the hell out of there and breathe some fresh air before you get really sick.  You got something muy bad goin’ on in there.  Don’t light a match.  Seriously.”  He moaned a bit, I persisted, and soon he emerged. 

   Five minutes later he was smiling.  Storm hadn’t broken, but his head was clear and he offered a few suggestions for elegant new routes of which no one had yet thought and which ended up years later with multiple stars in a guidebook.  Same here.  My best ideas always come  shazam while breathing outside air.

*From his Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind – to which I’ve previously and frequently referred.

**Gotta be honest.  I came up with some of this while perusing two books that’ll I’ll shortly wrap and give as birthday gifts:

The Courage to Create by Rollo May and Confronting the Quantum Enigma by David J. Kreiter.  And dang if, since I just bought them yesterday, I’m not going to have to go out and buy again for myself.

Sunlight and Socks

September 23, 2011


  Next time you’re trying to match a pair of dark socks and fold them up into one of those little balls, go to the trouble of holding them next to each other in direct sunlight.  Don’t be surprised if two first thought to be mates turn out not to be when smiled upon by the sun.

  Sunlight of course is a natural cause of degradation – stuff fades.  But it also is by far the best source of illumination with which to regale an object’s reflection toward perception by a visual system human or otherwise. 

  That quality is behind the motivation of some architects to go to great and expensive lengths to incorporate natural light into special spaces by means of skylights and elaborate translucent roofing systems.

Though such design elements can be problematic (leak), their effects upon objects below can be magnificent.

  Italian architect Renzo Piano established his career with series of museums exploring such possibilities with first the Menil, then Twombly* in Houston, the Beyeler in Basel, and lately the top floor of the new addition to the Art Institute in Chicago.

  Andy Sedgwick of Arup was the engineer of several of those solutions and it is his sketch of the light boxes for the Figge Art Museum that you see above.  Though rough, it is conceptually demonstrative of the finished product. 

  Their several components begin with the glass lights (panes) on top, then mechanical louvers to allow for modulation, then on the sides supplemental fluorescent tubes (cloudy days, night), and finally “stretched diffusing fabric”.  This last, in the end, turned out to be special scrim imported from France.

  Louvers opened, the finished product exudes the sort of generosity that Abbott Suger referred to during the early stages of gothic architecture as the “metaphysics of light”.  Standing below one once on a sunny summer afternoon, I looked down from Chase’s Mrs. Chase in Pink **to watch shadows of huge Midwestern cumulus roll across the floor.  Sent shivers up and down my spine.

*The light in the Twombly reminded me of a near death experience: cf 3/4/11 below.

**And Mrs Chase and I go way back: cf 4/10/09

Nice Shorts

September 16, 2011


  Just after the first of the year a twentysomething, uh, friend noticed a problem.  Performing a Lance Armstrong inspired inspection while showering he noticed a bit of topography that had not previously been there.  Uh, oh.  Oh well, probably nothing.

  Was something and it got bigger over the course of the following few months.  “Jeesh, better look into this” he thought.  “But how?” he wondered being a long way from last doctor visit and starting to get a bit nervous. 

  Tough not to think of stuff like that once your mind wraps around it.  “I don’t give a shit if I never win the Tour de France” he thought.  “But I know I don’t want my olive skewered or whatever else treatment might involve.”  Thoughts of excision came soon to his mind.  Dirt nap next.

  After calling a few friends he found himself at a clinic about which he’d been told by one who’d used it to procure allergy medicine.  “I got a lump on my leg” was all that he’d given when making the appointment.  “Right or left?”  “right”.

  Nurse guided him back to a room where he sat in wait upon one of those weird uncomfortable tables.  Door opened after a few minutes and in walked an attractive woman approximately five years his senior.  “Hi, I’m Dr. Anniston, what seems to be the problem?”

  Friend isn’t shy, but for a moment lost track of his thoughts.   “Problem with your left leg?” Doc asked.  “Not exactly.”  “Not exactly?”  Sigh.  “I noticed something in the shower a few months ago and it’s only gotten bigger”. 

  “Oh I see.  Right one I take it then?”  “Ya.”  “OK, stand up, drop your pants, and we’ll have a look.”  His attention lapsed again for a split second as he recalled the old bit regarding the wisdom of leaving home in less than perfect underwear.

  She pulled up a stool sat down and waited for clothes to hit the floor.  “Nice shorts”.  Palpated left then right then each again.  After a few moments of this she said “you’re probably ok, but we had better have an ultrasound.  Nice to meet you and we’ll be in touch with the results.”

  The procedure was done a few days later.  Was much less embarrassing.  Pants only part way down, towel covering all but the one orb.  Nonchalant technician rubbed the thing with warm gel and then gently passed a wand all around it while peering into a screen.  Didn’t say much except at the end to proffer tissue and to expect a call.

  Later that afternoon, it came: “Hi, this is Dr. Anniston.  Would you like to meet me later today?  I’m working late.”  “Uh sure, at the clinic?”  “No, 1323 Montana Santa Monica, R and D.  8:00 PM, ok?”  “Uhm OK”.  That had all transpired so quickly and he’d been taken so aback that he didn’t ask any questions.  He was terrified.  “R and D, that can’t be good” he thought.  On the drive over he debated whether or not to call friends or folks.  Decided against it. 

  Everything was ablur and it was too dark to read addresses anyway.  He parked the car in a spot he knew had to be close and made his way.  Heart racing three times his resting pulse, he almost got hit in a cross walk. 

  Found the place and went in.  There were lots of people.  It was a bar*.  Doc walks up, big smile, hot pink low cut wrap around dress.  “Call me Andrea and let’s have some drinks.  “You’re fine and I thought it’d be fun to celebrate!”


**coincidentally, “friend” did some design work for men’s grooming products company Axe some of which are depicted in advertisement below.





Think With Your Hands

September 9, 2011


  OK, the other day I was near a bookstore in its final death throes, having been killed by the internet, Amazon, et al.  Sign said “80% off” so I decided to go in and see if there was anything interesting left.  There was!  Edward Tufte’s Visual Explanations – Images and Quantities, Evidence, and Narrative. 

  The Boston Globe calls the book “A Visual Strunk and White”.  The New York Times calls Tufte: “The Leonardo of Data”.  No understatements.  With wit, verve, and beauty the author convincingly shows how good design matters.

  One of many cases in point.  We learn that it was poor design that allowed the Space Shuttle Challenger to explode, and I’m not referring to the engineering of the Shuttle or its launch vehicle themselves, but rather that of charts engineers used the day before the launch in an unsuccessful attempt to convince NASA that an explosion was likely.

  The physical problem was that the cold temperatures predicted for launch date would attenuate the resilience of critical rubber o-rings allowing propellant to escape and conflagrate.  The chart below is but one of several holding data describing the danger.  Of their many faults Tufte cites inadvertent visual dissembling: “Chartjunk”. In contrast “Good design brings absolute attention to data”.

  Then he recounts the famous experiment undertaken by the Nobel Prizewinning Physicist Richard Feynman in front of the commission investigating the accident.  Using a small c-clamp he’d brought with him, he squeezed an o-ring and put it in a glass of ice water for a few moments.

  As he removed and released the bit of rubber, it became immediately apparent that the cold kept it from springing back.  “I believe that has some significance for our problem”.  The utter clarity of his presentation and his deadpan understatement blew the minds of the masses who saw it on TV or read about it in the printed press.

  “Never have so many viewed a single physics experiment.  As Freeman Dyson rhapsodized:  “The public saw with their own eyes how science is done, how a great scientist thinks with his hands, how nature gives a clear answer when a scientist asks her a clear question.”

  So, now, my questions are first: Without shelves loaded with books in a store through which to meander, how will one be able to occasion such moments of serendipitous edification?  Seriously.  And more important (again) what will the internet do to the potential for the development of great minds that “think with their hands”? 

  Here’s a response to question #2.  Reformed nerd Nick Carr has written a Pulitzer nominated book, The Shallows, What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains and penned an article for The Atlantic titled “Is Google Making us Stupid?”  Slate called his work “Silent Spring for the literary mind”.        

  Carr believes that “…there’s legitimate reason to be fearful.  I’m just suggesting that data technology is becoming so dominant that we’re losing the opportunity and the encouragement to engage in what I think is the highest form of thought.”*

  I’m gonna get some sort of grip exerciser. 

*”The Reluctant Luddite.  Nicholas Carr is a Net user of the first order, but he believes his brain is paying for it.”  Article by Dirk Olin in the Sept/Oct ’11 Dartmouth Alumni Review.


Lincoln Cafe

September 2, 2011


  Henry Adams wrote about visiting Chartres, the magnificent gothic cathedral rising from the plains of central France: “For a first visit, choose some pleasant morning when the lights are soft, for one wants to be welcome, and the cathedral has moods…”*  I thought of that last weekend as I drove into Mt. Vernon, Iowa for dinner at the Lincoln Café. 

  It was obviously late in the afternoon not morning, but the quality of the light bathing the limestone bits of Cornell College protruding above the trees in the distance was similar to what it would have been twelve hours earlier. 

  Numinous.  And that sight, at the end of a ninety minute drive through Midwestern verdant fertility, was both perfect denouement as well as a cerebretory set of stage.  The Lincoln Café is no ordinary restaurant and to arrive with a mixed up everday mind would diminish the experience and you’d never know what you’d missed.

  It’s marked by an unassuming main street storefront and, well, is equally spare neutral inside.  No distractions – food’s the thing.  Be on time.  No reservations.  We were the first there at 4:45.  Nice looking lady with white templed glasses looked through the glass part of the door, unlocked, and then opened at 5:00 sharp.  All tables filled by 5:05.  Another seating’s worth of uninitiates turned away.

  There’s a menu and the burgers that walked by looked good and I’ll probably try one someday, but the stuff on the chalkboard was that for which we’d traveled.  One appetizer.  Three main course selections.  Three deserts.  All ingredients nearby local fresh.  Frequent minor changes due to short supply chain.  Major overhaul about every ten days.

  We did start by sharing the House Braunsweiger, shaved onion, mayo, and butter lettuce.  My thirty four years of wedded bliss that day wife had for her main course: Roasted Organic Chicken with avocado crema, masa cakes, peanut truffle jus, wilted local lettuce, soft egg, and blue lake beans.

  Me? I had Overnight Heritage Pork Belly, local peaches, sweet corn,  black pepper fiddle faddle, and dried cornbread cubes.    Let me put it like this:  There is just enough of each of those bits on the plate about for which your senses to marvel and to which the rest plays counterpoint.  And be assured, while complex, it is joyful music in a major key with utensils playing percussion.

  Desert? Yep. We chose to share the Toasted Walnut Cake, with vanilla infused local peach, and balsamic vinegar ice cream.  Wow.  The walnuts sang above the din in baritone, the peach with sultry languor, and the ice cream rang with OMG pizzazz. 

  No booze.  So either bring your own or buy from their nearby wine bar and save corkage fee.  We brought a bottle of a Sonoma white Rhone blend for which daughter had been winemaker and a Napa Cabernet which we’d bought upon birth of other daughter.

  Total investment?  Would have been less than you’d spend at most places that serve heaping platters of continental paper mache – especially if you bring your own grape juice.  To our surprise though, this fine repas was free.  Our three kids had called ahead!

*Henry Adams, Mont-St-Michel and Chartres, 1904

**Lincoln Café website: