So if you’re looking for a straightforward history that conforms neatly to the Thanksgiving story as depicted by your local elementary school kindergarten program then you might want to stay away from The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell . It’s a great book, but I’m just gonna warn you up front that it’ll upset your apple cart if you want to think of the Indians as the savages who didn’t deserve this country and you see Columbus and the pilgrims as the ones who brought civility to this land.
More than just a history Vowell frequently compares and contrasts the actions and beliefs of these early settlers to modern politics. She rarely misses an opportunity to tell how modern perceptions are wrong and even throws in quite a few digs at politicians who attempt to distort the pilgrim’s real goals and agendas. This was actually my favorite part of the book.
I found this book very eye opening. Too much of our early history has been romanticized and pretty much turned into a sacred American mythology. This book took away the nonsense and showed a much more believable account of history. Much like as in Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me it was refreshing to see our history displayed warts and all.
I listened to this book on CD. It’s narrated by the author. Sarah Vowell has a very funny voice. She played the voice of Violet Parr in The Incredibles. Many times while listening to this she made me giggle, not just because of the words, but by the funny way that she delivered them. There is also a small cast of male voices that are used to narrate quotes from male sources. Fans of The Daily Show will recognize several of them. They definitely added to the atmosphere of the CD.
I'm really getting tired of the word "epic". But only because I rarely hear it used correctly. My kids seem to think it's a synonym for “very” or “really” or just “neato”. Twenty years ago everything was “awesome”. And before that I guess it was ‘cool”. I guess I’m from the “cool” generation, which seems to have come after the “hip” generation.
Hollywood used to call movies that told the life of a historical figure an epic. Lord of the Rings is an epic. But the kids were really excited that Victoria had bought Reese's Puffs cereal. I'm sorry but there's nothing epic about that. In 1995 I went on a climbing trip to Yosemite. My partner had exaggerated his abilities and lied to me about having climbed the route we were planning on climbing before. We had to back off of a dangerous climb because he couldn't do a relatively simple technique. I ended up getting a massive sunburn after standing the whole day on the same little ledge 2000' up the rock. Then the next day we had to get rescued off another route because we made a mistake while trying to get back down off a climb. Somebody was at the base of the rock stealing our packs and we got in too much of a hurry. Then on the way home I blew the engine on my car in the middle of the Nevada desert and had to hitch-hike to the nearest city and then get a ride home to Salt Lake in a tow truck. Now that was epic. As good as Reese’s Puffs cereal is, "epic" just isn’t the right choice of words.
1. Why did you invent so many ways for things to fly? Birds, insects and bats all have very different means of flying. Wouldn't it have been more intelligent to figure out which was the most efficient method and make everything fly the same way?
2. Why do dolphin fins, bat wings, and my hands all have very similar skeletal structure? What is so intelligent about making basically the same design perform three drastically different jobs?
3. As a man what purpose do my nipples serve? Don't get me wrong. I've kind of grown used to them. I'm just curious what you had planned for me to do with them since male mammals don't lactate.
4. Why is human reproduction so ridiculously inefficient? In her life time an average human female will produce several hundred eggs and only a very small percentage will ever be fertilized. Don't get me started with human males. Millions of sperm die for every one that wins the race.
5. Would it have hurt for humans to have those cool closable nostrils like seals and otters? I've never been a very good swimmer but if I had nostrils like that I could do a lot better.
6. And speaking of seals, if they're gonna spend so much time in the water, wouldn't it have made more sense for them to have blow-holes like whales and dolphins?
7. Why did I have to have my wisdom teeth pulled? They never came in all the way and even if they had, it's not like I have to chew on sticks to get to the soft stuff in the middle.
8. Why did you design my eyeball with the rods and cones behind all the blood vessels? Wouldn't it be more intelligent to put the blood vessels behind the photo-receptive cells?
9. What's the design advantage of making me breath and eat using the same tube? Was this just your way of giving Heimlich something to invent?
10. Why did you design so many thousands of fossils that look as if life was evolving? As an engineer when I design something I sign my work. You seem to have signed your work “Evolution”.
In the spring of 1998 a friend of mine and I went down to Zion National Park and climbed a very pretty sandstoen route that was about 1000’ tall. I was recovering from leg surgery and didn’t do much if any of the leading, but I was rather proud of what we’d accomplished. This wasn’t a first ascent but it was a very nice line that took us over a day to finish. We took a fair amount of pictures because our employer, REI, wanted us to do a slide show for the customers. Several times when we could have just moved on and made better time we took extra effort to get the climb on film. The climb was particularly important to me because I would soon be moving away from Utah and back to Georgia. It was unlikely that I would get another chance like this to climb at this grade. Indeed, I haven’t climbed anything nearly that hard ever since. When we got back to Georgia we put the slides together for the presentation. I wanted some friends and family members to see what we had done. So one day when they stopped by the store I pulled them aside and gave a small private screening. After only a few shots one friend, who has a serious issue with heights, asked to be excused. I showed the rest of the slides, but it was a little bittersweet. It was clear that in order to have a relationship with this friend they had to maintain a certain level of cognitive dissonance about my hobby. Which meant that I would not be able to share this aspect of myself with them. I understand this friend’s apprehensions and I fully accept them. But at some level it saddened me. Here was something that was important to me, something that I enjoy and I had to hide it away in order to not upset them. Since this event I’ve learn about several other things that I do that upset certain people that I am close to. Don’t get too hung up on the first example. This is about much more that just the fact that I like to go climbing and caving. I have a long mental list of topics that I need to avoid cross-referenced to friends and family members. It seems that as I get older the lists just keep on growing too. So what are my choices? I can have a relationship where I personally hide nothing and stay completely open about my opinions and activities even though that makes loved ones uncomfortable. Or I can hide a few details about things that are important to me in order to not upset people, but in turn I come across as emotionally distant. Or I can not have any relationship at all with people who don’t accept me as I am. Granted there are shades of grey between each of these. Ideally I’d like to be completely honest with everybody and still not upset people. But so far I haven’t had much luck with that one. Perhaps it’s something about my personality. I don’t know. This post would not be complete without stating how grateful I am to the one person who I feel really understands and accepts me. Victoria and I disagree on many issues. And that’s great. She doesn’t need to be just an echo of my views, likes and dislikes in order for me love her and have a relationship with her. If I could only figure out how to be just as honest with the rest of the world as I am with her and not drive them away.
It’s been a few years since I’ve done a jigsaw puzzle. But last month my youngest asked me to sit down with her and work on a small one that she got for Christmas.
This puzzle was of a horse wearing a Native American blanket. We went through all of the standard techniques for building a puzzle. First I propped up the box lid so we could see the picture that it was supposed to look like when it was finished. Then we proceeded to flip all of the pieces so that the picture side is up and the raw cardboard side was down. Next I started sorting out all of the pieces that had a flat side, assuming that these would be the border pieces. Ideally, in the process we’d find the four corner pieces. Then the two of us started sorting the pieces by color, trying to group the pieces into smaller groups to work on separately; horse, sky, grass, blanket, etc.
Next came the process of assembly. Each of us would pick up a piece and try to see how it fit into other sections that we’d already assembled. I started by looking at the picture and trying to establish the border. I don’t always start with the border but it seemed to work for this puzzle. Sometimes it’s easier to start with a predominant color and try to get it together first and then work in the border later. I don’t really have a preference as to which method I choose. It just depends on the puzzle.
Eventually you’ll end up with a few sections assembled but not linked together. At this point you start looking for pieces that have a little bit of two different things on it, pieces that could conceivably go into more than one pile. The pieces with a little grass and a little bit of horse help tie those together and the pieces with the grass and sky help defiant he horizon. The “ah ha” moments of most puzzles come when you can link two large parts together with just a few small pieces or sometimes with just one. The best pieces are the ones that help tie three different chunks together. Once you’ve linked them you start looking for support pieces that also connect those chucks. Those help reinforce that your linking pieces are correct. Sometimes they disconfirm and force you to look for new ways to link the puzzle together.
At some point it seems you are always stuck with a bunch of pieces of relatively the same color and your only clue as to how they need to be assembled is to look at the shape of the pieces themselves and try to make them work.
Using these methods we were able to assemble this 200 piece puzzle in about 15 or 20 minutes. It struck me that in order to assemble it we had to make several assumptions about the puzzle.
1. The picture on the puzzle is the same as the picture on the box. I’ve put puzzles together without the box just to see how much longer it would take. If I had to guess it’d take at least twice as long. I’ve also participated in a team building exercise where the puzzle was put into the wrong box with a similar but just different enough image n the outside.
2. The pieces only have images on one side and raw cardboard on the other. I have actually done a puzzle that had images on both sides, but the stamping process made for edges that were easy to determine which side of the piece was for image one and which was for image two.
3. Flat edges are for the border. It’d be really sneaky to see a puzzle that had a jagged edge to the image and flat pieces that but up together inside the body of the puzzle.
4. The completed puzzle has no missing pieces in the body. We’ve all been in the situation where we’ve lost one piece and we just don’t feel like we’ve finished it.
5. All of the pieces have to be used. Want to really throw your head for a loop? Throw in a few pieces from another puzzle just to spice things up. I remember doing a puzzle and my grandmother’s house and having exactly that problem. She’d found a few pieces on the floor and just threw them into the first box she found.
I can think of several more assumptions that we make when we try to make sense of the scrambled pieces in front of us. But this will do to start out with.
Lately I've been working on a puzzle that seems to violate all of these assumptions. No picture on the outside of the box. No raw side to the puzzle and no obvious way to tell one side from the other. Flat edges in the middle and bumpy edges on the edges. A few holes in the main body. A few extra pieces from other puzzles. And the coup de gras of the whole puzzle is that I have a few large chunks of the puzzle that don’t even attach to each other.
Anyway, that’s my little analogy for today. I think I stopped talking about jigsaw puzzles a few paragraphs ago.
I am a space nut. As a kid I built models of the Apollo lunar landers. I was too young to remember the Apollo project first hand, but I do remember Skylab and the Apollo/Soyux missions. I even got permission from my folks to skip school and watch the first shuttle launch and landing. I also remember quite vividly the first pictures sent back from the surface of Mars by the Viking lander. I remember thinking how lucky I was to grow up in a time when the Voyager’s grand tour was even possible. I watched the first raw image returns from the Cassini missions live as they came in from Saturn in 2004. Every day I check multiple Astronomy websites and I make a conscious point to look up in the mornings as I walk to the car and see if I can locate the planets that are currently visible.
So with this introduction you might find it odd that I applaud the announcement to all but kill NASA’s manned space flight program. I don’t have a problem with manned space flight in particular. We just need to look at it honestly and objectively and see what kind of return on our investment we’ve gotten on manned space flight when compared to robotic missions.
While Voyager was taking pictures of Jupiter and all its moons Apollo Soyux was just trying to see if we could get Russians and American’s to shake hands. While Cassini Huygens was taking the best shots of Saturn ever manned missions were trying to figure out how to not burn up another shuttle during re-entry. While Mars Pathfinder more than doubles its life expectancy and continues to send back data from Mars manned missions are trying to figure out how to rescue a shuttle if tiles get damaged on the shuttle. While Hubble continues each day to amaze us with images from the extremes of the universe the ISS is trying to figure out how astronauts can process their own urine and re-drink it. I could go on and on with these examples but my only point is that while the robots are doing real research and doing a bang up job in the process the manned missions are quite literally doing little more than trying to figure out how to stay alive.
I’m not denying the political chest thumping advantage of being able to say we are the only country that has ever set foot on the moon. But let’s not deny that that’s all that it really was. The science was at best and afterthought. We only actually put one scientist up there and he was bumped up to an earlier mission when we realized that we were going to be discontinuing the program. If we feel we need to thump our chest again to show how great America is let’s do it after we’ve taken care of some issues much closer to home. But let’s just not disguise it as a scientific pursuit.
A few years ago when Constellation and Orion were announced I was more than a little annoyed. Why were we spending so much money to rebuild 70’s era technology to do something that we’d already done? So I’m actually glad that the current budget is choosing to cut it. Let Richard Branson, Burt Rutan and the rest of the private sector spend their own money to figure out how to make a toilet that functions in zero-G. Let’s invest our tax dollars into something based on science and with a cost effective return on our tax investment. The robots have proven that they can do that exponentially better than any manned mission.
A few years ago a celebrity got a DUI and while he was being arrested he slipped into an anti-Semitic rant. In his apology he acknowledged that he had an alcohol problem and blamed the anti-Semitic comments on the alcohol. I don’t believe that is how it actually works. The alcohol may have turned off some of his filtering software but the ideas were still there, inside him, just waiting to come forth once the filters were weakened. I felt then that this celebrity needed to not only address his alcohol problem but he also needs to confront what caused him to harbor those ideas in the first place. I trust him when he says he’s making good on correcting both problems. Now here’s where this post gets personal. For some reason I don’t quite understand I haven’t been getting hardly any sleep for the last week or so. I don’t feel overly worn out in the mornings. It’s just weird that I just seemed to lie around and wait for the alarm to go off. I’ve just been writing it off to having too much to worry about. Anyway a couple of times lately I’ve been a little punchy and let some comments slip that I really wish I hadn’t said. But that’s not what bothers me. Like the celebrity’s anti-Semitic comments my comments had to come from somewhere. That’s what’s bugging me. I need to go back to the drawing board on these areas of my life and re-evaluate what I value and try to figure out why those ideas were even in my head in the first place. It’s simply unacceptable to blame this on my lack of sleep. It was easy for me to criticize the celebrity and I’d be a hypocrite to try to use the same logic he did to avoid facing the real problem. I know I have quite a bit of work to do to become the person I’d like to be. This just kinda hit me out of left field and from and area that I thought I already had taken care of.