November 27, 2005

What'd he do with that baggy suit?

I wouldn't believe this if I hadn't read it on the internet. Fatboy Slim and David Byrne are teaming up to write a musical about the life of Imelda Marcos, her of the 3000 pairs of shoes. The title is Here Lies Love.


First albums are always the best-- here's part of the text of Psycho Killer from The Talking Head's first album, 77.

I can't seem to face up to the facts
I'm tense and nervous and I
Can't relax
I can't sleep 'cause my bed's on fire
Don't touch me I'm a real live wire

You start a conversation
you can't even finish it.
You're talkin' a lot, but you're not sayin' anything.
When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed.
Say something once, why say it again?

November 25, 2005

Turkey day hits!

This little project Long Burn has been puttering along for almost 10 months now. According to my records the site is up to about 12 hits a day, mainly my Mom and a brooding teenager in a basement in Skokie. Hi Mom! Yesterday, Long Burn got 114 hits. I just gotta know. Who are you? Where do you come from and who sent you? Do you come in peace? (By the way, I have started wearing a bike helmet, just like our Commander-in-Chief.)

November 23, 2005

Primate Brow Flash

I never could quite get a handle on what a 'Primate Brow Flash' was. Thinking was getting me nowhere, so I tried Google. Here's where it directed me (brow flash definition at bottom of link).

Mike Carruthers: Ever wonder where the whole idea of kissing started?

Michael Sims: Psychologists will say that it might very well have begun with "mouth to mouth" feeding between a mother and child.

The Swedish Flu

Garrison Keillor once reported that, "a lot of people have been sick in Lake Wobegon, and it could be due to the weather (which has been unusually warm). Norway is a seafaring country and if you have Norwegian blood you're happier and you operate best when you're cold, wet, and sick to your stomach. Misery is what keeps a Norwegian going, and in warm, sunny weather such as we've had, they get sick and go to pieces and get a case of Swedish flu caused by weakness on account of a lack of suffering. (Swedish flu is like Asian flu but in addition you feel it's your fault.)" Besides the personal guilt this flu is also accompanied by "an overpowering urge to put things in order. Before you collapse in bed, you iron the sheets. Before you (throw up), you plan your family's meals for the upcoming week."

I have had the flu the last 5-6 days. My wife is away at a conference. My in-laws are staying in the house helping take care of the kids. I am working at home, coughing, sneezing, trying to stare at the horizon because the deck is pitching and rolling. Its great that they are here.

Read a phrase on Real Live Preacher where he said his goal when he writes something is that reading it should be like running downhill-- you don't want to stop. Cool idea! That's why I will spare you all my poetic descriptions of having the Swedish flu.

Manganese nodules

USNS Glomar Explorer (T-AG-193) is a large ship currently being used as a deep-sea drilling platform. The vessel originated in a secret plan by the United States Central Intelligence Agency to recover a sunken Soviet submarine, K-129, as part of Project Jennifer. Because K-129 had been lost in very deep water, a massive ship would be needed for the recovery operation. Such a vessel would be easily spotted by Soviet spies, so an elaborate cover story was developed. The CIA contacted eccentric businessman Howard Hughes, who agreed to go along with the story. Hughes told the media that he was building the ship in order to extract manganese nodules from the ocean floor. The cover story became surprisingly influential, spurring many others to examine the idea.

I remember watching a TV documentary, probably by National Geographic, around 1980 and becoming fascinated with the idea of recovering manganese nodules from the deep ocean. How were the nodules formed? They were just sitting there, full of valuable ore, waiting for someone to come along and pick them up! Imagine my surprise when I found out it was all disinformation.

November 20, 2005


On this day in 1969 the Nixon administration announced a ban on the use and production of DDT.

My father-in-law is an entymologist who used lots of DDT in his day, and insists that it is perfectly harmless to humans. If you talk to him he will tell you that he once ate a pancake made using DDT instead of flour! He is 88, and in good health.

November 18, 2005

I am intrigued by efforts to categorize. For example in Neal Stephenson's book Cryptonomicum a computer programmer quips that there are two kinds of people in the world-- beards and suits. He of course was a beard. I'm a beard too, although I have been known to don a sports coat for special occassions.

Here is Eric Hoffer's effort to categorize potential converts to mass movements (his examples include fascism, communism, nationalism, armies and early christianity) from his book The True Believer:

4. The Role of the Undesirables in Human Affairs
5. The Poor
The New Poor
The Abjectly Poor
The Free Poor
The Creative Poor
The Unified Poor
6. Misfits
7. The Inordinately Selfish
8. The Ambitious Facing Unlimited Opportunities
9. Minorities
10. The Bored
11. The Sinners

I guess if you are an undesireable creative poor misfit bored sinner facing unlimited opportunites, as I once was, you'd pretty much agree to anything.

From Wikipedia's synopsis of Hoffer's work, 'mass movements appeal to the frustrated; people who are dissatisfied with their current state, but are capable of a strong belief in the future and to people who want to escape a flawed self by creating an imaginary self and joining a compact collective whole to escape themselves.'

Our Scoutmaster gave me a copy of True Believer when I was about 14 and it raised some troubling questions. Perhaps his point, as a product of the Vietnam era, was that each individual had to stand on his or her own moral feet. (But he would also tell us we had to stick together, that the group was stronger than the individual.) But is that the whole picture? Some mass movements can be good at helping people to pick themselves up. At the time I didn't get the point that Hoffer distinguishes between useful and destructive mass movements. Thanks to Tim, for recommending Cryptonomicum, a great book, and for reminding me about True Believer.

I read about one guy who didn't like all these categories-- he thought that the only category that mattered was 'human being'. He refused to be a citizen of any country or have any identity papers, and was able to travel around the world giving talks about the evils of nationalism. Apparently he could generate enough publicity so the immigration services looked the other way.

Bloom's taxonomy

Here is perhaps my favorite list: Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives.

1. Knowledge
2. Comprehension
3. Application
4. Analysis
5. Synthesis
6. Evaluation

Our High School math teacher, Christ Kristo, presented to that to us one fine fall day in 1983. I copied it onto a file card and carried it around in my wallet for years, as if it was a secret code giving access to the next level of consciousness. What he told us was that his goal was to push us to the higher levels of the progression-- to not just comprehend and apply math, but to analyse techniques and to synthesize new proofs and derivations. God bless you Mr. Kristo.

He had had an interesting life. He left Albania as a teenager, a refugee from the Nazis, and ended up teaching math to us cretins in Owatonna. His favorite color was red and he was proud to have been the first math teacher in Minnesota to introduce the 'Illinois Plan' curriculum-- math induction, vector geometry, logic, proofs. I have taken math classes at some of the world's best academies, but never learned more or had a better teacher. Once he told us that paradise for him would be to be in a quiet room with a stack of paper and a pencil, and at the tender age of 16 that was just about the most revolutionary idea I had ever heard.

November 17, 2005


The great thing about the internet is that you can find anything. Like today I thought, you know, somebody must have written some silly little program to generate haikus. Took all of 30 seconds to find out that there are 229,000 supposed haiku generators out there in cyberspace. Here's what one of them can do:

rivers quarrel, soft
ragamuffins flee moistly
forcefully, fruit rains

lemonpeel exalts
bright crafty poltergeist sobs
beehive vanishes

wintertime purrs, rude
rough ignored piglet forgets
cheaply, gingko moans

No match for Basho:

Winter rainfalls
on the cow-shed;
a cock crows.

Basho quotes:

There is nothing you can see that is not a flower; There is nothing you can think that is not the moon.

Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.

November 13, 2005

My earliest memories

(I can't say with any authority that I remember much of 1969 myself-- for 95.3 % of that year I was only 2 years old. Was that the year I caught the croup and ended up in an oxygen tent in the Polk County hospital? Was that the year that I cut off the end of my big toe in a floor fan while one of my older sisters was babysitting? Not sure really. The written record, see below, is much more reliable and at least as interesting.)


I was cleaning up in my workroom and ran across the February 1969 edition of Reader's Digest-- a fascinating time capsule. The tensions are building and unresolved.

Exhibit A: Mr. Nixon Goes to Washington by Allen Drury, page 57.

'What I want to do more than anything else,' he says, and his eyes become musing and distant, 'is to develop an appreciation in Americans for what I call 'the extra dimensions of life.' It's not enough to have peace in the world, to have safer cities, a good job, adequate medical care-- these things are necessary, but there is more to life than that. What is needed, if the nation and the individuals in it are to become and remain great, is for them to heave their eyes on the goals beyond. The satisfaction in life lies in the challenge, in the battle. It does not lie in material things....Unless this administration can produce that sense, it will have failed.'

A coworker [of Nixon's] says, 'He will sometime require as many as eight or ten drafts of a speech, scribbling his own ideas on pads of yellow notepaper, inviting us to contribute ours. But somehow, though there is lots of pulling and tugging, eventually we find ourselves dragged kicking and screaming to the way he wants it done. We lose every time!'

'Our goal cannot and must never be to fource our way of life on others,' he states. 'But our fundamental belief that every nation has a right to be independent must be instilled in the new generation. And we must have a crusading zeal, not just to hold our own, but to win the battle for freedom, indivvidual dignity and true economic progress.'

Exhibit B: In Vietnam, the Enemy is Beaten by Adm. John S. McCain, Jr., Commander in Chief, Pacific, page 75.

We have the enemy licked now. He is beaten. We have the initiative in all areas. The enemy cannot achieve a military victory; he cannot even mount another major offensive. We are in the process of eliminating his remaining capability to threaten the security of South Vietnam. I am convinced that this is why he has come to the conference table in Paris-- to try to win there what he has failed to win on the battlefields.

Our current authorized strength is 549,500 (US), and total allied strength is about 1,400,000. This should be ample to do the job, particularly in view of the enemy's fast-deteriorating military posture.

Exhibit C: The Fastest Rich Texan Ever by Arthur M. Louis, page 131.

Probably no man in history has made so much money in so little time. A little more than six years ago a young Texan named H. Ross Perot was an IBM salesman with a few thousand dollars in the bank and an urge to start his own computer-software business. He did, and now, in the wake of a public stock offering last September, be personally has nearly a half-a-billion-dollar stake in his Dallas-based company, Electronic Data Systems Corp. At 38, Perot has become one of the richest individuals in the Unites computer lingo, 'hardware' refers to the machines themselves; 'software' to the programs and techniques for operating them...Perot's new wealth comes not from corporate earnings, however, but from the enthusiasm of investors...As every ladies' investing club knows, the public these days is wildly receptive to new stock issues, particularly from companies in the computer industry.

Exhibit D: America the (Formerly) Beautiful by James Nathan Miller, page 179.

In a headlong rush to meet the demands of our expanding population and growing economy, we are letting special interest groups lay waste our irreplaceable assets. Two main villains are involved [population and cars]. One is the incredible growth of the U.S. population, which is almost literally blotting out the land. New Jersey gives perhaps the best picture of where we are heading. Today it's the garden-apartment state with 807 people per square mile, twice the population density of India. Tomorrow? It will be the 'City of New Jersey.'...we continue to produce twice as many cars as babies and become a nation of two-car, even three-car families. To run these cars we need more oil.

Exhibit E: A condensed article from the Britannica Book of the Year 1969 entitled 'In Quest of Peace' by Lyndon Baines Johnson.

'In writing of these problems my only desire is to contribute to my successors a fuller understanding of the perspectives offered by the position of national leadership it has been my provelege to share with 36 other Americans.'

1969: The ads are half the fun

Again, the February 1969 Reader's digest.

The Advertisements
Mazola Corn Oil: At 6:04 last night, Mrs. Walter Russell started polyunsaturating her entire family
Carnation Instant Breakfast: Jogger Food.
Poligrip: Don't be a denture dropout. Holds dentures so tight, there's just no room for trouble!
The Pontiac GTO, the official car of the US Ski Team
No matter how hard you try you just can't disguise the unique taste of RITZ.
Wonder Bread, Helps build strong bodies in 12 ways! Make the most of their 'Wonder Years.'
Ken-L Ration Burger for Dogs, Because people feel the way they do about dogs, we invented Ken-L Ration Burger. It looks like people food. But it's better for dogs than hamburger is for people.

From Laughter, the Best Medicine:

Four San Franciscans have already signed up for Pan American's first flight to the moon. Pan Am figures to be ready to go in the late 1980s, plus two years in the holding pattern at Kennedy Airport.

It was a blizzardy day, and half the student body of the Mankato, Minn., high school had stayed at home. Two girls who had braved the storm were talking about the weather. Said one, 'This morning my mother told me that if there was school today, I was going, snow or not.' The other replied, 'My mother told me that I was going whether there was school or not!'

From Limericks are Jovial Things
I sat next to the duchess at tea
It was just as I feared it would be:
Her rumblings abdominal
Were truly phenomenal,
And everyone thought it was me!
-By Woodrow Wilson


Well it's 1969 okay
All across the USA
It's another year
For me and you
Another year
With nothing to do
Last year I was 21
I didn't have a lot of fun
And now I'm gonna be 22
I say oh my and a boo hoo
And now I'm gonna be 22
I say oh my and a boo hoo
--The Stooges

November 11, 2005

The advantage of being overtly psychotic

Thanks to Primate Brow Flash for showing me the website Big Dead Place, a guidebook for new Antarctic workers. Excerpts:

Science is the process of describing the universe through physical observation. Here are some things that are not science: distributing money to scientists, dispersing press releases to the media, inviting Congressmen to stay at Building 137 (that's a nice apartment for DVs, or Distinguished Visitors), and influencing your contract or your contract-completion bonus. Science is a rational approach to existence, and its true practitioners are, for lack of better words, on the right track. However, to unconditionally bestow respect on scientists is like emptying your wallet for each street musician. And to bestow respect on an agency that funds scientists is like giving your wallet to a bus driver with instructions to give it to a street musician.

The Winter Psyche Eval
1. Four out of five biologists regard psychologists as jibbering baboons, and you should too. If other scientists had their way, Psychology would not be considered a "science" at all, but would be ranked somewhere above Creationism and below Performance Art.
3. Nearly every paper worth its salt written on the selection of winter-over personnel at isolated polar bases has come to this conclusion: psychological profiling is not an accurate method of determining who will or will not successfully integrate themselves into a polar community. Questionable introverts have flourished because of their tolerance of personal idiosyncracies, and shoe-in extroverts have been shunned at bases for their relentless neediness. Psychological profiling can help weed out the claustrophobic, the hypochondriac, and the manic-depressant, but when July rolls around and the station manager with nothing to do begins peering out his office window to monitor a lonely stop sign for infractions on deserted roads, or as the winter plods on and the human resources rep begins a campaign of sexual policing, one begins to wonder whether there is as much to fear at the winter base from the overt psychotic as there is from the covert neurotic, that is, the "normal" member of society. Though apparently both of these types have no trouble passing the USAP Psyche Eval, the psychotic at least provides the community a few laughs and occasionally a little excitement to spruce up the daily grind, while the controlling neurotic is the daily grind.

If You Almost Die or Something
If you almost die or something, either at a field camp or by industrial havoc in town, people will be quite fascinated. Restrictions on 'complaining' or on 'acting all badass' may be safely discarded, within reason.

Frequent Flier Miles
You may believe that you are only going to Antarctica for one season. Though that may be true, it is not. Antarctica will pierce you in the heart, and even if you don't come back, you will think about it off and on, probably for the rest of your life. North America to New Zealand is one hell of a long round-trip, so do yourself a favor and start a frequent-flier account so that when you do come back, you will accumulate free airline tickets.

Old & new worlds, part n+1

Ole: Hey Lene, you're a maid and I'm cleaning stables. What say we move to America and farmstead a place to call home?
Lene: What the heck, beats beating rugs and emptying chamber pots.

Those with pluck and a dream moved. Those who wanted to play it safe, or who had vested interests, didn't.

There is a filthy man begging on the street. The American thinks, there but for the grace of God go I. The European thinks, immigrants.

November 09, 2005

Depression, part n+1

Real Live Preacher had a great blog about depression-- some excerpts:

Okay, this is the important part. This is why there are no heroes with depression. On the day you snap, you are just a guy who snapped. You get no credit for the weeks or months or years that you were being heroic. No one knew that you were holding all that inside. Sorry buddy, there are no bonus points for being a hero. When you snap and start yelling at your kids for no good reason, you are just a guy who yells at his kids for no good reason.

Of course, you don't want to be a guy who yells at his kids, so you start avoiding them and everyone else if you can get away with it. You begin to isolate yourself. By the time you get home from a long day of pretending that you care about things, you don't want to talk to anyone.

Your whole life becomes centered around trying not to feel bad. You will do whatever it takes to get a little relief from despair, anxiety, self-loathing, and all the other horrible things you feel. Hell yes, you'll do it. You'll do anything to feel a little better or at least to feel nothing at all.

For me, the only way to stop feeling bad was to lose myself in a movie, or a book, or the computer. So I spent less and less time with my wife and children. I was home, but I really wasn't home. I knew that they needed me, but I was willing to sacrifice my long-term happiness for short-term relief.

Here is a checklist where you can find out if you are depressed.

November 07, 2005

Late for the train, part n+1

This morning I was late for the train due to a little cycling maneuver known as chainus interruptus. Luckily I had my gloves with me so my fingers didn't get covered with the dirtiest substance known to man: gear goo. Thanks also to man's best friend, the Swiss Army Knife, in particular the bottlecap opener/screwdriver blade. But I knew that the train would be about 30 seconds late due to the late fall phenomenon of wet leaves on the tracks (its true, they really screw up trains). Sure enough, I got to the station in time to see my train pulling in, and here I sit in the quiet section, the loudest noise the tapping of keys on my laptop. The other fun thing was I got to shout at a taxi trying to make a left turn through the (my!) bike lane. The taxi-van backed down. Got to defend your space.

Up in Stockholm they have invented a device that uses a high power infrared laser to burn leaves off the tracks. Leaves are only one of the many things that can make trains late. The others include snow, rain, fog, switches, signals, power lines, other trains, left luggage, divergent rails, crew didn't show up for work, the dreaded union work slow-down, metal fatigue, and malaise. This last is a hard-to diagnose cluster of chronic ailments with a variety of indicators including shimmy, hiss, resonance and distemper.

One time the train's operating system refused to work. Another time the train stopped because they couldn't get the toilets to flush. I think I have seen it all.

November 06, 2005

Questions about what I believe

Sometimes people ask me what I believe. Some think that if a person chooses science they leave their spirit behind. Others think that if you don't go to their church, something is fishy. For the first group, there is a long and proud tradition of reading the book of nature and we do live in a rational universe. And, science is a good tool to be put to use. To the second, it seems to me that compassion comes before inquisition, in the dictionary, the heart and in the Bible. And overall, some so-called Christians make me chafe and could almost give the whole enterprise a bad name.

There was an article in the paper about a Swedish family that went on vacation to Thailand last December. It was mostly an interview with the mother. She said that to be a mother and lose a child is terrible. To lose two is unimaginable. To lose three...that just can't be found on this earth. She lost three children to the tidal wave (the middle three of five), and survived. When she talks about how her children are in heaven and they will meet again I am with her all the way, and don't you or anyone else ever say anything different. It choked me up in a way that hasn't happened in a long time to read her story.

I read something about the Russian Orthodox church which teaches that we experience things, and it is up to us to see them as a facet of God's love or whether we chose to turn away and be lonely. Similarly, there is one afterlife, and it is we who decide whether to interpret it as heaven or hell.

I don't go to church as often as I probably should but is that the only place to see the divine comedy? I am convinced that the realm of Jesus is with real life, with living.

The other part is that I just can't see the point of living if it is all a Machiavellian power game along the lines of e.g. the early 70s-- Watergate, Viet Nam. I choose to fight against that version of the nature of life and I guess that puts me in the boat with the Christians, and they are a good lot for the most part.

I've given up on the big questions like 'free will versus omnipotence' or 'true nature of man'. You are here and now, what are you going to do with the opportunity, help or hurt? For me right now, just that is all I can handle.

November 05, 2005


Longtime Burn fan F'resca asks why I am interested in the weather. Please, let me count the ways!

I think it all began when I was a tyke who liked to study old grandpappy Clarence Johanson and his barometer. (Grandpa would say, 'So, whaddya think!?' and I was flattered to have been asked. Figured I'd better start thinking so I'd have a reply next time he said that.) Clarence had been a farmer his whole life and then of course you need to follow along with weather and seasons and stuff like that. (Well of course he was also an accountant for a creamery and a soldier with the Ohio Buckeye signal corps in Belgium in WWI, but then he started farming. He was called into court once to testify against the owner of the creamery who had been skimming, as they say.) We'd drive up to Wheaton to visit-- this was after they'd sold the homestead to my uncle and moved into town. But even so that barometer hung by the door along with a few cobs of feed corn. Seemed like a magical device, full of spirals and diaphragms that were able to divine the rhythms of the skies. 'Unsteady.' 'Storm.' 'Fair.'

Part of my inheritance as a minister's son is a strong belief in the power of smalltalk and there is no better smalltalk than weather. As they say, everyone's talking about the weather but no one ever does anything about it. The weather is a link to a higher plane-- it unifies us because we all experience the same wind and rain in life, all over the globe, and it keeps us all humble. What are we in the face of a supercell? Just a little speck, a mote, pedaling or holding its jacket and parcel.


They're truly enough to drive you stark raving mad. As the Swede's say, relatives are the worst! (It has more of a rhyme in Swedish.) Loony fickle convoluted self-centered schysters to the last, myself no exception.

And, they're the only game in town! You only get one set! Love 'em or leave 'em! And I of course love my family to bits, they're really the only thing that matters.

November 03, 2005


Today I was unable to resist the call of Haiku. Apologies and here goes!

Won't you come and see
loneliness? Just one leaf
from the kiri tree.


Darkended dreams
become modern grapes of wrath
reaping a bitter wine

Thomas Grieg

the morning paper
harbinger of good and ill
- - I step over it

Dave McCroskey

November 02, 2005


I remember seeing an interview wtih Jerry Seinfeld a while back. They asked him what he was going to do now that his series had ended. He said that when you take the leash off a dog it waits still for a second, and then takes off, bounding across the grass. For some reason I feel like I am at that moment when the leash has been taken off. Am I free? What's next?

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