March 30, 2008

Two sides of the coin

I just read the latest comments on the first Rebellion entry.

Visual Proof of the Existence of Santa Claus.

With deepest respect to everyone involved, God bless the readers of Long Burn. A sincere thanks that you're all here. Someday we will put our feet up on a big stone fireplace in a cabin up north and talk about the fish we caught and the ones that got away.

Søren Kierkegaard: Doubt is an essential element of faith. To believe or have faith that God exists, without having doubted God's existence or goodness, would not be a faith worth having. To have faith is at the same time to have doubt. The doubt is the rational part of your thoughts, without which faith would have no substance. The leap to faith transcends rationality in favor of something uncanny: faith.

These people who try to prove God's existence have missed the point.

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Socially conservative fiscal liberals

Thanks to Mellow Velo for this figure showing the budget deficit through time.

March 29, 2008

Snow Photos

The new bike shelter. We are stockpiling bricks for the CGS.

Biking to work. Not the right kind of snow for tongues.


Rebellion III

If rebellion means doing things differently, breaking patterns, then sure, I have plenty rebelled.

1. When I was three and a half our family drive from MN to AK, five kids in a Ford station wagon pulling a camper trailer. I refused to eat pink fish. One sister thought I enjoyed hearing her read comic books backwards and I asked her to stop.
2. In High School we got good at climbing things, like buildings and water towers. From the top of the water tower out at West Hills you can see all they way to Medford. Once we found an access hatch through the roof of Owatonna High School where you could drop down into the janitor's tool closet/break room. Simply being there in the dark school hallway at midnight was all that was required. Another time we got into the school around five on the morning of December 8, 1983, and covered the halls with posters wishing Jim Morrison a happy 40th birthday. Principal Souter asked me to take them down by the end of the day. We were not punished and I think Jean Kaplan was impressed.
2a. For years two of my siblings have tried to get me to admit that I glued letters onto a street sign so it would read 'Van Halen Ave.' instead of 'Van Buren Ave.'. Yes, it was me.
3. Once in Stockholm they gathered all the Fulbright scholars to meet the former Prime Minister of Sweden and they told us how to dress-- ties and jackets for the guys. I made a point of just wearing a shirt. Who did that guy think he was anyway, the Prime Minister!?
4. When I started at the University I had a teaching mentor and he and some other brass attended one of my lectures in atmospheric chemistry to evaluate my teaching, and it was related to whether my job would become permanent. I was told in advance to be sure to do a good job. I refused to give a normal lecture and instead had an hour long discussion with the students about the atmospheres of Mars and Venus, driven by student questions. I prepared by reading everything I could find about these planets. I was annoyed that these guys would even think of trying to evaluate my teaching. What was I thinking and couldn't I have just done what they expected?

These days.
1. I live in a far away place among people who have a different word for everything.
2. I drive as little as possible.
3. For a time there Dad was hinting broadly that I could choose to go into the ministry. I did not, but I subvert people to the cause when I get the chance. Keywords: kindness, respect, humility, dignity, listening and being open to opportunities.
4. I am not a regular churchgoer (I did celebrate my 40th birthday by going to Lutheran High Mass) but I don't think that's what counts. How often do Jesus' acts take place in church? Rather, living is where it counts. I am never going to whack anybody over the head with religion like happened to me a few times growing up. (To be clear, Dad never whacked me over the head. OK, he did, physically, but only in jest.)
5. Being the youngest kid by a good stretch (my four siblings had left their teens when I started mine), growing up I was in the minority, the exception, an outsider, powerless against the group will. So I know how power can be abused and avoid it at every turn. I have taken that Question Authority button to heart.
6. I am usually pretty suspicious of things (at least my wife says I am) and like to think them through for myself. For example I was suspicious of this idea of 'trying on different masks' because masks are superficial. I have a feeling that I have always been me, a constant kernel invariant in time, showing up at different places, like whacking a piñata in kindergarten or listening to tapes in the Lincoln Elementary media center or improvising an anchor-- always an oiled slab of decency between two slices of whole grained looking elsewhere. I can't put my finger on a time when I thought, Oh my, that was a useful mask I will have to use again. Rather, it is just me who shows up. Shows up to give lectures, shows up at school meetings, faculty meetings, at the dinner table. That's mostly what I do these days, show up. It's just like Dad told me once, 'Sometimes all you have to do is show up.'
7. Being the youngest kid I always got things explained to me by just about everyone. They say that what you lacked as a kid you can never get enough of as an adult. So I can spend hours and hours explaining things to others.


March 26, 2008

Rebellion II

Thanks to MacGyver5 for this comment:

To remain fresh, a person must create constant personal rebellion against things that have become flat or stale in one's life. Growth can slow or stop if this does not happen. I feel that the rebellion of Jesus against the status quo of his day was not conservative, but radical.

My own situation is that in order to rebel in the house I grew up in I would have had to have become a Reaganite and I didn't have that in me. My four older siblings had said and done everything imaginable by the time I was a teen; my folks had seen all the masks. In fifth grade one of my sisters gave me a button, 'Challenge Authority', that I wore proudly on my winter coat. Is it rebellion if you are expected to rebel?


Time travel

The following is from a New York Times article 'What Created This Monster?' that details how decades of deregulation have brought us back to 1929:

For example, in the old system, savers had federally insured deposits in tightly regulated savings banks, and banks used that money to make home loans. Over time, however, this was partly replaced by a system in which savers put their money in funds that bought asset-backed commercial paper from special investment vehicles that bought collateralized debt obligations created from securitized mortgages — with nary a regulator in sight.


March 24, 2008

White Easter

We had a green Christmas this year and a somewhat white Easter. My in-laws were visiting, and I could spend spare moments reading Glenn's New Complete Bicycle Manual. This book has answered all my questions and I give it five stars out of five. Equipped with new and useful facts I set to work on our family's four bicycles. It took three and a half days and many rags to adjust cups and cones, clean chains, replace brake pads and lubricate everything in sight. I remodeled the workroom a few months ago for bikes and can report that I wish I had more space. I finished my weekend bike repair jag by putting new training wheels and a new inner tube on A's bike.

While going through my own bike I found that the grease in the front bearing was so dirty and dry that I could lift it out with tweezers. Glenn's allowed me to disassemble the bearing, clean it, pack with grease, replace bearings and adjust the cones to give a smooth ride. I chickened out and did NOT replace the lubricant in my Shimano Nexus Inter4 internal gear hub, after reading in Glenn's and Sheldon Brown's Most Excellent Bike Mechanics Website that the two main reasons for failure in these otherwise sturdy and dependable hubs are people who take them apart, and people who use the wrong lubricant. I am hoping that by cleaning the filth off the external cable levers and by cleaning the cables that the hub will work better in cold weather, like we'll be having this next week; the winds are in retrograde giving us Arctic air from Siberia.

You can learn a lot about a person by cleaning and adjusting their bike. For example the weekend's project confirmed my suspicions that my wife spends more time riding off-road, through dirt, sand and leaves, than our 11-year old son.

Today is our 18th wedding anniversary. It was an unusually early and warm spring that year, as our best man can attest. Today I gave my wife a miniature orchid (she has so many orchids that there's no space for a normal sized one) and some roses, and she gave me a bicycle computer, which I have always wanted but would never buy for myself.

While talking with my in-laws, I figured out how to build a lego car driven by a battery and motor. I excused myself and built this:

It was an instant hit with the kids. We also got some time to play with the electronics experiment kit and build a telegraph and an electrical motor (see below). My son sent a message in Morse code: 'Can I play computer games?' 'Eat your food' I replied.


March 20, 2008


Recently three men were arrested in Denmark for plotting to kill a cartoonist who had drawn pictures of the Prophet. The cartoonist has now gone underground and his wife lost her job at a day care because parents were worried about their children's safety. In order to show their solidarity with the artist, 17 newspapers decided to re-print the cartoons. This has led to a new round of protests against Denmark in the Muslim world. Egypt (which was recently condemned by the European Parliament for its human rights abuses) accused Denmark of violating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, essentially of being racist.

A Danish newspaper editor commented, “It was not about mocking a minority but a religious figure, the Prophet, so it was blasphemy, not racism. The idea of challenging religious authority led to liberal democracy, whereas the singling out of minorities, as minorities, led to Nazism and the persecution of the bourgeoisie in Russia. So this distinction is crucial to understand.”

(And religion has had a good healthy life in liberal democracies.)

Hear hear. Challenging authority. My parents have asked a couple of leading questions about rebellion, whether I rebelled, what it may have meant, and I am stumped as to how to reply. The direct answer is that I have never directly challenged my parents, which would have been the honorable way to go about it. Some things I did could be classified as civil disobedience. Most of my choices were deeply influenced by my folks and some were in contrast-- par for the course. I was reminded of what was common knowledge in high school-- that the kids who rebelled the most very quickly settled into conservative lives of kids and jobs. (As they say in Sweden, 'Vovve, Vila och Volvo' meaning 'Dog, House and Volvo'.) I guess I thought I would save my steam for the long haul.

Rebellion is fundamentally conservative. The Danes saved their faith and country by rebelling against the central authority of Rome. Could anyone be more British than Sid Vicious singing 'God Save the Queen'? The British Parliament has 'The Queen's Loyal Opposition' who are not loyal to the government, but to the Queen, Queen as metaphor for country, faith and way of life. The rebel has to work hard to identify what they are rebelling against and an important question is what motivates them-- I would say it is the pain of the love they have for the very thing they are rebelling against, and that the system would collapse without the critics, Vonnegut's canaries in the coal mine, our early warning system for fundamental issues.


March 19, 2008

The Chemistry of the CGS

The Primate Brow has linked seven stages of grief and the CGS. Quoting The Brow:

Here are the seven stages and how they relate to the coming global shitstorm:

1. Shock and Disbelief. Most of us visit this stage daily. For instance, I have trouble believing that we are in a decades-long war to secure oil resources, that the comfort all of us enjoy today will soon be attainable only by the super-rich, that the earth’s environment is irrecoverably ruined. The reality in front of our faces can cause frontal lobe lock if taken in large doses...

2. Denial. This is a deeply entrenched and powerful response. Most Americans spend most of their time enjoying this stage right now. Everyone is an armchair climate expert who somehow knows more than the scientists who have spent their careers studying the issue. There is a big gap between the information we have in front of us and the way we behave. Denial can cause behavior that seems to be opposite of the most logical response. Taking part in ecstatic displays of resource consumption can be comforting. This explains NASCAR. “The American Way of Life is a blessed One!”

I heard a speaker today who said that the 21st century is going to be the century of chemistry. He predicted that there will be a defining moment at mid-century when we will start paying back energy to the ecosystem. (Right now we are running an energy deficit, burning through coal, oil, gas and soil, and harvesting every possible ecosystem from the ocean to the rainforest to the amber waves.) This guy is a Professor from the top Chemistry Department in the U.S. and firmly believes that chemistry, 'Low Energy Science' as opposed to High Energy Physics, will discover a way to convert sea water and carbon dioxide into synthesis stock to feed the petrochemical octopus* using only sunlight. My friend the professor said that Bill Clinton had told him once that the 21st century was going to be the century of biology and he said, No Bill, you're wrong, it's going to be the century of chemistry. Give me a decade and I'll show you. He was optimistic because the current crisis in energy and environment is waking up politicians to chemical issues. BASF, said to be the largest company in Europe, has a new slogan: 'BASF, The Chemical Company'. Could it be that we have turned a corner and chemistry is no longer a dirty word?

*Petrochemical octopus coined in an otherwise ho-hum 2002 article in the South Atlantic Quarterly; '... the petrochemical octopus that feeds and clothes us.'


Winter arrives

We are going to have more snow for Easter than we did for Christmas:

Right now the Pacific is giving the world an anti-Nino (La Nina), resulting in a tough winter in China, Afghanistan, the Midwest and rain in California. If I am not mistaken some rain for Australia too. Northern Europe on the other hand has had the warmest winter ever-- a non-winter. At least for the next week though the tables will turn and that's OK because the freezing temperatures will kill the eggs of the killer slugs that have invaded from Spain that eat the garden in the summer. Maybe it will also drive me to change the lubricating oil in my bike's sealed hub.


March 16, 2008

The nut doesn't fall far from the tree

I had to work for a few hours today to prepare for next week. When I got home my wife and sons were hard at work in the yard going at an old stump from an apple tree. There was something seriously wrong with that tree. It made apples but they always rotted on the stem before ripening. Nonetheless the tree left one hell of a stump. My wife's chutzpa amazes me because stumping is the mother of all extreme sports. The gang of three put up a good fight and I was honored to be asked to step in. Took the axe out of the shed and found it was much duller than the shovels, which provided an opportunity to rev up the grinding wheel and let the sparks fly. Axe sharpened I went to work, chopping, digging in the mud, feet slipping. It started raining, and then hailing, no joke, and I kept at it, digging, chopping, shoes caked, periodically staggering away from the hole gasping for air. After a while I could rock the stump from side to side which helped to locate the remaining roots. In the end I lifted the stump free of the hole, victorious.

I got to work when I was a kid and I loved it. Sometimes Dad couldn't wait to get out and cut wood on a Saturday morning. We would return home with a trailer full of oak, or ash, or even cottonwood. After a week of tending to the flock there was no holding back the urge to swing an axe, and bite into a tree trunk with the McCulloch chainsaw. I always thought he was proud to go to work covered in scars and band-aids. It worries me that I may not be passing this work lust on to the next generation.

Winters, it was my job to fill the woodbox and shovel the driveway. Summers I mowed the lawn. One time I saw that the lawnmower was beating the heck out of the grass, leaving battered blades frothy with greenish pulp. I asked Dad if I could sharpen the blade, I was about 11, and it was OK, so I turned on the homemade grinding wheel in our basement which was connected to an electrical motor from the 30s by a sagging fan belt. Sharpened blade, remounted it and gave the lawn a clean buzz cut with a razor sharp edge.


On the radio

The 80s were forced to carry a wet blanket of 60s and 70s music pumped out by the radio stations. It was fair enough that the boomers were allowed to blossom, and a fine blossom it was, but Gen X'ers needed their day too. It defied the natural order that the boomers did not go to seed. You know what I mean-- growing up on the Beatles and Stones and Doors and later Lou, Niel, Jerry and the Bobs D. and M. In between Sabbath and Floyd, all of it at least a dozen years past due. You couldn't open a car door without hearing Horse with No Name, Bad Company or the Eagles. There were a few cracks in the edifice, punk of course, Van Halen, the Cars, the 'mats. Asked what his career meant, Iggy Pop said, 'I helped kill the 60s.' But punk was not available on the radio. With grunge the long national nightmare started to fade.

There is something unnatural in KQ's 'Classic Rock' format; thanks to the internet, halfway around the world you can take a trip to the leftover music of the 60s and 70s that was played in the 80s and 90s.

March 09, 2008


It was a beautiful day yesterday and we met the first hedge hog, and saw the year's first ladybug.

Crocuses are up.

I tried to tell our four-year-old that this was a space alien but he wouldn't believe me. He wouldn't believe it was rhubarb either. First he said it was a cactus and then sushi.


March 08, 2008

New Year's Resolution Broken; Yet There Is Hope

My New Year's resolution for 2008 is to ride bike farther than I drive car. Here's the stats so far:

Car: 625 miles
Bike: 510 miles
(Train: about 3000 miles)

What put me in the red is that I had to drive to work three days with lab equipment, 45 miles each way. But my goal is still within reach, I just have to keep the car in the garage and the bike between my legs. And the weather is looking up.


In May there is a 'Ride your bike to work' competition and we are recruiting velocophiles for our team, The Flying Aerosols. I didn't make the name. My role is to organize a bike-fix rally where a few of us will bring tools and rags and adjust chains and seats and spokes, and then we'll go for a ride. They have a competition to see which team bikes the farthesetand there is a lottery-- last year I won some color pencils.


March 06, 2008

Things were different then

So one time us five kids were in the back of the station wagon driving home from up north and the other four start making up Mr. Wizard episodes. My brothers and sisters were having a gay old time talking about the new color and new musical chord Mr. Wizard had invented. I'm younger than they are and I hadn't seen the show; they told me about the 50s TV program Watch Mr. Wizard that taught science to kids. I still didn't think it was funny so I went back to staring out the window.

I was just thinking about Pyrex and read about an experiment Mr. Wizard had done where he put two glass bowls on a block of dry ice. Mr. Wizard pours molten lead into the bowls and the one that isn't made of Pyrex shatters. There is a burst of fog as the lead hits the dry ice.

This experiment wouldn't work today. Starting from when it was first produced by Corning in 1915, Pyrex was made from thermal-shock-resistant borosilicate glass. In 1998 Corning spun off World Kitchen which started making Pyrex from cheaper soda-lime glass and the packaging now states that the Pyrex kitchenware must never be used over a flame, on stove tops, under a broiler, or in a toaster oven. There are reports of the new Pyrex products shattering violently, producing large sharp cutting edges.

I love the classic Pyrex products we got as wedding gifts, like a baking dish and measuring pitchers. So versatile, so durable and now, so collectable.

March 02, 2008

The Buffets

You only learn who has been swimming naked when the tide goes out -- and what we are witnessing at some of our largest financial institutions is an ugly sight.

-Warren Buffet, the Oracle of Omaha, quoted in the NYT

And who can argue with success? Warren appears to be taking over Alan Greenspan's role as the elder statesman of American finance. His brother Jimmy is moving into haute cuisine with the establishment of the Margaritaville and Cheesburger in Paradise restaurant chains.

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