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Archive for March, 2006

What was lost

March 17, 2006 12 comments

Wednesday, 15 March was my father’s birthday.  He has been gone 15 years now.  He died two months short of his 65th birthday.

I often see statistics on the number of people who die prematurely from smoking.  Let me tell you about one of them.

My father was a college professor of Information Science, taught at several universities, and authored several books in the field.  That’s the ‘one-sentence bio’ that leaves out all the important things.

On Wednesday I opened up a ‘Ronson’ lighter gift box that contained a few artifacts he left behind.  Can some essense of a man be represented by things he frequently handled?  Let’s find out:

I couldn’t guess how many generations back in our family the tradition of carrying a pocketknife goes, but he elevated it to an art form.  When he wanted to shape something, like wood, paper, cardboard, and so forth, it seemed to appear in his hand out of nowhere, with the correct blade open.

The knife you see here was his favorite model.  I say, ‘model’ because he wore out many of them – this is the surviving example.  His choice of this model was both esthetic and technical.  He could describe its graceful shape, and the purposes of its three precision hollow-ground blades in as much detail as you might care to absorb.  He knew the exact alloys of which it was made, and the kind of bone handle it had, and he kept it sharp enough to handle – no exaggeration – thousands of creative tasks. 

One summer in Maine, working from illustrations in an old National Geographic he even carved a set of accurate models of various kinds of whales – with his pocketknife.

He often worked on things too small to easily see with the unaided eye, so a magnifier was never far away.  I had one exactly like this as a child – a trick I learned from him.

Though he could operate a backhoe or a welder, his hands were at home in the workings of tiny mechanisms, audio-visual equipment, clocks, and such.  I often saw him using a dental pick to manipulate something far too small for human fingers.

One of his hobbies was restoring antique clocks.  I grew up reading from the S. LaRose catalogue.  It seemed normal to me that you could buy clock parts and movements, special tools, ultrasonic cleaning machines, and exotic lubricants.  As a child I didn’t realize that was unusual.

He also restored antique guns.  He didn’t do much shooting in The War (as a SeaBee truck driver) but he made up for it afterward.  He was a lifetime NRA member, but in the end I think he just liked guns because they are so cleverly designed. 

Another object that seemed to spring to his hand from nowhere was his Parker pen.  Any nearby piece of paper was his blackboard as he would sketch out an explanation or do arithmetic.

I remember a pack trip we once took in the mountains in Washington.  Twenty miles or so out, he took a tumble off his horse and broke his right wrist.  It was too late to go back, and to make matters worse, the other man with whom we were travelling had lost his bearings and couldn’t find the trail that led to the lake where we would camp. 

So we rode on, and my father, whose sense of direction never failed him, found the lake.  We camped peacefully that night, though I am sure he did not sleep with his broken wrist.  The next morning we rode back to town and found the hospital.  During his recovery, he learned to be ambidextrous.

I gave him this lighter – it was so slim it would fit between the cigarette pack and the cellophane.  He loved it.

Finding himself alone at 55, he began to wander.  He learned to fly a sailplane.  He filled in at various universities for professors who were on sabbatical.  He went to Malaysia to work on an Archaelogical dig.  Having written several textbooks in his professional life, he wrote a science fiction novel.

My father, Raymond Victor Wiman, Jr., PhD, was an expert photographer who believed in graphic communication long before it was fashionable.  An amateur historian, he posessed encyclopedic knowledge of the Civil War and of Native American culture.  He was endlessly creative, always fixing something in a novel way, building and inventing. 

He was more likely to spend time with the projectionist or janitor than at a faculty party, and his best friend was an engineer from Moccasin, California. He was certainly not a perfect man; his own temper was an echo of his father’s temper and his grandfather’s.  He knew this, suffered from it, but toward the end his personal demons seemed to have done enough, and backed away.  He was a religious man without the comfort of a working religion and he was most comfortable outdoors in “God’s country.”  He was not widely known outside educational media circles but was a most extraordinary human being.

And yet, he was not uncommon.  The fact is there are extraordinary people all around us; we just don’t always know about them.  I often meet people whose restless intellects and hands give the lie to any notion of a slowdown in human creativity.  They may build things, invent things, write poetry, cook, compose music, or a thousand other things. 

The cliche claims that ‘time heals all wounds’ but that is simply untrue.  As my father’s death recedes farther into the past, I feel the loss as strongly as ever.  Usually this happens when I wish I could ask him a question, or tell him something funny that happened.  Then it is as if I am hearing the news again for the first time.

Statistics are about ‘society’, but such common, extraordinary people as my father also populate the statistics of fatalities while tobacco companies continue to sell their aromatic poison.  The sad part is, these companies are now ratcheting up exports to third-world nations and emerging superpowers alike.  Overseas where there are no clear laws against giving cigarettes to children, American tobacco is becoming the lifetime addiction of choice.

I am not proposing a solution.  But if there are any young people in your life who smoke, and if you have any ‘pull’ with them, consider it one battle worth fighting.  You never know just how extraordinary they may turn out to be. 

Categories: Personal

New bike

March 14, 2006 1 comment


After 11 or 12 years of hard use (and two component failures from metal fatigue) I decided to retire my old bike and get a new one.  The $350 price of this bike was very reasonable, thanks to the fact that people who can do aerospace-grade welding and shot-peening in China get paid about the same as people who work in fast-food restaurants in the US. 

It’s a Haro V1, purchased from Wilson’s Cycle on Market St. in Bloomington, IL.  It’s light, fast, and handles pretty well, though I don’t have it fine-tuned yet.  But I’ve been without a bike for a month and have missed it a lot.  This driving and walking everywhere really gets old when a bike is faster and more convenient.

Categories: Uncategorized

Terrifying Obedience

March 13, 2006 2 comments

A group of students in Atlanta took formation 4 lanes wide and drove the speed limit, seriously honking off drivers behind them who habitually drove 20mph faster.  And said drivers, honked back, passed on the right, etc. It was scary stuff:
A meditation on the speed limit

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for speeders (last speeding ticket, 1974) but tailgating is even more dangerous and I’ve never heard of anyone getting a ticket for it.  And don’t even get me started on ‘driving while talking on a cell phone’.

I have often wanted to see an experiment like this done by someone else willing to risk their hides.  It would be illegal in Illinois because our state has a ‘speeder support law’ that makes extended travel in the left lane – even at the speed limit – a ticketable offense. What I wondered about the experiment was; how did they break formation at the end?  That would be the most dangerous part by far.  I also wondered if officials in Atlanta will get the point and raise the speed limit. 

The funny thing is, if everyone obeyed the speed limit, they’d probably spend less time accelerating and decelerating and actually reach their destinations faster. 

(From Notes from the terminal ward)

Categories: Safety & Health

“Time to UN-PIMP da AUTO, JA!!!”

March 11, 2006 4 comments

What’s missing from your life? Is it ‘rapping, stereotypically sadistic German engineers’?  Do you long to see a 30-second parody of the popular TV show, Pimp My Ride? Then you’ll enjoy these three delightfully offensive Volkswagen commercials: Un-Pimp My Ride  :coolsmirk:

>>Videos from YouTube

Categories: business

Absolute Moral Certainty and other fairy tales

March 10, 2006 7 comments

I’d like to ask politicians, judges, and preachers one question: “What are you absolutely sure about?”  Well-defended certainty takes time and study; a very long list in answer to that question might indicate they have not done their homework.  They see an issue, the knee jerks, and the jerk speaks.

Parental notification of teen abortion is one example.  It seems so obvious that parents should be notified before their daughters have an abortion.  Children under 18 can’t sign binding legal contracts, can’t join the military… I mean, heck – kids can’t even get an aspirin for a headache at school without a phone call to a parent.  The parent is still legally responsible for that child.

Imagine the legal, ethical, and medical minefield when daughter has problems and it turns out she had an abortion her parents did not know about!  What loving parents envision such an eventuality for their daughters?

And yet… if you make it impossible for a teenaged girl to end a pregnancy, you have to accept that there will be a certain number of them thrown out on the street, some beaten, and some killed.  Argue all you want; it will happen.  If that’s OK with you, fine.  It isn’t Ok with me, and I pay taxes too, so now what?.

Of course, a child can go see a judge in loco parentis.  After all, our legal system is famed (or is it flamed) for transparency, efficiency, and user-friendliness, right? 

Can we stipulate that in the case of ideal families, no parental notification law is needed?  And in the dangerous families, such a law may be fatal.  What is the balance of that equation?

Then there’s the assumption that such a law will reduce abortions.  Parents, so goes the reasoning, will always be against their daughters having an abortion and so will offer support and other options.  Sure, it could happen that way.  But does it

That’s the trouble with moral certainty – it fails to account for situational complexity.  The range of possibilities is often far too convoluted for “Do It This Way”.  A perfect solution is the mirage in a legislative desert, in pursuit of which a great deal of damage may be done.  Sometimes the most difficult thing is to know when not to legislate.

(Blame ***Dave for getting me thinking about this)

Categories: Uncategorized

Stuff adds up

March 9, 2006 3 comments

Two unrelated quantities that caught my eye in a couple of news articles:

  • Tobacco consumption in S. Korea increased from 68,000 tons in 1980 to 101,000 tons in 1999, most of it imported from the US

  • Steel mills recycling shredded automobiles in Illinois release about 400 lbs of mercury a year into the air, roughly the same as a large coal-fired power plant.

I enjoy quantities like this because of the scale of activity they suggest around them.  They help us understand why certain human activities have influence.

How many acres of land would it take to grow 101 thousand tons of tobacco?  How many families does it take to tend those acres?  What is the collective political clout of those (mostly American) families?  And – that’s just South Korea.  What’s the tobacco clout worldwide?

At just a couple drops of mercury (in electrical switches) per car, how many cars does it take to equal 400 lbs (about three gallons) of mercury?  What other pollutants are in those cars?  How much lead?  What happens to the gasoline in the tanks?  (It can’t be reused in other cars unless it is carefully filtered) How about the motor oil?  How many of the tires are reused?  How many people make their livings handling those cars? 

What is the composition of the scrap metal?  Cars have a lot more aluminum and various alloys in them nowadays – the quality of the steel would be degraded unless that is separated out before smelting. 

And that’s just Illinois: nationwide, there are still 35 million mercury switches in cars, though manufacturers switched in 2002 to nontoxic alternatives.  Just about all those cars will be off the road in ten years – hence the need for removing the switches.  But that mercury had to come from somewhere. How much cinnabar is mined each year?  Cinnabar is mercury sulfide; what are the sulpher emissions of mercury smelting plants, to say nothing of the mercury?  Where are the plants located?  How are the mine tailings handled?

Hold almost any commercial product in your hand; the connections associated with it dazzle the mind.  Economies closely resemble ecologies and are interrelated to them.  It’s just fun to think about that stuff…  (sources New Scientist magazine and Chicago Tribune)

Paleocene-Eocene tanning salon

March 9, 2006 5 comments

One of the frequent criticisms leveled at scientific inquiry by the chronically over-religious alleges that science is an ‘orthodoxy’ from which dissidents are excommunicated.  But a single paragraph from a modest report on paleoclimatology in The Economist illustrates a concept for which that view fails to account.

At the AAAS meeting in St. Louis in February, paleoclimatologists presented evidence from the temperature spike known as the ‘paleocene-eocene thermal maximum,’ or PETM, that current greenhouse models may be too conservative by a wide margin.  In other words, it may get even hotter than we thought. 

But the paleoclimatologists weren’t all arm-in-arm singing ‘kum-by-ya’; they were trying to prove each other wrong.  This is the crucial difference from orthodoxy; scientists love to find holes in the current theory or in each others’ work.  The fact that they found the same hole while looking from different angles is how one field of science validates (or invalidates) another.  Some were using oxygen isotopic analysis, others patterns of animal migration based on the fossil record. 

That does not necessarily mean it is time to panic.  The models could be right after all, if the paleo-temperature estimates turn out to be wrong, (though the fact that multiple approaches undertaken by rival paleo-climatologists at different sites generally agree suggests they are not far off).

The key word is rival.  Ruthless competition in the marketplace of ideas has an effect similar to competition in our monetary economy – what remains may not be perfect, but it’s stood up to assaults that certify its strength.  Ideas which are sheltered under a conceptual monopoly like ‘revealed truth’ can’t be weeded out unless their challengers want to risk eternal damnation.

Oh, and that climate thingie?  The news from the PETM isn’t good:

On balance, it is probably too early to tell.  But that is hardly reassuring.  As Dr. Wing puts it: “This is probably the single scariest result of deep-time paleo-climate work.  The models we use to predict the future have been shown to be conservative, and we don’t know why.”
>>The Economist, 2/25/06, pg 82 A blast from the past

I am 1.5 persons

March 8, 2006 4 comments

Back in 2004 a ‘water taxi’ capsized in Baltimore, killing five passengers.  The investigation just found that the boat was overloaded by 700 pounds, even though it was carrying the the ‘right’ number of people allowed by regulations.  What happened?

Back in the 1940’s when the regulations were written, the ‘average’ adult was 140 pounds (about 64 kilos).  Today the ‘average’ adult American weighs 168 pounds.  I guess I amount to one and a half 1940’s persons.  Maybe the survivors of the five drowned passengers can sue McDonalds for sinking the boat!  Yeah, baby!

The suggestion being made now is to paint a line on the side of the boat.  If the water is over that line, some of you, get back on the dock!

Categories: Safety & Health

Church burning funnies

March 8, 2006 2 comments

About a month ago I wrote about someone burning churches in Alabama, and the question was of course, “Why?”

It turns out to be some college kids who say it was a joke.  I have to admit that’s a motive I had not thought of.  A bag of flaming poop on a doorstep is a ‘joke’, but deliberately torching nine churches?  What the hell is that?  It raises even more questions.

What questions would you ask these kids?

Categories: Stupidity

FedEx commercial

March 5, 2006 1 comment

I have a confession to make: I really don’t care about football at all.  Or baseball or basketball, and the Olympics just bore me (except for the figure skaters with their perky buns). The one Super-Bowl feature that might hold my interest for a moment is the commercials.  Advertisers are motivated by the extremely high cost of airtime to meet very high production values and to try to make their commercials entertaining. 

I would actually sit down and watch a half-hour program of Super-Bowl commercials if they could resist having an obnoxious hosting-creature telling me how funny they are.  Today I saw this one at they gym and just about fell off the stairmaster laughing. It’s brilliant work. (just click the picture)

Categories: Uncategorized