Musings of Navigating The Finite remainder of life from Porchville, with the hope of a glimpse of The Infinite

Saturday, August 28, 2010

An Odd Week of Photographic Navigation of The Infinite (Choice)

Ever since I posted my LST article last week, I have been languishing in a bit of a melancholy over the picture of my parents on their wedding day. It is not so much a mourning for my recently departed mother or long late father, but more of a sense of loss of having never known the happy couple in the photograph. By the time I had matured to the point of being able to appreciate the emotion that this photo conveys, they had become remarkably different people. But that will be a topic for another day. For the moment suffice it to say that I have been in the grips of a micro-depression over the photo. So that sets the emotional back drop or perhaps the climate of feeling for the week.

A friend, by chance, sent a link to a newspaper article regarding old photos:

"The Power Of The Holiday Photo"

The timing was rather fortuitous in that while my emotions were being lashed by my parents photograph, along comes an article describing why we are sensitive to old photos. The article mentioned the concepts of studium and punctum from a book called Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes. I became somewhat fascinated with these concepts. Studium is the physical, cultural, and political aspects of the photograph. A young couple, late 40’s dress, white shoes and purse, possible cigarette in my father’s hand, snazzy hat and tie. Smiling. Those are elements of the studium of this photograph that apply to anyone including myself. The punctum of the photograph would be that which pierces one’s heart. For many people there would be absolutely no punctum in that photograph. It just some old photo of a couple from the late 40’s that contains absolutely no emotional content for most people. However, if you are of that generation, there might be some punctum for in the style of dress, the age of the couple, the fact of two survivors of the Depression and World War 2 starting a happy life together. The punctum for me obviously is that these people are my parents. But, there is more. They are happy with each other, something that I had seldom seen in their marriage. That possible cigarette—lot of punctum there. My father died of heart failure and my mother would have died of lung cancer if were not for Alzheimer’s and heart failure from the reduced lung capacity. So cigarettes had as much to do with the loss of my parents as LSTs had to do with my creation.

Researching these concepts of studium and punctum whetted my interest and I bought the book from Amazon. Camera Lucida By Roland Barthes

Some of the user’s comments indicated that it is dry and stuffy, I don’t know. I will see when I get the book. I am hoping to learn what it is that tugs at my heart when I see old photos of my parents, or wife, or son.

Even things and places can invoke this. You may see a dirty old Plymouth in the desert in this photo, reasonable studium. I see my beloved Duster on El Mirage Dry Lake in California...a magical place. Mickey Thompson dragged raced on it back in the 50’s. My Duster had streaked across it at 115 mph a few minutes prior to taking this photograph. A car. Junky by today’s standards, and not much more than junk when it was brand new. The cars of the 70’s were not objects worthy of adoration, yet I did, I adored that car. I look at this picture and I feel a romance for a mechanical object that I have not felt since. My feeling for automobiles now being something on the order of grudging tolerance. And so it is with LSTs. You may look at it and think what an odd and ugly looking thing, and yet I feel tears welling in my eyes for an object for which I have never laid eyes on and yet had so much to do with the conception of me.

I am drifting from my epic tale of a weird week of photography. On Thursday morning, I was running late. I left the house 5 minutes after I should have been at work. As I pushed the door closed, I noticed my neighbor’s morning glories were indeed in full glory. What the hell I was already late, I set down my lunch bag and went in and got my camera. Oh the exquisite beauty of these blooms, blue to purple with tiny droplets of dew. Magnificent! I turned on the camera. The screen was bright white. I pointed the camera at the morning glory, it remained bright white. I snapped a few photos, placed the camera in review mode. The pictures I took from the other day were looking lovely, but those from today? Nothing but a bright white sheet. Oh no my camera is gone! Junk! I tried removing and re-installing the batteries in the hopes of rebooting it. Nothing but plain white images. Oh crap, now I have to research a new camera! The prospect of mind numbing specifications, and numbers, and features, and pros, and cons, and professional reviews, and user reviews gave me an instant head ache.

I mentioned my dilemma to my spiritual adviser for all things automotive and electronic. He said to check out the hybrids or what is known as super zooms. So reluctantly Thursday night I did some minor research…enough to confuse me. The hybrids seemed expensive enough, that what hell, for a few hundred more I may as well get into an entry level digital single lens reflex (DSLR). We chatted some more on Friday and he told me he would send me some ideas from home. He did mention lens cost and that struck home. So last night I started doing some more research on cheap DSLRs. Good grief, once you start adding lenses all that wonderful ability and power gets damned costly. That re-enamored me to take another look at the hybrids.

Then to top things off, I remembered my LST is coming to Pittsburgh, and I don’t have a camera! Damn, I didn’t want to rush this. But I ain’t going down to see the LST with my old film camera. So now that put a sense of crisis in all this. Oh how easy the sky falls upon me.

This morning my spiritual adviser sent me an email with some thoughts. I replied back to him as follows:

Oh Spiritual Adviser on All Things Non-Spiritual,

Desist the search on my account. I was visited by three ghosts, the ghost of cheap, the ghost of claptrap, and the ghost of excessive choice. As always the ghost of cheap speaks loudest, a roaring, screaming specter echoing in my ears yet now.

The first visitation of the ghost of cheap occurred yesterday at work. The specter manifested itself in your body and said quite innocently "Do I really want to spend $1200 for a lens?" My cheap receptors perked up and thought Hmmmm! Hell no I don't want to spend $1200 on an entire system let alone a lens. Alas that statement drove a stake of penury into the DSLR heart and sent it careening forever into the abyss of despair. The other ghosts were probably unnecessary at this point but they visited as well.

So after the $1200 statement got my purse strings puckered tighter than a bull's patoot in fly time, I went back and took another look at the Nikon Coolpix P100 at your DP site. Alas the superzooms seem to be a trade off. Horrendous zoom at the cost of low light ability. But hmmm! There is a Canon here that I hadn't seen mentioned anywhere else, the Powershot SX20IS. According to the DP article it, with the Panasonic, are the best performers of the group of tested super zooms with the Nikon in a close second place. $350 for the Canon and Amazon throws in a 4 gig card free. $14 for second day delivery.

But human ego being what it is, I failed to listen to the ghost of cheap... I want zoom, I want low light, I want macro, I want to take pictures like Alfred Eisentaedt and Ansel Adams. I want to know about f stops, film speeds, light levels, flash settings.... So I went back and again looked at cheap DSLRs.

At that point a dual visitation occurred from the ghost of claptrap, and the ghost of excessive choice. The ghost of claptrap had me grab his sleeve and magically, I was in the woods, beautiful forest canopy creating dull low light on the forest floor. I had a bag full of cameraous claptrap weighing me down. I was kneeling over a flower with the lens set up for a low light macro shot. Just as I squeezed the shutter for my award winning photo of a violet, I heard a loud "Squawwwwkkkkkkkkk" I looked up and 150 feet away was the rare ivory billed woodpecker sitting on an open branch with an absolute clear line of sight from me, a one in two billion shot. I feverishly opened my bag of claptrap, and the telephoto lens rolled out of the bag and started tumbling down the steep path toward the river. Suddenly, a birder jumped out from behind a bush and snaps the shot with his Nikon Coolpix P100. To the fluttering of wings, I heard a splash.

"I say mate, I flew 12,000 miles from Australia to get that shot. Shame about your lens, it looked costly. G'day mate."

Not satisfied with claptrap, I invited the ghost of excessive choice with all the worries and confusions to survey the situation. He opened his long great coat and hundreds of DSLRs hung from the inside all with a good price here but lacking this. Terrible price here but it is the greatest thing since canned beer. Here is a good mix of practicality and price and should be on your short list however remember the fringing... Wait look at this one, but the only trouble is that the image stabilization is located in the flash unit making corrections through the hot shoe, an unfortunate choice in our opinion making a really great camera at a great price somewhat unusable but still as strong contender compared to the picture quality of the other units...but don't overate picture quality compared to image stabilization, and remember with all those sensors in the flash unit, it now weighs 5 pounds 7 ounces and makes the ergonomics of this particular unit a bit ungainly.
But on your list of things to look for is........................

Then claptrap and cheap begin to speak in concert..."So Sextant, old buddy, you now got yourself 10 grand invested in lenses, but you failed to note that your lenses, while technically yes, will screw into any camera body, have an aspherical aberration correction that will only work in the Electrolux body. Alas Electrolux decided to stay in the vacuum cleaner business and dropped their camera line. What a shame, well you know electronic devices, they are bound to fail in 5 to 10 years so you really have to be careful up front not to get locked into specialized equipment. But the curious thing about it is that all the camera bodies that you might be willing to buy price wise seem to have some limiting factor regarding lens selection so if you really want to own a lens forever, you better be looking at that 2 grand body.


STOP! NO MORE ADVICE! I am done, done, done, with all this... I can't stand it any longer. I don't care.

What do I really want? Simplicity. Simplicity comes at a cost. In my case it is going to be a camera that I only spend 100 bucks more than the last one. It will most likely knock my socks off, and though I will never be able to do many of things that some people would consider an absolute must, I am too damned dumb and lazy to even know about it, let alone worry about not having that feature. The low light is troubling but I am going to try the Canon. I got to give it the brick and mortar hold in your hand test this morning and I hope to have it on order by noon.

I appreciate your efforts, but they have been undermined by the ghosts of cheap, claptrap, and choice.

Thanks for your help. The photo site was very helpful in my decision: "Superzoom Recommendations"

In a state of confused terror, I remain,


This morning, I went to a couple of brick and mortar stores. I held it in my hand, and fell in love. I was set to buy it at one store, until they told me that there was a 15% restocking fee if I returned the unit due to dissatisfaction. I came home and placed the order with Amazon. Tuesday I will be I photographic nirvana waiting for the ivory billed wood pecker to land in my walnut tree.


Note! Click on photos for full size.

Of the 15,000 pictures I took with my camera, 14,750 were pure crap. But a digital camera is like giving a baby a machine gun, sooner or later he is going to hit something. Here are some of my better shots.

1. CSX Train Crossing the Augusta Canal, Augusta, Georgia

2. Duster on El Mirage Dry Lake, California 1972 (Obviously not with my digital, but rather a Kodak Instamatic)

3. Lillys in my mother's back yard, Monroeville, Pennsylvania.

4. Apple blossoms. Western Pennsylvania

5. Rain drops on blossoms, North Park, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania

6. Snow leopard, Akron Zoo, Akron, Ohio

7. Fort Pitt Bridge, Downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Saturday, August 21, 2010


I owe my existence to Winston Churchill and a narrowly avoided military disaster.

See my other blog entries on the LST:

Touring LST 325

Chasing LST 325 Down The Ohio River

In the last week of May and the first week of June in 1940, the British Expeditionary Force was cornered in Dunkirk, France. Two hundred thousand British troops and 138 thousand French troops were trapped and in extreme danger of being destroyed by the incredible German advance. The prayers of a nation were answered and in what became known as the Miracle of Dunkirk, 338 thousand troops were evacuated by 850 ships and boats in nine days. Anything that floated from British destroyers, to commercial fishing boats and privately owed pleasure craft were employed in the evacuation. While this confused armada was effective in evacuating the troops, a king’s ransom of equipment, artillery pieces, trucks, tanks, ammunition, and fuel was left behind because there was no rapid method to load the vehicles and material on the ships.

Dunkirk was a bitter lesson to Winston Churchill and the British Admiralty. The near disaster demonstrated with an undeniable clarity that the tactics of vehicle based warfare needed a new type of ship. Modern warfare does not allow time for conventional docking and crane operations to unload heavy equipment. Dunkirk demonstrated in reverse that a modern attack on a beachhead would require the troops and vehicles to hit the beach running.

Winston Churchill provided some of the design criteria to the Admiralty for the British precursors to the LST. British shipbuilding, though, was completely occupied with the fabrication of warships. After an agreement at the Atlantic Conference between Churchill and Roosevelt in August 1941, the British Admiralty met with the US Navy’s Bureau of Ships for the design of a sea going shallow draft ship that could rapidly deploy troops and combat vehicles on to beach heads, and then pull back out into the water.

From a ship building perspective, a shallow draft ship has a unique advantage, it does not have to be built in a deep water port. Rather than divert critical resources from large ship building, the LSTs were designed to be built in the US by inland shipbuilders located on navigable rivers. The overall size of the ship had to fit in existing locks and be able to sail under bridges. The Dravo Corporation, located on Neville Island a few miles down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh, was a builder of barges, river tugs, and water construction projects prior to the war. The Navy contracted Dravo to help design the ships and develop rapid manufacturing techniques that would lead a number of non-ship building steel companies into the conversion of efficiently building LSTs.

 Dravo built the first LST in record time. USS LST 1's keel was laid at Neville Island on July 20, 1942, and the ship was delivered to the Navy on December 14, 1942—less than 5 months! Dravo built 145 LSTs during the war. The American Bridge Corporation in Ambridge, Pennsylvania built 119. There were a total of 1,051 LSTs built during WWII with the majority being built by the Missouri Valley Bridge and Iron, & International Steel Co. in Evansville, Indiana.

The LST was a moderate sized vessel, 328 feet long and had a beam of 50 feet. It carried 2,100 tons of cargo at roughly 9 knots. It was armed primarily for defense against air attack.

LSTs were used in landings in Sicily and Italy. The initial beaching on D-Day used 173 LSTs. They were extensively used in the Pacific with the largest flotilla of 343 used in the first landing on Okinawa. Of the 1,051 built, only 23 were lost to enemy fire, and another 16 lost to weather or accidents. Most of the ships were scrapped in the late ‘40s after the war, but some built by Dravo during the war served in Korea and later in Vietnam.

Late on a Friday night, in March of 1946, a young man got on a streetcar in Pittsburgh. He spied an attractive young woman sitting near the front of the mostly empty car.

Pointing to the empty seat next to her, “This seat taken?” he asked.

She made a sweeping gesture with her eyes around the empty streetcar, and said “I suppose not.”

“Where you headed?” he asked.

“Mount Washington, and you?”

“Duquesne Heights, hey we are practically neighbors.”

“So what did you do in the war?” she asked.

“Navy, Pacific, and you?” he replied.

“I welded LSTs down at Dravo.” she replied.

“LSTs! Really? An LST took my Sea Bee outfit from Saipan to Okinawa. Best damned ship I was ever on. It had fresh water showers.”

A discussion on the relative merits of the LST and naval architecture in regards to what sort of things she welded and how he liked sailing on one then ensued. A date was made for the next day. I was born 3 years later.

What are the chances that any of us are conceived and born? If you look at the particular chain of events and circumstances that led to you, it is an amazingly tenuous upside down cone shaped web of happenstance that brings us to the light of day. One tiny change, a ringing phone—even ignored, could result in a sibling rather than you. Events of the past weigh heavy in your creation. Had not my grandfather’s older brother, the apple of my great grandfather’s eye, died of malaria in the Philippines in 1904, I would not be here.

What if that guy, in 1946, had asked the young woman what she did during the war, and she replied “Oh I soldered airplane radio tubes for Sylvania up in Brookville,” a job my mother had in 1942 and detested… “all I did was sit on my ass for 8 hours and soldered tiny wires I could barely see.” Would he have replied “Oh that’s nice” and then glumly stared ahead? What if the commonality of the LST had not existed between my parents on that streetcar?

My mother was no prude, and she knew how take care of herself when it came to men trying to hit on her. My mother loved her job at Dravo and she loved talking about it. She was genuinely proud that she had worked on something that was generally a man’s job and was good at it. I believe in my heart that the conversation about LSTs broke the ice, which led to the date, which led to the marriage, which led to the conception of me.

So I can honestly say that I owe my existence to Dunkirk, Winston Churchill, Dravo Corporation, little known air strips in Saipan and Okinawa, and a rather odd and ugly looking vessel known as the Landing Ship, Tank.


See my later blog entry on LST 325 here:
Touring LST 325

A good source of general information on the LST.
Wikipedia Landing Ship, Tank

An unbelievable source of information for each specific LST.

Here is a Waymark that my wife and I did on the Pennsylvania State Historical Marker for the Dravo Shipyard. I plagiarized a little from myself for the text above. WMHZF Dravo Corporation Shipyard

Here is an excellent book about the LST: Don't Call Me Rosie

History of Dravo Shipyard:
Explore PA History

State Historical Marker, Dravo Shipyard:
Explore PA History

Here is an organization that maintains an operational LST. USS LST 325 is coming to Pittsburgh from September 1 through September 7, 2010.
The USS LST Ship Memorial

Image Captions & Credits:

Note! Click on the image for a full size version.

#1 Winston Churchill
Solarnavigator, Winston Churchill

#2 British Troops Evacuating Dunkirk
Wikipedia, Dunkirk Evacuation

#3 Dravo Employment Poster
Null Space "Point of Movement"

#4 USS LST 1 on the Ohio River Near Pittsburgh.
NavSource Online USS LST 1

#5 USS LST 1 Landing troops on the coast of Italy
NavSource Online USS LST 1

#6 USS LST 286 On the way to Normandy
NavSource Online USS LST 286

#7 LSTs at Normandy June 6, 1944.
Wikipedia, Landing Ship, Tank

#8 My parents on their wedding day, June 1947

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The California Expedition -- The Estimates

My brother-in-law got back from California on Monday. I went to see him tonight and hear about his trip. Nothing short of magnificent. So we have some preliminary species numbers. Some of these are guesses so don’t hold us to the numbers but here is an estimate by category of new species that he observed in California.

• 33 Birds (exact count is 34 but he can’t count the California Condor by the rules)
• 10 Butterflies
• 10 Moths
• 5 Dragonflies
• 60 Trees
• 4 Whales
• 10 Mammals
• 4 Lizards
• 200 to 300 Plants (not trees or grasses)
• 2 Galls
• 10 Grasses
• 25 Species of Tidal Pool Life
• 2 Kelps

So by my count that is a minimum of 376 and a maximum of 476 different species. One of the members of their trip who is just a birder came back with 2 birds. She has been to California before. Her life list is long enough now that she was thrilled to get the 2 new ones.

While the trip was highly successful, their days must have been grueling. Up a 4:30 AM, go all day like mad men until 11 PM. No eating until after dark except for the very fastest of fast food ate on the fly. They logged 7,400 miles. My brother-in-law will be weeks sorting this all out and getting it logged in his journal. I will get the final real figures when he has completed the project. He is happier than a mad dog in meat locker.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Feynman Doodles

I was looking at another blog today and saw a pencil sketch that appeared much like doodles. It made me think of a cool doodle page done by Richard Feynman, the great bongo playing, Nobel Prize winning physicist from Cal Tech who probably is most famous in the popular imagination for his o-ring in a glass of ice water demonstration at the Challenger hearings. The late Richard Feynman is on my top 10 list. The top 10 people that I want to have a beer with in Heaven. Even if Richard were still alive, I would have to wait and have the beer with him in Heaven…hoping that stupidity is left behind with the body. I might then be able to understand what in my current incarnation, stuck with a second rate brain, is far, far, beyond me. I read one of his books on quantum electro-dynamics. It took me about 20 minutes to read it. Not a long tome by any means it was about 90 pages long, it started out with a short text preamble. Then it went something like this:

“From the following:”

There were about 20 pages of equations employing symbols and a form of mathematics that I have never seen before or since.

“As such, it is obvious that:”

Another 15 pages of equations,


Twenty more pages of arcane math,

“Therefore the only logical conclusion is”

The book ended with 30 pages of additional arithmetical gobbley gook.

Note! Click on images for full size.

I do not have a clue what was said in the book. So I doubt that I would be interesting company to Richard unless I got a whole lot smarter, and I don’t see that happening with the brain I currently own. So hopefully intellects in Heaven are more equal, and Richard does not lose anything to achieve that equality. I became a Feynman groupie after reading his two popular books on his life Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman and What Do You Care What Other People Think.

Getting back to this doodle page, I ran into it several years ago in one of my Internet searches. So today I looked in Google images and found the doodles. It along with many of Richard’s other works of art are at the excellent blog below. A word of caution, Richard did some nudes, and one in particular is rather explicit. If such images are troubling to you, I would recommend avoiding this site.

Sketches and Paintings by Richard Feynman

I am not sure why but I find Richard’s doodle page to be fascinating, perhaps a window into the mind of Richard Feynman. The equations mixed in with the artwork, some a bit risqué (the artwork--I have no way of knowing if the equations are risqué), and the graphs are intriguing. We don’t know in what context this page of doodles was created. Is this something that Richard doodled while bored, say at a Cal Tech budgetary meeting? Or might it have been a note pad and he checked the work of a student or did calculations at a physics conference, and then doodled the drawings later? Going the opposite direction, was the page from his sketch pad, the drawing went sour, and in a moment of boredom with the sketch, some insight popped into his mind and he worked it out with the equations and the graphs. Even more deliciously, was he working on the sketch and the insight popped into his mind and the sketch was sacrificed to the math of the insight in a moment of scientific creativity that gladly destroyed the artistic? Is the math even important? Do geniuses doodle in math the way composers construct and alter tunes in their heads, or a poet fiddles with a stanza? Or did Richard simply create a work of art that looked like a doodle page?

Taking a better look at the doodles, it seems the math has a purpose. In English, he states a condition and asks where this will go into action. The fact that I recognize the math, (not that I know what it means, but I at least recognize it as one would recognize something as written in French or Russian without knowing what it said) indicates that this problem is not going to win Richard a Nobel prize. Also I see no evidence of a Feynman diagram, so he is not working on a very deep quantum problem. The lack of a Feynman diagram also supports the idea that this is a real calculation, albeit for Richard probably a mundane calculation, and not one of those “the spirit of Richard Feynman” pieces of art that one so often sees with Einstein, an atom, and E=MC2. On a second look, I would have to say this started with the equations and Richard doodled the art after-wards.

I included several additional works from the above site. I believe the girl in the watercolor is Feynman’s daughter Michelle. I liked the precise nature of the napkin and wine glass. Looking at the various works included at the site, Feynman played with various styles and mediums. Obviously Richard Feynman is not going to be remembered as one of the great artists of the 20 century. However, I find it fascinating that Feynman, a genius in physics, could also create good pieces of art. Feynman had a better understanding of art than Picasso had of quantum physics. One of my goals in the afterlife is to pick Richard Feynman’s mind over a Guinness. I really have no desire to meet Picasso.

More Information On Richard Feynman: Richard Feynman Feynman Diagram "Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman" "What Do You Care What Other People Think?"

BBC The Feynman Variations

EDIT 9-20-10 A friend sent me this BBC radio show on Feynman. It is excellent. You will hear some portions of Feynman's lectures delivered by himself and his bongo playing. It is one hour long.

You Tube, Feynman Fun To Imagine, With Christopher Sykes

Here is a fascinating series of discussions with Feynman explaining various notions of physics in layman's terms. "Genius. The Life and Science of Richard Feynman" by James Gleick

There is an extraordinary heart felt quote that I would like to share with you from Glieck’s excellent biography of Feynman. Paul Olum was president of the University of Oregon at the time of Feynman’s death in 1988. He had this to say about his friend and one time colleague.

“My wife died three years ago, also of cancer…I think about her a lot. I have to admit I have Dick’s books and other things of Dick’s. I have all of the Feynman lectures and other stuff. And there are things that have pictures of Dick on them. The article in Science about the Challenger episode. And also some of the recent books.

I get a terrible feeling every time I look at them. How could someone like Dick Feynman be dead? The great and wonderful mind. The extraordinary feeling for things and ability is in the ground and there’s nothing there anymore.

It’s an awful feeling. And I feel it---A lot of people have died and I know about it. My parents are both dead and I had a younger brother who is dead. But I have this feeling about just two people. About my wife and about Dick.

I suppose, although this wasn’t quite like childhood, it was graduate students together, and I do have more—I don’t know, romantic, or something, feeling about Dick, and I have trouble realizing that he’s dead. He was such an extraordinarily special person in the universe."

From: Genuis. The Life and Science of Richard Feynman. By James Gleick. Page 145.

What I find intriguing in the above quote is the sense of being lost. There is an overwhelming vulnerability in Olum’s words. This was not a carefully prepared statement by a lettered university president with post doctorate work in advanced mathematics. It is the genuine feeling of a man deeply crushed by the loss of his wife and friend. I doubt that many of us could carry on an intelligent conversation with Paul Olum regarding mathematics, but do we have any problem understanding the sentiment he expresses above? Below all that intelligence…all that raw intellectual horsepower—below the ability to see and understand concepts that are so far beyond the ordinary ken of the normal human mind...still lurks a humble human being who must wander alone in the depths of his grief. His words rang true with me, because I felt the same thing…not the same magnitude, but certainly the same feeling. How can such a magnificent mind not exist any longer? How can Richard Feynman be dead?

A thought came to me as I wrote the above paragraph, why is Feynman’s art fascinating? It certainly is not outstanding…it is not going to knock a critic’s socks off. Feynman’s art is fascinating in the same way that Olum’s grief is fascinating…it shows his humanity. He was not an emotionless super intelligent machine that simply spewed out concepts, equations, diagrams, and theories. He was a human being. He was a feeling man, obviously charmed by the female form, yet also playful with the various forms of sketching and art. I mentioned that I had read the book on quantum electro-dynamics—didn’t have a clue of what was being stated. Yet I can look at Richard’s art or read Paul Olum’s words and very much feel connected to another human Soul.

Image Credits:

Feynman’s Artwork:
Sketches and Paintings by Richard Feynman

Feynman with bongos:
University of Southern California, Feynman Webring

Feynman with o-ring at Challenger hearings:

Feynman Diagram: Feynman Diagram

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Perseid Meteor Shower

I have successfully failed at sighting the Perseids again this year.

If you detect something of a history enshrouded in my statement, you are correct. Regarding the Perseids, I have never seen anything that approached a meteor sprinkle let alone a shower.

My mother grew up in rural Clarion County, Pennsylvania before the Rural Electrification Administration brought light pollution to the sticks. She said that the Perseids was an annual treat--treats during the Depression being far simpler and less costly than treats today. My grandfather, not ordinarily given to the concerns of promoting wonder in his children, would gather everyone outside in the lower pasture to watch the meteor shower. My mother said that there was constantly a falling star visible and often numerous meteors falling at the same time.

When I was a child, my father, somewhat more given to instilling a sense of wonder in his children, but certainly not slavish about it, would always take me and my sister out in the backyard to see the Perseids. My father, growing up in Pittsburgh, never had seen the Perseids. I think he was inflamed by my mother’s stories of seeing one after another endlessly, and was bound and determined to experience this spectacle. My sister, always of a practical mind about bed time, found little wonder in standing in the backyard and watching nothing. She would quickly depart for the comfort of her bed. My mother, perhaps spoiled by the gold spoon of a truly dark sky in her youth, could not be bothered. So that left my dad and I out desperately scanning the light polluted skies of suburban Pittsburgh for the illusive Perseids. The murk in the sky would be ablaze by the various steel mills down on the Monongahela River. I don’t recall of ever seeing a single meteor in our Perseids watches. It became something of a joke in our house—a basis of negative comparison, “Is this going to be as good as the Perseid Meteor Shower Dad?” Between my mother's actual sightings year after year in her youth, and my father’s burning adulthood desire to see them, I am sure that I have the Perseids somehow encoded in my DNA. They are in my blood.

My father often talked about going up to my grandfather’s farm to see the Perseids, but of course that was something that was perpetually left for next year. “Next year, we should go up the farm and see if we can see the Perseids.” The 75 minute one way drive and actually seeing something would have been a bargain compared to our annual search in the industrial light polluted murk of Pittsburgh. Of course, like many good intentions, we ran out of next years. At some point during my adolescence, I became too cool and far too lazy to go out in the backyard with my crazy old man to look at some dumb meteors that were not there. Yet my father persisted with the Perseids every year, never with great success.

While in the Air Force in the early seventies, I was stationed for two and a half years in the Mojave Desert in California. The air base was at 3000 feet above sea level in elevation and had a relative humidity of less than 10%. At night, if you drove a few miles away from the lights of the base, you could not see a bit of black sky. Every pixel of the night sky was a star, most with a magnitude so slight that it only appeared as a speck of dust. The entire sky was a “milky way” and the Milky Way blazed in comparison. I never thought of the Perseids when I was there, which according to the Wikipedia article cited above August 12 1972 was “reported to be the most active shower in recorded history”. That was 5 days before I left for Thailand. So although I missed the big show, one February night, quite by accident, I did see something of a meteor shower. Watching for about a half hour, I would estimate the rate at 2 to 3 a minute--not exactly continuous, but still quite spectacular. The bone chilling cold of the Mojave in February finally drove me back inside.

Despite my DNA, I do not possess the magnitude of my father’s desire to see the Perseids. If I remember them, or more likely, if someone mentions them to me I will go out and take a grudging look for nostalgia’s sake, usually spending most of my time cussing out the inventor of the orangey shade of light pollution that dominates the night sky from sodium vapor lights.

When my wife and I moved to northern Allegheny County when we married in 1977, we could routinely see the Milky Way at night. Not so now, it takes an incredibly clear night to see it even faintly. Yet another element of romance lost to the builders of malls, excessively anal security personnel, and people who seem to think that their McMansion (or corporate headquarters) should be illuminated like the Washington Monument shooting night destroying photons into the coal fired murk that is required to provide all of this needless and excessive lighting. So in my younger days I did have a few successes with the Perseids but I would characterize ZHR (Zenith Hourly Rate) of my personal observations as running at about 0.5 per hour. That is if I stood out there like a jack ass for two hours, I might see one falling star. For something that is in my DNA, I have had a rather dismal history with it.

So that brings us to Thursday night, August 12, the big day for the Perseids. Of course I never gave it a thought, but one of the nerds at work mentioned it. I put in a double shift at work out in the heat on the factory floor, working on an emergency refurbishment. Then I had to pick up my wife at her mother's and bring her home. I was extremely exhausted when I crawled into bed at 12:45 AM. "Oh hell, the Perseids!" So I crawled out of bed, slipped on my Bermuda shorts and sneakers, and went outside. I dutifully looked to the northeast at the high flying kite of Cassiopeia above my forehead, and Jupiter blazing above my right ear. There was a bit of a high flung miasma in the sky, but it was still somewhat clear. I watched for 15 minutes. Nothing! I went back to bed. The nerd at work saw about 20 of them in an hour and half. Another guy looked for about an hour and saw 8.

Last night, August 14, in the spirit of my long departed father, I endeavored to stay up and went outside at 1:30 AM. I insisted that I would stay out until I saw at least one falling star, a misnomer fortunately—most are falling specks of dust no bigger than a grain of sand moving at 72km/sec relative to the Earth. The flare up we see is the particle burning up from the heat generated by friction with the atmosphere at an altitude of 40 miles.

The sky was a good bit murkier than Thursday night and there were some absolute cloud formations glowing orange, but I persisted. I was not going back in until I saw at least one meteor. Hmmmm! Looking upward is a young person’s sport. My neck soon developed a crick and my back and legs soon started to hurt. I sat on a lawn chair but the damage was done, my neck started killing me. At 2:15 AM I gave up and gratefully put my decrepit old body with its depleted DNA in bed. Yet another successful failure at observing the Perseid Meteor Shower.

Side Note on the California Expedition

My brother-in-law is on his way home, they expect to get back on Tuesday. At this juncture he has no idea of how many different species he has seen, but he estimates it to be in the hundreds. He got over 30 new birds when his wildest expectation was 20. They took a boat trip and saw 4 different species of whales! He says that he will be months entering all of his new finds in his journal. Alas, my brother-in-law discovers most every living organism in California, and I can’t see a lousy falling star.

Edit 8/12/16:  Failure again.   I spent 2 minutes looking.  My neck is a good bit junkier than the original post, and is now snapping from my 120 second endeavor.   The sky was pretty murky and we have even more lights now.   The tradition continues.

Image Credit:

Wikipedia (It is actually the Leonids--don't tell anyone.)

Image Caption: A famous depiction of the 1833 meteor storm, produced in 1889 for the Seventh-day Adventist book Bible Readings for the Home Circle.

Image Description: The most famous depiction of the 1833 actually produced in 1889 for the Adventist book Bible Readings for the Home Circle - the engraving is by Adolf Vollmy based upon an original painting by the Swiss artist Karl Jauslin, that is in turn based on a first-person account of the 1833 storm by a minister, Joseph Harvey Waggoner on his way from Florida to New Orleans.

Note: Click on the image to see a full size version.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Quick Note

I got a preliminary report from my brother-in-law out in California. At the half way point of his California expedition he has found 18 new birds putting his life list close to 600, one of his goals. For total species, he is well over 100. Imagine finding over 100 species in 10 days. I am still sticking with my 250 bet.

A friend sent me a curious website on spanking machines. Check this out.


My personal favorite is the water wheel powered German multi-user machine from 1856. Although the one that shoots off the 32 caliber blanks and delivers an electrical shock seems quite a bargain at $32.50

This brought back memories of grade school and how the principal had a paddling machine. There were always great descriptions from the older kids about the machine and its preparation for use. There seemed to be numerous adjustments which took a dreadfully long time, and there was a special emphasis on the fact that it had to be plugged into the wall thus ensuring in our minds that this was a machine of some respectable power. The preparation of the victim of course involved the baring of one's buttocks.

On the few trips that I had to take to the office, I always furtively searched for this machine. It had to be about somewhere. There was a metal cube about the dimension of a modern refrigerator but only half as tall. It had that gray crinkly paint that was used on fine machines back in the 50s and chrome letters in the front. I could not identify any purpose for this machine then or now and in my heart I knew that this was the paddling machine. I imagined the miscreant to be seated in the machine like one of those saunas where all you saw was the persons head. I was frightened by those saunas, why I don't know, but it seemed to be the perfect mode for this paddling machine. All that would be visible would be the miscreants head grimacing in pain as this machine applied a good warming to his bottom with the efficiency of my mother's automatic washer--a marvel at the time along with television and the automatic transmission. I never worried about the contradiction of how ones bottom got paddled if one was sitting.

Well I can't say that I ever suffered the indignities of automated punishment, but it was certainly a fact of life for us grade school kids, exceeded only by the electric chair and the atomic bomb for sheer terror. The fifties was a rather cool time to grow up. While we may have been deathly afraid of the paddling machine we were also fascinated by it as well as electric chairs and atomic bombs. Pain, suffering and death had a rather romantic appeal to it as well as the terrifying aspect. Fortunately we all seemed to grow up with out the terrors of any of these devices unleashed on us.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Soul of The Rose

{EDIT: August 4, 2010. I posted the original version of this late last night in a bit of an inspired but poorly thought out rush. I had trouble positioning the images which consumed a lot of time. Then I found that I had much more to say about this painting when I really looked at it. As such, I rewrote the post this evening. It possesses the shell of last night’s post, but expands it immensely. Please forgive my short sighted attempt last night, and reread the new post. I hope you enjoy it.}

I would like to share another one of my favorite paintings, "The Soul Of The Rose by John W. Waterhouse. The painting is also known as "My Sweet Rose". I am posting 3 different scans of the same painting. Each scan is slightly different in coloring and brightness and each has its own charms.

The first is from Carol Gerten Fine Art, CGFA

The second is from

I first ran into this painting on the cover of Diane Ackerman's excellent book A Natural History of The Senses. It is hard to believe that the painting was not produced entirely for the cover of the book, if so Waterhouse was a visionary with a sense for the future. He painted The Soul of The Rose in 1908 and Ackerman’s book was published in 1991. You can see the painting on the cover of the hardback edition here:

A Natural History of The Senses at Amazon

You can click on the images for a larger rendition. The first two allow an additional enlargement by clicking the enlarged version again.

The last is from Wikipedia

The sensuality of this painting is just astounding. The woman is mesmerized by the fragrance of the rose--indeed the soul of the rose. Note that her eyes are nearly closed, her lips slightly parted in what approaches a trance. Her entire being is concentrating on the fragrance of the rose, and possibly the tactile sensation of the soft smooth petals against her face and lips. She is very relaxed, yet concentrating on and experiencing the fragrance in a fashion that I must confess I envy. Such abandon, and yet such absorption focused in to the existence of a simple rose!

Her left hand delicately rests against the wall to steady herself. The ethereal nature of her fingers is fascinating and change from scan to scan. I especially like her fingers in the second scan (Waterhouse). The paleness of her long extended fingers contrasted to the slightly darker flesh tones of her knuckles, and the hint of unpainted fingernails is one of the very charming details of this painting. I find the garish coloration on her fingers and hands of the first scan (CGFA) to be disappointing. In my mind the coloration destroys the tender delicacy of the placement of her hand on the wall. The charm of her left hand on the wall is further accented by the slight bending of the first knuckle opposed by a much slighter bending of the outer knuckle. Her hands are beautiful and the left hand on the wall is nothing short of magnificent.

She has a Waterhouse jaw, but the elegant downward sweep of her throat countered by the modest rise of her bust is to me breath taking. The slight dip and shadow at the front of her throat defining a delicate larynx and tendons off set by the expanse of the milky smooth texture of the side of her neck is beautiful. The nature of her robe is suggestive that she may have little else on, perhaps fresh from her bath. The folding of the material at her bust hints that the garment may be delightfully parted, perhaps a bit more than modesty would esteem. However, within the walled compound of her villa, can she not be delightfully immodest without reprove? The mildly suggestive nature of her garment fills this painting with a heart breaking sensuality.

The thin gentle delicacy of her forearms are beautiful. Note the absolute exquisiteness of her right inner wrist, you can almost see a pulse below the heel of her hand. The flow of her wrist into the gentle curve of her forearms pleads for a caress. As lovely as her fingers on her left hand are, the lower portion of her left hand and wrist are something of a disappointment, somewhat glossed over. For all of the delicacy of this woman’s fingers, hands, and wrists, her shoulders seem to be powerfully built, but while contrasting somewhat they do not subtract from her more subtly feminine features.

Moving our appreciative gaze upward the woman’s face is beautiful, but a Waterhouse face—but let us save the criticism for last, and linger for the moment with her beauty. Her nose is surprisingly prominent. The darker shading on her eyelids is enchanting. Her hair is a lovely shade of auburn (a lovely shade depending on which scan you look at it) and there is an element of strands visible which add to the charm. If you look closely, you will see a tip on earlobe peaking out from her pulled back hair. The coloration of her cheek is very much subject to which scan you look at. The third scan (Wikipedia) is somewhat washed out with the flesh tones having a bluish cast. The red shows up nicely on her cheek yet her flesh is too pale. In the first scan (CGFA), she appears to be sporting a severe abrasion. My vote goes to the second scan where the blush shows but blends rather than contrasts. Her cheek comes off as flushed with pleasure in the second scan. She is a beautiful woman.

That is one of the things I love about this painting. She is a woman. Not a girl, not an early 20 something, but a woman with an air of maturity and self confidence. She allows herself to become lost in the fragrance and the delicate kiss of a rose. She fires my imagination with her charms and enchantments. I imagine her fresh from her bath, slipping into nothing but her robe, leaving it loosely open in the front to luxuriate in the cool evening breezes. She wanders out to the court, hears the birds in evening song, and delights in the rising chorus of the crickets. She stops and feels the rich fragrance of the rose penetrate her lungs. She feels the satiny smooth petals gently caress her lips. As the evening dips into to twilight she returns to the arms of a waiting lover.

What a romantic fool I am. But it is the power of the beauty of this woman’s ecstasy with the soul of the rose in this painting that inspires such imaginings. A true masterpiece.

Surely I must find some disappointments with this painting. Indeed yes! I wish we could see her bare feet. This woman lost in her moment with the rose, just demands bare feet. I wished her robe was more delicate and perhaps of a diaphanous nature. As much as I find this garment to be alluring from the front near her bust, indeed causing more firings of my somewhat lecherous imagination, I find the garments straight drop off her powerful shoulders downward to be very disappointing. I want to see her shoulder blades, the small of her back, and the swell of her derrière. But my biggest disappointment with this painting is not something one would notice with just this painting. You have to see more of Waterhouse’s works to understand this grievance. My lovely rose sniffing beauty looks almost exactly like every other woman that Waterhouse painted. Go to Google images and search John Waterhouse paintings. It looks like a family reunion of identical centuplets.

Good God John, in 1908 there had to be at least 2 billion women on the face of the Earth. Surely they all looked different. John why do your beautiful women always have the same face, the same jaw line, and the same hairdo? Surely there had to be a broad spectrum of women to choose from. Why the same face?

But overall, I must confess a love for this painting and a longing for the woman in it. I am jealous for her ability to stop and smell the roses and completely lose herself while doing so. And truth be known, I am jealous of that imaginary lover who will shortly be navigating the infinite charms of this totally delightful and beautiful woman. Oh the wonders of pigmented oils smeared on a piece of canvas, where it can take our imaginations.