Thursday, August 30, 2007

My Spider Sense Is Tingling

So they are trying to build a spider suit. At least they are working out the theoretical physics of such a costume. All I can say is, FINALLY! Christ, it took you guys long enough. Get busy! Hook me up! I want to beta-test that shit.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Smog Monster

Sunday the New York Times ran an alarming piece on the state of the environment in China. It seems the industrial revolution that is transforming the world's most populous nation is wreaking unprecedented havoc on the earth. The numbers are absolutely staggering: it is poised to eclipse the U.S. in greenhouse emissions, 500 million of its people lack access to safe drinking water, only one percent of China's 560 million urban dwellers breathe air considered "safe" by the European Union. The chief cause of particulates in Los Angeles smog is pollution from China. And on and on, each fact more sobering and frightening than the last.

The problem has reached an uncontrolled feedback loop: governmental economic policies have incentivized heavy industry and construction. Buildings are needed so badly that they are built quickly without simple measures such as insulation. This increases the need for heating and cooling power. More power plants are built to meet this need. These coal-burning plants are built quickly and cheaply, without costly environmental protection safeguards. But policy continues to support economic growth because it has lifted millions out of poverty.

This piece left me bitterly cynical about humanity. Why should we expect China to behave any differently than the U.S. or the European powers as we industrialized? Human beings, as a macro-organism, seem to lack the self-awareness necessary to prevent such environmental calamities. In a very real sense, we have not evolved any further than the bacteria in the petri dish, choking to death on its own shit.

Biltong - Africa, Part IV.a.

While wandering about at the Minnesota State Fair last night in a saturated-fat-and-cholesterol-induced stupor, I stumbled upon a kiosk peddling beef jerky. MMM, salty goodness. That stand recalled to mind another Afrikaans word - biltong. Dried meat! It is ubiquitous at snacktime, and often it was laid out at first breakfast as well.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Word Nerd in the Bush - Africa, Part IV

Readers who have been around a while will recall that I am a word nerd. I heard some great logisms while in South Africa! I'm afraid that some of the colorful expressions I heard while there are already fading. I do yet retain a few, however. Here is a selection of interesting words and phrases I learned.

bushveld: I sought this term out. I kept wondering, "this isn't the savanna. It isn't a desert. I wonder what they call the terrain here?" Finally I plucked up the courage to ask. Later in the week, while speaking to a pretty young South African woman, I used the term. She was impressed. As Kip Dynamite would say, "yesssss!"

spoor: tracks. This word seems to encompass not only animal tracks but any evidence of something passing through an area. It somehow fits perfectly.

as well: a common English phrase, to be sure. But non-American English-speakers seem to use this phrase exclusively, never using "also" or "too." It appears to be used as a filler or transition phrase as well, much like we might use "you know." It definitely stuck in my head.

robot: probably the strangest expression that I learned while there, they use the term "robot" for "traffic light." "Go to the first robot and take a left, you can't miss it."

sort: another perfectly commonplace word that non-Americans use in a wide variety of ways. Where we might use organized, settled, resolve, comfortable, figured out, ready, or fixed, English-speakers from other countries often use the catch-all "sorted." I found the expression to be perfectly understandable, though it sounded unusual and distinctive in my ear. I liked it.

braai: barbeque! We had three braais: one brunch and two dinners. One of our dinnertime braais was a surprise meal in the bush. We had been driving in the game viewer, and it was well after dark, and I noticed we weren't heading back to the lodge. Suddenly we pulled into a clearing where a big campfire blazed and some men had set a lovely table. Norman, our chef, was waiting with some flame roasted bacon and cherry kabobs and a giant liquor table.

courgette: zucchini. Interestingly, Norman, whose English wasn't very good, was able to tell me that courgette & zucchini were the same thing, whereas Esmay, one of our other chefs, whose English was very good, did not know the American English word for the vegetable.

farm: I was kind of worried when I heard this term. You see, much of the Venetia-Limpopo Nature Reserve is reclaimed "farmland." I thought, "are we going to even see wild Africa?" Luckily my concern was unfounded: South Africans use the term "farm" the way we would use the term "ranch." The reserve is an unspoiled wilderness that had previously been fenced by "farmers" to keep game in a tighter area.

yoghurt: I love the way the Brits say this word. And the spelling is pretty great as well. I learned that it is Turkish in origin.

dam: blame the Dutch for this one. Anyone piles up a mound of dirt somehere and it's a dam. Doesn't seem to matter whether there is water about or not.

boma: fenced enclosure. I'd heard the term before, but I thought it just a strange and exotic term. But somehow being in South Africa made me realize that people need a word for the concept. And for me, like so many other nouns, the word assumed the form of the thing itself, and the word and the thing became inextricably linked. So it was with boma.

Evil Twin

I am torn between two people: the person who I want to be, and the person that I am. In recent years I have become quite adept at projecting the person I want to be to the world, but the person that I am keeps tapping that motherfucker on the shoulder and telling him to get out of his spot. Wish these two could just sort it out.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Sparky's Dream

I didn't pay enough attention to Teenage Fanclub back in the 1990s, a sad fact that I am earnestly trying to rectify. I find myself wholly captivated by their dreamy, effortless pop sensibilities. Check out this 1995 song, "Sparky's Dream."
If she lived in space, man...
I'd build a plane
Out of luck so beam me up
To hear her talking again

It gives me goosebumps.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Scientists Discover Nothing!

Some University of Minnesota astronomers have found the largest expanse of nothing in the known universe. Knight of Nothing's patron patch of the sky, at last! This apparently empty space measures a billion light years across, more than 1000 times bigger than scientists would expect a void in the universe to be. That's a whole lot of nothing to contemplate. Who says you can't get something out of nothing?

Friday, August 24, 2007

Good Night, Mr. Potter

Author's warning: This is mostly an opinion piece. I tried to avoid placing any spoilers in this essay, but purists who have not yet finished HP7 may want to skip the post, just in case.

I'm not rightly sure how I feel final installment of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. There were definitely some satisfying moments, and it was at times a thrilling page-turner. But the series had some flaws that simply cannot be overlooked. My hope was that J. K. Rowling would work these issues out in this final chapter. In spite of many fine characters and events, the conclusion of the series left me somewhat disappointed.

My chief complaint with the entire series is that Harry never became the hero he should have been. In the beginning he was impetuous, yet he learned no hard lessons, as a hero must in order to come of age. By the middle of the series, Potter is saddled with so much selfish angst that I was never really rooting for him. In book after book, I thought, "Potter saves the day? Again? Yawn." I wanted Neville to step up! Or Arthur, or Lupin, or Mad-Eye, or any number of other characters. Someone modest, humble, hard-working, earnest - character traits sorely lacking in the titular character.

What is so strange is that Serverus Snape's evaluation of Potter's character - arrogant, lucky, selfish, lazy, impertinent - is really who Potter is! It's difficult to tell whether Rowling put Snape's observations about Potter in the series to reveal something about Potter, or to vilify Snape. She doesn't seem to understand that Snape is right about Harry. And Harry never has an epiphany in which he sees his own flaws laid bare.

Snape, arguably the most interesting character in the series, does not quite get his due in this final book. There are some interesting revelations about him, but ultimately he is not given his proper place in the book. His impact upon Harry seems almost like an afterthought.

Ok, enough complaining. I admired most in the series the story itself. Rowling never impressed me with her ability to turn a phrase, but she had a terrific understanding of how to spin a good yarn. The colorful secondary characters were mostly delightful. And placing each book within a school year was a masterstroke that cemented her fantasy world in reality. Who couldn't relate to the cycle of classes, homework, and cramming for exams?

I suppose it's difficult to overstate Rowling's impact on children's literature and popular culture. She is the richest author in the world, and her series is everywhere. And not without reason: the Harry Potter books really do form an enchanting tale of a world we'd all like to visit.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Bushveld - Africa, Part III

The image I had of wild Africa was wholly informed by nature shows. These programs seem to focus exclusively on Africa's three major biomes: the savanna, the deserts, and the rainforests. So I was surprised by the scenery when I entered the Venetia-Limpopo Nature Reserve in South Africa. What was this rocky, dusty, broken place, filled with forlorn shrubbery and punctuated by huge, writhing trees?

The bushveld is unique to a relatively small area in southern Africa. At first glance, scanning the horizon from a hill, it looks barren, harsh, and devoid of life. But nothing could be further from the truth. With anything more than a cursory observation, the signs of life immediately become inescapable: animal tracks and animal droppings line every path in all directions. Insects, birds, reptiles, ungulates, pacyderms, and carnivores strive and flourish in every corner.

Throughout my years I've hiked in many different areas around North America and I have never seen so much evidence of animal life as I did in my eleven day visit to the South African bushveld. It was astonishing and fascinating. I asked myself many, many times, "how does this landscape support life in such diversity and quantity?"

The bushveld is truly impressive. This environment renewed my awe for the majesty and subtlety of nature.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Wise Proverb

Profanity is the linguistic crutch of the inarticulate motherfucker.
        - bathroom graffiti

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Shutterbug - Africa, Part II

I've probably sent my safari pictures to everyone I know, plus all of their friends, relatives, hairdressers, post officers, and dog groomers. But if I somehow missed you, and you are interested, have a look.

While in Africa I became completely obsessed with taking wildlife and nature pictures. It was so much fun! In retrospect I was probably pretty goddamn obnoxious. Oh well. That's what a passion can churn up.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

There and Back Again - Africa, Part I

It is a thirty-hour odyssey from the Venetia-Limpopo Game Reserve in South Africa to Polokwane and Johannesburg, on through Dakar, Senegal, across the Atlantic to Atlanta, Georgia, and finally north to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Home! By the end of the return voyage I felt a coating of sweat and oil and filth all over my person. My mood was poor and my thoughts were addled and incoherent. But a long, hot shower and a blessed sleep have restored my humanity. I may now sort my reflections on the entire superlative experience.

Africa. A huge continent, teeming with fantastic life and immense power, yet burdened with a myriad of problems. It may sound cliche, but Africa possesses a wild, rugged, romantic appeal. I went for the animals. I was quite unprepared for the scope and majesty of the land. Over the next week or so I'll be assembling my stories and pictures. I'll post as much of the tale of this epic journey as possible.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Leaving, On A Jet Plane

Tuesday morning I shall embark on what will be for me an epic journey. I travel to South Africa to live on a game reserve for eleven days. On this adventure I will be a working tourist, following and assisting some researchers as they study the endangered African Wild Dog. Watching these creatures in their natural habitat will be fascinating, and I'm sure I will be engaged by the scientists' work, but I hope to see all manner of African animals while there.

During this voyage my blog will most likely sit idle: my particular friend and guide tells me that connectivity is dodgy at best in this remote part of the country. So I shall resort to an old fashioned method of recording my thoughts and experiences, using primitive tools known as "pen" and "paper." But in spite of this low-tech solution, I did indulge myself with a new high-tech gadget: a Nikon D40. It is fine entry-level digital SLR camera. I played with it for much of the day, taking pictures of my nieces at a family picnic. I've been pleased with its advantages over my old camera. So not long from now I will be posting some tales and pictures from my trek into the African wilderness. Talk to you soon!

Thursday, August 2, 2007

I Need A Vacation

While I was doing the dishes this evening, my clumsy and crooked red-point Siamese cat Merry, bright gray owing to his romp in the garden, was standing over the giant kibble in the dog food dish helping himself. Crunch! Meanwhile my little black Pomeranian Durin can't get enough of the cat food. What is wrong with you people?!?

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Well, Duh

"I'm no expert in engineering either, Tom, but I can tell you that bridges don't just collapse without a reason."
        - Minnesota Public Radio Announcer. <Click>

Seriously, check this out. I was leaving work right when it happened. My bus stop is near Minneapolis City Hall, about a mile from the scene. Right before my bus came, suddenly dozens of emergency vehicles went peeling out of downtown. I called my wife to ask what was going on, but it had happened so recently there was no news yet. When I got home fifteen minutes later, I saw the wreckage on tv. Unbelievable.

The bridge is a little more than a mile from my house. I drove my wife, daughter, and daughter's friend to the scene so they could snap a few pictures. They got a few good ones before getting booted. Every time I get into the car, I drive over this flippin bridge. No more, I guess. Scary.

I hope that their are few serious injuries and fewer deaths.