Monday, October 5, 2009


Looking for a bibliographic reference recently, I searched for "Saint Paul Jewish tax" in a popular search engine. And wound up with a bunch of non-profits based in St. Paul, Minnesota.

"The Jewish Community Council of Greater Saint Paul" has a very odd ring to it, doesn't it? (Two odd rings if you listen to the juxtaposition of "greater" and "Paul")

Friday, October 2, 2009

How do you do this again?

R. Levi son of Rabbi says: A pure menorah came down from heaven. For the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, "And you will make a menorah of pure gold" (Ex 25:31).
Moses said to Him, "How shall we make it?"
He said to him, "Of beaten work [shall the menorah be made]" (ibid.)
Nevertheless, Moses still found difficulty with it, and when he came down he forgot its construction.
He went up and said, "Master of the Univers, I have forgotten how to make it!"
The Holy One, blessed be He, showed Moses again, but he still had difficulty.
He [God] said to him, "Look and make it," and finally He took a coin of gold and showed him its construction.
Still he [Moses] found its construction difficult.
So He said to him, "See and make it" (Ex 25:40) and finally He took a menorah of fire and showed him its construction.

Yet in spite of all this, it still caused Moses difficulty.
Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to him, "Go to Bezalel, and he will make it."
He went down to Bezalel, and the latter immediately constructed it.
Midrash Tanhuma, be-Ha'alotkha 6, quote in Steven Fine, Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World, p. 101

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


I recently came across a CD of the soundtrack to That Thing You Do!, a movie I didn't see when it came out in 1996 or now. I vaguely recall having seen previews for it, and thinking, "oh, another cute Tom Hanks movie." (Is it at all interesting that looking at the release date, it came out the weekend before I met Dr. Fledermaus? Two weeks later and it could have been our first date!)

The premise of the movie is that it's about a (fictional) US rock band in 1964--the rise and fall of a one-hit wonder. And, of course, there's a bunch of music--the title track, of course, is the one hit.

Now, this is where it gets interesting: By vague recollection (again), I think that the music, when it was made, wasn't a bad facsimile of pre-British-Invasion pop, but now, my God! it is straight out of 1995 and couldn't possibly have been made any other time. Not that it's bad, it's just 1995 pop through and through, with a bit of a nod to the early sixties.

Stylistic dating. It works. (Whoa, wait, that sounds like an internet dating service ad.)

Monday, September 28, 2009

A Proposal

I had the rare pleasure of teaching two classes last week, one-shot deals during orientation to discuss the themes of democracy, inequality, and education. It was a great experience—reading three excellent texts (not that I didn’t have my quibbles with them), and spending a couple of hours preparing for a good discussion, and then having a good discussion—two of them in fact.

The thrill of closely reading arguments about the place of education in society, filled with hope—and, yes, criticism (though Martha Nussbaum’s critique of education outside of her model of the liberal arts is misplaced, and Geoffrey Stone’s fears about political correctness have been revealed to be somewhat overstated)—was overwhelming! I could have taught a three-quarter sequence based on these essays.

The most striking thing about these essays was they way in which they each recalled Robert Maynard Hutchins’ belief that education was for freedom. The forces restricting freedom which worried Hutchins were Fascism and Communism, but any of these writers would have to agree that Hutchins arguments stand equally strong when the enemy is ineducation—unequal education, that is—in the form of unequal opportunity and the violence it breeds, as well as the anti-intellectualism rampant even on college campuses.

Both the experience and the material—Danielle Allen’s piece in particular—inspired a revolutionary thought. As an institution, the College should require undergraduates and graduate students to teach or assist teachers in either the University’s Charter Schools or through the Neighborhood Schools program. “A university seeks to advance the reach of knowledge through open intellectual inquiry and exchange,” Allen writes, “but presently this university presents itself to its neighbors armed and in uniform rather than carrying books and ideas.”

We believe, as a University, that teaching and research are complementary. We require faculty to teach, and specifically to teach in the Core. Why not require teaching of our students?

I can imagine some of the objections: The students might say: “Oh, that would interfere with my own studies!” I’d suggest that they start by talking to their own professors and see whether they view teaching as an unalloyed betterment to their own research. A betterment, yes, but truly a suck of one’s mental energy. No, it’s an investment with hard-to define returns.

The admissions office may say, “But this will scare off high school seniors!” I have two responses. First, do we want more applicants or better applicants? Yes, this will discourage the selfish and the cowardly. It is the job of the admissions office to make students (and their parents) aware of the fact that this is a feature, not a bug. Second, the programs I’m proposing expanding are not a matter of throwing a 19-year-old into a room with a bunch of fourth (eighth/first/tenth) graders. There is (and must continue to be) training and support for student teachers. Yes, this will cost money.

We’re well-positioned to revolutionize higher education. It’s a great leap from complimenting ourselves on 19 graduates earning spots in Teach for America (out of 1,200) to requiring a few years of part-time teaching in the classroom, but this is a University known for having, and acting on, important ideas about education in the past. As Hutchins himself wrote:
The attitude of the University is experimental because it is willing to try some things when success is not guaranteed. It is willing to change if change seems, on reflection, to be desirable. But it is not striking out blindly in the effort to do something new merely because it is new. I might say in passing that almost everything in education is experimental, for we can seldom prove that anything we do is conclusively better than something else we might do, or indeed, than nothing at all.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Urban Homesteading, a Marxist take....

We're in the outer reaches of the Urban Homesteading movement--growing herbs, letting our kid eat dirt, making and keeping good friends in the neighborhood, sharing our stuff with them, fixing what we own and owning less, etc. etc. etc. It comes with liking bikes and good food. Today's reading turned up this bit from Louis Althusser:
In short, the final historical totality, which marks the end of alienation, is nothing but the reconquered unity of the labourer and his product. This end is simply the restoration of the origin, the reconquest of the original harmony after a tragic adventure. . . .
Yet it is only in a formal sense that the final unity is the restoration of the original unity. The worker who reappropriates what he himself produces is no longer the primitive worker, and the product he reappropriates is no longer the primitive product. Men do not return to the solitude of the domestic economy, and what they produce does not revert to being what it once was, the simple object of their needs. This natural unity is destroyed the unity that replaces it is human.*
If that doesn't describe what's going on in the Urban Homestead movement, I don't know what does. On what level folks are trying to return to the natural unity (the italics are Althusser's), as opposed to realizing that they are postlapsarian (or merely postmodern) I don't know. I suspect that self-awareness is pretty high amongst the urban chicken-farmers and tomato-growers. Idealism is, too.

*Louis Althusser, The Spectre of Hegel: Early Writings, ed. Francois Matheron and trans. G.M. Gosharian, (London:Verso, 1997) 137, cited in Robert S. Kawashima, Biblical Narrative and the Death of the Rhapsode (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2004) 207.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

More study

Whilst reading great gobs of ancient history, one's mind can, believe it or not, wander on occasion. The chapter I read at lunchtime today (Mario Liverani's "Telipinu, or: on solidarity," in Myth and Politics in Ancient Near Eastern Historiography, Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2004, pp 27-52) had an epigraph from Freud's Interpretation of Dreams:
The dream discharges the unconscious excitation, serves it as a safety valve and at the same time preserves the sleep of the preconscious in retern for a small expenditure of waking activity.

And so, when, in the middle of the chapter (I'd just finished off a warm bowl of soup), and I drifted into the half-awake state known technically as "seated drool," I thought it would be appropriate to remember the things that went through my brain as I drifted into the book, especially as they seemed appropriately historiographic.

I was entering a cave with Telepinu, a Hittite king of the sixteenth century, and author of an Edict, whose contents have provided the backbone for much scholarly reconstruction of the prior century or so of Hittite history. The goal was to enter the cave and come out with Hattushili (first?), king of the Hittites, and his mother the Tawanna (queen, and one of the plausible, though almost certainly insufficient, links to and reasons for Hattushili to claim, the Hittite throne). We had no success; our quarry kept disappearing around corners, and quite frankly, I got rather closer to Telepinu (imagined second-millennium Hittite hygiene is what you might expect) than entirely comfortable.

That's ancient history for you.

Monday, August 31, 2009


I've been reading like a student (200+ pages/day, not counting work) recently, in preparation for exams, and, like a student, I'm brimming with idealism. It may not simply be youth that leads students to idealistic thoughts, but rather the confrontation with radical historical change over time. You can observe how much society changed--let's say in the Levant from the Chalcolithic (late fifth-most of the fourth Millennium B.C.*) to the Early Bronze Age (let's say 3300-2300 B.C.), with the development of early city-states, and then the thoroughgoing collapse of that social structure and a widespread return to seminomadic pastoralism for a few hundred years, followed by a rejuvenated "urbanism" (politism?) in the Middle Bronze Age. Even changing burial practices (to give a classic archaeological example) are evocative: The Early Bronze periods are marked by multiple graves, where a family would inter its members together--indicating at the very least a strong social connection and attachment to a place over generations, and I suspect rather more: a desire to remain with one's loved one in the afterlife. At the beginning of the Middle Bronze, the dead are buried alone--sometimes in graveyards, yes, but no longer sharing quarters with a spouse or parents or children (or all, and more) for all eternity.

So what does this all have to do with scholastic idealism? In short, seeing such radical change makes one realize that radical change is possible. Seeing radical change fall short, and sputter, collapse, and reverse itself--as at the EB/MB transition--but then burst forth again--in the great Canaanite city-states a few hundred years later--makes one realize that the path to change is never a smooth arc (either upward or downward!). Yes, it can be another way that smart people can be so stupid. But it's also another way that they can be so hopeful.

*Current academic habit is to indicate dates in "B.C.E." and "C.E." standing, it is said, for "Before the Common Era" and "Common Era." The old habit of "Before Christ" and "Anno Domini" ('in the year of the Lord') is felt to be exclusive (not to mention, well, wrong by about four years). Slapping a new name on something and calling it the "common era," in my opinion, both denies its origins, and implies that it's a commonly agreed upon era, when it's really one that was imposed by the military might of the Holy Roman Empire, and, more importantly, the administrative and educational capacity of the Catholic Church. The Republic of China, from 1912 to 1949 used the term "Western Era" for the Gregorian Calendar (thanks, Wikipedia!) a happy usage indicating both origins, foreignness, and (perhaps grudging?) acceptance on the basis of utility.

Physicists and geologists can use the more felicitous abbreviations MYA and BYA (millions and billions of years ago, respectively)--does that indicate a lower (more realistic?) opinion of how long their work will remain in circulation? C'mon, people, Thucydides thought he was creating "a possession for all time" and you can't write a Science article that will last five hundred thousand years? Well, maybe MYA and BYA are just CYA.

One last digression. Obviously, "anno domini" is a theological statement, and "before Christ" can be taken as a historical one. Thankfully, I'm in the happy position where I can focus my research on the 'negatively-numbered' years. Perhaps it would be an amusing challenge to write a dissertation on Hellenistic Judaism without using any AD/CE numbers. One could "go native" and use Seleucid dating, or the Livian standby, AUC, or perhaps merely reckon from the Creation of the World.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"Astronautical soap opera that suffers from interminable flight drag"

That's from Jack Gould's review in the NY Times of Star Trek (the TV series) upon its first appearance, Sept. 16, 1966 (p. 56). The oddest things get cult followings.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Follow-up rant: Patent 7, 041,042

I'm calling B.S.

So the reason that I posted the picture of the bottom of the airsickness bag was...what the hell are they patenting? Like no one's made an airsickness bag before?

Having read the patent I'm calling B.S. again, and doubly. As mentioned, no one's made an airsickness bag before? No one's made a plastic seamless-sided bag before? It's not blindingly obvious to use the latter as the former?

Secondly, the very bag I held in my hands and which you see a picture of below, was imprinted with no "indicia" or "graphics comprising instructions for using said tubular member in the event of nausea." That imprinting is one of seven claims of the patent.

There's a patent examiner out there who needs to look me in the eye and tell me that this will "promote the progress of science and useful arts." As someone who makes a living from intellectual property, I'm keenly aware that invention, discovery, and creation need to be made profitable. I'm also keenly aware of when something stinks. And this one smells as bad as its intended contents.

OK, rant over. Now that I've gotten that out of my system, I feel much better. Hey, maybe it does work, after all!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

I have this awesome idea

A collapsible container for relief (or at least catchment) in the
event of airsickness. Oh, wait, someone's thought of it already.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Careers in Writing, Editing, and Publishing (I)

I've been doing a lot of panels for students recently (grads, undergrads, and, most desperately, soon-to-be grads) on the ever-popular topic of "Careers in Writing, Editing, and Publishing," and I've been saying some of the same things often enough that distilling them into a blog post makes for a worthwhile pursuit. In order to keep my day job (in publishing) I'll lay this out in a few posts, tentatively to be:

  • Why "writing, editing, and publishing"?
  • What jobs are there in writing, editing, and publishing?
  • How to get the skills I need for writing, editing, and publishing jobs?
If anyone has any suggestions or questions for topics to explore, leave 'em in the comments and I'll try to answer them.

Why would I want to work in writing, editing, and/or publishing?

  • You like words.
  • You like ideas.
  • You like people.
  • You like to tinker.
  • You like books.

I've put these in the order in which they occur to me, but I think that's a pretty good indicator of their importance. Do you like to play with words, making puns, anagrams, or spoonerisms? That's a plus; it shows an appreciation for language and a sense of precision about word usage. You have to know the proper meaning of a word, after all, to be able to make a joke on it. You'll be dealing with words all day long, in one context or another. You'll be writing emails, reading manuscripts, editing on a line-by-line basis, or on a more global level. You'll be explaining how things work to authors; you'll be explaining the content of a book to others.

Liking ideas ("content" in the argot of the businessmen of the Information Age) is equally important. Do you get excited about your classes? Have you ever said, "This book changed my life!"? If your heart gets sped up by novels, history books, or biochem--or, better, yet, all of the above--then you can take a genuine interest in a field, or an approach to a field. Any job in publishing requires, to one level or another, an investment in the content of a book, and the more naturally you get invested in ideas, the easier your job will be.

Creating books (and magazines, and web sites, and anything else that one might read) is a social activity. Yes, sure, there have been some recluse fiction writers, but before you set your heart on a cabin in the woods with a typewriter and a cocker spaniel for company, note that J.D. Salinger hasn't published since 1965, and his biography is parallelled by others' (Djuna Barnes, for example, or, from another realm of artistic pursuit, Terrence Malick). Writing requires human contact; you bounce ideas off others, you say things aloud to see how they sound, you observe others' emotions and try to capture the rhythms of their speech. I'm reminded of the scene in Norman MacLean's story, "Logging and Pimping" (if I recall correctly), where the narrator realizes that the couple in the next thin-walled room (hooker and john) are enjoying each others' company in iambic pentameter. A true event? More or less, probably--but a probable one, one which was based on being in the company of others. I needn't even start in on scholarly or non-fiction writing as a social pursuit. Any ideas you're going to publish need to be battered into shape in a group of smart people who know the topic and the evidence before they're anywhere close to being ready for print.

Tinkering, bricolage, improvement--the process of editing, in particular, is one of taking a good thing and making it better. But so is book design, for example--you're taking something and making it presentable, giving it a handsome, useful, and also socially meaningful form. Writing just as much so--and it's even harder, since you have to be able to see the flaws in your own work, and flex your imagination to find patches for them.

I've put books last on the list of things you enjoy because, while books are pleasurable things, items of great utility and beauty, with virtues too numerous to list, they are historically contingent, and if what you're interested in is writing, editing, and publishing (and you're at the beginning of a thirty or forty year career) then you'll do well to think of formats other than the 100-1,000 page bound book. If you're passionate about books, then you can think strictly in terms of bookmaking (if you're passionate about anything, then go for it!). You can follow the model of Crumpled Press and make beautiful books by hand and for the love of it. Be aware, though, that you will be in the artist-to-artisan pay scale. You will work your tale (I meant that) off for the love of it, and the rewards will not necessarily be exchangeable for many goods and services. Ponder whether you love books...or reading. Look at your shelf of books: is it a collection...or a library? And decide whether you're interested in a career in books...or in words.

I knew I wouldn't be able to resist adding one more thing. Do you like systems and rules? Did you read the drivers' manual for fun when you were in high school? How about the Rules of Baseball? When you eat ice cream out of the carton, do you take careful scrapes off the top so that it stays level as you eat? OK, that last one may be a personal thing. But the sort of mindset that you need in order to take pleasure in many of the tasks of W, E, and P, is one that is aware of (and takes pleasure in) rules and consistency and the like. Yes, you can take pleasure in breaking those rules, but ignorance of them is by no means bliss. What is more, you can take pleasure in the creating of those rules, whether it's in the form of rewriting The Manual of Style or in creating a house style for an animal-behavior blog.

Tomorrow: What in the hell do you people do all day?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

In order to keep my bike-blogging credentials intact

You ain't part of the blogosphere unless you posted this video:

Seriously, this is one of the coolest things I've ever seen. The opening is great, with just a hint of the failures and falls on the way to doing such awesome stuff. This type of bike riding is called "Trials" riding, and there's a circuit, with competitions--you have a course that you either have to complete in a certain time, with time penalties for "dabbing" (putting a foot down) or maybe there's a subjective judging element; I forget. The point is, if you ever see a poster up for "Bicycle Trials" at your local minor-league hockey arena (or similar venue), go! It will be awesome. I saw a TV segment on this once as a kid, and ever since, it's been something I've aspired to.

So far, all I've succeeded in doing is learning how to bike really slowly.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


I was thinking last week, as I got dressed in the dark--wait, I should explain. I was dressing in the dark, in the locker room at work. It's not as weird as it sounds, well, not as publicly weird: we have a single-shower locker room, one user at a time, so no one knows that I take off my coat, gloves, and sweater(s), and change my shoes in the dark (until now). I thought to myself, "I do this for the energy savings, but it's great preparation for sailing and camping and the like." And it's true; I can dress very efficiently in the dark, now.

That sort of thought--A (what I'm doing now) is excellent preparation for B (what I'd like to do)--is one that comes easily to me. And it helps get through a boring task, like changing one's shoes, if one can think of it in terms of future adventues. And, yes, there's a downside: you can fall into the habit of thinking of things in the future and missind the present.

But I'm writing now about the upside. The habits I form (keeping the lights off, for example) create not just skills but an approach to life: efficiency with energy and materials (not so much efficiency with time, as all who know me well will attest), for example. Camping, biking, sailing, working, living: it's all the same thing. What's the most efficient way to get from here to there? What's the best habit to be in to use the least energy, in as many circumstances as possible?

In the vivid past tense, as opposed to the generalizing present, here' a quick summary of the weekend's camping expedition (Full details, with pics, may be forthcoming. I won't promise, however). In short, it was fantastic. Fifteen of us (Bat Jr., Dr. Fledermaus, twelve students, and I) piled into cars and headed off to the Dunes for some hiking, beach football, hanging out around the campfire, and general relaxation. Oh, and wrestling (I won, if I may brag just a wee bit).

To continue the philosophizing, actions form habits, and habits form character, as Aristotle teaches in the Ethics. But you also have to remember the Poetics and that character and action must fit together. And sometimes you find yourself in situations for which you're unprepared. And if you're me, as I sometimes find that I am, those situations for which you feel completely unprepared often involve your interaction with automobiles.

It's not that I'm entirely opposed to them; it's just that I've become less and less comfortable with cars.

And, they are probably uncomfortable around me. Or they should be, if they know what's good for them. As we were packing up to head home, I needed to give the clamshell trunk of the Element a hip-bump to shut it. There was only one problem: the top half of the Element's trunk is at belly-button height, not hip height. So, I did what any normal red-blooded American male would do. Actually, I didn't. Rather that shoving it with the hands, I stood behind the car, jumped up and bumped it with my butt. And shattered the back window.

Let me repeat that, because I hardly believed it with my own eyes when I did it. I put my own ass through the back window of our car. Brilliant. Oh, and did I mention it was raining?

Anyhow, after we drove back to town (I was sensibly banished to riding shotgun in a student's car), I had to drive to Logan Square to have the window replaced (by the good people at Fernandez Used Auto Glass). It was terrifying, like a scary movie where bad things keep happening but they're never quite bad enough that you know that's what the movie's been bulding up to. A car accident happened in front of me, for example. I saw two bikers riding down the same street as me and wanted to offer them a ride, just to protect them from my karma--when I changed my route to get away from one of them and he turned up in front of me three blocks later, I thought to myself, "God damn it, man! You're doomed! Get away!" I felt like a self-aware Oedipus, and accepted our joint fate.

It turned out that fate had other things in store for me. I got the window repaired, and, under strict admonition to avoid highway speeds until the glue set--I visited the new REI store in town (I was very impressed by the huge bike selection, and hugely lucky that today was the quarterly garage sale, so I came away with a big ol' bag of goodies--shoes, gloves, a random set of kayak deck bungee hardware, and a 16" BMX wheel--for about twelve bucks), as well as Sam's Wine (getting a thank-you gift for BatDog's weekend walkers), and Zaleski and Horvath, a place I'd been desiring to visit since it opened.

The delivery of a fresh hot latte to Dr. F, and the delivery of a thank-you note within hours of the incurrence of the debt of gratitude, have, I think, set karma aright in the Dingbat household. An evening of hockey certainly helped, too.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Weekend plans

We're (along with 15 of our closest friends) going camping this weekend. Just a quick little jaunt to the dunes, more than an S24O (that's "sub-24 hour overnight"), less than an expedition. It's fun to exercise the camping skills and knowledge--left maturing for some years. True, we've had two- and three-person trips, even a two-family campout in Michigan last summer. But nothing so, well, Boy-Scoutly: a mix of experienced and inexperienced campers, all very eager (and honestly I've very little confidence in my ideas of what they're eager for).

It will be fun. And we will so our best to prepare and then forget that we are in charge; that is, to release the responsibility for each person's having a good time to the campers themselves.

In other news, our camera tells us that we are about to shoot its ten thousandth picture. A sunset on the beach, perhaps?

Friday, March 6, 2009

A Brief Introduction to Carbon Fiber, with a brief excursus on metal, and butter.

This topic came up on an email list I'm on, so I thought I'd write up this little reliving of high-school organic chemistry as a blog post.

The virtue of carbon in particular is that stretch and bend can be very carefully controlled. Carbon atoms have four very strong bonding sites, which enable it to bond together into very controllable structures. You can make strings, sheets, or three-dimensional solids. You may have heard of these three-dimensional highly pure carbon lattices; they're called diamonds. That should give a sense of how strong carbon bonds are.

But for things like bicycle building, you can get your carbon atoms to bond together into a flat surface, and then you layer a bunch of these flat surfaces together, and it works like a truck's leaf spring: You have a very strong material and you can control the way that it will flex and bend by the way that you orient the fibers. (Laterally stiff yet vertically compliant, yes!)

And if you get more-or-less randomly oriented fibers, then they'll be in microscopic sheets bonded together by occasional cross-sheet single bonds--and the sheets will easily slide off. A great example of this is the graphite in pencils; it easily sheers off under friction into a grey powder--and the sticks of graphite break easily, where a piece of metal of the same thickness would bend.

If you look at the periodic table of the elements, you'll note that Silicon lies right under carbon. It has the same orientation of four bonding sites but for various reasons, those four bonds are less flexible than carbon's--you basically can't make silicon fibers like you can with carbon. But the properties of high-purity solid silicon--better known as glass--are familiar to us. Solid glass has a pretty random assortment of bonds, like pencil graphite, but most of them will be three-dimensional bonds (when you increase the number of three-d bonds, you make crystal glass), making glass a very strong material (stronger than wood, in fact). That's why you can build very tough things like boat hulls from glass fibers embedded in a flexible matrix.

That's the usual failure mode of carbon fiber as well; once it goes beyond (or in a different direction from) its designed flex, the whole thing can just explode (in a better scenario, some of the layers go and you have enough warning to stop the use before the whole object gives way.

But when it breaks, it breaks catastrophically: if some atom-to-atom bonds start breaking, the rest of the material isn't flexible enough to bend; the whole thing just gives way. Similarly, when you look at broken metal pieces, they're either twisted and stretched or they've parted suddenly and you can see the crystalline structures inside them, due to either bad metallurgy, or (if I understand correctly) in the case of alloys, flexing.

If you want to understand metallurgy, get your hands on a stick of butter. First, break it in half and note how it crumbles at the breaking point. Then knead it for a minute: you can use a knife in a dish, or you can do what pastry chefs do and work it under cold water (there's a reason you use ice water and butter to make pie crusts!). You'll find that the material becomes much more flexible and stretchy, much less likely to break and crumble. This is what you want if you're making puff pastry (very thin layers of butter and flour) and also what you want your metal to be like if you're making something like wire, that you want to be flexible and strong, or a bike frame. The real genius of metallurgy is making things that will be strong and tough and springy--something that butyrology has yet to master!

The Other Big Problem with composites, in my book, is their irrecyclability. The epoxy matrix in which they're embedded is very tough stuff, but it can't be melted down because it's made of big complex molecules; they have to break down chemically, and it's not practically feasible at this point to reverse the chemical reactions that it took to make epoxy. (If you've dealt with epoxy, you know hoe much heat it gives off as it cures; all that energy would have to go back into the epoxy in order to break it down, and heat alone doesn't do it.)

Once composites start getting soft; they can't be melted down and re-used but they also can't be trusted with your life and safety. That's the reason why many (most?) dumps have an express prohibition on boat hulls of any kind.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Chicago way

I've told people before about Chicago's method of "fixing" potholes:
1) put barrier over pothole.
2) wait for car to smash barrier.
3) repeat 1 & 2 until pothole is filled with broken barriers.

Here's the method in practice.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Juxtaposition: University of Chicago Alumni opportunities

Today there came in the mail an offer for "Around the World by Private Jet: An exploration of the world's greatest treasures & legendary places"--a trip sponsored by the University of Chicago Alumni Association (I didn't get invited. They must target their advertising by graduation year).

Cusco & Machu Picchu! Easter Island! Samoa! Great Barrier Reef! get the idea. Oh, and at each leg of the journey, there are alternate options, seeing Xi'an, China, instead of Tibet, for example, in case you've BTDT. All this for the mere pittance of $56,950 per person.

Are you free November 1-24, 2009?

It was the dates that caught my eye, and made me immediately think of the email that I'd received from a graduating (class of '09, having finished his physics major and also learnt a fistful of languages in three years) student the previous day:
Yesterday I received my official nomination to serve in the
Peace Corps in the republic of Turkmenistan as a teacher,
from September 29, 2009 to December 11, 2011. Tomorrow I
will accept this invitation, which is a binding commitment.

Bravo, MSK!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Someone should write an opera...

In brief: the Fausto Coppi-Gino Bartali rivalry of the pre- and post-WWII years was defining for a generation of Italians, probably for a generation of Europeans, and certainly for a generation of racing bicyclists. You were a coppiano or a bartaliano, and it was as much an urban/rural or class division as a sporting one. The fact that those two were so often so much better than others, and so often only challenged by each other, reflected and provided an opportunity to sublimate serious social differences.

Jeff MacGregor said it well: "So in a time when the very words have been debased by overuse, a truly great sporting rivalry -- an "epic rivalry" -- is a rare and precious thing. One made possible only by athletes or teams who define and then expand not just each others' limits, but the limits of the age in which they compete. Opponents at the very peak of their powers, equals, who transform one another. Always at great cost. Which is why "Ali/Frazier" remains the standard measure of a modern American epic, and speaks to the needs of our culture as fully as "Gilgamesh" or "Beowulf" spoke to the needs of theirs." (Hat tip to LC for the quote.)

Coppi didn't stop cycling until his death at the age of 41; Bartali, the conservative and (relatively) clean-living of the duo, lived to be 85. But, and here is my service to you, readers (are there any librettists and composers amongst you?), shortly after Coppi's death, Bartali wrote a brief memoir, "Coppi and me," for the French Magazine Le Miroir des sports. Belgium Knee Warmers has now published the article in four parts: Here is a link to the first.

It's heartbreaking to read, and so easy to translate Bartali into a mirror of Peter Shaffer's Salieri, knowing greatness--and trying so hard to best it, to destroy it, even. And to be sentenced to live long enough to see greatness achieve immortality, and one's own near-greatness forgotten.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Wildlife is God's way of getting rid of drunken tourists

This just in. Well, only three weeks ago.

But can't you picture the pandas sitting around talking: "You know, dude, I'm a vegetarian. Even if they come in, I'm not biting 'em. . . . I mean, look at them, so helpless, and almost intelligent." "No way, I'm chowing down. If God didn't intend for us to eat them, then why would he marinate them in beer before sending them?"