A Hometown Hero, A Foreign Flag

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Vladimir_Putin_and_Vic_Wild_24_February_2014Last Saturday, my daughter and I went to the opening day of Little League season. In our small town of White Salmon, Washington, it’s a day for classic Americana: The players chase their coaches around the bases, the Boy Scouts raise the Stars and Stripes, we sing the Star-Spangled Banner, and a local celebrity throws the first pitch.

This year the pitcher was Vic Wild, a White Salmon native who won two gold medals in snowboarding in Sochi. When the announcer called his name, Wild, in dark sunglasses and a flannel shirt, jogged to the pitcher’s mound. He grinned and shrugged, then wound up and let loose a pretty good pitch. The crowd went crazy.

What nobody mentioned—not the announcer, not the kids, not the smiling parents—was that Wild, who graduated from the local high school and trained on nearby Mt. Hood, didn’t win his double gold for Team USA. He won it for Russia, and there are photos of him with Vladimir Putin to prove it.

How did our town come to celebrate a Russian champion? Continue reading

Going Once, Going Twice

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423286736_06177b6366_zSpring is in the air, and with it comes the cha-ching of candy-bar sales. Of jogathons. Of hordes of students (and their parents) trying to raise money for books, for field trips, for the art program that’s on the chopping block, for scholarships.

In some places there are also auctions. Here, we have themed auctions where you dress as gypsies and aging rock stars. We have silent auctions, in which you hover around sheets of paper in front of gift baskets, writing down your bid. We have live auctions, where you—well, I’ve never been to one, but I imagine people start by demurely raising numbers into the air and then, as the night wears on, hollering uncontrollably at the auctioneer. This isn’t Sotheby’s, after all. This is preschool. Continue reading

Losing My Math

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transit of venus

In playwright David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work Proof (later adapted into a film starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jake Gyllenhaal) there’s an exchange between a young mathematician and the daughter of his recently-deceased mentor. They’re at a party and discussing the use of amphetamines by older mathematicians:

Hal: There’s this fear that your creativity peaks around twenty-three and it’s all downhill from there. Once you hit fifty it’s over, you might as well teach high school.

Catherine: That’s what my father thought.

Hal: I dunno. Some people stay prolific.

Catherine: Not many.

Hal: No, you’re right. Really original work – it’s all young guys.

That was in Act I, Scene III. What was it Anton Chekhov said? According to Ilia Gurliand’s memories, it was “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one, it should be fired.” Right on cue in Act II, Scene II, we see the weapon used. Continue reading

Abstruse Goose: Electronic Man

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i_sing_the_gadgets_electricAG’s mouseover says, “When I forget to charge my phone at night, my existence feels incomplete in the morning,” meaning I guess that he’s become as one with his electronic devices.  But as I know because I’ve been writing an interminable story about insomnia, AG’s identity as an electronic device is just the God’s truth.  You don’t sleep — it’s called “nonrestorative sleep” — you don’t recharge. I read once that our bodies’ cells are powered by breaking down a molecule called adenosine tri-phosphate into, first, adenosine di-phosphate and then adenosine mono-phosphate until we’re left with nothing but adenosine.  And (huge logic gap here) those ravelled sleaves of adenosines and phosphates get knitted back up only during sleep.  I suspect I’m making up most of this but wouldn’t want to let facts get in the way of a good story. I mean, something like this must happen, right?

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http://www.abstrusegoose.com/561

The Last Word

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CraigChildsLeafApril 7 – 11, 2014

This week we say a sad but temporary ciao to Sally and a delighted ecco! to Craig Childs, and no, I don’t have a clue what he’s doing in that photograph.

Sports programs measuring themselves by winning instead of by kick-ass players who also know how to lose are, says Christie, purely missing the point.

Craig goes to the back of the frozen beyond and meets, of all people, a lost, hungry, and maybe even stupid Japanese tourist.  He suspects this has been the case for centuries.

Just quit arguing about evolution vs creation, says Erik.  Your opinion doesn’t matter and you know the whole thing is best as entertainment anyway.

Helen turned out to have nailed the date of peak bloom of the DC cherry trees.  Oh spring, you’ve been gone so long, we missed you so much, and you’re such a blessed sight for sore eyes.

I watch Garwin: the Movie; in the opening scene, a precise old hand spills out a pillcase next to a keyboard and in the sky, the blossom of a mushroom cloud unfolds.

 

Garwin: the Movie (UPDATED)

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IMG_2990 (1)Garwin: the Movie opens with an old, steady, precise hand on a computer keyboard, scrolling through now-declassified* documents.  Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower make announcements, and newspapers flash headlines about our splendid new hydrogen bomb.  Then the blossom of a mushroom cloud unfolds; and John F. Kennedy talks about Russian missiles in Cuba; and the same old hand places a pill case near the keyboard, then dumps out his pills. Lyndon Johnson explains the complex problems of Vietnam and soldiers shoot their way through a jungle, and the old hand is tieing up a necktie.  Walter Cronkite reports Three-Mile Island, and the old hand pulls on a suit jacket and slings a heavy backpack over his shoulder.  The oil wells of Kuwait explode into a fiery smoking darkness, which becomes the smoking darkness of the Twin Towers, which slides into the tsunami slipping in slow motion over the drowning towns of Japan; and the old hand picks up an umbrella, and a heavily-burdened, slightly baggy old guy in a nice suit and tie stumps out onto the sidewalk, gets in a cab, and goes to DC.  The film title slowly spells out the name, Garwin.  The old guy gets out of the cab, slowly, creakily — he’s 86, after all — and walks past a group of anti-nuke demonstrators, stops and looks at them for a second, then walks on.  He’s seen them before.  He walks into the Executive Office Building.  You know, he says, the president and his national security advisor, aside from their positions, “are really just ordinary people.  And they need to make decisions and they don’t have time to learn.  So the only thing that really works is education.”

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Richard L. Garwin, a physicist and inventor, has been educating politicians on the scientific realities, whether they want him to or not, in every administration since Eisenhower’s.  He educates them on the physics of nuclear weapons, missile defense, jungle warfare, burning oil wells, terrorist attacks, and of nuclear plant meltdowns. The people who made the movie about him, Richard Breyer and Anand Kamalakar, originally pitched a film on the history of science in America, using Garwin like Zelig or Forrest Gump, they said, because at important moments in history, he always showed up.  “But when we got to know him and hung out with him,” Kamalakar said, “it evolved into this other film about a person who built this horrible thing and worked his whole life to dance around it.” Continue reading

Waiting for Peak Bloom

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2012 peak bloomIt was a long winter in North America.  The kind of winter where you think, well, that must have been the last snow storm, and then it snows three more times. It seemed like this might be the year when, Narnia-style, winter never ends.

Here in Washington, we gauge spring by the cherry trees. The peak bloom for the most famous variety, the Yoshino cherries, is short; you can pin it to one day. The National Park Service defines it as the day when 70 percent of the trees are blooming. It’s been as early as March 15, in 1990. After the cold winter of 1958, the Yoshino didn’t peak until April 18.

This year’s peak is supposed to fall sometime between now and Saturday. The Park Service meticulously tracks the Yoshino blossoms in a chart on the Cherry Blossom Festival website. Every phase has a delightfully specific name. Green buds appeared March 16. “Florets visible”–March 23. The florets extended March 31, the day after the last snowfall. “Peduncle elongation” hit last Friday—a sign that peak bloom is 6-10 days. Monday the buds got to the “puffy white” stage.

Peak Bloom is coming soon. Continue reading

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It’s Time to Evolve. Yes, You Too.

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A few years ago, I was driving back exhausted from a rock climbing trip in the mountains. My buddy Bryan Fong, was bored and feeling a little punchy. When he gets like this, he tends to bring up politically sensitive topics and starts looking for buttons to press.

In this case, he honed in on the evolution “debate” in the US. He’s a geologist by training and has no problems with evolution. But like I said, he was feeling punchy. He pointed out whether we believe/understand/agree with evolution has very little effect on the real world. In fact, the only ones who care are self-righteous know-it-alls like me (I am paraphrasing – the exact words were lost in my blinding rage).

“Are you stupid?” I remember saying and then sputtering a lot of vague crap about “young impressionable minds,” “competitiveness in the world,” and maybe even “higher truth.”

Essentially the same stuff that Bill Nye said in his debate with Ken Hamm, which has now been discussed far more than it was actually watched. But here’s the thing – and I can’t believe I’m saying this – on one key point, Hamm is kinda right. For most of us, it really doesn’t matter what we think. Do you need to understand evolutionary biology to be a computer programmer? Must you grasp natural selection to sell car insurance? For that matter, do you really need to believe the world is round or that the sun is the center of the solar system to be a good florist or a trader on the stock market?

Continue reading