Abstruse Goose: Electronic Man


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?



The Last Word


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)


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.”


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


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


It’s Time to Evolve. Yes, You Too.


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

An Arctic Encounter


Bering land bridge, artworkTraveling in the north country, the open-skied Arctic of North America, you can’t help thinking of the first people and their journey across the Bering Land Bridge to this side of the world. They would have arrived in what is now Alaska and the adjoining Yukon Territory.

The landscape has not changed much in the estimated 23,000-40,000 years, since the first faintest sign of people appears.

In my 20s, I spent a summer floating rivers in that region, mostly the broad, swift, chalky-colored Yukon, which flowed right through the heart of a Paleolithic human landscape. After about 650 miles in a blue canoe on the Yukon, my partner Todd and I paddled out of the mountains into the flat Alaskan interior.

North of the Arctic Circle, the Yukon River looks like a jug of water spilled across a table. It runs 20 miles wide in places, an anastomosing mess of braids and channels looping around countless marshy islands spindled with black spruce.

This far north, the sun made circles around our heads, hard to tell one day from the next. Like a tilted hula hoop, the sun’s course barely touched beneath the horizon before climbing into the next dizzying day. I preferred the bow as we entered the flats. My partner, Todd, took stern behind me. Being in front, I could not see our strapped-in jigsaw puzzle of gear filling the canoe, or the back of Todd’s baseball ball cap. Instead, I saw only the river spreading in all directions, maybe a few fist-shaped cumulus clouds, and the dark skim of forests on faraway shores. Sending out my paddle and drawing it back, I felt like I was leaning into a creation story, the world forming as we passed into it.

Continue reading

New person of LWON: Craig Childs


CraigChildsLeafToday, we bid temporary adieu to Sally Adee, who is going on hiatus for a while. We are trying not to mourn, because she promises to return to LWON at a later date. In the meantime, it’s my pleasure to welcome Craig Childs as the newest person of LWON. I first met Craig backstage at a reading, and I was instantly awed by his gift for storytelling. On stage that night, the words he’d neatly scribbled on field notebooks came alive with his animated reenactments. He doesn’t just observe the world, he touches it and tastes it. Craig is no stranger to LWON. As a guest poster, he’s written about a grizzly skull with a bullet hole wound, ice and ice ages on our planet of swinging seasons and the history of dogs and humans walking. He’s written numerous books about nature, science, and his vagabond adventures. His latest is Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Future of the Earth. Welcome Craig, we’re delighted to have you here.

Photo by JT Thomas.


The value of collegiate sports


CUnatChampsAs I’ve followed the NCAA basketball tournament (join me and some folks from Radiolab tonight, as we live tweet the final game), I’ve been thinking about the value of collegiate sports. My first experience with sports in college came as an NCAA division I cross-country runner. I lettered in cross-country at the University of Colorado my freshman year, but a freak knee injury cut short my collegiate running career. Though I had no experience in the sport, I started training with my school’s Nordic ski team, and I also bought a bike and joined the cycling team.

Cross-country and skiing were both division I, NCAA sports, but cycling was governed by its own body, outside of the NCAA system, and was overseen by club sports, rather than CU’s varsity athletic program. The difference was immediately noticeable. As a varsity NCAA athlete, I received special treatment — advance, preferential registration for classes, private tutoring if I needed it, and excused time from class to attend practice and meets, not to mention free tickets to all sporting events. This special treatment fostered a sense of privilege. We were part of the student body, but we were treated as if we were somehow above it.

My teammates and I were good students, and we were there to get a degree, we didn’t expect to make a profession out of sport. Nevertheless, as varsity athletes, we understood that performance was expected of us. Our sport was no hobby — we were there to win.

Things were different on the cycling team. Continue reading