“Civilization creates for me a thousand other worlds that have little to do with my senses, a thousand illusions among which to choose. It is one of the functions of much of contemporary education and politics to convince me that my choices are limited to these creations. Were there a television in my home, it would spend twenty-four hours a day convincing me that life is either a series of dangers and disasters or an endless series of shallow and banal encounters with uninteresting people. Magazines and newspapers tell me the same story. Shopping malls connected by broad paved highways are filled with objects presented as the rewards of existence–the flesh of the world converted to doodads. Big Science has had a good deal to do with the creation of this deadly alternative reality, and science has willingly lent its hand to the great effort to to convince me that the evidence of my senses and the intuitions that arise from their use are illusory.
“But there is a scientific practice that precedes Big Science, a devotion to patient and scrupulous observation of the world and its creatures. I have come to love this discipline, now known as natural history, which delves ever more deeply into the physiological and behavioral differences between my species and others. There is an explosion of this kind of knowledge accumulating in our era, driven by an increasing awareness that many species are disappearing and that we know desperately little about them and therefore little about how to save them. …”
People wiser than myself suggest that letting go of the past is a key part of being a mature adult, or at least helpful in maintaining one’s sanity.
And maybe baseball helps you learn that: You delight in your successes, suffer through your defeats, and savor the beauties of the game. Then you move on. Win or lose, there’s always next year. You start with a clean slate and take in the new season as it comes, with all its surprises.
But then again, if you haven’t reached that level of growth and acceptance that allows you to watch a pitcher walk in a run without cursing under your breath, baseball can be an exercise in disappointment and can lead one into the depths of bitterness, cynicism and despair.
Take the Oakland A’s. After last year, a season in which they executed a transformation from contender to bad joke, fans would be foolish to expect much from the team. Yet we — and here I mean my family and I — re-upped our partial season tickets, signing up for another season of fresh air and high beer prices and a roster loaded with unknown quantities.
The A’s played their opener Monday night and had what they call a capacity crowd — capacity at the Oakland Coliseum having been reduced by one-third several years ago by blocking off most of the stadium’s upper deck. Well, it’s nice to have a full house on opening night. It’s an occasion. But the next night is probably a better indication of where the fans are at.
And Tuesday night — our first game of the season, and a beautiful night to sit outside and watch baseball — the announced crowd was 10,000-some. Eyeballing the stands, most people we talked to guessed the actual attendance was substantially lower than that — maybe 6,000 or 8,000. (Next door, meantime, the Golden State Warriors were playing before a sellout crowd — something like their 170th in a row.)
Although the team’s business and on-field strategy is a little inscrutable at this point — it apparently no longer includes the concept of assembling a winning team, for instance, let alone hanging on to productive and popular star players — one suspects that an empty stadium for the season’s second game isn’t a sign of the franchise’s robust health.
But somehow, the A’s bend over backwards to make those few who decide to attend their games feel extra welcome. Last night’s game featured a “guest services” guy in our mostly empty section who descended on everyone who took a seat to check their tickets. With tens of thousands of vacant seats, you wouldn’t want people to sit just anywhere they feel like — people shouldn’t get an iota more than they paid for.
Kate and I flew to Nashville Wednesday so that she could attend a national conference of science teachers and so that I could tag along. There would be plenty to do in Tennessee’s state capital, but as soon as I thought about coming out here I had only one destination on my list: Shiloh.
For you who have been poring over your James McPherson or Shelby Foote or who binge on Ken Burns, you know that Shiloh was one of the principal battles of the Civil War. More than that, its 23,000 casualties — the dead, the wounded, the captured and missing — signaled that the war had the potential to be very long and very costly.
I have visited other Civil War sites: Gettysburg, Antietam, the little house where Stonewall Jackson died after Chancellorsville, and others. But this visit is different somehow. My interest has evolved. I’m still interested in the ebb and flow of battle and who did what where, and I’m still curious about what could move human beings to endure and inflict the cruelty that typified the Civil War battlefield.
What’s changed for me is that the war has lost that quality of right, of honor, of transformation and finality that it had for me when I first encountered Civil War stories and when I first visited a battlefield when I was 17. Historians have long since re-evaluated the war in light of the South’s postwar racial code and enduring political power; in light of the North’s antebellum economic dependence on slavery and on Northern whites’ widespread rejection of the notion of racial equality.
So now the war is something different to the world, and it’s something different for me as well, part of a process that’s still being played out. It’s an interesting frame of mind to bring to a place dedicated to remembering the terrors and accidents of a single confrontation in the war.
I got to the battlefield on Thursday, late in the afternoon, just as a very heavy downpour began. I spent at least a half hour in my rented car down by the side of the Tennessee River, at the site of the landing that the Union commander, U.S. Grant, used to get to the battlefield after his army was surprised by a Confederate army on April 6, 1862. I wasn’t channeling thoughts about what it must have been like on that day; I was just listening to the din of the rain beating on the car (a rented Jeep Patriot if you’re hungry for details).
Eventually, I drove up to the battlefield headquarters, then strolled through the national cemetery where most of the Northern dead (and some from the South) were interred. I took some pictures, but felt that in some way I wasn’t connecting with the place. It started to rain again, so I left and started a drive around the battlefield. Hardly anyone was around.
I happened across the site of the church from which the battle took its name. I was surprised to find that there is a working church there — built in fits and starts from the 1920s through the 1950s, as well as a cemetery that apparently goes to the founding of the original church in 1851.
What caught my attention first was the fresh decorations on many graves. When I stopped and looked, I found many fairly recent burials. In fact, a former governor of Tennessee, Ray Blanton, was buried there in 1996.
But a more modest grave, one of those closest to the road, caught my attention: Jewell Smith. Born Sept. 10, 1904. Died Oct. 10, 1918. At first, I didn’t notice her photograph, a very serious portrait, embedded and well preserved in the headstone.
What happened to her? No real idea. But her date of death suggests something to me: the great influenza pandemic was sweeping the United States in the autumn of 1918.
Nearby was another headstone with a photograph: Freeman A. Cotner, died in 1951 at age 38. The portrait is striking because he’s wearing a uniform of some kind, maybe with a badge, definitely with a gunbelt. Oh, and there’s the horse.
Cotner was killed in a highway crash near Fayette, Mississippi, along with his apparently sometimes-estranged wife, Mary Sue Tawwater Cotner. They either ran into the back of or head on into a large truck on U.S. 61. Their daughter, Linda Elois, was with them in the car and survived. Of note: Cotner’s mother-in-law held a separate funeral for his wife, who was not buried with him.
A few weeks ago, I downloaded a Chrome browser extension that, when you open a new tab, shows a current (or at least very recent) view of the full disk of the Earth as captured by Japan’s geostationary Himawari 8 weather satellite. Himawari produces high-resolution images of the Earth — the kind you can lose yourself in for hours if that’s the kind of thing you like.
Anyway, I noticed last Friday and Saturday that the full-disk image was showing a huge storm someplace in the northeastern Pacific. I wondered whether I could find a better view of the images online, and sure enough, NOAA’s Regional and Mesoscale Meteorology Branch (RAMMB to its friends), which inventories a lot of satellite images, features a Himawari Loop of the Day.
The loop for Saturday, March 26, was titled “Intense Low in the North Pacific.” Hit that link and it takes you to a movie — you need to have a little patience for the download — of the storm I was seeing in the full-disk picture. The image above is a frame from the movie.
It’s extraordinary. Or maybe everything on Earth is extraordinary if you have a chance to sit back and watch it for a while.(One note on the movie: A shadow crosses toward the end: that’s night falling as the Earth rotates. But the surface details are still visible because of GeoColor, a system that blends visible (daytime) and infrared (nighttime) imagery. GeoColor is also responsible for the reddish appearance of cloud tops in the nighttime images.)
Below is what the storm looked like on a conventional surface weather map: a sprawling, intense system with sustained winds over 60 mph forecast to occur 500 miles and more to the south and southwest of its center. The storm was producing monstrous waves, too, with seas as high 34 feet.
We’ve had .42 of an inch so far today (it’s 1:30 p.m. daylight-saving style) to go with the 6.48 over the past nine days.
The rain has prompted me to return to an old wet-weather routine that Kate and I have called, in a nod to a favorite writer and a favorite series of articles in The New Yorker, “the control of nature.”
When we moved into our house in April 1988, it was noted in some document somewhere that there was a sump pump on the premises. I found out where the pump was and why it was there the following winter.
Our house has a crawl space. Our lot is on a slope paralleling the course of Schoolhouse Creek. The stream itself has been moved underground, but as we found out one very wet December day a little more than 10 years ago, too much water arriving all at once can, along with a clogged storm drain upstream, bring the creek back above ground.
Water appears less dramatically in our crawl space, and that’s why there’s a sump pump down there.
Usually, a murky pool will gather in a spot that’s been excavated to allow access to the crawl space. Sometimes, as in deluge that arrived early the morning of New Year’s Day 1997, the space will start to fill. That was the one and only occasional the pump, installed in a little concrete well built around our floor furnace to keep the heater from getting flooded, turned on.
Perhaps one reason the pump hasn’t been more active is because I try to keep the crawl space drained when I see water gathering there.
Control of nature requires gravity and a garden hose. I take the full hose, stick one end of it into the watery crawl space. Then I run the hose down the driveway — 30 to 40 linear feet and 3 to 4 vertical feet — to the street.
I set the hose running last night about 9 o’clock. It’s still running. How much water has come out of there in that time?
I tried to calculate the rate by measuring the flow into a 1-cup measure (yes — this has the possibility of introducing a large error; but let’s just agree I’m not being perfectly scientific). In four trials, the cup filled up in about 6 to 7 seconds. Based on that, I figure somewhere between 32 and 38 gallons are draining out every hour. And that would put the total for the 15 hours or so the thing has been running at 480 to 570 gallons. Which is more than I would have guessed.
While I’m poring over state and federal databases and pondering what it would be like to live through a year with 145.9 inches of rain (Cooskie Mountain, in the King Range of southern Humboldt County, in 2006) or a month with 43 inches of rain (Gasquet Ranger Station, on the Smith River in Del Norte County, December 1996) or 42 inches in nine days (yes, it happened: Bucks Lake, Plumas County, in January-December ’96-’97), let me record what we have actually seen here in Berkeley the last week or so:
Friday, March 4: .46 inches
Saturday, March 5: 2.61 inches
Sunday, March 6: .50 inches
Monday, March 7: .46 inches
Tuesday, March 8: 0
Wednesday, March 9: .13 inches
Thursday, March 10: .87 inches
Friday, March 11: .46 inches
Saturday, March 12: .99 inches (and counting)
That’s a total of 6.48 inches in nine days, as recorded on our cheap, semi-dependable (it’s very close to neighboring totals reported on Weather Underground) Oregon Scientific wireless rain monitor.
A pretty rainy spell, the rainiest this winter by far.
Among the slow-motion trends we observe in our corner of Berkeley is the proliferation of white elephant items left on the streets — everything from ratty furniture to unwanted books to antique all-in-one office machines (complete with manuals) — with signs saying, “Free.”
It’s not that the stuff is all garbage. Kate and I found a kind of abstract art print in decent condition a year or so ago and brought it home and hung it up. Maybe that’s more of a statement about relaxed taste than artistic merit, but we felt it was worth the effort to pick up and carry home and didn’t change our minds when we took a second look at the thing.
For the most part, though, what you see out on the curbs and at the end of driveways is crap of dubious utility. It’s stuff put out on the street with the hopeful delusion that even though your dog finds the old couch repulsive, someone out there would be happy to have it. They would welcome the chance to fumigate and reupholster it. After all, it’s free.
Every once in a while, though, someone dumps their castoff item in the public right-of-way with a note that seems to say, “Who are we kidding? This is junk, but we’re leaving it out here for the amusement of you, the passer-by. Maybe you’ll even take it away.”
Witness the item above (and attached message, below), a dated piece of office equipment with a topical note appealing to those who wish for the days before everything we do could be captured on a server somewhere and preserved forever.
Science Friday filled its New Year’s Day show with some greatest hits segments, including an excerpt of an interview that Ira Flatow did with filmmaker Werner Herzog, novelist Cormac McCarthy and physicist Lawrence Krauss in 2011. It’s an absorbing 21 minutes, and I’ll have to go back now and listen to the longer version.
At one point, Herzog made an observation about the transience of human life on Earth: “It’s quite evident that human beings, as a species, will vanish and fairly quickly. When I say quickly, maybe in two or three thousand years, maybe 30,000 years, maybe 300,000, but not much more, because we are much more vulnerable than other species, despite a certain amount of intelligence. It doesn’t make me nervous that fairly soon we’ll have a planet which doesn’t contain human beings.”
Herzog explains that while it’s a possibility humanity could self-destruct, he’s really thinking more about “events … which would instantly wipe us out.”
Krauss readily agrees that a catastrophe is “likely to happen. That will inevitably happen anyway.” He adds that one of the rosier scenarios he sees for our kind is that we’ll eventually be superseded by our own creations — the computers.
Then he offers this takeaway:
“So I think, you know, we may disappear as a species just because we become irrelevant, as well as being destroyed. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. That’s just – that may be the future. . . . We shouldn’t be depressed if we disappear. We should be thrilled that we’re here right now. . . . That just means we should make the most of our brief moment in the sun.”