June 2007 Archives


Most of my high-level programming is done in Perl -- there are many reasons for this, but one is that it lends itself so well to flights of whimsy. For example, yesterday I was exceedingly delighted to find that this actually works:

use Quantum::Entanglement;

$gas = entangle(1, 'bottled', 1, 'released');
# gas now in states |bottled> + |released>

$cat_health = p_op($gas, 'eq', 'released',
sub {'Dead'},
sub {'Alive'});
# cat,gas now in states |Alive, bottled> + |Dead, released>

Speaking of cats, over at Dynamics of Cats we have ongoing summaries of a workshop on exotic solar systems, including tantalizing hints of possible terrestrial planet(s) next door at Proxima Centauri. Solar sail probe, anyone?

Okay, I'll go to bed now.

Last Week's Reading List


Seeing as I've been blog-quiet for a few days, there's no way I could meaningfully comment on everything I've read recently. So, just the highlights of what I've read in the past week or so:

In the category of science, this article on, er, radiosynthetic (?) fungi made me think of those old Mushroom Planet books. Now if you could just engineer a melanin-bearing lichen that could also tolerate vacuum and taste good, we'd be set.

Also, this is just (extremely) cool, not least for the actual photographs of macroscopic chunks of crystaline helium. Crystaline! And possibly a quantum solid, to boot.

On a different tangent, the NYT discovers freegans. Numerous plugs for freecycle et al.

The Prospect Online has been very good recently. Particularly catching my eye, Ben Adler notes that conservative hacks will go after anything progressive that gains traction; thus Smart Growth has given birth to the anti-anti-sprawl reaction. Drew Westin describes out how Democrats could talk about gun control without either running from the issue or walking right into right-wing narratives. And Ezra Klein reviews Michael Moore's latest and observes that his movies don't actually bear much similarity to the ones the mainstream media seems to be watching:

The particulars of the account all add up to the larger question: Is the America we live in the America we think we live in, and the America we want to live in?

In this, it fits well with the Michael Moore oeuvre, which has always been more complex and incisive than either critics or supporters gave him credit for. Moore has routinely explored the dark edges of the country that don't fit with his, or our, conception of what America is. Roger and Me, his breakthrough film on the decline of American manufacturing and the abandonment of Rust Belt economies, asked how we could allow a once-proud city like Flint, Michigan, to collapse in on itself, and how we could permit those most culpable to blithely ignore its demise. Bowling for Columbine was about our casual acceptance of violence and fear as permanent residents in our towns and neighborhoods. And Fahrenheit 9/11 was about our peculiar willingness to tacitly accept our leaders' relentless dishonesty.

In the aftermath of the Hamas takeover of Gaza (and Haaretz points out that it isn't exactly surprising that the Gazans would turn to Hamas after what they've been puth through by Israel), as it appears Israel and the US are lurching towards the worst possible strategy in response, I discovered the Prospects for Peace blog. Very good analysis of the regional situation.

Seymour Hersh turned in another of his mammoth pieces, this time laying out the Pentagon's studied blindness to what was going on at Abu Ghraib. Good discussion at digby's digs and Firedoglake. An excerpt:

…“Here . . . comes . . . that famous General Taguba—of the Taguba report!? Rumsfeld declared, in a mocking voice. The meeting was attended by Paul Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld’s deputy; Stephen Cambone, the Under-Secretary of Defense for Intelligence; General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (J.C.S.); and General Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, along with Craddock and other officials. Taguba, describing the moment nearly three years later, said, sadly, “I thought they wanted to know. I assumed they wanted to know. I was ignorant of the setting.?In the meeting, the officials professed ignorance about Abu Ghraib. “Could you tell us what happened?? Wolfowitz asked. Someone else asked, “Is it abuse or torture?? At that point, Taguba recalled, “I described a naked detainee lying on the wet floor, handcuffed, with an interrogator shoving things up his rectum, and said, ‘That’s not abuse. That’s torture.’ There was quiet.?

Rumsfeld was particularly concerned about how the classified report had become public.

And finally, two weekend pieces from Firedoglake. Britain:U.S.A.:Great Depression :: U.S.A.:China:any time now -- a sobering economic analogy. And on a related note, how our remaining pristine lands fare when the regulation apparatus is captured by big business.

Digby Revealed

Digby, one of the most eloquent liberal bloggers, and until now only a pseudonym, has finally been lured out of the "Santa Monica bunker" -- it's nice to at last have a face and a voice to go with the words. And while it's been suspected for a while, I'm sure the feminism bloggers are thrilled to officially add Digby to the list of prominent female voices online. Check her out:

People in Flight

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For those in Minneapolis: go outside tomorrow evening at 9:50 and look west. Atlantis undocked from the International Space Station today and will be holding position about 70 km away until cleared to deorbit on Thursday (at the soonest). The pair should be a noteworthy sight.

For those elsewhere, you can always go here to find out when things will be passing over your location.

On June 13 the ISS, with Atlantis docked, passed (roughly) over Minneapolis. It is a rather difficult target to photograph!

So Close to Ordinary

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In the end, perhaps these dreams remain while others slip away because of their nearness to waking life. Inside the Labyrinth reality retreats, but never farther than the play is from backstage. The dividing line is only morning fog, the way out as near as opening your eyes and blinking away the dream. Somewhere along the line I fell through the curtains just so as to leave them disturbed, and when the right light falls upon the right nook the dream beckons again.

Entrances to the Labyrinth I - So Close to Ordinary
Entrances to the Labyrinth I: The Mills
So Close to Ordinary

Here ends Entrances to the Labyrinth I: The Mills. There will be a part II later this summer, and possibly studies and/or rejects to show up occasionally as filler. For now, back to regular blogging.

Rabbit Hole

My dreams of the Labyrinth do not generally come with a white rabbit to lead the way, but the impossible spaces of our collective dreams draw more heavily on Lewis Carroll than Victor Hugo or Neil Gaiman. So much so that in modern colloquy the rabbit hole is the standard metaphor for an Entrance to the Labyrinth. Here among the rust and blasted rubble the rabbit is not here to lead you to a Wonderland. Under a gray sky there are rabbit holes all around, the Labyrinth beckons from every corner. You're standing in a rabbit hole right now; it's the other side that forever melts away just out of reach.

Entrances to the Labyrinth I - Rabbit Hole
Entrances to the Labyrinth I: The Mills
Rabbit Hole

Field of Dreams

The rooftop of a skyscraper catches the attention because you can't get to it. The rusting industrial rooftop isn't nearly so eye-catching, but bathes in the allure of the forgotten expanse. The Labyrinth is, among so many other things, the least obvious way to get from point A to point Q. How many miles could you walk without ever touching the ground, if you only knew the way? Inside the Labyrinth, I imagine that all the rooftops in the world are meanderingly connected.

Entrances to the Labyrinth I - Rooftop Alps
Entrances to the Labyrinth I: The Mills
Field of Dreams

Geometry and Light

In the dream about the stairs in the attic, a dozen floors existed within the eaves of a peaked roof, and when I had reached the very top I stumbled through a hidden door into a ground-floor closet. The geometry of the Labyrinth does not generally abide by the Euclidean measures of the waking world, in either time or space. While sometimes it is the impossibly corrugated space packed into a warren of walls, at others a vast expanse is revealed in a glance by a particular quality of light, then like the woman in the window evaporates when you recognize the component parts.

I suspect that is why Alice's first finds underground were, conveniently enough, drugs that strip the senses of all sense of scale.

Entrances to the Labyrinth I - Geometry and Light
Entrances to the Labyrinth I: The Mills
Geometry and Light


Entrances to the Labyrinth I - Climb
Entrances to the Labyrinth I: The Mills

In one of my dreams about the Labyrinth, there is a theater in the top floor of my dorm, luxuriantly swathed in black. When instead of entering the theater I push aside the curtains at the end of the hallway I pass backstage into a riot of boxes and abandoned furniture. By navigating through here I arrive in the Labyrinth proper, and climb through a dozen stories or more of attic. Sometimes the stairs leap straight ahead, a rickety span across unfathomable dark chasms, while elsewhere they twist vertiginously and pass through forgotten chambers at odd angles. Where the stairs end I can clamber among great timber rafters where they join in a sharply peaked roof.

This dream was so vivid that when I awoke I was compelled to find photographs of the building and remind myself that there is no top-floor theater, that the attic, spacious and eerie though it is, cannot contain a dozen floors of anything. Even counting just the spaces that clearly do exist, our urban environment contains vastly more space than an open field where we have built upwards and colonized the sky. The rabbit holes do not just extend below ground; sometimes you have to ascend.


First, I want to be clear that I haven't yet thrown my support behind any of the aspirants to the Democratic presidential ticket. However, twice in the last month, Gov. Bill Richardson has really impressed me. The first was in May, when his campaign released his energy and climate change plan, which sounds like something off Al Gore's Christmas list and is the boldest such plan from a presidential candidate so far. While he doesn't come right out and say it, an inescapable consequence of his targets is that we'll be forced to do something about SUV-centric, suburban sprawl-oriented cities. Going after land use planning sounds pretty wonkish, but it drives at the heart of Bush Sr.'s doctrine that "the American way of life is not up for negotiation" -- a model that the vast majority of politicians reflexively echo today.

Then just this week I hear about another gutsy move on his part -- he's launched the Deauthorize Now campaign, calling on Congress to revoke the Iraq war authorization now, as in before the summer recess. As noted in the netroots, this is a pretty canny rhetorical strategy, but is also just ambitious.

It's easy to argue that Richardson has nothing to lose by swinging for the fences, since he's running a distant fourth place and suffers from a severe visibility gap as compared to the big three. Also worth noting is that Edwards is pursuing a similar strategy by positioning himself as the anti-Obama: easy on the lofty rhetoric, but long on specific, progressive, and ambitious policy goals. Still, you have to give Richardson a lot of credit for laying all the cards on the table, because he knows as well as anyone that this is the sort of gambit that politicians usually aren't allowed to get away with.

(As an aside, one could also snark that Richardson's energy goals are crafted such that his native Southwest will do quite nicely. Once we phase out half of our petroleum demand, he envisions much of what we still use coming in from Mexico. More importantly, the Southwest is to sunlight as Pennsylvania is to coal or Texas was to oil. But since most voters don't really think on thirty-year political horizons, it's probably safe to say that he won't win any primary votes on these grounds.)

Hiding in the Corner of Your Eye

Entrances to the Labyrinth I: Blank End
Entrances to the Labyrinth I: The Mills
Blank End

Here's a question: how much can hide in the corner of your eye? Worlds, actually, as any stargazer will tell you, recalling the comets, stars, and whole galaxies she has seen only in averted vision, finding that they slipped back into velvet invisibility when looked at straight on. The bird will flee if you walk directly towards it, just like the dream that dissolves into impressions as you race to commit it to words. In our cities dreams have been accumulating in the dusty corners while attention blazed against the gleaming and the manicured. If you don't look too hard the blank wall of the dead end turns aside to allow entry to the Labyrinth just out of sight.

Living on a neo-Gothic campus in Chicago such corners were everywhere, and it was while steeped in such spaces that the Labyrinth first began to twine through my dreams. Now I live in Minnesota, but the dreams persist, and in Entrances to the Labyrinth I will explore the very real places in Minneapolis that exude the haunting, forgotten, or incongrous nature that remind the alert passerby of the dreams hidden in the corner of his eye. One doesn't seek them out, nor travel long distances to find them, and the photos of series one (The Mills) and two (to follow) were taken within a ten-minute walk of my house. Follow along as I suggest, if not truly capture, the vast domains tucked into a few square blocks of city.

High Road, Low Road

Entrances to the Labyrinth I - High Road, Low Road
Entrances to the Labyrinth I: The Mills
High Road, Low Road

In one sense the everyday world is the negative space of the Labyrinth, the vase between lips about to touch, the places that clearly do exist wedged in amongst the far larger spaces that should not or can not exist. The incongruous, the abandoned, the forgotten passageways are natural access points. For whom is a door intended that opens into a dizzying empty expanse? For what the boarded door into the earth, guarded by the illusion of fangs?

Entrances to the Labyrinth


It's rare enough that I remember my dreams, but I do have at least one that recurs and reliably lodges in my memory. More or less. There's no particular plot, and the setting varies in ways subtle and outright, but the atmosphere and valence persists, like different scenes from the same film. With the innate knowing peculiar to dreams, it is always clear that the place is the same. In waking life most familiar to urban explorers and parkour acrobats, it's the hidden geometry of the mundane world, the places concealed in the corner of your eye or behind forgotten doors.

In the dream, it is called the Labyrinth.

This is the first entry of a photo series titled Entrances to the Labyrinth.

Entrances to the Labyrinth I, Step Right In, The Door Is Open
Entrances to the Labyrinth I: The Mills
Step Right In, The Door Is Open

Zero-Tech Solar Still

A solar still made with pottery-age technology, shown in cross-section.

Let's say you're stranded on a desert island, and you've found an outcropping of clay and a way to make fire, but your water supply is unreliable. You might make an item along the lines of the pot I've sketched here. Then you'd fill the outer ring with seawater, close the lid, and put more seawater in the depression atop the lid. Place in a sunny location or on the hottest sand you can find -- the coals of your campfire would probably work nicely, too. The point is to get the bottom hot, while evaporation keeps the lid cool, so condensation forms and drips into the central catchbasin. When finished, find a reed or similar to use as a straw and drink your freshly distilled water.

The caveat is that this is about the most inefficient way you could possibly do this, having no metal or glass to work with. In particular, since you're not recycling the latent heat of condensation, you have to supply the heat from outside. With solar energy this pot will be limited to around a tenth of a liter per day, so you'll have to make a bunch.

I think at least one reader knows why I'm posting this.

Stormy Weather

Intriguingly, there's a hurricane-force cyclone about to hit the coast of Oman. Over on the Weather Underground there's a long blog post about Cyclone Gonu by one of their meteorologists. While the BBC article claims that evactuations are underway, this could be a nasty event if the authorities haven't been paying attention:

Imagine that you live directly on the Gulf, but in a place where it hardly ever rains, and where a hurricane has never hit, for at least a generation -- for more than sixty years. Your community and many like yours are situated not only directly on the water, but near or in large dry riverbeds on the coastal plain, which is a narrow strip of sandy shoreline that is the dropoff for the three-thousand-foot mountain range behind it. ... And you don't have any idea what storm surge is...

Of course, most of the world is rather more concerned with the economic importance of this region, and after sideswiping Oman the cyclone is headed for Iran and the Straight of Hormuz. oil prices have been jumpy this week as a result. Again from the meteorology blog, a troubling note:

This is an unprecedented event. NO CYCLONE has ever entered the Gulf of Oman. And there are no custom 'storm surge' models available for that area. This forecast is based on my experience and subjective analysis of the seabed slope and storm surge interaction with the sea floor. Considering the region has never experienced a hurricane, let alone a strong one it is highly unlikely the loading facilities or platforms were constructed to withstand the forces

On the bright side, we've got plenty of troops in the Persian Gulf region who, I'm sure, would much rather help clean up after a hurricane than drive around dodging IEDs in Baghdad.

Clouds gather over the old Pillsbury Flour sign.


This winter my Urban Winter photographs gave me a lovely way to fill in the slow weeks. I'm fixing to start a new series of photographs. This one is not part of that series, and is mostly me showing off my new (well, only a few months old) camera.

Incidentally, since the new version of MT makes it trivially easy, most photos of mine posted here are clickable and link to a larger version suitable for desktop images or printing.

The shrub in my front yard is covered in tiny flowers this time of year.

Waay Down South

McMurdo aerial view
An aerial view of McMurdo station taken by the NYANG.

Enjoy cold, the outdoors, and the prospect of working in the weirdest town on the planet? Just in case you're ever interested, this is where you'd go to apply for a job as support staff at McMurdo station in on Ross Island, Antarctica. Apparently "Craftspeople such as carpenters, electricians, mechanics" are in highest demand.

Last night I had a few beers with a collaborator who's been on four or five Antarctic ballooning campaigns, and he happened to mention that the drivers, cooks, mechanics, and other support staff make up the bulk of McMurdo's population. Which makes sense if you think about it. Lousy pay, but good benefits, free food and lodging, and nothing much to spend your money on anyway -- all US citizens are eligible to apply.



Collaborators leave town tomorrow; then I rejoin the outside world.

As a followup to the previous post, Andrew sullivan goes on to do some research and makes very, very explicit the parallels between the "enhanced interrogation" of the Bush regime and the "enhanced interrogation" of the Gestapo.

In Norway, we actually have a 1948 court case that weighs whether "enhanced interrogation" using the methods approved by president Bush amounted to torture. The proceedings are fascinating, with specific reference to the hypothermia used in Gitmo, and throughout interrogation centers across the field of conflict. The Nazi defense of the techniques is almost verbatim that of the Bush administration...

The victims, by the way, were not in uniform. And the Nazis tried to argue, just as John Yoo did, that this made torturing them legit. The victims were paramilitary Norwegians, operating as an insurgency, against an occupying force. And the torturers had also interrogated some prisoners humanely. But the argument, deployed by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and the Nazis before them, didn't wash with the court. Money quote:

As extenuating circumstances, Bruns had pleaded various incidents in which he had helped Norwegians, Schubert had pleaded difficulties at home, and Clemens had pointed to several hundred interrogations during which he had treated prisoners humanely.

The Court did not regard any of the above-mentioned circumstances as a sufficient reason for mitigating the punishment and found it necessary to act with the utmost severity. Each of the defendants was responsible for a series of incidents of torture, every one of which could, according to Art. 3 (a), (c) and (d) of the Provisional Decree of 4th May, 1945, be punished by the death sentence.

It occurs to me that no matter how many medals and pardons Bush hands out as his term winds down, the next President would be well within his or her rights to extradite the whole lot of them to Brussels. I bet the ICC would be delighted to take the case.

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This page is an archive of entries from June 2007 listed from newest to oldest.

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