The Old Man and the We

Those who go down to the sea in boats…

My dad retired after over twenty-two years service in the U.S. Navy. He completed his service as a Commander and served in what I now think of as three wars: WWII, Korean, and Cold. As a result of his service, we moved a good bit for the first 12 years of my life and—very importantly for me—spent two and a half years on the island of Malta when he was seconded (to use the cooler-sounding British term) to Headquarters, Allied Forces, Mediterranean (HAFMED in the strange acronymic language of probably all military organizations everywhere), a NATO subsidiary. To date, I have no idea why he got this plum gig but I think the explicit reasons he took the post were that (1) my mother was dual citizen British and U.S. until she was 18 and this was a way of her introducing her kids to an element of British Commonwealth (aka colonial) culture and (2) he had a much more global and progressive perspective than most of his colleagues in the military. As such, when people ask me where I’m from, I never have a simple answer as I do not have any sense of the place I was born. I was raised in all over.

I actually have a poor understanding of what he did in his day job. What I do know is that on retirement, he used his G.I. bill benefit to return to university and complete his education, started with no great skill or enthusiasm (as he admitted) back in Great Depression era in southeastern Washington state. Apparently, day job or not, he had spent so much time reading during his service years that he was able to place out of much undergraduate coursework and obtained his B.A. with top honors in Philosophy in two years. Anyone who has taken a sophomore or above course in philosophy knows that the stuff is usually written with the eloquence of a legal document without the story-telling prowess usually demonstrated therein. He immediately started work on a History Masters degree, one that required a full-length dissertation (or perhaps he wrote one out of pure bloody-mindedness because he just wanted to), and wrapped that up in a year… with top honors again. This led to employment as an assistant professor of history, which eventually resulted in his advancement to a professorship at a regional campus of a state university.

Now, I provide all of that back-story to place the worm on the hook. I will not be talking about the apparently dull life of the retired Navy officer who becomes a professor and spent most days in his study reading astonishing numbers of periodicals and preparing formal lectures for his classes.

I will be revealing what a very dubious experience (to put it mildly) fishing was with this career Navy man. It is pretty easy to dismiss the idea that he was a sailor in any sense, particularly given the semi-piratical clichés that accompany landlubber notions of sailor-dom. He did not, as might have been true in earlier centuries, spend any time at all running up the mizzenmast or belaying a halyard or battening hatches (well, he might have battened some as this just means to close a hatch in bad weather). I do know he stood by the large guns that pointed out at targets over 8 kilometers distant. He was somewhat deafened by that practice.

But when it came to piloting the 20-foot plywood boat with the 35-horsepower motor, when it came to setting it in the water, running around in the tidal waters that ebbed and flowed around the sea islands he chose for a retirement home, when it came to fishing, it was usually ninety-nine problems versus the fish.

To be analytical, these problems came in two varieties: (1) problems associated with poor navigation and planning and (2) problems of the weather. Neither problem was ameliorated by my father’s inability to convince his kids (my brother and me) into thinking this was all part of the wonderfully complex plan he had intended. Or part of a Robert Louis Stevenson/Daniel Defoe/Samuel Taylor Coleridge/Herman Melville/Nordhoff&Hall/Ernest Hemingway-inspired adventure pitting a man and his sons against the forces of fish and sea. His temperament tended to the choleric, which is sort of antithetical to what is required by fish and fishing.

Although we did fish, usually catching sharks and stingrays rather than what we hoped, we sortied for shrimp more often. The mighty shrimp traveled in schools and spawned in the labyrinth of finger-like inlets and creeks that surround the countless islands of the intracoastal waterways of our new home. To call the complexity of these inlets and islands fractal-like would be doing them a disservice; they were so much more irregular and odd-shaped than even the most complicated Mandelbrot set. The islands in their essence are little more than accretions of silt and long-dead oyster beds festooned at their edges with marsh grasses, building towards the center of any isle of size with yaupon holly, wax myrtle, live oak, and palmetto trees. The shrimp come and go with the tides in this brackish water and as they do, they grow into the tasty question marks we boil, behead, defrock, devein, and dip into a purée of tomatoes and horseradish (I can do without the horseradish bit, thank you!). To get them to the boiling pot, the amateur shrimper must thread their way through the shoals of marsh grass, past living oyster beds and sand bars and submarine ridges of the dark silt the region calls “pluff mud” that lie just beneath the surface of the dark water. Then, they use a circular casting net, weighted at the edges, that can be drawn into form a bundle of sorts. The bundle, if a cast has been successful, contains bunches of shrimp, all of which are snapping their bodies in a seizure-like motion that makes a tiny sound like fingers snapping for attention.

a_fisherman_casting_a_net
Featured image

The next step in shrimping is a less graceful one. It involves removing them, all very busy in their contortions, from netting in which they’ve been snared. You see, pointy ends of shrimp faces are adorned with a rostrum, a sharp extension of their carapace.They also have a scaphocerite, short antennae, chela, long antennae, pereiopods, pleopods, and a uropod, not to mention a segmented abdomen, so they are well-made to get hung up on the interwoven strings that primarily compose a net.

shrimp-anatomy

If you pick the shrimp up without gloves or if the shrimp head is not poking out of your hand, you will get punctured, gored much in the same way a rampaging bull might gore you, albeit without the trampling part of that festivity. The fresh hole in your hand will include an injection of whatever microorganisms were living on the sharp shrimpy bit. It will need attention or an infection may set in (note to my adolescent self: bring peroxide and antibiotic cream on the shrimping expedition; you didn’t back then, but now you know). You will be punctured many times and your fingers and hands will feel numb and tingly, not in a good way. The good news is that this puncture wound is much like those delivered by various fish spines or barbs around the mouth of a catfish; the stingray spine actually contains venom, unlike shrimp rostrum and catfish barbs.

Once the shrimp are removed from the net and sitting in a bucket of water contemplating their future in a boiling pot of water and Old Bay®, the net is arranged for the next cast into the murk.

Of course, this glosses over the very important fact that shrimp do not swim around holding dayglo signs above their schools. The intrepid shrimper has a tremendous number of fingerling marshy areas to visit. One drops anchor (it is tidal water and always on the move), casts a few times to determine that the area(s) chosen have no shrimp who are willing to be gathered, weighs anchor, and moves on to the next picturesque cove in search of the elusive decapods.

And this is where the story becomes one of a retired sailor, two kids, and brackish water instead of about tasty crustaceans (I hope the descriptions above have not put you off; they are rather delicious once their rostrum-enhanced carapace has been severed from its abdomen and it has been deprived of its intestinal tract (aka “deveined“)).

For whatever reason, my father was forgetful about bringing along a very important spare part on our waterway adventures. The spare part is known as a shear pin, a short, skinny cylinder of soft metal that ensures that the outboard motor propeller turns when the engine is running and stops turning when the propeller hits a sandbar, mud bar, oyster bed, a patch of submarine grasses, a bit of junk floating just out of sight, et cetera. Basically, anything that exerts more torque on the propeller blades than the shear pin is designed to resist will break the pin so that the propeller stops turning, although the motor continues to purr happily away. The result of the shear pin doing its duty is that your boat will not be going anywhere unless the currents and tides say so. Well, unless you have oars of some description.

shear-pin
The thing marked “11” is the shear pin

But our vessel was a twenty-foot plywood thing with few adornments other than a steering wheel and throttle up in the front bit and some lengths of plywood along the floor that covered its shallow bilge. It may have had a basic windscreen; I can’t remember. Its primary features were that it was blue and white, it floated, and it was very heavy. Wooden boats float when they are not waterlogged, but wood is not as light as fiberglass or aluminum. They need to be hauled around on a boat trailer and the trailer backed ddown a ramp into the water—submerged—before the boat can be coaxed off its resting place. When floating, an oar or two are usually (but not always) included among the necessary ingredients to ensure an error-free day. But these paddles are most often used to push off a dock or a sandbar or a mud bank. They are not persuasive in the “let’s go home” department, particularly against a current or tide that has a mightier master than paddles wielded by an old man and his adolescent sons. This boat did not resemble a canoe, kayak, or rowboat in any conceivable way. I have looked for a picture of a similar vessel and have found none that are as basic in design. The entire catalog of boats posted on the web and available through Googling “twenty-foot boat” are prettier than ours was or simply are very different. Our boat has gone the way of the dodo bird; it has ceased to exist.

Off we go, a heavy blue boat in the arhythmic chop of the river, outboard running, its deep grumble pushing us through the water, going to some set of inlets where shrimp are presumed to be. There are tall creosoted poles in the water here and there, warning the larger boats (no ships in this river—it is wide and deep but not for them) to stay in the center of the passage. We do this, although we will be veering off into the shallower parts as that is the point of the mission.

fed_channel_marking_sys
Waterway Markers

Eventually, we arrive at an inlet, rumored by someone to be a hot place to cast the net, and drop anchor. We cast—and no shrimp come up. We spread our arms in the graceful way a net must be cast again—sort of a prayer to the dark waters and their contents—in another zone nearby, suspecting that another imaginary cylinder of water is the one that contains the delicious question marks with their pointed beaks and snapping tails. None come up. Now it is just a matter of pulling anchor, starting the motor on low, finding another pool between jetties of marsh grass, dropping anchor, casting the net, and seeing what comes up.

Tidal Marsh 2.jpg
The labyrinthine nature of lowcountry salt tidal marshes
(all rights reserved, Christopher Craft, Indiana University)

Now, let me be clear. All of this moving around in the web of water and grass is the fun bit. It’s mostly peaceful, casting is a sort of beautiful zen-ish experience that has a lot of inherent grace to it—it can even be done fairly well by those who have never done it—and whether there are shrimp or not is really secondary to the pursuit (although getting shrimp, barbs and all, is a good outcome too).

oysters-in-creek-si1
What Lies Beneath… (an oyster bed at low tide, just the right height for an outboard propeller)

Problems start when the outboard is on and in gear, meaning that the propeller is turning and pushing water in a spiraling cone behind the boat. When the propeller is turning, it can hit a submerged oyster bed or sand bar or just the thick ooze of the pluff mud. If there is enough resistance, the shear pin will do what its name implies (is there a word “explies,” because that’s really what is needed here—a word that states that something is explicitly indicated in its meaning).

tidal-creek-bank1
Pluff mud at low tide

As a child on into my adolescence, it was sort of fun to go walking in pluff mud. The stuff smells like sewage, but the chemist in me now knows that this is just the result of deterioration of living things—grasses and creatures—their substance turning into amino acids and other fundamental molecules, some of which contain sulfur (cysteine, homocysteine, cystine, methionine, taurine, s-adenosylmethionine, etc., all the way down to hydrogen sulfide). The good thing about hydrogen sulfide is that we can smell it at very low concentrations. The bad news is that at high concentrations it is lethal to human beings. The mud, outgassing hydrogen sulfide and other volatile sulfur-containing compounds, is not telling us it will kill us outright. It is more subtle than that. If you walk into it and lack the strength to extricate yourself from its powerful ooze, you may need help getting back out. In tidal waters, it is important to get out before the water rises above your head. Death by pluff mud is not common. Fear associated with the sense that you are stuck, your shoes have disappeared somewhere in the sticky holes your legs have made, and your next step will place you knee-deep in the dark clutch of that heavy, smelly sump of life, the fear is real and common, particularly among the senselessly brave people we call “the young.” Pluff mud may hide something far more sinister than suction, though. It may hide old oyster beds or shells abandoned to the waters at some time in the past. Those oyster shells all have edges that will lacerate a foot, ankle, calf, or arm (it is common to try pushing yourself out of the mud’s grasp by giving it your arms to sup on while it is busy with your legs) and open cuts that will bleed into the mud as happily as they will bleed anywhere else.

So, here we are, leaving one shrimp-free zone and moving to another zone, hopefully shrimp-enhanced. We are moving slowly but we are moving under power. The propeller hits something and we stop moving. We try turning on and off the motor. We tilt the motor out of the water, reach down and find the propeller is spinning freely, that no connection exists between it and the driveshaft. We are, in the modern sense as surely as in the ancient one, dead in the water. We will go where currents and tides take us. If there is a wind, it will move us as well, but we are no longer capable of moving on our own.

There are various ways in which this scenario plays out from this point on:

  1. Not only have we sheared the pin, we have beached ourselves on the submerged mass of whatever description we will soon learn when the retreating tide reveals it
  2. We have now learned that we do not have a spare shear pin
  3. We reach for the oars which we know we placed in the boat and find that we did not place the oars in the boat as our memory tells us we did, thus giving us no choice about what to do next
  4. One or more of us exits the beached chunk of plywood, temporarily not much of a boat, and tries to prise it off the mud, sand, or oyster bed, thus losing our shoes and sinking in mud, cutting ourselves on oyster shells, or (and this was the best of the outcomes) finding that we could push ourselves off the sandbar and go on our way
  5. We have and oar, we push ourselves off the impediment without issue but find that we are now simply adrift with an oar, maybe two, in our hands and no conceivable way of using them to “row” our way back whence we came
  6. We have had the good luck of freeing ourselves, absent shear pin, but it now starts to rain in some very exhaustive and punishing way, filling the shallow bilge and covering the plywood that keeps the bilge hidden, thus requiring the use of containers meant for shrimp, which were not caught, to be used for bailing
  7. During the bailing, one of us finds that the fish hooks, being at the ends of fishing lines which are spooled out from the fishing poles we brought with us, hoping that if shrimp were not caught we could catch something with fins, those fish hooks are floating about at the ends of the lines and, against all probability (as they are quite small and the boat is much larger), they skewer my brother’s thumb with the deliberateness of an arrow shot at his finger by William Tell himself
  8. We are drenched, we are oarless, we are pin-less, we are skewered, we are beached, we are shrimp-less, our vessel overly full of murky water, and we are at the mercy of others
  9. Who, somehow and against all probability, arrive and tow us back to our landing and our boat trailer, looking much like a set of freshly washed felines would look if they were leashed up and taken for a pleasant walk around the neighborhood.

So, this is why I don’t fish.

And then there is the toadfish. A picture will suffice:

toadfish
The Toadfish, nature’s answer to the angler’s prayer

The problem with all of this is that it is now uncommon to find wild shrimp in these inlets; they have been overfished. The shrimp boats once common to these waterways and the Atlantic just off the southern United States, have to go out for longer journeys. Many shrimpers don’t even try anymore. The haul does not pay for keeping the boat maintained, much less running after the increasingly elusive morsels that used to be so common. It’s a problem that affects much of fishing worldwide. For me, for my brief history of fishing and longer history of doing it very badly indeed, it’s not a personal problem. It is very much a problem for all of the people on earth who have survived for millennia on the seas’ bounty. We could all take a moment to care for their future as they have helped us enjoy the fruits of their labor in the past.

Fishing

Relax

Fortune

Bounty

Featured image: https://id.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berkas:Camarones.JPG

On The Day

On the day…

On the day the whole sky was filled with rainbow light,
someone said “I don’t like the color red,”
another said “I don’t like the color green,”
another said “I don’t like all these colors lighting up the sky,”
and another said “I wish rainbows came in more natural colors,”
but most people just stayed quiet and smiled
at the beautiful sky full of rainbows
and wished for another day
as beautiful as this.

On the day it rained honey in glimmering drops while the sky shone,
someone said “this is sticky! I need a bath!”
another said “this is too sweet! It should be in a jar for later!”
another said “if this stuff is so good, why do bees let us have it?”
and another said “I like my sugar in tiny parcels I can open as I need them,”
but most people opened wide and
let the golden dew fall into their hearts,
course through their blood, infusing them with
the essence of flowers and sunlight.

On the day the air smelled of jasmine and roses in all its parts,
someone said “what happened to the smoke from burning forests?”
another said “I liked the air better when it reeked of oil,”
another said “I want that stench of cattle farms back!”
and another said “nothing smells better than that new car smell,”
but most people just filled their lungs and let it out,
and did it again and again, relishing the way their chests,
filled up with all the invisibility of delicate scents,
then emptied to prepare for another gulp of what the day had in store.

On the day the earth had mountains and valleys and rivers and oceans,
someone said “what are these lumps? They are too high to climb!”
another said “if I walk into this valley, I have to walk back out!”
another said “the water in this river is cold and the fish bite!”
and another said “the ocean is not a good color and the waves are too large!”
but most people saw the beauty around them
and were astonished that they found themselves alive in such a place
with eyes to accept light and mouths that could gape in wonder
and a brain that kept impressions and memories when the wonders weren’t there.

Fortune 
Enthusiasm 
Calm 

Featured image: Sam Valadi Rainbow uploaded to Flick April 2, 2015

The Crown and Hill Country Summers

Have you noticed that we sometimes inter an idea before it’s actually dead?

Have you noticed that sometimes you stumble into a pattern in your film and television viewing without having a conscious intent to do so? This can even extend to what you just happen to be reading and what music you are favoring as well, but I found myself watching two shows, one on NetFlix, one on Masterpiece Theatre, the U.S. show that mainly imports shows produced in the U.K., sometimes Europe, and packages them as aesthetically and intellectually superior (less true in the realm of contemporary streaming options than in years gone by).

This happened to me recently when The Crown popped up on NetFlix and Indian Summers was running through its second season on PBS. To put reviews to the side, I “enjoyed” them both, although my tastes are suspect in this matter.

(1) I tend to gravitate towards productions that peer into British subcultures (in this case, the ascension and early years of the current Queen Elizabeth’s reign and 1930’s colonialist behavio(u)r in the Himalayan foothills);

(2) I am very interested in how colonialist behavior (“u” implied) continues to permeate so much of how white people behave in their own countries and around the world.

In The Crown, the principal colonialist behavior is seen in how Prince Phillip behaves in Kenya and Barbados, how he speaks about other countries that once were under the none-too-subtle boot of British rule, and how this attitude is seen in other court and government attitudes. Whether accurate or not, it is not shown to be an important aspect of Elizabeth’s thinking, although she is shown to be laughing off Phillip’s boorish comments (and what an ass he is portrayed to be!), which is a complicit form of acceptance in my view.

In Indian Summers, the blatant racism permeates virtually every aspect of the story. Here is a country that has astonishingly deep roots in pre-history (that would be India, or the agglomeration of principalities, etc. that comprise “India”) having to defer to Anglo-Saxons, who started their dominance of the British Isles in around 400 C.E., after the Romans had to end their own colonialist incursions through much of their empire. The British had moved into India, following the Portuguese, Dutch, and others, to establish an import/export relationship in the early 1600s. Once they figured out how profitable these markets could be, they brought their military and seized the whole country. The Indians, when they had to contend with them at all, deferred to the British under threat of imprisonment, violence, and death. The Indians were called all manner of insult to their faces and behind their backs, were treated as less than human, were viewed as incapable of managing their own resources, people, and country. Of course, the Raj ended, India gained “self-rule,” an astonishing concept all on its own, and the grim and unresolved process of partition occurred over the next 30 years (creating Pakistan, Bangladesh, and whatever Kashmir is/should be—no dog in this hunt, just reporting).

The key issue here is this attitude of cultural, economic, moral, national, ethnic, and racial superiority imposed on other cultures. It is this brimming suitcase of beliefs that made subjugation of nations and people possible. The British were by no means the first to do this, of course. They weren’t the last. It’s all too human to come up with a list of rationales for why “some of us” are better than “those people,” and we sort these differences in whatever way suits our needs. We pretend we are better than other family members, near or far. We pretend our family is better than another family, our neighborhood is better than a nearly identical one built one street away, our community holds some superiority to others that are demographically identical, our town is better than another town, etc. When it comes to matters of religion, race, gender, national origin, those of “us” who consider ourselves superior impose a kind of colonialism on anyone we can, particularly if we are reasonably confident that our new “subjects” (use here in the general sense of “those who are subjugated) would not fight back.

What an utterly disgusting and morally bankrupt way for we humans to behave!

In The Crown, it is almost comprehensible how a young lady, raised in the self-aggrandizing hothouse of the British royal family, “destined” to rule after King Edward VIII abdicated to pursue Wallis Simpson, could allow herself to be surrounded by racists, nationalists, colonialists who believed that they were God’s chosen family to rule over the Empire and could tolerate these behaviors. At least until she matured in her thinking.

It is not acceptable in the least how a bunch of expatriated English from non-royal families could settle in the Himalayan hill country and treat everyone around them as inferior. If these people were a hive of bees, they would be the drone bees, male bees whose sole function is to mate with the queen bee (not to be confused with the popular contemporary singer with this nickname). The worker bees, as their name implies, actually do the work, including feeding the drones, that helps the entire hive exist. I have no idea whether drone bees “think” the workers are inferior due to their distance from the queen and their lives of endless labor, but I am sure you get the metaphor here. “I represent the Queen” versus “I work for a living” somehow allows for the superiority of the royal-proximate to those who work.

In the U.S., we seem to be in the throes of embracing this kind of differentiation between our citizens (and non-citizens, for that matter). This morning, I saw the following item in an email I receive from fivethirtyeight.com, a website that is predominantly focused on statistical trends (and also sits on WordPress.com).

$9.5 billion

Total wealth of President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet appointees so far (including cabinet-level positions). That’s more money than belongs to the 43 million least wealthy U.S. households combined. Quartz

The odd thing is that the U.S. chose in the late 18th C. to become something other than a monarchy. It chose a republic system of government, that is a government in which the hopes of the population are represented by elected persons. They chose to break with the non-representative, monarchic, imperialist government of King George III. I suppose it can be argued that we have often elected representatives from our own elite groups to serve as our leaders, but we’ve also elected people from impoverished families who won their battles with inequity and became very effective leaders. In a monarchic system, people from the “wrong” classes do not become leaders… full stop (as the British say). In representative systems, they can and sometimes do rise to the challenge.

A difference between leaders from these two backgrounds—and I’m aware this is a rhetorical difference, as leaders also come from all backgrounds in between—is that the leader from meager beginnings is less likely to forget their past, while a leader from elitist beginnings has no other past than of wealth and privilege. Either can be a great, mediocre, or poor leader. , but I would prefer that I am represented by someone who remembers whence they came.

We are increasingly “represented” by lobbyists for various interests. The more powerful interests wield the most influence in legislation, and so on until we reach the individuals, families, communities, towns, regions, that have no power because they have no resources worth considering, no jobs worth protecting, no money that will buy them a seat at the table. Often, people who have these traits don’t educate themselves to understand how the global economic and political systems work and don’t vote because they believe themselves powerless to make a difference. When they do vote, they often think about what might be, rather than what is. They might win the lottery. A plane carrying money to Fort Knox or a Federal Reserve bank might crash in the woods near their home, making them imaginary billionaires (imaginary because how are they going to spend that money without revealing themselves). A meteor composed entirely of platinum might crash through their outhouse and make them rich.

The odds of each of those happening are roughly the same, give or take a couple of orders of magnitude: for Powerball, the odds are 1 in 292,201,338 (two hundred ninety-two million). If the payout is about $200 million, somewhere around 50 million tickets are sold; only 1 of those people is going to win and have to deal with instant wealth. As the jackpot rises, even more tickets are sold, investing the payout with more “loser’s” money, yet the odds of winning (and losing) remain the same. I actually have no idea about the probability of the plane crash and platinum meteor scenarios, but they are both entirely chance circumstances instead of driven by a particular behavior.

In the 2016 presidential election, about 58% of eligible voters exercise their right to do so; 42% (over 90 million people!) did not, thus deferring their right to the ones who did. Of those who voted, about 48% voted for Clinton and 46.6% voted for Trump. The winner is determined by the electoral system, which assigns exclusive party-designated representatives from each state to cast their vote for whoever wins the most votes in that particular state. Electors are selected through a crazy-quilt of state-specific laws which can be reviewed here, along with other pertinent information. The key factors are that (1) the electors are not given their responsibilities in the popular vote, they are designated by political party rules and are as often as not people with the money/power to get noticed by their parties (i.e. donations, friendships, corporate interests, family interests, etc.) and (2) the electors from each state do not end up representing the popular vote in that state so much as they overwhelmingly represent the internal machinations of their political party.

There are 538 electors nationwide, which is the number of U.S. senators and representatives BUT senators and representatives cannot be electors. So, in 2016 when roughly 129 million people voted, their votes will be “represented” by 538 people, none of whom received a single vote.

Finally, back to my overall point here, we will have an incoming government “elected” by 538 people who did not receive a single vote but who are supposedly representing the 129 million people who did vote (for those of you who enjoy percentages, (538÷129,000,000) x 100 = 0.0004% of the voting population) PLUS (one could argue) the 96 million that chose for reasons only known to them to not exercise their right to vote AND all the other folks who, for whatever reason (and there are many, including youth and various levels of conviction, depending on state) could not vote.

The U.S. population has a lot of that colonialist superiority vibe going on at the moment. “We” elected Trump (although “we” most certainly did not!) because he promised to do all sorts of stuff that pretends to a superiority that just doesn’t exist in the real world. We are all, quite simply, human beings. There are →7.4 billion of us. We all have the same general list of problems because we all live in the same neighborhood. Those problems are health, shelter, livelihood. Sure, a very small number of our fellow citizens have insulated themselves from one or more of these, but they are still affected by those who have desperate issues with one or more of them. There is no U.S. There is Earth, upon which a huge number of biological entities do something called “life,” which varies in its scope so enormously that it fills shelves and shelves in museum warehouses and on overburdened journal shelves at academic libraries around the world—and we still don’t understand it all!

It is a little mind-boggling that all of this thinking came out of watching a couple of dramas on television. For me, though, I watch stuff that MAKES me think, MAKES me consider the world in which I live. What I thought was that our world is still rife with colonialist thinking. Corporations, who still attempt to alienate resources from various countries, who still pay their foreign workers the least they can manage, who still object to the unification of workers whenever they can hire other workers at cheaper rates, are running a colonialist scheme on us all. In this country, they are powerful due to their profits, wrested from foreign soil and foreign labor, and the influence those profits purchase from our government.

The attitudes on display in The Crown and Indian Summers are those of people who believe that everyone who is not them is inferior. Is this who we are? Is this who we are becoming, are we already there, or have we always been this way in spite of our pretenses to being otherwise?

I fear that we have always been this way and that it is not getting better.

Featured image: For no particular reason, the crown of the Holy Roman Emperor, except that it looked misshapen, gaudy, and had a rather unsubtle cross sticking out of its front. By the way, you can rest assured that it is worth quite a bit more than the miners who found the gold and gems were paid for their labors.

Conundrum

Folly

Maddening

Young John and the Farm

In open fields between several small villages, the earth was thick, black, and fertile.

1

In open fields between several small villages, the earth was thick, black, and fertile. It was always moist with night mists and brief, frequent showers but the sun favored it as well, even in the cold months. A family had purchased their freedom from serfdom and found this patch of ground and told a few friends they could trust. They had all had saved and garnered favor from their stewards and gained freedom as well. Those friends passed the message to a couple more. A few modest huts rose at the ragged edge of the land just where the young yews, hazels, rowans, hawthorns, hollies, and birches spread their roots. Older walnut, chestnut, poplar, elm, and oaks grew denser as the forest spread in all directions, regularly interrupted with a spruce or pine, favoring the forest with dense foliage throughout the year. Flocks of redstarts, robins, and warblers fluttered in, calling each other by name and singing praise to the trees which kept them safe. Butterflies flitted about, helping the bees keep the flowers well-tended each season of every year.

At the far edges of this mysterious realm were other villages, a day or more by foot along shaded, lightly rutted roads down which carts could barely pass. Several men had lost their hats to a branch plucking them bare-headed as they rode to market. Continue reading “Young John and the Farm”

The Three Mouse Chieftains

There once was a field as large as a nation.

There once was a field as large as a nation. The field had tall grasses, medium grasses, and short, finely groomed grasses. Among the three kinds of grasses lived a nation of mice and among the mice lived three mouse chieftains.

One was from the tall grasses, wore his fur long and his yew leaf trousers hiked up high around his middle. His mice all tried to imitate their chief, some with matted fur and droopy pants, some with slicked fur and tight shorts where trousers should have been.

One was from the short, well-manicured grasses. His shirt was made of the finest inchworm silk. He wore a top hat refreshed from flowers each day. The top hat was widely found on his mouse followers, although none kept their flowers as fresh as he managed.

The third mouse was from the grasses that were well-tended, planted in rows and not left to grow wild. She wore a vest knitted from dandelion fuzz and wore shoes made of nut husks. While her shoes were made from a rare nut found only in the short grasses, other mice in her region wore any old nut husk they could find. Their unsteady gaits led some to speak unkindly of their silly shoes but this did not deter them.

They were all admired in their grasslands for their fashion sense and ridiculed by mice in the other regions for their silly costumes.

Each of the chieftains had allies in all three grass zones, although each chief drew most of their support from the grasslands of their birth. But this is where they found their differences, although they were all indisputably mice.

Each of the three mice believed in a different being that would save the mice in their mousey realm from predators, save them from being the bite-sized morsels they so obviously were to any creature with fast feet, fluttering wings and sharp teeth or beak.

Each being in which they believed was as difficult to discover as the wind on a still day or the sun at night, yet each mouse believed firmly that theirs was the being that would protect them.

Each chief had known a mouse who had seen or spoken to or heard from the being in which they believed, although none of them had seen or spoken to or heard from the beings themselves.

They were all completely devout in their beliefs and privately ridiculed the other chiefs for believing the fantasies they believed.

The mice overall were a mixed bunch. There were black, gray, brown, and white mice, each with their various shades of fur to make them unique to their families and friends and some of their acquaintances. There were also a lot of mice with mixed furs, gray patches on their white bodies or white patches on their gray bodies, white noses on brown mice and black noses on white mice, mixed colors on their tiny toes too.

The mice did what mice had always done.

They visited each other in their separate grasslands and had cups of tea with their tiny chunks of cheese and nibbly bits of nuts.

They talked to each other about what their relatives and friends and neighbors were doing and spent too much time sharing their suspicions about the mice from other regions, their silly beliefs in laughable magic creatures, and their illogical love for the tall, medium, or short grasses in which they made their homes.

When they visited, some of them secretly fell in love with different furred mice than their own fur kind and, with a rapid wriggle of their noses, whiskers, and chubby flanks made baby mice a dozen at a time.

When their neighbors and mates were not looking, the females would eat some young but that was an accepted practice, although no one wanted to discuss it except in whispers.

Every five years, the mice in all three grasslands would start talking about expeditions to find their protectors.

The mice in the short grasses wondered where the Golden Mole might be. It was said to be as large as one hundred mice and so heavy with gold that it crawled through its tunnels laden with its riches and with its compassion for the mice it shielded from enemies everywhere. Conjecture rose to a heated level, with certainty emerging from all quarters and confusion being the only sure thing. The chief heard all the stories and smiled to himself, preening his shirt to ensure that it was as lustrous as new. He kept his thoughts tucked behind his tongue.

Talk amongst the mice in the tall grasses started as whispers among friends and became a cacophony of speculation: where might the flying squirrel be hiding and how might it be found? The mice known for the finest long fur and best trousers swore amongst themselves that they had seen a shadow hover between the moon and their burrows only last month and that the shadow, rather than being dark was suffused with silver light as if the moon had been amplified by the squirrel’s wide wings and powerful frame. The less fortunate tall grass mice doubted these rumors but said that they had heard the wings slip through the night wind like a sigh and heard a celestial chirping like raindrops on rose petals or the high burbling sounds that come from a brook.

The chieftain in the middle grasses gathered all her wisest, all the silliest, and all the most reasonable mice together in a giant circle. It was time for a chat about the black swan that guarded them. Of course, all of the mice had seen the wonderful swans flying above on their mysterious missions to wherever they went. They saw the lovely white swans on the ponds among the rushes and on the lakes among the rocks. But they had only heard from their ancestors about the black swan that had graced them with its presence at some time in the remembered past. It was the size of a standard swan but so black that light disappeared around it. When it flew, its wings sang a melody so long and so deep that it took a week for it to echo off distant mountains and return to their ears. Or so the stories went.

The mice in the short grass posted sentries at all the holes that could hold a mole.

The mice in the tall grasses kept their eyes peeled for shadowy squirrels and ears keen for sighing wings.

The mice in the middle grasses surrounded the ponds and lakes, dipping their bare feet in the cool water and watching beyond the rushes and around the rocks.

Many reports came in about shadows and sounds, golden rumbles and silver flight, long melodies and disappearing light. But none of them spotted anything they could distinctly say was their protector beast, the one who would keep their predators at bay, during night and day.

A faction grew among all the mice in all the lands that were sick of the promises of a sighting, saddened by the stories from long before they were born, stupefied by the huge number of rumors without any proof.

As happens when factions form, there were factions within the factions.

Some of the mice from the tall, middle, and short grasses now believed in a gryphon (although there were as many spellings as there were regions), a ferocious creature with the body and tail of a lion, the wings, talons, and head of an eagle. Why they believed that such a creature would protect them is unknown to this day.

Some of the mice from the tall, middle, and short grasses now believed in a gorgon, a pale, hairless monkey with a head covered in snakes instead of hair and the tusks of a wild boar. If the gorgon saw you looking it in the eyes, your little mouse body would become a stone and wear away into pebbles and sand as time went by. Why any of them thought that a creature with serpent hair and tusks ten times the size of any mouse would be their friend was unknown… or those who once knew were now stones and could not say.

And some mice from the tall, middle, and short grasses now believed in a unicorn, a beautiful creature with the whitest fur, a silver mane, and a spiral horn growing out of its forehead, a gossamer beard growing from its chin. It was said to be a shy and peaceful creature but some said they admired it for its temperamental nature and fearful stamping of the ground, capable of crushing to tiny pancakes scores of mice with a single cloven hoof during a single tantrum. But its believers believed and that was all there was to it.

While it was clear to all the mice that the ancestral protectors were quite peaceful, even to the factions that embraced these new creatures with their alarming potential for causing harm, a vote was called to see how many of the mice from all the realms wanted to do away with the old myths and start fresh with the new ones. The vote was set for the day and night between the full moon and the waxing first quarter moon.

The full moon came and days were counted down to the waxing gibbous moon, four days out.

When all the votes were counted across the short, middle, and tall grasses and the chieftains, who had been reluctant to have the vote in the first place but relented to a popular notion like most chiefs will, had been informed of the results, a meeting was called in each region.

The tall grasses had voted overwhelmingly to embrace the air as their new protector, for it was everywhere and already sustained them (well, except for the hawks and eagles who swooped through the air and took them off to be pecked at by their young).

The short grasses had found a supermajority wanted the earth and all its stones to be their new protector, for it supported them as they scampered about and gave them places to hide from all their predators (well, except for the snakes who found them wherever they were).

The middle grasses, who believed their chieftain the wisest and most respectful of the three chieftains, had voted for water as their new protector, for it was safely contained in ponds and lakes and provided them with vegetation for their meals and sustenance for their bodies (well, except for the fish and frogs who lived within it and would grab them from land or as they swum and gulp them down in one bite).

And so, it came to be that the old protectors were set aside and the new protectors became the friends of all the mice, for they all saw the wisdom in these choices.

Until, one day, the golden mole, the flying squirrel, the black swan, not to mention the gryphon, the gorgon, and the unicorn, all showed up and demanded to know why they had been abandoned to these elemental beliefs.

While the old triumvirate watched, the gryphon leaped into the air, swooping wherever a mouse could be found on open ground, which was quite common in the short grasses. Soon, all the mice with top hats and silk shirts were torn with claws and gnashed in beaks and only a few mice remained in the short grasses. White, brown, black, and gray, mottled fur and solid fur, white noses, and black toes, all were consumed with the same fury by the ferocious new creature while the golden mole sat by on its fat belly with glistening fur and smiled.

The gorgon, with its monkey legs, snaky hair, and boar-like tusks scuttled about in the tall grasses, turning mice to stone, then picking them up, one by one, throwing them far into the air, watching them crash to the ground and turn to pebbles and sand and memories. The flying squirrel skittered about in the air above, dodging the stones thrown skyward and chirping to itself about the mayhem it saw below, its silver shadow the last sight of many mice.

Then the unicorn pranced through the middle grasses, rearing back, whinnying like lightning and stomping like thunder, turning the terrified mice into pancakes and blending them into the mud that unicorn hooves make of the earth around ponds and lakes. His spiral horn, silver mane, and gossamer whiskers were the last sight the poor mice had before becoming nutrition for the next generation of middle grasses. The black swan grimaced a little as fate was revealed but it quickly became numb to the squeaks that emerged from the well-kept rows of middle grasses. She took to tucking her head beneath her light-consuming wings and napping until the dreadful noise was done.

When the disaster was done and the six protectors gathered to survey what had happened, they realized that no mice were left to believe in them. They were shocked by what their precipitous actions had wrought and felt regret growing in their breasts, for none of them were bad as such, just as none of them were really quite as good in the way the mice had thought them to be.

As they stood, their heads bowed in thought, the earth shuddered, the sky became dark with clouds, and lightning pierced the air. It rained, not in drops or torrents or buckets of water but in nations of water falling all at once. The earth opened in jagged tears and hot, gooey rock poured from within, meeting the water and rising in steam to block the sun and the light from the gibbous moon.

The grasses were all drowned—tall, middle, and short—and the mud became rock through which no grasses would grow. The mole, the squirrel, the swan, the gryphon, the gorgon, and the unicorn were all struck by lightning as they drowned and the world became a place with only three living things remaining: the air, the water, and the earth.

Or

Hyperbole

Tiny

Ancient

(nota bene: As I was searching for an appropriate mouse photo for the featured image, I discovered that a parody version of Homer’s Illiad was written in ancient times called The Battle of Frogs and Mice or batrachomyomachia. The German translation is called Froschmäusekrieg or The Frog-Mouse War. Many other translations exist of this “epic” and there are some terrific illustrations of the frogs and mice going at each other. One complete translation can be found here and on other sites. This did not form the basis of my tale but I found it fascinating nonetheless and thought I would share.

Fire! I Bid You To Burn!!!

When did fire become a thing? Poor old Prometheus… Probably not his fault at all….

When did fire become a thing? No one knows the answer to that question. Fusion certainly occurred before fire—it happens in suns, along with nuclear fission (radioisotopes exist in the sun)—but this is not fire. It appears flamey. It is hot. It radiates through varying segments of the electromagnetic spectrum. But I am going to limit the definition of “fire” to “combustion,” if you don’t mind.

The simplest combustion reaction occurs when pure hydrogen (H2(g)) and oxygen (O2(g)) gasses are combined in a 2-to-1 ratio and given a little energetic push called activation energy (i.e. hydrogen and oxygen will hang out with each other unless they are provided this energy). Diagrammatically, the activation energy looks like this:

activation_energy-svg
Activation energies Ea(X->Y) or ‘Ea(Y->X)’ need to be supplied to initiate the reactions X-> or Y-X, respectively.

The reactants (hydrogen and oxygen in our example) start on the left side of the hump, an appropriate (or excess) amount of energy is provided, and products result on the right side of the hump. The “ΔH” thing on the right side is beyond the scope here but represents a positive, negative, or neutral amount of energy released in the reaction.

The amount of activation energy varies widely from very small (e.g. some explosives) to “no reaction will ever happen regardless of energy input.” Here is what the most basic combustion reaction looks like in chemical reaction shorthand called “stoichiometry:”

2H2(g) + O2(g) → 2H2O(g)

And now, an entertainment of limited scientific value:

Combustion is generally thought to involve hydrocarbons (e.g. octane in the “gasoline” or “petrol” you use in automobiles) or their oxygenated friends the carbohydrates (e.g. cellulose, a polymeric carbohydrate used in paper and present in wood). The simplest combustion reaction is between methane (CH4(g)) and oxygen (2(g)), again resulting water but also resulting in carbon dioxide (CO2(g)) when the reaction occurs efficiently. When it does not occur efficiently or when it occurs in the presence of other substances (e.g. most of the time) it produces by-products including carbon (elemental symbol “C” aka “soot”). Here is the stoichiometry of that simple reaction:

combustion_reaction_of_methane
Combustion of methane in oxygen(with appropriate activation energy added) results in carbon dioxide and water

Methane is commonly known as natural gas, although natural gas is not pure methane when used as a fuel. What the stoichiometry tells us about this reaction is that each molecule of methane uses two molecules of oxygen and produces one molecule of carbon dioxide and two molecules of water, along with an amount of energy released in the process. The energy is used to heat various processes, including home furnaces and water heaters, and used to drive steam and gas turbines to produce electricity.

When octane is used as the hydrocarbon, the balanced equation is as follows:

2C8H18(g) + 25O2(g) → 16CO2(g) + 18H2O(g)

In common English, this means that each molecule of octane requires 25 molecules of oxygen (and that activation energy thing, typically supplied by spark plugs) and results in 16 molecules of carbon dioxide and 18 molecules of water, along with a good burst of energy that drives the pistons, drive shaft, and wheels; the wheels have tires that turn and exert a force against driveways, roads, dirt, mud, water, etc. and the automobile moves forward—or backward—at various speeds as allowed by the transmission.

transverse_engine_layout
A transverse internal combustion engine with the drivetrain for a manual transmission

Candles (if you were wondering where all this leads) are made from paraffin wax, which is a varying mixture of hydrocarbons typically with between twenty (C20) and forty (C40) carbons in their structures. A C20 hydrocarbon like eicosane can have up to 366,319 isomers (isomers all have the same chemical formula of a chemical compound but differ in physical and some chemical properties), while tetracontane (C40H82) has 62,491,178,805,831 (that’s sixty-two trillion four hundred ninety-one billion one hundred seventy-eight million eight hundred five thousand eight hundred thirty-one) isomers (somehow, it seems like more isomers if you spell the number out). The C(xy) compounds between C20 and C40 have numerous possible isomers as well and they increase logarithmically (see chart below) as the number of carbons increase. Not all of these hydrocarbons are in paraffin but these numbers should give you an idea of how chemically complicated a simple candle may be.

log-carbon-no-vs-isomer-no
This website represents output from one method of addressing the number of isomers per number of carbons but it provided a nice Excel-friendly list for my charting purposes. The reference at the bottom of the referenced web page is in German; additional approaches can be found at the link provided at the “discussion” link provided below.

While this already seems like a brain-damaging subclause to our proceedings, the estimates for number of isomers for each number of carbon is actually more complicated than I am representing here. If you have further interest, you can take a look at this discussion. If not, let’s proceed.

There is a standard equation for calculating how much product results from combustion in oxygen of any hydrocarbon; it is:

where z = x + y/4.

This means that in cases where there are 20 carbons as for eicosane, the carbon dioxide and water molecules result in the following way:

2 C20H42(s) + 61 O2(g) → 40 CO2(g) + 42 H2O(g)

or… for each two molecules of n-eicosane (one of about 366 thousand isomers of eicosane) are consumed by combustion, sixty-one molecules of oxygen are consumed, thus producing 40 molecules of carbon dioxide and forty-two molecules of water.

The thing is that it is rare that anyone burns a candle or anything else in pure oxygen. When hydrocarbons are consumed in air, a messier equation obtains to the problem:

Note that carbon monoxide is produced, along with hydrogen gas and the more familiar carbon dioxide and water. This version of the equation is why it is critical to ensure adequate air supply when using a kerosene (or other hydrocarbon-based) space heater in a closed space; the amount of carbon monoxide goes up as the amount of oxygen available goes down. Carbon monoxide, a colorless and odorless gas, causes humans to fall asleep and die due to a special kind of asphyxiation caused by very strong binding of carbon monoxide to the iron atoms in your hemoglobin and myoglobin. Once that happens, those proteins cannot carry oxygen through your arteries and your body is “starved” of oxygen.

carboxyhemoglobin_from_1aj9
Carboxyhemoglobin is formed when carbon monoxide is present; when this happens no more oxygen can be carried by hemoglobin (or myoglobin, a related protein)

Okay, so hydrocarbons burn in air (n.b. there is also lots of nitrogen in air and that produces problematic by-products as well) and that means carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, water, and hydrogen are produced, along with a substantial amount of particulate matter (e.g. particulate carbon and other solid carbon by-products), which ends up in our shared atmosphere (n.b. there is no “U.S.A. atmosphere” or “China atmosphere,” there is one planetary atmosphere). The most common liquid fuel currently consumed is octane but that is not consumed as pure octane, so there are other hydrocarbons and “stuff” consumed at the same time… in air… which produces problematic by-products.

Here’s a chart of how much world liquid fuel has been consumed and is projected for consumption PER DAY over the listed time period:

world-liquid-fuels-consumption-and-production-balance
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Yes, the chart does indicate that we consume between 94 and 96 million barrels of liquid fuel per day. One barrel of liquid fuel is equivalent to 0.1172 metric tons and a metric ton is 2,200 pounds (for the non-metricized readers). One barrel is 257.4 pounds of liquid fuel. If we are consuming (let’s be modest) 94 million barrels of liquid fuel per day (and let’s be factual) there are 365 days in a year, we are consuming 8,846,490,400,000 pounds of fuel per year. If we were to pretend that all of this were octane (which it isn’t) and all of that octane followed the simplest hydrocarbon-to-carbon dioxide equation provided above (which it doesn’t), we say that every two units of octane produces sixteen units of carbon dioxide. These don’t have the same mass, of course.

To make this simple, a gallon of gasoline weighs about 6 pounds. Each gallon of gasoline produces about 18 pounds of carbon dioxide (idealized as stated above). If we divide the number of pounds of liquid fuel consumed annually by 6, we will have an estimate of the number of pounds of carbon dioxide produced. Well, the number is:

(8,846,490,400,000 pounds of fuel per year)/(1 gallon/6 pounds) =
1,474,415,066,666.67 pounds of carbon dioxide/year

To do our numbers-into-language thing, that is one trillion four hundred seventy-four billion four hundred fifteen million sixty-six thousand six hundred sixty-seven (let’s round up, given the decimal figure) pounds of carbon dioxide produced from the aforementioned pounds of liquid fuel. Pretty incredible, right?

The bottom lines are these:

  1. we can’t breathe carbon dioxide (it chokes us)
  2. actual combustion produces lots of other by-products that are also not useful for human respiration and cause various respiratory illnesses (cancer, emphysema, asthma for starters)
  3. these numbers don’t include gaseous fuel like methane, ethane, propane, or butane (starting with pentane and going up to heptadecane (C17), the compounds are liquid at 25°C), which are also used as fuels.
  4. these numbers don’t include non-petroleum fuels such as ethanol, which is an oxygenated hydrocarbon but also produces all the by-products listed for hydrocarbons
  5. Our global economy is heavily dependent on consuming something that
    1. is finite in quantity and
    2. produces harmful by-products
    3. is going to go up in price as the amount available nears complete consumption
  6. We have not solved the equation for producing less carbon dioxide and less harmful by-products while maintaining our current lifestyles.

Okay, end of lesson. Talk amongst yourselves. This all needs to be solved.

Burn a candle while you’re at it. Couldn’t hurt (much).

Featured image: Catano Oil Refinery Fire

Something is Going Well Around Here!

The 1,000 “like” road marker disappearing in the rear view mirror…

The WP auto-post function just told me that I have accumulated 1,000 “likes,” which are all because the imaginary “you” have been appreciating what I’ve been pouring forth since June 22nd. It hasn’t been four months yet and I have so many “likes!” Who knew?!?

I’ve logged 87 posts (one was a repeat, so doesn’t really count and one was a reblog in respect for a new WordPress-induced friend) in 111 days, meaning that I’ve hit about 78% of the days between start and present. Not bad. Could be better. Let’s see if I can pick up the slack.

Thank you, everyone!

MSOC