Thursday, February 28, 2008

Images and video of the moon's south polar region:
“We now know the south pole has peaks as high as Mount McKinley and crater floors four times deeper than the Grand Canyon,” said Doug Cooke, a deputy associate administrator at NASA.
Have I mentioned that I'm all for terraforming other worlds? Particularly worlds with abundant rafting and mountaineering potential.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

...the philosopher Wang Ji wrote about a journey he claimed to have made to the Land of the Drunk, one of those fantasy places the medieval Chinese loved to invent, and ended up half-believing in. There, he said, citizens "sip the wind and drink the dew, and abstain from the five cereals."
John Derbyshire on Chinese inebriaty.
A most thouroughly laudable python.

Video clip here.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

This & That

The book meme with which Steve has tagged me seems a jolly thing, but my case has failed to produce interesting results. My genuine closest book has most of p. 123 taken up with a large picture. What to do? If I simply follow five sentences onto p. 124 I get

The transmitted sound resembled a high-pitched birdlike warble. The Russians called the novel sonar the CHIRP.

Late that first night at sea, after about six hours of steaming westward from Gelendzhik, the Aquanaut approached the place where the ancient Don River might once have flowed on its way to the Ice Age Black Sea lake.

My second nearest book had p.123 blank (chapter break). Choice three, my current read, yields
"The sun, Mr. Barrow?" said the master. "Mr. Snow, clear me those men to the foc's'le. When is the side to be dressed, bo'sun? We do not have all day."

"I suggest that hats should be ordered to be worn," said Tobias, plucking Mr. Clerk's coat to draw his attention."

Oh well, monkeys with typewriters can't produce Bartlett's every day.

The Querencia blog has had food on its mind lately (no surprise, really). In the comments here, Moro Rogers asked about eating well when one is broke, and the topic has continued. I'll try to post some reflections in the future, but I don't have all night and there's nothing like working on an organic farm to make you really think about food, economics, sustainability and affordability. (Our farmer's wife was so harried that she actually on occasion purchased canned Kroger tomatoes while our beautiful heirlooms rotted in the compost.) The affordability issue really became a serious philosophical concern for us, as we watched all our produce leave its fertile valley to be sold at greatly magnified prices in Colorado's mountain Disneylands. And the farmers still don't make money. It's also true that it can be cheaper than you think, though. But getting the good stuff cheap definitely involves barter, making lots of friends, rural networking, really living in an area. I'll stop rambling for now, but here's another good interview with Michael Pollan.

And finally, they're planning another Grand Canyon flood experiment for this year. Wish I could be on the river! The main purpose of these releases is ecological experimentation, particularly as relates to sediment redistribution (rebuilding eroded beaches), its effects on invasive plants and native fish. I have certainly seen beaches grow dramatically less and the weeds wax much worse in my two decades' experience in the canyon; it's worthwhile science. But a lot of this experimentation could be conducted much more easily, and I hereby offer the following to geomorphologists free of charge, with the stipulation that I be hired as their boatman should they secure funding for this project:

Idaho's Main Salmon River would be a much more convenient venue for sedimentation and beach building research than the Grand. The Salmon is comparable in its channel, gradient and volume to the Colorado, and most importantly it is undammed. Instead of planning occasional manmade floods amidst the minefield of agency politics, Colorado water allocation and power generation requirements that beset the Grand, researchers could avail themselves of a natural experiment in Idaho annually. The Salmon commonly has peaks from 40,000 to 120,000 cfs, again comparable to the pre-dam Colorado and boasting high volumes that Reclamation would never agree to. The specific hydrograph (swift vs slow rise and fall, multiple peaks, &c.) also varies greatly, and we commonly observe large variations in the beaches from year to year. It's a superb natural laboratory, and the Canyon folks should take advantage of it. And secure lavish funding for their boatmen.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Another sunset, last night, looking into the West Elk Range:


Please enlarge!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

An excellent new reference, and most prodigious time-killer: the Internet Bird Collection. Lots of video of lots and lots of species. Added to the sidebar.
Some photos from a couple weeks back, in our local canyons. Colorado has a pretty decent spread of redrock canyon country, but these areas are thankfully overshadowed by the better publicized Utah canyons, just over that arbitrary state line. Here's an ephemeral snowmelt waterfall on a warm afternoon:


And here's a local resident:


Turns out there are downsides to living in gorgeous Rocky Mountain villages:
Lake County Commissioners have declared a local state of emergency for fear that this winter's above-average snowpack will melt and cause a catastrophic tidal wave.

The water is backed up in abandoned mine shafts and a 2.1-mile drainage tunnel that is partially collapsed, creating the pooling of water contaminated with heavy metals.

County officials have been nervously monitoring the rising water pressure inside the mine shafts for about two years. An explosion could inundate Leadville and contaminate the Arkansas River.
Governor Ritter has asked the Feds for help, and apparently someone's doing something. But it's really a very long term problem, as Chas points out:
...the work will have to be done forever. Forever. Until the mountains crumble or someone invents a permanent cure for water trickling down through the rocks, leaching out the cadmium, etc., and then draining through the tunnel conveniently provided in the 1940s, which drains into one fork of the Arkansas.
In related news, there have been plans afoot for a while to mine Molybdenum inside Mount Emmons, near Crested Butte, Colorado. Naturally, lots of people are upset. Kobex corporation argues their side here, but the Leadville situation must be giving their PR department a real headache.

My feelings on the issue are very mixed. My most selfish, not-in-my-backyard reaction is that the Kebler Pass area is extremely beautiful even by Colorado standards, which is saying something. Even if one believes the company's claim that the mine itself will be unobtrusive, the necessary "improvement" of the roads would be doing the area no aesthetic favours. Furthermore, as we are currently seeing, mines definitely cause major problems. The companies love to claim that technology and regulation have come so far that environmental impacts are no longer a concern; but when the potential impacts of the project happen on a geologic timescale, the burden of proof is definitely on the miners.

On the other hand, there is a solid argument that outsourcing all production of the minerals we consume to other countries, countries with weaker environmental and labour standards, is irresponsible and selfish. (Incidentally, if you think your job sucks, spend a few minutes with these photos of sulphur mining in a Javanese volcano.) Furthermore, having attempted to live for the better part of a year in western Colorado in the absence of a trust fund or real estate portfolio, I have a lot more sympathy for the concept of creating jobs. My current town of residence is still a living community largely because of three ugly, carbon-spewing, traffic-generating coal mines five miles to the east. Without this industry, the valley would have either no economy at all (granted, it doesn't have too much now); or else, lacking the deterrent of the mines' unsightliness strategically placed along the road from Aspen, it would be just another leprous Colorado service/tourist economy, real estate through the roof, no use to man or beast but only to trustafarians, "guest workers" and millionaires. Crested Butte is just such a community, and I have few tears to shed over the mine's impact on its property val..., hem, scenic virtues. I personally feel that Crested Butte would be rather improved by some truck traffic and redneck bars, and if the mine happens I hope they route the transportation right through town instead of over Kebler or Ohio passes.

And I do appreciate the glee with which the mine points out that molybdenum is used to make skis and mountain bikes. Mrs. Peculiar suggests that perhaps what Gunnison County needs are some Rossignol and Gary Fisher factories to complement the molybdenum mine. Wouldn't that be a politically incorrect manifestation of localism?

Seriously, these are tough choices, and those who advocate sustainability and distrust globalization face some difficult decisions if we stick to our guns. But let's end on a light note, and recall this classic Monty Python sketch, which really ought to be the Official Comedy Performance of Paonia, western Colorado and the New West.

"Tungsten carbide drills? What the bloody 'ell is tungsten carbide drills?"

Some good Mongoliana to be had: both Ulaana and The Regal Vizsla describe their February visit to Hovsgol and the Tsataan reindeer people. But what I really want to point out is this vodka bottle in the shape of a Kalashnikov. I want one!

Update: Here we go. Or there's this. I'll stick with the Russians myself.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Monday, February 18, 2008

It seems to be food night in our corner of the blogosphere: cannibalism here; cows and pigs at Querencia (see comments also); and now the always worthwhile Michael Pollan with an outside perspective. Bon apetite!
Attend the Tale...

Our current hometown has a surprisingly laudable array of musical talent, and we went recently to our pizza-and-beer joint to see one. Though he proved a very skilled guitarist with a definite songwriting talent, I couldn't help reflecting on the phenomenon of young man's music being performed by a man rapidly ceasing to be young. What a burden is the blessing of youthful talent, coupled as it is with an obligation to mature and refine in artistry, particularly when one's genre itself tends to impede maturity and refinement.

These reflection, as it happens, apply almost perfectly to Tim Burton's new film adaptation of Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim's Broadway opera of misanthropy, manslaughter and cannibalism. The first thing to understand about Sweeney is that, despite its Broadway provenance and its lurid subject matter, it punches above its weight as a serious work, one good enough to support a variety of interpretations in performance. Many people assert that it qualifies as an opera, meaning I suppose that one can enjoy this shabby little shocker while maintaining full highbrow cred. Sweeney and his accomplice Mrs. Lovett are surprisingly sympathetic and funny as they descend to the nadir of human villity; the work has a decently classical tragic inevitability and is a serious portrayal of cruelty and vengeance; and the music sometimes achieves real power. A good benchmark interpretation with excellent performances by the two leads is this one. The musical has genuine potential for serious filmmaking and a director as peculiar and creative as Burton might have made it soar.

Alas, he doesn't. A lot of Burton's creativity seems to have frozen into mannerism, and in Sweeney he revels far too exclusively in the tale's ghoulish and downright disgusting aspects, as the opening credits' extended shot of CGI blood flow attests. I couldn't help thinking that this is a Sweeney for teenagers, not adults, for an audience eager to snigger at Londoners wolfing down their fellow man, with a heavy dose of weird for weird's sake (attested by the meaningless and distracting skunk streak in Johnny Depp's hair). Worse still, Burton's preoccupation with not flinching from the story's brutality sometimes overwhelms the musical's best moments of black humor.

The movie's puerile tendencies show up most strongly in the casting. When I first saw the cast list, I couldn't believe that Burton chose Pretty-Boy Depp as Sweeney over the marvellously villainous Alan Rickman (who is by far the best reason to watch the Harry Potter movies). Rickman is plenty good as the sadistic Judge Turpin, but the role is just too small for him, and I greatly regret that his potential as Sweeney must be forever consigned to my imagination. And Depp is simply too light for the role, and too young. Logically, he's not really old enough to have a 16-year-old daughter, and dramatically he just isn't equal to the character's sad, bitter, vengeful Weltschmerz. Again, a young man's talent in an old man's art. And not as bad, but again distracting, is the pointlessly over-the-top casting of Sacha Baren Cohen (Borat) as Pirelli; buffo though he be, Pirelli is eventually revealed as yet another sadist, but Cohen remains a buffoon.

More positively, Helena Bonham Carter, whom I usually loathe, was surprisingly decent and sympathetic as Mrs. Lovett. I especially enjoyed her number By the Sea, her sad fantasy of bourgeois oceanside Cockney happiness with a cannibal accomplice at her side. Timothy Spall (another Harry Potter regular, the rat guy) was an excellent choice for Beadle Bamford. And the pacing in the drama's final scenes is excellent, a substantial improvement in clarity over the stage version I've seen, as the ghastly events speed towards their inevitably tragic end. Don't get me wrong; the film was absolutely a diverting way to spend a couple hours.

Perhaps the oddest of Burton's modifications to the musical was his choice to eliminate the choruses that open, close and interject in the drama. Given the director's facility with surrealism, I would have thought that choruses offered plenty of potential for spectacle, as well as some useful control of the film's pacing. I was surprised how much I missed them, especially at the end. Choral strophes and antistrophes can mould an audience's response to tragedy, giving a more meaningful shape to a series of unfortunate events, not to mention giving the audience a tune to whistle on its way out of the theater, and this work turned out to suffer noticeably from their omission. I also find it telling that another of the drama's classically tragic touches (can't be more specific without a spoiler here) was also eliminated. This film version of Sweeney Todd is unfortunately little interested in tragedy, but only in ghoulish spectacle. At the latter, it is a smashing success.

P.S. Yes, I too am now contemplating Odious' finger. But Mrs. P. and I have a duet to learn:

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Y'all will get more blogging from me when I get the tip of my finger back.

Friday, February 08, 2008

And continuing the theme of surreal personality cults, good God, look at this: public architecture in Turkmenistan. I'd heard repeatedly of the golden statue of the late leader Turkmenbashi which rotates in a 24-hour cycle always to face the sun, but it's something to see the photos. The Wikipedia article cites some altogether remarkable presidential decrees (remember, this happened within the living memory of today's children):
ballet and opera were banned after Niyazov felt they were "unnecessary ... not a part of Turkmen culture"

In March 2004, 15,000 public health workers were dismissed including nurses, midwives, school health visitors and orderlies and replaced with military conscripts.

In April 2004 the youth of Turkmenistan were encouraged to chew on bones to preserve their teeth rather than be fitted with gold tooth caps

In April 2004 it was ordered that an ice palace be constructed near the capital.

In 2004 all licensed drivers were required to pass a morality test.

In February 2005 all hospitals outside AƟgabat were ordered shut, with the reasoning that the sick should come to the capital for treatment. All rural libraries were ordered closed as well, citing ordinary Turkmen do not read books.

The Turkmen words for bread and the month of April were changed to the name of his late mother, Gurbansoltanedzhe.

In fact, the President-for-Life renamed all the months and days of the week. Turkmenbashi also wrote the Ruhnama, which purports to be a national epic for the Turkmen people. History will judge; I will merely note that T-shirts appear to be available (though what's up with the Romanov eagle?).

Is this how types such as Galba and Otho would have behaved had they come to power in 1991? Was the Turkmenbashi in fact ahead of his time?

To end on a brighter note, Turkmen music is damn good.

Update: Ethnocynologist Steve Bodio reminds me that the Turkmens also have damn good dogs and horses. Well, they're Central Asians, so I take those accomplishments for granted. Always nice to ponder on them, though.

And still more, this time strictly Turkmen.

The closest humans have come to building a Death Star

Are other people as fascinated by North Korea as I am? The place is every bit as interesting and grimly enlightening as any dystopian science fiction. The main difference is that if you really contemplate the matter, it makes you want to hit someone in a way Brave New World does not. In any case, if you share my perverse and depressing fascination, don't miss the worst building in the world.

(Actually, isn't there something in San Francisco rather like it? Near Gough Street, I think, and visible from some distance? That was my first thought upon opening the link.)

And here's video of it. (The soundtrack elicited a perfect Pavlovian response from Mrs. P.: "I want sushi.")

Finally, lest you think that the poor devils are utterly unlike us, behold this footage of North Koreans viewing a group of South Korean pop tarts. Their response is much the same as mine.

Via the (other) Blowhards.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Sigh. I don't have a TV, so watching the candidates on online video was a depressing revelation (radio was bad enough). I wouldn't trust these people to change my oil. I think I really am going to vote for Brad. He was a damn good waiter, and that's no small accomplishment.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Moro Rogers is working on illustrations for C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce, here and here. Looking forward to more!
UN peacekeepers are vandalizing rock art sites, reports the London Times. Sigh. At least these idiots were dumb enough (like a river passenger I once had) to sign and date their vandalism. For once, I wish the full wrath of European political correctitude may fall on their heads.

Via Cronaca.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

William Wegman (the weimaraner guy) illustrates the current Met Opera season.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Meanwhile, back at Diablo Canyon....

We saw 3:10 to Yuma recently the recent remake, not the original), and I was highly pleased. It really is nice to see a well plotted, well acted (Russell Crowe is great, but I kept thinking, "How did Jack Aubrey become an old west outlaw?"), generally quality western, and looking at some home landscapes in cinematic context was an added treat. For instance, here we have the distinctive profile of Buckman Mesa beside Christian Bale's boot:


And here's Peter Fonda about to flip a stage coach in my old haunt of Diablo Canyon:


I actually wandered out there inadvertantly during filming to take a hike, and saw a flock of trailers and signs pointing toward various chase sequences. Through a remarkable act of willpower, I resisted the urge to climb the back of the mesa and trundle some rocks on the invaders, whoever they might be. In hindsight I regret it; I might have serendipitously contributed to a fine film. As I recall, they did manage to kill a horse with no help from me. What's a western movie without at least one dead horse?

On the other hand, what's with Hollywood's inveterate, unyeilding dyslexia in regard to landscapes? Yes, yes, it doesn't bother most audiences, nor should it really, but just once I'd like to see them get one right. 3:10 to Yuma is set in Arizona, but was obviously filmed entirely within about 30 miles of Santa Fe. Unbelievable as it may seem to the masses, most of New Mexico (particularly Santa Fe) looks nothing like most of Arizona (particularly Bisbee). Just once, just once I'd like to see a western in which landscape nerds like me could turn to our dates with a satisfied snigger and say (for instance), "See, Captain Gunnison's not being shot full of Paiute arrows just anywhere. That really is the Sevier Desert!" "Fremont's men are eating each other in the real La Garitas!" How cool would that be? Seems like we're about due for a new Apache movie, and wouldn't it be wonderful to see one filmed in vast, intricate, utterly bizarre landscapes of southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico instead of the done-to-death vistas of Monument Valley and southern Utah?

Sigh. No one likes my ideas. I spent half the afternoon imagining a western with a plot based on Njal's Saga.

Good music quote:
Twentieth-century music is like pedophilia. No matter how persuasively and persistently its champions urge their cause, it will never be accepted by the public at large, who will continue to regard it with incomprehension, outrage and repugnance.

--Kingsley Amis, 1982

Quote found here, which discusses the problem at some length, and blames it largely on excessive taxpayer funding of the arts. We have made similar observations.

Hat tip: Blowhards.