Friday, April 30, 2010

Hydrocarbons: Still Our Old Friend

As I write this we're all still watching the horrible oil rig disaster unfold. Here are some spectacular photos of the event via Twitter.

Eleven dead already.  The entire Gulf of Mexico coastline threatened. Is there already talk of this catalyzing a move further away from oil? The fact is that oil and related hydrocarbons are still relatively cheap and plentiful. Or is the whole enterprise just too big to fail?  I worked for a time on a project devoted to making gasoline from natural gas. During this time I became familiar with the business phrase "shutdown economics" which in that case meant that any new technology had to be good enough to make the existing technology unprofitable and pay for the cost of recapitalization.

We'd all like for wind and solar energy to be cheaper. But we're not anywhere close to replacing hydrocarbons.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Oxygen Reductio Ad Absurdum

Oxygen comes after nitrogen.  The verb "to oxidize" connotes rusting, tarnishing, aging, and decay. What exactly does it mean to oxidize? One definition of oxidize clearly states "to turn something into an oxide." Here's the reductio ad absurdum for that definition (pun intended): Oxidized oxygen is oxide.  That sentence is not true. Rather, reduced oxygen is oxide. In other words, when oxygen is oxidized we don't get an oxide as in the dictionary definition. There's no great mystery here: the common meanings for "to oxidize" and "to reduce" (chemically) were derived from what oxygen does to metals and not what happens to oxygen itself.  Confusing?  Read it again or move along.

Oxygen was unknown to the ancients but was present in all their classical elements: earth, wind, fire and water. Today we know that:
  • in earth: rocks, sand, and dirt are mostly oxides.
  • in wind: oxygen is about 20% of what we breathe.
  • in fire: if there is no oxygen, there is no fire.
  • in water: H2O.
Oxygen is more subtle in the life sciences: cellular respiration--breathing itself--is a life-giving natural process. Our cars and power plants need oxygen to burn fuels. At one level, much of what we do is just "global respiration." Oxygen chemically cycles through all these activities.

Unlike nitrogen, which preferentially* resides in the atmosphere, O2 is present in air solely due to bacteria, algae, and plants: they consume water and breathe in CO2, exhaling O2 and making food, essentially the reverse of what we do. Oxygen is pumped into the sky at a high energy cost (free energy-I'm tempted to say free will just to make a point). Atmospheric oxygen is like an enormous storehouse of chemical potential which works in tandem with chemically stored forms of energy like fossil fuels and plant stuffs. Oxygen in the air is in a sense one half of an enormous battery (the anode). A recent abstract explains:

Through the photosynthetic action of cyanobacteria more than 2 billion years ago, dioxygen (O2) converted the earth’s atmosphere from a reducing medium to one that is powerfully oxidizing. As a result, we are now awash in a sea of chemical instability, literally ready at all times to combust to yield carbon dioxide and water (H2O). In other words, we are surrounded by enormous quantities of a gas that, from a thermodynamic point of view, is poised to react spontaneously with organic compounds and a wide variety of other reductants. While useful for generating heat, such reactions must be controlled if the oxidizing power of O2 is to be harnessed for the production of more tractable forms of energy and more complex (partially and selectively oxidized) chemical compounds. (link)
The meeting abstract goes on to mention "spin":
Luckily, kinetic and spin barriers inhibit the direct reaction of O2 with organic materials and its reduction to H2O, extending the time we can exist in our current metastable atmospheric state.
Explaining what is meant by "spin" nicely brings together the electronic structures of nitrogen, oxygen, and G.N. Lewis. It requires some additional chemical theory, but it's worth it to explain exactly why we don't all just spontaneously ignite (see next post). Anybody want to second guess me in the comments? Here's a hint: watch this YouTube video starting here; then back it up and watch the whole thing.

P.S. That crazy-haired scientist is Prof. Martyn Poliakoff (I once had dinner at his house in Nottingham). Special thanks to Annie Gottlieb for first telling me about Martyn's series of chemistry videos.
* "Preferentially" is meant in the thermodynamic sense. Making N2 from nitride (or many reduced species is energetically favored whilst making O2 from oxide (water) is energetically uphill. Plants do this feat by harvesting sunlight.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

If You're Going To San Francesco...

St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), founder of the Fransiscan order, is considered the first Italian poet by literary critics, antedating Dante by a generation. Francis of Assisi, along with Catherine of Siena, are patron saints of Italy. St. Francis is also the the patron saint of animals as well as of the environment.

The following selection was written about Francis of Assisi rather than by him. I Fioretti di San Francesco (The Little Flowers of St. Francis) was originally recorded in Latin by friar Ugolino da Montegrigio a few years after the death of St. Francis.  An Italian version first appeared in the second half of the 14th Century. The exact version here is from my trusty reader Beginning Readings in Italian and though highly abridged, the simple beauty of the language still comes through after nearly eight centuries.

I Fioretti di San Francesco was made into a film by Roberto Rossellini.  I haven't seen it yet but have it queued on Netflix. Portions of it are posted on YouTube here. That particular clip contains the Lord's Prayer in Italian which made we want to go find the written version. My first impression of the film is sort of like seeing a black and white movie version of Robin Hood. Sometimes the 13th century is best left to the writers and artists of that time:

Giotto (1266-1336) St Francis Preaching To The Birds

La Predica Agli Ucclelli
Allora San Francesco si leva con grandissimo fervore e dice: «Andiamo, al nome di Dio»: e prende per compagni frate Masseo e frate Agnolo, uomini santi. E andano con fervore di spirito arrivano a un castello che si chiama Carmano e San Francesco comincia a predicare. Predica con tanto fervore che tutti gli uomini e le donne di quell castello per devozione gli vogliono andar dietro e abbandonare il castello. E passando oltre Carmano e Bevagno, alza gli occhi e vede degli alberi, sui quali è quasi infinita moltitudine di uccelli; di che San Francesco si meraviglia e dice ai compagni: «Voi mi aspettate qui nella via e io vado a predicare alle mie sirocchie uccelli. »  E entra nel campo e comincia a predicare agli uccelli che sono in terra; e subito quelli che sono sugli alberi vengono a lui, e tutti insieme stanno ferme, mentre San Francesco finisce di predicare.
La sostanza della predica di San Francesco è questa: «Sirocchie mie uccelli, voi siete molto tenute a Dio vostro creatore poichè vi ha dato libertà di volare e vi ha dato il vestimento duplicato e triplicato; egli ha anche serbato il vostro seme nell’Arca di Noè. Voi non seminate e non mietete, e Dio vi nutre e vi  dà i fiumi e le fonti per vostro bene, e vi dà monti e le valli per vostro rifugio, e gli alberi alti per fare il vostro nido; e poichè voi non sapete filare nè cucire, Dio vi veste, voi e i vostri figlioli. Il vostro Creatore vi ama molto poichè egli vi dà tante benefici, e però guardatevi, sirocchie mie, dal peccato della ingratitudine, ma sempre lodate Dio.» Dicendo San Francesco queste parole, tutti quegli uccelli cominciano ad aprire i becchi, distendere i colli, aprire le ali e riverentemente inchinare i capi fino a terra, e con atti e con canti dimostrare che le parole del padre santo danno loro grandissimo diletto. E San Francesco insieme con loro si rallegra e si diletta, e si meraviglia molto di tanta moltitudine di uccelli e della loro bellissima varietà e della loro attenzione e familiarità. Finita la predica. San Francesco fa loro il segno della Croce a dà loro licenza di partire e allora tutti quegli uccelli si levano in aria con meravigliosi canti; e poi, secondo la Croce che aveva fatta loro San Francesco, si dividono in quattro parti: e l’una parte vola verso l’oriente, e l’altra verso l’occidente, e l’altra verso il mezzogiorno, la quarta verso il steetrione, e ciascuna schiera va cantando meravigliosi canti.
A laude di Cristo. Amen.

The Sermon To The Birds

St. Francis arises with great fervor, saying, "Let us go in the name of God"; and taking with him Brother Masseo and Brother Angelo, both holy men, they go forth guided by the Spirit of God. They come to a village called Carmiano and St. Francis begins to preach. He preaches so fervently that all the men and women of the village want to leave and follow after him out of devotion. Passing a place between Carmiano and Bevagna, St. Francis looks up and sees on the trees an almost infinite variety of birds, and being much surprised he says to his companions: "You wait for me here by the way, while I go and preach to my sisters the birds." And entering the field, he begins to preach to the birds that are on the ground, and suddenly those on the trees also come to him, and all are still until St. Francis finishes preaching. The substance of the sermon of St. Francis is this:

"My sister birds, you owe much to God, and you must always and in everyplace give praise to Him; for He has given you freedom to wing through the sky and He has clothed you two-fold and three-fold and He has preserved your species in Noah's Ark. Though you neither sow nor reap, God feeds you and gives you rivers and fountains for your thirst, and mountains and valleys for shelter, and tall trees for your nests. And although you neither know how to spin or weave, God dresses you and your children, for the Creator loves you greatly and He blesses you abundantly. Therefore, beware my sister birds of the sin of ingratitude, but always seek to praise God."

As St. Francis says these words, all the birds begin to open their beaks, to stretch their necks, open their wings and reverently bow heads to the ground, and act with songs that prove that the words of the Holy Father gives them great pleasure. And St. Francis is pleased with them and is delighted, and amazed at such a multitude of beautiful birds and their variety and their attention and familiarity. After the sermon, St. Francis makes the sign of the cross to give them permission to leave and then all the birds rise into the air with wonderful songs and then, making the sign of the cross that St. Francis had made, the flock divides into four parts: one part flies to the east, the other towards the west, and the other south, the fourth to the north, and each flock singing wonderful songs.

To the praise of Christ. Amen.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Gilbert Newton Lewis (1875-1946)

Poor under appreciated G. N. Lewis, perhaps the most famous chemist never to win a Nobel Prize, despite having been nominated 35 times. A few of his accomplishments included:
  • From 1912 to 1941, at a time went Germany still dominated the field, he put the University of California chemistry department on the international map: Lewis did for Berkeley chemistry what Oppenheimer and Lawrence did for physics there.
  • In 1923, he formulated the electron-pair theory of acid-base reactions. In the so-called Lewis theory of acids and bases, a "Lewis acid" is an electron-pair acceptor and a "Lewis base" is an electron-pair donor. It's hard to overemphasize how conceptually useful this concept remains in chemistry.
  • Also in 1923, Lewis published a monograph on his theories of the chemical bond and formulated what later became known as the covalent bond. These ideas reached back to 1916. 
  • Lewis coined the term "photon" and was involved in many of the theoretical and experimental problems of his day including: electrolytes, thermodynamics, and valence bond theory. 
So what went wrong? According to the Wiki:
In 1946, a graduate student found Lewis's lifeless body under a laboratory workbench at Berkeley. Lewis had been working on an experiment with liquid hydrogen cyanide, and deadly fumes from a broken line had leaked into the laboratory. The coroner ruled that the cause of death was coronary artery disease, but some believe that it may have been a suicide. Berkeley Emeritus Professor William Jolly, who reported the various views on Lewis's death in his 1987 history of UC Berkeley’s College of Chemistry, "From Retorts to Lasers", wrote that a higher-up in the department believed that Lewis had committed suicide.
Is this true? Why? I intend to read Jolly's book. Meanwhile, Patrick Coffey, a businessman and former chemist who moonlights as a historian, thinks otherwise:
He was brilliant intellectually, he could cut right through to the simplest solution to any problem. The downside of Lewis was he was very prickly and made a lot of enemies.
He'd been home-schooled as a child. He never seemed comfortable outside his closed environment. He probably needed to get in more fights on the playground.
He built his own support system, but when he got out of that system, if anybody gave him any slight at all he'd hold a lifelong grudge. Lewis's exacting nature sometimes got the best of him.
By the time of his death, he'd completely estranged himself from at least four Nobel laureates, and one of them was Irving Langmuir.
Yeesh, Coffey makes the Chemistry Nobel sound like the Oscars. He goes on to say:
There's nothing criminal here, but it's interesting, that probably the two greatest physical chemists [Lewis and Langmuir] of the 20th century had lunch together the day one of them died. 
Read the linked article and make up your own mind. I'm still gathering facts.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Cinque Favole, Numero Cinque: La Camicia Dell'Uomo Contento

[continued in part from here]

The fifth and last story in this little series is called La Camicia Dell'Uomo Contento or The Shirt of The Contented Man.  The story, according to Italo Calvino, is said to have originated with Alexander The Great (356-323 BC). Because of the story's length, I'm putting my translation first, and the original Italian afterwards.

The Shirt Of The Contented Man
A king has an only child and loves him like the apple of his eye. But the prince is always unhappy. He spends entire days on the balcony, looking off into the distance.
"What do you miss?" asks the king, "What is it?"
"I do not know, father." the prince replies: "I do not know."
"Are you in love? If you want some girl, let me know and I'll let you marry her, even if she be the daughter of the most powerful king on earth or even the poorest peasant!" declares the king.
"No father, I'm not in love" says the prince.
The king tries all different ways to distract and entertain the prince: theatre, dance, music, songs, but nothing works, and even the rosy color in his cheeks slowly begins to fade day by day.

The king puts out an edict, and people from all parts of the world convene--educated people: philosophers, doctors and professors. He shows them the prince and demands their advice. They withdraw to think, and then return to the king. "Your Majesty, we have thought, we have read the stars, and here is what you should do. Look for a man who is happy and content in every way, and exchange his shirt for the prince's."

That very same day, the king sends ambassadors throughout the world to find a happy and contented man. They bring a priest back before him:
"Are you happy?" asks the king.
"I am, your Majesty!" the priest says.
"Good. Would you like to be my bishop?" the King says.
Oh, perhaps, your Majesty! the priest replies.
Go away! get out of here! the King scolds: "I seek a happy man, content with his status, not one who wishes to feel better than he is."

The king goes away to wait for another. The ambassadors return, telling him about a neighboring king, who they say is really is happy and content: he has a good and beautiful wife and a lot of children; he has won against all enemies in war, and his country is at peace.  Immediately the first king, full of hope, sends his ambassadors to ask the second king about a shirt:

The neighboring king receives the first king's ambassadors, and says:
"Yes, yes, I am content and lack nothing; it's just too bad, that when one has so many things, that one should die and have to leave behind everything! I suffer so much from this thought that I do not sleep at night!." The ambassadors correctly think to return directly.

To vent his despair, the king goes hunting. He shoots at a rabbit and thinks he has it, but the rabbit, limping, runs away. The king keeps after it, following it for a great distance from his entourage. In the midst of the fields, he hears a man's voice singing. The king stops: "One who sings so can not be but happy," and following the song, he slips into a vineyard, and between rows he sees a young man singing while pruning the vines.*
"Good morning, your Majesty!" says the youth. "So early in the countryside?"
"Bless your heart" says the king: "How would you like that I bring you to the capital? You will be my friend."
"Oh, oh, your majesty, no thank you, but I wouldn't even think of it" says the young man. "I wouldn't change places even with the Pope."
"But why, you're such a beautiful young ..." says the king.
"No, I tell you. I'm content, that's all" says the young man.
"At last a happy man!" thinks the king- "Young man, listen: you can do me a favor."
If I can I will, with all my heart, your Majesty" replies the young man.
"Wait one minute" says the king, beside himself with joy, and he runs to find his entourage.
"Come! Come! My son is safe!" cries the king and he brings them the young man.
Bless you, young man- says the king-"I'll give you anything for it, anything you want! But give it to me, give it to me! he implores.
"What sire?" says the youth.
"My son is dying! Only you can save him. Come here, wait!" cries the king.  Grabbing the youth, he begins to unbutton the youth's jacket. Suddenly he stops, and then collapses into his arms: the contented man has no shirt!
*What is it about royals and their fascination with the youthful commoners?

Here's a modern day retelling of the same story: link and another link. Obviously, this story has been around the block. There are a couple obvious morals here:

Lesson 1: Never listen to overpaid sage advisors

Lesson 2: Never believe that true happiness lies outside oneself. True happiness comes from within.

Lesson 3: Beware external trappings of happiness, including clothing and by extention, dwellings.

Are there other lessons?

Here is the original Italian version:

La Camicia Dell’Uomo Contento
Un Re ha un figlio unico e gli vuole bene come alla luce dei suoi occhi.  Ma questo Principe è sempre scontento. Passa giornate interne affacciato al balcone, a guardare lontano.
– Ma cosa ti manca? – gli chiede il Re. – Che cos’hai?
– Non lo so, padre mio, non lo so neanch’io.
– Sei innammorato? Se vuoi una qualche ragazza, dimmelo, e te la farò sposare, fosse la figlia del Re più potente della terra o la più povera contedina!
– No padre, non sono innamorato.
E il Re prova tutti i modi per distrarlo! Teatri, balli, musiche, canti; ma nulla serve, e dal viso del Principe di giorno in giorno scompare il color di rosa.
Il Re mette fuore un editto, e da tutte le parti del mondo viene la gente più istruita: filosofi, dottori e professori. Mostra loro il Principe e domanda consiglio. Quelli si ritirano a pensare, poi tornano dal Re.
– Maestà, abbiamo pensato, abbiamo letto le stele; ecco cosa dovete fare. Cercate un uomo che sia contento, ma contento in tutto e per tutto, e cambiate la camicia di vostro figlio con la sua.
Quel giorno stesso, il Re manda gli ambasciatori per tutto il mondo a cercare l’uomo contento.
 Gli conducono un prete: –Sei contento? –gli domanda il Re. 
– Io sì, Maestà!
– Bene. Ci avresti piacere a diventare il mio vescovo?
– Oh, magari, Maestà!
– Va’ via! Fuori di qua! Cerco un uomo felice e contento del suo stato; non uno che voglia star meglio di com’è. 
E il Re prende ad aspettare un altro. È un altro Re suo vicino, gli dicono, che è proprio felice e contento: ha una moglie bella e buona, un mucchio di figli, ha vinto tutti i nemici in guerra, e il paese sta in pace. Subito, il Re pieno di speranza manda gli ambasciatori, e:
– Sì, sì, non mi manca nulla, peccato però, che quando si hanno tante cose, poi si debba morire e lasciare tutto! Con questo pensiero, soffro tanto che non dormo alla notte! – E gli abasciatori pensano bene di tornare indietro. 
Per sfogare la sua disperazione, il Re va a caccia.  Tira a una lepere e crede d’averla presa, ma la lepre, zoppicando, scappa via. Il Re le tiene dietro, e s’allontana dal seguito.  In mezzo ai campi, sente una voce d’uomo che canta. Il Re si ferma: «Chi canta così non può che essere contento!» e seguendo il canto, s’infila in una vigna, e tra i filari vede un giovane che canto potando le viti. 
– Buon dì, Maestà!, – dice quell giovane. – Così di buon’ora già in campagna?
– Benedetto te, vuoi che ti porti con me alla capitale? Sarai mio amico.
– Ahi, ahi, Maestà, no non ci penso nemmeno, grazie. Non mi cambierei neanche col Papa.
– Ma perchè, tu, un così bel giovane…
– Ma no, vi dico.  Sono contento così e basta. 
   «Finalmente un uomo felice!» pensa il Re. –Giovane, senti: devi farmi piacere.
– Se posso, con tutto il cuore, Maestà.
– Aspetta un momento, – e il Re, che non sta più nella pelle dalla contentezza, corre a cercare il suo seguito:
– Venite! Venite! Mio figlio è salvo.  –E li porta da quell giovane.
– Benedetto giovane, – dice, – ti darò tutto quell che vuoi!  Ma dammi, dammi…
– Che cosa Maestà?
– Mio figlio sta per morire! Solo tu lo puoi salvare. Vieni qua, aspetta! –e lo afferra, comincia a sbottonargli la giacca.
– Tutt’a un tratto si ferma, gli cascano le braccia.
– L’uomo contento non ha camicia. 

Monday, April 19, 2010

Silver Creek Cliff And The Silver Cliff Motel

After camping outdoors and living on the side of Highway 61 for five days it was nice to be able to check into a motel and take a shower and get cleaned up before heading out on the long trip home.  My dad's favorite motel was called the Silver Cliff Motel back near Two Harbors. The motel had been there forever.  Here's a photo from 1958 looking much the same as when my parents first stayed there and how I remember it too:

Up there to the left in the photo behind the motel is Silver Cliff, a rock outcropping of geological interest.  Highway 61 used to wind right around it, hugging the rock face and looking something like this view from an old picture postcard:

Note the skimpy safety "barrier" (I have a Viewmaster reel from the 1950s that shows essentially the same view). That portion of the road is closed now, but my mother still has memories of a white-knuckled moonlight drive with Don Franklin behind the wheel of his large automobile as he drove my parents to and from the lighthouse that I described back here. Don knew those roads like he knew the wrecks and he probably had a little fun scaring the bejeebies out of the younger folks. 

That particular stretch of the road has been replaced by a modern tunnel.  You can see what's left of the old roadway in this photo, along with the northern portal to the new tunnel:


Old Highway 61 hugging the cliff off to the left looks like a pathway slowly being reclaimed by nature. Apparently one can park and walk that old stretch of Highway 61 that was first carved out of the Silver Cliff in the 1920s.

The motel was located behind where the "Merit Award" is affixed to the photo in the upper left. The tunnel project actually won some design awards, mainly for incorporating the natural geological strata into the design:


Getting back to the motel. The original Silver Cliff Motel probably became like the Bates Motel when the new freeway went through. I'm not sure at all what's there now: it could be a resort complex or more likely, lake shore McMansions. I suspect the latter.  Here's a photo of the old motel site, including the pebble beach, taken from the old Highway 61. Note the gazebo at the extreme far left, looking out over the lake:

Directly under that gazebo, at a depth of less than 15 or 20 feet, is an underwater natural cave passing from the lakeside to the bay side. It's easily reached by a mask, fins, and snorkel. Now I don't have an underwater photo to prove it-there may be one somewhere in my father's photo collection- I'm still looking for it.  And I haven't been able to find any description of it on the Internets either.  But I remember that cave well.  I know it's there because my father, who had his own way of looking beneath the surface of things, showed it to me.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Cinque Favole, Numero Quattro: Il Sorcetto

The fourth story is called Il Sorcetto (The Little Mouse) and speaks to the human condition of insatiable appetites.  The story is structured like a Russian Matryoshka doll: the scope of each paragraph envelops the next as we move from large to small. One moral of the story is that the grass always appears greener for everyone except for those at the very bottom. I think this is a subtle and vastly overlooked moral nowadays

One reason I'm posting these is because I'm reviewing Italian that I once knew and am in danger of losing. That language, more than any other romance language, is endlessly fascinating for me. I can move slowly across one simple sentence or paragraph, hovering over individual words and finding deep little pockets of Latinate troves. Others have the same fascination with French, but for me it's Italian, the very first foreign language I attempted to learn. I once heard that the Romans gave up on expanding their subway system because every time they started to dig, they had to call in the archaeologists, and it just took forever. Might as well dig with spoons and brushes like they do at Pompeii. I love using that analogy when picking my way through Italian text.

Years ago while living in Switzerland and travelling in France, I was in a tiny delicatessen outside of Versailles. It was lunchtime and very busy. I had taken the time to teach myself enough French to get along, being aware of how English never cuts it with the French. Others in front of me had struggled to order in English, and the woman behind the counter obliged, but with the rolling eyes thing. Right after I had ordered (in French), an older woman began ordering her grocery list in Italian.  The younger woman dutifully obliged without expression and spoke not one word in return. Now perhaps the older woman was a local and the younger one knew her; perhaps the younger woman was Italian herself- I never did find that out.  What I came away thinking with a smile was that the older woman had just laid some linguistic superiority of her own onto the younger one: I'm speaking the language closer to the mother tongue so you just hush and take it. That's what I wanted to believe anyways.

Il Sorcetto
Un re, molto ambizioso, non è mai soddisfatto delle sue nuove conquiste. Un giorno, mentre è in viaggio, vede una vasta provincia benedetta dal sorriso del cielo, baciata dal mare azzurro. Il re sospira da mattina a sera: "Oh! come sarei felice se potessi avere quella provincia!"
Nella provincia c’è una bella villa con un parco magnifico e un palazzo con le scale di marmo e i saloni pieni di mobili preziosi, di tappeti, di specchi.  Passa un milionario e sospira: "Oh! come sarei felice se avessi quella villa!"
Nella villa c’è una signora bella come una fata, la quale guarda dal balconi un vispo piccino coi capelli biondi e sospira continuamente: "Oh! come sarei felice se avessi quel bimbo!"
Sul tetto del palazzo va a scaldarsi al sole un bel micio bianco e nero; il bambino biondo lo guarda da mattina a sera e sospira: "Oh! come sarei felice se avessi quel micio!"
Il micio, dal suo posto di osservazione, vede un sorcio che entra e esce dalla soffitta e sospira: "Oh! come sarei felice se avessi quel sorcio!"
Il sorcio nelle sue gite cerca di arrivare a una forma di formaggio parmigiano sospesa a una trave e sospira: "Oh! come sarei felice se avessi quel formaggio!"
Una buona fata, la quale ode tutti quei desideri, pensa che, con la sua potenza sovrannaturale, può rendere felici sei creature, e ordine che i loro sogni si avverino.
Così finalmente il sorcio riesce a mettere i suoi dentini nel formaggio, il gatto può avere fra le sue zampe il sorcio, il bambino biondo può impadronirsi del gatto, la bella signora può adottare come figlio il bambino biondo, il milionario compera la villa della signora ed il re riesce a conquistare la vasta provincia.
     Ma ben presto la fata si accorge che si è ingannata. Il sorcio mangia il cacio, il gatto mangia il sorcio, il bimbo prende il gatto, la signora adotta il bimbo, il milionario compera la villa, il re conquista la provincia,…ma tutti quanti riprendono a sospirare per altri cose.  Uno soltanto, il povero socio divoratto dal gatto, non può avere nuovi desideri, ma tutti gli altri sono più scontenti di prima.
E cosi la fata si convince che su questa terra gli uomini, con la loro incontentabilità, si rendono infelice l’esistenza.

Here's my rendering of Il Sorcetto:

A very ambitious king, never satisfied with his new conquests, is travelling one day. He sees a vast province blessed by the smile of the sky and kissed by the blue sea. The king sighs from dawn till dusk: “Oh! How happy I would be if only I could have that province!”

In the province there is a beautiful estate with a magnificent grounds and a palace with marble steps and rooms full of costly furniture, tapestries, and mirrors. A millionaire passes and sighs: “Oh! How happy I would be if I had that house!”

In the house there is a beautiful woman. She looks down from a balcony and sees a lovely little boy with blond hair. She sighs continuously: “Oh! How happy I would be if I had that boy!”

On the roof of the building is a nice black and white cat sunning itself. The blond child watches him from morning to night and sighs: "Oh! How happy I would be if I had that cat!

The cat, from his observation post, sees a mouse that comes out of the attic and sighs:  "Oh! How happy I would be if I had that mouse!

The mouse, scurrying about, attempts to reach a piece of parmesan cheese suspended on a beam and sighs: "Oh! How happy I would be if had that cheese!"

A good fairy, who hears all those wishes thinks, with her supernatural power, that she can make six creatures happy, and orders that their dreams come true.

Thus at last the mouse manages to sink his teeth into the cheese, the cat has the mouse between its paws, the blond child gets hold of the cat, the beautiful lady takes the blond baby as a child, the millionaire buys the villa of the woman and the king conquers the vast province.

But soon the fairy realizes that she has deceived herself. The mouse eats the cheese, the cat eats the mouse, the child gets the cat, the woman adopts the child, the millionaire buys the house, the king gets the province, but soon everyone resumes their sighing for other things. Only one, the poor mouse eaten by the cat, cannot have new desires; all the others are more dissatisfied than ever before.

And so the fairy is convinced that on this earth, humans, with their discontent, make their own existence unhappy.

Letters Home: "We don’t do any walking. We take the tanks, even if we do get them stuck in the mud"

April 16, 1952 
10:00 Wed morning
Dear Mom and Dad and All,
I got a chance to answer your letter so I guess I will this morning. Monday morning we left camp for 3 days in the field.  It started off bad by raining Monday. It’s nice today so I guess I will warm up today because the sun’s out nice. [1]
It's too bad about Arloa, they were nice people. Has Cub come back yet? [2]
They told us Monday where we were going. Europe. They didn’t say Germany for sure but I think it will be-anyway it’s not Korea. We are going in July. Some of us will be going to Calif. to test some new tanks. [3]  That will take 4 weeks. 2 there and 2 traveling. It doesn’t cost us anything, the ones that are going.
I should be home the last part of June before going overseas. I wouldn’t want to be in Europe if Russia starts anything but it's still better than going the other way. I think we leave from New Jersey.
I am going to write R. a letter yet this week.  What do you hear from Jr? He should be home before long. Maybe I will see him before July. He gets out in August. I haven’t had much time to do any writing lately.
We live in Tenn. But the post office is in Ky. The state line crosses through camp.
My car still works OK. I went to Dunbars Cave last weekend. Roy Acuff and his Smoky Mountain Boys own the place. Its about 10 mi from here. Nashville is 58 and Chicago is 400. That makes 600 miles from home. Seems farther than that but I guess it isn’t. I can’t think of any more to say right now so I will sign off for now.
PS. Fri. I got the clothes and another letter yesterday. I slept under a apple tree last night. Me and another boy had 4 blankets two tents and 2 raincoats so we kept warm. It warmed up quite a bit today. I think we will be out 5 days next week. As long as the weather is warm its fun. We don’t do any walking. We take the tanks, even if we do get them stuck in the mud. 
[1] "the sun’s out nice" may sound unschooled (the sun's out nicely?) however I prefer that construction to "the sun's out and it's nice."
[2] Cub was the family dog. I have no clue who Arloa was.
[3] No doubt one of the new Patton Class tanks then being rolled out.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Wrecks of the Amboy and the George Spencer

We didn't stay in the town of Silver Bay but travelled further up Highway 61 to a place near Tofte, MN.  There are two wrecks there, one named the George Spencer and the other called the Amboy.  The two vessels were wrecked together during the Mataafa storm, which sank around 30 vessels the night of November 28, 1905.

The Amboy and the George Spencer were wooden ships and both were driven ashore and beached and then abandoned. They both lie (well what's left of them) offshore of private property and are accessible now only by boat. Years ago my dad had permission to camp on the property nearest to the wrecks. You can get a good overview from the photo labelled Figure 266 at this website (I recently ordered that book). The photo shows the beautiful green lawn between the house and the shore where the owner used to let us drive right down to shore and set up camp.

The site of the George Spencer wreck is indicated in Fig 266 with an arrow. Figure 267 in the link above shows a general map of the wreck in the harbor (including some washed up on shore) and Fig 268 shows a detailed sketch of the remaining underwater portion of the wreck. The wreck is decaying fast. I took this photo of what remains of the Amboy's backbone washed up on the shore:

That photo is from around 1975. The wreckage has decayed further since then. I can see further decomposition in this 1992 photo found online:

The underwater portion of the wreck in Figure 268 above belongs to the George Spencer.  I found a YouTube video of a family canoeing right over the Spencer: the video gives you a sense of how shallow the wreck is and how clear and still the water can be.

The Spencer was quite photogenic and my dad loved that wreck best for that reason. Here's a shot he took of another diver and his photography equipment circa 1977:

Note how clear the water is which is amazing for freshwater.
Here's a B/W shot that my dad took of me on the George Spencer circa 1977.

Here's another shot of me from that day. This photo won him first place in an underwater photography competition sponsored by Sport Diver magazine the following year:

Cinque Favole-Numero Tre: L'Estate Di San Martino

The third story from Beginning Readings In Italian is an early description of Martin of Tours, a 4th century Roman soldier who became St. Martin, patron saint of France and of soldiers.  This version of the story tells how he met two beggars on the road. In other versions, Martin meets only one beggar who is revealed in a dream to be Jesus who says to the angels: "Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptized; he has clad me."

According to the Wiki:
During the Middle Ages, the relic of St. Martin’s cloak, (cappa Sancti Martini), conserved at the Marmoutier Abbey, near to Tours, one of the most sacred relics of the Frankish kings, would be carried everywhere the king went, even into battle, as a holy relic upon which oaths were sworn. The cloak is first attested in the royal treasury in 679, when it was conserved at the palatium of Luzarches, a royal villa that was later ceded to the monks of Saint-Denis by Charlemagne, in 798/99.  The priest who cared for the cloak in its reliquary was called a cappellanu, and ultimately all priests who served the military were called cappellani. The French translation is chapelains, from which the English word chaplain is derived. 
Here is the story (in italics ) with my translation following:
L'Estate Di San Martino* 

Nei primi giorni di novembre, San Martino è in viaggio per paesi molto freddi.
Il Santo passa sul suo cavallo coperto dal suo mantello.
      Due poveri mendicanti, mal coperti nei loro poveri cenci estivi, domandano al forte e bel cavaliere la carità.
      Egli sen'altro si leva il mantello, lo taglia con la spada in due parti e ne porge una al mendicante più vicino.
      --E a me?--domanda l’altro mendicante--non date nulla signore?"
      Martino allora, con la spada, taglia la metà rimasta del mantello e porge al mendicante la quarta parte del mantello intero.
      Il primo mendicante ha metà del mantello, il Santo e l’altro mendicante un quarto del mantello ciascuno e così il sacrificio del Santo è inutile perchè, col freddo che fa, nessuno è ben riparto e tutti soffrono.
      Allora il buon Dio comanda a Novembre di rasserenare il cielo e di mitigare l’aria per tutta la durate del viaggio di Martino.
      E siccome Dio non ritira piu il suo ordine, i primi giorni di novembre sono sempre rallegrati da un tepido sole. Noi chiamiamo quest’epoca l’estate di San Martino.
*The title, L'Estate di San Martino, translates directly into English as Indian Summer.

In early November, Saint Martin travels to countries that are very cold.
The Saint is on horseback covered by a cloak.
Two poor beggars, ill-clothed in poor summer rags, beg (lit. ask for charity) from the strong and handsome rider.
Without hesitation he takes off his cloak, and with his sword he cuts the cloak into two parts and gives half to the nearest beggar.
And the other beggar asks-"And to me sir--you give me nothing?
Then Martin, again with his sword, cuts the remaining half of the cloak and gives the second beggar a quarter of the whole mantle.
The first beggar has half of the mantle; the second beggar and the saint each have the other quarter of the mantle and so the Saint's sacrifice is useless because, with the cold, no one is well-suited and everyone suffers.
Then God commanded November to brighten the sky and to mitigate the air for the entire duration of Martin's travel.
And since God does not rescind his orders, the first days of November are always cheered by a warm sun. We call this season Indian Summer.*

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Urban Reclamation: Gardens On The Tracks

Cleveland Flats (1984)

That photo is for Jason (the commenter) who likes photos of weeds growing where you least expect them.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Silver Bay And The Hesper

Our next stop after diving the Madeira was Silver Bay, just up Highway 61 from Beaver Bay.  My dad's friend, Don Franklin, worked for Reserve Mining Company which is pretty much all there is in Silver Bay.  Don refilled our scuba tanks at the local fire station and chatted with us for a bit about exactly where to go, though he declined to go with us. The year before he had taken my father and my brother to Isle Royale and had shown them the wreck of the passenger steamer, the S.S. America.

The harbor at Silver Bay has a wreck named Hesper which went down in 1905, the same year as the Madeira:

 The Hesper lies in three big pieces in about 35 to 40 feet of water.  Part of her is partially buried under the western breakwater wall.  The jetty makes for an easy way to get up close to the wreck site, although you have to pick your way across the rocks [added: the jetty is visible in a photo at the website that I linked to below. The wreck is about 3/4 of the way out on the left (harbor) side]. You can visualize the wreck with the help of this sketch (click to enlarge):

According to my dad, Don and his friends discovered the wreck and were the first to dive on her. Some recovered artifacts can now be seen in a museum in Duluth.  Because the wreck lies inside the breakwater and the harbor is busy, the water is pretty turbid.  Consequently, the underwater visibility is not as good as found at the Madeira.  Nonetheless, the wreck is impressive.

Here is a photo of the wreck my dad took, looking pretty much as I remember it:

The Minnesota State Historical Society maintains a website with additional photographs of the Hesper here.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Cinque Favole-Numero Due: La Bellezza Delle Donne

Another of the Cinque Favole:
A un Re nasce un figliolo. I savi astrologi prevedono che se egli non sta dieci anni senza vedere il sole, perderà la vista. Onde il Re lo fa custodire, e passano i dieci anni. Gli fa vedere il mondo e il cielo, il mare, l'oro e l'argento, e le bestie, e la gente; tra le altre cose gli fa vedere delle belle donne. Il giovane domanda chi sono; e il Re dice che sono demoni. Allora il giovane dice:--I demoni mi piacciono sopra tutte le altre cose. E il Re dice:--Ben si può vedere che strana cosa è la bellezza delle donne.
Once again, the Google Translation is a disaster. Here is my translation:
A son is born to a King. The wise astrologers foresee that unless he passes ten years in darkness (lit. without seeing the sun), the boy will lose his vision. In order to prevent this, the King does so and the ten years pass. Then the King lets him see the world, the sky, the sea, gold and silver, the animals and people, and among other things, beautiful women. The youth asks who they are and the King says they are demons. Then the boy says: - the demons I like above all other things. The King replies: - Well then you can see what a strange thing is the beauty of women.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Meet Mr. Donald Franklin

Michael Haz jogged my memory back here when he mentioned Beaver Bay, Minnesota. The name Beaver Bay (Haz's humorous anecdote aside) dates from the days when that part of Minnesota was the western boundary of the known New World.  The commercial exploitation of beaver preceded the discovery of iron in Minnesota by at least a century and helped establish ports like Beaver Bay (and Duluth) before the days of lumber, grain, and iron ore.

The French were the first Europeans to explore inland (unless of course you believe that there were Vikings in Minnesota). The demand for beaver pelts drew the fur trappers because fierce competition had depleted the beaver populations in the east. The French trappers and traders, known as Voyageurs, expanded their range into the northwest territories of North America. The "Land Of 10,000 Lakes" is hardly an exaggeration and the woods of Minnesota were rich in beaver and other pelts. A canoe/portage  route across the lakes paralleling the modern Minnesota-Ontario border had been known to the Indians for centuries who then showed it to the French. That same route along the chain of lakes is now known as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Voyageur National Park.

When I was kid we got National Geographic magazine.  I recall being shown a photo in one issue of a fellow named Don Franklin. Franklin had been part of a historical research team looking for relics and artifacts.  I can't find a link to that National Geographic story but I did find this story written by a historian describing the discovery of some copper pots by a waterfall [it's a pdf file and takes a few seconds to download]. The story corroborates some of what I recall, including a mention of Franklin's role.

According to my dad, Franklin changed his life forever when he saw him swim across the Richland Center community swimming pool using a pair of newly invented rubber swim fins (flippers) sometime back in the 1950's. Franklin was several years older and was a friend of my dad's older brother, J.  I met him around 1975-76 on one of our trips up there.  He worked for Reserve Mining Co. at Silver Bay MN.  He's dead now too as are many of the diving pioneers of the North Shore of Gitche Gumee.

Photo of Don Franklin dated June 1962 taken by my dad. They're probably just a few hundred yards from Highway 61. Note the primitive gear and single tank.

Letters Home: We Got Laundrymats Here

There is a gap in the letters my father sent home that spring. In his previous letter here he was talking about going back to Wisconsin after finishing his basic training at Fort Knox, KY. The next letter that I have was written on April 6 (almost a full month later) and he is already talking about his return trip to a new camp, Fort Campbell, KY. I suspect that the intervening letter(s) was misplaced or lost.

In this letter dated April 6th, he is writing from Fort Campbell KY. He describes stopping in Aurora , IL to pick up his younger brother R. and then heading south to the base which is located near Clarksville, TN. It's unclear to me whether his brother came along (probably not) or if he just stayed with him while passing through.
April 6, 1952
Fort Campbell, KY

Dear Mom, Dad and All.

I got to Aurora 6:30 Fri. night. R. was looking for me. His place is just one block off the main street through town. I used $11.40 worth of gas and no oil or water. I still got 2/3 of a tank of gas so it really took about $8.00 for gas. The Muller boy gave me $15.00 for the ride so I got out of it cheap.
We went to Clarksville Sat. night to the show.  While my car was sitting one of the back tires went flat. I pumped it up at a station but it wasn’t flat this morning. Someone could have let the air out, or else it’s a slow leak.
I don’t know how it will be down here, but it looks ok. I caught a cold at R’s place. They sure got a big room. Of course that dray boy needs one, ha!
It rained and snowed most of the way down here. We left R's at 7:00 Sat morning and got here 4:30 Sat. afternoon. The sun is shining nice today.
I got a permit to drive my car but will see about post tags tomorrow. They cost about 50¢.
Leslie and I are in different company’s but not too far apart.
I am getting my clothes hung up and getting my footlocker straightened up.
There’s 6 other guys from Ft. Knox in this barracks so everyone is not new.
I won’t be washing my clothes by hand here. We got Laundrymats here.  It costs a quarter for a tub full.
We will be getting up at 5:00 and get done at 4:00 in the afternoon.
For the next 8 weeks we will be camping out 2 nights and 3 days of the week.  Just what I didn’t want. It won’t be too bad as long as the weather is warm.  Sure be glad when my 2 yrs are over.
The way things look I will be down here quite a while. I can’t think of anymore to say so will sign off till about Wed. night


Cinque Favole-Numero Uno: Narciso (And The Fountain Of Youth)

Just a few days ago, Amba tweeted that exercise is like a fountain of youth. About three months ago I began going to a gym where I've been working out doing mostly weight training and cardio. I've seen changes in myself and I'm about one quarter to where I want to be. Not bad considering it took me about 10 years to get to where I'm starting from.

Now like most gyms, the one where I go has lots of mirrors. Those weight trainers (men and women) sure do like to look at themselves. I've never been comfortable looking at myself so much (this may have something to do with how I got to where I am). When I think of mirrors, I automatically think of Narcissus and the origin of narcissism.  Here is an original source of the story which I copied from a book called Beginning Readings in Italian. The story of Narciso comes from Chapter 1 which is a collection of Cinque Favole (Five Fables). According to the book the story originates from the Novellino which first appeared around the end of the 13th Century. The simple Italian language of Narciso is entirely written in the present tense. I plugged the text into Google Translator and got some amusing results:

Obviously the machine translation on the right still needs some work and polish. It might be cool to see where exactly the machine language translation fails worst. I took some liberties with punctuation and syntax, trying to make the simple meanings clearer. Here's what I come up with:
One day Narcissus rests at a beautiful spring. He looks into the water and sees his reflection, which is very beautiful. He begins watching and rejoicing over the spring and the reflection does the same. He thinks that the person in the water has life and he does not realize that it is his reflection. He begins to fall in love with it, so strongly that he tries to grasp it. He puts his hands in the water riling it and the reflection disappears. So then he starts crying. The water clears and Narcissus sees that the reflection cries like he does. Then he falls into the spring and dies.

It is springtime, and some women come to the spring to amuse themselves. They see the beautiful drowned Narcissus, and with great lamentations they pull him from the spring and support him standing at the side of the well. Hence the God of Love makes a beautiful almond tree, green and vigorous, which is the first tree to bloom and renew love.

Back to narcissism. It is an ancient affliction. Figuratively, Narcissus becomes fatally enthralled by his own image. But what is the real moral of this fable? Don't become too enamored of your own image? I suppose that narcissism turns people inwards and thus away from one another. I also suspect that we are all susceptible to it to some degree. But isn't a certain amount of it a good thing?

Then there's the foreboding warning in W.H. Auden's O Who Can Ever Gaze His Fill (1937):
And slyly Death's coercive rumour
In the silence starts:
A friend is the old old tale of Narcissus,
not to be born is the best for man;
An active partner in something disgraceful.
Change your partner, dance while you can.
Can't win I guess.