filling vacuums

May 6, 2011

Leaves turn color in the fall, they told us at Wiley Junior High 8th grade biology, because they were dying and the green chlorophyl was no longer being produced to nourish the tree from sunlight.  I was not paying much attention, the biology of life and death being all about what already is and my interest was in what wasn’t but could be – what I learned to call engineering.  Colors were other materials in the leaf now visible in the absence of green.  Without makeup, the leaves were at the end of their lives to be not what they had led us to believe

Space is empty, they told us, hence black and cold, but with the advantage one can travel through it at incredible speed – no air resistance, nothing to bump into, no gravity.  A very modern philosophy – space was useful, fast, sleek, efficient, but cold and soul less.

Considering that we have plenty of leaves available for close examination, and we swim inside the ocean of space, how to explain how completely wrong we were about them?  And wrong in ways that reflect so neatly our view of the world – the obligation since expulsion from Eden to cover ourselves so long as we live, and that to become modern we shed the baggage of warmth, love and soul so that we can travel light and fast and everywhere instantly.  Photons travel at the speed of light and they never age.  Unless they slow down, exit the vacuum and travel outside it (in air or water) or encounter an absorbing atom, they are immortal.  I want that.

But what I hope is we now have leaves right – green chlorophyl is useless in winter’s weak sunlight, better to build other chemicals to protect the plant during its hibernation, chemicals that are brown, orange, red, not our stereotypical color-of-life green.  Before their death, leaves provide something else, not life, not nourishment, they have a final critical role in the survival of the plant beyond death.  in death they ensure the life of the whole world.

Faced with my own vacuum, I filled it, unable to live up to that ‘60s sleek ideal of aluminum jets and V8s, of cold efficient vacuum.  With energy – writing, racing, commuting between my two countries 6 times a year, teaching, studying Italian, even breaking bones is a sort of welcome distraction.  Like priming a pump with water, pain pushes pain away.  And space?  Apparently also the vacuum doesn’t love a vacuum.  It fills itself with energy, with massless particles rushing around at the speed of light, with pulsating electromagnetic fields.  People talk about harnessing the energy of the vacuum.  Maybe we’ll never make gold from that lead, but lead is not nothing.  There’s a lot less of that vacuum than we thought – all of a sudden 90%, maybe 95% of the entire universe, that thing we are immersed in and which surrounds us all our lives and we see when we stare up and when we look down, that we call space implying that it is empty space, has 20 times more stuff in it than we thought a few years ago – mostly dark matter and invisible energy.

If it works for the cosmos, it works for me.  A vacuum is the absence of everything.  I imagine, still when I stare up at the black winter Rhode Island sky with its diffuse dust of stars punctuating the expanse of apparent nothingness, Nancy existing among that black cold vast emptiness.   The idea scares me and makes my psyche shiver in synch with my freezing body.  I want to be surrounded by the warm wet atmosphere of the earth, with warm sunshine, wind, salt air, sounds of birds and cars and people.  Summertime at the beach.  That she is now a part of this infinitude of absolute zero is impossible to reconcile.

Now we know, and I hope we’re right this time: that imposing infinity of space is vulnerable.  Because a vacuum is the absence of everything, the tiniest amount of energy fills it, the efforts even of one person fills infinity and destroys that vacuum.

The idea is not new – energy and dark matter did the heavy lifting for the cosmos, leaving me to fill my own personal vacuum with my own personal energy.  Three years later, summoning energy, launching myself into the world to fill my vacuum has become a habit.  Is our role to repair the world, Tikkun olam?  That’s what religious school taught me, when the lack-of-religion school taught me that colored leaves lacked chlorophyl and space was empty.  Or is the business of life to fill vacuums with energy?


Teeth, Travel, TV

April 20, 2011

Teeth, travel and tv.

We don’t mostly die of teeth, except of Boredom.  To make a long story short, tomorrow is the last of 5 appointments to replace the 50 year old fillings with cool new techie ones that are really beautiful and work better (who knew the old ones worked worse) and they say will outlive me (there’s something to think about – the party my teeth will have once the king is dead!  Oh, they’ll miss me when I’m gone…).  Plus two trips to the oral surgeon for a problem on my soft tissue much like on my head and probably from the same crash two years ago – that they found during the other 5 appointments (or was it 6 including one in Rome)…  First was yesterday.   This really doesn’t end.  It occurs that in the world with the best transportation ever known to humankind, we spend more time traveling than the ancients would have dreamed of.  Two hours commuting per day in the car, 7 hours each way to LA, a total of 15 to get from home version RI to home V.Rome.  And with the best medical care ever, more time in doctor’s offices.  But, our teeth are immortal!

Which brings me to TV.  That clever graph of what humans can do at each age with its eery symmetry (I did not forward to friends – too depressing) omitted one key human activity achieved at a very early age and maintained to the absolute bitter end if not beyond (plenty of it going on at shiva sitting occasions).  According to Radio Italia Uno, after sleeping and working, what humans of the West (them and us) do most is watch TV.  God that is depressing.  What did your boss do with his heartbeats while you were working for his teeth, little high tech life after death fillings?  Oh, he watched TV.   The Bible talks about (on pesach) that god cried when his creations, the Egyptians were tortured by the plagues and killed by them and by the Red Sea.  Won’t he cry that all we do is eat sleep and watch TV?    This fantastic medical infrastructure that keeps us alive, this fantastic tech infrastructure that transports us around the world allows us to spend our lives, extended and comfortable as they are, watching TV.

Back to the God and Travel fronts, this weekend is Easter, the biggest religious weekend of the year in Italy, and unlike idiot christmas with a habit of falling on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, Easter is reliably Sunday (though not reliably which) and the Monday after is a full national holiday in Italy where Friday isn’t (I thought Catholicism had this hierarchical structure with Pope at top  to avoid ending up like us Jews where everybody has a different idea what the religion is, but apparently not?).  It is such a big deal it changes (and not for the better) even the hiking which is all easy family-friendly hikes (did I ever make a claim to family friendliness?) to mountain chapels where the wonders of the church’s omnipresence can be adequately amazing to all.  Which the girlfriend,  confirmed fallen (she would say risen) but is it neutral to say non catholic, cannot handle both because easy hikes with families rates with dental appointments, and there is the religious overtone.  Not to say motive and theme.

So I called Jackie, Travel Agent Par Exc. who was home waiting for the plumber and hence reached Julia, but with same title, and said “do they have  last minute tickets, like on Broadway?” and she said “in your dreams rick, but i’ll check” and then she called back and said that British, after a series of strikes, had an easter weekend full of empty planes and sales, and I got a round trip for the low low price of $800.  OK, not to brag, you’re thinking?  But my ticket bought months in advance for May (granted non-stop) is $1240.  Easter weekend was $1450.  So by female shopping logic, I didn’t spend $800, I saved $650.   Do I have that math right?  My dad says I should stick to stock timing and not gamble on those airlines.  It is true that I have never slept on the floor thanks to a stock…

Off to grading and then what passes for work – 8 straight hours with  students.   And they say teaching keeps you young?

– (in case you wondered why they keep me locked up in an isolated and largely undisclosed location somewhere in rural Rhode Island)

Applause, please

July 26, 2010

From the “turning Italian” department.

After 3 hours of weather delays we did get off the ground.  For me it was only an hour delay, since I (barely) got a seat on the 2 hour earlier flight.  Filled of course.  I was squeezed between two real men.  A short stocky Hispanic guy, Peruvian look – straight Dutch Boy hair, dark skin the color of adobe, no neck, a round head jutting from the neck of a soccer shirt apparently veteran of many hours on the field of battle without seeing the inside of a washing machine.  Cell phone the size of a Big Mac held in his hand the whole flight, doing nothing but looking straight ahead, his beard evidencing at least a week of not noticing that yes, it grows.
And a younger black guy who was in basketball garb over a basketball build, with the ipod welded to ears permanently, white white against black black, retro afro hair.    Men act like only women worry style.  Style, like management, like politics, is not a choice of yes or no, but of quality.  Men included.
Nobody said a word nor exchanged a glance – they were men as bears, hibernating, except for the word “kewl” spoken by the black guy, accompanied by the smoothest of hand gestures when I signaled I’d like the seat between them.  And men say women are a mystery.
We eventually land in Providence.  In Italy, there would be applause.  If a plane lands, you applaud.  Why?   I used to think it was naïvete – the crew flying the plane can’t hear nor see it behind the cockpit door.  So why bother?  Is it so amazing a plane lands?  Flying is not exactly new.  Maybe in italy it is new – they are sort of new to the jet set, maybe because it’s not as wealthy a country as the U.S. and many people are just on their very first flight?
Yesterday we Anglos sat in stone silence when we landed.  No applause, no smiles, no exchange of even a glance among strangers sharing an experience.  Silence.
It bothered me.  After all, when you land, you have arrived where you want to.  You spent the money, you invested the day, the aggravation, the energy of making reservations, getting packed and to the airport on time.  We all shared that – every one of us bought a ticket, made plans, packed a suitcase, said goodbye, got the airport on time, waited in line after line, stood at gates with all the uncomfortable  seats taken, with babies and moms carrying them, with parents trying to keep kids entertained, with adults sprawled on the floor.  We spent $4 for a pint of water.  And after all that…  Here you are!  Here we are – 176 of us made it to Rhode Island this evening.
Wow!  Home.  Or to visit friends.  Or someplace new and strange to start whatever voyage – to a conference or an interview or work in a remote location.  Whatever doesn’t matter.  And you know what – we all fear flying, traveling.  Sometimes people die that way.  Everybody knows there’s a small but non zero risk in travel.  We are here!
It’s emotional, to land.  Especially yesterday.  We made it through the storms, the trees down on the Beltway, the standing room only airport, the overcrowded planes.  The sun was setting and we were (in my case) home.  But these Anglos, expressionless, cool, hands in pockets, waiting for something better, something to really impress them.  They need a much, much better reason to celebrate, to risk embarrassment at exposing an emotion.  Maybe winning the lottery is necessary to risk smiling and admitting something nice has happened.
When Dustin Hoffman in Wagging The Dog said “those are real tears”, he was saying “hey guys, here’s that rare example – an actual emotion being displayed”.  That line would not work in Pescara or Padua.   Finding an Anglo expressing an emotion, it’s  like finding a vein of silver in a remote patch of Nevada high desert.  Because with Anglos, to express an emotion maybe you have to get married or die.  Otherwise, better not to seem too easily moved.
Land?  I have landed before, don’t you know.  Maybe if it’s the moon, I’ll bother to look out the window.  Mars, a smile mayhaps.  Providence?  I’ll pass on that emotion thing.
So is it the Italians who aren’t getting it, are naïve to what travel is, who have the strange habit of expressing an emotion?  They reach home after flying across an ocean, a continent and a sea to return  from New York on that discount seat on the  American Airlines nonstop and what do they say to their families? “You know what was really strange?   Nobody applauded”.

a night of living ridiculously

February 11, 2010
The storm was nothing unusual.  We had a strong steady 25 mph East wind, typical of these winter cyclones off shore, with wet snow which alternated to frozen water and sometimes drizzle.  The house and my radio antenna were coated with ice, maybe an inch thick, and that usually does not bode well for my electric, but as of 8 pm all had been fine and the temp was a balmy 34.  The wind slightly less?  I judged from the sound.  But the air was prickly with a shower of ice crystals off the ocean, with their smell of algae and fish, their texture of salt.
I woke at 9.30 after maybe an hour asleep, with that 6th sense the electric was down.  Opening my eyes, yeh, no electric.  My clock was off, and the little red pilot light on the power pole outside my bedroom window was not winking at me.  The house was a quantum colder.
I got up, put on a lot of clothes, investigated.  Wind, freezing rain, lights visible on the mainland across the pond but not near me. The landline phone was working which is an excellent sign since the phone and electric share the power poles, and when the phone is down, it means a pole is down and that means days without either.  I called the power company which only has computers, no humans, and apparently it knew nothing – I might have been the first and only call.   Not good.  Better if the whole world is calling in distress.  Not yet anyway.  Nobody is down here on the water to call but me.
With temp a little above freezing, I decided to give it a few hours – not much to do about it – and went back to bed until about 12.30 AM.  When either nervousness or cold woke me up.  Repeated procedure – put on clothes, this time a winter coat and hat too.  Still no electric, still windy with some precipitation, but temp now 27F.  With that wind, the water was bound to freeze overnight.  I ran a faucet – already ice crystals in the water, a strange feeling I had never experienced before these episodes – like there is sand in your water.  Sand which disappears in your hand before you can touch it.  I have a little water even with no power because of what is under the diaphragm in the pump – maybe 5 gallons.  A couple of toilet flushes.
OK, time to do what must be done.  I bought into this lifestyle.  Put on shoes. Grabbed flashlight.  Went outside.  Deck was inch thick solid ice from the oscillations of temp above and below freezing. Gripped the rail with both hands and made it down the ramp sideways, onto the crusty snow.  Traction.  Up the big step into the utility shed, stopping the wind from ripping the plywood door off.  Turned off the valve to the 1200 gallon tank, which otherwise will drain via gravity.  Opened all the valves and drained the water out  of lines. Turned off the pump since if the power comes on with the valves open – not good.  We lost one $750 pump that way.  Then a week with no water waiting for a new one.  Lesson learned.    Sealed the little room against the wind.   Hand over hand up the iced ramp.
Now what. Called the power company’s computer again.   Now it knew power was down in most of coastal South County – Kingston, North Kingstown, Narragansett, Charlestown.  Lines down, the optimistic digitized 20something male voice said.  When you are 20something, all is possible.   Fixed by Noon he said.  Thanks for your patience he said. The perfunctory politeness of some of my students.   Then he hung up. Is patience patience when you have no choice, not even an opportunity to whine?  Isn’t it my human right to whine?  Not a satisfying interaction, unilateral except me entering my account number on the keypad.  But such are the limits of his software.
OK, I’ll stay with the ship, maybe try to chip the ice off the Miata, slide on its nylon chains and crawl to the URI pool for a shower and swim while awaiting arrival of electrons in the morning.  Recharge the laptop in the guard station?  Maybe.   Stayed in clothes, minus wool cap and shoes, crawled under all the blankets i have, slept, half my mind wondering what would happen to the toilets and the hot water heater if the cold froze the water still in them.  Would I be living in an ice castle by noon Thursday?  I wouldn’t call it a nightmare.  Nightpuzzle.  What’s the worst that can happen.  A good excuse to get to know my proto-girlfriend  maybe too much better, sleeping with her dogs if a pole does give out –  planted precarious in beach sand.
Life is nothing if not an adventure.  Hard to remember that in the middle of one of those adventures.  Easy to say later when warm and dry.    We would see, I inaccurately projected, by light of day.
2.30 AM, 6th sense kicks in again – too many years of conditioning here.  Power on.  Red light blinking on power pole.  Clock radio flashing the wrong time.   Bravo!  Turned on some heat (some I had left on anyway but not the digital controlled part since the kick in of the power is not good for it) put on all the clothes again.  And more.   Really cold inside and out!  Closed all the sink and shower valves I had opened a couple hours ago when making sure to release pressure.   Inched down the ramp again, now temps in lower twenties, air dry but gusting, opened the shed again, reversed what I had done with all the valves, turned on the pump, calculating not enough time had passed to freeze the water left in it.  I hope.  The reverse spherical turkey.   Bingo.  Water pressure.   Cool!
Waited there in a suspended animation of fatigue and gratefulness for the good fortune of early return to 20th century life (who knows if the 21st will ever get here, and I will gladly settle for the previous).  Stood still and silent staring with way too much interest into the eye of my round analog water pressure gauge.  Until the pump got to full pressure.  Don’t rush, make sure no leaks to the drains, no split pipes spilling my precious water.  After a minute or so in total dark excepting my LED flashlight, one of many handy leftovers from a previous life as a cyclist, a life that seemed so distant now 9 months into my past, hard to imagine surrounded by a sea of snow and ice, dressed in multiple layers of flannel and down, operating on my plumbing system, in the shed crowded with expensive, unused road bikes, Trek, Bianchi, Nancy’s Colnago.  I looked at them in the narrow blue light.  What got them, and me, here?
The gauge hit the set point. The pump rested.  Silence except the wind rattling the shed, whistling through the dry reeds, filtering into my wool cap.  Outside, the trash cans had been scattered by the wind, but then trapped in the ice.  Fugitives stopped in their tracks.  Thermodynamics.   I wandered the real estate, collected them for no reason.   I was dressed for it, I needed to move a little, to prove I was the equal of, the master of, the elements.   Outside in the remains of our storm.  Impervious for a transient.
Back up the ramp gripping the handrail for the dear life of my femurs, slid back into the kitchen.  It was warm.  A light was on. My house was no longer becoming an ice castle.
3.23 AM said the clock projecting red on the ceiling.  I tried to sleep, but come on, how many times can you go to bed in one night.  I knew from the year of sleeping on the floor next to Nancy – about three.  I was now on four.
The heck with it.

Tools, fire, phone

December 22, 2009

The blizzard of gadgets I’ve had to shovel off my mental sidewalk this December also includes a new cell phone, motivated by the eminent death of my two year old one which has more miles logged with me on a bike than some Cat B racers rack up in a season, because my girlfriend uses it to text me so I tend to find myself phone-less, and also I will blame an email I got from AT&T telling me I could get it for free.  Free being a word without which nothing can be sold, and which has thus been just a little degraded in meaning.  Free used to mean you didn’t have to spend anything.  In this case, I spent $150, because the new free phone requires a blue tooth headset and a different car charger.  I remember when $150 was almost real money, but now I realize it is a small enough amount to be considered free.

My candy bar Nokia is what I would call a basic phone, and my brother calls “Rick you have a real job.  Why don’t you get a decent phone… an iPhone or something”.  Bare bones for Christmas 2009 means a phone which works in over 300 countries in the world, thanks to GSM (4 years ago just being digital was amazing) and 4 bands of radios built in, text messaging, a 1.4 MPixel camera with 3:1 zoom and a night vision mode sufficient for pretty good imaging of the moon, movie record and playback with sound, an earphone jack and USB port for uploading and playing MP3 music and books, an address book that holds something over 1000 entries, calendar, alarm clock, internet access on 3G for email, banking, googling things, instant messaging (in case plain old texting, the internet at 7Mbits/s and emailing aren’t enough connectivity) games (Tetris among them), 17 ring tones and 22 other alert tones.  And who could live without at least the ability to download (a euphemism for purchase) more games, music, applications software and tones.  With this barebones phone, you don’t have to take that risk.

It also can dial by voice, handheld or via its built in Bluetooth supporting both phone headsets and listening to music in stereo.  Simultaneously.  If you hold it up to the radio and hit a key, it tells you what song you are listening to (but don’t try that on a Chopin Nocturne) and of course with one more button you can purchase, oops I mean download, the song or just a ringtone version of the song, which for some reason costs more than the song.  Did I mention it also comes with a half dozen different wallpapers for your customizable display, or you can change the display to a picture from its camera or any other graphic you download via Bluetooth or the USB port?

So like I said, a phone suitable for at least cave dwelling and other pre-agrarian societies.  It makes me happy in other ways than just its ability to ring polyphonically imitating a phone my grandparents had sitting on a wooden table in a room people used to call the foyer.  I figure my students all have phones 10 times this complex, so while they aren’t doing much in my classes, they are learning something somehow.  The world is more complicated – our brains are thriving, even if our bodies aren’t.   Thumbs excluded.

And since I was sort of a failure at Econ, it pleases me that economists actually think they can track prices from one year to another.  10 years ago having a cordless phone was for the majority of people, pretty connected.  A cordless phone costed $100. or maybe $49 or maybe $19 on sale at radio shack when you bought two, the other one of which had an answering machine in it (let’s not get into what those were) (i.e. the $19 phone cost $100 – this was the beginning of the devaluation of “free”).   Now I have this netbook disguised as a phone, ostensibly free with a 2 year extension of a contract I wanted to extend anyway.  It costs me $69 per month, vs. $24.95 for my old landline, but that one had $16.50 in taxes added it to it for line fees and other things I never understood – just wrote checks for.  But this one has free national long distance – and that 3G internet.  Worth more than its predecessor Edge?  How much more?  And voicemail and texting.

None of which do I write checks for – it shows up on a credit card which I pay over the internet (I could do over the phone but haven’t figured out yet, plus the idea of using my phone to pay for my phone worries me for 2nd Law of Thermodynamics reasons).   So excluding the labor involved in figuring out how to turn the thing on, the price of telephoning has gone… up…?

We used to worry that we would yield the ability to remember stuff, lazily storing it all, to our phones and Palm Pilots (remember those?).  It turns out remembering how to find all that stuff you stored is enough of a challenge, let alone the stuff.  But there remains a darker element stored inside the persona of my brushed aluminum and sleek black slab – lurking about in a file folder called Saved Items (don’t we all hope to end up there?).  When I first turned my new phone on, I found it came with 11 of them, which are called Templates, by me… pre-fab texts.  And what were these 11 messages, so common that every phone owner would find and supposedly use them, so vital that they are not deletable, ever, from your phone?  The list starts with the just mildly depressing:  “I can’t talk now, I’m in a meeting.  Will call you back at   “.  There is the more general “I will call you back at    “.  Then there is the “I will arrive at    “  and the always useful “meeting is cancelled   “.  Most of mine seem to be.  I had hoped to find my favorite, adopted from a New Yorker cartoon “I’m dead, would you like my voice mail? “

Lurking at the bottom of the list was the one I did not want to find, and hope never, ever to receive.  Still just the thought it is in that Top Eleven, that millions of Nokia phones, some owned by people I might today, or one day, care about…  Beware if you ever receive it – never to know if it’s real or Memorex.  It is those four little words,  “I love you too”.


the life cycle of butterflies

December 20, 2009

a selection from our new book

March 30, 2008

My first and last biology class was in junior high school exactly 40 years ago.  Other than it confirming my distaste for animals and lack of interest in plants, I also remember something about the life cycle of butterflies and moths.  They evolve through four diverse stages with the same individual taking on completely different appearance and behavior with each passage.  Finally, they graduate to the most beautiful, the adult stage, when they show off their wings, flying precariously in summer sunshine over meadows and through deep green forests.  I wished, as an overweight and socially clumsy 13 year old, that I could hope for such a makeover sometime in my future, emerging into a life of physical beauty and freedom (from 8th grade biology among other oppressions).  I suppose that desire, the aesthetic appeal of these animals, and their freedom to fly aimlessly outdoors with no apparent destination or motivation other than to play, imprinted them, just a little, on my psyche.

But there is another reason my 13 year old self was impressed by their story.  It was not so much their designs, colors and flight, as the dissonant tragedy that can go hand-in-hand with their hard-earned maturation, and with it, the freedom to fly.  Some of the species, upon achieving their adult phase, can no longer eat.  Each individual lives for only a few weeks or at most months, burning up fuel stored during earlier lives.

Apparently the inevitability of their end doesn’t inhibit them.  Maybe it even motivates them to fascinate us, to brighten our world, and for the time that they have, to make more of living than without them we would ever know.

As you know, Nancy has not eaten in about 6 days – excepting Diet Coke, a little cran-grape juice and grape flavored shaved ice.  Last night, she and Karen watched some DVDs together.  Nancy and I spend our time, the time when she has the energy and focus, talking, watching clips on her Mac, even laughing.  It is, it has been these last few days, weeks, months, in many ways the life we probably always wanted,  one we didn’t have.  A life being together, without focus on work, a construction of a future, the mortgage and the money we should be saving for the time we might no longer be able to work.  A life orbiting just around ourselves.

Sept. 17: Life V2.0 begins

December 20, 2009

My neighborhood, working morning, light rain, cobblestones (photo Brian Pankhurst)

Yesterday I walked into my apartment here in Rome and found everything as it was when I left at 7:45 AM on Sunday, June 7, thinking I would be back in three hours to run over to the grocery store to pick up my vegetables for lunch.  It was spooky.  it reminded me that we do not know what life has in store for us – an accident, a phone call from a physician or a family member – what we take as routine can end in literally the blink of an eye.  Forever.   I have had a crash course in reality.  Hyperreality.  Haven’t we all taken that course by this time in life.

This morning waking up as I always have in the dark to work by the light of my lava lamp, it was surreal.  I did go through that blink of the eye life changing event, and yet 102 days later, here I am, a little beat up, scarred slightly, sore a lot, but doing it again.  I was saved, I have no idea why or how, and reinserted in a life I loved and lost and now can love again.  Not in the same way – it is the same in the settings, in the homework and obligations, in the bus and metro and pool and Elite grocery store (one of those ok but not great urban chains of small overpriced grocery stores New Yorkers know well) – it can not be the same, and I don’t want it to be the same because I don’t want to be that naïve.
OK, back to work and then the pool, then italian class and the university and Mario’s.  I will spend a fortune on cabs today – I am too sore from the trip to deal with any walking other than into the metro station or whatever.  But sore is not a bad thing – I am like in training for an ironman and yesterday was a hard day.  I will take a few easy ones.

fuso orario

December 20, 2009
Here’s your italian lesson for today, fuso orario.
Fuso orario – literally, the fusing together of clocks and calendars.  Which is what time zones are – a way of linking disparate time systems around the world.  It reflects an old world view when everybody ran their own clocks and there was no particular system of conversion.  The fuso orario refers to what at the time was a radical idea – a system accepted worldwide whereby everyone agrees to live in and respect the same time keeping, of a particular zone, enabling us to easily calculate times anyplace -. like we do linking dollars to pounds to euros.  There is a fusion, a linking, of time all over the world.
When I first had to memorize fuso orario, my brain resented it.  Why not just say Zona Tempo or Zona Orario like the rest of the world?  But Fuso Orario has something time zone doesn’t – it has history.  It reminds us that it wasn’t always so, that indianapolis and chicago and columbus and cleveland had at one time clocks separated by 10 minues, by 17 minutes, by an hour and 20 minutes, whatever.  Every little town had its independent time keeping system, and somehow, it is sort of a miracle to see all humanity agree to anything, the whole world of millions of independent clocks, got fused down to 24 zones, and really one universal system – the fusion of timekeeping – the fuso orario.
When I first started our project in Kuala Lumpur, I guess in the mid ’90s, they had their own ancient time zone.  it was 30 minutes different from what should have been their time zone according to the Fuso Orario Mondiale.  At the space agency they have an enormous sun dial.  Since the sun shines almost always there (except at night and the occasional afternoon thunderstorm) a sun dial is pretty useful.  It was huge and built of rock, solid and impressive.  Unfortunately, in that time they finally accepted the Fuso Orario – they became fused to the world system, and shifted their clocks for the country by 30 minutes to be in synch.  Now that sundial is the only clock in Malaysia that keeps the old time, and while at first a lot of talk was about somehow moving it to synch, now it is a little bit of history, an anachronism from when the world was not linked and every independent group of people could have whatever time they liked and without instant communications, it didn’t matter.

Life is the constant work of expanding the past

December 20, 2009

Olympus waterproof camera ride report

December 19, 2009

Brain the size of a planet. It, not me.

What I noticed is that despite my Olympus 550 WP costing just $120, it was not lost on their engineers that hey, they have a computer, power, a display and tons of memory available. Not to mention a vast reservoir of software already written for other cameras. Thus for instance, on the screen at default there are 20 variables displayed around the edges . Usual stuff like f-stop and shutter speed, plus the mélange of modes, flash status, level of zoom (electronic and optical), battery charge level, various warnings if the subject is too dark, or shaded or not able to be focused upon, and more. And you can add more by customizing the frame.

There are at least 15 shooting modes, each of which you can customize by selecting around 15 variables buried inside each one. There are 3 automatic modes (it seems less than automatic if you have to pick which automatic mode – like an automatic transmission with three speeds) but there are, it turns out, two super automatic modes which choose among the 3 automatic modes best suited, which in turn picks among the 15 options inside it, each of which has its own 15 variables, any and all of which you can change… One of those superautomatic modes senses the type of scene you are shooting – profile, night etc. Sensible. But I am drawn to the other one. It is so automatic they don’t tell you how it chooses. I like that – the Wizard of Oz Mode.

As if that isn’t enough, you have the option to record sound, to pick the frame rate, to decide among 3 types of florescent lighting and a couple types of tungsten lighting and two types of sunlight (for planets orbiting double stars, I guess). Of course you can take movies, but that’s another 20 pages of the manual I skipped over. I did note that the optical zoom doesn’t work for movies – but the electrical one does. And the audio defaults on, but you can turn it off, or toggle it on and off, or add sound later, or subtract.

In both movie and still mode you can pick your resolution among about 10 options, and within each of the ten, the type of compression you do or don’t want. A total of about 50 resolution settings. Then of course you can’t live without the power saving modes. Another few pages of the catalog tell you how to display your pictures on the camera’s screen, on various types of TV Screens (HD, widescreen, PAL etc.) and then on various Mac and PC compatible computer screens. Manually or in slide show mode – skipping some or showing all of them, with your recorded voice over, or the audio you recorded with each scene.

Oops, almost forgot to mention the self timer. 12 seconds. Fixed. What the hey?

If you are smart enough to wade through all that you must own a computer. But in case you left it at home, or on shore, you can image process all your stuff, including image improvements like contrast and gamma, and cropping, and adding audio later, or deleting audio you don’t like, or editing the audio. And you can print without a computer by “simply” (they use that word a lot) enabling PicBridge software. Which opens up a menu of menus so you can manage your printing in a million ways.

Did I mention it has an MP3 music player? Not an add on, they figure you might want to narrate your shots with music. not a problem.

It would be easier to say what it doesn’t have – a phone, a GPS, and a V-8 for driving to where you are taking the photos, with submenus to choose the comfort vs. handling of the suspension, performance vs economy shifting schedules, and presets for the temperature the seat heaters come on (separately for the driver and front seat passenger, but everyone in the back has to live with the same setting until the software update comes out – which you can download from Don’t forget to register online!!!).

It was little comfort to note that the 80 page manual, including 3 pages of safety warnings (for a camera that weighs 4 ounces? – I suppose they have to remind you it can be a choking hazard) is only the start and “lots more” (not just a little more) information is available on-line. Lucky – I was worried what I was going to do for reading in 2011. Plus there are user groups you can join for discussions on special topics. Lucky thing. If you don’t like the plug in the wall charger, a cord option is available (in some countries). Handy if you want to operate while plugged in – on the tripod (mount included, tripod optional). It takes several memory card formats, but don’t lose the little plastic adapters. Or swallow them.

There are a few pages not so much on using it underwater, but cleaning it afterwards. Don’t forget to dry it in “warm shade”, but in any case, below 105˚F. Thermometer NOT INCLUDED. I can’t believe they left out the weather station option. But it does have an underwater photos set of settings, all user adjustable (who else would?), but they advise doing that before going into the water. Wimps.

Back on land getting bumped is always a danger – especially when dialing in the long zooms. Naturally there is optional anti shake, which can be automatic, or manual. And you can tell it to anti shake faces. I like that – blurry bodies, sharp faces. I wonder if there’s a Magnum Mode to get the opposite? It does speak italian – and 9 other languages including two Chinese dialects, Arabic, Japanese and Hebrew.

Luckily for those of us not planning to enroll in Olympus University majoring in Stylus Underwater (and compared with their other cameras, this one probably only offers the Associates Degree), you can be a typical American Guy and just turn it on and snap pictures. Maybe zoom it in and out. In which case you only need to know to push the button part way down to let it think about what it thinks you are wanting to do for a few milliseconds, and then push down to take a picture. I got that far. But you will have to live knowing your camera will think, no, it will know, it is smarter than you are.