The occasional fall day.

This morning dawned clear and unfortunately cold.  Not that I have anything against autumn – it’s my favorite season in fact – but the more icy portions of it I don’t find appealing.  I’d rather stay securely under the covers, thank you.  Today was one of those days that was just brisk enough to make me want to linger in warmth.

But at this time of year, the colder days are the clear ones.  Autumn provides some of the best times for stargazing.  In the colder air, without clouds to obscure and warm the earth, the heavens open up.  Amazement reigns.  And if we are lucky, we might gain a little perspective and understanding. Of course, most of the days are overcast, but I think this serves make the clear ones more stunning, more memorable.

For me it is often a time for reflection.  In particular this year it has been so.  The stress of applying to schools and deciding what I want (for the rest of my life) has been painfully coupled with the loss of a relationship which I thought was secure, throwing my choices even further into doubt.  I’ve felt very lost about many things, and regaining my balance has proved more difficult than I initially anticipated.  Friendships, more often than not, have felt the strain.

To remember who you are is to begin to know who you want to be and how to move forward.  I’ve spent time thinking about things I thought I’d left behind.  I’ve thought about the idea that making a life with someone else was a key towards what I wanted, that a steady companionship or a passionate love were the two options for where I wanted to be in my relationship with someone. I’ve begun to realize – emotionally, not just intellectually – that either option is not enough.  That even both combined is not enough.  I think of Tony, and him trying to do Teach for America after graduation, and his move into a job, any job, when that failed.  I think of Mike, and his one-time medical goals and his current doubts about what he will do with his life.  I think of Abe, lost somewhere in the wilds of West Virginia accomplishing – hopefully – something lasting.  And with sudden clarity, I feel balanced again, as if I begin to know what it is I want.

A little coal in my stocking.

According to the Department of Energy, the US holds more than one quarter of the world’s coal reserves, an energy amount equal or greater to all of the oil reserves known in existence.  While the first question this might bring to mind is why we aren’t powering our cars with coal, other questions also surface secondarily.  A big one would have to do with mountaintop mining.

Mountaintop mining is a process of accessing coal which involves removing the uppermost layers of a mountain (usually by blasting) to access the coal beneath it.  Successive layers are removed to access lower deposits.  It’s a cheap, easy, quick, and reasonably safe way to get coal out of the ground.  But do we really need to get this resource out of the ground that quickly?  And what are the costs of doing so?  People near Coal River Mountain seem to think those costs might be too much.

Of course, there’s the potential environmental impact.  Coal extractors say they replant and try and regrow the landscape a bit after they are finished.  Critics say any real regrowth will take years, if not decades.  I say, you had a wooded mountain with valleys, and now you have a big flat space with grasses and maybe shrubs.  I don’t know what true impact that may entail, but it’s definitely a big change, even if the same exact types of trees grow back and the wildlife is not disturbed.

Second, there’s the local economic impact.  Sure, coal mining has been improving to an extent that great heaping swaths of it are technologically powered, rather than man-powered, but it still takes some people to run equipment.  Mountaintop mining takes less manpower per amount of coal extracted, which means workers have less say.  Usually it results in lower wages and fewer jobs in areas that are already economically depressed.

But it doesn’t end there.  The second largest user of coal in the world, China, is picking up our fast and dirty habits.  With the economy booming and the subsequent demand for electric power exploding, it is estimated that 3 or 4 plants powered by coal are revving up every week.  That means plants are almost instantly rivalling each other for supply.

Though each of these plants has to meet certain environmental safe practices enforced by the national government, pollution is still exploding as fast as power.  Why?  A recent study shows it may be due to the use of low-grade coal when price and availability make it the only feasible option.  The study also claims that with government incentives and other cost-saving mechanisms, each plant would be able to reduce its noxious output without a loss of power supply.  In particular, since the controls on what each plant builds were already in place, most have the air scrubbers and other pollution-reducing devices in place – they just aren’t yet being used.

But let’s throw a little political maneuvering into the picture.  The ‘higher grade’ coal (anthracite) which burns with less sulphur is only available in certain areas of China.  That means if it’s not close to you, add the cost of shipping to the already higher cost of the higher-grade coal.  But those certain areas happen to be in the ‘northwest’ regions of China.  i don’t know exactly which regions, as anything west of Beijing is considered a ‘western region’, but it does put Xinjiang in mind.  It does make me think of rebellion, resistance, historical oppression, poverty, and differing belief systems.  It makes me wonder if others realize what might happen in an area like this had a resource that would fetch a high price.

Oh, and since this didn’t get published quite when i wanted heres a political update on clean coal.

Mark your Calendars.

It’s that time of year again.  The time when school kids flock to their institutions?  Not what I was thinking of.  The time when the leaves change color and begin to fall?  And how do you mark that on your calendar?  Apple-picking time?  Yes, but no.  Instead I am thinking of the time of year when a ‘select group’ of Europeans get together to decide who’s the best and brightest in a number of fields.  Yes, that’s right, it’s Nobel Prize time.

The first prize, the one for medicine, has already been awarded.  This year’s want to a German for work on HPV and two French people for work on HIV.  Other prizes will be awarded throughout the coming week, ending with Economics on Monday, October 13.

I’m not sure why many people would care about the Nobel Prizes, but I do.  I guess because it’s fun to win something?  Or maybe it has to do with all the great people I know doing great things that deserve prizes?  Or maybe it’s about prizes that are well-known to just about everybody.  I’m not really sure – it’s almost like the Olympics.  I don’t really watch them, there’s always lots of controversy around decisions that are made, and yet, there’s still a certain appeal.  Perhaps it’s a prize that seems a little timeless, coming as it does from the era of that earlier ‘turn of the century’.  Perhaps it’s something that is attractive precisely because it is resistant to change, despite accusations of stodginess.  Something about it still makes me ready to anticipate.

Stonehenge and the hail cannon.

The word ‘lunatic’ comes from a Latin association with the word ‘luna’, which means moon.  There is some evidence that the word comes from early experience with those who had mental illnesses like bipolar disorder that moved in cycles, similar to the phases of the moon.  But in common usage today, a loony could be anyone outside the ‘normal’ order of things, often including those who make decisions outside of hard science.  Here I’m talking about all the advocates of alternative medicine, alternative farming practices, and even methods of changing the weather (think orgone).

I’m not saying that any particular practice or beleif is, in fact, crazy.  Personally I think many of these alternative practices has some basis in fact, though I reserve judgement on any particular practice until I can ‘see it for myself’.  After all, belief in a cure has been proven to change the course of a person’s illness.  Instead I am drawn to the idea that the popularity of such alternatives is itself cyclical in nature.

Take, for example, a farmer’s recent use of a ‘hail cannon‘, a device which he believes to break up hail through noise within a certain area.  Similar devices using a loud noise such as a cannon or bell to ‘disrupt’ hail formation have been in use at various times, but are currently seeing a marked resurgence.  Is this merely evidence of new weather patterns and more farmers taking drastic measures to avoid damages?  Or is it one of those things that must cycle in popularity?

Another example is seen in recent research into Stonehenge which reveals at least one purpose for the ancient site as a healing center.  Evidently one of the inner rings of stones is a rock called spotted dolomite, which the new study is saying was believed to have healing properties, making the site one of pilgrimage for those who were very ill.  The condition of those buried at Stonehenge seems to support this conclusion, though it remains unclear just exactly how the stones were thought to ‘heal’ the sick.  Currently, dolomite is sometimes used as a dietary supplement to improve health due to its high concentrations of both calcium and magnesium.  Since Stonehenge has been dated to at least 2500 BC in previous studies, making this one of the oldest resurgences in popular health belief that I know of.

So, what does this all mean?  Are these alternatives something we will eventually discard, once and for all, when medicine can treat all of our ailments?  Will we rely only on 100% proven methods to protect our crops and discourage inclement weather?  Will there always be something we can’t quite control, leaving a niche for alternative solutions?  I should hope so.  A new moon and a dark sky all the time does not appeal to me.

Indianapolis and the big blue wall.

So. Last week I was at home in Indy for a week of vacation.  And what a vacation it turned out to be! But random stressors aside, I ended up seeing quite a few random and completely unexpected things.  I mean, who ever thought to see fried Pepsi?  How do you even fry a liquid?  Yes it is the State Fair and they do fry up a variety of weird things, but really?  And what about the doe and her faun leisurely eating in the green triangle between on ramp and highway?  Usually you just see the unfortunate aftermath.  However, the most unexpected thing I saw was the main branch of the IMCPL.

you must understand, the main library branch of downtown Indy has always been awesome.  The original building was from a time when they actually planned things out adequately for use, so it was both functional and beautiful.  Its later additions, while not as pretty, still allowed for an overactive imagination to climb up floor-to-ceiling shelves and really delve into hidden alcove of knowledge.  It was an immense treasure-trove for me growing up, and the quiet respect I had in those places will serve as a marker for my interpretation of future libraries.

However, the entire infrastructure was dated, and the library still needed more space for more books.  So they tacked on a giant modern building that was supposed to act as a frame for the old cool building and at the same time have all the advances of modern preservation and storage technology.  Everyone was unhappy, including me.  I didn’t want a giant glassy mass distracting from my awesome library.  But that’s what we got.

While I was home this time I was finally able to see the thing up close and personal, and there were several pleasant surprises.  I could say things here about the better, safer spaces for children, or the person-high shelving, or the updated HVAC that will keep books younger longer, or the various meeting rooms and performance venues or exhibit spaces now at the library.  But these are all pretty boring mundane things, so i will focus on the things that really surprised and pleased me.

3) Book Carts/Baskets – for the true speed-reader

Yes, we’ve moved beyond the day and age where you actually have to use your hands to hold your book selections.  For those who read more than they can hold onto with two hands, we provide free plastic ‘shopping’ baskets.  For those who read more than they can physically lift, there are also rolling carts that hold two baskets.  Also good for entertaining small children.

2) Pod chairs – a la Mork

No longer do you simply sit or even recline in a chair.  Now you can stuff yourself into a noise-cancelling pod and truly be secluded from the outside world.  And, if you’re in the mood, you can spin these things around for a little ride.  Or you can attempt to just lean way out without falling out – that could be enough of a ride right there.

Warning: pods really aren’t meant to fit two.  Extended two-person sitting may cause numbness.

1) And, the number one Greatness of the new library addition:  The Big Blue Wall (Shelly included only for reference)

Do I know why the top floor is twice as tall as any other floor?  Not really.  Do I know why the walls are painted an especially vivid blue color?  Excessively not.  But I do know it’s cool.  So cool, it makes me want to prance.  So cool, people set up photo shoots in odd costumes and tons of makeup in front of it.  And that’s pretty cool.  Go library.

The case for ‘nother’.

It is a special time for those of us who consider words an art: Merriam-Webster has published a new dictionary.  Among the newly included words are some familiar (edamame) and some strange (prosecco, which is a type of Italian wine I would now like to try).  The dictionary makers have decreed which words should be included by closely monitoring usage of the English language, which I applaud.  However, it makes me wonder just what the criteria for inclusion are.  Do these words eventually go into the Scrabble dictionary?  if so, when?  Why is the not-yet-word ‘nother’ still not included?

Many of you are familar with the word “another”, a combination of the singular article ‘an’ with the word ‘other’, meaning ‘one other’.  I am unsure what evolutionary twist of language smooshed these two words together into a single word, but I do know that they have again been separated in new ways.  Yes, I am am talking about the frequently-used phrase “a whole nother”.  Examples of common use of this phrase include movies (Star wars, Luke says “But that’s a whole nother year!” in regards to helping with the farm for the rest of the season instead of going to pilot school.), music (“A Whole Nother Thang” is the title of Clarence Haskell’s debut album), and personal experience.  Yes mom, I refuse to say “another whole”.

Now, the grammar sticklers would say “a whole other” would be the correct phrase that does not create a new word.  And I’m sure the dictionary sticklers would say that ‘nother’ is not really common usage – meaning might not be conveyed outside the “a whole nother” phrase.  Someone saying “I have two nother bathtubs” might be misunderstood.  However, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.  One day (someday soon) ‘nother’ will no longer be discriminated against.  We will be free at last.

Big Change

I was reminded by another blog that money is something we think about alot today. Specifically how much money. I would like to turn that idea on its head a little bit today, and instead as the question of how big money.

Now, some of you might say, all dollar bills are the same size. True. However, there are interesting discrepancies of size if you look smaller. A one-dollar bill is smaller than all coins, at least in the first two dimensions. All coins have more depth than the papery dollar. However, a dime has greater monetary worth (I won’t argue intrinsic value) than a penny, but a shorter diameter and shorter depth as well. Why should this be? And why is a quater almost exactly the same size as a dollar coin, whether silver or gold? That’s just silly, especially considering that the size of coins and thir shape and outer ridges are supposed to help identify individual coins. Don’t tell me we made the dollar the same size as a quarter to make things easier for blind people.

Which brings me to my all-time favorite coin, the largest of the pack – the half-dollar. This wonderous little monster is adorable in its size.  Yet nobody uses it.  Is it because we’ve moved to carrying less change, and thus have smaller pockets?  IS it because nothing is worth 50 cents anymore?  Or was it never in wide circulation?  Why even have a half dollar?

One of its most interesting uses is in soccer matches, to determine who gets the first kickoff.  This is because soccer is played on grass – you can use a smaller coin, like a quarter, but it’s much more difficult to find.  The nice, big half-dollar shows up easily between the blades.  Unfortunately, because of the large surface area, the half-dollar is also the most unfair coin.  The dime, because of its tiny surface area and thus much smaller additional weight on the ‘heads’ side, is the statistically fairest.  I learned that little factoid direct from Michael T. Weiss of Pretender fame.  Anyway, conclusion is – if you want a fair toss, use a dime.  Even if you lose it afterwards.  Who can’t afford to lose 10 cents once and awhile, anyway?