Monday, December 31, 2007

To Wish You Luck This Coming Year

Christmas Card, 1913

Another card from my Grandma's album, Prescott, Iowa, 1913.

Christmas wishes To Florence from Edna

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Ernst Haeckel--Still Controversial a Century Later

Trilobites, eurypterids, and horesehoe crabs from Haeckel's Artforms In Nature

I came across these plates from Ernst Haeckel: Kunstformen der Natur 1899-1904 a couple of weeks ago on a needlework design Web site. I was so pleased to find them I thought I'd post the link here, and add a few other Ernst Haeckel links for good measure. As I searched for sensible, informative Haeckel links, I was amazed at the large number of Web sites offering vitriolic attacks on the man and his work. I would not have expected a comparative invertebrate anatomist who died in 1919 to elicit so much venom, let alone interest. I found creationists denouncing him, biologists calling him "forger" and "fraud," and even Lenin offers a scathing critique, courtesy of

Haeckel coined the terms "ecology" and "first world war," and he pioneered embryology and marine biology. His drawings and colored plates are breathtaking. Do check out Art Forms in Nature. The plate above, featuring trilobites, eurypterids and horseshoe crabs is plate 47 from this volume. I understand why creationists don't like him, because he was a proponent of evolution, but I'm not sure why biologists are so vexed that he was wrong about some stuff. Darwin was wrong about lots of things too, but I've observed a cult-like devotion to Darwin among some biologists. (Alfred Wallace is my personal favorite, but then, I like insect collecting and biogeography.)

Here are some of the more balanced accounts of Haeckel. In my opinion, researchers always present the data that best support their ideas. This isn't "fraud," (although sometimes it stretches facts far enough to be called "spin,") and it's necessary to get your papers published and your grant proposals funded. Several of these Web authors feel the need to apologize for Haeckel's inaccuracies, but I don't think it's necessary myself.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

ZAP Reader--Cure for Eyestrain?

Here's a fascinating Web tool I found via The Stingy Scholar blog--Zap Reader:

ZAP Reader is a web based speed reading program that will change the way you read on your computer. Current beta testers report reading twice as much in half the time--that's a 300% increase in reading speed, without any loss in comprehension! There is nothing to install, it works with most popular browsers, and it's totally free!

You feed their Web tool an URL or paste a block of text in their window, and Zap feeds it back to you one large print word at a time. I haven't decided whether it'll be anything more than a novelty for me, but many Web fonts are too small (or strangely colored) for me to read, and this seems to have some eye-strain relief potential. You can adjust word speed to whatever is comfortable. I expect different types of content would probably require different reading speeds.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Holiday Cheer and Ducks

1914 Christmas card--ducks and holly

Yet another Christmas Card from my Grandma's album, Prescott, Iowa, 1913.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Botany of Desire

Book Cover: The Botany of Desire

Reya tipped me off to a delightful book, The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan (2001). It's the sort of popular book on evolutionary biology I usually don't enjoy, so I was both surprised and pleased to find it so interesting.

Pollan invokes coevolution to describe the ethnobotanical history of four different cultivated species, and he examines it using the "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" dilemma that served Richard Dawkins' career so well in The Selfish Gene.

Did I choose to plant these potatoes, or did the potato make me do it? In fact, both statements are true. I can remember the exact moment that spud seduced me, showing off its knobby charms in the pages of a seed catalog. I think it was the tasty-sounding "buttery yellow flesh" that did it....That May afternoon, the garden suddenly appeared before me in a whole new light, the manifold delights it offered to the eye and nose and tongue no longer quite so innocent or passive. All these plants, which I'd always regarded as the objects of my desire, were also, I realized, subjects, acting on me, getting me to do things for them they couldn't do for themselves.

Dawkins' cranky atheism and self-promotion made reading his books in grad school an annoying chore, but Pollan's fondness for his horticultural subjects shines through and lends his book an engaging charm. I usually am either bored or irritated by popular accounts of evolution, but I found much engagingly presented new information in these four essays on cultivated plants. I especially enjoyed picturing Johnny Appleseed as a Dionysian emblem.

Here are my inevitable links for further reading.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Slow Cloth, and a Challenge For the New Year

I've signed on to Sharon Boggon's 2008 Take It Further Challenge. Here's how she describes it:

On the first of each month I will post key concept. The challenge is to take the idea, develop it and push it towards a resolved design during that month. In other words you interpret the idea and apply it to fiber or paper.

Every month there will be two options. The second option will be a colour scheme or a design element like a shape, to develop into a resolved design. This means that if you don't like the concept you can work the colour scheme or is you don't like the colour scheme you can work with the concept. Or you can work with both.

The actual project you design can be any thing, in any medium or format you choose. It can be a crazy quilt block, a postcard, a journal quilt, a piece of embroidery, a sampler, a fabric book page or whatever sparks your imagination. It can also be...pages spreads of designs worked in a visual journal....What ever you choose to do, I am asking people to blog the development of the idea through the month (preferably weekly) and to leave a comment here with your blog address so that people can visit your site and see what you have done.

Sharon B's In a Minute Ago was one of the first blogs I ever bookmarked. Besides writing about her own needlework projects and teaching online courses, she has produced the Dictionary of Stitches for Hand Embroidery and Needlework, and she teaches and blogs about Web design, network literacy, digital culture and the visual arts at Mindtracks.

In 2007, she challenged hand embroiderers with Take a Stitch Tuesday: Each week I took a stitch and suggested people experiment with it, push it a little and see what possibilities the stitch holds. Participants posted photos of their work, and SharonB provided links to them. Although I don't hand-embroider, it was inspiring to see all the different interpretations. You could browse for days....

In the course of organizing this year's challenge, SharonB mused on Slow Cloth, a celebration of giving thought and taking time in fiber projects. I enjoyed her essay, but it has stirred up a host of comments and blog posts, a few of them of the strain "My knitting (or embroidery or quilting) is good, and pleases me; your knitting differs from mine, and is therefore naughty, wrong, and bad." I agree with SharonB that it is good and useful to consider why we choose our craft and what we hope to achieve. I'm not sure sharing our entire thought process on the Internet is so valuable. Sometimes we figure out what we like by first identifying what we don't like, and that thing we hate may be someone else's beloved goal. A screed defaming crocheted toilet roll covers will come up when someone who craves such an item searches for "crocheted toilet roll cover pattern," and hurt, offend, or inspire flame wars. One gal's brilliant expression is another gal's hideous monstrosity, and until we can articulate what we love, there's no sense in publicly denigrating other people's projects and media. (I am, personally, neutral on the topic of toilet roll covers; should I ever require one, I will probably make up my own pattern.)

I also offer an off-topic but interesting link that I discovered while reading the responses to Slow Cloth: Handmade 2.0 By Rob Walker, December 16, 2007 New York Times Magazine. It's about, among other things, Etsy.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Hello Central, Give Me Santa Claus

1914 Christmas Card--Telephone Santa

This postcard was addressed to my great grandfather, J. Williamson, postmarked 1914, and signed "Nellie." Santa Claus looks a little sinister here, but I believe this is for humorous effect--sardonic Santa posed with the latest technical novelty. Telephones also fascinated song writers in those days. Here are the lyrics to one of my favorite sad sentimental songs, learned from an old Carter Family recording. Many suburban folkies think it absurd and funny, but there's such a thing as being too sophisticated for your own good. Sara Carter's matter-of-fact rendition always makes me tear up. Poor little lonesome Dollie!

No Telephone In Heaven

"Now I can wait on baby," the smiling merchant said,
As stooped and softly toyed with her golden curly head
"I want to call up mamma,"  came the answer full and free.
"Will you telephone and ask her when she's coming back to me?"


   "My child," the merchant murmured, as he stroked the anxious brow,
   "No telephone connection where your mother lives at now."
   "No telephone in heaven?" and a tear sprang in her eye.
   "I thought God had everything with him up in the sky."

"Tell her that I get so lonesome that I don't know what to do,
And papa cries so much I guess he must be lonesome too.
Tell her to come to baby, 'cause at night I get so 'fraid
With no one there to kiss me when the lights begin to fade."


"All through the day I want her since my dollie's got so tore
With the awful punching brother give her with his little sword.
There ain't no one to fix her since mamma's gone away,
And poor little lonesome dollie's getting thinner every day."


Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas from Prescott Iowa, 1914

1914 Xmas card

Before she had kids, my grandma, Florence Williamson Hunt, kept scrapbooks of postcards she and her family received. At the back I found several odd-sized cards that wouldn't fit the postcard slots. The postcards bundled with this Christmas card were postmarked 1913 and 1914.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Freehand Machine Embroidery

Guatamalan weaving--Resplendent Quetzal

In the spirit of something new for the new year, I've been experimenting with some unfamiliar sewing techniques. I've always been fascinated by the freehand embroidery effects some people achieve with their sewing machines. I experimented a bit with the pattern stitches on my 1971 Singer and on my newer White/Viking machine when I made these window quilts the winter before last. What I hope to do is combine fabric dying or painting, applique, and freehand machine embroidery techniques to make patchwork blocks. This quetzal weaving is only a small part of my eclectic fabric collection, after all. Here are some links I've found helpful or inspirational, or both.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Quetzal Quilt

Quetzal quilt in the snow

I bought this Guatemalan wall hanging in Costa Rica in 1984, and recently, I decided it would be better used as a window quilt than folded in a box of other fabrics. I added a few strips of denim-weight fabrics, backed it with scraps of red sweatshirt fleece left over from my denim rail fence patchwork, and made the binding from my first attempt at hand-dying fabric.

I sewed on a few buttons by way of tying the top to the backing. I had a bowl full of buttons selected for embellishment, but I decided they would detract from the bunnies and quetzals.

I saw quetzals regularly in Costa Rica, and I enjoyed photographing this project in the West Virginia snow, so far away from the Guatemalan weavers and their familiar birds.

Quetzal window quilt

Friday, December 21, 2007

Conspiracy Theory Contest

When I saw the cable news tape showing smoke rolling out of a window in the Old Executive Office Building in D.C. this week, I just hoped one of my favorite old buildings wouldn't be seriously damaged. It took Terry to remind me that lots of important things could be lost in the fire. Her first guess was CIA interrogation tapes. Now, the Washington Post's Al Kamen is having a contest to guess "What Was in That Office, Anyway?"

That fire in Vice President Cheney's digs in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Wednesday naturally has everyone in Washington speculating about its origin. Arson might seem a bit far-fetched to folks outside the Beltway, but it would not be the first time a small conflagration was planned by a White House official.

We recall that Watergate burglary mastermind G. Gordon Liddy plotted firebombing the Brookings Institution -- "as a diversion," he writes in his memoirs -- to get into the security vault and steal Daniel Ellsberg's Vietnam War papers.

I think this contest will be worth watching--nobody can spin a conspiracy theory like a government worker.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Icy Apple Tree

Icy apple tree

All this beautiful ice is still on the trees, although this morning, we have white snow, white sky, white air, and no sun to sparkle. The really odd thing is that as soon as you drop off the flat top of Droop, there is no ice, and little snow. We have our own very local weather.

Monday, December 17, 2007

After the Ice Storm

Van in the blocked driveway

I had no sooner posted yesterday morning's "wintery mix" photos than the wintery mix on the power lines took us off the grid. Although we heat with wood and cook with gas, other modern conveniences (such as running water) require electricity, so by the time power came on this afternoon, we were quite pleased. Here's what we found on our way out to the hard road. The trees of Pocahontas County did not fare better than the power lines. If you look closely, you'll see our van in the middle.

The pear tree by the house still had this much ice coating at 3 p.m. today.

Pear tree twigs encased in ice

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Wintery Mix

Tractor with icicles

The television weather people have been talking about a "wintery mix." I don't remember hearing this phrase from them before. (It makes me think of some sort of party snack.) However, today on Droop Mountain, we're getting that "wintery mix" of precipitation. The tractor looks forlorn, but I believe the trees will suffer more.

Icy trees

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Battle of the Top of Allegheny

Here's a timely Pocahontas County historical reference courtesy of On This Day in West Virginia History: The Battle of the Top of the Allegheny on December 13, 1861. Ambrose Bierce was a Union soldier during this battle, and revisited Bartow in 1903, before writing A Bivouac of the Dead, which I blogged about last year.

Here's the beginning of the West Virginia Division of History and Culture article, originally published in 1928: It's worth a visit.

This is an article about the Battle of the Top of Allegheny, fought in. Pocahontas County, December 13, 1861, between the forces of the Union under Gen. R. H. Milroy, and the forces of the Confederacy, under Gen. W. W. Loring, Col. Edward Johnson, commanding.

The two commands had camped within sight of each other since the 13th day of July, the day that the Federal forces had occupied the place at White's on Cheat Mountain. For five months the hostile camps; had watched the smoke rising from the camp fires, across one of the big valleys of West Virginia. Each camp was in the high altitude of more than four thousand feet above the sea level.

The Federal advance had been here blocked and the summer and fall had been passed with battles and skirmishes and an extraordinary effort was planned by Milroy. Both armies were on the Staunton and Parkersburg Turnpike, a famous stage road which enjoyed in its time much of the travel that afterwards was accommodated by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The Federal camp was known officially as Camp Cheat Mountain Summit. The Confederate camp was known officially as Camp Baldwin, named in honor of a Confederate colonel of that name. Between the two for a good part of the time, and until the winter fastened down was Camp Bartow, named after a Confederate general who was killed at the first battle of Bull Run. This was at the ford of the East Fork of Greenbrier River at Travellers Repose, now the town of Bartow.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Pocahontas County Girls--Outdoor Role Models

White tailed deer, doe and fawn

I'm substituting at the middle school this week. One of the really refreshing things about Pocahontas County kids is that most of them are interested in hunting, or fishing, or farming, or forestry, or some other aspect of natural history. The seventh grade science textbook had a really lame population genetics section, but when I used white-tailed deer as an example, everybody got the concept immediately.

The very best thing about this is that the girls like this stuff at least as much as the boys. Last year, when the seventh grade English class produced a newsletter about November activities, the girls wrote the best hunting stories. They interviewed their girlfriends, and the consensus was that girls prefer bow hunting because the season lasts longer and you can kill does, and that turkey hunting is an excellent activity for girls and their grandpas. Boys didn't seem to figure in the mix at all.

In this regard, at least, Pocahontas County has a happier situation for young women than many more affluent places in America. Barbara Erenreich has a funny/sad report on feminism's loss of ground in the pre-school set in her December 11 post on Bonfire of the Princesses

Disney likes to think of the Princesses as role models, but what a sorry bunch of wusses they are. Typically, they spend much of their time in captivity or a coma, waking up only when a Prince comes along and kisses them. The most striking exception is Mulan, who dresses as a boy to fight in the army, but--like the other Princess of color, Pocahontas--she lacks full Princess status and does not warrant a line of tiaras and gowns. Otherwise the Princesses have no ambitions and no marketable skills, although both Snow White and Cinderella are good at housecleaning....

Feminist parents gnash their teeth. For this their little girls gave up Dora, who bounds through the jungle saving baby jaguars, whose mother is an archaeologist and whose adventures don't involve smoochy rescues by Diego? There was drama in Dora's life too, and the occasional bad actor like Swiper the fox. Even Barbie looks like a suffragette compared to Disney's Belle. So what's the appeal of the pink tulle Princess cult?

Seen from the witchy end of the female life cycle, the Princesses exert their pull through a dark and undeniable eroticism. They're sexy little wenches, for one thing. Snow White has gotten slimmer and bustier over the years; Ariel wears nothing but a bikini top (though, admittedly, she is half fish.) In faithful imitation, the three-year old in my life flounces around with her tiara askew and her Princess gown sliding off her shoulder, looking for all the world like a London socialite after a hard night of cocaine and booze. Then she demands a poison apple and falls to the floor in a beautiful swoon. Pass the Rohypnol-laced margarita, please.

I must admit I've noticed this Disney Princess thing among the early grades, and at least half the Google searches that visit this blog are looking for "Pocahontas costumes." I hope the real Pocahontas girls continue to trade in the pink tulle for camouflage as soon as they're old enough for their first Christmas rifle. One young girl advised me this time last year, "Ammunition is always a thoughtful gift." The real Pocahontas princess would certainly have agreed.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Rodent Writing?

Cherry branch, with mouse tooth marks

These wild cherry branches were near the bottom of the woodpile, where little rodents have cached collections of cherry pits and other edibles. I've never seen anything quite like this, but apparently the deer mice (chipmunks? voles?) find something in the aromatic cherry bark attractive.

When I saw the intricate tooth marks (if that is what they are), I thought about the cryptic heiroglyphs I used to see in tater bug pronota. What message do the deer mice send me?

The marks reminded me of images of the compulsive writings of hypergraphia sufferers. I searched in vain for an Internet example, although I learned that many bloggers like to imagine they have hypergraphia. Here are a few references addressing the compulsive urge to write among humans. There are no references to rodent writing.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Pearl Buck Nobel Anniversary

Pearl S. Buck portrait, from Wikipedia

This Day in West Virginia History commemorates Hillsboro's favorite daughter, Pearl S. Buck. On December 10, 1938, West Virginia native Pearl S. Buck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for her book The Good Earth.

Stockholm, Dec. 10 - (AP) - In a brilliant ceremony in the flower-decked great hall of the Stockholm concert house, Mrs. Pearl Buck, American writer, tonight formally received from King Gustaf of Sweden the 1938 Nobel prize for literature.

Nine members of the Swedish royal family, the entire diplomatic corps and outstanding representatives of Sweden's cultural and scientific bodies looked on as the 80-year old monarch handed Mrs. Buck a parchment certificate bound in tooled leather, the Nobel medal and a check for an amount equal in American money to about $37,975.

An Italian professor, Enrico Fermi, winner of the Nobel prize for physics, was the only other prize-winner attending the presentation.

Earlier in the day in Oslo, Judge Michael Hansson of the Nansen international office for refugees, an arm of the League of Nations, accepted the Nobel peace prize on behalf of the Nansen office.

I've got some Pearl S. Buck quotes and biographical notes at Literary Pocahontas County. I've also quoted her on Civil War era textile skills in Pocahontas County and knitting, missionaries, and feminism.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Endangered Government

One thing I learned in 15 years living in Our Nation's Capitol is how fast political appointees can damage the missions of government agencies. Here's an example I find particularly painful to consider: 7 Decisions on Species Revised: Fish and Wildlife Service Cites Possibility of Improper Influence by Juliet Eilperin, November 28, 2007 in the Washington Post.

After concluding that a Bush administration appointee "may have improperly influenced" several rulings on whether to protect imperiled species under the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service has revised seven decisions on protecting species across the country.

The policy reversal, sparked by inquiries by the Interior Department's inspector general and by the House Natural Resources Committee, underscores the extent to which the administration is still dealing with the fallout from the tenure of Julie MacDonald, the deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks who repeatedly overruled agency scientists' recommendations on endangered-species decisions. MacDonald resigned from the department in May after she was criticized in a report by the inspector general and as she was facing congressional scrutiny.

In a letter dated Nov. 23 to House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall (D-W.Va.), acting Director Kenneth Stansell of the Fish and Wildlife Service said that the agency spent four months reviewing eight Endangered Species Act decisions made under MacDonald and is revising seven of them. Those rulings affected 17 species, including 12 species of Hawaiian picture-wing flies.

In the course of those reviews, for example, Mitch King, then the agency's Region 6 director, said in a June memo to headquarters that while the field and regional office's scientific review concluded there is "substantial" evidence that the white-tailed prairie dog faces a risk of extinction, "the change to 'not substantial' only occurred at Ms. MacDonald's suggestion."

....Rahall, who released the letter yesterday, said in a statement that the agency's move highlights the extent to which political ideology had influenced the administration's approach to protecting plants and animals. "Julie MacDonald's dubious leadership and waste of taxpayer dollars will now force the agency to divert precious time, attention, and resources to go back and see that the work is done in a reliable and untainted manner," Rahall said. "The agency turned a blind eye to her actions -- the repercussions of which will not only hurt American taxpayers, but could also imperil the future of the very creatures that the endangered species program intends to protect."

Mr. Rahall is our Representative here in Pocahontas County.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Life Or Death Botany: Into the Wild

Book Cover: Into the Wild

Because of the movie release, Jon Krakauer's 1996 book, Into the Wild, is once again the subject of some discussion. I was interested to read that Lorianne, of Hoarded Ordinaries, includes it in her "American Literature of the Open Road" class.

I read the book soon after it appeared in paperback, and, while I was impressed with portions of it, I found it insubstantial. (I remember thinking, "Why did I pay 12 bucks for this?" It's $14 now.)

Because Lorianne finds it worthwhile, and because I found it at the public library this week, I've taken another look at Krakauer's book. I stand by my original evaluation.

The story is simple: Young Chris McCandless walks away from his comfortable, well-educated life to live by his wits among the common folk. He has some adventures and meets nice people who like him very much. He goes to Alaska to live off the land, makes some mistakes, and dies. Jon Krakauer writes a magazine article about Chris, and gets lots of emotional letters from readers. Jon decides (a) that Chris deserves a more nuanced, detailed explication, or (b) that there's money to be made with a book, possibly even movie rights.

Drawing an unfavorable comparison between movie and book, Lorianne says:

Unlike Sean Penn's movie, Krakauer's book isn't only about Chris McCandless; it's also about how one writer discovered and pieced together Chris McCandless' story. In the film version of Into the Wild, this meta-narrative is abandoned in favor of hagiography: Chris McCandless becomes an undeniable Hero, the story of his passion and death not a mystery to be solved but a gospel to be imparted.

I like Krakauer as journalist, interviewing McCandless' family and people he met "on the road," and discussing other young men who died testing themselves against the American wilderness. For me, the author fails when he tries to analyze his own powerful reaction to McCandless.

For some reason, Krakauer fixates on whether McCandless dies as the result of poor judgement, or through a series of unfortunate accidents. I don't see much difference between the two scenarios. Some people survive really stupid mistakes, and sometimes cautious, experienced outdoorspeople die in spite of their skills. Krakauer seems to need McCandless to have died accidentally, and spends several pages defending his ethnobotanical choices.

It seems McCandless had with him a copy of Tanaina Plantlore by Priscilla Russell Kari. He used it to identify edible plants, and consumed a quantity of "wild potato" roots. The species is Hedysarum alpinum L.--alpine sweetvetch, a member of the Fabeaceae, or bean family. A congeneric species of bean, Hedysarum mackenzii --Sweetvetch/Mackenzie's Hedysarum was also present and, according to the book, not eaten by the aboriginal people. Evidently, when the roots became too dry to eat, McCandless switched to eating the seeds of "wild potato." There was some speculation that he confused the two species, and consumed the seeds of the wrong plant, poisoning himself. Krakauer insists that McCandless correctly identified his plant species, but was poisoned by eating the wrong part of the right plant.

From what I've been able to read about the two species, neither is particularly poisonous, but there seems to be continuing debate on ways McCandless could have been poisoned. Various mold infestations have also been blamed. It's not clear to me why Krakauer finds this a more acceptable cause of death than starvation, especially when you see the emaciated self-portrait photo McCandless took of himself before his death.

Here are some links on the plant species discussed, as well as the Website of an independent film on McCandless.

  • "Into the Wild" Debunked from the website for the movie The Call of The Wild from Terra Incognita Films. They take issue with many of Krakauer's details, and argue at some length about starvation versus poisoning as a cause of death.
  • Hedysarum alpinum L.--alpine sweetvetch--"wild potato" of Krakauer
  • Hedysarum alpinum from Range Ecosystems and Plants, University of Saskatchewan.
  • Hedysarum mackenzii --Sweetvetch/Mackenzie's Hedysarum--the supposedly "poisonous" species.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Machine-Knit Sock; Experimental Pair

Machine-knit striped socks

I finished these experimental socks this week. First I knitted two striped rectangles on the Antepenultimate Bond Knitting Machine, then sewed them up to form a pair of tubes, and finally knitted on toes, ribbing, and "Afterthought Heels". The "experimental" component is the seaming technique. I sewed one sock using the nearly invisible "mattress stitch," and I tried Caddy May's very flat edge-stitch latch-up technique on the other. Now, I'll walk around in them and see whether the seams are in any way uncomfortable or otherwise unsatisfactory--a sort of sock test-drive.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Kindle-Free Zone

For several years I've wished for a magic device that would let me sit in a chair, and read Project Gutenberg (and the many other free and inexpensive electronic) texts as comfortably as I would paper books. I could have the complete works of all my favorite nineteenth century authors at my fingertips, occupying zero shelf space, never yellowing, loosing pages, or gathering dust. When I pieced together a couple of discarded 10-year-old laptops into one functional Linux box, I thought I was on to something, but the LCD screen is still much harder on the eyes than the printed page, the laptop is heavy, and I seldom drag it out for reading.

E-book readers these days feature "electronic paper" displays, which are more like a book page and less like a TV screen, but I've been put off by the DRM locks and the limited file formats they can read. The manufacturers and publishers have been most anxious to make sure everyone pays through the nose for the reading experience, and to exclude public domain material, although users have developed some hacks to access free and low-cost e-texts.

All this has come up in the news again thanks to "Kindle: Amazon's New Wireless Reading Device". Kindle's price, cost of texts, DRMs and the relative merits of this device versus the others on the market have been thoroughly discussed since its release. My price point is more like the laptop I mentioned above, and I'm most likely to read texts in Project Gutenberg's price range, but I can imagine buying a device of this sort someday.

One issue I haven't seen discussed is where you can use a Kindle. It requires a wireless signal, and there won't ever be cell phone or wireless coverage in Pocahontas County--we're a radio-quiet zone because we're home to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. However, I was surprised when I looked at the Kindle Coverage Map on Amazon's Kindle product page. Sprint, their chosen service provider, doesn't cover very much of rural America. The Appalachian Mountains and Appalachian Plateau are nearly service-free, as are huge chunks of California, Oregon, and Washington. South Dakota seems completely left out, as are most of Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, and Nevada. Except for Washington D.C., no place I've ever lived has Kindle coverage. And the Washington D.C. area is Library Paradise, so you wouldn't necessarily need a Kindle there.

For a review of the ultimate consequences of this technology, I recommend Mark Pilgrim's hilarious The Future of Reading (A Play in Six Acts). Slashdot describes it: "Using Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' own words against him, Mark Pilgrim offers his chilling take on The Future of Reading with a mash-up of Bezos' Open Letter to the Authors Guild, the Amazon Kindle Terms of Service, Steven Levy's Newsweek article on the Kindle, 1984, and Richard Stallman's 'The Right to Read.'"

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Taking A Snow Day

Princess the cat sitting by the

It's been snowing all day--beautiful wet, accumulating snow. I don't know how to take a good picture of that, but Princess is doing a great demonstration of what we've beed doing all day--cuddling up to the wood stove.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Allegheny Plateau Versus Ridge and Valley Regions

I've been working my way through Soil Survey of Pocahontas County, West Virginia, a 300 page pdf file from the Soil Data Mart, a service of the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service. I've found this section, Physiography, Relief, and Drainage the most informative source yet on what biogeographical region Droop Mountain falls in.

Pocahontas County lies in both the Eastern Allegheny Plateau and Mountains and the Southern Appalachian Ridges and Valleys Major Land Resource Areas. The dividing line between these areas roughly follows the west side of the Greenbrier River.

The landforms of the county show the effects of orogenic movement coupled with erosional forces. Elevation, kind and position of rock, position of drainage courses, and climate are factors that also affect the type of topography in the county. The plateau and mountain area has nearly horizontal rocks that contain many resistant layers at the higher elevations with more weatherable rock below. This results in a dendritic drainage pattern. The ridge and valley area is slightly to strongly folded with resistant layers separated by large expanses of more weatherable rock. This results in a trellis drainage pattern.

The western part of the county, or plateau and mountain area, is generally higher in elevation and lower in temperature and has a greater amount of precipitation than that of the eastern part of the county, or ridge and valley area. As a result of these factors, a rugged and complicated relief exists. The highest and lowest elevations in the survey area are 4,842 feet at Bald Knob on Back Allegheny Mountain and 1,952 feet where the Greenbrier River flows out of the county.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Gothic Romances and Morbid Observations

I've been following the suggestions from British Women's Novels: A Reading List, 1775-1818 by Cathy Decker. Dr. Decker provides synopses and recommendations of many little-known novels. All these books are in the public domain, and many of them are available free on the Web as html, txt, or pdf files. Decker also provides a popular Regency Fashion Page. Gothic novels AND historical fashion--what could be more fun?

Another nineteenth century literary connection is Memento Mori: Death and Photography In Nineteenth Century America by Dan Meinwald. This is a long, interesting essay on nineteenth century representations of death. I don't know how other people spent their early adolescence, but in junior high school, I scoured the public library's collections of old, never-checked-out novels and anthologies. I got Dickens, Elliot, Doestoevsky, and Kipling this way, but I also got Helen Hunt Jackson, Alice and Phoebe Carey (The Sister Spirits of Poesy), some of Poe's less successful work, and the death of little Eva by Mrs. Stowe. My tastes have been called "morbid."

Here's Meinwald describing his essay's aim:

In the closely-knit social groups of the eighteenth century, the death of each person affected the life of every other. Death, like life, was a communal affair. By the nineteenth century, this was no longer the case. Feelings...were now concentrated within the immediate family....The decease of a family member was a barely tolerable event, the cause of an emotional dilemma. The grief of the survivors took novel and acute forms, both in public and in private. Outward manifestations of grief, like funeral and burial customs, reflected inward transformations. Other manifestations included a new imagery of death, both visual and literary....

The visual imagery of death created in the nineteenth century represents a diversity of attempts to come to terms with this kind of disruption and discontinuity....This impulse can be described as a romantic and sentimental desire to surmount the fact of separation. In the twentieth century, the prevailing method of dealing with permanent separation is to put it out of mind. In the nineteenth century, the tendency was to keep it in mind, to retain the presence of the deceased person in any way possible. Visual images, especially photographs, provided some of the most effective and emotionally satisfying means of doing so.

This essay could have used one more careful edit. (Memento mori images are graphic demonstrations of the fact that death was not only a more frequent, but a far more familiar occurrence in medieval Europe than it is today.--I'm pretty sure the frequency of death hasn't changed--it's always been 100%, statistically.) Nevertheless, Meinwald's text and illustrations are wide-ranging and fascinating.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

A Manual of Weeds

Book Cover: A Manual of Weeds by Ada Georgia (1914)

This summer, I quoted a passage from Manual of Weeds (1914) by Ada Georgia. I've found this book very useful, and I've been trying to find out more about the author, because women naturalists of that era were a rare and special breed, especially those associated with a "manly" and economically significant field like agriculture. It was rough enough in the 1970's when I tried to break into that world.

The Manual of Weeds was part of Liberty Hyde Bailey's "Rural Manuals" series, and the illustrations are a match to other taxonomic texts associated with Bailey, so I guessed at a Cornell Ag School connection of some sort, but my searching didn't turn up anything beyond an online copy of Ms. Georgia's book: A Manual of Weeds.

Last week, I found references to Ms. Georgia in A Handbook of Nature Study by Anna Botsford Comstock. Ms. Comstock is an interesting (and much better documented) character herself. From this passage in the Acknowledgements, I infer that Ada Georgia was employed by the land-grant branch of Cornell University.

The Cornell University Nature-Study propaganda was essentially an agricultural movement in its inception and its aims; it was inaugurated as a direct aid to better methods of agriculture in New York State. During the years of agricultural depression 1891-1893, the Charities of New York City found it necessary to help many people who had come from the rural districts a condition hitherto unknown. The philanthropists managing the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor asked, "What is the matter with the land of New York State that it cannot support its own population? "....

For the many years during which New York State has intrusted this important work to Cornell University, the teaching of nature-study has gone steadily on in the University, in teachers' institutes, in State summer schools, through various publications and in correspondence courses. Many have assisted in this work, notably Dr. W. C. Thro, Dr. A. A. Allen, and Miss Ada Georgia....

The leaflets upon which this volume is based were published in the Home Nature-Study Course during the years 1903-1911, in limited editions and were soon out of print. It is to make these lessons available to the general public that this volume has been compiled.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Locust Creek, Late Fall

Locust Creek, Low-lying Fog

This time of year, you see some spectacular scenes looking toward Locust Creek. The low hanging fog in early morning sun is a particular favorite. This picture was taken about this time last year.