Friday, May 22, 2009

Reading--Off the Page and Off the Screen

Here's my copy of Little Dorrit, part of The Complete Works of Charles Dickens, which I bought for a dollar at an auction in Connecticut, about 1980. One volume contained a German Christmas card, used as a bookmark, dated 1892. This has certainly been a good value, but little pieces of Little Dorrit fall off every time I turn a page, and my other Victorian novels (bought as secondhand paperbacks in the sixties and seventies) are in worse condition. Do I move these old wrecks into the new house? Do I replace them? Most are only available in paperback, or as hardbound sets of similar vintage to my Dickens volumes.

I'd like to rely on Project Gutenberg for my continued reading pleasure, but the computer screen is not comfortable reading. I have an eleven-year-old Linux laptop that I sometimes use to read Project Gutenberg books in html format, but it's heavy, gets hot, and the battery doesn't last long. It did represent my ideal price point, as I salvaged it from a junk heap. I probably won't find a bargain like that again.

That's why I've been eyeing eInk book readers for the last few years. A cute, lightweight, paperback-sized device that isn't backlit and can hold hundreds of text documents--it sounds wonderful. Unfortunately, there are plenty of drawbacks with what's been on the market so far. The various ebook readers have competing DRM's (Digital Rights Management systems), so you can't use books from one device on different hardware, or make backup copies of the (fairly expensive) books you buy. Some of the devices have features I can't use here in Pocahontas County (like the Kindle's wireless capability), and both books and devices are on the pricey side.

Nevertheless, I keep looking at what's available, and daydreaming. I should be daydreaming about drywall, and oriented strand board (OSB), and paint, as these are the items I will be purchasing soon....

  • Kindle: Amazon's 6" Wireless Reading Device (Latest Generation) Too pricey for me, and the elaborate wireless connectivity is useless in this part of the country. It'd sure be cool though, if money were no object....
  • Introducing Kindling, the Wireless Wooden Reading Device! Made me laugh out loud.
  • BeBook Review on's forums. This is one of several implementations of the Hanlin hardware. As far as I can see, BeBook handles the largest range of ebook formats, including pdf's and rss feeds.
  • BeBook homepage.
  • BeBook Mini, smaller, cheaper, and yet to come.
  • Coolreader uses the same hardware as BeBook, but reads fewer formats. They have their own (very expensive) e-bookstore, but they come in lots of pretty colors.
  • EZ Reader is another incarnation of the same hardware (any color as long as it's black)--a little more expensive than BeBook, and the software is not as well-explained on its product web page.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Diane Saunders Critiques American Presidents' Fiddle Playinig

I've been spending more time with Historical Sketches of Pocahontas County by William T. Price (1901) over at Pocahontas County History, and I just posted my favorite account from the "Biographic" section. Here is the narrative portion:
Diana Saunders, p. 201, Historical Sketches of Pocahontas County by William T. Price (1901)

Soon after the war of 1812 there came to our county one of the most interesting and eccentric personalities that our older people remember anything about, Mrs Diana Saunders, late of Rocky Point on Dry Branch of Swago. She was the widowed mother of four children, Anna, Eleanor, Cyrus, and Isaac. Her cabin home was built near the head springs of Dry Branch, almost in speaking distance of the Rocky Point school house, and just below....

But few persons have left their impress upon the writer's memory more vividly than Mrs Diana Saunders. As to her personality, she had been formed in "Nature's choicest mould" and in her youth must have been the peer of Edgar Allen Poe's "rare and radiant maiden." The writer recalls one or more of her granddaughters as among the most perfect models of feminine form and feature that he has observed anywhere.

From the way Granny Saunders used to speak of Jim Madison, Jim Monroe, and Tom Jefferson, and wonder how such finicky, limber-jointed, red headed, fiddling and dancing customers had ever been made Presidents of our United States, it is inferred that her blooming youth must have been passed in Orange and Albermarle atmosphere.

The writer was frequently told by his lamented mother that when he was an infant about six weeks old he had the whooping cough so severely that he was given up to die. As a last resort Granny Saunders was sent for in all haste, and when she arrived the baby was to all appearances cold and dead. The doctress ordered a tub of hot water, plouted the baby in, soaked him awhile and gave him a good rubbing. She then called for a razor and a goose quill, scarified the little body between the shoulders, inserted the quill and gave him a blowing up until the infant began to blow for himself. He came to and recovered, and has been blowing seventy years on his own hook, figuratively speaking. There have been times in his life when the writer has felt rather regretfully that Granny Saunders managed her case so well as to keep him from dying at that safe time. Now, however, he feels thankful to God for what she was able to do. He deems it a most wonderful privilege to have lived the life the Supreme Being has allotted to him. Though this life has been humble and obscure, full of mistakes and blunders, still, blessed be His Holy name, for life and its wonderful hopes for the hereafter, when the Lord comes.

It would be hard to exaggerate the useful services Performed by Mrs Saunders for a half century or more, when there was no resident physician nearer than the Warm Springs or Lewisburg. For years and years her time was virtually spent in the homes of the suffering. Stormy nights, swollen, raging mountain streams and torrents were braved by this heroic woman to be with the sick in their distress.

While it is true the most of her services were rendered in scenes over which the thickest veil of privacy should be ever drawn, yet it may not be out of good form to say that she never lost her self possession. The patient might be to all appearances in extremis, with less than a step between her and death in the throes of of maternity, all present convulsed with grief and apprehension except Granny Saunders. She would dip her pipe in the ashes, ejaculate prayers along with the puffs of smoke, and sit down by the patient: "Hold on old girl, we can't spare you yet; pick your flint and try it again. I have been praying for you, and the good Lord Almighty never goes back on his word to old Granny Saunders."

In the course of an hour or so, Granny Saunders looks up the "old man." When she finds him she opens her arms as if to embrace him. He draws back exclaiming, "Oh Granny, don't do that!" "Well, you ugly beast, if you won't let me kiss you, come in and see what a pretty thing the good Lord has sent your old woman. How it could be so pretty no one could tell without seeing the mother!"

One of the most praiseworthy traits in the character of this grand woman was her abhorrence of "doggity ways," as she would tersely put it. She was greatly worried by the way a young man seemed to be treating a girl in whom she felt a motherly interest. Appearances seemed to indicate that the "young rascal of a puppy" had plucked the rose, but left the thorn with her heartbroken young friend; or in other words bad fooled her upon a promise of marriage.

One day, it seems, the young man met her in the road, and he said: "Granny Saunders, if you do not quit talking about me as I hear of you doing, I shall have to sue you for slander.

The old lady cleared her decks for action, rolled up her sleeves and shook her fist under his nose. "I am ready for you here, at the court house, or anywhere else, outside the bottomless pit. There is where pups like you are bound to go, so I will not promise to have anything to do with you there. I cannot blame a Beaver Dam evening wolf for coming over here and stealing a lamb, for it is built that way, and can't know any better, but when I see a customer like you, with good looks, good natural sense and belonging to a decent family, guilty of things the Old Boy would be above doing, I must tell you, I do say I must tell you the dirtiest, yellow, egg-sucking dog in all Pocahontas is an angel to what you are. If the devil knows you as I do, and thinks of you as I do, he will put you on one of his hottest gridirons all by yourself, as not fit company for any other lost soul."

Granny's words seem to have been "winged ones." The suit was never brought for slander, he mended his ways, looked through his Bible and found a verse in Paul's writings that convinced him that the easiest way out of the tangle would be to marry as he had promised.

If there could have been kept a faithful record of all her doings and sayings it would have made a book by itself, nothing like it in extant literature. She had an entertaining story of the time the troops were on the march to Yorktown, and about Washington stopping at the yard fence and calling for water. Her mother sent her out with bucket and gourd, fresh from the well, and watered the thirsty general and staff attendants. "They took their water, and I tell you they all drank a few, and then the grandees rode away with high heads and stiff upper lips, looking at me as if they thought it was about all that I was fit for, to handle the water gourd for their pleasure."

She had many stories that thrilled the little folks. One was about a child being born in 1775 that only lived a few minutes. Before it died it said just as plainly as could be spoken by a grown person:

"A warm winter and a cold spring,
A bloody summer and a new king!"

One of her most popular lullabys had this refrain:

"Sleep all day and cry all night,
Whippoorwill, whippoorwill."

Persons yet living remember the reply she once made to the salutation, "Well, Granny, how are you today?"

"Poorly enough, to tell you truth. O dear, I am just here and that is all. I have pains in my face, pains in my ears, pains in the top of my head, at the back of my neck, between my shoulders, in my arms, in my breast, in my body, in my knees, in my ankles, in both my big toes." Then pausing a moment as if trying to think of more places for pains, she would raise her eyes toward heaven and devoutly exclaim, "But praise the Lord, bless His Holy Name, I have a good appetite!"

Late in the fifties or early in the sixties, she went to make her home with Isaac and Anna, on New River, where she died fifteen or twenty years ago, aged about a hundred and three years as most of her acquaintances believe. Dear old friend, the Creator has not sent many like her to our part of the world as yet.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Cutting Trees

The new house will require a new power line and pole, and last week the electric company's tree workers came to clear the path. Unfortunately, our old pear tree was one of the casualties. The pears were unpalatable, despite my best efforts, and sizable chunks of the tree itself fell off every autumn. Still, it was beautiful when it bloomed in the spring, and the deer seemed to enjoy the rock-hard fruits.

You can see the pear tree on the right in full flower, April, 2008.

Here is the old house after all the tree-cutting.

Here is why chunks of the pear tree fell off every summer as the weight of pears pulled on them. I suppose we're lucky the whole tree didn't fall on the house.

A decrepit Norway spruce, some smallish sugar maples, and two black walnuts also were in the way. The rest of the trees cut were black locust saplings, sprung up in fence rows.

Monday, May 18, 2009

House Progress

After all that rain, there was finally some house progress last week!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Sycamores and Pioneers

I'm still pecking away at Historical Sketches of Pocahontas County, making a search-able, sort-able version on Pocahontas County History for the genealogy researchers. I have about 70 more "sketches" edited and waiting to go into Drupal. Some of them have brief stories included, others are just lists of descendants.

Last week, Sherry Chandler shared some fascinating excerpts from her reading on Kentucky history, including Samuel Shepard's diary entries, in which he notices a family encamped inside a hollow sycamore tree. As it happens, our most famous local history story involves Marlinton's founders, Marlin and Sewell, and how one of them came to spend the winter living in a sycamore.

Jacob Marlin and Stephen Sewall, p. 105, Historical Sketches of Pocahontas County by William T. Price (1901)

The first persons of English or Scotch-Irish antecedents to spend a winter in what is now Pocahontas County, were Marlin and Sewall. This was the winter of 1750-51. Their camp was in the delta formed by Marlin Run and a slough or drain near the east bank of Knapp's Creek.

In the course of time--having agreed to disagree--they separated and were found living apart, by Colonel Andrew Lewis, Marlin in the cabin and Sewall in a hollow tree. Upon expressing his surprise at this way of living apart, distant from the habitation of other human beings, Sewall told him they differed in sentiments and since the separation there was more tranquility, or a better understanding, for now they were upon speaking terms, and upon each morning "it was good morning, Mr Marlin, and 'Good morning, Mr Sewall!'"

Under the new arrangement, Sewall crossed the slough, and instead of building another cabin, went into a hollow sycamore tree on the west margin of the slough, quite near where the board walk now crosses, and about in line with a walnut tree now standing on the east bank of the drain and the court house.

The lower part of this tree bore a striking resemblance to a leaning Indian tepee. The cavity could shelter five or six persons, and the writer has been often in it for shade or for shelter from rain or heat. At the top of the cone, some eight or ten feet from the ground, the tree was not more than twenty inches in diameter, and at that height was chopped off about the year 1839, to avoid shading the crops. Thus the stump was left, a great convenience for shade or shelter, until it disappeared during the War, being probably used for a camp fire.

These persons differed, Sewall told Colonel Lewis, about their "relagian." There is a traditional hint that "immersion" was the theme of contention. But it is more than probable that one was a conformist and the other a non-conformist to the thirty-nine articles of the English rubric. This is known to have been a very live question of those times, both before and after.

This new arrangement did not last long, and Sewall in search of less molestation about his religion, withdrew about eight miles to a cave at the head of Sewell Run, near Marvin. Thence he went forty miles farther on to Sewell Creek, west Greenbrier, and was found and slain by Indians. How impressively this illustrates the evils of religious controversy, so called.

"Against her foes religion well defends, 
Her sacred truths, but often fears her friends. 
If learned, their pride: if weak their zeal she dreads 
And their heart's weakness who have soundest heads;
But most she fears the controversial pen, 
The holy strife of disputatious men, 
Who the blest Gospel's peaceful page explore, 
Only to fight against its precepts more." 

It is moreover interesting in this connection to recall the fact that on the banks of Marlin's Run is the burial place of a little child that was dashed to death by an Indian warrior in 1765, when overtaken by a party of Bath and Rockbridge men, seeking to rescue Mrs Mayse, her son Joseph, an unmarried woman with an infant in her arms, a Mr McClenaehan, and some other captives. This burial place is a few rods diagonally from the east angle of Uriah Bird's barn on the margin of the rivulet. The infant corpse was buried at the foot of the tree where it had been found a few minutes after its death. The burial took place just a few hours later, before the pursuers set out on their return. The grave was dug with hunting knives, hatchets, and naked fingers. The little body laid in its place very tenderly, and the grave partly filled with earth. The covering of the grave was completed with rather heavy stones, to prevent foxes or other animals from getting at the remains.

Thus died and was buried the first white child known to history west of the Allegheny Mountains.

Joseph Mayse, 13 years old, was rescued at that same time, somewhere between the Island and the mouth of Indian Draft. In 1774 he fought in the battle of Point Pleasant, where he was wounded, and after suffering from the injury for forty-six years, his leg was amputated. He recovered, and lived a number of years thereafter, a busy man of affairs. He died "serene and calm," April, 1840, in the 89th year of his age.

In the Richmond Dispatch, April 14, 1901, it is stated that the last survivor of the Point Pleasant veterans was Ellis Hughes, who passed away at Utica, O., in 1840, over ninety years of age. In early manhood he may have lived in the Lower Levels of our county. Now if it was known what month Hughes died in, it could be decided who was the last one of the veterans to bivouac in those "silent tents" that Glory "guards with solemn round."

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Amazing Camouflage Paint Job

I've finished grading chemistry exams and otherwise preparing for the classes I'm teaching tonight in Beckley, and, on an apparently unrelated topic, I want to pass along this amazing camouflage job: Art student's car vanishing act.

A design student made a battered old Skoda "disappear" by painting it to merge with the surrounding car park. Sara Watson, who is studying drawing at the University of Central Lancashire (Uclan), took three weeks to transform the car's appearance. She created the illusion in the car park outside her studio at Uclan's Hanover Building in Preston.

There's a short video of Ms. Watson and the car accompanying the BBC article.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Mental Fragments, Mental Fractals....

The last few days, I've been converting an OCR'ed text of William Price's Historical Sketches of Pocahontas County into sensible and legible text, then loading it into Drupal a bit at a time at Pocahontas County History. I'm working my way through the 400-plus pages of genealogical information first, because that is the portion most desired by genealogists and least accessible to Internet search engines. It's also the least enjoyable reading for those of us not seeking to understand a particular family's ancestral relationships. Lists of marriages, sons and daughters, sons-in-law and daughters-in-law, interspersed with the unfortunate fatal accidents and illnesses which ended their various's not as much fun as you might imagine.

At the same time I've been doing some supplemental reading for the chemistry course I'm teaching. (Fragmented? I try to tell myself it's my free-ranging intellect, but I keep picturing free-ranging chickens....)

In any case, I read this very exciting article: Can fractals make sense of the quantum world? illustrated with the pretty cauliflower picture above. I believe it's there to illustrate a fractal pattern rather than quantum mechanics, but according to Dr. Tim Palmer, fractal mathematics may eventually resolve the puzzles that quantum theory poses.

Quantum theory just seems too weird to believe. Particles can be in more than one place at a time. They don't exist until you measure them. Spookier still, they can even stay in touch when they are separated by great distances.

Einstein thought this was all a bit much, believing it to be evidence of major problems with the theory, as many critics still suspect today. Quantum enthusiasts point to the theory's extraordinary success in explaining the behaviour of atoms, electrons and other quantum systems. They insist we have to accept the theory as it is, however strange it may seem.

But what if there were a way to reconcile these two opposing views, by showing how quantum theory might emerge from a deeper level of non-weird physics?

If you listen to physicist Tim Palmer, it begins to sound plausible. What has been missing, he argues, are some key ideas from an area of science that most quantum physicists have ignored: the science of fractals, those intricate patterns found in everything from fractured surfaces to oceanic flows....

Take the mathematics of fractals into account, says Palmer, and the long-standing puzzles of quantum theory may be much easier to understand. They might even dissolve away....

It is an argument that is drawing attention from physicists around the world. "His approach is very interesting and refreshingly different," says physicist Robert Spekkens of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada. "He's not just trying to reinterpret the usual quantum formalism, but actually to derive it from something deeper."

That Palmer is making this argument may seem a little odd, given that he is a climate scientist working at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasting in Reading, UK. It makes more sense when you learn that Palmer studied general relativity at the University of Oxford, working under the same PhD adviser as Stephen Hawking....

"It has taken 20 years of thinking," says Palmer, "but I do think that most of the paradoxes of quantum theory may well have a simple and comprehensible resolution."

Monday, May 04, 2009

Historical Sketches of Pocahontas County In the 21st Century

The last few weeks I've been spending a lot of time with Historical Sketches of Pocahontas County by William T. Price (1901), which is now available on Google Books. You can download the pdf file, and for a while you could also grab the unedited OCR version of the text, although this doesn't seem to be available anymore.

About 400 pages of this tome record are genealogical records, interspersed with short reminiscences about the early settlers in Pocahontas County. Because so many people are looking for this information, I'm converting it into html on our website, Pocahontas County History. Over the years, I've encountered unattributed quotes from Reverend Price's book on many different genealogy websites, and last summer I discovered that WPA employees had typed out long passages from the 1901 book in the late 1930'a and early 1940's. Some of these typists identified their source, while others did not, but these typescripts have been appearing here and there on the Internet as well, never with proper attribution.

I must confess, the more time I spend with the late Reverend Price (pictured above), the more exasperated I become with some of his bad editorial habits; however, I don't want his work floating around the Interwebitubes without proper attribution. Besides, with Drupal set up for decent search engine optimization, more people should be able to find their ancestral names and places once the worthy reverend's words are rendered into hypertext markup language. (Worthy ancestors being the only kind he bothered to catalog.)

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Gear Shifting and Fragmentation

Hudson Super Wasp hood ornament

I've never been great at shifting gears mentally, so my current work configuration offers me a real challenge. I'm teaching courses in chemistry, statistics, and Microsoft Word 2007, while developing a new course for beginners in Excel spreadsheets. Meanwhile, I'm still the county historic preservation officer, which means I'm maintaining two online databases, digitizing content, looking for grants, and planning museum and archive curation. These are part-time jobs, and don't, in theory, add up to more than a 45-50 hour work week.

In theory, theory and practice are the same, but in practice, they are different. In practice, I have a hard time thinking, "OK, that's it for biochemistry this week. Now I'm going to update Drupal and proof-read a genealogy text. After that, I'll write an exam for the junior college computer students, and then, cook supper." It should work, but it doesn't. I'm still thinking about gene promoter and enhancer sequences as I retype sections of the "The Descendants of Thomas Galford." Later, I'll be thinking about the ravages of the Civil War on the Allegheny Front's inhabitants as I try and think how to test students' understanding of formatting features in word processing. And eventually, as I think about hanging intents and margins, I'll probably dump too much pepper in the mashed potatoes again.

I shouldn't complain about having paying jobs, and I do like variety. Nevertheless, I feel as if my mental gears are in danger of being stripped.