Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Please Bear With Me and My New Camera

Coming home on Droop Mountain

I'm afraid you'll have to bear with me as I become acquainted with my digital camera. Until this week, my blog photos were shot with my 35mm Olympus OS2 on print film, then developed at the local one-hour photo (but not printed), then scanned and Gimp-ed. As you might imagine, substantial delays between taking the picture and posting it were the rule. I've moved straight into digital SLR land with a Nikon and a nifty new lens, and there is so much new stuff to play with. Monday was a beautiful day, and between the sunshine and the trees, I became a little crazy over the many available shades of green.

Striped maple leaves pinnately compound leaves coming out in the spring

Monday, April 24, 2006

Technology, High and Low

I've spent another week absorbed in technology. I've been researching why the sound acts strange on an old laptop, and upgrading my hardware with some more memory. It isn't interesting to report, but I do seem to become obsessed with a problem until it's solved. On a pleasurable note, I finally bought a digital camera, and it arrived Friday evening. Learning how it works is much more fun than tracking down the culprit in an IRQ conflict on that senescent laptop.

Friday morning we looked for mushrooms on Williams River. We found these black morels. I photographed them Saturday morning, after I got the new camera up and running, during a lull in the rain. The white petals are from the pear tree in the yard. Saturday night we enjoyed morels in a white sauce over pasta.

A bowl of black morels

We had company on Saturday afternoon--quite an unusual occurrence. As a result, some nice traditional tunes were picked in our yard. The camper is popped up because we are working on an intractable electrical problem.

Tim and Larry picking some tunes in the yard

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Fun (?) With Debian Etch

I've been spending too much time with computers for the last week, none of it involving blog entries. When I quit my genomics job back in 1999, I vowed that I would never again spend 12-hour days at the computer. Well, except once in a while. Last weekend, I determined that I would update my Debian Linux machines. This turned into an obsessive activity much like last winter's quilting project.

My beloved home Linux machine (purchased new in 1998) has been running Debian Sarge (testing), installed early in 2005. Ever since the Debian folks moved Sarge to stable status, I've been unable to update any programs. It always comes down to some sort of problem with the kernel I'm using, or perhaps the xserver program. The new testing version, Etch, uses a 2.6 kernel and Xorg. Last Sunday, I went to the GED classroom and downloaded the latest Etch installation iso's. (The first three, anyway; it took about four hours.) This was probably my last chance to use the school system's broadband connection, so no more large downloads any time soon.

I couldn't get my USB external hard drive mounted on the Linux box in the classroom, because it's formatted as Unix File System, for use with my eMac. Strange as it seems, it's only simple to mount vfat external hard drives on Linux boxes. Rather than spend all night in the classroom, I carried home the computer, connected it to my LAN, and ftp'd the Etch iso's to my Mac, which sports a CD-burner. I burned the CD's and began to install Etch from scratch on the borrowed computer. Unfortunately, the i386 beta2 installer has an insurmountable problem: the new, groovey autopartitioner doesn't work, and there is no way to manually partition the hard drive once you begin the installation process. I spent some time on LinuxQuestions, and was disappointed to find the level of discourse has gone downhill in the last six months. When an online community grows quickly, it seems inevitable that the signal to noise ratio drops, and LinuxQuestions now has a fair number of people posting unhelpful responses.

I found one helpful suggestion: Install Debian stable, then move over to Etch. I spent several days working on this, and eventually decided it wasn't really worth the trouble. It took two nights to download the netinstall iso for Debian stable over my dialup connection, and doing a netinstall over dialup would tie up my phoneline for days. Using the Sarge netinstall iso followed by the Etch iso's seemed promising, and I even got Gnome 2.12 to load and work for a while, but after I restarted the computer, my xserver gave me lots of bogus error messages. Reconfiguring Xorg didn't help; it seems I would need to upgrade the kernel and get a different version of Xorg. I decided I would just postpone any kind of major upgrade on my main machine.

I enabled successful Net updates of individual programs by editing my /etc/apt/sources.list file, substituting "stable" for every occurence of "testing."

Meanwhile, I had messed up the Debian machine I'd borrowed. To get it back in shape before returning it, I thought I'd test Debian Stable using the 2.6 kernel. This turned out to cause problems with the Xfree86 xserver. I wasn't able to configure a left-handed mouse, or get sound to work properly.

So, after all those hours of work, I changed three words in a file on my home machine, and reinstalled the old version of Debian Sarge off the CD's I bought last year. Worthwhile? I hope so. I learned something, I fixed my main problem, and I found out I know more about Linux than some self-styled "experts."

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Sherry Chandler and the Historic Poets of Kentucky

Sherry Chandler's weblog is always worth reading. Lately, I've been enjoying her exploration of some early Kentucky writers. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, these poets seem not to have considered themselves Appalachians or backwoodsmen. They are fascinating, and despite my days as an earnest undergrad in the English department, I've not heard of them before. It makes me wonder why the New England Yankees have so dominated American literature.

From The Drunken Poet of Danville, Thomas Johnson Jr., Sherry shares excerpts from "Kentucky Miscellany" (1789), published "while Kentucky was still a county of Virginia." The first poem is Johnson's satire on himself. The second is a satire on Brown and Wilkinson.

William Littell "was born in New Jersey in 1768 and came to Kentucky in 1801." She quotes from his "Festoons of Fancy." Gilbert Imlay"is [another] fascinating character. Idealistic enough to have won Mary Wollstonecraft and fathered her first child, opportunistic (or at least connected) enough to have moved through the height of the French Terror with impunity...."

I hope there is more to come. She does a fine job of providing context for these interesting poems and prose exceprts.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Rereading Joseph Conrad

Book Cover: Lord Jim

I recently re-read Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, and chased it with Jeffrey Meyers' Joseph Conrad : A Biography. Meyers' biography is excellent--neither too scholarly nor too superficial. It left me needing to reread Conrad's other books.

I read Lord Jim for the first time when I was about 12, and I found it an exciting adventure book. When I reread it in college, and then later, in graduate school, it was a fascinating exploration of how we understand who we are and come to grips with morality. Imagine my surprise to discover that it is actually a middle-aged person's reflection on how to live with ill-informed youthful choices, and how to face mortality. One constant in all my readings is my appreciation of Stein, the entomologist. Conrad is unique in understanding how romantic the pursuit of entomology is.

Book Cover: Joseph Conrad--A Biography

Electronic texts of Lord Jim are available from The Literature Network, Bibliomania, and Project Gutenberg. I prefer reading ink on paper, but it's much more fun to paste excerpts and personal notes in a text file than to try and crowd observations into margins. My marginal notes from a ten-years-distant reading are now completely obscure to me. I might as well have written "How true!!!"

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Collapse by Jared Diamond

Book Cover: Collapse

I just finished reading Jared Diamond's Collapse : How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. I haven't been reading many current books lately, but I found this in my local library. (Unfortunately, it was in the "Adult Fiction" section, so no one else was likely to find it.) I first encountered Diamond's popular writing in The American Museum of Natural History's slick monthly, "Natural History," in the 1980's. Although I was often familiar with his subject matter (evolution, ecology, biogeography), he frequently delighted me with his unusual perspective. He made me think about things differently. I've consistently liked his books, as well.

Collapse : How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed has been much reviewed since its 2005 publication. Metacritic's collection includes some positive and some negative reviews. I thought a quick search might turn up some interesting links, but for the most part, the links were rather uninformative. Environmentalists think the book is too moderate, too critical of aboriginal peoples and too optimistic, and political conservatives feel it is too politically correct and environmentally alarmist. I found David Brin's essay interesting: A Glass Half Empty: Jared Diamond's COLLAPSE Shows Santayana was Right About that Little History Thing.

My graduate career started at a time when palynology was showing some new things about paleontology and archaeology. Whereas I grew up thinking aboriginal peoples had lived in harmony with their environments, it was becoming more obvious that extinction and habitat degradation always followed human colonization. Desertification followed the development of agriculture in Mesopotamia and the Near East, and Northern Europe had been steadily losing species for 5000 years. We primates are a messy bunch, and big groups of people make big messes. Jared Diamond puts a braver face on the future of our environment than I do. Perhaps he's whistling in the dark, but I hope he's right.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Droop Mountain's Scenic Attractions

Droop Mountain Park Lookout Tower

Droop Mountain boasts three state parks, spectacular views, many ghost sightings, a well-documented history, and wonderful flora and fauna, but surprisingly little interesting documentation on the Internet. Here is my own edited list of park links.

Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park

Beartown State Park is smaller, only about 100 acres, but when I need to take a visitor someplace outdoors, this park is always a good choice. It's main attraction is a boardwalk around interesting rock formations. WV Department of Natural Resources' Web page is apparently the source for the other Beartown Web pages I've seen.

The Greenbrier River Trail is a long, skinny park, following the course of the defunct Greenbrier Division of the C&O Railroad. The railroad drilled a tunnel through Droop Mountain at Roher (in Greenbrier County), and bikers get to ride their bikes in total darkness for a short ways. There are a number of businesses with Greenbrier River Trail Web pages, but Cherry Creek's Guide to the Greenbrier River Trail is one that has interesting information in addition to tour prices and contact information.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Jaye Slade Fletcher

Book Cover: Deadly Thrills

Jaye Slade Fletcher is the author of two true crime books: Deadly Thrills: True Story of Chicago's Most Shocking Killers (1995), and A Perfect Gentleman (1996). A retired Chicago police officer, Ms. Fletcher moved to Pocahontas County in the mid-1990's. She was among the first people I met when I moved here, as she sold me the house where I live now. I can't say I know her well, but she is a very interesting conversationalist.

Deadly Thrills has been well-reviewed, and an interesting summary is available at Court TV's Partners in Crime site. Lynard Barnes provides one of many positive reviews in 1996 at TG Book Reviews: Deadly Thrills by Jaye Slade Fletcher.

Jaye Slade Fletcher has managed to do a bit more than recount events leading up to the arrests of Robin Grecht and his three "helpers" for the murders of at least five young women....After Fletcher gives a brief history of the seemingly mundane life of Robin Grecht, she asks the rather straightforward question, "Does all this inevitably add up to a sadistic serial killer?" She....points out that we know very little about how a conscience is created in a person. Robin Grecht obviously did not have one. He was incapable of feeling empathy or compassion....

Book Cover: A Perfect Gentleman

Tracking the police work surrounding the Grecht murders is where Deadly Thrills is at its best. Fletcher, a career police officer as well as an author, provides a peek at the proverbial thin line a cop must walk in the pursuit of an investigation. On one side of that line is the world of the criminal, on the other, the world of ordinary law abiding citizens, the news media and of course the law enforcement community itself. Fletcher artfully weaves across the line, revealing strengths and weaknesses of police work. The strengths of course are the men and women who, year in and year out, stick to the job despite the hazards and the everyday good deeds that go unnoticed....

A Perfect Gentleman was not as widely reviewed, although one Amazon customer said: "In my opinion...Jaye's books have been every bit as well-written and engrossing as Ann Rule's. Jaye writes with an insight to be envied and her thorough research shows in every line." I have to admit that I don't have the stomach to read deeply about the mental processes of serial killers. When I moved in to Jaye's former house, I found she had left me more motion-sensor lights than Fort Knox. Every possum and deer was brightly illuminated, every night. Perhaps this type of research was disquieting, even for a former police officer.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Joys of Self-Publishing

I've been updating and adding to my "regular" Web pages recently, thinking about how I want them to develop, and what direction I intend for this weblog. The View From Droop Mountain, Literary Pocahontas County, and Rebecca's Linux Page have additions and corrections, and I'm currently revamping Musical Pocahontas County, although the changes are not yet in evidence. A new page, (Mis)Understanding Appalachia, is in the works.

It seems as though I'm not the only "place-blogger" thinking about publication these days. Dave, of Via Negativa, and the alliterative Fred First, of Fragments from Floyd, are both posting about publication. Dave's thoughts are more theoretical, while Fred wrestles with the minutia of a self-published book.

I've been a co-author on several scientific papers, and whether my research contribution was significant or marginal, I always had the misfortune to be heavily involved in manuscript preparation. (Never let the boys know you can type, or spell, or punctuate.) I know all too well the horror of seeing really stupid errors make it into print, despite dozens of rewrites and edits.

Although I edit everything I post at least three times before I let it go "live," I often see mistakes and clumsy phrasing when I look at this blog and at my Web pages. This is my favorite part of Web "publishing:" I can fix my mistakes anytime I find them. This fluidity also means I can start writing when I'm not entirely sure where I'm going, and still make the work in progress available to other people, who may give me interesting input and change my direction. Why would I want to write a book when I can have all this?