Friday, 15 November 2013 • 0 comments
I’ve been so busy I forgot to tout my latest assignment: writing a monthly column on dinosaurs for Dig.
The first column ran in the October issue. The November/December ish (at right) weighs the evidence of whether Triceratops was a separate species or just a baby Torosaurus. In coming months I will discuss why there’s no such thing as a raptor, T-rex’s teeth, if Spinosaurus actually had a sail-like fin on its back, and whether Pachycephalosaurus was a butthead.
Though you wouldn’t know it from the column’s title, Blogosaurus is only available in print or e-book. Alas, all of my suggestions for names were ixnayed; christening credit goes to the editor of Dig‘s sister magazine, Appleseeds. Some of my rejected titles included:
- Don’t Take That Bone With Me Young Man
- Do or Do Not, There Is No Triceratops
- Mr. Gorbachev Ptero Down This Wall!
- Diloph the Phone, Mom
- That Was No Lady, That Was My Rex-Wife
Friday, 1 November 2013 • 0 comments
During the American Revolution, the sailors of “armed boats” who raided the shores of Long Island didn’t play around:
“[T]wo boates crossed on the fourteenth instant,” wrote Caleb Brewster to New York governor George Clinton in the summer of 1781. “[They] went up about twelve at night to the houses of Capt. Ebenezer Miller and Andrew Miller, demanded entrance which was granted, as soon as the door was opened they demanded his arms which he gave up; his son hearing a noise below stairs got up out of bed shoved up the chamber windo. One of the party without ever speaking to him, shot him dead in the windo …”
Something to consider is why the whaleboats — even the officially commissioned whaleboats — were so prone to abuse. The Connecticut records show little evidence of similar complaints about the privateers or either the state or Continental navies. Did the smaller complements (7-10 men) on the whaleboats or the lower costs of entry — a boat and a £2,000 bond (or not) — attract less honorable sailors nobody else would hire? Or were most sailors already inclined to dastardly deeds and only the officers of the larger vessels kept them disciplined?
Thursday, 31 October 2013 • 0 comments
National Geographic News reports on the evil of those 1-percent DIYers:
For many homeowners, the availability of diesel-powered or increasingly common natural gas generators provides peace of mind amid ever-more-common power outages. … And in the immediate wake of Sandy, the Daily Beast suggested that backup generators had taken on a status-symbol aura, quoting a Westport, Connecticut, real estate broker who recommended emergency power boxes to all of her clients: “For the kind of money that these houses cost, to spend $8,000 or $10,000 on a generator isn’t a significant extra investment,” she said.
But a number of energy experts believe there’s a troubling side to the trend. It reflects an increasing reliance on go-it-alone solutions—for those who can afford them—rather than the needed society-wide investment in a modernized and more resilient electric power grid.
“We’ve gone to this pioneer mentality,” said Richard Little, who before retiring was director of the Keston Institute for Public Finance and Infrastructure Policy at the University of Southern California, in an interview following Hurricane Sandy last year. “Everybody’s got to have a generator. If I lived in New Jersey, I’d have a generator too. But not everyone can do that. We’ve got to find better solutions.”
For all its reactionary bashing of profit-taking by generator manufacturers and touting of renewables, the article’s progressive solutions are just another conservative argument to maintain the status quo. The author’s base assumption — full disclosure: I’ve written stuff for Marianne — is the power grid is good and worth saving, and that only the very wealthy can afford “a pioneer mentality.” An example of the article’s slant: that $8,000-$10,000 estimate is undoubtedly for a stationary natural-gas generator; portable generators run much, much cheaper. (And even then that number rings high: I was recently quoted $5,000 by an SCG rep — but that’s what Marianne gets for believing anything a real-estate agent says).
Earlier this year Jesse Walker at Reason wrote about his liberal-feminist friend in Vermont who grows her own food, owns a shotgun, and chops wood because she refuses to live “without supplemental heat that operates without electricity” — all a result of losing power in an ice storm years ago. For this, Walker argues, she would be tarred with the pejorative “prepper” if the national media were ever to take notice of her. He has a point: anyone interested in self-sufficiency is always portrayed in either mocking or sinister tones. Instead I would call his friend a reasonable New Englander. We don’t suspect someone who drinks well water or has a septic system. So why are we suspicious of someone who can supply her own needs independent of the power grid, at least in emergencies?
We were well prepared for Irene, yet we never lost power and ended up having a fun staycation. Sandy, on the other hand, caught us with our pants down. Although I have a saltmarsh in my backyard, we were saved from flooding by a quirk of geography. Nonetheless our neighborhood was devastated and we lost power for a week. Had Sandy occurred at the same time as Irene — in late August — it would have been fine. Going to bed early and reading by candlelight was fun. We had a propane stove to cook on. The freezer needed defrosting and cleaning anyway. I found the cold showers bracing! But as the days stretched from late October into early November, the house gradually grew cooler without non-electrical means to heat it. Had the power outage continued much longer, we would have had to abandon our home for a friend’s house or a shelter.
Sometimes late at night I think about what would have happened had the outage been caused by a winter storm like Nemo. We definitely would have had to evacuate within days of the power loss, if not hours.
After more than 12 years in our little cape on the marsh — and after many, many improvements to it — we are moving next month. Our new This-Old-House house, which required substantial renovations, will feature several upgrades to our current condition. My philosophy this time has been to install multiple redundancies: natural-gas heating and hot water, negating the need for electricity to run the oil pumps; a generator hook-up hardwired into the breaker and a portable generator to power the basics; and when the gasoline runs out, a big frickin’ fireplace with a large woodpile out back and a half-acre of timber if things go really arctic. Long-term I’m thinking about solar (I grew up in a house with solar panels; my engineer dad taught college courses on solar power during the Oil Crisis) and maybe even rainwater collection and use.
A pioneer mentality is exactly what we need now. Resources should be poured into the power grid only so far as to keep the toilets from backing up or the trains running, which is already sketchy when the sun’s shining and temps are in the 80s. We need to return residential generation to a time when every homestead could fulfill its own demands. For densely populated urban areas, neighborhoods need to develop microgrids or Science Barges. And in the suburbs, homes need to become electrically independent, or at least independent enough to sustain themselves for a few weeks. “Prepping” or a “go-it-alone solution” is acceptance of contemporary failures and a visionary answer to them. Saying “not everyone can do that” isn’t a coherent argument — it’s a prejudice against those of us who have committed the ultimate political heresy of losing faith in the system.
Friday, 25 October 2013 • 0 comments
Twenty-five years ago Electronic Arts released the best video game I ever played.
Picking up right after the original The Bard’s Tale — and completely ignoring the tedious sequel, BT2: The Destiny Knight, which was designed under the theory that if the first game was good, the same game a thousand times longer is great — the CRPG Bard’s Tale III: The Thief of Fate offered a number of innovations, including better graphics, automapping, advanced character classes (meaning you had to reach a certain level before you could unlock them), and most of all, an incredible story.
The first BT ended with the destruction of the evil wizard Mangar, servant of the Mad God Tarjan and scourge of the city of Skara Brae. BT3 opened with Skara Brae atomized by Mangar’s vengeful deity. Gone were the shops and taverns; home base became a campsite among the ruins. After conquering the starter dungeon (you could import characters from previous BT games or start with a fresh crew, in which case the starter dungeon would bring them up to speed — I chose a middle road, importing my BT2 team but replacing weak links) and its boss, the Tarjan lackey Brilhasti ap Tarj, you launched across the dimensions in a quest for the assorted mystical thingamajigs necessary to take down the Mad God.
It immediately became clear, however, that your band wasn’t just traveling across space but time as well, and like the Doctor and River Song, you ended up crossing chronologies by encountering total strangers who had met you before or landing in places long after key events had occurred. Upon escaping his magical prison, Tarjan went on a rage bender across the universe slaughtering the gods who had shackled him, and gradually you pieced together the events that led to Tarjan’s release. Spoiler: one of the gods broke a celestial law against creating new life. Double spoiler: it was a blacksmith god who inadvertently made a robot. The robot — who, IIRC, was depicted as a cross between The Thinker and Hamlet, sitting in Alas-Poor-Yorick contemplation of a skull — was hunted by the gods and their minions to rectify this crime of existence but, being more human than human, ultimately helped you on your mission. There was a forest world and an ice world and even a war world, which was actually a schizophrenic tour through besieged Troy, World War II Berlin, and other earthly hellholes. And if you persevered and killed Tarjan, your party ascended to divinity, becoming a new pantheon to replace the corpses you spent all game stepping over.
But this twisty narrative with its unexpected commentary on mankind’s condition was only half the experience.
The summer of 1988 was the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. Usually I hated summertime; my friends went away to relatively glamorous lifeguarding or sandwich-joint jobs down the shore while I was stuck working in the back of the local grocery store or toiling with my old man on the weekends. Unlike, I think, many people who turned misty-eyed at graduation, I chafed at the bit to start life. My hometown was like a waiting room in some municipal building: empty, bland, offering little excitement beyond a few worn and outdated magazines laying on a shaky end table. It was the summer at the boarding gate: still waiting like I had waited every other summer — for friends to return, for a thunderstorm to break the heat, for anything — but knowing that a big change in environment was about to occur. Dumb, cocksure, naive, I had no idea of where I was going or what was needed to arrive there. But it was the first summer I remember where things were beginning to happen.
My besties, Bart and Chris, didn’t disappear that summer. They were also Bard’s Tale fans and when the third title was released, we hit the stores. Bart bought it for his Apple while Chris and I, both Commodore-64 players, pooled our funds to purchase a copy, which Chris ripped for me (the game came with no write-protection, supposedly to make it run faster, but was instead packaged with a special code wheel needed to answer prompts during gameplay; said wheel was immediately dismantled, photocopied, and reassembled). Soon a race developed where the three of us, playing on our own between shifts at various minimum-wage jobs, would meet in the woods at the end of my street, today as flattened as Skara Brae. There we would smoke cigarettes and discuss our individual progressions, offering our theories on the story, trying to unriddle the convoluted timey-wimey plot. What do you think about this? Can you believe that? Got a light?
I don’t recall who finished the game first and certainly I know none of us cared. But I remember that feeling, as we each dungeoneered and puzzled our way to Tarjan’s stronghold, of mounting excitement as we stood on the edge, the planes of the multiverse unfolding before us.
Friday, 4 October 2013 • 0 comments
… because Todd Andrlik at the Journal of the American Revolution has lumped my responses to a questionnaire with those of historians far, far more knowledgeable than me. All this week, great minds like Gordon S. Wood, J.L. Bell, and others have been answering whether American independence was inevitable, who the most underrated and overrated revolutionaries were, whether the US could have thrived without slavery from its very beginning, and when the dividing line between Patriots and Loyalists was drawn.
Friday, 23 August 2013 • 0 comments
If there is a single writer I owe above all others, it was Elmore Leonard. Some of his ten rules I had cadged beforehand from Hemingway — which is where he grabbed them too — like the distrust of adverbs or not lingering too long on descriptions. The one that has really stuck with me is not using anything other than the word “said” for dialogue. I will also use “asked,” which is similarly neutral. The teachers actually scold my sons for using “said” in their writing; they want melodrama like “cried” or “pleaded” or “demanded.” I don’t worry too much because a big part of writing is throwing away everything you learned in school and paring down your style into something distinct. They’ll do it like writers do.
Valdez Is Coming was his favorite Western, which is understandable; its twist ending could be seen, like Unforgiven was for Clint Eastwood, as a kind of love-letter criticism of the genre. I’m partial to Cuba Libre, his Western set on a Caribbean island. His crime novels? Probably Rum Punch but that’s a tough call since it’s difficult not to compare it with Jackie Brown. Get Shorty is good. Freaky Deaky is fun, about ex-60s radicals trying to dynamite their way to riches (I watched the 2012 film version with Christian Slater on Tuesday — small budget but definitely worthwhile).
Leonard was the last of the pulp writers, a World War II vet who went to Detroit to scrawl ad copy and wrote Westerns on the side. I’ve read most of his early books, though years later a lot of them bleed together. The plots are forgettable because they derive entirely from the characters — there’s very few MacGuffins. It’s usually: this person wants revenge on that person, or to scam or steal from that person, and then coincidentally this other person or persons becomes involved, and the whole thing becomes knotted. His plots are tangled but never confusing; and there’s only a handful of characters to keep track of. The women are always smarter than the men and the men — this is something I really like about Leonard — are often undone by their vanity and ego. There’s a graf in Riding the Rap (I think) where the character imagines how he should wear a do-rag or a hat or something and how bad-ass he would look if he did that. Because ladies, men are peacocks. Just one thing among so many others Leonard got right.