Of Small Men: Apparatus and Scaffolding

[Washington, DC, 2005]

I turn off the alarm. It is just after 6am on a cold, overcast Thursday. The idea for this expedition surfaced several days ago, while listening to the news on NPR. I have been imagining different scenarios and looking forward to a minor adventure, but at this moment I waver. I lift the cat off my neck, trying not to wake her, and get up anyway. On my way out, I detour to the kitchen and remove two eggs, secreting them to an inside pocket of my winter coat. I hope my wife won’t notice them missing. I have to remember to be careful not to bump my chest into anything. I leave through the kitchen door of our comfy brick bungalow in suburban DC, kick the car to reluctant life, and drive to a nearby Metro station. There is almost no traffic.

__________

[Budapest, 1945]

The Gray Man is master behind the government-issue desk, in the gray building, in the gray city, under gray skies brooding over a dun land.

His eyes are small, sunk in over-sized sockets. They stare, implacable, dark steel. The Gray Man’s eyes are a lifetime of empty, devoid of emotion, of empathy, of kindness. Of humanity. His mind is narrow and rigid—like his tie, like his long nose—its machinations not reaching his eyes; this is by design. His conscious time is spent plotting, staying two steps ahead of his subordinates, of his superiors, of the authorities, of Stalin. The emptiness of his eyes protects his position, his life. For, in the gray city, to let slip one’s thinking, one’s emotion, if it exists, one’s thoughts—this invites scrutiny, danger. The Gray Man is careful, meticulous; his eyes reveal nothing. What is going through his mind? Does he look at his wife this way?

__________

Cold and sleepy, I climb the stairs from the Metro Center subway station, cross the street, and make my way toward Pennsylvania Avenue. A Metro bus blocks my path, forcing a detour. Budget constraints, I suppose. Or somebody’s novel idea. I walk, feeling the deep January chill seep through my pants, my shoes, my gloves. Left and right, I can see snow-lined, icy streets cordoned off by concrete Jersey barriers, and more slumbering buses. I am five hours early, so I do not have to struggle through crowds yet. A gloomy oppression hangs over the city.

Even this early, the presence of authorities intrudes. Two TSA employees are nearby. TSA personnel? What are they doing here? The two women, despite their dark blue pants and thick padded coats, the multiple officious patches on their arms, and the “TSA” emblazoned across their backs, look friendly, non-threatening; the one with the short curly gray hair even smiles. Neither one swaggers. I walk past a building with flags out front, two American and one I don’t recognize; an embassy, perhaps. At the corner of 12th Street, a man stands by a Jersey barrier and points. He is asking a camouflage bedecked military man for directions to somewhere. Now I can see my involuntary goal: a block down, a pavilion stretches across 12th Street; makeshift chain link fencing funnels us into the maw of a checkpoint. It will take only fifteen minutes for me to get through. Later I will learn that authorities closed a number of these already-few access points, forcing people wait two and three hours to get through.

A half-dozen more men in camouflage mill about, trying to look important instead of bored, stamping their feet to get warm, to feel their toes again. Two are talking with civilians. One nearby glares at me, and at my camera, but doesn’t say anything. I resist flipping him off. The military men wear no identifying insignia, so it’s not clear which branch, or agency, or contractor, they’re from. Maybe the National Guard. Their dark glasses are incongruous in the dim, early gray light. Security is more paranoid than I had thought it would be. How little did I imagine.

__________

The Gray Man is the son of a tailor. Yet he wears a nondescript gray suit that is too big for him. Or perhaps, in his small frame of flesh and bone, he is too small for the suit. The sleeves are almost too short and his wrists are bare. He does not wear a watch. His nose is thin, and long for his face. A small, neatly kept mustache sits above his small mouth. He has dark hair, impeccably neat and trimmed, receding and streaked with gray. The tie he wears is dark, with a small, tight knot that rumples the collar of his starched white shirt. When he smiles, he is almost handsome. He rarely smiles. His posture, the set of his arms on his desk, his face, despite dead eyes, exude authority. He is calm and practiced, accomplished, and he wears it well.

__________

I stand in line at the checkpoint. A swaggering browbeater with appropriately chiseled Aryan features and wearing a police uniform—dark blue police jacket, badge on his breast, radio mic clipped to his left shoulder, starched white shirt and a narrow black tie under the jacket, holstered 9mm gun on his right hip—blusters up the line straight to me and insists I stop taking pictures with my little Canon point-and-shoot. He has no such authority. What is it about these men that they have to derive their sense of worth from putting on a belittling facade? Yes, Mr. Policeman, I get that you are important and must make sure we all know this. What are you really trying to protect? I forget what exactly I say to him, but he backs down and goes in search of someone else to impress.

I am at the front of the line. About thirty feet ahead, under the white canopy, which is larger than I had thought, are four gray-framed whole-body scanners, with rented folding event tables and more uniformed people in between. Beyond are more Jersey barriers and another bus blocking the street. I soon find out the scanners detect more than just metal. Hiding behind an assumed authority in the face of threatening authority is an art form; I am a neophyte.

__________

His desk is his, and it is not his. Dark, squat, it presides over this room on the second floor of the gray building, unsubtle, unforgiving, as the unsubtle, pitiless Gray Man sitting behind it presides over the lives of men (and they are all men) he does not know, will never know, can never know. For a government-issue desk, it is ostentatious. Though not overly so: it does not cross the line of attracting too much notice, of inviting scrutiny. If it has been beaten, its scars are well hidden. Someone has polished the stained wood of the desktop. It gleams, and reflects the man behind it. For that is its function.

__________

The funny-looking portal starts beeping and flashing its lights as I step under its frame. I roll my eyes and pull out my camera, keys, and flashlight—the only substantial metal on my person—and the man facilitating this small set of a Kabuki theatre sets them on the table. I try again. Beeping, lights. He thinks to ask me if I have any food with me, a sandwich perhaps. He is friendly and courteous, which surprises me a little. But I have no choice but to unzip my coat, reach into the inside pocket, and hand over the two uncooked eggs I’d hoped to smuggle in. He takes them, tells me I can’t bring these in with me. Technically, he has to assume the eggs are my lunch. He hands me my metal items, gives me a knowing smile that says he might have tried the same, and I’m on my way, relieved. These machines are smarter than the ones at the airports. This man is quite unlike Mr. Policeman.

__________

A long, slender pen with a light brown wood barrel, impeccably neat, sweeps back, graceful yet stark, from a black holder at the front of his desk. He does not use this pen, favoring instead featureless, utilitarian, government-issue black pens. A black rotary phone is to his right, far enough away to show that the papers before him, the business at hand, are more important. But it lies within reach, just in case. Across from the heavy wood desk, incongruous in this spartan gray room with the dark wainscoting, sits a plush wingback chair, bright red, facing the desk. Dividing the space between the desk and the red chair, two rows of buttons line the edges of the desktop—like the graceful pen, meant for conveying a message. They tell the clenched-fisted men standing, shaking, before the desk, “I am above your station, I am important, valued; you are not.” For these miserable men, it is a terrifying tableau. But is the man hiding behind the desk, dutifully meting out doom, any more sure of his position than they had been?

A perfunctory portrait of Stalin hangs on the far wall.

__________

I make my way along Pennsylvania Avenue, searching for what I think might be a good place from which to view the coming events. Workers are busy setting up metal risers all along the street. A 20-piece band across the street, in front of the ornate Old Post Office Building, plays patriotic tunes; they are miserably cold, their only audience being workers putting up barricades and heavily geared police stamping their feet. A squadron of troops in gray-green uniforms and overcoats marches smartly by, in stark contrast to the unkempt milling of the bored police. Army, perhaps. They march four abreast, and the column goes on for more than a block.

I pass a so-called “Designated Demonstration Area”, an absurdly small, 25 by 25 foot area on a corner, boxed off with yellow police tape, black bold “POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS” tickering around its circumference. If we want to yell, and protest, this is where that’s “allowed”. Each of the many press areas, set aside for TV production crews whose members far outnumber the cardboard pretty-people who dutifully recite the lines prepared for them, is noticeably larger, blocking the wide sidewalks. They, too, are cordoned off by yellow crime scene tape. Somebody’s idea of a cynical jab at the absurdities imposed upon us? I have no wish to be near these and so walk a few long blocks further.

I stroll along the sidewalk fronting the squat, J. Edgar Hoover Building, headquarters of the FBI. The architecture, black granite facing, and narrow, fortress-like window openings of the building are striking. A pair of police, clad in riot gear and brandishing ash-colored three-foot billy clubs, accost me for having a camera. They know they have overstepped. It is almost comical to watch them search their minds to justify their intimidation. One accuses me of trying to take pictures of the inside of the closed building. Through the thick slabs of black granite, I presume. Incongruously, American flag patches are on their right shoulders. Do they have no shame? To hell with them. I take more pictures. I hear in passing a couple of troopers at the curb, more bullies joking overly loudly, promising to “toss” one another a “liberal or two”.

Somewhere past 9th Street, I find a likely viewing spot right at the curb. Four rows of police, the third row in full riot gear, and a fifth row consisting of Navy enlisted stand between us and the street. The police appear to be mostly from Virginia; they are rowdy, ill-mannered, clearly hoping they might get to break some heads today. By now, more people have arrived, yet we will remain outnumbered by “security”. Such brave men, these. I find myself among a group of thirty or so like-minded angry people. And one lone supporter of Dear Leader—an older man, former military. I feel bad for him; this is not his fault, and I wonder if what is happening here, the reasons, the context, might be beyond his ken. Age is the great ossifier. Those of us near him watch out for his well-being, and form a buffer around him, even though we hold adamantly opposed world views. A seasoned, gray-haired man in a Virginia State Police uniform and barking into a walkie-talkie, clearly someone in a leadership position, breaks from the phalanx of cops and heads straight toward a twenty-something next to me, then proceeds to verbally assault the kid. It turns out he’d just made a snide joke to his girlfriend on his phone. They are monitoring our cell phones. I look up. Snipers walk the rooftops of these classical monumental symbols of freedom, and several helicopters buzz about, patrolling. High up, an AWACS plane is circling the area. Inside lie the ears that picked up and pinpointed the kid and his joke. Impressive technological demonstration. I snap a picture.

Welcome to America, land of the brave and the free, I think, and not for the first time this gray day.

__________

The small Gray Man with the unremarkable pen in his hand and the officious papers on his desk is Gábor Péter, a man hated and feared. He is at the crest of his power, though he does not know this yet. In his rumpled gray suit, starched white shirt, and dark narrow tie with the small tight knot, he calmly presides over his gray office from behind his dark government-issue desk, across from the padded red chair, in the house of terror with its thick—to hide the screams—gray stone and cement walls and floors, home to torturers by day, famous for their brutality, and by night to condemned men in its squat gray bowels, snatched from streets and beds, their broken bodies shrunken from escaped hope, arms over their ears to muffle the agonies of friends and neighbors and comrades screaming, impossibly still screaming, from pointless torture, huddled for weeks on hard, narrow wooden benches bolted to the walls in claustrophobic basement cells swimming in excrement and piss and sweat and fear, on the northeast corner of the wide boulevard at 60 Andrássy út, across from the Music Academy, a few blocks from Heroes’ Square, on the Pest side of the cold gray Danube, under the baleful skies of communist Hungary. Gábor Péter is the new Chief of the State Protection Authority (Államvédelmi Hatóság or ÁVH). Ahead lie seven more years of dispensing dispassionate, brutal inhumanity before he, too, fails to stay a step ahead of Stalin’s ever-growing paranoia.

It is 1945.

Victims adorn the walls of the Terror House on Andrássy út.
Victims adorn the walls of the Terror House on Andrássy út.

__________

The small man hiding in back of the armored limousine…or perhaps it is that armored limousine—two of them scream past going forty to fifty miles per hour—is George W. Bush, newly reelected (fairly or not is another matter) President of the United States. He flies by too fast for me to even snap a picture. I look at the crowd, and the police, all of them agitated. I spy a lone Navy person in dress blues at the nearby intersection. Stoically at parade rest until now, she smartly comes to attention and salutes as the limos fly past. Her comportment, her discipline despite the numbing cold, her dignity, are a stark rebuke to the remarkable lack of such among the hundreds of troopers and police. The contradiction is disturbing. I still wonder what was going through her mind that whole time; her demeanor revealed nothing.

This small man is hated by some, maybe even feared. I think that is a shallow view. It was clear even four years ago that this, too, is a man living in circumstances only partly within his control. The men around him, and the state apparatus in which he is embedded, require of him a certain behavior, a certain projection of an image which may or may not be an accurate reflection. Our countries, the United States and Stalin-era Hungary, are tremendously different states. Yet both brandish a threatening, cold, implacable authoritarian scaffolding to which its respective minions, if they are to survive, must conform.

It is January 20, 2005.

Inauguration Day, 2005: View towards the White House.
Inauguration Day, 2005: View towards the White House.

The Gray Man

The Gray Man is master behind the government-issue desk, in the gray building, in the gray city, under gray skies brooding over a dun land.

His eyes are small, sunk in oversized sockets. They stare, implacable, dark steel. The Gray Man’s eyes are a lifetime of empty, devoid of emotion, of empathy, of kindness. Of humanity. His mind is narrow and rigid—like his tie, like his long nose—its machinations not reaching his eyes; this is by design. His conscious time is spent plotting, staying two steps ahead of his subordinates, of his superiors, of the authorities, of Stalin. The emptiness of his eyes protects his position, his life. For, in the gray city, to let slip one’s thinking, one’s emotion, if it exists, one’s thoughts—this invites scrutiny, danger. The Gray Man is careful, meticulous; his eyes reveal nothing. Does he look at his wife this way?

The Gray Man is the son of a tailor. Yet he wears a nondescript gray suit that is too big for him. Or perhaps, in his small frame of flesh and bone, he is too small for the suit. The sleeves are almost too short and his wrists are bare. He does not wear a watch. His nose is thin, and long for his face. A small, neatly kept mustache sits above his small mouth. He has dark hair, impeccably neat and trimmed, receding and streaked with gray. The tie he wears is dark, with a small, tight knot that rumples the collar of his starched white shirt. When he smiles, he is almost handsome. He rarely smiles. His posture, the set of his arms on his desk, his face, despite dead eyes, exude authority. He is calm and practiced, accomplished, and he wears it well.

His desk is his, and it is not his. Dark, squat, it presides over this room on the second floor of the gray building, unsubtle, unforgiving, as the unsubtle, pitiless Gray Man sitting behind it presides over the lives of men (and they are all men) he does not know, will never know, can never know. For a government-issue desk, it is ostentatious. Though not overly so: it does not cross the line of attracting too much notice, of inviting scrutiny. If it has been beaten, its scars are well hidden. Someone has polished the stained wood of the desktop. It gleams, and reflects the man behind it. For that is its function. A long, slender pen with a light brown wood barrel, impeccably neat, sweeps back, graceful yet stark, from a black holder at the front of his desk. He does not use this pen, favoring instead featureless, utilitarian, government-issue black pens. A black rotary phone is to his right, far enough away to show that the papers before him, the business at hand, are more important. But it lies within reach, just in case. Across from the heavy wood desk, incongruous in this spartan gray room with the dark wainscoting, sits a plush wingback chair, bright red, facing the desk. Dividing the space between the desk and the red chair, two rows of buttons line the edges of the desktop—like the graceful pen, meant for conveying a message. They tell the clenched-fisted men standing, shaking, before the desk, “I am above your station, I am important, valued; you are not.” A perfunctory portrait of Stalin hangs on the far wall.

The small Gray Man with the unremarkable pen in his hand and the officious papers on his desk is Gábor Péter, head of the State Protection Authority (Államvédelmi Hatóság or ÁVH), hated and feared. He is at the crest of his power, though he does not know this yet. In his rumpled gray suit, starched white shirt, and dark narrow tie with the small tight knot, he calmly presides over his gray office from behind his dark government-issue desk, across from the padded red chair, in the house of terror with its thick—to hide the screams—gray stone and cement walls and floors, home to torturers by day, famous for their brutality, and by night to condemned men in its squat gray bowels, snatched from streets and beds, their broken bodies shrunken from escaped hope, arms over their ears to muffle the agonies of friends and neighbors and comrades screaming, impossibly still screaming, from pointless torture, huddled for weeks on hard, narrow wooden benches bolted to the walls in the claustrophobic basement cells swimming in excrement and piss and sweat and fear, on the northeast corner of the wide boulevard at 60 Andrássy út, across from the Music Academy, a few blocks from Heroes’ Square, on the Pest side of the cold gray Danube, under the baleful skies of Hungary. Gábor Péter has been chief of the ÁVH for five years; ahead lie two more years of dispensing dispassionate, brutal inhumanity before he, too, fails to stay a step ahead of Stalin’s ever-growing paranoia. It is 1950.

Victims adorn the walls of the Terror House at 60 Andrássy út.
Victims adorn the walls of the Terror House at 60 Andrássy út. (Click to enlarge.)

Hornet Whiskey Tableau

We are stretching our legs from our van ride back to the Thai border through seemingly endless, lush jungle and verdant rice paddies. Despite their tiredness, my eyes feel contented in a way they rarely do; even on a cloudy day, there is no dull color in this strikingly beautiful, oppressed land north of the border. We are returning from an afternoon boat ride along a placid section of the Mekong River, brown and turgid from recent rains. (Monsoon season is near.)

This morning, Lao officials at the border crossing exude hostility toward the three Westerners in our group (me, my wife, and our friend Edlin). We are only able to enter Laos at all by being in silent and submissive tow of local area Thais, who persuade and obtain a price on our behalf. It is a lot of money; we pay. I am compelled to surreptitiously peek my point-and-shoot from my jacket pocket and snap a few pictures of the comically authoritarian border compound. It seems absurdly out of place to me, but I soon learn this is real life for the people here. We had already been warned to keep cameras well hidden, so my wife quickly admonishes me for being reckless.

One of our necessarily few stops along the road is this market, large enough to swallow us in relative anonymity, noisy with garrulous, haggling customers and a tinny radio blaring from some hidden place. Tables are full with fruits and vegetables, most of which I cannot even recognize, much less name. We are strangers, small, incongruous. I wander, senses saturated. Somewhere in the midst of this mélange of colors and shapes, I spy a table that seems odd and walk over to it.

Several richly colored brown hexagonal cells sit empty. These intermittently follow the curved periphery of a spiral assemblage that fills most of a table improvised of unfolded pages of recent newspapers, in colorful Laotian script, atop layers of flattened old cardboard boxes, and supported by mud-crusted, faded white and blue plastic milk crates regimentally stacked two high. From the side, I can see that the insects had built up these paper cells layer by layer, in alternating colors of light and dark brown wood particles. Two different tree barks, I presume. But why did the builders alternate layers across the hive, like sedimentary rock formations? It must have taken some time to finish this repetitive, dull, but necessary task.

Edlin (not his real name) appears and pulls my elbow, insistent. “Come, you have to see this.” Edlin is German, with a big German nose. His new bride is Thai. We’ve all been friends for several years back home in the U.S., where Edlin and she are naturalized citizens. She has the small, button nose typical, she says, of most Thai people. Indeed, among her relatives and childhood friends in Udan Thani, her husband’s much envied, magnificent nose is the first feature they cannot help but stare at. Not his white skin, his odd clothing, the strange American speech, or his funny mannerisms. When they meet him, their children, being delightfully uninhibited as are children everywhere, gape and point and giggle. At his magnificent nose. This amuses but embarrasses Edlin, who is already particularly self conscious about his nose. But in Thailand, where Thais are self conscious about their noses, he is genuinely, greatly admired. For his magnificent Teutonic nose. His face turned red when he told me this.

(credit: National Geographic)
(photo: National Geographic)

The Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia) is the largest hornet in the world, with a body length of two inches and a wing span of three. Their wings seem too small to lift such girth, much less propel it through the air at twenty-five miles per hour. No human can outrun an angry Asian giant hornet. Normally, they are not particularly aggressive toward us. But these armored, yellow and black striped killing machines are furious predators of other insects—mantises, other hornets, and especially honey bees—which they efficiently dispatch by severing heads with their proportionately large mandibles. Their victims stand no chance of escaping or surviving an attack.

The partial nest I’d been looking at is massive, that piece alone nursery to four or five hundred incipient little monsters. (I did a quick count and estimate.) Later, I learn that this is but one of a dozen or so layers, like floors of a tenement building, that constitute the typical nest. As I’m being pulled away, and not for the first time this trip, I wonder how the dirt-poor employees of this roadside open-air market, or the people from which they bought this disc of horrors, managed to subdue and take the fortress intact—and at what cost.

Apparently, hornet grubs are a delicacy in Southeast Asia. I am normally game to try things strange to me, but not even I am the least bit interested in popping one of these in my mouth. (Perhaps my lunch of spicy shrimp salad—live shrimp salad—aboard the riverboat is exerting a delayed influence.) With their wormlike body segments, these emerging creatures look like large—very large—stubby white maggots with disproportionately small orange button heads at their tips. Their translucent skin glistens, shiny clean; I don’t know why this surprises me. Maybe grubs are supposed to be grubby.

Most of the cells are occupied, lidded with paper-thin, white segmented domes. Some of the domes are bulging, while others have burst. Larvae, large as my thumb, poke half out of their cells, writhing, pulsing, blindly nodding to attract attention and a meal that will never come. Even for a bug enthusiast, up close it is a quease-inducing sight. I am the only one of our party of ten that is captivated, the others having quickly dispersed to find something—perhaps anything—else to ogle.

Asian giant hornet nest 2012-07-30
Asian giant hornet nest 2012-07-30

I follow Edlin through a confusing maze of narrow aisles and animated customers to a table in one corner under the large, corrugated-tin canopy. Along the way we pass a battered analog radio (so that’s where it is!) blaring Western pop music. I am immediately lost, so I am glad he knows where he is going.

We arrive. An old woman with gray hair sits on a stool behind the table. I am drawn to her dulled eyes, framed in wrinkles and leathery skin. She seems tired, weary, as does her stool, as does everything else we’ve seen in Laos—cars, fences, roadside businesses, houses and shacks, rafts on the river. (Oddly, the roads are in surprising good shape.) I imagine hers is the weariness of lifelong factory workers drudging their way through endless days at the same unchanging, mind-numbing task. But it is not that. This is how life is here, a culture stuck in a dreary bygone decade. Much of this is likely our—America’s—fault. It is tremendously saddening. I force myself to pay attention. On the table are a dozen or so 750ml bottles of a pretty, dark amber-colored liquid, presumably alcoholic.

Despite being proficient killers, these hornets do not eat their prey. Instead, they carry the massacred back to the nest. There, they chew up the bodies and make a paste with their saliva, which they feed to their larvae. In turn, the larvae secret an amino acid cocktail which the adults feed on, and from which they derive their manic energy and exceptional stamina.

Now I understand Edlin’s excitement. Floating in the top quarter volume of each bottle are drowned Asian giant hornets. The woman has been stuffing bottles of arrak, by bare hand, with groggy live hornets. The amber color has been leached from the hornets by the alcohol, which a label tells me is 45 percent by volume. The soon to be drownees drag slowly about on the table. I think of stingers, and angry wasps, my imagination (I learn later) falling far short. I don’t smell smoke, so again I wonder how they were subdued, and how long this stupor will last. She could probably tell me, but our translator, Edlin’s wife, is nowhere in sight.

V. mandarinia is a forest floor dweller, so it pays to be observant when tromping about in hornet territory. Their venom contains a potent neurotoxin. It can dissolve flesh, leaving behind ghastly craters of destruction. Stings from this hornet are extremely painful. If you are not allergic, a jab or two with their quarter-inch stinger will not kill you. But thirty or more injections will induce anaphylactic shock and even multiple organ failure, landing you in the hospital—if you are lucky enough to be within range of one. The unlucky few are destined for a morgue.

She gestures for us to try a sample. That concentration of ethanol will have killed any bacteria or viruses that had hitched a ride, so I think, why not? Like many of the strange things we’ve encountered in Southeast Asia, the texture is surprisingly complex, vivid, and enjoyable. After a brief pantomimed conversation (we’re getting pretty good at this), we pay for two bottles with the Thai baht equivalent of just a few American dollars. Our respective senses of exploration now fulfilled, Edlin and I navigate the muddy puddles and make our way back to the van.

We get back to Udan Thani and our hotel room late that night, having begged off kind Thai uncles imploring us to an evening of spicy street vendor food, noise, traffic, incomprehensible chatter, and smells of questionable origin vying for olfactory supremacy. I pull the bottle of drowned amber fury from its worn white plastic bag and set it on our room’s little entryway table, on top of a dilapidated pad of paper bearing the hotel’s faded red letterhead. It is only then that I realize the woman had not corked the bottles. It will be impossible to get this home in our luggage. Neither will it be possible for me to drink even a substantial part of this exotic potion in our short remaining time here. Edlin and I commiserate over our predicament the next day. Our spouses are not overly sympathetic.

 

 

Preparations

The evening looks promising.

Transparent air, crystalline blue—emblematic of Flagstaff even in summer—has soothed my soul since childhood. “I can see for miles and miles…” spins in my head, unbidden, as I walk a short patch of worn asphalt, dull gray and pitted from winter’s attacks. Dark green Ponderosa forest broods to the horizon, turning black as the light dims and the usefulness of my retinal color sensors fades. Thin, dry air is a poor thermal insulator, so it chills rapidly after sunset. I zip my jacket.

Ritual scan of the sky, projecting ahead several hours: gauging the night’s weather and observing conditions is an habitual game. I occasionally misjudge, but not tonight. The door clacks shut behind me. I know my keys are in my pocket, but I check anyway. I aim toward the chipped, institutional-turquoise railing in front of the dome. Cirrus lie low in the southwest, painted grunge by twilight and distance (thirty, forty miles). These will likely keep to their remove and not interfere. I pretend to decree it so.

As I shuffle southwest, my face parts the breeze. My felt hat stays on my head, unassisted. I’ve no need to glance at our rooftop weather station’s wind vane or anemometer. It should be a good night, the air clinging to the forest laid out before me as it flows, laminar and unturbulent, lifting with the ridge upon which we root and gliding smoothly overhead. Trudy, our night observer, should get one arcsecond seeing at the 61-inch telescope, perched on its massive concrete pedestal three stories up. It is the world’s most precise star measuring engine. Down here at the parking lot, the air will be more agitated. I’ll see two arcseconds, maybe a bit less, at the 51-inch telescope which squats inside a dome off the edge of the cooling asphalt. The dome resembles R2D2 from Star Wars.

“Seeing” is astronomer jargon for what our roiling atmosphere does to starlight, pushing and shoving it, forcing it to wiggle erratically in random directions as cells of turbulent air, refractive indexes varying slightly from their neighbors, scurry across our line of sight. These pockets of air, fleeing distant large-scale atmospheric pressure gradients, attest to forces at work beyond our tiny purview. This is why stars twinkle.

Baleful blood-red Scorpion heart, Antares, sits low in the south. The orb flashes sharp red and green and yellow and blue (if you stare carefully), dancing. Astronomers hate that. Twinkling harbingers fuzzed, mushy, corpulent images. Spica is higher in the sky, its hard, white-blue light passing through less of our atmosphere. It holds fairly steady, only an occasional flicker. I look higher. Orangey Arcturus, one of my favorite stars, stares unblinking, steady, solid. Some part of my brain registers that stars higher than about forty degrees above the horizon will be sharp tonight. I notice muscles relaxing, a growing anxiety over data quality now dissipates. Mona Lisa smile: in this clear air, the night will be dark and the Milky Way will billow, almost flocculent, and span the entire vault of the sky. I will remember later to emerge and gape at this wonder until my neck aches. Da Vinci would understand.

g16d018.087.sdssr.c.stack-120.fits__--__m_37__--__c=(_765.18,_2289.28)__--__a=7973.4
models fitted to a star’s intensity profile (click to enlarge)

Scientists quantify. Astronomers’ measure of seeing—our means of taking the guesswork out of comparing one night to another—is the size of a star’s disk at the focal point of a telescope (that is, on the sensor hanging off its butt end). The width of a circle drawn half-way down from the central, brightest point of the disk that is a star image to its edge as it merges into the sky background is that measure. We call it “full width, half max”, or FWHM.

We measure angles with telescopes—immense, expensive protractors. This star is so many fractions of a degree from that star. A sixtieth of a degree is an arcminute. Your eyes can resolve details down to about one arcminute, or slightly less. A sixtieth of an arcminute is an arcsecond. An arcsecond is a very small angle: the apparent size of a U.S. quarter, 3.1 miles away. (The 61-inch telescope can measure angles to within one thousandth of an arcsecond.) “Good” seeing is when the FWHM of a star image is one arcsecond or less—a useful cultural agreement. Three arcseconds is bad. Five is horrendous, and the stars are dancing madly, taunting and useless, all the way to the zenith.

Inside the dome, chill seeps through my clothes as I wait for dome shutters and mirror covers to open the telescope’s eye to the heavens. As the liquid nitrogen tank satiates the camera dewar in pulsing spurts, a valve trips and vents excess pressure; the hiss is painful. I escape into the side room and toggle switches, powering various devices. The air compressor initiates a new aural assault. I plug my ears. Why did it choose now, I think. Several of us conjecture that the 51-inch telescope is inhabited by gremlins, not so much malevolent as impish, irritating. Maybe they are leprechauns. Back in the dome, motors stop and the nitrogen tank has finished its rhythmic regurgitation of cold. Pulling on insulated blue gloves meant for such things, I disconnect and stow the thick umbilical hose, its business end caked with ice, thin sheets of condensing air flowing to the dome floor. The drive motors wake and hum, a happy sound, as I feed them power. Everything inside this dome is thirsty.

We are ready for the night.

the 1.3-meter telescope (click to enlarge)
the 51-inch telescope (click to enlarge)

Prolegomenon

You recognize as a youngster that science, and music, and literature and writing—creative wonders—draw you along comfortable invisible force lines. But not opera. Overbearing, embarrassing falsetto vibrato is just wrong. As your joints grow creaky and more of your pate warms to the Sun, you know that this is a misperception. You stumble upon more of these, as you notice yourself more often assigning past vigorous feats of physical prowess to the unimportant pursuits of the unimportant young. You ponder these, your various misperceptions. And your misperceptions of misperceptions. Recursion tickles you.

$$\dfrac{\mathrm{d}^2\overrightarrow{r}}{\mathrm{d}\theta^2}+2\widehat{z}\times\dfrac{\mathrm{d}\overrightarrow{r}}{\mathrm{d}\theta}+{\left(\widehat{z}\cdot\overrightarrow{r}\right)}\widehat{z}=\frac{1}{{1+e_{p}\mathrm{cos}\mathrm{\theta}}}\overrightarrow{\nabla}\mathrm{\Omega}$$

You realize in the shower one day that your—and others’—universal cognitive foibles smacking into observable reality are an irresistible rabbit hole, wondrously vast and an endless source of material to contemplate. Like a particle in the three-body problem of celestial mechanics, your orbit is a tangled meandering, variously lured into the sphere of influence of first one and then the other of those two massive attractors, science and the creative urge. This resonates, and you realize a re-appreciation of past love.

$$\mathrm{\Omega}=\frac{1}{2}r^{2}+U=\frac{1}{2}r^{2}+\frac{{1-\mathrm{\mu}}}{r_{1}}+\frac{\mathrm{\mu}}{r_{2}}$$

Thus: what shall you write? Unuseful question. The world is big. Where shall you intend your aim? Better. Get thee to the shower!, your ever-reliable Delphic font of nearly every good idea.§ You love nature, and science—especially astronomy and math—and the scientific way of thinking, which come to you with joy and not pain. (This cannot be weird, surely—friends’ and society’s protestations notwithstanding.) The chasm awaits.

$$r_{1}=\sqrt{{{\left(x+\mathrm{\mu}\right)}^{2}+y^{2}+z^{2}}}\hspace{2.222222em}r_{2}=\sqrt{{{\left(x-1+\mathrm{\mu}\right)}^{2}+y^{2}+z^{2}}}$$

On a whim you schlep to a National Association of Science Writers conference, where you are isolated and small, sole introvert amidst a mind-bruising cacophony. Drilling through your crushing discomfort, you meet Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (you buy three copies), you hear Jonathan Coulton sing his wistful nerd anthem, “Code Monkey” (you buy three CDs), and a merciful soul tells you to read Lewis Thomas’s classic medley of essays, The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (why is there no Kindle version?). This is it. A trigger, an unlatching: your dormant writing compulsion awakens.

Astronomy with math. True stories, precisely told. A worthwhile target.

$$v^{2}-\frac{{2\mathrm{\Omega}}}{{1+e_{p}\mathrm{cos}\mathrm{\theta}}}+z^{2}+C+2\int\frac{{e_{p}\mathrm{sin}\mathrm{\theta}}}{{\left(1+e_{p}\mathrm{cos}\mathrm{\theta}\right)}^{2}}\mathrm{\Omega}\hspace{0.222222em}d\mathrm{\theta}=0$$


Halfway through college, you end the pleasant agony and decide astronomy over music. Seemingly by crazy random utterly naive inevitability, you become a professional astronomer. As your mop grows thinner and your knuckles grow larger, you realize the apparent randomicity is a misperception.

The equations, if you are wondering, tell how a massless particle moves in the combined gravitational fields of two massive objects in orbit about each other.¤ Think, for example, Sun–Jupiter–spacecraft. In astronomy, we call this the restricted three-body problem. It is astonishingly complex.

§ Perhaps only Death is a greater surety—though, surely, only by a little.

¤ For completeness:

$$\mathrm{\mu}=\frac{m_{2}}{{m_{1}+m_{2}}},\hspace{2.2em}r=\sqrt{x^2+y^2+z^2}$$

and

$$\begin{array}{rcl}\overrightarrow{\nabla}\mathrm{\Omega}&=&\left[\begin{array}{l}x-\dfrac{1-\mathrm{\mu}}{r_{1}^{3}}\left(x+\mathrm{\mu}\right)-\dfrac{\mu}{r_{2}^{3}}\left(x-1+\mathrm{\mu}\right)\\\\y\left(1-\dfrac{1-\mathrm{\mu}}{r_{1}^{3}}-\dfrac{\mu}{r_{2}^{3}}\right)\\\\z\left(1-\dfrac{1-\mathrm{\mu}}{r_{1}^{3}}-\dfrac{\mu}{r_{2}^{3}}\right)\end{array}\right]\\\\&=&\left(1-\dfrac{1-\mathrm{\mu}}{r_{1}^{3}}-\dfrac{\mu}{r_{2}^{3}}\right)\overrightarrow{r}-\mathrm{\mu}\left(1-\mathrm{\mu}\right)\left(\dfrac{1}{r_{1}^{3}}-\dfrac{1}{r_{2}^{3}}\right)\widehat{x}\end{array}$$

 

Sense and Sensibility and the American Gun Culture

Sense and Sensibility.

Jane Austen put these two words together for a specific reason.

Sense: meaning, understanding, prudence, sound judgement.

Sensibility: sensitivity, awareness, empathy.

She didn’t have to worry about guns the way we do, the way America does today. But if she had I think she likely might have said something worth our while to contemplate. Sense. Sensibility.

We have yet another senseless shooting, this time too close to my home in Flagstaff. At Northern Arizona University, where a close family member teaches, a student retrieved a gun from his car and shot four students, murdering one. (One is still in the ICU.) Over a simple fist fight, hurt feelings, wounded pride — a child lies dead and many lives destroyed.

A spat quickly broke out online over whether or not to call this one (there are so very many) a “mass murder.” The NAU police reassured the public, saying that this was not like another mass shooting that had just happened at a college in Oregon. Others were not buying it. Perhaps because of the shock and cognitive dissonance that comes with a shooting that is too close, too personal, they are missing the point.

A common (sadly — shamefully — this is all too common) behavior can stem from a myriad of complex generators, complicated motivations, because human psychology is, in the now, a complex miasma of innate character, upbringing, experience, and happenstance — nature and nurture and randomness. Yet, dead people on the ground are dead people on the ground: mass shooting, mass murder.

What is the point?

Ask yourself: what is the most common denominator in each one of these mass shootings, this endless succession of mass murders, this underbelly of America’s prolonged spiral to suicide? The answer is readily apparent to anyone not blinkered by stubborn ignorance or mindless fear: the uniquely sick American obsession with weaponry, in concert with the rigidly immoral, ignorant, selfish, counterfactual, antifactual, infantile, long-bankrupt ideology of the right wing, one consequence of which — just one of innumerable repercussions from a depraved world view — is a near-complete absence of meaningful gun regulation.

To choose slaughter (intended or not) over minor inconvenience to the sensible — which is really what we are talking about with effective regulation of firearms — is not an act that comes from moral or ethical values; it is sick and depraved.

You may be thinking, “but this does not apply to me.” Do you choose to stand by and do nothing? Are you silent? Then you, too, have opted for preserving our awful status quo, for senseless bloodshed, shattered bodies, ruined lives, devastated families. Inaction is a choice.

Silence is a choice.

To choose instead reason, and sense, in light of overwhelming evidence; to proactively choose responsibility to the people around you, and empathy for those not in your shoes, and good governance in public policy — these come from ethical, moral values. Reasonable values. Wouldn’t this be better than continuing to tacitly approve senseless carnage?

That is the point.

It is time we start acting like adults, you and I — own up to our responsibility. It is up to you, and me, and you and you and you. The nature of this monster, this beast that we have allowed other monsters to create and nurture while you and I were distracted, is that none of us gets to opt out; you cannot not play.

So which do you choose? Continuance of our national blood bath? Or sense and sensibility?

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Nutballs and the Mode

Atheist Republic's Kaaba: Love Wins
A stylized Kaaba (click to embiggen).

Recently, Atheist Republic (AR) posted this image (⇒) in response to the Supreme Court’s decision (pdf) that legalizes marriage in the U.S. It is a Photoshopped image of the Kaaba in Mecca. The reaction from noisome elements of the Muslim community has been, predictably, swift, violent, and largely incoherent (cf. the Facebook post or AR’s original Twitter post for a sampling). AR’s post is fine; I think it is timely, in good taste, and makes a good point. However, I think AR made a mistake.

AR responded to the growing shit storm in a subsequent post on their web site (WARNING: one image, about ¾ of the way into the post, is deeply disturbing), electing to show a number of select examples of the insults and threats they’ve received to make a point:

Please keep in mind that these aren’t members of ISIS or Al-Qaeda making these statements, but rather are your everyday average Muslim.

Later:

…these aren’t extremists or jihadists, they’re just average Muslims. These are the ones who call themselves “moderate”.

And, if you are feeling particularly thick-headed:

To make it clear that these are supposed “moderate” Muslims, I’d like to point out that we know for a fact that one of these men is a US citizen. This particular commenter has specifically asked for information from one of our admins that he suspects lives in his area, and threatened said admin with physical violence against this admin and their family.

A skewed distribution (click to embiggen). Where do you think IPLs reside?

One thought kept nagging me as I read AR’s response: AR furnishes no valid evidence or argument to support the all-too-common claim that these select nutballs are “your everyday average Muslim” (as opposed to the crazies that carry out terrorist attacks in the name of their religion or, more accurately, their ignorant, deranged ideology). It seems likely to me that the cretinous whackjobs sprinkling AR’s posts with turds are neither average nor representative of Muslims in general. These whackjobs are—like our own noisome right-wing nutballs—an abnormally incoherent, ignorant, and vocal minority. I’ve no doubt average Muslims are as willingly delusion-controlled as our average Christians here in the U.S., but I have to question that the infantile profane loudmouths of either organized delusion system lie anywhere near the peaks (i.e., the modes) of their respective population distributions.

The excerpts above—and, indeed, AR’s entire argument—illustrate several common logical fallacies. In the first two excerpts, the author is arguing by assertion. This is a counterproductive rhetorical tactic. It raises people’s hackles, to your disadvantage.

The third excerpt is somewhat more interesting. First, it cherry-picks an anecdotal example. (The example itself also seems hardly relevant—a red herring.) This is a surprising mistake, since cherry-picking is perhaps the most common logical fallacy for which rationalists such as AR criticize religionists and the right-wing.

In this excerpt the author also equates being a U.S. citizen with being “moderate”, with no supporting argument or evidence. As recent events in the U.S. have shown repeatedly, there is nothing moderate about the beliefs of U.S. terrorists, Muslim or not. This is  a false equivalence, perhaps the second most common logical fallacy employed by the right (or maybe the third, behind strawman argument).

This is not an apology for “average” adherents to horrifically damaging organized delusion systems. From all that I’ve seen, Western religions are among the most senseless and destructive invented concepts in the history of humankind. But accuracy, precision, and validity in our claims and arguments, whatever the context, matter.

We rationalists are—or should be—better than this.

 


Seriously, you do not need to see this image—it cannot be unseen.

 Speaking of crazies, is there much, if any, difference between a Muslim terrorist who slaughters innocents in a medical treatment building and, say, a Christian terrorist who slaughters innocents in an African American church? Or between that (or any other) Muslim terrorist and a Christian terrorist who shoots dead a medical doctor during church services?

The Printer and I: A Tale of Spinning Fans, Diseased Hearts, and the Tragedy that is Life

psprinter-overview
[Click to embiggen.]

This (see photo) is how I spent my afternoon and evening, today. I have a conference to attend next week and must present a poster paper on some recent research results. Because I know by now that both Old Man Murphy and Loki the Trickster always lie in wait, snickering — I hear you, you bastards — I go to check the large-format printer. It is a Beast, and it turns electrons into poster papers. I flip the power switch, and it makes a horrible noise, won’t boot up, freezes, then whines plaintively, “call HP … call HP … please, won’t you call HP ….” Not very encouraging. Screw you, Loki — thou art a Puck.

As with all things computer that misbehave, I keep trying the same thing over and over, hoping for a different result, though I know full well that no different result will … um … result. Indeed, no dice. Run around the building and check with everybody: nobody knows what’s wrong or what happened. Yeah, sure.

What to do? Go find some screwdrivers, of course. The horrible noise emanates from somewhere around the power supply. Sort of. It’s buried in the guts of the Beast, so it’s hard to tell from the outside. It is a place to start, anyway. I roll up the sleeves of my robe, pick up a Holy Implement of Torx, and get to work …

Several hours later, I finally have figured out, cuss word by cuss word (proper ordering is important), how to get past all the barriers cleverly designed by Evil HP Engineers to make rational disassembly near-impossible. (Ever disassemble a laptop computer, down to the bare metal? This is harder, I kid you not.) Sixty screws later (I count them, twice), I get to the power supply fan. The heart of the Beast is diseased, despoiled. It is not turning quite right, and the motor shaft wiggles a little. It is not supposed to wiggle. Even a little. Culprit apprehended at last? Perhaps. Fortunately, it’s just a cheap $8 cooling fan you can pick up at any Radio Shack.

But Radio Shack does not exist anymore. When did that happen?

We have come round to this place again: what to do? Rummage around in the junk spare parts room, of course. It is a glorious room, beloved of tinkerers on staff. Bingo: six salvaged computer power supplies, just lying there on a shelf, calling to me. No, seven! But I am wise to their siren song. One after another, a closer look reveals frightening ugliness — mostly in the form of caked-on dust and dirt and grime. Their hearts spin, but they are Unclean and Decrepit. Sigh … last one: yay, Cleanliness! The Blessed One, Savior of the Beast, is found.

It believes it has been bestowed a new chance at life. I wish I could be happy for it. Little does it know its fate. Surely it deserves to be told of its pending doom? Yet that would crush its new-found hopes. You are perverse and cruel, you Fates! I do not have the heart to tell it.

True to my calling as Lord High Tinkerer, I pick up the Holy Implement of Torx and sacrifice the Blessed One upon the Ancient Altar of Gorthung (a fifty-year-old, government-issue desk, solid and heavy as a tank, with an ice-cold slate top). I flay its body and cut out its heart. I know no mercy.

Fan in bloody hand (a blood blister acquired some time during printer pieces-parts separation has popped), I trundle down the hill to the electronics lab. There, a colleague — the Wizard of Wire, Lord of Circuit — performs minor surgery. Lo, and behold! Upon application of the Lightning of Zoltar (a 12-volt power supply), the heart of the Blessed One lives again, spinning round and round in a most pleasing whir. Back up the hill.

That dreaded niggle squatting in the back of my mind finds a crack and blossoms. It dawns on me: now I have to put it all back together. Sixty screws. I realize I am tired. I’ll never remember where they all go. Come back tomorrow with freshly caffeinated veins? Pffft. Such is for wusses, unbecoming of a Tinkerer. So, since the operation of my memory — even on a good day — resembles most closely that of a sieve, I have little choice but to re-figure out how to take apart the Beast but in reverse. I am reminded of Ginger Rogers. I miss Ann Richards and her rapier wit. Today is not a good day.

Another hour passes by. I wave hi. We do that a lot, Time and I. My finger leaks on the table; I wipe it. And also on the housing of the reassembled printer power supply. I look at the smear, and I do not wipe it. I have left my mark upon this Beast, I think to myself. I shall not remove it. It will be buried amidst your guts; only you and I will ever know it is there. This token of my toil is enough, I decide. I move on.

At last, it is back together, despite all the King’s men staying home, watching TV. I do not want to plug it in. I’m sure you understand. Don’t you? Even so, I still roll the Beast back to its lair. I reattach its stiff black tail. I notice it is dirty, the cord, this conduit of the Lightning of Zoltar.

We have arrived at the moment of truth: I flip the switch. And wait. As with a pot of water that has yet to boil, it is best not to stare at a booting computer, especially one as slow and dumb as the Beast’s. I stare anyway. I wave hi to passing Time again, then it whirs with a pleasing sound. And dies. And tells me to call HP.

Naturally, I turn it off, wait ten seconds (capacitors can be slow to bleed, you know), and then turn it on again. Maybe something different will happen this time.