Friday, January 28, 2011

No Batteries Required

Somewhere between sci-fi magazines and the Whole Earth Catalog?
Nope, quite real, but forgotten low-tech solar devices.
The second picture is of the "Umbroiler" (umbrella-shaped broiler) made by solar pioneer George Lof, who tried to market it in the 60s and 70s. The high cost of metalized fabric at the time and the convenience of modern appliances made it a commercial failure. It worked quite well cooking food using free energy since it employed the ever-reliable parabolic form to focus the sun's rays, but its delicate construction and obvious problems with cleanliness called for a more robust design. Now if old George had thought of placing a small, durable parabolic dish on every other roof for satellite television instead, he'd have had a hit. The second of the two solar homes he built was well-designed and is still going strong after all these years, but you still see very few of those around.
The first photo is a homemade solar cooker; the Maria Telkes version, designed in the 1950s, has proven itself. In terms of scale, a 30" x 30" size glass cover reportedly does a bang-up job. If you're in the mood to build one and be considered a raving nut by the neighbors, the booklet "Capturing Heat" by the Aprovech Research Center in Cottage Grove, Oregon, has plans for five stoves and ovens.
It looks like Jules Verne-era sci-fi, but the magazine cover above reflects (OK, pun intended) the interest in and success with solar power in late 19th-century France. There was a lot of sun but no fuel in the colony of Algeria, so the government asked one Augustin Mouchot to help out. He developed a portable solar oven (under 40 lbs.) for the Foreign Legion which did the job. Today such ovens are being re-introduced to Africa, Asia and Brazil. Will they ever have enough impact to limit deforestation or diesel/kerosene polluting the soil?
A passive slow cooker colloquially known as a "haybox" was actually used all over the U.S. until the mid-20th century; it was even in Girl Scout handbooks before 1950. There were shiny commercial models as well as homemade ones. It's just a heavily insulated box in which you place a pot heated up on a conventional source; the contents are done and ready to serve six hours later, just by the preserved heat. A slab of soapstone, heated in the woodstove which was presumably in use anyway, was placed in the bottom of some "hayboxes" for even greater efficiency.
As long as the gas is available or the electricity's on, the appliances we are familiar with are ready to use day or night, whatever the weather, so complete convenience trumps severe frugality. But if you lived in a sunny place, were home during the day or out tramping across Algeria, could keep the dog away from the food, and can't or won't pay the utility bill, there is an old, simple technology to make that chili!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Is Anybody In There?

It's been far too cold, not to mention navigating the frozen waves of ice and snow, to walk to town for morning coffee. In a few months, it will be a fine 20 minutes while the birds hop in the branches of the trees in full green and the sun plays with the shade. Even when the counter is busy, there's always a free table at the bakery at or near the windows. They've stopped carrying the two free local entertainment tabloids in favor of senior citizen and religious ones, so I bring the newspaper along. I get one of their various mugs (sometimes the really big one, if I'm lucky) instead of a paper cup, and while looking for something vaguely interesting in the paper, the ambient sounds swirl. You can't help hearing the nearest or the loudest of the conversations.
Soon I concentrate on the sense of smell -- coffee and tempting treats -- because in all the times I've been there, I haven't heard an interesting or intelligent thing said. And I wonder about that.
Of course, people talk about friends or relatives, and there might be an intriguing or funny story there, but I haven't heard one yet. (Our buddy Pat has an inexhaustible store of hilarious family stories.) Younger women seem only to talk about weddings or clothes. Recently the female half of an older couple at the next table talked nonstop for forty-five minutes, her numb husband silent, seemingly in a high-functioning coma. I don't wonder why.
Looking at the profile of New Cumberland on, you'll notice what I see in the bakery: the population is old, and Catholic. I've heard more than I need to know about organizations related to the local church. If you were at an event with this bunch, if you couldn't talk about the church or their grandchildren, you might as well concentrate on the cookies.
Try a different demographic 3000 miles away, at my beloved Java Station on Hollister Street between Santa Barbara and Goleta, California. Working people and and some old dudes with long beards who obviously haven't worked in quite a while hang out at the table outside, under a patient tree. They are usually engaged in a lively conversation, although with the fast Spanish and missing dentures, who knows what it's about. Inside, the ones who drove up in BMW's and Volvos are involved with their laptops or baby carriages, silent. There are several alternative local publications always available, the Kona coffee urn is hot and full, and the breeze drifts in and out of the multiple open doors. I keep hoping one of these brilliant entrepreneurs, writers, grad students, or world-travelled millionaires will tell a story or say something the imagination can have some fun with, but no. Isolated islands in the sun.
At a reunion for RPI/VCU in the 90s, I went to a reception featuring the president, Dr. Triani. I heard him discussing his numerous trips to Russia and his acquaintance with Mr. Gorbachev. This sounded good, so I sidled over and showed my interest. The good Dr. turned to me, and instead of continuing with that topic, asked me what I did for a living. When I replied that I headed the exhibits department at a science museum, he lost interest and turned away. In a half-second I realized that this event, and the conversation animating it, was solely about identifying donors. Too old to be that naive.
Which reminds me of another "fail." Once we were at a group table in a Japanese restaurant in Orlando, seated with a nice-looking (and of course very polite) British family. Despite wanting to develop a good conversation with interesting people we would normally never run in to, I torpedoed it immediately by asking the same question Dr. Triani did. The air chilled. You do not, I found out later, ask that of a British gentleman; it is seen as a crude way of finding out someone's social/economic status, which is none of your business. I'd rather not learn these things the hard way.
There are some pre-conditions to meet for a dialogue to be satisfying. You must like what you know about the person(s), be equal, and not be looking for something. Things must be already understood; the easy way to do this is what many do: socialize almost exclusively with family. You can't pick the membership, however, and it may include some who are mentally off, those with unbalanced political/religious agendas, or are at the extreme end of a personality type. It's funny on The Office when you see Michael's lack of a filter or boundaries in action, but not in reality. If one of these is in your office or family, you will need every defensive move in conversation you can come up with.
E-mail conversation is so much easier, since it gives you time to think and removes the complexities of body language, which we are not all equally adept at "reading." And should we even get into how women hear words, tones and implications very differently than we do? It would be hard to write a sitcom script if this were not true, at the least.
It's a lot easier to find a good cheap wine than it is to find an emotionally and intellectually satisfying conversation. It's there with a few very good friends (and they could be family!) you may not talk to in months or years, and a significant other with whom you share a trove of silly private jokes: those with whom the shields are down. A treasure, by definition, is not something that is common and found everywhere.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Sail On, Sailor

Students, lucky ones, enjoy a semester or year abroad in another country, school and culture. That's one thing I will never get to check off my bucket list; the time has passed. I think that such a year would yield not only educational but psychological benefits that would outweigh those of the other three years. Or any other years.
Your alternative is to travel along with those more fortunate and adventurous via books. I followed the post-WWI "Lost Generation" through the literary artifacts of their struggles to develop their art, selves and careers. Joyce, Hemingway, Pound... the early works of their vagabond youth are gems: brilliant, compact, hard and pure. I'm grateful to have finally realized part of the dream to follow them, see what they saw, be where they were, when we took our two-week trip to the Mediterranean. It should have been a month and included France, but we did find Ezra Pound's "love nest" villa on a secluded side street in Venice. I'd been wanting to be there, and breathe the ancient air he and Olga Rudge did, since high school. Maybe Hemingway and Paris next time.
Unwillingly landlocked for six decades, I've always wanted to live abroad, if for just a year. Somewhere with history and sun, between the extremes of the too-cold and gray North and the sophisticated but too demanding Paris or Rome -- what about Sicily, Portugal, Rhodes or Crete? Or Spain, for a less daunting language barrier: the exquisite Balaeric Islands, Seville or that endless feast, Barcelona. The cost-of-living factor and tourist hordes eliminate the first and last; better a long visit there.
I've never been further west than our west coast, but Asia has places that are not sickly or dangerous, but those are very expensive: Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Hawaii. The best choice would be Singapore, judging from my brother Ron (and his wife Claire)'s multiple visits. But bustling crowds and humidity are considerations. You'd have to be daring in the culinary area, too.
Canada is rated the best among expatriates for integrating oneself into the local community. A tiny bit of slang to learn for English speakers takes down the language barrier; less than one-third of worldwide expatriates make the effort to learn the local language (the survey result I'm citing was not from true immigrants).
What you are, age, health and wealth-wise, determines how well you will do overseas (just like at home!). Single expats have the least luck finding love in India and Qatar, for obvious cultural reasons; those with children say Belgium is best except for the fattening foods. Australia is considered safe for families, if they stay away from snakes and crocs.
I've read several memoirs by people who moved to Italy, Sicily and France. One perceptive thought from a Los Angeles-to-the-Chianti-region transplant: living there is harder than in the U.S., but it's easier. Getting pretty routine things done which are for us easy (by phone, computer, etc.) require face-to-face arrangements in Italy with people in offices who are usually absent, derelict in duty and completely uninterested in simplicity or efficiency. But the essences of life itself are far superior, once you get the phone in and the taxes paid. The rose is sweet, but know there are thorns.
Five and a half million Britons live abroad. The Empire used to send civil servants, businessmen and soldiers to sunnier places; now people cash out their expensive homes and head south. They like English-speaking places, South Africa and Spain the best. Canadians like the Caribbean, balancing high cost against balmy weather. How do they replace their comprehensive health care, though? I worked with an electrician, a Phillipine native and either a citizen or permanent resident of Canada, on the new Harrisburg Airport project, and he explained that after 19 working years there, he qualified for their social security program, and would probably return to Manila after that. Americans of eastern European, Greek or even Armenian heritage retire in those countries and collect U.S. Social Security; I wonder if the costs of living and housing now going up radically in Poland and the Czech Republic have derailed their plans. I wonder about a lot of things.
Ecuador, Costa Rica and Panama seem good choices in this hemisphere: except for the coastal gated-community developments (yes, they have them for the Texas and California millionaires now), they are considered to be stable and inexpensive, with mild climates and friendly people. It's somewhere...over the rainbow, across the sea.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Time Travellin'

My brother Steve really enjoyed his trip to Richmond for a Freeman High School reunion this past November. This node of the Rice family stopped by last week on their way taking son Adam back to Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh after a semester in Queensland, Australia. The young fella had an internship previous to that in Palo Alto, California, so I'd say he's doing all right. I wouldn't want to trade ages with him, but I'd sure like to trade places.
At the reunion, Steve ran into a classmate who has just published a two-volume memoir which he had written for a masters degree program. During last week's visit, he left them with me to read, knowing I'd be interested. Kevin Gray came to Richmond with his family from the North as a youngster, just as we had, due to his father's new job. Our dad lost his very good position with an insurance company in Milwaukee in the depths of the 1959 recession because of fraud by the president (what these criminals were called before "CEO"). To make the situation worse, our house, built on a badly graded corner lot, was flooding from snow melt and nothing was selling (even dry houses). Through a head-hunting agency in Chicago, he found three jobs, in Richmond, New York and Birmingham, and asked us which one sounded best. All we knew was the North, but Birmingham and New York sounded too extreme, so we pinned the tail on the donkey at Richmond. Just like the baby bear's bed, it turned out to be just right. He preceeded us and lived in the brick apartments near Willow Lawn for a few months while we sold the house at a big loss. Taking us on a ride down a green and flowering Monument Avenue in April 1959 in our rusty 1954 Dodge (I didn't even know what azaleas were) to show us our new home, we were all smiles, mighty pleased.
Economics dictated we settle in the uninspiring, cheesy and barn-like new development called Farmington (in the far West End) instead of the stately or comfortable areas of the city (the serene older West End). Without six people in the family, families like the Leftwiches wisely chose those. The yard was big, there was a family room, and we set about planting trees and setting up a basketball court. Past a dozen houses to the west there were only wild woods. I found dead animal skeletons, abandoned and burned farmhouses deep inside (how long ago was it a farm, with those huge hardwood trees?), and a pond with freakin' snapping turtles. Later on, roaming was done in cars, making trouble easier to find.
We all start exploring, wandering around, trying to define ourselves and figure the world out, while growing up in suburbia. And however ordinary, our memories of youth have a vibrancy you don't want to lose; it was so long ago but it's still real. "Life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone..."
Mr. Gray, five years younger then I, lived near us at 414 Keats Road (above), in the triangle known as Tuckahoe, bounded by Patterson, Ridge, and Forest Avenues, so his memoir is filled with places and names that I knew well. Dead Man's Curve where Quioccasin segues into Gaskins (where Bob Freeman rolled and totalled his parents' Renault Dauphine). Tom Ogburn of WGOE (he got the thick black glasses right, and that his excellent voice just didn't match the man's appearance). Sitting on the railings at Beverly Hills Shopping Center, skateboarding at the Village Shopping Center, biking to Willow Lawn to the movies or Gary's Records, exploring the woods now all gone; even out to Bill's Barbeque on Broad on Friday nights, just like Dan and I in his fine 1957 Ford. The almost obligatory daring trip to downtown Broad Street without parental permission -- I remember seeing Dingo boots at a scroungy shop after not finding any Beatle boots and thinking I'm going to get those someday (I did, when at RPI/VCU). Kevin, on his trip to the big city, was looking for a fringed leather jacket, but there was no such thing in Richmond even then. He made do with a home-made skateboard just as I did and also envied the agile Hobie Cat model his friend had. One very different experience was attending Gill's Country Day School until public high school at Freeman; I remember seeing the bus going around the West End scouring up what I thought were the privileged to take them to the unknown reaches of Southside. After his description of the cramped concrete-block private school, I realize it wasn't anything special other than a very long ride. The first volume ends with his beginning day at Freeman, emotionally charged yet ordinary, like everyone else's. Although the name was changed, I think he even mentions the lovely Biology teacher in whose class Bob Antonelli and I met.
And his gang got their beer through friends' older brothers from the Robin's Nest at Beverly Hills, just like we did.
While I was enjoying every page, I was horrified that a 30-year veteran teacher (as he turned out to be) of English and journalism was still writing at a high school freshman level. I found myself re-doing most sentences. Even worse, a handout in the book promotes his private consultation and group workshops on memoir writing. Has he re-read his own?
Worse yet is the editing, by one M. Stephan Strozier: "There's" instead of "theirs." "Playing his roll" instead of "...role." "Marmon" for "Mormon." Richmond Polytechnic Institute, for heaven's sake. Thalheimers in Willow Lawn at the end of the center walkway, instead of Miller & Rhoads (spelled Rhode's in the book). One thing is mentioned as not yet existing in 1969, but I know it was there as early as 1965. There are many more.
But I'm grateful to Steve for lending me these good but bad books, and to Mr. Gray for the memories. They shoot bad editors, don't they?

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Real Temple of Doom

It's said that the "Lost World" literary genre began with H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines. It took me years to find his She in a used bookstore and it was worth the wait. You have to give the Victorians credit for their adventure yarns -- Conan Doyle, Stevenson, Poe -- followed closely on by Edgar Rice Burroughs, movies and comics. Then you spend a lifetime, antsy with curiosity, trying to find any true historical or geographical touchpoints; they've given you an adventure of your own to pursue. "Treasure Island" was modeled on Norman Island in the British Virgins (turned 90 degrees to disguise it), but we still don't have any confirmation of a factual basis for Burroughs' Princess of Mars, darn it.
I don't think the Indiana Jones movies really do the genre justice. A work which attains worldwide popularity has to have the attractive qualities (sympathetic stars, flashiness) amped up and the rough edges smoothed over, and in the cleaning up loses the shocking freshness of the original. Does any splashy novel or disaster movie stand up to (the real original "Lost World" story) Plato's Atlantis for spooky unresolved mystery? Check back in 2300 years and we'll see.
We can work on understanding ancient foreign cultures and their strange ways if there is a written record, as for the Romans or Chinese, and living remains (the language, peoples, traditions). Great states dissolve into mist and mystery when there is no written language; they have nothing to say to us and are truly dead, not just past and prologue.
The Chavin civilization, a precursor of the Inca, built the temple complex called Chavin de Huantar in the Andes beginning in about 1200 B.C.; it finally faded away around 500 B.C. Like Stonehenge, human occupation on the site can be traced much farther back (to around 3000 B.C.). In both cases, it is the stone monument built at some point between the unknown beginning and the equally unknown end that has rescued tens of thousands of unnamed souls from total oblivion.
Fiction is entertaining and somewhat informative; the real Temple of Doom is just frightening and unsettling. From what archeology tells us, the Chavin were much like the later Inca in their mastery of control over the population. They manipulated the people with all-encompassing religious ritual. Unlike the Inca, they did not seem to be concerned with military offense or defense in the least; inward-looking, not conquerors, their attention was focused on divine protection. While there seemed to be no individualism or freedom as we think of it for anyone, at least they were not pressed into the service of murder: an unusual societal model. The only similar one of any size I can think of is (was) Tibet.
Thousands of pilgrims walked in processional lines to the temple, to dance, perhaps to receive word from an oracle (Greek Delphi comes to mind), and, for the chosen or most devout, to be initiated into hallucinogenic intimacy with the divine. A flat-topped pyramid dominated the site. A long, completely dark labyrinth under it led to a room inhabited by a stone obelisk of their deity, all fangs and claws, with a human body and a feline head. Speaking of heads, theirs would be reeling with visions after ingesting mescaline obtained from the San Pedro cactus.
These people had migrated from the Amazon to the central Andes and had brought with them a pantheon of sacred animals. They would have loved the San Diego zoo!

Monday, January 3, 2011

"A Soldier Will Fight Long and Hard for a Bit of Colored Ribbon"

Of all Napoleon's witty comments (whether he originally said it or not), this one about how symbols regularly displace or remake reality in our minds always struck me as deeply true. They excite and (mis)inform us, lead us to bright futures even worse than the present, give us "reason to live," as Randy Newman concisely put it. Signs, like a red octagonal one, stand for what is known; a symbol (the word's from the Greek for "throw together") is an object, picture, word, sound or mark that represents something else by association, and is often imprecise, various or vague. Strange stuff. Animals, I assume, see things just for what they are to them: food, danger, comfort.
There is a story that during hiring interviews, the FBI used to ask applicants if they had bumper stickers on their vehicles -- their thinking being that this showed narrowness or a herd mentality. Language, names and words are symbols. The vehicle itself is a symbol of status (power, really). A symbol can have lost its utility and any original meaning yet still say exactly what the individual using it wants it to: exhibit A, the necktie.
The swastika has strong emotional meanings now it did not have; symbols can be re-purposed easily enough. When turning counter-clockwise, it is female, and when turning clockwise in the Nazi fashion, it has male characteristics. In different places and times, it represented fire and sun, or winds and directions. Like the Red Queen said, words mean what I say they mean.
Republicans, too.
The evil eye symbol, found even today from the Philippines to Malta, is a talisman to ward off misfortune. The Egyptians incorporated it into their formal religion with the story that Horus lost an eye in battling Set; his remaining one was alert and watchful for us mortals. Does the strange Masonic eye on the back of our dollar bill come from this ancient source? Of course, Horus has in this use been replaced.
Recently I discovered something that gives me a chuckle when I see that metal fish outline symbol on the rear ends (how appropriate) of cars. It is claimed to be a very early Christian symbol, like a secret handshake, supposedly used to slyly identify themselves to one another (or to mark meeting or tomb sites) when Roman authority was, to say the least, disapproving. I wonder if there is any archaeological evidence for this or if the backstory was just made up. It won't be the first time.
What we do know is that around 1965 an evangelical student group at Sydney University adopted the fish symbol, and like the smiley face or peace symbol, it quickly gained worldwide acceptance. In reality, fish make good food and so-so pets, but the convoluted connection between religion and our piscine friend goes like this.
The letters of the Greek word for fish (variously ixthus, icthus or ichthys) make an acronym for a title for Jesus:
i = jesus (Greek iesos)
x = Christ (the anointed)
th = God's
u = almost the first letter of Greek for "son" -- huios
s = first letter of the Greek for "savior" -- soter
Phew. The symbol, however, goes very far back and is ubiquitous. It's formed by the intersection of two curved lines, and is just a representation of the female vulva. From the earliest evidence we have from all over the world, fertility symbols predominate. When life was short and very chancy, fertility of crops, animals and humans was the paramount thought. We now have the dubious luxury of getting all wrapped up in abstract and complex symbols, and use them skilfully to manipulate others, but our paleolithic brethren did not. We see it later, in the era of the Egyptian, Greek and other Mediterranean state religions, formalized as the vulva of Isis and the fish amulet of Aphrodite at Ephesus. The pointed oval was known as the "gate of life." Before the gods were raised to the (male) sky and the goddesses were vilified and banished, female/earth/fertility religion was all. And it was not Puritan.
Apologists like Tekton Ministry deny any connection between the current use of the fish symbol and the heritage of thousands of years, which is hard to prove but may be the case; what we know as the peace symbol is probably not a revival of, but just similar to, the Nordic "death rune." Old and New World pyramids are also strikingly alike, but any direct connection is beyond our ken. Still, when I see a fishy on the back of a minivan, I am amused.
I saw what I thought was a strange variation of Fish Symbol once or twice (picture above), but only recently found out that it's the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the deity of the Pastafarians. Their heaven has a beer volcano! And if that wasn't enough to like, their religious calendar introduced Talk Like a Pirate Day.
I hope the Romans don't catch on.