Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Arabia Steamboat Museum - Kansas City

Due to poor planning on my part, I'd booked the hotel and car rental through Tuesday, and a return flight on Wednesday.  I think I must have booked the lodging and transportation with reference to the day of the eclipse, and then booked the flight with reference to the price -- already the fares were getting outrageous.  I noticed the car rental first, and figured I'd just keep it an extra day (it'd just be $16 more).  But after I got to my friend's place in Lawrence, I realized I also didn't have a hotel for the Tuesday night.  So I started looking at switching the return flight (only $3980 by then!) and realized I was going to have to find another way.

The solution: I would stay in Columbia for two nights, as planned, then at an airport hotel near Kansas City  for the last night.  I'd return the car as originally scheduled too, and just take the hotel's airport shuttle around.  So that worked pretty well, although with a slight comedy of errors involving the shuttle -- I traveled from the car return place to the main terminal, and then hopped on the Marriott shuttle, only to find out (a) there are two totally separate Mariott Shuttles and (b) you can call the right one from the car return place.  Oh well!

One of my fellow eclipse watchers had recommended I go to the steamboat museum in Kansas City. It was not very convenient from the hotel, but car service there and an uber back made it quite doable.

I  arrived just in time for the last tour of the day.   The place was pretty interesting.  They had us watch a video about the family and friends who got together to track down and salvage the lost wreck:

Notorious for its shifting channel, the Missouri River cut a new path and moved east, abandoning the spot where the Arabia sank.  By the twentieth century, the steamboat was lying deep beneath a Kansas farm field.   Rumored to be filled with whiskey and gold when it sank, the Arabia drew the attention of treasure hunters and failed salvage attempts for many years.

Using a metal detector, weathered maps, and old newspaper clippings to guide the search, David Hawley located the wreck in July 1987.   Years of erosion and shifting sand left the lost paddleboat 45 feet underground and a half-mile from the present channel of the Missouri River.
Apparently, the excavation took them 20 years.

Most of the items recovered were found in bulk, intended for merchants.

Coffin Screws

Some of the rarest finds were ones that might not seem particularly valuable to us - items made of rubber.  They were preserved from oxidation by their anaerobic environment (mud!) and are now preserved in a nitrogen-pressurized case and somewhat dimly lit.

Fragile (light-sensitive) buttons manufactured by
Novelty Rubber Co. under Goodyear's patent.

Much of the fascination of the place is just the sheer volume of merchandise on display.  Not everything has been cleaned and treated for display yet.

50-foot tape measure

What makes these boots special?

According to the guide, they are a rare example of left/right differentiation

"If you're gonna stick a man, stick him clear to Green River" (i.e., up to the manufacturer's name)

The snag that sank the Great White Arabia

Monday, August 21, 2017

Total Solar Eclipse

Since the sun and moon were cutting a dark swath across the U.S., I figured it was worth traveling  to Columbia, Missouri for the occasion - one of the longest periods of totality (approx 2 minutes and 37 seconds).

When I floated the idea on Facebook, my friend T suggested stopping by while I was in the neighborhood - and I did!  So I made a big triangle from Kansas City to Lawrence KS to Columbia MO.

It was great to see T and meet the kids; I hadn't seen her for several years.  The little one, at 6 months old, was very baby-like, but he apparently loves being read to.  The elder one, a toddler, had less patience for stories, but was happy to be chased around the back yard (as long as it wasn't too scary).  Their mom is doing a great job, and I'm very proud of her.  She has dreams of going further west, where she will likely feel much more welcomed than in her current community.  Fingers crossed.

We went to a nearby college campus, and saw the future location of a franchise sandwich shop she really likes - but unfortunately, even though the door was open, it's still under construction!

After a few days there, I drove out to Columbia.  As luck would have it, the hotel was walking distance from Cosmo Park, the city's official party central for the eclipse.  (Probably bigger crowds were at the college campus a few miles away.)  I went over and checked it out Sunday - they had bands playing, and food trucks, and a fabulous playground with a vaguely science-y theme.  I found a covered picnic table area that seemed like an ideal location for the day itself - a place to sit in the shade and get some work done while I waited for the eclipse, with a restroom nearby in case of emergencies.

The bands were fun, and an artist had brought two nicely painted cardboard cut-outs to frame people's faces as the sun and the moon.  A lot of people posed with these cut-outs, and one of the bands really got into it -- they gave us a mini-eclipse!

On the Big Day, the weather was looking rather iffy over most of Missouri.  I'd brought work to do at the picnic area, but I and a family near me were also checking our various weather apps, including darksky, to try to see if we should make a break for it to get in a better place by 1 pm.  They were thinking of going to St Louis, but were indecisive and missed the window of opportunity for that.  They eventually left to try their fortune at a nearby town that was predicted to have only 18% cloud cover at 1 pm.  I told them regretfully, "You're probably doing the right thing," but I decided to stay put.  I've had too much experience with the despair of switching lines at the grocery store only to be stuck in the very slowest one.

As the morning wore on, other people arrived.  One group, from Massachusetts, had decided to go at the last minute.  The closest affordable flights and accommodations were in Chicago!  But they saw that as an advantage - they had ease of travel in multiple directions.  And they found a place to stay for one night in St. Louis.  They trekked over to Columbia that morning because it looked like the best weather!  Yay!  I also met one couple from Wisconsin  and  another from D.C. who seemed quite nice.

Despite the overall cloud cover, there was an occasional weakening of clouds right around the sun, which gave me some hope.  Sometimes we even had actual shadows on the sidewalk!

As things started getting dark, the regular bands stopped, and they started playing somewhat more eerie music  over the loudspeakers.  I'd come out now and then to look through my eclipse glasses to see the progress, then go back to work.  One of the young girls from the Massachusetts family was giving me funny looks as I put on the eclipse glasses, and she apparently whispered to her mom that she was worried I had fake eclipse glasses and would lose my eyesight.  It was really sweet of them to pass on the message, although I was pretty confident in the glasses.  I'd bought a set of eclipse spectacles and a set of paper eclipse glasses, both supposedly meeting the ISO standard,  from amazon.  I'd gotten a recall notice on the spectacles ONLY, so I figured the others were safe.  But I also had a pair of eclipse glasses from the hotel, stamped with the Columbia MO insignia, and the mother seemed to feel that would be much more reliable, so I switched.  I don't think there was any difference.  Could only barely see the ever-diminishing sun through either pair!

It didn't get completely dark (presumably because of the ambient cloud cover), but the insects got really loud all of a sudden as we approached totality.   And when they said to take off our glasses, we did - and everyone gasped.  It was amazing to see the corona.  We had 2.5 minutes to gaze in wonder, to turn to our fellow humans and share our wonder, and generally to drink it all in - the eeriness, the humanity.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Credo, or: Two Sins and a Truth?

I'm inclined to believe, with C.S. Lewis, that those who genuinely and humbly seek God will find him; a good-faith search for the Truth will not be denied.  (Although some may say, in astonishment, at the last day: "So it was you all the time!"  Cf. The Screwtape Letters.)

But two caveats occur to me immediately:
  • If whatever is filling the role of "god" in my life makes me feel like a big-shot, or smug, self-satisfied, or really pleased with myself, it is almost certainly not God, but an idol.  It might even be myself, in disguise, that I am venerating.
  • Conversely, if my worship results in prolonged feelings of worthlessness or self-loathing (and perhaps concomittant despair), it seems likely my attention is not focused on God but on something else, possibly myself.  This too must be dethroned.
As always, these snares are all the more insidious when they are mistaken for the divine.

B5 and the Soul

I recently lost an argument to a B5 expert about whether or not it is established in S1E2 (Soul Hunter) that Dr. Stephen Franklin believes in, and/or acknowledges the existence of, the soul.

In part, I think it's because I initially overstated my case.  And in part, because people mean different things by the word "soul."  But it seems to me his analysis was also somewhat over-simplified: for him, the fact that Franklin mocks "the idea of taking someone's soul," without saying something like "and souls don't exist anyway," is apparently determinative.

Here's the scene:
Franklin chuckles. Then quietly, almost to himself: "Well, this is nonsense." 
Briskly, to the soul-hunter: "It's patent superstition. Can't be done." 
After a slight pause, as if to Sinclair: "With the right technology, maybe you could encode the personality matrix and produce a clone of someone's mind, but the idea of taking someone's soul?" 
He ends with an audible exhalation. 
It seems to me that Franklin might very well say this in several scenarios:
  1. [Believer] He believes immortal souls exist, and that - perhaps because they are incorporeal and thus exist independently of the body - they cannot be taken.
  2. [Agnostic] He isn't sure whether souls exist, but if they do, they cannot be taken either because they are incorporeal or because they die with the body.
  3. [Humanist] He believes the concept of a hnau's "soul" is merely a conventional way of referring to the hnau's spiritual essence; of necessity, this is not "immortal" and does not exist independently of the hnau and thus cannot be taken.
  4. [Atheist who picks his battles] He believes immortal souls do not exist, but knows the issue is not susceptible to proof either way. Thus, he does not fight that particular battle in this particular conversation; the one indisputable thing, the slam-dunk for present purposes, is that souls (if they exist) cannot be "taken" based on what believers claim about them. 
I find #2 and #3 most plausible so far (I'm about mid-way through Season Two.)

Of particular note is Franklin's distinction between taking a soul vs. the possibility of encoding "the personality matrix" (if only one had the right technology) to "produce a clone of someone's mind."  This seems to reflect a view that a hnau's personality is known to be physically anchored in the body, and specifically in the brain.  It is not immortal, but because it is in this sense corporeal, it is at least theoretically possible to replicate it.

For me, the slight emphasis on "taking" and "soul" suggests some skepticism about both concepts.  Surely, a believer would simply emphasize "taking."  Likewise, the emphasis on "mind" and "soul" suggests those two concepts are being compared and contrasted.

I believe the scene is deliberately ambiguous to leave open the question of whether Franklin "merely" disbelieves in soul theft, or also is skeptical of the existence of an immortal soul as distinct from a person's mind or personality.  We may eventually learn more about Franklin's religious or spiritual beliefs (if any), but I haven't gotten there yet.

Intriguingly, Franklin's speculation about encoding the personality matrix bears fruit two episodes later in S1E4 "Infection":
Sinclair: You said they incorporated the brain patterns of one of their researchers into the weapons? 
Franklin: Tular, yes. 
Sinclair: Is there anything there we can talk to, reason with? 
Franklin: Well there's a complete personality matrix, yes. But it's totally subsumed by its program. 
Garibaldi: Fine, except how you gonna get it there? 
Sinclair: By going straight to its personality matrix. I'm gonna try and make it mad.

== == == APPENDIX == == ==

For reference, here's the full text of the scene from S1E2:
Franklin: What exactly is a soul hunter? 
Soul Hunter: Ask Commander Minbari friend. We are drawn to the moment, the moment of surrender, the instant of loss between despair and ecstasy when the flesh fails and all that remains behind. The soul we save. Not all. Only the special ones: leaders, thinkers, poets, dreamers, blessed lunatics. 
Sinclair: And what do you do with these souls, after you've saved them? 
Soul Hunter: We enshrine them, worship them. We talk to them, listen. We ... learn. 
Franklin: Well, this is nonsense. It's patent superstition. Can't be done. With the right technology, maybe you could encode the personality matrix and produce a clone of someone's mind, but the idea of taking someone's soul?
Soul Hunter: Ridiculous, yes.  So let me go. 

Monday, July 03, 2017

Independence Eve & Independence Day

I got such a kick out of their leaning in!

I'd just noticed this recently

bright sky and moon over Litchfield Villa

Not bad, with my little PowerShot 40x

found art

Not pictured: Bats swooping and darting overhead
The Fourth was very quiet.  I got a lot of household chores done, including the laundry.  I was going to go for a walk around the park, or at least to the garden, but once I got there, I realized I wasn't in the mood for walking.  I read a bit of Beren and Luthien at the garden, then went home and got a picnic blanket and a change of books and settled in with The Silmarillion at the park.

Still haven't gotten very far into B&L, honestly - but it doesn't matter, since he's just repackaged the old stuff.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

It's All Happening At the Zoo!

AKA experimenting with the Panasonic. The idea was to practice taking pictures of animals, just in case I end up going on safari in the not-too-distant future.  Hey, it could happen!

We decided to see the 4-D "Ice Age" movie first, to give the afternoon a chance to cool down a bit.  Unfortunately, it wasn't much of a break from the weather -- the movie is only 10 minutes long!  Then again, 10 minutes was about the outer limit of enjoyability for this particular comedic approach.  It was cute, and vaguely educational if parents take the time to explain the various historic scenarios and geographic locations in which Scrat and his acorn find themselves. But it would be difficult to tolerate for the 1+ hours expected of a feature film.  That is all.

So we took a tour, starting with the sea lions, moving on to the penguins and puffins and seals and bears... Along with vast numbers of people who'd had a similar inspiration.

put your nose in the air like you don't care
glide by the people as they start to look and stare
 do your dance, do your dance

The snow leopards were by far the highlight of the expedition.  Despite the heat (and their fur coats!) two of them were running around chasing each other.  One would stalk, bide its time, and leap - then they'd would grapple and tumble for a bit.  They'd separate and rest, then start again.

They had huge, beautiful tails!

Snow monkey (snow-free July)

This is when I realized how unlike safari conditions the zoo really is.  On safari, I'm pretty sure I won't have  50+ people standing in front of me and more pushing up from behind.  And I won't have to shoot through glass (with one set of challenges) or wires (another set of challenges). 

It was a hot day, so I wasn't really that keen to see the tropical house - but we'd already seen everything else, so we went in.  I was able to recognize the scarlet ibis by their beaks, and the black wingtip.  They are a lot cooler than the usual chickens.

Scarlet Ibis


I loved this bright blue bird with the googly eyes!

A bit of a poser, though.

The helpmeet, lower branch, has brought some blades of grass for nesting

Helpmeet turns to face the camera, doesn't drop the nesting materials

Helpmeet is a little camera-shy, but the photographer followed

Not a blade has been dropped!!!

A new native meadow in Central Park near the zoo
Susan and I did not remember seeing this meadow before... but a sign helpfully told us it is not our fading memories - it is in fact new.

Originally, she'd been planning on attending evening service at Redeemer, and I was thinking of going home - but she was really drained by the intense heat in the tropical house at the zoo, so she went back to NJ and I walked up to Redeemer.  I told her I'd ask God to give her the credit anyway.