Sunday, March 29, 2009

What a difference a few hours make

Yesterday afternoon the winds picked up and it started to rain and then sleet before I fell asleep around midnight. This morning the sky was awhirl with big, fat, sloppy snow flakes that stuck everywhere and formed a couple of inches of very slick Slurpee-like stuff on the streets. Around 9:30 I had to drop KLK off at the Blue Line so he could get to the airport. Surprise! Every single access to the Loop where he could pop down any number of different rabbit holes to get on the train was blocked for the Shamrock Shuffle (foot race). Doubting that many people would show up in the 0.05° above freezing wet mess that was the Chicago ground, we drove considerably farther north, well out of the Loop, to get him on his way. The farther north we went, the worse the weather got. The trees were completely encased in what looked like white spray-on insulation. It would have been beautiful if driving conditions hadn't been so dangerous and the winds had been a little calmer. Nonetheless, he made it to the airport in time to find out his flight was canceled. He got on a another one an hour later and is now close to landing at his destination.
This afternoon, back at home and done with the Sunday crossword, I looked out the front windows over Lake Shore Drive to Lake Michigan and saw beautiful blue skies and all the trees with that indescribable haze of green they get before they truly explode with new spring leaves. The biggest surprise of all is that where the snow has melted (as most of it has), the grass underneath is bright green for the first time since last October!
(Note the still white sides of the tree trunks in the photo of Promontory Point. The view below shows Lake Shore Drive and Lake Michigan just slightly to the north of The Point).

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Yellowstone, then and now

Thanks to Youtuber michaelpgoad for posting this antique newsreel about Yellowstone, which he notes is from the "Public domain, Prelinger Collection, Internet Archive." Too bad it's truncated, and not dated. It's nonetheless fascinating to see what familiar 21st century spots looked like when this was made (? 1930s?)
The narration is also full of factual errors and rife with statements so imprecise as to be misleading, plus some downright deathly suggestions, such as "just step in" if you don't believe the thermal features are truly hot!
Notably absent are the now-ubiquitous bison.
Don't forget to turn on your sound.
Photo of Mt. Moran through the trees (Grand Teton National Park) from June 2006.

Youtuber sounds like some kind of potato, doesn't it?

Monday, March 23, 2009

This is a true story

Over the years I've read lots and lots of resumes. And it's true, if you apply to me for a job and your resume is a mess, I won't consider you for the job. A mess is defined as one typo, especially if you're responding to our posting for an editorial assistant position.
In order to apply for a job at the university where I work, you have to upload a resume, and possibly a cover letter at an online application site. In addition, you must complete a multi-page, confusing, annoying, and tricky (yes, the data you entered can disappear) electronic application.
The e-form has a box in which you are invited to type any additional information you think germane to your candidacy. One hapless applicant for our editorial assistant position (that was in the end felicitously filled) said, "I am a grammer expert."

The this true tale was brought to mind by All Tech Considered/All Things Considered (on NPR) this afternoon, in which the importance of a perfectly spiffy resume and cover letter was mentioned.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Jai who?

Last night I heard Jai Ho (Jai Ho) all the way through. My impression was the same, just firmly bolstered, as it was on the night it won the Oscar for best film score (technically, for “Achievement for Music Written for Motion Pictures”): Either the competition was negligible (I’ve not seen the other movies up for best score) or its win was a gesture toward America’s quest for forgiveness for classifying, and usually treating, faceless South Asians with suspiciously American-sounding names, at the far, f-a-r end of a staticky telephonic line, as annoying dunderheads.

Jai Ho is a sorry piece of music, both for Americans not familiar with first class Indian music, and for lovers of everything great from Bollywood. However, besides America’s sudden crush on all things Indian (but not including those sleepy people whose heavily-accented English we can’t make out, and who can’t get our point, either), there may be another reason it’s apparently so wildly appealing.

Assistant Professor Phil Maymin has, in the careful way empiricists do things, observed and objectively documented a striking relationship between stock market returns and popular music beat variability (“volatility”) over the last 50 years. I hope he will forgive me (since I work at the school where he earned his doctorate, though I have not met him) for quoting verbatim the abstract of his paper, Music and the Market: Song and Market Volatility:

“I compare the annual average beat variance of the songs in the US Billboard Top 100 since its inception in 1958 through 2007 to the standard deviation of returns of the S&P 500 for the same year and find that they are significantly negatively correlated. With the recent high stock volatility, people should now prefer less volatile music. Furthermore, the beat variance appears able to predict future market volatility, producing 2.5 volatility points of profit per year on average.”

So in other words, our market has been so treacherously volatile for months now that it seems we need to be stultified by an unchanging beat. By my unscientific analysis, that would pretty much characterize Jai Ho from beginning to end.

Maymin’s article appears as a working paper on SSRN (Social Science Research Network)’s page.

May I take this opportunity to recommend a charming, sweet, and infinitely more successful effort at humanizing the folks working the customer service departments and technical help lines? KLK and I both greatly enjoyed the movie Outsourced. Oh, and it’s so funny. Just thinking about it makes me laugh.

The image is from a pamphlet prepared to celebrate Kruti Patel's bharatanatyam arangetram, or classical Indian dance debut, in 1998. Kruti's mom and I became good friends and devoted colleagues years ago, when we worked together at the Clinical Research Center of the University of Chicago.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Banner day on Henry's Fork

Not only did I at long last catch a good view of "my" moose, here is what I, and several of my friends experienced with such things, think is a bald eagle.
Too bad I can't just sit at my computer all day waiting for wildlife to wander into view half way across the country...

I finally got my moose!

Left click on the photos to enlarge them for a good look. That dot on the distant shore is a moose. I watched it moving around for 10 or 15 minutes. Now if it would just come to the near shore...

And here's a two-fer!

Check it out for yourself, you never know what you might see on the Henry's Fork Web cam.
I will be on my way there in just 6 weeks!!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

They say, but she saw

While taking a break this afternoon from a big pile o’ homework for a course I’m taking, I watched about an hour of the Travel Channel’s “Wild China” series. It’s the first of its kind that I’ve seen, that is, the first about not just wilderness and wildlife, but man’s effect on it, around the entire country; it stands to serve the Chinese tourist industry very well, given the panoply of opportunities it suggests for nature lovers. It’s also lusciously filmed and Britishly narrated.

What I thought was interesting in the segment on the area of Guangzi Province around Guilin and the famous Li River was the narrator’s statement that the Li is one of the cleanest rivers in China. Here’s what I said about it on a lazy 1980 boat ride down the Li:

The water of the Li River is famous for being clean and clear. It was certainly clear, as to its cleanliness, considering the amount of spit, candy wrappers, peanut shells, and cardboard boxes (from somewhere behind the kitchen) that our small boat alone contributed, not to mention the questionable disposal from the toilets, I’m not so sure.

And here’s what the Chinese said about it at the time in a little folder we were given:
"Like a dark green ribbon, the Li River meanders zigzag southward. Along the river, there are numerous weirdly shaped hills on the banks. An 83-km journey by boat from Kwelin down the Li River to Yangshuo is just like a scene embroidered with mountains and water on silk brocade. All along the river, there are countless breathtaking scenic spots which one can hardly find time to take in."

I went on to describe it in my own words:
This is surely an understatement. The karsts, hills, mountains, sheer cliffs, and pinnacles seem to go on endlessly in all directions. They reminded us of Zion National Park in sheerness, of Puerto Rico and St. Lucia in lushness. Near the end of the trip the banks are lined with tall, waving strands of bamboo, and the upright forms, ending in curving tips echoed perfectly the shape of karsts in the background. The sky was cloudless, burning hot blue. We sat and stared at the natural beauty but also there was a lot of human life, both along the river banks and in the water itself. We saw innumerable powered junks traveling upstream to Gwelin, loaded with produce...

The boats passed extremely close to our own in places, as the channels which are deep enough to navigate are often very narrow, and even so we frequently heard our boat scraping rocks under our feet. On board we could observe the crews, which were probably a whole family, with young and old, men and women punting, doctoring the sputtering motors, tending boiling contents of a pot or wok on a smoky coal stove. On some boats, toddlers stared amazed as we passed. In many boats we saw dogs. Xiao Wang [one of our escorts] agreed with my suggestion, that perhaps the dog’s duty is to guard the boat, which is perhaps these peoples’ home. The alternative is that the family is planning to eat the dog. But it would be extravagant to feed a carnivore just to eat it when it could be more useful otherwise employed.

We passed some villages on the river banks where we could see women washing their laundry in the river. There was evidence of small fishing industry in these villages, as we could see the nets hanging out to dry and large weirs made of bamboo or reed on the shores. In one spot we saw the small bamboo punts with fishermen and their trained cormorants diving into the water and flying back to their masters to disgorge their catch. We saw only very few of these, and we saw no wild birds of any sort fishing. In fact, I only saw sardine-sized fish in the water, so I’m not sure how important this industry actually is beyond subsistence. All along the river we saw herds of water buffalo, often with several calves.

Can you imagine how much pollution those smoky motorized vessels with their people and dogs (and slop buckets), the water buffalo along the shores, and people washing (?) their clothes, added to the clean River Li?
Note that in the photo (taken in Guilin, same 1980 visit), people are rinsing soil fertilized with dung off the roots and bulbs of their produce in the Li.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Happy birthday, Mother

Had my mother not died in January of 2005 as a direct consequence of a hip and shoulder broken in a fall, she might have turned 97 today. Given that her last years were very painful ones, due mostly to severe osteoporosis and arthritis, and made more difficult by gradually diminishing hearing and other faculties, it may not be such a bad thing that her life finished when it did.

Middle age was difficult for her as well, but in other ways. Most of the years she was married to my father were unfulfilling at best, and very unpleasant at worst. But there was a period between her happy childhood in Puerto Rico, where she was raised, and the declines of old age, that I think were probably her best. The following is from my story of my own life, and reflects a recurring event of significant happiness for me as well: my regular annual Christmas trip to visit her in Puerto Rico, where she returned after divorcing my father in 1972.

"Each Christmas break we spent in Puerto Rico with Mother, who thrived there. She was teaching oral English at the University of Puerto Rico in the collegial Department of English. She easily resumed friendships with people she had known since childhood; these included Domitila (Tila) Belaval, the chair of the English department who had arranged her appointment; her friend from earliest childhood, Jean Knight Cheneaux, and Jean’s Swiss husband Georges Cheneaux (later murdered in his own back yard in front of his wife by burgling invaders); and the large Megwinoff-Mayoral clan, and their children and grandchildren, also hearkening back many, many years. She also quickly made new friends, some of whom became very close, among her fellow professors at the university. The students loved her and she regularly received teaching honors. She enjoyed her little rented apartment on Calle Ísabel la Católica in a pleasant neighborhood of single-family homes near the university called, of all things, Hyde Park (the same name as the Chicago neighborhood I have lived in since 1968). The apartment, with its private entrance, was on the ground floor of a larger house owned by a simpática widow, Raquel de la Torre. In Puerto Rico, outdoor space, which she had a little bit of inside her gate, makes life extremely sweet. It wasn’t long before one of the stray cats she fed had kittens underneath the drainage grate. One Christmas when [my former husband] and I arrived she asked us to fish the kitties out of their safe haven. I took advantage of their curiosity by irresistibly wiggling my fingers through the opening at the end. One by one they came to investigate. We grabbed them and their mama, and Mother took all but one to the shelter. The one she kept, a pretty calico, she named Misita (“little kitty”).
She’d also noticed that if she put cat food down after dark the bowls would fill with immensely fat toads that enjoyed the cheap generic canned food. Even after the stray cats were given up for adoption she continued to fill the toads’ bowl each night.
We loved sitting outside in her little patio, having a drink in the balmy evenings. She had a hanging fern that attracted the endemic Puerto Rican tree frog, the coquí. The coquí has a distinctive, very loud “bob-white” whistle at night, and anyone familiar with Puerto Rico is instantly transported there by its sound.
Mother cooked Puerto Rican food for us that we immensely enjoyed. She had always been a good cook, and we all liked the “cocina típica” with its rich garlic and sofrito flavors and delicious ingredients like pumpkin and plantain.
Mother also bought herself a little Datsun that we traveled in all around the island. Several years in a row, we crammed our three selves, luggage, lawn chairs, sheets and towels, a broom for sand control, the coffee maker, and a big cooler with Mother’s red potato salad, gorgeous boiled ham, her bottle of rum, and my bottle of J&B, and took off across the mountains to the southern coast and then west via Ponce to a cinder block cabaña in the tiny beach town on Bah
ía Boquerón. In the mid-1970’s, the area was barely developed. The government of Puerto Rico had organized the construction of the little cabañas using prison labor to provide very inexpensive recreational facilities for families. The cabins had a couple of bed rooms, one with a double bed and one with bunks; a living area, with a bare-bones kitchen consisting of a rusting refrigerator with a freezer that did at least produce some ice, cold running water, and a little gas stove. The bath had a cold-water shower and a flush toilet, so it was all very civilized. The indoor-outdoor table and chairs were picnic bench style, made of heavy lumber and not terribly comfortable, but highly serviceable. The cabins were literally steps from the warm, palm-fringed, gentle beach. We lived in our bathing suits, except when we went into town for freshly baked bread or to one of the little seafood dives (“Boquerón Seafood Rest.”) for fresh lobster dinners.
Because we were invariably there during the Christmas season we were always invited to parties, lunches, or coffees given by Mother’s oldest friends or her university colleagues. [My husband at the time] enjoyed the social life as much as Mother and I did. We drank, we ate, we sunned (and sunburned) ourselves, we went sight-seeing and shopping, and always had a lovely time.
These were, I believe, the happiest years of Mother’s entire life. She was in a place that was comfortable, beautiful, affordable on her modest salary as a respected professora, and surrounded by loving friends. Her health was good, and it looked like my future was safe and secure. These were the things Mother needed to thrive."

Sometimes one has to write things down and view them in a larger context—such as the narrative of one’s life—to understand how things fit together, and what things meant. Until I wrote about this period of my, and Mother’s, lives, I did had not seen how happy she was in those days, how things worked so well for her, and how calm and secure she felt in this interlude.