"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Harnessing "The Wind From the Sun"

Look closely at the photo below and you will see people walking around what appears to be the mother of all TV dinners. In truth, the triangular sheets are not a TV dinner. They are something better. Perhaps for the first time, but almost certainly not for the last, you are looking at a solar sail.

Photo Credit: NASA

The above solar sail measures 66 feet on a side. Click here for the full caption provided by NASA. In part it reads, "Much like the wind pushing a sailboat through water, solar sails rely on sunlight to propel vehicles through space. The sail captures constantly streaming solar particles..." To be clear, solar wind is real. And for the first time, it has been utilized in actual spaceflight. Given this is an election year, I take some wry glee in pointing out that the first country to have successfully incorporated solar sail technology into space flight is neither the U.S. nor Russia. It is Japan. They did it earlier this summer.

My first exposure to solar sails came via a delightful short story by Arthur C. Clarke: "The Wind From the Sun." My memory is patchy, but I likely found the story in a bound collection borrowed from the public library when I was in junior high school. Perhaps I read it in this volume. (The short story was originally published in Boy's Life in 1964.) Regardless, Clarke's story enchanted me then, and enchants me even more today.

What I love about "The Wind from the Sun" is its sense of scale. The protagonist, John Merton, pilots a two-square-mile solar sail in a yacht race to the Moon. He competes against international rivals and faces the threat of a devastating solar flare during the race. It's exciting fiction and holds up very well over four decades later. Plus, you don't need to be a sci-fi geek to enjoy it. You only need to know that Clarke, in 1964, imagined a technology and space culture that is now becoming reality. "The Wind From the Sun" presciently depicts a global space race and the rise of space tourism.

Still, it is a bit deflating to know that while Clarke's story is even more relevant today, most of the research is still being done on the ground. However, I am excited to say that the United States may soon join Japan in testing solar sail technology in space. We are one rocket launch away. And the organization spearheading the mission is not NASA. It is The Planetary Society, co-founded by Carl Sagan.

Like many other enthusiasts, I'm not content with the tiny portion of my tax dollars allocated for space exploration. (Trust me, the portion of your personal tax contribution to NASA is tiny.) So I regularly make tax-deductible donations to projects like LightSail. Click this next link to see a wonderful artist's depiction of the solar sail our Society is helping build. By starting small, the Planetary Society can piggyback LightSail-1 on a rocket launch by NASA or another space agency in the near future. Call it cosmic carpooling.

In the meantime, there is Clarke's wonderful story "The Wind from the Sun" to enjoy. Without giving away the ending, I'd like to share a short excerpt. It describes the poignant moment when John Merton exits his solar wind-borne craft "Diana" for the last time. By opening the air lock, he uses the release of air to nudge the sail forward.

"The thrust he gave her then was his last gift to Diana. She dwindled away from him, sail glittering splendidly in the sunlight..."

Has Merton won the race? Has he lost? Will he or his solar sail even survive? You'll have to read the story to find out. In any case, the greater real-life tale is only beginning.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Office Copier Tips (Redacted)

The office I work at purchased a new copy machine. Our company president asked me to study the manual and draft a memo of tips and tricks for using the new copier. I did so in a prompt and professional manner. Still, possessing an English Major brain, I had to censor myself and refrain from including literary embellishments.

What follows is the complete version of my memo. The redacted portions have lines through them. Since it wouldn't have been appropriate to circulate this version to the office staff, I've chosen instead to publish it on the Internet.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Dear Staff,
Here are some notes about our new copier we should all be aware of before disregarding:

I’ve pinned up some hot n’ sexy instructions for replacing toner. These include a list of Common Error Codes which we will manage to outdo by discovering a new error that no mortal has ever troubleshot before.

There is also a handout called “Getting to Know Your Machine” (lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II). This includes diagrams for basic functions (like #2):
  1. Loading new paper
  2. Removing that paper after it jams
  3. A key for the Touchy Feely Panel Display
  4. A basic Trouble Shooting Guide for basic folk like yuhnmee!
The entire set of manuals can be found on the server (if you are pure in heart). They are as follows:
  • Operating Manual (The one you will actually need).
  • Digital Imaging & Networking Manuals (You shouldn’t need these, but go ahead and ask me perplexing questions about them so I yet again fail to make it to lunch with my ego intact).
This copier has multi-tasking capability. I don’t and I’m proud of it. So if Person A sends a digital document from her desk while Person B is manually copying like the pioneers of old, the copier should finish one job and hold the other in memory until it can safely print (thus eliminating thrown staplers and supervisors emerging from their offices to ask, “Who's swearing out here?”).

Now, please use caution when blowing off some reminders about the Manual Feed Tray:

  • When using the Manual Feed Tray, do not use heavyweight paper, your face, carbon paper, your butt, or stapled paper.
  • Please smooth out creased paper to reduce copier wear and tear (or don’t. Really, who ever got fired for this).
  • Whenever copying onto cardstock, use the Bypass Tray on the right side of the copier. Yes, your right.
  • WARNING: When making face/ass copies or removing jammed paper, pay attention to warning labels about how hot the machine gets.
There are two power buttons on this machine. One is on the lower front. The other is in back and is the “Main Power Switch.” Turn off the lower front switch first. Stand up straight, rub your back, and miss being young. Then turn off the main power switch. If there is a power outage, refill your coffee before the pitcher cools and turn the copier to off until the power returns.

That’s some basic stuff. So feel stupid when you screw up anyway. Please refer to the manual as needed.



Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Hiking The Waterloo-Pinckney Trail

Let this be known as the summer I took hiking seriously. Well, okay--to appease fact checkers--let this be known as the summer I took hiking seriously in June and early July. After recently reading a handful of books on climbing Mount Everest, I resolved to embrace the outdoors. For me, the most immediate option is the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail.

This 36-mile trail meanders over glacier-crafted ridges, through thick woods and across marshy lowlands. It isn't a technically demanding trail, though it has plenty of topography. A hiker should bring plenty of water, a compass, and a reliable trail map. As the name indicates, the trail has two distinct sections. The longer of the two, at about 23 miles, is the Waterloo portion. I sought to complete this portion by hiking it in 3 to 6 mile sub-sections. (For a couch potato like me, that is ambitious.)

Above is perhaps the most tranquil spot on the W/P Trail. I took this photo from a secluded nook on the shoreline of Crooked Lake. (Note the absence of a rectangular shoreline.) In addition to cozy vistas, the trail also has its share of critters. Below is one of two turtles I encountered. He was quite shy, but I managed to grab this shot as he fled into the underbrush.

Though he looks big in this photo, don’t mistake this turtle for a tortoise. Although tortoises are technically turtles, they are much larger than the average turtle and hence more confident when dating. Now onto the ominous section of this blog post.

I felt pretty macho for continuing past the above sign. Plus, notice how the DNR mounted it so the hexagonal screw doubles as an unnecessary period. Punctuational coolness! Evident in the background is thick foliage typical of the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail. I recommend hiking it in pants, not shorts. Still, there are places where the landscape opens up and offers something approaching majesty.

Passing this marshy lowland, I closed in on my goal to complete the 23-mile Waterloo trail segment. An entourage of flies and mosquitoes urged me on like that crowd of cheering kids in the jogging montage of Rocky II. I swatted several of them (the mosquitoes).

Pictured below, Sackrider Hill is billed as the high point on the trail. I headed up Sackrider's wooded slope with that sense of anticipation one always feels when nearing a summit.

As you can see, it's a nice spot. No real view to speak of since the lookout tower is 10 feet shorter than the trees, but still a pleasant plot of ground. Reaching this low summit after a hike of maybe 40 yards from my car was a letdown. Frankly, it was so anticlimactic that I belched out a disappointed, “What the hell!” Then I learned an important hiking lesson. When emerging suddenly from tree cover—but prior to exclaiming ‘What the hell’--you should scan the clearing for couples enjoying a quiet picnic.

Completing the trail took several hikes. In addition to modest hills, there were other obstacles. Let's talk about getting your feet wet!

On my final hike, I had to wade through a flooded area (not deep, but sizable). Lacking proper footwear, I’d turned back from this obstacle on a previous trip. This time I came prepared. When I reached the flooded section I donned an old pair of Chucks. With the late morning sun rising high over my back, sloshing through the water felt great. I headed to a marker about a hundred yards up the trail and tagged it. That marked my completion of the Waterloo portion of the W/P Trail!

Here is me celebrating as I switched back into my dry footwear for a 6 mile return hike to my car. Not close to the magnitude of heroism shown by those who have climbed on Mount Everest, but still the picture of a truly happy boy. In full sincerity, the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail is a Michigan treasure. Anchored by lakes for boaters and swimmers, and with the Gerald E. Eddy Discover Center in the middle, it has provided me with many soul-feeding excursions. And I expect more to come as the cool breezes of autumn begin blowing across Lower Michigan.

More Recent Post on Hiking Waterloo-Pinckney trails:

Returning to Waterloo-Pinckney in 2011

Friday, August 6, 2010

Oh, If Understanding the Book of Mormon Were Enough

Understanding the Book of MormonUnderstanding the Book of Mormon by Grant Hardy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When it comes to scripture, I am devoutly skeptical. However, I generally appreciated Dr. Grant Hardy’s scholarly work Understanding the Book of Mormon. He reads the way I love to read. Hardy digs deep and buries himself in the text. He engages in thorough cross-referencing and rigorous comparing and contrasting.

To get the most out of Hardy’s analysis, I reread the Book of Mormon while reading his book. In particular, I found his assessments of Captain Moroni and the Book of Ether innovative. I also like how he takes both believers and non-believers to task for cherry picking passages they like and essentially dismissing the rest of the book. Still, I have serious concerns with Understanding the Book of Mormon.

Implicit in every chapter, and often explicit, is Dr. Hardy’s adoration of the Book of Mormon. This bias leaks into his textual analysis. Where the Book of Mormon exhibits literary weakness--as everyone from Moroni to Mark Twain agrees it does--Hardy backs away from his touted strategy of close textual reading. He even boasts of working from “gaps” and “omissions” in the text to beef up Nephi’s simplistic characters and one-sided storytelling.

It’s important to point out that Dr. Hardy focuses on the Book of Mormon’s narrative elements, not its theology. That is to say he primarily explores characters, events and, above all else, the narrative voices of Nephi, Mormon and Moroni. Hardy would have us believe that each narrator has a distinct voice. Certainly on a rudimentary level they do. As Hardy ably demonstrates, each narrator displays a basic awareness of his political and social surroundings.

But as Dr. Hardy points out, Mormon’s narration incorporates close to 200 “phrases he has picked up.” Hardy suggests this might be intentional use of “phrasal allusion.” The opposing argument, every bit as reasonable, is that the Book of Mormon narrators aren’t especially distinct. What is more, Hardy grudgingly admits that Moroni’s voice is even less distinctive than Mormon’s. He states that Moroni’s writing contains “…an unusually high proportion of phrases borrowed from previous Book of Mormon authors.”

Dr. Hardy seems to want it both ways. He digs deep to find textual evidence of unique voices. Yet elsewhere he confesses that “it is not always clear whether these kinds of verbal echoes are deliberate or whether Moroni is simply relying on common tropes….” Hardy buries one of his frankest confessions in the End Notes: "Latter-day Saints have long been wary of acknowledging just how much of the language of the Book of Mormon is derived from the Bible...."

Frankly, at the core of my criticism of Understanding the Book of Mormon is a suspicion. As Dr. Hardy makes clear in his Afterword, he doesn’t just want us to “understand” the Book of Mormon, he wants us to like it. Even if we don’t believe it, he wants us to hold it in high literary esteem. In short, Dr. Hardy wants learned skeptics like me to give the Book of Mormon more respect than it gives us. For the Book of Mormon narrators unmistakably promise stern eternal consequences to those who remain in unbelief.

Dr. Hardy rightly assesses the Book of Mormon as stubborn. Indeed, the Book of Mormon’s narrators demand nothing less than spiritual allegiance. So I find it foolhardy at best—and covertly evangelical at worst—that Hardy attempts to build a bridge between Lehi’s tree of spiritual fruit and that great and spacious building where worldly folk like me are said to dwell.

View all my reviews >>
UPDATE-9/20/10: My review came to the attention of the author, Dr. Grant Hardy. His response can be found at www.goodreads.com/review/show/108813190