Sunday, September 03, 2006

Pics from the Des Moines Renaissance Faire

Pat, his mom, his step-mom & I went up to the Des Moines Renaissance Faire on Saturday; it was pretty neat. They're obviously wanting to set this up as a permanent thing: there was crushed rock everywhere, laid out as paths, and permanent buildings (a plywood & brick castle, vendors' buildings, performing and "feasting" pavilions, etc) were set up. I think that the neatest part of the day was when the New Riders of the Golden Age did their joust performance; the lance-work was real (that is, real wooden lances, not faked up to shatter photogenically) and very neat, though the "storyline" was fairly predictable -- the handsome blonde knight was the chivalrous good guy and the dark-haired guy with the goatee was the bad guy of course, since everyone knows the goatee = evil equation (hear that, Nathan?). Although I have got to say that I did not expect evil Sir Matthew to stand up on his horse in full plate and do "off the top rope" onto Sir William. Here are some photos.
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Sorry I didn't get any photos of the "off the top rope" move; I was standing there, dumbfounded, camera in hand. But you can see photos of it on their website.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Skepticism

I've mentioned the James Randi Educational Foundation before. It's one of the places online at which I can hang out for hours (along with Google Earth, National Geographic, NASA, etc. I'm a geek.)

If you've read the "about me" page here, you'll know that I belong to a fairly exotic (as in "different", not as in "dancing") church called the House of Netjer. It's an attempt to reconstruct Ancient Egyptian religious practices, though of course is has, at points, taken on some current-time "flavorings" (after all, we are not Ancient Egyptians), such as extensive use of the Internet for communications, services, etc.

One of the tenets of the House of Netjer is that those who are led to the church are children of individual Names of God (or "Netjer") -- the "gods" of Ancient Egypt are not separate gods, but rather aspects of one infinite and unknowable divinity (which is Netjer). I'm a Yinepu (Anubis) kid. I go into all of this by way of explaning why I have a strong, visceral reaction to things involving dead people: I think that funeral and memorial rites are important for the living and the dead, and I think there is a sacredness about the relationship between the living and the dead that is profound.

So it drives me up the wall when people like John Edward and Sylvia Browne claim to be able to talk to dead people when what they are really doing is nothing more than cold reading, a technique in which someone throws out some very vague "feelers" and a willing participant, wanting to believe, then grabs onto those "feelers" and gives the cold reader all the additional information they need.

I know that this is a valid technique, not just because I have read, over and over, about people who do it and how it is done, but because I have done it. When I was in college, I got into Tarot reading. I was taught by some friends who believed, very deeply, that they were psychic and that this stuff worked. I did Tarot reading and generally was regarded as being extremely accurate. But the first thing I noticed was that someone would come to the table with a specific question, and we'd almost always end up talking about something else with stunning precision.

Initially I said that the Tarot/God/whatever answers what's most pressing in a person's life, not necessarily the question they thought was most pressing. Then I thought about it some more. I realized that what was going on was that the Tarot cards present a set of architypal characters and situations that apply to everyone's life in some form. So I'd tell people that. I'd even tell them that I was going to give them some very vague information and it was up to them to fit it into something applicable to them. I didn't know what "cold reading" was, but I knew I was doing it, and I told people I was doing it, and still they loved it.

I don't do Tarot readings any more, but I don't slam people for it either, as long as they don't claim they're psychic. There's nothing psychic about it, and taken as a tool for exploring one's own beliefs, thoughts, or as an aid to thinking something through, I think it's good (as long as one is actually thinking, of course). It's useful because it might help a person do some intuitive pattern finding.

Human beings are innately "pattern-seeky". I use "pattern-seeky" after Neal Stephenson, who in his book Cryptonomicon has one character describing another as "morphine seeky". He says that he prefers this term to "addict" because it is not a label; "seeky", an adjective, is better because it describes a tendency.

Pattern-seekiness is a tremendously useful ability: for example, babies who can recognize a smile, or people who can (say) recognize developing weather, are more likely to survive. It is something that humans do so incredibly well. Hell, as Scott McCloud points out in "Understanding Comics", we can recognize a face in practically any shape as long as there's a "dot" somewhere (i.e., the eye). So we are particularly primed to be able to look at, say, Tarot readings or other forms of cold reading and pull meaning out of it. We do it instinctively, probably better than any form of life on the planet. But it also makes us vulnerable.

And that is what drives me up the proverbial pyramid about "mediums", those folks who claim to speak to the dead. I think that Penn & Teller put it best when they talked about how people who are cold reading are effectively replacing real, important memories of departed loved ones with (usually) saccharine pablum. It doesn't matter if it makes the victim feel better (a common justification); it's not true and it is an insult to the memory of the departed person, which to me is sacred in all its entirety, the good and the bad.

Penn gets really upset about it, and says some bad words. I agree wholeheartedly. So do a lot of people at the James Randi Educational Forum, including an excellent man named Robert S. Lancaster. Driven by concern over someone with extraordinary claims who'd come to his mother's church, he did some research about "Dr. Kaz", who among other things claimed to have been trapped in the WTC during 9/11 and to have been "miraculously saved. It turns out that she's a globe-trotting charlatain. It's a fascinating read.

Now Rob has turned his eye towards Sylvia Browne. I can't wait to see what he puts together. I can't wait to see this because as as angry as I am about those who give people sickly-sweet touchy-feely "messages" from their departed, though, I'm absolutely lividly furious about people who claim to be able to find missing persons through their "psychic abilities". Sylvia Browne is one of those evil creatures, and you can read the experience of several families with her and other "psychics" by checking out Project Jason: Sylvia and Friends, Part I.

Okay, you might ask: as a so-called "daughter" of one of the Names of Netjer with a very powerful connection to the dead and as a member of a church which claims communication with the dead through ritual and prayer, how can you point the finger at people like this and denounce them?

Well, how about this: 1) I don't say that I know for sure that whom I'm talking to is actually a dead person. I'm completely open to the point of view that it might be one of my own interior voices. So 2) I would never, ever, claim to speak to someone else's dead person or give someone advice/comfort/whatever on that basis. Not unless some dead person actually said something completely specific to me. It wouldn't be me talking about my own vague "senses" or "impressions". It would have to be something like "Uncle Dave just knocked me on the back of the head and told me about your episode with the dryer lint in late 1988. He wants me to tell you that the photograph he took of that is in the white envelope taped to the underside of the left-hand drawer of his antique roll-top desk and that he wants you to have it. He also wants me to tell you that he's dismayed about your forays into Amway, and..."

I also won't believe people who claim that they're psychic, at least those who follow along the current lines of what psychics typically do. I'll tell you why: because I have a good imagination, and I can imagine what it would be like to be truly psychic.

If I were telepathic, and if I could somehow maintain an excellent "self-boundary" and not go mad by having other people's thoughts and experiences inside my head, I would not be charging $700 for a phone call reading helping them feel self-fulfillment and filling them with hope that they'll finally find The True Love of Their Life. I'd be showing up in court and looking at the murderers on the bench who think they're going to get away with pleading insanity and telling, in graphic and brutal detail, exactly what they did, why they did it, what they were thinking at the time, in such detail that their blood supply would rush to their feet and they'll confess in full just to get away from me before I say anything more. God help the Janjaweed in Darfur if I were telekenetic in any kind of strength: I'd be a mass murderer.

So although most of the people in my church are extremely open to the idea of psychicness, and although I have an open mind (I really do), I will view any claims with extreme skepticism until I see people doing what I'd do. And until then, I will continue to be infuriated by people who make large amounts of money by telling people that Mommy Says It's Okay; She's In Heaven Now.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Huh.

According to this AP article posted on Yahoo, a law that sought to ban the sale of violent video games to minors in Louisiana was just struck down.
U.S. District Judge James Brady said the state had no right to bar distribution of materials simply because they show violent behavior. Brady issued an injunction, calling the law an "invasion of First Amendment rights" of producers, retailers and the minors who play the games.

"Depictions of violence are entitled to full constitutional protection," Brady wrote Thursday.

...

Gov. Kathleen Blanco said in a statement late Friday she believes violent video games harm children.

"I'm calling on all parents to diligently monitor the video games that their children are allowed to play. If the courts can not protect our children, then we need to do it by rejecting the merchant of violence," the statement said.


Ummm...aren't parents supposed to be doing this anyway? I'm really really tired of the "but we're doing it for the children!" argument. Maybe I'm old. Or maybe that's just a straw man that's been in use for entirely too long.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

In Your Face, Western World!

This article on Yahoo describes an art exhibit in Iran with Holocaust cartoons. Yup, Holocaust cartoons. You may remember that the head of Iran has called the Holocaust "a myth".
"This is a test of the boundaries of free speech espoused by Western countries," said Masoud Shojai-Tabatabai, head of the Cartoon House which helped organize the exhibition, as he stood next to the Statue of Liberty drawing [a picture of the Statue of Liberty with a Holocaust book giving the Nazi salute].

Iran's best-selling newspaper Hamshahri in February launched a competition to find the best cartoon about the Holocaust in retaliation for the September publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad in Danish and other European newspapers.

Uh-huh. It's exactly the same. Look at all the riots we're having. Isn't it just amazing?

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Born With a Pen in Her Hand

Ann Alaia Woods, World Handwriting Contest WINNAH!Yup, that's MY MOM right there, featured in a Columbus Dispatch article about her recent total SWEEP of the World Handwriting Contest.
"She was the best we saw," said Kate Gladstone, the director of the New York-based advocacy group Handwriting for Humanity. "She knows it as if she were born with a pen in her hand.

"Given what I know of Ann, if I could pick but one individual to write handwriting books for teaching the world, it would be her."

This makes it two times in a row, which comes as absolutely no surprise to Dad or myself, but we're very proud. Way to go, Mom!

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Community Theatre: Don't Ask, Don't Tell

I found the article about this on Yahoo! News, written by AP correspondent Duncan Mansfield. What I should was particularly interesting was this paragraph (emphasis mine):
On Dec. 2, investigators formally interviewed Copas and asked if he understood the military's policy on homosexuals, if he had any close acquaintances who were gay, and if he was involved in community theater. He answered affirmatively.
Ummmm...what? Is the military seriously using involvement in theatre as an "indicator" of homosexuality?

I'm the daughter of the director of the Lawrence & Lee Theatre Research Institute. I like to act and have considered, several times, getting involved in local theatre (on shore duty, of course). I find it ridiculous to think that this might be a threat to my military career.

I wrote AP's feedback about it, asking them to clarify please and follow up! but I doubt I'll get a useful answer. I'll post any response I get here.


Edited 03AUG06: My message bounced: "Router: Failed to connect to SMTP host ROAM.AP.ORG because : Server not responding" I wonder if their server is in LA or some other heat-affected region. I'll try again.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Why does this webpage look weird?

Apologies, all, for the lack of graphics and, well, more-than-basic functionality. My homepage's server, provided by StartLogic, is down due to the recurring power outages in LA, which in turn are due to the heat.

Frankly, I don't really care about my server; they can keep it off 'til it's safe. What's really important is that a lot of people are placed in danger when the air-conditioning goes off and it's that hot. When the graphics come back, please be happy, because it means that a lot of people who would otherwise be in mortal peril probably aren't anymore.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

When Real Horror Gets Cute

Brad makes a good point in a comment he made on my post on pirates.
There are many stories and archetypes in our culture- even the culture that we realy to our kids- that are based on real, truly horrifying, events past.

Thinking about it, I've found it weird that there's some sort of cultural "Statute of Limitations" on these events that allows them to turn from horrifying tales of woe into gripping yarns.

I think that's a really interesting point, and I have to agree: after all, this guy was a real horror; I mean, there's still a lot of debate on the scope of his executions, but I would not call this guy someone like whom I'd like to dress at a party. Then you've got this young lass -- another cute costume, but the Vikings were a source of real terror. A major development in shipbuilding technology, the "castle" (as in fore- and sterncastles) was developed in the 11th and 12th Centuries to let archers shoot down into longboats -- in otherwords, to develop a sea-going fort. This wasn't done because the Vikings were handing out sexy party favors.

So how long is the "Statue of Limitations", and what/who does it cover? Fifty years haven't cleared the way for this kind of costume (thank the gods) and I wonder if any amount of time will. Haven't seen a "Pol Pot" costume either (and I hope we don't).

Most of the recent examples of Really Bad People who show up in costumes and such (at least in the US) are 30's Gansters and Gangsters' Girls (and people like Bonny and Clyde), as well as the Cowboys and Indians of whom Brad spoke. In many cases, I think that's an example of America's love for those who "rebel" against authority; but gosh, I wish less murderers were celebrated. Where are the Sojourner Truth costumes? The Martin Luther King Jr. costumes? The Gandhi costumes? Well, of course, those people are boring because they never killed people, right? Does it maybe have to do with some perverse admiration for people who are so powerful, so unbound by the laws that constrain normal folks like you and me, and who violate this (for most civilized folk) terrible taboo of actually taking another person's life? I mean, we're happy that they're brought to justice, but isn't there some awful little thrill when we add up the kill count in hushed and reverent tones, and seem (dare I say) a little disappointed if the number isn't high? It's not really a very pleasant thing to contemplate.

I wanted to make a special note about reenactors, whom I think are in a different class. I think that most people who reenact can't be doing it just because they think it's "cool". Anyone who runs around tick-infested fields in whole-body-covering wool costumes for days (and for battles like Gettysburg, in mid-summer) is not doing it just because it's "cool". And although (drat!) I didn't get to see it, I think there's a real value in having people see a reenactment, especially if one could actually get an accurate number of reenactors to show up. Can you imagine the impact of seeing (and hearing) tens of thousands of dead bodies and screaming wounded on a field? All you'd need is to come up with a "reenactment scent" and the horror would be fresh for a new generation. Would the smell cut down the "secret thrill" at the number of dead?

That's what we need to counter TV and movie violence: accurate smells. That'll shut that stuff down quick.


ETA: Okay, so maybe the statue of limitations against Nazi "cuteness" has passed after all...

Monday, July 17, 2006

Pirates

Just went to see "Pirates of the Caribbean - Dead Man's Chest" last week; it was great fun. Yesterday, we went to the Mariners' Museum in Newport News and, of course (like practically every museum around here) there was an exhibit about pirates. It was aimed towards kids, mostly, and very cute, but one very cool part of it (and unfortunately rather small) talked about modern day pirates. There was a framed display of current models of radios and an AK-47 as an example of the pirate's modern sword. There was also a computer screen set up to display the International Chamber of Commerce's Weekly Piracy Report. It's a fascinating glimpse (via rather dry reports, I'm afraid) into current examples of piracy, which are anything but the romantic yarns spun by popular culture.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Math

When I was in college (too many years ago to mention), I ran across an excellent book: Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern, by Douglas R. Hofstadter. It's a collection of essays Dr. Hofstadter, a (or rather, as I think of him, the) Professor of Cognitive Science and Computer Science, wrote for the magazine Scientific American. This book should be a part of everyone's library; it is a fascinating collection of explorations into the way humans think, what creativity is, and the magic of music and math (yes, I did just say "the magic of...math"). Of the many articles that grabbed me, one of them is titled "On Number Numbness". In it, Dr. Hofstadter talks about very large (and very small) numbers, and how difficult it is for people to conceptualize them. In his discussion of trying to comprehend large numbers, he refers to a conceptual practice called chunking, in which you create a unit of something easy to comprehend, then describe very large numbers in terms of numbers of that unit. For example, while discussing the fact that at the time of his writing (he wrote the book during the Cold War), there were enough nuclear weapons in the world to equate to 25,000 megatons of TNT. That's another way of saying 25,000,000 tons (or 50,000,000,000 pounds). He pointed out that one ton (just 2,000 pounds!) was estimated to have been the amount that brought down the Marine barracks in Beirut (241 people killed), and so further estimated that ten tons, well-placed, could be expected to kill about 2,400 people.
Last summer when I visited Paris and climbed the butte of Montmartre, from the top of which, at the food of the Sacré Coeur, one has a beautiful view of all of Paris spread out below. I couldn't refrain from ruining my two friends' enjoyment of this splendid panorama by saying "Hmm... I bet one or two nicely placed megatons would take care of all of this."
He then points out: "Now if you just say to yourself 'one megaton equals Paris's doom' (or some suitable equivalent), then I think that the phrase '25,000 megatons' will become as vivid as the long string of zeros--in fact, probably more vivid."

This got me thinking. At the time I read his article, our deficit was 1 trillion dollars. I knew that that was a lot, but how much was it really? I broke it down and it turned out that you could buy a very nice $4,100 laptop for every man, woman and child in the United States (at that time, the population was 243 or so million people). Today, our population is just short of 300 million, but the prices have come down, so that a trillion dollars could roughly pick you up something like one of these $3,500 babies for everyone in the US.

I bring up all of this business about number numbness because last weekend was the 143rd anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. My husband and I went up there (by way of Manassas, stopping by Antietam on the way back home) and spent the weekend walking around. The big reenactment was, alas, postponed until this upcoming weekend, but we still got to see some reenactors and, of course, nothing beats just being able to explore. This is the second time I've been there (I first went there with friends James and Nathan) and the first time for my husband, Pat. A couple of things got me: one was the fact that many monuments (and, in fact, the Lincoln's Gettysburg Address) say things like "the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here", and it's depressing to think that most Americans are aware of the Gettysburg address but a staggeringly large number can't even tell you in which century the Civil War occured, much less what happened. The other was the sheer scale of the war's effect on the population, especially in the number of people who died. The most common rough number I can find from various sources is around 620,000 deaths (from the low end of about 360,000 to the high end of 1 million). The park ranger at Antietam said that 2% of the total population (about 34.3 million people) died in the Civil War. That's a pretty big number. What does it really mean?

The Ohio section of Gettysburg National Cemetary:
Thank You, Sweet Buckeyes
Thank You, Sweet Buckeyes
I'm a big believer in walking the ground. Pat and I walked Pickett's Charge (something I'd done with James & Nathan) in order to get a real feeling for the distance. It doesn't seem far until you walk it and imagine being shot up by cannon the whole totally-no-cover-anywhere way. In the same way, I think that if you're going to think about large numbers that have to do with profoundly emotional events, you should relate them to profoundly emotional events you have personally experienced. September 11th was pretty emotional for me, so I decided to figure out the Civil War in units of "September 11" -- about 3,000 people dead, an almost too-large number by itself, but one I can still (horrifyingly) grasp.

First, I think the key number about the Civil War is this: 2% of the population. If we lost 2% of our population (300 million), how many would that be? That'd be 6 million people. How many September 11ths would we have to have to lose 6 million people? Let's see: 6x106 divided by 3x103 = 2x103. That's 2,000. There are 365 days in a year (ignoring the occassional leap year, since we're estimating). Two thousand divided by 365 is about 5.5. In other words, 9/11 would have to happen every day for five and a half years in order to lose an equivalent of the population today as was lost during the Civil War. That's mind-boggling by itself. Can you imagine what that would be like? Over the three days of Gettysburg, about 50,000 people were lost, which was about .15% of the total population at that time. Today's equivalent: 450,000 people. That's one-hundred fifty 9/11's. And at Antietam, a one-day battle, about 23,000 people were lost (.07% of the population). Today's equivalent: about 210,000--seventy 9/11's in one day. So far in the Iraq war, about 2,500 soldiers have been killed. When Sedgwick's division barrelled into the West Woods near Antietam Creek to attack the retreating Confederates, he found himself enveloped on three sides and lost almost that whole number in ten minutes.

I don't say all of this to make light of the number of people who died in 9/11, or of the number of soldiers killed in Iraq. Instead, I mean to really understand, on this anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, what the scope of the Civil War was by relating it to something that has affected me personally and deeply. Even when chunking those numbers down, they are still incredible. This was one of the heavier prices of union, without which the US would not be where (or how) it is today, and it is something that should take some deep thought. For all of its faults (and there are always many), I think that the US is unique in the history of the world; I am glad to be here, and very mindful of the freedoms that I both enjoy and defend. Walking that ground had a profound effect on me. But the math did even more.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Girls as Superheroes

James wrote an article a couple of days ago about superheroes -- specifically, which one he'd choose to be. He says:
In this post I explored how power fantasies are different for boys and girls. Girls, I said, dream of being The Princess while boys imagine themselves to be a superhero of some kind.
Not true for me -- I'd always dreamed of being a superhero, and never dreamed of being a Princess.

Star -- CrimefighterNeither, apparently, did Aubrey Matthews. The Idaho Statesman has a report about Aubrey's "Wish" as a grantee of the Make-a-Wish Foundation: she wanted to be a superhero for a day.

"We have four categories of wishes, and 'I Wish to Be' is the most rare," Executive Director Marcia Karakas said.

This is the first time in at least 10 years that a "Be" wish has been received in the Idaho office, which serves the state's lower 35 counties

Aubrey designed her own costume ("Star") and the costumes of fellow crimefighters, including "Lion Lady", "House Lifter", "Sky Girl", and others. She received her kick-off call from none other than Adam West and was off on the hunt after nefarious supervillian "Black" (the figure from Neighborhood Watch signs), who'd stolen the "Golden Star" from the Idaho Historical Museum. The crime had been pinned on ferrets at the zoo, but Star knew better. On the way to catching her man, she rescued citizens from a "smoking" building and saved someone from drowning in the ParkCenter Pond. What is absolutely mind-boggling cool about this whole thing -- beyond the fact that she imagined all of this and did all of the designs, was the sheer SCALE of the whole project:
Wish partner Windermere Real Estate had 100 percent participation from its 150 employees at two Boise offices.

Aubrey's wish blossomed to include the Idaho Historical Museum, Boise State University, Saint Alphonsus Life Flight, Fairly Reliable Bob's, Gowen Field Fire and Rescue, Zoo Boise, the mayor's office, and the city's police, fire and parks departments.

I'm thinking that I really, really like Boise now. EXCELSIOR!

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Oh, Canada!

Excellent post by James over at the Chicago Boyz blog, about the recent arrest of 17 suspected terrorists in Canada. These guys had amassed 3 tons of ammonium nitrate; according to a Toronto Star article quoted by James:
"If I can put this in context for you," [said RCMP assistant commissioner Mike McDonell.] "The 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people was completed with only one tonne of ammonium nitrate."
Check it out.

Not just for Cheese Anymore

I remember James telling me about an television ad created by the National Cheese Council (we're very big on food product councils here in the US). It showed a picture of the moon, and said something like: "in 1969, man went to the moon and discovered it was not made of cheese." [pause] "We haven't been back since." I remember seeing it. It depressed James, he said -- he remembered, as a kid, watching the first moon landing and keeping fascinated track of the landings until they ended in 1972, and like many people wishes he could go up there. Like many people, too, I think he was hoping that by this year, there'd be commercial flights to the moon, and it's depressing to think that we haven't even been able to go up there vicariously through someone else, since no one's gone.

Well, check out this news item from Yahoo News:
NASA's outlook for the future calls for humans to dig in their heels on the Moon as early as 2015 and no later than 2020.
Proposed NASA SpaceshipYes! The article talks about a lot of new technology that will have to be developed. One of the things that has always blown my mind is the level of tech we had when we went there in the first place - someone told me that the computers were the equivalent of a TRS-80. My Dad had one of those in the office. He decided not to spend the extra expense for the floppy-disk drive and had a tape (as in, "cassette") drive. To save data, you had to press "play" and "record" at the same time. Yes. Really. I remember the scenes in "Apollo 13", where the scientists on the ground are furiously working their slide rules in order to recalculate information for the astronauts in trouble up in space. Slide rules. And it worked.

Bob Park, a scientist who writes a really good (and very scathing) weekly summary of science-related news, doesn't like the idea of manned missions to Mars and I gather he probably won't like this one either. He does have a point in that it's far more cost-effective, and safer, to send robots. But I still think there should be people going, as much as that adds to the already incredible expense: 1) because I think that we should, as a species, leave the solar system and explore (I'm a hopeless Star Trek fan) and 2) because often there's a great benefit by having a human there. We're capable of an intuitive type of inspiration that I think could make for some amazing discoveries if not limited by the narrow field-of-view and range of a robot. We just need to go there and look around. Perhaps I'm hopeless.

I think we'll make it there in about 2022, adjusting for the usual governmental bloat & delay. If we were in a race with another country, we could do it in 2015. (Hello, China, wanna race?)

Anyway: to you folks, of whatever nationality, who'll spring off of the ISS and go to the moon: excelsior!

Monday, May 29, 2006

Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day in the US. I wanted to take the time to write a little about a memorial I attended last Friday.

I'm in a new Navy school now and the schoolhouse is part of the Navy's "Submarine Learning Facility". So we, as students, were required to go to a WWII submarine memorial ceremony. There was much whining and moaning about it. But not from me.

There were a lot of veterans there. I sat next to a very nice retired gentleman who was posted in the USS Skate, being honored that day by being inducted into the Norfolk Submarine Hall of Fame. The Skate was the first US nuclear submarine powered by what was going to be the "submarine fleet reactor" and, like all SSNs during the Cold War era, did some really scary things. She was the first US submarine to actually come up through the ice in the Arctic, both in the summer and the winter. The guest speaker was an engineering officer aboard her and told us some good stories about those days.

But the part of the ceremony that I'll always remember was the roll call. It's a tradition of the US Submarine Veterans of WWII to have a roll call of all of the submarines lost in WWII (and the Thresher and Scorpion) read out. Two active duty submariners read the roll: one said the name, and the other read out its disposition. "All hands lost." "All hands lost." "All hands lost." Over and over and over. With each disposition, another sailor rang a bell, and two of the wives of the veterans took a model submarine out of an array of them displayed on a table, until there were no more.

Click on any of the links below to see a picture of the ship and to read more info.


USS SEA LION (SS-195)USS S-36 (SS141)
USS S-26 (SS131)USS SHARK I (SS-174)
USS PERCH (SS-176)USS S-27 (SS132)
USS GRUNION (SS-216)USS S-39 (SS-144)
USS ARGONAUT(SS-166)USS AMBERJACK (SS-219)
USS GRAMPUS (SS-207)USS TRITON (SS-201)
USS PICKEREL (SS-177)USS GRENADIER (SS-210)
USS RUNNER (SS-275)USS R-12 (SS-89)
USS POMPANO (SS-181)USS GRAYLING (SS-209)
USS CISCO (SS-290)USS S-44 (SS-155)
USS WAHOO (SS-238)USS DORADO (SS-248)
USS CORVINA (SS-226)USS SCULPIN (SS-191)
USS CAPELIN (SS-289)USS SCORPION (SS-278)
USS GRAYBACK (SS-208)USS TROUT (SS-202)
USS TULLIBEE (SS-284)USS GUDGEON (SS-211)
USS HERRING (SS-233)USS GOLET (SS-361)
USS S-28 (SS-133)USS ROBALO (SS-273)
USS FLIER (SS-250)USS HARDER (SS-257)
USS SEAWOLF (SS-197)USS ESCOLAR (SS-294)
USS DARTER (SS-227)USS SHARK II (SS-314)
USS TANG (SS-306)USS ALBACORE (SS-218)
USS GROWLER (SS-215)USS SCAMP (SS-277)
USS SWORDFISH (SS-193)USS BARBEL (SS-316)
USS KETE (SS-369)USS TRIGGER (SS-237)
USS SNOOK (SS-279)USS LAGARTO (SS-371)
USS BONEFISH (SS-223)USS BULLHEAD (SS332)


You can also read about the USS Thresher or the USS Scorpion; I highly recommend John P. Craven's "The Silent War: The Cold War Battle Beneath the Sea ", which has a riveting account of the attempt to find the Scorpion and determine what had happened to her.

But I digress. The most profound moment came after this roll, when the speakers started talking about rememberance. It was very important to them, urgent even.

It suddenly struck me: what if there's no afterlife? I mean, it's all a matter of faith, isn't it? There's no proof, just (at best) anecdotes. What if, when you die, you just die, and there's nothing more? And the memorial became all that more deep and critical: all those men, "on eternal patrol", and all the other ones who made it back and passed away after -- this memorial was their eternity.

So if you get roped into going to one of these things, don't grumble or moan. Listen. Pay attention. Understand the stories being told. If any name is said, whisper it back. Like it says on the veterans' website: "a man is not dead until he is forgotten."