Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Breaking Back Into Bloomington

I think it's annoying that when I tell people around here that I'm going to Bloomington, I have to add "Indiana."

Around these parts when someone says, "Bloomington," they're usually referring to the lame one-- the one in central Illinois that is the home of State Farm Insurance and Beer Nuts.

But where I come from-- and for people who live a scant 45 miles east of here-- Bloomington has a way cooler meaning: the small college town in southern Indiana where the main campus of Indiana University lives.

For six years in the 1990's I called Bloomington home.  I earned two degrees there, worked four different jobs, met dozens of people and collected a lifetime of stories.  I learned, grew, and changed.       


So on a recent nostalgia trip to Bloomington, my girlfriend (and traveling companion) asked me, "Have you ever seen Breaking Away?"

Have I ever seen Breaking Away?!  I'm from Indiana!  I could recite that movie!

 ("Oh, Fellini, get off the table!"  "That's my cat and I named him Jake!  Your name's Jake, not Fellini!  I won't have any eeny in this house!!")

I then decided that we absolutely had to watch the movie while we were there.  Not only was Breaking Away about Bloomington (and won the 1979 Oscar for Best Screenplay), it was filmed entirely in Bloomington, so watching it is a nice time capsule of what the town and university looked like in the late 70's. (If you're not familiar with it, read Roger Ebert's review from 1979:

But the first challenge was to see if we could find a copy of the movie on a Saturday night on Kirkwood Avenue (Bloomington's main drag.) 

View down Kirkwood from the main gates of campus
We stopped at the Tracks record store, where I used to go to all the time to buy cassette tapes, but today mostly sells IU t-shirts and paraphernalia.

They had a bunch of used DVD's in bins outside, but after rifling through them, we couldn't find the movie. I went inside and asked the college kid behind the counter, "Would you be able to tell me if you have a specific DVD?"

"Oh, not really, but what is the title? Maybe I remember seeing it."

I said Breaking Away, and he pointed to the counter in front of me.  A dozen new copies of the movie sat wrapped in cellophane before me.  Duh!  Of course-- this is Bloomington! 

Thirty-four years after it was filmed here, not only could you find new copies it, but they also sold replicas of the white Cutters t-shirts from the movie.

As my gf pointed out, that t-shirt would have a totally different connotation for kids these days.

Watching Breaking Away at our hotel in Bloomington was a nostalgia spiral.  Here I was watching a movie about Bloomington that captured the time before I moved there, seeing places I remember from my own college days, and places I would be walking past the next day.

The movie holds up well.  It does a great job of illustrating sociological issues (i.e. "town vs. gown") through individual perspectives.  As Roger Ebert says, it is "a wonderfully sunny, funny, goofy, intelligent movie that makes you feel about as good as any movie in a long time."  But as an older adult I did notice some plot holes I hadn't seen before.  Like how some random nonathletic kid who wins a new racing bike could suddenly become so successful at bike racing, or why he needs to tape himself to the bike in the last race.  It also struck me that this is basically a xenophobic movie-- all the villains are outsiders: the college kids, the Italian bicyclists, etc.

But these are quibbles.  On the whole, it's still a great movie.  And just like I said in college 20 years ago, if you haven't seen it, you HAVE TO!!


If you were to ask my girlfriend (and traveling companion) about her impressions of Bloomington, she would probably say, "95 degrees, limestone, 95 degrees, some more limestone buildings, and 95 degrees."  They were having a heat wave when we visited, and indeed, there are a lot of limestone buildings.

Indiana limestone is not only ubiquitous and pretty-- it is famous.  It's what the Empire State Building is made of.
True fact: this was built with limestone near Bloomington

That's the problem with taking someone on your own nostalgia trip.  Where I see memories at every turn, she just sees pretty buildings and a scenic campus.  This is where I lived!  This is where I took a class! This is where I walked!  And here's the scenic campus from a different angle! And here's the place where I had lunch!  

When we got to Showalter Fountain, I had to tell the story of a hot summer night, one of those nights when it was humid and 95 degrees at midnight, so my roommates and I decided to go play in the fountain.  We walked all the way across campus at midnight and jumped in the fountain to cool off. When we got there, there were other groups of students also enjoying the fountain that night.  It was an impromptu party.

Showalter Fountain: we partied with the naked fish lady

That seems like the epitome of a college story.  The kind of thing you did before you have jobs and homes and children.

Maybe that's why everyone has a special place in their heart for their college town.  It was the first (possibly only) time in your life you jumped in a fountain at midnight.    

Friday, May 25, 2012

Puzzling Skyline

I believe my skyline obsession has hit its peak, or rather its top floor.

Probably because there's a model of the Chicago skyline sitting on my kitchen table, and I can't imagine geeking out any more than that.

Getting to that point took quite a bit of work and dedication.

At a tourist shop on Michigan Avenue, I bought a "4D Cityscape Time Puzzle" for Chicago.  I'd been seeing these around for some time, and after much pining, I finally bought myself one.

The "4D" refers to the fact that the puzzle is three-dimensional-- it includes little model 3-D buildings-- plus the fourth dimension, time.  You can build up your skyline based on what year each famous building was erected.

So here's a 4D rendering of my puzzle:

The first step was doing a regular two-dimensional puzzle of a map of downtown Chicago.  This phase took the most work.  The puzzle itself is pretty crappy-- the pieces are all kinda generic so it often looks like there's a fit when there isn't.   Especially the water pieces that were solid blue, it was sometimes impossible to tell whether a piece was in the right spot.

The next step was putting together a second, thicker layer of foam pieces onto the part where the buildings would go.  Then I had to punch out all the little holes where the buildings would fit snugly into place.

Then I had to go through each of the buildings-- there were 89 of them-- and figure out where they go on the map, based on numbers assigned to each one.


 Here are the first 10 buildings, the oldest ones. 

From there, I just kept adding buildings chronologically...

Until I got to the final product, the current skyline:

One interesting thing about this puzzle is that is also includes future buildings: things that are planned but not built (or finished) yet.

In this case, something called the Chicago Spire is included.  This is a massive spiraling tower at the mouth of the Chicago river that was planned, but has since been scrapped.  You can see how ridiculously huge it is here.

Although it would have dominated the Chicago skyline, it was never supposed to be THAT huge in relation to the rest of the buildings.  Which brings up two important limitations of this 4D Cityscape.

Not all the buildings are to scale.  The Willis Tower (nee Sears) should be way taller than it is.  This is a travesty.  How hard is it to make the tallest building in the city-- the tallest building in the whole fucking country!-- the right proportions?! Same thing for the Hancock Tower.  A lot of the buildings are the wrong size.  Some are way huger than they should be, and some are way tinier.  I don't get it, and it's a real disappointment.  Also, the map is a little off.  It's an approximation, so many of the buildings are not in the right place.

 The other issue is color.  On the box, they have prominent buildings like Sears and Hancock in their trademark black, but in reality all the pieces are one of two colors: gray or bronze.

It makes for a rather dreary skyline (despite the morning sunshine.)
The cat that ate Chicago!
So to dork out to the highest degree, I bought some model paint and touched up the skyline.  I used black, white, sand, blue gray, dark green, and rust to add some color to a handful of buildings. Not all of the colors took very well to the gray base, but it definitely improves the overall feel:

The three future buildings. I decided not to add those until they're actually built-- if I'm still into skylines by then.

Friday, May 18, 2012

"Death" to Pluto

When I was a kid in school I learned about the nine planets in the solar system.  They didn't make much of an impact on me, so as an adult I couldn't tell you much about them.  I knew Venus and Mercury were closer to the sun, Mars was our neighbor who kept invading, Jupiter was the big one, Saturn was the one with rings, and Uranus was a gold mine of juvenile jokes.  (Q: How is the Starship Enterprise like toilet paper?  A: They both fly around Uranus and pick up Klingons.)    

Pluto wasn't really on my radar.  It was just one of the planets.  I didn't pay attention to the fact it was the smallest, or the most distant, or the "newest" (in terms of our discovery of it), or the only one discovered by an American. 
So when I heard in the news a few years back that Pluto was no longer a planet, it didn't much bother me.  Oh, isn't that interesting, I thought.  They found things bigger than Pluto out beyond it, so they either had to include those new objects as new planets or demote Pluto.  That's only fair.  Scientific progress and all.  When my mom was born there were only 48 states.  Now there are 50.  Things change.

But people were really, really upset when the astronomers in the International Astronomical Union (IAU) voted to demote Pluto to the status of a "dwarf planet."  They didn't understand how scientists could just "kill" Pluto like that.  Who gave them that power?

 Science isn't about emotion or tradition or protecting those cherished memories from your school days.  It's about cold hard facts, and changing those facts based on new evidence.  But people really don't seem to like that aspect of science.

Seriously?  A protest for the classification of a celestial object?  It's not like baby asteroids are being clubbed to death.


I was reminded of the whole Pluto controversy by an awesome book I just read, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown.

Brown is the astronomer who discovered Eris, the planet-like thing out beyond Pluto that was larger than our ninth planet.  He also discovered a lot of other objects about the same size.  It was these discoveries that led to Pluto's "death" as a planet.  As the blurb on the book jacket says:

Mike Brown is the funniest, smartest, and most surprisingly poetic Caltech astronomer who ever made my daughters cry.  Certainly their happy nine-planet childhoods were worth sacrificing for this truly fascinating and engaging read.

I couldn't agree more, although it stuns me that someone would actually cry over Pluto's fate.  Although the book is funny and liberally uses the metaphor of Pluto dying or being killed, Pluto is no more dead or alive than it ever was.  It was just re-classified based on new data.  No one "killed" it.

The book is indeed a fascinating read.  It mixes discussions of planets and our solar system (I should have been an astronomer!) with Brown's own life-- the sweet courtship of his wife, the amazing birth of their daughter, and the professional triumphs and setbacks that accompanied his planetary research.  He tells a good story.  There's even controversy and intrigue and-- get this-- an evil astronomer nemesis from Spain who tries to steal credit for Brown's discoveries! 

The idea that there's an evil astronomer is as funny as the idea that there are evil cartographers or meteorologists.
 The book is the perfect mix of science, human experience, and controversy.


Brown spends a lot of time in the book trying to define what a planet is.  Most of us probably couldn't give a precise definition of a planet.  At the end of the book Brown says that planets are a concept, not a definition:  "when people say 'planet,' they mean, I believe, 'one of a small number of large important things in our solar system.' "

In the early 19th century, a few new planets were discovered between Mars and Jupiter.  For a while the solar system had 12 planets.  But when 15 more of these planet-like objects were found in rapid succession, astronomers realized they couldn't all be planets.  It turned out that scientists had simply discovered an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.  (This must be why Martians always attack Earth instead of Jupiter-- no asteroid belt to get in the way.)

So after they sorted out the whole asteroid belt thing, scientific progress required that they re-classify the solar system based on new knowledge.  The same thing has happened with Pluto.  When we thought Pluto was just a lone object at the edge of our solar system, perhaps it made sense to think of it as the ninth planet.  But now that we know there are a lot of Pluto-like objects out beyond it, that it is merely a part of a larger belt of objects (known as the Kuiper Belt) on the rim of the solar system, it makes sense to re-classify it.

As Brown says, "Going from nine planets to eight planets would be scientific progress."

As kids learning about the solar system, we like to have simple facts.  The Earth is the third planet from the sun.  The sun is 93,000,000 miles away.  There are nine planets in the solar system.  But after reading this book I realize it's much more complicated than that.  The solar system, as we now understand it, is broken down into terrestrial planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars), the asteroid belt, giant planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, Uranus), and the Kuiper Belt (Pluto, Eris, and dozens other "dwarf planets.")              

Ironically, Brown had as much to lose as anyone by "killing" Pluto.  Since he was the one who had discovered the "tenth planet," he could have received much fame and notoriety for that honor.  Instead, he chose scientific logic over personal gain.  He did the right thing, and for that I am deeply impressed.   

The famous astronomer.  Just kidding. That's Neil Degrasse Tyson, who's on The Daily Show all the time.
 Mike Brown: honorable scientist

Monday, May 14, 2012

Gay Vote

Four consecutive Facebook posts of mine last week were on one topic: gay marriage.  There was a lot of news.

My first post was about the constitutional amendment in North Carolina that banned same-sex marriage.  People were bummed about this vote, but I looked on the bright side:
Lots of people are understandably upset about the vote in NC yesterday, but here’s the thing. It didn’t change anything. No laws changed at all. Thirty states now have similar constitutional amendments, so don’t single out NC. But more importantly: all these bigoted constitutional amendments are just the last gasps of a dying movement. Like turning dogs and fire hoses on people during the civil rights era, people react violently to change. But the trend is clear. Gay marriage is coming. Poll after poll shows that, as the older homophobes die off, the younger generation embraces gay rights. In 50 years (or 30 or 20 or 10) people will look back on these constitutional amendments as ugly moments in our history. Voters, you’re on the wrong side of history.
The next day I re-posted this from the George Takei page:

Ha!  Pointing out the hypocrisy of blowhards on the Right is fun and easy.

Then the President himself came out with a public position, at long last, that he was in favor of gay marriage. The first president to do so!!! There was much rejoicing in Facebookland.

But there always has to be some cynic sulking in the corner and taking a dump on everyone's happiness.

After reading a great passage from another blogging Tim, See Tim Blog, I posted this on Facebook:
I've had so many friends post about Obama's public declaration on gay marriage yesterday that I can't decide which ones to "like." So instead I'll post my own thing, from some random guy's blog who is also named Tim: "Sure, it would be great if Barry [Obama] dispensed with the "state by state" rhetoric so beloved of Republicans. But guess what, children: Barry is the fucking President of the United Freaking States and he's up against a shit-ton of bollocks being thrown his way constantly forever by a certifiably insane right-wing who has been amazingly adept at not inspiring the electorate-at-large to tell it to just STFU with its constant stream of idiotic, schizophrenic claptrap. He came out with an eloquent defense of gay marriage that, guess what, probably a lot of folks--left, right, and center--can relate to: He knows gay people, knows their families, and at the end of the day just can no longer see the reason for them to be a separate category of people."  
This post got me into an argument with some FB friends.  They were upset at the "timing" of Obama's announcement, that it was a "slap in the face" to all the NC gays and singles who had their rights "stripped away" by this vote.

Um, excuse me, but Obama didn't strip away their rights.  The NC voters did.  Somehow, Obama's announcing his support for those very gays who had their rights stripped away was now "chickenshit."(Actual word used.)

What the what?!?

When I pointed out the absurd logic of this reasoning, they claimed that Obama only made that announcement for "political reasons" because he asked for money from gay rights groups afterward.

He's a politician-- of course he's going to make political calculations and try to play up his base.  But HIS BASE IS THE GAY-FRIENDLY.  Why wouldn't he ask them for money?  That's how politics works. But if you think he ONLY came out in favor of gay marriage just to win political points, your cynicism is unfounded.  Sixty-one percent of voters in a swing state had just opposed gay marriage!  I certainly wouldn't call it "chickenshit" to make a principled stand against that majority.

When I pointed this out, my friend said that it's not worth it to defend their position (because it is indefensible, I muse snarkily), but that they voted for Obama once, but won't do it again.

This just makes me sad. 

I can understand it if you oppose Obama because you're conservative-- you're against social programs or civil rights or the working class or diversity or protecting the environment.  But for someone who supports gay rights, who's ANGRY that a constitutional amendment was passed that denies gays the right to marry, for someone like that to hold a grudge against the first president ever who comes out publicly in support of gay marriage-- merely because of his TIMING? So much so that they won't even vote for him?

That's a classic case of cutting off your nose to spite your face.  If you don't believe Obama has done anything for gay rights, read this.  Would you really rather hand the fate of civil rights over to the Republicans?  (While Obama was being all "chickenshit" and coming out in favor of gay marriage, Romney was proudly re-affirming his opposition to it.)  If you don't vote for the progressive candidate, you only have yourself to blame when rights are "stripped away."

It's such twisted logic, so ridiculous and irrational, it makes me lose what little faith I had in the political process.  If this is how people decide to vote, then Democracy really doesn't work. And that makes me angry, because now that cynicism has rubbed off on me.  They've made me cynical, too.


But no, I'm not going to let a few irrational hotheads ruin this moment.  Obama's announcement is a Big Deal, and I'm going to revel in it.  As Andrew Sullivan writes, "To have the president of the United States affirm my humanity—and the humanity of all gay Americans—was, unexpectedly, a watershed. He shifted the mainstream in one interview." [My italics.]

This was the fourth (and last) thing I shared on FB, and it made me happy:

14 Steps That Will Evolve Your Views On Gay Marriage

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Curiosity Deficit

I'm caught up in yet another pop science book, this one by the astronomer who "killed" Pluto, i.e., discovered the large objects beyond Pluto that led to its demotion as a planet.  The story itself is fascinating and fun, and I'll blog about that another day, like maybe when I'm actually done with the book.  The book is How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown.

While he was discovering all these large objects beyond Pluto, Mike Brown was also having a baby.  Or rather, his wife was.  In one passage in the book he writes about his frustration with determining the due date for his baby.

Take this exchange with the teacher of his child-birthing class (p. 127):
Teacher: "Oh, only five percent of babies are actually born on their due dates."
MB: "So are half born before, half after?"
T: "Oh, you can't know when the baby is going to come."
MB: "I get it. I just want to know the statistics."
T: "The baby will come when it is ready."
Amazingly, Brown has a similar discussion with his obstetrician:
Dr: "The due date is just an estimate. There is no way of knowing when the baby will come."
MB: "But of your patients, what fraction delivers before, and what fraction delivers after the due date?"
Dr: "I try not to think of it that way."

I understand his frustration.  I've had very similar conversations with people in my life.

Brown goes on to write:
I propose a simple experiment for anyone who works in the field of childbirth.  Here's all you have to do.  Spend a month in a hospital.  Every time a child is born, ask the mother what the original due date was.  Determine how many days early or late each child is.  Plot these dates on a piece of graph paper...When you have finished plotting all of the due dates... Make a copy. Send it to me in the mail.    

It is baffling to me that Brown encountered this problem, but I'm sure someone somewhere has done this, even if it's not common knowledge to people who work in the field of childbirth. Brown then talks about going to parties where he mingles with other Caltech scientists who had kids.
As soon as I started my rant, the fathers would all join in: "Yeah!  I could never get that question answered, either..."
I'm not a scientist, but I often go on similar rants.  I'm curious and like to know stuff.  It often exasperates me when someone can't answer, or doesn't care about, my questions. (It often exasperates the other person as well.)  So although I'm no rocket scientist, I could definitely identify with Mike Brown and his Caltech buddies when it came to simple curiosity about everyday things.