Saturday, November 05, 2016

Geometry and The Dud Avocado

And I clearly remember a little later wondering why things always turn out to be diametrically opposed to what you expect them to be. It's no good even trying to predict what this opposite will be because it always fools you and turns out to be the opposite of that, if you see what I mean. If you think this is geometrically impossible, all I can say is that you don't know my  life.
--Elaine Dundy, The Dud Avocado (New York: New York Review of Books, 2007), pp. 49-50.

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Monday, October 31, 2016

In the Small Hours

"The present challenge to physicists seeking to discover how things really are is to investigate our environment on a scale known as the 'Planck length'. Rovelli tries to convey just how small this is. Imagine, he says, a walnut magnified until it is the size of the universe. If we were to magnify the Planck length by that much, we still couldn’t see it. 'Even after having been enormously magnified thus, it would still be a million times smaller than the actual walnut shell was before magnification,' he tells us."

Michael Brooks, book review, "Has this physicist found the key to reality?" New Statesman, Oct. 21, 2016. 

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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Why You Should Vote Against the Restructuring of American Family Insurance

Photo: Flickr User Martin Kenny:

The Bottom Line: Vote Against Restructuring American Family Insurance

Are you currently buying insurance from American Family Insurance? Then you should be receiving at least one packet in the mail urging you to vote to restructure the company.

This is a very bad deal for policyholders and a very, very good one for American Family executives. In making its case for restructuring, the company is vague about why it's good for consumers and its claims about why it's good for the company are based on shaky, unexplained premises.

Essentially, policyholders will be given valueless shares in a new holding company -- and (I believe) liability for bad decisions and lost lawsuits. Meanwhile, if an analysis of a similar restructuring at Liberty Mutual is any guide, the executives at AmFam will get most of the stock in a new stock insurer subsidiary.

My wife and I will be voting against this move (though I admit most policyholders won't care or vote), and we plan to move our insurance business to a company that's at least a little more committed to its policyholders. We don't have illusions about why insurance companies are in business or what their leadership gets out of it -- policyholders aren't their priority -- but the deal needs to be a little more mutually beneficial and less obviously exploitative. Not that our defection will make a difference to company execs who stand to make millions out of this, but still.

Want to know more? Read on.

What American Family Insurance Says It's Doing

The basic idea is that AmFam will switch from being a mutual insurance company to a "mutual holding company-owned stock insurance company." Policyholders would no longer be voting members of the mutual insurance company and would instead become members of the new mutual holding company, "with comparable member rights".

"Policyholders of [American Family Mutal Insurance Company] would become members of the mutual holding company under the new structure, retaining the memership rights they have now." Rates and policies would be "unaffected".

Got that? Means that your status as a member of the mutual company -- because you're a policyholder -- will be transferred to a mutual holding company. According to the company, there's no difference, from your perspective.

Why AmFam Says It Wants to Restructure

In its letter to policyholders, the company writes that its restructuring plan is "focused on your future" -- i.e., policyholders like you and me. The letter goes on to say:
"This plan -- unanimously approved by American Family's board of directors -- is all about the future and our customers. It will position American Family to meet customer needs in an age of automated cars, smart homes and aother advanced technologies that are already altering lives and the insurance industry."
Here's the other set of reasons AmFam gives to support restructuring (also from the letter):
"A mutual holding company structure would eliminate restrictions on investing in or acquiring non-insurance companies that can provide important customer benefits, such as developing technologies or programs that can help prevent accidents and save lives. A mutual holding company would also better position American Family to consider acquiring other mutual insurance companies to serve more customers." 
You can find more info on pp. 8-9 of the Policyholder Information Booklet you'll get in the mail, but basically it's about expanding the company without giving up its status as a mutual insurance company; being able to acquire ancillary or non-insurance subsidiaries; being able to pursue mergers and acquisitions; and to raise capital more cheaply.

A Weak Rationale

Let's look at AmFam's stated rationales for restructuring more closely. The first one again:
"This plan -- unanimously approved by American Family's board of directors -- is all about the future and our customers. It will position American Family to meet customer needs in an age of automated cars, smart homes and aother advanced technologies that are already altering lives and the insurance industry."
Okay, so it's about AmFam's customers. What does that mean? That's completely unclear. I'm baffled as to how things like automated cars and smart homes affect AmFam's ability to meet my needs as a policyholder. The time-honored way of dealing with new technological, environmental, and social developments in insurance is to issue riders to your existing policy that expand or limit your benefits or coverage exclusions, or to adjust the policy itself. You don't have to completely restructure the company just because Tesla manufactures self-driving cars.

The other three reasons the company advances include being able to:

1. acquire ancillary or non-insurance subsidiaries;
2. pursue mergers and acquisitions; and
3. raise capital more cheaply.

As to #1 and #2, I gotta say, "Wha--?" Okay, so what's an example of an "ancillary subsidiary" that would benefit customers? This is a great example of what I mean when I say their rationale is "vague."

Second, why on earth would we care about AmFam acquiring non-insurance subsidiaries? And why do we want our insurance company to be able to acquire other companies? It's an axiomatic assumption in American business that acquisitions and growth are Good, but that's not always the case. Acquisitions carry considerable risk for the company (especially of businesses outside the company's expertise and that aren't necessarily related in any way to insurance) and often staggering rewards for the company's leadership (even when unsuccessful) -- though not, of course, for policyholders. It seems to me that AmFam leadership has lost focus on its actual business, or doesn't really want to be in that business anymore.

As to #3 -- raising capital more cheaply -- that's clearly something Amfam only needs if it wants to acquire other companies -- a strategy it hasn't justified. At all.

Now let's look at this  part more closely. According to the information booklet, a mutual insurance company can't raise capital cheaply, but a restructured one can do so by creating an intermediate stock holding company with stock that can be sold. That may be true, and to be fair, the company says it has no plans to actually sell any voting stock, but it wants to be able to do so.

It also says that it will need member approval before it can sell any voting stock. That may sound like a good check-and-balance, but remember (a) most members (policyholders like you and me) won't vote; (b) this restructuring will add a lot of new "members" who are currently policyholders in other existing AmFam subsidiaries, as well as members from any new companies it acquires. As the company notes on p. 27 of the info booklet, that may lead to conflicts, because "current members may want insurance with the greatest possible value while the new members may want the highest return on investment." I.e., the small number of member/policyholders who do vote on the issuance of voting stock may be outnumbered by people who don't care about your interests as an insurance policyholder.

Finally -- and most crucially -- current policyholder/members won't automatically own any stock in the new stock subsidiary ... because our membership will be transferred to the (valueless) holding company, not the new stock holding company. Don't believe me? Read on.

Why I Think AmFam is Ripping Us Off

When Liberty Mutual did a similar restructuring in 2001, it did what I believe is the same thing as AmFam is doing now: it transferred membership of policyholders to a valueless holding company, and then gave its executives most of the quite valuable stock in the new subsidiary. Here's the key quote from the source I just linked to at the start of the paragraph:
"Liberty Mutual policyholders, according to Schiff, would receive on average $6,060 to $9,090 if the company fully demutualized and thereby provided stock or equivalent cash payments to its insureds/'owners.'"
I haven't found language in any of the supplied materials saying whether or not AmFam executives will get a lot of the voting stock of the new subsidiary, if issued (and, just as a loaded gun in a play must be used by the third act, as Chekhov noted, you can bet that voting stock will be issued at some point) but I also can't find anything saying they won't, either.

What My Agent Said

Naturally, I asked my AmFam agent what he thought; I wasn't hopeful that he'd be critical, but I was curious how he would reply. He wrote, first, to say that the deal would "help American Family to be a stronger company with the ability to acquire more companies as opportunities become available."

I pushed back, saying that acquisitions do not necessarily "strengthen" a company and can expose it to considerable risk -- and that it's not clear why AmFam needs to be "stronger" to serve policyholders better. He wrote again to say, "In our current economy companies must evolve and be forward thinking to continually compete with competitors and I believe American Family is heading in the right direction with this move." Then he sent me a link to information "published by a third party" on the restructuring.

I agree that companies have to evolve sometimes to stay competitive, but that doesn't necessarily mean restructuring. Yes, restructuring worked for Liberty Mutual as a company and its executives -- it's now huge -- but as noted above, it did so by transferring value from policyholder/members to the company's executives.

And that "third-party" information my agent sent? Well, it read like a press release from AmFam full of more vagaries and empty phrases, so I looked closely, and sure enough, at the bottom of the article, it says, "Source" American Family Insurance." Not exactly a neutral party.

One More Thing: The Class Action Lawsuit by AmFam Agents 

AmFam agents filed a class action lawsuit against the company in 2013, claiming that the company had incorrectly categorized them as independent contractors in order to get out of providing them with retirement benefits and health, life, disability and dental plans like other employees of the company. In August, a federal judge rejected AmFam's attempts to dismiss the lawsuit, which will now move forward.

Here's why that matters, beyond the fact that I'd like AmFam to treat its employees fairly: Should AmFam lose this case, and AmFam restructures as it pleases, it seems probable that costs will be borne by the new mutual holding company -- the one policyholders like you and I will be members of -- and not the new subsidiary. I can't predict what effect that will have on rates, but one can guess. (Granted, the impact of the lawsuit is a bit of guesswork. But in this situation, cynicism will likely be rewarded.)

Again: Vote Against Restructuring American Family Insurance

If AmFam can't make a clearer and more specific case about why the restructuring is good for policyholders -- and the best it has done on a concrete level is to reassure us that our rates won't change because of the merger -- then it's reasonable to conclude that it's not, actually, good for policyholders, but that it is good for those pushing it.

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Monday, October 24, 2016

Go Poppa, Go

Not Poppa Neutrino. Photo: State Library of New South Wales
All right, so you've all heard the tale of how Poppa Neutrino crossed the Atlantic in 1998 in a homemade raft ... What's that? You haven't? Man, is this what's meant by "a liberal arts education" these days? Well, I'm certainly not going to tell you the whole tale. But picture this: Poppa Neutrino himself -- that 65-year-old perpetual wanderer, his wife, some family, a friend or two, and at least one dog -- on a raft jerry-rigged out of scrap wood, Styrofoam, sailing and putt-putting across the north Atlantic. Along the way, they run into a Russian freighter amazed enough to stop and share food and gasoline. As the freighter pulls away, the Russians take photographs, and the captain, who's not a native English speaker, says, "'Thank you for your show to the world ... We'll show the world this floating radish.'"

The radish made it to Ireland.

Fast forward to 2004. Neutrino had built another plywood'n'Styrofoam raft that looked like a tree house, maybe, but not a seagoing craft. Neutrino told Alec Wilkinson of The New Yorker, "I know you see this raft trip as my wandering off to the horizon and maybe into oblivion." But he saw it differently.

I see it has having a club in each hand and spikes on my feet and saying, "Now, you bastards, now I'm coming after you."

--The Crossing, by Alec Wilkinson, The New Yorker, June 27, 2005, pp. 69 -72.

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Friday, June 04, 2010

Michael Innes' The Case of the Journeying Boy: Irony, Circa 1949

For those of you who think that irony was invented around 1970, I offer this 1949 description of a cinema billboard advertising a movie:

The Case of the Journeying BoyAcross its monstrous facade sprawled a vast plywood lady. If erect she would be perhaps fifty feet high; she was reclining, however, in an attitude of sultry abandon and equatorial vegetation and in a garment the only prominent feature of which was a disordered shoulder-strap. As a background to the broadly accentuated charms of her person -- pleasantly framed, indeed, between her six-foot, skyward-pointing breasts -- was what appeared to be a two-ocean navy in process of sinking through tropical waters like a stone. One limp hand held a smoking revolver seemingly responsible for this extensive catastrophe. The other, supporting her head, was concealed in a spouting ectoplasm of flaxen hair. Her expression was languorous, provocative, and irradiated by a sort of sanctified lecherousness highly creditable to both the craft and the ardent soul of the unknown painter who had created her. Poised in air, and in curves boldly made to follow the line of her swelling hips, were the words AMOROUS, ARROGANT, ARMED! Above this, in letters ten feet high, was the title PLUTONIUM BLONDE. And higher still, and in rubric scarcely less gigantic, was the simple announcement, ART'S SUPREME ACHIEVEMENT TO DATE.

--from Michael Innes' The Case of the Journeying Boy (1949), p. 54.

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Friday, April 30, 2010

From Dreamland

This morning I had a dream in which my wife and I were architects. We were discussing how one handles criticism, and I deliberately tried to come up with a line to make her laugh. Here's what I said:

If you're lucky, you've got 140 stories of poured concrete howling, "Je suis! Je suis!" into the teeth of the winds of time.
Sounds like literature, don't it?  (And by the way, it did make her laugh -- but I had to wait until she woke up to tell her about it.)

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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

On Character and Writers' Conferences

Poet laureate Kay Ryan writes about attending the monster writer's conference put on annually by Associated Writing Programs (AWP) in 2005:

I have a weak character. I am very susceptible to other people's
enthusiasms, at times actually courting them. I like to sit among people
who feel strongly about a basketball team, say, and get excited with
them. I love to love ouzo with ouzo lovers. These are, of course, innocent
examples. But this weakness concerns me in going to AWP. If I'm
exposed to the enthusiasms of others, I know that I am capable of
betraying my deepest convictions, laughing in the face of a lifetime of
hostility to instruction, horror at groupthink. The only way I've ever
gotten along in this world is by staying away from it; I have had only
enough character to keep myself out of situations that require character.
Now here I am, going to AWP. HOW am I going to remember:
these people are THE SPAWN OF THE DEVIL? They will seem like
individuals, not deadly white threads of the great creative writing
From Kay Ryan's "I Go to AWP," from Poetry, 2005.

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Friday, January 01, 2010

The Hart (and Roe) of the Matter

Background: while they are both guests at a country manor, the beefy Stilton Cheesewright threatens to break Bertie Wooster's spine in five places because he imagines Bertie wants to marry his [Stilton's] fiancee. Bertie considers his options:

What to do? I was asking myself. It seemed to me that the prudent course, if I wished to preserve a valued spine intact, would be to climb aboard the two-seater first thing in the morning and ho for the open spaces. To remain in statu quo would, it was clear, involve a distasteful nippiness on my part, for only by the most unremitting activity could I hope to elude Stilton and foil his sinister aims. I would be compelled, I saw, to spend a substantial portion of my time flying like a youthful hart or roe over the hills where spices grow, as I remembered having heard Jeeves once put it, and the Woosters resent having to sink to the level of harts and roes, whether juvenile or getting on in years. We have our pride.
--from P.G. Wodehouse, Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit , p. 80.

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Bertie Wooster on Deaf Adders

"Once more I had the sense of not making progress. Her face, I observed, was cold and hard ... and I began to understand how these birds in Holy Writ must have felt after their session with the deaf adder. I can't recall all the details, though at my private school I once won a prize for Scripture Knowledge, but I remember that they had the dickens of an uphill job trying to charm it, and after they had sweated themselves to a frazzle no business resulted. It is often this way, I believe, with deaf adders."

--P.G. Wodehouse, Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit, p. 39.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Delights of the British National Anthem

Second verse of the British National Anthem, otherwise known, perhaps, as "God Save the King/Queen":

O Lord our God arise
Scatter his enemies,
And make them fall.
Confound their politics,
Frustrate their knavish tricks,
On thee our hopes we fix;
God save us all.
Confound their politics? Frustrate their knavish tricks? Wonderful!

(Found this in Anthony Powell's The Military Philosphers, p. 226.)

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Anthony Powell on Senior Officers

The incident provoked reflections later on the whole question of senior officers, their relations with each other and with those of subordinate rank. There could be no doubt, so I was finally forced to decide, that the longer one dealt with them, the more one developed the habit of treating generals like members of the opposite sex; specifically, like ladies no longer young, who therefore deserve extra courtesy and attention; indeed, whose every whim must be given thought. This was particularly applicable if one were out in the open with a general.

'Come on, sir, you have the last sandwich,' one would say, or 'Sit on my mackintosh, sir, the grass is quite wet.'

Perhaps the cumulative effect of such treatment helped to account for the highly strung temperament so many generals developed. They needed constant looking after. I remembered despising Cocksidge, a horrible little captain at the Divisional Headquarters on which I had served, for behaving so obsequiously to his superiors in rank. In the end, it had to be admitted one was almost equally deferential, though one hoped less slavish.
--Anthony Powell, The Military Philosophers, p. 143. (Image is a painting of the bookjacket.)

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Anthony Powell on Friendship

Friendship, popularly represented as something simple and straightforward -- in contrast to love -- is perhaps no less complicated, requiring equally mysterious nourishment; like love, too, bearing also within its embryo inherent seeds of dissolution, something more fundamentally destructive, perhaps, than the mere passing of time, the all-obliterating march of events which had, for example, come between Stringham and myself.
--Anthony Powell, The Soldier's Art, pp. 93-94. (Image of bookjacket painting.)

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Anthony Powell on Time and Space

'Seduction is to do and say/The banal thing in the banal way,' said Moreland. 'No one denies that. My own complaint is that people always talk about love affairs as if you spent the whole of your time in bed. I find most of my own emotional energy -- not to say physical energy -- is exhausted in making efforts to get there. Problems of Time and Space as usual.'The relation of Time and Space, then rather fashionable, was, I found, a favourite subject of Moreland's.

'Surely we have long agreed the two elements are identical?' said Maclintick. 'This is going over old ground -- perhaps I should say old hours.'

'You must differentiate for everyday purposes, don't you?' urged Barnby. 'I don't wonder seduction seems a problem, if you get Time and Space confused.'

--Anthony Powell, Casanova's Chinese Restaurant, p. 34. (Image from painting for bookjacket.)

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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Anthony Powell on Books

"He spoke without a vestige of interest. I was impressed for the ten thousandth time by the fact that literature illuminates life only for those to whom books are a necessity. Books are unconvertible assets, to be passed on only to those who possess them already."
--Anthony Powell, The Valley of Bones, pp. 233-234.

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Saturday, July 04, 2009

Ambrose Bierce's Iconoclast

One of my favorite definitions from Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary is this one:

Iconoclast, n. A breaker of idols, the worshipers whereof are imperfectly gratified by the performance, and most strenuously protest that he unbuildeth but doth not reëdify, that he pulleth down but pileth not up. For the poor things would have other idols in place of those he thwacketh upon the mazzard and dispelleth. But the iconoclast saith: "Ye shall have none at all, for ye need them not; and if the rebuilder fooleth round hereabout, behold I will depress the head of him and sit thereon till he squawk it."

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Sunday, May 31, 2009

X-Posts on New Yorker Fiction

I've posted reviews on Emdashes of a fair amount of recent fiction from The New Yorker that I've been forgetting to cross-post here. So tonight, I'm making up for it. Here's reviews of:

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John McPhee on the Ambivalent Glories of Using a D9 Cat

From John McPhee's Coming into the Country, pp. 235-239. Ed and Stanley Gelvin are Alaskans who are panning for gold circa 1974:

They had a little Ranger -- a diminutive tractor, like a Cub Cadet -- which they had used to like purpose when they built a cabin on the Charley River years before. Ed cut the Ranger in half. They flew it to the mountains, and he welded it back together. The backhoe before long followed, and when it was at last reassembled they scooped into the center of a stream. Bedrock was eight feet down. Even at six, they panned the colors they had hoped to see.

They had intended to spend the whole of the following season ranging with the backhoe around the claims they had made, trying out pieces of seven miles of streams, but early results were so encouraging that they sharply foreshortened the tests. To put it conservatively, a pay streak appeared to be there, and what was needed now -- since the backhoe was just a fifty-seven-hundred-pound shovel -- was a means of moving gravel in a major way. The Caterpillar Tractor Company produces the eponymous Cat in seven sizes -- styled D3, D4, and so on to D9. Most gold miners use something less than the largest, but the Gelvins -- forming a partnership with two friends in Fairbanks -- decided to go all the way. The supreme Cat, twenty-seven feet long, eleven feet high, with a blade of fourteen feet, could sweep forty yards of gravel before it -- possibly a hundred dollars a shove. Ed Gelvin went to Los Angeles to shop for a used D9.

With his partners in Fairbanks putting up the money in return for a half interest in the claims, he paid forty-seven thousand five hundred dollars for a ten-year-old machine -- D9, Series G. In the fleets of general contractors, it had spent its lifetime ripping raw California land, making freeways, and preparing building sites on beaches and deserts. Who, watching it there -- clanking, dozing, wheezing, roaring, grunting like Pete the Pig -- could ever in farthest-fetched imaginings have guessed where it would go? It went to Seattle by train, and by barge to Whittier in Prince William Sound. There the Alaska Railroad picked it up and took it to Fairbanks, where, in early April, a lowboy hauled it up the dirt road north. Forty miles from Central, the haul stopped -- blocked by the still unbroken winter snows. The road had been smothered since October. Ed Gelvin, who was observing from the air, landed on the road and with Stanley put the blade on the Cat. The weather in a general way was warming. Snow was melting. Ice was beginning to rot. If the D9 was going to move up frozen stream beds and climb into the mountains, it had to keep going now. If the road was closed, the Cat would open it.

When Stanley Gelvin was a small boy and did his elementary-school work by correspondence from the kitchen table in Central, he was from time to time required to draw a picture. When the choice of subject was his to make, he always drew a Cat. He operated one before he drove anything else. Now, with a Cat all around him, he knew where things were. He sensed like an athlete the rhythm of the parts -- the tilt cylinders, the blade-lift arms. A good Cat skinner is a Cat mechanic, and from the torque converter to the sun-and-planet gears, he knew what was making the moves. 'I know what's inside the thing -- everything -- and what makes it work. My father knows how the stuff goes together, too. If the thing needs work, we do it.'

The snow-obscured road leading on toward Central was -- even at its best, in summer -- a tortuous trail. In several high places, it traversed the flanks of mountains as a fifteen-foot shelf with no rail of any kind and a precipitous plunge on the outboard side. On the last of these mountain passes, twenty miles from home, Stanley encountered drifts that were thirty feet deep. To keep going, he had to bite into the snow, doze some to the brink, send it avalanching down, then turn and bite some more -- all the while feeling for the road, feeling with his corner bits (the low tips of the blade) for the buried edge where the road stopped and the plunge began. A D9 is in some ways the most difficult Cat to operate. 'You've got so much iron in front of you can't see what you're doing.' It is also his favorite size, because it is so big it does not bounce around. This one weighed a hundred and ten thousand pounds. Its balance point was ten feet back of the blade. Repeatedly Stanley moved the blade eight feet over the edge. He knew where it was. If he had gone off the mountain, he would have raised one fantastic cloud of snow. Instead, he trimly dismantled the prodigious drifts and dozed on down to Central.

To the pads of the track Ed Gelvin welded ice grousers. They would keep the Cat from sliding. They were small pieces of steel, protruding like hyphens from the tracks. Ed and Stanley had built a steel slick plate and a steel sluice box, and Ed had rearranged them as a huge loaded sled -- eight feet wide and twenty-four feet long: I-beams, H-beams, three-sixteenths-inch plate. He had made a thousand-gallon fuel tank. It was full and on the sled. Here and there, he slipped in snowshoes, gold pans, a two-hundred-amp generator, a welding tank and torch. Finally, he secured to the top of the load a plywood wanigan -- that is, a small hut, with three bunks, propane, and a cupboard full of food. The rig, composed, weighed about twelve tons. When it was hooked to the D9, Stanley left for the mountains.

He crossed low terrain at first. His mother rode with him. His father hovered in the air. Then he changed passengers, taking on a friend named Gary Powers, and they began to move up Woodchopper Creek. His altitude at the start was nine hundred feet. The highest point on the trip was well above four thousand. They travelled five days, fourteen hours a day. There was plenty of wind. The highest temperature they experienced was zero. They stopped to cut their way through trees with a chain saw (fearing to doze them because the wanigan might be crushed). The Cat fell twice through rotting ice. With no difficulty, it climbed out of the water. There was some luck in the conditions, but not much. With less ice in Woodchopper Canyon, Stanley might have been stopped. But successive overflows on the creek had built the ice thickness in places to thirty feet. Nearing the head of Woodchopper, he moved the Cat slowly up a steep slope of ice, slid back, crept again, slid back, and thought for a while he wouldn't make it. Without the grousers, the big rig would have been stopped, but they held just enough, and gradually he crawled out of the head of the creek -- only to move into snow so deep the D9's steel tracks spun out. Stanley thought it wise to stop for the night. For one thing, all this was happening in a blizzard. Next day, the sky was clear, the air colder, and Stanley moved on a contour, through the deep snow until he found an uphill route. Steadily, he climbed ridges, sometimes in little snow, sometimes in seven-foot drifts. At one point, the going was so steep that he disengaged the sled and tried first to clear a trail. 'I knew that ridge was too steep to go over, because it was almost vertical. So I went around to the right. Without them ice grousers, the machine would have slid sideways and straight to the bottom as if it was on skates. Gary was scared to death. I went real slow now, and slipped some, and then went down to a dead crawl. I had it idled as low as it would go. I went on half a mile or so. When I saw it was possible, I went back for the sled.'

Landing on skis, his father would fly him out, and the D9 would sit idle in the mountains until summer. Meanwhile, there was one last ridge to cross. 'One side was sheer, and the other had deep snow and was very steep. It must have been forty-five degrees. A guy could have maybe gone around one side -- if you'd left the wanigan, dug the snow, and plowed a road. But I didn't want to make a horrible-looking mess. I moved slowly up. The track did spin a bit. I couldn't go straight up. It was too steep. I couldn't go sideways too well. I couldn't go back, because I had the sled. I'd have been afraid to back down. You can cut a road into the side of a mountain if you want to with a Cat like that, but I just inched up the thing, and over. I didn't want to dig up the country.'

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Joan Acocella on the Crusades

Joan Acocella, in her usual incisive and entertaining manner, reviewed two books on the Crusades in the December 13, 2004 issue of The New Yorker. She liked both, but she had one reservation:

[Thomas] Asbridge praises the "inspired and audacious" tactics of the leaders of the First Crusade, their "military genius"; [Jonathan] Phillips roots for the men of the Fourth Crusade as, with their boats swaying beneath them and with scores of Greek bowmen firing at them, they climb their ladders and jump out onto the walls of Constantinople. Later, the authors bemoan the slaughter, but what did they think the audacious tactics were for? There is a curious amorality here. It may be endemic to military history. (What an exciting battle! Oops, what a lot of dead people!)

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Transit of Hardship

In the 18th-century, scientists were trying to measure the passage of Venus across the Sun. If correctly measured from multiple places on Earth, one could then work out the distance to the Sun and other planets. However, these "transits of Venus" only happen "in pairs eight years apart, but then are absent for a century or more." So when the first of a pair of such transits came around in 1761, scientists from all over the world set off to take measurements.

Many suffered disasters of various kinds, but among the unluckiest of these observers was a Frenchman named Guillaume Le Gentil:

Le Gentil set off from France a year ahead of time to observe the transit from India, but various setbacks left him still at sea on the day of the transit -- just about the worst place to be since steady measurements were impossible on a pitching ship.

Undaunted, Le Gentil continued on to India to await the next ransit in 1769. With eight years to prepare, he erected a first-rate viewing station, tested and retested his instruments, and had everything in a state of perfect readiness. On the morning of the second transit, June 4, 1769, he awoke to a fine day, but, just as Venus began to pass, a cloud slid in front of the Sun and remained there for almost exactly the duration of the transit: three hours, fourteen minutes, and seven seconds.

Stoically, Le Gentil packed up his instruments and set off for the nearest port, but en route he contracted dysentery and was laid up for nearly a year. Still weakened, he finally made it onto a ship. It was nearly wrecked in a hurricane off the African coast. When at last he reached home, eleven and a half years after setting off, and having achieved nothing, he discovered that his relatives had had him declared dead in his absence and had enthusiastically plundered his estate.
--from pp. 54-55 of Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything.

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Marie Curie Took Her Work Home with Her

For a long time it was assumed that anything so miraculously energetic as radioactivity must be beneficial. For years, manufacturers of toothpaste and laxatives put radioactive thorium in their products ... Radioactivity wasn't banned in consumer products until 1938. By this time it was much too late for Madame Curie, who died of leukemia in 1934. Radiation, in fact, is so pernicious and long lasting that even now her papers from the 1890s -- even her cookbooks -- are too dangerous to handle. Her lab books are kept in lead-lined boxes, and those who wish to see them must don protective clothing.
--from A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson, p. 111.

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