Monthly Archives: August 2009

Tall Stories

Galata Tower, Istanbul -- built 1348

Galata Tower, Istanbul -- built 1348

Human beings have a strange compulsion to build structures that “reach to the heavens”.  According to Genesis 11:4, that was the rationale for the Tower of Babel several thousand years ago, and they’ve been at it ever since.  Personally, I’m content to stand on level ground, hold my hands up and say, “Wow, look at me, I’m reaching to the heavens.”  I’d much rather do that than stand on the narrow platform of, say, the Space Needle in Seattle and hold my hands up.  That’s because I’m not fond of heights.  Hate ’em, actually.

It’s not that I haven’t given them a fair try, either.  Over the years my family and other traveling companions have coaxed me to the top of the Space Needle, the Washington Monument, the Sears Tower, the John Hancock Center and some structures you may not have even heard of, like the Galata Tower in Istanbul.  I have had sweaty palms and dizziness in high places all over the world.

The Eiffel Tower?  Sure.  I made it… well, approximately halfway up.  The Empire State Building?  I reached the elevator that goes up to the observation deck before I began to lose consciousness.  I’ll admit that when you’re several hundred feet above the sidewalk, the scenery can be breathtaking.  I know, becuase I’ve attempted to take breaths up there.  That’s not easy to do when your heart is ricocheting around in your chest cavity.

Tourists wait in long lines to get to the top of these tall structures, and then jostle each other to get a better view, pressing against the knee-high guard rails.  Which, I’m pretty sure, are made of twine.  High places are so popular with the general public that architects keep making more of them.  The title “world’s tallest building” changes almost as frequently as “world’s oldest person”.

Any idea what the world’s tallest building is?  Go ahead, take a guess… Nope.  It’s currently Taipei 101, in Taiwan, which stands 1,670 feet tall.  It will be losing its title soon to the under-construction Burj Dubai Tower in United Arab Emirates, which will top out later in 2009 at over 2,600 feet (including an enormous spire).  Most of the ridiculously tall buildings are in Asia — the Petronas Towers in Malaysia held the “world’s tallest” title for a few years, at 1,483 feet each.  Five of the top twenty-five in the world are in Hong Kong.  China has several others.

What about the Sears Tower in Chicago, you may ask?  First of all, as of mid-July, it’s now called the Willis Tower, for the British brokerage firm that occupies it.  It will move down to fifth place when Burj Dubai claims the number-one spot.  The Empire State Building, at a mere 1,250 feet, drops to tenth.  By the end of this year there will be thirty buildings over 1,000 feet tall, and that doesn’t include the Eiffel Tower, which is technically a “structure”, not a building.

There are already buildings in the planning stages that will someday surpass Burj Dubai Tower.  Fine — let them keep reaching to the heavens, but I’ve had enough of high viewpoints.  From now on, I’m thinking of lowering myself down into caves and crawling around in cramped, dark places.  For some reason, caves don’t bother me.

Sorta Looks Like Art

Green Bike Lock, Amsterdam (photo by Sally Reeder)

Green Bike Lock, Amsterdam (photo by Sally Reeder)

For the past couple of weeks, I served as a volunteer host at a photography exhibit.  My main responsibility was to remind people to behave themselves while they enjoyed themselves, as in, “Excuse me, but would you mind asking your child not to lick the photos?”  We had thousands of visitors, so I heard a lot of comments from the public, ranging from “Aw, look at the doggie,” to “Impressive depth of field — he must have been shooting at something like f8, but with a relatively slow shutter speed.”  In other words, pictures were admired (or loathed) with varying degrees of sophistication, and tended to be based on either subject matter or technical skill.

Once in a while someone wanted to chat with me about a specific photo or about photography in general.  One gentleman asked a question that bears repeating here.  “Can you explain to me,” he asked, “the difference between a picture and a photograph?”  It took me a second, but I figured out what he was getting at:  where’s the line between a snapshot and a work of art?

I should acknowledge that several decades ago there was some debate about whether photography deserved to be considered an art form, but I think that case has been closed.  Some photographs are undoubtedly art, and some — ones taken at a bachelorette party, for example — are not.  So what’s the difference?

To qualify as art, it seems to me that some level of technical proficiency (or incredible luck) is necessary.  Some thought has to have gone into how the picture is composed, how it’s lit, and so on (see my blog post of 7/13/09, “Tips For Better Photographs”). 

Compelling subject matter helps, too, although something as mundane as a pile of firewood can make for a great photograph if shot with imagination and skill.  I’m willing to bet that an artist who uses a camera almost never says, “OK, everybody line up and say ‘cheese’.”  Hypothetically, you or I could stand next to an artist and take a photo of the same sunset, but he or she somehow sees it, and records it, in a way that elevates it above our Generic Sunset Shot.

But here’s the thing about art — any kind of art:  the form it takes, the method of presentation is only half of it; the other half is how it’s received.  That’s because art is a subjective experience.  In the recent exhibition, I saw photographs that were technically perfect — but left me cold.  They didn’t inspire me, they didn’t make me see the subject matter in a way I hadn’t seen it before.  The photographer had, in effect, asked me to look at something without really showing me anything.

There were other photographs, though, that — at least for me — met the standard of art.  They may have been slightly flawed from a technician’s perspective… but they were so achingly beautiful that they made your eyes fill.  Or made you want to lick them.  But please don’t.

“Aesop, Your Fables Are Fabulous!”

Not that it's any of your business, but I'm looking for pebbles.

Not that it's any of your business, but I'm looking for pebbles.

The Tortoise and the Hare, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg — we all heard those stories as kids.  They were a few of Aesop’s greatest hits, culled from over six hundred stories known collectively as Aesop’s Fables.  As you know, a fable is a short story designed to teach a moral lesson, such as “perseverance pays off”, “think before you act”, or “shut up, you little brat”.

Often a fable uses animal characters who have human qualities or flaws.  That ploy may have kept Aesop out of nuisance lawsuits; he could get away wtih calling a peacock vain, but if he’d said “I’ve got this neighbor named Egotus who’s a swaggering fool”, all of Aesop’s royalties would have gone to out-of-court settlements.  And who, by the way, is calling whom vain?  Sometimes spelling your name with a ligature A E, as in “Æsop”, strikes me as a bit pretentious.

I’ll take a chance on calling him out, since there probably was no real Aesop.  “He is almost certainly a legendary figure,” says the Encyclopedia Britannica (or, as its publisher prefers, the Encyclopædia Britannica).  There are various traditions, including one about Aesop having been a slave, but there is no solid historical evidence that he lived in the 6th century B.C., as Herodotus asserted.  The first collection of fables attributed to someone called Aesop appeared a couple of hundred years later.  Chances are, Aesop was a name invented to give the fables more credibility than merely ascribing them to “anonymous”.  Aesop’s Fables were probably folk tales that were accumulated, over time, from various cultures.

Even if Aesop was fictitious, many of the fables do convey some truth.  This was demonstrated recently in a scientific experiment based on one of the fables called “The Crow and the Pitcher”.  You may recall the story:  a thirsty crow finds a container that has some water in the bottom, but it’s down too far for the crow to get at it, and the pitcher is too heavy for the crow to tip over.  The crow eventually figures out that by dropping pebbles into the pitcher, the water level rises and he can reach it with his beak.  The moral of the fable has to do with ingenuity, or that brain power is superior to brute strength.  Or something.

Anyway, researchers in England were able to get some members of the crow family to do a version of the Crow and the Pitcher story.  In the Los Angeles Times, Thomas H. Maugh II reported that a team of scientists confronted four rooks with a beaker that had a wax worm floating in it, out of the birds’ reach.  The scientists gave the birds a little nudge by placing some stones nearby.  “Two immediately figured out how to get the worm,” according to Maugh, “and two got it on the second try.”  The smartest rook stopped participating in the experiments when she realized that eating the wax worm made her sick to her stomach.

Oh, and here’s an interesting coincidence:  the University of Cambridge zoologist who conducted the research is named Christopher David Bird.  Aesop might have called the experiment “Bird and His Beaker”.

Count Me In

Photo:  U.S. Census Bureau

Photo: U.S. Census Bureau

It’s not too soon to get excited about the highlight of 2010.  Yes, I’m talking about the U.S. census, which has been taken every ten years since 1790.  Census numbers are used to determine the distribution of congressional seats, which is why the Constitution requires it.  The information is also used in allocating federal funds for government projects.  Additionally, the census yields lots of statistics that give us insights about how our culture has changed; it’s a valuable fund of information for social and economic research.

Besides the usual stuff you have to answer every time you fill out a form for a credit card application or library card — name, address, sex, age, frequency of urination, etc. — there are census questions that delve into family relationships and household appliances.  Over the decades, those questions have changed.  (In the first census, for example, there were questions pertaining to the slaves you owned.)

I wondered what questions were asked fifty years ago, for the 1960 census.  That was the first one, incidentally, when the Census Bureau had respondents fill out questionnaires; prior to that it was always done by census takers.  I guess a sufficient number of people were literate by 1960 that the government trusted us to do it.  Even so, the 1960 census form had this helpful note:  “Please be sure to list… all members of your family living with you, including babies.”  Ah!  So the baby is part of the family, too — good to know.

Here are some actual questions from the 1960 census, back when there were 179,323,175 Americans — less than two-thirds as many as there are now…

• Did the person work at any time last week?  Include part-time work such as Saturday job, delivering papers, or helping without pay in a family business or farm.  Do not count own housework. 

They can probably drop “delivering papers” on the 2010 census.  There can’t be more than fifty of us who still get home delivery of a newspaper.

• Do you have any television sets?

On the 2010 census, the question should be phrased, “is there any room of your house in which you don’t have a TV?”

• Is there a flush toilet in this house or building?

In 1960, ten percent of respondents said “no”.

• About how much do you think this property would sell for on today’s market?

The choices started at “Under $5,000” and increased incrementally to “$35,000 or more”.  Half of all dwellings in 1960 were estimated by their owners to be worth under $35,000.  Of course, a 1960 monthly mortgage payment was about what a six-pack of beer costs now.

Questions being considered for the 2010 census that would have been unimaginable in 1960 might include, “What is the wattage of your car stereo system?”,  “When is the last time you wore a necktie?”, and “How many names of former boyfriends do you have tattooed somewhere on your body?”

What other questions should the Census Bureau include in 2010 that wouldn’t have been part of the 1960 count?

A Man, A Plan, A Canal — Panama


Pedro Miguel Lock, Panama Canal

Pedro Miguel Lock, Panama Canal

The title of this piece is a palindrome — a string of letters that reads the same way forward and backward (minus the punctuation).  It isn’t an accurate summary of the process that eventually led to “the path between the seas”, though; there were several men who had various plans.  It is a canal that cuts through Panama, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  Roughly fifty miles long, it takes eight or nine hours to transit if you do it non-stop.

Sally and I made the journey aboard a ship called the Seven Seas Navigator, and it took quite a while longer than that, partly due to some scheduled leisure time on Gatún Lake, a midway point in the crossing.  Here are excerpts from our journals, dated April 6, 2000:

Around 6:00 a.m., while we were still in bed, Sally sensed something different about the ship’s motion.  She got up to check it out, and discovered we were lying just off the entrance to the Panama Canal… the ship was just outside the breakwater at Colón, the Atlantic entrance to the canal.  We were having to wait our turn to go through.  Eventually we inched our way to the first of the Gatún Locks, which we entered about 9:30.

A small powerboat joined the Seven Seas Navigator in the lock.  We found out later that the small boat’s transit fee was $500; the Navigator’s fee was $61,000. 

Sally and I roamed the decks, taking photos liberally.  The transit of the Gatún Locks took over two hours; about halfway through, the mob of passengers at the bow had thinned out considerably.  Some of the oldest passengers were wilting in the tropical sun (it was approximately 85° F); others simply lost interest and returned to the pool area to fight over the deck chairs…

When we left the third and final of the Gatún Locks, the ship chugged into Gatún Lake, rounded a corner, and anchored off the Gatún Yacht Club.  It’s a yacht club in name only — it’s really just a few low buildings which provide minimal services to people off cruise ships.  In other words, there are restrooms, a sad little bar, and some trinket stands.

There were activities available during the afternoon — a nature hike, and an opportunity to view other ships going through the locks — our ship got underway again around 5:30 p.m.

We didn’t linger over our dinner because we were anxious to get back to the bow for the next set of locks.  The Pedro Miguel Locks are a single chamber at the southeastern end of the narrow Gaillard Cut.  We arrived around 9:00 p.m., but the canal authorities compelled us to tie up for about an hour due to heavy ship traffic in the area.

A little before 11:00 p.m., the Navigator was underway again, crossing the relatively small Miraflores Lake.  In minutes we had reached the entrance to the dual-chambered Miraflores Locks.  As with the other locks, two guys in a rowboat brought out the lines attached to the strong cables which will hold us in position in the lock.  The dock ends of the cables are fastened to “mules”, electric locomotives which run along a track, keeping the cables taut.  (Most of our shipmates had also absorbed these bits of canal jargon and statistics.  Conversation that evening had included phrases like “gross tonnage”, which aren’t in most people’s everyday vocabularies.)

It was after midnight when the ship cleared the second of the Miraflores Locks and had returned to sea level.  Off the port bow we could see the skyline of Panama City, which is quite impressive (from a distance, anyway).  Off the starboard bow, Sally noticed the constellation Scorpio.  Dead ahead was the Bridge of the Americas, a span across the mouth of the canal and part of the Interamerican Highway.  It was about 1:00 in the morning when our ship passed under the bridge and into the Pacific Ocean…