Monday, July 31, 2006

A cartographic aside

The rekindled open war between Israel and Lebanon has prompted me to spend a lot of time with my nose buried in atlases. I post these from some of my favorite sources to lend geographical context, perhaps as much for my own benefit as the reader's.
These two are produced by the US Central Intelligence Agency for inclusion in their World Factbook publication. They are not produced to the same scale. A few weeks ago, looking out across the landscape, you might have been hard-pressed to figure out where and why one of these countries ends and the other begins. Everywhere, it would be bright and dry, and you would run into people who spoke Arabic or Hebrew, or both. Many would probably be able to chat with you in English. Roads, though ultimately interrupted by fences, gates, and people equipped and willing to kill, connect cities in the one to cities in the other.

This is a great general map of the Middle East produced by the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (back when it was still the National Imagery and Mapping Agency). I find that it draws-in the relationships of places like Turkey, Iran, Egypt, and Iraq. Not far beyond the edges of this map are India, Serbia, and Dar Es Salaam.

Friday, July 28, 2006


For whatever reason, I recently had the fever to see names of people I barely knew and their grandparents' names scribbled in hundred year-old books. My employer has a wealth of genealogical resources at the ready, which made the effort almost disappointingly easy. Maybe that’s what incited me in the first place.
My wife's forbearers were easy to follow. A few key strokes, a few clicks of the mouse, and I was looking at the 1790's. Her folks all stayed put, lived in cities, and had respectable jobs.
Not so for my clan. My mother's people all lived down past the ends of dirt roads, and I editorialize from the celerity with which they vanish from record as I go back, didn't care for bureaucrats. Irony.

Following my father's line revealed an interesting riddle, however. He and his half-sister (their relationship in and of itself is an interesting tale, though not mine to tell) know decidedly little about their father's origins. He never said much about his humble beginnings and was, as a more general rule prone to tell things as he saw them or wanted them to be. There were bits of stories about Europe and the occasional, "Semper fi". He was a little too young to have fought in the first World War.
Doing the genealogist jigsaw with all of the "He was from somewhere in New York" or "Kingsport, I'm sure of it" pieces, I found him. There he was in the handwriting of a long-dead census taker, one name sandwiched between so many others.
I had found him, a teenager living with his mother and step father in Bridgeport, CT, Among Austrian-American neighbors whose mother-tongue was listed as “Slavick”. Only he wasn't living with them. Next to my grandfather's name (which had been crossed out) was scribbled the word, "Omit". The only other evidence I had were the words, “Marine” and “U.S.N.”
This piece of the puzzle led to the last piece I could find. A young man with my grandfather's name and birthday had not long before enlisted in the Marine Corps at the New York City recruiter. Only this young man was exactly two years older than my grandfather, and coincidentally, just old enough to enlist.
With this, I did what any real historian would do: interpret, editorialize, and present history as I saw it. The records and the editorial about a young man unwilling to accept a new father filled-in some of the gaps.
This exercise has gotten me thinking about how our personal networks span not just space, but time. Wrapped-up in the convenient package of a database served over the WWW, this pre-digital information system of the US government adds context to a network based upon heritage and genetics. Though, as with most explorations of this sort, the discoveries beg more questions than they answer.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006


He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.
-Thomas Paine

Monday, July 24, 2006

Dharma koan

[I have no time to write and much on my mind.]

If I am not my job, then what am I?

Friday, July 21, 2006

The Lady, Or the Tiger? Or, What is Montague? revisited

This week, I have been busy with concerns of the world outside of the box. Between catching up on all of the work that was displaced by the flood and finishing a term paper on performance management strategies in cultural institutions, I haven't had much time for writing my blog or keeping current with those I read.
Back in the saddle, I'm told that my previous post about the name of my blog was less than helpful. Those persons who told me this might consider creating a blog identity and posting their feelings so that everyone can read them. In my effort to get readers thinking about influence, I apparently "missed" the tangible connection between phrenology and Phrenology. Silly me.
The notion of cursory observation and summary judgment began for me an inquiry into values. I looked for it and found it everywhere: my place of work, my home, my brain, and of course, every time I turned on the television or radio or opened a magazine. In my mind, I began to question and lampoon our snap-judgment and market research culture, connecting it with the dusty pseudoscience.
The blog started out with a grand plan to explore bias and relationships, but almost immediately began to favor the latter. Moreover, the emphasis also quickly became the act of exploration. I learned yet again that I can't get away from geography and that the digital frontier along this undiscovered country of mind, space, and society is too interesting to leave untrodden. I have my chance meeting with Interscape, Silliman's Blog, and a host of blogs by nascent writers to thank for the shift. Of course all of the things happening in the real world had a hand in the shift. The mind (or perhaps the brain) is an inluence machine.
Maybe I'll rename and rebrand Phrenology, and maybe I wont. Maybe I'll get back to the original scheme and maybe I wont. I can't say for sure, because the road ran out a few steps back, and I don't know which way I'm headed from here.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Kantharos and laurel

Today, I'm back "home" at my normal office. The flood has been defeated, and I'm getting tons of work done that has been hampered by the act of God and the ensuing geographical inconvennience.
Despite the fact that I had absolutely nothing to do with getting the building open, I feel victorious. Life is good.
Go forth and declare yourself the Conquering Hero of something today.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Study on "green"

Grassy knoll
wind flips dandelion leaves
Cabo Verde (ha, it's really brown)
Color of life
stolen by dinoflagellates
algae & lichens
Flavoparmelia caperata
devouring sun and rocks
underfoot + overhead
subduing, creating
tying physics to biology
spinning sunlight and air
into agave and lime
after so many, my complexion
I don’t have enough for a cab
it’s yellow anyway


Thursday, July 13, 2006

Good morrow, Werner Heisenberg*

Interscape has been exploring the notion of connectivity. This and my recent travels have me thinking again about interconnection, real and virtual networks, and those Shenandoah falcons. The birds' perch straddles a peculiar ontological line, with one foot in a tangible place, the other dissolved into the web. Whether you consider the WWW to be an inanimate tool or something greater, a confluence of ideas, consciousness, and technology, the falcons are undoubtedly (and unwittingly) part of it.
As they travel and hunt, their nest site is a node. They return there from time to time to eat, to rest, and for other reasons that only make sense to falcons. From it, they connect to other perches, to prey animals, and to sources of water. Each of these interactions careens downhill in a thousand different directions, starting with pathways like small stones falling from high places, rats whose mates never return home, and the uric acid that is a strand in the web of the global nitrogen cycle.
The electronic eyes that beam their image around the world connect them to our web of consciousness. The falcons do not seem impressed by this fact.
I’ve also been looking at the Observer Effect for a graduate class in management I’m taking this semester. In brief, the idea is that by observing something (a system, a behavior, &c), the thing being observed is altered, even if the change is only subtle. This can pose a host of problems for management analysts who are just trying to estimate costs, complete efficiency or job-satisfaction studies, or figure out what in the hell it is that consumers want.
In light of the Observer Effect and the connection of the falcons to the WWW, to me, and to the reader, I’m trying to figure out how we might be impacting the birds and SNP by spying on them.

* Author's Note: E.R. Dunhill is well aware of the distinction between the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and the Observer Effect. This is one of those opportunities to be evolved and not nit-pick over cheeky blog devices.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Four thousand thirty-two words

Pyramid of Kukulkan.

El Caracol. Literally, “the snail” (a reference to the spiral shape of the central structure), this was an astronomical observatory.

Outskirts of town, a few miles from Chichen Itza.

November Niner Seven Fower Delta Lima

engines zoom

Tuesday, July 11, 2006


It’s been more than two weeks now that my office has been closed because of flooding. I spent the first week at home, drying out my basement, cleaning out my gutters, and pulling out my hair. The second week, I was on vacation, swimming in the Caribbean, climbing Mayan temples, and eating a mix of Continental and Mexican cuisine.
Now, I’m back at work, but not in my usual place. My entire office has been given far flung temporary quarters in one of my agency’s nearby buildings. I’m driving the beltway, rather than taking the tube. Resources I need to work are in my normal office, which is currently dark, hot, humid, and 10 miles away. My normal venue for lunchtime Taiji is steps from the other building. I’ve been getting increasingly grouchy.
Separated from my coworkers, and my office, I am reminded of Emerson: “To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society.”
Between my travel and my temporary relocation, my normal order has been upset and I’ve found some of Emerson’s reflective solitude. This has me thinking about what I’m doing, what I want, and where I’m headed. I’ve given these subjects a great deal of time lately, but I had gotten stalled. Spending more time thinking about them was producing fewer results, and the answers seemed to stay one step ahead of my brain. A trip to the jungle and to a new maze of cubicles seems to be closing the distance.
I thought at first that it was curious that all of this could come out of simply changing my surroundings, but I’m beginning to understand that it’s not really the environment that is changing. Sure, I’ve been in these places and hadn’t before, but my brief and innocuous presence is barely to be noticed and does not leave an indelible mark. These places remain substantially they way they were before I visited. No, the change is mine.

Friday, July 07, 2006


Tuesday, my wife and I visited the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza. We arrived there after a long drive through the endless wilderness that surrounds Cancun, punctuated by a couple of quick stops in towns peopled by the heirs of the pyramid-builders. Despite having studied geography in college and having worked for several years in cartography, I was surprised by the first person reality of the landscape.
Miles would fly past us in which the scenery was a homogenous mass of knotted scrub and densely packed small trees. Stretches of forest a quarter of a mile long were leaned at nearly a 45 degree angle, the lingering footprints of Wilma, we were told. Here and there, a farmhouse of cinder blocks and coconut palm thatching would occupy a slashed and burned plot. Towns were collections of simple buildings crowded around the roads in much the same density as the vegetation.
Chichen Itza was as unfamiliar as the landscape around it. Having grown up with constant trips to the national parks of the US, I was surprised at how informal the temple complex was. Local artisans and tourist-junk mongers occupied blankets along the trails connecting the various structures, and concessionaires offered gigante margaritas for US dollars. None of this detracted from the complex in the least, though the tacky margaritas pass only on kitsch value.
The buildings nearly defy words. I’d seen them a hundred times before in books, on art history exams, and as a backdrop to the talking heads on Nova, but in person, it was again the matter of scale that struck me. The ritual ball court spread out like a battlefield; the 70-meter cenote gaped green water and dozens of tiny shrieking birds; the sprawling pyramid of Kukulkan thumbed its nose at the heavens.
El Caracol, an ingeniously designed astronomical observatory was the highlight of my visit and was where I obtained my favorite souvenir. The Maya were brilliant astronomers, geographers, and mathematicians. El Caracol was their observatory, laboratory, classroom, and supercomputer, aligning the world with the heavens, measuring out the year, sighting the cardinal directions, and correctly predicting the future of when to plant, when to harvest, and when to revere. Here amidst the centuries-old paths of astronomer-priests, I connected heavens and earth in my own 21st century cartographer way:

N 20.67923
W 088.57096

Once Blogger starts playing nice again, I'll post some pictures of the temple complex and the towns.