Friday, June 22, 2007


County Scenes

If I lived on the planet Mercury, I would be about 250 years old. If I lived on Mars, I would be coming up on my 32nd birthday. But I live on Earth, where I just turned 60, which seems to be a significant thing, if I let it.

And I'm letting it.

It's set me thinking off in a number of directions. One of those is, predictably, where I came from in the geographic sense: Chenango County, upstate New York.

The last time I was there was in August of the year 2000, when I went back to scatter my parents' ashes. They spent the last 15 years of their lives in Florida (and came to regret that decision more and more as time went by, because they loved upstate more than they knew when they left), and they died within weeks of each other in 1999, after 55 years of companionship. Their ashes spent the winter of '99-'00 in elegant wooden boxes here at Ft. Harrington in California, and I carried them back across the country to Chenango in the height of my home county's finest season, summer. Mother's youngest brother traveled from his home in Georgia to meet me there, and we scattered his sister's ashes, mingled with her husband's, in the Whaupaunaucau State Forest, just across the Thompson Creek Valley from their longtime home, and the place where I grew up.

I won't divulge where, exactly, the scattering occurred, because it was done without benefit of permit and I don't want them disturbed by any but natural forces. I will say, though, that it was a place where we often walked to and, when we did so, the forest hadn't grown to the point where it is now. It was within sight of our house.

I took the few days around that time to wander, solitary (since Diane didn't accompany me on this trip), through places of memory and significance. Some of those are pictured below:

Ralph and Marie Inman's House, Washington Street, Oxford, New York

The house on Washington Street in Oxford is the site of my first memory. Mom and Dad rented the upper floor from the Inmans, and I was three years old when we moved from there to our little house on King's Settlement Road outside of Norwich in 1950. My earliest memory is of my mother telling me that we were going to move. I have no idea how I felt about it, or what I thought that meant... but I remember, clear as the keyboard in front of me now, the plate of hot dog pieces and baked beans that was in front of me at that moment.

Little baseball field near Gibson School in Norwich

This was where my friends and I would play pick-up baseball games in the summertime when we were, oh, maybe nine to twelve years old, and I do believe that the screen is the same one that was there 50 years ago. Our games were spur-of-the moment things, not "organized" in any sense of the word, and we would gather by way of telephone "do you wanna play ball?" and "on the hill" and by way of bicycle, with a treasured baseball glove hanging from the right- or left-handlebar by its wrist-strap. Sometimes we'd play from when dew still wet the grass until the sun went down over West Hill. Just to the right of the bare patch around "home" is where I, barefoot, stepped on a bee in '57 or '58, and my heel still has a little, tiny white scar to remind me.

Veterans' Park, Norwich

Only a few years later (but it seemed like an age then), I was pitching on this regulation-sized diamond. I was a pretty decent high school pitcher. At every game I pitched, my Dad (who was my primary coach and instructor) sat on the railing behind the top row of the little stands (upper-left), with the tips of the fingers of his right hand between his lips, as though he were chewing on his fingernails. Looking at the picture above, I swear I can still see him there.

Grand houses on North Broad Street, Norwich

Norwich was a fairly typical upstate town, if off any beaten track since the Chenango Canal and the NYO&W railroad went out of business. A few wealthy families lived in fine houses on the main thoroughfares, Broad Street north-and-south and Main Street east-and-west. I knew a few kids from those families, but most of my friends were from...

Houses near the old railyards, Norwich

... the neighborhoods off the grid's axes, the neighborhoods of primarily Italian ("the St. Bart's Church kids") and Irish ("the St. Paul's Church kids") 2nd- or 3rd-generation families who had come to Norwich originally for work in the shoe factory, or the textile mill, or the "pill factory" (the Norwich Pharmacal Company, where my dad was an executive and my mother was a research biochemist.)

North Norwich from the East

While the County Seat of Chenango, Norwich had a population of only around 8,000 in the 1950's and '60's. The county was (and is) very rural, and its scenery is pastoral. Above is a view from a hilltop cornfield down into the Chenango River Valley and the hamlet of North Norwich.

Pastorale #1: Long view

View down the Thompson Creek valley westward to the Chenango Valley in the distance. This is the little valley in which I did most of what growing up I managed to do.

Pastorale #2: Meadow Detail

The Chenango River runs north-south through its County, eventually merging with the Susquehanna in Binghamton. It follows an old glacial track, as do most of the watersheds in its part of upstate New York, from the Finger Lakes to the western slopes of the Catskills:

Downstream View

Upstream view

The Red Mill Bridge

The Red Mill Bridge crosses the Canasawacta Creek on the west side of the "city" of Norwich. It marks a peaceful, still part of the creek, rich with flat stones on the bottom, which could be upturned in summer to find all sorts of wonderful critters hiding underneath them, or could be picked up and tossed with skill to skip across the surface in ever-shortening jumps... just as the years since I did that have jumped and skipped in ever-shortening steps across their decades.


Now, here's the rub: Two of the pictures above are impostors: they were taken in counties not named Chenango in a State not named New York. Can you identify them? If so, can you identify where they were taken?

I'll let any who want to take a shot at it do so in comments for a week (or until someone nails both of them, if that happens sooner.) Good luck!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Okay. That's Irish Enough. You Can Stop Now.

Today was my 60th birthday.

When I arrived home after my night class, Mrs. Fort had a nice surprise giftie waiting for me (an old-time baseball themed wall clock for the den), and the usual daily update on how things went in Ft. Harrington while I was away.

I fired up the computer to check in on my e-mail and my favorite blogs, poured myself a birthday mug of Guinness Extra Stout, and found myself face-to-face with Finn, who apparently had a pretty good day, too.

He first wanted to see if he could help me with the keyboard...

... then, noticing that I wasn't actually typing anything, turned his attention to the mug...

... and its contents ...


He's taking this "Finn McCool" thing way too seriously. Maybe we should have named him "Fluffy" or something.

Postscript: Ronniecat will recognize the webpage on the monitor! It's I Am Mojo! -- her cat Mojo's blog -- which I was actually reading for myself, not trying to show it to Finn. Also, the discerning viewer will notice (by clicking on the images above to see larger versions) the walrus talisman on the shelf behind Finn's shoulder. I'm looking for a tiny blue bucket to put next to it.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Project Finn

Finn McCool relaxes on the couch.

Finn has been at Ft. Harrington for two weeks now, and he's slowly, slowly getting comfortable.

He's going to be more of a project than expected, but he's smart, basically affectionate, and wants to get along here. He just doesn't quite know exactly how to do that yet, but he's learning quickly.

That Finn was going to be a little bit of a challenge became apparent on his first trip to the vet, after he had been with us for a mere 48 hours. Here's a slice (heh) from the doctor's writeup on that visit (click the image to see a legible version):
The "bold, inquisitive" part comes from Finn's behavior whenever anyone would open the exam room door from outside: he'd come to full alert and stalk toward the corner of the exam table nearest the door instead of shrinking away. The "may scratch or bite, a little wild" comes from our mis-adventure in attempting to take his temperature the first (and, so far, only) time. He had behaved very well up until then, but as soon as the thermometer made contact... BLAM!! Finn went off like a tactical nuclear warhead, writhing, screaming, biting, slashing, and I swear I could hear him in my head, saying "THAT'S A ONE-WAY STREET, YOU PERVERTS!"

We managed to constrain him pretty quickly, but not before there was blood on the exam table, none of it Finn's. It could have been worse; there could have been some on the walls.

On the third day, he rested behind the CPU.

Through the first week, it became more and more clear that Finn had never been socialized, either with people or other animals. Consistent encouragement/discouragement of specific behaviors is working very well with him, though, and I'm sure he'll eventually be safe for Grace-the-Granddaughter to handle. Not quite yet, though.

His interactions with the other animals has been fascinating -- sometimes heartwarming, sometimes frightening, sometimes infuriating, but always fascinating. He has the computer room all to himself, but we've had it open to the other animals (and for him to visit other rooms when he's of a mind) for increasing periods each day.

Finn bowling

His first forays out of his room were times for finding hidey-holes and nooks (of which there are many in the Fort.) He seems most comfortable in high places (like the bowl above up near the kitchen ceiling) where he can keep an eye on things. It says a lot about him that he prefers those places to dark, hidden places under furniture.

The other animals have varying reactions to him, but the weirdest by far is what goes on with our Maine Coons, Alnitak and his nephew Copernicus. The two of them are together so much that we almost think of them as one cat, but their reactions to Finn have been polar opposites, almost like they're playing a "Good cop, bad cop" routine on the little guy. That's got to be confusing to Finn; the two coons look so much alike that I'm not sure how long it took him to figure out that they are actually two different cats.

Cooper has been a big, fuzzy, warm friend from the start -- but Al's behavior has bordered on the hateful, never physically hurting Finn, but intimidating him to the point of terrorization sometimes. It's a relief that his behavior is ameliorating rapidly -- and today I caught him sitting with Finn at the computer room window watching "kitty TV" (chickens in the yard) happily together.

Cooper, the good cop.

Al, the bad cop.

Fonzie sleeps under Boo's picture.

Fonzie, the spacey, lovely little Aby, has been fond of Finn from the outset, and Finn has always seemed comfortable with him, too. It may be a red cat thing; Fonzie was always very fond of our old ginger bobtail, Boo, too.

Kelsey and Finn McCool

Finn is slowly coming to grips with the dogs, but I don't think he'll ever actually like them the way the coons do. They don't freak him out now like they did in the first week, but there's still plenty of room for progress.

And then there's Oolie, the Black Freighter. Oolie completely and utterly ignores Finn unless the little guy gets inside his no-trespassing zone, which seems to be about a foot and a half. When that happens, the Freighter spits a little and threatens to call his lawyer:

So far, the name "Finn McCool" seems to fit pretty well. He's in a terribly alien situation, with lots of strange things and animals to get used to, and he's holding his ground without hiding. Not bad for a little 8-pound yearling.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Doug's Memorial Website Updated

"An Extraordinary Day in May" was more than a month ago, now.

I have finally updated Doug's memorial website to include the rich variety of recordings of the event, both visual and audio/video. The full panoply can be seen by clickng this link, and then exploring the hyperlinks, but there is one part of it that slices directly to the heart that I want to impose on the few readers of this blog:

Clicking on the little arrow in the middle of the above frame takes you to a moving performance. David Godfrey White, a sometime (repeatedly) bandmate of Doug's, sings his composition "In Memory Of..." at the end of the ceremony for Doug's bench dedication. The song was written just a few years ago, in part for David's late brother, Jeffrey, and is featured on Heathen's 2005 album, "Recovered".

Ronniecat says that my son, Adam's, hug with Dave at the end of the song is the most moving part of this performance. I would have a hard time disagreeing. The loss of a brother is something I cannot ever fully understand, but the two of them quite clearly do.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Say Hello to Finn McCool [Updated]

Finn McCool, year-old veteran of multiple shelters, was liberated from the Humane Society of Silicon Valley at 5pm, Sunday, June 3rd. He was immediately smuggled by his rescue squad into the deeply-forested mountains, to a place called "Fort Harrington." There, he is intended to be the guardian of the king (as was his namesake in legend).

He will, that is, if he ever comes out from underneath the dresser.

And, no, I'm not the "king." That would be Oolie, the Black Freighter.

Finn McCool (or Fionn mac Cumhaill)

This painting of the light-red-haired warrior was stolen from Ton Coolen's short description of the legend . Dr. Coolen is a member of the "Disordered Systems Group" at King's College, University of London, and has no idea who I am. He named his son "Finn," and does that kid ever have some name to live up to.


Finn McCool came out from under the dresser at nine o'clock -- as soon as he heard Mrs. Fort's voice when she came into the computer room to check on him. Apparently, he became enchanted by the sound of her voice on our long drive back from the shelter. Can't say that I blame him.

Finn and Mrs. Fort, June 3, 2007.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

"Is That What It Really Looks Like?"

Please click on the images to see larger, more detailed versions.

The Carina Nebula
(Except where otherwise noted, all illustrations in this post are modified from a single NASA image.)

NASA released this magnificent mosaic of the Carina Nebula and its environs on April 24th of this year, the 17th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. It comprises 48 monochrome images from the HST’s “Advanced Camera for Surveys” (a relatively wide-angle instrument) and color information from the 4-meter Victor M. Blanco Telescope of the Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory in the Chilean Andes.

The image shows a complex region of star formation and interstellar gas approximately 7,500 light years away from us, and spans about 50 light years in its longer dimension.

It is a spectacular picture. It is also available for free in a wide variety of different resolutions and file sizes – including ones big enough to use to print out wall-mural sized reproductions – at the Hubblesite.


The image I downloaded for my personal and classroom use is the 7.32 meg high resolution one, available here. It’s plenty big for all kinds of fun exploration, and bears up well under multiple zooming-ins. The images in this section are simply cropped portions of that 7.32 meg original.

You can get lost poking around in the image. Here are some of my favorite parts (this evening, at least):


The brown streamers of gas and dust probably are being pushed away from nests of star formation near their heads by an intense outflow of radiation and, possibly, stellar wind from Eta Carinae, a massive, unstable star to their upper-left in this view. The streamers, or “pillars” as they’re called, are several light years long. I call the one at the right…

… the “Spaniel Nebula,” because it bears a certain resemblance to my little dog, Emma, in profile.

Eta Carinae itself…

… is at the heart of the bright cloud in the center of this zoom. It is a famous star to astrophysicists, an irregular variable, hyperluminous, and probably just about as massive as a star can be – in theory, about a hundred times the mass of our Sun. The two bright lobes of gas near the center of this zoom are themselves centered on the star Eta Carinae, and were probably ejected during a long “outburst” of luminance more than a hundred years ago. The history of Eta Carinae’s brightness is an interesting one, nicely recounted in its entry in the venerable (and mammoth) SEDS astronomy site.

Eta Carinae is so massive that it can't be very old, relatively speaking, perhaps only a few million years. (Our Sun, for contrast, has existed for approximately five thousand million years.) The Carina Nebula area is in a spiral arm of the Milky Way just a little closer to the center of the Galaxy than we are, and its environs probably take about 200 million years to orbit around the center of the Galaxy once – so the whole region shown in the Hubble anniversary picture hasn’t moved very far, relatively speaking, since Eta Carinae formed.

It is rife with stellar youngsters and cocoons, including…

Trumpler 14

… the star cluster Trumpler 14 which, in turn, includes an intensely black clump of dusty material, much less than a light year across. This “Bok Globule” (at upper center of this zoom frame) probably contains a forming star or stars – nature shrouds the latter stages of stars’ formation in a shroud of modesty.

Personal aside: I feel a little bit of a connection with Trumpler 14 and its Bok Globule in what I guess is a bit of an old-mannish way. “Trumpler” was Robert Trumpler, a Swiss astronomer who was a pioneer researcher on the gas and dust of the Milky Way in the middle part of the last century. He and his son-in-law, Harold Weaver, wrote one of the most notable reference works in mid-20th century astrophysics, Statistical Astronomy – and I was priveleged to take courses from Dr. Weaver in graduate school. Bok Globules are named after Bart Bok, another mid-20th century astronomer, who (with his wife Priscilla) took time from his research to write inspirational books about astronomy for young readers. Their The Milky Way is one of two books that I think set me on the road to becoming an astronomer – and I’m surely not alone in that.

Bart Bok (image: National Academy of Sciences)

Does it really …?

A common and understandable question I get from students (and others) when I show them the Hubble anniversary picture of the Carina Nebula is, “Does it really look like that?” My answer is always, “what do you mean by ‘really’?”

If one limits oneself to the weak eyes of humans, the answer is “no, that’s not what it looks like at all.” Here are a few steps to what it would look like with human eyes:

Step 1:

Without a telescope, the scene would be smaller (but not a whole lot.) If you print out the picture at the top of this blog entry so that it’s ten inches across and then view that printout from a distance of about fifty yards, that would be about right.

Step 2:

The cones (color-sensing cells) in the retinas of our eyes are not sensitive enough to be triggered by the weak light of the nebula’s glow, so step 2 is to remove all color (rough image adjustments done using L-View Pro):

Step 3:

Our eyes evolved to see in a very bright environment. The gas in the Carina Nebula is faint, so we’d probably really see something like this:

So, no, the anniversary image is not what the Carina Nebula region would look like to beings with eyes like ours -- and hallelujah for that. The primary purpose of most astronomical telescopes is to provide the brightest possible images of faint things, so, in a way, the primary purpose of an astronomical telescope is to show us what things don’t look like! In addition, the colors of the anniversary image are false (but informative) as well. Images were taken at the Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory in Chile of the region through filters that isolated the light of tenuous oxygen, hydrogen, and sulfur gas in the nebula, which were then coded into the anniversary image as blue, green, and red, respectively, for an RGB computer-friendly image. Not at all what we’d “see,” of course, but not made up out of whole cloth, either, and very useful. Thanks to modern imaging technology, we can all be Geordi LaForge in our celestial viewing.

So, what would it really look like to be in the midst of a spiral arm of a giant galaxy, surrounded by star clusters and nebulae? That’s easy to find out: go outside and look up, because that’s where we live. The view from our planet – if we take care to go to a very dark, clear place and allow our eyes the time to adapt to the dark – is as staggering as anything in a George Lucas Star Wars film.

"No telescope. No binoculars."

I was priveleged to talk to Bart Bok several times in the late 1960’s and early ‘70’s (he passed away in 1983), and one conversation I remember particularly vividly involved his description of the Milky Way as seen from the Southern Hemisphere, from which the constellation Carina can be seen, along with its particularly rich area of the Milky Way. “No telescope,” he said, “no binoculars” are needed to be awed to the core by the majesty of the galaxy as its magnificent arch spans from horizon to horizon in South Africa or Australia, especially in April or May, when the center of the Galaxy, Sagittarius, Scorpius, and Carina ride high in the night sky.

“If we could have seen the center of the Milky Way from the Northern Hemisphere,” he said, “there never would have been any doubt that we live in a spiral galay. It would have been obvious. No telescopes. No binoculars. No debate.”


Some reference links:

Downloading the image:

“Color” info:

A very good (as of this evening) Wikipedia entry on the image:

Eta Carinae (the star) general information page from the University of Minnesota, including great images:

Eta Carinae (the star) at SEDS: