.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Unpopular Ideas

Ramblings and Digressions from out of left field, and beyond....

Location: Piedmont of Virginia, United States

All human history, and just about everything else as well, consists of a never-ending struggle against ignorance.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Arboreal Matrimony

It's happening! After three days of maneuvering with two winch-pullers, also called come-alongs, today I finally managed to release the last of the suspended oak tree from the clutches of the second oak that was holding it so tightly.

Three days might seem like a long time for what might seem like a simple task, but firewood-cutting is not a forgiving exercise in any of its aspects.

When screenwriters look for pearls of wisdom, one that they like to grab goes, "Life doesn't give you any second chances." That sounds good but I have found that it's not all that true. I myself have had several second chances offer themselves. But whether I choose to accept them is another question.

Another such principle is that when you learn how to do something, you learn the rules, but you only get good at the pursuit by figuring how and when to break the rules.

But it seems to me that neither of those sayings holds true for a couple of activities in the woods, namely when you are gathering wild mushrooms and when you are felling trees. Both are pursuits in which it is smart to follow the rules meticulously and all the time, because there's no good way to break the rules, and if you make a mistake, that's it. You get badly messed up, and often terminally.

So I might have saved myself a lot of time and effort by violating the cardinal principle of never cutting a tree in which another one is hung. But I resisted the temptation, and that, as much as getting that suspended tree down purely with my winches makes me feel good.

Now that everything is okay, I'm thinking of cutting down that second oak tree anyway. It's probably been damaged by all the stress that my winching efforts just put on it, and the woods won't be much the poorer for it, as it is only a couple of feet from a majestic and much larger tulip poplar.

But maybe the poplar will miss it.

I have noticed that you will see, at least in my woods, many trees growing in twosomes, usually of differing species, and looking comfortable, as if they prefer things that way. This has made me wonder if it's possible that trees can exist in a state of something like arboreal matrimony.

...Naw. Not really ...do they?

Thursday, October 12, 2006

I'm Still Alive After All, Friends!

Starting 35 or 40 years ago, I paid extra for my annual fees to the U.S. Chess Federation for five or ten years, in order to get a life membership. The main benefit was that that would entitle me to receive their excellent magazine, "Chess Life," for the rest of my days. But a few years ago I finally noticed that several years previously the USCF had stopped sending me the magazine.

As I had long since become inactive in serious chess, that didn't bother me. I decided that at some point they must have sent a notice to see if I was still around, and because I hadn't responded, they decided that I wasn't. I saw no point in correcting them, because I had been feeling guilty anyway about receiving the magazine for so long, at a cost to the USCF far over and above the amount that I had originally paid them. The chess world, at least in all the years when I was familiar with it, had never overflowed with cash.

Today I got a postal missive from the USCF. I thought they had picked up my name from somewhere and they wanted me to buy some chess books or something.

This immediately give me the playful idea of writing them after all, saying something like, "Hi, Folks. I'm still alive, and so you owe me a lot of back issues, don't you? Don't worry. If I had left this world, I would have written and told you."

But that wasn't even a notion.

I was surprised, then, when I opened the envelope and found that it was a questionnaire to determine my status, and lo and behold it even had my actual age, as if they had known all along that I was still on the scene.

I will probably fill in the questionnaire and send it in. Unless times have really changed, there's nothing more innocuous than anything to do with the chess world. But I won't say anything about the magazines.

Suspended Tree Quandary

In the spectacular Fall beauty of the woods in front of my house in rural Virginia, I have a real quandary on my hands, with no easy answers, and yet it can't be left to its own devices for long.

Two days ago I cut down -- to an extent -- a tall white oak that measured about 14 inches at the butt. One reason I did that is that it was leaning in an undesirable direction, and the lean seemed to be increasing.

Using a big come-along, I managed to swing things 90 degrees to a better direction of fall. But the tree's top section lodged in a crook of a projecting limb of another tall but smaller white oak.

At first I wasn't worried. I cut the main part of the trunk of the big felled oak in six-foot sections for about three-fifths of the tree's length. But by that time the large end of the remaining two-fifths -- which itself was still as large as a sizable tree, measuring 6 or 7 inches in diameter at the butt -- swung upward till the section reached an almost exactly horizontal position 15 feet up in the air. It had been pulled up by the weight of the still heavily leafed limbs on the other side of the crook. Balanced on the interfering oak limb in a position that put it exactly parallel to the ground, the huge, suspended section resembled the arm of some old-time balance scales.

And I can't see any good, absolutely safe way to get it down.

Before the lower part swung up so high I had managed to attach my come-along to its big end so as to try to pull it out, but that didn't work, as the section is lodged right where it had started to branch out, and those branches, too high up to be reached in one direction, prevent the section from being pulled out in the other direction.

The limb that's holding it, extended like an arm from a person pointing to the sky, is less than four inches thick but being oak and green, it's plenty tough. I thought of trying to weaken that offending limb by blasting it with my shotgun. But I hadn't fired the gun in at least 10 years, and I called my gun expert friend down the road, H., to see if firing it after so long a time was dangerous. He said the gun itself wasn't likely to explode or anything, but as I only have No. 6 quail shot -- the same ammo that the Republicans' sad excuse for a Vice-President, D. Cheney, presumably used to pepper his hunting companion not long ago -- it wouldn't say much to that limb. The problem is that as soon as the pellets left the gun they would start spreading, so that by the time they reached that limb, 15 or 20 feet away, I would be lucky if two or three of the tiny birdshot struck the wood, and then they would only penetrate for about half an inch. H. said that I could probably fire at the limb all day long without making even as much of an impression as Cheney did on his buddy.

Another tactic I could try is to cut down the tree in which the suspended section is balanced. But cutting down any tree in which another, fallen tree is lodged is a big no-no in wood-cutting lore, especially for an amateur, though I have been cutting my own firewood for over 25 years.

I've been thinking strongly of trying it anyway, because in this case I don't see where it's particularly dangerous. But the catch is that, ironically, that suspended section would interfere with the only desirable direction of fall, because of other trees standing close by.

For now the safest recourse is the third choice of reattaching my come-along to the section's big end, from which I still have a chain hanging, and pulling it from the other direction, behind the tree holding it, so as to try to pull that end down as close to the ground as possible, in the hope that I can get the section to stand almost upright, in the hope that, thus freed, it will fall by itself, or maybe then I can pull it down in the other direction. But nothing about that is guaranteed either.

Still, somehow, and quickly, as an oldtimer friend around here would have said, that section hanging so high up and threatening has got to go away from here!

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Columbus -- an Ultimate Conumdrum

It seems that one day around this time, Columbus Day rolled around again.

I don't celebrate Columbus Day. But then I don't celebrate any of the Days or the Holidays. Of all of them, however, Columbus Day must be the most bizarre.

I don't know why any Europeans -- the originals on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean and the derivatives on this side -- would celebrate this day, because the events that followed the landings of Columbus and his crew don't do much for their heritage.

Columbus makes me think of three things: the land that he found, the people that he found, and the way that things followed him and ultimately ballooned into the enormities that we have today.

Today the land itself is in a much worse condition than it was when he arrived, and the treatment of the tribes by the Spanish, the English, and other supposed Christians is one of the saddest chapters in human history.

Still, Columbus can't be blamed. If not him, someone else would have accomplished the crossing, and, given the Europe of that time, it was all inevitable.

Too bad that Columbus is celebrated more for what he supposedly discovered than for his voyage itself. That must've been a thrilling thing, setting out into a really great unknown in three small ships, trying to catch the right winds and meanwhile never knowing how far they would have to sail before any land could be sighted to the west, and then that great moment when they finally saw the horizon crowned by a beautiful, low-lying, forested place, followed by the even greater thrill of wading ashore and looking around to see what might be there. And how remarkable, the fates that came ashore with them, riding on their shoulders and larger than at any other moment in human history.

How I would've loved to have been there, though not with knowing what I know now, and it will be a very sad day when they find out how to warp time enough to make such irregularities possible!

Monday, October 09, 2006

Strategic Air Command

This morning, so soon after posting some negative views on the virtues of bombing from the air, I took special care to record on DVD a thinly disguised recruiting vehicle for the Air Force of yesteryear that doubled as a Jimmy Stewart/June Allyson love vehicle, called "The Strategic Air Command."

It seems strange even to me when I tell you that, despite several things, this film is one of the movies that I can closely relate to. Given my particular configuration, there are very, very few of those, believe me! The reason is that, in 1955, the year that this movie carries, I had just a few months to go before the end of my four-year hitch in the Air Force, and I spent the last year and a half of that time, in fact, in the Strategic Air Command, or "SAC," as we called it.

Unlike Jimmy Stewart, however, I wasn't a flying crew member. Instead I was a ground maintenance man, keeping the planes' radios up to snuff. While in SAC I started out working on the old prop-driven B-29's on Okinawa, and then the whole outfit was shipped lock, stock, and barrel to Lincoln, Nebraska, where we were given the first of the then brand new B-47 jet bombers. That is the same type of plane that figured in the climax of the film, when Stewart has to make a harrowing landing in the rain and low clouds on the same base in Kadena on Okinawa where I was stationed. The B-47 was one of the two long-range bombers that the Air Force used at that time. The other was the B-52, which, incredibly, is still in use now, as far as I know, 50 years later!

For me, the real interest of this film doesn't lie in its story line or in its characters. Instead it was in those marvels of engineering, the planes, and I always felt grateful to the U.S. government for giving me the chance to check out a variety of them close up. The sight of them streaming through the skies is as beautiful now as it was more than half a century ago.

It follows that, being young, in 1955 I spent no time considering the purpose of those planes. I didn't have that luxury.

This film deals heavily with the question of how the Air Force can retain its good personnel. Nowadays the U.S. military is still grappling with that same issue, but it is even more pressing than in the Cold War days, which benefitted from the patriotic momentum that was still present, following WW2. Things are very different now, because instead of necessities, and since Iraq and Afghanistan aren't enough, the Bush Administration has several more military adventures in which it would like to engage but is hamstrung by a distinct scarcity of volunteers willing to so risk their life styles and their lives.

In the year of "SAC," I grappled with the notion of whether to re-enlist. I was asked to, and I thought heavily about doing so. But the difference between Jimmy Stewart and me was that I had no pregnant June Allyson to disapprove of my staying in. All I had was a strong desire to go back to Okinawa, a place that fascinated me and that I felt I had left too soon. Stewart chose to stay in, in spite of June Allyson's objections, but a bad arm threw him willy-nilly in the opposite direction that his wife had desired.

In my case my decision not to reenlist was a result of the bizarre reasoning that I supposed has always characterized me. I decided that the Air Force was too easy a life, and also I was too familiar with it. I thought I'd look to see what was under other rocks.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Bombing from the Air -- Terrorism?

For a long time I have labored to understand why bombing from the air, far from being clean, convenient, honorable, and even heroic, isn't regarded as being an act of terrorism, fully as much as was using airliners for missiles in the attacks of 9/11.

I guess the answer is simple. Because it is always done in that noble enterprise called war.

But what if you don't regard war as being noble at all? What if, seeing that humans are the only species that engages in it, you regard warfare instead as a highly obscene and endlessly wasteful indulgence of the species' dark side? What if war strikes you as being the best sign of humankind's native insanity?

I suppose that most people see terrorism as being illegal, unauthorized warfare.

One or two others, including me, have a cruder but I think more accurate definition. Terrorism is any activity that terrifies, and I don't know why bombing from the air shouldn't qualify as being just that.

I know that this point is totally lost on my fellow countrymen, and that bombing from the air is their method of choice for waging war. One of the main reasons for this is their complete lack of experience on the receiving end of it. No U.S. cities have ever been bombed from the air, and so there's a cold, callous national detachment about what it is and how it feels. Pearl Harbor was mainly an attack by torpedo planes on warships at a naval base, while airliners, even hijacked ones, are not munitions dropped from other planes. So New York City and Arlington, Virginia, much as they would like to, can't validly place themselves beside Tokyo, London, Berlin, Dresden, Hiroshima, and dozens of other such cities, in terms of how the bombing was done as well as in amounts of death, damage, and destruction.

Bill Maher, the political TV humorist, got into hot water a few years ago by suggesting that bombing from a plane involves some cowardice. But can't exactly that be said, especially if the targets are in countries that lack effective anti-aircraft defences and other deterrents?

These days the bomber crews sit comfortably and safely in their machines, often unseen and unheard. They drop their loads from thousands of feet overhead, then turn and head back toward their bases. For them it is a purely impersonal business. They see themselves as hitting merely points on a map. But as the bombs reach their destinations, grid coordinates become places where there are highly fearful men, women, and children cowering and running about.

The bomber crews cannot see, hear, or smell any traces of the agonies and the terror that they have just created below. If they can imagine it at all, they shut it out of their minds and look forward to ordering milkshakes and whiskey sours after the mission is finished.

The victims of bombs from the air, on the other hand, hear the explosions and don't know whether the next one will mean the deaths of themselves and people that they care about, maybe in large numbers. Buildings fall in on them, and rubble rains down on them, burying many of them. And they have no means of hitting back at those who have rained this utter misery upon them, because those forces are too high up in the air and now are quickly fleeing the scene. All that the bombed people can do is to fight their panic and desperately hope for the luck of the chance.

That fear and panic, it should be mentioned, is an intended effect of terrorism.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Inertial Expectoration, or Spitting in China

Paul Theroux's highly informative "Riding the Iron Rooster" is about a trip he took to mainland China in 1986. His title refers to one of the many train rides that he took within the country, and those are the focus of the book. Aside from preoccupations with food, the Red Guards, Chairman Mao, and the shapes of mountains, one can't help but notice Theroux's interest in the Chinese fondness for spitting in public. Quite often he mentioned how freely they spat whenever and wherever they pleased, with great frequency, even onto rugs, and the government was looking for means to try to curb this raging national habit.

I wondered if now, 20 years later, the Chinese authorities, which we think of as being so powerful, had succeeded. A light web search indicated that expectoration in China is as free and frequent as ever, even though various governments there are still trying to set into place anti-spitting programs. Having already done so during the SARS scare of 2002, without permanent success, they are making the same effort part of the process in gearing up for the Olympics in Peking two years from now.

Theroux traveled all over China buttonholing people and asking millions of questions, yet so far, four-fifths of the way through the book, not once did he ask anyone the really salient question, and that is, why do they spit so much?

Maybe Theroux did ask but didn't find the answers enlightening. In a blog I read, a woman tells of how she asked someone that question, and the answer was simply, "Because I am a mainland Chinese."

Apparently the Chinese who fled to Taiwan in 1949 plus those who were already there, have dropped the habit, at least in the same profusion, giving rise to a saying in China that if a war ever broke out and everybody in China spat on Taiwan, it would sink the whole island.

In my current DVD craze, I'm going to start paying more attention to Chinese movies, for many reasons, one being to see if anyone in them is shown doing the thing. I'm confident that I never will, just as I never have, in all the Chinese films that I've already seen.

Maybe, being so much larger, the Chinese can't easily break that or any other habit, purely because of the laws of physics and the inertia that accompanies oversized objects.

The Japanese, also with a large population but nothing like that of China and India, have the apparent advantage of being more flexible than those countries.

When I traveled through Japan during the summer of 1959, 14 years after the War (which for me means WW2), I frequently saw Japanese men urinating on railway station platforms, sidewalks, and other public places, with no one taking any note of it. Just seven years later, in 1966, when I made a similar summer-long swing through the Japanese islands, the practice, to my observation, had vanished entirely.

The Chinese, however, must be a different cup of tea.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

A Definition of War

No matter how you cut it, and no matter what high-flown ideas one can cook up to justify it, war is one thing and one thing only: an act of murder and rapine carried out by young fools under the direction of old fools. Therefore it is amazing but understandable, given the state of the human mind, that generals, like judges, are so greatly respected and honored. Both should be suspect but aren't, because their admirers are also so deeply embedded in the mire in which the darkness is regularly mistaken for being the light.