Thursday, May 31, 2007

Cause of death

This obituary in today's Cumberland Times-News includes a cause of death I've never seen in an obit before:
BEDFORD, Pa. -- Jessica R. Sellers, 24, of Bedford, died at 11:35 a.m., Tuesday, May 29, 2007, at home after a courageous battle with anorexia.
Amid their grief, Jessica's relatives did an admirable thing in publicly declaring what she died of. The more open we become about this all-too-common illness, the closer we come to eradicating it.

Reading further, I see that Jessica played on the Frostburg State softball team, so I hope the student newspaper, The Bottom Line, does an article about her. That, too, would help.

The Hotts check in

Megan Hott of Keyser, W.Va., last seen here wearing a "No one cares about your blog" T-shirt, writes:
this is too weird...
Whether this counts as evidence that she now does care about my blog is open to debate, of course.

Meanwhile, Trent Hergenrader's insistence that "There's no way a long-haired blond in high school has the last name 'Hott'" prompts Megan Hott's sister to write:
There is a Megan Hott because I am her sister :) ... Amanda Hott ... Just wanted to inform everyone that there are girls w/the last name Hott and they do go to high school, although I recently graduated. ;)
(Megan, you're also on my hero Barry Johnson's blog, and you're the subject of this follow-up post on my blog as well.)

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

My family connection to Vonnegut recedes, alas

In April, I posted this:
My family owns about 80 acres of woodland in Saluda County, S.C., acreage on which -- I grew up being told -- U.S. Army troops performed battlefield maneuvers as part of their training before being shipped overseas in World War II. The cabin used as a command headquarters was still standing in my youth, and we'd stay in it for a week or more each summer.
I found out this week that I had misremembered the family story. The battlefield maneuvers took place not in the mid-1940s but in the late 1950s, because my brother, Allen, born in 1944, remembers visiting the encampment with our father, and seeing the camouflaged soldiers emerging from the woods like ghosts. (My brother also reports the cabin is still standing, and in surprisingly good shape.)

So those maneuvers couldn't have been the ones narrated by Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse-Five, as I speculated earlier. Yes, the Trafalmadorians would say my sequence-of-events obsession is naively linear -- but the fiction vs. non-fiction distinction is a stumbling block, too.

I see now that my original post appeared April 1, but I didn't realize I was April-fooling, honest.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

More on Jamie Bishop

Here's Paul Di Filippo's report from the Georgia memorial service, with information about a second fund that's accepting contributions.

Here's Michael Bishop's letter to Locus.

Here's a tribute by Jack Slay Jr. It concludes with a years-old poem by Michael about Jamie -- which has a new resonance now, alas.

Not-so-amazing coincidences

Perennially popular before the Internet, and downright inescapable since the Internet, are lists of "amazing coincidences," such as this one recently posted at Seldom are any objective sources provided, other than Ripley's and the like, but sometimes a quick Google is enough to render the supposed amazing coincidence not so amazing at all, and maybe not even coincidental. For example:
Months after the Titanic sank, a tramp steamer was traveling through the foggy Atlantic with only a young boy on watch. It came into his head that it had been thereabouts that the Titanic had sunk, and he was suddenly terrified by the thought of the name of his ship -- the Titanian. Panic-stricken, he sounded the warning. The ship stopped, just in time: a huge iceberg loomed out of the fog directly in their path. The Titanian was saved.
The Encyclopedia Titanica, however, points out that ex-sailor William Reeve's account of his "amazing" premonition, written 32 years after the fact, flatly contradicts newspaper accounts at the time that put the Titanian's brush with the berg quite a ways from the spot where the Titanic went down. It was "thereabouts" only in the sense of "also in the North Atlantic." (Incidentally, the Titanian incident was not "months after the Titanic sank," but in 1935, which was 23 years after the disaster.) Given the frequency with which ships encountered bergs in the North Atlantic in the 19th and 20th centuries, is Titanian's encounter a generation later so remarkable? Here's another:
In Detroit sometime in the 1930s, a young (if incredibly careless) mother must have been eternally grateful to a man named Joseph Figlock. As Figlock was walking down the street, the mother's baby fell from a high window onto Figlock. The baby's fall was broken and both man and baby were unharmed. A stroke of luck on its own, but a year later, the very same baby fell from the very same window onto poor, unsuspecting Joseph Figlock as he was again passing beneath. And again, they both survived the event.
This one seems to be partially true, as Time magazine actually mentioned the incidents in a roundup column in its Oct. 17, 1938 issue, saying the second fall occurred "last fortnight." But according to Time, the falls involved two different children, two different windows, two different buildings, two different streets -- which renders the story much more plausible, if considerably less amazing. I wonder how many small children did fall from high-rise windows, in the days before day care and air conditioning. (It occasionally happens still.) Moreover, Time reports that Mr. Figlock worked as a street sweeper, and that both incidents occurred while he was on the job. Someone whose job requires him to be in the street all the time is clearly at greater risk of being hit by anything that falls from windows; one wonders what else landed on Mr. Figlock during his career, other than these two celebrated kids.

In a useful essay on coincidence, Dennis McFadden of the University of Texas (and of the Austin Society To Oppose Pseudoscience) writes: "Generally, people tend to underestimate grossly the probability of any event that happens to them, especially one perceived as 'strange.'"

Yes, Mr. Figlock's twofer is remarkable even without the embroidery, and yes, it's fun to learn that the victim of cannibalism in the celebrated 1884 case of the ill-fated yacht the Mignonette had the same name as the victim of cannibalism in similar circumstances in Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (Chapter 12), published 46 years earlier -- but one still must point out that Richard Parker is a fairly common name in the English-speaking world, and that cannibalism among desperate seamen long predated Poe.

A maritime mystery

Here's a puzzler in Australia: a catamaran found adrift off the Great Barrier Reef, its three crew members missing, its engine and computer still running, food on the table ready to eat -- and the rubber fenders deployed, as when docking or pulling alongside another boat. Judging from the photo, the Kaz II's sail was shredded, too.

Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda

Here's a recent AP story about Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda, founder of the Growing in Grace church in Miami, who has thousands of followers in South Florida and Latin America. He calls himself the Antichrist, saying his teachings supplant those of Christ, and calls his followers Antichrists as well. Says one observer: "He wants attention."

It's not all Masterpiece Theatre in Britain

Dirk Benedict, Dwight Schultz and Mr. T will reunite on the British paranormal show Most Haunted in an attempt to contact George Peppard, their late co-star on The A-Team.

Plan your prom bedding now

If you're planning any prom bedding this year, this sign on Main Street in Frostburg is a reminder that a deluxe corsage can help your chances.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Pop fluency as a presidential trait

I like Dean Barnett's take, at The Weekly Standard, on the flap about Mitt Romney and his favorite book -- which Romney originally said was Battlefield Earth until that didn't play so well, whereupon he said it was the Bible and Huckleberry Finn. Barnett writes:
Since it would be too much to expect journalists to stop asking these questions, what the Romney episode points to is the need for a new subspecies of political consultant--one who will help candidates look literate when it comes to pop culture. Most of the candidates need a crash course on the things that ordinary people like. Desperately. Or do you think Hillary Clinton has a favorite NASCAR driver ready for the inevitable occasion when a plucky Edwards supporter demands to know if she's a Jeff Gordon or Dale Jr. kind of gal? ...

Picture a candidate who could effortlessly segue from paying homage to Dale Earnhardt's #3 to saying how much High Noon has always meant to him. Conjure up a contender who could unashamedly admit that if owning every George Strait record makes him a square, so be it, and then quickly pivot to the many times tears welled in his eyes when sports heroes like Curt Schilling or Willis Reed rose above pain to perform in an almost super-human fashion.

That guy wouldn't just have a lot of admirers who wanted to have a beer with him. He'd also eventually be known as Mr. President.

Mr. D-- asks a question

In Chapter 5 of Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (specifically, on Page 54 of the U.S. hardcover), is this paragraph:
"You will not regret it, my dear sir!" cried Drawlight, "for three weeks ago I chose a set for the Duchess of B-- and she declared the moment she saw it that she never in her life saw anything half so charming!"
Eliding the name of a person or place, like the Duchess of B-- above, used to be commonplace in English-language fiction, and still is among writers going for a 19th-century effect. It lends an air of verisimilitude, as if the true identity of the real-life Duchess of B-- must be protected. But what is such an elision called? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Stephen Tyrone Williams and "The Big Rock Candy Mountain"

One of Sydney's former students at the University of Alabama, the actor Stephen Tyrone Williams, sends along this publicity shot and news of his New York-area productions this summer. Now through June 9, he's in The Jocker by Clint Jefferies, part of the Gay Plays Series in the off-off-Broadway Wings Theatre in Greenwich Village. "It's about a community of male hobos 1931 and their struggle to survive life on the rails during the Great Depression," Stephen writes.

Then in July, he's playing Claudio in the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey production of Measure for Measure. He's also in "Float," a short film playing June 1-2 as part of NewFest, New York's LBGT film festival. (Search for it from the "Events by Title" page.) "It's about two Bahamian men coming of age in a hostile environment," Stephen writes.

Theatergoers, whenever you see Stephen's name in a cast list, you should go. Sydney and I went to lots of student and community productions when we lived in Alabama, and Stephen was uniformly terrific. He did brilliant work as Coalhouse Walker in Ragtime, the Wolf in Into the Woods and Laertes in Hamlet. He has charisma to burn, and given half a chance will be a Big Name Actor one day.

I'm also pleased to learn, in the playwright's notes for The Jocker, that very early versions of the hobo song "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" had overt gay themes, and that the song may have begun "as a parody of the stories an older tramp might spin to a young farm lad to entice him onto the road -- and into his bedroll." Sample lyric:
There are no bees in the cigarette trees, no big rock candy mountains.
No chocolate heights where they give away kites, or sody-water fountains.
He made me beg and sit on his peg, and he called me his jocker.
When I didn't get pies he blacked my eyes, and called me his apple-knocker.
I sure wish I had known this when I wrote my own hobo fantasy, likewise titled "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" (in Conjunctions 39: The New Wave Fabulists, edited by Peter Straub and illustrated by Gahan Wilson). I'll have to re-read it now.

Spiders in his ear

At Halloween, a news story reminded me of an old Lights Out episode. Now a news story about a boy who discovered spiders living in his ear reminds me of a ludicrous (but memorable) old Night Gallery episode, The Caterpillar," with Laurence Harvey as a guy who suffers an earwig munching around in his head ...

Blowing in the wind

Anne Harris (this one, I believe) writes:
So what is the beef with wind farms? I'd really like to know, since my novel includes a community that is implementing them as a source of electrical power.
Just as the same question was forming in my mind, the other Anne, who began this conversation, wrote:
Yes, homeowners were displaced by the Meyersdale project. There is a CD available with residents from Meyersdale ... It is really difficult to sum up all of the issues about wind turbines in a blog entry. They are putting these within 500 feet of people's property. The manufacturer of many (GE) wrote a report that they are 10 percent efficient at best. It is hardly worth destroying people's quality of life. There are health effects, bird and bat kills, destruction of land (a non-renewable resource). They do not run without coal plants; they do not save any CO2 in their lifespan. So much is emitted in the construction of the towers, the concrete to erect the towers, and the transportation from overseas to their destination. When they say they provide power for a given number of homes, they base it on 1,000 kilowatts ... this means that you can use 10 light bulbs. Most of us enjoy using our electric appliances and the like. The developer in Meyersdale refused to pay the property taxes levied on the wind farm. The town sued and the developer countersued. What are the economics involved? There are so many federal and state subsidies, it is incredible. They can all be found at You can follow the links to each incentive on the given government site.

Here are more real-life experiences living by wind farms:

No. 1
No. 2
No. 3

As far as jobs go, the projected project for my town, eighty 363-foot turbines, would provide four jobs. Is that worth it? Last year at the Tug Hill Plateau project, they picked up 6,000 dead bats and 2,000 dead birds (mostly raptors). This report is available online, done by an ornithologist that is paid by wind developers, so we suspect that the number is low. We also know a person who was employed collecting the dead, and they had buried some. They also only checked two transects at each of 120 turbines (Why did they omit 75 turbines?) and only once a week. Many must have been caried off by foxes and other wildlife. Feel free to email me, and we can discuss this further. There are so many negative facets that far outweigh any benefits of the wind projects. Hope this information gives you some understanding of my stand on "wind farms."

Most Passionately, Anne
Thanks, Anne, for writing. I'll check out those links. I'm still curious to know, however, what form of electrical-power generation you prefer to wind. Coal? Nuclear? Hydroelectric dams? Solar? Many argue that we're likely to need a combination of all of the above, that what society needs to talk about is the percentage to be obtained from each.

As for my earlier suggestion that a wind farm makes a better neighbor than a coal-burning plant, a nuclear plant or a hydroelectric dam -- assuming the artificial lake created by the dam inundates your land, as many once-thriving communities in the United States have been inundated -- I pass along this this post by Tobias Buckell:
I love wind turbines, I always try to stop and take a picture when I pass them. They’re just amazing, like lighthouses to me. Massive, and functional, and graceful. Screw it, built a house underneath a really big one and I’d live under it.

And I’m not a huge ‘wind power’ alternate power person. I don’t see most tech I’ve checked out as being workable. In a lower power usage, like on a boat, they’re barely marginal. For a power hungry US? I’m more liable to place my money on nuclear power, like France.

Yeah, I’m a nuclear power loving environmentalist.
New Scientist has well covered the wind-farm issue in recent years. Here are two examples: First, a stirring pro-wind farm editorial, by scientist David Suzuki.
The real risk to birds comes not from windmills but from a changing climate, which threatens the very existence of bird species and their habitats. This is not to say that wind farms should be allowed to spring up anywhere. They should always be subject to environmental impact assessments. But a blanket "not in my backyard" approach is hypocritical and counterproductive.
Second, a good article by Ed Douglas, from 2006, about the largely unknown environmental effects:
In the meantime, though, there is an alternative to building huge wind farms in vulnerable habitats. We could all install our own personal turbines on the roofs of our houses. ...

Friday, May 11, 2007

Shirley Jackson news

The new Philip K. Dick volume promped Sydney and me to think out loud about other authors who deserve Library of America editions, and we quickly reached agreement on one: Shirley Jackson. So I e-mailed the LoA this note:
My wife and I are enthusiastic subscribers to the Library of America, and a few days ago we got to talking about the fiction writer Shirley Jackson -- especially her great novels The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle and her great stories such as "The Lottery" and "One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts." Is a Shirley Jackson volume in the Library of America pipeline, and if not, how would we go about recommending such a thing? Is there a formal petition mechanism, a postal address to which our fellow Jackson enthusiasts could write, etc.? Thanks for your time, and keep up the great work.
Within the week, I received an unsigned but personal reply:
Dear Mr. Duncan:

Thank you for your message. We are happy to take suggestions for the series via email.

Jackson is in development for inclusion in the series, but no publication date has been set.
So that's good news, eh?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Presidents Climate Commitment

One of the first acts of the new president at Frostburg State University, where Sydney teaches, has been to sign the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment -- joining dozens of other campuses, large and small, that pledge to "address the climate challenge by reducing global warming emissions and by integrating sustainability into their curriculum." Here's the full text, and here's the list of signatories. Is your alma mater represented? Frostburg State is only the second campus in Maryland, after Mount Saint Mary's in Emmitsburg, to sign on.

Another odd job

"Trucking journalist/science fiction writer" may be, ahem, one of the oddest job descriptions in Allegany County, Md., but I think the oddest belongs to a woman named Tiffany Claus: "professional Angelina Jolie impersonator." She sends the Times-News occasional photos, for example this one from a recent gig at Madame Tussaud's in New York City.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

A career first

Locus published five of my ICFA photos in the May issue and paid me $10 apiece -- the first free-lance money I ever made taking photographs.