Friday, January 29, 2010

A non-metaphorical garden

Shortly before Christmas, we made an offer on a house, and we will close on it this afternoon. This would be the first time I will have owned property myself, which I can plant as I desire. I have gardened in many ways before: in many containers across two continents, in community garden plots, in neighbor's yards. But now Panglott shall have at last a non-metaphorical garden.

My plan for now is to spend the first year observing the plants that grow there now: to see their types, habits, and varieties; to watch the patterns of sun and water on the property; to mull future garden plans. There are a few patches of English ivy and wintercreeper to work on weeding out, and most of the trees appear to be weedy Ailanthus growing along the fenceline that I'll want to replace, but I hope for the first year to be mostly observation. With a small bit of land, it'll be worth the time to find the sunny patches as the sun shifts in the sky, to find the wet and dry patches, to slowly stress the weeds into oblivion, to plan a layout, and to drag out and savor the slow process of getting things the way I'd like them to be.

For a long time, I have been an avid gardener without any garden. Living in the U.S. and Japan and traveling in China and Europe, I've seen some really excellent and inspiring gardens. At present, I think there are three main traits I'll want to encourage in my yard:

The single largest threat to the environment of the continental U.S. is not global warming, or overhunting, but invasive species. Following more than a century of overhunting, clearcutting, habitat destruction, and pollution, one of the great environmental disasters of the 20th century was the downfall of the American chestnut. Two generations ago, the exotic chestnut blight wiped out four billion chestnut trees, the most commercially, economically, and ecologically valuable tree of the climax forest in the East. A generation ago, Dutch elm disease wiped out beloved elm trees across the country. And now that the emerald ash borer has entered Kentucky, ash trees will likely become virtually extinct in this part of the world for centuries or millenia to come.

Invasive species are bad for our local environment, and their spread is often aided and abetted by home landscaping. Some of Kentucky's least wanted plants are introduced from landscaping: burning bush, Japanese honeysuckle, English ivy, and the ugly, obnoxious, highly aggressive wintercreeper. Most of these plants are really pretty ugly, to boot. Louisville's otherwise very cool Riverwalk is absolutely choked with exotic honeysuckle and multiflora rose. There's more information at the Kentucky Native Plant Society or native gardening at USFS

Whenever I go out for a hike or bike ride in the woods or a park, I'll see a patch of English ivy or wintercreeper or honeysuckle beginning the process of taking over a patch of otherwise bucolic woods. It's depressing. And when I come back into the city and see those same plants infesting yards and gardens, it's still depressing. I'd rather, as much as is possible, stick to the plants and flowers common in the area of the Falls of the Ohio, the Ohio River valley, and the Eastern woodlands west of Appalachia. This is hardly a limitation: the Eastern forest of the United States is one of the most botanically diverse temperate ecosystems in the world.

Michael Pollan penned a diatribe Against Nativism 15 years ago, which raises some valid points, but I think this remains an interesting approach to gardening, in general.

If you're going to put in the work to grow a plant, there should be a purpose for the labor. Plants worth cultivating should serve us for food, for spices, for tea, or for useful materials. A tomato plant or two, and a window box full of mint are good; sunflowers and squashes have been grown here for thousands of years, and there are interesting opportunities to experiment with cultivating native plants for food, such as sunchokes or ramps (Allium tricoccum). American bamboo is a good structural material for crafts. Horsetails can be scouring brushes. Bee balm and yarrow make nice tea.

I've long been intrigued by the idea of Kerala home gardens: that every household would have a few trees that supply food to enrich the family's diet. When I was a kid in Oklahoma, we had a peach tree and an almond tree, which provided a fantastic wealth of fruit and nuts every year. We had more peach pies than we could eat. It was great.

This idea has been expanded to forest gardening and permaculture, which seems to be something of a treehugger buzzword. But layering perennial food-producing to mimic the ecologial structure of a forest could be a way to get a wealth of food with less work. I am a big believer in perennials, especially those that can fend for themselves. And the plants typical of our local forests can fit such a system well: a canopy of hickory, pecan, oak, black cherry, or persimmon (but sadly no chestnuts), beside which can grow pawpaws, sand plums, American plums, hazelnuts, or serviceberries. Below, in the understory, can grow native ferns for fiddleheads, mosses, and perhaps wild ginger. Sounds workable, but needs more research.

The things you should grow at home, given the work involved, are things that you want an overwhelmingly bounty of (you can never have too much homegrown tomatoes), or unusual things that are hard to buy in the store.

And so my priorities are opposite of most. There are some flowers that I enjoy absent practical uses: coneflowers, asters, blazing star, wild roses, &c. And I have come to think "usefulness" should include "attracts hummingbirds and butterflies" (clearly, very utilitarian creatures), so: butterfly weed, meadow lily, trumpet honeysuckle, red columbine. Trumpet creeper is the best hummingbird flower, but very aggressive; I'd be hesitant to plant it, but would be satisfied if it's already there.

Photos: Top—Helianthus tuberosusSecond—Lonicera sempervirensThird—Prunus americanaBottom—Aquilegia canadensis,

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Bikes and Cars: Better Together

I've been blogging at for most of the past year, but I thought I'd crosspost this response to Bikes vs Cars: The Unsolvable Problem.

Although he's a fan of the pedal, Holland's main point is that because sometimes traffic collisions happen, it's impossible for bicycles and cars to share the road—at all. Thus bicycles should stay off the road except when they can convince drivers to stay off it entirely. But this doesn't make any sense. Hundreds of motorists are killed in accidents and collisions in Kentucky every year...should we conclude then that motorists cannot share the road even with each other? By far, the most dangerous mode of transportation, mile for mile, is walking. Pedestrians get hit and killed by drivers all the time. But should we then conclude that pedestrians shouldn't walk down to the corner store or the local park except when the roads have been cleared of cars? The physics involved means bike-car collisions aren't favorable for cyclists. But head-on accidents at 60 mph aren't often favorable for drivers, either. And if a difference in kinetic energy causes sufficient danger for cars to drive cyclists off the road, then the presence of commercial trucks should drive passenger cars off the road, too.

The fact is, people successfully DO share the road all the time. Motorists share the road with each other, with cyclists, with motorcycles, tractors, horse-drawn carriages, and all sorts of other vehicles, and even with pedestrians at crosswalks. There are tragic fatalities, of course, which we should work to minimize. But this is the whole point of the rules of the road: to allow vehicles to coexist on the roadway. And they can be very successful. In cities all across the world, and across the United States, motorists and cyclists share the road all the time. Louisville is no Tokyo, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Portland, Oregon, or Davis, California. But Louisville is also far removed from the worst cities in America for cycling—places like Wichita, Dallas, and Houston. Much of central Louisville is almost ideal for cycling, with wide, flat, leafy avenues connecting destinations closer than about five miles. There are cultural issues in how we handle traffic conflicts. But cycling isn't dangerous, and the health benefits outweigh the accident risks by 20 to 1.

I think I'm most troubled by the despair that cars and bicycles can EVER coexist, because I have seen such enormous material improvement in Louisville's cycling facilities in the last few years. I went genuinely car-free about three and a half years ago, after my car was totaled in an accident in Spaghetti Junction, and I decided not to replace it. Since then, there's been a new bike lane along my normal commute along 3rd Street, useful bike lanes all over town, better signage and awareness. These improvements have made a visible difference that I have seen from year to year: more people cycling in the road rather than the sidewalk, more people cycling with traffic rather than against it, better attitudes by motorists, and more people cycling in general. That's especially true in the summer, when more cyclists are out to enjoy the fine weather, but I've seen plenty of bicycle tracks in the slush of the bike lanes in this winter's foul conditions as well.

There is no doubt in my mind that these improvements save lives. And safer streets make people more comfortable in using them, which can make the streets safer still. In lots of places, improvements are starting from a very bike- and pedestrian-unfriendly starting place. But small changes can be a starting place for continuous improvement that can yield large increases in safety over time. For me, this is cause for optimism.

Sometimes people suggest that cyclists should ride on the sidewalk. This is a really bad idea. Sidewalk cycling is not safe, for anybody. For one, cars and bicycles are both vehicles and they move like vehicles, while pedestrians move very differently. On a sidewalk, bicycles are quiet and easily startle pedestrians, and collisions are likely. Also, when bicycles cross the street while riding on the sidewalk, they are acting in a way that is very unpredictable to motorists. Drivers expect pedestrians to emerge from the sidewalk at stop signs, but pedestrians are slow. Drivers certainly do not expect vehicles to emerge from the sidewalk at ten to fifteen miles per hour. Cyclists who do this are effectively darting out into traffic, which is very dangerous behavior, and rightfully illegal.

Years ago, when I first started cycling around town more seriously, I bought into all that stuff we pick up about how "the roads are so dangerous that cyclists need to stick to the sidewalks". I was afraid, and I rode on the sidewalks. I was hit by a car within three months: as I was cycling on the sidewalk, a car that didn't see me pulled out to the curb and crushed my front wheel under its tire. Luckily, I wasn't hurt, and the wheel was easily replaced; I know people who've been seriously injured doing the same thing. It was my fault, and all the lesson I needed. In the years since then, I have followed the rules of the road as best I can: cycling in the road with traffic, using lights and hand signals, stopping at lights and stop signs. That incident was the only time I've been hit by a car in years. Vehicular cycling is the best way to protect ourselves, and cyclists who do stuff like darting out into traffic, running stoplights, and riding the wrong way on the street at night without lights aren't merely breaking the law: they're being nearly suicidal. Sadly, the traffic laws, for cyclists, can be self-enforcing.

A lot of "bike vs. car" threads are very confrontational, but they shouldn't be. There are a few of us who live without cars, but overwhelmingly, cyclists are drivers and drivers (at least occasionally) ride bikes (or teach their kids to). Cyclists and motorists are our neighbors, our friends, our kids; mostly, we all just want people to get from here to there without being injured or killed. I lived without a car at all or some years, but after after we got married, my wife of course kept her car; we have a one-car household, although I prefer to commute and run errands by bike. These modes of transportation complement each other more than they conflict. If you are driving down Bardstown Road and see a cyclist, that's one less person taking up a parking space that you could use.

Cyclists are often very defensive about motorists, because negotiating the roadway with cars can indeed be very intimidating. There are a few assholes out there that threaten and harass cyclists. But there are many more drivers who go out of their way to be considerate (sometimes ~too~ far). I see way, way more "Share the Road" license plates than drivers who harass cyclists. And drivers, who are mostly afraid of hitting cyclists, appreciate people who follow the rules.

When I'm driving and see a cyclist, or when I'm cycling and see a driver, I am not filled with hatred and loathing. If the other person is doing something stupid and reckless, like running red lights, speeding, not using lights at night, or darting out into traffic, the emotion I feel is more like a private, reproachful disgust at the self-destructive folly of others, about which I can do nothing but try to avoid the consequences.

Lots of people point to cycling as a way to help the environment or reduce our carbon footprint, but I don't think it's the most compelling argument, and I don't think it's the main reason that cyclists stick with it. Cycling can be a lot of work, which means it's great exercise. It's outdoorsy, in both fair weather and foul. And bicycles are inherently fun, which is why people often think of them more as a form of recreation than as a practical means of transportation. Any sunny spring day in May, I'd rather feel a spring breeze in my face and smell the trees leafing out than lock myself in what is essentially a motorized refrigerator. Bikes are cool, and easy to individualize. And it is very satisfying in a very basic and hard-to-describe way to get somewhere (literally) under your own power. Driving dozens of miles is a chore, but cycling dozens of miles is an accomplishment.

There is absolutely no way that our society could convert from using almost entirely cars to using almost entirely bicycles. There's no reason we should: we need cars, trucks, boats, trains, airplanes, feet, and bicycles. Also rocket ships and eventually space elevators. We need safe roads and bridges and airports and docks for people to use. For one, it's inconvenient to go from central Louisville out to the big box stores in the exurbs on a bicycle, just as a consequence of how this city has been built up. I think two to five miles or closer is about the distance that it's practical for most people to cycle, although some people enjoy going farther. I love cycling everywhere, and I think more people would probably enjoy it (especially if they had racks, baskets, and fenders, and the roads were safer). I don't think everybody would love it, or that it's realistic for everybody. But I think there's probably a group of people who are on the fence, and to them I'd say: give it a try! It's fun, it's good exercise, and it's cheaper than driving.

Pedal Your Blues Away

Indiana Forest Cover

A couple of years ago, I heard a great discussion of Indiana's forest management on Homegrown on WFPL. Bernie Fischer, of the Indiana Division of Forestry, explained that, prior to American settlement and colonization, Indiana had 85% forest cover and 15% prairie. By about 1900, it had declined to 7% forest. It has since rebounded to 20% forest, but very little of that is remaining old-growth forest.

It's a pretty interesting factoid, and an interesting interview overall. Here are some quotes from the episode, which I believe is the December 18, 2004, show; their Web site has been redesigned, and I can't find the link to the original.
BOB HILL: Speaking of woods, we'll go across the river to Indiana briefly, and talk to the man up there who's in charge of the forests, and find out how people can take care of their lands, and all of this information will be applicable to Kentucky residents, too. ..To help us out, we're going to have Bernie Fischer; he's been director of the Indiana Division of Forestry since 1990. As such, the former Purdue University professor and extension forestry specialist supervises 150,000 acres of woodlands in the state's 13 state forests, and also supervises the state's 18 district foresters, who will provide on-site guidance to private landowners. He also supervises the state's two seedling nurseries, which annually sell six million tree seedlings and wildlife shrubs. Bernie, welcome to HomeGrown...
JENEEN WICHE: Before we get into more, like, forest-related things, define a forest for me? Are there issues in terms of old-growth forests versus newer forests versus like, a natural sort of forest, and a plantation type of forest, do you know what I mean? Like, what is truly a forest?

BERNIE FISCHER: We lump them all together, and any spot of ground out there that's probably over an acre of trees, we consider a forest. We assume it's not a place where you mow underneath, and you, it's more natural than that. But obviously, if someone plants a forest, and takes care of it and grows trees in a natural setting, we consider plantations just part of an extension of a natural forest.

WICHE: But aren't plantations...are those harvested?

FISCHER: O yeah, plantations. Now, people grow all kinds of forests for lots of reasons. And only one of those is harvesting. You know, recreation, hunting, all the other reasons. So thes forests have lots of reasons. But normally when people plant trees, they're planting them for a purpose, somewhere down the road, to harvest the trees.

BOB HILL: Bernie, we have a lot of forests in the southern part of the state here, but when you get above say, Seymour, off to Chicago, it's pretty much farmland. Now, was the state that way 300 years ago, or was all that land cleared at one point to make that farmland?

BERNIE FISCHER: It was mostly cleared. Indiana originally was 85% forested, about 15% prairie; and agriculture hit northern Indiana, and it was flat, and it was great soil, and they cleared it. And now we just have remnant woodlots here and there. The conservation reserve program has added some forest. We actually have counties way up in northern Indiana that are actually increasing in forest acreage as people are taking, say, marginal farmland and setting it aside and planting trees and putting it back in forest.

JENEENE WICHE: So how many acres in Indiana now is, the percentage is...

BERNIE FISCHER: Four and half million acres of forest land, about 20% of the state is forested. And that's from a low in the early 1900s of about 7%. So we've rebounded.

WICHE: So how much is state, how much is federal, how much is privately owned of those forests?

FISCHER: 85% is private, so private owners are the dominant player; federal's about 5%, state's about 5%, and other holdings, military and other things, are about 5%.
HILL: ...There's almost a poetic image to the old-growth forest, "Don't touch my land"; but that's pretty difficult for a private homeowner to do and see any success in a hundred years, isn't it?

FISCHER: We have basically almost no old-growth forest left. The reaction we get from a lot of landowners is, if a landowner owns, say, 40 acres, we find that landowner usually has a favorite tree or two out there that's already quite large, maybe at least an older tree, a hundred years old or whatever. And sometimes the landowner is most concerned about "What do I do to protect that tree? Not the whole woods, I like to go look at that particular tree. Because it's special: it's big, it has an odd shape, or whatever." So, you tend to, as a forester, very quickly pick up on that, and say "OK, I want to make sure I do something good for that area over there, for that tree, and the rest of the land has smaller trees on it, and they want them to be large over time. What can I do to make them grow faster?"

HILL: There is an old-growth grove up near Dale, the Pioneer Mothers Forest?

FISCHER: There's Pioneer Mothers...

HILL: It's a beautiful bunch of woods...

FISCHER: And there's a nice, there's also Donaldson's Woods at Spring Mill State Park; there are a few isolated holdings, but boy, they're small, and they're really rare and hard to find. But yeah, there are a few out there. There's also a few in Kentucky I've heard about, I can't give you off the top of my head, but you've got a few in Kentucky, too.

WICHE: So when you all go in to assist the private forest owners, landowners, is there also an understanding of the rest of the ecosystem in the forest, when you suggest certain types of management practices?

FISCHER: Yeah, we're always thinking about water quality, because forests are the best protectors of water. So if you're going to put in a road system, if you're going to do a timber harvest, we want to make sure that we protect the water, and usually we do that through what we call "best management practices". And those are generally so you keep ground disturbance to a minimum, and you direct water flows away from streams, so that the soil doesn't get into streams. A lot of landowners, their number one goal, when you ask them what their goal is, and they'll say "I want more wildlife". So you have to ask them, well, "What kind of more wildlife". But wildlife is, it really is an interest. And generally if you want wildlife, you want a variety of habitats. You want some big trees in one area, you want small trees in another area, maybe a brushy area, so that you get a variety of wildlife. Because wildlife for a lot of people means birds, and different birds like different kinds of habitat. So it's all-encompassing, and in fact, many landowners, if you have them list their goals, wildlife will be first, aesthetics will be second, hiking or whatever, which relates to those first two, might be third, and then maybe timber harvesting is fourth or fifth. So we are generally not talking about timber first. But we do talk about that too, because a lot of the landowners will say, "Yeah, but someday, my son's going to go to college, and I might need a little extra revenue, can I do things right?" And most landowners want to do things right.

Fischer also discusses the procedures for helping private landowners manage their land, from a state's perspective. The foresters will meet landowners on the site and provide advice based on their goals, although long-term management for timber harvesting needs private foresters. He notes that as little as 10 acres may be sufficient for timber management and discusses the process of timber sales and harvesting on private land.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Haiti & the earthquake

A week ago, on January 12 at 4:53pm, a powerful earthquake struck Haiti. The images from the disaster, such as this graphic Boston Globe photo gallery, are staggering. The Guardian has a map of relief efforts.

The NYT brings together eight ways the rebuild Haiti. Felix Salmon advises not to give money to Haiti (at least, not earmarked for Haiti); AidWatch concurs and has more advice. Similar thoughts here, although aid can relieve immediate suffering. Jeffrey Sachs and David Brooks consider postdisaster reconstruction.

Econoblogger Tyler Cowen was anticipating a Haitian renaissance hours before the earthquake struck. He'd luckily avoided being there on holiday, a trip influenced by his history with Haiti. Cowen discusses other ways to help Haiti, geopolitical speculations about Haiti, and considers why is Haiti so poor. It's a topic of great interest: Why is Haiti so poor?

Some point to the timeline of U.S. involvement in Haiti. Haiti's history of terrible governance is justly infamous. Ronald Bailey argues that Haiti's lack of human, social, and institutional capital explains its lack of wealth. A news report from last summer highlights the lingering colonial debt:
The appalling state of the country is a direct result of having offended a quite different celestial authority — the French. France gained the western third of the island of Hispaniola — the territory that is now Haiti — in 1697. It planted sugar and coffee, supported by an unprecedented increase in the importation of African slaves. Economically, the result was a success, but life as a slave was intolerable. Living conditions were squalid, disease was rife, and beatings and abuses were universal. The slaves’ life expectancy was 21 years. After a dramatic slave uprising that shook the western world, and 12 years of war, Haiti finally defeated Napoleon’s forces in 1804 and declared independence. But France demanded reparations: 150m francs, in gold.

For Haiti, this debt did not signify the beginning of freedom, but the end of hope. Even after it was reduced to 60m francs in the 1830s, it was still far more than the war-ravaged country could afford. Haiti was the only country in which the ex-slaves themselves were expected to pay a foreign government for their liberty. By 1900, it was spending 80% of its national budget on repayments. In order to manage the original reparations, further loans were taken out — mostly from the United States, Germany and France. Instead of developing its potential, this deformed state produced a parade of nefarious leaders, most of whom gave up the insurmountable task of trying to fix the country and looted it instead. In 1947, Haiti finally paid off the original reparations, plus interest. Doing so left it destitute, corrupt, disastrously lacking in investment and politically volatile. Haiti was trapped in a downward spiral, from which it is still impossible to escape. It remains hopelessly in debt to this day.

The debt, 150 million gold francs, would be the equivalent of about 1.4 million troy ounces. That amount of gold today is worth nearly $1.6 billion. Haitian mud cakes (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) are an attempt to cope with the physical suffering of chronic hunger.

There's also been interest in Jared Diamond's comparative discussion of Haitian and Dominican history, environment, and development in chapter 11 of Collapse. Diamond's discussion is a broad overview, but he begins with Haitian deforestation:
To anyone interested in understanding the modern world's problems, it's a dramatic challenge to understand the 120-mile-long border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the two nations dividing the large Caribbean island of Hispanola that lies southeast of Florida. ...From an airplane flying high overhead, the border looks like a sharp line with bends, cut arbitrarily across the island by a knife, and abruptly dividing a darker and greener landscape east of the line (the Dominican side) from a paler and browner landscape west of the line (the Haitian side). On the ground, one can stand on the border at many places, face east, and look into pine forest, then turn around, face west, and see nothing except fields almost devoid of trees.

That contrast visible at the border exemplifies a difference between the two countries as a whole. Originally, both parts of the island were largely forested... Today, 28% of the Dominican Republic is still forested, but only 1% of Haiti. ...In Haiti and the Dominican Republic just as elsewhere in the world, the consequences of all that deforestation include loss of timber and other forest materials, soil erosion, loss of soil fertility, sediment loads in the rivers, loss of watershed protection and hence of potential hydroelectric power, and decreased rainfall. All of those problems are more severe in Haiti than in the Dominican Republic. In Haiti, more urgent than any of those just-mentioned consequences is the problem of the loss of wood for making charcoal, Haiti's main fuel for cooking.

...there were many reasons why deforestation and other environmental problems began earlier, developed over a longer time, and proceeded further in Haiti than in the Dominican Republic. The reasons involved four of the factors in this book's five-factor framework: differences in human environmental impacts, in various friendly or unfriendly policies of other countries, and in responses by the societies and their leaders. Of the case studies described in this book, the contrast between Haiti and the Dominican Republic discussed in this chapter, and the contrast between the fates of the Norse and the Inuit in Greenland...provide the clearest illustrations that a society's fate lies in its own hands and depends substantially on its own choices.

I've been updating this post significantly in the time since I posted it, mostly to add more links. Nicholas Kristof interviewed notable aid critics, who emphasized the need for assistance to earthquake victims, and advocated garmet sweatshops. Kristof has defended the importance of sweatshops in 2000 2006, and 2009, echoed by Paul Krugman. Andy Kershaw demands a more respect for Haitians.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Nystrom's hexadecimal numeral system, and others

Google Books is so cool. They have John Nystrom's 1862 proposal for a hexadecimal numeral system. Nystrom called it the "tonal system", because "ton" is the word for 16.

It's a pretty well-thought out system, with new numerals and base-16 addition and multiplication tables. Nystrom's ambition is pretty remarkable, and clearly a reason for the system's failure to gain traction. He proposes an entirely new system of words to replace the English number words, although perhaps there's more the replacing English's number words than he discusses. However, the number words he proposes as a system are actually pretty good. The words for numbers are generally simple CV syllables, and the words for the powers of 16 (16, 256, 4096...) are closed with a nasal consonant. The numeral system in general is similar to East Asian numbers, and the simple syllable structure prevents complex consonant clusters. "Vy" is the word for eleven, and "vytonvy" ("eleven 16s and eleven") is 187.

In general, this framework seems very elegant, and seems to point towards a framework easily extended to represent other bases. By adding a nasal consonant to the end of a CV numeral, you could establish that number as a base, as long as you developed words for the powers of that number. For example, "vyn" would be the basis for a base-11 "vynal system". There are problems with this system; Nystrom breaks the CV structure with the word for "one" and allows an initial nasal consonant, and the pronunciation he intends is somewhat unclear to me. I also suspect that the designs for the digits Nystrom chooses might be confusing (tho of course, that perception might simply reflect my inexperience with them). Adding some numbers for 17 to 20 could extend the system to cover vigesimal, allowing it to represent nearly any human numeral system.

I'm somewhat sympathetic, at least with mathematical thinking, to an weak inversion of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: that rather than an absence of words limiting the possibilities of human thought, the presence of words for counterintuitive concepts can be a "cognitive technology" that makes thinking in terms of those concepts easier. There's probably a much broader field of research on this than I'm aware of, but some relevant papers are "Number as a cognitive technology: Evidence from Pirahã language and cognition" and "Notation as a tool of thought".

Hex Headquarters has a system of English-inspired hexadecimal number words; Nystom's "vytonvy" (hexadecimal BB) would be "levtek eleven". Base42 is another hex system.

"2010" and the national epoch

The year is now 2010, which unfortunately is time for prescriptivist nonsense.

There's another good example of saying the year number fully in the US Constitution (Article VII):
Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the Twelfth In witness whereof We have hereunto subscribed our Names...

The US Constitution would have 1776 as year one, the first year of independence.

I've been a little curious about the usage of the quaint "in the year of the Republic" recently. This sort of epoch is said to be common in Taiwan, based on an East Asian tradition of dating in regnal years, as in contemporary Japan. The French Republican calendar used a similar epoch from 1793, and the positivist calendar had 1789 as the first year. Other examples are a little tricky to Google up, even if it was a common enough phrase. A court document cited here describes 1837 as the second year of the Republic (of Texas). But this system seems to be a source of confusion: 1938 would be the 163rd year of independence, and the 152nd year of the Republic. It's a confusion of cardinal and ordinal numbers; July 4, 1776, marked the completion of two centuries of American independence, even if something that happened in 1976 was "in the 201st year of independence."

So in 2010, we should say "in the 235th year of independence" and "in the 224th year of the Republic".

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Louisville's 1890s-1900s political machine

I've been digging around for some information on the end of electoral fusion in the Ohio River Valley and Kentucky, and there's a fascinating account of the machine politics of Louisville in the 1890s and 1900s in UK historian Tracy Campbell's book "Deliver the Vote" (also here). Campbell does a great job of making it a fantastic—and appalling—story. The juiciest passages are about Louisville boss John Henry Whallen, but Campbell has a great section earlier on the assassination of Kentucky governor William Goebel and the Goebel Election Law.

The Australian ballot is the secret ballot, and it seems Louisville was the first city in the U.S. to use it. Some of the stuff described here is really amazing. I'll quote liberally, but the best stuff is in the book:
Louisville is not a location that one normally thinks of as a cesspool of corruption. Quite the contrary, as the city that pioneered the Australian ballot, it is usually seen as progressive and mostly immune from the problems that plagued so many other areas.

...After Reconstruction, Louisville was Kentucky's largest city and the eighteenth largest in the nation. ...The city relied heavily on Ohio River commerce for its economic base and had a cosmopolitan mixture that included Democratic Irish Catholics and Republican African-Americans. Politically, the Democratic party effectively controlled the city as the memories of the Civil War persisted, and the winner of the city's Democratic primaries was effectively the winner of the general election in November.

Throughout the 1880s, Louisville had experienced a series of fraudulent elections. To correct the problem of repeaters, a Louisville representative, Albert Stoll, introduced a bill in the Kentucky legislature calling for mandatory registration in Louisville. ...His bill became law in 1884, but it had no effect on reforming the process.

...One of the members of the 1887 committee was Arthur Wallace, a Louisville state representative. After reading an article on the new secret ballot system used in Australia, Wallace approached some area judges to see whether a law mandating such a system could pass constitutional muster in Kentucky. Wallace's bill could not be applied to the entire state without amending the state constitution, so it affected Louisville's municipal contests only. When the "Wallace Election Bill" quietly became law in February 1888, Louisville became the first municipality in the nation to adopt the new voting method.

...By the 1890s, John Whallen, a young burlesque theater owner, became the acknowledged king of Louisville's Democratic party. ...Whallen once boasted that his burlesque theater was the real center of the city's political apparatus, a place he once described candidly as "the political sewer through which the political filth of Louisville runs."

...After temporarily losing control of city government in the mid 1890s, Whallen reappeared, helping his hand-picked candidate win the mayor's race, due in large part to a new method employed by followers of Whallen: police intimidation of African-American voters. When a prominent African-American attorney attempted to vote, he was confronted by a police officer who told him, "I have worn out four billies and I will wear this one out on you." Less violent means, such as clerks slowly checking registration lists, meant those wishing to vote in the heavily African-American Ninth and Tenth wards often waited hours to cast a ballot. Of course, many found that before they had reached the front of the line, the polls had closed. ...Without the strong arm of the police, Whallen's machine could not have controlled Louisville's elections.

Whallen's cronies used other methods to fight the Republican turnout among African-Americans. By 1900, the 28,651 African-Americans living in Louisville comprised nearly fourteen percent of the city's population. Although Democrats had not legally disenfranchised African-Americans in Kentucky as they had throughout the Deep South, electoral intimidation and fraud remained potent tools in the hands of people such as Whallen. The historian George C. Wright wrote that Whallen hired black "shadies to form Negro Democratic Clubs, which were little more than instruments of organized intimidation of African-American voters, and concluded that "Negro thugs, as much as anything else, kept blacks from viewing the Democrats as a respectable party." When that tactic failed, Whallen resorted to the well-tested strategy of appealing to white supremacy and the fears of what Republican victories might bring to Louisville's racial climate.

By the early 1900s, then, John Whallen directed the Democratic machine in Louisville. But he was not without his opponents among the city's Republican stalwarts, as well as a number of Democrats who resented Whallen using the city's political apparatus to increase his personal wealth and power. ...With the 1903 election fresh in their minds, disenchanted Democrats joined with angry Republicans to form a fusionist party which, with its combined strength, hoped to defeat the Democratic mayoral candidate, Paul Barth, in the upcoming 1905 election.

...The Whallen machine employed area criminals to intimidate African-Americans from registering, and understood that the illegal registration of "repeaters" had a dual effect: It could potentially crowd off from the rolls many legal voters, thus making the job of controlling the election that much easier. ...When challenges were made by Fusionists to some questionable Democratic attempts to register, a Louisville police officer named Roman Leachman threatened the challengers on several occasions. Leachman shouted that if an official "refuses to register another man, I will smash him in the head and kill him and I will come and throw his carcass into the street; he doesn't amount to anything." One official meekly inquired if Leachman was overstepping his bounds, and in revealing language Leachman underscored the reason for the police presence at the registration booths: "To hell with you. This means nothing to your crowd, and means four years for me, and of course I am going to look out for my own interests." The next day, Fusion workers were simply thrown out of their polling places and Democratic officials seized registration books and completed them in private.

...In order for all of the corrupt figures in the Louisville election to do their jobs properly, money was a necessity. ...Fred R. Bishop, treasurer of the Democratic campaign fund, later described how he went about raising these funds. Candidates for various city offices were to contribute ten percent of their current city salary, while police officers contributed according to their rank... After acquiring the money from Bishop, the ward captains knew what to do with it. They spent part of their money paying city police officers and firefighters to take the day off to perform various chores in helping Democrats. More than twenty percent of the city's firefighters claimed they were sick on Election Day and were put to use on behalf of the Democratic campaign.

...In the 38th Precinct of the Third Ward, three armed men simply took the ballot box at gunpoint, loaded it on a wagon and carried it away. ...In the Twelth Ward, a former member of the fire department and devout Whallenite, John Barry, pulled a pistol on an election worker and demanded the ballot books. With the help of three policemen, Barry took the books to another location, swore in his own election workers, and proceeded to stuff ballot boxes with hundreds of his own votes.

Some of the abuses Campbell describes are just amazing by modern standards. At one point during registration, a worker accepted a glass of lemonade from a saloon owner and passed out; he realized he'd been drugged when his registration books turned up with a large number of forged names in them. Barth won the election, but in May 1907, the election results were overturned in court, and the governor named an interim mayor and municipal officials. But Whallen's candidate won for mayor in 1909 with a viciously racist campaign.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Solar eclipses in the Ohio River Valley

A mendicantbug post about searching WolframAlpha for eclipses alerts us to the upcoming major total solar eclipses in August 2017 (NASA) and April 2024. That'll be the last eclipse with a nearby totality until 2045.

The next lunar eclipse on the winter solstice this year and the 2012 partial solar eclipse may be visible just before sunset.

Perhaps WolframAlpha is more useful than I had thought.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Cold cycling season begins

Seems like most people think of cycling as a seasonal activity. I've been commuting by bike day in and out for a couple years now, in all kinds of weather, but there are a couple of days each year that mark the cycling seasons. One is the first day of spring, when it seems like everybody gets out on a bicycle to enjoy the nice weather. Another is a day like today, when you realize that you have to prepare for the serious cold weather. Today the temperature started around 17°F and made it all the way up to 25°F. It'll be like this all week. But on the first day, I head out a little prepared for ordinary cold jst above freezing, and once again learn an important lesson. In winter, I'm willing to cycle around town down into the single digits, almost 30°F below freezing, but dressing for that kind of weather takes a little adjustment.

My normal winter gear is a fleece jacket under a winter coat shell, a knit cap that covers my ears, a wool scarf and some gloves. For the serious cold weather, you need windproof gloves, like ski gloves, a couple more shirt or sweater layers, and maybe thermal underwear or wool socks. Cycling in the cold is not really all that bad, as long as you have windproof clothes over layers, because you generate heat as you work. Windproofness is important, though, because there's an inherent wind chill when you're cycling along at ten or fifteen miles an hour. And at least if it's 15°F below freezing, there's little chance of rain and rarely high winds, which are the real irritating weather for cycling.

For some perspective though, I looked up today's weather for Louisville's sister city Perm, in the middle of Russia. Today's weather was not all that different; it was 15°F-24°F in Perm. But Tuesday night, it's supposed to get down to -22°F.