Sunday, July 26, 2009

It's Everywhere! It's Everywhere!

My favorite super hero existed only on the radio. No comics, no TV shows, no bloated-budget movies for him. He was mild mannered shoe salesman Benton Harbor who fought crime as that legendary super hero Chickenman. Each show began with:

Now, another exciting episode in the life of the most fantastic crime fighter the world has ever known.

Bauck, bauck, bauck, bauck. [well, it was some sort of raucous chicken sound]

Chickeeeeenmaaaaan! He’s everywhere! He’s everywhere!

I thought of Chickenman the other day as I explored a beach on the Long Island (New York) side of Long Island Sound. What particularly bubbled up from the recesses of my memory was the catch phrase, “He’s everywhere! He’s everywhere!”

In my previous post I reviewed David William’s new book Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology. In that post, I discussed the unavoidable connection between paleontology and geology. This Chickenman remembrance is more of the same. As I wandered over that beach, with the Chickenman refrain in my mind, it morphed into “Geology! It’s everywhere! It’s everywhere!”

Long Island is not a productive place for a fossil seeker, particularly not one used to the abundance of the Chesapeake Bay region. Why? Blame the geological history of the island. The current topography of the Long Island is the direct product of glaciation during the Wisconsin Stage of the Pleistocene Epoch which scoured away or covered fossil bearing sedimentary rock. There is some debate over the actual history of glacial movement over the island during the Pleistocene (beginning about 2.6 million years ago and ending approximately 11,700 years ago). It appears that one of the advances of the Wisconsin glacier ended about 55,000 years ago, leaving behind at its southernmost edge what is known as the Ronkonkoma Moraine. (Moraines are ridges of unsorted sediments or till left by glaciers.) A later advance of the Wisconsin glacier ended some 18,000 years ago somewhat north of Ronkonkoma Moraine. The Harbor Hill Moraine is the legacy of this second advance and retreat. These two terminal moraines form twin backbones along the eastern half of Long Island – the Harbor Hill Moraine, on the north side, runs right on the edge of Long Island Sound; the Ronkonkoma Moraine to the south, parallels the Atlantic Ocean. Given this geological history, it’s not surprising that Bradford B. Van Diver, in his book Roadside Geology of New York (1985) describes Long Island as “not much more than an enormous sand and gravel deposit.” (p. 32)

While vacationing on the north fork of Long Island, I succumbed to the Chickenman/geology refrain and began to explore this geological history. This is clearly a work in progress for me, I have so much more to learn. But, the initial steps I’ve taken are gratifying and encouraging.

Much of the shoreline of the Long Island side of Long Island Sound has the Harbor Hill Moraine on glorious display. I went down to the beach that runs below the Horton Point Lighthouse; the lighthouse is about 12 miles from the end of the north fork of the island (Orient Point). The shoreline is lined with so-called erratics, boulders carried by glaciers.

The cliff side (of the Harbor Hill Moraine) that abuts the shore is punctuated with embedded erratics (like raisins or dates in a plum pudding) waiting for erosion and gravity to release them and allow them to join their brethren on the shore.

This is new territory for me, but I’ve been informed that the different erratics consist of banded granite, gneiss, and schist. There is also basalt, among other materials. Quartz certainly appears within the erratics (that much I can tell). The erratics shown below give a feel for the array of beautiful boulders that embellish the Horton Point beach.

The Harbor Hill Moraine largely disappears as one heads further east to the end of the island, though it reappears on Plum Island to the northeast of Orient Point. That is made clear by the view (see picture below) of Plum Island from the Long Island Sound ferry crossing from Orient Point to New London, Connecticut. (Plum Island is home to the Department of Agriculture’s Animal Disease Center.)

On the Horton Point beach, I felt like a 19th century naturalist, seemingly seeing the world for the first time and feeling compelled to collect many, many examples of that newness (those early naturalists usually collected the living and made them dead with their firearms). I was unarmed and my quarry was inanimate. So, I brought back a heavy bag full of small rocks from the beach; identifying them is my homework. Geology is truly everywhere, it’s now in the house.

Information on the geology of Long Island can be found in, among other sources, Van Diver’s Roadside Geology of New York; the U.S. Geological Survey’s Geology of the New York City Region: A Preliminary Regional Field-Trip Guidebook; and the Garvies Point Museum’s Geology of Long Island.

Two Chickenman episodes can be heard at this site.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Building a New Understanding – David B. Williams’ Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology

Geology and paleontology are inherently and fundamentally linked. As I work with fossils, I am working with stone. A hunt for fossils often begins with consideration of geologic maps, deciphering the color codes, tracing geological formations, and looking for the nearest roads. All of this is crucial to understanding where the fossils might be and where they surely wont be. At a minimum, an amateur paleontologist understands why, in this hunt, he or she favors the fossil-nurturing sedimentary rock over igneous and metamorphic rock, and seeks to appreciate the geological processes that have dictated the appearance of our underlying landscape and the fate of fossils.

The paleontological sensitivity is often offended by the spread of man-made structures across the landscape, marked by lamentations over what is now, or will be, buried beneath them. Still, building construction is the proverbial two-edged sword. Never clearer than when I scramble across a muddy, recently bulldozed field. Though I know that this field’s near future holds a new housing development, I enjoy the fleeting exposure of the underlying Cretaceous formation. When broken open, the concretions that dot the field are often full of shells, miles from the nearest ocean. A companion finds a 65 million year old shark tooth. The paleontological lens seems to find its clearest focus on terrain without buildings, terrain in which one can scan the surface or into which a shovel can be thrust.

Yet, David B. Williams’ engrossing new book, Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology (2009) offers me a new and inspiring lens with which to view those buildings constructed of stone and planted on the largely urban landscape. In each of ten finely crafted chapters, Williams offers myriad stories about building with stone. There are the geological stories of when and how different kinds of stone came into being, such as crumbly brownstone (sandstone) or sturdy granite; the stories of the men who labored to extract the stone from the ground and those well known figures who had the vision to take the stone and make buildings, ranging from artist Michelangelo to the poet Robinson Jeffers to architect Richard Meier; and, of course, the stories of the buildings themselves, beginning with New York City’s brownstones and concluding with the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

Occupying center stage in the book are the multi-stepped processes of quarrying, preparing, transporting, and using each different stone in construction. There is no question, this was, and remains a dangerous business. Williams delineates changes in those processes over time and highlights those that have stayed largely unchanged. In so doing, he has written a history of the intersection of technological and social forces with the use of stone in construction. For instance, developments in transportation, principally the railroad, spurred the use of stone and were driven by the need to move stone. The movement of immigrants, among other social forces, played a role in these stories. In the colonial period, the slate used in roofing was largely imported from England and Wales because it was better and cheaper than that obtained locally; by the 1840s, the use of American slate blossomed because of the influx of Welsh immigrants who brought with them expertise in quarrying and working with slate in Wales.

Failure is a part of these stories. Considering the buildings themselves leaves no doubt that we’ve not always gotten it right when we work with stone. Brownstone, called by Edith Wharton, “the most hideous stone ever quarried,” enjoyed enormous popularity in the latter half of the 19th Century, fronting many buildings in New York City, creating the ubiquitous brownstones. But, the stone can fare poorly in wet and cold weather, eroding away, and so went out of favor. Then there were the 350 pound panels of Carrara marble that fell from the Standard Oil (Amoco) Building to the street below in Chicago.

A recurrent and pleasing theme in these stories is the presence of fossils in some of stone that constitute or adorn our buildings. Among the youngest are the 110,000 year old clam shells in the coquina used to build the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Florida. Among the oldest are the some three hundred million year old invertebrate fossils that, not surprisingly, frequently appear in Salem Limestone. Among the most unusual instances of building with fossiliferous material is the gas station in Lamar, Colorado, made of petrified wood.

Ultimately, the lasting appeal of the book is the new perspective it offers for seeing the deep history of the earth in our stone buildings. The book inspires a new awareness of the stone construction that surrounds us and a sense of its meaning. As Williams writes, “People further relate to rock as a building material because they intuitively sense the link between stone and the earth around them. Even if they can’t tell the difference between granite and marble, they know that building stone has a history and a story. No manufactured material can provide the deep connection to place that stone does.” (p. 220)

Even to the uninitiated, the beauty of stone as building material is real and animate. “Stone bewitches because it is alive – a living, breathing material that changes gracefully over time. The softer Salem Limestone erodes around its harder fossils, creating a display case for the holy trinity of the Mississippian. Lichen and mosses colonize brownstone and contrast with another late comer, a blue black patina of varnish. Coquina weathers to an ashy gray and acquires hanging gardens of grasses and flowers. And the Getty travertine has already changed, losing some if its beige and becoming whiter. None of the human-made materials has a vitality like stone.” (p. 220)

I will close by mentioning one of the most compelling stories Williams tells, that of the poet Robinson Jeffers who built a cottage (Tor House) and 40-foot tall tower (Hawk Tower) on his land overlooking Carmel Bay in Carmel, California. From early 1919 to 1925, Jeffers gathered granite boulders from the beach and erected these buildings by hand. In his vignette of the poet, Williams makes the case that working with the stone elevated Jeffers and his writing into the upper ranks of American poetry.

Among Jeffers’ poetry that I recently read is “Star-Swirls,” a poem published in The Beginning & The End and Other Poems, after his death in 1962. In it, he contemplates the fate of his life’s efforts in the face of the forces of nature. Amazingly, a force at play is a warming climate –
The polar ice-caps are melting, the mountain glaciers
Drip into rivers; all feed the ocean;
Tides ebb and flow, but every year a little bit higher.

No mention here of his poetry enduring. The house will slip beneath the rising water, surviving as a home to fish. But, as for the tower –
. . . I built it well,
Thick walls and Portland cement and gray granite,
The tower at least will hold against the sea’s buffeting;
it will become
Geological, fossil and permanent.

Williams’ excellent blog, Stories in Stone, offers small essays that provide some of the flavor of the stories in the book.

Sources of Photographs
Photograph of quarry scene
Photograph from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division ( (control number ncl2004004766/PP). Photograph taken by Lewis Wickes Hine (August 18, 1916), of a quarry in Warren County, in the vicinity of Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Photograph of Robinson Jeffers
Photograph is from the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art ( Photograph taken by Harry Bowden (1955).

Sunday, July 12, 2009

“Charlie Darwin” by The Low Anthem – Trying to Find Meaning Despite the Artists

“Charlie Darwin” is a seductive, ethereal, and extremely vexing song on the recent album Oh My God, Charlie Darwin by The Low Anthem. (Consider this trio to be a “folk” group, but that label doesn’t tell you much.) The titles alone drew me in. But I have spent the better part of a week struggling over the words and music to just this single song, avoiding any exegesis of the rest of the album for fear of a neurological overload.

I have found the song irresistible, but I still don’t understand it, though I have some ideas about what it might mean.

Upon first hearing, I was struck by the astounding vocal, the song is a lyrical hymn. Yet, I initially saw little reason to think that it was in any meaningful way really about Charles Darwin. Charlie Darwin? (Perhaps, I should just have stuck to that position.)

My usual stance is that a work of art stands alone, separate from the life of its creator, or, even the creator’s thoughts on what his or her work might actually mean. I don’t ignore this information, I just prefer to form my opinions before being contaminated by others’ viewpoints. But, finding the song’s lyrics to be ambiguous, I felt in need of some help.

Bob Boilen, host of National Public Radio’s All Songs Considered, has asserted that the album “has underpinnings of Charles Darwin's history, all set in a folky and sometimes hymnal quality." [Link here.] Okay, though I’m not quite sure what “underpinnings of Charles Darwin’s history” means, Boilen is pointing me toward that Charles Darwin after all. (By the way, Boilen considers “Charlie Darwin” one of the three best songs of 2009, so far.)

I paid a visit to the official The Low Anthem web site. It’s pretty obvious that evolution is on the agenda – there are these legged Jesus fish appearing in places. (The lyrics cited in this posting are from the group's web page.)

Then I made the mistake of reading some of the comments made by the two core members of The Low Anthem, composer and singer Ben Knox Miller and bassist Jeff Prystowsky.

Miller has said, "Darwin's ideas are the liberator of the individual from different false structures of meaning; obsolete ethical codes . . . . He challenges us to look at where our codes have come from. Structures of meaning have been and continue to evolve much the same as species.”
[Jonathan Bastian, The Many Layers of The Low Anthem, Aspen Daily News Online, August 15, 2008.]

Uh oh, I seem to have fallen into the deep end of a pool full of what? Social Darwinism? Be careful how you extend Darwinian evolution into the social and moral sphere.

Also troubling is Prystowsky’s comment, “What does love mean if survival of the fittest is actually the way that everything came to be?” Adding, “. . . it’s such a cutting theory to think that maybe our feelings of love and connection to our fellow man are somehow in our own interest, that they’re selfish . . . . That has a significant impact on the art that you make and the way you live your life.” [Carolyn Gregoire, The Low Anthem Inspired by Dylan & Darwin, BlackBook, June 30, 2009.]

Not sure I want to contemplate what that means for the way he lives his life.

I really hoped we’d put some distance between Darwinian evolution and Social Darwinism which has used the idea of the survival of the fittest to justify a mélange of unappealing doctrines and movements such as laissez-faire capitalism, imperialism, militarism, and eugenics. Not an honorable track record.

Given where my exploration had taken me, I was tempted to relegate the song to a dark recess of my iPod. Yet, I continued to play it and mull over the lyrics, while trying to put some distance between what the artists have said and any meaning I could construct for the song.

I’ve ultimately concluded that “Charlie Darwin” (the song) is not, to me at least, a Social Darwinist tract. If pressed, I’d say the essence of the song is this – adherents of the old order (read creationists) call on a god (yes, lower case as Miller writes it) to save them as they sink into an endless sea, even as Darwin launches a new vessel on a new journey. Anti-religion, perhaps.

The opening stanza signals a journey to a new age (“Set sails I feel the winds a’stirring/Toward the bright horizon set the way”) and toward a new social compact (Cast your wreckless [sic] dreams upon our Mayflower”).

I wrestled with the syntax of the first part of the second stanza – “And who could heed the words of Charlie Darwin/Fighting for a system built to fail . . . .” It only makes sense to me if Darwin’s words are being ignored by those “fighting for a system built to fail” – that is, creationism. The creationists’ vessels are sinking. The song speaks in the first person at the end of the second stanza when the speaker seems to suddenly realize that “As far as I can see there is no land . . . .” Is this speaker despairing because Darwin’s theory has somehow caused the creationist vessels to spring leaks with no land in sight? Seems so.

The chorus of “Oh my god, the waters [sic] all around us” is ironic. A lower case god that has left the speaker in an endless ocean even as he appeals to it for help. Darwin’s Mayflower in contrast seems to be set on a journey with a destination.

The third stanza is problematic, beginning “And who could heed the words of Charlie Darwin/The lords of war just profit from decay . . . .” Again, I have to assume that the actors in the second line – “The lords of war” – are not heeding Darwin’s word as they take the spoils of war. But, wait, might these not be the very agents of the Social Darwinism, rooting militarism in natural selection and the survival of the fittest, that The Low Anthem confounds with Darwinian evolution?

And why “Charlie?” Using a nickname like this is usually a disparaging tactic. I don’t get it.

In the end, I threw up my hands in defeat. A BBC reviewer called the song “pretty opaque.” A wonderful description. Yes, maybe it’s just a sophomoric muddle that sounds pretty, though it leaves me a bit uneasy.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Thomas Jefferson, Cryptology, and Fossil Shark Teeth – Brought to You by the Letter J

It’s not surprising that the U.S. presidency’s greatest polymath Thomas Jefferson was into cryptology. The challenge and mystery of an encrypted message must have had great appeal for this consummate political intriguer who counted a wheel cipher for encrypting messages among his inventions. Cryptology was apparently a frequent subject of his correspondence as well. In December 1801, University of Pennsylvania mathematician Robert Patterson sent Jefferson a letter with a coded message which, until recently, had remained unsolved.

In his letter, Patterson laid out the rules he followed to encrypt the message:

–write the message down in columns arranged from left to right, thereby creating rows or lines of gibberish text
–divide the aligned columns into blocks of text, each block having the same numbers of lines and columns
–rearrange the lines in exactly the same way within each block (e.g., make the fourth line the first in each block)
–add different numbers of additional (decoy) letters at the beginning of each line.

Patterson believed that the code was virtually unbreakable. To read the message, one would have to have the series of number pairs that showed (1) where each line of encrypted text was moved within each block, and (2) the number of letters added at the beginning of the line. For example, if each block had three lines and those lines were rearranged so the third line was now first, the first line was second, and the second line was third, the series of numbers could be something like 35 14 25 – the first number pair, for example, indicating that the third line in each block was moved to the first position and five additional letters were added to the front of the line, and so on. Armed with the series of paired numbers, the message could be recreated.

Lawren Smithline, a mathematician with the Center for Communications Research, has broken the 200 year old encrypted message. He used digraph (letter pairs) frequency analysis and dynamic programming, coupled with some guessing, to decipher the message (he asserts the decoding was “doable” in Jefferson’s day). For more on the story and the text of the message Patterson sent to Jefferson, see the following articles: Two Centuries On, a Cryptologist Cracks a Presidential Code, by Rachel Emma Silverman, Wall Street Journal, July 2, 2009; Coded to the Last: Jefferson’s Conundrum, by Craig Lambert, Harvard Magazine, July-August, 2009.

The Letter J

Both articles make passing references to simpler methods of encrypting messages, mentioning letter frequency and simple codes consisting of letter substitution. The key to deciphering a message encrypted using simple letter substitution is knowing the frequency with which letters are likely to appear in normal usage. For instance, in English, the letter E is the most frequently used letter, so one can begin with the assumption that the most frequent letter in the coded message is a substitute for the letter E. The Cornell University’s math department has posted an English letter frequency table based on a sample of 40,000 words (182,303 individual letters). According to that table, for example, about 12% of the letters will be an E, a little more than 9% will be a T, and just 0.07% will be a Z.

This bring me to the letter J. Over the past couple of weeks I have been bedeviled by an uncooperative key on my computer keyboard. At first, the key for the letter J just balked at responding but, if well struck, would agree to post a J. Then two days ago, all communication ceased. Okay, one could possibly live without J since the Cornell table tells me that, with the exception of Z, J is the least used letter, only 188 of the 182,303 letters in the sampled 40,000 words (or 0.1%) are Js. But, say your name is Jefferson, all bets are off, and there are several reasons, not worth getting into here, that make the letter J a more frequent visitor in my word processing than the Cornell frequency table would have it.

Now, I have no particular technical or mechanical aptitude, though I have added internal memory and the like into various PCs and, indeed, resurrected the notebook computer in question from a Coke spill and subsequent keyboard malfunction. So, I was willing to try to see what ailed the J key on my keyboard. I popped the J key cap off the keyboard, expecting to see a tangle of cat hair in a spot of sticky Coke beneath. Surprised, I saw a small black object nestled under the little wire Xs of the decapitated key. I went in with a kitchen knife (computer repair tool of choice) and gently freed the offending object. I was even more amazed when I realized what had thwarted my J’ing:

At just 4 millimeters in length, this broken (how hard did I hit that J key?) fossilized shark tooth showed surprising strength in bringing down a bit of 21st Century technology. I have several theories about how it got here, including one that involves beached Viking funeral ships (there's a prior post on this).

I have to believe that Jefferson would have been interested in this fossil (and, of course, in the computer, disassembled keyboard and all). The entrance hall at Jefferson’s home Monticello was a de facto museum featuring, among other objects depicting the history and pre-history of this country, a display of mastodon fossils. Some of his fossils are now in the collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, including two megalodon shark teeth from the Cooper River in South Carolina sent to him in 1806 by William Reid. In the picture of one of the teeth posted by ANS you can see Mr. Jefferson’s faded signature. Jefferson and paleontology, a natural combination.
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