St. Fred

As a child, I was never a fan of Mr. Rogers and his strangely calm neighborhood, and as an adult I never thought about him much, but a few years ago my sister-in-law sent me a profile about him that was in Esquire magazine, of all places. It was a special issue on heroes, and in it Tom Junod had a piece about Fred Rogers called “Can You Say… Hero?” By the time I had finished reading it, I was ready to nominate Mr. Rogers for canonization (and Junod for a Pulitzer).

I scoured the web for the article, but with no luck. I found a few choice paragraphs from the piece here. And if you go to Tom Junod’s page at Esquire, you find the following

During the first day of writer at large Tom Junod’s interviews with Fred Rogers for Esquire’s special Heroes issue (11/98), he accidentally left his pen at Mr. Rogers’s New York apartment. “When I got there the next day,” says Junod, “there was an envelope sitting on his table, and inside that envelope I suppose was my pen, but on the outside of the envelope in Fred’s perfect calligraphy was ‘This is Tom’s pen.’ I keep that envelope next to my desk and I’ve never opened it. It’s a signal that when you write, anything can happen. It just always tells me that you never know what’s going to be inside.”

In my poking around, I found another good article on Mr. Rogers by Rip Rense, which by the way offers yet another quote by Junod.

“I think the greatest misconception involving Fred is that he’s mild to the point of weakness,” said Junod, from his home in Georgia. “When in fact, he’s mild to the point of great strength. He has one of the most powerful and commanding presences I’ve ever been around. His effect on people is astonishing. His affect on me was astonishing. The (Esquire) story meant a lot to me, but I was not in a place I wanted to be, writing-wise. I wasn’t feeling the connection to my work I’m used to. Fred helped me restore that. He did not deliberately do anything. He does not proselytize for any position, but there is no question in my mind but that Fred knew I was in a place I didn’t want to be—and he used his time with me to get me back. He’s a canny guy, that Fred. Watch out for him.”

Look down on us and smile, St. Fred.


I don’t know how I missed this for so long. Mindjack is a digital magazine (megablog? website? I don’t what to call these things anymore) backed up by a talented cast of writers. It’s really the usual suspects from the old Wired magazine: Mark Frauenfelder (also of BoingBoing), Gareth Branwyn, Howard Rheingold, Jon Lebkowsky, and others. I’m putting it on my regular reading list… I hope it lasts.

It’s hard to keep these web venues alive. Salon is just scraping by with the most annoying ads on the web. Steven Johnson‘s Feed magazine is gone. The experimental was designed to let the community provide the content and avoid the high-priced writer problem. It still exists, but as you can imagine the content is low rent and recycled. Weblogs work well precisely because you need so little money. It’ll be interesting to see if there’s room for a new zine-like entity. This editorial board has to be smart enough to realize there’s not much money in an online zine, so I assume they have a plan for keeping it going. I wish them luck.

In the meantime, read the cool interview with game designer Sid Meier and Cory Doctorow’s review of William Gibson’s new book.

What does the Civil War mean to you?

I’ve been away on vacation to New Orleans for the past week. While doing the museum circuit, I went to the excellent D-Day museum and then took a stroll around the corner to the Memorial Hall Confederate Museum. The Confederate Museum is mostly a context-free collection of miscellaneous gear: uniforms of famous men like Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, swords, guns, battle flags and so on. This is interesting stuff to the enthusiast, but not so great for the idle visitor. Happily, there was no hint of white supremacy or “the South will rise again” sentiment to the place.

While I was there, I heard a boy ask his mom who won the battle of Gettysburg. She paused, evidently not knowing the answer, but since she wanted to answer the boy she hesitantly said “I think the South won that battle.” Being nearby, I piped up and gently corrected her. After another minute the woman came up beside me and said, waving her hand in a nonspecific way, “You sound like you’re from the South. Does all this mean anything to you?” I said “Sure it means something to me. I imagine it means something to a lot of northerners too.” She said, “I’m from Michigan, and to me it’s always been confusing. We don’t ever think about it.” I didn’t ask why she came to the museum, but I did point out that a lot of Michiganders fought and died in the war, including those from the famous Iron Brigade. She was quiet and unconvinced, but asked another question. “Was the Civil War about slavery?” I said, “Yes. It was about slavery.” She said inconclusively “Because you hear people saying it was about other things…”

Two things puzzle me. One is the complete indifference (most often by northerners) to this cataclysmic nation-shaping War Between the States, and the other is the insistence (most often by southerners) that the war was not about slavery.

So what does the Civil War mean to you?

Where Does Desire Come From?

“where does desire come from?” she asked. he made no reply, but she knew he was still awake. it was not an idle question. sometimes desire came on her like a hot wind, a hurricane, sweeping her violently along in its wicked vortex. it made her do strange impractical things, lose sleep, drive long distances, take terrible risks. yet she knew so little about it. where did it come from?

3:02. the cool light from the clock numbers painted the ceiling a pale blue. parachuting snowflakes spun across the window. she turned towards him to rest on her side, addressed his silent form. “I think,” she said, “it comes from completeness. when you know there is something out there that fits you, that makes you whole, you just have to have it.” the words sounded small and thin. she went on: “something in you recognizes it, and you just have to have it. and usually you can’t even say what it is in the other person that does it. there are so many good-looking people in the world, but when the desire comes on you so hard it scares you, it’s different. completeness. desire driving you to madness and completeness.” her eyes darted to the clock and then to his face. 3:07. his breathing was regular now, his mouth slightly open. she smiled.

she rolled onto her back again. once she had read that chaos is desire without an object of desire. incompleteness. emptiness. hunger. a hungry dog that can never rest. maybe completeness is the force that harnesses all the nameless desires that drive our chaotic lives. your whole life you’re battered, you’re beaten up by these invisible forces, these hungers and insecurities. after a while you don’t even notice it anymore: life is chaos and chaos is life. then one day you catch a glimpse of completeness in another person’s eyes. it doesn’t wave and nod politely. it grabs you by the throat and terrifies you. all those desires are brought to focus by completeness. sharp blistering focus. it can spin your head off.

she remembered that night, after the movie, after the wine, watching him play piano in the darkened lobby. she hadn’t let him finish the song. she remembered when she dropped into his eyes, expecting to hit bottom, and instead she kept falling and falling and falling.

falling is the right word for it, really. but when you fall in love, where are you falling from? where are you falling to? the blue light shifted slightly as the numbers changed. 3:17. she propped herself up to look at the swirling snow. she felt giddy and girlish and happy lying next to him. she had nearly crashed twice on the long drive up, deranged from lack of sleep, sliding in the snow. having so nearly slept at the wheel of a moving car with a screaming radio, she now was not sleepy in a warm bed next to this man. some radiant energy kept her mind humming. she lay back, drifting back into philosophy. falling in love is not like a rollercoaster or a skydive, she thought, where you see the plunge coming. it’s like waking up from a dream and realizing only then that you’re falling, that you’ve been falling for a long time. it was there all along, only now you know it. now you’re in it, swept along by the winds of desire. maybe it’s like the astronauts that fall and float at the same time. her stomach gave a tiny sympathetic lurch, which awoke an echoing yearning farther down.

there was a secret spot inside her body where the completed two-of-them came together perfectly. she learned this one humid night long ago as he thrust himself deep into her, held her so close she wanted to scream and not-scream. she held tightly to him, not breathing, adjusting herself to admit him as much as possible, the sweat rolling off both of them in great drops. from the confused swirling smoke in her brain came a sudden certain thought: this is where I belong, where he belongs. this is the center of the two-of-us. I want this to last forever. I must never forget this.

she never did. since that night, she thought of the secret spot, of how to join their bodies in passion, every minute of every day. she could make her mind go to that spot and feel the mournful waiting emptiness. punishing desire disordered the details of her life, but it gave strange calming order to her soul. as if: the chaos that resulted from her pursuit of this passion was not her problem. as if: she was liberated from the chaos that had mercilessly haunted her before. where is the center of the universe? where does desire come from? before, she had been one of those spinning orbiting clods, wandering, skittering, pointlessly disheveled and diverted by unseen forces. now, floating in free fall, she was at the center… she was motionless. she could see the sparking stars hissing by. she saw the brightly colored planets spinning around her in silence. but she was calm. she was completed by her desire.

4:01. the snowfall was slacking. he snorted in his sleep and made a small smacking sound, turned towards her. she reached out her finger and gently gently touched his lips.

sleep was coming for her at last.
she was grateful for that.
she was grateful for this man.
she was grateful for desire.

Explaining X-Planes

I recently watched (delayed by the magic of TiVo) a two-hour special on NOVA called the Battle of the X-Planes. The show concerned the recent defense industry showdown for who is going to build the next (and probably last) manned jet fighter for the United States, the so-called Joint Strike Fighter. The stakes were extraordinary: a winner-takes-all $200 billion contract. Since there isn’t much money available for new planes these days, the competition boils down to a mountain of cash for the winner and a bullet for the loser.

I used to work in the aerospace business (here’s a picture of the plane I worked on at NASA), and I can tell you that the NOVA cameras really did get behind the scenes of what goes on at an aircraft company. I work in the software business now, and the difference between the two environments is stark. Partially because of security clearances, you see the same kind of person again and again in the airplane business: a white man (U.S. citizen, naturally), enthusiastic, patriotic, and geeky in a clean-cut, midwestern sort of way. Very little irony. The software industry is a kaleidoscopic cross-cultural riot by comparison. NOVA managed to capture the earnestness and the intensity airplane builders pour into their work. If you’ve ever wondered what goes on in top-secret defense industry cabals behind bomb-proof electronically sealed doors, this show is as close as you may get (Note: it’s not actually very interesting). I’ve been there, and now so has public television. I’m impressed with NOVA, but also with the U.S. government and Boeing and Lockheed-Martin. It was a nostalgic treat for me but also a refreshing beam of sunlight deep into normally dark corners of the government.

NOVA has put together a nice website on the the special. For instance, read about Lesson #1 learned by the NOVA film crew at Edwards: Never take snapshots of your C-5 transport plane without official permission, even if your pilot gives the thumbs up.

If you want to learn more about the Joint Strike Fighter, James Fallows has written a good piece about it in the Atlantic: Uncle Sam Buys an Airplane. In it, Fallows describes a conversation with the Boeing team after their loss.

I mentioned a nightmare scenario for Lockheed Martin: that Boeing, while playing the good loser, would get its revenge by successfully promoting unmanned vehicles as the real way to make defense affordable. The Boeing men all laughed when I said this. Of course that is what they have in mind.

That’s why JSF is going to be the last manned jet fighter the U.S. will ever buy. We’d be stupid to by another one now that the robots have finally earned their wings.

Speaking of spelling

The Economist has a good opinion piece about the space shuttle this week (The Magnificent Seven) which says, more or less, after we mourn the astronauts, we do them no disrespect by questioning the program in which they were employed. Here is one line pulled from the article.

“The American space programme must go on,” said George Bush.

Programme? I seriously doubt it. George W. Bush must certainly have said “The American space program must go on.” Would the Economist have Bush analysing the colours of our national flag? Finding space shuttle tyres amid the debris? Throwing terrorists into gaol? It’s an interesting point to ponder. After all, how would we quote an illiterate speaker? Then again, an illiterate is not likely to take offense at your rendering of his words, whereas I would be annoyed to have those extra letters put in my mouth.

How many presidents of Libya are there, what with Qaddafi, Khaddafy, and all the others? Saddam Hussein protects himself by moving randomly among various palaces. Qaddafi does a similar trick by moving randomly among various transliterations.

I often wonder how far to carry translation. If I am in France, it’s a reasonable thing to turn cars into voitures. But in England should I refer to lorries instead of trucks? And if I do, am I being helpful or pretentious? Douglas Hofstadter has written a fascinating book on translation called Le Ton beau de Marot in which he discusses exactly this point, having come across a copy of Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye that was “translated” from American spelling to British spelling. Apparently reading about Holden Caulfield studying maths was too much for Hofstadter.

Under the cellular hood

I have been a fan of David Goodsell’s biology illustrations ever since I came across an article of his in American Scientist a few years ago. Drawings in molecular biology tend to be schematic and reductionist in the extreme, simple diagrams depicting only a few things. But there’s nothing clean and schematic inside a real cell. Goodsell is almost alone in his efforts to depict the inside of a cell as the crazy jumble it is. He’s just posted a new illustration to his website, a big new triptych watercolor called Macrophage and Bacterium. We don’t yet know what it truly “looks like” inside a living cell, but this is an inspired (and beautiful) attempt.

Goodsell has written a couple of books, both of which I highly recommend. Our Molecular Nature: The Body’s Motors, Machines and Messages and The Machinery of Life. The hallmark of his writing is a lucid, high level approach that avoids jargon and gets at first principles. I also appreciate minor touches like explaining that the amino acid asparagine was actually named after asparagus.

Wikipedia grows like Topsy

Here’s an article from the Guardian by Ben Hammersley about the ever-growing Wikipedia: Guardian Unlimited | Common knowledge. The Wikipedia, you will recall, is an experiment from the wild edges of the informational commons. Change any page you want. Add any section you want. I fixed a typo on the Guy Fawkes page. It was very satisfying. The Wikipedia has been such a hit, that they’ve launched a Wiktionary to go with it. What next? I think a WikiBible (too late!) or some other such bric-a-brac sacred text would be excellent. There is no distinction between the sacred and the profane in the land of Wiki.

Incidentally, have you ever wondered where the phrase “grow like Topsy” comes from? It derives from the character Topsy in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The Merriam-Webster site has a nice description as part of its Word for the Wise site. To grow like Topsy is to grow “wild, with neither plan, structure, nor direction.”

Incidentally, have you ever wondered if incidental remarks like the preceding ones are going to vanish into the Googlesphere? Behind the guise of clever instruction, all I did was report the results of a Google search on an unfamiliar phrase. You could have done the same thing. Why did I bother? Does a be-googled, wiki-fied world stifle conversation or promote it? Does the net bring us closer together or send us farther apart? I’m fairly certain it doesn’t stop me from rambling.

Happy Groundhog Day

groundhog-small.gifI don’t know what your weather was like today, but it was overcast and bleak here. No shadows were cast by man or beast. If the marmot’s prognostications are to be believed, winter is thereby curtailed. Whether or not the predictions are correct, I have a peculiar fondness for Groundhog Day. It is an occasion worth marking: the beginning of the end of winter. We are halfway through now, the days are lengthening quickly, and every step from now on brings us out of the cellar rather than taking us deeper into it.

Groundhog Day is also when you are reminded (as we did five years ago on this very site) to remove, destroy, or vandalize any remaining Christmas decorations that still limply and lamely decorate your neighborhood. Remember: it’s always appropriate, but it’s only illegal if you get caught.