Eclipses Make People Crazy, Daniel Defoe Edition

Posted August 6, 2017 by Tom
Categories: Art and science, astronomy, History, Uncategorized

So:  some folks choked on Annie Dillard’s perhaps overly magniloquent response to her eclipse, so here’s something quite different for the more Augustan among us.

For reasons not relevant to this post, I am this morning nosing around Daniel Defoe’s writing from the late 1710s, and just a few minutes ago I stumbled upon this hoot of a passage from the second volume of The Family Instructor:

It happen’d once, that a Discourse began between the Father and Mother about the Eclipse of the Sun, which fell out in April 22. 1715.

The Eclipse of the Sun was the Subject of all Con|versation at that time, having been, as is well known, so Total, and the Darkness so great, as that the like had not been known in that Age, or some hundreds of Years before.

The Wife had enquired of her Husband, what the Nature of the Thing was, and he was describing it to her and the Children in a familiar way; and, as I said, that a kind of Reflection upon one another was the usual Issue of their common Discourse, so it was there; the Husband tells her, that the Moon was like a cross Wife, that when she was out of Humour, could Thwart and Eclipse her Husband whenever she pleased; and that if an ill Wife stood in the Way, the brightest Husband could not shine.

She flew in a Passion at this, and being of a sharp Wit, you do well, says she, to carry your Emblem to a suitable height; I warrant, you think a Wife, like the Moon, has no Light but what she borrows from her Husband, and that we can only shine by Reflecti|on; it is necessary then you should know, she can Eclipse him when she pleases.

Ay, ay, says the Husband, but you see when she does, she darkens the whole House, she can give no Light without him.

Ʋpon this she came closer to him.
Wife.

I suppose you think you have been Eclips’d lately, we don’t see the House is the darker for it.

Husband.

That’s because of your own Darkness; I think the House has been much the darker.

Wife:

None of the Family are made sensible of it, we don’t miss your Light.

Husb.

It’s strange if they don’t, for I see no Light you give in the room of it.

Wife.

We are but as dark as we were before; for we were none of us the better for all your Hypocri|tical Shining.

Husb.

Well, I have done shining, you see; the Darkness be at your Door.

It’s evident that both meant here, his having left off Family-Worship; and it is apparent, both were come to a dreadful Extremity in their Quarrel.
Wife.

At my Door! am I the Master of the Fami|ly! don’t lay your Sins to my Charge.

Husb.

No, no; but your own I may; It is the Retrograde Motion of the Moon that causes an E|clipse.

Wife.

Where all was dark before, there can be no Eclipse.

Husb.

Your Sin is, that my Light is your Darkness.

Wife.

That won’t excuse you, if you think it a Sin; can you not do what you please without me?

My advice to the husband? Don’t throw shade when your own wit is so poorly lit.

Image: Edmund Halley, A Description of the Passage of the Shadow of the Moon over England In the Total Eclipse of the SUN on the Day of April 1715 in the morning.

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Darkness At Noon (Well, A Little After 10 a.m. From Where I’ll Be Standing)

Posted August 5, 2017 by Tom
Categories: astronomy, rare sincerity, Uncategorized

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This is a follow up to what I’ve been hearing from some folks about how they plan to take in the eclipse of 2017.  My family’s headed out for Oregon in a couple of weeks, basing ourselves with relatives in Portland before heading a little south and east in the very wee hours of the 21st.

We’re putting ourselves in the hands of the cloud-cover forecast as to how far east we go (or try to), and in those of our cousins for local knowledge of roads and routes. There Will Be Traffic, which is why my hunch is that we’ll be en route not much after midnight.

That’s my plan.  What follows is for those of you in or near the path of the partial eclipse, and plan to stay there.

I’ve got just one thing to say to y’all:

Reconsider.

A total eclipse is a completely different beast from a partial one.  Partial eclipses are weird and cool.

Something comes along and takes a bite out of the soon, and the sheer wrongness of that is emotionally powerful, and produces its own truly odd visual effects:

 

BUT…

Totality is a completely different beast.

Here’s Annie Dillard, testifying:

I had seen a partial eclipse in 1970. A partial eclipse is very interesting. It bears almost no relation to a total eclipse. Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him, or as flying in an airplane does to falling out of an airplane. Although the one experience precedes the other, it in no way prepares you for it….

The sky’s blue was deepening, but there was no darkness. The sun was a wide crescent, like a segment of tangerine. The wind freshened and blew steadily over the hill. The eastern hill across the highway grew dusky and sharp. The towns and orchards in the valley to the south were dissolving into the blue light. Only the thin river held a trickle of sun.

Now the sky to the west deepened to indigo, a color never seen. A dark sky usually loses color. This was a saturated, deep indigo, up in the air. Stuck up into that unworldly sky was the cone of Mount Adams, and the alpenglow was upon it. The alpenglow is that red light of sunset which holds out on snowy mountain tops long after the valleys and tablelands are dimmed. “Look at Mount Adams,” I said, and that was the last sane moment I remember.

I turned back to the sun. It was going. The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a nineteenth-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. All the people you see in the photograph, distinct and detailed as their faces look, are now dead. The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver. All the distant hills’ grasses were finespun metal which the wind laid down. I was watching a faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages; I was standing in it, by some mistake. I was standing in a movie of hillside grasses filmed in the Middle Ages. I missed my own century, the people I knew, and the real light of day…

From all the hills came screams. A piece of sky beside the crescent sun was detaching. It was a loosened circle of evening sky, suddenly lighted from the back. It was an abrupt black body out of nowhere; it was a flat disk; it was almost over the sun. That is when there were screams. At once this disk of sky slid over the sun like a lid. The sky snapped over the sun like a lens cover. The hatch in the brain slammed. Abruptly it was dark night, on the land and in the sky. In the night sky was a tiny ring of light. The hole where the sun belongs is very small. A thin ring of light marked its place. There was no sound. The eyes dried, the arteries drained, the lungs hushed. There was no world. We were the world’s dead people rotating and orbiting around and around, embedded in the planet’s crust, while the earth rolled down. Our minds were light-years distant, forgetful of almost everything. Only an extraordinary act of will could recall to us our former, living selves and our contexts in matter and time. We had, it seems, loved the planet and loved our lives, but could no longer remember the way of them. We got the light wrong. In the sky was something that should not be there. In the black sky was a ring of light. It was a thin ring, an old, thin silver wedding band, an old, worn ring. It was an old wedding band in the sky, or a morsel of bone. There were stars. It was all over.

      — Annie Dillard, “Total Eclipse”, from Teaching a Stone to Talk

My own experience was similarly uncanny, impossible to anticipate.  The first film that was really mine, the first on which I had sole producer and writer credit, was an episode of NOVA broadcast in 1992 called “Eclipse of the Century.”  It documented the 1991 eclipse whose a path of totality tracked directly over the Big Island of Hawaii — and hence over the deep-space telescopes placed atop Mauna Kea.

It was a hell of a first film to attempt — we ended up with a crew of over 20, 12 cameras, insurance from Lloyds of London against the possibility that clouds would doom the film — something like $5,000 against $250,000 on four minutes or so of clear skies — and so on.

I had a ton of help, of course:  a supervising producer, a proper director, a great assistant, and above all, wonderful camera people and their crews, in many ways a who’s-who of the top documentary shooters of the day.  Without them the whole farrago would have collapsed in hideous ignominy.

As it turned out, nature gave us great drama — clouds rising, threatening to cover the sun minutes before totality and then…

Well, take a look at this clip.*

For myself — I was with the crew that was filming the adventures within the control room of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope.  That was headed by Jon Else, for those of you who follow documentary stuff, and though I was nominally his director, Jon needed no guidance from a rookie to do his usual brilliant work. About 90 seconds into totality he turned his head and told me to get onto the catwalk to see the matter for myself.

I did.

I’m not going to tell you what I felt.  As the Dillard passage above suggest, it seems to me, words can carry something of the emotional intensity of the moment, but the experience itself is unsayable.  Mimesis ain’t in it here; there’s no representation that captures the reality anyone other than the writer would perceive.

In purely descriptive terms, the shift in colors that Dillard describes is the overture, the phenomenon that alerts you to the strangeness under way.  But when the moon’s disc fully covers the sun you get something else altogether, a darkness that isn’t quite the darkness of night (especially if you’re high up, with a truly distant horizon, because you can then detect a kind of lightening all around you at the edges of your viewable frame).

And most of all, you get the corona, the solar atmosphere. The human eye can see it out to a distance of at least 10 solar diameters, maybe more.  But because the brightness falls off so sharply from near the limb of the sun to hte diffuse, outer corona, most  most photographs, and certainly in the video linked above, don’t begin to do justice to what you’ll see for yourselves.

Luc Viatour / https://Lucnix.be

All of which is (a) to prove the point that words are poor guides to what happens during totality and (b) if you have a chance, check it out.

*I can’t find the whole film on the web anywhere.  That’s no surprise — in 1992 we weren’t clearing rights for an internet that wouldn’t properly exist for years to come.  One cool thing about that eclipse that you’ll see if you do look at the clip were those two giant solar prominences.  Don’t see that every time.

Images: George Stubbs, Eclipse at Newmarket with Groombefore 1789.

Photos of a partial eclipse of the sun taken in Yunnan province, China, 1999

Luc Viatour, Total Solar Eclipse, 1999

This Has The Makings Of An Enjoyable Day…

Posted July 31, 2017 by Tom
Categories: quis custodiet ipsos custodes, Uncategorized

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Joe Arpaio is now on his way to being an old lag, and if that conclusion is decades late, it still behoves us to get our schadenfreude on:

The longest-serving lawman of the state’s most populous county, where he became a national figure known for immigration raids and sweeps aimed at rounding up illegal migrants, was found guilty Monday of contempt of court. He faces up to six months in jail.

Arpaio’s crime, you’ll probably recall, was to keep on doing what he’d been doing after a federal judge told him to stop:

Arpaio had conducted the sweeps under the federal 287 G Program, which enables some local law-enforcement offices to act as quasi-immigration agents. In 2009, the federal government rescinded this power, but Arpaio refused to stop. In 2012, Arizona U.S. District Court Judge Murray Snow, ordered an injunction against Arpaio’s office aimed at ending the sweeps, but still, Arpaio refused.

I fortunately don’t have any personal experience here, but I have it on good authority that judges really, really don’t like it when you ignore them.

Arpaio tried two lines of defense:

During the criminal trial, which consisted of a five-day trial in June and July, Arpaio’s attorney’s argued that Snow’s order was unclear and that though the sheriff had made mistakes, they weren’t willful violations of the order. He also argued that Arpaio delegated much of of the enforcement responsibilities to his subordinates, and that he should not be held responsible for their actions.

Again, I don’t think telling a judge that they f**ked up in their legal writing is a terribly persuasive strategy, and as for the “my employees suck, I don’t” argument, I’m reminded once again that the Party of Personal Responsibility™ is a f**king crock.  Hence, the man’s a convict.

It is, alas, apparently unlikely that white supremacist poster child Arpaio will actually go to jail for his crime.

But whatever his sentence, this outcome makes me smile.

 

Here’s Loki, the Trickster God, in the glass I’ll raise when the clock hits 0-whiskey-00 this evening.

Image:  Egon Schiele, The Door is Open, 1912.

Unleashed Cops

Posted July 29, 2017 by Tom
Categories: quis custodiet ipsos custodes, The Way We Live Now, Uncategorized

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While the Russian asset in the White House pushes cops to brutalize their suspects, we have plenty of cases studies on what happens when you license f**kery by the boys folks in blue.  Today’s example comes  from Baltimore:

Maryland prosecutors have tossed 34 criminal cases and are re-examining dozens more in the aftermath of recent revelations that a Baltimore police officer accidentally recorded himself planting drugs in a trash-strewn alley.

Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said that, in all, 123 cases are under review in the wake of a scandal in which one officer has been suspended and two others put on administrative duty. Body cam footage revealed nearly two weeks ago showed one of the officers planting drugs when he didn’t realize his body cam was recording. (via Ars Technica.)

Among the consequences of such behavior: folks do time, in this case, six or seven months for the crime of being an easy arrest for a dirty cop:

one of the recently dismissed Baltimore cases included the drug suspect who was the target of the plant in the body cam video. He had been jailed since January on a $50,000 bail he could not post.

Societies need cops. They don’t need cops who think a badge and a gun makes them lords of the street.  And any civilized society needs leaders who know that.

The good news, in Baltimore and in response to the Shitgibbon’s latest droppings?  The pushback–from Maryland prosecutors and from police forces around the country respectively.  Resistance isn’t just necessary; it’s useful.

Image: Caravaggio, The Taking of Jesus, c. 1602

Lest We Forget (End of the American Century Update)

Posted July 28, 2017 by Tom
Categories: Decline and Fall, Manic Despair, Massive Fail, The Way We Live Now, Trump Crime Syndicate, Uncategorized

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One thing’s for sure: whatever fresh hell the Trump White House offers up each day, one community in our great society has to be unbelievably grateful.  Scaramucci is just the latest gift to surpass understanding delivered w. a sMooch* by an administration whose signature accomplishment seems to be The Late Night Comedian Full Employment Act of 2017.

See, e.g., exhibit A, Stephen Colbert:


Here’s the thing, though.  For all our (my) attempts to remember what actual ordinary politics were like, it’s hard to keep up with the massive fail that lies behind so much wonderfully immolating wit.

The Mooch isn’t just a Master of the Universe about to discover that presidential-level politics is not the same as the rigged casino from which he came.  He is the communications director, ultimately the outward facing representative of executive power in the United States.  In Beijing news studios last night, some poor folks had to figure out how to express the essence of Scaramucci’s autofellatio image to a Chinese public trying to make sense of the state of affairs across the Pacific.  In Berlin, government officials are (I’ll bet) as I type attempting to figure out who remains in DC to talk to, when a one week administration veteran seeks to bring down the FBI on the President’s chief of staff.

All of which is to say that this is so far from normal you couldn’t see ordinary DC politics from where we now find ourselves with a fully functional James Webb Space Telescope.  Scaramucci’s hilarious, awful, unspeakably revealing rant is indeed funny as hell.  It’s also the mark of an American government that cannot represent American interests in the world.  We’ve traded actual engagement with the day to day business of running the most powerful country in the world for an extended Game of Thrones cosplay fantasy.

This is how empires fall:  a surface wave of bathos obscuring the deep, ongoing, and never normal tide of malice, incompetence and chaos.

On the upside, my son and I have tickets to see Colbert live next month.  That should be fun.

*See what I did there?

It’s Baaaaacccckkkk (Sort Of, Maybe)

Posted July 20, 2017 by Tom
Categories: Health Care, Republican knavery, Uncategorized

Tags: ,

It is impossible to overstate the Republican commitment to ripping health care from millions, while taking a chainsaw to our medical system.

Rand Paul has just announced that he will vote “Yes” on the Trumpcare motion to proceed as long as he is given a clean vote on his amendment, which would simply repeal the ACA (which, given the CBO evaluation of a similar proposal, would lead to something on the order of 17 million without health care next year, and 32 million Americans left in the cold by 2026).

That’s still not enough to get Trumpcare to the floor if the other declared “Noes” hold out, but each senator McConnell can peel away significantly increases the pressure on those who remain opposed.  And certainly, Paul’s cave reminds us that counting on any Republican to maintain a party-base-unpopular position as a matter of principle is a mug’s game.

This won’t be over until the GOP loses its majority in one house or the other.

Image: Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder, Massacre of the Innocents, c. 1515

A Modest Proposal

Posted July 20, 2017 by Tom
Categories: Health Care, Uncategorized

Tags: ,

Most people know of Senator John McCain’s diagnosis with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer.  I have just a couple of thoughts I’d like to add.

First, obviously, best wishes to Senator McCain and his family. This is a very tough diagnosis, as we all know.  The next several months and years will demand an enormous amount of McCain and all those close to him, and I wish them well in that fight.

Second:  John McCain is receiving the best of care, as he should, and as I would wish anyone in his position could expect.  That health care comes to him through his job as an employee of the federal government.

The immediate context, of course, is that this particular federal employee is one of those Republican senators who was, by all accounts prepared to vote yes on a bill that would have pulled federally mandated and supported health care from tens of millions of his fellow citizens.

The larger context is that John McCain has throughout his life relied on the United States government for his medical care — from birth to now.  He was the son of a serving naval officer, then a cadet at the Naval Academy, then a serving officer himself, then briefly a veteran in private life.

Then, within a year of his retiring from the armed forces, elected as a member of the House of Representatives.  Four years later he won his Senate seat, to which he has been re-elected five times, which brings us to the present day.

A whole life, all 80+ years of it, and John McCain has never for a moment had to wonder what he would do if he became sick, or if his wife or his kids fell ill.  For the first half of his life, he had access to a single-payer system; as a member of Congress, he received his health benefits through the same benefit package available to federal workers; since the passage of the ACA, members and their staffs have access to on-exchange subsidized plans.

And that’s great!  John McCain should have had secure, guaranteed and persistent care.  The injuries he suffered in Vietnam and during his imprisonment there should never have been eligible to be pre-existing conditions. He should have been, as he was, free of the choice-crippling necessity of working a secure gig to ensure access to insurance, thus enabling him to pursue his life of military and public service.

The kicker though: so should we all.  The health-care life John McCain has led is the one that’s right not just for him and his family, but for all Americans.  I won’t rehash here the moral and the practical reasons why — we’ve done that before, David can do it better, and we will be back at that by nightfall at the latest.  All I want to do here is to make a modest proposal.

The Democrats should come to the next round of manouvering on health care legislation with a plan that repairs ACA’s current weak points and lays out a path to full coverage.  And they should name it after one of the great exemplars of the power of guaranteed health care to liberate Americans into lives of daring and service.

Here’s to the John Sidney McCain III Universal Health Care Act of 2017!

Image: Doris Zinkelson,  No 115 British General Hospital, Ostend – Unloading Wounded, 1945