Friday, August 31, 2007

Albert Maysles Visits the Druid City

It's not often in life that we get a chance to meet our heroes, let alone interview them. Today, celebrated documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles visited the campus of UA, and participated in an informal Q&A session facilitated by our very own Andy Grace. The Maysles brothers (brother David is now deceased) were responsible for a number of classic documentaries in the late sixties, early seventies, the most well known of which were "Salesman" (1968), a look into the lives of four Bible salesman, "Gimme Shelter" (1970), about the 1969 Rolling Stones' concert tour that culminated at Altamont, and "Grey Gardens" (1975), a moving portrait of the eccentric Bouvier-Beales in their dilapidated East Hampton mansion. There has a been a recent resurgence in the film Grey Gardens, due to it's success as a Broadway musical this year. And I must say if you are ever in the Big Apple, you must see this show! Christine Ebersole gives a remarkable performance as Little Edie--I think she even won the Tony. We got a chance to see the musical this March while visiting NYC, and it was quite literally one of the best pieces of art I've ever seen. Not to mention packed with show-stoppin' tunes that really give Little Edie her place in the sun (finally!).

After a charming hour with the famous octogenarian, replete with insights into filmmaking, vignettes of his current projects (he's working on a film called "In Transit" about encounters in trains), as well as a look into the future of the documentary medium, I got to ride on some coat tails and join the big wigs for lunch. Unfortunately, I got stuck at the "kid's table" with four other people, and except for the occasional eavesdropping, missed out on Andy chattin' up his American idol. But I can't complain, because it's not everyday that T-town receives a non-football associated celebrity!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

When the Levees Broke

Has it really been two years since Katrina? It's hard to believe that it was two years ago that Andy and I threw our housewarming party, right smack dab during the weekend that Katrina was feeding off all that warm air over the Atlantic, rapidly morphing from a Category 3 to a Category 5 level storm. While we were drinking beer and playing bocce bag, nature was getting ready to throw its first punch to the Gulf Coast. I remember thinking it was odd that Katherine made the trek to Tuscaloosa, laundry bag in tow, but thank God she did, because she would need those extra clothes when forced to temporarily relocate post-storm. She would not return to New Orleans after the festivities were over.

It all seems kind of surreal now. We watched the news coverage, the lines of cars exiting the city, the lines of people entering the Superdome, all the while hoping that the storm would lose some steam before it decided to make it's landfall. And then we woke up the next morning, and it seemed that the storm had done just that. Sure there was damage, but New Orleans had been spared. We sighed. We were relieved. And then before we could draw our next breath, it began. The levees broke (click here to see the graphic). We returned to the television. We watched in agony as the city began to flood, as the water level in the bathtub kept getting higher and higher. We watched while the people in the Superdome waited. Waited for food, water, rescue. We watched a cityscape change into a lake of submerged houses, with little black dots on the roofs. And we watched to see what our government would do. And we waited.

Two years later and the people of New Orleans are still waiting. Andy made this video ('Tourist of the Apocalypse') when we went down for New Years in 2005. We were shocked that 4 months after the storm, little progress had been made. But now, after 2 years I'm appalled that more has not been done. And that Bush continues to tout: "We're still paying attention. We understand", while many neighborhoods have not yet recovered, while health care continues to struggle (click here to listen to a NPR story about the mental health care crisis), while crime sores (click here to listen to Katherine's friend Eve deliver a NPR commentary), while the levees are still not fixed, and while most everything about New Orleans is still in a state of temporary disrepair (at least let's hope it's temporary).

Even though Katrina reminds us that our relationship with nature is tenuous, and that our attempts to control nature are often thwarted, I don't doubt for one second that New Orleans won't fight back. It's got tenacity, spunk, and a spirit that is not easily dampened. People believe in New Orleans. People need New Orleans. I for one, will be heading south soon to reacquaint myself with the Crescent City. Po-boys and Dixie beers are calling...

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

My Secret Garden

Welcome to The University of Alabama's Arboretum!

After a long summer of job searching, I decided to vent some frustrations and spend some time volunteering at the University's Arboretum. Unfortunately, I chose the hottest month of the summer to delve into the great outdoors. But despite the heat (and the skeets), the leafy walls of the arboretum were a welcomed respite from the sights and sounds of Tuscaloosa proper. So every morning a don my wide-brimmed gardening hat, put on the sunscreen, and let those pruning shears fly.

A birdhouse tree is a nice accoutrement to the garden of zinnias in the foreground.

A pair of passion flowers where butterfly larvae are known to make their home.

A view of the children's garden.

A butterfly meets its match.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Fightin' Eighty-Second

Over the last few weeks, the news has been inundated with reports of the largest toy recall in history. As millions upon millions of Mattel’s Chinese-made toys are being recalled because of lead-based paint, I thought I might say a few words on the vicious antagonist in this story.

As a geologist I am well aware of the eighty-second element on Mendeleev’s periodic table. It is a poisonous heavy metal, a most capable neurotoxin, and a substance that has had quite a long tenure under the EPA’s regulatory control. Many believe lead to have poisoned the Roman Empire, and thus in a manner of speaking, contributed to its eventual demise. In that time, lead was routinely added to wine in order to sweeten the taste. It could be found in make-up, pots and pans, water pipes, and in coined currency. Up until the late-seventies/early eighties, when the EPA stepped in, lead could be found in products like gasoline and paint. And as we have gathered from recent events, lead can still pop-up when we least expect it—in mass-produced sweatshop toys, in old houses, in our soil and water, and even in the air we breathe.

Although the old skull and crossbones pretty much sum up the lead lexicon these days, I would like to offer an alternative side to lead. Like for example, I bet few are aware that when allowed to form compounds, lead can contribute to some spectacular mineral specimens. Paired with sulfur, the two make galena, the metallic mineral that is the stuff of marine hydrothermal vents called black smokers, and also of ore deposits; with carbonate, comes cerussite—a mineral, which often forms beautiful cream-colored prismatic crystals; with vanadium, the uncommon mineral vanadinite springs to life, bringing with it vibrant hues of red and orange; and the list goes on. Lead’s isotopes (atoms of the same element that have a different number of neutrons) are important players in the field of geochronology (i.e. the dating of rocks, minerals, sediments, and fossils). The radioactive decay of various isotopes of uranium and thorium, produce the radiogenic lead isotopes—206Pb, 207Pb, 208Pb—which, consequently can be used in tandem with their respective parent isotopes, as well as the naturally occurring 204Pb, to act as geologic clocks to the specimen in question. The U-Pb geochronology method has been used to date meteorites and lunar rocks, as a proxy for the age of our own Earth. And it’s been used to date the earliest remnants of our Earth's crust, the 3.0-3.5 billion year old rocks of places like Wyoming, Canada, South Africa, and Western Australia.

Even though lead will most likely keep its current reputation as a deadly nuisance, we know that in the field of geology, lead will at least boast a few redeemable characteristics.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

No Fan Left Behind

"Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton, fat folks
there are not forgotten, Look Away! Look Away! Look Away! Dixie Land." Ok, so I tweaked the lyrics just a bit, but it works doesn't it?

Just in case you needed proof that Alabama indeed has an obesity problem (a whopping #2 in the nation, bringing up the rear behind Mississippi), here she blows. As part of the "No Fan Left Behind" program, this Bama souvenir store decided to go truly egalitarian and accommodate everybody--and i mean, every body. After 5XL made its autumn debut to much acclaim two years ago, the design team decided that with a little sweat and tears, they could have the 6XL ready in time for the 2007 season. That's a whole lotta Bama Pride. Here you go Saban, six fans for the price of one. The question is are they making Auburn t-shirts that big?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Keep Em Separated, Remembering Partition

“Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge…At the stroke of the midnight hour, while the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance…”
-Jawaharlal Nehru,
August 14, 1947

Sixty years ago today India became a free and independent nation, casting off the shackles of an interminable despot, and being born anew. At the stroke of midnight on August 14, 1947, the British would at last officially quit India, leaving recklessly behind fragments of its Empire to wrestle and writhe alone in its new state. As it emerged from the dark chasm of birth, the bastard child of imperialism was left gasping for air. Gandhi’s vision of unity was immediately supplanted by an onslaught of sectarian violence, and accompanied by a mass exodus of biblical proportions, as millions of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs struggled to find their rightful place within India’s newly drawn borders.

The last viceroy to India, Lord Louis Mountbatten was dispatched to India in March of 1947, and given the task of hastening Indian independence. What resulted in a little over five months time was the partitioning of ‘Mother India’ (and its 562 princely states) into two independent nation-states: the secular India, which consequently was a Hindu majority, and the Muslim Pakistan. Though many charge Mountbatten’s expedient division as the catalyst for communal bloodshed, giving one man the responsibility of neatly stitching up nearly one hundred years of imperial rule can hardly be considered a cakewalk. Scapegoat or not, posterity is most likely to remember Mountbatten as a symbol, or at least a product of the British Empire’s lasting hubris. And what of poor Cyril Radcliffe, the London barrister, who was commissioned with the impossible task of drawing India’s new borders? Doomed from the get-go, having never before set foot upon the land he was soon to so inappropriately divide, Radcliffe’s uncertain pencil lines are also cited as a trigger for the carnage that followed partition, as well as the Hindu-Muslim/India-Pakistan tensions that continue today. And of course, we know what became of Kashmir. Neither Pakistan nor India successfully sequestered the former princely state, and over time this disputed region has been the site of three Indo-Pakistani wars, and arguably will remain a stalemate for more years to come.

And sixty years later, what has the United States gleaned from history’s lesson in nation building? As the U.S occupation of Iraq presses on toward the five-year mark, and the debate over exit strategies grows louder, the sectarian violence continues unabated. And one has to wonder if a little bit of history might manage to repeat itself.

For those interested in the subject of Indian partition there is a new book out: “Indian Summer” by Alex von Tunzelmann. Read the reviews from the Houston Chronicle and the New Yorker. And an old favorite of course is "Freedom At Midnight" by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre.

Happy Birthday India!