January 2017

Posted by Ellen

One foot on Jacob's ladder
And one foot in the fire
And it all goes dow
n in your mind.

Art by Vjeko Sager ("Chaos Theory," 2008). Music by Johnny Cash (1996).

Posted by Ellen

That's a couple of wet dogs goofing it up, out there by the Golden Gate Bridge. Zoe, at left, lived in San Francisco until recently, when her boy Patrick moved to Seattle. Hank's pup Mabel visited with Zoe last June and now shares a house in Seattle with her and some other critters.

Posted by Ellen

On the G-train, in Brooklyn.

Posted by Ellen

Laura Ingalls Wilder, who was said to be a tiny woman, less than five feet tall, tends her vegetable garden at Rocky Ridge farm in the southern Missouri Ozarks.

The photo is probably from the late 1920s or early 1930s, when Laura was in her sixties and working on her "Little House" series of books about her childhood in cabins and shanties and covered wagons on the midwestern frontier.

Her daughter Rose Wilder Lane–who referred to her as Mama Bess–conceived the literary project and worked for years behind the scenes to prepare Laura's stories for publication. Rose was a widely known writer at the time who kept her role in the "Little House" books a secret.

By the time mother and daughter were working on Laura's stories, they were not getting along well, and Rose was developing an obsession with extreme libertarian politics. They quarreled over what to put in and what to leave out and what to emphasize and how to describe things; it seems that Laura usually but by no means always had the last word.

In the middle of the work, which took more than ten years, Rose picked up and moved to Connecticut; they completed the collaboration by mail and long distance phone calls. They rarely saw each other again.

Rose's political extremism eventually ruined the writing she did in her own name; she became a ridiculous crank. Even a book she wrote for Woman's Day about needlework became an anti-communist screed. But while she was able to sneak some of her libertarian ideology into the Little House stories, Laura's no-nonsense approach apparently kept the focus on the adventures of Ma and Pa and the girls and Jack the brindle bulldog.

Rose's political writing celebrated the subsistence farmer as the only real American, free and self-reliant. She interpreted her mother's pioneering background as the classic American experience, even though the family's wanderings on the frontier had quickly forced them out of subsistence farming and eventually out of farming altogether. 

To Rose, the hardships of pioneering were ennobling challenges. To Laura, they had been hardships, suffering, tough times in life. To several generations now of American children, they were awesome adventures.

Posted by Ellen

Notes from the Office of War Information, December 1943: "In the evening, Hugh Massman and his wife fold diapers. Joey's bureau drawer crib is moved to the side of their bed for the night."

The Massman family lived in Washington in 1943 while Hugh, a petty officer in the navy, attended a specialized training program. Photographer Esther Bubley spent a few days with them for a feature story about military family life.

After the war, the family returned home to Montana, where they had seven more children.

Posted by Ellen

In the cells of a salivary gland of a mouse, pictured above at left, and deep within the crust of a neutron star, shown at right, are multilevel structures connected by spiraling ramps, an architecture familiar to us all as the parking garage.

In fact, each of the levels in both these structures is connected to the levels above and below by two mirror-image ramps, one spiraling left, the other right, pretty much like separate up and down ramps in a real parking garage.

The parking garages inside living cells–your cells, my cells, even those nasty cells living underneath a rock–consist of flat membranes visible with a scanning electron microscope. These membranes surround the cell nucleus, where biophysicists say they function as the "shop floor of protein synthesis." Knobby little protein-making thingamabobs called ribosomes dot the membranes "like cars populating a densely packed parking structure."

Best of all, if the cell is called on to make more proteins and thus has a need for more spaces in which to park ribosomes, the garage "can add more levels as it gets full."

The parking garages in neutron stars are not directly observable, of course, since the stars are far, far away and millions of degrees hot and very nearly as punishing, gravitywise, as a black hole. Physicists "see" the garage structures when they run computer simulations that mathematically impose on tens of thousands of hypothetical atoms the various forces associated with neutron-star development.

The forces involved are pretty crazy. Neutron stars appear when very large stars–several times as big as our sun–grow old and run out of the nuclear fuel that gives them their twinkle. They explode as supernovae and then collapse into tiny little astronomical bodies, only 10 or so km in diameter, that are so dense that a teaspoonful of neutron-star stuff would weigh about ten billion tons.

The way they get that dense is by smushing atomic particles together till normal atomic structure is obliterated. A proton and an electron mashed together make a neutron, and gazillions of neutrons mashed together make a neutron star. There are believed to be at least 100 million neutron stars in the Milky Way.

The parking garages postulated in neutron-star crust are not well understood, to put it mildly. Perhaps their geometry plays a role in the way the stars cool off or lose magnetic energy over time. Perhaps the sheets and ramps transport protons, making them into superconductors.

Scientists want to know. One of the scientists who wants to know very badly, and who has been modeling neutron-star architecture for many years now, is my own little brother, Charles Horowitz at Indiana University.

 One of the scientists investigating parking garages in cell biology, and the one who stumbled on the parallels between the architecture of living cells and that of neutron stars is Greg Huber at the University of California Santa Barbara. Huber was once a student of my brother's.

Maybe Huber and Horowitz, working together, will finally establish that the parking garage is the fundamental architecture of the universe. Some of us would prefer the tree house or at least the flying buttress, but we only live in this world.

Posted by Ellen

Minna Canth, a popular Finnish playwright and unpopular radical activist, took up the pen in 1879, after her husband died, leaving her with seven children to support and raise.

She took over her father's fabric shop in Kuopio, about 250 miles north of Helsinki, and somehow found the time to write a play about a woman whose alcholic husband ran through all her money, leaving the family destitute. Laws needed changing, the drama clearly suggested, to give wives some control over family finances. The play was performed only once, after which the theater company was warned that it was about to lose its state grant of support.

Canth's next play, "Lopo the Peddler," was about an impoverished woman who tended toward petty thievery and alcoholism but who nonetheless had a heart of gold.

Over the years, she wrote about working-class suffering, unwed pregnancy and infanticide, religious hypocrisy, and many other social-realist themes. Her home became something of a salon for visiting intellectuals from Finland and beyond. She was among the first Finnish authors to publish her work in Finnish instead of Swedish, the traditional literary language.

Finnish students today read her work in school, and her plays are still performed in Finnish theaters. 

And she did get the laws changed so that married women could have money of their own.

Posted by Ellen

Last spring, when we first came across this scene on a block of Hicks Street in deep South Philly, we just naturally assumed that the white car was a Cadillac. Took us till now to realize that no, maybe it should be a Cadillac, but in real life it's a Lincoln Continental. Some of us are just not as observant as we need to be.

What we can say, however, based on observations of our own lyin eyes as well as gossip, is that this Lincoln is regularly washed but never driven. 

Posted by Ellen

Fixin to fly.