Thursday, April 24, 2014

Toothpick tripod: microwaving butter without melting it

toothpick tripod method butter microwave without melting puddling Josef Spalenka
The Toothpick Tripod Method of Microwaving Butter

Have you ever wondered how to soften butter in the microwave without it melting?

Softening refrigerated butter in a microwave to make it instantly spreadable has been a challenge to humanity for more than half a century. The inherent difficulty of microwaving butter is so well known that it was recently illustrated in a popular webcomic by The Oatmeal. Microwaving butter resting directly on a plate results in partial melting and puddling. Additionally, the time window between spreadably soft butter and mostly liquid butter is very narrow, and is highly variable depending on the microwave oven used, the size of the butter pat, and the material composition of the plate.

I am pleased to announce that this butter softening challenge has finally been solved.

I recently noticed that the initial puddling phenomenon always starts at the bottom of the butter pat where it contacts the plate, but the plate itself does not necessarily get hot and cause the melting. Even starting with a refrigerated plate results in melting from the bottom of the butter pat first. My idea was to elevate the butter pat above the plate, using toothpicks as shown in the above image, to avoid contact with the plate and hopefully achieve even heating without melting. I call this "The Toothpick Tripod Method" of microwave butter softening.

A tripod was chosen because it is the most efficient method to form a stable elevated support, with minimal surface area contact to the butter, and it is suitable for a butter pat of any shape. A bonus byproduct of this method, is that it also solves the problem of variable heating between different microwave ovens. Using the toothpick tripod method, you can simply set the microwave for any sufficiently long length of time, and then carefully watch the microwave until the buttery tripod softens and falls down under its own weight. The result is perfectly spreadable butter with no melted liquid, every time.

Try it for yourself!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Science Cats! Volume 2

This is a continuation of the Science Cats! theme I started last month. If you enjoy these, feel free to share them with friends and family, and make suggestions or requests in the comments.

Rutherford scattering experiment 1911 Science Cats! Chloe cat Josef Spalenka
Illustration of the classic Rutherford scattering experiment in which alpha particles (helium nuclei) elastically scatter from the nuclei of gold atoms (elastic scattering means the lighter α particles bounce off of the heavy Au atoms like billiard balls without losing their speed). In 1911, Ernest Rutherford used this experiment to prove that most of the mass of an atom is tightly concentrated in a tiny core nucleus in the atom, falsifying the previous "plum pudding model" of the atom in which the electrons are dispersed throughout a smeared-out positive spherical volume like blueberries in a muffin. The Rutherford Model for the atom was later updated in 1913 by the Bohr Model, which begins to hint at the first quantum mechanical picture of the atom. In this incarnation of the Rutherford scattering experiment, Chloe serves as the source of α particles.

Nicolaus Copernicus science cats heliocentric heliocentrism Jan Matejko Josef Spalenka
Polish astronomer and mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus formulated and published the heliocentric model in the first half of the 16th century, forever changing how humanity viewed its relationship to the Cosmos. The awe and majesty of this newly expanded cosmic perspective was beautifully captured in this 1873 oil painting by artist Jan Matejko (also Polish). In the foreground of the painting, Chloe plays with a rope and a random wooden pulley thing, completely oblivious to beauty and grandeur of the rest of the universe.

Antoine Lavoisier Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze chemistry Chloe science cats Josef Spalenka
Chloe disrupts a tender moment between Antoine Lavoisier and his wife (and scientific collaborator) Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze. Lavoisier is widely considered to be the founder of modern quantitative chemistry. He recognized and named the elements oxygen and hydrogen, predicted the existence of silicon, debunked the widely-held but incorrect phlogiston theory of combustion and oxidation, and played a major role in constructing the metric system. In spite of his incredible and far-reaching contributions to humanity, he was summarily guillotined in the aftermath of the French Revolution and overshadowed by politicians and war heroes in the history textbooks. So it goes.

Science cats Chloe Robert Goddard rockets rocketry liquid-fueled Josef Spalenka
"Professor Goddard does not know the relation between action and reaction and the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react. He seems to lack the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high schools." -New York Times editorial from January 13, 1920, which was famously retracted in 1969 after the Apollo moon landing. Robert Goddard was ridiculed by the unimaginative fools in the press throughout his career and as a result kept much of his groundbreaking work private. His liquid-fueled multistage rockets were major milestones in the development of rocketry and the advance of space exploration.

If you liked these, be sure to check out Science Cats Volume 1!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Science Cats! Volume 1

Isaac Newton white light spectrum optics cat chloe Cosmos Josef Spalenka
Sir Isaac Newton and assistants explore the visible light spectrum, refraction, and optics in 1666.

I am making a series of pictures celebrating the history of science and technology by inserting our cat, Chloe, into photoshopped science-themed images. They mostly represent themes in the new episodes of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. I will periodically add more pictures to this gallery as new episodes of Cosmos air on television, and as I think of new ideas (or get any interesting requests). Enjoy the science cats!

Watson and Crick DNA double helix model 1953 Chloe cat science Josef Spalenka
Chloe, Watson, and Crick demonstrated the first correct model for DNA in 1953. Francis Crick points at the double helix model while James Watson and Chloe look on. Rosalind Franklin (not pictured) provided crucial X-ray diffraction evidence, but sadly was not awarded a share of the 1962 Nobel Prize with the pictured scientists.

Chloe cat Cosmos Albert Einstein pipe smoke Josef Spalenka
Chloe and Albert have a contemplative smoke break together and think about the theoretical implications of curved space-time.

transistor electronics 1948 William Shockley John Bardeen Walter Brattain Bell Labs Chloe Cat Josef Spalenka
The September 1948 cover of Electronics Magazine showing the inventors of the first transistor in their workshop at Bell Labs: John Bardeen (background with glasses), Walter Brattain (right with mustache), and William Shockley (seated pretending to work). The three men would later share the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics. The development of the semiconductor transistor ignited the computer revolution and directly led to the domination of cat pictures on the internet. Shockley later founded Shockley Semiconductor in Mountain View, CA, effectively establishing Silicon Valley.

Marie Curie radioactivity radium polonium Chloe cat science cosmos Josef Spalenka
Marie Curie discovered the radioactive elements radium and polonium in 1898, the latter of which was named after her native homeland of Poland. She shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics with her husband, Pierre Curie, the French physicist Henri Becquerel, and their mischievous lab cat Chloe.

Tiktaalik chloe cat science evolution Neil Shubin Cosmos Josef Spalenka
*boop* Chloe travels 375 Million years back in time and encounters Tiktaalik, an excellent example of a transitional fossil which has mixed characteristics of both fish and tetrapods. As Chloe learned in the excellent book, Your Inner Fish (written by Tiktaalik discoverer Neil Shubin), the anatomy and physiology of both cats and humans shares much in common with their fishy ancestors.

gravitational lensing effect cat galaxies Hubble Chloe Josef Spalenka
A pair of distant cat's eye galaxies are magnified and distorted by the gravitational lensing effect of the Large Red Galaxy (LRG 3-757) in the foreground.

cation cat Chloe carbonate Cosmos "dichloe carbonate" Josef Spalenka
Artist's depiction of dichloe carbonate ions in solution. Originally made for Cosmos episode 2: "Some of the Things That Molecules Do."

Chloe cat Cosmos Helix Nebula space FOX Purrrfect Josef Spalenka
Chloe the cat in front of the Helix Nebula, which is used in the Cosmos logo.
Originally made as a cheesy ad for Cosmos episode 1: "Standing Up in the Milky Way."

Chloe cat science cats! cardboard space shuttle Atlantis costume Halloween Josef Spalenka
The photograph that inspired this series. Chloe inside my cardboard Space Shuttle Atlantis costume from Halloween 2011 in Madison, Wisconsin.

I hope you enjoyed these images of our cat, Chloe, reveling in the wonders of science and exploring the Cosmos! Let me know in the comments if you have any ideas or requests for future "Science Cats!" images, and I can add them to Science Cats Volume 2. And feel free to copy, link, and share with your friends, family, and coworkers!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Save the Rainforest with Genetic Engineering

rainforest genetic engineering exotic wood marquetry plantation agriculture by Josef Spalenka

Everyone wants to "Save the Rainforest," but how can it be done most effectively? The current method of protecting ecologically and biologically diverse areas of the tropical rainforest is basically to convince governments to draw an imaginary fence around them, and protect what's inside the fence with a police force and the court system. Since the rainforest is still so vast, and the resources for policing its destruction are comparatively small, it is nearly impossible to protect all of the world's remaining rainforest from the constant nibbling of unlawful clearing by what are essentially small bands of rainforest "tree poachers."

Rather than using threat of criminal punishment, or campaigns of global shame and opprobrium, it is much more effective to change the economic incentives that drive the clearing of the rainforest. The first thing to realize is that people don't clear rainforest because they are stupid or evil or ignorant of its beauty (or because they have a blood feud with toucans). People clear rainforest because there are personal economic incentives to do so.

What are the main economic drivers for clearing the rainforest? One primary driver (particularly in Brazil) is to claim new land area for grazing cattle and raising agricultural crops, and the second primary driver is the harvesting of exotic wood species such as mahogany and teak for luxury export.

Much has been written on how to change the economic incentives for claiming forested land for cattle grazing and agriculture, such as convincing people globally to eat less beef, changing the tariffs on imports and exports to dis-incentivize the production of Brazilian beef and other agricultural products grown on former rainforest soil, and using technology to dramatically improve the efficiency of food production elsewhere so that it is impossible profitably produce food on the lower fertility soils of cleared rainforest. These are all important economic ideas, but I want to focus instead on alternatives to harvesting exotic trees for timber.

Supplying the luxury wood market with a cheaper alternative that fills the same essential need is the best way to reduce demand pressure on "the real thing."

Currently, valuable exotic wood grows sparsely and inaccessibly sprinkled throughout remote locations the forest, rather than in dense accessible clusters of the most valuable and prized trees. The most efficient way right now to select the few valuable logs from the rest of the lower-value surrounding greenery is to slash down all of it, and pick up the wheat from the chaff. I suggest that new exotic tree farming practices situated in less remote locations, combined with genetically modified exotic tree-stock that can grow well in regions that are not considered critical rainforest habitat, could meet the demand for the exotic wood market without threatening ecologically diverse protected areas.

Harvesting exotic wood species from untouched old-growth rainforest is extremely economically inefficient, and almost any alternative source would be cheaper. Exotic wood species did not evolve to grow as fast as biologically possible, because natural trees must always "hedge their bets" against temporary resource scarcity and devote nutrients towards defense mechanisms against competing species. There is no clear reason that the woods prized for bar-tops and luxurious conference room tables can only grow only in the poor soils of a rainforest, decorated and bejeweled with exotic parrots and iridescent insects. They could be cultivated and nurtured in a separately managed tree farm with a minimal number of symbiotic animal and insect species required for them to thrive. It seems reasonable to believe that a fast-growing, densely clustered "artificial" exotic tree crop could be engineered to have essentially the same hardness, color, and grain structure as the "natural" exotic wood it mimics.

Compared to our ancient experience with cultivating domesticated grain and vegetable crops, humans are currently just at the dawn of cultivating forest products for the purposes of renewable paper production and construction lumber. The spread of these practices from the abundant and well-known wood species of North America to the obscure and exotic wood species of the rainforests in South America, Africa, and Indonesia seems like a natural extension. Commercial teak plantations, for example, already exist in a few tropical regions and hopefully more exotic wood plantations are soon to follow.

Historic Georgetown, Colorado denuded of trees for use as fuel (top).
And Georgetown today with much of the local forest restored (bottom).

Some readers may be skeptical that such wicked things as big business and the machinations of the global industrial economy can actually prevent the destruction of sensitive ecological habitat, rather than being its primary cause. However, there is historical precedent for this. Many people don't realize, for example, that the forests of North America and Europe are on average thicker and denser today than they were a century ago. This was not primarily because of new regulations and new breakthroughs in arboreal police enforcement. It was because wood is no longer so useful as a fuel, and it has been largely replaced by more efficient and cheaper alternatives. The 20th century addiction to cheap and energy dense fossil fuels, far from accelerating the overall destruction of forests worldwide, has to a large degree saved and restored them.

Interestingly, the people who are most concerned about the loss of the rainforest and loss of biodiversity are often the same people who are most worried and fearful about genetic engineering and intensive farming. I hope we can eventually advance the global conversation and come to some agreement that there are ways in which responsible genetic engineering and widespread industrial tree cultivation could be a potential savior of natural biodiversity in the wild.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

What Annoying Radio Commercials Teach About Life



When local radio commercials have the audacity to interrupt my music listening experience, my usual response is to immediately change the station. But today, quite accidentally, I thought about them just a little differently.

I realized that instead of treating radio commercials as a pesky and unwelcome intrusion...it is more fun to think of them as a minor anthropological safari: If you listen closely and with the right frame of mind, you can interpret radio ads as a window into your neighbors' fears and hopes and worries and dreams. They might even be a reflection of some of your own greatest fears and hopes and worries. That is exactly what the marketer desires, of course. They desperately hope that you have a big hole in your life, and that their product or service is just the thing that will fix the hole for you. All you have to do is Act Now! while the offer lasts. (Because supplies are limited)

As an illustration of this radio listening mindset, I have applied a little analytical elbow grease to three radio commercials that I heard in my car just today: (1) The Miracle Weight Loss Program, (2) The Senior Living Center Adventureland, and (3) Flipping Houses to Prosperity.

Miracle weight loss program

We have all heard thousands of commercials purporting a miracle weight loss cure. And we already know that obesity is a big problem in the United States...this is not a very insightful new revelation to be gleaned from the radio. However, a particular commercial I heard today caught my attention like a thunderclap because it didn't just talk about how quickly its weight loss program achieves results, how cheap it is, or whether it requires herbs or surgeries. Instead, this commercial provided testimony from a satisfied customer, and she described exactly how achieving her weight loss goal had tangibly changed her life:

"After participating in the miracle weight loss program, I was extremely happy with the results. I've never felt better. I even noticed that people actually listen to me at work now!"

Did you catch that?

This woman lost a tremendous amount of weight in a short time, by whatever method, and then directly reported what the primary benefit was to her life. She didn't say that the weight loss allowed her to play with her kids in the park without getting tired. She didn't say she felt sexier or looked better in a bra and panties. She didn't say that that it was easier to find clothes her size, or express any elation that a lower BMI might extend her life expectancy by a decade or two.

She said that it changed the way people listened to her at work.

Holy hell that is an unexpected answer!

This woman revealed that the biggest change in transforming from a critically overweight body to a healthier body was not the marked improvement in her own health and wellness, and it wasn't more opportunities for sexual attention.

She thought that her coworkers ignored her opinions more when she was obese.

Paradoxically, the physically widest people in the United States are the ones who feel the most invisible. I never actually knew that before today, because I have been genetically and geographically lucky enough to never be seriously obese. I didn't learn that obese people feel small and ignored from a book or from a movie or in a classroom...I learned it instead from a local radio commercial.

Senior living center adventureland

Why haven't you already checked your elderly loved ones into an assisted living center? What are you waiting for? I don't know what's holding you back from acting now, but contrary to popular belief some retirement homes are actually an AdventureLand Paradise. According to a local radio commercial I heard today, that is most definitely the case.

"My father is having more adventures now that he lives in the senior center than he ever had before! He goes bowling almost every day. All of his old friends from the neighborhood wish they could be having as much fun as Dad is having right now!"

Many people worry—desperately—that moving their elderly parents or grandparents to an assisted living center is like locking them away in a mental institution or something and throwing away the key. Some of the elderly person's freedoms may be severely reduced and nobody feels very good about that. Sending Grandpa or Grandma to the nursing home may even feel on some level like kicking dirty laundry under the bed so you don't have the burden of seeing it and dealing with it every day. Under the bed, the laundry is safely out of sight, and out of mind. That's not how the transition to a nursing home really is, but that can be what it feels like to frustrated and tired younger family members.

If you could be convinced (say, by a radio commercial) that there is actually a raucous dirty laundry party happening under the bed, wouldn't that make the decision so much easier? In that case, you are practically depriving your underpants from the party of the century by continuing to let them roam freely and unassisted, strewn recklessly across your bedroom carpet! Kick those underpants under the bed right quick!

It is absolutely necessary for elderly people to move into an assisted living center at some point in their lives, because eventually they do need extra medical and personal care that can't be adequately provided by family and friends. The really, really, really hard question is "when?"

The comforting falsehood provided over the radio waves is that the move to the nursing home will be a grander adventure than what the older person had even when they were younger and still living freely on their own. If that were truly the case, then young people would be clamoring to move into assisted living centers, too...so they could get a piece of all of this wonderful adventuring action. If it was only a matter of cost, then the privileged, rich, young people would be eagerly in line at the door of the AdventureLand Nursing Home. The wretched young people with no money would be stuck in the wide world outside the nursing home, with no great adventures to be had.

I completely understand the worry and the guilt that the radio advertisement is trying to assuage. The truth is it's simply not going to be a grander adventure inside the nursing home, but it can at least be a comfortable and dignified way to live out the rest of your life. Unfortunately, a promise of a more comfortable, convenient, and dignified living arrangement in a senior center doesn't sell as well as promises of endless adventures. Plain truthful speaking about what life will really be like in the sunset of our lives doesn't get so many people to Act Now! while there's still unfilled space at the local nursing home.

Flipping Houses to Prosperity

Seminars promising riches for "flipping houses" are ubiquitous, with the recent availability of many foreclosed properties in the wake of the 2008 housing crisis. The insta-wealth promised from flipping houses has a lot in common with other get-rich-quick-and-easy schemes.

The underlying premise is that prosperity comes from (1) gaining some secret knowledge in a brief seminar, (2) acting fast because the opportunity is extremely limited, and (3) you don't have to personally risk anything financially.

All of these premises reinforce the idea that only a small minority of people can prosper at the expense of others by leveraging a small amount of secret knowledge, that they can be winners by acting faster than everyone else, and that it's not at all financially risky (You could even risk other people's money!).

All of these premises are extremely flawed.

One of the hardest things to learn about life is that many of the best and most important achievements come from acting slowly and deliberately over a long period of time, and from acting wisely on knowledge that is anything but secret. In fact the most important knowledge to learn is criminally, painfully widespread...it is even completely free for the taking on Wikipedia!

For example, here is the Wikipedia page for compound interest. If you don't understand exponential growth and compound interest very well in this world, it will eventually bite you in the ass. Being able to understand this one crucial concept is the key to almost everything one has to know about credit cards, mortgages, car financing, retirement investing, and student loans. A failure to understand the perils of compound interest (along with a little reckless spending) is the source of most personal debt crises. A successful mastery of compound interest (along with a little self-discipline) is a proven road to prosperity. It doesn't take a super-secret seminar or any fast-acting on a special limited-time offer. All it takes a little common mathematical know-how and a dash of something much harder to acquire than that: the ability to delay gratification.

You just can't make a lot of money without ever risking any money and delaying gratification. Risk and reward are intrinsically tied together. Stocks typically are more financially rewarding in the long term than bonds, because they are also significantly riskier than bonds. One of the absolute riskiest things you can possibly do financially is to plow all of your life savings into starting a new business venture. It's also one of the most financially rewarding things you can possibly do...if you happen to have built the right business at the right time.

For an excellent and accessible introductory book on smart long-term investing, I recommend The Investor's Manifesto by William Bernstein. If every student had to read and understand something like that in high school, we would be a lot better off than we are now. The Investor's Manifesto most definitely does not recommend flipping houses, while magically using other people's money.

"Act now!" the radio commercials tell us.

Perhaps someday they will also tell us to act wisely.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Paddle Your Own Canoe



Yesterday I started listening to the Audiobook Paddle Your Own Canoe, "One Man's Fundamentals for Delicious Living." It is both written and narrated by Nick Offerman, best known on television as Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation. It's because of works like these that audiobooks are a valuable format and can sometimes surpass the experience of reading the book they are based on. There is something really special about an audiobook that is read by its own author, when it's done really, really well. And Offerman surely does it well. The only other author I can think of who can regularly pull off this feat is Neil Gaiman.

I don't have any more cogent thoughts than that for now. Perhaps once I've finished the audiobook, I will update this stubby article with some important thoughts about the philosophy of eating barbecued red meat and how to make your own way as a nonconformist man in modern America.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Why is 3D Binaural Sound So Damn Relaxing?


Sometimes when I'm having trouble sleeping, I listen to 3D binaural sound (also known as holophonic sound) to help clear my mind of racing thoughts and finally fall asleep. Binaural sound is a special type of audio recording that uses two microphones embedded in the locations of the ears in a dummy head. When listening to this holophonic recording through a pair of earbuds or headphones, the result is a compelling illusion that the recorded sounds are located in 3D space around your own head. Listening to the recording without earphones doesn't work and ruins the auditory illusion. These types of audio recordings elicit an ASMR response in many people: a pleasant tingling sensation in the scalp and neck. After listening to many of these recordings of rain storms, of a virtual barbershop, of a woman crumpling pieces of paper, and most recently of a guy slowly opening a box containing bubble wrap and a bag of sand...I wondered. Why is lying in the dark with my eyes closed, listening to a guy slowly opening a cardboard box, such an utterly relaxing experience? Why does it help me sleep and clear my mind?

Am I a crazy person?



 Binaural recording of a cardboard box being slowly unwrapped


I think the reason listening to these binaural recordings is so relaxing is because it closely approximates the practice of mindfulness meditation. As I understand it, mindfulness is essentially training your mind to let your present sensory experience wash over you, without judging it or interrogating it with chattering thoughts. One of the payoffs of this attentiveness to the present moment is that it allows you to escape, if only for a short while, from your anxiety about past mistakes, and from your worries about the uncertain future. It is very difficult to be envious of your neighbor, to be angry at your spouse, to be stressed about your job, or to agonize about money while lying in a dark and silent room just listening to a guy...slowly and carefully unwrap a cardboard box.


As I was recently reminded by an astoundingly clear-sighted lecture by Sam Harris, most of us spend our whole lives thinking mostly about the future and about the past, without ever truly connecting with the present moment. We get expensive University degrees, and get jobs to earn lots of money, and invest money over decades into a retirement account in the anticipation that we will achieve happiness at some distant point in the future. I guess listening to a binaural recording in the quiet secret spaces of the night is a tiny way to set all of that aside, and to be contented with the present moment for just long enough to be taken by the sweet embrace of sleep.


A poetic excerpt from the Sam Harris lecture "Death and the Present Moment"

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Thoughts about Boxes from the Louisville Big Four Bridge


The ramp up the Big Four Bridge looking west towards Downtown Louisville

Forty-two workers perished while constructing the Big Four Railroad Bridge between 1888 and 1895. It served railway, industrial, and passenger traffic until 1969. And then it sat, idle and unused for forty years. Today, the Big Four Bridge is one of the longest pedestrian-only bridges in the world and spans the Ohio River between Louisville, Kentucky and Jeffersonville, Indiana. On either side of the bridge, gently sloping ramps spiral down into lovely new riverfront parks built on former industrial land and shipyards. When strolling the bridge and imagining the bustling riverboat traffic passing beneath the massive iron spans, imagining the brawling dockworkers, the shouts of factory men, the fading smells and sounds of the riverside stockyards, one wonders. What changed?

Why are there no longer so many chemical refineries, textile mills, riverboats and dockworkers hawking their trade along America's inland riverways? Why are so many inland riverfront parks being built on areas that were formerly railroad warehouses, brothels, and piers in cities spanning from Portland to New York? Why are the old warehouses being converted into chic industrial lofts and trendy restaurants, or lying abandoned, instead of housing wares? What changed in the 20th century to fundamentally rearrange the geographic relationship between ports and cities and labor and nations? When asked most people will grumble something about cheap foreign labor. But I think the answer, in large part, is containers.

The former riverboat and boxcar railroad transportation network of the late 19th century and early 20th century has been almost entirely displaced by multi-modal shipping, in which 40-foot standardized steel containers are seamlessly whisked between giant ocean-going container ships, specially designed freight railways, and trucks traveling America's interstate highways. It wasn't always like this.

The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller 
and the World Economy Bigger [Left]. The Big Four bridge [Right].

According to The Box by Marc Levinson, starting in the late 1950s the humble steel shipping container revolutionized and reorganized the world economy. Prior to that time, industry often clustered near waterfronts in large port cities in order to minimize costs and time delays for receiving raw inputs and for shipping out finished goods for export. Loading and unloading ships was a labor intensive, time consuming, and dangerous process. Goods came in all shapes and sizes, from bunches of bananas, to barrels of liquor, to hogsheads of tobacco, to crates of medical supplies, to bales of cotton. Dockworkers would quarrel, frequently strike for increased wages, lobby for special protections to prevent competition from immigrant dockworkers, and often endure boom and bust cycles of too much work to handle or no work at all. Theft of dockside merchandise was rampant. Ships could languish tied to the docks for weeks, waiting to exchange cargo and set sail again. The romance of this hustle and bustle life of the wharf-side denizens has been told again and again in literature and in cinema. But the story of the enormous economic inefficiencies of the old way, and the revolutionary change brought about by the extremely low cost of modern container shipping, I think is widely under-appreciated.

Dockworkers unloading bananas at the wharves in New York in 1905
[Photo from Shorpy.com]

Longshoremen loading the Sternwheeler Georgia Lee 
with mixed cargo in Louisville, KY (1905)
[photo from Shorpy.com]

Today container ports can be largely automated and require relatively little human labor per ton of cargo to handle the containers. The turn-around time for a modern ocean-going container ship is measured in hours, not days or weeks. The resulting economic bonanza brought about by low-cost shipping, reduced theft and damage, and increased shipping speed has been one of the main driving forces reshaping the global economy. The reason for the shift of manufacturing capacity from Europe and America to Asia was not just about changes in the global costs of manufacturing labor, it was also about fundamental changes in the global costs of shipping.

A crane loading a container ship at the Port of Colombo in Sri Lanka

People often forget that humble innovations that completely change the living patterns of the whole world aren't always sexy, and they aren't always fast. World-changing ideas are not just about computers and rocket ships. It took half a century or more for the revolution in containerized shipping to rearrange the destinies of the waterfronts of Manhattan and Shenzhen, and launch those locations into completely different historical trajectories.

As you gaze down the Ohio River from the span of the Big Four pedestrian bridge in Louisville, or cast your eyes along the Thames from the base of the Tower Bridge, remember that we may have lost a little bit of the romance of the Dickensian docks and the Mark Twain riverboats. But we have gained so much more in livable city waterfronts, beautiful riverfront parks, less expensive imported goods and raw materials, and an increasingly integrated and thriving world economy. And for that, I'm thankful for The Box.

February Sunset at the Big Four Bridge in Louisville, Kentucky


Sunday, February 9, 2014

End the War Against Preserved and Processed Foods!

As I was reminded by a recent article about the historical trajectory of orange juice in America's food supply, I am continually baffled by the war being waged against food "processing" and food "preservatives." If it can be shown that there are no adverse health consequences, and the product tastes rather good and people like to buy it, and it's much cheaper than "fresh and unprocessed" food, then why demonize a product for lasting a long time on the shelf or for being "overly processed"?

Some heroic highly processed and overly preserved foods

This "processing and preservatives" talk is always conflated with the problem of "the product contains too much sugar," or "the product contains too little nutritional value," which I definitely understand and sympathize with. I get it that orange juice naturally contains lots of sugar, regardless of the date and location the fruits were harvested, or whether aromatic citrus oils were added back into the juice to improve the flavor after a long storage time. I get it that Twinkies contain little in the way of nutritional value for growing children. But will the self-appointed food police concede that many foods can have a very long shelf life, be highly processed with many artificial industrial-scale steps, and yet still contain lots of nutrients and not very much sugar? How about a can of tomato paste that was processed in a factory and "boiled to death," or canned tuna "which has been patiently sitting in storage sometimes for more than a year"? Boiling food to death, putting it in air-tight cans or jars, and eating it over a year after it was harvested from the field or the orchard or the ocean is a supremely amazing achievement of human ingenuity. People ought to be tickled with joy each time they drink a glass of pretty-decently-tasting orange juice, in Chicago or Denver or Boston during a frigid February morning, for just the price of a few measly quarters. Instead they grumble and look out their window at the snowy landscape, and wonder why they aren't instead treated to the sweet nectar of a freshly hand-plucked and hand-squeezed fruit.

Some people complain that "processed foods" are chock full of high-fructose corn syrup and other ingredients that they would like to avoid. However, the presence of high-fructose corn syrup in food has little to do with the number of processing steps required to make the product at a large cost-effective scale, or the desire to preserve and store food for a long time. Instead, corn syrup is put into foods because it is much cheaper than alternative sweeteners such as cane sugar, and people love inexpensive food. People crave sweetness because they are built by evolution to desire high-calorie sweetened foods, which were rare treats in prehistoric nature. No demonization of preservatives or demonization of complicated multi-step industrial processing need enter into this part of the food supply discussion.

Some people complain that they don't like processed or preserved foods because "they have no idea what's in it." I've got news for you, you probably have no idea what's in most of the things you ingest. Most people think of a "roasted coffee bean," for example, as a magical nature product provided by Mother Earth, rather than as a complex cocktail of chemicals in various proportions. Some of the natural chemical constituents of roasted coffee beans are toxic and carcinogenic (but they exist at very low harmless concentrations). If the scientific names of all the chemical components in your all-natural skinny hazelnut macchiato were listed on the back of the cup, they would make your head spin.

Highly preserved and industrially processed foods are simply amazing. They allow us to even out the food supply both geographically and seasonally, and provide low-cost sustenance to people who would have in ancient times suffered a lack of nutrition or even starvation. How quickly people forget that cheese, beer, and wine, those cornerstones of western food culture, were initially methods to "highly process and highly preserve" excess milk, grain, and grapes during bounteous times, in order to stockpile calories and nutrients for leaner times...even stockpile them for many years after the initial harvest. Why did ancient humans bother to invent these things? Why did humans bother to invent beef jerky, and bacon, and salami? It wasn't because some scary corporation thought it would be fun to feed children a bunch of "nitrates and nitrites."

Often, the alternative to eating a highly processed and highly preserved food, or the alternative to eating a food that has traveled hundreds of miles on a truck or on a boat, is to have no food at all. This has been the default situation for mankind for thousands of years, and a situation which has been all but forgotten by the snobbish foodies who complain that frozen concentrated orange juice doesn't taste quite as good as the fresh squeezed stuff picked that day from your very own backyard orchard. Now if you don't mind, before I go shovel the snow from my Chicago sidewalk, I'm going to go have a delicious glass of frozen concentrated orange juice and a mug of chemical cocktail coffee to wash down my Minnesota refined flour crepes spread with California processed cream cheese and a dollop of Montana huckleberry preserves.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Ghost disproval thought experiments

The following are a bunch of silly things I've wondered when talking to people who are super serious about their belief that ghosts are real. Since the widespread belief in ghosts isn't easily disproven using physical science and direct measurement data, and ghost belief is often deeply rooted in a personal religious belief, it is probably best to just use these types of silly thought experiments when playfully and skeptically talking about ghosts with less skeptical friends and family. It can be a pretty fun discussion for everyone involved, actually!



The Real Estate theorem of ghost disproval

What happens if you bulldoze a "real haunted house" and build a 24-hour Walgreens on the site? Would you now have a haunted 24-hour Walgreens, or would the resident ghost have to relocate to a spooky Victorian mansion in your town's historic district? That story doesn't sound very scary: "Sometimes I see the ghost of a weeping little girl sitting on the edge of my bed. She used to haunt the Old Johnson Place on Elm Street, but she had to move after they built the new Walgreens. That's probably why she's always weeping." I'm going to call this the "Real Estate theorem of ghost disproval."

The temporal theorem of ghost disproval

How come the majority of ghosts tend to be a few hundred years old or less, regardless of the era? You hardly ever see, or hear a good story about a 3,000 year old ghost. Is it because ghosts are usually able to complete their "unfinished business" in a few century time frame? Is it because ancient ghosts either predate the religious tradition that gives them a philosophical foundation, or because extremely old ghosts can't speak English (or whatever the local modern language is)? Is it because, as was hinted by the Real Estate theorem of ghost disproval, ghosts are intimately tied to the structures they inhabit and there are very few usable structures which have survived for more than 3,000 years? It might also be a ghost demographics phenomenon, in that many more people have died more recently than 3,000 years ago than died longer than 3,000 years ago. Therefore ancient ghosts are simply numerically less common than more modern ghosts. Someone on those Ghost Hunters International TV shows should take a spectral census to get to the bottom of this.

The ambient music theorem of ghost disproval

Ghost stories and haunted houses require a certain ambience in order to get the full effect. Typically this is low lighting inside a 19th century house or an abandoned building, low firelight around a campsite, and either silence, or old-timey music such as Big Band, Ragtime, Jazz, or some lonesome piano music. This ambience is maintained because people want to be scared because it's fun...that's the whole point for them. But are there certain types of ambient music and lighting environments in which ghosts simply cannot exist? For example if you had a multicolor laser light show, inside a bright white room with all white walls and white floor with no furniture, and blared Miley Cyrus Party in the USA, is it impossible to be scared by a ghost?

The absurd juxtaposition ghost disproval theorem

Is it possible to be involuntarily haunted by a ghost if you take steps to be absurd or silly to counteract the scariness of the ghost? For example, you could enter a "real haunted house" with everyone in your group dressed in realistic looking dolphin costumes. The absurdity of a group of humans waddling into the old haunted house dressed as a pod of dolphins might be too much for the ghost to handle. It will throw the ghost off her haunting game and will cause her to be too embarrassed to come out and haunt you.


As I think of more silly theorems of ghost disproval I will continue to add them to this list. If you can think of any along the same lines, let me know! I hope to one day collect the definitive internet list of silly ghost disproval theorems.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Coca-Cola reminds America that it is beautiful. Some disagree.

During last night's blowout Superbowl between the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos, Coca-Cola aired a commercial that was intended to highlight the inclusivity and the beautifully interwoven cultures that make up the ideal of the American Dream.


I thought it was a nice sentiment and an artfully produced piece of marketing, and then thought nothing more of it. But apparently some Americans publicly disagreed on Twitter and other social media platforms, and in ugly fashion.

This type of vehement negative reaction has surprised some people, but as an amateur student of history I am much less surprised. Xenophobia and ingroup-outgroup mistrust and hatred have been the historical norm for millennia. What is amazing when you really think about it is how far humanity has come in just the last few generations, and how the people who make these awful bigoted statements are becoming more and more marginalized. Not long ago awful statements like these on Twitter were rallying cries for elections and popular movements, and printed on the front pages of newspapers, and circulated nationally on pamphlets...not the subject of ridicule and condemnation. One does not have to look far into the historical record to find numerous examples of anti-Irish, anti-Polish, anti-Jewish, and most notably anti-African-American bigotry.

Anti-immigrant propaganda cartoon from 1896

I think the feedback loops inherent in the broadcast platform of Twitter, and the valuable social criticism as exemplified by the Public Shaming tumblr blog, is another reason why the internet is so awesome. I suspect that this internet feedback will quickly bring a about a revolution of thoughtfulness and consciousness-raising, and that this will be a much bigger effect in moving the world forward than most people realize. This type of virtuous cycle used to be a much slower process, and required curious and literate people to encounter books, magazine articles, and have personal relationships and experiences that would have the same effect. Now, people can be taken to task almost instantly for their bigotry and stupidity, and perhaps taken to task by someone all the way on the other side of the world. This is how change happens, and happens fast. How amazing is that?

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Seeker


The Seeker victorian air ship dirigible adobe illustrator by Josef Spalenka 2014

I wanted to practice my Adobe Illustrator skills, which is always incredibly useful for making vector graphics for slides and figures. To stretch my skills, I attempted to make a vector image based on a relatively complex piece of engraved art. It is from the label of a bottle of German Riesling wine that Danielle found at Woodman's Market. It took a long time to make all of the cables and rigging, and get shapes of all of the curves right with the pen tool!

And below is the original image from the wine bottle label. The above image was made by more or less artfully tracing this wine label in Illustrator. The wine was pretty good, but the label art was so cool!

The SEEKER Riesling Mosel Germany 2012 wine bottle label air ship victorian dirigible
The Seeker German Riesling wine bottle label

The Seeker airship clouds Victorian blue sky vector graphics Josef Spalenka
A new version of "The Seeker" with a more colorful sky.
(Edited April 24, 2014)




Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Why "Babe" isn't just for kids and piggies


"Babe" is a lot darker and more complex of a movie than I remembered from watching it as a kid. This is the opening narration:
"This is a tale about an unprejudiced heart, and how it changed our valley forever. There was a time not so long ago when pigs were afforded no respect, except by other pigs; they lived their whole lives in a cruel and sunless world. In those days pigs believed that the sooner they grew large and fat, the sooner they'd be taken into Pig Paradise, a place so wonderful that no pig had ever thought to come back."
That's pretty heavy stuff for a "kid's movie."

Towards the end of the movie, Babe also falls into a deep, practically-suicidal depression when confronted with his own mortality, and after learning the grisly fate of his ancestors and his piggy family. Luckily, he could be brought back from the brink by a lullaby and a jig danced by James Cromwell (clip below).

Farmer Hoggett's dancing and singing revive Babe from his depression.

The film "Babe" has themes of race and prejudice, vegetarianism/animal cruelty, child loss and adoption (Fly's puppies are given away, breaking her heart, and Babe becomes a substitute child), capital punishment and wrongful conviction (Babe nearly gets executed with a shotgun after rescuing the sheep from wild dogs), murder (Maaa gets murdered by the pack of dogs and dies onscreen with her throat slashed), depression, and the social consequences for non-conformity/breaking convention. Can you think of another movie that flirts with as many dark and controversial topics as "Babe," and can do it with such a light touch? It's a pretty amazing feat, actually.

Also, I never realized that Hugo Weaving lent his voice to the alpha sheepdog "Rex," years before he was in The Matrix, or The Lord of the Rings.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Art of Learning New Tricks as an Old Dog: feedback and taking lots of turns

It becomes increasingly difficult to learn new things as an adult. I am convinced, however, that this observed fact is not because the adult mind is less adept at learning than it was during childhood or adolescence. It is instead because adults have, over the course of their lives, developed a complicated web of phobias, bad habits, and misconceptions about themselves that puts barriers in the way of learning new things.

"Portrait of an Extraordinary Musical Dog" by Philip Reinagle (1805)

By the time you reach around 30 years old, it is easy to simply conclude that it's a matter of genetic destiny that you are no good at certain skills and never will be. You simply say "I can't draw," or "I can't write well," or "I'm no good at Spanish," and leave it at that. Once that type of self-talk becomes part of your identity, and you become "the sort of person who can't draw or write well," it is so easy to spend the rest of your remaining life self-fulfilling that prophecy. You will never bother to get even 10% better at drawing, or writing, or speaking español through the power of deliberate practice the way you might have when you were a foolish and uninhibited youngster.

The best way to learn something is to try it out and fail miserably, get feedback and advice from an expert source on how to do it a little better next time, and then take another turn. Take lots of turns. This is why it is valuable for everyone to try to learn a musical instrument at some point in their lives. Music learning teaches the power of deliberate practice over a long period of time, and the results of practice are apparent in a particularly objective way for music compared to other complex creative skills. When you started learning music you probably couldn't clap a tricky rhythm, and then you worked at it deliberately for a while, and then you could do it a little better, and eventually it was flawless and automatic. The progress over time for musicianship is obvious because many typical practice exercises on rhythm and pitch can be "right or wrong" in a way that has no easy analogue for more subjective creative tasks such as acting, writing, storytelling, painting, or filmmaking. Once you prove that you can use deliberate practice to improve your music skills, you can use that success to apply deliberate practice to anything.

On Taking Lots of Turns

I recently started reading The Improv Handbook-The Ultimate Guide to Improvising in Comedy, Theatre, and Beyond, by Tom Salinsky and Deborah Frances-White. My initial reasoning for wanting to study the techniques of improvisational theatre is that I could use the ideas and apply them towards having better telephone conversations, answering and asking better questions at job interviews, thinking faster on my feet, and delivering better speeches in public.

However, as I started reading the Improv Handbook, I came across a series of passages that described the barriers to learning new things that are endemic in adults, barriers to learning any new thing.  I found the following passages so wonderful and compelling that I will quote them here in full:
...The words "Can I have a volunteer?" often ignite feelings of fear and anxiety. People who have paid to be at [a] class, or have sometimes paid for three years of drama school, will often avoid eye contact with the teacher when the request is made.
It is not always like this, however. On some occasions, if a volunteer is asked for, every single person puts their hand up and some actually rush forward. That's when those people are children.
Children approach playing games, or doing exercises or being given the chance to try something new, very differently from adults. Children approach these situations with one mission, and that mission is to have lots of turns. They sometimes actually rate their success that way, saying something like "I had four turns and Charlie only had three—I win!"
Adults are very different. We want to sit back, assess—from our seats!—whether we'd be any good at the task in question. If we think we'd be successful at it, then and only then will we want a turn. If we think it is something we would not be good at, we would usually prefer to have no turn at all.
Children want lots of turns, but adults want one perfect turn.
As adults, we've already decided what we're good at and what we're bad at, and we only want to have turns at things we're already good at. We've met lots of people who've told us they can't draw, but none of them was seven. All children think they're brilliant artists and want their drawings displayed on the refrigerator. As adults, even if we secretly think we can draw, we hide our sketches away under the bed: "Don't look at those—they're just some silly things I was doodling." The thing is, we all were those children. We believed we were great artists, we sang and danced when we were happy and acted out cops and robbers for hours. No one ever stopped and said "I'm not a very good robber. I've run out of ideas. I think I need to research my character." We always had endless ideas. Endless positivity. Endless faith in our own talent. What happened to us?
One answer is: our education. We hope at least that your education was free because, wherever you got it, it has screwed you over and transformed you from someone who volunteered fearlessly and believed in your own creative abilities into someone who is unwilling to get up at all in case "you make a fool of yourself," and who claims they "can't" sing, dance, draw, act or speak in public and who has no imagination.
When you're at school, if the teacher tells the class to write an essay and everyone else is writing, and you're sitting there all Zen and relaxed, thinking about your essay, what will happen? The teacher will shout at you. She'll say "You! You're not even trying." She would know if you were trying because trying looks like something. If your shoulders are hunched and you look worried and a little ill, then the teacher will probably come and do it for you. We learn to look anxious before we do things—like we're not up to it.
We also tend to punish ourselves after we do things. Two adults will volunteer for something, and after they finish they'll make a physical gesture of apology which says to the room: "No need to mention it—we know it wasn't very good." Maybe this is because we teach our children to punish themselves if they suspect they've failed. When you're a kid, if you're washing dishes and you break a plate and you say "Well, never mind, everyone drops things from time to time," and you clean it up in a relaxed and happy fashion, your mother will shout at you. This in our society is a "bad attitude." A "good attitude" is to cry and feel worthless. Then your mother will say "Never mind, darling, it was only an accident," and then clean it up for you. Therefore, as adults, we anticipate this; we've learned to. We look anxious before and after everything we do to avoid punishment from others.
This means we come to any learning opportunity feeling tense and anxious. If that was a good state for learning or creativity that would be great, but unfortunately you're less likely to be good at learning—or any creative pursuit—with a gun pointed to your head. The fact is you're the most able to learn, create and improvise when you're most yourself. Think about it: Are you more witty, sparky and full of ideas when you're with your oldest friends and a bottle of wine or when you're on a job interview? Your inner improviser is far more likely to be with you when you're relaxed.
It follows that the people who are most successful at learning to improvise are those who are most relaxed. We tell our students that their only mission is to have lots of turns and see if we're worth our money. We say "I'm the only one who's shown up claiming to be an expert and therefore I'm the only one who should be nervous." If they can already do everything we show them very well, that makes our job very difficult. As teachers it's our job to find things the students can't do and show them how to do them. Education is not coming to the workshop pre-educated. We tell them "I'm hoping for a very high level of failure in this workshop, otherwise how can I take your money in good conscience?"
This blog is primarily a vehicle to engage in deliberate writing practice so that I may become a better writer over a long period of time. I plan to take lots of turns. My intention is to become not only a better writer, but also a clearer thinker, and a more attentive reader than I was when I began. The blog format is better than writing in a secret notebook or diary because the entries are searchable, dated and timestamped, allowing any progress over time to become more apparent (and safer from being lost during a cross-country move). It also allows me to "take lots of turns" writing in a natural way, and experiment with different writing styles and genres. Blog posts can be commented upon, and the traffic results for different articles can be compared to one another, providing a mechanism to get valuable feedback on the quality and interest from the readers. Some day, I hope to be able to write well enough, and write interesting enough things, that I could write a whole book (or several books) and then take your money in good conscience.

As such, any feedback is always welcomed here: any comments on writing style, the content of the ideas, what's boring, what's not. Does something I wrote make you angry? What do you find interesting? Pretentious? Condescending? Annoying? Uplifting? Poetic? Let me know, and I will certainly appreciate it.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Cappadocia: Halfway Between Turkey and Tatooine

In the central regions of Anatolia, in the Republic of Turkey, lies the ancient and beautiful region of Cappadocia.  The heart of Cappadocia is the Göreme valley, a lunar landscape of weathered volcanic rock formations called "fairy chimneys," sometimes riddled with ancient dwellings carved directly into the volcanic tuff, bursting like mushrooms from the cracked desert floor.  Although not well-known to most travelers hailing from North America, after seeing a single picture, it takes little convincing that Cappadocia is one of the most mysterious and lovely places on Earth, and well worth exploring.

A courtyard at Cappadocia Cave Suites hotel in Göreme, Turkey

The volcanic tuff has served as a shelter and dwelling place for locals for many centuries. However, in recent years the caves are being converted into luxury hotels where each room is unique, high quality restaurants with a magical ambience, and underground spas where visitors can receive a Turkish Massage in an underground chamber built in the style of a traditional Hamam.

Have a luxurious Turkish Bath at the Kelebek Cave Hotel Hamam

The region is perhaps most famous for its hot air balloon rides, which occur at dawn almost every day of the year (weather permitting).  There are many reputable ballooning operations in Cappadocia, and dozens of balloons fly every day.  However, I recommend Butterfly Balloons because the balloon captains are hilarious storytellers, and such expert pilots that they can softly land the basket of the balloon directly on a small truck trailer from a mile up. You get to celebrate with a toast of champagne and orange juice at the end of every landing.

A view of the Zelve Valley from the basket of a Butterfly Balloon

Nearby Avanos is a center for the production of beautiful handcrafted ceramics.  Firca Ceramics is one of the main workshops, and this family business has been hand-forming and hand-painting artisanal ceramic pieces in the same cave for almost two hundred years.

Inside Firca Ceramic in Avanos, Turkey

A handful of excellent restaurants can be found in Göreme.  If you are ever in the region, don't miss out on Topdeck Cave Restaurant.  It is a completely family-run establishment in which the Father (his nickname is Topdeck) and Mother do the cooking, while their two talkative young daughters take orders and serve the meals.  It's a little difficult to find Topdeck Cave Restaurant in a back alley of Göreme and requires carefully following a small map to find it. However, the food and the table talk with the charismatic and energetic waitresses are well worth the search.

Meals at Topdeck Cave Restaurant

The portion of our Turkish honeymoon that was spent in Cappadocia was the most cherished part of our trip.  I highly recommend a visit to Göreme Valley as part of any trip to Turkey.  And although it may seem a little expensive to ride one of the hot air balloons at dawn, I promise that the experience is well worth the price!

Hot Air Ballooning at Dawn in Cappadocia

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Für Offred: A Handmaid's Tale Lost Chapter

The following was originally written in the spring of 2007 as an assignment for Toni Lefton's "Science and Literature" elective class at the Colorado School of Mines. The assignment was to write a "missing chapter" for the book we were reading as a class at the time, Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale. She chose my writing from among the class submissions and read it aloud because she liked it for some reason, an unusual occurrence. Toni also encouraged me to keep writing and just see what happens. I promptly ignored her nice comment thinking, "LOL, I could never make a living writing whatever I want for fun, Ima go to graduate school nao." As you might know, The Handmaid's Tale is a little rambling with a kind of first person stream-of-consciousness style, so that's apparently the style my 21-year-old self tried to emulate.  It's also quite short because I think I wrote it the night before it was due (as undergraduates often tend to do).  I thought it deserved at least to see the light of day somewhere rather than languishing on an old hard drive, dying a slow digital death.


"Such songs are not sung anymore in public
…They are considered too dangerous."
-The Handmaid's Tale (pg. 54)

=======================================================================


Für Offred


He got it for me. Nick. They can get things sometimes, from the black market. He knows that I would get in trouble if they found it, knows that it might be traced back to him. I tried to make him keep it. It is a present he says. Present, a gift, I remember those. The now. There is only the now. ‘The here and now,’ they used to say. Is everyone present? I know I’m not. But where do I hide it?

In the folds of my habit, the red curtain covers my virtues as well as my sins. But it’s a small one. I didn’t know they made them that small, really. It fits easily in a pocket. It could hardly contain anything but its own machinery. Maybe a locket, I wonder whose picture it might have held? But I can’t keep it there forever. I creep down the mushroom-carpeted stairs as I have done before. Glide across the grass, always careful, into my room, with its false sense of privacy. I could hide it in the FAITH pillow, no, they would notice the weight. They would take it away, they take things away. The mattress, that is where you hide things, it’s traditional. Young boys and their dirty magazines. Or a stolen half-pack of cigarettes. Parents never check under mattresses, they never think to look there. Of course they do. But that will never do. The princess and the pea, I couldn’t sleep with it under there. I am the princess and my pea is this little wooden box. I used to like those spy movies, Luke watched them all the time, movie marathons, running. They can hide a pistol in the pages of a Bible, I can hide this.

The mattress is stuffed with cheap cotton batting. No springs, springs can be sharpened, they won’t let us escape that way any more. It happened a couple times before they fixed it. They couldn’t think of all the ways it could be done, at the start of it all. Open a little red seam, that’s what some of the girls did. Open a little seam, is what I do, too, backing out the threads with my fingernails. It will take some time, but it’s worth doing if I want to keep my treasure. Dig out some of the batting. It’s like building a robin’s nest, or planting a seed. I’ll dispose of the cottony earth later. Yes, this spot will do nicely.

I used to have one of these before, Luke gave it to me. It, too, was a present. It was made from one of those exotic woods, monogamy? It had a big butterfly inlay, traced in ebony with mother-of-pearl wings. Butter-fly, fly away. There were little silvery swirls in the corners too. It used to tinkle out Beethoven, Für Elise. I wonder who Elise was. I wonder which melody would trickle from my new music box. I can open it without fear because it isn’t wound up. Everything else is so wound up.

This new box is simpler. Pine, lovingly sanded but unstained. Unstained. There are no corners, they have been gently rounded off. Like a cheap six-sided die. Like a wooden cooler that plays music instead of chilling tiny beverages. Like a wedding ring box. The hinges are slightly worn.

If I knew anything about making music, I could guess what it would play. It’s like a little cylindrical puzzle in raised bumps of metal, a player piano for ants. They tickle the metallic teeth of the comb and the room shimmers with music. Tickle teeth and music comes out, does that make sense? Tickle, trickle, tinkle. It is never dancing music anyway. Music from boxes is always slightly haunted.

I’ll never be able to play it. How could I? There is no place far enough from prying ears. The Commander’s office? He’ll wonder where I got it. The time spent with Nick can’t be wasted on such frivolity. You stupid shit, you should have left it with him.

I’ll just have to imagine the lush sonic scenery in my ears. How I miss it, music just for the sake of music. It used to be everywhere, in elevators even. There used to be elevators. If you intend thus to disdain; It does the more enrapture me; And even so, I still remain; A lover in captivity. I wish I could wear her Greensleeves, or Bluesleeves. Anything but Redsleeves.