Monday, February 17, 2020

Desire Path

You've no doubt noticed the paths that form on a college campus, or in a park, or other grassy place with a lot of pedestrian traffic -- the paths that weren't laid out by any landscape designer, but are created by the footfalls of actual people finding the best ways to get to where they need to go. 

The term for these unplanned user-created trails is desire paths.  It can also refer to deer paths or other non-human highways.  The presenter in the linked TED talk says that the designer's job is to see where the desire paths occur and then to pave them.

Desire Paths would be a good title for something.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020


A potentially fun, fairly easy, and potentially benevolent activity: being a volunteer online transciber for the Smithsonian Institution.  More details here:

Friday, January 31, 2020

founding fathers

Typing the title of this post sent me on a mental tangent: We took my father out for dinner for his birthday last week, my brother and I and our wives.  Dad is a rare specimen, a type that political reporters constantly seek and rarely actually find: a well-informed, judicious, thoughtful political independent: a swing voter.  And Dad despises Donald Trump, which is something our party of five could agree on.  However, as we learned while we chatted over Tex-Mex food, Dad is reading a biography of Jefferson, still a hero of his.  (He may be reading Dumas Malone on Jefferson.  Nobody reads Dumas Malone any more.)  Dad expressed a disdain for Alexander Hamilton, not understanding where the wave of Hamilton-mania comes from.  Something to record about this era in my American life: the shift in view of U.S. history as basically full of racism, injustice, and horror.  This is basically my children's view.  Increasingly it is my view.  For my parents, American history is still a story of heroic (white) leadership, bravery and honor.  I am in the middle here.  The shift is wrenching and it's personal; it's a point of stress in my family.  There is more to write here; maybe another day.

Originally, I wanted to post something today in response to the U.S. Senate folding on impeachment. (Specifically the GOP Senators, and most conspicuously Lamar Alexander, tarnishing his reputation in his last act before retirement.  These people are at their preening pompous worst at moments when they represent the tipping point, the 51st vote.  They love that attention.)  I'm angry and despondent, but trying to come away with a lesson here, more valuable than "our politicians suck."  Yes, GOP pols in this age are craven cowards, but the Trump presidency has revealed the weaknesses and limits of the U.S. Constitution.  Impeachment is poorly designed.  The drafters of the Constitution did not foresee the development of political parties.  And Watergate (which many of us, 10-year old Me included, interpreted as proof that The System Works) was an anomaly, considering that the Democrats had controlled Congress for 40 years at that point, and the U.S. was still in its weird Jim Crow configuration cross-cutting the parties, so that Southern racists tended to be Democrats.  That's the era of bipartisanship that so many in D.C. hearken back to.  Nobody should want to go back to those days.  Full explanation below.

Friday, January 03, 2020

Bounty Hunting

I once met the guy who at the time was pastor of a church in Robbinsville, North Carolina.  Upon moving there, he found the locals to be distinctly standoffish and suspicious.  Eventually someone explained to him that the people who founded the town included several bounty hunters, whose occupation made them aloof and wary, and that fact colored the character of the town many decades later. 

Friday, December 29, 2017

Sam Wells

Another bookmark.  Sam Wells, writing in The Christian Century about a clergy reflection group he ran, one of whose members divulged that she was gay. (A version is in the January 3 print edition.)

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Friday, June 30, 2017

Dogged defender of science and human rights

My wife asked me yesterday if I wanted to go with her to a talk that evening at the museum where she works.  I think she said the topic was the flora and fauna of the Holy Land.  I can’t say the topic captivated me, but it sounded like a cheap date for a Thursday evening.  The museum cafĂ© has good sandwiches and cold micro-brews on tap.  So I said sure.

Now I’m curious what her ulterior thinking was.  The speaker, I now know, was Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh, Director of the Palestine Museum of Natural History.  The museum, located in Bethlehem in the West Bank, is a shoestring operation – Dr. Qumsiyeh himself draws no salary -- so he is touring the U.S. raising money and making connections to support his work.

Qumsiyeh was in town yesterday in his capacity as a scientist.  At other times, he acts as a human rights activist and overall thorn in the side of the Israeli government.  I suspect my wife simply wanted to show up in support of this guy.  His name had provoked a lot of calls from local Jewish groups wanting the museum to cancel his appearance.  He also attracted the attention of U.S. Homeland Security when he entered the country.  He might allow himself to complain about these things on his blog, but the bastards couldn’t stop him.

His talk, to be honest, was a little dry.  He was not an ace presenter: mike held too far from his mouth, PowerPoint slides a little too crowded.  But his lack of pizzazz worked, by way of contrast, to enable the power of science, facts, reason, to cut through the scrim of political posturing.  For example: Access to drinking water is a looming crisis in the Middle East.  Israelis consume several times as much water per capita as Palestinians – and West Bank settlers consume more than other Israelis.  Qumsiyeh underscored the point with a simple bar chart.  Second example: Some parcels of West Bank land were set aside for their environmental value, only later to be filled chock-a-block with ugly concrete settlement flats.  Qumsiyeh had the before-and-after photos.

Though I didn’t know what I had signed up for in advance, it was inspiring just to learn about Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh, to be reminded that people like him exist in the world.  The theme of the evening was the struggle for environmental justice.  That includes the struggle of oppressed people, young and old, merely to learn about and appreciate the natural world.  To assert that a nature museum should exist at all in the West Bank, is to assert something about basic human worth.

The Q&A may have been better than the scripted talk; the audience had thoughtful questions.  One question linked the injustice of the Likud government to that of the American GOP, and the long-run futility of the Haves being punitive toward the Have Nots, instead of looking for win-win policies.  In the end, we’re all in the same boat and are fools to think otherwise.  Pollution does not recognize borders or factions.  Fortunately, nature still exists, life is tenacious, even in a landscape blighted by war and military occupation.  

The Israeli government refuses to build adequate sewage facilities in Gaza.  So the people there dump raw waste into open sewers.  The waste then flows to the sea, and the prevailing currents send it to Tel Aviv and Jaffa.  “They are swimming in the shit of Gaza.”  That was the rhetorical high point of the evening.