Time travel in west Texas

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Sunrise out of the cabin

Ever since reading The Time Machine as a teenager, I, like most people, have wondered about time travel. And despite annoying naysaying from logicians and physicists, it still seems like an intriguing idea.

Wolf spider

Wolf spider

Susan and I just spent a week in far west Texas, where we experienced something like time travel. We stayed in a cabin in a caldera near Fort Davis. Other than a barbed wire fence, a single electric line, and a narrow, rutted dirt road there were no signs of human habitation––no other buildings, no cell service, no flights overhead.

An astute rancher might have pointed out that the male cattle were steers, not bulls, and that the cattle and many turkeys around were probably being raised for market. Closer inspection would reveal that there were some planted trees, both for shade and for pecans, but on the whole the impression was of desert isolation.

In this land the people are hard to find, but we could see yucca, sotol, ocotillo, prickly pear, sagebrush, mesquite, live oak, and uncountable wildflowers. We saw buzzards, mockingbirds, huge spiders, whitetail and mule deer. These living friends were framed by gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, and unbelievable cloud formations.

(Reconstructed) Fort Davis from 1854

1854 Fort Davis (reconstructed)

This all made me think of my early days in Fort Worth. We lived then in the new suburbs on the edge of ranchland. In our childhood explorations we could find tarantulas and horned toads, tumbleweeds and cockleburs, scorpions and butterflies. The land seemed to stretch forever into remoteness and romance. When we looked up we could see the Milky Way and thousands of stars.

Fort Davis felt like that Fort Worth of long ago. The contentious Presidential race was irrelevant. The old cashier at the local market wanted to share interesting stories rather than to ring up grocery items. The buildings and houses looked like stage props for an old Western, until you realized that they were still in use, probably by the same family that settled here a century or two ago.

Rhyolite porphyry in fantastic shapes from volcanoes 35 million years ago

Rhyolite porphyry in fantastic shapes from volcanoes 35 million years ago

Fort Davis itself lies at the base of a rhyolite cliff, the south side of the caldera, or box canyon, that held our cabin. With just a few steps we could reach the path to climb the cliff shown above. Without realizing it, we zoomed even further back in time, to an era of intense volcanic activity, which created the Davis Mountains. The rhyolite columns, tuff and pumice, volcanic peaks and domes, took us entirely away from the human world.

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope at the UT McDonald Observatory

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope at the UT McDonald Observatory (from mcdonaldobservatory.org)

But not long after that we learned what time travel could really be. We went to the nearby University of Texas McDonald Observatory, which takes advantage of the clear mountain air.

Among many projects at McDonald is the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment (HETDEX). This seeks to uncover the secrets of dark energy, using the large Hobby-Eberly Telescope and to survey the sky 10x faster than other facilities can do. It will eventually create the largest map of the Universe ever, with over a million galaxies. In doing so, HETDEX will look back in time 10 billion years.

If there is anything more amazing than the mind-stretching that Fort Davis does, it is that the area is so little visited. In addition to the sites mentioned above, there is a state park with numerous hiking trails, the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center and Botanical Gardens, interesting towns such as Alpine and Marfa, and the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool, under the trees at Balmorhea State Park, which takes one back to the wonderful CCC projects of the 1930s.

 

My Dad

Bertram Camp Bruce

Bertram Camp Bruce

Today is the centennial of my father’s birth. He lived not much over half of that century, a period that has grown shorter in my eyes with each passing year.

Dad loved music in many forms–opera, chamber, symphonic, piano, vocal, jazz, Big Band, and more. Around 1950, he opened Bruce Piano Company. The store sold Steinways and provided pianos for performers visiting the Fort Worth Symphony and Opera.

We often argued during the years that were to be his last and my first as a nominal adult. There were the perennial favorites of politics and religion, but special features such as how I didn’t understand what it meant to grow up in the Great Depression, what was wrong with contemporary pop music, and how I would benefit from more direction in my life.

I’m stubborn like Dad was, so my views probably haven’t changed much since then. Still, I’d give a lot to have the briefest time with him again, even if it were an argument. I might even be able to listen better.

My Dad was a good husband, father, friend, and community member. At his funeral, our minister quoted Jesus, “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth that which is good.”

On the whole, I have fond memories and few regrets. However, one big regret is that he knew his children only as teenagers, and never met any of his six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. I know that he would have been very proud of all of them, and that they would have richer lives knowing him.

First encounters with snow

Preparing to face the snow

Preparing to face the snow

OK, I confess.

All those about me were complaining about the never-ending snow and what accompanied it: bitter winds coming off the ocean ice, people trapped in their homes, snowplows closing off newly shoveled driveways, while burying or knocking over mailboxes, falling on the ice, roofs collapsing, and such. Meanwhile, I prayed for it to continue. I wanted it to be here for my family from Austin who were to visit during spring break.

Front yard

Front yard

They had never seen snow before, at least not of this magnitude. But they prepared as well as they could.

We prepared for the visitors as well. I had stored some clean snow in the freezer for making snow ice cream, just in case the outside quality wasn’t up to standard. We had sleds, extra hats and mittens, and topped off the propane tank. We’d also made a list of indoor activities–the Brio train, the dollhouse, piano, rummy for indoors for inside the house; the visitor centers at the National Seashore’s Salt Pond site and at the Audubon sanctuary, to get out in case of freezing rain.

Out the garage window

Out the garage window

When they came, we took full advantage of the snow. we had snow ice cream in the classic vanilla as well as the maple syrup varieties. We made snow angels and devilish snow balls.

We made a snow dog (aka Ripley), when our planned snow man didn’t cooperate. We also got to see how much fun it is for a three-year-old boy to jump on top of a snow dog and scatter the snow in all directions. And how annoyed his six-year-old sister can be whenever he does something like that.

Frozen Ripley

Frozen Ripley

And we went sledding. There were awards for being the first to go beyond the end of the run into the sand road, for going furthest off the main track, for unintentionally going down backwards, for getting buried the deepest in a drift, and for screaming the loudest.

The visit was wonderful for me, although way too short.

Testing out the equipment

Testing out the equipment

Now that we’ve completed it, I’d like to amend my earlier call for lots of snow. It’s still beautiful to see, but it makes it hard to walk in the woods without snowshoes or skis. I’m starting to tire of putting out a special bin for mail with the mailbox packed in ice. I sympathize with the friend who’s decided to move after five weeks of being shut in. So, let’s have a few more days of sledding or skiing, then move on to another season.

Can a community stop fracking?

Photo courtesy creative commons by Helen Slottje

Mari Margil and Ben Price have a detailed article in Yes! magazine this month about Pittsburgh’s recent ban on natural gas drilling, which uses the “fracking” or hydraulic fracturing technique. Pittsburgh is the first major city in the US to ban corporations from natural gas drilling.

The ordinance has a direct impact on Pittsburgh, but as they point out, its implications go much further:

Provisions in the ordinance eliminate corporate “personhood” rights within the city for corporations seeking to drill, and remove the ability of corporations to wield the Commerce and Contracts Clauses of the U.S. Constitution to override community decision-making.

Community decision making is essential in this arena for two reasons: First, exemptions to the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act for the oil and gas industry, expanded even further in 2005, mean that the burden of proof is now on communities to prove that any drilling practice is unsafe. This, it’s essential that communty decision making be supported and seen as the proper venue for judging the value of any drilling. Second, no individual landowner can have much impact on the drilling. The horizontal drilling methods mean that the fracking can proceed, regardless of landowner approval. All the landowner can do is decide to forego any royalties. This effectively grants all power to the corporation doing the drilling.

This issue hits home for me, since Fort Worth has been a major site for fracking (Smith, 2010). Although the oil and gas industry has asserted that fracking does not pollute underground water supplies or air quality, does not cause earthquakes, and is all in all a benign way to produce clean energy, it’s difficult to accept the assertions when they continually seek exemptions to EPA review and refuse to release data on the chemicals and procedures they use.

References

World Universities Congress, Çanakkale

Last week I attended the World Universities Congress in Çanakkale, Turkey, organized by Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University. The theme was new aims and responsibilities of universities in the context of globalization.

It was a fascinating and worthwhile event. Conferences like this are intrinsically interesting because of the venue and the assemblage of attendees from around the world.

The sessions highlighted the special role that Turkey plays in the world today, as a bridge between East and West, Christianity and Islam, modern and traditional, Europe and Asia. When you consider Turkey’s neighbors (Greece, Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and just across the water, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, Lebanon, Cyprus, Israel, Egypt, Libya), it’s clear that Turkey’s success is essential for all of us.

But there were also a number of excellent sessions and discussions interesting in purely academic terms. For example, in a panel I was on, I learned about a community/university project led by Arzu Başaran Uysal (stage right in the photo) to build playgrounds in Çanakkale. Although the setting was quite different, the course of the project reminded me of many of ours in community informatics. I presented on Youth Community Informatics and co-presented on our GK-12 project.

Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University, or ÇOMÜ, went all out, offering cultural events including music, dancing, tours to Troy and Gallipoli, just across the straits, and a dinner where we saw börek made.

Börek is a baked or fried filled pastry, made of thin flaky yufka dough and filled with cheese, meat, or vegetables. Originating in Central Asia, it’s become popular every place we went in Turkey.

We stayed at ÇOMÜ’s beautiful Dardanos guest house, situated on the shore of the Dardanelles, the straits that connect the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. We could watch the sun setting over Gallipoli every evening, as in the photo above.

[Thanks to Del Harnisch for the second and third photos here.]

Rice beats Texas, 17-34

Just a week shy of 48 years ago (September 12, 1962), President John F. Kennedy spoke at the Rice University Stadium about the plan to send a person to the moon:

But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

Today, Rice played Texas again. Fifth-ranked Texas won as usual. This time the score was Texas 34, Rice 17, but the game was disappointing to Texas fans; Rice easily beat the 31.5 pre-game point spread.

While in Texas this week I remembered cheering for Rice in the 1965 game, which was played in Austin. Rice won that one, 20-17. But Kennedy was right: It is very hard for Rice to play Texas.

Threadgill’s Home Cookin’

A couple of nights ago, my sister, mother, and I went to Threadgill’s Home Cookin’ on N. Lamar in near north Austin. It’s not far from where I lived when I was in graduate school at the University of Texas.

I used to listen to Kenneth Threadgill and the Hootenanny Hoots when they played at the Split Rail in south Austin, so going to the restaurant brought back many fond old memories.

We had a delicious dinner in the kind of informal, but comfortable setting that I like a lot. At least for my own experience, I agree with the claim on the restaurant website that:

It is a simple fact that the Threadgill’s restaurants, museum and live music venues have more to do with Austin’s cultural and musical heritage than most any other institution within the city limits.

The history goes on to add:

Perhaps country music lover and bootlegger Kenneth Threadgill had more in mind when he opened his Gulf filling station just north of the Austin city limits in 1933, for the day that Travis County decided to “go wet ” in December of the same year, Kenneth stood in line all night to be the first person to own a liquor license in the county. Soon, the filling station became a favorite spot for traveling musicians since it was open 24 hours for drinking, gambling and jamming. Kenneth would sing songs by his beloved Jimmie Rodgers nightly. Musicians who came to play were paid in beer. Such was the atmosphere at Threadgill’s, it was only when a curfew was enacted in 1942 that its owner had to get a key for the front door, before that it had yet to have been locked.

Threadgill’s was important in the development of the Austin music scene. While Threadgill sang Jimmie Rodgers songs, Janis Joplin developed her country and blues hybrid. Other performers brought in rock & roll or music from Mexico.

Claude Matthews produced and directed a very good documentary video about Threadgill and his restaurant, Singin’ the Yodeling Blues. Here’s part 1, with links to parts 2 and 3 on Youtube: