Windswept, snow-covered weeds (photo)

Every day on my way to work, I think about how pretty this hill looks . . . as I speed past.

And then I vow to remember to stop the next day so I can take a picture.  Problem is, this hillside is right where the road I’m on goes under/through a somewhat complex freeway entrance/exit.  So I’d have to park quite a ways away, up on a city street, and then walk along the entrance-ramp berm to get the photo.  A little dangerous and possibly illegal.  Plus it has been really COLD!

Yesterday I finally got caught at the stoplight at the entrance/exit ramp interchange, so I used my minute of good fortune to roll down the window and take a quick pic with my iPhone.  (Thank you, Apple :) )



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“S” is for sewer

I mean, how else could I have titled this photo? :) (It’s actually a Styrofoam packing peanut.)


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Buddha mummy proves truth about statues

Last April I wrote a short post titled “The Truth About Statues” about my childhood belief that statues were made by pouring concrete over dead people—or maybe not dead until AFTER the concrete casing went on!

Possibly you’ve seen this photograph and story today?

Buddha mummy, on display outside China for the first time, at the Drents Museum, Assen, Netherlands (photo via Washington Post, February 23, 2015)


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The Grohmann Museum’s “Milwaukee Road” Exhibit

My office at Milwaukee School of Engineering is in the Grohmann Museum, which houses the world’s largest collection of art depicting the subject of “Man at Work.”  In 2008 The Wall Street Journal published a wonderful article about Eckhart Grohmann and his art collection—which he donated to MSOE about 10 or 15 years ago—titled “Love of Labor, Labor of Love: Mr. Grohmann’s New Museum.”

The museum mounts three or four special exhibits per year.  Because the exhibits are usually on the second floor, where my office is, I get to watch them go up and then study the individual works at my leisure for the two or three months of the exhibit.  This winter the exhibit is a collection of materials from the now-defunct Milwaukee Road railroad, on loan from the Milwaukee Public Library’s archives.

I love trains and train travel.  My nostalgic, romantic view is probably due to the fact that I was born too late to have actually experienced that era’s heyday.  A trip by train was no doubt crowded and hot and long.  My little Amtrak Hiawatha jaunts to Chicago with my mug of coffee in a spacious seat in an air-conditioned, smooth-riding car—or sometimes in the Empire Builder’s Superliner Lounge Car, which is really nice!—cannot compare with the stress my grandparents and great-grandparents would have felt trying to get from place to place.

Amtrak Superliner I Lounge (photo by Matthew Neleigh Gummigoof, via Wikipedia, CC-BY-2.5)

I remember my mom taking me to see my hometown’s train station being demolished when I was very young.  It was replaced by lots of fresh blacktop for parking lots.  My mom actually took us to see several old buildings getting torn down when I was young.  Urban renewal was in its prime, and she must have thought it important for us to see these structures before they were completely gone—to be a witness to history, I suppose.  Maybe that’s where I got my a) love of history and b) strongly felt nostalgia for “ghosts” of abandoned ruins.

Here in Milwaukee many historic buildings were also demolished during the urban renewal madness, including the Chicago and North Western Railway’s Lake Front Depot train station in 1968.

Lake Front Depot, circa 1898 (via Wikipedia, from the Detroit Publishing Co. collection, housed in the U.S. Library of Congress)


But, anyway, getting to the point of this post :), there are a couple of thoughts I’ve had in viewing the Milwaukee Road exhibit the last few weeks.

First, a romantic view of train travel was apparently encouraged by the railroads themselves.  Included in the Milwaukee Road exhibit are advertising materials from the (I’m going to say) 1950s, showing the passenger trains speeding through pristine wilderness landscapes where random attractive young people just happen to be hanging around to wave as the trains pass by.

Girl and passing train, Milwaukee Road exhibit, Grohmann Museum, 2015


Trio waving to passing train, Milwaukee Road exhibit, Grohmann Museum, 2015

Second, and this is the main thing I have been thinking about: What have we lost?  Included in the exhibit is a large map of the Milwaukee Road’s routes.  For a big-picture view of the area this railroad used to serve, below is a map of its routes from the Wikipedia article on the Milwaukee Road.

Map of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. Thick red lines indicate trackage still operated by CP Rail; purple lines indicate former MILW trackage now operated by other railroads; red dashed lines indicate abandoned track. Created with Quantum GIS with data from the National Transportation Atlas Database. (via Wikipedia, created by Elkman, CC-BY-SA 3.0)

I took some close-up pictures of the big route map in the Grohmann Museum’s exhibit.   Look at this view of routes in Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and North and South Dakota.  (You can enlarge the photo by clicking on it.)

Milwaukee Road route: Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, North and South Dakota

All those towns along the routes—the people who lived there were connected to the world!  One of my friends is from a small town in South Dakota, and she’s told me that if she flies home to visit instead of driving, her dad has to drive for hours, each way, to pick her up at the airport.  If you live in one of these towns today, you have to have a car.  Not even the Greyhound bus lines go there.

It was “progress” when all the train stations were demolished and railroad tracks abandoned.  No one wanted to travel by train anymore, apparently.  And it’s true that automobiles give you lots more freedom and flexibility than trains.  There’s no turning back the clock.

But I have to say, more and more frequently I find myself wishing that trains were a viable alternative to planes (ugh!) and cars for long trips.

Posted in Art, History, Life, Milwaukee, Popular culture, Technology, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Box Elder Gold on Ice

This is the junkiest, ugliest tree in the neighborhood—a female box elder.  Not only does it drop seed pods constantly throughout the year, but it also harbors box elder bugs.  Most of the time these red bugs stick close to the tree, but during especially hot, dry summers, they reproduce like crazy and attempt a neighborhood-wide infestation.  Box elder bugs are innocuous but messy, leaving their droppings all over cars and sunny walls.  I really hate this tree.

But, to be fair, I was struck this afternoon by how brilliantly its remaining seed pods shimmered like gold against the blue sky.

Female Box Elder in Winter

I also got a smile out of Milwaukee’s version of a fly in amber, below—a twig encased in ice.

twig encased in ice

Box elder, I believe :)

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Brian Williams, Jonah Lehrer, and kleptomania

By now, who hasn’t heard the news about NBC anchor Brian Williams?  That he lied multiple times, over a period of many years, about his helicopter being hit by ground fire in Iraq.  That he apparently lied about many other incidents, as well.  I have nothing more to add to this discussion by way of facts.  Just google “Brian Williams,” and the Internet will bring you quickly up to date.

But I do have something to add to the conversation by way of background and insight.  I did my English Ph.D. dissertation on the subject of plagiarism.  In August 2012, a few months after I started blogging, I wrote a post about Jonah Lehrer, one of my favorite authors, who was accused of fabricating quotes in his book Imagine.

My post must have been quite different from the rest of the online conversation on this topic, because it “went viral,” as they say.  I didn’t realize it until months later, when I finally figured out Twitter and stumbled across all the tweets and retweets of my blog.  My post was also “Freshly Pressed,” the only time I’ve ever achieved that distinction.

When I heard the news about Brian Williams a few days ago, I immediately thought of Jonah Lehrer—and all the other talented people whose lies have so puzzled their fans.  Why on earth did they do it?  The most convincing answer I can find comes from an article I cited in my dissertation (and which I discuss in the Jonah Lehrer post) that compares plagiarism to the mental disorder of kleptomania (compulsive stealing of things you don’t need and can otherwise afford to buy).

Brian Williams’ lies seem to fit the same pattern.  Is Williams a pathological liar (à la Jon Lovitz’s Saturday Night Live character Tommy Flanagan, who mentioned his wife, Morgan Fairchild, about every other sentence)?  Only some sort of compulsive disorder makes any sense to me.

If you’re interested in reading my Jonah Lehrer post, you can link to it here:

Posted in Books and reading, Life, News, Popular culture, Television, Writing, blogging | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Wind-sculpted snowdrift

I noticed this snowdrift up against our fence late this afternoon—and would love to learn more about the physics behind the beautiful swirls and ridges of sand dunes and snowdrifts.  I’m sure it has something to do with the granular nature of sand and snow, both of which are solids yet flow like liquids.  But that’s about all I know :)

snowdrift against the fence

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