Archive for January, 2010

Eastern State Penitentiary (“My only way out is to go so far in, billowing out to somewhere.”)

Friday, January 29th, 2010

The stone walls surrounding the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia extend ten feet below the surface of the ground.  There is only one entrance through the walls and into the prison.

Construction began on the foundations and walls in 1822.  Seven years later, laws were passed allowing “separate or solitary confinement at labor”.  That same year, 1829, the prison opened its doors and admitted its first inmate.

At the time, many leaders believed that crime was the result of environment, and that solitude would make criminals regretful and penitent.  During rare trips outside of their cells, prisoners would be forced to wear masks to keep them from communicating.  Cells had small “feed doors” and individual exercise yards to prevent contact between inmates and to minimize contact between inmates and guards.

It didn’t take long for Eastern State Penitentiary to reach capacity.  Additionally, people believed that keeping prisoners in intense isolation induced mental illness as opposed to leading to the spiritual actualization and social reform it intended.  By 1913, this belief, along with the overcrowding, caused the prison to abandon the solitary system.

A little over thirty years after Eastern State Penitentiary became a congregate prison, inmate and plaster worker Clarence Klinedinst began planning his escape.  Klinedinst was well-liked by prison staff, and so they allowed him to bring his tools with him to his cell each day after work.  Over the course of a year and a half, Klinedinst dug a tunnel of approximately 100 feet from his cell, under the prison wall, and out to freedom.  The tunnel was equipped with supports, fans, and even lights.  Klinedinst disposed of the excess dirt but filtering it through a tube he inserted into his commode, ensuring that it filtered directly into the sewage system.

On the morning of April 3, 1945, Klinedinst escaped through his tunnel along with twelve other inmates.  All of the men were recaptured, most within a few hours.  At the time of the escape, Klinedinst had two years left to serve.  After his re-arrest, he had ten years added to his sentence.  For the remainder of his time at Eastern State, prison guards (obviously) did not allow Klinedinst to bring his tools with him to his cell each day.

I’ve been feeling strange lately.  Introverted.  Everything is a little off.  It’s like I need to run away and just think, which is confusing to me because I think so much already.

I feel like I’m digging my way into the penitentiary.

In 1965 Federal Government designated Eastern State Penitentiary a National Historic Landmark.  Five years later, inmates were relocated to other correctional institutions and the Eastern State Penitentiary closed its doors as a prison.  It was left completely abandoned until stabilization and preservation efforts began in 1991.  In 1994, Eastern State opened for daily historic tours.

Eastern State Penitentiary (above), Clarence Klinedinst (below)

Two Brief Coversations

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

“You know, when you guys were together, I asked him if he was dating you and he denied it,” someone told me last night.  “I was like ‘Are you dating Ashleigh?’ and he was like ‘No’.”

This is the kind of thing that has conditioned me to think the way I do when becoming involved with a guy.  I tend to remind myself that even when you think something is going great, you may be wrong.  I’m not denying that you could also be right, but I’m just accustomed to functioning on the receiving end of dishonestly and disappointment in romantic situations.

A few weeks ago, I was on the L train with Mitchell.

“How’s it going with that boy?” he asked.

“It’s good,” I said.  “It’s… different.”

“What do you mean different?” Mitchell inquired.

I thought for a moment.  “Well, it’s like… He says nice things to me.  He tells me I’m beautiful.”

“Um, you are beautiful,” Mitchell stated matter-of-factly.  It’s not a stretch to say that he would have used the same tone had I said that he told me my hair is brown.  Um, your hair is brown.  Duh.

My eyes looked to the floor of the train for a moment, then back up at Mitchell.  “I guess, but no guy I’ve ever dated has told me that,” I answered.

“Well, then you’ve been dating the wrong guys,” he told me.

Occam’s Razor (“Anything goes when you’re 80.”)

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

It was Sunday night.  Rona and I hadn’t been to Saint Jerome in two weeks, and we hadn’t seen each other in almost that long.

“The Jameson here goes down like water,” Rona commented.

“Like I wrote in that blog,” I said, “the whiskey just tastes better at Saint Jerome.”

We had two hours to catch up before the DJ started.  “When I’m 80, I’m shaving my head,” Rona told me.  “Anything goes when you’re 80.”

The statement made me smile.  “What else are you going to do when you’re 80?” I asked her.

“Eat bacon cheeseburgers,” she replied.  “And smoke like a chimney.  And maybe I’ll put whiskey in my cereal every morning.  And fly everywhere.”  (Rona and I share a similar fear of air travel.)

I remember many of these Sunday night pre-dancing talks.  Once Rona told me that it was always her dream to be a breakdancer.  I agreed, as I have always been fascinated with breakdancing.  In fact, when traveling New York City’s subway system, there are two things that I will always stop and watch (given I have the time): breakdancers and doo-wop singing groups.

Another time we discussed how someone told Rona that she (Rona) is a simple woman.  “You’re like Occam’s razor!” I said.

Occam’s razor is a principle dating back to the 14th-century.  It can be phrased in two ways: (1) entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity, or (2) plurality should not be posited without necessity.  In other words: between two competing theories, the simpler one is the better one.

The razor is suggesting that we do not over-complicate things when trying to understand them.  We need to simplify; we need to be like Rona.

Per the Skeptic’s Dictionary:

What is known as Occam’s razor was a common principle in medieval philosophy and was not originated by [medieval English philosopher and Franciscan monk] William [of Ockham], but because of his frequent usage of the principle, his name has become indelibly attached to it. It is unlikely that William would appreciate what some of us have done in his name. For example, atheists often apply Occam’s razor in arguing against the existence of God on the grounds that God is an unnecessary hypothesis. We can explain everything without assuming the extra metaphysical baggage of a Divine Being.

However, it goes on to say:

Because Occam’s razor is sometimes called the principle of simplicity some creationists have argued that Occam’s razor can be used to support creationism over evolution. After all, having God create everything is much simpler than evolution, which is a very complex mechanism.

But that explanation supposes that God exists, and we have no empirical evidence, meaning information gathered through the five senses, that he does.  The razor implies that simple explanations come from evidence we already know to be true, i.e. empirical evidence.

As a Franciscan monk, Occam took very seriously his vow of poverty.  He lived using only what was absolutely necessary.  It is possible that this form of simplicity is what caused Occam to transform this already-established principle into something that was easily understood by people.

Coincidentally, as Rona is Greek, the idea is actually attributed to Greek philosopher Aristotle.  His idea was that perfection equals simplicity, and vice versa.  Aristotle was known for the phrase, “The more perfect a nature is, the fewer means it requires for its operation.”

A lovely explanation of Occam’s razor can be found at HowStuffWorks.com, a website from the same people who bring the Discovery Channel to those lucky enough to be able to afford cable.

[Occam’s razor] fits perfectly with the scientific method — the series of steps scientists take to prove or disprove something… But be careful when approaching the razor — for such a brief statement, it has an uncanny ability to be stretched or bent to fit all sorts of ideas. It’s important to remember that Occam’s razor proves nothing. It serves instead as a heuristic device — a guide or a suggestion — that states that when given two explanations for the same thing, the simpler one is usually the correct one.

Here’s a classic example of the use of Occam’s razor. A pair of physicists — Lorentz and Einstein — both concluded mathematically that things tend to go a little wonky within the space-time continuum. For example, the closer we get to moving at the speed of light, the more we slow down.

While both arrived at the same results from their equations, Einstein and Lorentz had different explanations for them. Lorentz said that it was because of changes that take place in the “the ether.” The problem is science doesn’t hold that “the ether” exists — and therefore introduces a problematic element of the equation. Einstein’s explanation used no references to the ether, and therefore, his explanation eventually won out over Lorentz’s.

The trouble with Occam’s razor is that what constitutes simplicity is subjective.  Humanity is emotional.  We more often than not base things on inner experience rather than fact.

I don’t know why humanity exists.  I barely know what existence means.  I don’t know why two people like each other or what causes the attraction when they gravitate towards one another.  I don’t know how some people go through life with a blind contentment never wondering about anything.  I don’t know why…

Maybe the Tralfamadorians were right; maybe we are just trapped in the amber of this moment.  There is no why.

Glitter & Sparkalaphobia (the end of the world)

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

Elliot has sparkalaphobia.

Sparkalaphobia is the fear of glitter.

Glitter was invented in 1934 by Henry Ruschmann of Bernardsville, New Jersey.  Ruschmann founded Meadowbrook Inventions.  Set in the middle of a peaceful working cattle farm, the company is still a major supplier of glitter, as made clear by their slogan: “Our glitter covers the world.”

Glitter starts out as large rolls of foil or plastic and then is cut into tiny particles.  Glitter should not be confused with shimmer, which is present in various cosmetic products.  Shimmer most often begins as tiny pieces of mica, which is a type of mineral.  However, people suffering from sparkalaphobia may also feel an intense aversion towards shimmer.

There are many variations and characterizations of glitter, including color, size, shape, thickness, specific gravity (the ratio of the density of a substance to the density of a given reference material), and holographic glitter (glitter particles that achieve their color through an optical effect produced by diffraction gratings, where the distance between measurable grating lines determines the color).

Because glitter is highly individualistic, along with the substance’s high probability of transfer and retention, it can occasionally be used in criminal forensics.  Its distinctive properties can link perpetrators to victims or locations if glitter was present at the crime scene or a related location.  As with other types of trace evidence, the more manufacturers there are, the better the chances of being able to discriminate between glitter particles originating from different sources.

In the paper “GLITTER as Forensic Evidence” by Bob Blackledge, he recommends that when recovering glitter from suspects, victims, and evidence, one should use Post-It Notes as opposed to tape.

The glue on transparent tape is stronger and when you try to remove the particle from the tape it might be damaged in the process, and there is also a greater chance that some glue from the tape will be transferred to the glitter particle and may confuse subsequent characterization examinations.  The glue on Post-It Notes is strong enough to remove individual glitter particles from most surfaces, and yet it is weaker, so the particles can be picked off without damage and without transferring any of the adhesive material.  The notes are also handy for writing down all the essential evidence documentation (case number, location where found, date/time, technician’s initials, etc).  If the unfolded Post-It Note is just slipped into a clear self-sealing plastic bag, the trace examiner back at the crime lab can perform a preliminary inspection using a stereobinocular microscope without even having to remove the Post-It Note from the plastic bag.

Glitter particles have been found in auto carpeting after several years and could still be compared; also true of particles found in the hair of a dead body that had been exposed to the elements for weeks.

Because of its small size and durable nature, glitter is a continuous environmental pollutant. Glitter is commonly made from materials that are not readily biodegradable.  Being heavier than water, glitter sinks to the bottom of waterways and contributes to toxic sludges.  When used on the body glitter is eventually showered off, entering waste water systems.  In other cases, like arts and crafts, excess glitter is swept up for disposal in landfills.  Glitter is not recovered or recycled in any way.  Because of its small size, glitter is often lost or spread by humans throughout the environment.  Insects and other small organisms are unable to deal with glitter, as it is inedible. Larger creatures can ingest it involuntarily, allowing it to enter the food chain.  Because of its metallic nature, static electricity effects can cause it to stick to body parts or habitats.  Some of the oxides glitter is made with can be reactive when combined with other waste streams, particularly in water.  Glitter has very sharp, hard edges which are uncommon in nature and also a problem for very small life.

Even using the smallest amount of glitter can result in an eternal sparkling curse.  Personally, I can recall a slumber party my roommate and I hosted four years ago for our friend Allison’s birthday.  During a surprise late-night visit from Cadillac French, the flamboyant alter ego threw a handful of silver star-shaped glitter onto the birthday girl inside of our apartment.  To this day I still find the tiny specimens stuck within the cracks of our floorboards and underneath the cushions of our sofa.

Some say cockroaches will survive the end of the world.  I think all that will be left is glitter.

House of Cards, Origami Cities, & Romantic Relationships (The Bus Reprise)

Monday, January 4th, 2010

Bryan Berg holds world records for the world’s tallest house of cards, and for the world’s largest house of cards.  He uses no tape, glue, or tricks, and his method has been tested to support 660 pounds per square foot.

A house of cards is a structure created by stacking playing cards on top of each other.  This method relies on nothing more than balance and friction in order to stay upright. Ideally, adhesives or other external connecting methods are not used, and no damage or alterations are made to the cards themselves. The larger the structure, the more tragic its collapse.  Each balanced card supporting the design is something that could potentially go wrong.

Comparable to Berg’s card towers is Wataru Ito’s origami city model, crafted entirely from paper.  Ito finished building the city in the summer of 2009, after working on it for four years.  At one point, the project became so large that Ito had to sleep under a table in his tiny flat.  The breathtaking creation is approximately 7 x 6 feet wide, and 3 feet tall.  It contains a cathedral, school, factory, theme park, airport, and even a castle.

He plans to burn it down.

Similar to these structures are romantic relationships. The balance relied on is the equality between two people.  There must be strength individually and combined to offer the stability necessary to prevent the collapse.  After years of dedication, it can be a beautifully crafted city.  Still, if there is a repressed arsonist in one of the inhabitants, he/she can light the match at any moment.

However, Berg claims that the more cards placed on a tower the stronger it becomes, because the weight of the cards pushing down on the base (increasing friction) allows occasional cards to stumble without the entire structure collapsing. He also claims that proper stacking technique allows cards to function as shear walls, giving considerable permanence to the structure.

Additionally, of his work Ito says, “I am devoted while I am working on my projects but I quickly lose interest when I complete them… I will burn the castle. I thought I could see it rising up from the ashes if I took a video and played it backwards.”

I have made houses out of cards before, and I have been in romantic relationships.  Neither have been strong enough to stand for an extended period of time, and my stacking abilities or neurosis are likely to blame. I want to play it all backwards; I want to watch the sublime and curious beginning of a relationship rise out of the disappointment and heartache of the end.

One time, I let it fall and it buried me.  Last time, I burned it down and ended up choking on the fumes.

I don’t know what I should do this time.  Sometimes, I think I should just stop building.

Bryan_berg working

Berg working (above), Berg’s tallest house of cards: Cinderella’s Castle (below)

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Ito working on his origami city (above), Ito’s completed masterpiece (below)

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