go tell it on the mountain

I like to walk. If I have a destination—a specific place I actually intend to go—that’s okay. But I prefer to walk destination-free. Today I put aside the eighty thousand things I have to deal with and think about, and I walked.

It would be more accurate to say I went meandering—accurate on more than one level. The term meander comes from winding Turkish River called the Büyük Menderes, known for its twisting course. Homer mentions it in the Iliad. And today I walked aimlessly and slowly along a river. It’s the end of January and 64 degrees Fahrenheit, which is just bizarre. The ice was melting rapidly in the river.

I encountered a few people. Spoke to some of them. Didn’t speak to others. I’m not sure how I decided which ones to speak to and which ones to ignore. Some ignored me back, or ignored me preemptively. Others spoke and were happy and cheerful to be out in such weather. And one sang to himself, softly.

As I shot this photograph, a man of about my age came strolling by, singing to himself in a very small voice. It was an old Civil War era hymn—what used to be called a ‘Negro’ spiritual, a song of hope and the promise of redemption written and sung by a people you’d think would have little of either. “Go tell it on the mountain,” he sang. “Over the hills and everywhere.”

And it all cheered me up. An unseasonably lovely day. Walking along a river, walking in a way that takes its name from a river half a world away, a river celebrated in song and poetry for ten thousand years. Hearing a man singing another song, this one only a century old, but like the Iliad also about hope. Watching rust do its slow work, which for some reason I find oddly comforting. All of those things, they cheered me up.

There’s probably a lesson in there somewhere. A lesson or a moral. I have little truck with lessons or morals or spirituals, though I’m mightily taken with meandering. But whatever there lesson or moral there is, I’ll tell it on the mountain, and over the hills and everywhere.

hey bingo, it’s all good

I don’t know how it works for you (assuming ‘you’ are somebody who attempts Iron Photographer projects), but for me the IP process follows a few common patterns. Sometimes I know exactly what I want to do—and even if the final photograph has almost nothing to do with my original idea, the process is smooth and harmonious and I get that whole ‘A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot‘ feeling.

Sometimes I have absolutely no idea at all what to do (even though I help come up with the elements, along with the Blessed Jamelah—may her hair grow long), and I spend the two weeks of the project squatting toadlike and glaring at anything that might possibly relate to the three IP elements.

And sometimes I just say ‘fuck it’ and start jamming stuff together. Which is what I did here. The elements of Iron Photographer 143 are 1) something with a handle, 2) the colour orange (we add the irrelevant letter ‘u’ as a sop to our Canadian and British members), and 3) vignetting. I was shaving and I noticed the blue razor in the mirror and thought “Oh, something with a handle. Hey, bingo—Iron Photographer!” So I brought the razor with me from the bathroom. As I dressed I remembered I owned a seldom-worn orange t-shirt. Hey, bingo—two elements down.

But that would be a pretty dull photo, so I grab an old mirror off the dresser. Orange t-shirt as background, razor on the mirror and hey that’s still pretty damned dull. Wait, there’s an old Coca Cola bottle I’d set aside for the last IP project but didn’t use. Put it on the mirror and lawdy, it’s still dull.

Add some drama. Have the light reflect in the mirror, meter off the reflection. Nope, still dull. Get a sheet of black plastic, wrinkle it up for texture, put the t-shirt back down, fold it over a bit, add the mirror and the razor and the coke bottle, make sure the light is reflecting in the mirror and hey bingo—still needs something. Fuck fuck fuck.

Okay, maybe the bit of red plastic mesh I used in a much older IP project. Find that, knot it up. The red clashes horribly with the orange. I like that. Finally shoot a photo and—well, it’s better, but dull. Still dull. Still missing something.

Shift everything around. Shoot another dull photo. Shift it all around again. Shoot a couple more frames. The phone rings; I ignore it. Shift all the stuff around maybe three or four more times and shoot a couple more frames. Shifting it all around doesn’t help because it’s missing something. Shifting doesn’t add anything.

Study the mess I’ve made on the table for a bit, thinking about any of the bits that might please me. Decide what I like best is the curve of the mirror, and the curve of a fold in the t-shirt, and a curve in the knotted mesh and clearly what it needs is another curve. Grab a hanger from the closet. Slide it into the frame. No…slide it a bit farther into the frame. A bit farther. Too far. And there. Shoot two more frames. Process the one I like most, add a whole lot of vignetting (the third IP element) and…

Hey bingo, IP 143. Done.

Return the phone call I ignored earlier. First thing said: “What’ve you been up to?” And I realize I’ve just spent 90 minutes arranging and rearranging a jumble of random objects that are entirely unrelated to each other in any way. A razor, an old Coke bottle, a bit of mesh left over from some cherry tomatoes (that I didn’t eat, but bought purely because I wanted the mesh), a mirror, a t-shirt, a sheet of black plastic, and a coat hanger? So I confess to that over the telephone. After a long pause, “So, I’m thinking about going to Spain next summer.”

The phone calls ends after a brief chat. I look at the photo. It makes no sense. Nothing even remotely like sense. I consider deleting the photo. Then I figure, “What the hell. It’s Iron Photographer. The people who get it, will get it. The people who don’t will still discuss their travel plans with me. It’s all good.”

words is my business

Words is my business. I know a lot of them, and I enjoy using them. I enjoy seeing and hearing them used. I adore people who use them well.

One of the reasons I adore Meera Lee Sethi (just one of the reasons; there are so many reasons to adore Meera that you’d need an abacus to keep count) is because she’s engaged in the most wonderful and quixotic projects I’ve seen in some time: 366 Days of Words in Science.

This is more than a mere introduction to esoteric words. It’s partly a sort of diary, and partly a collection of philosophical musings, and partly a work or art (each term is accompanied by a photo that in some way illustrates the concept), and partly an act of immense generosity. It’s a delightful combination of intelligence and charm, and every day it offers something new to captivate the curious.

It’s highly unlikely I’ll ever be able to use ‘ceratotrichia’ or ‘palpebral’ in casual conversation, even if I can remember them. I’ve no idea how many of these 366 words I’ll actually fold into my vocabulary. But I do know that each day I look forward to another term, another photograph, and another brief peek into Meera’s mind.

So this little blog post is just an aliquot (a measured portion from a larger sample) of my affection for words and for science and for Meera. The level of my actual affection for words, science, and Meera is only measurable on a galactic scale.

the evolutionary process

Well. I suppose it’s a good thing that Bosch believes in evolution. That certainly puts the company ahead of the entire field of Republican presidential candidates.

But perhaps this is a way to make evolution palatable to those Republicans? Maybe they’ll accept the science if it suggests women were created by god to do laundry—and evolution has made them fit to do it in heels.

still pissing on the dead

Last week I made a brief comment about the incident in which the members of a U.S. Marine sniper unit pissed on the bodies of Afghans they’d (presumably) killed. There were a couple of responses I found troubling, and I sort of feel the need to address some of the issues raised in them.

Joe said:

Wish ALL our troops were here home with their familys

I think we can all agree with that. However….

but our dumbass politicians/president whom have NEVER SERVED OR HAVE BEEN IN THIS SITUATION BEFORE

I’m not sure how this behavior can be attributed to President Obama or Congress. Certainly the behavior of troop units is a reflection of their leadership, but there are over 200,000 active duty Marines. It’s a bit silly to hold the civilian leadership of the military responsible for the behavior of individual units. That said, as I mentioned in the original comment, if you don’t want troops to piss on the bodies of their dead enemies, don’t send them to war.


First, you can’t blame Afghans for shooting at invading troops. It’s their country. Afghan tribes have been fighting against invaders ever since it became a semi-unified nation-state some three hundred years ago. Before they were shooting at U.S. troops, they shot at the Soviets. Before that, they shot at the British. Before that…well, just read the long history of Afghan tribal groups successfully repelling invading world superpowers.

Second, the Afghans who are shooting at the U.S. troops may, in fact, be anti-American, but I suspect they’re mostly anti-invader. I mean, they’ve also been shooting at the French and the British and the Dutch and the Italians and the Canadians (seriously, who’d shoot at a Canadian?) and a host of other nationalities. They’ll shoot at anybody who was attempting to occupy their country. So would you, Joe, if you were an Afghan. That’s what you do to invading armies—you shoot them. We’d do the same if (in some right wing Red Dawn fantasy) foreign troops invaded the U.S.

Finally, pissing on the dead is more an expression of contempt than a celebration. But even if there was some twisted psycho-sexual celebratory component to it, we don’t have to celebrate killing the enemy. This isn’t football. A victory dance in the end zone isn’t necessary. To suggest the ‘solution’ to this is for Afghans to refrain from shooting at U.S. troops is to massively fail to understand the situation.

WAKE UP AMERICA WE AE THE BEST,,,,,START SHOWING IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The more exclamation points we use, the better we are. But really, this isn’t a nationalist issue. It’s not about America. It’s about war. The Marines didn’t piss on the bodies of the dead because they were Americans; they did it because that sort of shit happens in war. They didn’t piss on the bodies of the Afghans because they were Afghans; they did it because war always dehumanizes everybody involved.

Daniel repeats (without attribution, by the way) the text of a statement issued by Republican Congressmane Allen West, but I’ve no doubt he agrees with Representative West.

I do not recall any self-righteous indignation when our Delta snipers Shugart and Gordon had their bodies dragged through Mogadishu.

Neither you nor Rep. West may recall the outrage, but I do. The incident was widely reported and sparked a massive public outcry. Of course, the treatment of Shugart and Gordon was at the hands of a disorganized mob, not committed by a highly-trained and disciplined military unit, but they both reflect the same reality. War brutalizes the people who fight.

Give them a maximum punishment under field grade level Article 15 (non-judicial punishment), place a General Officer level letter of reprimand in their personnel file, and have them in full dress uniform stand before their Battalion, each personally apologize to God, Country, and Corps videotaped and conclude by singing the full US Marine Corps Hymn without a teleprompter.

The teleprompter comment, of course, is a childish reference to President Obama; conservatives seem to think the president is inarticulate without access to a teleprompter and find that wildly amusing.

I should mention that Rep. West is a former Army Lt. Colonel who served in Iraq. He’s familiar with the military justice process. After an incident in which he terrorized an Iraqi police officer, West was fined US$5000, removed from command of his unit, and reassigned to a rearward detachment while his resignation from military service was processed.

Let me also say that although I vehemently disagree with West and his politics, I completely understand what he did in Iraq and why he did it. By normal moral standards, his behavior was egregiously wrong; by battlefield standards, it was illegal. But it may have actually saved the lives of his men.

Again, if you don’t want U.S. troops to do horrible things, don’t send them to war. If you send them to war, you MUST hold them to high behavioral standards—but it’s critical to remember that war can brutalize even the most decent of people.

Anybody who is really interested in this topic would do well to read With the Old Breed: At Pelelieu and Okinawa by Eugene Sledge. Sledge was a nice, bookish, religious Alabama boy who served with the U.S. Marines in the South Pacific during World War II. His account of the brutalizing effects of war is shocking and appalling, and quite possibly the best memoir ever written about war.

the world conspires to amuse me

Okay, first I have to explain why I was in a Starbucks yesterday. No…that’s too complicated. Let’s just say I had good reason NOT to be in my usual coffee dive. But I needed free wifi access in order to chat with the Jamelah and cobble together the new Iron Photographer elements. For those of you who aren’t part of the Utata community, that probably won’t make any sense. I’d explain Iron Photographer and why I needed to chat online with Jamelah, but it’s even more complicated than the reason I was in Starbucks.

I wouldn’t even mention the fact that this happened in Starbucks, but the location is part of what made it so amusing to me. So…Starbucks.

Right. I’d just finished my business (if you can call a chat with Jamelah ‘business’) and I was packing to leave when a middle-aged guy in a nice suit sat down at the next table. Packing to leave takes time when it’s only 17F outside–there’s all that business with the scarf and the hat and the gloves and the coat. By the time I was ready to go, another guy in a suit approached the table where the first guy in the suit is sitting.

I started to walk away. I overheard the first guy in a suit say to the other guy in a suit, “I used to be an accountant like you; then I took an arrow in the knee.”

I was halfway out the door before that sunk in. Then I was out on the sidewalk cackling.

It occurs to me, this will probably only be amusing to folks who have been playing Skyrim. I’d explain Skyrim, but it’s about as complicated as Iron Photographer and why I was meeting with Jamelah and why I was at Starbucks.

Okay, maybe you had to be there. Or maybe you had to be me. Or maybe next time I’ll just put this sort of thing on Twitter. Overheard: I used to be an accountant like you; then I took an arrow in the knee.

In my defense, I did say the world conspired to amuse me. I didn’t say it conspired to amuse anybody else.

pissing on the dead

There’s a great deal of surprise and outrage over the video showing the members of a Marine sniper unit pissing on the bodies of dead Afghans. The outrage is merited; the surprise is not.

This is what happens in war. We train people to kill other people, which is the ultimate desecration of the body. Why, then, should anybody be surprised to hear troops desecrate those bodies in other ways?

Desecrating the bodies of the enemy has happened in every war that ever took place. It was an old practice when Achilles dragged Hector’s body around the walled city of Troy some 3300 years ago. It’s been practiced by every army that’s ever existed, and though it may violate moral and legal codes of military conduct, it’ll continue to happen. The U.S. military isn’t—and never has been—exempt. The ways in which wars are fought have changed over time, but desecrating the bodies of the enemy is a constant.

Of course our troops have pissed on the bodies of dead Afghans. This isn’t the first time it’s happened in Afghanistan and it almost certainly won’t be the last. Afghans have undoubtedly pissed on the bodies of dead Marines and soldiers, and they’ll continue to do so. Pissing on the body is a quick and easy way to express contempt and mark territory. It’s an expression of war; it’s part of the nature of war.

This isn’t to say we should condone—or even tolerate—such behavior. Those four Marines deserve to be punished, and punished severely. They deserve punishment for several reasons, not the least of which is that desecrating the bodies of your enemies creates more enemies—and more intransigent enemies.

So yes, we must punish those Marines. Yes, we should be outraged by the behavior. But spare me the shock and surprise. If you don’t want soldiers pissing on the bodies of the enemy, don’t send them to war. If you send young men and women to war, don’t act surprised when they behave the way warriors have always behaved.

iowa nice

Here’s the thing—I like Iowa. I really do. I was born here. It’s true that I’ve spent most of my life living elsewhere, but I’ve always had affection for the state and its people. Iowa is an odd place—not at all the way it’s portrayed in the news and entertainment media. But then, how many places are?

However, Iowa is afflicted by the Iowa Caucus—which has traditionally been the first contest of the U.S. presidential race. That means every four years presidential candidates swarm Iowa like spawning salmon. It also means every four years we have to endure the news media talking about Iowa like the entire state is comprised of ultra-religious corn-fed, cretinous hicks.

We certainly have some of those—but they’re not the majority. They’re not even a significant segment of the population. They’re just noisy and annoying, like those locusts that crawl out of the soil every thirteen years and make life miserable for a bit.

But overall, that’s just not Iowa. So I was delighted to see the following video become something of a hit on YouTube and elsewhere.

I like it. But he had to leave a lot out. Like the fact that the very first case heard by the Iowa Supreme Court was In Re the Matter of Ralph. Ralph was a slave owned by a man in Missouri. The Iowa court ruled that the moment Ralph set foot on Iowa territory, he became a free man. This was 1839—that’s 22 years before the U.S. Civil War.

And he didn’t mention that one of the U.S. Supreme Court’s most important free speech rulings was a result of Iowa high school students protesting the war in Viet Nam. In 1965 a group of students wore black armbands to school. They were abused by pro-war students (who were in the majority in 1965), insulted by their teachers, and expelled for refusing to remove their armbands. After their expulsion ended, they returned…without the armbands, but dressed entirely in black clothing.The Supreme Court ruled that students (and teachers too) do not “shed their constitutional rights at the school house gate.”

Which reminds me—Iowa is almost always at the top of the list when states are ranked by literacy. Nearly 70% of all Iowans own a library card. Iowans read a lot—and they’re not just reading the Bible.

I could go on. I could mention, for example, that when same-sex marriage came before the Iowa Supreme court, the judges ruled unanimously that it was unconstitutional to deny members of the same sex the right to marry. That’s right…unanimously. The fact is, Iowa is a pretty liberal state. Most Iowans are pretty open-minded. And they really are, for the most part, nice. Seriously. If you drive down the road and wave to the stranger in the oncoming car, they’ll wave back. And smile. It’s a little weird until you get used to it.

I’m in Iowa again, and it seems I’ll be here for the foreseeable future. But this is the first time in my life I haven’t felt a compelling need to be someplace else. I think I’ve grown into Iowa.

Addendum: Let’s not get carried away by the fact that Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney received the most support from Iowa Republican Caucus voters. There are more than 2,100,000 registered voters in Iowa, about evenly split among Democrats, Republicans and Independents (with a slight edge to Democrats). Santorum and Romney each received around thirty thousand votes out of a voter population of more than two million. It doesn’t mean Iowans are generally supportive of either of them.