Obligatory moon landing post

Fifty years ago today I was eight years old, and it was a summer day in Concord, Massachusetts. I have vague memories of watching the moon landing on our black-and-white television set. But did we watch it while it was happening, or did we watch it on the news later on? I think we watched on the news later in the day.

What I do remember is that it was a big topic of conversation among kids my age. Kids in my neighborhood also talked about how we were going to have to leave Alcott school and go to a new school in the fall. We probably also talked about the new split in the American League between the East and West divisions, and my hero Jim Longborn was still pitching for the Red Sox. But the moon landing had the biggest impact on my imagination, by far.

In fact, it would be hard to overestimate the impact the moon landing had on my imagination. I was so sure there would be regular travel to the moon by the year 2000. When I studied physics in college and understood how much energy it takes to lift humans out of earth’s gravity well, regular travel to the moon began to seem far less probable.

These days I am far more cynical. Before I get excited about moon travel, I want to know where the energy is going to come from, and what the carbon footprint of moon travel will be. These days, I’m more interested in how we might reduce carbon in the atmosphere, to lessen the impact of global climate change. Which means that I’m far more interested in the Trillion Tree Campaign that perhaps “could capture 25% of global annual carbon emissions.” I guess you could say that self interest has prompted a greater interest in ecological science than in astronomy or astrophysics.

Washtub bass

Steve lent me his washtub bass, so I could take it home and try to learn to play it.

Steve’s washtub bass is simplicity itself: a 15 gallon galvanized washtub with a hole drilled in the center of the bottom; a length of 3/16 inch braided polypropylene rope, and a broom handle with an eyebolt screwed in one end and a slot cut in the other end. Tie a stopper knot in one end of the rope, thread it up through the hole, and tie it to the eyebolt. Place the slot of the broom handle on the rim up the upturned washtub, pull the string taut, and there you are.

Playing the washtub bass is not so simple. You have to put one foot on the rim of the washtub to keep it on the ground. You adjust the pitch by changing the tension of the rope by tilting the broom handle back and forth. The range is pretty limited — I got less than an octave — and it’s a challenge to get exactly the pitch you want. The biggest disadvantage, though, is that playing it took a lot out of me: it’s a real workout to move that broom handle back and forth, and twanging the braided rope is hard on your hands. After half an hour, it became clear that it was going to take more time than I was willing to devote to building up strength and building up callouses.

There had to be a better way. I began researching other ways of building and playing the washtub bass.

Eddie Holland of Possum Trot, Kentucky, built himself a two-string washtub bass with a fixed neck that you play by fretting, not by moving the neck. He’s a heck of a player, and his bass sounds great, but by the time you buy the hardware, the tuning machines, and a couple of strings for an upright bass, his bass probably cost a couple hundred dollars.

Shelley Rickey has a washtub bass made out of a big plastic tub with an arm bolted on the side; the string is fretted by means of a short length of PVC pipe that you slide up and down. She has a video where she plays cigar-box uke and her partner plays the bass, and the bass sounds good. But it still takes a lot of muscle: “I’ve been playing it now for five years,” Shelley writes, “and have developed the arms of a lumberjack.”

Dennis Havlena of Michigan devised a lever-action arm to reduce the muscle strain. Marion Billo shows plans for Joe Birdsley’s five-gallon (plastic) bucket bass with a special attachment for keeping it on the floor. But I don’t see that these offer much advantage over Shelley Rickey’s design.

There are even more complicated designs for washtub basses. Michael Bishop made a hardwood frame with a five-gallon bucket as the resonator, and a fixed neck and tuneable string. Marc Bristol, writing in Mother Earth News, September/October, 1980, issue, describes an elaborate upright bass made using a washtub as the resonator. I found a photo online of bass made on a similar plan, except the oblong washtub supports a wood sound board.

I guess if you really want an upright bass and you can’t afford a wood one, you could make one of these. But these really aren’t washtub basses; these are upright basses made in folk instrument style. The upright bass is an instrument in the violin family from Europe, but the washtub bass has roots in another continent. According to “Afro-American One-Stringed Instruments, an article by David Evans in Western Folklore (vol. 29, no. 4 [Oct., 1970], pp. 229-245), the washtub bass comes from Africa:

“Two kinds of one-stringed instruments are known to Negroes in America today. One is the familiar one-stringed bass, sometimes called a ‘washtub bass’ or ‘gutbucket’ from the materials of its construction…. Its origin in the African ‘earth bow’ has been pointed out and generally accepted. This African instrument is made by digging a hole in the ground and covering it with a membrane of bark or hide, which is pegged down at the edges. From the membrane a string is led to a nearby sapling or stick placed in the ground. The string is then plucked, the covered hole serving as a resonator. In America an inverted washtub is simply substituted for the membrane and the hole.”

(The other one-stringed instrument is a “jitterbug,” which is a single string played in bottleneck guitar style; the jitterbug derives ultimately from the mouthbow).

What I was looking for was a version of the washtub bass that didn’t require me to develop the arms of a lumberjack, yet retained the flexibility and character of the American version of the African earth bow. And what I found was the simple yet elegant washtub bass built and played by Jim Bunch. He describes his instrument as follows:

“I have built a cross brace for the pole using a board the width of the tub supported by two small blocks that fit on the rim. This allows you to support the pole closer to the center of the tub and get good notes without putting as much tension on the string and your fingers. [Moving the pole changes the string tension and the pitch, but] you can also move up and down the pole to change notes. I tend to both adjust the tension and finger 5ths when I play. I screwed a rubber table leg cover to the middle of the cross brace that the pole fits in. This allows the pole and brace to be disassembled for the trunk of the car.” (from the Tub-o-Tonia Web site, c. 2005?)

Jum Bunch washtub bass

This keeps the simplicity of the instrument; all you’re adding is a cross brace. You can still change pitch by changing the tension of the string, but it requires a lot less arm strength. And you can fret the string up and down the neck (without having to slide a PVC pipe). Using some scrap wood I had lying around, I made my own version of this, and it’s really a joy to play.

Since Jim Bunch first described his instrument on the Tub-o-tonia Web site, he has made a few modifications (see this discussion for some details). He replaced the metal bottom of the tub with Lauan plywood; for strings, he upgraded from a 3 dollar bike derailleur cable to an upright bass woven-core G string (perhaps 50 dollars). Photos of his instrument reveal that he’s added a headstock with a nut to hold the string a bit off the finger board, and a tuning machine. These somewhat elaborate modifications make sense for him because he plays a lot, and he plays at a pretty high level, as you can see from his Youtube videos.

I’m not trying to perform at Jim Bunch’s level, but I feel his type of washtub bass — with the neck supported on a cross brace — is the best bet for an occasional player like me. After a couple of hours of practice, I’ve gotten good enough that I’ll be able to play in tune on simple songs at a low-key folk music jam session. And that’s all I want.

Addendum: details of my additions to Steve’s washtub bass: I took his washtub, replaced the line (it was rough and worn and hard on my fingers), and added a neck with a Jim Bunch style cross brace. I made the neck out of scrap wood (including a discarded floral tripod that I found in the cemetery’s trash). The string is a new piece of 3/16 inch braided polypropylene rope, which I’ve tuned roughly to D, a good tuning for many simple folk melodies. The string is tied off with figure-eight knots (a stopper knot that’s relatively easy to adjust for tuning). And Steve’s original mop handle and string are untouched, so I can return his instrument to him just the way he gave it to me. The photo below gives an idea of the most important dimension for the Jim Bunch style washtub bass — the distance between the neck and where the string is attached to the washtub.

What it means to be a liberal

In Isaac Asimov’s memoir, I. Asimov, published in 1994, he explained why he was a political liberal:

“I wanted to see the United States changed and made more civilized, more humane, truer to its own proclaimed traditions I wanted to see all Americans judged as individuals and not as stereotypes. I wanted to see all with reasonable opportunities. I wanted society to feel a reasonable concern for the poor, the unemployed, the sick, the aged, the hopeless.”

Then, Asimov surveyed the political landscape over his lifetime:

“I was only thirteen when Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president and introduced the ‘New Deal,’ but I was not too young to get an idea of what he was trying to do. … I disapproved of Roosevelt only when he wasn’t liberal enough, as when, for political reasons, he ignored the plight of African Americans….

“Liberalism began to fade after World War II. Times became prosperous, and many blue collar people … turned conservative. They had theirs and weren’t willing to discommode themselves for those who were still down at the bottom….

“And eventually we came to the Reagan era, when it became de rigeur not to tax but to borrow; to spend money not on social services but on armaments. … Rich Americans grew richer in an atmosphere of deregulation and greed, and poor Americans — But who worries about poor Americans except people branded with the L-word that no one dared mention any more?

“It makes me think of Oliver Goldsmith’s lines:
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

“As a loyal American, I grow heartsick.”

Asimov wrote that a quarter of a century ago, and things have mostly gotten worse since then. Perhaps there have been modest gains in people being judged as individuals and not stereotypes, most notably in the legaization of same sex marriage; but we have also learned from Black Lives Matter and #MeToo that far too many persons are victimized because of their race or sex. But when it comes to “a reasonable concern for the poor, the unemployed, the sick, the aged, the hopeless,” we have arguably regressed since 1994: Bill Clinton eviscerated aid to poor people, George W. Bush spent hundreds of billions of dollars in Iraq while cutting social service spending at home, Barack Obama put more effort into bailing out banks during the Great Recession than helping the poor, and Donald Trump now promotes open contempt of anyone who is not wealthy.

I continue to be a deeply patriotic American, but we are growing less civilized and less humane, and we are departing wildly from our proclaimed traditions. As a loyal American, I grow heartsick.

Happy Independence Day.

Browser privacy

I’m not keen on having anyone know my Web browsing habits; I’ll go into my motivations in the last paragraph of this post. I’ve taken the obvious steps to reduce the risks of being tracked online: using DuckDuckGo in private mode as my primary search engine, and Firefox as my Web browser. But online surveillance is only getting worse, and recently I decided to become more resistant to Web tracking.

I had already enabled private browsing and other privacy and security features in Firefox’s preferences, and I had already installed the Privacy Badger add-on in Firefox. I checked what I had done against a number of online privacy checklists (such as this one). Next step was to change advanced about:config settings based on this list.

Now I was ready to test my browser’s privacy using Panopticlick, an online service of the Electronic Frontier Foundation that checks if your browser is safe against tracking. My browser was blocking ads and invisible trackers, but it was not protecting against fingerprinting. Yikes! fingerprinting made it way too easy to track me online. So I installed the NoScript add-on in Firefox: problem solved. Now my browser runs a little differently from what I was used to, but the inconvenience is minor.

Why should anyone care about their Web browsing privacy? For my part, I don’t want to give my information away to for-profit companies: I don’t need targeted advertisements, and I don’t need them accumulating my data. And, in the increasingly polarized political climate of the U.S., even though a philosophical theologian like me should be reading Karl Marx’s works, or a speech by Fred Hampton, or theology essays by William R. Jones, there’s no reason to let others know about it. In short, I decided to give Big Tech (corporations, the Russians, the “Gummint,” whoever) as little information about myself as possible. You will make your own decision of what to do, from freely giving your browsing data away, to being very privacy-conscious by using something like the Tor browser. I suppose this is really an existential point: you define yourself by how much of your data you give away.

The Great Recession

Geographer Richard A. Walker, in his 2018 book “Portrait of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area,” writes:

“The Great Recession has been calamitous. The official U.S. government designation of a two-year lapse in growth 2008-2010 minimizes the reality….things are worse than that. The Great Recession won’t go away — regardless of the soaring stock market and falling unemployment. By any measure, recovery from the Great Recession was the slowest from any crisis on record, including the Great Depression of the 1930s [emphasis mine]. U.S. productivity remains poor overall, aggregate demand is weak because wages have barely budged, and corporations are not investing with any gusto. Loose talk of full employment by mid-decade ignores the fact that so many Americans have dropped out of the labor force entirely.” (pp. 64-65).

Two conclusions for congregations: (1) Expect fundraising to be an ongoing challenge, since many households have not recovered from the Great Recession. (2) Expect the need for congregationally-based social services such as food pantries and supporting homeless shelters will continue to be robust. In other words, we will have to continue to do more with fewer resources.

“God” and monotheism

I have found the concept of god to be useful, regardless of whether one is a theist or atheist; God as a concept has a long history in Western philosophy, at least as far back as the ancient Greeks. But in order for the concept of god to be useful, you can’t have an anachronistic understanding of god.

These days, a typical anachronistic understanding of god is one where “god” is equated with the God of conservative and traditional Christians. Christian theologians have used many ancient Greek philosophical concepts to build widely varying theologies over the past two thousand years, and while it is usually clear that someone like Aristotle was not a Christian, it’s easy to forget that Aristotle was also not a monotheist.

Yet in his Metaphysics, Aristotle famously refers to the “unmoved mover,” which Western tradition has typically equated with the Christian God. If Aristotle was not a monotheist, what then did he mean by the “unmoved mover”? Amod Lele explains in a post on his blog “Love of All Wisdom”:

“Some translations of Aristotle have him referring to capital-G ‘God,’ but this is misleading. What these translations render as ‘God’ is to theos, literally meaning ‘the god,’ in lowercase in the Greek. The ‘the’ in ‘the god’ is used here in a generic sense, as classical Greek so often does — a universalized singular to represent the plural class of particulars, as when they might make general statements about what ‘the boy’ or ‘the dog’ is likely to do. Plato in the Laws, for example, said ‘Of all animals, the boy is the most unmanageable’; it is a classical Greek idiom that could also be translated ‘Of all animals, boys are the most unmanageable.’ If we were to render to theos as ‘God,’ then this passage should instead be rendered ‘Of all animals, Boy is the most unmanageable.'”

Thus, according to Lele’s reading, when Aristotle speaks of the something that is often translated “God,” what he really means is “the gods.” To say Aristotle was a monotheist would be an anachronistic assertion; Aristotle was clearly a polytheist who acknowledged several gods and goddesses (Zeus, Hera, etc.). Lele, citing Richard Bodeus’ book Aristotle and the Theology of the Living Immortals, writes:

“Aristotle mentions ‘the god,’ the generic term for the plural gods, only as an analogy to help illustrate his point (against Plato) that the unmoved mover has a real presence in the physical world rather than being an abstraction.”

The useful aspect of the concept of god is not so much in metaphysics, but in ethics. How do I lead the best life? In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle suggests that the highest good is contemplation — not contemplation of the Christian god, but perhaps contemplation of the highest good. Lele reads the Nichomachean Ethics in this way:

“…There is a supreme good beyond the finite, but that good is not to reach a final end identified with the goodness of a single god. Rather it is to be godlike, to live the kind of infinite life that the many gods live — and it is quite questionable how achievable Aristotle intends this goal to be for humans.”

What I find most interesting about this discussion is that “god,” in the Western tradition, need not mean the Christian God. (Even if “god” could be equated with the Christian God, Christianity is wildly diverse with so many different understandings of the nature of the Christian God, that you couldn’t assume that “god” meant what the conservative United States Christians of early twenty-first century mean.) Mind you, it may be difficult for many Westerners to think beyond the confines of Christian definitions of God; but doing so can provide access to the philosophical tool kits of Aristotle, Socrates, Heraclitus, Spinoza, and many others.

Plastics pick-up

People are starting to pay increasing attention to the dangers of plastic waste in the environment. I think children and teens are ahead of many adults in their awareness of the dangers of plastic waste — a six year old of my acquaintance asked for her sixth birthday party to be a plastics clean up on the beach. Now admittedly most of the children and teens that I know are from Unitarian Universalist families, so perhaps they are slightly more aware of plastic waste; but I think while many adults have gotten locked into a narrow focus on stopping further global warming, the children and teens I know seem more aware of the many interlocking aspects of looming global environmental disaster: global warming, plastic waste, toxics in the environment, habitat destruction, etc. And the kids I know quickly make the connection between all these problems and human overpopulation.

On the last day of our church’s Ecojustice Camp, we did a clean-up of the campsite where we spent the last night of camp. This was a well-maintained and relatively clean campsite, yet we found quite a bit of plastic waste:

The campers and counselors found on the order of 200 pieces of plastic waste, along with some degradable trash such as paper and metal. That’s a lot of plastic….

Memories

A few years before he died, my father sent me an outline of a talk he gave about his memories of serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps during the Second World War. On this seventy-fifth anniversary of D-Day, here’s an excerpt from that outline, focusing on D-Day:

“Robert Harper: WW 2, My Personal Story

“December 7, 1941: Pearl Harbor attack during my senior year in high school…
February 1943: Received draft notice.
March 1943: Inducted into the Army Air Corp….
April 1943 to Sept 1943: Trained at Radio School at Scott Field, IL, as Radio Operator Mechanic.
October 1943: Assigned to 437th Troop Carrier Group, Fort Bragg, NC. Part of 53rd TC Wing….

February 1944 to March 1945: Stationed at Ramsbury airfield in England. Part of 9th TC Command, assigned from 9th AF to First Allied Airborne Army. I operated High Frequency DF Station to Communicate with and give radio bearings to radio operators on C47 aircraft during supply, evacuation, and airborne invasion missions. Each plane had a Command Radio used by the pilots within range of 50 miles. For longer distances a CW Morse code radio was used by the radio operator on the plane. The airbase HFDF station had been installed by the RAF and was quite accurate. (The American HFDF station we were issued when we moved to France looked more sophisticated but had poor accuracy.)…

Memories:
On D Day counting the planes returning from a mission to see how many were lost. The 437th flew 3 missions that day — twice towing gliders — once dropping paratroopers at St. Mer Iglese. There were many missions in the following days….
Listening to the rasping sound of approaching V-1 bombs waiting for them to either stop or keep going.
A 3 day leave spent in Edinburgh, with a stop in London where a V-2 rocket landed one block away.
Seeing walking wounded brought in by plane after Montgomery’s attempt to take a Rhine bridge….
The courage of the flight crews who knew that one rifle bullet could send a C47 down in flames.
The gross stupidity of the higher commands whose mistakes were compensated for by troops who won in spite of the odds….

Summary
I was incredibly lucky during that war. I did my assigned job, never heard a shot fired in anger, lost some friends, acquired a distaste for the military and war.”

The above is just an outline; presumably Dad added more details during the actual talk. One of the last conversations I had with Dad, a couple of days before he completely lost the ability to speak, was about the Second World War. At that time he said that even though he’d never heard a shot fired in anger, he thought he probably had some level of post-traumatic stress disorder from his service during the war. I tried to ask him then what events might have triggered PTSD, but he had lost enough control over his words that he was no longer able to tell me. It is unfortunate that he waited a little too long to talk about some things, but his generation talked very little about what they experienced during that war.

Bob Harper, 1943

My father’s brother died last night; one of my cousins called me today to let me know. This was not unexpected: my uncle had been in hospice care for a couple of months. He went into skilled nursing a week ago. On Thursday, he was insisting he had to get back to his apartment, so he could use his computer and printer. He was entirely coherent, albeit frustrated, and said, “I have things I have to do.” I am not clear what things he had to do; he was a chemist by profession, an expert on raising fish by way of avocation, and had many other interests besides. In any case, he wasn’t strong enough to return to his apartment, and so those things will remain undone.

My cousin asked me if I knew anyone else who should be notified, but I couldn’t think of anyone. We talked it over, but both of us were sure the last of our fathers’ cousins had died a couple of years ago. “That means you’re the oldest male in the family now,” I said to my cousin, but he had already figured that out.

Speaking for myself, I don’t have any interest in taking on the responsibilities of the oldest generation. I have too many things to do. I fully intend to shirk any oldest generation duties that come my way. That’s pretty much the way my uncle and my father carried on after their parents had died, and I see no reason to do anything differently.

Biomass-burning camp stove, pt. 1

For some time, I’ve been thinking about making a lightweight portable stove that burns biomass instead of fossil fuels. Search the Web, and you’ll turn up lots of plans for such stoves — tin can rocket stoves, Canadian candle stoves, etc. But most of the plans I looked at seemed overly complicated and not particularly elegant. Then I stumbled on a video titled “How To Make a Wood Gasifier Stove”: it showed how to make a stove that was simple, even elegant. So tonight I made one.

The basic principle for the “wood gasifier stove” is the same as for a rocket stove: the solid biomass fuel (wood) burns at the bottom of the stove, with another combustion area higher up where rising gases are enabled to burn further. This is supposed to extract more heat from the fuel, and additionally the more complete combustion should result in less crud going into the air and into your lungs. However, where the rocket stove has been tested for greater efficiency by scientists, I know of no such studies for this design; we’ll just take it on faith that this design is probably more efficient than an open fire.

The biomass-burning stove
The biomass-burning stove with a fire in it

The stove requires two “tin” cans, one larger than the other: I got a 15 oz. can of pears, and a 29 oz. can of peaches. The smaller can, nested inside the larger can, is where you build the fire. Ventilation holes at the bottom of the larger, outer, can line up with ventilation holes at the bottom of the smaller, inner, can. The smaller can also has a row of ventilation holes near the top; this is where additional air is injected so to make rising gases can burn. If you look carefully at this photo of the stove I made, you can see the upper ventilation holes, with jets of flame coming out where the injected air is igniting rising gases.

Upper ventilation holes in the stove
Upper ventilation holes in the lit stove

I completed the basic stove in about an hour (including the time it took to eat the pears). The stove is reasonably practical, particularly for car campers or ordinary backpackers (i.e., not those crazy ultralight backpackers). And the stove is environmentally responsible: it’s made with recyclable materials, and it burns biomass instead of fossil fuels like white gas, butane, or propane. Plus, since it’s homemade, it doesn’t feed consumer consumption; and consumerism is a major contributing cause to the pending global environmental disaster.

I still have to make a potholder, to keep the cooking pot a couple of inches above the flames, where the greatest heat should be — but I have to wait until I eat another can of pears. Once I get the potholder made, I’ll post a photo showing something cooking on the stove (and I’ll add a sketch showing how to make one).