Country Scribe : Eric Bergeson's Weblog

December 27, 2003

More on northern lights noise

I just checked on the internet, typing in the term "audible aurora borealis." Seems that the discovery I outlined below is recent enough that it hasn't hit the internet yet, for there are webpages galore attempting to explain why northern lights make noise that is simultaneous with their flashes.

Serious scientists postulated the following possibilities:

--Some sort of radio waves react to people's fillings or inner ear.
--The phenomena is purely psychological, even though it shows up in Eskimo lore from centuries past
--The northern lights causes a reaction in spruce needles which makes them rustle
--The matter which burns up in the atmosphere causing the northern lights actually comes down and hits the spruce needles. (Remember, it's all spruce up in Alaska.)

Type in "audible aurora borealis" in Google and read for yourself about the mystery which has apparently been solved in the past few months.

Why we can sometimes hear the northern lights

If you're getting sick of astronomy, just scroll down!

I went out to the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Club's viewing site tonight, about 15 miles west of Tucson in a remote part of the desert. I went there last year as well, and was treated to some good views on the many telescopes. Tonight there were fewer scopes set up; the moon is at 25%, which blocks out a lot of the more remote objects, and scares off the astronomers who don't want to stay up late enough for the moon to set.

I brought my binoculars and was treated to a great view of the Andromeda galaxy, once it was pointed out for me by a man with one of those laser beam flashlights. I practiced finding it several times so that I can find it when I get home. Saturn was wavy tonight, they said, although I thought it looked plenty nice. You couldn't see the gaps in the rings, which is sort of the standard for Saturn viewing.

Astronomers are a nice bunch, always eager to tell you what they know. I spent most of my time tonight at the telescope of a man who is working his way through a particular catalog of 400 sky objects. Tonight, he was hoping to locate and draw sketches of about ten of them. I stayed for two, and then I got cold--the thermometer on his scope said 33 degrees! The man had snowpants on, but I wasn't so well wrapped and got frozen to the bone.

I did see some great views of the Orion Nebula through two separate scopes. One man was hoping to sell his telescope, so I got the pitch. I guess that is a hazard of attending star parties. He showed me several star clusters, some of which I could see through my binoculars as well.

Also saw a galaxy which is facing us directly. The spiral arms are sometimes in view, but tonight the moon's light made the arms of the galaxy difficult to see. Tonight, that galaxy was little more than, to use their term, a "ball of cotton."

Sat in the pickup a while to warm up, and a British man joined me, an astronomy professor. He pointed out that the Big Dipper was rising in the north. In Minnesota, the Big Dipper never sets, but here it sinks below the horizon. The term for such phenomena is circumpolar, meaning that in Minnesota the Big Dipper is circumpolar while in Arizona it is not. In Minnesota, because we are so far north, there is a larger circle of stars which never sets than there is here in Arizona.

You almost never see northern lights in Arizona, so I bragged up our views of aurora borealis up north, and added that I had once actually heard them.

Well, one astonomer said, what time of year was it? Were there leaves on the ground? I said I didn't remember.

So, he taught me something new: Meteorites also were known to make noise when they fall, a sort of buzzing or rustling. However, astronomers could never record or measure the sound when they aimed dishes at the meteorites--they really wondered if it was real.

To make matters more strange, the noise made by a falling meteor was instant--it sounded right when the meteor streaked through the sky. Impossible. Sound travels slowly--even a lightning bolt one mile away makes thunder which sounds several seconds later. A meteorite can be 100s of miles away--there is simply no way the sound could travel that fast. So, the sound must be an illusion, they thought, perhaps a case of wishful thinking.

However, somebody noticed that falling stars only made noise when there were fallen leaves on the ground. Turns out, meteors emit a particular low frequency radio wave. That same somebody put two and two together, hauled a pile of leaves into a laboratory and bombarded them with this particular frequency of radio waves. Sure enough, there was a measurable, audible rustling! Mystery solved.

Turns out, my memory of the noise made by northern lights was that the buzzing was simultaneous with the flashes of light. I never thought at the time about sound traveling too slow for it to come directly from high in the atmosphere. My experience hearing the northern lights, therefore, must have been on a still night in the fall when there were dry leaves on the ground.

Uffda, the crazy things we can learn.

Reagan's letters

Ronald Reagan’s son Ron once told an interviewer: “Don’t think you’re ever going to figure out my Dad. You won’t.”

A recently published collection of handwritten letters penned by Reagan during his eight years in office only adds to the confusion. Any facile, easy explanation of Reagan’s personality and leadership style seems doomed by whatever new evidence leaks out.

To me, Reagan is one of the most fascinating 20th century American political figures. I have been intrigued by the man ever since I first heard his voice on the radio in the summer of 1975 or so. My politics have bounced all over the map in the intervening three decades, but I have always admired Reagan’s abilities, and still find any book about the man to be irresistible.

Reagan wrote 3500 handwritten letters during his time in office. They were later typed up by secretaries, but were not altered by staff as were the letters in his official correspondence. They were written to anyone from heads-of-state to his friend Rudolph, an inner city black child.

Reagan kept up with Rudolph throughout his term. He encouraged him on science projects. They exchanged books. Reagan visited Rudolph’s home, and Rudolph and his mother visited the White House more than once.

Several of Reagan’s letters went to the conservative activists who supported him, many of whom became disaffected by Reagan’s apparent abandoment of conservative principles once he attained office. Reagan patiently reminded him of the realities of power, realities which required frequent compromise.

In one letter, however, Reagan lost his patience and blasted a conservative editor for writing what he thought was the most unfair piece of journalism he had ever read.

Reagan was dumb like a fox. His apparent aloofness from details was, I am convinced, a ruse. His letters reveal that he knew what was going on, in great detail. But he, like Eisenhower before him, also knew the value of appearing detached, even a little lost. As Ike said to his aides before heading out to a press conference, “Don’t worry, I’ll confuse ‘em.”

An example: during Reagan’s term, the Soviets shot down a civilian airliner, flight KAL 007. It was an atrocity unprecedented in the Cold War. There were immediate cries for retaliation from all corners.

When the airliner went down, Reagan was at his ranch in California. His staff insisted he get back to Washington to deal with the “crisis.” Reagan seemed irritated. He got on Air Force 1 reluctantly, and was in a bad mood the whole flight, a bit edgy with his staff as they briefed him about all the possible methods of retaliation. They assumed he was angry because his vacation was interrupted.

Back in Washington, Reagan met with his national security staff. The meeting stretched on for hours as each official proposed a method of retaliating against the Soviets. The Joint Chiefs of Staff proposed military action. Others proposed sanctions.

When everyone had expended their air, Reagan, who hadn’t asked a single question or made a single statement during the meeting, got up from his chair and said, “Gentlemen, we aren’t going to do a damn thing.”

In fact, Reagan probably knew his response when he first heard the news back at the ranch. Shooting down a commercial airliner was such an outrage that Reagan knew the loss of credibility to the Soviets throughout the world would be ample punishment. He also knew he couldn’t say that out loud, so he didn’t. He knew he had to march through the hoops, and that is what irritated him.

So, even after the national security meeting, he allowed his aides, including his Secretary of State George Shultz, to fulminate and threaten in public. They did so quite convincingly because they really didn’t believe Reagan meant what he said. He couldn’t have!

In the end, nothing was done. The damage to Soviet credibility was severe. And the threat of what Reagan might do was far worse than anything he actually could do. It’s easier to keep the peace when the world is convinced you are a warmonger. It helped that Reagan’s own aides were convinced that his response would be severe, and Reagan knew that, too. So he let them carry on, even though he knew he would do nothing from the first moment.

Reagan’s command of the entire scene escaped even his closest aides. George Shultz in particular, as well as Alexander Haig, both very experienced in foreign affairs, didn’t really understand Reagan’s approach until after they left office, at which time, if their subsequent books are any indication, their bafflement was replaced by admiration.

Well, this story is peripheral to the book in question. If you get a chance, Reagan’s letters make for fascinating reading. I read the whole thing in a day, before giving the book away for Christmas.

December 26, 2003

Snow in the mountains

Cold and rainy in Tucson this morning. A low-pressure system from the Pacific overwhelmed the arid desert air, but only briefly. Now, only three hours after it was overcast, cold and drizzling, it is clear and in the mid-60s.

When the clouds lifted, they revealed snow-covered mountains to the north of Tucson. The snow adds depth to the mountain views; you can finally tell from the desert floor how high the distant mountains are in relation to the closer, smaller mountains. Without snow, they look all the same.

Yesterday I drove east on one of Tucson's main drags until it ended. A parking lot and a trailhead mark the end of most of Tucson's big streets, and East Broadway was no exception. Over the space of 12 miles, the street narrowed from six lanes, to four, to two, and finally ended with a dead end and a parking lot. I took a walk in a quiet portion of the desert and listened to the birds. I took the binoculars along and had good views of the mountains. It was Christmas day, so many cars snaked up and down the switchbacks, filled with people getting out of the house for a drive. I could see roads, hikers and horseback riders with the binoculars which were invisible to the naked eye. I felt like a spy.

There is a bird in the desert with a beautiful call, sort of a quick "tweeptweeeep," a little like a sharp wolf-whistle. I had never seen the actual bird until I caught one in the binoculars yesterday, on the arm of a big saguaro. Big chirp, little bird.

There are doves everywhere in Tucson. Their wings whistle when they take off. No mourning doves yet, however. It seems they arrive in droves in mid-January, and then their hollow, nostalgic coo permeates the early evening air.

I have yet to hear the coyotes screaming in the middle of the night. I must be too far into town. They sure make a ruckus, usually at about 11:30 p.m. And I have yet to see a roadrunner this trip. The strut of a real roadrunner is as comic as the cartoon. Boy, can they move.

December 25, 2003

Baseball on Christmas Eve

Turned on the TV last night and found Tim Russert interviewing four Hall of Fame catchers on CNBC. It was a fun hour of television. Yogi Berra was joined by Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk and Gary Carter.

Fisk is one of my favorites. He is a patrician. He played baseball like George Washington rode a horse, with a regal air. They called him the "human rain delay." Every game Fisk caught took on the feeling of a slow processional. In fact, research shows that games caught by Fisk took, on average, twenty minutes longer to complete than the average game.

Well, Fisk talks the same way as he played. Slow. Deliberate. Dignified. His big hobby is collecting orchids. I don't know much about orchids, but I do know they require patience.

Catchers are egotists, so there was quite a good-natured battle for the floor. Yogi, the least egotistical of the four, didn't get much chance to talk. How unfortunate, given his many contributions to the American language.

Bench often punctured the balloons, including his own, with a one-liner at just the right time. All four agreed that most pitchers are completely stupid, and they gave examples to back it up. Bench made an illuminating comment when he said "If I knew I could get the next guy out, I wouldn't mind walking the guy who's up." He said it as if he were the pitcher, but he was just calling the pitches.

Fisk talked about one pitcher who told him in the dugout, "I just can't get into it today." Fisk gave him an immediate backhand across the face, and made some comment about pitchers work only once every five days, they'd better be able to get into it.

Gary Carter was a good catcher, but his bubbly personality grated on nearly everybody during his playing days. He was a smiley, enthusiastic sort, kind of a car salesman. Just too sugary to be a catcher. So sugary, in fact, that he almost didn't get into the Hall of Fame, despite his stellar statistics. He just didn't seem like a Hall of Fame catcher. He didn't last night either. His comments were tolerated by the other three, but he clearly wasn't a member of their fraternity.

Russert asked Fisk to tell the story about the time he fought with Deion Sanders. Sanders, who also played football, had a big contract with the Yanks, but never really understood baseball. He irked people by drawing a dollar sign in the dirt before he stepped in the batter's box.

Once when Fisk was catching for the Red Sox, Sanders stepped in the box for the Yanks, popped the ball up to the infield and just stood in the batter's box and watched the ball before walking back to the dugout. Fisk took umbrage and told Sanders, "run the ball out, you stupid ****."

Next time Sanders came bat, he drew his dollar sign, popped the ball up, and again didn't run the ball out. Fisk lost it. It is probably the only time in baseball history when a player punched out a member of the opposing team for not playing hard enough. The terms "honor" and "respect for the game" popped up several times in Fisk's angry diatribe against Sanders last night. One has to admire that. Bench piped up, "You're right, man, but calm down!" Fisk laughed.

Carter, Fisk and Bench all broke over 20 bones in the course of their career behind the plate. Yogi didn't mention his injuries, except when Russert asked him what happened the time he got hit in the nose. "It broke!" Yogi replied.

They replayed a grainy black and white clip of Jackie Robinson stealing home against the Yanks in the 1955 World Series. The umpire called Robinson safe and Yogi went nuts. Yogi says to this day that Robinson was out. Could be--there's no more difficult play for the home plate umpire to call than a steal of home. He has to call the pitch a strike or a ball only to have a blur plow across the plate a split second later which he has to call safe or out whether he knew it was coming or not.

I was on the edge of my chair the entire hour. When the camera panned the audience, it was obvious they were rapt as well. There's something about baseball stories told by the great ones which grabs hold of people.

Spaetzels for Christmas

To the extent that we have family traditions at Christmas, one has been to eat German food. My mother is all German, so we often have ribs, sauerkraut and spaetzels (boiled bits of dough). However, since Mom, Dad and I are in Tucson, they took me out to a German restaurant for our Christmas Eve meal. The spaetzels were delicious.

We opened a few gifts ahead of time. We all have enough, so our gifts are small and fun. Mom gave me a bottle of horseradish sauce in response to my recent love for that delicacy. Also a gift card for Barnes and Noble--always a good thing. And some candy. Amongst other things, Dad gave me a pair of butter knives carved from poplar wood that he picked up at a local Nordic festival. I have a thing for poplar wood. It is the most prevalent wood in northern Minnesota, and it has a beautiful grain, but it is seldom used in construction.

After we went out to eat, I got out the binoculars and we looked at the stars for a bit. Mom and Dad's apartment is on the north edge of Tucson where the sky is darker. We saw a few nice things, but it is clear that I need to continue to study the sky if I am to give adequate tours.

December 24, 2003

Christmas spirit in Tucson

When I have gone out and about in Tucson, there are, despite the lack of snow and cold, signs that the Christmas season is on. Lots of inflatable snowmen. Lots of lights wrapped around the trunks of palm trees. Lots of Salvation Army bell ringers.

Speaking of which, it was touching as I walked into Target yesterday to see a blind woman digging in her purse to get out a dollar to put in the Salvation Army pail. The pail was already stuffed to overflowing with bills. I sort of felt sheepish putting in my pocket change.

The overworked clerks remain cheerful and kind. A clerk at one Circle K, the local equivalent of 7-11, was showing off a beautiful glass sculpture she received as a Christmas gift from a customer. I have noticed at other Circle K's on other visits that once you get to be a regular, they recognize you and treat you well.

In one residential section of Tucson, a place called Winterhaven (or something close to that), the residents put on a Christmas lighting contest each year which is so over the top that it draws people from all over the city. Two evenings ago, I was caught in a mile-long traffic jam on the side street I used in hopes of avoiding a mile-long traffic jam. This traffic jam was created by people attempting to drive through Winterhaven. Two policemen directed traffic into the development.

The big grocery chain in Tucson is called Fry's. On the first trip to the store each year they give you one of those member cards, in this case a "Fry's card," which qualifies you for various discounts. Sort of a hokey promotion, but it made for a nice little scene at the checkout yesterday. Seems nobody had their Fry's card along. The store doesn't care if you use your card or somebody else's, so two checkout lines were halted until a customer with a card was hunted down. That customer was a somewhat crabby looking young tough, but it was obvious he got a kick out of having a half-dozen people use his Fry's card. He kept it out in case anybody else needed it.

I hate to act shocked at evidence of friendly people in the city, but such evidence is always reassuring. At the same time, you hear of a gruesome murder of a child in the rough part of town who was unfortunate enough to witness a drug deal, and you know that all is not honky dory in this part of the world. You really have to keep up the effort to find the best in people or you'll be driven to despair by the worst.

December 23, 2003


Reader JW in British Columbia wrote to remind me of Bill Lee, a former pitcher for the Boston Red Sox and Montreal Expos, who is, she says, her favorite "jockmouth." His most famous announcement was that he mixed marijuana in his pancake batter every morning.

Reggie Jackson was notorious. "I am the straw that stirs the drink," was his most famous quote. He backed his statements up on the field. Every one of his at bats was a major production. He could strike out--he did so thousands of times, in fact--but did so with such style and flair that watching him swing and miss was as much fun as seeing him hit the ball a ton.

Satchel Paige was probably the greatest pitcher who ever lived. But he was a wordsmith, too. "Don't look back, somethin might be gainin on you," was his most famous quote, but he has a book full of them. I went into Barnes and Noble today to find his book, but got caught reading another book which I won't name since I am giving it as a gift to somebody who reads this weblog!

Dizzy Dean went into broadcasting after his pitching career was ended at age 30 by a broken toe that healed wrong. The past tense of think was "thunk" to Dizzy. Past tense of slide? "Slud." Once he was so critical of the pitchers on the field for the St. Louis Browns (the team for which he did play-by-play) that their wives banded together and said if you're so smart, why don't you go out there and pitch?

The Browns management, eager to pump up attendance, brought old Dizzy out of retirement for one game, the last of the season. He hadn't thrown a ball in six years. He shut out the White Sox for four innings, got a base hit in his only at bat, and then pulled a hamstring, finally ending his career for good.

The attendance that day in St. Louis? Sixteen thousand. Doesn't sound like much, but considering that the game the day before drew 350 people, the promotion was a success.

Cell phone etiquette, or lack thereof

Just spent a couple of hours reading at Barnes and Noble. I was lucky to find a chair, as the store was jammed.

Several times while I was reading, I was party to loud cell phone conversations. Personal ones. "Listen, this is what you always say, and I'm getting a little tired of it." That sort of thing. Tough to ignore. There were nice conversations, too. Once I heard over the din of the store a loud, "I love you, too!" You know that person was on a phone.

On the way to Barnes and Noble, I spotted at least a half a dozen drivers navigating the horrendous traffic with a cell phone glued to their ear. Research has shown that talking on a cell phone effects your driving about as much as several beers. So, it's hazardous out there.

A friend in the communications field reports, however, that the danger of talking on the phone while driving depends entirely upon what is being discussed, according to a recent study. If you are arguing, the chance of an accident goes way up. Idle chatter is pretty safe. I still think talking on the phone while driving should be banned, however.

The last few musical performances I have attended have all been preceded by an announcement requesting that all cell phones be turned off. The announcements worked. Apparently people are catching on that it is rude to allow your phone to ring in certain public settings, at least.

Last night, I ate supper at a little Mexican place. Two working guys were sitting across from me. One had his phone right on the table, and took four calls during their meal. His poor friend had a story to tell him but never got beyond the first sentence. The phone just kept ringing, and the his "friend" never once showed any inclination to cut the phone conversation short out of consideration for the fact that he was eating a meal and talking to somebody who was actually in the room.

Teenagers at the mall sit around the fountain in groups, as they always have, but now they stare into the screen of their cell phone as if winning lottery numbers are due to show up any moment.

I am starting to think that people who are ashamed to be alone in public--and there are a lot of them, it seems--use their cell phone as a sort of surrogate companion. They pull out their cell phone every couple of minutes or so, stare at the screen and act dramatic and important. Better than looking like you are utterly alone, for people who do things alone are wierd.

Cell phones have created another new form of rudeness, or what could be percieved as rudeness: it is understood now, it seems, that if the signal fades and the call gets cut off, you don't really need to try to call the person again later to close the call off in a polite fashion. It is understood that the signal was cut off, and nobody gets too upset.

People wonder why Dru Sjodin's boyfriend wasn't more worried when her call was cut off. (For one thing, she did not say "oh my God!" as was reported in the papers for over two weeks following her abduction.) Well, having calls cut off is so common that it is no longer a source for alarm.

Some weeks ago, I reported that a phone call with my Great Aunt Olla was cut off. I jumped in my pickup and drove 20 miles to see if she was all right. She was. But Olla has no cell phone. In the case of Dru, however, her boyfriend had no reason to suspect anything was remiss. If my experience is any indicator, they had probably gotten cut off like that several times that week.

Keaton and Roberts, cont.

Well, I was wrong on Julia Roberts--she was raised in rural Georgia, not the Midwest. I have been to rural Georgia and found the people there very sweet and gracious, consistent with Roberts' on-screen persona.

However, Diane Keaton was raised in Los Angeles and then moved to New York where she was, of all things, romantically involved with Woody Allen. Yuck. He was yucky even before he started dating his children. She eventually moved on to Warren Beatty. More yuck. So, her judgement in real life romance is as bad as it was in the movie "Something's Gotta Give." I guess I see in Keaton somebody who was a child of the 1960s and was oh-so-liberated, yet it is obvious to everybody but herself that all she really wants, despite her liberated ideals, is for some neanderthal to club her over the head and take her back to his cave. She can never acknowledge the contradiction, so her life is spent in endless coffee chats with fellow baby-boomers pondering their mysterious selves, attempting to justify their primal romantic urges in psychobabble terms. "I dunno, maybe its just that I like the sort of man who..." Oh, shut up.

Mona Lisa's Smile

What a fun movie! Julia Roberts stars as a rookie art history professor from the west coast who lands a job at snobby Wellesly College in 1953. It is the typical bohemian-teacher-wins-over-uptight-students story line, but it works.

While poking not-so-gentle fun at the 1950s, the movie also presents the best of the 50s: the music. The score is filled with chestnuts from the era, including Nat King Cole's "Mona Lisa," but also has some very well done classical choir numbers performed in the college chapel. Music can make a movie.

I don't attend many movies, and I don't think I have ever seen Julia Roberts before. She's a charmer. Just as there was something about Diane Keaton in "Something's Gotta Give" that irritated me completely, there is something about Julia Roberts in "Mona Lisa's Smile" that won me over. I don't know anything about her history, but I suspect she is from the Midwest. And I suspect that Diane Keaton is not. My preference for Roberts might be nothing more than regional prejudice. It didn't hurt that the Roberts movie poked fun at the east coast elite while the Keaton flick never went beyond the Hamptons (the beachfront playground for Manhattan's rich) in its assumptions.

If you go to this movie, stay in your seats while the credits roll. The last song will go round in your head for the next day. At least it has in mine.

December 22, 2003

Tucson's landscape

Those who haven't been to the Arizona desert might imagine it to be barren. It is anything but. Not only are there 2600 varieties of cactus in the area surrounding Tucson, but there are many trees as well. Green Valley is a city south of Tucson, and one might think that an odd name for a city in the desert. However, when one looks over this area from above, it is green, thanks to trees which hang onto their leaves throughout the winter and to the ubiquitous Palo Verde tree, which has a rich green bark which carries on photosynthesis even after the tree loses its leaves.

There is not a single variety of plant here that is similar to what we have in Minnesota. Even the grass is different, what there is of it. Tucson has very little grass; Phoenix, which has a better water supply and allows more irrigation, has many patches of green. However, the desert vegetation is richer in Tucson than it is in Phoenix.

Tucson has a different feel than Phoenix, both due to the difference in vegetation and to the difference in urban planning. Phoenix features a grid of freeways which cover an enormous expanse. Tucson has one freeway running through the middle of town. So, to get from one place to another in Tucson, you must drive through neighborhood after neighborhood. At first, it seems slow and cumbersome. Once you get used to it, using side streets is far superior to cruising at 70 mph on the antiseptic stretches of freeway. You find many little treasures on the side streets of Tucson. Funky shops. Non-chain restaurants, most of them Mexican.

When you go out to a mall in Phoenix, it is possible to believe you are at West Acres in Fargo. Refugees from the midwest are everywhere. In Tucson, you have the feeling that the locals predominate. I seldom see obvious snowbirds, although I know they are here.

Oddly, Tucsonites view their city as small, although it is approaching one million population. When I told a native the other day that I lived in a small town in Minnesota, he said, "smaller than Tucson?"