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June 4, 2020

Corpse Plant Blooming for the First Time in a Decade

From Live Science:

Who wants to see a plant that's as tall as a person and reeks of decaying flesh? (Aside from everyone in the Live Science newsroom, that is.)

Amorphophallus titanum, also known as the "corpse plant" for its eye-watering aroma, is native to Sumatra.

But one is blooming right now in New York City at Barnard College's Arthur Ross Greenhouse, for the first time in a decade.

There are few greenhouse visitors these days, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But even if you're socially distancing or live far away from NYC, you can still catch a glimpse of the smelly blossom (and avoid its powerful stink) by tuning in to the greenhouse's livestream right here.

The stream launched on May 27 after the corpse plant began to bloom.

June 4, 2020 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Failure... works" — an appreciation of Henry Petroski


Edward Rothstein explored the nature of success and its antecedents in a penetrating New York Times column, which follows.

Long story short: An old-fashioned push lawn mower and the iPod have much in common.

Form Follows Function. Now Go Out and Cut the Grass.

Failure 101.

That is the nickname of an engineering course Henry Petroski describes in his book, "Success Through Failure: The Paradox of Design."

And if it sounds as if the course (like the book) must be full of self-help advice for engineers, that is partly true.

Failure, Mr. Petroski shows, works.

Or rather, engineers only learn from things that fail: bridges that collapse, software that crashes, spacecraft that explode.

Everything that is designed fails, and everything that fails leads to better design.

Next time at least that mistake won't be made: Aleve won't be packed in child-proof bottles so difficult to open that they stymie the arthritic patients seeking the pills inside; narrow suspension bridges won't be built without "stay cables" like the ill-fated Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which was twisted to its destruction by strong winds in 1940.

Successes have fewer lessons to teach.

This is one reason, Mr. Petroski points out, that there has been a major bridge disaster every 30 years.

Gradually the techniques and knowledge of one generation become taken for granted; premises are no longer scrutinized.

So they are re-applied in ambitious projects by creators who no longer recognize these hidden flaws and assumptions.

Mr. Petroski suggests that 30 years — an implicit marker of generational time — is the period between disasters in many specialized human enterprises, the period between, say, the beginning of manned space travel and the Challenger disaster, or the beginnings of nuclear energy and the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island.

His ideas also lead in other directions.

He quotes Ralph Baer, one of the pioneers in the development of video games, who said that engineers are in the habit of "looking at the world as if everything in it needs fixing."

The engineer strives to eliminate failure.

But the unprecedented success of technology in the last 50 years may have also created an expectation that failure should be anticipated and eliminated in all aspects of life.

This leaves less and less tolerance for its inevitable persistence; very little margin is left for error.

That is understandable in deciding whether bolts or welds should be used in a skyscraper (as became an issue in the Citigroup Tower in New York); large forces hinge on such small decisions.

But that absolutist approach also entails unexpected sacrifices in other aspects of life, particularly when avoidance of failure and accident becomes the guiding principle for future design and behavior.

Because of safety and liability fears, for example, new children's playgrounds never seem to have see-saws or "monkey bars," sacrificing some of the daring enterprise that once accompanied play's inherent risk.

Or a shoe-bomber is found on an airline, and to avoid any possibility of something similar, all air passengers must remove their shoes to be X-rayed.

It is not only generals who fight the last battle; it sometimes seems as if the last war — the last failure — maps out how we assess contemporary success and determine future actions.

So something other than failure must also be a guide.

Consider, as counterpoint to Mr. Petroski, two simple engineering triumphs from widely contrasting eras, each of which has enjoyed considerable popularity.

They are not only aesthetically pleasing but also practical; they are flawed but powerful.

And it is their successes, rather than their failures, that have been crucial.

Their failings have even been accepted as an aspect of their function.

I am thinking of the manual lawn mower and the iPod.

Look at an old lawn mover, with its center of curved rotary blades, turned by pushing on a wooden handle; nothing seems hidden from view.

There is something elegant about this machine.

The mower's turning rubber wheels spin the curved, angled blades.

The length of the grass is determined by adjusting the rotor's height. The mower is a transformation of the scythe and a miniaturization of horse-pulled threshers.

But it had a very specific purpose.

It was not a tool for the farm; it was a tool for the small landowner, the city-dweller with a lawn or the country dweller with a yard.

The mower's flaws are evident: the effort it takes to push it, particularly in wet grass, or the way it tosses the cut leaves of grass back onto the ground.

Those flaws were addressed by electric and gas mowers, but those inventions added other problems: the motor, the noise, the worry over fuel and power cords.

The basic principle was affirmed, not replaced.

And it turns out that the manual mower's flaws were also part of the quiet pleasure it provided (when used in small areas): a direct connection is felt between the physical act of pushing and the physical result of cutting.

The iPod, of course, comes from a drastically different engineering universe, but it too inspires through its successes, not its failures.

Unlike the mower, nothing can be seen of its workings.

All physical effort dissolves into the magic of minimal gestures.

A finger slides along its surface summoning several centuries of music.

The iPod applies the best concepts in electronic design.

Little effort is required to perform any function.

But you are never lost and can glide forward or backward through a catalog of possibilities.

The iPod also has flaws that are constantly being ameliorated, with increased storage and improved speed.

But one reason for this evolution is not its flaws, but that advancing technology makes more things possible.

And its limitations are also its strengths: the iPod... cannot play music for multiple listeners, so it draws other pieces of equipment into its orbit, turning the sound system into an extension of its power.

No doubt [one day] the iPod will seem as limited and clunky as the manual mower, and perhaps as superfluous.

But what accounts for its power and beauty is that, like the lawn mower, it may require some labor to set up and maintain, but it fulfills its function with simplicity and clarity, offering hints of sensual pleasure.

Its flaws mark the necessary limits of every humanly manufactured object or human activity; failure and limitations are ineradicable, even essential.

Mr. Petroski cites an epigram of Epictetus: "Everything has two handles — by one of which it ought to be carried and by the other not."

June 4, 2020 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

How to shelter in place

June 4, 2020 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Valley Curtain — Christo

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Valley Curtain, Rifle Gap, Colorado (above) was created during the years 1970-1972.

This movie about its conception and making

was nominated for an Oscar in 1973.

Christo died this past Sunday at the age of 84.

June 4, 2020 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Slow Watch

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From the website:

One of the most interesting slow round models: Brown leather band, anthracite case, and blue dial.

Features and Details:

• Made in Switzerland

• Swiss GMT quartz movement

• Time can be read as accurate to ±1-2 minutes

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• 40mm anthracite stainless steel case

• Water resistant to 100m

• Vintage Italian leather band

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June 4, 2020 at 08:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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