Monday, 14 August 2017

Toomas Karmo: Prof. Robert F. Garrison Remembered (1936-05-09/2017-08-13)

From left: the late Prof. Robert F. Garrison (University of Toronto Dept of Astronomy and Astrophysics; RASC President, 2000-2002), Prof. Rajiv Gupta RASC President, 2002-2004), Prof. John Percy (University of Toronto Dept. of Astronomy and Astrophysics; RASC President, 1978-1980), and Mr James Edgar (RASC President, 2014-2016), at the banquet for the 2003  National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Awards for Science Promotion. Details, with a listing of all the 2003 recipients - RASC was one of five that year - are at http://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/Prizes-Prix/SciencePromotion-PromotionScience/Past-Anciens_eng.asp?Year=2003. RASC's own reminiscences of the intricate application process are  at https://www.rasc.ca/sites/default/files/jrasc2004-02.pdf (in a joint Percy-Edgar article, typeset at pp. 42 ff). Mr Edgar, who kindly e-mailed me the photograph this week upon learning of our mutual loss, has also kindly agreed to my uploading it here. He recalls that Prof. Garrison, mindful of Mr Edgar's four decades of service with a Crown corporation, the Canadian National Railway Company, had recommended Mr Edgar's attending in a locomotive-engineer overall. (Mr Edgar was active both in locomotive operations and in personnel classroom instruction.) In the event, however, Mr Edgar judged it prudent to imitate his colleagues in looking less Crown-Corporation practical than desk-federal. 
Quality assessment:

On the 5-point scale current in Estonia, and surely in nearby nations, and familiar to observers of the academic arrangements of the late, unlamented, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (applying the easy and lax standards Kmo deploys in his grubby imaginary "Aleksandr Stepanovitsh Popovi nimeline sangarliku raadio instituut" (the "Alexandr Stepanovitch Popov Institute of Heroic Radio") and his  grubby imaginary "Nikolai Ivanovitsh Lobatshevski nimeline sotsalitsliku matemaatika instituut" (the "Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky Institute of Socialist Mathematics") - where, on the lax and easy grading philosophy of the twin Institutes, 1/5 is "epic fail", 2/5 is "failure not so disastrous as to be epic", 3/5 is "mediocre pass", 4/5 is "good", and 5/5 is "excellent"): 4/5. Justification: There was enough time to write out the  necessary points to reasonable length.


Revision history:
 
All times in these blog "revision histories" are stated in UTC (Universal Coordinated Time/ Temps Universel Coordoné,  a precisification of the old GMT, or "Greenwich Mean Time"), in the ISO-prescribed YYYYMMDDThhmmZ timestamping format. UTC currently leads Toronto civil time by 4 hours and currently lags Tallinn civil time by 3 hours.
  • 20170819T023123Z/version 3.4.0: Kmo found himself able, on the strength of his already existing notes, to add exact birthdate to posting title.  Kmo reserved the right to make minor, nonsubstantive, purely cosmetic, tweaks over the coming 48 hours, as here-undocumented versions 3.4.1, 3.4.2, 3.4.3, ... . 
  • 20170817T1620Z/version 3.3.0: Kmo added information on the HD21699-project observing run at DDO, on the MK classification system (adding conceptual remarks on the more general "MK Process"), and on membership headcount at the Royal Astronomical Association of New Zealand and the Verein der Strenfreunde. He reserved the right to make minor, nonsubstantive, purely cosmetic, tweaks over the coming 48 hours, as here-undocumented versions 3.3.1, 3.3.2, 3.3.3, ... . 
  • 20170815T2332Z/version 3.2.0: Kmo made some small corrections (most notably changing the RASC membership estimate from 4600 to 5100). He reserved the right to make minor, nonsubstantive, purely cosmetic, tweaks over the coming 48 hours, as here-undocumented versions 3.2.1, 3.2.2, 3.2.3, ... . 
  • 20170815T2116Z/version 3.1.0: Kmo repaired a couple of broken hyperlinks and added an account of Prof. Garrison's UTSO contribution. He reserved the right to make minor, nonsubstantive, purely cosmetic, tweaks over the coming 48 hours, as here-undocumented versions 3.1.1, 3.1.2, 3.1.3, ... . 
  • 20170815T2000Z/version 3.0.0: Kmo finished generated a coherent full-sentences essay. He reserved the right to make minor, nonsubstantive, purely cosmetic, tweaks over the coming 48 hours, as here-undocumented versions 3.0.1, 3.0.2, 3.0.3, ... . 
  • 20170815T1507Z/version 2.1.0: Kmo added to the outline some remarks on RASC. He hoped to finish generating a coherent full-sentences essay by 20170815T1800Z or 20170815T20000Z or so.
  • 20170815T0306Z/version 2.0.0: Kmo was able to improve the outline, bringing it to a nearly final state. He realized to his grief that he would be able to finish converting it into a coherent full-sentences essay only later, perhaps around 20170815T1800Z.
  • 20170815T0036Z/version 1.0.0: Kmo had time to upload just a rough outline. He hoped to finish converting this into a coherent full-sentences essay at some point in the next 4 hours.
[CAUTION: A bug in the blogger server-side software has in some past months shown a propensity to insert inappropriate whitespace at some points in some of my posted essays. If a screen seems to end in empty space, keep scrolling down. The end of the posting is not reached until the usual blogger "Posted by Toomas (Tom) Karmo at" appears. - The blogger software has also shown a propensity, at any rate when coupled with my erstwhile, out-of-date, Web-authoring uploading browser, to generate HTML that gets formatted in different ways on different downloading browsers. Some downloading browsers have sometimes perhaps not correctly read in the entirety of the "Cascading Style Sheets"  (CSS) which on all ordinary Web servers control the browser placement of margins, sidebars, and the like. If you suspect CSS problems in your particular browser, be patient: it is probable that while some content has been shoved into some odd place (for instance, down to the bottom of your browser, where it ought to appear in the right-hand margin), all the server content has been pushed down into your browser in some place or other. - Finally, there may be blogger vagaries, outside my control, in font sizing or interlinear spacing or right-margin justification. - Anyone inclined to help with trouble-shooting, or to offer other kinds of technical advice, is welcome to write me via Toomas.Karmo@gmail.com.]


Sad news from the University of Toronto has to be addressed this week. The news obliges me to defer to next week the plan I had previously had, namely to upload now a further installment of my long essay in the analytical philosophy of perception and action.

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Just before UTC=20170813T1400Z, Prof. Robert F. Garrison passed away peacefully at his Toronto home, aged 81, with much of his family near. Prof. Garrison had qualified doctorally at Chicago in 1966. He had taken up an appointment at the University of Toronto in 1968, being at his death fifteen or so years into his retirement.

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I began working with Prof. Garrison in the University of Toronto academic year 1998/1999, as his fourth-year project supervisee. We studied the hot, helium-weak star HD21699, finding a schizoid spectral-classification profile (but not publishing our findings). Furnished by Prof. Garrison with the necessary DDO (David Dunlap Observatory) visitor privileges, I took spectrograms of HD21699 at the usual Morgan-Kennan passband (in the blue end of the spectrum), and at probably three other wavelength passbands, out to near-IR. I also took for each passband the necessary grid of MK comparison spectrograms. In later years, I served Prof. Garrison as a research assistant, in a combination of unpaid and NSERC-financed work, with much dome attendance - at that stage still in the DDO-visitor "Observer" rather than in the DDO "Telescope Operator" slot.


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Prof. Garrison had a gift which I have also noticed in one or two others. He was capable of causing things to go well in the lives of the people around him, almost unreflectively and unconsciously. I wish to focus on this special gift first, taking an illustration from outside astronomy. 

When I was volunteering on an Estonian-language book project around 1998 or 2000 or 2002, Prof. Garrison, while himself lacking Estonian (he had Spanish, and perhaps by-then-rusted Russian) happened during some European travels to get into conversation (in English? in Russian? in Russlish?) with an elderly Estonian engineer. The engineer turned out to have been one of the half-dozen people mainly responsible for the revival of heavy industry in Soviet-occupied Estonia in 1946 or 1945 or late 1944. (As I recall the story, the engineer, having found a zackelfleim reciprocating narrow-bore zinklefleimer, or something of the kind, either in smashed-up Tallinn or within feasible reach of smashed-up Tallinn, said to himself, "Well, fine; using this tool, we can make the other necessary tools.") Prof. Garrison, effecting a kind of introduction-by-letter, brought the engineer and me into Estonian-language contact, to the benefit of the eventual book content. It all happened so casually, with Prof. Garrison seemingly having to do so little.

****

The fragility of scientific traditions is perhaps not always appreciated.  In theory, everything important gets written up in the peer-reviewed journals, allowing the new generations of workers to educate themselves in a given scientific tradition simply through reading. In reality, however, active interpersonal, intergenerational, contact is needed, so that the younger workers know not only what to read at what level of diligence, but also what questions have not been adequately covered. Such discussions may on occasion reveal even lurking, underadvertised, mathematical or philosophical-conceptual problems, liable eventually to call for the abandonment of an entire entrenched scientific paradigm. 

In science as at Scotland Yard, large issues can turn on minutiae. A foundational tool in astrophysics is the two-dimensional Morgan-Keenan stellar classification scheme, with its seven principal O, B, F, G, K, M (or nowadays ten principal - O, B, A, F, G, K, M, L, T, Y - "oh be a fine gymnast, kiss me like this, yowee") "temperature types" on the one axis and its six principal VI, V, IV, III, II, I "luminosity classes" on the other. It is easy for this taxonomic grid to be misunderstood and misapplied. One might even fear some gradual, unnoticed, drift in the scheme - akin to inflation in economics, or to a conceivable shift in legal doctrine as one aging generation of court judges and law-school lecturers retires in favour of another. Prof. Garrison, mindful of the potential intergenerational problem, dedicated a significant part of his career to securing the nuts-and-bolts stability of the MK scheme, at all points mindful of its empirical basis in the "ostensive definitions" dear to Wittgensteinean analytical philosophers. He stressed in his teaching and writing that more fundamental than the grid itself is the subject-neutral "MK Process", which involves anchoring each of the grid-bin definitions in carefully selected physical ostensive-definition specimens. (Where the subject becomes astronomy, the specimens become the carefully selected specimen stars.) He stressed that keeping the grid empirically anchored, and therefore as free as possible from theoretical assumptions, would maximize its utility as a tool for ultimate use by theorists. (And even within the domain of empirical phenomenology, as opposed to astrophysical theory, he liked a wonderfully vivid word, "confrontation": we are already obliged, he said, to inspect, at the humble level of phenomenology the "confrontation" between (a) the empirical MK spectroscopy classification of a lone star, or again of some stellar population like a cluster, with (b) the empirical classification entailed for the lone star or the stellar population by one or the other of the available systems of photometry - at it might be, the Morgan-Johnson-originated UBVRI, or again the Fernie-et al. DDO System, or again Strömgren-Crawford  uvbyβ.)  

It was in fact characteristic of the somewhat self-effacing Prof. Garrison that he should have devoted so much of his working life to a task so far from the scientific headlines, in other words so lacking in glamour. Prof. Garrison was well positioned to take up his self-chosen (and rather thankless) burden, having from his 1960s graduate-school Yerkes Observatory connection onward worked both with Morgan  (William Wilson Morgan, 1906-1994) and with Keenan (Philip Childs Keenan, 1908-2000). His torch, or burden, would now seem to have passed into safe hands. Two of his students, Fr Chris Corbally (Ph.D. from University of Toronto, perhaps 1983) and Prof. Richard Gray (Ph.D. from University of Toronto, perhaps 1986) have written the currently authoritative book on the Morgan-Kennan formalism (Gray and Corbally, Stellar Spectral Classification (Princeton, 2009)). They are in their turn serving in the training, administration, and mentoring of an upcoming generation.


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It is appropriate to quote almost all of Prof. Garrison's own research description, which he and I constructed together a dozen or so years ago for his http://www.astro.utoronto.ca/~garrison/. I leave out only some minor remarks on one of his books, and a brief reference to his collaboration with the already-mentioned Gray and Corbally: 

The primary aims of my research are investigation of the spiral structure of the Milky Way Galaxy, analysis of the stellar content of star clusters and galaxy nuclei, and the discovery and description of peculiar and variable stars. Most astronomers use, in some way, the fundamental information provided by the classification of stellar spectra. Spectral classification is an extremely powerful tool for describing the important astrophysical characteristics of stars and stellar systems. The MK System, developed by Morgan and Keenan, is virtually the only one used today, and Toronto is a major centre for research in this field.

The general thrust of my work has been the development and maintenance of a centre in the field of MK spectral classification at the David Dunlap Observatory (DDO). To this end, 6 classification-dispersion (100 Ångström/mm) spectrographs have been built and placed at various facilities around the world, including DDO, the recommissioned El Leoncito (Argentina) former 60-cm UTSO (Chile) telescope, and the Mexican National Observatory in Baja California. These spectrographs are being used for taking spectra of many types of stars for fundamental work on the classification system itself and for surveys using the system.

Research initiatives now essentially completed by me and my associates include


  • using the CCD spectrograph in Chile for carefully translating the MK System of stellar classification from the photographic to the digital dialect
  • developing and testing computerized pattern-recognition techniques for automated classification of large numbers of stars, with M. Kurtz (Center for Astrophysics, Harvard) and J. LaSala (University of Southern Maine)

Research initiatives actively pursued by me and my associates include


  • extending the MK classification process to the ultraviolet, red, and infrared wavelength regions
  • surveying the nearby stars ("NStars") closer than 47 parsecs and of spectral types earlier than M0
  • defining a hierarchy of standards, in a framework comprising anchor points, primary standards, secondary standards, and peculiar-star prototypes

Maintenance and refinement of the MK System is an ongoing process for a few, needed to keep the system useful for others. Many of the pitfalls of dealing with digital data have been discovered and recently accommodated within the system, with the result that the classification process is fundamentally and dramatically improved. Our emphasis has now shifted to data and results: I and my associates are working on several papers using reconnaissance techniques for discovery and investigation of interesting peculiar stars.

/.../

Because I am one of the principal workers in the field of MK spectral classification, I often get requests for MK types from my own spectra, or for information on types in the literature. I have a very extensive collection of stellar spectra (comprising photographic and digital spectra of about 10,000 stars, of which 5,000 have been published) as well as a catalogue of MK types. This computerized catalogue, representing a large investment of time, does not appear in my list of publications. However, the responses to the requests, and the catalogue data, are useful in many subfields in astronomy. New stars are being added continually. Indeed, current observations are essential for the maintenance of the reference frame and the database. For example, I have supplied types for all stars brighter than apparent B magnitude 4.5 in the Michigan Spectral Catalogue (the 2-dimensional successor to the HD Catalogue).

/.../


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The "computerized catalogue" is for me a point of personal worry and personal grief. The catalogue (which, I admit, I never worked with in a scientifically significant way) ran on one of the major 1990s commercial personal-computer SQL databases, I am 95% certain from IBM. Prof. Garrison and I never did get it ported to what would nowadays be more appropriate, the open-source MySQL, or perhaps still better (because more anchored in the open-source movement, and now prominent in Debian GNU/Linux) MariaDB. (At https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MySQL are troubling references to high commercial politics, and to the timestamping UTC=20380119T031407Z overrun problem. MariaDB is for its part discussed in positive terms at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MariaDB.) We did chat from time to time about the advisability of porting, forever finding other, more urgent work to do. 

To make matters worse, the database ran on OS/2, rather than on one of the more familiar operating systems. As Prof. Garrison's private Linux technician, I was the de facto sysadmin for two office machines, musca.astro.utoronto.ca and vulpecula.astro.utoronto.ca. There was also a rather elaborate home machine, largely or entirely on Microsoft, with which I had relatively little to do. If I recall correctly (I am only 70% sure of this sequence of points), the database was kept on just one machine, and this machine was musca.astro.utoronto.ca, and this machine had the dismal distinction of being not double- but actually triple-boot (for some Microsoft; for some Linux, I suspect either RedHat or Mandrake rather than the technically preferred Debian; and for the comparatively obscure OS/2). 

We never worked hard enough even on backing up the database. I am supposed to have somewhere in my lodging one or two USB thumbdrives with the database binaries, as a first crude, circa-2005, effort at backup. To my deep grief and chagrin, however, I reflect that there is now a 50% probability that I have misplaced it or them. Later, it will be necessary for me to confer with infotech personnel in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, and with Prof. Garrison's erstwhile Ph.D. students Dr Ian Shelton and Dr Tuba Koktay, and with Prof. Garrison's family, to see what (if anything) can now be done. Could it be that some others, who possibly worked a little more closely with Prof. Garrison than I did, and perhaps differed from me in making scientific use of the database, did more than I myself managed to do in my capacity as occasional technician? 

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Happier than the conceivably lost database are the formal publications - though, as I have already remarked in this blog posting, formal scientific publications can be only one part of the intergenerational heritage-conservation process. Prof. Garrison and I uploaded a rather good bibliography, which I will not reproduce in full here, at http://www.astro.utoronto.ca/~garrison/. For present purposes, it suffices to cite from it just Prof. Garrison's two edited or co-edited books, and to add as a third point the retirement Festschrift published in his honour: 

  • Garrison, R. F. (ed.), The MK Process and Stellar Classification (Toronto: David Dunlap Observatory and University of Toronto, 1984)
  • Corbally, C.J., R.O. Gray, and R.F. Garrison (eds.), The MK Process at 50 Years: A Powerful Tool for Astrophysical Insight (Astronomical Society of the Pacific Conference Series 60 (1994))
  • Gray, R.O, Corbally, C.J., and Philip, A.G.D. (eds.), The Garrison Festschrift: held in Tucson, Arizona, at the Arizona Inn June 10-11, 2002 (Schenectady, NY: L. Davis Press, 2003)

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To Prof. Garrison must go much of the credit for the high 1971-1997 productivity of the DDO outstation, the University of Toronto Southern Observatory, or UTSO (at Las Campanas, in the high-and-arid Chilean Andes well east of La Serena; DDO was linked to UTSO under radiotelephony licensing for  20.5665 MHz and 14.6555 MHz, with at the DDO Radio Shack end an "experimental class" callsign, VE9LHM, and a quite imposing tower-with-rotator sporting something like a Yagi). At UTSO, the then just-B.Sc.-level Ian Shelton, doing amateur-grade astrophotography of the Large Magellanic Cloud on a non-commissioned 20-cm-class telescope during a night off from his formal duties on the UTSO 60-cm-class instrument, discovered the 1987 supernova. Had Prof. Garrison's UTSO officer not made his discovery, someone else of course in due time would have - but with a loss of many precious hours, conceivably even of some precious days, in an astrophysical crisis without parallel since Kepler's 1604 supernova, with every minute of data potentially relevant.

To Prof. Garrison must also go the credit for saving what could be saved of UTSO. Although his efforts to secure fresh funding, after NSERC declined to renew a grant, were unsuccessful, he did succeed in having the main  instrument transferred across the Andes, to the Argentinean national observatory at El Leoncito, with also a time-sharing provision for the University of Toronto. (The transfer is chronicled by Prof. Garrison and his Argentinean peer at   http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2004AAS...205.4801G.)

Those wishing  to read more deeply in Prof. Garrison's life at Yerkes Observatory, at DDO, at UTSO, and in the University of Toronto Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics might want to proceed next to an article from the above-mentioned Festschrift, by Fr Chris Corbally, under the title "The Anchor Points in Bob Garrison's Astronomical Life", downloadable as http://articles.adsabs.harvard.edu//full/2003gafe.conf...77C/0000077.000.html.


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Prof. Garrison will be remembered by many, even outside academia, for his decades of work in the roughly 5100-member Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC).  In a geographically compact country such as New Zealand, or even Germany, it would not be surprising to find a coherent national association fostering public astronomical outreach. New Zealand has, I gather, its own Royal Astronomical Society (with about 180 members in 2010), and Germany its Vereinigung der Strenfreunde (with somewhat more than 4000 members late in 2015). It is, on the other hand, of interest that such an organization has since even before World War I been made to succeed in Canada, where there are two official languages and a geographical spread. (The United States, although outranking Canada in its public budgetary commitments to astronomy on (I think) even a per-capita basis, and additionally blessed with the world's most formidable amateur-astronomy traditions, suffers from its own analogues of Canada's geographical and cultural dispersion. It is perhaps for this reason that the United States has not succeeded in constructing a RASC equivalent.) 

Prof. Garrison became possibly the sole RASC president, ever, to have visited something like 95% or 100% of  the 29 or so  RASC "Local Centres" across Canada - including even those Local Centres which, being in isolated regions at the higher latitudes, must have found it a challenge to recruit members. I know from chats with Prof. Garrison that he took on his self-assigned task not with stoic determination but with relish. His generosity of spirit - shown in those RASC travels, as also in his more austerely astrophysical work on MK classification, and in his devotion to UTSO - will now be recalled by those who were privileged to know him.


[This is the end of the current blog posting.]









[end of outline]

Toomas Karmo: Practical Horticulture: Self-Watering Pots with Bartholomew Mixture


Screenshot from one of my five (or so) Debian GNU/Linux 9.0 "Stable"-branch ("Stretch") GNOME desktops. Clockwise, from upper right: operations clocks (green for local civil time, red for UTC); four of my my five self-watering pots, in their metal bowls; two /usr/bin/xterm "glass teletype" windows, judiciously configured to display private casenotes on self-watering pots and on compost; my landlady's successful nasturtiums (a good plant, as I have learned in previous years, for self-watering pots in a sunny location; the leaves go well in a salad). - As always with such blogger uploads, the image can be enlarged in a normal Web browser by mouse-clicking.


Quality assessment:

On the 5-point scale current in Estonia, and surely in nearby nations, and familiar to observers of the academic arrangements of the late, unlamented, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (applying the easy and lax standards Kmo deploys in his grubby imaginary "Aleksandr Stepanovitsh Popovi nimeline sangarliku raadio instituut" (the "Alexandr Stepanovitch Popov Institute of Heroic Radio") and his  grubby imaginary "Nikolai Ivanovitsh Lobatshevski nimeline sotsalitsliku matemaatika instituut" (the "Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky Institute of Socialist Mathematics") - where, on the lax and easy grading philosophy of the twin Institutes, 1/5 is "epic fail", 2/5 is "failure not so disastrous as to be epic", 3/5 is "mediocre pass", 4/5 is "good", and 5/5 is "excellent"): 4/5. Justification: There was enough time to write out the  necessary points to reasonable length.


Revision history:

All times in these blog "revision histories" are stated in UTC (Universal Coordinated Time/ Temps Universel Coordoné,  a precisification of the old GMT, or "Greenwich Mean Time"), in the ISO-prescribed YYYYMMDDThhmmZ timestamping format. UTC currently leads Toronto civil time by 4 hours and currently lags Tallinn civil time by 3 hours.
  • 20170816T0019Z/version 2.0.0: Kmo uploaded a polished version. He reserved the right to make minor, nonsubstantive, purely cosmetic, tweaks over the coming 48 hours, as here-undocumented versions 2.0.1, 2.0.2, 2.0.3, .. . 
  • 20170815T0339Z/version 1.1.0: Kmo improved his outline somewhat. He realized he was now running behind schedule. He hoped to replace the outline with a short essay in coherent full-sentences prose, and to add graphics, by 20170815T1900Z or so.
  • 20170815T0003Z/version 1.0.0: Kmo managed to post a semi-polished outline. He hoped to replace the outline with a short essay, in coherent full-sentences prose, at some point in the next 4 hours.

[CAUTION: A bug in the blogger server-side software has in some past months shown a propensity to insert inappropriate whitespace at some points in some of my posted essays. If a screen seems to end in empty space, keep scrolling down. The end of the posting is not reached until the usual blogger "Posted by Toomas (Tom) Karmo at" appears. - The blogger software has also shown a propensity, at any rate when coupled with my erstwhile, out-of-date, Web-authoring uploading browser, to generate HTML that gets formatted in different ways on different downloading browsers. Some downloading browsers have sometimes perhaps not correctly read in the entirety of the "Cascading Style Sheets"  (CSS) which on all ordinary Web servers control the browser placement of margins, sidebars, and the like. If you suspect CSS problems in your particular browser, be patient: it is probable that while some content has been shoved into some odd place (for instance, down to the bottom of your browser, where it ought to appear in the right-hand margin), all the server content has been pushed down into your browser in some place or other. - Finally, there may be blogger vagaries, outside my control, in font sizing or interlinear spacing or right-margin justification. - Anyone inclined to help with trouble-shooting, or to offer other kinds of technical advice, is welcome to write me via Toomas.Karmo@gmail.com.]



We all must do our part in greening the planet. As a minor blogging task this week (the major task, separate from this one, is precipitated by a sad thing, the death of observational astrophysicist Prof. Robert F. Garrison), I recount my experience with self-watering pots. 

On investigating self-watering planters on the Web three or so years ago, I came up with a design that proves perhaps excessively fancy, but has worked well for me. Plants are on this design rooted in around 10 cm of the Mel Bartholemew "Square Foot Garden" mixture, as explained at http://squarefootgardening.org/. The Mixture comprises equal parts (by volume) of vermiculite, peat moss, and compost. 

Bartholomew, the retired engineer who devised the recipe, recommends coarse-grade vermiculite.

Bartholomew particularly stresses that the compost has to be of high quality. Commercial compost may be of rather low quality, perhaps comprising the decayed remains of only one or two plant species. What is instead required is biodiversity in the decayed remains. One can solve the problem by composting kitchen waste at home, safe in the assurance that a typical kitchen generates waste of multiple kinds - potato peelings, wilted salad leaves, apple cores, eggshells, and much else. I, however, solved the problem through a piece of blind luck, unexpectedly getting earthworm droppings cheaply in the last, reduced-prices, hours of a "Canada Blooms" spring gardening show. It was a fairly good bet that the earthworms would have been fed properly biodiverse kitchen or restaurant waste, rather than the waste from some commercial monoculture farm.

The peat moss in Mr Bartholomew's list is a bit of an embarrassment, since mining the bogs for this not-easily-renewed resource impoverishes our biosphere. Perhaps some reader can someday find something better. 

[It is helpful to enlarge this graphic by mouse-clicking.]
The "Bartholomew Mixture" is marked "a" in my diagram. In my (perhaps needlessly fancy) design, the Mixture sits on an aluminium pie plate, "b", with a circular aperture cut into its centre, of radius just a little less than the radius of an aluminum beverage tin, such as is used for Coca-Cola, Seven-Up, and similar thirst-quenchers. (Useful graffito, from exactly 50 years ago this summer: "Visit Expo '67. Drink Canada Dry.") Under the pie plate is a beverage tin, "c" - with its top now cut open, and its sides now punctured. The 10-centimetre layer of Bartholemew Mixture, and the underlying pie plate, and the plate-supporting beverage tin sit inside a clay flowerpot, "d". The pot rests in turn on some pebbles, or pottery shards, or marbles, "e", at the bottom of a bowl "f". (Cheap ceramic or cheap plastic would serve. But I became rather fancy, buying brand-new bowls in some attractive metal like stainless steel.) 

Inside the beverage tin is a wick of some convenient absorbent material. I used kitchen sponges. However, old scraps of textile, or perhaps poor-grade soil of an intermediate particulate structure - not too rich in sand, and on the other hand not too rich in clay - are likely to provide equally effective wicking action.
The principle of operation is as follows: 
  • Water is introduced to the bowl, to some convenient level "x" below the metal pie-plate "b". 
  • Because the clay flowerpot is supported on the pebbles or shards or marbles "e", water is free to rise through the hole at the bottom of the pot, filling the pot to level "x". 
  • Because the beverage tin is punctured, the water in the pot is free to enter the wicking material and to rise in the wick through capillary action to the wick-soil interface at "y". 
  • Although the wick is liable to be soaking wet, the Bartholomew Mixture, "a", above "y" will take up only a reasonable quantity of water from the wick-soil interface at "y". The effect of this is that the Bartholomew Mixture will be damp, and yet will not be waterlogged. The roots of the plants will consequently avoid drowning - or, if they do have a little too much water, they will at any rate suffer this condition only in the immediate vicinity of the wick-soil interface at "y", with the higher strata of the soil drier.
Because the volume of water at the bottom of the assembly, below level "x", is large, approximating even the volume of the 10-centimetre Bartholomew Mixture layer between levels "y" and "z", the assembly will not need watering too often. I find in practice that when this assembly is brought indoors in the winter, into the Arizona-desert-like conditions a Canadian apartment develops from central heating, it is still not necessary to put water into the bowl more than once in six or seven days. 
 
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What to plant? Readers will have their own ideas. I have had excellent results outdoors in previous years with nasturtiums, and indoors with chives and a couple of other herbs.  In this season, I have chives (now two or more years old) in one of my five self-watering pots, and begonias in the others. 

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How should the design be simplified? Some successful work with tomatoes, on the sunny side of my previous landlord's house, suggests to me that it is enough to fill a large pot with a layer of some wicking material (with sponge or waste fabric - or more realistically and more cheaply, with poor-quality soil, neither too sandy nor too fine-grained), and to top this up with 10 or 20 or 30 centimetres of Bartholomew Mixture. The pot can then be set in some kind of water bath, in which the water never goes higher than the interface between the wicking material and the Bartholomew Mixture. The aluminium pie plate and the aluminium beverage tin now seem to me to be needless refinements. 

With the tomatoes, I actually filled the entire (huge, temporarily borrowed, almost tree-capable) pots with soil of agricultural quality, possibly - I am forgetting a detail here - a bit below the level of excellence of true Bartholomew Mixture. I then set the outsized pots into water in big plastic bins, such as are here in Canada sold at WalMart for organizing children's toys, winter clothes, and the like in a garage or storage closet. This must have meant that the soil close to the bottom of the pots became soaking wet, and deficient in oxygen, and that the soil above the water line in the bins became damp without being waterlogged. I imagine the tomato-plant roots simply pushing down until they encountered the waterlogged layer, and realizing in their mute way that with oxygen now absent, there was no point in pushing lower. At any rate the green stems and leaves gazed up at me cheerfully enough, uttering not one syllable of complaint in all their vigorous growing, and in the late summer bearing a reasonably abundant harvest.


[This is the end of the current blog posting.] 

Monday, 7 August 2017

The All-Time Best-Ever YouTube Vid?




Being under pressure from depression and duties, I have to offer only light blogging tonight. Tonight I upload nothing on the analytical philosophy of perception and action. Instead, I draw attention to what is in my own subjective ranking a top YouTube video. Here is something - for us with our computers, essentially a little piece of television, although for its originally intended 1936 audience a cinema clip - exposing television as a thing of scant value. 

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The junk, or el-cheapo, side of television already emerges when we reflect on the modern domestic use of this medium in Mr Donald Trump's rise to power, or again on its modern use as a foreign-relations tool. In particular, it has been urged on me that the modern Moscow foreign-relations application of television - in Russian-language outlets available in Germany, and therefore viewable by Germany's sizeable contingent of Russian-speaking voters - is to be analyzed in the context of the upcoming 2017-09-24 Bundestag elections. 

Tonight, however, we should instead recall the past of our parents or grandparents. 

Put into your YouTube search interface, folks, the search string television comes to London 1936. Look for an upload of 2007-09-19, by YouTube user "lswrsi", under the title "1936 Television song", to a duration of exctly two minutes. In my corner of the Web, the material is available through the URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Rpfek-F8Rw. As of UTC=20170807T204320Z or so, I find it has garnered a view count of just 64,893 - not even one fiftieth of what so unintentionally hilarious a piece deserves. 

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A briefing on technical background: 

  • Since the 1936 BBC cameras had low sensitivity, it was necessary not only to light the Alexandra Palace studio powerfully (perhaps with "Klieg lights"), but also to operate the lenses at low f-numbers (as when, on an ordinary manually operable camera, we open the diaphragm all the way). The inevitable penalty was a shallow field, with focus correspondingly critical. In practical production terms, this meant that it was fine for a lone performer to sing, especially if her gestures were minimized. Drama, on the other hand - I gather the valiant BBC did try, in those prewar days, to telecast Ibsen - became awkward. In this particular clip, the potential production bottleneck can be guessed at from the vocalist's management of  her hands: she does move them, and yet keeps them a little unnaturally close to her torso.
  • Contrast had to be enhanced with makeup. So lovely though the vocalist looks, she was in fact heavily plastered -  with various accounts from this era suggesting combinations of brown and green, or green and rouge, or purple and rouge. The flesh-coloured makeups familiar from the contemporary studio were not feasible until cameras became more sensitive, after the war. 
  • Contrary to what the prewar BBC itself cautiously expected upon launching its television service, the reception radius was generous. I have seen somewhere a reference to a prewar viewer in Cambridge - in other words, to a successful home television-receiver installation far outside the targeted Greater London surrounds of the Alexandra Palace mast. When war came to France, the German occupation authorities found it expedient to retain the prewar French equivalent of the BBC television service. The French antenna had been installed, dramatically enough, on the Eiffel Tower, for maximum range. I gather that British military intelligence considered the Reich content - Dr Goebbels's Paris colleagues might have attempted televising some ciné-journalism, along the lines of their Sieg im Westen film - potentially helpful. The Eiffel Tower telecasts were accordingly monitored near the channel coast of England. Monitoring personnel did strain mightily, deploying not the Yagi receiving-antenna design familiar from the 1950s onward, but some nightmarish Rube Goldberg contraption resembling a spiky tipped-up bedframe. 
  • The BBC television, in contrast with the prewar and wartime Eiffel Tower (and again in contrast with the prewar and wartime Berlin Fernsehsender Paul Nipkow) ended abruptly in the late summer of 1939. BBC telecasting did not resume until 1946-06-07. For some people had had a brainwave, I think in the tense days immediately following the Wednesday which was 1939-08-23. That was the Wednesday on which Molotov and Ribbentrop signed their pact, killing diplomacy. The brainy people had reasoned thus: Alexandra Palace is not broadcasting on medium-wave, or even on the beamed short-wave radiated at Daventry for audio by the BBC Empire Service. At Alexandra Palace the BBC is telecasting, rather, in the exotic, exceptionally-short-wave, VHF régime - helpful as a navigation beacon to the Luftwaffe. BBC television went most suddenly dark. It stopped in the middle, not of some blithe "pictures-out-of-space", "we bring Television to you" song like the one in our vid, or again of some deep-and-meaningful Ibsen, but of a Walt Disney cartoon. 
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When I call this production, as I did above,  "a top YouTube video" in my subjective rankings, I exercise restraint. Ever since I discovered it a few years ago, this particular vid has been my uncontested, complete-and-total, winner-take-all YouTube favourite. So forget about the analytical philosophy of perception and action tonight, folks. Relax instead, as "Vision and Sound are on", at your home screen. 

[This is the end of the current blog posting.]