Sunday, August 31, 2008

A savage battle to the death

In the post below, I promised a demolition derby at seven . . . and here it is. Two posts in one day!


As the Derby opens, the cars are reasonably intact.



But it doesn't last. We'll follow the triumph and tragedy of Car 25 . . .


He's ready to rock 'n roll with a machine gun and a death bird on the roof, and flames adorning the sides. As he circles the tract, 17 and 151 take a hard hit into the grandstand barrier.


The cars begin coming apart under the pounding:


He we see the victor and vanquished . . . At some tracks, they run the drivers down when they try and crawl from the wreckage but these drivers are merciful.



He guns his engine and moves in for the kill, again:


But his victory is short lived. 25 comes to an end moments later in a cloud of smoke:




The crowd began roaring, the mood turned angry, and I slipped away while I still could. Things can turn ugly in an instant out there, when crazed fairgoers pour out of the grandstands and over the barriers, to pull the drivers from the cars and tear them limb from limb.

In downtown Northampton, there's a rumor that a certain Mexican resturant is spicing its meals with Aztec hallucinogens in hopes of provoking just such a orgy of violence and destruction. And this afternoon, a mad dog in a warrior mask worked the crowd, spraying a foul-smelling powder that stang and burned. I was lucky to see him coming and duck behind a food cart. I stink of old sausage but at least it's not poisionous.

Even up here, some of the people worship the old gods. And they demand blood. As the race ends, the helments come off, and cars lay in pools of their own gore. But will it be enough?



A day at the Fair

As August comes to an end, Fair Season begins. I stopped by Northampton's Tri Country Fair today, and shot some pictures . . .

The first thing you see upon entering the fairgounds are the tractors. Here's a big Farmall diesel:



Farmall was the agricultural tractor division of International Harvester. This particular rig has 150 horsepower, and dates from 1975.

Moving out onto the Midway, you encounter seasoned carnies waiting to lure you into games of chance. Here's one right now:



As you can see, the sign lays it out. Have a great day. No Refunds. No Exchanges. Five dollars.

Hardened Polish farmers from Hatfield and Whately stand under the glare of unshielded neon fixtures and go nose to nose with the Florida carnies. It's amazing that they don't fight more often than they do, because the name here says it all . . .



I can see Joe-Joe now, all 320 pounds of him. A pint of whiskey in his pocket and a shotgun on the counter.

I passed those games by and headed for the real action, chanpionship Pig Racing. Northampton ran its last horse races in 2005. The pigs are the only live action left. And as you can see, the betting windows are open:




The first races started at 12:15 sharp, and I pushed and shoved my way through the crowd to get a seat by the rail at the second turn. As soon as I got seated, they were off!



Pigmaster was favored three to one, and most of the money was on him, but in this shot you can see Pigster (a 20-1 underdog) moving smartly into the lead. The crowd is cheering, and the kids have a wary eye and their hands held high. Last year, a tyke lost a finger to a hungry porker on this very turn.

But pigs aren't the only hazard on this year's fairgrounds. We also have Tornados. Here's the warning sign above ours:



After the Running of the Pigs, I collected my money and headed out into the midway to shoot some of the rides:







I'll go back this evening. The fairs are always better at night, as the crowd gets drunk and wild. About five o'clock they take down that "shoot till you win" sign, because they know better.

At 7, there's a demolition derby. Place your money now.

Monday, August 25, 2008

What is smart?

I have a friend who’s a sales manager for a technology company. They have a small staff that designs technologically complex products that only geeks understand. But those products get sold to ordinary humans – small business owners mostly – so they have her to sell them.

She says, “They’re all smarter than me!”

They say, “She’s kind of slow.”

I guess you can be a top sales person even if you're slow.

I have another friend who coaches college basketball. He says, “Some of these kids are really talented. We may even make the tournament this season!”

But you’ve all heard what some of the other college people say, “They’re dumb jocks. It’s the science guys who are smart!”

Conversations like that lead me to wonder . . . what attributes does one need in our society to be called smart?

If you have an exceptional command of language, and you’re a gifted speaker, people will listen and say . . . “You know, that fellow is really smart!”

If your mathematical abilities far exceed the abilities of those around you, they will say, “What a geek! But he’s smart.” They’ll also say that if you have an aptitude for computer programming, electronics, particle physics, or biology.

In Western society, those are the attributes that get you called smart.

Aren’t we missing something here? I’ve been hanging around with neuroscientists for a while now, on this TMS project, and I’ve gotten a better understanding of what smart means, and the truth is quite different from the popular perception. This is how most people define smart in America: A smart person is someone who has remarkable command of language, or above average speaking ability, or really exceptional and cerebral mathematical, engineering, or scientific ability.

There is a fundamental flaw in that thinking, which I’ll begin to illustrate by a few attributes that do not get you called smart in our society.

A biologist who works to develop a vaccine is smart. The person who knows how to see into the mind of a frightened animal to soothe it and administer the vaccine isn't smart, though. He's just kind of strange, talking to animals like that.

Artists are not generally described as smart, despite the fact that their creations come entirely from the mind. Photographers are not smart, either, and they’re actually dismissed entirely with the comment, “If I spent $10,000 on a camera like yours, I’m sure my pictures would be just as good or better!”

The top real estate salesperson in your city isn’t smart either. She’s just good looking, or she has a great ability to schmooze people and she’s pushy.

The financial analyst who makes millions by finding and betting on subtle patterns in the securities market isn’t smart. He’s greedy and avaricious.

And we can’t forget book authors. They aren’t generally described as smart either, because after all . . . we just write down what happened. Anyone can do that.

And popular musicians must be dumb . . . look at the stuff they do. It’s in People and EW every week!

The most amazing thing is . . . every one of these kids was above average, and really bright and cute and funny as a kid. How do I know? Just look at today's toddlers, and talk to their parents.

With all the bragging I have seen and heard from parents, I have yet to hear . . . He's a wonderful boy, and just a little bit subnormal! Nope, I've never heard that boast, and I doubt if you have, either.

Maybe intelligence diminshes with age or the people who aren't related to you are just dumber.

So what wisdom can we draw from that?

Every one of those things is really a kind of smart. For each of those people, it is brain power that makes them the successes they are. The brain is what gives Larry Bird or Michael Jordan the coordination to be the best in the world. It’s the brain that gives the real estate champ the emotional intelligence to connect with all those people and make a favorable impression. And it’s raw mathematical insight – reasoning power - that makes the stock analyst a success. All different kinds of brainpower.

You could almost say . . . if it’s esoteric or entertaining, we’ll call it smart. But if it makes millions, or wins public acclaim, it’s something less. Sometimes "smart" isn't visible at all, unless you look really close.

This definition of smart is really worth thinking about. Everything we do is controlled by the brain. Countless brain parts, controlling countless functions. Even something as basic as our digestion may be “smart.”

You and I may have exactly the same guts. But you can’t tolerate milk, and I can. You get sick all the time, and I don’t. Why? Perhaps the part of the brain that runs the intestines is smarter in me than it is in you. I know . . . that sounds nutty. But science is proving it true.

So what kinds of smart do you see in the people around you?

Can a person be smart in one way and not others? Certainly . . . that, in essence, is what autism is about. What will happen if we learn to rebalance or change these different intelligences?

Monday, August 18, 2008

The American Psychological Association Conference

There I was, a free range Aspergian in a room full of shrinks. I’d been hired to speak to the 116th annual gathering of the American Psychological Association. Imagine that. They not only invited me into their midst, they paid for me to come.


But they still made sure I knew where I stood, beginning with the registration clerks. Luckily, I arrived early enough to sort it out.

The first registrar I went to just stared. The second unit directed me to the third, which gave me a badge and pointed to the door. I walked inside, and looked around. I wondered if I’d see Larry David, or any of the crew from that other show, In Treatment.

I passed book sellers, pill merchants, and recruiters from the US Bureau of Prisons.

Larry David was nowhere to be seen, but there were shrinks from all over the world. Or so it appeared. Each of the people walking around had a name tag. The tag showed their names, where they came from, and what they were.

Some tags said STUDENT. Most said MEMBER, which I took to be a code word for PSYCHOLOGIST. A few had honorifics, like FELLOW, LORD, or EXHIBITOR. You may wonder how they distinguished me. I’ll tell you. My tag said NON MEMBER. After a lifetime of exclusion, what do I get from the very crowd that purports to help people like me?

Luckily, I am resilient. I flipped the badge over so the security guards wouldn’t read it and evict me. I looked for the Taser booth, knowing they often exhibit at trade shows, but I couldn't find it. Then it was time.

205 B

That’s where I was supposed to go. I headed for the auditorium, which had filled with shrinks in a manner reminiscent of a high school at class change. Which was, in essence, what it was. They had all these programs going on, and they were handing out credit for them. There was a guy at the door to my room, scanning badges. I waited for him to get distracted and slipped inside.

Most places I speak have one of two arrangements. Some have a wireless microphone that they clip onto you, and you are free to roam around. A few places stand you before a podium, with a fixed microphone. This place, though, was unique. Here, a stout black cable emerged from a ring in the floor, leading ten feet to a microphone that I was supposed to wear.

They had me on a leash. Six feet forward and eight feet back. Close enough to see the audience, but too far for a quick grab. I began wondering about that so-called mike cable. Maybe it was meant for more than just sending a voice signal from me to them. Maybe they had a guy in back with one of those hand-crank field telephones, ready to fry me if I said a wrong word.

That Zimbardo fellow – the rock star psychologist who wrote the Lucifer Effect about the Stanford Prison Experiments – was here. Forewarned, I tucked all the metal outside my clothing. And the soles of my shoes were rubber. The floor was dry. I was confident that I had Freedom of Speech, subject to the leash.

With that preparation, my talk went well.
The Random House Academic Marketing folks recorded it, and it will be online here as soon as they fix the link: http://rhacademic.wordpress.com/2008/08/15/john-elder-robisons-plenary-address-at-2008-apa/
There was no time for questions at the end, but I invited the crowd back to the Random House booth for one on one q&a. After doing that, I slipped my leash, and headed for the exhibition floor, where I spent the next few hours answering questions and signed books.

I’d invited Lindsay and Shirley from the TMS lab, and they accompanied me downstairs. The line of people with questions on TMS was long, with shrinks of all shapes, sizes, and demeanors. There was one redhead, and one freak with glossy black plastic clothing.

One tall dark fellow approached the booth, and I read his tag. Lima, Peru, it said. Quick as a flash, I turned to Mike Gentile, the Official Random House representative, and said: Look! A Peruvian!

At first, he thought I might be insulting him, but he quickly realized that I was simply marveling that someone would travel all the way from Peru and we actually had a nice conversation. In English. I even signed a book for him to take home. For me, meeting a Peruvian there was a special experience, akin to finding an antique Alco locomotive idling in a modern day rail yard. And by the way – that actually happened to me, in Rutland Vermont. The Green Mountain Railroad still operates one. An Alco, that is. Not a Peruvian.



There were others from even farther. There were people from Fiji, Australia, Detroit and even a human Tasmanian. I signed books for them all, as long as they had money to pay the bookseller. When the show ended, there were still people gathered round. I resolved to return tomorrow, for something they called Coffee With The Authors. I do not drink coffee, but I went anyway. Someone gave me an orange juice. Dr. Zimbardo was there, along with John Boyd and a female named Janice Erlbaum, who wrote a very strange book. But of course, this was a psychology convention, so strangeness was the order of the day.


A few hours later, I was able to slip out the door on my own, without any of the guards catching that NON MEMBER badge. I returned to the scene of flooding from last week, and I photographed these rocks:




You can see the mottling dampness . . . the rocks are still drying out, having just emerged from flood in the past two days. That’s what made the whitewater I’d taken my boat over. Quite a ride, when they were covered in ten feet of water during last week’s flood. Woof.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Book tour news, and more of the flood

Ava at Crown Publicity has confirmed a bunch of dates for my upcoming tour. The right sidebar lists my appearances in Portsmouth, NH; Los Angeles; Boulder and Vail, CO; San Francisco; Seattle; Portland; Dayton; Boston and elsewhere.

Kanani, Sex Scenes, Anti-Wife, Drama Mama and others . . . I told you I'd go West! Here I come.

And we're not done . . . there will be more dates added.

And I'm not done with flood photos either. It's pouring rain again, and the Corp of Engineers says the river will rise three more feet by Wednesday. My neighbor Rick Palmer, who's head of Civil Engineering at UMass, tells me this may be the wettest summer since they started keeping records, almost 150 years ago. That's the great thing about geek neighbors . . . they look up stuff like that and tell you, without even being asked.

That is why the world needs geeks. I'm proud to do my share.

Will the bridges hold? You look up at the sky and the trees, and they seem so strong and permanent, and the scene so idyllic . . .





But you put your face against the steel and you can feel it trembling from the force of the water. And you look down, where some are dangerously close to the limits . . .



So far, the force of the water is only hitting the abutment, the support in the middle. If the water rises a foot more, it will hit the bridge itself, and that will be the end . . .



For those who are curious about boating in these conditions, here's another view of those rapids yesterday:



That shot give a bit better sense of what it felt like, driving the boat down the stairs. You can see the edge in that shot. Here's a view of the same rapids, a bit farther up, from shore. This is where I turned around as things were just getting dicier.



The folks who manage the Turners Falls dam didn't expect this rain. They expected the usual low water, so they took apart some of the floodgates for repair.




The center gate is dismantled but they're OK for now with what they have . . . but the rain hasn't ended. This is the end of the line for boats, about 1,000 feet past where I spun around.
This last shot shows my Zodiac boat at rest. It's what's called a rigid hull inflatable. It's got a solid fiberglass center surrounded by air filled floatation tubes. Boats like this are extremely stable and virtually unsinkable. They excel in rough areas because the inflatable tubes bounce off objects and prevent damage. They are also very strong.

A summer's flood on the Connecticut River

It seemed like a fine day for a boat ride. There was just one thing . . . we've had so much rain that the river is flooded. Trees were swept away, and they crushed docks at the marinas, and scared boaters off the river. "You're nuts to go out there," the owner of my marina said. But how could I miss this - a chance to run the whole river without worry about water depth?

And Zodiacs like mine are built to be rough-water patrol boats. I set out from the State Ramp at Northampton. At first glance, the river seems idyllic, blue and gentle.



What you don't realize is that the river has climbed two-thirds of the way up the flood control dike in the background, and that's all that stops the Connecticut River from cutting a new channel through the center of Hadley. We see this every spring, but this is the first time in the 40 years I've lived here that we've seen water like this in August.



When you look a little closer, you realize the water is brown with silt and debris, and it's sweeping away trees and riverbank at a good clip. Sometimes you meet the trees, headed downriver at five miles an hour, the pace of the flood current in that area. The usual summertime current is about one mile an hour.

With a current like yesterday's, you get swept off your feet in water just above the knees. You hear it rustling as it passes. But since it's summer, the water is warm. Ever other flood I've seen, it's been spring, and the water is 38 degrees.

Most of the time, the river is too shallow for boats to reach Sunderland. Yesterday, though, I had sixteen feet of water at the Sunderland bridge, and whitewater around the bridge piers. No water depth problems here.

Fifteen miles north, my part of the river dead-ends at the Turners Falls dam. In the past, I've picked my way up there but it's an all-day journey, threading your way past rocks and sandbars and long stretches of knee deep water. Yesterday, the water was fast and deep all the way. At the junction of the Deerfield and Connecticut Rivers there were huge whirlpools that kicked the boat violently as I powered through them toward the dam.

These were the kind of whirlpools where you toss in a life jacket, and it vanishes and pops up downstream a minute later. You do your best to remain in the boat in places like that.

It took more and more throttle to move the boat against the pull of the current. At one point, the engine was moving me fifteen miles an hour and the GPS said I was standing still. Actually, though, I wasn't standing still. I was edging slowly sideways toward rock. Luckily, the boat had enough power to move ahead and I approached the power station, which is normally the source of the river below the dam.



In normal times, the dam (which is still a mile upstream) holds back all the river flow. The water goes down a canal to this station, where is turns electric generators and returns to the riverbed at the base of the river. Here's a shot of one of the discharge gates, which at this moment is about fifteen feet under water:



You can see how the inspection walkway is just about submerged. It's usually a second-story balcony over the river.

There's far too much water for the turbines, so quite a lot is shooting down the spillways. Here's a water level view, something few people see:



There was fifteen feet of depth in the white water at the bottom. But there was even more water surging down, from the overflow at the main dam. I headed up in search of it. Now my depthfinder began showing shallower water, and it still ran fast - ten miles an hour.

I was climbing the dry riverbed, which was now full of flood water. This was the last picture I could take, before hitting rapids. In the photo below, you see some ripples, at a safe distance of a few hundred feet.



As I approached, I realized they weren't safe at all. They were three-foot-high up and down waves, moving fifteen miles an hour, maybe more. All of a sudden, I found myself climbing a hill in the boat, and it took full throttle to extricate myself. At the top, I saw more whitewater ahead, and with six feet of water below I could see trouble coming. I spun the boat around and headed back the way I came.

Now that was a sight to behold. Never before have I taken my boat down a flight of stairs, but that's what it looked like. I hit the throttle again, and spun the wheel to hit the waves at an angle, because I knew things could get bad if the boat buried its bow in the back of one of those rollers.

At best, I'd be staggering, full of water, and at worst I'd be upside down. Neither of those outcomes was desireable given the water conditions. I suddenly understood the value of crash helments in certain boating situations.

But it didn't come to that. With the power up, my Zodiac rose with the water, and I hardly took any spray in the cockpit. In just a few seconds, I was through. At that moment, I didn't know what I'd run, but I looked at the maps at home. It's an eight foot high stone cliff in a field of boulders. And that's why they named this stretch of river Turners Falls, a few hundred years back.

On the way back, I was buzzed by a predatory bird



I met a train, crossing the river at South Deerfield:



And I saw a balloon through the trees:



Most of the bridges I passed had logjams on the piers. Trees and debris catch there, and if they build up enough, they can take the bridge down. That hasn't happened on the Connecticut in 80 years, but the way these rains are going, it could happen again despite the flood control structures.





When I got the boat out of the water, I saw I'd knocked one of the blades on rock, and bent the lower skeg extension of the motor. In the rush at the rapids, I never noticed, but I must have hit bottom going down those rock stairs.

Now that was quite a ride. White water rafters run stuff like that all the time, but people don't usually take motorboats into places like that.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

A Land Rover to be proud of

I don't post a lot of automotive stuff here on the Look Me in the Eye blog, but I am known as a machine aficionado, so I guess I can do it sometimes . . .

A year and a half ago, this tired red Land Rover Defender crawled into our shop. The gas tank was rotted out of the frame in back, the floors had holes, and the whole thing was just whipped and tired. However, the owner had a vision . . .



This was a long job. It was like restoring an old house. Every layer you peeled off left another layer of rot and corrosion to remove. Eventually, there was nothing left but a pile of parts. The truck was totally stripped to its component parts.

And then the reassembly started. Some parts got cleaned, some were overhauled, and a few were remade. Many little bits were replaced. Some key pieces were no longer available, or we didn't like the stock part, so we made new parts to suit our vision.

Today, I drove it back to his farm in upstate New York. It’s one of the nicest Land Rover projects we’ve ever done. Here’s the restored Defender, its owner, and me



Looking at this next shot, you can see that it’s totally new underneath. We took the truck completely to pieces, and rebuilt it onto a new galvanized frame. The suspension, steering, brakes . . . it’s all new. Everything was painted or finished and then assembled, which gives a look you just can’t get any other way.

We installed the Bilstein shocks, skid plates, diff guards, and some basic off-road gear but otherwise the truck remains pretty stock.



He was tired of the red, so we chose Coniston Green for the new color. We’re actually doing quite a few Defenders over in this same shade now.

In front, you can see the bumper we made . . . it looks stock but mounts a Warn winch. And we took the stock bull bar and lifted and reinforced it to stand above the winch.



We fitted a heated windshield, and the bigger mirrors. We also made some new front lights. You'll also see some custom rock sliders under the sills, and we've started using the new corrosion proof (dare I say that on a British car?) door hinges.


At the rear, we took a second frame cross member, and made it into a step bumper. Very nice job, if I do say so myself. And lest you think I am bragging about my own work . . . I’m not. This truck is 100% the result of Paul, Jeremy, Joe and the other guys in the Robison Service Land Rover shop. I may supply some kind of creative vision, and I jab and prod to keep them moving, but this beautiful work is all theirs.



And you can't miss the Badger top. Chris and his guys do really great work. Their Land Rover tops are really the best.

Here's a "better than new" interior view: You can't see it in this photo, but we built new seats, and fitted a Tuffy center console with the latest Alpine stereo, iPod control, and Sirius radio. We even thought to use Sony marine speakers in the doors, knowing you can't ever make a Defender water tight.



The inside is all lined with the Dynamat sound deadening panels. Boy, do they make a difference! This thing is still loud, but all the high pitched whine, and all the engine compartmetn noise is gone. In addition, the noise of gravel spray on the underbody has vanished. Very nice.

This is one really fine Defender! I was sorry I couldn't keep it for my own . . . Now, I want to restore my own ex-Army truck just like this one. Or maybe a bit better. If that's possible.