Burning books, instinctual acrimony

(by jeremy) Apr 03 2011

I've been mulling two ideas over in the past couple of weeks while I try to dig myself out of a documentation hole at work. They're tied in a very interesting way. One is learned behavior. I've been thinking about the fondness with which I regard my childhood attending church, especially during the Easter season, the chaotic weather, the funerals and weddings, the strange way the air holds the smell of mold, of mud. It makes me think of shovels, graves, flowers, incense, of stained tile and old statues, suits and perfume and soft hugs, my family, particularly those long dead. This pleasantness is derived from memories that are as melancholy and terrifying as they are happy. It's a sloppy mess. It's inextricably tied in my mind to the church, to my Easters there, and despite the fact that I am no longer a practicing Catholic, I still have the desire, every season, to dress my best and stand among the other twice-a-year Catholics on Easter.

The other idea is our instinctual impulse to unconsciously act, usually to protect our body from harm. Yanking your hand from a hot stove is the classic example, but Sean Burnett snagging two out of three shots up the middle yesterday when the Nats beat the Braves is a far more interesting example. There's no way he can consciously process the act of catching that ball at that speed, but with a mixture of luck, training and instinct, he's able to make an incredible out and save the Nats from having a long, painful ninth.

Both of these elements are bolstered by the often unconscious absorption of sensory information. Our brain, categorically, does the work for us, making associations in the moment, which are, naturally, emphasized with repetition. I think the extent to which we are aware of these cognitive factors determines largely how we react to new ideas, new situations. I'm generalizing. Bear with me.

Terry Jones burned a Koran over the weekend. People across the world reacted. Some rioted, murdered innocent people. Our media pundits gave Jones the catbird seat, hoping to skewer the man with a holy pike misnamed Tolerance. Jones stuck to his weird justification of the act. Everyone thinks he's a real dick.

PZ Myers summed up the situation up pretty well when this nonsense first started in the fall:

So I'm looking at this recent episode with Terry Jones — a fellow I don't like at all, and I think he's a fanatical goofball — and I see that the serious problem here isn't Jones at all…it's all the lunatics who are insisting that burning the Koran is a major international catastrophe.

It's just a frackin' book, people.

I don't want to descend into the civility argument because it's irrelevant. Civility is a guise. Expect people to be uncivil and you'll be better off. Gregarious individuals know how to work through it. Most people don't know how, won't accept that knowing how is a prerequisite for true communication. The internet is a mean, intolerant place where people argue constantly. I think it's for the best.

We let ideas get the best of us, to define the core of our being. It's laziness. We let our training, our learned behavior unconsciously dictate our reactions. Our nerve endings as a society are sore and swollen, ready to lash out, to react, to epitomize our faction stereotypes in the name of Opposition.

The strangest thing of all is that the violent outrage stems from the physical act of defacing the Koran (or drawing cartoons), and not the knowledge that billions of people across the world do not respect the idea that the Koran is holy or deserves special protection. That's what really bothers me. The ideologically devout - and I want to stress here that I'm not just talking about religion - cognitively, verbally immolate ideas they dislike by the very act of accepting one ideology at the exclusion of all others. Every faith, every concept of reality is claimed by zealots to be the only one.

If that is true, I wonder what the difference is then, between burning the Koran and dismissing the Koran as untrue, considering it no more than a cultural product. Are acts like these reminders of the quintessential weakness of being a proponent of one particular ideological worldview? On one hand we want to say that people identify too deeply with ideas and not material reality, but then they only react to material acts of blasphemy and ignore the reality that the vast majority of the world thinks they're completely wrong.

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Fill that news cycle with paranoia

(by jeremy) Mar 17 2011

Wring your hands, America.

At first, the disaster coverage was somber, straightforward. The major news outlets broadcast raw video, fly-over footage of the humbling scale of the swell of seawater over communities and farmland, over cars, houses and fleeing citizens. Narrators were truly affected. You could hear it in their voice. There was this terrified awe in the scant words that could be found to describe one of the few events that can reduce all our industrial might to insignificance in a matter of hours.

Then, a few days later, the scurrying begins.

Inevitably. the media is trying to diversify the coverage of the disaster in Japan to fill the 24 hour news cycle. This is where it starts to get really bad.

Journalists begin the search for new ways to describe the situation. They start applying inane metaphors. The very real, very frightening struggle is put into fantastic terms. Japanese engineers are battling fire-breathing dragons and vicious sea monsters, the implication being that these figments are somehow aptly descriptive of a deadly encounter beyond the norm. More descriptive, perhaps, than the horror of the situation itself: the decimation of large coastal communities by earthquake and tsunami and now the potential of a meltdown caused by the latter, the fallout from which could be spread across thousands of kilometers. These workers have signed their lives away to attempt to avert this tertiary catastrophe and sacrifice their own health to preserve that of others, and somehow, this real act of heroic dedication becomes an appurtenance to a trite metaphor.

Largely, the focus has shifted from the aftermath in Japan to how it affects us, in this country. We're in a panic about the radiation invading the US with any potency. Anti-nuclear politicians take the cue to dust off the old soapbox and pump their fists in anger. The sanctioned paranoia drives us to care, to question our own safety. While watching Henry Waxman blather on insincerely about nuclear safety I imagined every nuclear engineer in the country scrambling to book a two week vacation while the politicians pitch a new tent in the ongoing self-serving moralistic circus of opportunity.

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Format, prescriptivism and Plato's chair

(by jeremy) Mar 10 2011

Even during blogging droughts I try to keep up on the continuing discussions among science bloggers. I came across a couple of posts in my catch-up reading that I really enjoyed reading, and wanted to share a few thoughts on format, language, standards and how they apply directly to what I've experienced.

Melody has a post up at Child’s Play discussing a piece from the New York Times about literacy and grammar, the general “decline” of English:

…to pull the strings together: I agree that part of what’s driving linguistic variation may be, as Greene argues, a lack of strong “top-down” constraints on variation. Basic literacy has exploded, but not well-normed literacy, and that probably has a lot to do with the massive educational disparities that exist in this country. On a societal scale, our education system is clearly failing to get everyone ‘up to standards’ [3].

She goes on to say that there is an inherent moralistic imposition in the standardization of English taught that doesn’t account for its colloquial value among communities.

I can see the reasoning, but I think that’s based on a incomplete idea of how the English language is accepted/presented among even the most pedantic English teachers and grammar Nazis. As Melody says, it constitutes an enormous body of words, phrases and mechanics, a mish-mash of bastardizations and misinterpretations that become a new standard; part of the beauty of English is its affinity for new words, new turns of phrase, its capacity for the incorporation of novelty. I grew up calling Capicola ham cabigal, and Ricotta cheese rigot – other Italian Americans knew what we meant, but the gourmet shop clerk did not. But I think underlying even the most nuanced dialect of English is the same basic structure that makes it, well, English, and that the standard isn't necessarily in conflict. It was made clear during my education that grammar constituted ground rules, and knowing exactly how to break the rules is what has produced our greatest writers and speakers. That was always emphasized.

Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is a great example of this. Faulkner writes from the differing perspectives of a group of Southerners – family and friends – that surround the death of a friend and mother. Each chapter is written from one character’s perspective in their own dialect. Faulkner’s range is astounding. Darl is traditionally articulate and perhaps, the vessel of the author. Vardaman is young and brash, his language is crude on the surface, but Faulkner writes with such skill that he evokes beauty from “poor” grammar and non-standard English. Faulkner was breaking the rules in all the right ways over 80 years ago, appreciating the way people truly spoke the English language, because he knew how to.

In other words, fiction hasn’t been following the rules for a long time. Authors recognize the value of colloquialisms. No one has written like Herman Melville since Herman Melville. We've always loved slang, always welcomed it warmly into general use; then we abuse it until it's annoying and drives us all crazy. You're on notice, lolspeak.

I think it’s more productive to consider language in an applied, categorical sense. The proper use of language depends on the standards of the medium or the institution governing the medium. In gaming, social media and blogging, anything goes because it’s unmediated. We write without filters. Our online communication is usually intended to be an exchange rather than a presentation. We want feedback. I usually don’t bother with punctuation when I’m getting rolled by pro nerds online. In the interest of brevity, why type “you’re” when you can get the same result with “ur”?

But when I go to work, I have an industry standard to uphold. I need to communicate technical information in the most clear, direct fashion that I possibly can so that there is no confusion for the end user. I need to take industry slang and translate it. My terminology needs to be precise and consistent. It needs to conform to the style guide. The terms Window, Screen, Dialog have specific meanings that need to describe the same components in every instance.

Similarly, journalistic writing is formulaic, as Hannah is fast realizing (congrats on the internship!). Using the inverted pyramid feels awkward at first, but like technical writing, it’s purposefully restrictive. News story writing is bread and butter; content needs to be concise and churned out quickly. The formula streamlines the process, helps the writer to focus the delivery of information. Not every piece is a story, and usually only experienced journalists are given feature pieces. But even the expansive features in newspapers and magazines are formulaic. In fact, the vast majority of blog posts you’ll find on ResearchBlogging.org – including my own – are predictably constructed. The structure exists because it’s useful.

The inverted pyramid isn’t the frame, the marketing scheme of “Science Is Cool” or “Science Is Friendly” is. Scientific research in the context of a journalistic interpretation is often treated like Plato’s chair – we judge its value based on some theoretical purest form, a subjective, ineffable idea of the research. The truth is, however, that it’s the skill of the writer working within the format that determines the piece’s informative value to us. It is not a story until it’s given a narrative; the quality of the narrative is dependent on the skill of the writer.

When you’re forced to work within a restrictive format, along certain standards, it teaches you precision that can be applied to more creative formats. Let’s not pretend that there aren’t levels of communicative ability; some have a better mastery of language than others, but I think all lovers of the English language hope that this appreciation extends to its outer reaches, its innovations, its novelty and its interpretation.

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A wild Meetup group appears!

(by jeremy) Mar 06 2011

The Meetup group notifications that pop up in my email every now and then are always fun. I almost want to go to this one to see if it's a sales pitch for his book or just looking for a big cathartic mess of a discussion:

Do you know that cloning, synthetic biology, entropy, and the Ice Ages can be traced to The Bible? Can the discovery of the Higgs Boson, or God particle, by scientists in CERN or FERMILAB help us perceive the spirit realm? Do you like science? Do you believe in God? Do you know that The Bible is full of exciting, scientific information?

If any of these questions apply to you, then each month you are invited to join author Donnell Duncan and his private network of friends at The Faith Science Experience. Even if you don't know anything about science but are interested, you are welcome to join us.

These meetings are open to the community and provide an open forum for discussion, discovery, and debates arising from the inevitable collision between modern scientific developments and timeless biblical truth!. It's so much fun. You won't regret it.

If you plan on attending, it's probably best for the organizer that you don't know anything at all about science.

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Smithsonian backing censorship

(by jeremy) Feb 03 2011

The Washington Post and several other newspapers published articles this week on the recent backing of a Smithsonian official’s decision to pull a piece from an exhibition in the National Portrait Gallery when conservatives from Congress and the Catholic League freaked the fuck out (NYT):

The regents did not recommend that the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, G. Wayne Clough, step down, as some critics of the removal had called for since he decided to pull the video, called “A Fire in My Belly,” by David Wojnarowicz (pronounced voy-nah-ROH-vitch).

The four-minute video outraged the Catholic League and several members of Congress for its depiction of ants crawling on a crucifix, which they interpreted as sacrilegious and, in the words of Representative Eric Cantor, Republican of Virginia, “an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.”

The board of regents have created a "troubling precedent" as officials from the Hirshorn have openly stated. I don’t care how they have it worked out: this is plain and simple censorship and Clough should have lost his job, not been supported. Admit the error, can the administrator and move on.

But here we are, with board-backed censorship. They've stated that it was a mistake, but have fallen short of restoring the exhibition to its initial extent. Can the Smithsonian institution be fully trusted in the future? The public funding argument is a smokescreen. We pay into public funds for expert officials to make decisions about where it’s spent, not the Catholic League or even worse, Republican politicians. The percentage is irrelevant.

This is bigotry poorly masked by outrage over blasphemy. It’s difficult for me to grasp exactly what’s sacrilegious about ants crawling on a crucifix. Ants aren’t exactly notorious carrion animals like flies, not to the extent of being typical symbols of decay. Even so, if the crucifix was covered in carrion insects, Christ’s body was supposedly hanging and decaying in the hot sun for hours and then in the tomb for days. Catholics wept in cathartic ecstasy over the realism of The Passion of the Christ, but suddenly draw the line at the realism of the infection and consumption of decaying flesh?

Besides, the Bible seems to be cool with ants in general. From Proverbs:

Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest.*

But it’s not really about that, is it? It’s about homosexuality, really, the fact that the prejudicial ground conservatives have been inhabiting safely is slowly being eroded by recent legislation and the time to capitalize on permissible bigotry and the suppression of civil rights is being shortened. They’ll take what they can get, ride the religious sensitivity wagon for a bit to have the exhibit disrupted, only to turn around and whine about mosques at Ground Zero and the Liberal Support of Religions That Are Not Christianity.

So here’s the Smithsonian, encouraging this sort of behavior over such a trivial matter. The image isn’t even thematic; it’s a nuance, a brushstroke in a larger portrait. The Smithsonian seems to claim that a thoroughly presented explanation of the piece would have provided context and assuaged the anger. I doubt it. We’re talking about worldviews, and once you start pandering to one, you make exceptions across the board. Art isn’t strictly about sensitivity. Art is, and we react. As soon as we lose that distinction – the honesty – we lose everything valuable about it.

I grew up the DC area. We were at the Zoo or on the Mall at least once a month, so the Smithsonian Institution has played a big part in my education through the years. This debacle is disappointing, to say the least.

Bill Donohue and the Catholic League released a statement today. They aren't satisfied (surprise!), even though they supposedly got what they wanted:

Speaking of the artist who made the ants-on-the-crucifix video, the Smithsonian's John W. McCarter Jr. said, "I believe, in his mind, that [the video] was not sacrilegious." Did he stumble upon the diary of David Wojnarowicz? Has he been channeling him? McCarter also asks us to consider the possibility that the video "might have been very deeply religious?"

McCarter's subjectivism is unwarranted. We know some things about the artist, and what we know is that he branded the Catholic Church a "house of walking swastikas." So why is it so hard to connect the dots? Isn't it obvious the artist was a raging anti-Catholic bigot?

Donohue is saying that Catholics (more specifically, the Catholic League) are the only authority on the interpretation of their iconography and should be given the final say. That's not how a pluralistic society works. That's not how culture works. Ideas aren't pure. They aren't under special protections for certain groups. There is only subjectivism when it comes to religion and culture. It's not unwarranted; it's exclusive.

If a man like Wojnarowicz can insult Christians the way he did, knowing full well his sentiments on Catholicism, and he is still given the benefit of the doubt—even to the point of entertaining the fiction that his video is "very deeply religious"—then it is obvious what is going on.

If you don't want to see reinterpretations of your beliefs, of culture, then either look away or try to understand where they come from and maybe gain a new insight on how others perceive your traditions. Wojnarowicz went through a special hell in his lifetime and Christian bigotry, obviously, was a big part of his anger toward the Church. Homophobia isn't particular to Christianity, but Wojnarowicz was obviously most touched by those traditions. If he had experienced bigotry from the Muslim or Jewish communities and expressed it, I'm sure there would have been equivalent outrage. My opinion certainly wouldn't change. I don't know how the Smithsonian would have handled it.

Bigots complaining about bigotry. Clough and the board should think long and hard on how this was handled and make sure it doesn't happen again.

*It’s fun to quote the Bible out of context. Also, I like how this quote, when pasted into a Google search, returns headers like “What does the Bible say about money management?”

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Obvious troll is obvious

(by jeremy) Dec 02 2010

I don't think Julie Zhuo knows exactly what trolling is. She wrote an op-ed for the New York Times supposedly about trolling, but it ended up being more about anonymity, "unethical" behavior and how Facebook is a bastion of hope in this world of mean, mean trolls. She defines trolling in the article as "the act of posting inflammatory, derogatory or provocative messages in public forums." If that were true, then three-quarters of the content posted on the internet could qualify as trolling.

She comes close with the word "provocative" but it's insufficient. Trolling is better defined this way:

That's the important part. Intention. It's not just Joe Tea Party shooting off his mouth about Obamacare or bank bailouts with enough expletives and epithets to smother you, it can be as simple as this, which is one of my favorites:

Troll: why do they call it an xbox 360?
Chatter1: inc troll
Chatter2: cuz they want to
Chatter3: idk, why?
Troll: because when you see it you want to turn 360 degrees and walk away
Chatter3: but if you turn 360 degrees, you're still facing the xbox

Chatter3 has fallen into the trap, despite the obviousness of it. Chatter3 has been trolled, and will continue to be as long as they take the time to respond and correct and eventually argue. It's much more satisfying for the troll if Chatter3 becomes angry in the process; the win comes in misspelled, incoherent all-caps responses.

I like good trolling. There's an art to it. It reminds people that get it that the internet - and everything else - isn't as serious of business as it seems sometimes. Obviously this is taken to the extreme by abusive people, harassing the parents of suicide victims (which has happened on several occasions, not just the one Zhou brings up) or making light of very disturbing, horrible circumstances, but those are outliers. With anonymity comes less inhibition for most perhaps, but most people would not stoop to that level of moral depravity. It's similar to my favorite criticism of atheism: without God, you're free to set your moral compass to Licentious Murderer and have at it. That comment always makes me wonder what's really holding the finger-pointer back, if anything.

Removing anonymity, as Zhou suggests, will not fix it. There are plenty of trolls on Facebook who do a damn good job of making the uninitiated angry and pulling them in to loops of intentional fallacies. Just because their real name or an approximation is next to their comment doesn't stop the giant White House threads from blowing up. People will get Real Mad and Comment no matter if their name is attached to it, or they'll just not put their real name in their profile at all. That's always a possibility.

I don't think there's a problem here. If families are being harassed, there are ways for the police to handle it. If you fell for the Xbox 360 joke or took the time to correct someone's spelling of Richard Dawkins' name (Dwakins) and then posted epic defenses of atheism, you may have just wasted time defending atheism to an atheist who happens to like making you mad.

The only thing that will stop trolls from trolling is when people stop feeding them, when people stop falling for the baits, stop taking everything so damn seriously. There's no application or software solution that will fix gullibility. Now, the sticky thing for me to figure out is if Zhou was actually trolling, and this post in response, clarifying her supposed error, is me falling for it, stepping right into the trap. I do so willingly.

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The history of the Joshua tree, threats new and old

(by jeremy) Aug 25 2010

And the LORD said unto Joshua, Stretch out the spear that is in thy hand toward Ai; for I will give it into thine hand. And Joshua stretched out the spear that he had in his hand toward the city.

And the ambush arose quickly out of their place, and they ran as soon as he had stretched out his hand: and they entered into the city, and took it, and hasted and set the city on fire.

And when the men of Ai looked behind them, they saw, and, behold, the smoke of the city ascended up to heaven, and they had no power to flee this way or that way: and the people that fled to the wilderness turned back upon the pursuers.

And when Joshua and all Israel saw that the ambush had taken the city, and that the smoke of the city ascended, then they turned again, and slew the men of Ai.

And the other issued out of the city against them; so they were in the midst of Israel, some on this side, and some on that side: and they smote them, so that they let none of them remain or escape.

And the king of Ai they took alive, and brought him to Joshua.

And it came to pass, when Israel had made an end of slaying all the inhabitants of Ai in the field, in the wilderness wherein they chased them, and when they were all fallen on the edge of the sword, until they were consumed, that all the Israelites returned unto Ai, and smote it with the edge of the sword.

And so it was, that all that fell that day, both of men and women, were twelve thousand, even all the men of Ai.

For Joshua drew not his hand back, wherewith he stretched out the spear, until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai.

Only the cattle and the spoil of that city Israel took for a prey unto themselves, according unto the word of the LORD which he commanded Joshua.

And Joshua burnt Ai, and made it a heap for ever, even a desolation unto this day.

And the king of Ai he hanged on a tree until eventide: and as soon as the sun was down, Joshua commanded that they should take his carcass down from the tree, and cast it at the entering of the gate of the city, and raise thereon a great heap of stones, that remaineth unto this day.

-Joshua 8: 18 - 29

ResearchBlogging.orgWhen Captain John C. Frémont first beheld the Joshua tree, he saw not what the Mormons are purported to have seen in its limbs: the spear-tip of Joshua in its sharp leaves, bent and raised at the enemies of God, relentlessly held aloft until the inhabitants of Ai were slain, stones of the city were heaped the scattered desert rocks and their king was dangled from the upper reaches of a tree perhaps not so different than the giant yucca itself. Frémont noted only “their stiff and ungraceful forms” and declared the Joshua tree “the most repulsive tree in the vegetable kingdom.” His contempt was mild compared to the violent myth behind the honorific given by the Latter Day Saints.

When a pack mule toppled over a cliff, Frémont lost his botanical collection, including the information gathered regarding the Joshua tree. The yucca was finally described by modern science in 1871 after samples were collected during a War Department railroad survey of the Southwest.

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Environmental framing again, a clarification

(by jeremy) Aug 20 2010

Matt Nisbet has a post up at Big Think referencing a brief interview with Peter Groffman regarding the recent open-access science communication issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. Both are worth a read. I was linked in the article (this post, a brief review of some of the content), and while I appreciate it, I do want to clarify and perhaps expand the gist of my post.

Nisbet’s post stated that I feared the “dumbing down” (his words, not mine, despite the quotation marks) of the science for public consumption. I think that certainly represents one of the concerns of framing critics, especially those in the scientific community. Personally, that’s not high on my list. I’m sure the ESA and associated scientists will be able to represent the science behind the problems and potential solutions plainly and efficiently.

The post I wrote was an attempt at expressing a general aversion for comprehensive marketing schemes and questioning, when it comes to the “humanities” portion of the plan, whether or not honesty – in worldview, philosophy or fiction – was important enough to preserve in its entirety. Some of the papers in the publication sounded like every business case, proposal and requirements doc I’ve ever read or written, which is fine, by the way; it’s typical. I’m sneering because documents like those are mostly industry fluff and setup language for the real meat, which can be boiled out rather easily and comprises a very small portion of the actual verbiage. We toss charts and graphs into technical documents to fill them out and give a visual for the sake of color or flow (or because it’s a standard) instead of representing an accurate depiction of process.

I’m being stubborn. Ultimately I think it’s sad and reflects poorly on us that people in positions of influence believe these kinds of campaigns are the key to reaching "the public," that only through demographical media saturation can we ever hope to teach science and instill environmental stewardship. Advertisers have to petition tribally to encourage us to buy; McDonald’s runs unique, culturally stereotypical commercials for WLITE 101.3, WURBAN 105.7 and WROCK 99.1 and it’s permissible to assume that the listeners to those stations are okay with being pigeonholed. I’m usually told something along the lines of “What do you expect?” or “You think this is new?” or “It’s just personal preference. I actually like that commercial,” and probably rightly so. It just doesn’t sit well with me.

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The wake

(by jeremy) Aug 17 2010

Grandma pulled open the door to the minivan, ankle wiggling in the wet sod. Her cheeks were flushed when she mumbled “Out,” trying to pull her low heel from the mud. I pushed at my sister’s back, sitting on the edge of my driver’s side bucket seat. She was tangled in her seatbelt, and reached back to slap me before falling out of her seat and stumbling out of the van and up the road. I was close behind her.

There was a small dark lump toward the shoulder side of the lane. Hannah ran quickly ahead. She ducked the low hanging branches from the thick growths of laurel that covered the slopes framing the road. Over my shoulder, grandma was following.

“David Jonathan,” she said, taking a breath. “Get your sister.”

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Refounding Appalachia: The scars of heritage and history

(by jeremy) Aug 12 2010

As I've mentioned before, I went to college in a small Appalachian town. It was crowded through the long winter and barren through the summer, always cool and damp, quiet for those of us who choose to live and work there while the rest of the student population radiated back to their homes in the city. Our apartment was on the outskirts of the town, in the middle of a large brick building sitting on the rim of the valley, one of five in the complex. They were old, built perhaps in the 1940's, collectively named after a famous Civil War general, Braddock, as is much in the area. There was no central air, and the windows would not accommodate a smaller AC unit, but it didn't matter; the summers were mild enough to go without, even on the hottest days.

Winter was anything but mild. In the very bottom of our building was an old iron furnace, yards from the two washers and driers stuffed in a nook called the Laundry Room stained black around their bottom frames. In early October, the building would start to warm, insulating our apartment with the heat from our surrounding neighbors - up, down and across the hall. Throughout the winter, we rarely had to turn our system on at all.

Every couple of weeks or a coal truck would pull up on the lawn in front of our building. The driver would yank the trap door to the coal chute and dump the fuel down slowly, sparkling shards amid a great cloud of black dust, which would eventually settle on the walk up to the front door. I'd run into one of the maintenance guys every so often in the basement shoveling the furnace full. Everything around us - the washing machines, furniture, brick, matte paint, carpets, hands - was dusted or smeared with coal dust. You'd brush your leg against the wrong wall in the staircase down to the basement and curse the ensuing stain, brushing it off the best you could.

Coal was a way of life for us, a constant, a mainstay. There was a coal mine further up the mountain, across from the entrance to our complex and the neighborhood behind us. On the way to class I'd sit at the stop sign waiting for the line of coal trucks to lumber up or down the rutted incline. No matter where you were in the town you could hear them gearing down, loud as jet engines, as they breached the top, heading down. Like the rest of the area, little white houses in coal country are never exactly white - they're mottled gray. Against a backdrop of a skeletal winter forest and persistent gray skies, it's no wonder students dubbed January through March in the area "The Suicide Months." For me, it's part and parcel of middle Appalachia's charm, indicative of a deep history. But that doesn't excuse the fact that coal has become more of a burden than a boon.

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