In the nights that I had some free time when living in a tiny apartment in the city center or needed to clear my head,  I’d just go for a walk in town. It was fun enough and you’d see the occasional raccoon. In that time it was legal to busk up and down State Street. Folks would travel through from college town to college town and play guitar on the street just to make food and cigarette money.

In the course of my nocturnal walks, I came across a fellow named David that was playing. He was sort of rhythmically challenged, but he knew a lot of songs. He played “Would You Lay with Me in a Field of Stone”.  He credited Tanya Tucker as the author. I spoke up from a group of a few and said “That song was written by David Allan Coe”…sort of echoing what was on the a-side of that release (You Never Even Call Me By My Name….John Prine and Steve Goodman).  I suppose that was sort of egotistical, but as a child of Nashville and Muscle Shoals I felt it my duty to share my knowledge.

The man did not take umbrage. Rather the next week, he paused in his playing as I was passing by and said “You were right!” and asked if I would look after his guitar and loot while he went around the corner to take care of other business. I picked up his guitar and played a Guy Clark song and probably a John Prine song ( at that time, that was my entire repertoire). When David came back I had a few dollars extra for him.

That started a relationship that lasted a while. David lived out of the back of his truck and looked after his Mom on their old family farm. He gave me the motivation to explore my ability to perform in front of people, and I gave him somebody to trust if he needed to take a break.  Several times, going out to dinner with friends from school,  I’d stop and spell David, and that would freak out my rather staid schoolmates.

Never knew David that well, but he would lend me LP’s with his name scrawled on them.  They were all worth listening to and obviously cherished items. He turned me on to a guitar player named Dan Crary, a really cool flatpicker.

I have never had stage fright since then; that is an obsolete response for me. I don’t play music for a living. But I still get a little hormonal hangover after the fact.  Even after doing something like giving a public talk or teaching a class. Anyway, there is no fear beforehand, but after the fact it is like a dose of vodka and espresso.

Years later when I visited the same city center again, David was still playing on the streets. He greeted me as if I’d just been gone ten minutes. I had fun playing his guitar again.

It is good just to wander sometimes.




A Ray of Sunshine

Around about 1978 there was a billboard on the outskirts of xxxxx TN welcoming visitors to the town. It read


Welcome to xxxxxx!
Home of Sheriff Buford Pusser
Governor Ray Blanton
And 1375 Happy People!!!


That sign was a continual source of amusement to pals that would sometimes visit the area to hike around the battlefield at nearby Shiloh.

There is not much reason to talk about either of those characters above except to note that they were both products of a culture (the so-called State Line Gang along the Tennessee- Mississippi border) that involved a lot of corruption centered around enforcing debt collection from moonshining, prostitution, and gambling.

You’ve probably seen a few of the advertisements for the fictionalized Buford Hayse Pusser films…they are basically just revenge flicks with lots of action. The story about Governor Blanton (some kind of remnant of the Dixiecrats) was made available in the film Marie nominally about an administrator that got caught up in the illegal schemes of the governor to sell off pardons, paroles, liquor licenses, and other state assets for personal gain.

At the end of the Blanton term, the governor started issuing pardons willy-nilly. At that time the Supreme Court in TN decided to swear in Lamar Alexander ahead of schedule for the next term as governor.

None of this sort of crap is unique, it is older than Genesis. But when government officials start talking about pardons for associates, I routinely get perturbed.

Nonetheless, a fishing trip is upcoming. It will be fun to visit the expanse of Kentucky Lake and catch a few crappie during the long total solar eclipse. That locale is along the path of totality  a few miles north of   xxxxx  and might afford an attempt to do some convincing a la Hank Morgan (that is perhaps a little over the top).  But it will be fun to sit out on the lake during the eclipse.

Perhaps a revised Ray of Blanton Sunshine (campaign jingle from the time via Dottie West) is in order.  If you don’t do anything else, listen to the jingle. Made me mad that it was burnt into my brain. It is sort of along the lines of the soft drink jingles that were popular at the time.


Ladies’ Fingers

Two of the joys of summer are not here this year. The fickle spring freeze-thaw put a damper on the July fig harvest and the May blackberry harvest.

However, the June rains have done wonders for late season arrivals. One has to keep a diary to figure out what is normal, much as like with political clownsmanship. Nevertheless, this is my all time favorite garden blossom.


The dynamic range in the photo does not really do the blossom justice; the dark area should have a lot more detail. Perhaps if the sun were right behind the camera? But the perfect pentagons get me from time to time.


Fried okra is one of those things that I’m squeamish of in a restaurant. I don’t understand the approach to much of industrial food, but fried okra is in the top five of unsatisfactory things obtainable at chain restaurants.


So here’s a more palatable version.

  1. Obtain fresh okra (aka ladies’ fingers).
  2. Slice into ¼ to ½ inch thick specimens orthogonal to the main axis.
  3. Spread and dust with salt and toss. Let drain for a few minutes as the salt pulls out moisture.
  4. Toss with corn meal in a colander or bag or some such. Shake off excess.
  5. Fry until crisp in small batches.
  6. Drain like you would any other fried food.
  7. Dust with black pepper and cayenne.
  8. No eggs, no milk, no buttermilk…no goo.

It is that simple. And completely different form the weird gooey dough balls served in chain restaurants. The version above is like popcorn. Kids eat it without questions. It is that good.

Other than that version, gumbo is nice.

In most years I only fry once or twice, but this year may be different, as in many other respects.  But it is easy to wear out a good thing, so try in moderation.



Green Boiled Peanuts at Tire Shop

I’ve been waiting for boiled peanuts to go mainstream.  Despite our ease of travel and communication, there are still some regional cuisines.  If one starts at the Gulf Coast south of my place, one will find an abundance of oysters and mullet and then some high-end seafood as well.

As one moves north through the cultivated pines and scrub oaks, the mullet consumption dies off drastically. Oysters hang on a bit longer.

But somewhere along the line you pick up little concessions like this scattered all up and down the roads.  I don’t know how far west they exist, but as far as I can tell on the way north they start to peter out around Montgomery or Macon.

I did not grow up with mullet or peanuts, so I don’t know much about either one.  Most folks will probably guffaw a bit at reading the advice columns for catching mullet.

Peanuts apparently were discovered in South America. Championed by George Washington Carver, they became an important crop around here. I get the occasional peanut volunteer in the garden; it is kind of a joy  to raise a few. One year I think I’d like to plant a plot and just see how it goes.

But back to the topic. Eating a raw peanut puts you at risk for gastric distress.  Roasting a mature peanut takes as little as 20 minutes. Boiling a green peanut can take a few hours. Why? I still don’t know. But boiled peanuts have their fans.  Years ago you could get them in a can as far north as Chapel Hill NC.  You can still buy frozen boiled peanuts in quantity at the gas station.

So I’m thinking that there must me something weirdly addictive about these things that I don’t yet understand.

Granite Oddity

The photographs below were taken in the summer of 1965.

pearstone1sex  summer-65_00001summer-65_00003

Shot with a Contax IIIa. Other details long forgotten, but the film was Agfachrome, 35 mm positive. Kodachrome positives from those days have held up much better.  But Agfachrome could be faster and developed locally.

The sculpture measures 190 ft by 90 ft and is 400 ft above the base.

Recovered these photos from the closet not too long ago. Just takes some time to catalog stuff in moments when everything else is going well. But you can find several, more modern photos if you want to see how things turned out.

My first thoughts, upon seeing them, told me I had to go watch Hitchcock’s North by Northwest again.

Well, those instincts were not too far off base.

The location of the photos above is Stone Mountain, Georgia.

The same fellow that did Mount Rushmore in South Dakota was also involved with Stone Mountain: Gutzon Borglum. Borglum had difficulties completing the project that was being wackily financed and overseen by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Venable family.

The Venable family owned the mountain and was actively involved in the second incarnation of the KKK.

From the rebirth of the KKK in 1915 until well into the 1950’s, the mountain had been a meeting place for their oddities.

The State of Georgia bought the land in 1958 and completed the sculpture in the 1960’s. The three men in the sculpture are Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis.

I think I first visited the place in the early 60’s as a kid. Most of the kids in the family would run to the top of the mountain on the day after a Thanksgiving family gathering.

So, although the place is kind of hideous, it has a spot in my physical memory. Also a neat geological feature. Clamors arise from time to time to remove the sculpture, but even if I don’t like it, I don’t see the point of doing even more damage.


Old Friends

I spend most mornings with coffee and a short walk. Then I do a few hours of editing numerics, and language, and graphics for other folks. I guess it’s a life I chose, but we all seem to find a path somehow. Anyway, it gives me some freedom.

I lose interest in the news periodically, and music plays all by itself for me most of the time. But you have to do something different from time to time.

One of the visual distractions that pleases me is to have a couple of bird feeders outside the office window. Most of the time it is just color and motion, but sometimes a  little physics or learning about a new species.

The gray rat snake is wicked plentiful in my habitat. I had not studied them until about 10 years ago. But they are super tree climbers. In fact, they will climb just about anything.

This is a very young one climbing on a slender rod to get at my colorful distractions.

dsc_1375_174email dsc_1377_175email

The feeding technique is to climb the object and sit motionless for hours. The birds know the predator is there, but they taunt the predator possibly trying to distract it from their food source. Inevitably the taunting becomes ever more daring until one bird is sacrificed for the benefit of the others. From what I’ve observed the gray rat snake does not attack with the mouth first, but rather will whip its tail up into the air and catch a bird that is within a foot or two. That’s some serious coordination. After that it is just constriction.

Another interesting feature is that these critters can extend rather rigidly over gaps of a few feet. It is kind of spooky to see; you’re left wondering where will that critter be next?

Rat snake may be appropriate as a name, but I think the preferred diet is avian. Until a couple of years ago, I did not appreciate that they would be night hunters. But I reckon a lot of life is about temperature for them. On a hot night, the light does not matter. They will seek out a birds nest; then you are left wondering is it sound or scent.

I don’t know, but I reckon it is scent. The Carolina wren will build nests in any sort of sheltered location…porches and garages and such. Where you find the wren, you find the snake…sometimes in the middle of the night.

These critters have a drab color scheme. It’s kind of standard to speculate about evolutionary advantages to one trait or another, but I think it is just that..speculation.

A king snake on the front porch will tend to make you reverse course rather suddenly; however, it is just show. So, I get color schemes but I don’t understand them.

The only macroscopic critter I revere and fear around here is the Eastern Diamondback.

Anyway, looking forward to seeing if I can convince the rat snakes to shift diet a bit to the wood rats and field mice.

But I am not a charmer.




Fermi Estimates and Orders of Magnitude

Warning: Slightly excessive pedantry.

You’ve probably read about or heard of Enrico Fermi at some stage in life. Italian physicist that moved to Columbia  University  to escape Fascism in the 1930’s and engineered the first nuclear pile at the University of Chicago. There is an element and a national laboratory named after him.  He became a part of the Manhattan project and the Los Alamos tests.

An intriguing story though is the tale of Enrico Fermi dropping bits of paper one by one, as the blast wave passed by about 9 km away from the Trinity epicenter on July 16, 1945.  The bits of paper (dropped from a height of about 6 ft) displaced horizontally by about 2.5 meters when the wave passed.  The blast wave reached Fermi about 40 seconds after detonation. From those observations, he estimated the TNT equivalent of the first nuclear detonation at 10 kilotons of TNT.  He was close. The estimate from calculations stemming from results of several instrumental readings is about 20 kilotons.


It is difficult to know whether Fermi made that estimate from purely theoretical calculation or from extrapolating empirical measurements from smaller tests done at Los Alamos. He did not say. Might have been just a wild hair.

You can read some folks attempts at rationalizing his calculations at this site.

That sort of order-of-magnitude estimate has become known as a Fermi estimate or calculation. There are a few books and essays on the subject.

It is probably a skill that can be taught, but it is also probably a skill that is learned by almost everyone that works in one particular field for a while; it is the human brain distilling something down to something a little simpler. Just takes a little motivation.

Perhaps one of the more famous Fermi calculation demonstrations is to ask the question “How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?”  So you inquire “How many people are there in Chicago?”, “What fraction of those folks own pianos?”, “How often do pianos need tuning?”, “What fraction of piano owners are dedicated?”  You can tweak the calculation, but that gets you started.

Another of the more famous estimation discussion concerns the existence of extraterrestrial, intelligent life.  That topic is often called the Fermi Paradox.

The famous quote is “Where is everybody?”

Order-of-Magnitude Estimation

Doing simple arithmetic on a napkin is cool. Doing it with a machine is cool.  Doing it in your head without even trying is cooler. Fermi probably excelled at the latter.

Although being able to do the arithmetic in your head is probably a good thing, it is also fun to have certain numbers at ready. All of the following quantities can be estimated in a somewhat Fermi–like fashion. So see if you can get within a factor of 100 for each of them.


Number of Water molecules in a human body: 1027

    70 kg body that is mostly water; water molecules with 18 g/mole;

    Avogadro’s number


Number of stars in the universe: 1022

      100 billion galaxies x 100 billion stars/galaxy


Number of neurons in a human brain:  1011                          

    About a 1 liter brain with neurons that are 100 µm by 10 µm  x 10 µm


It is useful in those sorts of calculations to have a familiar relationship with the idea that adding exponents is like multiplication and that subtracting exponents is like division. That sort of thing is the basis of the lost art of using a slide rule or logarithm tables. I just recovered a slide rule from a box that was my father’s. I myself was sort of on the cusp of the slide rule / calculator ages. Perhaps a waste of time to play with, but slide rules hardly ever malfunction.

 Recommended Additional Reading