This is the season of jingle bells and mistletoe, cyber sales and glitter bows. Evergreen festoons and plastic reindeer strung above our streets remind us that Christmas is coming.
America’s holiday season is in session.
I was out, legally masked, for Black Friday shopping.
More accurately, I was out shopping on Black Friday. I got gas and groceries, neither of which qualify as holiday purchases.
Picking up yogurt and coffee reminded me of Walt Kelly’s rewrite of “Deck the Halls.” How or why that routine reminded me, I don’t know.
Or maybe the words emerging from memory had more to do with Advent’s imminent advent than pushing a shopping cart.
Either way, I’m still working on my ‘starting Advent’ post. It’s somewhat serious. What I’m doing here isn’t.
Yesteryear’s Peace, Light and Decking
Let us remember, as shopping days dwindle and holiday anxieties grow, these words from days gone by:
“Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
Walla walla, Wash., an’ Kalamazoo!
Nora’s freezin’ on the trolley,
Swaller dollar cauliflower alla-garoo!…”
(Walt Kelly (1948 or thereabouts)
A Dozen Days and Uncle Ben
Some folks prefer more conventional traditions.
Let us therefore also recall a musical celebration of geese a-laying, leaping lords and pipers piping.
“…On the twelfth day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
Twelve drummers drumming
Eleven pipers piping
Ten lords a leaping
Nine ladies dancing
Eight maids a milking….”
And let us not forget Yogi Yorgesson’s holiday ballad.
Now, perhaps more than ever, these words resonate with the holiday experience:
“…Back in the corner the radio is playing
And over the racket Gabriel Heater is saying
‘Peace on earth everybody and good will toward men’
And yust at that moment someone slugs Uncle Ben….”
(“I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas,” Y. Yorgesson (1949))
The Boston Herald’s “unprecedented” headline may make sense.
I’ll willingly believe that Interfaith Social Services of Quincy, Massachusetts, has never had so many families without holiday meals and so few turkeys.
But “Colorado Families … Unprecedented Thanksgiving?”
I’ll grant that all or nearly all folks living in today’s Colorado weren’t there during the 1918 pandemic. But Colorado was not uninhabited back then. Not even after Charlie Phye, Jessie May Hines-Phye and their six children died.
They weren’t the only folks living in Colorado at the time.
“1918: When the flu came to CSU”
Kate Jeracki; with additional research by Mark Luebker, Office of the President, Vicky Lopez-Terrill, Cory Rubertus, University Archives and Special Collections; College News, Colorado State University (March 23, 2020)
Influenza Encyclopedia, University of Michigan Library
“The Phye Family”
Judy Walker, Dr. Adrienne LeBailly; The Pandemic Influenza Storybook
I’ve learned to expect puffery, exaggeration and outright misdirection in headlines. I understand that news editors are obliged to beguile readers. Even so, the long-established “unprecedented” precedent annoys me.
“Dread of Influenza Peril” — Thanksgiving and the 1918 Pandemic
(From St. Louis Post Dispatch, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
Today’s COVID-19 pandemic isn’t just like the 1918 “Spanish flu.”
“…Three million people are reported to have already travelled through US airports from Friday to Sunday.
“But the number is around half the usual figure for Thanksgiving travel….”
My household and I will be staying home this Thanksgiving.
Partly because my wife and I have graduated from mom and dad to grandma and grandpa.
And partly because health issues make staying put a reasonable option.
My personal plans include watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. The Macy’s website says coverage is “only on NBC,” and on “Verizon Live.” Maybe I can see their ‘come in and shop’ celebration again this year. It depends partly on me finding it online.
My family plans are of the ‘whatever happens, happens’ variety. Nobody, happily, is expecting me to coordinate events.
Which reminds me. I’d intended to include the following links, so here they are:
“Central Minnesota’s largest health care provider announced Thursday it will designate its hospital in Sauk Centre to care exclusively for patients with COVID-19.
“Starting Monday, COVID-19 patients from around the region who do not require ventilators or high-volume oxygen will be cared for at the western Stearns County hospital….
“…’Telling someone from Sauk Centre that you are now going to be delivering your baby in Melrose — to the outsider, that seems like an 8-mile drive,’ he [CentraCare-Melrose administrator Bryan Bauck] said. ‘To the insider … that’s a really big deal, because my local facility is having to change and react to help better serve our communities and respond to the COVID-19 surge.'”
And it’s nice to see someone recognizing that getting our health care facilities reshuffled is “a really big deal.”
Waking Up: Always a Good Thing
One more thing, and I’m done for today.
This week’s big holiday is “Thanksgiving.”
The COVID-19 pandemic is still in progress. Regional hospitals are running out of room for patients.
I haven’t caught COVID-19, but I’ve still got diabetes and a mess of other health issues.
And nobody’s abolished war, poverty or infomercials. With so much dreadfulness going on, what do I have to be thankful for?
For starters, I woke up this morning. That’s always good. Which is why “I thank you, Lord, for having preserve me during the night” is part of my morning prayer routine.
‘There’s never a crackpot around when you need one!’
The Arecibo radio telescope started bouncing signals off planets and listening to radio waves from the stars in 1963.
Finding reliable information about the facility’s technology and science was easy.
But my quest for good conspiracy theory was an effort fraught with frustration and ultimately futile.
I found a few offhand mentions of ‘many’ conspiracy theories whirling around the big dish. Several quick searches this week uncovered a bogus crop circle near the Chilbolton radio telescope, back in 2001. And that’s it.
And I found that while checking out the “Arecibo message:” a 1974 technology demo. Or publicity stunt.
The Arecibo message is real enough. It’s a digital 73 by 23 raster cooked up by Frank Drake, Carl Sagan and others. The idea was that space aliens could decode it.
Maybe so, but I think it’s anyone’s guess how they’d interpret the 1,679 pixels. Maybe I’ll talk about that some time. Then again, maybe not.
Sic Transit Gloria Arecibo
A Professor, Sputnik and an Act of Congress
(From University of Central Florida, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
“The iconic Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico is to be dismantled amid safety fears, officials have announced.
“A review found that the 305m telescope was at risk of catastrophic collapse, following damage to its support system.
“It concluded that the huge structure could not be repaired without posing a potentially deadly risk to construction workers….
“…Sethuraman Panchanathan, director of the US National Science Foundation (NSF), which funds the telescope, said in a statement: ‘NSF prioritises the safety of workers, Arecibo Observatory’s staff and visitors, which makes this decision necessary, although unfortunate.’…”
The facility’s official name is National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, NAIC.
Its nickname, Arecibo Observatory, refers to Arecibo, Puerto Rico: a town about six miles north of the radio dish.
The observatory’s story starts about six decades back. Cornell University’s William E. Gordon was studying Earth’s ionosphere in the 1950s. He figured that he’d learn more by bouncing radio waves off it, and started pushing for a big radar reflector.
The Cold War was in progress. Sputnik’s successful launch prodded America’s government into taking satellites and ballistic missiles seriously.
Congress passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act in 1958. That legislation launched NASA and ARPA: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Advanced Research Projects Agency.1
And, thanks to W. E. Gordon’s ionospheric interests, the Arecibo Observatory.
World’s Biggest: 1963-2016
(From University of Central Florida, used w/o permission.)
(Arecibo dish damage, August 2020.)
Professor Gordon pointed out that a thousand-foot-wide radar dish would open a new window for astronomers. Metaphorically speaking.
With it, scientists could look for a ring current around our planet, bounce signals off Venus and Mars and even look for hitherto-unobserved “radio stars.”
The astronomical kind, not entertainers like Jack Benny and Edgar Bergen.
Gordon also said that maybe orbiting satellites would leave an ionization trail. If they did, the thousand-foot radar dish could detect them.
Construction started in 1960. The Arecibo dish was finished in 1963.
Maybe something like the Arecibo Observatory would have been built without Cold War concerns. Eventually. But I figure that the theoretical prospect of tracking satellites helped get government support for Gordon’s massive antenna.
The NAIC dish was the world’s largest until China’s 500 meter radio telescope came online in 2016.2
An Unexpected Spin-Orbit Resonance
Less than a year after Arecibo’s first light, scientists found something unexpected. And, for many, unbelievable.
Astronomers had learned that Mercury is close enough to our star to be tidally locked.
Mercury could, and probably was, rotating in sync with its orbit 88-day orbit.
Observations of the planet seemed to confirm that one side of Mercury always faced our sun. Every time Mercury was far enough from the sun to be seen, astronomers saw the same features.
In 1964, Gordon Pettengill’s team said that they’d determined that Mercury rotated once every 59 days.
And infrared data from Mercury’s night side showed insufficiently cold temperatures.
Astronomer Giuseppe Colombo saw that Mercury’s Arecibo/Pettengill rotation value was roughly two-thirds of the planet’s orbital period. Colombo suggested that Mercury’s orbital and rotational periods had a 3:2 resonance, not 1:1. As it turns out, he was right.3
Pulsars, Planets and Prudence
(From University of Central Florida, used w/o permission.)
(Arecibo dish damage, August 2020.)
More discoveries came from the Arecibo dish:
1968: First solid evidence that neutron stars exist
Periodicity of the Crab Pulsar (33 milliseconds)
1974: First binary pulsar
1982: First millisecond pulsar
1989: First direct image on an asteroid
1989 PB/4769 Castalia
1990: Pulsar PSR B1257+12 discovered
Later found to have three planets
1994: Mercury’s polar ice mapped
2008: Prebiotic molecules methanimine and hydrogen cyanide detected
In starburst galaxy Arp 220
2010-2011: Bursts of radio emission from T6.5 brown dwarf 2MASS J10475385+2124234
The first radio emission had been detected from a T dwarf
I figure there would be more, if a cable hadn’t snapped August 10, 2020. Followed by another giving way November 6, 2020.4
I’m sorry to see the Arecibo radio telescope go.
But I think NSF director S. Panchanathan is right. Safety matters. And restoring an aging radio reflector isn’t worth risking someone’s life.
Science, Safety and Greater Admiration
As far as I know, the Church doesn’t have rules against fixing radio telescopes. Or rules that say we must fix them.
We do, however, have rules about human life, science and safety.
Exposing someone to mortal danger without a really good reason is a bad idea and we shouldn’t do it. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2269)
Science and technology are good ideas, part of being human. If we’re doing it right, paying attention to this universe lets us experience greater admiration for God’s work. (Catechism, 35–36, 282–283, 341, 2293)
But ‘it’s for science’ doesn’t make risking someone’s health or life okay. (Catechism, 2293–2295)
I’ve talked about this sort of thing before, and probably will again:
“…Tractors, lawnmowers, golf carts, cars, any vehicle you can decorate is welcome to be part of this festive holiday event….”
(photo by Isaac Schweer)
The Osakis Chamber of Commerce parade sounds like a good idea. Provided that they take pandemic-related precautions to keep folks comparatively safe. I’m guessing that this year’s sidewalk watchers will be spread out more, and wearing face masks.
But I won’t be going. Even though Osakis is only 20 minutes down the road. Standing on a central Minnesota sidewalk after sundown in early December isn’t my idea of a good time.
The COVID-19 pandemic is still around, and making a difference. Maybe that’s this post’s unifying idea:
“…the disease’s rampant, accelerating spread is forcing the hand of public health officials. By Thanksgiving, Minnesota could be seeing more than 10,000 new cases reported daily, Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters….
“…With COVID-19 raging now, Walz and public health authorities made it clear that the current situation is worsening as the virus runs largely unabated across the state….
“…’It is no secret that the country, and especially the Upper Midwest, is in the grips of the darkest part of this pandemic,‘ Walz told reporters Monday, hours after the Health Department reported more grim data on the state’s accelerating pandemic.
“While the governor expressed hope of a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ amid news of effective vaccines on the way, he acknowledged the drumbeat of cases, hospitalizations and deaths will continue….”
Monday’s Death Toll in Rural Minnesota
In sharp contrast, Lakeland Broadcasting’s update had all the pizazz of a weather report.
“…Statewide there were 31 more deaths reported to the Minnesota Department of Health, putting the state’s death toll now at 2905.
“As for additional cases of coronavirus, there were 7559 reported in Minnesota Sunday. The state’s total is now at 223,581, and of that number, 172,873 have recovered. There was also a record number of test results reported, just over 60,300….”
I’m not sure what accounts for the difference in tone.
Speculation and a Serious Subject
Maybe Minnesota’s governor and other public officials figure we won’t pay attention unless they get us riled up. Or assume that we can’t act rationally unless we’re scared silly.
Or maybe the Governor’s and MPR’s rampant, raging drumbeat is simply the way city folks express themselves.
Living in an increasingly diverse country, I’ve learned to accept cultural differences. And that’s another topic.
Or maybe not so much. I’ll grant that emotion, particularly fear, is a powerful motivator.
But I strongly suspect, and hope, that most of us don’t want to spread a potentially-lethal disease. And I think many of us can understand common-sense advice.
I also think we can act sensibly. Which is arguably easier, if experts and authority figures aren’t trying to frighten us into using our brains.
Streaming Together for Thanksgiving
(From CDC, used w/o permission.)
(Here’s an idea, from the CDC: have a virtual Thanksgiving Day meal.)
I don’t envy public health officials.
Particularly when doing their job includes telling folks that a traditional family get-together is a bad idea.
The last I heard, Thanksgiving is still a time when many American families gather.
It’s a joyful and/or stressful holiday, depending on family dynamics.
It’s also, this year, a chance for college kids to infect everyone else. Or get infected.
Not that college students are more likely than anyone else to desire disease and death for those closest to them.
I don’t envy students who will be choosing between staying in a dubiously-disinfected dormitory and risking the welfare of their siblings, parents, grandparents and other kin.
This year’s Halloween was very quiet here in Sauk Centre. My guess is that Thanksgiving will be, too.
Sound, Fury and the Usual Paranoia
Maybe I’d achieve fame, of a sort, by passing along fervent warnings that THEY are plotting to CONTROL us with face masks.
Or that COVID-19 vaccines are really a sinister means to REWRITE OUR RNA: no doubt with nefarious intent!!!!!!!
But I won’t.
Even though I saw ‘face mask’ and ‘RNA’ warnings this week.
There’s quite enough sound and fury online, without me adding to the mess.
The “RNA” thing has potential to become a popular conspiracy theory’s centerpiece.
Two promising COVID-19 vaccines actually do use messenger RNA. If or when they’re approved, they’ll be the first of their kind passed by the FDA.
I probably won’t take time to delve into the practicality of mind control through face masks. Honestly, that’d be weird even by Japanese monster movie standards.
But I might talk about the allegedly-malevolent messenger RNA thing. There’s interesting science involved.
I'm a sixty-something married guy with four kids in a small central Minnesota town. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run a business and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters.
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