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That line came to me a few minutes ago, as I looked and read through the latest photographic blog posts by Stephen Lewis in his blog, Bubkes). This one…

Stephen Lewis photo… titled Farmyard, Grandmother, Chicken, and Ovid in Exile, is accompanied by richly detailed text, including this:

The courtyard in the photo no longer exists; it and and the vegetable garden were uprooted several years ago.  in their place: a summer-time restaurant surrounded by neatly planted flowerbeds and a tall antenna tower of a mobile telephony company resting on a broad concrete footing.  The grandmother still lives on the plot, however, and tends the little that remains of her garden.  She is in her late-eighties now and, at day’s end, often sits on the raised curb of the newly paved road next to her former farmyard in expectation of passersby…

Nothing is permanent, but in this case the more durable feature is the grandmother and her friendly face — the face of the place, while she lasts.

Also arresting is Corn Stalks, a Plateau, the Black Sea, and the Horizon:

dscf0268

It’s a place that calls to mind face in its verb form. A synonym might be to meet, or to confront. We face a challenge, an opportunity, a problem, success, failure, or the world. Things face us as well, but not always directly. Three of the four things in the photo are mostly hidden by the first, but far more vast and open. Also flat. Horizons may feature mountains, but they are horizontal: flat and wide.

We are walking and running animals that work best in the horizontal. Our eyes shift more easily to left and right than to up and down. Our stereoscopic vision and hearing also locate best in the horizontal spread from one here to many theres.

Our species dispersed from Africa toward gone horizons, mostly along coasts long since drowned by melting ice caps. The Black Sea has changed greatly in spread and shape throughout human history, and may have reached its present height in a deluge through the Dardanelles and Bosporus seaways.

The view on the path in the photo is framed between the vertical blinders of dry corn stalks at the edges of fields of unseen vastness. (Corn fields have always been both beautiful and a tiny bit creepy to me, ever since I got a bit lost when wandering as a kid into a cornfield somewhere, with no clear direction out other than the sound of distant voices.)

Between the last paragraph and this one, Stephen posted another photo, titled Shabla, Bulgaria: Seawards and Kitchenwards, taken on the shore of the Black Sea:

shabla-bulgaria-seawards-and-kitchenwards

The subject is mostly boats and ramps. In the foreground are stairs and wood railings, two of the many literal and figurative framings, none quite horizontal, in a vertical photo with dimensions we call “portrait.” On the face of this Bulgarian shore, one ear is the sea itself. All the ramps face land and sea. To them the camera is an unseen visitor from another dimension.

While seeing and hearing are mostly horizontal (our ears as well as our eyes are aligned with the horizon), eating is vertical: food is something we “eat up” and “get down.” So is nutrition: we “raise” crops and cattle.”

In Stephen’s photos, things have faces too. Some are literal, such as in Guns of August, Books of August: The Iconography of a Gravestone in Prague:

ww-i-grave-prague-copy-2 The photo puts in contrast the irony of cemetery “monuments” (as gravestones are now called), commemorating stuff nobody alive remembers, for an audience a living performer might round to zero. Under the subhead The Emotions of the Living; the Passivity of the Dead, Stephen writes,

The photo above, taken in the immense cemetery in the late-19th/early-20th century residential quarter of Vinohrady, portrays a gravestone tableau of life’s emotionized figures that reveals the ways that those in the comfort and safety of the home-front consciously or unconsciously sanitized, rationalized, and ennobled the senseless carnage of World War I.

Last month I visited the graves of relatives three generations and more ahead of mine, at Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, and reported on that visit in Lives of the Dead. While some graves at Woodlawn yearned toward the kind of extravagance Stephen found in Vinohrady, my late kinfolk leaned in the opposite direction, marking little or nothing of who they planted there. To my knowledge, I was the first to surface (at those last two links) twenty Englerts, Knoebels and others whose faces in death are carpets of mowed grass.

And who knows how long anything will last on the Web? My old blog, on which I wrote from 1999-2007, survives by the grace of a friend, and its blogroll is a near-cemetery of rotting links.

Every thing faces a future for as long as we grace it with expectation of use, appreciation or some other goodness. Why else save anything?

So I’m glad Stephen keeps putting these photos up, and enlarging them so well with prose. Here’s a list of other photos in his series, posted since the last time I last blogged his series:

It’s a wonderful gallery. Enjoy.

Christopher Lydon at the AthanaeumThere’s a challenge going around Facebook: to name ten books that have changed your life.

So I’ve thought about my own, and kept a running list here in draft form. Now that it’s close enough to publish, methinks, here they are, in no order, and not limited to ten (or to Facebook) —

  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstloy. I’ve read and re-read it many times, though not in the last two decades. I got turned onto it by this broadcast on WBAI in New York, back in 1970.
  • Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman. I sound my barbaric yawp across the roofs of the world. More here.
  • Annals of the Former World, by John McPhee, who gets my vote for the best nonfiction writer of all time. I’ve read and love all of McPhee’s books, but his geology series — Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, Rising From the Plains and Assembling California — turned me on in a huge way to geology, the Earth and the long view of time. All are collected, with one more added, in Annals, which won a Pulitzer in 1999. The best of the series, by the way, is Rising From the Plains, just for the stories of its lead characters, geologist David Love and his parents, living the pioneer life in central Wyoming early in the last century. Great stuff.
  • Rabbit Run and the rest of the Rabbit series, by John Updike. While many of Updike’s subjects bore or annoy me (and his frequent descriptions of sex, all as clinically detailed as a Wyeth paintings, fail as porn), the quality of his writing is without equal, imho.
  • The Bible. I was raised on it and read lots of it, back in my early decades. So I can’t deny its influence. The King James is my fave, having a beauty that others lack.
  • Personal Knowledge: Toward a Post-Critical Philosophy, by Michael Polanyi. Less famous than his brother Karl, and nearly quote-proof. (The one exception: “We know more than we can tell.”) But deep. Studied the crap out of him in college, thanks to the obsessions of one philosophy professor.
  • Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff. All of George’s books changed me. My vote for his best is Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. Explains convincingly a shitload about politics and much else.
  • The Book of Knowledge and Grollier encyclopedias. We had those in our house when I was a kid, and I read them constantly.
  • Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville. Call me hooked. Typee rocks too.
  • Nature and other essays (notably Self-reliance) by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Hit me between the eyes in my college years. Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events… Without Emerson, there would have been no Linux for me. Also no ProjectVRM, and probably no Cluetrain either. Also from that century, Hawthorne and Poe.
  • Websters New Collegiate Dictionary. Meaning the one my parents gave me when I went away to high school at age 15 in 1962. It’s one of the most worn and marked up books I have.
  • Huckleberry Finn, and many other works of Mark Twain. Read most of them in my teens.
  • Our Dumb World, by The Onion. The funniest book ever written. Please update it, Onion folks.
  • Dave Berry Slept Here: a Sort of History of the United States, by Dave Barry. His funniest book.
  • Mr. Sammler’s Planet, by Saul Bellow. My vote for Bellow’s best. Conquered people tend to be witty.
  • Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison. Blew my mind.
  • How Buildings Learn, by Stewart Brand. Explains so much I never saw or knew before, especially about infrastructure and code.
  • Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin. I also saw him speak when I was in college. Very moving.
  • Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin.
  • Dune, by Frank Herbert. I like the original better than any of the later sequels and prequels.
  • The Foundation Series, by Isaac Azimov. I only like the original trilogy, which blew my mind when I read it, many years ago. Likewise…
  • The entire James Bond series, by Ian Flemming. Knocked them off in a college summer session. Pure escapism, but it helped my writing. Flemming was good. Bonus link: Alligator, a parody of Bond novels by Christopher Cerf and Michael Frith of the Harvard Lampoon. In it MI5′s front is a car dealership. If any actual customers show up, they are taken to the back and then “politely, but firmly, shot.”
  • The Cluetrain Manifesto. Co-writing it changed my life. Simple as that.
  • Many books by Thomas C. Hinkle, which I read as a child hiding away from the bitter and humiliating experiences of failing to compete in academics, sports and everything else at school. The books weren’t great literature, but they were great escapes. All were adventures involving heroic animals on the prairie, where both Hinkle and my mother grew up. (He was from Kansas and she was from Napoleon, North Dakota, about which it was said “It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from there.”) When I got older my interest in prairie settings transferred to…
  • Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas and Cheyenne Autumn, by Mari Sandoz, who wrote in the anglicized idioms of Sioux and Cheyenne. Amazing stuff. Honorable mentions in this same vein: Black Elk Speaks, by John Niehardt and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown. Not sure why, but there has always been a warmth in our family toward native Americans. And maybe that’s why I also like…
  • The Tales of Alvin Maker, by Orson Scott Card. The natives in this one have a heroic transcendence (as do others). Got turned on to these by our youngest son, who has read at least ten times the number of books in his short life than I’ve read in my long one.
  • The Poltergeist, by William G. Roll. I worked for Bill at the Psychical Research Foundation, which hung off the side of Duke in the late ’70s. His work opened my mind in many ways. Great times there too.
  • Other authors that run in the credits of my life: Camus, Sartre, Malraux, Conrad, Yates, Kipling, Tennyson, Woolf, Aldous Huxley, Rilke, Thomas Mann, Kafka, Solzhenitsyn, Hesse, Wallace Stevens, Jeffers, Steinbeck, Delmore Schwartz, Card, e.e. cummings, Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, E.L. Doctorow, Stanley Elkin, William F. Buckley, James Baldwin, Truman Capote, Salinger, Mailer, Barth. (Thanks to Interleaves and Robert Teeter for listing Harold Bloom‘s Western Canon, which helped with the list above.)

Ah, and the photo at the top is of our good friend Christopher Lydon, taken while he was giving us newcomers a tour of the Boston Athenæum, which we immediately joined and will love forever. Besides being a great lover of books, Chris is a broadcasting legend whose Radio Open Source is a treasure that spills weekly onto the Net and WBUR.

I last visited Barcelona more than twenty years ago. Back then the Sagrada Família was already impressive, but also incomplete.  All that stood were the nativity façade and some small number (four? eight?) of the Sagrada’s eventual eighteen towers. I recall nothing of the interior, perhaps because there was none. In many ways, in fact, it resembled a ruin: something not all there.

This time was different. The church, our guide told us, was about a third complete the last time we were there, and is a bit more than two thirds complete now. Still remaining are some new towers and detail work on the exterior, a proper floor for the interior (it’s mostly temporary marble now), and the final entrance: the glory façade at the south end, or the foot of the church’s cross.

Impressive and iconic as the exterior is, the interior achieves a magnificence which, to me, exceeds not only every other church I’ve seen, but every building, period. The forest of columns, which really do resemble trees, spread above oval “knots” into branches that hold up the roof the way spread out fingers might hold up a dish from below. In fact they do far more than that: they are also made to carry the weight of the Jesus tower, which will rise to five hundred and sixty feet above the ground, ranking the Sagrada as the tallest church on Earth.

And, rather than leaves, the ceiling features beautiful pores — the navels of hyperbolas — that suggest portals toward the infinite. That’s one view, above. More can be found in this photo set. The captions aren’t right yet, but the connection at our B&B here is awful, so writing — even a blog post like this — is a bit of an ordeal. So I won’t be in a position to fix things up until I get back stateside next week. Meanwhile, enjoy a visit vicariously.

To an window-sitter accustomed to flying over the American West, Catalonia from altitude looks like Utah. On the northern horizon the Pyrenees, like the Uintahs, run east-west above a dry landscape of settled alluvium, much of it reddish as the San Rafael desert. While the shapes of the ancient towns below are clearly old world in shape and style (for example, red tile roofed), and no doubt receives a greater dousing of rain, the resemblance is still striking.

As always when flying over new places, i found myself wondering about geological provenance. And that was the reverie blown straight out of my mind when a singular landform slid into view. Shaped like the upper half of an elongated football, a half-buried zeppelin, the spine of a humpback, it was deeply eroded into bulbous hoodoo shapes, like those of Utah’s arches and goblins. Yet in a more significant way it also reminded me instantly of the equally anomalous church we were sure to visit in Barcelona, to which we were on approach: Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Família, which I last visited twenty years ago, and would visit again two days hence, on New Years Day, 2014. (Here are some interior shots I took there.)

Was the landform an inspiration for the church? Digging around later, I found the answer was yes. Same goes for the cuevas of Majorca, which I gathered the instant I saw those as well, when I visited the island in 1998.

The landform is the Holy Mountain of Montserrat, which means “serrated mountain” in Catalan.

I’d say more, but Net connection at our Barcelona B&B is iffy at best. Evidence: I wrote this several days ago and am only getting it up today, 2 January. So the rest will just have to wait, probably until I’m back in the States next week.

I orient by landmarks. When I was growing up in New Jersey, the skyline of New York raked the eastern sky. To the west were the Watchung “Mountains“: hills roughly half the height of Manhattan’s ranking skyscrapers. But they gave me practice for my favorite indulgence here in Los Angeles: multi-angulating my ass in respect to seriously huge mountains.

What stands out about these things aren’t just their elevations…

  1. San Gorgonio, 11,503′*
  2. San Jacinto, 10,834
  3. San Antonio (Old Baldy), 10,068*

It’s their relief. These mothers are almost two miles high: alps above low plains and hills that slope under city and suburbs to the sea. One day when I went skiing at Mt. Baldy (same mountain as I shot above, on approach to LAX), I met guys who had gone surfing that very morning, not far away.

That’s right: skiing. In Los Angeles County.

All these mountains are crumples along a seam in the earth called the San Andreas Fault. The 40-quadrillion-ton Pacific Plate is crunching up against the also-huge North American plate at a high rate of geologic speed and force. The core rock inside these mountains is about 1.7 billion years of age, but the mountains themselves are, geologically speaking, as new and temporary as waves of surf. Note the catch basins at the base of San Antonio Canyon in the shot above. Their purpose is to catch rocks rolling off the slopes, as well as rain-saturated “debris flows”: Southern California’s version  of lava.

Speaking of which, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of John McPhee’s The Control of Nature (here’s an LA Times review), which features a long chapter titled “Los Angeles versus the San Gabriel Mountains.” That anybody would build a damn thing on or below the slopes of these virtual volcanoes speaks volumes about humanity’s capacity for denial.

Well, I was gonna drive up to the top of Mt. Wilson this morning to catch the sunrise over the layer of marine fog just over my head here in Pasadena, but I’ve got too much work to do. So I’ll just enjoy orienting toward it as I drive to Peet’s for coffee, and let ya’ll derive whatever vicarious pleasures might follow along. Cheers.

[Later...] Beautiful clouds atop the mountains all day today, with showers scattered here and there, and even a bit of snow. Tonight the snow level will be about 5000 feet, I heard. Should be pretty in the morning. Alas, I’ll be arriving at Newark then.


* The photos in Wikipedia for both are ones I shot from airplanes. They are among more than 400 now in Wikimedia Commons. I love feeding shots into the public domain, to find helpful uses such as these.

Your late-model car knows a lot more than its dashboard tells you. It knows how fast you’ve been going on every trip, your fuel mileage, your tire pressures and much more. It even knows what your engine light really means — before it comes on. In fact your car has hundreds of sensors with interesting stuff to tell you, if you only had a way to listen.

Soon you can, with Fuse, a kool new Kickstarter project.

Your Fuse is three things in one:

  • A sensor gizmo that plugs into your car’s diagnostics outlet
  • A smartphone app that gives you a second dashboard
  • A personal cloud to connect your car with the rest of your life

Fuse’s gizmo routes all your car’s data from a plug under your dashboard to your smartphone app, and adds GPS data as well, so you can see exactly where your car has been — and combine that information with anything else it would be good to know.

For example, Fuse can learn your driving patterns and automatically classify repeat trips, such as a carpool. It can associate your contacts with a carpool pickup, and automatically shoot over a message as you leave home and again as you approach the stop. You can even share your location with your pickup, so they can see where you are on their own map.

Fuse can associate trips with business, charity or other tax-deductible purposes.

Fuse can keep track of what your car is doing when it’s on the road without you — for example when your teenager is behind the wheel. You can learn more about your driving habits and those of others, and score them for safety, smart fuel use and other measures.

Fuse connects to other apps, for example ones that tell you gas station locations and prices. By watching that data and your own fuel levels, Fuse can tell you when and where you’ll get the most for your money by filling up.

Fuse keeps a log of your car expenses, and can share those with your financial apps. It can also work with your calendar app to schedule oil changes, tire rotations, registrations, and inspections.

Fuse also solves clues behind your dashboard’s engine light, so you know more about what’s going on, and you can share the same information with your car’s mechanic.

Best of all, Fuse is all-yours. Its data lives in your own cloud, not in some centralized service. In that cloud are all the connections between your car and any variety of apps and databases on your computer and smartphone.

I could go on, but I’m busy and would rather just urge you to go lay a few bucks on the Kickstarter to help make it happen.

It’s from Kynetx, a leading VRM developer. (Also one of the many I consult.) Read more about it at Phil Windley’s blog.

 

@BlakeHunskicer has a kickstarter project, Fleeing the War at Home: An interactive documentary introducing the crisis in Syria through the personal histories and dreams of Syrian refugees, with a few days and a few thousand dollars left to go.

Blake is one of the graduate students I got to know this last year as a visiting scholar in @JayRosen_NYU‘s Studio20 (@Studio20NYU) class at NYU. He’s a terrific journalist and photographer already, and will put both skills to good use for a good cause. Join me in helping him make it happen.

In Bubkes, Stephen Lewis has lately been blogging with depth and insight on many topics — music, architecture, culture, infrastructure and events historic and current — in two cities with which he is intimately familiar: Istanbul and Sofia.

In Taksim Underpass: Ask Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Parker, Jane Jacobs, and Robert Moses, he writes,

By itself, the Turkish government’s plan to shunt traffic under and past Taksim Square might indeed lessen vehicular congestion, thus freeing this iconic location from dominance by motor vehicle traffic. In conjunction with the plan to replace all of Taksim Square and Gezi Park with a massive complex of shopping mall, mosque, and fantasy reconstruction of a 19th-century military barracks, however, the underpass will instead deliver more automobile traffic into the urban core, a further step toward transforming a vital, unplanned, dense, “legacy” urban agglomeration into just another suburb.

In Istanbul Conflicts From Afar: Issues and Aspersions, Headscarves and Rambo, he visits specious tales by the Turkish Prime Minister and his sympathizers, of protestors “harassing pious Muslim women and tearing off their headscarves” (among other offenses for which there is no confirming hard evidence), and compares them to equally wrong tales from the Vietnam War era. That was when “US antiwar activists were stigmatized — and crocodile tears poured forth — over reports that US soldiers returning from tours duty in Vietnam were being spit upon by opponents of the war.  Not a single person, however — neither spitter, spat upon, nor witness thereto — ever stepped forward to confirm any such attack.” In support of this he recalls an On the Media program confirming the purely propogandized nature of the claim. I just did some digging and found the program transcript. Here it is.

In Sofia, Bulgaria: From Protest to Protest to Protest, Steve visits “the Balkan blurring of what is said and what is, and what is and what could or should be” and how in Bulgaria “nothing is what is seems to be at first glance, and words, no matter how clear, often refer to alternate realities (click here for my long-ago online discourse on the wisdom and convenience of the oft-heard Bulgarian-language phrase po printsip, tr. ‘in principle‘).” His next post, Plovdiv, Bulgaria, 1997: Musicians Marching in Protest, recalls an earlier protest, again accompanied by an excellent photo.

In Istanbul: Water, Fountains, Taksim, and Infrastructural Tourism, Steve reports on joining a colleague in visiting “the layers of infrastructure — including Ottoman-era fountains — that have served Istanbul over centuries past and during its ten-fold growth in population during the twentieth.” I share with Steve a passion for what he and his colleague call “infrastructural tourism” — a practice which, he adds, “appears already to be underway, albeit searching for its own content and method, as per this report at Design Observer.” Wonderful link, that one. Go read that too.

In From the Archives: Fading Fragments of Legacy Infrastructure, he begins,

Two decades ago, I began to photograph the historic water fountains (çeșme) and water kiosks (sebil) of Istanbul.  I began, not with the grand and monumental, but with obscure and abandoned — those in backstreets, alleyways, and courtyards, functioning and non-functioning fragments of legacy urban infrastructure, overlooked by scholars,  their features surrendered to the elements, decay, and neglect. The forgotten origins and gradual disappearance of many of these structures seemed symbolic of larger urban processes of decline and abandonment — processes that are as central to the functioning and continuity of cities as are restoration and (re)development.

I’ve been doing something similar in New York and New Jersey, where I grew up. A few days ago, driving back to Manhattan from a meeting in Edgewater, New Jersey, I found myself following Google Maps’ navigation to the George Washington Bridge, turning onto Bruce Reynolds Boulevard before bearing right onto a ramp leading into the toll lanes. Paused at a light,  I saw on the right an old street sign marking the late Hoyt Avenue, and realized I was exactly where my parents lived when I was born: at 2063 Hoyt. Ninety-three years earlier, this was the view from that very same spot. (And here’s the larger photo set, with shots old and new. Credit for the old ones goes to my late father and to his little sister Grace, now 101 years old and doing fine.) I hope, when Steve next returns to New York (his home town), we can do some infrastructural touring together, cameras in hand.

Bonus link: Steve’s latest, Further to “Istanbul Conflicts From Afar:” Kudos, Mentions, and “Great Expectorations”, which cites this post as well.

The title of this post, Rebuilding the Future, is one I came up with back when I read Steve’s Taksim Underpass piece, and I wanted to post thoughts about the ironies that always surround the civic graces — especially infrastructure — that we choose to keep using (often for new purposes), or just to preserve, for generations to come. I didn’t go there, because I’ve already said enough and I’d rather that readers get into what Steve is writing and sharing. But I still kinda like the headline, so I’m letting it stand.

Parc de la Villette

That’s the Parc de la Villette, also variously known as Parc La Villette, Parc Villette, or just Villette, here in Paris. I shot it two days ago, when we got here and the weather was clear. It got cloudy and wet after that. But it looks like things will clear up for:::::

OuiShareFest

From the About page:

The first major European event dedicated to the collaborative economy.

This three-day festival will bring together a global community of entrepreneurs, designers, makers, economists, investors, politicians and citizens to build a collaborative future.
Paris, May 2-3-4, 2013.

Not just another business conference.

Co-designed with its community, OuiShare Fest will feature a wide range of hands-on activities and great live music.
Day 1-2 will gather 500 professionals and public officials.
Day 3 will be free and open to the public.

Can’t wait.

I’ll be speaking there on Friday morning at 9:30. The title: Markets are Relationships. I’ll be there for most of the rest of the show too. Great line-up of topics, speakers and attendees. After that, it’s Silicon Valley for IIW.

See ya theres.

 

A comet is headed for Mars. impactNow approaching at 125,000 miles per hour, it will explode with the force of 35 million megatons of TNT if it hits. That’s a third the size of the collision that caused the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, which famously erased the dinosaurs and ended the Mesozoic, around 66 Million B.C. It also left a 110-mile wide crater next to what is now Mexico. This Mars impact, should it occur, will also be larger than many other impact events that changed life on Earth utterly, causing mass extinctions countless times in in ages before ours.

The chance that this comet will hit Mars is one in two thousand. The chance that its tail will graze Mars and produce an impressive sky show there are high. Earth-made probes on the surface of Mars will be watching, if they survive. So expect some impressive news, either way.

By the way, my favorite comet of all time was Comet West, which glided slowly through our skies through several weeks in the Winter of 1976. It was beautiful. So was Hale-Bopp, in 1997. Here is an excerpt from what I wrote at the time:

By Doc Searls
March 6, 1997

It’s 5:15AM as I write this. A few minutes ago, after the kid woke us for his breakfast, I walked to the kitchen to fetch a glass of water. When I arrived at the sink, I looked up and saw the most amazing thing: Hale-Bopp, the comet, brighter than any star, hanging from the Northeast sky over San Francisco Bay.

I’ve seen five comets in my life. None have been more spectacular than this one is, right now. It’s astonishing. Trust me: this one is a Star of Bethlehem-grade mother of a comet.

Considering the comet’s quality, publicity has been kind of weak. Which makes sense, since I have noticed an inverse relationship between comet quality and notoriety.

KahoutekThe most promoted comet in recent history was Kahoutek, in 1971. Kahoutek was supposed to be the biggest comet since Halley last appeared in 1910. But after all the hype, Kahoutek was nearly invisible. I can’t even say I saw it. At least I can say I looked and that maybe I sawsomething. (But hey, I lived in Jersey at the time. Whaddaya ‘spect?)

Comet WEstIn fact, Kahoutek was such a big no-show that when Comet West appeared in 1975, it received almost no publicity at all. But it was a wonderful comet. First it appeared as a morning star with a bright little tail about one moon long, above the Eastern horizon. Then, after it whipped around the Sun and flew back out toward its own tail, the comet spread into a wide V that graced the evening sky like God’s own logo. At the time I lived in a rural enclave outside Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and every night for several weeks a few of us would wander out and marvel at the show.

HalleyThe next comet was Halley, in 1986. Astronomers had rightly mixed feelings about Halley. On the one hand, they knew this would be one of Halley’s least visible visits. On the other hand, they knew it would raise interest in astronomy. Well, Halley was nearly as big a bust as Kahoutek. At best the “Great Comet” was a tiny smudge in the sky. Can you see it in this picture? Right. My friend Jerry Solfvin and I had about the same luck when we joined a 3AM traffic jam of about 10,000 people who went to the far side of Mt. Diablo to look at this. By the way, this picture is from the Hyuktuke Gallery at the NEFAS (Northeast Florida Astronomical Society) site.

Comet Hyuktake showed up about a year ago, and enough time had passed since the Halley disappointment to allow the new comet a fair measure of publicity. And Hyuktake was a beauty. When it skirted the North Star, the comet’s tail stretched across a sixth of the sky. The best image I’ve found is this cool 3-D number by Dave Crum. Click on it to visit a larger version at the NEFAS site.

And now we have Hale-Bopp. Although Hale-Bopp won’t come nearly as close to Earth as Hyuktake did, it’s putting on a bigger show, mostly because it’s a bigger comet. lot bigger. This thing is more than 200 times larger than Halley: about 40km across. You can actually see some shape to it, even with the naked eye. To spot it, look to the Northeast in the early morning, when it’s still dark. You’ll see it below and to the left of Cygnus (the Northern Cross), pointing straignt down toward the horizon. It’ll be brighter than any other star in the sky, and with a tail that stretches across the Milky Way. On the 6th you’ll also see the last sliver of moon down to the East, and on succeeding days the moon will move out of the way long enough for a great view.

Bonus links: Comet Ison, which might become “the comet of the century” later this year. After looping close to the Sun, it may become as bright as the moon, and visible in daylight. And Comet Panstarrs, which is visible now.

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