Friday, September 17, 2010

Iceland, Recent History

Reykjavik Harbor, taken from the belfry of the tallest church.
            The collapse of Iceland’s environment and its democracy in its early years forged cultural traits that persist even today, particularly a deep suspicion of allowing any one group to have too much wealth or too much power.   And Iceland’s later history only reinforced these traits.  During the seven hundred years when Iceland was ruled by foreigners, there were no rich people in Iceland—except the foreigners who had been sent there to rule them. The Icelanders themselves were all poor, and uniformly poor. If there was any one thing that could have increased the suspicion of wealth which Icelanders already held, it would have been such a situation.  And throughout most of that period, Denmark held a monopoly on Icelandic trade, which impoverished the country further.  By the twentieth century, resentment of “foreign exploiters” and resentment of “the wealthy” had become synonymous.
            Another factor which I believe contributed to Icelanders’ willingness to accept redistributive policies was that during the “glory days” of the fishing industry, that industry in itself provided an opportunity for large numbers of blue collar workers to earn high incomes, and this evens out the wealth.  At least, that certainly happened in my home town of Waterloo, Iowa.  In the post war years, John Deere and Rath Pack both paid high wages, and this lifted the wage level of all other workers in the area.  Not that everyone made as high a wage as Deere workers.  The work in the Deere plant, especially the foundry, was strenuous, hot, dangerous work in foul air, and no one in his right mind would do it if he wasn’t paid significantly more than he could make elsewhere.  Many quit the plant to take easier jobs—always at lower wages--but not radically lower wages.  If you worked for a small local non-union business, every time you and your boss talked about wages, you knew, and your boss knew that you could always go back to Deere’s.   So this situation had the effect of pulling up the bottom of the wage structure.  But it also pulled down the top, since Waterloo’s only wealthy class then was comprised of the small business owners, who all made less income because they had to pay wages competing with Deere and Rath.   In the 1960s, visitors to Waterloo often observed that Waterloo had no upper class—or lower class.  Not everyone earned exactly the same wage, but they were nearly all in about the same class, or so it seemed to outsiders.
            I suspect that fishing boat work was also horrible, strenuous, dangerous work, and people were paid high wages to do it.  And this lifted the wages of shore-bound occupations as well.  A political order that aims to even out opportunities and incomes would seem more reasonable to those who grew up in a place where fairly equal opportunities and incomes had been the norm.
            Another factor that allowed Iceland’s bold social initiatives was its homogeneous population.   In the United States and in England, conservatives in the twentieth century often won elections, not because the working people who voted for them had been persuaded that the conservative parties would advance their own economic interests, but rather, they voted their fears—fears created by “wedge politicians” who pandered to them.  For a hundred years, conservative wedge politicians have divided White against Black, Protestant against Catholic, and so forth.  I know several conservatives who are decent people, and who would be appalled at these tactics.  But in the U.S., no conservative since Eisenhower has been elected to national office without at least some component of the vote owing to wedge politics—usually race baiting wedge politics.  And in every case, the size of that component was greater than his margin of victory.  I clearly remember blue collar Democrats who said they were voting for Reagan in 1980.  They had been persuaded that a significant part of their tax money was supporting “black welfare queens.”  It was utter nonsense.   The entire Health and Human Services budget was a couple percent of the federal budget, and the majority of it went to run the prison system--and most recipients of any kind of welfare payments were white.  I explained that in a whole year, the amount of their tax money actually spent on “black welfare queens” could not exceed ten bucks.  Is it reasonable to elect a man who will bust every union he can and undermine your own wage scale to save ten bucks?
             But elect him they did; and his first official act was to bust the Air Traffic Controllers’ union.  He then appointed a bunch of anti-union zealots to the NLRB who ruled against every union petition without even reading it.  And then he gave Volker the green light to throw the country into a depression.  Within two years, our union voluntarily agreed to a 40% wage cut, (not that it mattered, since only 5 out of 300 of us still had jobs.)  All this for ten bucks?  It wasn’t the money; it was race—and Reagan and his handlers fully understood this.  And when Thatcher was elected in England, part of the strategy involved a whispering campaign to convince working people that “If you vote for labor, you’ll have a person of colour for a neighbor.”  (Only they phrased it less politely.)  As I said, I know many conservatives, or at least moderates who often support conservatives, who would be appalled at this kind of tactic. But if you’ve ever given a dollar to any conservative running for national office, some of that dollar was used for this kind of strategy.  And if it wasn’t, then they lost.
            The problem for liberals is that any time we suggest even the simplest of government programs that would give any benefit to anyone, a conservative campaign, sometimes shouted, and sometimes whispered, spreads the message that:  “If we have this program, then some of your tax money will be going to “them,” and we all know what treacherous, no good bastards “they” are.”   Now, if you were Karl Rove and someone in Iceland hired you to devise a wedge campaign to split the working class vote there, who is the “them?”  If you were trying to incite irrational fear of the “other,” who would that be?    They all have the same race, nationality, language, history, and religion, ---and mostly the same genes.  So who is “they?”
            And finally, Iceland, like all European countries, has a constitution which provides a true democracy, with “one man, one vote.”   We do not.  Have you ever noticed that in the U.S. Senate, South Dakota gets as many senate seats as New York?  If you don’t understand how this makes a difference, simply look at all liberal programs since the beginning of the republic which passed the U.S. House-- but not the Senate.  To sum up, Iceland has a unique geology, ecology, economy, and history.  They have a homogeneous population.  And they have a democracy.

Iceland, Early History

Culture House--One  of the many keepers of Iceland's 1000 years of  History.

               According to the Icelandic Forestry Association, at the time of settlement, over 25% of Iceland was covered with birch woodland.  But this resource was over exploited.  It was cut for timber, for firewood, or just burned off to clear land for grazing.  With no trees, the land quickly eroded. They say Iceland today is “without a doubt the most eroded country in Europe, if not the world.”  But starting about 1930, conservation and tree planting efforts have been underway, and are yielding results. But the environmental degradation, which is now so difficult to reverse, began quite early.
            According to ResearchPennState, Iceland was settled between 870 and 930 by Viking chieftains trying to escape rule of the king of Norway.  They divided the country into 36 chieftaincies which jointly ruled for 300 years. Then civil war broke out and when it was over, Iceland had lost its independence and become a part of Norway. Icelandic society changed from a relatively egalitarian society where each chieftain fed and housed his followers to a state hierarchy where each family was on its own and little concern was shown for the poor.
            Penn State anthropologist Paul Durrenberger claims that the societal changes were not the result of the war but the cause, having begun 200 years earlier.  He says overpopulation, overgrazing, and erosion had reduced Icelanders’ ability to feed themselves, and chieftains learned that a man ate more than his labor was worth.  John Steinberg of UCLA, Durrenberger’s collaborator, says the chieftains “squeezed the followers out of the longhouses,” which is a sign of a developing country trying to get more production out of its people.  But in Iceland’s fragile landscape, it didn’t work.  And the result was chaos, war, and disaster.
            During the “Free Commonwealth Period” (930-1262) authority was in the hands of the chieftains, who represented their constituents for a fee. But constituents could change their allegiance at any time without changing residence.  So there was a lively competition among chieftains to attract more followers.  And a chieftaincy was property—it could be bought and sold.  You could purchase a chieftaincy as an investment, hoping that by being an effective chieftain, you could attract more followers, and earn a profit in fees.   It was government by free market capitalism, and it worked fairly well as long as there were 36 chieftains.  But the end result of competition is monopoly.  By 1230, six families controlled all the original chieftaincies.  Having acquired more wealth and power than they could hold onto, their rule collapsed in chaos and civil war.  Someone appealed to the king of Norway for help, and when it was all over, Iceland was a province of Norway, which was later conquered by Denmark.
            Even if, as Durrenberger argues, the breakdown of a functioning democratic order was the result of the impoverishment of the Icelanders and not the cause, there are still some lessons here.  One is that when the environment imposes hard limits to what can be sustainably produced, that imposes limits on the kinds of government that can be used.  We often hear the slogan, “Let the winners win and the losers lose.”   No polity ever followed that doctrine more assiduously than the Icelandic settlers.   And the winners did indeed win and the losers lost. And the biggest loser was the environment. But the Icelanders also lost their prosperity, their democracy, and eventually their sovereignty.   Considering the fragile environment, they would have had serious difficulties no matter what their social system. But to most Icelanders, allowing too much wealth and power to be controlled by too few people is what turned a difficulty into a disaster. You may ask, “How could people’s political views today be influenced by events of a thousand years ago?”  In most places, they wouldn’t be.  But Icelanders actually read their history.  As my daughter puts it, by the time they regained their independence in 1944, “They not only knew how they had lost their sovereignty-- they’d had 700 years to brood about it.”

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A View of Iceland

Above is a view of the rift valley at Thingveller, taken from atop the LawRock, where in 930 AD the world's oldest democracy was founded.
            Before considering the various geopolitical factors that made Iceland what it is today, let’s take a look at what it is today.  As an American liberal, born in the Roosevelt years and raised in the Truman years, I began life with the reasonable expectation that I would live to see a day when my country could provide its citizens with at least a minimum guarantee of economic stability; the kind of guarantee Roosevelt outlined in his Economic Bill of Rights, nearly 70 years ago.  I assumed that my country could eventually provide all Americans a job that pays a living wage, basic health care, and an education appropriate to today’s world.  And I assumed that I would live to see these things—but I no longer believe so.   It’s not that these initiatives are not regularly introduced in Congress; they are and always have been.  Yet with every proposal, we’ve heard a chorus of conservatives lamenting, “Gosh, we can’t really do that.  That would be socialism, and socialism doesn’t work.  If you knew anything about economics, then you’d understand that socialism doesn’t really work.”
            Well, I’ve just returned from Iceland, and I’m here to tell you:  Socialism is alive and well—and it works slicker than snot on a glass doorknob.  And everyone is happy with it, there are no problems, and no one is planning to get rid of it anytime soon.  Iceland provides its citizens a social net that goes light years beyond anything American liberals have ever proposed, and it works just fine.  With the present difficulties caused by the collapse of the Icelandic investment banking industry, (a collapse which American banks caused) a few programs may face a few cuts.  But they have no intension of seriously scaling back social wages in Iceland. The basic welfare state is simply not on the table.  No doubt, there will be a lively debate, and there will be sacrifices--things are tough everywhere.  But these will be shared sacrifices.  Iceland's national identity is a history of shared sacrifice, and no one is going to take that from them. 
            So I put it to you:  Why can a chunk of volcanic rock provide all this for its people, whilst America, supposedly the richest superpower on earth claims it cannot?  The answer is that they have the political will to do it. But how did they come to have such a will?  That is what I will attempt to examine.
            First, let’s look at the Geology.  If you have any interest in geology at all, then a visit to Iceland should be the top item on your “bucket list.” Iceland is a “one stop shopping center” for geology.  It’s got it all—volcanoes, glaciers, earthquakes, geysers, rift valleys, plate tectonics, uplift, subsidence; you name it—they’ve got it.   And if you are a guy who likes his geology the way he likes his women—young and beautiful—then come to Iceland.  So how young is it?  The first volcano poked above the surface of the Atlantic only 20 million years ago.  And with an eruption every four years on average, in most places the surface you are walking on was laid down in historic times---and they have a record of it.  In many places, there are 5 or 6 volcanic debris layers laid down since settlement, and they have records for each.  Pick a layer and they can tell you which volcano did it, when it erupted, how many people were killed—and what their names were.  And in Iceland, the rock cycle is in “fast forward.”  What arrives quickly sometimes leaves quickly?  When I was approaching a glacier near Eyjafjallajokull, I was walking up a stream bed filled with till deposited by the ice as it receded.  It was stuff ranging from football sized rocks, (all basalt) to cobble sized, and gravel and sand. But in one area there was a fresh, two inch deposit of volcanic ash, which had started to wash away, as the stream meandered through the nearly level bed. Our bus driver and tour guide said, “This wasn’t here last month—and if we get a good rain, it won’t be here next month.  It will all be washed to the sea.”
            So how has this affected the economics of the island?  Well, on the one hand, without the volcanoes, Iceland wouldn’t be there, and the ash is their main source of fertilizer. But with such frequent eruptions, there is never time to develop thick, tillable topsoil, but just a thin layer that supports grass.  And also, several times since settlement, there have been disastrous
eruptions that have nearly wiped out all human life on the island, usually by depositing such a thick layer of ash that it destroyed the grass. This killed off the animals, leaving the humans to die of famine.  In one eruption, a discharge of fluorine gas killed thousands of people and animals.  And even when the volcanoes are quiet, there is little usable land. The island is so far north that it would be far too cold to support much food production, except for the Gulf Stream.  But this oceanic climate does not extend to the interior, which is uninhabitable. So to feed people, we have a fishery and a narrow strip of land along the coast, especially the south coast.    Still, these are rich resources which could probably support all Icelanders —if there aren’t too many of them and if everything is divided fairly evenly.   But the resource base is fixed and small, and always will be.    No application of human sweat or ingenuity will produce significantly more food.  Raising more animals will just result in overgrazing and erosion, fishing more aggressively will just hasten the decline of the fishery, which already suffers from overfishing.  There is what there is.  

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Iceland, Day 5 & 6

            On Thursday we took a bus tour along the south coast to the village of Vik. (A “vik” is where a small river flows into the sea. In old Scandinavia, people who lived along the viks were called Vikings.)   Vik has a beach of jet black sand, up against a cliff where a rapidly cooling basalt flow has produced spectacular pentagonal shaped vertical columns.  Just before we got to Vik, we drove right past Eyjafjallajokull, the volcano, which was quiet the week we were there.  But the peak was shrouded in mist that day, so we could not actually see it. (Eyjafjallajokull is pronounced:  Aya-fyaht-la-yoe-kut-la, usually shortened to Aya-fyaht-la-yok’t.  Remember, in Icelandic, “J” is pronounced like “Y” and a double “L” is sometimes  “L-T” or “T-L,” depending on context.  Here, it is pronounced as “T-L,”   but in Gullfoss, it is pronounced   “L-T,” which is why Gullfoss comes out “Goolt-foss.”)  
            On the way back from Vik, we drove through some of Iceland’s best grazing land, with sheep, cattle, and horses (hross), grazing on both sides of the road.  A narrow coastal plain, nearly at sea level, starts out flat and then, as it nears the mountain, has its incline steepen in a hyperbolic curve till it’s nearly vertical at 6 or 7 hundred feet.  The sheep graze as far up the slope as they are comfortable, which is nearly vertical.  I’ve always thought that these little beasts must have shorter legs on one side.  We stopped along the road to get pictures of some horses.  As soon as we stopped, the horses came right up to the fence and waited to have their picture taken.  And then the horses on the other side of the road got jealous and crowded up to the fence too.
            The Icelandic horse is extremely friendly.  They don’t bite you or kick you, they are strong, and are comfortable to ride on rough terrain, since they have an extra gate not found in any other horse.  Iceland has been exporting live horses for many years now, and this trade is an important part of the economy.  There are now more Icelandic horses outside of Iceland than inside, and there are over 90,000 inside.  For a country of 300,000 people, that’s a lot of horses.  Some horses are owned by townsfolk who board them in the countryside and drive up on weekends to ride them. Some are rented to tourists. And some are raised for export. But as the world economy has collapsed and fewer people can afford to spend money on imported horses, more will have to be culled out for slaughter.  Remember, Iceland is an island and it isn’t getting any bigger. Almost none of the land is tillable, and of the small portion that can be grazed, all of it is in use—and has been in use for a thousand years.   There is only so much pasture, and there will never be any more.
            This fixed constraint affects not only livestock production, but all aspects of life, and all Icelanders understand this.  At no time since the original settlement have they encouraged immigration.  While they encourage tourism, as this has become a significant part of the economy, even marrying an Icelander does not automatically guarantee you a permit to live there.  
            On Friday morning we walked up to Hallgrimskirkja, a beautiful fairly new church on a hilltop in Reykjavik, and an object of great civic pride. Like all other buildings, it is made of reinforced concrete. This town has almost continuous small earthquakes, and occasionally fairly large ones, so no other kind of construction is practical. Yet the church is tall, thin, and has a light, airy feel to it. Typical structures here are made of poured concrete, and then either stucco covered, or sheeted in corrugated steel, which is often painted bright colors.  All buildings are well built, well maintained, and the whole town is immaculately clean. There are no slums or blighted areas.
            The Icelanders, besides being tall, healthy, and friendly, are the most educated on earth. Education from age 6 to 16 is provided by the local community.   Upon graduation, every Islander who cannot find a job is given a stipend.  And all are entitled to attend Iceland University, or study abroad---all at government expense.  Thirty percent of all Icelanders have college degrees.  In the age group from 25 to 45, nearly 100 % have at least a BA.  Most Icelanders in this age group speak fluent English as well as Icelandic, and many also speak an additional language, such as German, Danish, or French.  And Icelanders write, publish, purchase, and read more books per capita than any people anywhere.  And these friendly, independent, egalitarian, and freedom-loving people also have the oldest democracy on Earth.
            This is the last regular post that attempts to detail my day to day adventures in Iceland, but I will soon begin to post a few comments about this country’s geology, economics, history, and current political culture.  Being an economic determinist, I believe that economics determines history, and history determines politics.  But I also believe that the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the ecology, which is constrained by the geology. So I will begin, in a day or two, discussing Iceland’s unique geology, and discuss how this has constrained its economy and thereby determined its history and the political and social system which comes out of the history.  I don’t actually know that much about geology, but the island’s most striking geological features are not especially subtle.  A retarded gerbil could see that there’s no damn place like Iceland.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Iceland Diary, Day 4

            On Wednesday, what I would like to have done is get a better picture of the Russian  sailing vessel that was moored in the harbor when we arrived.  But alas, it had already gone back to Russia. In fact, it was already gone Monday morning. Darn! I really wanted a closer look at that ship.  So we just stayed in Reykjavik to visit museums and soak up local culture, including the food culture.   Food is expensive—about twice the price paid in Iowa.  And that is true of both prepared food and food sold in supermarkets.  (I saw a package of lunch meat, probably bologna, in a supermarket priced at about $8.00 per pound.)  But in Iceland, much of the food must be imported, so food has always been expensive.  And before the exchange rate of the Krona crashed last year, the prices, in U.S. dollars, would have been much higher.  This is actually a very good time to visit Iceland.
            The favorite national food of Icelanders is lamb soup.  It’s a thick soup made of lamb, cabbage, potatoes, and carrots, and it’s very tasty.  It is served everywhere from elite restaurants to truck stop lunch counters.  It varies in quality, but the worst it ever gets is wonderful.  The most popular restaurant in Reykjavik is a hot dog stand. When I first heard this I was quite puzzled. But it turns out that what they call a hot dog is different from anything served in the U.S.  It’s a spicy, coarse ground sausage, probably mutton, and it’s cheap and delicious. The only hot dogs I ever ate in the U.S. that resemble an Iceland dog are those I ate at Coney Island in the 1960s.   So basically, an Iceland hot dog is an original Coney Island hot dog.
            While all food in Iceland is pricey, some is delicious—and some isn’t!  And it’s all equally pricey.  How do you find the good food?  By accident!  Some of the places recommended by the tourest guides were excellent, and some were lousy.  Going to a place frequented by the natives was not a reliable guide either.  A place might be popular with the locals because they have the best rock band.  But if you stay there a few days, you find the good places.  And when Reykjavik food is good, it’s very, very good.  There is a huge dairy industry in Iceland, and all dairy goods are excellent and cheap.  They have the best butter on earth, and use it lavishly.
            Many restaurants offer minke whale steak, and even puffin.  But typical restaurant fare is lamb, codfish, and horsemeat.  (They do not raise horses specifically for slaughter.  But in a country that imports a lot of its food, nothing is wasted.  I’ll say more about this later.)  You’d think codfish would be dogmeat cheap, since Iceland still exports codfish. But it’s quite expensive in Rejkavik.  What little codfish the Icelanders still take from the sea, they sell mostly to rich Europeans to pay for the many foodstuffs which they must  import.  They also export a lot of mutton, and very small amounts of horsemeat, mostly to France and Japan, where it is considered a delicacy.
            We visited a museum where they have preserved a recently discovered a 9th century Viking longhouse, right in downtown Reykjavik.  We also visited the National Museum.  They have exhibits showing reproductions of the ancient documents, and also archaeological artifacts dating back to the earliest settlements.  One thing about the Icelanders’ history is that they have so much of it.  The earliest settlers were not literate, and records for the first two hundred years were passed down orally before they were written down.  But soon after they accepted Christianity in 1000 AD, they became nearly 100% literate, and have remained so ever since.   In the middle ages, when in most of Europe only a privileged few could read, Iceland was almost 100% literate.  So when the sagas were written, all Icelanders could read them—and they all did--and every generation since has read them.  This is possible because the language has hardly changed over the last thousand years.  And the connection to the sagas is one factor that has helped prevent it from changing.  It is said that those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it. Icelanders fully understand this; they have studied their mistakes carefully, and have no intention of repeating them.  More on this later.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Iceland Diary, day 2 & 3

            When we arrived Sunday morning, as our bus came into Reykjavik harbor, there was a huge sailing ship moored there.  I got a few pictures from the bus.  Monday morning I walked down to the harbor to get a better shot, but the ship was already gone.  It was a Russian ship, the second largest sailing ship in the world—and it looked to be 400’ long.  It had been at the Sail Amsterdam fest, and was stopping at Reykjavik on the way home.
            Sunday evening, my wife became ill with a sinus infection.  She had been treated for a sinus infection the week before and had completed a course of antibiotics and thought she was cured. But it was starting to come back.  So Monday she went to a special clinic set up to handle sick tourists and saw a doctor immediately, who wrote a prescription---all for $40.00.  The next day she felt fine.  While my wife was at the clinic, my daughter and I did a walking tour of Reykjavik harbor and went to an art museum.  Featured that month were works by Erro, the Icelandic painter who does accurate portraiture with a political motive.  (Think Coit Tower paintings.)  One huge canvas showed the traditional monkey see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil pose.   But all of the monkeys had Richard Nixon’s face, and the third monkey was shouting.  The caption said, “Well, two out of three ain’t bad.”   Since Erro dislikes the same people I dislike, I’m sure we’d get along fine.  We also walked over to the parliament building, the Allthing.  A modest stone building, it’s smaller than any rural Iowa county court house.
             On Tuesday, we took a bus tour called the Golden Circle Tour.   This takes you into the interior, to Gullfoss, pronounced goolt-fose,  (shown above) which means gold falls.  (In Icelandic, a double “L” can sound like “LT” or “TL,” depending on context.)  It’s the most beautiful falls in Iceland, and perhaps the world.   A rather large river plunges over a cliff and falls a hundred feet, and then turns a 45 degree corner and does it again.  From there we went to Geysir and saw the original geyser and several hot springs--so hot the water was actually boiling.   And from there we went to Thingveller  (pronounced thing-vet-la.)  This is a beautiful rift valley where the North American plate and the Eurasian Plates are pulling apart.   People like to get their picture taken with “one foot in America and one foot in Europe,” but this is self deception. There is not one fissure, but several parallel fissures.  If you were standing on a ridge that was the furthest east point of what was unambiguously American, and your friend was on the ridge on the furthest west point that was unambiguously Eurasian, there would be a 17 kilometer rift valley between you.  Slightly above the valley is a place called the Law Rock.  This place, a small natural amphitheater, is the site where in the year 930 AD, Viking settlers convened the first Allthing, the first island-wide attempt at popular self-government.  The Allthing today is the world’s oldest democratic forum.  Both the history and the geology are fascinating.  But the photo-opps never stop.
            We also stopped at a geothermal powerhouse about 27 miles from Reykjavik, which supplies hot water heat to all Reykjavik and hundreds of hydroponic greenhouses, and also produces 200 Mw of electricity.   This is 10% of Iceland’s electricity.  Most of the rest comes from hydro-electric dams in the interior.  All inhabited parts of the island are now served by the grid, and power is cheap.  At the geothermal sites, 10,000 ft bore holes tap steam under pressure and superheated water. The steam and the water are separated and the steam drives turbines; the superheated water is allowed to boil and this steam drives more turbines.  Fresh water cools the condenser, which preheats this water, to be heated more by additional waste heat, and then pumped by gravity to Reykjavik.

Iceland, Day One

Innocents Abroad--Whale Watching in Reykjavik.
              We had left Minneapolis Intl at 7:30 PM and arrived at Keflavik Airport 6 hours later.   I can never sleep on airplanes, so I was just starting to get sleepy when we arrived.  By then it was 6:30 AM Reykjavik time, so it was to be many more hours before I would get to bed.  And at noon, we had tickets to go on a whale watching cruise.  The hotel let us into our rooms so we could deposit our luggage there, eat our free breakfast, freshen up, and catch a short nap.
            Our whale watching boat was about 100 ft long, 25’ across the beam and 2 decks high, and had a humongous diesel engine.  It was fairly calm, and we did not ride the waves—we blasted through them at 40 mph--so it was smooth as glass.   After 40 minutes of this, after we had nearly lost all sight of land, the pilot cut the engine to a low idle, and we gently bobbed on top of the waves, quietly looking for signs of whales.  Of course, the boat now pitched and rolled with the waves, and I expect a few became seasick. 
            They look for whales by looking for concentrations of sea birds above the water.  The whales involved are baleen whales—filter feeders. Though they eat zooplankton, they can also feed on very small fish, which the sea birds also eat.  So any crowd of birds usually means a crowd of whales. There are 11 kinds of whales in Icelandic waters, but we were looking for minke whales, a 30’ long baleen whale about a yard in diameter, which weighs several tons.  Minke whales are solitary animals, but often gather around a rich food source.  These whales are taken for food, and many restaurants in Reykjavik serve minke whale steak.  After about a half hour of bobbing around like a cork, we still had seen no whale. I was beginning to get discouraged, thinking my bonus whale watching cruise would amount to a “carnival ride.” But then the whale spotter, on a platform above the top deck, shouted, “Whale at two o’clock, at 200 meters---whale at nine o’clock at 75 meters…..etc”  I had hoped to get pictures of them, but soon realized this would not happen.  You have no idea where they are going to surface, and when they do, they are only visible for about two seconds. By the time you get the camera aimed and focused, they’re gone.  
            What does a minke whale look like, at least, what does the part you are likely to see look like?   Imagine that you have a huge black rubber inner-tube.  And imagine that you glue some fins, like the dorsal fin of a shark, around the edge so that if you rotate it, it would look like a big saw blade.  Now take all but 3 of the fins off, and make sure they are evenly spaced.  Then take this thing and hold it under water, with it slowly rotating-- and every now and then lift it to where about a third of it is out of the water.  Leave it there till the people watching see a fin rise gently out of the sea, and in a graceful arc, plunge back down.  Then jerk the whole thing back under. That’s what a minke whale surfacing looks like. You see this black, arched back of the whale rise out of the water, and you see a fin rise over the top of the arch and plunge back into the sea.
            As interesting as the whales were the sea birds.  There were gannets, the largest sea bird in the North Atlantic. They look almost like gulls, but have a wing spread up to two meters.
When they hunt, they do not skim along the surface snatching up fish.  They hover about 70 ft above the water, and when they see a fish, they fold in their wings and do a power dive straight into the sea, breaking the surface at 30 or 40 mph.   It’s a pretty majestic show!
            We continued watching whales till about 4:00 o’clock, and then the captain returned us to port in time for supper.  (It was an adventure—but it did not make us late for supper.)

Monday, September 6, 2010

Face Blindness

In The New Yorker, Aug 30 issue is a piece by Dr. Oliver Sacks about prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize faces.   I was interested, since I have a mild case of this problem.  My problem is just severe enough to be annoying, but not debilitating.  Dr. Sacks has the same problem, but much worse.  He wrote of an incident where he had spent an hour with his psychiatrist, and then took the elevator down to the lobby.  The psychiatrist had taken another elevator and arrived there first, and had taken off his white coat.  Dr. Sacks walked right past him without recognizing him.   Dr. Sacks has been classified as autistic, but does not believe that he is.  He thinks that his inability to recognize faces merely makes him appear autistic.
            But prosopagnosia affects not only faces, but also our ability to classify visual images of any kind.  I had planned to take up fishing as a hobby when I retired.  But I realized that this would not work unless I took someone else along to examine each fish I caught and tell me what species it was and whether I could legally keep it.  When I tried to explain this to my friends, they said, “Oh no.  When you buy a license, they give you a little folder which shows pictures of each species.”  I said, “Unless it was a catfish or a sturgeon, I don’t think that would help."  When I visit the DNR aquarium in Guttenberg, they have every game species in the tank, and on the wall they have beautiful drawings and descriptions of each.  But I have never been able to completely match one with the other.  Whenever my wife and I drive somewhere, I’m content to let her navigate.  Unless I have driven the same route several times, I have no memory of it. I always assumed that these problems were related to my face blindness.  Turns out I was right.
            Dr. Sacks says that once he walked around his neighborhood in the rain for two hours, looking for his house.  He walked past his own house 3 times before a kindly neighbor told him where he was.  While Dr. Sacks has a more serious case than mine, some of his patients are still worse.  He writes of patients who cannot recognize their own children.  And of course, his most famous patient was “the man who mistook his wife for a hat.”
            The particular area of the brain involved is a long narrow area in the underside of the right occipital lobe, extending from the visual cortex to the pre-frontal.  And there may be a gradient of functions from one end to the other.   The functions may range from identifying shapes, to classifying faces versus objects, to remembering whose face it is, or to reading the emotional content of faces.  Dr. Sacks says that there is a bell curve distribution of these abilities.  And for every person born with poorer than average face recognition abilities, there is probably one with greater than average.  He mentioned people who can recognize the face of every person they have ever met. 
            I know of such a case, and the person involved used this facility to his advantage.  When I worked at the John Deere tractor works in the late 1950s, the manager, Harley Walden, had a legendary ability to remember faces.  Once a year, he would walk slowly through the plant, walk down every aisle, and stop and introduce himself to every worker, and speak with them a few minutes.   It took him a few days to do this, because there were 8,000 workers there.  The next year, he would do it again, and he remembered them—all 8,000 of them.   He’d walk up and say something like, “Well, how’s it going Jim?  Is your boy still wrestling for East High this year?"  People were astounded.  But most workers interpreted this to mean that Harley Walden had taken an interest in them personally.  This bought him a lot of respect and loyalty.  But the strange thing about prosopagnosia is that if this part of the brain is ever damaged, no adjacent area ever takes over this function.  When you have face blindness, you have it. 

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Physics Professor Becomes Apprentice Electrician

     The Electrical Worker,  the official journal for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, has an interesting piece in its Aug issue.  It's the story of Cindy Krysac, a Toronto physics professor who applied for and received an apprenticeship to become an IBEW electrician.  She is now in her third year of this apprenticeship, and is quite happy with her choice.
            Most people would find it surprising that a 50 year old physics PhD who has taught at a college level for many years would trade this life to be a construction electrician. But having worked at the electrical trade for nearly forty years, and having been married for nearly forty years to a woman who just retired from a professorship at a local college,  I’m less surprised than most.
            Those who work at the skilled trades are sometimes attracted to the academic track—and vice-versa.  In my own local union, over the years, I’ve seen two Journeymen resign their positions to accept jobs teaching electrical skills at community colleges; and I’ve seen two people give up teaching careers to become apprentice electricians.  Other applicants for apprenticeships have included a general foreman at a major avionics factory, a recent graduate with a BA in philosophy, and numerous others with some kind of academic credentials.   Yet a few journeymen have returned to school to seek engineering degrees.   It has always been a two way street, with a small but equal flow in both directions.   Between the skilled track and the academic track, both have their rewards and disappointments, and neither is quite what it appears to be.
            Cindy Krysak says she enjoys the hands-on involvement and real world problem solving, the chance to get away from a stifling desk job, and the loyal and protective support of the “bright, friendly, and creative” people she works with.   She says some of her friends in academia envy her new life “mucking about with wires and using cool new tools.”
            At one time, back when manpower was in short supply, I was given the task of talking to high school guidance counselors in the area about recruiting apprentices.  In nearly every case they would suggest something like, “Well I’ve got a few guys who were never any good at math or science, but they’re good with their hands. Maybe they’d be good construction workers.”  Then I would patiently explain that any applicant who would not be accepted at Iowa State or some other fine engineering school would probably not be chosen for our program.  And if they were accepted into our program, they’d never make it past the second year.   In short:  the admission requirements for an IBEW apprenticeship are about the same as for any good engineering school.
              Actually, I felt that some of the guidance counselors already knew this, but had their own ax to grind.  A counselor’s job performance rating is based on the percentage of graduates who are admitted to four-year colleges.  If some bright young kid, who could easily be admitted to M.I.T., chooses a community college or an apprenticeship instead, this is chalked up as a failure for the counselor.  Even if such a person obtains a rewarding and remunerative career, and does so without impoverishing his parents, the counselor failed.  So when counselors try to aim every student they possibly can towards a four-year college, it may be their own careers they are trying to promote—not their students’ careers. 
            I wish Cindy Krysac the best of luck.  I have no doubt that a 52 year old woman can become an electrician.   I had an apprentice who was a middle aged woman, and she became an excellent electrician.  My only concern with her being 52 years old is that in ten years she’ll be  62 years old, the same age I was when I took early retirement because my body just wouldn’t take it anymore.  There is both a cerebral and a muscular-skeletal dimension to what electricians do.  When an apprenticeship committee interviews an applicant, they ask two questions:  "Did you get high grades in math and science?"  and "Did you do well in sports?"