Monthly Archives: August 2010

Bring On the Cool

Calligraphic, dried leaves on stalk.

It’s 93 degrees Fahrenheit at 5:30 pm. Air quality: Code Red.

I am so ready for Autumn. I am ready to wear a sweater slung over my shoulders during the day, ready for crisp evenings that require a jacket. I’m eager for air that is dry and cool, that opens your throat as you breathe it.

This summer’s weather has just been miserable.* I am beyond ready for it to be over. (Please do not remind me of this post when winter sets in and I’m bitching about that too.)

*[Update: It is not all in my head. Worst. Summer. EVAR.]

Black + White = Gorgeous

Cassini Image

These days, we’re used to seeing gaudy pictures from outer space. Sometimes they’re rendering optical light, but more often the fantastic images represent different spectra of non-visible light shown to reveal structure (and look cooler).

Back in the day, every picture from beyond the sky was in black and white, and mostly grainy, with crappy resolution. Things have improved. So go have a look at this glorious gallery of photographs taken by the little probe that could: Cassini.


Space Shuttle, Udvar-Hazy Center, Air & Space Museum

I was born with the Space Age, more or less. The U.S. response to Sputnik, Explorer I, launched a few months before I did.

I was an avid reader of science fiction from an early age. I witnessed the first moon walk, way past my bedtime. I have followed every twist and turn, triumph and tragedy, of our space program ever since. I still believe that—should we manage to avoid destroying ourselves first—humanity must eventually grow beyond our marvelous, amazing, glorious home on Earth.

Our exploration of space is now confined largely to fantastic achievements in remote control: little, intricate, robust robots that sometimes perform way beyond their specs. That’s great, but it lacks the romance, the daring, and the sheer wonder of putting human bodies into completely new environments.

There’s always something ‘more urgent’ to spend money on here at home, locally. But the aspiration that drives, the exploration that reveals, and the inspiration that motivates require big dreams and large canvases. Forget the practical benefits that accrue from the science behind space travel, and focus on the underlying faith and optimism that a vision of space-faring humanity implies: not only can we survive and achieve, we should, because our capacity for goodness is worthy of it.


Blackbird (SR-71), Udvar-Hazy Center, Air & Space Museum

This photograph is nothing special, but it is a photograph of something very special indeed.

The SR-71 is, in my view, the single most astonishingly beautiful work of industrial design from the twentieth century. Signifier and signified—form and function—are united in this vessel in an unprecedented way. You cannot look at this object without understanding, viscerally, what it is and what it does.

It is fast. It is secret. It is unconventional. It is blazingly modern (still! despite being put into service in 1964). It is both costly and tremendously valuable. It is about acquiring information, and not at all about destruction. Its defense was simply to be better and faster than its enemies.

How I wish I had seen this plane in flight! (Although, given that it traveled from coast to coast in little more than an hour, if you blinked you probably missed it.)

This was one of the first aircraft built using CAD (computer-aided-design),* but everything about it points to a unified vision, a designer’s personal stamp. The chines and the jet-within-a-ramjet design may have been dictated by equations, but the whole is not merely a product of its parts. It fits together the way it does because somebody decided that’s the way it needed to be.

The cant of the tailfins is so visually compelling that it showed up in spacecraft—which would have, of course, no need for such aerodynamically-dictated elements—in popular science fiction movies (Star Wars, I’m looking at you).

This object is a concrete expression of excellence. Everyone involved in its design and operation knew it. And so do the rest of us who have eyes to see.

*Hmm. Different sources say different things on this point. If it was designed with slide rules and blueprints, all the more amazing.

Dreams of Flight

Udvar-Hazy/Air & Space Museum

There was a time (coinciding with an era of much less widespread affluence and privilege) when flying was a glamorous affair. It was like going to the opera; people dressed for the occasion. Flight attendants were envied their airborne careers.

It was a time when the tail of an airliner was tattooed with a logo in fabulous deco letters that evoked the plane’s own presence. When this aluminum-clad, thoroughly riveted creature swam through the sky with unprecedented altitude, speed, and style, there was a whole lot of nasty stuff happening on the ground. A lot of wrongness. But all the joy-toys of the fly-boys were eye-catching, charming, romantic, dashing. They whispered sweet nothings about freedom, skill, play, and daring. You could make a movie about air travel that was neither cynical nor ironic.

Compare that to commercial air travel these days. It’s relatively cheap, but that’s about all you can say good about it. There’s no excitement in civilian aviation these days. The only thrills to be found now are in military flight. And those involve death. Lots and lots of death.

So it’s tedium or destruction: pick two.


Engine at the Air & Space Museum (Udvar-Hazy)

Now this, this is a machine.

It’s got dripping stains. It’s got DUCT TAPE, baby. It’s got the calligraphic, physical savoir-faire of a gymnast, muscular but graceful.

This is an artifact that makes something go and it knows it.

Dark Engine

A Pratt-Whitney engine at the Air & Space Museum.

I bow to no one in my love of the digital. Well-done digital is, in a word, schweet.

But there is something truly special in a beautiful piece of old-school, hard-core mechanical technology. You know, back when the science of engineering was explicitly and only about the handling of actual, physical materials. To see a thing made truly fit for its purpose is to see something beautiful.

Aviation is an unforgiving science. If you screw up, it’s gonna be really ugly. It is a joy, therefore, that so many of physics equations yield tools and affordances with tremendous presence and visual style. The ways and means of flight are, more often than not, elegant—especially those that come from an era before collective committee design.

And if you are the slightest bit fond of the steampunk aesthetic, the Air & Space Museum has got your number.

Shining Tile

Entrance to the Udvar-Hazy Air & Space Museum

Bob and I spent a few hours at the Udvar-Hazy branch of the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum. I enjoyed revisiting a few favorites (SR-71 Blackbird FTW!) and discovering some hitherto overlooked marvels.

For sheer visual lusciousness, however, the iridescent blue-green tile of the square-arched entrance way has a lot to recommend it. Steve Jobs would describe these colors as “lickable.” If you look at the larger version of this image, you can see that these surfaces seem to attract other people’s interest too; there are fingerprints visible in the light layer of dust on the wall.

Project 8: Fall Leaves Shawl

Lace shawl.

Lace Shawl

Lace shawl

This shawl is completely of my own design. It uses patterns from a variety of sources, and I basically made it up as I went along. It’s the first lace I’ve done using lightweight yarn, which took getting used to.

I used Mountain Colors hand-painted 50% wool/50% silk Winter Lace in Ruby River, and a size 6 needle. This shawl used about 3/4 of ONE 100 gram skein (approx. 1200 yds). It is remarkably lightweight, and super-soft and floaty. The colors blend together in a delightful way, conveying the turning-leaf motif I had in mind.

If you can’t tell: I’m very pleased with the way this came out, especially since it was essentially improvised. Sure, there are some boo-boos and a few less-than-elegant transitions, but overall I like it a lot. And despite being full of holes and on some level barely there, it actually does a surprisingly effective job of providing a gossamer layer of insulating warmth on a cool evening or in excessive air-conditioning.

I hereby pronounce myself effectively undaunted by lace. Bring it, tricky lace patterns!


Fence and Sidewalk, Shadows

This is another one taken with Bob’s camera. It occurs to me that even my photographs are taking on the texture of textiles.