Sunday, November 20, 2011

My Great Humiliation

I'm writing this not because it's particularly interesting, and it's certainly not important or useful information, nor food for thought. I just have to get it out of my system, that's all. I still feel the poison in my blood and you might say I am venting my spleen.

I was taking my son on a college visit to Middlebury College in Vermont. It has a strong Environmental program, and diving, and Chinese, and lots of other things. It seemed a fit for his interests, and we thought we'd check it out. Got a cheap flight with Spirit Airlines and rented a car with Enterprise.

But I left the house without the Garmin -- that was my big mistake.

You'd think that since I have a PhD in Geography and I live in Chicago this would not have happened to me. But I called O'Hare Airport before we grabbed a cab, just to find out what long term parking might cost. Just park in Lot F, I was told: $9 a day. And E was a little closer but just a little more. Great, we'll save a few dollars and do that. So I'm driving to the airport, vigilantly looking for a sign to lots F and E. Surely there would be a sign, right? Wrong. Got right to the airport, pulled over and called O'Hare. Where's the lot?? Oh the lots are on Manheim Road. At this point I'm aiming at the entrance to a large hourly parking lot and must spiral to the top floor and spiral back down again, but finally I'm heading back out looking for Manheim. There. But do I go North or South? Call  O'Hare again: go north. But of course. Finally I park the car and we make the flight.

It was a four hour drive from Boston. We left Enterprise with simple instructions: three rights and a left, north on 93, then my printed directions will do. I navigated the turns correctly, entered a tunnel and immediately saw a small tube with "93" written above it whizz by on the right. Damn! So I took the next closest number, 90, which of course took us in the wrong direction, at 80 mph. By the time we regrouped and were able to exit, my blood pressure was rising, but when I stopped at a small gas station I happened upon the friendliest man I've ever encountered, who went to an old computer, dialed up google maps, and told me to go back to Boston. But I'm terrified of the tunnel, so he found me an alternate route, west, north, east. He printed it, actually rewrote the important parts in capital letters, and sent me on my way with best wishes. "Tell your wife to give you a Garmin for your birthday."

Perfect! I love him! We made it back on the highway, eventually I caught up with my original route and then followed the directions I had printed from home. Now I'm on 107 and it's dark. When the route turned off onto a perpendicular with no warning, of course I whizzed on ahead, but the road I was on eventually whithered to dirt. Backtrack. There is the stupid sign, down the side road and under a bridge. Nice. So we followed 107 deep deep into the woods, up into the mountains, and passed a disconcerting sign saying road closed ahead "to trucks." I'm in a compact rental. We pushed on. Winding, twisting on and on in the dark. There it is. Closed completely. Barricaded. A helpful sign said "Find alternate route."

Thanks! So we backtrack again. It's late now. My phone is nearly dead, and I learn that Isaac's has been dead for a while. It's 10:30 p.m., we're in the wilderness, no map, looking for an alternate route when even the real routes and regular streets are poorly marked. Isaac remembers passing a Shell station when we first missed the 107 turnoff, so we make our way back there. It's open! Again, the nicest person calmly gave me instructions, and a pad of paper to write them down on, and sent us off over the mountain on route 12. A few towns later, we were in Middlebury.

I had to use the the last volt from my phone to call home, because we had no map, and the bed and breakfast was not answering calls. It took 6.5 hours, when google had said 4. But we made it. Charge phone, print maps and return directions avoiding 107.  All prepared for the return trip. 

Had a nice day in Middlebury.

Armed with plenty of maps and directions, and knowledge about closed route 107, we head for Boston at 7:30, for the 1:30 flight. To be safe, we'll take the same open route over the mountain -- route 12. Forty minutes later, guess what. Road closed. As before, a helpful sign: "Find Alternate Route." I get out and ask a construction worker where this alternate route might be found, as I know 107 is also closed. He advised us to backtrack 30 minutes, then south, then over the mountain on 73 then north and east to catch up with our planned route, 89, then 93 south. We did it; it worked! But now we're cutting it close. No more mistakes.

Hours later everything is going fine.  We're approaching Boston and it's "Isaac wake up, get the directions, get the map, we have to make these turns."  We are prepared.  Instructions, maps, pilot and copilot at full alert;  we are braced for the tunnel and getting close.  It's exit 24B, he says, and there, a sign saying 24B with an arrow pointing straight down to the second lane.  Reassuring.  I enter lane two and into the tunnel I am sucked along with heavy traffic, I'm staying resolutely in my lane but there streaking past on the right is a tunnel exit labeled 24B, like an exact flashback from two days earlier.  I nearly smash into the wall but stop myself, and take the next exit, 23, pull over in front of a fire station and call Enterprise rental.  What else could I do?  Now I am probably going to miss the flight.

"Where are you?" Pearl Street? "What town?" I get out and ask a fireman. Boston already. "Which Pearl Street, there are two." I can see this is not going well, but finally it's settled. I get on 93 back north and exit on 24B. I do find my way back into the helltube and ... no 24B exit, first I see is 25, 26, and 27 which I swerve off onto, to find myself on a long bridge heading out of Boston. I take an exit ramp. I'm in a town called Chelsea now, apparently cut off from the city by a bridge which I am ready to jump off of, but back onto which I can not enter.

Call Enterprise again, this time in such a disassembled state that Isaac must do the talking. My brain has shut down except for the lizard portion which can still steer the car. Fortunately, on the line is a person even calmer and nicer than any of the others. Her name is Stephanie.

Stephanie talked me down from the ledge by describing each turn, each intersection, and every step of the way. We took ramps, navigated an abbreviated round-about, and even got back on track when we once strayed. Turn after turn, she and Isaac were able to communicate, and I could drive. So, we made it to Enterprise, someone was in the lot to take my keys, we jumped on the shuttle, suffered the security delay, and made our flight. Thank goodness.

And a big thanks goes out to what we both call "East Coast helpfulness," and to all the random people who gave us some.

I feel a little better now.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Oversights of Aldo Leopold

I saw a screening of the film Green Fire recently, about the life of Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac.  It was held on my campus and organized by a colleague and her Environmental Interpretation class; 200 attended and most stayed for the post-filming panel discussion. The film showed Leopold's life and influences, described in sweeping terms the "land ethic" for which he is known, and the inspiration he's been to generations since. For those who don't know him, he was a turn-of-the-century writer and naturalist.  His most famous book was A Sand County Almanac, published at the end of his life.  He died of a heart attack, running with water buckets to put out a prairie fire.  The book makes the point that humans are part of nature, as are all things, and that natural systems are intricately enmeshed.  At that time the main view of wildernes was that it should be conquered and tamed.  One conservationist interviewee in the semi-documentary said Thoreau, Muir, and Leopold are the three great fathers to the environmental movement.

I noticed that there were two distinct components to the Leopold story. Clearly, he felt connected to the wilderness largely because he experienced it firsthand.  This is the experiential, emotional piece.  But second, he was a Yale-trained forester and he took an academic interest in the world: the scientist's approach.  Throughout his life he would catalog the comings and goings of wildlife and plants -- in his journal: day of first bloom, last bloom, that kind of thing.  Maybe not scientific analysis, but close observation, anyway.

Knowledge,  and emotional connection  ...   You need both to run a planet.

It occurred to me that you really need both components to do much of anything that's good.  The "tree hugger" environmentalists, of the stereotypical sort, love nature in a naive way. Not enough knowledge.  If all living things are simply to be cherished, invasive species will quickly have their way.  The rats and Cowbirds, the Japanese Beetles and Buckthorn will take over, wiping out other species and taking down the ecosystem.  Nature is like a Rube Goldberg machine that is easily thrown out of balance. You may love to watch it whirr, but it takes quite a bit of knowledge to keep it in order. The laboratory scientists -- another stereotype -- may know how the contraption works, but they don't see the big picture, or may not even care.  That is, they don't care in a deep enough way to make sacrifices, to make a difference.

When Leopold died it would be seven years before Bill Gates was even born.  Today we have the Internet, mass media, cell phones and much more --  those wondrous things have transformed the world.  At my fingertips, in my living room, I have more -- and more current -- information than all the libraries Leopold ever heard of.  For example, the entry under his name on Wikipedia was viewed 13,000 times in the last month.  Want to see video of tube worms at the deep sea vents?  Youtube.  Need some inspiration or a fresh perspective on a big topic?  Try TED.COM.  Not to mention Google Maps, Google Earth, social networks, blogs, and on and on.  Many of the ideas Leopold discovered alone in the wilderness were probably not even new at the time -- after all, he had a picnic basket, binoculars, a notebook and a gun.  He did not have a search engine.

My point is that since WWII , knowledge has definitely gotten a goose. But what about inspiration?  Even TED, which is all about inspiration, is not like being outside.  and not at all like what is said to have inspired Leopold so deeply.  The Green Fire going out, in the terrified eyes of a wolf he had just shot in the back, and its pups too.  Listen to the prose:
"[....] We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.  In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy; how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable side-rocks.  We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view."
I can almost feel it; he's an excellent writer.  But clearly this kind of thing, like Leopold's suggestion that we "think like a mountain" is more on the emotional side, his writing was inspirational. 

In some ways he was shortsighted. I've gotten to the critique portion of my commentary.  By calling it the "Land" Ethic he overlooked the fact that 70 percent of the Earth's surface, 99.99% of the habitable area, and about half of all species, is in the ocean.  Why not the "Earth Ethic?"  Wisconsin is too far from the coast to think much about it, I guess, and no one cared much about oceans back than anway.    He was all rabbits and cranes when the world was all plankton and squid.

But my other criticism runs a little deeper.  He was right in recognizing humans as the stewards of the Earth -- we must see ourselves that way, and must manage natural systems with care for the system, not just for ourselves.  The web of life, not just raw materials -- a matrix, a raft. 

But he failed to see that we are also an invasive species, and one which has been kept in check by our own natural predators.   Our main predators were bacteria and viruses.  Cholera, Diphtheria, Dysentery, Influenza, Malaria, Plague, Scarlet Fever, Small Pox, Syphilis, Tuberculosis, Typhoid Fever, Typhus.   I wonder if there was a green fire when they died, as they did, in the face of modern medicine; Infant Mortality Rate plummeted.  Leopold had discovered the hard way that killing the wolves and panthers in the mountain range launched the deer population in to unsustainable and destructive growth.  The deer then shreaded their own environment trying to survive.  He stopped killing wolves, the deer populations stabilized and the ecosystem rebounded.  Didn't he notice that humans are deer who have learned how to kill our own wolves. 

Leopold was an inspiration to many because he lived on the land, taking a keen interest in the natural systems around him. This protected his own property, and to the extent that others did the same the world would be a better place. But he was a bad role model in another way: he had five children. If each of them had five, and theirs, there would already be 728 more humans today, because of him. 

When he was born the world population was about 1.4 billion; when he died it had nearly doubled.  Had he read Thomas Malthus's masterpiece "Essay on the Principle of Population," published around 1800, he would have known that populations, unchecked, grow quickly past their carrying capacity, and he wouldn't have had to kill all those panthers and wolves in the first place.  See?  A little more knowledge would have helped a lot.  Leopold even went to Yale, where surely he was exposed to Malthus but maybe he took a walk that day.  

Half a century earlier, fortunately, Malthus had been a key inspiration both to Charles Darwin and to Alfred Russel Wallace, both of whom guessed that natural selection is the driving force of change.  Darwin, the gentleman scholar and most prescient of the two, deserves a high place as a a father of environmentalism, if environmentalism itself would recognize the critical need for knowledge.  It seems all Thoreau and Leopold, not enough Darwin and Dawkins. 
Surely I'm simplifying, but Charles Darwin does provide the complement to Aldo Leopold, as science balances emotion, as knowledge balances feeling. This is not to denigrate Thoreau, but Muir (for politics), Leopold (for visceral connection) and Darwin (for understanding). That's my team.

Think like a mountain?  We can do better than that.

Friday, November 11, 2011

What's wrong with religion

Recently, at a local high school, I attended an evening program on religion which featured three local journalists – Chicago Tribune Religion Reporter, WBEZ’s Northside reporter, and an NBC anchor/reporter. The Editor in Chief of the Religion News Service, based in Washington D.C., participated by way of Skype.  The topic was “How to Balance Facts and Faith in the Search for the Truth.”  There was, as you would hope, quite a lot of talk about moderation, tolerance, and understanding.  We heard that while most newspersons focus on "who what when where," religious reporters delve into matters of "why."

A number of students asked good questions, but two comments during the evening stood out for me. In response to a questioner who had asked for situations where faith makes things particularly awkward, the Editor in D.C. offered that a religious community near him does not believe in western medicine, and as a result their graveyard is "full of children."  Everyone shifted uncomfortably, and then the topic soon turned to something lighter.

But wait, I thought.  Parents are purposefully letting their children die because of their religious beliefs. This should be more than an awkward moment, isn't this where the question "why" becomes a question “whatt!!"  This started me thinking about other things about religion which are widely tolerated – but which make me more than a little uncomfortable.

One of them is bad bits in the Bible. Deut 13: 6-10 and 7:2 requires believers in other Gods to be killed, as in 2 Chronicles 15:12-13.  Jesus says the same of unfaithful in Luke 19:26.  Numbers 1:51, 3:38; 18:7 proscribes death for going too close to the tabernacle.  Slavery is proscribed in Leviticus 25:44-46, Exodus 21:2-6, and 21:7-11, with beatings (Exodus 21:20-21, Luke 12:47-48).  Non-believers’  babies are smashed on the ground, their pregnant women are cut open (Hosea 13:16).  Unruly sons are stoned to death (Deut 21:18-21), women are captured and raped (Deut 21:10), homosexuals killed (Leviticus 20:13), incest is sanctioned (Genesis 19:30), whole towns massacred (Judges 18:27-29; 1:1-8; Jeremiah 50:21-22; Joshua 19:47), children or partners of mixed marriages are beaten (Nehemiah 13:23-27).  That’s just a taste of the bad parts.  The Koran says (of apostates) “slay them wherever you find them” in Sahih Al-Bukhari 9:57.  Similarly in Sura 48:13, 16, 17.  Today, in seven Islamic countries women are buried to their waist and publicly killed with small stones, for the charge of adultery, a common euphemism for having been raped.  There is female genital mutilation and subservience. The Hadith and Quran celebrate martyrdom in battle with non- believers, with the promise of sex and food in heaven. Christian Scientists don’t use modern medicine; the Amish take their children out of school after 8th grade.  The list goes on and on.  Isn’t this all just wrong?

Fortunately most people don’t follow these directives; they reinterpret or ignore or the bad passages altogether. But it does make me raise my eyebrow when I hear people say religion is the source of morality.  Of the good and bad parts, why are the good parts of scripture more often repeated?  The answer, it seems, is that the people are good to begin with. Bad people select the bad parts, good people select the good parts -- it's that simple.  Therefore, perhaps morality predates scripture and requires a different explanation.  And perhaps religion cannot claim morality as it's unique domain.

Another problem I have, larger but more subtle, is the celebration of faith as a reason for belief, when there is a much better alternative (though it’s considerably more demanding): evidence.  Faith can give a feeling of certainty, a sense of confidence – and that’s valuable. It can certainly be comforting.  But evidence-based beliefs can give you real knowledge. Science is much less sure of itself than faith is; it’s always questioning, testing, open to change.  The hypothesis of an interventionist God, for example, can be tested with triple blind studies and large samples.  And it has been studied.  Can prayer -- petitioning God -- speed someone else’s recovery?  No. No effect. Nothing.  When I first learned this it was a surprise to me, and something of a disappointment too.

I do understand the value of introspection, and exploration of the interior realm; I was raised practicing a Quaker form of meditation and studied Therevadan Buddhism for many years.  I still find meditation enormously rewarding.  But this is an internal effect, more in the realm of psychology and brain neurology.  Entertaining supernatural explanations is another thing entirely.

I would not dismiss all of religion as a waste of time, as good things do come from religious practice.  One of the best of these is community.  They can be something like a book club (for the dogma and mythology and scripture), something like a country club (for the social gathering) and something like a sports fanclub (for the rivalry).  The best of these, I think, is community.  But unfortunately, by creating the "us" we also create "other."  And this is an artificial barrier, in my view, which often does more harm than good.

I worry for many religious people who seem to me to be struggling with a delusion they were stamped with in their earliest, most vulnerable years (religion becomes more a matter of choice as they mature).  By the religious perspective, often, one or more overlords monitor and judge individual thoughts and actions, and they are able and ready to mete out punishments.  Something like Big Brother, really; but there is no need to imagine these things.  Religion also often comes with a presumption of human supremacy on a scale that does not fit well with the natural world.  Oddly, at the same time it often presents a debasing view of human nature.  I believe many people are distracted by visions of eternal life that this real life fades in significance.  And in their blindness, I am afraid of some of the things that they may do.  At the same time there is a radically different, and far more substantive way of thinking, very simple, really.  It's just evidence-based reasoning. 

When it comes to the various degrees of religious belief, there is also the problem of complicity and accountability.  Why, I often wonder, are fanatics tolerated?  Whenever a religious fanatic is pointed out, it seems, we're quickly reminded that most people are more moderate, peaceful, loving, and reasonable, and this is probably true.  And these reasonable people could speak up against the madness, quite a lot more clearly.   Where is the billion-Muslim outcry against suicide bombers and genital mutilation?  Where are the educated Christian Scientists, pushing for reform?  When Orthodox Jews in Israel tell reformed Jews in America that they’re not really Jewish ...  why does no one say, “no, maybe you’re not Jewish, haven't you noticed that Judaism has matured?”

Its been pointed out to me by a faithful friend that there are gaps in the evidence for the "theory" of evolution, and she'll wait until those gaps are filled before she subscribes, thank you very much.  But in the case of evolution, the evidence is more than overwhelming, and we know all the gaps won't ever be filled; they'll just get fewer and smaller -- that's the nature of science.  But this illustrates another problem I have with religious people -- they leave the hard work of science to others.  In the meantime, help yourself to western medicine when you need it, and the technology, food, transportation, practical knowledge and all else that science provides.  It's freeloading, I think.  For all the criticism they take for using prayer instead of medicine, you have to hand it to the Christian Scientists for at least not being hypocritical in letting their children die.

So religion provides the “why” of being, ok.  I have an interesting “why” question: Why does nearly everyone belong to the same faith as their parents?  The answer is, of course, that one's religion is purely incidental.  We’re imprinted with it at our most impressionable age, like baby ducklings.  Perhaps children should be protected from religion like they are from alcohol and for some of the same reasons.  It’s an intoxicant; it can be addictive, crippling, and can easily become a crutch they carry for their entire lives and one they would be better off without.  Let them choose a religion, if the want one, as adults -- after they can think for themselves.

This brings me to the second comment of the evening which I found interesting, and from a societal perspective, I found it a little encouraging.  The Editor in D.C. pointed out that 18 percent of Americans don’t believe in God, up from 16 percent recently.  The new atheists aren’t like the old ones who were “angry with God,” he said – they are introspective and thoughtful.  That was a generous comment I thought, from an editor of a religious journal.   In many countries of Europe the non-believing portion is more than half, but I’d argue that disbelief is already near 100%, even in the United States.  That is -- a total, sheer incredulity regarding the veracity of every single one of the other Gods.  The 18 percent have just gone one God further. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Watching Wikipedia Self-Correct

When I was young my parents had a white leather-bound editon of Encyclopedia Britanica occupying about two and a half feet of a prominent shelf space.  Most letters of the alphabet warranted their own binding, but for some, like e-f, I guess there just wasn't that much to say.   It isn't used much anymore;  much of the information there was printed just a few years after I was born.  It was bound in more ways than one, you might say. 

Wikipedia is an odd sort of thing.  People I know and respect use it heavily though often with a bit of shame.  It's a grass roots encyclopedia, and of course if you're reading a blog online ... you know that anyone can contribute to Wikipedia, even if they sign in as "Mr. FooFoo."  How good can it be, seriously.

Despite my reservations, I do check in fairly often, and did so after a visit to Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry.  There's a very long pendulum there that has been swinging, as far as I can tell, since the beginning of time.  It hasn't of course, they start it up daily, but it does mark out time nicely, rotating clockwise in a slow, steady rate through the day.  This is a Foucalt Pendulum.  My problem was that I know the Coriolis Effect which also causes things to turn to the right in the northern hemisphere, due to the curvature of the Earth, and in my mind I couldn't quite figure, once the pendulum moved into a due east/west swing, why would it continue turning?  But it does.

A little lesson on Coriolis may be in order, it's a fun one to turn an auditorium on to.  So much illumination with so little effort.  But skip four paragraphs if you want to miss the lecture.

The Earth's weather all occurs in the zone called the troposphere.  It is bounded by gravity but you can imagine a plexiglass shell around the planet, about 7 miles above the surface.  Because the Earth spins, it drags the air with it, and obviously the Earth and air is moving through space east faster near the equator and not at all near the poles.  To be more accurate, it moves  1,037 mph eastward near Ecuador and 0 mph at the poles.  Ecuadorians don't notice, of course, because they are moving too.

The sun hits the equator more directly than other areas, heats the air at the surface there, and of course hot air rises.  So there's a band of air at the equator that is constantly rising, but it runs into this plexiglass ceiling and is deflected north and south.  We'll follow the northern part but the southern hemisphere is just a mirror image.  It's going merrily along, toward the North Pole where -- because its colder, you'd think the air should drop back to Earth.  The problem is, as that air moves north, it's starting to shift east (from the land's perspective), because the circumference of higher parallels is shorter as we have already noted so the land slows down.    The air at 30 degrees north or so is now slipping east much faster than the ground below.  The band of rising air at the equator has now become a river of air moving east, many miles above the surface.  That's the Coriolis Effect.  But let's continue.  That air, too, must go somewhere.  Much of it, cold now, goes down.

As it rose it had cooled and rained, so as it falls it warms and dries; therefore we get the wet tropics near the equator, and at roughly 30 degrees north and south the world's great deserts.  Hitting the earth, the air divides again.  The part going south merges at the equator with the mirror-image winds in the southern hemisphere.  You may have noticed that the winds have all turned to the right in the northern hemisphere and to the left in the south, so when they merge they are all drifting westward.   These are called the trade winds, as they are steady and reliable.  At the equator we find the doldrums, the intertropical convergence zone where wind, if you want to call it that, goes up.

It's worth completing the system.  Back at 30 degrees north latitude, the other part of the descending air is deflected north, and turns east again just as before and for the same reason, except this time at the surface.  By 60 degrees latitude it's going mainly east again because of Coriolis, and it accumulates and rises, some of it this time making it to the poles before cooling, accumulating, and falling back to Earth, at which point it heads south, tending westward.  One more interesting thing, and the lesson is over.  At the surface the  polar winds flow southwest and the midlatitude surface winds turn northeast so at about 60 degrees they collide; it's the only collision zone of the major winds.  All sorts of storms and unpredictable weather spin off, keeping things in the middle latitudes interesting.  

So here I am, in the museum, thinking about Coriolis causing things in the northern hemisphere to turn right, being in the northern hemisphere, and noticing the pendulum turning right, but wondering why it continues turning when it continues past the E/W parallel.  There would be 0 Coriolis effect at that point.

Mystery.  The description on the wall was of no use, and so I turned to Wikipedia.  It was not of much use to me either.  So when I finally figured it out, I thought I might be able to explain it to others -- give back to humanity.  I will lift a veil of confusion by explaining Foucalt to those who have already been inoculated by Coriolis, I thought.  So I crafted this statement, signed in as ErickH and published it!   It was 4:40 p.m. March 25, 2011.

Foucault's pendulum is not to be confused with the Coriolis Effect which alters the direction of north- and south-bound fluids traveling long distances. A visualization of each may be useful. For Foucault, imagine a very large plate (1,000 kilometer radius) tangent and glued to the Earth about halfway north of the equator. Or picture a saucer glued to a basketball as it rotates on a vertical axis. Increase the eastward rotation to about 5 seconds. From the point of tangency, fire a slow pistol in any direction horizontal to the plate. As the bullet follows a straight path through space, the plate beneath it slips counterclockwise making the trajectory, from the perspective of the ground, always curve to the right. Using the palm of your hand and an imaginary basketball, you will see how this is true, regardless of the direction fired. The most dramatic turns occur at the poles and it diminishes to zero at the equator. In the southern hemisphere all movements are to the left, and when tangent at the equator, the bullet does not curve at all. These slight but constant motions of swing which cause the actual pendulum (which you can see in museums) revolve throughout the day.

.. .this was followed by a short description of Coriolis, for comparison.

Reading it now, I find it a little long.   But it was my first post and I didn't know how to edit Wikipedia, so for a while this is what people read when they went to to the entry there for "Focault Pendulum."  I can only imagine what a great relief it must have been to read this passage.  But, as it turns out, Wikipedia does accept corrections as easily as it accepts posts, and I noticed that at 4:42 the same day -- two minutes later -- someone named "Minimac" had written "citation needed" at the bottom of both paragraphs.  I saw his/her comment in the editor's remark:  "Both paragraphs require at least a citation." 

Hmm.  But who would I cite, myself?  I thought of trying to find someone who had said something similar, but these thoughts were actually mine.  So I decided to let nature take its course and that didn't take very long.  On April 15 at 7:49 p.m., 21 days after launch, "ShanRen" wrote in the cliff notes "Removing section with bogus arguments."  And he did.

ShanRen was right, my post didn't belong there; Wiki must be concise and what I'd written wasn't very polished anyway.  Anyway, I'm satisfied with all the good I was able to accomplish in 21 days.  But here's the real lesson.  Take a look behind the VIEW HISTORY button NE corner of Wikipedia, and you'll see something wonderful: all the versions, all the revisions, all the corrections and suggestions and removals, the reasons, the times, the people, and even before and after views for every single change.

Foucalt must be one of the more controversial entries because the page has been edited 745 times since PierreAbbat started it at 7:02p.m. August 17 2002.  It was edited seven more times last week.

So what's left after many hundreds of tweaks? Just a short but precise description, the necessary formulae, some links to further references and a reasonable bibliography.  Darwin would have enjoyed Wikipedia.  Not only has the entry under his own name been revised 8,264 times in the past 10 years, but Wikipedia is also one of the finest examples of natural selection you could ask for.