Mariazell, June 2016. Photos from a pilgrimage.

Stained glass window
Stained glass window behind the altar at the Church of St. Ulrich in Rohr im Gebirge. June 20, 2016.

In June I walked 125 kilometers from Vienna to Mariazell. Originally in search of a story, I spent most of the journey alone with my thoughts and came out on the other end unsure what I could really write about the experience. I did end up writing a handful of blog posts for The Rail Gaze, a group blog I started with some college friends. But what began as a springboard for my thesis project quickly became a solitary journey undertaken for reasons unclear to myself and alien to academia. My constant companion during that trip was a camera. And these are the photos I took along the way.

More photos below…

“Nazis raus!”

Protestors flip off the Identitäre
Counter-protesters behind a police line in Vienna at a June 11 march of the Identity Movement Austria, an anti-refugee group.

The right-wing, anti-refugee Identity Movement Austria (Identitäre Bewegung Österreich) held a march in Vienna today that turned tense when leftist protesters (Anti-Faschisten) stood in its path, using police riot fences as protest barricades. The protesters repeatedly put themselves in the march’s path, having vowed to “never let the Fascists have the streets.”

After the first blockade, police led the Identitäre onto the Gürtel, an arterial roadway that circles central Vienna, where the leftists had again gathered. That standoff ended when the Identitäre surged against the police from behind as though charging the counter-protesters. Moments later, the police used pepper spray to clear protesters. The police regularly deployed teargas and pepper spray until the end of the march. The Identitäre gave up at Westbahnhof, three blocks from their starting point.

More photos below …

Albert Behar’s “Calligrammes”

Ariadne Greif and Alberg Behar perform at Princeton University Art Museum
Albert Behar and Ariadne Greif perform at the Princeton University Art Museum on April 28.

I’ve been following this project of Brooklyn composer Albert Behar since I first heard the song cycle performed at La Maison Francaise NYU late last year. Behar’s “Calligrammes” is based on the book of the same name by Guillaume Apollinaire. That work is famous for the experimental approach it took to poetry, eschewing the traditional line and stanza for free-form or pictographic arrangements of words. Behar set these unusual poems, using Apollinaire’s designs as a kind of visual score. The costumes bear extracts from Apollinaire’s poems and were designed by Gretchen Vitamvas.

More photos below …

The Green Glacier

I saw that the name you put to a thing depended on where you stood and where it stood. And… and here’s the definition, right out of the agronomy books: ‘A weed is a plant out of place.’ Let me repeat that. ‘A weed is a plant out of place.’ I find a hollyhock in my cornfield, and it’s a weed. I find it in my yard, and it’s a flower.

~Billy Boy Walker in Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me

First, they were invisible—then impossible to ignore. When someone first pointed them out, I strained to see them. Gradually, I began to notice. Here, a loner in a field. There, a crowd holed up on a shallow hillside. They were everywhere. I made a game of spotting them from the highway and guessing at how long it would take them to overrun a particular patch of ground. Three years? Five?

The distinctive shape of Juniperus virginiana (known as eastern redcedar around these parts) makes it easy to spot, even at cruising speed. The younger trees have a scraggly, scrubbish look that stays with them until they’re six to ten feet tall. A mature specimen often forms a bushy cone, widening from a point at the top to its maximum diameter a foot or so from the ground, then contracting slightly at the base. Blue juniper berries weigh down its branches during the summer (if it’s male—redcedar trees are sexed), and its limbs form a continuous facade of short needles that grows to a wall of green wherever several trees sprout up together.

The eastern redcedar, with its cousin the Ashe juniper, is something of a boogeyman. It’s been blamed for everything from catastrophic wildfires, to monster clouds of allergens, to exacerbated drought conditions. But it’s that wall of green that earned the tree its notoriety among the state’s rangeland and wildlife specialists, who see the spread of these drought-resistant woody plants as the preeminent threat to what little remains of Oklahoma’s native prairie.

From the road, it’s easy to see why. Take a smattering of cedar in an otherwise open prairie. Today, there might not seem to be anything wrong. But hit fast forward. The trees grow and drop berries every year; the birds eat those berries and drop the seed in another patch of grass; the cycle continues.

That smattering of unassuming trees turns into a crowd, and that crowd into a stand, and that stand will eventually join with others and become a juniper forest. The grasses that cover this patch of land today wither away as the trees prevent water and sunlight from reaching the surface. Species that rely on open prairie, like the greater and lesser prairie-chickens, leave or die off as their habitat disappears.

Welcome to Oklahoma, home of the mighty Green Glacier.

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Boy Scout merit badges and the paradoxical digital future of being prepared

This article began with the hypothesis that tech-related Boy Scout merit badges would be gaining in popularity. In the course of my interviews and research, it became clear that the reality was more complicated: Boys learn career skills in the Boy Scouts, but they’re not “job skills” and they’re not necessarily time-sensitive, if you will. My sources emphasized character, leadership and self-reliance. Here’s an excerpt.

A young man’s path through Scouting takes him through a personalized curriculum heavy with what we might call “basic skills.” Over time the popularity of different educational paths, which BSA tracks and rewards with merit badges, has changed. A handful of the 136 merit badges — camping, emergency preparedness, personal management — are required for a scout to become an Eagle Scout. Unsurprisingly, many of those are among the most popular. But there are upstarts as well.

The BSA has data on badge popularity and it’s fascinating. When Bryan on Scouting put together a ranking of merit badges in 2014, he found that the top badges remained very traditional, but that much of the mid-range badges, the ones pursued by many but not most scouts, had taken a turn for the more forward thing.

The first tech-related badge, “Space Exploration,” is the 30th most popular. That is followed by “Geocaching” at number 37, “Robotics” and “Computers” at 44 and 45 respectively, and “Programming” — a new merit badge — that was moving up the list so quickly last year, it would be hard to guess its current popularity without a (currently unavailable) data set.

As Justin Rodstrom, a field director for the BSA Greater New York Councils, there is a tension inherent in pursuing tech-related badges. They seem more relevant, but they also defeat the point, which is — to some degree at least — to get away from all that and build character in the woods.

“Our basic programs that we are often times known for, whether it’s building a campfire and roasting s’mores, or learning knots, or being at a waterfront and learning to swim, or rock climbing, or archery. Those are still bedrock parts of our program,” Rodstrom says, adding that kids still love that stuff. “They go nuts because they’re sitting in front of a computer screen or a tablet screen eight hours a day.”

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Theoretical physics, the scientific method, and the damage done

I conducted an interview with Sabine Hossenfelder, a theoretical physicist, about the proper relationship between theories and experiments. Hossenfelder works in the field of quantum gravity phenomenology—basically, she tries to find predictions of quantum gravity theories that could actually be tested by experiment—and she runs the physics blog Backreaction. Here’s an excerpt.

Inverse: You’ve been very vocal about criticizing one recent experiment, Fermilab’s Holometer, on the grounds that the experiment wasn’t supported by theory, that we knew ahead of time that the experiment wouldn’t find anything. What’s the right relationship between theory and experiment?

Sabine Hossenfelder: The issue is the following: I work in quantum gravity mostly, which is one of the fields of physics that I would call foundational physics. These are the areas concerned with the structure of space time, what is matter made of, and what is the origin of the universe. And what has happened in the last century, not so surprisingly, is that all of the easy things have been done.

But it’s really here, where you want to push the frontiers of your theories, where the trouble is right now. Because what has happened is that you get this big gap between experiment and theory. The theorists have a lot of freedom and the experimentalists don’t really know what to do. So how do you make progress in an area like this?

Well you have to be very clear about how much you can trust your theory, because you need the theory to tell the experimentalist where to look. You need the theory to identify the most promising tests. Because then we have to invest a lot of money and build some experiment which might take decades.

So where does the Holometer come in? Well, you can ask the same thing about the Holometer: Was it promising to do this experiment because we trusted some theory that we might find something with it? And the answer is: No, there was no indication whatsoever.

You can read the full article at

Why the Max Planck Institute wanted to cook up plasma in its fusion reactor

This article celebrated the first hot test of Germany’s Wendelstein X-7 stellarator fusion device. Excerpt below.

Fusion has long been the golden calf of nuclear energy research, showing up nuclear fission in all categories except feasibility. Fusion produces a colossal amount of energy — it is, after all, the same process that powers the sun. But its very power makes it a pain in the ass to deal with. Every fusion reactor built so far consumed more power than it produced. The record for fusion power was set in 1997: 16 megawatts produced with an input power of 24 megawatts …

Unlike its less sophisticated cousin, fusion produces no radioactive waste. The hydrogen supply cycle is less problematic than the uranium supply cycle. To be fair, the most common sources of hydrogen today are coal and natural gas, but hydrogen could instead be produced by electrolysis.

Fission and fusion are alike in two respects. Both exploit the conversion of atoms of one element to atoms of another element, and both were first used as weapons. Fat Man and Little Boy, the fission bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, gave way by 1952 to fusion devices like Ivy Mike. (Although Ivy Mike was not built as a bomb, it was soon followed by thermonuclear warheads many megatons in yield all deliverable by intercontinental missile.)

The fusion bomb was known as an H-bomb for a reason: The unprecedented release of energy came from the fusion of hydrogen atoms. Fusion researchers seek to harness this effect for civilian power generation. Turns out this is a challenge. Hydrogen fusion at the Earth’s surface would require temperatures in excess of one million degrees Celsius. At these temperatures, hydrogen and helium become a plasma, the fourth form of matter.

But what the hell is a plasma, anyway?

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