P. Iowa is underrated. People who only see it from the highway associate it with industrial agriculture, with the vast and hideous monocultures that cover about 60% of the state’s area. There is more. Iowa is not primarily flat. It is mostly rolling hills. Just a few hundred years ago it was covered with tallgrass prairie and savanna, and there was substantial forestation. There is not much evidence left of this not-so-distant past. Protected areas are rare within the state. Just 1% of its lands are publicly owned, ranking it 49th in the country.
The state parks that do exist, I’ll attest, are always small but usually quite nice. There is a place called Maquoketa Caves. It sits in the geological Driftless Area, which stretches from northeast Iowa into southeast Minnesota and southwest Wisconsin. In the most recent ice age, when glaciers flattened much of the surrounding country, the plateau of the Driftless Area remained unaffected. As a result it still displays ancient erosion patterns, dramatic hills and deep river valleys. The bluffs along the Mississippi River here reach heights of around 600 feet.
During this ice age, unbothered by glaciation, little Raccoon Creek was doing its slow work, sculpting a karstic canyon that now features features thick forests on the surface and a complex hidden world beneath. Beautiful limestone cliffs rise from the creekbed. There are fourteen named caves and the suggestion of countless others. Raccoon Creek runs directly through the evocatively named Dancehall Cave, a tall cave about 1100 feet in length. A small opening not more than two feet high opens from one cliff face. This is Wye Cave. It is narrow but long and deep. Recently two explorers became trapped 300 feet below ground in Wye. It took twenty hours to extricate them. Lack of oxygen in the cave was a concern during the rescue effort.
I camped there once, with high school friends, the summer after our first year in college. We arrived piecemeal in different vehicles throughout the afternoon. We explored the caves. I documented the day on a toy digital camera I’d received as a gift after serving as an usher in my sister’s wedding that same month. I took eighteen pictures. They’re terrible. But they do show blurry, lush forest scenes, and they show blurry old friends in the full thrall of goofing around.
I injured my shoulder in a fall in Wye Cave, which really shouldn’t be explored by three people with only one flashlight. Later that night we sat around the fire, hemmed in all around and above by dense forest. When I ponder the definition of friendship, I still consider that evening and the torrential flow of conversation that took place, less a creek and more a floodplain. Adult concepts such as “having things in common” we were not so concerned about, partially formed post-adolescents that we still precariously were. The one discussion around the circle that I still precisely recall, and will never forget, centered on the question of which species, in all the wide animal kingdom, that one would choose to be eaten by. My shoulder hurt terribly. It was one of the worst nights of sleep I’ve ever had.
Another state park in eastern Iowa is a place called Palisades, near my hometown, along the Cedar River. It seems smaller but isn’t--840 acres to Maquoketa’s 323. It began as a summer getaway in the 1890s with an inn and private cottages. Poet Carl Sandburg was a yearly visitor for some time. It became a park in 1922, and during the Great Depression a camp of the Civilian Conservation Corps was established there. As many as 200 workers lived at the park from 1934 until 1941 and built roads, trails, and a lodge.
I remember a night there one autumn in high school, with friends from the summer camp where I worked. It was that surreal experience of seeing a group of people associated with one specific place and time in another context and discovering that the connection between you, though deep, extends in only one dimension. It’s deep, but not long or wide.
A ways south, not at all convenient to Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, or any other population centers, there is a town called Fairfield. Growing up, I heard of Fairfield as the location of a phony school that purported to teach people to levitate. This is not an entirely charitable way to describe the Maharishi University of Management, an accredited institution founded in 1974 by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (yes, the one the Beatles hung out with). The Maharishi developed the technique of Transcendental Meditation, which boasts celebrity adherents as diverse as Russell Simmons, Jerry Seinfeld, and David Lynch.
And all these people come to Fairfield, Iowa for events promoting meditational practice. It isn’t immediately clear why Maharishi University is there, beyond the fact that in 1974 there was a bankrupt college in Fairfield whose campus was evidently available for purchase on the cheap.
Let me paint you a picture. You drive out of Iowa City into cornfields. Highway 1 dips to meet the English River, a tributary of the nearby Iowa River. There are some fetching hills and forested areas. You pass through Kalona, home of the state’s largest Amish community and a great deal of quilt-making. More cornfields. The town of Washington fails to make much of an impression. There is another town in there someplace. You will recall charming main-street downtowns, but not much else. You pass the Skunk River, which is more picturesque than its name would suggest. Cornfields. Perhaps you are listening to a podcast, in your vehicle. As the sunset melts toward the far horizon that meets the corn, your mind begins to wander.
And then, on your left, there are two immense golden domes. You have arrived in Fairfield. A few blocks further and there is an organic food market. Sleepy, shady avenues lined with bungalows. Around the stately, classic town square in the gathering dusk there are people about, and within view are a selection of vegetarian Thai and Indian restaurants. It is still a small Iowa farm town. But new-age culture has settled in, and now the two coexist.
To be fair, the golden domes are in fact primarily used for a technique called Yogic Flying, which evidently involves hopping while seated in lotus position. It is uncertain whether this is designed to lead to proper levitation. It does supposedly enhance mind-body connection and allow one to think on a higher state of consciousness. Transcendental Meditation advocates argue that a larger number of people thinking in this manner enhances peaceful energy in the world. This sort of thing really enrages scientists.
There is also a town nearby called What Cheer. I just have to mention that.
P. For decades, any mention of Paul Lansky has described him as a prominent composer of computer music. Things have taken something of a turn, though, since 2001. Now, of all things, the name Radiohead often follows.
Their song “Idioteque,” from Kid A, is based on a sample from Lansky’s piece mild und leise, from 1973. It was actually his first piece written with computers. He used an IBM 360/91, which was developed in 1966 and is one of those computers the size of a room. Lansky recalls it as the only computer in Princeton in 1973. It had one megabyte of memory and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. A whole staff was required to operate it. Poignantly enough, mild und leise is based on the famous “Tristan chord,” a beautifully enigmatic sonority from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.
Legend has it that Radiohead--who did diligently ask Lansky for permission to use the sample--still offers the composer free concert tickets each time they tour the states.
Lansky has taught at Princeton for some time. His music grew to incorporate vocal samples and other non-electronic sounds. He achieved significant renown in the circles of academic music.
And then a decade or so ago, at around the age of sixty, he made an interesting change. It was the reverse of Dylan’s ‘65 Newport set: Lansky went acoustic. He gravitated away from computer-based composition and began to compose lithe and beautiful works for acoustic instruments.
In 2005 he wrote a percussion quartet called Threads. The piece departs quietly but dramatically from the percussion ensemble tradition. In its pioneering works by composers like Edgard Varese and John Cage, percussion music was proudly ostentatious and noisy. Threads, by contrast, is understated, lucid, transparent. Unlike those early works, it has no historical ax to grind, no major musical movements to react against. It has a subtler statement to make. And it electrified the percussion world. Everyone wanted to play Threads.
In 29 minutes the music sinuously shifts its focus from metal sounds to drums through a category of non-traditional instruments like glass bottles and ceramic flower pots. A basically melodic “thread” of simple musical ideas carries the piece through this timbral and dynamic continuum. Its rhythmic force is often quite restrained, again unusual for percussion music. There are moments of simple quarter-note and eighth-note pulses. But I’ve not heard anyone describe the piece as “minimalistic.” It covers a great deal of ground, almost a modest little compendium of percussion-ensemble strategies.
P. How many colors do you need to make a map? We easily ignore the fact that it is colors, not shapes, that make a map perceptible. Colors are the way we separate its regions, the way we differentiate one state from the next. Without colors it’s all just one country. So how many colors do you need to make a map in which no bordering countries share the same color?
It turns out you need four, though this was difficult to prove with any mathematical rigor. Some maps can be drawn with just three. A theorem suggesting that five colors are sufficient is easy enough to prove. But getting it down to four was a task.
The “four-color theorem,” as it became known, was first proposed formally in 1852. There is a curious and fetching exception in cases of “bizarre maps” whose regions have, for example, infinite perimeter. It also technically requires that each country is a simple and contiguous region, uninterrupted by other countries’ lands or by water.
Over its first century the theorem gained infamy for the large number of false proofs and false counterexamples it attracted. The generally accepted proof arrived in 1976 courtesy of a pair of mathematicians at the University of Illinois. It was the first major proof completed with a high degree of computer assistance. They generated a certain (high) number of distinct map possibilities, which the computer checked one by one. This effort took the machine roughly 42 days of computation. Some, but not all, of the work was checked by hand. This section of the proof runs to over 400 pages.
There was controversy stemming from the use of the computer; not all of the mathematical community was immediately willing to accept it. Errors were uncovered and addressed, but the basis of the proof has remained. Other, simpler proofs have emerged. It remains the case that we only need four colors.
Unless our map is shaped like a Klein bottle or Möbius strip, in which case more are probably necessary.
The theorem has really been of no interest, oddly enough, to professional mapmakers, who have no particular reason to limit their color palette to four or five. Most maps use far more shades than this.
Recently a great deal of press has descended upon an Oregon cartographer named Dave Imus. He drew a map of the United States. It won a major award: “Best of Show” from the Cartography and Geographic Information Society. This award usually goes to large institutions like National Geographic. Imus worked alone.
He had worked as a cartographer for over thirty years before starting this map. Even after winning the award, he was $117,000 in debt from the two painstaking years he spent working on the map seven days a week. Then Slate published an article, NPR covered him, and suddenly he had sold over 10,000 copies.
Most wall maps use different colors for each U.S. state, in the manner suggested by the four-color theorem. If they don’t paint the whole shape of the state, they at least include strips of differing colors on each side of each state border. Imus’ map uses thick state borders but colors each state identically, allowing color gradations to be used for other sorts of geographical differentiation.
Imus’ map is celebrated not for precision or comprehensiveness. These things are easily achieved by computers. And Imus did work on a computer, but the level and choice of details and information--these things he decided himself. The fifty states everyone has to include. But which towns make the cut and which don’t? What attractions from a given city should be shown? What topographical details are important? Elevation, forests? A computer algorithm can easily separate cities by population and parks by area. But it might not know about Maquoketa, about Fairfield. It has not been down in Wye Cave, nor seen the golden domes.
10 Best of 2014
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February: New Mexico and the Holes
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