Saturday, June 27, 2009

Pope Joan: Did She or Didn't She?

There are always two questions in any discussion of Pope Joan:
  1. COULD it have happened?
  2. DID it, in fact, happen?
Donna Woolfolk Cross's delightful "Pope Joan: A Novel" clearly outlines HOW it could have happened, and does so in one of the more unusual historical romances possible:
  • Boy meets girl
  • Boy loses girl
  • Girl pretends to be a boy (it's safer and more fun)
  • This girl is really good at her job, and makes it to the top
  • Boy finds girl again.
So far, it's a plot that has launched a thousand comedies. But this story is a classical tragedy; the lovers violate the fundamental laws of their society, and can escape Fate for only so long.
    Whether one likes the novel qua novel will depend upon taste. It's fast-moving enough, with some romance, some action, some politicking. I enjoyed its range of characters of both genders: some actively like their fate, some dislike it but cannot fight it, and some fight.

    But after the inevitable climax of doom, the reader is left to ponder: DID it in truth happen this way?

    The author provides a helpful appendix, laying out the known facts. However, the most important facts have already been cleverly introduced in the novel. In the European Dark Ages, a woman of intelligence and strength would have a difficult time due to her gender. Some would be highly motivated to seek escape. Do we not see comparable phenomenon in contemporary misogynistic societies today?

    The other big question is whether a woman can pass as a man. Surely this has been resolved in the affirmative many times in our own era. It must have been easier in the uber-Puritanical contaxt of a monastery. (Query: would Joan have necessarily been the first female pope, or merely the first one outed?)

    One must also keep in mind that written records of the time are very few, and that the very notion of history of the time was not the objective recordation of facts, but the promulgation of virtue. The elimination of scandalous facts would be felt a matter of duty to the few people who wrote histories in 584, just as it was to Winston Smith some 1400 years later.

    To my mind, schooled in Roman Catholic seminary and well-acquainted with Church practice, it is quite plausible that all this might happen. Had it happened, it surely would have been covered up. To my mind, the evidence of the hollow-bottom chair is decisive; surely there were enough wood-carvers in the middle ages that the Pope did not need to read his lines while sitting on a toilet.

    However, there is no need to decide the matter. Either way, this is an enjoyable and educational novel. If it has coincidences, so does Shakespeare; if it invents conversations, so does Robert Graves. Unless the very concept of an historical novel is revolting to you, you should enjoy this book.

    P.S. it appears a movie version is underway, with John Goodman as the well-meaning but over-indulgent Pope Sergius. The Joan role should be a plum, except of course that the Roman Catholic Church would react with a fury that would make its rage against The Da Vinci Code look soft.

    Thursday, June 25, 2009

    Rooftop Urban Ag Team Begins!

    Fun, sustainability, improving our environment, and once again fun is why I like urban agriculture ... and you can too!

    Thinking logically, we simply must change our cities from sterile rock faces into natural settings where things grow. Look at your average apartment building from the outside. It's basically a large rock, that absorbs sunlight and emits poop. No wonder cities are hot and stinky!

    In the long run, we have no choice but to rework our cities so that nearly every surface that gets sunlight converts it to usable energy and/or biomass. Since we're an intelligent species, we get to pick the biomass, and food seems like a good choice. Not only does it absorb the sunlight and some CO2, it produces food we can consume on premises, further saving energy, and not incidentally providing much pleasure.

    On a more emotional level, growing food can be very satisfying. Let's never forget the value of fun! And for those of us with a competitive streak, imagine satisfying the Local Food Challenge
    "For one full day this week, eat only local foods. No tropical fruits from across the world ... no veggies that traveled hundreds of miles to get to your table ... only locally grown foods (this includes meats, dairy products, etc., if you eat them)."
    ...with food from your rooftop!

    But, as anyone knows who's worked on a project of any size, there's a lot of detail in implementation that has to be determined experimentally. (Heck even the 787 is being reworked two years after rollout!) Urban agriculture is not simply a question of installing dirt and whatever seeds some centralized authority has determined is best; as I tinker with my pots on the patios, I've discovered that social aspects are extremely important. People interact with the pots! There's a continuing battle (often a losing one) with people who think that naked dirt is better than what they consider a "weed"; Wednesday I came home to discover a lot of "clean" pots, stripped of low grass and ad hoc mulch, suiting the pro-naked-dirt sentiment of a paid plant care specialist. You can only laugh and learn, I suppose.

    The good news from this week is that the City of Seattle has DELIVERED! on its plan to use Centennial Towers as one of a number of experiments in urban agriculture. A team delivered some large tubs, soil and starts. The City team and some residents (with myself as Unskilled Labor) assembled the units and the plants are growing as I write. Since it's a City project, the fruit of our work goes to a food bank (no private benefits from public money!) but we're allowed to have as much fun as we want! And I'm learning from the experience many things useful to my own private gardening.

    The residential side of our team is very fortunate to have a lead resident gardener who is both a very experienced pea-patcher, and who also knows local food banks very well. Thus she picked plants that local food banks actually want! As you might have guessed, although zucchini is easy to grow, food bank may not want it, since everybody, and I mean everybody, gets way too much zucchini when it's in season ... even food banks!

    One quick lesson was that, since some of the plants needed staking, we need sustainable stakes. I contributed some bamboo salvaged from another project, but we'll need more later. It seems to me that we should plant some native bam in an unused pot, to provide structural material for later in the season, or next year. It's little details like these that can be learned only by experimenting.

    I'm really enjoying being part of this experiment. By this time next year, it may be possible to have a day of meals grown on our very own building!

    But at any rate, what we learn will be helpful for the larger urban rooftop gardens being planned for the future. It's a small seed but promises to bear profusely!

    Tuesday, June 23, 2009

    Who Am I?

    "... I am a part of all that I have met;
    Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
    Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
    For ever and for ever when I move..."

    -- "Ulysesses", by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

    Here's a list of some of the places I've met people. I'll update as I think back. It's nice to remember and to check up on how people and places are doing:

    Sunday, June 21, 2009

    Seattle Parking Fraud Game

    In 1999, it was revealed that Seattle's mechanical parking meters often didn't give you the time you paid for. The city ticketed you, profiting from breaking its contract for a parking space during a defined time.

    Last week, it was revealed that Seattle's new parking meters sells you parking rights that don't exist. You park in spot X, pay to stay there 3 hours and get a sticker to put on your window. When you come back, your car has been ticketed and towed, because somewhere on the block is a sign saying you can't park there after 5. The city deliberately sells you something it can't deliver on, and excuses itself by saying you should read all the signs on the block before buying the space.

    Now we have learned that that Seattle's computerized parking meters also sells you space that you can't use without physically moving your car. Let's say you buy 2 hours at 1 pm. At 3, you come back and buy another 2 hours (3 - 5 pm). You come back and see a ticket on your window. Nothing on the meter told you that you have to move your car before buying more time for that space! The city just tickets you, and profits from breaking its contract for a parking space.

    Seattle has a history of breaking its own laws on parking meters; it's not exactly new to the topic. And when it comes to putting a parking meter in front of your home or business, you have no rights in the city of Seattle.

    If Seattle sells you a parking space, it must honor the contract. If it does not want to sell you that space, fine, don't sell it; program the kiosks (which are run from a central computer BTW, so reprogramming is not a big problem) to say "Hey, that space is not available after 5pm so I'm not going to sell you 3 hours of time at 4pm". And print ON THE STICKER something like "This space cannot be renewed; you must move your car on expiry". That would give the buyer actual notice of what was being purchased.

    The principle is simple: When you sell something to somebody with the intent of not delivering, it is fraud.

    Someone should call the police.