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Archive for May, 2012

Historic marker in Winchester, TN (Franklin County) (source)

In doing some follow-up reading for my recent ‘state of Scott’ post I discovered an interesting counter-balance to that story.  It seems that Franklin County was impatient with the Tennessee’s delay in leaving the Union and joining the Confederacy.  It came to the point where they actually voted in favor of leaving the state of Tennessee and becoming part of Alabama since Alabama joined the Confederacy five months before Tennessee.  The citizens of Franklin County ended up forgiving the rest of the state when Tennessee joined the Confederacy before they could make good on the plan to join Alabama.

Adapted from Google Maps

I haven’t been able to find as much supporting evidence online for this as I did for Scott County.  But I did find the above photo of a historic marker in Winchester, TN.  I also found what purports to be the petition from Franklin County to the legislatures of Tennessee and Alabama (scroll down to mid-page).  I recommend reading the entire thing, but I clipped a few choice bits below:  (emphasis added by me, I particularlly love the part where they call President Lincoln a mental dwarf)

1. Resolved, That the action of the State of Tennessee, on the 9th inst., is to us a source of unfeigned mortification, and regret, as we hoped that her course would have been so different, as to have, by the 4th day of March next, divorced Tennessee forever from her present bonds of political union, and have united her fate-for weal or woe, with her seven proud and gallant sisters of the South, which have so divorced themselves.

3. Resolved, That we hope that the Northern fanatics have read the speeches of the Presidents- DAVIS and LINCOLN, (Made enroute for their respective seats of government) and see the difference, and from it learned a lesson of common sense, which will cause them to hush their insane croaking about the ignorance of the Southern people, since, they must see that while the Confederate States have for their representative a gentleman, a scholar and a statesman, the Federal Union has a wag, a mental dwarf.

Reading that resolution leads me to doubt all the current pundits who claim partisan politics are more combative now than ever before.

The resolution was passed on February 24, 1861 but it was never carried out because Tennessee voted to secede on June 24, 1861.  There are quite a few reports that Confederate recruiting was going on in the county before Tennessee voted to leave the Union, and Isham Harris, the Confederate governor of Tennessee, was from Franklin County.

The county by county turmoil wasn’t limited to Tennessee and I ran across reports of a lot of different counties and regions attempting to pick a side other than the one their state picked.  It seems West Virginia was the only one that was really successful at it.

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Historic marker located in Huntsville, TN (Scott County seat) (source)

I don’t remember how old I was when I realized Tennessee was a slave state during the Civil War, but I remember being mortified about it.  I took some consolation in the fact that Tennessee was the last state to join the Confederacy and the first to leave it after the war.  I also felt a little better when I took the mandatory Tennessee History class in 7th grade and they taught us that east Tennessee mostly disagreed with the vote to leave the US.  If the state approved history text book was to be believed the entire eastern portion of the state very nearly decided to split from the rest of the state in order to remain part of the good ole USA.

The text book left out one very important thing that I didn’t discover until 25 years after my 7th grade Tennessee History class (also known as ‘last month’).  When war broke out in 1861, Tennessee had 84 counties.  But a few months later, Tennessee only had 83 counties because Scott County voted to leave Tennessee by a vote of 541 for and  19 against.  They struck out on their own and declared themselves ‘the free and independent state of Scott’.  Union Colonel William Clift organized the 7th Tennessee Infantry Regiment primarily out of volunteers from Scott County.  The 7th Tennessee fought a few skirmishes around Scott County but appears to have disbanded fairly quickly.  (The Confederates also had a 7th Tennessee Regiment formed out of western Tennessee.)

Image adapted from Google Maps

If you’re not familiar with Scott County, it’s a rural county in east Tennessee north of Knoxville.  Back in 1860 its population was about 3,519 (0.3% of the state population) and it was the 9th smallest of the 85 counties in Tennessee.  These days its population is around 20,000 (0.03% of state total) and it’s the 36th smallest county out of 95.  Its biggest town is Oneida (founded after Scott left Tennessee) and the most famous person from Scott County is probably Howard Baker, Jr who was a powerful US senator from 1967 to 1985 (in the position later held by Al Gore),  White House chief of staff during the Reagan presidency, and US ambassador to China during George W. Bush’s presidency.  (Baker, Sr. was a US Representative and unsuccessfully ran as governor of Tennessee.)

For me, by far the most interesting part of this story is the reunion of Scott County and the rest of Tennessee.  It seems that the vote to leave Tennessee was not repealed until 1986 so you could consider Scott County to not be part of Tennessee for 125 years.  Local residents seem to consider it a sign of the independent nature of people from the area, but since the county paid state taxes and received state revenue it seems more likely that everyone probably just forgot or wanted to let everyone cool down after the war before asking to be readmitted to the state.

I originally discovered this bit of Tennessee history on Wikipedia, and I haven’t found supporting evidence in print, but I managed to find enough online sources that I think it’s a legitimate story.  In my abundant free time I’m hoping to look into what life was like in Scott County during war time.  Various questionable sources I’ve found online indicate that a lot of Confederate raiders were funneled through the area in an effort to teach the ‘traitors’ of Scott County a lesson.

Update: Check out the follow-up post for the story of angst in Franklin County happening at the same time.

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My exploration of the Star Wars expanded universe begins with a series of newspaper comic strips that ran from 1981 to 1984.  That’s a run that started not long after the movie release of the Empire Strikes Back and ends just after Return of the Jedi.  I was still in single digits at the time and I don’t remember being aware of a Star Wars comic in the newspaper, so technically I haven’t read the original strips.  Fortunately for future generations of fans, Dark Horse Comics edited and colorized the daily strips and published them in a monthly series called Classic Star Wars in the mid 1990’s.  The comic book industry isn’t prone to passing up chances to make money so of course Dark Horse published graphic novels compiling those monthly comics.  Those graphic novels are what I actually got my hands on 30 years after the original newspaper run.

The strips in volumes 1-3 (the only ones I’m reviewing here) were meant to cover the years between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back so the story starts up at the rebel base not long after the explosion of the first death star.  It covers a lot of adventures, including an encounter between Han Solo and a bounty hunter which Han mentions in The Empire Strikes Back, and ends with showing how the rebels found their new base on the ice planet Hoth as shown at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back.  I often find myself wondering ‘what happens next?’ after any good movie and it’s rare that I don’t see a sequel without speculating on what happened in between so I found these stories to be endlessly fascinating.

The stories roots shine through.  It’s non-stop pulpy action typical of that time period with no character development.  I don’t consider that a drawback, just a limit of a publishing format where your story dribbles out in tiny increments every single day.  There was a fair amount of repetition of plot points intended to continuously remind readers what they read the day before but it wasn’t so much that I found it annoying.  Beyond that, the writing was tight and kept my interest focused on the page.

The art is also pretty typical of the time it was produced.  The colors are brighter and more varied than the more realistic style you see in current comics.  There’s an impressive attention to detail that encourages you to really take in the surrounding scenery rather than speeding through just reading the speech bubbles.  The myriad little details really made the odd aliens and space monsters come to life for me.  The artist captured enough of the character details to make sure we recognize Luke, Han, and Princess Leia without making them look too much like the actors who portrayed them.

The original strips inspired a lot of devotion at the time.  While doing a little research for this post I saw quite a few fans admit to cutting them out and pasting them in scrap books as a kid.  These days even the graphic novel collections are out of print and are selling online for some pretty high dollar amounts.  I definitely recommend any fan of the original trilogy read them if you can find them without spending a lot of money.  I got my copies from the local library and apparently they were published in the Star Wars fan club newsletters in the early 00’s.  You can see scans of some of the original strips (uncolorized) here.

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You have to admire any piece of equipment that was inspired by a herd of sheep and now sells for more money than the average car.  

For scale, the drum on the front is approximately 5 ft in diameter.

That monstrosity is a sheep’s foot roller.  One of the more interesting looking pieces of construction equipment found sitting on stylish construction sites around the world.  The sheep’s foot roller is quite similar to its more mainstream cousin the smooth drum roller, but it has lots of little bumps or knobs that give it the memorable name.  Both the smooth drum and sheep’s foot rollers are used in highway construction for compacting the material you’re going to be driving on but the sheep’s foot is without a doubt more interesting, and perplexing, to look at.

Reminds me of one of my dog’s chew toys.

Pull behind Sheep’s Foot with independent drums. Courtesy of Flickr user palustris345.

 The idea for the sheep’s foot roller came about when an enterprising young contractor- to-be noticed the heavy compaction on trails commonly used by shepherds to get the flock out.  Sheep or other livestock were herded across ground that needed to be compacted, and the idea was mechanized into what you see in the accompanying pictures.

Variant roller for use in trenches. Courtesy of Wikipedia commons

Sheep’s foot rollers can be self-propelled, dragged behind other equipment, or as an attachment to multi-function equipment.  Some varieties also vibrate to increase compaction, and they come in varieties small enough to pull by hand.  The size and shape of the ‘foot’ attachments vary depending on the manufacturer and the intended use.  (If they have rectangular ‘feet’ they may also be called padded food.)  All the varieties give it a lot of versatility when it comes to compacting various kinds of soil.

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I won’t share the unspeakable acts that had to be committed, but hands were shaken, a deal was struck, and I was off to see the Avengers in IMAX 3D.  Unfortunately several hundred other people were also off to see the Avengers in IMAX 3D and they didn’t have to trouble themselves with unspeakable acts, handshakes, and deal making before heading out to the theater.  The IMAX show was sold out all day by the time I got to the front of the line so I had to settle for 3D on a plain ole movie screen.  Let’s just recap by saying it was AWESOME.

I can’t tell a lie, I’m an Avengers fan from waaay back.  I didn’t read comics as a kid but once I got old enough to make my own spending money I started occasionally picking them up, and Avengers was at the top of my list every month.  The interplay between the huge personalities of the superheros has always been a big draw for me.  The team essentially has the physical embodiment of science (Ironman), rage (Hulk), duty and sacrifice (Captain America), and mysticism (Thor).  They couldn’t be more different if it were designed that way.  (Okay, so they were probably designed that way, forget I said that last part.)

Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies are excellent, but they wear their ‘not just a super hero movie’ anxiety on their metaphorical sleeves.  Avengers is a straight up summer blockbuster action movie, with no attempts at anything else.  Jamming all those big personalities in means the unifying plot and backstory are wispy at best, but I get the impression this was done intentionally so the hero characters have more time to bounce off each other.  The characters are well written and true to the nature of their comic origins, so the writer’s decision paid off.  I was prepared to not like the movie based on the ever so thin plot it in the beginning, but it wasn’t much of a problem once the characters all got in a room together.  The main draw of the Avengers has always been how the powerful personalities conflict and complement each other.

I may need to backpedal a bit on the ‘straight up summer blockbuster action movie’ just a little bit.  The action and aliens were mixed with just a dash of comedy.  Robert Downey as Tony Stark was the obvious source, but his quips went from witty to grating mighty quickly.  Just when I was starting to cringe every time Downey opened his mouth I realized he was meant to be annoying, and once again true to the character.  Ironman has always been at his best as a contrast to the stodgy by nature Captain America.  They make for a fun odd couple pairing and I’ve always felt like they should team up more often.

While Downey is the obvious comedic relief, the role of team clown is really stolen by the CGI Hulk, and his human counterpart played by Mark Ruffalo.  I had my doubts about Ruffalo’s casting when it was first announced, but consider them withdrawn.  He plays Bruce Banner as a mellow surfer genius which seems logical for a guy who turns into a giant green ball of destruction if he gets angry.  I’m pretty sure I missed some subtext in the scene where Banner admits he’s actually always angry.  Everyone is upstaged by the CGI Hulk in two hilarious scenes.  The first is merely chuckle worthy, but the second had everyone in the theater with me laughing.

The climactic battle involves destruction of a large swathe of Manhattan during a battle between the Avengers and some alien invaders.  (An event that occurred about every 3-4 issues in the comics.)  The CGI was impressive throughout, and this was the only time the 3D actually come in handy.  There was a lot of zipping around on floating chariot platforms that showed up well in the 3D, but up until the battle sequence I could have really done without the glasses.

I recommend it for anyone interested in action movies.  I don’t think you need to see the previous solo movies the characters have all been in, but it would probably help.  It never stops running but it has just the right mixture of action and character to keep everyone interested.  Don’t bring your little kids though.  No matter how much they love their superhero figurines there are going to be some scenes that are a little bit scary.

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Designing infrastructure is a tricky endeavor.  The day-to-day workings are easy to deal with, but you always have to consider the extreme events.  During and after an extreme event is when you’re going to need that infrastructure the most.  Early on you have to face up to the fact that you can’t entirely flood proof your bridge, earthquake proof your water treatment plant, or airline proof your skyscraper.  You can spend all the money in the national treasury at a structure but there’s always some remote chance that mother nature will throw down an even bigger disaster.  Then you have a very expensive pile of rubble and no more money to rebuild it.  We won’t even get into all the other stuff you couldn’t build because you spent all your money on the aforementioned pile of rubble…

This is where the concept of acceptable risk comes into play.  It’s always delicate using saying ‘acceptable risk’ in a situation where lives might be lost.  Most people tend to think in terms of ‘cost doesn’t matter if we can save one life’.  Maybe in a perfect world that would be true, but in the real world cost matters.  Resources are finite and if you spend an extra million to save one life here then you run the risk of these other four places where tragedy could have been prevented if you had only spent $250,000 at each.  Quantifying flood risk is a way of prioritising your efforts to make sure you get the most use out of your scarce resources.  

The concept of the 100 year flood was invented to try and quantify acceptable risk.  I’m using ‘100 year flood’ as a typical example because it’s fairly commonly used in the media and is threshold used for flood insurance requirements.  Engineers regularly work with 2 year floods, 500 year floods, and so on…  And it’s a concept that’s applied to other types of natural disasters as well.  There are designs for 100 year earthquakes and I’ve even seen it applied to tsunamis.

Before we go further, let’s take a closer look at that phrase, ‘100 year flood’.  What does that mean?   It means ‘the flood that has a 1 in 100 chance of happening or being exceeded in a given year’.  Essentially, you have a 1% chance of getting a 100 year flood (or worse) in any particular year.  A 2 year flood means a 1in 2 chance (50%), and a 500 year flood is a 1 in 500 (0.2%) risk.  The number of years being used is called the recurrence interval.  Larger recurrence intervals mean more severe floods, but they are also less likely to occur.

There is one huge misconception that needs to be addressed.  These various flood levels are based on statistics and not science.  Surviving a 100 year flood doesn’t mean you’re safe for the next 99 years.    The 1% chance is the same every year.  The idiosyncrasies of statistics indicate that it’s very unlikely to have 100 year floods in back to back years, but it can happen easily enough.  And that’s leaving aside the perils involved in deciding what actually constitutes a 100 year flood.  (Which I will be addressing in another post.)

Flood recurrence intervals are often reported in the press, but their primary use is as a design tool.  One of the biggest decisions in any infrastructure project is determining what recurrence interval a project should be designed to survive.  Now that we’re quantifying the risk of a particular storm, it greatly simplifies the decision.  The design storm is based primarily on the size and importance of the project, and the potential damage if something goes wrong.

Let’s take bridges as an example.  The average interstate bridge in Metro Nashville has thousands of cars crossing it daily, while a rural county road may have a few dozen cross it.  (I’ve worked on a few that had an average daily traffic count in the single digits.)  A flood in Nashville may destroy entire subdivisions, strip malls, or industrial plants while a similar size flood in rural Cheatham county might destroy a few acres of corn and drown a few cattle.  Since the potential for damage is so much greater the interstate bridge would be designed to stand up to a 100 year storm while a rural county road will be expected to endure a 10 year storm.  Most TVA dams are designed to handle events even beyond the 500 year recurrence interval due to the huge potential for damage if something goes wrong.

This is a somewhat simplified discussion, but it gets you started in understanding the design process.  In a future post I’ll be discussing how the size of floods of various recurrence intervals are determined.

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One of the things that’s made me a fan of science fiction and fantasy is the world building. Even mediocre to poor writing can be forgiven if you manage to get me interested in the overall mythology of your world. I think that’s primarily why I’m such a fan of Star Wars. Even now the movies are good enough to get me to watch, but the enduring appeal is the expanded Star Wars universe. I’ve always been a fan of larger, sometimes even ongoing, stories and the Star Wars universe certainly appeals to that.

The expanded universe (the EU as it’s referred to by fans) refers to the entire collection of books, comics, and games about Star Wars. George Lucas has kept tight rein on the mythology of the EU which has resulted in a cohesive body of work where what happens in one author’s work is often referred to in another’s. The EU started slowly, I suspect because Lucas didn’t want to have anything impinging on his mythology before he got his original trilogy all the way out there, but even before Return of the Jedi was released there were a few novels and a weekly series in the Sunday comics filling in the action between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back.

The really fun thing here… the EU builds off the movies, but in a lot of cases some contributor has created something that was added back into the movies in one of Lucas’ many tinkerings.  It’s every fanfic writer’s dream.  The original versions of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back had signs and labels with modern English, but a set designer on Return of the Jedi included a sign a language that didn’t have our standard Latin alphabet.  This was expanded into a full alphabet during the development of a Star Wars roleplaying game which was in turn used to replace the English in the original films.

In the early 1990’s author Timothy Zahn published the Thrawn trilogy which created some of the most endearing Star Wars lore. He was the first to mention the city planet Coruscant which is the capital of both the empire and the republic which came before it. Scenes from Coruscant were added to the celebrations shown at the end of Return of the Jedi. Zahn also created some fan favorite characters that some (or at least me) find at least as interesting as the ones in the films.  I’m not entirely clear whether Zahn came up with this first, or Lucas cut it out of his early drafts for technical reasons but Zahn was the first to include details about Coruscant.

The EU answered one question that I’m constantly wondering about in any movie I see. “What happens next.” At this point the timeline extends more than fourty years past the end of Return of the Jedi and includes several major galactic upheaveals along with the adult children of a lot of the original SW characters.  It’s also been filling in the blanks between movies and sparked an entirely new franchise into the early history which took place thousands of years before the movies.  (I do have a bit of trouble with this because culture and technology are remarkable similar over the thousands of years.)

All this discussion is a long winded way of saying……. I’ve been doing a lot of reading in the Star Wars expanded universe and it’s probably going to be showing up on the blog over the next few weeks/months. A lot of it is mediocre writing that becomes interesting to me BECAUSE it’s Star Wars so I won’t be too insulted if you skip over those posts.

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