Nothing better than fresh compost

Last weekend I put the finishing touches on my new compost bin by attaching the swing-down front gate. I started this project three weeks ago when I found two cargo pallets along the side of the road. I squeezed them into my car and brought them home. It took one weekend to tear apart the pallets (lots of nails in those things), and another weekend to build the bin. It's solid wood all the way around: about 3 feet deep, 2 1/2 feet tall, and 2 1/2 feet wide. And it weighs about 95 lbs. - requiring me to roll it into place by the side of my house. But now it's full of fresh dirt and yard waste and happily composting away. Check out photos of the bin here.


A battleship on the NYT frontpage

It was nice to see a battleship as the main image on the New York Times website this morning, even if it's only a "pocket" battleship, and a Nazi one at that. But the story of the Admiral Graf Spee is one of the best heroic/tragic tales from World War II.
First, there's the duplicity of the Germans to build a series of battleships in the early 1930s half again as massive as the Treaty of Versailles
restricted them. The Nazis claimed the Graf Spee's displacement was 10,000 tons, when it was actually closer to 16,000. And since battleships fight like boxers--slugging it out until one is too battered to go on--a ship's size matters.
And then there's the role of commerce raiders--the German warships who operated singly against Allied merchant shipping all over the globe. The captains of these raiders knew the entire British navy was out to sink them, forcing them to hunt, strike, and disappear. The Graf Spee sunk or captured nine Allied ships during her two month run in the South Atlantic and Indian oceans before the Royal Navy finally caught her.
But the greatest aspect of the Graf Spee story is the Battle of the River Plate, fought December 13, 1939 off the coast of Uruguay. Three Allied warships led by the heavy cruiser HMS Exeter, and including the light cruisers HMS Ajax and HMNZS Achilles surprised the Spee in the merchant-rich waters near the estuary of the River Plate. The early morning battle left the Exeter in shambles after numerous 11-inch shells from the Graf Spee knocked out her turrets and power, but the Allied warships scored enough hits on the German battleship to convince her captain, Hans Langsdorff, to make for the safety of Montevideo's port.
And here's where the story enters a diplomatic wrangling game between British officials in Montevideo, the Uruguayan authorites, and the German navy. After delaying the Spee's departure for several days, the British managed to convince the Germans that a phantom naval force waited out at sea in ambush. No such force existed, just the worn out Ajax and Achilles. Believing he faced certain destruction if he sortied, Langsdorff cabled to Berlin to ask if he should seek internment of his warship, or attempt to scuttle it. In a rare occurrence, the Nazi's didn't ask him to fight against impossible odds. Berlin replied: "No internment in Uruguay. Attempt effective destruction if ship is scuttled." On December 17th, a skeleton crew sailed the Graf Spee into the estuary, and after explosive charges were set along the keel, and the crew evacuated, it blew up and burned for several days. A few days later Captain Langsdorff committed suicide in his Montevideo hotel room, wrapping himself not in the Nazi swastika flag (unlike most naval officers, he was not a committed Nazi), but a World War I imperial naval ensign similar to the one he had fought under at the Battle of Jutland in 1916. And there ends the story the battle, though the recovery of the wrecked Graf Spee, and especially its Nazi-era emblems, is what inspired today's New York Times story.


A new home on the Web

The domain - www.jasonstevenson.net - will eventually be my new home on the Web. Over the weekend I signed up for this new domain name. Right now it just mirrors the webatomics.com/jason site, but it will eventually take over as my chief web host. And I'll switch my email to --I've just need to take care of a few technical issues first. I wonder if we will ever develop a system so that every person gets a permanent email address at birth, like a social security number? Or will websites eventually become 3-dimensional entities, like a living room that you can walk into? Sounds like something I remember from Fahrenheit 451.


College rankings don't matter that much

On Friday U.S. News & World Report will release its annual college rankings--a lucrative ploy that not only sells tons of magazines, but also inflates the reputations of certain colleges and universities. These rankings (and U.S. News is not alone in them any more) convince many students that a college's reputation will have a marked affect on their education, their future job prospects, and maybe even how much they learn.
All of those results will depend much more on how hard a student is willing to work (and how many 9:00am classes they will bother to attend), than the ZIP code or the ranking of their college. I'll admit that there's a difference in the education a student will receive from a struggling community college and a wealthy liberal arts school like Amherst or Bates. But the community college student can transfer after 2 years to a state school and achieve more intellectually than an unmotivated prep school kid who doesn't know why he's at college except that its a waystation to the better life he's promised.
Though I've not done this, I bet that if you plotted the results of the
U.S. News ranking compared to how old and how big an endowment a college has, you would fine remarkably parallel lines. I wish I did well enough in my sophomore-year statistics course to remember how to run a regression analysis. Ranking top colleges is like ranking the popular kids in high school--satisfying but otherwise meaningless.
When I made my college decision on a May afternoon over 10 years ago, I weighed vignettes from campus visits, memories of sitting in on random classes, conversations with students and recent graduates, raw numbers of financial aid offers, and most importantly--the swirl of three names running through my head: Harvard, Yale, and Brandeis. But the question that I repeated to myself most often, and which I remember well, was "Can I turn down Harvard?" As it turns out, I couldn't and I didn't. I don't wish I would have gone elsewhere because of the great friends I made there (and it's hard to wish them away), but I wish I had understood what's really important about choosing and using a college education when I was still in high school.


All aboard to Montreal

On Friday night I attempted to fly from Newark to Montreal--a silly notion in the face of the fierce thunderstorms that typically roll through here on summer afternoons. But on that day, the cumulonimbus towers contained much fury, but little staying power. I arrived to Newark airport to find clear skies, but unfortunately, no planes. The brief storm had scared them away.
"Sunday afternoon," the harried AirCanada gate agent flatly told me. The first flight I could take to Montreal to see my fiance Jackie would depart when I was supposed to be returning. So there was nothing to do except bond with a couple of stranded Montreal businessmen and decide to drive to Canada. My '93 Subaru Legacy wagon took over from a Boeing 727. and my new Quebecois friends Claude, Alfonso, and Richard played equal parts captain and passengers for our journey. We arrived to Montreal 7 hours and 2 tanks of gas later and at the 3am hour when the strip clubs and bars on Sainte Catherine were just closing. It took us 10 minutes to convince the puzzled Canadian customs agent why a car with New Mexico plates owned by a Pennsylvania man was filled with 3 Canadians, one with a Swiss passport, and another Venezuelan-born with a secretive import-export business.
"I wouldn't have done what you did," admitted the border agent in heavily accented English. But why not? Mishap and mis-direction are the best opportunities to meet people you never would.