Nickel Plate 765

Nickel Plate 765 @ Roosevelt Road pulling into Chicago’s LaSalle Street Station, September 16, 2018. Photo by Roman.

Trainspotters won’t like it, but railroad photography has a lot in common with pornography. While trains ain’t sexual (for most of us, I assume), the photography is representing what is otherwise a sensual experience: the rumble and the roar of the Wabash Cannonball, as the song goes. The same for photographing sex. (Though if there’s a rumble and a roar, it’s probably theatre.) Likewise, there aren’t many camera angles that make sense for either trains or sex so the photography for both tends to be awfully repetitive. But there I was, along with a few dozen other enthusiasts and curious onlookers, on the Roosevelt Road overpass above the METRA tracks. We lined up on the south and north sides of the bridge, waiting in the sun for the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society’s restored steam engine, Nickel Plate #765, to come by on its fourth (and final for the season) “Joliet Rocket” excursion run between Joliet and Chicago on the old Rock Island tracks.

The camera most definitely got in the way of the experience. I’m almost sorry I brought it along.

For those who might be wondering, the old Nickel Plate railroad is now a part of the Norfolk Southern system. No. 765 is a member of the last generation of steam locomotives, built in 1944. It was designed for fast freight service, and performed well by all accounts, but diesel-electric locomotives proved more economical. Steam locomotives actually develop more power at higher speeds, diesel-electrics the opposite, making diesels more useful in more situations. By the time 765 passed under the Roosevelt Road bridge, it was probably travelling at around 10 miles per hour. You’ll note the METRA diesel at the tail end of the train. It provided electrical power for the passenger cars. I’m not sure if there’s any way of turning the train at LaSalle Street Station (probably not), so it may have piloted the train back to Joliet also.

765, incidentally, is a large piece of equipment, weighing over 400 tons. It’s big even by today’s standards. Back in 1944, freight cars were typically 30 or 40 feet long and carried… 50, 60 tons of cargo, IIRC. Imagining 765 at the head of fifty to a hundred of these smallish freight cars travelling at 60 miles per hour… Impressive. Plus back then freight cars were not equipped with roller bearings but had journal bearings lubricated¬† with oil soaked rags. They were seriously noisy compared to rolling stock today. Talk about the “rumble and the roar” thundering by in a cloud of coal smoke and dust!

I’d recommend Roosevelt Road as a train watching location in Chicago: hardly a news flash for local trainspotters but maybe useful for outatowners. There are the METRA Rock Island tracks, and just a block or so west, you’ll find the AMTRAK yards and the south tracks into Union Station. In the distance to the south, there’s the St. Charles Air Line. It’s easily accessible and there’s always something going on. Since much of it is passenger trains, it’s also scheduled.



The Other 9/11

Time to rub your nose in it.

The other 9/11 was the coup in Chile, 1973, and the United States was deeply involved, to the extent that it makes Vladimir Putin look like a piker with his interventions. Putin’s cynicism, alas, has some justification: If you’re sufficiently powerful — if you’re the winner — war crimes go unpunished. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger (among others) should have ended in prison.

This video is from a Canadian video series Rare Earth, hosted by Evan Hadfield who happens to be the son of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield… you know, the cat who sang David Bowie songs from the International Space Station. The series is a real mixed bag in terms of quality, the main problem being that Evan Hadfield imagines himself to be an essayist in the same league as Ian Brown of CBC Sunday Morning fame. Sometimes that’s even true. That’s approximately a complement, by the way. When it’s not true, the pain is eased by the work of Rare Earth’s videographer, Francesco Petitti.

For those inclined to separate Pinochetism and Nazism, there are organic links, including to the sort of Evangelicalism fuelling the religious right here in the States:

The coup in Chile had repercussions and consequences far beyond that country, far beyond the South American continent; some would argue it changed the world. Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine makes a convincing case:

I do believe Klein’s documentary ends on far too optimistic a note. We chant “The people united will never be defeated” as we consistently get our asses kicked, when in fact “There ain’t no power like the power of the dollars and the power of the dollars don’t stop!” I would call for revolution but the 20th Century experience has been that revolutions change far less than advertised. In a strange sort of way, that may be the main justification for optimism.

Well, one way or another, a change is gonna come. Even if it’s only the mass extinction of the anthropocene.

Wrapped in Steel

This is a portrait of a Chicago community in transition circa 1982-1983 while it was still somewhat in denial about what was in store:

Produced and directed by James R. Martin, written by James R. Martin and Dominic Pacyga, with some original music by William Russo (!). The more you know about Chicago history during the last third of the 20th Century, the more you’ll take away from this documentary.

The movie cries out for a retrospective essay… or even a retrospective documentary. It isn’t something I’m prepared to do, so I’ll be limited to making a few observations.

The then-Alderman of the 10th Ward, “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak makes an early appearance. It’s worth mentioning as Vrdolyak was the Darth Vader of the Chicago City Council wars that raged after the election of Harold Washington as Mayor of Chicago. Some time later in the documentary, United Steelworkers leader the late Ed Sadlowski, Sr. (a DSA member) makes a number of appearances. The current 10th Ward Alderwoman is Susan Sadlowski Garza, Ed Sadlowski’s daughter. She was one of the early candidates to be endorsed by Bernie Sanders as his campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination got going.

As an aside, the 10th Ward was the place where I first did canvassing for a candidate. I was volunteering for Saul Mendelson, who was running in the primary election for the Illinois State Senate and for Leon Chestang, who was running in the primary election for the Illinois House of Representatives. Chestang was Black. Mendelson was a Southshore Jewish socialist. I don’t recall the reaction of the voters we canvassed though I doubt we recorded many “pluses”. The reactions were probably better than if we had been canvassing for Republican or third party candidates. We ran into workers from Vrdolyak’s office canvassing for their slate. They were cordial but that was mostly because they did not feel at all insecure with their prospects for victory.

This is a compelling documentary, not for any sentimental nostalgia (though if you grew up in Hegewisch around that period, you may end up a puddle) but because in this portrait of southeast Chicago, you will see the early 21st Century in birth.

This Land Is MINE

Nina Paley gets it about right:

I think things are changing in the eastern Mediterranean and probably not for the better. Paley casts the history of that region as competing nationalisms, allowing for the fact that “nations” in the modern sense is something of an anachronism mostly. How are things changing? My humble opinion is that we are witnessing a slow-motion ecological collapse of the entire eastern Mediterranean. The political turbulence (uprisings in Egypt; civil war in Syria and Libya and Sudan and etc) is basically a consequence of this. Check out the situation with fresh water and access to it.

There’s more of Nina Paley’s work HERE.

In any case, this is Paley’s guide to who is killing whom:

Early Man
This generic “cave man” represents the first human settlers in Israel/Canaan/the Levant. Whoever they were.

What did ancient Canaanites look like? I don’t know, so this is based on ancient Sumerian art.

Canaan was located between two huge empires. Egypt controlled it sometimes, and…

….Assyria controlled it other times.

The “Children of Israel” conquered the shit out of the region, according to bloody and violent Old Testament accounts.

Then the Baylonians destroyed their temple and took the Hebrews into exile.

Here comes Alexander the Great, conquering everything!

No sooner did Alexander conquer everything, than his generals divided it up and fought with each other.

Greek descendants of Ptolemy, another of Alexander’s competing generals, ruled Egypt dressed like Egyptian god-kings. (The famous Cleopatra of western mythology and Hollywood was a Ptolemy.)

More Greek-Macedonian legacies of Alexander.

Hebrew Priest
This guy didn’t fight, he just ran the Second Temple re-established by Hebrews in Jerusalem after the Babylonian Exile.

Led by Judah “The Hammer” Maccabee, who fought the Seleucids, saved the Temple, and invented Channukah. Until…

….the Romans destroyed the Second Temple and absorbed the region into the Roman Empire…

….which split into Eastern and Western Empires. The eastern part was called the Byzantine Empire. I don’t know if “Romans” ever fought “Byzantines” (Eastern Romans) but this is a cartoon.

Arab Caliph
Speaking of cartoon, what did an Arab Caliph look like? This was my best guess.

After Crusaders went a-killin’ in the name of Jesus Christ, they established Crusader states, most notably the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Mamluk of Egypt
Wikipedia sez, “Over time, mamluks became a powerful military caste in various Muslim societies…In places such as Egypt from the Ayyubid dynasty to the time of Muhammad Ali of Egypt, mamluks were considered to be “true lords”, with social status above freeborn Muslims.[7]” And apparently they controlled Palestine for a while.

Ottoman Turk
Did I mention this is a cartoon? Probably no one went to battle looking like this. But big turbans, rich clothing and jewellery seemed to be in vogue among Ottoman Turkish elites, according to paintings I found on the Internet.

A gross generalization of a generic 19-century “Arab”.

The British formed alliances with Arabs, then occupied Palestine. This cartoon is an oversimplification, and uses this British caricature as a stand-in for Europeans in general.

The British occupied this guy’s land, only to leave it to a vast influx of….

European Jew/Zionist
Desperate and traumatized survivors of European pogroms and death camps, Jewish Zionist settlers were ready to fight to the death for a place to call home, but…

….so were the people that lived there. Various militarized resistance movements arose in response to Israel: The Palestinian Liberation Organization, Hamas, and Hezbollah.

Guerrilla/Freedom Fighter/TerroristState of Israel
Backed by “the West,” especially the US, they got lots of weapons and the only sanctioned nukes in the region.

Guerrilla/Freedom Fighter/Terrorist
Sometimes people fight in military uniforms, sometimes they don’t. Creeping up alongside are illicit nukes possibly from Iran or elsewhere in the region. Who’s Next?

and finally…

The Angel of Death
The real hero of the Old Testament, and right now too.

Design with Nature

a review by Bob Roman

How could I resist:

“The world is a glorious bounty. There is more food than can be eaten if we would limit our numbers to those who can be cherished, there are more beautiful girls than can be dreamed of, more children than we can love, more laughter than can be endured, more wisdom than can be absorbed. Canvas and pigments lie in wait, stone, wood and metal are ready for sculpture, random noise is latent for symphonies, sites are gravid for cities, institutions lie in the wings ready to solve our most intractable problems, parables of moving power remain unformulated and yet, the world is finally unknowable.

“How can we reap this bounty? This book is a modest inquiry into this subject.”

Thus begins Ian McHarg’s classic introduction to ecological planning, Design with Nature (1969).

Back in July of 2018, I wrote a brief post remembering the extraordinary early PBS television program The Great American Dream Machine. In that post, I mentioned an earlier, pre-PBS program, Public Broadcast Laboratory. Both of these programs had a big influence on my values and my politics. In particular, one Public Broadcast Laboratory episode included an hour-long documentary directed by Austin Hoyt based on landscape architect Ian McHarg’s book, Design with Nature. That episode, “Multiply and Subdue the Earth,” was my introduction to Ian McHarg, and I was hugely impressed.

I’ve only been able to find one complete episode of Public Broadcast Laboratory and a partial episode: “Multiply and Subdue the Earth,” the McHarg documentary, both on YouTube.

“Multiply and Subdue the Earth” is below. It is of only adequate quality; you won’t gain anything by putting YouTube in full screen mode. And it’s grey-scale when the original film (and TV program) was color. Around the turn of the century, this documentary was still available for rental from a division of Indiana University, VHS format, but the folks who had done the transfer from film had waited too long. The color dyes were becoming distinctly magenta. Grey-scale may thus be a mercy. (Copies of Public Broadcast Laboratory episodes are also held at the Library of Congress and WGBH in Boston and possibly elsewhere. It may be that a fair copy exists or could be cobbled together.)

How do the documentary and the book hold up? Watch it yourself; the hour is well worth it:

The documentary is in large part a summary of McHarg’s book, but it begins where McHarg ends: with Dr. John Calhoun, another mostly forgotten yet influential thinker of the mid-20th Century. Dr. Calhoun was obsessed with population studies for various rodent species. He would set up rodent utopias where the population was supplied with as much food and water as needed, with no restrictions on breeding. Things would go well until population densities would reach a tipping point. Then rodent society, such as it is, would begin to break down and, even though they were supplied with adequate food and water, the population would collapse: rodent apocalypse!

This dovetailed very nicely with Paul Erhlich’s Population Bomb (1968) over-population argument because the reply to Erhlich and cassandras like him was that technology would save our asses: one way or another food and water and other necessities would be obtained or invented, especially with greed as the motivator. Calhoun’s experiments suggested that utopia, be it capitalist or socialist, would not suffice. You’ll note that in the documentary, much of Calhoun’s list of rodent social dysfunction address the insecurities of the time: gender definition, clockwork orange violent crime, aimless hedonism and sexuality, social isolation. That alone should raise some warning flags regarding the research.

Well, we pretty much know how to cure cancer in mice; it’s been studied so well and so often and for so long. But humans are not mice. While I’m not a scholar and so can’t provide the cites (I recall that back in the 1970s there was an article about this in Scientific American), I do know that others were motivated by Calhoun’s work to study population densities in other species. Other species don’t all react as rodents do and even rodents have coping strategies when the means are available to them.

In the 1960s and 1970s, it was also common to associate population growth with poverty. This was reasonable enough when one considered the condition of the Indian subcontinent and of China at the time. Subsequent experience and research shows that capitalism benefits from expanding population and doesn’t deal well with declines — capitalism is expand or die, after all. On the other hand, it does not follow that expansion can continue indefinitely.

Calhoun also inspired at least two major works of fiction. One is said to be Robert O’Brien’s award-winning Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971) that later became a nicely done animated feature movie. If I have doubts, it is mainly because O’Brien’s book postulates NIMH experiments boosting the intelligence of rats and mice (genetic engineering, circa 1971!) and because Calhoun was hardly the only person at the Institute doing research with rats.

The other book is John Brunner’s 1967 classic novel, Stand on Zanzibar. Brunner’s novel takes Calhoun seriously and applies a straight-line projection of the trends as would be expected from Calhoun’s experiments. I’ve mentioned Brunner’s novel twice before on this blog and this post is supposed to be about Ian McHarg not John Calhoun not John Brunner; however, McHarg did facilitate a study of health in Philadelphia that suggested some degree of negative correlation between the density of population and good health, supporting Calhoun’s thesis. This was not in the documentary, but an account of methodology and findings is in McHarg’s book.

Design with Nature is an education about ecology (which is not just biology) and its use in planning with case studies encompassing a wide variety of landscapes, including urban and suburban environments, and a discussion of philosophy. If you can find a hard cover, coffee table edition, you should prefer that larger format as the book is lavishly illustrated and the graphics are not just pretty but also a vital part of the content.

For a democratic socialists such as myself, the thunderclap was not so much McHarg’s distaste for market forces and his embrace of planning, but that he was able to provide a coherent and workable methodology of just how planning could be done. Furthermore, it is a methodology that can be computerized, although in 1968, that was aspirational rather than practical.

McHarg contends land-use decisions cannot be left entirely to the market, whatever “market” means. As McHarg put it:

The economists… ask with the most barefaced effrontery that we accommodate our value system to theirs. Neither love nor compassion, health nor beauty, dignity nor freedom, grace nor delight are important unless they can be priced. If they are non-price benefits or costs, they are relegated to inconsequence. The economic model proceeds inexorably towards its self-fulfillment of more and more despoliation, uglification and inhibition to life, all in the name of progress — yet, paradoxically, the components which the model excludes are the most important human ambitions and accomplishments and the requirements for survival. (Page 25)

If the market, left to itself, leads to “despoliation, uglification and inhibition of life,” the environmental record of planning under soviet-style “real existing socialism” is catastrophically worse. McHarg doesn’t touch that subject at all though there were surely inklings trickling out from behind the “iron curtain.” But McHarg does insist on another necessary dimension: values. Here, McHarg places the blame on the “great western religions born of monotheism,” hence the title of the documentary, “Multiply and Subdue the Earth.” Considering that other cultures, including the avowedly atheist soviet socialism, have done as poorly if not worse, this strikes me as being a bit of false determinism born of personal grievance: something connected with McHarg’s father, I would speculate after having read McHarg’s memoir, A Quest for Life. Still, a belief “that man and nature are indivisible, and that survival and health are contingent upon an understanding of nature and her processes” (page 27) seems to be necessary.

One thing that is not discussed in the book is how this planning might be institutionalized. The documentary suggests that land-use planning be moved from the local level to the state, using Hawaii as an example. In the movie, at least, McHarg endorses the idea. I’m not sure. Hawaii, after all, is a geographically small state. It could be a useful move, but consider the sometimes willful, pigheaded misunderstanding of things like environmental impact statements (not a requirement of local zoning but of state or federal) and how easily such requirements can be portrayed as “elite” outsiders dictating to the detriment of local residents: Perhaps a multilevel governmental approach would be better, though the division of responsibilities and appeals would need to be thought out better than my vague observation.

In retrospect, McHarg was entirely too optimistic about the weight of science in the process. The evidence, even the science, can always be argued over. Regulations that describe process and decision-making are hard to write without self-subversive ambiguity or without stultifying rigidity or without being an exercise in well-intentioned futility. (Regarding the last, McHarg was totally contemptuous of strip-mining regulations that required companies to restore the land “to its original contours.” What the hell does that mean?) There is also the issue of people using the process for ends alien to its intent: gaming the system. Whether it be Not In My Back Yard fanaticism or “paid troublemakers,” this aspect is pretty well an assumed motive by those afflicted with the pathological cynicism of our times.

The law — or more specifically the courts — is also a difficulty in the United States. According to McHarg’s memoir, A Quest for Life, he was aware of the difficulties involved in the “takings” aspect of constitutional law. It appears that he underestimated the difficulties there, as well. The U.S. Supreme Court has been eager to require governments to pay for any inconvenience imposed on landowners, even when said inconvenience would pay dividends by avoiding predictable disaster, like not building on a primary dune along the seashore or in a floodplain of a river — never mind that in building so, the developer is “taking” from future owners of that property, the government (disaster rescue and recovery) and the surrounding community. If it can’t be priced, it doesn’t exist, and most courts are committed to advancing a libertarian agenda whenever they can get away with it.

It is a pity: McHarg had long ago grown weary of arguing aesthetics with his clients. Designing with nature is intended to not only be beautiful but also to save money by minimizing costs of construction and maintenance,¬† while delivering beauty and continuing productivity — the substance behind that happy happy buzz word “sustainability”. That approach is also a clue as to how this might be integrated into a social democratic version of capitalism — though, granted, it is not clear that such a version of capitalism is itself genuinely sustainable as social democracy.

2019 will be 50 years since both the publication and the documentary. It’s really past time that we touch base with what may be last hopeful moment in our history. You can start by watching the documentary and by reading the book. Remember, it is entirely possible to profitably hunt a species to extinction (it’s been done), and likewise we have a grand opportunity in the next several decades to demonstrate that it is entirely possible to profitably breed and consume ourselves to the same end.

Post Script: For an example of fairly extreme human crowding, consider Hong Kong:

The Battle of Blair Mountain

2018 is the 97th anniversary of a major revolt, right here in the U.S.A. Never heard of it? Put on your headphones and turn it up to 11:

There’s actually quite a bit of information available on the web about this revolt, and it has even made its way into popular entertainment. For more information, I’d suggest starting with:

As I said, there’s a lot out there. Search YouTube in particular if you’re interested.


Advise: Bomb Primary

on the bombing of Hiroshima

On the news of the death of Claude Robert Eatherly, with apologies to T.S. Eliot.

“Advise: Bomb Primary”

A million burning people screamed in his brain,
Their eyeballs bubbling, their faces flowing,
Nameless shadows etched in concrete.
The man who fingered Hiroshima
Began dying that day, and each bomb dropped
Struck another mortal blow
Until he returned, no longer at ease,
Robbing the Post Office not for money but his life,
Screaming in the night for the radioactive dead.
But atomic cancer took his voice then
Slowly, slowly sent him to join
The people for whom he had wept.

— Yip in July, 1978

When we speak of the sacrifices veterans make in the fulfilment of their duties, until recently it was usually in reference to the visibly physical: death, dismemberment. Since the Vietnam war, it’s become apparent that the experience of war, including simply be a witness to it, can have crippling consequences. Traumatic Brain Injury, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other subtle psychological poisoning can be every bit as consequential as any physical wound. How vulnerable military personnel are to things like PTSD depends in part on the degree to which the individual feels the experience was justified, was necessary.

People who need to justify the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will find it easy to be cynical about Major Eatherly‘s post-military conversion to anti-nuclear weapons politics. They may be right in their cynicism for all that I know. Motives are such slippery things! But my humble opinion is that whether sincere or feigned, Major Eatherly was also right in his opposition. Furthermore, it is long past time that us civilians need to start taking responsibility for what we are asking military personnel to do on our behalf.

Were the bombings necessary or justified? This is an old question that is vehemently argued, to the point that the National Air and Space Museum found it easier to display the Enola Gay (the aircraft that atom bombed Hiroshima) without any discussion of the historical context. My armchair general opinion is that if you assume that an invasion of the Japanese home islands was necessary then it’s a moral toss-up. But Japan had already lost the war, getting their leadership to admit it was the issue. It’s possible that a brief blockade could have done the trick as well.

That leaves politics as the deciding factor, and there I’m inclined to agree with those who argue that this was an act intended to nail down the Pacific edge of an American empire, and was aimed as much at the Soviet Union (a country with imperial ambitions as well) as at Japan. That said, the effects of the bombings were so spectacularly horrendous that they may have helped keep the subsequent Cold War as cool as it ended up being. We’ll never know.