From Oregon

Volume 9: Summer 2004

Here I am in Corvallis, Oregon.

It's been an interesting year so far, with a few surprises.

Marry Me, Commissioner!

On the Ides of March, I saw a notice that the Benton County Board of Commissioners was meeting the next day to hear public testimony on whether or not same-sex marriage should be offered by the county. Since I'd seen the announcement completely by chance at almost the last moment, I wondered whether others had seen it too. On the off chance that no one else had, I went so that there'd be at least one person speaking in favor.

By the time I arrived at the meeting room, it was filling up, and people soon overflowed into the hall. There were four television news crews present; following San Francisco's lead, Portland had been offering same-sex marriage, and it was big news. The legal status of Portland's move was (and is presently) unresolved; the state Attorney General had said that violates the letter of the law, but that law would probably be found to violate Oregon's constitution.

The meeting began with the pledge of allegiance, which I'd never heard said with such fervor (particularly the phrase "liberty and justice FOR ALL", which I stressed). Commissioner Linda Modrell immediately opened the floor for testimony.

For the next three hours, people spoke. There were a few speakers against, but they were outnumbered about five to one. Speaking at the beginning was a representative from the state ACLU, and a Mormon factotum. They were polar opposites; the Mormon, like all the anti- folks, argued on religious and moral grounds only (with appeals to raising kids properly). The pro- folks tended to talk about love, commitment, equality, and civil rights. One man treated the offering of marriage licenses to same-sex as a case of supply and demand. Benton County had them, and many people wanted them, so why not? This got quite a few laughs.

One woman described getting an unofficial (unsigned, unrecorded) marriage license with her same-sex partner from the county clerk thirteen years ago, then getting an official one from Portland the previous week. She held up both, and rhetorically asked what the difference between them was. The answer, she said, was that there was now an official record of their lives together. If her descendants look her in a hundred years, they won't just find "born 19__, died 20__"; now there is an official record that she was married. Noting her two marriage certificates, she also made the comment "I'm going to keep on marrying her until it sticks.". That got a laugh too.

By the time my turn to speak came, the major arguments on both sides had been made. Instead of reiterating them, I first acknowledged the commission's courage for considering the matter, noting that they faced grief from one side or another no matter what they decided. I then told them that I was proud of my adopted county, and asked them expand the civil rights of the county's inhabitants. Give me a reason to change my pride into a fierce pride!

Not long after, a three-minute break was called. When the break ended, some seats were now empty, and only one of the camera crews returned.

In the second half of the meeting, a woman made a particularly good point: "I can marry any man in this room, but I'm not allowed to marry the person I love.".

Near the end, Ken, a guy I know from gaming, spoke. I knew he was (a) straight, (b) a father, (c) divorced, and (d) gay-friendly, as I'd run into him a few years ago at a rally against an anti-gay ballot measure. His action surprised me: he vowed not to get married in Benton county until everyone could marry. Wow, I thought. That's really putting it on the line.

Right at the end, someone offered an interesting third option: until the Oregon Supreme rules on the matter, Benton county could stop offering marriage licenses to anyone. The commission seemed to be interested in this option, and when the comment ended they sought an opinion on this from their counsel. He stated that the county was authorized but not required to issue marriage licenses.

After a few last comments, the commission discussed the matter, asking counsel about their options.

I'd expected the commission to take comments, state that they'd take the matter under advisement, and then move on to other business. (Apparently so did most of the news crews.) I was wrong; after ten minutes' discussion, Linda Modrell proposed that the county clerk be directed to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples starting Wednesday, 24 March 2004. As she made her proposal, her voice broke with emotion. Another commissioner, Annabelle Jaramillo, seconded the motion. Both reasoned that it is the right thing to expand civil rights. The third commissioner voted against it, offering doubts about the wisdom of exposing same-sex couples to a situation in which their marriages could be retroactively annulled (or at least left open to doubt). I thought this a pretty lame objection, and wanted to shout "Hey, let them worry about that!", but I held my tongue. The motion carried 2-1. Hoopla! I gave the commission a standing ovation, as did others.

As the hurrahs died down, I found Ken and tried to tell him how much his vow meant to me, but was overcome with emotion. It took me a few moments before I could get it out. I am extremely impressed with his ethical sense; I like a lot of people, but there are few I truly respect. He's now on that short list.

There is no experience like watching the progress of civil rights.


The next morning, friends saw an ABC television news report of the meeting. According to them, they spotted me dead center in a brief shot of the meeting room. I don't think I'll count this as another of my minutes of fame.

There was one mistake that happened at the meeting. After the celebration died down, it came to light that Ms. Modrell had gotten the day's date wrong: she thought it was the 23rd, not the 16th. However, the commission left the decision as it was. By the next week, the state Attorney General had threatened to sue the county if they offered marriage licenses to same-sex couples, despite allowing Multnomah county to continue to do so. (Ain't politics grand?). To the surprise of many, the commission responded by taking the third option: the county stopped offering marriage licenses to anyone until the state court issues a ruling on the matter. As I write this in mid-July, no one can get a marriage license in this county.

A week later, I stumbled into an interview with a reporter from the New York Times about the marriage ban. No quotes from me were used, though.

There's a Word for It

Congratulations are due to Jeremy Smith for the long-awaited publication of his erudite and quirky American-British British-American Dictionary. I say we immediately start calling it Smith's and avoid the rush later.

Fun: It's Academic

The academic year began with a whimper. The course I wanted to take (well, sit in on), General Relativity, wasn't taught until the spring. I decided to take a survey course on architecture, only to find out that OSU doesn't teach a single course on the subject. I gave the semester a miss.

In the spring I began the relativity course with great enthusiasm; I've been interested in the subject since high school. We covered special relativity in two weeks, with the professor using the hyperbolic trig functions to model addition of velocities. I hadn't seen that before, so I was kept on my toes. This had its benefits: one homework problem that I couldn't quite get led me to invent a new way to think about the problem. When the professor called this approach "lovely", I was walking on air. (A few boneheaded mistakes on the homework brought me back down to earth.)

When we began general relativity, things got tougher. The professor taught two different mathematical approaches to the subject (tensors and differential geometry), switching back and forth between them. This showed the relation between the two disciplines, but doubled the amount of material to learn. I managed to keep my head above water through most of it, but there are parts I wouldn't want to have to explain to others.

There were fun moments. A lecture about geodesics posed the question "Given two points on a cone, how many geodesics are there between them?" The answer proposed in class was either one or two, depending on the points chosen. I thought about it over the weekend and gave the professor my solution, which agreed with his. When I went to write it up as a Web page, though, I realized we were both wrong; by varying the steepness of the cone, you could find two points with as many geodesics between them as you preferred. Little achievements like that made the course fun.

My ultimate goal in the course was to learn general relativity, but I would have been happy to come out of it understanding tensors better. I still don't grasp everything about them -- I never gained a geometric interpretation of covariant versus contravariant components, for example -- but in specific cases, the situation is better. Go on, ask me about the Riemann tensor and parallel transport. I dare ya!

There was a lot to cover, and we practically flew through the material. By the last class we were considering the frame-dragging effect of rotating black holes. I'd rather have stretched the course to two semesters, but that wasn't my call.

[torus with five-loop unbounded geodesic]

Toroidal geodesic that loops five times
around the torus's minor axis

In the last few weeks, I started considering the problem of finding geodesics on the torus. It's an easy problem to state, but involves much more analysis than I expected. I've been working on it bit by bit throughout the summer, and think I've found the complete solution. There's still a little more work to do before I present the results. (I was quite pleased when at the end of the semester, after showing the professor the work I'd done on the problem, he replied "I'll expect to see more of you as your work this out.". Yes! To all of you who've ever asked why I do mathematics for fun: This is why!)

As an odd postscript, three different fellow math students have called me by the wrong name when I've run into them after the semester had ended. Should I wear a name tag, something on the order of "Hi, I'm Mark, and I like math!"?

Something Rotten

In April, the media found me again. This time it was a reporter from the Associated Press researching a story on the lifespan of CDs. He'd run across the Web page on CD rot I'd written back in 1998. Six years later, it was news! He interviewed me over the phone, and the next week a photographer took some photos of damaged discs.

Frankly, I didn't expect much to come of it. The story wasn't breaking news; it seemed well-suited to fill a few empty column-inches in a back section. Yet I'd underestimated the reach of the AP. Within an hour of going live on May 5, over sixty online papers had picked it up from AP's feed. (The formatting of most of the stories was the same, so I assume there's an automatic distribution system.) Within a day it hit larger venues, including CNN, MSNBC, Wired, and Slashdot. Most online columns didn't run a picture, but a few did.

The next morning, the phone calls began before 7 AM. There were only a handful, a few interesting. A few days later I did a very short interview for NPR's Morning Edition.

The most interesting email came from someone at the Library of Congress who's researching CD lifespan. She was interested in my experience, and eventually I sent her several CDs that showed mild to severe deterioration. Ah, the things we do for Science!

Print newspapers picked up the article over the next week, and a number of them used the picture of me holding a damaged disc. The last hurrah of this story to date was finding that one of the AP photos was used in an issue of Rolling Stone. No face shot; instead, it was cropped to just my hand holding the disc.


  • So far this year, I've been interviewed by the New York Times and the Associated Press. If I can just get Reuters, I'll have the trifecta!

  • First Maxim Fashion, now Rolling Stone... there are models who would kill for these opportunities.

Here a Berry, There a Berry

My culinary adventure this summer is sampling as many types of berries as I can find at the local farmer's market, concentrating on the blackberry hybrids. I think I've missed the ollalies and kotatas, but still managed to try chesters, strawberries, hull berries, blueberries, marionberries, and loganberries. They're all good, though some of the larger blackberry hybrids tend to the sour side. And in a week or three, the invasive Himalayan blackberries should be yielding their annual prodigious crop out at the farm.

Eastward Ho!

Once again, Glacier and I attempted this summer to visit Yellowstone and Craters of the Moon. This year we managed one out of two, which is an improvement over last year's trip.

Our route this time was US 26, through the southern part of the Oregon's eastern Cascades. The geography was primarily hills of sandy, slightly pinkish rhyolite capped by flat gray caps of dark basalt flows. We stopped in the (hot!) afternoon at the John Day Fossil Beds museum at Sheep Rock, where we learned about extinct fauna such as the oreodont (which, contrary to its name, probably did not subsist on Oreos) and Hypertragulus, a.k.a. the early fanged mouse-deer. After we departed we drove downward through picturesque Picture Gorge. To our surprise, the stream next to us was running in the opposite direction, apparently uphill. Even though we knew it was an optical illusion brought about by the small difference in inclination between the stream and the road, it was still disconcerting. I felt like we'd stumbled into a natural Oregon Mystery Spot.

We spent the night in Ontario and continued the next morning across Idaho's Snake River Plain. I'd thought that Idaho was mountainous everywhere, but it isn't. (Where would they grow the potatoes?) The state is mountainous in the northern region, but stretching across the wide southern region is the broad, flat Snake River Plain. The plain has a fascinating geological history. According to The Roadside Geology of Idaho, the theory is that a large meteor hit what is now eastern Oregon 17 million years ago, punching a hole through the continental crust into the mantle. The heat of magma rising from below kept the melted crust from cooling, which in turn kept the hot spot active. As the continental plate drifted westward over the stationary mantle plume, the hot spot appeared to drift east, changing the land around it. The flat Snake River Plain is the track of the hot spot's apparent motion.

Around Boise the plain is mostly rhyolitic ash covered in basalt, with occasional small cinder cones. We paralleled the plain's northern edge, driving along the southern edge of Idaho's mountains. There were some wonderful moments of twisty roads rising through mountains, with impressive granite outcroppings dotting the valleys below us. The granite is thought to be a deep igneous layer that's been uplifted. Seeing granite again reminded me of childhood vacations in New England.

Craters of the Moon

Eventually we dropped back down to the plain and headed for Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve (to use its full name). This is an area of approximately 610 square miles of geologically new basalt lava flows, dotted with cinder cones. It's an awesome sight: a flat, broad plain covered as far as you can see, which is miles and miles and miles, in a broken rubble of basalt lava. I doubt there's any other place on Earth like it.

[iridescent cinder]

Iridescent cinder (larger than life size)

We parked and ate lunch in a camp site. The boundary of the site was defined by chunks of basalt. Near the grill was a pile of small frothy lumps that had iridescent surfaces. At first I thought they were plastic that had been tossed in a fire, but they were rigid. Their composition was a mystery.

It was hot there, but the wind sweeping across the vast basalt flows kept us cool enough to be comfortable. The elevation, about 6000 feet, was more of a problem. I wasn't gasping for breath, but I didn't have much energy.

[Mark on the summit of Inferno Cone]

Definitely worth the headache

After lunch we drove the park's loop road, which led to trailheads. To conserve my energy, I decided to tackle only one of the easiest trails, the one to the spatter cones. However, when we stopped at station for Inferno cone, a small cinder cone, I couldn't resist the urge to walk up its smooth face. When would I have this chance again?

The path was deceptive. We'd get near what appeared to be the top, and it would reveal another rise beyond. (Reminiscent of my first encounter with lava beds!) I had to rest at one point, and even when I wasn't resting I was switchbacking to make the grade more gentle. But reach the top we did, and it was a great accomplishment. The view was amazing: a ragged line cinder cones in the near distance, thousands of acres of basalt flows all the way to the horizon in most directions.

The composition of the cinder cone was fascinating. Its base was almost-black small sharp stones, ranging from pebble-sized up to the size of a brick. Partway through the ascent, I noticed that some of the cinders had iridescent surfaces like the lumps we'd seen at the camp site. So they were natural! Yet I hadn't seen any mention of them in The Roadside Geology of Idaho or the brochure we'd gotten at the park entrance. What were they?

Further up the side were two red brick-like stones. As we approached the peak, we saw more and more of them.

The top of the cinder cone wasn't a crater. It was simply more of the same, but flatter. To our surprise, the peak and the southern face was home to a few species of vegetation, including a few hardy trees. We'd approached from the north face, which was completely bare.

After admiring the view, we returned to the car. I was breathing pretty hard by that point, or trying to. My blood oxygen was very low, as I expected. The peak was 6181 ft, after all, and it had taken some effort to walk up it. By this point I'd acquired a low-grade headache which lasted into the next day.

[270 degree panoramic view from top of Inferno Cone]

Craters of the Moon seen from the summit of Inferno Cone. Left to right: Big Southern Butte, on far horizon; Broken Top cinder cone, left of center; Spatter Cones, dark low mounds on right; Big Craters, at right edge; side of Inferno Cone, lower right corner

The decision to walk up Inferno Cone turned out to be prescient, since the trail to the spatter cones was closed.

When we reached a trailhead to some lava tubes, Glacier couldn't hold back. With my blessing, he left me to recover in the air-conditioned car while he went to walk through one of the tubes. He returned very excited, saying it was so neat that he'd considered returning to coax me to join him.

Our last stop was the visitor's center. I asked an attendant there about the iridescent stones' composition. She said that higher silica content and trace amounts of metal gave some cinders an iridescent, glassy appearance.

Hey Buddy, Spare a Cup of Oxygen?

After leaving Craters of the Moon we passed through the desolate land containing the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, home over the past few decades to more than fifty experimental nuclear reactors. Yup, not far from geologically fresh vulcanism, in a region that experiences earthquakes due to the continental rifting occurring nearby, there's a whole bunch of old reactors.

We stayed the night in Rexburg, on the eastern side of Idaho. By the next morning my headache and blood oxygen level weren't any better, so we reluctantly gave up on the idea of visiting Yellowstone. If I couldn't handle Rexburg's 4000 ft. elevation, I'd be a basket case at Yellowstone's 7000+ ft. I'm gonna need oxygen if we try again.

So we ate a quick breakfast, saddled up, and drove home, arriving at 9 PM that evening.

Consolation Trip

[field full of Darlingtonia californica]


Our aborted three-day trip didn't satisfy Glacier's travel jones, so a week later we visited our friend Drum's new digs in northern California. The trip down there was uneventful, except for a two and a half hour stop on the freeway due to an accident just south of Eugene.

Drum's place is in the mountainous Shasta-Trinity National Forest. The roads wind between mountains, with streams below. There's little arable land, and no room to build far from the road. It was strange to lie on my back under a gorgeously starry night sky, only to hear an eighteen-wheeler using its brakes on the road a few hundred feet away.

We took a side trip out to the coast to see redwood trees. They are indeed big. (I still prefer Craters of the Moon, though.) Afterward we stopped in the hippie-ish coast town of Arcata, which according to Glacier voted years ago to ban new franchise stores. What a great idea! It was a real pleasure to see a town with a thriving central square surrounded by independent shops.

As always, visiting Drum was a pleasure. We spent part of one evening watching a DVD purporting to be the best of British pop showcase The Old Grey Whistle Test. Watching Alice Cooper and the Edgar Winter Group lip-synching was a hoot. The highlight was Roxy Music's performance (so to speak) of "Do the Strand": glam spaceman outfits, Eno in heavy makeup playing two notes on his synthesizer, and Bryan Ferry trying his hardest to be Way Out There. The closing shot was priceless, with Ferry and another band member striking a point-into-the-air pose that presaged John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Oh my.

On the way home we stopped in the Six Rivers National Forest to see a stand of Darlingtonia californica, a.k.a. the Cobra Lily or California Pitcher Plant. Fifty feet or so from the small parking area, a fenced platform stood at the edge of a small fen choked with hundreds of these carnivorous plants. They're a large variety of pitcher plant, growing to about a foot and a half high. The leaf that makes the pitcher extends over the opening in a bulbous hood like a puffy cobra. It was surprising that such a small area could provide enough insects to feed all the plants, but I guess they don't need that much.

Maybe next year we'll go see California's mud volcanoes.


Doin' okay, thanks. I've been trying to be careful, what with not having health insurance and all. Things have been fine so far this year; in fact, my weight hit an all-time high in April (119#, four pounds over my previous best), and my FEV1 was a whopping 28% of predicted -- significantly higher than I expected. So I'm not complaining, even as I avoid high elevations.

This issue of From Oregon is dedicated to professor Tevian Dray, for welcome encouragement.

Last updated 5 August 2004
All contents ©2004 Mark L. Irons except images of MLI and Darlingtonia californica ©2004 Kevin Lohn.

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