Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Shapes of Things We See

"Look, Mama! The Dragon Tree! Hi, Dragon Tree!"

I heard this about fifteen times in varying degrees of attention, going round a certain curve, before I saw it: a tree shaped exactly like a smiling dragon, with ear, tooth, and everything. And once it was there, I could never un-see it: it was only that, being children, they looked in directions that I had ceased to gaze.

So, the day I finally saw the dragon, I showed them my own favorite tree: the Witch Tree, which looks like a distant witch caught in the throes of dancing crazily. The Witch Tree, as you approach it, executes a quick and impossibly subtle metamorphosis into a boring old tree, like any other. I look and look, as much as I can when I am driving, but I can never catch the moment when it ceases being a witch. On this day they saw it immediately, to my satisfaction - there is nothing worse than someone saying, "Where? I can't see it; you mean that thing?" And not getting it at all. And of course, if you are looking at clouds, they change while you're watching, so even while you're pointing it out, it ceases to be itself and becomes something else entirely.

Trees do this, too, but much more slowly. I finally had my camera in the car one day and pulled over to get a shot, but on examination I find that the dragon is past his prime: he is literally getting long in the tooth, and his ear is changing shape. Still, he greets us every day on the way to town.

When I was a kid, there was a little man who lived in the plaster texture they put on the drywall (plasterboard) next to my bed. Every morning when I woke up he was there, just at eye level. I remember finding him comforting, though I didn't like the vaguely triangular patch on the ceiling in the corner; it looked like some kind of carnivorous squid, waiting to swoop down.

As it turns out, I'm not alone. Seeing faces and shapes in organic or random things is extremely common -- is, in fact, part of human nature. Although the idea that face recognition is hardwired into us is under great controversy in the scientific world at the moment, everyone agrees that recognition of objects and faces is one of human perception's strongest points.

Pareidolia means the perception of vague and random stimuli as significant. In other words, our tendency to perceive faces in the clouds, the man in the moon, the dragon tree, and of course messages in records played backwards. Or people seeing Elvis in the mold on their refrigerator.

Wikipedia has a page on "Perceptions of Religious Imagery in Natural Phenomenon," which is fascinating to read, not because of the explanation but because the list of examples go on and on and on. People seeing the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich, for example:

"On November 23, 2004, a grilled cheese sandwich that contained the likeness of the Virgin Mary was sold for $28,000 in an eBay auction by Diana Duyser from Hollywood, Florida. Duyser explained, 'I made this sandwich 10 years ago. When I took a bite out of it, I saw a face looking up at me - it was Virgin Mary staring back at me. I was in total shock.' She kept the toast surrounded by cotton wool, in a plastic container on a stand. Duyser claimed that although a decade old, the toast has not shown any sign of mold or crumbling, which she considered as 'a miracle'."

The shelf-life of Wonder Bread and American cheese aside, it astonishes me the lengths people go to preserve the things they see. The NunBun, a cinnamon bun in which a worker saw the face of Mother Theresa, stayed on display in the bakery where it was made for over nine years:

"The face of Mother Teresa was seen in a cinnamon bun at Bongo Java in Nashville, Tennessee. It was first discovered on 15 October 1996 by employee Ryan Finney and was turned into an enterprise by the company, selling T-shirts and mugs. Mother Teresa contacted the company and asked them to stop these sales. Discussions between the cafe owner and Mother Teresa's attorney brought about a compromise. The cafe agreed to only sell a limited amount NunBun merchandise and sell it only at their store and not license the images. The bun remained as an attraction at Bongo Java. On 25 December 2005 the bun was stolen during a break-in at the coffee house.

The owner of Bongo Java have offered a $5,000 reward for the return of the NunBun. Recently, photographs of the pastry have been sent to the Nashville, TN newspaper
The Tennessean from a person identifying themselves as "Hu Dunet." It shows the NunBun near a statue of a woman, a picture showing it being held by two men, their faces obscured by alterations to the photograph, and a picture of a man lying on a beach holding the bun in his left hand."

It is interesting how this phenomenon can give such comfort, while in other areas it creates such fear. Take, for example, the creeping horrors of seeing a snake in the folds of your pillowcase in the moonlight. Or the awful way that your inflatable pterodactyl's hanging shadow looks like a giant spider on the wall. Or what about the horrible hand-like branches that scrape at your windows in a wind-storm?

Worse, apparently, is the inability to make sense of one's world. Oliver Sacks' interesting story "To See And Not See", from An Anthropologist on Mars, tells the story of "Virgil", a man who hadn't been able to see since he was a young infant, more than forty years previously. An operation was conducted on the man, which in some senses ruined his life -- making him more helpless than he had been when he was blind, because he had to deal constantly with a new sense that he had had no time to make sense of, after living in a world of felt shapes and imagined distances all his life.

"The rest of us, born sighted, can scarcely imagine such confusion. For we, born with a full complement of senses, and correlating these, one with the other, create a sight world from the start, a world of visual objects and concepts and meanings. When we open our eyes each morning, it is upon a world we have spent a lifetime learning to see. We are not given the world: we make our world through incessant experience, categorization, memory, reconnection. But when Virgil opened his eye, after being blind for forty-five years—having had little more than an infant’s visual experience, and this long forgotten—there were no visual memories to support a perception; there was no world of experience and meaning awaiting him. He saw, but what he saw had no coherence. His retina and optic nerve were active, transmitting impulses, but his brain could make no sense of them; he was, as neurologists say, agnosic.

"...Further problems became apparent as we spent the day with Virgil. He would pick up details incessantly—an angle, an edge, a color, a movement—but would not be able to synthe size them, to form a complex perception at a glance. This was one reason the cat, visually, was so puzzling: he would see a paw, the nose, the tail, an ear, but could not see all of them together, see the cat as a whole."

Later, Sacks tells us of Virgil's ultimate fate: "...He found himself between two worlds, at home in neither—a torment from which no escape seemed possible. But then, paradoxically, a release was given, in the form of a second and now final blindness—a blindness he received as a gift. Now, at last, Virgil is allowed to not see, allowed to escape from the glaring, confusing world of sight and space, and to return to his own true being, the intimate, concentrated world of the other senses that had been his home for almost fifty years."

The proponents of the hardwired-newborns view of how we organize recognition tend to point to the inferior temporal gyrus and the fusiform gyrus (also active in grapheme/color synesthesia!), a "small patch of right-brain tissue just behind the ear", as the place that holds the key to our ability to recognize things. The non-hardwired contingent hold that "the behind-the-ear brain area...actually coordinates all sorts of expert visual judgments. It's just as crucial for making deft distinctions among classic cars, bird species, and imaginary creatures with no faces as it is for recognizing pictures of one's high school classmates. Damage to this part of the brain hinders object recognition to a lesser extent than it does face recognition, but the effect is still noticeable" - which basically means, whichever camp you're in, that this area of the brain is crucial to our ability to weave the world together. [link]

So in a way, the way we make sense of the world of vision is based in our ability to find order where there might otherwise be none. It's in our nature to create order out of what our senses give us; without it, the world would be a meaningless jumble of pieces and parts, and love, religion, and art would not be able to exist as we know them. Neither would night-fears, or metaphor, or leaf-patterns on the wall. Or the little man who still sits, probably, on the wall of the room I had in the house where I grew up.


- Wikipedia's article on prosopagnosia, or "face blindness" (the inability to recognize faces)
- Wiki article on face perception, with all the attendant theories

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Wunderkammern vs. Cabinets of Curiosity

I happened across an interesting article in Cabinet Magazine by Celeste Olalquiaga about, among other things, the difference between Wunderkammern, which were early expressions of wonder and awe at the world and what it could produce, and curiosity cabinets, which came later and were really about early scientific efforts to master and control nature by creating strict taxonomies - by, essentially, demarcating the natural world in a "divide and conquer" flurry of examination, collection, and cataloguing.

Ms. Olalquiaga makes an interesting point about the change from collection-as-expression-of-wonder to collection-as-analytical-vehicle. She claims that with the paradigm shift from the theologically-driven 1500s to the analytically-driven 1700s, Wunderkammern underwent a demotion from the grand and exquisite collections of kings to the literal cabinets of the bourgeoise. The Wunderkammern of royalty was literally disassembled, separated into collections of man-made things, which were housed in Kunstkammern (art galleries), and natural things, which were put in curiosity cabinets and designated with the new, "scientific" categorizations.

"Unlike the Wunderkammern, where the elements of what we now call natural history were mainly objects of puzzlement and awe...the curiosity cabinets of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries mark the onset of a desire to grasp and control the mystery which made of nature such an enthralling realm. Once Wunderkammern began to lose their allure in the face of, among other things, a colonial expansion that made their treasures far more familiar and available than befits a bona fide object of wonder, the curiosity cabinet became the privileged form of exhibiting such goods."

To those of us in the modern world, this era's idea of "scientific" seems quaint, even ignorant, based as it was on similarities that were at times nearly arbitrary - but nonetheless, it was the seeds of science today, with its emphasis on why and how, its need to separate things into groups, segments, divisions.

Bonnier de la Mosson's Second Cabinet of Natural History, of which Ms. Olalquiaga speaks at length, as it stands today. Courtesy Bibliotèque centrale du Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle, Paris.

This change in our view of nature was revolutionary, as people began to discover that they could actually figure things out by observation and deduction. That, and the colonization of the globe, meant that from an ever-present environment that was unpredictable and dangerous, nature began to be understandable and even tameable. The old adage that "education defeats fear" means that what was once the arena of God, unknowable and all-powerful, now becomes knowable, conquerable: each window of understanding becomes a view into the possibilities of what can be learned, what can be known. And therefore, being known, it ceases to hold power over us.

I've been having a number of conversations with my friend Gwyan over at Salt in the Code about The Sublime recently. The sublime is a concept that was first imagined in the first century AD by Longinus (but not really rediscovered until the sixteenth century), for whom the sublime was about greatness, loftiness, and elevation, inspiring awe and veneration.

However, in the early 18th century, three Englishmen - Anthony Ashley Cooper (third earl of Shaftesbury), John Dennis, and Joseph Addison - made separate journeys across the Alps to visit Italy, and were struck by the experience. They wrote about the mountains, and the conflicting emotions the landscape raised, in terms of the sublime - but with a new twist: the sense of loftiness, yes, and veneration, but also a sense of terror at the way the mountains made them feel small and insignificant. The landscape could be so vast and twisted, so gnawed by the elements, that it evoked both asthetic fascination and a sort of horror. There is power, and even beauty, within the sublime, but beauty, in the discussions of asthetics of the day, was a calm emotion, whereas the sublime brought on a sense of agitation and awe.

"John Dennis was the first to publish his comments in a journal letter published as Miscellanies in 1693, giving an account of crossing the Alps where, contrary to his prior feelings for the beauty of nature as a "delight that is consistent with reason", the experience of the journey was at once a pleasure to the eye as music is to the ear, but "mingled with Horrours, and sometimes almost with despair." [wiki]

Kant wrote a whole treatise on the subject, called Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime:

"There are two kinds of finer feeling: the feeling of the sublime and the feeling of the beautiful. Kant gives examples of these pleasant feelings. Some of his examples of feelings of the beautiful are the sight of flower beds, grazing flocks, and daylight. Feelings of the sublime are the result of seeing mountain peaks, raging storms, and night." [wiki]

"...the word naturally expressed high admiration, and usually implied a strong emotional effect, which, in the latter years of the century, frequently turned on terror" Samuel Holt Monk, The Sublime

Previous to this, mountains had been seen as blemishes, even warts, defacing the beauty of the earth, and there had been great theological controversy in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries about whether mountains and other natural formations came as a result of the earth being a ruin of man's fall from grace. One man, Thomas Burnet, even claimed in 1681 that the earth before the Deluge had been smooth and perfect.

This coincides almost exactly with the same time period that Ms. Olalquiaga describes, where Wunderkammern transformed into Cabinets of Curiosity. As the wonders in people's hands and shelves began to diminish in wonder-power, the urge to turn to larger, grander themes began to appear, and the writings of people like John Dennis became a subject of fascination: the more explored the world became, the more people sought to find that sense of wonder through travel and grandiose art, until The Picturesque, a product of the Romantic movement's mashup of Beauty and the Sublime, made its way into the limelight.

At which point it might be said that the search for wonder was brought, so to speak, into our own backyards. Twisted trees, dark grottos, and strange pseudo-ruins became all the rage, for example, in English landscape design by the end of the eighteenth century, and English people began to travel, not to Europe for the Grand Tour, but at home around the British Isles, looking for wild landscapes and broken remnants. Instead of awe, the search was on to capture Wild Nature and contain it:

"The irregular, anti-classical, ruins and even ruined people - the ragged poor (viewed from a safe distance of course) - became sought after themes. Picturesque-hunters began crowding the Lake District to make sketches..As Malcolm Andrews remarks, there is 'something of the big-game hunter in these tourists, boasting of their encounters with savage landscapes, "capturing" wild scenes, and "fixing" them as pictorial trophies in order to sell them or hang them up in frames on their drawing room walls.'" [wiki]

Thus, as the grandeur of the mountains was reduced and carried into the drawing-rooms of the middle class, so the effects of the Wunderkammern were being divided up and handed out into those same kinds of drawing-rooms, as objects of curiosity and conversation, symbols of our coming ascendency over Nature and the World: little windows into our eventual conquest of things both wondrous and frightening.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Gecko Feet: Natural Marvel

Thanks to the National Science Foundation for the picture

Traveling in Southeast Asia, geckos on the ceiling were a common occurrence. They would stake out territory, chasing each other away with vehemently waving tails, as if they did not notice they were in the middle of a rough, lumpy, peeling ceiling, hanging upside-down.

I would lay in my bed and watch them fight, wondering why one of them did not fall on my face. As it turns out, no one else knew either until relatively recently. Discussion of their toes as if they were suction cups were fairly common among us plebs, and even the scientific community assumed there was some capillary action at work, keeping them stuck by the moisture in the surface they were walking on. But in the past few years they have actually tested gecko feet and found that they work even in super-dry environments.

If you look at a gecko's foot, they have these weird flaps on them that look suspiciously like long, narrow suction cups. They spread when they walk in a soft, mushy way that is utterly fascinating, and if you've ever held a gecko you will understanding my saying that their amazing toes are almost velvety (in a rubbery sort of way) to the touch. And, if you did agree, you would be right. The bottoms of a gecko's feet are, in fact covered with millions of tiny foot-hairs on each toe, called setae, each about as long as the width of two human hairs (about 100 millionths of a meter). Each seta, in turn, is divided at the end into approximately a thousand tiny spatulae (yes, you guessed why they are called that), which are about 200 billlionths of a meter wide, which is smaller than the wavelength of visible light.

It seems the geckos' toes create so much surface area in this way, with such tiny endings, that they are able to make use of Van der Waal's force - a weak attractive force which is present between molecules - to stick themselves to the ceiling.

Geckos' feet are naturally ultrahydrophobic - in this case, hydrophobic referring to a molecule which is repelled by water - and have been tested by sticking them to a GaAs semiconductor, which is also hydrophobic. The only thing known to make two hydrophobic surfaces adhere in air is Van der Waal's force, so the old question of capillary action has been disproved.

Universität des Saarlandes

Kellar Autumn, probably the leading researcher on gecko's feet, says they are strong, as well:

"We took a single gecko foot hair (seta) and made the first direct measurement of its adhesive function...We used a microscopic force sensor designed by Tom Kenny at Stanford to measure the tiny forces of adhesion of the gecko seta.

We discovered that the seta is 10 times more adhesive than predicted from prior measurement on whole animals. The adhesive is so strong that a single seta can lift the weight of an ant 200 µN = 20 mg. A million setae could lift the weight of a child (20kg, 45lbs). A million setae could easily fit onto the area of a dime [$0.10 coin]. The combined attraction of a billion spatulae is a thousand times more than a gecko needs to hang from the ceiling. Maximum potential force of 2,000,000 setae on 4 feet of a gecko = 2,000,000 x 200 micronewton = 400 newton = 40788 grams force, or about 90 lbs! This is 600 times greater sticking power than friction alone can account for...

Our discovery explains how it is that any gecko can hold up its entire body weight with only a single finger. If the adhesive is so strong, how do they get their feet off? ...We found that if we increased the angle the seta makes to the surface, it just pops off"

This is helped, of course, by the fact that geckos' toes are backwards-jointed, meaning that when they flex their toes they curl upward rather than downward, allowing them to peel their toes from the surface to which they are stuck.

Gecko feet are self- cleaning as well. Because the same force applies between dirt particles and the surfaces the geckos walk on, the dirt prefers to stick to the relatively large and attractive surface rather than the tiny spatulae on the gecko's feet. So when a gecko's feet get dirty, all they have to do is walk a few steps and they are clean again.

"Geckos' adhesive microstructure requires minimal attachment force, leaves no residue, is directional, detaches without measurable forces, is self-cleaning, and works underwater, in a vacuum, and on nearly every surface material and profile."

Perfect, in other words, for synthesis.

Synthetic setae have been in the works for several years now, with ideas like micro-robots that could climb walls or be sent to places like Mars, where self-cleaning sticky feet might be greatly useful; or setae-covered clothing, which would allow people to literally crawl about on the walls and ceiling. And most adhesives don't work in the vaccuum of space, while Van der Waal's forces work everywhere. But keratin, the hydrophobic protein that gecko's setae are made of, is hard to reproduce: hydrophobic substances, such as silicone and polyester, are harder to mold into setae-like shapes than other substances - and the hydrophobic qualities are key to the reproduction of the setae's effect, or water molecules stick to it as well, making it soggy and eventually destroying its sticking power.

But in June of last year, researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of Akron came up with a flexible "gecko tape" that they claim has four times the sticking power of the real thing. This tape is made by covering polymer surfaces with carbon nanotube hairs, which use a Van der Waal's effect to adhere. The tape is designed to be as easily-removed as a gecko's foot, so the tape does not get damaged and can be used over and over. They even have pictures, which show that on a microscopic scale they are admittedly much less attractive than the original.

And now, "at Stanford University have created a robot which uses synthetic setae in order to scale even extremely smooth vertical surfaces just as a gecko would." [wiki] So here we are.

I am curious, with all the hype around this technology, to see if it is indeed self-cleaning, as the original idea went. If it is, then we have once again successfully learned from nature, and created a whole new era of fun things to play around with. But if not, then it's not much different than any other tape, because it'll get dirty and stop working.

And part of me is really excited that we, too, could crawl around like geckos someday. Rock-climbing will take on a whole new meaning; skyscraper-climbing could become a new sport; or hanging onto the bottoms of airplanes - the extreme sport possibilities are endless. My travels in Southeast Asia would have been much different if I had been able to put on my special gloves and socks and join the geckos on the ceiling ("break it up, you guys!").

But part of me will regret the loss of one more part of the unknown. In the not-too-distant future, you can imagine the Southeast Asian traveler exclaiming to his or her travel partner, "Hey, look at that lizard! It looks just like you when you're in your ceiling suit!"

Somehow it loses some of the quiet magic of lying there, and watching them, and wondering.

- Paper on the gecko tape

- How geckos' feet stay clean

- Geckel, a super-sticky adhesive combining the setae concept with the "glue" used by mussels

- The Global Gecko Association, dedicated to gecko enthusiasts world-wide.

- Pictures of a Western Banded Gecko cleaning his eye, which has no moveable lids (this genus has no setae).

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

American Roadside Attraction Map

From Ms. Bonanza's Flickr pix of the Johnston Stables in Las Vegas, NV

Quickie-quick, before the generator runs out:

Mr. Kimberly, of Neon Poisoning, has sent me this awesome-looking Google map of Roadside Attractions, American Car Culture, Eccentric Museums and More. Quick perusal tells me it's worth checking out.

Onward with the power outage!

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Emergency Services

Just got word that the power outage here, which started Friday morning, will go on until Thursday, likely. Pardon if I'm off-line! The storm on Friday was wild: it picked up our greenhouse and threw it against the side of the house, among other things.

See you next weekend.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Noah Farlee's Giskard the Genius

It's got steam. It's got eccentric people building things. It's got machine parts falling down mountains. What more could you want?

Noah Farlee, the sixteen-year-old author of Giskard the Genius, is interested in writing graphic fiction. His first try at it, he says, "...was awful. But a while after that, when I was thirteen or so, I started work on my first major comic project, which was about a little robot named Mechanic who had to go and fix the very universe of fiction itself after the fundamentals of storytelling broke down one day."

He is fascinated with Steampunk, Clockpunk, and all things similar, and began to work on the universe for Caelum, where Giskard is set, after shelving his early comic project. There are a million things which have influenced him but the thing that strikes me about Giskard, and what I've seen of the rest of his Caelum series, is that they are fundamentally original, humorous, and completely creative. So much of what we see coming out of so-called prodigy works is simply a rehashing of other peoples' fantasy novels; but Noah's Caelum world, and the stories that happen there, seem to be more complex, more unusual.

Noah himself is very articulate about it:

"The fictional universe for this this story is a planet called Caelum (Hooray Latin!). The largest body of water is the Vertiginous Ocean, which is essentially a gigantic spiral current in the center of the map spinning clockwise. The land tends to follow the same pattern; though it's mostly just thinner landmasses like long islands and peninsulas which noticeably curl clockwise. It's actually possible to walk from the north pole to the south pole on Caelum, but travelling over the Vertiginous Ocean is a much more efficient route between the east and west, provided you can find a safe means of travel. Giskard's town of Pawl Hollow is in a valley in the Rooftop Mountains, which run right along the northern border of Ironfoundland. Ironfoundland is an industrial country about the size of the Louisiana Purchase (a strange comparison, but I didn't realize the near perfect correlation until later), and it's where most of the Caelum stories are set.  
"So far, Giskard the Genius is the only complete Caelum story. However, there are four direct sequels to it which I have outlined, three or four "big" stories which are slowly developing in the back of my brain, one short story which is about halfway written down, and several dozens of ideas which I'm still getting around to even considering."

Which is about how most authors seem to work, as far as I can see, walking around with the backs of their heads hanging open for the spores of stories to take root in, while they make notes on anything that comes to hand about whatever strikes them, and then hoping it will lead somewhere.

I talked to him about his choice to go with the lighter look, rather than some of the grimmer and grittier patina which make up parts of his own reading. He is a fan of China Mieville and Alan Moore, and is well-read in some of the darker graphic fiction, though he says at the moment he is inspired by the many new and cool artists in the Flight series, which he says is "visually stunning, wildly creative and pure fun from start to finish." When I asked him about going dark with this story, he said, instead, that "Giskard happened because I had the characters, the setting, and the machines, and I knew I had to do something special with them. With Giskard, I wanted to prove that you could still tell a story for a story's sake. I wanted a story that was enjoyable to people of any age, instead of just "acceptable" for all ages. No gritty violence, no brooding main characters or political commentary, but also no distracting morals or nauseating innocence. Just plain clean fun."

When asked if he wanted to write, draw, and ink all his own comics, he responded with a smart negative. He likes the drawing, he says (and he's good at it, I said), but it's the writing that interests him; and I got the feeling that he would be most happy working with other creative people, making stories about things he loves.

The full 12-page Giskard (in pdf form) can be had here.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Bringing in the New Years' With Steam

As we walked in along the wet and muddy gravel road through the crisp darkness from where we had parked our car, the children shrieked with glee and went running ahead, toward the large grassy clearing and the little train station, now lit with Christmas lights. A large bonfire burned at the other end of the frost-covered grass, and people stood huddled around it, drinking hot cider from paper cups. In the distance the train whistle sounded, and we knew we'd arrived in time to catch the 11:00 pm run of the Swanton Pacific Railroad.

The Swanton Pacific was the child of entrepeneur and train man Al Smith, who lost a leg working for Southern Pacific, and later made his fortune parlaying the family hardware business into a successful chain which allowed him to retire and concentrate on his first love: trains. With some of his savings he bought two of the engines that were built to run the Overfair Railway, a small-scale railroad installed in San Francisco for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915: built along the lines (with improvements) of Southern Pacific's 4-6-2 Pacific type engines, they were 1/3 scale with an unusual 19-inch gauge track.

At the Expo the Overfair Railway circled the Machinery Palace (!) and went on past the San Francisco Bay, where it turned and ran along the edges of the fairground. Eighteen million people came to the Exposition, which completely -and fancifully - rebuilt parts of San Francisco, and of course, many of them rode the train. Where else could you get a ride behind a real Pacific locomotive for a dime?

The Overfair Railway, with the 1500 engine, which was built primarily to help with the building of the railway. Note the cars full of dirt (?). This 1500 engine was recently bought by Cal Poly, who are working on restoring it at their San Luis Obispo campus.

Mr. Smith, a quiet and kind man who went to Cal Poly State University to learn agriculture after he lost his leg, eventually bought 3,000 acres of land at the site of the old town of Swanton:

"...south of San Francisco and... north of Santa Cruz, inland from the Pacific Ocean, is the small community of Swanton. From 1906 to 1920, Swanton was the north end of the southern division of the Ocean Shore Railway. At Swanton, passengers boarded a 10-seat Stanley Steamer bus that filled the twenty-six-mile trackless gap between Swanton and Tunitas. Here, they again boarded a steam train to continue their trip to San Francisco. Swanton was to provide the new home for the Overfair Railway."

Being a local girl, I've heard all my life about this trip, where people got out of the train and into the steam-powered Stanley Motor Carriage bus, which took them out to the beach and then down past the cliffs at low tide, to fetch up after a wild and trackless overland ride -26 miles total - at Tunitas, where they again boarded a steam-powered train for San Francisco. The whole thing captures the imagination: the adventurousness, the wait for the tide and the wild dash across rocks and sand, all the luggage and bustle and steam at the small rural stations...

1913 Stanley Model 810 mountain wagon owned by Alan Blazick (courtesy of John Woodson's

Now all these are gone, even the town of Swanton; but clearly the story captured Mr. Smith's imagination, too, for he chose this spot to buy land for his railroad, and proceeded to build, with volunteer labor, a track that ran partly along the old abandoned Ocean Shore Railway right-of-way, with a station within walking distance of the old Swanton stopping-point which no longer exists (most of the town was lost in a flood in the 1950s). I'm not much of a train geek, but these engines are beautiful. They are complete down to every detail, not merely reproductions but real locomotives in a smaller scale, built by a rich perfectionist. Mr. Smith loved them. He laid several miles of track, with the aim of laying it all the way to the coastal land; but floods and Mr. Smith's death in 1993 delayed this goal, and after his death the Swanton Pacific Ranch was willed to Cal Poly, who use it for sustainable agriculture projects and, you guessed it, steam locomotion studies.

There are loads of little railways like this one tucked away across the countryside, known mostly to train people, but also open, as the Swanton Pacific Railroad is, to the public in some capacity. And if you're lucky, you'll be on the inside, around for those special events, the ones the public isn't invited to, the ones that are magic.

So every New Years' Eve, the locals and some select few train afficionados gather to talk quietly between shrieking children and laughing teenagers, to celebrate the new year and to ride the train out into the dark, under the stars. We climb into the small wooden cars and take off, away from the warmth and light of the fire and the clear glow of the tiny station, into the forest, where the steam pours out in a large cottony swath and hangs in the naked branches of the dark trees, and we all huddle under blankets and stare upward, marveling.


- Images of the Exposition, very cool. I can't believe they put all this up just to take it all down again!
- One of many, many souvenir guidebooks of the Exposition - great pics of buildings that were pulled down as soon as the Expo was over, to our modern chagrin.
- Great article on the history of these engines from The Virtual Museum of San Francisco
- Article about Cal Poly's love affair with steam from the Chronicle of Higher Education
- Some rail geek pictures of the train
- Video of engine #1914 running in midsummer