Monday, July 4, 2011

Is Anyone Out There?

Outbound from Cedar Rapids on Friday morning, we drove around in the woods northwest of North Liberty, Iowa, before we found the Very Large Baseline Array antenna shown above. This is one of a dozen or so across the country, most of which are at the main location in Socorro, New Mexico, which we drove through in April. Here, we got up closer. The antenna itself is operated from Socorro, and there was no one hanging around the maintenance shack here. Collectively, the antennas are used to simulate a 5000-mile-wide telescope (hence the "Very Large" part of the name). The project website claims that its power is equivalent to being able to stand in New York and read a newspaper in Los Angeles. The mission statement says absolutely nothing about military or espionage capabilities. We probably won't make it to all ten antennas, but Owens Valley, California, is a possibility....

Next we backtracked to the enormous "wheel art" sculpture by L. J. Maasdam in Lynnville, not very far from Grinnell, where we had been on Monday. Another product of individual obsession, this contraption seems to be standing up well even in tornado country—though truth be told some of the guy wires did look frighteningly slack.

After heading southeast to pick up Watson in Ottumwa and a not overly satisfying lunch from Canteen Lunch in the Alley (how good can ground meat piled on a Wonder bun be?), we continued to Eldon to visit this little-known house:

We were all surprised by the degree to which this house has become essentially the backdrop to a bunch of funny photographs. Grant Wood's original lives at the Art Institute of Chicago, but its cultural resonance seems to lie in how often it is appropriated by various magazines and advertisements as a commentary, often along the lines of "what's happened to traditional America"—as if Wood's painting is a celebration of a lost America rather than a somewhat sneering jab at it.

The house itself has been denatured from its original use—as you can see, the sidewalk no longer connects to anything, and the street that was once there has been demapped. To the left (unseen) is a massive bland concrete building that contains a history of the painting and a gift shop, from which you can borrow overalls and other costuming so that you, too, can be Gothicized. It's all in good fun, but it's also sort of pointless. And who is the laugh on, anyway? The painting? The house? Wood? The people who pose? I'm looking for the joke with a microscope.

One more stop, at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, which we felt underinformed about, and then it was on to Burlington, which was at once our favorite Iowa river town—in part because it smelled fine but also because of the large stock of older buildings. ("Preservation by neglect," Rob called it.) We snaked down Snake Alley—allegedly the twistiest street in America—and then went out to the ballpark, where the Burlington Bees beat the unholy crap out of the Peoria Chiefs, 18-4.

As he had on Sunday when we were in Peoria, touted first-round pick Hayden Simpson began the game for the Chiefs. As unimpressive as he had been in that game—5 2/3 innings, 10 hits, 4 runs, 2 strikeouts—this was far worse. Simpson was gone before the end of the second, with 6 runs, 6 hits, and no strikeouts to his name. Kevin Goldstein at Baseball Prospectus wrote a month ago that something might be wrong with Simpson physically—for the Cubs' sake I hope so, because otherwise he's just a bust. The relief crew was obviously no better, combining to give up double again what Simpson did. Peoria did turn things around the next night, winning 5-1, but by then we were in the Mayfly Capital of Iowa, as Rob will detail.

You get a lot of noise in the signals from minor-league talent, and it's impossible to tell from a single game whether a given player is going to have the moxie to outperform all of the levels between the Midwest League and the majors—but playing badly here is a good way to ensure that we'll never know what a player might have done higher up.

The Benjamin Franklin of Burlington, Iowa, trying to pull in a Chicago UHF station, perhaps.

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