Category Archives: Miscellaneous

R.I.P. Jerry Brown, 1930 – 2012

A most interesting and unusual man was lost on February 10, 2012. I had the pleasure of meeting Jerry Brown through our mutual passion for astronomy, and considered him a grandfatherly friend.

Here I am visiting Jerry Brown (left) in his workshop in 2009. The machine to the right is one of many he built. Reinhard Kargl, 2009. Click to enlarge.

Jerry was a quiet and introverted man who preferred the solitude of his home and workshop to the hustle and bustle of the world. His demeanor was somewhat eccentric (which is precisely why I became interested in him), but Jerry’s humble, unassuming ways did not advertise the genius he really was.

After his parents passed away, Jerry continued to live in his boyhood home in Culver City, California. He himself suspected that he might have “a mild case of autism”, to which he attributed his lack of desire to be more social, marry or have a family. He lived frugally and all by himself until the end, and he liked his usual routines so much that he viewed any change with suspicion, and as a possible nuisance. He said he was afraid of dying, but even more so, of languishing in a debilitated state.

After a stint in the Army, during which he was trained as a radar technician (and which, as far as I know, was the only time he really travelled over a great distance) Jerry held mechanical jobs in the Californian aerospace industry and at a model shop.

But the things Jerry was really interested in were happening in his free time — in the evenings and during weekends. Having had an enormous fascination with machines since childhood, Jerry had started to construct his own.

A corner of Jerry Brown's workshop, which seemed like a place from another time. Photo: Reinhard Kargl, 2009.

In the process, despite lacking an advanced technical education, Jerry taught himself drafting and engineering and acquired a broad variety of mechanical and metalworking skills. Being particularly interested in steam engines, Jerry designed and built his own — entirely from scratch. His workshop contained a metal foundry, all sorts of metal working machines (many of which he constructed himself, because he could not afford to buy them). For his steam engines, he manufactured gears, boilers, pistons and most other parts all by himself.

Jerry Brown in the 1970s. Photographer unknown.

In his own essay, “The Making of a Model Engineer”, Jerry wrote:

“After acquiring a standard lathe and milling machine I was ready for a serious project. My goal was to build, from scratch, an engine big enough to do useful work. Perusing old steam engineering books, I was able to design what I wanted—a 1.25″ bore x 2.25” stroke engine similar to those that powered mills and factories in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I made wood patterns to form sand molds, and poured metal castings for the major parts. After everything was assembled I tried a test run on compressed air. No problems, so next was a steam test (with borrowed steam at a club meet, since I had no boiler.) It ran fine, with no leaks, which an onlooker said was rare for a first-run on steam. I subsequently had a boiler built, and mounted it with the engine on skids for portability. After some 40 years it’s still running as well as ever, powering a grain mill which grinds corn for my pancakes. Fired with scrap wood (or corn cobs) it’s a big attraction at antique engine shows.

Despite these accomplishments, I still hadn’t fulfilled my childhood dream of building a steam-powered miniature revolving crane/excavator. These were all gone from the construction world in my time, except for some that survived into the 1970s as pile drivers because their boilers could supply steam for the hammer. I always liked watching these things. If I were a musician I’d have to be a percussionist because, like the legendary John Henry, I love to hear that cold steel ring. In 1972, working for a company that made live-steam miniature railroad equipment, I figured the time had come and I’d best not wait any longer. The crane would be a vastly more complicated project than a plain stationary engine, but I plunged in, learning as I went. It was a labor of love, culminating in1978 with the first steam-up. Thirty years later it’s still going strong, digging in my garden and demonstrating at shows what steam power once did (like building the Panama Canal.)”

It took many years, but eventually Jerry was successful. Here he is with his masterpiece:

Jerry Brown and his steam powered shovel, some time in the 1970s. Photographer unknown. (Click to enlarge).

Jerry’s other great interest in life was science, especially astronomy.

“Physics is said to be the basic science; I think astronomy/cosmology is a close second. I like the way Stephen Hawking put it when asked of what use was his work: It won’t make your wash any whiter, but we need to know what we are and where we came from. It’s rewarding be associated with people having a common interest in these subjects.

I think my interest in astronomy began around 1940 when I read a science column in the old original Los Angeles Daily News (I guess that pretty well dates me.) It mentioned some stars being so dense that a spoonful of their material would weigh tones here on Earth. At age 10, that was mind-boggling. (It still is.) I went on a 7th grade field trip to the Griffith Observatory, and still remember my “first contact” with the Foucault Pendulum. Also, the electromagnetic spectrum chart showing the narrow band we know as visible light. In high school I built my first telescope using lenses that came with a science book I’d bought. They weren’t color-corrected, so you can imagine the images I got. But it was enough to tell me there was a lot out there I wanted to know about.

In the Amy (1950) I read Fred Hoyle’s book describing his steady-state theory. That kept my interest alive. In the middle 60s, thanks largely to a neighbor who was interested in astronomy, I built a better telescope (which is still in use.) Together we built a 3″ reflector from scratch. Around 1990 a sort of philosophical crisis motivated me to renew my too-long dormant interest in science. It has been the most intellectually rewarding experience of my life. I think that I have finally, to use Timothy Ferris’s phrase, come of age in the Milky Way. Took a long time, but better late than never.”
(J.B., via e-mail, 2011-11-11).

In addition to working on his machines, Jerry was active with the Santa Monica Amateur Astronomy Club, and the Los Angeles Live Steamers Railroad Museum. He was also a member of FOTO (the Friends of the Griffith Observatory), the Southern California Home Shop Machinists, and the Center for Inquiry. He also has a keen interest in pipe theater organs and attended shows whenever he could.

Jerry was not a religious man. Indeed, he viewed “organized religion” with a measure of disdain. On the other hand, he was a compassionate humanist who had respect for all living things, to the point of becoming a vegetarian. I would say that the Golden Rule, and a desire to do no harm were the most important maxims in his life.

His steam shovel, the crowning achievement of Jerry’s life, has continued to be an attraction at shows and events for several decades now, and Jerry enjoyed operating and exhibiting it in public. He even made the fuel (most currently a biodiesel he made from spent restaurant cooking oil).

Jerry Bown and his steam shovel at the Spring 2009 meeting of the Los Angeles Live Steamers Railroad Museum. Photo: Matthew Swain. Click to enlarge.

The last few weeks had been unkind to Jerry’s health. His heart and cardiovascular system had already been weakened over the last few years, and now, he was becoming dehydrated and exhausted from a lack of sleep, which he attributed to a “stomach flu”. But he seemed to be getting better.

I was expecting to see Jerry on Friday, Feb. 10, at a meeting and science lecture in the evening. But the day before, Jerry e-mailed:

“Much as I hate to, I’ll very likely have to miss it. Whatever hit me last month has returned with a vengeance, this time with hiccups like 2 years ago which will preclude sleep tonight.”

Little did I suspect that it was to be his last message. Jerry was taken to the hospital on Friday morning and passed away later that day.

Attending astronomy lectures without him will be sad. He had been a fixture for so many years. My only consolation is that Jerry’s very worst fear did not come true: he did not have to languish in a semi-vegetative state.

Jerry had no family. As of this time, no funeral arrangements have been publicized. I will make updates here as soon as details come to my knowledge.

The story of Jerry’s masterpiece is recounted in detail, and with many pictures, on this page:

Although Jerry is gone, his masterpiece will remain. Photographer unknown. Click to enlarge.

It is only fitting that Jerry should have the last word:

“Why did I build it? Why does one swim the Channel or build a Brooklyn Bridge from toothpicks? In this case, as I say, it was a lifetime ambition. I’ve always liked to watch the wheels go ‘round, especially when they’re steam powered. And maybe because this machinery is kind of a reminder of a time long-gone when some of our present problems hadn’t even been thought of. In any event, I’m glad I did it when I did. One thing I’ve learned is that if you want to do something, do it as soon as you can because you never know when it will be too late. Watching the clam pull itself into the ground as the closing line snakes through all those sheaves to the sound of the engine and smell of steam and hot oil made it all worthwhile. Not to mention the amazement of spectators, most of whom never saw the big ones at work. And the small boy, growing up in the plastic, throw-away age asking sort of awe-struck, “Is that made out of metal?” Steam machinery buffs will understand.”
(From: A Miniature Live Steam Crane, by Jerry Brown. Australian Model Engineering magazine, March/April 2008).

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L.A. Noire

I am not a video gamer. No, no, no! Not at all! But to my great surprise there is now a computer game I could see myself getting excited about: L.A. Noire. Its simulation of 1940s Los Angeles is simply stunning and mindboggling.

This is not an invented landscape! This is a representation of the authentic streets, buildings, landmarks and vehicles which really existed at the time, and the players navigate on a true map of the city. Here is a simulated police chase through downtown Los Angeles, circa 1947:

I never thought I’d say this, but this has gone on my “must try” list. Not that I’d really want to “solve a crime” or actually play the game — I’d be content with cruising around vintage Los Angeles for hours and hours.

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The Morals of Chess (by Benjamin Franklin)

One of my American heroes, Benjamin Franklin was a keen (and occasionally obsessive) chess player. He even wrote about the game and its implications. Franklin published the following essay in 1786 (drawing on material from earlier drafts of 1732, Philadelphia and 1779, London).


The Morals Of Chess


Benjamin Franklin

The Game of Chess is not merely an idle amusement; several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired and strengthened by it, so as to become habits ready on all occasions, for life is a kind of Chess, in which we have often points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend with, and in which there is a vast variety of good and ill events that are, in some degree, the effect of prudence, or the want of it. By playing at Chess, then, we may learn:

1st: Foresight, which looks a little into futurity, and considers the consequences that may attend an action, for it is continually occurring to the player, “If I move this Piece, what will be the advantage or disadvantage of my new situation? What use can my adversary make of it to annoy me? What other moves can I make to support it, and to defend myself from his attacks?”

2nd: Circumspection, which surveys the whole Chess-board, or scene of action, the relation of the several Pieces, their situations, and the dangers they are repeatedly exposed to, the several possibilities of their aiding each other, the probabilities that the adversary may make this or that move, and attack this or that Piece, and what different means can be used to avoid his stroke, or turn its consequences against him.

3rd: Caution, not to make our moves too hastily. This habit is best acquired by observing strictly the laws of the game, such as, if you touch a piece you must move it somewhere, and if you set it down, you must let it stand.

Continue reading

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How Mother’s Day Killed Its Own Mother

“It’s ‘Mother’s Day’. Not ‘Mothers Day’!”

“A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself.” — Anna Jarvis


Anna Jarvis (1864 – 1948) was a formidable lady. I should have liked the pleasure of meeting her. She is known for creating Mother’s Day, but she was extremely unhappy with what her idea had grown into.

Mrs. Jarvis championed Mother’s Day as a simple day to honor one’s own mother, the most special mother a person could have — not all mothers. This is why she was adament that it should always be spelled “Mother’s Day”, but certainly not “Mothers Day”.

The evolution of Mother’s Day into a commercialized celebration appalled and aggrieved Mrs. Jarvis. She launched a massive campaign against its commercial exploitation. Boycotts and vitriolic denouncements of candy and greeting card gifts were just some of the tactics used in her appeals to bring Mother’s Day back to basics. Unfortunately, she was hardly successful and ultimately died, some would say, from grief.

Brian Handwork has the story in National Geographic Magazine.

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Help Japan


Adventist Development and Relief Agency International’s Response to Japan Tsunami

All Hands Volunteers’s Response to Japan Tsunami

American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Response to Japan Tsunami

American Red Cross International Services’s Response to Japan Tsunami

AmeriCares’s Response to Japan Tsunami

Ananda Marga Universal Relief Team (AMURT)’s Response to Japan Tsunami

Baptist World Alliance / Baptist World Aid’s Response to Japan Tsunami

Brother’s Brother Foundation’s Response to Japan Tsunami

Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation’s Response to Japan Tsunami

Catholic Relief Services’s Response to Japan Tsunami

Christian Reformed World Relief Committee’s Response to Japan Tsunami

Church World Service’s Response to Japan Tsunami

Direct Relief International’s Response to Japan Tsunami

Giving Children Hope’s Response to Japan Tsunami

Habitat for Humanity International’s Response to Japan Tsunami

International Medical Corps’s Response to Japan Tsunami

International Rescue Committee’s Response to Japan Tsunami

Japanese Red Cross Society (English site)

Mercy Corps’s Response to Japan Tsunami

Medicines Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders)
(has a medical team on the ground, but donations go into the general fund)

Operation Blessing’s Response to Japan Tsunami

Relief International’s Response to Japan Tsunami

Save the Children’s Response to Japan Tsunami

UNICEF (United States Fund)

World Vision, United States’s Response to Japan Tsunami

Please note:
Some have commented that Japan is wealthy and needs less assistance than poorer countries. This is a misconception. The nation of Japan has not asked (nor does it expect) financial assistance. However, the organizations listed above are currently expending their resources on helping victims in Japan. Unless these funds are replenished, less funding will be available for their global operations. In disasters on such a monstrous scale, we are all connected.

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Meeting Maria Altmann

Maria Altmann Portrait
Maria Altmann in her garden. Click to enlarge. © Reinhard Kargl 2000

Maria Altmann, heiress to Gustav Klimt paintings which were later sold for $328 million, has died in Los Angeles on February 7, 2011. She was 94.

When the Austrian state TV network ORF asked me to do an in-depth interview with Maria Altmann in 2000 — after Altmann had sued the Republic of Austria — I was a little apprehensive at first. How would she react to a reporter raised in the country she was suing for the injustices she alleged were done to her family during the Nazi era?

So I phone Mrs. Altmann to test the waters. But my fears prove to be completely unfounded. On the countrary! The moment she hears I was born in Vienna (as she was), Altmann immediately falls into perfect German slightly tinged with a distinct Viennese upper-class accent: “Ach, dann können wir ja auch wienerisch reden!” And she proceeds to tell me enthusiastically of the “wonderful” youth memories she has of the old imperial city by the Danube, the delicious pastries, the architecture, and the music.

She was 84 years old at our first conversation, still very busy working as fashion consultant and designer, interested in art and classical music, well read, highly energetic and articulate. I knew then that I was about to meet a most interesting and remarkable lady.

Since then, Mrs. Altmann’s story has been well publicised. Born into a family of wealthy Jewish industrialists in 1916, she was 22 and freshly married when the First Austrian Republic (the German speaking remnant left over after the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), joined the German Third Reich in the Anschluss of 1938. Like many other Jewish residents at the time, Altmann’s (and her husband’s) family assessed the situation correctly and subsequently scattered, leaving almost their entire fortune behind.

Among the family’s possessions were various pictures by the still relatively unknown Gustav Klimt; among them were portraits commissioned by Altmann’s family.

Adele Bloch-Bauer I, by Gustav Klimt, 1907. Oil and golden and silver foil on canvas. 138 × 138 cm. Click to enlarge.

Compared to what happened to others, Altmann considered herself “very lucky”. After her husband’s arrest, his brief detention and the couple’s covert flight from Vienna, the Altmanns were able to make a new, peaceful life in America, where they also achieved financial security.


Anyway, so we decide to shoot the interview at Altmann’s home in Cheviot Hill, a small and neat suburbian residential area in West Los Angeles, where the widowed mother of four children has lived for a long time. We agree to shoot everything in German.

Altmann is well groomed and dressed and exudes an aura of ladylike poise and charm. As usual, I let the cameraman pick the best setting (which he finds in the backyard) and while the crew is setting up, I follow the usual ritual: engage in a little small talk with the subject in private, then go over a broad description of my questions, have the microphones attached, do a light and sound check. Not easy to endure at the age of 84.

The interview goes very well. Altmann gives long answers (luckily I’m not the one who has to edit this) and turns out to be patient and charming. We change tapes several times.

But then, we run into a problem: every home in the area has a yard. And every yard seems to be maintained by Latino “mow and blow” crews. And they all arrive at the same time with their noisy lawnmowers, power cutting tools and leafblowers.

Oh, the ruckus! My sound guy is wringing his hands (and I have secret fantasies of wringing some necks). We decide to take a little break, but to no avail. As soon as one crew of yard workers is done, another starts up a lawnmower or damn leafblower somewhere else in the neighborhood. These things aren’t even legal.

I am beginning to get nervous. We have already shot two thirds of the interview; going inside now would be a continuity problem. Besides, I am under orders to ship the tapes off right away. Meanwhile, the sunlight is beginning to fade, and so does Altmann’s ability to concentrate. Great.

I call a break again (probably the for the 5th time) and go outside to talk to the yard workers. Of course, they pretend to understand no Ingles. I know the game, so I put on my crazy gringo act and somehow convince the workers to take a break for a few minutes. I don’t know if they agree to hold the work because of the bribe I offer (for which I have no expense account, of course), because they think I am nuts (and possibly dangerous) or because they genuinely feel bad about preventing me from doing my job.

Whew! The cameraman plays some tricks with the white balance to compensate for the different light temperature as much as possible, and we hurry to continue and finish up.

Altmann is “terribly sorry” for all the trouble even though she didn’t cause it. She invites me for coffee, which she prepares herself.

I send the crew on their way. They are eager to get on the freeway, since rush hour has begun. Altmann has lots of time, enjoys the company, and the opportunity to talk about Vienna auf Deutsch. I know (and appreciate) that people from Vienna take their Kaffeejause (coffee break) very seriously.

I am amazed that Altmann, through it all, still feels connected with Austria. I recall pictures of the Alps and mementos of Austrian cities in her home. Whatever ill feelings she might have are directed at the individuals whom she believes have wronged her, but not at the entire place or German culture as a whole. Most likely, this attitude is what allowed her to cope and carry on with her life. It’s not even about the money, she insists, but about justice. Money, she says, has never meant anything to her. “At this stage in my life, I would not even know what to buy with it.”

Altmann keeps pouring coffee and brings plates of food, and it is long after darkness has fallen when I finally get on my way. She invites me to come back some other time, “zum Kaffee” (for coffee).

I am sad to say that I never took her up on the offer. Like so many times in life, I often thought about making a phone call to follow up. But then, I am always extremely busy, and something else always came up. As so often, I now deeply regret that time has run out.

The story of the Klimt pictures and Maria Altmann, the old lady who fought the Republic of Austria (and won), exploded into the global headlines. In the end, the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere released the paintings to Altmann. I was able to see them at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art before they were sold off.

Altmann told me (and others) that she sincerely wished and hoped that the pictures would be visible to the public, but sadly this is only partially the case today.

The most famous of the paintings, Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907) is one of several portraits of Altmann’s aunt. It was acquired by Ronald S. Lauder for $135 million in 2006. It was the highest price paid for a painting to date. Adele Bloch-Bauer I is currently at Lauder’s Neue Galerie in Manhattan, but the other pictures have disappeared from public view.

My favorite image from the group is currently in a private collection:

Birkenwald/Buchenwald (Birch Forest/Beech Forest), 1903. By Gustav Klimt (Austrian, 1862-1918). Oil on canvas. 110 x 110 cm. Private Collection. Click to enlarge.

I wonder what Klimt would have thought of all this. He died in 1918. I admire his words: “If you cannot please everyone with your deeds and your art, please a few. To please many is bad.” You see, Klimt was quite a rebel in his days.

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