Monday, February 28, 2011

Érik Desmazières

Érik Desmazières is a French artist and printmaker, born 1948, whose existence I just discovered last month. I liked what I was able to find of his work online so much that I ordered, as a birthday present to myself, a copy of the catalog of a major exhibition of his work (Imaginary Places, 2007). It is full of wonders.

Desmazières' most famous work seems to be a series of illustrations he did for Borges' story of the infinite library (above). These represent a major category of his work, precise renderings of imaginary buildings and cities, often with repeating motifs that create hypnotic effects. I like many of these, although some of them look like imitations of Escher.

I like other categories of his work even better. He has done a series of drawings of Wunderkammer or cabinets of curiosities (top, click to enlarge) that I find marvelous, ghostly pirate ships, fantastic landscapes, demonic masked balls, and many other things. I recommend his work highly.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

How they See Us

I just disagreed with a statement that my 16-year-old daughter made about history, and she said, "You sit on a throne of lies!"

The Belyaev Fox Experiment

I learned long ago about the experiment with fox domestication carried out by Russian biologist Dmitry Belyaev starting in the 1950s, but I just learned from national Geographic that it is still going on. Belyaev captured wild silver foxes and bred them for one characteristic, their willingness to be approached and touched by humans. After ten generations, his foxes were quite tame, and the whole suite of features that define domesticated mammals had appeared in them: floppy ears, shorter faces, spotted coats. Now the Russian researchers, led by Belyaev's former students, are teaming with western molecular biologists to work out the genetic basis for these changes. It's quite fascinating science, and it raises questions about what happened to people as we got used to living in larger, more crowded communities.

Incidentally, Belyaev started this work after being exiled to Siberia for opposing Trofim Lysenko's dominance of Soviet biology. Looking around his new home he asked himself, "What is there here that I could do some interesting work on?" and the answer was lots of fur farms with captive wild animals. Hence, foxes. Now that's making lemonade when life sends you lemons.

Who's a Baby Killer?

In their latest budget, the "pro-life" Republicans in the House proposed cutting millions from government programs aimed at reducing premature birth. Charles Blow summarizes:

• $50 million in cuts to the Maternal and Child Health Block Grant that “supports state-based prenatal care programs and services for children with special needs.”

• $1 billion in cuts to programs at the National Institutes of Health that support “lifesaving biomedical research aimed at finding the causes and developing strategies for preventing preterm birth.”

• Nearly $1 billion in cuts to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for its preventive health programs, including to its preterm birth studies.

This is the same budget in which House Republicans voted to strip all federal financing for Planned Parenthood.

We already have the highest infant mortality rate of all the world's advanced economies, and these measures would lead to the death of yet more babies. And, you know, this won't save the government much money. In this country we spend $26 billion a year taking care of premature babies, so almost any measure that reduces the number of premature births pays for itself in the long run. The Planned Parenthood clinics the GOP is determined to defund mostly distribute birth control to poor women, and cutting their budgets will only increase the number of ill-prepared women who get pregnant.

Do they really care about babies' lives, or not?

After Some Revolutions

Before the revolution, we were slaves, and now we are the slaves of former slaves.

--Lu Xun, after the Chinese revolution of 1911 failed to deliver freedom

Health Care and Unions

The Times today has what seems to me an intelligent and balanced article by Steven Greenhouse about what has happened in Indiana since they abolished collective bargaining for state employees six years ago: falling salaries for state employees, some increased efficiency for the government. I noticed that many of the conflicts they talk about have to do with health care--what the state will cover, how much the workers will contribute. Just another example of how much better off we would all be under a single payer, "medicare for everybody" system. Not only is our semi-private system wildly inefficient, it poisons relations between employers and workers.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Neue Galerie

Something else to add to the itinerary of your next New York trip: the Neue Galerie, a museum dedicated to the art of Vienna around 1900. Housed in a gilded age mansion on 5th Avenue near 86th Street, it sounds like just the sort of museum I enjoy: not too big, and with a clear focus that shapes not just the art displayed but the setting. I find the picture above more tempting than any photo of an art museum I have seen in years. The Times has a slide show of a new exhibit.

Celts to Vikings 10: St. Columba Battles the Druids

Among the many stories recorded in the Life of St. Columba are two battles between the saint and a Pictish druid named Broichan.
One day Broichan addressed St. Columba, saying, "Tell me, Columba, when do you intend to sail?"

"God willing and life lasting," replied St. Columba, "we plan to start our voyage in threes days' time."

"You will not be able to," said Broichan combatively, "for I will produce wind and mist to stop you."

"The almighty power of God rules all things," said the saint, "and he directs all our comings and goings."

Why say more? On the day he had planned in his heart, Columba came to the long loch at the head of the River Ness. The druids began to congratulate themselves, seeing a great mist covered the loch and a stormy wind was blowing against Columba's people. . . .

Columba, seeing that the elements were roused to fury against him, called upon Christ the Lord. Though the sailors were hesitant, he was steadfast. He boarded the boat and ordered them to hoist the sail into the wind. This was done,and all the crowd of people saw his boat move off directly into the wind at marvelous speed.
In this and several other stories Columba seems to battle the druids on common magical ground, testing his power over the weather or disease against theirs. In other stories Columba acts just as druids once had, making prophecies about the future fortunes of kings and their houses. Columba's druidic qualities provide a way to understand the Christianization of northern Europe. In some ways, things changed a great deal. Christianity brought its admiration for humility, asceticism, and willful poverty into these societies, and they would thenceforth have two competing value systems rather than just the worldly aristocratic values they had had before. Christianity brought with it Latin and a huge chunk of classical, Mediterranean civilization. Christian institutions, especially monasteries, became vital social organs. As a religion of the book Christianity brought an obsession with writing everything down, and it is mostly because of the efforts of monks that we have any record of the pagan past.

In other ways, though, Irish or Germanic society went on after Christianity just as it had before. Fundamental things like the way land was distributed, the legal status of women, the organization of agriculture, the power of kings, and so on were not altered. Many things about the religious attitudes of people did not change: the Irish, for example, continued to believe in the prophetic power of visions and dreams, the possibility of divine beings appearing in our world, and even in the existence of the old gods, although they were gradually changed into heroes, demons, or minor spirits like leprechauns and banshees.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Today's Mad Dictator Quote

Life without green banners hoisted is useless.

--Muammar Qaddafi, February 25, 2011

(In the same speech he also said both "Libya will become a hell" and "Dance and Sing! Joy and Rejoice!")

Francesco Guardi

Venice, a View of the Rialto Bridge, 1768. To be auctioned at Sotheby's in July, with an expected price of around $30 million. Click to enlarge.

The Scale of the Solar System

Phil Plait:
I’m sometimes asked what’s the one thing I wish people would understand better about the Universe. My answer is always the same: scale. We humans have a miserable sense of just how big space is, and I’ve spent a lot of time over the years working out ways to express it better.
His latest goes like this: If the Earth were the size of a basketball, then the moon would be about the size of a tennis ball. The distance between them would be 24 feet (7.4 meters).

At this scale, the Sun would be the size of small office building, 85 feet (26 meters) in diameter. The distance between the Earth and the Sun would be 1.75 miles (2.8 kilometers).

More Mutilated than Before?

Saul Bellow, responding to a critic who said that modern literature is lousy because the modern world is "mutilated and broken":
Are most novels poor today? Undoubtedly. But that is like saying mutilation exists, a broken world exists. More mutilated and broken than before? That's perhaps the world's own secret. Really, things are now what they always were, and to be disappointed in them is extremely shallow. We may not be strong enough to live in the present. But to be disappointed in it! To identify oneself with a better past! No, no!

--Letter to Lionel Trilling, 1952

In Egypt, the Revolution Goes On

The military cabal that rules Egypt these days has appointed a Constitutional Committee made up of eight legal experts to propose revisions to the Mubarak constitution. They are due to release their report soon, and bits of it are already being reported in the Egyptian press. After a few weeks for public comment and revision, the generals are likely to approve the committee's recommendations so that elections can go forward as promised. The proposed changes all point in the direction of more democracy. The whole business is remarkably encouraging.

For Our Friends from Around the World

Yesterday was the first day since I launched this blog that another city edged out my home town of Catonsville, Maryland in the number of visitors to the site. Yesterday there were more visits to this site from Copenhagen, Denmark -- 34-- than anywhere else. Welcome to all of you Danes, and to all of our readers, wherever you are and whatever brought you here. Feel free to comment; I would love to hear from someone in a distant part of the world. There is still something astonishing to me in the thought that I have had readers from India, Singapore, Argentina, Bahrain, and forty other countries. The internet is the great wonder of this age, and I feel privileged to be part of this worldwide conversation.

In Alaska, a Home and a Grave 11,500 Years Old

Archaeologists working near Fairbanks, Alaska have uncovered the remains of a shallow pit house dating to 11,500 years ago. The floor of the house had been dug 11 inches (27 cm) into the ground and carefully leveled. The house had a central fire pit 18 inches (45 cm) deep, and soil flotation produced numerous small bones:
Remains of salmon, ptarmigan, ground squirrels, and other animals suggest the hearth was in use for weeks or months.
As well as the charcoal used to date the site.

Just before the site was abandoned, the house was turned into a grave. The body of a three-year-old child was laid in the central hearth pit and a fire was set over it. Numerous bone fragments were found, and the investigators hope to extract usable DNA. After the fire burned out, the pit was filled in and the other inhabitants of the house journeyed on, never camping in this spot again.

Pulling Out of a Place We Never Should Have Been

The US military is giving up on the Pech Valley, a desolate wasteland even by Afghan standards, where 103 American soldiers have been killed. As the Times reports, this is a place American soldiers never should have gone:
the decision to withdraw reflected a stark — and controversial — internal assessment by the military that it would have been better served by not having entered the high valley in the first place.

“What we figured out is that people in the Pech really aren’t anti-U.S. or anti-anything; they just want to be left alone,” said one American military official familiar with the decision. “Our presence is what’s destabilizing this area.”

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Art of Irish Gospels

When the Irish converted to Christianity, they brought their fabulous artistic sensibility with them. The result was astonishing works of religious art, like the famous Book of Kells, which dates to around 800 AD. These gospel books are just one sign of a vibrant intellectual culture that also included the writing of histories, saints lives, theology, devotional works, and mystical visions, as well as recording the masterpieces of pagan Irish culture.

No Easy Answers, Union Busting Edition

The latest from the Republican camp is that we have to get rid of public sector unions because they cost too much and degrade the quality of government. It is hard to gauge the effectiveness of most public sector workers, but we have a lot of ways of measuring the productivity of teachers:

Only 5 states do not have collective bargaining for educators and have deemed it illegal. Those states and their ranking on ACT/SAT scores are as follows:

South Carolina – 50th
North Carolina – 49th
Georgia – 48th
Texas – 47th
Virginia – 44th

If you are wondering, Wisconsin, with its collective bargaining for teachers, is ranked 2nd in the country.

As Scott Lemieux says, this doesn't show that collective bargaining makes school systems better. The measurement has obviously been chosen to make the point; by other measures, Mississippi and Arkansas have the worse school systems, and Virginia a fairly good one. But South Carolina and Texas do badly on every measure of school performance, and that in itself shows that getting rid of unions has no magical power to make government work better.

HIV in 3D

This is an image taken from a 3D model of an HIV particle developed by the Visual Science Company of Moscow. Click to enlarge.

St. Columba and the Loch Ness Monster

For Celts to Vikings last night we read a few pages of the miracles of St. Columba, an Irish saint of the 6th century. He founded the monastery of Iona, off the coast of Scotland, and helped to convert the remaining pagan Picts to Christianity. I did not ask my students to read his most famous miracle, which follows:
How an Aquatic Monster was driven off by Virtue of the Blessed Man's Prayer.

On another occasion also, when the blessed man was living for some days in the province of the Picts, he was obliged to cross the river Nesa; and when he reached the bank of the river, he saw some of the inhabitants burying an unfortunate man, who, according to the account of those who were burying him, was a short time before seized, as he was swimming, and bitten most severely by a monster that lived in the water; his wretched body was, though too late, taken out with a hook, by those who came to his assistance in a boat.

The blessed man, on hearing this, was so far from being dismayed, that he directed one of his companions to swim over and row across the boat that was moored at the farther bank.

And Lugne Mocumin hearing the command of the excellent man, obeyed without the least delay, taking off all his clothes, except his tunic, and leaping into the water.

But the monster, which, so far from being satiated, was only roused for more prey, was lying at the bottom of the stream, and when it felt the water disturbed above by the man swimming, suddenly rushed out, and, giving an awful roar, darted after him, with its mouth wide open, as the man swam in the middle of the stream.

Then the blessed man observing this, raised his holy hand, while all the rest, brethren as well as strangers, were stupefied with terror, and, invoking the name of God, formed the saving sign of the cross in the air, and commanded the ferocious monster, saying, "Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed." Then at the voice of the saint, the monster was terrified, and fled more quickly than if it had been pulled back with ropes, though it had just got so near to Lugne, as he swam, that there was not more than the length of a spear-staff between the man and the beast.

Then the brethren seeing that the monster had gone back, and that their comrade Lugne returned to them in the boat safe and sound, were struck with admiration, and gave glory to God in the blessed man. And even the barbarous heathens, who were present, were forced by the greatness of this miracle, which they themselves had seen, to magnify the God of the Christians.
This is generally held to be the first reference to the Loch Ness monster, although it should be pointed out that this story is set in the river, not the lake itself. Diverting the monster was no doubt an easy feat for a man who, his biographers tell us, raised the dead, healed the sick, conversed with angels, predicted the future, regularly knew the details of battles fought hundreds of miles away as they were happening, and defeated the Pictish druids in several magical duels.

Facts and Theories about Planets

Twenty years ago, astronomers had only eight (or nine) planets to work with, and a detailed theory about how they formed. Now they have hundreds of planets, which seem, in their size, make-up, rotation, and orbital behavior, to refute all the old theories about planetary formation. If, as we thought, planets form from rotating disks of gas, they ought all to orbit in the same direction, and in approximately the same plane, and their orbits should be roughly circular. But not we have many examples of reverse orbits and extremely elliptical orbits, and "orbital inclinations are all over the map." As astrophysicist Geoffrey Marcy of UC Berkeley puts it, "theory has struck out."

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

On Revolution

I don’t know why, but I love to see people revolting against their leaders.

--Jhalak Subedi

Who, or What, is Cuchulainn?

The great hero of the old Irish tales is Cuchulainn. He is the central figure of the epic known as the Cattle Raid of Cooley, or Táin Bó Cúailnge, in which he single-handedly defends the kingdom of Ulster against the armies of the famous Queen Medb of Connacht. (For completely obscure reasons, that is pronounced "Queen Maeve.") Cuchulainn has some characteristics in common with other great heroes. Like Heracles, he showed his hero's strength while still in the cradle; like Achilles, he chooses an early death and undying fame over long life. He is fostered by seven noble teachers who instruct in all the areas of learning suitable for a noble Irishmen: kingship, warfare, law, druidism, poetry, medicine, and household management. He completes his training in weapons with an otherwordly figure known as Scathach, Mistress of Shadows. She gives him a terrible javelin that has to be cut from its victims, known as the Gae Bolga.

Like Heracles, Cuchulainn has a problem with anger, and he ends up killing both his only son and his best friend. In one of the comic episodes, Cuchulainn is storming around Ulster in such a rage that he can only be stopped by a bevy of women who bare their breasts and embarrass him into closing his eyes; then he is dropped into three successive cauldrons of cold water, turning the first two into steam. When he goes into battle he undergoes what the poets called his ríastrad, or "warp spasm":
The first warp-spasm seized Cúchulainn, and made him into a monstrous thing, hideous and shapeless, unheard of. His shanks and his joints, every knuckle and angle and organ from head to foot, shook like a tree in the flood or a reed in the stream. His body made a furious twist inside his skin, so that his feet and shins switched to the rear and his heels and calves switched to the front. . . On his head the temple-sinews stretched to the nape of his neck, each mighty, immense, measureless knob as big as the head of a month-old child. . . he sucked one eye so deep into his head that a wild crane couldn't probe it onto his cheek out of the depths of his skull; the other eye fell out along his cheek. His mouth weirdly distorted: his cheek peeled back from his jaws until the gullet appeared, his lungs and his liver flapped in his mouth and throat, his lower jaw struck the upper a lion-killing blow, and fiery flakes large as a ram's fleece reached his mouth from his throat. His heart boomed loud in his breast like the baying of a watch-dog at its feed or the sound of a lion among bears. Malignant mists and spurts of fire -- the torches of the Badb -- flickered red in the vaporous clouds that rose boiling above his head, so fierce was his fury. The hair of his head twisted like the tangle of a red thornbush stuck in a gap; if a royal apple tree with all its kingly fruit were shaken above him, scarce an apple would reach the ground but each would be spiked on a bristle of his hair as it stood up on his scalp with rage. The hero light rose out of his brow, long and broad as a warrior's whetstone, long as a snout, and he went mad rattling his shields. . . Then, tall and thick, steady and strong, high as the mast of a noble ship, rose up from the dead centre of his skull a straight spout of black blood darkly and magically smoking.
And what, you may ask, is that all about? It's hard to know, but it says to me that Cuchulainn is not exactly human. This description owes something to the over-the-top flamboyance of the Irish storytellers, but it still hardly the sort of thing a human hero would undergo. One theory, the one I like, is that Cuchulainn was in his origin a thunder god. Gae bolga, the name of his weapon, seems to mean "thunderbolt." One of his attacks is known as his "thunder feat," and he uses it to kill thousands of enemies at once. Cuchulainn's divine ancestry, coupled with the Irish habit of giving their gods bizarre powers like the Evil Eye of Balor, make more sense of both his invincible, army-slaying prowess and his ríastrad.

The Family I Married Into

My wife discovers that you never know what you'll find when you start exploring the family tree:
Dear Sir:

About 1893 the government sent me a discharge and what has become of it I do not know. (I think my wife secretly destroyed it, as she was a "Southern" woman, or rather, harlot. I lived with her for 23 years, a hell on earth, until I could stand it no more. In 1894 my Brother came from Pittsburgh, with his two (2) sons and a daughter, "down and out." I took them in until they could get upon their feet, she (my wife) fell in love with the youngest son and had frequent intercourse. I left her in 1895 but could not find my "discharge" and I still accuse her. She got a divorce and married my brother's son - him x years old and she 41. So much for that...) Now I apply for a duplicate discarge.

In first place, I enlisted in latter part of July 1863 in 20th Pennsylvania Volunteers, Col Thomas Commanding. Either in Company H or I, I think ….. Genl Lee raided Pennsylvania and burnt Chambersburg. We got as far as Greencastle, when Lee escaped. Governor Curtin came to Greencastle, made a speech thanking us for our services and dismissed us. I came home and the next month on the 8th enlisted for 3 years, in the 2nd Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery Company G, then on the defensive at Washington D.C. I was assigned to Fort Thayer. Following February we were ordered to the front being transferred into infantry. We went to Fort Ethan Allen (across the Potomac river) until new recruits came (which was pretty soon) then left for CoalHarbor; had a pretty good shaking up; thence to "light house point"; thence to City point; march 7 miles to relieve the army that had been fighting all day (both white black). That night a little after dark we had taken a fort of 14 guns, under a terrible cross fire from the enemy. Thence moved to the … rail-road within 1 1/2 of Petersburg, where was received quite warmly. About latter part of July '64 I was taken with Typhoid Fever and sent to General Hospital, from there to Hospital at Fort Scyler N-York. There, with other Pennsylvania sick soldiers, received a Furlough home (Philadelphia) to report to the McCl----- Hospital, Nicetown, PA. There until following Feb '65; back to the "front" my Reg't lying then at Bermuda-hundred between the Appomatox and James River. Gen'l Weitzel (lying on the south side of the of the the James River) call'd for reinforcements but wanted "men only" that understood the Artillery drill. So he was given 5 men out of each company of our regiment and I was one of them. I was put in Battery no 2, ---Fort Harrison at Chapmans' farm. Two days after, Lieutenant Wheeler (forgot his first name) inspecting Gen'l of the light artillery brigate, picked me out as his orderly, thus I was among the very first to enter Richmond, as Wheeler was one of Gen'l Weitzel's staff. I say right here that I had the honor of standing by my horse (waiting orders to mount) of seeing the last 4 cannon fired from the north side of Richmond. That was on the 3rd of April '65 and 4 oclock still dark. We got no return. The enemy had evacuated we could see gun boats at Richmond going up in the air, and at 8-15 we marched up Main St Richmond; in Richmond 10 days, thence to Poplar spring church 15 miles below Petersburg. From there were sent back to our Reg't which was lying in Petersburg. Whilst there the 6th Massachusetts Cavely [sic] was ordered home and their horses were turned over to my reginment, and we were scattered among the different county court houses, I to Surry Court House, Virginia. I was there until Christmas week 1866 when I came home, a foolist thing for me to do. We were guarding the Negroes from being flogged by the whites. Just think of it, my Regiment came home the next week! or month. My charge of desertion has been removed, the stigma of which I do not feel so bad as it was 8 months after the war was over. I had a document sent to me to the effect that the charge was removed, but God knows what became of it. Of course it is recorded in Washington. Now as far as my memory serves me I send you the above and wil feel greateful for a deup0licate Discahrge so as I can get my increase of pension. I draw my pension from Phila PA $12.00 per month.

Yours Very Respectfully
Louis M Dardine
2nd Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery Company G Volunteers, Private
Palatka Flordai Box 485

Shallow, Puerile, Pre-Adult Men

Kay Hymowitz, noted conservative commentator on dating, marriage, family, and such, has a new piece in the Wall Street Journal titled (really) "Where Have the Good Men Gone?" The thesis is that movies about responsible, grown-up women trying to civilize and domesticate overgrown frat boys represent a real and important social trend.
"We are sick of hooking up with guys," writes the comedian Julie Klausner, author of a touchingly funny 2010 book. . . . What Ms. Klausner means by "guys" is males who are not boys or men but something in between. "Guys talk about 'Star Wars' like it's not a movie made for people half their age; a guy's idea of a perfect night is a hang around the PlayStation with his bandmates, or a trip to Vegas with his college friends.... They are more like the kids we babysat than the dads who drove us home." One female reviewer of Ms. Kausner's book wrote, "I had to stop several times while reading and think: Wait, did I date this same guy?"
Later on Hymowitz contemplates the culture of Comedy Central and Cartoon Network and asks, "What explains this puerile shallowness?"

Actually Hymowitz has some answers to this question that are not ridiculous -- the years of education and internships needed to secure a good job in many fields, the expense of housing -- and she even glances at the point I am going to get back to at the end:
American men have been struggling with finding an acceptable adult identity since at least the mid-19th century. We often hear about the miseries of women confined to the domestic sphere once men began to work in offices and factories away from home. But it seems that men didn't much like the arrangement either.
Nonetheless, Hymowitz still exudes contempt for anyone who doesn't man up, get a job and get married.
Given the rigors of contemporary career-building, pre-adults who do marry and start families do so later than ever before in human history. Husbands, wives and children are a drag on the footloose life required for the early career track and identity search. Pre-adulthood has also confounded the primordial search for a mate. It has delayed a stable sense of identity, dramatically expanded the pool of possible spouses, mystified courtship routines and helped to throw into doubt the very meaning of marriage. In 1970, to cite just one of many numbers proving the point, nearly seven in 10 25-year-olds were married; by 2000, only one-third had reached that milestone.
To which the obvious retort is, so what? Why should we hurry into marriage and parenthood? Where is it written that 25-year-olds should act like 40-year-olds? If you ask me, the reason many young Americans, male and female, aren't rushing to get steady jobs is that the rewards offered for low-level, white collar work are nowhere near worth the price it exacts. Nobody is impressed that you are a manager or even a junior vice president, and your salary is only 2% of the CEO's, so why bother? Personally I can't see any reason at all, unless you really want to buy a house and raise children. That can be put off until you are over 30. So why rush into it? The weird thing is, Hymowitz doesn't eve try to explain why, puerile shallowness aside, young marriage is better than extended adolescence. It just bothers her somehow that men aren't more serious and responsible. Too bad for her.

Druids, Bards, and Lawyers

One of the interesting things about ancient Ireland is how much energy the Irish elite devoted to intellectual pursuits. Their laws recognized several classes of people as nemed, or sacred, meaning that they were exempt from taxes and military service. The most noble of the nemed groups were the druids, the bards, and the experts in the law. (After Christianity, the groups were the bards, the lawyers, and members of the church.) Those at the top of these professions were legally equal to kings, having the same "honor price," and the stories show us that they indeed interacted with kings and war leaders on equal terms. All had to spend years of study in specialized schools, or at the feet of old masters, before they could practice their crafts.

The Irish were hardly unique among tribal societies in making these investments in intellectual life. Many ancient peoples gave great honor to their shamans, astrologers, poets, historians, and artists. Human life has never been just about survival. I find the Irish emphasis on these things to be more than usual, however, and I wonder if the great artistic and intellectual output of modern Ireland is related to the ancient preferences of people who have always loved beauty and tradition as much as others have loved money and power.

The Modern Crisis

I have now reached the point where I may indicate briefly what to me constitutes the essence of the crisis of our time. It concerns the relationship of the individual to society. The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society. But he does not experience this dependence as a positive asset, as an organic tie, as a protective force, but rather as a threat to his natural rights, or even to his economic existence. Moreover, his position in society is such that the egotistical drives of his make-up are constantly being accentuated, while his social drives, which are by nature weaker, progressively deteriorate. All human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from this process of deterioration. Unknowingly prisoners of their own egotism, they feel insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naive, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life. Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society.

--Albert Einstein, "Why Socialism?"

(Alas, while the analysis is astute, the proposed solution has proved to be inadequate.)

Ken Cuccinelli's Global Warming Crusade

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is interested in a lot of real issues, like health care reform and Medicare fraud, and you would think that this would give him enough to do. But no. His biggest obsession is his one-man crusade to prove that the science behind our fear of global warming is all fraud. This puzzles me, and it sheds some light on how Tea Party stalwarts like Cuccinelli see the world.

As the Times explains today, most of the Republican establishment is moving away from a confrontational approach to global warming issues. Representative Darrell Issa promised to hold high profile hearings on climate science fraud, but they have been "indefinitely postponed." It's easy to see why the leadership wants to tamp this down; after all, the nation's top scientists, the Nobel Prize winners and the former heads of the National Academy of Science and the like, almost all believe that man-made global warming is a real threat. The specter of a parade of such figures lecturing Congress on the need to avert catastrophe can't be too appetizing for the leadership. (Not to mention that they obviously just hate being lectured by people who think they know things the Congressmen do not.) Still, Cuccinnelli has many friends on Capitol Hill, and their desire to air these issues may yet boil over.

What interests me is that Cuccinelli and his admirers aren't making the obvious arguments against climate change alarmism. There are plenty of scientists who are skeptics about the whole business, or who think that whatever changes we cause can be easily managed. Instead of parroting their lines and trumpeting their work, Cuccinelli is trying to prove that all of the science behind the theory of man-made global warming is, as he put it, "unreliable, unverifiable, and doctored." He wants to "raise fundamental questions about the underlying science." He particularly wants to find proof of fraud; in fact, he seems to feel that if he can just get his hands on the right documents he is bound to find it.

This is completely crazy. To believe that all of the massive output of scientists interested in climate change over the past 40 years is fraudulent, or at least tainted by political ax-grinding, you have to believe some very strange things about how science works. I suspect scientific fraud is quite common, especially at the low level of citing the evidence that supports your argument while ignoring the rest. I distrust the climate models that scientists have put so much effort into developing and tweaking. But there is an enormous amount of data about climate history that no scientist questions, and that you can't question without doubting all of modern science. We know that, over the history of the earth, high carbon dioxide levels are associated with high temperatures. We know that human activity over the past 250 years had put a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere. We know that things like sea level and the distribution of plant life are quite sensitive to changes in global temperature. Knowing these things, it is almost impossible not to wonder what the continued burning of coal and oil will do to the planet.

Somehow Cuccinelli looks at the world and doesn't see any of this. He seems to think that scientists are political agents with no curiosity about how the world actually works, who just sit around their labs concocting studies that will advance their agendas. It occurs to me that this probably does describe some scientists, especially sociologists, but it does not describe all of them. More important, it does not describe the process of science. Science is engaged with the world. It is based on data. Science without data is very quickly forgotten or shunted aside, and climate alarmism simply could not have gotten all the support it now has if it were not based on data about the world. What's more, it is based on many different kinds of data, from scientists all over the world, and if Cuccinelli actually looked into this matter he would be astonished by all the effort scientists have put into tracking the changing climate and figuring out why it has changed.

By seeing scientists like this, Cuccinelli is really telling us about himself. He sees the world in fundamentally political terms. Perhaps he would say he sees the world in moral terms; in this case there is no distinction. He thinks that climate alarmism is an immoral political crusade. Therefore, it must be fraudulent. He does not accept, cannot even imagine, that there might be facts about the world that disprove his moral assumptions.

Cuccinelli's moral approach to the world explains why he does not cite the work of scientific skeptics. Their position is based on uncertainty. They like to point to the large margins of error in the models, the many things we do not yet understand (like changes in solar energy flows and the effect of clouds), the difficulty of making predictions about a system as complex as the earth's climate. Cuccinelli hates uncertainty. He has the fundamentalist's mindset, in which the things that matter are religious certainties. He is certain, as a matter of faith, that the American way of life is a good thing. Any science that suggests otherwise must be wrong and probably springs from the evil motives of America-hating socialists. That's all there is to it, and he aims to prove it.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

More on Tysons Corner

Back in August I blogged about the long-range plan to turn the exurban purgatory known as Tysons Corner into a real urban area. Today there is news of another big project that advances this vision:
Cityline Partners has filed a petition with Fairfax County to rezone Scotts Run Station into a 40-acre mixed use office, residential, hotel, and retail area as part of the Tysons Corner Comprehensive Plan, which incorporates a redesign of a low density project dominated by surface parking. . . . "We don't want to turn this area into a concrete canyon," said Tom Fleury, Executive Vice President of Cityline Partners. "We're looking to develop the property into a transit-oriented, walkable, sustainable, mixed-use development with Scotts Run Stream Valley park as the focal point and natural amenity." The project will house eleven office buildings, nine residential buildings, one hotel, and ground level retail space. The entire project encompasses 8.5 million gross s.f.
Fairfax County planners have given preliminary approval, which just means that the plan is technically ok and the hearing process can begin. So construction is still years off. But it is encouraging to see people coming out with big plans in the real estate sector, especially when they involve building on parking lots rather than farms.

The U.S. Fascist Detachment

Tom Ricks has a post on a fascinatingly weird bit of American history:

I know it sounds like the reverse of a Quentin Taratino movie, but it is true: During World War II, the Army intentionally formed a unit chockablock with fascisti and their suspected sympathizers. What a sensible idea -- much better than kicking them out into society and losing track of them.

This is all discussed in the new issue of Army Lawyer , where Fred "Three Sticks" Borch has a fascinating article about PFC Dale Maple, a brilliant young man who was born in San Diego in 1920 and who graduated from Harvard with honors but then, because he was bad, was found guilty of treason and sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead.

Young Maple spoke many languages. But his favorite, alas, was German. At Harvard he got kicked out of ROTC for being vocally pro-German when that just wasn't cool, according to a separate article on him that I just read. Stymied in his hopes to do post-graduate work in Berlin, which was busy with other things at the time, he enlisted in the Army in 1942. The Army had just the place for him: the 620th Engineer General Service Company, which despite its innocuous name was actually a holding unit for about 200 GIs of suspect loyalty, many of them German-born. The unit, which was not given weapons, was located in Camp Hale, Colorado. . . .

Maryland is About to Legalize Same Sex Marriage

Vote counters at the Washington Post say the votes are there in the Maryland Senate to pass a bill legalizing same-sex marriage; since the House has already approved the bill and the governor has said he will sign it, passage seems just days away. Yippee for my adopted home!

The Post's editorial writers passed on this interesting observation:
In Maryland, several formerly undecided lawmakers have listened to the arguments of opponents - and recoiled at the vitriol they heard. State Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat who previously backed same-sex civil unions but not marriage, changed his mind after taking in what he called the "appalling" views of opponents at a Senate hearing. "Witness after witness demonized homosexuals, vilified the gay community and described gays and lesbians as pedophiles," he said in a statement, adding: "For me, the transition to supporting marriage has not been an easy one. But the uncertainty, fear, and second-class status that gays and lesbians have to put up with is far worse and clearly must come to an end."

What Science Is

Science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries.

--Freeman Dyson

Monday, February 21, 2011

Secrets of the Silk Road

After a bewildering bit of political intrigue, the exhibit of artifacts from desert tombs in western China is finally on display in Philadelphia. The pictures in the slideshow at the NY Times really made me want to go. Above, a mummy dating to around 1500 BC; below, bronze eye shades, 7th to 9th century AD.

For Liberty

The flood of images like these form the Middle East leaves me in tears. Top, Benghazi, Libya, now in the hands of protesters and defectors from the military even though government troops opened fire with automatic weapons and killed more than 200; below, Bahrain.

The Card Players

This interesting slide show explains what Cezanne was trying to do with his series of paintings of men playing cards. He sought to get away from stereotypical paintings of tavern ribaldry, full of class cues and moralism, and depict the men as men, not examples of some social type. They are thoughtful, not rowdy, and the mix of low and high signals -- working men's attire on the left, the gold drapery on the right -- cuts through assumptions about the appropriate ways of depicting different sorts of people:
Cézanne's quietly radical art put everything into question: genre, finish, setting, scale, mood, and color.

Sound Bite Science

Paleoanthropologist Tim White shows how to respond when your work is criticized. Nature just printed an article attacking the conclusion he advanced in Science in 2009, that Ardipithecus was a human ancestor, and he had this to say:
With no new data, no new ideas, no new methods, no new hypothesis, no new experiments, no new fossils, not even a new classification, this paper will leave everybody wondering what’s happened to the peer review process at Nature.
To which the lead author of the new study, Bernard Wood, replied,
Researchers have to stop publishing papers that say, essentially, ‘This fossil is an early hominid, so suck it up and accept it. Nature and Science could change this practice overnight if they wanted to.
Isn't science great? Leave it to The Onion to offer the best take on these and similar anthropological debates, the "One Large Goat" hypothesis:

Funded by a grant from the Smithsonian Institution, the 17-year inquiry into the origins of the human race brought together 12 top anthropologists from around the world to pursue the single-large-goat theory, which participants in Monday's presentation assured audience members "felt more plausible when we came up with it, really it did."

The landmark study culminates in this week's release of a 270-page report explaining the structure of prehistoric humans' short, upturned woolly tails and identifying the roots of early Indo-European† language in goat bleating, which, Ochs stated, "maybe [they] should have double-checked real quick" before the paper went to publication.

"There may be some slight inconsistencies in a few of our results, but I assure you these bone samples and behavioral analyses are all, well…look, I'm not going to stand here and tell you they're not a little ridiculous-looking," said Regina Hubbard-Price, associate director of the American Anthropological Association. "Obviously, with hindsight, yes, it's somewhat odd that our theory presupposes complex hunter-gatherer societies composed of large, 250-pound bipedal goat-men. But a lot of thought went into this, I swear."

"Maybe we should have listened to Cliff [Geertz] back at the beginning when he kept emphasizing that humans don't look like goats," Hubbard-Price added.

Crisis? What Crisis?

E.J. Dionne has a good column today on the way the Tea Party has changed the debate in Washington:

Take five steps back and consider the nature of the political conversation in our nation's capital. You would never know that it's taking place at a moment when unemployment is still at 9 percent, when wages for so many people are stagnating at best and when the United States faces unprecedented challenges to its economic dominance.

No, Washington is acting as if the only real problem the United States confronts is the budget deficit; the only test of leadership is whether the president is willing to make big cuts in programs that protect the elderly; and the largest threat to our prosperity comes from public employees.

Thanks to the Tea Party, we are now told that all our problems will be solved by cutting government programs. . . . They foresee nirvana if we simply reduce our spending on Head Start, Pell grants for college access, teen pregnancy prevention, clean-water programs, K-12 education and a host of other areas. Does anyone really think that cutting such programs will create jobs or help Americans get ahead? But give the Tea Party guys credit: They have seized the political and media agenda and made budget cutting as fashionable as Justin Bieber was five minutes ago.

More striking is the Tea Party's influence on Washington's political elite, which looks down at the more extreme men and women of the right when they appear on Fox News but ends up carrying their water.

Lori Montgomery reported in The Post last week that a bipartisan group of senators thinks a sensible deficit reduction package would involve lifting the Social Security retirement age to 69 and reforming taxes, purportedly to raise revenue, in a way that would cut the top income tax rate for the wealthy from 35 percent to 29 percent.

Only a body dominated by millionaires could define "shared sacrifice" as telling nurses' aides and coal miners they have to work until age 69 while sharply cutting tax rates on wealthy people. I see why conservative Republicans like this. I honestly don't get why Democrats - "the party of the people," I've heard - would come near such an idea.

Me, either. The notion that we need tax cuts to get the economy moving again is easily disproved by a look at recent history; our economy was much better in the 1990s than the 2000s, and tax rates were higher back in those good old days. I am something of a budget hawk myself, and I would love a balanced budget, but as a first step we should set our tax rates back to where they were the last time our economy was really growing fast. Then we should pull all of our troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, scrap the F-35 fighter, stop building submarines we don't need, and generally cut the defense budget by 20 or 30 percent. If that still doesn't do the trick, I am willing to discuss reductions in domestic spending, too. But the notion that excessive social spending is at the root of our problems is propaganda, pure and simple.

Pontypridd Stone Circle

In Wales.

Jonathan Franzen, Freedom

When I told a colleague I was listening to Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, she said, "Oh, the great American novel." There is something of that ambition about the book, an attempt to capture America in the decade after 9-11. (At least, the America of middle class white people, the only kind who appear.) Franzen is determined to get the details of American life exactly right, from the dynamics of gentrifying neighborhoods to the way college students talked about Facebook when it first emerged. I can imagine social historians 50 years from now assigning Freedom to their students, assuring them that it is accurate in every detail.

As a novel I found parts of it compelling and other parts tedious. Franzen's real interest is obviously interpersonal relations, especially family life, and the political parts of Freedom seem phoned in. Only when he connects a character's politics to tensions in his or her family does Franzen really seem interested. We have neocons and environmentalists and truck-driving working class men angry with liberal elitism, but it all seemed rather cardboard to me, especially compared to the attention Franzen lavishes on sibling rivalry and sexual guilt. Looking around him, Franzen must be wondering why so many Americans are so angry, and the answers he comes up with are more Freudian than philosophical or economic. One of the three main characters is environmentalist Walter Bergland, who doesn't so much love nature as hate atv-driving, chainsaw-wielding, gun-toting despoilers of the world like his father and brothers.

The other main characters are Walter's wife Patty Bergland and Walter's best old college friend, sometimes successful musician Richard Katz. You can already imagine the love triangle that develops here, as Patty marries the ploddingly earnest Walter while longing sexually for the excitingly wicked Richard, all the while musing that Walter and Richard love each other more than either will ever love her. I found this tedious; aren't there any other plots? As if one cliché of romance weren't enough, Franzen gives Walter and Patty's son an equally clichéd relationship with his sweet, loving hometown girlfriend; as he goes away to college, meets wealthy, powerful people, and longs to join them, he struggles with whether to get rid of his old love in favor of someone more stylish and well-connected. These relationships are the real heart of Freedom, and the most powerful parts all describe either the lovers' interactions or their internal struggles over whom and how to love.

Perhaps the stereotypical structure of the relationships is the point. We think we live in a revolutionary age, Franzen suggests, but what matters is still the timeless human concerns: love in both its passionate and gentle aspects, family, self esteem. I have no real problem with that; as I said, this is really Franzen's interest, and he should write about what interests him. He is, by the way, a highly skillful writer of the window pane variety; his prose rarely calls attention to itself but describes with admirable clarity what he wants the reader to see. I would not say, though, that this book really captures America very well. For one thing, Franzen seems to have no understanding of money. Nobody in the book ever lacks for it, and a couple of times when it seems that the absence of money will create problems, large sums of cash appear by semi-magical means to keep things moving. Characters with no income still live in Manhattan, albeit in cramped, dingy apartments; they put themselves through college without obvious jobs; when they turn toward corruption, wealth showers down on them so fast that they are rapidly sickened by it. Without a serious consideration of money, I think, it is impossible to get at why Americans are so angry. Why do college professors feel ignored and abused? Money. Why do working class people rail against "elites"? Money. Why are middle class people anxious? Because although they have enough money to get by, they never feel like it is enough for both safety and the things they crave. A book titled Freedom ought to give more attention to what freedom means to most Americans, which is enough money to do what you want.

Instead Franzen focuses on freedom as it applies to family and love. People struggle to break free from their families but then find themselves naked and alone; people act on forbidden sexual desires but then find themselves desolate with guilt and shame. Obedience to traditional moral dictates doesn't always work either, and people who sacrifice their freedom for duty are likely to feel trapped, bored, depressed, and full of resentment for those who break the rules and seem to be getting away with it. There can be no political solution to these problems. That, I suppose, is Franzen's message, to the extent that he has one. For him political anger is a misdirection of energies that should be spent putting our emotional lives in order, and instead of marching and shouting slogans we should be talking quietly to the people who matter to us.

Just a Theory, Part 1,476,598

Rapid evolutionary change in the polluted Hudson River:

Bottom-feeding fish in the Hudson River have developed a gene that renders them immune to the toxic effects of PCBs, researchers say.

A genetic variant allows the fish to live in waters notoriously polluted by the now-banned industrial chemicals, and distinguishes the fish—Atlantic tomcod (Microgadus tomcod)—as one of the world’s fastest evolving populations. . . .

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were first introduced in 1929 and were used in hundreds of industrial and commercial applications, mostly as electrical insulators. They were banned 50 years later, but they don’t simply degrade. Partly because of PCB contamination, a 200-mile stretch of the Hudson River is the nation’s largest Superfund site.

The 10-inch Atlantic tomcod has thrived despite the exposure to PCBs, and levels of the chemical in the livers of these fish are among the highest reported in nature. But until now, scientists have never understood how they survived PCB exposures that kill most other fish.

“Exposure of fish embryos to PCBs in the lab causes the heart to be smaller, to not beat properly,” Wirgin said. He and his colleagues suspected the fish harbored some sort of protection. They spent four years capturing tomcod from contaminated and relatively clean areas of the Hudson River during the winter spawning season.

It turns out the fish sport a handy modification to a gene encoding a protein known to regulate the toxic effects of PCBs and related chemicals, called the aryl hydrocarbon receptor2, or AHR2.

The fish are missing six base pairs of DNA of the AHR2 gene, and the two amino acids each triplet would code for. PCBs bind poorly to the mutated receptors, apparently blunting the chemicals' effects.

Life is amazing.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Standing Up for Arab Freedom

Embattled Arab leaders have found that it will take more than a "whiff of grapeshot" to disperse this years protesters. First in Egypt and now in Bahrain the protesters have responded to brief episodes of government violence by waiting for the smoke to clear and then returning in even greater numbers. From Bahrain:

Thousands of jubilant protesters surged back into the symbolic heart of Bahrain on Saturday after government security forces withdrew and the monarchy called for peace after two days of violent crackdowns...

The day started ... with the police firing tear gas and rubber bullets at crowds of protesters. Young men collapsed in the road and others ran for cover. Then the government blinked, perhaps sensing that the only way to calm a spiral of violence that claimed more lives with each passing day was to cede the square to the protesters.

The police left, so suddenly and so completely that it took a minute for the protesters to realize they were gone and that they once again controlled Pearl Square.

By early evening, tens of thousands of people waving Bahrain flags, some dropping to the ground to pray, shouting congratulations to each other, had packed the square and the surrounding streets in bittersweet jubilation, savoring the moment with a degree of sadness for the loss of at least seven people killed during the week, disbelief that they had prevailed and absolute joy at their success.

These people are determined to have their freedom, and enough of them are willing to die for it that their governments must choose between giving in to their demands and launching a horrific massacre. I think the Iranian government will prove impossible to dislodge by these methods; they have already shown both the breadth of their support and their willingness to kill. Right now the big mystery is Libya. Does anyone outside the country have any idea how strong Qaddafi's support is among the Libyan military, what sort of paramilitary forces he has at his command?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Insular Style

We have now reached the point in my Celts to Vikings class, around the 6th century, when what we generally think of as Celtic art began to appear. Art historians call this the insular style, because it developed in the British Isles and because Saxons as well as Celts contributed.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Twelve Teenagers and Several Padded Swords

There's a party in my front yard.

Today's Question

Muammar Qaddafi has been the dictator of Libya since 1969, so why is he still only a Colonel?

The Founding of a Maya City

Archaeologist Takeshi Inomata has a great account at the NY Times of recent excavations at Ceibal in the Mayan lowlands. Ceibal was a major center in the Classic Period (AD150 to 950), but the goal of the recent dig has been to investigate its origins. They now think that rather than growing from a village, the city was founded as a major ceremonial and political center around 1000 BC. The stone axes below were buried under the central plaza when the first floor was laid.

Crannogs, Archaeology, Conquest, and Migration

When we think of the Celtic world today we think of the Atlantic fringe of Europe: Ireland, western Scotland, Wales, Brittany. Historians are fairly certain, though, that Celtic culture first emerged in central Europe, along the great rivers that have their sources in the Alps: the Danube, the Rhine, and the Rhone. The artifacts and habits that define Celtic culture spread from there to Britain and Ireland some time between 500 and 50 BC. Caesar makes it clear that some of the Celtic rulers of Britain were recent immigrants from Gaul, closely related to important Gallic families, so the process may still have been going on in his time. Most historians imagine tribes of warlike Celts crossing the narrow seas to Britain, conquering the natives, and eventually imposing their language and culture throughout Britain and Ireland.

Many archaeologists hate this model. They look at the ordinary material culture of Britain and Ireland and see strong continuity from Bronze Age and even Neolithic times right down to the Roman Conquest (in Britain) or the conversion to Christianity (in Ireland). A good example of what they mean in the crannog. These are small settlements, found throughout Ireland, built in a lake, marsh, or bog. The foundation of the crannog is built of stone or wooden posts, and dirt is piled around and on top of them to make a stable island. With long experience the Irish got very good at this, and some of the better built crannogs are still islands 2000 years later. On the crannog was either a single structure like the one at the head of this post or a small farmyard with two to five.

A fortified crannog like this one might have been the residence of one of the petty Irish "kings", of whom there were more than 200 across the island.

Crannogs, a very idiosyncratic style of building, were made in exactly the same way right across the period when the Celtic invasion and conquest might have taken place. The same goes for hundreds of other aspects of material culture, large and small. Hence the reluctance of archaeologists to believe in some catastrophic Celtic invasion.

I believe in the Celtic invasion, and I think a good model for how this might have happened is provided by Turkey. Go to a small village in central Anatolia and you will meet people who are speak Turkish and are defiantly proud of being Turks. Recent genetic studies, though, suggest that the central Asian contribution to their genes is no more than 10 percent. They are the descendants of the villagers who lived in Asia Minor before the first Turk set foot there. Nor is there any noticeable Turkish contribution to the houses they live in, their agriculture, or many other things about their culture. Even at the elite level the Turks adapted themselves as much to the culture of the people they conquered as the conquered did to them: consider the famous blue mosque in Constantinople, a copy of Constantine's Hagia Sophia.

This is my model for how Ireland came to be Celtic: a few thousand invaders came, bristling with weapons, and conquered the island. Building was not something they were good at, so they moved into the houses of the local elites they slaughtered, or had their new serfs build them new houses using their traditional techniques. The conquerors' power, wealth, prestige, and connections to the international Celtic culture made their ways appealing to those they conquered, and over a period of 500 years or so the old languages died away and all the people of the island came to think of themselves as Celts, no matter who their ancestors were.

The Man with the Blue Guitar


The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, "You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are."

The man replied, "Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar."

And they said then, "But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are."


I cannot bring a world quite round,
Although I patch it as I can.

I sing a hero's head, large eye
And bearded bronze, but not a man,

Although I patch him as I can
And reach through him almost to man.

If to serenade almost to man
Is to miss, by that, things as they are,

Say that it is the serenade
Of a man that plays a blue guitar.


Ah, but to play man number one,
To drive the dagger in his heart,

To lay his brain upon the board
And pick the acrid colors out,

To nail his thought across the door,
Its wings spread wide to rain and snow,

To strike his living hi and ho,
To tick it, tock it, turn it true,

To bang it from a savage blue,
Jangling the metal of the strings...


So that's life, then: things are they are?
It picks its way on the blue guitar.

A million people on one string?
And all their manner in the thing,

And all their manner, right and wrong,
And all their manner, weak and strong?

And that's life, then: things as they are,
This buzzing of the blue guitar.


Do not speak to us of the greatness of poetry,
Of the torches wisping in the underground,

Of the structure of vaults upon a point of light.
There are no shadows in our sun,

Day is desire and night is sleep.
There are no shadows anywhere.

The earth, for us, is flat and bare.
There are no shadows. Poetry

Exceeding music must take the place
Of empty heaven and its hymns,

Ourselves in poetry must take their place,
Even in the chattering of your guitar.

--Wallace Stevens

The Post Islamist Generation

In this very interesting New Statesman article, religious scholar Olivier Roy explains how developments within Islam underlie the changed relationship between politics and religion we have seen in the recent Arab protests:
If Arab societies are more visibly Islamic than they were 30 or 40 years ago, what explains the absence of Islamic slogans from the current demonstrations? The paradox of Islamisation is that it has largely depoliticised Islam. Social and cultural re-Islamisation - the wearing of the hijab and niqab, an increase in the number of mosques, the proliferation of preachers and Muslim television channels - has happened without the intervention of militant Islamists and has in fact opened up a "religious market", over which no one enjoys a monopoly. In short, the Islamists have lost the stranglehold on religious expression in the public sphere that they enjoyed in the 1980s. . . .

The "Salafist" movement emphasises the re-Islamisation of individuals rather than the development of social movements. What has been perceived in the west as a great, green wave of re-Islamisation is in fact nothing but a trivialisation of Islam: everything has become Islamic, from fast food to women's fashion. The forms and structures of piety, however, have become individualised, so now one constructs one's own faith, seeking out the preacher who speaks of self-realisation, such as the Egyptian Amr Khaled, and abandoning all interest in the utopia of an Islamic state. The Salafists concentrate on the preservation of religious values and have no political programme. Moreover, other religious currents until now regarded as being in decline, such as Sufism, are flourishing once more.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Egypt and China

Perry Link:

The Egyptian uprising is an awkward fact for China’s rulers because it undermines one of their favorite arguments. They have long claimed that China has “special characteristics” (meaning that its people prefer authoritarianism, at least for now) and that demands in China for democracy and human rights are merely results of the subversive tactics of “anti-China” forces based in Western countries. But if that theory is true, then one needs to explain why millions of Egyptian people were opposing Mubarak, who was a US client. Plainly something deeper was motivating them.

The example of Tunisia raises a related question, equally awkward. For China’s rulers, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the ousted dictator, would have been seen as following their own approach—the so-called “Chinese model”—of economic growth combined with political repression and having much success with it, or so it was assumed for many years. But the Tunisian people took to the streets to overthrow him. Did the people want something more than the Chinese model? How could that be?

Sewage and Superbugs

From Scientific American:
High levels of antibiotic resistance have been found in bacteria that live downstream from a waste-water treatment plant in Patancheru, near Hyderabad in India.

Two years ago, Joakim Larsson of the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, and his colleagues reported that the treatment plant released drugs in its effluent water at levels sometimes equivalent to the high doses that are given therapeutically. The antibiotic-containing water reaching the plant came from 90 bulk pharmaceutical manufacturers in the region, near Hyderabad, they determined. The researchers wondered what might be happening to bacteria in the environment exposed to these drugs. . . .

In three sites downstream of the plant, the resistance genes made up almost 2 percent of the DNA samples taken there, the researchers report in PLoS ONE. Because only one or two genes out of the typical genome of around 5,000 genes are necessary to protect the bacterium, that's a lot of genetic resistance, says Dave Ussery, a microbiologist at the Technical University of Denmark, who was not involved in the work.

Attitudes Toward the Changing Family

The Pew Research Center has a new poll out on changes in the American family. The poll finds that many Americans are accepting of, or indifferent to, people living together without marriage and gay couples raising children, but strongly opposed to single motherhood. You can take a quick version of their poll online, and for once I ended up in the largest group of responders, "Skeptics". This is probably because I answered "Doesn't Make Much Difference" a lot.

A Little Demon

On an Irish church, from a blog devoted entirely to images of phallic demons. Everybody needs a hobby, I guess.

In Which the Tea Partyers Actually Cut Some Wasteful Spending

Even though the F-35 fighter plane is many billions over budget, Congress has been insisting for the past five years that we keep not one but two different engines in development to power it. This foible, opposed by the Pentagon, has cost more than $2 billion already and is projected to cost $3 billion more. Pratt & Whitney, which makes the primary engine, has put ads all over Washington decrying this waste; General Electric, which makes the alternative, has followed a low-profile approach, relying on an alliance of Republicans who support all defense spending and midwestern Democrats who wants the jobs for their states to keep the engine in the budget. In the 2010 election most of those midwestern Democrats were swept out, replaced with Tea Party-leaning Republicans pledged to cut wasteful spending. And, glory be, they actually stepped up yesterday and joined with liberal Democrats to cut the engine out of the budget. Of course this is not the end of the story, and it remains possible that the engine will be re-inserted into the budget in some future negotiation, but I regard this as a positive sign. I think most of the waste in the federal budget is in the Defense and Homeland Security Departments, and if the Tea Party faction is willing to take its ax to those programs, all power to them.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Divorce in the 8th Century

From the Law of the Couple (Cáin Lánamna), an Irish compilation that dates to around AD 800, comes this list of the reasons for which a wife can divorce her husband:
• Sterility
• Impotence
• Entrance into Holy Orders
• Entrance into the Church
• Loss of property/Inability to provide
• Obesity
• Revealing secrets of the bedroom
• Spreading slander or lies about her
• Spreading mocking songs or poems about her
• Unjust chastisement that leaves a mark
• Abandonment for another woman
• Homosexuality
• Admitting to use of magic or other means to steal her affections
• Inability to provide for her daily needs

Ice Age Fossils

The bones of a young Columbian Mammoth, part of a "remarkable" deposit of Pleistocene fossils found near Snowmass, Colorado. Other finds include mastodons and giant ground sloth.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Celts to Vikings 6b: What the Druids Said

Irish poetry is full of passages like this:
I am the wind that blows over the sea,
I am the wave of the sea,
I am the roaring of the sea,
I am the bull of the seven battles,
I am the god who gives fire to the head. . .
I have been a narrow, gilded spear,
I believe in what is clear,
I have been a raindrop in the air,
I have been the furthest star,
I have been word among letters,
I have been book in the beginning
I have been light of the lamp. . . .
I have been path, I have been eagle,
I have been fisherman's boat on the sea,
I have been shield in the battle,
I have been string of a harp,
in this way for nine years.
In the water, in the foam,
I have been sponge in the fire,
I have been tree in the uncharted wood.
The last time I taught about the ancient Celts I passed along the interpretation of the poems that I learned from the textbooks: that these are poetic expression of the doctrine of the transmigration of souls. Lately, though, I have reading some half mad scholars with a spiritual bent (notably Jean Markale) and they have convinced me that the very rational Julius Caesar did not understand the teachings of the druids. I now think that the doctrine behind these poems is much broader than just human souls moving from body to body. I think these poems express a vision of the universe as a process of transformation, in which everything is always being changed into something else. In this view a human soul may just be one way of seeing a single spark of the cosmic fire as it flashes past, before it is reabsorbed into the conflagration.

Doagh Holed Stone, Ireland

Closing in on Zero Energy Use

Engineers are getting better and better at reducing the energy use in structures of all kinds, approaching the goal of buildings that need no outside power. This office building in Golden, Colorado may actually achieve that goal by the time it is completed, and at a reasonable cost. With commercial buildings accounting for 18 percent of US energy use, this is a far from trivial achievement. No radical new technologies are needed, just a small array of solar panels and the rigorous application of every energy saving trick in the book.

Of course, Golden, Colorado is the sort of place where everybody drives everywhere, so I am not sure that the overall impact will be less than a conventional building in Manhattan. Still, every bit of savings helps.

America is Safer but Worries More

First, the facts:
Between 1990 and 2009, the national violent-crime rate was halved, while property crime dropped to 60 percent of its previous rate.
Then, the perception:
almost every year since 1989, most Americans have told pollsters they believe crime is getting worse.
This need to fear is one of the most annoying things about my fellow Americans. The fear of dangerous dark-skinned thugs who roost in scary neighborhoods as become a major part of the suburban identity. We get off on seeing ourselves under siege by faceless enemies -- criminals, terrorists -- and we see every reported crime and every attempt to blow up a plane as proof that things are constantly getting worse. The reality that we are the safest people who ever lived somehow offends us.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Department of Just Desserts

Unsufferable windbag Zahi Hawass, long the czar of archaeology in Egypt, was lately promoted to Minister of Antiquities by the dying Mubarak government, perhaps in the hope that his television charisma would help the fading dictator's cause. Ever the ladder-climber, Hawass leaped at the chance, putting this notice on his web site:
Many people make the mistake of thinking that dreams cannot come true, but they can. You have to believe, and know that they are more than just imagination.
Typical of Hawass that his dreams consist of promotions rather than, say, actual archaeological discoveries. But then this is the man who regularly tells interviewers things like:
I'm damn good. . . . I am already famous and powerful. [What] I do I do for Egypt. It is the first time that Egypt has been correctly explained to the public.
Yes, it's true, everything you have ever read or heard about Egypt before is wrong!

Alas, Hawass probably did not dream that his ascendancy would be greeted by a demonstration organized by young archaeologists:

"Get out," a crowd of 150 archaeology graduates chanted outside the office of Antiquities Minister Zahi Hawass, who threw in his lot with the old order when he accepted a Cabinet post in the last weeks of Hosni Mubarak's rule.

Whether Hawass, entrusted with preserving Egypt's museums and monuments, will go the way of Mubarak and resign is uncertain. . . .

The archaeologists' protest was also deeply personal, with protesters saying Hawass was a "showman" and publicity hound with little regard for thousands of archaeology students who have been unable to find work in their field.

"He doesn't care about us," said 22-year-old Gamal el-Hanafy, who graduated from Cairo University in 2009 and carried his school certificates in a folder. "He just cares about propaganda."

In response,
Hawass has maintained that his first love is Egypt's heritage, not himself, and that courting publicity raises the national profile.
Because, you know, the archaeological treasures of Egypt are so obscure that they need a self-serving ass like Hawass to promote them. And no, I've never seen his show, because the brief appearances I have seen are so appalling I can't imagine 30 minutes of the man.