Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Arrow Stork of Mecklenburg

Via Joshua Foer, a wonderful story of early science and strange stuffed birds:

Until the 19th century, the sudden annual disappearance of white storks each fall had been a profound mystery to European bird-watchers. Aristotle thought the storks went into hibernation with the other disappearing avian species, perhaps at the bottom of the sea. According to some fanciful accounts, "flocks of swallows were allegedly seen congregating in marshes until their accumulated weight bent the reeds into the water, submerging the birds, which apparently then settled down for a long winter's nap." A 1703 pamphlet titled "An Essay toward the Probable Solution of this Question: Whence come the Stork and the Turtledove, the Crane, and the Swallow, when they Know and Observe the Appointed Time of their Coming," argued that the disappearing birds flew to the moon for the winter.

On May 21, 1822, a stunning piece of evidence came to light, which suggested a less extra-terrestrial, if no less wondrous, solution to the quandary of the disappearing birds. A white stork, shot on the Bothmer Estate near Mecklenburg, was discovered with an 80-cm-long Central African spear embedded in its neck. The stork had flown the entire migratory journey from its equatorial wintering grounds in this impaled state. The arrow-stork, or pfeilstorch, can now be found, stuffed, in the Zoological Collection of the University of Rostock. It is not alone. Since 1822, some 25 separate cases of pfeilstorches have been recorded.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Out in western Maryland, we have been doing some test excavations on a site that includes two Late Woodland Indian villages. One probably dates to AD 1000 to 1200. The other is later, probably AD 1400 to 1600. At the later village preservation is pretty good, and we found this bone bead along with some decorated pottery


Clara with the daylily Stella D'Oro. Note the boots. One of Lisa's colleagues passed on to us an astonishing quantity of little girl's clothes, dozens of outfits in each size, more than one would have thought any single girl could wear. Including several pairs of shoes, one of which is these motorcycle boots. Who buys motorcycle boots for 3-year-old girls? Clara put them on and said "Like Mary!" That would be her big sister the Goth girl, who favors black boots. And we were counting on her to be a good influence....

Moth Mullein

One of my favorite wildflowers, growing in the dry bed of a damaged portion of the C&O Canal.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Iran and the Constitutional Question II

Fareed Zakaria explains, much better than I did, the crucial constitutional question at stake in the Iranian protests:

CNN: As you've seen the situation in Iran develop over the last week, what are your thoughts?

Fareed Zakaria: One of the first things that strikes me is we are watching the fall of Islamic theocracy.

CNN: Do you mean you think the regime will fall?

Zakaria: No, I don't mean the Iranian regime will fall soon. It may -- I certainly hope it will -- but repressive regimes can stick around for a long time. I mean that this is the end of the ideology that lay at the basis of the Iranian regime.

The regime's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, laid out his special interpretation of political Islam in a series of lectures in 1970. In this interpretation of Shia Islam, Islamic jurists had divinely ordained powers to rule as guardians of the society, supreme arbiters not only on matters of morality but politics as well. When Khomeini established the Islamic Republic of Iran, this idea was at its heart. Last week, that ideology suffered a fatal wound.

CNN: How so?

Zakaria: When the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a "divine assessment," he was indicating it was divinely sanctioned. But no one bought it. He was forced to accept the need for an inquiry into the election. The Guardian Council, Iran's supreme constitutional body, met with the candidates and promised to investigate and perhaps recount some votes. Khamenei has subsequently hardened his position but that is now irrelevant. Something very important has been laid bare in Iran today --- legitimacy does not flow from divine authority but from popular support.

The Post Censors Itself

The Washington Post once had a proud tradition of muckraking and calling the authorities to account, but over the past decade they have increasingly abandoned it. Case in point: their cowardly refusal to call waterboarding torture, even though this is a well established point of both US and international law. Now they have fired one of the voices on their staff who consistently called the government to account for its actions, Dan Froomkin. Froomkin explained his firing like this:
"Mainstream-media political journalism is in danger of becoming increasingly irrelevant, but not because of the Internet, or even Comedy Central. The threat comes from inside. It comes from journalists being afraid to do what journalists were put on this green earth to do…

Calling bullshit, of course, used to be central to journalism as well as to comedy. And we happen to be in a period in our history in which the substance in question is running particularly deep. Calling bullshit has never been more vital to our democracy. It also resonates with readers and viewers a lot more than passionless stenography I’m not sure why calling bullshit has gone out of vogue in so many newsrooms — why, in fact, it’s so often consciously avoided. There are lots of possible reasons.

There’s the increased corporate stultification of our industry, to the point where rocking the boat is seen as threatening rather than invigorating. There’s the intense pressure to maintain access to insider sources, even as those sources become ridiculously unrevealing and oversensitive. There’s the fear of being labeled partisan if one’s bullshit-calling isn’t meted out in precisely equal increments along the political spectrum.

If mainstream-media political journalists don’t start calling bullshit more often, then we do risk losing our primacy — if not to the comedians then to the bloggers. I still believe that no one is fundamentally more capable of first-rate bullshit-calling than a well-informed beat reporter - whatever their beat. We just need to get the editors, or the corporate culture, or the self-censorship — or whatever it is — out of the way."

Saturday, June 20, 2009

My First Dictionary

Lisa pointed me to this bizarre blog, a compendium of the best sort of sickness.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Girls and Ballet

Clara after her first ballet lesson. She was so excited she couldn't stop twirling.

An added bonus for history buffs: her lessons are in the building where the Catonsville Nine burned their draft cards.

People and Wolves in Germany

Parts of rural eastern Germany have depopulated so drastically since re-unification that wolves have returned. According to the German government, there are four packs in eastern Germany with a total population of about 30 wolves.

The emptying out of rural areas that comes with modern agriculture is opening up space for wildlife in our world.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Why We Fight

I have a new essay up at bensozia, about why people compete (not to win), a reaction to something by Malcolm Gladwell.

Iran and the Constitutional Question

The government Iran has had since 1979 is a strange hybrid of democracy and theocracy. As such, it is a an experiment in whether such hybrids can ever work. Many people around the world are interested in systems that would have a democratic component but which would also somehow protect core principles from the popular whim. The authors of our constitution wanted to at least slow down the forces of popular rule, with institutions such as the Senate and the Supreme court that are designed to change slowly. But the system is at its root democratic, and in the long run the people will have their way.

In Iran, the notion that the state should be Islamic first and democratic second has wide support. But what does that mean? Who decides what stands on contemporary issues are Islamic? The Iranian system includes committees of Islamic scholars with names like the Council of Guardians that are supposed to speak for Islam in a way removed from mere politics.

What is happening in Iran now is that the Iranian people are unhappy with the way certain forces within the clerical establishment have interfered with their democratic will. Those clerics -- who, depending on the context, are called both "conservative" and "radical", which shows that our categories don't fit them very well -- have fought for a program of tighter social control at home, a strong military (including nuclear weapons), and strong positions against Israel and the US. They have used the powers granted to them under the hybrid constitution to stifle opposing voices who have tried to compete in the democratic part of the government. They have also acted corruptly, using oil money to build up a network of companies and militias under their control.

Now it seems that the clerics have used their control of the electoral apparatus to steal an election. If true, this marks a real change in their behavior, and a flouting of the constitution that gives them their legitimacy. I am not clear on why they would have done this. The powers granted them under the constitution are great, and allowed them to thwart previous reform presidents. It seems that they have simply gotten impatient with the whole business of holding elections and taking the popular will into account at all.

The people are, understandably, outraged.

I suspect that the "revolution" will be defeated, and that the clerics will hold onto power. If they do fall, it will be because they fell out among themselves, because they control most of the real levers of power in Iran, including the army, the militias and the press.

More broadly, I think the violence in Iran is bad news for all the would-be builders of partly democratic systems. Either the people are sovereign, or they are not. They may accept partial power for a while, but in the end I think all such systems will face a crisis like Iran's, in which the people will come into conflict with the other powers, and one or the other will be defeated.


One of Andrew Sullivan's readers sent in this observation: "Leading the populace to believe that its opinion matters is extraordinarily dangerous for a regime that has no intention of listening."

Garden in Mid June

Not very much blooming when I took this on Sunday, mainly the first daylilies and the strange biennial daisies I inherited with the house. Plus the annuals in the window boxes and a few blooms on botanica.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Scratched Slate from Jamestown

Archaeologists working at Jamestown have found a piece of slate covered with scratched words and pictures, including the drawing shown above:

Archaeologists and other scientists are still trying to decipher the slate, the first with extensive inscriptions to be found at any 17th-century colonial American site.

The scratched and worn 5-by-8-inch (13-by-20-centimeter) tablet is inscribed with the words "A MINON OF THE FINEST SORTE." Above the words are the letters and numbers "EL NEV FSH HTLBMS 508," interspersed with symbols that have yet to be interpreted. . . .

According to [Jamestown curator Beverly] Straube, "minon" is a 17th-century variation of the word "minion" and has numerous meanings, including "servant," "follower," "comrade," "companion," "favorite," or someone dependent on a patron's favor. A minion is also a type of cannon—and archaeologists have found shot at the James Fort site that's the right size for a minion.

Drawings on the slate depict several different flower blossoms and birds that may include an eagle, a songbird, and an owl.

"The crude drawings of birds and flora offer dramatic evidence of how captivated the English were by the natural wonders of the alien New World," excavation director Kelso said. There's also a sketch of an Englishman smoking a pipe and a man, whose right hand seems to be missing, wearing a ruffled collar.

The Archaeologist Returns, Scratched

After three days in western Maryland cutting through vast thickets of rose bushes, I failed to find the lost Indian town I was looking for but did find several interesting prehistoric sites. My whole body is covered with scratches and I have poison ivy in several places. But it was a beautiful week in the mountains, and it is always fun to find things in the ground, even if they aren't the things you are looking for.

Here, a fairly typical obstacle to one of our shovel testing transects, before clearing:

And after:

Maybe they should ask what the business is first

Sign in my local bank:

We applaud what your business brings to our community.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Baltimore Zoo

Feeling like a little adventure, I took Ben and Clara to the Baltimore Zoo this afternoon. It's cloudy here today, with the temperature in the upper 70s, so I thought the animals would be more active than on a typically hot summer afternoon. Alas, their nap scheduled seems indifferent to the weather, and most of the mammals were snoozing away. We did get some amusement from bouncing lemurs, a prowling leopard (who started his nap as we watched), elephants, giraffes, and birds. I thought the coolest thing we saw was these hamerkops, who were busily gathering beakfuls of sticks to add to their already enormous nest while the other birds looked on, bemused and lazy. The pictures are lousy because I didn't want to use a flash.

super criminals live

In response to more aggressive patrolling by the US, Colombian, and Mexican Navies, the cartels have been been smuggling cocaine out of Colombia on submarines:

There's just something so Dr. No about criminals building their own submarines. From the Washington Post:
When anti-narcotics agents first heard that drug cartels were building an armada of submarines to transport cocaine, they thought it was a joke. Now U.S. law enforcement officials say that more than a third of the cocaine smuggled into the United States from Colombia travels in submersibles.

An experimental oddity just two years ago, these strange semi-submarines are the cutting edge of drug trafficking today. They ferry hundreds of tons of cocaine for powerful Mexican cartels that are taking over the Pacific Ocean route for most northbound shipments, according to the Colombian navy. . . .

The subs are powered by ordinary diesel engines and built of simple fiberglass in clandestine shipyards in the Colombian jungle. U.S. officials expect 70 or more to be launched this year with a potential cargo capacity of 380 tons of cocaine, worth billions of dollars in the United States. . . . The vessels do not fully submerge but skim the sea surface. They move quickly at night, then drift like sleeping whales during the day.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

this week

I spent Monday through Wednesday out in western Maryland, looking for archaeological sites along the Potomac River. We were rained on, we had to cut our way through huge thickets of rose bushes, and we were assaulted by clouds of mosquitoes, but it was still a delight to be out in the spring air amidst beautiful mountains finding beautiful bits of shiny rock left behind by people thousands of years ago.

Here is my crew, excavating a shovel test into a 2000-year-old camp site:

And some wild iris, photographed at dusk along the C&O Canal:


Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have liv'd today.

-John Dryden

change in China

From an interview with Wuer Kaixi, one of the leaders of the Tienanmen student protests in 1989:
I can see China at least is becoming a better place. After 1989, the Chinese Communist Party decided to make a deal with the Chinese people—to have political cooperation from Chinese people, in exchange for economic freedom. And it’s a lousy deal because those political freedoms and economic freedoms belong to the Chinese people to begin with. Nevertheless, the deal worked. Chinese people took the deal and the Communist Party withdrew from Chinese people’s daily lives. So there is no longer an ideological state, and that is the only way they can keep Chinese people settled for a little freedom, even if it is only economic freedom. The Chinese people started to enjoy the newly-given freedom after 1992, which needed to develop and boom.
This was very much my impression of China. The government interferes with daily life no more than any other government, and the people get on with their lives without worrying about big political questions.

I wonder if the success of this arrangement has more to do with traditional Chinese culture, the terrible experience that many older Chinese have had with "politics" from the Great Leap Forward to Tienanmen, or the decline of ideological fervor in the world as a whole. Another explanation, which I have seen in the news lately, is that the middle class of many developing nations is very nervous about the voting power of ill-educated peasants. You can see this playing out in Thailand, where a government elected with the support of poor, rural voters is regarded by the urban middle class as a giant theft ring. So it may be that most of the leaders in Chinese urban society, whether technocrats, businessmen, or intellectuals, is more comfortable with rule by the Communist Party than with rule by the majority of their fellow citizens.

But whatever the reason, my impression is that most Chinese are as happy with their government as most people in the US or Europe (that is, not very), and that things in China will go on as they have been for at least the next 25 years.