Sunday, July 31, 2011

Castle of the Day: Hotynska, Ukraine

This castle is also called Khotyn on some web sites. (Wikipedia gives Khotyn as the English along with: Ukrainian: Хотинська фортеця, Polish: twierdza w Chocimiu, Turkish: Hotin Kalesi, Romanian: Cetatea Hotinului). Located on the Dniester River. The first fortress on this spot was built by the Kievan Rus in the 10th century. A major castle was begun in the 1260s by Prince Danylo of Halich. After that it was modified or added to by many others, including the Genoese and two Moldavian princes. What you see here dates mainly to the 14th century. In 1621 a major battle was fought here between the Polish-Lithuanian state and the Turks; the Poles won, and they retook the castle, which the Turks had seized. Beloved of Soviet filmmakers, the castle has appeared in dozens of movies, including Ivanhoe, The Arrows of Robin Hood, and The Three Musketeers.

What Are Dreams?

Nicholas Humphrey:
When people today are asked whether they regularly dream in color, most say they do. But it was not always so. Back in the 1950s most said they dreamed in black and white. Presumably it can hardly be true that our grandparents had different brains that systematically left out the color we put in today. So this must be a matter of interpretation. Yet why such freedom about assigning color? Well, try this for an answer. Suppose that, not knowing quite what dreams are like, we tend to assume they must be like photographs or movies — pictures in the head. Then, when asked whether we dream in color we reach for the most readily available pictorial analogy. Understandably, 60 years ago this might have been black-and-white movies, while for most of us today it is the color version. But, here’s the thing: Neither analogy is necessarily the “right” one. Dreams don’t have to be pictures of any kind at all. They could be simply thoughts — and thoughts, even thoughts about color, are neither colored nor non-colored in themselves.
I have spent quite a bit of time pondering dreams. Like Humphrey, I am skeptical of what people say about the pictures in their dreams, because in my dreams the images are not fundamental. I cannot answer the question about whether I dream in color, because color is not important to my dreaming. We often recount dreams as narratives, in which happens and then this, and I do this sometimes as well. But it seems clear to me that the nonsensical narrative is not the point of the dream, either.

I think the point of my dreams is feelings. I have dreams that consist almost entirely of me trying to run from a nameless dread but finding that my legs are too heavy to move. In other dreams I battle against a nameless dread that stubbornly refuses to take form and be fought. In others the dominant experience is flying, or a sort of falling, swooping feeling. There is a narrative involving, say, travel in a car and a car wreck and being hurled from the car and flying with a sickening, stomach-sinking rush to the top of a nearby building, but my main impression is that somehow the feeling is the primary thing and the narrative is just a context for it, dreamed up by some other part of the brain.

I have long pondered this because I think our dreams, and the related experiences of trance and hallucination, are fundamental to the origin of religion. I think a lot of religion is rational dress put on things that spring from the dream world. If I had grown up in a different culture I might interpret my own very vivid dreams of being hunted by invisible, untouchable evil as experiences of demons, the Devil, or an enemy wizard. Beings of light, which many people report in their dreams, are the obvious origin of angels.

The point is not that the feelings are somehow more real than the interpretations we put on them; both are only thoughts. The point is that our experience of dreaming is put together from different strands, some of them coming from our cultures, through the rational centers of our minds, others welling up from emotional centers or from our centers of balance. Our dreams are made of what we feel and what we think about those feelings, or feel about them; the dream world is as many-layered as the world of consciousness thought.

Why Voters Tune Out Democrats

Fascinating essay by pollster Stanley Greenberg about why voters who prefer Democratic policies nevertheless vote for Republicans:

During the last half-century or so, when a Democratic president has led the country, people have tended to experience lower unemployment, less inequality and rising income compared with periods of Republican governance. There is a reason, however, that many voters in the developed world are turning away from Democrats, Socialists, liberals and progressives. . . .

In analyzing these polls in the United States, I see clearly that voters feel ever more estranged from government — and that they associate Democrats with government. If Democrats are going to be encumbered by that link, they need to change voters’ feelings about government. They can recite their good plans as a mantra and raise their voices as if they had not been heard, but voters will not listen to them if government is disreputable.

Oddly, many voters prefer the policies of Democrats to the policies of Republicans. They just don’t trust the Democrats to carry out those promises.

When we conducted our election-night national survey after last year’s Republican sweep, voters strongly chose new investment over a new national austerity. They thought Democrats were more likely to champion the middle class. And as has become clear in the months since, the public does not share conservatives’ views on rejecting tax cuts and cutting retirement programs. Numerous recent polls have shown that the public sides with the president and Democrats on raising taxes to get to a balanced budget.

But in smaller, more probing focus groups, voters show they are fairly cynical about Democratic politicians’ stands. They tune out the politicians’ fine speeches and plans and express sentiments like these: “It’s just words.” “There’s just such a control of government by the wealthy that whatever happens, it’s not working for all the people; it’s working for a few of the people.” “We don’t have a representative government anymore.”

This distrust of government and politicians is unfolding as a full-blown crisis of legitimacy sidelines Democrats and liberalism. Just a quarter of the country is optimistic about our system of government. . . .

In earlier periods, confidence in the economy and rising personal incomes put limits on voter discontent. Today, a dispiriting economy combined with a well-developed critique of government leaves government not just distrusted but illegitimate.

Government operates by the wrong values and rules, for the wrong people and purposes, the Americans I’ve surveyed believe. Government rushes to help the irresponsible and does little for the responsible. Wall Street lobbyists govern, not Main Street voters. Vexingly, this promotes both national and middle-class decline yet cannot be moved by conventional democratic politics. Lost jobs, soaring spending and crippling debt make America ever weaker, unable to meet its basic obligations to educate and protect its citizens. Yet politicians take care of themselves and party interests, while government grows remote and unresponsive, leaving people feeling powerless.

Propaganda works, and Republicans are winning the propaganda war. Democrats have mostly stopped demonizing big business and capitalism, but Republicans constantly demonize government. When things are bad, people wondering who to blame listen and hear only one culprit under attack: the government. Polls show that millions of people on Medicare say they have never benefited from a government program.

This is why liberals wanted Obama to take some big public stands and make loud speeches denouncing Republicans and their ties to business. Personally I hate that sort of thing, but the evidence is that it works.

I will say that one reason we are having this series of budget crises is that Democrats in Congress really did put "party interests" above national interests before the 2008 election, when they refused to pass a budget because they thought a budget with such a huge deficit would be used against them in the election. As it turned out, almost all the vulnerable Democrats lost anyway, so they might as well have made funding the government their swan song.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Boehner vs. Pelosi

Ezra Klein compares John Boehner's recent behavior with how Nancy Pelosi handled the office of Speaker:

There is exactly one question worth asking now: What is the debt-ceiling compromise that can win the support of the House, Senate and the White House? That means winning the support of Democrats as well as Republicans. That’s what every effort in every chamber should be oriented toward. Instead, Boehner has spent the past two days wasting his political capital assembling an irrelevant coalition of conservatives.

When Nancy Pelosi served as Speaker of the House, her job was conditioning her members for disappointment. It was Pelosi who had to bring them around to a Senate-designed health-care law that lacked a public option, a cap-and-trade bill that gave away most of its permits, a stimulus that did too little, a bank bailout that endangered their careers. Pelosi had to do that because, well, that’s what the speaker of the House has to do. To govern is to compromise. And when you’re in charge, you have to govern.

Lately, Boehner has not been governing. After he failed to pass a conservative resolution to the debt crisis without Democratic votes, he should have begun cutting the deals and making the concessions necessary to gain Democratic votes. That, after all, is what he will ultimately have to do. It’s what all this is supposed to be leading up to.

But Boehner went in the opposite direction. He made his bill more conservative. He indulged his members in the fantasy that they wouldn’t have to make compromises. It’s as if Pelosi, facing criticism for dropping the public option, had tried to shore up her support by bringing a single-payer health-care bill to the floor. Even if that would have pleased her left wing, what good would it have done her? Her job was to prepare her members to take a vote that could lead to a successful outcome.

Arganzuela Footbridge by Dominique Perrault

New footbridge recently opened in Madrid; Parasela de Arganzuela in Spanish. Designed by French architect Dominique Perrault. It connects two parts of a new urban park on the banks of the the Manzaranes River. This space was formerly occupied by the M30 Expressway, which has been buried 25 meters (80 feet) below the surface, and some industrial spaces.

Below is a rendering of what the park is supposed to look like in a few years. More proof, I would say, that expressways are a terrible way to use space inside a city.

Carl Milles

Carl Milles (1875-1955) was a Swedish sculptor who spent many years in America, leaving numerous works in both countries. He is probably most famous for his fountains; above is Poseidon, in Gothenburg. He installed multiple copies of some of his works in different parts of the world, so I have had trouble getting correct dates for some of the statues.

He was a classicist in two senses: most of his works depict classical subjects, and his style was based on classical proportions that he modified into something that draws on both muscular socialist realism and the perspective distortions of modernism. Above, the version of Europa on the Bull in Stockholm

My favorite of his works is Man and Pegasus, a wonderful evocation of flight that connects human flight both to the world of myth and to our desire to copy natural, flying things.

Sunsinger (1926) uses a form that is a near copy of an archaic Greek kouros to celebrate nature in a way that seems more Egyptian or Nordic to me than Greek.

Two of Milles' Playing Angels at the Missouri Botanical Garden, after an ice storm.

Orfeus, Stockholm.

This is the Orfeus Fountain (1936) at the Cranbrook Educational Community in Michigan.

His last major work, God's Hand, (1953). I like these works, and they speak to me about the difficulty of working as a classical artist in a world devoted to novelty.


He who wonders discovers that this in itself is wonder.
-- M.C. Escher

Jung Chang, Wild Swans

This amazing, beautiful book captivated me from the first sentence: “At the age of 15 my grandmother became the concubine of a warlord general.” Jung Chang was born in China in 1952, and in this book she tells the story of her family from the 1930s to 1978, when she left China for England. The main focus is on her grandmother, her mother, and herself. The narrative covers events from the warlord period through Japanese invasion, civil war, Communist takeover, and so on down to Mao's death and the beginning of Deng Xiaoping's reforms. The most gripping part covers the Cultural Revolution, in which Jung Chang personally participated. This mad event, when Mao enlisted millions of ordinary Chinese people to "revolutionize" the country, attack "class enemies," and abolish everything bourgeois from lawns and gardens to almost all entertainment, inspired me to a long meditation on humans and history, which you can read here if you are curious.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Dragon Boy

Dragonboy from Dragon Boy on Vimeo.

The Garden of Cosmic Speculation

Forty-acre private garden in southwest Scotland designed by Charles Jencks, open to the public one day a year. The design is based on mathematical and scientific themes such as fractals, the Fibonacci numbers and the double helix.

This isn't really my thing, for two reasons. One, I have never been much moved by scientific symbols in themselves. Abstracted from the systems of reasoning and experiment that made them powerful, things like equations and diagrams of strange attractors just don't blow my mind the way they do some people's. I love science when it makes me understand things clearly and rationally, and that is not the feeling I get from looking at perfect spirals.

And, I like for gardens to be lush and full of flowers, not open and geometrical. This smacks to me of concept art, in the sense of art that makes more sense as an idea to be described in prose than as an experience.

But this certainly is interesting, and quite unlike any other garden I have seen. So if this is what the client wanted, why not?

FDR, the New Deal, Racism, and Leadership

Interesting post from Matt Yglesias:
The conventional progressive view sees FDR has a model of strong leadership and the New Deal as a signature achievement. But it’s clear that these achievements were only possible thanks to massive concessions to the white supremacist elements of FDR’s political coalition. Was that the right thing to do or wasn’t it? Something interesting is that it was during the Roosevelt era that African-Americans in started voting Democratic in large numbers. So even though the Democratic civil rights agenda of the era was puny and the welfare state was deliberately exclusionary of black interests, it at least seems to be the case that all things considered, black voters deemed the New Deal agenda to be in their interests. Of course the ideal scenario would be to say that there would have been some way to enact all the famous programs of the era without concessions to white supremacists. But I don’t see any credible account of how that could have been done. So great leadership, or appalling sellout? Most likely both. Most likely, political leadership just demands a level of cognitive dissonance and self-justification that normal people can’t muster.
"Great" men often have the ability to overlook details that seem important to others in their pursuit of big goals. We revere our founding fathers for putting the country together, sometimes forgetting that this required the acceptance of race slavery. (Yes, there were important federalists who were already opposed to slavery in 1787.) It was Reagan who remarked, about a tax reform bill that his supporters disliked, that he thought getting 80 percent of what he wanted was a good deal.

Every successful general has to be willing to accept casualties among his men. At the extreme we have Mao and Stalin willing to see millions die to advance their agendas.

The kind of character needed to make these choices is not necessarily one we want our friends to have, but it seems to be essential for leaders in many situations.

Spending Too Much Fighting Terrorism

Former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair wants to call off the war on al Qaeda:
He noted that the U.S. intelligence and homeland security communities are spending about $80 billion a year, outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yet al-Qaida and its affiliates only have about 4,000 members worldwide. That’s $20 million per terrorist per year, Blair pointed out.

“You think — woah, $20 million. Is that proportionate?” he asked. “So I think we need to relook at the strategy to get the money in the right places.”

Blair mentioned that 17 Americans have been killed on U.S. soil by terrorists since 9/11 — 14 of them in the Ft. Hood massacre. Meanwhile, auto accidents and murders have killed an estimated 1.5 million people in the past decade. “What is it that justifies this amount of money on this narrow problem?” he asked.

Blair purposely let his own question go unanswered.

54.5 Miles Per Gallon

Meanwhile, other parts of the government continue to do their jobs:
Ushering in the largest decrease in auto fuel consumption since the 1970s, President Barack Obama and automobile manufacturers Friday announced a deal that will save drivers money at the pump and dramatically cut heat-trapping gases coming from tailpipes.

The agreement pledges to double overall fuel economy to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, bringing major under-the-hood changes for the nation's automobiles starting in model year 2017. Cars and trucks on the road today average 27 miles per gallon.

"This agreement on fuel standards represents the single most important step we have taken as a nation to reduce our dependence on foreign oil," Obama said, sharing the stage with top executives of the major auto makers before a backdrop of some of the most cutting-edge cars on the road.

"Just as cars will go further on a gallon of gas, our economy will go further on a barrel of oil," Obama said.

When achieved, the 54.5 mile-per-gallon target will reduce U.S. oil consumption from vehicles by 40 percent and halve the amount of greenhouse gas pollution coming out of exhausts.

I think this is great. There are lots of ways car companies could be increasing the mileage of their cars. They don't because most people don't really care. Buying gas is a trivial expense for most Americans, no matter how much they like to complain about rising prices, so, as with lightbulbs, we need to use other kinds of incentives to nudge the market.

Max Wilbert

Cape Alava, Washington. Click to enlarge.

Poor Americans Pay Taxes

It has become a right-wing talking point that poor people pay no taxes, but it isn't true.

It is true that 46% of Americans pay no federal income tax. But that's because their incomes are low; for example, about 22% of the people paying no income tax are retirees living solely on Social Security. According to Donald Marion, only about 10% of that 46% are people with decent incomes who avoid taxes through high deductions and the like.

As far as I am concerned, Republicans upset that so many Americans pay no taxes should work on raising the incomes of poor people instead of cutting taxes on the rich.

Apocalypticism and the Budget

The really weird thing about the budget debate raging in Washington is how little separates the two sides. Obama was willing to cut a deal that would raise taxes by only a few hundred billion over five years, far less than they are going to go up if some kind of deal isn't made before the Bush tax cuts expire in 2012. On the spending side, the Times notes that Speaker Boehner's plan would result in very small spending cuts over the first few years:
The Congressional Budget Office found that the bill would save $22 billion next year and $42 billion in 2013 — at a time when the government is spending $3.7 trillion a year.
All the plans defer any real cuts to the future, when future Congresses can simply change their minds about them. I think a balanced budget amendment would be a big deal, and a disaster, which is why nobody thinks one will pass and why, I suppose, Tea Party congressmen are so fixated on passing one -- the amendment is the only really big proposal in play.

Meanwhile, though, pundits and some Congressmen continue to speak about the debate as if fundamental issues of our civilization were at stake. Krauthammer:
We’re in the midst of a great four-year national debate on the size and reach of government, the future of the welfare state, indeed, the nature of the social contract between citizen and state.
Are we? We had undivided Republican government for four years, 2002 to 2006, and the result was a huge increase in government spending, especially on Medicare and "homeland security." My biggest complaint about the Republicans now is not that they want to do radical things but that they are so dishonest about their agenda. All they really care about is keeping taxes on the rich low, and in that cause they are willing to run gigantic deficits forever, while pretending that they lie awake at night worrying about the debt.

In the long run, we can't balance the budget without either big tax increases or major cuts to Social Security and Medicare, and since Republicans are completely dependent on the votes of old people, they can't make those cuts. Paul Ryan's plan is a sham, because it requires future Congresses to cut off funding for old people's health care, and future Congresses aren't going to do that. So the only real options are tax increases and deficits.

It bugs me that our political class is risking government default to posture over these phony budget wars, because the stakes are really so small.


I just finished reading to my son Ben one of the favorite books of my own boyhood, Paddle-to-the-Sea by Holling Clancy Holling. An Indian boy in central Canada carves a little wooden canoe and scratches on the bottom, "Please Put Me Back in Water, I am Paddle to the Sea." Then he puts it in the snow near a little stream in the forest and waits for the spring melt to carry it away. The story follows the canoe as it journeys across the Great Lakes and down the St. Lawrence River to the sea. Paddle rides rapids, floats with currents, is blown by the wind, and is picked up and helped along by several people along the way.

It was from this book that I learned most of what I knew in my youth about the Great Lakes and Canada. It is full of maps that trace Paddle's route in loving detail. It describes different bodies of water, from tiny streams to beaver ponds to Lake Superior, along with the things that live in them.

It has many diagrams that explain canal locks, sawmills, how ore freighters were loaded, and much else about human life around the lakes.

My only hesitation about the book now is that it was written in 1941, and some of the world it describes is no more: glowing steel no longer lights up the nights around Gary, Indiana, fishermen no longer cast nets for whitefish from sailboats, and the harbor of Superior is no longer red with iron ore. But the lakes are still there, and the canals, and they are still plied by boats carrying grain, tourists, and other things.

For children who love to look at maps and dream about the world, there are few better books, and for grownups who love to look at maps and dream there are few better books to share with their children.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Off to Otakon

My daughter Mary, off to pre-register for Baltimore's anime festival.

The Temples of Bagan

Sunrise in Bagan, Burma.

Black Holes or Dark Energy Stars?

George Chapline says black holes don't exist. As he notes, black holes are a consequence of Einstein's relativity theory that has never been reconciled with quantum mechanics. Not only that, but new thinking on the "dark energy" that seems to permeate the universe would require a major modification of black hole physics, since dark energy is a repulsive force. One model of dark energy equates it with the "vacuum energy" of space, so as any object was compressed by gravity to black hole densities, this energy would increase until its force balanced out that of gravity:

More deeply, there are fundamental reasons why no compact object can be a black hole. The problem is that solutions of Einstein’s general-relativity equations that contain event horizons are inconsistent with quantum mechanics. For example, these spacetimes do not possess a universal time, which is required for quantum mechanics to make sense. Astrophysicists came to accept the idea of black hole because the gravitational collapse of sufficiently large masses cannot be stopped by ordinary means. But Pawel Mazur and I realized some time ago that quantum gravitational effects modify the collapse process.

Ordinary matter will be converted into vacuum energy when it is compacted to the point where general relativity predicts that an event horizon would begin to form. In contrast with ordinary mass-energy, vacuum energy is gravitationally repulsive, so it would act to stop the collapse and stabilize the object.
According to Chapline, his "dark energy star" model can explain the powerful jets of plasma we see shooting away from suspected black holes, but the black hole model cannot.

I obviously don't know enough physics to evaluate Chapline's ideas, but I have long been suspicious of the whole notion of black holes. "Theory predicts" is never a very good reason to believe in the existence of something, especially something that by definition can't be seen. General relativity is a very powerful theory, but it cannot be reconciled with quantum mechanics and so it is unlikely to perfectly explain everything, and I suspect that it breaks down under black hole conditions.

Cosmology is in flux right now. Our old models have broken down and the evolving picture of dark matter and dark energy and what all is interesting but as yet far from convincing. I am glad to see physicists questioning old understandings like black holes.

Nixon's Paranoid Eavesdropping

Nixon tried to eavesdrop on everybody, even himself. But it has only recently been revealed that his people planted bugs in the Pentagon to spy on the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

One morning in early March 1971, Army counterintelligence agent Dave Mann was going through the overnight files when his eyes landed on something unexpected: a report that a routine, nighttime sweep for bugs along the Pentagon’s power-packed E-Ring had found unexplained – and unencrypted — signals emanating from offices in the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Someone, it seemed, was eavesdropping on the top brass.

Mann was no stranger to bugs. It was a busy time for eavesdroppers and bug-finders, starting with the constant Spy vs. Spy games with Russian spies. But the Nixon years, he and everyone else would soon discover, had extended such clandestine ops into new territory: bugging not just the Democrats, but people within its own ranks. Eventually, most of the Watergate-era eavesdropping schemes were revealed to the public, including the bombshell that Nixon was bugging himself. But the bugs Dave Mann discovered in the E-Ring in March 1971 — and another batch like it — have remained buried all these years. Until now.

To understand how crazed this era really was, it helps to remember that the Nixon White House was obsessed with not just secrecy, but skullduggery. Only months into the new administration, in 1969, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was so freaked out by the back-alley dealings of Henry Kissinger that he put a spy in the White House to steal documents from his briefcase. Kissinger in turn was bugging his own staff and other officials, including one in the office of the Secretary of Defense.

What a maniac Nixon was. And Kissinger was just as bad:

Only later, after the Watergate scandal exploded, did the world learn that the FBI was, in fact, bugging at least 17 people on behalf of Kissinger. They included Air Force Col. Robert Pursley, an aide to Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, four journalists, and 13 of Kissinger’s own aides or State Department officials. Ostensibly, the goal was to plug leaks of internal deliberations about the secret bombing of Cambodia and other subjects.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Peter Hessler

Peter Hessler is my favorite author on contemporary China. His best book is his first, River Town (2001), which chronicles two years he spent teaching English in a small city in Sichuan. He arrives with a weak command of Chinese and little knowledge of the culture, and it his marvelous to follow his slowly increasing understanding.

After that me moved to Beijing and became a writer for The New Yorker, and he notes that he could eat for a day in China on what he was paid for one word. His second book, Oracle Bones (2007), is really a compendium of magazine pieces loosely strung together, and it contains some nice observations but is a little disorganized and slow.

I just finished his third book, Country Driving (2011). This is also a compendium, loosely structured around the experience of driving in China, but faster and more fun than Oracle Bones. In one section Hessler follows the Great Wall across north China, exploring ruins and dying villages. In another he describes life in a village outside Beijing where he has a weekend house, and the third section describes the establishment of a new factory zone in the booming southeast.

Hessler's theme is China's absurdities. He is a very gentle, uncritical soul, and when he points out the craziness and unintended ironies of the Chinese system he never seems mean-spirited. Part of his message is that China is as crazy for many Chinese people as it is for him. It has only been 35 years since Mao died, and people who grew up in the Cultural Revolution are now living through an intense surge of capitalist growth. The number of Chinese people with driver's licenses doubled in five years in the early 2000s, and it would be too much to expect that all those new drivers would be very good. Hessler gets great mileage out of the Chinese driver's license exam, which includes questions like:
223. If you come to a road that has been flooded, you should

a) accelerate, so the motor doesn't flood
b) stop, examine the water to make sure it's shallow, and drive across slowly.
c) find a pedestrian and make him cross ahead of you.
In Hessler's hands Chinese bureaucracy is endlessly amusing. Out of hundreds of little absurdities I think my favorite was a form farmers in a drought-stricken village had to fill out to get government relief, headed, "The Two Lacks and the One Without":
The village chief explained the phrase; the people in Sigou lacked money and food and were without the ability to support themselves.
If you have any interest in China, or in amusing writing about distant parts of the world, find a copy of River Town, and if you like that the others are worth your time, too.

Grzegorz Wróbel

Watercolors by Polish artist Grzegorz Wróbel, born 1983. More here.

Gen. Martin Dempsey's Lessons from Iraq

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee:

So I would -- I would -- looking back on it, at least my own personal view about Iraq in 2003 was that Iraq had a particular problem, and it was a regime that was destabilizing in the region and that we should take action, that -- it was my recommendation that we should take action to change the dynamic inside of Iraq and that the region itself would become more stable. I'm not sure it turned out that way. I mean, it probably -- it is, but it didn't happen exactly as we intended it, and that's because I don't think we understood -- let me put it differently. I didn't understand the dynamic inside that country, particularly with regard to the various sects of Islam that fundamentally, on occasion, compete with each other for dominance in Islam, and so -- Shia, the Shia sect of Islam, the Sunni sect of Islam -- when we took the lid off of that, I think we learned some things that -- and I'm not sure we could have learned them any other way.

I don't know, I've reflected about that a lot, but I've learned that issues don't exist in isolation. They're always complex. And I've been scarred by rereading a quote from Einstein, who said if you have an hour to save the world, spend 55 minutes of it understanding the problem and five minutes of it trying to solve it. And I think sometimes, in particular as a military culture, we don't have that ratio right. We tend to spend 55 minutes trying to -- how to solve the problem and five minutes understanding it. That's one of the big lessons for me in developing leaders for the future, not only in the Army but, if confirmed, in the joint force.

Another one is the degree to which military operations in particular, but probably all of them, have been decentralized. You know, you'll hear it called various things: decentralized, distributed operations, empowering the edge. Whatever we call it, we have pushed enormous capability, responsibility and authority to the edge, to captains and sergeants of all services. And yet our leader development paradigms really haven't changed very much. They are beginning to change, but I think that second lesson on the enormous responsibility that we put on our subordinates' shoulders has to be followed with a change in the way we prepare them to accept that responsibility.

I think those would be the two big lessons for me.

Fossils and Maya Cosmology

Archaeologists excavating at the Maya site of Palenque have found numerous marine fossils, including these stingray spines, and they have found that slabs of fossil-bearing rock were used in tombs. Did they mean anything in particular to the people who brought them into the city?

In most American Indian cosmologies, the underworld is a watery place inhabited by sea monsters. The earth is often seen as having risen from the depths, or as having been brought to the surface by an "earth diver" figure. One version of the Maya myth:
In AD 775, the Maya lord K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yoat (Fire Burning Sky Lightning God) set up an immense stone monument in the center of his city, Quiriguá, in Izabal, Guatemala. This monument bears the longest single hieroglyphic description of the Maya Creation Myth, noting that it took place on the Maya calendar's day, 4 Ahaw, 8 Kumk’u, a date corresponding to August 13, 3114 BC on our calendar. On that day the creator gods set three stones or mountains in the sky after lifting it with the sacred tree of life, from the dark waters that once covered the primordial world. These three stones formed a cosmic hearth at the center of the universe. The gods then struck divine new fire by means of lightning, which charged the world with new life.
This is the version from the Popol Vuh, which may have absorbed a bit of Christianity:
This is the first account, the first narrative. There was neither man, nor animal, birds, fishes, crabs, trees, stones, caves, ravines, grasses, nor forests; there was only the sky. The surface of the earth had not appeared. There was only the calm sea and the great expanse of the sky. There was nothing brought together, nothing which could make a noise, nor anything which might move, or tremble. There was nothing standing; only the calm water, the placid sea, alone and tranquil. Nothing existed. There was only immobility and silence in the darkness, in the night. Only the creator, the Maker, the Forefathers, were in the water surrounded with light. [...] They conferred about life and light, what they would do so that there would be light and dawn, who it would be who would provide food and sustenance. Thus let it be done! Let the emptiness be filled! Let the water recede and make a void, let the earth appear and become solid; let it be done. Thus they spoke. Let there be light, let there be dawn in the sky and on the earth! There shall be neither glory nor grandeur in our creation and formation until the human being is made, man is formed. [...] First the earth was formed, the mountains and the valleys; the currents of water were divided, the rivulets were running freely between the hills, and the water was separated when the high mountains appeared. Thus was the earth created, when it was formed by the Heart of Heaven, the Heart of Earth, as they are called who first made it fruitful, when the sky was in suspense, and the earth was submerged in the water.
Could the fossils put in graves at Palenque have been seen as proof that the earth was once covered by water? The idea has occurred to many people over the ages, including Leonardo da Vinci and one (I forget which) of the pre-Socratic philosophers. This news story is garbled (machine translated?), but this is what it says:
“During investigation conducted at the North Group temples and the structure in front of them, slabs with marine fossils were used by Mayas as tombstones or offered to deities, which is important in the study of Maya cosmogony”.

Until now, 31 fossils from different periods have been discovered. . . .

“We believe that starting from these probable chance discoveries they began forming the idea of the creation of the world that we know thanks to iconographic representations and hieroglyphic texts left behind, as well as myths that are part of oral tradition”, commented Martha Cuevas.

She added that “according to information from Colonial myths, for Palenque people these fossils were testimonies of land being covered by the sea in ancient times; when gods ordered water to retire, their city emerged and the actual era began. Mayas from Palenque had the notion that the Earth was different thousand years ago, and that the world was mutable, subject of transformation”.

Confirming this would mean that they inferred that marine fossils were important because they referred to the moment of the origin of humanity and were related to death; they believed that when people died they returned to their place of origin.

“The fact of have used fossils in funerary contexts is related with the conception they had about the underworld, as the aquatic destiny they reached after dying”, added up the INAH archaeologist.

Martha Cuevas also mentioned that research includes the study of iconographic representations and hieroglyphic texts found at the site, which, in a way, are related with the fossils.

An example of this is the 14th Tableaux. It represents a scene of the mythic trip to the underworld of the Maya ruler Kan Balam II to a remote epoch, 932,000 years back.

“According to the legend, when Kan Balam II died in 702 AD, his brother and successor K’an Joy Chitam II ordered the creation of this remarkable relief. We can see in the stele a dancing Kan Balam II and his mother, also deceased, Ts’ak Ahaw.

“The bottom of the relief shows 3 levels marked with glyphs that indicate the place where the characters are found; the expressions “nab”, body of water, and “hets’an Kák nab”, calmed sea, refer to the aspect of the world during that mythic age, when everything was water and gods had not ordered land to emerge”.

“Painted on vessels we have found representations of fish species, shark teeth and stingray spines similar to those found in fossils”, she concluded.
That can't be quite right, because the basic creation myth of land being raised from the water is distributed around the world and must be tens of thousands of years old. But I can certainly believe that marine fossils were venerated as signs that the myth was true.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Naming Pluto's New Moon

Ex-planet Pluto is named for the God of the Underworld, and its three previously known moons have gloomy names:

Charon, the ferryman of the dead
Nix, goddess of night and Charon's mother
Hydra, a many-headed monster that guarded an entrance to the underworld

So what to name the newly discovered fourth moon? Something really dark and gloomy and a little frightening?

I suggest "John Boehner."

No Surprises at CERN, or even Physicists are Bored by the LHC Results

The latest from the Large Hadron Collider is disappointing for those of us who hoped it would shake up physics:

When its experiments started in earnest earlier this year, many scientists hoped that the world's most powerful collider would turn up new particles, additional dimensions and perhaps even a small black hole or two. But beyond a handful of unusual events, the latest data from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) are frustratingly ordinary.

Based at CERN, Europe's premier high-energy physics lab near Geneva in Switzerland, the LHC accelerates protons to almost the speed of light before slamming them together to create new, heavier particles. For more than a decade, theorists have hoped that the LHC might be powerful enough to generate previously unseen phenomena that would shake the sturdy standard model of particle physics to its core.

But the latest findings from the machine couldn't raise even a tremor inside the main auditorium of the Alpexpo centre in Grenoble, where scientists gathered last week for the International Europhysics Conference on High Energy Physics. In one session, Helen Hayward, an experimental physicist at the University of Liverpool, UK, flashed her data from the LHC's ATLAS detector onto the screen, along with the standard model's predictions of the particles that should have emerged from the smash-up. Her observations matched the predictions so perfectly that many of the numbers were identical. "You can see that there's good agreement," she said, with a hint of disappointment. She wasn't alone: in talk after talk, analyses followed the standard model's predictions with unwavering fidelity.

There was one exception. On Friday afternoon, groups working on the two main detectors at the LHC presented evidence of a few extra particles corresponding to something new at energies around 140 giga­electronvolts (GeV). For now, physicists are only willing to call them "excess events", but if the signal grows stronger as data accumulates, then it could be a sign of the Higgs boson, a vital component of the mechanism that endows other particles with mass. Since the 1960s, scientists have believed that the Higgs, or something like it, is needed to explain why some particles are heavy and others have no mass at all. The Higgs would also be the key to combining the weak nuclear force -- which governs some forms of nuclear decay -- with the electro­magnetic force, into a single 'electroweak' force. This would see the carriers of the two forces -- the W and Z bosons, and the photon, respectively -- merge into a single entity at high energies.

But even the Higgs is technically part of the standard model. Instead of confirming the status quo, many physicists anticipated that the LHC might point them in new directions. In particular, theorists hoped the accelerator would turn up evidence supporting a theory called supersymmetry, dubbed SUSY, which postulates a shadowy world of heavy particles corresponding to familiar ones. These superparticles could explain dark matter, mysterious cosmic stuff that seems to interact with the visible world only through gravity. SUSY particles would also eliminate troublesome quantum fluctuations that appear in the standard model and threaten to make nonsense of calculations of the Higgs' mass.

Earlier findings had already cast doubt on SUSY (see Nature 471, 13-14; 2011). Now data presented by Hayward and others suggest that superparticles predicted by the most common formulations of SUSY must be heavier than 1,000 GeV. The LHC will probe higher energies as it gathers more data, leaving a chance that it may yet find the superparticles. But even if it did, they would be much too heavy to quell the quantum fluctuations that the theory was originally designed to control. "Supersymmetry is clearly on the ropes," says Rob Roser, a physicist at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois.

So subatomic physics remains stuck at the dead end where it has been since the 1970s. The Standard Model is a very powerful theory, but it is not complete and leaves much unexplained. And it looks like it is the only model we will have for a long time yet.

Leonard Freed

South Carolina, 1963. More here.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Herakles Made Whole

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has finally agreed to return to Turkey the top half of a famous statue of "Weary Herakles." It has been known for twenty years that the two halves go together, and that the story offered by the antiquities dealer from whom the MFA bought the top half was a lie, but excuses were made:

Though there is no documentation detailing the discovery of the MFA’s half, Turkish archeologists say they are sure it was found in the same place - and around the same time - as the lower section of the statue. That place is Perge, a city about 10 miles east of Antalya and, in ancient times, a wealthy center of cultural and political life. Today, Perge is a huge tourist attraction, home to one of the country’s longest-operating archeological sites. Digs have been underway since the 1940s.

It was in 1980 that Turkish archeologists found the southern baths where, in about 15 feet of rubble, lay a dozen statues. One of the discoveries was the bottom section of “Herakles,’’ a Roman statue in eight pieces. The top half was probably in the area at the same time, though it wasn’t spotted by the archeologists, according to Inci Delemen, a professor at Istanbul University and today the deputy director of the Perge excavations. In a recent phone interview, Delemen said that security was lax in those days, and that she suspects one of the crew members found the upper half and hustled it out of the site. It is simply too much of a coincidence that the top half emerged in public in 1981, one year after the discovery of the bottom half, said Delemen.

The MFA purchased the piece in 1981 . . . from a German dealer named Mohammad Yeganeh. As for the top half’s origin, Yeganeh told the collectors that it came from “his mother’s collection and before that from a dealer in Germany about 1950,’’ according to MFA records.

It’s an explanation that has always rung hollow for Delemen and other experts.

I am not normally a huge fan of repatriating every artifact back to its country of origin, but this seems like a clear case to me. The artifact was obviously stolen, and I think the two halves ought to be reunited.

George Packer on the Debt Ceiling Debate

I have written very little about the main issue in America right now because I have nothing to say but pointless, sputtering vituperation. However, let me pass on this bit of wisdom from George Packer:
The sociologist Max Weber, in his 1919 essay “Politics as a Vocation,” drew a distinction between “the ethic of responsibility” and “the ethic of ultimate ends”—between those who act from a sense of practical consequence and those who act from higher conviction, regardless of consequences. These ethics are tragically opposed, but the true calling of politics requires a union of the two. On its own, the ethic of responsibility can become a devotion to technically correct procedure, while the ethic of ultimate ends can become fanaticism. Weber’s terms perfectly capture the toxic dynamic between the President, who takes responsibility as an end in itself, and the Republicans in Congress, who are destructively consumed with their own dogma. Neither side can be said to possess what Weber calls a “leader’s personality.” Responsibility without conviction is weak, but it is sane. Conviction without responsibility, in the current incarnation of the Republican Party, is raving mad.
I don't think that's entirely fair to Obama, who has enough ideology to insist on some sort of tax increase. But I think he nails the contrast between them.

Soda Bottle Light

Via Andrew Sullivan, Liter of Light, a great program bringing light to the dark shanties of third world slums:
When filled with water (with some bleach to keep out the algae) and snugly inserted into custom-cut holes in a roof, plastic bottles refract the sun's rays, scattering about 55 watts of light across a would-be pitch black room. The new lighting source can be rigged up in less than an hour, and it lasts for five years. ... Illac Diaz, the social entrepreneur behind the project, told Reuters that the sustainable and inexpensive light source can boost "the standard of living across the board for the bottom 90 percent of this country." Another woman said she hopes to save 23 dollars per month.
Before cheap window glass and electricity, interior spaces were dark most of the time. In many third world slums people still live that way, because their roofs are made of corrugated metal, the shacks are too close together for windows to let in much light, and electricity is too expensive. But our world is full of transparent materials, and some of them, like plastic soda bottles, are practically free. What a wonderful idea.

Science, Ideology, and Environmentalism

I was just reading a review of a book by an environmentalist who takes other environmentalists to task for being too ideological and not scientific enough. This author thinks his movement needs to be more "pragmatic." This is certainly what I think. Yet as the reviewer notes, this is what most environmentalists think, and they are forever accusing each other of being too ideological and not sufficiently scientific and pragmatic. These words are flexible enough to be used by almost anyone, with any agenda.

Consider nuclear power. This author is pro-nuclear power, and thinks green opposition to nuclear power is ideological and un-pragmatic. But after recent events in Japan, can it really be said that people who don't want nuclear power plants near their houses are being ideological? One thing that pragmatism has to mean for a movement involved in public affairs is understanding what is politically possible; your agenda may be thoroughly rooted in the best available science, but if there is no realistic chance of any nation adopting your recommendations, are you being pragmatic? Opposition to nuclear power has been a huge political plus for environmental and green movements around the world. It is hard to imagine environmentalism having the kind of impact it had in the 1970s without the anti-nuclear crusade. By changing their position on nuclear power, are environmentalists pragmatically responding to the threat of global warming, or are they confounding their message in a way that will cost them massive popular support? Similar arguments can be made about organic food, local food, asbestos removal, and many other little crusades that environmentalists have joined and used despite weak scientific evidence that they make the planet better.

My main gripe about environmentalism has always been the relentless negativity: no, no, no, don't, don't, don't. I think this is a political mistake and also a scientific one, because it underrates both our own inventiveness and the resilience of the planet. Instead of trying to persuade people to accept lower living standards, environmentalists should be looking for efficiencies that will allow us to live better while still polluting less and using less energy. I think this is pragmatic. Might it instead be an ideology, based on a false belief in both what is possible and what people can be persuaded to accept?

Our scientific knowledge of the big ecological systems of the earth -- climate, currents, oxygen and nitrogen cycles, and so on -- is getting better but is still quite primitive. We don't really know how badly we are screwing up the earth or how long the effects will last. I think this is a good reason to be cautious. But is that a scientific position, or an expression of my underlying philosophy?

Everybody's outlook on the world is ultimately moral and irrational. I like peace, fairness, creativity, and freedom, but I cannot offer any real defense of those beliefs. Science and, more broadly, instrumental rationality come into politics at the level of the how, not the what. Science can help us build the sort of world we want, but it cannot tell us what sort of world we should want.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Erdställe: Mystery Tunnels of Bavaria

The weirdest archaeological story of the year:

Beate Greithanner, a dairy farmer, is barefoot as she walks up the lush meadows of the Doblberg, a mountain in Bavaria set against a backdrop of snow-capped Alpine peaks. She stops and points to a hole in the ground. "This is where the cow was grazing," she says. "Suddenly she fell in, up to her hips." A crater had opened up beneath the unfortunate cow. . . .

The Greithanners, from the town of Glonn near Munich, are the owners of a strange subterranean landmark. A labyrinth of vaults known as an "Erdstall" runs underneath their property. It is at least 25 meters (82 feet) long and likely stems from the Middle Ages. Some believe that it was built as a dwelling for helpful goblins.

The geologists and land surveyors who appeared on Greithanner's property at the end of June were determined to get to the bottom of the mystery. Three members of a group called the "Working Group for Erdstall Research," wearing red protective suits and helmets, dragged the heavy concrete plate away from the entrance and disappeared into the depths.

Their leader, Dieter Ahlborn, began by crawling through a passageway only about 70 centimeters (2 foot 3 inches) high. His colleague Andreas Mittermüller had to return to the surface when the lack of oxygen in the tunnel gave him a headache. Ahlborn continued crawling into the space until his lamp revealed a decayed piece of wood.

He picked it up as if it were a precious stone, knowing that it could offer an important clue about the age of the manmade cave. . . .

At least 700 of these chambers have been found in Bavaria alone, along with about 500 in Austria. In the local vernacular, they have fanciful names such as "Schrazelloch" ("goblin hole") or "Alraunenhöhle" ("mandrake cave"). They were supposedly built by elves, and legend has it that gnomes lived inside. According to some sagas, they were parts of long escape tunnels from castles.

In reality, the tunnels are often only 20 to 50 meters long. The larger passageways are big enough so that people can walk through them in a hunched position, but some tunnels are so small that explorers have to get down on all fours. The tiniest passageways, known as "Schlupfe" ("slips"), are barely 40 centimeters (16 inches) in diameter.

A few radiocarbon dating analyses have also been performed, and they indicate that the galleries date back to the 10th to the 13th century. Bits of charcoal recovered from the Erdstall tunnels in Höcherlmühle date back to the period between 950 and 1050 A.D.

The ground beneath the southern German state of Bavaria is literally perforated with these underground mazes -- and no one knows why. . . .

The two main theories are hiding places used to escape from bandits and "gateways to the underworld" used for some sort of spiritual experience. The problem with the hideaway theory is that the tunnels are very narrow, have no rear entrances, and are almost completely empty (if people hid in them with their valuables they would surely have dropped something). The problem with the gateways to the underworld theory is that there is no documentary evidence, and we know rather a lot about medieval religion. More from German Wikipedia.