Sunday, August 30, 2009
In this sense, in a democracy, the ordinary citizen is effectively a king, but a king in a sign measures proposed by the executive. The problem of democratic legitimacy is homologous to the problem of constitutional democracy: how to protect the dignity of the king? How to make it seem that the king effectively decides, when we all know this is not true? What we call the ‘crisis of democracy’ isn’t something that happens when people stop believing in their own power but, on the contrary, when they stop trusting the elites, when they perceive that the throne is empty, that the decision is now theirs. ‘Free elections’ involve a minimal show of politeness when those in power pretend that they do not really hold the power, and ask us to decide freely if we want to grant it to them., a king whose decisions are merely formal, whose function is to
--Slavoj Žižek, Berlusconi in Tehran
The existing system doesn’t just break up families, it also costs lives. A 2004 study by the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, found that lack of health insurance causes 18,000 unnecessary deaths a year. That’s one person slipping through the cracks and dying every half an hour.
In short, it’s a good bet that our existing dysfunctional health system knocks off far more people than an army of “death panels” could — even if they existed, worked 24/7 and got around in a fleet of black helicopters.
So, for those of you inclined to believe the worst about President Obama, think it through. Suppose he is indeed a secret, foreign-born Muslim agent who is scheming to undermine American family values while killing off as many grandmothers as possible.
If all that were true, why on earth would he be trying so hard to reform our health care system? We already know how to prod families into divorce and take a life unnecessarily every 30 minutes — all we need to do is reject reform and stick with exactly what we have.
Saturday, August 29, 2009
My objections to it are 1) it's ugly, and 2) it's completely unlivable. The original owner was a sort of half-mad ascetic who enjoyed the rigor of living in a glass cube. When British magnate Peter Palumbo bought it, mostly as a place to show off his sculpture collection, he made major changes (including curtains) but still found it impossibly uncomfortable to stay in this masterpiece for more than a day or two. And this is the thing that drives me crazy about architects. A house is a place to live, not a sculpture or a statement about artistic values. So as far as I am concerned, a house that nobody wants to live in is a failure, no matter how cool it looks.
And, as we have recently discovered, the house isn't sited very well.
The National Trust is trying to raise money for some kind of flood control, but I have a better idea: let it float away.
Friday, August 28, 2009
The happiest people, in contrast, were those who averaged about two glasses of alcohol per week.Looking for reasons why non-drinkers are more depressed, they offer two: some people don't drink because they are in poor health, and people who don't drink report having fewer friends and going out less.
"We see that this group is less socially well-adjusted than other groups”, Stordal says. “Generally when people are with friends, it is more acceptable in Western societies to drink than not to drink. While the questionnaire recorded non-drinkers’ subjective perception of the situation, a number of other studies also confirm that teetotalers experience some level of social exclusion. ”
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Matt Yglesias puts it this way, analyzing Kennedy's most famous speech:
Its closing line is, I think, crucially important: “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”
I’m never able to express myself nearly that well, but what I take Kennedy to be doing here is trying to offer an alternative to the boom-bust mentality that often overtakes American progressives. There’s a tendency to get extremely wound up with optimism about the imminent dawn of sudden and radical change for the better, and then intensely bitter, cynical, and depressed when that fails to materialize. The reality, however, is that change is hard. That’s not an excuse for the people who stand in its way, it’s the reality. But if you respond to the difficulty of making things better by giving up or getting frustrated, then it only gets harder.
Building a better country and a world is work—hard work—and it’s work that goes on. And on. And on.
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
She has herself, meanwhile, become a best-selling model for many readers, and not, I am sure, only for female ones. She is a person with many friends and many internal and moral and intellectual resources, yet she confesses in the most disarming—and helpful—manner how much the Internet came to her aid, first when her son was killed and second when she discovered that a term had been set on her own life. The importance of this medium in bringing about a great unspoken social reform—the abolition of loneliness—has not to my knowledge been better evoked.Has the internet abolished loneliness?
Monday, August 24, 2009
For months, former Vice President Dick Cheney has said that two documents prepared by the CIA, one from 2004 and the other from 2005, would refute critics of the Bush administration’s torture program. He told Fox’s Sean Hannity in April:The more we know, the more the claims made by Cheney and others about the importance and usefulness of "enhanced interrogation" dissolve into the fog of political war.
“I haven’t talked about it, but I know specifically of reports that I read, that I saw, that lay out what we learned through the interrogation process and what the consequences were for the country,” Cheney said. “I’ve now formally asked the CIA to take steps to declassify those memos so we can lay them out there and the American people have a chance to see what we obtained and what we learned and how good the intelligence was.”
Those documents were obtained today by The Washington Independent and are available here. Strikingly, they provide little evidence for Cheney’s claims that the “enhanced interrogation” program run by the CIA provided valuable information. In fact, throughout both documents, many passages — though several are incomplete and circumstantial, actually suggest the opposite of Cheney’s contention: that non-abusive techniques actually helped elicit some of the most important information the documents cite in defending the value of the CIA’s interrogations.
Despite a major interest in translational research (1-3), development of new, effective medical interventions is difficult. Of 101 very promising claims of new discoveries with clear clinical potential that were made in major basic science journals between 1979 and 1983, only five resulted in interventions with licensed clinical use by 2003 and only one had extensive clinical use (4). Drug discovery faces major challenges (5-8). Moreover, for several interventions supported by high-profile clinical studies, subsequent evidence from larger and/or better studies contradicts their effectiveness or shows smaller benefits (9).This is from one of my skeptical heroes, John Ioannidis, author of the brilliant "Why Most Published Research Findings are False."
Turns out that most of the plastic that goes into the Ocean dissolves. Warm salt water can turn most plastics back into hydrocarbon molecules in a matter of months. While this discovery frees us from the nightmare of the seas getting covered by continent-sized mats of plastic trash, it also means that plastic washing into the sea is just like piplines disgorging chemical waste.
And while I'm on the subject, it's worth pointing out that most of the plastic in the ocean doesn't come from cruise ships or nefarious waste dumpers, it washes in from the land. Litter = chemical pollution of the oceans.
A few researchers are looking again at whether happiness can be bought, and they are discovering that quite possibly it can - it’s just that some strategies are a lot better than others. Taking a friend to lunch, it turns out, makes us happier than buying a new outfit. Splurging on a vacation makes us happy in a way that splurging on a car may not.
“Just because money doesn’t buy happiness doesn’t mean money cannot buy happiness,” says Elizabeth Dunn, a social psychologist and assistant professor at the University of British Columbia. “People just might be using it wrong.”
Dunn and others are beginning to offer an intriguing explanation for the poor wealth-to-happiness exchange rate: The problem isn’t money, it’s us. For deep-seated psychological reasons, when it comes to spending money, we tend to value goods over experiences, ourselves over others, things over people. When it comes to happiness, none of these decisions are right: The spending that make us happy, it turns out, is often spending where the money vanishes and leaves something ineffable in its place.
Another part of the equation shows up in the value of vacations and other adventures. When daily life gets dreary, it is great to have something different to look forward to, or something special to remember. One study I read showed that going to a new restaurant made married couples much happier than going to one they'd been to before. We need variety in our lives, and when we spend money to get it, we may be doing ourselves a lot of good.
Saturday, August 22, 2009
The lowly appendix, long-regarded as a useless evolutionary artifact, won newfound respect two years ago when researchers at Duke University Medical Center proposed that it actually serves a critical function. The appendix, they said, is a safe haven where good bacteria could hang out until they were needed to repopulate the gut after a nasty case of diarrhea, for example.I wonder how I missed this news when it first came out.
And so it still is. This is what the Wilderness Battlefield looks like:
I took more pictures, but except for the ones of monuments they all look exactly like this. There is no point from which you can see anything or get any sense of how the battle unfolded. It's just mile after mile of woods. This makes for an unsatisfying experience as a visitor, but on the other hand I suppose it gives one a faint sense of what the place was like for the men who fought there. Just like them, I was wandering in a confusing woodland where all directions looked the same, not knowing who would have been going in which direction or why.
And then home through even worse traffic, not getting back until eight hours after I left. At least I had a good book to listen to along the way.
Thursday, August 20, 2009
LightsabersWhich brings me to the topic of how many science fiction plots turn on finding ways to make the technology not work. Surely by 2300 we will have self-aiming guns that never miss, but Star Wars, Star Trek, and tons of other sci-fi stories still feature guys blazing away with cool looking weapons that turn out to be a lot less effective than an AK-47. Lisa and I are always laughing at the number of different ways the Star Trek: Next Generation writers have found to keep their sensor array from working when they really need it. It's the niobium in the rocks! It's the magnetic storms! But at least the Enterprise has a sensor array, putting its crew at a distinct advantage to the poor slobs of Alien and Aliens, who are reduced to sort of peering around ineffectually whenever they encounter clouds or darkness.
Yes, I know, I want one too. But I tell you what: I want one with a hand guard. Otherwise every lightsaber battle would consist of sabers clashing and then their owners sliding as quickly as possible down the shaft to lop off their opponent's fingers. You say: Lightsabers can slice through anything but another lightsaber, so what are you going to make a hand guard out of? I say: Dude, if you have the technology to make a lightsaber, you have the technology to make a light hand guard.
A tactical nightmare: They're incredibly loud, especially for firing what are essentially light beams. The fire ordnance is so slow it can be dodged, and it comes out as a streak of light that reveals your position to your enemies. Let's not even go near the idea of light beams being slow enough to dodge; that's just something you have let go of, or risk insanity.
It is impossible for Britain and its allies to build an Afghan state. They have no clear picture of this promised ‘state’, and such a thing could come only from an Afghan national movement, not as a gift from foreigners. Is a centralised state, in any case, an appropriate model for a mountainous country, with strong traditions of local self-government and autonomy, significant ethnic differences, but strong shared moral values? And even were stronger central institutions to emerge, would they assist Western national security objectives? Afghanistan is starting from a very low base: 30 years of investment might allow its army, police, civil service and economy to approach the levels of Pakistan. But Osama bin Laden is still in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. He chooses to be there precisely because Pakistan can be more assertive in its state sovereignty than Afghanistan and restricts US operations. From a narrow (and harsh) US national security perspective, a poor failed state could be easier to handle than a more developed one: Yemen is less threatening than Iran, Somalia than Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan than Pakistan.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
I have a question about aquaculture. There are big areas of the ocean where there isn't much life of any kind, especially in the central Pacific. And the reason there isn't much life is that there aren't sufficient minerals in the water, especially iron, for the algae that start the food chain. What I wonder is, why can't find some way to disperse iron and other minerals into the water in these locations, starting our own food chains?
Everybody knows that some parts of the ocean are much more productive than others, again, largely because of the mineral content of the water. Why can't we change that?
I really don't know if this is feasible or not.
Monday, August 17, 2009
The waves were just big enough to bob on. This was perfect for Clara, who is still too scared of big waves to go in the ocean, and my sons managed to have plenty of fun without breakers to ride. Boys will be boys:
Since this is my general attitude to the problem, I find it very interesting that women in the American military are increasingly doing the same things as men, and facing the same risks, without anyone making much of a fuss over it. The kind of conservatives who go crazy about the minor changes embodied in Obama's health care proposals are mostly silent about women carrying guns and getting killed in combat. Where, I wonder, are the fundamentalists on this one? Aren't female soldiers a bigger violation of Old Testament norms than limits on medical tests?
But the changes go on, and I can't remember the last time I heard an important politician say anything about them. Right now about 1 in 20 of the soldiers in our front-line Iraqi bases is a woman. The attitude of American officers seems to be pretty much my attitude toward the whole problem of breaking down gender barriers, that is, the problems involved are only what would expect from any major organizational change. It probably helps that the female soldiers aren't exactly shrinking violets. From a piece in today's NY Times:
I think the lack of any political opposition to women serving in combat reflects two major changes that have taken place in America. First, the military has become a career path full of specialists, not a trial of manhood for all the males in the population. Second, most Americans have accepted that some women can do almost anything a man can do, and that if women can so something, it is just wrong to keep them from doing it.
Staff Sgt. Patricia F. Bradford, 27, a psychological operations soldier, said that slights, subtle and not, were common, and some were easier to brush off than others. Women are still viewed derisively at times in the confined, occasionally tense space of an outpost like Warhorse.
“You’re a bitch, a slut or a dyke — or you’re married, but even if you’re married, you’re still probably one of the three,” Sergeant Bradford said.
At the same time, she and other female soldiers cope with the slights, showing a disarming brashness.
“I think being a staff sergeant — and a bitch — helps deflect those things,” she added.The issues that arise in having women in combat — harassment, bias, hardship, even sexual relations — are, she and others said, a matter of discipline, maturity and professionalism rather than an argument for separating the sexes.
Sunday, August 16, 2009
All of which raises the question, why were the Orkneys such a good place to live in the Neolithic, when they are such a lousy place to live now?
Below, the Standing Stones of Stenness, which are very close to the new dig site.
This is eerie:
A LARGE satellite galaxy may be lurking, hidden from view, next door to our own.
Sukanya Chakrabarti and Leo Blitz of the University of California, Berkeley, suspected that the gravity of a nearby galaxy was causing perturbations that have been observed in gas on the fringes of the Milky Way. "We did a large range of simulations where we varied the mass of the perturber and the distance of closest approach," says Chakrabarti. In the best-fitting simulation, the unseen galaxy has about 1 per cent of the Milky Way's mass, or 10 billion times the mass of the sun.
That's a lot. It means the object has roughly the same mass as the Milky Way's brightest satellite galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC).
Right now, says Chakrabarti, the galaxy is roughly 300,000 light years away from us - about twice as far away as the LMC. But the simulations suggest it follows a highly elongated elliptical path, and about 300 million years ago it swept through our own galaxy just 16,000 light years from the galactic centre - closer in than Earth - disturbing the Milky Way's outskirts as it went.
In the early 1950s, Republicans referred to the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman as "20 years of treason" and accused the men who led the fight against fascism of deliberately surrendering the free world to communism. Mainline Protestants published a new translation of the Bible in the 1950s that properly rendered the Greek as connoting a more ambiguous theological status for the Virgin Mary; right-wingers attributed that to, yes, the hand of Soviet agents. And Vice President Richard Nixon claimed that the new Republicans arriving in the White House "found in the files a blueprint for socializing America."
When John F. Kennedy entered the White House, his proposals to anchor America's nuclear defense in intercontinental ballistic missiles -- instead of long-range bombers -- and form closer ties with Eastern Bloc outliers such as Yugoslavia were taken as evidence that the young president was secretly disarming the United States. Thousands of delegates from 90 cities packed a National Indignation Convention in Dallas, a 1961 version of today's tea parties; a keynote speaker turned to the master of ceremonies after his introduction and remarked as the audience roared: "Tom Anderson here has turned moderate! All he wants to do is impeach [Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl] Warren. I'm for hanging him!"
Before the "black helicopters" of the 1990s, there were right-wingers claiming access to secret documents from the 1920s proving that the entire concept of a "civil rights movement" had been hatched in the Soviet Union; when the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act was introduced, one frequently read in the South that it would "enslave" whites. And back before there were Bolsheviks to blame, paranoids didn't lack for subversives -- anti-Catholic conspiracy theorists even had their own powerful political party in the 1840s and '50s.
The instigation is always the familiar litany: expansion of the commonweal to empower new communities, accommodation to internationalism, the heightened influence of cosmopolitans and the persecution complex of conservatives who can't stand losing an argument. My personal favorite? The federal government expanded mental health services in the Kennedy era, and one bill provided for a new facility in Alaska. One of the most widely listened-to right-wing radio programs in the country, hosted by a former FBI agent, had millions of Americans believing it was being built to intern political dissidents, just like in the Soviet Union.
FORT WORTH — Onstage before thousands of believers weighed down by debt and economic insecurity, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland and their all-star lineup of “prosperity gospel” preachers delighted the crowd with anecdotes about the luxurious lives they had attained by following the Word of God.One of the things I find fascinating about our species is the way we like to turn our innate impulses upside down and assign spiritual value to not doing what comes naturally. Nothing is more natural to us than eating, so no spiritual practice is more widespread than fasting. The desire to acquire status and wealth is widespread and strong, so societies around the world assign spiritual value to voluntary poverty. Admiration of those who can renounce the world is common. And yet renunciation is, after all, very difficult, especially since it leads to being lorded over by those who haven't renounced anything. So even where renunciation is a common and much praised choice -- India, medieval Europe -- it exists in a twisted relationship with societies devoted to material gain.
Private airplanes and boats. A motorcycle sent by an anonymous supporter. Vacations in Hawaii and cruises in Alaska. Designer handbags. A ring of emeralds and diamonds.
“God knows where the money is, and he knows how to get the money to you,” preached Mrs. Copeland, dressed in a crisp pants ensemble like those worn by C.E.O.’s.Even in an economic downturn, preachers in the “prosperity gospel” movement are drawing sizable, adoring audiences. Their message — that if you have sufficient faith in God and the Bible and donate generously, God will multiply your offerings a hundredfold — is reassuring to many in hard times.
Which leads me back to the prosperity gospel. This is based on flat-out abandoning the contrary parts of Christian teaching and equating religious values with those of the marketplace. Last will be first, my ass -- make me rich now! Its followers are people who don't want complexity in their moral worlds. They want everything to line up nicely. For them there is no dark side to money, which, after all, buys nice things like cars and boats and designer handbags. They see nothing wrong in wanting to be rich, and they don't understand why God would see anything wrong about it, either. It is, in its way, a very cheerful and optimistic faith. It does not wrestle with either religious questions like why God would give cancer to his most devoted followers or economic questions like whether the prosperity of some is based on the misery of others toiling in sweat shops. It simply lines up everything good on one side and everything bad on the other and urges us to seek God's help in getting the good.
Obviously, not everyone feels the spiritual pull of renunciation. And if you simply don't understand why not having is better than having, why not invent a religion that expresses your view of the world?
Saturday, August 15, 2009
Friday, August 14, 2009
IS the 1955 Donnell Library on West 53rd Street a rare piece of midcentury Modernism? Or an empty suit of expressionless masonry?You have to ask?
Writing in his column in The New Yorker in 1956, Lewis Mumford likened it to the careful, ordered facade of a high Renaissance palazzo, but one “cleansed of ornament.” For Mumford that was not necessarily a negative, but he found the “cheerless” Donnell a design of “assiduous anonymity.” The library, he wrote, “has very little to say, and is content with not saying it.”I hear it saying, "go away, you insignificant mortal, and live out your brief existence in misery."
Thursday, August 13, 2009
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
For me, the strangest thing about the news of nukes in Burma is that I first heard it in January -- from a seemingly average guy on the street in Burma.
"During my two weeks of travel around Burma, many people would come up to me when no one was looking, start with a few friendly words, then progress into a series of terrible stories about their government: beatings, arbitrary taxation, health care withheld from pregnant women, children forced into the military, monks who were taken by police and never seen again. . . .
"A few stories seemed at first to be possible paranoia, but I eventually started believing them:
"Your rickshaw driver is a spy"
"That seemed unlikely since he was a very poor looking guy, and why would they care about me? But a shop keeper pointed out-- That guy speaks some English, so why can't he get a better job? I've lived in this town all my life, I know every rickshaw driver, and I've never seen this one until recently. . . . I sometimes see drivers like this with radios, talking to the police. . . . They are spies who report what foreigners are saying and where they are going. They rotate between different cities so that people won't recognize them. I would never speak to you while he is nearby. . . .
"The government is buying nuclear weapons from North Korea"
"A guy in his 50's came up to me on the street and started telling some of the same stories of oppression that I had heard from so many other people. He went on to say that the government is very rich from its monopoly on of the country's natural resources, and the money is used to buy weapons. "The government is buying so many weapons, but which country is their enemy? The people are their enemy." He went on to say that the government is now trying to buy nuclear weapons from North Korea. How could a seemingly average guy on the street know something like that? Wouldn't it be a closely guarded secret? I dismissed it a paranoid rumor, until Hillary Clinton said the same thing six months later.
"Another unexpected thing I heard was "I like George Bush". In January 2009 that was an unlikely statement anywhere in the world. I didn't hear it often in Burma, but more than once. The reason was simply that he had invaded Iraq and taken out an oppressive government. Another person asked "Why can't America do that to our government? You can just use those planes with no pilots that you fly over Pakistan." (Of course, this could have the same result as in Iraq, since Burma is similarly composed of people with a history of fighting each other.) I've traveled a fair amount and Burma is certainly the only place I've been where people would suggest, with a glimmer of hope, maybe America will attack our country."
I just love this stuff. You can have your canvases covered with paint splashes or acres of muddy black the represent subscious pain, your cute concept art that comments on socially relevant themes. Give me a grand spectacle of myth or ancient times, charged with the erotic force of fate, time and longing. Give me Waterhouse, Alma-Tadema, the Pre-Raphaelites.
There is a certain pleasure in being against the times, the smug superiority of feeling that your own tastes are better than other people's. But there are also real advantages to having allies in important places, who bring the things you like to the forefront. I find that this is increasingly happening for me in art galleries, in academic history departments, and even on television. Now if only we could talk some sense into the architects.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
The procedure in question is vertebroplasty, which is the treatment of a cracked vertebra by the surgical injection of acrylic cement into the spine. Cracked vertebrae are common in older people with osteoporosis, and they can be extremely painful and take years to fully heal. So when, in the 1990s, this procedure seemed to offer real help to many patients, it took off. There were always hints that it might not be all it seemed, for example, the amount of cement used and the way it was applied seemed to have no effect on how well it worked. Plus any doctor who works with back pain knows how fundamentally mysterious it is, coming and going without much explanation.
Now the New England Journal of Medicine has published two studies rigorously comparing the procedure to a placebo and finding no difference. From the abstract of one of the studies:
Vertebroplasty did not result in a significant advantage in any measured outcome at any time point. There were significant reductions in overall pain in both study groups at each follow-up assessment.As the RI blogger points out, the placebo effect from bogus surgery is often the most powerful kind of placebo. An added argument here is that the author of one of these studies was one of the pioneers of the procedure, who began the trials with the conviction that he would be vindicated:
Dr. Kallmes, who helped develop vertebroplasty and has been performing it for 15 years, said his team was "shocked at the results." Shock is understandable. As had been pointed out in both papers, vertebroplasty had become the standard of care for the treatment of vertebral compression fractures. Medicare and insurance companies had, on the basis of unblinded studies, begun to reimburse for the procedure.All credit to Dr. Kallmes, who has performed that very difficult feat of admitting in public that he was wrong, not to mention cutting himself off from a big source of revenue. (Memo to cynics: yes, people really are capable of taking scientific positions that are against their own personal and professional interests.) Science is supposed to work that way, and, what do you know, it has.
Now comes the hard part, which is getting the medical system to respond to the new information. Dr. Kallmes has shown the way, but will others follow? One of the study authors suggests that maybe the procedure should be continued even if it doesn't work, because the placebo effect is so strong, which causes RI to remark, "A $3000 placebo?" Here is his conclusion:
Here's my prediction. These studies will not be enough to change practice, at least not in the short term. I wish I could say otherwise, but I can't. A procedure as well embedded into the standard of care and as profitable as vertebroplasty is won't disappear overnight or without a fight. Less mercenary, vertebral compression fractures are a serious problem for which other treatment options (bed rest, pain killers, and back braces while the fractures heal) are both slow and not palatable to patients or physicians, who want immediate results. However, unlike CAM [alternative medicine] practitioners, eventually physicians will yield to the weight of the negative evidence. There may be a few more studies, and it's even possible that there may be found a subgroup of patients who actually do benefit from vertebroplasty, but eventually the procedure will either be abandoned or scaled back to patients who might actually benefit from it. The process may be far messier than we would like. It may take far longer than we would like. It may even take a turnover to a new generation of physicians for the process to be complete. But, make no mistake, science will eventually win out.
If it doesn't, then we are no better than the homeopaths.
Monday, August 10, 2009
Thomas (12) has started running a game for his friends. This is his first gaming map, preserved here for posterity:
And Ben (6), although he doesn't run a game, has also drawn a map of his own world:
Sunday, August 9, 2009
Not every man has gentians in his house
in soft September, at slow, sad Michaelmas.
Bavarian gentians, big and dark, only dark
darkening the daytime, torch-like with the smoking blueness of Pluto's gloom,
ribbed and torch-like, with their blaze of darkness spread blue
down flattening into points, flattened under the sweep of white day
torch-flower of the blue-smoking darkness, Pluto's dark blue daze,
black lamps from the halls of Dis, burning dark blue,
giving off darkness, blue darkness, as Demeter's pale lamps give off light,
lead me then, lead the way.
Reach me a gentian, give me a torch!
let me guide myself with the blue, forked torch of this flower
down the darker and darker stairs, where blue is darkened on blueness
even where Persephone goes, just now, from the frosted September
to the sightless realm where darkness is awake upon the dark
and Persephone herself is but a voice
or a darkness invisible enfolded in the deeper dark
of the arms Plutonic, and pierced with the passion of dense gloom,
among the splendour of torches of darkness, shedding darkness on the lost bride and her groom.
Saturday, August 8, 2009
Since America is going to continue in the directions they fear -- less dominated by whites, less rural, more international, more bureaucratic -- I don't know what can be done to ease the fears and hatreds of these people. In the short term there is nothing to do but outvote them and try to take care of their real needs, like health care, and hope that most of them can become accustomed to the 21st century world.
--Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book
Friday, August 7, 2009
Apollo depended on hundreds of such teams working separately to create its many completely unprecedented systems. Nobody had ever built a craft that could land on another world and then blast back into orbit, a ship that could keep men alive for weeks in space, or a space suit that could be worn while walking on the moon. The men who did these things loved what they did. They reveled in their importance, and they poured their hearts and minds into their work. I remember a story from the memoirs of one of the Apollo astronauts. The night before launch he was walking around the launch complex when he was challenged by a technician who was working late, checking and rechecking every component of the launch computers. When the astronaut had explained who he was, the technician said, "if anything goes wrong tomorrow, it won't be because of my system." The astronaut realized, he said, that flying to the moon was only possible because hundreds of men had the same dedication to engineering perfection. If the mission failed, it wouldn't be because of them.
Until World War I, scientists were almost universally portrayed in America and Europe as ridiculous eggheads doing pointless things. But the technological progress of the twentieth century brought scientists and engineers to the forefront of competition between nations. When World War II came, all the combatants marshaled their scientists into teams more important than any combat division, and the scientists went to work designing stronger armor, more powerful guns, deeper-diving submarines, faster airplanes, sonar, radar, and eventually the atomic bomb. Those fearful mushroom clouds sealed the ascent of scientists to the pinnacle of military power.
When Kennedy sought a non-military way to challenge the Soviets, he turned again to science, announcing his bold plan to put a man on the moon and bring him safely back to earth. Once again the power and prestige of the nation was placed in the hands of the men with slide rules and pocket protectors. I have always been struck by the assertive nerdiness of those men. They made the clothes that looked ridiculous to hippies and hepcats into proud uniforms of intellectual power. You may think we are losers, their attitude said, but we can blow up the world or send a man to the moon, and you can't. Although what they did was in some ways extraordinarily bold, they went about their work with caution and precision. Every drawing was checked and checked again and reviewed by committee after committee. Every part was tested, tested, and tested again. The missions went step by step, each one a little farther into space, a little closer to the moon.
In this picture, the engineers at Mission Control celebrate the successful splashdown of the Apollo 11 crew, July 24, 1969. I celebrate them and their achievement. Apollo 11 was as much as anything the epitome of brainpower, and they supplied the brains.
Terry Pratchett publishes a manifesto on the right to die:
I write this as someone who has, regrettably, become famous for having Alzheimer's. Although being famous is all the rage these days, it's fame I could do without.
I know enough to realise there will not be a cure within my lifetime and I know the later stages of the disease can be very unpleasant. Indeed, it's the most feared disease among the over-65s.
Naturally, I turn my attention to the future. . . .
I am enjoying my life to the full, and hope to continue for quite some time. But I also intend, before the endgame looms, to die sitting in a chair in my own garden with a glass of brandy in my hand and Thomas Tallis on the iPod - the latter because Thomas's music could lift even an atheist a little bit closer to Heaven - and perhaps a second brandy if there is time.
Oh, and since this is England I had better add: 'If wet, in the library.'
Who could say that is bad? Where is the evil here?
Kung Fu Panda, the 2008 cartoon hit, provides the basic co-ordinates for understanding the ideological situation I have been describing. The fat panda dreams of becoming a kung fu warrior. He is chosen by blind chance (beneath which lurks the hand of destiny, of course), to be the hero to save his city, and succeeds. But the film’s pseudo-Oriental spiritualism is constantly undermined by a cynical humour. The surprise is that this continuous making-fun-of-itself makes it no less spiritual: the film ultimately takes the butt of its endless jokes seriously. A well-known anecdote about Niels Bohr illustrates the same idea. Surprised at seeing a horseshoe above the door of Bohr’s country house, a visiting scientist said he didn’t believe that horseshoes kept evil spirits out of the house, to which Bohr answered: ‘Neither do I; I have it there because I was told that it works just as well if one doesn’t believe in it!’ This is how ideology functions today: nobody takes democracy or justice seriously, we are all aware that they are corrupt, but we practise them anyway because we assume they work even if we don’t believe in them.
Thursday, August 6, 2009
New experiments by Oxford University scientists reveal that New Caledonian crows can spontaneously use up to three tools in the correct sequence to achieve a goal, something never before observed in non-human animals without explicit training. Sequential tool use has often been interpreted as evidence for advanced cognitive abilities, such as planning and analogical reasoning, but this has never been explicitly examined. . . .
In their new study, the scientists tested seven captive New Caledonian crows on a range of tasks requiring the use of up to three different tools in a sequence to retrieve food. Five crows successfully used tools in a sequence (four from their very first trial), and four repeatedly solved the most demanding three-tool condition. In this, food was placed at a depth so that it was only reachable with one particular tool, but getting that tool required the use of two other others. The crows had to use a short, available tool to drag in a longer, otherwise out-of-reach tool, and then use that longer tool to retrieve the correct, longest one. They could then use the longest tool to reach for the food morsel.
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
All of which I think is pretty cool.
But back in Maine -- on Thursday my brother arrived at my sister's place on the busy, stylish part of the island (Northeast Harbor). I took several children over. We went sea kayaking, my sister taking Clara in her boat, me taking Ben, and Robert and Thomas in a boat together. Robert had never steered before, and we later discovered that his boat had a balky rudder, so he had lots of trouble. Of course he blamed Thomas, and they proceeded to squabble and shout there way across the harbor, paddling in circles. I took pictures which I assure you were both poignant and hilarious but lost them when I dropped my camera in the harbor. :-(
Friday I went on a great hike with my brother and my 18-year-old niece, who walks a great deal faster than I do. We went up the Beehive, a famous steep hike with lots of iron ladders. We were there at 8 AM and went up with no trouble. Getting there early is important, because this is such a popular hike that by 10 the trail is clogged with people struggling up very slowly. We descended the other side of the hill on a more gradual slope down to a pond called The Bowl, where we watched huge tadpoles and schools of minnows swim in the crystal clear water. Then we went up another mountain the name of which escapes me. Back at my sister's we divided into kayaks for a paddle of over a mile across the harbor to Little Cranberry Island. I was with Mary in the kayak with the balky rudder, and we took such a twisting course that we added at least half a mile to the route. I arrived quite tired. And then had to paddle back.
Meanwhile, Lisa had Clara and the boys and went to the Sand Beach, where they played in the water.
Saturday we headed home via our friends David and Lori's house in Acton, Massachusetts. We were early and our children were restless, so we went to Concorde and stopped by the North Bridge unit of the battlefield. There, on April 19, 1775, American militia were first ordered to fire on British troops, beginning a battle that lasted for hours as Americans harassed the British retreat. We tried to impress a little of the history on our unruly brood but for them it was mainly a sunny place to run and play. One thing I love about my children is how much fun they can have with just an open place to run in.
We played Pooh Sticks on the North Bridge. (Terminological note: Pooh Sticks is what this game seems to be called, but I invented it myself as a child without ever reading A.A. Milne, as no doubt have thousands of other children, since it is a perfectly obvious thing to do, so I don't much care for the name. Pooh has no claim on this game. But I suppose it has to be called something.)
We ran in the field. We climbed a tree. Our sons roughhoused.
And I, at least, spent a while looking at the spot and thinking about what happened there 234 years ago. It was one of the most fun parts of the trip, an absolutely delightful hour.
But what about this comment from the study's lead scientist:
If replicated by larger studies the significance of these findings cannot be underestimated. The suggestion of a clear structural deficit in the brains of psychopaths has profound implications for clinicians, research scientists and the criminal justice system.I wonder. What does knowing that psychopaths have damaged brains have to do with how we act toward them, or how we treat them in court?
So far as I can tell, we are what our brains do. It stands to reason, therefore, that most differences between people reflect some sort of difference in our brains. At some level, I imagine, the brains of nice people are different from those of mean people, those of smart people from those of stupid people, those of the musically talented from those with tin ears. I'm not saying that these differences are simple or even consistent, but what, other than differences in our brains, could cause differences between how people think and act?
So how is saying that people's brains are not the same different from saying that people are not the same? How is saying that someone has a psychopathic brain different from saying that someone is a psychopath?
Sunday, August 2, 2009
But even without access to my blog I think about how I will write on it, so I have been journaling in my head all week, and taking pictures. Here, late, is my account of the 2009 Bedell family vacation.
We -- me, Lisa, Robert, Thomas, Ben, and Clara -- drove up, a 14-hour trek. Lisa's mother Carole and our daughter Mary flew up to Portland and joined us on Mount Desert Island in a rented black sports car that Mary dubbed the Batmobile. (Na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na Carole!) On the first day, Friday, July 24, we drove to Cambridge, Massachusetts and stayed with my mother, who fed us dinner. On Saturday we drove to Mount Desert Island along the coastal route through a long string of charming towns. Every time we do this Lisa and I fantasize about coming up this way without our children to stay in one of the amazing bed and breakfasts, explore these towns and enjoy each other, but so far this remains a dream. We spent about 20 minutes sitting in a traffic jam that turned out to be caused by a moose peacefully munching moose moss about fifty yards from the road, looking so much like a moose that everyone driving by had to stop and take a picture.
We arrived at our house around 5 PM. We stayed at the same place we stayed last time, a charming but decrepit little house called the Lyford Cottage. This is a long way from the more exciting and stylish parts of the island, in the town of Tremont near Bass Harbor. The house is on the ocean and has a wonderful view across a little body of water called Duck Cove, where there are always ducks, which is as it should be and pleases me to no end. Sometimes there are loons that wake us in the middle of the night with their mad singing. The house is slowly declining into a pile of lumber, aided by armies of carpenter ants. It has about enough hot water for half a shower or a third of a bath, the kitchen is fairly primitive, the beds are decidedly primitive, there's no heat, and when it is cold and wet out it is cold and wet inside, too. And, as I said, no internet. But it does have a resident squirrel.
When we arrived the whole island was shrouded in fog and all we could see looking across the cove was more fog.
It was damp and chilly both Sunday and Monday. Undeterred, I dragged my children up Beech Mountain on Sunday and Acadia Mountain on Monday.
The "mountains" on Mount Desert Island are really hills, but they have steep sides that make for rigorous hiking and they are bare on top, so you can experience hiking above the tree line and still get back in time for a nice lobster lunch in Bar Harbor. It's a very civilized sort of ruggedness. We also went tidepooling at a place called Seawall where the low tide leaves an acre or so of lovely little pools full of seaweed, mussels, snails, limpets, and sometimes other things like crabs, hermit crabs, and fish.
Tuesday was a brilliant, sunny day and I celebrated by talking Robert and Thomas into undertaking a 5-mile hike with me up 1373-foot Sargent Mountain. This brought home to me how much older and fatter I am than the last time I tried such a hike, I guess about five years ago. Thomas keeps saying that I tried to kill him and that he will never go hiking with me again. It was hard and we ran out of water, but it was also beautiful and exhilirating. Walking on top of any of Mount Desert's mountains is like walking in the sky, with a glorious post card world spread out beneath.
Wednesday we went whale watching. Unfortunately the fog was back, so we steamed off into a cloud where, I thought, finding a whale was about as likely as finding a mermaid. It didn't matter to Lisa and me. We just love the thrill of riding one of those big steel catamarans across the ocean at 32 knots, soaring over the swells and plunging into the troughs, salt spray in the wind that whips across our faces. As it turns out we did see a whale, a juvenile humpback who surfaced, gave up a flick of his tail flukes, and then dove out of sight, such a brief encounter that they decided it didn't fulfill the guarantee of seeing whales and gave us vouchers for a free trip another time. One of the good things about being married to Lisa is that in two or three years when we go back she will be able to find them.