Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Nastiness Pays

David Segal at the NY Times chronicles a merchant who makes money by treating his customers rudely so that they will complain about him:

“Hello, My name is Stanley with DecorMyEyes.com,” the post began. “I just wanted to let you guys know that the more replies you people post, the more business and the more hits and sales I get. My goal is NEGATIVE advertisement.”

It’s all part of a sales strategy, he said. Online chatter about DecorMyEyes, even furious online chatter, pushed the site higher in Google search results, which led to greater sales. He closed with a sardonic expression of gratitude: “I never had the amount of traffic I have now since my 1st complaint. I am in heaven.”

That would sound like schoolyard taunting but for this fact: The post is two years old. Between then and now, hundreds of additional tirades have been tacked to Get Satisfaction, ComplaintsBoard.com, ConsumerAffairs.com and sites like them.

Not only has this heap of grievances failed to deter DecorMyEyes, but as Ms. Rodriguez’s all-too-cursory Google search demonstrated, the company can show up in the most coveted place on the Internet’s most powerful site.

Which means the owner of DecorMyEyes might be more than just a combustible bully with a mean streak and a potty mouth. He might also be a pioneer of a new brand of anti-salesmanship — utterly noxious retail — that is facilitated by the quirks and shortcomings of Internet commerce and that tramples long-cherished traditions of customer service, like deference and charm.

The Basic Conservative Idea

David Brooks shows us in two sentences why, even though he regularly supports the Democrats on particular issues, he thinks of himself as a conservative:
The fact that we live our lives amid order and not chaos is the great achievement of civilization. This order should not be taken for granted.
My thoughts on this particular issue would go something like: the great achievement of civilization is to achieve a balance of order and personal freedom. The order we live with is not nearly as precarious as certain conservatives like to imagine; on the contrary, our experience is that social order can survive all sorts of terrible shocks and rebounds quickly even when it has been nearly destroyed. The real threats to order include not only new things, like anarchist terrorism and genetic technology, but ancient problems like the inequality of wealth, militarism, religious fanaticism, and alcohol. Therefore it is foolish to be nervous about every change because it might unbalance the world and plunge us into anarchy. The concerns of freedom and order always need to be balanced against each other. Our world demands creativity and flexibility as much as obedience and control, and we should consider how best to find this balance in all our important decisions.

Brooks would probably agree with what I just wrote; as with most people in our society, our political opinions are not really that far apart. But in choosing to emphasize the threat to order inherent in rather trivial events like the WikiLeaks document dump (the subject of his essay), he shows which side he lines up on.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Bone Church

Sedlec Ossuary, Kutna Hora, Czech Republic. The ossuary chapel dates to around 1400, but the current arrangement of the bones was made in 1870 by František Rint, a woodcarver and, one imagines, a very strange man.


For another cool ossuary see here.

Ancient Salt Mining

If you eat a mostly grain diet, as many poor farmers have from the neolithic to today, you must have extra salt to survive. Neither wheat, corn, nor rice gives you anything like the amount of salt people need. I am not sure how people discovered this, but salt is one thing you can crave, so perhaps it was just that when people started eating a lot of bread and porridge they started craving salt. Because salt was crucial for life but not available everywhere, it was valuable. Salt mining on a large scale has now been dated to before 4500 BC in Azerbaijan, on the basis of stone tools found in ancient mines. Exploitation of these mines was intense by 3500 BC; numerous tools and potsherds dating to that period have been found. The salt mines of Switzerland seem to be about as old, although I believe the oldest certain date from those mines is around 4000 BC. The picture above shows a famous salt operation in Peru, where hot salty water rising from a mountain spring is allowed to evaporate in special terraces.

Since salt is something people had to have but often could not make for themselves, governments across Eurasia have collected salt taxes from the date or our earliest written records.

The Nose

Coraline, our mongrel, is a nose dog. Compared to other dogs I have known she spends much more time with her nose to the ground and much less with her head up, looking around. I have doubts about her vision; she can see motion readily, but a couple of times she has walked right by deer that were standing very still 50 or 60 yards away. But there is no doubting her nose.

Yesterday afternoon she did again a thing that fascinates me. Walking down our usual trail through the woods, she suddenly stopped and started sniffing. Then she moved to the woods along one side of the trail and began to trot back and forth, nose to the ground. Her excitement steadily increasing, she narrowed the search until she found the trail, then she loped off along it. This took, I would say, 15 or 20 seconds. Once she had found the trail there was no more side-to-side movement, just a straight jog down the scent path. Seeing her coming, the deer sprang from their shelter and ran before her, white tails flashing. (At least, the two deer designated to run from dogs this time sprang up and ran.) Coraline accelerated to pursuit speed and disappeared into the forest, returning five minutes later flecked with foam.

She lives in a different world than I do, a world full of identifiable smells and crisscrossed by the trails of animals and people. She knows when deer are near without ever seeing them; you can see her shift into alert mode, full of energy and sniffing all around. Often she does not find a trail, and so she only sniffs, but when we do cross a trail she always follows it. Sometimes she gives up quickly, I suppose because she has decided the trail is too old to bother with. When it is not, she becomes a hunter.

FBI Agents Concoct Bomb Plot, Claim Credit for Foiling It

Mohamed Osman Mohamud did not "plot to set off a bomb at a Christmas-tree-lighting ceremony in downtown Portland." He had only a vague daydream of terrorism until some FBI agents found out about his violent fantasies and offered to supply him with a car bomb. He was no threat to anyone, because he had neither the money and knowledge to make a large bomb nor the connections to get one from anyone else. He was the victim of an FBI trolling operation; apparently these days they have agents around all the radical mosques dangling the possibility of terrorist help in front of angry young men, seeing who will bite. Nothing wrong with that, but there is something wrong with describing this as a "foiled plot," as if there were any danger that anyone would actually die.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Tom Friedman has Big Plans

The latest from the world's most widely read columnist, reacting to the news that 47% of Americans now tell pollsters that "our best days are behind us":

I think what is driving people’s pessimism today are two intersecting concerns. The long-term concern is that people intuitively understand that what we need most now is nation-building in America. They understand it by just looking around at our crumbling infrastructure, our sputtering job-creation engines and the latest international education test results that show our peers out-educating us, which means they will eventually out-compete us.

That is why I believe most Americans don’t want a plan for deficit reduction. The Tea Party’s vision is narrow and uninspired. Americans want a plan to make America great again. . . . We need to raise gasoline and carbon taxes to discourage their use and drive the creation of a new clean energy industry, while we cut payroll and corporate taxes to encourage employment and domestic investment. We need to cut Medicare and Social Security entitlements at the same time as we make new investments in infrastructure, schools and government-financed research programs that will spawn the next Google and Intel. We need to finish our work in Iraq, which still has the potential to be a long-term game-changer in the Arab-Muslim world, but we need to get out of Afghanistan — even if it entails risks — because we can’t afford to spend $190 million a day to bring its corrupt warlords from the 15th to the 19th century.

Which is an interesting to do list. I agree about Afghanistan and energy taxes. I think, though, that our work in Iraq is already finished, and whatever good comes out of that experiment is now up to Iraqis. I also don't understand this crazy desire to cut corporate tax rates and Social Security payments; as I keep saying, if our best days were in the past, why not go back to the fiscal policies we had in those glory days, the early 1960s and the late 1990s? (As the AI says to Nemo in The Matrix, "The 1990s -- the height of your civilization.") Tax rates were higher in both those periods of amazing economic growth than in the last stagnant decade. I don't see any way to increase our investments in education and infrastructure without raising taxes, and by saying otherwise Friedman is practicing Republican-style New Math -- just put my priorities first, and the numbers will magically add up!

Babylonian Mathematics

Digging into the ancient cities of Mesopotamia, archaeologists have found about a hundred ancient tablets inscribed with mathematical calculations. Should you be really, really curious about such things, you can now see a dozen of the most famous tablets in one exhibit at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in New York. All of them seem to be practice exercises, or teaching aids; they show us the calculation of areas and volumes, but they give no formulas or theoretical statements. From these fragments of long-ago classrooms, a small band of scholars has for a century been trying to understand Babylonian mathematics. They have filled many books with speculations and interpretations, but what they agree on could be put down on a page or two.
For example, one famous tablet (above) shows that the length of the diagonal of the square is equal to the length of the side times a number that is about 1.42; was this worked out by careful measurement, or did the Babylonians understand the theory we call the Pythagorean?

One thing we do know is that Babylonian mathematics arose from the sciences of land management and irrigation, as practiced by scribes who managed the vast estates of temples and kings. Like writing, mathematics has its origin in bureaucracy: in the need to count, record, define, and control the world.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Karzai Gives Up on the US

Ahmed Rashid, who has known Afghan President Hamad Karzai for 26 years, interviewed him recently and found him a "changed man":

His worldview now is decidedly anti-Western. When I spoke with him earlier this month at the presidential palace in Kabul, Karzai told me that the US has been unable to bring peace to Afghanistan or to secure cooperation from Pakistan, which continues to give sanctuary to the Taliban. He rejects the barrage of US criticism at his government on issues like corruption and poor administration and says the original sin of all these faults lies with the Americans.

Lasting nearly two hours, my off-the-record conversation with Karzai was vigorous, and at times I strongly pushed back, reminding him of his past commitments and his professed support for such ideals such as transparent democracy—ideals that he had stressed in numerous earlier interviews with me and others. But this time he rejected every argument. By the end of our talk, it was quite clear to me that his views on global events, on the future course of NATO’s military surge in southern Afghanistan, and on nation building efforts throughout his country have undergone a sea change. His single overriding aim now is making peace with the Taliban and ending the war—and he is convinced it will help resolve all the other problems he faces, such as corruption, bad governance, and the lack of an administration. . . .

He no longer supports the war on terrorism as defined by Washington and says that the current military surge in the south by the United States and its NATO allies is unhelpful because it relies on body counts of dead Taliban as a measure of progress against the insurgency, which to many would be a throwback to Vietnam and a contradiction of Petraeus’s new counterinsurgency theory to win over the people. In particular he wants an immediate end to the night raids conducted by US Special Operations forces—a demand that has put him in direct conflict with US commander General David Petraeus.
It seems that Karzai finds himself in an impossible situation. He no longer believes that the US can defeat the Taliban and make his government secure by force, and he seems fed up with Americans and NATO, but were he to order western forces out of the country he might fall from power within days.

I can't see how this ends well for anyone but the Taliban.

Hitchens on Religion

I thought this was Christopher Hitchens' best ever line on religion, from his recent debate with Tony Blair:
Once you assume a creator and a plan, it makes us objects in a cruel experiment whereby we are created sick and commanded to be well.
I find all talk about whether religion leads to more or less good in the world to be a waste of breath. Religion has been so fully intertwined with human behavior for the past few millennia that it is impossible to say what behavior is "religious" and what is not. The question that interests me is the one Hitchens raised, whether positing a "creator and a plan" makes intellectual sense, helps people find a place in the universe, or leads to better ways to think about morality and justice.

Census of Marine Life

Science News has a nice slide show of new species.

I.M. Pei in Qatar

I.M. Pei is not one of my favorite architects, and I have always disliked his East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington. But I have to say that this more recent project, the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, is very impressive. The overall shape of the structure evokes both the geometry of modernism and the traditional form of an Arab fort or palace, and the nearly windowless facade, necessary to protect the fragile objects from the intense sun, is enlivened by the play of shadows across the complex shape. This melding of modern geometry, traditional Arab design, and the clever manipulation of light continues through the whole building.

I especially like this fountain, which is enough like a medieval Arab fountain to evoke the sensibilities of a traditionalist (like me), and yet not merely a copy, but something recognizably modern in form and texture.

For any regular readers who ever wondered what it is that I expect contemporary architects to do, I answer, something like this museum. I know that most contemporary architects are not going to be satisfied with neotraditional pastiches of Roman or Gothic forms, and, honestly, neither would I. But I do want architects to modify their love of pure geometry in the directions of local tradition and creating spaces that people of a less severe aesthetic (most of us) can relate to and find beautiful.

More on this museum here, here, and here.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving 2010

Ben, Clara, and their cousin Zoey in the maple tree.

Biblioteca Digital Mexicana

The Digital Library of Mexico is now online, with excellent images of important early documents like the Codex Colombino (above) and the Mapa de Sigüenza (below).

Hospitals not Getting Safer

Back in 1999, a major study found that mistakes and poor procedures in American hospitals caused 98,000 deaths and more than a million injuries each year. Since then there has been a movement to reduce the toll, but a new study finds that reform efforts have as yet made no difference:
Efforts to make hospitals safer for patients are falling short, researchers report in the first large study in a decade to analyze harm from medical care and to track it over time. The study, conducted from 2002 to 2007 in 10 North Carolina hospitals, found that harm to patients was common and that the number of incidents did not decrease over time. The most common problems were complications from procedures or drugs and hospital-acquired infections. . . .

Dr. Landrigan’s team focused on North Carolina because its hospitals, compared with those in most states, have been more involved in programs to improve patient safety. But instead of improvements, the researchers found a high rate of problems. About 18 percent of patients were harmed by medical care, some more than once, and 63.1 percent of the injuries were judged to be preventable. Most of the problems were temporary and treatable, but some were serious, and a few — 2.4 percent — caused or contributed to a patient’s death, the study found.

The findings were a disappointment but not a surprise, Dr. Landrigan said. Many of the problems were caused by the hospitals’ failure to use measures that had been proved to avert mistakes and to prevent infections from devices like urinary catheters, ventilators and lines inserted into veins and arteries.

“Until there is a more coordinated effort to implement those strategies proven beneficial, I think that progress in patient safety will be very slow,” he said.

Lucy, Yard Sale, Satan, and Roofless

In Tuesday's Richmond Times-Dispatch, Bill McKelway reported the sad story of a murder among America's outcasts. The killing took place in a homeless camp known to its inhabitants as Valhalla, near the Acca Yards, an old rail yard maybe a mile from the house where I am writing these words. A man's body was found near Valhalla last week. He had been dead, the police estimated, for about a week, and his body bore the signs of a severe beating. As you can imagine, this crime was not exactly a top priority for the police, and the neighbors were not especially cooperative, so it was a few days before the body was identified as that of a homeless man known to his acquaintances as Yard Sale. He was called Yard Sale "because he would leave his belongings scattered around his sleeping area when he drank," giving his home the appearance of a yard sale in progress. Back in 2006 the body of another homeless homicide victim was found in the same area and the case was never solved, so the police probably did not have high hopes of finding Yard Sale's killers -- detective work is hard enough when the potential witnesses are not all schizophrenic drunks, well nigh impossible when they are.

In this case, though, the police found one person who knew Yard Sale very well. This was a 28-year-old woman named Lucille Obarzanek, who graduated from the University of Vermont in 2007 with a degree in psychology. She is the child of Polish immigrants who ran a Bed and Breakfast near Stowe; her father, she said, had once been an opera singer back in Poland. Obarzanek's mother died a few years ago and her father died in June, starting her on a downward spiral that has ended in the Richmond jail, where she sits, unable to make bail on a trespassing charge. She took up with Yard Sale over the summer and rode the rails with him down to Pennsylvania, and then from Pennsylvania to Richmond. They were headed, they thought, for New Orleans:
We were going to try to make a go of it. To get to Louisiana and find work and raise a family.
That part of the trip was not so bad, Obarzanek said:
There are times [riding boxcars] is invigorating and sort of exciting seeing new places, but you get very tired and I miss being able to stay clean and take a shower.
But then they washed up in Valhalla, stuck for reasons Obarzanek could not explain. There they begged for change and spent the money on alcohol. When Yard Sale drank, he turned mean, and two of the other residents of Valhalla took offense. These were two long-time bums known as Satan and Roofless, who shared their shack with a stray pit bull. According to Obarzanek, these two men told her they didn't like they way Yard Sale was treating her, so they "beat him up and ran him off." The police have arrested them both on charges of voluntary manslaughter, apparently accepting their claim that they only intended to scare Yard Sale and left him alive.

Now Lucille Obarzanek, surrounded by death, nears despair:

"I sort of feel like I am losing touch with myself," she said. "It is getting harder to think about who I am. Sometimes I just want to die."

At the shack where these events took place, reporter McKelway found a sad memento of the people who lived there:

On the floor of the lean-to where Satan and his pit bull lived with Roofless, Yard Sale and Lucy, a hand-printed sign they used to beg for money was turned facedown in the dirt yesterday.

It shows a train track and a distant setting sun and reads: "Passin Thru. Hungry & Broke."

I wonder what the future holds for Lucille Obarzanek. Driven by the furies of loss, loneliness, and mental illness -- surely she was led to study psychology by a need to understand her own troubled mind, or perhaps her troubled family -- she went from wealthy Stowe to a homeless camp in a pine grove by a rail yard, and from there to a Thanksgiving spent in jail, where no one has visited her but a reporter drawn by the lowlife baroque, Threepenny Opera details of her lover's murder. Perhaps she will one day "make a go of it," as she tried to do with Yard Sale, and escape from her sad prison; but when your prison is in your own mind, escape is hard, and most doors lead only to sad, lonely, tormented places like Valhalla.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Giving Thanks

Things I feel thankful for these days:
  • Google Books
  • The US National Park Service and its Systemwide Archeological Inventory Program (which is how I have done most of my interesting work over the past decade)
  • Whole wheat bread that is as soft as white
  • That I have children into Dungeons and Dragons and Live Action Role Playing
  • All the new kinds of apples, like Jazz and Pink Lady
  • Recorded books
  • The Census of Marine Life
  • Online editions of illuminated manuscripts
  • Robotic space exploration
  • My friends
  • My healthy, thriving family

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Herman Corrodi

The Galata Bridge, Constantinople, early 1880s.

La Sphere du Monde

Illustrations from La Sphere du Monde by Oronce Fine, 1549. From BibliOdyssey.

Martian Sand Dunes

Dark sand dunes in a Martian crater, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter photo.

Lost Photographs of Sutton Hoo

The Sutton Hoo ship burial was one of the most important archaeological discoveries ever made in the British Isles. Alas, during the 1939 excavation only 29 photographs were taken by the official British Museum photographer, and archaeologists have long wished for more. Now the Sutton Hoo museum has announced the discovery of 400 additional photographs of the dig, taken by two schoolteachers, Barbara Wagstaff and Mercie Lack. Some of these are even in color.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Ben is 8

Surrounded by his family, he opens presents. Alas, older males wouldn't let him enjoy the Nerf dart gun.

Today's Mystery Article Title

What do you suppose this Nature News piece is about?

Solitary fish hit rock bottom

Repeal Obamacare?


As this new Marist poll shows, few Americans love the Affordable Care Act, but that doesn't mean a majority supports repeal. More want to expand it than get rid of it.

Back on the River

The same place as yesterday, but today with sunshine.

The pictures below show how much erosion is taking place along this bluff, probably on the order of half a foot to a foot per year.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Pain over Pluto

Via Andrew Sullivan, Astronomer Adam Frank wonders why striking Pluto from the list of planets has upset so many people:

After pondering the problem for some time, I believe our collective grief over Pluto's demise as a planet is not because of its link to a dopey Disney dog but because of something deeper: a hunger for order and simplicity.

In the last 20 years something remarkable has happened in our understanding of solar systems and, in some deep recess of our collective imaginations, we just don't like it.

We have come of age. We have grown up. Instead of the tidy vision we were taught as children, with nine planets moving along their color coded orbits, we now know that solar systems can be very messy places.

From studies of other solar systems (discovered only since 1995), we know that giant Jupiter-sized planets can live right up against their stars in orbits so close it would make Mercury blush. We know that rather than the stately circles our planets move along, some of these systems have giant planets winging back and forth on wildly cigar-shaped orbits (ellipses) that can play hell with smaller Earth-sized worlds tossing them into the frozen depths of space just (perhaps) as life was getting going. And in our own corner of the galaxy, this solar system that once seemed so orderly and compact (even with that untidy asteroid belt) is now populated by all manner of malformed worldlets.
I concur. People like answers. People like for things to be definitely one thing or another. People like for things to stand still and be named. People don't want to be told that "planet" is just a word that does not correspond exactly to any natural category; they wants planets to be a real thing, their number fixed by God or ancient physics. I think this is part of why evolution is upsetting to some people, and why so few people really understand what scientists (or historians) do.

This Morning

The Potomac River as a sea of mist, south of Washington this morning.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Brown

Late November in the woods can be kind of monochromatic.

But we did see two owls yesterday, and today so many deer that even the normally indefatigable Coraline let the last one walk away unpursued. I took pictures of the dog chasing the deer, at least I pointed my camera at the dog and the deer and clicked, but somehow managed to take five pictures that show neither dog nor deer, this one that shows the dog, and one other in which a brown blur can sort of be identified as a deer with enough imagination.

One our way back a trick of the light made the exit from the woods golden, as if we were approaching someplace magical instead of our own neighborhood.

New York Times Readers Balance the Budget

The Times has a compendium of the ways 6,000 online readers balanced the budget, using their online budget toy. Sadly, the number one choice was the one thing we are probably least likely to get, a rapid withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. And one of the least popular options, chosen by only 7%, was letting the Bush tax cuts expire for people with incomes under $250,000. Pain is ok for everyone else, Americans say, but keep my taxes low!

Lost and Found in New York

Slide show and article in the New York Times about Temple Court, a nine-story building in lower Manhattan that has been largely vacant for a decade. As the current owners have renovated, they have removed acres of drywall and found behind it hidden architectural wonders, like this skylight with its view of the Woolworth Building. They are playing up the mystery of the place, allowing in fashion photographers doing shoots but not the general public. Their plan is that someone will buy the building and turn it into a boutique hotel, but obviously it needs a lot of work, and they must be hoping that the buzz they are creating will raise the price and, eventually, the allure of the hotel. I hope it works; it would be sad to see this charming structure fall to ruin and be replaced by another blah modernist tower.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife

This 1854 painting by Irish artist Daniel Maclise depicts the 1169 wedding between Norman invader Richard de Clare, Earl of Striguil, known as "Strongbow" -- has there ever been a better name? -- and Irish princess Aoife, daughter of Dermot MacMurrough, the King of Leinster. The king had been driven from Ireland and Strongbow agreed to help him get his kingdom back in return for his daughter and the succession of the kingdom. This bargain helped the Normans secure a foothold in Ireland. The wedding probably looked nothing like this.

Very Stale Food

Noodles, moon cakes and porridge from cemetery in the deserts of western China, dating to around 500 BC. "The archaeologists also found bows, arrows, saddles, leather chest-protectors, boots, woodenwares, knives, an iron aw, a leather scabbard, and a sweater in the graves." I provide a link to the article in the interests of scholarship, but I caution anyone who might read it that it is mainly nonsense. Bad translation from the Chinese? Who knows.

Mad Girl's Love Song

"I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell's fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan's men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you'd return the way you said,
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)"

--Sylvia Plath, 1953

Shelley's Worst Line?

I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

--Ode to the West Wind

Leaves

In the backyard, today. That's my sister-in-law Linda with Clara, Ben, and me.

Big Numbers: New York's Water Supply

Perusing a little article on a leaky tunnel that brings water from the Catskills to New York City, I was struck by the immensity of the numbers involved. According to the Times, 15 to 35 million gallons of water are leaking from this tunnel every day, enough to cause flooding in nearby towns. Unable to fix the leaks without shutting down the water flow, the city has decided to build a 3-mile-long bypass tunnel around the leakiest section, at a cost of $1.2 billion.

The scope and expense of this system is amazing. If a 3-mile-long tunnel is going to cost $1.2 billion, imagine what it would cost to replicate the whole 57-mile Delaware Aqueduct, which carries about half the city's billion-gallons-a-day water supply.

9-11 "Heroes"

Is it just me, or is there something queasy about the "heroic" firefighters, police, and so on who "toiled in the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center" suing the city and getting a $625 million payout? Isn't a willingness to sacrifice part of the definition of heroism? Isn't bravery the willingness to take risks? Is it not possible for anything in America to be free from the taint of legal wrangling and a demand for cash?

America is lawsuit crazy. I think this is deeply connected to our devotion to capitalism and our suspicion of the welfare state. When Americans get sick, they worry about who will pay and many of them start looking for someone to sue. When Europeans get sick they don't have to worry, because they know that their national insurance plans will pay all their bills. So they don't sue anybody. In America, everyone has to work to get the money to pay the bills, and we are proud of this. But it makes us fear disability, which exposes us both to poverty and to failure, because an American who can't work to support himself is a failure in the most fundamental way. A European who can't work may feel some of the same anxiety, but he knows that he will never go hungry and that his government will look after him without humiliating him. He does not have to find someone to blame and sue.

Payouts from the World Trade Center fund are going to people with colon cancer and thyroid cancer, which probably have nothing to do with exposure to smoke. But who can blame those people for joining the lawsuit? What other recourse do they have? Who will take care of them, if they don't have the money to pay?

I believe in a just society, people are free of those fears. In America, that makes me a leftist opposed to the American ideal of standing on your own two feet. But until illness and disaster are completely banished from our lives, I think we should look after people who suffer them.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Gallic Town of Entremont


Nice website for the archaeological site of Entremont, a Gallic town in Provence dating to the second century BC. It was quite urban and Mediterranean, with many small houses packed tightly together. Among the finds was a 5x20-meter hall apparently used as a temple or shrine, several fragmentary statues that show Greek influence, and olive oil presses. There were a few cool Celtic details, though, like this fragment of a hero's hand clutching a severed head.

Golden Leaves

Gingko trees in Rose Park, today.