Saturday, April 30, 2011

Cycladic Figurines

Among the wonderful products of Bronze Age civilization are the stone figurines of the Cyclades. These small Greek islands were rich in mineral resources -- copper, lead, obsidian, marble -- and they hosted a thriving civilization with widespread trading links. Yet their art looks like nothing else. The earliest figurines, dating to around 3200 BC, do resemble Neolithic art of Anatolia, but as the style developed it became more and more unique.

The spare, modernist look of the statues is partly an artifact of time, since they were brightly painted. Most were made between 2800 and 2200 BC.

I have to say, though, that I have always wondered if some of the more elaborate pieces weren't modern fakes. Marble sculpture is all but impossible to date, and these pieces appealed so strongly to modernist tastes -- Freud was a big collector -- that there was a thriving trade in them throughout the early 20th century. Recent discoveries of harp players in good archaeological contexts, though, show that even if some pieces were made recently, they are copies of truly ancient works.

The figurines were (of course) once interpreted as religious idols, and some have been found in graves. Many, though, come from trash dumps, suggesting that they were toys or decorations rather than sacred objects.

Boys and Streams

One of the biggest adventures of my childhood was following the creek that ran in front of my house back to its source, a journey of about a mile that ended in a small patch of swampy woods surrounded by yards. I remember that running across one yard the creek was only half a foot wide, but still had a clear channel with grassy banks. I must have been about ten.

My second son Thomas was another lover of streams and creeks, and he and I have shared many hours along the waters of our neighborhoods. Now Ben, at 8, has discovered the stream that runs through the woods near our current house. He loves it, and we explored it again this afternoon.

Mr. Sammler's Planet

Saul Bellow may have won the Nobel Prize, but I still feel a little ashamed of enjoying his books so much. It's like admitting that I love Mao's Little Red Book, or Twilight. Like most of Bellow's books, Mr. Sammler's Planet oozes contempt for women. As a lifelong reader of Roman, medieval, and Renaissance texts, I don't find this particularly shocking, but sometimes it does make me queasy. Bellow oozes contempt in lots of other directions, too: toward weakness, toward frivolity, toward the desire for children, toward much of what passes for normal human life. Is it sinful of me to nonetheless enjoy his characters' highly intellectual grousing about the world?

Sammler, the main character in this book, is a Polish Jew living in Manhattan, a survivor of the Holocaust and veteran of partisan combat. In 1969 he is a man of about 70, living with his widowed niece, reasonably comfortable thanks to the generosity of a nephew who has become a wealthy obstetrician in Westchester County. His relatives all call him "Uncle Sammler" and treat him as a sort of oracle who carries with him their ties to the old country and their memories of Holocaust and resistance. He dislikes being treated this way and does not think himself much of a hero. He spends much of his time in the public library, reading Christian mystics of the later Middle Ages. What he dislikes about most other books is their insistence on explaining things. The modern age, he grumbles, has a mania for explanation. As if, he thinks, the world could be reduced to a tidy series of cause and effect propositions. This is a typical touch of Bellow's genius. Our age does have a mania for facile explanations, which pour from the lips of newsreaders, op-ed writers, politicians, pop psychologists, and just about everyone else. Why is the stock market up or down today? The expert at the business desk has an explanation, something to do with interest rates or unemployment reports or war near the oil fields. Why is it hard to be happy? You can pick your explanation from a whole shelf of books: your unloving mother, your low self-esteem, the capitalist system. Whatever the question, our age can supply the answer.

Because of who Sammler is, bigger questions loom in the background: why the Holocaust? Why World War II? Why Fascism and Communism? Sammler has no answers to these questions and avoids even raising them, but I had the sense that these are the things he most hates to hear explained. Some things just are, or can only be understood by somehow grasping the whole nature of the universe, as Meister Eckhardt tried to do.

To Sammler, what is most valuable about human life is our civilization, and the great error of the twentieth century was rejecting civilization and embracing barbarism. The Maoists and the Nazis, in their different ways, took this to the greatest extreme, but to Sammler the hippies and the Rastas and the apostles of sexual revolution are making the same mistake. Slavery was wrong, he says, and it is good that we are increasingly liberated from lives of unending toil; but, he adds, liberation is not working out very well for many of us. Freedom is increasingly wasted on lives of shallow consumption and loveless sex, and instead of toiling in the fields and the mines we toil in the wasteland of pointless boredom.

One scene in Mr. Sammler's Planet made me think that there are many kinds of fantasy literature. Sammler meets an Indian biophysicist who is a consultant to the Apollo program, a very well-read man who lived through the 1947 riots in Calcutta and saw hundreds of people beaten to death in the streets. Starting from the question of whether it is worthwhile to go to the Moon, they embark on a far-ranging conversation about what is meaningful in life. Bellow renders this meeting as few other writers could, two men who have seen the worst of human nature and read the deepest thinkers trying and not really succeeding to put into words the wisdom they have acquired. It was a straight out intellectual fantasy, the sort of conversation all we would-be intellectuals wish we had, and I loved it.

Meanwhile, the women -- Sammler's niece and daughter -- are in the kitchen fixing lunch. Sammler sends his daughter to help because her attempts to display her body to the fascinating biophysicist disgust him and are interfering with the conversation. (Sammler's revulsion at the barbaric sexuality of the 60s is one of the constant motifs.) The daughter is crazy, and her insane acts drive much of what there is for a plot. The niece is a more appealing character. She is a smart woman who was a good wife to her deceased husband and takes reasonable care of Sammler. But her attempts at intellectual conversation take the form of working some mildly interesting topic from every possible angle until Sammler has to flee the apartment, missing the dead husband, who used to tell her to shut up whenever she started on one of these explorations. She is too fleshy -- one of Bellow's favorite words for women -- too earthy, too sexual to be a real intellectual, and she is more comfortable cooking for men than debating them.

There is nothing unrealistic about either of these women, and I suppose there is nothing inherently misognynistic about these portrayals. There are many women who would rather cook for men than debate them. With Bellow, though, there are never any women who can talk to his protagonists as equals. All his women are too emotional, too sexual, too fleshy to rise above everyday life to the intellectual heavens where his leading men reside.

If you can't set this aside and listen to what characters like Sammler, Augie March, and Herzog have to say, you shouldn't read Saul Bellow. I gather he has few female fans. But I am able to ignore this, and also the thick-headed conservatism and the snobbery, because Bellow wrote wonderfully and had a lot to say. His leading characters may all be versions of himself, but they are not quite the same. Sammler has the opinions of a man who grew up in Warsaw and London before 1930, who misses servants and the high culture of Bloomsbury between the wars. Augie March, in contrast, is a Chicago-born common man who has to claw his way through life. What they all have in common is a suspicion that the wonders of modern life are not really so wonderful, and a belief that things tested by time are worth more than novelties. Because Bellow was a brilliant man with a profound understanding of how individual human lives intersect with history, his characters' grumbling is full of insight. I enjoy the insights, the silky-smooth prose, and the characters enough to ignore the things I find offensive; if you think you could ignore them as well, and are interested in the sort of discussions I have described, you should read Mr. Sammler's Planet.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Atrocities in War

Luke Mogelson, a freelance writer, has a long, thorough, but ultimately not very insightful piece in the Times on American soldiers accused of killing Afghan civilians. He takes his title from a statement by George C. Marshall, who observed American soldiers committing atrocities in the Philippines:
Once an army is involved in war, there is a beast in every fighting man which begins tugging at its chains. And a good officer must learn early on how to keep the beast under control, both in his men and himself.
Soldiers must be killers; they must be able to do things quickly that they should never do outside of combat. Whenever there is war, there is the risk that soldiers will start killing the wrong people. This is one reason why modern armies insist on a strong chain of command and discourage "freelancing"; they don't trust their soldiers to keep their guns pointed in the right direction. Military investigations of problem units, like the ones responsible for most of the unlicensed killings in Iraq and Afghanistan, usually find that there are big problems with the whole chain of command. Properly led men, who respect their officers and are given clear direction, are much less likely to commit horrible acts, so behind most atrocities is some clear dereliction of duty by commanders.

Counter-insurgency conflicts like the ones Americans have been fighting lately are especially prone to degenerate into indiscriminate killing. American soldiers are most in danger from enemies they never see, who attack using roadside bombs. The soldiers who lose friends to these devices know that some of the civilians living around knew about the bombs, and some probably knew the bombers. Over time they become increasingly angry toward the civilians who are not protecting them, and increasingly frustrated that their real enemies will not show themselves to be shot at. Under these circumstances I am surprised that more American soldiers don't just open fire on the nearest natives.

The new doctrine of counter-insurgency, or COIN, says that soldiers are supposed to be peaceful change agents who spend as much time helping to build civil society as fighting or patrolling. But young men don't usually enter the army to dig wells; they want a different kind of action. Stephen Xenakis, a retired brigadier general, emphasized this disconnect when he talked to Mogelson. US counter-insurgency doctrine, he said,
hasn’t caught up to understanding the mind-set of these young kids. I even see it when I sit down with the squad leaders and the platoon sergeants. They’re in the war-fighter mentality. They’re gung-ho. They’ve got to have combat skills, there’s no doubt about it. It’s what’s going to save them. But I don’t think it’s set up in a way that also teaches them what they have to know for the COIN doctrine.
This problem is made worse by the mixed messages some soldiers are getting from their officers. The commander of the Striker Brigade, which had the worst record of war crimes of any unit in the recent conflicts, was openly scornful of COIN and wanted his men to be shooting "bad guys," not building schools. Between this confusion and what military investigators called a "disfunctional command climate" in the brigade, it was all but inevitable that some soldiers would get out of control.

Solving political problems by fighting wars is like controlling wildfires by lighting your own controlled burns, or snuffing out oil well fires with dynamite. It is inherently dangerous. There are no wars without atrocities, and long conflicts between regular soldiers and guerrillas often produce many atrocities. Of course we want to limit the damage, and soldiers who commit murder should be punished. But such killings are inevitable. The real fault for them rests on the civilians who ordered that the wars be fought, and who have supplied such vague or unrealistic goals.

Life After Twilight

My local Barnes & Noble has a section titled TEEN PARANORMAL ROMANCE.

Urban Gardens

Dupont Circle, yesterday.

More from the Cult of High Expectations

I have already commented several times on the refusal of Americans to believe that there are actual technical problems in the world. If we don't have electric cars, or highly efficient fuel cells, or high speed trains, or cheap solar power, it is because corporations or the government are refusing for nefarious reasons to give us these things. For Ann Friedman, the lack of effective, side effect-free birth control is obviously the result of a pharmaceutical plot:
A 2004 survey found that 20 percent of women were not satisfied with the contraceptive method they were using. . . . Are pharmaceutical companies so busy inventing illnesses and wooing doctors that they can't bother to invest in R&D for a product for which 99 percent of American women are potential consumers—not to mention the rest of the world? Have social conservatives made birth control so controversial that even the most forward-thinking university researcher can't find funding for this research and even the most profit-thirsty CEO doesn't want to go through the FDA approval process?
To which one of Andrew Sullivan's readers responded:
I have a theory for why the pill hasn't evolved, for why birth control isn't getting better: Manipulating human biology actually isn't a very easy to do without side effects. Especially when it involves the manipulation of hormones. I bet Barry Bonds would have liked to hit 73 home runs in a season with regularly-sized testicles. I bet Uncle Al wishes his cholesterol pill was better, too: why can't he eat his bacon and his hamburgers with diminished risk of heart disease AND without nauseau and diarrhea?

A better pill would be a goldmine for pharmaceutical companies. If there is one to be had, it will be created. Just don't hold your breath.
Controlling human reproduction without screwing up the rest of the body is just HARD. This is a technical problem, not a conspiracy.

The Viennese Treasure

Past Horizons has a more detailed look at the medieval treasure reported in Austria a few weeks ago. This horde about about 200 pieces of jewelry was unearthed in 2007 by a man enlarging the fishpond in his garden, and he originally thought it was recent junk and stored it in his basement. One day when he was bored he started cleaning some of the pieces and thought they might be of interest to someone. He has remained anonymous and says he will not seek any compensation for the find but will donate it to a museum.

Austrian authorities are now saying the horde is "about 650" years old. That would be some time around 1348, when the Black Death ravaged Europe; could that be the reason this amazing collection was put in the ground?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Breeze

Dogwood and ornamental cherry, on the Hood campus yesterday.

Maurice Sendak in Old Age

Maurice Sendak, at 82, is still ruminating on the issue that dominated much of his professional life: fear and courage. A whole swath of the American parenting industry attacked his work as too dark and scary for children, and he responded forcefully, calling his critics "cowards." He recently spoke to Amy Rosenberg, still saying "Children are brave little creatures . . . they protect their parents." I was saddened by this:
When I kick the bucket -- which can't be too long from now. I think I'm getting out just in time. Watching the news, everything seems to be in disorder. Everybody seems to be unhappy. We've lost the knack of living in the world with the sensation of safety.
Interesting that even the brave Sendak should, at the end, fear the disorder of the world. Looking around the safe suburb where I live I sometimes feel that there is so much order we are all drowning in it, so much order that we have to imagine dangers (Alar in apples, alien abduction, chemtrails) or seek them out (bungee jumping) to feel fully alive.

What does that phrase "the sensation of safety" mean? Sometimes it does seem to me that anxiety is the persistent evil of our time, growing ever greater as the real danger to our bodies lessens. What is it that we fear? Have our safe lives sapped our courage? Is the point of seeking out danger that the experience of terror somehow helps us control anxiety?

I wonder.

Evidence, Belief, and the Birth Certificate

The "Birther" movement has always been a great study in the weak connection between evidence and belief. People who hate Obama want to think that he is not a real American, so they fantasized the notion that he was not born where all the evidence says he was born, in Hawaii. His "short form" birth certificate, which is the one everybody uses for stuff like getting a driver's license or a passport, did not satisfy the doubters. So he got the state of Hawaii to release his "long form" birth certificate, something they will do only for a "compelling reason." The response?
“You know as well as I do that you can produce a fraudulent form,” said Sharon Guthrie, legislative director for Texas state Rep. Leo Berman (R), who has introduced a bill that would require that anyone running in Texas for president provide an original birth certificate proving American citizenship.
True, documents can be forged. But if you have no confidence in documents, why bother passing a law that requires Presidential candidates to produce them? But Guthrie didn't stop at one utterly nonsensical statement. She went on to say this:
Guthrie argued that the document Obama produced on Wednesday is not a birth certificate but merely a “certificate of live birth,” which she considers something different.
The only difference between a "certificate of live birth" and a "birth certificate" is that the former is the officially correct term and the latter the colloquial shorthand. After all, there is also paperwork to file when a baby is born dead, and the official title of the document notes this important distinction. Was Ms. Guthrie hoping for a document that did not specify whether the President was born alive or dead? All hail the zombie president!

I would say that the prevalence of such delusions is the scary thing about democracy, but so far as I can tell elites are equally susceptible to delusional beliefs, and dictators seem particularly prone to them.

Honoring Those Who Opposed Torture

Here's a program I can get behind: giving medals and promotions to the many Americans who opposed, protested, and spoke out against torture. Jameel Jaffer and Larry Siems list some of the people, named and unnamed, who stood up for justice:

Spec. Joseph M. Darby, a 24-year-old Army reservist who found pictures of people in his company abusing captives at Abu Ghraib and sent them to the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command, starting the whole Abu Ghraib scandal.

Alberto J. Mora, general counsel of the Navy, who campaigned against the interrogation methods Rumsfeld approved for Guantanamo, calling them “unlawful and unworthy of the military services.”

John L. Helgerson, Inspector General of the CIA, who investigated complaints filed by CIA officers about the treatment of prisoners in secret detention facilities, eventually issuing a detailed and damning report that probably did more than anything else to curtail those abuses.

The many military prosecutors who refused to touch evidence obtained from torture:
One, Lt. Col. Stuart Couch of the Marines, said the abuse violated basic religious precepts of human dignity. Another, Lt. Col. Darrel J. Vandeveld of the Army, filed an affidavit in support of the child prisoner he had been assigned to prosecute.
I agree with Jaffer and Siems that honoring these men and women is one of the best things the Obama administration could do to keep abuses like these from happening again.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Under the Sea

Discovery has the winners in an underwater photography competition, including the cuttlefish above.

Affirmative Action

Matt Yglesias:
If it’s true that Barack Obama couldn’t get into college without a boost from affirmative action, then the fact that he later went on to become President of the United States of America would surely go to show that affirmative action is a good idea! The concern that super-talented people were getting locked out of opportunities is exactly the sort of thing affirmative action is supposed to resolve.

Radical Conservatives and Progressives Against Change

So the Republicans have proposed major changes to Medicare, a very popular program. As they tour their districts they are being met by organized opposition to these changes, led by a liberal group that calls itself Americans United for Change.

We Keep Getting Bigger

Robert Fogel, controversial economic historian, and a bunch of collaborators have a new book out on the changes to the human body over the past 300 years:

To take just a few examples, the average adult man in 1850 in America stood about 5 feet 7 inches and weighed about 146 pounds; someone born then was expected to live until about 45. In the 1980s the typical man in his early 30s was about 5 feet 10 inches tall, weighed about 174 pounds and was likely to pass his 75th birthday.

Across the Atlantic, at the time of the French Revolution, a 30-something Frenchman weighed about 110 pounds, compared with 170 pounds now. And in Norway an average 22-year-old man was about 5 ½ inches taller at the end of the 20th century (5 feet 10.7 inches) than in the middle of the 18th century (5 feet 5.2 inches).

So far the increase in size has gone along with increases in longevity, but I wonder if that can continue.

Yesterday in Delaware

My crew at work on the site of a nineteenth-century tenant farm in Delaware, under skies full of puffy clouds. It was a glorious day, warm breezy, with plenty of sunshine but not too much.

The field we are working in was fertilized a few weeks ago with what they call "chicken litter." This is the waste from industrial chicken farms, mainly manure but also numerous eggshells and a fair number of bones. So a lot of the ground looks like this, and they make a disturbing crunch under your boots.

Treasure Hunt

Every year at Easter we have, besides the egg hunt, a treasure hunt with a trail of about a dozen clues. This is intended for the older kids, but the little ones follow along. It is not easy to write clues that they won't guess immediately but will be able to figure out in a reasonable time; Mary especially gets half of them right away, even some that I think will be hard. I always spread the clues out across the house and yard, to keep them moving around, and I put in some treasure maps as well as other sorts of clues. Here the whole gang tries to follow a treasure map to Ye Hiding Place of the next clue.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Hell and Meaning

If you want to understand why atheists and believers can't really debate each other, a quick look at any of Ross Douthat's religious columns might give you some insight. In his latest, Douthat is really arguing with other believers, trying to convince them to believe in hell as well as heaven:

Atheists have license to scoff at damnation, but to believe in God and not in hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices. If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either. They’re like home runs or strikeouts in a children’s game where nobody’s keeping score.

In this sense, a doctrine of universal salvation turns out to be as deterministic as the more strident forms of scientific materialism. Instead of making us prisoners of our glands and genes, it makes us prisoners of God himself. We can check out any time we want, but we can never really leave.

The doctrine of hell, by contrast, assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make. The miser can become his greed, the murderer can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so.

As Anthony Esolen writes, in the introduction to his translation of Dante’s “Inferno,” the idea of hell is crucial to Western humanism. It’s a way of asserting that “things have meaning” — that earthly life is more than just a series of unimportant events, and that “the use of one man’s free will, at one moment, can mean life or death ... salvation or damnation.”

Douthat, it seems -- and he has given much other evidence of this in his other columns -- thinks that life in this world is meaningless it itself, and only acquires meaning insofar as it affects our fate in eternity. I find this puzzling. Does he really think that the choice to become, say, a serial killer, makes no difference if we don't end up in heaven or hell? When a nation chooses to launch a war, condemning hundreds or thousands to death and many more to maimed lives, does that have no moral meaning to Douthat unless the presidents or the generals end up in heaven or hell? This widespread human habit of dismissing human life in our astonishing world disgusts me. I believe, and I believe nothing else so strongly, that if our lives have any meaning that meaning must be found here, in the only world we know. People who cannot see the importance of moral choices within this life are suffering from a strange blindness toward what they see around them. Douthat and many other believers I have encountered feel just as strongly that a world without divine judgment is meaningless. How either group could even begin to persuade the other escapes me.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Fog Harvesting

Another great, simple technology:
In the arid Namib Desert on the west coast of Africa, one type of beetle has found a distinctive way of surviving. When the morning fog rolls in, the Stenocara gracilipes species, also known as the Namib Beetle, collects water droplets on its bumpy back, then lets the moisture roll down into its mouth, allowing it to drink in an area devoid of flowing water.

What nature has developed, Shreerang Chhatre wants to refine, to help the world's poor. Chhatre is an engineer and aspiring entrepreneur at MIT who works on fog harvesting, the deployment of devices that, like the beetle, attract water droplets and corral the runoff. This way, poor villagers could collect clean water near their homes, instead of spending hours carrying water from distant wells or streams. . . .

A fog-harvesting device consists of a fence-like mesh panel, which attracts droplets, connected to receptacles into which water drips. Interest in fog harvesting dates to the 1990s, and increased when new research on Stenocara gracilipes made a splash in 2001. A few technologists saw potential in the concept for people. One Canadian charitable organization, FogQuest, has tested projects in Chile and Guatemala.
How well does it work?

In some field tests, fog harvesters have captured one liter of water (roughly a quart) per one square meter of mesh, per day. Chhatre and his colleagues are conducting laboratory tests to improve the water collection ability of existing meshes.

FogQuest workers say there is more to fog harvesting than technology, however. "You have to get the local community to participate from the beginning," says Melissa Rosato, who served as project manager for a FogQuest program that has installed 36 mesh nets in the mountaintop village of Tojquia, Guatemala, and supplies water for 150 people. "They're the ones who are going to be managing and maintaining the equipment." Because women usually collect water for households, Rosato adds, "If women are not involved, chances of a long-term sustainable project are slim."

Egg Hunt 2011

Easter -- the pagan part, anyway -- is, with Halloween, one of the best reasons to have children.

Jailbreak in Kandahar

The Taliban show more of their resourcefulness:
After digging a 1,000-foot tunnel under Kandahar’s main prison, the Taliban on Monday morning freed more than 450 prisoners from jail, in the latest major security breach at the troubled facility, according to Afghan officials and insurgent statements.

In celebrating the escape, a Taliban spokesman said more than 100 insurgent commanders were among those who slipped out of the Sarposa prison’s political wing into the pre-dawn darkness. Zabiullah Mujahid said in a message to the media that the plan was carried out after five months of careful preparation.

“We were trying to not leave anyone behind, not even one sick or old political prisoner,” Mujahid said.

I have the impression that there are really only two effective fighting forces in the world, the Americans and the Taliban. So perhaps it is inevitable that we are fighting each other.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Immigration and Economic Growth

Countries that welcome immigrants and work to integrate them into their economies are doing better than those that don't.

Charlemagne's Soldiers

Images of warriors and weapons from the Stuttgart Psalter, painted around AD 820 to 830. Facsimile of the whole thing here.

Benjamin Franklin's Poor Sister

Wonderful little essay by Jill Lepore on Jane Mecom, Ben Franklin's younger sister:

She had one child after another; her husband, a saddler named Edward Mecom, grew ill, and may have lost his mind, as, most certainly, did two of her sons. She struggled, and failed, to keep them out of debtors’ prison, the almshouse, asylums. She took in boarders; she sewed bonnets. She had not a moment’s rest.

And still, she thirsted for knowledge. “I Read as much as I Dare,” she confided to her brother. She once asked him for a copy of “all the Political pieces” he had ever written. “I could as easily make a collection for you of all the past parings of my nails,” he joked. He sent her what he could; she read it all. But there was no way out.

They left very different paper trails. He wrote the story of his life, stirring and wry — the most important autobiography ever written. She wrote 14 pages of what she called her “Book of Ages.” It isn’t an autobiography; it is, instead, a litany of grief, a history, in brief, of a life lived rags to rags.

It begins: “Josiah Mecom their first Born on Wednesday June the 4: 1729 and Died May the 18-1730.” Each page records another heartbreak. “Died my Dear & Beloved Daughter Polly Mecom,” she wrote one dreadful day, adding, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away oh may I never be so Rebelious as to Refuse Acquesing & saying from my hart Blessed be the Name of the Lord.”

Jane Mecom had 12 children; she buried 11. And then, she put down her pen.

Heaven in Multicultural America

My problems with Christianity started with heaven; it never made any sense to me. I dislike perfection, and I believe that it is the difficulties of life as much as the successes that make it worth living. Even as a child I could not imagine what it meant to find rest in a state of perfect bliss. When I tired of this world and imagined another, I tended to fantasize about Middle Earth sort of places where the good battle against evil in stark terms. Who wants to rest forever?

As I have grown older I have come to believe that change is fundamental to what it means to be human, or even to be alive. We live along a fixed path that carries us from birth through childhood and adulthood to old age and death, and for me walking this path that is the definition of living. If we stopped changing we would, I believe, cease to be human, and therefore cease to be ourselves. Seen in this way, we really cannot live forever. I also think that we are very different people at different stages of our lives, even in different situations; which of us would live on?

I also dislike the formulation that this world, with its astonishing variety of life and myriad other wonders, is just some sort of testing place. I refuse to believe that the meaning of this world is found somewhere else. I find it crazy to think that all this wonder around us is just a stage where we find out who deserves to go on to some other kind of life.

I especially hate the notion of hell; if anything would ruin perfect bliss for me it would be knowing that many other people were enduring torment. It seems to me that anyone who likes the idea of sinners suffering forever has a nasty mean streak, and anyone who believes that only a small, select band of saints will be saved has much worse problems.

Because I find the notion of heaven so strange, I enjoy asking believers what they imagine about it, and I sometimes read articles and book reviews on the subject. Thus I just found myself reading this essay by Lauren Winner, which focuses on a new book about heaven by evangelical pastor Rob Bell called Love Wins.
Love Wins was starting arguments even before anyone had read it, thanks to a promotional video asking a question guaranteed to inflame some evangelicals: “Will only a select few people make it to heaven, and will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell?” (Or, more succinctly: “Gandhi’s in hell? He is?”) Bell’s answer: “The good news is that love wins.” The video, in other words, hinted at universalism — the idea that God saves everyone, not just those who profess faith in Jesus, or a chosen few whom God has elected for salvation. . . . .

So what does the actual book say? First, Bell challenges the notion that heaven is just an ethereal spiritual state we anticipate during our earthly lives. Heaven, Bell argues, is both the “age to come,” when God will dwell with people and injustice will be eradicated, and our present experience of peace and love: “There’s heaven now, somewhere else. There’s heaven here, sometime else. And then there’s Jesus’ invitation to heaven here and now, in this moment in this place.” Bell urges readers to cultivate “the life of heaven now,” pursuing “sacred tasks” like eradicating nuclear weapons and ending sex trafficking.

As for the future heaven, Bell does indeed question the teaching that only a select few will get there. . . .

“Jesus is the way,” he writes, but “the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus the Christ will of course include all sorts of unexpected people from across the cultural spectrum. . . . What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody. And then he leaves the door way, way open. Creating all sorts of possibilities. He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe.”
This is very interesting, and I suspect it will make Bell even more popular. The polls I have seen suggest that most American Christians, even evangelicals, think that non-Christians can be saved. On the other hand it goes against what has always been the orthodox teaching about the subject, not to mention the plain words of the Gospel. For example:
Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God, (John 3:18)
On the other hand there is this:
Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
Which suggests that doing the right thing is more important than proclaiming faith.

Winner argues in the essay that universalism is gaining strength among American Christians because our society is increasingly multicultural:
Rob Bell is articulating the concerns of a generation of Christians schooled in toleration, whose neighbors and coworkers and siblings are Muslim or Buddhist or agnostic, a generation whose pluralist social commitments are at odds with theological commitments to limited salvation. . . it offers them a way to hold on to Jesus’ particularity in a pluralist world, a world in which wondering about the eternal fate of, say, a Hindu is not an abstract question but a question about your college roommate.
As sociology, Winner's idea is probably correct. As theology, I wonder if it means something much more important: a fading of the need to see one's enemies punished. I hope so.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Hubble's 21st Birthday

The Hubble Space Telescope has been orbit for 21 years, a number that astonished me; in my mind the famous mission to repair its faulty optics seems like it happened just a few years ago. In celebration of the anniversary NASA released this wonderful photograph of the linked galaxies known as Arp 273.

Really the first servicing mission to the Hubble was in December, 1993. Since then few things have given me as many hours of happiness or moments of wonder as the Hubble Telescope, so I join the world in offering my congratulations to the people who built and launched this astonishing wonder.

Standing By Passively

The Washington Post is upset about what the editors call "Shameful US Inaction on Syria":
Massacres on this scale usually prompt a strong response from Western democracies, as they should. Ambassadors are withdrawn; resolutions are introduced at the U.N. Security Council; international investigations are mounted and sanctions applied. In Syria’s case, none of this has happened. The Obama administration has denounced the violence — a presidential statement called Friday’s acts of repression “outrageous” — but otherwise remained passive. Even the ambassador it dispatched to Damascus during a congressional recess last year remains on post.
To this I say: 1) nothing short of an invasion is going to dislodge Assad or change his policies; 2) invasion would be a disaster, even assuming we could find troops and planes to start another war in a fourth Muslim country; so 3) nothing we do at this point matters. Sure, we could denounce Assad and call for his ouster, and I wish we would. But I doubt he is going to be ousted, and the denunciations would only make it harder for us to deal with the regime later. Syria is not Egypt, where we have strong ties with the military, or Bahrain, allegedly a close ally. Syria is our enemy, and we already have sanctions in place against them. We have no leverage in Syria.

Anger should be directed at the oppressors, not outsiders who refuse to intervene in what is, really, the Syrians' business.

Eighteen Books and Five Wives

Reading over obituaries of archaeologist Lewis Binford, I was struck that in addition to his 18 books, dozens of articles, and numerous honors, he had five wives. This is the same number as Saul Bellow, I believe, but then Bellow was a cantankerous, misogynist jerk who put really nasty caricatures of his ex-wives into his books. I can imagine why Bellow had so many wives: women were attracted to his intellect, his confidence, and his reputation as an artist, but the reality of living with him quickly turned ugly.

Binford, on the other hand, was not really that sort of person. He was sometimes accused of megalomania, and he could be witheringly dismissive of scholarly work he did not like, but that sort of goes with being a genius determined to change the direction of his whole field. I am sure he could be a jerk, but one has the impression that he had no more than the usual human complement of that vice. One does not hear the sort of poisonous rumors about him that float around noted academic assholes. His former students remained devoted to him, and I never heard one run him down. What gives?

One obit I have found has this to say about his days at the University of Chicago, where he was first a professor:
There he gathered around his charismatic (some would say demagogic) personality a veritable Who's Who of the New Archeology (fueled by what witnesses and participants say was a great deal of carousing).
With such a lifestyle, and such close relationships with his students, he no doubt had many opportunities for infidelity; was that his problem? He was certainly a workaholic; did his wives eventually get tired of being ignored, of his habit of disappearing into the Alaskan or African bush for months at a time? He was always restlessly searching around for new topics to investigate and new ideas to pursue; did he bring the same restlessness to love?

More broadly, does this kind of question have any place in the obituaries of famous men? Should accounts of, say, Jean-Paul Sartre focus on his philosophical contributions and his political stands, or should they also take up his bizarre personal life and habitual cruelty to those around him? Are we only interested in work of intellectuals, or in their lives? When we assess a man at his death, are we assessing only his contributions to the intellectual world, or are we assessing him as a human being? I find that in the case of Binford I am dissatisfied with the glowing summaries of his scholarship that one can read everywhere, and curious to know more about who he was, what really drove him, and how the various parts of his life fit together.Link

Friday, April 22, 2011

What On Earth Are These?

Wired has a great feature on old scientific instruments in the museum of the National Institute of Standards and Technology whose function is no longer known. The NIST is soliciting help in identifying them.
It's natural to assume that, in our information-overloaded culture, the identity of modern tools won't be forgotten. But that's not the case, said Avila.

"It's not normal to label and categorize and index the things we have and use," she said. "It's not in the habit of people who use tools every day to do that. Obsolescence and technological change happens much sooner than you think."

Why There Will Never Be a Health Care Market

An ER doctor and blogger explains why it's hard to lower health care costs through market mechanisms:
Purchasing power is concentrated in the hands of a very small number of "consumers"

This is the wooden stake through the heart of the idea that consumer behavior can effect cost containment. The functioning of a free market is dependent on the ability of consumers to vary their behavior to force suppliers to compete. However, you and I can be as scrupulous and cost conscious as we like. We are not sick. (Well, I'm not anyway. I hope you're OK.) The driver of cost is the small fraction of people who have serious medical conditions. . . .

HALF of all health care costs in the US is concentrated in only 5% of the population, and 80% of costs are accounted for by the top quintile! (source: Kaiser Foundation PDF)

So the effect here is that with such a concentration of costs in such a small segment of the population, the ability of the larger population to move the market is highly restricted. You can make 80% of consumers highly price sensitive, but they can only affect a tiny fraction of healthcare spending. And for the generally well, their costs are probably those which are least responsible for the spiraling inflation. They're not getting $30,000 stents or prolonged ICU stays, or needing complex chronic disease management.

Conversely, those who are high consumers of health care simply cannot be made more price sensitive, since their costs are probably well beyond what they could pay in any event, and for most are well beyond the limits of even a catastrophic health insurance policy. Once you are told that you need a bypass/chemo/stent/dialysis/NICU etc, etc, etc, the costs are so overwhelming that a consumer cannot possibly pay them out of pocket. Since, by definition, these catastrophic costs are paid by some form of insurance, the consumer cannot have much financial interest in cost containment. For most, when they are confronted with a major or life-threatening illness, their entire focus shifts to survival, and they could care less about the cost. Further, many who are in this sick/expensive category have some diminished capacity with regard to their information gathering and decision-making. I'm thinking particularly of the elderly and those who have had strokes or any one of a multitude of illnesses which impact cognitive function or other functional capacity. These patients struggle with their activities of daily living -- getting dressed, bathing, transportation, housing, taking their meds. Their ability (let alone interest) in price-shopping their doctors is minimal to nonexistent, even if they had an economic incentive to do so. Taking someone who has a serious illness and making them have more "skin in the game" would represent a cruel additional hardship, but would be ineffective in creating an economic environment in which consumer behavior brought down spiraling health care costs.

How Many PhDs do We Need?

Interesting feature at Nature on the worldwide problems facing people with doctorates in engineering and science; in some countries there are far more Ph.D.s than jobs that require such an education, while in others, especially China, there are plenty of jobs but people graduating from Ph.D. programs are ill-prepared to fill them. From the section on the US:
The proportion of people with science PhDs who get tenured academic positions in the sciences has been dropping steadily and industry has not fully absorbed the slack. The problem is most acute in the life sciences, in which the pace of PhD growth is biggest, yet pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries have been drastically downsizing in recent years. In 1973, 55% of US doctorates in the biological sciences secured tenure-track positions within six years of completing their PhDs, and only 2% were in a postdoc or other untenured academic position. By 2006, only 15% were in tenured positions six years after graduating, with 18% untenured. Figures suggest that more doctorates are taking jobs that do not require a PhD. "It's a waste of resources," says Stephan. "We're spending a lot of money training these students and then they go out and get jobs that they're not well matched for."
Academics believe, and it may very well be true, that there was once a time when you could guarantee yourself a good job by getting enough education. Now, according to this story, even a doctorate in a demanding scientific field like microbiology guarantees you nothing. True, almost all people with science PhDs can find some kind of job, but it won't necessarily be one that is interesting, pays well, or provides opportunities for advancement.

More on the Fin Cop Hillfort

Past Horizons has a more detailed write-up on the discovery of bodies hurriedly buried in a ditch at the Fin Cop hillfort, which I noted a few days ago. With lots of pictures.

Architecture for Accountants

It is hard for me to imagine that anyone ever looked at the design for the building above and said, "What a great idea, let's build it!" Just looking at the thing makes me depressed.

Then again, maybe the design was some sort of statement about frugality, given that it was built for what used to be called the General Accounting Office. We wouldn't want people to think that government accountants are flashy types who work in luxurious surroundings.

The horror of the GAO building seems especially galling to me because right across the street is the wonderful old (1887) building of the US Pension Bureau, now the National Building Museum. But the presence of attractive buildings nearby only inspires some architects to ever greater feats of uglification.

Hinduism and the Environment in Queens

I am fascinated by this story about the clash between Hindus and Park Rangers in Jamaica Bay, Queens:
It was just after dawn last Sunday when a pair of pilgrims lighted incense on the shore and dropped two coconuts into the sacred waters, otherwise known as Jamaica Bay.

The shells bobbed in the surf, not far from clay bowls, rotting limes and waterlogged rags that had washed back ashore, flotsam from previous Hindu ceremonies to mark festivals, births, deaths and everything in between.

As the Hindu population has grown in Queens over the last decade, so too has the amount of ritual debris — clothing, statues, even cremation ashes — lining the banks of the bay in Gateway National Recreation Area.

“We call it the Ganges,” one pilgrim, Madan Padarat, said as he finished his prayers. “She takes away your sickness, your pain, your suffering.”

But to the park rangers who patrol the beach, the holy waters are a fragile habitat, the offerings are trash and the littered shores are a federal preserve that must be kept clean for picnickers, fishermen and kayakers. Unlike the Ganges, they say, the enclosed bay does not sweep the refuse away.

The result is a standoff between two camps that regard the site as sacrosanct for very different reasons, and have spent years in a quiet tug of war between ancient traditions and modern regulations.

Relax!

According to this study, when atmospheric CO2 gets very high and temperatures go up, the amount of CO2 absorbed by the earth increases, so that the planet can recover from a CO2 spike in just 30,000 to 40,000 years. So you can stop worrying about all that carbon we're putting in the air; it will all be absorbed in less time than it took our species to progress from the first cave art to space travel.

Oak Hill Cemetery

Yesterday.