Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween 2011

The best reason to keep having more kids.

The American Dream

She wanted what we all want—to be totally unique while being completely accepted.

--Shelton Williams, on his cousin Betty Williams

Drusus' Camp, or, When the Romans Tried to Conquer Germany

Back in the nineteenth century, a bronze Roman helmet (above) turned up near the town of Münster in the Ruhr Valley of western Germany. This sparked a great deal of speculation and a century-long search for the site from which the helmet came. German archaeologists are reporting this month that the site has been found, a Roman camp from the reign of Augustus. Among the finds are potsherds, numerous coins and many bits of Roman gear. The camp is near the village of Olfen on the Lippe River. They think it dates to the campaign of 11 to 7 BC when Drusus, one of Augustus' sons, was commanding Roman attempts to conquer Germany to the Elbe. The camp is rather small, suitable for about 1000 men, so it was not the headquarters of a Legion; perhaps it was a supply depot.

Castle, anyone?

According to The Local, there are several historic castles for sale in Germany; this one, Burg Möckmühl in Baden-Württemberg, was just purchased by Russian magnate Alexander Dragilev. The very weird text of this story, which has a machine-translated feel, says that prospective castle buyers are looking for different things:
Some people want it to look mediaeval, some people want an elegant countryside castle with lots of light and high ceilings. Some people might want something a little darker, more of a classic Dracula castle.
Put me down for a lonely tower on a windswept crag.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Inside the Mind of an Octopus

Nice article by a biologist on octopus intelligence:

In another experiment, Anderson gave octopuses plastic pill bottles painted different shades and with different textures to see which evoked more interest. Usually each octopus would grasp a bottle to see if it were edible and then cast it off. But to his astonishment, Anderson saw one of the octopuses doing something striking: she was blowing carefully modulated jets of water from her funnel to send the bottle to the other end of her aquarium, where the water flow sent it back to her. She repeated the action twenty times. By the eighteenth time, Anderson was already on the phone with Mather with the news: “She’s bouncing the ball!”

This octopus wasn’t the only one to use the bottle as a toy. Another octopus in the study also shot water at the bottle, sending it back and forth across the water’s surface, rather than circling the tank. Anderson’s observations were reported in the Journal of Comparative Psychology. “This fit all the criteria for play behavior,” said Anderson. “Only intelligent animals play—animals like crows and chimps, dogs and humans.”

Pumpkin Carving

I carve the big pumpkin while Clara works on the face for hers.

The results.

The Colors of Fall

Today in our woods, the colors were at their peak under a gorgeous blue sky.

Still Mired in the Persian Gulf

American combat troops will be out of Iraq by the end of the year. But the US establishment is still very worried about the situation in the Gulf, especially the possible threats of renewed civil war in Iraq or aggression by Iran. So we are positioning more US forces in other countries, especially Kuwait and Bahrain, and intensifying our defense ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. This means an ever closer relationship with the thugs in Bahrain who were so recently shooting protesters and have jailed all the leaders of the opposition, as well as their abetters in Saudi Arabia. I hate this but I do understand the possible problems of withdrawing from the area altogether. Perhaps in the future Iraq will develop into a stable state that will have decent relations with both sides and can help maintain the peace. But even if that happens, it will take a while.

Reduce Spending on Nuclear Weapons

Now that both parties seem committed to cutting government spending, how about we save money on nuclear weapons? It's not like we're ever going to use them, and the amounts we still spend on our arsenal are not trivial. The Times:
Twenty years after the end of the cold war, the United States still has about 2,500 nuclear weapons deployed and 2,600 more as backup. The Obama administration, in an attempt to mollify Congressional Republicans, has also committed to modernizing an already hugely expensive complex of nuclear labs and production facilities. Altogether, these and other nuclear-related programs could cost $600 billion or more over the next decade. The country does not need to maintain this large an arsenal. It should not be spending so much to do it, especially when Congress is considering deep cuts in vital domestic programs. . . .
To get Republican senators to vote for the New Start treaty with Russia, the Obama administration promised all sorts of useless spending on the nuclear arsenal:

He promised to invest an extra $85 billion over 10 years for the nuclear labs to maintain and modernize the arsenal, including overhauling thousands of older bombs that should be retired. He proposed spending $125 billion over the next decade for a new fleet of nuclear-armed submarines, 100 new bombers, a new land-based intercontinental ballistic missile and two other missiles.
Which is just dumb. If the budget has to be cut, why would even Republicans want to save nuclear weapons at the expense of tactical fighters and army brigades that we might actually use? Much of the Pentagon is on board with cutting nuclear spending, especially the Army and Marines. Of course savings in this area don't happen right away, because decommissioning nuclear weapons costs a lot, but the Times came up with ways to save $100 billion over the next ten years.


Yesterday's Nor'easter gave us a miserable day of rain, sleet, and falling snow, but the temperature stayed above freezing and nothing stuck. Last night, though, the cold crept in behind the storm, bringing the gardening season to an end. This is right on schedule for us; the first frost here is almost always with a few days of Halloween.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Queen of the Inch

In the 1950s a tenant farmer on the tiny Scottish island of Inchmarnock hit a stone slab with his plow. This turned out to be the cover of a 4,000-year-old, stone-lined tomb.

Within was a single burial, a middle aged woman who became known as the Queen of the Inch. She had only a few grave goods, but among them was a spectacular jet necklace (above). The queen was dug up, examined by archaeologists, then (in the 1960s) reburied. In 2006 she was dug up again so her bones could be studied using modern techniques, and last year she was reburied again.

This time a reconstruction was made of her face, by the usual forensic method. Isotope analysis of the bones showed that she ate a mostly land-based diet, and that she probably grew up in the Scottish Isles.

Lord Smith of Kelvin, who owns the whole island, had this to say about the investigation and the reburial:
It right that she goes back. When you speak with the researchers and scientists, obviously they wanted her for a period of time. But I was always clear that once they had actually looked at her properly, because we all need to understand what her forebears were like and what they did and so on, she had to go back. It's where she belongs and it's where she was buried and that's where she's going back to, to rest for ever.
Bravo for him.

The Real Nostradamus

If you are curious about who Nostradamus was, I highly recommend this article by Colin Dickey in Lapham's Quarterly. Nostradamus got his start as a plague doctor -- which perhaps explains his obsession with doom and destruction -- then began publishing almanacs. The France of the 1550s was experiencing one of the worse episodes of cold that marked the Little Ice Age, so Nostradamus' grim predictions turned out to be more accurate than anyone else's. This brought him to the attention of the notoriously superstitious queen, Catherine de Medici, for whom he prophesied various catastrophes. Since her reign saw all manner of disasters, Nostradamus once again came closer to the mark than any of the usual flattering royal astrologers. Then came the moment that made his reputation forever:
During a festival on June 30, 1559, Henry II took part in a jousting match, during which a freak accident occurred: his opponent, Gabriel Montgomery, broke his lance on Henry’s shield, and a sliver of the wood shot up under the king’s helmet and lodged above his eye in his brain. Henry bore it bravely, but lingered in agony for ten days before he died.

Now many at court, mourning and looking for answers, turned to the thirty-fifth quatrain in the first Century of the Prophecies:

The young lion will overcome the old
On the field of battle in single combat:
He put out his eyes in a cage of gold:
Two fleets one, then to die a cruel death.

Skeptics could protest that Montgomery may have been only six years younger than Henry—and not exactly “young”—or that Henry’s helmet was probably not made out of gold, or that the splinter in his brain did not actually enter his eye, or that no “fleets” of any kind were involved. But none of those arguments, then or now, mattered to those who—most notably Catherine herself—were convinced that Nostradamus had foreseen the king’s freakish demise.
So if you want to get taken seriously as a prophet, be sure to predict lots of awful things, in a way that might apply to lots of disasters.

Shakespeare and the Power of the Counter Narrative

Stephen Marche on the new film Anonymous:
“Anonymous” subscribes to the Oxfordian theory of authorship, the contention that Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford, wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Among Shakespeare scholars, the idea has roughly the same currency as the faked moon landing does among astronauts. . . .
(Which goes on my list of the best similes ever.)
I fear that the attraction of the Oxfordian theory, to people who don’t know any better, may be profound. Counternarratives have an inevitable appeal: wouldn’t it be cool if there were yetis? If the United States Army were keeping extraterrestrial remains in the Nevada desert? If aliens with powers beyond our imagination built the pyramids? If Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare but actually this, like, lord who had to keep his identity secret?
There is in our species a deeply suspicious strain. Some people, when they find that a theory is supported by the establishment, immediately look for alternatives: if THEY say it, it can't be true. Counter narratives have a magical appeal to their possessors, who feel that they know the secret to which the rest of us are oblivious. Through the possession of this knowledge they become members of an elite. They are revolutionaries of thought, seeing both farther and deeper than the rest of us. Sometimes they may ever be right. But as Marche points out, some counter narratives are just stupid:
The problem is that not everybody does deserve a say. Just because an opinion exists does not mean that the opinion is worthy of respect. Some people deserve to be marginalized and excluded. . . . Somebody here is a fraud, but it isn’t Shakespeare.

The Bolshoi Reopens, or what "Grand" Really Means

The Bolshoi Theater, a symbol of tsarist grandeur that was never properly repaired after World War II and had been slowly decaying into a ruin, has been fully restored and re-opened. The restoration took six years, marred by accusations of embezzlement and gigantic cost overruns, but to me the results look well worth $760 million. What modern theater can compare to this?

Besides, this is the building where Swan Lake was premiered, where the famous Bolshoi company got its start; why would Russia, where they still love dance, want to lose that? Not to mention that high-end, artistic tourism is big business in Russia, and now a ballet performance at the Bolshoi can be added to tours that visit the Hermitage Museum and other cultural sites.

Like the French "grande", "bolshoi" means both "big" and "great," and this building is a primer in what "grand" means. When I look at the public architecture built since World War II I get a sense of retraction, almost of shame. The Victorians knew how to build really grand public buildings: the US Capitol, the great railroad stations, the British Museum, the Library of Congress, and so on. Today we seem to lack an architectural vocabulary for expressing vast public ambition. I suppose contemporary architects consider this sort of decorated neoclassicism inauthentic in our world. And I do understand that to build, today, in this style would be to invite ridicule on the grounds of kitschy ultra-conservatism. But if the alternative is bland boxy modernism that looks like a Walmart, give me kitsch. And preserve and restore the remaining masterpieces of the era when this did seem like an authentic expression of the national spirit.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Indian Palaces II: Gwalior, Rajasthan

The site of Gwalior has been fortified since the 8th century, but this amazing fort was built by Man Singh in the early 1500s.

The Hathi Pol, or Elephant Gate.

Surely this is one the world's most beautiful curtain walls.

A remarkable Hindu temple on the interior.

Roman Boyhood, or, Some Things Never Change

We saw some small boys fiercely competing at a game of throwing shells into the sea. The game is to pick a shell from the shore which has been rubbed smooth by the waves. You hold the shell flat with your fingers, and stooping at an angle and low to the ground, you spin it over the waves as hard as possible, so that it may either strike once and glide smoothly across the sea's surface, or flash and leap as it skips again and again along the tips of the waves. The winner is the boy whose shell travels furthest, and skips the most times.

--Minucius Felix, Third Century AD

The Pope Reaches Out to Agnostics

Benedict XVI in Assisi, this week:
In addition to the two phenomena of religion and anti-religion, a further basic orientation is found in the growing world of agnosticism: people to whom the gift of faith has not been given, but who are nevertheless on the lookout for truth, searching for God. Such people do not simply assert: “There is no God”. They suffer from his absence and yet are inwardly making their way towards him, inasmuch as they seek truth and goodness. They are “pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace”. They ask questions of both sides. They take away from militant atheists the false certainty by which these claim to know that there is no God and they invite them to leave polemics aside and to become seekers who do not give up hope in the existence of truth and in the possibility and necessity of living by it. But they also challenge the followers of religions not to consider God as their own property, as if he belonged to them, in such a way that they feel vindicated in using force against others. These people are seeking the truth, they are seeking the true God, whose image is frequently concealed in the religions because of the ways in which they are often practised. Their inability to find God is partly the responsibility of believers with a limited or even falsified image of God. So all their struggling and questioning is in part an appeal to believers to purify their faith, so that God, the true God, becomes accessible. Therefore I have consciously invited delegates of this third group to our meeting in Assisi, which does not simply bring together representatives of religious institutions. Rather it is a case of being together on a journey towards truth, a case of taking a decisive stand for human dignity and a case of common engagement for peace against every form of destructive force. Finally I would like to assure you that the Catholic Church will not let up in her fight against violence, in her commitment for peace in the world. We are animated by the common desire to be “pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace”.
Full text here. According to Andrew Sullivan, through whom I found this, Benedict's admirers think he is theologically full of doubts and questions, even as he asserts tight Vatican control over church intellectuals. Like Mother Theresa (who was wracked by a sense of distance from God and doubts about his love), he seems to feel that the right response to doubt is ever greater devotion to the institution of the church.

I am not entirely comfortable, myself, with Benedict's characterization of agnostics as "suffering from [God's] absence" or "seeking the true God," but I am flattered to be considered a "pilgrim of truth" and to be part of a "decisive stand for human dignity."

Paul Ryan Lies about Upward Mobility in America

Paul Ryan recently made a speech in which he argued that his low tax, small government agenda would increase "equality of opportunity" in America. He said:

We are an upwardly mobile society with a lot of income movement between income groups. Telling Americans that they’re stuck in their current station in life, that they’re a victim of circumstances beyond their control, and that the government’s role is to help them cope with it — that’s not who we are, that’s not what we do.

In Europe, by contrast:

Top-heavy welfare states have replaced the traditional aristocracies, and masses of the long-term unemployed are locked into the new lower class. The United States was destined to break out of this bleak history.

All of which is completely wrong. Studies by the Economic Mobility Project (see table) show that there is much less economic mobility in the US than in the high tax countries of northern Europe. Only famously class-bound Britain is our equal in keeping the rich rich and poor poor.

New Islamic Galleries at the Met

The new galleries for the Islamic world at the Metropolitan Museum in New York open November 1. The NY Times has a review, with slide show, and there is much more on the museum web site.

What a wonderful collection. These pictures made me want to hop on the train to New York. I honestly don't remember seeing any Islamic galleries at the Met before; I think I was too caught up in classical sculpture and Renaissance paintings to notice anything else. But I will pay these galleries a visit next time.

Rick Perry Makes a Promise about Jobs He Should Be Able to Keep

Rick Perry, whose campaign for President is based on his alleged record of job creation in Texas, has been running ads promising that if elected he will create 2.5 million new jobs in his first term. And he might, since the US economy creates that many jobs for our growing population even when things are pretty bad, like now:

If Perry believes voters should be impressed with his vow to create 2.5 million jobs, the Texas governor should probably be more impressed with President Obama’s jobs record. . . . Over the last year and a half, as the economic recovery has slowly progressed, the economy has added 2.56 million private-sector jobs. Over that same period — March 2010 through September 2011 — the overall economy has added 2.1 million jobs, and should reach the 2.5 million mark by early next year.

Now, no one is saying these totals are good enough. Indeed, given the job losses in 2008 and 2009, generated by a Great Recession that began in 2007, they’re not even close to what’s needed. The fact that the private sector has added 2.56 million jobs over the last year and a half hasn’t been nearly sufficient to bring the unemployment rate down in a hurry or end the jobs crisis.

But for the purposes of evaluating the Texas governor’s first campaign ad, the bottom line is nevertheless interesting — Rick Perry believes he’ll able to create the same number of jobs in four years that Barack Obama has created in a year and a half.

Bristol Bay, Alaska

By Michael Melford, from National Geographic. Bristol Bay is a major breeding site for walruses.

Update on the Syrian Revolt

I have never thought that Syria's brave protesters really had a chance of overthrowing the Assad regime, which seems to have a firm hold on the army and other key levers of power. But French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe disagrees, and since his government was largely responsible for getting the west to support the revolt against Gaddhafi, perhaps we should pay attention:
"It's true that in New York (at the United Nations) we were blocked, and that is a stain on the Security Council, which said almost nothing about this barbaric repression," Juppe said on France Inter radio. "This will end with the fall of the regime, it is nearly unavoidable, but unfortunately it could take time because the situation is complex, because there is a risk of civil war between Syrian factions, because surrounding Arab countries do not want us to intervene."

Juppe pointed out that Turkey, which had been opposing any outside intervention, has been moving toward the western view, and indeed I just saw a news story saying that Turkey is harboring an armed rebel group dedicated to overthrowing Assad.


Intoxicated by the heady wine of newly acquired power, fearsome like wild animals who see no difference between good and evil, slaves to women, insane in their lust, drenched in alcohol from head to foot, without any norms of ritual conduct, unclean … dependent on material things, grabbing other people’s land and wealth by hook or crook … the body their self, its appetites their only concern – such is the image of the western demon in Indian eyes.

- Swami Vivekananda, 19th-century Indian writer


The tired and poor the Statue of Liberty once welcomed are now often part of a backlog of deportation cases.

--Robert Morgenthau

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Banned from North Korea for Life

North Korea once again shows why it is the world's most evil place, by banning the 200 North Koreans working in Libya from returning home. It seems the regime is afraid that they will spread the word that other wicked regimes have been overthrown by their own people:
An estimated 200 North Korean nationals are in Libya and previously worked as doctors, nurses and construction workers, according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency. They had been dispatched to the country in order to earn the hard currency that Pyongyang requires to fund its missile and nuclear weapons programmes. Yonhap reported that the North Korean nationals have been left in limbo, joining their compatriots who are stuck in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries with orders not to return home. North Korean media has so far failed to report that Gaddafi is dead. . . . The decision to ban its own nationals from returning indicates just how concerned the North Korean regime is of the news leaking out to its subjugated people.
I wonder how those people feel about being banned from North Korea? Sad? Relieved? Worried about the future?

Another Viking Hoard

Two hundred pieces of Viking silver in a thousand-year-old casket, found by a metal detector enthusiast in Cumbria.

The Dark Side of Steve Jobs

Nice piece of character assassination by Maureen Dowd, master of the genre:

Certainly, Jobs created what Shakespeare called “the brightest heaven of invention.” But his life sounded like the darkest hell of volatility.

An Apple C.E.O. who jousted with Jobs wondered if he had a mild bipolarity. “Sometimes he would be ecstatic, at other times he was depressed,” Isaacson writes. There were Rasputin-like seductions followed by raging tirades. Everyone was either a hero or bozo.

As Jobs’s famous ad campaign for Apple said, “Here’s to the crazy ones. ... They push the human race forward.”

The monstre sacré fancied himself an “enlightened being,” but he was capable of frightening coldness, even with his oldest collaborators and family. Yet he often sobbed uncontrollably.

Isaacson told me that Jobs yearned to be a saint; but one of the colleagues he ousted from Apple mordantly noted that the petulant and aesthetic Jobs would have made an excellent King of France.

Jobs was abandoned by his birth parents, which one of his ex-wives said left him "full of broken glass." He was neglectful of his own children and could be bizarrely cruel to his wives and girlfriends. His temper was infamous.

The lesson, as always, is that geniuses are weird people and generally spring from weird circumstances. Would you want to have any of the latest crop of computer magnates as your friend? Would you want to be any of them? Not I.

The LIRR Disability Scandal

The NY Times reported back in 2008 that an outrageous number of Long Island Railroad employees were claiming disability pensions -- almost every union employee, in fact, giving them a disability rate about 4 times that of the average railroad. Now the US attorney's office has finally issued indictments in the case:

Ten people, including a doctor and a former union president, were arrested early Thursday and charged in a major fraud scheme in which hundreds of Long Island Rail Road workers made false disability pension claims costing a federal agency an estimated $1 billion, according to people briefed on the matter. Another doctor charged in the case was being sought, the people said.

Most of the people — those charged in the case include seven former railroad workers accused of making false pension claims, the two doctors and a former federal railroad pension agency employee who helped the workers file the claims — were taken into custody in the early morning hours at their homes by F.B.I. agents and state investigators, the people said.

I think this is a crucial matter for the future of America. It seems inevitable to me that the retirement age is going to rise, as people live longer and longer and many of us put off entering the work force for more and more schooling. But if the retirement age rises to 70, we will need some means of taking care of people who have really worn out their bodies doing decades of physical labor. Some countries have separate pension arrangements for manual laborers vs. others, but I doubt America will ever go that way. So we will keep using the disability system, allowing worn out workers to claim that they are disabled and get earlier pensions that way. But if people think this system is being widely abused, they will rebel against it and shut it down, leaving us with no way to care for people who genuinely can't work any more at 65. So it is of the highest importance to safeguard the integrity of the system, and kudos go to these prosecutors and to the Times reporters who broke the story (Walt Bogdanich, Andrew W. Lehren, Robert A. McDonald and Nicholas Phillips).

Banteay Chhmar

A major effort is underway, led by the Cambodian government and the Global Heritage Fund, to stabilize and protect the palace/temple complex of Banteay Chhmar in northwest Cambodia and open it to tourism. The complex resembles the famous Angkor Thom and was actually built at the same time (ca. AD 1200), which makes me wonder where the Khmer kings found the money and the manpower for all that construction.

The jungle has overrun the site, which is wonderfully picturesque but not very good for the surviving stonework.

The remote location of the site has left it vulnerable to looting, including the theft of a 30m-long stretch of relief carving.

Mongol Ships and the Divine Wind

From the Telegraph:
The wreck of a Mongolian ship presumed to have been part of a 13th century invasion fleet has been discovered beneath the seabed off southern Japan. The vessel is the first of its kind to have been discovered relatively intact and dates from a series of attempts by Kublai Khan, emperor of the Yuan Dynasty, to subjugate Japan between 1274 and 1281.

Researchers have previously only been able to recover anchor stones and cannonballs from the scattered wrecks of the Mongol fleets and they believe that this latest find will shed new light on the maritime technology of the day.

The warship was located with ultrasonic equipment about 3 feet beneath the seabed at a depth of 75 feet. The archeological team, from Okinawa's University of the Ryukus, had been carrying out a search of the waters around Takashima Island, in Nagasaki Prefecture, because the area had yielded other items from Mongol ships.

Historical records suggest that some 4,400 ships carrying 140,000 Mongol soldiers landed in Japan in 1281 and skirmished with samurai in northern Kyushu. But after returning to their boats, the fleet was struck by a devastating typhoon that put an end to the invasion plans - a storm known to all Japanese as "kamizake," meaning divine wind, and again invoked in the dying days of the Second World War.

The researchers believe the boats tried to find shelter in the coves of northern Kyushu, an assumption borne out by the discovery by Professor Yoshifumi Ikeda's team. . . .

A section of the ship's hull was first found last year but a full archeological excavation only began on September 30. The researchers uncovered a keel nearly 50 feet long and more than 1.5 feet wide. Lengths of wood planking were still buried beneath silt alongside the main spars, they said.

The planks were as much as 9 inches wide and nearly 4 inches thick and were still coated in a grey paint. The planks had been held in place by nails and more than 300 bricks that were used as ballast were located throughout the site, along with ink stones and shards of Chinese ceramics. The archeologists have also recovered weapons and identified the remains of the ship's ribs and bulkheads.
The scale of this invasion has always astounded me, especially compared to the tiny fleets that Europe sent out in the age of exploration.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Indian Palaces I: Amer, Rajasthan

Wandering a used book shop in Dupont Circle last week I found a marvelous treasure, The Royal Palaces of India by George Michell and Antonio Martinelli (1994). This sumptuous book overflows with gorgeous pictures of Indian royal residences, from ruined medieval forts to glamorous mansions built in the waning days of the Raj. Over the next few weeks I am going to be sharing the marvelous places I have been learning about, using a few pictures scanned from the book and others found on the web. I begin with the Fort at Amer or Amber, in Rajasthan, now in the municipality of Jaipur.

The first fort here was built by the Kachwaha Kings -- one of the Rajput clans -- starting around around AD 1200. The current design goes back to a major reconstruction undertaken by Man Singh (ruled 1592-1615). Like most of these palaces, the complex grew from there, with each king adding something of his own: courts, gates, gardens, apartments.

The building is famous for, among other things, the extensive use of mirrors in the decoration.

The most famous feature of the palace is the Ganesh Pol, this gate, with an image of the elephant-headed god Ganesh over the doorway.

And there is this marvelous columned hall of audience. All of the bigger palaces are cities in themselves where one could be lost for hours. Looking through this book made me want to be there, exploring, seeking new sights through every doorway and around every corner. India is a world of which I know little, and these pictures made me want to know more.

Paradise Lost, Book I

At once as far as Angels kenn he views
The dismal Situation waste and wilde,
A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam'd, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv'd only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed
With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum'd:
Such place Eternal Justice had prepar'd
For those rebellious, here their Prison ordain'd
In utter darkness. . . .

All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
That Glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, and deifie his power,
Who from the terrour of this Arm so late
Doubted his Empire, that were low indeed. . . .

Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang'd by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th' Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav'n.

John Milton

I just started reading this for the first time, and loved Book I. One advantage to having a spotty literary education is that there is still famous and wonderful stuff I have not read.

Median Family Income

This chart of median household income (adjusted for inflation) tells you a lot about the past decade in America. Note that the top line, for pre-tax income, has not gone up at all. The bottom line has gone up a little, because of the Bush tax cuts and the Obama stimulus tax cuts. Of course, these tax cuts have caused the deficit to balloon to a level most people think is unsustainable. But in an environment of wage stagnation, people are justifiably upset about the prospect of their taxes going up.

Yes, this chart does show that median household income has risen since the 70s, but that is entirely because we work more (more women in the workforce, mainly). The average job pays less now. But we really have seen a whole decade of income stagnation for most Americans, while the rich keep getting richer. This basic economic fact feeds the anger in America on both the left and the right, and to get our country back together we need to get that line rising. The modern social contract depends on things getting better for most people.

In Britain, Fights over Building Houses in the Countryside

Britain's conservative government has just released a revision of the rules governing new housing developments that slims the code from over a thousand pages to 52 and drastically limits the ways local communities can oppose development. The result is a huge fight pitting land conservation groups -- which in Britain are often conservative in politics, led by Prince Charles and other titled characters -- against the country's need for new houses and new jobs.
“This is a densely populated country, and the people of Britain are deeply connected to every square inch of our landscape,” said Ian Wilson, head of government affairs at the National Trust. “Now there are people in government who are trying to use the planning system to stimulate economic growth, and we think that’s very wrong. You cannot put a monetary value on everything.”
The Telegraph has launched a Hands off Our Land campaign, warning that the reforms will "put a house in every field." Another article is headlined, "If Planning Reform is Rushed, it Will Ruin Britain."

To this Prime Minister Cameron replied, "take your arguments down to the job center." And England certainly does need more housing for its growing population, more than a million new units by some calculations, and more jobs. The only question is how many of the new units will be in American-style suburban tracts and how many in apartment buildings or townhouse blocks. Strictly speaking, Britain has enough vacant industrial properties around its cities to house everyone in apartments built on such sites. But that isn't where most British people want to live, especially since most of that vacant land is in older industrial centers like Manchester and Sheffield, not near the new jobs. And since the directors of the National Trust mostly live in big 18th-century houses, not high rises, there is some serious hypocrisy in their opposing houses for other people.

In the end this debate will probably be settled as it is in most places, with some rural areas covered in houses and others preserved. I hope the English can find ways to preserve some of their most scenic areas intact, rather than letting piecemeal development churn up half of every place. But in a world of ever rising population and constantly shifting employment, new housing is a necessity.