Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween 2012


Ready for trick-or-treating.

And back home with the loot.

Winnowing

Here we go,
trying to separate
the infinite possibilities of life
from the limited circumstances
we prefer.

At the last breath
none of us know
whether it was
the chaff or the grain
that flew off in the wind.

by Simon Ó Faoláin

The Grandest Canyon

Nice image of one small part of the largest canyon in the solar system, the Valles Marineris on Mars. Just this side channel is larger than earth's Grand Canyon; the whole system is 2,485 miles (4,000 kilometers) long, up to 124 miles (200 kilometers) wide and up to 6.8 miles (11 kilometers) deep.

A New Syrian Weapon of Mass Destruction

A Facebook page run by loyalists of the Assad government issued this statement yesterday:
Sources confirm that hurricane Sandy, now buffeting the U.S., was carried out by highly advanced technology developed by the heroic Iranian regime, in coordination with our resistant regime. These sources have also confirmed that experts from Syria have contributed in carrying out this work. This is the consequence of attacking Assad’s Syria and threatening its security.
Do you suppose this is a joke? Or something else?

Debating the One Child Policy in China

A Chinese government think tank, the China Development Research Foundation, has called for ending the "one child" policy by 2015. I have been expecting this for a while. The policy was implemented in 1980 as a temporary measure to curb population growth, and it has worked extremely well -- Chinese fertility is now down below the replacement rate. The policy has also spawned much resentment and a severe gender imbalance, probably driven by sex-selection abortions. In the future China is likely to have more problems with too few children than too many, and worriers around the world have gotten agitated about all of those unmarriageable Chinese men. As China becomes more urban, and even peasants think more about affording new trucks than having more children, its fertility rate is likely to follow those of Korea and Japan down into scary territory.

Even if the government does nothing right now, I expect that within ten years China will be promoting childbirth rather than discouraging it.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Modern Magic

CAN'T BELIEVE METEOROLOGISTS USED MATH AND SCIENCE TO PREDICT THIS STORM. THEY MUST BE MAGIC WIZARDS.

--Nate Silver

Hoping Romney is Lying

David Brooks has an utterly bizarre column up today arguing that we should vote for Mitt Romney because he lies so much. Really:
To get re-elected in a country with a rising minority population and a shrinking Republican coalition, Romney’s shape-shifting nature would induce him to govern as a center-right moderate. To get his tax and entitlement reforms through the Democratic Senate, Romney would have to make some serious concessions: increase taxes on the rich as part of an overall reform; abandon the most draconian spending cuts in Paul Ryan’s budget; reduce the size of his lavish tax-cut promises.

As President Romney made these concessions, conservatives would be in uproar. Talk-radio hosts would be the ones accusing him of Romneysia, forgetting all the promises he made in the primary season. There’d probably be a primary challenge from the right in 2016.

But Republicans in Congress would probably go along. They wouldn’t want to destroy a Republican president. Romney would champion enough conservative reforms to allow some Republicans to justify their votes.
Got that? Because Romney has always said and done whatever would advance his interests in the short term, Brooks assumes that he would repudiate everything he ever said that would keep him from getting his plans through the Senate. As Matt Yglesias puts it,
The best case for Romney is that his campaign is largely bullshit. . . . Indeed perhaps the signal illustration of how much Romney benefits from his reputation for dishonesty is that Brooks doesn't so much as mention Romney's absurd promise to launch an economically destruction trade war with China. If Sherrod Brown were running for president on Romney's currency manipulation platform, center-right commentators would be losing their shit. When Romney does it, the assumption is that he doesn't mean what he's saying.
I think this sort of thinking is very dangerous. Given how little we know about Romney, we just don't know how he sees his core interests, and what, beyond becoming President, are really his main goals. I would like to think that he would revert to managerial moderation in office, but I don't believe it. People hate to be criticized by their friends, and this goes doubly for politicians, and I suspect that having run as the champion of conservatives Romney would find it very hard to turn his back on them.

UPDATE

More from Dave Weigel on this same theme:
At least 21 newspapers that endorsed Barack Obama in 2008 have endorsed Mitt Romney in 2012. Half of these endorsements are couched in the hope that Romney hornswaggled Republican primary voters and will govern as a moderate. “Like his primary rivals,” editorialized Florida Today, “we never bought Romney’s newfound conservative purity. During the presidential debates, Romney wisely resumed his identity as a pro-growth pragmatist.”
I see all of these editorials as exercises in hope. The editors, like a lot of Americans, want a moderate alternative to Obama, so they take a leap of faith and proclaim that the real Mitt Romney is the man they want. I hope they're right, but I doubt it.

Juramaia sinensis

This is Juramaia sinensis, the oldest known eutherian (placental) mammal, discovered in China and published last year. This shrew-like animal lived around 160 million years ago, 25 million years earlier than the previous record holder. Paleontologists were pleased with this discovery because DNA studies and comparisons of bones and teeth made them think that the split between placental mammals and marsupials ought to have happened earlier than their oldest eutherian fossils. And it did.

Ostrogothic Bauble

This piece of Gothic -- as in really Gothic, made by or for some noble of the Goth tribe in about the 5th century CE -- jewelry is up for sale and could be yours for $185,000.

Timgad

Ruined Roman city in Algeria, by George Steinmetz. From National Geographic.

Sandy Goes Elsewhere

Hurricane Sandy decided to bother New York instead of Baltimore and Washington. We must have lost power some time in the night because the clocks are messed up, but everything seems fine now. I imagine we'll be back to normal tomorrow. That's the Cape May lighthouse above, during the storm.

And this is construction near the 9-11 Memorial, with flood waters running in. Nothing so dramatic here, though, so I guess I should get dressed and go to work.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Celts at Gordion: The Strange Things People Do with Human Bones

Gordion is an archaeological site in central Turkey, once the capital of Midas' Phrygian Kingdom. After 300 BCE, our written sources tell us, the place was occupied by an army of Celtic mercenaries who then raided widely around Anatolia. Archaeologists working at Gordion have found ample evidence of the site's other periods -- Phrygian, Roman, Byzantine -- but only hints of its occupation by Celts.

Until recently, that is. The evidence of Celtic presences comes in the form of human skeletons to which bizarre things have been done. The Phrygias, like the Greeks and Romans, had a horror of human bodies that led them to get them in the ground quickly and then leave them alone.

The Celts, in contrast, liked to do all sorts of strange things with dead bodies, especially their heads. The recent finds at Gordion include numerous beheaded bodies, bodies which had been buried with heads belonging to someone else (above), burials that included the mingled remains of different individuals, bodies that had been tossed haphazardly into pits after their necks had been broken, and so on.

The excavators' description of the bones in one pit (above):
The uppermost body was that of a 30-45-year-old female who had been struck by two blows, which fractured her skull. Perhaps these blows did not cause her death, since she was also strangled, as a catastrophic angle in mid-neck attests. Beneath this body was that of a younger woman, aged 18-23 years. She shows no skeletal damage, but two heavy grinding stones weighing down her upper body do not suggest a peaceful interment. Resting to the west of the two women were the bones of a child aged 2-4, its preserved leg detached and reversed so that the knee rests where the hip should be. Because the entire body was disturbed and only partly present, we initially thought that much of the disturbance of small, light bones could be attributed to rodent activities. This relatively rosy picture disappeared when we found that the jaw, which appeared to belong to the cranium of the 2-4 year old, actually came from a 4-8-year-old child. Two neck vertebrae and a single foot bone also appear to be from this older child. It seems most likely that the children had died before the two women and that their bodies had decomposed, perhaps lying on the surface. We do not know why they were later deposited with the women.
Another:
In bone cluster 4, the skull of a teenager 12-17 years old was carefully placed above a dog skull, pelvic bone, and leg bones. At the bottom of this pile, which rested within a shallow depression, was a human pelvic bone from a 20-35-year-old male. Heavily weathered, it probably lay on the surface for some time before the rest of the bones were placed above it. The teenager, whose sex could not be determined with certainty, had been decapitated; this is clear not only from the fact that the first two vertebrae were still in place beneath the skull, but from damage to the vertebrae consistent with a butchery pattern found in animals, in which the neck is weakened by cutting to the point where it can be forcibly snapped to crack through the bone and remove the head.
Since these people seem to have died by close-range violence -- strangled, bashed on the head, their heads twisted until their necks snapped -- these discoveries have made the news under the heading "Celtic Human Sacrifice." And they may be just that. But the things done to the bodies after death are equally bizarre, and equally characteristic of northern Europe in the Iron Age.

Hurricane Sandy so Far

We're having a hurricane here in Baltimore. So far, actually, we've just had a day of rain and some not very scary winds. But stronger winds are on their way tonight, so they say. I went to work this morning but came home early, not wanting to get stranded down in Washington by high water or downed power lines.

So far, though, no disaster in sight. If I go offline for long, that probably means things have gotten worse and we've lost power. Above is a still image from the real time wind map, my favorite online gadget.

Geography and History

Our failure to turn Iraq and Afghanistan into peaceful democracies has fed a resurgence of "realist" writing about history. The basic thrust of this school is that things are as they are and there is very little you can do about it. Some realists favor culture as the great fact that cannot be moved, others religion. A big school focuses on geography. I have seen a lot of writing in this vein over the past ten years, most famously Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel. Nobody with any sense discounts the importance of geography; there are reasons why no empire based in Greenland has ever dominated the Atlantic world. But when you look in detail about any model of history that focuses on geography, you get mired in contradictions and special pleading. Adam Gopnik reviews several geohistorical books in the latest New Yorker, and he complains:
Are there any rules to this game? One moment, it’s great to have a protruding peninsular position, and the next moment it’s not, because living in a pre-Enlightenment society has traumatized you. Except that perhaps you have been kept pre-Enlightened because you are so near North Africa! But if Northern Europe’s ascent over Southern Europe was presaged by Charlemagne’s ascent over Rome, doesn’t this imply that the South made some kind of comeback in the long centuries between Charlemagne and the rise of the Eurovision Song Contest? What happened to geography, then? That’s an awfully long time for the magnetic pull of the north to have been in remission. If you compress and expand the time scale just as you like, you can make any event look inevitable. Elsewhere, Russia’s adherence to forms of authoritarian government is explained in terms of its cold climate and enormous size, the added proof presumably being that in Canada, too, one sees the same resistance to liberal institutions and the same trope toward authoritarian government. Right. So the Canadians, offspring of the British parliamentary tradition, have to be explained away as closet southerners clinging to the border. 
Exactly. In general terms, yes, the geography of Europe, China and Japan seems to have been highly advantageous for civilization. But the details of which European countries dominated at which time cannot be explained by geography. One of the books Gopnik reviews goes on at great length about he catastrophe of the Little Ice Age, without pausing to note that it coincided with Europe's rise to world domination; whatever the bad effects of the cold climate, European were fully capable of dealing with them. This was my favorite line:
Once, the sight of a Viking prow coming down a river was as terrifying a sight as any European could imagine. Now the Scandinavian countries are perhaps the most pacific in the world. Whatever changed, it wasn’t the shape of Scandinavia.
Geography shapes history, but does not determine it.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Ordos: The Ghost City of Inner Mongolia

What if they built a city, and nobody came?

People who think China's economic growth is an unsustainable bubble are focusing on Ordos, a city in Inner Mongolia. The Chinese government built a whole new city here, the "Kangbashi New Area," adjacent to the old town. This new city has a core with imposing public buildings and monuments, a commercial district full of office towers, and housing for a million residents.

It is missing only one thing: people. The city is nearly empty, its only residents the people sent by the government to watch over the empty buildings. The BBC:
If you want to find a place where China's huge housing bubble has already burst, then Ordos is the place to come. The story started about 20 years ago, with the beginning of a great Mongolian coal rush. Private mining companies poured into the green Inner Mongolian steppe lands, pock-marking the landscape with enormous opencast holes in the ground, or tunnelling underground. Local farmers sold their land to the miners, and became instantly rich. Jobs burgeoned. Ceaseless coal truck convoys tore up the roads. And the old city of Ordos flourished as the money flowed in. The municipality decided to think big, too. It laid out plans for a huge new town for hundreds of thousands of residents, with Genghis Khan Plaza at the centre of it.
And so the city sits, empty, even as yet more new apartment buildings are constructed in the empty developments. In fact the government still plans to build 20 more new cities over the next 20 years.

Note the complete absence of traffic on this Google Maps image of the city center.

I wonder if the city will eventually be inhabited, or if China's stabilizing population will continue to concentrate in the same places where people are moving now. After all, there are still a few hundred million Chinese people living in peasant huts, and eventually they are going to move somewhere.

See here for a cool video of young westerners skateboarding through the nearly empty city; more pictures here.

Home from My Scottish Adventures

The modern formula for happiness goes something like this: a stable, comfortable home life, where things usually go as expected, punctuated by occasional adventures in an unpredictable, exotic elsewhere.

Sometimes people try to bring more of the elsewhere into their daily lives and become ex-pats, or moving to Ocean City. But most of us try keep our regular lives free from the pollution of random excitement -- home is the safe place, and the characteristic victims of the modern world are refugees, who no longer have a safe place they can go home to. On the other side there is a creeping tendency for vacation destinations to become ever more like home, with the same stores, restaurants, and predictability. This leads the more adventurous to go every farther afield in their search for a change. Yet the basic formula, I think, holds true for much of our world.

I have just had my adventure for this year, in Scotland. I went to a part of the world where I have never been and saw thousands of things I have never seen before, some of them wonders. From the scenery of Skye and Glen Coe to the stones of Castle Doune and the Glenelg brochs, I have marveled and been lifted beyond myself. I also shared these experiences with my 18-year-old daughter, and marveled also at the delightful person she has become.

What is an adventure without difficulties to overcome? I had my first set when I tried to drive 50 miles from Edinburgh to Stirling on Tuesday morning. I had not driven on the British side of the road in about ten years, and I believe it has been three or four since I last drove a manual transmission. I was trying to follow confusing directions in rush hour traffic through a big city where I had never been, remember to use the clutch, find the gears, stay on the left side of the road though complex roundabouts, and so on. It was, um, challenging. And then Friday, coming home, my flight from Edinburgh to London Heathrow was 90 minutes late, leaving me to run through the immense airport to catch (barely) my flight home. I did something I have never done before, shoved my way to the front of the security line, telling everyone that my plane was about to leave.

Scotland was wonderful; I would love to go back. But it is also great to be home with the rest of my family.

Fifty Unexplained Photographs

Buzzfeed has a very amusing collection of "Fifty Unexplainable Black and White Photographs."


Why Doesn't America Fire Generals?

Reporter Tom Ricks investigates a major change in the US military since World War II: a strange reluctance to hold generals responsible for the combat performance of their men, and to reward those who succeed and fire those who fail. In World War II, dismissing or re-assigning officers who failed was almost routine:
Generalship in combat is extraordinarily difficult, and many seasoned officers fail at it. During World War II, senior American commanders typically were given a few months to succeed, or they’d be replaced. Sixteen out of the 155 officers who commanded Army divisions in combat were relieved for cause, along with at least five corps commanders.
Ricks describes the history of the 90th Infantry Division, which in the summer of 1944 went through three commanders in a matter of months; Omar Bradley told the third, "We’re going to make that division go, if we’ve got to can every senior officer in it." They pretty much did. Partly as a result, the 90th eventually emerged as a highly effective fighting force.

But not any more:
Since 9/11, the armed forces have played a central role in our national affairs, waging two long wars—each considerably longer than America’s involvement in World War II. Yet a major change in how our military operates has gone almost unnoticed. Relief of generals has become so rare that, as Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling noted during the Iraq War, a private who loses his rifle is now punished more than a general who loses his part of a war. In the wars of the past decade, hundreds of Army generals were deployed to the field, and the available evidence indicates that not one was relieved by the military brass for combat ineffectiveness. This change is arguably one of the most significant developments in our recent military history—and an important factor in the failure of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. . . .

Many Americans remember the Iraq War as a string of mistakes by the Bush administration—from overestimating the threat posed by Saddam Hussein to underestimating the difficulty of occupying the country. While that perception is correct, it hardly tells the entire story. In 2007, Philip Zelikow, who had been the State Department’s counselor as the war in Iraq descended into chaos, told me, “I think the situation is worse than people realize, and the problems are primarily with the military.” Discussing American generalship in Iraq over the course of the war, he added: “I don’t think people realized how bad this was … The American people believe the problem is, the civilians didn’t listen to the generals. This is very unhealthy for the Army.” The U.S. Army in Iraq, Zelikow said, reminded him of the French army before World War I: “The military is venerated. It is the inheritor of Napoleon. The general is decorated with gold braid—but there’s no ‘there’ there. There is an aversion to deep thinking.”
Look back to the Civil War, and note how many generals Lincoln went through before he found one who could beat Robert E. Lee. And beating Lee, given the North's great superiority in every sort of resource, was not really that hard of a problem, certainly easier for a traditional military mind than defeating the Taliban. It cannot be said enough that commanding an army in combat is very, very hard. The few men who excel at it are remembered for as long as the record lasts, the great heroes of their age -- Alexander, Hannibal, Napoleon. For an army to assume, as the US military now seems to assume, that every competent peacetime officer is up to the job is absolute madness.

Part of the problem, as Ricks notes, is the political vacuum within which these wars were fought. Nobody in the Bush administration had a clear idea of what we were doing in either Afghanistan or Iraq, so it was hard to know which officers were accomplishing the mission. But the bureaucratic attitude of the Army has become a major obstacle to our actually winning wars, and there should be a major rethink of our approach to combat command.

Blackboards, Physics, and Art

Spanish artist Alejandro Guijarro has been visiting the world's top physics labs and photographing the blackboards, just as he finds them. The Atlantic has a collection.


Saturday, October 27, 2012

Why Do Children Hide by Covering their Eyes?

Some psychologists tried a bunch of experiments designed to elucidate the logic young children use when they try to hide by covering their eyes. Christian Jarrett summarizes their conclusion:
The researchers wondered if their invisibility beliefs were based around the idea that there must be eye contact between two people - a meeting of gazes - for them to see each other (or at least, to see their "selves").

This idea received support in a further study in which more children were asked if they could be seen if a researcher looked directly at them whilst they (the child) averted their gaze; or, contrarily, if the researcher with gaze averted was visible whilst the child looked directly at him or her. Many of the children felt they were hidden so long as they didn't meet the gaze of the researcher; and they said the researcher was hidden if his or her gaze was averted whilst the child looked on.

"... it would seem that children apply the principle of joint attention to the self and assume that for somebody to be perceived, experience must be shared and mutually known to be shared, as it is when two pairs of eyes meet," the researchers said.

Shelley at Pompeii

I stood within the City disinterred;
And heard the autumnal leaves like light footfalls
Of spirits passing through the streets. . . .

From "Ode to Naples"

Fall Flowers


The garden welcomes me home.

Muslim or Christian Fundamentalist?

Great quiz on Slate asking you to guess whether certain statements about women and the family were made by Muslim extremists or Christian fundamentalists. This is one of the tougher ones:
A child who disrespects his parents must be permanently removed from society in a way that gives an example to all other children of the importance of respect for parents. The death penalty for rebellious children is not something to be taken lightly.
That's Charlie Fuqua, Republican candidate for Arkansas State House of Representatives, in his book God's Law: The Only Political Solution. Some of the most disgusting stuff I have ever read is from fundamentalist supporters of beating your children, endless crap about "breaking their will" so they will submit to their parents and to god. Ugh.

Otherwise you can usually tell because while both kinds of fundamentalists promote male supremacy (aka "the traditional family") only Muslims are terrified of sex:
Woman possesses the weapon of seduction and temptation.
Which is Tajeddin Hilali, Australian Sunni Muslim leader. American fundamentalists, whatever their other problems, tend to be very enthusiastic about sex, so long as it is within the bounds of marriage. This is the tradition of Puritanism, going all the way back to John Fox and even Martin Luther.

One of the weirdnesses of contemporary political discourse is that American conservatives like to equate secularism with Islam, as equivalent dangers to a Christian society. Whereas from my perspective, funamentalists of any sort are equally dangerous to the essentially secular world I want.

Three Moral Reasons to Vote for Obama

Andrew Sullivan offers three "moral" reasons to choose Obama over Romney:

1) Expanded Access to Health Care
"the fact that tens of millions of human beings cannot afford access to this often excellent private healthcare, even in a basic form, remains, to my mind, a scandal. That there are two nations in this country - one with the security of healthcare and one with no security at all - remains, to my mind, a moral disgrace."
2) Torture
"Torture is also a non-negotiable issue for me. It is simply unacceptable. It is the negation of the West's entire founding principles. Any candidate of any party who supports it rules himself out for me on that ground alone. Romney will bring it back. He will make America a torturing nation again. He would employ the former war criminals of the dark years of Bush-Cheney and legitimize them still further. He would reinforce the idea, propagated by Cheney, that torture is a "no-brainer", giving comfort to every vicious dictator on the planet to do the same."
3) War with Iran
"I cannot reconcile a pre-emptive war against a country that only has the technical ability to make a nuclear bomb, but has not weaponized it or threatened its use, with any reading of just war theory."
As Sullivan says, these issues have an importance that goes far beyond tax rates on capital gains and what have you. Until we have a Republican candidate who turns his back on the Bush-Cheney regime of torture and unlimited, unending warfare, they will never get my vote. Until they accept --no, proclaim -- that there are higher goals for our society than letting the rich keep their money, they will never get my vote. These are not partisan issues in any simple sense. Across much of American history it has been the conservatives who opposed unnecessary war, and who favored creating a caring society over economic growth. All of Sullivan's points would be endorsed by the Pope and his conservative Catholic supporters. How Ayn Randism at home and unending violence abroad came to be mainstays of American conservatism remains something of a mystery to me. But as long as they are, I will be voting Democratic.

If you want the US to do good in the world, rather than evil, you have only one possible choice: Obama.

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

Normally the worst part of any trip to Europe is the long hours in the plane, but that was not true for me this time. This was partly the luck of smooth flights and pleasant seat mates, but mainly it was because of Hilary Mantel. Wolf Hall, which won the Booker Prize in 2009, is a wonderful, remarkable, astonishing book. I loved it. It chronicles the rise of Thomas Cromwell from blacksmith's son to the heights of power as Henry VIII's right hand man. It makes this rise utterly believable; in fact I would say that it is the best thing I have ever read about how ambitious men of humble birth managed to rise high in aristocratic societies. It is also brilliantly told. I might add that I hate Henry VIII so much that I can barely stand to read historical accounts of his reign anymore, and I have skipped all of the recent round of movies and tv shows about him. Wolf Hall transcends that; it is about Cromwell, Henry, the Boleyns, Cardinal Wolsey, and Thomas More, but by going so deeply into the life of Cromwell it becomes much more than another book about the damned Tudors; its narrow focus broadens its subject to become all of human ambition.

Much of Wolf Hall is conversation, and these conversations are often presented with very little in the way of background or setting. Sometimes it takes half a page to figure out who is speaking and why. I know some people hate this, and if it bothers you to be confused, or to encounter a fragment of dialogue yanked out of the story and presented without any explanation of its place, you might not like this book. I thought that Mantel made it work wonderfully. We are not told about people, but are shown what they said, or given conversations about them among people who knew them. The main characters grow to amazingly real people in this way. We are given access to the thoughts only of Thomas Cromwell, and they, as well as all his words and actions, make him into one of the most fully drawn characters in all of literature.

Mantel is a stickler for historical accuracy. I did not note any errors in either her presentation of  Tudor politics or her portrayal of daily life in the sixteenth century. She even included bits and pieces of the documentary record, like sentences from laws that Cromwell drafted, and an inventory of the goods of a young women executed for prophesying the fall of King Henry. I felt confident that everything she describes at least could have happened. Her characters' speech is modern, using metaphors drawn from sixteenth century writing rather than archaic verb forms to create the sense of the past. Rather than trying to paint a wall-sized canvas of sixteenth-century life, she chooses certain details that fit into her story. I thought it was brilliantly done.

But what was Thomas Cromwell really like? He was a hugely controversial figure in his own time and remains so today. His enemies blamed all of Henry's great crimes on him, from his divorce of Katherine to the closing of the monasteries. Hogwash, I say; this is simply the myth of the evil counselor, and everything Cromwell did, he did because Henry wanted it done. One particular controversy about Cromwell concerns his religious views. To his friends, he was a sincere "Bible man" -- Puritan or Protestant, we would say -- who helped dissolve the British monasteries because he loved the Gospel. To his enemies he was a pure opportunist. Mantel takes the view that Cromwell was a Bible man, which to me has always been the more convincing take. After all, it was difficult to be a thoughtful, bookish man (as Cromwell was) in the sixteenth century without having strong views on religious questions. So I would say that I found Mantel's Cromwell as believable as any other figure I have met in a historical novel, and I think Wolf Hall stands as one of the great achievements in trying to imagine the mind of a person long gone.

Parts of Wolf Hall are so sad I had to put the book down and stare out the window for a while. Cromwell lost several people close to him to the plague, and Mantel plays up his affection for them before yanking them out of his life. These losses, which almost everyone of the time experienced, are a crucial part of the background to life in past societies. To understand the emotional world of the past, you must take account of dead children, dead wives, dead friends, and carefully laid family plans undone by plague and war. Mantel also dwells on the frequent executions of people for expressing banned religious views. Cromwell's dislike of the church, and of Thomas More, is fed by the smell of roasting human flesh wafting into the city from Smithfield. This, again, is crucial to understanding the mental world of the sixteenth century, underpinning the hatred of the sects. Among the Puritans who came to America, the Bible was the first book but the second was Fox's Book of Martyrs, which is only a chronicle of the many Bible men and Bible women executed by the British crown.

I say, if you are interested in the Tudors, or in a great book, read Wolf Hall.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Last Day in the Highlands

Thursday my daughter Mary and I woke up in our B&B on Skye. It was hard to say goodbye to the island so soon, but we had places to go and things to see. On our way out we stopped to take more pictures of the Black Cullins, which are just so cool.

Then we took a long detour to Glenelg to see the Pictish brochs, which I wrote about here.


Once we got back to the main road, we drove down the coast toward Oban, searching for castles. The first one we encountered was Castle Stalker, which I had never even heard of -- it was just there, out our window, on its little island. This little tower house was built in the 1440s. (Wikipedia photo because mine didn't turn out well.)


Then on to the castle we had made our next goal, Dunstaffnage. This massive thing was built in the 1240s, incorporating a big mass of natural conglomerate rock. It would have been great except that it is half covered with scaffolding, which I airbrushed out of these pictures.

It has the same basic structure as Castle Doune, that is two substantial structures (the gate tower and the hall tower) and a curtain wall with smaller towers. This view shows the remains of the hall tower.


Two views inside the hall, showing the kitchen fireplaces on the lower level and the hall fireplaces above.


But even better than the castle is Dunstaffnage Chapel. This stone church was built in the 13th century, around the same time as the castle. And what a stunning little ruin it is.


My daughter posed for lots of pictures here, saying she has found the church where she wants to get married.

Add in that he place is located in a woodland full of ancient, gnarled trees overgrown with lichen, and that the beeches greeted us with leaves of fire, and it was a truly amazing experience.

From Oban we headed back east toward Stirling. But along the way we drove by Loch Awe, a lovely body of blue water. At the north end of the lake was the splendid ruin of Kilchurn Castle, of which I have a tale to tell. Mary and I parked at an overlook across the lake from the castle. When we pulled up sun was peaking through he clouds, lighting up the castle most splendidly (as you can see above). It seemed like this might not last long, so we both set off running across the sheep pasture down to the lake shore to get this picture. And ran right into a bog. I sank in to my ankles, and Mary fell down and got wet to her waist. I thought, this is the will-o-wisp for American tourists, a castle lit by a sunbeam luring us to our dooms.


But we escaped from the bog and then walked out to explore the castle. This was built in about 1450 by the Campbell Clan and enlarged in the 17th century. It was closed when we were here -- apparently it is only open in the summer, and in the winter they even take the sign down -- but at least we got a good look at the outside.

And then back to Stirling, our adventure ended. What a wonderful three days it was.

Glenelg Brochs

My daughter and I started our last day in the highlands by visiting the famous brochs at Glenelg. This is a tiny village on a peninsula south of the bridge to Skye, accessible only by a one-lane road that winds alarmingly over the mountains, idles through the town and then saunters charmingly along a little river, lined with rhododendrons and beeches. And then, there you are, by a stone ruin that was the home of some Pictish chieftain 2000 years ago.




Brochs are round towers with massive, two part walls. There are dozens scattered across Scotland and the islands, so similar to each other than some archaeologists think they were all built by traveling architects. We know there were traveling smiths in the iron age, so why not broch builders? This is Dun Telve, the taller of the two brochs in Glenelg.

And this is Dun Trodan, a little farther up the valley. (With me for scale.) I have encountered no theories about why there are two of these just a few hundred yards apart -- brothers? Sisters who married rival men?



I loved these. And that they are so lost on that little peninsula, with no other tourists around, made them even better.