Tuesday, December 30, 2008

More on religion and society

British journalist, former MP, and celebrity atheist Matthew Parris, who spent much of his early life in Africa, has an interesting column on why Africa needs Christianity. According to Parris, Christianity breaks the tribal mindset in a way that nothing else seems to do:
Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.
I decided to post this because it fits in with another theme I have been pursuing, the intersection of personal religious beliefs with the nature of society. They cannot be kept separate.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Don Hong-Oai

I am retiring my 2008 wall calendar today. It was a collection of photographs by Don Hong-Oai (1929-2004), who used overlapping negatives to make pictures that look like traditional Chinese landscapes. Here is one. I find them quite moving.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

society and belief

There is a problem with the notion that what we believe in our hearts can be separated from what we ask of the society around us.

It is perhaps the core tenet of liberalism that people can believe something strongly while not asking others to believe as they do. This is what tolerance means -- it means I think what I think, while accepting, even embracing, your right to believe something else. In practice, though, this is hard for most people to do. The Pew Research Center has been asking people for years, in differently worded questions, if people of other faiths can go to heaven, and no matter how they ask the question a majority of Americans answer yes.
One very plausible explanation is that Americans just want good things to come to good people, regardless of their faith. As Alan Segal, a professor of religion at Barnard College told me: “We are a multicultural society, and people expect this American life to continue the same way in heaven.” He explained that in our society, we meet so many good people of different faiths that it’s hard for us to imagine God letting them go to hell. In fact, in the most recent survey, Pew asked people what they thought determined whether a person would achieve eternal life. Nearly as many Christians said you could achieve eternal life by just being a good person as said that you had to believe in Jesus.
So the fact the American Christians are constantly exposed to Jews, atheists, Hindus, Indian traditionalists, and the like undermines their Christian faith -- because it is, after all, one of the core beliefs of Christianity that no one can be saved except by faith in Jesus.

Religious fanatics of every stripe have always understood this, which is why they have tried so hard to control what their people are exposed to. By some combination of separation of themselves from others (Catholic schools, Fundamentalist Mormon compounds) and control of the social discourse, they want to limit their people's knowledge of other beliefs. It is easier to believe something when everyone you know also believes it, and even easier if you can believe that there is something wrong with everyone who doesn't believe it. A tolerant society will be one with much less fundamentalism and much more wishy-washy belief.

This conflict has been most open in America lately in the struggle over gay marriage. Various religious figures (including Rick Warren) have argued that public tolerance of homosexuality undermines their religious freedom. The forces of tolerance say that this is silly, that they aren't asking fundamentalists to marry gays in their own churches. But I understand what they are saying. What is socially acceptable does influence what people believe. (Thus the great battle by liberals to make racism socially unacceptable.) People who are surrounded by married gay couples will be much less likely to condemn homosexuality. Sure, the strongest believers will only be made more certain by social opprobrium, but most people are not like that. Most people go with the flow.

I, of course, celebrate this. The more wishy-washyness the better, as far as I am concerned. But I do understand that making the world more to my liking will make it less to the liking of millions of believers.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Tacqwacores

I love the way people make their own lives out the materials available to them. Despite the complaint that in our world everything is prepackaged by corporate media giants, people express themselves by picking and choosing their interests and combining them in novel ways. A few years ago there was a little culture of people who expressed their disdain for the moderate mainstream by being into opera and punk rock. Now, as Christopher Maag reports for the NY Times, there is a developing sub-culture of punk rock among American Muslims, who mix themes of teenage rebellion, alienation, anti-capitalism, jihad, and the search for a religion that makes sense to them. It started with an unpublished book, The Tacqwacores, by Michael Muhammad Knight:

He said he wrote “The Taqwacores” to mend the rift between his being an observant Muslim and an angry American youth. He found validation in the life of Muhammad, who instructed people to ignore their leaders, destroy their petty deities and follow only Allah.

After reading the novel, many Muslims e-mailed Mr. Muhammad Knight, asking for directions to the next Muslim punk show. Told that no such bands existed, some of them created their own, with names like Vote Hezbollah and Secret Trial Five.

One band, the Kominas, wrote a song called “Suicide Bomb the Gap,” which became Muslim punk rock’s first anthem.

“As Muslims, we’re not being honest if we criticize the United States without first criticizing ourselves,” said Mr. Kamel, 23, who grew up in a Syrian family in Chicago. He is lead singer of the band al-Thawra, “the Revolution” in Arabic.

For many young American Muslims, the merger of Islam and rebellion resonated.

you are what you are

I was just reading a review of a new biography of Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake for heresy in 1600. I was most struck by this line, about his youth in a Dominican monastery:
As a boy, he removed all pictures from his convent cell, keeping only a crucifix, and he scoffed at a fellow novice for reading a devotional poem about the Virgin.
Here, already fully developed, were the characteristics that led him to the stake: contempt for orthodoxy, passion for his own beliefs, and a sarcastic tongue.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Critic after my own Heart

Time has killed off a lot of modernist art. College courses that teach Gertrude Stein must be awfully undersubscribed today, assuming they are offered. Modernist sculpture and painting still receive respectful attention, but this is largely because people have so much money invested in them. It will be surprising if Mark Rothko, Henry Moore, Josef Albers, and Andy Warhol are still preoccupying any serious person (let alone commanding top dollar) 50 years from now. People who don't like them (most people) can avoid them....

But the architectural remnants of the age cannot be avoided. They endure--with their windowless façades, their human-repelling scale, their masses of dirty concrete and their self-conscious wish to shock. Worse things happened in the 20th century, but few were more puzzling than the way Americans let their landscape be ravaged by architects and planners, particularly in the years between World War II and the 1980s. Here a neighborhood of elegant storefronts would be demolished "for parking." There a row of century-old trees would be uprooted so that cars could whiz by at 60 rather than 45 miles an hour. Josep Lluís Sert's ghastly Holyoke Center still occupies the spot in Harvard Square where Massachusetts Avenue's beautiful line of Victorian brick was ripped apart to make way for it in the 1960s. Gerhard Kallmann's Boston City Hall still sits like a Stalinist mausoleum on an empty, windswept plaza, for which dozens of ancient city blocks were razed.
-Cristopher Caldwell in the Weekly Standard

Below, the Boston City Hall. One can only shudder. And it's worse in person.

Monday, December 22, 2008


The solstice is past, and now for six months the days get longer and the darkness lessens. For those of us who find the darkness sad, it is an important day -- winter may just be starting, but for me the worst part is already over.

So I sing to the sun, hail the turn of the year, and bless the light as it grows.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

torture doesn't work

U.S. Army interrogator Matthew Alexander describes his own experiences with Sunni captives in Iraq:

Violence was at its peak during my five-month tour in Iraq. In February 2006, the month before I arrived, Zarqawi's forces blew up the golden-domed Askariya mosque in Samarra, a shrine revered by Iraq's majority Shiites, and unleashed a wave of sectarian bloodshed. Reprisal killings became a daily occurrence, and suicide bombings were as common as car accidents. It felt as if the whole country was being blown to bits.

Amid the chaos, four other Air Force criminal investigators and I joined an elite team of interrogators attempting to locate Zarqawi. What I soon discovered about our methods astonished me. The Army was still conducting interrogations according to the Guantanamo Bay model: Interrogators were nominally using the methods outlined in the U.S. Army Field Manual, the interrogators' bible, but they were pushing in every way possible to bend the rules -- and often break them. I don't have to belabor the point; dozens of newspaper articles and books have been written about the misconduct that resulted. These interrogations were based on fear and control; they often resulted in torture and abuse.

I refused to participate in such practices, and a month later, I extended that prohibition to the team of interrogators I was assigned to lead. I taught the members of my unit a new methodology -- one based on building rapport with suspects, showing cultural understanding and using good old-fashioned brainpower to tease out information. I personally conducted more than 300 interrogations, and I supervised more than 1,000. The methods my team used are not classified (they're listed in the unclassified Field Manual). . . . We got to know our enemies, we learned to negotiate with them, and we adapted criminal investigative techniques to our work. It worked. Our efforts started a chain of successes that ultimately led to Zarqawi.

Over the course of this renaissance in interrogation tactics, our attitudes changed. We no longer saw our prisoners as the stereotypical al Qaeda evildoers we had been repeatedly briefed to expect; we saw them as Sunni Iraqis, often family men protecting themselves from Shiite militias and trying to ensure that their fellow Sunnis would still have some access to wealth and power in the new Iraq. Most surprisingly, they turned out to despise al-Qaeda in Iraq as much as they despised us, but Zarqawi and his thugs were willing to provide them with arms and money. I pointed this out to Gen. George Casey, the former top U.S. commander in Iraq, when he visited my prison in the summer of 2006. He did not respond.

Perhaps he should have. It turns out that my team was right to think that many disgruntled Sunnis could be peeled away from Zarqawi. A year later, Gen. David Petraeus helped boost the so-called Anbar Awakening, in which tens of thousands of Sunnis turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq and signed up with U.S. forces, cutting violence in the country dramatically.

Our new interrogation methods led to one of the war's biggest breakthroughs: We convinced one of Zarqawi's associates to give up the al-Qaeda in Iraq leader's location. . . .

But Zarqawi's death wasn't enough to convince the joint Special Operations task force for which I worked to change its attitude toward interrogations. The old methods continued. I came home from Iraq feeling as if my mission was far from accomplished. Soon after my return, the public learned that another part of our government, the CIA, had repeatedly used waterboarding to try to get information out of detainees.

I know the counter-argument well -- that we need the rough stuff for the truly hard cases, such as battle-hardened core leaders of al-Qaeda, not just run-of-the-mill Iraqi insurgents. But that's not always true: We turned several hard cases, including some foreign fighters, by using our new techniques. A few of them never abandoned the jihadist cause but still gave up critical information. One actually told me, "I thought you would torture me, and when you didn't, I decided that everything I was told about Americans was wrong. That's why I decided to cooperate."

Torture and abuse are against my moral fabric. The cliche still bears repeating: Such outrages are inconsistent with American principles. And then there's the pragmatic side: Torture and abuse cost American lives.

I learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Our policy of torture was directly and swiftly recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq. The large majority of suicide bombings in Iraq are still carried out by these foreigners. They are also involved in most of the attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. It's no exaggeration to say that at least half of our losses and casualties in that country have come at the hands of foreigners who joined the fray because of our program of detainee abuse. The number of U.S. soldiers who have died because of our torture policy will never be definitively known, but it is fair to say that it is close to the number of lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001. How anyone can say that torture keeps Americans safe is beyond me -- unless you don't count American soldiers as Americans.

More from Alexander here.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


I was on the Kojo Nnamdi show today, a local talk show on WAMU, an NPR affiliate in Washington. I was talking about the archaeology of Rock Creek Park in Washington. Stephen Potter, the regional archaeologist with the NPS, and Ruth Trocolli, the DC City Archaeologist, were on with me. All of the shows are archived, and I think this is the link to listen. If not, just search the WAMU web site for the Kojo Nnamdi show on Dec. 17.

This was my first time sitting in a studio talking into a microphone, and I was very nervous going in. My main impression looking back was how fast it went. We were "on" for an hour, but with the news and two breaks, it was more like 50 minutes. And every caller has to mention how much he loves the show before he asks his long-winded question. What's left was divided among three speakers, plus the host. So I guess I spoke for maybe 10 or 12 minutes. I feel like I said hardly anything. I never got around to acknowledging any of the other people who participated in the project, and I never used some of my best lines.

Kojo -- that's him in the picture -- was great. He is preternaturally calm, not a speck of anxiety or tension in any word or motion. He was a model of manners to everyone but kept things moving. I was impressed.

But I have so much more to say! so if there are any other reporters or hosts out there who want to do a story on the archaeology of Rock Creek Park, go ahead and call.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Dating? Did anybody ever do that?

From the NY Times, another in the long series of things I have read complaining about the decline of dating. This one, by Charles Blow, blames the demise of dating on the rise of "hooking up":
Under the old model, you dated a few times and, if you really liked the person, you might consider having sex. Under the new model, you hook up a few times and, if you really like the person, you might consider going on a date.
Every time I read something like this, I wonder, when did people ever date? In the 50s? The 1890s? I know that dating exists, and I even went on a few myself, but the whole institution is horrible and I don't know anyone who thinks otherwise. Why would you want to spend an evening in the company of someone you don't know?

The facts of the world, as I see them, are as follows:
  1. Humans reach sexual maturity in their teens. In our society they marry in their mid 20s, or even later. They are not going to wait for marriage to have sex.
  2. Grownups have no part in the process of meeting and mating. It's all up to the young people themselves.
  3. Nobody has thought of a good way for young men and women to meet in a way that is conducive to eventual marriage. The current model is that men and women hang out together and work together and become friends, and then somehow, magically, you are supposed to get interested in one of your friends, who is supposed to get interested in you. If so, great. If not -- and a lot of people have trouble developing romantic feelings for their friends -- well, a lot of people take care of their sexual needs by hooking up.
  4. If you want to "date," that is, scout around for a mate among people who are not your friends, how would you find such people? Thus the huge rise of internet dating services. But everyone I know who has done that has hated the process, and most of them have eventually given up, still mateless.
  5. Dating stinks.
So if people like Charles Blow want to complain about how kids relate these days, they should suggest a model that might work better. And he ignores the role of the Internet, especially MySpace, Facebook, and the like, in how people get to know each other. You can learn more about a person from online encounters than you would learn on a few dates.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Memories of China

I've been re-reading the journal from my trip to China, and reviewing my memories.

One of the things that stood out for me was how friendly and open all the people I met were, and how completely un-oppressed they acted. I was in Prague in 1986, when there were still Soviet tanks in the streets, and a cloud of fear hung over everything. People told me, in all seriousness, that they never jaywalk because they don't want to come to the attention of the police. Opposition was expressed in cynical, satirical jokes, which were very funny but conveyed a sense that the people were completely separate from the government that they hated and feared.

In China I saw nothing like that. Our guide in Beijing did lower his voice when he confirmed that we were standing in the square where protesters were killed in 1989, and he smiled a cynical little smile when he pointed out that the new headquarters of the Chinese FBI overlooks the spot. But Tienanmen Square was the only place we saw soldiers in China, and neither our guide nor anyone else we saw seemed to have any fear of the police. I saw people vociferously disputing with cops, I guess over traffic tickets, and in Beijing we saw a small protest against the demolition of a historic house. Outside the capital nobody seemed to give any thought to the government at all.

Despite the nationalism that I know is a real force in China, we never encountered anything that even hinted at anti-Americanism. Our guides were all great, willing to talk about anything, never prickly about Chinese problems or accomplishments. Of course that was their job, but everyone else was equally pleasant: shop keepers, people on the train, Chinese tourists at the Great Wall and the Forbidden City who all wanted to take pictures of their children posing with ours. I remember a few slightly suspicious looks as we went around with Zhen Zhen, but considering that foreigners have taken a hundred thousand or so little Chinese girls out of the country in the past 15 years, I was surprised there wasn't more hostility. I am sure many of the people we met mistrust the American government, but perhaps, living under a government that they know lies to them all the time, they understand that the Americans they meet don't control Washington and may even disagree with what the American government does.

Another thing that impressed me about China was how many Chinese people there are. Cities I never heard of have two or three million inhabitants. Even at the biggest tourist attractions, almost everyone you saw was Chinese. And though there are subtle differences between the people of north and south, all Han Chinese look pretty much the same. So walking down the street in Beijing is nothing like walking down the street in New York or London. Perhaps that is one reason the Chinese are so pleasant to small groups of Americans, since they can just look around and see how vastly they outnumber the round-eyed devils.

I would go back tomorrow, if I could. China is an exciting place, rapidly joining the rest of the world but in a very Chinese way. I saw many amazing things and met many delightful people. I imagine that when Zhen Zhen is older we will take her back to visit the land where she was born, and I am very much looking forward to it.

Monday, December 8, 2008

the wisdom of Cao

"Life is absurd but one cannot succumb to the absurdity of it."

Joseph Cao, now the first Vietnamese-American elected to Congress. Cao was one of the 1975 Vietnamese refugees from Saigon, and his father spent many years in Vietnamese prisons. Cao attended a Jesuit seminary for a while and worked in very poor parts of Mexico before getting a law degree and becoming an advocate for Vietnamese Americans in New Orleans. Cao ousted 9-term Democratic incumbent William Jefferson of New Orleans, who was indicted for money laundering last year after the FBI found $90,000 in his freezer but was favored to win anyway in his majority black, heavily Democratic district.

An amazing American story, even if Cao is a big fan of John McCain.

Interesting careers

Should your book group fall, as so many seem to, into acrimony and factionalism, you can now hire a professional "book group facilitator" to smooth things over, or to take over running the group altogether:
Today there are perhaps four million to five million book groups in the United States, and the number is thought to be rising. . . . And more clubs means more acrimony. Sometimes there is a rambler in the group, whose opinion far outlasts the natural interest of others, or a pedant, who never met a literary reference she did not yearn to sling. The most common cause of dissatisfaction and departures?

“It’s because there’s an ayatollah,” said Esther Bushell, a professional book-group facilitator who leads a dozen suburban New York groups and charges $250 to $300 a member annually for her services. “This person expects to choose all the books and to take over all the discussions. And when I come on board, the ayatollah is threatened and doesn’t say anything.” Like other facilitators, she is hired for the express purpose of bringing long-winded types in line.

Ah, life among the social primates; we can't live without each other, but we also can't stand each other.

Sunday, December 7, 2008


There is always something magical about the first snow, even when it is just a dusting like we got last night. Imagine trying to explain or describe it to someone who had never seen it: beautiful white powder falls from the sky, covering everything in a gleaming white blanket, making the hills slippery, and closing the schools so children get an unexpected holiday.

Friday, December 5, 2008

single-celled, inch-long, rolling sea creatures

Giant, single-celled sea creatures confound by rolling across the ocean floor:
The grape-like animal, tentatively named the Bahamian Gromia, is actually a single-celled organism, fully one inch long. But what makes it really fantastic is that it moves -- very slowly -- by rolling itself along the ocean floor....

"We watched the video over and over," Johnsen said. The trails couldn't be the result of currents because they went in several directions at the same spot, and sometimes they even changed course. And they weren't the result of rolling downhill. In fact, one trail was found that went down into a small depression and came back up the other side.

"We argued about it forever," Johnsen said. "These things can't possibly be moving!" But they are, at a rate too slow to be captured on the sub's video. Johnsen guesses they move maybe an inch a day or less.

The distinctive trail that the Gromias leave is identical to mud tracks found in the fossil record, which throws a big wrench into one long-standing argument in biology. The fossil tracks pre-date the so-called "Cambrian explosion" 530 million years ago, which was a blossoming of multicellular life and complex body plans from what had previously just been simple, blobby life forms. Many paleontologists and evolutionary biologists have argued that such a trail couldn't possibly have been made by a simple organism, meaning complex body plans were around before the Cambrian explosion. But the Gromia show that simple blobs can indeed move and make tracks in the light, silty bottom.

consider the octopus

From the London Telegraph:

Staff believe that the octopus called Otto had been annoyed by the bright light shining into his aquarium and had discovered he could extinguish it by climbing onto the rim of his tank and squirting a jet of water in its direction.

The short-circuit had baffled electricians as well as staff at the Sea Star Aquarium in Coburg, Germany, who decided to take shifts sleeping on the floor to find out what caused the mysterious blackouts.

A spokesman said: "It was a serious matter because it shorted the electricity supply to the whole aquarium that threatened the lives of the other animals when water pumps ceased to work.

"It was on the third night that we found out that the octopus Otto was responsible for the chaos.

"We knew that he was bored as the aquarium is closed for winter, and at two feet, seven inches Otto had discovered he was big enough to swing onto the edge of his tank and shoot out the 2000 Watt spot light above him with a carefully directed jet of water."

Director Elfriede Kummer who witnessed the act said: "We've put the light a bit higher now so he shouldn't be able to reach it. But Otto is constantly craving for attention and always comes up with new stunts so we have realised we will have to keep more careful eye on him - and also perhaps give him a few more toys to play with.

"Once we saw him juggling the hermit crabs in his tank, another time he threw stones against the glass damaging it. And from time to time he completely re-arranges his tank to make it suit his own taste better - much to the distress of his fellow tank inhabitants."

The culprit:

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Kris Kuksi

An interesting artist with a lot of work on his website, including this commentary on American politics:

And this nightmarish creation:

How Much is Life Worth?

The simple answer to the question of why most Americans aren't getting any richer is health care costs. Although the median wage in America has stagnated or even fallen a little over the past decade, the amount companies pay out in compensation has risen. It's just that all of the increase in compensation has been in the form of rising health insurance premiums.

In Britain, where they take containing health care costs seriously, they have implementing a rigorous cost-benefit approach for new medical techniques:
RUISLIP, England — When Bruce Hardy’s kidney cancer spread to his lung, his doctor recommended an expensive new pill from Pfizer. But Mr. Hardy is British, and the British health authorities refused to buy the medicine. His wife has been distraught.

“Everybody should be allowed to have as much life as they can,” Joy Hardy said in the couple’s modest home outside London.

If the Hardys lived in the United States or just about any European country other than Britain, Mr. Hardy would most likely get the drug, although he might have to pay part of the cost. A clinical trial showed that the pill, called Sutent, delays cancer progression for six months at an estimated treatment cost of $54,000.

But at that price, Mr. Hardy’s life is not worth prolonging, according to a British government agency, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. The institute, known as NICE, has decided that Britain, except in rare cases, can afford only £15,000, or about $22,750, to save six months of a citizen’s life.
I am not sure that this is the right decision, but at least the British are trying to make it instead of ignoring the problem and hoping it will go away. We ought to have a public debate about how much to invest in health care. The problem with the American system is that the cost of everything we do is hidden behind a maze of payments and counter payments, insurance schemes and government subsidies. Neither the doctors recommending treatments nor the patients receiving them have much incentive to think about costs. Maybe in an ideal world they wouldn't, but we have reached the point that the more we spend on health care, the less we have to spend on other things, and we ought to face up to that.

Consider the question of drugs for heart disease. A few years ago a major study was released showing that for most patients, the cheapest class of drugs, diuretics, worked better than newer drugs costing 20 times as much. And now another study has shown that the first study had only a minimal impact on which drugs patients are taking. Why? Well, the drug companies are constantly pushing the more expensive drugs, doctors are conservative, and nobody else has much incentive to think about how much would be saved by switching patients to diuretics. Only in a crazy system would be spend billions more on drugs that work less well.

To me, the real advantage of a single payer system like they have in Canada would be that we would have to face up to what health care costs and have a real discussion about what we think people are entitled to.

The Santorini Eruption and the limits of knowledge

For at least a decade now there has been a major discrepancy in the dating of the eruption of the volcano at Thera/Santorini, which some people think destroyed the Minoan civilization. The eruption is mentioned in Egyptian records that can be tied into the Egyptian king lists, which extend unbroken down to Roman times, and the Egyptian records give the date of 1530 BC. But archaeologists have found numerous pieces of charred wood from the volcanic ash layer, and the radiocarbon dates they get are significantly older. The latest date comes from a complete olive branch buried in the eruption, and it comes out as 1613 BC, plus or minus 10 years.

Now nobody really expects radiocarbon dates to be exactly right all the time, so this discrepancy has been swept under the rug for years. But as the dates pile up it is really starting to seem that either the calibration curve we use for converting radiocarbon years to calendar years is out of whack, or there is something seriously wrong with the Egyptian king lists, which have been treated as a reliable source for centuries. One of the two pillars we use for dating events in the ancient Mediterranean is wrong.

I mention this because I have long been and remain a skeptic about our ability to have precise, accurate knowledge about the distant past. The further we look back in time, the more our vision is blurred, and the more we are dealing with probabilities rather than certainties. Radiocarbon dating is a wonderful tool, but it is subject to many limitations -- the changing level of C14 in the atmosphere (which is why we need the calibration curve), the possibility of local variations in the C14 level created by things like the ocean reservoir effect (the ocean is full of old carbon) or the outgassing of ancient carbon by volcanoes, the re-use of old wood, and the movement of charcoal through the soil because of worms, groundhogs, tree roots, and the like. I once submitted three charcoal samples from a single large pit and got back dates that translate to AD 1700, AD 650 (which matched the artifacts), and 2000 BC.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

YouTube and music

Yesterday afternoon my children were doing as little as possible with the greatest determination. As they sat around, they engaged in one of their favorite pastimes, listening to music off YouTube. This allows them to take turns choosing songs, or to click on a suggested link and hear something none of us has ever heard before. It's a delightful thing to do, even when some of the songs my sons choose sound like an army of alleycats trying to stop bulldozers in the act of tearing down their neighborhoood. YouTube, in combination with iTunes, has solved one of the major annoyances that beset life in the second half of the twentieth century. There is a fabulous quantity and diversity of recorded music in the world, but how do you learn about anything beyond the tiny sliver that gets played on the radio? And if you did manage to hear a song you really liked, the only way to get it was to buy a whole album or cd loaded with stuff you didn't like. I have a whole stack of cds I never listen to because the only song on them I like was the one I had heard before buying the thing.

But now, with YouTube, we can spend whole afternoons listening to unfamiliar music. Hear a rumor about a band? Listen to a song. Simple as that. YouTube is very limited in some kinds of music I'm interested in, especially folk, but even so it is enormously richer and more diverse than the whole radio dial. And if you find something you like, you can hop over to iTunes and, much of the time, buy it right then and there. Just the one song, not a cd loaded with 40 minutes of filler. I know some music industry people are worried that YouTube will hurt their sales, but I have bought more music this year than any of the previous dozen.

I was thinking about this, and I remembered that there was a fragment of Sophocles about the power of music, and using that other modern marvel, the internet search engine, I tracked it down:
By Memory's daughters, the Muses,
Forgetting, named Lethe, is hated
And not to be loved.
But for mortals, what
Power there is in songs,
What greatest happiness
That can make bearable this
Short narrow channel of life!

Friday, November 28, 2008


We went down to my father's house in Richmond for Thanksgiving dinner. His second wife has six children, so their are lots of relatives around. Dinner was great and it was good to see my kin. To me Thanksgiving has always been about seeing people I don't see every day, and I love these get-togethers. The years when we have stayed home and had small dinners have always been disappointing to me.

My father loves his little grandchildren, and whenever we are there he spends a lot of time with toddlers.

Here Ben and Thomas tussle dangerously close to fragile things while their cousin Zoey looks on:

And this is just a wonderful picture of Clara:

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Offering Thanks

This Thanksgiving Day, I find myself musing on the things for which, right now, I feel grateful.

I feel grateful that I live in a safe place, where will not be attacked by gunmen with grenades and automatic rifles.

I feel grateful that since most of my clients are in the federal government, my job is pretty safe.

I feel grateful that my family is healthy in a world of powerful medicine, so that their fevers, sniffles, and rashes never make me worry for their lives.

I feel grateful that knowing my wife is in the next room makes me feel good.

I feel grateful that I am looking forward to gathering with my extended family for dinner.

I feel grateful that I have confidence in the car I will drive down to Richmond, and the money to fix it should it break down; I remember when I used to set out on journeys in my ramshackle old Dodge, never knowing whether it would make it.

I feel grateful that my country has elected a President I respect.

I feel grateful that I have friends, and ways to communicate with them.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Bens Sixth Birthday

This is what being six should be like:

But this -- well, it is what it is:

Monday, November 24, 2008

vampires out of the coffin

In the "seen too many movies" category, from today's Washington Post:

"I really look at my condition as more of an energy deficiency," says one 27-year-old Washingtonian, whose condition, she says, is vampirism. She goes by Scarlet in the vampire community, but she -- like many vampires -- does not allow her real name to be printed because she has not come out of the coffin in real life. "I don't always produce enough energy to sustain myself," Scarlet says. She noticed this deficiency while a child, she says, and "awakened" as a vampire in her teens.

So the woman, who recently relocated from the South, occasionally needs to take a little energy from her boyfriend. Just a teaspoon of blood, once every week or 10 days, and always collected with disposable single-use lancet. Safety first, safety first. Feeding is "not as parasitic as people think," she says. "It's more of a reciprocal thing." While she has an energy deficiency, she says, her boyfriend has an energy surplus. "He'd been a little hyperactive, and now he can actually sleep through the night." It's almost medicinal, really.

Rabinowitz [a "psychic vampire"] is just as discriminating when it comes to empathic feeding. "I stay away from people with medical issues," she says. "There's just too much complex emotion there." Also, no drunks, no druggies, no head cases, and "I try to stay away from people who are evil, basically." Although she most often feeds from one willing donor (most often, her long-term partner), she is able to take in ambient energy from crowds, without people even realizing. Places such as Hard Times Cafe and Applebee's can be good spots, she says, because of the generally positive energy.

A frightening creature from the dark side of our imaginations, born from fear, blood, and sexuality, sent soaring by great writers and clever film makers, crashes back to earth amidst a crowd of fat suburbanites eating curly fries. So sad.

Upside Down

There is a phase through which all my children have passed some time between 1 and 5, lasting for years, during which being turned upside down will fix almost anything that is wrong with them. It gives them a joy that seems to wipe away all sorrows. I did it for Zhen Zhen this weekend, when she was distraught over some squabble over toys. And then I got to thinking about it, so I picked her up again and had Mary take this picture. Ben joined of his own initiative. What is it, do you suppose, that makes being upended such a pleasure for little ones?

Bronze Chariot

From Discovery News:

Nov. 21, 2008 -- Archaeologists have unearthed an elaborately decorated 1,800-year-old chariot sheathed in bronze at an ancient Thracian tomb in southeastern Bulgaria, the head of the excavation said Friday. "The lavishly ornamented four-wheel chariot dates back to the end of the second century A.D.," Veselin Ignatov said in a telephone interview from the site, near the southeastern village of Karanovo. . . .

The bronze-plated wooden chariot is decorated with scenes from Thracian Mythology, including figures of a jumping panther and the carving of a mythological animal with the body of a panther and the tail of a dolphin, Ignatov said.

I can't wait to see pictures of the restored chariot!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

on my daughter calling me "ancient"

from Tennyson's "Ulysses"

It little profits that an idle king
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel; I will drink
Life to the lees. All times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea. I am become a name,
For always roaming with a hungry heart.
Much have I seen and known–cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honored of them all–
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades
Forever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains; but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought....
There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail;
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me--
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads–you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil.
Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are–
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Ben was just telling me that he hates a song. "It sounds like it's singed by artist nerds. They're also called nerdists. Do you know that nerdist is another word for artist nerd?"

And I realized that I have a new ambition: I want to be a nerdist!

reading about side effects makes you sick

From the Wall Street Journal:
Is it a good idea to read about all the possible side effects of medications you're taking?

Not if you have difficulty concentrating, headaches, fatigue, dry skin, irritability, a big project due, or an active imagination.

Research has shown that expecting to feel ill can bring illness on in some instances, particularly when stress is involved. The technical term is the "nocebo effect," and it's placebo's evil twin. "It's not a psychiatric disorder -- it's the way the mind works," says Arthur Barsky, director of Psychiatric Research at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

Nocebos can even be fatal. In one classic example, women in the multi-decade Framingham Heart study who thought they were at risk for heart attacks were 3.7 times as likely to die of coronary conditions as women who didn't have such fears -- regardless of whether they smoked or had other risk factors.

Research deliberately causing nocebos has been limited (after all, it's kind of cruel). But in one 1960s test, when hospital patients were given sugar water and told it would make them vomit, 80% of them did.

Studies have also shown that patients forewarned about possible side effects are more likely to encounter them. In a study last year at the University of Turin, Italy, men taking finesteride for enlarged prostates who were informed that it could cause erectile dysfunction and decreased libido were three times as likely to experience such side effects as men who weren't told.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

More on the California Academy of Sciences

At Slate, Witold Rybczynski gives an interesting and positive review of Renzo Piano's California Academy of Sciences.

New Finds from Catal Hoyuk

This year's annual press release from Catal Hoyuk includes the discovery of another house decorated with bull's horns and wall paintings:

And this tiny, delightful fertility figure:

Did you ever wonder how people lived in little houses full of bull's horns? Weren't they always tripping over them or sitting on them?

Architectural Eras

By chance the NY Times has two architectural slide shows up right now, one featuring Frank Gehry's renovation of the Ontario Art Museum and the other on the 19th century architecture of Buffalo.

And this has been wondering again: why doesn't anyone build pretty buildings any more?

Compare this facade, from Louis Sullivan's 1895 Guarantee Building:

With the facade of Gehry's latest:

Or compare a staircase by Gehry with two by Daniel Burnham:

I look at these, and all that comes to mind is that my own age has somehow gone completely insane. I hope they do manage to preserve Buffalo's most beautiful buildings, because we have lost the ability to build new ones anywhere near as lovely.

Friday, November 14, 2008

online psychosis

Via Mind Hacks, a fascinating look at online groups where psychotics share their delusions.

As the New York Times reported the story,

FOR years they lived in solitary terror of the light beams that caused searing headaches, the technology that took control of their minds and bodies. They feared the stalkers, people whose voices shouted from the walls or screamed in their heads, “We found you” and “We want you dead.”

When people who believe such things reported them to the police, doctors or family, they said they were often told they were crazy. Sometimes they were medicated or locked in hospital wards, or fired from jobs and isolated from the outside world.

But when they found one another on the Internet, everything changed. So many others were having the same experiences.

Type “mind control” or “gang stalking” into Google, and Web sites appear that describe cases of persecution, both psychological and physical, related with the same minute details — red and white cars following victims, vandalism of their homes, snickering by those around them.

Identified by some psychologists and psychiatrists as part of an “extreme community” on the Internet that appears to encourage delusional thinking, a growing number of such Web sites are filled with stories from people who say they are victims of mind control and stalking by gangs of government agents. The sites are drawing the concern of mental health professionals and the interest of researchers in psychology and psychiatry.

As Mind Hacks points out, these networks may eventually raise a serious problem of diagnosis. Part of the standard description of a psychotic delusion states,
if a belief is held by a person’s “culture or subculture,” it is not a delusion.

Putin and Bush

Put this in the category of, "so amusing it ought to be true." And, hey, it might; the source is the London Times. According to the Times, French President Sarkozy saved President Saakashvili of Georgia from a gruesome fate with this bit of cleverness:
With Russian tanks only 30 miles from Tbilisi on August 12, Mr Sarkozy told Mr Putin that the world would not accept the overthrow of Georgia’s Government. According to Mr Levitte, the Russian seemed unconcerned by international reaction. “I am going to hang Saakashvili by the balls,” Mr Putin declared.

Mr Sarkozy thought he had misheard. “Hang him?” — he asked. “Why not?” Mr Putin replied. “The Americans hanged Saddam Hussein.”

Mr Sarkozy, using the familiar tu, tried to reason with him: “Yes but do you want to end up like [President] Bush?” Mr Putin was briefly lost for words, then said: “Ah — you have scored a point there.”

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Hubble photographs extra-solar planet

Amazing news from NASA:
NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has taken the first visible-light snapshot of a planet circling another star.

Estimated to be no more than three times Jupiter's mass, the planet, called Fomalhaut b, orbits the bright southern star Fomalhaut, located 25 light-years away in the constellation Piscis Australis, or the "Southern Fish."

Fomalhaut has been a candidate for planet hunting ever since an excess of dust was discovered around the star in the early 1980s by NASA's Infrared Astronomy Satellite, IRAS.

In 2004, the coronagraph in the High Resolution Camera on Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys produced the first-ever resolved visible-light image of the region around Fomalhaut. It clearly showed a ring of protoplanetary debris approximately 21.5 billion miles across and having a sharp inner edge.

This large debris disk is similar to the Kuiper Belt, which encircles the solar system and contains a range of icy bodies from dust grains to objects the size of dwarf planets, such as Pluto.

Hubble astronomer Paul Kalas, of the University of California at Berkeley, and team members proposed in 2005 that the ring was being gravitationally modified by a planet lying between the star and the ring's inner edge.

Circumstantial evidence came from Hubble's confirmation that the ring is offset from the center of the star. The sharp inner edge of the ring is also consistent with the presence of a planet that gravitationally "shepherds" ring particles. Independent researchers have subsequently reached similar conclusions.

Now, Hubble has actually photographed a point source of light lying 1.8 billion miles inside the ring's inner edge. The results are being reported in the November 14 issue of Science magazine.

"Our Hubble observations were incredibly demanding. Fomalhaut b is 1 billion times fainter than the star. We began this program in 2001, and our persistence finally paid off," Kalas says.

"Fomalhaut is the gift that keeps on giving. Following the unexpected discovery of its dust ring, we have now found an exoplanet at a location suggested by analysis of the dust ring's shape. The lesson for exoplanet hunters is 'follow the dust,'" said team member Mark Clampin of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Observations taken 21 months apart by Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys' coronagraph show that the object is moving along a path around the star, and is therefore gravitationally bound to it. The planet is 10.7 billion miles from the star, or about 10 times the distance of the planet Saturn from our sun.

The planet is brighter than expected for an object of three Jupiter masses. One possibility is that it has a Saturn-like ring of ice and dust reflecting starlight. The ring might eventually coalesce to form moons. The ring's estimated size is comparable to the region around Jupiter and its four largest orbiting satellites.

Kalas and his team first used Hubble to photograph Fomalhaut in 2004, and made the unexpected discovery of its debris disk, which scatters Fomalhaut's starlight. At the time they noted a few bright sources in the image as planet candidates. A follow-up image in 2006 showed that one of the objects is moving through space with Fomalhaut but changed position relative to the ring since the 2004 exposure. The amount of displacement between the two exposures corresponds to an 872-year-long orbit as calculated from Kepler's laws of planetary motion.

Future observations will attempt to see the planet in infrared light and will look for evidence of water vapor clouds in the atmosphere. This would yield clues to the evolution of a comparatively newborn 100-million-year-old planet. Astrometric measurements of the planet's orbit will provide enough precision to yield an accurate mass.

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2013 will be able to make coronagraphic observations of Fomalhaut in the near- and mid-infrared. Webb will be able to hunt for other planets in the system and probe the region interior to the dust ring for structures such as an inner asteroid belt.

November Rain

I'm home now, trying to shake off a nasty cold and watching the rain fall on the gray November world outside. Sometimes this time of year makes me sad -- the chill, the rain, and especially the darkness. It weighs on me when I leave for work in the dark and get home in the dark. There is still work to be done outside, but often the weekend days are either wet or cold and windy, so it isn't much fun.

But really I like having four seasons. There is something to love in every time of year and every kind of day. Days like today are perfect for being cozy inside, drinking coffee and reading. They are perfect for baking cookies. They are perfect for writing. And they are perfect for doing nothing at all.

The Enemy

From a just published speech that Leonard Bernstein gave in 1986. He had been on tour with the Israel Philharmonic in a year with several high-profile terrorist attacks:

It was all bells and beauty, Hatikvah in our hearts, enraptured audiences—except for one thing: security. We were, after all, the Israel Philharmonic, streaming from airport to airport, concert hall to hotel, public place to public place; we were the messengers of music (that is, beauty, therefore truth) and everywhere around us was something called terrorism. That was also a truth—not perhaps so absolute as Plato’s Aesthetic Truth, but a formidable reality nonetheless. Paris had just undergone a relentless storm of terrorist abuse, and we were en route là-bas. I need not tell you about airports—Heathrow, Leonardo da Vinci, Athens, Vienna—everybody’s favorite headlines. We were therefore heavily guarded; wherever we went there were Carabinieri, Sicherheitspolizei, La Sureté Nationale, Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the charming Swiss Army. I could go nowhere without a personal bodyguard, not even for a walk down Piccadilly or the Champs Elysées. I visited the breathtaking ruins of Pompeii, after 15 or 20 years; what a joy, but again attended by a helicopter overhead, soldiers with ferocious dogs on chains, and chummy plainclothesmen in Italian silk shirts concealing stomachs of pure fatal metal. Guns. I hate guns. What a great way to see Pompeii. The next day I swam in the Bay of Sorrento, carefully cruised by two poliziotti. What fun. What was happening was that day by day, going from triumph to triumph, from one set of old friends to another, from joy to joy and sunshine to sunshine, an invisible character gradually came into being, slowly and steadily developing a special identity called The Enemy. I had never before been so aware of this metaphorical being, The Enemy; but the more protection one has, the more danger is implied; the stronger the defense, the greater must be the threat. At one point I suddenly realized that this is the way the world lives, is practiced in living—existing in terms of an enemy. It’s exactly the target that Jesus aimed at all his life, and Buddha too, and Freud; and Gandhi and Martin Luther King: trying to make this invisible creature unnecessary. Love thy neighbor as thyself.
The need to defend against real enemies must always be balanced against the danger of letting the Enemy in our heads control our lives and corrupt our souls.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

hating Vista

So I bought a new laptop. I got a cheap one, partly because I thought I already had most of the software I needed. It came with Windows Vista.

Why, oh why, does Microsoft do this crap? Why Windows 98, why Millennium Edition, why Vista? Using XP I had almost gotten over my old Mac-user's contempt for them. XP works fine, and the corporate version I use in the office is even better. For the past couple of years I have had no complaints about Windows at all. So why did they change it?

Vista is constantly doing thing I didn't know I had told it to do. It scrolls when I think I am just moving the mouse, it opens things I haven't clicked on, it jumps around in mysterious ways. So I have spent much of the morning surfing web sites with names like "How to Disable Twelve Useless Features in Vista", turning off mysterious functions.

And even if I ever manage to make the system work the way I want it to, it still won't run my old software. Wordperfect 11, my favorite word processor ever, is no more. Sigh.

Why, oh why?

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Enriched Environments

In this week's New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell muses on whether tough breaks are a useful prerequisite for success. He refers several times to Andrew Carnegie, who believed that growing up poor helped him succeed in business. There was an advantage, Carnegie insisted, to being "cradled, nursed and reared in the stimulating school of poverty." People facing disadvantages learn to compensate for them, and this compensation is more useful than any advantage of birth or education. Gladwell devotes a lot of attention to Sidney Weinberg, the son of poor Jewish immigrants who became Wall Street's most successful banker. Weinberg constantly played up his outsider status, interrupting boring technical presentations to say, "I'm just a poor guy from the Bronx, explain this in terms I can understand."

Gladwell writes, "This idea" -- that those who have to compensate for disadvantages go further in the long run than those given every advantage --
is both familiar and perplexing. Consider the curious fact that many successful entrepreneurs suffer from serious learning disabilities. Paul Orfalea, the founder of the Kinko’s chain, was a D student who failed two grades, was expelled from four schools, and graduated at the bottom of his high-school class. “In third grade, the only word I could read was ‘the,’ ” he says. “I used to keep track of where the group was reading by following from one ‘the’ to the next.” Richard Branson, the British billionaire who started the Virgin empire, dropped out of school at fifteen after struggling with reading and writing. “I was always bottom of the class,” he has said. John Chambers, who built the Silicon Valley firm Cisco into a hundred-billion-dollar corporation, has trouble reading e-mail. One of the pioneers of the cellular-phone industry, Craig McCaw, is dyslexic, as is Charles Schwab, the founder of the discount brokerage house that bears his name. When the business-school professor Julie Logan surveyed a group of American small-business owners recently, she found that thirty-five per cent of them self-identified as dyslexic.
Gladwell doesn't mention it, but this obviously applies to the President-elect. Obama was the son of a teenage Kansan mother with psychological problems and an African father who immediately abandoned him. His elementary schooling, much of it in Indonesia, was spotty. He rebelled against the white grandparents who raised him by insisting on his blackness, accepting an identity that created serious problems for his political ambitions. True, his high school was an elite institution, and he went from there to the Ivy League, but his early experiences are hardly what any ambitious parent would choose for his or her children.

I like to tell a story I heard on NPR many years ago, about a son of migrant Mexican farmworkers who went to Harvard. According to him, when he told his white high school guidance counselor that he had been admitted to Harvard, the man replied, "that's great, and if you fail out, we'll be here for you." He was enraged by what he took as a dismissal, and when he had trouble at Harvard, he always thought that he couldn't fail because he couldn't go back home and face the jerks who expected him to. Which raises the question, was his guidance counselor just a jerk, or was he maybe a motivational genius? I can imagine him thinking, "what this punk needs is a kick in the ass from a mean white guy."

So what do young people need to equip them for success? Is the sort of perfectly safe, well-coddled upbringing my children are getting really the best thing for them? Is the everyone's a winner, medals for participation, nothing but praise culture of American suburban childhood actually good for anyone?

This is not a new question. In many ancient and medieval European societies, parents often sent their children away to be fostered by friends or relatives, and one of the reasons they gave was that parents would be too kind and loving to impart the toughness essential for success in those violent times. The British elite long sent their sons to boarding schools where a regimen of bad food, cold showers and freqent beatings gave them "character." American law schools used to practice a sort of ritual humiliation of first year students.

But, as Gladwell writes, there are obvious problems with the imposition of disadvantages:
There’s no question that we are less than comfortable with the claims that people like Schwab and Orfalea make on behalf of their disabilities. As impressive as their success has been, none of us would go so far as to wish dyslexia on our own children. If a disproportionately high number of entrepreneurs are dyslexic, so are a disproportionately high number of prisoners. Systems in which people compensate for disadvantage seem to us unacceptably Darwinian. The stronger get stronger, and the weaker get even weaker.
What if this is true? If a school of hard knocks approach to raising children leads to a flattening of the bell curve, with more spectacular successes and more total failures, would that be a good thing or a bad thing? This sounds, at first, like a liberal vs. conservative distinction, but some of my most liberal friends worry that our educational system is designed to produce happy mediocrity. I think it is simply an inevitable problem for a rich and peaceful society. We are stuck with our wealth and committed to non-violence and non-discrimination, and we will just have to deal with the consequences.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Election 2008


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

brush clearing

Yesterday I took my crew up to Newark, Delaware to test around an old box factory that may be torn to build an office complex. The caretaker was a sort of personal metaphor for the decline of industrial America: he worked at the factory when it made boxes, he oversaw the removal of the machinery, and now he oversees the maintenance of the empty building and opens the doors for potential buyers and other busybodies. Like a character in a Michael Moore documentary.

Turns out that part of the property behind this factory building was overgrown with a thorny tangle of wild roses (how much breath I've wasted cursing the people who planted those imported weeds as hedges, thus spreading them across middle America), small pear trees, honeysuckle, and blackberries. There was no way to get in except by cutting a path. S0 I walked across the street to the Southern States and bought two machetes. The blades of these were mysteriously coated with some sort of rubbery plastic, which I had to rub off on a rock to expose the cutting edge. I'm sure lawyers are involved in this somehow. Machete in hand, I waded into the brier patch, hacking at the thorny canes that tore my clothes and skin. A haiku came to mind:

Rose hips are lovely
Shining red in the dense brush
Behind, always thorns


I cut the rose canes
Though they slash at my bare arms
Steel beats wood again

Later on, I mused that I was communing with our current President, who is said to greatly enjoy cutting brush on his Crawford ranch. It is rather fun, actually.

I wondered, does he compose haiku as he works? Perhaps

Bombs fall everywhere
I destroy evildoers
Mission accomplished

Or maybe

I hunt bin Laden
In caves, over mountaintops,
He gets away.


Governing is hard
I should have studied harder
Oh well, too late now

Well, probably not.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Halloween 2008

I love Halloween. I love to see my children having fun in non-electronic ways, and I love to see them participating in such ancient rituals.

Here are my daughter Zhen Zhen and my nephew Augie welcoming a neighbor to the door:

My big kids all went off with their own friends this year, so only Ben (5) and Zhen Zhen (3) went with me. Ben was funny. He was nervous about some of the creepier decorations, especially the ones that made noise when you came close. He wouldn't go to a couple of houses, and he started saying he wanted to go home after two blocks. But Zhen Zhen was fearless. She marched right up to every door, princess crown on her head and pumpkin basket in her hand, said something approximating "trick or treat" and then marched on. I think she would have kept going much longer if Ben had wanted to. I don't know if she is braver than Ben or just doesn't understand that ghosts are supposed to be scary things.

I wonder if this was my eldest son's last trick or treat. He is 15 this year, and he was still really into it. He wanted to keep going all night and cover all of Catonsvlle -- he wants to roam, we joked, like a young male panther. Now that it's considered inappropriate to throw eggs and light fires, what do older teenagers do on Halloween?

But to get back to ancient history. Halloween as we know it is a fairly recent creation, but it is an amalgam of very old customs. Aggressive begging, as folklorists call it, goes back at least a thousand years in Europe, done on an assortment of holidays. One of my favorites is from the English midlands: on St. Stevens Day the young men used to kill a wren and carry it around in a little coffin, demanding contributions to the funeral. The time of year when we celebrate All Saints Day, the end of Autumn and the start of Winter, has been associated with the dead and ghosts since ancient Roman times. In some parts of Europe, going back at least to the 1600s, young men and adolescent boys used to dress as ghosts or dead souls and either march through town or go begging, and we have scattered reports of such groups of young men trying to surprise and terrify people in lonely spots.

It pleases me to see that these old ways live on in my own children, and not in a spirit of doggedly keeping to custom because that's what we do, but in pure joy.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

More western Maryland

I took my camera with me today, but the dismal gray light kept me from the pictures of fall color I wanted. These are two of the better ones.

The Potomac River near Paw Paw.

And near the mouth of Town Creek.

the weird things people read about

The device I had been using to listen to cds in my car died this summer, and I have nearly exhausted my library's supply of books on cassette tape. Scanning the titles last week, I decided to try The Bonesetter's Daughter by Amy Tan. My wife likes Amy Tan, as do several other people I know, and she is a reasonably famous American author. Plus, I just went to China.

So, driving back and forth to western Maryland, I listened to The Bonesetter's Daughter. The story is split between the US in the 1990s and China from about 1910 to 1945. I gather this is typical for Tan. The part about China concern the travails of a Chinese girl and her family amidst family feuds, murders, suicides, civil war, revolution, the Japanese invasion, the discovery of Peking Man, and all sorts of other exciting events. There is a great deal of folklore about ghosts, curses, ghost-catchers, and traditional medicine. I loved it. The American part concerns a 40-ish woman dealing with her demented mother and trying to revive or escape from her relationship with her boyfriend. I hated it. I simply cannot imagine why anyone would want to read a fictional account of a troubled couple touring an assisted living facility where they may put one's mother. It isn't just that much of the American part is depressing -- much worse things happen in the Chinese sections. It's that the American part is both depressing and mundane.

What is the point? Because life is really like that? So? Why would I want to read about things that happen around me all the time, when I could read about exciting adventures set in exotic places? Don't get me wrong, the Chinese part of The Bonesetter's Daughter is still by Amy Tan, and it is much concerned with family dynamics and the emotions of the mostly female characters. But these are women from a culture about which I know little, engaged in life and death struggles against the backdrop of history, not San Francisco yuppies fretting over their self-inflicted psychic wounds.

Well, to each his (or her) own.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Review of Neal Stephenson's Anathem

I finally have something new up at bensozia.com, a review of Neal Stephenson's new novel, Anathem. I haven't worked with the site in so long that I had to set up all of my site management and html software all over again, but now that I have taken care of that, maybe I will get back to posting regularly.

Andrew Sullivan wrote a very interesting essay on blogging that explains why I plan to keep both the web site and this blog. Blogging is immediate, unfiltered writing, intended to record our first responses to things. It is highly personal. It is not really intended to endure, and for that reason blogs are not organized in a way that makes searching for old posts easy. So, my plan for now is to keep blogging here, recording my immediate reactions to things and something of my personal life, and posting essays and book reviews at bensozia.

A Question about Vanitas

What does it mean when a group of classical musicians calls themselves the something-or-other "soloists"?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Western Maryland

Sometimes, as I work along the C&O Canal in western Maryland, I am awed by the beauty of the scenery.

This is Town Creek, named, we think, after the Shawnee Indian town that was not far from its mouth:

And this is the wide floodplain of the Potomac River, a beautiful place to dig and a site of human habitation for at least 10,000 years:

Fall goes on

Sunday night we had our first frost, and it froze again on Monday and Tuesday. This put an end to all of the tender plants in the garden, and things were looking pretty dead. But since Wednesday it has gotten a little warmer, and yesterday we had our first real rain in three weeks. It rained all day, sometimes gently and sometimes torrents. Today the sun is out and everything looks green and glowing again. The mums are still lovely,and the zinnias are hanging on. This afternoon I will go out and finish planting bulbs, taking advantage of what is probably one of the few lovely warm Sundays left in the year.

Sarah Palin's clothes

So the McCain campaign spent $150,000 on Sarah Palin's clothes, about as much as they are spending each week for television ads in Colorado, and $11,000 a week on her traveling make-up artist. This may have been stupid, but I don't see anything particularly scandalous about it. Top of the line clothes are expensive -- Cindy McCain was wearing about $300,000 worth of clothes and jewelry at her husband's nomination, mostly in the form of diamonds -- and her beauty is part of Palin's charisma.

What I find interesting is what this says about the two-faced nature of Sarah Palin's appeal. On the one hand she presents herself as an ordinary, small-town "hockey mom," who shops at WalMart and knows what it's like to face the problems you face. Except that she isn't an ordinary mom, she's a glamorous celebrity. She isn't like you, she's like what you would be like if you were beautiful, rich, and charismatic. For her real fans, I bet the revelation of this shopping spree only increases her appeal, because a new wardrobe is an essential part of the ordinary woman's celebrity fantasies (see "Cinderella" and "Pretty Woman"). Given sudden access to unlimited money, she spent it just the way they would. Her religious faith and her decision to keep a baby with Down Syndrome serve as anchors, showing that despite her meteoric rise she has held on to what is best in her small-town background. It's another part of the fantasy -- if I got rich, it wouldn't change who I really am.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

African witches attack McCain

From the Department of Weird Americans, this "action item":

Two days ago, I listened to a 9-6-08 message by Bree Keyton, a young woman evangelist who had just traveled to Kenya and visited Obama's home village and what she found out about his relations with his tribal people was chilling.... She said the witches, warlocks and those involved in satanism and the occult get up daily at 3 a.m. to release curses against McCain and Palin so B. Hussein Obama is elected.

Bree Keyton told the tribal "Christians" you are NOT Christian if you practice "tribalism" where they do voodoo to conjure up a goddess spirit or a "genie" and then come to church on Sunday to worship Jesus! What she discovered there is apparent in most churches around the world; namely, mixture in the church. Some renounced their devilish practices of blood covenant by killing sheep, goats, humans to be inducted into the tribe or to get a wife or to get revenge.

She said the current president of Kenya is a Christian. However, Obama's cousin Odinga ran aganist him and said he rigged the election and stirred up the masses to rape woman and boys, kill and burn and torture Christians, etc. until Obama contacted Condeleeza Rice and she granted Obama the right to contact Odinga and other ruling elders and he "convinced" them to stop terrorizing the Christians. Bree Keyton said the current Christian President was forced by our government (!) to "create" an office for Odinga (to make "peace") so he was made the Prime Minister (!) to make peace between the Christians and Odinga's Muslim religion!

Bree Keyton went and visited Obama's tribal people and she found out Obama is 75% Arab and his family are Muslims. Odinga is strill trying to become the President of Kenya. If he does, he will make a law forbidding all public preaching and institute Sharia Law. Bree K. said Odinga has made a pact with satan.

Bree K. also said when Obama visited his tribe in '06 and as late as Jan. '08 he went to every elder's home which has a "shrine" inside to worship the genie and asked for their blessing. She was told Obama and Odinga were both "destined" before they were born to be president/leader of their nation. They say "he is the chosen one". She said Obama's grandmother sacrificed a black and a white chicken to the "goddess of the river" so both whites and blacks will vote for Obama. All Islam loves and worships Obama. The world is mesmerized by him. Oprah's 200 million followers are out to elect Obama. Also, Dick Morris of Fox News was sent to Kenya to help Odinga run his campaign! I find that unbelievable.

The occultists are "weaving lazy 8's around McCain's mind to make him look confused and like an idiot". Bree K. said we need to break these curses off of him that are being sent from Kenya.
Well, that explains McCain's behavior over the past few months; it's Kenyan curses that are making him look like an idiot.

For the record, Odinga is an Anglican. He has lately claimed to be Barack Obama's cousin, but so have thousands of other Kenyans. The 2007 Kenyan presidental election was rigged by his opponent, leading to the rioting and militia combat that claimed thousands of lives.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

the rain of vomit

After a morning of meetings in southeastern Maryland, I got back to Washington around 1:00. I was thrilled to find a free, two-hour parking space in the closest possible spot to the office, in the mysterious grove of gingko trees in Rose Park. I say mysterious because everyone else in the world plants only male gingko trees, and these are the first female trees I had ever seen. People (other than, I suppose, nurseries that breed gingkoes) plant only male trees because the females make thousands of little fruit that smell exactly like vomit. These are about the size of crab apples and ripen in the fall. I had not thought about this when I backed into this space, but as I was gathering up my stuff a gust of wind came and gingko fruit began to rain down on my car. It was, for a few seconds, like sitting in a car in a thunderstorm, as dozens of fruit banged loudly on the roof and hood. I was idly musing on whether gingko fruit were heavy and hard enough to hurt my car, when it occurred to me that even if they did no damage each one was spraying the car without a teaspoon or so of vomitous gingko pulp. So I moved my car, but when I got out and had a look I saw that the car was thoroughly spattered with yellowish pulp and smelled very strongly of vomit.

the mysterious obsession

I just finished listening to The Mysterious Flame of Queen of Loana by Umberto Eco. This concerns a 60-year-old man who has a stroke and loses all of his personal memories but remembers everything he ever read in books. It has its moments. But the ending was badly written (actually I suspect it consisted, quite intentionally, entirely of brief quotations from other authors strung together) and it annoyed me. The narrator gets much of his memory back but as he is dying he obsesses over one thing he still can’t remember, the face of the first girl he ever loved. She was his obsession during his junior year of high school, but she dated older boys and he never spoke to her except for a few very casual words. He filled a notebook full of poems about her. But then her family moved away and he never saw her again. He gradually reconstructs his lifelong obsession with her, realizing that he picked his wife and all of the other women he dated because they reminded him of her.

I just don’t get this obsession with female faces. I mean, they’re nice enough, but no prettier than mountains or puppies or flowers. The glory of women is talking to them -- you can gaze longingly at a mountain but you can't share your soul with one. To the extent that I do concern myself with the appearance of women I care at least as much about bodies as faces. Are there really many men like Eco's narrator, or is this mainly a literary trope? Can one spend a lifetime obsession about a woman just because she is beautiful? Why? The narrator relates that his priest told the teenage boys that they should distract themselves from impure thoughts by contemplating the perfect beauty of the Virgin Mary, reminding themselves that sin might keep them from every really beholding her. And this is certainly something a priest might have said.

It’s crazy, and I just don’t get it.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

On trying to be a writer and a parent

This morning, after feeding three kids breakfast and getting one dressed and generally moving past the morning rush, I sat down at the computer to write. I opened my unfinished chapter, read over what I had written, and started to type. I got one paragraph written when three-year-old Zhen Zhen appeared at my elbow with a book in her hands saying, "Daddy, read story?"

What was I supposed to do? I really hadn't given her any attention yet today, and she is usually too wriggly to read to. She was so cute and earnest. I read to her, and that paragraph is still all the writing I got done today.