Saturday, January 31, 2009

Chinese breakfast

The one way that Zhen Zhen still seems different from our American-born children is in the way she eats, especially at breakfast. Our other children would live on sweetened carbohydrates if we left them. They want cereal morning, noon, and night. But Zhen Zhen prefers to eat other things. Her favorite breakfast actually seems to be leftover General Tso's chicken and rice, or chicken tikka masala. Quite often she asks for chicken nuggets. This morning she asked for macaroni and cheese. I always think, who am I to impose my western notions of breakfast on her? So macaroni and cheese it was.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Live in the future, and the past

This is the answer to Edge's "What do you believe is true even though you can't prove it" question by German software designer Kai Krause.
I have always felt, but can't prove outright: Zen is wrong. Then is right. Everything is not about the now, as in the "here and how", "living for the moment" On the contrary: I believe everything is about the before then and the back then.
It is about the anticipation of the moment and the memory of the moment, but not the moment.

In German there is a beautiful little word for it: "Vorfreude", which still is a shade different from "delight" or "pleasure" or even "anticipation". It is the "Pre-Delight", the "Before-Joy", or as a little linguistic concoction: the "ForeFun"; in a single word trying to express the relationship of time, the pleasure of waiting for the moment to arrive, the can't wait moments of elation, of hoping for some thing, some one, some event to happen. . . .

Bluntly put: spend your life in the eternal bliss of always having something to hope for, something to wait for, plans not realized, dreams not come true.... Make sure you have new points on the horizon, that you purposely create. And at the same time, relive your memories, uphold and cherish them, keep them alive and share them, talk about them.

Make plans and take pictures.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Thought for the Day

The fear of death might be described as the fear of not being able to become whom one had planned to be.

-- Pascal Mercier

Friday, January 23, 2009

quantum telegraph

One of the weirder bits of quantum theory specifies that atoms or sub-atomic particles can become "entangled." That is, the properties of one depend on the properties of the other; for example, in some kinds of reactions an atom might emit two electrons that spin in different directions. This remains true no matter how far apart they fly. And due to that other famous bit of quantum weirdness, uncertainty, neither electron actually has a spin until somebody measures it. At that moment you "collapse the wave function" of the electron in front of you, forcing it to have one spin state or the other. And simultaneously you force the second electron to take the opposite spin, even if it is a billion light years away.

Ever since this was discovered, scientists and science fiction writers have been wondering how to use the property to create instantaneous communication. We're still a long, long way from the interstellar telegraphs beloved of certain sci-fi writers, but another important if very small step has now been taken:
For the first time, scientists have successfully teleported information between two separate atoms in unconnected enclosures a meter apart – a significant milestone in the global quest for practical quantum information processing.

Teleportation may be nature's most mysterious form of transport: Quantum information, such as the spin of a particle or the polarization of a photon, is transferred from one place to another, without traveling through any physical medium. It has previously been achieved between photons over very large distances, between photons and ensembles of atoms, and between two nearby atoms through the intermediary action of a third. None of those, however, provides a feasible means of holding and managing quantum information over long distances.

Now a team from the Joint Quantum Institute (JQI) at the University of Maryland (UMD) and the University of Michigan has succeeded in teleporting a quantum state directly from one atom to another over a substantial distance. That capability is necessary for workable quantum information systems because they will require memory storage at both the sending and receiving ends of the transmission.

In the Jan. 23 issue of the journal Science, the scientists report that, by using their protocol, atom-to-atom teleported information can be recovered with perfect accuracy about 90% of the time – and that figure can be improved.

"Our system has the potential to form the basis for a large-scale 'quantum repeater' that can network quantum memories over vast distances," says group leader Christopher Monroe of JQI and UMD. "Moreover, our methods can be used in conjunction with quantum bit operations to create a key component needed for quantum computation." A quantum computer could perform certain tasks, such as encryption-related calculations and searches of giant databases, considerably faster than conventional machines. The effort to devise a working model is a matter of intense interest worldwide.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

the shirt

Geologist Richard Neavel of Austin, TX, wearing a shirt featuring my favorite movie line, testifies against a Texas bill that would require science teachers to discuss the "strengths and weaknesses" of all scientific theories. Yes, that's right, in order to somehow fight the teaching of evolution, Texas conservatives are supporting a bill that would require physics teachers to discuss the strengths and weakness 0f universal gravitation, chemistry teachers to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of atomic theory, etc.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Crowd

I like this image better than any of the pictures of the new President. As much as I admire him, the day is really about us, the people, and the power of democracy.

our mixed-up first family

From the NY Times:
The president’s elderly stepgrandmother brought him an oxtail fly whisk, a mark of power at home in Kenya. Cousins journeyed from the South Carolina town where the first lady’s great-great-grandfather was born into slavery, while the rabbi in the family came from the synagogue where he had been commemorating Martin Luther King's Birthday. The president and first lady’s siblings were there, too, of course: his Indonesian-American half-sister, who brought her Chinese-Canadian husband, and her brother, a black man with a white wife.
Gotta love this family photo:

President Obama hugged his half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, at her December 2003 wedding to Konrad Ng, third from right, in Hawaii. From left, his daughters, Sasha and Malia; his grandmother Madelyne Dunham, seated; Konrad’s parents, Joan and Howard Ng, and brother Perry Ng; and Michelle Obama.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

meanwhile, amidst the ruins

From the Associated Press:
Hamas Declares Victory in Rallies across Gaza

GAZA CITY – Waving green Islamic flags atop the ruins of Gaza, Hamas proclaimed victory in rallies attended by thousands of supporters Tuesday, saying it survived Israel's military onslaught despite the destruction and massive death toll suffered by Gazans.

Beyond its fiery words, however, Hamas offered no plans for rebuilding Gaza, which suffered some $2 billion in damage during three weeks of fighting. Gaza's borders with Israel and Egypt, largely sealed since the Islamic militants seized power 19 months ago, remain closed and are unlikely to open unless the militants relinquish some control.

Israel has also claimed victory, but neither side was the clear winner.

The fighting killed some 1,300 Gazans, the vast majority civilians, and thousands of Palestinian homes were destroyed. Israel emerged from the war with relatively few casualties — 13 dead, including 10 soldiers — but halted fire before reaching its objectives. No internationally backed truce deal is yet in place to prevent Hamas rocket fire on southern Israel or arms smuggling into Gaza.

To quote a bit of Shakespeare, "All are punished."

the oath of office

NPR once had a feature with a bunch of other country's Presidential oaths, and they were all pretty lame. "I promise to be good," that sort of thing. Only the US oath had any real gravity, because the US President promises to do something concrete and of the highest importance: preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. Bush broke his oath. My highest hope for Obama is that he will keep his.

In his inaugural address, he hinted that he intends to:
. . .we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake.

self promotion

I set up a Facebook page. I have no idea what I will do with it, but I was just reading that some people, when they want to check up on somebody they've heard of, look for him or her on Facebook. Now they can find me. Weee. I have to say that I find the interface remarkably ugly. Why can't you make your page cool, with an array of graphics and words, instead of that clunky, bureaucratic layout? It looks like a personnel file.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Not your usual rainbow

I found this perusing old pictures on the National Geographic web site. It's a rare atmospheric phenomenon called a circumhorizontal arc, photographed in Idaho in June, 2006. To quote:
The arc isn't a rainbow in the traditional sense—it is caused by light passing through wispy, high-altitude cirrus clouds. The sight occurs only when the sun is very high in the sky (more than 58° above the horizon). What's more, the hexagonal ice crystals that make up cirrus clouds must be shaped like thick plates with their faces parallel to the ground.

When light enters through a vertical side face of such an ice crystal and leaves from the bottom face, it refracts, or bends, in the same way that light passes through a prism. If a cirrus's crystals are aligned just right, the whole cloud lights up in a spectrum of colors.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

What I believe but can't prove

I've been thinking about the question from Edge that I blogged about below: What do you believe is true even though you can't prove it? I have been thinking about several possible answers, but I think that I have the most interesting things to say about this one.

I believe, but can't prove, that much human intellectual activity is the accidental product of our large brains and has no evolutionary or other purpose. Whenever I read another "evolutionary biologist" speculating about the adaptive purpose of our innate attraction to music, I think, who says it has any purpose at all? I don't think it does. Modern religious thinkers have made much of the "god-shaped hole" in our psyches, that is, the great desire many people have to believe in higher powers; I think this is probably just an evolutionary accident. Belief in conspiracy theories, I suspect, is just our useful ability to search for and recognize patterns run amok.

It is a commonplace notion that we only use our whole intellectual capacity on rare occasions. On those occasions, the full size of our brains may make the difference between life and death. The rest of the time a lot of our neurons are just noodling around.

Thought for the Day

We are all patchwork, and so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment, plays its own game. And there is as much difference between us and ourselves as between us and others.

--Michel de Montaigne

Saturday, January 17, 2009


Well, it was 3 degrees here this morning, and 12 when I went to the library this afternoon. I have responded by spending most of the day in hibernation. I try to live my life in the usual way when the temperature is 35 or 25, but 3 is just cold.

RIP Andrew Wyeth

Andrew Wyeth, one of my favorite 20th-century painters, has died at 91. I always thought the scorn heaped on his work by certain artistes was proof of their own intellectual bankruptcy. "Illustrator," they sneered, as if there were anything wrong with painting pictures that wonderfully evoke particular places or stories. Here are two of my favorite Wyeths:

The Wind from the Sea


Another of my favorites shows one of Wyeth's friends, who was dying of cancer, lying in a boat. I haven't been able to find it. Does anyone remember what that one is called?

Part of my fascination with Wyeth has to do with the way he evokes two landscapes I know very well, the Brandywine Valley of Pennsylvania and Delaware, and coastal Maine. This image shows a place I have never been, but have been many times, because Delaware and eastern Pennsylvania are full of houses just like this one, where the atmosphere is just what I get from this painting:

The Tenant Farmer

Friday, January 16, 2009

Oh mutability!

Oh youth! Oh fickle as a weathervane that shifts with every breeze, oh changeable as the moon, oh pied as a litter of hounddog mutts -- oh teenage love!

One of my offspring was just abandoned after a relationship that lasted six days. We're all ok, I think, but it was quite a rollercoaster. Will someone remind me why it is that we do this to ourselves?

methane on Mars

In 2003, earth-based telescopes detected methane on Mars. Those discoveries raised so many questions and were so widely challenged that only now have they been published, in Science. And these astronomers are sticking to their guns.

A team of researchers reported Thursday that the bursts of methane originated from three specific regions in the planet’s northern hemisphere, where it was midsummer. The gas came out at a rate of 0.6 kilograms a second, the scientists said, and the plume contained 19,000 metric tons of methane.

“This is the first definitive detection of methane on Mars,” Michael J. Mumma of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., the leader of the research team, said. . . .

Methane — the simplest of hydrocarbon molecules, with one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms — is fragile in air. It falls apart when hit by ultraviolet radiation in sunlight. That means any methane in the Martian air must be recent.

When the presence of methane was reported in 2004 by three teams of scientists, the findings generated surprise and skepticism because only a few explanations seemed to be plausible.

One was geothermal chemical reactions involving water and heat in volcanoes or underground hot springs. But evidence for recent volcanism on Mars is scarce. Also, volcanoes would be expected to spew other gases like sulfur dioxide, and those are not plentiful in the planet’s atmosphere.

A second possibility is biological. On Earth, a class of bacteria known as methanogens breathes out methane as a waste product.
This is intriguing data, but I remain skeptical of Martian life. Life as we know it on earth is so powerful and creative that it could not be confined to a few underground reservoirs. It would evolve ultraviolet shields and whatever else it had to do to spread across the whole planet.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

the annals of misplaced human ingenuity

From a National Park Service history of OSS operations in the Washington, DC area:
The OSS also developed "Aunt Jemima," an explosive powder disguised as flour that could be baked into biscuits without exploding (although poisonous if eaten), but when ignited by a timed or contact fuse was powerful enough to blow up a bridge.
The whole study is online if anyone is really curious.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

love vaccine?

In the NY Times, John Tierney speculates that new findings about the role of oxytocin in forming long-term attachments could be used to create a vaccine against falling in love:

A love vaccine seems simpler and more practical, and already there are some drugs that seem to inhibit people’s romantic impulses. Such a vaccine has already been demonstrated in prairie voles.

“If we give an oxytocin blocker to female voles, they become like 95 percent of other mammal species,” Dr. Young said. “They will not bond no matter how many times they mate with a male or hard how he tries to bond. They mate, it feels really good and they move on if another male comes along. If love is similarly biochemically based, you should in theory be able to suppress it in a similar way.”

I doubt many people would want to permanently suppress love, but a temporary vaccine could come in handy. Spouses going through midlife crises would not be so quick to elope with their personal trainers; elderly widowers might consult their lawyers before marrying someone resembling Anna Nicole Smith. Love is indeed a many-splendored thing, but sometimes we all need to tie ourselves to the mast.

The Power of Bad Ideas

I have tried not to be too hasty about claims that vaccines cause autism. Autism is very weird, and it seems especially weird that it should be increasing -- severe autism is not a vague condition like ADHD, for which you can imagine the numbers changing with different standards of diagnosis. Autism is pretty hard to miss. But legislators bending over backwards to avoid offense have commissioned study after study, and not one has found any link. And as the scientific case against any connection gets firmer, the anti-vaccine lobby gets louder and louder. The NY Times has a story today about Paul Offitt, an infectious disease specialist and advocate for vaccines who has seen protesters holding up signs that call him a terrorist.

I think the hysteria flows from two sources: first, the inability of parents of one or two children to accept the loss of a child to a mysterious, untreatable condition, that is, a confluence of small family size and high medical expectations; and second, the sense of unease created by our modern, mechanized, digital, chemistry-based world. Actress Amanda Peet:

“Where I live in L.A.,” she said in a telephone interview, “there’s this child-rearing trend — only feed your kids organic food, detoxify your house. And there’s a lot of anticorporate fervor, anti-pharmaceutical company fervor.”

When she was pregnant, she said, “I’d have lunch with my friends who were moms, and they’d say they wouldn’t vaccinate, or would space out their vaccinations and hadn’t I heard?”
And it remains possible that some environmental toxin or another, or some combination of them, might contribute to autism. But the attack on vaccines is not driven by an attempt to understand what is happening. It is driven by despair and dread, a combination that can overwhelm even the strongest minds. I think almost everyone who watches the parents of autistic children fulminate feels too much pity to want to oppose or attack them. But as the debate gets louder and uglier, it is becoming essential that rational people take a stand here. Diseases that we have nearly wiped out with vaccines used to kill millions of people every year. Except for smallpox, those diseases are still out there, and if we lower our guard they will come back and kill again. Wherever unvaccinated children congregate, they create the danger of an outbreak, and since even the best vaccines convey only partial immunity some vaccinated children could get sick, too. That risk is becoming real, and that means mobilizing the rational majority to oppose the danger anti-vaccine fanatics are starting to pose to our society.

If there is hope for curing or reducing autism, it does not come from mystical quackery and anti-corporate rhetoric. It comes from science. If we do not face the problem with rational, open minds, and use real evidence to develop a real understanding of autism and its causes, we will never cure anyone. Denouncing vaccines will not help the autistic, their parents, or anyone else.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Parental angst

From the Edge series on "what I believe but can't prove" blogged below, this is part of psychologist Daniel Goleman's response:
I believe, but cannot prove, that today's children are unintended victims of economic and technological progress.

To be sure, greater wealth and advanced technology offers all of us better lives in many ways. Yet these unstoppable forces seem to have had some disastrous results in how they have been transforming childhood. Even as children's IQs are on a steady march upward over the last century, the last three decades have seen a major drop in children's most basic social and emotional skills—the very abilities that would make them effective workers and leaders, parents and spouses, and members of the community.
Goleman complains about the usual things, some of which are certainly not problems for my own children -- busy, over-scheduled lives, for example -- and some of which might be, especially spending lots of time alone in front of a video screen.

I go back and forth about this question in my own head all the time, changing my mind from day to day and hour to hour. It bothers me that none of my children is a reader, even though one wants to be a writer. Both of my older boys have attention deficit issues, and although the oldest was clearly born with his, who is to say whether constant electronic stimulation over the years has made it worse?

On the other hand all of my children make friends readily, and they are, on the whole, a very happy bunch. When we aren't fighting about somebody's homework, our whole family gets along very well. So I don't know that any of them has the sort of emotional and interpersonal issues Goleman is concerned about. If anything they are much more socially skilled than I was at their age.

What I believe but can't prove

A fascinating series on Edge in which intellectuals are asked, "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?" (How do I get to be the kid of person who gets asked questions like that by prominent media outlets?) Some give technical answers from their fields, others are more philosophical. The answers are mostly three or four paragraphs long. There are several variants of both "there is a god" and "there is no god," but I found that none of the discussions added much to those four-word sentence. A sample of the other theses they take up:

we are all looking in the wrong place for long-term memory.

I believe that our universe is not accidental, but I cannot prove it.

Sometimes our folk theories are correct: Parents do shape their children.

What I believe but cannot prove is that no part of my consciousness will survive my death.

both cannibalism and slavery were prevalent in human prehistory

I can't prove it, but I am pretty sure that people gain a selective advantage from believing in things they can't prove.

I believe that life is common throughout the universe and that we will find another Earth-like planet within a decade.

I do not believe that people are capable of rational thought when it comes to making decisions in their own lives.

I believe, but cannot prove, that babies and young children are actually more conscious, more vividly aware of their external world and internal life, than adults are.

I believe that animals have feelings and other states of consciousness, but neither I, nor anyone else, has been able to prove it.

I believe, but cannot yet prove, that acquiring a human language (an oral or sign language) is a necessary precondition for consciousness

we're in for climatic mayhem

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Mayor of Baltimore Indicted

Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon was indicted yesterday on twelve counts that range from perjury to theft. Which sounds pretty ominous, but the Baltimore Sun is running a separate long story headined "Mayor's Supporters Underwhelmed by Charges," and after reading these stories I have to say that I am also underwhelmed.

Dixon is one of those politicians around whom an aura of corruption has long hovered. For one thing, she dresses better than she ought to be able to afford (her $400 Jimmy Choo sandals get mentioned regularly), she seems to be out on the town a lot, and she always carries around plenty of cash. She once spent most of a public meeting with Comcast cable executives haranguing them about giving more work to minority-owned, city-based contractors, and the Sun discovered that of the three such firms one is owned by Dixon's sister. Five or six years ago there was a big Federal investigation of Baltimore City government, with several spectacular FBI raids, but they eventually dropped the whole thing without handing down any indictments.

So nobody was much surprised when the state district attorney announced that she was one of the main targets of his three-year-long investigation into city corruption. And over those three years there have been rumors of serious bribery charges, large sums of cash given in exchange for important favors. But there are no such charges in the indictment. Most of the charges relate to gifts given to Dixon by a city developer who was her boyfriend for a while and remains her friend. Dixon says she didn't have to list those gifts on financial disclosure forms because her boyfriend didn't technically "do business with the city." I don't know what the law is on this, but this sort of technical dispute is unlikely to impress a jury as criminal behavior. Not to mention that nowhere in the indictment is there even a hint that Dixon did anything improper in return for those gifts, or even that the boyfriend had any business under city review for which he was likely to need any favors. I think the prosecutor is going to have a hard time getting any convictions. Any Baltimore jury is likely to be made up largely of Dixon's biggest supporters, black women, who tend to see the whole thing as a partisan, racist witch hunt.

The most disturbing charge against Dixon is that she took gift cards that were supposed to be distributed to the poor and used them for herself. But even this turns out not to be so clear-cut. She did give at least one such card to someone on her staff, but her lawyers will probably concoct some sob story to justify that. When the FBI raided her house, the one incriminating thing they found (so far as we know) was five of those cards. That looks pretty bad, but Dixon will probably say that she was intending to give them to some acquaintance who runs a charity but lost them.

I don't know how I feel about this. I don't doubt that Dixon is corrupt in some way, but I find the level of prosecutorial effort that went into creating this unimpressive list of charges downright frightening. These prosecutors, Republican appointees, went after Baltimore city government with everything they had. They went through four grand juries over three years, spending millions of dollars. They worked their press connections to spread damaging rumors about Dixon and former mayor (now governor) Martin O'Malley, then didn't back up those rumors with charges. And remember, this came after a major FBI investigation that turned up nothing. How many people in public life could pass that level of scrutiny without something unsavory coming to light? Public corruption is a serious matter, but so is unbridled prosecutorial power.

I will withhold judgment until we see what the prosecution can produce in court, or whether Dixon chooses to cop a plea. For now, I remain suspicious of everyone on both sides.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Oh, Yeah

Stanley Fish argues that Roland Burris should be seated in the Senate, by referring to the stand St. Augustine took in the Donatist controversy of the 5th century. Now THAT"S serious historical nerd power. Hats off to you, Stanley.
If an act can be declared null and void by a demonstration that those who signed off on it are unworthy, do all official acts rest on a foundation of sand? Can apparently settled decisions be undone in a second when evidence of venality is uncovered? Does your daughter lose her place in a college because the admissions officer who let her in turns out to be an embezzler? Do DWI convictions get reversed when the judge is revealed to be a drunkard? Is your marriage invalidated because the clerk or cleric who performed it cheated on his wife or stole from the poor box?

This last question is not new. It was debated in the 4th and 5th centuries in the context of what is known as the Donatist controversy. This debate was about the status of churchmen who had cooperated with the emperor Diocletian during the period when he was actively persecuting Christians. The Donatists argued that those who had betrayed their faith under pressure and then returned to the fold when the persecutions were over had lost the authority to perform their priestly offices, including the offices of administering the sacraments and making ecclesiastical appointments. In their view, priestly authority was a function of personal virtue, and when a new bishop was consecrated by someone they considered tainted, they rejected him and consecrated another.

In opposition, St. Augustine (rejecting the position that the church should be made up only of saints) contended that priestly authority derived from the institution of the Church and ultimately from its head, Jesus Christ. Whatever infirmities a man may have (and as fallen creatures, Augustine observes, we all have them) are submerged in the office he holds. . . .
Incidentally, I think Fish is right. Burris was legally appointed. If you don't like the system, change it. But meanwhile the governor of Illinois has the right to make this appointment, Blagojevich is the governor, and he appointed Burris. Nobody thinks the appointment of Burris was done in a criminal way, so the fact that Blagojevich is a crook is irrelevant.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Well, I kind of like it has a new ranking of 200 jobs from best to worst. The criteria were stress, work environment, physical demands, income, and outlook. The best: mathematician. The worst: lumberjack.

Historian is number 7.

Archeologist is number 51.

Author is 93.

Senior corporate executive is 88. Teacher 1s 127.

The method used here is very well described on their "methodology page." (Note to editors: "methodology" means "the study of methods", not "a description of the methods used in this study.") And it really left me wondering what kind of person dreamed up this study.

Their "physical demands" category uses a simple rule: the harder the work, the worse the score. The ideal job, in this scheme, is one that involves sitting still in a comfortable chair all day. That this is terrible for your heart seems not to have occurred to the people who designed the study.

And moving on to "stress," their rules pretty much give jobs higher scores the more useless they area. Really. If the "life of another is at risk", then you get lots of bad points. "Working in the public eye" gets you more bad points. So does facing "win or lose situations." Ditto facing deadlines, having to work fast, facing any sort of physical risk yourself. So the highest scoring jobs in this system are those in which you never really have to do anything.

Which explains why "Physician, general practice," is 142, one below janitor. Really. Registered nurse is 143.

After looking over their criteria a few times, I decided that the real rule is: the more exciting a job, the worse. So these listings are for people who want the most boring possible high-paying job.

Yeah, I know, I'm a historian.

We are all Aristocrats Now

I've been reading Theodore Dalrymple again. This time his complaint (really, all he ever does is complain) is about contemporary art. His objection to contemporary art, which he is happy to lump together as all one thing, is that without spiritual ambition it has become pure egotism:

The successful modern artist’s subject is himself, not in any genuinely self-examining way that would tell us something about the human condition, but as an ego to distinguish himself from other egos, as distinctly and noisily as he can. Like Oscar Wilde at the New York customs, he has nothing to declare but his genius: which, if he is lucky, will lead to fame and fortune. Of all the artistic disciplines nowadays, self-advertisement is by far the most important.
Now certainly the contemporary art scene is awash in egotism and self-promotion. And one could make an argument that egotism and self-promotion are major themes of contemporary life.

But it is not clear to me that our egotism and fondness for self-promotion makes us any different from our ancestors. Dalrymple has some fun with a show of sculptures by Jeff Koons staged at Versailles, which does seem like an odd mix of material and setting. But think about this: who had the bigger ego, Jeff Koons or Louis XIV? Louis XIV forced the whole French court to revolve around admiration of himself, and he built Versailles and other palaces as stages for the royal theater in which he was the star. And whatever you think of Jeff Koons as an artist, at least he never started a war just to prove his manliness, as Louis XIV did.

It seems to me that we moderns are amateurs in egotism compared to some of our ancestors. Modern politicians and revolutionaries at least claim to be espousing ideologies, or to have practical plans for making the people better off. Many medieval and ancient rebels stood for nothing but themselves, and quite openly. What modern Englishman has tried to overthrow the king and make himself the monarch, as dozens of medieval characters from William the Bastard to Henry Tudor did? When a modern celebrity is insulted, he whines to the press or responds with further insults; his ancestor reached for his dueling pistol, or, a few generations further back, sent his private army to ravage the lands of this enemy and burn a few hundred peasants out of their homes.

Consider a character like el Cid, who was never satisfied with being the second man in any kingdom and went back and forth between various Spanish and Moorish courts before he finally became the ruler of his own small border principality. Or Bohemond of Taranto, who left the first crusade when it became clear he would never be King of Jerusalem, preferring to splinter the Christian cause and make himself Prince of Antioch, rather than serve under a rival. And what about those Romans, like Sulla and Caesar, whose ambitions and refusal to be satisfied with even the astonishing wealth and power of a Roman aristocrat led to civil war, the fall of the Republic, and the creation of the Empire?

Egotism is nothing new. If there is a difference, it is that in the past monumental egotism was the prerogative of great aristocrats, whereas now it is open to anyone with ambition. We may have democratized egotism, but we have not created it.

Modernism at its Bone-Chilling Best

In the NY Times, a photo essay on a modern house that I have to admit is quite striking. Somewhere in the high desert of Idaho, Jane MacFarland has built herself a concrete and glass box to live in.

This view of the kitchen shows why this style has a certain appeal in a structure built around the view outside. And there is something pleasing about the cleanliness and clarity of what you can see here.

But this view from the concrete-walled garden reminds me of why I hate modern buildings. Ugh.

Concrete is just ugly. I don't understand why anyone would build anything out of it. To me, it's like building out of dirty toilet paper.

And what does that elegant kitchen look like when someone is actually using it to cook? One problem with super clean decorating schemes is that any mess really stands out.

At least this is a private house, and I would be the first to encourage people to build the homes of their dreams for themselves. On the other hand this house must be visible from miles around, and most of that land, like most western desert, is probably public property, so I, for one, would have spoken against building anything here at all. My view of open spaces is that they should be left open, and people should build their houses in cities, where people belong.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Panetta on torture

Leon Panetta, Obama's nominee as CIA director, has no direct experience with the intelligence bureaucracy but he is on record about torture, in this Washington Monthly column from last winter:
According to the latest polls, two-thirds of the American public believes that torturing suspected terrorists to gain important information is justified in some circumstances. How did we transform from champions of human dignity and individual rights into a nation of armchair torturers? One word: fear.

Fear is blinding, hateful, and vengeful. It makes the end justify the means. And why not? If torture can stop the next terrorist attack, the next suicide bomber, then what's wrong with a little waterboarding or electric shock?

The simple answer is the rule of law. Our Constitution defines the rules that guide our nation. It was drafted by those who looked around the world of the eighteenth century and saw persecution, torture, and other crimes against humanity and believed that America could be better than that. This new nation would recognize that every individual has an inherent right to personal dignity, to justice, to freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.

We have preached these values to the world. We have made clear that there are certain lines Americans will not cross because we respect the dignity of every human being. That pledge was written into the oath of office given to every president, "to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution." It's what is supposed to make our leaders different from every tyrant, dictator, or despot. We are sworn to govern by the rule of law, not by brute force.

We cannot simply suspend these beliefs in the name of national security. Those who support torture may believe that we can abuse captives in certain select circumstances and still be true to our values. But that is a false compromise. We either believe in the dignity of the individual, the rule of law, and the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, or we don't. There is no middle ground.

We cannot and we must not use torture under any circumstances. We are better than that.

A good sign, I would say.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Rapid lizard evolution

A small population of Italian lizards introduced onto a Costa Rican island has evolved very rapidly. In just 30 years:
The transplanted lizards adapted to their new environment in ways that expedited their evolution physically, Irschick explained.

Pod Mrcaru, for example, had an abundance of plants for the primarily insect-eating lizards to munch on. Physically, however, the lizards were not built to digest a vegetarian diet.

Researchers found that the lizards developed cecal valves—muscles between the large and small intestine—that slowed down food digestion in fermenting chambers, which allowed their bodies to process the vegetation's cellulose into volatile fatty acids.

"They evolved an expanded gut to allow them to process these leaves," Irschick said, adding it was something that had not been documented before. "This was a brand-new structure."

Along with the ability to digest plants came the ability to bite harder, powered by a head that had grown longer and wider.

The rapid physical evolution also sparked changes in the lizard's social and behavioral structure. . . .

Just a theory. Yeah.

Sunday, January 4, 2009


I sprained my ankle playing basketball this morning. It's not serious, but for a moment's clumsiness I will endure days of hobbling and discomfort. It is the price one sometimes pays for an active life, but it still sucks.

The Proper Bestowal of Moral Outrage

I've been reading about Israel's invasion of Gaza, and one theme I keep coming across is that Americans are simply too ignorant to properly understand these events. This theme comes most strongly from the more pro-Palestinian writers, but pro-Israel writers use it, too. In this fairly typical example Publius, an intelligent if very young blogger, reacts to reading Rashid Khalidi's The Iron Cage.
To begin, what really becomes clear in reading The Iron Cage is how profoundly ignorant Americans (including me) are about the region and its history. And the ignorance exists on many different levels.

For one, Americans (including me) are simply blind to the region's past. They don’t even see it – or at best see some fairy tale make-believe version. And it's hard to make them see it because our media and educational systems do a horrible job integrating that history into the lens of current events. To us, the world starts anew with each new rocket attack – that’s all we see, and that's where our analysis begins.

But that’s not what actual Palestinians see. They see -- indeed, they have lived -- the institutional obstacles that Western powers (particularly the British, who owe every Palestinian an annuity) have erected against a viable Palestinian state for nearly a century. They also see quite clearly how Western meddling – e.g., the creation of Hamas to undermine Arafat; arming Afghan tribes to fight Communism – are proximate causes of modern suffering in the region. In other words, they see what Americans don’t see, which is that the West helped create much of this mess, but now refuses to help fix it.

Americans are also quite ignorant of Palestinians’ (and Muslims’ more generally) subjective perceptions of these actions. In particular, they don’t understand how the scars of repressive colonialism color modern perceptions. If we were aware that the legacy of colonial occupation still sears the region's consciousness, we'd be less willing to support, you know, imperial occupations of former colonies.

The sad truth is that an honest debate about what’s going today is difficult because so many Americans (me included) just don’t know anything about anything there.

To this I say, so what? As it happens, I know rather a lot about Middle Eastern history, and about European colonialism more generally, and I find that it makes very little difference in how I feel about events in Israel/Palestine. True, western meddling has led to lots of problems in the Middle East. So? We can hardly undo the Sykes/Picot Treaty. And what does it mean to say that the west "now refuses to help fix" the mess we helped create? American Presidents and other western leaders have been trying to broker peace between Israel and the Arabs since 1948, with very little effect. The US has sent billions in aid to Israel and Egypt and hundreds of millions to other Middle Eastern players. I'm sure we would be happy to send billions more if it really purchased peace. What else are we supposed to do?

What difference would greater knowledge of recent or long past events make? Why does it matter who was more vicious in 1948, or whether Israel's 1967 offensive was justified, or whether the settlements or the suicide bombings are a greater crime? Does it matter who broke the Israel/Hamas cease fire, or who has killed more civilians, or tried harder to avoid killing them? Such knowledge is only useful for properly apportioning our moral outrage, and I submit that moral outrage is of no use here. To achieve peace, both sides need to let go of moral outrage altogether. As long as they are arguing over who is more to blame, they will never make peace.

I think the ideal broker for Middle Eastern peace would be someone who knew absolutely nothing about the region's past. If we could find a person who was well versed in peace negotiations but ignorant of Middle Eastern affairs -- say, a wise chief from the New Guinea highlands -- he might do much better than someone who knows the ins and outs so well that he sees every proposal in terms of past outrages and ancient wrongs.

The problem is not ignorance. The problem is that Israelis and Palestinians want to live in the same place, and hate each other. No amount of knowledge will make that problem easy to solve.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

End of the Season

It was a good Christmas here. Robert loves his bass guitar and carries it around the house, picking out tunes. Mary wants to wear her big black boots everywhere. Thomas is thrilled with his iPod. Ben and Zhen Zhen love their new music players and their other toys. I can't wait to put my sundial out in the garden, and I have lots to read. We had great food and saw our families. Lisa and I spent a lot of good time together. I even got writing done.

Now comes the lean season of healthy resolutions and cold January days. But first, the clean up. Today the ornaments go back in their boxes and up to the attic, and this afternoon I toss the tree out on the curb to await its fate. One time is over, and another begins.