Thursday, July 23, 2009

Jimmy Carter sees the Light (a Little)

Jimmy Carter has resigned from the Southern Baptist Convention because they have refused to modify their teaching that women should be subservient to men:
Although not having training in religion or theology, I understand that the carefully selected verses found in the holy scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place - and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence - than eternal truths. Similar Biblical excerpts could be found to support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers.
Now that he has figured out that the stuff about women's subservience is a relic of Iron Age thinking, when is he going to realize that everything else about the religion is, too?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Paranoia about Big Corporations

At the end of an upbeat article at New Scientist on the future of electric cars, a commenter wrote this:
The second coming of the electric car was around 15 years ago when GM released the EV1 with NiMH batteries that got a range of around 100 miles. But motor vehicle companies didn't want to make electric vehicles because they would eliminate the monopoly of mega-corporations in building cars. They would just be TOO RELIABLE and anybody could fix most problems. Car companies didn't want electric vehicles on the road because they work BETTER than gas guzzlers and a lot of revenue comes from people having to replace parts in their car.
This is interesting because it is so absolutely typical of an enduring American paranoia about capitalism and big corporations. This kind of thinking ignores the technical challenges involved in doing anything new and assumes that since our problems would be easy enough to solve if we tried, there must be a conspiracy behind our failure. There are no technical problems, just moral problems. In fact, though, improving batteries is a very hard problem. So is improving fuel cells, another focus of anti-corporate paranoia. Another reader much more knowledgeable than I am about electric cars made this response:
I suppose you don't even remember how bad the NiMh batteries were 15 years ago. They had awful recharge efficiency, wouldn't perform in the cold and self discharged significantly in a matter of days so if you let your car sit for a while, it would go empty on its own. The car [EV1] was also very small with seats for two and absolutely no carrying capacity beyond that because it weighed more than a normal four door sedan.
The company that first builds a reliable electric car with a decent range is going to get very, very rich. There is no force in the capitalist world strong enough to keep people from pursuing that kind of profit, so if it hasn't happened yet it is because we don't yet know how.

Skippy Gates Arrested, Cries Racism

In a bit of news that is amusing but, on reflection, really depressing:

Henry Louis Gates Jr., one of the nation's most prominent African American scholars, was arrested last week at his home near Harvard University after trying to force open the locked front door.

According to a report by the police department in Cambridge, Mass., Gates accused police officers at the scene of being racist and said repeatedly, "This is what happens to black men in America." . . . .

Gates, 58, was arrested Thursday by police looking into a possible break-in for disorderly conduct "after exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior" at his home, according to the police report. Officers said they tried to calm down Gates, who responded, "You don't know who you're messing with," according to the police report.

Ogletree said Gates was ordered to step out of his home. He refused and was followed inside by a police officer. After showing the officer his driver's license, which includes his address, Ogletree said Gates asked: "Why are you doing this? Is it because I'm a black man and you're a white officer? I don't understand why you don't believe this is my house." Ogletree said Gates was then arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and racial harassment.

You gotta love the detail of an elderly black man being charged with "racial harassment" by a white cop.

Gates, whom I met when he taught at Yale, always struck me as a very nice, rather mild-mannered man who wanted his students to love him. He was also a darling of the academic establishment, because his approach to racial issues was so nuanced and free from anger. I remember hearing him say once that all the angst over what blacks wanted to be called was silly, and that made most sense was to be called "colored." And yet here he is in the classic confrontation of black men and white cops, bursting with resentment. Whenever I start to feel good about race relations in America, something like this happens to remind me how much anger and suspicion simmers just under the surface.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Apollo 11: Moon Landing

At 2:12 PM EDT on July 20 the LM, with Armstrong and Aldrin on board, separated from the Command Module. At 4:17 PM, the lander was on the moon. There were two potential problems along the way. At 4:14, an alarm sounded because of a computer problem, and Mission Control considered aborting the mission. As soon as they decided that the problem was not critical, Armstrong radioed that the scheduled landing was strewn with large boulders. He took over control of the LM and began flying sideways across the lunar surface, looking for a level spot. Then a low fuel alarm sounded, but it was later determined that this was a false alarm, caused by the fuel sloshing in the tanks. Armstrong ignored the warning and continued flying, and after just two minutes he picked a spot and set the LM down. The first words from the moon were actually technical chatter about engine shutdown and the like. Once the technical details were settled and the engines off, Armstrong sent his famous message: "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

The astronauts almost immediately began preparations for their moon walk, EVA in NASA parlance. The hatch was opened at 10:39 PM, and Armstrong began his descent to the surface. He paused on the ladder to take photos of the landing gear, for the engineers, and take a soil sample. Then he continued to the surface, speaking the day's second famous line, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." He was joined by Aldrin. They took pictures, collected samples, set up the flag and two quick experiments. They practiced different ways of moving around. Then they went back to the LM.

At 1:13 AM on July 21, the hatch was closed. Armstrong and Aldrin stowed their gear and their samples, and then they were supposed to sleep. Armstrong couldn't. This famous picture of an elated Aldrin, back in the LM after the spacewalk, explains why.

Mass Grave from the Viking Wars

In England, archaeologists have unearthed a mass grave that may be the remains of a troop of Viking raiders defeated and captured by the Saxons:

It was a scene familiar from the killing fields of Iraq or the Balkans, but unheard of in rural Dorset. As the earth-moving machine peeled back a thin layer of topsoil, it exposed a tangled mass of human bones.

Fifty-one young men had been decapitated with swords or axes before their bodies were tossed into a pit. The heads were neatly stacked to one side.

Radio-carbon dating suggests that they were killed between 890 and 1034, when the South of England was pillaged by Viking raiders from Scandinavia. A month after the discovery archaeologists are beginning to piece the story together. . . .

Marks on the skulls, jaws and vertebrae showed where the heads had been hacked off, sometimes taking many blows.

Nothing else has been found in the grave so far. Mr Score said: “You might expect them to have been stripped of weapons and jewellery before execution, but the fact we haven’t found so much as a bone toggle suggests they were naked when they were executed.”

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Meanwhile, in Washington

The CIA interrogators who waterboarded Abu Zubaida have been engaged in covering their behinds, by passing blame down, to a small group of contractors who pushed for torture, and up, to headquarters, which, they say, hounded them to get tough and accused them of being spineless when they questioned the wisdom of torturing Zubaida:
"Headquarters was sending daily harangues, cables, e-mails insisting that waterboarding continue for 30 days because another attack was believed to be imminent," the former official said. "Headquarters said it would be on the team's back if an attack happened. They said to the interrogation team, 'You've lost your spine.' "
Dick Cheney is evil, but at least he hasn't tried to avoid responsibility for what he did. There is something disgusting about this constant buck-passing, in which nobody claims responsibility for decisions that just sort of happened. This is the "banality of evil" in action.

Apollo 11: the LM

The mission profile that NASA selected for Apollo was called "lunar orbit rendezvous." That is, two spacecraft would travel from the earth to the moon and enter lunar orbit, but only one would descend to the surface of the moon. Nine companies submitted designs for this vehicle, and NASA selected one from Grumman. The main designer was a Grumman engineer named Tom Kelly, one of the many obscure people who contributed their talents to making Apollo work.

The LM was a minimalist craft, its design increasingly refined to reduce weight. Its skin was metal foil so thin you can poke a finger through it. The designers initially wanted five landing legs, but settled on four. In the final redesign, the seats were removed and the windows reduced to tiny triangles. The absence of seats not only made flying it less comfortable, but much less safe should it land roughly. The interior of the crew cabin measured 235 square feet, which is equalivent to a cube 6.2 feet on a side. (Imagine the Apollo 13 astronauts living in that space for a week.) The thing looks rather ridiculous, but on the other hand it worked. One of the great fears of NASA leaders was sending astronauts to the moon and leaving them stranded there, marking our achievement with corpses instead of a flag. Thanks to the LM and its designers, along with some good flying by the mission commanders, that never happened.

The photo was shot by Michael Collins just after the LM separated from the command module.


And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

--Raymond Carver


The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shadows. . . .

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud,
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clear and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

--Marge Percy

Saturday, July 18, 2009


I just took my three youngest children to see "Up," this summer's Disney/Pixar movie. They all said they liked it, and I thought it was ok.

The main story is a fun adventure in which an old man and a boy fly to South America in a house lifted by balloons. But the first ten minutes tell the story of the old man's life. As a boy who dreams of aerial adventure, he meets a girl with similar dreams. They eventually marry and live out a "Wonderful Life" sort of story in which everyday life always gets in the way of their having the adventures they dreamed of. Then the wife dies and the old man ends up lonely and forgotten. (Ben asked, "Why did his wife have to die?")

Here is the place to confess that while I think "It's a Wonderful Life" is a great film in its quirky way, I hate it. I hate the thought that raising children, supporting a family, and all the other regular stuff of normal life make it impossible to have adventures. I find George Bailey's story really, really depressing. He should have built skyscrapers and traveled the world. I don't want to end up like him. Not that I have anything against marriage, family, work, and lawn mowing, I mean, this is the life I've chosen, and I chose it because marriage, family and home were more important to me than anything else. (I could do without the lawn mowing.) But I want adventures, too. I suppose it is fortunate that I have been born into such a wealthy age that this is possible, at least in a limited way. Since I started breeding I have been to China and England, written one book and half of another one, dug on a bunch of exciting archaeological sites, and done my share of wild and crazy things. And I have ever reason to expect that I will go to more places -- Italy, Ireland, and Mexico are high on my list -- and do more amazing things.

So, honestly, I don't have anything to complain about. But "It's a Wonderful Life" and the first part of "Up" depress me, because they drive home the message that life is about choices, that you can't have everything, and that family and marriage, at least for a good person who takes responsibilities seriously, are a huge impediment to an adventurous life.

Apollo 11: the Voyage to the Moon

The Apollo 11 astronauts spent July 17, 18, and most of the 19th on the way from the earth to the moon. Not much on the official timeline. But think, for a moment, about what that was like. Three men in their tiny spaceship, a hundred thousand miles from home, nothing between them and the cold death of space but a thin sheet of metal. Just to sit through that and arrive ready to work at the other end was a feat of emotional control.

Meanwhile, some links, since everybody is celebrating.

At this site you can follow the mission in 40-year-delayed real time.

NASA's collection of restored Apollo 11 videos.
NASA's gallery of Apollo 11 photographs.
NASA's giant collection of thousands of Apollo images.
Youtube moon landing video.

After the Rain

A week of dry heat wilted the flowers a little, and the deer attacked my white phlox, so the garden was a little sad. But yesterday we finally had a decent rain, and everything has perked back up.

The cool, wet spring played havoc with my annuals. I usually have so many marigolds and zinnias that I have to pull most of the seedlings up and throw them away. This year my first planting was a complete failure and my second was pretty dismal. So, except for the nasturtiums, my annuals are sparse and late. But some zinnias and small sunflowers are finally blooming, and I see the first bloom on one of the big sunflowers. I grow sunflowers partly for the flowers but mostly for the birds, especially goldfinches and cardinals, that they draw to the garden.

The weather that made so much trouble for the annuals has done weird things to the bugs. I usually have a major invasion of Japanese beetles in mid to late June -- I deal with them the old-fashioned way, by plucking them off and squishing them in my fingers -- but this year I did not see a single beetle in June and have only had three or four in July. Which is nice, but the weather has also made trouble for the butterflies, and I have only seen two or three swallowtails. My butterfly bush bloomed alone.

If you follow nature from year to year, you become sensitive to these variations. This has been the year of robins, roses, and nasturtiums. In other years, other things thrive.

Friday, July 17, 2009

More on caloric restriction and extended life

Great column from Richard Cohen today on the monkeys in that experiment that showed caloric restriction extends their lives:

Monkeys’ emotions were part of my childhood. My father, a doctor, worked with them all his life. His thesis at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, was on the menstrual cycle of baboons. When he settled in Britain in the 1950s, he had some of his baboons (average life span 30) shipped over, ultimately donating a couple to the London Zoo.

Upon visiting the zoo much later, he got a full-throated greeting from the baboons, who rushed to the front of their cage to tell him they’d missed him. Moral of story: Don’t underestimate monkeys’ feelings.

Which brings me to low-cal Canto and high-cal Owen: Canto looks drawn, weary, ashen and miserable in his thinness, mouth slightly agape, features pinched, eyes blank, his expression screaming, “Please, no, not another plateful of seeds!”

Well-fed Owen, by contrast, is a happy camper with a wry smile, every inch the laid-back simian, plump, eyes twinkling, full mouth relaxed, skin glowing, exuding wisdom as if he’s just read Kierkegaard and concluded that “Life must be lived forward, but can only be understood backward.”
Like me, Cohen is dubious that drugs will be able to give us extended life without dieting and, indeed of the whole project of life extension:
I don’t buy this gain-without-pain notion. Duality resides, indissoluble, at life’s core — Faust’s two souls within his breast, Anna Karenina’s shifting essence. Life without death would be miserable. Its beauty is bound to its fragility. Dawn is unimaginable without the dusk.When life extension supplants life quality as a goal, you get the desolation of Canto the monkey. Living to 120 holds zero appeal for me. Canto looks like he’s itching to be put out of his misery.

Evolution in Action

From Science Now:

Moths Block Bats' Sonar

A hungry bat screeches out ultrasonic waves and listens as they echo off surrounding objects. One of those echoes sounds an awful lot like a tasty moth, so it swoops in for the kill--but grabs only air. Thwarted again by the tiger moth Bertholdia trigona. New research explains the clever defense; the moth emits ultrasonic clicks that throw off bats' sonarlike echolocation, like jamming a radio signal. It's the first time this type of acoustic interference has been demonstrated in the natural world.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Interesting Corporate Names

I spotted a truck this morning painted with three-foot-high letters proclaiming "TROJAN HORSE."

Like, it may look like we're just carrying boxes of widgets, but really our trucks are full of hostile soldiers?

Apollo 11

Forty years ago today, at 1:32 PM, the Saturn V rocket carrying the Apollo 11 mission blasted off from Cape Canaveral. Apollo 11 is, to me, one of the greatest and most amazing triumphs of humanity. In the course of the mission our species, earthbound for its first hundred thousand years, walked on another world. Through us, the life of earth took a first tentative step beyond its nursery. We stretched the bounds that hold us to our planet and crossed a quarter million miles of empty space to reach the moon. The enormous brains that we so often employ finding new ways to kill each other were put to a more worthy use, and we found that when we make a great enough effort we can do incredible things.

I was seven years old in July of 1969. I remember men on the moon, but my memories are jumbled, and I am no longer sure which memories go with which mission. I don't think it matters. I remember the voices from space, speaking their strange NASA jargon. I remember flickering pictures on our little black and white television. I remember the extraordinary excitement of the time. I remember what happened, and what it meant to watch the world change.

About 6% of Americans tell pollsters that they believe the moon landing was faked. What a sad trap they have fallen into. They have become too cynical to recognize a true victory of the human spirit, too blinded by suspicion to recognize a really great achievement. They probably think they are very clever not to be taken in by the lies that fool others, but it is they who have been taken in. It is a lie that there is no nobility in the world. It is a lie that governments do nothing but cheat, steal, and bamboozle. It is a lie that humans cannot achieve great things. And it is a mistake to always look for fraud, deceit, and propaganda, because while fraud, deceit and propaganda are real, so is wonder.

I know the Apollo program was a spin-off from the Cold War, a child of the strange rivalry between the US and the USSR for leadership of the world. So what? Nobody ever acts from perfectly pure motives. The Cold War could easily have become a global catastrophe, or even the end of our species, but instead it spurred both Americans and Russians to achieve the extraordinary. The Cold War rivalry provided an opportunity to do something that we ought to have done anyway. And when what should be done is done, it is foolish to worry too much about why it was done. Instead, we should celebrate the doing. Today, and for the next seven days, I celebrate the journey to the moon.

Apollo 11: the Saturn V

Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were launched to the moon by a Saturn V, the most powerful rocket ever used in a space mission. It may even have been the most powerful machine ever used for anything, unless you count blowing up abandoned coral atolls as a use, because the power it expended propelling men and machines into space was greater than that of the first atomic bombs. It was 363 feet tall, 33 feet in diameter, and weighed 6,699,000 pounds. Each of its three stages was built by a different company, which some critics said was a recipe for a disaster, but it worked almost perfectly each of the 13 times one was launched. This immense machine was needed to give the Apollo spacecraft the velocity they needed for "translunar injection", that is, to enter the orbital path that would take them to the moon. Relative to the earth, they were traveling about 23,000 miles per hour.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

love and assisted suicide

It is being reported today that noted British conductor Sir Edward Downes and his wife Helen traveled to Switzerland with their children and committed suicide together:
The couple’s children said in an interview with The London Evening Standard that on Tuesday of last week they accompanied their father, 85, and their mother, Joan, 74, on the flight from London to Zurich, where the Swiss group Dignitas helped arrange the suicides. On Friday, the children said, they watched, weeping, as their parents drank “a small quantity of clear liquid” before lying down on adjacent beds, holding hands. “Within a couple of minutes they were asleep, and died within 10 minutes,” Caractacus Downes, the couple’s 41-year-old son, said in the interview after his return to Britain. “They wanted to be next to each other when they died.”
This is creating some controversy even among British supporters of assisted suicide because while Joan was dying of cancer, Sir Edward was not ill. To that I can only roll my eyes. He was 85, nearly deaf, going blind, and probably felt like he would rather end his life now than spend a few more years grieving for his wife. I find what he did very beautiful and loving, and I hope I can approach the end of my life with as much grace. I also hope my friends will be as supportive of me as Sir Edward's are of him:
Friends of Sir Edward said that his decision to die with his wife did not surprise them. “Ted was completely rational,” said Richard Wigley, the general manager of the BBC Philharmonic. “So I can well imagine him, being so rational, saying, ‘It’s been great, so let’s end our lives together.’ ”

Jonathan Groves, Sir Edward’s manager, called their decision “typically brave and courageous.”

I believe we are given life to live it well and fully, not to stretch it out to the greatest number of days no matter how much pain we are in or how little we have to look forward to.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Another Power Line, Another Legal Battle

As I was just saying last week, trying to build new power lines is a nightmare. From today's Baltimore Sun:
A $1.2 billion, 150-mile power line that would cross Maryland and lay high-voltage cables under the Chesapeake Bay for the first time has been proposed to ease the threat of blackouts on the growing Delmarva Peninsula.

But the proposal is generating opposition from environmentalists, landowners and even business interests in mostly rural Dorchester County, who worry that the project could disrupt farming, damage sensitive marshlands and blight the area's growing tourism. . . .

"When you come to this county, it is almost like stepping back 200 years," said Libby Nagel, a farmer and president of Dorchester Citizens for Safe Energy. "It's virgin territory, and once they allow this thing through the bay, it is going to open this area up to everything else."

Conservationists point out that millions of dollars in public and private money have been spent in Dorchester to preserve large chunks of the area from development - an investment in wildlife habitat and scenic open space that they fear could be undermined by the power lines.
See? Every place you might want to put power lines is either densely inhabited, in which case the neighbors raise hell, or undeveloped, in which case nobody wants to mess up the views, the wildlife, and the rural atmosphere with hideous high voltage towers. In a crowded place like Maryland, undeveloped land is prized, and much of it will turn out to be park land, wildlife refuges, agricultural preservation districts, and the like. And note the cost, $1.2 billion as an initial estimate for a line only 150 miles long, all but 27 miles of which follows existing easements. That's $8 million a mile, for a route that crosses no mountains or cities.

Alastair Reynolds

I recently finished reading Alastair Reynolds' monstrous sci-fi trilogy, Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, and Absolution Gap. There are problems with the plotting, pace, and character development in these very long novels, but the problems are overwhelmed by the astonishing outpouring of invention. Reynolds has an amazing imagination, and these books contain more fascinating places, species, human tribes, and technological wonders than the universes of Star Trek and Star Wars put together, packed within a world that conforms reasonably well to the laws of physics. I enjoyed the whole thing, and recommend them to any fan of sci-fi or imaginative writing.

This Week in the Garden

The black-eyed susans have started to bloom, earning some forgiveness for all the trouble they cause. Not that they are hard to grow -- on the contrary, they, along with the perennial argeratum, have become one of my worst weeds. You can see old, semi-abandoned gardens around here completely taken over by black-eyed susans. Below, just a small sample of the hundreds of black-eyed susan and argeratum seedlings I pull up every year.

So if anybody out there wants some black-eyed susans or perennial argeratum, come see me this fall or next spring....

Oh, the nasturtiums in the pots on the front porch are looking splendid.

Black Metal and the Neocons

This classic 2004 piece reviews, in tandem, a book on the Black Metal movement in Norway and Richard Perle's manifesto An End to Evil. Tee hee.

Friday, July 10, 2009

A Man and His Microwave

Now that I've finished installing the new microwave, I think I'll go kill a mastodon.

Eat Less, Live Longer

In today's depressing news, another study shows that animals that eat very low calorie diets are healthier and live longer.
Writing July 10 in the journal Science, a team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center and the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital reports that a nutritious but reduced-calorie diet blunts aging and significantly delays the onset of such age-related disorders as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and brain atrophy.

"We have been able to show that caloric restriction can slow the aging process in a primate species," says Richard Weindruch, a professor of medicine in the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health who leads the National Institute on Aging-funded study. "We observed that caloric restriction reduced the risk of developing an age-related disease by a factor of three and increased survival."

During the 20-year course of the study, half of the animals permitted to eat freely have survived, while 80 percent of the monkeys given the same diet, but with 30 percent fewer calories, are still alive. . . .

In terms of overall animal health, Weindruch notes, the restricted diet leads to longer lifespan and improved quality of life in old age. "There is a major effect of caloric restriction in increasing survival if you look at deaths due to the diseases of aging," he says.

The incidence of cancerous tumors and cardiovascular disease in animals on a restricted diet was less than half that seen in animals permitted to eat freely. Remarkably, while diabetes or impaired glucose regulation is common in monkeys that can eat all they want, it has yet to be observed in any animal on a restricted diet. "So far, we've seen the complete prevention of diabetes," says Weindruch.

In addition, the brain health of animals on a restricted diet is also better, according to Sterling Johnson, a neuroscientist in the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health. "It seems to preserve the volume of the brain in some regions. It's not a global effect, but the findings are helping us understand if this dietary treatment is having any effect on the loss of neurons" in aging.

In particular, the regions of the brain responsible for motor control and executive functions such as working memory and problem solving seem to be better preserved in animals that consume fewer calories.

I will point out that this is no surprise to anyone who has studied medieval history and noticed that almost all of the really old men were monks.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Simon Blackburn on Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong likes religion as a general proposition but is dissatisfied by all the versions she sees in the modern world. So she writes books (15 so far) extolling various ancient approaches to religion. Simon Blackburn reviews the latest (The Case for God: What Religion Really Means) in the Guardian:
This is an eloquent and interesting book, although you do not quite get what it says on the tin. Karen Armstrong takes the reader through a history of religious practice in many different cultures, arguing that in the good old days and purest forms they all come to much the same thing. They use devices of ritual, mystery, drama, dance and meditation in order to enable us better to cope with the vale of tears in which we find ourselves. Religion is therefore properly a matter of a practice, and may be compared with art or music. These are similarly difficult to create, and even to appreciate. But nobody who has managed either would doubt that something valuable has happened in the process. We come out of the art gallery or concert hall enriched and braced, elevated and tranquil, and may even fancy ourselves better people, though the change may or may not be noticed by those around us.

This is religion as it should be, and, according to Armstrong, as it once was in all the world's best traditions. However, there is a serpent in this paradise, as in others. Or rather, several serpents, but the worst is the folly of intellectualising the practice. This makes it into a matter of belief, argument, and ultimately dogma. It debases religion into a matter of belief in a certain number of propositions, so that if you can recite those sincerely you are an adept, and if you can't you fail.
Since I would enjoy church a lot more if I weren't always nervous that someone was going to jump up and shout "Unbeliever! Get thee gone!", I find what Armstrong says appealing. The problem, as Blackburn points out, is that it is very difficult to have any kind of discourse that is actually content free. In one of the books I have read, Armstrong praised early Buddhism and Confucian practice because neither made claims about the nature of God. But both do make lots of claims about other things. Buddhism makes little sense without reincarnation, for example, and Confucius assumed that we should find our ancestors worthy of veneration. Even when there is not much belief, there are words and symbols that point to beliefs. Intellectuals like Aristotle believed little if any of what they were told in the Athenian rituals they attended, but those rituals were full of statements about the gods and the history of the universe. It is for this reason, I suppose, that many of my friends like their church music sung in Latin -- it makes it easier to focus on the overall spiritual experience without getting distracted by strange statements about the Trinity or the Blood of the Lamb.

As for me, I find it impossible to believe in any religious creed I know of, and I think I would despise any religion that asserted nothing. So I listen to church music in Latin, admire cathedrals and mosques, read about ancient rites, ponder the meaning of prophetic words, and wonder at the marvel that is the universe.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

New Car

I bought a car yesterday, a 2008 Ford Escape. Some time I may write about the exhausting experience. Right now I am just relieved to be out of my old vehicle, which felt like it might collapse by the side of the road at any moment, and into something a little more reliable.

Hey Mary, what's your favorite color?

While sorting my 14-year-old daughter's laundry, I noticed something about the colors....

July 4th

Happy birthday, America. This arrangement of flowers is completely accidental, since I generally despise this color combination, but since it happened, I thought I would use it to mark the day.

You know, some things about the world are declining, but fireworks displays get better and better. What I saw last night with Ben and Zhen was five times as spectacular as what I generally saw as a kid.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

July Garden


Yesterday I hosted a cookout for my field crew and others, a way of celebrating Midsummer, another great season up on the C&O Canal, July 4th, and everything else good in the world. It was delightful. Every time I do this I think, "I should do this more often," but then the busy-ness of life crowds in and I don't.

I distracted my children with new water guns, which worked wonderfully.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Perils of Democracy

One of the problems with democracy is that when everyone gets a chance for input, it can be impossible to get anything done.

Heard much about the rebuilding of New Orleans? No surprise, since not much is happening. The problem is that the professional planners want to abandon some of the below sea level neighborhoods and focus all the available money on higher land -- this is in keeping with a longstanding Federal policy of buying out people on floodplains rather than helping them rebuild. But in New Orleans the low-lying neighborhoods are black and the high and dry neighborhoods are white, and no politician will sign on to a plan that gives all the money to the white neighborhoods and tells the blacks to take a hike. Been following the debate over opening levees along the Mississippi so the river's silt can fight the erosion of marshland? Every expert thinks this is essential, but nobody in Louisiana wants his neighborhood to be the one that loses protection. Our government seems to lack the will, or the legitimacy, to force several thousand people out of their homes in the name of saving half the state.

This is on my mind because the Times has a feature today on China's drive toward wind and solar power. Power generation and transfer is one of the businesses I work in, so I know a little about it, and in the US the whole thing is a nightmare. Everybody wants wind power, but nobody wants to live near a wind farm, so whenever anybody proposes one the neighbors fight it like crazy. Remember the fight over the proposed offshore farm that would be visible from Nantucket? Nothing ever happened. A few years ago the state of Maryland proposed a large wind project for the western part of the state, where coal mining is dying out. I have been working out there, and signs and bumper stickers opposing the project are everywhere. The project is in limbo and I am sure it will soon be dead.

The obvious solution to that problem is to build wind farms in places where nobody lives, and anyway North Dakota is one of our windiest states. But that would mean building a lot more high voltage power lines, and in the US today it is easier to find a unicorn than to build a new long-distance transmission line. Again, our government seems to lack to will to force a new line on any group of people for the benefit of the rest. Of the dozen or so new high voltage lines I have worked on over the course of my career, none has been built.

In China, wind farms and solar power plants are being built at a rate several times that in the US, because there are no regulatory hurdles and the government doesn't give a damn what the neighbors think. It shows the advantage of an authoritarian system. It also cuts across the usual left/right divide in politics, at least American politics. In the US, environmentalists tend to be small-is-good opponents of big business and advocates of neighborhood empowerment. You know, think globally, act locally. But local empowerment makes it impossible to build wind farms or transmission lines, and only the biggest businesses have the capital and staying power to pursue one of these projects. The people who give money to the Sierra Club are the very ones who would be most outraged by a new power line in the neighborhood. Some more globally-minded environmentalists have joined forces with power companies to pursue wind power projects, but this puts them in opposition to their own base of support.

Unless something changes radically in US politics, which I very much doubt, we simply cannot build a green power infrastructure with current technology. We need some way to transfer power underground. This could either be an insulator effective and cheap enough for use in thousand-mile-long underground lines, or a different way of shipping power, say by splitting water in North Dakota and shipping hydrogen through pipelines to the coast. Either is decades away.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Annals of Extreme Effort

I marvel at this paper castle/amusement park, built by a single Japanese man, and wonder about the uses we humans choose to make of the time we are given.