Thursday, September 30, 2010


An aquatint by Japanese artist Yukie Nakamo. Click to enlarge.

Animal Face-Off, Reality Edition

As pet pythons released into the Everglades have prospered, creating a large wild population, combats between pythons and alligators have been on the increase. National Geographic:

Wildlife researchers with the South Florida Natural Resources Center found the dead, headless python in October 2005 after it apparently tried to digest a 6-foot-long (2-meter-long) American alligator. The mostly intact dead gator was found sticking out of a hole in the midsection of the python, and wads of gator skin were found in the snake's gastrointestinal tract.

The gruesome discovery suggests that the python's feisty last meal might have been simply too much for it to handle.


A depressing graph from the Pew Trust, which also notes that of the 2.3 million people behind bars in America, 1.2 million have children under 18. It is depressing to me that we can't think of any better way to control crime than to lock up more than a million parents, but I'm afraid that I don't really have any better ideas.

Beating the System with Wind Power

Everybody knows that Italy is corrupt, but most outsiders don't know that one of the main centers of corruption is the state-controlled power industry. Italy has the most expensive electricity in Europe, three times as expensive as the average in the US, and a lot of that money disappears into an opaque contracting system that funnels money to the friends of powerful politicians, well-connected unions, and the like. Italians have been complaining about this for decades, but nothing every happens. The Berlusconi government officially opened the electricity market to private competition several years ago, but the same morass of red tape and corruption has kept private power generation to a small part of the market and not had any effect on the price.

Now, though, some Italian towns are fighting back by building their own wind turbines, solar plants, and, in the Alps, small hydroelectric plants. Because power is so expensive, it is much easier to make these projects economically viable than in the US, and the simmering anger so many Italians feel about paying those rates makes it easy to get the neighbors to accept power plants on their doorsteps. Elizabeth Rosenthal has a piece in the NY Times on a little town called Tocco da Causaria that is doing so well with its new turbines that its residents no longer pay local taxes.

This story shows, I think, something important about our age: how our constant technological progress has kept the western world from sinking under the weight of bureaucracy, corporate monopoly, and special interest politics. Whenever one part of the economy has fallen under the control of these forces -- for example, railroads, or coal mining -- new technologies come along that open up whole new economic sectors that are not so controlled and can therefore be very dynamic and productive, and that can raise up new leaders to challenge the dominance of those rooted in the old sectors. If Italy ever escapes from the network of entrenched powers and inside deals that controls electricity generation, it will be because new technologies allow each community to generate its own power and completely bypass the system.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

An Earth-Like World?

Gliese 581g has a mass about three times that of the earth and it orbits a red dwarf star not too different from our sun. According to its discoverers, the planet is the right distance from its star for liquid water. And it's only 20 light years away. And I think this is pretty cool, but I don't share the discoverers' certainty that the planet must have life:
"Given the ubiquity of water, it seems probable that this thing actually has liquid water. On the surface of the Earth, everywhere you have liquid water you have life," Vogt added.

The question wouldn't be to defend that there is life at Gliese 581g, says Butler. "The question," he said, "would be to demonstrate that there isn't."

Since we have only studied one planet with liquid water, this one, it seems quite a stretch to me to assume that life will evolve on every wet world. We have no data on the question.

The Poetry of Putting Down the Rebellion

I will let loose the dogs of hell,
Ten thousand Indians, who shall yell
And foam and tear, and grin and roar,
And drench their moccasins in gore:
To these Ill give full scope and play
From Ticonderog to Florida...

One assumes that should be pronounced "Floriday." This is from the orderly book of "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne, a British general who led the invasion of the American colonies from Canada in 1777. Alas for him, his foaming Indian allies failed to materialize, and he was stopped at Saratoga by Benedict Arnold, Daniel Morgan, and numerous other Americans. After he surrendered to them he was accused in Britain of dereliction of duty, and in the course of defending himself he produced beautiful maps of the battle that make it the best documented of the Revolutionary War.


Guiguzi was, it seems, a real Chinese philosopher and teacher of the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) who went through an interesting metamorphosis in Chinese folklore. He claimed to have been a diplomat and the teacher of many great diplomats and statesmen. One of his books survives, although I couldn't make heads or tails of the bit I read, it is said to be a practical guide to statecraft emphasizing the need to react quickly to changing circumstances. By the time this porcelain vase was made in the 14th century AD, Guiguzi was mainly remembered as a wizard who rode around in this cart drawn by a tiger and a leopard and could infallibly predict the future using Taoist methods.

I can only hope that since I have failed to become a wizard in my lifetime, I will undergo a similar transformation after my death and be remembered in the 29th century as a sorcerer who traveled the world in the shape of a sparrowhawk, dispensing wisdom to those in confusion, confounding the minds of the wicked, blasting villains with lightning, and comforting the lonely with visions of divine gardens.

Coyote-Wolf Hybrids

Interesting article in the NY Times about coyotes. This was news to me:
Coyotes have remained so much in possession of their own secrets that it was not until this year that the real identity of the coyotes living in the eastern part of the country was revealed. Two separate teams of researchers studying the genes of coyotes in the Northeast reported evidence that these animals that have for decades upon decades been thought of as coyotes are in fact coyote-wolf hybrids.
The animals are mostly coyote, but the admixture of wolf genes probably explains why eastern coyotes are bigger than western ones and better at hunting deer.

I wish they would come hunt some deer near me.

That Religious Knowledge Survey

The main headline in most press accounts of the latest Pew survey on the religious knowledge of Americans is that Atheists and Agnostics know more about religion than believers do. I don't find this surprising at all. Minorities always know more about the majority than the majority knows about them; after non-believers, the top-scorers in the poll were Jews and Mormons.

You can take a quiz that includes 15 questions from the survey here. If this is really representative, the quiz wasn't all that hard, but on the other hand it does include questions like "What is the religion of most people in Pakistan" that are not really tests of religious knowledge. The whole test is here.

I was intrigued by how the respondents identified their own religion. A majority were Protestants, at 52%, 24% were Catholic, and 16% were "unaffiliated," of whom 3% were agnostics, 1% atheists, and 12% "Nothing in Particular."

I thought the most disturbing finding was in the answers to this question:
Are public school teachers permitted to read from the Bible as an example of literature?
Of course the correct answer is "yes", but only 23% got this one right and 67% said "no." American Christians really do worry that the government is hostile to them.

The Romans Built a Lot of Stuff

I was just marveling at the sheer quantity of Roman stuff that turns up on archaeological digs in France, Span, and Italy. There is something new in the archaeological news almost every day, like this item on a Temple of Mithra unearthed in Angers, France, or this one on a 4-acre temple complex near Le Mans -- one of the smaller temple foundations in that sanctuary is pictured above. And just the interesting stuff makes the news, not the hundreds of houses and warehouses and what all that turn up. I imagine it must be frustrating for archaeologists interested in other periods that everywhere they dig they just find more Roman buildings, Roman roads, Roman walls, and Roman trash.

Below, a beaker dedicated to Mithra by a Gallo-Roman named Genialis some time in the third century.

No Tea Party Here

Here in Maryland, there is no sign of a populist revolt. All of the Tea Party-linked challengers to established Republicans were defeated in the primary; Brian Murphy took on former governor Bob Ehrlich with a platform of radical tax cuts, but despite an endorsement from Sarah Palin he got only 24% of the vote. The only interesting race was for the right to take on Senator Barbara Mikulski; since she is all but guaranteed to win re-election no establishment Republicans bothered to run. Even there, the modestly kooky Eric Wargotz, who mainly wants to lock up more criminals for longer, defeated a slate of anti-evolution, anti-government, pro-gold standard guys.

Now the Washington Post has the first polling of the fall on the general election match-ups, and it looks like a sweep for incumbents. In the governor's race, we have a rematch of last time, with Ehrlich returning to take on the man who ousted him in the last race, Democrat Martin O'Malley. O'Malley has opened a comfortable lead; Ehrlich has the support of almost all Republicans and a majority of Independents, but O'Malley is getting more than 80% of Democrats and in Maryland, that is enough.

It is no mystery why politics in Maryland are so boring: we have no recession. Our biggest industry is the federal government, and the more money they spend to pull the country out of the slump, and the more they pump into the military-industrial complex, the better things go for us. Since we have no real problems, but can turn on the news and see how bad things are in some other states, we have no reason to turn against the established leadership.

People are so predictable sometimes.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Things I Never Knew

In 1845, Frederick Douglass signed the temperance pledge, saying “if we could but make the world sober, we would have no slavery . . . all great reforms go together.”

The Purpose of Fiction

The deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness; and so a novel deserves a reader’s attention only as long as the author sustains the reader’s trust.

-- Jonathan Franzen

The Dream of Fusion Claims a Victim

Dr. Leonardo Mascheroni, a former physicist at the government lab in Los Alamos, has been indicted for trying to sell nuclear secrets to a foreign government. The case is a bizarre one. Mascheroni has been trying for the past decade to convince the government to fund his scheme to produce fusion power, which involves a giant laser. Frustrated by his inability to raise the funds, he made numerous veiled threats to sell his weapons expertise to other countries if Congress would not at least hold hearings on his plan:
As he was snubbed by Congress and federal experts, Dr. Mascheroni, a naturalized citizen who was born in Argentina, grew increasingly frustrated and bitter. He became known in Washington for veiled threats to take his atomic expertise abroad unless the government backed his laser plan. . . . A 22-count indictment against Dr. Mascheroni, made public on Sept. 17, quotes his wife, Marjorie, as saying that he would “make bombs” overseas “if they don’t listen to him in Washington.”
Then the FBI sent an agent to entrap Mascheroni, posing as an agent of Venezuela and offering him $800,000 for nuclear secrets. I wonder if this was essentially a ploy to shut Mascheroni up or get him out of the way. Mascheroni wasn't particularly interested in the money, and what he tried to get for his information was help for his laser fusion plan. Mascheroni says that by the time he actually handed over documents to the agent, he already knew the man was an FBI informant, and he just went ahead in order to keep drawing attention to his plan. Which raises an interesting question: can you be convicted of espionage if you think the man posing as a foreign agent is really a US spy?

I am struck by the way the dream of fusion power, hanging out there just beyond our technological reach, haunts many scientists. Some of them end up like the purveyors of perpetual motion machines, certain that if they only had enough money and the right materials they could do the impossible. And we know fusion works -- unlimited free energy is there for us, if we just knew how to grasp it. So far as I know, Mascheroni is the first scientist to be completely unhinged by our inability to claim this prize, but I am sure there are many others nearly as bitter and frustrated.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Would Be Speaker

John Boehner was going on about the nation's problems in general and the budget deficit in particular, but when he was pressed by Chris Wallace to say what he would do about them if the Republicans take over Congress, he said:
Let's not talk about potential solutions.

A Case Study in Historic Preservation

Excellent discussion at the DC MUD blog of the latest historic preservation dispute in Alexandria, Virginia. The building in question is an old American Legion post:
The building served as a childcare center assisting African American women who left their children daily to go to work, replacing the men that had gone overseas to fight in WWII. Later the building became the only American Legion post in Alexandria to serve black veterans as they returned from war, and throughout the '50's and '60's served as backdrop to community life in the predominantly black neighborhood. Later, the building became well known as a place of public drunkenness, fighting, and drug activity, until its liquor license was revoked in 1992. More recently it's remained empty, uncared for, and rotting from the inside out.
The developer who owns the building and the surrounding block tried to get either the city or a preservation group to take it off his hands, even offering to give $50,000 toward any restoration effort. But the city doesn't want it, and no preservation group stepped in to take on the challenge. Just as it looked like the thing was going to be demolished, some preservationists filed a lawsuit asserting that by not declaring the building historic the city was engaging in racial discrimination:
Elevating architectural significance above cultural and historic significance inevitably has a disproportionate impact on buildings in historically black neighborhoods, while affording ample protections to historic structures in predominately white neighborhoods.
I don't find this absurd on its face; as long as the government is going to declare some buildings historic and work to preserve them, it ought to do so in a way that is not discriminatory. But historic preservation is expensive, and for most buildings the only economically feasible way to keep them standing is to adapt them for a new use. A standard approach is for a city or state to offer developers a large incentive in the form of cash or tax abatement if they promise to preserve the historic character of a building as they restore and adapt it; this allows the developer to take on the added cost of restoring a historic building and still end up with something that is economically viable. For many buildings, though, there is no feasible re-use, and to me this looks like one. Leaving it alone won't do; if it just sits there for another decade it will probably fall into ruin and be condemned, and meanwhile the redevelopment of the surrounding block is being held up. Alexandria has one of the nation's toughest historic preservation laws and a great record of preserving and re-using historic buildings, as well as excellent race relations -- it's a majority white southern city with a black mayor and a black police chief -- so if the Alexandria city council says they won't take the building on, I am willing to accept that they have good reasons.

Why Does Spicy Food Taste Hot?

Jonah Lehrer:

Why does spicy food taste “hot”? After all, a chili pepper at room temperature will still “burn” our tongue and cause us to sweat. We’ll crave ice-cold water and wave our hands frantically in front of our face. To answer this question, we need to investigate the physiology of taste. It turns out that capsaicin – the active ingredient in spicy food – binds to a special class of vanilloid receptor inside our mouth called VR1 receptors. After capsaicin binds to these receptors, the sensory neuron is depolarized, and it sends along a signal indicating the presence of spicy stimuli.

But here’s the strange part: VR1 receptors weren’t designed to detect capsaicin. They bind spicy food by accident. The real purpose of VR1 receptors is thermoreception, or the detection of heat. This means that they are supposed to prevent us from consuming food that will burn our sensitive flesh. (That’s why our VR1 receptors are clustered in our tongue, mouth and skin.) As a result, when the receptors are activated by capsaicin, the sensation we experience is indelibly linked to the perception of temperature, to the feeling of eating something near the boiling point of water. But that pain is just an illusory side-effect of our confused neural receptors.

Isn't science cool?

Maya Rise and Fall

Great feature at National Geographic on the Maya, with a very extensive slide show:
The Maya have always been an enigma. Decades ago the glories of their ruined cities and their beautiful but undeciphered script had many researchers imagining a gentle society of priests and scribes. As epigraphers finally learned to read the Maya glyphs, a darker picture emerged, of warring dynasties, court rivalries, and palaces put to the torch. Maya history became a tapestry of precise dates and vividly named personages.
Below, a ceramic statue of a dwarf with detachable helmet.


Long, interesting article by Nicolai Ouroussoff on Masdar, a planned city being built in Abu Dhabi. The city, designed by Norman Foster and partners, is supposed to house as many as 90,000 people without producing any carbon emissions. Most of the inhabitants will be associated with a new research center and university. The design combines techniques used in traditional desert architecture -- ceramic screens shading windows, an elevated location to catch more breezes -- with the latest technological tricks to conserve and generate electricity. No cars will be allowed, and power will come from solar energy and trash burning. The city, writes Ouroussoff,
would be a perfect square, nearly a mile on each side, raised on a 23-foot-high base to capture desert breezes. Beneath its labyrinth of pedestrian streets, a fleet of driverless electric cars would navigate silently through dimly lit tunnels. The project conjured both a walled medieval fortress and an upgraded version of the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland.
Ourossoff likes some things about the design but is put off by the sense that it "would have only limited relevance to the world most people live in." It is an isolated enclave like Disney World that walls out the world's troubles rather than trying to solve them:
Ever since the notion that thoughtful planning could improve the lot of humankind died out, sometime in the 1970s, both the megarich and the educated middle classes have increasingly found solace by walling themselves off inside a variety of mini-utopias.
But, well, you can't change the whole world at once, and moves toward a more sustainable future have to start somewhere. Why not at Masdar? Even if it houses only 90,000 people, that's 90,000 people who won't be living in the sort of energy-wasting, oil-fueled suburbs where the rest of the Arabian middle class lives, getting fatter by the year in part because they never go outside.

As an aside, I wonder about the challenges of designing energy-efficient housing for an environment like the central US, where it is hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Northern Europeans have been going big for passive solar houses that can get through the winter with no heater, but many of the tricks, like big, south-facing, triple-insulated windows, would make these houses unbearably hot in even a Maryland summer. It costs more to air condition my house in the summer than to heat it in the winter, so I don't see how such designs could really work here. And this design for a desert city is supposed to turn the streets into well-shaded wind tunnels, which would be torture in January.

Obama and Afghanistan

I have found all of Bob Woodward's other "insider" portraits of Washington decision-making to be tedious exercises in which the reporter gratifies the self-importance of his subjects. But I am interested in his account of Obama's search for an Afghanistan plan. Obama had promised during his campaign to pull out of Iraq but to press on in Afghanistan. He asked his military advisers to come up with a range of options but Petraeus, McChrystal and company knew what they wanted -- at least 30,000 additional men and an expanded mission -- and essentially refused to offer anything else. Some of Obama's civilian advisers, as we heard at the time, were pushing for a reduced commitment, but the generals said that wouldn't work. Obama, trapped by his own promises and a desire not to seem weak or destroy his relations with the military leaders (always an issue for a liberal president) had no real choice but to go along with what the Pentagon recommended. He accepted their plan but then tacked on his own requirement that the mission begin to wind down in 18 months.

I have written before about our leaders' disturbing habit of embarking on major military ventures (e.g., the invasion of Iraq, the Bay of Pigs) without bothering to talk through the details of what was to be done and why. It seems that Obama also finds this disturbing, and he wanted a thorough review of his options. Unfortunately, by this time the US really had no good options. The debate only led, says Woodward, to
the realization that months of tough debate and hard work had not brought forth a clear solution that everyone could agree on. Even at the end of the process, the president's team wrestled with the most basic questions about the war, then entering its ninth year: What is the mission? What are we trying to do?
In the case of Afghanistan I can understand why we invaded without a clear goal beyond overthrowing the Taliban, since we had just been attacked and a rapid response seemed important. But to have made it through 7 years of war under Bush without any such assessment strikes me as absurd. On the other hand the Pentagon's current plan also strikes me as crazy, since it calls for us to keep the current force level in Afghanistan through 2015 at least, at a cost of $90 billion a year. This just has to end. I fear that it will end with the collapse of the Karzai government, a renewed Taliban takeover, and all the repression that implies, but I am not willing to pay this cost indefinitely.

Animal Burial in Iron Age Britain

Ancient Europeans had very literal ideas about how to make offerings to their Gods. Offerings to the Gods above were burned, so their smoke rose up to the heavens. Offerings to the Gods below were buried, or thrown down wells. Recent excavations in the London suburbs have uncovered a farm established around AD 1 and occupied for a century or so. Besides the usual round houses and storage pits, they found several animal burials that appear to be sacrifices.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

New Uses of Powerpoint

My second son had to come home from the house of two of his 13-year-old friends (twins) yesterday because they got in a bit of trouble with their parents. It seems that they made a Powerpoint presentation explaining why, as atheists, they should no longer be required to go to church. Their parents were not convinced, and not amused.

Defense Against Dragons

From Got Medieval:
St. Margaret of Antioch was a fourth-century Christian virgin martyred because she refused to give it up to an interested Roman suitor (as per the usual pattern with young female martyrs). In retaliation, said suitor devised various tortures, including having her fed to a dragon. She escaped, of course, as no saint can be killed on the first go, especially if the first go is as symbolic as being fed to a dragon, but the exact details of her escape varies according to the version you read.

Arranged in order of increasing badassery, Margaret either 1) made the sign of the cross and the dragon refused to eat her, 2) preached the word of God and commanded the dragon to leave her alone, 3) jammed her cross in his mouth so he couldn't swallow her, 4) got swallowed but gave the dragon such terrible indigestion from the holiness of her crucifix that he spat her back out, or 5) got swallowed but escaped because her crucifix caused the dragon's belly to explode.
The illustration is from a 15th-century psalter. The poor dragon is obviously not enjoying his mouthful of scripture.

Today's Headline, Guam Edition

How to Get Rid of Invasive Tree Snakes: Bomb Them With Parachuted, Poisonous Mice

Interesting that the poison being used is acetaminophen (Tylenol), which is highly toxic to snakes at a dose of less than 80 milligrams.

New Horned Dinosaurs

Utahceratops gettyi, top, and Kosmoceratops richardsoni, bottom. These ceratopsians lived in western North America around 76 million years ago. Nice write-up of the finds here. Kosmoceratops (below) had a lot of bony frills that wouldn't have been much use for fighting off predators, so these were presumably for display.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Indian Summer

Most of September was cool and gorgeous here, in the 70s and 80s every day. Then Wednesday a heat wave rolled in, and we have had four sultry summer days. The forecast is calling for much cooler weather tomorrow and then cold rain, so this is probably the last of summer for this year.

It's Not My Fault!

Long story in the Washington Post on the latest skirmishes in the 40-year-long and counting battle to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. With most heavy industry gone from the watershed and sewage treatment plants built for all the cities and most towns, the biggest remaining sources of pollution are very dispersed and hard to control: farms, septic tanks, storm sewer runoff. And nobody wants to pay money to clean up problems that just don't look very severe:

This month in Loudoun County, there was an early skirmish whose results did not bode well for the Chesapeake. The county board of supervisors proposed a new Chesapeake Bay Ordinance that would have set new limits on construction near waterways.

A standing-room only crowd opposed it as too costly and intrusive, and the council voted to delay consideration of the ordinance. County Supervisor Kelly Burk said the reaction from many people was, "We don't have an impact on the bay."

A 13-Year-Old Speaks

My son Thomas was supposed to write a poem beginning with the words "I wonder." After three days of badgering from his teacher and parents, he produced this:
Often times I wonder why I call out for direction and people sit looking straight at me with dim expressions on their faces.
Often times I wonder why all throughout my life I've been told "can't" is a word I shouldn't use.
Often times I wonder why I've always been told I can accomplish anything I put my mind to.
Often times I wonder how it feels to be a pencil, having my head ground every time people expect instantaneous results from their thick skulls onto the thin paper, but then I remember; that's how my life feels.

Often times I wonder why I smile when authority figures scold me.
Often times I wonder why the scolding of teachers has no effect on me in the slightest.
Often times I wonder why I am always told to do more than the bare minimum of work, but I am always told the same thing: "because you are smarter than that."
But why should I do more than the bare minimum? It's all very confusing to me.

Often times I wonder why everyone around me seems to be running in circles never achieving anything more than "the next step" in life, and then the "step" after that.
Often times I wonder why just the sound of some people's voices makes me want to rip my ears off.
Often times I wonder why some things are deemed socially unacceptable to say.
Often times I wonder why some people don't understand why nobody seems to particularly like them.

Often times I wonder why some political issues are even issues, but then I remember, I don't really care.
Often times I wonder why everyone I know seems to have terrible taste in music, but I guess that makes me the minority.
I wonder often, how people can be terrified of bugs, but then, I'm terrified of slugs.
And more often than not I wonder why anyone should care about what I wonder, I think I'm fairly dull.

Gravestone of Longinus Sdapeze

Friday, September 24, 2010

Lud's Church

Lud's Church, a rocky defile in Staffordshire, England around which many legends cluster. It is said to have been used as a secret meeting place by Lollards in the 15th century, and to have been the model for the "green chapel" in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Notre Dame de Paris, 1838

By Louis Daguerre.

I Like this Line

James Ledbetter on the spending cuts recently proposed by Republicans:
They are whacking weeds at the edge of a large field where they let sacred cows get fatter.
Exactly. All of the cuts discussed in the Republic "pledge" related to non-defense discretionary spending, which is less than 20% of the budget. They are up in arms about the auto industry bailout, which looks set to turn a profit, the Wall Street bailout, which will probably end up costing less than $50 billion, and a couple of hundred billion in temporary stimulus spending, while refusing to take on our real budgetary problems. There is no way to control federal spending without tackling the defense budget -- $538 billion this year, plus $130 billion more for our Middle East wars -- and health care spending. Obama and the Democrats passed a bill that tries to control health care spending and set limits on the growth of Medicare, and every Republican voted against it. A few Republicans have started to talk about the defense budget, but most still oppose any real cuts.

The DeMoulin Brothers Catalog

This wonderful bit of Americana is back in print, and you can view a lot of it on the web. Greg Beato explains:

The company that produced Catalog No. 439 got its start decades earlier, when 31-year-old Ed DeMoulin of Greenville, Illinois began making ceremonial axes for the Modern Woodmen of America, a fraternal benefit organization that was formed in 1883 to provide life insurance for its members. A year later, the organization’s leader asked DeMoulin if he had any ideas that might help boost membership.

The initiation rites of long-standing secret societies such as the Freemasons and Odd Fellows were elaborate, often solemn affairs. According to John Goldsmith, who maintains a museum devoted to the DeMoulin Bros. and has written about the company’s origins for The Scottish Rite Journal of Freemasonry, DeMoulin and his siblings believed that the Modern Woodmen could attract more members by making their initiation rites more entertaining.

To this end, Ed devised a gag in which the inductee was commanded to place his hand in what appeared to be a cauldron filled with molten lead but which in fact was merely cold water with dry mercurine powder added to it. Then, he followed up with a bucking, mechanical goat designed to take initiates on a short but wild ride.

The stunts DeMoulin dreamed up weren’t just more entertaining than traditional fraternal ceremonies. They were also better suited to the new sensibilities and mores taking root in urban America, replacing hoary aristocratic ritual with an egalitarian wise-guy slapstick that played everyone for a fool at least once. Through joy buzzers, trick cigars, exploding flower bouquets, and skeletons that popped out of altars and squirted water in the eyes of their victims, they made the fraternal initiation rite modern, a burlesque rather than a ceremony. As a result, American men flocked to them. After the Modern Woodmen began using the DeMoulins’ devices, its membership grew from 40,000 to 600,000.

Ah, for the good old days, when serious, godly Americans built the Grand Republic. Click on the illustrations to enlarge.

Emotional Politics

Via Andrew Sullivan, the experience of this campaign volunteer in Ohio explains what is going to happen in this election:
Steve Nicholson barely opens the storm door for the Democratic campaign volunteer trying to talk to him about the Ohio governor's race. "I don't care for either one," he says, "I just want jobs." The volunteer says that's exactly why he should vote for the incumbent, Democrat Ted S­­­trickland. "Not voting is a vote for Kasich," she says, referring to Republican challenger John Kasich. "Strickland will be better for jobs," agrees Nicholson, 30. So will he vote? No. Does he at least want a little campaign literature to learn about the race? No. The storm door closes.
The views of American about the issues have not changed since 2008. A modest majority of Americans still supports the Democrats on most of the issues: fewer wars, higher taxes on the rich, more infrastructure spending, more government action to guarantee health care to everyone. But the awful performance of the economy has put people in such a bad and untrusting mood that many will not vote and many others will cast "protest votes" for candidates who express their anger at the system.

You can see this as a foolish, emotional response, or you can see it, in a sense, as a bottom line demand that politicians do their jobs -- don't talk to me about your ideas, just make the country work. I think many politicans and all political writers pay too much attention to questions like "how is this vote going to look?" when really results matter far more.

The Battle of Hamoukar

It seems that we might want to count warfare among the many aspects of "civilization" pioneered by the Sumerians of southern Mesopotamia. Of course violence between humans is as old as humanity, but primitive tribal peoples don't practice warfare as we civilized folk know it. They launch raids by night or stealthy ambushes, always avoiding a stand up fight between equal parties. And if two particularly bold men do want to fight it out one on one and face to face, in daylight, why they are heroes. Normal people don't stand up and face death if they can possibly avoid it. When we see bronze age armies standing in rows with spears and shields, facing each other bravely (or stupidly), we know that something very important has changed. To get men to do this requires years of conditioning and a huge investment by the society in the bravery and discipline of its young men.

Archaeologists from the University of Chicago have discovered that around 3500 BC, at the dawn of Mesopotamian civilization, the city of Hamoukar in eastern Syria was destroyed after a great battle. Hamoukar was one of the first cities in the world, and so far as we know it was the first one to perish by fire and sword (or sling):
A huge battle destroyed one of the world’s earliest cities at around 3500 B.C. and left behind, preserved in their places, artifacts from daily life in an urban settlement in upper Mesopotamia, according to a joint announcement from the University of Chicago and the Department of Antiquities in Syria.

“The whole area of our most recent excavation was a war zone,” said Clemens Reichel, Research Associate at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Reichel lead a team that spent October and November at the site. . . .

The discovery provides the earliest evidence for large scale organized warfare in the Mesopotamian world, the team said.

The team found extensive destruction with collapsed walls, which had undergone heavy bombardment by sling bullets and eventually collapsed in an ensuing fire. Work during an earlier season showed the settlement was protected by a 10-foot high mud-brick wall.

The excavators retrieved more than 1,200 smaller, oval-shaped bullets (about an inch long and an inch and a half in diameter) and some 120 larger round clay balls (two and half to four inches in diameter). “This clearly was no minor skirmish. This was ‘Shock and Awe’ in the Fourth Millennium B.C.,” Reichel said.

Hamoukar, an ancient center of obsidian production, had close relations with Uruk in Sumer. There is even a settlement out side the walls of Hamoukar where the artifacts look exactly like those used in Uruk, giving rise to speculation that this was a Sumerian colony. This colony was destroyed at the same time as the main city. After the battle, life continued in the city for a while, and the new occupiers used exclusively Uruk pottery. The archaeologists think, therefore, that the city had been destroyed by attackers from Uruk.

One of the artifacts from the site is the clay "sealing" below; clay had been smeared over the top of an earthenware jar to seal it, and a stone seal had been applied to the clay, leaving this mark of a lion and a goat. Writing, we think, evolved from just this sort of bookkeeping mark.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Taking Things Very Literally

Some climate scientists think they have figured out how the Red Sea parted to let Moses and the Israelites pass:
The biblical account of the parting of the Red Sea has inspired and mystified people for millennia. A new computer modeling study by researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU) shows how the movement of wind as described in the book of Exodus could have parted the waters.

The computer simulations show that a strong east wind, blowing overnight, could have pushed water back at a bend where an ancient river is believed to have merged with a coastal lagoon along the Mediterranean Sea. With the water pushed back into both waterways, a land bridge would have opened at the bend, enabling people to walk across exposed mud flats to safety. As soon as the wind died down, the waters would have rushed back in.

Then again, maybe it never happened.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

And She Lives Off Campaign Money

Been wondering how Christine O'Donnell lives with no job? She pays all of her living expenses with campaign money: the rent on her house (which doubles as her campaign headquarters) her utility bills, even her bowling tab. This is, you know, illegal, but that probably won't keep the law-and-order, family-values crowd from voting for her.


In the woods this morning, acorns were raining down around me: thump . . . thump . . . thump. Under some trees the ground was already half covered with acorns, and it took me only a couple of minutes to fill my pockets with the collection pictured above. This astonishing bounty of fat and protein sustains the forest mammals through the winter, making possible the lives of deer, mice, squirrels, and all the things that feed on them. The trees produce this rain of food because some of the nuts will be buried by squirrels and then forgotten. Burial in loose soil is a huge advantage to the seed, so the trees make an enormous investment of energy in their nuts in the hope that one tenth of one percent of what they produce will end up in a forgotten squirrel cache.

Into the Wild

I just finished listening to Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild. I liked it very much, even better than his other best-seller, Into Thin Air. Into the Wild is the story of Chris McCandless, who died alone in the Alaskan wilderness in 1992, 24 years old. Krakauer was assigned to write about McCandless by the editors of Wild magazine and became fascinated by this young man who reminded him very much of his younger self. McCandless was a privileged child of the Washington suburbs, his father a noted engineer who designed radar for NASA and the Defense Department. After he graduated from college he gave his $24,000 inheritance to charity and set off to wander the country alone. Many of the people he met loved him for his enthusiasm, his optimistic spirituality, and his determination to live out his own beliefs. He was a great reader who loved Thoreau, Tolstoy, Jack London, and other writers who exalted the pursuit of spiritual perfection over bourgeois comfort. He was determined to pursue a more pure kind of experience. As he wrote in a famous bit of graffiti:
Two years he walks the earth. No phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes. Ultimate freedom. An extremist. An aesthetic voyager whose home is the road.
This anti-bourgeois stuff can get annoying -- there is something a bit off about people who travel around in cars, denouncing the civilization that built them -- but McCandless is such a sweet, open-hearted kid that I never minded much. This part of his story is fascinating mainly because he joined the great wandering horde of the American southwest, the people who live out of cars and campers in the desert, hanging around campgrounds and abandoned military posts just beyond the edge of civilization, buying, selling, and trading at swaps and flea markets, living out a dream of freedom. Some are retirees from the north who drive toward the sun when the snow starts to fall; some are deadbeats and small-time criminals on the run from their pasts; some, like McCandless, are spiritual seekers in search of a life that feels authentic.

Like so many other young men in search of adventure, including Jon Krakauer, McCandless eventually ended up in Alaska. He planned to head "into the wild," as he put it, and live off the land for three or four months. He took very little gear beyond his clothes, a .22 rifle with 400 rounds, and a book about native plant lore. After Krakauer's Wild article appeared, the magazine got many letters from people denouncing McCandless for a deadly combination of ignorance and arrogance. Krakauer does not think McCandless was much more ignorant or arrogant than many other adventurous young men, including himself. As he shows, McCandless was able to support himself in the wild quite well for more than three months, hunting, digging roots, and gathering berries. He made one effort to hike out, when he was still healthy, but his way was blocked by a river that was running much higher than it had been when he crossed it in the spring. If he had had a map, he could have found another route out, but maps were one of the things he refused to take with him. So he returned to his camp and eventually died, in circumstances that remain mysterious.

Krakauer's writing is assured, and the complicated way he structures the story works very well. His sympathy for McCandless shines through his spare story telling. McCandless is also a fascinating subject. Rather than just complain about the world he lived in, he set out to fashion his own world of freedom and raw experience. He lived bravely and died true to the code he lived by:
So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more dangerous to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man's living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.

Happy Equinox

May fall bring you all cool breezes, bright colors, and many blessings.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Serra Pelada

The Serra Pelada gold mine, Brazil, by Miguel Rio Branco:
Serra Pelada (Hill of Gold) mine, one of the richest deposits of alluvial gold ever found, is also considered one of the largest in the world. Located 270 miles south of Belem on the Amazon delta, Serra Pelada is controlled by the state, which distributes barrancos, small squares of soil, to owners, garimperos (gold diggers or fortune hunters), according to seniority. Garimperos are only allowed to dig vertically, to avoid encroaching on other barrancos.

2,000 Year Old Baobob

As I Was Saying, Christine O'Donnell Edition

Michelle Goldberg on conservative female politicians:
Indeed, though they may have been wont to admit it, these conservative women began to experience exactly the power and freedom that feminists have always fought for. In a 1995 New Republic article about the new crop of right-wing women representatives, Vern Smith, Linda Smith’s husband, explained, “One of the reasons we got into politics, we wanted to preserve some of the traditional lifestyle we’d grown up with. It’s funny, with Linda away, we end up sacrificing some of that traditional family life to pass on some of that heritage to our children.”

As it turns out, many smart, ambitious conservative women don’t enjoy the traditional lifestyle much at all. Beverly LaHaye, the founder of Concerned Women for America, where Christine O’Donnell worked during the 1990s, is archetypical in this regard. In The Spirit Controlled Woman—the same book in which she asserts “Submission is God’s design for women”—LaHaye writes that as a young housewife, she felt insecure, unfulfilled, and afraid to speak in public. “After all,” she asked, “who wants to hear what a young woman has to say whose only accomplishments in life were having four successful pregnancies and keeping a clean house?” By becoming an anti-feminist activist, LaHaye was able to escape the kind of dull misery and ennui that Betty Friedan identified in The Feminist Mystique.

False Memory and Bad Medicine

Meredith Maran and her family were victims of a psychological fad that swept the country not very long ago. She told Michael Humphrey of Slate:

During the 1980s and 1990s, tens of thousands of Americans -- most of them middle-class, 30-something women in big cities, like me -- became convinced that they'd repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse, and then, decades later, recovered those memories in therapy.

In the years leading up to that mass panic, I was working as a feminist journalist, writing exposés of child sexual abuse, trying to convince the world that incest was more than a one-in-a-million occurrence. In the process, I convinced myself that my father had molested me. After five years of incest nightmares and incest workshops and incest therapy, I accused my father, estranging myself and my sons from him for the next eight years.

In the early 1990s the culture flipped, and so did I. Across the country, falsely accused fathers were suing their daughters' incest therapists. Falsely accused molesters were being freed from jail -- and I realized that my accusation was false. I was one of the lucky ones. My father was still alive, and he forgave me.

Memory is a flexible thing that responds to emotions and wishes, not a simple recording device. In the face of strong pressure, it can collapse. I am glad to hear of Maran's book because I do not have the sense that there has ever been a sufficient reckoning for this disaster -- or for the other, related disaster that arose when toddlers were coached into accusing their day care providers of abuse. People went to jail because of these accusations. The guilty party here is really the pseudo-science of psychology. Hundreds of therapists who are supposed to be experts on the human mind threw themselves into these fads, showing that their supposed knowledge was a weak thing compared to politics, group solidarity, victimhood, and the appeal of a theory that explains everything.

Michael Humphrey makes the obvious point about Maran's life:

There's an interesting arc in the book. As reports of molestation increase, you begin to believe you too were molested. And as reports of false memory increase, you realize that you were not, in fact, molested.

Maran responds,

It really shocked me, I must say, to see how much influence the external had on the internal. That the most intimate emotions and relationships can be so affected by the dominant paradigm. . . . I don't know if I'll ever be completely sure of anything again.

That might be going too far, but these stories do call on us to be modest about what we think we know. That modesty has costs. If people questioned their memories more closely, they might realize that stories they tell themselves about good and bad times in their lives are only something like the truth. Perhaps the certainty and coherence of our personal narratives are more important to us than their accuracy, and nothing would be gained from excessive scrutiny. But psychologists and judges should know the difference and act accordingly.


Lisa Belkin:
the five things most likely to cause injury to children up to age 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are: car accidents, homicide (usually at the hands of someone they know), child abuse, suicide or drowning. And what are the five things that parents are most worried about (according to surveys by the Mayo Clinic)? Kidnapping, school snipers, terrorists, dangerous strangers and drugs.


Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.

--Oliver Wendell Holmes

In Which I Agree with David Brooks

Or perhaps both David Brooks and I agree with an insight common enough to pass for conventional wisdom. Brooks is reviewing Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a book I will not read for reasons that will become clear. B.J. Myers savaged Freedom in the Atlantic as “a 576-page monument to insignificance,” complaining that in Franzen’s world “nothing important can happen.”

Surely, says Brooks, “this is Franzen’s point.” In the America of Franzen and most of the other major American writers of the past century, nothing important can happen because people are too obsessed with neat lawns, nice cars, perfect nails, and every other sort of bourgeois trivia to care about Important Things. Really? Brooks:

My own answer, for what it’s worth, is that “Freedom” tells us more about America’s literary culture than about America itself.

Sometime long ago, a writer by the side of Walden Pond decided that middle-class Americans may seem happy and successful on the outside, but deep down they are leading lives of quiet desperation. This message caught on (it’s flattering to writers and other dissidents), and it became the basis of nearly every depiction of small-town and suburban America since. If you judged by American literature, there are no happy people in the suburbs, and certainly no fulfilled ones.

By now, writers have become trapped in the confines of this orthodoxy. So even a writer as talented as Franzen has apt descriptions of neighborhood cattiness and self-medicating housewives, but ignores anything that might complicate the Quiet Desperation dogma.
Exactly. I recently tried to read a John Updike novel and tossed it away after twenty pages of caged misery, thinking, if suburban life were really that bad, we would all have gone back to the forest generations ago. Of course our age has its besetting woes; every age does. Among ours I would number loneliness as the worst, springing from the weakness of our communities. But the thing that most bothers people like Thoreau and Franzen about our world, its lack of an obvious religious structure or defined path toward spiritual meaning, is just another way of stating the best thing about our world: we are free to think for ourselves and to make of our lives what we can. Franzen seems interested in freedom -- he gave his book that title -- but he does not understand its value. He seems to be arguing that for most of us it is just an excuse to wallow in triviality. And for many it probably is. So what? Why should it bother Franzen that millions of Americans are stupid and shallow? Millions of others are creative, quirky, fanatical, open-hearted, maddening, violently misanthropic, amazingly generous, and every other quality one could name. This may be a land in which a reality show about mean people competing for a worthless prize can get millions of viewers, but it is also a land with tens of thousands of garage bands, self-published novels, one-man political movements, and self-proclaimed philosophers, and nearly as many poets as readers of poetry. People who don't like suburban America should go somewhere else -- Indonesia, Botswana, Manhattan, Idaho -- and stop whining about the sort of pleasant existence where boredom often is the biggest problem. There are worse lives.

This is a Temple

Israeli archaeologists have discovered a Samaritan synagogue dating to the 5th century AD near Beit She'an in the Jordan Valley. The mosaic reads, "This is a Temple."

Monday, September 20, 2010

Sacred Ridge

At Sacred Ridge, an Anasazi or Ancestral Puebloan site dating to around AD 800, archaeologists have found a deposit of more then 14,000 human bones. This seems to be the remains of a massacre of one population by another, a grisly act of ethnic cleansing.

The unearthed bones and artifacts indicate that when the violence took place, men, women and children were tortured, disemboweled, killed and often hacked to bits. In some cases, heads, hands and feet appear to have been removed as trophies for the killers. The attackers then removed belongings out of the structures and set the roofs on fire. . . . The scale of the mutilations suggests that it was planned and organized in the preceding days or weeks, and that the violence took place in a relatively short period of time -- a few days.

The researchers ruled out other possible explanations, such as starvation cannibalism, traditional preparation of the deceased, and even individuals targeted for practicing witchcraft. Cannibalism, for example, usually involves bone marrow processing. Witch roundups tend to affect a relatively small number of victims.

Comparison of skeletal remains from Sacred Ridge with those of nearby communities suggests that they were a distinct population, probably from a different tribe.

Adversity Makes us Tougher

Researchers gave 396 adults who suffer from chronic back pain a standard questionnaire designed to measure how much "adversity" they had suffered in life,
including one’s own or a loved one’s illness/injury, sexual and non-sexual violence, bereavement, social or environmental stress, disaster, and various relationship stresses.
They found that people with high "adversity" scores were better able to deal with their back pain as measured in a variety of ways, including how many pain pills they took and whether they were still working. Says the lead researcher:

It appears that adversity may promote the development of psychological and social resources that help one tolerate adversity, which in this case leads to better CBP-related outcomes. It may be that the experience of prior, low-levels of adversity may cause sufferers to reappraise stressful and potentially debilitating symptoms of CBP as minor annoyances that do not substantially interfere with life.

Or, as Nietzsche put it, "That which does not kill us makes us stronger."

The Trans-Uranian Neighborhood

No-longer-a-planet Pluto and its neighbors in the outer reaches of the solar system. More objects are being found out there all the time, but most are quite small.

Sin Eaters

For this episode in our ongoing anthropological tour of very strange human customs we take you to the wilds of Shropshire, in the remote and primitive kingdom of Britain:
The restored grave of the last known "sin-eater" in England has been at the centre of a special service in a Shropshire village churchyard. Campaigners raised £1,000 to restore the grave of Richard Munslow, who was buried in Ratlinghope in 1906.

Sin-eaters were generally poor people paid to eat bread and drink beer or wine over a corpse, in the belief they would take on the sins of the deceased.

Frowned upon by the church, the custom mainly died out in the 19th Century. It was prevalent in the Marches, the land around the England-Wales border, and in north Wales, but was rarely carried out anywhere else. Believers thought the sin-eater taking on the sins of a person who died suddenly without confessing their sins would allow the deceased's soul to go to heaven in peace.

While most of the sin-eaters were poor people or beggars, Mr Munslow was a well-established farmer in the area.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Giant Waves

Once nautical folklore, ocean waves 100 feet tall and taller are now the subject of a new branch of science:
Until very recently giant waves lived only as lore. There was the story of the Tlingit Indian woman who returned from berry picking to find her entire village disappeared. The polar explorer Ernest Shackleton once reported narrowly surviving “a mighty upheaval of the ocean,” the biggest wave he’d seen in 26 years of seafaring. But witnesses of a 100-foot wave at close range rarely lived to tell, and experts dismissed stories about these waves because they seemingly violated basic principles of ocean physics. It was only 10 years ago, when the British research ship Discovery was caught in a punishing North Sea storm, that legend became scientific fact. The battered ship straggled into dock, and grateful scientists unlashed themselves from their bunks, tiptoeing around bashed furniture and shattered glass. They discovered that despite the Armageddon-like conditions, the ship’s research collecting devices had kept on working. And indeed they recorded seas 60 feet high, with some wave faces spiking at 90 feet and higher. The evidence was in, and soon became overwhelming as satellites began confirming that rogue waves thrust out of the world’s oceans with some frequency.


All that makes earlier times seem simpler is our ignorance of their complexities.

--Thomas Sowell


Finally, some pumpkins that got ripe before the deer found them.


Another great find from randomspecific, a hat advertisement from 1897.

Today's Good Idea

From randomspecific:
Last week in Mumbai someone kindly explained to me the custom of putting wall tiles of gods from different religions along street facades. They’re positioned at pissing height – and act as a perfect deterrent in a reverent nation.
Lots more pictures at the original post.

Soldiers Gone Wrong

The Washington Post is reporting today on an American platoon that went crazy in Afghanistan:
The U.S. soldiers hatched a plan as simple as it was savage: to randomly target and kill an Afghan civilian, and to get away with it.

For weeks, according to Army charging documents, rogue members of a platoon from the 5th Stryker Combat Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, floated the idea. Then, one day last winter, a solitary Afghan man approached them in the village of La Mohammed Kalay. The "kill team" activated the plan.

One soldier created a ruse that they were under attack, tossing a fragmentary grenade on the ground. Then others opened fire.

According to charging documents, the unprovoked, fatal attack on Jan. 15 was the start of a months-long shooting spree against Afghan civilians that resulted in some of the grisliest allegations against American soldiers since the U.S. invasion in 2001. Members of the platoon have been charged with dismembering and photographing corpses, as well as hoarding a skull and other human bones.

I am not at all surprised; I am more puzzled that this sort of thing doesn't happen all the time. That it doesn't is a testimony to the ability of modern armies to impose limits on the violence of their soldiers. One way they do this is by promoting adherence to military law and taking all breaches of it very seriously; and this explains part of why most career officers were so strongly opposed to Bush's torture regime.

Equinoctal Garden

My flowers get ready to greet fall.

Christine O'Donnell, Arwen, and Belladonna Baggins

How can you resist this woman? With a fantasist like Christine O'Donnell, it's hard to know if anything she says about herself is true, but she sure has said some crazy stuff. From an appearance with Bill Maher:

"I dabbled into witchcraft. I never joined a coven," she said. " ... I hung around people who were doing these things. I'm not making this stuff up. I know what they told me they do," she said.

"... One of my first dates with a witch was on a satanic altar, and I didn't know it. I mean, there's little blood there and stuff like that," she said. "We went to a movie and then had a little midnight picnic on a satanic altar."

If this is true, it certainly makes one wonder. Is she one of those religious questers who ended up with conservative Catholicism after trying lots of other cults?

And then there's her obsession with fantasy literature. Just this week she compared the Tea Party to C.S. Lewis' Aslan -- "not a tame lion" -- and back in 2003 she wrote a whole essay on the women of The Lord of the Rings, even sparing a few lines for Belladonna Baggins:
a hobbit who is mentioned in just four lines out of thousands of pages. Yet, it is from her bloodline that Bilbo Baggins inherits his atypical adventurous streak. This whisper of her presence ignites what has become a legend.
Mainly she writes about Arwen and Eowyn; as she said on CSPAN, "I mean, I aspire to be soft and gentle like Arwen, but realistically, I’m a fighter, like Eowyn." From the essay:
Tolkien’s most popular female character is Arwen, the elven princess in love with the warrior Aragorn. In Tolkien’s writings, the immortal character of Arwen presents the softer virtues of femininity: she’s beautiful, gentle, and longsuffering. Everything about her is pure. Waiting for her beloved to return from his quest, she demonstrates faith and devotion, believing beyond all doubt that they will be reunited. In Arwen we see a tragic, romantic heroine, for Aragorn’s return means she must leave her people and face the knowledge that her mortal lover will someday die. Through her character, Tolkien shows us the challenge and the value of virtue and sacrifice.

I cannot understand why film critics praise Peter Jackson for his more masculine, modern adaptation of the elven Lady. Recall, if you will, the scene in Fellowship of the Ring in which a Ringwraith stabs Frodo. In the book, as Frodo escapes to Rivendell, the elven lord Glorfindal sends Frodo alone riding Asfaloth, Glorfindal’s white horse. The horse races across the ford with Frodo on his back just in time for a flood to engulf his pursuers. Later we learn that Elrond, the Elven King and Arwen’s father, summoned the flood.

Yet, in the film, Peter Jackson causes Arwen to perform the heroic tasks of Elrond and Glorfindal, making her appear more a stereotypical warrior princess like those popular with today’s audience. It is as though he is introducing her character as a warrior so viewers won’t notice that she becomes a passive heroine later in the story. It’s as if Jackson is justifying her later passive portrayal that is true to Tolkien’s Arwen.

Some critics claim that Tolkien’s serene version of femininity is offensive to the modern female viewer. As a modern female viewer, I find the assumption itself offensive. Just because women can be warriors doesn’t mean they have to be. Everything about Tolkien’s Arwen is tranquil, serene, calming. These qualities are part of the charm of the womanhood she expresses. There are many types of women in the world. Arwen represents one of them. She represents a pillar of calm that is a source of strength for her man. Her great contribution to the war is the strength she provides to the future King.
Besides the undergraduate prose and a bad habit of taking fantasy too seriously as a practical guide for living, O'Donnell reveals herself as another case of the socially conservative female careerist. These women keep popping up, making lucrative, high-powered careers out of telling other women to stay home with their children. They write books, have grandiose book tours, go on tv, make videos, and so on, extolling the joys of stay-at-home motherhood. O'Donnell likes the ideal of the soft, passive woman, when by her own admission she is anything but:
And I’ve actually had people say to me, ‘Why do you choose a career over marriage?’ Honestly, I’ve had only a few significant relationships, and they’ve broken up with me. And one of the things I’ve been told is, ‘If you weren’t so strong, you’d be married by now.’
In fact she once filed suit against the conservative advocacy group that employed her, Intercollegiate Studies Institute, because "she suffered 'mental anguish' after being demoted and fired because the institute’s conservative philosophy deemed that women must be subordinate." Nothing wrong, I suppose, with a single career woman wanting to fantasize about soft, long-suffering heroines, but it's a weird world in which a woman like Christine O'Donnell can run for the Senate as an anti-feminist.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


Attention Allocation Syndrome

Jonah Lehrer:

Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder is a terribly named disorder. The reason is simple: There is not an actual deficit of attention. We’re used to thinking of illnesses as resulting from a shortage of something – people with a thyroid disease are missing TSH, just as people with scurvy are missing Vitamin C – but ADHD doesn’t seem to work like that. Instead, recent evidence suggests that people with ADHD have plenty of attention – that’s why they can still play video games for hours, or get lost in their Legos, or devote endless attentional resources to activities that they find interesting.

What, then, is the problem in people with ADHD? The disorder is really about the allocation of attention, being able to control our mental spotlight. . . .

To understand this model of ADHD, it’s important to understand the anatomy of attention. The story begins with dopamine. While dopamine neurons are relatively rare, they are clustered in very specific areas in the center of the brain, such as the nucleus accumbens and ventral striatum. These cortical parts make up the dopamine reward pathway, the neural system that’s responsible for generating the pleasurable emotions triggered by pleasurable things. It doesn’t matter if we’re having sex or eating sugar or snorting amphetamine: These things fill us with bliss because they tickle these cells.

But the caricature of dopamine as simply the chemical of hedonism is woefully incomplete. For instance, studies have shown that the dopamine reward pathway is also extremely active when people are forced to eat something disgusting, or when a subject is gasping for air after holding their breath. . . . there’s a growing body of evidence suggesting that the real purpose of the dopamine is to help us efficiently assess the outside world. Many dopamine researchers, for instance, refer to the chemical as our “neural currency,” since it allows us to quickly assign a value to the multitudes of things and ideas we perceive. (In other words, dopamine is the price tag of sensory information, and it attaches hefty prices to things that are delicious, beautiful, or reflect some urgent homeostatic need.) When we see something we want - and it doesn’t matter if it’s a chocolate cupcake or a glass of water – the mere sight of the object triggers a wave of emotional desire, which motivates us to act. The world is full of possibilities, and it is our dopaminergic urges that help us choose between them.

And this returns us to attention and ADHD. There’s a highway of nerves connecting the dopamine reward pathway to the prefrontal cortex, a crucial fold of tissue that controls the spotlight of attention. This makes perfect sense: A sensation or idea that triggers more dopamine release – it’s deemed worthy of more neural currency – is more likely to get noticed, and enter the crowded theater of consciousness. In other words, the prefrontal cortex is now paying attention. The chemical has told us what we should notice.

The problem with ADHD is not that there’s no attention. As I mentioned before, kids with ADHD can still immerse themselves in activities that require focus – they just tend to require a higher threshold of interest, which is why they don’t pay attention to a boring arithmetic lesson but can easily spend all day on World of Warcraft. Drugs for ADHD, such as the amphetamine-derivatives Ritalin, Adderall, Concerta, etc. work by increasing the amount of dopamine in the synapse.

Masturbation and the Moral Order

Absurd as it is in most ways, Christine O'Donnell's senate campaign has performed the good service of calling attention to the Catholic church's insane view of masturbation. Most American Catholics don't pay any more attention to this teaching than they do the church's views on birth control, but officially the church still thinks masturbation is "an intrinsically and gravely disordered action." The church used to say that the only acceptable reason to have sex was to conceive a child, so enjoying it in any way was a sin. Over the past 150 years they have liberalized their view to the extent that they accept sex as part of married love, endorsing "the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved."

This business of "the moral order" creeps me out.

The church holds to a vision of human life that has its fullest expression in a monastery, where every action conforms to a careful plan. Every time of day has its allotted task, and one should only walk to get from one task to another. One should only speak purposeful words, to make the tasks easier or to acquire knowledge that will lead toward salvation. Waste is offensive and forbidden; laughter dubious. The church's genius for ritual springs from this same love of order and the measured passage from one task to the next. Outside the convent, these theologians imagine a world where people obey the laws, work hard at the tasks their bosses assign them, marry sensibly, love the people they should love, and never make trouble.

It is this side of the church's teaching that has made it a good partner for fascist dictators and dictatorial kings. Again and again in human history we have seen rulers who were appalled by the riotous disorder that prevailed among their subjects. The people, they said, should stop goofing off, stop getting drunk, stop fornicating, and do what they are told. They should work harder and stay where they can be counted and be observed. They should shun fripperies and be happy with the essentials of life. They should avoid waste and stay on task.

As far as I am concerned, the correct religious term for a perfectly ordered world would be "hell." I find this vision of an ordered, purposeful, tightly controlled world horrifying. It is true that a world of chaos is equally frightening, but that is no excuse for totalitarianism. To live, we must maintain order of a sort. But the life force is a force of chaos, a riotous upwelling of energies that push and pull in every direction. Life is violent, sexual, torn by powerful emotions, full of conflict, and given to waste in extravagant proportions. To live fully, we must embrace some of the chaos, waste, and violence that is our animal birthright. It is our task as thinking beings to find a balance between the order we need and the chaotic forces that gave birth to us and surge through us.

To imagine that masturbation is a "grave" force for disorder is to desire a world that would be far toward the rigid and puritanical end of life's possibilities. If masturbation is gravely disordered, then I am a chaos agent of satanic magnitude. And so is everyone else I know. Masturbation is something like bungie jumping: pointless and wasteful, at least of time, perhaps tacky, but also absolutely unimportant. People who worry about such things have their minds in the wrong place: fretting about disorder when they should be concerned about something that matters, like justice, or when, perhaps, they should be off doing something pointless, wasteful, and fun themselves.