Thursday, June 30, 2011

Embassy Row

Washington, today.

Why does Luxembourg still have such a fancy embassy? What, do you suppose, does the Ambassador from Luxembourg actually do? Does Luxembourg have a foreign policy?

Money can't buy everything, but it sure does buy beautiful gardens.

St. Jerome in front of the Croatian Embassy.

In the Grimly Appropriate category, note that the Haitian Embassy is falling apart and has graffiti on the front door. Also tall weeds in the cracked parking pad right in front. Love the low-rent look of the air conditioners in the windows.

This vacant building is plastered all over with Zoning Hearing signs, which I assume means somebody is turning it into condos. And it's a great building, although you would have to live next door to the Burmese ambassador.

As you can see, it's a perfect day for wandering the city.

Explaining Revolutions

In Foreign Policy, Leon Aron has a marvelous essay about the fall of the Soviet Union. The immediate cause, he argues, was not economic decay but moral revulsion. The men who led the reform of the 1980s felt that "a moral resurrection was essential." They did not intend merely to overthrow the Soviet government, but to build a new society on more solid moral foundations. Even apparently hard-nosed men like Gorbachev and Shevardnadze were disgusted by the corruption and constant lying in the system they led. Aron writes:
From the Founding Fathers to the Jacobins and Bolsheviks, revolutionaries have fought under essentially the same banner: advancement of human dignity. It is in the search for dignity through liberty and citizenship that glasnost's subversive sensibility lives -- and will continue to live. . . .

The fruit-seller Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation set off the Tunisian uprising that began the Arab Spring of 2011, did so "not because he was jobless," a demonstrator in Tunis told an American reporter, but "because he … went to talk to the [local authorities] responsible for his problem and he was beaten -- it was about the government." In Benghazi, the Libyan revolt started with the crowd chanting, "The people want an end to corruption!" In Egypt, the crowds were "all about the self-empowerment of a long-repressed people no longer willing to be afraid, no longer willing to be deprived of their freedom, and no longer willing to be humiliated by their own leaders," New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman reported from Cairo this February. He could have been reporting from Moscow in 1991.

"Dignity Before Bread!" was the slogan of the Tunisian revolution. The Tunisian economy had grown between 2 and 8 percent a year in the two decades preceding the revolt. With high oil prices, Libya on the brink of uprising also enjoyed an economic boom of sorts. Both are reminders that in the modern world, economic progress is not a substitute for the pride and self-respect of citizenship. Unless we remember this well, we will continue to be surprised -- by the "color revolutions" in the post-Soviet world, the Arab Spring, and, sooner or later, an inevitable democratic upheaval in China -- just as we were in Soviet Russia.

From the Palace to the Yurt

It was always the lot of imperial princesses to be given in a diplomatic marriage. One day you're a pampered girl growing up in the palace in Byzantium or Beijing, and the next you're the Queen of the Bulgars. Because the Chinese emperors always worried about their relations with the lords of the great steppes that lapped against the wall on their northern border, many Chinese princesses over the centuries were sent off to become the brides of Hunnish kings or Mongol Khans. They did not enjoy this. As well educated princesses they had the skills to express their woes, and there is a whole genre of Chinese poetry we might call the Lamentations of Princesses Exiled to the Wasteland. This is Hsi-chun, around 105 BC:
My people have married me
In a far corner of Earth;
Sent me away to a strange land,
To the King of the Wu-sun.
A tent is my house,
Of felt are my walls;
Raw flesh my food
Sour mare’s milk to drink.
My heart has been burning
Since I came,
My home my only thought.
A yellow crane
Would I be,
And swiftly fly back
To my own land.

Some Really Weird Bronze Age Petroglyphs

At a place called Kangjiashimenji in western China, where the Tien Shan Mountains meet the Taklimakan Desert of the Tarim Basin, somebody carved a large scene onto the rocks. It probably dates to the Bronze Age, when the basin was wetter and more fertile.

The figures range in size from 10 cm to 2.5 m (8 feet), and there are dozens. The whole tableau measures about 6.5 by 16 meters (22 x 51 feet). But what are they doing?

In this detailed analysis, Jeannine Davis-Kimball argues that this is the depiction of a procession and ritual involving a great deal of sex, and therefore devoted to fertility.

Davis-Kimball thinks the figure on the left is a shaman wearing a monkey mask. There are certainly lots of sexual images here. Davis-Kimball also thinks she can divide the figures into male and female body types, and that since some of the female bodies have phalluses, those are bisexual figures. The monkey shaman, she says, is one of these bisexual figures.

But what's with all the severed heads? Or the dogs and the tigers? The bows and arrows?

This is the sort of thing that fascinates me about the Bronze Age, a world that lies just beyond anything we can really see and understand.

The Kinds of Stories

This is from a medieval Irish list of the kinds of stories in old Irish literature, arranged in groups of three:
destructions, cattle raids, wooings
battles, terrors, voyages
deaths, feasts, sieges
adventures, elopements, plunderings
eruptions from lakes, visions, hostings
That about covers it, right? What else could happen in a saga?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Pull of Round Numbers

I am reading an archaeological book that was translated from German. The translator took all of the metric measurements and converted them to English. I find it striking that the same numbers keep coming up over and over again, because all of the numbers in the metric original started out round. For example, a German anthropologist who studied the funeral feasts of modern steppe dwellers found that they eat 11 pounds of meat per person per day, which sounds like a precise, scientific number until you realize that it is 5 kilograms. All the numbers are like this. The depth of Scythian grave shafts is 33 to 49 feet, that is, 10 to 15 meters, the length of horizontal shafts is "as much as 98 feet" (30 meters), and several large mounds are 262 feet (80 meters) in diameter. Numbers like 5, 10, 25, and 100 flash by our consciousness without registering, because they make sense to us. It is only when we see them repeatedly as 11, 33, or 262 that the degree of standardization and simplification becomes clear.

The Mummies of Roccapelago

Italian authorities have announced the discovery of a cache of mummified bodies in a crypt at the church of Conversione di San Paolo Apostolo in Roccapelago, a remote village in the Apennines. The bodies were probably buried in the ground for a while before being dug up and then dumped through a trap door into the underground crypt. A total of 281 bodies were identified, of which 100 included mummified flesh. The clothes mark them as ordinary peasants and working people. They date to the mid 16th to 18th centuries AD.

Some non-western people complain that western archaeologists don't treat their ancestors with respect and they view scientific analysis of bodies as a sort of imperialism, but consider how these Italian archaeologists are treating their own ancestors (with the full support of the church):
Study of the mummies, which has already started, reveals that several individuals were hard workers. Further investigations will try to shed light on the community’s lifestyle, the diet, diseases and hygiene. Research will include analysis of pathological conditions, osteological and histological examinations, investigations of teeth, DNA analysis, as well as the creation of 3D facial reconstruction of some of the most interesting mummies.
This was an interesting find:
The archaeologists also unearthed a well preserved letter. Known as "lettera componenda," it was supposed to serve as a sort of an agreement between God and the deceased. In the letter, the dead person asks for five pardons in exchange of prayers. The letter was found buried within the crypt and had probably been placed over one of the bodies.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Another War Crime in the War on Drugs

Today a friend of mine was sentenced to 4 years and 3 months in prison for marijuana possession. Three years of the sentence was suspended, provided he "stays out of trouble," and with good behavior and all he will probably be out in less than a year. But what does our society gain from locking this man up for even a day? He is a good guy, harmless and kind, with a good job welding steel on bridges. The economic loss alone will probably come to a hundred thousand dollars, between his lost wages and the cost of keeping him in jail. The loss of his company hurts everyone who knows him. All because he used a drug that is less bad for you than whiskey.

This is cruel and stupid, and I am very angry.

It is also random. Everybody knows that rich kids brought up on these charges get their wrists slapped, as do lots of other people. My friend's lawyer told him his whole sentence would probably be "stayed," that is, he would go directly to a sort of probation and the sentence would be cancelled after a few years without an arrest. What happened? Probably just a judge in a bad mood, using his discretion to arbitrarily ruin a man's life.

When will Americans come to their senses and realize that the whole "war on drugs" is a beating we are inflicting on ourselves? Every day we send hundreds more people like my friend to jail for hurting no one. We have turned whole neighborhoods over to drug-dealing gangs, and criminalized whole societies in Colombia and Mexico. Why? So we can feel pure and pretend to be protecting people from an evil that we can't control? To hell with that. It's past time to heal this self-inflicted wound. In the name of sanity, justice, freedom, and my friend Joe, I call for an end to this persecution.

More on Drug Lords with Submarines

The saga of Colombian drug lords with their own supervillainesque submarines (see here and here) continues. These latest models are fully submersible and carry more powerful engines:
A recently discovered drug-smuggling submarine lies half submerged, deep in a mangrove swamp in Colombia. The diesel vehicle is the first fully submersible drug sub ever to be captured by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in the South American country.

The hundred-foot-long (30-meter-long) fiberglass sub can carry a crew of six underwater for more than a week, dive some 30 feet (9 meters) below the surface, and ferry about eight tons of drugs worth an estimated quarter of a billion U.S. dollars.
Note that while this may be the first fully submersible sub captured by the US DEA, at least one other (above) has been found by the Ecuadoran police:

Police in Ecuador seized a 100-foot submarine being built by suspected drug traffickers capable of carrying a crew of six and 10 tons of cocaine on underwater voyages lasting up to 10 days — a "game changer" for U.S. anti-drug and border security efforts, officials said Monday.

A raid Friday by 120 police officers and soldiers netted the fiberglass sub as it was nearing completion in a clandestine "industrial complex" hidden in mangrove swamps near San Lorenzo, a town just south of the Colombian border.

The craft was outfitted with a conning tower, a periscope, air conditioning and "scrubbers" to purify the air, and bunks for a maximum crew of six. But what set the craft apart from semi-submersible craft that drug traffickers have used for years was a complex ballast system that would have enabled it to dive as deep as 65 feet before surfacing. . . . The cost of the ship, which had twin diesel engines, was estimated at $4 million.
A "clandestine industrial complex" hidden in a mangrove swamp, building outlaw submarines; you can't get any more Johnny Quest than that.

The drug barons have moved on to fully submersible craft because the US has gotten better at catching the older, semi-submersible type:
Since 2006, when the first semi-submersible craft was detected, 47 have been captured at sea and on land, including 17 last year. But so far this year, only three such craft have been captured. The number of voyages has probably dropped, officials said, because of the success in detecting the vessels with a variety of methods, including aircraft that can identify their wakes in the water.
Or maybe the DEA just can't detect the new subs.

La Hogue Bie

On the island of Jersey, a 12th-century chapel, dedicated to Notre Dame de la Clarté (Our Lady of the Light) on top of a Neolithic passage grave. The Neolithic tomb is aligned with the summer solstice. In the 16th century a new priest, Richard Mabon, extensively restored the chapel and added a window that is aligned with the grave passage, and thus approximately (but not, 4500 years later, exactly) with the summer solstice.

Note to would-be writers of Dan Brown-type religious adventure novels: here is the perfect place to begin your book! Your narrator will become intrigued and try to look up Richard Mabon in the local library. Nothing available. He will search harder, only to be threatened by a mysterious man with a tattoo of the sun on his left hand. . . .

Horses of the Scythian Kings

Reconstructions of horse trappings from Scythian royal burials, 5th century BC. From Renate Rolle, The World of the Scythians.

Leadership and the Deficit

These lines from Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels help explain to me why so many Republicans wanted him to run for President:

Leadership typically requires courage. But in our debt situation, really, how much and of what kind? This isn’t Philadelphia in 1776 or London in 1940. No one is risking life, liberty or sacred honor, let alone all three. The worst that could happen is one loses an election. . . .

If our leaders wish to draw out the best in us, they will have to start by assuming the best about us. Expressing and acting on this faith is, of course, an act of faith in itself. Maybe today’s Americans really will reject even trivial “sacrifice” and refuse to authorize the necessary changes to keep us from drifting over our Niagara Falls of debt. If so, we might as well find out now. If it turns out the cynics were right after all, then school’s out on our self-governance anyway.

I think that right now, with unemployment at 9%, is not the best time for the government to tighten its belt -- that should have been George W. Bush's job -- and I suspect Daniels and I would ask different sacrifices from different people. But I like his attitude. Somebody has to say that we need taxes high enough to pay for the government we want, that nothing the government does is free, and therefore we need to balance our expectations with our willingness to pay. If voters turn against politicians because they vote for tax hikes and spending cuts, well, tough -- the lives of ex-Congressmen are not really so bad.

Human Sacrifice at the Ryedale Windy Pits

When a group of caves has a name like the Ryedale Windy Pits, you know something bad has been done there. Burials were excavated from the caves in the 1800s and the 1950s, dating to Neolithic and Iron Age times. The BBC show Cold Cases examined the skeletons that had been found in the 1950s, and they determined that some of them had died by "blunt force trauma" to the head and at least one had been scalped. They conclude that these people were likely the victims of human sacrifice.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Lee Miller, Roanoke

Lee Miller, Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony (2000).

If you like speculative history full of mysteries and possible conspiracies, this is a great book for you. Ethnohistorian Lee Miller has take a fresh look at the disappearance of the "lost colony," and she has many interesting things to say about the fate of the 115 missing colonists. Some of her ideas are convincing, some intriguing, some wildly speculative, but none are boring and there is evidence for all. I found the book engrossing and enlightening. My only major complaint is with the writing style. Miller seems to have been reading too much Annie Proulx, and she gives us lots of sentences with no verbs, piled atop one another to create a sort of breathless verbal urgency that is much more distracting than enthralling.

The Lost Colony was sent to Roanoke Island, North Carolina in 1587. Their sponsor was Walter Raleigh, then riding high in Queen Elizabeth's favor. They were led by John White, who had been on both of the previous expeditions to North Carolina in 1584 and 1585. Raleigh's main goal was strategic. He hoped that a secure base in America would allow British privateers to challenge the naval supremacy of Spain, cut off the flow of treasure from Mexico and Peru to Madrid, and shift the balance of power in Europe. John White's purpose remains more mysterious, since he seems neither to have been a soldier-adventurer in the mode of John Smith nor an ambitious politician, and in fact he is best remembered as an artist. (He did all of the paintings in this post.)

One of my favorite ideas of Miller's concerns the identity of the colonists. We don't know much about them or why they went to America. She suggests that they were a congregation of dissenting Protestants, the people who would soon be known as Puritans. The evidence is, first, that nobody other than John White seems to have cared much what happened to them, and, second, that at Roanoke they organized themselves as a democracy and voted on what to do. Since dissenters were just about the only people in England who did things democratically, it is certainly an intriguing possibility.

Most of the book is taken up with the question of how the colonists came to be abandoned at Roanoke under such bad circumstances, especially since their plan had been to settle somewhere on the Chesapeake Bay. This question has long vexed historians, and most have blamed John White for dithering incompetence. Miller instead points her finger at the expedition's pilot, a Portuguese sailor and former pirate named Simon Fernandez. Our only detailed account of the voyage comes from a letter John White wrote to Richard Hakluyt in 1593. If White's narrative is even approximately correct, Fernandez has a lot to answer for. He took the colonists on a long, wandering excursion through the Caribbean, saying he was looking for supplies but somehow not finding any, and pretty much tossed them overboard at Roanoke Island too late in the summer to plant crops, refusing to take them any further or leave them enough food to sustain themselves through the winter. One reason the colonists did not want to stay at Roanoke was that the previous expedition to the island had started a war with the local Indians, and since the 15 soldiers they had left behind to man the fort had all disappeared, things seemed grim for the colonists. People sometimes ask why White didn't have Fernandez shot for mutiny, as was his right as expedition commander. In White's account all the sailors were with Fernandez and they made it plain that they would support him instead of White, so that was an option he did not have. So White, at the urging (he says) of the other colonists, accepted Fernandez's offer to take one person back to London to request help for the colony.

Why did Fernandez do it? Miller assumes that since he had no clear personal motive he must have done it at the behest of some powerful figure. After all, Raleigh's rapid rise to the top of Elizabethan England had made him many enemies who might have wanted to see his colonial venture fail. If that meant 115 English colonists had to die, well, that was the way politics was played in the Renaissance. As the guilty party Miller settles on the obvious suspect, Francis Walsingham. Walsingham was one of the two chief ministers in Elizabeth's government (Lord Burghley was the other), and he remained in power for decades even though the Queen distrusted him and more than once accused him of treason. Walsingham was the man mainly responsible for England's "foreign policy" at the time, and he sought to make England the leader of a Protestant alliance that would topple Spain from its position as Europe's chief power. In this capacity he organized a worldwide ring of spies to feed him information, and he employed Europe's best cryptographers to cipher his own messages and break the codes of his enemies. He worked for at least a decade to bring about the execution of Mary Queen of Scotts, and eventually he either uncovered or actually created the Babington Plot in which she was entrapped, which led to her death. Besides that unsavory episode, Walsingham has also been blamed for the murder of Christopher Marlowe, who was almost certainly one of his agents. Walsingham also hated Raleigh and resented his intrusions into the war with Spain. So Walsingham certainly had the motive and the means to sabotage Raleigh's colony, and I for one can believe that he did it. Miller has even dug up one source that says Walsingham had rescued Simon Fernandez from the gallows (for piracy) on the condition that he become Walsingham's man, and if that is so, I think the case against Walsingham is sound.

But what happened to the abandoned colonists? White was not able to return to Roanoke until 1590. He says that he found the settlement abandoned as if purposefully, everything taken except the heaviest items, which had been carefully buried. Carved on a post was the word CROATOAN. White says that he had agreed with the colonists that if they abandoned the post they would leave such a message saying where they had gone. Croatoan was the name of both a place, to the south of Roanoke, and the Indians who lived there. White assumed his people had gone to stay with the Croatoan, but he was only a passenger on this voyage and could not get the expedition's leaders to take him across the treacherous Albermarle Sound to Croatoan, so he never found out where the colonists had gone.

When Jamestown was founded in 1607, there was naturally some curiosity about the previous settlers, and John Smith asked the Powhatans about other Englishmen. He heard several rumors about white people in the interior of what is now North Carolina, but he was never able to investigate the rumors. Later, when war had broken out between the Jamestown settlers and the Powhatans, the leaders of the colony found it convenient to claim that Powhatan himself had boasted of slaughtering the Roanoke colonists -- or perhaps he did boast of this, in a vain attempt to intimidate the English. Over the years there were other rumors about white settlers, and when John Lawson explored North Carolina in 1701 he met Indians living near Croatoan who had gray eyes and claimed to have English people among their ancestors. As Miller says, it was the common Indian habit to kill only men in war and to take women and children hostage, to be kept as slaves or adopted into the tribe. So it would be more surprising if no colonists survived and left descendants than if a few dozen did.

Where Miller lost me was in claiming to have discovered exactly who captured the colonists and where they were taken. My experience with trying to reconstruct events among Indians away from the coast, using European records, is all bad. Everything we know about most of the tribes Miller mentions can be written on a 3x5 index card, and most of that is unreliable. None of the accounts she cites by English colonists who said they ventured into the interior is particularly believable (until John Lawson, 113 years later), since none of their accounts of distances covered and places visited can be made to fit on a modern map. So this part of Miller's book left me agnostic. It is, though, a good example of the possibilities and frustrations of the sources about Indians in this period, so it can serve as an introduction to this kind ethnohistory. All in all, this is an enjoyable, thought-provoking book.

Rogue Waves and Giant Ships

I sort of thought that the advent of giant supertankers and supercargo ships meant that sailors no longer had to fear sinking at sea. It seems not:

Severe weather has sunk more than 200 supertankers and container ships more than 200 yards long in the past two decades, an ESA [European Space Agency] analysis found. . . .

"Two large ships sink every week on average, but the cause is never studied to the same detail as an air crash," said Wolfgang Rosenthal, a senior scientist with the GKSS Forschungszentrum research center in Germany. "It simply gets put down to 'bad weather.'"

The ESA launched two radar-equipped satellites to study giant waves, to see if they were the culprit. They found that large waves are not rare:

The two ERS satellites equipped with radar were launched in 1991 and 1995 to carry out a global rogue wave census and arrive at the truth. . . . The radar instruments on the satellites detected the height of individual waves at the surface in 3-mile by 6-mile patches of the sea. Three weeks of data, including 30,000 of these patches or "imagettes" of the sea with their wave height information were analyzed and searched for extreme waves at the German Aerospace Center.

A scientific team counted more than ten individual giant waves around the globe more than 75 feet (23 m) high during the three-week period. . . .

The giant waves form when strong winds beat against an opposing ocean current, when waves from different storms join forces, or when swells interact in strange ways with a particular seafloor.

It is always fascinating when stories of questionable provenance turn out to be true, especially when they involve big, scary things.

The Archaeology of Getting Drunk

Smithsonian has a long feature on Patrick McGovern, the world's leading expert on the recreation of ancient alcoholic beverages. Among other accomplishments he helped the Dogfish Brewery recreate a drink from the 700 BC tomb of King Midas of Phrygia, which they sell as Midas Touch. The piece is fairly interesting, but I think this sort of talk is not quite right:
I keep telling people that beer is more important than armies when it comes to understanding people.
I agree with this in a limited sense. I have often remarked on the human obsession with drugging ourselves to change how it feels to be alive, and this is a very important fact about our species. As soon as people discovered how to make fermented drinks, this became a major part of their economies and their lives. McGovern likes to point out how prominently beer featured in many ancient labor contracts and the like:
For the pyramids, each worker got a daily ration of four to five liters. It was a source of nutrition, refreshment and reward for all the hard work. It was beer for pay. You would have had a rebellion on your hands if they’d run out. The pyramids might not have been built if there hadn’t been enough beer.
So, yes, what people drank is an important fact about them, as important as what they ate. You certainly cannot understand Middle Ages without noting how much people drank.

But I think the actual recreation of ancient beverages is a sideshow, more of a hobby than a way to further understand the past. I know that for some people being able to taste an ancient beer takes them back in time in a way that reading never will, so if that's your thing, go for it. I find, though, that all notions about how food and drink somehow express or define a civilization are wildly exaggerated. I don't believe that you can predict much about a civilization from knowing what they ate. I think the relationship between cuisine and anything else about a culture is pretty much random. Of course a culture must have reached a certain level of sophistication before it will have chefs experimenting on complex recipes, but what foods they choose to experiment on reflect geography and chance, not some essence of the culture. Is there some relationship between Italians' love of the good life, disdain for centralized government, and pasta eating? I doubt it. So when McGovern and other ancient beer enthusiasts discovery how the Phrygians or the Egyptians spiced their beer, I think that tells us quite specifically what sort of spices they liked in the beer.

How to Manage an Economy

Sweden has suffered much less than most countries in the recession, despite being so tightly tied to the EU trading block. The Post has a feature on five reasons why, of which two are notable:

1) strict bank regulation
2) run a budget surplus in good times

The second strikes me as particularly important. The reason the US is having such a budget crisis now is that we were already running a deficit even in the relatively good years of 2005 and 2006. Had we had sensible budgeting then, we would have had much more room to increase spending or cut taxes to further stimulate the economy now. Because our budget was already out of whack, the recession threw it so far out of whack that people are panicking about the deficit, limiting what we can do about the recession.

Defense Cuts

Republican lawmakers, eager to get some kind of debt-reduction deal without agreeing to higher taxes, may be ready to accept big defense cuts:

Senior GOP lawmakers and leadership aides said it would be far easier to build support for a debt-reduction package that cuts the Pentagon budget — a key Democratic demand — than one that raises revenue by tinkering with the tax code. . . . In listening sessions with their rank and file, House Republican leaders said they have found a surprising willingness to consider defense cuts that would have been unthinkable five years ago, when they last controlled the House. While the sessions have sparked heated debate on many issues, Rep. Peter Roskam (Ill.), the deputy GOP whip, said there are few lawmakers left who view the Pentagon budget as sacrosanct.

“When we say everything is on the table, that’s what we mean,” said House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the No. 3 leader who has been hosting the listening sessions in his Capitol offices.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois is one of many Republicans for whom the new religion of spending cuts has replaced the old religion of military strength:
Kinzinger, an active-duty Air National Guardsman who flew missions in Iraq, fought successfully last month to cut a request for $100 million to buy new flight suits for Air Force pilots. The old ones, he argued, are good enough.

Defense spending is “a pillar of Republican strength. It’s a pillar of national strength. Look, I know there are sacred cows,” Kinzinger said in an interview. “But we cannot afford them anymore.”

All to the good, if you ask me. Anybody who wants to cut waste from the Federal budget should be looking first at military and security programs, because that is where the money is. I actually agree with Barney Frank about this:
If we can get $100 billion from reducing unneeded military spending, that’s better than $100 billion in taxation.

The Perfect Prime Minister

Of all men of genius he was the most a drudge, and of all men of business, the most a genius.

--William Camden on William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Elizabeth I's chief adviser and minister

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Summer Garden

Yesterday and today.


Of all the things which wisdom provides to make life entirely happy, friendship is much the greatest.


Edward Burtynsky: Quarries

I love these photographs of stone quarries, and they are only one part of Burtynsky's impressive work. Lots more at his web site. Click on the pictures to enlarge.

Wars vs. Massacres

In order to prevent Moammar Gaddafi from regaining control of his rebellious country and massacring thousands of his subjects, NATO went to war. Bombing quickly halted the advance of Gaddafi's columns toward Benghazi, but Gaddafi refused to follow the script laid out in Paris and London and holds onto power in half of the country. Over the past three months NATO has flown 4,700 sorties over Libya, and drones are in place to watch government troop movements. Still, the war goes on, and people die in it every day. I feel quite confident that by the end more people will have died in the war than Gaddafi would have killed in resuming power.

We seem to feel, though, that deaths in war are less awful than other sorts of casualties. More Americans died in the Iraq war than on 9/11, yet only a few cranky leftists seem to think that the war was worse than the terrorist attack. Why do we think this way?

When it comes to American soldiers, there are ways to make the distinction. Our soldiers and marines are volunteers, well-trained for their roles and willing to take on the risk. But around a hundred thousand Iraqi civilians died in the war; does that make us 30 times worse than al Qaeda? Civilian casualties probably outnumber slain fighters in Libya as well; why don't those bodies count as much as victims of terrorist attacks or genocide?

War is hell, and people who die from "collateral damage" are just as dead as people executed by firing squads or killed by suicide bombers. Leaders who sit safely at home in Paris, London or Washington should think as much about the people dying in their wars as the people they are fighting to protect.

Saturday, June 25, 2011


Wonderful kinetic sculptures by Dutch artist Theo Jansen. You can watch videos of these in motion here.

Oldtown Summerfest 2011

Today I drove 2 1/2 hours out to western Maryland to speak at the Oldtown Summerfest, a true old-time-small-town-heart-of-America event. I was there to speak about some archaeology I did in the area over the past few years, working in the C&O Canal National Park. This is a view of the field where some of my sites were located, just about a hundred yards (90 m) away from the tent in the center of town where I gave my talk.

The festivities kicked off with a parade too small even to have a marching band or Shriners on go-karts. More than anything else it was celebration of patriotism. A woman in a red STAFF t-shirt worked through the whole crowd with a big bunch of little plastic American flags, saying, "If you're going to watch the parade, you need a flag to wave." The street was lined with bigger flags, set up by these guys earlier in the morning.

The parade was led and punctuated by groups of marching ex-soldiers -- there seem to be lots of ex-soldiers in Allegany County, and, I assume, lots of young men away in the service.

Other soldiers rode in vehicles, including a couple of skeletal World War II veterans and these jovial "Mountainside Marines."

There were some politicians in big pick-up trucks and a full suite of emergency vehicles, lights flashing, occasionally sounding their horns or sirens.

The local co-ed little league team rode by in a truck that matches their uniforms. They are the Indians, of course -- Oldtown is a shortened form of "The Old Indian Town" -- and I thought that kid with the bright red mohawk deserved the day's award for spirit.

The only live music came from these Scottish gentlemen.

There were some horse-drawn carts.

And a troop of girls from a riding school, this one done up as if she were the Summerfest Princess.

Right behind the white-clad Princess came the attractive, 4o-something riding instructor, with her black boots and black horse, barking orders at the younger kids, and my mind suddenly leaped into Snow White -- "Has she replaced me as the fairest in the land? We'll see about that, my pretties!"

And that was it.

After the parade the action shifted over to this little cluster of tents, where there was food and some local crafts. I spoke in that big tent in the center, but not until after a girl of about 17 sang the Star Spangled Banner. She had a nice country voice but messed up the words and skipped two lines. About sixty people listened to my talk. Many of them were in town for the reunion of the descendants of Thomas Cresap, and since one of the sites we found was Thomas Cresap's frontier fort, which he built in about 1742, they were an appreciative audience. I had Lions Club grilled chicken for lunch. Everyone was very friendly, the weather was cool and lovely if a bit gray, and although it was a long way to drive it was a pretty fun way to spend a Saturday.