Sunday, June 30, 2013

Hannah Arendt, Reflections on Violence

Violence, being instrumental by nature, is rational to the extent that it is effective in reaching the end which must justify it. And since when we act we never know with any amount of certainty the eventual consequences of what we are doing, violence can remain rational only if it pursues short-term goals. . . .

The danger of the practice of violence, even if it moves consciously within a non-extremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end. If goals are not achieved rapidly, the result will not merely be defeat but the introduction of the practice of violence into the whole body politic. Action is irreversible, and a return to the status quo in case of defeat is always unlikely. The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is a more violent world.

--From an essay in the New York Review, 1969

St. George's Churchyard, Portland, England

Stolid gray Portland stone Georgian church built in 1754-1766, but with a lovely graveyard.

Eric Freitas: the Steampunk Clockmaker

According to his web site,
Growing relentlessly in the mind of Eric Freitas lies a realm of dark mechanical curiosities and horological contradictions. In this world gears are harvested and mechanisms are alive with the organic repetitions of nature’s machine. Balancing carefully between creative conception and logical execution, this world would slowly be brought to life. In 2004 Eric began to study the dying craft of clockmaking so that his ideas could be executed, and it would become apparent that even an instrument as logical and precise as a clock could be compromised by ungoverned subconscious thought.
Ok. Sure. Fine.

But the clocks -- wow. Above, Mechanical No. 5, 2008.

Mechanical No. 2, 2006.

More from Freitas' website:
Eric Freitas grew up on a wooded dirt road near the small village of Chelsea MI. He received a BFA in 1999 from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. He currently lives in Royal Oak Michigan, where he slowly works away in his humble workshop.
Above, Quartz 15, 2012.

Pictures on the site allow you to follow the whole process of making one of these amazing clocks, from concept drawing to finished product.

Freitas makes some of his pieces completely by hand, crafting all the gears himself; others have commercial quartz motors. He also sells prints of these drawings and photographs of the clocks. Some steampunk art bores you with gears that have no purpose and are not put together in halfway convincing ways, so it is wonderful to see these lovely machines that actually work.

Bronze Age Europe at the Hermitage, or, the Looted Treasures come to Light

The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg is hosting a joint Russian-German exhibit titled The Bronze Age: Europe without Borders. This is an outgrowth of cooperation between German and Russian museums, a political move designed to smooth the tensions that date back to the looting of German museums by the Red Army. I hope something good comes of these contacts, but meanwhile it looks like a fabulous exhibit. Above, gold aurochs from the Maikop Kurgan, ca. 2500 BCE.

When the fighting died down in the summer of 1945, German museum officials discovered that many of their most famous objects were missing. The Soviets always denied having taken them, but Boris Yeltsin finally owned up to having Priam's Treasure in 1992. I always thought it was typical of the Soviets that rather than displaying or selling the loot --above is a famous picture of Heinrich Schliemann's wife wearing part of the golden treasure -- they hid it in warehouses. The Russians have so far refused to return any of this stuff, saying they are keeping it as compensation for the destruction Russia suffered during the war.

Silver vessel from the Maikop Kurgan.

Gold bowl from the Eberswalde Treasure, 800-1000 BCE. The 81 items of the Eberswalde treasure are some of the most famous of the looted items. In 2004 they were found by a reporter from Der Spiegel in a locked vault at the Pushkin museum.

Copies of the Eberswalde Horde that have been displayed in Berlin.

The exhibit is a mixture of stuff looted from Germany and stuff excavated in Russia, and I supposed the point is that when it travels to Germany next year it will represent a homecoming of sorts for the looted items, and an apology in the form of the spectacular Russian finds. A good step toward resolution, I would say. Above is a figurine from the Gallich Treasure, a mysterious horde of objects from European Russia turned up by workers repairing a mill dam in 1836. Although they were found in Europe, they resemble artifacts used by the cultures of Central Asia around 1500 BCE.

Nate Silver Explains how College is Changing

The percentage of American college students who study the humanities and liberals keeps declining. But this much lamented decline is mostly explained by the increasing share of people attending college. The table above, comparing degrees in history, sociology and political science as a percentage of all degrees and as a percentage of all young people, is typical of the graphs produced by Nate Silver of 538 in his study of the problem. What has changed is not so much the appeal of the liberal arts to the sort of people who have went to college in 1970, as the kind of person who goes to college. More people now go to college, and the new entrants in the system generally have little interest in liberal education: they want good jobs, not intellectual enrichment.

Trying to force a humanistic education on these people is not likely to make much impact on them, unless it drives them out of higher education altogether. If you ask me, these numbers are more evidence that we should drastically shrink the number of four-year colleges and divert half or more of college students into career preparatory courses in community colleges.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

A New Map Does not Explain Lee's Decisions at Gettysburg

They're baiting me.

It's these people who always think that their new technology or their new insight or whatever will overturn all the received wisdom. We hates them all. And now comes a new bunch, GIS analysts this time, claiming that their new map "may explain Lee's decisions at Gettysburg." What is particularly galling about this claim is that Lee's decisions at Gettysburg have already been explained to the satisfaction of every Civil War buff I know.

But in the guise of fairness, I will allow them to present their case:
On the second day of fighting at Gettysburg, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee listened to scouting reports, scanned the battlefield and ordered his second-in-command, James Longstreet, to attack the Union Army's left flank. It was a fateful decision, one that led to one of the most desperate clashes of the entire Civil War — the fight for a piece of ground called Little Round Top. The Union's defense of the boulder-strewn promontory helped send Lee to defeat at Gettysburg, and he never again ventured into Northern territory. Why did the shrewd and canny Lee choose to attack, especially in the face of the Union's superior numbers?
Does this have to be explained again? Because if this is mysterious to certain contemporary historians, it was certainly not mysterious to anyone in 1863. Every soldier in both armies knew that Lee would attack if given a chance. On the night of July 2, Meade convened a staff meeting and polled his Corps commanders about what to do the next day. Every single one agreed that Lee would attack again, and that the best approach for the Union army was to stay on the defensive. How did they know?
  1. Lee wanted a battle, because he thought that only by winning a major battle could he advance the cause of Confederate independence;
  2. He preferred to attack, because military doctrine going back through Napoleon to the Duke of Marlborough held that truly decisive victories could more easily be won on the offensive;
  3. He knew perfectly well that he was outnumbered, but thought he could win anyway because he believed the Union troops were inferior to his own and badly led;
  4. And once the battle had begun, Lee's aggressive instincts took over and he pressed the thing as far as he could. It was Longstreet who explained that once Lee's "blood was up," there was no stopping him, and Longstreet presumably understood Lee's decision-making process better than any GIS map can.
But no, these factors apparently pale in comparison to the BIG NEW INSIGHT, which is that
From his vantage point, Lee simply couldn't see throngs of Union soldiers amid the hills and valleys. "Our analysis shows that he had a very poor understanding of how many forces he was up against, which made him bolder," said Middlebury College professor Anne Knowles, whose team produced the most faithful re-creation of the Gettysburg battlefield to date, using software called GIS, or geographic information systems.
I can only throw up my hands.

Maps are great. GIS is cool. But in this case GIS only substitutes for the way people have understood the battlefield since 1863, which is by visiting it and walking around. No serious historian would ever write about a battle without visiting the site and exploring it on foot or horseback or however it was the commanders saw it. Since 1865 the US Army has been staging "staff rides" during which officers explore battlefields in just this way, often with first-hand accounts of the battle in their pockets, trying to see what it was that soldiers and commanders saw. Every good battlefield tour guide -- Gettysburg has several outstanding rangers who give awesome tours -- will point out the key lines of sight and explain when it was crucial that commanders could or could not see things. Park planners, as I know from experience, use these lines of sight as key factors in laying out their trails and waysides.

Yes, what commanders could and could not see was often crucial in battle, and everybody already knows this.

To get back to Gettysburg, Lee certainly could not from his vantage point understand the complex terrain around Little Round Top and the Devil's Den or tell how many men defended it. As things turned out, though, that obscurity was an advantage for Longstreet's men, neutralizing the superior Federal artillery and preventing them from massing their greater numbers against the Confederate assault. This attack was very successful, considering that the attackers were outnumbered, and some people think it came very close to breaking the Union line and driving them off Cemetery Ridge. Since Lee was by nature a bold risk-taker and in this circumstance was determined to force a battle if there was any chance of victory, knowing the actual odds would only have encouraged him.

Today's Place to Daydream about: Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park is 16,000 square miles (41,000 sq km ) of mountains, meadows and lakes on the Continental Divide, a breathtaking landscape so remote it is sometimes lonely even in our crowded age.

Home to bighorn sheep, mountain goats, grizzly bears, golden eagles, Canadian lynx, wolverines, and many other beasts and birds.

There are 700 miles of trails, some of which are only open for a few weeks at the height of summer and take you to rugged slopes high above the lakes and lodges.

Winter snows are so deep that sometimes it takes months just to plow the roads in spring, and you are advised to check the park's web site to find out what is open before you go, no matter what the season.

I haven't been to the Rockies in twenty years, and I am wishing today that I were there.

Sixteenth-Century Fireworks

From a manuscript of 1594 titled  B├╝chsenmeister und Feuerwerksbuch (Gunsmithing and Fireworks), by Friedrich Meyer. Other pages show detailed drawings of the fire boxes used to create these theatrical effects.


I leave this one to your imagination.

Love these flaming dragons, especially the one rigged to fly along a suspended rope.

From BibliOdyssey.

The Stupid Hype about 3-D Printing

The sort of people who always think the latest technology is going to transform the world all agog over 3-D printing. Somehow it is going to transform our economies, empower individuals, undermine political authority (just like the internet did), and even change how we experience art. Apparently sane people say rave about print at home sculptures and say things like,
It may have as profound an impact on the world as the coming of the factory did.
Like, wow. Now we can make plastic junk in our own homes via an expensive, painfully slow, energy inefficient process!

Not that 3-D printing isn't cool, but in our world we are already really, really good at manufacturing things quickly and cheaply. Improvements in manufacturing plastic or metal parts are just not what our world needs. More junk, I think, imagining houses full of gargoyle figurines.

But we can 3-D print guns! So? The world is awash in guns and buying one on the black market is about as hard as buying pot.

We can 3-D print food from powdered carbohydrates! Yum.

It will bring manufacturing back to the US! Why? All the factors that make manufacturing cheaper in China still apply to 3-D printing.

We can 3-D print metal parts from powdered alloys! I suppose this might be useful for, say, making parts for antique cars, but the cost is several dozen times that for smelting and molding.

We can scan any object and make a plastic copy of it! How many objects are there in the world that really need to be duplicated? Like that gargoyle figurine in the picture, which was copied in this way. Is the existence of a second identical gargoyle figurine going to transform anything?

We can 3-D print organs! No, we can 3-D print fake organs, and when it comes to real ones my money is still on using DNA manipulation to get nature to grow them for us.

We can 3-D print cells! Well, not yet, but people say we will soon. To which I answer, why would we want to make one from scratch when we could reprogram some organism's DNA and let it make the cell for us?

I probably shouldn't be too flip, because 3-D printing has its niche and it is being used in many manufacturing enterprises. It will get better. So it is important. But it is important in the way that, say, the continuous casting process for steel or the roller mill for flour is, a different way of doing something we are already very good at. It will not transform your life or mine.

The Pursuit of a Boring Lifestyle

Timothy Noah:
In essence, U.S. vs. Windsor is about being allowed to lead a respectable bourgeois existence married to and eventually widowed by the person you love, even if that person happens to be the same sex as you. . . . When the history books are written, one likely conclusion will be that the swift ascendancy of gay rights in the second decade of the 21st century was largely attributable to gay people’s relentless pursuit of a boring lifestyle.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Portuguese Goa

Goa is a district on the southwest coast of India that was long ruled by the Portuguese.

The Portuguese, led by Afonso de Albuquerque, conquered the town in 1510. It has always amazed me that they were able to do this, at the end of their 10,000-mile supply line, with tiny ships and weak cannon, just 12 years after Vasco da Gama's return from his great voyage around the Cape of Good Hope. They established a colony there that was a place of both great wealth and, for arrivals from Portugal, imminent death.

The trade in pepper, indigo, and other goods was so profitable that many Portuguese risked all to take part and the city prospered. By 1543 it had over 100,000 inhabitants. Above, drawing of the town from an atlas of 1600.

The death rate from malaria and other tropical scourges was so high that the Portuguese mostly abandoned Goa town in the 1700s, and the old core of their colony became a virtual ghost town. But before that they built a number of lovely churches, including the Cathedral of St. Catherine.

And the mysteriously named Basilica de Bom Jesu.

They also built a number of forts around the colony; this is Aguada fort, rebuilt in 1725 on the foundations of several earlier forts.

The Portuguese in Goa went half native. Their clothes, food, and houses were a fusion of European and Indian styles. Above, a 17th-century painting and an engraving by Grasset de St.Sauveur, from 'Voyages Pittoresque dans les Quatres Partis du Monde', 1806

Above, the governor's chariot, in the Goa museum.

The old houses of Goa are particularly distinctive. Whereas the Indian houses of this region had faced inward toward courtyards, the Portuguese houses opened outward, shaded by wide verandas.

The Portuguese held Goa until 1961. Their influence is still strong in the region, especially in the food and architecture.