Saturday, October 31, 2009

Intelligence and Ideology

As everybody knows, liberals are smarter than conservatives. Alas, this is not necessarily a point in favor of liberal politics, because libertarians are smarter than either. Back in the 1920s, the intellectual class was agog over Lenin. Many smart people are drawn to theoretically consistent philosophies that simplify the world, and many people who fancy themselves smart delight in thinking the opposite of what the foolish masses believe.
Bruce Charlton, a professor of theoretical medicine at the University of Buckingham, recently coined the term “clever sillies” to describe people who hold wacky political views seemingly because of—rather than despite—their high intelligence.
Intelligence and wisdom are far from being the same thing.

Friday, October 30, 2009

HIV Travel Ban to End

President Obama, today:
Twenty-two years ago, in a decision rooted in fear rather than fact, the United States instituted a travel ban on entry into the country for people living with HIV/AIDS. Now, we talk about reducing the stigma of this disease -- yet we've treated a visitor living with it as a threat. We lead the world when it comes to helping stem the AIDS pandemic -- yet we are one of only a dozen countries that still bar people from HIV from entering our own country.If we want to be the global leader in combating HIV/AIDS, we need to act like it.
And that's why, on Monday my administration will publish a final rule that eliminates the travel ban effective just after the New Year. Congress and President Bush began this process last year, and they ought to be commended for it. We are finishing the job. It's a step that will encourage people to get tested and get treatment, it's a step that will keep families together, and it's a step that will save lives.

Vanity Fair

To give you an idea of how much time I spend in my car when I have crews in the field, over the past month I have managed to listen to all 30 hours of Thackeray's Vanity Fair (1848) on cd. I enjoyed it quite a bit and I am glad that I was never forced to read it as an undergraduate, when I wouldn't have had the time or the background to appreciate it properly.

You know, we like to complain that we live in a very ironic time, and we wonder if our ironic sensibilities keep us from forming powerful attachments or working to make the world better. Let me tell you, no contemporary writer has anything on Thackeray when it comes to irony. The book is full of little asides like, "it was heartwarming to see how often her friends visited her and how well they treated her once she had inherited a fortune." The whole attitude toward society is deeply ironic, whether the subject is social status, the law, the church, the universities, boxing, courting, or even mothers' love for their children. The only things not roundly mocked are private prayer and the bravery of the British army at Waterloo.

"Tenacity" and World War I

I have been looking for an excuse to say this for some time, but now David Brooks has given me one. Brooks says he has been talking to military experts who say that what matters about Afghanistan is not our particular troop level but rather our determination to see the thing through. In particular, they doubt the determination of the Commander-in-Chief:
They are not worried about his policy choices. Their concerns are more fundamental. They are worried about his determination.

These people, who follow the war for a living, who spend their days in military circles both here and in Afghanistan, have no idea if President Obama is committed to this effort. They have no idea if he is willing to stick by his decisions, explain the war to the American people and persevere through good times and bad. . . . They do not know if he possesses tenacity, the ability to fixate on a simple conviction and grip it, viscerally and unflinchingly, through complexity and confusion. They do not know if he possesses the obstinacy that guided Lincoln and Churchill, and which must guide all war presidents to some degree.

You see this argument a lot these days. We have to persevere. We have to follow through on our commitments. We have to show our allies that they can trust us. We can't cut and run.

Well, maybe, but whenever you hear this kind of argument, you have to remember that arguments like this are the reason World War I was fought. There wasn't any particular issue at stake in the Great War, but all sides felt that they had to stick to their agreements and back up their words with deeds and generally show that they were tough and serious and meant what they said. Millions of dead men later, with Europe in ruins, they had proved their point. They were serious, and they followed through.

But for what? Before we get our backs up about toughness and determination and following through, shouldn't we have something worth fighting for? Some goal worth achieving that we can actually achieve? Because if not, determination is just the route to the Somme and Verdun.

* * *

Update: Amy Davidson's comment on Brooks' essay was, "babbling about imposing one’s will, as if war were a matter of Ray Lewis making a goal line stand, does not tell us anything about what, exactly, we’re doing in Afghanistan."

Thursday, October 29, 2009


When the South seceded, many Southerners thought the North was not in earnest and would not fight. Almost as soon as the North showed it would fight, some Southerners began to slip into the elegaic melancholy of the Lost Cause. Others believed that though the odds were long against them, the Confederates could still win the war if they fought with enough brilliance and daring. The leading spirits of these aggressive optimists were Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Both generals believed that the side with the fewest men must take the longest chances, and that only boldness could keep the Union armies at bay. For two years their methods worked, and they drove back every assault on the Confederate capital of Richmond.

But though the Union could not advance in Virginia, none of Lee's and Jackson's victories seemed to bring the war any closer to the end. Their most brilliant victory, at Chancellorsville in May, 1863, is still taught in military academies but drove the Northerners back only five miles, and the loss of Stonewall Jackson might have mattered more than any battle. Meanwhile the Union was slowly conquering the Confederate west. Searching for some way to win the war, rather than just prolong it, Lee decided on an invasion of the north. A great victory on Union soil, along with the seizure of Philadelphia or Washington, might, he reasoned, have an effect on northern morale that none of his Virginia victories had. So he led his men into Pennsylvania, the Union troops followed, and the two armies blundered into each other at Gettysburg.

For two days, the fighting went well for the Confederates. They drove the Union forces back, breaking their lines several times. But by 1863 there were so many experienced officers and veteran regiments on both sides that there were no easy victories. Every time their position was threatened, Union officers did what was necessary to repair the damage, acting without waiting for orders. Every Confederate thrust was countered, every breakthrough contained. Every act of Confederate gallantry was matched by one from Union men. Both sides suffered frightful casualties, but at the end of two days the Union army remained unbeaten, still in a strong position. And while the Confederate army shrank with every passing hour, steadily arriving reinforcements swelled the Union force. On the night of that second day, Union commander George Meade called a council of war. His top commanders agreed unanimously that they should remain where they were and receive the attack that Lee was certain to launch the next day. Much is made of the way Lee anticipated the moves of his opponents, but after two years of fighting many Union officers knew Lee as well as he knew them. Meade even guessed where the assault would fall, warning John Gibbon that he would be attacked in the morning. Lee, Meade guessed, would use the same design as Marlborough at Blenheim and Napoleon at Marengo; after wearing down his enemy with repeated assaults on their flanks, he would try to break their center with a great charge.

Lee's top subordinate, Longstreet, pleaded with him not to order an attack Longstreet thought was doomed. Lee would not listen. He had not brought his army to Pennsylvania to take it meekly back home. He needed to win a dramatic victory, and he knew he would not win one without taking great risks. So he arrayed the 12,000 men he had available and, after a great artillery bombardment, sent them forward across a mile of open land to the center of the Union line. Seeing them come, Union artillerymen cheered and brought their guns to bear. The Union infantry waiting behind stone walls on Cemetery Ridge loaded their muskets and waited. Some were awestruck by the grand attack, but the more experienced men knew they were being handed a chance to get their revenge for many past defeats. As the Confederates came near, they took aim and fired. Along most of the wall the fire was so intense that the Confederates never got within 50 yards. In one spot called The Angle the men of Picket's Division reached the wall and broke though, and for a few minutes they held their ground at the crest of the ridge, until Union reinforcements arrived and drove them back. A few of them wrote later that they could see masses of stragglers along the road behind the Union front line and knew that with a few more men they could have broken through and won the day. But they were mistaken. The men on the Taneytown Road were not stragglers, but a reserve of 13,000 men and 40 guns that Meade had assembled to seal any break in the line. Meade had so many men that he could defend all his lines and still keep in reserve a force bigger than Lee could muster to attack him. The Confederates retreated to their lines, leaving more than a thousand dead men on the field and another three thousand as prisoners in Union hands.

Gettysburg was not a decisive battle. Lee took his army back to Virginia, Meade followed, and they spent the rest of 1863 in pretty much the same positions they had occupied when the year began. What Gettysburg did was to show, to anyone who still believed otherwise, that Southern brilliance and daring would not be enough to win the war. The Union had found ways of countering Lee and his officers. The war, Gettysburg confirmed, would be won by the weight of men and money. That meant that it was only a matter of time before the Southern armies were crushed, leaving the Confederates to either surrender or head for the hills and fight on as guerrillas.

Oh, yes, I have a little archaeological project at Gettysburg now, which is why I was there today. The top picture shows the view down the Union line on Cemetery Ridge, the second shows Little Round Top from the view of its Confederate attackers, third is the view from the Union line across the field of Picket's Charge, and the last picture shows a red-tailed hawk sitting on a sculpted eagle in the Wheat Field.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

There's One in Every Neighborhood

Most of the decorated houses in Georgetown look like this. Unfortunately, there are always a few scapegraces who don't understand the obligations that go with being rich and genteel. What's wrong with these peasants?

The Dancing Plague

I just finished an interesting book, The Dancing Plague by John Waller. (Sourcebooks 2009) It tells the story of an epidemic of uncontrollable, trance-like dancing in Strasbourg in the summer of 1518. In a year of bad harvests, widespread hunger, disease, and a failed peasant uprising in the next district, an ordinary woman of Strasbourg began to dance. Her name was Frau Troffea. Crowds gathered to watch her pitiable dancing, which went on until she collapsed from exhaustion and resumed again as soon as she had rested and had some water. Soon others joined in. The city council was rather enlightened -- Sebastian Brandt, author of The Ship of Fools, was one of their advisers -- and instead of suspecting witchcraft they called in the town's doctors. The doctors diagnosed the dancers with overheated blood in the brain and recommended that they be encouraged to dance until they cured themselves. The town set aside an area for the dancers and even provided musicians. But this only caused the plague to spread faster, until as many as 400 were afflicted. A few died, probably victims of the same kind of exhaustion that occasionally overtakes ecstatic dancers at raves. The city council changed course and began sending the dancers to a shrine of St. Vitus in a mountain grotto 30 miles from Strasbourg. (We don't know how St. Vitus, a late Roman martyr, came to be associated with dancing, but the connection endured for centuries.) Many of the dancers were cured by the pilgrimage, and the plague gradually subsided.

The thing is, that's about everything we know about the outbreak. The story would have made a great article for the New Yorker. Stretched out to 220 pages it is repetitive and full of background stuff that isn’t particularly relevant. So while it is an interesting book, it isn't a great one.

The one really interesting addition to the basic story is the last chapter, which is a survey of contagious, hysterical reactions in the anthropological and medical literature. The Strasbourg dancers were in some kind of trance or fugue state; contemporaries observed that while there were fakers, they were easily detected because they simply could not keep dancing as long or with as much intensity as the victims of the plague. And there have been other cases of such outbreaks, including a well-documented one on Madagascar in the 1860s. I was especially struck by the observation that the symptoms of hysterical or psychosomatic outbreaks have changed over time. In the 18th and 19th centuries, people used to dance uncontrollably, or at least jerk and foam, or go mute. Now the symptoms almost always imitate medical conditions. A lot of shellshocked soldiers in WW I developed heart murmurs. As the dominant model of severe medical crises shifted from curse or possession to disease, the symptoms of the deranged shifted with it:

Perhaps the most salient development in the modern history of hysteria has been a more general shift away from dramatic motor symptoms during the twentieth century. . . .Mutisms, convulsions, paralyses, altered states, and sensory deficits due to anxiety seem to be less common today than in any time over recorded history. This trend was perceptible even during the First World War, as military hospitals were deluged with men suffering from an almost certainly nervous condition dubbed “Disordered Action of the Heart” that involved chest pains, giddiness, and palpitations. During the Second World War, there were even fewer cases of the flamboyant hysterias of the Victorian era. Today, severe stress is far more likely to be express in a form psychiatrists call “somatoform disorder,” involving psychogenic pain (often headaches and stomach or bowel discomfort), fatigue, dizziness, or a general sense of malaise. Research in rural Indian provides strong evidence for this movement toward the less over somatoform disorder. In two well-studied Indian villages, rates of conversion disorder fell significantly between 1972 and 1987. Far more people now complain of pain and fatigue than motor paralysis or sensory loss. This shift has been attributed to a general increase in the mental health of women due to improved access to schools and, just as importantly, education having reduced “public credulity.”

As normal behavior changes, so does mental illness.

Angry Atheists

Here's an NPR Story titled "A Bitter Rift Divides Atheists." The title strikes me as overblown, but there is tension between your Christopher Hitchens (Religion is "sinister, dangerous and ridiculous. . . . I think religion should be treated with ridicule, hatred and contempt, and I claim that right") types, and people who think that kind of rhetoric accomplishes nothing.

I have personally never seen that anything is gained by insulting people. To me the way to advance reason in public life is to live justly and morally while being honest about what I believe. Most people who hate atheism don't do so because they are afraid of secular ideas, they do so because they believe atheism leads inevitably to immorality. Screaming at them won't change their minds. Insults are not arguments, they just make the world a meaner, less friendly place.

Felony Torture

Via Andrew Sullivan, a little news item from California:
The couple, Daniel Weston and Mary Ann Parmelee, and three other people are accused of luring their two victims to an office where the men were tied up, held for hours and beaten, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney said. . . .

Each count of felony torture, defined as inflicting "great bodily injury" for the purpose of "revenge, extortion, persuasion and for a sadistic purpose," carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. Defense lawyers were not immediately available for comment.
So a civilian can get life in prison for doing things not one percent as heinous as things our former administration did to people we are now releasing from Guantanamo because there is no evidence for holding them.

Curious Things One Didn't Know

Naked mole rats don't get cancer.

Color Blindness

I am red-green color blind. That is, I fail those tests they give you with the numbers concealed in fields of differently-colored spots. But I have no trouble seeing red and green.

I think a better name for my condition would be "color insensitivity." I can see bold blocks of red and green just fine, and I have no trouble recognizing red lights. I have trouble with murky shades, and I would never employ myself as a color consultant, but generally I get along fine. My one practical issue is that I have trouble telling a green light from a white light at night, so it sometimes happens to me that something I took for a street lamp will suddenly turn yellow.

To me the most interesting thing about my color blindness is that it seems to manifest most often, not as being unable to see colors, but as being unaware of them. Once somebody tells me what the number is on one of those test pages, I can see it, and I mean really see it. If I forget what it is, I can't see it any more. I can scan across a green field and not see any of the bright orange surveying flags hiding there, but if one is pointed out to me it leaps into my consciousness. I remember once walking in a field with a friend who observed, "look how red those willows are." I had been unaware until that moment of anything red, and when I looked up at the line of little willow trees by the edge of the pond, they looked at first green. But then some perceptual shift happened, and I saw how red they were.

All of this makes me think that my condition is a glitch in the perceptual software in my brain, not a problem with my eyes. I wonder if other people see as I do, but isn't that one of the great imponderable questions?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What is Music?

After 75 years or so in which the most respected academic composers have been writing "music" that nobody likes and denouncing their critics as bourgeois pedants, we are still left with the question of what music is and whether there is some legitimate sense in which Beethoven is "better" than Pierre Boulez.

The latest attacks on modern music have come, not from conservative critics, but from neurologists. It seems that it is pretty much impossible to define music, but we all know it when we hear it. The questions is, why do we know it when we hear it? Is it just because we are culturally conditioned to recognize it? Apparently not, because even six-month-old babies respond more to music with a traditional melody than to atonal, arhythmic noise. Neuro-musicologists are now asserting that we respond to music because it matches up to certain strongly innate patterns in our brains. Obviously there is a great deal of flexibility in this mechanism, but the latest thinking is that it does exclude a vast universe of sounds that are not melodic or rhythmic enough to resonate with our brains. Music that doesn't match up with what our brains expect may be exciting to theoretically-minded musical rebels who are mainly looking to like something that pedants like me don't get, but it will never have wide appeal.

Philip Ball has an interesting essay on the topic here. I also like his approach to reviewing a book he dislikes, which is to completely ignore the book and just say what he thinks about the topic.

A Resignation over Afghanistan

Matthew Hoh, a State Department official and former Marine, has resigned from his post in Afghanistan, saying that our presence there is only fueling the insurgency we say we have come to fight. According to Hoh, whose resignation letter you can read here,
The Pashtun insurgency, which is composed of multiple, seemingly infinite, local groups, is fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions, and religion by internal and external enemies. . . . I have observed that the bulk of the insurgency fights not for the white banner of the Taliban but rather against the presence of foreign soldiers and taxes imposed by an unrepresentative government in Kabul. The United States military presence in Afghanistan greatly contributes to the legitimacy and strategic message of the Pashtun insurgency.
From the Washington Post:

"I'm not some peacenik, pot-smoking hippie who wants everyone to be in love," Hoh said. Although he said his time in Zabul was the "second-best job I've ever had," his dominant experience is from the Marines, where many of his closest friends still serve. . . . But many Afghans, he wrote in his resignation letter, are fighting the United States largely because its troops are there -- a growing military presence in villages and valleys where outsiders, including other Afghans, are not welcome and where the corrupt, U.S.-backed national government is rejected. . . .

Hoh was assigned to research the response to a question asked by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during an April visit. Mullen wanted to know why the U.S. military had been operating for years in the Korengal Valley, an isolated spot near Afghanistan's eastern border with Pakistan where a number of Americans had been killed. Hoh concluded that there was no good reason. The people of Korengal didn't want them; the insurgency appeared to have arrived in strength only after the Americans did, and the battle between the two forces had achieved only a bloody stalemate.

Korengal and other areas, he said, taught him "how localized the insurgency was. I didn't realize that a group in this valley here has no connection with an insurgent group two kilometers away." Hundreds, maybe thousands, of groups across Afghanistan, he decided, had few ideological ties to the Taliban but took its money to fight the foreign intruders and maintain their own local power bases.
From what I have read, it seems that pressure on Obama to extend the mission is growing, both from in the US military and from some of our allies. I would be very surprised if Obama doesn't go along with these "experts" and send more troops. But it is still the wrong thing to do.

The comment which sheds most light on what is happening in Afghanistan was made by an ordinary Confederate soldier in 1863. Asked by his Yankee captors why he, a poor man with no slaves, was fighting in the war, he said, "I'm fightin' because you're down here."

Monday, October 26, 2009

Glass Microbiology

e. coli, one of a series of microbe sculptures by Luke Jerram. More here. Article on Jerram's work here.

I think these are very striking, but I wonder who would display one in his living room. Perhaps a pharmaceutical company might buy one and put it in the lobby?

The Blind Can See

From Science Daily:
Born with a retinal disease that made him legally blind, and would eventually leave him totally sightless, the nine-year-old boy used to sit in the back of the classroom, relying on the large print on an electronic screen and assisted by teacher aides. Now, after a single injection of genes that produce light-sensitive pigments in the back of his eye, he sits in front with classmates and participates in class without extra help. In the playground, he joins his classmates in playing his first game of softball.

This treatment represents the next step toward medical science's goal of using gene therapy to cure disease. Extending a preliminary study published last year on three young adults, the full study reports successful, sustained results that showed notable improvement in children with congenital blindness.

The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and the Center for Cellular and Molecular Therapeutics at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, used gene therapy to safely improve vision in five children and seven adults with Leber's congenital amaurosis (LCA). The greatest improvements occurred in the children, all of whom are now able to navigate a low-light obstacle course -- one result that the researchers call "spectacular."

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Perfect Day

It doesn't get any nicer than this. The fall colors are gorgeous, the sky is blue, the temperature perfect for planting bulbs, which is what I just finished doing.

Animal Pancakes

An old Bedell family tradition.

Ben wasn't impressed with that dragon. He said, "Wow, you're not very good at this any more."

Me: "What do you mean?"

Ben: "You know, sometimes you were good at something in the past, but when you get older you lose it."

Saturday, October 24, 2009


Awesomely Bad Similes

Via Bundle Brent, a collection of bad similes purportedly written by high school students. I doubt these were all really written by high school students, but wherever they came from, they are great fun.

1. Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master.

2. His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances, like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free.

3. He spoke with the wisdom that can only come from experience, like a guy who went blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country speaking at high schools about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it.

4. She grew on him like she was a colony of E.Coli, and he was room-temperature Canadian beef.

5. She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.

6. Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.

7. He was as tall as a six-foot, three-inch tree.

8 The revelation that his marriage of 30 years had disintegrated because of his wife's infidelity came as a rude shock, like a surcharge at a formerly surcharge-free ATM machine.

9. The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn't.

10 McBride fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a Hefty bag filled with vegetable soup.

11. From the attic came an unearthly howl. The whole scene had an eerie, surreal quality, like when you're on vacation in another city and Jeopardy comes on at 7:00 p.m. instead of 7:30.

12. Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.

13. The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.

14. Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Toronto at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Barrie at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.

15. They lived in a typical suburban neighbourhood with picket fences that resembled Nancy Kerrigan's teeth.

16. John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.

17. He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant, and she was the East River.

18. Even in his last years, Granddad had a mind like a steel trap, only one that had been left out so long, it had rusted shut.

19. Shots rang out, as shots are wont to do.

20. The plan was simple, like my brother-in-law Phil. But unlike Phil, this plan just might work.

21. The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.

22. He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck, either, but a real duck that was actually lame, maybe from stepping on a land mine or something.

23. The ballerina rose gracefully en Pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.

24. It was a Canadian tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with power tools.

25. He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Dark Matter Gets Weirder

We think we understand gravity pretty well. So astronomers think they can look at a galaxy, make measurements of its size, shape, and rate of spin, and then calculate how much mass it has. The problem is, that calculated mass is generally about 20 times the mass of the stars we can actually see. The rest is called "dark matter," which is a cute way of saying "we have no idea." Some of the dark matter may be black holes, but the calculations show that most of it has to be spread out over the entire galaxy in a very even way. So dark matter remains a mystery.

A new set of calculations about the effects of dark matter, which I won't attempt to explain, makes the behavior of dark matter even weirder. It seems to act in some sort of exact correspondence with the matter we can see. But if dark matter is some sort of stuff, why is that stuff distributed in exactly the same way as the visible matter? It makes no sense.

I would say that these new results support the notion that dark matter is not a thing, but some sort of force generated by regular matter, or, even more likely, a sign that we really don't understand gravity as well as we think.

Their Country

Pat Buchanan must have decided that his public profile was getting a little low, so he launched a cry for attention in the form of an outrageous essay on "Traditional Americans" at WorldNetDaily.

Buchanan is useful because he is rational enough to have what one might call a political position and has sufficient grasp of the language to explain it, while being simultaneously crazy enough to empathize with nutjob protesters who think Obama it trying to turn America into North Korea.

He says things like,
In their lifetimes, they have seen their Christian faith purged from schools their taxes paid for, and mocked in movies and on TV. They have seen their factories shuttered in the thousands and their jobs outsourced in the millions to Mexico and China. They have seen trillions of tax dollars go for Great Society programs, but have seen no Great Society, only rising crime, illegitimacy, drug use and dropout rates.
They, of course, are conservative white men, or, as Buchanan prefers to call them, "traditional Americans." You can think this passage is a silly amalgam of unrelated half-truths, but it is, I think, what millions of Americans believe. If you can't get your mind around this viewpoint, you can't understand American politics, and you will have hard time competing for the votes of the very many people who are at least a little sympathetic to this rant.

To me the most glaring folly of Buchanan's view is the way he puts corporate bigwigs and assembly line workers into the same category (traditional Americans), ignoring the obvious difference in their interests. He writes the labor movement out of his American history. But he is dead on about the ever-falling status of conservative white men in America. The line from this essay that has gotten the most attention is,
America was once their country. They sense they are losing it. And they are right.
This falls into the category of "offensive but nonetheless true." America did used to belong to conservative white men, and theyare are losing influence. A majority of white men voted for Bob Dole over Bill Clinton and John McCain over Barack Obama, but it didn't matter. They no longer get to decide, as they did for 175 years, who will lead the country. Japanese-Americans and Indian-Americans are richer than whites are, because they have more fully embraced the new technologies that now generate so much of our wealth. I think we are on the verge of recognizing gay marriage and otherwise accepting gay people as full citizens, despite the fulminations of conservative leaders and the distaste of "traditional Americans."

None of which is to say that conservative white men don't still have enormous influence in America, and don't rank in the general scheme of things above lots of other groups. But their day is passing. Of course they don't like it. Who does like being outvoted, or being told that his beliefs are old-fashioned and no longer relevant?

But, hey, too bad.

The world changes, and those who cling to the past get left behind. If there are old things you think are important, work to preserve them, and live them in your own way. But leave the rest of us alone to enjoy the wondrous prospect of a future that is more equal, more free, and more open to the ideas and actions of all people, traditional or otherwise.

Treasures of Afghantistan

The published catalog of the last year's blockbuster exhibit -- "Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul" -- is a trove of wonders. This is the material that the curators of the National Museum hid when then Taliban came to Kabul and kept safe through the American invasion; it has been touring the world to raise money for restoration of the museum.

My favorite objects in the collection come from Tilya Tepe, a Russian rendering of an Uzbek name meaning "Hill of Gold."Here in 1978 Russian archaeologists excavated a group of seven tombs dating to the first or second century AD. These were the princes and princesses of some nomad tribe. The spectacular finds show that the art of these nomads was a mixture of classical western, Chinese, Indian, and central Asian styles, brilliant in its synchretism. These pictures show a pendant (above) that depicts the ancient "master of dragons" motif, interpreted in a classical style, and a gold-crowned woman emerging from the ground (below).

Thursday, October 22, 2009

At Least the Russians did Worse

Matt Yglesias reviews Gregory Feifer’s The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan:
You read something like this and you really are struck by all the parallels to our current predicament. But at the same time you’re also really struck by the extent to which the situations tend to be parallel, but not at all the same in terms of their quantity. The Soviets, like the Americans, had some trouble understanding Afghan situations on their own terms in part because the Soviet government (like the American government) understood its role in the world in grandiose, highly ideological, propagandistic terms. But while the shape of the problem was comparable, the extent of it really isn’t. The US isn’t even close to being as ideological or propagandistic as the Soviet one. And it’s like this down the list. The Pakistan border situation is a problem for us, but was a disaster for them. The mujahedeen ideological coalition was broader than the one we’re facing, they were better-funded than the people we’re facing. . . .

The one doubts-raising parallel is that the Soviets put almost laughably little thought into why this was important before they invaded. They never asked pro-Soviet forces in Afghanistan to mount a coup, and there was no real reason to think that the coup failing would damage their interests in any way. The invasion became a disaster not so much because the Soviets weren’t able to succeed in a satisfactory way, but because keeping the war up was so costly in times of money, personnel, attention, prestige, etc. while the US countermeasures were very cheap. Which is to say that something can be doable and also not necessarily be worth doing. But a lot of the debate has focused on whether or not the kind of mission General McChrystal has proposed is even possible, and I think the Soviet experience should increase, rather than decrease, our confidence that it is.

In particular, it’s hard to capture the full scope of this in the blog post, but the Soviet war in the early phases was dominated by really nutty operational conduct. For example, they opened their intervention on behalf of the pro-Soviet Afghan government by shooting the leader of the pro-Soviet Afghan government and replacing him and everyone in his regime by leaders of a rival Communist faction. Obviously, that set a bad tone for the whole thing, but somehow they convinced themselves that this move would be welcomed by the local population. I could go on.

Thoughtful, longer review by Ahmed Rashid here.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Day Outside

I went down to Marine Corps Base Quantico today for the kickoff meeting for a new project, and a tour of the project area. It was a perfect day. I took this picture of maple trees while waiting outside the front gate, which got me questioned by two polite young Marines, who were afraid I was taking pictures of their security measures. The hog-nosed snake was playing in the dust near one of our project areas.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Hoist on My Own Petard

I often seize control of the music playing in the kitchen and dining room by asserting the privilege of the cook. Now my eldest son is baking cookies and listening to Megadeath.


Captive of the Taliban

From David Rohde's account of his 7 months as a Taliban hostage:

For the next several nights, a stream of Haqqani commanders overflowing with hatred for the United States and Israel visited us, unleashing blistering critiques that would continue throughout our captivity.

Some of their comments were factual. They said large numbers of civilians had been killed in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Palestinian territories in aerial bombings. Muslim prisoners had been physically abused and sexually humiliated in Iraq. Scores of men had been detained in Cuba and Afghanistan for up to seven years without charges.

To Americans, these episodes were aberrations. To my captors, they were proof that the United States was a hypocritical and duplicitous power that flouted international law.

When I told them I was an innocent civilian who should be released, they responded that the United States had held and tortured Muslims in secret detention centers for years. Commanders said they themselves had been imprisoned, their families ignorant of their fate. Why, they asked, should they treat me differently?

Other accusations were paranoid and delusional. Seven years after 9/11, they continued to insist that the attacks were hatched by American and Israeli intelligence agencies to create a pretext for the United States to enslave the Muslim world. They said the United States was forcibly converting vast numbers of Muslims to Christianity. American and NATO soldiers, they believed, were making Afghan women work as prostitutes on military bases.

Their hatred for the United States seemed boundless.
I realize that many Muslims are going to hate the United States for the foreseeable future no matter what we do, but maybe as a first step toward solving the problem we could stop killing Muslims with bombs. It seems worth a try.

Monday, October 19, 2009


Interesting long NY Times piece on Pandora. The premise of Pandora is that they can take apart the songs you like, figure out what you like about them, and then tell you about other music you might like. This raises the question of whether people actually like music because of how it sounds, rather than because it is cool in their social circle or reminds them of a certain point in their lives:

Pandora’s approach more or less ignores the crowd. It is indifferent to the possibility that any given piece of music in its system might become a hit. The idea is to figure out what you like, not what a market might like. More interesting, the idea is that the taste of your cool friends, your peers, the traditional music critics, big-label talent scouts and the latest influential music blog are all equally irrelevant. That’s all cultural information, not musical information. And theoretically at least, Pandora’s approach distances music-liking from the cultural information that generally attaches to it.

Which raises interesting questions. Do you really love listening to the latest Jack White project? Do you really hate the sound of Britney Spears? Or are your music-consumption habits, in fact, not merely guided but partly shaped by the cultural information that Pandora largely screens out — like what’s considered awesome (or insufferable) by your peers, or by music tastemakers, or by anybody else? Is it really possible to separate musical taste from such social factors, online or off, and make it purely about the raw stuff of the music itself?

I am skeptical. Like a lot of people I know, I listen to many different kinds of music, depending on my mood. There are certain sounds I like and dislike, but toward most genres I am ambivalent. I like some but dislike others. For example, I like several Michael Jackson songs, but don't care for most music that sounds vaguely like Michael Jackson. There are quite a few bands from which I like only a single song; the only song I like by Nickel Creek is "When in Rome," and it still bugs me that I spent $18 to buy a whole cd of their music. And what could be more like one Nickel Creek song than another Nickel Creek song? So I have my doubts about whether these algorithms can ever pick up on the subtlety of musical taste.

And, in practice, my family's experiences with Pandora have so far been uninspiring. My eldest son says that after he carefully told it a long list of songs he likes, it played him only songs he already knew and songs he didn't like.

On the other hand, it is a terrific idea, and I hope it eventually works well enough to point me toward beautiful music I don't already know.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are, Movie Version

I took my three youngest children to see Where the Wild Things Are yesterday.

I thought it was ok. There were some very cute scenes, some wonderful scenery, and some nice moments, but there were also dreary parts. I disliked the opening sequence shot in Max's real world house, where his overworked single mother was struggling with the balance thing and looking really pained and tired and making me feel like I had seen this in twenty movies before, and really Max's acting out was nothing that any experienced parent would have batted an eye at. Shouldn't a kid who is supposed to embody uncontrolled anger do something really bad?

Much more explicitly than in the book, the movie is about strong emotion and the troubles it brings. The wild things are basically big, emotionally troubled kids, who only forget their troubles when having the rowdiest fun, and as the movie shows, rowdy fun sometimes leads to more troubles. The combination of puppetry and digital effects worked very well, and I liked the wild things just fine. The main delight of the movie was watching them have fun together in their beautiful home, and the main problem was exactly what you would expect: in the book nothing happens in the land of the wild things but one wild rumpus, and the movie makers obviously had trouble figuring out what else do to.

I found the ending very interesting. Max seems to have solved his own troubles, for now, but he leaves the wild things much as he found them, fighting and sulking. One tells him, as he leaves, that he is the first king they didn't end up eating. I suppose that implies that while Max has mastered his emotional turmoil, others don't, and in the end are consumed by their wild things. I liked it that the movie makers didn't conjure some pat happy ending, but it did feel rather incomplete.

Clara, who is four, didn't have much reaction to the movie at all. Ben, who is nearly seven, liked it a lot. He squirmed a little during the scariest parts, but he had no real trouble, and he is not especially brave, so I think worries that the movie is too scary are overblown. He said that the end was the saddest thing he had ever seen -- he wanted Max to stay in the land of the wild things forever. The one who really loved the movie was my 12-year-old son Thomas. He loves the book, and he is exactly the kind of child the story is about, a rowdy boy who has trouble with his emotions. He came out raving about how good the movie was.

It's a Leonardo, but is it any good?

From Time:
The 13-by-9-inch portrait, which has now been dubbed La Bella Principessa, is a delicate profile of a young aristocratic Milanese woman, drawn with pen, chalk and ink on an animal skin known as vellum. It was bought two years ago by an anonymous Swiss collector at the Ganz Gallery in New York for about $19,000. Experts now put the possible value of the artwork at upwards of $150 million.
The identification seems fairly sound. Some experts already thought it was a Leonardo based on the style, and this has now been confirmed by infrared photography, radiocarbon dating, and the discovery of a fingerprint very similar to one on a confirmed Leonardo.

But why is this rather insipid thing worth $150 million? I mean, it's cool to find an unknown Leonardo, but shouldn't a painting's value have something to do with how good a painting it is? This strikes me as quite nice, but there are hundreds of Renaissance portraits more beautiful and exciting than this one.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Vampire Killing Kits?

There is stuff all over the net about nineteenth-century vampire killing kits, but Urban Legends isn't buying it.

As they report, the documentation on the website of Sotheby's auction house is equivocal:

Professor Ernst Blomberg reportedly assembled his kits in the nineteenth century. Many experts, however, believe that his kits were assembled in the early twentieth century in response to the interest in vampires sparked by the popularity of Bram Stoker's 'Dracula' published in 1897.

I like the second explanation. Vampires just weren't a big part of the western European imagination until after Stoker's best seller. Yes, people had heard of them, there were some obscure books, and there were even scattered legends about corpses that walked and had to be dug up and burned. But not enough to trigger the level of interest shown in these kits.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Grab a Mop

At a Democratic fundraiser last night, Obama responded to Republican criticism of his efforts:
Another way of putting it is when, you know, I'm busy and Nancy busy with our mop cleaning up somebody else's mess --- we don't want somebody sitting back saying, you're not holding the mop the right way. (Applause.) Why don't you grab a mop, why don't you help clean up. (Applause.) You're not mopping fast enough. (Laughter.) That's a socialist mop. (Laughter and applause.) Grab a mop -- let's get to work.

Stripping Memories of Emotion

Fascinating article in Discover on a new technique for helping people with post-traumatic stress disorder. In effect, the method uses emotion-suppressing drugs to record unemotional memories over the emotionally charges ones that create so much pain:
More than a year after her accident, Magil saw Brunet’s ad for an experimental treatment for PTSD, and she volunteered. She took a low dose of a common blood-pressure drug, propranolol, that reduces activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain that processes emotions. Then she listened to a taped re-creation of her car accident. She had relived that day in her mind a thousand times. The difference this time was that the drug broke the link between her factual memory and her emotional memory. Propranolol blocks the action of adrenaline, so it prevented her from tensing up and getting anxious. By having Magil think about the accident while the drug was in her body, Brunet hoped to permanently change how she remembered the crash. It worked. She did not forget the accident but was actively able to reshape her memory of the event, stripping away the terror while leaving the facts behind.

Brunet’s experiment emerges from one of the most exciting and controversial recent findings in neuroscience: that we alter our memories just by remembering them. Karim Nader of McGill—the scientist who made this discovery—hopes it means that people with PTSD can cure themselves by editing their memories. Altering remembered thoughts might also liberate people imprisoned by anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, even addiction. “There is no such thing as a pharmacological cure in psychiatry,” Brunet says. “But we may be on the verge of changing that.”

Of course if this works as well as suggested here it could be put to some strange uses, but for a moment I choose to celebrate the possibly therapeutic value.

The Future Gets a Little Creepier

From Science News:
Scientists Give Flies False Memories

By directly manipulating the activity of individual neurons, scientists have given flies memories of a bad experience they never really had, according to a report in the October 16th issue of the journal Cell, a Cell Press publication.

Small World

Wonderful online exhibit of the winners from Nikon's annual micro-photography contest. This image shows crystals of doxorubin. The one below shows mouse cells in which the structural proteins have been excited so that they glow.

Take Note, Wayward Children

Here's the strategy, kids: if you do something bad, consider hiding for so long that your parents think you are missing and mount a search effort. When you emerge from your hiding place they will be so happy to see you that they will completely forget what you did before you disappeared:
FORT COLLINS, Colo. — For hours on Thursday, people around the country were gripped by television images of a homemade silver balloon careening through the skies near here, whooshing over fields and trees and yards with a 6-year-old boy believed inside.

A search party was readied — on foot, on horseback, in helicopters loaded with infrared sensors — to scour the aircraft’s path of more than 60 miles, some terrified that the boy might have fallen from his accidental perch.

In the early afternoon, the balloon landed near Denver International Airport, but the boy was not in it. At last, near dusk, he was found, hiding in a box in his family’s garage attic, fearful his father would be angry at him for touching the flying machine his father had built in their backyard.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Don't Ask Don't Tell in Action

From an email to Andrew Sullivan:
I was an active duty Navy officer from 1990-95 stationed on a Ticonderoga Class cruiser based in Norfolk, and in spite of being fairly liberal and the son of hard-core Kennedy Democrats, I was a bit skeptical of gays in the military (military cohesion and all that) and thought DADT was a decent compromise. That is, I was a supporter until I actually had to participate in a discharge hearing for one of my sailors.

A hard working young Boatswain's Mate Seaman (E2) in my Division was arrested for underage drinking at a gay bar in Norfolk. The authorities, as they are prone to do in military towns, turned him over to the base for disciplinary action. At the time, I did not think much of the raid, as I was fairly fresh out of college where underage drinking raids occurred all the time. In hind sight though, it was clearly a witch hunt as I never recall a straight bar being raided for underage drinking. I assumed it would be the usual drinking related discipline we doled out all the time (restriction to the ship, classes on drinking, etc.) however once the base legal office got involved it turned into a hearing on his sexuality.

The shipboard legal officer (not an attorney, but ostensibly his defense lawyer) started the process and it became very clear this policy was, in a word, stupid. His entire chain of command from his Leading Petty Officer (E5) to his Chief Petty Officer (E7) to me, his Division Officer, gave him stellar reviews and testified to his hard work and excellent seamanship. To see these salty, blue collar guys give impassioned defenses of this sailor was eye-opening to say the least. They could not have cared less what he did or whom he spent time with on liberty, but they wanted him to stay part of our crew. I cannot recall exactly how he defended himself, but I do recall that he essentially had no options - it was a done deal. Our CO had no option either and I could tell it tore him up. The sailor was discharged with an OTH (Other Than Honorable). . . . We simply cannot afford to lose quality members of our Armed Forces.

Is the Taliban a Threat?

From Fafblog:
Q: Is the Taliban a threat?
A: Of course. The Taliban is an ongoing threat to our ongoing mission to eliminate the Taliban.
Q: And if we fail to eliminate the Taliban?
A: We cannot fail to eliminate the Taliban, as long as the Taliban continues to provide safe havens and training grounds for the Taliban.
Q: And the Taliban, of course, offers aid and comfort to the ever-dangerous Taliban.
A: Such is the deadly circle of terror.
Q: Is Belgium a threat?

Pep Bonet

While perusing the web site of the Eugene Smith fund, I stumbled across these amazing photographs by Pep Bonet of young men in Sierra Leone who had lost legs in the war but refused to be defeated by their loss.

He wrote of this work,
I first went there a year after the peace agreement was signed, to produce a photo essay of "Faith" for the World Press Photo Masterclass. I hooked up with groups of kids who were the most affected by the war, but who had emerged as the strongest. Young people who were amputated and blinded bouncing back to demand the chances that were stolen from them. Former child soldiers, not long before members of rebel gangs, now transforming themselves into proper police and security forces. Even kids who lost their minds in the war and living in a mental home, succeeding to return to the world of the sane.

Lu Guang, Pollution in China

Chinese photographer Lu Guang has just won a grant from the W. Eugene Smith Fund for his work documenting the effects of pollution in China. The NY Times has a slide show.

I didn't travel to the worst of China's cities, but I did experience the yellow haze of Beijing, which made it hard to get a clear photograph of the street from my 15th-floor hotel window, and I saw the Yangtze River turned into a gigantic barge port, lined with piles of sand, gravel and coal that stretched for miles.

Modernity is purchased at a high cost.

We Are Creating the Enemy

Robert Pape observes in the NY Times that the more troops we send to Afghanistan, and the more bombs we drop, the more people join the Taliban and the more suicide bombers step forward:

Then, in 2005, the United States and NATO began to systematically extend their military presence across Afghanistan. The goals were to defeat the tiny insurgency that did exist at the time, eradicate poppy crops and encourage local support for the central government. Western forces were deployed in all major regions, including the Pashtun areas in the south and east, and today have ballooned to more than 100,000 troops.

As Western occupation grew, the use of the two most worrisome forms of terrorism in Afghanistan — suicide attacks and homemade bombs — escalated in parallel. There were no recorded suicide attacks in Afghanistan before 2001. According to data I have collected, in the immediate aftermath of America’s conquest, the nation experienced only a small number: none in 2002, two in 2003, five in 2004 and nine in 2005.

But in 2006, suicide attacks began to increase by an order of magnitude — with 97 in 2006, 142 in 2007, 148 in 2008 and more than 60 in the first half of 2009. Moreover, the overwhelming percentage of the suicide attacks (80 percent) has been against United States and allied troops or their bases rather than Afghan civilians, and nearly all (95 percent) carried out by Afghans.
You know, people hate for their countries to be occupied by foreign troops, and they hate it when their neighbors and relations become the victims of "collateral damage" caused by foreigners' bombs. The best thing we could do to help the situation in Afghanistan is pull our troops out.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Nice Little Find

A spear point from one of our sites near Williamsport, probably about 2500 years old. I was quite pleased.

Rubens the Spy

Proof that men with good taste in women lead more exciting lives.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Lunacy of "Zero Tolerance"

From the NY Times, the latest outrage to spring from the insane fad for "zero tolerance" policies in schools:
Zachary’s offense? Taking a camping utensil that can serve as a knife, fork and spoon to school. He was so excited about recently joining the Cub Scouts that he wanted to use it at lunch. School officials concluded that he had violated their zero-tolerance policy on weapons, and Zachary was suspended and now faces 45 days in the district’s reform school.
A six-year-old child, suspended for 45 days for carrying his multi-purpose tool to school. And this is supposed to prevent future Columbine-style shootings?

This whole business grows from a suspicion that somewhere, somehow, somebody is encouraging delinquency by not being tough enough. We have to have minimum sentencing guidelines because judges aren't tough enough. We have to have "three strikes" laws because otherwise we might coddle repeat offenders. And we need "zero tolerance" rules in schools because otherwise soft-hearted teachers and principles might smile and say "tut-tut" to a kid who brings a knife to school, and the next thing you know the whole school is overrun by violent gangs.
Still, some school administrators argue that it is difficult to distinguish innocent pranks and mistakes from more serious threats, and that the policies must be strict to protect students.
Because, see, school principals are complete morons who can't tell the difference between a six-year-old who just joined the Cub Scouts and troubled kid looking for a fight.

I suppose there is also the "do something" phenomenon, that is, school administrators feel like that they have to have an answer to the question, "what have you done to make our schools safer?" But they think up some creative lies instead of burdening us with this kind of crap?

I do understand that there are issues about fairness, and I know some schools adopted stricter guidelines when they found that black kids were suspended more often than white kids for the same offenses. But that is not a good enough reason to remove human judgment from the equation, because without some element of judgment, we get lunacy. Suspending good kids from school is not only harmful and stupid, it feeds the belief that government is some kind of out of control monster. And that hurts everybody but Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Museum Problem

Travel and Leisure has come out with a rather strange list of the "world's coolest buildings." Of course, one of them is Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, and it's pretty hard to argue with this building's designation as "cool." Whether it is a good museum, or even more a good model for other museums, is another question:
The first glimpse of Guggenheim Bilbao’s rippling titanium walls in 1997 was a game-changer. Never again would paintings be displayed in humdrum hallways.
But "humdrum hallways" are good places to look at paintings, and bizarre spaces full of curving titanium surfaces are not. Is an art museum supposed to be a place to look at lots of art by many artists, or a single giant work of sculpture?

And then, in a comment on the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, the other problem with recent museums:
Packed with 1,200 years of sextants, silk carpets, and elaborately detailed pitchers, the Museum of Islamic Art dedicates only 10 percent of its space to galleries. Much else is left open, like a soaring 164-foot central atrium topped with a tiny round skylight that evokes the Cairo mosque on which the stone building was modeled.
The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC has this same problem, that only 10 percent or so of its space is devoted to galleries. Which may make for cool architecture but is very frustrating for people who actually want to look at objects. The museum is controversial for the content of some of its exhibits, but none of the exhibits bothered me so much as the huge waste of space.

(Note to my children's teachers, who insist that they learn to say "Native Americans": notice that this institution, planned, run, and designed by Indians, is called the Museum of the American Indian. I have never met an actual Indian who wanted to be called a Native American, and I work with Indians all the time. "Native Americans" is a bit of white liberal claptrap.)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Guantanamo Update

Just a note here that the Obama administration is acting rather strangely in regards to the Guantanamo detainees. They are allowing habeas corpus trials to go forward, which I guess is a good thing, but on the other hand their attorneys are still taking the position of the Bush administration, that is, they are opposing all releases. So far 38 cases have been tried, and the judges, almost all of them Bush appointees, have found that there are no grounds whatsoever for holding 30 of the 38. The worst of the worst, indeed. The Obama administration is still refusing to allow any discussion of the methods used to obtain the evidence they introduce, and we know that much of it comes from torture. They are still holding very tightly to the hedge of "state secrets" the Bush people created to shield their crimes.

I think they are doing this from a desire to retain control of the situation. Obama thinks it should be up to him to decide which Bush officials should be prosecuted for wrongdoing, and when. But once federal judges get their hands on the secret evidence of torture and lies, they could order their own investigations, as the judge in the Moussavi case ordered the investigation of why the videotapes of interrogations were destroyed.

I can't say I am surprised at the generally cautious way Obama has approached all of these matters -- they are very explosive, and he seems to be a cautious man -- but I am a little disappointed.

A Republic, if You Can Keep It

When Benjamin Franklin emerged from the Constitutional Convention, according to an old story, an onlooker asked him what kind of government the delegates had created. He answered, "a Republic, if you can keep it."

This has been on my mind lately because of the situation in Afghanistan. We have spent hundreds of billions of dollars creating an Afghan republic, but in the long run we cannot keep it. Only the Afghans can do that. I think it is long past time we said to the Afghans what Franklin said to his fellow Americans -- our part is done, and now it is up to you.

Where the Wild Things Are

The approaching movie version of Where the Wild Things Are has a lot of people thinking and writing about the original. In the NY Times, Bruce Handy notes that while he loves the book now, he didn't much care for it as a child and neither of his children likes it, either.
What an empowering, psychologically astute parable about a child learning that his anger, while sometimes overwhelming and scary, can be safely expressed and eventually conquered, I thought, when I had occasion to reread the book in my 30s. But as a child myself, without benefit of personal insights subsequently gleaned from more than a decade of talk therapy, I had been left cold. . . .
I loved it as a child and still love it. I think it was my favorite picture book from the time I first read it, and it certainly is now. I know no story more powerfully magical. Only one of my children has loved it, though, my second son Thomas. The others actively resisted my attempts to reread it. This gives me an idea about why some kids like it more than others. Of my children, only Thomas shares my intense love of fantasy. He likes nothing better than to disappear into an imagined world full of magic and monsters. His favorite book is The Hobbit, he has watched all of the Lord of the Rings movies at least a dozen times, he has seen every episode of Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he has worn out our copy of Oblivion, the XBox game that is most like a Dungeons and Dragons adventure. So I think that Thomas loves Where the Wild Things Are for the same reason I did: because the hero Max finds a magical world of adventure in his own bedroom and sails to a land of wonder and back without even missing dinner. Now I get the parable about anger that Handy describes, but I'm not sure I did as a child. And I would say that as in a fairy tale or one of Aesop's fables, the moral lesson gives structure to the story but does not account for its appeal. The appeal is in the magic, and in the flow of words that tumble by like the ocean with its private boat, leading us away to a place of wonders.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Fall Flowers

The cosmos that survived Thursday's windstorm have finally come into full bloom.

These are my semi-wild mums, which somehow replaced the pincushion garden center mums I planted in these beds years ago. I love these hardy little monsters.


A while back, General Stanley McChrystal gave a speech that created a little flap about whether he was putting too much pressure on the President to endorse his strategy. Less noticed, but called out here by Joe Klein, was his assessment of how difficult it is going to be to defeat the Taliban:
He gave two examples. The first was digging a well: "How could you do anything wrong by digging a well to give people clean water?" Well, you could create new enemies by where you dug the well and who controlled it. You could lose a village by trying to help it. And then there was the matter of what he called COIN mathematics. If there are 10 Taliban and you kill two, how many do you have left? Eight, perhaps. Or there might be two, because six of the remaining eight decide it's just not worth fighting anymore. Or you might have 20 because the brothers and cousins of the two dead fighters decide to take vengeance. "When I am asked what approach we should take in Afghanistan," General Stanley McChrystal concluded, "I say humility."
But sending 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan isn't humility, it's hubris. We cannot, and I say absolutely cannot no matter how many troops we send, turn Afghanistan into some kind of model democratic state. It's a fairy tale. We may, if we hang around long enough, see a decline in violence for a while, but then few wars stay hot continuously for a decade. We cannot resolve the underlying conflicts. We should be focusing all our attention on getting out as fast as possible.

Friday, October 9, 2009

More is Not Better

From an excellent NPR story on the puzzling regional variations in health care; there are adjacent towns with similar populations in which some medical procedures are performed five times as often in one as in the other. And more procedures does not lead to better care:

A couple of years ago Keller and some colleagues did an elegant study of one kind of back surgery in Maine, a procedure called discectomy. Keller found communities in Maine that had high rates of this surgery, communities with low rates, and communities that were somewhere in the middle. Then he followed patients who had had surgery in those communities over a five-year period to see how they fared. Keller says the conclusion was undeniable.

"In the high rate of surgery overall, the patient outcomes were the least good of those three categories. In the middle rates, the outcomes of the patients were in the middle. And in the low-rate areas — less frequent operations per capita — the outcomes were the best."

The reason that areas with more back surgery did worse, Keller says, is that doctors in those areas were operating on people whose issues were less severe; that is, patients who might not have been good candidates for an operation. So the problems associated with the surgery probably outweighed the problems of their actual sickness. For them, more wasn't better.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

White House Art

Every new first couple gets to redecorate the White House with pieces that government museums own but don't have on display, and I am sad to report that the Obamas have made some atrocious choices, like this field of blue blotches by Alma Thomas. The thing looks like a magic eye stereogram, but it isn't.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Soccer Sisters

Behind the line of grownups watching the boys play soccer, the girls make friends.

Undulatus Asperatus

Meteorologists are considering defining a new type of cloud, Asperatus. They sure look cool.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Tragic Humanism

Terry Eagleton:

The distinction between Hitchens or Dawkins and those like myself comes down in the end to one between liberal humanism and tragic humanism. There are those who hold that if we can only shake off a poisonous legacy of myth and superstition, we can be free. Such a hope in my own view is itself a myth, though a generous-spirited one. Tragic humanism shares liberal humanism’s vision of the free flourishing of humanity, but holds that attaining it is possible only by confronting the very worst.

The only affirmation of humanity ultimately worth having is one that, like the disillusioned post-Restoration Milton, seriously wonders whether humanity is worth saving in the first place, and understands Swift’s king of Brobdingnag with his vision of the human species as an odious race of vermin. Tragic humanism, whether in its socialist, Christian, or psychoanalytic varieties, holds that only by a process of self-dispossession and radical remaking can humanity come into its own. There are no guarantees that such a transfigured future will ever be born. But it might arrive a little earlier if liberal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag-wavers for Progress, and Islamophobic intellectuals got out of its way.

Knowing vs. Knowing

The British Psychological Society asked a bunch of psychologists to describe "one nagging thing they still don't understand about themselves." Many of the responses are like these:
David Buss: One nagging thing that I still don’t understand about myself is why I often succumb to well-documented psychological biases, even though I’m acutely aware of these biases. One example is my failure at affective forecasting, such as believing that I will be happy for a long time after some accomplishment (e.g. publishing a new book), when in fact the happiness dissipates more quickly than anticipated.

Norbert Schwartz: One nagging thing I don’t understand about myself is why I’m still fooled by incidental feelings. Some 25 years ago Jerry Clore and I studied how gloomy weather makes one’s whole life look bad -- unless one becomes aware of the weather and attributes one’s gloomy mood to the gloomy sky, which eliminates the influence. You’d think I learned that lesson and now know how to deal with gloomy skies. I don’t, they still get me.
In other words, being an expert in how the mind works doesn't help much in making your own mind work better.

Advice for Doctors, Nurses, and the Rest of Us

"When in doubt, be human."

--Dr. Alfred Shulman


Theodore Dalrymple, former prison doctor and now professional curmudgeon, confesses to his love of indignation:
I once had a patient who had had the words ‘Fuck off’ tattooed on his forehead in mirror writing. When I asked him for the reason for this, he said that it was to wake him up in the morning when he looked at himself in the glass. It never failed, he said.

Newspapers perform more or less the same function for me. There is always something in them to irritate me profoundly, and there is nothing quite like irritation to get the juices circulating and the mind working. . . .

Whenever I am in France, I read the French newspapers. There is always plenty in them to infuriate me, and so they are well worth the reading; for it must be confessed that indignation is one of the most rewarding of all emotions, as well as one that automatically gives meaning to life. When one is indignant, one does not wonder what life is for or about, the immensity of the universe does not trouble one, and the profound and unanswerable questions of the metaphysics of morals are held temporarily in abeyance.

I used to share this sentiment. I used to read things that I knew would offend me, seeking offense, and of course I found it. I reveled in intellectual condescension, moral superiority, and social snobbery. The pronouncements of idiots delighted me, and the actions of trashy people made me laugh.

I decided, though, that the whole business was at best a waste of energy and possibly a real danger to my soul. I now believe that a taste for indignation corrupts our judgment, and easy condemnation of others corrodes our morals. The root of any true morality is compassion, coupled to a sense of our own weakness. Not that I don't have opinions -- as anyone who reads this blog knows, I have a great many. I believe firmly that many ideas are stupid and many actions wrong. But I do not think that anger, mockery, or scorn are the right responses to human foibles.

And, honestly, I do not find that giving up the pleasure of indignation makes me less happy. I find, instead, that compassion releases me from anger, and that letting go of anger makes me much more pleased with myself and the world. To go about in a state of fury may have sharpened my wits for debate, but the price was constant tension and outbursts of anger and gloom. For me, at least, the Buddha was right: the way to happiness is compassion. I believe that indignation is something like bacon, or whiskey. A little may make you smile, but too much for too long and you have ruined your body, or your life.