Wednesday, April 30, 2014

NASA's New Z-2 Spacesuit

NASA has unveiled the design for their new spacesuit, the Z-2. Not that NASA has any actual plans to land astronauts anywhere they would need spacesuits, but just in case. . . .

They actually had an online vote to pick one of three competing (but very similar) designs, and this one was the winner.
So, like great, but when are we sending people to another planet, huh? When?

How Barn Owls are Like Henry VIII

They divorce when the breeding isn't successful.

Celebrating the Umbrella

Seems like a good day for it.

The Chameleon Vine

A woody vine called Boquila trifoliolata can transform its leaves to copy a variety of host trees, the first case of such mimicry observed in the plant world:
Native to Chile and Argentina, B. trifoliolata is the first plant shown to imitate several hosts. It is a rare quality—known as a mimetic polymorphism—that was previously observed only in butterflies, according to this study, published today in Current Biology. When the vine climbs onto a tree’s branches, its versatile leaves (inset) can change their size, shape, color, orientation, and even the vein patterns to match the surrounding foliage (middle panel; the red arrow points to the vine, while the blue arrow indicates the host plant). If the vine crosses over to a second tree, it changes, even if the new host leaves are 10 times bigger with a contrasting shape (right panel). The deceit serves as a defense against plant-eating herbivores like weevils and leaf beetles, according the researchers.
No clue yet as to how the plant does this, but it is more likely to be something it senses in the genes of the host plant than an ability to sense directly what other leaves look like.

Why We Need Old Books

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions.

We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, ‘But how could they have thought that?’ – lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H.G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.

– C.S. Lewis, in his introduction to Saint Athanasius’ On the Incarnation.
Via Andrew Sullivan

Progressive Artists Turn on Obama

Artists in all media from action movies to performance pieces are attacking the President's fondness for drone warfare, assassination and surveillance:
“We were trying to find a bridge to the same sort of questions that Barack Obama has to address,” said Joe Russo, who with his brother, Anthony, directed Captain America: The Winter Soldier. “If you’re saying with a drone strike, we can eradicate an enemy of the state, what if you say with 100 drone strikes, we can eradicate 100? With 1,000, we can eradicate 1,000? At what point do you stop?” . . .

After inheriting a post-Sept. 11 surveillance state and security apparatus from President George W. Bush, Mr. Obama pulled back in some areas and expanded others. Artists have focused particularly on the N.S.A. spying revelations disclosed by Edward J. Snowden and the president’s “kill list” of terrorists targeted by drones.

“The drone wars are really one of Obama’s signature foreign policies,” said Trevor Paglen, a photographer whose fuzzy images of flying drones are exhibited in galleries around the world. “We are living in a moment that’s characterized by this mass surveillance. I think art can help us call attention to certain things. It can help contribute to the cultural vocabulary that we use.”
The Newark Public Library set off a controversy back in 2012 when they exhibited a drawing of Obama as drone warrior in chief with the title, The moral arc of history ideally bends towards justice but just as soon as not curves back around toward barbarism, sadism, and unrestrained chaos.

I think this is very healthy, although it bodes ill for the Democratic Party. Legions of young people got excited in 2006-2008 about the possibility of dramatically changing America, and Obama's “Hope and Change” campaign captured their imaginations. But as is always the way in democracies, those radical hopes have faded. Obama has cut back on torture and invasion but accelerated the use of drones and other assassination techniques, and he has kept the surveillance state humming along. His obsession with secrecy rivals Dick Cheney's. Because of Congressional opposition, he has not been able to do very much to jumpstart the economy or fight youth unemployment. As a result, his voters are entering the midterms frustrated, uninspired, and much less likely than his energized opponents to head to the polls.

Obama's most important accomplishment in domestic policy, the Affordable Care Act, is another one of the compromised, bureaucratic half-measures that infuriate radicals in the first place. Some of them understand that it was the best he could do, but it's fair to say that few people find the ACA inspirational. Obama's most important actions in foreign policy (I think) have been not doing things: not attacking Iran, not getting involved in the Syrian civil war, not recommitting to Afghanistan or Iraq. But that, again, isn't very inspirational, and his frequent use of drones undercuts his support among the anti-war crowd.

The reality is that Americans are too closely divided, and too confused in their own minds, for either conservatives or liberals to enact their real vision. Most Americans support all the things in the Affordable Care Act but oppose Obamacare; they want us to "project strength" abroad but not take any casualties or hand out any foreign aid; they want the government to be pro-family, pro-child, and pro-farmer, to improve education and create jobs, but to restrain spending and stay out of people's lives. This is a recipe for gridlock, and the sort of situation in which wealthy insiders can shape particular policies for their own benefit while the rest of us make do with compromised, bureaucratic half measures.

That, my friends, is our democracy, and it will go on like that until a majority of the people insist that it be something else.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Thomas Moran's Grand Canyon for Sale

The Grand Canyon of the Colorado by Thomas Moran, 1904, up for auction at Christie's with an estimate of $10 million.


Exquisitely preserved specimen from the Burgess Shale, c. 510 million years old.

Buddhism, Neuroscience, and the Weakening of the Self

Modern neuro-psychology is dubious of the self as a consistent, important thing. Instead, scientists these days tend to see the self as a bundle of separate modules doing different tasks, mainly in response to outside stimuli: "many contemporary cognitive scientists and philosophers have either rejected the view that there is such a self, or have defended some variety of a minimalist conception of the self." One key insight at the root of this thinking is that whether people behave morally (as we see it) depends more on their circumstances than anything intrinsic to their characters; if everybody else is cheating, most people will cheat.

That was by way of background to these fascinating comments on Buddhism from Jay Garfield:
Buddhist doctrine regarding the nature of reality generally focuses on three principal characteristics of things. The first idea is that all phenomena are impermanent and constantly changing, despite the fact that we engage with them as though they are permanent; the second is that they are interdependent, although we engage with them as though they are independent; the third is that they are without any intrinsic identity, although we treat ourselves and other objects as though they have intrinsic identities.
This skepticism about the independent reality of things extends to the self:
A strong sense of self — of one’s own substantial reality, uniqueness and independence of others — may not be psychologically or morally healthy. It can lead to egoism, to narcissism and to a lack of care for others. So the modern emphasis on individuality you mention might not be such a good thing. We might all be better off if we each took ourselves less seriously as selves. That may be one of the most important Buddhist critiques of modernity and contributions to post-modernity.

More positively, the Buddhist tradition encourages us to see ourselves as impermanent, interdependent individuals, linked to one another and to our world through shared commitments to achieving an understanding of our lives and a reduction of suffering. It encourages us to rethink egoism and to consider an orientation to the world characterized by care and joint responsibility. That can’t be a bad thing.
I should note that western Buddhists have a habit of greeting each new wave of scientific thought with "Buddhism already teaches that!" But Buddhism certainly does teach detachment from the concerns that take up most of our conscious minds from day to day, and Buddhist practice is supposed to weaken egotism.

I find this thinking deeply appealing. To obsess about our own successes and failures is to miss something crucial about the universe. We are what we are; we were made more than we have made ourselves. Neither our successes nor our failures are entirely our own, but more the universe acting through us. We are connected to people and things around us, to the cultures we were raised in and the nations that rule us. Indeed in a powerful sense we are those connections. Pluck us out of time and place and we would be someone else, with other worries and other dreams.

Considered from the point of view of any single person, live is full of pain and ends in death. But the universe as a whole is a miracle beyond our comprehension; even the small world of our own houses and neighborhoods contains more wonders than we could ever count. For me, the only answer to the worries of life is to spread ourselves out, so that instead of filling up with our own troubles we make room for discovery, wonder, and compassion for others.

Stay Out of the Hospital

The horrific story of a deadly fungal infection at Children's Hospital in New Orleans:
The first victim was a premature boy in the intensive care unit whose mother noticed a mysterious irritation in his groin; it grew into an open wound burrowing into the baby’s abdomen. The last patient to die was a 10-year-old girl, whose face was ravaged.

Three other patients at Children’s Hospital here were also stricken, including a 13-year-old boy who his parents said endured over 20 surgical procedures in 54 days in a futile effort to save him. . . .

The children died of various causes between August 2008 and July 2009 during an outbreak of a flesh-eating fungal infection, mucormycosis, most likely spread by bed linens, towels or gowns, according to a medical journal. The disclosure this month caused new pain for the families of the children and raised troubling questions about how the infections came about, why doctors did not connect the cases until more than 10 months after the first death, and what obligation the hospital had to inform parents — and the community — of the outbreak.
Those questions take on greater urgency, experts say, because deadly fungal infections, while still rare, appear to be on the rise nationwide.
And just to remind you of what dangerous places hospitals are:
An estimated 75,000 patients with infections picked up in health care facilities die in hospitals each year, according to figures released last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Another Variable You Forgot to Take into Account

Rats and mice show increased stress levels when handled by men rather than women, potentially skewing study results.

The Corona Atlas of the Middle East

No, not the beer, the old spy satellite. Corona was our front-line space surveillance program in the era of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Thousands of old Corona images have now been declassified, and archaeologists love them. They are no better than today's commercial imagery, but they were shot in the early 1960s when cities and towns in the Middle East were much smaller than they are now and there were fewer modern roads, railroads and so on mucking up the landscape. As a result they preserve many now-obscured features. Above, Tell Rifaat in Syria, now half covered with modern houses.

The compilers of the Corona Atlas of the Middle East report that they have already discovered two new Bronze Age cities. Above, the Assyrian palace complex of Khorsabad.

But even more than the prospect of finding new cities -- after all, we already know about far more Bronze Age cities in that part of the world than we could afford to excavate -- what excites archaeologists is the opportunity to explore lost landscapes:
"Some of these sites are gigantic, and they were completely unknown," says atlas-team archaeologist Jesse Casana of the University of Arkansas, who presented the results. "We can see all kinds of things—ancient roads and canals. The images provide a very comprehensive picture." The team had started with a list of roughly 4,500 known archaeological sites across the Middle East, says Casana. The spy-satellite images revealed another 10,000 that had previously been unknown. . . .

But, says Casana, "it's not just new places to excavate. We have a real way with all these sites to look across the whole Middle East and see how it was connected."
Above, Palmyra.

War is Hell, Continued

I wrote a few months ago about recent U.S. Army studies showing the ruinous effects of prolonged combat on mental health. But this is no new discovery. Rick Atkinson offered these thoughts about the problem of combat fatigue in the U.S. Army during World War II:
The brutal fighting, oppressive conditions, and recognition that the war was far from over took a profound psychic toll, not least among troops said to be “ghosted,” haunted by the memory of dead comrades. “Each moment of combat imposes a strain so great that men will break down in direct relation to the intensity and duration of their exposure,” the theater surgeon general told Eisenhower. “Thus psychiatric casualties are as inevitable as gunshot and shrapnel wounds in warfare.”

Those evacuated from the front with combat exhaustion . . . were said to be “going back to the kitchen.” So many thousands now headed to the kitchen that SHAEF censors banned disclosure of their numbers; the public would not know that the U.S. Army alone hospitalized 929,000 men for “neuropsychiatric” reasons during World War II, including one in four admissions during the bitter fall of 1944. “I can’t take much more of this fighting because it is getting the best of me,” an infantryman wrote to his family. “This nerve business I’ve been trying to cover up from my own men, but I’m sure they have noticed it because I’ve noticed it in some of them.”

. . . But neither competent treatment nor all the Blue 88s [sodium amytal] in Europe could efface war’s capacity to fracture men’s psyches. “Between the physical fear of going forward and the moral fear of turning back, there is a predicament of exceptional awkwardness,” an American Civil War veteran had once observed, and that dilemma still obtained. Lieutenant Paul Fussell, who would narrowly survive the war to become one of its shrewdest expositors, believed that “after five months of combat duty, a frontline officer is used up, neurasthenic beyond saving.” Most experts concluded that soldiers wore out for good after 200 to 240 days of battle, although two psychologists monitoring the advance into Germany posited that a GI’s combat skills began to decline after a month of fighting, with many “close to a vegetative state” after forty-five days.
Atkinson also quotes an army chaplain as saying that “sound mental health requires a satisfactory life purpose and faith in a friendly universe.” What soldier in a brutal war could maintain that faith?

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Hugh Trevor-Roper on Religion

Very much a skeptic -- he once called Catholicism ‘sinister unintelligible babble’ --historian Hugh Trevor-Roper nonetheless remained a member of the Church of England and refused to support a younger colleague who publicly proclaimed himself an atheist:
I will not join you as a ‘solid atheist’…Who are we, …sitting in academic insulation, with security of tenure and three meals a day, to despise the consolatory fantasies of suffering humanity, especially when those fantasies have produced heroic poetry, towering cathedrals, real saints, great conquests and memorable crimes, while we can only pick holes in each others’ theses. No, I find ‘solid atheism’ too mean and cold a system with which to challenge the wonderful organisation of the world.

Wedge Issues and Helping the People

Having health insurance is good for you. There is great deal of debate about whether it makes people much healthier, or adds many years to your life, but some studies have found big effects. Nobody disputes, though, that having health insurance reduces the amount of stress poor people face. And cumulative stress, as I have written here many times, is pretty much the defining misery of poverty in America -- the recent Oregon study of people who did or did not get Medicaid in a state lottery found a significant reduction in depression among those who were able to join. Health insurance also reduces the rate of personal bankruptcy. Even more, government subsidized health insurance makes it possible for hospitals and doctors to function in the poor parts of the country; there are places where more than 80% of hospital revenue comes from Medicare and Medicaid. So, anyway, I count the expansion of health insurance as a generally good thing. The Affordable Care Act is expanding health insurance coverage in America, but not as much as it might be. One reason it is not working as well as it could is vitriolic attacks from Republicans and their allies:
“The controversy about Obamacare does seem to have interfered with people’s ability to sort out the value of the marketplace for getting health insurance for themselves,” said Dr. James B. Becker, associate professor of the Marshall University School of Medicine and medical director of the state’s Medicaid program.

Other problems stymied the introduction of the law, notably the initially dysfunctional federal website. But the political polarization “complicates our efforts to enroll people and to educate people about the Affordable Care Act, there’s no question,” said Perry Bryant, head of the advocacy group West Virginians for Affordable Health Care, based in Charleston, the capital.

“Literally, people thought there would be chips embedded in their bodies if they signed up for Obamacare,” Mr. Bryant said. . . . at a branch of the Shenandoah Valley Medical System in Martinsburg, Sara R. Koontz, a social worker, said she had heard people express fears about chip implants as well as “death panels” as she sought to enroll uninsured residents. Some told her that they would rather pay a penalty than sign up for insurance, she said, and even people who did enroll paused in their excitement to ask, “Wait — this isn’t that Obamacare, is it?”
The people spreading these lies have a lot to answer for.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Archaeology in Patterson Park: Halfway Done

I spent most of today in Patterson Park again, helping my crew and our volunteers keep looking for the 1814 earthworks. This is proving to be more of a challenge than we thought a week ago. I spent my day in the south trench, which you can see above in the early morning light. We thought we had found the fortification ditch here last week, but that turned out to be a brick-lined drain dating to around 1900. (Hence the bricks piled around the trench.) We had to dig two feet deeper to reach what we hope is the top of the actual 1814 ditch. But we are now 4 feet down and can't take the trench any deeper for safety reasons, so we will try to verify that the ditch is what we think by digging a couple of shovel tests in the trench floor.

I did a fair amount of digging myself today, for the first time in months.

The scene at the north trench, under the pink puffballs of the ornamental cherries, where they think they can see the fortification ditch in the trench profile.

And they found this musket ball.

Back in the southern trench, young volunteers screen and Emily lures some bike riders to stop for a while and help.

Meanwhile a big Baltimore Hispanic festival called Dia del Nino was unfolding around us, and the park filled up with Hispanic families by the thousands. These young dancers were right in front of the Pagoda.

This picture gives an idea of the crowds around the northern trench.

Emily commands her trench.

The pagoda was open all day for the festival, so I climbed up to see what I could see. I like this image because you can see our trench, the harbor, and beyond the harbor, just above the golden domes of the church, Fort McHenry; if you enlarge the photo you can see the clump of trees that surrounds it. The earthworks ran all the way to the harbor.

So now we have used up two weeks of our allotted four, and I would like to do so much more.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Freedom, Technology, Revolution and Reform

Interesting interview with Astra Taylor, a sort of cutting edge techie thinker who was heavily involved in the Occupy movement:
I think that a lot of us are libertarians. Libertarianism is the default ideology of our day because there’s something deeply appealing about the idea of free agents—people on their own in charge of their own destinies. That has to do with the retreat of institutions from our lives, which results in an inability to imagine a positive role for them to play. We’re still dependent on institutions; we just don’t recognize it or give them much credit.

This ubiquitous libertarianism, particularly in tech circles, was a major target of my book. All of these things you want these tools to bring about—an egalitarian sphere, a sphere where the best could rise to the top, one that is not dominated by old Goliaths—within the libertarian framework, you’ll never get there. You have to have a more productive economic critique.

But I also think that if you’re on the left, you need to recognize what’s appealing about libertarianism. It’s the emphasis on freedom. We need to articulate a left politics that has freedom at its center. We can’t be afraid of freedom or individuality, and we need to challenge the idea that equality and freedom are somehow contradictions.

At the same time, even on the radical left, there’s a knee-jerk suspicion of institutions. When we criticize institutions that serve as buffers or bastions against market forces, the right wins out more. It’s a complicated thing.

When I defend institutions in this book, I knew I might provoke my more radical friends. The position that everything is corrupt—journalism is corrupt, educational institutions are corrupt, publishers are corrupt—sounds great. And on some level it’s true. They’ve disappointed us. But we need more and better—more robust, more accountable—institutions. So I tried to move out of the position of just criticizing those arrangements and enumerating all their flaws and all the ways they’ve failed us. What happens when we’ve burned all these institutions to the ground and it’s just us and Google?
Which is pretty much what I think. Libertarians and anarchists have a powerful critique of our flawed institutions, but no realistic plan for making things better. I believe, as I think Taylor does, that only through the democratic process can the mass of people force significant social change. The power of money is too great for a lot of ordinary people to just get together and create a free, just society. I also agree that to be appealing, the left has to make freedom its central theme. It interested me that although Taylor can be so scathing about existing economic arrangements, she is deeply suspicious of revolution:
It’s actually harder to think of a revolutionary event that has had a positive outcome, whereas there have been lots of reforms and lots of things that people have done on the edges that have had powerful consequences.
This set me thinking; I don't think it is literally true that no revolutionary event has a positive outcome, although that would depend on how you define "revolutionary event." But it certainly is interesting that the rhetoric of revolution, so appealing to radicals for most of the past 250 years, now provokes mostly suspicion on the left.

Modern Steel

Interesting promotional video on a modern American steel plant. As one might expect, it is in Mississippi and owned by Russian billionaires. And note that no iron ore or coal is involved; the feed consists entirely of scrap, and the power is electric. I was impressed by how pyrotechnic the process still is, with giant fountains of sparks, and by how few workers you can see in the plant.

Steve McCurry in Afghanistan

A wonderful slideshow at Yahoo. Above, Kuchi nomads at evening prayers, 1992.

The Hazrat Ali Mosque in Mazar i Sharif, 1992.

Mujahadeen in the Hindu Kush, 1985.

Farmer on a winding path, 2006. Many more here. Some of McCurry's most famous images here.

The Magistrates' Revolt

Fascinating article in the Post about a movement to protect civil liberties by federal magistrates:
Judges at the lowest levels of the federal judiciary are balking at sweeping requests by law enforcement officials for cellphone and other sensitive personal data, declaring the demands overly broad and at odds with basic constitutional rights.

This rising assertiveness by magistrate judges — the worker bees of the federal court system — has produced rulings that elate civil libertarians and frustrate investigators, forcing them to meet or challenge tighter rules for collecting electronic evidence.

Among the most aggressive opinions have come from D.C. Magistrate Judge John M. Facciola, a bow-tied court veteran who in recent months has blocked wide-ranging access to the Facebook page of Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis and the iPhone of the Georgetown University student accused of making ricin in his dorm room. In another case, he deemed a law enforcement request for the entire contents of an e-mail account “repugnant” to the U.S. Constitution.

For these and other cases, Facciola has demanded more focused searches and insisted that authorities delete collected data that prove unrelated to a current investigation rather than keep them on file for unspecified future use. He also has taken the unusual step, for a magistrate judge, of issuing a series of formal, written opinions that detail his concerns, even about previously secret government investigations.

“For the sixth time,” Facciola wrote testily, using italics in a ruling this month, “this Court must be clear: if the government seizes data it knows is outside the scope of the warrant, it must either destroy the data or return it. It cannot simply keep it.”
The Justice Department is appealing these rulings and some have been overturned, but I can't help but thinking that this movement is an important sign for the future. More and more people, from Tea Party activists to Federal judges, are becoming nervous about government spying and demanding limits. If we keep up the pressure, eventually the arc will bend back toward freedom.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Museum for the Memory of Ustica

On June 27, 1980, an Aerolinee Itavia DC-9 took off from Bologna in Italy, headed for Palermo in Sicily with 81 people on board. fifty-one minutes later it disappeared from radar screens. A few hours later, wreckage from the plane was spotted in the Tyrrhenian Sea near the island of Ustica.

The investigators figured out fairly quickly that the plane had blown up in midair. But why? The government initially blamed a bomb placed by Red Brigades terrorists. As always in Italy there were plenty of conspiracy theories, which got a big push during the famous "maxi trials" of mafiosi, when two Sicilian hit men claimed to have shot down the plane on the orders of former premier Aldo Moro. He wanted a dramatic pretext for a new crackdown on the Red Brigades and their supporters, the hit men said. Another theory involves an aerial assassination attempt on Muammar Gaddafi:
Major sources in the Italian media have alleged over the years that the aircraft was shot down during a dog fight involving Libyan, United States, French and Italian Air Force fighters in an assassination attempt by NATO members on an important Libyan politician, maybe even the leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, who was flying in the same airspace that evening. This version was supported in particular by investigative magistrate Rosario Priore in 1999. Judge Priore said in his concluding report that his investigation had been deliberately obstructed by the Italian military and members of the secret service, in compliance with NATO requests. In April 1993, the General Yuri Salimov, the Russian intelligence services, revealed that he had followed the events of Ustica through a Russian radar based in Libya, through the use satellite was able to monitor the southern Tyrrhenian Sea, "I saw that U.S. missile strike in error the DC-9"
A few years ago an Italian court, reasoning that since all the anti-aircraft missiles in Italy are under government control, and no other source for such a weapon has ever seriously been suggested, ordered the government to pay compensation to the victims' families.

As part of the government's struggle to put this incident behind them they have paid for the painstaking reconstruction of the plane from thousands of pieces found in the sea. The recreated plane has now been installed in the Museum for the Memory of Ustica in Bologna, along with other exhibits:
An Italian artist was commissioned to create the permanent display which, in addition to the wreckage, contains 81 mirrors which hide speakers that project whispered messages. There are also 81 hanging bulbs which constantly flicker on and off. A number of personal items were also collected from the crash site and have been put into black boxes which allow them to be in the museum without having the personal effects being gaped at.
So if you really want a close-up look at airplane wreckage, or just love murky conspiracies, this might be the place for you.

Iran is Backing away from a Bomb

I long ago decided that Iran was going to make a nuclear bomb and we were going to have to live with it. But maybe not.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, confirmed last week that Iran had effectively eliminated that “second stage” of uranium enrichment, as required by the interim deal negotiated between Iran and the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China. And news reports over the weekend hinted that a second path to the bomb may be blocked as well. . . .

When Hassan Rouhani became president of Iran in June 2013, he stopped expanding Iran’s uranium enrichment capability. The interim deal the U.S. and other nations secured with Iran last November rolled it back, directly addressing Netanyahu’s main fear. Iran agreed not only to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent, but to get rid of all it had made.

That goal has now been effectively reached. The IAEA report last week confirms that Iran cut its stock of medium enriched uranium by three-quarters. It has completely diluted half its stock down to low enriched uranium, and it has converted half of the remaining amount into reactor fuel, all ahead of schedule. It would be extraordinarily difficult and time-consuming to reverse these processes.
In other words, the much derided interim agreement that Iran reached with the US and others seems to be working, and Iran really seems to be backing away from its bomb program. There is still a lot that could go wrong, and much of that depends on the murky politics of Iran's ruling clique. After all, Supreme Leader Khamenei has said several times that nuclear weapons are "un-Islamic" even while Iran seemed to be pursuing them with gusto, so there must be a lot to argue about even within the government.

If the government has changed its mind, I wonder why? Because of sanctions and isolation, or because many mullahs have decided that pushing ahead would lead to war? Was it the extended hand or the dagger behind our backs?

Tea Party Environmentalists

If there's one thing that unites populists of the left and the right, it's hatred of power companies. So the politics of rooftop solar panels, beloved by libertarians and hated by utilities, have created some strange bedfellows lately. Just this month a Tea Party-affiliated group known as TUSK has been able to reverse a win by the grid owner in Oklahoma that forced solar panel owners to pay a fee for attaching to the grid:
“Monopoly utilities want to extinguish the independent rooftop solar market in America to protect their socialist control of how we get our electricity,” blasts the website of Tell Utilities Solar Won’t Be Killed, known as TUSK for short. That’s not the type of rhetoric you expect conservatives to fire at the power industry. Then again, this isn’t your typical renewable energy advocacy group. While it works closely with some of the nation’s largest solar panel providers, TUSK is publicly led by Barry Goldwater Jr., the former Republican California congressman and the son of the GOP icon. . . .

TUSK and its conservative allies have repeatedly found success placing those utility-backed proposals within a free-market frame that speaks directly to conservatives. User fees are just another name for a new tax, argues Goldwater and his outfit; a change to the sale price is just another attempt by the government to limit individual choice, they say.
I find this very cheering. Utilities are one of the businesses that hate competition the most, and they see rooftop solar panels as a profound competitive threat. If the government doesn't force them to accommodate people who install their own panels (or windmills or fuel cells), they will find ways to destroy home-based power. And home-based power has certain great advantages when it comes to making renewable energy competitive: people donate their own land, the permitting process is much simpler, some people donate much of the labor, and various libertarians, grouchy populists, doomsday preppers, and others want to be energy independent badly enough that they will even pay a little more for power they control themselves. So let's hear it for TUSK and their nutcase allies, who are fighting for the planet even if they don't want to admit it.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Doesn't it make you wonder?

In the Times today, if you click next to a teaser reading Artisanal baking goes renegade, you are led to a story titled Against the Grain that seems to be about the human capacity to carry anything past the point of absurdity. We meet
a starter culture of obsessive, boundary-pushing bread makers in New York City and around the country. . . . Small independent bakers . . . . who are going to great lengths to approach an ideal of bread that is simultaneously cutting-edge and primordial.
Our “comrades in the revolutionary salt-flour-water brigade” include “a rogue wheat breeder who runs the Bread Lab, a Wonka-esque wonderland for crusty, airy-crumbed experimentation,” a baker who “wages a loving blitz upon the miche dough,” a mystic who managed at his publisher's urging to cut his bread recipe down to 38 pages -- and I suppose those were big cookbook pages, not little paperback pages -- and others who gather to “talk about reclaiming a mythic moment in human history when the staff of life had some genuine funk to it.”

These are people whose idea of heirloom grains is forms like einkorn not seen since the Iron Age, milled by Iron Age methods, allowed to ferment for weeks, cooked for double or triple the normal time, resulting in a loaf that
looks more like something that might have been used as a shield in a Stone Age skirmish.
Truly we are a fascinating species.

Wind Turbines Don't Kill Many Birds

The perception has put down roots among bird-loving people that wind turbines kill birds. Reaction over twitter to the announcement of a new wind-power facility is likely to be, "How many bats and birds will they slaughter this year?" This sort of thinking has consequences, too. The U.S. Interior Department has taken a go-slow approach to wind turbines for decades, largely because of fears about birds. And this:
An expansion of the world's largest offshore wind farm was recently scrapped after the U.K. would have required a three-year bird study.
But it is far from certain that wind turbines really have much impact on bird populations. The latest major study on the impact in the US offered a range of 20,000 to 573,000 birds per year, which might be the widest margin of error I've ever seen in a published study. But by way of comparison, more than a million birds are killed every year by tall buildings in Toronto, Canada alone; the total impact of skyscrapers across North America is in the billions. The chart above presents data from the U.S. Forest Service showing that while wind turbines kill birds, but they don't even compare to cats or high-tension power lines, let alone buildings with glass windows. Birds are also more susceptible than mammals to air pollution and so suffer a disparate impact from coal or oil fired power plants. The ever vigilant Royal Society for the Protection of Birds offers this as their conclusion:
If wind farms are located away from major migration routes and important feeding, breeding and roosting areas of those bird species known or suspected to be at risk, it is likely that they will have minimal impacts.

Peppers and the Connected World

From tobacco in China to potatoes in Ireland, much of what we think of as traditional culture around the world actually derives from the global convergence that began with Columbus' 1492 voyage. One item that has remained puzzling has been chili peppers, so crucial to Asian and African cuisine. Now a new genetic and archaeological study confirms what most eco-historians have long suspected, that all the world's hot peppers derive from Latin America, probably the eastern coast of Mexico.

Public Libraries

Charles Simic:
I don’t know of anything more disheartening than the sight of a shut-down library. No matter how modest its building or its holdings, in many parts of this country a municipal library is often the only place where books in large number on every imaginable subject can be found, where both grownups and children are welcome to sit and read in peace, free of whatever distractions and aggravations await them outside. Like many other Americans of my generation, I owe much of my knowledge to thousands of books I withdrew from public libraries over a lifetime. I remember the sense of awe I felt as a teenager when I realized I could roam among the shelves, take down any book I wanted, examine it at my leisure at one of the library tables, and if it struck my fancy, bring it home.
I am a devotee of public libraries and always have been. I think the public library is one of the great creations of the modern, democratic age. Through the public library, the government uses money from taxation to provide all the people with access to information that in prior ages was limited to the very rich, and the residents of certain fortunate monasteries. No doubt libertarians think it is a crime to steal from the rich to buy books for the poor. To which I can only reply, that is what democracy means.

Top to bottom: Library built by ex-slaves, Allensworth, California; Los Angeles Central Library; Death Valley National Park. All from The Public Library: A Photographic Essay by Robert Dawson. More here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Back on the Air from Patterson Park

More news video of our Patterson Park project.

And another story in the Baltimore Sun, with video on their web site. Good show Jason!

Gunflint from the trench fill. There's no way to know for certain, but this was quite likely dropped by one of 1814 defenders.

Luttrell Psalter

Today, another gleaning from the British Library's digital collection: the Luttrell Psalter. This is one of the most famous medieval manuscripts, at least among history professors, because of its delightful illustrations from everyday life. The psalter was made for Sir Geoffrey Luttrell (1276 - 1345) of Irnham, Lincolnshire, probably sometime between 1325 and 1335. One scribe did the lettering throughout, but the illumination is by at least five different artists.

These illustrations of plowing and harrowing have been in every slide show I've ever given about peasant life or medieval agriculture.

And there is so much more. The harvest.

A feast.

One of the great wagons used by the women of noble households.

But the semi-realistic is only one of several themes in the psalter's decoration. There are also touches of whimsy.

And a bizarre bestiary of peculiar creatures.

Some of the pages are a riot of color and invention.

It is too much, really; it is hard to imagine how anyone could actually have used it as a prayer book. But how delightful for us that it has survived.