Archive for July, 2008

Road to Nowhere

July 28, 2008

“We are proud of possessing nature’s precious gifts in the form of fossils. We are working on a proposal to conserve them,” says Jharkhand Chief Minister Madhu Koda in eastern India.

Eight years ago, the government promised a “Jurassic Park” for conservation of the unique fossils in the Rajmahal Hills of Sahebganj district. Yet the rocks are being quarried, the priceless heritage destroyed. Even the very road to the prospective park is being paved with pulverized fossils

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Solar Cycle Update: Today’s Sunspots

July 28, 2008
Today\'s sunspots - July 28, 2008.

Today's sunspots - July 28, 2008.

Candy Bomber Update 2

July 28, 2008
Children watch arriving airlift planes outside Tempelhof airport.

Berlin 1948: Children watch arriving airlift planes outside Tempelhof airport.

During the run-up to Senator Obama’s recent speech in Berlin, Ruth Marcus offered these few thoughts on the validity of historical analogies in the Washington Post, courtesy of Real Clear Politics.

Solar Cycles

July 28, 2008
The sun as it appeared during the last solar maximum, in September 2001.

The sun as it appeared during the last solar maximum, in September 2001.

Perhaps, like me, you’ve been bumping into a spate of recent stories (ironically, such things seem to go in cycles) about an unusually quiet sun: remarkably few sunspots, no flares, virtually no discernible boisterous activity – just the usual massive output of energy and light. Here’s what NASA has to say about that: “What’s Wrong with the Sun? (Nothing).”

Freedom of Speech: The Dutch Rub

July 24, 2008

“. . . there is a serious struggle of ideas going on for the future of Europe.”

The Art of Forgery

July 22, 2008

“Yesterday this picture was worth millions of guilders, and experts and art lovers would come from all over the world and pay money to see it. Today, it is worth nothing, and nobody would cross the street to see it for free. But the picture has not changed. What has?”

What You Know That Just Ain’t So

July 19, 2008

In flat contradiction of the widely publicized conventional wisdom that widespread looting and massive damage had been done to the archaeological sites of southern Iraq in the aftermath of the recent invasion, the Art Newspaper reports that “an international team of archaeologists which made an unpublicised visit to southern Iraq last month found no evidence of recent looting—contrary to long-expressed claims about sustained illegal digging at major sites” although “some military damage was found.” The investigation exposes as false such claims as those of the University of Chicago’s Professor Lawrence Rothfield, who had claimed that the sites were “being destroyed at the rate of roughly 10% a year.”

“The international team which visited southern Iraq last month had been expecting to find considerable evidence of looting after 2003, but to their astonishment and relief there was none. Not a single recent dig hole was found at the eight sites, and the only evidence of illegal digging came from holes which were partially covered with silt and vegetation, which means that they must have been at least several years old.

“The most recent damage was found at Larsa, Tell el-Ouelli, Tell el-Lahm and Lagash. However, this probably dated back to 2003, during and in the aftermath of the coalition invasion. At Ur, Ubaid, Eridu and Warka, no evidence was found of any looting.”

In fact the worst evidence of destruction unearthed “was found at Ubaid, where in the spring of 2003 Saddam Hussein’s forces had dug a dozen trenches into the mound, to disguise and protect tanks and armoured personnel carriers. A command post had also been built on top of the site. Both had involved considerable digging into archaeologically important deposits. Similar damage was found at Tell el-Lahm.

“Much less damage was discovered to have been caused by coalition forces, although paper food wrappers at Tell el-Lahm were evidence of the later US military presence. However, significant damage had been caused at Ur by large numbers of troops walking over the site in desert boots.”

The most critical problem with these sites of inestimable value to the study of human history and culture is not looting, but neglect. “This was particularly bad at Ur, where ancient buildings reconstructed in the 1960s and 70s are beginning to collapse, from weathering. ‘They require urgent repairs to prevent further damage.’”

On balance, this is very good news.

Revenge of the Lawn

July 18, 2008

Jack hated the front yard because he thought it was against him. There had been a beautiful lawn there when Jack came along, but he let it wander off into nothing. He refused to water it or take care of it in any way.
Now the ground was so hard that it gave his car flat tires in the summer. The yard was always finding a nail to put in one of his tires or the car was always sinking out of sight in the winter when the rains came on.

                                            –Richard Brautigan, Revenge of the Lawn

There is nothing more ubiquitous in American suburbs and small towns than the lawn. Indeed, “the lawn has become so much a part of the suburban landscape that it is difficult to see it as something that had to be invented.” Nevertheless, invented it was.

In ”Turf War”, Elizabeth Kolbert explores the phenomenon of the lawn, and along the way offers a measure of entertainment and illumination.

For instance: With the possible exception of barbeque and baseball, what could possibly be more American than lawns? And yet, “among the dozen or so main grasses that make up the American lawn, almost none are native to America. Kentucky bluegrass comes from Europe and northern Asia, Bermuda grass from Africa, and Zoysia grass from East Asia. These and other so-called turfgrasses are botanically ambidextrous; they can reproduce sexually, by putting out seeds, and asexually, by spreading laterally. (Biologists believe that they acquired this second ability some twenty million years ago, during the Miocene, when large herbivores, including the ancestors of the modern horse, switched from eating leaves to munching grass.)”

And so, by way of introduction to the invention of the lawnmower, Ms. Kolbert explains that “mowing turfgrass quite literally cuts off the option of sexual reproduction. From the gardener’s perspective, the result is a denser, thicker mat of green. From the grasses’ point of view, the result is a perpetual state of vegetable adolescence. With every successive trim, the plants are forcibly rejuvenated. In his anti-lawn essay ‘Why Mow?,’ Michael Pollan [author of The Botany of Desire and In Defense of Food, the latter reviewed over at the HCL blog in Alimentary, Dear Watson] puts it this way: ‘Lawns are nature purged of sex and death. No wonder Americans like them so much.’” Ouch.

Or consider the observation that “recently, a NASA-funded study, which used satellite data collected by the Department of Defense, determined that, including golf courses, lawns in the United States cover nearly fifty thousand square miles—an area roughly the size of New York State. The same study concluded that most of this New York State-size lawn was growing in places where turfgrass should never have been planted. In order to keep all the lawns in the country well irrigated, the author of the study calculated, it would take an astonishing two hundred gallons of water per person, per day. According to a separate estimate, by the Environmental Protection Agency, nearly a third of all residential water use in the United States currently goes toward landscaping.” And further, “a recent study by researchers at Ohio State University estimates that, owing to new development, the space devoted to turfgrass in the United States is growing at the rate of almost six hundred square miles a year.”

Ms. Kolbert’s appraisal of the lawn phenomenon is hardly a positive one, but even the most unrepentant advocate of turf should enjoy the read. Those who are avidly seeking alternatives are likely to be thrilled.

Hoping for the Worst

July 18, 2008

There is no more enduring myth of American politics than the recurrent conviction that this election is the meanest, nastiest, most vituperative ever conducted, that once upon a time in a golden age we engaged in civil debate, the discourse of gentleman, the rational evaluation of competing policies, and yet now we rage and rant like witless beasts.

Only the blissful ignorance of our own history obscures a more accurate vision. If anything, our politics are more tame and civil now than ever. There simply are no recent elections to match the heated rhetoric, vile insults and calumny of the contest between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, or either of Abraham Lincoln’s elections.

A Texas politico once declared that “politics is show business for ugly people.” But the truth is more revealing still. There is an art to the well-crafted political insult.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal ”In Praise of Political Insults” earlier this month, the Claremont Review of Books’ Joseph Tartakovsky explained: “The answer is style. Too coarse, and the abuser sounds malicious. Too unimaginative, and the words evaporate en route. Too petty, and the insulter is harmed more than the insultee. Too distant from truth, and it just won’t stick. Bill Moyers’s jibe that ‘hyperbole was to Lyndon Johnson what oxygen is to life’ is an attempt at wit; the real thing is Bill Buckley’s remark that LBJ was a man of his last word. Is Jimmy Carter the worst president the U.S. ever had, or, as William Safire put it, the ‘best U.S. president the Soviet Union ever had’? Gore Vidal calling Ronald Reagan a ‘triumph of the embalmer’s art’ seems itself the triumph of a curdled soul; but even Reagan could laugh when Gerald Ford quipped, ‘No, Reagan doesn’t dye his hair. He’s just prematurely orange.’”

But to return to those earlier days of civility, Tartakovsky recalls that “Benjamin Franklin Bache, writing in the 1790s, probably our most abusive era, called John Adams a ‘ruffian deserving of the curses of mankind,’ which isn’t bad. But that’s a mere zephyr compared to the storms of James Callender, who called the second president a ‘hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.’”

Or consider that “the flamboyant Sen. John Randolph (1773-1833) was an early master. His famed sallies, like good poetry, present unforgettable images: ‘He is a man of splendid abilities but utterly corrupt,’ he said of Secretary of State Edward Livingston. ‘Like a rotten mackerel by moonlight, he shines and stinks.’ ‘Never was ability so much below mediocrity so well rewarded,’ he said of one political appointee. ‘No, not even when Caligula’s horse was made consul.’ Randolph had a flamboyant 20th-century counterpart in Norman Mailer, who is supposed to have said, ‘Gerald Ford was unknown throughout America. Now he’s unknown throughout the world.”

Tartakovsky’s point is that “civility has a way of creeping into daintiness. If our candidates lose their willingness to spar, their sense of combative humor, will the contest grow more polite, or just less honest? The well-turned insult is a necessary and salutary force in politics, a spicy seasoning in an old, force-fed dish. It’s a check on pomposity, proof of democratic vitality, a relief from endless electioneering, and a show of intelligence and moderation. The dull and the bigoted are rarely witty.”

As we approach another political season, perhaps we should hope for the worst.

Nine Years Postscript

July 17, 2008
AP Photo August 8, 1936. John Woodruff wins the 800-meter race at the Olympic Games in Berlin, joining Jesse Owens as the two black Americans who won gold medals in the face of Adolph Hitler and his \"master race\" agenda. Woodruff died last October.

AP Photo August 8, 1936.

John Woodruff wins the 800-meter race at the Olympic Games in Berlin, joining Jesse Owens as the two black Americans who won gold medals in the face of Adolph Hitler and his “master race” agenda. Woodruff died last October.