February 28, 2008

P is for Palmer...

...Robert Palmer, that is. Pre-Power Station, and post-Power Station, Palmer had rather surrealist instincts (I'd argue he never lost them).

Interesting that in Palmer's iteration of "Some Guys Have All the Luck," it appears that Palmer is one of those guys. A very different rendition from, say, Rod Stewart...

Posted by Ideofact at 12:58 AM | Comments (0)

Hope of Life

The earliest hominid? French anthropologists think so:

French fossil hunters have pinned down the age of Toumai, which they contend is the remains of the earliest human ever found, at between 6.8 and 7.2 million years old.

The fossil was discovered in the Chadian desert in 2001 and an intense debate ensued over whether the nearly complete cranium, pieces of jawbone and teeth belonged to one of our earliest ancestors.

Critics said that Toumai's cranium was too squashed to be that of a hominid -- it did not have the brain capacity that gives humans primacy -- and its small size indicated a creature of no more than 120 centimetres (four feet) in height, about the size of a walking chimp.

In short, they said, Toumai had no right to be baptised with French researcher Michel Brunet's hominid honorific of Sahelanthropus tchadensis -- he was simply a vulgar ape.

Toumai's supporters used 3D computer reconstructions to show that the structure of the cranium had clear differences from those of gorillas and chimps and indicates that Toumai was able to walk upright on two feet, something our primate cousins cannot do with ease.

If Toumai is truly an early human, that means that the evolutionary split between apes and humans occurred far earlier than previously thought.

Posted by Ideofact at 12:51 AM | Comments (0)

The justice of Chesterton

A remnant of a finer age: Gilbert K. Chesterton writing on George Bernard Shaw. Chesterton, a conservative opponent of Shaw's politics, recognized Shaw's talents as an artist and originality as a revolutionary. It is amazing how just Chesterton is to Shaw. Take this paragraph, for example:

I have in my time had my fling at the Fabian Society, at the pedantry of schemes, the arrogance of experts; nor do I regret it now. But when I remember that other world against which it reared its bourgeois banner of cleanliness and common sense, I will not end this chapter without doing it decent honour. Give me the drain pipes of the Fabians rather than the panpipes of the later poets; the drain pipes have a nicer smell. Give me even that[Pg 86] business-like benevolence that herded men like beasts rather than that exquisite art which isolated them like devils; give me even the suppression of "Zæo" rather than the triumph of "Salome." And if I feel such a confession to be due to those Fabians who could hardly have been anything but experts in any society, such as Mr. Sidney Webb or Mr. Edward Pease, it is due yet more strongly to the greatest of the Fabians. Here was a man who could have enjoyed art among the artists, who could have been the wittiest of all the flâneurs; who could have made epigrams like diamonds and drunk music like wine. He has instead laboured in a mill of statistics and crammed his mind with all the most dreary and the most filthy details, so that he can argue on the spur of the moment about sewing-machines or sewage, about typhus fever or twopenny tubes. The usual mean theory of motives will not cover the case; it is not ambition, for he could have been twenty times more prominent as a plausible and popular humorist. It is the real and ancient emotion of the salus populi, almost extinct in our oligarchical chaos; nor will I for one, as I pass on to many matters of argument or quarrel, neglect to salute a passion so implacable and so pure.

We could use more nor neglecting...

Posted by Ideofact at 12:44 AM | Comments (0)

February 26, 2008

J is for Jam

I first felt a fist, and then a kick, I could now smell their breath. They smelt of pubs. And wormwood scrubs. And too many right wing beatings.

No one wants to go Down in a Tube Station at Midnight.

Posted by Ideofact at 01:11 AM | Comments (0)

Towards a modern heresy

In his trenchant critique of Bernard Shaw, G.K. Chesterton observes the following:

A man must be orthodox upon most things, or he will never even have time to preach his own heresy.

Chesterton never disappoints: he's always a provocative writer, just as Shaw is. Here Chesterton's argument is that Shaw rejected so much of the received wisdom of his fellow men that he was forever explaining himself; hence the lengthy prefaces to his plays. I think if Shaw were a preacher or a politician, this would be a just critique, but Shaw was neither -- something that is all too often forgotten.

In any case, I don't want to go into too much detail about Shaw and Chesterton, but would rather sketch out some heresies that might be too unorthodox to be of value to any fanatic.

The first -- the only one I will treat here -- is what I like to call the theory of the infinite earth. It's a fairly simple postulate: The earth is, for all practical purposes, infinite, and it is only the misapprehension of this fact by the ruling classes of society that explains hunger, want and deprivation.

I believe this can be proven on both scientific and empirical grounds: we can't run out of anything, because matter can neither be created nor destroyed. I was astonished, some years ago, to read that humanity is running out of water. There is exactly the same amount of hydrogen and oxygen molecules on the earth as there were 100 million years ago, as there will be 100 million years from now. This does not mean that there cannot be fluctuations in the distribution of water via rainfall, but it does mean that it is simply not possible to run out of water -- or tungsten or oil or anything else, for that matter.

The misconception of the limited earth -- whether expressed by eugenicists, Malthus, Hitler, or anyone else -- has caused untold human misery. The theory of the infinite earth is a necessary corrective.

Posted by Ideofact at 01:02 AM | Comments (5)

February 24, 2008

B is for Bowie

...of course, no one out-Bowies Bowie.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:08 PM | Comments (0)

February 23, 2008

B is for Bauhaus

Ziggy Stardust. Almost (almost) out-Bowies Bowie. I love the crunchola guitars and the absolutely explosive percussion.


Posted by Ideofact at 12:55 AM | Comments (0)

February 22, 2008

Predilections

Hitchens on Kosovo:

It's a shame, in retrospect, that it took us so long to diagnose the pathology of Serbia's combination of arrogance and self-pity, in which what is theirs is theirs and what is anybody else's is negotiable.

The whole piece is well worth reading.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:35 PM | Comments (0)

February 21, 2008

Balkans Continuity

Stephen Schwartz puts the Serbian crowds attacking the U.S. embassy into perspective, offering a very harsh, but by no means an unfair, judgment:

Let Serbs dance in the ashes of their undeserved reputation for honor and glory. They will be the black hole of Europe for a hundred years. Albanians kiss our flag and express their gratitude and love for us. Let us not forget who have been our honorable and truthful friends.

I'm reminded of something I read a few summers ago in John Keegan's authoritative work The First World War. Culled from pages 48 to 52:

The chief source of subversion [in Austria-Hungary] was Serbia, an aggressive, backward and domestically violent Christian kingdom which had won its independence from the rule of the Muslim Ottoman empire after centuries of rebellion. Independent Serbia did not include all Serbs. Large minorities remained, by historical accident, Austrian subjects. Those who were nationalists resented rule by the Habsburgs almost as much as their free brothers had rule by the Ottomans. The most extreme among them were prepared to kill. It was the killing by one of them of the Habsburg heir that fomented the fatal crisis in the summer of 1914.

***

...nothing, it seemed, could diffuse [the problem] of the Serbs but the use of force. Their Orthodox Christianity made them a religious as well as a national minority and one which Russia's guardianship of the Orthodox Church made cocksure; their long years of guerrilla resistance to Turkish rule had rendered them headstrong and self-reliant but also, in Austrian eyes, devious and untrustworthy; their poverty kept them warlike. The small kingdom of Serbia was intensely warlike. It had won independence from the Ottomans in 1813 by its own effort and glory and territory in the Balkan Wars in 1912-13. National rebirth had raised the idea of a Greater Serbia, strong within the kingdom and a beacon to Austria's Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia. It had to be resisted, for not only were Serbs but one minority among others in those territories but neither could be surrendered.

***

The Serbs, moreover, were odd-man-out even in the wild Balkans, worse than that in the eyes of civilised Europe. The "Asiatic" behaviour of their army's officers in 1903, when they had not only killed their king and queen but then thrown their bodies from the window of the royal palace and hacked them limb from limb with their swords, had shocked sensibilities everywhere.

Their heirs have just destroyed our embassy. Serbs often raise the specter of Muslim extremism to justify their excesses (they equated the Bosnian president and amiable scholar Alija Izetbegovic, who found as much wisdom in Dostoevsky and Hesse as he did in the Koran, with the ayatollah). Yet like their Iranian counterparts, they reject the most basic principles of the international order. How little things change...

Posted by Ideofact at 11:52 PM | Comments (0)

February 20, 2008

Collapse

I tend to think that there's a little too much emphasis placed on choices in this article; human societies are not conscious things, and some adaptations that seem to make sense at one time prove to be maladaptive later, leading to change.

"What we are investigating is the choices the Maya made that ultimately created a catastrophic situation for them," Sever said by telephone from a NASA base in the U.S. state of Alabama.

To support a population boom the Maya felled huge swathes of jungle for agriculture. They collected water in giant reservoirs called "bajos" to farm during seasonal dry spells, but the deforestation raised temperatures and reduced rainfall, drying up water sources, Sever said.

Bajos were found at around half the new sites located by the satellite, potentially boosting this theory of why the Maya had to leave their cities.

Information about the fate of the Maya could help modern societies make better choices and "avoid the sometimes disastrous mistakes of the past," said Sever. "We are in a race against time to preserve our history."

The problem is that we can't tell, a priori, which choices are disastrous, because we can't tell the future. The best we can hope for is that we'll muddle through (a not insubstantial accomplishment, by any means--ask the Maya if they'd have preferred muddling to collapse...)

Posted by Ideofact at 11:04 PM | Comments (0)

The eclipse...

...mentioned here, was a bit of a disappointment from my vantage point. The moon looked more grayish-brown than red or orange.


Posted by Ideofact at 10:58 PM | Comments (0)

February 19, 2008

"Because someone's out to get me."

That was Calvin's answer when Hobbes asks if he believes in God. A more serious inquiry trying to explain the phenomenon is being launched:

LONDON - University of Oxford researchers will spend nearly $4 million to study why mankind embraces God. The grant to the Ian Ramsey Center for Science and Religion will bring anthropologists, theologians, philosophers and other academics together for three years to study whether belief in a divine being is a basic part of mankind's makeup.

"There are a lot of issues. What is it that is innate in human nature to believe in God, whether it is gods or something superhuman or supernatural?" said Roger Trigg, acting director of the center.

He said anthropological and philosophical research suggests that faith in God is a universal human impulse found in most cultures around the world, even though it has been waning in Britain and western Europe.

"One implication that comes from this is that religion is the default position, and atheism is perhaps more in need of explanation," he said.

I have two reactions. I'm going to badly summarize William James by saying that he argued that any set of religious beliefs can be said to be true if they work for the believer. That is, if I draw a measure of comfort and structure and morality from worshipping Ba'al or Jehovah or Jesus or Gilligan of Gilligan's Island fame, then that belief is for all intents and purposes true because of its pragmatic applications. But this does not mean that the competing claims of Ba'al worship, Judaism, Christianity and Gilliganism can be reconciled. If any religion were objectively true (in the same way, say, that gravity is true), there simply wouldn't be any other religions. That doesn't diminish the Jamesian power of religion, but it does suggest that atheists have found a way to get along fine without all that rubbish.

More importantly, I'm not sure that religious belief can be put in opposition to atheism in any meaningful way. The Yanamamo believe in gods who punish the wicked, but they also believe their gods are gullible, easily tricked by humans, and that you can be quite wicked on earth and fool them into letting you into the Yanamamo heaven. Yezidis worship an inverted Satan, while Buddhists either worship hundreds of gods or none at all, since this reality is an illusion and their goal is to slip the bonds of this mortal consciousness, this material coil, for Nirvana. I would go on, but I hope the point is clear.


Posted by Ideofact at 10:52 PM | Comments (0)

Infinity and Nothingness

While working with the nine-year-old on division and fractions earlier today, I was reminded of a wrong answer I once gave in a high school math class -- that an integer divided by zero, say, 5/0, equals infinity.

I have no idea where I got the idea (I believe my father told me the same thing when I was learning division) A bit of googling turned up a 12th century Indian mathematician, Bhaskara, and this bit of perhaps inaccurately attributed wisdom:

Bhaskara said that number divided by zero is infinity. (God).

Which reminds me that sitting on my shelf, neglected, is Edna E. Kramer's The Nature and Growth of Modern Mathematics, which tells us that Bhaskara also asked what number multiplied by itself -- squared -- would equal negative one. To this question, he could only suggest the empty set as an answer.

Bhaskara.jpg

After the nine year old went to bed, I spent the better part of the part of my evening learning card tricks...

Posted by Ideofact at 10:24 PM | Comments (0)

February 18, 2008

Portent?

Does anyone other than me find it disturbing that Lindsay Lohan was chosen to recreate, not an earlier photo spread, but the last sitting?

In 1962, photographer Bert Stern shot a series of photos of Marilyn Monroe at the Hotel Bel-Air that have collectively come to be known as “The Last Sitting.” The photographs are arguably the most famous images ever captured of America’s most famous actress. Six weeks after she had posed, Monroe was found dead of an apparent barbiturate overdose.

Let's hope the recreation ends with the photo shoot.

Posted by Ideofact at 08:39 PM | Comments (0)

February 07, 2008

Totalitarian Lie of the Day

...comes from Cuba:

"Why don't the Cuban people have the real possibility to stay at hotels or travel to different places around the world," asked Eliecer Avila, a self-avowed revolutionary who is studying at the University of Computer Science.

Alluding to Cuba's strict travel restrictions imposed on all its people, Avila said she would very much like to visit the place in Bolivia where Ernesto "Che" Guevara was killed.

***

"If everybody in the world, all six billion inhabitants, were able to travel wherever they pleased, there would be a tremendous traffic jam in our planet's airspace. People who travel are really a minority," he said in answer to Avila's travel question.

There'd be planes backed up for miles, nose-to-tailfin traffic all over the world....

Posted by Ideofact at 11:34 PM | Comments (0)

Twin Tyrannies

An archaeological find evokes a totalitarian moment:

PARIS (AFP) - French archaeologists said Wednesday they had discovered a cache of shattered Soviet-era statues in a chateau north of Paris...

Broken heads and limbs from the giant statues -- which measured 2.5 to 3 metres -- were discovered piled inside several 17th-century ice chests in the chateau in Baillet-en-France in 2004, the INRAP archaeology institute said.

They also found a series of sculpted stone disks, originally from far-flung parts of the Soviet empire including Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Researchers identified the works as part of the Soviet pavillion at the 1937 arts and techniques exhibition in Paris, a vast display depicting allegories of the 11 Soviet republics -- pitched opposite the pavillion from Nazi Germany.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:27 PM | Comments (0)

February 05, 2008

Elections

Virginias don't vote until next week, but for those going to the polls in a few hours, I offer the following wisdom from Woody Allen:

More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.

Let me offer another bit of wisdom, somewhat less profound. Though things will change, very little will change. Elections never made anyone taller, thinner or younger. A new President won't mean that suddenly you can quote Shakespeare, understand statistics, or speak conversational Latvian. A few headlines might change -- very important to those who measure the millimeters of fluctuation from the black foam of the press -- but a great many headlines change without any intervention by the government (in how many of the average paper's headlines do names of presidents and cabinet members appear?).

Posted by Ideofact at 12:17 AM | Comments (0)

February 04, 2008

Found in translation

Interesting story in the Washington Post about a potentially pork-borne illness. What fascinates me is the role language played:

The 33-year-old woman who worked for eight years working with Spanish-speaking patients at a medical clinic in southern Minnesota noticed something familiar as she translated the story of a young meatpacker last September.

Earlier last summer, she had heard a version of it from two other workers at the same slaughterhouse, and had told it to their doctors, who were different from her current patient's. When the consultation was over, she pointed this out.

The interpreter's insight set in motion a story, still unfolding, that may be making envious the ghost of Berton Roueche, the legendary chronicler of medical mysteries at the New Yorker magazine. A new disease has surfaced in 12 people among the 1,300 employees at the factory run by Quality Pork Processors about 100 miles south of Minneapolis.

I often wonder about this -- when you tell a doctor about symptoms, you use language to describe what's going on. Suppose I say I feel numbness in my arm when what I really feel is pins and needles in my elbow? (Fortunately, I feel neither, but that's besides the point.)

I'm always worried I'm going to end up in an iron lung because of something I said...

Posted by Ideofact at 12:02 AM | Comments (0)

February 02, 2008

My wife and I are related

At least according to this report, which says that all blue eyed people descend from a common ancestor. Incidentally, my wife's eyes are a beautiful, deep, soothing brown, but her father's eyes were blue, as are mine.

Somehow it's not surprising that, of the two of us, I'm the mutant...

Posted by Ideofact at 01:10 AM | Comments (0)