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[ 20020531 ]

Male? Straight? Ugly? Poor? Sensitive? Move Here

Thanks to Science Fair for pointing to this, in which we learn that the percentage of words about physical attributes in women-seeking-men personals ads in KC is the lowest in the country (3%), while the percentage about "resources" (=$) is second-lowest (13%). But "emotional" words are second-highest, at 37%.

Jay Manifold [2:38 PM]

[ 20020529 ]

Clouds and Rain Caused by Microbes?

File this one under "serendipity"; there may be another huge arena of biological activity and its attendant feedback loops right under our noses. Well, over our noses, actually:

It is known that bacteria, fungal spores, algae and other micro-organisms survive and possibly reproduce in the harsh conditions of the atmosphere, but scientists have until now been unable accurately to detect, identify and analyze these microbial communities.

The [University of East London] team aims to test the theory that an active, self-sustaining ecosystem exists in the clouds, and that bacteria and algae play a key role in the processes that create clouds and trigger rainfall.

[Microbiologist Dr] Bruce Moffett said, "We know that the balance of gases in earth's atmosphere has been generated and sustained by microbial activity during the 3.5 billion years since life evolved. We are looking for evidence that microbial metabolism could have a major influence on patterns of climate and weather today.

"A really exciting possibility is that microbes have evolved ways of triggering cloud formation and rainfall to facilitate their own dispersal and reproduction -- in other words, they could be controlling the weather."

"The more life there is in a system, the more niches there are for life." -- Frank Herbert, Dune

Jay Manifold [4:59 PM]

SFSU Blog Burst

An approach to homeland security that doesn't hit taxpayers wallets is over on Joe Katzman's Winds of Change. The mob action at SFSU, and the flaccid official response to it, is the canary in the mine. The time may finally have come to confront and decisively defeat academic political correctness. Let us hope that this project succeeds in time to forestall murderous anti-Semitic violence on American campuses.

Jay Manifold [4:43 PM]

[ 20020528 ]

We Have A Winner!

Of the very small contest, that is. Previously unknown reader (the best kind) Michael Drout sent a kind note and correctly identified the book (The Return of the King), the author (JRR Tolkien), and the character (Gandalf); the scene in which the line is uttered occurs in the chapter "The Last Debate." And now, at Michael's request (when I make snotty remarks about liberal-arts types, I don't have people like this in mind!) ...

Instead of the fawning compliments you promised (if I was the first), you can mention that my edition of a previously unpublished work by Tolkien, written in the 1930's and entitled "Beowulf and the Critics" will be published in Sept 2002 by Arizona Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies (ISBN to be: 0-86698-290-6). No hobbits, but a new and interesting window into Tolkien's academic work (he is the one of the great giants of my field, the study of Anglo-Saxon literature) and thought. I've just started figuring out how to edit his translation of Beowulf and the 1800 pages of associated commentaries ... so much brilliance in one person: it boggles the mind.

He also mentions something called the King Alfred project, for which the userid and password are "demo" and "demo." All loyal Arcturians are hereby requested to graze over there and check it out.

King Alfred is one of my personal heroes; I've read Tolkien's famous essay and am working my way through Seamus Heaney's translation, so this could hardly be more timely.

Jay Manifold [6:32 PM]

Liberty Memorial Rededication (II)

KCStar stories are here and here. Something I probably should have said the first time around was that among the 200,000 attendees of the original dedication was the 14-year-old Robert Heinlein ...

The museum, when completed, will have an enormous collection on display; this past Sunday's Star Magazine had a spread about this -- it's currently stored in an underground industrial park here (which is another post altogether).

John Weidner also posted on this and kindly provided a link to, among other things, this picture, which is one of my childhood memories. Imagine how huge that wall looks when you're six years old.

Jay Manifold [6:13 PM]

Ice on Mars

On Wednesday 13 March, I reported from LPSC that:

When pressed for an estimate of the amount of ice, Dr Boynton would say only "more than several percent" and "somewhere between whopping and gobs." So I assumed a 3,000-km-wide circle (roughly the surface area of latitude >60° S on Mars) and a 1-meter thickness of 10% ice. This works out to 700 billion metric tons or thereabouts, for the south polar region alone. Probably an underestimate, and presumably it will have to be multiplied by at least 2 to include the north pole. So reasonable estimates would start at a couple of trillion metric tons and go up from there. That'll keep a colony going for a while.

-- and today we find, in Probe unearths likely water supply on Mars:

A large region around the planet's south pole shows huge quantities of hydrogen buried as far as the spectrometers can see -- about one meter below the surface. Although the hydrogen could exist in rocks and clays, the amount is so great -- 20 percent to 50 percent of the total mass -- scientists are convinced it is more likely that the hydrogen is bound with oxygen in the form of water. Because of the temperature at the poles, the water would be frozen and mixed with the soil to form dirty ice.

The teams of researchers also found the concentration of the suspect ice increases with depth, hinting of even greater reservoirs buried deeper underground.

The hydrogen-rich region extends from the planet's poles to within about 50 degrees of its equator, researchers said. Hydrogen in lesser concentrations also was detected in the equatorial regions.

A new estimate based on these findings would be 5 million metric tons at the lower concentration (20%) in the polar regions only and in just the top meter of Martian soil. It's enough to make you think of this. Wonderful!

UPDATE: Six-order-of-magnitude typo above. That's TRILLION, not million. Geez, no wonder I didn't cut those holes in the basement drywall in the right place ...

Jay Manifold [5:50 PM]

[ 20020527 ]

Indo-Pak Thoughts

My background reading for this one consisted of numerous recent posts, over on the Kolkata Libertarian (and links therefrom). I've also done some digging on my own. The following is an attempt to organize my thoughts in order of specificity, from most specific to the present situation to the most generally applicable from a risk-management perspective.

So, getting right to the action:

1. Where are the Indian troops massed? Where can India attack?

Looking at a non-topographical or overly-large-scale map (1:~10,000,000) could give the reader the erroneous impression that a frontal attack on Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, would be relatively easy. Islamabad is well under 100 km from the "Line of Control," along which Kashmir is partitioned.

If you have a high-speed connection, however, you can easily browse the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at UT, and as this map shows, the terrain between the Line of Control and Islamabad is extremely rugged; most of it is above 5,000 feet, with elevations up to 11,000 feet. This map, however, shows that an attack in the Jammu region (that is, southern Kashmir), in the relatively flat Chenab river valley, would only have to penetrate 50 km to reach the main Lahore-to-Islamabad road and rail line. Turn right and go another 150 km, and you're in the capital of Pakistan.

For a variety of reasons, the above could be accomplished in a matter of days, and possibly in the space of 72 hours, presumably invoking a Pakistani nuclear strike. But I don't know the disposition of the Indian troops, and I don't imagine it's being advertised -- though if they're in the open, any Earth-sensing satellite could detect them.

2. What is the likely nature of a nuclear exchange in the subcontinent?

Most of the apocalyptic predictions seem to assume "countervalue" targeting, essentially a fancy way of saying that they'll burn each other's cities down (nuclear warheads are first and foremost incendiary bombs). But "counterforce" targeting could be used by the Pakistanis to (temporarily) stop an Indian advance, and presuming a relatively centralized Indian administration, the only city immediately at risk would be New Delhi. From the Indian side the corresponding target set would consist of Islamabad and sites of nuclear facilities (Kahuta, Rawalpindi, and Wah, all within a few tens of kilometers of Islamabad), and possibly some airbases.

It is thus possible to imagine several warheads being used by both sides with the total number of prompt casualties remaining under 1 million, roughly comparable to the Iran-Iraq war. Of course, the Iran-Iraq war didn't all happen within one week.

Much depends on, first, whether the Pakistani armed forces would collapse as quickly as is being predicted under a massive Indian assault, and second, whether the Pakistanis' C3I (command, communications, control, and intelligence) would remain functional long enough to order or prevent the dispatch of nuclear warheads. Again, it is possible to imagine a very small number of Pakistani bombs being used (like 0 or 1).

3. What would be the US perception of an Indo-Pakistani nuclear war?

The images which would reach us, via everything from hand-held videocameras to low-Earth-orbiting satellites, would make 9/11/01 look like a wet firecracker. The American public's competence to properly assess the (virtually nonexistent) risk from fallout is minimal; panic buying of foodstuffs and nutritional supplements (eg iodine) is a likely outcome, and a new backlash against nuclear power is a distinct possibility. (Analogous overreaction in the subcontinent itself, aided and abetted by Western Luddites, could result in vast areas being declared unfit for human habitation, entirely on the basis of junk science.) On the positive side, it seems just as likely that Americans would open their wallets -- and volunteer their talents -- to aid the survivors; and the Boomer generation could acquire a lasting reluctance to use unlimited means in pursuit of its ends, thus alleviating this concern.

4. What is the US interest?

It seems to me that given the choice of a Pakistan temporarily dominated by a partial Indian occupation on the one hand, and a shattered Pakistan (and badly wounded India) with a seven-figure number of casualties and plenty of survivors inclined to blame anybody in the world they don't like -- us, for example -- on the other, the choice is a relatively easy one. Which means that while we might not want to directly promote an Indian victory, we might very well find it worthwhile to secure the Pakistani nuclear arsenal in the event of an Indian attack.

5. What's the fix?

Democracy in Pakistan. The cantonization of Kashmir, along the lines proposed in this book. Continued liberalization in India. While I'm making big wishes, the widespread adoption of Judeo-Christian mores; Suman has written movingly of the possible consequences of Hinduvta. And lest my gentle readers think I shoehorned in the "Judeo-" part, read this, concentrating on this, and ask yourself: why'd it work?

5. What if the doomsayers are completely wrong?

Just in case anybody's forgotten, they were completely wrong on Y2K, have been completely wrong about environmental issues for 40 years, and (in a certain subculture) have been completely wrong about events in the Middle East for 30 years. I'm aware that these aren't the same set of people, though there is undoubtedly overlap among them. What I'm questioning is the mindset: if somebody predicts a huge, human-civilization-altering event, and it unmistakably doesn't happen, what does that tell the rest of us? It seems to me that it tells us a bit more than that they just happened to be wrong that time. Rather, it means that their perceptions are so askew that they simply cannot be trusted.

I believe that Suman's pessimism is not of this character; he's keeping his eyes open and does not appear to be selecting information on the basis of support for a pre-decided result. But there are plenty of Americans who are not so conscientious. Be wary of them in the weeks ahead.

Jay Manifold [8:42 PM]

[ 20020526 ]

The Ecology of Blogging

In "Glenn Gloats," Virginia writes:

I was talking about people who aspire to have their ideas influence the public debate. Influencing the public debate is different from getting your name mentioned in articles about blogging ...

My challenge to bloggers who think the blogosphere is immensely influential is the same as it has been for months: Oh yeah? Then why isn't anyone outside the blog world talking about Brink Lindsey's book?

And a bit earlier, in "Facts of Life":

Promote your friends. Mention your (more famous) mentors. But don't be a fool. There is no career-enhancing reason ever to cite someone who might prove a competitor, make a cogent argument against you, or get credit for an idea you could have claimed.

Sounds pretty tough, so as a favorite author of mine wrote, "I do not bid you despair ... but to ponder the truth in these words." (For mention and fawning compliment in this forum, be the first to e-mail me with the book, the author, and the character uttering that line.)

For the math (the Lotka-Volterra model), see this earlier post; for a more intuitive explanation, see the AP story, "Decades haven't dulled famed columnist's angry edge," (for locals, it appears on page A 4 of today's KCStar), in which Jerry Schwartz writes:

When other reporters zigged, Breslin zagged.

"I ain't gonna get nowhere if I'm with everybody else," he said. "They'll drown me. I better go out on my own. If I'm all alone in a place I feel safe."

Sent to Washington to cover the funeral of President John F. Kennedy, Breslin left the crowd of reporters behind to write about the $3.01-an-hour laborer who dug the president's grave. Along with his best-selling novel The Gang Who Couldn't Shoot Straight, the 1,042 words of the gravedigger's story are perhaps Breslin's most famous.

To be sure, the problem of how to influence the public debate remains largely unsolved, by bloggers in particular and libertarians in general. But the above tells us what not to do, namely go head-to-head with people who have far greater resources. And without wishing to utterly terrify anyone, I should say that it is just barely possible that a winning strategy might mean getting out from behind our computer keyboards once in a while.

I will have much more to say about this in future posts.

Jay Manifold [9:44 AM]

[ 20020525 ]

Huh? What'd I Do?

I've been permalinked by Unremitting Verse, Will Warren's wonderful poetic-commentary blog. Most of Will's material is humorous (perhaps I should feel apprehension rather than honor) but some of it is dead serious, and beautifully written. I particularly recommend Now Courage Call, and Dark Concerns Dispel, in which Will turns one of Peggy Noonan's faux-religion sow's ears into a silk purse. Here's a Noonanism: "It is easier to fight than to pray. In fact it's much easier to fight than to pray. It's one of the reasons we do more of the former than the latter." Bzzt! Thanks for playing, Peggy. Anything can be done well, or badly; this guy had it right.

Jay Manifold [8:40 PM]

Liberty Memorial Rededication

One of the sweeter things I've seen done in the "blogosphere" is John Weidner's ongoing series The United States in World War One, of which this is the latest installment (on a very different note, he also gets high marks for posting this wonderful quote from St Isidore of Seville). I try to actually do things, as opposed to merely comment, in response to sufficiently inspiring (or distressing) items I read on other blogs; the contest was for the Kolkata Libertarian, who is currently acting as a phenomenal source of information and commentary about the conflict over Kashmir.

So this one's for you, John; I mentioned in an e-mail that I was going to try to "cover" this event, and indeed I was able to attend. Once again, original reporting rears its unedited and therefore somewhat disheveled head on Arcturus.

Well, semi-original reporting; I got some of my info from these background stories (this Guardian story appears to have been written without benefit of attendance at the actual event). The Liberty Memorial is by far the largest World War I memorial in the US; indeed, it is one of the few such memorials anywhere, and (quoting from a caption in the event program): "The five allied leaders of World War I gathered only one time in history -- for the 1921 Liberty Memorial dedication ceremony .... General Baron Jacques of Belgium, General Armando Diaz of Italy, Marshall Ferdinand Foch of France, General John J. Pershing of the United States and Admiral Lord Earl Beatty of Great Britain."

After several days of heavy rain, our skies began clearing this morning, so although the area on the Liberty Memorial mall set aside for spectators was quite damp, umbrellas were not required. A coating of straw helped keep the mud under control. Speakers were local Parks & Rec officials; the president of the Liberty Memorial Association (Carl DiCapo, whose daughter Renee I graduated from high school with); one Senator apiece from Missouri and Kansas; all the local Congresscritters; diplomatic and/or military representatives from the Slovak Republic, Belgium, Italy, Great Britain, and France; the mayor of KC and governor of Missouri; and last but certainly not least, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, a local boy who made good.

Notwithstanding that I think he's totally out to lunch on cloning, I thought Brownback's speech was the best. He recited In Flanders Fields and managed to keep it from sounding hokey or stilted, and the rest of his speech was genuinely inspiring, not just the usual catch-phrases. DiCapo spoke passionately of his gratitude at being born here and being so involved in the restoration effort. Karen McCarthy, whom I met during my political involvement here in the 1980s, and in whose district I reside, read from a diary of a World War I nurse. Most of the other American speakers were pretty forgettable.

Ambassador Butora spoke graciously of Slovak ties to the US, even making it sound as though we didn't completely abandon them when the Soviets invaded in '68. Air Vice Marshal John Thompson, the British Defence Attaché, mentioned visiting a cemetery near Mons, Belgium, and finding the graves of two young men who fell in battle over four years apart, but within one kilometer of each other, such was the static nature of that war. French Consul General Dominique Decherf noted that the Legion d'Honneur is being bestowed on all remaining American veterans of the Western Front. JCS chairman Myers was introduced with Ruffles and Flourishes and was the only speaker to get a standing ovation -- both before and after he spoke. The speech itself was nothing out of the ordinary, but his manner was quite engaging, and he pointed out that the Indiana limestone being used to rebuild the Liberty Memorial is also being used to rebuild the Pentagon.

A color-guard parade followed, with an exceptionally large number of contingents, partly because KC is also the site of the national HQ of the VFW; there were also a dozen or more Junior ROTC groups, and of course Scouts. This was followed by flyovers of a B-1 (oddly enough, no B-2, even though they're based nearby), four F-15s, a C-130, and four stunt biplanes. We wandered off to look at the static displays, the most impressive of which was a CH-47 Chinook through which visitors were allowed to walk, entering via a ramp at the rear and exiting via a couple of very big steps at the front. Then these guys jumped out of some airplanes and landed about a hundred feet from us on the east side of the grounds, after pairing off, flying flags, etc, on the way down.

I wish more people had been there, but as late as yesterday afternoon it looked like there were going to be thunderstorms this morning. I would guess that less than 10,000 people attended, and there may have been as few as 5,000. At the groundbreaking ceremony in 1921, two hundred thousand, which was the great majority of the entire population of the metro area, occupied essentially the same piece of ground. For whatever reason, people in this city felt an especially close connection to a war whose course and effects few Americans now appreciate.

It was a war which was nearly won in its first six weeks by a German imperialism only marginally less malignant than Nazism. As Tuchman makes clear, all the elements were there -- the resentment, the desire to dominate all of Europe, the intention to create lebensraum by clearing much of eastern Europe of its people. And as John Reilly has argued, they could have won it as late as the middle of 1918. A slightly-less-nasty Germany which avoided threatening or expelling its Jewish scientists would have been poised to develop nuclear weapons two decades later.

I consider any alternate history in which the US did not win that particular race to be one bereft of anything worth the name of civilization. Humanity is safe as long as America leads it in science and technology, and not one year longer. So let us thank the doughboys; hope that Senator Brownback, decent man though he is, does not get his way in all matters; and work for a world such that at the re-rededication of the Liberty Memorial in the 22nd century, they aren't reflecting on the untimely deaths of a bunch of the kids that were there today.

Jay Manifold [5:29 PM]

[ 20020522 ]

The Pessimists Among Us

This week's Gallup briefing brought Few Americans Give Nation High Marks for Moral Values: Seniors are the most critical, a bracing reminder that not everyone shares my optimism. Some excerpts:

Negative ratings of moral values are particularly high among older Americans, but women, highly religious people, and self-described "conservatives" are also critical.

More women than men are highly critical of the nation's moral climate, as 45% of women call conditions poor, compared with 33% of men.

People who attend church weekly are more likely to feel moral conditions are poor ...

Similarly, self-described conservatives are more critical of moral conditions than are liberals.

... the new poll provides some evidence that issues of sexual liberation are the most troubling to those who rate moral values poorly, including homosexuality and having sex and children outside of marriage.

The first thing I noticed about this is that while the data clearly show a direct relation between age and pessimism, older Americans are probably the least politically conservative, and evangelicals are notoriously overrepresented among the "last-wave Boomers," the approximately one zillion of us born around 1951-60. Of course, far more of the elderly are women than men, so the correlation with gender is not surprising. But a clue to why lots of not-especially-conservative-or-churchgoing older people might give negative answers is provided by the widest gap between "those who say the nation's moral climate is excellent or good, and among those who say it is only fair or poor." Some 58% of the first group consider homosexual behavior morally acceptable; this plummets to 33% in the second group. The delta of 25% is the largest among 14 issues about which respondents were queried.

So what we have here, if I may be forgiven a flippant summary, is a whole bunch of geezers freaked out about gays. Most of the rest of the responses seem to reflect -- insofar as they are coming from religious conservatives -- a fashionable pessimism reflective of the sort of theology which insists that things are always getting worse and will continue to do so until the Second Coming.

The other major finding, from my perspective, is that the cloning data are particularly grim; only 7% responded that cloning humans is "morally acceptable," and 90% responded that it is "morally wrong." Clearly a great meme-complex of fearfulness and misconception has infected nearly the entire population. We dynamists have got our work cut out for us.

Jay Manifold [6:30 PM]

Something Legit (cont'd)

Leo "Bud" Johns did some offline investigation, providing me with yet another blogging breakthrough -- original reporting by proxy. He imparts:

  1. Herrin hooked up with physics guy and a data analyst guy to research existing databases to try to support Witten's 1984 "Earth collides regularly with strange quark nuggets" idea.

  2. After an exhaustive search, Herrin found "no certain examples" -- according to this and this.

  3. Now, in apparently the same data set (records from 1990-1993) according to this abstract, he's found two examples using the LEVR (Linear Event Recognizer) algorithm. They looked at 150K events to find these two.

  4. They constructed a Monte Carlo simulation to determine that a 50 micron/5 ton earth collision event may happen once a year.

Jay Manifold [10:33 AM]

Very Late Entry

I got this contest entry nine days ago, so you can see how quickly I respond to my e-mail. Tom Brennan, who I think I remember from the LPUS and/or Libernet listservs a few years back, suggests (among other things):

Gogol's sequel to "Dead Souls" which he burned himself would probably be my pick for a single lost work.

But in the end I would go with the lost music of the world. Make it all pre-notation music--or pre notation systems that we still fully understand and thatallow us to recreate the music as written.

... since there's no Tower records version of Alexandria, I guess i'll just have to go back to, oh I guess, Greece some golden age day and listen to the music and bring back the memory, or the written music with a full concept of what it really denotes.

She Who Must Be Obeyed liked the Gogol idea in particular -- she's read Dead Souls (I'm afraid I haven't). The retrieve-ancient-music-by-listening-to-it idea is another one which I'm surprised that no one else suggested. So now you know what sorts of things lower my barriers to publishing late entries ...

Jay Manifold [10:32 AM]

[ 20020520 ]

Now for Something Legit

-- if a bit bizarre. Over on UPI is a story titled Mega-dense nuggets blast Earth, in which we find:

The reports contained detected seismic waves about equal in strength to those of underground explosions of about 1,000 tons of TNT, set off at depths of 3,100 miles. Each set of reports consisted of sound wave signals collected at seven to nine seismic stations.

When the seismic wave sources were compared, the researchers said, the data formed a line, as if an object causing the waves was traveling through the Earth. One apparently entered Antarctica and exited south of India in a span of 27 seconds, while a second tunneled in somewhere in the South Pacific and exited from Antarctica in 19 seconds.

File this one under "transient phenomena we're just now becoming aware of."

Jay Manifold [3:34 PM]

Most Astounding Non-Hoax of the Year (so far)

She Who Must Be Obeyed stumbled across this brand new massive rent-seeking activity, which is not a hoax -- they have huge banner ads out on Yahoo!. Leigh Ann comments: "It's definitely one of the silliest things I've ever seen. What gets me is the blatant attempt to get you to vote for this madness by dangling the job carrot. If you check the site, you'll see that they encourage you to fill out a screening form, pointing out that, if this wonderful thing becomes reality, we'll need literally thousands of people (spies) to make it work. So, vote yourself a government job. Best of all, it lets you be an intrusive power-monger with the ability to help put your enemies in jail before they even commit a crime. What a deal."

UPDATE: Readers Shane Bodrero and Joseph Hertzlinger have written to relieve my cluelessness. "Precrime" is a promo for the movie Minority Report -- yet another instance of a Philip K. Dick story making it to the screen.

Jay Manifold [3:34 PM]

[ 20020518 ]

Worthwhile Missourian Initiative

The headline is of course a takeoff on the winner of the Dullest NYTimes Headline contest, "Worthwhile Canadian Initiative." This article, however (I promise to drop the self-referential tone after this sentence) is an Arcturus exclusive: the first medium to report on the ground-breaking ceremony for the Charles S. Douglas Memorial Observatory. Who says bloggers can't do original reporting?

After returning from our trip to Arnold's this afternoon, I hopped on the mid-life cricycle and headed east on M-350 and US-50. Arrived a bit late but the actual ceremony did not begin until 3:35, so I didn't miss it. It entailed the release of a big bunch of helium balloons, lots of daytime fireworks (rockets with parachuting payloads that produced colored smoke, etc) complete with a small grass fire in spite of lots of recent rain (quickly extinguished), and of course the ground-breaking itself, four ASKC members with shovels posing for photographs.

The observatory site is on a hilltop about five miles NNW of the northern outskirts of Warrensburg. Fellow ASKC member Tom Martinez told me that the light pollution isn't bad, certainly nothing like it's gotten at our other facility, and that there is hope that CMSU may be able to enact a local ordinance to keep it from worsening.

Another club member, Gil Machin, is donating his 16" f/5 (I think) Newtonian telescope to the new observatory. This spectacular instrument has a main mirror professionally produced by PerkinElmer and figured to within 1/32 of a wavelength of light (if l = 5500 Å, this would be ~170 angstroms, which is to say that the largest irregularities in the mirror are about 100 atoms high). It also has a somewhat unique "Swiss sled" focuser, in which the eyepiece rides in a mechanism with the secondary mirror which moves back and forth along the long axis of the telescope, as opposed to the usual arrangement in which the eyepiece moves in and out. I can testify to the capabilities of this instrument, having observed Phobos through it on a night of exceptionally good seeing out at Powell in September of 1988. I'm pretty sure that the handful of us who saw it that night were the first people in the history of the ASKC to do so.

Today it was pointed at the waxing crescent Moon, the most prominent feature of which was Theophilus crater (stats here; image quite similar to what I saw [but with lots of blue sky in the foreground] here; other images here and here [a spectacular closeup from Apollo 16]).

There is already a permanent pier driven to bedrock on the site upon which Gil's telescope will be mounted. It will in turn be enclosed in a room with a roll-off roof. Another telescope, an 8" f/12 refractor formerly at Powell Gardens, will be mounted in a larger (14' ´ 14') room, also with a roll-off roof and with an adjoining "warm room" (observatories are unheated due to image distortion which occurs if their temperature differs from that of their surroundings) and storage room.

Meanwhile, club member Larry Goode had a pair of 12 ´ 63 Orion binocs with mylar filters taped over them, attached to an observing chair and pointed at the Sun. After plopping into the chair, a device intended to circumvent the need for either craning one's neck or fiddling with a tripod, I realized I'd moved it just enough to carry the Sun out of the field of view; it took a moment to re-acquire and focus properly (I'm nearsighted enough to need glasses while driving). A single very large sunspot appeared at the 7 o'clock position on the solar disk, and a large group of sunspots was at 12 o'clock. Graze over here and look at the "MDI Continuum" image. The large spot is at 4 o'clock, and the large group of spots is at 10 o'clock. When viewed through aluminized mylar, however, the Sun appears faintly bluish, not orange.

In between the two telescope buildings will be an area with concrete pads for binocular or telescope mounts. A bunkhouse northwest of the observatory is already partly complete and contains the first fully functional component of the new facility: Comet, the observatory cat. Comet is appropriately black (so as not to affect anyone's night vision) and long-haired (so as to keep warm during long winter observing sessions). Nor is Comet especially shy; she was carried around and petted and did not appear upset by the presence of several dozen people.

Jay Manifold [8:17 PM]

Civilization vs Barbarism, Yet Again

Iain Murray, no less, writes:

I think your bar of 1 million people is a bit high to cross historically (it disbars Athens, for a start). Most of the ancient Greek and Roman world had functioning electoral systems that allowed different political persuasions to take over peacefully at some point or another. The Roman system worked well for several hundred years until some people realised they could turn to violence if they didn't win -- it was far more a democratic system than the Greeks ever had. Just look at the constitutional wranglings between the Populares and Optimates to see how each side wanted to be seen as the legitimate holders of power.

I don't think the medieval Republics count, though. They were essentially oligarchies of the like-minded (as opposed to the ancient aristocracies). The Anglo-Saxon kingship had an important elective element, leading to peaceful transfers between dynasties (often interrupted by Danes and then William the Bastard) and a few other medieval powers had similar systems (eg several Scandanaian powers, and Poland).

OK, I'll back it off to 100,000. ;)

An odd, semi-related thought occurred to me today. A while back I quoted something from a survivor of the Battle of the Somme. It was an awkward fit to our present conflict insofar as the word "ancientry" seems inappropriate when speaking of America. But behold, the Sage of Knoxville quotes Mark Steyn: "After 215 years, the US Constitution is not only older than the French, German, Italian, Belgian, Spanish and Greek constitutions, it’s older than all of them put together."

Jay Manifold [8:08 PM]


We took advantage of gorgeous weather (sunny and mid-60s Fahrenheit) to visit this place today, the motto of which is not (but should be) "you'll be back." Probably the biggest one in the entire state of Kansas. This trip sufficed to fill in most of the remaining gaps in our front bed and start a veggie garden out back.

Jay Manifold [8:07 PM]

[ 20020517 ]

Civilization vs Barbarism (A Continuing Series)

(Those just grazing in may wish to read down a couple of posts first.)

Bill Walker quibbles thusly:

Didn't Athens have a few elections in the 700 BC period? What about Venice? Medieval Iceland had peaceful transfers of power, although there wasn't much power to transfer; people bought "godords." Of course they had a completely civil-law system of "government," with no class of officials above the law. Putting them way ahead of us.

I hereby dodge this problem by instituting a requirement of scale. The polity has to be of significant population, as defined by me. How? I'll know it when I see it, that's how. For now, let's say a million people.

New (to me) reader Bruce Baugh, "Writer of Fortune," notes that

You'll run into a definitional problem. A lot of Communist nations have pretty swell constitutions, with charters of rights and the rule of law and everything. It's just that they all became meaningless the moment they went into effect. I recall from poly sci studies that the Chinese constitution has a rigorously defined procedure for the change of power, but in practice it's never been relevant.

In fact I'd like to suggest a third criterion: Does the nation's official documentation reflect the way it works? Corruption and tyranny both hide in irrelevant public verbiage.

One of my favorite lines from the movie "Gorky Park" was "the chasm that exists in this country between what is said and what is done" -- and in the USSR, it certainly was a chasm. But some gap exists everywhere; VP Cheney was a resident of Wyoming in name only, in fact being a resident of Texas for all practical purposes, meaning that the Bush-Cheney ticket violated the 11th Amendment. Oops.

So perhaps the criterion about succession should resemble that of transfer of power, ie has it ever actually happened according to the official definition?

Wide publicity of just how few nations -- including so many that we are endlessly hectored to "cooperate" with -- actually meet this elementary standard of decency should have a wonderfully clarifying effect.

Jay Manifold [7:15 AM]

The Retrograde Irregulars

-- sounds like a rock group name from a Dave Barry column, but is in reality the "group name" of The New Outer Satellites of Jupiter.

They're all about the size of a mountain and darker than asphalt, which in combination with their distance from Earth (and the Sun) makes them about 5 million times fainter than the dimmest objects the unaided eye can see. They're also in highly elongated, "backward" orbits so far from the planet that they take 1½ to 2 years to travel around it. Undoubtedly captured asteroids.

All were discovered with this astonishing instrument, to which I referred in this earlier post. This was one of the headlines over on Yahoo! news this morning -- rather more uplifting than the usual fare, I must say, though Yahoo! is good about reporting scientific discoveries.

Jay Manifold [6:59 AM]

[ 20020515 ]

Civilization vs Barbarism -- A Proposed Definition

Or, if I ran the State Department ...

Actually, this is a topic for a study by my imaginary think tank, the Infuriating Institute, whose charter is to produce studies which annoy as many people as possible.

I got to wondering about a policy of publicly categorizing nations according to the following criteria:

  1. Is there a clearly defined mechanism of succession in the event that the chief executive is incapacitated?

  2. Was the most recent transfer of power between political opponents peaceful?

Nations failing the first criterion would be labeled "barbarian." Only nations meeting both criteria would be labeled "civilized."

Note that "yes" answers do not correlate perfectly with "democracy." I suspect that in the Russian Federation, for example, it is perhaps less than clear who would become President if something happened to Vladimir Putin. And Russia has never managed a peaceful transfer of power between opponents, which is tougher than it looks; my understanding is that the first one ever, anywhere, was the US presidential election of 1800.

On the other hand, Iran could claim to meet the second criterion by virtue of the election of President Khatami, though his power to loosen the stranglehold of Islamic fundamentalism appears quite limited. Mexico just recently

But I'm really more interested in the first criterion. If the top guy goes, what happens? If the result is a free-for-all, your nation is barbaric, irrespective of its size, wealth, and recent accomplishments.

So in my continuing if sporadic quest to do original reporting on Arcturus, I asked Aili Piano of Freedom House (home of the Map of Freedom 2001) whether they might have this information. An excerpt from the response:

We keep an annual list of the world's electoral democracies ... however, the criteria used to determine which countries are electoral democracies include other factors as well, such as whether voters have access to information about candidates and their election platforms. While information on the two questions you listed is contained in individual country reports when relevant, we do not maintain statistics on these specific issues.

Looks like this is a job for my vast readership. Anyone with access to what I'm looking for here is encouraged to send it in. If I get enough, I'll publish lists of civilized and barbarian nations.

Also feel free to nominate terminology for nations which meet the first criterion but fail the second.

Jay Manifold [8:58 AM]

Tornado Alley

We had a bit of excitement here last week, so Out of the Blue: Element of Surprise Adds to Tornadoes’ Deadly Power seems especially timely:

In spite of all the technology brought to bear on tornado forecasting, the average warning the Weather Service can give of an oncoming tornado is 8.6 minutes.

Meanwhile, Science News has Tornado Alley, USA: New map defines nation's twister risk. The colors aren't entirely well-chosen; in both the print and online versions there are a couple of shades of blue that are too close together (also a couple of shades of green). The area of greatest danger reaches from western Oklahoma to western Alabama. For locals, KC is in the large, slightly-darker-blue area indicative of one F2 tornado every 5-10,000 years touching down at any given spot.

For non-locals, be assured that the hazard is small. I have never seen a funnel cloud. My father never saw one, and he spent nearly his entire life in the blue area of the map. Trained tornado-chasers typically spot only one in every ten attempts. These are very transient events affecting very small areas. Nonetheless, safe rooms are becoming popular in new house construction in KC.

Jay Manifold [8:26 AM]

The Turing Blog

As I've said before, we are probably only months away from a "blog" which automatically grabs links to news items, composes brief "commentaries," and posts them, all without any actual human involvement, but giving the appearance of a human commentator. Now Michael S. Malone's Tyranny of the Twit: A Few Rules to Help You Survive the Internet Era suggests some heuristics, based on what he calls "the Law of Limited Ideas":

Also known as the Blog Rule. During a major news event, no matter how much you surf the Net, the radio or the TV, you will in fact find only endless variations of the same four ideas, and endless rewrites of the same three reported stories. All will appear within the first couple hours, and everything else thereafter will be just an endless rehashing.

The four ideas are as follows:

1) It's the apocalypse.

2) It was bound to happen.

3) We are all to blame, and

4) There is evil loose in the world.

Each writer, columnist or poster will fervently offer one or two of these ideas as uniquely his own. The three reported stories will be:

a) The View from 30,000 feet.

b) On the Ground, and

c) The Victims.

In other words, policy, war correspondence and bleeding hearts. They will appear in that order. And for the next few days, all commentary on the Web will consist of pouring those three stories through the sieve of the writer's adoption of the one of the four ideas. Though this might appear to produce only twelve possible positions, it will in fact result in ten million comments.

Ninety-nine readers out of a hundred, at least, will be unable to distinguish such a blog from a "real" one. Somewhere, Alan Turing is smiling.

Jay Manifold [7:54 AM]

[ 20020512 ]

Nonlethal Weaponry (A Continuing Series)

There's a great AP article (for locals, it's on page A 9 of today's KCStar) which covers a wide range of goodies, including polymerizers to gum up gas masks, air intakes, and ventilators, depolymerizers to break down tires, bacteria that eat asphalt, and a variety of high-tech stink bombs.

The associated National Academy of Sciences project is An Assessment of Non-lethal Weapons Science and Technology.

Jay Manifold [2:41 PM]

Us and Them (A Continuing Series)

In what I hope will be the first of many such events, there was a pro-Israel rally here last Monday. It was, of course, predominantly attended by ... Baptists. As I think I've written in this forum, if our enemies understood us, they'd surrender right now.

Jay Manifold [2:22 PM]

Social Optima and Technical Realities

Over on Sneaking Suspicions, Fritz Schrank has a post about The Socially Optimal Gasoline Tax, in which Max Power suggests $3-5/gallon. Fritz writes:

A gas tax of $3 to $5 per gallon would raise $440 to $733 billion dollars, respectively.

According to the [Federal Highway Administration], the money raised during 2000 and distributed into the Highway Account solely from gasoline totaled $17.579 billion dollars. Dividing that number by 12 cents yields a $-raised/penny tax revenue of $1.465 billion per penny. That translates to $439.5 billion at $3/gallon, or $732.5 billion at $5/gallon.

In January, Robert Samuelson ... noted that 167 million voters owe little or no income taxes, and only 32 million taxpayers pay 83 per cent of the total income tax.

The total number of U.S. car owners far outnumbers the 32 million taxpayers that pay most of the income tax. Therefore, any transfer of half or more of the total federal personal income tax liability to those paying at the pump would also vastly increase the number of taxpayers making significant contributions to the cost of governance.

Hence the enormous practical difficulty with setting a $3 gas tax.

It just wouldn’t be optimal—socially or otherwise.

This is the "Fritz and Max are great guys, but" part: tripling (roughly) the number of taxpayers sending lots of money to the Feds is the least of this idea's problems. It has horrendous technological exposure.

Fritz's math was admirable -- and totally linear; but the driving public cannot be expected to roll over for the additional expense. Assume the tax is set at the level which would raise $500 billion per year, and assume 100 million households with cars. That's $5,000 per household per year.

Googling "liquid propane conversion kit" leads us promptly to the California Energy Commission, which says:

Converting an automobile or light-duty truck from gasoline to propane costs about $1,000 to $2,000 and can usually be done in one day ...

-- thereby (ignoring the modest difference in energy content of LP vs gasoline) netting our average household $3,000 the first year and $5,000 every year thereafter. Needless to say, taxing LP commensurately in turn would simply provoke a jump to something else. If the Feds are ever stupid enough to try this, my advice is to buy stock in manufacturers and installers of conversion kits.

Americans will never tolerate such a drastic restriction on their mobility. One of the first posts on this blog dealt with the immense opportunities afforded to ordinary people by the ability to move about their environment at 60 mph (car) vs 3 mph (foot). Anybody trying to take that ability away from me might not have to metaphorically pry it from my cold, dead fingers, but I'll make them wish they'd never tried.

UPDATE: Fritz writes ...

Eugene Volokh (and one other e-mailer) made the same point about my starkly linear approach, which I defended in a few ways: First, Max suggested a huge range of $3 to $5, which to me meant we were dealing with a total SWAG here in any event. Although shifting from current levels of gasoline usage would obviously occur, the way the country is spread out I didn't think trying to fine-tune the equation would do all that much for the analysis.

Second, I delberately left out of the equation the billions that would be raised from the equivalent increase in diesel, LP, and LNP taxes, where currently roughly equivalent fuel taxes are charged, but which currently do not raise the equivalent total dollars (just not that many LP-fueled vehicles out there, especially outside mass transit). The country's dependence on 18-wheeler tractor trailers would also provoke serious disruption if the equivalent tax were imposed on diesel, with all that money passed through in transportation costs to the end users.

Those sorts of considerations are why I said $440 billion was a conservative estimate, which is admittedly a bit crazy just to say, but there it is.

Your technology and mobility restriction points are also well-taken. To me they provide a few more reasons to think that at the rate Max suggested, a $3-$5 gallon fuel tax would be DOA.

As for the $5000 per household equation you surmise, that helps quantify the same tax incidence shift point I was making.

Jay Manifold [1:59 PM]

[ 20020510 ]

Supernovae and Mass Extinctions (II)

(If you're just grazing in, read this first.)

Dr Dar also pointed me to a couple of papers, namely Life Extinctions by Cosmic Ray Jets and The Threat to Life from Eta Carinae and Gamma Ray Bursts.

The first paper suggests ways to check for such events in Earth's past --

Biological mutations due to ionizing radiations may explain the fast appearance of new species after massive extinctions. Intense cosmic ray bursts enrich rock layers with detectable traces of cosmogenically produced radioactive nucleides such as 129I, 146Sm, 205Pb and 244Pu. Tracks of high energy particles in rock layers on Earth and on the moon may also contain records of intense cosmic irradiations.

-- and notes that much of what we know about mass extinctions is consistent with cosmic-ray bombardment:

... a first examination of the fossil records suggest that there is a clear correlation between the extinction pattern of different species, their vulnerability to ionizing radiation and the sheltering provided by their habitats and the environment they live in.

For instance, insects which are less vulnerable to radiation, were extinct only in the greatest extinction - the end-Permian extinction 251 My ago. Even then only 8 out of 27 orders were extinct compared with a global species extinction that ranged between 80% to 95%. Also plants which are less vulnerable to ionizing radiation suffered lower level [sic] of extinction. Terrain, underground and underwater sheltering against a complete extinction on land and in deep waters may explain why certain families on land and in deep waters were not extinct even in the great extinctions, while most of the species in shallow waters and on the surface were extinct. Mountain shadowing, canyons, caves, underground habitats, deep underwater habitats and high mobility may also explain why many species like crocodiles, turtles, frogs, (and most freshwater vertebrates), snakes, deep sea organisms and birds were little affected in the Cretaceous/Tertiary (K/T) boundary extinction which claimed the life of the big dinosaurs and pterosaurs. In particular, fresh underground waters in rivers and lakes are less polluted with radioisotopes and poisons produced by the CRJ than sea waters and may explain the survival of freshwater amphibians.

The second paper characterizes "dinosaur killer" impacts as a subset of mass extinctions caused by gamma-ray bursts:

The volcanic-quiet and impact-free extinctions could have been caused by GRBs. Moreover, passage of the GRB jet through the Oort cloud after sweeping up the interstellar matter on its way could also have generated perturbations, sending some comets into a collision course with Earth, perhaps explaining also the geologically active K/T and P/T extinctions.

It ends with a proposed answer to the Fermi Paradox:

Our solar system is billions of years younger than most of the stars in the Milky Way. Life on extrasolar planets could have preceded life on Earth by billions of years, allowing for civilizations much more advanced than ours. Thus Fermi's famous question "where are they?", i.e. why did they not visit us or send signals to us? An answer is provided by GRB-induced mass extinctions: even if advanced civilizations are not self-destructive, GRBs can exterminate the most evolved species on any given planet or interstellar vehicle at a mean rate of once every 100 My. Consequently, there may be no nearby aliens having evolved long enough to be capable of communicating with us, or pay us a visit.

Kinda puts me in mind of the 1956 Hugo Award winner for best short story, and a quote from its author: "Sometimes I think we are alone in the universe, sometimes I think we aren't: in both cases, the idea makes me dizzy."

Jay Manifold [4:28 PM]

Speaking of Memetic Engineering ...

An article on UPI discusses the relative success of a couple of large memetic-engineering projects, and suggests the importance of liberal values in defusing global conflict:

"In 2050, 20 of the 25 most populous states will be either mainly Christian or mainly Muslim. Or they will be one of the above with sizable minorities of the other," [historian Philip Jenkins, a Welshman who teaches at Pennsylvania State University] said. "And frequently the Christian and Muslim communities experiencing the fastest growth will be neighbors."

It seems to me that a certain skill will be quite valuable in such an environment.

Jay Manifold [3:26 PM]

What's Killing Them (A Continuing Series)

A story over on UniSci, Children Greatest Victims Of Degrading Environment, seems to employ a bit of rhetorical piggybacking to publicize actual threats to third-world children's health by mentioning the much better-known but hypothetical threats:

Every day, 5,500 children die from diseases caused by consuming water and food polluted with bacteria, according to a new study released by three United Nations agencies ...

Children are also disproportionately vulnerable to global environmental problems such as the impact of climate change, the depletion of the ozone layer and the loss of the planet's biological diversity.

Whatever one thinks of such "hazards" as climate change, this strikes me as a particularly clever attempt at memetic engineering, leveraging public concern about pollution into action on civil engineering aimed at saving human lives.

Jay Manifold [3:14 PM]

[ 20020509 ]

Semi-Original Reporting on Supernovae and Mass Extinctions

The Beeb has a piece on the threat from supernovae; the available statistics suggest that a properly aligned blast of radiation from a supernova should hit us about every 108 years, comparable to the known rate of mass extinctions in Earth's history:

The initial gamma-ray burst will last a fraction of a second. Almost immediately afterwards will come the cosmic rays, which will drench our planet for days. There will be no hiding place.

Cosmic rays are highly energetic particles travelling through space at almost the speed of light. They will slam into the atmosphere, depositing vast amounts of energy and creating swarms of destructive "daughter" particles.

These particles, called muons, will penetrate hundreds of metres into rocks so that few caves will offer protection and even deep-sea creatures will be affected by lethal doses of radiation.

All this made me wonder how we would know whether a given mass extinction was caused by a supernova, since it seemed to me that such an event would not leave a signature like that of a comet or asteroid impact (crater, iridium anomaly, etc). So I asked Dr Dar, the Israeli astrophysicist interviewed in the article. He responded promptly; I have edited and annotated his response for clarity:

There is mounting evidence that Gamma Ray Bursts (GRB) are produced by highly relativistic, narrowly collimated jets from supernova explosions. They carry a large fraction (1052 erg) of the kinetic energy of the explosions of very massive stars. These jets can cross tens of kiloparsecs or more of galactic interstellar medium [our galaxy is 30 kpc across] before they become nonrelativistic and explode. They produce the afterglow of GRBs and may be the long-sought cosmic-ray accelerators.

Such a jet that crosses the Solar System may disturb the Oort cloud and send comets onto a collision course with Earth; any resulting cometary impacts may also cause huge volcanic eruptions.

Cosmic-ray collisions in the atmosphere would produce lethal doses of penetrating muons, killing life on Earth even deep in the sea and far underground.

The theory explains the coincidence of global catastrophe: mass extinctions, large impactors (with much iridium if metallic), volcanic eruptions, drastic climatic changes, and sea regression [that is, lowered sea levels resulting from glaciation, caused by global cooling resulting from the cloud of debris blocking sunlight].

So the connection is that supernovae can cause "comet showers"; the time-of-flight for a comet arriving from the inner portion of the Oort cloud (100 AU from the Sun) is less than 200 years, so the cosmic-radiation and impactor effects would be separated by a geologically short interval, making them essentially indistinguishable chronologically.

Jay Manifold [10:01 AM]

[ 20020508 ]

Finding Very Distant Asteroids

Over on Space.com, we find Orbital Telescope Platform Proposed for SETI, Asteroid Watch Duties, which is about "the Submillimetron," which "operates at a terahertz waveband."

"High sensitivity of the telescope to cold bodies permits it to detect asteroids at a distance far beyond Jupiter's orbit," suggests the article. Let's check that.

If n = 1012 Hz, then l = 0.3 mm, or 300 m. Recalling that the Sun's surface temperature is 5800 K and the peak of its spectrum is around 550 nm, we calculate that the blackbody radiation temperature of something whose spectrum peaks at 0.3 mm is about 11 K. This source gives Pluto's surface temperature as 40 K. Assuming no greenhouse warming and following the inverse-square law, a Kuiper Belt object with a surface temperature of 11 K would be around 60 AU from the Sun, nearly 12 times Jupiter's distance.

Were such an object to be at aphelion, with its perihelion at Earth (1 AU), its semimajor axis a would be 30.5 AU. Plugging this into

TOFyears = ½ a3/2

indicates that the Submillimetron could give us an 84-year warning.

The actual likelihood of finding a Kuiper Belt object with our name on it, so to speak, is slight; but the number of positively identified "trans-Neptunians" should soar once this instrument comes online. See also this earlier post for the effect of a good infrared survey of the main asteroid belt.

Jay Manifold [8:58 PM]

[ 20020507 ]

Us and Them

OK, I know I said I'd revert to sci-tech for the next post, but I'm going to throw in my $0.02 on Pim Fortuyn instead. Like many others, I have noticed that his assassination feels bigger to me than it ought to. I think I know why.

I've referred to this book several times in this space, and undoubtedly will again. Way back on Sat 31 Jan 98, long before I had this outlet, I quoted this passage, which appears on page 401, in an e-mail to several friends:

[Another] trend to watch will be the strength and behavior of midlife Boomer factions, especially the split between the New Age (modernist) and evangelical (traditionalist) camps, whose major 1980s-era battles focused on abortion and sex education. The search for a Boom values consensus will hinge, in part, on the nation's economic performance. With modernism emanating largely from the generation's better-off first-wavers and traditionalism more from worse-off last-wavers, any further widening of this economic gap will aggravate values conflicts. The Boom may split along geographical lines --- for example, with urban, bicoastal New Agers squaring off against heartland evangelicals. This could prompt talk of regional secession. Yet if the Transcendentals demonstrated how sectionalism can rapidly grow into implacable hatred, the Puritans, Awakeners, and Missionaries proved that an Idealist generation, however fragmented early in life, retains the capacity to find common principle in times of approaching crisis. If Boomers unify, the initial evidence will be the coexistence of divergent values in the same communities, and the emergence of new and seemingly odd alliances like the Missionaries' pre-World War I "reform trinity" of fundamentalists, feminists, and western agrarians. If Boomers reach a midlife consensus in support of cleaning up the world of the Millennial child, that will bode well for the decades to follow.

In this post, I advise capital-L Libertarians to adopt a selectively interventionist foreign policy by way of defending the country most friendly to liberty. I think Pim Fortuyn was learning to defend liberty intelligently. He knew who the real enemy was, and who his real friends were. I hope there will be many more like him, especially here. Will gays split off from antiwar leftists and join a de facto "libertarian nationalist" coalition?

Jay Manifold [6:14 PM]

[ 20020506 ]

The Irminsul

The great thing about these contests is that I get other people to write material for me. So pending the development of a way to get them to send me money (I'm not famous enough for this yet), here's a late entry to the contest, from lunch-bunch member Leo "Bud" Johns, who pleads a groans-from-the-cave state of mind for why he didn't send it Friday.

I'd like to cram the Irminsul into my time chariot.

Charlemagne, the king of the Franks, was a real stud. He conquered the Lombard kingdom in Italy, subdued the Saxons, annexed Bavaria to his kingdom, fought campaigns in Spain and Hungary, and, with the exceptions of the Kingdom of Asturias in Spain, southern Italy, and the British Isles, pretty much ruled an extensive ancient roost. But when he did, he destroyed the Irminsul.

At this time, the loose grouping of tribes which lay in northern Germany between Frisa and Mecklenburg were generally known as the "Saxons." There was no unified political power among these peoples: influential nobles controlled such policy as was pursued - and warfare was the dominant factor.

Kings were unknown. Leaders in war were chosen by lot, and the Saxons believed their stochastic choices to be divinely guided. The Saxons remained pagan until the eighth century when their culture began the slow process of converting to Christianity, with Anglo-Saxon and Frankish missionaries playing a leading part.

The bellicose Saxons posed a threat to the eastern border of Charlemagne's expanding Frankish empire - and this threat was intolerable to the King of the Franks. And so began Charlemagne's great Saxon Wars (772 - 804).

In or about 772 (accounts differ), Charlemagne's troops seized the great Saxon sanctuary of Eresburg and destroyed the Irminsul, the sacred pillar in the sacred grove of the Saxons. Common people like the the Celts and Germans, intrigued by the complicated web of earth-cosmology worship, worshiped at such sacred pillars until Christianity predominated. The Chronicum Laurissense breve (c. approx. 800 AD) reports that in the 772 Saxon wars, Charlemagne destroyed the temple and the sacred wood of the "famous Irminsul" which was located in the German town of Eresburg. Rudolf of Fulda (c. 860) called this famous pillar the "pillar of the universe which, as it were, supports all things" ("universalis columna quasi sustinens omnia").

("The pillar...which supports all things..."? This was a most critical object, folks...)

After the future protector of the Holy See destroyed the Sacred Pillar, Charlemagne then carried out mass forced baptisms, stunning with clubs those prisoners who were reluctant. The Saxons still continued to resist; and after his victory at Verden in 782, Charlemagne massacred 4500 prisoners, quite possibly as an act of personal vengeance. The result, of course, was even more widespread rebellion.

From then until 785, Frankish armies invaded the Saxon territories using the river routes of Lippe and Main. With great difficulty the Franks beat down the Saxons and studded their land with fortified strongpoints and royal palaces as centres of administration.

And then we leapfrog to May 799, when Pope Leo III was waylaid in Rome by personal enemies after local Roman conflicts brought about the clarification of the city's constitutional position. Leo (occasionally called "Bud") took refuge at the court of Charlemagne at the site of the Irminsul. Charlemagne then conducted Leo back to the city and Leo was received in Rome with imperial honours. Permit me to explain:

You see, after a number of the relatives of Pope Adrian I has been prompted by jealousy, ambition, hatred, or revenge to plot to render Pope Leo unfit to hold his sacred office, they attacked him on the occasion of the procession of the Greater Litanies (25 April, 799). The pope was dashed to the ground, and the gang proceeded to root out his tongue and tear out his eyes. In a miraculous manner, he quickly recovered the full use of his eyes and tongue - a miracle that some said was fermented by Leo's blasphemous invocation of the once-destroyed Irminsul. He immediately presented himself to Charlemagne, accompanied by many of the Romans. He was received by the Frankish king with the greatest honor. After a few months' stay in Germany, the Frankish monarch caused him to be escorted back to Rome, where he was received with every demonstration of joy by the whole populace, natives and foreigners.

In the following year (800) Charlemagne himself came to Rome, and on Christmas Day in St. Peter's Pope Leo sang the gospel and approached Charlemagne, who was kneeling before the Confession of St. Peter. Leo placed a crown upon Charlemagne's head. The assembled multitude at once made the basilica ring with the shout: "To Charles, the most pious Augustus, crowned by God, to our great and pacific emperor life and victory!"

By this act the Holy Roman Empire in the West was revived.

What was the magic of the Irminsul? No one knows for sure, but somehow I know I was there in a former life. For some reason, it's all a blur ... I do recall one thing about the Irminsul: razor blades stayed sharp forever in its presence ...

Attentive readers will note the non-American spellings ("centre," "honours") and abrupt stylistic changes in the above, so we may infer that Leo (the 21-century American one) may have gotten someone to write some of his material for him. I'd never heard of the Irminsul; a Google search turns up a whole slew of modern-day wannabe sacred-pillar worshipers.

I'll post some sci-tech stuff next, I promise.

Jay Manifold [8:23 PM]

[ 20020505 ]

The Long-Awaited Results (1 of 5) -- Overview

Of the contest, that is.

First of all, an overview:

  • 19 people nominated what I counted as 37 items, many of which were duplicates.

  • You may infer from this that almost no one felt bound by the one-item-only rule.

  • The oldest item, nominated by Bill Walker, was "a DNA sample from a Cro-Magnon (we know their brains were 11% bigger; cloning a Cro-Magnon might be a short cut to genetic improvement ... or it might just have been their mammoth-steak diet and exercise program)."

  • That is, unless it was Alan Henderson's "the complete skeletons of the creatures that died and left partial skeletons in Olduvai Gorge," which was his way of suggesting something from Africa after my earlier hint.

  • You may infer from the previous two points that some people didn't feel bound by the "man-made" rule, either (or adopted a rather elastic definition thereof).

  • The newest items (and also the most physically distant), nominated by Bill Roule, were the various missing American Mars probes (Mars Observer in '93, Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander in '99) of the past decade.

  • The physically largest item, nominated in conversation by Denise Walker, was the pyramid of Khufu in its original state, with the limestone facing intact and all burial items still inside.

  • And an absolute majority of all e-mail respondents, plus most of the guys I get together with for lunch here (Overland Park) on Fridays, plus most of the people I've mentioned this to in casual conversation, named the Library of/at Alexandria.

  • From which you may infer that an additional rule, if I ever do this again, will be: the @#$^&%$# library of @#&^%$%! Alexandria is off limits.

Virginia gets a pass on this one, partly because she got her entry in first, and partly because she's Virginia, whose honor all bloggers are compelled to defend. The rest of you, not being Virginia, are hereby castigated for not trying harder. ;)

But I'm going to list your names anyway, because I said I would and in any case can't afford to drive readers away. Besides, it will give me an excuse to devote the next post to the topic.

Jay Manifold [3:34 PM]

The Long-Awaited Results (2 of 5) -- The Libertarian Librarians of Alexandria

First of all, because I promised to mention names, here's the list of nominees -- the libertarian librarians of Alexandria, as it were (these people are hereby empowered to put "LLA" after their names):

Virginia Postrel
Andrew Ian Dodge
John Allison
Charles Austin
Brad Baker
James Hudnall
Kevin Maguire
Megan McArdle
Allen Thorpe
Bill Walker
John Weidner

The list is alphabetical except for Virginia (explained above) and the Dodgeblogger, who gets extra credit for pointing me toward this and this.

We all know the story -- an incomparable trove of literature and science, neglected by a illiterate and superstitious populace, guarded by a brave woman who was ordered killed by a narrow-minded cleric, after which a mob of Christian rednecks burned the place to the ground (cue "Smoke on the Water").

Unfortunately, most of this is right up there with George Washington chopping down the cherry tree and throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac. The single greatest man-made damage to the library -- or libraries, none of which have been precisely located -- was probably done by Julius Caesar in 47 BCE, that is, four and a half centuries before Hypatia and Cyril were on the scene. Whatever was left of the library in the 5th century AD was finished off by earthquake and fire. And its already-depleted contents hadn't been torched, either -- they were plundered and sold off, often ending up being saved in monasteries. Once again, the politically-correct view of history swings and misses.

Next: the destruction that nobody mentioned.

Jay Manifold [3:32 PM]

The Long-Awaited Results (3 of 5) -- Unclaimed Treasures

There were two possible large-scale rescue operations which, to my surprise, no one nominated.

The first: Constantinople just prior to the systematic plunder of the wealthiest city on Earth, organized by Enrico Dandolo, the 39th Doge of Venice; this event is known to us as the "Fourth Crusade" (see also this and subsequent pages for a short history).

Geoffrey de Villehardouin (1160-1213) wrote:

Now you may know that those who had never before seen Constantinople looked upon it very earnestly, for they never thought there could be in all the world so rich a city; and they marked the high walls and strong towers that enclosed it round about, and the rich palaces, and mighty churches of which there were so many that no one would have believed it who had not seen it with his eyes-and the height and the length of that city which above all others was sovereign. And be it known to you, that no man there was of such hardihood but his flesh trembled: and it was no wonder, for never was so great an enterprise undertaken by any people since the creation of the world.

There were so many people on the walls and towers that it seemed as if there could be no more people (in the world).

... a palace of the Emperor Alexius, at a place called Chalcedon. This was in face of Constantinople, on the other side of the straits, towards Turkey. The palace was one of the most beautiful and delectable that ever eyes could see, with every delight therein that the heart of man could desire ...

The Marquis Boniface of Montferrat rode all along the shore to the palace of Bucoleon, and when he arrived there it surrendered, on condition that the lives of all therein should be spared. At Bucoleon were found the larger number of the great ladies who had fled to the castle, for there were found the sister [Agnes, sister of Philip Augustus, married successively to Alexius II., to Andronicus, and to Theodore Branas] of the King of France, who had been empress, and the sister [Margaret, sister of Emeric, King of Hungary, married to the Emperor Isaac, and afterwards to the Marquis of Montferrat.] of the King of Hungary, who had also been empress, and other ladies very many. Of the treasure that was found in that palace I cannot well speak, for there was so much that it was beyond end or counting.

At the same time that this palace was surrendered to the Marquis Boniface of Montferrat, did the palace of Blachernae surrender to Henry, the brother of Count Baldwin of Flanders, on condition that no hurt should be done to the bodies of those who were therein. There too was found much treasure, not less than in the palace of Bucoleon. Each garrisoned with his own people the castle that had been surrendered to him, and set a guard over the treasure. And the other people, spread abroad throughout the city, also gained much booty. The booty gained was so great that none could tell you the end of it: gold and silver, and vessels and precious stones, and samite, and cloth of silk, and robes vair and grey, and ermine, and every choicest thing found upon the earth. And well does Geoffry of Villehardouin the Marshal of Champagne, bear witness, that never, since the world was created, had so much booty been won in any city.

The time to begin the rescue operation would be either 1) shortly before 17 July 1203, on which the first of three great fires was set which destroyed much of the city, or 2) shortly before Tuesday 13 April 1204, when the city was looted of its valuables by the "Crusaders." Some of them are still at St Mark's in Venice today, but this cannot be more than a tiny fraction of what was taken; the great majority of items were pried apart for their jewels or melted down for their precious metals.

Historical footnote: Geoffrey records the city as being defended, in part, by "Englishmen and Danes," presumably the Varangian Guard. Unfortunately there weren't enough of them. Constantinople never recovered; the city the Turks conquered in 1453 was a dilapidated, half-empty shell.

The second unmentioned possibility I found, in the context of the large number of British and Anglo-American bloggers, even more surprising. It is the rescue of items from the Dissolution of the Monasteries (April 1536 - April 1540), an event arguably more calamitous than the Fourth Crusade or the loss of the Library of You-Know-Where. It may have been, in fact, the largest single episode of plunder in human history prior to the Bolshevik Revolution. The immense cathedral complexes at Chester, Durham, Ely, Gloucester, Norwich, Peterborough, St Albans, and Winchester are merely the surviving remnants of English monasticism -- and even they were stripped of decoration during those four years.

Over 800 monasteries were shut down, and while most of them were small in terms of the number of residents, housing a dozen or fewer monks and nuns, many had been acquiring treasures -- and manuscripts -- for six hundred years, ever since the recovery from Viking raids began in the first half of the tenth century. They had escaped the turmoils of the Continent and, in all likelihood, accumulated among them the greatest collection of classical literature ever to exist. Nearly all of it went into bonfires. Some buildings were physically dismantled and the materials used as fuel for melting lead sheeting from the roofs into bullets. Others were simply leveled. Properties were sold off at steep discounts by a monarchy desperate for quick cash. Nearby residents made off with building materials.

Next: what did get nominated (other than the Library of You-Know-Where).

Jay Manifold [3:31 PM]

The Long-Awaited Results (4 of 5) -- List of Nominations

Cutting to the chase at last, in chronological order by target date ...

One Million Years BC

Alan Henderson: "The complete skeletons of the creatures that died and left partial skeletons in Olduvai Gorge."

40,000 BP

Bill Walker: "A DNA sample from a Cro-Magnon (we know their brains were 11% bigger; cloning a Cro-Magnon might be a short cut to genetic improvement ... or it might just have been their mammoth-steak diet and exercise program)."

2480 BCE
Kevin Maguire (a man after my own heart, I might add): "I want the project plans for any one of the major pyramids in Egypt. The whole shelf full of binders, er, scrolls: engineering drawings, construction standards, work procedures at the pyramid site and at the quarries and for the people who moved the stones from one to the other. I want these docs at they existed at the end of the construction, not the beginning, to show the changes made during the project." But were they ISO 9000 compliant?

Denise Walker (submitted in conversation): Great Pyramid of Khufu in original completed state, with limestone facing intact and all burial objects still inside.

1700 BCE
Iain Murray: "Some sort of Rosetta stone that would allow us to understand the great Indus valley civilization of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa." Nonspecific and therefore technically not allowed, but sufficiently charming that I decided to allow it anyway.

1290 BCE
Charles Austin: Original tablets of the covenant, recorded as having been destroyed by Moses in Exodus 32:19. Also stretching the "man-made" rule, but I was in a good mood.

956 BCE
Rick ("Indiana") Chambers: The Ark of the Covenant. I assigned a date to this based on my interpretation of 1 Kings 14:25-26a.

586 BCE
An Israeli friend who prefers to remain anonymous: The Ark of the Covenant. He assigned a date to this based on oral tradition, which states that the Egyptians didn't get it after all -- and the Babylonians didn't either; it was "hidden" sometime during the reign of Josiah (640-609 BCE). Thinking further, my friend suggests that "... it seems that I need to pre-date myself a little and just see where they put it in the days of Josiah and then I suppose that I could go get it right now without actually having to bring it back in time."

429 BCE
Iain Murray: "The Babylonians, Aristophanes' lost play from 427BC (or was it 429?). This was the satire that earned him the enmity of Cleon, and was supposedly ground-breaking in its production values." I erred on the side of caution and will be dispatching Iain to the earlier date as soon as a time machine becomes available.

400 BCE
The Israeli friend who prefers to remain anonymous: "We need ashes of the red heifer for purification purposes in order to reinstitute the Temple worship. We can get these from a convenient date in Second Temple times, for example. However, it is possible to make more of these, but first you need a perfect red heifer." I assigned a date to this based on my understanding of the timeframe of the book of Nehemiah.

308 BCE
Iain Murray: "The works of Apelles, the greatest painter of antiquity. His Venus Rising and Nude Hero were said to challenge nature. Real horses were said to neigh at the sight of his horses. We have, tragically, no idea what his paintings were really like."

291 BCE
Iain Murray: "The entire corpus of the plays of Menander. Terence, Plautus, Shakespeare and Moliere were all merely following in Menander's footsteps. We have only one of his many plays. We need the rest."

70 BCE
John W. Braue, III: "For myself, I would take the Peripatetics' collection of Greek constitutions, that we might have a better idea of what's been tried, what worked (and didn't), and for how long." I assigned a date to this based on my understanding of the date of the first reasonably complete compilation of the works of Aristotle.

30 AD
Charles Austin: The Holy Grail. I decided to allow this in the literal sense of the "cup" mentioned in Mark 14:23.

100 AD
Allen Thorpe: Original Biblical manuscripts. I chose the late date, shortly after the composition of the book of Revelation, but of course one would have to make several stops, going as far back as the period of the Judges (13th century BCE).

420 AD
Charles Austin: Book of Mormon tablets. Date based on LDS tradition; I was in a really good mood. ;)

1248 AD
Andrew Ian Dodge: Library in Andalucia -- burned during the Reconquista. Hey, it's a library that's not you-know-where! I was also sympathetic to this one because it was presumably in Seville, sister city of KC; we have a replica of the Giralda tower here (and they have a major thoroughfare named "Avenida de Kansas City"). Date is that of reconquest of the area by the Spanish.

1519 AD
Alan Henderson: The fleet of Hernan Cortes.

1616 AD
Charles Austin: Original manuscripts of Shakespeare. Believe it or not, no one else suggested this.

1731 AD
John Weidner: "The Cottonian Library, where a fire in 1731 destroyed many Anglo-Saxon manuscripts." Guess they didn't all get wiped out with the monasteries.

1800 AD
Alan Henderson: Original Haydn compositions -- "The composer's wife had no respect for his work and would occasionally cut strips out of his written compositions and make hair curlers out of them." Approximate date.

1808 AD
Bill Roule: "About 25 boxes of artifacts from the Lewis and Clark expedition were lost in Chesapeake Bay while they were being shipped from Richmond to Washington. The idea of these items somehow making the boat trip from the Pacific Northwest to St. Louis and then to the nation's capital only to be lost within a stone's throw of their final destination is particularly frustrating."

1940 AD
Alan Henderson: "A railroad car - the wagon-lit in which a German delegation signed the WWI armistice on November 11, 1918, and in which a French delegation signed the surrender of France to the Third Reich on June 21, 1940. The car was taken back to Berlin and was destroyed during an Allied air raid later in the war.
"At the forest near Compiegne where the wagon-lit stood for those two signings, commemorating the first stood a three-foot-tall granite stone - which Hitler had blown up three days after the surrender was signed - which was inscribed with the following:
"If the railroad car and the granite stone can be counted as 'one item,' I'd like to nominate both." Of course; how could I turn down something that classy?

1955 AD
Bob Hawkins: "Recordings of the 'I Love a Mystery' radio series.
"In case you are not familiar with the ILAM story: ILAM is considered by many to be the best radio adventure series ever broadcast, and I find it hard to believe it was not. Written, produced and directed by Carlton E. Morse, it ran from the late 1930s through the mid 1940s, and then again from the late 1940s through the mid 1950s. It follows the adventures of Jack Packard (the brains}, 'Doc' Long (the comic relief), and Reggie York (the brawn, a two-fisted brawler played, I kid you not, by Tony Randall in the later version).
"Out of 50 story arcs, consisting typically of 15 quarter-hour episodes, only a half dozen survive, and most of those have missing episodes; plus some isolated episodes. If the survivors are a representative sample, civilization needs the whole population. And in particular, I need to know how they got off those ropes in the Temple of Vampires." Bob, you may be my most goal-oriented respondent!

1993-1999 AD
Bill Roule: Mars Observer (somewhere in solar orbit), Mars Climate Orbiter (somewhere in Mars' atmosphere), and Mars Polar Lander (somewhere on Mars).

Let's have a round of virtual applause for all the respondents, plus anyone I may have missed in my haste.

Next: The Last Question.

Jay Manifold [3:29 PM]

The Long-Awaited Results (5 of 5) -- What About Me?

Well, I suppose that after all those ideas, I'm supposed to come back with a real zinger, but if there's anything I've learned from this, it's that I'm nowhere near the smartest kid in the class.

I didn't think of the Fourth Crusade or the Dissolution of the Monasteries until I'd gotten at least ten replies and twenty suggestions, so I don't quite feel like I can claim them for my own.

Of course, I could swipe a bunch of y'all's ideas and crank out a series of Timeline-like stories and novels, but I really did do this just for fun -- and by way of proving the value of human civilization to Suman. Because we know that these things existed (well, almost all of them); and we know that they were made by human beings (well, almost all of them); and we want them back. If we didn't know and didn't care, then maybe civilization would be a bad joke. But we do, and it ain't.

So in the spirit of many of the nominations, I'm going to make two, one ancient, one modern:

  1. The frescoes from the palace at Knossos, rescued just before the Thera explosion in 1490 BCE.

  2. The original manuscript of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, lost by T E Lawrence in (I believe) a railway station in 1920. He had to re-create the entire thing from memory.

Thus endeth the contest.

Jay Manifold [3:28 PM]

[ 20020504 ]

Biotechnology vs Brownback-Landrieu

While everybody else is dogpiling Francis Fukuyama, Bill Walker has published a fine primer on what's ultimately at stake when the stasists try to criminalize science. His piece is modestly entitled "Telomere Technology: The End of Mortality"; an excerpt:

... there are two themes in telomere modification. One is to lengthen the telomeres of old somatic cells to reverse aging or cure other genetic diseases with engineered cells. The other is to shorten telomeres in cancer cells and kill them. Both of these objectives have been achieved in the laboratory.

That should whet your appetite to read the whole thing (the article is about 2,200 words, so you should be able to read it in under 10 minutes).

Jay Manifold [3:30 PM]