Campaigning with Grant

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by Eric Byrd

On Facebook I follow a number of the US Department of the Interior's National Battlefield Parks, National Battle Sites, and Military Parks. In the progress of the Civil War's sesquicentennial each of these sites has had their day in the social media sun, their special anniversary posts with pictures of the commemorative ceremonies. In May and June it was the turn of the parks that memorialize the battles of Grant's Overland Campaign.

In the spring of 1864 Ulysses Grant came east, to personally oversee the destruction of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, the veteran force that had in the previous two years baffled and humiliated every Federal drive on the rebel capitol of Richmond. Though baffled and humiliated – but never demoralized or destroyed, a distinction apparently lost on the aristocratic Lee – the eastern armies of the Union came on in early May and fought continuously for six weeks, chewing and choking “with a bulldog grip,” as Lincoln would exhort via telegraph.

By the end of June, when the exhausted armies began to dig in for a long siege of the last rail hub supplying Richmond, Grant had lost 55,000 men and Lee 33,000. About half of each army. Lincoln said Grant was the general who could “face the arithmetic.” Meaning he could fight all out, lose half his army while costing Lee half of his, replace his losses just when Lee could not, and then resume the offensive and finish the war. Grant, reflected one of his staff officers, “was assigned one of the most appalling tasks ever intrusted to a commander.”

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Sing Me a Song of Hyperobjects: Starting over with Humans and Other Creatures in the 21st Century CE

by Bill Benzon

Timothy Morton. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. University of Minnesota Press 2013. 229 pp.

This is a strange book, for it is three. There is the book that is easy to praise for its range of topics – quantum mechanics, La Monte Young, global warming, The Matrix, the Prisoner’s Dilemma, for example – and its quasi-virtuoso stylistic versatility. There is, as well, the book that is easy to criticize – though I’m sure some would regard that as too mild a word – for its conceptual instabilities, lapses in logic, and misreading of science.

And there is another book, the one leaking out of the cracks and pores in the first two. That book has the scattered beginnings of a framework in which we can construct a viable approach to the future. That's the book I'm writing about, making this essay as much an interpretation of as a review of Morton's fine Hyperobjects.

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Hyperobjects and Objects

Hyperobjects are “things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans” (p. 1). What isn’t a hyperobject is an object. Kumquats, automobiles, palm trees, squids, geosynchronous satellites, Olympic records, a promise, a rooster’s crow, these are all objects in the philosophical sense of the word. In the first paragraph of the book Morton lists these examples: the Lago Agrio oil field, Florida Everglades, the biosphere, the Solar System, “the sum total of all the nuclear materials on Earth; or just the plutonium, or the uranium,” Styrofoam, plastic bags, or “the sum of all the whirring machinery of capitalism.”

The philosophical sense of object is not quite the same as the ordinary sense, which tends toward physical things that are neither very large nor very small. Roughly speaking, for Morton and proponents of other object oriented ontology (OOO) – a recent school of Continental philosophy – anything that can be designated by a noun or a noun phrase is an object. Anything. Including, of course hyperobjects.

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Another man’s sandals

Israelby Sarah Firisen

I am Jewish by birth. My family wasn’t particularly religious; we went to synagogue at Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, but not really any other time. My brother and I went through years of Hebrew school, but we came home and ate bacon sandwiches. As a teenager, I became involved in BBYO, a Jewish teen organization and through it became quite heavily exposed to conversations about Israel, the general evilness of the Palestinians and the righteousness of the concept of a Jewish homeland. When I was 17, a school friend and I went away together to Israel for our first trip without our parents. We chose not to do a tour or a work on a kibbutz but instead to make our own way around Israel staying in youth hostels.

I remember the moment we got off the plane onto the tarmac thinking, “this is it, I’m in Israel, the Jewish homeland.” It was a transcendent moment that made me feel connected to my heritage and to a community that I had only ever skirted around of the edge for the most part. I truly believed that this would be a transformative trip for me.

In the second hostel we stayed in, I fell in love with Abbud, a Palestinian man who was working there for the summer. We spent a few days and nights together and then my friend and I moved to another part of the country. But I promised to come back. When I did, Abbud wanted to show me his village in the West Bank. This was in 1986 just before the first Palestinian Intifada and, apart from the general lack of common sense shown by two young girls agreeing to travel across country with a man they hardly knew, there didn’t seem to be any good reason not to go with him.

We arrived in Abbud’s village in time for dinner and he took us to his cousin’s home. My friend and I were both vegetarian and so unable to eat much of what was put before us and I was wearing quite a prominent Star of David around my neck, regardless we were treated as honored guests. We stayed in his parent’s home that night. I woke up early the next morning and padded through the house in bare feet. I came across Abbud’s elderly father who spoke no English. He took off his sandals and gave them to me to wear. The gesture was so gracious and generous that I couldn’t say no and spent the rest of the morning flopping around in sandals that were much too big for me. I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of reception my family would give Abbud if he visited me in London.

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time travel

by Leanne Ogasawara

Prime meridian antartica (1)Time in space

The race was on: for whoever discovered a way to accurately measure longitude aboard a ship would be able to control the seas –and thereby control the riches of the world!

The search for longitude at sea was one of the great quests starting in the late Renaissance. And, it was how it came to be that a 17th century nobleman named Roberto della Griva found himself aboard a ship sailing southward toward Australia in search of the Prime Meridian, in Umberto Eco’s novel Island of the Day Before.

Being obsessed by longitude, the characters in the book are also obsessed by notions of time. For to calculate longitude is, of course, to calculate time.

But to do this at sea is no easy feat, because while one only requires to know the local time at the ship's current meridian as well as what the current time is would be back at the meridian of departure (or at some fixed meridian, like, say at the Solomon Islands), this remained very difficult to accurately determine aboard ship. And inaccuracies in time would result in inaccuracies of place–as is well known.

You can see where this is going…

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Strained Analogies Between Recently Released Films and Current Events: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and the Microsoft Layoff

by Matt McKenna

Dawn-of-the-Planet-of-the-Apes1Back in 2000, chances were that if you were using a computer, it was running a Microsoft operating system. In 2014, those chances have diminished considerably, and you are now more likely to be using a device running Apple's iOS or Google's Android software. Microsoft's stock price has responded accordingly, and its inflation adjusted market cap is now less than half of what it was at its peak in 1999. How appropriate it is then that Matt Reeve's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was released this month just as Microsoft announced plans to lay off 18,000 employees in what looks to be the dawn of the trivialization of Microsoft's standing as a technology leader in the same way that the rebooted Apes series chronicles the trivialization of the human species as a planetary leader. While there are many tempting social readings crawling along the surface of the Planet of the Apes series, the most coherent one invites viewers to imagine the story's fictional planet Earth as a metaphor for the consumer electronics industry, a metaphor in which the humans represent Microsoft and the various species of apes represent the various technology companies usurping Microsoft's dominance.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes picks up immediately where its predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, takes off. In Rise, the first film in the second reboot of the Planet of the Apes series, James Franco's character creates a supposedly benign virus that regenerates brain cells, resulting in the reversal of diseases such as Alzheimer's. Unfortunately, the virus has the annoying side effect of afflicting humans with flu-like symptoms (you can see where this is going). The apes on which the virus was tested, however, receive all the positive effects to their cognitive abilities without any of the negative effects to the rest of their bodies. At the end of Rise, the brainy apes storm the Golden Gate Bridge en route to Muir Woods where they plan to live the peaceful simian life. The humans, on the other hand, are impotent to stop their zoological Frankenstein's monsters and can only look on while engaging in some ominous sneezing.

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What fruit grows on the Tree of Knowledge?

by Josh Yarden

Tree

from every tree of the garden eat
but from the tree of knowledge of good and bad
don't eat from it
because on the day you eat from it
you will die
(Genesis, 2:16-17)

What fruit grows on the Tree of Knowledge?

I posed that question to a class of intelligent high school students. A few were quick to provide the garden variety answer: “Apples.”

Of course. Who doesn't know that, after all? Those mediaeval, illuminated texts do show a woman holding an apple, and it's just… well, common knowledge. Right?

“Hmmm… But I think apples only grow on apple trees,” I replied.

“Figs!” one of them called, as if he had a winning lottery number. “I think I read that somewhere. They figured out it was a fig, because Adam and Eve covered themselves with fig leaves.”

I could see I wasn't getting very far. “Well, I don't know who ‘they' are—the ones who figured that out—but I've only seen figs grow on fig trees,” I said, with a generous hint of ‘Get it?' in my voice. “If apples grow on apple trees, and figs grow on fig trees, what kind of fruit grows on a knowledge tree?”

“We don't really know,” another thoughtful student suggested. “The Bible just says ‘fruit.' Maybe we're not supposed to know.”

“Maybe…” I accepted that possibility, “Or, maybe we're not supposed to know until we can figure it out for ourselves, and then we are supposed to know.”

“Yeah, but it doesn't say that they are supposed to think for themselves. It says they are supposed to follow the rules. That's why it's a stupid story,” offered up one of my more unruly students.

“Oh, I don't know… It doesn't seem too stupid to me. Read between the lines.” There was still a blank look on many of their faces.

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Smallpox: The long goodbye

Jeanne Guillemin in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

ScreenHunter_731 Jul. 27 20.41Last week, six vials of smallpox virus were discovered in a disused closet at the National Institutes of Health, where they had lain, forgotten and misplaced, for over 30 years. Some of them were found to contain live specimens, meaning that this dangerous virus—once considered to have been eradicated from the face of the planet—had the capacity to infect and spread.

At nearly the same time, on July 16, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Thomas Frieden, admitted to a Congressional committee that he was advised of a somewhat similar blunder at the CDC, more than two months after its discovery. (Members of the CDC had accidentally contaminated an innocuous strain of avian influenza with the dangerous H5N1 strain and shipped this unknown hazard to a less secure laboratory.) And not long before, dozens of CDC lab employees had been exposed to virulent anthrax bacteria.

These incidents raise doubts about government vigilance, with the case of the misplaced smallpox vials being arguably the most shocking, because the 1979 global eradication of smallpox is rightly celebrated as one of the most important public health achievements in history.

More here.

Once you know what plankton can do, you’ll understand why fertilising the ocean with iron is not such a crazy idea

David Biello in Aeon:

ScreenHunter_730 Jul. 27 20.33Call me Victor,’ says the mustachioed scientist as he picks me up from the airport on a brisk, fall afternoon in Germany. Victor Smetacek is an esteemed marine biologist, but he’s decided to spend his golden years on an ambitious new pursuit. He has devised a plan to alter the mix of gases in Earth’s atmosphere, in order to ward off climate change. He is, in other words, an aspiring geoengineer.

I came to the ancient city of Bremen to ask Smetacek about an extraordinary experiment he performed more than half the world away, in a forbidding sea seldom visited by humans. This sea surrounds the vast, white continent of Antarctica with a chilly current, locking it in a deep freeze. This encircling moat reaches from the surface waters to the ocean bottom, spanning thousands of kilometres. It is known as the Southern Ocean and it is famously dangerous on account of icebergs that hide in the gloom that hovers above its surface. The churn of its swells sometimes serves up freak waves that tower so high they can flip ships over in a single go. It is in this violent, lashing place that Smetacek hopes to transform Earth’s atmosphere.

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Why Probability in Quantum Mechanics is Given by the Wave Function Squared

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

Blogpic1One of the most profound and mysterious principles in all of physics is the Born Rule, named after Max Born. In quantum mechanics, particles don’t have classical properties like “position” or “momentum”; rather, there is a wave function that assigns a (complex) number, called the “amplitude,” to each possible measurement outcome. The Born Rule is then very simple: it says that the probability of obtaining any possible measurement outcome is equal to the square of the corresponding amplitude. (The wave function is just the set of all the amplitudes.)

Born Rule: mathrm{Probability}(x) = |mathrm{amplitude}(x)|^2.

The Born Rule is certainly correct, as far as all of our experimental efforts have been able to discern. But why? Born himself kind of stumbled onto his Rule.

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The secret report that helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn in The Independent:

ScreenHunter_729 Jul. 27 20.18Israeli spokesmen have their work cut out explaining how they have killed more than 1,000 Palestinians in Gaza, most of them civilians, compared with just three civilians killed in Israel by Hamas rocket and mortar fire. But on television and radio and in newspapers, Israeli government spokesmen such as Mark Regev appear slicker and less aggressive than their predecessors, who were often visibly indifferent to how many Palestinians were killed.

There is a reason for this enhancement of the PR skills of Israeli spokesmen. Going by what they say, the playbook they are using is a professional, well-researched and confidential study on how to influence the media and public opinion in America and Europe. Written by the expert Republican pollster and political strategist Dr Frank Luntz, the study was commissioned five years ago by a group called The Israel Project, with offices in the US and Israel, for use by those “who are on the front lines of fighting the media war for Israel”.

Every one of the 112 pages in the booklet is marked “not for distribution or publication” and it is easy to see why.

More here.

Natural rights celebrated democracy; human rights emasculate it

Jon Holbrook in Spiked:

Paine_rightsAlthough the word ‘rights’ appears in ‘natural rights’ and ‘human rights’, the two concepts are profoundly different. One seeks to restrict the power of government and the other seeks to expand it. Whereas natural rights seek freedom from the state, human rights seek the state’s protection and assistance. More importantly, and this is the point rarely appreciated by today’s human-rights industry, whereas natural rights made democracy possible, the human-rights discourse is securing democracy’s emasculation. Democracy can only thrive if three conditions are satisfied: (a) man is treated as rational, (b) the state is restrained and (c) politics is freed of legal constraints. Whereas the natural-rights advocate champions each condition, the human-rights advocate assumes the first condition is impossible and the next two are undesirable.

Tom Paine, an English radical who participated in the American Revolution, wrote Rights of Man in defence of the French Revolution of 1789. His celebration of natural rights was premised on his belief in human rationality. He noted that ignorance, once dispelled, could not be re-established – ‘[it] is only the absence of knowledge’ that could keep a man ignorant. He observed that while man ‘may be kept ignorant, he cannot be made ignorant’. Truth, said Paine, is so irresistible ‘that all it asks – and all it wants – is the liberty of appearing’. Paine’s recognition of man’s rationality led to his celebration of natural rights. For if truth needed only to be revealed in order to be supported, then man needed freedom to seek it, discuss it, promote it and act on it. Left to his own devices, man would find truth and cooperate with his fellow citizens to create a mutually beneficial society. With a human-rights approach, however, man is seen as less than rational. From this perspective, if man is left to his own devices, then all sorts of negative consequences follow: minorities tend to be oppressed by majorities; the weak tend to fall prey to the powerful; the vulnerable tend to suffer at the hands of the strong; and the poor tend to be exploited by the rich.

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Wounded Tiger: a History of Cricket in Pakistan

Kevin Telfer in The Telegraph:

Imram_khan_2985567bPakistani cricket: what a subject. What players – and what characters: the regal Imran, the street-fighter Javed, the mesmerising Qadir. Controversy and drama seems to surround the Pakistani Test team wherever and whenever it plays, be it in terms of spot-fixing, umpires, ball-tampering, on-field confrontations, sporting brilliance or terrorism.

Of all the world’s cricket teams, they are the least antiseptic and the most mercurial. Such, at least, is the conventional wisdom. But this encyclopedic work by Peter Oborne avoids these tabloid stereotypes – both in terms of the country’s most famous individuals who are the stuff of cricketing legend – as well as Pakistani cricket in general. It makes for a rich, fascinating and sometimes surprising read. Since its birth in 1947, the country of Pakistan has had an exceptionally turbulent and violent history. This forms the backdrop to Oborne’s carefully researched and meticulously constructed narrative, starting with the bloodshed of partition, all the way through to a modern Pakistan that is considered so unsafe following the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team and umpires in Lahore in 2009 that the national side must play its matches in exile.

More here.