Climate and the Collapse of Maya Civilization

From American Scientist:

Maya1_1 With their magnificent architecture and sophisticated knowledge of astronomy and mathematics, the Maya boasted one of the great cultures of the ancient world. Although they had not discovered the wheel and were without metal tools, the Maya constructed massive pyramids, temples and monuments of hewn stone both in large cities and in smaller ceremonial centers throughout the lowlands of the Yucatán Peninsula, which covers parts of what are now southern Mexico and Guatemala and essentially all of Belize. From celestial observatories, such as the one at Chichén Itzá, they tracked the progress of Venus and developed a calendar based on a solar year of 365 days. They created their own system of mathematics, using a base number of 20 with a concept of zero. And they developed a hieroglyphic scheme for writing, one that used hundreds of elaborate signs. The demise of Maya civilization (which archaeologists call “the terminal Classic collapse”) has been one of the great anthropological mysteries of modern times. What could have happened?

More here.

Lewis Museum captures the soaring spirit of African-Americans

Edward Gunts in the Baltimore Sun:

18155064With 82,000 square feet of space on five levels, the Lewis museum is the second-largest African-American heritage museum in the United States, after Detroit’s. At its heart are permanent and temporary exhibits that tell stories about African-Americans in Maryland – the obstacles they’ve overcome and the contributions they’ve made. There are also gathering spaces for conferences and receptions, an auditorium, cafe, interactive learning center, oral history recording center, staff offices, classrooms and a store.

The land finally chosen for the museum is a corner parcel within easy walking distance of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, the state’s most-visited tourist district. The architects’ challenge was to create a building that fits into the urban context but stands out enough to convey how unusual it is.

They responded with a boldly modern building that makes the most of its tight but prominent site. Then they imbued the building with layers of meaning that help tell what’s inside. The design doesn’t make literal references to African architecture. Its strength lies in the use of architectural symbolism – through colors, forms and materials – to create a building that avoids cliches but is undeniably African-American in spirit.

More here.

Billy K.

An interesting assessment from a man not usually considered particularly Left Wing.

ChinakristolNO ONE EVER THOUGHT IT would be easy to conquer the outposts of tyranny or to destroy the sponsors of terror. But it shouldn’t be that hard, most of the time, to hold American foreign policy to some minimum standards: no rewards for gross acts of dictatorial oppression; no blind eye to facilitation of terrorism; no benign neglect for nuclear proliferation; no free passes for aiders and abettors of tyrants. Are we meeting those standards?

Not as much as we should be, and not as much as we could be.

And as an extra-special Sunday bonus here at 3Quarks, here are a couple of pictures of Mr. Kristol getting pied at Earlham College.


Come on, you reds . . .

“In 1666 Isaac Newton took a glass prism and separated sunlight into its constituent colours. In so doing he disproved Aristotle’s contention that all colour was a mixture of black and white, invented the modern notion of the colour spectrum, and showed what rainbows are made of. Four hundred years later French artist Yves Klein was still airily proclaiming that “colour is sensibility in material form, matter in its primordial state”. This doesn’t say great things for art.”

More here.


From Science:Science_1

Seen through the lens of popular culture, the future often seems like a time disconnected from the present. The view tends toward strange and dystopic—think 1984 and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, and The Matrix. But when AAAS convened nearly three dozen top thinkers in science and technology policy to contemplate the year 2033, the perspective was strikingly different. The future, as they saw it, is familiar; many of the perils likely to confront humanity then are already evident today. While there are ominous portents in climate change, mutating viruses and emerging technologies for body and brain enhancement, they agreed that scientists, engineers and policy-makers can limit or prevent future problems—if they begin acting now.

One of the overarching themes of Vision 2033 is that technology will become more subtle and more powerful, reaching deeper into daily life.

More here.

Freeman Dyson on Norbert Wiener

Dyson reviews Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener, the Father of Cybernetics by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, in the New York Review of Books:

Wiener_norbert19820218016rAt age eleven, Leo enrolled Norbert as a student at Tufts University, where he graduated with a degree in mathematics at age fourteen. Norbert then moved to Harvard as a graduate student and emerged with a Ph.D. in mathematical logic at age eighteen. While he was growing up and trying to escape from his notoriety as a prodigy at Tufts and Harvard, Leo was making matters worse by trumpeting Norbert’s accomplishments in newspapers and popular magazines. Leo was emphatic in claiming that his son was not unusually gifted, that any advantage that Norbert had gained over other children was due to his better training. “When this was written down in ineffaceable printer’s ink,” said Norbert in his autobiography, Ex-prodigy, “it declared to the public that my failures were my own but my successes were my father’s.”

More here.

Lucre and altruism are in the makeup of biotech scientists

Rebecca Maksel reviews The Geneticist Who Played Hoops With My DNA And Other Masterminds From the Frontiers of Biotech by David Ewing Duncan, in the San Francisco Chronicle:

The legend of the chimera (a creature said to bear the head of a lion and the body of a goat, with a dragon’s tail tacked on) has long fascinated humans. Its modern-day equivalent — organisms composed of two or more genetically distinct tissues — captivates conservatives and liberals alike. In his new book, “The Geneticist Who Play Hoops with My DNA,” Duncan profiles seven scientists on the cutting edge of biotechnology, today’s most controversial science.

Duncan, who has written on such diverse topics as the development of the Gregorian calendar and the history of Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto, turns his discerning eye toward the role of personality in science, concluding that individual scientists — and their reputations — are driving the current era of biological discovery as much as the knowledge itself.

And the scientists profiled are an unruly lot, some motivated as much by thoughts of fame as by the desire for knowledge.

More here.

Show me the way to go, Holmes

Julian Barnes’s wonderfully executed Arthur & George recounts Conan Doyle’s own detective adventure.”

Tim Adams in The Guardian:

Barnes150Julian Barnes has always fancied a detective yarn. In the 1980s, he used to have a go at them himself, under the pseudonym of Dan Kavanagh, who wrote calculatedly hard-boiled tales about Duffy, a bisexual ex-cop on the trail of vice and murder in Soho. At the time, Barnes used to explain this sideline by saying it came from a different part of his head from the grown-up cleverness of Flaubert’s Parrot or A History of the World in 10½ Chapters; it was a holiday job.

For Arthur & George, you might say that the author has combined for the first time those two halves of his brain, taken his rigour on vacation. With characteristically engaging intelligence, he has climbed into the mind of the most celebrated detective writer of all, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and set off on an adventure.

More here.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Damselfly Mating Game Turns Some Males Gay

From The National Geographic:

Fly_1 Disguises used by female damselflies to avoid unwanted sexual advances can cause males to seek out their own sex, a new study suggests. Belgian researchers investigated why male damselflies often try to mate with each other. The scientists say the reason could lie with females that adopt a range of appearances to throw potential mates off their scent. In an evolutionary battle of the sexes, males become attracted to a range of different looks, with some actually preferring a more masculine appearance.

More here.

The Passions of Robert Lowell

From The New York Times:Lowell

BY the time he died in 1977, expiring at the age of 60 in the back seat of a taxi on his way into New York City from Kennedy Airport, Robert Lowell had turned himself inside out in literature. Socially well connected and classically educated, with the bearing and voice of a disheveled senator, the highborn Bostonian wasn’t well and hadn’t been for years, but despite an exhausting life of marital blowups, manic-depressive breakdowns, political controversy and punishing hard work, he’d managed to invent along the way what came to be known as confessional poetry, a sort of orderly bleeding onto the page that in Lowell’s case combined erudition, anguish and mundane detail for an effect of aching, lurid uplift. The poems of his later, most distinctive period, which began with the publication of ”Life Studies” in 1959, inspired a long dominant mode whose best-known practitioners included two of his students, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. Lowell’s poems proved that if writing is a form of therapy, it’s a uniquely unsuccessful one, at least in medical terms, and that insights into the larger human predicament don’t guarantee their author a good night’s sleep, a stable marriage or a dignified passing. Winning Pulitzer Prizes and the like is no balm either. Nothing (even lithium, it seemed) could halt Lowell’s slide into miserable ill health and psychological chaos.

More here.

Gaddis, Gaddis, Gaddis

The good people at the Gaddis Annotations Project were kind enough to offer to post my New England Review essay, “Henry Thoreau, William Gaddis, and the buried history of an epigraph,” over in the interpretative essays section of their fabulous Gaddis site. I’m not just plugging the Gaddis Annotations site because they’ve posted my work – for anybody who’s interested in Gaddis, especially for those reading his work for the first time, the site is an invaluable resource for tracking down WG’s sometimes obscure references. The site is edited by Ron Dulin and Victoria Harding, and includes Steven Moore’s Reader’s Guide to William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, as well as his informal notes (and those of other readers) on Gaddis’s other novels. For more on Gaddis, try the defunct Gaddis Drinking Club – GDCer Bud Parr’s more recent work can be seen at the fine lit blog Chekhov’s Mistress.

Tsunami: Six Months On

From John Aglionby at The Observer.

Before the Boxing Day tsunami I’d never met anyone who had suffered so much that they had effectively lost their identity. In regular trips to the devastated regions in the last six months I’ve met thousands of such ‘ghosts’; once proud people reduced to bedraggled, grieving bodies dressed in donated clothes and kept alive by the world’s largesse.

It is only when one considers what it takes to rebuild someone’s identity that one gets a sense of the size of the reconstruction task in Aceh and North Sumatra, the Indonesian provinces that bore the brunt of the 26 December earthquake and tsunami.

Effigy Tumuli


I’ve become more and more obsessed with the Earthworks movement in art. Michael Heizer, whose City was profiled by Michael Kimmelman at the Times a few weeks ago and linked here at 3Quarks, has been one of its most important practitioners.

Another of his projects, Effigy Tumuli, is one of the largest sculptures in the world. It’s at the Buffalo Rock State Park in Illinois. It’s based on the ancient Mound Building practices of various Native American tribes.

‘How to Be Idle’: Being and Do-Nothingness

Jeffrey Steingarten in the New York Times:

For every hour of the day and night there is a different way of being idle, which is why Tom Hodgkinson has written his book in 24 chapters. At 8 a.m. (”Waking Up Is Hard to Do”), true idlers turn off their alarms, flop over in bed and go back to sleep. Hodgkinson is amazed that we voluntarily buy alarm clocks, which serve nobody but our employers. Nine a.m. is ”the time when someone, somewhere, decided that work should start.” And at 10 a.m. the idler is still sleeping in, living out Dr. Johnson’s incontestable dictum that ”the happiest part of a man’s life is what he passes lying awake in bed in the morning.”

The chief problem with modern life is not work in itself. It is jobs. In 1993 Hodgkinson founded the British magazine The Idler, on whose Web site he succinctly sums up the horrors of having a job: ”With a very few exceptions the world of jobs is characterized by stifling boredom, grinding tedium, poverty, petty jealousies, sexual harassment, loneliness, deranged co-workers, bullying bosses, seething resentment, illness, exploitation, stress, helplessness, hellish commutes, humiliation, depression, appalling ethics, physical fatigue and mental exhaustion.” Yes, that pretty much sums it up. On this we can all agree.

And the solution? Become an idler.

More here.

Hands Across the Himalayas

Michael Elliott in Time Magazine:

Mao_gandhiThe visit to India that starts this week by Wen Jiabao, China’s Premier, is being spun as a celebration of relations between Asia’s giants that are good, and getting better. Whatever the truth of that claim, this much is certain: very soon, meetings between the leaders of China and India will not be of merely regional interest. They will be watched by the whole world.

Combined, India and China account for nearly 40% of the world’s population. Fueled by turbo-charged growth, they are both consolidating their positions as central actors in the international economy. Inevitably, their economic heft will be accompanied by political influence. China is pursuing economic alliances everywhere from Southeast Asia to Latin America; India may well soon have a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Taken together, India’s and China’s rise to prominence is the great story of our time.

More here.

Moonage daydream?

Keiji Tachikawa, who was the president of NTT DoCoMo and now is the head of the Japanease space agency announced a 20 years plan that ends in a vision of our moon with humanoid robots inhabitants, all made in Japan:

As part of the plan, Japan would use advanced robotic technologies to help build the moon base, while redeveloped versions of today’s humanoid robots, such as Honda Motor Co. Ltd.’s Asimo and Sonys Qrio, could work in the moon’s inhospitable environment in place of astronauts, he said in a recent interview.

Japan’s lunar robots would do work such as building telescopes and prospecting and mining for minerals, Tachikawa said.

“I see a big role for Japan’s robotics technologies on the moon,” he said. “Japanese robots will be one of our big contributions. If there is work where robots can replace humans, they will.”

More here

Friday, June 24, 2005

The New World Order

Tony Judt in the New York Review of Books:

Bush_george20050714Those of us who opposed America’s invasion of Iraq from the outset can take no comfort from its catastrophic consequences. On the contrary: we should now be asking ourselves some decidedly uncomfortable questions. The first concerns the propriety of “preventive” military intervention. If the Iraq war is wrong—”the wrong war at the wrong time”[1] —why, then, was the 1999 US-led war on Serbia right? That war, after all, also lacked the imprimatur of UN Security Council approval. It too was an unauthorized and uninvited attack on a sovereign state—undertaken on “preventive” grounds—that caused many civilian casualties and aroused bitter resentment against the Americans who carried it out.

The apparent difference—and the reason so many of us cheered when the US and its allies went into Kosovo —was that Slobodan Milosevic had begun a campaign against the Albanian majority of Serbia’s Kosovo province that had all the hallmarks of a prelude to genocide. So not only was the US on the right side but it was intervening in real time—its actions might actually prevent a major crime. With the shameful memory of Bosnia and Rwanda in the very recent past, the likely consequences of inaction seemed obvious and far outweighed the risks of intervention. Today the Bush administration—lacking “weapons of mass destruction” to justify its rush to arms—offers “bringing freedom to Iraq” almost as an afterthought. But saving the Kosovar Albanians was what the 1999 war was all about from the start.

And yet it isn’t so simple.

More here.

Next stop, Forbidden City

Eliot Weinberger in the London Review of Books:

‘The poet,’ Gu Cheng wrote in 1987, ‘is just like the fabled hunter who naps beside a tree, waiting for hares to break their skulls by running headlong into the tree trunk. After waiting for a long time, the poet discovers that he is the hare.’ These words turned out to be prophetic; six years later, his terrible and sordid crash against the tree would nearly obliterate what had come before. He had been a major cultural figure in China; now his poems were being read as flashbacks from his death.

He was born in 1956 in Beijing, the son of a well-known poet and army officer, Gu Gong. At 12, he wrote a two-line poem, ‘One Generation’, which was to become an emblem of the new unofficial poetry:

Even with these dark eyes, a gift of the dark night
I go to seek the shining light1

In 1969, the Cultural Revolution sent his family into the salt desert of Shandong Province to herd pigs. The locals spoke a dialect Gu Cheng could not understand, and in his isolation he became absorbed in the natural world: ‘Nature’s voice became language in my heart. That was happiness.’ His favourite book was Jean-Henri Fabre’s 19th-century entomological notes and drawings; he collected insects and watched birds; he wrote poems in the sand with a twig, poems with titles like ‘The Nameless Little Flower’ or ‘The Dream of the White Cloud’.

More here.

Finnish Technology: Computer Screen Made From Fog

Tracy Staedter in Discovery News:

Fogscreen_zoomA new interactive computer touch screen uses fog as a projection medium instead of glass or plastic.

Such an immersive projection technology could have applications that range from walk-through advertisements to hygienic touch screens in operating rooms, where handling a keyboard or mouse could undermine sanitary conditions.

“The interactive screen is quite new and has not been used anywhere,” said Ismo Rakkolainen, chief technology officer at Seinäjoki, Finland-based Fogscreen, who together with Karri Palovuori of Tampere University of Technology developed the technology.

According to Rakkolainen, other screens made from fog have been developed, but remain non-interactive because the large water vapor particles they employ would create a damp experience for the user.

But Rakkolainen’s Fogscreen is a ceiling-mounted device that sprays a fine mist of tap water particles so small they feel dry to the touch.

The fog is contained to a rectangular shape because it is sandwiched between two layers of flowing air that keep it from dispersing.

More here.

Surviving a lightning strike

Joshua Foer in Slate:

050606_di_ledoux_tnJerry LeDoux is a guy you don’t really want to interview, because interviewing him means having to be near him, and that’s like planting yourself by a dartboard. The stone claw hanging from his neck attests to his grisly encounter with a bear’s jaw at a roadside park in August 1990. (His wife, Bee, brandishes a photo album that documents the mauling before he’s done telling the story.) The Purple Heart on his Navy Seals sniper hat testifies to the three bullets he took in Vietnam. The ugly black mark on his finger is evidence that he once air-nailed it to a floorboard. The scar on his left arm is proof that he accidentally screwed his flesh to the wall. The long knife wound on his hand? “Things happen,” he says. The most improbable of his many accidents is the one that left the least visible evidence—just a few white splotches on his arms and a discoloration near his hairline. But that doesn’t mean it’s easily forgotten. LeDoux rolls up his sleeve to show off a tattoo of a man getting struck by lightning engraved on his left bicep.

All LeDoux remembers about the moment he was struck in August 1999 is that he was standing ankle-deep in a puddle when he was overcome by an intensely bright light. He woke up a half-hour later, 20 feet away, with a vague taste of battery acid in his mouth, he said. The soles of his shoes had melted, his two-way radio had exploded, and several of his teeth had shattered. The medical ID tag he wore around his neck was melted into his chest.

More here.