Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Election Day

The Republican candidate for attorney general lost tonight to Jack Conway; his name was Todd P'Pool. It's a strange name, sure:
To be sure, his name is a bit of a distraction. Turns out he is from an old Kentucky family named Petitpool and the name got hyphenated along the way.

Gatewood Galbraith made another great showing for an independent or third-party candidate. Independent candidates are best when running to bring attention to issues, not necessarily to win. It's now a time when half of Americans favor legalizing marijuana. And as the two main candidates are trying to outdo each other on who can be the most meretriciously pro-coal, at least there's one person in the race talking about the external costs of mountaintop removal mining that we all have to deal with.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Ruins of Dunnottar Castle

Dunnottar Castle is an incredibly picturesque ruined castle on the eastern shore of Scotland. It isn't a classic motte-and-bailey or concentric castle with an elborate keep, but rather a well-fortified natural site surrounded by steep coastal cliffs, which adds to the drama of its present appearance.

UndiscoveredScotland.co.uk and Wikipedia have some great history and images of the castle, but an easy way to see the layout of the ruin is to look at Google Maps or some other images (1, 2, 3, 4).

Monday, October 17, 2011

Blog lifecycles

It's sometimes frustrating that 95% of blogs are abandoned after their authors lose interest:
The home run scenario for blogging is incredibly alluring -- thousands of ravenous fans fawning over your next thought-provoking or comedic masterpiece -- but time and time again I fail to meet these expectations or manage them more appropriately. I enter the same cycle each time:

Blog Lifecycle
1) Euphoric moment of inspiration
2) Pseudo-maniacal and self-indulgent perusing of domains
3) Careful consideration of theme and design
4) The inaugural post - "Hello world!"
5) The 2-4 post honeymoon phase
6) Waning and changing interests
7) Feelings of desperation and apathy from low engagement
8) Inevitable abandonment :(

It turns out that this cycle may not be uncommon. Surveys have shown that 95% of blogs are abandoned within 120 days and 60-80% of them abandoned within the first month.
Panglott's Garden has been running for some two and a half years, mostly because I think of it as an infrequently- and irregularly-published public commonplace book of interest to few, more than a blog of the Twitter Age.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

"Risk" on Hexagons

Some time ago, I was talking with a friend about the board game "Risk", and ventured into the world of alternate maps for the game as an introduction more complex rules variants. I'm still interested in putting together a more involved variant based on Sengoku-era Japan using a map of the ancient provinces of Japan. I still remember the ads for "Shogun" in my "Axis & Allies" box; I really wanted to play that game as a kid, which I see Avalon Hill/Hasbro has just re-issued as "Ikusa".

In any case, I wanted to explore whether symmetrical, abstract alternate maps based on hexagonal tilings would be interesting, which led to the project of translating the original "Risk" map onto an abstract hexagonal map. It doesn't work perfectly, though, since some territories take up two or three hexes.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Estimating the metric weather

Americans really have no need for metrification, since we use the same system everywhere. Most of us have to travel across an ocean, or at least to another country, before we have use for the metric system in everyday life, outside of specific contexts. And so I never really learned to make small talk about the weather in the metric system, even when I lived in a metric country for a year and a half.

But it's probably not all that hard to convert mentally: 5°C is 9°F. So a Celsius temperature in the low teens corresponds to a Fahrenheit temperature in the 50s, while a Celsius temperature in the high teens corresponds to a Fahrenheit temperature in the 60s.

0-5°C 32-41°F
5-10°C 41-50°F
10-15°C 50-59°F
15-20°C 59-68°F
20-25°C 68-77°F
25-30°C 77-86°F
30-35°C 86-95°F
35-40°C 95-104°F
40-45°C 104-113°F
45-50°C 113-122°F

More broadly, around here in Kentucky, temperatures in winter are usually in the 00s, spring in the 10s, summer in the 30s, and fall in the 20s. In Louisville it very rarely breaks 40°C, but when I was a kid in Oklahoma it sometimes got over 45°C, I remember seeing a record high of 49°C (120°F).

OTOH, the metric system is very useful in cooking, since a cup is 240 mL, a tablespoon 15 mL, and a teaspoon 5 mL.

It occurs to me the reason I never learned to estimate the temperature in Celsius, while living in a metric country, was that I spent much time precisely calculating the Celsius-to-Fahrenheit conversion. A simpler conversion, like "double the Celsius temperature and add 30" would have been better: quicker and easier and nearly as accurate.

Also, strikethough an egregious error :)

Monday, August 1, 2011

Debt ceiling, the euro, the economy

So, I guess liberals are supposed to be really upset about the debt ceiling deal that came out of last weekend to be voted on today/tomorrow. Dave Weigel has a guide to debt deal denunciations while Jonathan Bernstein explains liberal bitterness over the deal. But I don't see what the fuss is about.

In the beginning, President Obama wanted a grand bargain for $4 trillion in debt reduction over 10 years along with some small revenue increases. This deal doesn't have the revenue increases, but the spending cuts are also much less than in the grand bargain. The core of the cuts are something that would have been there regardless of whether or not there were revenue increases; the revenue increases were in there to sweeten the pot for even more spending cuts. The deal convenes a deficit commission that is very likely to pass through some revenue increases, or otherwise trigger automatic spending cuts that are mostly defense spending cuts. And defense spending should be cut at every possible chance: the US spends more on the military now than at any point during the height of the Cold War. See this graph from the Center for American Progress (or this one from the Heritage Foundation). The debt ceiling issue was a stupid, fake problem that only became a real economic issue through political hostage-taking over spending. It could impact the economy in several ways: by forcing a protracted government shutdown or austerity during a time of economic weakness that, by reducing government spending, reduces GDP and provokes a recession; by increassing the cost of financing government debt through a downgrade by the ratings agencies; through a (very unlikely) technical default; or via financial panic caused by any of that. All of these were overblown: only one of the three ratings agencies was ever threatening to downgrade US debt (all such companies have lost credibility following the mortgage crisis debacle, and the market prices of US debt, which are what actually matter, are fine). But the spending cuts in the debt ceiling deal are strongly weighted to 2013 and later, giving only a direct 0.04-0.4% drag to GDP. That's not great, but not apocalyptic absent other problems.

Meanwhile, the US economy is on pins and needles, since there was never a recovery from the last recession. Demand is weak, GDP is well below potential output, and employment never recovered, leading to a seemingly-permanent decline in trend GDP and the employment/population ratio. After the end of monetary stimulus in QE2, the softening economic numbers seem to be headed back towards recession.

And the really worrying problem continues to be the Eurozone. The deal announced July 22 to finally bring Greece into technical default, seems to have helped Greece, Ireland, and Portugal, but the Eurofail seems to be infecting Spain and Italy as badly as ever. As US manufacturing hit its lowest level in two years, the Eurozone is still collapsing.

It looks like the Italy-Germany bond spread is 2011's TED spread, but Spanish 10-year bonds are another measure of contagion.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Old Fort

It's been a while since I posted a dungeon map, but here's an old fort-cum-leper colony I used for some additional encounters in my Pathfinder campaign of The Coils of Set. I actually put this together at about the same time as the Wizard's Bastle, and it's similarly inspired by L-shaped towers. This Old Fort was part of a series of multipath, nonlinear dungeons: It's organized so there are multiple ways to travel between dungeon areas. Each level will fit on a GameMastery flip map; here it is from bottom to top.

Old Fort: Lower LevelsWhen I ran this dungeon recently, this level was warded with an old, permanent guards and wards spell, and patrolled by gas spores, gray oozes, violet fungi, and a mind slayer telepath. In each corner, a stairway leads up to small towers in the northeast, northwest, southwest, and southeast corners of the fort. In the central area of the dungeon, just to the north and south of the large middle chamber, there are two chambers with a large shaft running through them. In these rooms, a small shaft opens in the ceiling that opens to the courtyard above, and a 10-foot-wide pit opens to deeper areas. Below this level, there is just a simple raceway patrolled by gelatinous cubes and other garbage-eating oozes, for waste disposal.

Old Fort 1FGates to the east and west provide access to the fort's courtyard, which is defined by four small L-shaped towers. Each tower has stairs leading up, and down to the dungeon below, as well as prison cells, barracks, and other rooms (There's an error on the stairs on the western towers on this level: the stairs are reversed). Two wells in the courtyard are actually used for waste disposal, and lead through the dungeon below to ooze-pits.

Old Fort 2FSimilarly to the first floor, stairs lead up and down. Most of these chambers have shuttered arrow slits that serve as windows.

Old Fort 3FThe large rooms of the top floor would feel quite spacious if not for the fact that the walls and ceiling of these attics are the angled wooden walls of the roof, so much of the space is fairly awkward. Large windows overlook the landscape of the surrounding region.

Friday, June 24, 2011

RPGs—Kilderkin gnome

The following post is released under the OGL.

Kilderkin gnomes are an offshoot of the gnome race regarded by some as naive, innocent, and joyous, and by others as troublesome, larcenous tricksters. Less overtly magical than most of their gnome kin, they blend their brethren's immense curiosity, mischeviousness, and wanderlust with generous and kind-hearted spirit. Although commonly viewed with suspicion due to their reputation as petty thieves and shoplifters, kilderkin gnomes are not motivated by avarice; they simply cannot resist their obsession with palming and collecting small, sparkly, glittery things, and just do not understand the conventions of personal property. When confronted about their pickpocketing, they shyly return what they have taken, but learn nothing that will prevent them from lifting items in the future.

Kilderkin Gnome Racial Traits

Gnomekin: Kilderkin gnomes are humanoids with the gnome subtype.

+2 Constitution, +2 Charisma, –2 Strength: Kilderkin are physically weak but surprisingly hardy, and their attitude makes them naturally agreeable.

Small: Kilderkin are Small creatures and gain a +1 size bonus to their AC, a +1 size bonus on attack rolls, a –1 penalty to their Combat Maneuver Bonus and Combat Maneuver Defense, and a +4 size bonus on Stealth checks.

Slow Speed: Kilderkin have a base speed of 20 feet.

Low-Light Vision: Kilderkin can see twice as far as humans in conditions of dim light.

Defensive Training: Kilderkin get a +4 dodge bonus to AC against monsters of the giant type.

Fearless: Kilderkin receive a +2 racial bonus on all saving throws against fear.

Gnome Magic: Gnomes add +1 to the DC of any saving throws against illusion spells that they cast. Kilderkin gnomes with a Charisma of 11 or higher also gain the following spell-like abilities: 1/day—know direction, ghost sound, detect poison, and detect secret doors. The caster level for these effects is equal to the kilderkin's level. The DC for these spells is equal to 10 + the spell's level + the kilderkin's Charisma modifier.

Infuriating: Kilderkin receive a +2 racial bonus on Charisma-based skill checks to taunt, insult, or irritate others, or otherwise make others more hostile.

Keen Senses: Kilderkin receive a +2 racial bonus on Perception skill checks.

Light-fingered: Kilderkin receive a +2 racial bonus on Sleight of Hand skill checks.

Weapon Familiarity: Kilderkin gnomes treat any weapon with the word “gnome” in its name as a martial weapon.

Languages: Kilderkin begin play speaking Common and Gnome. Kilderkin with high Intelligence scores can choose from the following: Draconic, Dwarven, Elven, Giant, Goblin, Orc, and Sylvan.

Monday, June 20, 2011

"Tomatoland" & slavery

Here's an excerpt of Barry Estabrook's book Tomatoland:
Today's industrial tomatoes are as bereft of nutrition as they are of flavor. According to analyses conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, fresh tomatoes today have 30 percent less vitamin C, 30 percent less thiamin, 19 percent less niacin, and 62 percent less calcium than they did in the 1960s.

The best way to experience true tomato taste is to grow your own. Little wonder that tomatoes are by far the most popular vegetable for home gardeners, found in nearly nine out of 10 backyard plots. ...Not everyone can grow a garden or head out to a neighborhood farmers' market in search of the ideal tomato. But we all have an alternative to the sad offerings of commercial agriculture.

...Florida's tomato fields provide a stark example of what a food system looks like when all elements of sustainability are violated. ...If it were left up to the laws of botany and nature, Florida would be one of the last places in the world where tomatoes grow.

...Florida tomato workers, mostly Hispanic migrants, toil without union protection and get neither overtime, benefits, nor medical insurance. They are denied basic legal rights that virtually all other laborers enjoy. ...And conditions are even worse for some in Florida's tomato industry. In the chilling words of Douglas Molloy, chief assistant United States attorney in Fort Myers, South Florida's tomato fields are "ground zero for modern-day slavery." ...Workers were "sold" to crew bosses to pay off bogus debts, beaten if they didn't work, held in chains, pistol whipped, locked at night into shacks in chain-link enclosures patrolled by armed guards. Escapees who got caught were beaten or worse. Even though police have successfully prosecuted seven major slavery cases in the state in the last 15 years, those brought to justice were low-ranking contract field managers, themselves only one or two shaky rungs up the economic ladder from those they enslaved. The wealthy owners of the vast farms walked away scot-free. They expressed no public regrets, let alone outrage, that such conditions existed on operations they controlled. But we all share the blame. When I asked Molloy if it was safe to assume that a consumer who has eaten a fresh tomato from a grocery store, fast food restaurant, or food-service company in the winter has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave, he corrected my choice of words. "It's not an assumption. It is a fact."
But RTWT. Here's another excerpt, a review or two, and an interview. The book is an expansion of Eastabrook's March 2009 "Gourmet" article The Price of Tomatoes, which describes the case of one worker who was forced into debt slavery. There Eastabrook offers this advice on buying slave-free fruits:
In the warm months, the best solution is to follow that old mantra: buy seasonal, local, and small-scale. But what about in winter? So far, Whole Foods is the only grocery chain that has signed on to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) Campaign for Fair Food, which means that it has promised not to deal with growers who tolerate serious worker abuses and, when buying tomatoes, to a pay a price that supports a living wage. When shopping elsewhere, you can take advantage of the fact that fruits and vegetables must be labeled with their country of origin. Most of the fresh tomatoes in supermarkets during winter months come from Florida, where labor conditions are dismal for field workers, or from Mexico, where they are worse, according to a CIW spokesman. One option during these months is to buy locally produced hydroponic greenhouse tomatoes, including cluster tomatoes still attached to the vine. Greenhouse tomatoes are also imported from Mexico, however, so check signage or consult the little stickers often seen on the fruits themselves to determine their source. You can also visit the CIW’s information-packed website (ciw-online.org) if you are interested in becoming part of the coalition’s efforts.
Here's CIW's anti-slavery campaign. CIW is probably most famous here in Louisville for the pressure on Yum! and Taco Bell a few years ago. I vaguely recall the "Gourmet" story, too; I guess this is something that has been dancing around my consciousness for a while, but Eastabrooks dials it up. Perhaps it's because the tomato issue is usually framed in terms of wage negotiations, but Eastabrook discusses it in terms of human slavery. A review: "(Says Estabrook: 'If you have ever eaten a tomato during the winter months, you have eaten a fruit picked by a slave.')"

The 2003 New Yorker story Nobodies covering the investigation and trial of several slavers. This is an old story, writes David von Drehle:
On the day after Thanksgiving, 1960, legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow took millions of Americans into the tomato fields of Florida via the landmark CBS documentary “Harvest of Shame.” He began by quoting a farmer who said, “We used to own our slaves. Now we just rent them.” And he ended with the idea that an outraged public might press for meaningful laws to protect the migrant workers “who harvest your fruits and vegetables.”

More than half a century later, journalist Barry Estabrook has returned to those fields and reports that things are no better...

When I was a young reporter at The Miami Herald in the 1980s, we wrote exposes from Immokalee and Clewiston and other hubs of South Florida agriculture. The generation before us had written those same pieces, and the generation before them, too. Anyone who believes that journalists have great power to should try reading everything that has been written on this sad subject, going back to Ernie Pyle’s 1940 visit, when he observed “pigpens filled with humans” in the “Florida version of ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ ”

But Estabrook bears witness again, and tells the story well. ...he taught me a lot—not just about farmer’s markets and heirloom tomatoes. I learned that even in the most soulless supermarket you can find better-tasting tomatoes grown in appropriate climates. You just have to look in the canned vegetables aisle.

Yes, canned tomatoes are superior to the smooth, red orbs in the produce section. They’re grown in the suitably dry air of California and allowed to ripen before they are picked and processed.
Mark Bittman concurs on The True Cost of Tomatoes:
The tomato fields of Immokalee are vast and surreal. An unplanted field looks like a lousy beach: the “soil,” which is white sand, contains little in the way of nutrients and won’t hold any water. To grow tomatoes there requires mind-boggling amounts of fertilizers, fungicides and pesticides (on roughly the same acreage of tomatoes, Florida uses about eight times as many chemicals as California). The tomatoes are, in effect, grown hydroponically, and the sand seems useful mostly as a medium for holding stakes in place.

...The breakthrough for the CIW came in 2005, when after enormous consumer pressure Yum! Brands, which controls Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC, signed the agreement. (And you know what? Good for them.) Since then, Subway, McDonald’s, Burger King, the country’s largest food service operators (Sodexo, Aramark and Compass Group) and Whole Foods have signed as well.

Progress, clearly. What’s missing are traditional supermarket chains, and the CIW has targeted — largely for geographical reasons — Ahold (the parent company of Stop & Shop and Giant); Publix (the dominant chain in Florida); Kroger (next to Wal-Mart the biggest food retailer in the country); and Trader Joe’s...).

Most of us eat or buy industrially produced tomatoes, and it doesn’t seem too much to ask that the people who pick them for us be treated a little more fairly. Speak to your supermarket manager or write to the head of the chain you patronize (the easiest way to do this is to visit this page on the CIW site). Supermarkets, I expect, are as susceptible to public pressure as fast-food chains.
Our back yard is really shady, and so gardening didn't work out last year; I had been thinking of waiting until next year to put in new garden beds in a sunnier spot. It's really late in the season, but I went ahead and planted three tomato plants yesterday.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Book Snippets: "Battle Cry of Freedom" - Political parties

In a couple of my posts here on electoral reform, I've referred to some contemporary dissatisfactions about political parties. That contemporary parties do not represent a pure (or even coherent) ideological position, but rather a mishmash of ideas that can be manipulated or exploited by elites, corrupt elements, or the powers that be.

James M. McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom" (Oxford UP, 1988) has an interesting (if somewhat orthogonal passage) on the role of political parties in the Union and Confederacy:
Formal political parties did not exist in the Confederacy. This state of affairs arose from two main causes: the erosion of the two-party system in the 1850s and the perceived need for a unified front during the emergencies of secession and war. Southerners considered this circumstance a source of strength. ...But in fact, as historians now recognize, the absence of parties was actually a source of weakness. In the North the two-party system disciplined and channeled political activity. The Republican party became the means for mobilizing war resources, raising taces, creating a new financial system, initiating emancipation, and enacting conscription. Democrats opposed most of these measures; the existence of this well-defined opposition caused Republicans to close ranks when the chips were down. Because measures were supported or opposed by parties, voters could identify those responsible for them and register their approval or disapproval at the polls by voting a party ticket. Both parties, of course, used their well-oiled machinery to rally voters to their side. In the Confederacy, by contrast, the Davis administration had no such means to mobilize support. No parties meant no institutionalized discipline over congressmen or governors. Davis could not invoke party loyalty and patronage in behalf of his policies, as Lincoln could. Opposition to the Davis administration became personal or factional and therefore difficult to deal with.

In the North, where nearly all state governors were Republicans, the ties of party bound them to the war effort. In the South the obstructionist activities of several governors hindered the centralized war effort because the centrifugal tendencies of state's rights were not restrained by the centripetal force of party. The Confederate Constitution limited the president to a single six-year term, so Davis had little reason to create a party organization for re-election. Such government policies as conscription, impressment, the tax in kind, and management of finances were the main issues in the congressional elections of 1863. Opposition candidates ran on an individual rather than a party basis, and the government could not muster political artillery to shoot at all these scattered targets. (689-690)
This implies that the main function of the party system is not to represent coherent ideological positions, but rather to focus support for or opposition to the governing party. And indeed, even aside from Duverger's law, it seems to me that the main distinction between the parties is governing vs. opposition. The two contemporary parties have a governing form and an opposition form that contrast with each other, which helps explains Jane's Law: "The devotees of the party in power are smug and arrogant. The devotees of the party out of power are insane."

Following the Civil War, the Republican Party was the leading governing party in the North (while the Democratic Party was the main opposition party there), while the Democratic Party was the leading governing party in the South (while the Republican Party was the main opposition party there. The Democratic Party was a famously Southern agent of Jim Crow and white supremacism until the 1960s. But as for the contemporary parties, it's almost as if the old governing-party form of each withered away and disappeared, leaving the opposition-party form as the new governing party in each section. For whatever sectionalism remains, the Democratic Party has become the leading governing party in the northeastern United States, while the Republican Party has become the leading governing party in the southeastern United States.

Book Snippets: "Battle Cry of Freedom" - Musket to rifle

James M. McPherson explains, in "Battle Cry of Freedom" (Oxford UP, 1988), that the shift from musket to rifle just before the American Civil War caused a shift from offensive infantry charges with bayonet to defensive tactics. "The rifle and trench ruled Civil War battlefields as thoroughly as the machine-gun and trench ruled those of World War I," he says (477). In one battle later in the war, a defensive line of three trenches crawling with riflemen achieved a rate of fire on charging troops nearly equivalent to machine-gun fire, and Lee's army met its eventual defeat in the grueling trench warfare around Petersburg, Virginia. McPherson:
One reason for the high casualties of Civil War battles was the disparity between traditional tactics and modern weapons. The tactical legacy of eighteenth-century and Napoleonic warfare had emphasized close-order formations of soldiers trained to maneuver in concert and fire by volleys. To be sure, some of the citizen-soldiers of the American Revolution fought Indian-style from behind trees or rocks, and the half-trained levée en masse of the French Revolution advanced in loose order like "clouds of skirmishers." But they did so mainly because they lacked training and discipline; the ideal for Washington's Continentals and Napoleon's veterans as well as Frederick's Prussians and Wellington's redcoats remained the compact, cohesive columns and lines of automatons who moved and fired with machine-like efficiency.

These tactics also stressed the offensive. Assault troops advanced with cadenced step, firing volleys on command and then double-timing the last few yards to pierce the enemy line with bayonet charge. Napoleon used his artillery in conjunction with infantry assaults, moving the field guns forward with the foot soldiers to blast holes in enemy ranks and soften them up for the final charge. Americans used these tactics with great success in the Mexican War. West Point teaching stressed the tactical offensive. Most of the top Civil War officers had fought in Mexico and/or had attended West Point; from both experiences they had absorbed the message that the tactical offensive based on close-order infantry assaults supported by artillery won battles.

In Mexico this happened without high casualties because the basic infantry weapons was the single-shot muzzle-loading smoothbore musket. The maximum range of this weapon was about 250 yards; its effective range (the distance at which a good marksman could hit a target with any regularity) was about eighty yards on a still day. The close-order formation was therefore necessary to concentrate the firepower of these inaccurate weapons; artillery could accompany charging infantry because cannoneers were relatively safe from enemy musket fire until they came within a couple of hundred yards or less; bayonet charges could succeed because double-timing infantry could cover the last eighty yards during the twenty-five seconds it took defending infantrymen to reload their muskets after firing a volley.

Rifling a musket increased its range fourfold by imparting a spin to a conical bullet that enabled it literally to bore through the air. This fact had been known for centuries, but before the 1850s only special regiments or one or two companies per regiment were equipped with rifles. These companies were used as skirmishers—that is, they operated in front and on the flanks of the main body, advancing or withdrawing in loose order and shooting at will from long range at enemy targets of opportunity. Given the rifle's greater range and accuracy, why were not all infantrymen equipped with it? Because a bullet large enough to "take" the rifling was difficult to ram down the barrel. Riflemen sometimes had to pound the ramrod down with a mallet. After a rifle had been fired a few times a residue of powder built up in the grooves and had to be cleaned out before it could be fired again. Since rapid and reliable firing was essential in battle, the rifle was not practicable for the mass of infantrymen.

Until the 1850s, that is. Although several people contributed to the development of a practicable military rifle, the main credit belongs to French army Captain Claude E. Minié and to the American James M. Burton, an armorer at the Harper's Ferry Armory. In 1848 Minié perfected a bullet small enoguh to be easily rammed down a rifled barrel, with a wooden plug in the base of the bullet to expand it upon firing to take the rifling. Such bullets were expensive; Burton developed a cheaper and better bullet with a deep cavity in the base that filled with gas and expanded the rim upon firing. This was the famous "minié ball" of Civil War rifles. The superiority of the rifle was demonstrated by British and French soldiers who carried them in the Crimean War. As Secretary of War in 1855, Jefferson Davis converted the United States army to the .58 caliber Springfield rifled musket. Along with the similar British Enfield rifle (caliber .577, which would take the same bullet as the Springfield, the Springfield became the main infantry arm of the Civil War.

...Northern industry geared up to manufacture more than two million rifles during the war; unable to produce more than a fraction of this total, the South relied mainly on imports through the blockade and on capture of Union rifles. In 1861 neither side had many rifles, so most solidiers carried old smoothbores taken from storage in arsenals. During 1862, most Union regiments received new Springfields or Enfields, while many Confederate units still had to rely on smoothbores. ...By 1863 nearly all infantrymen on both sides carried rifles.

The transition from smoothbore to rifle had two main effects: it multiplied casualties; and it strengthened the tactical defensive. Officers trained and experienced in the old tactics were slow to recognize these changes. Time and again generals on both sides ordered close-order assaults in the traditional formation. With an effective range of three or four hundred yards, defenders firing rifles decimated these attacks.Artillery declined in importance as an offensive weapon, because its accuracy and the reliability of shells at long range was poor, and the gund could no longer advance with the infantry toward enemy lines, for marksmen could pick off cannoneers and especially the horses at distances up to half a mile. Sharpshooters also singled out enemy officers, which helps to explain why officers and especially generals had higher casualty rates than privates. ...The old-fashioned cavalry charge against infantry, already obsolescent, became obsolete in the face of rifles that could knock down horses long before their riders got within saber or pistol range. The Civil War hastened the evolution of dismounted cavalry tactics in which the horse was mainly a means of transportation rather than a weapon in its own right. (472-475)

Book Snippets: "Battle Cry of Freedom" - American Industrialization

As noted before, James M. McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom" (Oxford UP, 1988) is a fantastic book. And a great deal of its value derives from McPherson's excellent, well-crafted prose. Later in the book, McPherson briefly describes dozens of battles with great clarity and freshness and remarkably little repetition. He's able to succintly and evocatively summarize complex trends in a page or two, or overview a debated topic simply.

For example, McPherson describes the momentous "transportation revolution" of the first half of the 19th century, which began with overland travel limited to muddy wagon tracks and rivers, followed by a massive network of railroads and canals enabling fast shipping from the western frontier to the coast. Communication that had been limited to the postal service and couriers on horseback was revolutionized by a telegraph network that allowed the instantaneous nationwide communication of prices, allowing price disparities in distant parts of the country to by arbitraged away by traders. So...
The transportation revolution refashioned the economy. As late as 1815, Americans produced on their farms or in their homes most of the things they consumed, used, or wore. Most clothing was sewn by mothers and daughters, made from cloth that in many cases they had spun and woven themselves by the light of candles they had dipped or by natural light coming in through windows in houses built of local materials from a nearby sawmill or brickyard by local carpenters or masons or by the male members of the household. Shoes were made by members of the family or by the village cordwainer from leather cured at a local tannery. Blacksmiths forged the tools and farm implements used in the community. Even firearms were built with handicraft skill and pride by a nearby craftsman. In larger towns and cities, master tailors or shoemakers or cabinetmakers or wheelwrights presided over small shops where they worked with a few journeymen and an apprentice or two who turned out fine custom or "bespoke" goods for wealthier purchasers. In an age of slow and expensive overland transport, few of these items were sold more than twenty miles from where they were made.

This pre-industrial world could not survive the transportation revolution, which made possible a division of labor and specialization of production for ever larger and more distant markets. More and more farmers specialized in crops for which their soil and climate were most suitable. With all the cash from sale of these crops they bought food and clothing and hardware previously made locally or by themselves but now grown, processed, or manufactured elsewhere and shipped in by canal or rail. To sow and reap these specialized crops, farmers bought newly invented seed drills, cultivators, mowers, and reapers that burgeoning farm machinery industry turned out in ever-increasing numbers.

In towns and cities, entrepreneurs who became known as "merchant capitalists" or "industrialists" reorganized or standardized the production of a variety of goods for large-volume sale in regional and eventually national markets. Some of these new entrepreneurs came from the ranks of master craftsmen who now planned and directed the work of employees to whom they paid wages by the day or by the piece instead of sharing with the work of fabricating a product and the proceeds of its sale. Other merchant capitalists and industrialists had little or not prior connection with the "trade" (shoemaking, tailoring, etc.). They were businessmen who provided capital and organizing skills to restructure an enterprise in a more efficient manner. This restructuring took various forms, but had one dominant feature in common: The process of making a product (shoes or furniture, for example), which had previously been performed by one or a few skilled craftsmen, was broken down into numerous steps each requiring limited skills and performed by a separate worker. Sometimes the worker did his task with hand tools, but increasingly with the aid of power-driven machinery.

...Whatever the precise mixture of power machinery and hand tools, of central shop and putting out, the main characteristics of production were division and specialization of labor, standardization of product, greater discipline of the labor force, improved efficiency, higher volume, and lower costs. These factors reduced wholesale commodity prices by 45 percent from 1815 to 1860. During the same years consumer prices declined even more, by an estimated 50 percent.

By 1860 the nascent outline of the modern American economy of mass consumption, mass production, and capital-intensive agriculture was visible. Its development had been uneven across different regions and industries. It was far from complete even in the most advanced sections of the country like New England, where many village blacksmiths and old-time shoemakers could still be found. On the frontier west of the Mississippi and on many internal frontiers in the older sections where the transportation revolution had not yet penetrated–the upland and piney woods regions of the South, for example, or the forests of Maine and the Adirondacks–it had scarcely begun. Many Americans still lived in a nearly self-sufficient handicraft, premarket economy not much different from what their grandparents had known. But the advanced sectors of the economy had already given the United States the world's highest standard of living and the second-highest industrial output, closing in fast on their British counsins despite the latter's half-century head start in the industrial revolution. (13-15)
Several explanations have been proposed for the unique, capital-intensive, mechanized pattern of development in the United States, McPherson explains: the scarcity of labor, which made laborers open to invention and mechanization, the sheer wealth of capital available in the form of natural resources, and high levels of education. (17-18)

Later, McPherson notes that the "South's defensive-aggressive temper in the 1850s stemmed in part from a sense of economic subordination to the North", since the North's economy appeared to be developing much faster than the South's (91):
Contemporaries and historians have advanced several explanations for this "failure of industrialization in the slave economy," as the subtitle of a recent study has termed it. ...Other accounts of southern industrialization have focused not on deficiencies of labor or of demand but on a lack of capital. Capital was abundant in the South, to be sure: in 1860, according to the census measure of wealth (real and personal property), the average southern white male was nearly twice as wealthy as the average northern white man. The problem was that most of this wealth was invested in land and slaves. ...A northerner described the investment cycle of the Southern economy: "To sell cotton in order to buy negroes–to make more cotton to buy more negroes, 'ad infinitum,' is the aim and direct tendency of all operations of the thorough going cotton planter." (95-97)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

"Cave of Forgotten Dreams" and atlatls

Werner Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" was a great movie. It seemed like the first time that I really got my money's worth for a 3D movie.1 All these summer action movies that are using 3D favor wide open, expansive shots, perhaps to give it an "epic" feel. But since strong foreground/background contrast is rare, most of the 3D effect manifests itself as brief gimmicky-seeming shots where a spear seems to swing out toward the audience. "Cave", by contrast, depicts an enclosed space, where there is always strong contrast between foreground and background, so the 3D effect is quite pronounced; at times it seems like you're looking into a box.

And it is used to good effect. The Neolithic art in the cave was not painted on a flat surface, but undulating walls, curved stalactites, and rock curtains. The 3D effect provides a lot of useful visual information about how the art fits into the cave. And it's amazing, as light and shadow play over the space: in one scene, we can see a painting of a rhinoceros on the far wall. Nearer to the viewer, a sheet of rock juts out, on which is painted a pair of lions: it looks as if we are witnessing the lions sneak up on the rhinoceros from behind the cover of stone.

In the end, 3D does seem gimmicky, even though it's used well in this film. Film remains a two-dimensional medium, and the 3D effect is a visual trick: by the end of the movie, the effect became so disorienting that I had to take my glasses off and look away for a moment to readjust.

Herzog finds some really wonderfully nerdy people, like the experimental archaeologist and the fragrance expert. I do wish there was more atlatl: they are awesome. An atlatl dart is like a precursor to the bow and arrow, in which the energy stored and released in the flexing bow is instead stored and released in the flexing atlatl missile. IIRC, the atlatl dart in flight has a somewhat lower velocity than an arrow, but a much greater mass, so an atlatl dart can have greater penetration of the target. While atlatl darts may be better against large game, it's easier to carry numerous arrows than the larger darts. Fortunately the World Atlatl Association has some members across the river from Louisville.

MAKE also has a weekend project video on making atlatls, and YouTube has some videos of successful hunts with them of emu, bison, and hog.

1. I also enjoyed "Coraline", but the 3D there also seemed like a more gimmicky use of the effect.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Bilingualism, brain health, and mental training

In America, we live in one of the few countries where most of the population is exclusively monolingual. Bilingualism and multilingualism are more the human norm. Jared Diamond writes, in The Benefits of Multilingualism (Science, 330:6002 (15 October 2010), 332-333.):
Multilingualism—the ability to understand and speak several languages—is exceptional in the United States but common elsewhere, especially in small-scale traditional societies. For instance, once while I was camped with some New Guinea Highlanders conversing simultaneously in several local languages, I asked each man to name each language in which he could converse. It turned out that everyone present spoke at least 5 languages, and the champion was a man who spoke 15. What are the cognitive effects of such multilingualism? Recent studies (1–5) show that children raised bilingually develop a specific type of cognitive benefit during infancy, and that bilingualism offers some protection against symptoms of Alzheimer's dementia in old people.

...Our minds are assaulted by varied sights, sounds, and other external sensory inputs, plus thoughts and proprioreceptive sensations (which make us aware of the relative positions of our own body parts) (see the figure). To succeed in doing anything at all, we must temporarily inhibit 99% of those inputs and attend to just 1% of them, and the appropriate choice varies with the circumstances. That selective attention involves a set of processes, termed executive function, that reside in the prefrontal cortex and develop especially over the first 5 years of life.

Multilingual people have a special challenge involving executive function. Monolinguals hearing a word need only compare it with their single stock of arbitrary phoneme (sound) and meaning rules, and when uttering a word they draw it from that single stock. ...Multilinguals participating in a multilingual conversation...switch frequently and unpredictably between their stocks of phoneme/meaning rules. As a result, multilinguals have constant unconscious practice in using the executive function system.
Such pervasive multilingualism can cause enormous cross-pollination and "covergent evolution" in languages. Bill Foley says, in More on Papuan Languages:
Somewhere close to a quarter of the total of the world's languages are spoken in the New Guinea region-about 1100 languages. ...The small size of many Papuan speaking speech communities has often led to persistent multilingualism in the language of adjoining communities, the development of trade jargons for interlanguage communication or the shifting of language allegiance to languages of more powerful or economically advantaged neighbours. In such a complex, fragmented linguistic situation, Papuan languages not unexpectedly exhibit a pattern of enormous cross-influence in all areas. All types of linguistic features, basic vocabulary, pronouns, grammatical patterns, discourse styles can be and have been borrowed from one language into another. This makes the establishment of genetic links among Papuan languages doubly difficult: with no documentation for the vast majority of them older than 50 years, it is problematic indeed to sift what is true genetically inherited material from what is borrowed from other languages, especially borrowing from genetically related contiguous languages or borrowings centuries old from now deceased languages.
Diamond cites the research of Ellen Bialystok; LanguageLog and languagehat point us to The Bilingual Advantage, a Q&A with Bialystok at the NYT:
Q. One of your most startling recent findings is that bilingualism helps forestall the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. How did you come to learn this?

We did two kinds of studies. In the first, published in 2004, we found that normally aging bilinguals had better cognitive functioning than normally aging monolinguals. Bilingual older adults performed better than monolingual older adults on executive control tasks. That was very impressive because it didn’t have to be that way. It could have turned out that everybody just lost function equally as they got older.

That evidence made us look at people who didn’t have normal cognitive function. In our next studies , we looked at the medical records of 400 Alzheimer’s patients. On average, the bilinguals showed Alzheimer’s symptoms five or six years later than those who spoke only one language. This didn’t mean that the bilinguals didn’t have Alzheimer’s. It meant that as the disease took root in their brains, they were able to continue functioning at a higher level. They could cope with the disease for longer.
Which reminds me somewhat of the Gizmodo post How to Make Yourself Smarter in 20 Days, which highlights the use of n-back mental training exercises for 20 minutes a day for 20 days to increase fluid intelligence for three months. Not that I've tried it, but Brain Workshop vaguely reminds me of electronic flashcards and spaced repetition software like Anki, for memorization. Executive control, fluid intelligence, and vocabulary memorization are all very different, but it seems like 20 minutes a day of abstract memory practice would get pretty boring, and something language-related may be more interesting.

Brain Calisthenics for Abstract Ideas (NYT)

Conlanging is a great excuse to not write

Conlanging is perhaps the best excuse ever invented for NOT writing. Many of the people attracted to this hobby are science fiction or fantasy writers or other people who have reason to invent a detailed, verisimilistic fantasy world. Language can contribute to that in powerful ways; creating and using a coherent naming language or some phrases can help evoke a sense that the author is describing a dynamic, existant, alien world.

But it's very easy to go way overboard with this. Many writers spend as much or more time seeking excuses to avoid writing, because writing is hard. It's an inclination perfectly skewered by Merlin Mann's parody of distraction-free writing environments (via forkbombr via DF):
While some so-called environments that are less free of distraction may display one, three, or even more lines of text—all at the same time—we understand that if you could only achieve the theoretical removal of all theoretical distractions, you would finally be able to write something. And we want ū— to help you almost do that.

...We also understand that the only way to truly remove an unproductive distraction is to replace it with potentially dozens of more highly productive distractions.

That’s why ū— provides the theoretically serious writer with an incomparably powerful range of options, preferences, and customizations that can literally be tweaked forever without writing a single word—let alone half a character.

Conlanging may be similar to this kind of trap: A language is such a complicated thing that you can fiddle with how it handles voice, aspect, and morphology forever, rather than making a decision and going with it. Which is the perfect excuse not to spend the time working on plot, character, or dialogue.

Nonetheless, I certainly do wish that many more writers would pay more attention to the quality of their linguistic writing. Coherent naming languages would be an enormous improvement over the standard practice in science fiction of presenting gobbledygook as language (as Huttese) or sprinkling words with apostrophes, Qs, and Xs in order to exoticize weak linguistic writing (as Punctuation Shaker). The recent introduction of conlanging to film is a good step in this direction, be it neo-Sindarin or Na'vi.

Or David J. Petersen's Dothraki, created for the HBO tv adaptation of novelist and executive producer George R.R. Martin's "A Game of Thrones". I wasn't impressed by the quality of the linguistic writing on the show at first; the names were mostly warmed-over, exoticized English. When the first words of Dothraki dialogue was spoken, I was amazed because the sophistication of the linguistic writing there was so much higher than the rest of the show. And so it didn't surprise me to learn that the producers had hired someone besides Martin to write the Dothraki language and dialogue.

But it helps demonstrate how different these types of writing are: solid linguistic writing, as in a good naming language, is good for a fantasist. But conlanging is a more specialized, time-consuming, (and non-remunerative) type of artistic writing.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Approximating π

The ancient fraction for estimating π, 22/7, is only accurate to two decimal places! Terrible, right? Well, that's about 0.04% too big. The common estimate of π to 5 digits (3.14159) is about 99.9999% of the true value. The fraction 355/113 is 0.0000085% too big. How terrible is that?

If you're trying to estimate the number of square feet in a circle with a radius of 100 feet, the fraction 22/7 adds 12.6 square feet to the true total of about 31,416 square feet. Using π to five digits to approximate the area is less than four square inches short of the true total. Using the ratio 355/113 instead of π to approximate the area overestimates the area by little more than a third of a square inch.

Say you're trying to cut a length of rope to go around a sphere the size of the Earth, and you know that the mean radius of the Earth is 6,371 km. If you use the ratio 355/113 to estimate π, then the 20,015-kilometer rope that you cut will be about a meter and a half too long. Measuring a length of rope that long is probably a bigger problem than the error in 355/113 as an approximation of π.

Wikipedia says:
...the decimal representation of π truncated to 11 decimal places is good enough to estimate the circumference of any circle that fits inside the Earth with an error of less than one millimetre, and the decimal representation of π truncated to 39 decimal places is sufficient to estimate the circumference of any circle that fits in the observable universe with precision comparable to the radius of a hydrogen atom.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

2011 Derby Disclosure

Midnight Interlude, Dialed In, and Nehro. With three wins out of the last four Derbies, it's hard not to go with Calvin Borel on Twice the Appeal.

It was Animal Kingdom: Nehro placed.

Friday, May 6, 2011

2011 Kentucky Oaks Disclosure

Zazu, along with Lilacs and Lace and Kathmanblu.

Zazu showed.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Road to the Kentucky Derby

The links in last year's Derby post are mostly still useful this year. But in the months leading up to Derby, there are a number of important Triple Crown prep races that test and prepare the 2011 Kentucky Derby contenders This year, Uncle Mo was an early favorite and the first to get his own Wikipedia page.

Before the colts are three, they're two years old. The Breeder's Cup Juvenile is held in November the year before. Uncle Mo won in 2010 (video); Street Sense had won in 2006 before winning the Kentucky Derby the following year. Also, the American Champion Two-Year-Old Colt is awarded as part of the Eclipse Awards (which also has an award for fillies); Uncle Mo won in 2010; Street Sense had won in 2006.

The major prep races leading up to the Kentucky Derby begin at the end of March and run through April; all are 9 furlongs on dirt, except the Blue Grass Stakes, which is now run on synthetic polytrack.
  • The Wood Memorial Stakes (top three) is held in mid-April at Aqueduct Racetrack in New York. In 2011, Uncle Mo was heavily favored to win, but in a big upset showed while Toby's Corner won and Arthur's Tale placed (video). In the past, 11 winners have gone on to win the Kentucky Derby, four of whom captured the Triple Crown.
  • The Arkansas Derby (top three) is held in April at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas. In 2011, Archarcharch won (video).
  • The Blue Grass Stakes (top three) is held at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky. Brilliant Speed won in 2011 (video).
  • The Florida Derby (top three) is held at the end of March or the beginning of April. In 2011, Dialed In won (video).
  • The Louisiana Derby (top three) is held in early March at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, Louisiana. In 2011, Pants on Fire won (video).
  • The Santa Anita Derby (top three) is held in April at Santa Anita Park in California north of Los Angeles. The winner in 2011 was Midnight Interlude (video).
  • The Illinois Derby (top three) is held in April at Hawthorne outside Chicago, Illinois. Joe Vann won in 2011 (video).
Looking at the videos, Nehro had good performances at the Louisiana Derby and Arkansas Derby, which would seem to bode well for the long, 10-furlong Kentucky Derby.

Other notable prep races include the Tropical Park Derby (January, 2011), Fountain of Youth Stakes(March), Tampa Bay Derby (March), and Holy Bull Stakes (April) in Florida; the San Felipe Stakes (March) in California; and the Southwest Stakes (February) and Rebel Stakes (March) in Arkansas.

2010 Kentucky Derby

In 2010, the top three finishers were Super Saver, Ice Box, and Paddy O'Prado.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

More whistled language: Pirahã

It's been a long time since I've posted anything about whistled language and palatal whistling; I managed to do some basic palatal whistling, but my skill plateaued at a very rudimentary level.

Recently, though, I was reminded of this old discussion of Pirahã channels on LanguageLog, which has recordings of musical and whistled modes of Pirahã, among many other posts on the language (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7).

Daniel Everett has a collection of Pirahã audio and video at his old Web page at Illinois State University.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Book Snippets: "Battle Cry of Freedom" - Pro-War, Pro-Horsemen

I've been reading James M. McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom" (Oxford UP, 1988) as a review to begin my sesquicentennial homework. I'm only a couple of chapters in, and it's great. In the second chapter, he overviews the impact of the Mexican War: in the late 1840s and 1850s, the political parties divided along sectional lines over whether to allow slavery to expand into into the territory acquired in the war. The Whigs had opposed the war, and broke up in the domestic aftermath of the conflict. Here's McPherson citing a Whig congressman ironically expressing his feelings on the Mexican War:
"Mr. Polk's War" evoked opposition from Whigs in Congress, who voted against the resolution affirming a state of war with Mexico in May 1846. After the Democratic majority passed this resolution, however, however, most Whigs supported appropriations for the armies confronting enemy forces. Having witnessed the disappearance of the Federalist party after it opposed the War of 1812, a Whig congressman said sardonically that he now favored "war, pestilence, and famine." (47)
Like any patriotic and loyal American, he favors the war. As he favors the plague, the famine, and the death. Brilliant.

Book Snippets: "The Sumerians"—Enki, Nin-ti, and Eve

Samuel Noah Kramer, in "The Sumerians: Their History, Culture and Character" (U of Chicago P, 1964), makes occasional connections between Sumerian and Biblical mythology, citing for example a connection between Dumuzi and the Tammuz mentioned in Ezekiel 8:14-15. Another is an interesting similarity between the Sumerian and Biblical creation myth:
One of the more detailed and revealing of the Sumerian myths concerns the organization of the universe by Enki, the Sumerian water-god and god of wisdom... Another Enki myth tells an intricate and as yet somewhat obscure tale involving the paradise-land Dilmun, perhaps to be identified with ancient India. Very briefly sketched, the plot of this Sumerian "paradise" myth, which treats of gods, not humans, runs as follows:

Dilmun is a land that is "pure," clean," and bright," a "land of the living" which knows neither sickness nor death. What is lacking, however, is the fresh water so essential to animal and plant life. The great Sumerian water-god, Enki, therefore orders Utu, the sun-god, to fill it with fresh water brought up from the earth. Dilmun is thus turned into a divine garden, green with fruit-laden fields and meadows.

In this paradise of the gods eight plants are made to sprout by Ninhursag, the great mother-goddess of the Sumerians, perhaps originally Mother Earth. She succeeds in bringing these plants into being only after an intricate process involving three generations of goddesses, all conceived by the water-god and born—so our poem repeatedly underlines—without the slightest pain or travail. But probably because Enki wanted to taste them, his messenger, the two-faced god Isimud, plucks these precious plants one by one and gives them to his master, who proceeds to eat them each in turn. Whereupon the angered Ninhursag pronounces the curse of death upon him. Then, evidently to make sure she will not change her mind and relent, she disappears from among the gods.

Enki's health begins to fail; eight of his organs become sick. As Enki sinks fast, the great gods sit in the dust. Enlil, the air-god, the king of the Sumerian gods, seems unable to cope with the situation when a fox speaks up. If properly rewarded, the fox will bring Ninhursag back. As good as his word, the fox succeeds in some way—the relevant passage is unfortunately destroyed—in having the mother-goddess return to the gods and heal the dying water-god. She seats him by her vulva, and after inquiring which eight organs of his body ache, she brings into existence eight corresponding healing deities, and Enki is brought back to life and health.

Although our myth deals with a divine, rather than a human, paradise, it has numerous parallels with the Biblical paradise story. In fact, there is some reason to believe that the very idea of a paradise, a garden of the gods, originated with the Sumerians. ...perhaps the most interesting result of our comparative analysis of the Sumerian poem is the explanation which it provides for one of the most puzzling motifs in the Biblical paradise story, the famous passage describing the fashioning of Eve, "the mother of all living," from the rib of Adam—for why a rib? Why did the Hebrew storyteller find it more fitting to choose a rib rather than any other organ of the body for the fashioning of the woman whose name, Eve, according to the Biblical notion, means approximately "she who makes live." The reason becomes quite clear if we assume a Sumerian literary background, such as that represented by our Dilmun poem, to underly the Biblical paradise tale; for in our Sumerian poem, one of Enki's sick organs is the rib. Now the Sumerian word for rib is ti (pronounced tee); the goddess created for the healing of Enki's rib was therefore called in Sumerian Nin-ti, "the Lady of the rib." But the Sumerian word ti also means "to make live." The name Nin-ti may thus mean "the Lady who makes live" as well as "the Lady of the rib." In Sumerian literature, therefore, "the Lady of the rib" came to be identified with "the Lady who makes live" through what may be termed a play on words. It was this, one of the most ancient of literary puns, which was carried over and perpetuated in the Biblical paradise story, although there, of course, the pun loses its validity, since the Hebrew words for "rib" and "who makes live" have nothing in common. (147-149)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Commemorating the Civil War

There are times, when traveling, that we must fly in to a city, spend a few days there, and depart. But when you see a place in this way, the sense you get of that place is disconnected from the space that it inhabits. You don't get a sense of how far the place is from its neighbors, from its rivals, from its mountains or rivers or coasts. I prefer a mode of travel that is itself a journey: fly into a city if necessary, but travel from there to another place, and depart. To travel overland, be it by train, by car, by ferry, on the surface of the Earth gives you a much deeper appreciation for the context of a place, and how it fits into the space of the world, in relationship to other places.

As with space, so with time. This commemoration of the American Civil War should not be a sudden occasional glimpse of some stuff that happened an arbitrary amount of time ago, but a way to understand the context of the unfolding events of the past, and their relationships to each other, by making an analogy to the timestream that we experience every day. It's low-bandwidth approach to appreciating history: rather than observing deeply for a short period of time, observe shallowly for a long period of time.

Five months and 150 years ago, in November 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States, and beginning in December, led by South Carolina, the Deep South seceded and seized local federal bases and depots. In the uncertain months of early 1861, South Carolina repeatedly called for the evacuation of Fort Sumter, and the first shots of the war were fired in January to drive off a steamer attempting to resupply the fort. Lincoln took office on March 4, and eventually sent ships to resupply the fort. The morning after the first ships arrived on April 11, Confederate batteries opened fire, and the Civil War began. Virginia seceded on April 17; Robert E. Lee resigned on April 20 to go south; and a week later West Virginia seceded from Virginia. In May, Arkansas and Tennessee seceded, and Kentucky declared neutrality. Not until July was the first major battle of the war fought, at Bull Run, as Washingtonians picnicked.

In the western theater, Kentucky's neutrality would hold until September, when Confederate and Union forces attempted to secure the Ohio River valley at the river's mouth. But the major battles of Kentucky and Tennessee happened in 1862, when the Union captured Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River in February, pushing the front south to the Tennessee River, and the Confederacy was turned back from the Kentucky campaign at the Battle of Perryville in October.

In November 2010, by contrast, the Republicans made significant gains in the House in the midterm elections, and the country's political attention has been focused on conflicts over government spending, federal debt, and military action in the Maghreb. Months will trickle by in the ongoing debates, as the country drifts closer to the 2012 presidential elections, already underway. It's been a similar amount of time from the 2010 elections as from Lincoln's election to Fort Sumter.

So, there are a couple of blogs launched to overview the commemoration of the Civil War as it proceeds: The Long Recall, a period blog of the Civil War, A House Divided at the Washington Post, and Disunion at the New York Times (timeline). A snippet:
Charleston Harbor, S.C., April 9, 1861
After months of anxiety and expectation, there came at last a day of terrible clarity. For months, a single question had preoccupied the men of Fort Sumter’s beleaguered Union garrison, from their commander down to the lowliest private: what would the Lincoln administration do? Would it yield to Southern coercion and evacuate the fort, sending a signal to the world that it was ready to negotiate with the secessionists, and perhaps even let the slave states go in peace? Or would it send reinforcements and supplies to Charleston Harbor — and in so doing, quite possibly touch off civil war?

...the garrison had remained in a bizarre position of both power and powerlessness. One the one hand, as [fort surgeon Samuel Wylie] Crawford realized, they could at will change the course of American history, with a single cannon shot from one. On the other hand, Fort Sumter, which had looked so commanding and impregnable on their first arrival, was beginning to feel less so. On all sides of the harbor, they could see new artillery platforms under construction, cannons being wheeled into place, and in the distance bayonets flashing like a heliographed message, as recruits marched and counter-marched on the beach. Major Robert Anderson, the Union garrison’s commander, expressed it for most in the garrison when he wrote that he felt like “a sheep tied watching the butcher sharpening a knife to cut his throat.”
The Civil War Trust has an animated map of the battle of Fort Sumter, among others. Public, professional, and amateur historians are writing many other blogs (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 ) and lists ( 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 ).

Images: National Park Service Fort Sumter Historic Images

In Why They Fight: Civil War Re-enactors and the Battle over Historic Sites (Time), Gregg Segal has a series of photos of Civil War re-enactors in the modern locations of battles.

Baylor University has a digital version of the War of the Rebellion Atlas.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Muddy water taking back the land

Continental drift (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) isn't the only way the shape of landforms will change. Coastlines vary a great deal with sea level, as well. Climate change predicts at least a certain amount of change in sea levels. The IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report, Climate Change 2007, Working Group II, predicts less than a meter of sea level rise over the next century or so.

The most extreme speculations about rising sea levels have to do with the melting of all the ice trapped in Greenland and Antarctica, which could cause sea levels to rise 60 or 70 meters. Of course, that's nothing more than informed speculation: people just don't know enough about the the Antarctic ice sheet to predict how it will behave in the future. The current arrangement of the continents means that ocean currents are very different from the ancient worlds that had well-mixed oceans and ice-free poles, and as long as Antarctica is located over the South Pole, keeping the ice from floating off, a great deal of ice may be parked there.

But, speculation is fun! According to the USGS, even a 10-m rise would displace 25% of the US population. Sea Level Explorer shows height above sea level using Google Maps. Flood Maps uses Google Maps to show sea level rise from 7 meters to over 60 meters. At 13 meters, Shanghai and Tianjin in China are completely flooded, and much of Bangladesh and Calcutta in India are flooded. Not to mention Miami and New Orleans. At 60 meters, huge population centers in Bangladesh, China, coastal Europe, and the southern U.S. are under water. Johnston's Archive has some neat pictures of a 66-meter rise in sea level.

The 100-meter maps are the most fun. Maps for "An End to Global Warming" has maps of North America with a 100-meter rise (also here), released by Dave Pape under a CC-Attribution license.

New England is an island, stretching from the Hudson Straits to New Brunswick.Below its cataracts, the Ohio River flows through the tidewater directly into the huge Mississippi Sea.In the Greater Antilles, Cuba is a much-reduced archipelago, while Jamaica and Hispaniola mostly retain their shapes.
With Dubia, Chris Wayan speculates on an Earth after a thousand years of unrestrained carbon pollution and global warming:
That world heats up. Climate zones move north until the poles thaw. Greenland and Antarctica melt. Coastal nations are drowned. In the end, the sea rises some 110 meters. Global hothouse! It's happened before, of course, on this scale, but not in the last 50 million years or so.

...we shouldn't be surprised to find that Florida now has no governor—or voters. It's a scuba paradise rivaling Australia's Barrier Reef, but there's no dry land at all. Louisiana was doomed too, of course, but I was startled to find that the sea swallows half Alabama too—south of Tuscaloosa, only Red and Grove Islands and the small Troy Peninsula are left. Mississippi is even worse off—the Gulf chews inland to Tupelo and Mantee, leaving only the Jackson Peninsula and Brookhaven Island, and a jungly strip up at the Tennessee border. Mississippi Bay nibbles all the way up into Illinois, though it's broken up on the west side by long Crowley Island and the Spring and Pleasant Isles. Further south, in Texas, fishermen avoid the rotting, polluted Houston Reefs. But Austin survives—with a steamy coastal climate, flora, and culture resembling lost New Orleans.

Unfortunately, Dallas survives too.

...For, by definition, most readers will be from our world's high-population zones. Random changes will, on average, degrade them. And the lands that improve, that become the heartlands of Randomia's civilizations, are likely to be barren obscure lands in our world, mere names (if that) to non-Randomian readers. The great European cities are all flooded on Dubia (millions of European readers groan), while the green Sahara nurtures great civilizations (a handful of Saharan readers cheer). If you love civilization, Randomia will probably kill or cripple the ones you love, and plant its greatest civilizations in places you associate with backwardness.

So the grass always looks browner in a parallel world--because what you value most, what you KNOW to value, is generally lost. This principle makes it hard to see alternate worlds fairly.
His Planetocopia has all sorts of images of speculative versions of Earth and other planets. There's also some interesting discussion at the Randi forums.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The history of tarot, in brief

Playing cards were probably invented in Asia and first came to Europe in the 1300s CE through the Arabic world. Few historical decks remain from the Arabic world, but one 15th-century Mamluk deck, preserved in Istabul, featured four suits of polo-sticks, swords, cups, and coins; each suit had ten pip cards and four court cards, and there may have been a joker. Playing cards, intricately painted or cheaply block printed, rapidly spread through Europe from the south, and a variety of designs and games proliferated.

In general, though, there were three main families of card designs. In the Romance world, around Italy and Spain, playing cards maintained the oldest division of the suits: Swords, Staves, Coins, and Cups. Over the Swiss Alps into the German-speaking world, the suits evolved: Leaves, Acorns, Bells, and Hearts. And in France, the suits developed into Spades (from Italian spada or Spanish espada, "swords", taking its shape from the German Leaves), Clubs (from Italian bastone, "sticks, staves", taking its shape from German Acorns), Diamonds (from Coins), and Hearts (from Cups). These stamped French-suited decks were simpler in design and thus cheaper to manufacture in the era of woodblock printing, and so spread through England and western Europe.

In the early 1400s in northern Italy, a new game developed that focused on taking tricks and capturing valuable cards with a group of trump cards. These decks had four suits of ten numbered cards and four face cards, plus a group of about 21 unsuited trumps with allegorical illustrations, as well as an unnumbered trump card used as a wild card. These Tarot card games became enormously influential, and variations of them are still played as games across Europe, especially in France, Italy, and the regions formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

In the 1500s, it seems likely that the French trick-taking game Triumph or Trump, adapted for a standard 52-card deck, developed into the English game Ruff and Honors. In the early 1700s, this game developed into Whist, one of the most popular games in Europe for more than a century. Whist began as a plain-trick game in which the trump suit varied from hand to hand, and the goal was to collect as many tricks as possible. As the game diversified into the whist family of games, many common variations began to emerge, such as bidding on the number of tricks players will take in the hand. From bid whist variants came Bridge, Spades, and similar games like Hearts, while games like Euchre developed separately in parallel from similar sources. Modern collections of card games follow Edmond Hoyle's 1742 treatise on the whist, and gamblers and mathematicians were soon to develop probability and statistics.

Meanwhile, in the 1700s, various practitioners began to develop the use of playing cards as symbolic system for a divinatory or occult practice. Tarot cards, with their colorful trump illustrations, became a natural focus for this. Parallel to the Enlightenment of rationalists and philosophers, the undercurrents of occultism and mysticism were seething, soon to break out in the Romantic era. Franz Anton Mesmer mesmerized Paris. Isaac Newton wrote more on the occult and alchemy than mathematics and physics. Logicians and mathematicians speculated on a theoretical "universal language", a symbolic system that could encapsulate all knowledge in an algebra of thought. This never really panned out, except to give us thesauruses.In some ways, the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment were periods of separating rationalism from superstition, astronomy from astrology, chemistry from alchemy, which implies an investigation of both. In 1781, Antoine Court de Gébelin published a theory that held the tarot cards to be the distillation of ancient Egyptian civil and religious philosophy, brought to Europe by Roma peoples (popularly called "Gypsies"). This was totally wrong. His speculation came almost 20 years before the Rosetta Stone was discovered and 40 years before it was deciphered; he was speculating at a time when Egyptian hieroglyphs were completely mysterious to the people of Europe. But his theory contributed to the development of occult use of tarot by emphasizing and expanding the allegorical interpretations of the cards. Court de Gébelin says, for example:
Ces quatre Couleurs sont relatives aux quatre Etats entre lesquels étoient divisés les Egyptiens. L'Épée désignoit le Souverain & la Noblesse toute Militaire. La Coupe, le Clergé ou le Sacerdoce. Le Bâton, ou Massue d'Hercule, l'Agriculture. Le Denier, le Commerce dont l'argent est le signe.
In other words, the four suits represent the four Estates of ancient Egyptian society: the sword represents the sovereign, military, and nobility; the chalice represents the priesthood; the staff represents farmers and the peasantry; and the coin represents merchants and commerce.

Then in 1785, occultist and cartomancer Jean-Baptiste Alliette produced a manual on divination with tarot cards. Marie Anne Lenormand was the next famous cartomancer, and Eliphas Levi incorporated Tarot-based cartomancy into his occult system, from where it went into the Golden Dawn and eventually into every modern Borders and Books-a-Million "Spirituality" section. And we come to where we are today, where few Americans know that the Tarot deck is based on an old and still-popular game. The familiar 52-card deck has accreted layers of symbolism, too, over centuries of play: look at Lewis Carroll's Queen of Hearts or the Ace of Spades' association with victory or death. But with the tarot deck, this was more extreme.

Many people like their board games to have a strong theme, aside from the abstract mechanics of the game, be it commercial real estate in Monopoly or colonization and urban development in Settlers of Cataan. It's on this level that I enjoy the quaint metaphors of Tarot: If each suit represents a social class, then the game reflects the vicious social striving of individual members of society for one-upmanship or material advancement, who are only to be frustrated or trumped by a host of random disasters, external forces, unpredictable circumstances, or merely the vicissitudes of fortune. It's a dark, satirical, and pessimistic vision of life, quite medieval in a way. But to treat tarot as wholly other than a game would be like pondering the mystical import of Blackjack, or contemplating the Jungian symbolism of Druidic Seven-Card Flop Poker, without appreciating the game's more worldly appeal. Some people may be enjoy that, but probably more people enjoy playing them with friends and family as games of skill and chance, that have brought some joy to people for centuries.