Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Restoring Cinnabar

Yellowstone Park land to be restored to native vegetation

The town of Cinnabar, Montana, was long ago erased from the map. Now the Park Service is trying to erase it from the landscape as well.

Ralph Maughan's Wildlife News posts this photo of an exclosure in this area:

Sharkey leaves the Shire, continued

EPA, with White House nudge, eases rule on lead emissions

Looking to bolster the fight against childhood lead poisoning, the Environmental Protection Agency last month approved a tough new rule aimed at clearing the nation's air of the toxic metal.

But at the last minute, federal documents show, the Bush administration quietly weakened a key provision, exempting dozens of polluters from scrutiny.
To help meet the new limit, the EPA had planned to require lead monitors next to any factory emitting at least half a ton of lead a year. But after the White House intervened, the agency raised the threshold to a ton of lead or more....
As a result, dozens of factories won't be checked regularly.

Monkey-pod tree

I found this image in Google Images Life Magazine archive and liked it.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Marriage, gay or otherwise

Stumbled upon at Religion Dispatches:

Yesterday I called a woman’s spouse her boyfriend.

She says, correcting me, “He’s my husband,”
“Oh,” I say, “I no longer recognize marriage.”

The impact is obvious. I tried it on a man who has been in a relationship for years,

“How’s your longtime companion, Jill?”
“She’s my wife!”
“Yeah, well, my beliefs don’t recognize marriage.”

Fun. And instant, eyebrow-raising recognition. Suddenly the majority gets to feel what the minority feels. In a moment they feel what it’s like to have their relationship downgraded.

I'm always amazed at the power of a little role-reversal to clarify an issue.

Friday, November 21, 2008

LIFE photos on Google

Here's something I learned about only yesterday: Google is scanning and publishing the LIFE magazine photo archives. The utterly cool thing here is that it not only will include their famous published photos, but the vast quantity of images that remained unpublished. Steve Johnson at the Chicago Tribune asks why LIFE is making these pictures available for free. The answer, of course, is that no one was making any money from them anyway. Now people will know they exist and perhaps become interested in previously-unknown photos. The modest resolution - about the size of a computer monitor - is fine for most uses, especially in educational presentations and the like. But no doubt there will some interest in high-quality prints and so now LIFE can turn a few extra pennies that way.

At the moment, some of the selection is limited. There's nothing under "1920's" that doesn't involve Charles Lindbergh, for example. But it's going to be fun to watch this project grow. If LIFE's published photos are a national treasure, how awesome will it be to see the rest of the stuff that they didn't have space for?

In the meantime, here's a photo of Mark Twain, six years before his death in 1910:

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Sharkey leaves the Shire

'I did not,' said Frodo. 'But I might have guessed. A little mischief in a mean way: Gandalf warned me that you were still capable of it.'

'Quite capable,' said Saruman, 'and more than a little. . . . It would have been a sharper lesson, if only you had given me a little more time and more Men. Still I have already done much that you will find it hard to mend or undo in your lives.'

That story keeps coming to mind as I watch the outgoing Administration create last-minute environmental rules that exclude science and put all power in the hands of ideological hacks and try to ensure that those hacks can't be removed by the incoming Administration.

Presidents can't use BlackBerrys

Lose the BlackBerry? Yes He Can, Maybe

But before he arrives at the White House, [Obama] will probably be forced to sign off. In addition to concerns about e-mail security, he faces the Presidential Records Act, which puts his correspondence in the official record and ultimately up for public review, and the threat of subpoenas. A decision has not been made on whether he could become the first e-mailing president, but aides said that seemed doubtful.

For all the perquisites and power afforded the president, the chief executive of the United States is essentially deprived by law and by culture of some of the very tools that other chief executives depend on to survive and to thrive.

Meanwhile, electronic records and the PRA are still not reconciled for the outgoing Administration.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Stumbled upon

That's quite the grin there, if you look at it right. More photos of "faces" here, and remember this the next time someone tries to make you believe in faces on Mars or Jesus in the peanut butter or stuff like that. Human brains have evolved to be hypersensitive to the sight of faces, to the point that we think we're seeing them in almost anything that's arranged like an inverted triangle.

Stumbled upon

Some gorgeous photography of snow crystals here. Photos by one Kenneth G. Libbrecht. Oh, winter is almost here and we even had a few snow flurries this weekend. Nothing on the ground yet, though.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Stumbled upon

Book review

If you want to pick a fight with a medievalist, you can always start by dropping the phrase "Dark Ages." So along comes the classicist Charles Freeman, whose The Closing of the Western Mind argues that the Christian era really did represent a sort of dark age, as faith-based theology put an end to the Greek tradition of rational thought.

Freeman argues that, while it is true that the high point of Greek rational thought had passed by the time Christianity arrived on the scene, it was not entirely dead yet. Although they based their theories on erroneous conceptions of the world, the astronomer Ptolemy and the physician Galen were still trying to apply reason to the observation of the natural world. In the Western world, however, both Ptolemy and Galen came too be regarded as unchallengeable authorities and there was no improvement upon their work for over a thousand years. Seriously - a thousand years of no progress in either astronomy or medicine. What went wrong?

In Freeman's telling, an unfortunate combination of events. First, Christianity fell under the influence of the Apostle Paul, who explicitly rejected rational thought and Greek philosophy (although he mimics their style - Paul sounds more like a Greek than he does an Ezekiel of a Jeremiah); it may also be no coincidence that Paul's writing is obsessed with justifying his dubious claims to authority. Paul was at odds with everyone, and so were the other early Christians, who made themselves obnoxious to Jews and Romans alike by refusing to do their civic duty to any other gods.

As Christianity spread, this contrarian spirit became more difficult to deal with. Persecutions ensued, without ultimate success. The emperor Constantine, trying to bring a little peace and quiet to the messy empire, decreed an end to religious persecution and legalized Christianity, along with all other religions/cults.* It was only then that Constantine discovered how bitterly divided Christians were over obscure points of doctrine. If the difference between Heaven and Hell weren't enough incentive to get it right, now there were large sums of imperial money to be had for the winners in these disputes. The Council at Nicaea in A.D. 325 didn't bring unity, but it did establish a tradition of secular authorities bringing ecumenical councils together and then choosing who would be the orthodoxy.

Doctrinal disputes continued, however, and they were fundamentally unresolvable by any kind of rational thought. The essential problem was that the theologians were arguing over things for which there was no particular evidence. Freeman points to the Trinity, for which there is no direct Scriptural support; the concept has to be teased out of writings by authors who aren't very clear on the subject - because they didn't know anyone would ever be discussing it. John's Gospel insists that Jesus was God, but the Synoptic Gospels say no such thing and seem to provide a lot of hints to the contrary. While the Greeks had recognized that the nature of the gods was unknowable, the Christians were obsessed with establishing unknowable things with certainty.**

Eventually, argumentation had to be suppressed altogether. Thus the rise of faith, which in practice meant uncritically accepting the authority of the Church.*** Although he doesn't say it as explicitly as this, this is what Freeman means by the word faith: it's really all about authority. In the ancient Greek world of squabbling city-states, thinkers could freely challenge those who had come before. No such thing occurred in the ancient Babylonian or Egyptian empires and the Roman emperors were equally comfortable with using their authority to define the truth. The centralized Church that inherited the Western empire stepped into the role as naturally as if they'd been born to it.

* Constantine did not actually make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. He put an end to official persecutions and built impressive churches in the time-honored manner of imperial patronage. Generally, the Romans would let you believe anything you wanted, so long as you didn't piss off the other gods by refusing to make the expected sacrifices; if you didn't, it made you a threat to public order and they dealt harshly with that.

** It's not coincidental that Christian theologians followed Plato and suppressed Aristotle. Plato's theory of Forms asserted a transcendent reality, which fit neatly with the Christian view of God, but likewise assumed that studying the physical world was no way to study reality. In The Republic, Plato says, "We shall approach astronomy, as we do geometry, by way of problems, and ignore what is in the sky if we want to get a real grasp of astronomy."

*** That is, when there was no longer an emperor to decree these things. By that time, the Church had long been thoroughly intertwined with the political power structure and the aristocracy was deeply embedded in the Church hierarchy.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Stumbled upon

(This one is much more effective at full size)

Stumbled upon

Stumbled upon

Ten Most Difficult Words to Translate

I do a lot tartling.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Reading Klingon - that's hard

And so is finding the machinery to read data tapes from the 1960s: Obsolete 1960s tape drive could help crack lunar mysteries

(Via The Canadian Archivist Blog)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Will the truth come out?

Bush Spy Revelations Anticipated When Obama Is Sworn In

New Yorker investigative reporter Seymour Hersh already has a slew of sources waiting to spill the Bush administration's darkest secrets, he said in an interview last month. "You cannot believe how many people have told me to call them on January 20. [They say,] 'You wanna know about abuses and violations? Call me then.'"

So far, virtually everything we know about the NSA's warrantless surveillance has come from whistle-blowers.

One encouraging sign for civil liberties groups is that John Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress, is a key figure in Obama's transition team, which will staff and set priorities for the new administration. The center was a tough and influential critic of the Bush administration's warrantless spying.
It got little play during the campaign, but it's been a huge issue for me. Let's hope Obama comes through and restores some desperately needed glasnost to America. I expect he'll at least refrain from acting against whistleblowers, but I'll feel better if he takes positive steps toward dismantling those programs that are secret and illegal.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

More Obama politics and archives

A librarian from Princeton University posts this on the archivists' listserv:

Since there has been discussion of this matter, I want to be perfectly clear that Princeton University Archivist, Dan Linke, and I argued strenuously to a number of senior university administrators that closing the Michelle Obama thesis would be a mistake and contrary to archival ethics and Princeton policy, both because it had been open, used and copied prior to the closure, because a resolution of the university faculty in the 1970s said that all materials in the university library open to one researcher must be open to all, and that in fact this would not be in the best interest of the Obama campaign. Nonetheless, the thesis was briefly closed at the request of the Obama campaign. Apparently it didn't take long for the Obama campaign to realize that fact because it soon reversed course and released the thesis to a member of the press who posted it to the Internet, but not bothering to inform the University which in my view was left looking foolish for having closed it however briefly. These of course represent my person view and not those of Princeton University.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

That was then, this is now

Via Millard Fillmore's Bathtub:

Look at this photo. It’s a shot of the crowd gathered in St. Louis on October 19 to see and hear Barack Obama — about 100,000 people. Study the buildings in the photo.

Elizabeth Kaeton wrote at Telling Secrets:
If you look in the distance there, you can see a building with a greenish-copper dome. That’s the Old St. Louis Courthouse. For years and years, slaves were auctioned on the steps of that courthouse.

The Old Courthouse used to be called the St. Louis State and Federal Courthouse.

Back in 1850, two escaped slaves named Dred and Harriett Scott had their petition for freedom overturned in a case there. Montgomery Blair took the case to the US Supreme Court on Scott’s behalf and had Chief Justice Roger Taney throw it out because, as he wrote, the Scotts were ‘beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.’

Hard to imagine, isn’t it?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Election map

I stumbled across this display of thematic mapping more or less by accident, but it's a nice discussion of how straightforward information doesn't necessarily lead to the clearest understanding.

From Mark Newman, Professor, Department of Physics and Center for the Study of Complex Systems at UM.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Snowmobiles in YNP

The latest plan: 318 'biles per day.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Defending faith ...

... by attacking art. Italian museum boss, Corinne Diserens, sacked after leaping to defend a crucified frog.

Pope Benedict XVl took offence while on summer holiday in the mountains near Bolzano, describing the work as blasphemous. The Vatican sent a letter in the Pope’s name to Franz Pahl, the president of the Trentino-Alto Adige regional council (who also opposed the sculpture), saying that it “wounds the religious sentiments of so many people who see in the Cross the symbol of God’s love”.

Tough. We nonbelievers have our sentiments wounded every day and we deal with it.

Saturday, November 1, 2008