Journal: Wednesday, August 19

Khaled al-Asaad

Khaled al-Asaad

Frustrated ISIS militants holding the city of Palmyra yesterday beheaded 82-year-old archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad.

When Islamic State fighters first began to move in on the city — a UNESCO World Heritage site which dates back to Roman times — Asaad, the director of antiquities for Palmyra, moved everything portable into hiding. Once the city had fallen into ISIS hands, the militants began looting the site, hoping to sell priceless artifacts to wealthy collectors in the US, Europe and Asia to help fund their activities in the region. They captured al-Asaad and tortured him for a month, before finally beheading him yesterday and leaving his mutilated body hanging from a post.

Khaled al-Asaad never revealed the hiding place of the treasures that he was holding in trust for future generations.

As an artist fascinated by history, places like Palmyra resonate for me on many levels; I can’t help but see its survival into my lifetime as a bridge reaching across two thousand years, connecting me with the Romans who built the city and created many of its treasures. People like me depend on people like al-Asaad to protect that bridge.

I’m not one of those people who believes that all victims are automatically heroes, but I think Khaled al-Asaad deserves to be called a hero.

Sighting the target

burning computerLike millions of other people sitting in front of their computers yesterday, my reaction to the sad story of Cecil the lion was both visceral and vehement. The impulse to react accordingly was irresistible: it was also wrong.

The fifty-something American from Minnesota whose adventures launched such a firestorm was perfectly cast for the role of villain. He was a dentist, a job that arouses pretty negative feelings in many of us; better yet, he was obviously a wealthy dentist: How many of us can afford to walk away from our jobs for weeks at a stretch to go jaunting off around the globe (especially when we have dental bills to pay)? Most importantly, he was an avid sports hunter, not just of the local turkey and deer but of animals that most of us only dream of ever seeing in the flesh. Continue reading

An insane pronouncement.

Copernicus_solar_systemLet’s suppose you’re doing last Sunday’s crossword puzzle.

You’re stumped on seven down: a five-letter word for “indistinct”. There are a couple of possibilities here, but the one that pops into your mind first is “fuzzy”, so you drop that in, very faintly, in pencil.

Okay, now what? Fifteen across, a six-letter word for “mystery”, is now coming up “enizma”, which is obviously wrong. A moment’s thought gives us a 99.9% certainty that we should be seeing “enigma” in that slot, but that gives us “fugzy” for seven down, our original problem clue: once again, it’s safe to assume that something’s not clicking.

What to do? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that “fuzzy” isn’t working, so out comes the thesaurus.

Let’s see: “Blurry”? That gives us “enirma”, and we’re not having any of that. “Indefinite”? Too many letters. “Soft”? Too few.

Here we go: “Vague”. Pencil it in, and … yes! It fits. We fill in a few of the blanks around it and we see that everything works.

. . .

The scientific method is like that crossword puzzle. There are some things you’re positive about, some you’re reasonably sure you’ve figured out correctly, and some you just can’t quite pin down, but the important thing is that everything interconnects, so a piece of the puzzle that’s clearly wrong will begin to stand out pretty quickly as the rest of the clues are filled in.

Individual facts, like the words in the crossword, can be tried, rejected, accepted, or replaced, but what matters in the end is the internal consistency of the entire structure, and the way the whole puzzle evolves and solidifies as more and more blanks are filled in. “Fuzzy” was perfectly acceptable until “enizma” came along; then it became clear that there was an error somewhere, because the bigger pattern wasn’t holding together.

Until Nicolaus Copernicus overturned the applecart in the sixteenth century, the generally accepted view of the solar system placed the earth at the center, with the sun, moon and planets orbiting around it. This system worked fine for centuries, but as time passed and the observed data began to fill in more and more blanks, problems appeared. To make the system fit what we could actually see happening in the sky, the orbits of all the heavenly bodies had to be incredibly complex. Mars and Jupiter needed to stop dead and then go backward from time to time; eclipses could only be explained by mysterious invisible objects casting shadows at odd angles; the moons of Jupiter and Saturn had to perform amazing spirals and loop-the-loops.

All the blanks in the crossword had words in them, but the answers weren’t making any sense.

Copernicus looked at the problem and realized that maybe “fuzzy” wasn’t the right word for seven down (figuratively speaking). He made a very simple adjustment in the prevailing system: he moved the sun into the center, and the planets into orbit around it, with their own moons orbiting them in turn. Now, suddenly, all of the orbits were ordinary ellipses, smooth and steady; eclipses were nothing more than shadows cast by one object on another; and the positions of all the bodies could be predicted centuries in advance by calculations any educated person could understand. It was no longer necessary to accept “enizma” as a word.

Those who know that the consensus of many centuries has sanctioned the conception that the earth remains at rest in the middle of the heavens as its center, would, I reflected, regard it as an insane pronouncement if I made the opposite assertion that the earth moves.”   – Nicolaus Copernicus

Even Copernicus didn’t have all the answers. With the passage of time, we’ve developed more sophisticated tools with which to observe our universe, and we’ve found questions that would have crippled the thinkers of the Renaissance. In the sixteenth century no one was equipped to measure the gravitational interactions between and among the planets; we didn’t know anything about how spacetime itself was organized, or the subtle effects of solar cycles and nearby stars on planetary orbits; the very size and shape of the universe could only be guessed at.

But still, even today, we can build on what Copernicus gave us all those years ago: we don’t have to try to come up with some elaborate excuse to allow us to use “enizma” for fifteen across. We can use logic and common sense to resolve the dilemma, and from there we can move on to new questions, and search for better answers to old ones.

In religion, no one questions the unreasonable answer or the wildly complicated explanation. We just accept that “enizma” is correct, even if it doesn’t seem to make the least bit of sense, because that’s what faith is: accepting without the need to understand.

The fundamental truth of science, on the other hand, is that there are no fundamental truths: we observe, we theorize, we experiment, and when we find a model that works, we build from there, knowing that it’s best to use a pencil, because we may still have to go back and change an early answer based on what we’ve learned since.

And that, dear reader, is why I love science. An enigma is a challenge to be met, a question for which each new answer always leads to bigger and more exciting puzzles demanding to be solved — and if we’re willing to stop at “enizma”, we’ll never have the opportunity.

 

Journal: Monday, March 23

CruzThe ruler of the Aztec empire was called the “tlatoani”, which roughly translates to “the one who talks the loudest”. From the founding of Gran Tenochtitlan in 1325 to the final collapse in 1521, the Aztec civilization survived for a grand total of 196 years, during which time they had become so hated by all of their neighbors that even the rapacious Spanish invaders were embraced as the lesser of two evils.

Ted Cruz for President? Being the one who talks the loudest does not necessarily mean that what you’re saying is right, or smart, or good for your people, or for your country. In fact, it usually means that you don’t really care about any of those things: you simply want to be king, you want to sit on the big chair where everyone has to listen to you, like it or not (like the students at Liberty University this morning who were required to attend Mr Cruz’ announcement speech) — even as fundamentalist religion, anti-intellectualism, environmental collapse, and ill-considered military adventurism are bringing your nation to its knees, as they did in Tenochtitlan five hundred years ago.

I suppose that if you’re someone who believes that allowing same-sex couples to marry is the greatest threat the United States faces in the twenty-first century, then by all means, Ted Cruz is probably your guy. But denying me my rights is not going to protect you when the conquistadores arrive, and burning the books and crucifying the thinkers because they describe problems you don’t want to face is not going to make you better equipped to cope with the real world when it comes crashing through your gates.

 

Journal: Saturday, March 7

birdandfish_600My painting “Dialogue Between the Bird and the Fish” will be finding a new home this weekend, and I thought this might be a nice time to tell the story that the picture illustrates. So, without further ado …

A fly, hovering near the surface of a pond, finds itself suddenly the target of not one, but two predators: a bird who darts down from the nearby cattails and a fish who rises up unexpectedly from the depths of the water. Fortunately for the fly, his attackers are so startled that he has the opportunity to dart out of reach of either (only to be eaten later by a dragonfly — such is life).

The bird, retreating to an overhanging willow branch, stares at the interloper, who rises to the surface and returns her gaze with equal astonishment.

“Such a miserable beast!” the bird thinks, not without pity. “Unable to rise into the open air, never to perch in a tree to sing the dawn into being, lost forever in the dim and the wet. For him the sun can only be a dim glow, and the wind but a rumor. His sky is a ceiling beyond which he may never go, and summer and winter, spring and fall, down in the depths are all one. His song is nothing but a croak, and his feathers are hard as glass. How sad!”

The fish, for his part, finds the bird’s lot equally distressing. “Suppose the poor creature is traveling and wants to pause for a moment to admire the view; why, she would crash to the ground and be eaten by snakes in a moment. Only amid the obscuring tangle of the trees and shrubbery can she rest. And even then, she must be prey to wind and weather, extremes of temperature, never safe from sun and storm. Her scales are frayed and frazzled, hardly adequate protection from anything. And those sounds she makes, as though in terrible pain! Pitiful thing.”

The two stare, hesitating, until a hawk sounds in the distance and the bird darts away to her covert among the cattails, and the fish scents the approach of a pike and drifts down into a secure niche among the rocks of the bank, each filled with pity for the unfortunate other.

Truth and lies.

My copy is somewhat more up to date than this one.

My copy is somewhat more up to date than this one.

I was poking around among the bookshelves a day or so ago, looking for something to entertain me as the first cool weather of the season settles in, when I spotted my rather tattered Penguin Classics copy of the Histories of Herodotus.

This is one of those books that I like to read once every decade or so. It’s long (over 620 pages in this edition), and the print gets smaller every time I pick it up, but there’s something cozy and comforting about it, like that sweater that you would never dream of wearing where people could see you, but that’s perfect for puttering around the house. There’s enough snob value in just having the book in your hand that you don’t have to slave over the really heavy parts; when the political stuff gets dull you can always skip to the stories about headless cannibals roaming the Libyan desert or the bedroom antics of the King of Lydia, his wife, and the palace guard.

Herotodus lived and worked during the decades on either side of about 450 BC, born in what is now Bodrum, Turkey, then a Greek town called Halicarnassus. We know that he traveled a lot and talked to a lot of people – although how much he traveled and how many people he actually talked to is a subject for some debate.

The Roman orator Cicero, some three and a half centuries later, called Herotodus the “Father of History”.

More recent commentators have called Herodotus the “Father of Lies”.

. . .

Every now and then somebody reading one of my blog posts takes exception to a bit of data – a statistic, a description, or some discreet character assassination – that I may have included without having identified my source.

If what I was doing was serious research, or scholarly investigation, or even journalism, this would be a valid and important concern, but these essays are just my personal ruminations on subjects that interest me: I strive for accuracy, and I am prepared to defend any factual data that I use, but I don’t think footnotes are really necessary.

And let’s face it: some of my posts are long enough as it is.

A few of the folks who worked with me during my years in television newsrooms will no doubt remember my obsession with factual accuracy. I’m a product of an era when the comments of “unnamed sources” did not make it into front page news, and phrases like “some experts have suggested” or “individuals close to the case have indicated” were systematically – and sometimes brutally – rooted out of the aspiring journalist’s repertoire by the time he or she graduated high school.

When I’m assembling information for a blog post, I usually begin with a topic with which I am already pretty conversant, and then fill in the blanks from there. I look for primary sources where I can find them – if I am going to quote from the book of Genesis, for example, I go get the Bible down and look up the chapter and verse: I don’t pull something from the collected wit and wisdom of Jimmy Swaggert and hope for the best – and if primary sources are not available, I make sure that whoever I’m relying upon has the right credentials.

I’m not trying to expand the scope of human knowledge: I’m looking for context and connections. I’m just an interested amateur talking about things that I think are worth talking about.

History, like political commentary, is one of those fields that attracts a lot of amateurs.

The chemist or the molecular biologist is not likely to feel any sort of innate personal affinity with a hydrogen nucleus or a molecule of adenosine triphosphate. The subject matter demands rigor and discipline; nobody just assumes that he’ll be able to pick it up by reading a couple of articles in Discover magazine. The history buff, on the other hand, is dealing with people just like himself, flesh-and-blood men and women who got up in the morning and ate breakfast and argued with their children and fed their pets and worried about the rent just like everybody else. It’s easy to feel that you know more than you really do. There’s something very subjective about history: once you get past the names and dates, there always seems to be a lot of room for interpretation.

. . .

Over the centuries Herodotus has drifted in and out of fashion. As more scientific methods of approaching historical research led to new insights in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, scholars began to downgrade the old personal-narrative style of historical writing; Herodotus, Procopius, Tacitus and others were increasingly viewed as, at best, commentators, and at worst, fabulists and liars, using history as a vehicle for political, social, religious or cultural illustration without any real commitment to objective facts. This did not necessarily diminish their popularity as authors, but their contributions to modern understanding of the times in which they had lived were viewed as less meaningful from a historical perspective.

History, like the sciences, had become focused on attempting to document an objective reality.

In practice, of course, there is no such thing, at least not in terms of our ability to observe and communicate what we are able to learn. Everyone filters reality through a prism of personal experience, cultural expectations, and social limitations. [see also House of Mirrors, a previous essay in this blog] In today’s information-saturated world, separating fact from fable has become so difficult that we often don’t even bother any more. We’re like ants standing in the path of an avalanche of sand.

Herodotus wrote of a race of ants the size of bobcats living in the deserts of what is now Afghanistan who dug  through the sand for gold with which to line their tunnels.

News outlets routinely present a view of reality that owes more to the expectations of sponsors and stockholders than to any commitment to documenting real events. In Colorado and Texas educational authorities are working at this very moment to rewrite history books in order to remove anything that offends their present-day political outlook. Everyone has an axe to grind, or a skeleton to hide.

Father of History/Father of Lies: who do we trust?

What really matters in the end is not what the writer is doing, but whether the reader has the critical capacity that will allow him or her to categorize and qualify what is being said, separating useful data from the distracting overlay of the writer’s intentions. We’re not just hollow vessels waiting to be filled with information: each of us has the ability to apply logic and reason to the information, developing a context, a matrix against which we can judge each new fact as it appears.

Father of Lies/Father of History: does it really matter?

It’s not up to the historian – or the politician, or the preacher, or the pundit – to decide what is fact and what is fiction. All they can do is explain their particular point of view, to build up that mountain of sand grain by grain.

It’s up to us to find the particles of gold in it.