Day By Day

Friday, September 30, 2011

Aurora Borealis

Recently I was on a ship in the Arctic Ocean and saw some remarkable stuff in the sky. Naturally I pointed my camera at it and took some pictures. The results weren't quite as clear and steady as I would like -- I didn't have a tripod, the ship's engines were making the camera vibrate and there was a little roll, but they turned out pretty well for handheld shots. Here are some of them.

This is my favorite. It looks almost like a surrealist painting, but it isn't. The raw image wasn't nearly this dramatic, but when I loaded it on the computer and punched "auto contrast", this is what emerged. I think I'll get it printed and hung.

While I was shooting the pictures Walt Kelly's wonderful nonsense poem kept running through my head:

Oh, roar a roar for Nora,
Nora Alice in the night.
For she has seen Aurora
Borealis burning bright.

A furore for our Nora!
And applaud Aurora seen!
Where, throughout the summer, has
Our Borealis been?
And from NASA, here's what the borealis looks like from orbit:

I'll be blogging more on the trip in coming days. Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Pinker and the Progression of Peace

Something I have been blogging about for several years now  -- the progressive decline in violence -- has finally hit the mainstream. World-class self promoter, Steven Pinker, has started to publicize it, so expect to see a lot of commentary on the phenomenon in coming months. Pinker writes:
Believe it or not—and I know most people do not—violence has been in decline over long stretches of time, and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species' existence. The decline of violence, to be sure, has not been steady; it has not brought violence down to zero (to put it mildly); and it is not guaranteed to continue. But I hope to convince you that it's a persistent historical development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars and perpetration of genocides to the spanking of children and the treatment of animals.
Pinker identifies six major periods [actually processes] that promoted pacification:

-- The rise of hegemonic states that suppressed tribal warfare.
-- The centralization of power in national states, which suppressed brigandage, feudal conflict, and feuds by establishing an effective monopoly on violence
-- From the eighteenth century on centralized states have gradually abjured various violent practices [torture, slavery, death penalty, etc.]. Pinker attributes this humanitarian imperative to a rise in literacy which promoted an "enlightened" attitude first in Europe, then elsewhere.
-- The dramatic rise in world population associated with the industrial revolution which meant that even huge death tolls, such as were seen in the world wars,  only affected a relatively small proportion of the total population.
-- The "long peace" that emerged after the world wars during which there have been no wars between major states. Pinker attributes this to the rise in the number of democratic regimes, the swelling of global trade and economic interdependence, and the influence of international organizations. I would cite other causes -- the balance of nuclear terror, the collapse of Soviet subversion efforts, and the expansion of American power -- but agree that recent decades have been perhaps the most peaceful in the human experience.
-- finally Pinker points to the "rights revolution" of recent decades that resulted in a decline of violence directed against ethnic minorities, women, children, sexual deviants, etc. [although I would see this more as a consequence and extension of the "enlightenment" process he outlined earlier, rather than a new development].

Pinker then identifies what he considers to be the causes of the long trend toward peace, both international and domestic. They are the rise of the leviathan state; the expansion of free trade; and the development of popular cosmopolitanism associated with the rise of literacy and global communication.

It's an interesting piece, one with which I largely agree. Take some time to read it, or listen to Pinker's lecture here.

Friday, September 09, 2011

The Good President (continued) -- Validating Bush's Response to 9/11

Michael Gerson points out that the major elements of President Bush's response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 have been validated by historical experience. The Obama administration has, for good reason, retained nearly all of the policy decisions made by Bush and in the wake of the "Arab Spring" revolts it is Bush's "realist" critics, not Dubya, who appear to have been naive and misinformed. Read the whole thing here.

Friday, September 02, 2011

A Day At the Races

Practice runs for the Baltimore Grand Prix. I got tired of watching them from above so I headed down to street level for a closer look as they accelerated out of the hairpin turn. Maybe I got too close. My ears are still ringing.

More Historical Revisionism -- The Jefferson-Hemings Liason

More than two centuries ago, in the heat of a political campaign, it was charged that Thomas Jefferson kept a slave concubine. Generations of historians discounted the story as a standard political slur, but then the publication of Fawn Brodie's best seller, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, in 1974 rekindled the debate. Brodie argued that an analysis of Jefferson's movements showed that he could have fathered all of Sally Heming's children and posited a forbidden love affair between the President and the slave. In the iconoclastic climate of the Seventies Brody's romantic tale was seized upon by left of center scholars and race hustlers as proof of the essential hypocrisy of American culture. Then, about a decade ago, the story of the President and the slave girl got another boost from DNA tests that showed that Tom Jefferson [among others] could possibly have fathered one of Sally Heming's children. The story became conventional wisdom and any doubts expressed about its validity were denounced as evidence of a racist mindset.

Now Jefferson scholars are raising questions about Brody's tale. A new book, The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy, has just been released. It reports the results of an investigation conducted by a panel of thirteen distinguished historians that concludes that many of the points raised by Brody are wrong, and that the evidence most clearly supports the conclusion that Thomas Jefferson's brother, Randolph, was the father of Sally Hemings' child.

I have not yet read the book and can't judge the accuracy of its claims, but some of its points are certainly worth consideration -- for instance, during Jefferson's stay in Paris when the affair supposedly began [an allegation that formed the basis for a major motion picture] Hemings did not live with Jefferson. Instead she lived with his daughters at a boarding school far from his residence. Simple geography makes the intimate relationship posited by Brody and others unlikely. The study also contradicts the oft-made allegation that Jefferson showed special favoritism toward Sally's offspring.

And so the debate goes on, and on, and on. That is the nature of historical research. Politicians and pundits denounce revisionism, but real historians know that revisionism lies at the core of the historiographic enterprise and the Rankean ideal of constructing a picture of the past "as it was" is unattainable. Historiography is an interpretive art that produces endless dialogues. The past is fluid and imperfectly known.

The Familial Resemblance of Fascism and Communism

If you have read Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, you are familiar with the arguments, but they are worth revisiting. Bill Flax has an article in the latest Forbes magazine that points out the remarkable similarities between communist and fascist ideologies. Check it out here, then if the argument has any appeal get Jonah's book and read it.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

The Baltimore Grand Prix

Take a virtual lap on the Baltimore Grand Prix race course.