Wednesday, October 29, 2008

More western Maryland

I took my camera with me today, but the dismal gray light kept me from the pictures of fall color I wanted. These are two of the better ones.

The Potomac River near Paw Paw.

And near the mouth of Town Creek.

the weird things people read about

The device I had been using to listen to cds in my car died this summer, and I have nearly exhausted my library's supply of books on cassette tape. Scanning the titles last week, I decided to try The Bonesetter's Daughter by Amy Tan. My wife likes Amy Tan, as do several other people I know, and she is a reasonably famous American author. Plus, I just went to China.

So, driving back and forth to western Maryland, I listened to The Bonesetter's Daughter. The story is split between the US in the 1990s and China from about 1910 to 1945. I gather this is typical for Tan. The part about China concern the travails of a Chinese girl and her family amidst family feuds, murders, suicides, civil war, revolution, the Japanese invasion, the discovery of Peking Man, and all sorts of other exciting events. There is a great deal of folklore about ghosts, curses, ghost-catchers, and traditional medicine. I loved it. The American part concerns a 40-ish woman dealing with her demented mother and trying to revive or escape from her relationship with her boyfriend. I hated it. I simply cannot imagine why anyone would want to read a fictional account of a troubled couple touring an assisted living facility where they may put one's mother. It isn't just that much of the American part is depressing -- much worse things happen in the Chinese sections. It's that the American part is both depressing and mundane.

What is the point? Because life is really like that? So? Why would I want to read about things that happen around me all the time, when I could read about exciting adventures set in exotic places? Don't get me wrong, the Chinese part of The Bonesetter's Daughter is still by Amy Tan, and it is much concerned with family dynamics and the emotions of the mostly female characters. But these are women from a culture about which I know little, engaged in life and death struggles against the backdrop of history, not San Francisco yuppies fretting over their self-inflicted psychic wounds.

Well, to each his (or her) own.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Review of Neal Stephenson's Anathem

I finally have something new up at, a review of Neal Stephenson's new novel, Anathem. I haven't worked with the site in so long that I had to set up all of my site management and html software all over again, but now that I have taken care of that, maybe I will get back to posting regularly.

Andrew Sullivan wrote a very interesting essay on blogging that explains why I plan to keep both the web site and this blog. Blogging is immediate, unfiltered writing, intended to record our first responses to things. It is highly personal. It is not really intended to endure, and for that reason blogs are not organized in a way that makes searching for old posts easy. So, my plan for now is to keep blogging here, recording my immediate reactions to things and something of my personal life, and posting essays and book reviews at bensozia.

A Question about Vanitas

What does it mean when a group of classical musicians calls themselves the something-or-other "soloists"?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Western Maryland

Sometimes, as I work along the C&O Canal in western Maryland, I am awed by the beauty of the scenery.

This is Town Creek, named, we think, after the Shawnee Indian town that was not far from its mouth:

And this is the wide floodplain of the Potomac River, a beautiful place to dig and a site of human habitation for at least 10,000 years:

Fall goes on

Sunday night we had our first frost, and it froze again on Monday and Tuesday. This put an end to all of the tender plants in the garden, and things were looking pretty dead. But since Wednesday it has gotten a little warmer, and yesterday we had our first real rain in three weeks. It rained all day, sometimes gently and sometimes torrents. Today the sun is out and everything looks green and glowing again. The mums are still lovely,and the zinnias are hanging on. This afternoon I will go out and finish planting bulbs, taking advantage of what is probably one of the few lovely warm Sundays left in the year.

Sarah Palin's clothes

So the McCain campaign spent $150,000 on Sarah Palin's clothes, about as much as they are spending each week for television ads in Colorado, and $11,000 a week on her traveling make-up artist. This may have been stupid, but I don't see anything particularly scandalous about it. Top of the line clothes are expensive -- Cindy McCain was wearing about $300,000 worth of clothes and jewelry at her husband's nomination, mostly in the form of diamonds -- and her beauty is part of Palin's charisma.

What I find interesting is what this says about the two-faced nature of Sarah Palin's appeal. On the one hand she presents herself as an ordinary, small-town "hockey mom," who shops at WalMart and knows what it's like to face the problems you face. Except that she isn't an ordinary mom, she's a glamorous celebrity. She isn't like you, she's like what you would be like if you were beautiful, rich, and charismatic. For her real fans, I bet the revelation of this shopping spree only increases her appeal, because a new wardrobe is an essential part of the ordinary woman's celebrity fantasies (see "Cinderella" and "Pretty Woman"). Given sudden access to unlimited money, she spent it just the way they would. Her religious faith and her decision to keep a baby with Down Syndrome serve as anchors, showing that despite her meteoric rise she has held on to what is best in her small-town background. It's another part of the fantasy -- if I got rich, it wouldn't change who I really am.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

African witches attack McCain

From the Department of Weird Americans, this "action item":

Two days ago, I listened to a 9-6-08 message by Bree Keyton, a young woman evangelist who had just traveled to Kenya and visited Obama's home village and what she found out about his relations with his tribal people was chilling.... She said the witches, warlocks and those involved in satanism and the occult get up daily at 3 a.m. to release curses against McCain and Palin so B. Hussein Obama is elected.

Bree Keyton told the tribal "Christians" you are NOT Christian if you practice "tribalism" where they do voodoo to conjure up a goddess spirit or a "genie" and then come to church on Sunday to worship Jesus! What she discovered there is apparent in most churches around the world; namely, mixture in the church. Some renounced their devilish practices of blood covenant by killing sheep, goats, humans to be inducted into the tribe or to get a wife or to get revenge.

She said the current president of Kenya is a Christian. However, Obama's cousin Odinga ran aganist him and said he rigged the election and stirred up the masses to rape woman and boys, kill and burn and torture Christians, etc. until Obama contacted Condeleeza Rice and she granted Obama the right to contact Odinga and other ruling elders and he "convinced" them to stop terrorizing the Christians. Bree Keyton said the current Christian President was forced by our government (!) to "create" an office for Odinga (to make "peace") so he was made the Prime Minister (!) to make peace between the Christians and Odinga's Muslim religion!

Bree Keyton went and visited Obama's tribal people and she found out Obama is 75% Arab and his family are Muslims. Odinga is strill trying to become the President of Kenya. If he does, he will make a law forbidding all public preaching and institute Sharia Law. Bree K. said Odinga has made a pact with satan.

Bree K. also said when Obama visited his tribe in '06 and as late as Jan. '08 he went to every elder's home which has a "shrine" inside to worship the genie and asked for their blessing. She was told Obama and Odinga were both "destined" before they were born to be president/leader of their nation. They say "he is the chosen one". She said Obama's grandmother sacrificed a black and a white chicken to the "goddess of the river" so both whites and blacks will vote for Obama. All Islam loves and worships Obama. The world is mesmerized by him. Oprah's 200 million followers are out to elect Obama. Also, Dick Morris of Fox News was sent to Kenya to help Odinga run his campaign! I find that unbelievable.

The occultists are "weaving lazy 8's around McCain's mind to make him look confused and like an idiot". Bree K. said we need to break these curses off of him that are being sent from Kenya.
Well, that explains McCain's behavior over the past few months; it's Kenyan curses that are making him look like an idiot.

For the record, Odinga is an Anglican. He has lately claimed to be Barack Obama's cousin, but so have thousands of other Kenyans. The 2007 Kenyan presidental election was rigged by his opponent, leading to the rioting and militia combat that claimed thousands of lives.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

the rain of vomit

After a morning of meetings in southeastern Maryland, I got back to Washington around 1:00. I was thrilled to find a free, two-hour parking space in the closest possible spot to the office, in the mysterious grove of gingko trees in Rose Park. I say mysterious because everyone else in the world plants only male gingko trees, and these are the first female trees I had ever seen. People (other than, I suppose, nurseries that breed gingkoes) plant only male trees because the females make thousands of little fruit that smell exactly like vomit. These are about the size of crab apples and ripen in the fall. I had not thought about this when I backed into this space, but as I was gathering up my stuff a gust of wind came and gingko fruit began to rain down on my car. It was, for a few seconds, like sitting in a car in a thunderstorm, as dozens of fruit banged loudly on the roof and hood. I was idly musing on whether gingko fruit were heavy and hard enough to hurt my car, when it occurred to me that even if they did no damage each one was spraying the car without a teaspoon or so of vomitous gingko pulp. So I moved my car, but when I got out and had a look I saw that the car was thoroughly spattered with yellowish pulp and smelled very strongly of vomit.

the mysterious obsession

I just finished listening to The Mysterious Flame of Queen of Loana by Umberto Eco. This concerns a 60-year-old man who has a stroke and loses all of his personal memories but remembers everything he ever read in books. It has its moments. But the ending was badly written (actually I suspect it consisted, quite intentionally, entirely of brief quotations from other authors strung together) and it annoyed me. The narrator gets much of his memory back but as he is dying he obsesses over one thing he still can’t remember, the face of the first girl he ever loved. She was his obsession during his junior year of high school, but she dated older boys and he never spoke to her except for a few very casual words. He filled a notebook full of poems about her. But then her family moved away and he never saw her again. He gradually reconstructs his lifelong obsession with her, realizing that he picked his wife and all of the other women he dated because they reminded him of her.

I just don’t get this obsession with female faces. I mean, they’re nice enough, but no prettier than mountains or puppies or flowers. The glory of women is talking to them -- you can gaze longingly at a mountain but you can't share your soul with one. To the extent that I do concern myself with the appearance of women I care at least as much about bodies as faces. Are there really many men like Eco's narrator, or is this mainly a literary trope? Can one spend a lifetime obsession about a woman just because she is beautiful? Why? The narrator relates that his priest told the teenage boys that they should distract themselves from impure thoughts by contemplating the perfect beauty of the Virgin Mary, reminding themselves that sin might keep them from every really beholding her. And this is certainly something a priest might have said.

It’s crazy, and I just don’t get it.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

On trying to be a writer and a parent

This morning, after feeding three kids breakfast and getting one dressed and generally moving past the morning rush, I sat down at the computer to write. I opened my unfinished chapter, read over what I had written, and started to type. I got one paragraph written when three-year-old Zhen Zhen appeared at my elbow with a book in her hands saying, "Daddy, read story?"

What was I supposed to do? I really hadn't given her any attention yet today, and she is usually too wriggly to read to. She was so cute and earnest. I read to her, and that paragraph is still all the writing I got done today.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Duckbill crests

Certain duckbilled dinosaurs known to every parent who reads dino books out loud these days -- corythosaurus, parasaurolophus -- have elaborate crests on their heads. The dinosaurs' nasal passages wind through these crests. Why? The two main theories have long been 1) to make low-frequency sounds for communication and 2) for smelling. Modeling of duckbill brains now suggests that explanation 1 is correct. The parts of the brain responsible for olfactory processing in these animals were small, so they are unlikely to have relied much on their sense of smell, but they do have very elaborate inner ears that could have processed low-frequency sound.

This may not sound like much to you, but when you have said "nobody really knows what the crests on their heads were for" as many times over the past ten years as I have, this is a pretty big deal.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

the babysitting recession

In honor of Paul Krugman's Nobel Prize, Slate is rerunning one of his most famous columns, on the bankruptcy of a Capitol Hill babysitting co-op, and it really is quite fascinating.

Witches of Cornwall

Some wonderful archaeological discoveries in Cornwall, providing what looks like good evidence of fertility magic in the 17th century:
But as Wood and her team excavated the platform over the next few seasons, unusual features began to emerge. They came across strange rectangular holes, about 15 by 10 inches, in the clay. "At first we thought they must be postholes or something," says Wood. But the first of the holes, about 6 inches deep, was lined with white feathers. . . . . "We guessed it might have been a bird-plucking pit, a common farming practice at the turn of the 19th century," says Wood.

But that couldn't be the case--Wood found that the feathers were still attached to the skin, which had been laid in the pit with the feathers facing inward. A bird expert from the local zoo confirmed they came from a swan. On top of the swan skin, Wood found a pile of pebbles and a number of claws from different birds. She later learned that the stones came from a coastal region 15 miles away, though no one knows why they were brought from so far. Someone had gone to considerable trouble to gather the contents of this pit. That season, Wood and her colleagues found eight pits, two of which contained odd collections of bird parts, and six of which had been emptied, but with a few telltale feathers and stones left behind. [The first pit was lated radiocarbon dated to ca. 1640.]

More unusual finds came in 2005. Sandwiched between two of the rectangular pits was a round pit with a swan-feather lining. On top of the swan feathers nestled 55 eggs, seven of which contained chicks that would have been close to hatching. The shells of the eggs had dissolved, but the moist environment had preserved their membranes. Remains of magpies--birds associated with luck and superstition even today--had been placed on each side of the eggs. . . .

One explanation is that some of the pits contained offerings to St. Bridget (or Bride) of Ireland, the patron saint of babies and infants, who may be associated with the pagan goddess Brigid. "My theory is that maybe if you got married and didn't become pregnant in the first year, you might make an offering to St. Bride in a feather pit," says Wood. Women who then became pregnant might have had to empty their pits and burn the contents, she postulates.

Wood and her colleagues had further spooky discoveries ahead. Not far from the three pits, they uncovered the remains of a spring-fed pool, carefully lined with white quartz, and containing 128 textile scraps, six medieval straight pins, shoe parts, heather branches (associated with luck), fingernail clippings, human hair, and--it doesn't get more witch-like--part of a cauldron. . . .

Wood's 2008 field season brought more unusual discoveries. "We have been uncovering some extraordinary animal pits," says Wood. One was lined with the skin of a black cat and contained 22 eggs, all with chicks close to hatching, in addition to cat claws, teeth, and whiskers. Another held a dog skin, dog teeth, and a baked pig jaw. The week prior to my arrival, Wood's students uncovered a pit that contained a mysterious seven-inch iron disk with a swan skin on one side and animal fur on the other. The biggest shock of all came from the radiocarbon dates for these pits. The cat pit dated to the 18th century, while the dog pit dated to the 1950s. "And I doubt it just suddenly stopped in the 1950s," says Wood. "It is plausible that it could still be continuing now."

Connoisseurs of long-lasting folkloric traditions will be reminded of the Holy Greyhound, subject of one of my favorite books, and about which you can read here.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Garden through the Year

In early May

In June

In September

October Saturday

Yesterday was a perfect day in Catonsville, and I spent it the way I spend most of my fall Saturdays. I got up, made pancakes for such of the brood as wanted them, rounded up soccer uniforms, and delivered my boys to their three soccer games, watching at least half of each. The Bedell boys were 2-0-1 on the day. Ben, who is nearly 6, has after four games figured out what he is supposed to do, and he scored his first goals. Because he is the biggest kid in his class and has hardened himself in battle with his older brothers, I thought he would be an instant star in U-6 soccer, but at first he found the struggling packs of boys alarming. "They're maniacs!" he said after his first game. But now he loves it and only wants to play more. Clara, who is 3, was with me through all of it, running along the sidelines and charming bored parents in her delightful way.

One of the most striking things to me about my children is how outgoing and social they all are. Sociability seems to have skipped a generation and passed to them directly from their grandfathers, skipping their shy, nerdy parents. I suppose, though, that there is always time for them to change. My elder daughter Mary seems to have gotten a little shy around strangers lately, although this could be part of her new Goth pose. Meanwhile, though, none of my children exhibits even a tenth of the anxiety I felt especially around strange grown-ups. I remember sitting in the dining hall with a couple of my college friends as we wondered what we would do if we had normal, outgoing, athletic children. Funny how life throws these unexpected little things at you, and how easy it can be to adapt.

To get back to my day: in the afternoon Clara and I went to the library, and then I spent some time in the garden. I love my garden in the fall. In the spring I am always full of energy to plant and weed, and it usually looks great. Then in the heat and drought of the summer it usually gets tired, especially when we are gone on vacation. But then in the fall it perks back up again as the Cosmos and mums come into bloom and the zinnias surge with color. Then I had a swordfight with three children, did some laundry, read the news, and by then it was time to cook dinner.

It was a great day.

for Latin fans

Maureen Dowd has an amusing column up on the Presidential campaign, in dog Latin.

Friday, October 3, 2008

too much money

The more I think about the financial crisis, the more one thing puzzles me: there seems to be too much money on Wall Street. Why were people pouring billions into sub-prime mortgages, or securities backed by them? Because, it seems, they couldn't think of anything better to do with their money than lend it to people who couldn't pay it back. I remember reading, during the late 1990s stock run-up, that some investors had pulled all their money out of the market and were letting it sit in very low interest accounts because they couldn't find any investments worth buying.

Think about this. It is the basic mantra of modern economics that everything depends on investment. Economic growth is created by investment, so it is essentially limited by how much money there is to invest. Whenever economic times in America get bad, economists are all over the place saying that we need to raise our savings rate so there is more money to invest. But that doesn't seem to be our situation at all. Our situation seems to be that Wall Street guys are spending all their time dreaming up more and more exotic financial instruments because there aren't any growing companies or new technologies worth putting their money into.

At the moment people pulling money out of stocks and other places have put so much into US government bonds that the effective interest rate is down to 0.4%. Surely there is some businessman in the world, or some worthwhile project, that would offer a better return than that.

Is the problem that there just really aren't any investments worth making out there, or is it that Wall Street guys are too lazy to figure out what they are?

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Secretary Gates on war

After the first Bush term, one got the impression that there was no wisdom or even sense left in the conservative establishment. One man more than any other has helped to bring American military policy, in Iraq and elsewhere, back toward sanity, and that is Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. From his latest speech:


The defining principle driving our strategy is balance. I note at the outset that balance is not the same as treating all challenges as having equal priority. We cannot expect to eliminate risk through higher defense budgets, to, in effect "do everything, buy everything."


First, limits about what the United States - still the strongest and greatest nation on earth - can do. The power of our military's global reach has been an indispensable contributor to world peace - and must remain so. But not every outrage, every act of aggression, every crisis can or should elicit an American military response, and we should acknowledge such.

Be modest about what military force can accomplish, and what technology can accomplish. The advances in precision, sensor, information and satellite technology have led to extraordinary gains in what the U.S. military can do. The Taliban dispatched within three months, Saddam's regime toppled in three weeks. Where a button is pushed in Nevada and seconds later a pickup truck explodes in Mosul. Where a bomb destroys the targeted house on the right, leaving intact the one on the left.

But also never neglect the psychological, cultural, political, and human dimensions of warfare, which is inevitably tragic, inefficient, and uncertain. Be skeptical of systems analysis, computer models, game theories, or doctrines that suggest otherwise. Look askance at idealized, triumphalist, or ethnocentric notions of future conflict that aspire to upend the immutable principles of war: where the enemy is killed, but our troops and innocent civilians are spared. Where adversaries can be cowed, shocked, or awed into submission, instead of being tracked down, hilltop by hilltop, house by house, block by bloody block.

And here Gates dismisses the fear of Iran, Russia and China that is the main plank of McCain's platform and, I am sorry to say, too big a part of Obama's:

...the recent past vividly demonstrated the consequences of failing adequately to address the dangers posed by insurgencies or failing states. Terrorist networks can find sanctuary within the borders of a weak nation and strength within the chaos of social breakdown. A nuclear-armed state could collapse into chaos, and criminality. Let's be honest with ourselves. The most likely catastrophic threats to our homeland - for example, an American city poisoned or reduced to rubble by a terrorist attack - are more likely to emanate from failing states than from aggressor states.

This is the kind of thinking we need more of. Yes, the world is dangerous, but that doesn't mean unlimited defense budgets (Obama and McCain are both calling for more defense spending), because defense must be balanced against all of our other priorities, and it doesn't mean responding aggressively to every possible threat. Some "threats" are just not very dangerous (nobody, and I mean nobody, in China wants a war with the US) and most of the rest are well within our capability to deal with.

I would like to see a major decrease in US military spending. I think our Navy is far too big -- according to some estimates, one US carrier battle group has more striking power than all of the other surface navies in the world combined -- our nuclear arsenal is far too big, and we could make do with smaller ground and air forces. I think we would do more to strengthen our nation by spending that money on education, or just not spending it all and bringing our budget into line with our means.

But, realistically, that is not likely to happen under an Obama administration. Obama is too careful and moderate a politician, and too worried about seeming weak on defense, to undertake a real draw-down. Perhaps if he successfully extricates us from Iraq in his first term he might try it in his second. I do hope he will slow the growth in defense spending, but that is about all I am hoping for any time soon.

But maybe an Obama administration could continue to promote the kind of thinking we see here from Gates, so that over the next decade the climate of fear in America will recede, the influence of the neocons will continue to decline, and both our defense spending and our aggressiveness can be brought under control.